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C James

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  1. Chapter 15: Worth a Thousand Words Checking the LCD screen of General Bradson’s camera, The Scar noticed that just two photos resided within its memory. Nodding to himself, The Scar said, “Yuri, make a copy of the contents of this device’s memory card. I believe that we will find hidden data files. It is how I would transport them.” Yuri took the camera and extracted the SD memory card, breathing a silent sigh of relief as he found a compatible slot on The Scar’s laptop, and set to work copying the two files, which were all that he could find. Once the files had been transferred to the laptop, Yuri displayed the two photos side-by-side on the screen. “Perhaps there are codes within the data for these two, but they open as photographs,” Yuri said. Switching his attention to the General’s handheld GPS, which he had just powered up, The Scar did not bother to glance at the screen. Instead, he said, “This device also has a memory card, yet it does not appear to have anything more than a standard North American mapset available.” Powering down the device, The Scar, as skillfully as his single hand allowed, removed the memory card. “It appears to be the same type as the one in the camera. See what you can find on it.” Yuri ignored the two open photos, and then accessed the new memory card. “Sir, you appear to be correct. The file names are sequential, but the size varies greatly. Several of them are many times the size of others.” The Scar paused in his examination of the General’s satellite phone to look at the computer screen. “Yuri, see if you can open them, though I suspect that you cannot. They will likely be renamed with false extensions. My guess would be that some sort of encrypted file compression would also have been utilized. I do not think that we will be able to break it, not with our current meager resources. I would suspect that they contain some of the maps and intelligence data that we shall need, and thus the General will share them with us at some point. We will simply ask the good General, perhaps when we next see him. He thinks he needs us, after all.” The Scar glanced at the screen and then returned his attention to the satellite phone for a moment. Snapping his gaze back to the laptop display, he leaned forward for a closer look. After several seconds intensely scrutinizing the photos, The Scar cleared his throat and said, “Ah, the annoying one. This explains our General’s mysterious friends who facilitated his arrival. As you can see, the photos were taken in a private jet. Bradson must have jumped from it. And this one,” The Scar tapped at Eric’s image on the screen, “I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with him before. I would not mind meeting him again to settle that particular score. Obviously, he’s involved in the General’s plans, to one degree or another. I think it would behoove us to find out how and why. We can brook no surprises regarding our endeavor. One place to start is to use our contacts to check flight plans filed for the Eastern Atlantic area.” Faced with a monumental task, Yuri tried to explain the problem, “But sir, all we know is that it was a business jet. The amount of records to be searched–” With a smug smile creasing his ruined face, The Scar again tapped at the laptop’s screen. “Yuri, it is always wise to look for the unexpected. In this case, the information we need is right here before us. Look closely.” The Scar zoomed in on the center of the photo. It took Yuri a moment to comprehend what he was seeing. Behind Eric, in magazine pocket, Yuri noticed the pamphlet. Snatching up a pencil and paper, Yuri enunciated the words as he wrote them down, “Consolidated Jet Charters.” Yuri nodded, and then smiled. “We know the name of the company, and the General’s arrival date. This should not be hard. I shall begin right away.” The Scar nodded. “Find out what you can. In the meantime, return the General’s possessions immediately, as I have a hunch that he will make short work of Felecia’s war games.” Chasing the sun across the sky, the time zones worked to the Learjet’s advantage, enabling it to land in Los Angeles in the early afternoon, on the same day it had left the Canary Islands. The only delay had been due to a southerly arc to the jet stream, casing additional headwinds and a half hour delay. Pressed for time, Eric paid his bill, carefully placed his copy in his pocket, and fired up his motorcycle for the race back to the studio. Taking daredevil chances, weaving in and out of the building traffic, Eric felt the dark thrill of speed, his heart racing from the adrenaline coursing though his veins as he gunned the engine, tearing across the city. He’d promised to be there by three o’clock, and hoped to make it. That deadline was more excuse than reason, and savoring the thrill, he kicked the shifter up into third gear, the engine screaming at high RPMs as he darted in and out of a line of traffic. Thirty-five miles an hour, then forty-five, clearing the stationary vehicles by feet and then inches, Eric threaded the needle, charging between the parallel lines of traffic on the four-lane street, where one opening door, one mistake, could spell disaster. Seeing a clearer path, Eric slowed, cutting between vehicles to his left and crossing the Rubicon of the double-yellow line, then twisting the throttle and racing ahead in the tantalizingly clear opposing lane. A small side street, barely more than an alley and one of many, lay concealed, hidden in the deep and dark recesses of the afternoon. From shadow unto sunlight it lumbered forth, alabaster and grime, belching a demon’s breath of diesel smoke. The garbage truck, its driver intent on tuning his radio, turned head-on into Eric’s path. With a line of traffic on his right, and the garbage truck looming large dead ahead, unable to see into the curb lane and not knowing if it was clear, Eric froze for a split second. Taking the chance, his only recourse, he swerved into the curb lane, missing the truck by bare inches as its driver tardily sounded his horn. Straightening out and braking just a little too much, Eric was at once relieved to see his path clear ahead, and terrified by the wobble as his Yamaha began to lose its grip on the asphalt. By luck more than skill, Eric released the brakes, barely managing to regain control. Temporarily chastened, he slowed to a crawl and rejoined the line of traffic to his right. Five minutes after three, Eric raced from the parking garage to the sound stage, charging in to find Brandon, Jon, and Chase setting up for a recording session. Eric swept up his bass guitar and bounded onto the stage. Jon couldn’t resist a good-natured ribbing at Eric’s expense. “Hey, you’re late,” he said, grinning while Eric tuned the bass guitar. Not seeing his elder brother’s grin, Eric, distracted by his task, replied, “Gimme a break, I’m only five minutes late. Not my fault anyway; we hit headwinds due to the jet stream or something.” The reply caused Jon to double over as he fought to hold in a laugh. Brandon and Chase exchanged an amused look as well, and Helen, sitting nearby and watching like a hawk, rolled her eyes. Jon and Helen knew where Eric had been, but Brandon and Chase, while fairly sure he wasn’t going to San Francisco, didn’t. Eric, in his distracted frame of mind due to jetlag and his close call on the motorcycle, had just planted his foot squarely in his mouth. With levity dulling his lingering anger at Eric, Chase asked in an innocent tone, “Jet stream? Damn, I didn’t know that was anything you’d have to deal with on a motorcycle trip from San Francisco.” Giving himself a mental kick, Eric shrugged. He’d planned to tell Brandon and Chase soon anyway, some of it at least, but he didn’t want to ruin the surprise of the location. “Uh, okay, I didn’t go to San Francisco, I went somewhere else. It’s for the bachelor party and that’s all I’ll say until I’m ready. Speaking of ready, are we gonna lay down some tracks or what?” Brandon signaled the sound booth, and their first rehearsal track of the day began. After a grueling five hours of non-stop rehearsals and recording sessions, Eric, shirtless and sweaty like the rest of his band mates, breathed a sigh of relief as they wrapped for the day. Seeing his chance, Eric hauled Jon to the side of the stage, out of Brandon and Chase’s earshot, and whispered in an agitated tone, “Helen knew about my trip. How the hell did she find out?” His eyes opening in surprise, Jon replied, “Don’t look at me, bro. I didn’t tell her.” “Yeah, I didn’t think you did. I swear, it’s like she knows everything I’m doing. Anyway, it’s a go; I found a perfect place. Now I guess I have to get Helen’s okay, but if she didn’t stop me going, maybe she’s okay with it,” Eric said, hoping that it was true. Jon shrugged. “Either that, or she just wanted to play with your head. I guess you’ll find out pretty soon.” Following Jon’s eyes, Eric turned to see Helen, at the far end of the soundstage, crooking her finger in his direction. Wondering just how she would react, Eric grabbed his duffle bag and followed her in silence to a small office. With ostentatious grace, she offered him a seat, even pulling the chair out for him, which set off Eric’s mental alarm bells. Taking a seat herself, Helen smiled sweetly and asked in a honey-sweet voice, “So, Eric, welcome back. How was San Francisco? Did you happen to bump into anyone we know?” His face coloring slightly in embarrassment at being so deftly caught in a lie, Eric pulled his laptop from his duffle bag and set it on the desk between himself and Helen. As the computer booted, Eric said in a crestfallen voice, “You know I did. General Bradson gave me a couple of pictures for you. How did you know where I was going?” Helen let Eric twist in the wind for a couple of seconds, as her smile shifted from sweet to evil. Then she said, in a self-assured tone, “Oh, I have my ways. I always have my ways. So, you want to have the party and the wedding in the Canary Islands, do you?” Eric began to launch into a hurried explanation of why the Canary Islands would be such a good choice, and Helen held up her hand. “Whoa, I’m just winding you up a bit, I’ve gotta have my fun. Actually, I think it’s a great idea; a far better location than Massachusetts. What I’m not on board with is hijacking Brandon and Chase to the islands without their okay. It’s their wedding, after all. For the party, perhaps, but not the wedding. You need to tell them. I think they’ll agree, but it has to be their choice.” Slightly crestfallen, Eric nodded his reluctant agreement. “Okay, I’ll tell ‘em. The place I found is perfect, they’ll love it.” Helen considered Eric’s words for a moment. She’d been impressed with his initiative and resourcefulness. Never before had Eric taken upon himself a major responsibility, and to Helen, that was a sign that he was growing up. Slowly, in his own wild way, but she had to admit, he was maturing. That thought filled her with a melancholy air, much as it would for any parent – She’d long since come to think of the Carlisle brothers and Brandon as her own family. Deciding that Eric deserved some support and encouragement, Helen said, “You’ve done well. You found a better location and took the initiative. I’ll help in any way I can.” Helen began to smile as a thought occurred to her, and she gave in to the temptation of one more friendly jab. “You just get to convince Brandon and Chase that an island with an active volcano is the perfect place for their party and wedding. Have you got everything set up okay?” Helen said, as she made a mental note to check up on the wedding plans. Chuckling, and somewhat amazed that Helen had voiced her approval of the party, and more shockingly, him, Eric grinned. "Yep, everything is pretty much set." He clicked on the desktop icons for the General’s two photos. “Here’s the pictures the General took. I’d just opened my eyes and saw him in the first one, and he’d just told me you knew about my trip in the second one.” Helen looked at the pictures, and began to laugh. Eric’s shocked and stunned expression, complete with a gaping mouth, was in her opinion priceless. She decided, then and there, that she’d have the pictures blown up and framed. ‘That first one would make a perfect picture for Instinct’s annual Christmas card,’ she thought, fighting the urge to laugh aloud. Thousands of miles away, on the island of Santo Antão, another set of eyes were pondering the same pair of pictures. Looking up from his laptop’s screen as Yuri entered the room, The Scar waited in silence for his henchman’s report. “Finding the information proved easy enough to do. I checked with a contact at the American Federal Aviation Administration, and they pulled the files for me. The aircraft is a Learjet, and it was a private charter to La Palma Island, in the Canaries. There was one excursion during their stay: a filed plan for a familiarization flight west of La Palma. I would say that’s when they dropped our guest off,” Yuri said, and then added with a smile, “My contact was also conscientious enough to add a copy of the flight manifest and bill. The credit card used belongs to an Eric Carlisle, and with the card number, it was a simple matter to phone the credit card agency posing as a personal assistant concerned about some questionable billing items and ask if there were any charges on the day the General arrived here. They would not discuss amounts for security reasons, but they did give me the name of a hotel on La Palma.” Nodding, not quite sure, yet, what he would do with the information, The Scar returned his gaze to the photos. “Thank you, Yuri. The age of computers is wondrous, is it not? Such vast quantities of information, instantly available for those clever enough to find it.” The Scar tapped at the computer screen. “Now we know where the annoying one is, or at least was, and that he is aiding General Bradson. This may prove useful. I wonder what he was doing there, of all places. It seems an odd location for that band to be giving a concert.” Yuri replied with a silent nod; he’d heard from his employer at length how that particular band, along with General Bradson, had gotten in the way of The Scar’s last operation, the one that had culminated in his disfigurement. Typing slowly with his remaining hand, The Scar consulted a search engine, seeking any news items that referenced both Instinct and La Palma. Finding nothing of relevance, he began reading some of the articles, not knowing quite what he was looking for. Ten minutes later, he knew he’d found it. His ruined face contorting into what passed for a smile, he told Yuri, “There is much speculation regarding the impending wedding of two of the band members. Apparently, the location is a closely guarded secret. However, the approximate date itself is not. I suspect that we now know what the press remains in ignorance of: where the wedding will be held. I find it disturbingly coincidental that it falls so close to our mission in Iran. It is possible that all this may not prove relevant, but I dislike coincidences and I firmly believe that one can never have too much information. We’ll look into this matter further.” “There are other coincidences which concern me,” Yuri said, broaching a subject he’d previously raised. “General Bradson could be acting as an agent of his government, with us as the objective.” Smiling, The Scar replied, “You are developing a suspicious mind, Yuri. I commend you for that. However, I have confirmed that Bradson’s son is indeed captive in Iran. There is also one other fact that proves beyond doubt that the American government does not suspect who I am or what we plan to do. If they had but an inkling, we would no longer be breathing. They would have attacked us here, immediately and with overwhelming force. Therefore, I do not suspect treachery. Fortune, which so oft favors the bold, smiled upon us and delivered unto us the man we need.” The Scar gazed at his computer screen, pondering the issue and savoring the sweet siren song of revenge. Easing back into her chair, Helen thought of two other things she needed to ask. “Eric, did General Bradson get where he was going okay?” His smile fading, Eric began to share his concerns regarding the pilot’s evasive answers. Helen listened, paying attention to every word, and at the end, she agreed that something just didn’t smell right, but said there was nothing that they could do. Eric tapped the front pocket of his Levis and said, “I’ve got the detailed bill from the plane: looks to me like they were in the air four and a half hours. That’s time in the air, not on the ground, but that might be enough to figure out where they went, if I dig a little.” For several long seconds, Helen mulled the idea over. She absolutely did not want Eric getting involved in whatever the General had planned, but Eric’s idea was limited to figuring out where he had gone. That much would be nice to know, and she was about to agree, when she remembered who she was dealing with; Eric had an uncanny ability to find trouble, and insert himself in it. Deciding that there was no point in taking a chance, Helen held out her hand. “The General might be up to something that’s very illegal. The less we know, the better. There’s no way we can help him, so it’s best to keep out of it. Let me have that bill and I’ll let you know if I find out anything.” Helen was well aware that the latter part of her statement might well be a lie. In her concern for Eric’s well-being, Helen had forgotten the second thing she wanted to say: a reminder to Eric to tell no one of the General’s presence on the plane. After hesitating a moment as he made up his mind, Eric withdrew the folded bill from his pocket and handed it to Helen. It had been an easy decision; he already knew the information on it, so if it made her happy to have the bill, he was fine with that. It might, he hoped, leave him a little more freedom in which to poke around on his own. Helen slipped the bill into her purse, and then glanced at Eric. “Now you get to go tell Brandon and Chase the news. Have fun,” Helen said, with her trademark sweet smile topped by malicious eyes. With a chuckle and a shrug, Eric got up to leave, heading for Brandon and Chase’s suite. As he navigated the studio corridors to the adjoining hotel, his thoughts were not so much on the issues Helen had raised, but on whether or not Brandon and Chase had forgiven him for what he’d done in Telluride. With that worry on his mind, Eric tapped apprehensively at their door. The door swung open to reveal Chase. A moment’s awkward silence was all the confirmation Eric needed that all was not well. “Hey,” he said, trying to act as if nothing was amiss, “Helen sent me up. I need to talk to you guys about your party and wedding.” Chase led Eric to the suite’s living room, where Brandon sat on the couch, writing in the tattered notebook he used for composing songs. Eric took a seat in a recliner as Chase plopped down beside Brandon. Feeling the unease, trying to put it in the past, Chase said, “Does this have something to do with your mysterious journey, and encountering the jet stream on a motorcycle?” Eric nodded. “Yeah, it does. The whole San Francisco thing was a ruse. A while back, I had an idea for your party and wedding so I went to check it out. It looks great, and I think you guys will like it a lot better than Massachusetts.” Feeling touched that Eric had gone to such an effort, Brandon asked, “Okay, so, where is it?” Eric opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it again. He could feel, on many levels, the tension in the room that they were all studiously ignoring. Deciding to meet it head-on, Eric took a deep breath. “First things first. Brandon, Chase, I’m really sorry for what I did in Telluride. I wish it would just go away, but I can tell it hasn’t, and I miss things being the way they were.” Brandon and Chase exchanged a glance. Chase handled the answer. “I’m trying. I guess I just need to know that you’ll never do it again.” Thanking fate that he hadn’t given in to temptation, Eric smiled softly as he looked Chase in the eye and replied, “It was the tequila, and what happened made me realize I have to give it up, for the sake of everyone around me. When I was on the island, a bartender offered me tequila. I was there alone. I won’t say I wasn’t tempted, but I said no.” That comment triggered another exchanged glance between Brandon and Chase, and this time each wore an expression of surprise. Brandon looked back at Eric, and nodding once he said, “Wow. That’s… great. Look, that night, it was partially my fault too. I was kinda out of it, and I should have stopped you sooner. Speaking for myself, we’re cool, it never happened.” Brandon reached forward to tap fists with a relieved Eric. Knowing that it was his turn to speak up, Chase thought about it for a few seconds, long enough to realize that he couldn’t stay mad at Eric, and that he missed his relationship with him. With a lopsided smile and a bob of his head, Chase let go of most of his remaining anger. “Okay, I miss you too, you ass. If you stay off tequila, we’re fine as far as I’m concerned. You’re forgiven, but I can’t forget, not yet. Just stay off the tequila.” Chase leaned forward to tap fists with Eric, and then leaned back next to Brandon before asking, “Now, what’s this about an island, bro? Spill it.” Chase’s grin let Eric know that the wounds were, at least, mostly healed, and his gift for reading people confirmed that the unease was largely gone from Brandon and Chase. Eric hoped that, given a little time, it would disappear entirely. Breaking into a grin, Eric tapped himself on the chest. “I chartered a jet and went to the Canary Islands. They’re in the Atlantic, off the coast of Morocco, kind of near where Europe meets Africa. They’re owned by Spain, and Spain has gay marriage. It’s fantastic, a really cool place, and I found a perfect spot for your party and wedding. You guys want to get hitched on a beach, right? This place has ‘em, and all kinds of scenery, and a perfect place for the party–” “Whoa, okay, that sounds… great. The whole Massachusetts thing was because it’s one of the few places with gay marriage, but an island?” Chase locked eyes with Brandon. Brandon could see Chase’s unrestrained enthusiasm for the idea. The fact that Brandon shared Chase’s preference for getting married on a beach made the decision easy, and he broke into a grin and nodded. Chase turned back to say to Eric, in an excited, enthusiastic tone, “Man, that’s a fuckin’ great idea. Okay by us… Thanks bro! So, how do we get everybody there? And where is it, exactly? There’s more than one island, right?” Choosing his words with care to avoid revealing one small volcanic detail, Eric replied, “I was thinking we could charter a jet. That’s how I got there and back. As for the place, it’s a kick-ass resort, right on the ocean, on the opposite side from the airport and main town. Private, quiet, pools and stuff, and a perfect place for a party. I picked the island because I found out that most of the Canary Islands are pretty barren, but this one isn’t. It’s got loads of green stuff, trees and everything, like bananas and palms. I guess that’s why they call it the Island of Palms. You’ll love it!” Brandon, unlike Chase or Eric, knew a few words of Spanish. The translation clicked in his head, and feeding on Eric’s contagious enthusiasm, Brandon said, “Sounds perfect. La Palma, right? I know the name but that’s it. Sure beats the cold and wind of Massachusetts, especially in December. The weather was okay, right?” Eric nodded, happy to change the subject a little. “Yeah, I even got to lay out by the pool; warm and sunny. You guys will love it, I promise.” The words ‘La Palma’ rattled around in Chase’s mind, just under the surface of conscious thought, until he realized that he recognized the name. Still grinning, but arching an eyebrow, Chase asked, “What’s La Palma known for? I’ve heard the name somewhere.” Stifling a groan, keeping his face cheerful and his demeanor unconcerned, Eric replied, “Bananas, I think. Mountains too…. Lots of mountains, real tall and cliffs all over the place. Super scenery and I wasn’t recognized once, as far as I could tell. You guys will love it.” Chase, due to knowing Eric all his life, instantly spotted his brother’s attempt at a smooth deflection of the subject. Still smiling, Chase leaned forward and tapped ‘La Palma’ into the search bar of Brandon’s web browser. After a few moments reading the resulting topics, Chase bit his lip, and as Eric sat fidgeting, Chase asked in a confused tone, “Why do the terms megadisaster, tsunami, and volcano show up in almost every search hit? Okay, here’s a scientific paper. The abstract says; ‘Geological evidence suggests that during a future eruption of the Cumbre Vieja Volcano on the Island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, the volcano may undergo a catastrophic failure of its west flank. An area twenty kilometers long and five kilometers wide, containing up to five hundred cubic kilometers of rock, could slide into the sea, causing a tsunami over a thousand feet high, and the wave would hit the eastern coast of North America in about nine hours, slamming into the eastern seaboard with hundred-foot waves that would go miles inland.’” Chase glanced up from the screen, his eyes opening wide in shock. “Uh, Eric…” he mumbled, his voice trailing off due to having no idea what to say. Brandon’s jaw dropped and he leaned forward to read the screen. Eric, who had known that Brandon and Chase might raise that particular issue, gave an openhanded shrug. “I checked; it’s just hype. A couple of geologists made the claim, and they made a TV program claiming all that could happen, but it can’t happen. They claimed the fault line is far longer than it is, slipped a lot more than it did, and a bunch of other stuff. So, just hype. No way half the island can fall into the sea, and even if it did, so what? If they’re right, you’d be just as dead on the coast of Massachusetts as on the island, but I checked, honest. Just keep looking, you’ll see, it’s all hype; there’s no danger. The volcano isn’t even erupting right now.” Less than totally convinced, Chase did keep looking, with Brandon following along over his shoulder. A few clicks revealed an article, which said approximately what Eric had, but in more detail. Chase tried another link, and found roughly the same explanation. Had Chase looked at the second page of results, he’d have seen a geological news item that was only days old. With a grin and a shake of his head, Chase looked at his brother and said, “Yeah, okay, it looks like you’re right.” Turning to look at Brandon, Chase said, “I’m still okay with it if you are.” Brandon smiled, and with a bemused nod of his head replied, “Yeah, it can’t be that bad if there’s resorts there. Let’s do it.” Grinning with relief, Eric laughed. “I’ll finish setting it up. We’re gonna have a blast, I’m telling you, it’s just perfect.” With that taken care of, and knowing that his relationship with Brandon and Chase was well on the way to healing, Eric returned to his suite, intent on getting some sleep after his very long day. As soon as Eric had left, Chase began to crack up. Holding his side, he regained control long enough to say, “Only Eric would pick a place best known for megadisasters for us to get married in. I think it’ll be great, but damn, only Eric…” “Yeah, I think it’s pretty safe,” Brandon replied as he joined in the laughter, “This page says that the fault runs only a few miles, not the whole way. So, only a few miles of the west side of the island might slip, and even for that it might not happen for thousands of years, if ever. Going there is probably safer than crossing the street. Hey, want to make a bet? I can tell you, without even looking, exactly where that resort is that Eric’s booked for us.” Chase laughed again, shaking his head, “No bet, but where is it and how do you know?” Grinning, Brandon opened Google Earth and began zooming in on the Eastern Atlantic view of the virtual globe. “Easy. He never tried to tell us that the resort was on the safe side of the island, so it’s just gotta be on the west side. He also said it was the side opposite the airport. Here’s the islands, wait, no, that’s Madeira. Okay, that’s it, La Palma, and look, the airport is on the east side, so that means the resort is on the west side. Told ya!” Brandon said with a laugh. Chuckling, Chase pointed at the screen as Brandon zoomed in on the island, which was shaped roughly like an elongated triangle with the tip pointing south. “If you go west from the airport, you’re to the north of the volcano symbol anyway, right?” Chase asked, assuming incorrectly that Eric had meant due west. Nodding, Brandon said, “Yeah, not too close, and anyway we’ve been to Hawaii before and that’s got volcanoes. But I’ll tell you one thing I like about this…” Brandon said, letting his voice trail off. As Brandon had expected, Chase asked, “What’s that?” With an evil smile, Brandon replied, “We’ll always be able to bug Eric about setting us up to be married on a volcano. He’ll never live that down.” Laughing, Chase leaned against Brandon’s side. “Yeah, there is that. It was damn nice of him to do all this. I’ve never known him to make this kind of effort without being pushed. He must have set all this up before he told us that San Francisco stuff, and that means before Telluride… and ya know what? My jaw nearly hit the floor when he said he’d turned down tequila.” Grinning while shaking his head, Brandon leaned back into the sofa. “Maybe he’ll be okay after all, if he stays away from tequila. I think we all will,” Brandon said, and then, not above the occasional bad pun, he added with a wicked grin, “You’ve just got to learn to think positively about the volcano situation: one way or another, this wedding is gonna be a blast.” Author's Note: The issue regarding the danger of a collapse of the west side of La Palma, resulting in a massive tsunami aimed at the west coast of the United States, might seem somewhat far-fetched. However, it happens to be a real theory. This link will take you to a study, in PDF format, by the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz California, entitled: Cumbre Vieja Volcano -- Potential collapse and tsunami at La Palma, Canary Islands I'm not saying it will happen in the story, only that it is a real (though debated and far from proven) issue. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  2. Chapter 16: Surfer Strip Show Wilhelm checked his watch, ever mindful of Felecia’s orders that his team lose, but he considered it a moot point; he was yet to win the offensive roll in this exercise. Walking up to stand at General Bradson’s side, Wilhelm asked, “So, what’s the plan, Herr General?” General Bradson, with an almost disinterested air, replied, “All we have to do is get that pennant and run it up the flagpole before sundown, right? No matter how we do it?” Realizing that the General was up to something, but having no idea what, Wilhelm replied, “No real firearms; paintball rules only.” After a few moments’ pause, General Bradson said, “Follow me,” and walked towards the now-empty storage shed. Puzzled, Wilhelm followed and his platoon trailed behind, unsure of what was going on. General Bradson walked to a football-sized rock a few yards past the shed. Flipping the rock over, he snatched up the pennant, holding it high over his head as he turned to face Wilhelm and the platoon. A few of the soldiers began to laugh, and Wilhelm joined them, even though he knew that Felecia wouldn’t be particularly pleased with this development. Walking towards the flagpole, pennant in hand, General Bradson began to smile. “This here means we’ve won. When I went to get my notebook, I stopped by the shed, grabbed the pennant, and hid it. Going by the stated rules, this counts as a clear win, and I’m certain that it’s in record time. This also means that we won’t be the ones running today.” Wilhelm allowed himself a chuckle as the General clipped the pennant to the pole’s riser and hoisted his prize. “Yes, this is certainly in record time. Shall we send one of my men to inform Felecia that she’s defeated, or would you prefer to convey the news in person?” Wilhelm asked. Shaking his head, grinning like a Cheshire cat, General Bradson replied, “What’s the hurry? We’ll let them sit out there, wondering what we’re up to. Mess with their heads a little before they get to go running.” Some of the assembled platoon began to cheer, and the General knew they had accepted him, which had been his true objective of the day. Strolling into the Oak Leaf – the vacant nightclub he’d rented for rehearsals – Eric was eager to see Jansen and Keith again. Eric's very public life meant that he had few chances to seriously interact with others and he enjoyed the rare opportunity to get to know some new people. The fact that they weren’t part of Instinct’s organization helped, giving Eric a sense of independence he’d not previously known. Spotting the dancers taking a break at the side of the stage, Eric grinned and headed in their direction and hollered, “Hey guys, what’s up? Things going okay?” It wasn’t hard for Keith to smile: Eric’s innate enthusiasm and joy was contagious. “Hi Eric. Yeah, we’ve got the act down. It’s going great,” Keith said, a little surprised that Eric was half an hour early. Leaping up onto the stage, Eric looked unabashedly at Jansen and Keith, who were sitting in folding chairs. Slick with sweat, stripped down to Speedos; they’d obviously been rehearsing for a while. Eric pulled up a chair and spun it to face away from the dancers, straddled it, and sat down in it backwards, leaning his forearms on the chair back. “I’ve found a fucking perfect place for the party. It’s got a dance floor, a bar, everything. You guys will love it. It’s at a kick-ass resort, right on the beach.” Jansen grinned, thinking of the resort and the sun. He’d never traveled further than Mexico, so the idea of flying off to an exotic place and getting paid for it was like a dream come true for him. “Sounds like it’s all working out. I can’t wait to see it,” Jansen said. Keith decided to address the details. “How big is the dance floor, and how big is the room? If it’s too big, the boom-box we’ve got won’t be enough,” Keith asked. “The dance floor is hardwood, about twenty feet across, and it’s round. There’s a built-in sound system so you won’t need a boom box. The place is great, kinda half-open, with a patio and a big pool. And there’s a bar,” Eric said, with a lick of his lips. Keith laughed, and surprised himself by feeling comfortable enough with Eric to say, “Yeah, you mentioned the bar already. Guess we know what you’ll be doing.” Keith’s smile was joined by Jansen’s. “There’s just one thing,” Eric said, doubting that Jansen or Keith would mind, “I had to tell Brandon and Chase where the party is. If we have you guys on the plane, they’ll figure out what we’re up to.” Keith arched a questioning eyebrow. “I thought we’d be pretending to be crew, or bartenders, or something?” Eric shrugged. “Yeah, but they’d figure it out. Think about it: they’re on their way to their stag party and the only people on the plane they don’t know are two really hot-looking blond guys. They’d know, trust me. But… there’s an easy way out. I’m going back to the island early so I can finish making arrangements and stuff. I’m working my ass off laying down bass tracks at the studio, so I’ll be able to jet out four days before the party, which means leaving a week from today. You guys can come with me. All it means for you is you’ll get an extra week’s stay at the resort, on me. I might draft one or both of you to help set up for the party, but that’ll be for only a few hours. This way you can rehearse on the dance floor you’ll be performing on, too,” Eric said, thinking that Jansen and Keith would jump at the idea. Keith fought to keep a smile on his face, and thought for a moment, trying to find the most tactful way to decline. Eric’s wealth often caused a blind spot; it hadn’t occurred to him that when the dancers missed time at work, they lost money. It wasn’t easy; Keith was afraid that if he phrased it wrong, Eric would think he was being hit up for money, something Keith had no intention of doing. In Keith’s opinion, Eric had been exceptionally generous so far, and Keith was savvy enough to know that Eric likely had many people eager to take advantage of him and would not react well if he thought that was occurring. Taking a breath, Keith said, “Any way we could go on the later flight? Or, we can pretend to be stewards. We’ve both worked as waiters before so we can serve food.” Eric immediately picked up on the concealed tension. He was getting to know Jansen and Keith, and with that familiarity came an ability to read them, somewhat. He knew that Keith was leaving something unsaid, something big. Nodding sagely, Eric replied, “Something’s up. Just tell me, okay?” Keith was about to give Eric a less than fully truthful answer when he felt Jansen’s hand on his arm. Keith turned to look, and Jansen said, in a quiet but earnest voice, “Keither, just tell him. Ask about this club, because that would solve all our problems.” Nodding, Keith told Eric, “Okay, on the level. The reason is money. We’ve got tuition payments coming up, and going with you would cost us almost a week’s income. We didn’t want to say anything because it would sound like we’re sticking you up for more money, and we aren’t.” Keith felt an elbow in his ribs as Jansen’s insistent voice said, “The club, man, tell him what we were talking about yesterday.” Nodding, Keith said, “We had an idea that, but first I gotta ask; how much would it cost to extend your lease on this place for a few more days, until this weekend?” A confused look clouded Eric’s handsome face. “I’ve already got it for another couple of weeks. They wanted to lease it for the month, so that’s what I took.” His eyes brightening, Keith said, “Then like Janse said, we might have an idea. I think it can work. We were thinking of putting on a show, for customers, this weekend. We’d hire a couple of guys from college to hand out flyers. Advertise the act, describe it, but keep our names out of it. We can get a couple of the guys from the club we work at to round it out with their own act, but keep it classy, like what we’ve rehearsed for your party. It’s different from what G-Strings and the other male strip clubs in the area offer, and I think there’s a market for an event like this. We’d split the gross receipts with you, which should cover at least some of the rental on this place. We’ll handle the insurance too; we can get a two-day policy for about a grand a day, assuming no alcohol. I want to keep it dry anyway; the other clubs don’t admit anyone under twenty-one on most nights because they are considered bars and are subject to liquor laws, so this way we can pitch to the college crowd, eighteen and up. Our share of the take should easily be enough to let us miss work and fly out with you and make us some extra, plus this way you’ll recoup at least some of the cost of the lease on this place.” Swamped by the flood of information, Eric held up his hands in mock surrender. “Whoa, slow down. Sounds like you’ve thought this through pretty well. The only problem is that my manager would likely go psycho if she found out I was mixed up in anything like this.” A little crestfallen, Keith sighed. “Damn. I guess that kills that idea–” Shaking his head, Eric chuckled. “No dude, you don’t get it. I said: if she finds out. I kinda operate under the rule of: what she doesn’t know won’t hurt me. So keep my name out of it and don’t mention it when you meet her, and you guys have got a deal. So, how do we start?” Jansen and Keith exchanged a thrilled look. “You don’t have to do much of anything; just check with the leasing agency to make sure you can use this place for business purposes. I’ve checked on the zoning, the city regs, everything. Janse and me will take care of the insurance, and I’ll have both you and the building’s owner named on the policy so it’ll be all legal. Technically you’ll be subletting to us, so between that and the insurance you should be liability-free.” The mention of having his name attached gave Eric pause, wondering if Helen might somehow find out. Deciding that any complications were unlikely, Eric said, “You’re the biz major. Okay, set it up, it’s a go from my side. I already know I can use this place for a business; the leasing agent asked what kind I’d be running here and she looked surprised when I said I only wanted it for some private dance rehearsals. I’ll check to be sure, but it should be okay. If I can get my studio stuff done, I’ll help you guys set up and I’ll help out behind the scenes during the shows too, but I’ll have to stay out of the guests’ sight. If word gets out I’m here, you’ll get swamped with paparazzi and groupies, and then Helen will find out and kill me.” Keith grinned at the mention of Helen. “Your manager sounds like she’s Godzilla or something.” “Godzilla on steroids, and she has a way of finding out what I’m up to, so be careful. She won’t be at the party, I hope, but she’ll be on the island so you’ll probably meet her at some point. Don’t worry; she usually doesn’t kill strangers without a reason.” Jansen leaned back in his chair to laugh. “Usually, huh? Okay, we’ll be careful. Thanks for letting us do this. We’ll all come out ahead, if it works.” Eric wasn’t interested in the money. As far as he was concerned, he’d paid for the place with no expectation of getting any of it back and that was that, but the dancer’s idea sounded like fun and it would help two guys he was coming to think of as friends. He just hoped he could get out of the studio long enough to be at the opening, at least for a few hours. He doubted he could spare more time than that, but he could try. “So, you’re opening the doors Friday and Saturday nights, right? That means you’ve got three days to get set up. Think you can get it ready in time?” Keith nodded, fairly sure that he was telling the truth. “Yeah, we’ll print up the flyers today, using a description of the act and some of our photos with our faces obscured. Then tomorrow morning I’ll get the guys I mentioned to hand ‘em out at college Thursday and Friday. They’ll be our doormen and cashier too, so that’s handled. I’ll take care of the insurance tomorrow and get you a copy. We won’t be serving alcohol, but the guests will expect soft drinks so I’ll stock up on soda and plastic cups. We can get one of the gymnasts from college to play bartender; he has a super upper body and the guests will love him in just a tight pair of shorts. So, once all that’s done, all we need to do is get the place cleaned and set up. Friday afternoon us and the other act will rehearse, and then it’s opening time.” Deciding, though with regret, that there was one thing he could do to help Jansen and Keith get started, Eric said, “I was going to ask to see your act today, but I’ll clear out and head back to the studio so you guys can do the flyers and the other stuff. I’ll see your act Friday if I can get some free time.” Eric stood up, turning to leave before Jansen or Keith could object, calling back over his shoulder, “You guys have my cell number; call me if you need anything.” Eric fired up his motorcycle and raced back to the studio, intending to get to work laying down tracks and free up as much time as he could. As soon as Eric was out the door, Jansen punched Keith lightly on the arm. “I’m sure glad he okayed it. This is going to be great, and we’re going to get that extra week at the resort.” Letting the one remaining problem cloud his mood, Keith replied, “Yeah, but this means us and the other two dancers will all be calling in sick to work for the weekend. George will blow a fuse, I know he will.” Jansen shrugged. He felt that George Tankardsly was an okay boss, but the man had a lowdown and sleazy air about him, which Jansen did not like. “Let him. We haven’t called in sick all year so he can’t bitch too much. As long as he doesn’t find out what we’re doing, we’ll be fine,” Jansen said. Keith nodded in less than heartfelt agreement. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Come on, let’s get dressed, and get back to our apartment so we can work on the flyers and the other stuff.” Brightening a little, Keith added, “This weekend will be a success, I know it. We’ll pack this place, no doubt about it.” On Aardvark Hill, Felecia checked the defensive deployments of Horst’s platoon. He’d guessed that the General would try an attack up the steeper, and thus less-obvious, south side of the hill, and Felecia concurred, allowing Horst a free hand to place an extra squad on that side. The hilltop was riddled with foxholes from prior exercises, so ‘digging in’ took them only a few minutes. Felecia set the ammo can on level ground beside her own foxhole as she told Horst, “All we have to do is hold ‘em off. That General may be a hotshot tactician but that’s in the air. Down here in the mud, he’s out of his element.” Horst nodded, and let silence descend. They waited, listening carefully for the anticipated approach. And they waited, and waited…. By lunchtime, Felecia was growing irritated. Breaking the silence, she whispered to Horst, “What the fuck is taking them so long? Their only tactical option is a battle of attrition. They should at least be harassing us by now. Send a man out on recon.” Horst selected his best tracker and sent him out, watching the man melt into the brush like a ghost. Half an uneasy hour later, the man returned, not bothering to keep to cover. Irked at the lack of proper combat procedure, Horst snarled, “Get down, this is an exercise, not a damn walk in the park.” With a shrug, the mercenary replied, “Way I see it, the exercise is over once the flag is taken and hoisted up the flagpole, right? So it’s over. I found ‘em, they’re hanging around the compound and the pennant is on the flagpole, so we’re done, right?” Felecia turned her startled eyes to Horst, and together they rushed to the ammo can. Opening it to find it empty, Felecia gave it a brutal kick as she yelled, “Goddamn fucking asshole… How the fucking hell did he… No way could they get a man into and out of this perimeter unseen. I was right here! Okay, saddle up guys; we’re moving out, double-time.” On the march back to the compound, Felecia was in a vile mood. She thought she knew what General Bradson had done, and she was furious at herself for leaving herself open to such a ploy. Upon reaching the compound, she ignored Wilhelm and his platoon and stormed up to the storage shed. A quick glance at the padlock revealed nothing, but then her gaze fell on the screw heads, which held the securing loop to the doorframe. The rusty heads showed fresh scratches – which the General had made while using his Swiss Army knife – confirming her suspicions of foul play. “Notebook my ass,” she snarled under her breath when she realized when the General had most likely stolen the pennant. Turning on her heel, she stormed across the compound, making a beeline to where General Bradson sat, scribbling in his notebook. “You thieving, sneaky asshole,” she snarled. “This was supposed to be a tactical training exercise, and you’ve made a mockery of it.” With an obnoxious smile, the General replied, “The tactical exercise, per your own words, was to capture the flag and run it up the flagpole. In war, a wise commander does not engage in combat without need, only to accomplish a goal. You set the goal, and I met it by taking the least tactical risk. Therefore you lose, Fel. I do hope that you and your team enjoy your run.” Angry with herself for having been outsmarted, Felecia kicked at the dirt in frustration. Forcing herself to reign in her temper, she said in an even, icy, tone, “We’ll just see how you do tomorrow, when you’re on the defensive.” Still seething, Felecia led Horst and his platoon off for their five-mile run. Eric checked the studio itinerary and smiled; the tracks he was scheduled to lay down could be moved forward and his rehearsals with the rest of the band were all in the mornings. He conferred with the studio crew and made the arrangements, and then headed for the recording booth. What it meant was that he’d have a little free time after all, and with that happy thought, he began plucking at his bass as he began recording his first track of the day. By Friday morning, Eric had, at the cost of some lost sleep, largely completed the needed tracks. His rehearsal with the rest of the band, followed by a combined recording session, went well in a way that had nothing much to do with music; Eric could sense that the rift he’d caused in Telluride was largely gone. The old camaraderie was largely back, and the awkward silences a thing of the past. That change buoyed Eric’s spirits even more than the fact that he was done with the studio for the day. As he tore hell-for-leather across the mean streets of Los Angeles, Eric was unaware he was sporting a big goofy grin as he arrived at the Oak Leaf Nightclub, where he expected to find Jansen and Keith setting up for opening night. Using his key to let himself in, Eric found Jansen, alone, hard at work mopping the floor. Jansen was facing away from the door, his bare back covered with a sheen of sweat, and thanks to the music playing softly on the club’s sound system, he hadn’t noticed Eric’s arrival. Eric crept closer, stopping just a few feet away to watch Jansen for a few seconds more, waiting for the right moment to make him jump. Given the fact that Jansen was working in just a pair of boxers, Eric figured he had a good chance of achieving his goal. In a booming voice, Eric said, “You missed a spot!” The mop clattered to the floor as Jansen released it, jumping away and spinning around. He saw Eric and laughed. “You got me.” Glancing down at his boxers, Jansen added, “I thought I’d be working alone and didn’t want to get dirty water on my jeans, so I took ‘em off.” Grinning, Eric replied, “Fine by me, but why are you alone? Where’s Keith?” Jansen bent down to retrieve the mop, and got back to work as he said, “We had some trouble. One of the guys who was supposed to hand out flyers for us blew it off and we just found out this morning. Then our boss, George, blew a gasket when we called in sick. Anyway, Keith’s on campus, handing out flyers, plus he’s gotta find somebody to fill in tonight; that guy who blew us off was a third of our staff. So, I’ve got to get this place ready by myself.” “What’s left to do,” Eric asked. “The rest of the mopping, then hauling the tables and chairs out of the side rooms and setting them up, then cleaning the counters and main desk, and hanging a banner over the door,” Jansen said, not pausing from his task. Eric glanced around, his eye falling on a tray full of cleaning supplies. Surprising both Jansen and himself, Eric said, “I’ll take the counters, then we can both move the furniture when you’re done mopping.” Jansen looked up, a slightly incredulous look on his face, in time to see Eric walk over to the cleaning supplies, peel off his jacket and tank top, and gather up a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle. Watching the bare-chested bassist set to work on the countertop, Jansen mumbled a pro-forma objection, “You don’t have to do that.” “Shut up and mop,” Eric said with a laugh, “Or I’ll use this damn spray cleaner on you.” Twenty minutes later, the counters were clean enough and the floor was done. Eric followed Jansen into a side room, and the two guys, muscles flexing under tan, sweat-slickened skin, began hauling out the tables and chairs. Once that task was completed, Eric and Jansen plopped into chairs facing each other – tired but ahead of schedule. In the stifling heat, Eric wrinkled his nose in reaction to a sudden thought. “Hey, you guys did get the air conditioner working, didn’t you?” he asked. Jansen’s suddenly shocked expression indicated otherwise, and he said in a strained tone, “Oh, shit. No, not yet. We didn’t want to run the thing with just us here, and I fucking forgot all about that. The fuse box for it was locked… and with all the guests and lights, it’s going to cook in here tonight.” Nodding, Eric stood up and glanced around. Not finding anything that fit his needs, he jogged to the door, unlocked it, and went outside. A moment later, Jansen saw Eric return, lock the door, and send a wicked grin in Jansen’s direction, as Eric took care to conceal what was in his right hand. Puzzled, Jansen watched Eric walk quickly to the back room. A few seconds after Eric was lost to his view, Jansen stood up to follow, only to hear a resounding clang, and then another, echo from the room. Breaking into a jog, Jansen entered the back room to find Eric opening the fuse-box door with one hand, while holding a chunk of concrete in the other. With a self-satisfied smile, Eric flicked on the air conditioning system’s heavy breakers, and then grinned at Jansen. “I remembered seeing the concrete when I parked my bike, and figured it would make a handy persuader to get the lock off.” Chuckling, Jansen checked the thermostat, and heard the soft, heavy thrum from the roof as the AC’s compressor engaged. “I think you did it, something’s running anyway. I just hope it works. How the hell could Keith and I forget something so obvious? If this doesn’t work, we’re fucked.” Setting down the concrete, Eric picked up the battered lock from where it had fallen. Admiring his handiwork, he said, “Don’t stress. If it doesn’t work, I’ll start making phone calls and get a tech out here and maybe they can get it working in time.” Jansen felt the first hint of coolness from the draft caressing his bare shoulders, and stretched his arms upwards, towards the air conditioning vent a few feet above his head. “I can feel it, I think its working. Thanks… and I just hope we didn’t forget anything else.” Jansen said, holding the stretch and enjoying the cooling air, though with a worried look on his face; he was starting to realize just how much could go wrong. After watching Jansen for a few moments, Eric glanced at a clock. “The banner still needs to go up outside… anything else we need to do, besides get ourselves cleaned up ready?” Jansen glanced at the clock: only five hours remained until the scheduled opening, and much of that would be needed for prepping the acts. Hanging the banner would be easy, he hoped. Returning to the main room, Jansen grabbed a chair, and snatched up the folded banner from its place by the door. He unfurled it, checking the strings secured to grommets in its four corners. Noticing that Eric was watching intently, Jansen spread his arms to hold it up for Eric to see. “Surfer Strip Show, this weekend only,” Eric said, reading the banner aloud. Jansen nodded. “Yeah, could be better, but we’re counting on the flyers to bring people in. This is just to let ‘em know that this is the place,” Jansen said as he gathered up the banner, snatched up a chair, and headed for the door. “I’ll get this, you better stay inside, or you might get recognized.” Snickering, surprised that Jansen hadn’t realized what he was about to do, Eric watched Jansen open the door before saying, “I doubt anyone would pay attention to me. They’d be more interested, one way or another, in a guy wearing just wet boxers and hanging a sign on a busy street. Ain’t it illegal to go out in public in your underwear?” Jansen backpedaled into the club and slammed the door. “Oh fuck, that would not have been good. First the AC, now this. I’m really on a roll today, huh?” Eric doubled over, wracked by uncontrollable laughter, while Jansen, whose tan hid most but not all of his blush, retrieved his Levis and tugged them on. Jansen made quick work of the banner, and re-entered the club to find Eric still snickering. Shaking his head, Jansen said in a good-natured voice, “Okay, okay, I screwed up. I guess I should thank you for warning me, even if you did wait until I was on my way out the door.” Glancing around, seeing that the club was nearly ready, Jansen’s tone of voice became serious as he added, “Keither should be here by now. I sure as hell hope nothing else went wrong. Hey, how long can you stay for? Long enough to see our act?” Eric made no attempt to hide the smile creeping across his face. “I’m free until the morning jam session at the studio, but I’ll have to watch from backstage.” “I’ll call and see what’s taking Keith so long. He’s got the soda and stuff,” Jansen said while fishing in the pocket of his tight jeans for his cell phone. Jansen’s call went straight to Keith’s voicemail, so Jansen left a message. Across town, sitting on a bench on his college campus, Keith yelled into his phone, “Craig, you fucking promised. You can’t let me down like this, not now…” Biting his lip in anger, Keith listened to a few words of the mumbled excuses before breaking in to say in a cold voice, “Forget it, Craig. I’m done with you, in every way. Life’s too short for bullshit and losers, and you’re both.” Keith hung up, resisting the urge to hurl his cell into a nearby wall. He was about to slip the cell phone into his pocket when he noticed Jansen’s number on the caller ID. He flicked the phone open again, about to call back, but decided against it; the club was only a few minutes away, and he was already on his way there. En route, pausing only to pick up some bags of ice, Keith tried the numbers of a few other friends, attempting to find someone who could fill in and serve soft drinks. At that point, he didn’t care who: anyone would do, even if they weren’t a hot looking gymnast. Having no luck, Keith made a call he’d been dreading, relieved when an answering machine picked up on the other end. “Hi George,” he said, doing his best impersonation of a person on death’s door, “Jansen and I have some kind of flu. I’m on my way to the pharmacy now, maybe the doctor’s later. There’s no way either of us can work tonight or tomorrow. Sorry.” Keith coughed a few times and ended the call. Back on campus, the flyers were making the rounds through the sorority houses. The photos on the flyers were hot, the acts sounded great, and the age limit was under twenty-one, plus the price was right. As Keith had hoped, he’d hit on a recipe for success, and the flyers made the rounds, and many a computer logged onto the web page version he’d set up and linked to on the flyer, and the spreading increased geometrically, with copies and links spreading ever further afield. In one such case, Patricia gave a copy to Sally, and Sally told Judy and Ann. Judy then gave a copy to her just-turned-eighteen sister, who gave a copy to her friend Melanie. The photos on the flyer carefully obscured the two blond dancer’s faces with logos and clip-art, which Melanie thought was a shame, for she loved faces, especially those of hot guys. Having a father who was very open-minded about such things, she thought nothing of leaving the flyer, along with her school books, atop the kitchen counter. So far, all was well and good, except for one minor detail: the fact that Melanie happened to be George Tankardsly’s daughter… . © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  3. Chapter 13: Falling to Earth As the sun sank well past its zenith over the Canary Islands, Eric’s search wore on. He cast a bemused, melancholy glance through the taxi’s window as they departed yet another resort. Again, he’d judged that it would do, but again, it just wasn’t right. Falling above the clouds for the first time in years, General Bradson felt the wind whipping at his clothes as he arched forward, angling his body into the hundred-mile-an-hour slipstream, leaving him prone, in the classic skydiver’s position, face-down relative to the fast-approaching ground. Squinting against the glare, the General saw only the wispy white blanket of fog three thousand feet below. A quick glance around gave him a spectacular view of the cleaved and craggy green-shrouded mountains walling the valley. He was already below the nearest peaks, and seconds later below the ridgelines as well. General Bradson glanced straight down again, at the onrushing unbroken veil of misty white. He spared a fleeting glimpse at his watch and its altimeter readout, but he well knew that it wasn’t relevant. Not this time. Had the General been able to see the ground, he would have picked out a landing zone, made a guesstimate of its distance from his ballistic trajectory, and gauged his parachute-opening altitude accordingly, using the ‘chute’s limited gliding ability to reach his target. The other reason to open a parachute at a higher altitude was safety; it would give the jumper time to cut away a tangled main ‘chute and deploy the reserve, though that was an option the General did not have. Now, with no reserve ‘chute and the ground obscured, there was nothing to be gained by opening his parachute above the fog layer. Indeed, the opposite was true; every moment that he lingered in his parachute above the fog exposed him to being seen from the surrounding high ground: an unlikely occurrence, but one there was no reason to risk. With the ground racing towards him, the General had only seconds to wait. Five hundred feet above the cloud deck, he pulled in his right arm, reaching across his chest as he retracted his left arm for balance, and seized the red handle of his ripcord. With one smooth and practiced motion, the General pulled the cord. For a fleeting moment, his blood ran cold as he felt exactly nothing, but then, to his relief, he felt and heard the fluttering deployment of his pilot ‘chute, followed by a jarring wrench as his main parasail unfurled. Grasping the left and right hand steering toggles of the ram-air parachute, General Bradson spilled a little air to test directional control. Satisfied that his parachute was under control, he focused on his upcoming landing as he descended at a thousand feet per minute through the grey shroud of fog. Staring downwards, General Bradson saw the grey veil begin to part. Instead of the uniform grey, the scene below him began to reveal shape and contrast, but far closer than he’d feared. At three hundred feet above the ground, he was able to distinguish scraggly trees clustered between winding bands of open ground. Landing in a tree could be a disaster, as could a wayward branch snagging his canopy from the side during his landing glide. Seeing that one narrow, clear area was the only option within his remaining range, General Bradson tugged on the left steering toggle, spilling air to turn the parachute to the left, and lined up on his chosen landing zone, which was now a hundred feet below and two hundred feet ahead. Spilling air from the front of his chute by using both steering toggles, the General increased his rate of descent to pick up forward speed as he glided towards his landing. Flaring ten feet above the ground, he prepared for a running landing. Too late to avoid it, he glimpsed a bare, craggy branch protruding from the tree canopy to his left, and winced as he heard the rip of it snagging his parachute as his feet touched the ground. His running landing lasted all of two strides before the snagged parachute yanked on his harness, pulling him to the side, and he came down hard on the unforgiving rocky soil. Opening his eyes, the General, lying on his side, moved with exquisite care, testing to see if he was badly hurt. His first concern was for his legs; a break, or even a bad sprain, could prove disastrous. He winced from the pain in his right leg, moving it slowly, relieved to find that it was merely a bruise from a rock that had caused the pain. Stumbling to his feet, he glanced around to find he was alone under the grey sky, in a silence filled only by the distant, plaintive bleating of a few goats. Disentangling himself from his harness and goggles, the General reeled in his parachute, wadding up the ruined canopy and then stomping it flat. His first priority was to hide it, which he did by tossing it under some thick bushes and weighting it down with a few of the ubiquitous basalt rocks. He retrieved the small carry-bag that had occupied the reserve parachute housing, and tossed his harness under the same bush before adding a few more rocks. With that task accomplished, he set out at a fast walk in order to clear the area, on the off chance that his landing had been seen. After several hundred yards of hiking on the slightly sloping ground, the General turned downhill, towards the valley floor. He soon found a suitable thicket of trees, and availed himself of its cover to unpack his bag. Carefully, General Bradson freed his handheld GPS and map from the shirt he’d used to wrap it. Turning it on, he watched impatiently as it acquired signals from the orbiting satellites, locking onto several, and began calculating its position. As soon as the latitude and longitude popped up, he unfolded his topographic map and traced the coordinates. To General Bradson’s slight dismay, he found that he was one valley north of his intended target area. He also discovered that he’d been very fortunate; he had come down within a thousand yards of a small village. Landing in it would have been disastrous from his covert perspective, but its proximity ensured that he was close to a usable road. Unwrapping his camera, the General hung it around his neck, completing his planned image. He’d dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, and the camera and tote bag completed his tourist attire. The next thing to emerge from his bag was a satellite phone, one he’d borrowed from a friend. After acquiring a signal, he dialed the number from memory and waited with decided unease as he heard it ring on the other end of the line. The line picked up on the third ring, and into the resulting silence the General repeated the phrase he’d been given, “Hi, Alex. I’m at the resort, just checked in. Where shall we meet?” With that, a sound much like static filled the line as General Bradson activated the encryption device that Yuri had given him. On the other end of the line, Yuri smiled dryly as he engaged his own encryption set, and into the now-secure line said, “I take it you have arrived safely. Are you at the port?” Yuri had assumed all along that General Bradson would be arriving by ferry. “I’m inland, in the north of the island. I’m near a village called Caculi. I can’t see it from here, but it’s about two thousand yards from me,” the General replied. Yuri’s eyes opened wide in surprise. He remained silent for a moment as he tried to figure out how the General had gotten there, and why. Surprises were not something to be taken lightly in his line of work, but Yuri was not inclined to break security with potentially revealing chatter on a satellite phone, encrypted or not. Restraining his curiosity and figuring that he’d find out soon enough, Yuri said, “I know the place. There is a little square on the road, in the center of the village. You cannot miss it; there are only a handful of buildings. I will be there in approximately an hour.” Ending the call, Yuri glanced up at the disfigured face of The Scar. “Our guest has arrived, and he’s less than five kilometers to the north of us, in Caculi.” The Scar would have arched an eyebrow, if he had one. Instead, he asked rhetorically in a puzzled voice tinged with concern, “How did he get there? And why? That’s miles inland, in the middle of nowhere. It is also discomfortingly close to our location.” “I am eager to find that out myself. I told him an hour to give me time to approach with care. Perhaps he somehow found out where we are, and is displaying his prowess in this way?” Yuri speculated. Shrugging awkwardly with his one remaining arm, The Scar replied, “If so, we must find out how. Check him for tracking devices and then bring him here if you are certain it is prudent to do so.” Yuri strolled out of the ramshackle building, walking to the Land Rover sheltered beneath a copse of trees. Transferring his pistol from his waistband into his pocket, Yuri wondered again if the General’s inexplicable location portended trouble. Thinking it through as he wheeled out of the compound and onto the dusty, rutted track down the mountain, Yuri decided that if the General intended them ill, he would be unlikely to telegraph his intent via such an incongruous location. However, a vague ghost of lingering worry kept Yuri on edge. General Bradson checked his watch for the twentieth time, impatiently observing the passing minutes. At last, forty-five minutes had passed, and the General emerged from his thicket of trees under the clearing sky, and began a casual stroll downhill. Five minutes later, he arrived at an ill-kept dirt road, and turned left, unslinging his camera as he did so. General Bradson turned right as he reached the dirt road, and trying his best to look like a rubbernecking tourist out for a walk, he began pretending to shoot pictures during his unhurried stroll. The village square was nearly deserted in the mid-day heat, and the few locals about, accustomed to seeing the occasional tourist strolling around, paid General Bradson no heed as he walked to the square, and found himself a seat on a low stone wall, under a stunted tree. There, he ostensibly focused on his camera while keeping track of his surroundings, scrolling through menus via the LCD screen, which helped pass the time and fit well with his current cover. Yuri returned to his Land Rover after making a wary reconnaissance of the village from the nearest tree line. He’d spotted General Bradson, sitting right where he was supposed to be. What Yuri hadn’t seen was any sign of trouble. Deciding that he’d taken every reasonable precaution, Yuri drove the remaining five hundred yards to the village square. Putting on an act of his own, Yuri pulled to a stop a dozen feet from General Bradson and sounded a couple of beeps on his horn as he waved. The General approached, playing the roll of meeting an expected ride from a friend, and together the two left the dusty village behind. Not wasting any time on formalities or any attempt at concealment, Yuri placed a small black box on the center console, nestling it into the vehicle’s cup holder. The General knew what it was: a bug scanner, to detect any transmissions from a listening device. He had no objections. Absent any warning red light on his detector, Yuri felt free to speak. “Welcome, General. I trust that you had a pleasant journey?” Yuri said, hoping to prompt the General to explain his mysterious arrival. Knowing full well what Yuri was after, General Bradson decided to make him work for it a little, thinking that it would serve as a gauge of Yuri’s professionalism. “Fine, thank you. I had a very pleasant flight,” the General said in a relaxed, conversational tone. “A flight? There is no commercial service to this island and the one small airport is many miles north of where you were,” Yuri replied, feeling slightly relieved. In his opinion, if there were anything untoward going on, the General would have lied rather than giving perplexing answers. “I couldn’t take a commercial flight due to the passport issue, couldn’t risk my government tracking me,” General Bradson replied, as he studied Yuri for any reaction. Yuri mulled over the General’s reply for a few moments. If he had to avoid going through any form of government checkpoint, that left few options. Yuri took his eyes off the dirt road to give General Bradson a puzzled look. “Some friends dropped me off. LALO,” the General said, pronouncing the acronym as a word. As a former Spetznaz – Soviet Special Forces – Yuri knew what HALO was. High Altitude, Low Opening: a method for covert aerial insertion where the jump occurred at high altitude but the parachute was not opened until the jumper was close to the ground. Yuri recognized the term ‘LALO’ as a variation: Low Altitude Low Opening. A risky procedure at the best of times, and one he had, until that moment, been sure the General was not trained in. There was nothing in his available record to indicate otherwise. After digesting the information, Yuri asked, “Any chance you were seen?” Satisfied that Yuri had the knowledge, and thus the likely experience, to understand the veiled replies, General Bradson replied, “Unlikely. We came in under the radar in a small business jet. The valley floor had a fog cover, and I delayed opening until I was in it.” That reply sent an unwelcome shudder down Yuri’s spine. Having jumped in limited visibility on one occasion due to an aircraft fire during his paratrooper training, Yuri knew the dangers involved in such a near-blind landing all too well., The idea of jumping from an unfamiliar, unequipped jet was almost as disturbing. Breaking into a sincere smile, Yuri said, “General, that was very creative. Dangerous, but creative. I admire that.” Answering with only a nod, the General relaxed a little and paid careful attention to the passing scenery, committing it to memory. Arriving at the fifth resort, which was situated on the island’s rugged west coast, Eric liked what he saw: a private, gated compound in an isolated location, and according to its website, right on the sea. Surrounded by palm and banana trees, hemmed in by the sheer, looming volcanic mountainsides inland, the resort’s location couldn’t, in Eric’s opinion, be better. The style was to his liking: Old Spanish, with terra-cotta tile roofs and low buildings strung out around courtyards. It looked luxurious without being formal – Eric had no love of formality – and it just felt right. He was happy with it as he toured a selection of suites and standard rooms, the restaurants, and then the various swimming pools. His mood lasted until the manager led them across the lawn to a separate building, which he said was their reception hall, and let them in. Eric walked a few feet past the opened door and stopped cold. His mood changed in a heartbeat, from happy to ecstatic, as he took in the reception hall. It wasn’t a hall at all. The entrance door was at one corner of an enormous rectangle, measuring one hundred feet by two hundred feet. Arching across one corner and covering a third of the area was an open-beam tile roof. In the back of the covered area was a formal, old-world bar, and on the tile floor a scattering of small tables surrounded by chairs. Under the apex of the arch of roof, just back from the edge, was a circular hardwood dance floor twenty feet in diameter. The entire area was open to the rest of the rectangle, an area that glittered in the sunlight. The tiles ran out past the roof, continuing to the edge of a large swimming pool, which formed the seaward side of the rectangle. The seaward side was a ‘disappearing edge’, where the pool waters cascaded over a wall on the far side, which from Eric’s vantage point gave the illusion of this pool blending into the sea. The small deck and railing beyond the pool were hidden from Eric’s angle, so the illusion was spectacular, almost magical. The effect was stunning, doubly so in that it managed to mask the fact that the pool was over a hundred feet above sea level. Two small fountains bubbled at the closer end, but Eric paid those no heed; he was far more interested in the dance floor, the bar, and the absolutely perfect setting. Thinking of one last detail, he asked the hovering manager, “What about at night? Do you have tiki torches, and stuff to keep the bugs away?” Nodding in the affirmative, the manager replied, “Yes, sir, we do, and insects aren’t much of a problem here. We also have experienced bartenders and in-house specialty-catering. There is a built-in multichannel digital sound system or we can also provide a quartet of strolling violinists and other formal accouterments–” Eric had no interest in strolling violinists or other formal claptrap, so he, in his excitement, cut the manager off and said, “Could you wait for us at the front desk? I need to talk to my friends alone for a minute.” Wondering what that was all about, but knowing better than to ask, the manager replied with a courteous, “Of course, sir,” and then turned smartly on his heel and departed. As soon as the manager was gone, Eric turned to Jim and Linda. “So, what do you think? I think it’s perfect!” Eric exclaimed with ill-concealed excitement. Jim was the first to reply, “From a security standpoint, the location and layout are excellent. The way the suites are laid out in separate little buildings means more ground to cover, but other than that, it’s ideal from a security perspective. The resort is big enough to house all your guests, assuming you made tentative reservations?” Grinning like a cat who had just dined on a canary, Eric replied, “Yeah, I did. I held a slate of rooms open at each of my candidate resorts. It’s off-season and two weeks away, so they did it, no problem. Thanks for the reminder; I’ll need to cancel the others. This place is perfect for the party, don’t you think?” Jim and Linda both nodded. Linda took another look around before saying, “I’m sure they’ll love it. It’s got a unique feel, not like the conference rooms at the other places, and I think the pool is a big plus. Yeah, this looks like a great place for a party! So, what do you have in mind? I’m betting it’s something wild.” After swearing them both to secrecy, barely able to restrain himself, Eric said, “Yeah, I sure do. I’ve got a couple of surfers who happen to be professional male exotic dancers working up a good act, really classy, not the cheesy stuff. They’ll be covered as bartenders probably, and I think Brandon and Chase will love ‘em; they’ve got the look they both like. There’s a bar, we’ll have music, food…” “And strippers,” Linda finished Eric’s sentence with a chuckle. Jim gave a disgruntled snort, and then complained in a good-natured way, “Male strippers. Damn, that’s not the kind of entertainment I was hoping for.” Laughing, Eric punched Jim lightly in the arm. “Yeah, Jon feels the same. Don’t worry, it won’t be anything raunchy. And this place is perfect for ‘em, got a dance floor and everything.” Nodding, Linda asked, “Is this for the wedding too?” Shaking his head, still focused on the party, Eric replied, “Nah, they want to get married on the beach.” That, Eric thought in passing, was another good point for this resort: it had a beach. Taking one last look around the misnamed reception hall, Eric said, “Let’s go make the arrangements and check in. Do you guys like this place, for your honeymoon I mean? If not, I’ll get you a place anywhere else you like.” Exchanging delighted, lingering smiles with her new husband, Linda replied, “This will be perfect, Eric! I love it! I’ve always wanted to stay at a place like this, but never thought I would.” By the time Eric had gone to the front desk and handled the reception hall and related bookings, it was time to check in. Eric took the liberty of giving Jim and Linda a suite for their honeymoon, rather than the regular room they were expecting. Once they were all in their rooms, it was already late in the day and jetlag was becoming an ever-increasing factor. Eric settled in and checked his to-do list. He now had the top items all taken care of: the party venue, the resort bookings, and the catering – the resort was providing the latter. That left him a few major details, such as ground transportation and other support services. He still had to make air arrangements, but that could be accomplished just as easily from home. Further down Eric’s list were the wedding items he’d thought of: a location, and catering. He now found himself able to cross off both. Eric then made a round of calls to cancel his reservations at the other resorts. Fatigue winning out in the end, Eric climbed onto the bed and was asleep within minutes. The following day went by in a blur; he didn’t have much time left. His return flight to the U.S. was scheduled for that evening and so he tried to prioritize: setting to work on the ground transportation first. He’d never handled anything of this nature before, so he overlooked the obvious solution: get the resort concierge to help. Instead, Eric consulted the phone book, which he discovered was printed in Spanish, which he did not speak at all. He remedied that in part by calling information, but this all took time. By early afternoon, he had the limousines and taxis booked, but nothing else. With only hours remaining, Eric slumped at his desk, having grown heartily sick of the phone and the frustrations of the language barrier. He decided to take a break for a few minutes, to clear his head. Standing up, he stretched, and then began digging in his small duffle bag for a pair of shorts. Wearing just a pair of boardies, Eric strolled through the resort, heading for one of the many sprawling swimming pools he’d seen. Enjoying the warm caress of the sun and sultry air on his bare skin, Eric arrived at the pool, finding it almost deserted. He kept walking, not breaking his stride, using his last step to launch into a hands-first dive into the cool blue water. Surfacing, squinting against the reflected glare, treading water, trying to relax, Eric brushed his hair back away from his face. At that moment, he realized what it was he was looking at, and launched into a freestyle crawl to cover the intervening dozen yards. An arm’s length from the pool’s sunken bar, Eric slowed, raised his head, and parked himself on one of the bar’s underwater stools. The bartender was ready and waiting, “What can I get you, Señor? He asked. With visions of a tall piña colada filling his thoughts, Eric opened his mouth to order, when his gaze fell upon a bottle in a rack behind the bar. The label was a familiar one: José Cuervo, one of Eric’s favorite brands of tequila. Without conscious direction, his tongue traced his lips, and the observant bartender asked, “Tequila, sir? Perhaps a margarita or a tequila sunrise?” Eric opened his mouth, only to close it again, as desire did battle with his conscience. ‘Who’s gonna know,’ he thought, ‘I’m alone, and one drink can’t hurt.’ Standing next to the Land Rover he’d just parked, Yuri let General Bradson have a moment to glance around. The General made full use of it. The first thing he noticed was that the ‘compound’ was nothing of the kind; located on high, relatively flat ground, it was simply a small semi-cleared area of a hundred yard’s length, containing patches of overgrown weeds interspersed by low grass, all of it unevenly hemmed in by the surrounding forest and jagged mountains. A few decrepit buildings dotted the perimeter, and off to the side, partially sheltered by some trees, stood a small obstacle course. Near the far end of the ovoid clearing, the General saw a few shredded targets propped up by sticks. One small house, with peeling paint and a crooked door, stood further back. The only other things to catch his eye were a few rickety storage sheds. The General felt near-instant despair; this was nothing like the professional establishment he’d been led to expect. Quite literally on cue, Felecia – the commander of the mercenaries General Bradson had encountered in the Cayman Islands – broke cover, standing up in her shaggy Ghillie suit in the middle of weed patch less than a dozen feet from General Bradson’s side. “Good to see you again, General,” she said, smiling politely at him over the barrel of the sniper rifle she had trained on his head. General Bradson, momentarily startled by Felecia’s sudden appearance, knew instantly that if they wanted him dead, there was nothing he could do. Turning to face Felecia, he glanced at her Ghillie suit and nodded approvingly as he said, “Nice to see you again, Fel.” It was the Ghillie suit, not the rifle pointing at his head, that now held the General’s attention. It was obviously modified, due to having varied tufts of the local weeds painstakingly attached to its thick matting of burlap strands, giving Felecia the appearance of a weed-covered lump. When lying prone, she’d been virtually undetectable. What impressed the General the most was the degree of customization; it took hours to do, and bespoke of a meticulous and professional sniper. Her first point made, Felecia lowered her rifle. Standing at parade rest, she said, “This facility does not look like much, and there’s a reason for that, sir. The local government turns a blind eye to us, so long as we pay them to do so and keep a low profile. Our storage and transshipping operations are elsewhere. For the kind of work we do, this serves us well for a training facility. Now, General, do you remember Horst and Wilhelm, my platoon leaders who you met in Grand Cayman?” The nature of the question, combined with the apparent absence of Horst and Wilhelm, made the General suspect that he was about to be treated to a further demonstration of prowess. Felecia’s smile was confirmation enough, so the General decided to try to impress her with some prowess of his own. The only problem with that plan was that he had little experience with ground operations, so he was slightly out of his depth. Thinking it through, he glanced to Felecia’s right and left, eyeing the nearer clumps of weeds, but seeing no indication that the men were there. He knew they couldn’t be behind him; if they were, they would be in Felecia’s field of fire and visa versa. The Generals’ mind raced. ‘No, a circular firing squad would not be a good way to impress me. They aren’t stupid. So, they are somewhere to her sides, a distance apart, and close,’ he thought. Taking his best guess, the General looked at Felecia. “The clump to your left, ten yards out, and the one ten feet over.” Felecia shoved the hood of her suit back, and spared a moment to shake out her long, black hair. Giving the General a nod, she said, “Yes on one of ‘em sir, but you didn’t see him, you reasoned it out. Not bad for a flyboy and desk-jockey, but you fucked up. You made a bad assumption; that all three of us are in Ghillie suits. Look up.” Looking skyward into the tree, General Bradson took a few moments to find what he was looking for, and found himself staring down the barrel of an AK-47, held by Wilhelm, who was wearing standard camouflage fatigues and ensconced in a thick clump of leaves and branches. It had been a perfect set-up; they’d known that Yuri would park under the tree, and had taken positions accordingly. Felecia, however, had one more surprise to give. “Break Cover!” she yelled in a voice accustomed to command. A muffled thud to his left caused the General to turn, and he had to concentrate to appear unruffled as he saw three rocket-propelled grenade launchers aimed in his general direction from five feet away. Far too close to be useful against him, but that, he knew, wasn’t the point of this new demonstration. The sound he’d heard was a foxhole cover being tossed aside. It was just weeds stapled to plywood, but it had been very effective and expertly emplaced. Beyond that foxhole, he saw seven others staggered back across forty yards in a rough arc, each containing three men, some with AK-47’s, but two with 50-caliber machine guns. Remembering his lessons from the Air Force Academy, General Bradson nodded approvingly. “Well done. Expert concealment and a classic fire sack, per Soviet Tactical Doctrine.” With more than a little pride, Felecia strode forward. Coming to a halt beside General Bradson, she said, “We’ve got two platoons, organized into squads under Horst and Wilhelm. All ex-groundpounders and they know their shit. I’ve made damn sure of it. Most of ‘em have worked with us before at one time or another. We’re training up, and we’ll be ready.” It did not escape the General's notice that the size of the force was over twice what he'd requested, and also appeared to be made up of well-trained conventional ground troops rather than the special-operations types that he needed. Yuri took Felecia aside a few paces, and once out of the General’s earshot he gave Felicia a brief rundown on General Bradson’s airborne arrival. Returning to the General’s side, Felecia gave him an apprising glance. “I don’t impress easy, and your jump isn’t enough to do it, but it’s a start,” Felecia said, as she reached into her Ghillie suit and retrieved a small blue object. She handed it to General Bradson, and he flipped it open to see his picture in what looked to be an authentic U.S. passport. “It was a test,” General Bradson said, stating the obvious. Nodding, Felecia replied, “You bet your ass it was, and it won’t be the last. I needed to see if you were as hotshot a thinker and tactician as I’d been told, so I figured I’d hold onto this passport and see if you could find a way to get here. So far, so good. But this doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to going in with us on the ground. You’ve got to earn that, to my satisfaction, and you haven’t got a chance in hell. I can’t afford to haul any deadweight brass along.” “I’ll do whatever it takes,” General Bradson replied, noticing that the word ‘sir’ had disappeared from Felecia’s vocabulary. Felecia said with a shrug, “Fair enough, your funeral. For a start, you’re going running with us in the morning. Then we’re going to do a mission, one platoon against the other. Alpha platoon will be the defender and pick the ground. Bravo will attack. You’ll accompany Bravo. I’m warning you, I’ll put you through hell and wash you out the first time you can’t cut it. We need you in the air, not on the ground.” “You need me in both. This is my mission and I’ll be in command. That’s my son they’ve got, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the guy paying for this damn party,” General Bradson said, his own temper beginning to show. One option that he had was to explain the tactical plan, which amongst other things made staying in the air decidedly unwise. Toying with that thought, he dismissed it, preferring to earn his billet, and the respect that doing so would hopefully entail. With a dismissive wave, Felicia walked away, saying over her shoulder, “We’ll see, but my men are under my command no matter what. At most, you have overall command and I’ve got a veto on the tactical and operational side, and that’s final. You’re paying us to do a mission, not take your over-the-hill ass joyriding.” Eric’s inner battle raged, but only long enough for him to remember giving his word. Stifling his desires, Eric sighed. “Make it a piña colada, extra rum, thanks.” A minute later, Eric had the oversized drink, topped with the cliché paper parasols, in hand. Discarding the trimmings, he climbed out of the pool and made his way across the hot concrete to a deck chair. There, he sprawled out in the hot sun, his tan skin still glistening from the pool, and finally relaxed a little as he took a drink of his cocktail. The bite of rum was, in his opinion, perfect, and a good sign that the bartender knew his business. After reaching the bottom of his piña colada, Eric stretched back, soaking up the sun for a while, trying not to dwell on how much he still had to do, and how little time he had left in which to do it. The rum, combined with the warm breeze and jetlag, compounded by the relaxing gurgling of a nearby fountain, soon had their effect, and Eric, ever so softly, began to snore. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  4. Chapter 14: Prelude to Battle Irked by Felecia’s attitude towards the General, the display of which had occurred in spite of Yuri’s demands, Yuri led General Bradson towards the tree line. The two men walked for a minute before Yuri said, “She’s a hard one. Our deal with her is that she decides if a mission is workable, who goes on it, and how it is executed. She’s good enough that we put up with her in spite of her arrogant manner. However, you will go on the ground mission, that much I can promise.” General Bradson arched an eyebrow in Yuri’s direction. For the first time, his contact had let slip the mask of professionalism, letting his feelings show through. The General could easily tell that Yuri did not like Felecia. It was, however, equally apparent that Yuri’s employer was willing to over-rule Felecia on the issue. ‘They must know I’d pay either way, so why?’ he wondered. Fifty yards into the trees, a row of bare-wood bunkhouses came into view. Yuri explained, “This compound was once a banana plantation. It failed years ago, but the worker’s bunkhouses and a few other buildings survived. You will be bunking with the troops, per Felicia’s orders, in the end bunkhouse, first cot on the left. Get some rest and we’ll talk again after dinner.” Patting his small bag, General Bradson said, “The only cargo room I had was the reserve ‘chute casing. I’ve got a couple of clean shirts and underwear which I used to cushion my gear, but I’ll be needing some fatigues and clean clothes, judging by what Felicia said.” “I can take care of that. I’ll make sure you have what you need. I’ll be back when dinner is ready. You will be dining with my employer and I tonight. The rest of your meals will be with the men.” Yuri turned back for the clearing, and General Bradson, feeling very much alone, climbed a creaky set of wooden stairs to enter the musty, ramshackle bunkhouse. The clatter of vibrating bottles from the bar, accompanied by the buzz of his empty glass on the trembling table beside him, intruded on his nap, and Eric cocked open an eye to see one of the resort guests flopping around in the pool. It took a few moments for Eric to realize that he’d been asleep, and he remained unaware of what had actually awakened him. “Fucking jetlag,” he muttered as he stood up and looked at his watch. He let out a short sigh of relief; he’d been asleep for less than half an hour. Breaking into a run, Eric sprinted for a vacant section of the pool. Diving in and swimming underwater, he enjoyed the cool water for a few moments, before swimming to the side and hauling himself out of the pool. Checking his watch again, he abandoned his prior plan to check out the beach, and instead jogged back to his room, heading straight for the desk. Still dripping slightly, he began calling around to find a party supply store that spoke English. An hour later, Eric hung up the phone for the last time and checked his scribbled notes. He’d found a party supply store and a bakery, and while doing so, had mentally kicked himself for not thinking to make the phone calls from Los Angeles. Phones he could use anytime, but his time on the ground had proven more limited than he’d expected. Throwing on some clothes, Eric then gathered up his bag and notes. On his way to the front desk and the waiting taxi, he stopped to say goodbye to Jim and Linda. “Call me and let me know what you need me to do,” Jim said as Eric turned to leave a few minutes later. “Will do,” Eric said, though he had no intention of doing so until Jim and Linda had a few days of uninterrupted honeymoon. Eric enjoyed the taxi ride, noticing immediately that they were not taking the route by which he’d arrived: through the center of the island. Instead, due to the resort being closer to the southern tip of the island than the road across the center, the taxi climbed the switchbacks up to the highway which encircled the southern half of the island, and then proceeded almost due east before heading north towards the airport. Eric found himself lost in the magnificent views of the sea to his right and the multiple stark, malevolent cones of the volcanic range to his left. At the party supply store an hour and a half later, not far from the airport, Eric picked out as many corny items as he could, ranging from paper hats to assorted noisemakers. He added a few rolls of streamers and a box of confetti poppers, paid, and arranged for it to be delivered to the resort. The next stop was a bakery a mile away. The nearest parking was a hundred yards from the bakery, and the driver led Eric on foot through the narrow cobblestone streets and paths. Eric relaxed a little, knowing that he now had a little time to spare. He slowed down, really looking around the quaint streets and, seeing the Mediterranean architecture, reveling in the novelty of it all. The buildings and streets felt dusty and unkempt to him, but a closer look revealed that the buildings were well maintained, and it was only the fine grey patina of fresh volcanic ash that had settled on the buildings and cars that gave them their initial poor first impression. With that realization came another; that he really was in a strange and foreign place, one where he was not widely known, and thus somewhat free to walk around, enjoying the everyday freedom that fame so oft denied to celebrities. The walk to the little bakery, which was over all too soon for Eric’s liking, made him regret the fact that he had to leave. He resolved, then and there, to make some time when he returned, time in which to enjoy the island and the freedom it offered. Strolling into the little bakery, Eric smelled fresh bread and felt his stomach growl, which reminded him that he’d forgotten to have lunch. The conservation with the baker proved difficult due to the man’s broken English, until Eric called the taxi driver in to translate. After that, things went much faster and he soon had his order in for the cakes. He’d picked fruitcake and banana nut bread, wondering who would be the first to get the joke. Eric wished he’d had a camera to capture the baker’s expression when the taxi driver had translated the instructions for the decorations. His stomach growling again, Eric wrapped up the order and headed for the sandwich shop next door. There, he again had the driver translate, and ordered a pork sandwich on foccacia bread, which he ate in the cab on the way to the airport, deciding that it was pretty good. What was better was the fact that he’d been able to walk in off the street and have a sandwich, a simple pleasure that his life of fame had denied him for years. Within the hour, he was back on board the Learjet, westward bound. When General Bradson was called to dinner, he followed Yuri up the steps of the ramshackle house. Raised two feet off the ground, the home, which had once been that of the plantation owner, was a single-story rectangular affair, built fifty years before. The paint job, what was left of it, looked older still. Entering through the ill-fitting front door, the General walked across the buckled wooden floor, as Yuri led them to a room at the back of the house. The scent of roast pork wafted in from the kitchen, where one of the mercenaries – the only one, other than Felecia, allowed in the house, and in his case ostensibly due to his skills in the kitchen ­– was preparing the meal. Yuri ushered the General into what had once been a formal dining room. The echoes of past splendor were there, if one looked closely enough: a few shreds of velvet wallpaper, the remains of a plasterwork cornice, and the broken stubs of wall sconces. Where once had hung a modest chandelier, now a bare bulb shone harshly in its stead, casting an unsteady light as it swayed slightly in the breeze emanating from a lone ancient, clattering portable fan. The dining table was bare wooden planking, etched by time and careless use. Yuri pulled out a chair and waved the general to it with an exaggerated, ostentatious flourish. Once the General was seated, Yuri settled in beside him. Lowering his voice, Yuri said, “My employer will be joining us. This is his home when he is here, and mine as well. I must warn you, his appearance can be somewhat… surprising. He survived an airplane crash not long ago.” Having seen more than his share of burned and disfigured pilots, the General knew what to ask. “How does he prefer to deal with the matter?” “He is very open about it. Just be up front, do not try to politely ignore his condition.” Nodding, the General replied, “Thanks for the heads up.” A soft shuffling sound heralded the arrival of their host, and General Bradson looked up. In the room’s entryway, he saw a modestly built man, wearing slacks and a button-down shirt. From the neck down, the man’s appearance was unremarkable, save for the pinned sleeve that covered the stump of his missing right arm. From the neck up was a far different story; a face that looked as though it had been dipped in melted wax to the point of being a caricature of human visage, and then the wax had contracted, like the wrinkled skin of a shriveled orange. Earless, no eyebrows, no visible hair of any sort and with skin a mottled patchwork of grafts and scar tissue, the man’s appearance left the General, who had encountered aviators bearing similar disfigurements, with no reason to doubt that he was looking at the survivor of a horrific, fiery crash. Having paused to allow the General to get a good look, The Scar entered the room and took his accustomed seat at the head of the table. Acting the part of a gracious host, The Scar bowed his head slightly in the General’s direction. “Pleased to meet you face to face, General Bradson. I must commend you on your means of arrival. You are indeed a man of unanticipated talents.” The Scar said, his ruined lips giving him a slight lisp. Taking the compliment, for indeed that was what it was, General Bradson chose his words with care. “It is good to meet you as well. I am grateful that you have agreed to be in my employ for the rescue of my son and his squad mate. How do you prefer that I address you?” The Scar took no obvious note of the General’s verbal attempt at establishing an employer-employee relationship. “We are pleased to be working with you, General. As you may imagine, we do not use real names in our line of work. Many of my people use a first name only, real or fictitious. I prefer to eschew such subtle subterfuge. You may address me as the boss, the commander, or even by my recently acquired nickname, Scar. I’m sure you can work out the reasoning for the latter.” The General nodded, fully realizing that his verbal maneuver had been countered and turned back upon him. He was not surprised; he’d expected a man in his host’s position to be skilled at the art of verbal manipulation. “Then I shall call you ‘Scar’. I was very impressed with the display your people put on for me when I arrived. Professionally done. I am, however, perplexed; why was the passport not sent to me? Were you a party to Felecia’s test?” The thin parchment of his skin wrinkling slightly as he attempted to smile, The Scar replied, “Yes, in a way. We only procured it a few days ago. To be frank, we did see the need to test your skill at unconventional thinking. However, it was not so much a test as you imagine. Felecia’s intent was to disbar you from the ground mission. She does not know it, but that is something I will not countenance. We need your tactical skill and knowledge where they will do the most good. Allowing you to display your resourcefulness should blunt further objections from Felecia. I am, regrettably, somewhat constrained by her. She holds the loyalty of her men and thus she can effectively countermand my orders in some regards. She is, however, the best at what she does, so I must put up with her eccentricities, to a degree. I would prefer that you try to meet her requirements, but rest assured, General, you have already done so in my eyes.” Deciding that he’d get no further on that particular conversational tack, General Bradson replied, in an attempt at flattery, “Thank you, Scar. You seem to have things well in hand, which is quite an accomplishment for a one-armed man.” The Scar’s face crinkled a little more and he let out a slight laugh. “Well said, General. I think we shall get along, you and I. As for Felecia, I will do what I can to see that she does not make your training too unbearable.” “I do need to get back in shape, but I think I can cope. If I can win the respect of her and her men, things will go a lot more smoothly than if I go along by fiat. Besides, I’m sure she can teach me a thing or two about ground combat,” the General replied, meaning every word. With a slow awkwardness, The Scar raised his arm and snapped his fingers twice. The chef, wearing combat fatigues, appeared in an instant, and began serving the meal. General Bradson could not help but notice that in spite of the harsh conditions, the service included fine china and sterling cutlery. When the main course of roast pork and mashed sweet potato was served, The Scar waited as the chef sliced the pork on The Scar’s plate into bite-sized cubes. Wondering what response he’d get, the General said, “I’ve worked with many newly-disabled aviators. You seem to be adjusting very well, given your apparently recent accident. If I may ask, what happened?” With a one-shouldered shrug, The Scar replied, “Helicopter accident, about a year ago. Just a ferry flight, but the tail rotor failed. You can see the results. I am most fortunate to be alive.” With a smile that concealed his slight surprise, General Bradson committed that incongruous comment to memory for future reference and replied, “Life throws us all a curve from time to time.” Getting down to business, General Bradson asked, “We do need to discuss operational resources. I need to know; can you acquire a C-130 that is at or near the end of its service life? It only needs to get to the target, nothing more...” The General proceeded to give The Scar a rough list of needed supplies and munitions. Nodding, The Scar replied in a confident tone, “I have three C-130 Hercules transports available. One is well past its useful life but it can be made airworthy enough for a flight. The rest should prove no problem. However, the need for eight thousand empty mayonnaise jars perplexes me greatly. What is your operational concept, General?” “I’m still hashing out the details. I needed to know about the resources available first. I’ll have an outline in a couple of days. I will also need a way to receive a shipment, containing no illegal or restricted goods, from the States. I’ll need internet access for e-mail in order to receive intelligence information and other updates, including weather,” the General replied. He already had a detailed plan, but saw no reason to disclose it. Sitting with her men, clustered around several campfires, Felecia dug into an MRE – Meal Ready to Eat – pack, and as she ate, she told Wilhelm, “Tomorrow we’re doing a field exercise. The stated objective is for Horst to hold a defensive point against your attack, but the real mission is that the General fails. I’d put the chances of him succeeding at close to zero, but your job is to make sure. I’ll be directing Horst’s operations, so you’ve got to do it, understood?” Wilhelm’s nod of agreement and icy gaze clearly indicated that he did. After dinner, The Scar bade the General goodnight, and stood by the door as the General headed for his barracks. Once the General was out of sight, The Scar said, “Yuri, he’ll be out training tomorrow, correct?’ “Yes, and that will give me time to examine his belongings. He’s clean on a bug sweep, but beyond that I cannot yet say,” Yuri replied. As he stared into the darkness, The Scar nodded with approval. “That will do. Remember, we cannot alienate him, so we must be discreet. Also, make sure to bring up monetary matters with him soon. He will be expecting that, and it will appear odd if we do not. Any reasonable terms will do, just do not make him suspicious. Better, I think, to appear a little greedy. He would expect that of mercenaries, no?” During the long flight back to Los Angeles, Eric waited until after the refueling stop to visit the cockpit. Gazing out through the windshield at the slightly curved horizon, Eric looked at the gradated sky above it, shifting from the familiar light blues seen from the surface to the much darker shades above. “Why is the sky so dark at high altitude?” Eric asked, sincerely curious, but also seeking to start a conversation for other purposes. The pilot tapped on the glass before replying, “Pressure, mainly. We’re at forty thousand feet, so most of the atmosphere’s mass is below us. Most of the atmosphere is nitrogen, which absorbs green and red light better than it does blue, so we’re left with the blue tint we see in the sky from the surface. At high altitude, the air is far thinner, so there’s less of that effect and the blackness of space shows through more. Back when I was in the Air Force, I was at twice this altitude a few times. The sky is nearly pure black, much like the pictures you see of the horizon when taken from orbit. The horizon looks a lot more curved, too.” “Did you know General Bradson when you were in the Air Force,” Eric asked, taking the opening the pilot had given him, and then adding, “And did he get to wherever he was going okay?” The pilot was put off-balance by Eric's occasional habit of changing the subject mid-sentence. Not wanting to lie to his client, the pilot replied with poorly-concealed unease, “I didn’t know General Bradson when I was in the service, and all I can say about the rest is that we did what he asked us to.” Eric didn’t know the pilot well enough to read him, but the man’s reaction had spoken volumes. The co-pilot’s sudden attempt to appear disinterested and aloof was a further clue, enough to make Eric wonder what had transpired. “I just want to know that he arrived okay, you can tell me that much, can’t you?” Eric asked. The pilot prevaricated. “All I can tell you is that we did as we were asked, and as far as we know he’s okay.” Squinting his eyes slightly, Eric weighed the pilot’s words. Based on the two men’s evident evasions, Eric had a strong hunch that whatever had happened was not as simple as flying the General to an airport and him walking away. Becoming suspicious, Eric decided to feign ignorance. “Thanks, I’m glad he’s okay. So, any bad weather ahead?” “Nah, clear skies, radar’s clear and no NOTAMs – that means Notice to Airmen, a kind of weather bulletin – for our route, other than a southerly dip in the Jet Stream giving us some headwinds and a little delay. We should be clear all the way to landing,” the pilot said in a more relaxed tone, relieved that the conversation had taken a less awkward tack. Eric did not fail to note the subtle change in the pilot’s voice, and guessed accurately at its meaning. Returning to his seat, Eric put his headphones back on and cranked up the volume, staring out the window as he mulled over the evidence. The pilot and co-pilot were hiding something, of that much he was sure. Why? That was the part which puzzled him. Why couldn’t they just flat-out say he arrived okay? After thinking it over, Eric settled on three possibilities. The first was that something bad, like an arrest at the destination airport, had occurred. The second was that the pilot and co-pilot had betrayed the General, maybe by tipping off the authorities as to his arrival. The third was that they literally didn’t know if the General had arrived safely. Eric didn’t much like any of those conclusions. He didn’t know the General well, but Eric had taken an instinctive like to the man almost from the beginning. Eric also sympathized with a father who was just trying to save his son. Thinking over the pilot’s words, Eric dismissed the idea of betrayal on the grounds that had anything untoward occurred, the pilot would have lied rather than evade. If the pilot wasn’t lying, Eric decided, then he was likely being truthful when he said that as far as he knew, the General had arrived okay. That left the third option: that the pilot and co-pilot didn’t know if the General had arrived safely. ‘How could they not know? They couldn’t just lend him the plane or how could they have gotten it back?’ Eric wondered as the mystery deepened. Staring out at the ocean eight miles below, Eric ran through the pilot’s words again, trying to figure out what had occurred. Nothing that he could think of fit to his satisfaction, so Eric, being Eric, decided he’d dig a little more later. One avenue, he knew, was the air charter company’s bill; he’d see how many air-hours were being charged. Given that, he assumed, he’d be able to figure out how many hours of flying time it took to take the General to his destination and get back to La Palma. Eric had decided to snoop, but he justified it to himself as concern for a man who, while not yet a friend, was a person he had grown to like. Early the next morning, a severely winded General Bradson accompanied Felecia as they joined the other mercenaries for breakfast and coffee in the tropical dawn, after a three-mile run. Taking a seat on a rock, Felecia told the General, “Well, sir, you’re in even worse shape than I thought. You weren’t even wearing a field pack and you couldn’t keep up with us.” Struggling to control his labored breathing, General Bradson replied, “Give me a week and I’ll keep pace with you. In any case, I’m not planning on running far while on the ground in Iran. My plan doesn’t call for it.” Felecia’s derisive laughter filled the air. “Bullshit and you damn well know it. You can’t guarantee that everything will go according to plan. Hell, you wrote a position paper three years ago, saying that any officer who relies on everything going according to plan is a fool or worse, because the battle plan is usually the very first casualty of a war.” Irked at being hoisted so neatly by his own petard, General Bradson changed tack. “So you’ve read my work. I should have expected as much.” Felecia shrugged. “Most of your work, and the basis for your reputation as a brilliant tactician is in air combat doctrine, something that's usually of little interest to me. But, to get as far as you did, as fast as you did made your work required reading as far as I was concerned, so I've read most of your papers that aren't solely air-combat oriented.” Taken aback by the implied compliment, General Bradson conceded the point. “You’re right, of course. On a mission like this, things will go wrong. That’s why you need me on the ground. Here’s two reasons for you. The first is that I can do a better, faster job of adapting the plan if I’m on the ground with you, because I’ll have more accurate knowledge of the tactical situation if I’m in the midst of it.” Felecia fixed the General in her icy gaze. “That’s one. What’s the other?” “Your men are mercenaries. I do not doubt their skill, but they are fighting for money. What if somebody has to act as a rear guard to cover our escape? Under the circumstances, that would be a suicide mission. Can you be sure, really sure, that they would do as ordered, without hesitation? All our lives may well depend on it. One of the men we’re going in after is my son, so you could be certain that I’ll take the mission if the need arises, no matter the consequences to me.” “You’re wrong. I’d do that for my men if need be, and Horst and Wilhelm would do that for me,” Felecia replied with an irritated air. With a quick shake of his head, the General replied, “Listen to your own words. Horst and Wilhelm would do so for you, but what if you’re an early casualty? Then who is going to look after your men? I’m betting that you’ve never attempted a mission of this kind, not against odds like these. If you go down, are you sure, really sure, your people will complete the mission, or even make it back alive?” “Yes. I have total confidence in Horst and Wilhelm. We’ve been together for years, and we’ve had our share of risky missions. However, I’ll give you two ways to come on the mission. The first is that you keep pace with Wilhelm, one week from today, on a five-mile run carrying a fifty-pound pack. The second way is that you convince me that you’ll be a real asset on the ground. Otherwise, you stay in the air.” Felecia crossed her arms, her body language backing up her verbal objections with an air of finality, as she’d intended. General Bradson knew that he didn’t stand a chance in hell of keeping up with Wilhelm, who was superbly fit and half the General’s age. That left him two options; convince Felecia of his worth, or go on the mission via The Scar’s executive fiat. The latter would guarantee resentment, so the General resolved to try to prove himself. “That sounds reasonable. So, what’s today’s mission?” Flicking a thumb towards a small storage shed, Felecia stood up, stretched, and led General Bradson towards it. “It’s simple but useful. In essence, a game of ‘capture the flag’. Horst’s platoon will secure a defensive position, and Wilhelm’s objective will be to capture the flag by any means necessary. You’re going with Wilhelm and you’ll be his tactical advisor.” Felecia unlocked the shed’s rusty padlock and swung open the creaky tin door. General Bradson followed her into the small, dark shed, eyeing the rows of paintball guns occupying improvised racks on the walls. Inhaling the scent of guns, sweat, and steel, the General took note of the fact that the equipment looked well maintained but worn, as did the racks. That small detail was enough to confirm the General’s theory: Felecia’s force must be both permanent in nature and training often in this location. “We use paint ball guns for much of our tactical training. They work well to show a hit, and we don’t spook the locals with what sounds like a battle. It’s not like the national training center at Fort Irwin and its laser gear, but it does the job,” Felecia said as she stooped to open an old ammo can, and partially withdrew a triangular banner. The General looked in surprise at the well-worn Dallas Cowboys souvenir pennant. Felecia returned the flag to its place and closed the ammo can before saying, “I like it, so that’s what we use as a flag. The goal today is simple. After breakfast, me and Horst take his platoon out to set up its defensive position. Thirty minutes later, Wilhelm is free to leave the compound. Wilhelm’s objective is to get the flag and run it up the flagpole here in the compound before sundown. Horst’s objective is to stop him. The ammo can will be in the center of Horst’s position, in plain sight. Now, let’s go eat.” During breakfast, which the General uncharacteristically wolfed down, Felecia explained the casualty rules. “If you’re hit in an arm or leg, you can’t use that limb for the remainder of the exercise. If you’re hit with any paint in the head or torso, you’re a kill and that’s the end of it, you return to the barracks and wait. Clear?” General Bradson nodded once, and then asked in a carefully offhand way, “Any other rules?” Felecia gave the General a derisive snort. “No fucking way. This is a war drill, not a game. You’re limited to the equipment provided, but other than that, just what I’ve said. Something else for you to think about; the losing team gets to do a five-mile run. That gives ‘em motivation and it also means that they won’t like you much if you screw up. Tomorrow we’ll do the exercise over, with you and Wilhelm playing the defensive roll.” Nodding, General Bradson set down his plate. “I’ll get my notebook, if that’s allowed. I have some ideas jotted down that might come in useful, and I may want to write some things down for tomorrow.” Felecia said to the General’s retreating back, “You’re gonna get your brass ass kicked today no matter what you do, so a notebook is fine, all the better to record the details of your defeat.” Felecia had good reason to be confident; attacking a defensive position against an opponent with no qualitative edge usually required a three to one advantage in numbers. With two evenly matched teams, the advantage lay with the defense. The only person to have won an exercise against those odds was Felecia herself, an accomplishment that she planed to repeat the next day. Fifteen minutes later, Felecia assembled both platoons at the storage shed. She handed out the gear, each man receiving an identical loadout: one gun, four clips of ammo, and a face protector. Handing Horst the ammo can, she said, “Let’s move out.” She turned to face Wilhelm and said, “You can’t leave the compound for thirty minutes. After that, all’s fair in love and war. See you on Aardvark Hill.” Taking the point, Felecia led Horst and his platoon out of the compound, single-file. Watching Felecia’s team leave the compound and assuming that meant the General would be fully occupied for a while, Yuri slipped into the end bunkhouse, and made his way to the General’s footlocker. Using his own key, he unlocked it, and rifled through the General’s belongings. In the bottom of the locker, he found the General’s camera, GPS, radar detectors, and satellite phone. Sweeping them up, he took them to The Scar’s office. After laying out the General’s possessions on The Scar’s desk, Yuri said, “I do not understand why he has radar detectors. What can they be for?” With what passed for a smile, The Scar replied, “They would be for detecting radar, I assume. They appear to be standard multi-band automotive radar detectors. We’ll check their circuitry to be sure, but I expect to find that they have been modified to receive on different wavelengths, such as those used by air-search radar. Now, what have we here?” The Scar asked rhetorically, as he hefted the General’s camera and turned it on. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  5. Chapter 11: Morning Serenade The fog in Brandon’s head began to clear as he felt Eric’s earnest kiss deepen. Still reacting on instinct, Brandon reveled in the feel of Eric’s hot, tensing body and the intense sensations the hand in his jeans was busy creating. Brandon felt Eric begin to grind into him, so much like Chase in his passion. The sudden thought of Chase intruded on Brandon’s consciousness for a moment, and Brandon, thus torn between his conscious and unconscious desires, and still confused from the alcohol and head injury, made no immediate move to stop Eric. Eric, feeling the tequila burning in his veins, found himself aroused by the sensations of a body that was so much like his own, thrilled by the new and different experience, as the tequila blocked any thought of the future, or consequences. Given the pain they were threatening to cause, it was true irony that it proved to be pain that saved them. In his frantic contortions, Eric bumped his forearm into Brandon’s bruised ribs. Brandon shuddered from the sharp jolt of discomfort, and for a brief moment it cleared his mind just long enough for him to realize what he was doing, and more to the point, what he was risking. Chase’s image returned to his mind, and Brandon, knowing now that he had to stop, seized upon it, forcing himself to remember that Eric was not Chase, and that what was happening was nothing short of betrayal. Pulling his mouth free of Eric, Brandon gasped, “We can’t do this.” Driven by lust and instinct, not to mention tequila, Eric was in no mind to be denied. He pulled Brandon’s body in tight, moving in to resume the kiss as he said, “But you wanted to. It was your idea.” Shocked by Eric’s statement, Brandon realized how Eric could have taken his words. Pushing Eric away with more resolve, Brandon said, “No, you got it wrong, I didn’t mean me! Chase is your brother and my fiancé, we can’t do this!” The urgency of Brandon’s words and actions, combined with the mention of his brother’s name, were enough to fight the effects of the tequila, and Eric relaxed his grip, not fighting as Brandon eased back a few inches. The flood of realization of what had happened chilled him, and he said in a low, pained, voice, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I… I… just fucked up. What are we going to do?” Relaxing a little and relieved, still catching his breath, Brandon replied, “A good place to start would be taking your hand off my dick before I explode.” Suddenly aware of where he still had his hand, Eric snatched it out of Brandon’s jeans and rolled away, lying on his back, as the reality of what had occurred hit him in full force. Brandon, moving a little slower due to his injuries, settled into a more comfortable position. Both boys sat in silence, not knowing what to say or do, until the sound of the approaching bikers caught Brandon’s ear. He leaned over and in a desperate whisper told Eric, “We can’t let them find us like this…” Moving as one, Eric and Brandon edged as silently as possible into the proffered cover of some scrub oak and, not even daring to breathe, remained silent as the searching bikers passed by. Waiting until he felt it was safe, Brandon whispered, “We’ve got to get back fast. If Chase finds out what happened…” Brandon let his words trail off, not wanting to give voice to his fears. “Yeah, I don’t want to even think about that,” Eric said as he got to his feet. The dark, moon-splashed woods, once so accommodating, suddenly seemed filled with risk to the two guys, and they began walking towards the house. Before leaving the tree line, both guys brushed themselves off, checked that their jeans were buttoned, and walked purposefully towards the house, both unconsciously maintaining a discreet distance from the other. Brandon’s mind reeled, wondering how he could ever face Chase. In that moment, he knew that he’d have to tell him, at the right time. Eric, now largely free of the tequila’s influence, began to understand what he’d so nearly done; a betrayal of his brother, and permanent harm to someone he’d come to think of as like a brother. He knew that Brandon was in love with Chase, and that love was a fragile thing, one he’d nearly destroyed, less than two weeks before their marriage. Taking a glance at Brandon, and seeing the cold expression on his face, Eric wondered if things between himself and Brandon could ever be the same. In his heart, Eric feared that he’d poisoned their friendship forever. Of all the things he’d ever done on tequila, he easily judged this as the worst by far. Inside the house, Eric uncharacteristically shied away from the attention of the bikers, fending off inquires as to whether he was okay with a friendly nod. Brandon found Chase in the living room, and took a seat by his side. Chase immediately saw the bruises on Brandon’s rib cage and shot his boyfriend a concerned look before asking, “What happened? While you were gone with Eric, I heard about the fight. I didn’t know you’d been hurt. Are you okay? Did Eric do that?” Smiling wanly, Brandon replied, “I’m okay, and Eric’s fine. We pretty much just talked. I got jumped by a couple of bikers earlier, but everything’s okay now. They’re gone and out of the club. Maybe we should head home. I don’t know about you but I think I’ve had enough partying for one night.” Hearing something unsaid in Brandon’s words, Chase nodded in agreement, and they walked over to Jim to let him know they were going, and wishing him a great time for the remainder of his party. Jim looked uneasily at Brandon, assuming that the fight was the only reason they were leaving, but after receiving a reassuring nod, he let them go without any argument. As they walked out the door, Chase took a glance at Eric, reassuring himself that Eric looked sober enough. Chase caught Jon’s eye, and received an unspoken assurance that he’d keep an eye on Eric. Turning away, an old memory clicked again in Chase’s mind and he took one more look at Eric. Heading out the door, Chase walked with Brandon, close enough to smell his cologne. A cold silence settled between them – one that Brandon felt but didn’t know how to breech. Brandon’s mind raced, fueled by his guilty imagination, his fears haunting his thoughts as he wondered if Chase suspected something or was merely upset about the fight. Upon reaching their room, Brandon took a seat in a chair by the bed, and to breech the silence he said, “I’m sorry about the fight. I had no idea I’d be involved in anything like that. I was jumped. Jim and Mad Mike had my back so I was safe enough, but I’m sorry it happened.” Nodding, taking a seat in a nearby chair and making no attempt to move closer to Brandon, Chase eyed him and then asked as casually as he could muster, “How did things go with Eric? Have a good talk?” Shuddering inside a little, Brandon decided that now was not the time to broach that subject with Chase. Not meeting Chase’s eyes, Brandon said, “He’s okay. We talked for a while, and he came down off the tequila.” Sweeping his eyes across Brandon’s legs, seeing again the familiar torn denim, Chase nodded and shrugged. Then, with a calmness far from what he felt, he asked, “So, there’s no particular reason why you smell of Eric’s cologne and have pine needles all over your Levis, right?” Brandon’s sudden pallor was response enough to support Chase’s suspicions. In Los Angeles, Keith and Jansen rehearsed their act one more time, finally satisfied that they had gotten it right. It had taken longer than they’d thought; but they’d worked on it in their off hours. “I think Eric will love it,” Jansen said, with an odd sparkle in his eyes. Keith nodded. His one regret was that they were putting all this effort into a single job. He’d tried to convince their manager George to let them try out some of it at the club, but George had vetoed the idea. “Doesn’t fit the image,” he’d said, which to Keith gave further proof that George wanted cheesy, tacky acts, not something of quality. Still, they had little choice but to stick with George. He and his ilk seemed to be the only game in town. As the biker party wound down, Jon kept an eye on Eric, growing concerned about his drinking spree. Not tequila, a fact that made Jon breathe an inner sigh of relief, but whiskey, straight up, shot after shot. Eric was drinking to get drunk; something Jon had never seen him do before. Jon knew there must be a reason, and suspected that it was something bad. He resolved to find out what, and he hauled his staggering brother outside for a chat. Brandon’s gut clenched, and the pain from his ribs was far less than the pain in his heart as he glanced down and saw the truth of Chase’s words. There were a lot more pine needles on the front of his jeans than could be explained by just sitting and talking. Irony, yet again, reared its head, for Brandon had gained most of the pine needles when he’d been tackled by Eric. Chase had made the right assumption from the wrong evidence, but Brandon, in his guilt, didn’t realize this. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as he met Chase’s cold and angry eyes. Feeling his world come crashing down, Brandon let his jaw fall open, and then closed it again before finally stuttering, “I… I was going to tell you. Something almost happened between Eric and me.” Feeling his heart begin to break, Chase asked, in a cool and cold voice, “Almost? I’d say something happened and you tried to hide it. What the fuck? The truth, Brand, all of it, right now, or there’ll never be a later.” Seeing the resolve behind those words in Chase’s burning eyes, Brandon hung his head, nodded once, and began to tell the story, starting with the fight, taking care to leave nothing out. Biting his tongue, not saying a word or reacting in any way, Chase let Brandon ramble on. Twenty painful minutes later, Brandon got to the point where he’d returned to the house to find Chase. Falling silent, Brandon steeled himself and looked up to face Chase, fearing what he’d see but needing to nonetheless. They faced each other in silence, the gulf between them palpable and all too real. Chase studied his boyfriend for a while, digesting what he’d learned. Anger, betrayal, and a growing tinge of sympathy warred within, and the doubt he’d felt earlier joined in with the gamut of emotions. The fact that Brandon had tried to hide what had occurred was foremost in his mind, and that caused him to question whether Brandon was telling the truth. Chase had no doubts that Eric, on tequila, was fully capable of acting as described. What Chase wanted, no, needed to know was the truth of Brandon’s role and actions. Brandon had had the chance to come clean on his own, both back at the party and once they returned to his room, but had only done so when confronted by the evidence. Knowing that he needed to be sure, Chase stood up, nodded once, and headed for the door as he said in an angry tone, “Don’t follow me. I’ll be back in a while, or I won’t.” Chase stalked out into the darkness, unsure for a moment as to what he intended to do. He was angrier than he’d ever been, furious with both Eric and Brandon. Eric. Anger focused his thoughts, as he realized that his brother held the key to the truth of the matter, and with that in mind, he headed for the Jacobs Ranch. Sitting in the suddenly silent room, Brandon put a hand on his aching head. He felt a new emotion of his own; anger. He knew he’d messed up by not telling Chase as soon as they were alone, but he felt that Chase had no grounds to be as angry as he was. Brandon sat, alone, choosing his words for the argument he felt sure was coming. Chase made it about halfway to the Jacobs Ranch before he saw two figures in the darkness, heading in his direction. As he got closer, he recognized his bothers, and saw that Jon was half-carrying a staggering Eric. Jon looked up and saw Chase’s profile in the moonlight. “Give me a hand with Eric; he’s drunk off his ass,” Jon asked, hoping that Eric was too drunk to say much. “Set him down, I need to talk to him before we go anywhere,” Chase said, in a tone that left Jon with no doubts that Chase was aware of at least some of the evening’s events. Without a word, Jon let go and Eric collapsed on the ground in a disjointed heap. Chase caught the meaning of Jon’s actions and stated as a fact rather than a question, “I guess you know, some of it at least.” Jon sat down as he said, “Yeah, Eric blurted out that something had happened. This is way too fucked up, even for him.” Chase sat down facing Eric and replied to Jon, “You can say that again.” Glaring at Eric in the shimmering moonlight, Chase said with a razor’s edge to his voice, “What the fuck have you done, Eric. I was going to get married and…” Chase couldn’t finish his sentence, fearing his own words, and not wanting to give voice to the finality of the statement. Struggling to sit up, his eyes refusing to focus, Eric saw Chase’s image swimming about in the blur. Almost unconscious, though still feeling a painful, ever-present vestige of intense guilt, Eric blurted out in a badly slurred way, “I didn’t mean too, Chase, I swear. It just happened. It’s my fault. I started it. Brandon stopped me. We were both drunk, Chase, and Brandon stopped me. We didn’t want to hurt you, that’s why we stopped. I swear I’m sorry…” Eric’s words trailed off as he slumped sideways, passed out cold. Breaking the ensuing silence, Jon added, “I saw him pounding down shots after you and Brandon left. I’ve never seen him drink like that before, so when he started to stagger I hauled him outside. He told me some of what happened. If it’s true, I don’t know what to say except it’s totally fucked up. I guess Brandon told you?” Chase let out a long sigh. “Yeah, but only after I confronted him. What I do know is he was trying to hide it until I busted him.” Some things, Jon knew, once done could not be undone. Seeing the danger, he decided that he had to get involved before everything ended for Brandon and Chase. He felt a sense of surprise at his own thoughts; there had been a time when he'd had serious reservation regarding Brandon and Chase becoming a couple, but for Jon, seeing had led, in the end, to believing. If they broke up, that was their choice, but Jon didn't want to see it happen due to a misunderstanding. After thinking for a second, Jon said, “My take on it is that Brandon was drunk and coming down off the rush of the fight. Then Eric tries to jump his bones and it took Brandon a while to react and stop him. We both know that Eric is capable of anything when he’s been drinking tequila.” Shrugging, feeling cold inside, Chase replied, “Brandon says they made out for a while, and that’s how come he was all covered with pine needles and Eric’s cologne. How could Brandon do that to me; make out with my fucking brother?” The first thing Jon noticed was Chase’s use of Brandon’s full name. Chase had long called Brandon ‘Brand’ but now that selfsame familiar endearment was glaring by its profound absence. “Did Brandon say that he stopped Eric, or did they do the deed?” Jon asked. Chase shrugged again. “He says he broke it off before they got that far. Brandon must have been willing for a while. Even if he was drunk, how the hell could he do that, with my own damn brother? He said he was hit in the head in the fight, but…” For a moment, Jon didn’t know how to answer that question, but then he decided to just stick with the facts that he knew, thinking that if Chase decided to end things with Brandon, that was his choice, but Jon felt compelled to make sure Chase wasn’t acting on false assumptions. He knew his kid brother’s temper: it could flash hot, but he cooled down soon enough. “Shook up from a fight, then add alcohol, a bump in the head, and then Eric takes him by surprise… I think, if I were you, I’d be more focused on the fact that Brandon stopped at all,” Jon said. Thinking it over, Chase remained silent for over a minute before saying, “Yeah. Guess I flew off the handle.” “I had my doubts about him at first. You know that. What you two do or don’t do is your business, but don’t throw what you have away for the wrong reasons, okay bro?” Jon said. His anger ebbing fast, Chase nodded. Looking at Eric’s unconscious form, he said, “Let’s get the damn sex fiend back to the house, then I need to go talk to Brand.” Noticing the return of Chase’s nickname for Brandon, Jon allowed himself a smile. Several minutes later, Jon and Chase poured Eric onto the couch, and Chase returned to his room. Shutting the door behind him as softly as he could, he flicked on the light to find Brandon sitting on the floor, his back against the wall and arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the ceiling. Chase sat down by Brandon’s side, and broke the silence by saying, “I want to fix this, Brand.” Surprised, all thoughts of an argument gone, Brandon looked over at Chase, and nodded. “So do I. More than anything.” “Let’s put what happened between you and Eric aside for a while. You… both of us, have been having second thoughts due to some of the stuff that’s happened since we came out. We didn’t talk about it and that made it worse. That’s what I think anyway,” Chase said. Brandon thought it through, and agreed, “Yeah, I think so too. But in a weird way, what happened tonight helped me see that no matter what, I want us to be together. There’s no point in wondering if we should have come out; what’s done is done. Things may be rough at times, but we’ll get through it.” “Coming out was my idea,” Chase said, “And I’ve been the one having the most regrets. When I heard that it got you into a fight tonight, I was freaked out. I guess I was worried that you’d be the one having second thoughts after that. Maybe that’s why I flew off the handle about you and Eric.” Brandon shook his head. “No, you were right. I fucked up. I don’t know why I didn’t stop it right away. I should have and I didn’t. I didn’t tell you at the party because I wanted to do it in private, but when we got back here I got scared. I’m sorry I didn’t stop it sooner, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you right away.” Allowing himself a faint smile, Chase replied in studied understatement, “I guess telling me in front of all those bikers would not have been a good idea.” With a more serious tone, he said, “You stopped and that tells me a lot, but it was you not telling me when we got back here that set me off. I guess I can understand you not wanting to just blurt it out, but…” A moment’s pause, and then Brandon nodded once in understanding. “I see your point. I was still a little messed up from the whole thing–” Chase gave Brandon a wan smile, “I’ll bet the fight with the bikers plus a couple of knocks on the head didn’t help much.” With a rueful smile, Brandon agreed, “Yeah, there is that.” Brandon’s hand found Chase’s, and they both reveled in the warmth for a moment. Making an admission of his own, Chase looked at the ceiling for a moment before meeting Brandon’s eyes to say, “I was trying to think how to warn you when you hung up. I didn’t really think he’d try anything, and I couldn’t find the words. One of the things tequila does to Eric is it makes him horny as hell, and he has been talking about trying things with a guy. He also said something to me last time he was on tequila, back in San Francisco after he got caught kissing that guy, about you being hot. At the time I thought he was joking, but when you called I did wonder for a second if he’d try anything with you. I just couldn’t think of how to say it without sounding like a paranoid ass.” With a disgruntled snort, Brandon lowered his voice to say, “Yeah, tequila makes him horny, not to mention totally fucking insane.” “So, what the hell are we going to do about Eric?” Chase asked, with a dejected tone returning to his voice. Brandon sat back and shrugged. After a long and thoughtful silence, he said, “Eric’s not sane when he’s on tequila. We know that. I guess I can see how he misinterpreted what I said, and he did stop when I asked him to. He was planning on taking a fucking Harley from the party. If he’d done that, those bikers would have beat the holy crap out of him, if he was lucky. Stealing from a biker is dumb, but to take their bike? Shit, I can’t imagine a worse idea.” “I can. Getting it on with you, which is exactly what he tried to do. Look, I know he’s out of his head when he drinks tequila, and I know he feels bad about what happened, but damn it, he knows he goes nuts and he drank the fucking tequila anyway!” Chase said, his anger returning. Feeling the need to share one mitigating fact, Brandon said, “The first drink wasn’t intentional. I was there when the guy he got it from told Mad Mike, and Eric took a swig thinking it was whiskey. Then he gulped a few more.” Chase scowled. “So? It doesn’t affect him instantly. I can understand the first drink, but not the rest. Damn it, I’m so pissed off at him right now.” Recalling an incident from their past, which involved Jon, a hangover, and Chase's drum, Brandon asked, "Where's Eric now?" "Passed out. Jon said he was chugging whiskey." "Chugging whiskey enough to pass out?" Brandon smiled and remarked in an overly casual, offhand way, “Damn, he’s going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning. That might be the perfect time to drum home a point or two about tequila.” It took a moment, but Chase picked up on Brandon’s double meaning, and broke into a wicked grin. “Good thing we brought our gear along so we could play at Jim’s wedding tomorrow,” Chase said with a blatantly false innocent smile. With a shrug, Brandon said, “Drums work, but I can’t play drums. So, mind if I accompany you by banging some pots and pans together?” Laughing, Chase nodded in agreement, “That’ll work, as long as you help me find some string or rope first. I don’t want him getting away.” Sharing a laugh, their eyes met, and Brandon, relieved that the tensions between himself and Chase seemed to be gone, said softly, “I love you, Chase.” Squeezing Brandon’s hand, Chase smiled as he replied, “I love you too, Brand. I feel a lot better about things than I did before the party. One thing’s still bothering me though…” Suddenly disquieted, Brandon tried to think of what Chase’s concern might be, but coming up blank he asked, “What?” With a sly smile at Brandon’s expected response, Chase replied, “You’re still wearing those Levis.” Brandon began to reply, but broke into a smile as he finally saw where Chase was going. Smiling, he watched as Chase stood up, and then offered a hand. Taking Chase’s hand, Brandon let Chase pull him to his feet. Glancing at Brandon’s bare torso, Chase said, “That bruise looks bad,” as he traced his fingers down the sides of Brandon’s bare chest, taking his time, feeling the warm skin, until his fingers came to rest in the jean’s waistband. Hooking his thumbs under the denim, Chase eased backwards towards the bed, pulling a very willing Brandon along as he said, “Let’s get those Levis off,” and over the next two hours, he proceeded to do exactly that, and very much more. Sated, rested, and with most of their concerns a thing of the past, Brandon and Chase slowly awoke, naked and intertwined. All thoughts of a repeat of the night’s passions departed as Chase glanced at the clock and said, “Hey, Brand, it’s nine-thirty. We’ve got to take care of Eric before Helen gets here.” Opening his groggy eyes, regretting that he and Chase couldn’t stay in bed all day, Brandon mumbled, “Do you really think she’d stop us, given what he’s done?” Clambering out of bed and pulling on some shorts, Chase shrugged and then replied, offhand, “Nah, she’d probably do a lot worse. I just wanted to give Eric the joy of explaining everything to her himself.” “You’re evil, and I love it,” Brandon laughed, again thanking fate that things had worked out as they had. He was painfully aware how close the prior night had come to wrecking everything. Chase tossed Brandon a pair of shorts, accompanied by an evil smile, “If you think that now, wait until you see what I do to Eric. C’mon, let’s get him.” Brandon replied with a nod, and then, still moving slowly thanks to his injuries from the night before, pulled the shorts on and climbed out of bed. Together, they crept out of their bedroom with unnecessary stealth. They found Eric still asleep on the couch, face up and snoring softly, the pungent tinge of stale whiskey heavy in the air. Tiptoeing towards the kitchen, Chase motioned towards the drawers. Moments later, he’d found what he was looking for, and decided that it would have to do. They returned to the couch, and Chase, with the ball of heavy string in hand, took great care to avoid waking up Eric as he wrapped several coils of string around Eric’s ankles, lashing them together before tying off the ends to a leg of the couch. While Chase tended to the rope work, Brandon crept into the garage and retrieved one of Chase’s drums, and then armed himself with two large brass pots. With his drum ready by his side, Chase gave vent to his temper and slugged Eric in the shoulder as he yelled, “Wake up, asshole!” Cringing from the noise, one hand going to his suddenly aching shoulder. Eric squirmed, opening his eyes and then shutting them against the painful glare. Eric felt the pounding in his head and moaned once, attempting to roll over, his mind not grasping the reason why his legs wouldn’t respond. In no mood for delay, Chase slugged him again, landing a blow that made Brandon wince from the sound, and began to shake Eric. His eyes opening wide for a moment, Eric began to remember a few of the prior night’s events. His memory flooding back in disjointed fragments, Eric began to comprehend the reason for Chase’s anger. He could remember that something had happened between him and Brandon, not exactly what, and then drinking hard and feeling bad. With his tender head pounding, Eric mumbled, “Oww,” and clenched his eyes shut in pain. “Brand, could you do me a favor and get me a big glass of ice water?” Chase asked, with an edge to his voice. Feeling very glad that he wasn’t Eric, Brandon hurried to the kitchen, and within moments, Chase had the mug of ice water in hand. Regretting that Eric was still wearing his jeans and thus depriving him of access to a more tempting target area, Chase tilted the ice water, and with a casual motion, he dumped it in the middle of Eric’s bare chest. Eric’s miserable wail filled the room as the shockingly cold water jolted him to full and painful consciousness. Jerking half upright, Eric pressed his hands to his pounding head and gasped, “What the fuck?” “That’s pretty much what this is about, asshole,” Chase yelled, upping the volume even more to add, “I fucking hate you right now!” Eric, still reeling from the painful noise of Chase’s yelling, glanced around to find Brandon standing nearby, arms crossed and a scowl on his face. That sight evoked a memory, of Brandon’s face in the moonlight as he tried to tug Brandon’s jeans off. Eric’s jaw dropped as his bleary mind began to understand what he’d done. “Oh, fuck…” Eric mumbled in a decidedly inappropriate choice of words as he stared at Brandon. “You remember now, do you?” Chase snarled, and placed his drum near Eric’s tender head. His eyes opening wide in spite of the pain as he saw what was in his brother’s hands, Eric tried in vain to disappear into the couch, his mind racing, his muddled head pounding, as Chase raised his arm slammed the palm of his hand down on the drum’s skin. Arching his back and throwing his arms across his face, Eric recoiled as blinding pain exploded through his tender head, letting out a gasp of pure misery. Chase picked up the tempo, moving the drum even closer to his brother’s head and pounding out a raucous din. “Stop, no…” Eric moaned, writhing on the couch, wishing that he were dead. The only result of his pleading was that Brandon joined in on the other side, halfheartedly banging the brass pots together, just once. After a few seconds of the cacophonous serenade, which seemed to Eric to last for years, Chase paused. Head pounding, breaking out into a cold sweat, Eric’s mind danced among the confused, blurry images of the night before. Some, he remembered. Some, he did not. He remembered, now, making his move on Brandon, and then the foreplay. What he couldn’t remember was just how far they’d taken it. Eric’s bleary eyes fell on Chase’s furious face, and Eric suspected that it had gone all the way, and that Chase knew. “Oh, no. Chase, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’d never…” Eric said in a plaintive voice, one that melted Brandon’s resolve but not Chase’s. “But you did,” Chase said in a cold voice, and pounded on his drum to drive home his point. Twisting, desperate to get free of the blinding daggers that lacerated his mind with every reverberation, Eric fell off the couch and began to crawl away, hindered by his bound legs, and brought to a halt when he reached the literal end of his rope. Collapsing on the floor in a miserable heap, the room whirling around him, Eric pressed his hands against his ears and begged, “Just kill me, please. Just make it stop, please. I’m sorry…” Eric’s plea ended with a muffled sob, accompanied by the beginnings of tears in his eyes. Seeing that his brother was in real misery, and appeared to be truly sorry, Chase finally relented. Setting the drum down for the time being, he sat down on the floor next to Eric and said, “You almost fucking wrecked everything. How the hell could you do that? Never mind, I know you’re capable of anything… So help me, if you ever, and I mean ever, make a move on Brandon again, I swear to God I will cut your nuts off. I mean that, every damn word. You fucking got that, asshole?” Eric nodded, still cringing, and his skin began to take on a sweaty pallor. “Let me go to the bathroom,” he begged, beginning to gag. Relenting a little, Chase untied Eric’s feet, and let him scramble and stagger, half standing and half falling, in a desperate race for the toilet, where Eric’s stomach continued to heave. Brandon and Chase let Eric finish throwing up, cringing at the sound. Finally, they heard the toilet flush, and then the sound of the bathroom sink. Eric staggered out, his face dripping from the water he’d splashed on it, his head hung low. He could never remember feeling worse, either physically or emotionally. The one thing he held onto for the thin ray of hope it offered was that Chase had said ‘almost’. That, he felt, combined with his own fractured memories – which now included a glimmering recall of Brandon pushing him away – meant that they hadn’t gone all the way, and that the situation could be salvaged, maybe. Collapsing back onto the couch, his hangover and guilt causing him to feel misery incarnate, he found his voice and said in a hoarse, gravelly tone, “I don’t remember everything, but I remember enough to know I fucked up. I’m Sorry! I don’t know why I did that.” Eric meant every word, for he now realized that, had things gone further, he’d have likely destroyed Brandon and Chase’s relationship, plus his own with them. Having finally been awoken by the cacophonous noise, Jon, who had a well-earned reputation for being nearly impossible to wake, waited in his room, listening at the door as he put the pieces together, glad that this time he wasn’t the one with the hangover. Deciding that he’d waited long enough, he walked out of his room. He exchanged approving nods with Brandon and Chase, and then settled into a chair to watch. Jon didn’t mind at all; he was furious over what Eric had done, but in Jon’s case there was the additional factor that Eric had gone after a guy. That thought lingered for a moment, until Jon chalked it up to the tequila. Eric gathered his mind enough to continue, “You’re right, Chase, and I’m sorry… I fucked up. Brandon, I’m really sorry for what I did. Chase, I don’t know what to say. I swear, if I ever, and I mean ever, touch tequila again, do whatever you want to me, okay?” Chase could see that Eric was sincere. The proffered deal both shocked and delighted him. Eric’s tequila-fueled actions had grown steadily worse each time, and Chase, though still angry, clearly saw the allure of settling things now, based on the promise that Eric would henceforth steer clear of that particular liquor. After exchanging glances with Brandon and Jon, Chase buried his anger, chewed on his lip for a moment, and then said in a neutral voice, “If, and only if, you swear that you’ll never touch that fucking stuff again, okay? This is over and settled. But… I’ll take you at your word and you don’t want to know what I’ll do to you if you go back on it. Trust me on that.” Nodding, feeling relieved beyond words but still suffering from his abused head, Eric gave his solemn promise, and meant it. “You better mean that, because if you slip up and Chase doesn’t get you, I will,” Helen said, entering the room, having listened by the door for long enough to have a pretty good idea what had transpired the night before. Crestfallen, Eric nodded, instantly regretting moving his head, as Linda and Barbra followed Helen into the room. Helen smiled as she said, “I guess we better get ready. We’ve got a wedding here today.” That day was a miserable one for Eric. In spite of his hangover, he pitched in and helped finish the setups for the wedding. By noon, bikers began arriving, and the caterers Helen had hired began to look decidedly nervous as they realized what kind of a crowd they’d be serving. To the caterer’s relief, no trouble started. Helen and Barbra sequestered Linda in a bedroom and helped her get ready as Jim arrived, decked out in a new set of riding leathers. The wedding itself began at two, and as Eric plucked the notes of the Wedding March on his bass, Jim walked, with Brandon as his second, proudly down the improvised aisle between the rows of gleaming Harleys, to where Mad Mike stood ready, under the wrought iron archway, to perform the ceremony. Eric waited for his cue, and then after a signal from Barbra, began to play the notes of ‘Here Comes the Bride,’ as Linda, accompanied by Helen and clutching a bouquet of orchids, decked out in her own new set of riding leathers, marched down the aisle towards a beaming Jim. After reciting an identical set of vows, Jim and Linda turned to face their audience as Brandon handed Jim a matching set of rings. Jim slipped a golden band on Linda’s finger, and then she, fumbling only slightly, placed Jim’s band on his finger. Mad Mike raised his hands above his head, clapped twice, in slow cadence, and then his voice boomed out, “I now pronounce you Man and Wife. Kiss the bride already, you ornery, lucky, son of a bitch!” Chucking at the half-expected ad-lib, Jim did as he’d been told, giving his wife a deep and passionate kiss before joining arm in arm and marching down the aisle. Brandon waited until they were a few yards away, and then dashed to the stage to join Jon, Eric and Chase as the first notes of Instinct’s hit ‘Believe’ filled the air. After a set of a dozen songs, the members of Instinct paused to jump down from the stage and congratulate Jim and Linda. As they talked to Jim, Linda gave Helen a wink and then yelled, “Hey Eric, think fast!” Eric, his head still tender in spite of half a dozen aspirins, turned towards Linda in time to see a green and white blur rushing towards his head. He reacted by instinct, and reached up to grab the bouquet in mid-air. Staring without comprehension at the orchids in his hand, Eric heard Linda yell, “You just caught the bouquet. You know what that means, don’cha?” Eric looked up to see Jim and Linda mounting Jim’s shining Harley for their ride to the county courthouse where they’d make their wedding official and, to the uproarious delight of everyone within earshot, he looked again at the orchids and muttered, “Oh shit…” © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  6. C James

    Departures

    Chapter 12: Departures Still sticking to his story, unaware that no one actually believed he was going to San Francisco, Eric said his goodbyes the night before his trip, disturbed by the awkward, telling silences between himself and Chase. Part of the reason was that Chase strongly suspecting that Eric was not heading for San Francisco. The other part of it, though, was a still-lingering undercurrent of anger, due to Eric’s actions with Brandon at Jim’s party. Chase had tried to move on, but the resentment still festered just below the murky surface of his conscious thoughts. Time, it is oft said, heals all wounds, but Chase’s had not yet been given time. In his heart of hearts, he was glad that he’d have a few days apart from Eric, and hoped that things would be back to normal by the time Eric returned from wherever he was going. Eric, for his part, found himself subtly rattled by the evident remaining tension, and he too hoped that his absence would help bridge the rift. Helen’s full reaction to the events at the party, delayed until their return to Los Angeles, had been a mix of ice and fury, one he would not soon forget. With those recollections in mind and with everyone ostensibly too busy sleeping to see him off, Eric secured his khaki duffle, mounted his motorcycle, and turned the starter with solitary purpose. He listened to the roar of the engine as it rose and then subsided, before putting his bike in gear and riding at a more sedate than usual pace across the dark streets of Los Angeles. In the quiet din of a city dawn, Eric wheeled his motorcycle into the parking lot at Van Nuys Airport, the short ride having passed in thought. The one firm decision he’d made was that he’d keep his vow: no more tequila. He’d realized, if belatedly, the risks he’d run, but more critically just how much havoc he’d caused, so many times, for those who were important to him. Eric wasn’t close to many people, but for those to whom he was, he valued them more than he would ever admit. Not so much for his own sake, but for theirs, he forswore forever the tequila he loved. Lost in his drifting reminisces, Eric shouldered his duffle bag and strolled over to the Consolidated Jet Charters office. After the perfunctory greetings, he’d been directed towards his waiting plane. The pilot ushered Eric aboard, both of them stooping due to the cabin’s low ceiling. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Carlisle. I’m Fred Beam and I’ll be your pilot.” The pilot smiled as he handed Eric, per normal procedure, a business card and an informational pamphlet, both emblazoned with the company name and logo. The purpose of the business card was so that the client, during the ground leg of their charter period, would be able to contact the charter offices and the flight crew, the latter via satellite phones. Eric, who had been through the boarding procedure many times before, smiled and slid the card into his wallet. With that taken care of, the pilot said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this short for now because we need to take off right away. If we don’t, we’ve got an hour’s wait for another departure slot. I’ll send the Navigator back to brief you as soon as we’re in the air.” Finding the Learjet somewhat similar to the ones Instinct had previously used – The Lear had been chosen due to the range needed – Eric nodded amiably to the pilot and the two flight crew who had remained in the cockpit. Receiving friendly acknowledgements from the pilot and copilot, and glancing at the back of the apparently oblivious and outwardly busy navigator, Eric walked to the rear of the plane. The Lear’s cabin was cramped; essentially a narrow tube less then six feet in internal diameter, it had eight seats. These were arranged in pairs, facing one another, two pairs on either side of the narrow aisle. Stooping a little, Eric walked to the last pair of seats on the plane’s left side and plopped himself down into the plush leather of the rearmost, which faced forward. He glanced absently at the pamphlet in his hand, and slipped it into the magazine slot built into the fuselage next to the two seats, intending to read it later… if he had nothing else to do. Donning his earphones and cuing up his iPod, Eric settled back, watching with interest and a slight vestige of tension as the jet taxied out, and then began its takeoff roll. As the roar of the engines subsided, the plane banked towards the dawn, climbing out on the first leg of its long journey. Eric eased his seat all the way back and closed his eyes, hoping for some sleep. Fifteen minutes later, a voice and a nudge against his shoulder intruded upon Eric’s fruitless quest for slumber, “Sir, I’m your navigator, and I’ll also be acting as your bartender. We have some meals and beverages for you and your guests, once they are aboard. Can I get you anything?” Not wanting to open his eyes and thus scuttle any chance for sleep, Eric smiled politely and said, “I’m fine, thanks.” “I’m surprised you didn’t ask for tequila,” General Bradson said as he aimed his camera at Eric, holding it just below his shoulder level and using its LCD screen as the viewfinder. Momentarily puzzled why the navigator would have reason to say that, Eric opened his eyes and looked to his right at the ‘navigator’. The shock of recognition, compounded by the apparent incongruity, caused Eric’s jaw to drop open and his eyes to bulge. The actinic flash of the General’s camera did nothing to abate Eric’s confusion, and he asked in a stunned voice, “General Bradson… what are you doing here, and, uh, what’s with the camera?” Smiling, the General slid his tall frame into the seat opposite Eric’s, and after a few moment’s silence, replied in an intentionally offhand way, “Oh, Helen said she wished she could see the look on your face when you found out I was on board, so I promised I’d take a picture.” With gut-clenching apprehension replacing confusion, Eric sputtered, “Helen knows?” The camera in the General’s hands flashed again, and then he set it aside before replying with a chuckle, “I figured she’d like one of that expression, too. Yep, she’s the one who told me about it, so I think it’s a safe bet that she knows.” “How… Why… What are you doing here?” Eric asked, as he tried to make sense of what he’d been told. After a moment, he added, “If Helen knows, why did she let me go?” With a shrug, accompanied by another chuckle, the General replied, “I’m just guessing here, but I doubt she objects to your trip, otherwise she’d have probably said something to you. As for me, that’s a lot more complicated. I’m here because I needed a ride somewhere. Unless I get your agreement, your two pilots are going to drop me off in Telluride when you land there. I’m here because of my son.” The General leaned back into his seat, and gave Eric a brief rundown of his son’s predicament. With that background out of the way, the General continued, “I won’t tell you what I’m planning on doing, because that knowledge could put you at risk for legal charges. The Feds have been investigating me; they suspect what I’m up to. I need a way to get out of the country and to my destination unobserved and without going through passport control anywhere. What I want to do is tag along to the Canary Islands with you, with me playing the role of flight crew. Then, after you’re on the ground, this plane will take me somewhere, drop me off, and then return in ample time to pick you up. If you are agreeable so far, I do need to ask for your silence. For your sake as well as my own, I was never here, okay?” “That last bit sounds like a line out of a bad spy novel,” Eric quipped in an attempt at humor that fell flat as his confusion and shock ebbed. He then added in a quiet and serious tone, “Count me in. I’ll help in any way I can. Will you need any help getting back?” In a slightly darker tone, the General replied, “That won’t be a problem, no matter what.” His curiosity aroused, Eric wanted to ask for details, but the General’s expression left no room to suppose that they would be forthcoming. Instead, he said, “I hope that you and your son can come to the wedding in two weeks. You’re both invited to the wedding and the bachelor party.” Knowing that would be singularly unlikely no matter what transpired, General Bradson answered with a nod and then said, “Thanks, Eric. I’ll let Brian know, if… ” The General let his words trail off, unwilling to give voice to the many things that particular ‘if’ could encompass. The General was under no illusions as to his chances for success, or the even longer odds against his own survival. He also knew that even if he should succeed, he would not long be at liberty. That thought triggered another involving a very minor detail, but General Bradson was a man of his word. “Does that laptop of yours have an SD memory card reader?” Eric looked at the sides and back of his high-end laptop, and found two slots that he judged to be roughly the right size. However, they were not labeled, so he said with a shrug, “I can see two it might fit, but I can’t tell for sure.” “One way to find out, just be careful and don’t force it,” the General said with a smile as he handed Eric the postage-stamp sized memory card. Eric found that one slot was too narrow. Trying the other, he found that it fit perfectly. Opening his file manager, he found that the card had been recognized as a new drive. He clicked it open, and copied the two files to his desktop. He then clicked on one, and then the other, to display the pictures. “You’re right, Helen will love these. I look like my jaw is about to hit the floor,” Eric said, as he ejected the drive from his system tray and then handed the General the memory card. As the General popped the card back into his Canon camera, he gave Eric a faint smile and a nod. With nothing left to say, he returned to the cockpit to convey the news of Eric’s agreement to the flight crew. Sitting back down in the jump seat – the Lear didn’t require a navigator, and there were no actual navigational instruments accessible from the General’s position – General Bradson said, “Eric agreed. I was pretty sure he would. I guess it’s a go, provided you guys are still okay with this. Now that we’re in the air, I feel that I should mention one other thing, especially as I just told Eric. One of the two U.S. Marines I’m trying to save happens to be my son. I hope that doesn’t change anything.” Fred glanced at his co-pilot, and saw that, as expected, there was no sign of refusal. They’d talked the mission over not long after General Bradson had first approached the pilot, and the co-pilot, after some initial hesitation, had agreed. “No problems here, General. As far as I’m concerned, family comes first, and I’d do this for any serviceman. Like I told you when we met; you saved my family so I’m sure as hell not going to begrudge you for trying to save your son. I guess this flight will be one to remember, except that Charlie and I will be forgetting it right after it’s done. Right, Charlie?” The co-pilot nodded in agreement. The General nodded, and then used the time to start reviewing his plans for the insertion, filling the flight crew in on all the details. Eric found the landing in Telluride to be somewhat tense due to the proximity of the mountains. He’d landed there many times before, but ever since one very bad day when a bomb went off, killing the pilot and resulting in a terrifying emergency landing, he'd been more apprehensive when it came to flying. Breathing a sigh of relief as the plane came to a standstill near the small terminal building, Eric unbuckled his seat belt and went to stand by the door, which the pilot was busy opening. As the door opened and the pilot lowered the stairs, Eric glanced across the tarmac to see Jim and Linda, each toting a medium sized suitcase, hustling towards the plane. Bounding down the stairs to greet them, Eric took Linda’s suitcase and said with a lopsided smile, “No need to hurry, they need to top up the tanks and they won’t leave without us.” Once the suitcases had joined his duffle bag in the cabin’s small baggage compartment, Jim glanced through the open cockpit door, and then did a fast double take as he recognized General Bradson. Receiving a wink from the General – who he’d met in Telluride the night Brandon and Chase came out, as well as seeing him on TV many times – Jim turned in confusion, and before he could form a question, Eric was heading for the rear of the cabin, motioning for Jim and Linda to follow. Eric ushered Jim and Linda into the pair of seats across the aisle from his own, and took note of Jim’s puzzled glance towards the cockpit. Once they were all seated, Linda gushed, “This is fantastic! I’ve always wanted to fly on a private jet, and getting to do it for my honeymoon is just perfect! Thanks for this, Eric!” Chuckling, Eric replied, “After you nailed me with that bouquet at your wedding, I nearly changed my mind. Anyway, I’m happy to… and besides, you’re helping me out because I might not be able to wrap everything up in time before I have to fly back. I’ve got to pick out a location for the party, book it, make all the arrangements like catering, rooms, and a whole lot of other stuff.” Noting what hadn’t been said, Linda arched an eyebrow and asked delicately, “I’m sure the wedding arrangements are complicated too?” “Yeah, I’ve got to do those too,” Eric replied with a casual one-shouldered shrug. Glancing at Jim, who was looking towards the cockpit, Eric asked, “Hey big guy, see anything unexpected?” Nodding once, Jim kept his eyes on the open cockpit door and said, “Yeah, now that you mention it… how come General Bradson is on board and wearing a flight crew uniform?” With an overly casual shrug, Eric replied, “I’ll let him tell you. It’s kind of a secret. Helen made the arrangements for him to be here, and I only found out after we took off.” That comment caused Jim to snap his head around and look at Eric in surprise. “I thought this whole trip was supposed to be a secret from Helen?” “So did I,” Eric said with a scowl. “I don’t know how she found out. The General said she’s known for weeks, so that means she found out before I told you or Jon. Sometimes I think she knows what I’m up to before I do. Wish I knew how she does it.” Laughing at Eric’s discomfort, Jim said, “If she was against this plan of yours, I think she’d have found a way to stop you.” “Yeah, the General said pretty much the same thing,” Eric replied, still perplexed as to how Helen had found out. The possibility that she’d used her home’s intercom to eavesdrop never crossed his mind. Jim grinned as he glanced out the window, watching the plane’s takeoff roll. “This explains why Helen seemed so uninterested when I asked for some extra time off for the honeymoon. Linda and I decided we’d just stay an extra week until the wedding if we could arrange it, and Helen didn’t bat an eye. She also didn’t ask where we were going, which surprised me. Now, it makes perfect sense. It also explains the grin she was trying to hide. Anyway, I need to talk to you about the extra stay: if I can swing it so the extra hotel days costs you less than the flight back, are you ok with us staying? This way you won’t need to fly us back out for the wedding.” “That’s no problem either way. Anyway, we’ll be landing very early in the morning, local time, and we’ll take a cab to a few places I’ve got on my list. We’ll pick one and should be checked in by noon,” Eric said. An hour later, General Bradson ambled back into the cabin and took the seat facing Eric. He gave Linda and Jim roughly the same explanation he’d given Eric, and asked for their silence. Jim, who knew a little about military operations, raised an eyebrow at the General’s offhand use of ‘Drop me off’, but decided not to ask. After some small talk, the General stretched out and reclined his seat, pulling his cap down over his eyes. He was soon asleep and not long after, so was Eric, who had not slept the night before the flight. Jim and Linda stayed up, watching the scenery from the window between them. During his long years in the Air Force, General Bradson had acquired the innate ability to wake up when the pitch of jet engines changed, and so he opened his eyes when the pilot throttled back to begin the decent into Halifax/Stanfield International Airport in Nova Scotia, where they would refuel. The airport was perfectly situated for their needs; it lay almost directly under the shortest flight path from Telluride to La Palma, and close to the halfway point. After take-off from Halifax, the pilot set the autopilot for Isla de La Palma, and the co-pilot performed his auxiliary duties as cabin steward, heating up pre-packaged meals in the plane’s miniscule galley ­– nothing more than a large cubbyhole in the baggage closet – and pouring drinks. Jim kept a close but surreptitious eye on Eric, to make sure that tequila was not on the menu. General Bradson ate with the passengers, surprised that the lasagna dinners bore little resemblance to airline food. He correctly surmised that the air charter company could afford to spend a little more on in-flight meals than could either the Air Force or the commercial airlines. What surprised him the most – especially due to the extremely limited storage space – was the service itself; no trays or plastic cutlery was to be seen. Instead, the meal was served much as it would be in a restaurant: on good china, but on the foldout tables between each pair of opposing seats. These the co-pilot set for a formal meal, right down to the tablecloth. The one concession to their location was the lack of any candles. Eric, who was no stranger to private jets, found himself acting as host, and even surprised himself by giving a formal toast to Jim and Linda’s newfound state of matrimony. After the meal, General Branson moved to one of the empty forward pairs of seats and was soon asleep again. The knack of catching sleep on demand was another holdover from his service years, and one for which he was decidedly thankful. Linda too dozed off, while Eric and Jim played one of Eric’s video games for a few hours before they too fell asleep. An hour before landing, the co-pilot gently awakened his passengers to serve them a breakfast of ham and cheese omelets, to which he added a side dish of fresh fruit and orange juice. Eric found that meal not at all unlike commercial airline food, but he didn’t mind one bit: breakfasts were the one meal he felt that commercial airlines usually did well. Concern over General Bradson’s unknown plans hung over Eric, Jim, and Linda, making them feel awkward and apprehensive, as well as less talkative than would have normally been the case. They knew, without needing to be told, that he was heading into danger. Once the plane was on the ground at La Palma Airport on the island’s east coast, the pilot opened the door and lowered the stairs. As his co-pilot gathered the baggage, the pilot told Eric, “We’ll be returning here in a few hours. Charlie and I both have satellite phones and the numbers are on the card I gave you, so call us if you need anything at all. We arranged a taxi for you, it’s just outside the gate, but you’ll have to go through customs first. Charlie will help you with your baggage while I take care of refueling.” Eric glanced out the open door, breathing in the heavy tropical pre-dawn air that wafted in as he watched a fuel bowser truck pull to a halt behind the plane’s wing. Taking that to mean they intended to take off as soon as possible, he said, “We’ll be fine handling the baggage ourselves; it’s only one bag each. You guys stay here and do what you need to do. Oh, do me a favor; just add any flying time for today to my bill and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Hearing Eric’s words, General Bradson began to protest, but Eric cut him off by saying, “General, I want to do this. My charter, my choice, so you can’t talk me out of it.” Eric’s expression left the General no option, so he nodded. “Thanks, Eric. I mean that.” Extending his hand, Eric hesitated before asking, “When will we see you again, General?” They shook hands as the General gave Eric a reassuring smile, one Eric did not buy for a second. “I can’t say because I just don’t know,” the General said, sure that he was unlikely to ever see Eric again. “Safe journeys and good luck, General,” Eric said in a slightly strained voice, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Jim and Linda added their well wishes, and then, along with Eric, picked up their bags and walked down the stairs. After a farewell wave, they walked the few yards into the tiny terminal, where they found a bored customs officer at the gate. After a cursory glance, he stamped their passports and waved them through. Minutes later, in the taxi, Eric gave the name of the first candidate resort to the driver, and as they pulled away, Eric glanced back in the direction of the refueling Learjet. His view was blocked by the small terminal, but that didn’t matter. His thoughts were on the General and his son, whom Eric had never met. Eric sighed to himself, thinking that troubles like theirs made anything he himself faced appear very trivial by comparison. The first minutes of the taxi ride passed in silence, until Eric decided that he was there on a mission of his own for Brandon and Chase, and resolved to concentrate on that and to do his level best. With that in mind, his mood brightened a little as he glanced out the window, as the first glimmerings of dawn allowed him to really see the island for the first time. Eric gave Jim and Linda a mischievous wink as he said, “I think this is the perfect place. They’ll love it.” The taxi ride took over an hour as they wound their way four and a half thousand feet uphill to cross the island’s soaring north-south spine, before descending to the western coast. The next two hours passed in a mix of sedate driving and frantic activity, as they went to one resort after another. At each one, Eric, with Jim and Linda in tow, raced around the grounds, and if he liked what he saw, appeared at the front desk to get a guided tour of the facilities from the manager. Eric had phoned ahead days before, so they were expecting him, but it all took time, and Eric was fully aware that the clock was ticking. At each resort, Eric paid careful attention to what he considered the important details. First and foremost, he looked for seclusion and privacy for both the resort and the grounds. He turned down the second resort minutes after arriving upon noticing that it had almost no grounds and as a result, very easy visual access from adjoining buildings. If the resort filled his first criteria and the grounds and pool looked good, Eric carefully scrutinized the conference rooms and other large areas for their suitability for the party. What he found were mainly lavish conference rooms, which he felt were okay, but just didn’t seem right. Engines roaring, the Learjet climbed out from La Palma, turning west as it cleared the south end of this island. The flight plan they’d filed was simple; a takeoff from La Palma, a four-hour familiarization flight over open waters to the west, then a return to La Palma. The only part they adhered to was an initial flight west, to clear radar coverage. General Bradson used the time to stow his camera – which he needed for his planned mission – and do a final checkout of his parachute. Two hundred miles west of La Palma Island, the pilot checked his instruments, paying special attention to the transponder. A transponder works by sending out a coded signal when it receives a pulse from an air traffic control secondary surveillance radar, also called beacon radar. Most modern air traffic control systems – including airport control towers – use primary and secondary radars in conjunction, and primary radar works by actively broadcasting a powerful signal and listening for the reflected signal. Secondary radar has far greater range and can overcome terrain limitations, but it depends on a transponder on the aircraft responding to the secondary radar’s signals. On most models of transponder, an indicator lets the pilot know when it is sending a reply pulse. The Learjet’s transponder included a visual indicator that flickered when it was sending a pulse, and the pilot watched it intently as he neared the limit of La Palma’s secondary radar’s range. When he saw that his transponder was no longer transmitting, the pilot knew it was time. With a terse, “Here we go,” he turned off the transponder and rolled the Lear onto a heading of due south for the thousand-mile flight. The co-pilot checked his map and GPS display. “We should be safe from anything other than a skin paint,” The co-pilot said, meaning a direct radar detection by primary radar, “and there are no ground stations in the area.” “Unless we come near a warship or fighters with active radar on, or we’re being tracked on infrared via satellite,” General Bradson said, though he considered those risks unlikely. Fred, the pilot, shrugged. “I’m not worried. We’re filed as a familiarization flight so it’s expected that we’d be all over the sky and at unusual altitudes. That means we’re fine even if detected, until we enter Cape Verde airspace,” the pilot said. Nodding in distracted agreement, General Bradson spent a few minutes going over the plan, one last time. One thing the General regretted was that his improved radar detector was packed away in the one place he could carry baggage on his jump, alongside his camera, GPS, and other delicate but essential gear. There wasn’t time to set the radar detector up, nor would there be time to re-stow it. Two hours later, the Learjet was one hundred miles northwest of Santo Antão, the westernmost island in the Cape Verdes, and the most mountainous in the chain: three hundred square miles of mainly largely uninhabited volcanic craters and mountains. The island’s northern half has significant rainfall, giving it a thick covering of vegetation. Pulling his parachute out of the Lear’s tiny baggage closet, General Bradson said, “I’ll get my gear ready. We shouldn’t have any risk of detection: the nearest radar is on São Vicente, the next island to the east. According to the air charts, it’s intermittently operational. Just keep the mountains of Santo Antão between us and São Vicente and the terrain will conceal us.” Glancing ahead at the distant outline of Santo Antão, the pilot said, “General, looks like we’ve got a problem. I can see some fog in the valleys. You said to stay below four thousand feet to keep under the main ridgeline, but that means dropping you off over a valley, and you’d be landing blind. That won’t work, so I’ll pull up just before you jump. That radar won’t get a good lock on us if we’re quick, and that way you can jump over higher ground.” Shaking his head in spite of the fact that neither the pilot nor co-pilot was watching him, General Bradson said in a firm tone, “No, Fred. That’s too much of a risk for you guys, and besides, I need to get to lower ground, otherwise I’ll waste too much time climbing down. I’ve jumped in worse than this. I’ll be fine.” The General sounded far more certain than he actually was. The fact that he would be jumping without a reserve parachute didn’t help. The co-pilot helped the General into the parachute harness, double-checking the straps. With the main chute on his back, the General was unencumbered except for the small canvass cover on his chest, where the reserve ‘chute would normally be housed. General Bradson had needed somewhere to carry his gear, and due to the nature of his jump had opted not to have a bag clipped to his harness. He also needed to protect it from impacts, so the reserve parachute casing had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, however, the General was recalling the three jumps, out of the many he’d made, where he’d needed that reserve. Ten minutes later, the Learjet roared through the turbulent air over the rugged, empty coast at four thousand feet. It was time. The pilot throttled back, watching as his airspeed slowly dropped. He deployed the landing gear and flaps, slowing further to one hundred miles an hour before saying, “Open the door.” The co-pilot and General Bradson undogged the door, heaving it back into the cabin as the hundred-mile-an-hour wind blasted into fuselage. Seeing a fog-shrouded valley coming up fast, the pilot yelled, “From three, on my mark. Godspeed, General!” “Mark!” The pilot yelled, and checked his airspeed again before beginning a slow bank to the left. As the wing dropped past thirty degrees, he eased in a little right rudder to null out the turn and began his rapid count. General Bradson positioned himself in the hatchway, one hand on each edge. Upon hearing ‘Three’, he heaved himself forward, aided by the downward angle, as the pilot snapped the Lear into a right-hand roll as General Bradson sailed headlong out of the Learjet, clearing the leading edge of the wing by less than an arm’s length. The co-pilot struggled to close the door against the slipstream, and after a few desperate seconds he had the hatch secured. The pilot increased throttle, centered the rudder, and banked the Learjet into a tight left-hand turn. As airspeed increased, he retracted the flaps and raised the gear, maintaining four thousand feet as he accelerated through three hundred miles an hour and rolled out on a heading of north by northwest. Within minutes, the Lear was out over the open sea, and after thirty miles is began a leisurely climb to cruising altitude for the flight back to La Palma. Looking without seeing at the sea below, picturing instead in his mind’s eye the craggy terrain they’d seen, the co-pilot asked, “Do you think he got down okay?” After a few moments’ thought, the pilot replied, “Jumping into fog, rugged unfamiliar terrain, no reserve ‘chute… I hope he made it, but there’s a good chance we’ll never know.” © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  7. Chapter 10: Dance with the Devil Chain whirring, the larger of the two bikers, a man by the name of Bruno, glanced at his partner. A subtle nod was exchanged, and the two bikers glanced in Brandon’s direction, hate in their eyes. Once again, Brandon cast around, searching in vain for a weapon. No words were spoken; none needed to be. The biker’s intent was clear enough, and with his exit blocked, Brandon hoped that they’d settle for beating him up. Bruno began to advance on Brandon, who moved forward to meet him, intending to make a fight of it even though he knew he’d lose. It wasn’t mere bravado; Brandon knew that bikers despised cowardice. Had he shown fear, he had no doubt that his beating would be far worse. Not pausing for an instant, Bruno aimed the chain at Brandon’s head. Dodging to the side, avoiding the whirring metal by inches, Brandon gave the biker a hard jab to the stomach. Taking a step back to take advantage of the one edge he felt that he had – agility – Brandon saw that the biker was unaffected by the blow and moving in for another attack as, a few paces further back, the smaller of the two bikers aimed a kick at Jim’s side. Dodging another swing from the chain, Brandon lunged sideways, one foot loosing traction on the dirt floor. Brandon stumbled once as he turned back towards his opponent, banging the back of his head against a low-hanging beam. Momentarily unaffected, Brandon launched into a spin-kick aimed at Bruno’s knee. The biker brushed it aside and lurched forward, slamming his left fist into the side of Brandon’s chest, sending him reeling backwards. Brandon regained his footing, trying to ignore his aching ribs. He was almost out of room, having been backed towards the rear wall of the barn. Focused on his own attacker, and with his view partially blocked by the man’s bulk, Brandon hadn’t noticed what had happened to the smaller of the two hostile bikers. His second kick, aimed at Jim’s head, had not gone quite as planned, and Jim had blocked it with his arm, and then grabbed the man’s ankle in an iron grip. Staggering to his feet, Jim raised the other biker’s ankle, seizing it with both hands before twisting it. The first notice Brandon had of the change in their fortunes was the sickeningly loud pop of a knee dislocating, followed by a howl of pain. Jim released the leg, and with an animal growl slammed a roundhouse left into the man’s jaw, which sent the smaller biker down in a moaning, bleeding heap. Brandon’s attacker heard his companion’s fall and knew that he was Jim’s next target. Glancing back over his shoulder, the biker hesitated, trying to decide whether to finish off Brandon or to take on Jim. Seeing that Jim was ten feet away and staggering, the biker decided to finish Brandon off first. Snapping his head back around, he saw he was already too late to parry the attack which Brandon had launched during his distraction. Brandon, seeing that he had one chance, had decided to make sure that his blow had a memorable effect. Darting forward, he spun sideways, putting the full force of his motion behind his attack, and allowed himself to fall forward, aiming low, for a straight kick to his attacker’s nuts. Brandon felt his foot hit and sink into the soft target. Brandon, his balance impaired by the earlier injury to his head, stumbled backwards after delivering the kick, turning as he regained his footing. Bruno took a single step, bringing the chain down in a hard, vicious arc. Bruno’s aim was just a little off, and all he achieved was a barely glancing blow across the singer’s back, before the full sensation of Brandon’s attack made itself known. Brandon, spared the impact of the chain – which had done little more than tear a hole in the back of his shirt – twisted and ducked into a roll past his attacker, to spring upright several feet from Bruno and within arm’s length of Jim. Feeling the sudden rush of blinding, nauseating pain, Bruno clenched his burning groin with one hand, his face blanching from the agony as he stumbled and sank to one knee and the chain fell with a soft clatter to the bare dirt floor. Glancing at Jim, expecting him to pound the hell out of the disabled Bruno, Brandon saw Jim massaging the side of his face, which was already beginning to swell. Seeing Brandon’s look, Jim grunted and then said, “I’ll be fine, but you need to finish this yourself. Beat the crap out of him and I’ll take care of his friend. Make sure you mark up his face.” Jim reached down and hauled the smaller of the two bikers to his feet before slamming the man face-first into the wall of the barn. As much as Jim craved to mop the floor with both bikers, he settled for delivering a bone-breaking kick to his opponent’s ribs, and then turned to keep an eye on Brandon, ready to step in if needed. He hoped he didn’t have to; if Brandon could do this on his own, so much the better. Bruno was trying to regain his footing, but failing miserably. Too focused on his pain, he didn’t hear Jim’s words, nor could he have done much to prevent what was coming. Moving forward to attack, Brandon kicked the fallen chain away from his opponent’s reach and then slammed a succession of right crosses into the biker’s face as Bruno staggered back, reeling from the blows. Brandon tried to ignore the pain in his ribs and the growing pain from his battered knuckles, focusing instead on taking his opponent out as quickly as possible. Landing a kick to his opponent’s ample gut, Brandon sent him slamming backwards into the wall. The biker bounced off, staggering, but remained standing, barely. Brandon paused, wondering if it was over, but Jim spurred him on. “Keep going. Don’t stop until he yields. Don’t knock him out; make him give up.” Breaking into a cruel smile, Jim added, “Maybe a few kicks in the nuts, just to soften him up, then start breaking bones.” Not particularly caring either way if he’d have to take it that far, Brandon slugged the man again, and then slammed a knee up into his nuts. The biker collapsed, clutching his groin with both hands as he writhed on the floor. Brandon made ready to strike again but paused for a moment, as Jim looked at the man and said, “Give up, or he keeps going. I won’t let him stop until you’re a cripple, got it?” Fighting to draw enough breath to speak, the biker hissed through bleeding, swelling lips, “Fine, you guys win.” Jim’s laughter filed the barn. “You can shove that, fuckwit. I never touched you; all I did was make it one on one between you and Brandon, and I’ll make damn sure everyone in the house knows it. So none of this ‘you guys’ crap. You give up to him, or this just goes on and on. It’d suit me just fine to watch while he turns you into hamburger.” “You don’t know what you’re fucking asking,” the man gasped, as he lay on his side, drawing his legs up into a ball. Jim laughed again, genuinely enjoying himself. “I know exactly what I’m asking. You’ll do it, too. It’s just a matter of when.” Jim looked at Brandon and said coolly, “Start on his ribs. Make sure to bust a few, then stomp on his fingers, one by one, but make sure you grind the broken bones. He wouldn’t have stopped until you were a wreck and pleading for your life, if he’d have stopped even then, so take the piece of shit out, one little bit at a time.” Slamming a punch into the downed man’s upturned side, Brandon then eased back and kicked the man’s arm away from his battered groin, sending a clear signal as to what his next target would be. The man squirmed, trying to roll away, opening up his other side to another of Brandon’s attacks. Coughing, gasping for air as Brandon landed a succession of fierce blows to Bruno’s ribs, the biker struggled to gasp, “I give, damn you.” And with that, it was over. Relieved, Brandon stepped back, and Jim hauled the smaller biker, who was regaining consciousness, to his feet. Glancing at Brandon, Jim said, “Get him to his feet and twist his arm behind his back. If he makes any move to resist, break his fucking arm and then turn his nuts into dog food.” It took a minute of trying, but Brandon got Bruno, who out-massed him by nearly two to one, to his feet. With a single jut of his chin, Jim told Brandon to take the lead, and Brandon, twisting the biker’s arm, shoved him along, forcing him out of the barn and towards the back door of the house. “Open it,” Brandon said as they reached the door, in a voice dripping with menace. Bruno hesitated, and Brandon twisted his arm a few inches further up, until the biker reached out with his other hand and turned the knob. The door swung open, the creak of its hinges causing a few of the biker’s inside to look up from their drinks. Brandon forced Bruno inside, and saw the look of shock spread across the faces of a few of the bikers. Jim marched his own half-conscious attacker in, and then said in a booming voice that carried through the house, “These shitheads decided to disrespect one of my guests, in my place, at my fucking bachelor party. They went after Brandon in an ambush, two against one. I evened the odds, and Brandon took Bruno down alone and made him yield. Brody, they broke your orders too, so I’m calling for colors.” The few members of Mad Mike’s club who were in the room got up to leave for the kitchen. This was Brody’s affair, and their code dictated that they give the other club a semblance of privacy. It was simply a matter of respect. Brody had heard Jim’s voice – It would have been difficult not to – and entered the room to find two members of his club looking like they’d been through a meat grinder. He’d explicitly warned his club members not to start any shit, and he was far from happy that they had. Breaking his orders was an explicit challenge to his authority, and Jim’s colors call left him no choice. “You got ‘em,” he said in a terse voice, and then said to his two former members, “Hand ‘em over and get out. You’re done with us.” The two beaten bikers tried their best to look defiant as several of the other club members snatched their jackets away, causing a few grunts of pain due to their cracked ribs. Brody took the two jackets, and then with a nod of his head ordered his lieutenant to remove the former members from the premises. Jon and Chase edged their way in, clearly confused as to what was going on. Brandon looked at Jim to see his friend smiling. Jim did indeed feel good. He enjoyed a good fight, and as far as he was concerned, this had been a memorable one. Jim, ever mindful of tradition, caught Brandon’s eye and nodded towards the front door. “Let’s go outside, just you and me, and see ‘em off.” Stepping out into the evening’s balmy air, they joined Brody’s lieutenant and watched as, with considerable difficulty, the two disgraced bikers mounted their Harleys, fired up, and rode unsteadily down the driveway before turning towards Telluride. As soon as they were out of sight, Brandon waited for Brody’s lieutenant to re-enter the house. Thinking that he and Jim were alone, Brandon asked, “Why didn’t you tell me there were two of them? We came damn close to getting the crap beat out of us, or worse.” Mad Mike, with a length of heavy chain in his hand, accompanied by two of his crew, strolled out of the shadows from beside the house. “Not as close as you think. Jimbo gave me a heads up about those two earlier, and motioned for me to follow when he headed out. We were watchin’ through the window. When Jim went down we started to move, but then he creamed the little guy’s leg. We had to let you guys handle it if we could. If me and my guys had stepped in, the other club would have been obligated to stand by their members. Could have turned into one hell of a war. This way, Jim made his point and got rid of those guys.” Jim rubbed his side. “I blew it. I was drunker than I thought or those guys would have never taken me down. As it was, they just got me mad. You wondering why I had you finish off the big guy and make him yield?” Jim asked Brandon. Brandon had been around bikers long enough to have a pretty good idea. “It’s all about respect. They were guests and disrespected both you and Brody by going after me. You wanted to humiliate him, and having to yield to me did it, because I was the target and he’s a lot bigger than me, plus I’m not a biker. I doubt anyone will buy that for long; we both know he’d have kicked my ass in seconds if he hadn’t been distracted.” Mad Mike handled the answer. “That don’t fucking matter. In a fight, winning ain’t the main thing, it’s the only thing. He started it and then fucked up and gave you your shot, don’t matter a damn why. All that matters is you took him down yourself and made him yield, in front of witnesses. He started it, you finished it, and that’s all she wrote. You just made it a hell of a lot less likely that anyone in either Brody’s club or mine will give you any shit. You just earned respect, and respect is what it’s all about with us. You gotta know that not all the guys on my crew are okay with what you and Chase have goin’ on between you, and I bet there’s still some of a like mind in Brody’s chapter. They keep their traps shut because of orders and the fact you’re paying us, but they still have their beefs. This whole deal just set an example on a bunch of levels. I’ll also bet Brody is glad to see the back of those guys.” Jim noticed that Brandon was cradling his left side with his arm. “Hey dude, you okay? You don’t think they’re broken, do ya?” Brandon shook his head and glanced in the direction of his ribs. “Just bruised, I think.” Moving slowly, taking care not to put pressure on his ribs, Brandon pulled off his shirt and turned towards the porch light. He touched his ribs lightly, and took a few deep breaths before adding, “They don’t feel broken. I broke a rib when I was twelve, and this doesn’t feel like that did. I’m gonna be pretty sore for a few days, but I’ll be okay.” Jim took a few chugs from a bottle of Jack Daniels and handed it to Brandon. “Here, this should numb you a little,” Jim said, and Brandon took the bottle. While Brandon took a few heavy pulls on the whiskey, a new thought crossed Jim’s mind, and he looked at Brandon with pleading eyes, “Please don’t tell Helen about the fight. She would be pissed. She’d have my guts for garters!” Trying and failing to hold in his mirth at the big biker’s concern… he’d never seen Jim be afraid of anything or anyone before that moment – Brandon took another pull on the bottle and laughed, and then grimaced as he clutched at his aching side. “That hurt… Okay, your secret is safe with me, big guy.” One of Mad Mike’s bikers came out of the house, and hesitantly walked up to his club president and whispered in his ear. Mad Mike nodded, and turned to ask Brandon and Jim, “What’s the deal with Eric and tequila? He’s not allergic to it or anything, is he?” Guessing the reason for Mad Mike’s question, Brandon felt his blood run cold. “Worse, he goes totally fucking nuts,” Brandon answered. “Shit,” Mad Mike said, and then added, “He got some off of one of my guys. Just a few swallows. That enough to do it?” Turning to run towards the house, the liquor burning in his gut forgotten, Brandon replied, “Yeah, it is. Help me find him!” Brandon raced into the kitchen. Seeing no sign of Eric, he dashed into the living room. No Eric. Brandon turned towards a perplexed Chase and Jon, “Where’s Eric? He’s had tequila,” Brandon blurted out. Jon’s eyes opened wide. “Last I saw he was heading out front with some bikers, talking motorcycles.” Leading the mad dash out the front door of the Jacobs Ranch, Brandon looked around in the dark, seeing nothing. He stopped to listen, trying to filter out the noise from the people racing out behind him, and above the din of crickets, he heard muffled voices off to his left. Racing into the dark, Brandon ran for a dozen yards, before he spotted three silhouettes under a tree. Jim and Mad Mike arrived a second later, with Jon and Chase in tow. Brandon asked the three bikers, “Where’s Eric?” “He took off when you guys came out, he went that-a-way,” one of the bikers answered, pointing past the side of the house, back towards the barn. Eric raced through the darkness, feeling the familiar burn of the tequila, looking for some fun. Leading his band mates on a wild goose chase fit the bill, so he ran behind the barn, and kept going, out into the starlit woods just to its rear. He knew there were Harleys parked close by, and he also knew that bikers never locked their rides when around other bikers. To do so would be considered an insult to the entire club. Therefore, many had left their keys in the ignition, and Eric knew it. He’d long wondered what it was like to ride a Harley, and now, with the tequila burning in his veins, he planned to find out. Chucking, he ducked behind a tree, and then looked back, waiting for some sign of pursuit. He didn’t have to wait long. In the light spilling from the ranch house windows, he caught a glimpse of Jon and Chase heading for the barn at a jog. Eric crouched low and waited, while Jon and Chase dashed into the barn, looked inside, and then came out again. Picking up a rock, Eric turned to his left and hurled it to the south of the ranch house, where it crashed into some bushes. “Over there, back by the house,” Chase said as he dashed off in that direction, followed by Jon. Grinning to himself as his pursuers fell for the ruse, Eric picked up two more rocks and circled to the north of the barn, planning to have some fun at his brothers’ expense. As he cleared the corner of the barn, Eric spied a familiar silhouette in the shadows. Brandon… Tossing a rock underhand, Eric sent it rolling past Brandon’s feet from thirty feet away. Brandon, who had been facing the wrong way, heard the rock and guessed its source and heading. Spinning on his feet, he took off at a full run in Eric’s general direction. Seeing Brandon’s move, Eric bolted for the tree line. Brandon saw his running form and kicked into a sprint, trying to close the gap, conserving his breath and ignoring the pain in his side and head, driven by the fear of what he knew Eric was capable of. Racing for the tree line, Eric reached it and kept going, kicking up a din as he crashed through the leaves on the forest floor and the boughs of pine scraping the bare skin of his torso. Stumbling over a root, Eric rolled to a stop, eased up into a crouch, and listened as Brandon raced towards him. Brandon was silhouetted for a moment against the glow from the ranch house filtering through the trees, and with a laugh, Eric pounced, tackling Brandon from the side. Wincing from the pain as Eric slammed into his injured side, Brandon gasped as they fell into a heap. Brandon clutched his side, as Eric heard him groan in pain. Still entangled with Brandon, Eric stopped moving and, all thought of fun put aside for the moment, asked, “Hey bro, are you okay?” Brandon felt Eric easing him into a sitting position, and replied, “Yeah, I’m just kinda banged up. I was in a fight.” Eric took a seat by Brandon’s side and asked in surprise, “A fight? What happened?” Relieved that Eric seemed, for the moment, sane, Brandon gave him a rundown on the brawl and its cause. In spite of the tequila, Eric felt his buzz fade. Placing a brotherly arm across Brandon’s bare shoulders, Eric said, “Whoa, that sucks. Are you doing okay? How did Chase take it?” Brandon shrugged, wincing from the pain of his ribs and reminding himself not to do that again. “Chase doesn’t know yet. Speaking of, we'd better head back for the house. Everybody’s looking for you.” With a sigh and a shrug, Eric replied, “I don’t want to go back. They’ll treat me like some freak because I had a little tequila. I’m okay; I just wanted to have some fun.” Sensing that Eric would stay put if treated right, Brandon said, “How about this: I phone ‘em to let ‘em know you’re okay, but I won’t tell ‘em where we are. Then we can sit here and talk, just you and me.” Eric could tell that Brandon’s suggestion of talking was not solely focused on him. That made it an easy decision. “You’re on. I’ll stay put, I promise.” Flipping open his cell phone, Brandon called Chase. As soon as Chase answered, he said, “Don’t ask where I am, but I’m with Eric and he’s okay. Let everyone know and call off the hunt. I’m going to talk to him for a while, see you in a few.” “Just keep him talking and he’ll come down pretty quick. He’s usually okay one on one when he’s on tequila,” Chase replied, hoping that he was right. Not knowing how to answer, Brandon ended the call, just before Chase could add a warning regarding one other aspect of Eric’s behavior when on tequila. Chase did as he was asked, and let Brody and Mad Mike know that Eric had been found. However, one group of bikers didn’t get the word, and kept up their search, methodically working their way back towards the tree line. Eric had heard Chase’s voice, and smiled as he said, “He’s right. I’ve drunk tequila when it’s just me and Chase or me and Jon. That was before we met you, but ask ‘em, they’ll tell ya. I just like having fun, Brandon, that’s all.” Eyeing Eric suspiciously in the darkness, Brandon asked, “So what kind of fun were you up to?” With an unseen shrug, Eric replied, “I just wanted to see what it was like to ride a Harley.” Brandon felt himself shiver, and stifled a groan as it made his ribs ache. In a soft but serious voice, he said, “Eric, that would have been a very bad idea. Trying to ride an unfamiliar bike on a rough road in the dark is bad enough, but doing it drunk is crazy. Worse, these guys don’t lock their steeds for a reason; it’s a matter of trust. Take one of their bikes and you’ve made some serious enemies. You’d be lucky if you just got beat up.” Eric was silent for a few moments as he thought it over. “Yeah, not one of my better ideas, I guess,” he said with a tone of resignation, knowing that it was true. After a few more moments of silence, Eric got to the point and asked, “I can tell that you want to talk about more than me. What’s up?” A heavy silence hung in the air for a few moments. The light of the waning moon filtered through the pines, casting an eerie, calm glow in the darkness. Brandon sighed. He was used to Eric’s knack for reading people, but sometimes, such as now, Eric seemed to pick up on things before the person themselves was consciously aware of the issue. Brandon had seen Eric do this to Jon and Chase, but this was a first for him. Giving a soft chuckle as he realized, not for the first time, that trying to keep secrets from Eric was futile, Brandon said, “I guess you’re right. Things have been… different between me and Chase since we came out. It’s like he’s regretting it. That mess with the liquor store clerk today seemed to make things worse, and now I’m scared how he’ll react to the fight.” Letting out a sigh of his own, Eric wondered how Brandon could be missing the obvious. Deciding to clue him in, he said, “Brandon, it’s not just Chase. I see exactly the same thing in you. And if I’m seeing it, I bet Chase is too. I won’t ask if you’ve talked this over with Chase, because if you had, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it now. Just talk to him, dude. Sure, there’s some bad stuff going on, but unless you guys learn to deal with the bad as well as the good, you can’t last.” Brandon’s head snapped around to look at Eric in the partial darkness as he realized that Eric was right. Wondering how Eric could be so wise at times, yet so crazy at others, Brandon gave an unseen nod before replying, “You’ve got a point. Yeah, dealing with all this crap has been rough. I guess I didn’t expect it, not all of it, and not all at once. I’ll try talking with Chase tonight. I better, because this fight will only make things worse.” A sudden thought occurred to Brandon, and he realized that with Eric still somewhat lit by tequila, now would be an ideal time to bring up a certain subject. Choosing his words with care so as not to let on that he and Chase suspected the San Francisco trip was a ruse, though suspecting that some parts of Eric’s story were at least partially true, Brandon asked, “Hey man, speaking of guys, what’s the deal with you and that guy in San Francisco? You really thinking of changing teams?” Eric was about to answer when he remembered the real reason he’d said that: to cover his trip to the Canary Islands. Thinking fast – as fast as he could, given that the tequila was beginning to re-assert its influence now that the stress was lessened – ­to try and find a way out without blatantly lying to Brandon, Eric finally said, “Yeah, sorta. I guess you could say that I’m pretty open-minded in some ways. I was thinking that I’d kind of like to give it a try, just to see what it’s like. What I saw today, though… I don’t think I want to deal with it. Homophobia sucks. If I can be happy with girls, I’ll stay with the ladies.” Shaking his head, Brandon gave Eric some advice, “If you were really happy with girls, you wouldn’t be thinking what you’re thinking, dude. You said that they aren’t turning you on like they used to. I think you’re more turned on by them wanting you, plus the idea of having more than one at a time, but that’s wearing off. Am I right?” Eric moved his arm to pat Brandon on the back, before returning it to its comfortable place across Brandon’s bare shoulders. “I guess that’s as good a theory as any. I don’t really know what’s up and that’s why I want to try the other side.” As the whiskey he’d chugged began to work its way into his bloodstream, Brandon, without realizing it, let himself lean into Eric’s comfortable embrace. Slurring his words just a little as the alcohol combined with the ebbing adrenalin rush and the after-effects of a bump on the head, Brandon gave voice to a concern he’d had ever since hearing of Eric’s plan, “You don’t know that guy in San Francisco. If you want to try being with a guy, you’d be better off with someone you know.” Brandon had forgotten that as far as he knew, Eric knew exactly two gay guys, and one was his brother. Eric’s tequila-blurred mind listened to Brandon’s words, and heard them in a way far different from how they had been meant. With the tequila removing any notion of anything beyond the here and now, and removing all inhibition and thoughts of consequences, Eric said, “I think you’re right. It shouldn’t be someone I don’t know. It should be someone I know and trust. Thanks, Brandon.” Eric turned slightly to watch the moonlight and shadows, moving in the gentle pine-scented night breeze, playing across Brandon’s bare skin. Looking down, Eric saw the bruises on Brandon’s ribs. Using the arm that was still draped across Brandon’s shoulders, Eric pulled Brandon a few inches backwards and lowered his voice to say, “Lay back and let me check out those ribs. You’re banged up pretty good, man.” Feeling the full effects of the whiskey, and not yet aware how his words had been misinterpreted, Brandon let Eric ease him back, propping himself up on his elbows in the soft bed of pine needles. Eric rolled sideways and gingerly touched Brandon’s growing bruise, feeling the heat of Brandon’s skin. Brandon felt Eric’s gentle touch, and thanks to the combination of whiskey and ebbing stress, found himself enjoying it. Brandon barely noticed as Eric eased up off the ground and eased a leg over Brandon, straddling him and continuing to check out Brandon’s chest. Sliding his hand higher, Eric traced his fingertips up Brandon’s side. “Thanks for doing this,” Eric whispered, as he leaned forward, bringing his face within inches of Brandon’s. In spite of his alcohol-induced haze, Brandon began to suspect, just a little too slowly, just what it was that Eric had in mind. Propped up on his elbows and limited by his bruised ribs, Brandon couldn’t easily move, and tried instead to come up with words to say, but Eric, driven by his tequila buzz, was faster than that. Sliding his hand behind Brandon’s neck, Eric pulled Brandon into a gentle embrace, and as Brandon opened his mouth to speak, Eric headed off the words with a kiss. Feeling the unexpected presence of Eric’s tongue in his mouth, and his attention further distracted by Eric’s questing hands, Brandon tried to pull back away from Eric, but only succeeded in laying flat on his back and bumping the bruise on his head lightly against an inconvenient rock. Eric moved with him, deepening the kiss, and sliding one hand down into the front of Brandon’s jeans. The dulling effect of the alcohol, combined with Eric’s ever-more-heated foreplay and the sudden sensation in his head, confused Brandon in that critical moment, and instinct subsumed conscious thought. Feeling himself growing hard thanks to Eric’s kneading fingers and passionate kiss, flooded by the rush of sensations, Brandon hesitated for a moment, and then tried to push Eric away. Brandon’s hands slipped a little, coming to rest on Eric’s waist, which became yet another thing that Eric misinterpreted. Thinking that Brandon was responding, and driven by the tequila, Eric took the initiative and rolled them onto their sides for better access to Brandon’s jeans, which he scrambled to pull down as his own passions rose. In their bed of moonlight and pine, conscious thought, already dulled by alcohol and in Brandon’s case, injury, ceased utterly, as far more ancient drives took hold, rendering both guys momentarily oblivious to everything but each other and their passions, senseless even of the snap and crackle of twigs that heralded the approach of the searching bikers. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  8. C James

    Train Wreck

    Chapter 9: Train Wreck The ride back to the ranch began with a shared feeling of elation; they’d turned the tables on the liquor store clerk and had gotten what they wanted. However, that was as far as the shared feelings went. The gamut of emotions that followed varied from person to person. For Brandon and Chase, it had been a rude awakening of sorts. For the first time, they had been confronted by open hatred from a member of the public. In the past, Chase had faced homophobia from his parents and the former lead singer of Instinct, and Brandon had, in his own past, faced hate from his own parents and those he thought of as friends. But never before had they encountered it from someone that they didn’t know. They had expected some such reactions when they decided to come out, but the difference between an intellectual acceptance of a possibility and having it slap you in the face had been unnerving for them both, for the dose of harsh reality had served to plant the bitter seed of doubt. Like any seed, it would grow if given fertile ground. For Jon, the encounter had not been in any way unexpected. In a sense, he was surprised that it had taken so long to occur. His own thoughts on the matter were that Brandon and Chase had no control over what gender they were attracted to, so as far as Jon was concerned, sexuality was like eye color; you were born a certain way and that was it. He hated the fact that so many people couldn’t accept that fact, but the reality of it had affected him far less than any other member of Instinct. For Jon, it was an unpleasant, yet far from unforeseen, burden that Brandon and Chase had no choice but to endure as best they could. Jon had long ago resolved that they would always have his support, but he knew it was a burden that they had no choice but to mainly bear alone. Eric sat in the back of the Jeep, uncharacteristically quiet and somber. Of all the members of Instinct, the scene at the liquor store had the greatest impact on him. He did not need to envision what it would be like if, every time you went out in public, you had to wonder if an open display of hatred or worse was just around the corner; he’d just seen the reality of it. That thought led to another, as Eric wondered if he could face that kind of angst on a daily basis. An imperceptible shake of his head was the only outward sign as he concluded that that road was not for him. The silence became awkward as they climbed out of Telluride on Last Dollar Road. Deciding that he’d had enough of the hush, Chase said to Brandon, “Good thinking on changing the order a little. I’d feel a hell of a lot worse if she’d have won.” A single, subtle nod was Brandon’s only reply. The incident was still grating at him, and he wondered how common such reactions would be. Helen had already mentioned a few troubling facts and figures. Instinct had done enormously well from their impromptu tour, riding the wave of publicity that accompanied saving a major city from annihilation. Being national heroes had tempered any negative response to their coming out, but the public’s attention span, as always, had proven brief. The demographics of Instinct’s fan base, which was heavily weighted by teen males, was far from a good fit for an ‘out’ lead singer and drummer. That particular ‘set of chickens’ was now well on its way home to roost, as reflected by a downturn in album sales. The decline had been small, merely a pullback from the dizzying spike which had resulted from all the publicity surrounding the bomb plot, but according to Helen the demographic data did not bode well long-term. As usual, Helen had been blunt and to the point. In her opinion, Instinct was in the process of losing a goodly chunk of its teen-male fan base, due to the ‘gay issue’. The further their status as national heroes faded into the past, the worse it would become. Helen’s solution had been somewhat drastic. Get ahead of the curve, and reach out to other demographics. With that in mind, the new album had been named Changing Lanes, signifying a shift in sound. The new focus was on rock ballads rather than hard-driving metal-edged rock. That promised a wider audience and a more accepting demographic base, and they’d hung their hats on it as the solution. What remained to be seen was whether or not it would work. All those facts weighed heavily on Brandon’s mind, as the fear that his and Chase’s coming out might will spell the end of Instinct returned. One cranky liquor store clerk was no more than an irrelevant statistical blip, but the confrontation had rekindled the doubts. Every member of Instinct felt it, but none of them wanted to acknowledge it by giving voice to the fact. Instead, they let it hang heavy, like a dark and malevolent cloud upon their lives. The effect was nonetheless apparent. They passed most of the ride in silence, absent their normal banter, each lost in their respective thoughts, together but alone, with only the dusty, rutted road for company. Upon arriving back at their ranch, they went their separate ways for a few minutes. Mainly they concentrated on getting cleaned up for the party, throwing on some clean clothes, and though none would admit it even to themselves, staying out of each other’s way. Of them all, Chase felt the sudden distance the worst. Coming out had been his idea, and so had the wedding. He could tell that Brandon had pulled back into some kind of a shell. That hurt the most. Always before they had been able to talk openly with each other about anything, but now that vital link of communication seemed sundered. The bitter seed had found its fertile ground. In that, Chase was not alone. Helen noticed the change in the guys’ demeanor. People have their moods, so she was not, as yet, overly concerned. As soon as they had piled back into the Jeep and headed for the Jacobs ranch, Helen returned to her paperwork. Barbra, busy with her own reams of memos and forms, glanced across the kitchen table and asked her lover and partner, “I know something’s eating you. What’s going on?” Looking up and smiling, Helen replied, “Just a lot of small things. Eric’s trip to the Canary Islands for one. Setting up a wedding is one hell of a big job, and he’s never done it before. Maybe I should let on that I know what he’s up to, and offer to help. On the other hand, he does a better job when he thinks he’s acting alone. I’d like this to go well, for Eric’s sake. This is really the first big responsibility he’s taken on. He’s becoming an adult, and I want to see him succeed on his own so I need to give him as much leeway as I can.” Barbra nodded in agreement. She shared Helen’s opinion that the Canary Islands were an ideal location, and had been an inspired choice on Eric’s part. However, like Helen, she knew that so much could go wrong, due to the complexity of planning required. With his departure just two days away, General Bradson worked late into the night, putting the finishing touches on his battle plans. The one thing he kept foremost in his troubled mind; no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. The General had decided, by virtue of necessity, to go with an asymmetric tactical concept. Hit the enemy by surprise and use their own strengths against them. The key, he knew, was flexibility; only a fool would count on the enemy reacting as expected. Therefore, General Bradson concentrated on backup and alternative strategies for each phase of the rescue attempt. He was well aware that something, most likely several things, would go badly wrong. The odds were not to his liking, but he saw no alternative. Doing nothing, in his mind, guaranteed his son’s death. Therefore, any chance was better than no chance at all. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ he mused, and continued with his task. Jim helped carry the last of the kegs into the Jacobs Ranch house, which was situated a few hundred yards south of Instinct’s home. The bikers were already there in force; word of the raging bachelor party had spread like wildfire. As they set down the keg, Jim took note of the expressions on some of the biker’s faces as they looked at Brandon and Chase. Most of them were normal enough, but Jim saw the flash of trouble in two sets of eyes: ill-concealed disgust. Jim pretended not to notice, but knew he’d have to keep an eye on those two. He’d also seen a few glances of unease and dislike from a few other bikers, but not to a level that Jim thought would rise to the surface. The club presidents, who knew which side their bread was buttered on, had laid down the law. Going against the orders of a chapter president was never a smart move, but Jim held no illusion that the two bikers he’d pegged as trouble were particularly bright. Still feigning a focus on setting up the alcohol, Jim paid attention to the rest of the assembled bikers who were lounging around in the main room of the ranch house. The place was crowded, and a mess; empty beer cans everywhere, and a few bikers had hauled some hay bales inside for additional seating. Seeing no further sign of trouble, Jim allowed himself a hidden smile; he’d originally expected to have trouble with several bikers, and two was a number that he knew he could handle. Putting a trip to the barn on his schedule for later, Jim finished setting up the kegs in their buckets of ice. Turning to face the far end of the room where the two chapter presidents, Mad Mike and Brody, were engaged in an animated discussion, Jim grinned. “It’s a little earlier than I planned on, but what the hell. It’s my party, and I say let’s get started!” Jim yelled, loud enough to shake the rafters. Following their informal yet very strict hierarchy, the many bikers lounging around the room let the two club leaders draw the first beers. Brody, decked out in well-worn leathers and a sleeveless denim jacket, stepped up and clasped Brandon’s hand in an iron grip. “Hey, dude, good to see ya again.” Brandon, familiar with the ways of bikers, was the most comfortable of the four Instinct guys. Returning the crushing grip he said, “You too, man. We probably wouldn’t be breathing if not for you and your guys. Thanks.” Brody shrugged, angling his head in Jim’s direction. “That’s in the past. We just want to give ‘ole Jim here a fitting send-off on his last night of freedom.” Brody lowered his voice to add, “If you or Chase have any trouble from any of my guys, let me know right away and I’ll deal with ‘em personally.” That message got through to his crew, loud and clear, though the two bikers that Jim had pegged decided that their chapter president had made the announcement for the sake of appearances. They could not have been more wrong. The music started, and the distinctive chords of a classic biker favorite, Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild,’ echoed through the old ranch house. With no pool tables with which to occupy themselves, the bikers put the furniture to use by playing quarters for shots of whisky, all the while downing cup after cup of beer. Within an hour, Jim was feeling very good indeed, and ambled over to the corner, where the four Instinct guys were shooting the breeze with a few of the bikers. Jim pretended not to notice, but he saw the two troublemakers sitting a few yards away, occasionally casting evil glances in Brandon and Chase’s direction. Smiling in anticipation, Jim hooked Brandon by the arm and hauled him over to a vacant table, and began setting up for a round of quarters. Pretending to be just shooting the breeze, Jim leaned over and whispered, “Do me a favor. After a round or two, say you’re going to grab a hay bale to sit on, and head for the barn. You’ll likely have company, but I’ll trail ‘em out of here. Don’t try to take ‘em on yourself or you’ll get your ass kicked. Just delay ‘em and I’ll be there within seconds. Can’t have a party without a dance, ya know.” Nodding as Jim’s smile took on a wicked cast, Brandon made sure that he and not Jim drank the next shot. Brandon could easily tell that Jim was pretty well lit, but he trusted his friend. Brandon had hoped that he and Chase could leave before their presence caused any trouble, but Brandon knew that Jim was relishing the idea of cleaning the floor with someone. It was Jim’s party, so Brandon had no real qualms about his own obvious role as bait. The only thing Brandon didn’t realize was that there would be two guys coming after him. After doing as he’d been asked, Brandon walked out the back door, heading for the barn, fifty feet away. As Brandon neared the barn’s side door, he heard the back door of the house open behind him. Ignoring it, Brandon walked into the barn and towards a disordered stack of hay bales. He glanced around, but saw no sign of anything that he could use as a weapon. Jim and some other bikers had taught him how to fight back in Phoenix, but Brandon had no illusions. He knew that one-on-one, he had no chance against a biker, particularly a big one who undoubtedly had far more experience at fighting, as well as being larger and stronger. It would be a short fight, of that there was no doubt. “So what do we have here,” the not-unexpected voice from the doorway said, and Brandon turned to face the two bikers. They walked in, side by side, advancing on Brandon with unmistakable menace. The bigger of the two, who out-massed Brandon by nearly two-to-one, clenched his fists and said, “Not so tough without your buddies, are you?” With casual menace, he unslung a length of heavy chain from his belt. “You shitheads are really brave when it’s two against one,” Jim said, slightly slurring his words as he stalked into the barn. “He’s a guest at my party, so you’ve just disrespected me.” The two bikers’ heads snapped around at the sound of Jim’s voice, then turning to face Jim and backpedaling as Jim came within arm’s length. Jim didn’t slow his approach, instead cocking his massive arm back and using his momentum to throw a right cross at the larger of his two opponents. It would have been devastating, had he connected. Jim’s massive fist cleaved the air where his opponents’ head had been a moment before. Off-balance, Jim staggered forward as the second biker saw his chance and dropped into a roundhouse kick, slamming his foot into Jim’s knee from the side, sending the big biker crashing down like a sack of wet cement. Coming to a halt face down on the barn’s floor, Jim stopped moving as Brandon watched with a mix of concern and horror. Jim’s sudden defeat left Brandon with a bit of a problem; two hostile bikers and no way out. He knew that he couldn’t take on one, let alone two. The soft whirr of the heavy chain in the larger one’s hand left no doubt as to their intent as they turned on Brandon. Inside the house, Eric stood in the kitchen, shooting the breeze with two bikers from Mad Mike’s club, discussing the relative merits of electric and acoustic guitars. This conversation led directly to a discussion of Harleys versus Japanese motorcycles, and Eric wondered what it was like to ride a big Harley. One of the bikers took a pull from his hip flask, and thanks to the dimming effects of far too much alcohol, forgot the dire warning of his club president and out of habit, offered Eric the flask. Eric took a small pull, and instead of the whiskey he’d expected, felt the familiar, welcome burn of tequila. With his face lighting up in delight, Eric took a second, much longer pull, and then a third. Too late, the biker remembered his leader’s warning and recalled what was in his flask. Easing the silver container from Eric’s grasp, the biker hoped that the warning had been exaggerated. The look in Eric’s eyes, combined with the newfound lightness of the flask, belied that forlorn wish. Well into the long night’s work, General Bradson’s phone interrupted his train of thought. Operating via their standard procedure, he activated his encryption and listened through the resulting static as his contact asked a few questions regarding the equipment manifest. The only item that the contact seemed to have qualms about was the cannon, but he assured the General that he could likely obtain it. General Bradson found himself impressed by the unnamed man’s fieldcraft and respect for security; he’d asked no question regarding the operational plan itself. The General didn’t notice when the man’s demeanor shifted slightly, becoming more amenable and supportive. The contact preferred it that way. Breaking protocol, the contact, seated at the edge of a clearing on Santo Antão Island in the Cape Verde’s, chose his words with exquisite care. “General, there is another matter that I must broach.” General Bradson nodded to himself, he’d expected as much, and braced himself for an increase in the price. The contact’s following words, however, wiped the smile from the General’s face. “Fel and I were discussing the mission. We all know that the odds against success are long. However, there is a way to guarantee success. The item you recovered in Los Angeles, to be precise. If you could exercise your contacts, and perhaps liberate that item, I can arrange transport for it.” That, the general decided, was a rather smooth and casual way of asking for a nuclear warhead. The bomb the General had recovered from Dodger Stadium was what the contact, in his circumspect manner, was asking for. On the face of it, it was a plausible request. Unlike American nuclear weapons, the nuclear warhead in question lacked Permissive Action Links, known in military circles as PAL. PAL was the means by which command and control of American nuclear warheads was exercised. The exact implementation often varied, but what the PAL-protected warheads had in common was math. Advanced nuclear designs, in the pursuit of miniaturization and maximum yield, utilized asymmetrical implosion, often with multiple focal points in the fission pit, relying on shockwave interplay rather than raw explosive power to achieve critical mass. That required a very specific firing sequence on the shaped charges, one that could be deduced only by the bomb’s designers. Without the correct code, the control unit would not fire in the required sequence, rendering the bomb useless. For that reason, the bomb recovered from Dodger Stadium was the only one in the United States that could be readily put to unauthorized use. Unsure of how to answer, the General hesitated. The contact misread the General’s pause for uncertainty and said, “We regret having to ask this as we know the risk to you, but it appears to be the only way to assure success. If that bomb was used on the big base a dozen miles from the target, it would render the air-defense radars in the region blind and distract their forces. It would give us the edge we need to save your son.” General Bradson considered the words, wondering if the contact was being truthful. It took the General only a fraction of a second to decide that he was not. The clue had been the contact’s implication that they had only just thought of this. That was preposterous for such an obvious tactic. The General mistakenly assumed that the real goal was money; such a device would be worth many millions of dollars on the arms market. The General didn’t have to considerer his response; the request was impossible. The thought of using the device had indeed crossed his mind, but contrary to the contact’s apparent belief, the device had been disassembled. It no longer contained its plutonium core and thus was useless, even if he could have figured out a way to get it out of Edwards Air Force Base. The General gave the only answer that he could under the circumstances. “The device has been rendered inert, and even had it not, there is no way I could do as you say. I do not have the means. I do, however, have a plan that should make the mission a success.” The contact disguised his disappointment as he said, “It was only a thought. It would have been far easier with it, but I have faith that we can succeed. I am a man of faith, you know. I am looking forward to our meeting, General. Safe travels.” Nonplussed, the General ended the call. He now suspected, even more than before, the possibility of duplicity on the part of the contact and his crew. The General wished that he had some alternative, but knowing that he did not he resolved to go through with the venture. He resumed his planning, scribbling furiously in a notebook as he studied a map, his job now further complicated by the necessity of allowing for the even higher chance of betrayal. He let out a troubled sigh, feeling more alone that he had since the day cancer had claimed his wife. He was smart enough to know that his own chances of survival had just decreased, but he’d never thought they were high to begin with. He had never much cared about that; he knew that if he came home he’d be landing in a jail cell, which made the concept of survival far from alluring. Brian was his only child, and furthermore the only thing he had left of his beloved wife. General Bradson had no qualms when it came to trading his own life for a chance to save the life of his son. Returning pen to paper, and sketching out a new tactical approach for the extraction, General Bradson wondered if his current planned means for arrival in the Cape Verde Islands needed some changes. As things stood, Eric’s jet would be delivering the General into what he knew to be a lion’s den. Perhaps a little insurance couldn’t hurt, provided that Eric was agreeable. A mutter of thunder echoed off the nearby volcanic crags, signaling the commencement of the afternoon’s storms as the General’s heretofore nameless contact, sweating from the oppressive humidity, strolled across the clearing towards the small ramshackle house. Taking one last backwards glance at the men training on the improvised obstacle course, he entered the building – something that the mercenaries were not allowed to do. Taking a seat in a back room, cooled by the clattering old fan, he waited for his employer to finish some paperwork. Two minutes later, after finding a convenient stopping place, the employer glanced up to ask, “Any luck?” The contact shook his head. “No sir. General Bradson claimed that the device has been disassembled, and implied that the parts are not at the same location. He also claims that he has no access to what remains.” With a nod and a disgruntled snort, the employer focused his full attention on his underling. “Unfortunately, that meshes with the information I have developed. It was a good play, but we knew it was a long shot. We had to make the attempt though.” The employer tapped a huge pile of dog-eared paper that dominated his squalid desk, and told the contact, “Yuri, there is so much to do. I think I have spent half of my time since leaving the hospital doing paperwork of one kind or another, half making deals, and the remaining half developing procurement sources.” Yuri smiled at his boss’s odd humor. “Thus accounting for one hundred and fifty percent of your time. That would be beyond the scope of most men, especially when you are dealing with doctors so often,” Yuri said in an admiring tone, one that accurately reflected his feelings on the matter. The boss leaned back in the ancient desk chair, nodding. “A few more grafts and they are done, they claim. Perhaps then they will cease their infernal poking and prodding. Still, I cannot complain. I would be dead were it not for you. You risked your life pulling me from the building and that is something I shall never forget. In a way, my injuries are fortuitous; they have changed my appearance at a time when I most needed to do so.” Yuri gave his employer an honest, appraising glance, taking in the man’s ruined, hideously scarred face. ‘What a price’, Yuri thought, not for the first time. The explosion had taken them all by surprise. Yuri’s own life had been saved by happenstance; he’d been shielded from the brunt of the blast by virtue of being behind a forklift. His employer, he surmised, had been in part shielded by the structure of the lathe he’d been uncrating. The bomb, according to press reports, had been within its heavy base. It had all happened so fast; a flash of heat and light, a pain in his ears, and then the thick clouds of dust kicked up by the blast, all of which had served to disorient Yuri. His first instinct had been to escape from the collapsing, burning warehouse. Dropping to all fours, he’d crawled in the direction he’d thought the main door lay, but the confusion had sent him in the wrong direction. He’d heard screams from by his side, and a glance through the flames had revealed his employer’s burning body. There was no real issue of loyalty; Yuri had acted out of unadulterated self-interest. He’d had no wish to be alone, penniless, and on the run in South America, so rescuing his employer was his only real recourse. It had cost him some first-degree burns on his hands, but somehow he’d managed to pull the man from a pile of burning debris. He’d nearly given up when he’d seen the extent of the damage: a missing arm and a face already blistering from the flames. The fire itself had served a purpose; Yuri had used a burning piece of wood to partially cauterize the stump of the severed arm. Dragging his employer from the building had been one thing; saving his life had been quite another. Once out, Yuri had no idea what to do. By default, he’d loaded the unconscious man into a car and driven off, enduring the rising pain of his own scorched hands. Given the circumstances, he’d known that a local hospital was out of the question, so he’d driven south, out of the city, thinking to find a small rural clinic. His employer had saved them both by briefly regaining consciousness and giving Yuri a name and a district. An hour later, after asking for directions from a shocked passerby, Yuri had found the fancy clinic; an upscale plastic surgeon’s office, which catered in part to wealthy medical tourists eager to save a few bucks, but also cultivated a different clientèle; those needing to change their appearance for legal rather than aesthetic reasons. Yuri’s employer had been near death by the time they’d gotten him inside. Penniless, Yuri had waited in a small room, eyeing his own bandaged hands, wondering how he could survive as a wanted man in a strange and unfamiliar land. With great relief he’d heard the surgeon’s report that his employer would perhaps live, and gratefully accepted the offered hospitality; a guest room at the surgeon’s rural estate. Progress had been slow at first; burns to his employer’s cheeks and nose requiring skin grafts, and one ear so badly burned that amputation had been the only recourse. His employer had been left with a horrendously scarred and disfigured face, a missing arm, and a missing ear. Yuri had been present on the day when the doctor had at last acceded to his patient’s demand for a mirror. To Yuri and the doctor’s surprise, upon seeing the scarred mask that his face had become, his employer had merely smiled, or tried to thanks to his disfigured lips, and said, “Irony, and fate. The universe has a sense of humor indeed.” It was only then that Yuri learned his employer’s preferred – and now even more appropriate – name: The Scar. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  9. Chapter 7: Laying the Groundwork Jansen, his hair wet from the shower and wearing just a pair of boxers, looked through the peephole and then opened his apartment door. “Hi Eric, we’re running a little late, sorry. Come on in,” Jansen said as he finished toweling off his hair. Eric walked in and glanced around the main room of the apartment, finding it decorated in fairly typical bachelor style. At first, some posters and a couple of sickly-looking houseplants appearing to be the only personal touches added to the furnished unit. A closer look revealed some sports trophies and other personal items. Eric set his helmet down on a side-table, and still feeling the heat, he shucked off his jacket. Plopping onto the sofa, Eric flicked at his black tank top with his thumb, “Your AC feels good. That’s one bad thing about motorcycles; no air conditioning.” Jansen finished toweling off his hair and sat down in a recliner opposite Eric. “Yeah, a heavy jacket in this weather can’t be much fun.” Jansen stood up again, acting a little ill at ease, and walked through a bedroom doorway, returning seconds later as he fastened a pair of shorts. Eric didn’t know Jansen well enough to read him, but the dancer’s unease was apparent. Wondering at the cause, Eric asked, “Where’s Keith?” Jansen glanced at a wall clock before replying, “He should be here by now. He called just before I got in the shower and said he was on his way.” Eric was about to reply when he heard a key in the lock, and turned in time to see Keith enter the room. Closing the door behind him, Keith caught sight of Eric and said, “Sorry I’m late. I got out of class and found that traffic was backed up for miles.” Picking up on the fact that they were anxious and attributing it in part to their seeing him as their employer, Eric gave the two dancers a disarming grin. “Relax guys; I’ve been here for like thirty seconds.” Keith took a seat and asked, “I gotta admit, ever since your call I’ve been dying to know what you wanted to see us about. What’s up?” Eric leaned back and smiled, choosing his words with care before answering, “I should warn you, I’m pretty blunt. What I needed to see you guys about is your act. There’s some problems.” Jansen noticed Keith’s concerned look, but drew the correct conclusion first. “If you were going to fire us, you’d have done it by phone, so I’m betting this isn’t really bad news?” Jansen asked, with a hopeful look on his face. Eric nodded and smiled, and heard Keith’s sigh of relief. “Yeah, like I said at the club, I’ve got some issues with your act so I’d like us to figure out how to change it. I’ve been researching a little, so I’ve got some ideas. I’d also like to do a run-through of whatever we come up with. I don’t know where though; my hotel and studio won’t work because Brandon, Chase, or my manager Helen might find out.” “I can swing us some private stage time at the club, as long as it’s well before opening,” Keith offered. Eric shook his head. “Nah, that might get awkward. The main problems I have with the act are pretty much related to the club. Look, I’ll just say it; the whole atmosphere there is cheesy and kinda raunchy. That’s what I want to get away from. Hell, it’s supposed to be a classy place, but the name fits: G-Strings. Subtle it ain’t.” With an embarrassed shrug accompanied by a glance at his partner, Keith replied, “I’ve got to admit, I agree. We took the gig because they’d train us and we were just starting out in the biz. I’ve checked out some of the competing places; they aren’t much better. But, it pays the bills, better than any other part-time job could.” “Part time... You guys are in college, right? I’ve got you pegged as a business major,” Eric said to Keith. “Guilty as charged,” Keith replied with a gin, relaxing a little. Jansen grinned. “That’s why Keither handles the business end of our act. I’m doing a marketing major, with some acting lessons and drama classes on the side, but he’s the biz whiz. He has been, ever since he was about eight and opened a lemonade stand,” Jansen said, as he shot Keith a grin. Keith quickly chimed in to add, “We met at college, and one day when we were studying together I made the mistake of telling him about my stand. I picked a windy day to set it up, and before I could sell a single glass, everything was blowing down the street. He’s never let me forget about that.” There was a slight pause before Keith added, “I think we’d love the chance to work on something different from what we do at the club.” Eric smiled, happy that the two dancers seemed to share his views. “I’ll see about renting us a conference room somewhere,” Eric said, wondering how to go about it, and what they’d need. Recalling something he’d read, he added, “There’s a pretty high vacancy rate for restaurants and bars right now. I’ll phone around and see about renting one for a few days. The layout should be close enough to what we’ll have at the party, so would that work okay? We’ll have to bring whatever we need, but we will for the party, too.” Keith nodded, and Eric continued, “Okay, first things first. The act itself. Number one, we’ve gotta lose that damn glitter ball. The lighting in your club totally sucks. When I got here today I was kinda surprised at how much hotter Jansen looks in normal light. The overhead lighting at the club might be okay to make bulked-up muscleheads look even bigger, but that’s not the look you guys have. The lights pale you out, too. But that won’t be a problem; the party will be at a resort that doesn’t have the lighting gear anyway. Next are the props. Surfboards are great, they fit your image, but that’ll be kind of hard to pull off at the party. I’ve got some ideas there and I’ll get to that later. Then there’s the sound track. The ripping sounds came from the speakers, not your clothes. That was just... bad.” “One of George’s worst ideas, and that’s saying something,” Keith said, with a sincere note of disgust. Turning to face Jansen, he said, “Remember those notes we took a couple of weeks ago when we tried to come up with a better act? I think there’s some stuff we can use in ‘em. Any idea where they went?” Jansen stood up and glanced around the apartment. “Probably in your desk,” he said, as he walked to the far end of the room and began looking in it. After rifling through a couple of folders, still turned towards his task, Jansen said, “No sign of ‘em yet but I’m only halfway through this stuff. Maybe they’re in my sketch drawer. It’s the top drawer on the left, next to my bed.” Keith got up and made a beeline for the room. Moments later, Keith’s voice called out from the bedroom with a note of relief, “Found ‘em; they were right on top.” Keith opened the dog-eared notebook and set it on the coffee table in front of Eric, taking a seat beside him as Jansen settled into the couch on the other side, so they could all see the notebook without having to read upside down. Keith flipped through a few pages, and Eric saw a few quick sketches of sets and lighting before Keith found what he was looking for and pointed at a roughly printed script of a routine and said, “Here’s what we came up with, but George wouldn’t even look at it.” Eric scanned the page, seeing a few stick-figure illustrations between descriptions of the act. He nodded approvingly; from what he could see, it was far better than their current act. Eric turned to the next page and remarked, “Yeah, this is more like it. Some real dance moves instead of bump-and-grind, if I’m reading this right. Looks like it still uses the tear-away clothes though, but I guess you have to do that–” “Nope,” Jansen replied with a grin as he stood up and waked over to the stereo. Cueing up a CD, he hit play and left the volume low. “It takes a little skill, but regular clothes can work even better. Anybody can use a tear-away, but not too many can do this...” Waiting a few seconds until the song’s beat started, Jansen began to move with the music, taking two steps forward for every one back, and made his way to the alcove, which served as a kitchen. Using the tile floor to allow his bare feet to move more easily, Jansen turned to face the sofa and began a fast-paced dance routine, moving both of his hands from side to site, clicking his fingers in time with the beat, his bare chest puffed out a little and a slightly shy, alluring smile on his face. With his head angled down, moving from side to side, causing his hair to fall across his eyes, Jansen began his routine. Eric watched for a few moments before turning to face Keith and exclaiming, “I see one big difference already; he’s smiling. In your act, you both looked so serious. This is way better.” Eric returned his gaze to the kitchen, where Jansen kept moving his hands from one side of his body to the other as he danced in place, raising them slightly with each changeover. After a few seconds, his hands were raised high over his head, showing his chest and taught physique to full advantage. Jansen arched his back, and then spun on his heal to turn sideways to his audience, his hair again falling across his eyes as his left hand, without breaking it’s back-and-forth rhythm, passed in front of his shorts. Eric watched closely as, with practiced skill, Jansen used his thumb to tug at the waistband’s button snap, popping it open on the third pass, and then during two successive passes knocking open the Velcro fly. Jansen reached the kitchen counter, spun around, and took two fast steps, locked his legs, and while sliding leaned back, bending his knees so his legs folded under him, with one hand on the tile floor and the other raised over his head, twisting his torso towards Eric and Keith. Jansen’s boardshorts slipped down to his knees, as he came to a stop. Without pausing, Jansen snapped his torso upright, and then leaped to his feet as his shorts fell to the floor and he danced away in his boxers. Jansen took three more steps, did a three-sixty, and then clicked off the stereo as he said, “That’s one way we can do this with regular clothes. There’s a few others. If we had more room I’d do a gymnastics move; run, tuck into a roll, and let the shorts fly off.” Standing up, Keith took a few steps away and then turned to face Eric. “Shirts aren’t hard. If they’ve got buttons, we can replace ‘em with snap-fasteners and knock ‘em open one snap at a time. For a t-shirt like this, it’s even easier,” Keith said, and raised his hands, arched his body to the side, and then quickly reversed his stretch, grabbing the back of his collar and tugging his shirt off in one fast and fluid move. Twirling his shirt over his head with one hand – which Eric noticed was a great way to show off his flexing muscles, even if it was a little cliché – Keith moved to the beat of the non-existent music. After a few seconds, he stopped and returned to the coffee table, letting his shirt fall to the floor as he flipped the page of the notebook and said, “We basically wrote down a lot, more than we could do in a single act. What we wanted to do was develop several different acts, but George likes his guys to do the same thing every time, because he claims that’s what the customers want.” Jansen tugged his shorts back on, and returned to his place by Eric’s side, as all three guys looked at the notebook. Eric saw layout after layout, some for a pair of dancers, others solo, and still others incorporating elements of both. Eric grinned before saying, “Sounds like you guys sure know what you’re doing, unlike your manager. Okay, here’s what I had in mind. I’m thinking you guys could pose as lifeguards. I can set that up with the resort. That’ll let Brandon and Chase see you guys around a little, that way they won’t be surprised to see you at the party, serving drinks. There’ll be at least one girl at the party: Linda. She’s Jim’s – one of our security guys – girlfriend. Actually she’ll be his wife by the time we have the party. One of you guys asks her to dance, and dances normally with her, but like you don’t really know how to dance. I’ll get Brandon and Chase to dance, then I’ll jokingly dance around for a few seconds with whichever one of you isn’t dancing with Linda. Then, acting like it’s a joke, you two start dancing with each other, then slowly get more serious. Then the clothes start coming off, but slowly, a little at a time. Maybe one of you pulls his own shirt off, more like you’re on a date at a dance club than strip act. Use some misdirection and then work into it slowly and they’ll be shocked as hell. I’ll make sure they’ve had a few drinks, so they’ll fall for it, guaranteed. Oh, one other thing, ditch the gold thongs. Brandon and Chase both like Speedos, so get some red lifeguard ones so they’ll fit with your act personas. Then have a second act, which can be a full-on routine, ready to go a little later. What do ya think?” Jansen and Keith exchanged a glance, and then Keith said to Eric, “That sounds like something we can work with.” Picking up the notebook and flipping through the pages, Jansen said, “You’re actually doing us a favor. We’ve wanted to work on new material for a while, but now we’ve got a good reason, plus no George to stand in our way. We should be ready to start rehearsals in about three days or anytime after that.” “One thing we need to ask. We’ll need to practice a little at the club, so if George bitches about it, can we tell him to call you? If he knows it’s your idea, he won’t say a word,” Keith said. Eric nodded, looking forward to the opportunity to tweak George’s nose a little. With a smile, Eric glanced from side to side at the two shirtless guys before saying, “I’ll set up a place to rehearse. This will be great, a custom act for their party. Brandon and Chase will love it.” Helen paced in her office, concerned about many things, but prime amongst her concerns was Brandon and Chase’s wedding. She had no real objection to Eric’s plan to have the wedding in the Canary Islands. In fact, she regretted not thinking of it herself, for it was a far better location than Massachusetts in a number of ways. Her main concern was the guest list, one name in particular. By rights, she knew, the Carlisle brothers should decide the issue themselves. However, none of them had mentioned the issue. Deciding to take a chance, Helen added two names to the invitation list. For security reasons the location of the wedding was not disclosed. Only a phone number was given, so that the guest might RSVP. The names Helen added to the list both ended with 'Carlshitski'. With that decision made, she gave some thought to Eric’s upcoming trip. Jim and Linda would be going along, and so would General Bradson, though Eric didn’t know that yet. Helen felt fairly sure that Eric was going solely to check out locations for the party and the wedding. Or so she hoped. The trip to the Canary Islands struck Helen as a conscientious and responsible approach, which she had a hard time reconciling with Eric’s nature. Idly, she wondered if the coming revelations, whatever they may be, would warrant a few harsh words and a glare for her, or rise to the level of her feeling the need to strangle Eric. Sitting down in her plush desk chair, Helen smiled; on the whole, she was delighted with the way things were working out. Eric believed he’d pulled the wool over her eyes, but she was still, to a degree, able to keep an eye on what he was up to. That suited her just fine. Her smile grew a little as she wondered how long he’d keep up the pretense of going to San Francisco. Pouring over his paperwork, under the harsh light of a single bare bulb, General Bradson felt trapped by the walls of his apartment. For so long, his life had revolved around the twin centers of his military career and his son. Now one was over, and the other far away and in grave peril. The General reflected that so far he’d only broken the law in a comparatively minor way: by failing to report that he took in excess of ten thousand dollars in cash out of the country. However, the list of laws he would soon break was both long and serious. He shook his head in dismay; a month before, he’d have told anyone who claimed he’d ever condone, let alone be part of, such an illegal conspiracy that they were crazy. Yet, here he was, raising a private army of mercenaries, and preparing to violate the law in a number of nations. He consoled himself with the thought that his actions were not against his country, which he loved, but rather were acting in its stead, doing what it ought to be doing for itself. Consequences... he knew there would be plenty of those, but he didn’t care, not with his son’s life on the line. The risk to Brian, the General well knew, was greater than anyone realized. His son happened to be gay, which put him in even greater peril, given that he was the unacknowledged prisoner of what the General knew to be a fanatical, homicidal, Islamofascist terrorist regime that, amongst other things, delighted in executing gays. If they received so much as a hint of Brian’s sexual orientation, his chances would be even slimmer than they already were. That was just one reason why the General felt he could not afford to wait. The motorcycle’s engine rose in RPM as Eric downshifted into second gear to slow down as he approached the turn. From a dozen yards away, Jim watched like a hawk, assessing Eric’s style and ability. The one thing that Jim had been concerned about was Eric’s awkwardness in shifting gears, no doubt due to having driven an automatic for so long. At first, Eric had relied exclusively on the brakes when he needed to slow down. That was fine for city traffic, but not good at all when out on an open road at high speed. It was also one of the differences between a skilled and an unskilled rider, and Jim had pledged to himself that Eric would be the former, rather than the latter. Jim watched and listened as Eric slalomed through the parking lot. The sound told Jim as much, perhaps even more, than his sight. He allowed himself a smile as Eric smoothly downshifted before entering another right turn, mainly due to the hum of the engine as Eric gave it a little gas, entering the turn at a neutral rate of acceleration, which spread the traction move evenly between the front and rear wheels. Punching the gas during a turn was a good way to lose traction on the rear wheel, a fact that had cost many riders their lives. The whine of the bike’s engine rose in frequency, telling Jim that Eric had waited until the straightaway to hit the gas. Eric raced in Jim’s general direction, approaching just a touch too fast, and braking just a little too hard for Jim’s preferences, displaying Eric’s tendency to push the limits just a bit too often. Jim grudgingly reminded himself that the Yamaha had far better handling characteristics than the Harleys he was used to, but even so, Eric was too new to be pushing to the extent that he was, so Jim decided to lower the boom. Crossing his arms and plastering a scowl on his face, Jim waited until Eric had flipped up his visor to say, “You’re hot-dogging. Knock it off or you’re gonna end up as road kill. If you hit a patch of water, oil, sand, gravel, anything that breaks your traction, you’ll take a spill. One of the key things you’ve got to remember is that when you max out on a turn or at any time during a ride, you’ve just lost all safety margins.” Eric’s first impulse was to argue. He loved the rush of speed and the sense of freedom, and opening the bike up a little couldn’t, in his opinion, hurt. He’d been practicing so he felt he had the experience to handle it. However, before he could open his mouth, Eric reflected on a couple of facts. The first was that while he’d been riding for less than two weeks, the man before him had been riding for twenty years. The second fact was of even greater concern; Eric had no doubt that if Jim decided that Eric’s riding was hazardous in any way, Jim would tell Helen, and Helen would find a way to get rid of the bike, by any means necessary. Nodding his acquiescence, and resolving to at least try to keep his word, Eric said, “Sorry, I just got a little carried away. How am I doing otherwise?” His point made, Jim replied, “Not bad. You just need to tone it down a little. Now, tell me what I told you last week about riding in traffic.” Eric suppressed a sigh. He knew he’d have to pass many such tests and exams. “Rule number one: Watch out for blind spots, because car drivers might not see me. Rule number two: always assume they don’t see me. Rule number three: If I’m in a blind spot, get out. Rule number four: always assume that the other vehicle can and will do something stupid. Rule number five: my head is not as hard as a car’s bumper.” “Right on the first four and I like the new number five, though I’m not too sure it’s accurate in your case,” Jim said with a grin. “I know I’m getting on your case, but I’ve buried a few friends due to them making avoidable mistakes. You’re doing better but you’re still a beginner. Just don’t push it and you’ll be okay. Remember, you have to keep me happy, or I won’t sign off with Helen that you’re okay to ride to San Francisco.” Eric rolled his eyes. “You know damn well I’m not going to San Francisco.” Jim gave Eric a wicked grin. “I know that, but Helen doesn’t, so if you want to keep it that way, you’ll do exactly as I say.” “Okay, okay, you blackmailing son of a bitch,” Eric said with a heartfelt laugh, which also served to let Jim know that he wasn’t serious, as he revved up the engine and began another run around the almost empty section of parking lot. Two days later, with Jim and Linda’s wedding just a week away, Eric phoned Keith. “Hey dude, I’ve got us a place to rehearse. It used to be the Oak Leaf Nightclub, just off Wilshire.” “Yeah, I know the place,” Keith replied, surprised that Eric had secured such a large place – they didn’t need a whole club, just a stage – and had done so with such speed. “When do you want to get started?” “Anytime you want, just not during business hours because I’m in the studio every day this week,” Eric said, as he kicked his feet up on the desk and leaned back in his chair. Keith thought it over for a few seconds before replying, “How about Monday night? Monday and Tuesday are our weekend at the club, so that’d work well for us. Jansen has a class in the afternoon, but anytime after five would be great.” “I’ll be there by six,” Eric said, dreading the prospect of Los Angeles rush-hour traffic, even though it was only for five blocks. Munching on a hot dog and trying his best to ignore the acrid smell of percolating petroleum, General Bradson strolled around the pathways of the La Brea Tar Pits. He was a little early, which gave him the chance to determine, to the best of his ability, that he wasn’t being followed. The General leaned on a guardrail, looking out over a lake of bubbling tar, finishing up his hot dog as Bill appeared by his side, leaned out over the railing to snap a photo, and muttered, just loud enough for General Bradson to hear, “Restaurant. Northwest corner of the park, then go about a hundred feet to the north. Irish pub.” With that, Bill walked away, and General Bradson was left wondering what was wrong. They’d planned to talk while strolling around the park grounds, but Bill was acting extra cautious. Deciding not to worry about it as there was nothing that he could do, General Bradson walked towards the pub. Crossing the busy intersection at the northwest corner of the park, General Bradson spied Bill ahead, strolling up Fairfax. To the General’s surprise, Bill walked right to the door of the Irish Pub and entered without any attempt to double back in order to check for a tail. General Bradson began to smile as he walked into the pub, smelled the aroma of beer and corned beef, and joined Bill in a booth in a quiet corner of the restaurant. “I’m guessing you changed plans because you’re hungry,” General Bradson said with a grin. Bill’s dour expression eased slightly as he studied the leather-bound menu. Without looking up at the General, he said, “Guilty as charged, at least partially. You are under observation, as you know, but they aren’t making much of an effort. Most likely, they’ve got a GPS-based tracker attached to your car. You can find it with a simple radio detector, which might be a useful thing to do when the time comes,” Bill said, and casually handed the general a small black-plastic device. “I hope you came via the subway.” General Bradson nodded; he’d been taking a great many precautions lately. “Yeah, I took the Red Line Metro and then a cab. I wasn’t followed,” General Bradson said, hoping that it was true. He slipped the radio detector, which was slightly smaller than a deck of playing cards, into his pocket. Bill paused as the waitress approached and took their orders for corned beef sandwiches and Guinness beer, though both men were well aware that the import version of European beer were a pale imitation of what they’d get on tap in the brew’s original country of origin. Once the waitress had departed, Bill got down to business. “When are you leaving? I’ll need a way to contact you securely. Encrypted e-mail should suffice.” “I’ve got a way to get to my rendezvous untraced. I’ll be leaving in about a week. I’m going to participate in the rescue team’s training, and I’ll be going in on the ground.” Bill gave General Bradson a hard look. “Walter,” he said, using the General’s first name for emphasis, “watch your back. You’ll be dealing with mercenaries. They’re only in it for the money. Take that into account when you make your operational plans. Always bear in mind that they can turn on you, especially for a price. Don’t trust ‘em. Watch it with the money, too. Don’t set yourself up for a situation where making you disappear gets them paid without doing the mission.” General Bradson nodded somberly. He knew he was taking an enormous risk. “I think I’ve got it covered. I’m wiring the money to an account I now have in the Caymans on the day I leave here. From there, I can have the funds sent where needed. My deal is roughly half up front, half on completion, close to two million total.” “Liquidating your retirement accounts, then,” Bill said as a statement of fact; it had been easy to find out roughly how much the General was worth. “You better watch out. The IRS will come down on you like a ton of bricks, and wiring the money out of the country without paying withholding is a felony.” With a casual shrug, General Bradson replied, “Considering the laws I’ll be breaking, the IRS is the least of my concerns.” Jim sat staring at the telephone on his desk, wondering what to do, and kicking himself for not seeing this problem coming. He’d just gotten off the phone with Brody, and old friend and biker club president from Colorado. Brody and his bikers had ridden up to Telluride at Jim’s behest and had helped protect Instinct during the attempts on their lives, and had seemed to get along great with the Instinct guys. Jim, however, had overlooked one small detail. The wedding Jim and Linda had planned was a biker wedding, outdoors between rows of Harleys. Instinct had volunteered their Telluride ranch house as a location, and had also offered to play at the wedding. Jim and Linda had accepted with delight. The detail that Jim had overlooked was a significant one; since that time, Brandon and Chase had come out, and some bikers have real issues with gay people. Brody’s call had been to tell Jim that he’d be there, but two thirds of his club wouldn’t be. Sighing, Jim kicked himself for not seeing such an obvious issue sooner. Jim’s biker contacts in the Los Angles area, though, hadn’t seemed to care, and they surely knew. Jim made a quick call to Mad Mike, and was assured, in no uncertain terms, that most of his club was looking forward to the ride to Colorado and the free food and beer, and that none of the bikers going would say a single word about what Mad Mike had referred to as ‘The gay thing’. Jim had smiled at that. He knew Mad Mike well enough to envision the threats that had likely been issued when he’d passed along the invitation for the Telluride wedding to his club. There would be no shortage of bikers or bikes for the wedding; it just wouldn’t be as large as they’d planned. That left Jim with a dilemma, and he cracked open a can of beer as he sat back to think it over, trying to decide what to do. He didn’t like any of his options, not one bit. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  10. C James

    Telluride

    Chapter 8: Telluride Eric nosed his motorcycle around the corner, sweating a little in the heavy leather jacket and helmet. He was a little early, but he’d decided to come have a good look at the club he’d rented sight-unseen. Riding past the Oak Leaf’s deserted parking lot, Eric checked his mirror for any sign of pursuit. Finding none, he turned right, into the parking area for a neighboring insurance agency, and left his bike there. Walking up to the locked doors of the Oak Leaf, still wearing his stifling jacket, with his helmet under his arm and a cap pulled down low over his sunglasses, Eric fished in his pocket for the key that had been delivered. He entered the darkened club, and found a light switch. Clicking it on, which partially lit the empty club, Eric mentally kicked himself for not checking the place out in person first. The rental agent had promised him that the property was on the market and the utilities were on, and that the club was ‘ready for business’. Eric wondered just what sort of business one could do in an empty box. The club was spacious, and vacant – no furniture. Even the bar was missing, though he could see the impression on the floor where it had once stood. All that remained was a big empty room, a few doors leading to office and service areas, all of it centered upon a small stage. At least it looked clean, and a second glance at the stage revealed a mounting over the center, which made Eric smile as he thought, ‘at least they took the damn glitter-ball with ‘em’. Closing the door and shrugging his way out of his jacket, Eric noticed that the air conditioning wasn’t on and that the air temperature was in the eighties. Tossing his jacket, cap, and glasses on the floor near the door, he shucked off his shirt to add to the pile, and set off in search of the thermostat. Walking up to the Oak Leaf's door, Keith gave it a try, found it open, and walked in with Jansen in tow, carrying a boom box. Inside, they found a few lights on in the empty building, and then a sudden brightening as the ceiling lights over the stage flickered to life. “He’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Jansen said, and then he yelled, “Hey, Eric, we’re here!” Eric’s voice from the next room caught Jansen and Keith’s attention, “I’m trying to get the air conditioning on. I’ve found a thermostat, but no luck so far.” Jansen glanced at the floor, and seeing Eric’s shirt, he shared a grin with Keith before calling out, “Maybe I can help. I had a job as an electrician’s assistant for a few weeks.” Walking through the doorway at the back of the club, Jansen entered what had once been the office, and took a long look at Eric’s bare back. Joining Eric by the digital thermostat, Jansen glanced at it. “Looks like it should be on. My guess is they’ve shut off the AC at the main breaker box,” Jansen said, flicking a thumb at the breaker panel further down the wall, which was held shut by a small padlock. “Got a key for it?” Eric fished the door key from his pocket and glanced at the padlock. “No way can this be it, it’s too big,” he said as he wondered how to go about removing the lock without any tools. Keith, who had just entered the room but had heard the entire exchange, said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s sometimes pretty hot on stage at the club when they’ve got all the lights on, so we’re used to it. Besides, Jansen and I won’t be wearing much, most of the time.” Eric turned to flash Keith a grin. “I’m fine with it if you guys are. Okay, so, what have you two come up with?” Leading the way back to the main room, Jansen waited for Keith to answer. Keith decided to let Jansen handle it, so when no answer was forthcoming, and Eric had looked back at Jansen with a puzzled look, Jansen said, “Well, we looked at a couple of things. Three, actually. Your idea for us dancing like guests at first, and also a version of our club act but without the sleaze and with a few more gymnastics-style floor moves. Keither and I did some gymnastics in high school, so we like putting that to use.” Turning to give Jansen a casual smile as they arrived at the edge of the stage, Eric nodded once. “Gymnastics, huh? Yeah, that would be perfect. When I first saw you guys, I thought you looked like gymnasts. Where did you guys go to high school?” Jansen set down the boom box. With his attention still focused on the portable stereo, he missed the look in Keith’s eyes and replied, “Oak Meadows High. They had a pretty decent gymnastics program. We can’t do anything too extreme on a hard floor, but we can put some of it to use. George likes us to stick to the more standard moves, so this is a chance for us to really branch out a little.” Keith swallowed once before quickly adding, “A hard floor is a problem for some of it, but if there’s carpet we do some moves we otherwise can’t. Any news on the party location?” “I’m leaving for the islands in three days. I’ll let you know about the flooring and the rest of the details as soon as I get back. I’ve got this place for two weeks, so you guys can use it anytime. I’ll leave you the key,” Eric said with a grin as he heaved himself up onto the edge of the stage and sat down on its edge, causing his muscles to ripple. He gave Jansen and Keith an apprising look. Eric was getting to know them, and he suppressed a smile at their words. Deciding to leave one subject well enough alone, Eric grinned and asked, “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” Keith climbed onto the stage, and turned to take the boom box from Jansen. Reminding himself that Eric, who came across as a friendly guy, was their employer, he said, “We haven’t really rehearsed this much, so it’ll get better with practice.” Jansen flashed Eric a smile as the music began to sound from the boom box. Positioning themselves at the center of the stage, Jansen and Keith began to dance, looking to Eric for all the world like two guys who hadn’t ever been on a dance floor together, grinning and hamming it up, as if the whole thing was a joke. Both dancers were wearing button-front short-sleeved shirts, and Jansen turned sideways to Keith, danced forward a few paces, waving his arms around in an almost-parody of a dance. He then made a show of undoing the top two buttons of his shirt, before turning back to Keith, who repeated his partner’s moves, also displaying a decided lack of skill, while Jansen stood watching, clapping in time to the music. The act progressed, the dancer’s clumsy antics gradually growing more practiced, and their behavior became, in small increments, more serious. More buttons were undone, and Eric smiled and nodded in satisfaction. This was exactly what he’d asked for, and they were playing it out to near perfection. General Bradson busied himself with the final preparations for his trip. He practiced using the encryption program Bill had given him for his e-mail, which Bill claimed would allow the two of them to communicate with little to no risk of eavesdroppers. It had taken him two attempts to get the software installed on his now out-of-date laptop. Bill also provided an encryption device for the General’s phone, one very similar to what the General already had from his contact. With that done, the General proceeded, with the utmost of care, to powder, fold, and pack the contents of his duffle bag. His actions would have surprised anyone familiar with the casual abandon he’d used to pack his clothes in a second bag. The main difference was that in this case, the General’s life literally depended on what he was packing. Walking into the ranch house in Telluride ahead of Helen and his band mates, Jon glanced around, suppressing a shudder. He loved the place, but it now contained memories, more along the lines of nightmares. Jon absently rubbed at his shoulder where he’d been shot, as Eric came up beside him and said in a hushed voice, “I know, I feel it too. I sometimes get nightmares about that day.” Slightly surprised at Eric’s candor, Jon nodded in agreement. “Yeah, me too, bro. I woke up in a cold sweat the other night. I wonder if we’ll ever feel safe here again?” Helen and Barbra came in through the door, followed by Brandon and Chase. Helen had heard just enough of the conversation to understand what was being said. “I think we all feel strange here, and always will. Maybe you guys should sell it and get a different place? Maybe something a little larger, too,” Helen said in an uncharacteristically quiet voice as she gave a spot on the floor an involuntary glance, and shuddered. She had every right; she’d taken a bullet to the gut and come within a hair of dying. She still had some after effects, which she’d been warned might never completely go away. The members of Instinct glanced around the small country-style ranch house, looking at the familiar wooden beams and oaken walls. They shared a look, glancing in each other’s eyes. Nothing more needed to be said; they all felt the same way. Things could never be the same and it was time for a change, to leave the bad memories behind. Jon spoke for them all, “Put it on the market. We’ll find a new place. Maybe not here, but somewhere.” The feeling was unanimous: best to make a clean break with that aspect of the past. It was time for a change. Jim stopped by later that afternoon, and started setting up behind the house the few things they’d need. Hay bales were used to mark off an area where Instinct would perform, using just a couple of small amplifiers. More hay bales were used to mark out a corridor leading to a small wrought-iron archway that Jim had installed the previous day. Shirtless and sweaty in the warm sun, the four members of Instinct helped set the last of the hay bales in place, and then turned their attention to their own setup. Brandon hooked up the small amplifier and connected it to the three small speakers for a fast sound check. Finding that it would do the job, they hauled the amp and their instruments back inside, and then joined Jim as he sat under the archway. “So, when is the bachelor party,” Eric asked, hoping that Jim’s party would give him a few ideas for Brandon and Chase’s. Jim gave an awkward shrug. “A few of the guys took me out bar-hopping last night. I didn’t want much of a party, not my thing.” Eric resisted the urge to look at Jim. It wasn’t easy, because Eric could feel that something wasn’t right, and that Jim wasn’t on the level. After thinking it over for a few seconds, Eric decided to wait until he could get Jim alone before asking what was really going on. Eric wasn’t the only one to notice Jim’s incongruous reply. Brandon, who had known Jim for years, had done a fast double take when Jim had claimed that a big party wasn’t his thing. That just didn’t fit; Jim had always loved a wild night. Brandon gave the big biker a questioning glance, but receiving no reply, he decided to ask privately the first chance he got. Unlike Eric, Brandon had a pretty good idea what, or more precisely who, the problem was, and that he, or more precisely he and Chase, was it. While Eric fired up the grill, Brandon kept an eye on Jim. After a few minutes, Jim ambled towards the house, intending to grab another beer. Brandon followed at a fast walk, and had nearly caught up with Jim by the time they approached the back door. Jon opened the door, returning from his own beer run, and was about to talk with Jim when Brandon warned Jon off with his eyes. Entering the house directly behind Jim, Brandon was relieved to find that they had the room to themselves. Coming up behind Jim as he stopped to grab a beer from the refrigerator, Brandon said, “Hey big guy, we need to talk. I know what’s up and your bullshit ain’t cutting it with me.” Hefting his unopened beer, the big biker turned to glare at his old friend. “Nothin’ to talk about, so back off.” There were very few people who could talk to Jim like that and get away with it, but Brandon and Jim went back a long way. They were both from Phoenix, and had become friends. Jim had given Brandon a place to stay when his parents had tossed him out. Even so, Brandon was pushing the limits when he said, “You’re a fucking liar, and you ain’t even a good one. You don’t want a big party? Yeah, right. In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you skip a party, even when you were sick. Now you’re claiming you don’t want to party on the eve of your wedding? I’m calling bullshit when I see it. I’ll even tell you your reason; it’s me and Chase. You don’t think it’s a good idea for a couple of out gay guys to tag along with bikers who are out to get fucked up. You’re right about that, it’s a disaster in the making. But missing out on your party isn’t the way to deal with it. Just go, man, just go. Chase and I won’t be bummed at all about not being invited, but we’ll be majorly pissed off if you let us stand in your way. So go fucking party, Jim, and cut the bullshit.” Brandon was accustomed to bikers and knew how to act around them. However, the look in Jim’s eyes made Brandon wonder if he’d crossed the line instead of just coming close as he’d intended. After a long silence, which in reality was only a few seconds though to Brandon it felt like minutes, Jim said in a gruff voice, “Fine. You figured me out. But did you ever stop and think that maybe I wouldn’t have a good time knowing that I’d given two friends the brush-off? The guys that are coming to the wedding will mostly be cool with you guys, and the rest will at least pretend to be due to the warning they got from their club presidents, but when they get drunk, all bets are off. Whether you guys are there or not, I’ll get some crap.” With that, Brandon knew that he’d won. As an evil smile spread across his face, he asked, “Jim, what do you do when somebody gives you shit at your own fucking party?” Jim’s blank look told Brandon that he’d made his point. Slowly, a millimeter at a time, Jim began to smile in a way that most people would find disquieting. Jim’s fists began to clench as he answered in a quiet, menacing voice, “If they do that, they’ve just given me license to beat the holy living crap out of ‘em.” Brandon chuckled. “Yeah, and we both know how much you’d hate that idea,” he said in a tone that reeked of good-natured sarcasm. Jim’s answer was prefaced by a single nod. “You win, Brandon. I made the wrong choice. Tonight, I party. You and Chase are welcome to come along. If anybody starts shit with you, they’ll be outnumbered. Most of these guys appreciate what you’ve done for ‘em, and they like having the extra income. With a shake of his head, Brandon replied, “I appreciate it. We’ll come and have one drink with you, but then we’ll clear out. No point in pushing the limits.” “Suit yourself. It’ll be right next door at the Jacobs Ranch. There’s already a bunch of guys there, and they’ll party at the drop of a hat. I better lay in some supplies,” Jim said, meaning alcohol. With another shake of his head, Brandon replied, “I’ll take the Jeep into town right now. I’ve got a good idea what you guys like, and this party’s on me. Jim considered objecting, but figured that Brandon would be safe enough making a surprise visit to a liquor store. He knew that Brandon wouldn’t approve, but decided to make sure a couple of bikers were in the area to keep an eye out. Getting mobbed while out in public was an ever-present danger for the members of Instinct, and particularly so for Brandon due to being their lead singer. It was one of the many prices of fame. Brandon snatched up the Jeep’s keys from the kitchen drawer, and grabbed a baseball cap and sunglasses from the kitchen table. Pulling the cap down low over his eyes, he said, “I’ll see if Chase, Eric, or Jon wants to go, too.” Brandon turned for the door, but before he could take a step, a concern that loomed larger than drunken bikers crossed his mind and he spun around to face Jim. “I’m thinking of getting a few kegs of beer, and a case of whiskey. Any other alcohol you want, and any chance that some of the bikers will be bringing their own?” It only took Jim a second to figure out what Brandon was really asking. “That sounds great, but yeah, some of the bikers will have their own stuff, and that might include some tequila. I’ll do my best to keep Eric out of it.” Brandon shook his head. “It’s your party man; you don’t need to be keeping an eye on Eric. I’ll talk to him, and I’ll talk to Jon. Maybe if you could just spread the word among the bikers, that’ll do it.” Jim chuckled, thinking, not for the first time, that Brandon was exaggerating the danger. “I’ve heard the stories, but I’ve never actually seen Eric when he’s drinking tequila. He can’t be as bad as you make out, so maybe this’d be a good time to let him cut loose? How much trouble could he get into at a private party?” Jim said while arching a questioning eyebrow. Brandon gave Jim a bemused look before answering, “Trust me, if anything he’s worse that what you’ve heard. Eric and tequila are a very bad mix. Bring in a bag of rattlesnakes, it’d be safer. He goes nuts, and might start messing with bikes, or colors, or hell, he might burn the house down.” Jim nodded, still unsure whether Brandon was on the level or not. Strolling back outside, Brandon found Jon, Eric and Chase clustered around the upwind side of the grill with Helen and Barbra. With a satisfied smile, Brandon announced, “Jim’s changed his mind. He’s having a party next door tonight, and I’m taking a run to the liquor store. Anybody want to help me carry the kegs? Jon, I need you, you’re over twenty-one.” Helen turned to send an inquiring look in Jim’s direction. Jim nodded in reply, indicating that he’d have a couple of his bikers around, just in case. Eric gave the charcoal briquettes a poke with a stick before saying, “It’ll be an hour before this is ready to use. I’m in.” Before Helen could voice her objection to Eric’s words, Chase gave her a reassuring look as he said, “I guess it’s a foursome. Let’s go.” The idea of Eric going anywhere near a liquor store sent a chill down Helen’s spine, but she trusted his band mates to keep him away from the tequila. Caps and sunglasses were hastily pulled on during a fast dash through the house, and the four shirtless guys raced for the Jeep before Helen could change her mind. Throwing the big Cherokee into gear, Brandon raised a small cloud of dust as they bounced along the dirt driveway and took a right on Last Dollar Road. After less than a mile, Eric said from the back seat, “Good job getting Jim straightened out. Better you than me.” Chase’s puzzled look was accompanied by Jon’s voice asking, “Would somebody mind filling me in? What’s up?” Brandon explained as best he could, and then asked Chase, “Any objection to taking off early? We’d be safe enough there, I just don’t want to be the cause of any fights. Things are a little fragile between us and some of the bikers since we came out.” Chase nodded in agreement. There were other things he’d prefer to do with Brandon that night other than spending it around hard-drinking bikers. Eric’s eagerness to go along on the liquor run was an unspoken cause for concern for everyone in the Jeep, other than Eric himself. Eric was underage, so couldn’t buy legally, but he’d proven himself more than capable in the past of slipping a clerk a couple of hundred-dollar bills in lieu of ID. This concern was enhanced when Eric asked, “Is there any problem with Jon and me staying for the party? Sounds like it’ll be wild.” Brandon and Chase shared a worried glance, and Brandon looked in the rear-view mirror, meeting Jon’s eyes for a moment. Seeing the shared concern in both sets of eyes, Brandon returned his eyes to the road and said, “Eric, there’s something we need to tell you. Everybody, all together....” Eric watched with a bemused expression as his three band mates yelled in unison at the top of their lungs, “NO TEQUILA!” Giving a halfhearted shrug, Eric turned to stare out the window at the bumpy dirt surface of Last Dollar Road before replying with a dejected tone, “I don’t see why you guys make such a big deal about that. I just like to have fun.” Eric wasn’t as disappointed as he was pretending to be; he was well aware that he was of age to buy alcohol in the Canary Islands. He had no intention of breaking his promise to Helen during his two-day visit – he knew there wouldn’t be time anyway – but when they went to the islands for the party and the wedding, that would be another story entirely, as far as Eric was concerned. ‘Gotta live a little, sometimes,’ was his thought on that particular subject. Jon shook his head and gave Eric a baleful glare. “Bro, you go freaking nuts on tequila.” With a shrug, Eric replied, “I’m not that bad. I just like to cut loose once in a while.” That response was greeted by a chorus of sarcastic snorts, so Eric decided to let the matter drop, though he was all the more determined to prove to his band mates that he could handle his favorite liquor. The conversation turned to Jim’s wedding, and weddings in general, for the remainder of the drive. Brandon parked the Jeep, and as he and his band mates clambered out, he noticed, fifty yards away, two bikers by the side of the road, appearing to be engaged in conversation. Brandon knew better; they were there at Jim’s behest, diverted by his call from whatever they were doing in town, and now keeping an eye out for any sign of trouble. The four members of Instinct strolled into the liquor store, and Brandon headed for the counter where he asked, “We need three kegs of Michelob, a tap, and a case of Jack Daniels.” The clerk, a middle-aged woman, stared at Brandon in surprise, and then cast a suspicious glance at his companions. All four were shirtless, tanned and toned, and wearing sunglasses indoors. Deciding that none of them looked old enough to buy alcohol and were trying to tempt her with a large sale, she shook her head and said in a flat, no-nonsense tone, “Not without ID.” Flicking a thumb over his shoulder, Brandon said, “Jon’s twenty-one and has the ID, but I’m paying. This is for our friend’s bachelor party tonight.” The purchaser had to be at least twenty-one; the law was clear on that. The clerk shook her head and informed Brandon of that fact and then, ever alert for phony driver’s licenses, added, “I’ll need two forms of picture ID.” Jon heard that, and for a moment wondered what he’d do. His credit cards didn’t have his photo, so his only available ID was his California driver’s license. Jon didn’t have much time to worry; Eric stepped forward, reaching into the magazine rack that stood beside the counter and snatching up the latest copy of Rolling Stone. Eric began to thumb through it, and the clerk decided that she’d had enough. “I assume you’re planning on buying that?” she asked in a haughty tone. Finding the page he was looking for, Eric looked up and gave the clerk a grin, “Nope, just doing what you asked and getting Jon a second picture ID. A picture in a magazine counts, right?” The clerk had no idea if that would be legal. As she hesitated, Eric spun the magazine around, plopped it on the counter in front of the clerk, and then the four smiling members of Instinct removed their hats and sunglasses. The clerk glanced at the photo of Instinct, and then up at the four guys. Her expression quickly changed from neutral to a scowl as she recognized Telluride’s most famous part-time residents. Flicking her thumb at a white placard mounted on the wall, she snapped, “Can you read that?” Jon was about to hand the clerk his driver’s license, but paused to glance at the sign, which proclaimed in large red letters, ‘We reserve the right to refuse to serve anyone for any reason.’ The clerk crossed her arms as she announced, “I’m refusing to serve you. Maybe it’s because you don’t meet our dress code, maybe I think you’ve got a fake ID, or maybe it’s because I don’t like abominations,” she pronounced the last word with venom and contempt as she stared pointedly at Brandon and Chase and then added, “Now get out of here, you’re trespassing.” She smiled coldly, feeling satisfied and righteous. A devout Mormon, she felt that homosexuality was a sin, and thus it was her duty to oppose it. The fact that her religion clearly considered alcohol and tobacco to be sinful was a contradiction that she chose not to concern herself with, in regards to her occupation. Jon was the first to figure out that the issue was homophobia, and react. Slamming his fist down on the counter, he yelled, “What kind of bullshit is this? If you don’t serve us, I’m going to­–” A hand on his shoulder interrupted the threat to sue that Jon had intended to make. Turning, he looked into Brandon’s angry eyes. The anger wasn’t directed at Jon. “Let’s just go. She ain’t worth it,” Brandon said, trying his best to keep his temper under control. With a furious glance back at the smug clerk, Jon followed his brothers and Brandon out into the parking lot. As they approached the Jeep, Brandon and Chase shared an irate look, and felt a little shocked. Due to the isolated nature of their lives, they had been out in public very few times since coming out, and this was their first real taste of public homophobia being directed at them. They’d each experienced it from individuals in the past, but never from a stranger, especially not in a business setting. “That fucking sucks!” Eric yelled, turning to face the store as he adding in a lowered voice, “I say we go back in there and refuse to leave until that bitch fucking folds!” Brandon was tempted, but he knew that the clerk had the legal right to refuse anyone. That still left them with a problem; where to get their alcohol. Brandon glanced down the road, to find the same two bikers still outwardly engaged in conversation. Thinking for a second, Brandon turned and gave the Carlisle brothers a wicked grin. “We can find another store, or we can get what we came here for. Hop in, and I’ll pull up next to those two bikers down the road. They’re Jim’s guys, keeping an eye on us and trying to act like they ain’t.” Three minutes later, the four members of Instinct watched from a distance in the Jeep as the two bikers Brandon had spoken to roared into the liquor store parking lot, parked their bikes, and walked inside. “This is gonna be fun,” Eric said, anticipating the coming encounter. They watched in silence for two minutes, until one of the bikers stepped into the store’s doorway and waved. Reacting to the pre-arranged signal, Brandon pulled the Jeep into the parking lot, parking it directly in front of the door. The four grinning members of Instinct strolled back into the Liquor store, to find the two bikers standing beside four kegs of Coors, with six two-liter bottles of Old Crow whiskey sitting on the counter beside them. The clerk, returning from the back room with two taps in hand, stopped in her tracks when she spotted Instinct. Handing the taps to the two bikers, whom she had not yet deduced were acting on behalf of the band, she yelled, “I told you to leave. Now go, or I’ll call the police. You’re trespassing!” Brandon smiled coldly. “We’re just helping our friends load up their stuff. They sure can’t carry four kegs on their bikes.” Finally realizing the connection, and also noticing the similarity of the order, the clerk snapped, “There’s no sale, not if they’re with you,” and stalked towards the cash register, intending to refund the cash the bikers had paid. Brandon shook his head and reached for a keg. “You can’t do that. They’ve paid for the beer and booze and rented the kegs and taps. This is their property, except for the kegs, but they’ve left a deposit for those, right?” Jon and Brandon each took a handle and picked up the keg, their muscles rippling as they raised it a few inches off the floor and walked it out the door. With her face turning a stunning shade of crimson, the clerk yelled, “Bring that back here!” Eric reached down to grab a handle on the next keg as Chase moved into position on the other side. Just before lifting, Eric smiled at the clerk and said, “All sales are final, it says so right on your door. In other words, if you don’t like it, please feel free to go fuck yourself.” Snapping the seething woman a mock salute, Eric, along with Chase, lifted the keg and followed Jon and Brandon to the Jeep. One of the two bikers grabbed the third keg, and with a grunt heaved its one hundred and sixty pound mass to his shoulder. Watching his companion carry the keg away, the second biker chuckled. “I’m staying put, to make sure you don’t run off with my alcohol or taps. I’d suggest you don’t even think about it, ‘cause I don’t take kindly to thieves,” he said, with a menacing glare at the clerk. One more trip, and the four kegs were stowed in the back of the Jeep, and joined by the whiskey and taps. Brandon was about to climb into the driver’s seat when the first biker ambled up and said, “Here’s your change, man,” and held out his hand, which held eighty-three dollars and change. Brandon shook his head and smiled as he climbed into the Jeep. “It’s yours, and thanks for the help. I wish I had a picture of her face when she figured it out. That was fucking perfect.” As the Jeep drove away, the biker turned to his friend, handed him two twenties, and said, “See, I told you those guys were alright.” © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  11. C James

    Expeditions

    Chapter 5: Expeditions The growl of the black motorcycle reverberated through the parking lot as Eric took one final spin, weaving in and out between the few parked cars in the almost-empty lot, far more comfortable than he’d been just an hour before. Jim watched as Eric pulled up beside him and opened his helmet visor. Jim was pleased with the progress, but still harbored a few concerns. “You’re doing well, man, but cool it a little; you don’t have the experience to be doing any hotdogging. Do not, under any circumstances, try to run from the paparazzi. Leave them to me and my guys. The traffic isn’t too hectic right now, so do you want to try riding back to the hotel?” Eric’s face, framed by the black helmet, lit up in a broad grin. “Don’t sweat it; I’m not going to try anything crazy. Hell, just this helmet keeps me pretty well disguised. I went for plain black when I ordered the bike so it wouldn’t stand out, so with any luck the paparazzi won’t know it's me. With that in mind, how about you ride it back to the hotel? If they see you driving my Jeep, it might clue ‘em in that I’ve got a new vehicle.” Staring at Eric’s innocent smile, Jim knew that there was at least one other reason for the request. Crossing his arms, the big biker replied, “You just want to make me ride your bike past my guys... They saw me ride it here, ain’t that enough?” The other bikers had been hanging out at a distance, on the lookout for any return attempt by the paparazzi. “That’s part of it,” Eric replied with a mischievous smirk, before adding, “But the paparazzi angle is real, too.” Eric took the helmet off and swapped it for Jim’s which was in the Jeep. Handing Jim his helmet, Eric said, “I had the dark visor so they can’t see my face, and I’ve ordered a leather jacket with a few special modifications.” Jim arched an eyebrow in Eric’s direction, and then looked at the helmet. “What kind of modifications?” “Extra padding, lots of it. They’ll see a guy with a heavier build, I hope, and not get curious. I was going to have ‘em add padding around the gut so I’d look a bit like you, but that stuff’s expensive when you buy it by the metric ton,” Eric said, struggling to keep a straight face as he gave Jim’s beer gut a pointed look. “Why you son of a...” Jim laughed as he stomped forward and Eric reacted by darting away, laughing hard enough to be unable to utter a word. Jim shook his head at Eric, smiling. He’d gotten to know Eric and the Instinct guys pretty well, at least enough to know that Eric only teased people that he liked. Jim said with a smirk, “First you make me ride a Japanese bike in front of my guys, and now you’re insulting my famine-proofing. I’ll have you know that this,” Jim rubbed his hand on his stomach, “is the product of many a fine brew. Okay, I’ll see you back at the hotel, wise-ass.” Eric caught the tossed keys with a chuckle and jogged towards his Jeep. While following Jim back towards the hotel, Eric wondered – not for the first time – when would be the best time to break the news of the motorcycle to Helen. Jim wheeled into the shaded confines of the underground parking garage, ascending three levels up to the private parking area reserved for the adjoining studio. Brandon heard the motor’s rumble as he locked Chase’s car, and looked up in curiosity as Jim pulled up beside him. Brandon’s eyes took in the make of the bike and as Jim took off the helmet, Brandon said, “There’s got to be a story behind this.” Giving Brandon an apologetic shrug, Jim then held up his hands and said, “Sorry, I can’t tell ‘ya.” Brandon gave Jim an appraising look, wondering what was going on. The normally forthcoming biker wasn’t one to keep secrets, so his curiosity was piqued. Brandon was about to ask a few more questions when Eric’s Jeep, its tires squeaking on the concrete, rolled into the parking area and parked next to the motorcycle. Beginning to suspect that Eric was somehow involved, Brandon watched Eric’s eyes as the bassist jumped down from his Jeep and walked towards them, shirt in hand. Eric barely glanced at the motorcycle, and showed no surprise, which was enough of a confirmation for Brandon. “Tell me you didn’t,” Brandon said, indicating the Yamaha with his eyes before adding, “Helen will kill you slowly, you know that, right?” Eric shrugged and gave Brandon an innocent smile, knowing full well he’d see right through it. “I have no idea what you’re talking about...” Not buying it for a second, Brandon took another look at the bike. “Not bad. So when did you get it, bro?” Eric glanced at Jim, and upon receiving an empty-handed shrug in reply, he said, “We just picked it up today. Jim’s been teaching me how to ride. Helen doesn’t know about this yet.” “I know that by the fact that you’re still breathing,” Brandon said, rolling his eyes before adding with a chuckle, “I had a bike for a year back in Phoenix. I like ‘em, but you get to deal with Helen about this and I don’t envy you there.” “I’ll just have to wait for the right time to tell her. Maybe later this week, when we’re having dinner with her and Barbra. Helen’s a little less extreme when Barbra’s around,” Eric said, sounding more hopeful than confident, and keeping his fingers crossed that he could play Helen’s anger to his advantage. That evening, sitting in Jon’s suite after dinner, the four members of Instinct wrapped up another writing session. “The girls should be here in an hour, so I’m going to grab a shower,” Jon said. A few minutes after Jon left, Eric watched Brandon and Chase stroll through the connecting door to the suite they shared. He’d seen a few of their exchanged glances during dinner, and had no illusions as to what they planned to do. He smiled to himself, happy that they’d found each other, and ignored the small tinge of jealousy their relationship engendered in him. He’d seen it, in their actions and in their words; they were becoming one, partners of the soul. Eric’s recent long string of one-night stands flashed through his mind: nameless groupies, joining him for a few hours of three and four-way sex. Eric shuddered at one of his fleeting thoughts, that the sex just wasn’t as much fun anymore. That notion had become apparent to him weeks before and had only grown, in spite of his ever more difficult mental gymnastics as he attempted to explain it away. He couldn’t, though. Eric had, a little at a time, accepted that it was real; his sexual escapades, once the very core of his being, just were not what they had once been. Glancing at himself in one of the room’s mirrors, Eric wondered about the two girls he’d invited to share his bed that night. The old thrill he’d felt in the past was gone, and that, he decided, just wouldn’t do. With that thought came another: he needed advice, but from who? The person he was closest to was his younger brother Chase, but the one way they most differed was that Chase was far from sexually adventurous. Jon was another option, and Eric resolved to ask him, but as he did so his other option began to look ever more attractive, though Eric had no conscious notion of why. With that settled in his mind, and resolved to asking Brandon for some advice and opinions the next time they were alone, Eric snapped open a laptop to continue his research into dance and stripping routines for the stag party, determined to improve Jansen and Keith’s act. Fifteen minutes later, Eric startled as Jon said over Eric’s shoulder, “What’re you planning on, producing a whole new act? Why don’t you just find different strippers? There’s got to be some somewhere that’d be good.” Eric shrugged. “I like the ones I found. They’re good, and I think Brandon and Chase will like ‘em. It’s their act that stinks. Typical cheesy, raunchy shit. The fact that they won’t have the stupid stage settings and lighting will help. I want something classy and different, but still hot. I’m going to get ‘em to rehearse whatever I come up with a few times. I’ll need you to come with, and give me your opinion.” Jon shook his head, biting back a chuckle. “Bro, I’m not exactly the right choice for this. Straight guy here, remember? Brandon or Chase would be your best bet...” Jon’s voice trailed off as he realized the glaring problem with that idea. “Yeah, like that would help keep it a secret from ‘em... We’d just say, ‘Hey dudes, come check out this stripper act we’re working on, but it has nothing to do with your stag party.’ Right...” Eric said, as he shook his head and rolled his eyes. Jon laughed, and then plopped into the sofa. “Okay, okay, dumb idea. Too bad The Shadows are off on tour, because we don’t know any other gay guys. Anyway, you better go grab a shower; the chicks will be here in a few.” Eric shut down the laptop and stood up, turning to walk towards the door to his suite. Halfway across the room, he decided to ask a question, both for the apparent reason, and a very different one. Turning to look at the back of Jon’s head, Eric asking in an uncharacteristically soft and serious voice, “Jon, do you ever get tired of groupies? Ever thought of maybe changing a little, dating the same girl for a while?” Jon’s head snapped around to stare at his brother. “Who are you and what have you done with Eric?” he asked, smiling until he saw Eric’s serious expression. Surprised, Jon tried to answer as best he could. “Yeah, maybe a little, but I like things the way they are. No commitments, no stress. They’re happy and I’m happy. Besides, with our life, it’s kinda hard to maintain a relationship. We’re on the road so much, it just wouldn’t work. One day, yeah, maybe I’ll settle down – or maybe not, but for now I’m having fun so why change? What brought this on?” Eric shrugged, not really wanting to delve into the subject just yet, and having already planted the seed for his other, travel-related plan. “Just wondering. Anyway, I’ll grab a shower. See ya in a few.” General Bradson had trouble of his own making. He was due to meet with his extraction team, somewhere in or near the Cape Verde Islands, just off the west coast of Africa, in a week’s time. He’d been warned, via both Bill’s sources and his contact, that his travel to the Cayman Islands had generated some official interest. Therefore, he’d been asked to travel under an assumed name and avoid registering with passport control on his way in and out of the U.S. That simple request had presupposed something he did not have: a means to obtain a false passport. Bill had come up dry; he had no access to the operations side of the agency, hence he could not help in crafting a cover or the paperwork to go with it. When informed of the difficulties, the contact had offered, for a hefty fee, to provide the needed passport. The catch, though, was that it would take a month and would therefore preclude any chance of the General’s direct participation in the training, and thus exclude him from the ground mission. He suspected that this was no coincidence, as he was well aware that Felicity, the team leader, considered him an unskilled interloper and thus a danger to have along. There had to be a way. A few ideas flashed through his agile mind, including an offer of help he’d had no prior intention of utilizing. Bill took a seat in the General’s sparse living room. There wasn’t much choice; one armchair and one plastic lawn chair, so Bill, mindful of his comfort and bad back, took the former. He cast a skeptical eye around the room and said, “Perhaps you ought to consider some redecorating. I know it’s a little far-fetched, General, but you might consider getting some actual furniture,” he said, as he tossed a manila folder on the milk crate that served as a coffee table.” “What can I say? I’ve lived in base housing for so long I just don’t know how to do the domestic stuff,” General Bradson replied with a shrug at the good-natured jab. Smiling in his callow way, Bill flipped open the folder, and handed the General the topmost glossy photo. “Here’s some of the recon take. Other assets have confirmed; your son is being held in the brig of a Revolutionary Guard battalion. We think it’s in here,” Bill said, pointing to a stone and masonry building near the main barracks. Nodding, the General put on his reading glasses and studied the photo. He’d seen satellite photos before, so the clarity and detail came as no surprise. The photo had been taken from slightly south of directly overhead and the shadows indicated an early afternoon. Several men stood in the shade near the building, smoking. The cigarettes were beyond the ability of the satellite to see, but the hand positions and a small puff of smoke made it plain enough. They appeared relaxed and bored, which suited the General just fine. A dozen yards away, a small olive-drab van with what appeared to be a capped stovepipe jutting out of its roof caught the General’s eye. “NBC vehicle,” he said as a statement rather than a question, referring to a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical detector vehicle. “I was wondering if you’d catch that. Yeah, it’s not exactly our Fox M93A1. It’s bare-bones, equipped to detect some kinds of nerve and chemical agents. Our best estimate is its capabilities are analogous to our old M256 Chemical Agent Detector Kit. Like the M256, we think it’s got two primary testing components – a vapor sampler and reactive detection paper. That pipe on top is, we think, an active intake. A small fan draws air through a sensor plate, and any reactive gasses trigger an alarm, prompting further tests.” General Bradson nodded, asking the obvious question, “So that means they’ve got some high-value assets in the area. What are they?” Bill shrugged. “We aren’t entirely sure. What we do know is that they’ve got TOR-M1 mobile surface-to-air vehicles in the immediate area. That’s the Russian’s best air-defense missile system, and the Iranian’s paid a packet for ‘em. They don’t have many, so that makes something nearby very high-value. Best guess; storage facilities for their chemical weapons. That would explain why they have some of their few NBC assets in the area.” General Bradson gave a noncommittal grunt before replying, “Yeah, somebody bombs your storage depot and you’ll want to know if anything is leaking. They don’t have chemical protective suits, at least not enough for their troops, so they’d be cautious. Clever of them to give us notice of a high-value target like this.” Bill, who understood the intelligence side far better than The General, angled his head and gave a bemused smile. “You’d be amazed how often things like this occur. They took your son to a convenient secure installation, and it happened to be this one. Their deployments are logical from their operational perspective, and it probably never occurred to them what we might surmise from the combination of deployed assets on display. That happens so often in this business that it’s no surprise at all.” General Bradson laid the photo down in his lap, a slow smile spreading across his face as he said, “At least now we know how we’re going to pull this off.” “Time to do a little cleaning,” Bill replied with a malicious chuckle, having reached the same conclusion himself. Eric fidgeted as Helen and Barbra served up dessert. His case of nerves, important to portray due to his plan, required no acting skill. Deciding that now was as good a time as any, he decided to get started. “I need to go to San Francisco. I’ll only be gone for a couple of days,” he said as casually as he could muster, before adding in Jon’s direction, “Could you pass the pepper?” Jon shoved the crystal pepper grinder in Eric’s direction, wondering both why he wanted pepper for ice cream, and why he wanted to go to San Francisco. Helen stared at Eric for a moment before asking in a reasonable voice, “Why do you want to go to San Francisco now, right in the middle of our studio time?” Trying to keep his expression unconcerned, Eric said, “I figured the drive would get me used to the motorcycle I bought a couple of days ago.” Eric ground a little pepper onto his ice cream and took a bite, deciding that it wasn’t a bad mix at all. Brandon, Jon, and Chase, all of whom knew about the motorcycle, turned to watch Helen’s reaction. To their shock, she nodded calmly and said, “Motorcycle? Well, that’s news. But why did you choose San Francisco,” she paused, and then added in a guttural snarl, “as the first destination for your two-wheeled death machine?” Feigning shock at Helen’s reaction, Eric gave her a wide-eyed look. “I need to go there anyway. I just figured it would be a good way to learn to ride, away from city traffic,” After taking another bite of his ice cream, Eric added, almost too casually, “I’ve been dealing with some personal issues lately.” He glanced pointedly at Jon, feeling a little guilty for misleading him into thinking that this related to their conversation about girls, but knowing that Jon was incapable of successfully lying to Helen. Eric also needed to keep Brandon and Chase in the dark. “It’s about the girls I’ve been dating. Things just haven’t been as much... fun, when I’m in bed. So, I got some advice, and I decided to act on it. Remember that guy you caught me kissing after the San Francisco concert? His name’s Cody and I just need to see him.” Eric paid careful attention to Jon, wondering how he’d take the coming news. “I want to find out if maybe it’s time for me to, you know, change lanes, change teams, play both sides, or whatever. Maybe that’s what’s affecting me. I just can’t seem to get as into sex with the girls as I used to. We’ll be rolling around, and when it’s time for the main event I–” Helen’s hand shot up, exactly as Eric had expected, waving for him to stop. Eric had always been very open about sex, but Helen didn’t want to hear the graphic details. “Whoa, way too much information! Are you really sure about this?” Eric glanced at the five shocked faces looking back at him. He couldn’t help but notice that Chase seemed the least stunned, though he’d expected as much. With a casual nod, Eric replied, “I just want to try out that side of me. If I don’t like it, at least then I’ll know that’s not the problem.” Shaking her head in mild disbelief, Barbra glanced at Helen before saying to Eric, “Have you ever considered that maybe you’re just getting tired of one-night stands, and what you need is a girlfriend?” Carefully dancing around the truth, and taking pains not to lie about anything other than his destination, Eric replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try that if San Francisco doesn’t work out.” Barbra nodded, and after sharing another surprised look with Helen, replied, “Hon, I knew I was attracted to women by the time I was twelve. Aren’t you a little old to be thinking along these lines?” Smiling sweetly while eating the last bite of his ice cream, Eric shrugged. “I’ve always found some guys hot, it’s just that I’ve always found girls hotter, until now maybe. I wouldn’t have kissed a guy unless I was kinda interested. So, I figured I need to do this, otherwise I’ll never know. I’ve laid down some bass tracks so this won’t get in the way of our recording work, but I need to do this,” Eric said, looking slightly abashed, which was unusual for him. Recalling the incident at Candlestick Park all too well, but also understanding better than most what she thought Eric was facing, Helen nodded gravely. “Eric, I can understand your confusion, and thus your need to go. I’ll agree, but on two conditions. One, that Jim rides with you. Second, that you swear to me you won’t touch tequila while you’re gone.” With a happy smile, Eric said, “Thanks Mom, you’ve got a deal.” “Quit calling me Mom or I’ll change my mind,” Helen said, with a skyward roll of her eyes. Eric felt bad about partially misleading everyone. His biggest regret was Jon, but he knew that his brother was a poor liar, and if he found out Eric’s real destination, Eric didn’t think he could lie convincingly about it. Besides, Eric consoled himself; much of what he’d said was true in a way. The discussions he’d had with Brandon and Jon had been real enough; it wasn’t his fault if they drew the wrong conclusions. It was, he said to himself, all in a good cause: keeping Brandon and Chase in the dark about their party and their wedding location. The best part of it all, Eric thought, was that the stunned silence around him did not contain any mention of his new motorcycle by Helen. He hoped he’d dodged that particular bullet, at least for now. Eric was pleased with himself regarding his performance, though the fact of the matter was that it had not been quite as convincing as he believed. Out of all those at the table, Jon had the hardest time with Eric’s words. Learning that his youngest brother, Chase, was gay had not been easy, but now his other brother was showing definite signs. It wasn’t as much of a surprise as it might have been; Jon well knew that Eric was nothing if not sexually adventurous, and there was the kiss with a guy, though Jon had chalked that up to the tequila, which always made Eric act crazy, even by Eric’s standards. Keeping his qualms to himself, and quickly realizing that, as probably the only straight person in the room, he was alone on this issue, with no one he could talk to who could possibly understand. Helen answered her intercom, and her secretary’s words made her jaw drop open. She gave the only answer she could. “Send them in.” Helen looked up, watching her door, the long seconds ticking by as she wondered what this could be about. She didn’t have long to wait; the two federal agents, wearing the cliché attire of black suits and sunglasses, strolled in. Once they were seated, the older of the two said, “Thank you for seeing us, Ma’am. We need to ask you a few questions. The first one is, do you know this man?” The agent removed a photo from his briefcase and slid it across the big desk to Helen. Glancing down at the photo, Helen resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she replied in a civil tone, “Anyone who has picked up a newspaper, a magazine, or watched TV knows that I know General Bradson.” Nodding, the senior agent adjusted his dark sunglasses with his thumb while leafing through his briefcase. After a few moments’ pregnant silence, he looked up to ask, the briefcase forgotten, “What do you know of his current plans?” “All I know is that I offered him a job. He’s thinking about it.” The younger agent asked, “Would that job involve the Cayman Islands, Ma’am?” The senior agent, irked by his partner’s disclosure, gave the man an annoyed shake of his head as Helen replied, “He was offered the position of Instinct’s head of security. That would involve some travel, if he accepts. Is there a problem?” Helen asked, wondering what was going on, and suspecting that it had something to do with the General’s son. Ignoring Helen’s question, the senior agent asked, “Would this job involve any financial transfers at the moment?” Shaking her head and growing irritated with the one-way course of the conversation, Helen decided to play tit for tat and use the agent’s own tactic. Ignoring the question, she asked, “What is this about, gentlemen?” “We’re just running down a few things, nothing to be concerned about, and you aren’t in any trouble at all,” the senior agent said with a patently false smile. “Now, please answer the question.” What had begun as merely unexpected now had Helen seeing both red flags and red in general. Deciding that it couldn’t hurt to answer honestly, she replied, “As I said, I made the man a job offer. We have no further official involvement beyond that, so no.” The senior agent angled his head slightly, and then nodded. “Very well, we may be in touch. I must insist that you keep our visit confidential.” Helen nodded pleasantly, the order she’d just been given guaranteeing that she would do nothing of the kind. She watched the two agents leave, and after counting to thirty, she left her office, seeking out the janitor, or more precisely, his cell phone. After finding the man, she borrowed the phone and stepped away, looking in her own phone to retrieve the number she needed. Aware that there might be more than one ear on the other end of the line, Helen waited until the General answered to say, “Walter, I’m afraid I need to reschedule our meeting regarding the security and investigation position we’ve offered you. Could you drop by the studio at two this afternoon, instead of three?” General Bradson lifted his kitchen phone and listened in surprise, recognizing Helen’s voice and also the use of his first name, and the addition of ‘investigation’ to the job title. The fact that they’d had no arrangements to meet was the final clue. Realizing that something was up, he nodded in spite of being on a phone and said, “I’ll be there.” “Thanks, bye,” Helen said in a chipper voice, before handing the phone back to the bemused janitor with an apologetic shrug as she said, “Sorry, my battery is almost dead. Thanks for letting me make the call.” The meeting was not for an hour, so Helen busied herself by returning to her office and making a few inquiries into her other problem – Eric. Thanks to her eavesdropping on the intercom, Helen knew of his Canary Island plans, and his sudden interest in San Francisco had, after a couple of hours to mull it over, made her increasingly suspicious. Given forty-eight hours, there would be only one way he could get to the islands with enough ground time to do anything. Helen flicked through her dog-eared rolodex – she’d discovered long ago that paper had its benefits versus a computer-based index. Finding the number she sought, she dialed it. Once the secretary on the other end had picked up, Helen introduced herself. Instinct had used the charter agency many times, so Helen was recognized, and that made the next question easy, “I just wanted to confirm the departure time for Eric Carlisle’s flight.” The secretary was happy to oblige the frequent client’s seemingly incurious request, and as she hung up the phone, Helen smiled at how easy it had been and breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t had to call every air charter agency in the city. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  12. C James

    Travel Plans

    Chapter 6: Travel Plans At the studio an hour later, Helen strolled in to find Instinct hard at work laying down tracks in the main sound room. Leaving them to their work, and idly wondering just when and how would be a good time to square things with Eric for his sneaky deception – she’d figured out that it was, at least in part, a way of deflecting her away from the motorcycle issue – she waited near the studio entrance. Right on time, General Bradson walked in, and she ushered him to a meeting room. As soon as she had closed the door, she said, “General, I had a very interesting pair of visitors in my office earlier. Two FBI agents to be exact, asking questions about you, your financial transactions, your relationship with Instinct, and they also mentioned the Cayman Islands.” Helen watched as the General’s face blanched. He’d been warned that he was attracting unwanted interest, but the confirmation came as an unpleasant though not unexpected development. After several moments, he said, “I’ve heard a few rumblings, but this is the first real confirmation that I’m being investigated. It’s not due to tax evasion or anything like that. It’s also nothing that you would find objectionable, under the circumstances.” “Then I think I know, but I won’t ask. I just wanted to warn you that they’re asking questions,” Helen said. The news left General Bradson with a dilemma. He had wished to avoid asking Helen and Instinct for help, but he saw no other option. His son’s life was on the line, and thinking that desperate times call for desperate measures, he said in a hushed, strained voice, “Helen, I have a problem. In a nutshell, I’m trying to do something and some elements in the government have become suspicious. My trip to the Caymans, plus my financial transactions, must have clued them in. I can’t let them stop me. For the sake of your own legal protection I won’t tell you what I’m doing, but your guess is likely correct. My problem is this; I need to leave the country for a while, without them knowing. If I travel by normal means, they’ll track my passport use.” The General wasn’t sure if Helen could help, but he had some ideas. The first thought in his mind had been stealing a small plane and flying low, below radar coverage, to get across the U.S. - Mexican border, land on a remote roadway somewhere, and then traveling from Mexico to the Cape Verde islands by a private charter. His intention was to ask Helen, based on her considerable experience in making travel arrangements, for suggestions. Seeing the perplexed look on her face, and realizing that he needed to clarify what he was after, he added, “I just need some advice on ways I can travel without using my passport, or at least without it showing up in an electronic database. You’ve traveled far and wide with Instinct, so I figured you might have some ideas based on what you’ve noticed regarding passport procedures. I can get into Mexico unnoticed, but I need some ideas for how to get to my destination from there without being tracked.” Helen’s first instinct was to steer well clear of the General’s project, but one look in his eyes changed her mind. He was clearly desperate: a father trying to save his son’s life. “General, that’s a tough question. Traveling by airline pretty much guarantees going through passport control at both ends, and they usually read the passports electronically. Traveling privately might be your best bet. I’ve never crossed Mexico’s southern border by land, so I have no idea how hard that might be. If you are trying to get to South America, that might be an option. If you are trying to head... ” Helen paused, trying to think how to phrase her question based on her best guess as to his destination, and then continued, “East, then it will likely be more difficult. I know that you probably can’t tell me, but it would help if I knew your immediate destination, at least the approximate region. I’m sure you’ve considered using some of your old contacts and catching a military flight?” Helen’s guess as to the General’s destination was the Middle East. Taking a deep breath, the General considered her request. The fewer people who knew where he was going the better, but he was up against a wall. Seeing no other option, he said, “A military flight is out of the question. There aren’t any to where I need to go, which is the Cape Verde Islands.” Helen arched an eyebrow. That was unexpected news, and though she vaguely recalled that the Cape Verdes were somewhere in the Atlantic, she didn’t know where. The thought of islands in the Atlantic raised another possibility, so Helen asked, “I’m a little rusty on my geography. Where are they in relation to the Canary Islands?” Arching an eyebrow of his own, and recognizing a look of inspiration in Helen’s face, the General replied, “The Cape Verdes are about a thousand miles south by southwest from the Canaries. The Canaries are a couple hundred miles off the coast of Morocco, and the Cape Verdes are about the same distance off the cost of Senegal.” A thousand miles. That thought gave Helen pause, and caused her to dismiss any notion of hiring a local fishing boat for the trip from the Canary Islands to the Cape Verdes. However, the idea she’d had could perhaps be adapted, so she said, “He doesn’t know that I know it, but Eric has arranged for an air-charter to the Canary Islands. He’s planning on having Brandon and Chase’s stag party and wedding there. He’s leaving in a few days. I have considerable influence with the air-charter company due to using them so often for Instinct. I’m assuming you’re a pilot, General?” The general smiled. “Yes, Ma’am. I came up through fighters before I got too old and had to take a star on my collar and a desk instead.” Nodding, Helen fleshed out her idea. “I’m thinking that if I pulled a few strings, you could fill in as a co-pilot for the outbound leg. Then, you can make some arrangements I’d prefer not to know about with the pilot for his silence, and walk away. I know for a fact that passport and immigration issues are supremely lax when it comes to flight crew, especially of private jets on short layovers at small airfields.” The General nodded. The idea had serious merit, all the more so thanks to the lack of any rivals, but also some flaws. “That’s an interesting idea. I see a few problems though. A pilot must be rated – certified – in the type of aircraft being flown, and also possess a commercial license – which is something that I lack – for any use which involving paying passengers or cargo. If the aircraft normally requires only one pilot, this may work, though I’m only type-rated in the military version of the Gulfstream 5, which requires two. However, I could sure fill in as a navigator.” Helen nodded. “Okay, then we may have a way to get you to the Canary Islands, but what about the Cape Verdes? They are still a long way off.” The General scratched his chin as he thought that over. That was indeed a problem, but recalling his days in the Air Force, he had a possible answer, though it wasn’t the one he was about to give Helen. “Maintenance. You said Eric was going for two days. That means they’d likely be waiting around for him. If private charter outfits are anything like the Military Airlift Command, then they put downtime to use. Commercial jets need regular maintenance and inspections, at a minimum of every thousand hours of flight time. So, they would likely wish to utilize the downtime to get their maintenance done. If I can find a FBO – a Fixed Base Operator, which is an aircraft servicing facility – in the Cape Verde Islands, and I can make it appear that they charge better rates than in the Canary Islands, that gives them an ironclad reason to make a side-trip. While the aircraft is being serviced, I slip away.” Helen angled her head, impressed with the General’s agile mind. “It looks like we might have a way of getting you there, assuming you can slip away unnoticed. However, what about getting you back? How long do you need to be there?” Helen asked. “The return trip will not be an issue,” the General assured her, not wanting to say more. “Then what we probably need to do is make the arrangements with the air charter company. I’ll give them a call to make an appointment,” Helen said. The General reached out, staying her hand before she could open her phone. Shaking his head, he said, “No. I do not want you involved. That would put you at legal risk. Perhaps just tell them that I’m a nervous passenger on that flight, and wish to meet with the pilots. Don’t give them my name. I’ll take it from there.” The General hoped that the flight crew would be amenable to some extra cash, along with a little excitement. Helen nodded. “Sorry, but I need to ask; can I have your assurance that this will not put Eric in danger in any way?” Smiling, relieved to have a question that he could answer, the General replied, “As long as he does not know in advance that I’ll be on the flight, he won’t be in legal danger. As for any other kind, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, and I won’t be carrying anything illegal. He won’t be going with us to the Cape Verde Islands, so he will be in no danger from that trip whatsoever. At the very worst, he may find himself without a return flight home, but I consider that eventuality unlikely in the extreme.” Smiling, envisioning the look on Eric’s face when he recognized his ‘navigator’, Helen said, “I totally agree, we need to keep Eric in the dark. He has no idea that I’m onto his plans. My only regret is that he’ll recognize you and probably figure that out. It’s a pity, because I’d have loved to see his face when he does.” Grinning for the first time since he’d heard the news about his son, the General said, “My dear lady, I wouldn’t dream of seeing you deprived. I’ll take his picture for you at the appropriate time.” Eric strolled into Jon’s suite, and one glance at his older brother told him that the vibes he’d picked up at dinner were not a transient mood. Deciding to clear the air, Eric plopped down on the couch beside Jon and said, “Hey bro. I can tell something’s bugging you. What’s up?” Jon shrugged, remaining intent on the TV screen. Eric noticed that Jon’s gameplay had taken a nosedive, which was not a good sign. After half a minute of ignoring the question, Jon replied in a quieter than normal voice, “I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. I don’t want to talk about it.” Glancing at his brother, whose eyes remained glued to the TV screen, Eric felt his own blood run cold. Jon only clammed up to this extent when he was angry or upset, and Eric picked up on the signs. What he didn’t know was specifically why, though he knew it must have something to do with his San Francisco announcement. Deciding to test that theory, Eric leaned back, stretched, and then said in a casual tone, “If this is about my trip, I’ll level with you. I’m not going to San Francisco. That was just an excuse, so I could get away for two days without Helen finding out where I’ve gone. I’m going to the Canary Islands to find a location and set up the party.” Jon dropped the video game controller, which made a muffled thud as it hit the carpet. He turned to stare at Eric with a stunned look on his face, and after several seconds he said, “Dude, you’re shitting me?” Feeling the previous tension ebb away, though knowing he might need to deal with it at some future time, Eric grinned. “I’ll give you the number of the air charter place if you want to check. I wasn’t getting anywhere online, so I decided to go in person, and I figured that Helen wouldn’t be as hard to deal with if she thought it was personal, along the lines I laid out. Anyway, what’s the big deal? So what if I’d been serious? You’ve already got one gay brother, two if you count Brandon. Why would it bug you if I wanted to experiment on that side a little?” Jon shrugged. “It just... I don’t know. I was surprised, and then I got to thinking; I’m the only straight guy in this band. Brandon, Chase, Helen, Barbra, and I thought you, too. Guess I felt kind of the odd guy out and blamed you. I also just don’t get it. Brandon and Chase don’t have much choice; they don’t like girls. But you, I know you do. Damn, can you even count how many girls you’ve been with? I just couldn’t understand why you’d make a choice like that.” Eric was about to answer, but thought better of it and changed tacks. “All I’ll be doing is checking out hotels and making arrangements for the party. Jim and Linda are going with me, right after their wedding. They’ll be staying and having a honeymoon. The San Francisco thing was just to get me off the hook with Helen. I couldn’t tell you ahead of time because you are the world’s worst liar. She’d have taken one look at you and known I was BS’ing her. And don’t forget, there was the motorcycle too, but she skipped right over that, no explosion.” Jon blinked, and then gave his head an adamant shake. “Whoa, bro, you know she’ll find out what you did eventually, right? She really is gonna kill you! Either that or she’ll make it so you’re never interested in sex again. Too bad you can’t sing; having a soprano in the band might be handy.” “Gee, thanks for the concern about my nuts, bro,” Eric said with a sarcastic laugh and then added, “She’ll forgive me eventually. This party is going to be great. I’m setting it up so it’ll be perfect. That’s why I have to go there; I’ve got to make sure all the details are taken care of, plus I need to pick the perfect place.” Jon arched an eyebrow. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” Eric had no idea what Jon was taking about, so he gave his brother an open-handed shrug and asked, “What?” Jon shook his head in amazement. “The wedding, bro. They’re supposed to get married there too, right? But so far you sound like you’re focusing on the party.” Waving his hand as if to dismiss the idea, Eric replied, “Don’t sweat it. How hard can setting up a wedding be? I’ll get to that later. I just want to make sure they have a kick-ass party on their last night of freedom.” Jon gave his brother a single nod, and kept his own council on what he thought of that idea. Queuing up his old favorite Grand Theft Auto, Jon picked up the controller and said, “Prepare to get your ass kicked, bro.” Giving his brother a light elbow in the ribs, relieved that everything was okay again, at least for now, Eric snatched up the second controller as he chuckled. “In your dreams, Jon, in your dreams.” Walking out onto the hot tarmac, smelling the familiar acrid scent of JP-1 jet fuel, General Bradson walked with Helen towards the sleek white jet. As they approached, the pilot appeared in the hatch, waving them up the stairs. As soon as they were aboard, the pilot launched into what sounded like ­– and indeed was – a rehearsed spiel regarding how safe the Lear Jet is, and how it was far safer than the drive they’d just taken to the airport. The General, dressed in khaki slacks, a golf shirt, and wearing sunglasses, nodded along as the pilot continued the tour and explanations. As they approached the cockpit, General Bradson removed his sunglasses. The pilot glanced in his direction, and then returned his gaze to the instrument panel where he was busily pointing out the many safety features. Three seconds later, he stopped in mid-sentence and snapped his eyes towards General Bradson, with a look of recognition plain to see on his puzzled face. The pilot hesitated for a few seconds, studying a face he’d seen on countless news reports, before asking, “If you’re General Bradson, I’ve been misinformed. I was told to meet with a passenger who has a fear of flying.” The General nodded. This was what he’d come for, and taking off his sunglasses and being recognized was intentional. He’d noticed the pilot’s mannerisms, which hinted that he was ex-military. Sliding into the co-pilot’s seat in the sweltering jet, General Bradson turned to ask Helen, “Ma’am, mind if I have a private word with the pilot?” Helen smiled, nodded, and exited the plane without a word. The General had warned her in advance that he’d need a private word with the aircrew, and had explained that one reason was for her protection; he didn’t want her to witness, or be party to, any potentially illegal actions. Turning to look at the pilot, General Bradson smiled before saying, “I’m Walter Bradson, and I’m afraid I’m responsible for what you were told. I needed to meet with you. As you might guess, I’m not exactly afraid of flying.” The General leaned over and twisted in his seat to extend his hand, which the pilot took, and was soon impressed by the General’s vice-like grip. As they shook hands, the pilot said, “I’m Fred Beam, and I know who you are, General. It’s an honor to meet you.” Playing his hunch, General Bradson asked, “I’m guessing that you were in the military yourself. What branch?” “Air Force, 96th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron,” The pilot said with a proud smile. “So, you flew the BUFF, H’s, am I right? I had quite a few friends in the 13th Air Force,” the general said, referring to the service nickname for the B-52 bomber, bestowed upon it by the residents of Guam during the Vietnam War. It stood for Big Ugly Fat Fucker, though the last word of the term was often modified to ‘Fella’ for civilian consumption. “Yes, sir. I liked the big birds, and was in for fifteen years. Made it to light colonel before I decided to try the civilian world. The pay and benefits are better, and the hours sure are, but I miss the service.” General Bradson nodded in acknowledgment, well able to empathize with the pilot. However, the thing foremost on his mind was that the man’s prior service potentially made the General’s task much easier and more likely to succeed. Camaraderie went a long way towards breaking the ice, and General Bradson took a deep breath. Everything depended upon the response to his next question. “Colonel,” he said, using the former lieutenant colonel’s military rank as a way to build on their common connection, “I’m going to ask you something. Feel free to say no, but I need your word as an officer that unless you find my request morally objectionable in any way, that you keep it to yourself. There are lives at stake.” The General had given his choice of words a great deal of thought during the drive to the airport; he needed to give the man an out, but secrecy was vital even if the proposal was refused. Fred Beam eased his pilot’s cap back on his bald head, meeting the General’s calm gaze. He’d wondered what this was all about, and though he still had no idea of the details, he was well aware that he was about to be asked to do something risky, either professionally or legally, and possibly both. In other circumstances, he’d have likely backed out then and there, but he knew who General Bradson was, and what he’d done. “General, I need to tell you something. I live in Pasadena with my wife and daughter. I’m away a lot, but they aren’t. My house is well within the lethal fallout zone for the nuke you and your people disarmed at Dodger Stadium. What you did saved my family, and likely me too, from death. I’ll be blunt; I might still say no to you, but it ain’t likely, and you have my word that I’ll keep it to myself, no matter what,” The pilot said, as he looked General Bradson square in the eye. “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m up to. I can say that I’m trying to save the life of a U.S. Marine in a foreign land, and the U.S. Government can’t know about it. To that end, I need to get to the Cape Verde Islands without going through passport control. Basically, I want to pose as your navigator. I’d prefer not to worry them or make them complicit, so as far as Helen or Eric know; I plan on just walking away during a maintenance stop in the Cape Verdes during your charter to the Canary Islands. Your clients are paying the charter, I’m just dead-heading, one way, and they are fine with it,” The General was stretching the truth; Eric was the one paying for the flight and he had no idea that General Bradson was going along for the ride, though the General assumed he wouldn’t mind, once he knew. “I’ve been telling them that I’ll arrange a good rate at an FBO, but you and I both know that your company would be unlikely to use an FBO in the Cape Verde’s, assuming I could even find one with the right certifications for this model of aircraft. So, all I need is dropping off... plus making sure they don’t see us coming.” The pilot took a deep breath, and then another. “General, let me get this straight. You want me to violate a country’s airspace, let you do an egress in a plane that’s not certified for it, along with breaking so many flight regs and laws that I can’t even count ‘em, and then hightail it back to the Canary Islands, and oh by the way, not get picked up on radar doing it?” General Bradson leaned back, gazed out the cockpit window, and reflected upon the pilot’s words. The General was unperturbed; he knew that the pilot’s incredulous question was not a rejection; he’d given similar quips himself on many occasions earlier in his own career. “That’s pretty much it. I know how to pull it off. So, will you do it, and do you think your co-pilot will play along? I can make it worth your while.” The pilot had grave concerns, but General Bradson had read him accurately; he was willing to consider the endeavor. After a few more questions aimed at gauging the risks and probabilities, which the General answered without being too specific, Fred made up his mind. “General, I don’t want paying for this, except for whatever air hours I rack up on the Hobbs Meter; the company will need to be paid for that. I’ll get my co-pilot to play along. He’s like I was twenty years ago; he’ll do it for the thrill. I’ll trust that you have a workable plan, and I reserve the right to back out at any time. Just show up in a navigator’s uniform half an hour prior to takeoff and I’ll get you on board.” That evening, General Bradson phoned his unnamed contact. After a few queries regarding where the General should appear, the contact replied, “I’m very glad that you appear to have resolved your travel problems, General, so that you can go along on the project. All I can tell you at the moment is that you need to get to Santo Antão Island, which is the most northwesterly of the Cape Verde Islands. Once you are on the island, call me and I will pick you up within two hours.” The contact did not ask, nor would General Bradson have answered, any questions regarding the General’s method of travel. General Bradson smiled, thinking that his contact expected him to arrive via a ferry, fishing boat, or at the airport. Eric, who had half an hour to spare before his appointment, strolled into Brandon and Chase’s suite to find them sitting on the floor, wearing boardshorts and surrounded by scattered sheaves of paper, working on song lyrics. Brandon glanced up at Eric. “We had some ideas for one of the new songs. See what you think,” Brandon said holding up a single piece of paper. Eric took the proffered lyrics, and smiled as he read them. He was pleased; a rough spot they’d had trouble with had been handled, and far sooner than they’d hoped. Eric nodded approvingly at the lyrics, and Brandon stuck out his bare chest in a comically exaggerated display of pride. “It was my idea. Easy enough when you know what you’re doing.” Chase glared in mock surprise at his boyfriend, before hurling a handful of crumbled paper – rejected prior attempts – in his general direction. “Brand, you ass, if it was that easy we wouldn’t have fifty different versions!” Chase said, before doubling over and laughing. Brandon dropped his false bravado and smiled. “Yeah, it took a while, but we finally got the wording to work. We’re thinking we could try it out at Jim and Linda’s wedding.” Eric’s face brightened at that suggestion, so with that issue behind them, Brandon changed the subject to ask what was really on his mind, “So, what about you, bro, are you still heading off to San Francisco next week?” Feeling a little guilty for lying, but salving his conscience with the thought that it was all in a good cause, Eric replied, “Yeah, the day after we get back from Jim’s wedding. It’s just something I need to do. I’ve already mapped out a route and everything. I’ve started laying down extra bass tracks so it won’t hurt our schedule.” Chase leaned back and stretched, his golden tan skin rippling. He then leaned forward, saying in an offhand way, “Not much of a route to plan; you get on Interstate 5 a few miles from here, and it takes you all the way to San Francisco.” Eric, focused on the lyrics, nodded and said, “Yeah, pretty easy. It’ll be a fun ride.” Checking his watch, Eric said, “Sorry, gotta go. See you guys later.” As soon as Eric was out the door, Brandon turned to say to Chase, “You were right; he’s not going to San Francisco. Jim is supposed to ride with him but Jim said he and Linda are heading off on a honeymoon trip the day we get back from Telluride. Some route planning he did; he doesn't even know the I-5 doesn't go anywhere near San Francisco. So, where do you think he’s really going, and why?” Chase gave Brandon a puzzled shrug. “Maybe it’s something to do with our wedding. He was all about the party for a while, and then a week ago he shut up about it, so I know he’s up to something. We’ll find out sooner or later. In the meantime, we can pump Jon for info, just to make sure Eric isn’t planning something insane for the party. Jon can’t lie worth a damn, so we’ll pick up some clues if he tries.” “You don’t think Eric is planning anything crazy, do you?” Brandon asked with a concerned look. Chase nodded. “This is Eric we’re talking about. Of course it’s something crazy.” “That’s what I was afraid of,” Brandon replied with a chuckle. Eric gunned the Yamaha’s engine just before clicking off the ignition key, for no other reason than he loved the loud throaty growl it made; the sound of power, temporarily restrained. The paparazzi had yet to put in an appearance. They had been thankfully absent of late, and Eric wondered if he even needed to wear his padded jacket as a disguise. Jim had not been forthcoming with specifics due to wanting to protect the Instinct guys from any charges of complicity, but Eric had picked up hints of further ‘conversations’ with the paparazzi. Eric figured that the encounters must have drummed home the bikers’ point, because Chase had mentioned a chance encounter with a paparazzi while out shopping, and said that the paparazzi had exited the area as if fleeing the devil himself. That fitted well with a fear of big, angry bikers, so Eric had reason to hope that the days when he and his band mates were stalked and harassed anytime they went out in public might be at an end. Sweating a little due to wearing the heavy leather jacket in the early summer heat – It wasn’t bad when riding due to the vents, but for walking around in the heat it was stifling – Eric donned a pair of sunglasses. He tucked his helmet under his arm and walked out of the parking lot, entering the two-story apartment complex via a lawn-covered gap between the buildings. Passing the swimming pools that dominated the center of the complex, Eric glanced at the directions he’d been given, and looked for Building C. A quick glance confirmed that he was standing next to Building B, so he quickened his pace. A few yards later, he was close enough to see a large ‘A’ on the next building, so he reversed course, and soon found the building he was looking for. The apartments on the upper floor were arranged in pairs, each pair sharing an open exterior staircase from a small landing. Glancing at the doors on the lower floor, Eric walked until he found C105, and then climbed up the stairs to rap on the door of C205. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  13. Chapter 3: Pursuits and Auditions Three blocks from the hotel, Eric glanced in his Jeep’s rear-view mirror at the perusing black sedan. Chewing on his lip, Eric desperately tried to think of a way out as his foot slammed down on the accelerator and he plowed through a hole in the thick Los Angeles traffic. Whipping the Jeep into a tire-squealing right-hand turn, Eric roared down a side street as the car raced to follow. "Shit," Eric mumbled, wishing that he’d had a bigger head start, fully aware that there was no way he could outrun the big sedan, and that this was a car chase he was destined to lose unless he thought of some way to shake off his pursuer. The big black sedan closed in and Eric slammed on the brakes, threw the steering wheel hard right, his tires chuffing against the pavement as he rounded the corner. Racing down the street, Eric glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw the sedan whip around the turn behind him, gaining fast. He knew he had to lose them, but how? Reaching the next main street, Eric leaned on the horn as he tore around the corner, cutting into traffic and weaving around slower vehicles. The black sedan, however, kept closing in. Looking ahead, Eric saw a small mall and whipped the Jeep into the parking lot, hitting the speed bumps fast enough to catch some air and send the Jeep careening, almost out of control. Aiming for the corner of the parking lot ­– an area separated from the busy street by a pair of high curbs and some rocky landscaping – Eric slowed, allowing the sedan to close in and letting them think he was cornered. After waiting a moment for the lone pedestrian on the sidewalk to amble out of the way, Eric eased his foot onto the gas, driving the Jeep at an angle across the first high curb, fast enough to bounce hard and lurch into the air before ramming into the second. With a growl of protesting shock absorbers he bounced onto the sidewalk and then out onto the street, keeping his foot on the gas, accelerating diagonally across the main street until he was on the right-hand side of the road, and then taking the next right, punching the gas, leaving his frustrated pursuer unable to follow. Arriving several minutes later at his destination, Eric clambered out of his Jeep, cursing the paparazzi. They’d had his hotel staked out and had followed him, yet again, and this time on a day when he couldn’t allow their intrusions. He made a mental note to get together with Jim and see about introducing the paparazzi to some angry bikers the next time they tried. Pulling on a black tank top and then tugging a baseball cap down over his eyes, Eric walked into the club, ignoring the ‘Closed’ sign on the door as he’d been instructed. A dozen feet inside the poorly lit club – which smelled like stale beer and lemon-scented cleaner despite the club’s upscale appearance and reputation – Eric spotted a man bounding up the walkway towards him. The man came to a halt, ushering Eric further into the club as he gushed, “Welcome sir, thank you for coming. I’m George Tankardsly. I’m the general manager here, and I manage the hottest guys in the business. Only the best here, sir. The club is closed so your privacy will be assured. We’ve got Jansen and Keith warmed up and I’m sure you’ll agree, they are really hot. Just the thing to get your motor revving. Can I get you a drink?” Knowing a sales pitch, especially a clumsy one when he heard it, and deciding to rattle the man a little, Eric smiled and then shrugged. “Coke will be fine, but when it comes to revving my motor, I’m not gay, so we’ll see.” As Eric expected, George blanched, which was evident even under the low lighting. Showing Eric to a gleaming table, he talked, still a little too fast for Eric’s liking, trying frantically to explain. “Sir, I meant for the potential audience, of course. I certainly didn’t mean to imply­–” “Oh yes you did,” Eric said in a serious tone, before smiling a little and adding, “But that’s a fair assumption given where we are. One more thing, my name’s Eric, not sir. My first name is fine; just don’t use my last name, okay?” George nodded, and turned towards the bar and with a snap of his fingers signaled the bartender. “Coke,” he said, just loud enough to be heard, and then took a seat across the table from Eric. Eric turned to watch the approaching bartender, realizing that a closed club wouldn’t have a bartender on duty except to butter up a client. The bartender, dressed in black slacks, a bow tie, and white cuffs and who looked barely old enough to be serving alcohol, puffed out his bare chest a little as he reached the table, turning himself just so, as he slid the drink across the polished wood with a flourish. The drink arrived, served over ice in a fancy glass, and Eric had to fight the urge to laugh as the bartender, missing George’s ever more frantic attempts at a wave-off, gave Eric a lascivious wink and said, “My, but you’re a hot one.” Eric gave in to his urge to laugh, as George squirmed and the barkeep beat a hasty retreat from the obviously pre-arranged flirtation. Arching an eyebrow in George’s direction, Eric said, “Not the most subtle play I’ve ever seen. You really should work on that. So, when do I see the act?” George raised his arm and clicked his fingers again, and the club’s few lights went out as the music – which Eric recognized as a sixty’s surfer tune – began to rumble from the club’s speakers. The bass of the tune was far too punched-up – drowning out the crispness of the guitar – for Eric’s liking. Three spotlights lit a sheer black curtain, which obscured the stage. Behind the semi-transparent veil, a rotating mirrored ball appeared, and Eric fought the urge to wince at the cheesy setup. The curtain parted in the middle, sweeping aside to reveal an empty stage and a painted set backdrop; a cartoon-like visage of a beach. From opposite sides of the stage, two guys appeared, dressed in board shorts and tank tops, barefoot and wearing sunglasses. Each had a white surfboard under their arm. Grinning, the two guys walked to the center of the stage where they stopped, turned to face their audience, and began to move a little to the music. The song changed suddenly, and Eric recognized the driving beat to Instinct’s song ‘Beyond’. Turning to glance at George, Eric raised his voice to be heard over the music and said, “I thought the flirting bartender was an obvious play, but this... Not exactly the best way to keep me incognito, now is it?” Eric’s scowl was genuine; so far the act he’d come to see came across as tacky, but he tried to keep an open mind. Looking genuinely startled, George stammered, “Sir, I didn’t realize... I assure you, this is their regular routine, including the music.” Sizing up the man with a long look, Eric decided that for once, he was on the level. Returning his attention to the stage, Eric watched as Jansen and Keith dashed to opposite sides of the stage, leaned their boards up against the set, and turned to dance back towards each other. Ten feet apart, in perfect unison, they turned to face their audience, and with a smooth, practiced move, grabbed the front of their shirts and tore them off with a resounding rip, which Eric noticed came from the speakers, not the stage. The moving spots of light from the mirrored ball played over their bare torsos, and Eric decided, then and there, that there would be no mirror ball at Brandon and Chase’s party. Watching the two dancers carefully, taking in the nearly identical tanned and chiseled torsos, the similar blond hair ­– though Jansen’s was a shade darker and cut a little longer – and the similar faces, he raised his voice to ask George, “Are they twins?” George shook his head, reluctantly deciding to do his duty and vet the client. “They’re not related, but they are a couple and they don’t fool around. They only work with each other,” he said, watching Eric carefully for any reaction. Not seeing the disappointment he’d feared, George used Eric’s non-reaction to assume, to his own satisfaction, that Keith and Jansen wouldn’t be expected to do anything they’d be uncomfortable with. George frowned on dancers providing sexual services; that was bad for a high-end club’s reputation. It happened often enough, but so long as it was kept very discreet and he wasn’t made aware of it, George would often turn a blind eye. In this case, however, he was more concerned that Keith would torpedo the lucrative deal, so George was more than a little relieved by Eric’s reaction. Eric returned his attention to the stage, as Keith and Jansen alternated between dancing with each other and dancing towards their singular audience. Taking a sudden step to the side, Jansen moved in front of Keith as Keith’s hands found their way to Jansen’s gyrating hips. Slowly, inch by inch, Keith, dancing in sync with Jansen, eased Jansen’s shorts down, revealing a blue and red Speedo before ripping the shorts completely away. Both dancers turned, jumping away, circling each other back to back as they moved in time to the beat. Jansen moved behind Keith, one hand on Keith’s hip and the other roaming his chest, and again a sudden ripping sound emanated from the soundtrack as Keith’s shorts came off, revealing a Speedo identical to Jansen’s. The music shifted again, changing to a typical bump-and-grind riff, as the two dancers gyrated, their hands roaming their torsos and thighs as they danced, both facing out from the stage. A drumroll filled the room as Jansen and Keith hooked their thumbs under their waistbands, and again the ripping sound came from the speakers as they whipped off their tear-away Speedos, leaving them both in just glittering gold thongs. Eric watched as they danced, noting that they seemed slightly less choreographed, and guessed that at this point in a regular performance they were dancing the stage edge, getting money stuffed into their thongs. The music died down and the dancers took a bow, racing off the stage as Eric gave them a few claps. Misreading his client, George asked in a hopeful tone, “Are they what you’re looking for, sir? You won’t find better, and they’re one of the few surfer-boy acts in the area.” Still looking at the empty stage as the club lights came on, Eric thought for a few moments before answering, “I need to talk to them.” George nodded agreeably, getting up to trot backstage. He returned moments later, with Jansen and Keith, still in their thongs, in tow. “Pull up a chair,” Eric said to the dancers as they approached. Turning to look at George, who was taking a chair of his own, Eric said, “I need to talk with them alone, or no deal.” Looking decidedly unhappy, George beat an awkward retreat. Eric watched his retreating back and then rolled his eyes before saying, “Your manager has all the finesse of a used car salesman.” Keith and Jansen exchanged a knowing look, and then Keith replied, “Yeah, he lays it on kinda thick sometimes. He’s a decent boss though, so we put up with him.” Eric hadn’t missed the look the dancers shared, and was pleased by the frank appraisal. Deciding that he could work with the pair in spite of their cheesy act, he said, “Your act is fine for a club, but this is for a bachelor party. Can you change it around a little, lose the glitter ball, and do your routine in amongst a group of people instead of on a stage? Also, can you act, at least a little?” Jansen and Keith turned to share a look. Eric noticed Jansen’s amused smile as Keith replied, “We’ve both taken acting lessons and yeah, we can change the act around, no problem.” Eric’s innate ability to read people only worked well once he got to know them, but something about the two dancers didn’t feel quite right to him. Deciding to do a little fishing, Eric turned to Jansen and asked, “How come you never say anything?” Jansen shrugged, and then gave Eric a lopsided shy smile. “Keither is better at the business stuff than I am, so I let him deal with it.” Eric watched Jansen carefully, finding no deception in the incongruously shy dancer. Flashing a smile of his own, Eric turned to look at Jansen’s partner and asked, “Keither?” With a chuckle and a grin that almost lit up the room, Keith replied, “That’s my nickname, which Jansen should keep to his own damn self,” Keith gave his partner a grin and an elbow in the ribs before adding, “If you want to give us another audition, just tell us what you want and we’ll do it.” Nodding, Eric shifted the subject a little by asking, “What has George told you about me and the gig?” Keith exchanged another glance with Jansen before replying, “He said it’s a bachelor party for two guys, not you, and it’ll be overseas. He wouldn’t say where or for who. He said you’re offering four grand for each of us plus transportation, food, and accommodations for a few days. He also assured us that it would be just the act, nothing more.” Still not quite satisfied that he could trust them but getting closer, Eric asked, “What’s your split?” This time, Keith didn’t look at Jansen before replying, “Fifty-fifty, which is a pretty decent split in this business when the club generated the booking.” “So, you don’t know who I am, or who the party is for,” Eric asked, wanting to see if George had leveled with him. Keith, as usual, fielded the answer, “I didn’t say we don’t know that, but George didn’t tell us. I know who you are, so I have a damn good guess whose bachelor party this is for; Brandon Wolfe and your brother, Chase Carlisle. Would we be performing at both their bachelor parties, or just one? The price would be the same either way, I’m just curious.” A slight scowl played across Eric’s face as he replied, “Both, it’s the same party. They insisted on a joint stag party.” Keith rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me, a joint stag party? That’s just...” He let his voice trail off, realizing that he may have gone too far. “Perverted,” Eric finished Keith’s sentence with a wicked grin as the remaining tension at the table dissolved into the laughter the three guys shared. Eric leaned forward and bumped knuckles with Keith. “I guess we think alike on that, but that’s the way they want it so we’re stuck with it. So, I guess you recognized me, huh? Was it because you use one of our songs in your act?” Keith began to reply, but the normally silent Jansen cut him off to say, “Yeah, kinda, but that’s because Keither likes your music, and he probably doesn’t want me to tell you that he has a poster of you guys on his bedroom wall.” Keith’s head snapped around to glare at Jansen, who was well into the process of cracking up. With a blush evident even under his golden tan, he told Jansen, “You are so dead, dude,” followed by another elbow in his partner’s ribs. Keith turned to Eric to say with a smile, “He’s just so helpful at times.” “How long have you two been together?” Eric asked with a disarming smile. Keith sat up just a little straighter as he replied, “As dancers or as a couple? About two years for both.” Angling his head a little, and then looking in turn into each of the two pairs of sparking green eyes in front of him, Eric decided to rein in his suspicions. He changed tack to ask, “What’s it like, doing what you guys do?” Another look was exchanged between the dancers, and Jansen replied with a grin, “Call it what it is; we take our clothes off for money. We’re strippers. The money’s good and it’s putting us through college, plus keeping us in a decent apartment. We have to keep in top shape and rehearse a lot though; you’d be surprised how much time that takes.” Eric gave Jansen a smile, accompanied by an amused look. Keith slapped his palm against his forehead as he realized the obvious and turned towards Jansen. “Whoa, I think he does know. I’ll bet he spends a lot more time rehearsing than we do, and he has to keep in shape, too.” Turning towards Eric, Keith asked, “So, what’s it like being a rock star?” Eric laughed and rolled his eyes before replying, “I practice my bass at least three times a week, even when we’re off tour. We rehearse all the time, and then there’s the writing. I work out a little... Ya know, I think our jobs are pretty similar in some ways. I’m a performer, I rehearse a lot, and my life pretty much revolves around my work. I get hit on by fans all the time, and when I perform it’s on stage, and there’s music involved.” “Yeah, but at least you get to keep your clothes on,” Keith observed with a chuckle. Breaking into another laugh, Eric replied, “Not exactly. What are we wearing in that poster of yours? Shirtless, right?” Keith nodded in reply, and Eric continued, “We’re always doing photo shoots and stuff, and a lot of that is in just shorts or whatever. I can’t say I mind at all because one thing I’m not is shy, but my brother Jon is kinda uneasy with it sometimes. Still, in a way we’re like you; we get paid to take our clothes off.” “There’s one big difference,” Keith said, sounding very serious until he added with a wicked grin, “You don’t get paper cuts in sensitive places.” Jansen and Keith grinned, staring at Eric, waiting for him to figure it out. Eric tensed for a moment, then his eyes flew open wide and he gasped out, strangling on his own laughter, “I get it.... When they shove the money in your thongs, if it’s in front, you can get paper cuts on your... oh fuck, man, that’s gotta hurt!” Jansen nodded and replied with a grin, “Yeah, kind of an occupational hazard.” Getting down to business, Keith asked, “So, do we get another audition? Let us know what you want, including for the acting.” Satisfied on that account, Eric grinned as he said, “Start packing, the gig is in the Canary Islands starting a month from today, but keep that to yourselves. I won’t say which island – I’m keeping everybody in the dark to make sure no fucking paparazzi find out – but you’ll like it. For the acting I’m not real sure yet, but nothing too major, just pretending to be resort guests if you bump into Brandon and Chase, that kind of thing. Count on two performances; the first at a pool party, the second at the stag party, and helping out with the bartending at the party; nothing too complicated, beer and liquor mainly, and I hope you can pour tequila shots. You’ll be on the island for a few days and most of the time will be your own.” The two dancers shared a wide-eyed happy glance before jumping up to exchange a high-five. “Dude, you won’t be sorry. Thank you so much,” Keith replied with a beaming grin as he and Jansen stood up. Eric unabashedly let his eyes roam over Jansen and Keith’s toned physiques, deciding that both dancers had a perfect body and look. “I think Brandon and Chase will really like you guys. This’ll be fun. I’ll let you know when I’ve got detailed plans,” Eric said with a grin. George appeared as soon as Jansen and Keith walked away, and was pleased to hear the news that his act had a booking. Smiling, he produced the paperwork with a flourish, and Eric signed, then left a deposit. With that task taken care of, Eric walked out of the club with his hat pulled low, glancing around for any sign of the hated paparazzi. Finding none, he walked back to his Jeep and pulled out into the thick Los Angeles traffic. Two blocks later, a black-clad rider on a motorcycle whizzed by, cutting between the lanes of traffic to pull in front of Eric as they stopped at the next light. Eric glanced absently at the vanity license plate, ‘Shady 1’, and then watched as the light turned green and the dark rider sped away, zigzagging in and out of traffic, hell on wheels, soon lost to sight. That gave Eric an idea regarding one of his problems, and he turned right as his destination changed from his hotel to somewhere quite different. General Bradson paced in the living room of his apartment, glancing around at the sparse furnishings. The thing he looked at the most was the clock, its soft ticking an incessant reminder that time was running out. The hands aligned: noon. That was the deadline he’d given himself, and the silence of his phone left him with little choice. Pulling out a pre-paid cell phone he’d acquired ­– one that could not be traced back to him – he made the call he’d been dreading, knowing full well that for the first time in his life he was breaking the law in a major way. An old acquaintance answered, and the General, after taking a long, slow breath, simply said, “It’s a go,” before ending the call. With that task done, he made a call to his bank. What he had planned would take a lot of money, but that he felt he could handle. Always a frugal man, living mainly on base since the death of his wife nearly twenty years before, the General had amassed a considerable nest egg, which had grown still further thanks to a few sound investments. He only hoped it would be enough. The next step was at once both harder, and simpler. Sitting down, flipping through the notes he’d taken during the previous days, the General made many calls, cashing in many a chit, calling in a swarm of old favors. The first part, critical to the rest, was intelligence, and he breathed a sigh of relief when the man he’d called had agreed, in a roundabout way and with a pre-arranged phrase, to provide him what was needed. A casual lunch meeting, which would be anything but, was agreed. An hour later, at a nondescript old diner just off Interstate 5, General Bradson, still dressed as the civilian he’d never really feel himself to be, joined a bespectacled, ruffled little man in one of the oversized booths. Sliding in across the split vinyl, the General said, “Thanks for joining me, Bill.” Bill shrugged, easing his glasses back further on his prominent nose. “I’m not doing this for the free lunch, believe it or not. I don’t like what I’m about to do, not one little bit, but I like the need for it even less. You realize we could both end up in a federal prison, right?” General Bradson nodded slowly. “Indeed I do. If there was any other way, I’d never consider it, but I cannot, will not, let politics piss away my boy’s life. He deserves better, and I aim to deliver or die trying.” The General’s words were far from hyperbole; he well realized that his own chances of survival were slim. Still speaking in a low voice, masked by the tinny whine of a nearby jukebox, Bill drummed his fingers on the table and said, “General, I’m in. This isn’t personal; it’s because I feel this country owes its men and women in uniform every possible effort when they’re in service of their country. Instead, the administration is pissing about, fretting about diplomacy with a bunch of fanatical thugs. I say fuck ‘em all. Too bad you didn’t keep that nuke you dug up; it could come in real handy. ” General Bradson let out a slight chuckle. “I may need a diversion, but not quite that big. I don’t even have an operational plan yet. That’s where you come in; I need to know where Brian is, what the tactical environment is, and above all, I need to know of any flaws in the Iranian’s security.” “General, I wish I could give you better news, but unless Washington fesses up to the incursion, based on a signals intercept it looks to me like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will make Brian disappear,” Bill said, looking the General square in the eye. Feeling a greater weight on his shoulders than before, the General asked, “He’s in IRG hands? That’s confirmed?” “Yeah, it is, by two separate SIGINTS’s,” Bill replied, using the agency shorthand for Signals Intelligence, which meant radio or other communications intercepts. General Bradson slumped a little more, knowing full well that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – IRG for short – was among the worst of the worst; hardcore fanatics that would stop at nothing. Indeed, the IRG had been designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization a few years before. “Assets?” the General asked, wondering just how far Bill would go. Bill remained silent for a few seconds, well aware that he was being tested. Deciding that if he was in, he was all the way in, he replied, “One HUMINT,” an acronym for human intelligence; a source or agent, “though not well placed. Aside from that, we’ve got the overheads; signals and images both. I’ve got access to the take from an Intruder bird, and an 8X for overheads, plus something they won’t know about.” The 8X, commonly referred to inaccurately as the KH-13 – itself a shorthand for the Keyhole series of photo-recon satellites – is the oldest model of the currently operational U.S. photo-recon satellites. Somewhat similar in basic design to the Hubble Space Telescope – which itself was developed mainly using photoreconnaissance hardware – the X8 satellites are the size of a Greyhound bus and operate in a near-polar low earth orbit, circling the earth every ninety minutes at an altitude of a hundred and thirty miles. The big problem with them: their orbits are easy to plot, so the subject would know when they were within the observation window. The orbit could be changed via a thruster burn, but not by much, and that also meant using up a significant amount of the very finite onboard supply of hydrazine. The X8 was good for general reconnaissance of fixed sites, but not for the tactical level intelligence the General needed. The Intruder satellite series are SIGINT birds. Often operating at geosynchronous altitude – over twenty three thousand miles above the earth – and thus in fixed positions relative to the ground, the Intruder series are in essence a giant ear in space, listening in on everything from cell phone conversations to the leakage from microwave relay dishes. At least one Intruder is on duty over the earth’s eastern hemisphere at all times. As a means of electronic eavesdropping, it has no rivals. During his career, General Bradson had seen his share of satellite photographs and communications intercepts. Thus, he was passingly familiar with the National Reconnaissance Office’s space architecture. One thing Bill had said just did not fit, so the General arched an eyebrow as he asked, “Can’t see coming?” Giving a shrug, reluctant to go quite that far, Bill indicated the old jukebox with a subtle nod of his head and asked in an offhand way, “I wonder if that thing has a song called Misty on it...” Bill arched an eyebrow of his own to drive home his point. The General raised both eyebrows in disbelief. Misty was the name of a classified project to develop a stealthy series of photoreconnaissance satellites. The advantages of such a reconnaissance platform are obvious; if the enemy can’t detect it, they would be unable to plot its orbit and thus never know when it would be overhead. Stealthing a satellite is not an easy task. To make an object difficult to detect by radar requires specialized shapes and materials, and especially the elimination of all right angles. This runs contrary to the design of a satellite, especially its solar panels. The answer was at once both easy, and difficult. The concept was the easy part; inflate a dish-shaped balloon made of radar-absorbent material and place it under the craft, keeping the satellite obscured when seen from Earth. An aperture in the balloon for the optics could be stealthed far more easily than the entire satellite, so a simple solution had been found. Or so they thought. What proved difficult was developing a material for the balloon, one that would hold the precise shape needed, and also remain rigid after unfurling. Creating the specialized material had taken five years and over a billion dollars, but finally a plasticized fabric which hardened upon exposure to ultraviolet light had been invented. After much trial and error, the system had worked, giving the satellite a very small radar signature, making it nearly impossible to discern from the countless pieces of orbiting space debris. That took care of radar, and visually concealing the satellite and its radar shield had been simplicity itself; they’d painted it black. The program was highly classified, but that was not the cause of the General’s surprise. “Bill, I thought that was a failure and they canceled the program back in 2008?” the General asked in a bare whisper. Bill shrugged, choosing his words carefully. “Hypothetically speaking, can you think of a better cover? You know how the agency cherishes its failures.” Narrowing his eyes, the General stared at his bespectacled acquaintance. The message was intriguing; U.S. intelligence agencies did indeed cherish, and work to enhance, their reputation for failure. It was good fieldcraft; make the enemy underestimate you. The Misty project had been billed as a humiliating and costly failure, which upon reflection, the General decided, made perfect sense. “So, the X8 is the flusher; they see it coming and assume that they are otherwise safe. Then along comes the stealthy one, catching ‘em with their pants down.” Shrugging again, unwilling to directly confirm the General’s accurate speculation – respect for need-to-know was second nature to people in Bill’s profession – Bill had let the General know roughly what was available, so he brought an end to the topic by saying, “I can get the overheads you need. I’ll see what I can find out regarding exactly where your son is and what kind of security surrounds him. I’ll also drum up some contacts you’ll need, weapons suppliers and such. Now, about that lunch you promised me; the enchiladas here aren’t bad.” And with that, the business came to a temporary end, as both men ordered lunch and the conversation turned to the far safer realm of sports. Once he had returned to his sparse apartment, the General slumped into a chair, feeling an odd sense of relief. The odds were still long and the risks were enormous, but the feeling that he was actually doing something filled him with a new sense of purpose, though it brought to mind the legend of Pandora; the box had been opened, dire and deadly things unleashed, but what remained was the rarest gem of all: hope. With that thought in mind, the General knew he’d found the name for his operation: Pandora. Eric strolled out of the Wilshire Boulevard showroom with a contract and a receipt clutched in his hand. Pulling off his shirt and tossing it on the passenger seat, he climbed into his Jeep before giving the paperwork one last looking-over. Setting it aside, he laid it on his passenger seat along with the Yamaha brochure he’d been given. Clicking on the ignition key and listening to his Jeep’s throaty roar, he wondered how badly Helen would react once she found out. Chuckling to himself, Eric envisioned the explosion he’d face, but his mind had already begun the planning needed to use the news to solve his other problems. Eric wheeled his Jeep around, forcing his way back into the heavy traffic, heading for the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles to take the test for an M1 California Driver’s License. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  14. Chapter 4: Islands in the Sea Well into yet another Internet search session, Eric plowed through page after page, looking at the various resorts. He then began to search for airfares. To his considerable irritation, he found that there were no direct flights from the United States to the Canary Islands; he would have to change planes in Europe, and that would add a considerable amount of time to the journey, time which he did not have. A jet charter was a faster option. Most jet charter services, especially when they will be taking a client to several locations, hand the passenger a business card upon boarding in order to give the client an easy way to contact the service for schedule changes or other needs during stopovers. Eric picked up the phone, flipped open his wallet, and dialed the number from the business card of a company Instinct had used many times before. The conversation was fast, and a very dejected Eric hung up the phone two minutes later. The trip, he’d been informed, would be just over six thousand miles, and would require a refueling stop in Bermuda. The estimated travel time was thirteen hours each way. That would be barely enough; he could sleep on the plane, have a full day in Isla De La Palma, and then return home, all within forty-eight hours, or just a little over. That should be enough time to check out a few likely locations for the party, and if time permitted, for the wedding as well. Realizing that he’d need some help, and also seeing the chance to do a favor for a friend, Eric’s next call was to Jim. Eric got right to the heart of the matter. “Do you and Linda have any honeymoon plans?” Jim thought about it for a moment before replying, “We were thinking of a ride through Colorado after the wedding, but nothing firm, why?” Chewing on his lip, hoping that he could trust Jim in spite of Jim’s long friendship with Brandon, Eric first asked, “This is about Brandon and Chase’s stag party and wedding. Promise me you won’t breathe a word of anything I tell you to anyone.” Weighing his loyalties, Jim took some time to think it over. He knew a little about what Eric was up to, and considered it harmless fun. Hedging a little, he replied, “Okay, if it’s nothing I think is bad, though if I see a problem, I’ll come to you first. Fair enough?” Eric felt that was a deal he could live with, and nodded in spite of being on the phone. “Jim, how would you and Linda like a honeymoon in the Canary Islands? The outbound trip will be by private jet, and the return by first-class air. I can only get away for two days so I might need someone on the ground there. No one can know I’m planning on going, or where we’re having the party or the wedding.” Jim’s laughter echoed over the line, and then Eric heard him say, “So, it’s a kidnap party and a hijack wedding? Just make it a good one and I’m in, and that sounds like one kick-ass honeymoon. You’re on and thanks, pal.” Deciding to see how far his secret deal with Jim could be pushed, Eric asked his next question, “No problem, but I’ve got a favor to ask. Can you teach me to ride a motorcycle? I bought one today and pick it up next week, right before your wedding. Nobody knows about it yet.” Jim shivered a little as he envisioned Helen’s likely reaction to that bit of news. As a biker, he felt motorcycles were safe enough, but Helen was protective of the four members of Instinct, whom she considered her family. He was sure that she’d hit the roof when she found out, and he didn’t want to be caught in the middle. On the other hand, he was employed by the band, not Helen. “Well, I suppose I can, but you deal with Helen, okay? If she finds out I was hiding it from her, she’ll have my ass in a sling.” Eric laughed hard; he found the concept of the big biker being afraid of anyone hilarious, though when it came to Helen, he had to admit it was understandable. He himself dreaded telling her, but knew that he had to if his plan to sneak away had any chance of success. He consoled himself with the thought that she’d find out sooner or later anyway. “Okay, Jim, I’ll tell her sometime before your wedding, I promise.” “So, what did you buy?” “A Yamaha R6,” Eric replied, wondering what reaction he’d get from a Harley fanatic. “Jap crap,” came the expected reply, though after a few moment’s mulling, Jim added, “But I guess it’s not a bad choice for you. Mind if I ask why?” Eric jumped at that opening, as he’d been meaning to bring up the subject. “I was chased by paparazzi again. On a bike, I figure I can lose ‘em a lot easier than in my Jeep. If they try using bikes, I figure it would be easier to introduce them to you and a few friends.” “That explains the Jap crap, they’re more maneuverable, even I’ll admit that. One thing though, don’t try anything fancy like running from ‘em until you’ve had a lot of practice, otherwise you could kill yourself. Next time you leave the hotel, give me a shout and I’ll whistle you up an escort. If anybody follows you, we’ll deal with ‘em. We’ll give ‘em a few lessons and sooner or later they’ll figure out to play nice, because if they don’t, it will be both painful and expensive,” Jim said, delivering the last part in a low and even voice that Eric recognized as a dire threat to his most hated enemy. “I like the sound of that, a lot,” Eric replied and then ended the call after asking Jim to say hello to Linda for him. His next call was easier; he booked a jet charter for the Canary Islands. He still wasn’t fond of the small jets, a dislike that stemmed from one particularly bad ride that had ended up at Edwards Air Force Base, but when you needed to get somewhere fast, they sure had their good points. Jim relaxed in his apartment, looking forward to telling Linda the news about their honeymoon. He knew she’d long dreamed of vacations in faraway places, so he had no doubt that she’d be overjoyed. He’d have to tell her by phone; she was in Telluride, making arrangements for the wedding. That thought reminded Jim of another need, and he started making phone calls to Telluride, setting up keg rentals. The guest list included over a hundred bikers, and that, he knew, would be one thirsty crowd. General Bradson was far from being a happy man. The contacts Bill had provided had not been as forthcoming as he’d hoped. All he needed was transportation and a few weapons, plus a few hired men trained in their use. What the General would not say, even to himself due to his long aversion to such things, was that he was putting together and equipping a small squad of mercenaries. Or more precisely, he was trying to. The initial contacts had not gone well. He’d spoken to a few go-betweens, only to be told that his project was just too small to be of interest to men who were more accustomed to supplying the weapons for small wars – quite often to both sides, though the contacts never admitted that aspect. One contact, for a small fee, had done the only thing he could do to help; putting the General in touch with the representative of a smaller outfit that might well be interested in his business. Calls had been made, resulting in a few cryptic conversations, which at last yielded another phone number. With a steady hand, the General dialed the long sequence of digits. A few clicks sounded on the line as the call was re-routed, and the call was answered with a simple, heavily Russian-accented, “Hello?” “I need to speak with someone regarding Odysseus,” the General said, putting the emphasis on the final syllable as he’d been told to do. The requirement of a specific pronunciation was a classic means of enhancing security; a code within a code. An echo of his own voice sounded over the line, confirming that the call was being relayed by satellite. After a silence of several seconds, the reply arrived, via the same voice, but having lost much of its Russian accent. “I will be your contact. I have been told to expect your call. This is an open line so I will say little. I believe we must meet. I have arranged a place on neutral ground. You will be there in forty-eight hours. Bring fifty.” With that, the line went dead, leaving General Bradson to wonder where the meeting would be, and how he would get word. The General did not have long to ponder. Within the hour, his doorbell rang. Opening the door, he found a harried delivery boy who shoved a bag into the General’s hands and said, “That’ll be sixteen dollars.” Arching an eyebrow, for he’d ordered nothing, the General fished out a twenty, suspecting that the bag contained far more than a meal. Handing over the cash the General watched with amusement as the delivery boy stuffed the money into a pocket, made no offer to give change, and turned on his heel with a muffled, “Thanks, enjoy your dinner.” Plopping the bags on his table, General Bradson examined the contents under the light of his bare kitchen bulb. The bags contained three items; a Styrofoam box containing some enchiladas in a nondescript sauce, another box with a serving of Spanish rice and refried beans, a small bag of tortilla chips, and a tub of salsa. Puzzled, the General poked at the food, trying to find some sort of clue. He was about to give up and write the incident off to a misplaced delivery when he thought to look in the bags again. There he found a receipt and a couple of coupons from a local Mexican restaurant, along with a flyer and a coupon for Senior Frog’s Mexican Cantina on Grand Cayman Island. The discovery was intriguing on many levels. It had to be the message, or so the General hoped. However, there was more than one message contained in the innocuous flyer; the far more sinister one was clear. ‘We know who you are, and where to find you.’ As a display of fieldcraft, the General had to admit that it was impressive. The unnamed man obviously had his own connections. Only five people, aside from the General himself, knew both what the General was thinking of doing and his identity. He’d found it necessary to make some disclosures to the various people he’d contacted, but he’d kept the information as minimal as he thought he could get away with. One of the people who knew at least most of the story, however, had disclosed that information to the contact, giving him the upper hand. General Bradson shrugged to himself. Under other circumstances, the development would be of dire concern, but in this case he could not spare the time to worry. The risks were great, but to do nothing risked far more. Dumping the suspicious and unappetizing meal in his kitchen trash, the General fired up his computer and booked a flight, regretting that he did not yet have any form of phony ID. Considering one other problem he’d face, General Bradson abandoned all thoughts of dinner and drove himself to a department store in search of a camera, and more to the point, a camera bag. The next day flew by in a blur as General Bradson packed a duffle bag with a few clothes. His civilian wardrobe was sparse in the extreme, freeing him of any need to choose what to take; everything he had fit in the small duffle bag with room to spare. He was done within an hour, and turned to the more important task of the camera, hoping that he remembered the impromptu sewing lesson that his late wife had given him so many years before. The plan was simple, Eric would drive Jim to the dealership, and Jim would drive the motorcycle back to a large parking lot near the hotel. Eric had been far from happy with the plan, but Jim had insisted; it was his way, or no way at all. Everything had gone well for about a minute and a half, which was how long it took Eric to pull his Jeep out of the studio garage and onto Wilshire Boulevard. A glance in the rear-view mirror revealed a familiar-looking black sedan. “Fuck... Paparazzi, again,” Eric said with disgust as his foot punched down on the gas. “Whoa, ease off, don’t try and outrun ‘em. Let ‘em think they’ve got you. Keep driving for a while and I’ll make a call.” Eric overheard Jim’s side of the conversation, which was more than enough to put a massive smile on his face. Jim ended the call and told Eric, “They need about ten minutes to get in place. Keep going down Wilshire for five minutes, then turn around and head back. The parking lot I have picked out for your riding lessons will work just fine for this.” Ten minutes later, with the sedan following close behind, Eric pulled into the designated parking lot. The black sedan’s driver, recalling Eric’s prior means of escape, checked for other exits as he took the turn into the lot. Finding a few, he maintained his distance as Eric pulled his Jeep in under a lone tree on the outer edge of the lot. “We’re going to get out and walk towards the stores. Just ignore ‘em, let ‘em follow,” Jim said with an evil grin. Glancing at the sedan, which had parked fifty feet away, Eric nodded, suppressing a smile of his own as he got out of the Jeep. As expected, they’d walked less than a dozen yards before two paparazzi climbed out of the sedan, cameras clicking. “Pretend you don’t see ‘em, and just keep going. Do not look back,” Jim said as Eric heard a distant, throaty rumble, growing ever closer. The roar increased, shifting tone as a dozen Harleys raced across the parking lot, passing in formation between the paparazzi and their subjects. Wishing that he could watch but managing to heed Jim’s counsel, Eric kept going, aiming for the sliding supermarket door a hundred feet ahead. The snarling Harleys circled their quarry twice, bringing the paparazzi who had been intently following Eric to a halt as the angry, scowling Hells Angels pulled up in a line between the paparazzi and the grocery store, slammed down their kick stands and stalked forward on foot, ready to take care of business. The leader of the group, a mountain of a man by the name of Mike, but known thanks to his temperament as Mad Mike, took the point, advancing on the hapless paparazzi and snarling, “Just where the fuck do you think you’re going?” The paparazzi who’d been the sedan’s driver, who’d been bluffed by many an outraged celebrity in his career, stood his ground. “This is public property, we can go where we­–” Mad Mike reached out, grasping the long lens of the paparazzi’s camera. He smiled viciously as he tore it from its mount and threw it down to the asphalt where it shattered with a fine tinkling sound. “Oops, what a shame,” Mad Mike said as he grabbed the camera, ripped it from the paparazzi’s neck, and hurled it down to share in the lens’s destruction, which he aided with the heel of his army boot. With a jab of his index finger, Mad Mike ordered one of his lieutenants to do the same to the other shutterbug’s gear. The driver glanced down at his wrecked equipment, and falling back on his bluster said, “You won’t get away with this, that’s assault, destruction of private property, and who knows what else. I can put a world of hurt on your employers for this...” Tutting softly, Mad Mike said in an exaggeratedly reasonable tone of voice, “You seem to be operating under some misapprehensions. The first is that we have any employer for this. We don’t. What went down in Telluride was the best publicity our clubs have had in years, maybe ever, and we feel a special kinship with the Instinct guys for giving us that. We don’t like you scum harassing them. That ends now, no matter what we have to do. What you will do is leave them the hell alone. You’ll get a few photo ops when they feel like it, but you and your fellow scum are on our shit list. You harass ‘em and you’re dog meat. We’ll hunt you down whenever you’re out in public, anywhere, any time, no matter who you’re stalking. Understood?” Mad Mike’s civil tone was one the paparazzi found terrifying. His matter-o-fact style conveyed clearly that he meant every word. Ignoring the desperate silent pleas in his partner’s eyes, the driver gave it one more try, “There’s more than just us, and at the moment I’m thinking of calling the cops.” Moving with a speed that belied his bulk, Mad Mike’s massive hand seized the paparazzi’s neck. Squeezing a little, he said, “You don’t seem to understand. There are hundreds of us. You raise any trouble, and some of our friends will take care of you. Now, you are going to do two things. First, you’re going to get in your car and drive away. Second, you’re going to put the word out to your fellow scum; Instinct is off limits, or you deal with us.” Feeling the pressure on this throat increase, the paparazzi felt real fear for the first time. Mad Mike bent his arm at the elbow and then snapped it straight, shoving the paparazzi away, sending the scruffy man stumbling backwards and causing him to fall to the asphalt. Climbing up off the hot pavement, the paparazzi said in a strained voice while massaging his bruised throat, “What’s in it for us if we agree?” Mad Mike stooped to retrieve the memory cards from the two wrecked cameras before replying with a sinister smile, “That’s easy; you get to keep breathing.” Before the driver could open his mouth again, his partner, showing far more common sense, grabbed him and pulled him towards their car. Mad Mike watched them drive away, and then raised his right hand, extended an index finger skywards, and swirled it around twice, the signal to mount up. The bikers hit the road, and Mad Mike wished that the paparazzi had kept up with the obnoxious act. Maybe next time, he hoped. Ten minutes later, Jim led Eric from the store. Eric glanced around to find no sign of bikers or paparazzi, and walked towards his Jeep wearing a delighted and relieved smile. Eric spotted the wreckage of the cameras, but kept quiet, except for a snicker, until they were in the Jeep and on their way out of the parking lot. “What did your crew do?” Eric asked, glancing back with unadulterated glee at the wrecked cameras. With a casual shrug, the big biker replied, “They just had a discussion, is all. Purely of their own accord, of course. They also sent a bit of a message; lay off, or you’ve got some enemies you don’t want to have. I have a feeling we’ll need to set a few examples, but we’ll get the job done.” “Thanks Jim. I’m just so sick of them stalking me every fucking second, everywhere I go. If it was anyone else, they’d be arrested for stalking, which is what they’re doing. I know Brandon, Chase, and Jon feel the same. It’s like living under siege; they never let up.” “We’ll make ‘em behave – guaranteed. The siege is about to be lifted. You’ll be able to have your riding lesson here and no one will bother you.” Jim became silent for a moment, as his smile faded to a frown as the realization dawned. “Oh, man, I fucked up. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that...” Eric glanced at Jim with a concerned expression. “What? What’s wrong?” Exaggerating his concern, though not by much, Jim replied with a sigh, “Those guys are hanging out nearby, just in case the shutterbugs don’t take the hint. That means they’re going to see me drive your Japanese bike here. Man, they ain’t never going to let me live this down.” Eric’s gales of laughter at the big biker’s discomfort earned him a friendly punch in the arm as they headed for the motorcycle dealership. It was like stepping into a wall; the humidity hit General Bradson the moment he stepped off the plane and descended the metal airstairs to the concrete at Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport. Walking towards the terminal past the low stone wall which demarked the flight line boundary, the General looked askance at the few scraggly palms, hoping that he wasn’t on some wild goose chase, or worse. Customs was easy enough; a quick glance in his camera bag and duffle and he was on his way, breathing a silent sigh of relief. During the flight, he’d familiarized himself with the camera’s manual, even going so far as to install the batteries and attach the 300mm lens, just in case the customs official asked him about it. That had not been necessary, though the general had grown interested in the expensive Canon camera to the point of planning to use it to take some pictures, someday. On the sidewalk outside of the airport terminal, the General strolled towards the taxi rank, intending to take a cab to his hotel. Amid the usual bustle of tour guides, one large man shouldered his way though, making a beeline for General Bradson. The man smiled and asked, with a strong Russian accent, “Would you care for a tour, sir? A quick drive to some of the sights before you go to your hotel and take in the sun?” The emphasis on the final word confirmed General Bradson’s hunch, and he nodded his agreement. The man turned, leading the General to a nondescript white compact car; a rental, and hardly suitable for a tour guide, though of course the man was anything but. General Bradson studied his newfound host: a man in superb physical condition, and whom the General thought altogether incongruously young to be in need of the hearing aid that bedecked his left ear. The General guessed that the aid was some sort of bug detector and in that, he was half-right. The man’s hearing had been damaged in an explosion some months before, and he’d made a virtue of necessity by building a bug detector that transmitted on a frequency picked to make his hearing aid buzz. As soon as they were underway, the General observed, “You have some fine sources of information.” Nodding, the contact kept his eyes on the road as he replied, “It is not an easy occupation. We must be cautious, and do our homework, as you Americans are fond of saying. When we learned of your identity, we were instantly suspicious. We were however able to confirm your son’s situation. So tell me, what do you need?” “Two five-man teams, trained in covert infiltration and special operations tactics, including HALO,” The general said, referring to High Altitude Low Opening paratroop assault. “They must be veterans. Standard load-out for eleven men; assault rifles, grenades, night vision gear, demolition explosives, and thirty light anti-personnel mines. I’ll also need a C-130 with JATO packs for the insertion and the exfiltration. We’re still working up the operational details, but that’s what I need to get started.” JATO stands for Jet Assisted Take Off, and is an acronym used to describe detachable solid rocket boosters that are mounted to the sides of an aircraft to provide an extra boost during takeoff. This was most often used to allow an aircraft to take off with a heavier load than the runway length would normally allow. The General chose to let his contact assume that’s what he intended to use them for. The contact paused to consider, and for the sake of appearances raised the obvious objection. “That would be insufficient to attack a well-guarded facility.” General Bradson angled his head, replying with a thin smile, “Yes, were the battlespace not prepared in advance, it would be. Leave that detail to me.” “We can provide what you need, within reason, and for the right price. We can assemble your team within two weeks. We require the fifty thousand dollars I asked for.” The contact, grinding the little rental car’s gears slightly, turned right into the parking lot of an oceanfront park, making the General all too well aware that he was alone and unarmed, in the company of a man who was likely neither. The arrangements and discussions had been a little too glib and easy for the General’s liking. He’d heard promises but no specifics, and above all no guarantees. With that in mind, he asked, “So far, I’ve met one man, and had one phone call. How do I know you won’t disappear once you have the money?” Pulling the car into the shade of a grove of palm trees, the contact nodded; it was an expected question. “In this business, a bad reputation can be fatal, literally. However, three of the men we have in mind for your team are here on the island. We are here to meet with them. Now, regarding trust... Those three men are armed. I also am certain that you brought the money with you, and you did not expect to be met at the airport. Therefore, you have the cash on you now. Were we planning to simply take your money, I would have had them arrive at the car when I parked and relieve you of it. Instead, they are waiting at a picnic table for you to interview them. If you are not satisfied, you will leave here unharmed, with your money.” The contact, who had been facing forward, turned to stare into the General’s eyes. “This is the best demonstration of our good faith that I can offer.” The unnamed man’s words made an odd kind of sense to General Bradson, but the deciding point was that he had little choice. He was more than willing to risk the fifty thousand dollars, given the stakes. The two men got out of the car, and the General slung his camera bag over his shoulder as his contact led the way down a sandy trail, through the palm groves, to the beach. General Bradson felt especially overdressed in his crumpled, out-of-date business suit as his wingtips sank into the sand. He kept his attention focused on his contact, as the man turned left at the beach, glanced back to look for any sign of a tail, and then casually, as if out for a stroll, turned around to walk the other way. Ahead, General Bradson saw a cluster of picnic tables, each with its own permanent barbecue grill by its side. Three tables were occupied, two by families, and a third by two young men and a young woman. The contact walked by the picnic tables, as if he intended to pass by, and then at the point of closest approach looked up and casually waved at the young woman, who returned his gesture and greeted him as an arriving friend, inviting him and the General to join them. The General’s practiced eye surveyed the two young men first. Tan and toned, wearing only gaudy boardshorts and sipping beers, the two sported close-cropped hair and bulked up physiques that spoke of long hours in training. General Bradson saw one of the two men glance at the young woman, an unspoken question in his eyes. The General knew that look, and so he turned to the young lady, looking at her closely, to find that her trim figure belied her age; her face put her at a little past thirty. With a smile, General Bradson took a seat across the picnic table and stated as a fact, “I hope you won’t think me sexist, but I’m surprised to find a woman in charge in your line of work.” Ice-cold eyes bored into the General’s as she said, “I got where I am by guts and skill. You can call me Felicia, Fel for short. I’ve been given an outline of your situation and I’ll be in ground command of the rescue. I’ve got these two boneheads here,” she gestured across the table at the two young men, “Horst and Wilhelm. They’ve been with me for two years. I’ll need at least a week, preferably two, to work with the rest of the team and whip ‘em into shape and drill ‘em up. I’ll say this up front; if I think the risk is too high, I’ll shit-can the mission, no ifs, ands, or buts.” She was a professional, that much was plainly apparent. The General was pleased so far. Deciding to get the issue out of the way, he said, “Fel, that sounds good to me except for one thing; you won’t be the commander, I will. I’m going in with you.” Fel didn’t hesitate; she shook her head and barked, “No fucking way. You’ve got to be what, fifty? I’m the oldest member of the team and you’ve got nearly two decades on me. You’ve also gone soft. You’d be a liability, nothing but deadweight. Besides, you’re Air Force; what the hell do you think you know about being a groundpounder?” His temper silently flared at the unaccustomed challenge, though circumstance and need forced the General to reply in a reasonable tone, “That’s my flesh and blood they’ve got, so I’m going in.” Knowing that she’d been given the opening she was looking for, Fel replied, “That’s the whole point, sir. You’d be a liability and that would lessen our chances. For your son’s sake as well as our own, I don’t want you along.” Seething, wounded all the more by the knowledge that she might very well be right, General Bradson said in a strained voice, “Fine. I see your point, such as it is. Here’s what I’ll do; I’ll show up for your training with your other recruits. If I don’t cut it, I’ll stay off the ground. I just want to get Brian back before it’s too late.” Softening a little, Fel gave the General an understanding smile. “I can appreciate your motives, sir. Truly, I can. That sounds fair, but when the time comes to say whether you go in with us, my word is final.” Turning to face his contact, General Bradson asked, “Where will we be training, and how soon?” “That is confidential for now. I will tell you that we have a place in mind, near Africa. If you accept, we will send word within a week and you can join us there. I will meet you somewhere nearby and take you to the camp. Do we have a deal, General?” Impressed by what he’d seen so far, and feeling that he had little choice, General Bradson placed his camera bag on the table. Hesitating for a moment, he removed his camera – which caused Fel to give it a concerned look; anyone attempting to take a picture of her or her men would be in for a very rude surprise – and hung it around his neck. He then slid the empty bag over to his contact. “It’s a padded bag. I removed the padding in the center divider and replaced it with hundred-dollar bills.” The contact’s mouth twisted up in a wry smile. “Very well.... We have a deal.” He then reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small black box. “This is an encryption device, for your phone. I will call you and ask for Mary, and you will, if all is clear, tell me that I have a wrong number. Five minutes later, you will have this device in place and I will call again. We will be seeing you soon, General.” With that, the four got up to leave, and the contact turned back to say, “Can I offer you a ride somewhere? The main city here, George Town, is about four miles away. I would suggest relaxing for a couple of days if you can spare the time; you will need it.” General Bradson had booked a return ticket, with a stay of forty-eight hours on the Island. His first instinct was to return home at once, but he had to admit, the man had a point. There was also the obvious aspect that a same-day turnaround in the Cayman Islands had the potential to attract unwanted attention from the United States Customs Service. He had already sent up one red flag by withdrawing fifty thousand in cash – there had been no time for multiple transactions to keep it under the mandatory bank reporting threshold – and so General Bradson decided to take the man’s advice. “I’m booked at the Marriott on Seven Mile Beach. I appreciate the offer and I’ll take you up on it...” The General let his voice trail off, by way of a question. The contact smiled as General Bradson stood up, and as they walked towards the rental car he said, “General, we tend to use first names only in this business, and often even those are not real. I’d prefer not to lie to you, so I’ll refrain from giving you any name at all, for now.” © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  15. C James

    Wedding Bells

    Chapter 1: Wedding Bells “This is totally nuts, we can’t do it that way... it’s... it’s... abnormal, that’s what it is, and fucking perverted!” Eric grumped as he paced back and forth in the living room of Helen’s imposing Bel Air home, flicking his coiled-up shirt at the crystals of a low-hanging chandelier precisely because he knew that it drove Helen crazy. Helen chewed on her lip as the tan, shirtless bassist took another flick at the dangling crystals, making a few of them tinkle. Giving him her best evil glare, she snarled, “Leave my chandelier alone! Just because you’re pissed at Brandon and Chase does not mean you get to take it out on me or my furnishings!” Eric paused, and turned to face Helen, smiling the most innocent of smiles, which belied the mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. “Aww, come on, mom, I’m not hurting it. Besides, it’s knocking all the dust layers off so you can actually see the glass.” Helen hauled herself to her feet. She still moved a little more slowly than she used to; she’d recovered from the gunshot wound to her gut but it slowed her down. However, what she’d lost in physical adroitness she more than made up for with her acerbic tongue. “Eric, honey,” she said in her sweetest voice, one Eric had grown to fear. “I assure you that my fixtures are not caked in dirt, and thus are not in need of your assistance,” Helen’s voice changed, rising in volume as she took a menacing step in Eric’s direction, “So leave my fucking chandelier alone. I swear, about the only time I ever see you wear a shirt is when you come over here, and it takes you about thirty seconds to whip it off and start molesting my furniture with it. Don’t bother denying it; I know you do it to bug me. However, be forewarned, two can play at that game and I’m much better at it than you are. And another thing, you're lucky I'm not really your mother, or I’d have done the sensible thing and drowned you at birth!” Knowing – at least sometimes, and this was one such time – when to quit, Eric smiled and tucked his shirt into the back pocket of his jeans, resisting the urge to give the chandelier one last flick. Tossing his sun-streaked brown hair back with a snap of his neck, Eric grinned and then gave Helen a wink. Satisfied, Helen nodded once and said, “Okay now, back to the issue at hand. You’re just going to have to accept Brandon and Chase’s decision. It’s their wedding so they get to do it their way.” Letting out a disgruntled snort, Eric returned to his pacing. “It’s sick, that’s what it is. Who ever heard of a stag party with your fiancé in attendance? I had everything booked up; two adjoining conference rooms at the hotel, catering for separate parties, everything. Jon was going to run Brandon’s and I was going to run Chase’s, then halfway through the night we’d switch. It was going to be wild; I was going to book a troop of male strippers and everything. I had all sorts of stuff planned,” Eric wisely refrained from mentioning some of his other plans. “I am quite sure you did, and I’ll bet that’s part of why Brandon and Chase decided to combine their stag parties; safety in numbers against your pranks,” Helen said. With a shrug, Eric replied, “That just makes it a little harder, but it’s tradition, Helen. Stag parties have to be wild.” Arching an eyebrow in Eric’s direction, Helen said, “Your newfound love of tradition strikes me as overly convenient. Just keep it halfway sane, okay? I also want you to keep in mind that you still aren’t old enough to legally drink, and neither are Brandon and Chase. Just keep it discrete, and no tequila!” “Would I ever go too far?” Eric asked, thinking fond thoughts about his favorite liquor and giving Helen his most disarming smile, which she didn’t buy for an instant. “You, go too far? Perish the thought,” Helen said in a sarcastic tone, thinking of the countless times Eric had done precisely that. Managing a rock group like Instinct often entailed dealing with wild musicians like Eric, but Helen had grown to think of the four members as family. They – the three Carlisle brothers and Brandon – were, in a very real sense, her boys. Their reaction when she’d been shot had left her with no doubts that they felt the same way, but like any good mother, Helen still had to lay down the law every once in a while. Now was one such time, and after taking a deep breath, she said, “Eric, you, your brothers, and Brandon are in a very precarious position. Right now, you are all still basking in the glow of being national heroes, but even saving two cities won’t protect you forever. The press and public opinion are always fickle, and the goodwill you have had may prove fleeting. Brandon and Chase came out on national TV. So far, so good, and the public has accepted them, for now. However, any wild debauchery that results in bad press and that can change in a heartbeat. For the sake of the group, plus your own public images, you need to keep things halfway sane.” Eric’s blue eyes flared for a moment as he felt the weight of Helen’s words and the unwelcome duty that they imposed. He knew she was right, but that didn’t make the restrictions any less onerous. With a touch of exasperation in his voice, he asked, “When is it ever going to be okay for us to be us? When can we stop worrying about public opinion any time we do anything?” Giving Eric a wry but understanding smile, Helen gave him the answer he’d known all along. “When your careers are over, hon. Right now, you’re one of the hottest groups in the business. Like any business, you have to protect your brand; maintain your name. Wild behavior isn’t exactly unexpected from rock stars, but the gay issue complicates things. Your careers might last five years, or it might end tomorrow, but for now you need to treat it like what it is: business.” The fact that he knew Helen was right was not about to stop Eric from contesting the issue. Looking down at the ground with a pout on his handsome face, Eric brushed his washboard abs once with the back of his hand before saying softly, “In five years, I’ll be almost twenty-five. That’s way too old to do... well, anything.” Eric’s downward gaze did not prevent Helen from seeing the mischievous twinkle that had returned to his eyes. She was nearly twice the age that Eric had just despaired of being, and she had no doubt whatsoever that he had, in his roundabout way, just called her old. Picking up a chunk of Moreno glass from her coffee table, Helen hefted it for weight before saying, “In spite of what you might think, even at my age I can still throw things quite well, thank you. Shall I demonstrate?” Breaking into a laugh, Eric backpedaled a few paces before turning to run for the door. “Okay, mom, you win, I’ll try and keep the party ‘halfway sane’,” Eric called back, though his definition was not at all the same as Helen’s. Eric ran through the house, his tennis shoes squeaking on the granite floors, seeking his eldest brother. It didn’t take him long before reaching the kitchen, where his quarry was raiding the refrigerator. Jon looked up from the banana and pepperoni sandwich he was building to ask, “So, did you convince Helen, or what?” Snagging a piece of pepperoni off Jon’s plate, Eric tossed it into the air and opened his mouth to catch it. After a successful intercept, and while still chewing, he said with a shrug of his shoulders, “Nah, she thinks a combined stag party is just fine. She also warned us to keep it ‘halfway sane’,” as he waved finger quotes in the air. Sharing a conspiratorial nod with his brother, Jon said, “We don’t want to stress her out. So, what she doesn’t know –” “Won’t hurt us,” Eric finished his brother’s sentence with a grin. “What’ve you got planned for entertainment?” Jon asked, arching an eyebrow in Eric’s direction. Eric leaned back on the counter. “Strippers for sure, plus I’ve got some other stuff in mind, like a roast... You’ve seen those celebrity roast programs, right?” Rolling his eyes, Jon asked, “Let me get this straight; you plan on subjecting Brandon and Chase, two days before their wedding, to public humiliation?” Eric simply smiled and nodded. Jon gave his brother an appraising look, and then an approving nod. “I like it. Okay, now, what about these strippers. What kind?” Knowing full well what his brother was asking, Eric pretended to be oblivious as he replied, “I figure I’ll get some real pros; dance routines and everything.” Rolling his eyes, Jon asked in exasperation, “You know what I mean; male, female, or some of each?” Eric snickered, and ducked an aimed slice of pepperoni as he replied, “Bro, come on, this is for Brandon and Chase; we can’t have female strippers at their stag party. That would be like having male strippers at yours. Come on, I like the ladies as much as you do, but for this party, it’s gotta be a stag party, all the way.” Jon’s disgruntled snort made Eric laugh. He’d expected no less, but he knew that Jon was exaggerating, at least a little. Changing the subject slightly, Eric smirked. “I had to promise Helen; no alcohol for anyone under the drinking age.” Knowing his brother too well to think for a second that he was on the level, Jon paused to think. Breaking into a grin as he realized what Eric must be thinking, Jon asked the obvious question, “Where will the stag party be and how do we get them there?” Eric lowered his voice to a whisper. “Jim’s in on it. He’s in charge of security and travel arrangements, so this is right up his alley, and he likes the idea. I’m still looking for a stag party location, but it has to be somewhere kind of on the way to Isla De La Palma.” The site for Brandon and Chase’s wedding had not been an easy thing to find. Chase had wanted to get married on a tropical beach, but finding somewhere suitable in the tropics that allowed gay marriage had seemed impossible. Spain’s Canary Islands had been one option that Eric had found. They aren’t tropical; located just north of the Tropic of Cancer off the west coast of Africa, they are mainly semi-arid, though Isla De La Palma, which means ‘Isle of Palms’, has the lushest vegetation of any island in the chain. The climate in the Canaries is warm and sunny, making those islands a favorite destination for European tourists. Hearing the name of the island prodded Jon to ask a question he’d been pondering for some time, “When exactly are you going to tell Brandon and Chase where they are getting married? They still think they are getting hitched in Massachusetts.” Eric gave Jon a mischievous grin before replying, “Hey, Helen doesn’t know either; you and Jim are the only ones who know. I figure we can tell ‘em eventually, maybe en-route. Chase said he wanted to get married on a tropical beach, right? Brandon liked that idea too, but they couldn’t find anywhere. So, I did some research and found ‘em a place.” Jon almost choked on his sandwich. Giving Eric an incredulous look, Jon said, “Yeah, right, you were watching the history channel and saw the island on a Megadisasters episode. Half the island might fall into the sea and cause a huge tidal wave, so you thought it was a perfect spot for Brandon and Chase to get married.” Jon rolled his eyes toward the ceiling before taking another sloppy bite of his sandwich. Eric chuckled. “Nah, I saw that it is owned by Spain, and I remembered that Spain has gay marriage. So I checked, and it’s legal there. Isla De La Palma looks like the least touristy of the islands so I figured it would be perfect.” “There’s still the matter of half of it falling into the sea,” Jon remarked dryly, though he was grinning. “Only if the volcano erupts, and they say it isn’t,” Eric answered with a snicker, wondering how Brandon and Chase would react when they learned of the reason for the island’s notoriety. Eric had done a few second’s worth of research, more than sufficient to reveal that the postulated Megadisaster was in reality Megahype and not a real threat at all. Like so many other threats populating the airwaves, it was based on bad science and sensationalism. However, he had no intention of sharing that detail with anyone. It was, he’d decided, much more fun that way. A few miles away, in the hotel next to the Wilshire Boulevard recording studios, Brandon snuggled up next to Chase, enjoying the lazy afternoon. Brandon absently traced his fingers over Chase’s tiger’s eye necklace, and his eyes fell on the tiny hairline scar on Chase’s neck. It had faded in the three months that had passed since its creation, so much so that it was barely visible, but Brandon’s eyes were drawn to it and he shuddered. Chase felt his fiancé’s movement, and seeing the glance at his neck, guessed at its cause. Pulling Brandon into a hug, Chase said in a soft voice, “Brand, that was a bad day, we nearly lost each other, but it’s over now. We’re lucky to be alive. Helen nearly died, Jon got shot, and you jumped off a fucking cliff. But we’re still here and you killed the guy who did it. Don’t stress on the past; you can’t change it.” Brandon let his fingers wander down to Chase’s bare, tan chest. “I know you’re right. I just keep thinking of how close we came. Five cops died, Günter died, our pilot and road boss died, and tens of thousands of people in Australia died or are dying from the bomb. We all came so close to dying... first on the plane, then that day in Telluride. I still have nightmares. Now, it’s like everything has changed. We’re out, and so far so good on that, not too much trouble, but Helen’s right; the public can be fickle. Our new album has to be a hit, otherwise it’ll be seen as the end of Instinct because we came out, whether that’s the real reason or not.” Running his fingers through Brandon’s hair, Chase smiled faintly. Brandon hadn’t talked much about that day, and now that he was, Chase knew that he was finally ready to put it behind him. It would take time, but time was something they had, or so he hoped. “Brand, I know, I get nightmares sometimes too. But you know what? That day made me realize that you never know what’s around the corner, and we should make every minute count. That’s why I proposed to you.” Remembering the proposal, Brandon grinned. “Yeah, you surprised me with that, in a good way. I think I was mostly stunned by the way you asked me.” Chuckling at the memory, Chase replied, “Yeah, that wasn’t exactly what I had planned. Speaking of which, you’ve got Eric all wound up to find out. He’s been asking me constantly.” “The suspense will do him good,” Brandon replied with a laugh of his own, glad to have the upper hand on Eric for once. Brandon’s mood darkened a little, as his concerns once again made their way to the forefront of his mind. “Jon and Eric have been great about all this. We’re risking their careers too.” The tension was palpable, but Chase knew Brandon’s moods. He also knew how to change them. Easing his hand down towards his boyfriend’s crotch, Chase whispered, “‘Changing Lanes’ will be a hit, I’m sure of it. We’re writing some great songs, and the work-ups have been the best we’ve ever done. Besides, we’ve got a lot of money saved up; we made a mint from the ‘Changing of the Guard’ tour and from the encore tour that Helen arranged from her hospital bed. So if worst comes to worst, we’re still set for life. Most people would kill for that, so quit stressing. If you’re going to get all worked up, I can thinks of better uses for your energy...” Chase’s voice trailed off as his hand took over the job of communication. Brandon quivered from the sensation. “I think you’re right,” he mumbled as the intimate touch became even more. Jim had his own wedding to plan. His friendship with Brandon had led to his current job as Instinct’s de-facto chief of security. Originally, he and a few of his biker friends had been hired for the very unofficial role of keeping the paparazzi at bay. That job, upon the death of the prior security chief, had placed Jim in a role where he felt decidedly uncomfortable. A biker through and through, he disliked the corporate world, and management was not his forte. He felt honored by the offer of a permanent role as head of security, but at the same time, he was apprehensive. By the time he’d finished his fourth tumbler of whiskey, his choice was clear; he’d go back to being in charge of Instinct’s unofficial protectors, and leave the job of security chief to someone more qualified. With that decision made, he’d struggled to type out an e-mail note to Helen with two fingers – his typing skill was abysmal at best, and the whiskey hadn’t helped – and his mind returned to the more pressing question; his own wedding. He had a perfect place in mind, if only he could convince his fiancée Linda to forgo a more conventional setting. In rural Idaho, under a few scudding clouds, a man by the name of James Tate Carlshitski tended his roses, a uniform row of Lavaglut, named after their deep crimson glow, which some thought reminiscent of fiery lava. Every so often he paused to stare out at his empty, windswept land. A businessman both by nature and profession, he’d made his money in the recording industry: CD production. Together with a partner in the shipping business, he’d done well, well enough to allow himself an early semi-retirement to the family farm he’d grown up on, and then inherited twenty years before. He still kept a hand in the business, but he found it unfulfilling these days, a condition that, had he been honest with himself – which he scrupulously avoided – he’d have traced to the loss of his sons. “JT, you supper’s getting cold,” his wife, Jane, called out from the front porch. JT, as he preferred to be called, set down his old gardening trowel, hitched up his trousers, and walked towards the house, seeing that Jane had already gone inside. He let out a sigh; things had not been the same between them for years. He knew that somewhere deep inside she blamed him for her now-empty life. He’d hoped that with time she’d accept the fact they were gone, but her heart had grown cold to him and now they just went through the motions of married life, sustained by force of habit more than anything else. They hardly spoke these days, he mussed, wondering if she’d said more than a hundred words to him all week. The crisp snap and crunch of tires on gravel jarred him from his maudlin reverie, and he glanced back at his driveway, to see the unwelcome return of the unmarked black sedan. JT watched with a little trepidation as the sedan wheeled to a halt a dozen yards away. A tall man in a business suit stepped out, and the first thing JT noticed was that the suit was a bad fit on the man, both physically and, he had a feeling, by temperament. From his own years in the Army, JT recognized the look of a man unused to civilian clothes. Sizing up the man as he approached, JT couldn’t decide whether he was looking at an officer, or a senior enlisted. A glance at the man’s ramrod posture made JT think of a drill sergeant he’d once known and loathed, and the cut of the visitor’s jaw seemed to confirm it. Assuming he was in for yet another round of questioning regarding his former business partner, JT said with a growl as the man approached, “Can’t you people call ahead, or at least come at a decent hour so you aren’t interrupting my damn supper?” Choosing to ignore the hostile reception, the visitor came to a halt at arm’s length, and with a friendly smile said, “I’m Walter Bradson, U.S. Air Force. We spoke on the phone a few times but we’ve never met. I’m not here to question you again; that case is pretty well closed.” “I remember you, General,” JT replied, his demeanor not having improved, “So to what do I owe the dubious distinction of this visit?” Sizing the man up and finding him wanting, General Bradson kept to a professional air. With his friendly smile painted on his lips, he replied, “I’ve come to give you some information. A few things turned up during my review of your interview notes. I believe you’ve been lied to. There are some things you need to know. What I’d like to do is come inside and talk to you and your wife, speak my peace, then I’ll get out of your hair.” JT’s eyes narrowed; he was unsure, and that uncertainty made him defensive. Before, the government agents had not asked, they’d ordered. Skirting the issue and looking for the upper hand, JT asked, “Is this official business?” General Bradson had expected that question, and also the attitude with which he’d been received. For that reason, he’d been careful to omit the word ‘retired’ from his introduction, and had pulled a few strings to borrow a black sedan that, though unmarked, fairly screamed ‘government’ to all who saw it. He needed the appearance of power, a power he no longer had, but he was well aware that appearances can, and often do, trump reality. Bending the truth a little, he replied, “Yes sir, in a way it is. I need to speak with you and your wife. It won’t take long, but it is imperative that I do so.” Standing his ground, JT met the Generals eyes and said, in a tone even less pleasant than before, “Why involve Jane in this? Speak your peace then be on your way. Our dinner’s goin’ cold.” The General fixed JT in a glare that belied his easy, fake smile. “I’ll be talking to both of you. She needs to hear this too.” JT’s demeanor changed. Where before he had felt unease, now he felt threatened, at risk from things he preferred not to dwell upon, things he preferred to leave buried, safe from the pain they could cause. He tried to read the expression the General wore, which was somewhere between neutral and accusing. He’d thought he had the situation in hand until that moment, but now he saw it spiraling out of control, and JT was a person who needed to be in control. As he struggled to think of a reply, the drumming of his heart became almost painful in its intensity. The words he sought would not come, and General Bradson settled the issue by striding purposefully towards the large grey clapboard house. Defeated, as much by his inner deeply buried fears as by the General, JT followed wordlessly towards his own front door. Eric fiddled with the ornate globe, cut out of various stones and inlaid with black pearl, which stood on a pedestal in Helen’s study. Jon wolfed down the last of his sandwich and walked over to gaze over Eric’s shoulder at the twirling globe. Eric reached out with his finger to halt the spinning sphere, and twisted it so that the Western Hemisphere was in view. In spite of being mainly decorative, the globe was good enough for Eric’s purposes. Jabbing a finger at Cancun, Eric said in a low voice, “I figure we could have the party here, or maybe in Bermuda. They’re both kind of on the way to the Canary Islands.” Eric paused for a few seconds, and then spun to face his brother. “Hey, what’s the drinking age in the Canaries? Why don’t we just have the party there? Brandon and Chase think we’re having it in Massachusetts, so we load them onto the plane, let them think we’re going to Massachusetts, and then fly ‘em to the Canary Islands.” “What about Helen,” Jon asked, regretting to have to be the one to shoot down Eric’s plan. “If you try and keep her away from the wedding, she’s going to kill you slowly, you know that right?” Eric crossed his arms and returned his gaze to the globe. A few seconds later he flashed Jon a grin. “Bro, we’re missing the obvious here. Helen is going away the week before the wedding. Her and Barbra have a romantic getaway planned up in the Poconos. So, we shanghai Brandon and Chase while she’s away. She can easily get there in time for the wedding, but not the stag party. Besides, we can’t have her at the party no matter where we have it; she’d be a wet blanket, and having somebody who’s virtually our mom at a stag party would be so wrong. You know she’d want to be there, so this way it solves all our problems.” “Except Helen killing you when she finds out,” Jon observed dryly. With a shrug, Eric chuckled by way of reply, giving the ornate globe another look. “Trust me, this will be good. The wedding is supposed to be private anyway, but you know damn well the paparazzi will try to crash it if they know where it is. I’ll phone the air charter company and make the arrangements for the flight, then I’ll start trying to find a place for the party on the island.” Jon nodded in agreement. “You should probably make the wedding arrangements first, they might be harder,” Jon said as an afterthought. With the party foremost on his mind, Eric spared Jon’s question a shrug. “I don’t think that will be hard. All we need to do is hire a preacher and haul everyone down to a beach.” With that triviality addressed, Eric returned to his real interest, planning the party. “Any idea how I can find male strippers on the island?” he asked. “Check the Internet,” Jon said, giving the obvious answer. Eric rolled his eyes. “I already tried that. All I found are a few clubs that have lady’s night. We need some real pros, not some amateurs.” Still not entirely pleased with the subject – to Jon, a stripper would always be female – Jon gave it a few moment’s thought. “Find a good act here, then fly ‘em out separately.” Eric gave Jon a thoughtful nod. “Yeah, that could work. We can make sure they’re good, then book ‘em for the gig.” Jon raised a hand, turning his palm towards Eric as he said, “Whoa, bro. No ‘we’ for this. I’ll help with anything else, but you get to do any auditioning.” Laughing at Jon, Eric nodded and smiled, wondering how to best go about finding the right performers. In her study, Helen sat in her plush desk chair, her eyes closed and her body totally relaxed, except for her thumb which was holding the intercom switch. She allowed herself a smile; she’d thought that Eric had caved in far too easily, and had assumed that he was up to something. He usually was, so that took no leap of intuition, but Helen congratulated herself for correctly guessing that Eric had an overseas location in mind. She was also very pleased with the reference to her as ‘mother’. The decision turned out to be an easy one to make; better to let Eric think he was pulling the wool over her eyes. So far, she found his plans acceptable in the main, though they contained some gaping holes. Keeping the press away should, she hoped, help insulate the group from any bad fallout. She didn’t begrudge her boys some fun, and this way she hoped she could keep an eye on things. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  16. Chapter 2: Mission to Idaho “Yeah, my passport is current and so’s Jansen’s, but why?” Keith asked with a mix of exasperation and puzzlement. His boss, George, who ran the agency, had an annoying habit of yanking the dancer’s chains, and the sly grin on George’s face clued Keith in that he could be doing so yet again. George rocked back in his chair, letting his eyes linger on Keith’s bare torso. The kid, he thought for the hundredth time, was hot, even for an exotic dancer. George chuckled, enjoying his fun, though in this case he had a legitimate reason for his questions. He eyed Keith’s bare chest again, and then looked into his eyes as he smiled. “We’ve had an inquiry for a private booking. One of the requirements is a valid passport. Beyond that, I’m not at liberty to say. I’m thinking of you and Jansen for this gig; you’ve got a hot act and you work well with him. There’ll be an audition in a day or two, and if the client books you, you’ll be heading overseas.” Keith shook his head adamantly, “No way are we going to some foreign country to perform at a party. I’ve heard too many bad stories about the kind of crap that goes on, and we don’t do kinky stuff.” George smiled, enjoying Keith’s discomfort. His fears were reasonable, but not under the circumstances. George had told the truth; he'd been asked to keep the client’s name out of this, and the fact that it suited his purposes for winding Keith up was so much the better. “All I can say is, it’s a very respectable client, and it’s for a stag party. No kink; he specified your surfer act and said he’d seen the photos on our website. This is for a bachelor party, for two guys. The client is not one of them.” George waited until Keith’s expression, as he’d expected, changed to curiosity, and then he added, “You’ll meet the client at the audition; if you have any qualms after doing so, you can back out, no questions asked. I have a hunch you’ll be fine with it, especially given the destination and the pay. Part of what the client is offering is to foot the bill for the two of you to stay a week at the location, but you’ll only be performing once. It’s a sweet deal for both you and your boyfriend.” George didn’t actually know the location, he’d only been told that it was a resort island, but he wanted Keith to take the deal so he omitted that detail. After thinking for a moment, Keith agreed. “Okay, we’ll do the audition. When is it?” Smiling, George chose his words carefully to avoid mentioning that he’d already made the appointment, “I was thinking tomorrow afternoon at three. We don’t open the club until four, so you’ll have the main room, no problems.” Keith nodded his agreement, and then turned and left the room, returning to his bartender post. George watched him leave, admiring the kid’s tan, muscular back and long, sun-streaked blond hair. Keith looked every bit the surfer he was, and Jansen looked enough like him to be his twin. They were, as a result, one of the top acts at the club. George didn’t bother asking Jansen’s opinion on the deal; he’d learned from past dealings that Keith always spoke for Jansen on business matters, so George always went directly to Keith. Striding towards JT’s front porch, General Bradson half expected an objection, though he had no intention of accepting one should it occur. Without pausing, he bounded up the steps and opened the front door, stepping inside while JT trailed behind. JT caught up while the general stood in the foyer. Glancing at the decor, seeking but not finding any family photos, General Bradson wondered if his visit was in vain. JT gave the General a withering glare before shouting, “Jane, we’ve got company,” letting his voice drip with contempt as he pronounced the last word. Jane, a dour looking woman with piercing blue eyes that belied her age, walked into the foyer, wearing an apron over her dress and a confused expression on her face. Giving the General a puzzled look, she waited for an introduction. After waiting an awkward length of time, JT huffed, “This is General Bradson, he’s from the government, and he barged in insisting on talking to us both without so much as a by-your-leave.” Used to her husband’s moods and choosing to ignore his present snit, Jane smiled. “Well, General, won’t you have a seat? Can I offer you something to drink?” “Our goddamn dinner is going cold.” JT grumbled, still glaring at the General while wishing that his wife wasn’t so damnably civil. “No, it isn’t. It’s still in the stove,” Jane said amiably while ushering General Bradson to an overstuffed recliner. Taking a seat, the General waited for Jane to also sit down. JT remained standing, so the General turned to face Jane before saying, “Ma’am, thank you for your hospitality. I won’t be long, but there are some things you need to know. As you already know from the press reports, your husband’s former business partner, Jerry Clump, was the ringleader of a plot to blackmail the United States. As such, I think it is safe to say that anything Mr. Clump may have told you is highly suspect. While going over the interview reports, and based on a few things we’ve learned via other sources, I’m here to tell you that he was misleading you. He was using your sons' equipment containers–“ “Our late sons, as far as we’re concerned,” snapped JT. Giving her husband a withering glare, one not unnoticed by the General, Jane said to her guest, “Please continue, General.” Nodding, General Bradson picked up as if the interruption had never happened. “Mr. Clump was using your sons' equipment containers to transport the bombs. His main selling point, in order to get that shipping contract, was his connection to the two of you. He promised your sons that he’d try to feel the two of you out and see if there was any hope for at least some communication.” Jane did not move, and made no effort to reply. Instead, her face, though her expression remained frozen in place, drained of what little color it held. The general glanced down, and noticed that her hands, which had been resting, crossed in her lap, were turning white around her knuckles. For the first time, General Bradson had hope that he wasn’t on a wild goose chase. A long silence followed, which was finally broken by JT’s harsh words. “If that’s what you came here to say, you’re wasting your time, I’m telling you, they’re dead to–“ “JT, shut up!” Jane snapped in an acid voice, startling everyone in the room, but most especially her husband. She then said in a soft voice, “Are you sure, General? He told us that they wanted nothing to do with us, under any circumstances.” General Bradson ignored JT’s continued glare and told Jane, “I’m sure, Ma’am. I know your sons and they told me this directly. They don’t know I’m here, by the way, but I did a little digging in your interviews regarding Mr. Clump’s claims, and felt I had to let you know that you’ve been lied to. How you act on that information is up to you, but you have a right to know.” JT opened his mouth, but quickly closed it again in response to an angry glare from his wife. Ignoring her fuming husband, Jane stood up, and as General Bradson got up from his chair she said in a neutral tone, “Thank you for coming, General. Could you please give me a way to get in touch with you?” Handing Jane a business card, General Bradson watched as she slipped it into her apron pocket. “Enjoy your supper, Ma’am, and thank you for hearing me out.” With a nod of his head, and a reach through force of long habit for a cap that no longer sat on his head and never would again, General Bradson walked towards the door. JT, still seething, wordlessly opened it and stood aside. The General descended the porch steps and walked towards his car when the sound of the door slamming behind him, followed by footsteps clanking on the wooden porch, let him know that the encounter was not at an end. Coming to a halt, he turned around to see JT rushing down the steps. JT came to a halt and said, a little too loudly, “How dare you intrude on a private matter. Isn’t it enough that I have to know what my son turned into without being reminded of it by government busybodies? Do you have any idea what it’s like to be ashamed of your own sons? I don’t need you or your ilk reminding me of it! I don’t ever want to see or hear from you again, now get your officious ass off my goddamn land!” His own temper starting to simmer, General Bradson replied in an even voice, “I was leaving until you came out for this conversation, but since you bring up the subject, no, I don’t know what it’s like to be ashamed of my own son. I have one son, and he happens to be gay–“ “So that’s why you’re a pansy-lover,” JT snarled, edging closer, not recognizing the changes in the General’s demeanor. For a few lingering seconds, only the sound of the wind intruded upon the silence. Edging forward, General Bradson glared into JT’s eyes. His voice dropped a level, to a low and dangerous tone which if anything understated his rage. “My son was serving his country, fighting to give even scum like you the right to say what you just did.” Standing his ground, JT said in a tone dripping with mock sympathy, “It must be difficult for a man of your high and mighty rank to have a son like that.” The remaining though fast-ebbing logical portion of General Bradson’s mind made one last futile interjection; the thought that confrontation would hinder the cause for which he’d traveled so far. Rage, though, won the mental battle. The pain was still too fresh, the sense of loss too new to long allow for rational thought, and the General reached out, seizing JT by the collar. Exerting just a small amount of physical force which stood in stark contrast to fury in his eyes, General Bradson lowered his voice to a deadly near-whisper, “You may do many things, JT,” the General said, using the man’s given name in contempt, “but you will not, not now and not ever, insult my son. I’ve killed better men than you, and if you ever insult my son again…” The General’s words trailed off as reason renewed its influence as the vented rage subsided. Releasing JT, the General spun on his heel and stalked to his car. JT stood motionless, his lower lip quivering in time to his pounding heart. The General’s words were not what had so shaken him; it was the man’s eyes. Looking into them, he’d seen rage, though to that he was at least somewhat accustomed. It was the other thing that he had seen in those two burning spheres which instilled in him a deep and abiding fear: he’d seen Death itself, undiluted. Alone in his suite, Eric tapped furiously at the computer’s keys late into the night, searching for a small and secluded resort in Isla De La Palma. He bookmarked a few candidates, wishing yet again that he was not tied down by the studio schedule. Looking at the web pages, he knew that they were a poor means of selecting a location; going in person would be so much better. Using a travel agent was one option, but a few phone calls had failed to turn up one that had actually been to the island, let alone someone intimately familiar with the various accommodations and facilities. Instinct’s people usually handled such details, but Eric was unaware that Helen knew of his island plans. However, he did know that Instinct’s staff would keep Helen fully informed, so he’d decided to handle it himself, vastly underestimating the difficulty of the task. Eric rocked back in his chair, staring at the screen, hoping that inspiration would strike. No ideas came to mind, so he resumed making notes about the various resorts he’d found and then picked up the phone and began making calls. Two hours latter, Eric sat back in his chair, glancing at his notes. He still felt like he was operating in the dark. There just wasn’t, he decided, a good substitute for checking a place out in person, not for something as critical as a stag party. With that in mind, he checked the recording schedule and found a possible hole; for two days it looked like his bass could be mixed in from pre-recorded tracks. Eric didn’t like the idea on some levels; he knew he’d have to find a way to lay down those tracks in secret, and then find some excuse for disappearing for two days. As he pondered the decision a new thought occurred; an idea that would solve at least some of his concerns. A slow and satisfied smile played across his face as he considered it, ‘Yeah, that just might work,’ he thought. Sitting in her lavish office at her imposing oversized desk, Helen sorted through her waiting e-mail. Finding the one from Jim, she read it with a mixture of disappointment and relief. She had known all along that he wasn’t cut out for head of security, but she’d been over-ruled by Instinct, and out of gratitude more than merit they had given him the additional job. Jim was ideal in his original role, but his lack of skill in the essential tasks such as coordinating with local security providers had been instantly apparent. Finally settling upon relief as her primary emotion, Helen feigned regret as she replied and assured Jim that his old job as head of informal security was his for as long as he wanted it. That left Helen with a problem; Instinct needed a new head of security: someone with good management skills, but also themselves skilled at providing protection. Such people, she knew, were few and far between. She steeled herself for a long and tiring search, resolving to find the very best. The mileposts clicked by, one after the other, as General Bradson drove south through Utah. The scenery along Interstate 15 was spectacular, but the General paid it no heed. His mind was awash with recriminations, mainly at himself for losing his temper, and also, cutting deeper still, for all the things he’d never told his son and now might never have the chance. The knock on his door had come just one week before. He’d answered it, to find a nervous young captain, plainly anxious to be anywhere else. General Bradson had known, in that moment, that something was badly wrong. The captain had taken several minutes to utter the words ‘missing in action’ and reveal that he knew nothing more. With that phrase, the General had found himself in a situation he’d long feared, as any father might. A few phone calls to pull a few strings and call in a few favors had garnered him a folder, and with it came a bitter understanding. His son had been on a reconnaissance mission. That much was obvious; the rest had required considerable digging. The official stonewalling from Washington did not fit with a conventional mission, and the folder confirmed the General’s suspicions; his son had been sent on a scouting mission to an oil platform at the head of the Persian Gulf, in an area disputed by Kuwait and Iran. There, something, no one was fully sure what, had gone badly wrong. A sudden firefight had broken out in the early hours of the morning, and the five-man recon squad had been forced to separate. Three men had made it back across the border in their inflatable launch; two were missing, and one of them was the general’s son, Brian. The Iranians would not confirm his death or capture; they were far more interested in wringing an admission of responsibility – and thus a de facto acknowledgement of their sovereignty in the disputed area – for the alleged incursion, plus a few purely imaginary incidents, out of Washington. Washington, for its part, seemed to be dragging its feet and doing what it did best: nothing. The endless waiting was driving him crazy. Eager for any respite, General Bradson had decided to take a drive to Idaho. Something, anything, to keep busy. However, in that empty vehicle under the lonely Utah sky, he had to admit to himself that he may have made the situation in Idaho worse, and his own mind was far from clear. Every passing minute with no resolution put his son’s life in greater danger and time, he knew, was running out. With that thought came others, and a rudimentary idea, born of desperation, began to take form. The General’s career was over, but he still had many friends and connections. He didn’t know if they would be enough, but he would soon find out. With his newly conceived plans in the back of his mind, he returned his thoughts to the here and now; he had to let Helen and Instinct know what had happened in Idaho. He reached for his phone, and then paused, deciding that some things are best done in person. By noon the following day, after an uncomfortable and noisy overnight stay in Mesquite, Nevada, General Bradson arrived at Helen’s office, and asked the receptionist if he could speak with her. The receptionist eased back her horn-rimed glasses and stared at the General, scowling slightly. He wasn’t on the list so she almost refused, but a memory of him appearing with Instinct at a press conference prompted a partial change of heart. A quick check with Helen on the intercom led to a sudden change of demeanor and the receptionist said with a warm smile, “Go right in, sir.” Helen stood up at her desk as her guest walked in. “Well, hello, General. This is a pleasant surprise,” she said, meaning every word. She knew of his sudden retirement, and had guessed the reason why; he’d made the right choices, and in doing so had somehow trodden on a few toes. A few reports in the press had confirmed those suspicions. “Please, call me Walter. I’m retired now,” the General said with a smile as he took the proffered seat. “You’ll always be a general to me,” Helen replied sincerely. She held the man in high esteem, and with that thought came another. “How are you doing, General? Is retirement treating you well?” General Bradson leaned back in his chair. “Well enough, I suppose. However, I needed to see you. I’ll be blunt; I’m a meddlesome cuss at times, and I stuck my nose in where it had no business being. I read in some of the interview reports that the Carlisle boys’ parents had been misled, and I figured I’d do a good deed and straighten them out, let ‘em know that their sons were open to burying the hatchet. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t go well. Their father is one ornery, mule-headed son of a bitch, and he succeeded in getting my temper riled. I blew up at him and probably made things worse. I’m deeply sorry, Helen, I really am.” “I’ve met him a few times, when the band was starting out,” Helen said, surprised but not displeased by the revelations. “I’ve had little hope that they’d come around. Maybe the mother, but from what I recall he keeps her pretty well under his thumb.” Shaking his head, the General replied, “That wasn’t my impression. At one point, she looked as if she was considering handing him his head. She also asked for my card. If there’s any hope at all – it’s with her, but don’t hold your breath.” Drumming her fingers on her desk, Helen thought for a moment before replying with a shrug, “The boys and I have pretty much given up hope when it comes to those two. You didn’t hurt a thing, General, and I thank you for trying.” With that matter taken care of, Helen resumed her original, purposeful tack, “So tell me, General, how is retirement? I’m sure a man like you could have a job most anywhere for the asking. Are you looking, or are you pursuing other interests, such as golf?” Helen appeared to be casually interested, but she watched intently for the General’s reaction. With a sigh and a shrug, General Bradson answered, “I’m doing okay, I suppose. I’m still at loose ends; I don’t want a corporate job where I’m there due to my title and not what I can do. I’m getting by on my retirement pay and savings so there’s no urgency, but I suppose I’ll have to start shopping around sooner or later.” Smiling, Helen nodded. “Actually, General, I have a reason for asking. Instinct needs a new Security Chief. The hours can be long while we’re on tour, but it’s a varied and challenging job. With your knowledge, experience, and contacts, I feel you’d be a perfect fit. You’ve been involved with us enough to have a good idea of what it entails, except for the pay.” Helen scrawled a number on her memo pad, and with a flourish she tore the top sheet off and handed it to the General. She then added, “Of course, any offers I make must be approved by the band, but I doubt that will be an issue in your case.” Eyeing the number, and regretting that he could not accept, General Bradson nodded approvingly. “This is quite generous, and it’s a job I would enjoy. I’m afraid I must decline. I have a few things that I need to do. If the job is still open when I’m done, I’d love to apply, but that may be months down the road.” Seeking to change the subject and avoid any awkward questions, he asked, “So how is America’s most famous gay couple doing? Coming out and announcing their engagement on live national TV was one hell of a gutsy move.” Picking up on the attempted redirection, Helen replied, “Brandon and Chase are doing fine. So far so good on the reactions; our sales and bookings are holding. I think we’ll be okay. I hope you and your son will be able to attend their wedding, you are both very much invited.” Helen’s keen eye noticed the General flinch, almost imperceptibly, and the only thing she could think, based on what she’d asked and the timing of the General’s reaction, was that it had something to do with his son. With genuine concern, she asked, “How is your son, General? Well, I hope?” General Bradson froze for a moment. He had many professional acquaintances, but no close friends, not since the end of his career. He very much felt the need to have a friendly ear, someone who could understand some of what he was going through. He also felt he owed Helen a better explanation than the one he’d given. Taking a deep breath, the General made his decision and said, “This isn’t public knowledge and must remain that way, but that’s why I had to decline your offer. Brian’s been captured…” With evident concern, the General told Helen what little he knew but did not share his tentative plans. With genuine sympathy, Helen asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?” Nodding, the General replied, “There might be. At some point, I might need some press attention. I think I can generate it myself if needed but if not, a word from you or Instinct might save the day. I can’t say more, I’m sorry.” “You can count on us, General. As for the job, I’ll need to talk with the boys, but I can probably hold it open.” Rising to his feet, General Bradson smiled as he gave the offer serious thought. He was well aware that if he did find it necessary to take action to save his son, there was the possibility he might well be unable to accept due to being incarcerated. However, the prospect appealed to him. He knew he couldn’t explain why he might not be able to fill the position, so he replied, “In that case, I’ll gratefully accept, with the provision that you can change your minds at any time with no hard feelings on my part. Thank you Helen, and I’m sorry things didn’t work out better in Idaho.” Dismissing the General’s concern with a friendly wave of her hand, though suddenly realizing that he’d traveled all the way to Idaho to make the attempt, Helen said, “Thank you for trying. Please keep us posted, as much as you can, about your son.” Eric walked through the connecting door to Brandon and Chase’s suite, finding the room empty. He glanced to his left, finding the bedroom door open and that room similarly unoccupied. A soft mutter of conversation caught his ear, and Eric turned towards the balcony door. Taking a few steps forward, he heard the whirr of the hot tub and grinned as he pulled the sliding glass door open and bounded out into the glaring sun. Spying Brandon and Chase sitting on one side of the tub, Eric kicked off his shoes, fished out his wallet from his shorts pocket, and tossed it on a table. Grinning at Brandon and Chase, he eased himself into the hot, swirling waters and then asked with a smirk, “Mind if I join you?” Brandon leaned back and laughed. “I think you’re supposed to ask that before you get in,” he said, while Chase gave a laugh of his own and splashed some water in his brother’s general direction. Brandon looked at Eric and asked, “So what’s up, bro? You’re lucky we’re not naked in here.” Shrugging, Eric replied with a chuckle, “I figured you probably were, but why would I care? Anyway, just wanted to come over and soak a while.” That much was true enough, but Eric had additional subjects in mind and asked, “So what’s the big secret of how you two got engaged? Every time I ask, you both keep changing the subject.” “Damn, sure is strange weather we’re having,” Chase said deadpan, launching into a game they both had come to love. Nodding solemnly, Brandon replied with a straight face, “Yeah, maybe it’s earthquake weather?” Letting out a disgruntled snort, Eric slid a little deeper into the water as he said, “Come on, just tell me. You know this is driving me fucking nuts…” “We know,” Brandon and Chase replied in perfect unison, struggling unsuccessfully to avoid cracking up. Chase then added with a pointed glare, though his smile belied his serious tone, “Maybe we can make a deal. Tell us what you’re plotting for our party and wedding.” Chase was under no illusions that Eric would be forthcoming, but yanking his brother’s chain was reason enough. “What, me, plot? Would I ever do such a thing as that?” Eric asked, with an angelic look on his face which earned him a cascade of water from Brandon and Chase. Looking at his brother, and knowing all too well that Eric was up to something, Chase replied, “Yeah you would, you always do. So if you want to know about us, spill it bro, what are you planning?” Letting out an exasperated sigh, Eric gave in, just a little. “Okay, damn it, even though I think it’s fucking perverted, you guys are getting a joint stag party. Helen read me the riot act about it, so I have to keep it sane,” Eric said with a disgusted and heartfelt expression. “Yeah, it will be a party, I guess, but nothing crazy.” Arching an eyebrow in his boyfriend’s direction, Brandon received a reluctant nod. “Chase and I got engaged about a week after the attack on us back in Telluride,” Brandon said, pretending that he’d answered the question. Sending a splash of water in Brandon’s direction, Eric grumped, “I know that, what I want to know is what happened?” Brandon and Chase’s laughter indicated that they were just winding him up, so Eric grabbed Chase’s foot and said with a wicked grin, “Too bad you’re so ticklish.” Chase giggled as Eric began to tickle his foot. Leaping to his boyfriend’s defense with a laugh and a roar, Brandon dived at Eric as the water-wrestling match launched into full gear. Outnumbered, Eric soon found himself pinned in Brandon’s strong arms while Chase turned the tables and grabbed Eric’s foot. “Okay, Okay, I give. Come on guys, just tell me, please?” Eric said as he relaxed into Brandon’s grip. Letting Eric go and resuming his place beside Chase, Brandon glanced at his boyfriend and asked, “Think he’s suffered enough?” Shaking his head, Chase replied, “No, but we might as well tell him or he’ll just keep bugging us.” Brandon nodded, so Chase gave Eric a grin and said, “We were in the kitchen. We were still pretty shell-shocked from everything that had happened. I was making a sandwich, thinking how close we’d all come to dying. It’s a miracle we all survived. I decided that you never know how much time you have, so why not make the most of it. That’s when I popped the question.” Brandon gave a short laugh and added, “You left off the best part.” Blushing slightly, Chase continued, “I was done spreading the mayonnaise on the sandwich, so I asked Brand, ‘Pass me the mustard, let’s get married, and pass me the bologna too.’ Eric stared in silence for a moment, his jaw dropping open and then closing again. Finally he reared back, wracked by gales of laughter. Moments later, clutching his aching side, Eric gasped, “No fucking way. If it was anybody else, I’d say you were shitting me. Dude, that’s got to be the weirdest proposal ever!” “I was halfway through handing him the bologna when I realized what he’d just asked,” Brandon said with a laugh of his own. “I dropped it all over the floor. I stared at Chase, not sure I’d heard right, until I looked in his eyes. I knew, right then, that there could only be one answer.” “Yeah, he said, ‘I dropped the bologna’,” Chase quipped before cracking up. Grinning, Brandon nodded his head, “Yeah I did, and then I said ‘Yes!’ So that’s how we got engaged. Happy now?” Still wracked by laughter, Eric gasped, “Dudes, that’s just perfect. You know I’ve got to tell Jon and Helen, right?” Chase shook his head, “Not much point, they already know. We were all just enjoying your curiosity too much to tell ya.” “Assholes,” Eric wheezed, knowing that he’d been had. “You got me.” Glancing at his watch, Eric rushed to climb out of the hot tub. “I gotta go get changed, I’ve got an appointment. Thanks for finally telling me.” Trailing water, Eric grabbed his shoes and wallet and dashed into the suite. Chase returned his arm to its place across Brandon’s shoulders and asked, “Do you believe him, about keeping the party sane?” “Nope. Do you?” Brandon asked, snuggling against Chase’s side. Chase had no doubt that his brother’s heart was in the right place. He also had no doubts when it came to Eric’s utter love of mischief. “Hell no,” Chase replied, leaning in to kiss Brandon. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  17. C James

    Changing Lanes

    A sequel to 'Let the Music Play', Changing Lanes focuses on Eric, and deals with some portentous personal issues facing the group, with a lot of fun along the way.
  18. C James

    Epilogue

    Epilogue The clamor from the gathered press made its way through the hotel conference room’s walls as a muffled roar. Outside, in the cold night air, over twenty thousand people milled around, pressing close to the chalet-style Telluride hotel, cheering, hoping for even a glimpse of those inside. In an adjoining room, Eric parked Helen’s wheelchair and knelt beside her, exchanging a happy smile. He’d rarely been far from her side in the prior days. Helen had arrived at the hospital without a pulse, and only the desperate efforts of a skilled surgeon along with a massive transfusion of blood and fluids, had enabled her to pull through. Even then, she had been in a coma for almost two days. It had been a near-run thing. She was still weak, and only her acerbic insistence had forced the doctors to acquiesce to her demand to leave the hospital for a few hours. They’d had no choice in the matter; Helen had not asked them, rather she had told them: she was going. Her only compromise had been to agree to stay in the wheelchair, though it wasn’t much of a concession; she was still too weak to walk. A clatter of hard leather shoes on the marble floor caused Helen to glance up. Beaming, she said, “Why, hello, General. I’m glad that you could be here tonight.” With a shrug and a smile of his own, General Bradson replied, “I felt obligated. After all, I was largely responsible for the word getting out to the press that you and your boys probably saved Los Angeles and maybe New York as well, not to mention saving New York from radioactive contamination had we demolished the bomb in place. None of you are strangers to press attention, but I’m sure it’s been a little hectic lately, even by your standards.” Eric’s lopsided grin lit the room as he replied, “Yeah, you could say that. The bikers have bagged half a dozen reporters and four paparazzi trying to get onto our ranch over the last week,” Eric smiled to let the General know that he wasn’t really complaining. Jon, his arm still in a sling, arched an eyebrow at Eric, giving him a wry chuckle. He knew that Eric’s one recent regret was that he hadn’t been able to fulfill his dream of completely unleashing the bikers on the paparazzi. Stretching out a calloused hand to lean against a wall, General Bradson winked before saying, “I felt that the heroic actions you boys took deserved recognition. You saved millions of lives, very nearly at the cost of your own. The news would have gotten out eventually, but this way you can tell them the whole story your own way.” Brandon, who had been sitting beside Chase on a bench, looked up and joined the conversation. “I just wish the press wasn’t so fixated on me tackling that Russian guy over the cliff. It wasn’t just me; we all did a lot that day.” With a wry laugh, the General turned to face Brandon. “Son, the press loves sensationalism above all else, and that really got ‘em fired up. Hell, I think they would have dwelled on that anyway, even if I hadn’t filled ‘em in about the timestamp on that attempt to trigger the New York bomb. We may never know why the code was one digit off. We’re assuming that the second attempt, the one that came in from Paraguay, was the real code. One numeric string it contained matches exactly with the one in the Los Angeles bomb’s firing circuit and also with the one in the trigger you captured. My hunch is that Jerry Clump didn’t trust his operative to have both codes. That would fit with his operational pattern, from what we know of it.” With the mention of Jerry, Eric scowled. “Any more news on him?” General Bradson nodded. “We still think he’s dead. We’ve gone through the Buenos Aires warehouse ashes with a fine-toothed comb in a joint operation with the Australians and the Argentines. The fire didn’t leave much, but we found some human remains. Two middle-eastern men, who we think, based on a signals intercept, were looking to purchase some bomb-making equipment. The DNA on the third man’s remains matches some found in Mr. Clump’s home, and also it fits a paternity profile for Joe Clump. Based on that, we’re sure the third set of remains are those of Jerry Clump. There wasn’t a lot left of him; just an arm that was partially shielded from the fire by some metal. The initial blast – it was definitely a bomb planted in his gear, though by whom we don’t know – probably ripped him to shreds. I’m sure glad to close the book on that.” Brandon nodded, and after checking his watch said, “We’re all going out there for the press conference, we’re due now. Would you like to come with us, General?” Before the General could utter a word, Helen interrupted to say, “No.” Taking note of the confused faces around her, Helen smiled weakly and added, “I don’t mean the General can’t go with us, I meant we shouldn’t all go. Brandon, Chase, you two go out first. We’ll all join you after a bit.” Brandon opened his mouth to object, but Helen cut him off. “Hon, think it through. You and Chase have been hating the closet more and more, especially since your big decision yesterday. However, things have changed, perhaps more than you realize. You’re national heroes now; you’ve just saved millions of lives, almost sacrificing your own in the process. Listen to those reporters out there, and the crowd of people outside. If the Sheriff’s people are right, the crowd outside is larger than the town’s population and they’re all cheering for you. You’ve both now got a bully pulpit like there’s never been. Use it. The choice is yours, but I hope you’ll do it, not just for yourselves, but for the rest of us too.” Helen’s hand rose from the wheelchair’s arm to intertwine with Barbra’s as she waited for a response from Brandon and Chase. Chase turned to look at Brandon, seeing his green eyes twinkle an agreement to the unspoken question. Smiling, their decision made, Brandon and Chase walked toward the stage together, stepping out towards the podium. Hand in hand they strode forth, proud and at last at ease, into the brilliant starbursts of camera flashes, which ebbed in accord with the startled gasps emanating from the assembled press. The noise from the reporters faded to nothing as a stunned silence ensued. At the podium, Brandon and Chase raised their joined hands, shared a mirthful grin, and then turned to face the media. The shocked silence faded, replaced by a rising murmur, which grew to the furious roar of shouted questions as the glare of the camera flashes returned in full, before growing greater still Chase, breathing a sigh of relief as he felt a palpable weight lift from his soul, smiled as he squeezed Brandon’s hand. Together, in lasting unison, he raised their joined hands even higher. Receiving a nod and a beaming smile from Brandon, Chase shouted to share their news with the world, “Before we get started, Brandon and I have a personal announcement to make…. We’re engaged to be married!” ~ There is a sequel to “Let the Music Play”, called "Changing Lanes." Afterword from the Author: I would hereby like to dedicate this story to the wonderful team who make it all possible; Emoe: Editor extraordinaire. Without his patience and guidance, not to mention editing skills, this story, like the rest of my posted work, would not have been possible. Thank you, Emoe. Shadowgod: A truly masterful writer who has done me the honor of betaing. Thank you Steve, for guiding me, and for being one of my mentors. Graeme: Another great writer, one of the finest and best known around. Graeme is also one of my mentors, in addition to being a beta. Thank you Graeme, for all that you have done. Bondwriter: Zeta-reader Extraordinaire. Bondwriter is incredible. He has the sharpest eyes for catching my typos, and also my punctuation errors. He’s usually the final set of eyes on the chapters before publication. He does a magnificent job, but here’s the truly mind-boggling part: English is not his first language! Thanks you, my amazing friend. Captain Rick: Thank you Rick, for your wise and sage advice on so many things. Rich is an expert is several fields, and has given me much advice and input on special issues, as well as being a superb beta reader. Thank you Rick, for all that you do! I would also like to thank the readers, especially those who have weighed in with feedback in my forum or by other means. Thank you so much, it’s the feedback that keeps me going, and is my main reward for writing. And a special “thank you” to those who are very active in my forum, and also to those who have pointed out typos and errors in my posted work. Thank you, one and all. CJ © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  19. C James

    Impact

    Chapter 46: Impact The arrival of a military tiltrotor at Dodger Stadium had not gone unnoticed. The blades had not stopped turning before phones were ringing in TV news stations across Los Angeles. Once he’d arrived, General Bradson had been politely but firmly ordered by the NEST team leader, a Captain Stevens, to leave his cell phone, watch, and anything else electrical at the command post they’d set up at the parking lot entrance. Nothing electronic could be carried near the bomb, due to the chance that an errant radio signal could cause a detonation. This would be standard procedure for a conventional bomb, but given that they were dealing with a nuke, all precautions were followed to the letter. Wire for a field telephone was being flown in to overcome the communications problem, but it had not yet arrived. Nodding his assent, and wishing to see the bomb with his own eyes, General Bradson made a quick call to his operations officer at Edwards, and informed him that he’d be away from his phone for about fifteen minutes. Still entangled, Dimitri and Brandon fell a dozen feet before crashing onto the flattened top of a rocky spire, the force of the impact knocking the breath from them both. Ignoring both Brandon and the pain for the moment, Dimitri glanced around, spotting his nuclear trigger laying inches from the edge, just a few feet from his head. Dimitri elbowed Brandon hard in the jaw and scrambled to his feet, lunging for the trigger. Brandon, half dazed from the fall and the blow, grabbed Dimitri’s ankle, sending him sprawling, almost falling over the edge. Brandon lurched into a crouching stance. With a snarl, Dimitri drew his knife as he scrambled to his feet, moving just a little more cautiously than he normally would thanks to the dizzying heights, and lunged for Brandon’s throat. Stepping inside the thrust, Brandon landed a hard right cross on Dimitri’s jaw. Staggering backwards, Dimitri came to a halt just inches from the edge. Looking down, past his right arm; Dimitri’s blood ran cold at the sight of two hundred feet of nothing separating him from the canyon floor below. Driven by both fear and rage, Dimitri charged Brandon with a roar, his blade leading the way. Again Brandon dodged the attack, backpedaling nearly to the opposite edge of the rocky plateau. Dimitri lunged again with a jab aimed at Brandon’s abdomen. Using his left hand, Brandon knocked Dimitri’s arm down and to the outside, locking on tight to his wrist. Dimitri, with his knife hand trapped, concentrated on pulling back, completely missing Brandon’s follow-through as Brandon pivoted, swinging his right leg up, twisting slightly sideways to land a kick squarely in Dimitri’s crotch. Stunned by the pain quickly percolating upwards from his groin and confused by the fast moves of someone he’d assumed he would eviscerate with ease, Dimitri stumbled backwards as his knife fell from his grasp, glinting in the sunlight as it fell with a clatter and bounced over the edge of the abyss. Dimitri’s questing eye fell again on the nuclear trigger as Brandon spun around in a full circle, his next flying kick landing in the center of Dimitri’s chest. Eric had heard the muffled thud when Brandon and Dimitri landed, though he was unable to see them due to the intervening rocky fin. Desperate to take a shot at Dimitri and also to see if he could help Brandon, Eric leaped down to the ledge Dimitri had been on prior to Brandon’s tackle. Recovering his balance after nearly falling to his death, Eric raised his shotgun, but found his shot blocked by Brandon. Driven by the force of the kick, Dimitri flew over the edge, his eyes wide with horror, a scream forming in his throat as his momentum twisted him in the air and he gained a view of the fast-approaching rocks two hundred feet below. Mixed with the terror was the fleeting realization that he had utterly failed. There wasn’t time for more. Brandon’s fear of heights re-asserted itself as he dropped to a crouch, his hands seeking the rock for support but never taking his eyes off his falling opponent. “Happy landings,” Brandon muttered, a moment before the sickening thud of Dimitri’s fatal impact with the jagged rocks echoed off the canyon walls. Feeling dizzy from the heights, Brandon flattened himself against the rock, feeling the rough stone against his bare chest. He looked down at Dimitri, and saw his broken body jerking in abating spasms, surrounded by a growing pool of blood. Correctly assuming that Dimitri was dead, Brandon inched back from the edge. Seeing the nuclear trigger a few feet to his side, Brandon reached out and picked it up. He could see that the screen was still on, and not wanting to take any chances he snapped the battery out, and then slid both the battery and the trigger into his pocket. He then slipped his fingers into a crack in the rock. Gripping as best he could, not trusting his balance due to his bruised and battered condition, he closed his eyes tight and tried to shut out the dizzying heights. Eric’s voice from above and behind Brandon called out, “Are you okay?” “I’m all right, I think… but I don’t want to move. I don’t like heights.” Brandon replied, remaining face down, not wanting to even turn his head. Eric had watched Dimitri slam into the rocks and had no doubt that he was dead, and as the realization dawned that it was over, his hands began to shake as the adrenalin rush wore off. Relieved, Eric yelled back, “We’ll get you down. Stay put.” Glancing back at Jim, who had finally clawed his way out of the ventilation shaft and was peering down from the ledge above, Eric then leaned out to look around the enclosing fins of rock, realizing that the climb back to safety would be perilous at best, fatal at worst, due to having no idea which way to go. Snapping open his cell phone, he saw that he had no signal. “Fuck, we’re stuck,” he muttered. Sitting down to let his legs dangle over the drop-off, Eric called down to Brandon, “Hey bro, I can’t get a signal here. See if you can. We’ve got to let everyone know we’re okay and get them to send help.” It took a considerable act of will, but Brandon managed to let go of the rock with one hand and fished for his phone, only to find it missing. Remembering where it was, Brandon forced himself to turn partially over and faced Eric to say, “Chase has it. Toss me yours.” After a fumbling catch, Brandon flipped open the phone. Seeing that he had a signal, Brandon dialed his own phone’s number. Brody answered and Brandon said, “We got the guy with the trigger, but we’re stuck on a cliff, somewhere to the north of you. Other than that, we’re okay.” Allowing himself a sigh of relief first, Brody said, “We saw somebody fall but we didn’t know who it was. We can’t see him from here, we only got a glimpse. Glad to hear you guys are okay. We’ve had no luck on getting anyone to listen to us about the cell system, but the sheriff’s department has people on the way, including a medical team. Stay put, we’ll get help to you.” Five minutes later, Brandon flinched as a dusty hand came over the edge a few feet from his nose. For a chilling moment, he thought Dimitri had somehow survived, but Wilde’s concerned face popping into view evoked a sigh of relief. Unwilling to relinquish his grip on the rock and making no attempt to move, Brandon said, “I’m sure glad it’s you. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see anyone.” Remembering what had happened during the grenade attacks and fearing the worst. “How’s Steve?” Brandon asked, as Wilde scrambled onto the flat rock and crouched at Brandon’s side. “He’s hurt, but not bad,” Wilde replied as he looked at Brandon’s unmoving form. Wilde was concerned at first, but after giving Brandon a fast once-over decided that the scrapes, bruises, and bullet burns were probably superficial. “The grenade blew him over the edge and he tumbled down the mine tailings. I managed to grab him as he passed by. He’s bruised and cut up from the fall, and he’s got a little shard of rock sticking out of his throat. I got him back to the bikes. I think he’s doing okay. Now what about you, can you move?” “Can I, or will I?” Brandon asked, not budging an inch. “I’m not hurt bad, but I don’t want to move. I don’t like heights.” Smiling for the first time since he became aware of the attack, Wilde said, “You might feel kinda silly if you stay put. It’s only about ten feet down to where the back of this spire joins the mountain, and it’s an easy climb. From there, there are plenty of handholds until you traverse to the pathway.” Moving only from the neck up, Brandon shook his head and said, “No way. I’m not budging. I don’t care if it’s ten inches, that’s too high for me right now. I’ll wait for the rescue team and as many safety harnesses as they can rig. I’m pretty sore and banged up.” Wilde gave Brandon a shrug and a chuckle. “That’ll work, but if it was me I’d feel safer climbing it instead of dangling from a helicopter by a rope.” Brandon shuddered and gripped the rock harder. “You think they’d do that?” “That would be my guess. Easiest way to get you out of here that I can see.” On the ledge above, Eric waved to Wilde as Zeke scrambled up to join Eric and Jim. Zeke had scouted a route, and reported that all they had to do was climb down to the ledge below, work their way around a fin of rock, and they would then be on a narrow shelf which gave an easy way back towards the main mineshaft. Jim took a little convincing, but within a few minutes, Zeke took the lead and Eric brought up the rear as they clambered over towards the shelf. Brandon watched as they passed by, just fifteen feet away. Turning his head, he asked Wilde, “You’re sure it’s an easy climb? I really don’t like heights.” Wilde walked to the upslope edge and checked again before replying, “You climb down ten feet, take the saddle back to the mountainside, which is less than ten feet, then climb up a defile for maybe fifteen feet, and you’re on the shelf. I can help you down, then I’ll stay behind you as you climb.” Taking a deep breath, and ignoring his churning stomach, Brandon pried his fingers from their handholds, turned around, and crawled to the drop he’d have to descend. Seeing that it wasn’t quite as bad as he’d feared, and trying not to look at the plunging drops below the saddle, he glanced sideways, seeing similar protrusions from the mountainside. Only then did he realize that his landing on the rock had been a miracle; a few feet in any direction and he’d have plunged to his death. Wanting to be on level ground again, Brandon said, “Okay, I’ll try. You go first.” Wilde scrambled past Brandon, swung himself over the edge, and dropped to the saddle of rock ten feet below. As he helped Brandon down, Wilde asked, “How the hell did you get up there, anyway?” Silently cursing Wilde’s timing for bringing up that particular memory during the climb, Brandon reached the saddle and dropped to all fours, inching along the rock on hands and knees as Wilde casually walked backwards, a couple of feet ahead. As he crawled, Brandon told Wilde how he and Dimitri had ended up on the flat-toped column, and Brandon finished the story by saying, “I was damn lucky, I had no idea it was there when I tackled him, I couldn’t see it from where I was.” After whistling softly, Wilde shook his head as he replied, “Whoa. Not a place I’d want to fight, but sounds to me like you just saved a few million lives.” As he climbed up the defile with Wilde behind him, Brandon mumbled, “Right now, I just want to get back to Chase, then if I never see so much as a molehill again, it’ll be too soon. You, Steve and Zeke do this climbing stuff for fun, but man, you couldn’t pay me enough to even watch, not after today.” In Los Angeles, General Bradson stared at the bomb from a dozen feet away, wondering where the others were planted. He knew that he dared not act until the others had been found. The risk was too great; if the bomb had some means of active communication and suddenly went offline, there was too great a chance that a bomb could be detonated as a warning to leave the others alone. The chatter of helicopter blades interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced skyward to see a news chopper taking station above the stadium. The Captain said, “General, those newsies have a lot of high-powered broadcasting gear on those birds. We need to get them out of here, fast.” A second chopper arrived from the west, and General Bradson spotted two more approaching. The General dashed for the truck that had carried him from the main staging point. Clambering out of the truck at the staging point just outside the stadium gates, General Bradson yelled at his operations officer, “Get on the phone to air traffic control, and get those damn news helicopters the hell out of here. I want them on the ground. If they don’t comply immediately, send the Osprey up after ‘em. Fire some fifty caliber rounds across their noses if they don’t move, but get them the hell out of here, no matter what it takes. Shoot ‘em down if you have to.” The danger of their radio emissions was not the General’s only objection to the news helicopters; he knew that a mass panic would ensue if anyone figured out what was going on at Chavez ravine. Reunited with his phone, General Bradson found an unexpected, yet welcome, message waiting. The NSA – the National Security Agency, the nation’s largest intelligence organization – had completed its analysis of the photos taken during the bomb’s construction, which purported to show ten devices. What they’d found was that the steel bombcases themselves had distinctive and discernible grain structures. That had allowed the NSA to deduce that the photos were staged, and actually showed just three unique bombcases during various stages of the warhead assembly process. That detail had confirmed the suspicion raised the previous day by news from Russia via a signals intercept; the Russians had discovered a thirty kilogram MUF – Material Unaccounted For – at one of their Siberian weapons facilities. That facility was known, thanks to an intercept two years before, to have neutron attenuation problems in its reactor which resulted in a high percentage of PU-240 in the plutonium it produced. Analysis of the bomb’s fallout had revealed a high degree of PU-240 along with a guesstimate of ten kilograms of plutonium per bomb, filling in the final piece of the puzzle; there were only three bombs. The General welcomed the news, it meant they had only one more to find. One other message waited; it was from Chase Carlisle. The General was about to read it when he received a call from New York. In New York, after countless searches of Madison Square Garden and fruitlessly combing the records, one of the NEST team members had thought to check video surveillance cameras in the area. It had taken a day to round up the tapes from Madison Square Garden and some surrounding areas. The tapes from Penn Station had been added as an afterthought, just in case The Scar ­– they had his California Driver’s License photo, thanks to running the plates on his SUV – had passed through. The tapes from the loading bay area were the first to be reviewed due to Eric’s reported sighting of a bomb. It took under twenty minutes, but soon they had The Scar on screen. Twenty minutes after that, and after a frantic review of the Penn Station tapes, the NEST team made its way into Penn Station. Orders were passed to the local police to clear the area, and once the station was clear, the NEST team began its careful work. A tiny hole was drilled in the mortar The Scar had used to set the granite panel, and soon they were looking at an image of the bomb on a closed-circuit camera. Major Glaspie, the NEST team leader in New York, had a problem. Phoning General Bradson, Major Glaspie activated a scrambler. “Sir, we believe we’ve located the device. It’s in Penn station, under a staircase and behind some granite. We don’t know what sort of anti-tamper devices it contains, so we can’t use any form of remote-sensing to determine its internal configuration. If it has a sensor to detect x-rays, it could detonate. Same for any other form of remote sensing devices. It could also have a photo-sensor, so just opening up the area it’s in will have to be done in near total darkness. We can’t move it either; it might contain a temblor switch,” the Major said, referring to a type of switch that detects motion or movement. Now that he had information which indicated that there were only two bombs, both of which were attended by NEST teams, the general knew that the equation had changed; he could now act. With that in mind, he asked, “Cut to the chase, Major. Can you disarm the thing or not?” Taking a deep breath, the Major replied, “Probably, sir, if we proceed with great care. However, whoever built these things knows a lot about engineering, so I have to assume it has extensive and sophisticated anti-tamper protection. Best guess, sir, we have a two out of three chance of succeeding, if luck is on our side.” The General, who knew a little about nuclear design, also knew there was no way that he, or anyone, could risk the existence of New York on such odds. Not certain of his reasoning, he asked, “Do you have an anti-tank missile or any kind of shaped charge? Am I correct in assuming that if you distort the explosives before the bomb can fire, we won’t have a nuclear blast?” “Yes, sir. We are so equipped; we have demolition charges that will slice right through the bomb case, and yes sir, you are correct, that would negate the chance for a fission explosion. However, the bomb’s conventional explosives will likely detonate, dispersing the plutonium. It would be what the press calls a dirty bomb. The entire station and the arena above it, at least, will be massively contaminated with plutonium. We could be looking at a contamination of several city blocks.” Given that there was no way to defuse the bomb without risking detonation, and not knowing how it could be detonated, General Bradson faced a horrible choice; cause the nuclear contamination of several city blocks, or risk the entire city and millions of lives. He considered an evacuation order, but immediately dismissed the idea; it would take days to evacuate, time he felt sure they did not have. He knew that at any second, New York or Los Angeles, or both, could face the same fate as Toowoomba. A complicating factor was the risk that an attempt to isolate the bomb could in itself trigger the disaster. Procedure demanded that he send the decision on up the ladder, all the way to the White House. Knowing that, he also knew that the politicians and staffers, unfamiliar with the workings of a nuclear device, could well make the wrong decision. At best, they would take hours, hours that could prove fatal for millions. The General knew that there was really only one decision he could make. His first loyalty was to his country, and in this case, that meant the millions of innocent lives at stake. Not caring that it would cost him his career, he gave the only order his conscience would permit. “Major Glaspie, set up those demolition charges and clear the area. Kill that nuke just as soon as you can. Better to lose a few blocks than the city and everyone in it.” The field telephone to the bomb site at Dodger Stadium having become operational just moments before, the General proceeded to give identical instructions to Captain Stevens, the NEST team leader there. Brandon gave Chase a hug, and then sat down in the dust beside him. Their eyes met, and Brandon lost himself in Chase’s blue eyes for a long moment, marveling at the fact that they were both still alive. Brandon then glanced over at Steve, who also sat, propped up against the mountain rocks, with Wilde’s bloodstained shirt around his neck. Steve, not wanting to move his head, acknowledged Brandon with a wan smile. Jim joined them, and Brandon fished the damaged nuclear trigger from his pocket. “This could have destroyed millions of people, and he tried to use it,” Brandon said, staring at the damaged device. Taking a look for himself, Jim reminded Brandon, “You better call that General again. I’m sure he’d like to know about what happened here.” Chase nodded weakly and Eric added, “Jerry must have a trigger, too. He could still fry L.A. and New York.” Snapping open his cell phone, Brandon dialed the number he’d been given for Edwards Air Force Base. As soon as the line picked up, he said, “I need to talk to General Bradson. It’s urgent.” The voice on the other end of the line replied in a businesslike manner, “Please leave your name and number, and I’ll pass your request on to the General’s staff.” “There’s no time for that. This is about the bombs, the nuclear bombs. I know how they’re triggered. In fact, I have a triggering device in my hand. Tell the General that! He’ll want to speak with me right away.” After several seconds, another voice came on the line, one Brandon recognized as the General’s. Brandon summed up everything that had occurred as quickly as he could, and finished by saying, “Sir, the man who tried to kill us had a trigger that looks like a cell phone. The battery is out and the trigger is a little banged up, but I can see inside the case and it sure looks like a cell phone to me.” Deciding to take a chance and believe Brandon, the General dropped the phone and picked up his other line, yelling at the Major in New York, “Don’t fire that charge! Repeat, abort the demolition. We have reason to believe that the bomb is radio-detonated and likely in the ultra-high-frequency range because it appears to use cellular communications. Try to get the plug pulled on any cell towers or relays in your area; shoot ‘em out if you have to. I’ll work on it from this end. If you can jam or shield on those frequencies, do so.” The General then repeated the same message to the team at Dodger Stadium. Major Glaspie paced in the evacuated subway station, eyeing the demolition charges being attached to the bombcase, as he thought for a few seconds before replying, “Sir, I need to advise against any jamming. That can be detected and we still have no idea what anti-tamper mechanisms might be in play. It could detect a jamming signal and detonate. It might also detect a loss of signal from the cell towers and detonate. Pull the plug at the switchboards, not the towers; that way the towers won’t go dead but no calls will get through. As for the bomb, we assume it is a capacitance-discharge system for the ignition sequence, and if so we’d likely pick that up on the passive electrical sensors and have time to trigger the demolition charges. However, if it’s a straight discharge system from high-capacity batteries, there would be no warning. We need information that we do not yet have.” Hope, looming large yet snatched from his grasp, fled from the General as he amended his orders regarding the cell system shut-down, and then weighed his options. They needed information from inside the bombcase. Hoping against hope, he picked up his other phone and asked Brandon, “What’s the condition of the man who had the trigger?” “He’s dead, sir. He’s somebody we saw in Australia with Jerry. I had to kill him; he was trying to trigger the bombs,” Brandon replied, looking down the mountain at Dimitri’s shattered body. With that bit of news, General Bradson felt a chill run up his spine; he had no idea they’d come so close to disaster. The news steeled him to act, because somewhere out there, he knew, was Jerry Clump, who would certainly have a trigger. If he learned that the bombs had been uncovered.... Lifting his field phone, he asked the Captain in charge of the Los Angeles NEST team, “What’s the status on the demolition charges, and the scene?” The young Captain, his palms slick with sweat, replied, “The charges are in place and the Chavez Ravine area has been evacuated.” General Bradson had to choose; a dirty bomb in Los Angeles or in New York. The fact that Chavez Ravine is a little more isolated than Penn Station gave him only one option, so he took a deep breath and said, “Pull back to a safe distance upwind and detonate immediately.” Captain Stevens ordered everyone out, and the convoy of vehicles raced out of the parking lot before turning west. From a half a mile away, Captain Stevens reconfirmed his orders with the General in person, and then pressed a button on a radio detonator. The signal triggered the two shaped charges, which resembled nothing so much as coffee cans, that had been attached with epoxy and tamped into place with sandbags against the bombcase. They both fired, sending jets of superheated metal lancing through the steel. Several of the anti-tamper wires were cut, and the bomb’s control unit began to charge the capacitors as the nuclear detonation sequence began. The bomb’s firing circuit was too slow by several orders of magnitude. Before the relay to the capacitors could open and begin to charge them, the jet of molten metal from the first shaped charge sliced into the grey high explosives of the implosion shell. Through good luck and little else, the jet struck between two of the detonators, missing both by over four inches. The shockwave from the shaped charge, having spent much of its energy on the bombcase and inner shielding, lacked the concussive power to cause a detonation of the high explosives, and merely distorted them on that side of the sphere. Had a detonator been hit, it would have triggered the high explosive shell, but from a single point. The asymmetrical detonation would have scattered the plutonium but could not have triggered a nuclear blast. The second demolition charge, placed a foot to the right, spent its focused fury on the bombcase and the heavy layers of lithium batteries, driving some of them into the explosive shell, but not hard enough to trigger a detonator or the high explosive itself. The capacitors, robbed of their power source, could not charge. The nuclear core was largely unaffected, though it had been rendered harmless. All that had been required was a slight distortion of the high explosive shell, and that had been accomplished by both demolition charges. Captain Stevens floored his van, racing back to the bomb site as fast as he could. He knew, from the lack of a secondary explosion, that the inner workings of the bomb would still be discernible. Peering into the bomb with the aid of a fiber-optic camera, he was able to see much of its structure. What drew his attention was the control box. He thanked the fates that it was still intact, and with difficulty reached in through the hand-sized holes in the bombcase to remove the control circuit’s cover. It took under ten minutes, and then the captain was able to report his findings to an anxious General Bradson. “Sir, the control circuit is quite simple. It apparently monitors cellular frequencies using a crystal-based receiver. There is only one anti-tamper device that I can detect; a net of wires inside the bomb case. Cutting any of those would have caused detonation. However, I can see a large bank of capacitors; this is definitely a capacitance-discharge system. If the one in New York is of the same design, which I consider likely, there should be at least a three-second warning from our passive electrical sensors.” Breathing a sigh of relief, General Bradson asked, “Are you certain that we can move the New York bomb safely?” Captain Stevens paused to consider his reply. Reaching his decision, he said, “Probably, sir, but that assumes they are of identical design, including the anti-tamper system. I consider it very probable that the bomb itself is of similar design, but we cannot know for certain regarding the anti-tamper mechanisms. Given the thickness of the bombcase, I have a high degree of confidence that a high-caliber rifle firing an armor-piercing bullet would penetrate to the explosive shell and distort it enough to make a symmetrical implosion and fission reaction impossible were the bomb to fire. Given the spacing on the detonators, there would only be about a one in ten chance that the bullet would strike one and trigger the explosives. Even were it to do so, it would not trigger a fission explosion. My recommendation, sir, is to shoot the bomb before attempting to move it, otherwise a temblor switch could ruin everyone’s day.” Nodding, and finding the odds to be good under the circumstances, General Bradson asked the Major in New York. “Did you copy that? Shoot that bomb, make sure the cell system is down and also jam on every cellular frequency, then move that sucker out of there. Keep the demolition charges attached and monitor for any charging of the capacitors. Fire the charges at the first hint of trouble, just in case the bullet doesn’t sufficiently distort the explosive shell. Put the bomb on a boat and send it well out to sea before attempting to disarm it.” Thirty seconds later, the New York cellular system went dark, and hundreds of thousands of phone calls ended abruptly. That was the first overt sign the public had that something strange was going on. Here too, the press did not fail to take notice, and almost immediately discovered that the outage was intentional and had been ordered by the federal authorities. That led to other questions. The DEFCON 1 alert had become a barely kept secret, partially dismissed by the media as a lower alert in response to the nuclear attack in Australia, but it’s oft said that the chances of keeping a secret are inversely proportional to the number of people who know it, and a great many knew of the nuclear threat to America. A few had let word slip out, in the form of warnings to relatives, the need to show their own importance, or a plethora of other reasons. What mattered, though, was that some in the press were starting to put the story together, and the phone outage in New York kicked them into high gear. Some of them were even clever enough to find out that some of the vehicles in the closed-off Penn Station area belonged to a NEST team. The nuclear secret was out. Inside Penn Station, Major Glaspie stared at the monitor feed from the passive electrical sensors, and with his finger hovering over the button which would trigger the demolition charges, and not incidentally kill both himself and the one other member of his team still close to the bomb. Taking a deep breath, he gave a terse order. “Fire!” A sergeant, the most junior member of the NEST team, raised a 30-06 rifle, and from a dozen feet away fired a round into the bombcase. The bullet, traveling at over twenty-six hundred feet per second, slammed into the steel casing, punching through it and then the cobalt layer, losing much of its velocity before burrowing into the high-explosive sphere, barely missing a detonator. The news of a possible nuclear threat to the city hit the wire services while the bomb itself was being driven through the streets of New York, covered by a tarp and surrounded by several powerful radio jammers. The initial government reaction to the news was ‘no comment’ which merely confirmed the reports and added to the growing media frenzy. Once the bomb had passed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, bound for the open sea on a harbor fireboat – the NEST team had appropriated the first ship at hand - the United States Department of the Treasury went into action. In preparation for this moment, they had traced the electronic transfers of funds from The Scar’s Swiss account. In concert with the State Department, heavy pressure was applied to the half-dozen governments which hosted the banks to which The Scar had distributed his newfound billions. In some cases, securing prompt action required furious and decidedly undiplomatic threats from the State Department, and the accounts, scatted throughout offshore-banking havens around the world, were soon frozen, including the accounts The Scar had created to hand out to his Paraguayan hirelings. Once that had been accomplished, the news of success was relayed to the Paraguayan government. The one thing the State Department did not and could not know was; had their success come in time? The assessment of the CIA analysts was as usual contradictory, with several analysts offering conflicting opinions. The main cause for concern was that the bribed Paraguayan military officers, though their bribes were now worthless, would have little choice but to back The Scar’s play to the end. The reasoning was simple; now that they were compromised, the officers would have much to fear from their government, were it to survive. If The Scar was successful, the only option would be war, a war for which preparations were already well underway. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  20. C James

    Endgame

    Chapter 47: Endgame “El Vohzd,” the young and earnest Paraguayan captain said, addressing his newfound leader in the manner he’d been instructed. “Two of your tanks have reached the Palacio Legislativo. Other than some sporadic small-arms fire, there has been no resistance. The tanks are accompanied by a brigade of infantry, and they have surrounded the building.” The Captain was repulsed by the man in front of him but hid that fact with great care. The Scar frowned at the news. “And what of the other infantry brigade and the other two tanks?” he snarled. Unnerved by The Scar’s volatile temper, the Captain stuttered twice before saying, “El Vohzd, two of the tanks broke down en route, and the second brigade is protecting them.” The Scar stood up and paced, casting uneasy glances at the map every time he passed it. Two tanks and a battalion of troops were far less than he needed to hold the Palacio Legislativo and also send a force to the Presidential Palace a few blocks to the east. Deciding that the old maxim, ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself’ was true, The Scar snapped out an order, “Assemble the reserve force. I’ll lead it into the city myself.” The young Captain, Urgarriza by name, snapped The Scar a swift salute and left the barn to do approximately as he’d been ordered. Fifteen minutes later, Captain Urgarriza returned to find The Scar busy with his phone and pouring over a street map of Asuncion. “The troops are assembled, El Vohzd.” Carefully folding the map and slipping it into his uniform pocket – The Scar had appropriated a military uniform for himself, one to which he’d attached general’s stars ­– he humored his love of theatrics and said, “Onwards, ever onwards, into the fray. Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war in this, our anointed hour. On Death's Ground, fight. Onwards, to victory or death!” Biting back a grimace at the butchery of Shakespeare, Captain Urgarriza suppressed the urge to snicker at the six stars on each of The Scar’s shoulders as he followed his erstwhile leader outside, into the harsh sunlight of the dusty farmyard. The Captain knew there had never been any such thing as a six-star general. Blinking in the harsh light, The Scar slipped on his cap, setting it at a jaunty angle, smiling until he saw his assembled force. Spinning around, he asked in a furious voice, “Where’s the rest?” With an apologetic shrug, Captain Urgarriza replied, “These are all of them, El Vohzd. Some of the officers who have joined you have had some minor delays getting their men to move. They will join you in the capitol.” Returning his gaze to the company of soldiers and the five old trucks in which they were carried, The Scar appreciated the irony of the situation. With a resigned shrug he declared, “I should have said, ‘unleash the Chihuahuas of war’, given the size of this force.” Captain Urgarriza assured The Scar, “The commander of the Presidential Guard has agreed to your terms and his force is in position at the Presidential Palace, awaiting only your arrival.” “That bastard demanded a quarter of a billion dollars for his miserable six tanks and half a division of infantry. Still, as the saying goes, location, location, location, and he is in place at the Presidential Palace, supposedly guarding the president and cabinet,” The Scar observed as he strode forth, mounting the lead truck with a theatric leap. Taking his cap in his hand, The Scar waved it in a circle before gesturing forward, as the ancient engines sputtered to life. As soon as The Scar’s small force, which Captain Urgarriza had personally selected for the mission, wheeled out of the decrepit farm, the Captain snapped open his phone. Dialing a number from memory, he smiled as he said, “He’s on his way. I hope he appreciates the reception we have planned.” At the head of the small column of trucks, The Scar began to grow concerned; too many of his phone calls during the drive had gone unanswered. So too had his calls to Dimitri. Something, he felt, was up. He’d also noticed that the troops accompanying him were all unfamiliar; he couldn’t recall seeing any of them before, and he was certain he should have met the officers. His eyes narrowing as a vague suspicion took form in his mind, which caused The Scar to place a call to one of his trusted operatives. Thirty minutes later, as the trucks approached an intersection a few blocks from the Palacio Legislativo, a man standing on the street corner, trotted out in front of the column of trucks, smoking a cigar and wearing a business suit in spite of the heat and humidity. “Stop for a moment. I need to speak with him, he’s with us,” The Scar told the Major by his side. The Major grew uneasy, and in broken English replied, “But, Senior… I mean, El Vohzd, my orders are to convey you directly to the seat of power.” The Scar took note of the reply; it fit in too well with his concerns. “Major, I need that man. He possesses information critical to our cause. However, I would not wish to ask you to violate your orders, so please accompany us. We will be but a moment.” The Major nodded, and followed The Scar as he jumped down from the cab of the truck. The platoon in back, having no orders to do so, made no attempt to follow. The Scar jogged over to his contact, greeting him warmly, “Jose, good to see you. Come, we must be quick. I need what you have for me.” The Scar led the Major and his contact into the recessed entryway of an old apartment building. As soon as they were all out of sight from the street, The Scar nodded at his contact, who turned to address the Major, a man he had never met before. “It is good to see you again.” Puzzled, the Major looked into the face of the contact, not noticing The Scar’s seemingly casual move which placed him behind the Major. With practiced ease, The Scar withdrew his hand from his jacket pocket, looping his garroting wire around the Major’s neck from behind and cinching it tight. Startled by the sudden pain, the Major thrashed, trying to twist around, his right hand reaching instinctively for his pistol at his belt. The Scar heaved on the wire, slamming the Major against a wall, thwarting the attempt to draw his gun. The Major’s struggles grew weaker as his vision blurred and consciousness faded for the final time. As he allowed the Major’s corpse to sag to the concrete, The Scar dissembled, “Jose, there has been an annoying attempt at a double-cross. It seems a few of those legislators we have corralled have ideas of their own. No matter, they will be dealt with in due course today. I need you to change clothes with me. You shall take my place at the Presidential Palace while I proceed to the Palacio Legislativo. You and I look enough alike that we can pull this off if you keep your hat pulled low and your mouth shut. You will leave your phone on and the line open so I can hear what is taking place, and also relay my orders. I need to appear to be in two places at once, so you shall be the ‘me’ at the Presidential Palace while I deal with the troublesome politicians once and for all. The head of the Presidential Guard is on our side and is aware of this ploy, he will play along.” Giving Jose a warm smile, The Scar continued, not meaning a word of it, “Get used to the position of power, Jose. For your help today, you will be the new mayor of this city.” Jose had his doubts but played along; exchanging his clothes for The Scar’s general’s uniform. He felt he had little choice; he’d been in The Scar’s employ for years and was thoroughly compromised. Jose’s recent actions as a liaison to offer bribes had made the relationship too widely known to deny. Their fortunes, he reasoned, were thus tied together. Dressed in the business suit and now puffing on the cigar – Cuban, he noted approvingly­–­ The Scar stood on the street corner while Jose, now wearing The Scar’s generalissimo uniform and with the cap pulled down to partially obscure his face, jogged back to the truck. Jose climbed into the idling truck and resumed the drive to the Presidential Palace. The Lieutenant in the following truck found it strange that the Major had not returned, but his orders were clear. The Scar made his way on foot, covering the remaining blocks to the Presidential Palace at a brisk pace. Reaching the open gates of the presidential compound, Jose wheeled the truck towards the main portico. Four Sherman tanks stood guard, angled towards the palace but with their main guns pointing away. Parking a dozen yards from one, Jose was relieved to see a man wearing general’s stars approaching, flanked by two soldiers wielding rifles. For a moment, Jose assumed that the general, evidently the commander of the Presidential Guard, knew of the subterfuge. The General’s actions proved otherwise. The nearest Sherman tank, its engine running, began to swivel its main gun towards Jose with a clanking growl from the turret’s old gears. The General gave an exaggerated bow in Jose’s direction, as the troops swarmed out of the trucks, their guns also coming to bear on Jose. The General smiled coldly as he said, “Greetings, El Vohzd. Did you really think that our intelligence service would remain unawares of your operation? You have served a purpose: exposing those within our ranks who would allow greed and avarice to sway their loyalty. You might be interested to know that your Swiss accounts, including those you gave to your hirelings in return for their treason, were frozen two hours ago. The payments you gave are worthless, and without them, you are nothing.” The General smiled coldly, looking forward to the firing squad that would soon dispose of the problem, once and for all – after a suitable interrogation, of course. Jose blanched, knowing that he had no way out. The truth could not save him; of that, he was certain. No matter what, they would execute him, regardless of whether he was The Scar or someone in his service. Wishing to end it quickly, mainly in order to avoid what he suspected would be a very painful interrogation, Jose reached for his pistol. A volley of shots rang out before his hand had even touched the butt of his gun. The bullets slamming into his torso sent him falling from the truck, slamming into the ground as he breathed his last. The Scar, listening in from two blocks away via his cell phone, tried to view the developments dispassionately. He could only assume that America was behind the freezing of his funds, no doubt via fierce diplomatic pressure. He was certain that they would have only done so if his bombs were no longer a threat. He used his cell phone to attempt to access one of his accounts, finding it frozen. With that fact confirmed, and knowing they would have never done so had they any intention of dealing with him further, The Scar withdrew the nuclear trigger from his pocket. He suspected that Dimitri’s disappearance meant that he had failed, and the Americans had discerned the location of the bombs. Their actions certainly seemed to indicate that the threat to them was at an end. On the off chance that one or both of the bombs could still be operational, he hit the key combinations to send the firing codes to both. With that done, he turned on his heel, strolling down the street towards the city’s busy heart. Two blocks further on, he tossed the now-useless nuclear trigger into a trash can and continued on his way. The Scar reviewed his options as he walked. Clearly, he had to leave the country. That should not prove difficult, especially with the aid of a disguise. The more pressing issue was: what would he do then? He had barely four million dollars of personal funds remaining, salted away in offshore accounts under a number of aliases. He gave himself a mental kick for not having sequestered some of the twenty billion, but upon reflection decided that would have been pointless; it could surely have been traced and frozen. In order to resume his arms-dealing, he needed capital, and the four million would not suffice. The one thing which eased his troubled mind was the fact that he still had some very valuable assets to sell. Twenty miles out to sea from New York and thankful for the calm seas, Major Glaspie supervised the final preparations for disarming the nuclear weapon. The demolition charges were still attached, and his plan was to x-ray the bomb, determine as best he could the location of the anti-tamper wire grid, and then use remote-controlled equipment to drill a hole a quarter-inch in diameter in the bombcase. Using the hole for access, he then planned to destroy the bomb’s control unit. He would have preferred to use the hole made by the rifle bullet, but it was located on the wrong side of the bomb. The tiny anti-tamper wires proved very hard to detect through the thick steel of the bombcase. Taking his best guess, Major Glaspie selected a spot to drill, and waited while the remote-control gear was set up. With their preparations complete, he and his team evacuated, transferring into a skiff and then to a Coast Guard cutter before racing away upwind five miles towards the coast. Major Glaspie figured that even if his guess had been incorrect, given the spacing of the wires seen in the Los Angeles bomb, he had a better than one in ten chance of not hitting one. He was right on his chances, but luck is a fickle thing. Five minutes into the remote-controlled drilling, the carbide drill tip grazed one of the wires, stripping it and causing a ground fault between it and the steel case. The bomb’s control circuit registered this event and initiated the detonation sequence. On board the Coast Guard cutter, Major Glaspie was not watching the video feed from the drilling. Instead, he was watching the monitors for the passive electrical field sensors. He noticed the spike immediately; sure proof that something was happening inside the bombcase. Without hesitating, he slammed his hand down on the radio trigger’s large red button, detonating the demolition charges on the bomb. It was only a precaution; they had further distorted the explosive sphere using the bullet hole, but they hoped to avoid a radioactive release. This time, the superheated jet from one of the shaped charges impacted on a detonator. The resulting explosion was not symmetrical so it did not produce a nuclear blast; it was however more than sufficient to shatter the inner core. The plutonium scattered, turning the fireboat into a radioactive hulk. It would not matter for long; the force of the explosion had punched a hole in the steel hull, near the boat’s keel. Major Glaspie watched through binoculars as the smoldering fireboat slipped, stern first, beneath the waves, thanking fate that he hadn’t had to attempt to disarm the bomb inside Penn Station. He had no doubt that, had he tried to do so, several blocks of Manhattan would have been rendered dangerously radioactive for decades. Major Glaspie was not the only one to notice the sinking of the fireboat. The press, finally having stumbled onto the story, responded like a pack of rabid wolves. Their quarry, for the moment, was any government official unfortunate enough to find himself in their sites. Every TV news station had gone to continuous coverage, airing the same tired loops of footage from Los Angeles and New York. A few enterprising reporters, fueled by a few leaks and tips, combined with the cellular outages, figured out the role General Bradson had played, and only the assiduous efforts of his base security detail had managed to keep the reporters away from the harried General. General Bradson leaned back, swinging his feet up to rest them on the edge of his battered desk. He glanced at the sheaf of paperwork in his hand, and with a wry chuckle dropped it into his wastepaper basket. As he’d expected, the political leadership in Washington was far from pleased that he’d bypassed them. Word had arrived that, after a discreet amount of time, his resignation would be expected. General Bradson had been amazed to find out how little that prospect bothered him. He knew in his heart that his decision had been the correct one; there simply had not been time to follow procedure and bounce the decisions on up the ladder. His career, he mused, would have been over in a few years anyway. That thought led to another, fed by the anger he was feeling over his looming dismissal. He bore no ill will over his dismissal itself; he knew that he had indeed been insubordinate. What irked him was the arrogance in Washington; he’d been treated as if he had no choice but to comply with their plans to make his resignation appear willing. A slow smile crossed his lips as he decided to derail that particular set of assumptions, and not go quietly. With that decision made, he strolled out of his office and hopped into his car, whistling contentedly to himself as he drove to the air base’s main gate. One lucky reporter was about to get the scoop of a lifetime. In the lobby of a Telluride hospital, Brandon and Chase left most of their strange combined security detail of Airborne Rangers and Hells Angels behind. General Bradson had dispatched a small army to Instinct’s ranch, led by fifty paratroopers who had dropped nearby and shown up unannounced. The General’s inclination had been to take Instinct into protective custody, but the four members had adamantly vetoed that idea. Remembering the debacle with the Sheriff’s department, the bikers had been included in the new arrangements. Fortunately, the bikers got along with the military a lot better than they did the Sheriff’s Department. Edging through the door, Brandon and Chase squeezed past Wilde, Joe, and Zeke to reach Steve’s bedside. Steve glanced up with a wan smile, waved a greeting, and then flicked a thumb at his throat as he slowly shook his head. Wilde told Brandon and Chase, “He can’t talk for a few days, doctor’s orders. That sliver of rock pierced his vocal chords. They say he’ll be able to talk again, but probably not sing for at least a year.” Knowing how much of a loss Steve had suffered and thinking it also spelled the end of The Shadows as a group, Brandon reached out and patted him on the shoulder. Wilde read the concern and added, “We just had a discussion about the band. Thanks to our tour with you and all the publicity lately, we've got an offer to headline a tour of our own. Steve can play guitar, so all we needed was a new lead singer. I’d introduce you, but you already know him, he used to be the lead singer of Instinct.” Brandon and Chase snapped their heads around to stare in surprise at a smiling Joe. Chase arched a suspicious eyebrow and glanced at Wilde, and then at Steve. Joe read the look and said, “I’ve learned my lesson. You guys and The Shadows have been good to me in spite of the crap I’ve pulled. I’m staying clean, and as for Steve and Wilde’s relationship, that’s none of my business. If they can accept me and my past, plus what my so-called father has done, then I sure ain’t going to object to them." Zeke grinned and added, “Joe’s style is pretty well suited for our music. We need him, and he needs us.” With ill-concealed surprise, Chase nodded, and returned his gaze to Joe. After a few moments pause, Chase extended a hand and said, “Congratulations, Joe. I mean that, and as far as I’m concerned, the past is the past.” With a relieved and gratified smile, Joe shook Chase’s hand. Wilde broke the awkward silence that followed by saying, “I’m really sorry about Helen. We all are.” Eric had always hated these grim edifices, with their somber airs of fear, grief, and mourning permeating every aspect of the place. The flowers, the austere pillars, hallowed names engraved in endless rows, and above all else, always there, lurking just beyond the carefully projected bright and clean surface, was death, masked and sterilized. The feel of an imposed though trampled silence filled the halls. Eric caressed Helen’s hand and glanced across the sterile sheets at Jon. Meeting his brother’s eyes, Eric asked in a strained whisper, “Why’d she do it? It should be me laying there, not her.” With an understanding, pained smile, Jon fingered the sling which held his arm as he replied, “Why did you tell Brandon to shoot you? You did that to save Chase. Helen stepped in front of that bullet to save you. I saw the shot; it would have hit you in the upper back. If she hadn’t done that, you’d probably be dead. What she did, she did out of love.” After an easy escape from Paraguay, The Scar, in disguise and with a clean set of credentials, strolled towards the Buenos Aires dockyards. The contents of his shipping container were easily worth tens of millions to anyone seeking nuclear fabrication technology, and that money would, he believed, set him up quite comfortably in his prior occupation. Two days later, in a rented warehouse, The Scar began to unpack the container in order to allow their inspection by his two customers, who would be arriving within the hour. They, he assumed, were likely the representatives of a government, though which one he neither knew nor cared. They had expressed an interest in the entire contents, including the bomb designs. The Scar had been more than happy to oblige. Using a forklift, assisted by his one remaining hireling, the former Spetznaz by the name of Yuri who Dimitri had picked to deliver the cameras to the American Embassy in Canberra, The Scar removed the crate containing the lens-grinding equipment that the engineer had crated back in Toowoomba . He then greeted the arriving representatives of the prospective buyer, and began unsealing the first machine with the aid of a crowbar. It never occurred to him that there might have been more to the engineer’s plans than stealing some gold and substituting the bomb firing codes. The other thing Vladimir had taken care to hide away was a little of the high explosive, which he’d sequestered in the massive lens-grinding lathe. The engineer’s plan had been simple enough; if he was alive, he could give a warning. If he wasn’t, the simple booby-trap would be his last chance for retribution. The Scar never noticed the tiny wire within the crate. There really wasn’t much to see, just the thin, insulated wire, one of several the engineer had attached to the crate’s inner surface. The Scar, wielding a crowbar, began to pry open the wooden crate, and his second heave severed a wire. It was to be a costly oversight. The circuit closed, and a single detonator triggered half a pound of high explosive within the base of the massive piece of equipment. The resulting explosion tore through the building, shattering it and sending a guttering column of fire and smoke high into the hazy Buenos Aires sky as The Scar fell victim to the dead hand of the man he’d betrayed. The Scar, or what was left of him, regained consciousness moments later, pinned flat under a pile of debris, as the flames began to lick at his face. Unable to move, he could only scream as he burned alive. From beyond the grave, Vladimir had exacted a measure of revenge. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  21. C James

    El Vohzd

    Chapter 44: El Vohzd The cacophonous blast from Brandon’s shotgun echoed through the small ranch house, ebbing to a deadly silence. Helen’s anguished scream was the only other sound as Eric’s body, shoved by the shotgun’s concussive blast, slammed into the unyielding wall and crumbled to the floor, his blood dripping out to trickle across the flagstone. Dimitri knew that he’d won. Brandon would have to pump the shotgun to reload it, but Dimitri had no intention of giving him the time. Brandon made no move to reload. Staring in horror at Eric’s blood on the wall, he let the shotgun fall to the floor with a clatter as he glanced down at Eric’s body. With one bullet and one target left, Dimitri drew a bead on Brandon’s head and squeezed the trigger as Chase, disregarding the knife now in his throat, wrenched his left arm partially free of Dimitri’s grasp. As the cold and deadly steel of the cruel blade sank deeper into his throat, Chase tried in vain to jam his elbow into Dimitri’s ribs, landing only a weak blow that did nothing to stay the knife from its course. In his improvised headquarters, The Scar studied several maps that he’d draped over bales of hay as he reviewed his plans one final time. He looked up to see an approaching officer. “El Vohzd,” the young and earnest Paraguayan captain said, addressing his newfound leader in the manner he’d been instructed, “Your forces are entering the city as we speak.” As the first hint of dusk tinged the reddening evening sky, the tanks began to clatter and grind through the streets of Asunción. Dimitri’s bullet whizzed past Brandon’s ear, clipping a few strands of hair. Dimitri’s aim had been thrown off my Chase’s frantic thrashing, and he knew instantly that he’d wasted a round. Out of ammo, and with the Makarov out of reach, Dimitri took the only way out that he could see. He stopped his slow cutting of Chase’s throat, which had proceeded no further than a shallow cut, deferring for the moment his plan to kill the young drummer. Using his superior mass and strength, Dimitri locked his arms around Chase’s bleeding throat, and with a heave and a yell, sent both himself and his captive hurling towards the bedroom’s picture window. With a crash and a shower of flying glass, they both landed, still entwined, on the hard ground outside. Dimitri was relieved; he hadn’t known if the window was safety glass or not. Had it been the older, conventional glass, he would have been cut to ribbons. As it was, he’d escaped with some minor scratches and gashes. Yanking Chase to his feet, Dimitri hauled him the few yards to the waiting SUV, as a dozen bikers approached from the south, though they were still fifty yards away. Recognizing the captive, Jim barked, “Hold your fire,” as Dimitri, using Chase as a shield, opened the driver’s side door and pulled Chase in on top of him. Dimitri tossed Chase into the passenger seat, and then slammed him on the back of the neck with the handle of his knife. Stunned, almost knocked cold, Chase sagged down in the seat as Dimitri slammed down the accelerator, spinning the SUV in a circle as he hit the button to roll down his driver’s side window and fished the grenade out of his pocket. The SUV kicked up enough dust that the approaching bikers couldn’t fire at its tires, and also didn’t notice the grenade as Dimitri hurled it through the broken bedroom window. With that task accomplished, Dimitri continued his turn, flooring the accelerator as he raced away. The gunfire had not gone unnoticed. From the biker’s house, Brody had watched in seething anger as what looked very much like a cop had held a knife at Chase’s throat and stuffed him into the Sheriff’s Department SUV. Brody didn’t like cops at the best of times, and now he had a score to settle with the one holding Chase. Brody saddled up, firing up his Harley while some of his bikers – who had been closer to their motorcycles – roared away in pursuit of the fleeing SUV. Inside the house, Brandon was still reeling from the thought that he’d actually shot Eric and the realization that Chase had been taken. The black cylinder sailing in through the window barely registered in his stunned mind as it clattered to a halt at his feet. Eric, still lying on the floor face down, was reaching to slap a hand on his injured arm when the grenade, its fuse softly sputtering, came to rest inches from his nose. A memory of an old war movie raced through his brain, and Eric, with his left arm already in motion, swept up the grenade and continued the motion of his arm, whipping the cylinder as hard as he could through the open bathroom door, towards the bathroom window. With a fraction of a second remaining on its fuse, the grenade smashed into the single-glazed window. It hit hard, with more than enough force to break the glass. The grenade, which still retained most of its momentum, arched towards the ground as soon as it had passed through the fragmented pane. The fuse detonated the grenade’s eight ounces of TNT while the grenade was still a foot from the ground. The concussive force mainly bounced off the building’s sturdy wall, though it was enough to shake the structure. The blast wave shattered the remaining glass, sending a shower of pieces lancing into the bathroom ceiling. Brandon crouched down to Eric, gasping, “I didn’t mean to shoot you; I thought I swung the barrel far enough past before I pulled the trigger.” Climbing to his feet, Eric slammed his hand against his wounded arm to stanch the flow of blood as he said, “You just barely caught me. I don’t think I’m hit bad. I ain’t complaining either; I thought you’d have to do it for real.” Realizing that Brandon hadn’t been aiming to kill, and not yet having felt the wound on his arm, Eric had played dead by collapsing on the floor, letting his shotgun fall within easy reach. Brandon snatched up his shotgun and chambered a round as he glanced out the bedroom window, listening to the guttural snarl of Harley’s roaring away in pursuit. Stating the obvious, he said, “He’s got Chase. We’ve gotta go after them!” In unison, it dawned on Eric and Brandon that they hadn’t heard a word from anyone else in the room. In growing fear, they both whipped their heads around to look towards the kitchen. Racing for the road, Dimitri tried to decide what to do. He’d seen the explosion outside the building, and assumed that his grenade hadn’t made it inside. He knew that Brandon, at least, was still alive. Therefore, he had to admit to himself, his mission had been a failure. Glancing at his captive, he knew he had the means to lure Brandon to his death, but that thought was pushed aside as Dimitri focused on his more immediate need: escape and evade. Dimitri had left the landscaping truck a mile to the north. However, the bikers he could see scrambling for their Harleys on the adjoining property made any hope of changing vehicles unseen a futile one for the moment. His decision made, Dimitri whipped the SUV to the right as he reached the road, knowing full well that in so doing he would pass the driveway to the biker’s property. He wanted them to come closer still, and eased off the accelerator as he roared past in a cloud of dust, heading south. The first wave of bikers roared out of their driveway in pursuit, the closest just yards from the SUV. Dimitri slowed down a little more, allowing the bikers to bunch up behind the SUV as he retrieved a grenade from its box. He used his teeth to pull the pin from the cylindrical grenade, keeping the spoon in place with his fingers. Taking one more glance over his shoulder, he opened his hand, allowing the grenade’s spoon to snap open, igniting the fuse. Waiting a second and a half so the timing would be right, Dimitri dropped the grenade out the open window, letting it fall onto the rutted road, obscured from view by the clouds of dust. Eric’s shocked eyes fell first on Jon, who was staggering to his feet, his face contorted in pain as he clutched his left shoulder. Eric began to dash towards his wounded brother. He’d barely taken a step when his eyes tracked to the left, coming to rest on Helen, slumped against the wall, clutching her abdomen, in a dark pool of her own blood. Seeing that Jon, though clutching at a his bloody shoulder, was up and moving, Eric and Brandon raced to Helen’s side, shotguns in hand. No sooner had they arrived than the back door was kicked open, and the first thing they saw was the barrel of a gun. Brandon, his adrenalin still pumping through his veins, thought they were again under attack. Bringing his shotgun up, he saw at the last possible moment that it was one of Jim’s bikers. The biker saw the guns coming to bear and jumped back out the door, his own urge to fire stifled by his recognition of Brandon and an unyielding sense of self preservation. He yelled out, “I’m a friendly, hold your fire,” and took a deep breath as he re-entered the house. Two other bikers charged in behind him a moment later, all three men coming to a halt just inside the door, staring in horror at the carnage around them. The blood and gore from the two deputies made it plain that they were far beyond any earthly means of help, and Jon, though seriously wounded, had joined Brandon and Eric at Helen’s side. Seeing that Helen was losing massive amounts of blood, Eric glanced around for a towel. Finding none, he shucked off his shirt and eased it under Helen’s arm, trying to slow the loss of blood. One of the bikers, who had been an army medic years before, rushed to aid Helen, though his first glance told him that the effort was likely to be in vain. Helen, slipping into the first vestiges of shock, fought off the clawing numbness as she looked at her three boys. She’d seen enough to know that Dimitri had taken Chase, and she knew what had to be done. Drawing a painful, ragged breath, she said, “Go after them, save Chase. There’s no time, just go, now.” Seeing the hesitancy in their eyes, and knowing that they didn’t want to leave her side, Helen added, as her voice fell to a ragged whisper, “There’s nothing you can do for me. Jon can stay with me, he’s hit bad too. Brandon, Eric, I want you to go, right now.” Eric’s eyes met Helen’s, and in spite of his grief, he knew that she was right. His goodbye was simple, a soft caress that left a smear of his blood from the base of her ear, to her chin. Without a word, though his heart felt like it was being ripped in two, Eric tore himself away as he set his jaw in resolute defiance, before standing and snatching the keys to the Jeep from a kitchen drawer. Jon, in agony from his shoulder, looked up from Helen to watch as Eric and Brandon dashed for the front door. Fearing for Chase’s life, and thirsting for revenge, Jon yelled out the one thought that would settle both issues, “Kill that guy, just kill him!” The one thing that Dimitri had failed to compensate for was the grenade’s forward motion. It didn’t slow down as much as he’d anticipated when it hit the road, but instead it bounced along, moving almost as fast as the SUV. As a result, it wasn’t as far behind the SUV as he’d planned when its fuse ran out. With a thunderous clap that hammered at the eardrums of everyone nearby, the grenade detonated halfway between the SUV and the pursuing bikers, sending out a powerful shockwave. The two leading bikers took the brunt of it, the blast throwing them backwards off their Harleys. The bikers further back had varying luck, some lost control, others, further back yet, fishtailed and regained control, barely, only to run headlong into their fallen comrade’s bikes, which were obscured in the dust kicked up by the blast. A shockwave’s power is measured in overpressure: pounds per square inch. The more square inches, the more of the shockwave’s power will be absorbed. An SUV is far larger than a motorcycle and rider; it is also fairly flat, further increasing its blast vulnerability from behind. These factors all played a role as the shockwave from the grenade, which had detonated less than a dozen feet from the fleeing SUV’s rear bumper, slammed into the vehicle. Dimitri ducked as the glass from the rear window blew forward, and the SUV, shoved hard from behind, began to fishtail. The loss of control was near total; Dimitri couldn’t stop the vehicle from beginning a sideways drift, skidding off the road into a field of grass. The shockwave’s impact had shattered the rear window, but that wasn’t all. The pressure had been considerably higher than the thirty pounds per square inch contained in the SUV’s rear tires. As a result, the tires had momentarily buckled, parting company with the rims for a brief instant, loosing the air out of both. The vehicle teetered to a stop, and Dimitri spun the wheel and hit the gas, intending to get back on the road. He felt the mushiness and vibration, along with a thumping from the back end, a sure sign that he had two flat tires. That, he knew, made his escape plan impossible. He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring mass of the nuclear trigger. If he was cornered, he planned to use it. By his way of thinking, there was no reason not to. Bouncing back onto the road, Dimitri glanced back to where the bikers lay. Some were getting up, but none were yet on their bikes. In the distance further back, he could see over a dozen more, closing in fast. Dimitri floored the SUV as the rear tires began to shred, desperately trying to think of a way out of his dilemma. As he rounded a curve, taking him out of sight of the bikers, the answer presented itself to him; the side-road leading to his mine shaft and lookout. Dimitri whipped the SUV onto the dirt track, racing for the cover promised by a copse of trees which obscured a curve a few yards ahead. The flat rear tires provided a rough and perilous ride, but Dimitri took the curve, interposing the trees between himself and his pursuers. He pressed on, bounding along the rough track as fast as he could, as the trail began to climb, becoming steadily rougher. Jim, standing outside, finished his call to one of six bikers who’d been heading for a bar in Telluride. Reaching them just as they neared the airport, he’d given them the news and had them turn around. That, he hoped, would pin the fleeing SUV between two forces of bikers; one ahead and one behind. He just hoped it would be in time to matter. A blur of motion to his side caught Jim’s eye, and his head snapped around in time for him to see Brandon and Eric leap into the Jeep Eric took the wheel, not thinking of his wounds. Jamming the key into the ignition and twisting it, Eric gunned the engine and roared out of the carport. Jim saw them tear by, and ran for a nearby Harley, jumping on and riding in pursuit. Eric had both hands on the wheel, and Brandon saw the blood begin to flow again from Eric’s wound. Peeling off his shirt, Brandon knotted it around Eric’s upper arm in effort to slow the bleeding. As they approached the road, Eric looked both ways, trying to figure out which way to go. A motion in his rear-view mirror caught his eye: Jim, waving towards the south. Eric whipped the Jeep to the right, trying to set aside what had happened at the house. He knew he had to concentrate on getting his brother back alive. There would, he darkly suspected, be plenty of time to grieve later. Unable to take his eyes off the road, Eric felt the pain from his arm and asked, “How bad am I hit?” “Looks like a couple of pellets hit you, one made a cut and the other went right through. That one’s bleeding the most. It should be okay for a while if you keep my shirt on it,” Brandon replied, wondering if he’d ever see Chase or Helen alive again. Back on the road, the first of the bikers – those who had righted their bikes after being knocked down by the grenade – roared by in pursuit, passing the entrance to the dirt track as they rode hell-for-leather towards Telluride. Brody, leading a dozen bikers from his club, brought his bike to a halt amid the carnage of men and machines wrought by the grenade. After detailing a few of his guys to take care of the wounded, he paused to check in via phone with the guys coming up from Telluride. He received the troubling news that there was no sign of the fleeing SUV ahead. Nodding to himself, Brody motioned for six of his club members to follow and set out in pursuit, riding slowly. His Army training had included a fast course in tracking, which Brody put to use. The SUV’s tracks were easily distinguishable from those of the Harleys on the dirt road, and as Brody pressed on, taking his time, he saw the SUV’s tracks change, the tire prints becoming wider as the tread marks in the center faded out. He smiled to himself, knowing that he was seeing the signs of two flat tires. He knew that the SUV could drive for miles on its rims, but it wouldn’t be fast. The bikers ahead would have intercepted it long before now, he reasoned, so that meant... there, he could see, a rough dirt track on the left, and the SUV tracks turning in. Motioning for his riders to halt, Brody came to a stop as he killed his engine, and the others followed suit. In the sudden silence, Brody could hear the distant mutter of an engine ahead. That gave him all the confirmation he needed. Topographic maps of the area were among the first things Jim had provided, and Brody was fairly sure the dirt track dead-ended. Pulling out his map, he confirmed it, and began to study the terrain. Within seconds, he was sure that the SUV was trapped. Under other circumstances, he’d have gathered his forces and roared up the trail in pursuit, but not with a hostage at stake. He had his doubts whether Chase was still alive, but had to assume that he was. Brody turned to face the sound of an onrushing Jeep. Eric maneuvered the Jeep past the first of the bikes and began to accelerate, when Brody held up a hand, motioning for him to stop. The Jeep ground to a dusty halt with its passenger side facing Brody. Brandon cranked the window down and asked in a frantic voice, “How far ahead are they? We’ve got to catch them!” Shaking his head and then flicking a thumb towards the dirt trail, Brody replied, “They turned off here, and that track looks like it dead-ends. More of my guys are on the way. When they get here we’ll head on up. I’ll take the point, and when we spot the son of a bitch, I’ll send some guys around, using terrain for cover, to flank him. We only need one clean headshot to take that cop out.” Eric, shouting across Brandon, said, “That’s no cop. I recognized him; he was with Jerry in Australia. I’m going with you; that’s my brother he’s got!” Brandon’s nod told Brody that he’d have both of them along. He could also see that there was no point whatsoever in arguing. Lieutenant Phelps, still walking westwards, had not heard the gunfire due to the interposing hilly terrain. He continued his report to Edwards Air Force Base, oblivious to the carnage at the ranch. His call also served to convey the mistaken impression to Edwards that all was well. Back at the ranch, the former army medic had tried to slow Helen’s bleeding and had elevated her legs, but there was little else he could do. He had grave doubts that anything could be done to save her; she was fading fast. Barbra held Helen’s clammy hand, murmuring, “Stay with me babe, just hang on.” Joe put an arm around Barbra, trying to comfort her, but feeling the sobs she was stifling. Jon paced nearby, using his wadded-up shirt as an improvised pressure bandage on his shoulder while he talked with a Sheriff’s Department dispatcher on a phone held awkwardly by his angled neck. At first, the dispatcher had not believed the report of two dead deputies, but reading off their names and telling the dispatcher where they had been assigned ended that. The dispatcher, after putting Jon on hold for less than a minute, returned to give him some welcome news. Jon turned to tell everyone in the room in a loud voice, “A medivac helicopter is coming; they said it should be airborne any time now and should get here in under ten minutes. The Sheriff’s Department is sending some men but they are coming by road and should be here in half an hour. Jon returned to Helen’s side, only to see that her eyes were closed. Feeling an emptiness, accompanied by a deep sense of foreboding, he glanced at the former medic, who shook his head with a sad, barely perceptible motion. At the far end of the old mining road, the struggling and battered SUV ground to a halt at the rockfall which blocked it. The SUV was almost dead. With its oil pan shattered on a rock a few hundred yards back, its engine was hot enough to seize. Noticing that his passenger was coming too, Dimitri stuffed the two remaining grenades in his pants and grabbed Chase by the arm, yanking him out of the SUV over the driver’s seat. Dimitri had parked at an angle to the road, and reached in to release the parking brake. The SUV, still in neutral, began to roll backwards as Dimitri stepped back, still clutching a dazed Chase by the arm. The SUV picked up speed on the steep shelf road until its left rear wheel cleared the edge of the drop-off. With barely a sound, the vehicle careened over the precipice. It raised a cloud of dust and a cacophonous racket as it tumbled down the rocky mountainside, its shattered remains coming to rest in the steep ravine a few hundred feet below. Dimitri peeked over the edge, unable to see the SUV due to the dust it had kicked up, and hoped it would be good enough. There was nothing else he could do, so he aimed his empty revolver at Chase’s head and snarled, “One false move and you die. Get moving, keep in front of me, but no more than five feet or I shoot.” Shoving Chase hard, sending him crashing to his knees on the sharp fragments of rock that made up the trail around the rockfall, Dimitri gave Chase a kick to get him to hurry. With Chase stumbling in the lead, shaking his head to try and clear it while desperately trying to think of a way out, they walked up the remaining track. A hundred yards from the ridgeline, they arrived at the old mining drift. Dimitri shoved Chase inside, and fumbled for a flashlight from the Sheriff’s Department utility belt he still wore. Flicking it on, he shoved Chase again, heading up the gently sloping shaft. Upon reaching his gear, Dimitri shoved Chase again, hard, sending him sprawling amidst the rocks a few yards past the gear. Snatching up an AK-47, Dimitri covered Chase and reloaded the revolver. With that done, Dimitri tried to think up a plan. Chase, staring at the looming barrel of Dimitri’s assault rifle, eased himself up off the shaft floor and edged over to sit against the tunnel side. He checked his wounds, mainly minor scrapes and gashes from his falls and a bloody, though superficial cut on his neck. Not much caring anymore what fate befell him, he narrowed his eyes in spite of the gloom and asked, “What do you want?” Dimitri was in a quandary. He could kill his captive and escape on foot into the mountains, but he knew that at least one band member was still alive back at the ranch. If they had yet to disclose what they knew to the authorities, there might still be a way. However, Dimitri reasoned, if they had told what they knew, there was little point in taking further risks, given the odds, and better to just kill the captive and be done with the situation. Knowing that the likely survivor was his captive’s boyfriend, Dimitri knew he had a way to lure the lead singer to his doom. However, before trying that, there was one piece of information that he needed to obtain. Drawing his knife as he knelt beside Chase, Dimitri traced the tip over the tan, bloodied skin of Chase’s throat and asked in a calm voice, “What have you told the authorities? I need to know, right now, or I will begin to cut until you crave death.” Disregarding the knife at his throat, Chase shook his head. “Go fuck yourself. You made Brandon kill my brother. You won’t let me live, and I have nothing to live for anyway.” Chase meant every word he’d just said; he had no doubts that Brandon would be unable to live with himself after killing Eric. Chase hadn’t seen what had happened to the others in the room, and in his mind’s eye he found himself watching, over and over, as Brandon fired the shotgun at Eric. With a shudder born of grief, Chase felt sure that he could never look into Brandon’s eyes again without feeling some vestige of hate. Looking into Dimitri’s eyes, he craved one thing only: revenge. Short of an opportunity to get that, he didn’t care if he lived or died. Appraising his victim, Dimitri smiled coldly and withdrew what appeared to be a cell phone from his pocket. “Very well, let me see if you care about people, millions of them. You are aware what occurred in Australia, I’m sure. This is a trigger that controls some identical bombs in the United States. If I speed dial number four, Los Angeles will be destroyed. Number five destroys New York.” Chase’s eyes opened wide at the mention of those two cities as Dimitri continued, “Now, unless you answer honestly, one of those two cities dies. Would you care to choose which one? Or would you prefer to tell me what I need to know? Remember, I have had your ranch under observation and I also have other sources. Lie, and a city dies.” Dimitri, near exhaustion due to lack of sleep, hadn’t bothered to lie to Chase regarding which cities the bombs were in. He wanted to see the drummer’s reaction, and he planned to kill Chase within minutes. Shivering as he envisioned mushroom clouds rising over the ruins of Los Angeles and New York, Chase wondered for a moment whether it was true. Given that they already suspected Jerry of being involved with the nuclear weapons, and all that had occurred, Chase decided that he couldn’t risk millions of lives. He was about to tell Dimitri the truth when another thought occurred; someone had to stop the man in front of him, somehow, or the cities could still die. Mistakenly assuming that Dimitri had seen General Bradson’s arrival in the tilt-rotor, Chase lowered his eyes as he said, “We wanted to, but not yet. Our manager doesn’t trust the authorities ­– that’s why we have bikers protecting us. She told the general who flew in to fuck off.” Making a guess, and hoping that the ploy would work, Chase added, “We tried to get the cops to listen to us about what happened to our plane, but they wouldn’t. Only after that one guy tried to attack us and was killed did they show up to try to protect us.” Taking the point, a hundred yards out in front, Brody led the way up the old mining trail. He’d given himself the most dangerous mission; serving both as advance scout and bullet bait. He knew the risks but pressed on, manhandling his heavy bike up the rock shelves and outcroppings of what had once been a road. His instructions had been simple; three Harleys were to follow a hundred yards behind. A larger force of a dozen bikers was further back yet, Brandon and Chase with them, and Brody had ordered them via phone to halt at the end of the ridge. The plan, such as it was, was for Brody to locate the attacker and then send an attack force on foot over the ridge in a flanking maneuver. The main drawback in his plan, so far as he was concerned, was that he’d be unlikely to be the one who killed the son of a bitch they were hunting. Seeing the rockfall blocking his way, Brody brought his Harley to a halt and clicked off the engine. He could see the vestiges of a trail skirting around the rockfall, but though he figured he had a fair chance of getting his Harley around it, he knew there was no way to get an SUV past. That meant he’d lost them, somehow. Swearing under his breath, Brody glanced at the ground, looking for signs. The trail was mostly loose rock at that point, but in a few places, dirt had collected. Brody saw fresh tire tracks in one, and after backtracking a few yards, he found more. What bothered him the most was that the tracks from the damaged rear tires were overlain by the ones from the intact front tires. That meant the SUV had been going in reverse. Breaking into a jog, Brody trotted downhill, his pistol at the ready. His eyes opened wide in surprise when he saw tire scuffs at the edge of the drop-off. Fearing the worst, he glanced over the edge. Below, on the steep rocky mountainside, he could see bits of glass and a side-view mirror. Squinting to see down into the ravine at the bottom, he spotted a single tire, still attached to the crumpled remains of the upside-down SUV. Wasting no time, he began running down the road, and as soon as the other bikers were in view, he waved for them to hurry. As soon as the riders had brought them to a halt, Eric and Brandon jumped off the back of two Harleys, leaving the riders behind as they raced to Brody’s side. With a sad look on his face, Brody lead them back up the road as he said, “They went over the edge. We’re going to have to climb down, but I don’t think there’s much hope.” Steve, Wilde, and Zeke arrived with the second swarm of Harleys, running up just in time to hear the news. Wilde stared down the craggy slope, judging it to be a seventy degree grade, and said, “We can freeclimb this. Stay here, we’ll be faster on our own.” Smiling and feeling a sense of relief, Dimitri paused to consider what to do next. His captive had mentioned nothing about the shipping, and he had shown an expression of surprise at the intentional mention of bombs in Los Angeles and New York. That, Dimitri judged, meant that the band had not put the pieces together, and that meant there still might be time. Dimitri shoved Chase over, face down, jamming his knee into Chase’s back as he slammed the handcuffs from McClatchity’s belt onto the drummer’s wrists, locking them behind his back. Dimitri began to rifle through Chase’s pockets, and soon found what he sought; Chase’s cell phone. Taking it, Dimitri grabbed Chase’s arm and yanked him to his feet. With the flashlight glaring in his eyes, Chase could barely see his phone in Dimitri’s hand. Dimitri flicked it open and turned it on. Smiling, he saw the entry for Brandon and selected it for dialing. It was then that he discovered that he had no signal and realized that it was due to being deep underground. Glancing down at Chase, Dimitri was torn between the thoughts of gutting him immediately, or waiting in case he needed him. Dimitri hauled Chase to his feet, and shoving him towards the entrance to the mine shaft. A few feet back from the entrance, Dimitri saw that he had a signal. Bringing Chase to a halt by slamming him against the side of the mine shaft, Dimitri dialed Brandon’s number. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  22. Chapter 45: Blood and Sacrifice The three stadiums that Instinct had played at since returning from Australia had been, thanks to the information they had provided about their tour, thoroughly though fruitlessly examined inside, and at last the teams had progressed to the second half of the order ‘Search them inside and out’. The Los Angeles bomb had been the first to be discovered. A check of the stadium records had produced an incongruity; some un-ordered landscaping work. A frantic review of the surveillance camera tapes ensued, and the Chevo Landscaping truck was seen entering the stadium and then making its way across the parking lot. The truck had headed for an area that was not covered by a nearby camera, but a distant camera had given them enough of an image to see that something large had been buried. After some heated discussion involving the capabilities of ground motion sensors and similar possible anti-tamper devices external to the bomb casing, the NEST team had reached the conclusion that sensors placed in the dirt itself were unlikely, due to the difficulties posed by the irrigation system. Sensitive vibration sensors were also ruled out due to the frequent passage of heavy trucks to the nearby stadium freight docks. The one external sensor that was still deemed possible was a visible-spectrum light sensor, so the area was covered with heavy tarps, and the NEST team began to dig, using their bare hands and taking exquisite care, using their infra-red night vision goggles to see in the darkness. Within the hour, the NEST team leader, after examining the unearthed top of the device and having confirmed that it was emitting miniscule amounts of gamma radiation, reported the discovery to General Bradson, who had assumed de facto leadership of the bomb search by virtue of having acquired the information. Los Angeles was the closest site, so he left Edwards Air Force Base in the Osprey to join the NEST team at Chavez Ravine – the home of Dodger Stadium. On the dirt trail, Brandon stared down at the shattered remains of the SUV in horror and fear as The Shadows began their decent. Eric paced back and forth, restrained from joining the climb only by the fact that he’d slow them down. Brandon reached for his phone as it began to vibrate, his eyes flying wide as he saw Chase’s name on the caller ID. With trepidation mixed with hope, he flipped the phone open to receive the call. Before he could say a word, Dimitri’s voice in his ear said, “Is this Brandon? I have your boyfriend here. You and I need to meet, or he dies.” Thinking that Brandon was still at the ranch, Dimitri continued, “Send all your biker friends north up the road and start walking south from your ranch. My terms will be simple, safe passage out in return for your lover’s life.” Brandon didn’t believe Dimitri, but knew he had little choice but to play along. “I’ll do whatever you ask,” he said, focused on the call and oblivious to the fact that Brody was standing right beside him. Smiling to himself, Dimitri told Brandon, “Leave your phone on, and I remind you; any delays or tricks on your part will prove quite fatal to him, and it will be a slow, exquisitely painful death.” To emphasize his point, Dimitri reared around and kicked Chase hard in the crotch, holding the phone close as Chase cried out in agony and collapsed on the rocky floor. With that, Dimitri ended the call. Staring at the phone for a moment, Brandon told Eric, Jim and Brody, “That’s the guy who has Chase. He sounds like he thinks I’m still back at the ranch…” Brandon then told them about Dimitri’s instructions and demands. Eric kept his eyes on the wrecked SUV as he replied, “He’s lying. He thinks you’re the only survivor out of all of us. He also doesn’t know where we are, or that we know roughly where he is. Sure as hell he isn’t in the SUV, but he might see someone heading for it.” Eric waved at The Shadows, motioning for them to stop their descent and return to the shelf road. Brody glanced again at the tire tracks and said, “The path it took on the road is downhill, so he could have just let it roll over the edge. That means he’s around here somewhere close; he hasn’t had time to get far.” Brody’s eyes returned to the path around the rockfall, and he jogged over to it, careful to keep the rocks between himself and the continuation of the road. As Eric and Brandon joined him, he pointed at the dirt and said in a hushed voice, “Fresh tracks. Looks like some blood, too, where somebody fell, but not much, probably your boyfriend’s.” Brandon swallowed once and met Brody’s eyes, not caring how Brody had found out, but despairing of receiving any further help. Brody shrugged and answered the unspoken question, “I heard some of what he said on the phone. I don’t care about that stuff but you might want to be careful around some of my guys. Some of ‘em ain’t exactly open-minded. Anyway, that’s of no concern now. I heard Chase’s yell, too, and that bastard holding him doesn’t mind killing. We’ve got to find them and take that scum all the way out before he can do anything more. I don’t think we can delay at all.” After a quick meeting, the hasty plan was put into motion. The Shadows dropped back over the edge and began paralleling the trail fifty feet below its level. As soon as they were past the area of the rockfall, Brody said, “I’ll go up the trail with three of my boys as soon as they let us know what they can see. I’ve got more guys coming over the ridge from the other side, so hopefully somebody can get a shot. It’s your call, but we can either try this ourselves or wait until the damn cops show up. I don’t see them talking him out of this, so my guess is that taking him out fast is our only hope to save Chase.” Brandon nodded, feeling a chill go down his spine. “I think he’ll kill Chase before he leaves to meet me on the road. I just hope he hasn’t killed him already. One thing though, I’m going in with you. I can fight and I can shoot, and that’s my life he’s got in there.” “I’m going too,” Eric added, slinging his shotgun over his shoulder. With a nod up the trail, Jim said, “I’m going as well.” Brody shrugged. “Suit yourselves, but it’s gonna be dangerous, and I don’t think there will be room for more than three of us on this trail. I’ll follow with some of my guys, but I’ll say this; if you get a shot, take it. Don’t be stupid like in the movies and yell ‘drop it’.” A quick glance in the eyes facing him left Brody with no doubts. The Shadows, with Zeke in the lead, worked their way along, traversing the mountainside. Most of it was easy enough, but in some places nearly vertical escarpments and the bases of flat-topped spires blocked their paths. Some could be worked around, but others required free-climb traverses, and the steepness of the slope increased the further north they moved. They had no ropes, no safety gear, and compounding the risk was the need to stay silent and covert. Every so often they would stop, and Wilde would check upslope and to the north, trying to spot their quarry. After many frantic minutes, they came to an area of steep mine tailings, badly eroded, which clung to the mountainside. Wilde and Steve shared a knowing look as Wilde whispered, “If I wanted to hole up in the mountains, a mine shaft would be a tempting place.” Zeke, having the most experience, took the lead again as all three Shadows picked their way up the rough talus towards the remains of the trail. Spotting a bush at the edge of the drop off, Zeke traversed a few feet, coming up behind it, just past the mine shaft. Peeking over the edge, concealed by a bush, he squinted, peering into the darkness of the shaft. For a few seconds he saw nothing, but then Dimitri moved, taking a peek outside. Zeke ducked down, motioning with one hand for Steve and Wilde, who were twenty feet downslope and cresting the saddle of a protruding spire, to freeze in place. Once Dimitri had gone back into the shaft, Zeke made his way down the mountainside, finding a ledge with an overhang that offered some concealment from above. Once Steve and Wilde had joined him, Zeke whispered, “I saw the guy, but not Chase,” Wilde flipped open his phone and dialed Jim’s number, and then handed the phone to Zeke. Feeling his phone vibrate, Jim, sheltering behind the rockfall, opened it, straining to hear Zeke’s whispered words. He told Zeke, “Keep your heads down and keep an eye out. We’re going in.” Zeke whispered back, “I’ll go back up. I’ve got a spot where I can see the shaft entrance. If he shows up at the shaft mouth, I’ll send you a text message.” Eric and Brandon followed Jim as he crept around the rockfall. Brandon trembled as he made the mistake of looking down from the narrow path and over the dizzying precipice. Only his love of Chase gave him the will to continue on. Brody and three bikers followed. Single file, the group crept towards the mineshaft. On the mountainside below the mineshaft, Steve ignored Wilde’s frantic motions to stay put and began climbing towards the trail. Inside the mineshaft, Dimitri returned his attention to Chase, who now wore the handcuffs from the slain deputy’s belt, pinning his hands behind his back. Giving him a kick, Dimitri said, “Your boyfriend should be on the road soon. I think I should go down and meet him, don’t you?” Chase, now doubled over and writhing in pain from Dimitri’s kick in the ribs, tried to stall. “You’re just going to kill us. At least tell me why.” Dimitri chuckled, giving Chase another kick as he said, “I have no reason to tell you anything. However, I want to know if you told me the truth; have you spoken to the authorities? What have you told anyone regarding your shipping?” Kneeling by Chase’s side, Dimitri unsheathed his bloodstained knife, placing it against the skin of Chase’s arm as a smile of anticipation began to light his face and he added, “I’m going to skin you, inch by inch. Tell me the truth and I’ll kill you quickly. Now, let’s get started.” As the knife drew blood, Chase’s anguished yell echoed against the cold, unfeeling rock of the old mine shaft. Dimitri had some concern about the noise, but assumed that the screams would not carry far. Angling for a better position, and having no intention of stopping no matter what the young drummer said, Dimitri used his legs to pin Chase in place and resumed his knife’s agonizing work, a task he was very much enjoying. Near the shaft entrance, Brandon, Eric and Jim heard Chase’s muffled though unmistakable yell. Brandon, with no time to think, slammed past Jim, running the few remaining yards to the mine shaft, hoping against hope that he wasn’t too late. Charging into the tunnel, Brandon found himself almost blind as his eyes adjusted to the light. Paying no heed, he raced on, feeling the cold air of the mine on his bare torso. In agony from the small strip of skin Dimitri was pulling from the back of his upper arm, feeling every nerve ending howl, Chase glanced up and saw movement silhouetted against the tunnel entrance. Knowing that he had to distract Dimitri, Chase yelled, “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, just stop, please stop!” Chase cried out again, even louder, as Dimitri worked the knife some more, his attention focused on Chase. Brandon, now just feet away, his eyes adjusting to the gloom, raced on, sighting his target. Brandon could make out Dimitri’s shape, and knew that Chase must be on the far side, making it impossible to shoot. Brandon kept running, stumbling along the rock-strewn shaft. Dimitri, finally hearing Brandon’s approach, sprang up from his crouch, his enjoyment with Chase forgotten, snatching up the AK-47 with his left hand and with a skillful smooth motion, bringing it to bear on Brandon at point blank range. As he squeezed the trigger, Dimitri stumbled as Chase’s feet found their mark and slammed into his ankles, causing his shots to go wild as his legs were kicked out from under him. Dimitri collapsed, landing backwards on top of Chase. Dimitri felt Chase’s cuffed arms trying to ensnare him, and twisted free, slamming Chase’s head with a grazing blow from the butt of the AK-47. With a round chambered but unable to fire without hitting Chase, Brandon jumped towards Dimitri, batting the AK-47 aside with a sweeping kick. As the assault rifle clattered away deeper into the tunnel, Dimitri jumped back to his feet, slashing with his knife towards Brandon’s throat. Brandon stepped inside the swing as the knife hummed past his ear, bringing the butt of the shotgun up in a hard-driven arc that terminated at Dimitri’s jaw. Stunned, Dimitri staggered backwards, falling to the floor as Brandon reversed the shotgun, swinging it around to aim at Dimitri’s torso. Dimitri felt the course texture of dirt and gravel with his hand and snatched up a handful, casting it at Brandon’s eyes before Brandon could finish pulling the trigger. Stung by the grit slamming into his eyes, Brandon flinched, pulling up on the gun and sending a blast whizzing over Dimitri’s head. Brandon chambered another round, trying to clear his eyes while Dimitri flipped over, and scrambled away, half running and half falling in a headlong flight into the gloom of the unlit tunnel. Brandon, unable to see and focused only on Chase, ignored Dimitri and rushed to his boyfriend’s side. Chase, dazed from the earlier blow, watched Dimitri disappear into the darkness, his mind unable to form the words to tell Brandon to go after him. Brandon hauled Chase to his feet as Jim arrived at a run. Praying that he wouldn’t hurt him further, but afraid that Dimitri would return with a gun, Brandon knew they couldn’t stay where they were. “Help me get Chase out of here,” Brandon gasped, trying to see through his blinking, irritated eyes how badly Chase was wounded, and seeing enough to be horrified by all the blood. With a guarded glance down the tunnel, and his pistol at the ready, Jim heaved Chase up in a fireman’s carry. With a quick order of, “Send a few rounds down the tunnel and watch our backs,” Jim turned for the entrance, hardly hindered by Chase’s weight as he jogged out of the tunnel. Brandon swung the shotgun down the tunnel and fired three successive shots in a pattern into the gloom, the gun’s thunderous roar slamming painfully into his ears as it reverberated off the hard granite. Fifty feet down the tunnel, Dimitri, temporarily unable to find his AK-47 in the gloom, was digging a Makarov pistol out of his supply cache when he heard Jim’s order. Slamming himself flat on the rock behind an oak support beam, Dimitri winced as the shotgun blasts tore by, a few ricocheting pellets kicking up rock fragments which stung his face. Brandon fired twice more from the tunnel mouth before following Jim and Chase out into the blinding sunlight. Setting Chase down on the trail near the rockfall, but out of sight of the mine mouth, Jim looked him over and said, “I don’t think he’s critically hurt. I’ll have my guys keep that bastard pinned in the tunnel while we get Chase out of here. Chase, still dazed, looked up at Brandon, and said the first thing on his anguished mind. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill Eric? You should have let that guy kill me back at the ranch.” Brandon was about to speak, but Eric, approaching from the direction of the mineshaft, said, “I’m not exactly dead, bro. Brandon fired past me and I played dead.” As his brother knelt by his side, Chase aimed two unfocused blue eyes at him, wanting to believe, but still doubting his own senses. “I thought you were dead…” Chase said, choking on the words. Gently, Eric shook his head, a wan smile creeping onto his lips, “I was lucky. Jon’s hit in the shoulder, but he’ll be okay. Helen… she’s hit too.” Eric felt it best not to add how badly Helen had been hit, and he was afraid to dwell on that thought himself. Eyeing Chase’s bleeding arm and seeing that it didn’t look too serious, Eric knelt beside his brother and said, “You’ll be okay, bro.” As two of Brody’s bikers approached the tunnel entrance, guns at the ready, Steve began to climb up onto the trail, closer to the mineshaft, to greet them, thinking that the crisis was over. Chase, his mind beginning to clear, coughed once, and struggled to give a warning, “He’s got more grenades! Watch out!” Chase’s words still echoed in the air as a black cylinder bounced out of the mineshaft, coming to rest on the trail. The bikers, facing the shaft, saw it and threw themselves against the mountainside. They were twenty feet away, but Steve was closer and facing the wrong way. He watched the bikers in puzzlement until one of them yelled, “Grenade!” Steve turned around, just in time to see the grenade explode fifteen feet away. The detonation peppered him with jagged shards of rock, just before the concussion lifted him off his feet, sending him tumbling over the edge of the precipice. Brody, his ears ringing, yelled, “Lay down some suppressive fire and pull back.” Eric darted towards the drop-off to see if he could help Steve, but Brody grabbed his arm, yanking him to a halt as he said, “The guys down there will get to him first. We’ve got to get out of here before we get hit by any more grenades.” As they hauled Chase to his feet, a sudden memory made him shake his head and pull free. “No, we have to get the bastard in the mineshaft, now. He’s insane, when he was torturing me, I felt him get hard, he’s fucking sick, and he’s got a trigger. He’ll use it for sure now that he’s cornered, I know he will.” “A trigger for what?” Brody asked. “Nukes, like the one that wiped out Toowoomba. That’s what this is all about. He and Jerry were planting nukes in cities on our tour. That trigger will take out Los Angeles and New York. It looks like some kind of cell phone. He couldn’t get a signal from inside the shaft with mine, but he did from near the entrance. If he can get out, even for a few seconds…” “He’ll destroy both cities,” Eric finished the sentence as he spun around, shotgun at the ready, and began advancing on the tunnel with no doubt in his mind that Dimitri was capable of such an act. After thinking for a moment, Brandon said, “Wait!” Eric turned back, and Brandon continued, “If we could get the local cell towers shut off, the trigger wouldn’t work, unless it’s some kind of satellite phone. I don’t know how long that would take, assuming that we can get anyone to believe us.” Eric stopped at the edge of the rockfall, but kept his shotgun pointed in the direction of the mineshaft. Brody blinked in amazement, wondering if the wild story could possibly be true. It didn’t take him long to make up his mind; the Air Force General had certainly seemed to believe the connection, and that was good enough for Brody to decide that it might be true. After only a few second’s indecision, he volunteered to start making phone calls. Chase indicated that he’d help, and at Eric’s suggestion, Chase began trying to reach General Bradson on Brandon’s cell while Brody phoned the sheriff’s department. Seconds later, listening to Brody’s exasperated tone as he argued with the Sheriff’s Department dispatcher, Brandon knew there would be no help from that end, or at least not in time to matter. With the phone still at his ear, and fearing the result of his words, Chase looked up to tell Brandon, “I don’t think the base switchboard operator believes me. I told her it was about the nuclear bombs and how they are detonated, and that we have a guy with a trigger cornered, and she put me on hold.” Hearing Chase’s words and figuring that it meant they might have to go in, Jim began digging in the saddlebag of his Harley for supplies. Knowing there was no other option left, Brandon gave Chase’s hand a squeeze as he said, “I’ve got to do this. We’ve got to stop him.” “Brand, he had a box for four grenades. That means he has one left, unless he’s got more stashed in the mine.” Feeling his heart break just a little, Chase let go of Brandon’s hand. Brandon turned and followed Eric and Jim, heading for the mine shaft, as Chase fought the urge to call his boyfriend and brother back. He wanted to, more than he’d ever wanted anything, but with so many lives on the line he knew that he couldn’t. With a resigned shrug, Brody moved to follow, but Brandon turned to say, “Stay here with Chase. There’s not much room in there and we need you here to coordinate.” Brody nodded his agreement, took up a covering position behind the rockfall, and after a few moment’s thought used his phone to order some of his bikers to cross the ridge from the far side and start working their way down towards the mineshaft from the opposite direction. He also told them to be on the lookout for any other entrances to the mine. Eric paused at the edge of the mineshaft, peeking around the corner, only to have a bullet miss his head by less than an inch. Ducking back for cover, he said, “I sure wish we had some of those grenades.” Not liking the odds, and expecting another grenade at any moment, Jim suggested in a quiet voice, “We can keep him away from the entrance with gunfire until the authorities get here, or they cut the phones off.” With a determined shake of his head, Brandon replied, “Can we trust them to do it right, and in time? What if they say ‘come out with your hands up’ and out he comes, only to detonate the bombs? That trigger could be a satellite phone, it could be anything! Also, what if there’s another way out of that shaft? We can’t risk millions of lives. Those bombs were planted using our tour; we have to do this. I have to do this.” Eric brushed some dirt off his bare torso. “That goes for me too, plus I’ve got a few scores to settle with that bastard,” Eric said, thinking of Helen and Jon. Eric’s fierce eyes spoke volumes to the rage he was feeling. Jim nodded his agreement, and with that, by accord, the decision was made: they were going in. Fifty feet inside the mineshaft, though unable to hear the voice outside, Dimitri had the same idea; find another way out. He wondered if there was one. Mines, he knew, often had multiple shafts for drainage, ventilation, and tailings extraction. At least, he thought they did, as he dimly recalled reading that somewhere. Taking a lighter from his pocket, he lit a twenty dollar bill from his wallet on fire, letting it burn for a moment before snuffing out the flame. He held the smoldering banknote still for a few moments, watching the smoke with his flashlight. A broad grin lit his face as the smoke streamed back into the tunnel, showing a strong breeze. That, he knew, made it certain that there was another way out, assuming it wasn’t blocked by rubble. He had already decided to try and detonate the bombs. He could see no reason not to, as their discovery was a forgone conclusion, given what his former captive could now tell the authorities. Cursing his own hasty tongue, Dimitri sent a burst from the AK-47 he’d had time to retrieve rattling towards the mineshaft’s entrance, and then pulled the pin on his last grenade. Outside the shaft, Eric ducked further back as the staccato chatter of the AK-47 sent a swarm of bullets buzzing like angry bees from the mine entrance. “Anybody see any alternative but to rush him?” Eric asked, dreading the answer. With a nod, Brandon and Jim signaled their agreement. Jim handed out shotgun shells and while Eric and Brandon reloaded he said, “I’ve got road flares and a flashlight but we can’t use ‘em yet; we’d make ourselves easy targets. Fire at his gun flashes and keep sweeping the tunnel with the shotguns.” Eric took a deep breath and said, “We’ll go in on the count of three. I’ll fire as we go around the corner, maybe that will keep his head down. One, two–” “Grenade!” Jim yelled, as the black cylinder bounced out of the mine shaft, coming to rest just a few feet from Eric. Seeing that there was no way to take cover, Eric darted out, into Dimitri’s line of fire, covering the two paces to the grenade as bullets caromed past his body, failing to hit only because Dimitri had taken a one-handed snap shot at a moving target. Not breaking his stride, Eric kicked the grenade before taking a flying leap to the path at the opposite side of the shaft, out of Dimitri’s field of fire. The grenade, with less than a second left on its fuse, flew over the edge of the precipice at an angle as gravity took over, causing it to drop past the level of the path as its fuse reached the detonator. The resulting explosion, only a few yards away, mainly missed Brandon, Jim, and Eric due to the angle, and instead dissipated itself on the cliff face, dislodging a cascade of small rocks that bounced down the slope below. Eric scrambled to his feet as Brandon made ready to swing around the corner and fire. Brandon said, “I hope that’s really his last one. Ready?” Receiving Eric’s nod in reply, Brandon whipped his shotgun around the rocky corner, discharging two rounds down the shaft as Eric did the same from the other side. Brandon moved first, leading the way into the darkness of the mineshaft, moving at a running crouch along the side of the tunnel as he descended into the stygian gloom, half expecting to be riddled by a hail of bullets at any second. Every few paces he pumped and fired the shotgun, hoping against hope that he’d hit something, or at least keep Dimitri’s head down. A hundred yards into the tunnel and running hard, Dimitri cringed from the sound of the shotgun blasts, wincing as a nearly spent pellet ricocheted into his neck. It stung but didn’t break his skin, and he kept running, aided only by his small flashlight, dodging the fallen rocks that littered the shaft in an increasing number of places. Brandon, squinting into the blackness, saw the flicker of light and the silhouette it produced, and squeezed off an aimed shot just as Dimitri reached a slight angle in the shaft, evading the hail of pellets from Brandon’s gun by inches. The old mine shaft was far from safe; the rock was fractured, requiring ceiling joists for support in many places. Those timbers, eaten away by the passage of many decades, were fragile, some having already failed. The shaking from the shotgun and grenade blasts further weakened some of them, and had anyone stopped to listen, they would have heard a low and ominous creaking coming from several of the failing beams. Slowed by the darkness, Brandon kept up the pace as best he could, but Dimitri continued to pull ahead. Three hundred yards into the mineshaft, Dimitri’s headlong flight was brought to an abrupt halt when a solid wall of rock loomed in his flashlight beam, and he came to a halt at the end of the shaft. Dropping to a crouch, he spun around and sent another burst from his assault rifle tearing up the shaft into the darkness, causing his unseen pursuers to slam themselves onto the floor as the ricocheting bullets whizzed by. Their ears ringing, no one noticed the rising moans of the protesting timbers closer to the entrance. Dimitri lit another banknote and snuffed it out. He ducked as a volley from Eric’s shotgun erupted from the darkness, but left his flashlight on to watch the smoke. Seeing no movement, he knew he’d passed any side tunnels. He was trapped. He clicked off his flashlight, trying to decide what to do as the total darkness of the mineshaft closed in. Robbed of the light from their target, Brandon, Eric and Jim began to creep forward in the darkness until, in the newfound silence, they noticed a deep groan, a crack akin to thunder, and then a rumbling thud coming from the tunnel behind them. A gust of air blew past them, accompanied by a cloud of choking dust, as the rumbling died down. “Cave-in,” Eric said, in a strained whisper as he struggled to reign in his fear. Under the cover of the dust, Jim lit a road flare and hurled it down the tunnel in Dimitri’s direction. After covering half the distance, it bounced to a halt, emitting a sputtering red light that was barely visible through the cloying dust. Under the cover provided by the flare and the dust, Jim flicked on his flashlight and used it to take the lead, advancing in a crouch as he whispered, “Let’s finish this. They can dig us out eventually, but we need to take this guy all the way out before he brings the mountain down on our heads or finds another exit.” Studying the flickering light of the flare, Dimitri aimed his assault rifle down the tunnel, intending to fire a spread. He was about to pull the trigger when the movement of the flare’s smoke caught his eye; it was coming towards him. That, he reasoned, meant that there was another way out, and it was on his side of the flare. Taking a deep breath, he jogged towards the flare. He dropped to take cover thirty yards from it, straining to see the route the smoke was taking. The smoke, mingling with the fine pall of dust, stayed mainly near the tunnel roof, and Dimitri looked up as it passed over his head. Looking behind him, just a few feet, he could see it angling to the right. Flicking on his flashlight, he played the beam over the rough wall of the tunnel. A small rockfall protruded into the shaft, but at its top he spotted a gap of a couple of feet. He could see the smoke and dust moving into the gap, and knew he had a possible way out. Leaping to his feet, he scrambled up the rockfall, hurling himself headlong into the void at its top. Rolling painfully down the jagged rocks on the far side, Dimitri shined his light ahead, smiling as it lit the way up a small, rough-hewn tunnel in the rock. The tunnel sloped upwards at nearly thirty degrees. It was barely wide enough for his shoulders and only five feet in height, requiring him to stoop. Moving as fast as he could, Dimitri made his way up the tunnel, occasionally having to crawl over partial blockages. In the main tunnel, Brandon, who had taken over the lead, approached the flare, expecting a volley of fire at any second. Jim handed him the flashlight, and Brandon, even though dreading further cave-ins, rushed past the flare as he fired twice into the tunnel beyond. Jim hurled a second flare, and as it bounced to a halt near the end of the shaft, its flickering light revealed the rock face where the tunnel terminated. Crouching down for cover, guns at the ready, the three shared a confused look. “He has to be here somewhere,” Jim whispered, “Maybe he’s hiding behind one of those rockfalls, but I don’t think there’s room. Feeling the slight draft, Eric looked up and saw the motion of the smoke, following it with his eyes to the gap above the nearest rockfall. Pointing at it, he said, “I think he got out. That looks like a way, maybe there are more. Stay here.” Snatching up the flare before anyone could object, Eric took off at a haphazard run to towards the end of the tunnel, glancing at the rough-hewn and crumbling tunnel walls as he went. Reaching the end with no sign of either Dimitri or another way out, he yelled, “Nothing here, he must have gone that way.” “Sure, say it loud so he knows we’re coming,” Jim grumbled as he heaved himself into the narrow gap above the rockfall. The one unspoken thought shared by them all; if Dimitri found a way to the surface, he’d trigger the bombs before they could stop him. Maintaining as fast a pace as he could, Dimitri was already a hundred yards up the slightly twisting tunnel before Jim entered it. Saved by the tunnel’s slight angles from being viewed from behind, Dimitri used his flashlight and concentrated on making the best time he could. His heart soared; if he could get out into the open, he had a chance at hiding and evading pursuit. That hope quickly died as he realized that too many people would be out looking for him. He’d have zero chance. With a bitter shrug, he resolved to trigger the nuclear bombs as soon as he had a usable signal. If he had to die, he wanted to take as many people as possible with him. Lurching forward over a fallen boulder, Dimitri caught the serpentine shape of a tree root in his flashlight beam, and knew he was nearing the surface. Playing his beam up the shaft, his heart sank as it reflected a solid wall twenty feet ahead. As he neared it, he began to breath again as he noticed that it was merely a sharp turn in the tunnel. Taking the turn, he saw dirt. Turning off his light, he could see, at the top of the mound of dirt blocking the tunnel, a patch of greenish light. He approached it and leaned forward, pulling himself through the hole headfirst, clawing away the accumulated dirt in order to squeeze through the narrow opening. Resisting the urge to yell in triumph as he blinked against the glare, Dimitri squirmed, shouldering past the entangling branches of the bush into which he’d emerged. Pushing past it onto the narrow shelf of rock on which it sat, Dimitri looked around, and shuddered. He’d emerged onto a narrow shelf of rock, hemmed into a nearly vertical crevice on the mountainside. Peeking over the edge to look down, his stomach clenched in fear at the sight of the dizzying drop. The shaft he’d just emerged from, unbeknownst to him, had been a ventilation shaft. As such, it had merely been cut to the surface, with no heed paid to providing access to its exit. Dimitri, who despised heights, felt himself tremble. He reached into his inner pocket, feeling for the nuclear trigger. He flipped it open and turned it on. Like the cell phone it had once been and still largely was, it sought a signal. Dimitri waited, only to growl in frustration as the device failed to find a signal. Glancing up at the rocks, Dimitri guessed that the rocky fins were blocking any signal. He hoped that if he could just get past them he could still detonate the bombs. He looked back at the shaft entrance, wishing that there were some large rocks he could dislodge in order to plug it. Seeing nothing but the bush and bare, solid rock, he gave up on that idea, hoping that his pursuers were far enough behind him to give him the time he needed. Peering over the edge, trying to ignore the dizzying heights, he could see a flat area a dozen feet down the almost vertical draw, and next to it, a narrow ledge that appeared to lead around the fin of rock. Trying not to look down, he swung himself around and lowered himself over the edge. Using the sides of the draw to brace himself, he half climbed and half fell to the flat area he’d seen. Inside the ventilation shaft, Jim struggled up to the exit hole and began clawing at the loose dirt and rock, struggling to enlarge the hole enough to wiggle through. Seeing that it was taking too long, he backed away. He crouched down on the tunnel floor and said to Brandon, “Climb over me, you can get out faster.” Scrambling over Jim, Brandon pulled himself up over the loose talus, and after a quick look that revealed no sign of Dimitri, pushed his shotgun through the hole and squirmed through after it. Emerging from under the bush, his shotgun at the ready, Brandon inched forward to peek over the edge, only to slam back against the rock as a hastily fired round from Dimitri’s AK-47 creased his shoulder. Dimitri’s voice echoed up the rocks, “Toss your guns out now, or I blow up your cities.” Jim whispered from inside the tunnel, “Maybe he already has.” “Maybe, but we can’t take the chance,” Brandon whispered back as Jim crouched down to let Eric follow Brandon. With no clear shot to take at Dimitri, and anticipating having another gun in his hands within moments – one that would be unknown to Dimitri – Brandon hurled his shotgun over the edge, sending it spinning into the sky below as he yelled, “That’s all I got. The other guys are still back in the main tunnel; there was a cave-in and they’re stuck.” Dimitri, inching along the narrow ledge, found a handhold and leaned back, extending the trigger as far as he could in search of a signal as he yelled back, “Stay where you are.” Flat on his belly, Eric squirmed through the exit, pushing his shotgun ahead of him. Dimitri, intent on the trigger’s screen, saw it flicker as it detected one bar of signal. His thumb moved to press speed dial number five ­– the sequence for New York. The routing sequence code was sent, and then the code, relaying through the still-active local cell system to New York. Inside the bomb, the receiver detected the code sequence, and matched it against the one in its memory. It found that the code was one digit off and did not trigger the firing sequence. The Scar had not wished to risk the detonation of both bombs by anyone other than himself, so he had, unbeknownst to Dimitri, changed one digit in Dimitri’s trigger’s code before giving Dimitri the device in Auckland. However, The Scar had wanted Dimitri to have control over the Los Angeles bomb, and that code remained valid. It was about to be used, as Dimitri thumbed the buttons to select it. Fearful of what Dimitri might be up to, Brandon, wondering if he’d get a bullet for his trouble, peeked over the edge. Ten feet below, he saw Dimitri’s back and outstretched arm, along with the motion of his thumb. Brandon felt more than reasoned the cause; he just knew; Dimitri had a signal and was trying to trigger the bombs. Seeing Dimitri swaying drunkenly due to his precarious footing and awkward position, Brandon looked back at Eric, who was pulling himself from the hole, his shotgun in hand, but eight feet away. Realizing that there was no way to get the gun in time, nor even a loose rock to hurl, Brandon knew, in that bitter instant, that there was only one way. Springing forward into a leap, his heart aching with the knowledge that he’d never see Chase again, Brandon pushed off the ledge with his legs, driving himself at a downward angle. Slamming into Dimitri from the side and above, Brandon’s weight and momentum sent them both flying out from the final ledge, spinning away into space, careening towards the jagged rocks hundreds of feet below. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  23. Chapter 42: Cold Steel Dimitri reviewed his plans as he retrieved the Chevo Landscaping truck from his hotel. He’d stashed the AK-47 he’d carried during the disastrous attack under some bushes near the highway prior to hitchhiking in, but he had two others and thus no reason to retrieve it. He had all the firepower he needed; the two remaining AKs, three handguns, and the grenades. However, for what Dimitri had in mind, he felt it likely that his knife would see as much use as his guns. He made a quick stop at a small market for some food and other supplies, and then got out of town as fast as he could. His next stop was in the town of Montrose, Colorado, over an hour to the north. There, he purchased a police-band radio scanner and an infrared night-vision scope. He also inquired about road conditions. Dimitri was relieved to learn that Last Dollar Road connected to the highway at its north end. He doubted that he could get the landscaping van up the steep grade outside of Telluride, but he’d been assured that by entering from the north end of the road, he would find better road conditions. The road was dirt, but reportedly well maintained and passable by car. Stopping for some pizza in Ridgeway – the last town he’d encounter en route – Dimitri considered one other aspect of his situation. He knew that his employer’s SUV had been found. It had California plates and so too did the landscaping truck, though it was registered under one of The Scar’s many aliases. California plates would stand out like a sore thumb on a landscaping truck in the back country, so on his way out of town, he stopped near a car which was parked at a trailhead and had been left unattended. Working quickly, he removed the front and rear plates from the car and then resumed his drive. Turning left onto Last Dollar Road, Dimitri drove for two miles on the graded dirt before pulling over and switching to the stolen license plates. With them in place, he wiped the dust off his calloused hands, checked the map, and proceeded past Instinct’s ranch to the turnoff for his lookout. Dimitri parked the truck under a copse of trees when the side-road became too rough. Burdened with a pack containing his gear and food, he climbed the remainder of the road, and then the trail. After negotiating the perilous cliff-top segment, he reached the portal of the old mining drift. By the flicker of a handheld flashlight, he entered the old shaft, edging his way around a few fallen rocks until he was fifty feet from the entrance. There, Dimitri stashed most of his gear by the side of the tunnel. Retracing his steps, he emerged into the harsh afternoon sunlight and resumed his hike to the ridge. Once ensconced on his ridge top, Dimitri set up his police scanner as he resumed his observation of the target, squinting through a pair of binoculars and taking detailed notes as the afternoon slipped slowly into the evening; beginning a long night of observation. Early the following morning at Instinct’s ranch, Helen faced a rather unwelcome arrival: Deputy McClatchity. The deputy had received orders from his sheriff, but he didn’t have to like them. As such, he didn’t much care if Helen liked them, either. In fact, he privately reveled in the fact that she didn’t. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but the sheriff has assigned a security detail to your home. The other deputies will be along within the hour. In order to avoid any trouble, I’ll have to insist that you tell your biker friends to clear out,” McClatchity said. Deciding to push hard and make Helen back down, he added, “That includes the ranch next door. I want them gone, understood?” Helen knew that she had the option of calling General Bradson, but she decided that she wanted to handle this one herself. In a calm voice which belied her inner rage, Helen said, “No.” Fixing Helen in his glare, Deputy McClatchity took a step forward, placed his hands on his hips and giving what he thought was an intimidating smirk he said, “Excuse me?” Taking her own step forward, bringing her nose to nose with the deputy, Helen took a deep breath to roar, “I was trying to keep the words small enough for you to understand, but two letters is as short as I can make ‘em. So let me ask this, what part of ‘No’ are you too fucking stupid to understand?” Several of the bikers, who had been standing a dozen yards away, began to stroll towards the scene of the confrontation. Behind Helen, McClatchity noticed the four members of Instinct, their shotguns unlimbered, walk out of the house to stand on the wooden porch a few feet behind Helen. McClatchity, never a man to be restrained by common sense, said with a sneer, “I could arrest you for talking to me like that. In fact, I think I will.” After everything that had happened, Helen was in no mood to mince her words, or to suffer this fool gladly. Crossing her arms and standing her ground, Helen replied coldly, “You will not arrest me. What you will do is get your ass off this property within thirty seconds. I’m done with you and your attitude, so get the fuck out of here!” McClatchity made no move to leave and instead lowered his right hand to his holster. With what he assumed to be intimidating nonchalance, he flicked the strap off his service revolver. One of the bikers who had taken a position behind the deputy said, “If you draw that gun, you’re a dead man.” McClatchity spun around, his hand on the butt of his gun, his eyes seeking the man who’d threatened him. Finding a dozen smirking bikers, he demanded, “Which one of you said that? You can’t threaten an officer of the law!” Jim stepped forward, smiling coldly. “Could have been anybody, but I’d suggest you take the warning to heart. If you want to talk threats, fine, let’s talk real ones. These people we’re protecting have had two attempts on their lives. There’s already been two other people murdered, and you stroll in here and threaten one of the victims. Nobody here is in the mood to play your pathetic martinet games. You aren’t worth the time. You’ve been told to leave and you’re leaving. You’ve also just threatened a lady in front of a lot of guys who don’t take kindly to that. Now, get in your vehicle and drive away while you’re still able to do so. If you don’t leave, right now, I won’t be responsible for what will happen to you next.” Deputy McClatchity seethed. He was used to getting his way with civilians, but the peril of his situation began to sink in at long last. He was alone, heavily outnumbered, and he felt a chill as he realized that he had no choice but to back down, for now. Turning on his heel and stalking to his department SUV, he decided that he’d have his revenge, one way or another. Without a word, he drove off. Deciding that stacking the deck further in her favor couldn’t hurt, Helen phoned General Bradson. To her surprise, he answered on the first ring, and she proceeded to tell him of the latest encounter with the local police. She received the General’s promise that he’d straighten things out, and after a few pleasantries, ended the call. In the lab at Edwards Air Force Base, sitting against a workbench on an old metal stool under the harsh fluorescent lights, General Bradson slipped his phone into his pocket as a staff sergeant handed him a sheet of paper. “Sir, the test results just came in. The DNA from the body you brought in from Colorado matches some found on the body of the band’s security chief. We also have a match between the security chief and some blood spatter recovered from the airport ramp where the band’s jet was parked prior to their flight. However, we found no sign of radiation on the Colorado body or in the Suburban.” The last bit of news came as a disappointment to General Bradson. He’d been hoping for something, anything, to aid the NEST teams in their so-far fruitless search of the stadiums. Although he was largely out of the loop when it came to dealing with the man known only as Prometheus – though the General suspected that Prometheus was Jerry Clump – he knew that billions of dollars had already been transferred to the bastard’s control. He was also aware of the ominous developments in Paraguay. The FBI had examined the disposable cameras that had been left at the embassy in Canberra. They had issued an opinion that the contents were genuine, and further were proof that ten nuclear warheads had been built. Los Alamos National Laboratory had weighed in with the opinion that ten cobalt-salted nuclear warheads would be sufficient to render uninhabitable a sizable fraction of the United States, and would also raise the global background radiation count significantly. General Bradson, by virtue of having been the one to develop the information and also due to the bureaucratic chaos in Washington, had been handed overall command of the search for the warheads, and the forces at his disposal included the NEST teams. So far, that effort had focused on the stadiums and had come to naught. The clues provided by Instinct had so far been the only solid leads. With that in mind, he first made two phone calls, and then made a call to the Sheriff in Telluride and read the man the riot act, shaking the rafters of the building in the process. With that detail taken care of, he decided to check in on the F.B.I. and see if their teams had turned up any clues at all. Their report did nothing to improve his mood; somehow, the special agents had missed Joe Clump by minutes at the halfway house, and then they had assumed he was on a commercial flight and had gone to the wrong airport. They apparently hadn’t thought to phone him and ask him to stay put. General Branson seethed at that bit of news. He didn’t think it likely that the son knew anything useful, but the delay in the interview enraged the General. He was growing desperate; someone had a gun to his nation’s head and they could pull the trigger at any time. Jim walked over to the front door in response to a polite knock. A quick glance through the peephole revealed the unexpected guest. After receiving an all-clear hand signal from a biker standing a few yards behind the visitor, Jim opened the door and after a glance at the man’s badge said, “Hello, Sheriff. What can we do for you?” Sheriff Whittaker took a single step inside, and removed his Stetson before replying, “I’m here to apologize for my deputy’s behavior, and for that of my department." Helen strolled up to the door, smiling a smile that her demeanor did not reflect, “Hello, Sheriff. Please come in and take a seat. Let me guess, you just got a phone call or three from a man with stars on his shoulders?” Nodding, Sheriff Whittaker walked into the house and took a seat on the couch before replying, “Yes, I certainly did. It was accompanied by a phone call from the Governor, and then one from my commanding officer in the Colorado National Guard. The Governor was kind enough to promise to personally aid the campaign against me in my upcoming re-election bid, and my commander promised to put me on latrine duty in Nome, Alaska, if the General makes good his threat to recall me to active duty.” Sheriff Whittaker ended his recount with a soft sigh, and then gave Helen a wan smile. He’d decided that he needed to mend fences with this lady and her evidently powerful friends, and had decided to be honest about the circumstances. The Sheriff’s evident honesty gave Helen pause. Her inclination was to hate the man, but she decided to let him make his case. However, she had no intention of letting him off the hook completely, so she asked, “I’d like an explanation regarding your Deputy McClatchity’s actions. He came in here and threatened me and my boys, and tried to run off the bikers who are here to protect us. I also want to know exactly what punishment will be meted out to that idiot.” Sheriff Whittaker had received a full report on McClatchity’s actions from the other deputy, who had been irate that McClatchity had almost gotten them both killed. After swallowing once, the Sheriff bent the truth by telling Helen something that wasn’t yet true, though he’d just decided that he’d make it true as soon as he left the property, “Ma’am, McClatchity is going to spend his next twelve weekends without pay, being retrained at the department academy in the basics of procedure and dealing with the public. If he does not agree to this without reservation, he will be fired. If he does not satisfactorily complete the course and change his ways, he will be fired.” Nodding, Helen replied, “Very well. I trust there will be no further attempts to interfere with the protection we have in place here?” Swallowing once again, Sheriff Whittaker got to the subject that had prompted his visit. “Ma’am, the General asked me to increase your protection. He said he wants you and your boys safe, or he’ll have my head on a platter. Therefore, I want to station at least three men here at all times; two inside and one outside.” Helen’s scowl clearly relayed the fact that she wasn’t pleased with that prospect. “Sheriff, let me make something perfectly clear. If you propose, as you have said, to increase our security, that will be welcomed. However, if by any chance you mean that you want our bikers to clear out, you’d best clear out yourself. The bikers are staying and that is not open for discussion. If you, or any of your men, harass them again for any reason, or attempt to disarm them, me, or my boys, I’ll personally order the removal of your men from this property by any means necessary. Are we clear on that?” The Sheriff was unprepared for Helen’s demands. Having armed bikers around his men was not something he’d normally tolerate. In addition, protectees were normally not allowed to carry weapons. However, the Sheriff had his orders, and faced with an unyielding Helen, he felt that he had little choice but to agree. “Yes, of course, under the circumstances I have no objection. All I ask is that we station two deputies inside and one outside. With deputies inside, and given the animosity that can occur between them and bikers, I won’t insist but I will suggest that you ask your bikers to remain mostly outside. It would make things easier on everyone, and would increase your security.” Not giving an inch, Helen snapped off a reply, “If any of the bikers wish to come in, they can do so at any time. That’s not negotiable; I won’t have them run off after they’ve saved our lives. The only person who will not be coming in this house, under any circumstances, is your Mr. McClatchity. Well, that’s settled, so when will your men be arriving?” Accepting defeat graciously, Sheriff Whittaker donned his hat and headed for the door as he said, “Thank you, Ma’am. I’ll have a detail here within the hour.” “Thank you, Sheriff.” Helen replied with a genuine smile as she escorted the man to the door. Viewing from the ridge top later that day, Dimitri watched the goings on. He’d climbed a little higher up the mountain than before, allowing him a partial view of the second ranch; the one where the bikers were based. The situation was obvious to him; the band had hired them for protection, and he’d missed their presence entirely. He mentally kicked himself for growing careless. This time, he decided, he’d take no chances. Everything would be prepared. He’d also dispense with any pretext of trying to make it look like an accidental slaying. He rightly assumed that after all that had occurred, it was pointless. What Dimitri did not know was that the entire operation had become futile, because Instinct had already told all that they knew to the authorities. Dimitri had been over a mile away when the Osprey had landed. He’d heard it, but had wrongly assumed that it was a helicopter from the police. Listening on the police scanner, Dimitri heard a heated exchange between the Sheriff, Deputy McClatchity, and three other deputies. It was obvious to Dimitri that none of the men liked the bikers, but that the Sheriff was demanding that they be left alone. The most tantalizing piece of information was that the band’s security was being reinforced by the Sheriff’s Department, a development that Dimitri found welcome indeed. At Telluride’s small airport, Barbra, Joe, and The Shadows climbed into the Jeep Cherokee. Jim had come to meet them, but he had not come alone. Pulling out of the parking lot, he exchanged greetings with Barbra and The Shadows, as a dozen Harleys rumbled out of the airport parking lot behind him. Barbra had filled Joe and The Shadows in on most everything, but she was unaware that Instinct was being guarded by an army of bikers, so the appearance of a cadre of Harleys behind them was disquieting. Jim turned left onto Last Dollar Road, and as the Harleys turned to follow, Steve’s worried voice rang out clearly from the back of the Jeep, “I think we’re being followed by those bikers.” Jim replied with a chuckle, “You bet we are. They’re with us. I called for reinforcements after that attempt to blow up the jet Instinct and Helen were on, and they came in damn handy when that bozo with the AK-47 tried to shoot up the ranch. We punched his ticket for him. He won’t be bothering anyone ever again.” Barbra nodded in agreement, very glad to have any help from any source. Wilde glanced out the back window and said, “There’s a lot of ‘em. A dozen.” He wondered how bikers felt about Goth guys, but didn’t give voice to that concern. Glancing back and seeing Wilde’s worried face, Jim said, “They’re good guys. Treat them right and they’ll do right by you. There’s over thirty more at the ranch. We’re mainly staying at the ranch next door to where you’ll be staying, but we’re keeping guard.” Meeting Joe’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, Jim added, “The Air Force investigator will want to talk with you – all of you, in fact – but you especially, Joe. It’s looking more and more as if your old man is involved with this shit that’s going down. Anything you can think of, and I do mean anything, tell the Air Force.” Eric leaped to his feet as The Shadows and Joe, followed by Jim, came through the door, which was held open by a sheriff’s deputy. With a tired smile, Eric asked Wilde, “So, how are you guys doing?” Helen didn’t say a word. Her eyes were locked on Barbra, who had come in behind Jim. Helen rushed forward, engulfing her lover in a desperate hug. Wilde exchanged nods with the other members of Instinct before answering, “We’re fine. How are you guys? I mean, first the bomb on your plane, the news from Los Angeles, then the attack here…” Wilde let his words trail off as he took in the strained expression on Eric’s face. The two bands sat down together at the kitchen table and began to talk, which mainly involved The Shadows asking questions and the members of Instinct answering them. Joe, momentarily forgotten by everyone and left standing by the door alone, edged awkwardly into the room, finally taking a seat across from Jim and the Air Force investigator, while the two sheriff’s deputies kept their own company at the other end of the small room. The investigator picked up on the awkwardness of the situation with Joe, and decided to deal with that issue and a more important one at the same time by asking, “You must be Joe Clump. I need to talk to you, and find out everything you know about your father.” With a nod, Joe asked, “Where do you want me to start?” Flipping open his notebook, and then clicking on a tape recorder, the Air Force investigator said, “Right from the beginning. Don’t assume that I know anything, and don’t leave anything out; we never know what could be important. Start with anything you remember about your father’s business when you were growing up.” Joe nodded, and started with a recount of his mother’s murder, beginning an interview that would take over an hour to complete. Outside of the house, one lone deputy stood guard, scanning the surrounding property with binoculars. He cast an agitated glance towards the Jacobs Ranch, where the bikers were staying; he didn’t much like them, and he liked his orders to be civil to them even less, so he was happy that they, of their own accord, seemed to be steering clear of Instinct’s house, for the moment. A few ambled by from time to time, but the deputy didn’t mind that when compared to the prospect of being surrounded by dozens of bikers. At the Jacobs ranch, three bikers manned the observation points, scanning the surrounding fields and woods. They felt that they could keep just as good a watch from a few hundreds yards away as they could from Instinct’s ranch, and they felt secure in the belief that should trouble approach, they could get to Instinct’s house first. Standing near the road, sheltered by a few scrubby trees, Dimitri looked to the south, spotting the expected Sheriff’s Department SUV approaching from the direction of Telluride. With the vehicle bouncing up the rutted road a quarter of a mile from where he waited, Dimitri made his final preparations. Using a few packages of ketchup, he stained his shirt red in the area around his right armpit. After laying down on his back so that the road was on his left, Dimitri slipped his combat knife under his right armpit, leaving the handle and part of the blade protruding. Satisfied that he looked very much like the victim of a knifing, Dimitri closed his eyes and waited for the oncoming vehicle. Deputy McClatchity, in his usual place behind the steering wheel, did not notice the ‘body’. The younger deputy seated beside him, a man by the name of Bowen, sharp-eyed in spite of his thick glasses, made his first error of the day by yelling, “Stop, there’s somebody off to the right and he’s hurt or dead.” McClatchity dynamited the brakes, coming to a halt in a cloud of dust just a few feet past Dimitri. Not bothering to look at Deputy Bowen, McClatchity said, “Call it in, I’ll go see what we’ve got here.” Using his scanner, Dimitri had chosen the location with care, picking a location where he could not receive transmissions from the Sheriff’s Department transmitter or relays. He reasoned, correctly, that if he couldn’t receive, they would be unlikely to be able to transmit. Bowen suspected that they were in a radio dead zone, but called it in anyway, receiving empty static as the expected reply. Deputy McClatchity glanced around, on the lookout for bikers, who were already his prime suspects in what he assumed was a knifing. No bikers were in evidence, so he approached the prostrate man, his attention focused on the knife. Dimitri moaned softly, “Help me,” and rolled his head slightly. McClatchity stooped over Dimitri, staring at the knife, before yelling over his shoulder, “Bowen, call the paramedics. He’s alive, looks like they stuck him under the arm.” “No joy on the radio, we’re in a dead zone,” Bowen replied as he reached under his seat for the first-aid kit. Looking back at the assumed victim, McClatchity barked, “Then bring the first aid kit. You tend him and I’ll drive back down the road away until I can get a signal.” McClatchity had barely give the order when Bowen appeared by his side, already opening the medical kit. Dimitri knew the two police officers were by his side, so he allowed his eyes to flutter open as he gasped, “Bikers…” Spinning back towards the prone man, McClatchity reached for his recorder as he said, “Tell me what happened.” Dimitri nodded weakly, and as Bowen stepped closer, stooping over Dimitri to get a look at the knife, Dimitri lifted his left arm and laid it across his chest as he grimaced in pain. The move had put his hand inches from the knife. Bowen’s final mistake was assuming that Dimitri’s action was just a response to the pain. In a blur of motion, Dimitri snatched up the knife, and with one smooth motion spun it around and buried it in the side of Bowen’s throat. Raising his right hand, which now held the black Makarov pistol that had been concealed under his leg, Dimitri shifted to the side, away from Deputy Bowen’s flailing body. Ignoring the spraying blood, Dimitri kept the pistol trained on McClatchity’s torso. The startled deputy looked up from his recorder, his eyes widening in shock. In a firm but calm voice, Dimitri stood up and said, “If you do exactly as I say, you will live. I want your vehicle, nothing more. I could easily shoot you, but I will not if you do exactly as I say.” Best to give the man some hope, Dimitri knew, because he really didn’t want to kill him, yet. “Raise your right hand, all the way up. Then, with your left hand, unbuckle your belt. If you make any move for your gun, I will kill you.” With a shaking hand, and never taking his eyes off of the looming barrel of Dimitri’s Makarov, McClatchity struggled for a moment, until he succeeded in unbuckling his belt. “Now, kick off your shoes, unzip your trousers and take them off and kick them all, along with the gun, to me. Keep your hand away from the gun.” Sweating in fear, McClatchity dropped his pants. He gave them a feeble kick, sending them, along with his service revolver and utility belt, halfway to Dimitri. Stifling a chuckle at the deputy’s bare and trembling knees, Dimitri crouched to retrieve the pants and belt. McClatchity breathed a faint sigh of relief as he saw Dimitri taking the handcuffs, reasoning that Dimitri wouldn’t need those if he were planning on killing him. Dimitri was well aware of the impression he was giving, and had done so solely for that purpose. He knew he needed to keep the deputy calm until he had what he needed from him. “Take off your uniform shirt and toss it on the grass,” Dimitri ordered. Deputy McClatchity, too afraid to puzzle over the reason, unbuttoned his shirt, moving slowly, never taking his eyes from the gun. Once he’d dropped the shirt on the grass, he heard Dimitri say, “Turn around and face your vehicle. I’m going to handcuff you. If you make any attempt to resist, you will die.” McClatchity turned to face the SUV as Dimitri approached from behind, letting the cuffs fall from his left hand as he pulled the knife from Bowen’s neck. A bullet would be quicker, but Dimitri saw no reason to deprive himself of some fun. Standing in just his boxers and undershirt, with his hands behind his back, McClatchity was expecting to feel the cold steel of the handcuffs. Instead, Dimitri said, “Turn around, you’re free to go.” Surprised and relieved, McClatchity slowly turned, to find Dimitri at less than arm’s length. McClatchity’s eyes locked on the gun, and he barely saw the flicker of the bloody blade as Dimitri drove it into his gut. McClatchity gasped in shock, stumbling back against the SUV as Dimitri twisted the blade, feeling the knife scrape on bone. Out of reflex, McClatchity’s hands reached for the blade as the cold sensation turned to pain. Dimitri gave the knife one last twist and a push before pulling it free. Stepping back half a pace, Dimitri smiled as he watched the deputy’s eyes, seeing first the shock, then the pain, and finally the fear. McClatchity, gripping at his stomach, groaned in agony as he slid down to sit; his blood coursing out to soak into the dry dust of the road. Dimitri, as was his practice, stared into the dying man’s eyes, taking pleasure as he saw the terror they contained. Seeing that the deputy wasn’t dying as quickly as most, Dimitri crouched, holding the blade in front of the man’s horrified eyes. Smiling, Dimitri lowered the knife and pressed the tip of the blade against the McClatchity’s abdomen, just a few inches above the wound he’d just made. His cold smile changing to a haunting grin, Dimitri began to push the knife slowly in. Gasping from the new pain, McClatchity grabbed the blade with both hands, just as Dimitri had hoped. Sobbing in terror, McClatchity felt the razor-sharp blood-slickened blade cut his fingers to the bone as Dimitri unhurriedly drove it in, taking his time. A shocked gasp was the final sound as Dimitri buried the knife to the hilt. Dropping his gun, Dimitri seized a handful of McClatchity’s hair and shoved his head back against the SUV, to give himself a better view of the dying man’s eyes before twisting the knife in a half-turn. Gasping for air, the blood spurting past his clutching hands to soak into the arid red soil, the deputy began to choke, his eyes wide with terror, both at his fate, and the feral pleasure he could see in the cold, grey eyes in front of him. Staring into the deputy’s eyes, Dimitri remained transfixed as they faded to a dull and lifeless stare. Withdrawing his knife, Dimitri wiped it twice on the dead man’s undershirt, before returning it to the sheath he wore in the small of his back. He had no doubt that his knife would find other work that day. With a sated smile on his lips, Dimitri dragged the two dead deputies a few yards into the brush, just enough to be out of sight from the road. After tossing some supplies into the passenger seat, Dimitri pulled McClatchity’s uniform on and slid into the driver’s seat of the Sheriff’s Department SUV. He removed the name tag, and after snatching up the deputy’s tan Stetson, tugged it onto his head at an angle. The keys, as expected, were still in the ignition. Pulling on a pair of mirrored gold-rimmed sunglasses and checking his watch, Dimitri confirmed that it was time for the scheduled shift change. Relaxed and at ease, Dimitri drove off, heading towards Instinct’s ranch. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  24. Chapter 43: Dead Man's Hand Air Force Investigator Lieutenant Phelps continued to interview Joe Clump. Twice he interrupted the interview, once to confirm that a search team had already been dispatched to Jerry Clump’s Los Angeles residence, and a second time to show Joe a photo of Jerry Clump, sent over his phone by the FBI, which Joe identified as his father. Now, at least the enemy had a name and a face. Thanks to Instinct and Joe, they also knew that Mr. Clump had a penchant for altering his appearance. While the interview proceeded a few yards away, The Shadows and Instinct finished their conversations. On the far side of the living room, near the bedroom doors, Helen and Barbra sat, hand in hand across a small pine table. Barbra, trying as best she could to offer support, mainly stroked Helen’s hand as Helen unburdened herself. Günter's death had hit her hard. Jim, sitting quietly as Joe’s interview with the Air Force investigator neared its end, heard the conversation at the kitchen table die down. Remembering The Shadow’s unease regarding the bikers, he got up and walked over to them. Approaching the table, Jim smiled as he said to The Shadows, “I’d like to take you over to meet the guys next door. They’re good people, just ask your buddies here.” Brandon, noting the anxious expression on Steve’s face, nodded in agreement as he said, “Jim’s right. They’re great guys. They saved our lives. Go over and meet ‘em. Just don’t touch their jackets or their motorcycles unless they invite you to.” At the mention of motorcycles, Steve’s eyes lit up. “Dude, I love motorcycles. I’ve got a Honda CBR six-hundred back home.” Shaking his head vigorously, Brandon said, softly enough that Zeke, seated the furthest away, did not hear, “Do us all a favor and don’t mention that. They don’t think much of Japanese bikes.” Brandon’s brow furrowed as another thought occurred to him, which prompted a further warning, “Don’t say anything about me and Chase, or you and Wilde. I’m pretty sure a lot of those guys wouldn’t be cool with it, and we can’t afford any issues coming up, not now.” Given an opening, Eric asked, “Speaking of… what’s up between you and Wilde now?” With a sheepish grin and a reddening face, Steve glanced over his shoulder to make sure that the two deputies, Joe, and the Air Force officer were out of earshot. He replied in a low voice, “It’s just us now, no more girls.” Wilde chuckled and added, “Yeah, still doing girls was his idea, and he got jealous. I knew he would, he just had to figure it out himself. He’s a bonehead sometimes.” Steve smiled as he gave Wilde a playful punch on the arm and said, “Yeah, okay, it just took me a while, is all. So, when do we meet the bikers?” Jim fielded that question. “I’ll take you three and Barbra over right now.” He hoped no one would mind, but he felt it better to take The Shadows over alone, rather than accompanied by Instinct. He felt his crew would take to them a little better if introduced separately first, rather than being descended upon as part of a large group in what the bikers now thought of as their turf. The bikers had become more territorial since the arrival of the Sheriff’s security detail; Helen had made it clear that the bikers were welcome in the house, but few had felt comfortable dropping by for a visit before, and felt even less so now; instead gravitating towards the Jacobs Ranch. It was a slightly uncomfortable situation, but one that Jim felt could be managed as long as everyone was careful. The bikers still thought highly of Instinct, and that was Jim’s other reason for taking The Shadows over alone; he wanted to insulate Instinct from any hard feelings if The Shadows managed to make a bad first impression. “We’ll be back soon. You guys get set up for poker; I plan on cleaning you all out, a quarter at a time.” Jim said to the members of Instinct, heading off anyone thinking of tagging along. “We’re having a barbecue tonight, and we want to invite everybody. Let ‘em know to bring some cooking grates, grills, whatever they’ve got. We’ll supply the steaks and foil-wrapped potatoes, plus the beer. We’ll need somebody to go into town with the Jeep to get the stuff, though,” Jon reminded Jim Giving Barbra’s hand a squeeze, Helen said, “We’ll go. I know better than to play cards with Eric.” Eric’s grin, followed by his extended tongue was, as she’s expected, his reply. The two deputies a few feet away heard the invite, and had noted that Jon had glanced in their direction as he’d issued it as a way of including them, too. Neither deputy had any intention of attending; mixing with bikers was not their idea of fun and they had explicit orders to be civil. However, both men expected to be relieved by the shift change before dark, so both were happy that their replacements, plus the one officer outside, could be the ones to deal with that situation. The clatter of chairs scooting on the oak floor filled the room as The Shadows got up from the table. As Jim ushered them towards the back door, he heard the Air Force investigator telling Joe, “Thank you; that may be very helpful. I’m going to phone it in right away.” Jim cast a sympathetic eye on Joe; the guy clearly felt uneasy, and probably unwelcome. Seeking to fix that, Jim said with a smile, “Hey, Joe, if you’re done, come with us. We’re going next door to meet the guys.” Relieved to be included, Joe walked towards the door as the Air Force investigator gathered up his notes and said, “I need to phone my base again. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Fishing out his scrambler-equipped satellite phone, the investigator followed Jim, The Shadows, and Joe outside, before turning to the west and putting fifty yards between himself and Instinct’s ranch. He could have phoned from inside, but he needed to be free to discuss his thoughts, and that required privacy to avoid any security concerns. Once he was in contact with Edwards Air Force Base, he made his opinion clear to Captain Vargas. “Sir, I’m fairly sure that Jerry Clump is the ringleader. That makes him Prometheus...” The Air Force investigator, enjoying the afternoon sun and mountain air, continued to walk west as he continued his report. “Poker sounds good,” Jon said, as he reached into a kitchen drawer for the deck of playing cards. Happy to see that they were still there, Jon tossed them on the table, looking forward to the distraction of a game. “Let’s play a few hands while we wait for everyone to get back.” Eric began to shuffle the cards. “Dealer’s choice: the game is five-card draw’. How about we invite Joe to play when he gets back? He’s miserable here, he feels like a pariah. He’s got his bad history with us plus his old man is running around the country planting nukes. That’s gotta suck. So when he gets back, why don’t we give Joe a chance? I think that maybe he’s really changed. He looks like he’s clean and he’s tried to help both us and the Air Force, and we sure don’t need any extra enemies right now.” Surprised that it was Eric, who had loathed Joe, that was the source of the suggestion, the other three member of Instinct nodded their agreement as Eric dealt out the first hand. In his makeshift headquarters at a ramshackle farm outside of Asunción, The Scar sat in a barn, surrounded by bales of pungent hay, poring over endless lists of officers. The method of payment was simple; one of The Scar’s agents approached the officer and made the offer of immediate payment of half of the money via the access code to a bank account containing the offered amount. If the officer accepted, he was given the code and was able to verify the funds immediately. The other half of their bribe would be delivered electronically within a day of The Scar’s taking power. The Scar had every intention of keeping his part of the bargain; he knew he’d need to rely on some of these men for years to come. On his computer screen, The Scar arrayed the names into four columns; those who had been approached by his agents, those who had accepted, those who had yet to be approached, and those who had declined. The fourth column was, in The Scar’s opinion, worryingly large. What concerned him the most were those who had rejected his offer. Specifically, his concerns involved whom they may have then told. He’d been hearing reports of unscheduled troop movements, mainly into the capital area. Those movements lent proof to his suspicion that the Paraguayan government knew something was afoot. The development had been expected, though it was hardly a welcome one. Perusing his list, The Scar identified the units involved as being under the command of officers who had rejected his offer. Rubbing the scar above his forehead, he selected several units under the command of officers who had accepted the offer. He then drafted some marching orders of his own. He now commanded a force larger than that of the officers arrayed against him and he planned to make full use of it. An overwhelming show of force, coupled with diplomatic pressure from the United States should, he reasoned, result in capitulation. He would then renew his offers, quite certain that they would be accepted under the circumstances. The Scar wished to avoid open conflict; not for humanitarian reasons but for pragmatic ones. He wanted his takeover to appear unchallenged. The rank and file on both sides were mainly conscripts, which made the officers the key, as The Scar had known all along. The correlation of forces, on paper at least, was mildly in The Scar’s favor. However, he had no illusions regarding the dedication of his troops; they would be less inclined to follow their officers than those of the loyalists. Still, The Scar knew that numbers mattered and so did perceptions. One of his units was armored, so he decided to send it to the Palacio Legislativo – the seat of the Paraguayan Legislature. The unit contained four World War Two vintage Sherman tanks, which would serve as clear statement of intent. The Scar doubted that the Presidential Guard, whose loyalty was still uncertain, would move to oppose him and would at worst remain positioned around the Presidential Palace a few blocks away. The Presidential Guard had its own armor, slightly more than The Scar commanded, but their commander was said to be still mulling over The Scar’s offer. The Scar had sweetened the deal by raising the offer to two hundred million and he hoped it would work. If the Presidential Guard came over to his side, the country was as good as his. If not, it would just take a little more time. Checking his watch, The Scar nodded to himself. No matter what, in forty-eight hours or less, Paraguay should be his. He expected to be making his first speech from the balcony of the Presidential Palace the day after that. Dimitri’s report was the other thing weighing on The Scar’s mind. The loss of Mario would hinder their plans – though in The Scar’s opinion it did nicely tie up a loose end – but Dimitri had given assurances that in spite of the opposition, he had a workable plan for the following day. If it were not for the fact that the band was the only link to the placement of the bombs, The Scar would have ordered Dimitri to abort the operation. The Scar knew that Dimitri had a love of inflicting pain and death, a reckless bloodlust that often led him into trouble. He hoped that Dimitri would be cautious; he needed Dimitri and did not wish to lose him. Had The Scar known that Instinct had already told all that they knew to the Air Force, he would have called off the hit, but Dimitri had not seen the Air Force General’s arrival in the Osprey and so The Scar remained blissfully unaware of that development. Arriving at the Jacobs Ranch, Jim smiled as he saw two bikers sitting behind a few bales of hay, using a small spotter-scope and some field binoculars to keep an eye out. A quick glance around revealed one other observation post, and his practiced eye discerned a third, partially concealed in a copse of trees. Brody opened the door as Jim, with The Shadows, Joe, and Barbra trailing behind, approached the front door. Brody greeted Jim with a tapping of fists, and Jim said, “We’ve got some new arrivals here who wanted to come over and meet you guys.” Jim motioned with his eyes at the observation outposts, and a subtle nod signaled his approval. Once everyone was inside, Jim noticed with amusement that the three Shadows clustered together, obviously feeling a little uneasy. Joe found that he felt more comfortable around the bikers than he did around Instinct; during his wild days he’d met plenty of bikers and found them to be, by and large, tough but forthright. Jim had read The Shadows correctly. They were nervous, and their body language showed it. That unease drew curious stares from the two dozen bikers in the room, which only served to heighten The Shadow’s disquiet. Suppressing a chuckle, Jim decided to break the ice by introducing Joe and Barbra first. “Guys, this is Barbra, a good friend of Helen’s, and next to her is Joe, a former member of Instinct and a guy who has been helping us and the Air Force get to the bottom of this mess.” Jim was careful to avoid any references to the nature of Helen and Barbra’s relationship, and he’d also decided that it would be better to avoid mentioning Joe’s relationship to Jerry. Over a dozen bikers, decked out in dusty leathers and sleeveless denim jackets, stood up, coming over to shake hands under Brody’s watchful eye. Barbra greeted them all warmly, and Joe breathed a sigh of relief that they did not seem to hate him on sight. He also said a silent “thank you” to Jim for not mentioning that he was the son of the man likely behind the two attempts on the lives of Instinct. “And these three guys are The Shadows,” Jim said, a little louder and making a point to smile, “They are Instinct’s opening act and came out here to support them, just like you guys did.” Jim had to fight hard to avoid laughing as the dozen standing bikers crowded around The Shadows, who began to look downright frightened. Jim could tell that the bikers were well aware of the impression they were having, and were enjoying it. Deciding that The Shadows had suffered enough, Jim laughed and said, “Chill, guys. They’re okay and they’re friends of the Instinct guys. Speaking of... Instinct is having a barbecue tonight and they want you guys to come on over and have some fun. They’re even providing the beer and a jam session, so come on over around dusk.” One of Body’s bikers arched an eyebrow and asked, “What about Johnny law? There could be trouble if those cops hassle us.” Jim nodded solemnly, and then broke into a grin as he replied, “You’re right. You guys missed a big scene when the Sheriff came over. Helen reamed him a new one, and laid down the law; if the cops hassle us at any time, they’re out of there. She also made it crystal clear that you guys are welcome over there, anytime. If the cops give anyone any shit, come to me or Helen and they’re gone.” Brody smiled and added, “Yeah, when the cops first showed up after we plugged that guy, Helen and Instinct stood ‘em down. That’s some lady; she stood up for us.” Barbra smiled to herself, proud of the impression that her lover made. The biker who had raised the subject nodded, feeling satisfied. Jim returned to the subject of The Shadows by flicking a thumb in their direction and saying, “Maybe these guys will play tonight too. If any of you play the guitar, join in. It’s not every day you get the chance to jam with a pro.” Deciding to join Jim in breaking the ice, Brody asked The Shadows, “So, what do you guys do besides music?” Zeke, who hadn’t heard Brandon’s warning to Steve, replied, “We do some rock climbing, Steve’s into motorcycles too, but Wilde and me, not so much.” Recalling Brandon’s words, Steve cringed. He hoped that he wouldn’t be asked, but that hope vanished in a heartbeat as one of the looming bikers asked, “So, what do ya ride?” Steve swallowed once, and considered lying. That thought soon faded with the realization that claiming to own a Harley would open him up to a slew of questions he couldn’t answer. Deciding that being caught lying to the bikers could be worse, he swallowed once before replying softly, “It’s a Honda CBR.” A deathly silence descended upon the room as every biker turned to stare at Steve. The silence was broken as a chair rumbled across the oak floor as its occupant slowly stood up. The biker, the largest of Jim’s crew at six foot seven and three hundred pounds, strode forward, coming to a halt inches from Steve. The huge biker crossed his massive tattooed arms and glared down at Steve. After glancing behind him and sending a quick wink in Jim’s direction, the biker returned his glare to Steve and said with a growl, “You ride Jap Crap?” Steve began to stammer a reply, but the biker began to grin, and said in a badly affected British accent, made ever more painful by his slight southern drawl, “Tisk, tisk. I suppose there’s just no accounting for taste, my good man.” “Every Doctor and his second wife rides a Harley,” Steve replied, trying his best to match the contrived accent of the biker. A few strangled chuckles, followed by gales of laughter from the assembled bikers filled the room, and Steve breathed a sigh of relief as he realized that he was safe. The big biker, laughing and smiling, extended a hand and said with a mirthful grin, “No big deal, we won’t hold it against ya... much.” Relieved, Steve shook the biker’s hand, wincing at the crushing grip, as the mood in the room became far more jovial and relaxed. Brody cemented the good mood by quipping, “You guys climb mountains? Damn, that’s fucking nuts!” The grins all around let Jim know that everything would be just fine. Pulling on a pair of mirrored gold-rimmed sunglasses, Dimitri reviewed his plan. He knew he’d need to be both fast and quiet; at least at first; the bikers on the adjoining property were close enough to hear any gunfire. What that meant to Dimitri was that he needed to be on his way out of the property within thirty seconds of the first shots, before the bikers could react. Dimitri’s reconnaissance had revealed that there were two deputies stationed inside and one on watch outside. The two inside would be a problem, but he believed he could handle them. The risk loomed large, but the hunt was on. Besides, he thought, what was life without a little risk to keep it interesting? Taking a longing glance at the small cardboard box he’d placed in the passenger seat footwell, Dimitri wished that The Scar’s selections for the weapons stash had been a little more comprehensive. The box’s label was simple block printing: ‘MK3A2 concussion offensive hand grenade (4)’. The MK3A2 offensive hand grenade, commonly referred to as a concussion grenade, is designed for use during close combat, especially in confined spaces such as buildings. The explosive force, when used in an enclosed area, is greater than that produced by the fragmentation grenade. The concussion grenade, due to its intended close-quarters use, does not produce shrapnel like a fragmentation grenade. It is very effective against enemy soldiers located in bunkers, buildings, and fortified areas. However, its main effects are concussive; simply tossing one into a large room would not be a sure way to kill its occupants. For that, Dimitri wished that he had a few fragmentation hand grenades like the M61. Those would have made his mission far easier, but he chased that thought from his mind; he had to make do with what he had, and what he had were four concussion grenades. He slipped one into his pocket, leaving the other three concussion grenades nestled in their box. Unlike his previous attempt to kill everyone in the ranch house, there would be no attempt this time at covering up the planned killings, so the grenades could be used. Wheeling the Sheriff’s Department SUV onto Instinct’s property, Dimitri drove slowly to avoid drawing any undue attention. The comings and goings of Sheriff’s Department vehicles had quickly become commonplace and Dimitri had taken note of the fact that their arrival most often went without notice from those on watch. He knew that the operation was risky, but he believed that the element of surprise would be the decisive factor. Dressed as he was, in a uniform complete with a hat and sunglasses, he felt sure that no one would recognize him in the few seconds he’d need. People tended to see what they expected to see, and Dimitri intended to make full use of that fact. Dimitri turned the SUV around, facing it east towards the road. Tugging the Stetson down to partially conceal his face, Dimitri climbed out and ambled over towards the lone outside deputy. The man, sitting on a log beside the north side of the house and foolishly out of sight from within the building – and thus unseen by the biker lookouts on the Jacobs Ranch to the south – stood up as what he assumed to be his relief approached and said, “About time you showed– ” The cold flash of Dimitri’s knife embedding itself in his windpipe ensured that the deputy would never finish that, or any other, sentence. Dimitri took great care to avoid spattering himself with his victim’s blood. As soon as the man had fallen, Dimitri dragged the body a few feet, to the partial concealment of a bush. Smiling to himself, enjoying the thrill of the hunt, Dimitri bounded casually up the stairs to the front porch, flipping the catch off of his holstered service revolver. There were no windows around the front door, so Dimitri could not see inside. He needed to ensure that all five of his targets were dead, so he’d dismissed the tempting option of simply hurling a grenade or two through a side window. Dimitri tapped on the locked door as he said in a calm, rehearsed, unaccented voice, “We’ve got an intruder, three hundred yards out. Paparazzi.” In the living room, Eric discarded a card. Before drawing, he looked up from the black pairs of aces and eights he was holding to ask Helen in a hopeful voice, “Can we send Jim and some of his guys after the paparazzi, please?” With a chuckle at Eric’s question, Chase shoved back from the table and headed for the restroom. One of the two deputies sitting in the living room answered Eric before Helen had a chance to speak. “Let us handle this. We’ll arrest him for trespassing.” Eric shrugged and returned his attention to the poker game. Jon, holding a pair of threes, decided that Eric was bluffing and raised him a quarter. One deputy remained sitting while the other walked to the door and looked through the peephole. Seeing what he assumed was a brother officer, he opened the door. It was to be his last mistake. With his hat still pulled low and his sunglasses on, Dimitri strolled in, angling his body to the right to conceal his gun hand. The deputy who had opened the door gave him a puzzled look when he realized that the new arrival was not someone he recognized. It would take him just two seconds to become alarmed, but that would be far too long. Smiling, enjoying the thrill of the hunt and the anticipation of the kill, Dimitri walked to the center of the main room, quickly glancing around to confirm that his five targets were all in sight. Eric and Brandon were sitting at the kitchen table, Eric sitting at the side and Brandon with his back to Dimitri. Helen was pacing slightly to the side. Jon sat on the opposite side of the table, intently studying the cards in his hand. Chase was on the opposite side of the living room, approaching the bathroom door. Dimitri was pleased to find that his targets were also alone except for the two remaining deputies. That suited him fine; he figured he’d be on his way out the door in less than twenty seconds with eight dead bodies in his wake. Eric glanced up from his cards, looking to his left, and dropped them as he saw the face, a face he’d seen once before, in Australia. He opened his mouth, intending to shout a warning. He was almost in time. In a blur of motion, Dimitri drew the .45 caliber service revolver he’d taken from Deputy McClatchity. An expert marksman with years of training, Dimitri shot from the hip, sending two rounds into the torso of the deputy who had opened the door. Spinning around lightly on his feet, Dimitri raised the revolver as he turned, bringing it to bear on the seated deputy. Two more shots rang out, ending the deputy’s attempt to draw his gun by sending a .45 caliber slug through his heart, and a second one through the bridge of his nose. Continuing his turn, Dimitri pulled his nine millimeter Makarov from his pocket with his left hand and began to swing both guns in the direction of the kitchen table, where the poker game had come to an abrupt end. What Dimitri had not expected was that, contrary to police procedure, the protectees were still armed. Therefore, Dimitri hadn’t been concerned when, with his eyes still adjusting to the dimmer light inside and further hindered by the dark sunglasses, he’d been unable to see what was under the kitchen table. Dimitri’s first thought when he saw Brandon, Eric, and Jon all reaching under the table was that they were ducking for cover. Helen had stopped pacing when the first shots rang out, and though her own gun was just two yards away, it might as well have been on the moon as she saw Dimitri’s guns swing in her direction. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized they were not aimed at her, but at Eric, who was looking the other way, intent on grabbing his gun from under the table. Time seemed to slow to a crawl for Helen. She saw it all clearly; none of the guys would be able to fire in time. There was nothing she could do, except for one thing. Not hesitating, and knowing the cost, Helen bolted to her right, interposing herself between Dimitri and Eric just as Dimitri’s .45 barked again, its bullet aimed squarely at the center of Eric’s back from a dozen feet away. Helen barely felt the impact, at first. The hollow-point bullet slammed into her abdomen, flattening itself and fragmenting, causing massive internal damage. Helen stumbled sideways towards the wall as Eric and Brandon lifted their shotguns from the floor, swinging them around towards Dimitri as Jon followed suit. Dimitri felt as if time had slowed to a crawl as he realized that three shotguns were coming up. Knowing that he wouldn’t have time to kill all three before they could fire, Dimitri squeezed off one shot from his Makarov as he began a jump to his right. Jon had seen the gun coming to bear. He’d tried in vain to dodge to the side, only to be spun around and thrown off his chair as the nine-millimeter slug slammed into his body. His adrenalin surging, Eric’s first shot ripped through the air a fraction of a second too soon, missing Dimitri to the right. Outgunned and frantic for cover, Dimitri leaped to the side as the blast from Brandon’s twelve-gauge tore through the space Dimitri had occupied a moment before. Dimitri continued his desperate lunge, trying to remove himself from the line of fire. In the fury of the moment, he hadn’t noticed that the shotguns were single-barreled and not semi-automatic, and thus the only two remaining in action needed to be pumped. Brandon and Eric bolted from the table, focused on Dimitri and oblivious to the fate of Helen and Jon. Dimitri dashed headlong towards the open bedroom door, as Brandon and Eric both chambered rounds. Chase, having heard the gunfire as he entered the bathroom, dashed out; intent on getting his gun, just in time to emerge into Dimitri’s path. Dimitri slammed into Chase, surprising them both. Jarred out of his hand by the impact; Dimitri’s Makarov skittered across the flagstone floor, coming to rest a dozen feet away. Chase looked towards the fallen gun, but Dimitri looked at Chase, seeing in him a way out, and a means to an end. Chase tried to grapple with Dimitri, but Chase was off balance and Dimitri was still in motion and stronger, hurling both himself and Chase through the open bedroom door. With a speed borne of long practice, Dimitri’s right hand brought the cold steel of his bloody knife to rest on Chase’s throat. The command Dimitri issued was simple and direct: “Move and you die.” Using his left hand, which still held the .45, Dimitri spun Chase around as Brandon and Eric, guns leveled, approached from the other side of the open door. With a knife at his throat, Chase had no choice but to comply as he became a shield for Dimitri. Knowing that time was running out, Dimitri cursed the fact that he had only the service revolver, with just one bullet remaining against two armed targets. The grenade in his pocket was useless; he couldn’t spare a hand to use it. Noticing at last that the shotguns were single barrel, a sudden idea occurred to him, one which would reduce the number of armed targets to zero. It also appealed mightily to his sadistic nature. Pointing his gun at Brandon, Dimitri said, “I know what this one means to you. Unless you do exactly as I say, I will cut his throat and you can watch him die. If you comply, he lives.” Dimitri pulled Chase back a single pace. Nodding in Eric’s direction, Dimitri told Brandon, “Kill him or your boyfriend dies. You have two seconds.” To emphasize his point, Dimitri allowed his blade to draw blood as it sank into Chase’s throat. There was no time to argue, no time to think. Wishing he could get a clear shot at Dimitri, Brandon saw the blood begin to trickle from Chase’s neck… but there was no way to shoot Dimitri without killing Chase. Eric, standing six feet to Brandon’s side, saw the blood on his younger brother’s neck as the knife began its gory work, and in desperation, knowing there was no other way, he looked at Brandon, seeing the barrel of the shotgun in his hands. As Brandon’s head turned and their eyes met, Eric looked into Brandon’s desperate face, nodding once as he said, “Do it, Brand, do it now, you don’t have a choice.” Eric had used Chase’s nickname for Brandon, to emphasize his point and make Brandon think of Chase. Chase, in spite of the pain and fear, struggled and cried out in an attempt to save Eric, but Brandon did not pause. Helen, slumped against the wall, wracked by agony, heard Eric’s words and looked up from her bloodied abdomen in time to feel her dread doubled as she watched Brandon swing his shotgun though ninety degrees, directly towards Eric. Seeing that his words had their desired effect, and hoping that his final sacrifice would not be in vain, Eric stood tall, chest puffed and shoulders back, brave and unafraid as he closed his eyes to await his end. On the streets of Paraguayan capital Asunción, an uncharacteristic tranquility made the afternoon seem ominous to those familiar with the vibrant pulse of the city. It was the calm before the coming storm. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
  25. Chapter 40: Greylag Goose A crackling fire, a comfortable seat on the sofa, his boyfriend by his side. Under other circumstances Brandon would have been happy, but Günter was still missing, and the TV was swamped by non-stop reports of the horrendous carnage in Australia. With a sigh, he said to Chase, “It’s like a different world. Everything’s changed; a nuclear bomb, everyone afraid, and then there’s what happened to us and whatever’s happened to Günter – what do we do now?” Chase shrugged, and shook his head with a downcast expression on his face. “I don’t know, Brand. I guess we wait and see… Helen ordered the money for Jim’s guys yesterday and it should be at the bank this afternoon. She asked Jim to go with her to get it.” “She’s going to ride on the back of Jim’s bike?” Brandon asked with a chuckle, his first in two days. “Nah, we’ve got a Jeep here, in the garage by the side of the house.” “We should go see Jim’s guys and give them the money in person. It was damn good of ‘em to ride up here; they had no idea we’d pay them.” Brandon said. A few hours later, Helen, seated beside Jim in the Jeep, drove down Telluride’s main street. Neither of them thought to pay any particular attention to a trailer towed by a truck with ‘Chevo Landscaping’ emblazoned on its side, nor did they notice its California plates. Minutes later, at a small hotel alongside the San Miguel River, Dimitri climbed stiffly out of the landscaping truck’s cab. With some help from Mario, they unlimbered The Scar’s Suburban and drove it off the trailer. With that task done, they set out in the Suburban for Last Dollar Road. Using a topographic map purchased from a local store, Dimitri navigated while Mario drove up the serpentine road. At one point in the road, where it clung to the rim of a bowl-shaped valley as it climbed towards the first pass, Dimitri found himself with a severe case of white knuckles due to the dizzying drop on his side of the vehicle, just inches from his door. When the road topped out and wound through a stand of high forest, Dimitri breathed a sigh of relief. Ten minutes later, they were approaching Instinct’s ranch house. Stopping on a shallow down slope on the rutted road, Dimitri spared a glance through his binoculars. “About a hundred yards ahead there should be a track going up to the ridgeline. From the look of the map, you’ll need four-wheel drive and low-range; shift into it now.” Mario hesitated before saying, “I’ve never driven off-road in this sort of terrain before. Getting this far was difficult. You should drive the rest of the way.” Nodding in agreement, Dimitri jumped out and changed places with Mario. Putting the transmission in neutral, he shifted the second gear-selector into 4-low – four-wheel drive with low-range gearing – and set out. The small rutted track to their right came into view, and Dimitri wheeled the suburban into it. The track snaked around the back of the mountain spur which formed the ridge. After half an hour spent negotiating the washed-out, rock-strewn old mining road, they had covered barely a mile. Stopping at a rockfall that blocked the remainder of the road, they exited and locked the vehicle with their guns inside. Going armed would have been legal, but they had no desire to lug heavy and awkward weapons up rough terrain. Armed only with the hunting knives Dimitri had purchased, they skirted the rockfall and walked up the road. A hundred yards from the ridgeline they encountered the yawning maw of an old mining drift; a horizontal shaft hewn into the rock. Passing it by, they continued up a barely-identifiable footpath, as it hugged the rock face. Dimitri had to force himself to continue due to the perilous drop to his right, a vertical plunge of over three hundred feet to the treetops below. A few hundred yards further on, a stream from the mountain above hurled itself over the malevolent precipice. To Dimitri’s immense relief, the trail, as indicated by his map, came to a small draw leading up to the left. With a prayer of thanks to a God in whom he did not believe, Dimitri scurried away from the edge of the cliff, leaving it well before he reached the rushing waterfall. Mario did not mind heights, but noticed, with a suppressed chuckle, that Dimitri most certainly did. Cresting the ridge, breathing heavily in the thin mountain air, the two men looked down on the rolling countryside. Dimitri found that, as he’d hoped, he had a clear view of Instinct’s ranch two miles away. He was delighted that they had chosen a home on high ground; the neighboring ranch house, which he’d caught a glimpse of as he’d driven past, was hidden behind a low hill covered with a copse of aspen from his current vantage point. Sitting down with his back against a jagged boulder, Dimitri settled in to observe the target via binoculars. He was relieved; if they had divulged their information to the authorities, he reasoned, they would be elsewhere, and guarded. The fact that they were not indicated that he was in time. Mario, pulling up against a boulder a few yards away, settled in for what he correctly assumed would be a long wait. Half an hour later, Dimitri handed Mario the binoculars and waited while Mario adjusted them, focusing in on Instinct’s property. Dimitri adjusted his position to relieve some minor cramping as he turned to stare at the distant ranch house before saying, “The location is good. It is suitably remote, with easy approaches from the north and east. If possible, we are to make it look like an accident, but with the four targets and their manager, that may be problematic. Rendering them unconscious and then placing them in a vehicle and pushing them off a cliff is one option, but doing so without leaving signs is difficult. Our best option may be to simply charge in and shoot them, and then spray-paint ‘Paid in Full’ on a wall for misdirection along with a few other clues in order to make it look like a drug deal gone bad. Rockers are known for their pharmaceutical indulgences after all. I just wish we had access to some narcotics to make it look more believable.” Mario, who had even more experience than Dimitri at the art of killing, lowered his binoculars. Turning to look at Dimitri he said, “That’s a very weak cover. A more effective approach might be to tie them up and then suffocate them by placing plastic bags over their heads. Then we untie the bodies and place them in beds, to make it look like carbon monoxide poisoning from the secondary effects of a fire begun in another room. A cigarette in a couch is a good start as the fire scene investigators almost always look for something like that, and a burning sofa can emit deadly gasses. We could use a lighter to start the blaze itself. We must not use any accelerants; but in a remote setting such as this, we do not need it to be fast. We’d have to be careful to avoid leaving marks on the bodies; fires are notoriously inconsistent in covering abrasion marks on flesh.” Dimitri considered the plan for several minutes, remaining silent and never taking his eyes off the distant ranch house. Finally he said, “That is feasible and would be a better cover. However, the operational complexity is greater and the main difficulty would be in restraining them without wounding them noticeably. However, what we can do is attempt to use your plan and hold mine as a fallback. If one of them resists and needs to be shot, then we would have to go with my plan.” The two men looked into each other’s eyes, each developing a greater respect for the other’s professional abilities. Nodding, feeling that Dimitri was someone he could work with – always before, Mario had operated alone – he said, “Tonight, then?” “About an hour after sunset, I think,” Dimitri said, as he resumed his vigil with the binoculars. Helen strolled into the ranch house, carrying her briefcase. She set it on the coffee table and said, “I got half of it, fifty grand. They said they’d have the rest by tomorrow. I talked it over with Jim and he said this should be more than enough. His advice was not to go over a grand for each biker. I think he’s right.” “We need those guys, or we might,” Eric said, flicking open the briefcase’s clasps with a snap. Brandon, looking over Eric’s shoulder, gave a low whistle as he laid eyes on the stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “Let’s go see Jim and his crew,” Brandon said with a smile. “This should keep his guys happy, which means they’ll stick around–” Helen interrupted to say, “Not so fast. Jim also said not to give it to them all at once. He also thinks four hundred per biker would be more than enough for now.” Eric shook his head. “Those guys are protecting us, and we think what happened on the plane was no accident, so that means somebody wants us dead. Is this any time to be pinching pennies? I say we give ‘em a grand now, then some more later.” Faced with a resolute Eric, and with his two brothers nodding agreement, Helen conceded the point by saying, “I suppose you might be right.” Vigorously shaking his head, Brandon said, “That’s way too much. I know how those guys think. Jim has it right. They didn’t come here for the money, so if we dish out that kind of cash there’s a good chance they’re going to think less of us. It’s an insult in a way, because it implies they did come here for money. Five hundred would be okay, but no more than that, not right now, or we’ll do ourselves more harm than good.” After receiving nods of agreement, Brandon said to his band mates and Helen, “Let me do the talking at first; I’ve been around bikers before. Bikers have their own culture, and we don’t want to offend anyone by saying the wrong thing. Also, if you see any jackets with the club logo laying around, whatever you do, don’t touch them unless invited. Same goes for motorcycles.” Arching an eyebrow in surprise at the revelation Brandon had just made, Helen asked, “How did you come to know so much about bikers?” Nodding, Brandon replied, “Jim took me to a few biker parties back in Phoenix and I got to know some of the club members. I hung out with ‘em sometimes. They were pretty decent guys by and large, and they even taught me how to fight. That came in handy a few times when I was living rough.” On the ridge above, Dimitri watched as his five targets left their house on foot, walking across the open ground towards the home which was hidden by the trees. He cursed under his breath, wondering what he would do if they did not return. Arriving at the Jacobs Ranch, Chase smiled as he saw two bikers sitting behind a few bales of hay, using a small spotter-scope to keep an eye out. Jim, alerted to the approaching guests, opened the door just before Helen could knock. “Hi Jim,” she said as she nodded towards the four members of Instinct, “the guys wanted to meet your crew and to say thanks.” Jim nodded. He knew what they intended, and wanted it to be taken well. The bikers, he well knew, had their pride, and had not come for financial gain. However, a few were already growing bored and in order to keep them all around, he knew some reward was needed. “Hey, gather ‘round, we’ve got company,” Jim yelled, loud enough to shake the rafters. Following their informal yet very strict hierarchy, the many bikers lounging around the room let the two club leaders approach first. One, decked out in dusty leathers and a sleeveless denim jacket, stepped up and clasped Brandon’s hand in an iron grip. “Hey, dude, good to meet ya. My name’s Brody.” Brandon, familiar with the ways of bikers, returned the crushing grip and said, “Thanks for bringing your chapter up.” Brody shrugged, angling his head in Jim’s direction. “When a brother calls, we answer. He said you guys are good people, even if you’ve never been on a Harley. He also said the damn government ain’t takin’ you seriously, and a lot of us, well, we’ve had our own issues with Uncle Sam. Livin’ in the wind is about freedom and watching your friend’s backs. We’re happy to oblige, and if anybody comes poking around, we’ll take care of business.” Brandon knew the situation needed to be handled with great tact, so he nodded and said, “We aren’t 81s,” Brandon said, using a metonym, just as many bikers did. It stands for the eighth letter of the alphabet, which is an H, and the first letter of the alphabet; an A. These formed the first letters of the two words ‘Hells Angels’. “But we live in the wind in our own way. We’d also like to show our appreciation for what you’re doing by kicking in for your next club ride, and also giving each member some walking around money.” Nodding, but crossing his muscular arms to show a little reluctance, Brody said, “We didn’t come here for money; you know that, right?” “We know, we’re just kicking in for some expenses, is all. It’s our way of showing support, and of saying thanks. After what happened to us, having you guys watch our backs is worth more than you can know,” Brandon said, crossing his own arms and meeting Brody’s steady gaze. Wondering what response he’d get, and how it would be presented, Brody asked, “So is it true? Did you really land a busted plane like they said?” Shrugging, Brandon replied, “I was saving my own ass, too.” Satisfied, Brody flexed his right bicep to emphasize the tiger tattoo there. “You’re okay in my book. I got the big cat here after a hairy firefight in ‘Nam. I know what it’s like to go against long odds, and I like the fact that you don’t brag about it.” Brandon pulled a bankroll from his pocket and peeled off fifty one-hundred-dollar bills. Handing them to Brody he said, “This is for your chapter.” Counting off five more he said, “This is for you, and we want to do the same for every biker here. We like to do what we can, in our own way.” Accepting the money with a slight widening of his eyes, Brody gave Brandon a nod, and then walked away. As he did, Brandon looked at the back of Brody’s denim jacket – his colors – at the big winged death’s head logo. With Jim casually observing from a few feet away, Brandon repeated the offer to the other chapter president, and then the four members of Instinct began handing out the cash to the club members. With the paying done, the bikers handed out beers ­to everyone present. Brandon had felt comfortable from the start, but after a few minutes, his band mates began to relax as well, and for the next two hours they and the bikers got acquainted. Helen made sure to take the two chapter presidents aside and warn then that under no circumstances was Eric to be allowed anywhere near tequila. With a laugh, they agreed, much to Helen’s relief. At Edwards Air Force Base, General Bradson and one of his computer techs were examining Chase’s GPS. The tech looked up to say, “This could be faked fairly easily with the right software. However, if it’s real, this GPS was at ground zero before the explosion.” General Bradson nodded. “They would have had to fake it right before their flight or during it… The band manager has been calling me incessantly and I’ve got to tell her something. So far, we can’t prove anything untoward happened but it sure as hell looks to me like it did. The damage to their aircraft is not consistent with a bird strike and it could not have been caused from inside. The lab reports from the aircraft investigation should be coming back any time now; I’ll wait and see what we have. However, I suspect I’ll soon be flying out to talk to those people.” Mindful that given what was involved, every minute might count – he’d been briefed in on the nuclear blackmail – General Bradson phoned the lab himself, just to make sure they were working as fast as possible. They promised to have the results within five minutes. Walking into the hanger ten minutes later, the general found, as he’d expected, Captain Vargas paging through a fax. “General, the lab report indicates that the explosive residue is pentaerythritol tetranitrate, usually called PETN. It’s not used in our missiles, sir. Also, the forensic report came back on the bird residue we found. They say the blood had coagulated, and had then been dissolved in alcohol to re-liquefy it. Further, the DNA came back as a match for a Greylag Goose. I checked, sir; those are native to Europe and Asia, and are often domesticated and raised for meat.” General Bradson nodded, and then asked rhetorically, “So, the bird was already dead and its blood had been re-liquefied. It was at twenty thousand feet, and oh, by the way, we have bomb residue. Does this sound like an accident to you, Captain?” Shaking his head, Captain Vargas replied, “No, sir, it does not. What it does sound like is that someone tried damn hard to make it look like an accident.” Nodding, the General replied, “Those people reported suspicions regarding the nuclear issue. Given that, the contents of their GPS, and your findings, I’m declaring that this case has top priority due to the national security implications. Bring in everyone you need and run down everything, no matter how trivial it might appear. I’ll take two investigators and go pay that band and their manager a visit. Incidentally, you can forget anything I told you about their GPS; due to the national security implications, that’s compartmentalized information, need-to-know only.” Snatching up a base phone, General Bradson considered his options. He didn’t want to talk over an open line, so getting to the ranch outside Telluride as fast as possible was his goal. His decision made, he dialed flight operations. “Get an Osprey spun up and rustle me up a flight crew. I’ll be leaving in ten minutes with two passengers.” For once, the members of Instinct, still reeling from the incident on their plane and worried about Günter’s disappearance, didn’t feel like partying. Returning to their house for dinner, they all gathered out back while Eric grilled the steaks, foil-wrapped corn on the cob, and potatoes that were to be their dinner. Brandon looked on, and Chase noticed the look of apprehension on his face. “Relax, Brand. This isn’t like the pancakes. Eric does pretty well with a barbecue.” Helen laughed. “Pretty boy has a point. I value my stomach too much to take any risks, and even I don’t mind Eric’s barbecues.” “I’m standing right here; thank you very much,” Eric replied with a laugh of his own, which sounded flat and forced, even to his own ears. Sinking his teeth into a flatiron steak twenty minutes later, Brandon had to agree; Eric did just fine with a barbecue. As they finished up their meal, Brandon asked Chase, “Your laptop will work over a cellular phone connection, won’t it?” Chase shook his head; his laptop was able to connect to the Internet WiFi, but he had no idea how to connect it to a cell phone. Jon, sitting across from Brandon and Chase, said, “Mine will, it’s behind the sofa in my backpack. Got any ideas?” As he retrieved the laptop, Brandon replied, “I just wanted to see what we can find. The TV news blows chunks; they don’t say much but they keep saying it over and over. I also wanted to find a map.” After plugging the laptop into his cell phone and using it to connect to the Internet, Brandon began browsing news sites. One of the first things he looked at were the fallout maps; he shuddered as he said, “The Bunyip Beach Resort is in the fallout zone. I hope they got out okay.” Eric took a seat on the floor beside the coffee table and asked, “Do they know how long it will be before it’s safe to go back into those areas?” Brandon turned the laptop and eased it across the coffee table towards Eric. “It’s the top story; they say the bomb was built to enhance the fallout and the fallout is long-lived. They’re saying fifty years.” Eric looked, skimming the article, with a sad look on his handsome face. “Yeah, they’re saying that, and that they still don’t have a reason why somebody would set off a nuke in Australia. It’s no accident, they’re sure of that much,” Eric said, as he browsed the long list of articles about the nuking of Toowoomba. Brandon scooted around the table to look over Eric’s shoulder, as Eric browsed the stories. Many had pictures of the devastation. The news of the nuclear blackmail had yet to break; due to the risk of a panic, the government was keeping the tightest of lids in that situation. The rumors of a high military alert were easily explained away as a reaction to the nuclear event. The Scar had volunteered the locations of two of his dummy bombs so far; one in Salt Lake City and the other in Chicago. As a result, it had been assumed that the real bombs were likely already in place. As a direct result, the alert level had been reduced to DEFCON 3. The other result was a frantic ongoing search of every self-storage unit in or near a major city. The traces of chemicals the FBI had detected on the bombcases had resulted in an investigation of every pool-chemical supply house, store, and contractor. The Scar’s plan had succeeded in that respect as well; he’d given the Feds something to do. With the enormous number of places and people to be investigated, they would be busy for weeks. “Look at that,” Jon said with a shudder as he pointed at an aerial photo of what had once been Toowoomba. “That crater is right where we tracked Jerry to. The news reports say it was some kind of industrial park.” They continued to read and search, until Eric selected an article on how a bomb could have been built. It listed many of the components, and had photos of everything from plutonium to neutron generators. Eric scrolled down the page, only to be startled as Brandon shouted, “Stop! Scroll back up a few pictures.” Shouldering in to look at the screen, Brandon stared at the photos for a moment, his eyes opening wide as he pointed to one and said, “Click on it to make it bigger.” Eric did, and the screen slowly filled with a larger photo, containing what looked like dark little glass starfish. Brandon pointed at the caption at the bottom of the photo and said, in a shocked whisper, “It says those are Kryton switches, used in nuclear bombs.” Brandon slumped back against the sofa, shaking his head in disbelief. Eric asked, “I don’t get it, what’s bugging you about those?” While still staring at the screen, Brandon spoke in a low, flat voice, “When I fixed that scooter Jerry lent you… there was this circuit board with row after row of weird looking things on it. I thought they were some new kind of capacitor or integrated circuit.” Brandon pointed at the screen. “They looked just like those things. It says they are used only in bombs, or physics experiments. Holy fucking shit… Jerry is involved and he smuggled those damn things into Australia inside that scooter.” A single look at Brandon’s stunned face was enough to make Chase yell, “Helen!” Helen walked out of her bedroom, closing her phone. Jon, Eric, and Chase all began talking excitedly at once, and Helen waved her arms to make them stop. It was Brandon who caught her eye, staring at the laptop screen, looking as though he’d seen a ghost. Bending to look over his shoulder, she asked softly, “What is it hon?” Extending a now-trembling hand to point at the screen, Brandon said, “Those things… they were in Eric’s scooter.” A confused discussion followed, and Helen learned how Brandon had seen the switches, and what they were. Her eyes narrowing, Helen said, “That would explain why he was so protective of that damned thing. He’s involved in what happened, sure as hell. I’ll try calling the Air Force again, and then I’ll try the FBI. Somebody has got to look into this.” Helen reached for her phone, but it began to ring. In Los Angeles, a tired police officer began filling in a report. There had yet to be any identification of the body, but something nagged at the back of his mind. Taking a sip of coffee, he recalled one of the ‘missing persons’ reports that had crossed his desk earlier that day. Taking a fresh look, he discovered that the description matched. The next step was by the book. Using the phone number on the report, he called Barbra. Barbra arrived at the coroner’s offices within the hour. As she walked toward the entrance, she was desperately hoping that it was all a mistake but somehow suspecting that it wasn’t. The police officer met her at the door, and together they walked back into the building, through austere hallways that seemed to reverberate with the chill specter of Death. Entering a cold and silent room, one suffused with the nauseating scent of formaldehyde. A technician in a lab coat approached them and without a word, escorted them to a sheet-covered body. With an unconcerned air, the technician pulled the sheet from the body’s face, and Barbra gasped in shock. “That’s Günter,” she said in a whisper which seemed far too loud for the surroundings. The police officer led her to a nearby office. He began taking a detailed statement, and made note of Barbra’s fervent claims that Günter’s murder had to be connected to what she claimed was a bombing of a private jet. Barbra’s further claims that this was somehow tied in with the nuclear bombing of Toowoomba made the officer inclined to dismiss the wild story as delusion, but he decided that it couldn’t hurt to follow up. He knew all too well that stranger things had proven true. For the next half hour, he took detailed notes as he asked question after question. Once the interview was over, a badly shaken Barbra waited until she left the building to call Helen. “Hon, I have some terrible news…” Listening to Barbra, Helen slumped in shock, sitting down hard on the couch, feeling a mix of anger and grief. Looking at the members of Instinct, she was about to relay the awful news about Günter when her call-waiting beeped. Seeing that it was Jim, she clicked over and answered the new call. After a few seconds, she left the phone open but said loudly to the members of Instinct, “Get the shotguns; we’ve got company coming from the north side. Jim said to leave the lights on so we don’t tip the intruder off that we know they’re out there.” The guns, stored in a small coat closet off the living room, were retrieved within seconds. Looking around the room, Helen said, “Let’s all hunker down in the kitchen. We’ve got a good field of fire from there. We can cover the doors and windows.” Once everyone was in place, Helen spared the time to say, “Jim said his lookouts spotted at least one guy coming over the north fields, staying low, and they think he’s armed. Jim warned me that he’d send twenty guys over on foot and they’re going to take positions around the house, so don’t shoot just because you see someone outside.” Listening into her phone, Helen repeated Jim’s update, “The guys with the starlight scope say the first bikers should be arriving right about now. The intruder is still a hundred yards away, but he is armed. That’s no paparazzi. They think they spotted a second man, but aren’t sure. Twenty more bikers are getting ready to ride out; they’ll handle the road in case our intruders try to retreat.” A few tense moments of silence followed. Jon, his voiced lowered needlessly to a whisper, said, “I’m sure glad those guys are keeping an eye out for us. Maybe we should go outside and give ‘em a hand.” “No, Jim said to stay put, and that’s what we’ll do. Let them handle it,” Helen said softly, but in a tone of voice that made clear that she would brook no arguments on the issue. Still listening on the phone, she added, “Fifty yards, closing in fast, any second now.” The voice of one of the biker’s boomed out, “Throw down your weapon if you want to live,” and all hell broke loose. The staccato chatter of an AK-47 ripped the night air and the members of Instinct crouched lower as a few slugs punched through a kitchen window. Half a second later, the guns of twenty bikers fired in reply, sundering the night air with a sustained roar from their collection of handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Gun flashes lit the windows, but the AK-47 did not fire again. No further slugs hit the house. The fusillade died down, its noise replaced by that of twenty Harleys roaring north on the road, part of the planned flanking maneuver. A strange silence descended, and Helen listened on her phone. The only news she had to relay was, “Jim said to stay put, it’s kinda tense out there.” Feeling cornered, staying put was far from an easy task. The seconds passed, seeming like hours. Jim’s voice came back on the line to say, “I’m heading over now.” Minutes later, a normal-sounding knock on the front door made everyone jump. Helen assured them, “Jim says it’s him, but cover me just in case.” Shotgun at the ready, and backed by four more, Helen opened the door and Jim strolled in, his own rifle slung on his shoulder. “The guys are sweeping through the fields to the north, and the crew from the road is heading west. I’ve got ten guys around the house, and we only saw the one guy for sure. According to Brody, the intruder stood up to fire and made himself a perfect target.” “Anyone on our side hurt?” Helen asked. Jim nodded, “One guy took a slug in the arm, but it looks like a flesh wound, a deep graze. That gun the intruder had was full-auto, and several of the guys say it sounded like an AK-47. Full-auto is illegal, so he was carrying some serious hardware; this wasn’t some guy out deer hunting.” Answering his ringing phone, Jim listened before relaying the good news, “The intruder won’t be bothering us anymore. He’s Swiss cheese. They said there’s no ID on the body. If y’all ask me, this looks like an attempted hit.” “Was there just the one?” Brandon asked. Jim shrugged. “Can’t be sure. The guys on the spotter scope said they might have seen a second one, further back and to the left, but they only caught a glimpse, nothing since. My guys are out sweeping the area now.” “Should we call the police?” Helen asked. After thinking it over for a few moments, Jim sighed resignedly before answering, “I guess we have to, now that there’s a dead guy out there. My guys won’t be happy about it though; Johnny Law doesn’t like us much.” Helen made the call. In half an hour, a sheriff’s department SUV with two deputies rolled up, parking near the front door. The first thing the deputies noticed was the throng of armed bikers hanging around. Then they were led to the bullet-riddled body. © 2008 C James Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!" Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me. A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice, and to Captain Rick for Beta-reading and advice. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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