Saturday, July 30, 2011

Chapter Fourteen

I wasn't sure at first how long I slept -- only that it was still daylight out when I opened my eyes. I'd pretty much passed out where I'd fallen, stretched out on the couch in the living-room area of Quentin's suite. Though they were trying to be quiet -- nice of them, really -- I could hear Quentin and Laura arguing in the next room.

"He can handle it," Quentin was saying.

"Look, he's a big guy. But so far, you and he have just kind of been stumbling through this. I mean, he had to call somebody to ask how to get into the complex."

"You've never seen dude in a fight. He's got this."

"He's got what?" I asked, walking into the bedroom and stretching out my arms.

"Quentin seems to think you can punch your way out of the building," Laura said, sneering. It wasn't a good look on her.

"Q? What've you got?"

Quentin shuffled off the bed and walked over to the desk on the other side of the room, motioning for me to follow him. He was up and moving now -- not quickly, but moving -- so I figured that was a good sign. As I walked up to the desk, he gestured down at a piece of paper. There was a sketch of the building floorplan on it, with several spots marked with X's.

"Here's what we have so far. We've gotten seventeen separate signals, seventeen different guys watching the exits and common areas," Quentin told me.

"Jesus. This is pretty detailed. How long have I been out?"

"Couple of hours. Now, here... it's not exactly a hole, but it's the weakest point in their network. One guy, guarding the back entrance for the valets. You get past him, you get outside."

"One guy. I can do that."

"See?" Quentin said, winking at Laura. "Told you."

"Yeah. Now tell him the rest."

Quentin sighed and ran his hands through his hair. He shot Laura a glare, then turned back to me.

"Laura here thinks it isn't a weak spot at all. Says she knows the guy they put there."

"His name is Eric Roth, and he's former Israeli Special Forces," Laura said, returning Quentin's glare. "There's no way you'll be able to beat him in a fight. He's the one who teaches all of the combat classes for Umbra Security."

"He's still just one guy," I told her, emptying out one of Quentin's duffel bags and putting the shotgun and pistols inside. "And it's not like I've never been in a fight before."

"Look, you seem OK. Both of you do. But you do not want to underestimate this guy. I've seen him take a loaded gun out of someone's hand and knock them out before they even knew what was happening," Laura told us.

"I can handle it. Besides, have you got another way out of here?"

After a long moment, she shook her head.

"That's what I thought."

"Stairway down to the valet entrance shows clear," Quentin said, tracing the route from our room down to the back stairway on the diagram with his finger. "Once you get there and take out this Roth guy, you'll have to cut back around the building to catch a cab or a shuttle."

"Right. We should probably walk down a couple of blocks off-Strip, minimize any chance of being seen by the guys up front," I said, zipping up the duffel and hoisting it on my shoulder. "Laura, you ready?"

"I guess," she said with a sigh.

"Enthusiasm. I like it."

The back stairway was, indeed, clear, and we made it down to ground level without incident. As I cleared the door out into the valet area, I could see Roth -- a guy about my size, dressed in the same black suit as all of his other Umbra Security pals. I crept up behind him and wrapped my left arm quickly around his throat, pulling it tight with my right. A couple of seconds later, Roth slumped to the floor.

"See? Told you I had this," I said, turning to Laura.

And that's when I lost two teeth.

The move I used on Roth was called a rear naked choke, and it usually put most motherfuckers to sleep in a matter of seconds. Not Roth, though, if the massive overhand right that crashed into my jaw and popped out two molars was any indication. Either he'd only gone out for a second or two, or he'd figured out what I was doing and gone limp, pretended to pass out before he actually did. Either way, I was dealing with a pissed-off ex-Israeli commando, and I was in way over my head.

I don't know how I managed to stay standing after that mule-kick right hand hit me, but I did. My vision was interlaced with angry red and yellow spots, but I saw Roth go for his coat, no doubt for a gun inside, and I managed to lurch my big stupid frame in his direction, plowing into him with all the skill and dignity of a stroke victim. Dumb luck was on my side tonight, though -- my shoulder slammed into his elbow, pinning his right arm against his torso and his back against the wall. He had his hand on his gun, but he couldn't pull it out. I could see that from my vantage point, what with my head nearly inside his jacket and all.

From there, though, I was stuck. As long as I kept pressure on him, he couldn't pull his gun, but he could throw any manner of knees and elbows into plenty of hurty spots on my body. I could do essentially nothing from where I was, with my right elbow smashed into his midsection and my left arm too low to even grab at anything except...

There are things you tell yourself you're never going to do in a fight, things that are just off-limits even when you're fighting for your life. But then, one day you've got an Israeli commando pinned up against a wall in a back corridor of a Vegas hotel, and he's raining down hell on the back of your head with his left elbow, and all of your notions of fighting fair go out the window.

And you grab a handful of that guy's junk and you pull and twist and crush with every ounce of strength you have in the left side of your body.

Roth must've been trained to handle pain, because he kept fighting a lot longer than I would have. For a couple of seconds, he seemed almost unaffected by the damage I was doing, still throwing elbows into the back of my skull. But I noticed his strikes weakening, and I pressed further, bending my legs and picking him up over my shoulders, my left hand still firmly crushing his boys. I ratcheted my back and threw him forward, bouncing him off the wall. As he hit the floor, his gun fell out of his hand, and I kicked him as hard as I could in the face.

He was out this time, I was sure of it. I waited several seconds, panting and trying to blink the spots and black edges out of my vision. He didn't get up, but I could see he was still breathing. Good. I didn't want to kill him, or anyone if I could avoid it.

"That was... well, that was about the most awful thing I've seen in my life," Laura said flatly from behind me.

"Let's go," I panted, grabbing Roth's gun and shoving it into my jacket.

As soon as we were out on the street, the heat hit me. It wasn't even that bad yet, in the mid-90s, but with the beating I'd just taken... well, it wasn't pretty. I vomited almost instantly, the two molars Roth had knocked out spilling out with a fair amount of puke onto the pavement. As I coughed out the last bit of blood and bile, my head started to spin.

"Man. It just keeps getting better with you, doesn't it?" Laura said, shaking her head. "You all right?"

"I'll live."

"Well, you don't look like it. We should probably get you cleaned up. No self-respecting shuttle driver will let you on looking like that."

"This is Vegas. Self-respect is pretty much only theory here," I said, digging through my pockets for something to wipe my face with. Finding nothing, I used the back of my left hand to wipe my face. It came away slick with blood. I checked -- my nose was bleeding pretty badly. Possibly broken.

"You're kind of pale. Can you walk?"

My legs didn't feel too solid underneath me, and I suddenly became aware that my back was killing me. Tossing Roth hadn't done my spine any favors. Still, I was putting one foot in front of the other without falling down, so that was something.

"Looks like it. Let's move. We'll get a few blocks down and try to flag down a ride."

"If you make it that far," Laura grumbled, hooking her arm under mine and marching me down the alleyway.

After a few blocks, Laura told me to stay put for a second and vanished off to the Strip. She came back a few moments later with a garish yellow plastic bag that read "Las Vegas' *Only* Souvenir Shop" across the front. I knew the bag was lying to me, and I realized I was a little punch-drunk when I started giggling at the bag.

Laura shook her head and pulled out a white "I Love Las Vegas" T-shirt, which she handed to me.

"It's a medium," I said. "No way that's gonna fit me."

"It's not to wear. It's to mop up some the Niagra Blood Falls you're working with there."

Of course it was. I felt a little stupid, but I used the T-shirt to towel away as much of the blood and leftover vomit as I could. The shirt came away red, and I realized that wasn't a great sign.

"Is my nose broken?" I asked Laura.

"I don't know. Maybe. It's pretty swollen. And your eyes are turning black like you got punched in both of them."

I nodded, which caused more dizziness than nodding ever should.

"Yeah, that's broken. Eh. I wasn't pretty anyway."

She dug into the bag and brought out another shirt, this one light brown. It had a skull in a top hat on the front, with the words "Las Vegas" in Gothic script across the bottom.

"I guessed on the size. XL?"

"It'll be a little tight, but..."

I took off the leather jacket and discarded my plain black T-shirt. I put on the new shirt, which actually fit OK, then put the jacket back on.

"OK. You still look awful, but at least you're not covered in blood anymore. There's a shuttle stop just up the street. Let's get moving."

The hot air wasn't doing me any favors, but I kept up with Laura as she bounded up the street. A shuttle bus with "MacCarran Airport" on the front was just pulling up to the stop, and Laura flagged it down. The door opened, and she got on. I followed.

"$20," the bus driver said, smiling and showing nicotine-stained teeth.

I pulled one of the many twenties Quentin had given me out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him.

"You don't look so good, brother. You all right?" the bus driver said, one eyebrow arched almost into his baseball cap.

"Yeah. King of the Cage," I said, surprised by how quickly the lie popped into my head.

"Yeah, I heard of that. New kinda streetfighting thing in the octagon, right? You a fighter?"

"Working on it," I said, forcing a smile and eyeing an empty seat. Sitting down was pretty much all I wanted to do, as I was starting to get dizzy again.

"I got a cousin who does that. Y'all are some crazy motherfuckers, man."

"Heh. Yeah."

"All right. Find a seat and we'll get you headed for the airport."

I collapsed into a chair in the second row, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath through my mouth.

The next thing I knew, Laura was shaking me awake.

"We're here," she said. "Get up."

It's amazing how much good a fifteen-minute cat nap can do for you. I was much more solid on my feet as Laura and I got off the bus, and didn't feel near as dizzy as we walked through the parking garage looking for Quentin's SUV. Of course, getting into his car wasn't my original plan in going to the airport.

See, as soon as Quentin had mentioned his vehicle was at MacCarran, a new plan formed in my head, one that had nothing to do with assaulting the Umbra facility in an insane attempt to snatch a nuclear bomb. I knew I'd have to do something about that, maybe tell the FBI or something, but I wasn't going to do anything about it. My new plan was to get Laura to the airport, slap the cuffs on her, and get her on a plane to Los Angeles. Then I'd collect my money, tell someone about the nuke, and go back to living my normal life.

Quentin would be OK on his own. All he'd have to do is wait a day or two for the heat to die down, then go get his car and come on back home. He'd seemed to be rapidly getting better, and the fact that he hadn't died already meant he probably wasn't bleeding internally. I'd give him a call when I had Laura safely turned over to the LAPD and break him off some of the bounty as a thank you for all his help.

But somewhere along the way -- and maybe this was the concussion (or the multiple concussions) talking, I realized I had to do something about the bomb. I hadn't really believed Laura until after the fight with Roth. If that guy was fighting as hard as he was to keep me from getting out, then it must have been a real threat. And if there really was a functional nuclear bomb in North Las Vegas, I couldn't afford to waste any time.

So instead of slapping the handcuffs on Laura and hauling her into the terminal, we found Quentin's car and started it up.

"OK," she asked, unaware that I'd been ready to turn her in until just a few minutes ago. "What's the first stop?"

"The liquor store, of course," I told her, winking.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chapter Thirteen

Look, I'm a realist.

I knew I was lucky to have gone up against a guy like Meskhiyev three times without getting killed. I knew I was lucky the police hadn't caught up with me yet and thrown my ass in jail for any number of reasons. But I knew my limits, and I knew when I was out of my league -- which was over 48 hours ago, for anyone who was counting.

In over my head. It was quickly becoming my mantra. There was no way I could just assault a building crawling with security and snag a damn nuclear bomb out of there. I couldn't sneak in, either -- assaults and infiltrations weren't part of my skillset. Need someone to drive a car through a flaming building? Need a dumbass bail-jumper tracked down? I'm your guy. Need someone to go all one-man-army against a fortified building filled with an ex-military private security force? You're thinking of Rambo.

But right about then, I had a thought -- how would I handle this if it was a stunt?

Well, first off, I'd have a serious discussion with the guy who wrote this script, because this was an unrealistic scenario for a single guy to survive. But, barring that... well, I'd work the stunt out with the show's stunt coordinator. I'd get expert help.

And I know a guy who just might be able to help me out. I hadn't talked to him in years, but when I'd last talked to him, he'd told me to call if I ever needed anything. I was hoping he hadn't just been bullshitting. I didn't have his number on me, but it was in my files back at the office.

So I called Mike and asked him to look up Jason Black's number for me.

It took about an hour -- Mike had to go down to the office, after all -- but he called me back with the number.

"You realize it's, like, 6:00 in the morning, right?" Mike asked.

"Yeah. He's a military guy, right? He's probably up this early."

"Just do me a favor and don't burn any bridges, OK? That guy throws a lot of business our way."

I didn't know how Jason Black could be giving us business -- near as I knew, he was a military consultant on film sets. At least, that's how I met him. But I wasn't going to argue with Mike. He'd just done me a solid, and I could tell by his tone of voice he wasn't too happy about it. Could be that I woke him up early. Or it could be that he was still looking over his shoulder for an Umbra guy to put a bullet in his eye.

Yeah, I owed that guy one.

I jotted down Black's number on the notepad on the bedside table. It was a Nevada area code, I noticed. I thought he lived in Hollywood. I wondered if he would local -- that would be a big help. I dialed the number and hoped.

"HT-117," a female voice answered on the first ring.

"Uh, I'm looking for Jason Black? Uh, Captain Jason Black?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I don't know anyone by that name. Perhaps you dialed incorrectly," the woman said.

"Oh, uh, sorry about --" I started, but she'd already hung up.

I checked the phone number and started to dial again when my phone rang.


"Jacob Harris. We met on the Delta Commando set, right?" a deep male voice said without the courtesy of a hello.

"Captain Black?"

"Call me Jason. What's up?"

"I just tried to call you."

"Yeah, you must have dialed incorrectly," he said, but there was a chuckle in his voice. "So what's going on?"

"I've got some consulting work, if you're interested. Should only take a couple of minutes."

"Oh, you're back into the movie business? I heard you were running down scumbags."

"Writing a script. Kinda, you know, in my off time. I'm in Vegas doing research."

"Ah. Cool, then," Black said. I could still hear the chuckle in his voice. "So, uh, I'm not really in the consulting business. That was just a one-time thing when you met me, favor for a buddy. But if it's only going to take a couple of minutes..."

"Yeah. Hey, if you're local to Vegas, I could meet you for a drink, talk it out."

"I was there last week, but I'm kind of way out of town right now. Can we just do it over the phone?"

"Yeah, sure."

So I laid out the situation -- assault on a covered, fenced, protected building. Corporate security and rent-a-cops. Cameras, patrols, and plenty of firepower.

"Right. And how many... characters... are you rolling with?"



"Two pistols. A shotgun. A really thick skull."

"You're playing the lead role, then."


"Look, I don't want to tell you how to... write your movie. But if you can get even one other person in the scene, it would help your chances a lot. Just someone to watch your character's back. More realistic that way."

"Right on. I can do that."

Jason Black laid out the perfect plan of attack, a broad-daylight raid that seemed so insane it almost had to work. I just listened and jotted down notes.

"Hey, thanks, man. I really appreciate it."

"No problem, man. Don't get yourself killed. Call me if you take down the building," Black said, chuckling and hanging up the phone.

After I hung up, I took a long look at my notes. Black's plan wasn't bad -- it was great, in fact. Better than anything any one of us could have come up with. But it came with a long list of things we'd need that we didn't have.

The first problem would be just getting out of that damn hotel room. Umbra knew we were in the hotel, and they'd have people watching every exit. It would be damn near impossible to get past them, as they were all trained by a former KGB agent. So that was one big problem right there.

Next was transportation. My car was still -- well, probably -- back at the Imperial Palace, but either Umbra, the police, or both would have eyes on it. None of us could go get it. If I went, I'd either get killed by one of Meskhiyev's people or detained for questioning by the police. Laura had warrants that I'm sure were in the LVPD system right now, and they'd even snatch up Quentin as a person of interest. And Umbra security knew all of our faces now, so even if the cops didn't get us, Meskhiyev's goon squad sure would.

Laura's car was out, too. It was at Caesar's, and we already knew Umbra knew about that one. They'd surely have at least one guy on it.

"Quentin," I said after a moment. "What did you drive here? That rusted-out Chevy in your driveway?"

Quentin started off laughing, but ended up in a coughing fit. As he finally got himself together, he just shook his head.

"Shit no, man. That thing was there when I moved in. I took my car. Pathfinder."

"Is it here in the hotel?"

"Nah. Stashed it at the airport, long-term parking. Always do."

I shook my head. Quentin's paranoia never ceased to amaze me, but it was probably that paranoia that had helped us out the most so far.

"All right. We're going to have to catch a shuttle to the airport somehow. And I'll need you to watch my back. You ready, Q?"

Quentin struggled to sit up.

"Yeah, man. I got your back."

Laura just shook her head.

"Seriously? The guy can't even stand up. He's got broken ribs, a cracked sternum, maybe even internal bleeding. He needs to go to a hospital, not on some crazy-ass raid."

"Who, then? You?" I asked.

"I'm the only other one here."

I wasn't wild about Laura backing me up. It wasn't because she was a woman -- OK, total honesty, that was part of it. It was that she was a scientist, not a fighter. I mean, Quentin wasn't exactly a fighter, either, but he was crazy. Crazy often went a long way toward keeping someone alive.

When I was doing stunts, I had to take a bunch of fight training. Nothing makes a movie weaker than when it looks too easy for the hero guy to take out the hordes of faceless opponents (read: me), so I had to look like I knew what it was doing when it came time to throw down for the cameras. The easiest way to look like you know what you're doing? Actually know what you're doing.

So, shortly after booking my first movie gig, I started taking lessons. Kung Fu, Muay Thai, Jujitsu, you name it. In one of my kickboxing classes, there was this little guy, 19-year-old kid with long hair and silly glasses, who was just fucking insane. After a while, none of us would even step in the ring with him. Punching him in the face or kicking him in the body -- even kicks and punches form a guy my size -- didn't seem to do much more than make him laugh. And when he hit, he hit like he had anvils for hands. Once, I saw him hop out of the ring and whip off his headgear, and he was bleeding from one eye and his nose. He calmly tossed the headgear, walked over to the water fountain, got a drink, and started talking to one of the other guys in class like nothing happened. Dude was crazy, and that's what made him dangerous.

Quentin had that spark. Laura, though? She just seemed smart. Too smart to go through with some of the seemingly crazy shit I'd ask of her if she backed me up.

Still, though, as she'd pointed out, Quentin could barely stand. Crazy or not, he was still more a liability than an asset in a fight. And another point -- she was the only other person available.

"All right," I said. "Ever fired a gun before?"

* * *

So it was decided. Laura was going with me. I gave her Meskhiyev's gun and gave her a quick primer on how to use it. I really hoped I wouldn't have to depend on her aim, but as she'd said, she was the only one vertical besides me at the moment.

The next step would be getting out of the hotel room. We'd have to figure a way to get past anyone who might be looking for us, which wouldn't be easy. I'm not entirely inconspicuous on my best day, and every member of Umbra security probably had Laura's face memorized. It was still early in the morning yet, and the casino wouldn't be busy -- so no real chance of blending in with the crowd, as the crowd didn't exist.

"Do you know how the Umbra Security guys keep in touch with each other?" I asked Laura, sitting on the couch and stretching out my legs. I didn't realize until I sat down how tired I was.

"Yeah. Radios. Little walkie-talkie things with earpieces plugged in, mics in the sleeves of their jackets," she told me.

"Quentin? Anything you can do with that?"

"I can run a scanner and try to pick up their frequency. At least we can hear what they're saying. I have some gear in the duffel bag over there if you'll bring it my way."

I did, and Quentin started digging through the bag. He paused for a second and looked up at me.

"This could take a couple of hours," he said. "You might want to use the time to get some sleep. You look like hell, and no use in going on a crazy suicide mission sleep-deprived."

I nodded. That was the best idea I'd heard in quite some time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chapter Twelve

To say I wasn't ready for that one is like saying that the Japanese gave us a playful tap on the shoulder at Pearl Harbor in 1941. That is, it's a dangerously stupid understatement.

I'd never seen Quentin fazed by much, not even the two bullets that had most likely cracked his sternum and pulverized a couple of ribs. But after Laura told us what was in the trunk, dude turned all sorts of pale and sat down on the curb next to the BMW.

"Yeah. I really, really need to lie down now," he said after a moment.

It was a moment during which no one had said a word, and I hadn't really even noticed the silence. That's probably because my brain was too busy running a mile a minute, filling my head with questions, alarms, panic, fear -- all of it jumbled up into a nice, incomprehensible mess. I couldn't pick out a single thought in the turmoil, so I just decided to shut Mister Brain down for a while. Not like he was helping me out a hell of a lot anyway.

"Right. Laura, help me get Quentin up to his room."

"About the --"

"We'll talk about that when we get there. The Umbra guys don't know where we are."

"The car might have LoJack," Quentin said.

Damn. Hadn't thought of that.

"Anything we can do about that?"

"Yeah. I have some stuff up in the room."

So we headed into the casino, me trying to support Quentin without looking like I was holding him up. We looked like hell anyway, all three of us, and I really didn't want to draw any attention I didn't need to. Of course, this was Vegas, so I doubt we would have drawn any extra attention if we'd been running through the gaming floor naked and on fire.

When we were safely in the elevator, I leaned Quentin up against the wall and turned on Laura almost instantly.

"Start talking," I said.

I tried not to sound angry, but it didn't really work. My dad taught me never to raise my voice in anger at a lady, but hey, these were the most extenuating of circumstances. You try sounding all cool and polite when you've just been told you're carting around a nuclear bomb.

"When we get to the room and I can check it for bugs," she said.

"No. Now," I snapped.

"She's right, big guy. Just calm down a second," Quentin said, coughing. "My room is clear of bugs. I always check when I leave the house."

I felt pretty damned silly all of a sudden. If a paranoid, gun-nut, crackpot like Quentin was telling me to calm down, then maybe all of my anger was out of place. After all, she'd said *most* of a nuclear weapon, right? I mean, maybe the thing was safe. Maybe.

"Fine," I grumbled, sticking my hands in my pockets and intentionally not looking at either of my two companions. That made me feel even sillier -- I was throwing a temper tantrum, I realized. Just like when I was six goddamn years old and my dad wouldn't let me hold the shotgun from his police cruiser.

We got to Quentin's room a few minutes later, and he grabbed a suitcase from the floor and, with my help, threw it up on the bed. He rummaged around inside for a moment and produced a small box with wires snaking all over it.

"Here," he told me. "Go put this in the BMW and turn it on. Anywhere should do. It'll jam the LoJack if the thing has one."

I wanted to stay and argue, to tell him I was promised answers as soon as we got to the room, but I knew he was right. We had to get the BMW off the grid as soon as possible. Even if the bomb wasn't complete, we still didn't want Meskhiyev and his pals coming after it.

"You'll make sure she doesn't leave?"

Quentin propped himself up on the bed and patted his shotgun.

"She won't have knees if she tries."

I nodded -- that was a good enough answer for me -- and headed back to the parking garage. On the way, I might have stopped for a beer. Hey, fuck it. After the night I'd had, I'd earned a drink, and it's not like there's anywhere in Vegas you can't drink. I was at the bar maybe a minute, minute and a half, but maybe if I'd stopped after... well...

The BMW was gone when I got there. I looked around, thinking maybe I'd gone to the wrong space, but no. The space I'd parked in was empty, and the same two cars -- a Ford F-150 and a Pontiac Grand Am -- were still on either side. I guess the BMW really did have a LoJack or something similar, and the Umbra guys were on top of it as soon as Meskhiyev or his buddy called it in.

I was immediately back on my guard, figuring there would be Umbra guys in the hotel looking for Laura Mills, probably for me and Quentin as well. I was thankful for his paranoia then, as he'd checked in under an assumed name, so the hotel wouldn't have any record that he was checked in, assuming the Umbra people knew who he really was in the first place. I was in alarm mode all the way back up to the room, taking random left turns and doubling back, trying to catch any evidence that someone was following me, that I'd been spotted. Either I wasn't being tailed or my stalker was really good, because I didn't see anyone. Still, it took me a good half an hour to circle my way back to the room.

The scene inside was much as I'd left it -- no Umbra guys had come in and started shooting while I was gone. Quentin was still on the bed, still with one hand on his shotgun. Laura had taken a chair across from the bed, and I could tell by the looks on their faces that I'd walked into the middle of a conversation in progress.

"BMW's gone," I said, sighing and dropping onto the couch. Quentin -- or Ken Adams, I suppose -- had a nice suite.

"Wow. These cats are good," Quentin said, nodding appreciatively.

"I know where they'll take the car," Laura told me.

"Yeah, I have a pretty good idea, too." I was thinking the office park out in the ghetto.

"Good. Then we have to go get it back."

I shook my head and started to say something, but Quentin cut me off.

"I think you're going to want to listen to the lady, big guy. She has quite a story."

* * *

And this is when I truly learned the shit we we'd gotten ourselves into.

Laura Mills went to work for Umbra Dynamics straight out of college in 1992. She'd gotten her masters in some area of physics I couldn't even pronounce, then been recruited right out of the gate. Her job was to help Umbra's software people accurately model nuclear blasts in a software package. Simple enough, and all above-board at this point. I could even see why they wanted that information, kinda. It's a little tough to wrap my head around.

So anyway, she goes on working for Umbra for five years without anything too odd going down. On the surface, they seem to be perfectly legitimate, working on contracts from the military and the Department of Justice. Software stuff, mostly, but she knows they do some hardware too -- better armor systems for Humvees, research into new air-to-air missile systems. None of that's done out of her office in Santa Monica, though. That's done at the company's testing facilities in the Nevada desert, and since she works on math and software, she never needs to go out there.

So, imagine her surprise in late 1997 when she gets an email telling her she's supposed to go out to the Nevada test site in a week to consult on some top-secret project that the company is putting together out there. She checked it out with her supervisor -- all legit, he said. They needed her specific knowledge, so plane tickets were booked, hotels called, cars rented. She got on a plane for Nevada just after Thanksgiving last year.

This is when it gets fucked up.

As soon as Laura got off the plane in Las Vegas, she was met by two men in black suits -- Umbra Security. There were a few Security guys here and there at the Santa Monica office, but Laura quickly noticed that the security presence at the Nevada facility was insane. She saw more security than scientists or engineers, but that was by design.

The two security guys led her to a windowless van and drove her to what she now knew was a not-so-abandoned office park in a terrible area of the city. She didn't really know how to get there, thanks to the lack of windows in the van, but when she got there, she was led through an empty, narrow hallway to a large, sparse office in a seemingly disused part of the building.

A man named George Nichols was in the office -- he wasn't a scientist or an engineer, either, Laura explained. He was basically an HR guy. He told her that she wouldn't be meeting anyone who was working on the project, or told any details of the project that weren't absolutely vital to her task, citing the top secret nature of the project. When Laura objected that she *had* the highest level of government clearance -- it was required for her regular day job -- Nichols simply replied that this project was classified above that.

Her task, initially, was to study ten major cities -- eight in America, two in the Russian Federation. She was to calculate the effects of a 1.8-kiloton nuclear blast set off at various locations around these cities -- Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Moscow, and Vladivostok. She was never given a reason why she was doing these calculations, but she went ahead and did them.

Now, at this point, she had to explain something to me, because saying "a 1.8-kiloton nuclear blast" doesn't really mean anything as far as I know.

"All right. You know how big the average nuclear bomb is?" she asked.

"No. Can't say I do."

"It's between 20 and 30 megatons. That's way more powerful than 1.8 kilotons. Ten to twenty thousand times more. The thing is, those things are meant as a deterrent."

"Right. Scary doomsday bombs, never meant to be used."

"Exactly. But a 1.8-kiloton device? You don't build one of those unless you damn well plan to use it."

"But why?" I asked.

"I'm not 100% on that... but I have a theory."

Laura went on to tell us that, for the first month or so she was at the Nevada Facility, Meskhiyev had been assigned as her personal guard. He'd been the one to pick her up from the Tropicana for work in the morning, the one who dropped her at her suite door at night. Then, suddenly, Meskhiyev had been replaced by Brendan White, the ex-Marine Scout Sniper. He was Meskhiyev's right-hand man. She'd assumed it was just for a couple of days, but it ended up being quite a bit longer than that.

After Meskhiyev had been gone for three weeks or so, she and Brendan had gone for drinks after work. The ex-Marine liked to slam down the sauce, and after he'd had a few too many, Laura finally asked where the Russian had gone.

"Oh, he's on a nice, paid sailing vacation across the Pacific," Brendan had said, smirking and slurring his words. "He's got contacts where the bosses need 'em. Making a parts run."

That stopped Laura cold. Up until that point, she'd convinced herself she was data-modeling for a government contract -- predicting damage in case of, say, a terrorist device smuggled into one of the major cities. But now, another idea was creeping into her brain -- that Umbra was actually building its own nuclear device, off the reservation and without the sanction of the U.S. Government.

"Why would Meshkiyev making a trip back to Russia, I'm assuming, make you suspicious all of a sudden?" I asked.

"I asked the same thing," Quentin said, propping himself up on the bed.

"It has to do with the way a nuclear strike, a terrorist one, would be investigated," Laura said, speaking slowly as if to an elementary-school class. "You can't just stick any old fissionable material in the bomb. They're able to trace the plutonium back to where it was mined."

"So he needed to get Russian plutonium?" I asked.

"That's my guess. When the USSR broke up, a bunch of nuclear material went unaccounted for. If someone were to set off a bomb using that material, it would read as being mined somewhere in the former Soviet Union."

Something clicked in my mind then -- the blueprints I'd seen in Laura's hotel room at Caesar's. The writing on them had been foreign, but not Russian. At least, not to my untrained eyes, anyway. I mentioned it.

"You're correct. It was Chinese, and when I found that, suddenly the whole thing got even worse," she said.

"Why does a Chinese blueprint thingy make it worse?" Quentin asked.

"Because -- and remember, this is just theory here -- it means they plan to detonate their device in one of those cities and blame it on China."

That didn't make any sense to me. I mean, neither did an American defense contractor detonating a nuclear bomb in an American or Russian city, but assuming that made sense, why blame China for it? What had China ever done to us?

"Nothing, yet," Laura explained. "But their economy is growing at a massive rate. They could take over as the dominant world power in the next ten years. Unless, of course, they fight a costly war with the biggest, baddest military on the planet before that happens. And remember, Umbra's a defense contractor -- they'd make out like mad in a war."

I went to the bathroom and poured myself a glass of water. This was all crazy, and the whole Chinese conspiracy plot wasn't helping even a little. Still, there was a guy in a BMW out there with a nuclear bomb. It was time to call the police and let them know about Umbra's little hideout in the ghetto.

"I wouldn't recommend that," Laura said when I grabbed the phone.

"Oh, right. A scientist, a banged-up hacker, and a bounty hunter should go out there and get back a nuclear bomb instead," I scoffed.

"Umbra won't let the cops get within a hundred yards of that place. If they have to..."

She let the silence hang there in the room for a minute, but I shared a look with Quentin. Her meaning was clear to both of us.

They'll detonate the nuke.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Chapter Eleven

The Town Car was moving at a pretty decent clip, so I knew we didn't have long to make our move before they made it to the office complex. I'd have to do something soon, and I was pretty sure I knew what would work.

If you've ever caught *COPS*, you're probably familiar with the Pursuit Immobilization Technique, or PIT maneuver. Basically, the car in pursuit -- my borrowed BMW, in this case -- accelerates, aligning its front wheels with the other car's rear wheels. Then there's a nice, hard swerve into the other car, causing it to spin out and stop. It has the dual purpose of working really well and looking pretty fucking cool. The latter reason is why I learned it in stunt driving school.

Of course, a pro driver who knows the PIT is coming can steer out of it, J-Turn around and get the hell out of there. I didn't know what kind of driving they taught in the KGB, but I had another trick up my sleeve in case Meskhiyev knew how to recover. I turned to Quentin and told him to hold on.

We were on a nice, straight stretch of road with only a couple of other cars around when I jammed on the gas and brought the front passenger tire of the BMW in contact with the Town Car's rear driver tire. I jerked the wheel the right, and suddenly, the Town Car was skidding sideways in front of me. The Town Car immediately skidded out and slammed into a bus shelter, and Quentin and I were out of the BMW seconds later.

He had the shotgun up and ready, and I had my Sig drawn and aimed at the Town Car's driver door. It was right when the passenger door opened that I realized I hadn't told Quentin we weren't planning on shooting anyone -- I hoped he could figure that out for himself, but let's be honest. Guy was walking around with an illegal sawed-off in his jacket. Probably not the best argument for prudence right there.

I wasn't two steps out of the car before the driver's window of the Town Car shattered. I heard a gunshot, and Quentin went down immediately.

You know, I've been in probably 20 real gunfights, and about a hundred times that many in the movies (thanks to multiple takes), and what Meskhiyev had just done never occurred to me. He'd fired through the closed window, not even bothering to waste the second it would have taken to open the door. It was a desperation move, a survival move, and it had worked -- it thinned out his hunters and gave him and his boy the advantage.

I had my own survival reflex, and it was to get to ground fast. I dove back behind the BMW and scrambled as quickly as I could to the rear tire. I heard another shot -- this one from a much bigger gun, or much closer, before Meskhiyev started screaming in Russian.

"What?" the other guy yelled, his voice way too loud. I realized he'd proably been deafened when Meskhiyev fired from inside the closed car.

"The package! That's my car, shithead!"


I didn't know what they were talking about, and right then, it didn't matter. It gave me a couple of seconds, and I used them. I flattened myself onto the pavement, took a quick glance, and fired my Sig as fast as I could. Meskhiyev's partner yelped and hit the ground -- I couldn't tell for sure where I'd hit him, but I was aiming for his shins, shooting under the car's undercarriage.

"Mister Harris!" Meskhiyev yelled. I could hear him scramble for cover behind his own vehicle.

"Alexsandr Meskhiyev!" I yelled back. I wanted him to know that I knew who he was.

"It seems the odds are now even, Mister Harris! Perhaps we can discuss this matter like civilized adults!"

The air was still and quiet around us. I'd like to say I was thinking over what he'd just said, but truth to be told, I was just trying to get my brain to form a thought. A word. Anything. I might be a better driver than this guy, but he had me outclassed as a shooter any day, and I was fucking terrified.

"So what's your answer, Mister Harris?" Meskhiyev finally yelled, breaking the silence.

"Here's my answer," I heard someone say. The next thing I heard was a loud, sickening crack.

After a few seconds of complete silence, I poked my head over the BMW's trunk. I could see Quentin standing there, leaning against the hood of the town car, his shotgun in one hand.

"Come on out," he said quietly, coughing.

"Did you kill him?" I asked.

"Nah. Just cracked him in the skull with Mr. Sawed-Off, here," Quentin said, grinning weakly.

"You all right?"

Quentin held open his jacket with one hand, revealing his torso. His shirt was torn aside, and underneath, I could see he was wearing a Kevlar vest. Two bullets were embedded, one right next to the other, just to the left of his sternum.

"Hey, I know I don't know shit about gunfights. Figured wearing protection was job one," he said.

"Probably busted up your sternum and ribs pretty good," I told him, walking slowly over to the motionless town car.

Neither Meskhiyev or his partner were moving. The other guy -- the one I'd shot in the legs -- was unconscious, probably passed out from the pain. Meshkiyev was crumpled in a heap near the Town Car's front passenger tire.

"Laura? You in there?" I asked through the Town Car's open driver door.

"Yeah. You guys gonna shoot at me?" she asked.

"No. Promise. Come on out."

The back door opened, and Laura slowly stepped out. She looked a bit tired, but that's not much of a stretch when a person had been on the run for a couple of days. She still looked miles better than anyone I'd brought in before.

"Who are you guys?"

"I'm Jake. That's Quentin," I said, nodding over to Quentin, who grunted and pushed himself off the hood of the car. "We're... well, I guess here to take you to jail."

"You're cops?"

"No, not by a long shot. Bounty hunter."

"Great. Wait a second -- is that Meskhiyev's car you're driving?"

"Yeah. I'm just going to ditch it when we get back into a safe neighborhood... which we should really think about doing before these assholes wake up," I said, motioning to the BMW.

"No can do. You have to hang onto this car, and the two of you have to get me as far away from a major city as you can."

I wasn't accustomed to a target telling me what to do, and I guess it showed on my face. Laura Mills glared at me, staring me down like I was a dog who refused to sit.

"Look, Laura. I'm taking you to jail. I don't want to have to put cuffs on you and drag you there, but after what I've been through in the last couple of days, you can damn well believe I will."

"You can't. Look, we can talk about this in the car. Can we just get the hell out of here already?"

I had to admit, that was the best plan at the moment. I helped Quentin into the passenger seat as Laura got in the BMW's back seat. A few seconds later, we were rolling.

As I started to pull away from the wrecked Town Car, Quentin put his hand on my shoulder.

"Stop the car a second," he said, wheezing.

I pressed the brake pedal and looked over at him.

"You don't sound good, Q."

He waved his hand dismissively and rolled down the passenger window.

"Town Car's still driveable," he explained, pushing his shotgun out the window and firing twice. I saw slugs tear into the Town Car's hood, and heard the engine immediately sputter and die.

"All right. Let's roll. I need to lay down," Quentin said, leaning his head back against the headrest and closing his eyes.

"I have a room back at Ceasar's," Laura piped up.

"Had," I corrected her. "Meskhiyev knows where it is. Probably cleaned it out and has five guys on it."

"How the hell would he know about it?"

"Probably the same way I did. Tracked your credit card."

"Monte Carlo," Quentin said with a cough. "They don't know who I am, and I checked in under an alias anyway."

"Right," I said, nodding and heading back towards the bright lights of the Strip, visible from even out here in the ghetto.

A few minutes passed in silence. When we hit a stop light on Las Vegas Boulevard between Old Town and the Stratosphere, I turned around to look at Laura.

"So, you've got something to say? Something about why I shouldn't just haul you back to Los Angeles County Lockup and get my well-deserved paycheck?"

"You ever wonder why my bail was so high?"

"Excuse my bluntness, lady, but I didn't really give a shit."

"Come on, Jake. You don't strike me as an idiot, and you're obviously good at your job. Half a million for failure to appear? And you didn't even wonder?"

I didn't want to admit it, but she had a point. I had wondered.


"So, the charges were inserted into the system. I went to ground, and they needed to find me. Their corporate security wasn't having much luck, so they enlisted the help of the LAPD and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Without their knowledge, of couse."

"Come on. Umbra doesn't have that kind of pull," I said, shaking my head.

"Yeah. Yeah, they do," Quentin muttered from the passenger seat.

"Why did they need you? You work for them," I asked as we got moving again.

"Worked. I quit when I found out what they were doing."

"They're a defense contractor, right?" I asked. "You have a problem with working for the military, or what?"

"No. That's not it. Their defense work is only part of what they do. And on the books, it's a big part, but really, it's not even the tip of the iceberg."

Traffic on the Strip was lighter now, and we made it to the Monte Carlo in just a couple of minutes. I helped Quentin out of the car, keeping an eye on Laura in case she felt like bolting. She didn't, though. She just got out of the back seat and leaned against the car, looking at me.

"Yeah?" I said.

"Keys," she demanded.

"Right. I'm just going to let you take the car and vanish again."

"I'm not running," she said.

"Uh huh."

"Do me a favor. Open the trunk."

I looked at Quentin, who just shrugged. So I opened the BMW's trunk, and Quentin hobbled over to see what was inside. Laura moved a black blanket aside and revealed a spiderwebbed mess of wires and metal. I looked at the... whatever it was... for a few seconds, trying to figure out what it was. Nothing looked familiar -- it just looked like some cheap electronics thrown onto a metal frame.

"So... what am I looking at, exactly?"

"That would be a nearly complete, homemade nuclear bomb," Laura said, closing the trunk.