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.