As cells went, the one I was seated in wasn't all that bad. It was approximately ten feet by ten feet, had a small desk with two chairs built into one wall and a comfortable single bed built into the other. Twin halogen tubes in the ceiling filled the area with more than enough light to make up for the lack of windows.
I'd been seated on that comfortable bed for two hours and fifty nine minutes when I heard the electronic lock in the door click open. A moment later a tall, slightly graying man entered, carrying an ivory colored file folder in his left hand.
"Mr. Harrison, my name is Jonathan Mathias," he offered me his right hand as he entered the room.
I glanced at the hand for a moment.
"You must be wondering what this is all about."
"Am I under arrest?"
"You're being detained for questioning," Mathias explained.
"In that case, take out that little white card they give you in cop school and read me lines one through eight."
"This is an informal interview."
"Humor me," I said.
Instead of reading me my rights, Mathias took a seat at the small desk. "Aren't you even the least bit curious as to who we are and why we've brought you here?"
"Can't say I am. Beyond that, I'm not saying anything further, until I have legal representation."
Mathias' face darkened. "If you want to be a hard-ass, Mr. Harrison, so can I. Do you know, I can legally hold you for up to ten days?"
"At which time you'll be forced to show reason for doing so. My attorney would just love to get you into open court and make you spill all your dirty little secrets. As far as I know you fat-cat government types have to have clearance from the city governor before you can run any type of operations within the city proper. I think I know Governor Taylor well enough by now to say he probably told you to go get stuffed when you asked. In the nicest possible way, of course."
Mathias met my eyes. I'd called his bluff and he was looking for a way to keep from losing the pot. "I don't really think that'll be necessary."
"Great. I'll be seeing you then."
I rose from the bed and went to the door. As I started to turn the door knob I heard the lock mechanism snap shut.
"I really do need to talk to you."
I turned to look at him. "And I told you under what circumstances I'd be willing to speak to you. Read me my rights and call my attorney."
"You're making this a lot more difficult than it has to be," Mathias said, an evenness in his voice that made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
"Not really. You guys think you run everything. One day you may, but as long as I have any rights at all, I intend to avail myself of them."
He held my eyes for a long moment. "Very well. Perhaps we should bring Miss Martinez in and ask her a few of these same questions. I understand she was convicted of killing a former spouse, several years ago. Parolees don't have the same protections as 'normal' people do."
"She shot and killed the man who'd nearly beaten her to death."
"Manslaughter is still murder, Mr. Harrison. If I remember correctly she's still on probation for another year or so. Any violation of that probation could send her back to prison to serve out the completion of her initial sentence."
I leaned in close to him, saw his eyes widen. "Don't threaten me, Mathias. If you or any of your goons go anywhere near Velma Martinez, you'd better find someplace a lot bigger than California in which to hide."
"Are you threatening a federal officer Mr. Harrison?"
I offered him a cold, tight smile. "You figure it out."
He held my eyes for a moment more, then blinked. "Perhaps we can come to some accommodation."
"You were once a police officer in this city."
I nodded. "For a number of years."
"Why did you quit?"
"I had my reasons."
"As I understand it, you didn't agree with Governor Taylor turning the police department into a military force," Mathias said.
"That's old news, but no, I didn't like that at all. My family has been with the LAPD since the early 1900's. The department's had it's fair share of problems over the years, some deserved, some not. When Taylor came to power and kicked Lone Star the hell out of the city, we were hoping for good things. Turns out he was just another politician, making promises he had no intention of keeping, another politician who'd say whatever it'd take to get his ass elected. I honestly think we were better off with the previous crooks. At least they didn't bleed the damn place dry like Taylor's been doing ," I said.
"So why quit the police force? Why not work from the inside to make things better?"
"You've obviously never lived here. John Taylor rules this city with an iron fist; you get in his way, he rolls right over you."
Mathias nodded. "I know the type. All too well."
"You said 'informal'?"
After a moment I took a seat in the second chair. "Understand: this is strictly voluntary on my part and I can stop at any time and walk away."
"Deal," he agreed. "I'd like you to take a look at a few photographs." He removed five holographic prints from the ivory colored folder and spread them on the desk top in front of me. "Recognize anyone?"
I kept my face impassive as I went through them, one by one. The first two were Agents Thaddeus and Henry of the BSS, followed by Joe Don Roberts. Sabina and Alicia Denniston were there as well, taken at what appeared to be a Christmas party several years ago.
"Sorry, I've never seen any of these people before in my life."
"That's very interesting Mr. Harrison."
"Both of the gentlemen in the first two photographs you looked at were seen entering and leaving your building, yesterday afternoon."
"The Bradbury Building is a public place. A lot of people come and go from it."
He studied me for a moment. "Of course."
"What have they done?" I asked the obvious question.
"I'm sorry, but I can't discuss ongoing investigations with civilians."
"Of course," I nodded.
"Take a closer look. Perhaps you've seen them around your building."
I did, shook my head after studying the holos for a moment. "I don't recall seeing them. They have the kind of faces that blend in with the crowd so I probably wouldn't notice them unless I was specifically looking. I really wish I could help."
Mathias nodded. "How about any of the others?"
"I wish I knew the girls. They're both pretty cute."
"Yes, they are."
I turned Alicia's holo over. "Alicia Denniston. The name doesn't ring a bell."
"I'm sure it doesn't," the edge was back in his voice.
I turned over Sabina's holo. "Sabina Griffith."
"I don't suppose you've seen her either?"
"Somebody this gorgeous I'd remember. Sorry."
Mathias sat back in his chair. "Mr. Harrison, let's be frank with each other. Sabina Griffith was in your office. We have video surveillance footage of the two of you leaving the Bradbury Building at ten past eleven yesterday morning and getting into your car."
I smiled. "I thought the cameras were broken in my building."
Mathias did not return my smile. "I don't appreciate being lied to. Always makes me think someone's hiding something from me."
"Must be rough going through life like that," I offered.
"Do you know what the penalties are for with holding evidence from a federal officer during a federal investigation? They're quite stiff."
I sat back in my chair. "They're probably just as stiff as the ones for running an unsanctioned investigation outside your jurisdictional lines. Don't some of the Native American Enclaves execute for that kind of stuff, these days?"
Mathias bit back an angry retort. I'd plainly touched a nerve. "Why did she come to see you?"
I shook my head. "Sorry. Privileged information."
"I could have you charged with obstruction."
I smiled again. "I'd be out before you finished the paperwork! And complaining loudly and quite vociferously to any of the local media who'd care to listen. The media in this town have always been like hungry vultures circling around a decaying corpse. All I'd have to do is say one word about an ISP investigation and Governor Taylor and you'd be on the first flight back to Sacramento trying to explain to your bosses how you so completely fucked this whole thing up!"
Mathias studied me for a moment. "Sabina Griffith hired you to find Alicia Denniston. Why?"
"I'm sorry, I'm not at liberty to discuss who my client is."
"You've stepped on quite a few, rather large toes in your years as a private investigator, Mr. Harrison. There aren't very many people in this city who'd protest your license being pulled."
"You'll find I don't take too kindly to threats Mr. Mathias. In fact, I take them kind of personally."
Mathias sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "And I take personally those who push the law for all it's worth and then hide behind it when they're in the wrong! I will get what I came here for and if you happen to get caught up in it, so be it!"
I met his eyes. "Am I free to go?"
I heard the lock click open on the door.
"We are on the same side."
"Really? Are we?"
The man in the flannel work shirt and the man who'd put the gun to the back of my head escorted me from the cell and down a corridor to a bank of elevators. Waiting for the car to arrive I glanced idly at the man in the flannel shirt.
"That was a pretty good trick, using those street punks to bust my car window out."
"It was crude, but effective."
"You have any idea how much of a bitch it's gonna' be for me to find a replacement window for that thing?"
"Not our problem," the second ISP man said.
"You broke it. The way I see it, that makes you responsible."
"If you'd like, you can fill out a loss requisition form when we get down to the lobby. It'll take awhile, but you'll eventually get your money," flannel man answered.
"And my guns?"
"I've got those for you," flannel man said. He held up a brown paper bag and shook it. "Shouldn't take you too long to put 'em back together."
I took the bag from him, opened it.
"Just checking," I said. "You understand."
The elevator car arrived. Both men followed me in, then took up positions immediately behind me.
"How do I get back to my car?" I asked.
"Not our problem either," number two replied, matter of factly.
"There's a mag-lev station right down the street," flannel man added.
I nodded. The elevator car doors closed and we started down.
"You guys like your jobs?" I asked.
"Wouldn't do anything else," number two said.
"You seem the type."
Flannel man looked my way. I dropped the gun parts to the floor.
"Oops," I bent to pick the bag up, but turned on them instead. I punched flannel man in the face with a right cross. Number two lunged at me. I stepped aside, then kneed him in the gut as he went by. The breath whooshed from him and I brought both hands together and struck him mid-back. He went head first into the elevator car wall.
Flannel man received a second blow to the face and started to go down. I yanked him to his feet.
"I told this to your boss and now I'm telling it to you: I don't like having guns put to my head! Next time, I won't be so forgiving!" I head butted him, then shoved him against the wall. He crumbled to the floor. The elevator slowed. I picked up the brown paper bag and put it under my arm.
The doors slid open. A very attractive young woman in a gray business suit glanced into the elevator car with a look of horror on her face.
"What happened?!" she demanded.
"I guess they couldn't decide where to go for lunch!" I held up the brown paper bag in my hand and shrugged. "I always pack mine!"
"Have a good afternoon!" I left the woman staring into the elevator car and strode past her, out into the late morning sun.
I was on the Red Line Mag Lev car that paralleled Wilshire Boulevard when I called Velma.
"Chandler, are you okay?!" her voice was nearly frantic with worry.
"A couple of people saw you get grabbed! Thom and the whole damned department are out looking for you!"
"I'm really okay, Velma."
"Where have you been? I've been worried sick about you!!"
I felt myself smile. "I didn't know you cared that much!"
"Asshole! Of course I care!" she swore. "Where the hell are you anyway?"
"On the red line. I should be back at the coffee shop in ten minutes or so."
"You want me to call Thom and let him know you're safe?"
"I'd appreciate it."
"Who grabbed you?"
"Kenny's friends from the ISP."
"What did they want?"
"They didn't say exactly, but they had a bunch of photos of people. Including Sabina Denniston, who isn't Sabina Denniston at all."
"She's not Sabina? Well, who is she?"
"Get on the phone to Fez and have him run a make on a Sabina Griffith for me," I said.
"You want the whole package?"
"Everything he can get and I need it two hours ago."
"Got it," Velma said. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Call Kenny and have him go over the surveillance system for the building. Our friends from the ISP are tapped into it somehow and I want him to cancel their service."
"Done. What else?"
"See if Motorhead Mike can see me today. I need him to replace the drivers side window in my car."
"Again?" she asked.
"I know. This is starting to get old!"
Velma chuckled. "I'll call him after I get off the phone with Kenny."
"Good. Is Sabina okay?"
"When you were grabbed, I moved her. She's at safe house number five."
I was silent for a long moment.
"What is it, Chandler?" Velma asked.
"Your sister still live out in Indio?"
"You know she does."
"Maybe you ought to go pay her a visit for a couple of days," I said.
"You need me here."
"I can get along without you for a day or two."
"What's going on?" Velma asked.
"You been-no, I'm not gonna' ask that question," I shook my head.
"What question?" Velma demanded.
"Can't you just go to your sisters for a few days without all the goddamn questions?"
"Questions are part and parcel of being the secretary for a private detective. Tell me what's going on and maybe I'll think about it."
I sighed. "The ISP are threatening to pull you in for questioning concerning the case I'm working on. Your parole agreement says you have to answer any and all questions by law enforcement or they can send you back to prison."
"And you think that worries me?! I can do the time I have left standing on my head if I have to!!"
"Can you do ten years in a federal lock up for obstructing a federal investigation?!" I had to bite back the anger in my reply.
"Chandler, I can take care of myself. I've been doing it for a number of years now," Velma answered.
"I'm asking you as more than my secretary. You're probably the closest thing I have to a true friend and I don't want to lose you," I said.
"You're not gonna' lose me. And I ain't gonna' run either! We've built a good team in the years we've worked together. I'm not about to turn tail and head for the hills when things get a little dangerous!" Velma said.
"Even if I beg?" I managed a smile.
"Even then!" Her voice was firm and I knew that was the end of the conversation.
"You're the most stubborn woman I know!"
She chuckled. "And one of the most beautiful!"
For once, I had to agree with her.
I picked up my car and stopped by the office for a few minutes. Velma was still waiting for Fez's people to stream the information about Sabina Griffith to her when I arrived.
"What's in the bag?" she asked as she followed me into my office.
She raised an eyebrow.
I went to the filing cabinet, took the set of keys from my pocket. I stooped down, fit the key in the lock and opened the bottom drawer. I found the catch on the back of the drawer, released it and pulled the drawer out of it's slide.
"What are you--" Velma started.
I reached in, felt with my finger tips. "There you are!"
I removed the large metal box, took it to my desk and set it down. I took a seat at the desk, flipped the twin catches. I opened the box.
"Whew!" I heard Velma say.
I picked up the deadly looking machine-pistol from inside the box and jacked the slide back.
"Pretty, isn't she?"
"Sure! In the same way that a rattle snake or scorpion is pretty! Talk about your go directly to jail gun! Where the hell did you get a Narinkov G-7?"
"Actually, this one belonged to my father. He bought it before the ban took effect."
"Before or after the ban, the things are still illegal to own!"
"It's a tool."
"A pair of vise grips is a tool. That thing was made for one purpose: to kill people."
I met Velma's dark eyes. "You saw those cannons Thaddeus and Henry were carrying. I just want to make sure that in the event I have to defend myself, I have a little bit of an edge."
"Spoken like a true man: bigger always means better."
I smiled. Beside the two clips for the Narinkov was a small violet colored draw string bag. I removed the bag and opened it.
"Let me have your hand."
"Come on. I promise you there's nothing creepy-crawly inside the bag."
"There better not be!"
I poured two large diamonds into her hand.
"Holy crap!" Velma exclaimed. She examined them a little more closely "Are they-are they real?"
I nodded. "Yep."
"Where did you get them?"
"I've had them for a few years now. I've been meaning to tell you about them, but I haven't really felt the need to. Until now."
"Why tell me about them now?" she asked.
"These folks are playing for keeps, Velma! The only reason I'm not cooling it in a cell someplace is because I bluffed my way out of it. The ISP wants Sabina and Alicia very badly. I was told (in no uncertain terms!) that if I got in the way of their investigation, it was liable to run over me."
"So what does that have to do with your telling me about these?" Velma indicated the stones in her hand.
I held up the bag. "There are eight more just like them in here. If anything happens to me, I want you to take them and leave."
"Chandler, I can't just pick up and leave everything I have here."
"Yes, you can!" I said. "I don't have anyone. My folks are gone and you and your sisters are the closest thing I have to a family!"
"You're scaring me with all this talk!"
"Good! That's what I was trying to get through that lovely head of yours on the phone! Joe Don Roberts is dead! Danny Raines and Alicia Denniston are both missing and haven't been seen for days. Thaddeus and Henry are both dirty and wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet into either one of our heads at the first opportunity and the ISP is threatening to send us both to prison for the rest of our lives! You'd better be frightened, 'cause I sure the hell am!!"
Velma nodded. Her silence said everything.
"These ten stones are worth a fortune," I continued. "There's a man who runs a little shop on St. Marks Street in Antigua. Take them to him and he will give you whatever the market value is for them at the time."
She handed the two diamonds back to me. "Won't they just come and get me?"
"Antigua doesn't extradite. To anybody. You'll be safe there."
Velma nodded absently. "I'll miss you."
"Well, I'm not dead yet!" I managed a little grin. "This is just as a last resort!"
"I know," she smiled. "Still, the thought of all that clear blue water and white sand has a certain appeal to it."
"Tell me something I don't know!" I nodded good naturedly.
The terminal on her desk in the outer office chimed.
"That'll probably be Fez's information," she said.
I followed and stood behind her as she decrypted the data stream. In two minutes the image files were projected onto the monitor screen built into her desk top.
"Let's see what we've got," Velma said.
The three dimensional image of Sabina Griffith's head did a full 360 degree rotation. Beside the image was a personnel file.
"You see what I see?" Velma asked.
I nodded again. "Yes, I most certainly do."
The face on the tri-d image was slightly younger than the Sabina I knew, but it was still her. The personnel file identified her as 'Sabina Miriam Griffith, Special Agent, Internal Security Police, Sacramento, New California.'
Safe house number five was a small bungalow style home located off of Los Feliz Boulevard, hard against the eastern boundary of Griffith Park. On my way there I suddenly found it poetic that someone named Griffith was staying at one of my safe houses, near Griffith Park. Leave it to Velma!
I parked down the street from the neat little home and walked to the front door. After a moment I pressed the doorbell button.
The door opened. A tall, dishwater blonde woman greeted me.
Karyn White had been one of my first clients when starting out and had volunteered to shelter people for me from time to time.
Karyn embraced me. "Come in."
"How are you?" I asked.
"I'm doing well. You're looking good."
"Thanks," I said, closing the door after me. "So are you!"
She smiled and blushed. "Oh, I must look a mess right now!"
"No, you don't."
If anything her smile grew even more radiant.
"I appreciate your doing this for me with such short notice and all."
"I'm glad I could help."
"I need to speak to Sabina for a few minutes," I said.
"She's out playing with the girls in the back yard."
"How are the little ones?"
"Not so little anymore," Karyn answered. "Allie is ten and Katey eight. They're growing up so fast I can barely keep pace with them."
"The back yard through here?" I asked after a momentary silence.
"Straight back," she nodded. Karyn walked with me. "I really want to thank you for getting me the job."
I smiled. "I simply aimed you in the right direction. You were the one who was qualified enough to get the job."
"Still, if it hadn't been for you--"
Karyn nodded. "Would you like to have dinner with us again, sometime?"
I stopped at the back door. "I'd love to Karyn."
"Great!" She opened the door, walked past me. "Girls! I need you inside with me for a few minutes!"
"Mom!!" Both little girls made the word a two syllable cry of annoyance. "We're right in the middle of something!!"
"O-kay! I guess I'll just have to make the cookies all by myself!"
"Miss Martinez brought us some real chocolate chips this morning."
Both little girls bolted from the tent set up across the lawn and were by her side in seconds.
"You both remember Mr. Harrison, don't you?"
"Sure. Hello Mr. Harrison," Karyn's oldest daughter said.
"You came here to see Sabina?" Katey asked.
"Not just Sabina. Your mom and you guys too."
"Mommy thinks you're cute," Allie said.
"Uh, Allie, let's go make some cookies," Karyn tried to steer them through the door.
"Yeah, she says you're real dreamy," Katey added. "She told grandma that she'd love to be your--"
Katey laughed. "Well you did!"
I smiled. "I'll let you in on a little secret, girls: I think your mom's kinda' cute too!"
Both little girls laughed and ran off into the house.
"I'm sorry about that, Chandler. You know how kids are!"
"Do you think you could stay long enough for some cookies?" Karyn asked.
"I wouldn't miss them for the world!"
Karyn smiled again and left.
Sabina was sitting on a swinging bench under a very large oak tree across the lawn from the house.
"Mind if I join you?"
Sabina started, nearly dumped herself off of the bench. I caught her and could feel her shake in my arms.
"You okay?" I asked after a moment.
She managed a somewhat embarrassed smile. "I was napping a little bit and you took me by surprise."
I let her sit, then took a seat myself. "It's nice and peaceful here."
Sabina nodded. "I was so scared when your secretary came by and told me to pack a bag this morning. She said something about your being taken from a public street outside a coffee shop by some men in a black car. Is everything okay?"
"It is now."
"Good," Sabina let out a long breath and nodded towards the house. "She's a nice lady."
"Karyn's great," I confirmed.
"She said you helped her once. What did you do?"
"Her husband was a bookkeeper for one of the local mobs. One day he took a bag full of their money and ran off with his secretary. Karyn was very interested in finding him after the mob threatened to take everything she had. There was also talk of putting her and the girls 'to work' to pay off the rest of it."
Sabina paled. "Did you find him?"
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know. Don't particularly care, either."
Sabina nodded. "I don't know how someone like Karyn does it. She works, takes care of her two daughters and has this lovely little house too. She does all of this alone; it must be very difficult for her!"
"I'm sure she'd tell you otherwise. Those little girls are the most important things in the world to her."
"I can see why. They're absolutely adorable."
"Yes, they are."
Sabina studied me for a long moment in silence. "Something's bothering you. What is it?"
I met her eyes. "You lied to me, Sabina."
"Your real name is Sabina Griffith. You were born in San Francisco and have two younger sisters, both of whom are in college, upstate. You were also a special agent with the ISP, the same ISP who grabbed me off of the street, early this morning!"
"They-they know I'm here?!"
"Yes. They're pretty hot to find you too."
Sabina looked as though she were about to cry. "You-you didn't tell them where to find me, did you?"
"No, but I'm about this close--" I held up two fingers, about a millimeter apart, "to doing so."
"You can't! If they find me, I'll never know what happened to Alicia!"
"Convince me why I shouldn't just go in there and call your former comrades, right now?"
"Please Chandler, don't turn me in! I'll do anything you want!!"
"All I want is the truth. Tell me why the ISP wants you so badly."
"I can't!!" Sabina was crying.
I softened my tone. "You're into something you can't get out of by yourself. You need my help and to get that help, you need to tell me the truth."
Sabina wiped her eyes on her shirt sleeve. "I--I took some things. From the ISP."
"'Took some things'? What kind of 'things'?"
"Files. Files from an investigation they ran a few years ago."
"What kind of investigation?" I asked.
"Have you ever heard of a group called the 'Invisible Brotherhood'?"
"Sure. They got their start about the same time Parker Center and the old Criminal Courts buildings here were bombed," I nodded. "They're some kind of white rights group."
"Yeah. The Invisible Brotherhood found a lot of favor with white Californians when it was learned that the people who'd bombed both buildings were Amerind, Japanese, and Hispanic. Mud races they called them."
"I've heard their rhetoric. It's the same old shit the KKK and other white supremacist groups espoused, in the twentieth century."
"With one major difference, Mr. Harrison. These people have members who are high up in both the federal, and city governments. Very high up!" Sabina said.
"Which is why the ISP became involved."
Sabina nodded. "The investigation went on for over a year, trying to root out any hint of corruption by public officials. Then, all of a sudden it was stopped. No one knows the real reason why, but there were a number of theories floating around."
"Someone in the higher echelons of the ISP nixed it because they were getting too close to him."
"Most of the people who were involved with the original investigation think that's exactly what happened."
"They'd have to be pretty high up the food chain to shit-can something that large," I suggested.
"My thinking is they'd have to be in the cabinet itself. That's the only way someone could cancel the investigation and make it stick."
I met her eyes. "So why steal files from a dead investigation?"
Sabina looked away.
"It seems stupid to me now," she said.
"Why do people usually steal something?"
"For money, but that's plainly not the reason you did it. I've seen the way you've been living and you're barely getting by." I thought for a moment, then remembered the holo of Sabina and Alicia Denniston taken at some long-ago Christmas party. There was a sparkle in Sabina's eyes and the way she looked at Alicia- "For love?"
Sabina looked downcast. "The oldest reason in the book."
"I guess it won't hurt to tell you," Sabina shrugged. "I first met Alicia Denniston two years ago at a party in Sacramento. I'd been a special agent with the ISP for a few years by then and I was the typical driven career woman: all work, no play. That Christmas party was the first party I'd been to in years and I guess I got a little tipsy. I knew better, but for the first time in longer than I could remember, I was having a good time. A friend introduced me to Alicia and there was just--something--about her that made me go all wobbly inside."
Sabina paused for a long moment and took a deep breath. "I mean, I'd never been like that with anybody before. I was like some giddy school girl! We exchanged numbers at the party and a few days later she phoned and asked me out to dinner. Things moved very fast after that dinner. Faster than I'd expected."
"You slept with her?"
"Yeah," Sabina looked away for a moment. "We talked all night long and told each other all about our lives. We became almost inseparable afterwards! She'd fly back and forth from New York to see me and when we were together it was pure magic. Everything was going wonderfully! Then, one day a little over a year ago I get an envelope in my mail at work. There were holos of Alicia and I together, in rather compromising positions."
"There were cameras in your apartment?"
"No. Alicia was always a little wilder and more adventurous than me. One day we were out in the middle of nowhere and she talked me into it, into making love to her. Someone had followed us," Sabina explained. "That's where the holos were taken."
"She set you up," I said.
"I didn't want to believe it, but I knew she'd been working with the holographer when I met them at Golden Gate Park at the appointed time . She was so cold towards me, almost hateful. She and the guy she was with gave me a list of different files they wanted. If I refused to get them, they'd send copies of the holos to my superiors. You know what they do to ISP agents who get caught like I was? My career would've been finished. I would've been finished. I would've done anything she asked to save my job."
"Who was the man?" I asked.
"I'd never seen him before," Sabina shrugged.
"What'd he look like?"
"He was very large, at least six-six, maybe two hundred and sixty, two hundred and
"Anything else you remember about him?"
"There was one other thing," she nodded after thinking for a moment. "He spoke with an accent. Alicia has a little bit of one since she grew up in Oklahoma, but his was much more pronounced."
"What type of accent?"
"It was definitely southern."
"Could it have been from Texas?"
Sabina nodded again. "Yeah. He looked like a cowboy with the western shirt and boots he was wearing."
I fished inside my jacket pocket and found the tri-d I was looking for. "This him?" I asked.
Sabina studied the tri-d for a long moment, then nodded. "Take away the beard and yeah, this could be him. Who is he?"
"His name's Joe Don Roberts. He's kind of a hired gun, out of San Antonio."
"Great! If we find him, he might be able to tell us where Alicia is!"
I shook my head. "He's dead. He was shot and killed yesterday afternoon."
"Was-was Alicia with him?"
"Not that I could tell," I answered. "Getting back to the files they wanted: did you get a look at them?"
"Not all of them. I collected nearly everything I needed for Alicia over a few days and handed them over. That was the last time I saw or heard from her. Until a few days ago, that is," Sabina confessed.
"Why is the ISP looking for you?"
"I made a mistake," she said. "The last of the files I took had a security lock on it and I triggered it. I was in so much of a hurry, I set the alarm off. I barely managed to get away."
I nodded. "How long have you been on the run?"
"Almost a year to the day. They nearly caught me a couple of months ago in Ojai. I had a line on someone there who could get me false papers so I could get out of California and into one of the Aboriginal Enclaves where I'd be safe. Turns out he was a front for the Border Patrol. We were in a short gun battle and he got shot," Sabina said. "I didn't kill him, even though I had every opportunity to do so!"
"You said one of the files had a security lock on it," I prompted.
"We call them 'Red Look' files. They're classified above 'Top Secret'."
"Damn, I'd love to get a look at that file," I said half aloud.
"I still have it."
"I still have it," Sabina repeated. "When all the alarms started going off, I left. I went back to my apartment, packed a bag and split because I knew they'd come after me. I took the file with me in case I ever got caught. I thought maybe I could use it as a bargaining chip, maybe reduce my prison sentence a little bit if I got caught."
"Sabina, I could kiss you!"
She managed a small smile. "Before you get too carried away, there's not much in it to look at."
"Let me be the judge of that," I said. "Is that the only file you have?"
"Yeah. I was supposed to meet Alicia and Joe Don Roberts the next day with it and hand it over to them. I imagine he wasn't real pleased with my not showing up. He kept telling me I was stalling and if I didn't hurry up and get everything he wanted, he was going to send the holos to my superiors. For once I found a little back-bone and told him to go ahead and do it and we'd see who'd spend more time in jail," Sabina answered. "He backed off after that."
I faced her. "I'll be needing that file."
Sabina nodded. I watched as she opened the top button of her blouse and pulled a gold colored crucifix from around her neck. She handed it to me.
"There's a small sliding panel on the back of it. Inside is a micro-dot with the file on it."
"I'll get this back to you as soon as I can," I said.
"Keep it," Sabina shook her head. "The things been like an albatross around my neck for a year now."
"How did Alicia know you were in Los Angeles?" I was curious.
"It's one of only a couple of places in California where the ISP can't operate with impunity. I also told her once how much I love the ocean down here and when I checked into the hotel, I used my mothers maiden name, 'Rebecca Keefer'. I guess she remembered that and called every hotel in the city until she found me."
"Can I ask you one final question, Sabina?"
"'Why did I hire you to find Alicia, if she set me up like this?'"
"That's the one."
Sabina had the most hopeless expression on her face I'd ever seen. "I told you it was stupid. When she called that night, she was so desperate for my help. I know she was probably manipulating and using me again, but she said she really did love me and that if she got out of this thing alive, she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me." Sabina paused, teary eyed. "I didn't mean to lie to you Mr. Harrison, but I was afraid you'd say no if I told you the truth about Alicia and I and what I did!"
"I'm a bit of a soft hearted romantic myself," I offered after a time with a warm smile.
"So you'll still try to find her for me?"
"I never stopped," I said.
Sabina buried her face in my shoulder and cried. I got the feeling it was the first time she'd trusted anyone in a long, long time.
I left the micro-dot with Kenny Baltimore, then made the drive to Glenoaks Boulevard in the nearby city of Glendale. 'Motorhead' Mike Lindstrom's shop was a sprawling complex of three buildings just off of Sonora Avenue in the city proper.
I drove to the large roll-up door on the end of one of the buildings and tapped the car horn. After a moment the door powered up and out of the way. I drove into the building and followed a young woman down a line of cars. She waved me to the right and I parked the car.
"How you doing Lysette?" I asked as I climbed from my battered Chevy.
She slipped her arms around my neck and kissed my cheek. "It's about time you paid us a visit again!"
"Things have been busy," I said, trying not to notice how she was nearly as tall as I was.
"Us too. Ever since we got that contract to do all of Fez's peoples cars, we've got more work than we can handle."
"Dodger, you old sonofabitch!!"
I turned, saw Mike start across the shop with a half dozen beers still in their plastic rings, in one hand.
"There's the man!" he called again.
Mike's about four inches shorter than I am, but twice as strong. He bear-hugged me and I wondered if all my vertebra were going to still be intact when he let go.
After a moment he stood back from me and grinned. "Damn pardner, you're looking good. Velma must be taking good care of you!!"
I laughed. With Mike it's no use denying anything. He believes Velma and I have something going on and no amount of telling him she's only a friend will get him to think otherwise.
"Have a beer!" he handed me one and opened one for himself.
"What about me?" Lysette asked.
"You can have one when the workdays done," he answered her.
"Slave driver!" Lysette growled.
Mike looked past me, at the Caprice. "Jesus man, am I gonna' have to put rub strips on the whole friggin' car for you?!" He moved past me and shook his head. "Such a nice ride and you keep it looking like this! You ought to be ashamed!"
I smiled. This is how Mike usually greets me.
"Same window again?! Man, I keep telling you to go ahead and put bullet proof glass in this thing!"
"And how many years will I have to go without food to be able to afford bullet proof glass?!"
He laughed. "How's she running?"
"A little stumble off idle, but once she's warmed up, she goes like crazy," I said.
"Guys and their cars," Lysette shook her head. "You're all such a bunch of little boys!"
"Don't you have something you can go do?" Mike asked her.
"I guess so."
"Well, go do it!" He swatted playfully after her.
"Old fart!!" she called as she walked away.
I watched her leave. "Man, talk about something to make you feel old!"
"Tell me about it! Seems like only yesterday I was bringing her home from the hospital and here she is all growed up on me."
"What is she now, seventeen?"
"Care to try eighteen."
I shook my head. Time flies when you don't really notice it.
Mike walked around the car once more. "Anything else you need besides the window?"
"That'll be expensive enough!" I answered. "I really ought to go on and get myself something newer!"
"Don't you dare! You don't want any of that Japanese or German crap! They're all plastic and cheap steel and if something goes wrong with one of 'em it takes two months to get the damn parts. Hang on to that classic American iron of yours!"
"As if the replacement parts for my old Chevy are easy to find!!"
"At least it's a real car!" He smiled. "I'll have my guys go over the whole thing for you."
"It might be awhile before I can pay you."
He waved it away. "Don't worry about it. I owe you so many, it's about time I paid you back!"
"How long do you think for the window?"
"It'll probably be at least a couple of days."
"You got an old beater around here I can use for those couple of days?"
Mike nodded absently. After a moment he smiled. "You want to see something?"
"Is it dirty, or just plain illegal?"
He grinned. "A little of both. Follow me."
I trailed him through the shop. Outside, he turned right, walked ten yards or so and entered the paint and body work building next door.
"You're gonna' love this," he was all smiles. "The last coat of paint went on late yesterday afternoon. Should be good and cured by now!"
Mike opened the door to the paint booth. "Take a look!"
I did and let out a low whistle. From ten feet away I could see my reflection in the gloss black paint. The car was a squat two seater, sitting on four wide, very sticky tires. Ducts built into the bumper carried cold air to the front brakes, while strakes behind each of the two doors did the same for the rears. A single, large scoop in the center of the hood fed air directly to the intake plenum.
It was my turn to do a walk around. "She a Mark IV?"
"Good eye. Actually, I call her my Mark III and a half. The fronts from a Mark IV, while everything from the B pillar back is a III."
I looked at him. "How did you get a Border Patrol Interceptor?"
Mike grinned. "My cousin runs a shop out in Needles. A few weeks ago two Border agents wrecked during a chase. Instead of destroying them like he was contracted to do, he dismantled and loaded both cars onto two separate container trucks and sent them to me. Evidently the Border Patrol's gotten a little lackadaisical with their paperwork out in the high desert!"
"Hell yes she'll run!!" he said. "And a helluva lot better than the Border Patrol will ever get 'em to, too!!"
"A lot better?" I whistled again. "What are we looking at, top end wise?"
"One eighty, maybe one ninety on pump methanol. More than that on M-100."
"Jesus man!" I shook my head.
"If you're gonna' have something like this, make sure it's as fast as it looks!"
"You taken her out yet?"
"Nope. The engine's just off the dyno. With a few little tweaks here and there, I managed to get almost eight hundred horsepower out of her."
I looked through the driver's side window. "She looks like she just rolled off the assembly line."
Mike tossed me a set of keys.
"Fire her up!"
I slid in. The ignition switch was to the right of the steering wheel. I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine roared to life, then settled into a smooth idle.
"It even sounds fast!" I said over the burbling exhaust note.
Mike bent through the open door. "You can let the car shift the gears or you can do it yourself while driving by way of the paddles located on the center ring of the steering wheel. The one on the right shifts up, while the one on the left gears down. You also have a secure digital communications line inside the console and a night vision heads-up display at eye level on the driver's side wind shield. You also have the added advantage of knowing nothing, short of an Air Guard fighter that is , will be able to catch you!"
I nodded, then shut the car off. "Sounds like you have yourself one hell of a machine here."
"A machine that needs a good, thorough shake-down. You want the job?"
I grasped the steering wheel. "You sure about this? I mean, you've seen my car!"
Mike grinned. "As long as you don't hit anything really hard, the car should be fine."
"I don't know."
"Look Chandler, with the kind of work you do, any kind of edge you can get might come in handy. Something like this sucker here, with all it's capabilities, could give you that edge. And more!"
"True. Two days you said?"
"Or so," Mike nodded.
"You got a deal," I finally said.
"Great! Let's back her out of here and fuel her up!"
Leaving Motorhead Mike's I called the office.
"Chandler, Kenny wants to talk to you," Velma said after we'd exchanged pleasantries.
"Put him on."
A few seconds later Kenny Baltimore picked up.
"Kenny, what do you have for me?" I asked.
"Boy, your client was right about there not being anything in this file. It's just a bunch of numbers strung together, with no rhyme or reason."
"Could it be some kind of encrypted code?" I asked.
"I ran it through every one I have and it comes back the same old boring columns of numbers," Kenny answered.
I frowned. "Could it be some new cypher you don't have?"
"Now I'm hurt, Chandler! Five minutes after they invent a new one, I have the code key to it!"
"Forgive me for asking!" I managed a smile. "Describe what you see."
"For all the good it'll do ya'!" Kenny sighed. "The first column is a series of letters, followed by a one or two digit number. Directly across from that, is another series of numbers. Some are three digits, some are four and there are one or two five digit numbers."
"Nope. They also aren't train, bus, or plane schedules. I'm at a loss as to why anyone would want to 'Red Look' this document. It makes no damn sense!" Kenny answered.
"Okay. Leave a hard copy for me at the usual place and I'll see what I can make of it," I told him. "Did you take care of my other little problem?"
I could almost hear him smile. "Let's just say that no one will ever tap into the building's vid network again."
"You sound funny."
"Must be the line."
"Can I take a copy of this with me? I've got a couple of friends who might be able to make heads or tails of it."
"Knock yourself out," I said. "Any help would be appreciated."
"Where are you headed to next?" Kenny asked.
"I think it's about time I go see what this key you and I went to so much trouble to get, goes to," I said.
"I'll let Velma know--" Kenny hesitated for a moment and I could hear him talking to Velma in the background. "She wants to speak to you again."
"Chandler, Alf Lockman just called," Velma said, picking up in the outer office.
I nodded. "He at the club?"
She said he was.
"I'll call him right after I get off the phone with you," I said. "Call Karyn White and see how Sabina's doing. She was a might fragile when I left there this afternoon."
"Will do. Anything else?"
"That'll do it for now," I shook my head.
I hung up and immediately dialed Alf's club. "Maria, this is Chandler Harrison. Is the old man around?"
"He's right here," Maria said. "Hang on a minute."
"Chandler," Alf said after a moment. "I got a line on Danny Raines for you."
"The word's going around that Raines is looking for a doctor."
"Yeah. He supposedly got into a fire fight with somebody out in West Covina. Word is he was hit pretty good," Alf said.
I nodded. Raines had gone to see Joe Don Roberts. Only thing is, somebody was waiting for him.
"He find one yet?"
"Yeah. He's laid up for awhile though, from what I understand."
"The old El Toro Marine Corp Air Base. He's camped out in one of the decommissioned jet liners they have on the tarmac out there. A United Airlines 747 named 'Yankee Ingenuity'."
"How current is the information?"
"It's four hours old."
"Impeccable," Alf answered.
"Got it," I said. "I owe you one Alf."
"Take care with this bastard, Chandler. My source told me Raines is armed to the teeth and jumpy as hell."
"Don't worry, Alf. So am I!"
One of the few things that actually still works in the City of Angels is the freeway system. Built in the 1950's by the old United States government, the roads were models of efficiency. At first.
Los Angeles covers an area of roughly forty one hundred square miles. The cost of living and property have always been high here and the boom following World War II brought millions of new Angeleno's to the city. Those new people needed land and homes they could afford and a way to get to those new homes. Enter the administration of Dwight David Eisenhower, hero and commanding general of the Allied forces during World War II.
With such a large area to cover, the state and federal governments started construction of a vast network of freeways. It was said (at the time) that the main reason for the freeway system was to ease congestion and make life easier for the people of the city and county. What actually happened, was suburban sprawl. The orange groves of Glendale and San Fernando gave way to the bulldozer and earth mover and became one large bedroom community of look alike, cookie cutter homes.
Where there is suburban sprawl, there is traffic. The new roads, designed to make life easier for the city's inhabitants turned into one never-ending, nightmare traffic jam. By the late 1990's traffic tie ups of monumental proportions were the norm and the environmental movement had effectively nixed the idea of either expanding the old system or building new roadways. Life in the city suffered, because if you can't get from Point A to Point B as designed, why bother. There were people who lived less than ten miles from downtown who'd never set foot outside their neat little suburb. They could see the buildings of downtown from their front door, but who on earth would ever want to go there?
Throughout the next few decades the city population ebbed and flowed. When New Los Angeles (I always thought they could've come up with a much better name!) became a country within a country, the new governor paid out a yearly fee to the big-wigs in Sacramento in order to continue using the freeway system. It was a lot of money and there had been rumors through the years about the government of New Los Angeles seizing the roads from the federal government and keeping them for themselves. That didn't happen. The federal government had heard those same rumblings and immediately sent shock troops south to take over the freeways. With the feds having a lot more money and far more men, the city governor saw the error of his ways and abandoned that plan as 'fiscally unsound'. Even Governor Taylor has his limitations.
These days, the freeway system works the way it was originally intended. You are monitored and watched every mile you travel, but the Cal-Transportation Police are some of the most efficient (if humorless) in the world. As long as you're on one of their roads, you'll be safe. Which is far more than I can say for most of the city.
You can see the long lines of planes from the Santa Ana Freeway. With the newer hypersonic suborbital transports in the air, the three remaining commercial airliners had been decommissioning their fleet of older style, jet aircraft for the past two decades. Driving down Irvine Boulevard there were hundreds of planes from airlines long dead, parked along the fence. El Toro Marine Air Station had been likewise abandoned twenty years ago and had been serving as the storage facility for those beautiful old birds, ever since.
I parked the Interceptor down over an embankment and out of sight of the main gate and took a walk. I found an opening in the fence on the southeastern edge of the compound and went through it. Walking the long lines of planes I noticed the silence. There was a tomb-like quality about the place, even a hint of sadness. These giant beauties had once been the carriers of millions, a relatively inexpensive way for people to travel. Sure, sometimes the technology didn't work the way it should have and people died. More often than not though, everyone arrived safe and sound, with a modicum of comfort. Every seat had thousands of stories to tell and thinking about those stories made me a little careless.
I felt the trip wire as I walked through it.
"Sonofabitch!" I closed my eyes and waited for an explosion. None came.
I opened my eyes again. Glad the trip wire wasn't rigged to an explosive charge, I followed the broken filament to a small black box with a rubber aerial attached to it. The small black box was a Mitsubishi AE-80 wireless perimeter alarm. The element of surprise was gone; Danny Raines now knew someone was near and probably looking for him.
Still cursing myself for being so inattentive, I slowed my pace and went for cover. Weaving in, around, and in some cases through the old aircraft, I at last found where the United Airlines planes were parked. I used the front landing gear wheels of a 777 as a hiding place and took out the pair of small binoculars I usually keep in the trunk of my Chevy. I scanned down the row of aircraft, noting the different names stenciled just below the pilot's side glass. 'Yankee Ingenuity' was the tenth plane down the line, a thousand or so yards from where I was located.
I stowed the binoculars back inside my jacket and moved. I went very slowly knowing that if I were the one hiding out, I'd have outer perimeter alarms set, along with a few other nastier surprises. I found one, a couple of planes down from my lookout post. I've always hated the idea of land-mines and the one I was looking at was the worst of the lot. Known as a 'bouncing betty' they were about the size of a dinner plate. When stepped on, a large, tightly wound spring releases in the bottom of it. The explosive 'bounces' up to waist level and goes off. They're old technology, but still very effective.
I gave the thing a wide berth. A little further on, I paused and gave the 747 a good once over. Raines' couldn't have picked a better hiding place. A 747 is a huge aircraft, with a large bulge at the front where the second floor lounge is located. From that kind of vantage point and with such flat land around him, Raines could see for thirty miles in every direction.
There was a loud bang and suddenly the tire I was hiding behind exploded. As I dove away from it, gouts of sand kicked three feet into the air. Raines had opened up on me with some major firepower and I didn't have a clue as to where he was located. I could hear the shots behind me as I ran. I slid headlong into the front landing gear of another 747 and pulled the Narinkov from the sling under my left arm.
"Let's even this up a little bit!" I said under my breath. I thought I saw the glint of something out of place in the upper lounge of 'Yankee Ingenuity'. I raised the Narinkov, steadied it on the landing wheel in front of me and fired. I'd forgotten how loud a Narinkov is and being in the enclosed space I was, the damn thing nearly deafened me. I fired eight rounds into the lounge and heard the muffled bangs as they exploded inside the plane.
The only sound I heard was that of sand whispering across the old macadam surface.
"Danny Raines!!" I called again.
No answer, but at least he wasn't shooting at me again.
"Danny Raines!!" I yelled out a third time.
"What do you want?!" The voice was high and reedy.
"My name is Chandler Harrison! I want to talk to you!"
"I don't know you!"
"That's true! You don't know me!" I was trying to think fast. "I'm a private investigator!"
"What do you want with me?! That bitch of an ex-wife of mine didn't hire you to find me, did she?!"
I smiled. "No! No bitch of an ex-wife!"
"What do you want?!"
I peered over the top of the wheel. "I need to talk to you about Alicia Denniston!"
"Alicia?! Do you know where she is?!" Raines demanded.
"Raines, I'm putting my gun away and coming out!" I made sure the Narinkov had ammunition left in the clip and put it back inside my coat. I stood up and walked into the open. "Raines, do you see me?!"
"I've got you in my scope!" he said. "You make one false move and you'll be dead before you hear the shot!"
"I understand! I won't make any false moves!"
I walked towards 'Yankee Ingenuity' with my hands above my head. As I approached the port side wing I could see a cobbled together ladder leading up to one of the emergency doors. The door opened and Danny Raines was training a rifle down on me.
"Where's your gun?"
"Under my arm , where it's going to stay," I said.
Raines seemed uncertain. "You got some identification?"
"It's in my back pocket."
"Turn around and raise your coat up."
I did as he said. "Can I get it?"
"Just move real slow, hombre."
I took it out, then tossed it up to him. Raines examined the badge and ident card for a long moment. "So what do you want with me Mr.--"he glanced at the ident card once more, "-Chandler Everett Harrison?"
"I promise not to shoot you if you don't shoot me," I said, fixing my gaze on the rifle.
Raines smiled. "You must be the fastest draw in the world! Or a total fucking loon!" he said.
I smiled in return. I know which one Velma would've voted for at that moment. "Since I'm no threat to you now, would you mind pointing that thing some other way?"
He mulled the thought over. The rifle barrel dropped away from me. "I can say one thing about you. You got some balls!"
"I need to talk to you about Alicia Denniston. It's urgent."
"Come on up."
I checked to make sure the ladder was safe and made the thirty foot climb to the doorway. Raines stood aside to let me enter.
"Where is she?" It was the second time he'd asked me that question.
"I was hoping you could tell me."
Raines frowned, then shook his head. "I haven't seen her in a week."
I turned to face him. The rifle was pointed at the floor. "She know you were running a surveillance on her?"
"How'd you know about that?"
"You're a good wire man. Mine's just a little bit better," I said.
"'Better'? There's nobody better'n me!"
"I'll tell him you said so."
"'Him'?" Raines met my eyes. "In that case, you gotta' be talking about Kenny Baltimore. How is that old sonofabitch?!"
"He's doing well."
"I could never understand how somebody with all the talent Baltimore has, could just piss it all away," Raines shook his head. "He coulda' been a millionaire ten times over by now, but he keeps doing all this freebie shit for everybody."
"I don't think money matters all that much to him," I offered.
"It's a damn shame too!"
I sat on the arm of one of the passenger seats. "Who you working for?"
Raines smiled. "Who you working for?"
I studied him quietly. "I know you were probably hired in New York because you followed Alicia from there."
"Tell me more."
"You took the same train out here. In fact, you stayed in the cabin directly beside hers. I have the records of you and the Denniston woman entering California and I can trace the two of you to both Bakersfield and Fresno. The same Fresno by the way where Alicia Denniston stands accused of fire-bombing an agricultural research station not too long ago," I said.
"Sounds like you've been misinformed."
"It was a research station all right, but they wasn't growing corn."
"What are you talking about?"
"Sorry pal, I--"
He was interrupted by a sudden, very insistent beep from nearby. He went to the door and looked out.
"You bring anybody with you?"
"No," I answered.
"Somebody must've followed you then."
"Bullshit!" Raines turned on me and raised the rifle. For the first time I noticed it was a fifty caliber Barrett, the same type of rifle that had killed Joe Don Roberts. I frowned. From this distance the thing would cut me in half
"Give me some credit, Raines. I'm every bit as good at my job as you are at yours!" I didn't back down. "If I could find you, what makes you think somebody else couldn't?"
I went to the door. "Let me take a look."
Raines stood aside. I pulled the binoculars from my inside pocket and did a quick scan of the area.
"Not yet--" I started. Adjusting the power on the binoculars, an image of a half dozen, heavily armed men materialized. I recognized the two men in front immediately: Agents Thaddeus and Henry. "Hello again guys."
"What do you see?" Raines demanded.
"Your old friends from the BSS."
He froze. "I don't know anyone from--"
"Give it a rest!" I said. I decided to play a bluff. "I know both you and Thaddeus and Henry were in New York, one month ago. Logically, I'd say they hired you to follow the Denniston woman. Probably paid you pretty good too. Until a better offer came along."
"What are you talking about?" Raines demanded.
"What happened Danny boy, you decide to play the BSS and ISP off of each other? You take Thaddeus' and Henry's money to surveil Alicia Denniston, then you find out the ISP will pay you even more to keep an eye on the two of them?"
"Why the hell not!" he admitted. "Neither agency's even supposed to be able to do business here! Thaddeus and Henry were real hot and heavy to get their hands on Alicia Denniston and the ISP wants Thaddeus and Henry. I figured it was an easy way to make a few bucks."
"Only thing is, Thaddeus and Henry took it kind of personal like when you sold them out. Judging by the way the ISP came after you at your motel yesterday, I'd say they're a little on the pissed side at you too!"
Still watching, I saw the six men fan out and start to circle through the parked planes.
"They're moving," I said. "Two left, two right, and two up the middle. Looks like they're gonna' try and circle us and catch us in a cross-fire."
"What are we gonna' do?"
"'We'?! Buddy, you're on your own!"
"I'm barely able to walk! How the hell am I gonna' hold off six shooters?!" Raines whined.
"Not my problem," I said.
"You try and leave and I'll shoot you where you stand." His voice was full of false bravado.
I smiled and shook my head. "And bring 'em down on top of you? I don't think so."
"What do you want?"
"Answers." I was brief and to the point.
"You'll help me get out of here?"
"I won't like it much, but yeah, I'll get you out of here."
Outside there was a sudden loud explosion and a shattering cry. One of the 'bouncing betty's' had found it's mark.
"How many of those things you have set out around here?" I asked.
"Ten, all around the perimeter of my little hide out here."
"How gimped up are you?" I asked.
"I'm hurtin' pretty good, but I'll keep up," Raines had a tone of near desperation in his voice.
"How'd you get shot anyway?"
"An old friend sold me out. I went by his place yesterday afternoon to have a talk with him and the bastard shot me on his porch. I get my hands on him, I swear to God he's a dead man!"
"He already is."
"Somebody shot and killed Joe Don Roberts early yesterday morning, right around the time the ISP were raiding your room," I informed him.
"Joe Don? Dead?"
"Dead and in a million pieces. Somebody wired him to a case of Xentex. Last I heard they were still finding little bits of him."
Raines closed his eyes. "I can't believe he's gone."
I offered him a puzzled frown. "But you just told me you were ready to kill him."
"Joe Don?! I couldn't kill him. He's the closest thing I have to a family. Had anyway."
"If you didn't kill him, who did?"
Raines shrugged. "He had enemies. A lot of us do in this line of work."
"Could it have been our friends outside?"
"I don't see how it could be," Danny Raines shook his head. "Joe Don wouldn't have had anything to do with them."
"Did you know he and Alicia Denniston were working together?"
"What are you talking about? Joe Don wouldn't have known who Alicia Denniston was if she'd a walked up to him naked and planted one on him."
"I guess you don't know your buddy Joe Don as well as you thought," I said. "He and Alicia Denniston were stealing files from the ISP headquarters in Sacramento. The ISP's looking for him, even as we speak."
"Files? What kind of files?"
"I've only seen one. It didn't make any sense to me; just a bunch of numbers."
Raines visibly blanched. "We-we need to get out of here."
"You know what it is?"
"You get me out of here and I'll tell you."
He was scared and I knew no amount of threatening or cajoling at that point could get him past that.
"Deal," I said. I glanced around the planes cabin. "I don't suppose you have another way out of here, do you?"
He nodded. "Follow me."
Raines hastily picked up a nylon rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. After a moment he handed the Barrett to me and picked up a battle weary looking British FN-FAL.
"Bring that with you," he said, indicating the Barrett.
"I'm not about to go humping this thing across the desert for you."
"You know what one of those suckers goes for nowadays?!" Raines answered back. "Besides, I can hit a quarter from three thousand meters with that thing. It could come in handy in the middle of a fire fight."
I doubted if he was as good as he said with the Barrett after missing me eight or nine times, but he had a point. I slung it over my left shoulder.
Raines picked up a second nylon bag and unzipped it. He fiddled with something inside the bag for a moment, then smiled.
"What did you just do?"
"There's four pounds of plastique in here. We got five minutes to vacate the premises before it goes off."
I followed him forward, watched as he slid down to one knee and pulled the carpet back. There was a hatchway in the floor.
"It's an avionics service crawl-way. We take this down to one of the baggage holds and go out through one of the landing gear doors," Raines explained.
He disappeared into the darkness of the service crawl-way. I pulled the Barrett off of my shoulder, then jumped down into the crawl-way and pulled the hatch cover shut. Dragging the Barrett behind me, I followed Raines into that stifling darkness. I've never been good about tight places, but this was preferable to shooting it out upstairs.
Less than two minutes later we were climbing down the grease slickened landing gear pylon and touching ground.
"This way," Raines touched my shoulder and pointed to the nearby fence.
We ducked out through a hole cut into the chain links. Across the road was a concrete drainage ditch.
"You got a car?"
"It's hidden by the front gate."
"We hoof it."
It'd been months since the last rain in the high desert, so the bottom of the drainage ditch was bleached as white as the Sierra snows. I let Raines lead, while covering our backsides with the Narinkov. He stopped short and I nearly bowled him over.
"What is it?"
"You hear something?"
"No, I don't--"
After a moment I did. The thump of rotor blades cutting through the air was distant, but getting closer.
"Damn! They brought a chopper with 'em!" Raines said.
"And we're out in the open."
"There's a culvert a quarter mile from here. If we can get there, you can leave me and go get the car."
The rotor blades seemed to echo and re-echo through the sky and it was difficult for me to figure out which direction the helo was coming in from. Raines hobbled the best he could, but I could easily outdistance him.
"C'mon!!" I yelled.
The left side of his shirt had a spreading blood stain on it and he was gasping for air.
"I think I've pulled some of my stitches!"
"Shit!" I ran back to him. I put him over my shoulder in a dead man's carry and ran.
The helicopter was very close. Suddenly I could feel a solid thump under my feet. Two seconds later the roar reached us. The four pounds of plastique had gone up in a towering blast of flame and fuel rich smoke. On the road less than twenty feet away, a section of plane larger than a house crashed to the ground.
"Four pounds?!" I ran at full speed now.
"There must've been more fuel in that sucker than I thought!" Raines said.
Debris continued to pour down on us. I could see the culvert just ahead. I put Raines down on his feet, pushed him through the opening and dove in after him. A second explosion shook the ground under us and I turned to look at him.
"What was that?"
"Probably the rest of my explosives!"
I wanted to strangle the reedy necked little bastard. "How much did you have?"
"Eight more pounds of plastique and a couple of cases of dynamite."
I shook my head. "Anything else I should know about?"
"That's all I had."
"What's a surveillance man doing with so many explosives?"
"I was kinda' keeping it for somebody. I guess he'll be wanting some money for the stuff now," Raines answered.
"You think?!" I said. "How far is the front gate from here?"
"About another half mile."
I nodded. "You stay put. It sounds like the helicopter is circling the explosion. That might buy me enough time to get to the car."
"You want the FN?"
"I've got my Narinkov. The FN weighs a ton and would just slow me down."
Raines nodded wide eyed. "You won't leave me, will you?"
"I told you I'd get you outta' here. You get behind that support back there. Anybody other than me sticks their head in looking for you--"
Raines nodded a second time.
I ducked my head out. I could hear the helicopter, but couldn't see it.
"Just a few minutes, baby!"
I was out and running. The drainage ditch paralleled the access road for most of the way. The sun beating against that bleached white concrete raised the temperature to at least a hundred and forty degrees. I pulled my jacket off and slung it away.
"Man, I need to get back in shape!" I swore as I ran.
I slowed to a jog as I neared the front gate. Keeping low, I peered over the edge of the drainage ditch. Two cars were parked alongside the road. Looking back to see if the helicopter was visible, I ran across to the cars. Using Kenny's pair of multi-pliers, I pulled the valves out of two tires on each car, then went for my own.
The Interceptor started immediately. I spun it around and headed into the desert. The way I took back to Danny Raines was circuitous, but I wouldn't be drawing so much attention to myself. Not until I got to him, anyway.
I went out about a mile, turned and headed back towards El Toro. Inside the fence two other 747's were burning. Overhead, a Hughes 800 with full weapons pods mounted to the underside, was doing slow circles of the burning wreckage.
I jammed the accelerator to the floor.
I slid the car to a stop beside the drainage ditch and climbed out through the passenger side door. I ran down over the embankment.
"I'm coming!!" he shouted back.
He tossed the FN, then the Barrett to me and crawled out. The bleeding had gotten much worse.
"You're gonna' have to help me to the car," he said.
Being a little guy has it's advantages. I picked him up and carried him to the Interceptor. Don't ask me why, but I went back for the two rifles. Topping the embankment with them, I glanced back towards the burning planes. The helicopter spun around in a tight circle and started in my direction.
I threw the rifles to Raines, ran around to the drivers side and jumped in. I dropped the car into gear and floored the accelerator again. As the car spun in a neat 180 degree turn, I saw ribbons of tracer fire issue from the side pods of the helicopter.
"Hang on!!" I yelled.
The first pass missed, but the helo was doing a sharp turn and heading back for number two. In front of us, fifty caliber ammunition was turning the desert into a maelstrom of flying sand and debris. At the last possible second I put my foot on the emergency brake and cut right. Pass number two had left us unscathed as well.
"Get us out of here!!" Raines urged.
"What do you think I'm doing?!"
I knew if I could get to the road, I could put some distance between myself and the Hughes. Bouncing over hard packed dunes, the car finally roared onto pavement. The tires bit and acceleration pinned us back in our seats.
"Thank GOD!!"Raines was sweating profusely and was as white as a ghost.
"We're not out of this yet!" I told him. "Keep your head down! Here comes that helicopter again!"
The bad part about being back on the road was that there was only so much you could do. The side pods on the Hughes 800 were spread far enough apart to cover the entire center of the road. Rocketing ahead, I could feel the tires on the Interceptor fight to hold onto the heat slickened pavement. One little moment of brain fade on my part and the people in the Hughes 800 wouldn't have to machine gun us to death.
Bullets impacted the car. I went for the right shoulder. Bullets hit again.
I could out run the helicopter, but I couldn't out run the bullets fired from the helicopter. I went for the center of the road.
"What the hell are you doing?!!" Danny Raines squawked.
I stood on the brakes. The helicopter was still firing as it flew over us at top speed. Bullets hit a third time. I spun the car sideways and slammed it into park. The Barrett was lying barrel end first in the back seat. I grabbed it and pulled the heavy rifle from the car.
Ahead of me the Hughes had gained altitude. I unfolded the tripod on the front of the Barrett. I lay the heavy weapon across the roof of the car, used my right thumb to flip the cover up on the front site. I pulled my right hand back and released the safety.
A mile out over the desert, the Hughes 800 was turning. I flipped the rear site cover up. At 180 miles per hour, it wouldn't take the Hughes very long to reach me. I focused the cross hairs of the scope on the front of the Hughes.
"One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand--"
I took a deep breath.
I fired. The recoil wasn't as bad as I expected, but the noise was. I ejected the spent shell. Through the 'scope the Hughes was still bearing down on us. I pushed the action forward, steadied the slight quiver I had caused in the cross hairs and fired again. The plexi-glass canopy of the Hughes suddenly jolted skyward. I ejected the spent shell, reloaded. I followed the Hughes in a slow arc, fired.
The helicopter went into a steep climb. I could hear the twin turbine engines go to full power. I fired once more. The engines were screaming as they fought the stall. I pulled my eye away from the 'scope for a moment. At the top of the arc the Hughes 800 hung for a few seconds. Still at full power, the helicopter began to fall backwards. The rotors nosed over and the Hughes fell to earth. It hit and exploded.
I took a look back up Irvine Boulevard. At El Toro, the sky was filled with acrid, dark black smoke. In the desert to my left, the ammunition magazines on the Hughes 800 were going up, sending hot shards of lead in every direction. Seeing that there were no cars fast approaching me from either direction, I made a fist.
Sometimes it's nice to have an edge.
I pulled the rifle from the roof, re-folded the tripod and set it butt first on the ground. I leaned the barrel against the open car door.
I peered in at Danny Raines. "I told you I'd get you out of this!"
Raines didn't reply. He was slumped in the passenger side seat.
I slid in behind the wheel.
"Raines?" I shook his shoulder.
Danny Raines pitched forward. Much of the top of his head was gone, blown out onto the back of his shirt and the seat.
Copyright 2000 - M.S. Costello