Late summer is a great time of year. The sun has eased back from the blistering intensity of July. It now warms the skin instead of frying it like an egg in a skillet. The air has lost some of its sweltering quality. A cool breeze stirs the air and then rolls gently through the park.
This green oasis of nature is a favorite place for kids of all ages. People play catch with Frisbees while others toss a baseball back and forth. Tired mothers stand at the ready, keeping a watchful eye on their tireless toddlers at play. Young couples lay on blankets, basking in the sun as much as they are basking in their love. People feed the ducks by the pond. Joggers make their way along the path which winds around the promenade and continues on its serpentine route throughout the park. The rhythmic cadence of their footfalls add to the natural rhythm of the day. At the south-eastern corner of the promenade, a black lab races along the green expanse of grass. It launches into the air and catches a Frisbee with effortless grace.
Bill is taking it all in. It feels good to be back home. The smell of fresh-cut grass combined with the morning breeze helps him to relax like he hasn’t been able to do for so long.
“Man, you got ‘a get the Shelby. If you’re going to get a Mustang you might as well get the best,” said Sam. He was from Virginia Beach and had grown up around muscle cars. His Dad taught him some of life’s most valuable lessons while tinkering under the hood of one project after another. When it came to cars, Sam knew what he was talking about. His favorite project had been rebuilding a 442 with his Dad and Uncle. It had been the first time his Dad had involved him in the restoration of the engine and transmission. Before that, he’d mostly done body work and been the one to fetch what the men needed. In fact, looking back, it was that restoration more than anything else which had led him to decide on being a 63B, light vehicle mechanic.
“Listen, man,” said Sebastian, “I still haven’t made up my mind. Yeah, I love the Shelby, but that Camaro is awesome too.” He held up his hands to forestall the complaints he knew were coming. “Before you say that it can’t compare with the Mustang, think about after-market work. With some fine tuning and a little tweak to the computer chip, she’d be sweet! Now toss in a new transmission, and it would scream!” Sebastian was an Army brat and had spent most of his childhood in Germany. He had always been good with electronics and had initially come into the Army to do that. Once he was in the Army himself, he learned about the things the guys in EOD did so he cross-trained and became an 89D.
“It still wouldn’t be the same grumbled Sam.”
“To tell you the truth I’m leaning toward the Beamer. I’ve been reading about the M3, and it’s a complete package. I like the way it rides so low to the ground. It really hugs the road.” Sebastian scooted to the edge of his chair while he was talking. “It's got 425 horse power pushing around 4000 pounds. Get this man; it goes zero to sixty in four point five seconds!”
“Your right man, said Tommy, that M3 is sweet.” He was leaning back as usual. His normal pose and attitude, in general, was relaxed. “For me though, I’m going to get a Range Rover.” Tommy was from Atlanta and would be going there to visit his Mother after the wedding. Like the rest of the guys, he hadn’t been home in over eight months. He was an only child and in-spite-of his tough exterior, he had a soft spot for his mother. She had made a lot of sacrifices for him. His dad died when he was young, and she’d raised him as a single mother. He owed her a lot and tried to respect her sacrifices by becoming the best man he could be. He had big shoes to fill. His father had been a great man. Tommy constantly strove to become better. One day someone would think that he’d been a great man as well.
“You’re all crazy,” said Raul. “The classics are the best. I’m gonna get me a ’78 Monte Carlo and trick it out. Picture, it man, lime green, chrome rims, at least 32’s, and full hydraulics, a true hopper.” He crossed his arms and sat back with a smug look on his face. When none of the guys showed any reaction, he quickly sat forward on his chair again and put his hands on his knees. “You’ve got to be shittin’ me guys. You don’t know what a hopper is?” He held out his hand palm down and bounced it up and down, small at first then bigger and bigger bounces. “Sweet right?” he asked leaning back again with a big smile. Raul was a proud New Yorker. As much as he loved his city he knew he had to leave her to find himself. He’d seen too many friends die over stupid things. He wasn’t afraid to die. Dying was easy, he wanted to make something of himself. That was hard. He had to work at it all the time. He knew what he needed to do the first time he heard a presentation by an Army recruiter. He’d never been good at school. He wasn’t bad at it; he was a C student. He just wasn’t interested in what they were teaching him. That was funny. Most of his teachers tried about as hard as the kids. Everybody was coasting through. School was a place he had to go to so he could get out of there. He wanted to go out and make a difference. The Army needed soldiers in the infantry. It turned out to be a good match.
Once he was in the Army, he decided he liked the camaraderie and worked hard to become better. He graduated his courses at or near the top of the class. He found that he liked to learn. This was different than school back at home. This was stuff he wanted to learn about. These instructors really cared about teaching you. They got up close and personal. These lessons were going to keep him and his buddies alive. He decided to try some college classes after he settled into his first posting at Fort Bragg. He finished his Bachelor's degree in three years and was working on his Masters in adverse psychology. Along the way, he also completed Army Sniper training. He had a real knack for observing and analyzing. He was also really good at taking action when it was the right time.
Bill sat back and listened. He was usually the quiet one of the group. These were his friends, and he knew he was damn lucky to have them. It was kind of funny that two years ago they hadn’t known each other. They had come from all different walks of life. Each man had decided to join the Army for his own reasons. At the core of it, each man was looking for the same thing. Each of them wanted to become better than what they were. Over the past two years, they’d become as close as any brothers. Being in battle together does that; especially when they had saved each other’s lives too many times to count.
Bill watched the tranquil scene of normal life play out in the park across the street. A large, black crow was working on a crust of bread. It would attack the prize a few times with its beak, then raise its head, darting it from side to side to make sure his perimeter was clear. The crow was cautious. He made sure his prize was still safely his. Satisfied, it returned its attention to the bread, stabbing its beak into the crusty morsel. Suddenly, it dropped the meal and launched into the air. The unmistakable crack of a gunshot shattered the tranquility.
Instinct and experience guided Bill’s eyes over his left shoulder. Reflex and muscle training went into action as he gracefully continued the turn with his body, rising fluidly off the chair, his eyes searching for the aggressor. He dropped to a kneeling position to minimize his exposure to the potential aggressor. His right knee hadn’t even made contact with the red bricks of the patio when his eyes locked on their target. His right hand clasped the grip of his Sig Sauer SP 2022 Nitron. Having identified his target he began clearing it from the holster. His left arm, now clear of the seatback, came around for a two-hand grip. He locked in on the confirmed threat and brought his weapon to bear.
A man stood over a woman in the middle of the two-lane road. She was down on her knees, gesturing her hands fiercely. Bill couldn’t make out the words they were saying from this distance, but it was obvious he wasn’t asking her out on a date. The man was holding the stock of what looked like an AK 47 with his right hand, waving it around menacingly, while shouting at the woman. His long, stringy, brown hair, whipped around his head. He punctuated his agitation by thrusting the gun up and down.
The woman raised up off her heels and said something to him. Whatever it was, caught his attention. He stepped closer to her and bent his thin frame down so that his face was close to hers.
She shrank back from his leering face. Whatever it was she said next, he must have found it amusing. He tossed his head back and laughed, then started dancing around her. He was doing a kind of high step, his knees pumping high while he was jabbing the rifle sharply up and down. He was really getting it too. Once he was back in front of her, he stopped dancing, threw his head back, and howled like a wolf. Bill had to give it to him; the guy had some good lungs. He made the howl last a long time. He took in a deep breath then, in a fluid movement, snugged the butt of the gun up to his shoulder and sighted in on the woman. The black barrel ended inches from her upturned face. Her jet-black hair blew back from her face in the gentle breeze. It, and the angle she was facing prevented Bill from seeing her face.
Bill admired the way she faced the man that was about to take her life. She looked proud and strong. Even if she was seconds from meeting her maker she wasn’t going to cower. He respected her for that.
Bill increased the pressure of his trigger finger. Seeing the man tense his shoulder and bring his right elbow out to the side triggered him to engage fully. A split second before applying the final amount of pressure, the dancer jerk to the right. The guy fell in what seemed like slow motion, Bill knew better. This was what he called battle speed. As the man fell, bullets sprayed out from the barrel of the AK47 in a deadly arc. In this case, it was good that the rifle shot up to six hundred rounds-per-minute. It quickly ran out of ammo before anyone was hurt by this madman. With the guy out of the fight, Bill scanned for more threats. Seeing none, he did a quick check on his friends. Sam and Raul were both covering down on the baddie.
Bill kept his weapon trained on the inert form in the road, from his kneeling position. He cut his eyes over to Tommy and Sebastian and saw they were taking cover behind the decorative fence that separated the café from the sidewalk. He could see they were at a loss. They were used to being in uniform and reacting as they were trained to do. When their finely-honed reactions came up with a missing weapon, they didn’t have an answer, for a beat. This wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; it was Texas, and yet war had found them here.
Bill kept his weapon pointed at the bad guy as he ran over to the woman. She was still on her knees in the middle of the road. The bad guy hadn’t moved since he’d hit the pavement. Bill saw why. A pool of blood spread out from his head. The pool of blood looked black on the asphalt of the road. A smaller puddle was congealing under his torso as well. Bill wasn’t taking any chances. He’d seen men get up from wounds that should’ve killed them outright before.
He slowly circled the body, keeping his eyes on the man’s hands. If they so much as twitched, Bill would drop the hammer. His finger skillfully had four of the seven pounds of pressure squeezing the match grade trigger. It would only take a small fraction more to dispatch the man, if needed. He kicked the rifle away from the corpse and then looked at the woman. She was staring at the body.
Bill couldn’t see her face from his angle. Her black hair was loose and partially covered it. He could see that she was shivering in-spite-of the warm air.
A crowd was beginning to form. Sam and Raul were still training their weapons around, searching for any more potential threats. Sebastian and Tommy were keeping the small crowd that was forming back, maintaining a loose perimeter defense. They were doing their best to keep the look-e-loos away from the scene. Of course, in this modern day, most of the people had their phones out, trying to catch it all on video. It would be up on social media before the authorities had a chance to arrive on the scene.
“Are you okay ma’am?”
She raised her obsidian eyes to his and said in a calm voice, “I think so.”
“Are you hurt?” Bill asked her
“No, . . . I don’t think so,” she replied shaking her head slowly.
“Are there any more of them?” He asked as he cast his eyes around.
“I don’t know,” answered the woman. “I don’t know who he is.”
She looked down at her lap, and her body sagged down. The steel that had held her up seemed to leave her. “He was really going to kill me,” she murmured.
They both knew she’d spoken the truth. Bill didn’t see any need to say anything further on that point.
“What’s your name ma’am?” He asked her in a gentle tone as he reached out his hand to help her up.
She took it and let him help her to her feet. Once she was sure she wasn’t going to fall back down, she squeezed his hand a little and responded; “My name is Isabella, thank you.” She said looking him in the eye.
“You’re welcome,” he replied simply.
There was something about this woman, something more than her beauty. There was a feeling of strength that radiated from her. He tore his gaze from her beautiful eyes and looked around at the scene developing around them.
More people had gathered on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. Traffic was at a standstill. Cars were lined up with their doors standing open. Their drivers had abandoned them to get a better look at the aftermath of the violence that had played out in their small town. Small children were standing with their parents. Some parents were trying to cover their children’s eyes, but the curious little ones weren’t having it. Bill wished he could cover the body up. Not to give the man his dignity but to lessen the macabre interest that had overtaken these people. He knew better though; he knew the police were going to conduct an investigation. Back here, that meant collecting forensic evidence. Almost as if on cue, the shrill notes of a siren cut through the still morning air. All together less than three minutes had passed since the first shot had been fired, and the discordant wail sounded the arrival of law and order.
In the time it took for that terrible scene to play out, on what ironically was Main Street, the crow had made it to the edge of the small town, and a very bad man knew that things had changed.
Sound travels well over dry air. To a trained ear there is no mistaking the crack of a rifle. When a person was as experienced with weapons as this particular man was, they can even tell the type of rifle fired.
This man knew the sound had likely come from one of his men. The wind whispered the story into his well-trained ear. The answering report of pistols told the next chapter. It was the ensuing silence which told him the conclusion of this drama had played out. His man was likely dead. If not dead, then he would soon be locked up in a jail cell. Regardless, the heat had just been cranked up several degrees.
The warehouse he was standing in was far enough off of the road that it avoided attention and was still close enough for quick transportation of the goods he traded in. It had proved to be a good place for a temporary headquarters. It had hills on three sides with the front opening out to the road in the distance. The road leading into it wound down into this valley. The warehouse had been built up off of the ground so that during the few times it rained the products inside weren’t damaged.
He looked out at the gravel road which cut its way out to highway 27. His eye caught the movement of a single bird rising on the air that was heating up as the sun cut higher into the sky. He stood in the entrance to the warehouse for a few minutes, just letting his eyes and thoughts wander. In time, he saw a cloud of dust rising from the gravel road.
“Have him brought up to the office.” He said to his men that were stationed on each side of the door, their weapons at the ready.
He made his way to the east side of the building and looked over his operation as he went. A group of his men were loosely gathered by the trucks. Some of them were working on the engines, but most were just standing around and talking. Another group was gathered around the cages on the other side of the building. He heard some tell-tale sounds coming from the smaller administrative offices. He didn’t care if the men had some fun, as long as they didn’t damage the product.
Everything seemed to be under control. He climbed the metal stairs to the office, noting the positions of the guards that were up on the rafters. One of the men noticed him and gave a small wave. Miguel forced a smile on his hard face and returned the salute. He had learned over time that some men responded better if there was a sense of camaraderie. All Miguel cared about was that the men did what he told them to and were loyal. Whatever it took to make that happen he would do.
Once inside the air conditioned space, he fired up his laptop and started making calls on his phone. He needed answers and knew that the fastest way to get them was to check out social media. He had become friends on several of the local pages. As he had believed, the American love for posting what they saw, heard, thought, or believed online told him what he wanted to know.
This wasn’t a big hit to the operation. It could be handled, with some small interventions at the right levels. An unstable man who was high on meth goes berserk on main street. That would be a good cover. It was sensational and yet believable. It was also not far from the truth. There would be a price to pay for this. He had to send a message to the rest of his men that this was not going to be tolerated.
His guest was coming to get an update on the operation. The man had been useful while setting up this operation but he had to be put in his place. He thought that his public standing afforded him a right to control how things were handled. He had to be made to understand that he wasn’t in charge. He was only a tool to be used. He was still a useful tool, so he had to take care of him and handle him appropriately. A time was coming when his position and sources would no longer be necessary. He would then be discarded. Today was not that day, but it was not far away.
“How in the hell did this happen,” the man demanded to know. “You said there wouldn’t be any problems. You said there wouldn’t be anything to worry about,” he said, pacing back and forth. He was really worked up. His face was turning red.
Miguel enjoyed watching the man work himself up. When he talked the skin under his chin flopped around. It made Miguel think about the waddle on a turkey. He fought to control his smile.
“Well, guess what? I’m fucking worried.” The man stopped and braced his hands on the table opposite of Miguel. “I thought you had control over that group of fuck-ups!” he demanded.
The man’s voice had a plaintive note to it that wasn’t present when he was talking to the press.
Miguel knew this man liked to be in control. He wasn’t in control of this and was just beginning to realize how little control he had.
“Careful amigo, you wouldn’t want someone to hear you, would you? They might question your loyalties. You wouldn’t want that would you?” He asked as he leveled his gaze on the agitated man.
The man glared at Miguel. He didn’t like to be challenged. That hard look melted away under the cold stare that was locked on him. He could feel the cold blue eyes as they bored into his soul. They held no compassion, no warmth. They were dead eyes and until that gaze passed the man couldn’t breathe.
“Come, sit down, have a drink. All this pacing and shouting will not change what has happened. It changes nothing.” Miguel waved his hand dismissively. He picked up the bottle from the silver serving tray. It was such a contrast, the fine silver sitting on the beat up scarred wood of the table. The man poured the liquor into the fine cut crystal tumbler, carefully measuring out precisely three fingers worth. Once the liquor was poured, he raised his eyes to the man who was still standing.
“I said sit down.”
He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to. His voice, like his eyes, held no compassion.
“You know,” Miguel said once his “guest” was seated, “I have come to truly appreciate fine Scotch. Many of my countrymen only drink tequila.”He slid the tumbler across the table. “Now, don’t get me wrong my friend, I like my tequila too, but a fine scotch, now, that is something else altogether. You see, tequila is like a scorpion. It comes right out and stares you in the eye. It says fuck you esse and then it stings your ass. It might kill you. It will make you sick. But you definitely will remember its bite. Now, take this fine Scotch, it has a bite as well,” he said pointing at the tumbler. Condensation was forming on the side of the glass. “The difference is that it starts out with a smooth burn that slowly engulfs all of you. It does not sting you,” he said, shaking his head. He quickly leaned forward, placing his hands on the side of the glass, the ropy muscles in his forearms flexing as he pressed his hands down on the table. “It consumes you. It consumes you, and you don’t even realize it until it is too late.”
“You see my friend that is what we have done here. We moved slowly. We took our time, set things up one step at a time. We are here. This is our town,” he said, sweeping his arm in the general direction of the town. “This problem on Main Street is only a small bump in the road,” he said as he dismissively waved his hand. “Yes, we will be careful, but we do not need to stop our operation.”
“Drink up my friend and let the beast warm your heart,” Miguel told him as he leaned back in his chair.
The Senator drank down the Scotch, but the chill from his friend’s eyes tamped out the fire of the beast. In fact, he’d never felt so cold in his life. He knew that the man had spoken the truth. The beast had consumed him, and there was no going back again.
“Alright Bill,” Sherriff Olsen said as he walked into the interrogation room.
Bill noted that he didn’t close the door behind him.
“I think we’ve kept you boys here long enough. The witnesses corroborated your story. Enough of them told their version of the story the same way, or near enough as to make no difference, that you and your boys said it happened. You likely saved some lives here today.” He paused before continuing and propped his bony rump on the edge of the table, across from Bill. “As much as I appreciate your help, I want you to know that I don’t like having shots fired on Main Street.”
When the Sherriff didn’t hear a response, he continued. “You boys are back here for Julie and Tom’s wedding, I reckon’. How long do you plan on sticking around after it’s over?”
“I’ll be staying on for about a week. My friends will be going to see their families on Sunday. We all just want to take a break and enjoy our leave for a while.”
“I don’t see as there should be a problem with that.” Sherriff Olsen said as he hitched his thumbs in his gun belt. “I just like to know who in my town is carrying and knows how to use them.”
“Sherriff, most of the people in this town, men, and women, fit that description.”
“That’s true Bill.” Sherriff Olsen agreed as he slowly nodded his head as if he was thinking about a list he had in his head of all the people in the area that had weapons at their disposal. “You know as well as I do though that there are people who know how to shoot and then there are those that are good at it.” He went on. “You and your friends definitely fall in the second group.”
“Sherriff, you’ve known me my whole life. I’m here to see my little sister get married. I’m glad we were in the right place today to make sure that whoever that guy was, didn’t hurt anyone. We’re not looking for trouble. All we want to do is relax and have some fun before we have to go back. How’s the woman doing anyway?”
“She’s doing okay, all things considered. We’re still trying to piece together why that guy was in town and waving around a fully automatic AK47. We don’t know why he picked her to fight with. There’s a lot about this that we don’t have the answers to yet.” He said as he cast his eyes over to the wall. A couple of seconds passed before he continued in a firm tone. “We’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“She claims that she never saw the man before today; said she’s just passing through town and stopped for a little break. She was drinking coffee at the same café you and your friends were sitting at. She says that she saw him looking at her while she had a coffee, but didn’t think anything of it.”
Bill didn’t fail to notice how closely the Sherriff was watching him for any reaction. His weathered face was deeply tanned. The cheek bones stood out in stark contrast to the hollows beneath them. His dark brown eyes were edged with deep wrinkles.
“A woman that looks like her has to deal with guys always looking at her, so that makes sense. Anyway, when she left the café, she said that she knew the guy was following her. Who knows, maybe in his mind they shared some kind of moment while he was staring at her. She said that she thought he would get the message if she kept on walking. She didn’t think she was in any trouble. It was broad daylight, and she was in front of all those people. Right before she got to the car, he grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around. She said that he demanded to know where she thought she was going. She tried to get away from him, but he wasn’t having it. She said his eyes looked huge and he kept glancing everywhere at once.”
“He was probably on something, we figure. We’ll know for sure once the toxicology report comes back. Of course, we know the cause of death, but in these cases, there has to be an autopsy anyway.”
The Sheriff paused, and Bill could actually see the wall come up. The set of the Sherriff’s face changed over to bureaucratic neutral cold so fast it was disconcerting. Bill knew that was the end of the chat.
“Make sure your friends don’t get in any more trouble Bill. If we have more questions for you or your friends, I guess we know where we can find you.”
“Yes Sir, we’re staying out at the farm.”
“That’s fine son. I am sorry that this happened. You boys have seen enough war. I want you to know that I appreciate what you’re doing over there. Tell your Dad I said hello.” With that, Sherriff Olsen got up and walked out of the room.
Bill followed him out. Something about the conversation wasn’t right. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. The Sherriff had been sincere about the last part. Everything before that though Bill felt that he had been holding something back. He was going over the conversation in his mind trying to find what had given him that odd feeling. The feeling that Sherriff Olsen wasn’t telling him everything was strong. Then again, he reasoned, he is the Sherriff and would know things that could connect to any number of things he told himself. Then again, something had felt . . . well, wrong somehow. It felt for some reason like he had an idea why that guy had been in town and wasn’t too surprised that he had gotten himself dead.
Bill had fallen back from the Sherriff. About five feet separated them. He had no illusions that Sherriff Olsen had forgotten about him. He had dismissed him and was moving on with his day. That didn’t mean that he would allow Bill to wander around the station unchecked.
Bill followed the Sherriff out to the front of the station. He walked down the corridor and passed several open doors along the way. Three of the rooms he passed looked exactly like the one he had just left. They had the same cheap rectangular dark gray metal table flanked by one chair on the far side and two chairs on the side closest to the door. His own experience had shown him that the chairs were bolted to the floor. It made sense he reflected. One of those chairs had probably been used as a weapon at some point in time. That was the reason for most modifications in his experience. We learn from our mistakes, all too often the kind of mistake that led to someone bleeding. Hopefully not fatally. Maybe that was the reason the table top was stainless steel? It would be easier to clean up than some other materials.
The walls along the corridor were painted a tired white with a trim of what once was a yellow line. The tile on the floor clearly showed wear down the middle. You could even see where the path led into the other rooms. It was evident which interrogation room was used the most. It was the first one from the front of the station. Bill could tell because the tiles were almost worn out going into that room. We are all creatures of habit and all too often follow the path of least resistance. In this case, the closest room to get the business over with.
One of the doors was shut. He assumed it was probably the room for monitoring the interrogations. He was right. It was a communications suite that monitored the video and audio feeds from each of the three interrogation rooms plus all of the cameras throughout the station to include the ones in the basement overlooking the six holding cells. The room was also the one that held the router for the internal computers in the station. It also held the backup drives from the internal and external security system as well as the on-site recordings of the 911 system. In essence, this was truly the bullpen. Even if the silly humans insisted on saying the space eleven feet away which was manned by Officer Stacy Ortega was the bullpen.
Bill had always been good at noticing the small things. His time outside the wire had honed that skill to a fine edge. Not much escaped his sharp eyes.
When Bill arrived at the receiving area of the station, he saw his friends. They were standing around and waiting. That was one thing that being in the military taught you to do well, how to wait. The same sergeant was behind the desk talking on the phone, just as she had been when they arrived. The same two cops were at their desks, behind her, working on their computers.
Bill reflected on how strange it was that things stayed the same even though so much else had changed. It wasn’t solely due to the amount of time that had passed since they had entered the door of the Police Station. Bill knew that life outside of these walls had moved on but yet, here, inside, it almost seemed as if they existed in their own unique microcosm of space and time. One could almost believe that when they left these walls things would be exactly as it was when they entered. Bill knew this illusion for the transparent image it was. The difference was that him and his friends were moving out of the station now, where before they were being graciously escorted inside.
The only other remarkable difference was that Lieutenant Gonzalez was chatting with Sam. Gonzalez’s body language showed that he was at ease and he had an easy smile on his face. For all, it looked like he was just sharing war stories with some fellow soldiers. Although they were soldiers of a different uniform, they were not all that different in the end. When you stared down the business end of a weapon from the wrong side it kind of bound you together. There was a sense of kinsmanship amongst those that had been in harms’ way. That was definitely true between cops and the military. In fact, most cops had been in the military at one point.
Bill knew Jorge Gonzalez from since they were in the fourth grade. That was when Jorge’s family moved to Greenville from Arizona. They knew each other but had never actually become friends.