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Missing Goods (2003)

Missing Goods (2003)

©2003, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2003). Missing goods. Unpublished novel.

This novel is a sequel to my earlier Hot Stuff. Yes, nuclear weapons are really moved on U.S. highways.




Read Hot Stuff


Missing Goods

A Novel by Dallas Denny

Chapter 1

Chapter 1


A lifetime of intelligence work has turned me into a strange and secretive creature. My habits are born of mistrust and paranoia and fear of my fellow man. They cause me to behave in strange ways— ways I sometimes don’t understand. I’ve learned to listen to my instincts, for the’ve served me in good stead; I’m still alive.

\That brisk morning in November in the south end of the Blue Ridge, I just didn’t feel right about my back trail. I was hiking the Raven Cliff Falls Trail in the mountains of North Georgia, seeking serenity and relaxation after a mission which had led to a less-than-healthy dose of ionizing radiation. I was recuperating, officially on leave, which means little in my line of work, where memories are long and revenge is officially sanctioned and regret is a word never spoken, and where vacations are a good cover for subversive activity. I had no more reason than usual to be worried, but something was making me jumpy.

Well, perhaps I did have some reason for concern. C.J. Wood is the director of the agency which employs me. When he had learned I was planning to head for the mountains, he had phoned me and casually suggested I might hike this particular trail at this particular time. “I’ve heard it’s very scenic,” he had said. “And quite solitary. I doubt you’ll see a single soul this time of year. I think you’ll find it restful. It would be nice if you would leave the parking area at the trail head at exactly eight on Saturday morning.”

In his oblique way, Wood was ordering me to hike the trail. He was also ordering me to leave my weapons behind. At least, I took it I was supposed to be bait and should therefore be unarmed, although Wood swore afterwards that wasn’t his intention. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what he wants. And so here I was, trudging through the rhododendron, armed only with a creepy feeling. My exhalations made little white clouds in the crisp morning air.

Frost had come late that year, and many of the leaves were still on the trees. It had been a dry fall, so the colors weren’t the brilliant hues that bring out the sightseers and tourists, but muted oranges and yellows and browns, much like the season’s fashion colors. There was even still some green. The path, well-kept and marked, wound up the hollow, paralleling Raven Creek, which burbled pleasantly on my left, punctuated every mile or so by a cascade or small waterfall. The path underfoot was muddy in spots, but easily negotiated. Ordinarily, it would have been a relaxing walk, but something untoward was afoot. Not liking the tense feeling in the back of my neck, I picked up my pace until I was practically trotting.

I finally reached the trail terminus at the fourth and largest waterfall, which clefts an immense granite outcropping. It was a grand view, but I wasted no time looking. I hardscrabbled up the steep and well-worn slope to the right of the falls, making my way to the top, holding onto convenient roots and protruding rocks. When I reached the crest, I was careful not to silhouette myself against the sky. I dropped to my hands and knees and spidered my way across the flat slab to the cliff’s edge, getting my hands and feet wet as I crossed the stream. Soon I was lying on my belly on the cold rock, peering through a vertical fissure in the cliff face, looking back the way I had come. I was still feeling a sense of impending doom.

I had brought along a small pair of Bushnell zoom binoculars and not much else except a canteen, a compass, and a pocket full of munchies. I took the glasses out with hands that were half numb from the dousing, wiped the lenses with a sleeve, and searched the hillside below me. I was wearing a liner in my field jacket, but the temperature, even at midday, was in the thirties, and the rock was sucking the heat out of me like a cold waterbed.

My man was good in the woods; I didn’t spot him until he walked around a tree on the slope just below me. One moment I saw nothing, and the next he was there, more than six feet of him, by all appearances. He was dressed in camo fatigues, his hands and face darkened with what he probably wouldn’t want to admit was makeup. He looked like someone I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley— or anywhere else, considering he was armed with what seemed to be an assault rifle. He moved like a ghost, climbing onto a large tilting flat rock and taking up his position close to the base of the cliff, almost directly below me. It was a good choice, since it let him cover the path coming from the trailhead and gave him a clean line of fire at anyone climbing down the steep grade to the right of the cliff. An overhang sheltered him from view from the top of the cliff; I was able to see him only because of my vantage point at the fissure.

He settled into a prone position, his elbows askew in a marksman’s stance, and chambered his weapon. Hoping he wouldn’t look up, I turned the field glasses on him and badly invaded his right to privacy.

He was nursing an M-16, which of course is the infantryman’s joy and the infantryman’s curse, or the civilian equivalent, an AR-15. It wasn’t the best choice for long-distance sniping, but I wasn’t about to go down there and argue with him about it. There was a Marine Corps tattoo on his left wrist, Semper Fidelis, motherfucker. I sure hoped it wasn’t the USMC which had sent him up here to take potshots at me. He was wearing what looked to be government-issue fatigues, camouflage issue. His paint-darkened face was turned away, but even through his clothing it was clear his shoulders were broad and well-muscled. I didn’t need an introduction to know he was a man who meant business.

There are white-tailed deer, black bears, and boar in those hills, but he wasn’t here for hunting, even if it had been in season and he hadn’t been in a wildlife refuge. There was only one prey he could be stalking— one or another of the arrogant creatures responsible for wars and acid rain and cockfights and global warming. I was pretty sure sure I knew which one. His location perfectly covered the route I had just taken, and he looked as if he were prepared to remain there all day, or until hell froze over, if necessary, waiting for me to come back down. Thank goodness, I thought, he seemed unfamiliar with the terrain, and so was presumably unaware that I was looking down at him.

He lay about seventy-five feet below me, close-by the cliff, stuck like a leech on his rock, which jutted like an errant tooth from the otherwise sheer cliff. He was almost directly below me.

I wasn’t going to go down and ask him his intentions; I was pretty sure I knew what his plans were, at least as far as I was concerned. Damn C.J. anyway, for sending me up here without a weapon! I considered sneaking further up the hill and circling around, coming into the trail about a mile below him and heading helter-skelter for my borrowed car. I quickly discarded the notion. He was too damn good in the woods, and besides, he would probably have a buddy somewhere along the back trail. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day wondering when I would get a round in the back. I was developing another notion.

If the idea worked, he wouldn’t be shooting at anyone ever again. And if it didn’t— well, maybe I could outrun the .223 caliber bullets he would be throwing at me.

If he had been here before, he would have realized the cliff isn’t a solid piece of rock, and would have stationed himself somewhere else, so he couldn’t be seen from above. As it was, he had put himself seventy-five feet below me on a high-gravity planet. Good. It was my only advantage.

The environment is just a weapon waiting to happen. I cast about until I found a big flat rock. Improbably, it was an oblong chunk of limestone, gray and bumpy, with fossils, little shells, visible on the upper side. I wondered vaguely how it had come to be on top of a granite cliff. It was perhaps eighteen inches long and eighteen wide, and about three inches thick. Cold to the touch. I estimated its weight at 95 pounds. Oof! More like 125. Having found it and hefted it, I left it where it lay and moved, keeping low, until I could again see the rifleman. I lay there for a long time, warming my hands in my armpits and thinking about trajectories and acceleration and examining the geography, all the while trying to spot his teammates, if he had any. He rested there as if he had all the time in the world, and perhaps he did. I saw no sign of anyone else.

Finally, I crawled over and picked up my rock and lugged it to the cliff’s edge, being careful not to let it scrape against the larger rock. I placed it at the spot I had calculated to be directly above him, then lay there, willing my pulse and respiration to slow. When I was as calm as I thought I was likely to get, I leaned out over the edge of the cliff. There he was. I pulled back, made a slow count to ten, then came to my knees, put my fingers under the rock, and hoisted it above my head. It was heavy enough that my arms were shaking, and I knew I had at best a few seconds before the rock came down, with or without my permission. I duckwalked to the very edge and let the rock start on its downward journey, guiding it with a hand on either wide.

The weight of the rock pulled me forward, as I had known it would. As it cleared the jutting edge of the cliff, I gave the rock a hard backwards push, hoping I had calculated position and trajectory correctly, and praying I was not about two seconds from being at the bottom of the cliff myself.

I’ve killed before. There’s always that brief moment, after you’ve pulled the trigger— or dropped the rock, as the case may be— when you know you’ve done something that can’t be undone. The first caveman felt that way, and the last spaceman will feel that way. You see the blood spatter and think, like a guilty schoolboy, “I’m in for it now,” like you did when you broke your mother’s lamp when you were a child. As the rock started to go I had one of those moments. I resisted an insane impulse to follow it down.

Instead, I flung my arms frantically down and backwards and managed to get a tenacious hold on the face of the cliff with my right hand, and then the left, stopping my forward motion. Most of my body was over the cliff, and for a long moment I thought I was a goner. As I struggled to push myself backwards and upwards, I could see the rock dropping towards the man below.

I had to give it to that hunk of limestone. It went straight down, plumb-level, spinning slowly, like a lazy Frisbee, gaining speed like a runaway elevator. It felt almost as if I were on it, guiding it as it plummeted. I thought the man below was starting to look upwards, but before I could be sure I began to win the battle against gravity and he was out of my field of vision.

I lay on the cliff’s edge for long seconds, thankful to be alive, if only for the moment. When I crawled over to the fissure to take a quick look, I wasn’t greeted with a bullet, which was a good sign. The sniper’s position hadn’t changed. He was lying prone, in his original position, the M-16 now pointed at nothing in particular. My rock was lying on his back, high up, between his shoulders, as if it had been gently set in place.

I used the binoculars for a closer look. They didn’t help much, for his face was turned away. If he was as dead as I supposed and hoped he was, I told myself, I would wait a long time for him to move.

But I didn’t want to wait a long time; someone might start wondering what the hell had gone wrong and come looking for him, and maybe there wasn’t a rock up here with anyone else’s name on it. With the woods full of people wanting to do away with me, I needed his weapon.

I found two or three fist-sized stones and leaned forward and lobbed them at what I was sincerely hoping was a dead body. One struck his leg a glancing blow. He didn’t flinch. Well, if he was that damned good, he would have me anyway. I took a moment to search the forest below with the glasses. Nothing. Making my way back the way I had come, I scrambled down the root-and-rock ladder like the very nervous and scared primate I was.

He was very dead, and the rock showed signs of ill-use. I picked it up. It was still heavy. It was crisscrossed with cracks, looking like a road map of Kansas, although it remained in one piece. It must have broken his back, crushing his spinal column high up. A corner had caved in the back of his skull, and I could see the white of the bone and the red and gray of his cerebellum. Thank God for spy-school anatomy. Not just his brains. His cerebellum. It would look good in my report, if I wrote reports. I don’t, of course.

I threw the big stone to the side. It made a dull thud as it landed in the leaves, separating into three pieces of approximately equal size. Kansas after the revolution.

I flipped him onto his back. He looked to be about 25 years old, full of boyish good looks. He wasn’t anyone I had ever seen before. I checked his pockets. Nada. There was no tag on his shirt and nothing in his pockets but a candy wrapper, a military-issue compass, a topographical map of the area, two spare clips for the M-16, and a canteen full of water. I put the map and clips in the big bottom pockets of my field jacket.

The massive rock had crushed the end of the M-16’s stock, but the weapon seemed operational. I made sure the clip was full and there was a round in the chamber, then set it back down.

I jumped from his rock to the ground and tugged on the body, easing it onto my shoulders. Lugging it to a large fir, I set it down and propped it against the trunk, its back toward the trail. I went back for the M-16.

Whoever the dead man’s friends were, they would be expecting a shot. I walked over to the body, clicked off the safety, and fired a round into the ground. Then I retreated into a rhododendron thicket and waited to see what his friends would do.

Fifteen minutes passed, and the fight-or-flight feeling in my belly started to subside. When my adrenaline level was close to normal, I took a handful of apricots and almonds from a plastic bag in my pocket and slowly chewed them, otherwise keeping still in my hiding place.

About an hour later, I saw movement downhill. A heavyset man with city shoes was working his way up the hill. He had some sort of long-barreled pistol in his hand. He wasn’t armed for the terrain and he wasn’t dressed for the cold weather or for the wilderness. He wore only a thin suit coat over his city shirt and pants, and his shoes appeared to have once been black oxfords. Now they were covered with mud and leaves. He wasn’t in good physical shape, either. He was red-faced and sweating. He wasn’t a young man; through the binoculars, I could see that his hair was gray. The pistol he carried had a small bore and seemed to be fitted with a silencer; it was probably a .22.

It took him about ten minutes to get to the trail terminus. He stood stock-still when he saw the body. He had walked up to it, Mr. Pistol at ready, and was standing there looking at it when I revealed myself.

“Hello, C.J.”

C.J. Wood is my superior, the head of GB-12, the government agency which provides me with a paycheck. He turned towards me.

“Good morning, Damon.”

Damon isn’t my real name, just my agency name. But we both knew who he was addressing. “Morning, sir. Fancy meeting you up here.”

He nodded toward the dead body. “Is this your doing?”

It was an invitation to say something smart, but I resisted the impulse. “I’m afraid so, sir. Do you know him?”

He shook his head. “No, not offhand, although it wouldn’t surprise me if he were in our files.”

“Have you seen signs of anyone else?” Not that he would have, the way he had come up the mountain. He was a bull in the woods.

He looked at me strangely. “Yes. Back down the trail.”

C.J. was all done in after his trek uphill. “Sir, if I may ask, what in hell are you doing up here in this weather? In those clothes?”

He looked embarrassed. “I’m afraid I brought no, uh, clothing suitable for the outdoors. I have a trench coat in the car, but it would have been a nuisance in this country.”

“Why didn’t you just wait in the car and send Max up here?” Max is C.J.’s understudy. He pretends to be even more of a city person than C.J., although I know from experience he’s silent death in the woods. He’s younger and in better shape than C.J. And he’s always around when C.J. needs him.

“Max was supposed to be here to back you up, but I’m afraid he’s in a hospital in Atlanta. Last night, an attempt was made on his life. He disabled his attackers, but not before one of them managed to stab him.”

“That’s damn careless of him. How is he?” That’s me, full of concern.

“Oh, he’s young and healthy. He’ll survive, I expect. Now if you wouldn’t mind, I’m cold and a bit shaken up. I’d like to get off this mountain.”

“What do you want me to do with this?” I asked, touching the dead man with the toe of my boot.

“We’ll cache the body until I can get someone up here to take care of it. By the way, how did you kill him?”

I told him.

“Well, that’s one for the record books,” he said. “Drag him up there and cover him up with branches and leaves.” He pointed up the hill.

“Not that way,” I said. People go that way on their way up the falls, and they’ll see him. I know a better place, and it’s not far. Help me get him on my shoulders, and then wait here for me.”

Thirty minutes later, I was back. “I wedged him in a crack between some rocks,” I told him. “Covered him with leaves and rolled a fallen tree over the lot. I doubt if anyone will find him before he starts smelling.”

“Let’s go, then,” said C.J. “There’s a lot to discuss.”

We made our way back downhill, with me in the lead, carrying the carbine. He followed about three hundred yards behind me. I was wearing the dead man’s hat and coat, in hopes his friends, if any, would mistake me for him. While they were figuring out I wasn’t the dead man, C.J. would be busy shooting them with his little pistol, if I couldn’t manage to get them first. That’s how it went in theory, anyway.

About halfway down the trail, C.J. turned abruptly to the left. I walked back uphill, then followed twenty yards through the trees, to a huddled brown mass. It was another body, that of a young man with sandy hair in jeans and Vibram-soled hiking boots.

“Know him?” C.J. asked. He tried to make his voice nonchalant, but he couldn’t keep a waver out of it. He wasn’t used to field work.

“No,” I said.

“He was the dead man’s companion. I was here before them, hiding in those funny bushes with the green leaves.”

“Rhododendron,” I told him.

“Whatever. After they went past my hiding place I followed them until they separated. I waited until the man with the rifle went around a bend in the trail, and then I used this. It makes very little noise.”

“I’m impressed,” I said. I was talking about his actions, and not the pistol.

He ignored my comment. “Not that a .22 makes much noise, in any case. Anyway, I dragged him over here and went after his companion. I wanted to get close enough to be sure of my shot. Considering the way he was armed, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss, even with a silencer. But the hill was just too steep. I wasn’t able to catch up with him. I saw him only once, quite a ways ahead. Damn him, I don’t even think he was winded. Finally I took a couple of shots anyway, from a couple of hundred yards behind him. I figured what the hell, I might get lucky, and if I didn’t he probably wouldn’t hear the bullets if they came close. But I was out of breath, and my hand was unsteady, and the range was too far. I missed badly. I’m sure I didn’t even come close. I went up the trail as fast as I could, but I had to keep stopping to catch my breath. I was feeling bad about letting you down.”

“Well, it’s all academic now,” I said dryly.

“I didn’t have time to search the dead man,” Mac said.

I was already bending over the body and going through the pockets of his coat. I felt something hard inside. “Look at this,” I said, holding up a little Mac-10 machine pistol. “This thing will spew .45-caliber bullets like a garden hose.” In another pocket I found a spare clip and an Avis key ring with two keys on it, but further search turned up nothing else. I picked the the man up and carried him deeper into the woods. C.J. looked on while I covered him with leaves and fallen limbs.

Back on the trail, we passed a group of hikers, two men and a young woman, coming up the mountain. With their high backpacks, it looked as if they were prepared to camp overnight. They were taking their time, enjoying the scenery. I knew they would be coming back down the mountain, and probably a lot faster, if they happened to find either of the dead men. They looked quizzically at C.J. in his city clothes, grinned at me until they saw the M-16, and kept on walking. “Yeah, these two dudes were coming down the trail. One was thin, real mean looking, wearing a field jacket and hiking boots. He was carrying a rifle. The other guy was like heavyset, and had on like a business suit. In the woods, man. A white shirt with suspenders. Totally out of place. We think the younger guy was going to whack the older guy, but maybe he changed his mind, ’cause they were headed out, back to the parking lot.”

At the parking area we found, in addition to my car and C.J.’s, only two others, a pickup and a Jeep Wagoneer with rental plates. I put a hand on the hood of the truck. It was warm, meaning it was the vehicle of the hikers we had just passed. The Jeep had cooled. It had rental plates.

The keys I had confiscated fit the Jeep. I searched it, but found only a few Eve cigarette butts in the ashtray. The rental papers were in the glove compartment. The renter was one H.A. Smith, who, we later found out, didn’t have a social security number or a driver’s license in any of the 50 states. There were no wallets or other identifying information in the vehicle.

By the time I had decided there was nothing to see, C.J. had his rental, a Lincoln Town Car, warmed up. I looked sadly at the borrowed Mazda Miata that had driven me there, then opened the trunk— but not before I got on my hands and knees and inspected it from underneath. I decided it hadn’t been tampered with. I retrieved my pistol from the trunk and laid it and the Mac-10 on the back seat of the Lincoln. I took off the backpack I had been carrying all morning and covered the guns with it and my field jacket, then got in the front passenger seat.

On the way back to Atlanta, C.J. told me what it was all about.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3


“There’s something else,” C.J. said.

There always is, I thought to myself, but I didn’t reply. We rode in silence for two or three miles— a long time at C.J.’s sub-subsonic driving speed. Finally, he said, “Yesterday morning, I was in Washington, D.C., in my office. A cleaning woman— and she was actually a government employee; we checked— burst into my office. She sprayed it thoroughly with fire from a machine pistol, in fact, very much like the one in the back seat. If there hadn’t been a metal shield built into my desk, if I hadn’t ducked in time, if two armed agents hadn’t happened to be sitting in the office with me, I would be as dead as someone obviously wishes me to be. As it is, three of our people were killed— the receptionist at the front desk, who wasn’t able to get to the pistol in her top desk drawer, and both of the agents in my office. One managed to empty his clip into the cleaning woman, even though he was riddled with bullets. That’s why I’m sitting here now.” He kept his eyes on the road.

“Which agents?” I asked.

“Carol Carmichael on the front desk. In the office, Michael Kusar and Eric Van Sant,” he said, still looking forward. There were tears n his eyes.

I knew Kusar well enough to speak, but Van Sant— dear God! I was the one responsible for bringing him into the organization. The guilt hit me hard, like a hammer.

“I know what you’re thinking,” C.J. said. “Don’t. It was Van Sant who took her out. He was hit five times, all in the torso. He should have been dead instantaneously, but he got out his piece and aimed it where he should have, pulled the trigger until the gun stopped firing, and only then allowed himself to stop breathing. He died doing his duty. He knew what the risks were. He was happy to be with us. You have no responsibility. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

I was trying not to blame myself, but it wasn’t easy. I was remembering Van Sant, a red-haired bear of a man, and his daughter Leslie, a pretty blonde cherub who had just turned five. Her father had put me in her bed once when I was in dire need of sleep, and she had been as gracious about it as a five-year-old was able to be. “What’s to become of Leslie?” I asked. Van Sant had just been given sole custody, after her mother married a man with four children of his own.

“Valerie Van Sant, now Sanderson, was notified. She was to fly into Memphis last night to pick the child up. I’m sure she did so. She said she had been having some regrets about giving up custody. She was shaken by Eric’s death, but she should be all right, with a husband to provide emotional support and the children to care for.” He sighed. “It’s a hard world, Damon.”

“Yes, sir,” I said glumly. “Harder for some of us than for others. I’m proud of Eric.” And I was. One of our unspoken rules is to go if you have to, but to be sure to take as many of the bastards along with you as possible. “I guess I should be used to losing people by now, but it never seems to get any easier.” Actually, it was getting easier, and that’s what was scaring me. I supposed I should talk it over with the shrinks, but I was afraid they might nod sagely and tell me it was normal to become calloused. I hoped not. I didn’t want to be callous about death. I wanted to look it square in the eye and spit in its face.

C.J. said, “I got busy after the attack. I put GB-12 on alert. The computer people found out something interesting. A quick and quite illegal search of the computer files of one of our sister agencies revealed something called Operation Xclusion. It was very hush-hush, of course, so we weren’t able to find out much, but it’s ostensibly a study of the feasibility of disrupting a hypothetical country by a series of assassinations. An e-mail we intercepted suggested that we— GB-12, that is— is that theoretical country. We were able to determine that our line agents had been listed as primary targets.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”

“And you, as the Director?”

“Especially me. The attempt on my life was to come first, so I wouldn’t be forewarned. Then it was to be open season, with attacks on our agents to occur as soon as possible, before they could be notified of the danger. We notified our agents, of course, although it was too late for some of them. You were the only agent in the field who didn’t get a message to get to a safe place and call in.”

“Because you wanted me to make myself available to be hit,” I said.

“It had to be one of our best people. GB-12 is in danger until we can find out who’s behind this and stop them. We need to track this from the bottom up, to capture an assassination team. And so I phoned you yesterday afternoon and instructed you where to be and when to leave— but not until after I had called Max and told him to be on the trail before daylight so he could intercept whoever came after you. Max was to select a suitable backup. He did. Both he and the backup were waylaid. Max survived. The other agent didn’t.”

Oh, no,” I said. “Not another one. Who?”

“Shirley Bradshaw.”

Bradshaw was a cute and shapely brunette who had once tried to take me to bed, not without success. She had a reputation for being careless. Not careless as you would ordinarily think about careless, you understand. Secret agent careless. You know, thinking an ice cream cone was really an ice cream cone and that the smiling man she had met in the park was genuinely interested in her. I had accused her once of being too trusting.

“What happened?” I asked.

She was garrotted as she left her apartment building. She managed to get her knife out and drive it into the thigh of her attacker. His femoral artery was severed. He died, but so did she, of asphixiation. Her windpipe had collapsed.”

Well, another agent that died hard. But she was dead, nevertheless, as was Eric Van Sant, a man I had called friend, and Michael Kusar, a man I hardly knew but who had a reputation for being a good man in a tight spot. One of these days, I knew, it would be me. But hopefully not yet. Not today. And hopefully not without going down fighting, like Van Sant and Bradshaw.

C.J. was speaking again. “I don’t yet know how bad it is, but it’s bad. We’ve heard from only a few of our agents.

“As you might imagine, with our agents scrambled and underground, and with you out of communication, there was no one I could send to track your trackers. Fortunately, I was in Atlanta myself. After I spoke with you on the phone, I requisitioned a helicopter and crew— you should have heard the National Guard squawk, but they gave it to me— and flew down here as much to be away from D.C., where I could be more easily assassinated, as to be in Atlanta for the interrogation. I arrived yesterday afternoon and took a room downtown at the Hilton. When Max didn’t check in on schedule and I couldn’t reach him or his backup, I knew that meant you would be in the woods alone. It was no longer a question of capturing an assassination team, although that would have been nice.” He looked at me and I felt as if I had been remiss by being discourteous to drop such a large rock on my would-be assassin as to kill him rather than knock him temporarily and conveniently unconscious. “The priority became, of course, to capture, or, if necessary, kill the assassination team that had been assigned to you. We knew it would be two men, for that was the pattern with our other agents. I was the only one with a single assassin, no doubt because of the tight security at headquarters.” He looked at me over the top of his bifocals. “And of course, I hoped to find you and warn you of the danger. And so, I called the chopper pilot, who I had told to stick around. He didn’t want to fly me in to the trail head in the fog before daybreak, and it would have been impossible for him to land me in Gainesville without the police becoming interested— there would have been no car available, anyway— so I decided to drive up from Atlanta. There was time, just.”

“How in the world did you manage to rent a car in the middle of the night? Oh, no,” I said. “You didn’t.” I snuck a look at the Lincoln’s steering column. Keys were in it.

“No, I didn’t steal it. The car agencies in the city were all closed, but I took a cab to the airport in the wee hours and rented it and drove straight here. But returning to Max. The men who jumped him appeared at first to be common— crack addicts with long histories of petty offenses. But when we checked, we found they have loose ties with the CIA.”

“Loose ties,” I murmured in a Homer Simpson voice, visualizing Groucho Marx with his necktie knotted somewhere near his navel and a cigar in his hand and that painted-on moustache and his funny, stooped stance. “Like Lee Harvey Oswald. Jack Ruby. That Hackinthebush fellow who crashed his plane drug smuggling for the CIA in Honduras or somewhere like that.”

“Hassenfuss,” C.J. said. “Yes. Loose ties.”

“Meaning, of course, they’re employees, but the Agency doesn’t want that fact known. It pays them, but can disclaim them when the going gets rough.”

“Yes. Very much like your affiliation with us. I’d be surprised if the men we left up on the mountain didn’t have such ‘loose ties,’ as well. I think all this may be coming from our sister agencies. It’s beginning to worry me.”

It was worrying me, too. For the past ten miles, we had had a tail. It was one of those squat little Japanese-built jobs— you know, the ones that look like they go fast as hell and probably do. Not cutsie, like the Miata, but low and mean. A Nissan, it was. The new ZX.

C.J. had seen me glance in the mirror. “Yes, I know they’re back there,” he said. From somewhere under his seat, he produced a cellular phone. “We should be inside the grid. Let’s make the first move. I’m calling the helicopter.”

He dialed, then spoke into the phone. “Big Bird, this is Oscar.”

Big Bird? I groaned. Oscar? The grouch? Was I on Sesame Street? Then again, C.J. had had little opportunity to think up fancy recognition codes.

“We seem to have picked up an escort. A late-model Nissan, dark blue. Two men in the front seat. Identities are unknown, but I assume their attentions are not honorable. Please leave immediately and fly up the route we discussed earlier until you see us. We’re in a gray Lincoln Town Car.”

He remembered the external speaker and switched it on in time for me to hear, “… and if so, I can have the chopper there in forty-five minutes.”

“Please make it faster,” C.J. said dryly.

There was a good chance the men behind us had a listening device planted in the Lincoln, for they weren’t waiting for the chopper. As soon as the highway was clear in both directions, they made their move. They were coming up on us fast— not hard to do, considering the way C.J. drives— but by then I had pushed my packpack and jacket aside and grabbed the MAC-10 and my little .32 caliber Beretta Tomcat from the back seat and placed them on the front seat between us. C.J.’s right hand lay atop a Ruger P-85 automatic with a 15-shot magazine, a much more powerful piece than the one he had carried up the mountain. His fancy .22 was in an even fancier case in the trunk. We were prepared for them, unless they had a rocket propelled grenade— which was a distinct possibility, as, according to C.J., just such a weapon had been found in the trunk of the car Max’s attackers had been driving. The Atlanta police had been reluctant to surrender such heavy armament to C.J., but his credentials had finally persuaded them. The Chief of Police had probably wanted to give it to his S.W.A.T. team so they’d have it the next time they wanted to take out a suburban father of four who was holding his family hostage, but the RPG was riding merrily in the trunk of the Lincoln.

C.J. was lamenting the fact that it wasn’t available to us now. But at least he had accelerated to about 60 miles an hour. Just before they reached us, he moved his hand slightly on the armrest and both the front and rear windows went down. He said, “Of course, you should switch that MAC-10 to fully automatic fire.”

“Of course,” I said, and swiveled quickly in the seat and leaned across C.J. I stuck the barrel out the window and squeezed off about half the clip at the Nissan, which was had begun to pull abreast. The man who had been leaning out the window slumped over, and the sawed-off shotgun which he had been about to use fell into the roadway, striking sparks as it skidded and bounced. I continued firing, and the grill and headlights exploded into bits of glass and plastic. The driver braked and swerved. He continued to follow, but after a couple of miles the engine seized and the Nissan rolled to a stop in a cloud of smoke and steam.

Our mistake was to stop the Lincoln about a quarter-mile down the road to see what they would do when what we should have done was jitterbug on out of there. A man scrambled out of the car, carrying a long tube which he was raising to his shoulder. “Damn. They do have a rocket launcher,” C.J. said. He went out the driver’s door, and I out the passenger’s, and we rolled into the ditches on our respective sides of the road about the time there came a tremendous boom and the Lincoln disappeared in a big fireball. Something hot and shining streaked by, just feet over my head and there was an explosion in a tree line a couple of hundred yards away.

“Rocket from the trunk,” C.J. called.

“I hope this sort of thing is covered by insurance,” I said under my breath, and jumped up and ran behind a big burning piece of the Lincoln and emptied the clip of the MAC in the direction of the Nissan, firing right through the flames.

The thing about machine guns is that they’re not particularly accurate, but if you fire enough projectiles in the general direction of someone, you’re likely to hit him. The range was long, but by moving the barrel around, I got mister wiseass rocket launcher before he could fire again. He dropped his weapon and forgot about trying to reload and stumbled away into a cow pasture, dragging a leg. Another man had climbed out of the little car and was waving a pistol at the driver of a pickup truck which had just come onto the scene. He got into the truck, holding his weapon to the driver’s neck.

Two or three more cars had stopped behind the truck. Rather than try to turn the truck around or back around the vehicles behind him, the gunman did something foolish; he elected to go past us. I mean, he had his hostage, right? He had seen all the movies. He knew how it would go down. We were the good guys, right? We wouldn’t endanger the life of some poor innocent North Georgia dirt farmer, would we? He would just sail by, and maybe take a potshot at us as he passed, and one day he would tell his grandkids all about how he had outsmarted the federales.

He’d been watching all the wrong shows. I would have done it for C.J., but the MAC was empty, and the extra clip had gone up with the Lincoln. I mean, when someone has an RPG pointed at you, you don’t double-check to make sure you’re not forgetting something before getting the hell out of Dodge— even a little Beretta pistol you’ve had for more than a decade. I was lucky I had managed to hold onto the machine pistol, which now, without cartridges, was a useless hunk of metal and plastic.

So C.J. had to get his hands dirty for the second time that day, even though he’s a bureaucrat and all that. As the truck approached, he raised his big, ugly pistol and fired right through the windshield, hitting the bad guy squarely in the eye.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4


It’s difficult enough explaining to a lantern-jawed state cop why you’re going fifteen miles above the speed limit. Justifying little pieces of Lincoln all over the highway, a rocket launcher lying in the middle of the road, our heavily armed state, a machine-gunned Nissan containing a corpse, and a dead man a pickup truck wasn’t just difficult; it was impossible. The beefy, red-faced trooper didn’t want to hear what C.J. had to say. He didn’t want to look at our official badges, or to do much of anything else except keep me and C.J. and the unfortunate farmer standing with our legs spread and our hands on the top of his car until someone important arrived to make his decisions for him.

C.J.’s National Guard chopper showed up first. It hovered over us like an angry bumblebee, then settled resignedly in a nearby field. C.J.’s pilot and crew were wearing army uniforms, and that was something our man could understand. An olive drab helicopter and an actual officer— hell, it had to be legitimate. He reluctantly let us put our hands down and consented to look at our identification. It had been reminding me more than a little of the scene in Dr. Strangelove in which Peter Sellers tries to convince an Air Force sergeant to shoot a Coke machine so he can get a dime from the change box to use a pay phone so he can call the President to warn him of nuclear armageddon.

It was three or four hours before we had finished with the paperwork and explanations and were told by a state police captain that we could leave. By that time the wreckers had shown up and towed away the Nissan and picked up the larger pieces of the Lincoln and swept the remaining debris into the ditches, and the dead had been carted off in body bags and the crime lab boys and girls had gone over the whole scene with a fine-tooth comb. The driver of the truck, one Owen Mitchell, who was indeed a farmer, had been debriefed— that is, informed it would be his ass if the story ever got out about what had happened— and told he could go, also. He would have had a hell of a tale to tell his wife, if he hadn’t been intimidated into keeping what had happened secret from even her. We hoped we had intimidated him, anyway.

The Georgia Highway Patrol wasn’t happy, but it was satisfied. Troopers were scouring the area for the man who had run away across the fields— or, rather, hobbled away. I doubted they would find him. If he was CIA-trained, he would know better than to report to an area hospital. He would contact his compatriots, if any were left, and if he didn’t, he would take his chances in the woods. If he bled to death, or if gangrene set up and he lost the leg, well, hell, that was just the odds catching up to him. If he was physically able, he would steal or commandeer a car, and if he wasn’t— well, he had known the risks when he took the job, like Hackinthebush.

My Beretta had somehow survived the explosion, but it was a mess. It would need an overhaul, if it was salvageable at all. One of the troopers had been thoughtful enough to put it in a plastic evidence bag. The lantern-jawed sergeant who had had us with our hands on top of the car had argued against me getting it and the machine pistol back, but had been overruled by the nervous-looking lieutenant who make the decisions until the captain had showed up.

Carrying the Baretta and the MAC-10, I grinned at the sergeant and said, “No hard feelings,” and got into the chopper. He glared at me. What had happened may have surpassed his understanding, but he knew he didn’t like me.

If was too noisy to talk. In the thirty minutes or so we were in the air on the way back to Atlanta, I reflected on my career with GB-12, and on the unlikely circumstances which had eventually hooked me up with the intelligence underground. After all, GB-12 is the spy network’s spy network; it’s the stuff of dreams. We exist, and yet we don’t. You know what I mean. C.J. had put me in the frame of mind while we had been standing with our hands on the car. The trooper had snarled at us for talking, but wasn’t quite sure enough that we were bogus to risk busting us upside our heads. “Now I know how you felt during that St. Louis fiasco,” C.J. had said.

“That was worse,” I told him.

“When I recruited you,” he asked, “when I signed you up to make the world safe for democracy, did you ever in your wildest moment think it would be like this?”

“Shaddap,” barked the trooper.

“Not in my wildest dreams,” I told C.J.

Now, in the big double-rotor National Guard copter, skimming low across the fields and forests and the bedroom communities of Roswell and Alpharetta, I thought about a man named Vincenzo Fortuno, and how we had come together by accident, and how his obsession with gang culture and his crack habit, which had led him away from the more restrained tactics of bullying and intimidation of his O.C.— that’s organized crime, to you unfamiliar with the lingo— family and into an out-of-control lifestyle, had led him to assume he could bully and intimidate and even kill me. But he had run into me at a time in my life when I didn’t give a damn about my own welfare or anyone else’s. I remembered how all the cops in the country had been looking for me and my friend Davey when C.J. had ferreted us out and disappeared us and given us new identities and new faces and sent us to his little spy school he maintains near Bisbee, Arizona, and then put us to work. I wondered whether we would have shot it out with the cops when they finally caught up with us or whether we would have just removed the cartridges from our guns and run out into the open to take it like Butch and Sundance in the movie. I rather think the latter.

I was in my mid-twenties at the time, in a doctoral program in political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. My studies had gone all to hell because of Diana.

Diana Ferguson was my girl. No, she was more than that. We had known each other since high school, and had been sleeping together since our senior year. The sex, which had been great at first, had gotten even better with practice. But the companionship had surpassed even the sex. It had become a world-class relationship, and we both knew it. Diana and I were not just in love. We were in it for good with each other; we took it for granted that we would always be together.

Well, that’s what I tell myself, anyway. Maybe, being two humans no less irascible than the rest of the breed, we would have eventually grown apart and fallen out of love and gone our separate ways. But I don’t think so.

We were living in an apartment on Music Row, right on 16th Avenue South, between two record companies— which isn’t that big a deal, the damn things are everywhere— even though they were labels you might recognize, if you have more than a passing familiarity with gospel music, Many of the music publishers operated out of little stucco single-story dwellings. We hadn’t married, mainly because we were both so damn busy that we couldn’t seem to schedule the time off together. I still regret we didn’t make the time. Diana’s parents weren’t too happy about our cohabitation, but they had some idea how much I cared for her, and came to realize later my loss was in some measure as great as theirs.

Diana was working on her masters in Special Education at Peabody, just across the street from Vandy, where I spent my days. We would walk to school together. When she first grew ill and skipped a semester, she would walk to Peabody and meet me on the quad and we would eat at the Hill Cafeteria, which was then and may still be the only place on earth where you can buy both bagels and grits. On nice days we would lie or sit on the grass and read the labels the maintenance people had thoughtfully placed on the trees.

“Osage orange,” she would say. “Then why do they call its fruit hedge apples?” Her hair was long and thick and just a shade lighter than black, but going prematurely gray. Her eyes were liquid brown, like a puppy’s, and I would ask her to marry me, and she would say, “After you graduate.” She was soft all over, like a marshmallow. She would look at me coyly, through thick lashes, and ask if I loved her. As if she needed to. As if she needed to. And then, the headaches.

At first they were infrequent, but they became so persistent she had to drop her classes. Those were the days when she would meet me at the Hill, and they were among the sweetest, for she went to the doctor at the student health center, who told her she was having migraines and prescribed pills for the pain, and we were sure she would be back to normal right away. But the pills didn’t work, and the headaches grew worse, and she was losing her coordination and the sight in her right eye. I finally was able to persuade her to go to Vanderbilt Hospital, which may let you bleed to death, but you will by damn die with the correct diagnosis. They found a tumor deep in her brain, resting against the brain stem. It was malignant and fast-growing, and there was no choice but to remove it. She called her parents and told them the news, and they flew in, ashen-faced.

Diana never woke after surgery. We had known that was the probability, but probability is not certainty. We had something to grasp at, an alternative to death, Maybe in another lifetime she would have wakened afterwards and held her arms out to me and everything would have been just fine. But not in this one. She just lay there, cured of the cancer, but destroyed by the cure, beautiful as ever, with her cropped dark-and-silver hair starting to grow back out. She looked like Sleeping Beauty, and I, no prince, didn’t have a kiss to awaken her.

Over the course of the next months, despite the physical therapy, her limbs had begun to draw up, and she had become shrunken and birdlike. Her parents had fled back to California. I kept going to see her, rubbing her arms and legs and talking to her, even reading to her from P.G. Wodehouse, her favorite, but it was getting more and more difficult to comprehend that the pathetic figure with the short gray hair in the big hospital bed had once been my Diana.

I had tried to go back to my studies, to immerse myself in them, but my mind wasn’t working properly. I was wallowing in self-pity and self-delusion. I was trying to convince myself that she would wake up and smile at me and call my name and despite her contractures, we would run hand-in-hand through the quad to the Osage orange tree. My thought processes were too jumbled for me to make sense of words strung in a logical sequence in a textbook or in a logical sequence in a lecture. My professors, aware of what I had been through, carried me through my courses the first semester, giving me passing grades, but with the understanding that I would take a leave of absence and come back when I was able to work again. I had applied for, and received, an official leave of absence, and then I had gone to the student health center and the doctor who had misdiagnosed Diana had smilingly written me a prescription for antidepressants. I had filled the prescription, but hadn’t been able to bring myself to take the pills. I was spending a lot of time sitting around my apartment, staring at the walls. I wanted to be miserable.

And into what passed for my life at that time stepped, unwanted and undeserved, one Vincenzo Fortuno, known on the street as Boston Bad, or B-Bad. Vinnie’s behavior had been such that his family had found it prudent to ship him off to Nashville to stay with relatives. But Vinnie didn’t like it down South, and rather than laying low until things had cooled down back home, he’d been engaging in the sort of spectacularly inappropriate behavior which had earned him his nickname. He had put together a posse of other white wannabee gangbangers and together they had been engaging in crimes of increasing violence. Even so, what happened made absolutely no sense.

It was late August, hot and sweltering, even at six in the evening. I had left Diana’s room at the hospital and was standing on the corner of 21st Avenue, waiting for the Walk light. The okay beeper had sounded and I had just stepped into the road when Vinnie, in a black SUV ten feet longer and two feet wider than any car has a right to be, plowed through the red light and broadsided a ten-year-old Buick driven by an elderly black man named Davis Brown. Brown told me, as we were waiting for the police, that he had been to the hospital to visit his wife, who had had a stroke from which she was unlikely to recover.

Why Vinnie, who had his home boys in the car with him, was driving instead of riding in the back seat as he should have been beats hell out of me, for he was already in trouble for driving without a license. As I was the only witness, I stuck around, waiting for the patrol car. Vinnie sent one of his bad-boy white goons over to persuade me to leave.

The guy’s name turned out to be Cassanova; for what reason I can’t say. His skin was the color of Vienna sausages and most of his hair had long since left for parts unknown. His head was badly shaved. His teeth weren’t so good, either, and his nose looked as if it had been broken twice and set just once. He was dressed, like Vinnie, in floppy, loose banger jeans and t-shirt. He said, sotto voce, “B-Bad wants you should split.”

I didn’t know yet who B-Bad was, of course, didn’t know he was Vincenzo Fortuna of one of the New Jersey Mafia families; if I had, maybe I would have said “Yes, sir. I’m on my way.” And maybe not. What I did say was, “Be who?” I grinned at him. “I can’t leave. I’m a witness.”

He grinned back at me and said, “Yeah. Thass why you should leave.”

“Oh,” I said, bristling. “I get it. Well, you just tell him I have no intention of going anywhere.” Remember: I had just seen Diana. I was wallowing in self-pity, and my anger, which had been building for months, had had no outlet. Besides, you just don’t run into B-movie pretend rap heavies in Nashville. I had no history of backing down from thugs from a James Cagney movie, wearing clothes from a Spike Lee Joint, and I was in no mood to start, see?

“Wise guy,” he said, and turned and went back to what was left of Vinnie’s car.

“If you was smart, you would do what he says,” said Davis Brown. “It don’t matter none about me.”

“If I was smart,” I told him, “I would go. Trouble is, I was never that smart.” He grinned at me.

The police arrived, and took all our names. I told them I would be happy to come to court. I also told them, when they asked me, who’d been driving the SUV. I was backed up by Mr. Brown. This resulted, despite loud protestations by Vinnie and his henchmen that Cassanova had been at the wheel, in our boy Vinnie going to jail for driving on a permanently revoked Massachusetts license. Later, I learned he made a habit of driving with a load on, which had more often than not resulted in him sending people to the hospital or the morgue. After the last incident, in which a pedestrian had been killed, not even his family’s connections had been able to save his license. It was Vinnie’s refusal to stop driving that had finally gotten him shipped down South.

No wonder Vinnie had wanted me to take a hike. Even though he would no doubt be out on bail in about five minutes, he was obviously pissed about having to go downtown in handcuffs. He gave me an unhappy look as he was crowded into the back of a police car. His posse followed in a taxicab, as the SUV was too crunched to be driveable. As I left, poor Davis Brown was standing there, watching his Le Sabre being loaded onto a wrecker.

Early the next morning, I walked to the hospital and met with Diana’s parents, who had flown in from Sacramento to sign the papers which would result in her transfer to an assisted care facility— that is, a nursing home— in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville. I couldn’t bring myself to go with them into Diana’s room; I didn’t want to see the looks on their faces.

After an hour in a conference room with Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, their attorney, and a representative from the facility, business was concluded. I didn’t need to sign anything, of course, since we had never married, but I needed to be there, and the Fergusons knew it. We said goodbye awkwardly, for the last time. Diana had been our only mutual interest.

Diana was small and bent in the hospital bed. I was reading to her, when suddenly a shadow fell over me. It was Vinnie, wearing a green doctor’s smock and a wicked smile. “I got you, wise-ass,” he said, and sent me sprawling. I rolled away, expecting a kick, but it didn’t come. Instead, he was leaning over Diana’s bed, his thick index finger probing between her legs.

“You been fucking this vegetable, huh? You been keepin’ it open?”

I threw my body into him, hitting him at the knees, and we went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Then the shaven-headed Cassanova, who I hadn’t noticed, was kicking us apart. All the blows, naturally enough, went to me. He pulled Vinnie away, kicked me a couple of times more for good measure, and then propelled Vinnie towards the door, saying, “C’mon dog, you made your point. We got enough shit to worry about without you starting something else.” But Vinnie broke away and turned to me, screaming, “She’s mine, you asshole! Tonight, when you’re safe in bed, me and Cass here are gonna come pay her a visit and fuck her eyeballs out. Then we’ll fuck the sockets.” Cassanova finally managed to get him through the door.

I sat there, ribs aching, and, truth to tell, in a state of shock. Finally, I crawled over the the door frame and used it to pull myself upright. I called Diana’s parents at their hotel and insisted she be moved immediately. They thought I was crazy until they came over and I showed them the bruises. After a busy two hours, attendants arrived to take Diana to the nursing home. The Fergusons followed the ambulance in their car, but I decided against going, for I didn’t want Vinnie or one of his crew to see me and follow. I watched from a window as they small convoy pulled away. No one seemed to follow them.

It was a hot, still day, already stifling at eleven-thirty in the morning; Nashville gets like that in the summer. I was drenched with sweat by the time I got home. My eye was blackened. My ribs ached. I needed a shower. I needed a girl. I needed a life. I needed a beer. There was nothing in the fridge but a tub of moldy cottage cheese and a liter bottle of flat Diet Dr. Pepper, so I walked down to the convenience market that had once been known as Two Sisters to get something to fill me up. There being nothing better to do, I killed some time by sitting on a rock wall and opening and eating the pistachios I had purchased and drinking a Rolling Rock, watching the tourists drive by and in general feeling sorry for myself while my fingers turned red from the dye on the nuts.

When I got back home, my apartment had been trashed. It looked as if an efficient little tornado had hit it. Bookshelves were emptied, drawers dumped, holes kicked in the walls. The curtains and blinds had been yanked down, making the apartment uncustomarily bright. I stood there in the front door, looking at the wreckage, not associating the vandalism with last night’s incident. Dully, it occurred to me that the culprits might still be about. I opened the door and reached for my .22 automatic rifle, but it wasn’t in its usual place. I found it minutes later, the stock smashed, the barrel bent. I spotted my sleeping bag, still rolled, with the handle of my machete sticking out. With the big blade in hand, I crept through the apartment, ready for anyone I found, but nobody was there.

Whoever it had been, they had been thoroughly nasty. They had made a big pile of my computer disks and pissed on them and had crapped artistically here and there. I thought about calling the police. The chances of catching the culprits was minimal. On the other hand, according to something I had read, the chances they would come back some time in the near future would be great. Maybe I should dial 911. But in the end, I didn’t call.

It took me the rest of that day and most of the night to straighten up the apartment. I felt thoroughly violated. Most anything that could be broken had been broken, things deliberately soiled. Finally I was finished, except for a bedroomful of trash that would need to be hauled away.

I turned off the lights and prepared to go to bed. But I was too tired and sore from Cassanova’s kicking to sleep. I sat on the floor, my mind unfocused, the realization growing that the vandalism wasn’t random, but was connected in some way to the guy in the limo, Vinnie. B-bad, the man Cassanova had called him. Had his men followed me from the hospital and waited until I left? I thought it likely. I wondered dully if I should buy a pistol. Something was telling me the trouble wasn’t over.

The next morning, I walked to Hillsboro Village and withdrew the bulk of my limited funds from the bank machine. I had breakfast at the Pancake Pantry. As I was paying, Cassanova and Vinnie and his other bodyguard came in and took a table on the other side of the room. They grinned at me, and Vinnie winked and made a circle with his finger and poked his thumb through it. I flipped him off as I went out the door.

As I was getting close to home, I noticed a Humvee following me, pacing me. It wasn’t black, like the SUV two days before; this one was white, as if it might belong to one of the good guys. But of course it didn’t. It pulled alongside and Cassanova and the third man, who turned out to be a punk named Billy— and indeed, he reminded me of the gunsel Billy in The Maltese Falcon— the movie was good, but you’ll have to have read the book to know what I mean— got out and walked over to me.

“B-Bad wants to see you,” Cassanova said.

“I’m not interested in talking to him.”

Maybe I should have agreed to talk to Vinnie, who probably wanted to convince me with either threats or money not to testify in court. Then again, maybe he would have had Cassanova and Billy push me into the car and beat me to within a half-inch of my life for giving him the finger. And then again, maybe, just maybe, I would have wound up lying in the street or in a ditch somewhere with two Mafia-style .22 caliber holes in the back of my head. I vaguely considered those possibilities. But mostly, I was just too numb to care. I turned to leave, and it was then that my macho and Vinnie’s had a head-on collision. Billy had the effrontery to lay his hand on me. I slapped his arm aside, and Cas reached inside his coat, and that’s when I knew it had suddenly become serious. That’s when my body took over from my numbed mind.

The average American has seen too damn much television. Things go according to protocol on TV; we learn too many of our actions straight from the tube: how much toothpaste to place on the brush, how much lather to make in the shower, how to kick the tires when looking at a used car, how to just stand there and wait when someone is obviously reaching for a gun. But what we see on television isn’t reality. It’s fun to watch, but it doesn’t make much damn sense, or it may have made sense at one time, but doesn’t any more, like when, after being disconnected, you jiggle the button on the phone up and down and say, “Operator! Operator!”— a trick that hasn’t worked since the long-ago days when calls were routed by manually plugging wires into a switchboard.

On television, fights are simple and elegant, and happen in sequential fashion. Person A throws a punch, which has B result, and then person C gets to throw a punch. Nobody ever kicks anyone else in the balls or gouges out an eyeball, and certainly they don’t do such things simultaneously; it’s more than the average viewer can comprehend on a 36-inch screen. It’s all keen and clean, television is, the very way life isn’t.

I hadn’t laid a hand on anyone in anger since I was in junior high— not counting my attack on Vinnie in the hospital. I had always managed to avoid physical confrontations, even when it had meant ignoring taunts, even when it meant loss of face. But peaecable as I had been, I had long ago figured out something about violence— it doesn’t work unless it’s, well, violent. It doesn’t work if you hold back. Long ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was challenged to a fight by a kid I didn’t know. To this day, I don’t know why. I fought him, and won, but afterward, I realized there had been no real reason for the right. I made a decision to avoid confrontation, even in the face of humiliation, but I had also decided that if couldn’t avoid fighting, by damn, I would fight. It was my failure to follow the first part of the resolution that got me in trouble with Vinnie and led to my eventual trouble with the law and finally to my recuirtment in GB-12. I had deliberately antagonized him by sending a smartass message back via Cassanova, and by giving him the bird just now at the Pancake Pantry. If I had been strong enough to have kept my ego under control, perhaps Vinnie would have made other choices, onces that wouldn’t have led to the current confrontation.

It has been following the second part of the resolution that has kept me alive— on that day and on any number of other occasions since. Regardless of my own responsibility for the present predicament, I knew I was in a situation I couldn’t walk away from. Cass was reaching into his coat, and he was a guy who looked like he knew what a pistol was for. I didn’t think he was going to point it at me and tell me to get in the car. That’s pure Hollywood, and Hollywood wasn’t written anywhere on Casanova’s face. I doubted if Vinnie would have been up to having me potted to keep me from testifying on so trivial a matter as a traffic offense, but somehow, it had become personal. In for a penny, in for a pound. I knew that at the very least I was going to get my knees and elbows done, right on the spot.

Yes, it was time to fight.

I was standing on the sidewalk, with Billy behind me and to the right, and Cass ahead and to the left. I sensed Billy’s hand coming from behind to grab me. I didn’t wait for what was about to happen. As he touched me, I jabbed my elbow backwards, digging into his ribs, and I swiveled to the left and lashed out with my foot, kicking Cass in the balls, hard.

Now, you don’t kick straight ahead, like one kicks a football. You turn and thrust the leg out sideways, and it has the weight of authority behind it. Got that, Grasshopper? When I was a kid, my brother had practiced for his karate classes by tying a rubber ball to the end of a long string which was attached to the ceiling, bouncing it all over the place. I didn’t go to the classes, but I had taken my turn at the ball, soon becoming quite proficient with my feet— to the eventual delight of my martial arts instructor at GB-12. Cass folded when I kicked him.

I wasn’t sure what Billy was doing behind me, but it wasn’t likely anything that wouldn’t hurt me. I launched myself backwards, throwing him off balance, and fell heavily on top of him.

His fall pushed him onto the iron spikes that lined the top of the short fence behind him, and my sudden weight on top of his forced two of the spikes deep into his back. I didn’t know it until later, but one of his kidneys ruptured. He was in the hospital for months, and eventually died of something he contracted there. Hospitals are nasty, germ-ridden places, places which can kill healthy men and turn pretty, brown-haired girls into unconscious, shrunken, grey-haired gnomes. Stay out of them, if you can.

Billy wasn’t moving, but Cass was. Fortunately, he was nut-hurt enough to be slowed. He had his gun out, but his hand was shaky. I stumbled to my feet and gained enough forward momentum to break his jaw when I kicked him. He went down hard and hit his head on the curb, and it was lights out for him.

I didn’t know how many more there were in the car, or what they might do. Letting the momentum from the kick take me to the ground, I scrambled for Cass’ gun and got it, and when I saw the barrel of a pistol protrude from the darkened window of the Hummer, I rolled over onto my stomach and fired a round. The shot was angled upward, and it punched a nice hole in the far side of the roof. I didn’t know it until later, but the steel-jacked slug also punched a nice round hole in the wrist of Anna Lanza, Vinnie’s first cousin and sometimes lover, who I had seen only as a shadow inside the car. I wasn’t sorry when I found out later that she was a dead shot with two suspected kills, and that I had ruined her shooting hand.

The adjacent window came down, and Vinnie’s massive head appeared in it. His face was a mask of rage, but faces don’t shoot and both of his hands were on the car door. I held my fire, and more’s the pity, for if I’d shot the bastard then, it would have saved me and a lot of other folks a great deal of trouble. For that matter, I should have plugged Cassanova, who looked like trouble, if trouble ever had a face. But I didn’t shoot Vinnie, and I didn’t shoot Cass, and I didn’t know I had shot Anna, and I didn’t know Billy was going to die, so I just kept the pistol pointing at Vinnie until Cass had recovered enough to get Billy in the car and the limo screeched off. Then I stuck Cass’ pistol in the pocket of my jacket and limped home and lay on the bed and shook a whole lot, and finally went to sleep.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7


“Well, well,” Shack said. “What have we here?”

“I’m here to inspect the electrics,” I told him. He gave me a backhand.

“This is no way to get your wiring approved,” I said. He hit me again.

I turned my head and said to the haircut behind me, “I’m a federal agent. You’re a witness to this abuse.”

Shackleford, apparently tired of hitting me, dropped his arm. “All right, Damon. What do you know, what did you overhear, and what are you doing here?”

I looked around at the empty room. “Couldn’t you offer a fella a cup of coffee?”

Shack looked grim. “Rogers, put this man into a prone position.”

I was lying on the floor, face down and feeling undignified, when Shack again asked, “What do you know, what did you overhear, and what are you doing here?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Damon, if you don’t cooperate, I’ll have Rogers here smash your knee caps. I hear it’s very painful. And it’s certainly permanent.”

I sighed. “Let me sit up.”

Rogers pulled me to a sitting position.

“Very well,” I said. “What did I hear? I heard the two of you disagreeing. I heard her telling you she did what you told her to do, and you telling her she didn’t. She said her briefcase was stolen.”

Nobody said anything.

“Well, hell,” I said. “I didn’t take it.”

More silence.

“OK, damn it, I did take it. It’s in my car, which is parked in the driveway, one house over. The briefcase was locked, and I didn’t have time to fool with it, as I had an appointment to come here and listen to the two of you fight and maybe get my knees done by Rogers here.”

I glanced at Sandra, who knew darn well the briefcase had been unlocked. Shackleford hadn’t disavowed that I was also a federal agent. Maybe she would keep her mouth shut. The look of amusement I saw in her eyes suggested she might.

I glared at Shack. “Now, what was another question? Oh, yes. “What am I doing here? I was told to follow whoever bailed out your man Brasher the Basher. I did. Here I am.

“And what do I know? I know that I’m damn well told only what I need to know, and what I needed to know was Terry Brasher’s name and where he was. I don’t know what kind of game you’re running, Shack, but whatever it is, I don’t like it. You’re up to something, or, fugitive that you are, you’d be in Mexico by now.”

Shackleford stood looking at me, chewing over what I had told him. “I won’t be a fugitive for long,, Damon. We’re going to let you go— provided the briefcase hasn’t been opened. Now, here’s what is going to happen. You’re going to give your keys to Sandra here, and she’s going to get your car and bring it here from wherever you’ve hidden it. Then you and she and Rogers are going to go get the briefcase. If it hasn’t been opened, you’re free to drive away. If it has, we’ll have to detain you. Does that sound fair?”

“Yes,” I said. It did sound fair. But it wasn’t the truth. If Shackleford was behind the attempts on Max’s life, and mine, and C.J.’s, I would be going nowhere but into a ditch. It was apparent Rogers was Shack’s boy, lock, stock, and barrel. I hoped he didn’t have Markson so thoroughly in his pocket, and that she was smart enough to figure out there was no need for me to read my horoscope for tomorrow.

I handed my keys to Sandra and told her where the Ford was parked. After she left, Rogers and I had a happy time glaring at each other. When we heard the car in the driveway, Shack gestured with his chin to Rogers, who marched me to the front door, where he let me put on my mud-caked boots. Shackleford watched from one of three picture windows in the big living room as we went outside.

Rogers, who had been warned by Shackleford to take no chances with me, spreadeagled me on the car. “Where’s the briefcase?” he asked.

“Under the seat.”

Sandra leaned in and put her hand under the seat.

Everything depended on what she would do when she found the Beretta instead of the briefcase. If she announced she had found a weapon, I was smoked. If the abused Beretta didn’t fire, I would be smoked. I could only hope Sandra had figured out that Shack, who she obviously didn’t like, was up to no good, and would come into my camp.

It was a long moment. She came up with the Beretta in both hands, pointing it at Rogers, and said, “We’re letting this man drive away.”

Rogers was a pro. He started to swing his piece toward her, and I knew he would shoot as soon as soon she was in the sights. I lashed out backwards with my foot, hitting him in the chest and knocking him off balance. It gave Sandra time enough to grasp the trigger through the heavy plastic bag and fire.

Which she did. Once, in the torso. Rogers went down like a sack of potatoes. The sound of the shot had been startlingly loud.

Sandra stood there, looking shocked. I gently took the gun from her hands and removed it from the plastic bag. Rogers, on the ground, was still holding his weapon. He started to bring his arm around towards me, “Tenacious bastard, aren’t you?” I said, and then I shot him in the head.

“Sometimes they wear body armor,” I told Sandra.

Chapter 12

Chapter 12


Bruno and I were old friends by the time the door opened and a soft voice said, “Good evening, Damon. I am a good target, no, standing so?”

She was silhouetted in the light form the hallway. She was indeed a good target, but my pistol was back in my pocket, or else I was happy to see her. “I’d never shoot you,” I told her, “unless I had to.”

“You disappeared so suddenly,” she said chastising me, coming into the room. She was wearing single-digit Chanel— No. 9, or No. 5. And me, I was a double-nought spy.

“Yeah,” I told her. “I got out just in time, I suspect.” She had had orders to kill me. I knew it, and she had known I knew it. She had made sure I had known when the hit was going to come down. Of course, I had figured she was lying, and would shoot me while I was happily packing and congratulating myself. I had left immediately, taking none of my belongings with me.

“No, you could have safely stayed for another week. It was lonely, recuperating without you.”

“You seem to have recovered quite nicely.” Indeed she had. She was profiled by the light from the hall. Her ashen hair was up, secured by some sort of feminine apparatus; wisps escaped here and there, made distinct by the backlight. She looked like a porcelain doll in a knick-knack shop. Lovely to look at, delightful to hold, if I should break her, consider her sold.

“It’s been a long time, darling Nikki.”

I could feel the heat radiating from Sandra. Who was this woman, and why were she and I on such intimate terms? She moved closer to me and put a hand possessively on my shoulder. I said, “Yes, a long time, Marta Alexandrovich. How have you been?”

She smiled ruefully. “Working. And you?”

“Working.” I remembered something. “Don’t call me Nikki.”

“Yes, Nikki. Who is your attractive little American friend?”

Sandra would have had to have been as dense as concrete not to have known she had just been slammed. To her credit, she kept her mouth shut.

“If Bruno knows who she is, so do you,” I told her. I lay down on my stomach on the bed and propped my chin up on the tripod I made of my arms. It was a position from which I couldn’t easily get to my gun, but hell, if they wanted to shoot me, I’d be dead soon, anyway. Might as well get it over with. “How did you find us?”

Bruno looked at Marta, and when she gave a slight nod, he said, “I placed a tracer on your car when you parked it this afternoon.”

“You were in the house with a listening device.”

“Yes. Shack had used the house next door several times as a rendezvous.”

“There’s no way Shack could have followed you here?”

Bruno looked at me pityingly.

“OK, sorry. I didn’t mean to tread on your professionalism. What I’m asking is, are we safe here? I’ve had a long, long day. It has included, among other things, a two-hour drive from Atlanta to the mountains, a three-mile hike to a waterfall, an attempt on my life, a three-mile hike back down the mountain, a drive back to Atlanta which was interrupted by another attempt on my life, complete with exploding missiles, a three-hour typing job, the burglary of an automobile— ” here I grinned at Sandra— “the little fracas with Jordie Shackleford, a greaseburger dinner, two hours of shopping, drinks in the lounge, and now this. I would like to get some sleep. We can talk in the morning over breakfast. Late breakfast.”

“Come, Bruno,” smiled Marta. “Let us leave our hero to his well-deserved rest.”

She and Bruno went out. The door closed part way, and then opened again. Marta’s expression was devilish. “You will rest, won’t you, Nikki?”

Chapter 15

Chapter 15


The Beretta was where I had left it, inside the milk carton. It was spotted with white drops of milk. I wiped it off with my shirt tail and stuck it in my pocket and headed back to the apartment. My step was a little more lively. The world, although still a depressing place, had become a tad less boring.

I found a long extension cord and my battery charger, and put the battery of the Nova on charge. Then, as I was unable to find my hand pump, I jacked up the right rear corner and put on the spare. I went inside to wash up and wait. By late afternoon, the battery was hot enough to start the car. I drove out of the weedy driveway and turned onto Music Row.

A maroon Dodge mini-van with darkened windows had been parked down the street. It pulled out, following me, about three cars back. I guessed they had planned to sit there until they heard the Nova go boom. After all, everyone in America drives at least once a day— right? Now they must be wondering what the hell had gone wrong and whether the Nova would go up the first time I hit a bump.

I drove slowly to the gas station and put in ten dollars of unleaded fuel and left the flat to be repaired, hoping I would live long enough to pick it up. I went through the drive-in window at McDonalds for a Coke and a Big Mac, drove around aimlessly for a few minutes, and then headed for One Hundred Oaks Mall. The van stayed far behind me, but it was always in sight.

I parked at the aging mall, but made no move to get out of the car. The van pulled into a slot about four rows over and ten cars down, and a round-shaped man got out, a cigar in his mouth. He watched me, without seeming to watch me. I sat there for about 10 minutes, eating my McDonalds food, just to make him nervous, and then climbed out and strolled to the entrance, the box with the explosives under my arm, the Estes control box in my jacket pocket. When I was inside the mall, I turned and looked through the glass doors back at the Nova.

The man had wasted no time getting to my car, where he had popped the hood and was leaning inside— disconnecting the battery, no doubt, so he could inspect his handiwork and determine what had gone wrong. He would be worried when he didn’t find his plastique.

I trotted quickly into the mall, turning left into a drugstore and coming out about a hundred yards from where I had entered. Still running, I made my way through parked cars toward the mini-van, hoping I wouldn’t attract the attention of the man who remained inside. When I was a hundred or so feet away, I went on all fours and spidered my way to the van. I lay on my side, quickly sliding the little box underneath the passenger’s door, taking care not to bump it against the undercarriage. I wedged it between the transmission and firewall, then backed away, unrolling the wires from the spool as fast as I could, running it behind the wheels of the car in the next parking space.

The wires weren’t nearly as long as I would have preferred, but I managed to put four cars between me and the van. Empty cars. Despite the hour, the parking lot was amazingly empty of people. No one seemed to be paying attention to me. Good. Perhaps I would be able to get away with what I was about to do. I attached the wires to the little control box.

After only a minute or so, the round man came back to the van, walking fast. He looked worried. He got in and closed the door, and I crouched as close as possible to the wheel of the car I was hiding behind. The fat man was lighting a new cigar with the old one and saying something to his companion when I pressed the launch button and sent them both to hell.

Chapter 19

Chapter 19


I was back in my room before Sandra got off the elevator. I got back into bed, half-expecting her to come in, but she didn’t. Apparently, she was planning on making good on her promise to sleep until ten. I closed my eyes.

I was wakened by the phone. It was Max. “Come on down,” he said cheerfully, sounding as if he were on a game show. “I’ve something to show you.”

“Five minutes,” I told him, grabbing my watch from the nightstand. Nine o’clock. I had been asleep for barely an hour. I splashed water on my face and stumbled into my clothes and out the door. Max met me at the side of the building. He was sitting in a gray Mercedes. The day was gray too. I looked as if it was about to rain.

I got in. The car reeked of recent death. Hair and something dark were smeared across the dashboard, and blood was puddled in the floorboard. A lot of blood, and still wet, by the look of it. I turned sideways, leaning against the door, putting my feet on the seat beside me, like a teenage girl, to stay clear of the blood. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“You’ll see.”

“You’ll see” happened to be a deserted parking lot a mile or so away. It had begun to rain. Max got out in the drizzle and went to the back of the Mercedes and put the key in the trunk. I walked around back with him. “There were four of them,” he said. “Two at Sandra Markson’s apartment, and two at your hotel. No identification, but Shack’s men, surely. By the way they were armed, it was apparent they had been instructed to hit you both, if you happened to be so helpful as to show up. They were complacent, stupid. Talking, smoking, perhaps even dozing. It would not have been hard to spot them, and it would have been no problem to take care of them. Only I didn’t do it. They were newly dead when I found them.” He turned the key. There was a soft noise, and the trunk popped open a few inches. The smell of death and destruction intensified.

Max put a hand on the trunk lid, but didn’t open it. He was toying with me. “I was faced with a problem, you see. I wanted to see if you recognized any of the four dead men. Obviously, I couldn’t take you to your apartment or Ms. Markson’s, as you have been ordered to stay away. I thought I would bring them by the hotel and get you to have a look, but the trunk of the Miata was much too small for four bodies. Then I thought, ‘Well, Damon doesn’t actually need to see the bodies— he could ID them just by looking at the heads.'”

He raised a hand, cutting off my protests. “But then I remembered that I had promised not to mess up your friend’s pretty little sports car. I didn’t want to risk getting blood in the trunk. So I just commandeered this Benz. One of Shack’s teams had been driving it. Your team had a Volvo. Guess she rated the better help.”

“God, you’re a crazy fucker,” I told him, and stepped up to the trunk to have a look at something I didn’t want to see.

Chapter 21

Chapter 21


“Listen,” he said, after a while. “I’ve told you all I know. “Let me go, and I’m outta here. I swear.”

I made a small gesture with the pistol, and he got up and headed toward the door. As he opened it he half-turned, as if he wanted to say something— or then again, maybe he was reaching for a piece. I shot him with the Beretta. He fell. He lay there gasping, and after a while, he died.

I felt bad about him, but not much, and not for long. He hadn’t been reaching for a gun, like I had thought, but for a remote paging device in his pocket. More’s the pity he hadn’t waited until he was outside. The pager vibrated as I held it in my hand. I took note of the number in the display box and wrote it down.

I sat there in the dark for nearly an hour, shaking, waiting for the cops. My anger was spent, and I was ready for them to come and take me away and put me in prison for the rest of my life. I cared that little about myself. When it was clear that nobody had called them and the police weren’t coming, I went outside and dragged in the dead man— it wasn’t easy— and started trying to think about what I should do.

I could call the cops; should call the cops. And then what? Face reporters and time in jail and a long trial and a probable prison term? There were four— count ’em!— dead bodies. Six if you counted the two in the parking lot. Fat chance I would be able to show self-defense— and in fact, it hadn’t been self-defense, not for the man outside, who I had shot as he was trying to flee. “Yes, your honor, I felt I had to shoot him nine times in the back in order to protect myself.” No, I wasn’t going to go to the police.

If Diana had been well, it would have been a different story. But then, if she had been well, I would have never gotten myself into this mess.

OK, then, what to do? Wait until the police showed up and shoot it out with the SWAT team and make the six o’clock news? No. I might not particularly want to live, but I didn’t particularly want to die, either, or I would just sit right here and do the job for them with one of the shots remaining in the Beretta.

That left me with just two choices— to clean up the mess and dispose of the bodies and run, or to clean up the mess and dispose of the bodies and stay in place, waiting to see what Vinnie— who I now had a name for— would do next. In either case, what I now had to do was clear. I got up and found some rags and filled a bucket with cold, soapy water. Hot water, I remembered, would set bloodstains.

Two hours later, the four bodies were lying on a carpet of torn-open garbage bags in the trunk of their car— it was a big Cadillac— and I had backed it up to the stoop, wearing my work gloves so I wouldn’t leave fingerprints. I had scrubbed the floors in the house, and the window, removing bloodstains as completely as possible. The floor and window sill had come clean, but the curtains from the window and a throw rug were in the trunk with the bodies, to be disposed of. I had even policed the yard, covering the blood-soaked ground with loose soil. It was the best I could do until daylight, when I would go over it again.

I got in the Caddy, starting it and pulling onto 16th Avenue, passing the Country Music Hall of Fame and the row of tourist shops, dark and vacant at that hour of the morning. I got on the freeway at Demonbreun and drove south on I-24.

When my father retired from the army, my parents had settled on a pony farm near Smyrna, about 20 miles outside Nashville. I had spent my high school years there, wandering in my free time through the sparsely-settled countryside with my younger brother. I got off at the Almaville Road exit and drove towards the old neighborhood, hoping it hadn’t changed much.

It had grown up considerably, but most of the large tracts of scrubland were still there, untouched as they had been from time immemorial— even native Americans hadn’t been known to live in the area after about 10,000 BC. I drove the car up an old track near a long-defunct drag strip and made my way up it, lights off. I stopped when it felt right and got out with the flashlight I had bought at an all-night market.

After some thirty minutes of casting about, I found what I was looking for. It was a small crack between two rocks, heading downward, and the cool breeze I remembered still issued through it. My younger brother and I had chanced across it in our ramblings, purely by chance. We would never have known it was there if we hadn’t happened to sit in the shade of the rocks to eat our lunch and felt the cool air issuing from between the stones. We had gone so far as to venture into it with the ropes and carbide lights we used when exploring the many known caves of the region. This cave, after a promising start in which it dropped away steeply, had proved disappointing, ending in a breakdown of rocks and rubble about seventy-five yards back. But then we had dug through the breakdown, only to find the passageway ended at a deep pit with steep sides. We had meant to come back and explore it further, so we moved the breakdown back into place. We never did. We told nobody about it. I was almost positive we were the only ones who knew of the cave— and Marty, my brother, would be telling no one. He was dead, killed in a traffic accident while of all things, taking his wife and kids to play miniature golf.

It took a lot of doing to hoist the bodies onto my shoulders and carry them one at a time a hundred yards through the woods, and even more effort to drag them through the cave to the breakdown at the rear and move the breakdown and drag them through the gap to the pit and tip them over the edge. But eventually they were all there, lying one atop another at the bottom of the pit, like carelessly stacked cordwood. I climbed down and covered them with the garbage bags and piled rocks and dirt on them until there was a five-foot mound. It was harder to get out of the pit than it had been to get in, and it was more difficult to block the passageway than it had been to clear it. The batteries of the flashlight were failing when I made my way back out to greet the early morning sun.

I drove the next exit on the interstate and made my way into the woods and and burned the bloodstained carpet and curtains. When the fire was out and the ashes were cool, I scooped them into a garbage bag and put the bag in the trunk. I cleaned myself up as best I could and turned the Lincoln around and stumbled exhaustedly back to the blacktop. I exited the interstate again at Bell Road and took the bag out of the trunk and tossed it in a dumpster.

I parked the car outside a department store at Hickory Hollow Mall and wiped all the door handles and the steering wheel and anything else I might have touched clean of fingerprints and wandered through the mall until I was sure no one was following me. Then I caught the city bus back home to wait for Vinnie.

Chapter 28

Chapter 28


There were two dozen people in the room, anti-nuclear activists all, and I’ll bet not one of them was wearing a Radium watch. They were dressed in Birkenstocks and Bass weejuns and L.L. Bean outdoorswear. There was even tie-dye in evidence, softer and more subtle in the new millennium than it had been in the sixties. The canned music, I noted, was an original cut by the Grateful Dead, one step up, or, considering your musical tastes, one step down from mummified Beatles on Muzak.

Rodney was outside in the hall, arguing animatedly with a man and a woman who seemed to be two of the high muck-a-mucks at NukeWatch. The man was too thin to be healthy. He wore a neatly-trimmed beard and an aged Queer Nation t-shirt. You know, the one that says, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” The woman was clean-shaven— that’s a joke— Jack Sprat’s wife, plump and rosy. She wore her thick brown hair in a bob. She was dressed in tan slacks and a long-sleeved knit top which nicely highlighted her breasts. I know I’m not supposed to notice such things, and even less supposed to comment on them, but give me a break, okay? I’m just describing nature. She wore a red AIDS pin on her chest.

The woman was beleaguering Rodney, who kept making gestures of appeasement. The thin man— what a good name for a novel— seemed to be alternatively taking sides. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I was too far away to read their lips. I ducked back inside the room.

The room featured a big conference table with chairs scattered around it. More chairs lined the walls. About a dozen people drank tea or coffee and chatted. I was dressed in jeans and sandals and a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, looking antiestablishment enough for most of them to smile and nod at me. I sat down next to a young woman with long red hair. She told me how excited she was to be taking part in such activity. “My parents were hippies in the sixties. They lived in the East Village and went to Woodstock. They saw Dylan when he debuted his electric guitar at the Newport Jazz Festival. They followed the Dead around when the Dead were not even doing albums. I grew up in a house with posters of Jimi Hendrix and Angela Davis on the walls. And they were involved. They were in Chicago at the protests at the Republican convention in 1968. They protested the war at Columbia University. My father went to Canada to avoid the draft.

“When I was in my early teens, in the nineties, no one seemed to be doing anything of any importance. All the kids were into you know, greed, and didn’t care who they had to brown-nose in order to get ahead. Now things are revving up again. People are concerned about the environment, about nuclear power. I’m going to make this trek across the country and remember it forever.” She smiled ruefully. “My parents tell me that my time would be better spent in business school. Can you believe they would say that?”

Her name had once been Summer, but it wasn’t any more. “Now it’s Julia. Summer was too, you know, out there. I didn’t change it, just switched to my middle name. Mom, in a rare stroke of conventionality, added my mother’s middle name to the birth certificate. Dad wanted to name me Storm. Summer Storm. Thank God for Mom. Summer was a shitty enough name to grow up with.”

Sandra listened to all this with an air of condescension. I was beginning to think she wasn’t nearly as much fun to be with as Marta. Come to think of it, CIA agents were a pretty dour lot in general. Maybe it was something about their training.

Rodney was calling the meeting to order. I smiled at Julia and faced the front. I shouldn’t have bothered. Rodney obviously liked to hear himself speak. It took him a good twenty minutes to rev us up, telling us we were here to make plans for the most important action in NukeWatch’s brief history.

Eventually, Rodney introduced the thin man as Miles Maddux. “Miles is Deputy Director of NukeWatch. The convoy is his idea. I’ll let him tell you about it.”

Maddux started to rise, thought better of it, and waved his hand for the microphone. The short-haired woman moved it in front of him and adjusted it.

“Thank you. What we plan to do is target a particular weapons truck. We’ll pick it up shortly after it leaves its home base and track it to its destination. We will follow peaceably, at a distance of at least a quarter of a mile, but we’ll follow in great numbers, and very, very colorfully. We’re aiming for a hundred vehicles. The more outrageously they’re painted or decorated, the better. We’ll have a bus for reporters from at least a dozen magazines. We expect to have news crew from several of the networks accompanying us in their vans. In each town of any size, Rodney and I will give interviews to the local television stations and newspapers and speak to as many citizens as possible.

“We’ll pick up the weapons truck as it leaves the factory in Texas. We hope to find one heading to a base near one of the major cities on the East Coast. Too short a trip won’t allow us enough coverage, and too long a trip will wear us out. The last thing we want is for the convoy to dwindle away to nothing, and we want to wind up near a major city and not in the middle of nowhere. We figure a trip of about a thousand miles would be ideal. The trucks travel an average of 14 to 16 hours a day, sometimes more, when the government gets antsy.

“We’ve followed with one or two or three cars before, but this is a much larger action. We can expect lots of protection for the truck: helicopters, patrol cars, unmarked cars with federal agents in them, and maybe even some national guard units. Everyone will be very nervous, and they’ll be heavily armed. For that reason, we’ll leave the truck strictly alone. No one is to go near it. And remember: this is strictly a nonviolent operation.

“Now, we’ll hear the reports of the committees.”

There were committees for nearly everything: meals, emergency repairs, mobility and access, ride-sharing, media contact, and strategic planning. Everyone seemed to have their poop in a group, with one exception, and that was the strategic planning committee. They had been unable to determine what truck to follow.

“The government sends out a lot of decoy trucks. If we follow a decoy, they can stop and open the truck and show the press it’s empty, and we’ll look like fools. Somehow, we need to be sure the truck is really carrying nuclear arms.

“As Miles said, we need a route of about a thousand miles. Ideally, we’d like to pick up a truck which is headed for the east coast. We’d like for the endpoint to be near a major city. If the route is too short, we won’t have a long enough time in the public eye, and if it’s too long, the television stations will get bored and forget about us. If the trail ends in the middle of nowhere, there’ll be no one to listen to us or come to the rally.”

The speaker was the brown-haired woman. Her name was Angela Browning. It was clear that it was she, and not Maddux, who was the real mastermind behind the project. It was also clear that she had no clue about how to pick up the right truck.

In the spot NukeWatch was in, Marta’s thirty thousand dollars price for information on truck routes didn’t sound so bad. And of course, thirty thousand dollars would be nothing to the party who was hijacking trucks.

Whoever, they were, I thought we might hear from them soon.

Chapter 30

Chapter 30


“Come in and have a beer,” Davey said. I followed him into his quarters. It was militarily neat and sparingly furnished. The living room was small, even by apartment standards, but it contained only a couch and chair and a black-and-white portable television which sat on a wooden crate, so it didn’t seem crowded. I sat down in the chair and took the Coors he offered.

“You could use another brand, you know,” I said.


“Coors. You should boycott it. The family is supposed to be a bunch of fascists.”

“Yeah, but they make good beer. I could give a shit about their politics.”

We sat for a bit, and then he said, “You want to tell me about it?”

And so I did.

I slept on Davey’s couch that night. The next morning, Davey called the owner of the storage lot and told him he needed a couple of days off. When his replacement arrived we went to Shoney’s for breakfast, and then to the library at the university. Using one of their computers, Davey was able to find an astonishing amount of material on Vinnie Fortuno and the man who had called himself Scarpetti. There were all sorts of newspaper and magazine articles linking the family to crime. They were of Sicilian background, but they weren’t one of the really old families. They’d come on the scene in the seventies, along with cocaine, and the articles suggested some elements of the family— notably, Vinnie— had the same lack of constraint and lack of respect for human life as the Colombians with whom they had dealings.

Vinnie was born of a Sicilian father and a Columbian mother. His mother had killed his father when he was about five. Little Vinnie had been sitting on a staircase, and she had fired over his head, causing the father to tumble down the stairs, sweeping Vinnie with him. Vinnie had gone to live with his uncle after that, and there he had been introduced to more violence and crime. When he was fourteen, he had killed his first man, a drunk in a park, beating him to death with a whiskey bottle. That was the only crime of which he had been convicted, but Time estimated he had killed or ordered to be killed more than twenty rivals in the drug trade. He was known as the B-Bad, the Bad Boy of Boston because of his love for fast cars and faster women and his tendency for his mouth to write checks his ass couldn’t cash. His family connections had kept him alive, but it was clear his family tolerated him as if he were a cute but socially undesirable retarded child. They had interceded with money and, occasionally, according to the Time article, with threats or violence on the many occasions on which he had run afoul of the law. The article had apparently been written before Vinnie had discovered rap music. The photos showed him nattily dressed in mafiaware, and not the baggy britches he favored these days..

Davey switched off the microfiche viewer and said, “You drew yourself a doozie, partner.”

“Yes, I guess I did.”

Davey went to search for a back issue of Time. I was leafing through the Tennessean, looking to see if any of my doings had made the news. There was an article about a car bomb explosion which had killed two men, but nothing else in the front part of the paper. I continued to leaf through the pages. Buried among the obituaries was a small article about a woman named Delphinia Brown, a patient at Vanderbilt Hospital. She had been murdered, very bloodily, as she lay comatose in her bed. I almost turned the page, but something about the article made me feel a cold chill. I continued to read. Sure enough, she was survived by her husband, Davis Brown, a sister, and four sons.

“Look at this,” I told Davey, when he came back, complaining about not finding the magazine he had wanted. “This is the guy who Vinnie ran into. He was at the hospital to see his wife. It was Vinnie, man.”

Our eyes met. “Where did they take your Diana, man?” Davey asked.

“To a nursing home in Brentwood. Davey, we gotta get there before Vinnie finds out where she is!”

It’s thirty-six miles from Murfreesboro to Nashville, and a little less if you take the surface roads to Brentwood. Despite my best efforts, and the Nova’s, it was an hour later before we had reached Brentwood and found the nursing home. Diana was sleeping peacefully. Thank God.

“They’ll be here,” Davey said. “It won’t be that hard to find out where she is. You got heat?”


“Good. Stay here. I’m going back to the locker to get some stuff. I’ll be back in three hours, tops. In the meanwhile, you better check in with the head nurse or something and then find somewhere you can sit and keep an eye on Diana without being a sitting duck yourself.”

I tossed him the keys to the Nova. He drove off, and I never saw it again.

Chapter 33

Chapter 33


We spent the night at a Best Western in Vicksburg, Mississippi. And the Days Inn across the street, when we overflowed the Best Western. And a Holiday Inn, when the Best Western was full. We had picked up cars along the way, and there were now more than a hundred people in forty cars, vans, pickup trucks, RVs, two motorcycles, and a hearse. Many of the vehicles were gaily painted with multicolored mushroom clouds and yellow-and-purple radiation warning symbols. One RV was B-29 brown, with a smiling, hat-tipping A-bomb painted on the side. Not surprisingly, it was named Enola Gay. A panel van featured a map of New York city on the side, with ground zero clearly marked in the center of a series of concentric rings and an X at the 1000 meter circle proclaiming “You are here.” The hearse was rigged with yellow and purple neon running lights, and carried a coffin which glowed green in the dark. At dinner, someone handed me a pair of two-foot long tubes containing chemical lights; one glowed purple, and one yellow. I twined them together in a shape reminiscent of electrons circling a nucleus and hung them around my neck, as some of the others had.

The clothing was colorful as well. It ran mostly to designer labels on shoes and t-shirts with every kind of slogan, from “We don’t care. We don’t have to care. We’re Exxon.” to Lobotomies for Republicans: It’s the law.” to a Laurel and Hardy t-shirt with that slimebucket Ollie North as Laurel and Rush Limbaugh as Hardy. Summer/Julia was wearing a big button that read “How dare you presume I’m not transsexual.” One woman had a Reddy Kilowatt tattoo. Another was wearing earrings with glowing purple and yellow LEDs. There were guitars and harmonicas and tambourines and bare feet. All in all, I felt almost as if I were part of the Merry Pranksters; maybe that magazine article hadn’t been too far off, after all. We lacked only a day-glow painted school bus. It arrived about sundown.

* * * * *

I was so busy watching the door to Diana’s room that I almost didn’t notice the dark shape outside. I heard the faint sound of a glass cutter, and then an arm was reaching through a cut-out circle of glass to unlatch the window. And then, suddenly, it jerked back and disappeared. I had been under a terrible strain for months, and I came very close to losing it as I waited there in the dark for the arm to reappear. But it didn’t. I just sat there, gun resting on my knees, for what seemed like hours. Finally, I heard a tremendous explosion, and then a muffled whoosh, followed after several seconds by a burst of machine gun fire. Several minutes later, I heard a cautious knocking on the window.

I almost fired, but then I saw it was Davey. “C’mon, Man,” he said, “We gotta split.”

I unfastened the window and climbed through. The ground seemed closer and softer than it should have been, and I looked down. I was standing on the back of the man who had cut the hole in the window. His throat was cut. I took a big step to avoid stepping in the blood which had pooled on the ground.

The night was peaceful, except for the alarms. One was sounding in the building, and I could hear sirens in the distance. Davey pulled me to his car, opened the door and pushed me into the seat— I was in a daze— and ran around and got in on the driver’s side and drove rapidly away, away from the flames that rose from the spot where the two dark cars had been parked.

Chapter 39

Chapter 39


About mid-morning, we pulled into a rest area. A gray sedan was sitting away from the other vehicles, just as Stephen Fricke, the gray man, had said it would be. Fricke sat alone in front seat. I left Sandra in the car and got in beside him.

“I got your message,” I said. “Sandra is hopping mad that she wasn’t invited. Now what is this all about?”

“Rodney Markson,” he said. “How does the Markson woman feel about him?”

“As nearly as I can tell, affectionate, the same way you’d feel about a dog that chewed up your slippers one too many times. She wishes him well, but what’s in the past is in the past. Why do you pick this particular time to ask?”

“Because I’m going to ask a favor of you, and she might not like it.”

“I might not either. Depends on what it is.”

“It occurs to me that Markson’s motives might not be as lily-white in this matter as he would like us to believe. He’s industrious, and despite his position as director of NukeWatch, we suspect he cares damned little about the actual purpose of the organization.”

He was right about that, but I said nothing.

“So what I’m asking is what is his ex-wife likely to do if he’s involved with any or all of the groups who are after the weapons?”

“She’ll try to stop him,” I said.

“Will she do whatever is necessary?”

“I saw her shoot a man she knew and liked,” I said, “but she may or may not be able to pull the trigger when the time comes, especially if she has to make a split-second decision. I mean, it’s her ex-husband. I can’t even guess what she would do.”

“That’s what I wanted to know,” he said, and leaned over and opened my door.

I got out and stuck my head back in. “Why do you want to know?” I asked.

He gave me a long look. “Because I have this funny feeling that when the chips are down, this whole operation will depend on her.”

Sandra and I took turns driving. The convoy had reached ridiculous proportions; it was so large there would no chance of reassembling it if we were to stop for the night. The plan was to drive straight through, and that’s what we did. We drove thought the darkness, reaching Richardson in the early afternoon the next day. We peeled off when we reached the city limits, then drove around to familiarize ourselves with the area and find a Tex-Mex place for lunch. It wasn’t hard; everything, it seemed, featured border food. Afterwards, I went with Sandra to find a motel.

There was a string of cheap motels near the interstate exit about three miles away from the protest site, but all were full of reporters and NukeWatchers. We found a seedy little place another mile or so up the highway and checked in. There was only one room, but that was all right for now, because only one of us would be sleeping in it.

“Get some rest,” I told her. “We’re both beat. I’ll come back at midnight.”

Scores of vehicles were already in the field outside the factory from which the bomb trucks issued. With the arrival of the convoy, the area turned into a mini-Woodstock, but in the shadow of the barbed wire that surrounded a factory which produced the most destructive weapons known to man. National Reserve troops nervously patrolled the perimeter. I thought the Army had made a mistake in selecting a group of older, more experienced men who would remember Viet Nam and would identify with us rabble-rousers rather than fresh-faced recruits who would hate us and hope they got a chance to fire on us.

Despite the barbed wire and the weapons of the troops, there was a carnival-like atmosphere in the camp. Before noon, an impromptu stage had been thrown together, and bands were performing songs with titles like “Radiation Blues,” and “Rain Forest.” No-nukes entrepreneurs were selling beer and wine out of U-Haul trailers full of ice and hawking sandwiches from the tailgates of pickup trucks. There was even a woman selling sno-cones, purple and yellow, of course.

The media had started to show up along the route. There was a separate encampment for them, about a hundred yards from the main camp. Vans bristled with antennas and satellite dishes. Even the print journalists were transmitting their stories these days. All the television networks had teams present.

When the six o’clock news came on, a group of ten or so of us watched it, clustered around the ridiculously small screen of a Sony Watchman. It was easier than trying to deal with the crowds at the site of the taping, just across the field. One of the anchors began the story with a pan shot of smokestacks and big buildings. “This is the state-of-the-art nuclear weapons facility of the Brady Corporation, located just outside Richardson, Texas. It’s a city in itself. And this, also, is a city in itself. It’s a tent-and-trailer settlement, just outside Brady’s gates. Until yesterday, only sagebrush and cactus could be found in this field, but today, it’s the temporary home of more than five thousand nuclear protesters. They’re concerned, they say, because the U.S. government transports fissionable nuclear materials and parts of nuclear weapons across the country on the nation’s interstate highways.”

“Parts, hell,” said someone behind me. “I’ve heard they carry fully operational weapons.”

The anchor cut to an on-site reporter, an earnest-face young man who had tried to ask me questions earlier. The camera was already rolling, so I had said a dirty word so there would be no chance of being on the news. He had looked shocked, as if he were surprised at the idea someone might not want their Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. Now, he was wearing an even more earnest look for the audience. The camera cut away, and Rodney’s face appeared on the screen. He was greeted with hoorahs and, I noted, a few boos. “This is Rodney Markson, the director of NukeWatch, the organization which organized this protest. My Markson, is all this really necessary?”

I had to hand it to Roddy. He looked good on camera. “It is indeed absolutely necessary,” he said. “These materials are extremely dangerous. A simple traffic accident could result in widespread contamination of large sections of the countryside, , which would require the wholesale evacuations of our cities.”

Back at the studio, the anchor said, “Colonel Sanford Barnes of the U.S. Army is standing by on a satellite feed from the Pentagon. He has a different opinion. Colonel Barnes. Colonel Barnes?”

Barnes looked like one of the gung-ho boys all growed up. He would run to fat if he didn’t watch it. His nose was red and bulbous, making me suspect he was rather too fond of his scotch. “Stuff and nonsense,” he said. “We’ve never had a nuclear accident, and we never will.”

Cut back to Markson. “Item,” he said. “The Titanic. Unsinkable. It was sad, it was sad, when that mighty ship went down.

“Item two. Three Mile Island. It was supposed to be fail safe. And so are these weapons. One day, perhaps very soon, there will be a large-scale nuclear catastrophe.”

“It absolutely can’t happen,” said the Colonel.

“It can happen here, and it has happened here,” said Markson. “Our government has purposefully irradiated us in the past. Agent Orange, they said, was safe. Ask any Viet Nam veteran about Agent Orange. Ask any black man in Alabama about the Tuskeegee experiments. Ask any Japanese-American over sixty what it was like to be interred in this country during World War II. Yes, it can happen here. It has happened here. That’s why we’re here today. So an accident won’t happen.”

I had to give it to Markson. He was good. He was weaving together a lot of disconnected things, taking the viewer’s mind from the fact that so far there had been no nuclear accident on the roads. Well, excepting the thefts, of course. But Roddy was about to get to that.

The Colonel reiterated that it couldn’t happen, and Markson corrected him. “It not only can happen; it has happened. In the past several weeks, the United States government has had three nuclear weapons stolen from it.”

You had better believe that statement made headlines.