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THIRTY-FIVE

Antolin Vargas eased out of the Seat Altea Catalan and took off his hat. The heat was intense but at least the humidity was low. A news helicopter hovered overhead deafeningly, rotor blades thwaping. Several hundred meters away, a perimeter of news vehicles was parked, satellite transceivers suspended on tall retractable booms. Scratching his head, he drew the hat back on and walked forward, slowing his pace as he neared the wreck of the water tower.

Cracked in many places, it had split open on impact, flattening in the middle like a wooden barrel. As he stared at it, the deformed cylinder yawned at him like a malevolent cave, shafts of sunlight penetrating only partway into its dark interior. Decked around it like a ghoulish necklace was a former walkway. As he got nearer, the metal ribs dangling twenty feet above him blotted out the sun, and he was able to see some detail inside the jagged cavern.

Two types of uniforms drifted in and out of view, flashlights dancing off the dripping walls, where the little bit of sunlight was insufficient. Breathing in deeply, he found a portion of the opening that was almost level with the ground and stepped inside. The surface of the vessel was faded and brown. The green uniforms were of the Guardia Civil. Those were the people in charge right now. Their jurisdiction included threats to national security. The other uniforms, the blue ones, the one he wore, which were more akin to those of soldiers, belonged to La Policia or National Police. Together, they walked around the bowels of the ungainly thing that lay on its side, water collected in puddles on the floor, and tried to figure out what the hell had happened. At the far end, formerly where the bottom was, was a massive vent for the discharge of water. Aiming an LED flashlight up, Antolin looked at it, and then at the ‘ceiling.’ He shivered. He had to be honest, he didn’t want to be in here. Trying to stay focused, he found his liaison from the Guardia Civil, a man named Félix Pérez, and joined him as he walked around, noting the points of buckling with unease. The other man told him what they knew about the explosive.

It had been nitroglycerine stabilized with ketone and nitrocellulose. Dynamite. Which meant that the list of potential suspects now included undergraduate chemistry students and stay-at-home moms. Pretty much anyone could have made it, provided they were comfortable with the real possibility that they’d accidentally blow themselves up.

The other man continued. “A security guard who was on site says he heard raised male voices and saw several taillights leaving the scene.”

“More than one vehicle. Does he know what direction they went in?”

“He said roughly north.”

“They could be anywhere by now.”

“I know.”

“Did he get a make?”

“No.”

“Dammit.”

“We found some tire tracks nearby that might be new. It’s hard to tell because this is a farm. But they don’t have much treading so we think they could have belonged to passenger vehicles. It’s not much.”

“I don’t suppose we know if anyone’s underneath.”

“It’s possible. This thing’s wide enough. If the treads do belong to the assailants, it just missed them. And the way the water came out... It just so happens that it ruptured to the other side.”

“Well, they could’ve blown it from a distance.”

“Yes.”

“So in summary, we have no information.”

“None yet.”

Antolin looked over as a camera flash went off. “Tell me. Someone’s obviously looked at the residue on the supports but has anyone tried to figure out how the explosives were configured?”

“I don’t think so, not yet.”

“In that case, how about I have my people do that?” Antolin wanted to add, “can’t let you have all the fun,” but decided it was probably self evident.

“Knock yourself out,” Félix said.

“I was also just thinking. If they were going to knock the tower over, why have it fall outward? Why not have it land on the buildings?” Félix nodded.

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“It just seems odd. Unless they didn’t want to damage them. But that doesn’t sound like something a terrorist would do.”

“I don’t know,” Félix said. They started towards the sunlight.

Fifty miles away, the gang sat in the burnt-out hotel room they had purchased and amid the buzz of hungry flies, contemplated how ephemeral life suddenly seemed. The floor was bare wood and there were two hard beds. The wallpaper was peeling too. But it was shelter. The window was open but the curtains were drawn. Not that it mattered much. Castile-La Mancha Province’s climate was continental. The curtains were motionless. On the floor, a single fan oscillated back and forth and pretended to cool them.

For a long time, none of them spoke. They just sat in the hot room and stared into their hands, heads pressed together. Erika had fallen asleep for a while in John’s arms but was now awake, a nasty cut on her arm, and matching his gaze as he stared into space. Katie was lying on one of the beds, half awake, with a huge bandage on her forehead. Viktor had taped it. Every once in a while, they stole glances at her.

They put the TV on low for a while and listened to the news. It wasn’t good. The police were looking for terrorists, in multiple vehicles. Chances were, they’d bang on the door any minute. On the off chance they didn’t, they knew they needed to mobilize. But first they needed a plan. It was obvious they couldn’t stay here. There was this village and the ones they had passed along the way, but it was a barren landscape outside, with relatively few people, and they had foreign license plates. Sooner or later, they were going to get spotted. But first things first; they needed to know where to go to.

They wished Katie was fully awake. They needed someone levelheaded. A foil for Viktor and Josh. For now they had to make do with each other. Where to? They worked through it. If they could make it to Madrid, they could take A-1 to Burgos and then AP-8 to the French border. From there, they could head northeast on A63. Viktor highlighted the route on a map. When he was finished, Josh pointed out something none of them had considered.

It wasn’t safe to ride together anymore. Not in Spain. When he said it, they all looked at each other in silence, the gravity of what he’d said readily apparent to them. They regarded each other like comrades in a war zone who were all going in separate directions. With no guarantee they would rendezvous again. If everything went to plan, they would meet again in Paris. John would fly home. And they’d pretend all of this had never happened. And despite some objections, most notably from André, there would be no trip to the hospital for Katie. Not while she was delirious.

At first, there had been angry voices at that assertion. But then Viktor had pointed out that the authorities had no doubt informed medical facilities to keep an eye out for suspicious injuries. They could make something up, but would Katie remember it? In his logic, it was too dangerous. Slowly but surely, he won most of them over. But then André flared up in dissent again and Viktor walked out, seeking a vending machine.

Ears pricked, muscles tense, he walked down the back spine of the hotel and found a vending machine. But it was empty. He punched it.

“Motherfucker!” Looking around him, he swore at himself for raising his voice. He’d lost his moderator. His grounding. He was no more fit to lead than… than fucking Josh. It pissed him off. He sighed, leaning against a wall, and looked out at the few cars in the parking lot. His bike sat in the sun, a blanket over it, the only shade to be had. His butt would burn this afternoon. Looking out at the pitiful buildings around him, he reflected on the task before him. Of their exposed trek across the desert. One and a half, maybe two hours.

Breathing in the dry air, he tried to not focus on the thought, and appreciate the little time he had left to relax. If you wanted to call it that. He decided to go to the booth where he’d paid for the room and see if there was a map. He’d failed to think of it before in the confusion but now he was more levelheaded. He concentrated on his strengths. He had a lot of skills that he’d acquired over the years. He knew a lot. About procedures, evasion tactics, defensive driving, how to fire a gun, how to escape from handcuffs. He had invested a lot of effort into being prepared for circumstances like this. So the last thing he needed to do was to betray that whole effort by going gaga now. No, he was going to be smart about this.

Cory was alive. So perhaps that made it easier. He went around an exposed stairwell and into the open, crossing the twenty feet to the hotel management office, white paint flaking off the wooden shingles. He entered with the ringing of a little bell and was confronted by the loud hum of an unbalanced fan. As he closed the door, the little bell rang again. There was no one there at the desk, and he looked around. No map. He grabbed a brochure for Madrid from a stack, the nicest looking things in the room, and opened it up. Turning it over, he saw that there was a map of the highways around Madrid. He knew everyone had a GPS but it was important to be prepared. He grabbed three more brochures and turned to carry them back to the room. Bracing himself for the blinding sun, he opened the door again and went outside. Still no wind. No sound. Just his footsteps. Up ahead, the dusty walls of the ratty hotel. He went up the stairwell he’d come down before and walked along the walkway that ran down the back of the building. Then he paused. He looked around him, then knocked seven times. The curtains shifted and a few moments later, the door opened. He went inside and pushed the door shut behind him.

“I got these.” He set the brochures down and Brian unfolded one. He looked at it for a moment.

“Excellent.” He handed it to Cory.

“So are you guys about ready to split?” Viktor asked. General nods. André was still in a funk.

“We should go to the police.”

“We can’t go to the police. They think we’re terrorists.”

“We’re not! We can explain that!”

“I doubt it,” Cory said.

“Honestly, André, she’s right,” Brian added. “Somebody set us up. Hell, for all we know, there was bomb residue all over the papers at the drop. No one will believe us. We’ll get one of America’s beloved tribunals.”

“Stop exaggerating. This is Spain.”

“Exactly. They just found a terror cell in Barcelona. Before that, they had a suicide bombing on a bus. Like you said, this is Spain.” John hated himself for it, but he agreed. Katie would have to manage.

“I don’t need to go to the damned hospital. And we’re not going to get arrested,” Katie said, at last. They looked over. She was awake and was feeling the bandage on her forehead. “Fuck.” There were smiles.

“How do you feel?”

“Like shit. But all right. Look…” She wavered for a second. “They aren’t looking for college kids. We probably just need to get out of the country. Head north.” She wavered again. “Yeah.”

“Unless the mafia gets to us first.”

“We don’t know it’s the mafia,” Brian said.

“Who else could it have been?” André asked.

“GRU,” John said. Anxious faces.

“I knew we shouldn’t have worked with fucking Greenpeace,” Josh said. He sighed. No one countered him.

“So this is it?” John asked. He suddenly realized it was a reckless question. With this crowd. But he wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” someone said.

“That’s screwed up though,” Brian said. “We tried to do something good, and the Russian government, or whoever, decides to try to kill us? Or make us look like terrorists? Fuck that.” A few heads nodded.

“It’s like the perfect metaphor. For everything. A few little people try to make a difference. The people with power promptly squash them. And not only do they squash them, they do it in such a way that it looks like THEY were the ones creating havoc all along.”

“Yep.”

“That is fucked up.” John said.

“Yes.”

“We can’t let that be the final word.” John said.

“What would you like us to do, then?” Viktor asked. “You’re leaving. We can’t use the network anymore. Because it’s clearly not secure. So… yeah. We’re out of commission. We’re done.”

“Just like that,” John said. “Wow.”

“Yep.”

“Fuck that…” Brian said. As he said it, John suddenly realized he was getting very angry. It was a funny coincidence too. If the tower had come down and squished the Volkswagen… If three of them had been dead… He most definitely wouldn’t have been saying what he was saying now. He would have been terrified. Mortified. Crying. But, as luck would have it, he didn’t live in that universe. Of course, that didn’t eliminate the fact that it could just as easily have happened that way. But since it hadn’t, it was kind of a moot point. Brian was right. It was messed up. Part of his mind dissented. Probably the reasonable part. But as he slowly worked himself back up, that voice got harder and harder to hear again. It just seemed so wrong. He went to the fan and tilted it a few degrees. Viktor got up.

Viktor said “I’m gonna pay the guy, then let’s get the fuck out’ve here.” Everyone nodded. After a pause, so did John. When Viktor returned to the booth, a man was there, leaning over a little black and white television. Raised voices. A view from a helicopter. He knew what it was of, of course, despite not being able to speak much Spanish. Even with the flickering picture. The ground looked strange, though. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Bad picture? He waited for the man to tell him his total, but he just looked at the screen. Viktor was starting to get stressed. He didn’t want to see it again. Come on… The picture cleared momentarily.

And he instantly understood why the ground looked so strange. Backing out of the booth, he went to Cory’s Baja and turned on the satellite radio. Two minutes was all the time he needed before he was back in the hotel room. And very pale. The others stared at him because they thought they were blown. And he stared into space so long they thought he was in terror. But that wasn’t it at all.

“There was a bombing on a Greenpeace boat.”

“What!” Cory yelled.

“Oh my God.”

“There were twenty people on board. They were in bed…” People’s faces got screwed up. “They think only six people survived.” His eyes rose and centered on the nearest face, which was John’s. “They killed them.” John stared back into his eyes, which shifted to Erika who was holding her forehead like it hurt, and then to the floor. Katie rose to her elbows and looked at Viktor. Viktor looked at her.

John got to his feet and looked out the door and started pacing. “Ugh. I need to get outside...” He walked out. Leaned against the railing running along the back of the building. It was hot but he felt cold. It made no sense. It made no sense at all. Why do that…? The damage was done… Dear God, why… The others joined him, except for Katie who was suddenly totally silent on the bed.

“They murdered those people. Kids. Like us.” He turned to look at them. “Those motherfuckers murdered them. Those motherfuckers!” He pushed them away and walked a few feet.

“He’ll be okay,” someone said behind him. He sank to the walkway and leaned against the wall, feet sticking out under the railing, his sneakers scuffed and brown, his hands at his sides. He looked thoughtful. “They’ll pay for this,” he said at last. He didn’t look at them, he just looked out. “I swear to God, those people will pay.”

They stood over him. Erika sat down next to him and leaned her head on his shoulder. Josh looked down at them and looked at the cars. The road shimmered.

“Wanna get out of here?”

“By all means,” Brian said. John sighed in the frigid, searing air.

“So this is goodbye?” Viktor asked.

“Why?” Josh asked. Viktor shrugged.

“I dunno.”

“You want to do something?” Viktor looked away at the street. John looked up at Josh.

“I want to hurt them,” he said matter-of-factly. “I want to hurt the motherfuckers.” Josh examined his face. And suddenly looked scared.

“Viktor?”

Pause. “I want to hurt them too.”

“Erika?” She looked at John.

Her lip twitched slightly. “If you go.” He looked into her eyes and rubbed her hand.

“André?” André leaned back a little on the railing.

“London?” he asked. John looked at him.

“London.” André looked away and then nodded.

“Brian?” Brian rocked back and forth on his heels.

“Let me think about it.”

“Where’s Katie?” John asked.

“Inside.” John eased Erika’s head off his shoulder and walked through Viktor and Josh. He went inside the room. The others followed him.

“Katie…”

“Yes?”

“I want to try something.”

“I see.”

“Something really stupid. What do you think?”

“Well, you know,” Katie said. “Stover is going to be at the rally in England in two days.”

“Right.”

“And since we all pretty much agree this all started with him…” Every head turned to look at her. “I say we go to that rally. And let him know what’s on our minds.”

Nobody said anything. John cleared his throat. Nobody still said anything. “Fuck it,” he said. “I’m doing it.” He sighed and leaned on his knees. All eyes were on him.

“I’ll go too,” Josh said. John looked at him.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, fuck it.”

“Anybody else?” Josh looked at Viktor.

“Come on, Viktor. You know you’re thinking about it.”

“Let me think.” He was looking down at the wood planks. Several of them crossed their arms. “Yeah, I’ll do it. But this is it. After this, I’m done.”

“I’ll go too,” Cory said.

“I don’t want you to,” Viktor said.

“You go, I go.”

“Dammit.”

“Brian?”

“A chance to even the score…? Why not?”

John smiled at all of them.

“This… is so stupid,” he said at last.

“And that’s why it’s going to work,” Josh replied.

A little bit of the bravado subsided and they started thinking practically again. “Have we paid for the room yet?” Cory asked.

“No,” Viktor said. “I’ll do that now.” He walked out, Cory trailing after him. John looked at Josh.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Ten minutes later, Viktor came back and they helped Katie to her feet, leaving the hotel room and stepping back out into the hot sunlight, the door locking behind them. John and Erika looked at each other at the same instant and hugged hard. Then they separated and turned to other people, hugging them as well. After that, Cory, Katie, Brian, and Viktor walked out to the middle of the parking lot towards the vehicles. The concrete radiated heat. They drowned in it. The bike crackled on and Viktor revved it a few times. From the second floor of the hotel, John looked at him. Viktor returned the look and gave a salute. And then he snapped down his visor.

Giving the bike one more rev, he whined out of the parking lot, sending up a cloud of dust, the Subaru and Citroën rolling after him. Looking up the road, John observed their departing dust clouds with solemnity and smiled faintly. They would meet again in France.

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