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The War – Episode 22

December 20, 12:25 AM Mountain
Tucson, Arizona

Stefano lurched up from his makeshift bed on the floor of the vestry when an explosion rocked the cathedral. He leaped to his feet and ran out into the chapel.

He beat his men in getting there, but within seconds most of the survivors of the day’s fighting came pounding in from wherever they had decided to nap.

“Where did that come from?” he demanded, for once a touch of an accent showing through in his Spanish.

“We’re under attack!” Rodrigo replied.

Stefano’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and saw that the call was from Armando, who was still on watch up in the bell tower. He hit the answer button, and Armando began to talk immediately.

“Something blew up on the side of the little building!” he shouted into the phone, “There’s smoke coming out of the windows there!”

Stefano looked at Rodrigo and asked, “Did you put a bomb on the doors at the other building?”

Rodrigo thought for a moment, then nodded, saying “Yeah, we rigged the door to the kitchen.”

Stefano turned his attention back to the phone. “Armando,” he said firmly, “keep your head down and watch for anything else. Call me back if you see any police coming.” Without waiting for acknowledgement, he tapped the screen to end the call.

“Everyone get your gear and get ready to leave. If they’re here, we’ll shoot our way out. If it was an accident, the noise was sure to bring them here,” he ordered, “Rodrigo, watch the front. Shoot anyone who comes through the gate.”

Rodrigo and three men took up positions overlooking the entrance to the cathedral’s grounds. Stefano and his three jogged down the hall to the administration building, where they found cookware strewn across the smoky kitchen. The back door was ripped from its hinges and lay out in the yard. A backpack and its contents were strewn on the concrete steps.

One of Stefano’s men poked his head out the hole and looked around, but turned back to his boss and shrugged.

Stefano looked at the smoldering clothes and blankets outside the door. Just then, the bright light of a helicopter’s spotlight turned night into day in the driveway outside. Stefano turned and walked quickly back into the building, followed by his men.

“They’ll be here any minute,” he said over the sound of the helicopter’s blades, “Get everything together so we can leave.” He took the stolen police radio out of his pocket and turned it on.


 

Davis and Wilson looked up at the sound of an explosion in the distance. In the vehicle behind them, the police radio they had gotten at the command post began to squawk.

“Central, this is Falcon-2. There’s been an explosion over at the cathedral!”

The two soldiers listened as the pilot reported what she saw as she overflew the church. After a moment, Davis walked over to the command trailer, while Wilson got their soldiers up and moving.

Major Chism met Davis at the door. Her short, brown hair was frizzed up in the back, and from the look in her eyes, Davis guessed that she had been getting some rest.

“Helicopter’s reporting…” she began.

“I heard, ma’am,” Davis said, giving the major a moment to wake up before she started making decisions, “I can take a squad of people over there in the Stryker and check it out.”

“Right,” Chism said, “I’ll see if the PD can get some people over there.”

“Can that pilot talk on our radios or will I have to use the one you gave me?” he asked.

“Take the brick with you. No telling if they’re compatible,” Chism said, “but remember what Travis said about them having police radios.”

“Right,” Davis replied, “I’ll send any traffic I have on our radios, then, and y’all can pass it along if we need it.”

Chism nodded at that. “Good luck,” she said.

“Thanks, ma’am,” he said as he turned back toward his soldiers.


Above the cathedral, the helicopter pilot slowly orbited her craft around the structure. The plume of dust and smoke from the explosion she had seen from a couple of blocks away was slowly rising and dissipating in the breeze. Her co-pilot played both the searchlight and the camera around the building and the park-like yard surrounding it.

“Central,” he said, “I’m seeing debris from the building and possibly a victim in the alley next to the smaller building at the cathedral.”

“Copy, Falcon-2,” the dispatcher said, “Any other activity?”

“Negative,” he replied, “No people coming out of either building. There are two SUV’s and a car parked in the back lot, but nobody’s coming out to see what’s going on.”

The pilot turned her aircraft’s nose around so that it was pointed at the space between the two tall bell towers of the main building. As she did, she caught the reflection of something in the bell tower.

“Ray,” she said over the intercom, “Check out the tower on the right. I think there’s someone up in there.”

The co-pilot slewed the spotlight around and centered its bright beam on the rounded cap of the tower. He saw what could have been the figure of a man trying to hide behind the thick concrete railing on its landing. He keyed his microphone and said, “Central, there’s someone up in the north tower of the cathedral. I can’t tell if he’s armed.”

Central was starting to reply when a stream of green lights winked out from where the figure was hiding in the tower. The pilot reacted instinctively and pulled the helicopter’s nose up while she kicked her craft forward.

“Central, this is Falcon-2. We are under fire from the north tower of the cathedral!” her co-pilot shouted into his microphone.



Davis heard the co-pilot’s radio calls as he walked back to his soldiers. He paused to listen as the co-pilot and dispatcher reacted to the man shooting at the helicopter.

“Well, I guess that answers my questions, sir,” Sergeant First Class Wilson said, “Kind of wish we had the second Stryker.”

“No shit,” Davis said.

Wilson bellowed for their soldiers to get moving. Half of the twenty-eight soldiers they had brought with them were either standing guard at the perimeter of the quickly-filling command post area or were patrolling the park’s grounds. The other half were frantically loading weapons and ammunition into the back of the armored car.

Davis pulled up a map on his tablet, traced a line with his finger, and showed it to Wilson.

“It’s a couple blocks west of here,” he said.

Wilson nodded. “Phillips is driving, sir,” he said, “You want TC?”

“You take it,” Davis said as he picked up his pack, “You’re qualified on the ‘240, right?”

“It’s been a while,” the NCO said as he climbed up the side of the armored car, “but it’s like riding a bike.”

Davis walked up the ramp as Phillips gunned the engine and started raising it. Wilson hopped down into the commander’s hatch and pulled back on the machine gun’s charging handle, then pushed it forward to chamber the first cartridge in a belt of ammunition.

A soldier gave hand signals to Phillips as he pulled away from the other vehicles. Once he got out of the park, he gunned the engine and raced down the street toward the cathedral.



 

Rodrigo was standing at the back door to the cathedral, waiting for Armando to get back to the group from his perch in the bell tower. Stefano had ordered him down after he had shot at the helicopter. Rodrigo was not sure which the boss was angrier about, the lookout shooting at the helicopter or the lookout missing the helicopter.

The short gunman turned when he heard the sound of boots walking down the tiled floor. It was Stefano. All of the men, who had been squatting down or leaning against the wall, stood as their commander approached them, but the tall man paid them no mind.

“What’s the hold up?” he demanded angrily.

“Armando’s on his way down,” Rodrigo replied, “Once he’s here, we’ll get in the trucks and head out.”

Stefano ran his fingers through his dark hair and sighed in frustration.

“All right,” he said, “We’ll split up here and head to the safe house in Tubac. We’ll get back across the border in a couple of days.”

Rodrigo nodded, “Understood, Jefe.”

Both men turned when they heard Armando running down the hall behind them. The little man was sweating and gasping from his hard run down the tower’s stairs and across the building.

“Finally, pendejo,” Stefano hissed, “Did you see anything besides that helicopter you missed?”

Armando froze at the sound of his commander’s voice. “No, Jefe,” he said between gulps of air, “Nothing else, and I couldn’t hear the helicopter after a couple of minutes.”

“Maybe we’ll get away clean,” Stefano muttered as he turned to the door.

“Go,” he said simply, and the men closest to the double doors pushed them open and walked quickly out into the parking lot. The muzzles of their weapons swept the open space and nearby buildings.  One man looked back and nodded to Stefano.  The rest of his team followed him as their leader jogged to their trucks.

 


 

Davis tracked their progress on his tablet, occasionally giving instructions to Phillips as they came to an intersection. Light flickered down through the commander’s hatch, and Davis could see Wilson turning himself one way or another to watch the buildings around them.

“OK, Phillips, can you see a big building with two big towers in the front?” the Captain said into his microphone as his readout indicated that they were getting close.

“Uh, yes,” the Specialist said, “Yes, sir. It’s about half a block ahead on the right.”

“OK, from the picture I have, there’s a parking lot in the rear. Swing around back and go in there,” Davis replied.

“Roger, sir,” the driver said.

“Watch those towers,” Davis added, “That’s where the police chopper said someone was shooting at them.”

“Yep,” Wilson said curtly from his perch behind the machine gun.

As they drew close to the large church, Davis felt the big vehicle lurch a bit as they turned to go around the back, then again as they entered the parking lot. He was reaching up to operate the ramp controls when he heard Phillips and Wilson shout over the intercom. Half a heartbeat later, he heard the machine gun open up.

 


 

Stefano stopped in momentary shock as the wheels of the Stryker rode up on the parking lot’s curb. The roar of its engine broke the night as the bow of the huge vehicle rounded the corner of the cathedral. His hesitation was broken as his men started shooting at it, and he jumped backward into the church.

Rodrigo was just crossing the threshold when Stefano rushed past him and the machine gun on top of the armored vehicle opened up. The gunner walked a line of bright red tracers across both trucks and into the knot of men who had been getting into them. Only two of them made it back to the open doors before Stefano and Rodrigo slammed them shut and leaped behind the concrete walls of the church.

“Shit!” Rodrigo screamed as bullets ripped through the light material of the doors, “They’ve got a tank!”

 


 

Phillips screamed into the intercom as one of the bullets the gunmen fired at his vehicle grazed him in the neck. Wilson was bellowing as well as he hosed down the shooters with fire from the machine gun, then followed two who were trying to escape back into the church. The doors slammed behind them, but the NCO chewed up the thin metal door at waist height.

Phillips let go of the steering yoke and grabbed at the wound on his neck. The Stryker surged forward when he reflexively stomped down on the accelerator, running over the bodies of several of the gunmen and plowing into both trucks. It came to a stop when he pulled his foot off the pedal, ending up with one of its driver’s side wheels halfway up onto the frame of the nearer truck.

The ramp on the back of the armored car dropped with a whine and Captain Davis led the squad of soldiers in the Stryker’s belly out. Davis poked his head around the vehicle’s corner and took in the carnage. At his feet, he saw two writhing bodies, and looking down, he realized that another couple were probably under the Stryker.

One of the wounded men heaved himself over and tossed something which rang against the side of the vehicle. Davis shouted as he jumped back, pulling Alvarez, who had moved up next to him, back as well. The grenade bounced twice on the concrete surface of the lot, then exploded. Davis’ ears rang from the concussion, and shrapnel pinged from the armored side of the Stryker. Wilson opened back up with the machine gun, stitching across all of the bodies lying in front of the trucks and taking divots out of the concrete. The gun stuttered to a stop when he reached the end of its belt. He swore loudly as he ripped open his second canister of ammunition and hurried to reload.

Davis peeked around the corner of the Stryker again and brought his carbine up to cover the doors to the cathedral. He jerked his head and the soldiers behind him surged forward. Their progress was halted when someone inside the building started shooting blindly through the door. Four of the soldiers reflexively returned fire, their bullets carving dust from the concrete and punching through the metal doors. A scream rose over the reports of their rifles as their shots found at least one of the men who had run back into the cathedral. No more return fire came from through the door.

“Cease fire!” Davis bellowed, waving his free hand to signal to those who could not hear him.

After a few seconds, the only sound was the echo of gunfire from the surrounding buildings.

 


 

Bob sipped from his cup of coffee. It was stale, but at least it was hot and strong. He had been manning a checkpoint at the convention center for about six hours, along with several other people who showed up at the police substation near his home. The lieutenant in charge had been struggling to get a handle on which of his officers was still alive, much less ride herd on a bunch of armed people who wanted to help. He jumped at the chance to use them to supplement his manpower once he got orders to guard critical parts of downtown.

In the distance, he heard an explosion, then the beat of a helicopter’s rotor. He listened for a moment, and was about to shrug and go back to talking with his neighbor, Ramon, when the stutter of a rifle echoed from the direction of the explosion. He looked toward the sound, and saw green tracers flying into the sky and a helicopter’s searchlight swing wide as it gained altitude and distance from the shooter.

“Shit,” he muttered, “Here we go again.”

Ramon had the radio the police had given him up to his ear.

“Bomb over at the cathedral,” he said after a moment, “and now somebody’s shooting at the police.”

“That’s only a few blocks east of here,” Bob said, “We could actually be of some use instead of sitting here watching the cockroaches fornicate.”

“Yeah,” Ramon replied, “but we’re supposed to stay here.”

“Nothing going on here,” Jen, Ramon’s wife, said.

“We’ll hang tight for now,” Ramon replied, looking around at the other people manning the checkpoint, “If anything else happens, some of us can go and see what we can do.”

Everyone nodded and went back to their perches on vehicles or the curb. Ramon heard the radio chirp again, and pressed it to his ear.

“Wow,” he said, “Somebody from the Army’s heading over there to check it out.”

Everyone started talking at once. Most wanted to leave their quiet corner immediately, while some wanted to wait for orders. In the distance, the sound of the helicopter was joined by the growl of a big engine echoing through the streets. Suddenly, the sound of a machine gun ripped through the night, followed by an explosion and the smaller pops of rifles.

“OK,” Ramon said, “Bob, Rene, and Jen, let’s go. We’ll see what we can do. Jeff and Rick, you stay here.” He handed the radio to Rick, “Call in and tell them we’re on our way over there.”

The four civilians, three of them armed with carbines and one, Jen, carrying a rifle with a large scope, started walking toward the cathedral. In the distance, they could hear more shooting and another muffled explosion.



 

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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