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The War – Episode 21

December 19, 11:38 PM Mountain
Tucson, Arizona

Jake slept fitfully under a palo verde tree. He had camped here in the park for a couple of weeks after finding a nice out-of-the-way corner where he could get some shade in the daytime and shelter from the cool breeze at night. Normally, he would have spent the day panhandling or trying to find an odd job or two to make some money. Today, however, like everyone else in Tucson, he had hunkered down and waited for the shooting to stop.

He had made a dinner out of the remains of a sandwich he found in the nearby trash container and the last third of the bottle he had bought the night before. Once it got dark and things quieted down, he stared up through the leaves of the trees and drifted off while watching the moon rise.

His sleep was interrupted by a shock of blinding light breaking through both his closed eyes and drunken mind.

“The hell?” he yelled as he tried to roll away from the light.

“Keep your hands where we can see them!” a loud voice commanded. Jake slowly raised his hands and sat up. Opening his eyes fully, all he could see was two points of light.

“It’s just a bum,” a female voice said.

“Yeah,” said the first voice, its tone changed from threatening to just annoyingly loud.

The lights moved off to one side of him, and he blinked to clear the afterimages which floated in the center of his vision.

“Dude, you gotta go somewhere else,” the female voice said, “We’re clearing the park.”

“This is my place,” Jake slurred, starting to stand up.

“Slow, now,” the male voice said, “Don’t make any sudden movements. Pack your shit up, and we’ll walk you out of here.”

Jake slowly complied, cursing as he did it. He had been rousted often enough that he knew better than to argue or fight, but he did not hurry either. Once he could see a little again, he noticed that the pair were not police, but rather wore camouflage uniforms and helmets. The soldiers watched him while he packed his things. He left the trash from his meal where it lay. Normally, he would have cleaned up before moving on, but if they were going to kick him out, let them pick it up.

As they walked through the gate to the park, the male soldier stopped him and put a bill into his hand.

“Sorry about this,” he said quietly, “Here, get something to eat.”

Jake grunted his thanks and walked away from the park. Behind him, he heard the soldiers talking in low voices as they watched him go.

Once he had rounded a corner, he stood under the dim light of a store display and looked at the money. Andrew Jackson glared up at him.

“Merry Christmas,” Jake muttered sarcastically as he put the money into his pocket. He shambled up the street toward the on-ramp to the freeway, but that was blocked by police. Several more tries to find a way out of downtown or at least to another part of it were similarly stymied.

Finally, he turned south toward the center of town. He saw the lights of the cathedral ahead of him, and a thought came to his mind. Father Michael had always been kind when he had gone to Mass over the summer. Maybe he could find someplace out of the way at the church to sleep for a few hours. He shivered a little against the chill in the dry air. Winters here were mild compared to what he had grown up with in Denver, but it still got cold at night.

Jake made his way to the cathedral, avoiding police roadblocks, which seemed to have closed off almost every street. Once, a helicopter flew over him, then turned back to have a second look. The pilot refrained from spotlighting him, and kept going on his way without bothering the man shuffling down the sidewalk.

After a few blocks, he came to the cathedral. Its grounds consisted of a manicured lawn dotted with statues. Stone and cement walking paths crisscrossed the grass, while a covered walkway led along the side of the main building, leading to a smaller annex behind it. Jake walked around to a side street and went through a wrought iron gate next to the annex.  He chose one of the side doors to the small building and hunkered down to get out of the chilly breeze.

Jake put his back against the door and looked up at the stars again. As he leaned his head back against the door, he felt its handle move. He reached up and tried pulling it down, and to his surprise, he heard the bolt slide back a bit.

No sense in sleeping out here if they’re going to leave the door open for me, he thought as he got up in a crouch and turned the handle down all the way. I’ll just find a nice place to crash and get out before everyone comes in tomorrow.

The lock made a slight click as it opened, then he gently pulled the door open an inch or so. There was a strange noise on the other side, kind of like the screen door opening at his grandmother’s house, but the alarm he had been expecting was absent.

Jake picked up his pack as he pulled the door open the rest of the way.


Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

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