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.

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