"I'm here," Auggie said into the phone as he made a first pass around the perimeter of the safe-house to get his bearings.
"Good. You have three hours until the meet, just lay low until then. A cab will come for you at two-forty-five," said Barber.
"Got it," Auggie said, hit cane hitting some furniture. He reached out and felt a padded chair pushed against the wall. He made his way around it. "Briggs and Logan?"
"They're on route now. They'll be within shooting distance."
"Well," said Auggie, finding his way around a table and a wooden cupboard of some kind. "That's comforting."
"Just make sure you... aw, what am I saying, you know what you're doing," Barber said. "Just be careful, Man."
"Careful is my middle name," said Auggie groaning inwardly at his expression.
"Yeah, okay, Auggie. But you need to be it. And call us before you go. We got eyes and ears on you at all times."
"Thanks, Eric. I will."
Auggie finished the call and put the phone in his pocket. He continued around the room, for lack of anything else to do at the moment. He felt anxious, ready for the action, ready to find out what exactly they were moving into the country. He was excited, the old surge of adrenaline picking up in his veins. He also felt uncertain. This was, by far, his most challenging op since being benched. He wasn't with Annie. He wasn't with anyone. This was all him. He tried not to let that thought overtake him. This was going to go off as planned. No-one would suspect a blind guy, and they could test him all they cared to, but that part of his cover would always stand up.
He heard the dog stand up, her claws clicking on the floor as she moved to a cooler spot, and then he heard the thud of her elbows and her haunches as she dropped back down to the floor to wait.
"We're going to do this, it's going to be fine," Auggie said to the dog. The dog didn't make any kind of reply. Auggie felt stupid.
"Well, okay, Tosca, don't let me down, this is going to be a big show for us." He heard the dog's tail thump against the floor at her name. Auggie moved over, finding his way with his cane, until he was close to the thumping tail. There was a wooden chair nearby, he hit it with his cane. He reached out and found the back of it and slid it closer to the dog, sitting down. Tosca's tail thumped harder. Auggie reached down and felt her fur. He followed the fur's direction backwards, up to the neck and the head, feeling the soft, velvety ears that stood, perked up to the sounds around the empty house. He'd felt the dog's form from head to toe already before, but he did it again, patting her as he did so. He wondered, if he hadn't been told, if he could have guessed she was a German Sheppard. He figured he probably would have, since that was a very popular breed for a working dog, and would have been his first guess. The ears and the snout were his second hint, and the tail, now wagging as he inspected her, was definitely the third.
"Well, Tosca, it's just you and me, now. I mean, we have back up, but it's our show. Actually," Auggie pondered, "it's really your show. I'm just your front man." He gave the dog a couple of pats. "I seriously have no idea if I should have come up with this, Tosca. I mean, when I think about it, it's crazy. I mean, what sane person would be doing this in the first place, let alone blind? Do you think I'm off my rocker, hey, Girl?"
The dog nuzzled Auggie's hand. Clearly she agreed.
"Yeah. I'm clearly unhinged," he said, patting her side. "I'm discussing my sanity with a dog." Auggie smiled to himself, and then stood, continuing to familiarise himself with the safe-house, for lack of anything better to do.
At the designated time, a quarter to three, Auggie made his way outside with Tosca. If all went well, he'd be back here within two hours, waiting for his two flanking guards to whisk him back to the æroport, back to DC, back to Joan's consenting nod. Back to Annie.
If it didn't go well...
He had three back-up plans. And none of them were very good.
It just simply needed to go off as planned, thought Auggie, as he heard the car approach and give a beep. He assumed this was meant for him, but he never really could tell with cabs, unless they came for him, which some of the more thoughtful ones did when they realised. He had often been pressed to admit when he called for cab that he was blind and would they please be sure to let him know they were there for him directly. This time, he figured a white cane and a Guide Dog would be tip-off enough, but it didn't seem to avoid the one honk of the car horn.
He hadn't stopped to consider how hard it was to hang on to a harness and use his cane, and find the car door and open it. He turned his hand inward and let his hand graze down the side of the car, Tosca obediently moving along beside him. Second door handle. Auggie pulled it open and the dog jumped inside. Auggie gave the address of the warehouse to the driver and then he sat back, closing his eyes, breathing calmly. He did the opposite of what he had done while in the army during strikes. Instead of pumping himself up, as he had done in the early days, he had learned to calm himself down. He knew that it had started with Billy's Mingus albums. Billy had insisted on listening to the smooth jazz and it had somehow centred them all on their mission, without all the added adrenaline of hard core music that some soldiers preferred before battle. They'd had enough adrenaline from the get-go. Auggie didn't need adrenaline now. He needed clear thinking, and he needed clear senses. He needed to read the dog precisely when she detected the biological weapons he suspected. He needed to not make assumptions. He needed to make the deal without suspicion, and set up the meet for the weapons transfer. He needed to do all this without blowing the cover of a Guide Dog that wasn't a Guide Dog.
"This is it," the driver said as the car crept to a stop. "There's a gate. Am I supposed to go in?"
"No," said Auggie, gathering his things, and reaching over the console to hand the driver a bill. "Keep the change."
"Should I stay? Are you returning?"
"I hope so," said Auggie. "But I may be a while. I have your company's number in my phone. I'm happy with your service; I'll call on you again." He let the dog jump out and he unfolded his cane, too. He couldn't very well go without it, thought he was sure that a bunch of bikers weren't up on the protocol of Guide Dog use, and wouldn't question why he'd have both.
He heard the car drive away, and he took a deep breath, letting it out. Then he bent down and took the harness handle into his left hand.
"We're on," he said, walking forward. The dog moved along with him, not turning away from the gate as Auggie found it with his cane. She was following him, as she was trained to do. He hoped no-one was watching too closely. He moved along the gate and found the latch at one side. There was a lock in it that had been left hanging open. Auggie unlatched the gate and passed through, setting the lock as he'd found it. He started along the gravel road. He could hear trees around him, their leaves rustling in the slight breeze. He found the shoulder of the road with his cane and then from there, Tosca moved along quite nicely. Auggie was just getting the feel of walking alongside her, getting a little idea of what it would be like to move with an animal trained to be a partner. He'd never conceptualised it before, he'd barely scratched the notion when it was presented to him as an option. He knew the list was long for applicants, he'd heard that at rehabilitation in many a complaint. But it was a very specific duty, Auggie knew, and only the best dogs were taken. Many did not pass the final exam, and this resulted in too few dogs for too many people who needed them.
Auggie heard the rumble of a truck. He stopped, not knowing where to go to get out of its way, or even if he was in its way. The truck stopped in front of him.
"Yes?" Auggie tilted his head, trying to get a handle on the speaker.
The man climbed out. "I'm here to meet you. They said you'd need help."
Auggie shook his head. "No. I'm good. Just point out where you want me, and by point, I mean tell me exactly."
"Uh, I'm supposed to take you to the meet."
"Right. Uh. Isn't it here?"
"Yeah. But I'm supposed to take you up there."
"Well, as you can see, I'm pretty capable here, with my trusty Guide Dog."
"Yeah... well, I dunno, Man, I just do what Doc tells me, and he told me to watch out for you. And here I am. I'm just a Prospect. I do as I'm told. They told me to go get the blind man, here I am, here you are."
Auggie took a minute. "Okay," he said. Slight deviation. Close enough. He felt okay to go forward. The two men watching him would catch up. It wouldn't be far, surely. He listened to the man walk back to the vehicle and he followed the sound, making his way to the front of the truck. He trailed the back of his cane hand once again along the side until he found the door. He slid his hand up higher, searching for the door handle. For as much as people thought they were helping him, they never seemed to help with anything useful. He finally found it and ushered the dog up inside.
They didn't talk for the couple of minutes it took to get to the yard. As soon as the engine shut off, Auggie jumped out of the truck, his hand on the harness. He was not letting go of this dog, and he didn't want to hear the man say he had to leave her inside the truck, which he had fears would happen at this point.
He also knew he had to sell the dog's existence. He did not unfold his cane. He stuck it in his back pocket, and concentrated on his own feet, and the dog's direction.
"And who am I meeting?" he called out, to either his driver or whoever it was around him at this point.
"That'd be me."
Auggie turned, cocking his ear. He knew he looked the part. He wore a shabby hoodie and a worn pair of jeans. He had on what Annie had termed the ugliest, dirtiest sneakers she had ever seen and she hoped he didn't bring them back. He had a burner phone, with one number in it. He had a piece of paper in his pocket in Braille. He had his key to his safe house. Now he needed to play it.
"Yeah. I take it from the dog that you're Shamper."
"Yeah." He needed to be someone that would have blinded himself cooking meth. "I'm Shamper. You got my guns? Boden has a list, and he'd rather not have to do this twice."
"He thinks you're able to know what he wants?" Auggie was absolutely positive the man was flapping his hand at his eyes. He didn't react, though he longed to reach out and snap the man's fingers back.
"No, he thinks you're able to know what he wants. I'm just the list checker." He dug out the paper. "I'll do inventory. You load it in. You meet my driver in Mathis at the scheduled place. My driver hands you the money and he and he'll take it from there."
"And my truck?"
"You keep your truck. We have our own, unmarked, untraceable. They'll make the switch, your truck comes back, and we go on our merry way. Well, not me, of course. I'm off this business after this. I'm sick of this shit."
"Yeah, we hear Boden's got your cards. You ain't out until he says."
"He just feels bad because it was his meth lab that did this to me. I was his best driver. I did shit like this all the time, and it wasn't this goddam technical. Just show me what you have and load it as I check. Jesus, do I need to give diagrams? Let's just do this. I hate being a mule, and I hate being his mule. He owes me for this and what do I get? Come on, Tosca. Hey, where's the merchandise?" Auggie displayed an impatience that he felt inside, but he played into displeasure and bitterness.
"Right this way."
"Tosca, forward," Auggie said, pushing on the harness and following the footsteps in front of him. The dog obeyed, and trotted along behind the man they called Doc. Auggie inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, and momentarily wondered if Decker was somewhere on site. He also wondered if Briggs and Logan had caught up with them yet and where they might be situated.
They mounted a ramp and then Auggie knew they had passed an opening into the warehouse, probably the loading bay. He nearly ran into the back of his dealer, since Tosca just barely stopped in time, but Auggie covered for her. He waved his list.
"I'm gonna read this off to you. I want each weapon to pass through my hands before it goes into this shipment. I'm gonna inspect each one, and I know my weapons. I was a first rate class one weapons specialist in the U.S. Army. Sharp shooter."
As he was talking, he paid attention to the canine at his feet. The dog was pulling to Auggie's right, almost across his path. Auggie distracted Doc with more rambling. He went on about PTST taking him into drugs and then getting hooked into Boden's crowd. He'd wanted out for a while, and then the chemicals in Boden's meth lab had burned his corneas and he was stuck, indebted to a man he didn't feel he owed anything to.
He could tell Doc wasn't paying attention to him, but was moving the guns with the help of a few of his club members. Again, Auggie wondered if Decker was there.
The dog was sitting and then standing. She was leaning across Auggie's legs as much as the harness would allow her and she scratched on the floor, against his sneakers as she did so. She sat again. She made a small whine and stood once more, scratching on Auggie's feet.
"Are you coming?" Doc asked. "You wanted to check these out."
"Yes," Auggie said. "Where are they?"
"Straight ahead of you. There's a truck with the gate down. Check them there."
"Tosca, forward," Auggie said, and the dog pulled away, back across him. He moved the harness, trying to distract her now, too, trying to point her in the right direction. "Tosca. Forward."
"That's not much of a Guide Dog you have there, Blind Man," said Doc, and Auggie heard a few chuckles around him.
"Yeah. She wasn't the top in her class, that's for sure. I haven't had her long. She's fine, though. No problems. I mean, she likes to chase things sometimes, but I'm sure I'll wean it out of her. Gotta teach the bitches what you want, right?" He laughed, feeling stupid, but when he heard laughter around him, he nodded.
He inspected the guns through his hands. He didn't care, really, what they were, he was all done with guns, tech was his weapon of choice now, but he recognised them enough to check them off his list, and to come across as a competent gun-runner. He tried to keep his nerves calm around so many weapons. He was definitely at a disadvantage in a gunfight, and the sound of all that gunfire would put his anxiety level above anything he could work around. It was hard to avoid bullets when one couldn't see them aimed in his direction.
"We good? You can't have any complaints. We have what you want, right?"
The dog continued to push against Auggie's knees. "You bet. I got it. Boden's gonna be a happy man, you should know."
"Well, it's about time," said Doc. "We been dealing with him a while now, and he stopped checking in. We were not happy. Man couldn't even talk to the Club? Causes a lot of stress in an organisation, you know. You better tell your Boden he'd better wise up. We're not sitting here with these guns, if he doesn't want them, we'll sell them to the next interested party."
"It was a mistake," Auggie said. "And now it's rectified. You're moving the guns, everything is just ace in the hole."
"It better not happen again, or he'll have hell to pay. It won't bother me one bit to kill a blind guy, and Boden is not that much harder to find."
"Look, I'll give him your message." He swung his head around, listening. "Are we done here?"
"Yeah, let's deliver all this to your man."
"No, you deliver this to my man. I'm out of here."
"How do we know this ain't a set-up? How do I know I ain't waiting to be ambushed? Where's my money?"
"You'll get the money when you deliver the goods. The deal is made."
"You're going with us, or you're not going anywhere."
Auggie rolled his head back along his neck. He knew this would get sketchy. He knew he was going in the truck. He'd almost counted on it. It was an option that he'd written into his dossier for Joan.
"Fine. Let's get it over with. I got a piano lesson to teach and I don't need this bullshit." Auggie couldn't help it. It was times like these that he was able to just really release the sarcasm he often wanted to yell out at strangers in the street.
"You can ride in the back," the man who had driven him up told him. "Right here with your precious cargo load."
Auggie felt the gate of the truck, and then coaxed Tosca up. The driver held Auggie's arm as he climbed up behind her. He heard another two sets of footsteps climb up behind him. That would make four, if he was accurate in his guess. At the meet, there would be one driver, and Briggs and Logan would reroute. That would be his three. Decker's CIA tails would make five. Auggie felt around with his foot, looking for a place to settle down, and then he was roughly manhandled to a wooden plank on the side. The dog sat, whining the whole time, scratching on Auggie's shoe. This truck had obviously moved something more than AK-74s and Steyr assault rifles. Auggie hoped there was nothing left there now, but he knew that that would make no sense. They wouldn't travel around with that stuff. They would have had strict orders to store and move it as quickly as possible, Belenko wouldn't have screwed around with those orders. He had plans for those items, and he'd brought them into the country for a reason. And losing them in a biker deal was not something Belenko would let happen. His purpose was bigger. So Auggie, mulling this over, figured that biological weapons had been in this truck, had been in the building, were maybe still there, and were on their way to another warehouse, the one that Annie and Decker had been looking for for weeks. There was no doubt in his mind that Tosca was giving him every sign that he'd been right.
Now he just needed to finish this and get her home. It was all going to plan. Mostly.
Auggie sat, calmly, feeling the lurching of the truck. His companions didn't speak. Doc was in the front with the driver. He assumed that there was probably a gun or two at the ready, pointing at him. He dropped his head, turning his head, keeping all his attention focused on sounds. He needed to be on alert, ready to move if he had to. He kept his hand on the dog's harness.
"That must suck," said a voice. "Your eyes, I mean."
"Yeah. It's not the goddam circus," Auggie replied, not moving his head.
"Didjya ever wish you had died instead?" the man asked.
"What is this, Oprah's couch?" Auggie grumbled.
"Shit, Man, I'm just asking."
Auggie patted the dog's side. She kind of grounded him a bit, gave him something to concentrate on, to connect to. They fell back into silence as the truck rumbled along the outskirts of towns.
Finally, it came to a stop. The door was swung open and Auggie was shaken and lifted by his arm from where he sat. He kept his grip on Tosca's harness and waited for his companions to exit. He let the leash out and the dog jumped out. Auggie crouched, hating to hop into oblivion, needing to lessen the leap, and felt a hand on his arm to give him help.
He'd been riding in the truck with him the whole time.
"Thanks," Auggie said, holding in all signs of recognition, reaching down, picking up the harness handle again.
"Where's your truck?" Doc asked, coming around to join them.
Auggie shook his head, almost amazed at the man's words. "You're asking me to tell you where it is? Can't you see?"
"It's not here, Shamper."
"Give it a minute." Auggie hated people's patience or lack of it.
"This better not be a trap."
"Oh, will you relax?" Auggie snapped. "Why the hell would I come all this way for nothing? You think travelling around for Boden, checking for weapons, being his goddam lackey, is an easy thing for a blind man? It's not. Even with my Guide Dog. I wouldn't waste my time if there wasn't some purpose, and my purpose is to get Boden his guns, so he'll give me my money. You think a disability cheque is enough to live on these days? It's not. I just want my deal. And I'm out of your hair, and hopefully the next time, Boden will pick some other poor jackass to do his dirty work." Auggie heard the sound of a heavy gear slowing down. He threw out a little smile. "There he is."
As the truck slowed, he stood back awkwardly. The driver manoeuvred so that loading would be easier, and then climbed down from the truck.
"Shamper! You okay?"
Auggie nodded. The driver was Carl Lahey, he'd known him for a few years now. Lahey was a big man, and looked like a biker, or so Auggie had been told. He loved ops where he got to be a gun runner. It was right up his alley.
"It all there?" Lahey asked, moving toward where Auggie stood with Tosca.
"It's all there," he replied.
"Of course it's all there," said Doc. "I don't renege on my deals, you can tell your boss that. And that's why I'm here personally. I want to make sure you know I'm a serious dealer. We need to fortify our brothers to the north and east."
"Are you dealing with anyone up the coast?" asked Lahey. "We want full guarantee no-one trades on our turf."
"You're our only contact," said Doc. "Big man's got his own business, you want to know, you ask Maskhadov."
"Maskhadov?" said Auggie. "Russian bike gang?"
"No bike gang. Importer. Enough of this shit. I'm not hanging around shooting the breeze all day with you all. Load 'er up."
Just as they were beginning to move the crates from one vehicle to the other, Auggie heard another vehicle approaching. He stood still, holding the dog steady, willing the vehicle to pass.
"Aw, shit," Doc said. "What the hell are they doing here?"
"Who? Who is it?" Auggie needed someone to answer him here. No-one did. He tipped his head, trying to get the best angle on sounds.
A voice moved close and passed by, softly muttering, "It's the Bandidos. Seven."
Auggie's shoulders tensed. This was not a part of his dossier. Gang run-ins were not in the plan. Decker giving him the heads up as he went by would only give him a few moments of planning on his feet. He stayed exactly where he was and put all his focus on the sound around him.
"Who are these?" asked a voice moving to his left. Auggie could detect a regional accent in the voice. "You said you would not branch out, Hermano. You said we would be your only customers. What is this, esé? Who are these?"
"Boden's men," Doc said. "You have no such deal with us, Jemenez. We had a deal when Padilla was in charge, but you stepped on that."
"I want to see what it is you're selling to the gabachos," Jemenez said, moving forward.
Auggie jumped as a bullet exploded into the ground at the Mexican's feet. Tosca leapt in her harness and barked.
"You stay there," said Doc to Jemenez. "You. Take that truck."
Auggie tried to follow the random conversation that seemed to be taking effect in a less-than-positive outcome. He assumed Doc was now motioning to Lahey, but then there were boots moving on his left, and another shot. Auggie backed away, not wanting to end up a victim in a shooting game of chicken. There was a shout and then another shot. Auggie ducked, off the road now, trying to follow Tosca, stumbling over dry, tall grass. He didn't know how visible he was still, but he just wanted to get out of the turf war, not knowing how he was going to get back to the right outcome of this. He didn't care about the guns, none of them did, with the exception of getting them off the street, but he needed to know that Decker and Lahey were okay, and that they'd get out of this mess. He fell over a mound of earth, and got back up, trying to keep the sound of the shouting and guns behind him. He didn't want to draw attention to himself, just as he hit a metal fence, knocking him sideways. He stumbled again, and the dog covered over him, and then pulled him, half-walking, half-dragging, around the side of a cement wall.
Auggie pulled her close. She may not have been a good Guide Dog, but she was well-schooled in saving her partner. And, Auggie thought with spite, she wasn't the worst guide he'd ever had.
The next thing he heard was sirens, and more shouting. The Bandidos jumped into their truck and pulled off quickly. Auggie heard the other engines starting, and he heard a shout from Decker.
"What about the blind guy?!"'
"Forget him, leave him, what's he gonna do?"
The sounds of squealing tires, and then nothing but the echo of sirens.
Auggie panicked for a moment, and then he heard shouts. Briggs and Logan were calling his name, and Lahey's name. Auggie waited, until he realised they were in the clear if they were calling his own name instead of Shamper. He stood, moving around into their view.
"Lahey?" He called, stepping forward, the dog trotting along in front of him as he tried not to stumble over the uneven terrain. He reached into his back pocket for his cane, which had stayed wedged down against his backside and up his back, and still moving forward, pulled the cord off with one hand, letting it drop open. "Lahey? Briggs!"
"He's down, Auggie. Are you okay?" He heard the footsteps thumping forward to meet him.
"Is he okay? Is he alive?" Auggie said as the sound of sirens stopped around him.
"Help is here," said Briggs. "We'll get you both home."
Auggie listened to the sound of the police radios around him as he sat in the cruiser. They were loading Lahey into an ambulance with stable vitals. Auggie had his phone to his ear, and only one ring sounded.
"Auggie," Barber's voice sounded tense.
"I'm checking in, Man," Auggie said. "Just another day in the field."
He heard Barber let out a huge gush of air. "Someone wants to talk to you," he said.
Auggie patted the dog beside him, waiting for the phone to be passed.
"Hey, Sweet Cheeks," said Annie. "So, you did that, then, huh?"
Auggie laughed. He knew there'd be hell to pay with the seventh floor, but he also knew this one was a win, and he knew Annie knew it, too.
"You weren't worried about me, were you, Walker?"
"You? Never," Annie said, and he could hear the smile in her voice.