45th Annual Corn Roast
Upon assessment by the bomb squad, the Imam’s feet are found to be bound together, attached to the legs of his desk with a generous webbing of duct tape. His right arm is taped behind his back to the support column of his chair, while in his left hand the detonator has been adhered with a strong epoxy.
This is relayed to me by Rousseau, who arrives on the scene with Pedroza and two other agents packed into a single Escalade. She finds me pacing the extent of the parking lot, recovering from what I guess people refer to as a panic attack. The smell of gas is still trapped in my nostrils, and perhaps always will be. Every time I recall the pop, it causes my hair to bristle without exception. I am both cold and sweating puddles through my clothing. But I am able to recount, without skimping on detail, what I saw for a few seconds on that computer monitor.
Rousseau assures me they will be able to track the feed, that those responsible must have counted on the computer being destroyed and so had risked using a workaday video conferencing site. “This is a huge break,” she tells me in so many variations.
An armored truck belonging to the Sheriffs Department’s Bomb Disposal Unit is parked alongside my bike and the Imam’s station wagon. Before he can be questioned, the bomb squad has to finish slicing the suicide vest from his torso. It’s been sewn on.
“Are there any security cams on the premises?” I catch myself rubbing my chest time and again; I know Rousseau hasn’t failed to notice either.
“Doesn’t appear to be, no.” She asks for a play-by-play of everything that happened, so I give her one starting with the call from Imam Ahmed at the bar. From there we put our heads together.
“The people in that video,” I say, “they were dressed up like a paramilitary outfit. They were obviously referencing ISIS, staging it to look like one of their execution videos.” Only the tables were turned, as they saw it.
“This is about vengeance,” Rousseau agrees, staring out at the dreary farmland. “They can’t get to Ismael, so they’re exacting it on his family.”
I remember Naomi fearing as much the night Khadija went missing. I remember telling her not to jump to conclusions. I remember having my breakfast interrupted by a petitioner who identified himself with the Committee of Homeland Values, and whose primary fear seemed to be that a regional cell of jihadists was fomenting underground. What better way to stoke these anxieties than by framing the only Imam for miles as a cop killer?
Soon, much sooner than I expected, the astronaut-looking bomb squad members emerge in their armor-plated Kevlar suits and helmets. One of them carries a containment vessel of solid steel which resembles a giant billiard ball. With the threat neutralized and a thumbs-up from one of the technicians, I push ahead with Rousseau and her colleagues into the building. I can tell it crosses her mind to suggest I stay outside and continue decompressing. Intuitive as she is, she thinks better of it. However, as soon as I’m back in the Imam’s office, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been sound advice.
He is shaken, his face drenched with sweat, unable to stay still after being confined by duct tape. He mashes his hands together furiously, as though pummeling a ball of dough. Maybe he fancies himself a hero, and worse yet, maybe he is one. But that doesn’t change the fact that he tried to kill me, tried dragging me kicking and screaming as an accomplice to his martyrdom. What makes these Arabs so eager to blow themselves up? Would I have done the same in his shoes? The answer is unequivocally no, but that’s beside the point, since I never got the option, did I? My valor wasn’t tested in any way. I had valor thrust upon me. I’d be antimatter right now if the monkeys who designed that vest were just a shade more adept. And furthermore, my whole extinction would be misunderstood. A false legacy would live on, one that reduced the Imam and me to caricatures of a jihadi screwball and a heedless, blundering cop.
I look at him now, the same man everyone else sees, only my Imam is ignoble, selfish, gullible. Did he really take them at their word that once he vaporized the two of us Khadija would be spared the machete? Is he so fat-headed that he actually believes everyone, even kidnappers, operate under a rigorous code of honesty? Most people have already written Khadija off as a brainwashed runaway. An apparent murder-suicide in her local mosque could only serve to strengthen that bias. This was clearly the icing on the cake, an additional ruthless twist in the overall scheme.
But maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on him. After all, I’m the investigator, aren’t I? And he’s the superstitious nitwit.
Even as I work out these life-or-death dilemmas in my head, I can hear through my own dissonance what the Imam is saying. According to him, someone dressed identically to the men in the video, full camo and a black ski mask, came up here as Imam Ahmed was doing some light bookkeeping and waved a chrome-plated Magnum in his face. He doesn’t know what caliber Magnum, but he knows it was big and evil.
“He ordered me in the chair and taped my feet down before anything else. Then he used my computer to pull up the footage of Khadija. He proved everything I saw was happening live by communicating with the men on screen.”
“What did they say?” Rousseau pressures him to remember.
I glance over at the desk in the corner, where another agent with sandy hair has linked his own laptop to the Imam’s and has been typing away deliberately the entire time. Pedroza stands over the agent’s shoulder, nodding, smoothing his tie neurotically, as if afraid it will ravel up to his chin.
“The one who taped me down, he asked them if they were ready to see an Arab die today. The one in the video said, ‘Yours or mine, it makes no difference.’ Or something along those lines.”
“No. Then he sewed the vest on. It must have taken fifteen, twenty minutes. He left the video running the whole time. So she could see me and I could see her. I was afraid to try and speak. I was afraid of what they might do to her.”
“How did she seem?” Rousseau asks. “Frightened? Hysterical? Was she crying?”
“No.” The Imam uses a handkerchief for about the tenth time to clear away tears, sweat, mucus. “No, she didn’t cry. She barely looked at me. She was naked, you see . . . I think she was ashamed.”
“You’re sure it was her? Beyond any shadow of a doubt?”
“They showed her tattoo. The one she fought with her parents about.”
Rousseau accepts this with a nod. “He sewed the vest on you. What happened next?”
“He handed me a number.” At this point, I gather the Imam has not failed to notice me. He is simply too mortified to make eye contact, as well he should be. His face goes crimson. Rousseau throws me a look that I don’t know how to interpret. Does she want me to leave? Does she want me to pat him on the back and say, “There, there. I understand why you did what you did. No hard feelings. Anyone else would’ve done the same.” Well pardon me, but the wound is still a bit too raw. I stay rooted in place and don’t make a sound.
“He handed me a number and told me to call the Detective. He told me exactly what to say to get him over here. It was only after the call when he described what I’d have to do.”
“Which was?” Rousseau apologizes, explaining that she needs him to be as specific as possible for the record.
“Detonate the vest,” he says. “Kill myself, the Detective, and anyone else he showed up with.”
“To save one life,” I interject.
The Imam turns away toward the window, silently weeping into that damn handkerchief of his. Rousseau gives me another look, this one not so ambiguous to translate. I storm out of the office, trying not to appear like I’m storming.
Ten minutes go by. Ten minutes of furious hand-wringing, resisting the urge to focus morbidly on myself, my own brush with mortality. I evaded mine, whereas Khadija is not yet in the clear. I gather from the eventual flurry of agents leaving the mosque that either (A) another bomb was found, or (B) they were able to complete a trace on the computer. Imam Ahmed is handed off to the bomb squad, who still have to undertake the business of ungluing that detonator from his palm. I keep pace alongside Rousseau and Pedroza as they hustle back to their Escalade. Rousseau confirms that the IP from which the transmission was sent has been triangulated. “It’s registered to an Annabelle Morrissey of Adell.”
“That’s not far,” I say, wide-eyed, nerves firing, watching them board the backseat as their colleagues climb up front.
“Wojcik is dispatching everyone he can spare,” Pedroza reports across Rousseau’s lap in a clipped military voice. “Plus, we’re coordinating with the Sheriffs Department. We should have plenty of manpower.”
“Right then,” I say. “I’ll mind the camp. Keep me posted.”
Rousseau grins before shutting the door.
I follow the Escalade at a mean distance of thirty yards, due southwest down identical county roads. Annabelle Morrissey. I can’t help thinking this is a dead end, some bit of cyber trickery. What the hell was it Rousseau was saying yesterday about “onion routers?” Hard to believe just an hour and a half ago I was sitting across from my ex-wife in a truck stop diner. Hard to believe any of this is happening. Toto, we’re not in Judson Bottom anymore. This is the Gaza Strip. This is fucking Mogadishu.
Before long, I spot JBPD cruisers in my wing mirror. They tail us into the unincorporated town of Adell, one of a series of forgettable hamlets strewing the region, more oases than actual townships. Machinery accidents, bar fights, black-eyed wives and illegitimate bastards: this used to be the high-water mark of crises. Even though Judson Bottom has demonstrably gone topsy-turvy, I remain skeptical that the cancer has already metastasized to Adell.
We pass a banner attached to the fencing of a baseball diamond. It heralds the 45th annual corn roast. We pass a small wedding party taking photographs in the parking lot of a Presbyterian church. We pass a trailer of fresh sweet corn being sold via the honor system at two dollars a bag. I’m vaguely certain the mayor of Adell is an ear of corn. What few heads are present turn at the sight of us, puzzled by this impromptu, candyless parade.
We drive until there is not much farther to go before we put Adell behind us, then the Escalade turns right onto a frontage road running past a creek. A sign materializes on a crooked post, so close I could reach out from the Sportster and graze it with my fingertips. ANNIE’S SCRAPYARD.
Annabelle perhaps? I’m supposed to believe that Khadija’s captor is a woman running a scrapyard? Dismay sets in but doesn’t totally evict hope. Maybe it’s the sight of the high razor-wire fence, the legions of RVs and pick-ups, sedans and cargo vans, all oxidizing in cemetery formation. Maybe it’s the way a cloud just happens to pass over the sun at this exact moment, shrouding everything in a tungsten hue like you see in Holocaust movies. If she is in there, we certainly have our fucking work cut out for us. I estimate it would take less time to search every home in Adell than it would every trunk in Annie’s Scrapyard.
The Escalade comes to an abrupt stop. I pull off onto the grassy shoulder, putting down my kickstand. Two agents hop out, Rousseau and the sandy-haired one who worked his magic on the Imam’s computer. I watch him open the trunk, then a floor panel where you would expect a spare tire to be stowed, only instead he retrieves bolt cutters. He slams the trunk and knocks on the rear windshield. The Escalade speeds off with just Pedroza and his driver inside.
“Is this it?” Rousseau mumbles, looking past me.
I turn around to see six of my fellow officers emerge from three cruisers. I answer with a half-apologetic shrug. What the hell did she expect, SWAT?
Flipse walks over, handing me a bulletproof vest. “Present from the Chief.”
“Cheers.” I pull it over my head and strap myself in. The reality sets in that this might actually be it. I recall the sight of her, her thin brown body dangling between two puppet masters armed to the teeth. Cold metal beside bare flesh. Old Glory trickling behind her like a piece of seditious performance art.
Rousseau corrales everyone into a locker room huddle, holding out a tablet for us to examine. Presented on the screen is a satellite image of the scrapyard. “We have a lot of ground to cover. Besides a small mobile home, there are a few garages and outbuildings. We don’t know how many people are on the premises, but we know they’re armed and presumably organized.” She singles me out. “Mickey, how would you feel about taking two with you into the house?”
“You need more?”
I tell her I’ll take Flipse and Trossen.
“The rest of us can fan out and cover the junkyard. The sheriffs are cutting their way in through the northern fence line as we speak, so our aim is to put the occupants in a vise. Understood?”
She is quite visibly stressed at having to put her safety in the hands of such a green contingent, most of whom have only fired their weapons on the shooting range. For my own part, I’ve squeezed the trigger at a human being twice throughout my entire career, once wounding an armed assailant, twenty years-old, later ruled schizophrenic, and once missing entirely but putting a wicked kink in a dumpster. Her lack of confidence does not go unnoticed by the attending officers, who respond with either baleful grunts or cool silence. At a trot, we advance to the south gate, which I now see is chained and padlocked. A tin sign that could be a hundred years old reads NO TRESPASSING, and there is some muddy cartoon of a dog holding its paw out and blowing a whistle. The sandy-haired agent makes a clean break in the padlock with his bolt cutters, then tosses it aside. The gate squeals on rusty hinges. We slip through and separate according to Rousseau’s plan.
Flipse, Trossen, and I make for the mobile home, which is off to the east and nestled far enough back to be nearly encompassed by scrap wreckage. “Every good junkyard has a junkyard dog,” Flipse cautions under his breath. We take care to spread out, keeping a few feet between us as we advance in a crouched run, each of us braced for a precipitating volley from one of the curtained windows. My eyes flit over the plain of dormant vehicles, all the innumerable hiding spots. Rousseau and her team disappear within its boundaries.
Trossen appears admirably calm and focused, but I know he’s never been in any kind of raid like this before. He probably can’t help thinking about Nicole Kidman and their dribbling, giggling, diaper-filling daughter. I remember what it’s like, tackling this vocation as a family man. What’s his level of skepticism, I wonder, concerning Khadija and the whole Mubarak clan? I can only speculate. He is that refreshing breed of laconic lawman whose only credo is that order must be upheld, and even this he expresses through his actions rather than pontificating. Anyway, what’s this sudden pull of affection toward the young cadet? Some kind of omen? I normally don’t believe in omens, but in this case I’ll make an exception and try to stay in his shadow.
The home is raised on cinder blocks, paneled in warped vinyl. The gutter sags; shingles lay wind-strewn about the yard. As I said, the windows are curtained, all except for a diamond-shaped pane in the front door. A stoop has been built. I reach across its three steps, careful to keep my head down, and try the knob. To my surprise, it’s unlocked. I would hate to embarrass myself in front of these two. Kicking down the door on such an awkward little stoop would probably result in me tumbling backwards, breaking my goddamn arm.
I edge my way in, gun leveled, conducting inventory on a small, squalid living space. One threadbare sofa, replete with ass indentations, untended laundry draped over the backrest. Clothes belong to both sexes. An old tube television balances on a five-drawer tool chest. Harley Davidson memorabilia adorns the wall. (Of course. God forbid any rider should be, say, a Nobel laureate, or an Ivy League philanthropist.) On the coffee table rests an entire alternator. Pages of newspaper beneath it are smeared with grease. There is an ashtray piled with butts and a fifth of Old Crow with about a quarter-inch remaining. More butts marinate in that, producing a toxic brown sludge.
We are about to continue into the kitchen when I sense movement therein. No doubt about it. Someone is padding across the laminate. With my gun trained on the doorway, I bellow, “Police! We know you’re in there. Don’t do anything rash. Just come out with your hands where we can see them.” I wait for the lunge of a meth-addled psychopath, one who’s decided he’d rather die in a blaze of glory than be dragged out of here in cuffs. What presents itself instead is Flipse’s preordained junkyard dog, a brindle pit bull with a chopped tail, wearing of all things, a denim vest. This vest, at least, doesn’t appear to be weaponized.
The watchdog is pissed, to be sure, growling and churning out viscous threads of saliva from its jowls, baring its teeth between gums that look charred. But it’s exhibiting defensive rather than offensive body language, and for this reason I try to talk the dog down. I seem to think I can lead it by the collar safely out the front door without losing my hand. Flipse has no patience for my pacifism, and he’s probably right when he tells me to step aside so he can plug one in the pit’s head.
Trossen immediately reports over the radio that we’re all good in here. Just a dog we needed to eliminate. I have one ear in the kitchen, listening for any commotion now that our presence in the house is abundantly clear. It’s then that I happen to glance down at the canine’s corpse. Sewn on the back of the frayed denim vest is an all too familiar emblem of a green scorpion.
Flipse shoulders past me, voicing some annoyance over how soft I’m being about the dog. Before he can complete the barb, the cabinets ahead of him are mulched by a deafening spray of buckshot. Flipse hits the floor—tactically, I think, until I see his face streaming with blood. He holds himself, crying out in raw agony, rocking on the floor. His flesh is riddled with holes.
“Shots fired!” I hear Trossen report over my shoulder. “We have an officer down!” At the same time, a second voice careens down the hallway that extends from the kitchen to another portion of the house. It’s a woman berating us for killing her dog, vowing to slaughter every pig she sees, boasting that she has enough ammo stockpiled to last her for days. I crawl against the refrigerator, watching Flipse writhe in pain not a foot from the still-warm animal he executed, their blood pooling together on the laminate. For some reason, Beauford, of all people, flashes in my mind, grinning his cynical doomsday grin. There is no way I’m about to risk peeking around the corner while this psycho-cunt is firing buckshot. I look around for something reflective. The first thing I spot is an aluminum toaster. I reach up, snatch it from the counter, only to realize there is nothing mirrored about its surface. My own face from ten inches away is a vague streak of peach.
My phone, I decide. The camera on my phone will suffice.
What I do is activate the camera (one missed call from Valerie, sorry darling), put it on selfie mode, and then slip it in the toaster slot, nudging the jimmy-rigged periscope out with a nearby rolling pin. Crazy Annie shoots again, destroying both implements, but not before I see she has barricaded herself in the narrow hallway behind a loveseat and other household detritus. I crawl over to Trossen to whisper my findings. He is frantically pressing whatever he can find to Flipse’s wounds: dishrags and hand towels and even a checked tablecloth he’s procured from somewhere. I tell him to keep the woman focused, talk to her, while I head around to the other side of the house to try and find a clear shot. He must understand because he nods in all the right places, but my ears are ringing so badly I only know I’m making sounds by the vibrations in my throat.
I dart through the living room and out the front door.
The world outside swims in silence. I keep shaking my head as if that will unclog my ears somehow. At the east end of the house, I find a glass sliding door which opens onto a shoddy, detached deck. The door is locked, but I can easily fire through the glass, then at least the woman will be surrounded. But what next? Another time-wasting stand-off will ensue, time that could be spent searching for Khadija. Holstering my gun, I bend down and rip a rotted plank off the edge of the deck, using my foot to stomp it free. This becomes my lever for prying open the nearest window.
When the gap is wide enough where I can crawl through, I peer inside, establishing the space as a bedroom. Beyond its doorway is the hall where Annie is hunkered. Her apoplexy never lets up. She is calling Trossen every name in the book, threatening every torture, promising she has friends who will “execute your whole motherfucking family!” Owing to the vest on that dog, I have a reasonable guess which friends she means.
I plant one foot against the side of the house, grip the sill, and hoist myself up, worming as gingerly as I can into the room without knocking anything over or making a sound. It is clumsy and graceless. Were she to find me now, I’d have no way of defending myself. Adrenaline steels me as I rise to my feet, in control, treading softly over the carpet. She is getting increasingly incoherent, increasingly unhinged, so I am braced for the gory likelihood that she will not surrender. But I at least have to give her the chance.
Only when my gun is trained on the long plaited braid twisting from her head do I order her to drop the weapon and rise slowly. Caught off guard, she whips around—it’s probably just reflexive—but I nail her in the face at close enough range that her forehead crumbles the same way her cabinets did under buckshot. She slams backward against the barricade, arms outstretched, shotgun clattering to the floor. An enormous inhale balloons my lungs. I feel dizzy and about to burst. My first body is neither who, what, when, or where I could have ever expected, not in a million years. But then I assume that’s generally the case. My eyes can’t help drawing and redrawing the line from her mangled face to my smoking muzzle. Killed. I’ve killed. The message flickers like a short-circuiting marquee. I’ve taken a life.
With the house neutralized, medics are brought in to tend to Flipse. Now that all the interior excitement has concluded, I’m aware that gunfire is being exchanged outside. I unlock the sliding glass door, joining Trossen in another crouched run toward the scrapyard. We find ourselves weaving between the husks of ruined automobiles. He hands me an extra radio and earpiece, explaining in his curt way, “Flipse’s.”
A light rain spawned by the same ominous cloud bank I noted beforehand is turning the ground soft with mud. The salvos are not constant but ring out periodically in singular bursts, mostly off to the north where the sheriffs were said to have infiltrated. Updates crackle through my newly acquired earpiece. At least a dozen “aggressors” are thought to still be at large. Two have been captured, four more “incapacitated.”
We happen upon one of these incapacitated, lying on his back behind a Chevy Astro. There is a bloody hole through his chest. A .12 gauge pump-action lay inches from his dead white hand. I check to make sure there are shells loaded, then holster my Glock, taking the opportunity to upgrade. His face is so ordinary that he strikes me as both familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. I’m about to move on when Trossen says, “I know this one here. He worked up at Gimbe’s lumberyard. Liam Kovich.”
I reel back to have another look, saying under my breath, “Jesus shit. You’re right.” The forklift operator. The one who pointed Rousseau and me to the Holiday Inn. It’s hard to recognize someone you know well when they’re wearing that fish-eyed death mask. Mud saturates his once-lustrous beard.
Trossen’s voice becomes emotional. “Seemed like a real nice kid too. Goddamn. You think the Cannibal’s in on all this?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Though now is not the time or place, I can’t keep the wheels from turning. After Ismael’s treason became public knowledge, Gimbe and Liam Kovich would’ve remembered Khadija from the accident with Gimbe’s daughter. Liam here is young enough that he wouldn’t have looked out of place at McClellan’s party. Plus, he’d already done her a solid by working on her car, which would’ve painted him as an endearing ally, especially when she was feeling so betrayed by Maguire and alienated by everyone else. The problem is that Kovich is in no condition to confirm or deny any of this, so Trossen and I move on.
Through the radio traffic I gather that a smattering of Bureau agents, sheriffs, and police officers are laying siege to a well-fortified outbuilding in the northeast corner of the lot and meeting heavy resistance. They’re protecting something, I think. Trossen and I gather our bearings, maneuvering in that direction. The first friend we encounter is a sheriff standing watch over the two reported renegades in custody. They are squatted in the shade of a decrepit Winnebago, hands zip-tied behind their backs. The right foot of one is cuffed to the left foot of the other.
“Morning, boys,” the sheriff says tonelessly, brown and tan uniform soaked through. The name on his chest reads Kowallis.
Trossen indicates the lawman’s AR-15. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”
“They said we had some kind of Ruby Ridge situation on our hands.” Kowallis pats the weapon without looking down, as if to ascertain that it’s still in his hands. “9mms weren’t going to cut it.” He strikes me as a flinty and humorless specimen. I like him already.
One of the detainees looks up—nobody I’ve seen before, but it would appear he knows me. A cockeyed grin cuts across his shaggy face. His tendrils of hair and his short blond beard drip rainwater. “You fucked up now, Judas. You got that girl killed.” His partner gives me no more than a passing look, then resumes glaring straight ahead, a swarthier type with flesh too tight for his bones.
Kowallis barks at the talker to shut-up. When he keeps on with his leering and guffawing, Kowallis kicks him hard in the thigh. “I told your monkey ass to shut it.” This does the trick. The talker bites his lip to keep from crying out. I’m tempted to compliment the sheriff on his tough love. He tells me, “That’s the first they’ve spoken.” And the way he says it is almost suspicious, as if by that fact alone he’s deduced that I have a link with these madmen running around clad in green scorpions.
I crouch down so I’m at eye level with the detainees. “You know what’s funny? At the end of all this, you’re the ones the papers will be calling terrorists.”
The swarthy one curls his lip at me. His air is boastful and self-righteous. “We have a manifesto. It’s posted online for all the world to see. People are waking up, don’t you get it? They stopped listening to the cops. They stopped listening to the media.”
I look him over intently. On second thought, maybe I have seen him before. He could’ve been one of the early recruits, before I officially broke ties with Riotville. “You people always have manifestos,” I laugh, dipping my fingers in mud, flinging it at their faces. “They all read more or less the same, and at the end of the day no one gives half a sh—” A bullet explodes through the cab window of the Winnebago, near enough to where the sheriff is standing that I worry he’s been hit. He scrambles behind the tire, cursing, face white as a sheet.
The blond one who got kicked imitates a rooster crow at the top of his lungs. “Never leave a man behind!”
“Leave them,” I urge Kowallis. “Let’s move out.”
He seems to be over the initial shock already. His face is deadpan when he says, “I got orders.” Watched too many John Wayne movies, this one, taking a knee with that great rifle of his. “I can pick them off easy enough. Bunch of fucking rookies.”
Even Trossen tries to persuade him, but Kowallis insists that the two of us go regroup with the siege. “That’s what’s important, isn’t it? Getting that girl back. Go ahead. I’ll give you boys cover fire.” Allowing us no time to protest, he darts past us to the rear of the Winnebago, aligns his barrell with the bumper, and begins packing off successive bursts of 223s.
Trossen and I make a break for it. We dash past three or four vehicles. When I mean to skid to a halt, I instead slip on the mud and go sliding out into the open. About ten yards ahead, I see a man jerk his head in surprise. He wears full camo and a black bandana, caked with mud from head to toe. I can tell that Gian considers for a moment taking aim with that chrome Magnum in his hand, before he registers the shotgun in mine.
It is not a conscious decision to give chase. He disappears behind a gray VW bus and my body picks itself up, hurdling in the same direction. Kowallis’ rifle pounds nearby like a metronome. The enemy’s response comes in sporadic fits. I veer before reaching the bus, too close for comfort to the line of fire. A windshield shatters not far away. The air goes gushing from a wounded tire. As I come upon the VW, Gian poorly times his retreat. I have a clear shot, and I tell him as much at the top of my lungs. “Freeze!” He staggers, but keeps advancing toward the next protective vehicle, tenacious despite his lack of traction. I mean for the slug to cripple him. The mud kicks up around his feet and he falls forward in alarm, still clutching his sidearm.
“Take your hands off the weapon!” I’m crouched behind the trunk of a Celebrity. I tell him to stay still, keep lying on his belly, fold his hands behind his back. He doesn’t budge. His mind is computing a way out, coming up with the same futile quotient every time. Still, he cannot bring himself to comply. To abandon his gun would be too symbolic. “Don’t be fucking stupid,” I tell him. “You don’t have to die today… ” The glare of the halogens. A dozen leather-clad acolytes chanting his name. Is he reliving the same moment? The satisfying thwack of my bones beneath his fist? And now all these years later, he’s been bested? Gian is nothing if not prideful, if not fastened to his binary worldview of the weak and the strong, the champions and the vanquished. As with Crazy Annie, I prime myself to end a life, just before I hear him say, “Alright, Fonty. You win.”
He rises to his knees slowly, putting up empty hands, lacing his fingers behind his head. Mired in disbelief, I sprint over, bent as low as I can go with my cuffs at the ready. The situation is one I’ve admittedly fantasized over, but with all the static of crisis in the air I’m hardly in the right mindset to enjoy it, or even to tally it as a victory just yet. I cram Gian’s gun into my belt and drag him back over to where I left Trossen. It occurs to me now that it’s unlike Trossen to lag behind—so unlike him that my guts knot up with concern, even before we turn the corner and find Kowallis knelt beside my partner’s body, swapping fire with the very gunmen who have laid him out in the mud.