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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chapter Fifteen

Finding a liquor store in Las Vegas isn't much of a challenge. Basically, you can just head in any direction and you'll be at one in a couple of minutes. And the stuff I was looking for wasn't rare or expensive, so I wasn't exactly picky. Still, though I didn't so much care where I ended up, I know I could have done better than Fredo's Discount Liquors.

The bars on the windows weren't a great sign, nor was the armed, overweight security guard padding around out front. In my experience, fat security guards are way more dangerous than the overmuscled, jock types. The fat ones are less likely to chase you and more likely just to open fire. This guy definitely had that look about him, that hard, unfocused glare that he cast over Laura and I as we got out of the car.

"Nice place," Laura muttered.

"Yeah, it was highly recommended by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Bureau."

My head was still killing me, but by now, it wasn't anything a couple hundred Advil wouldn't cure. I was pretty sure I had a concussion -- I've had them before -- but it wasn't severe. I was banged up, sure, but I'd still be able to carry the plan through.

We left Fredo's Discount Liquors a few minutes later with five bottles of Bacardi 151, all they currently had on the shevles. Apparently, according to the talkative guy at the register, they'd just opened the last case before we'd come in. An on-duty cop had bought the first bottle. That was comforting.

Laura was a little suspicious of me buying what was essentially a metric fuckton of booze, and it probably didn't help her confidence any that the next place I stopped the car was a dumpster. I rooted around until I found a half-dozen empty glass bottles, then found what looked like a very stained hotel pillowcase. I put the bottles in the pillowcase and came back to the car.

"So now we're rooting for junk?"

"Jesus, Laura. Did you grow up in a complete cultural void, or what?"

"I don't follow."

"You never watched any action movies when you were a kid?"

"I was studying when I was a kid."

"Ah. You were a nerd. Then riddle me this -- what happens when you fill a bottle half-full of something flammable, then stuff a rag down the mouth and light it?"

"Molotov cocktails?"

"Exactly. And Bacardi 151 is more flammable than gasoline. Even comes with a little flame supressor on the bottle to keep it from spontaneously combusting when you pour it. What, did you think the plan involved getting blackout drunk or something?"

She didn't say anything, but I could tell from her expression that was exactly what she'd been thinking. She really didn't give me much credit, and my performance thus far probably hadn't merited a whole lot of respect. That was fine, though. When this was over, she'd probably still underestimate me, and I'd use that to my advantage to get her back to Los Angeles and turn her in.

"You sure you can handle those? I've heard those things can go bad in a hurry," Laura said as I climbed back into the truck.

"Yeah. I'm fire certified," I told her.

"That a big thing in the bounty-hunter world?"

"I used to be in entertainment. Stunt performer. I've been lit on fire by one of these before."

"Under controlled conditions, of course."

"Well, yeah. But I don't plan on getting lit on fire this time."

"And just what is the plan? I'm a little vague on that."

That was intentional, of course. I'd only shared the broad strokes of the plan back in the hotel room, mainly because I wasn't sure I could trust her. I wasn't sure I could trust her because I didn't believe her 100 percent, but that had changed after Roth kicked the fuck out of me. So I knew I had to trust her now, even if she had been acting cynical and, let's be honest, like a bit of a bitch.

"The plan is... well, we roll up hard on the complex. Go right through the front gate. When the security car comes after us, that's where the first couple of Molotovs come in," I started.

"Oh. I really don't like this plan," she grumbled.

"Wait. It gets better. You're going to be driving -- unless, of course, you want to be throwing Molotovs -- so you're going to take us right up to where they're keeping the bomb."

"It could only be in two places, and one's much more likely than the other," she said.

"Good. Now, how heavy is it, would you say?"

"About 70, 75 pounds."

"I can do that. We grab it, put it in the truck, and get the fuck out of there. Then you disassemble it and we scatter the parts to the four winds."

"And when they start shooting?"

I nodded towards the duffel in the back seat, the one that held all of our guns.

"We shoot back."

I sounded confident, but that was, of course, a lie. I would really rather have just forgotten I knew anything and gone back to Los Angeles, stick my head under a pillow and pretend I dreamt the whole thing. But I knew I couldn't do that -- I knew I had to do this thing. There was no way I could live with myself if I saw a mushroom cloud on the news one day and knew that I could have stopped it.

Laura helped me make the Molotovs. It wasn't exactly rocket science, but it went faster with both of us working on it. A few minutes later, we were ready to roll. Laura assured me she knew how to handle a gun, so I gave her Meskiyev's pistol. She started up the engine, and we were on our way.

It's hard to really put into words the feeling I had as we cruised into North Las Vegas. I mean, sure. There was fear, obviously. But more than that, there was a sense of... well, just of not wanting to do any of this. We were rolling into a heavily armed compound with guns and homemade explosives, which isn't something I'd want to do on any day, ever. And we stood a very good chance of getting killed, also something I didn't want to do. But worse yet, I would probably have to kill someone, and I really didn't want to do that.

I'd never killed anyone before. Oh, sure, I'd shot people, but they'd never died from it. And I'd messed some dudes up pretty badly. Once, I was serving a warrant in Silver Lake, and the dude charged out of his house like a coked-up rhino with a shotgun. He was ready as hell to kill me, and I would have been well within my rights to kill him at that point, but I didn't. It was the closest I've ever come to killing someone, but I emptied a clip into his legs and put one in his shoulder, one in the side of his neck. The guy survived.

Now... well, someone was going to die, and I had to make sure it wasn't going to be me.

It seemed to take less time to reach Umbra's compound this time around, but that was probably just my perception, not reality. Traffic thinned out right on schedule, and before I knew it, we were deep in the ghetto again. I could see the fence coming up, and I opened the Pathfinder's sunroof.

"Gun it right through the gate," I said as I grabbed two of the Molotovs in one hand and my lighter in the other.

I heard the engine rev as I took off my seat belt and stood. Laura missed a gear, and when it caught, I almost dropped one of the Molotovs all over the front of the car, but I managed to save it. The jolt from the missed gear was worse than the one when Laura crashed through the fence, and that one, I was ready for. Laura sped us toward the buildings, and my head was on a swivel for the security car.

It came, all right, fishtailing around the corner and rocketing through the hole we'd made in the gate. I waited until it got within about fifty feet, then lit both Molotovs and rocketed them, one after the other, right at the security car's windshield. The first one went high, tumbling end-over-end just over the roof and smashing on the concrete behind the car. The second one, though, slammed right into the spot where the hood met the windshield, exploding in a perfect fireball that washed over the entire windshield.

Crazily, the security car's windshield wipers came on. It was as if the driver was trying to wipe the fire off the glass like rain. I chuckled in spite of myself, but it didn't last long. As the wipers melted to the burning glass, the security car slammed on its brakes, and both doors opened. Out came two security guards.

They were fat, both of them, which in my experience meant they were about to start shooting. I already had another lit Molotov in my hand, and I chucked it in their general direction before reaching into my coat and pulling out my Sig. The two guards broke to either side of the car to avoid the new firebomb, but quickly had their guns in their hands. They fired on us, but I fired back. I caught one of them in the hip, the other in the arm. They kept firing, but their shots weren't coming anywhere near us now.

Laura slammed on the brakes, spinning the Pathfinder so that the driver's door was next to the building. I dropped back down through the sunroof and followed her out the driver's side, grabbing the bag with the guns and Molotovs inside as I went. She entered a security code on the keypad by the door, but the lights above the pad stayed red.

"They changed the codes," she said. There was a hint of panic in her voice.

"Don't worry. Those guys will run out of ammo soon," I told her.

I pulled Quentin's pump-action out of the bag and motioned for Laura to get clear of the door. With two slugs, I obliterated the hinges -- not a great design, that -- and the door fell open. Laura dashed inside the darkened building, and I followed.

"Where are we headed?" I asked.

"There's a lab on the second floor. Be ready to shoot -- there's going to be security between us and the lab."

There wasn't, though. We made it up the stairs and down a long hallway without seeing a soul. I used the shotgun as a masterkey again, opening the lab door with a combination of slugs and kicks from my right boot. Laura flipped on the lights inside, and the only thing I saw was a long, empty metal table.

"Um..." I said.

"Must be in the other lab, in the other building."

We encountered no resistance on the way to the second lab, either. In fact, apart from the now-quiet security guards, we'd seen no one since we got into the complex.

"Something doesn't seem right here," I told Laura as she led me to the second lab, this one on the third floor of the next building over.

"I expected this to be tougher, too."

The second lab was also empty. Laura tore around the inside of the lab, opening cabinets and drawers, as if someone had stashed a 75-pound nuclear device in their desk.

"It's gone," she said.

"Yeah, I can see that."