Monday, September 19, 2011

Chapter Eighteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

"On three!" he yelled back.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Or all three of us," Rodriguez said.

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

"We got any other choice?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answer. But I soon saw why.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

"What are you drinking?" he asked.

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

"Rum it is, then."

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

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

"Did you find out where they were going?"

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

"Addison. Is that anywhere near Dallas?"


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

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

"I get that."

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

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

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

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

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

"Black flight?"

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

I nodded, and Laura shrugged.

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

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

"Got it."

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"The City Center, sure."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like you said, more casualties, right?"

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

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

"High-rise buildings."

Laura nodded.

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

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

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

"And you designed this blast?"

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

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

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

"Who are you calling?" I asked.

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

"Police?" Laura asked. She looked worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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