Honey? I’m Home
“The front door shouldn’t be open. Not at 4:00 a.m.”
That was the first thing to tell Mark all was not well at his apartment.
He parked his eight-year-old Taurus wagon next to Suzie’s dark grey three-year-old Pontiac Solstice convertible. Out of habit born in another land, he scanned the area. The dent in her driver’s door reflected a nearby streetlight, a mute reminder that he had promised to straighten it. It would only take a couple of minutes. He could easily do it while changing the oil and rotating the tires. One of the tires really needed air. Three more things he needed to do. He shook his head. He was just getting back to their apartment after working night shift at the call center. All he really wanted to do was go in, crawl in the sack next to Suzie’s curvy warmth and sleep. Maybe when she got up to go to work, he could get up and finally get those off his Honey-Do list. He’d have her drive his car today.
He got out of the car, pressed the door lock to lock the car and quietly closed the door. He didn’t want to use the remote and have the beep wake Suzie. She could sleep three more hours before she had to get up for work. You learned these basic courtesies when you were on base in-country. Since he’d started dating her, they’d become even more important. He walked through the predawn darkness, up the short flight of steps and turned the corner to the alcove and the open door. Maybe the change in weather had slightly sprung the door again. He knew he needed to adjust the latch plate so it would stay closed. He’d promised Suzie a couple weeks ago that he would take care of it. The apartment superintendent wasn’t so super and it was easier to take care of these things himself. He entered the living room, closed the door and lifted on it slightly until it clicked in place. The sound seemed louder than usual in the pre-dawn stillness. He held his breath, waiting for some indication that the click had disturbed his sleeping beauty. Guilt warred with anticipation, because he knew what she’d be wearing if she came to check.
After a couple of long breaths, he slipped off his boots. He tip-toed across the living room to the hallway leading to the bedrooms and bathroom. He walked into a chair that shouldn’t have been in his path. That was odd. Then he shrugged, Suzie had been wanting to rearrange the living room for some time. She’d been waiting for him to help with moving the heavy items – another Honey-Do List item. He guessed that she had moved some stuff last night and forgotten to tell him when he called to tell her good night. He always called her just before she went to bed. She never called him because she never knew when he’d be tied up with a support customer.
He moved around the chair and continued to the bedroom. Suzie must really be out. He hadn’t heard a sound from her with all the noise he’d made. He stepped into the Master bedroom. There was enough light coming in through the curtains that he could almost see. Suzie had said she’d sleep better if they could get the heavier curtains hung. All Mark needed to do was put up a stouter drapery rod. He’d been meaning to get to it. Just another item on the Honey-Do list.
It was kind of nice to have someone to do for. There hadn’t been for the fifteen years he’d been in the Army.
He tangled his toes in the dark blue blanket lying on the floor and stumbled into the chair that wasn’t supposed to be in front of the closet. He didn’t curse only because he needed to get his breath back. He watched the jumble of bedclothes on the bed, waiting for Suzie to look up to see what was happening. It would be nice. She was kinda cute with the skimpy nightie she always wore, and her long blond hair running every which way across her face. Usually, something interesting would peek out from somewhere. He stood, the smiling apology waiting on his lips. She couldn’t be sleeping that soundly. He limped to the bed, only to find it empty. Surprised, he walked back to the door and hit the light switch.
He blinked at the brightness when two of the four bulbs in the ceiling fan fixture lit up. It reminded him that he needed to replace the other two. Suzie couldn’t reach them, and he didn’t want her to hurt herself climbing up on something to change them.
The room was a wreck. The TV and DVD player were gone, along with his laptop. Suzie never liked his having it in the bedroom, but she wouldn’t move it. When he was on call, he needed to reach it quickly, and they spent a lot of time in the bedroom. Suzie’s reading glasses lay in two pieces on the floor. Something had broken them right across the bridge piece. Alarmed, Mark went to the kitchen counter to call 911. He spent the wait time going through the apartment taking inventory of what was missing. His mind kept echoing “Suzie’s gone. Suzie’s gone, Suzie’s gone …” It was like there was a giant hole in the fabric of the universe sucking all of the joy and light from it.
It was hard to believe Suzie had come to mean so much to him so quickly. He’d gone straight into the Army from High School and his high school sweetheart had Dear John’ed him while he was still in Basic. While he was in the service, it hadn’t been a good idea to think about a new girl-friend. He’d moved around too much and hadn’t wanted to have to lie about what he was doing.
He’d met Suzie the first month he’d been out. They’d met at a job placement center and gone out for a cup of coffee. They’d moved in together a month later, and had been living together for the last two years.
His conversation with the Police was a blur. The first detective on the scene was Dennis Coleman. Six inches shorter than Mark, and twenty pounds heavier, he subconsciously projected the fact that he was in charge. It wasn’t his rumpled uniform, or the beginnings of wattles under his chin – it was his intense professionalism and how he spoke with Authority. Mark recognized that Authority. His best officers in the military had had the command voice. As other officers arrived, Coleman melded them into an investigative team while he focused on Mark’s account of his coming in and what he did and found. Coleman’s thoughtful questions pulled more detail from Mark than even he thought he remembered. He gave them a list of what was missing, and he had a picture of Suzie he could let them have. That was lucky; most of his pictures of her were on the laptop. They all showed the same thing – a tall, lush blonde with china blue eyes and killer dimples on each side of her generous smile. The police were worried about the laptop. When they heard he worked for a software security firm they began worrying needlessly about what was on it. The laptop was protected by Check Point’s state of the art encryption system. That machine was useless to anyone not having the Endpoint user name and password. After his work in the military, he knew better than to use any of the common passwords. The only person who’d ever been able to guess his passwords was a Division Commander he’d once had. He’d died on that last Charlie Foxtrot mission. Besides that, all the critical data was on an encrypted flash drive he wore around his neck on his dog tag chain. It was a useful trinket – when you plugged it into any computer, it became a secure link to your work machine. All communications were encrypted as well as the data it stored. The encryption was a very robust military encryption that few had access to. No, he wasn’t worried about the laptop. He kept telling them, get Suzie back. Nothing else mattered. Coleman just looked at him tolerantly and wrote more in his notebook.
The investigative team thoroughly canvassed the crime scene and took hundreds of pictures. They were all envious of his girlfriend and sympathetic about his loss. Detective Coleman told him that they’d have to wait for a few days to file a missing persons report, unless they got a ransom note. Had they had a fight? Right now, it was still possible that Suzie had decided to help herself to a few items and leave. Mark’s protest that she’d have taken her car fell on deaf ears. The best the police could do for now was to put out a bulletin on her description and request notification if she was seen anywhere. Finally, the notebooks were tucked securely into pockets and a final sweep made for possible evidence. As the team moved out, Coleman left his card with instructions to call if Mark heard anything.
The sudden departure of so many bodies made the apartment feel barren. Mark stood in the center of the screaming silence, at a loss for a next step. His stomach broke the silence demanding the next order of business. That took him back to his service days; no matter what, when you had a chance to eat, you ate. You never knew when you’d get the next chance. Besides, he’d learned over the years that preparing food helped him think when he was upset. It gave him focus for his nervous energy while his mind tried to work.
He moved into the little efficiency kitchen and dug out his old favorite cast iron skillet. He’d found it at a flea market. It was well seasoned and made the best fried eggs ever. He never let Suzie clean it. He stuck with the tried and true method of scouring it out with a scrub pad and lightly oiling it. Suzie preferred her color-coordinated aluminum non-stick cookware and he understood. They’d been talking about a dream house, and she had the colors picked out for the kitchen. Her cookware would look great hanging over the island they planned. He’d promised, teasing her, that he would keep his skillet out of sight and only bring it out for special guests.
He built two thick, ham-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, slathering on the pepper and yellow mustard. Suzie didn’t like him eating those. Bless her heart; she was worried that they wouldn’t be good for him. He’d laughed. He was six-three in his stocking feet and weighed 180. He worked out three times a week. An occasional cholesterol special wasn’t going to hurt him. He poured himself a tall glass of ice-cold Earl Grey Green tea from the pitcher she kept for them in the fridge. The green tea was something else Suzie had introduced him to. He liked to rationalize that anti-oxidants would offset the cholesterol. He also liked the slight bite of the unsweetened tea on the back of his tongue. In fact, he liked it so well he hadn’t had more than a handful of sodas since he’d started drinking it. Drinking tea was one of the many good things Suzie had brought into his life. He even took a large thermos of it to work - saved money and calories. Like just about everything with Suzie, it was a big win-win.
He stood and ate at the kitchen counter. That way he wouldn’t have to worry about dripping yolk, melted cheese, or mustard on the carpet or furniture. That was another of those little things he’d learned to care about since he’d started living with Suzie. Getting mustard on the light-colored carpet would directly counter his daily mission to find some way to make her smile.
The Clueless’ Clue
Mark was startled when the phone rang. He realized he’d been standing at the counter twenty minutes, just thinking about Suzie’s smile and dozing on and off. It was a hang-up call. He stood there holding the receiver hoping that someone would come on and tell him they’d found Suzie. He started dozing again. He needed to get some sleep. He hung up the phone only to have it ring again. It was Suzie’s friend, Tandi from the office. Tandi wanted to know if Suzie was all right since she hadn’t come in to work and hadn’t called in. The call set Mark back a bit. After everything that had happened this morning; it should be later than just nine in the morning. He explained that the apartment had been robbed and that Suzie was missing.
“OH! That’s awful. Is she OK, darlin’?” Tandi’s voice was pure southern belle. She’d successfully worked the beauty queen circuit for a while. It had gotten her a degree in Interior Design, but she was working as a receptionist in the architectural office where Suzie worked as a designer. She and Suzie had become fast friends. Tandi still worked the occasional modeling gig and had tried to recruit Suzie to pair her blondness against Tandi’s darker brunette look. It hadn’t worked out because Suzie broke the rules. Models were only supposed to be attractive enough to make the clothes look good. When the model drew the customer’s attention from the outfit, it frustrated the designers.
Mark closed his eyes and counted to ten in Farsi. “I don’t know. I hope so.”
“Bless her heart. She must be terrified. Have you-all called the Police?”
Mark took a deep breath and started counting down from 100 in Pashto. “Yeah, they left about an hour ago.”
“Do they know who did it?”
“Not yet.” Mark was trying to see what he remembered of Russian. “They took prints from all over the place. They asked the apartment office for the security camera tapes. Hopefully they will find something.”
“Oh, Mark, I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“Tandi, if I think of anything, I’ll call you.” Maybe remove yourself from the gene pool before procreating.
“You do that, honey.” That sugary voice grated on his nerves. “You know, I wonder if it was the Scavengers.”
Mark suddenly felt completely awake. From the mouth of babes … “The who?”
“The Scavengers. It was on the news just the other night, dear. It’s a motorcycle gang the Police think are responsible for a number of robberies and kidnappings over the last few months. They just can’t prove any thing yet.”
“I’m surprised the Police are talking about it, then.”
“Oh, they aren’t. This reporter had been digging up some information on the gang. I just wish I could remember his name. He’s got such a nice smile. Apparently they just moved into the area from Yankee territory - the North East, I think. I don’t remember all the details, but supposedly the FBI is watching for them as well.”
“Did the reporter say anything about what happened to the kidnap victims?”
“Usually they wait 48 hours and then leave a note at the crime scene. They give you 48 hours to leave the ransom money at some out of the way spot.”
“What happens if they don’t get the money?”
“The victims are never seen again.”
“I wonder what happens?”
“Darlin’ I just plain don’t want to know. I just want to know what happened to the nice, quiet town this used to be.”
Mark had to agree with that. It had been nice to have a normal life for a while.
“Oh, Mark, honey. Someone just came in. I’ll let Mr. Jordan know about Suzie. Bye.”
Mark said his thanks to a buzzing receiver. He almost missed hanging up the receiver. The surge he’d felt was a short-lived one and he needed sleep so he could think straight. That was another lesson learned in the service. If your stomach was full and you had some free time in the field, you slept. Sometimes he’d go to sleep thinking about a problem. He’d often wake up with a solution. This one was a dandy. He turned off the phone’s ringer and headed back to the bedroom, dropping shirt and slacks as he went. He made a note to pick them up before Suzie came home. That wouldn’t even make it to the Honey-Do list. He stretched out on the cold mattress, a faint whiff of lavender rising off the pillows. That was Suzie’s scent. She loved lavender. The scent started a familiar physical reaction. Mark lie there, gritting his teeth. This was no good. He got off the bed and walked back to the living room, dragging an old quilt with him. Pushed into a dark corner was his old leather recliner. It was another yard sale item he’d picked up. It fit him, and he liked the smell of the well-worn leather. Sure it had some rips, and the frame was nicked and scared, but it was comfortable. Suzie didn’t like it, but she’d humored him and done a wonderful job of matching it into the room with the much nicer, new furniture. She’d been really sweet and understanding about that. He’d promised to touch up the woodwork and patch some of the worst of the leather tears. It was on his Honey-Do list and he reminded her of that whenever she asked. He was thinking about that as he finally dozed off.
Mark stepped out of the fog to find Suzie before him. She was tied to shining railroad tracks, a Simon Legree-like figure standing over her in motorcycle leathers and a German spiked helmet instead of a top hat. He laughed maniacally as Suzie begged for help. “Dudley can’t save you now, my dear,” twirling his black-as-his-heart handlebar mustache, “nor his stupid flying squirrel.” Legree faded to a silhouette as the rotating Mars light on an F7 diesel drew closer. Mark’s shouted “Wait!” drowned out the diesel horn and woke him up with a start. Mark ran his hands over his face and through his hair. Too many Rocky and Bullwinkle shows as a kid. Next thing, he'd be seeing green seasick sea serpents. He got out of his recliner. He’d slept three hours and now he needed to do something.
He went back to the bedroom and put on a ragged pair of khaki shorts and a Bad Dude tee-shirt. Suzie wanted him to get some better shorts, even for working around the apartment. It was on his Honey-Do list when he had rare confluence of both time and money for shopping. He walked into the bathroom and found the bathroom plunger. He carried it to the entry closet and pulled an old tool box off the floor. He walked out to Suzie’s car and looked at the door. He placed the plunger in the center of the dent and compressed it, trying to ensure a good seal all the way around. He yanked back sharply, and the dent in the door popped right out, leaving only a small crease at the top. He looked at it carefully and there was no sign of any cracked paint. She’d be glad to see that when she got back. Later he would find some body hammers and dollys to smooth out the crease. Then the door would be good as new for a lot less than a body shop would charge.
He pulled a battery powered compressor out of the box and plugged it into the power outlet in the dash. Soon it was chattering merrily as it pumped up the low tire. Mark let it run while he got a floor jack from the back of his Taurus and a large cross bar lug wrench. In forty minutes, the little Pontiac was sitting primly on four fully inflated, rotated tires. Mark looked at the little car as he leaned against the door of the Taurus. There were three items off his Honey-Do list. He was sure Suzie would be pleased. And, the menial tasks helped him think. He put stuff away and straightened some of the items the robbers had left askew. Everywhere he looked, he kept seeing Suzie’s beautiful smiling face. Still, the sleep, and the work had paid off. He was beginning to get an idea.
Back in the bedroom Mark started rummaging in the closet. He pulled out an old footlocker he’d been promising Suzie he would clean out and get rid of. He just hadn’t been able to talk himself into letting go of that part of his life. He opened the footlocker using a key from his wallet.
The first layer was made up of black moisture wicking tee shirts, a pair of Blackie Collins black jeans, and a black vest with lots of pockets and loops. He lifted those out along with a black rucksack. Underneath were what he thought of as the tools of the trade in his former life. There was a black Ithaca 12 ga. shotgun receiver with a folding stock and pistol grip. The short barrel with Polychoke II muzzle brake was next to it. He took them out and looked at them for a minute. He mated the barrel to the receiver and racked the action. It was still smooth as glass. He really liked the Ithaca. It was super light-weight and pointed easily. The short action, and the lack of a trigger disconnector made it one of the fastest shooting shotguns on the market. He’d kept it thinking he could hunt with it. That was before he met Suzie and discovered she couldn’t bear to think about killing anything. Next to the shotgun was a black synthetic stock and a Remington barreled action chambered for 7 mm Magnum. He set that aside. If this went the way he thought it would, it would all be close up action. Under the Ithaca was one of the rare .40 cal Browning Hi-Power Tactical pistols. Competition ready out of the box, this one was tuned still further. He’d kept it because he’d thought he might end up in law enforcement, before he’d found the tech job. In the bottom of the locker were packages of ammunition for everything. There were also two black cylinders that he hated. He checked their batteries and turned them on. Bright red dots appeared on the far wall. For too long, those red dots had defined his life. They’d designated who lived and who died. For a time, everywhere he’d looked had reflected a red dot. Every person he met started having red dots painted on their foreheads. They’d stopped being people and became targets. That was when he’d decided to get out. With a sigh, he fastened one each to the shotgun and the pistol.
Next he pulled out two knives in their sheaths. He balanced one in each hand. They weren’t matched; in fact they were completely different styles. One was the British Sheffield version of the Fairburn Sykes fighting knife, and the other was a Kaybar tanto-style blade. Years ago his instructors had told him smart operators chose one or the other and stuck with it. He shrugged and put both in the pile, along with a pair of high topped, waffle-soled Wellington steel-toed boots. Finally, he pulled out a compact set of low-light binoculars in a nylon case with belt clip. There were other things in the footlocker but he didn’t think he’d need them.
Mark looked at the space now available in the footlocker. He went to the hall entry and rummaged in the tool box. He pulled out a battered green socket set box about 15 inches, by five inches, by about two inches thick. He opened it and looked at the polished ½” drive sockets and ratchet. It was an old S-K Wayne set with an extra pair of Xcelite pliers and adjustable jaw wrench, and a pair of Craftsman screwdrivers. His basic emergency tool kit. It had saved his life once and made it easier since. He found some other Xcelite tools; screwdrivers, nut drivers, small pliers, and ¼” socket set. He’d had those a long time. Like the footlocker, they were a part of his past. In a way, they made Suzie uncomfortable. She was a peace-loving individual and believed he’d seen enough violence. She wanted him to have a fresh start. He’d never argued with her belief that you could stop all the evil in the world if you could just bundle up all the weapons and ship them to the center of the sun. Shaking his head at the memory, he gathered all the tools he hadn’t set to one side – lethal and non-lethal and carefully, almost tenderly, repacked them in the footlocker. Maybe Suzie was right. Maybe it was time for a fresh start – after this final mission. The term ‘mission’ bothered him. He was already thinking in terms she’d wanted him to leave behind. It wasn’t a mission – he was just going after Suzie. She’d probably want him to let the police do it. He could at least tell her he’d thought about it. It just wasn’t his way. It had been his job to bring downed pilots back home. He was the one who went after the bad guys. The Police seemed to be nice guys, even competent, but they just weren’t equipped for this. Lights and sirens could well get Suzie killed.
He closed the footlocker and studied it for a time. He couldn’t just throw it out. A memory of a large black man with wide shoulders and tiny waist flashed before his mind’s eye. Captain Omar Terry, his unit CO and best friend. He’d bet a fifth of good Scotch that Mark would never make it in civilian life. But, Omar hadn’t counted on Mark meeting Suzie. Mark knew Omar was filling in as an instructor at Quantico. He’d get this footlocker and know he’d lost the bet. Mark vowed that when he got Suzie back, he’d never let her go again. They’d toast that promise with the Scotch when it arrived.
On the Move
Mark quickly showered and started to dress without even drying off. The computer geek disappeared and in his place stood something different, something from a lot of other people’s nightmares. He paused to look in the mirror. He’d hoped his mirror would show a stranger, but he still knew that face. He started out the door of the apartment and stopped. He looked at the two cars. The Taurus had been reliable, practical transportation for two years. But, Suzy was right, the Pontiac had more zip and was more agile. After a moment’s thought he unlocked it with his spare key and put down the top.
He went back in and picked up the footlocker. He carried it out to put in the car. The footlocker was much too big to fit in the trunk or on the skimpy luggage rack. He grabbed one of the end handles, and lowered it, end first into the passenger seat. He used the seat belt to lock it in place. He went back in and finished his preparations. He rolled the binoculars, ammo, shotgun, pistol, and knives into his vest and tucked the package into the rucksack before stashing it behind the driver’s seat. He checked his watch. He’d managed to use up most of the day. He’d have to hurry now. First stop was the UPS store. There, he shipped the footlocker to Captain Terry’s Quantico address. At least the stuff would have a good home. Suzie'd be pleased when he brought her home to find that part of his life gone.
The little Pontiac handled much better after he had unloaded the footlocker. His next stop was their bank’s branch office. If it was a ransom, cold cash might defuse a dangerous situation. Since they’d been saving for a house down payment, they had a pretty good amount in savings. Mark pulled out $21,000. That still left them plenty when he got Suzie back. He’d been working a lot of overtime, taking extra and double shifts when some of the staff needed to be absent from the call center. It was part of his and Suzie’s plan to save the money for a substantial down payment on the dream house. The overtime was the major reason his Honey-Do List was so long.
Tucking the cash in a small flap pocket in his jeans, Mark made a final preparatory stop. He stopped at a little grocery store to buy bottled water, snack bars, and a small tube of Super Glue. He paid cash for his purchases and asked the clerk to just keep the bag. He tucked the items into pockets on the outside of his rucksack. That was something he’d taught Suzie. Plastic grocery bags were a recycling nightmare and he tried to avoid collecting them. They almost always took their own bags to shop.
Preparations complete, Mark pointed the Pontiac toward the section of town on the other side of the railroad tracks. It was like acting in a movie full of bad clichés. He knew there were some bars down near the tracks. He never went there except when he was learning the town, but experience told him that was where he would find his lead. His main hope was that the gang would celebrate a while before they got around to Suzie. He didn’t think they would ever release someone that beautiful. With some luck, however, some of them would fight over her and he’d have fewer to deal with. There might be a ransom demand, but he had no intention of waiting for it. She might still be OK. He hoped so. He didn’t want her to suffer the terror that might be in store for her. His mind replayed screams of a teen-aged Muslim girl shorn of her family protections. He’d been looking for her father when he’d found her. The Others had found her first. She was still alive when he got there. He shuddered - he didn’t figure to have much time.
He parked in front of the first bar, back in the shadows where some of the lights were burnt out. The sign read Dark Horse in an almost electric blue neon. He wondered about the fact that the neon light around the rampant, obviously male horse was out. He reached into the vest roll in back and pulled out the first knife he got a hold of. It was the Fairburn. He shoved it down into his boot. He locked the car and stepped into the light. Everyone made a point of not paying any attention as he approached. He knew they were watching. He walked in and went straight to the bar. He laid a twenty on the scared surface and ordered a whiskey from the surly bartender. It was bad; probably mop sqeezings from a local swill still. It was harsh stuff, maybe aged all of two hours. He hadn’t had whiskey more than a couple of times since he met Suzie. She was a white wine drinker. She wanted him to put together a wine rack for the dining area. It was on the Honey-Do list. He forced a smile and signaled for another.
“Reminds me of some of the stuff we drank in Afghanistan. Tad smoother, though. You’ve got a better filter.” That got him a shrug.
As the bartender was pouring the second round Mark asked casually,
“Seen any of the Scavengers around tonight?”
The bartender gave him a wary look. “Mister, I wouldn’t go askin’ after those guys.”
Mark held up a placating hand. “Hey, I didn’t mean nuttin’. Just the big ugly one with the squinty eye supposedly had a bike for sale. I wanted to look at it.”
“I make a point of not knowin’ nothing about those guys. Can’t help you.”
Mark nodded, picked up the second drink, left his change on the bar, and walked over to the jukebox to look at the selections. It was a strange mix, part country, part punk rock, and of all things, “Put Your Hand in the Hand”. He shook his head. Selections were a quarter each with five for a dollar. He dropped in four quarters and started punching in random selections. A heavily ringed hand with eye searing green nail polish pointed to one rock selection with Grace Slick’s Somebody to Love.
“Play that one for me, honey?”
Mark punched it in and turned to survey his latest conquest. She barely came to his shoulder, and the bare could be taken multiple ways. In the poor light, he generously set her age as a hard-traveled late thirties. What had once been delightfully curved was now going to flab. The low, tight bodice and short skirt said she was trying desperately to stay in the game. The red hair had to come out of a bottle, a cheap one. He wondered if she wouldn’t look better without the heavy makeup. Even at her best, she couldn’t compare to Suzie.
The music kicked in so loudly he couldn’t hear her next words. He was glad because he sensed it was a bad cliché he didn’t want to answer.
He leaned down, “What’s your name?”
“That fits.” He watched the small grateful smile with sadness. There had been some nights when she would’ve looked good to him. Fortunately, if all went well, he’d have Suzie and it wouldn’t matter.
She followed him to a table where they both sat down. He held her chair for her, knowing that was a courtesy she didn’t see any more. He sat down and she spilled over their drinks to look at him. The display wasn’t bad, but there was a sour smell to her skin, like spoiled milk. Her perfume couldn’t cover it.
“I’ve never seen you in here before.”
“I came in looking for a guy with a bike to sell.”
“I heard you ask Joel about Bruno.” Jewel shuddered. “I know him. He likes to play rough – too rough. I can’t go to my usual place because of him.”
Her grimace revealed more lines about her mouth. “The Busted Rod. He and his group hang out there with the other gear heads.”
“Thanks.” As he started to rise, she put a restraining hand on his arm. The strength of her grip surprised him.
“You don’t want to mess with those guys.”
He took a hundred out of his pocket and put it in her hand. “I only want to buy a bike.”
She looked at the hundred. When she looked up he could see the pleading in her eyes. “You wouldn’t play rough would you?”
He paused to stroke her face and tuck a few strands of her coarsened, stiff hair behind her ear. “Jewels should be polished with care.”
He turned and walked out the door, not trusting himself to look back. He’d given up long ago trying to fix all the world’s problems. That was why he was a civilian, and he couldn’t – wouldn’t – put her on his Honey-Do list. It was long enough already and Suzie justifiably wouldn’t understand.
Mark knew where the Busted Rod was. He’d seen it one day when just driving around town. It was a habit born of visiting strange towns and needing to know where the action was, and where all the exits were. He took a moment and put the top up on the Pontiac. He drove around for a while making sure no one had followed him from the last place. When satisfied he was clean, he drove toward the edge of the industrial district. He found the bar with the broken connecting rod, once again outlined in neon, red this time. The interior shank detail and openings for wrist pin and crank tended to flicker in and out, leaving a faintly obscene outline.
He parked in the dark and waited. He put his binoculars on the passenger seat as he debated about going in. It’d be easier now that he knew a name. He shook his head. Not all of his missions had been in foreign places. Some had been rather close to home. The experience was coming in handy now. There’s always a ‘type’ you can count on. A group like that always seemed to have a big, ugly guy who’d been in lots of fights, and usually filled the enforcer role. The bike for sale idea had just been a shot in the dark.
Mark straightened when he saw three guys come out of the Busted Rod with several bottles in their arms. They were followed by five or six young women whose high-pitched laughter suggested that they had already imbibed large quantities of alcoholic beverages. He watched them through his binoculars as the men loaded the saddle bags of three bikes. One was big, ugly,
with a shaved head. Prominent on his once muscular chest, through his open black leather vest was a vulture tattoo. At this point, Mark was certain he’d found the Scavengers.
The three thugs mounted their bikes and started up. Mark used the noise of the big bikes to mask starting the Pontiac. He watched as each biker invited a girl to straddle the bike behind him, and then perched one on the tank in front. The bikes roared out of the parking lot, punctuated by squeals and laughter. He followed more quietly with his lights out. He even turned the dash lights out. He followed, just keeping the tail lights in sight. Loaded like that, they couldn’t be going far. The bikers never even looked back. It seemed they were confident that no one would ever be stupid enough to follow them. Mark took that confidence as a very valid warning.
The bikes continued along the edge of the industrial sector of the city until they came to a low professional building. The sign was broken, and Mark suspected that it was a recent victim of the economic recovery. The bikes continued through the parking lot and disappeared behind the building. Mark had already stopped well back. He didn’t want anything giving his presence away. There were the sounds of a party coming out of the building, but there weren’t any electric lights glowing. There was the constant sound of an engine running, perhaps a generator, supplying what power was available in the building. He turned the Pontiac around, being careful not to put it in reverse. He rolled quietly back up the street until he found another parking lot where he could leave the car. He hoped Suzie would feel better going home in her own car.
Mark got out of the car. It was time. His plan was really only half-baked. Those had often worked best in the past. He was trained, programmed really, to adapt to any situation. The key was to get in, rescue Suzie and get out. Primarily, he didn’t want the police catching him in what could only be called a vigilante action. It was the most exciting thing he’d ever had on his Honey-Do list.
He pulled the rucksack out from behind the driver’s seat and extracted the vest roll. He pulled out the Kaybar and dropped it into his right boot. The Fairburn was already in the left. He reassembled the shot gun and laid out a few of his ‘special’ loads. He’d pried open some 12 gage shells and poured out the shot. Then he took bb-sized split shot used for fishing weights and clamped them on either end of short lengths of piano wire. He then coiled several and stuffed them into the shot cups and recrimped the tops of the shells over them. At close range it was more lethal than double ought. He set the Polychoke to Extra Full. That setting was designed primarily for turkeys, but he figured it would work as well on vultures, even big ones.
He loaded the shotgun, racked the action softly to chamber a round, topped off the magazine, and laid it across the luggage rack, safety off. He slipped on the vest. He loaded the Hi-Power and his two spare clips. He slid it into a tailored vest pocket under his right arm. The ammo went in covered flaps on the vest. He shrugged his shoulders to settle the weight of the loaded vest. The movement was automatic, and the weight felt familiar, even after all this time. He hung the shotgun, muzzle down over his left shoulder. With the shortened barrel it hung easily, and was devilishly fast to get into action. Finally he slid his hands into a pair of black kid leather gloves. While he didn’t want to get into any fist fights tonight, the gloves would protect his hands and let him hit much harder than he could bare knuckle. He also wouldn't leave any prints.
He started to move out into what he was already thinking of as the combat zone when he stopped. He went back to the car, opened it. He pulled out a small tool kit and removed the license plates. He slid them into a horizontal vest pocket across the small of his back. Sometimes a little extra protection across the kidneys never hurt. They wouldn’t make any noise in the tight pocket. Then, he put the keys in the switch and closed the door. The car would be ready for a quick start if he needed it.
Now he was ready to go – a shadow moving through shadows. He approached the front of the professional building from the East. The architect who designed the building had attempted to create an oasis of green in an otherwise dreary industrial area. From the remains of the signage, the building had housed three businesses that provided support services to the nearby industries. There had been a medical clinic, a placement agency, and a set of legal offices. The parking lot was empty and the front was dark, except for an occasional flickering from the windows. It looked like someone was using candles for lighting. That made sense, he supposed, if the previous tenants had turned off the power when they vacated the premises. Across the front, he found two guards hiding in doorway alcoves. Both were armed with what looked like AK-47’s. He wondered if they had the full-auto conversions. He bypassed them without problem. He moved to his North expecting and finding a pretty much bare wall. He moved through the shadow till he came to the West wall. He didn’t have to worry about noise – the party sounds and the power generator could have masked an army of elephants mating in the bushes. He counted thirty bikes of all different shapes and sizes in what he thought of as the employee parking lot. He also saw three couples making out in various alcoves of the rear of the building. He skirted the outer edge of the parking lot, taking the chance that the combination of sex and booze would have sufficiently reduced the alertness of any sentries. He was pleased to note that the building had a back way out to an alley. That meant he had more than one option for a hasty departure if he needed it. He moved on to the South side of the property, worried at how exposed he would be moving down the drive he had first seen around the building. He was relieved to find that there were several small trees and bushes. Whoever had done the landscaping maintenance had created a path behind the bushes to ease trimming and cleanup. Although starting to be overgrown, he could still move easily down the path. Back in the bushes he found where the landscaping crew had created a little break area out of sight of the building and street. The little space was littered with cigarette butts, used condoms, and old drink containers, many alcoholic. Mark decided it was a good place to take a break of his own.
He was feeling pretty good, he was used to working the night shift. Before leaving the car, he’d stashed a couple of bottles of water and some energy bars in his vest. Sitting on the ground with his back against a friendly bush, he laid the shotgun across his knees and helped himself to some water and a Granola food bar. It dawned on him that he had forgotten to call his supervisor to tell her he wouldn’t be in tonight for a family emergency. He’d turned his cell phone off earlier and wasn’t going to turn it back on, now. He’d just have to call and explain in the morning. That would be a really minor addition to his Honey-Do List. Probably set a record for quickest time to execution.
With that thought he carefully got up and policed the area. He didn’t want to leave any trace of his presence. He got to one side of where he was seated and blew trash and dirt back across it. He carefully brushed out any boot prints. Satisfied that he’d covered his traces as well as he could, he moved back out to the front of the building. It was still the dark of night with no trace of light in the eastern sky other than the usual light pollution.
He moved round to where he could study both of the front guards.
In spite of the clear night, the two men had chosen to lean in the corners of the doorway alcoves across the front. All they had going for them staying close to the building was that they had large fields of fire and the darkness of the recessed doorways concealed their positions. It also made them predictable targets. He shook his head at their positioning. They couldn’t cover each other’s blind spots. Mark hated to use the term “guards” because they were guarding very little. They weren’t even doing a good job as sentries. Watch dogs. That was it – they were watch dogs. If they saw an intruder they could make a lot of noise. Of course, noise was what he didn’t want.
He thought of his own long nights waiting and watching while
others were having all the fun. He pulled the Fairburn from his left boot. The alcoves might provide good cover, but they also left the watcher blind to anything moving against the wall, out of the angle of vision. Mark slid into the blind spot and crept silently to the closest alcove. The Scavenger was bored, looking down at the AK-47. Mark moved fast, grasping the vest and bringing the brass ball on the end of the dagger smoothly across the temple. The guard dropped without a sound. Mark mercilessly drove his knee between the guard’s legs to catch the AK before it clattered to the ground. He lowered the guard to a seated position in the corner and laid the AK across his lap. He peered out toward the second alcove.
So far his luck was holding. He repeated the process with the second guard. Unless disturbed, they would be out for a while. He planned to be gone before they woke up.
Still he had a plan to restrain them. He started to Super Glue the first guard’s hands together. It was more effective than handcuffs or zip ties. Then he got an idea. With a chuckle, he picked up the AK-47 and set it to semi-auto. He put the Super Glue on the guard’s left palm and placed it firmly on the grip behind the trigger. He glued the right hand to the fore end. He did the same thing to the second guard. Once things broke loose inside, Mark
figured the police would show up pretty quick. The guards wouldn’t be able to discard the evidence of the possession of illegal automatic weapons. As an after thought, he carefully glued their index fingers to the triggers. He cleared the magazines of all but one round and dropped the rounds in their pockets. He hoped they didn’t twitch in their sleep.
He took a moment to admire his handiwork. He looked hard at the pistol stuffed in the belt of the second guard. It was an Argentine copy of the Browning Hi-Power he carried. It was a good pistol. He took it and stuck it in his waistband in the small of his back. He wasn’t sure how Suzie would react to his having a pistol she knew about in the apartment, but after this, she might finally want to learn how to use one. Teaching her to shoot could be a fun activity to add to the Honey-Do List. He paused a moment to visualize his arms around her, helping her hold the pistol, and the combined smell of perfume and powder smoke.
A fresh burst of laughter from within returned Mark to the present. He scouted the three openings to the businesses. The glass was broken out of all the doors. The legal offices showed the most traffic. It figured; the law offices were probably the plushest. There was a dim light from several candles. The place stank of poorly trimmed wicks, burned tea leaves, and old sex. There were people all over the place, mostly drunk or stoned senseless. Mark slouched down and picked up a bottle with his right hand. With it, he started a staggering shuffle across the large waiting room. Nobody seemed alert enough to recognize that a stranger was in their midst.
Mark followed the sounds of laughter down a hallway to a conference room. The group there seemed more alert and appeared to be having a good time. He looked carefully around the room. The conference table had been shoved to one side as a sideboard for bottles, plastic cups, and the wreckage of several pizzas. A small battery-powered boombox was making its contribution to the noise. The plush arm-chairs were scattered through the remaining space. Every chair had at least two people in it. One had three, one large man with two women. He was caressing their cheeks with a chromed revolver with mother of pearl grips. No one noticed as Mark stepped into the doorway. He drew the Argentine Hi-Power from his belt and held it down by his pants leg. This was going to be precision work – and the shotgun wasn’t his best choice.
“Excuse me.” He said very politely.
No one responded. He walked over and turned off the boombox.
“Excuse me.” Louder this time.
Puzzled faces looked at him.
“I’m looking for something that belongs to me. It disappeared from my apartment last night.”
‘Two-girls’ looked up, his pistol waving vaguely in Mark’s direction. “What, you think we’re Lost and Found?” He looked around the room, expecting laughter for his humor. There were a few obliging chuckles.
“It was very valuable to me. I’d be willing to pay a lot of money to get it back. I’d really like to talk to your leader. Maybe we could make a deal.”
“How’d you get in here?”
“Pretty much just walked in.”
“What about Tony and Harris? They let you in?”
Mark tried to look as innocent as possible. “I don’t know nothing about Tony or Harris. Should I have seen them?”
“Yeah. I gotta talk to those two. Carlos …”
“Well, hey, before we go off on a tangent. I really want to know about who I talk to about getting my property back.”
“Maybe I know something, maybe I don’t. What’s in it for me?”
“I got twenty K I’m willing to pay to get her back.”
“Oh.” Two-girls leaned back in his chair. He didn’t even try to move his two companions from the chair. “You’re looking for the dish who came home with us this morning from the party.”
Mark slid in the door way towards the conference table. He didn’t think the wall would stop much, but it was better at his back than nothing. “Wild party. Wrecked my place.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to talk to her about that. You should maybe keep better control of your woman.”
“I’ll talk to her about that when I get her back home.”
‘Two-girls’ grinned. “Maybe she won’t want to go back with you. Not after partying with real men.”
Mark started feeling nervous. This was too much talk. “I’ve got twenty grand says she’ll go home with me.”
“Stupid. Twenty grand won’t even get you out the door alive. If you got that much handy, you got more.”
“Let me talk to your boss. We’ll see what he says.”
“He says what I say. You want to see your girl, you’re gonna pay.”
Mark held out his right hand. “Let me see her first.”
‘Two-girls’ kept smiling, shaking his head from side to side. “That’ll cost you twenty grand.”
Mark’s left hand extended the pistol and ‘two-girls’ became three nostrils. “That’s too much.” The pistol tracked around to Carlos. “You’re the new leader, Carlos. Maybe you’ll be more reasonable.”
“Wha-wha-what do you want”
Mark looked at the bright chrome Charter Arms Bulldog in .44 stuffed in Carlos' waistband. “First, I want your pistol. Hand it to me by the barrel.”
Carlos stood up quickly to hand it to him, dumping the black leather clad redhead from his lap onto her well-rounded rump on the floor. “He … he … here you go.”
Mark dropped the guard’s Browning and took the Charter Arms by the fake ivory grips. He shook his head at the gaudiness of the piece. With one hand he flipped the cylinder open to see that it was fully loaded, even one under the hammer. He tsked at Carlos. “You should never keep a live round under the hammer. It isn't safe, Carlos.” He flicked his wrist, snapping the revolver shut. It wasn’t good for the crane and cylinder assembly but he didn’t care. “As the leader, you should set a better example for your people.”
Carlos nodded, licking dry lips.
“OK, Carlos.” Mark spoke patiently, like to a small, backward child. “Do you know what I’m looking for?”
“Si.” His head bobbed up and down, his eyes flicking to his ex-leader and back to the pistol in Mark’s hand.
“That’s good, Carlos. Will you take me there now?”
“Si. Anything you want.”
“See, Carlos. You’re already making wise leadership decisions. I’m impressed.” Mark took a quick glance through the doorway and the hall seemed clear. “Let’s go now. You lead the way. Anybody asks, I’m a good friend from out of town. You got that?”
“Si. Good friend from outta town.”
“Good, now come over here.” Mark almost regretted that order. Carlos’ primary exposure to liquids appeared to be stale beer and sour wine. He held his breath while he searched Carlos’ pockets. There was some cash, and a lighter. Both had their uses and Mark pocketed the cash. Carlos’ large framed pistol barely fit into one of his big vest pockets. With a sweep of his arm, he knocked all the booze off the table to make puddles on the carpeted floor. He grabbed one of the greasy pizza boxes and lit it with the lighter. He dropped it into the puddle of booze as he turned back to Carlos. Carlos was paralyzed, staring at the bright flames spreading on the floor. He shoved Carlos into the hallway and watched as he turned and went towards the back of the building. Behind him, screaming erupted as the room’s suddenly sober occupants ran into the hallway behind him. He swung up his shotgun and rapidly placed three rounds into the floor and ceiling sending them screaming in the opposite direction. The whizzing
little Cuisinart blades made confetti of ceiling tiles and carpet. He pumped another round into the lantern down the hall. The bright flash was quickly followed by darkness. He paused long enough to top off the shotgun’s magazine and retrieve Carlos’ pistol. Carlos was nearly catatonic. Mark had to shove him to get him moving again.
Carlos led the way into a kitchenette area and sprinted to a door. Mark guessed that it connected to the adjacent medical clinic. Carlos passed through the door and Mark followed. He hadn’t moved four steps into the area on the other side when a massive hand clamped to left shoulder and a hard blow struck the license plates in the back of his vest.
Mark used the force of the blow to help him turn as he swung his left arm back and up, bringing the elbow up and sharply down, trapping the arm of his assailant. Mark found himself face to face with a large man, with shaven head, small beady eyes, and a vulture tattoo on his chest.
“Bad Bruno” Mark continued down on the trapped arm until something snapped.
Bruno’s eyes almost came out of his head as he screamed from the sudden pain. Mark’s left fist, chambered from the down strike on the arm, shot back forward planting Carlos’ pistol squarely in Bruno’s face. He sagged to the floor, dropping the knife he’d tried to shove into Mark’s kidney.
Mark pivoted to find Carlos staring, disbelief in his eyes. Mark just motioned that he continue.
“You were going to show me something, Carlos?”
The calm, quiet, even polite voice seemed to do something to Carlos. He docilely turned and walked down another corridor with examining rooms. It was clear that these were being used for sleeping spaces, playing doctor, and cells. He stopped before one.
“She’s in here.”
Mark just motioned for him to open the door and shoved him through.
Carlos stumbled across a wheeled examination stool and collapsed on it in the corner at the head of a bed. The bed was occupied by a feminine figure in a black baby doll nightie. She was tied hand and foot, her arms raised above her head, emphasizing the fullness of her breasts. The rope tied across her waist emphasized the smallness of the waist and the generous flare of the hips. The eyes were covered by a black cloth and her mouth gagged with the same type of black cloth.
Even with the blindfold and gag masking features, Mark knew who she was. He reached across his body with his right hand to remove the blindfold. The blue eyes blinked several times before focusing in terror on his black clad frame. Slowly, the terror faded as recognition dawned. The mouth began to work, trying to force words past the gag. Mark couldn’t even hear the sounds with the pandemonium erupting in the building. He began to seriously wonder how he was going to get her out of the building. Honey-Do List item number n-thousand and 13 – get Suzie out of the building alive. Then there was item n-thousand and 14 – explaining what she was seeing.
“What are you going to do with me?”
Carlos’ question brought Mark’s attention back to the here and now. Items to add to the list – they’d have to move because the gang would know where they lived. He couldn’t kill all of them and the police wouldn’t catch them. So, they’d have to move. At the very least, they’d have to find a different apartment. So, they’d have to pack everything. Mark looked down at the luscious curves and gorgeous face. Tied to the bed, with the imploring eyes, Suzie was the most beautiful he’d ever seen her. Could he keep her in this town even? The police couldn’t protect them 24-7. For that matter, Mark didn’t think Detective Dennis Coleman would appreciate his direct approach to Hostage Rescue. He didn’t think its success in other parts of the world would carry much weight here. So much for a peaceful life. He’d have to start by installing alarms. He wondered if now, Suzie would take the basic firearms training. He’d find her a light shotgun, something she’d …
“Hey man, I didn’t have nothin’ to do with bringing her here. I wasn’t part of that.”
Mark stifled a curse at Carlos’ interruption. Almost without thought, Mark’s left hand lifted the new gang leader’s pistol, pointing it between his terrified eyes. Certain death was staring out of that barrel. Mark grinned as a certain pungent odor filled the air. The terrified thug’s black jeans took on an even darker stain.
On the rear projection screen of his eyelids played a series of similar terrified eyes in dark smoky rooms. How many missions? He’d never kept count like some of the old squad. There’d been too many of them.
Another squeak reminded Mark of the observer. Mark looked over at the most beautiful face he’d ever seen, let alone kissed. There was a bright red scratch across the bridge of her nose. It explained the broken reading glasses.
Come to think of it, more was broken than her glasses. Having seen him like this, could she ever go back to thinking of him as a harmless computer geek? Having lived through this much violence, would she ever be the same? Could she stay with him, even if they moved to a different city?
Mark checked Carlos again. It never paid to take the target’s terror for granted. They might try to do something stupidly brave.
No worries this time. Carlos was frozen in his own juices. The red mark on Suzie’s face drew Mark’s attention back to her terrified face. Mark turned to smile at her and blew her a kiss as the big .44 went off. Suzie slumped on the bed, the red mark gone.
Mark blinked. He stared at the pistol. It didn’t even have a laser sight. Really, it was a gaudy, useless thing. You just couldn’t trust a thing like that. Mark shrugged and slugged Carlos across the head with his own pistol and dropped it smoking into his lap. It was his fault anyhow.
Mark assessed the environment. Smoke dominated the building. Panic dominated its occupants. The flames had taken hold in the conference room, and appeared to have gotten into the attic crawl space above. The building’s occupants were all engaged in frantic departure. Mark walked numbly through the carnage. He heard sirens in the distance. He had a feeling Dennis Coleman wasn’t far away. His eye caught a glimmer of dim silver in a pile of stuff near the clinic’s rear door. It was his laptop. He walked over and picked it up. The power cord was still attached. He wrapped it up and tucked it under his arm. He recognized some of their other stuff, but it wasn’t important. He needed to leave - quickly.
He walked out the back door cautiously in case some brave fool decided to try an ambush. He dreaded the walk back to the Pontiac. His eyes roved over the bikes remaining in the yard, lingering on a dark green Yamaha V-Star cruiser. He trotted over to it. He’d always wanted one but Suzie didn’t think it fit her image. He looked around and saw a full face helmet obligingly left on another bike. He snagged it and tried it on. The fit wasn’t bad. He shrugged, tucked the laptop into a saddlebag, and then broke down the shotgun and stashed it in the other side bag along with his vest and the Hi-Power. He put the rucksack back on over his shirt. Ready, he straddled the bike. The saddle seat bid him a welcoming sigh as it took his weight. It felt good. Mark rocked the bike upright and off the kickstand. The keys were in the switch and some careless fool had left the fuel shut-off set to “on”. He hit the starter and the bike came to life with a satisfying roar. The tank was almost full. Mark rolled on the throttle and pulled into the alley. Choosing a direction was easy – away from the approaching lights. He wondered briefly if he could beat a footlocker to Quantico. It looked like he’d have to pay up on his bet after all. He’d find somewhere to pick up a couple bottles of single malt.
As he picked the shortest way out of the city, he put a mental red dot on the Honey-Do List and squeezed the trigger goodbye.
- Fini -