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The War – Episode 28

February 6, 10:15 AM Eastern
Washington, D.C.

 

Director Joseph squirmed a bit in his chair, trying to hide his discomfort. He had made a short opening statement, a masterpiece of wordsmithing, which basically boiled down to “We did the best we could” and “Look at all the things we stopped.” The statements from the man and woman in charge of intelligence agencies, who sat to either side of him, had been eerily similar.

At the table across the room from him sat the newly sworn-in Joint Select Committee on the December 19th Attacks, six senators and six representatives, few of whom the Director would have counted as political allies. Today was only their second day of hearings, and it was their first closed-door session.

Could be worse, he thought sourly, I could be head of the Border Patrol. Pat’s going to get crucified tomorrow. At least there aren’t news cameras to see this.

“The chair recognizes the gentleman from Kentucky,” the chairwoman intoned into her microphone.

“Thank you, Madam Chairwoman. Director Joseph, I’m going to dispense with the customary long-winded build-up to a question, which you’re undoubtedly used to hearing,” Congressman Ferguson said, his smile sharp and tight, “and cut right to the point.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joseph said with a smile.

“Director, from reading your agencies initial report on the Christmastime attacks, I gather that the FBI didn’t have any actionable intelligence, prior to December 18, about the groups that attacked us. Is that a correct summation?”

“That’s correct, Congressman,”

“I didn’t see it covered in your report, so I’ll ask: Has any new information, gathered prior to December 19, come to light that would have tipped your agency to the attacks?”

“Not to my knowledge, although our people are working around the clock to double check our sources and data. Interrogation of the terrorist the Army captured when they cleared the cathedral in Tucson continues, and we expect to learn a lot from him in the coming months.” The directors of the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency both nodded their heads in agreement.

“So, sir, you had nothing which could have been used to prevent or at least lessen the attacks?”

“Correct, Congressman. As I said in my statement, we did the best we could with what we had.”

“Uh-huh,” the Congressman said. He picked up a piece of paper from the table and asked, “Director, do you see this in my hand?”

“Yes, Congressman,” Joseph said, suppressing a sigh.

Here we go, he thought, I wonder how bad this is going to get?

“It’s a news article I cut out of the Louisville Gazette. It’s from their December 18th edition. Do you know what this article is about, Director?”

“I’m sorry, Congressman, I don’t.”

“It’s about an FBI operation that brought about the arrest of a man who was attempting to purchase weapons from an FBI informant.”

“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with that case.”

“I gather that the young man in question was approached on-line by FBI agents posing as terrorists and led down the primrose path to a federal conspiracy indictment.”

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way, Congressman.”

“Director, how many terrorist plots has your agency broken up in the past five years which did not involve FBI agents inducing someone, who may or may not have had a notion to commit terrorism, into something that got them arrested?”

“Director, those tactics are perfectly legal.”

The chairwoman leaned into her microphone and said, “Please answer the question, Mr. Joseph.”

“Yes, Senator,” Joseph said, “Congressman, I don’t have that kind of information in front of me.”

“I’ll help you a bit, Director,” Ferguson said, holding up an inch-thick manila folder, “Madam Chairwoman, I’ve had my staff scouring news stories and FBI reports from the past five years.  They found seven instances where someone was arrested by the FBI and indicted for conspiracy to commit terrorism or conspiracy to support terrorist organizations, but was not induced into their behavior by FBI agents posing as terrorists,” he said, turning toward the Senator from California.

“Congressman…” the Director tried to say.

“I’m not finished, Director,” Ferguson said, cutting him off, “In five of those cases, the information presented to the grand jury was gathered by state or local law enforcement and handed over to your agency. In the remaining two, you arrested a total of six individuals, and the Attorney General indicted two.”

Ferguson set the folder down on the table in front of him, then steepled his fingers over them. Leaning forward, he locked eyes with Joseph.

“Sir, for almost two decades, we’ve watched our security services pat down grandmothers in airports, had our emails and telephone records scoured, and been told this was all being done to protect us from terrorism,” he said.

“We have done everything…”

“Yet with all that, you had no idea that a massive attack against the most vulnerable members of our nation was in the making?” Ferguson said, leaning back into his chair. Joseph said nothing, but looked and felt as if he wanted to throw up.

“Now, Director Joseph,” Ferguson said blandly after a few seconds’ pause, “exactly what have y’all been doing with all of the billions of dollars Congress has given you to combat terrorism, other than convincing the weak-minded to try to buy weapons from your agents and violating the rights of my constituents?”

Joseph looked down at his hands for a moment and sighed. Next to him, the director of the National Security Agency squirmed in her chair again. It would be her turn next.


 

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

Announcement and Snippet

Lost Children, the next installment of The Minivandians, is up for pre-order on Amazon.

lost-children-ebook-cover-1

Here’s the blurb:

Elsked’s adventure continues! In the second of three stories, the Minivandian’s son trades tales of his pets and  their misadventures for another story from his parents past.

After escaping the frozen north, Daddybear and Ruarin find refuge with the magical kin of an old friend. Before they can make their way home, treachery will strike the city, leaving death and disappearances in its wake. In an idyllic lakeside city harboring the ancient evil that drove its people from their ancient homeland, can the Minivandian save his Lady of Eire?

Lost Children picks up where Quest to the North left off.  Ruarin and DaddyBear are still trying to make their home, but they find themselves on a little bit of a detour.

The book will go live on January 26, but you can pre-order it now.  I hope you enjoy it, and remember, the best way to compliment a writer is to leave an honest review and spread the word.

I put up a snippet for one of the short vignettes here, and here’s the first chapter of the longer portion of the book.  Enjoy!


The moon hung over the trees, full and blood red. It shone down on a young man in robes as gray as a dove’s wing as he walked up a long flight of rough-cut stone stairs. To one side of him, moonlight danced on carved scenes of ships and people, while on the other, dark trees growing from the steep hillside blocked his view of the water below. The cheeping of tree frogs, taking advantage of the last warm weather of early autumn, competed with the voice coming from the temple above him to drown out his slow steps.

He cradled a cloth-wrapped bundle in the crook of his arm. It would occasionally wriggle, and once he had to bring his free hand up to steady it as he continued his march upward. Any sound it made was drowned out by the noise of the forest and marshes surrounding him. The young priest paused when he reached an open space at the top of the stairs and looked around.

The temple was ancient, and only its main chamber had been reclaimed from the forest. The young man’s ancestors had hewn it from the living rock of the low hill upon which it sat, and he could almost sense the power of the earth running up through it. The side opposite him was open to the night air, and he could see the full moon framed above the forest. Above him, the sound of singing echoed from the high, domed ceiling, making it sound as if a chorus were serenading him as he made his way into the chamber.

An alabaster altar, polished until it shone in the torchlight, lay at its center. Fine, white linen cloths covered it. Upon them, a silver basin and pitcher reflected a red and orange glow back at him. The same light reflected from the wall behind the altar, making the ship carved in its white stone appear to be ablaze.

His mentor and teacher stood with his hands on the altar. Where the young man wore robes the color of a mourning dove, his flawlessly white garments were a stark contrast against the dark stone. A long sword hung from his belt, its golden hilt shining in the light. It contrasted with the iron chain that swung from his neck. The older man’s eyes were closed as he crooned a prayer in a high, powerful voice. His song rang from the high ceiling, and its rhythm followed the young priest’s heartbeat.

The young priest stepped forward and bowed to his master.

“Do you bring this child to our god willingly?” the white-clad priest asked in a gentle voice.

“Yes, I do.”

“Is he a member of our people?”

“Yes, he is.

“Then prepare him.”

The young priest lifted the baby up and gently placed him on the altar. He untied the bundle of cloth enclosing the child, then poured warm water from the pitcher into the basin. As he did this, the older priest held his hands over the water and prayed.

The younger man wet one of the cloths, then washed the baby from head to toe. The child laughed as the soft cotton ran over his skin, and his toothless grin caused both priests to smile indulgently. After the little boy was cleansed thoroughly, the young priest picked him up again.

The older priest took some oil from a flask and rubbed a mark on the child’s chest with his thumb. He carefully placed his hand across the crown of the infant’s head, and bowing down, whispered a blessing into the child’s ear. The baby giggled and squirmed, then reached up and toyed with the old man’s beard.

“Present him to the god!” the elder priest ordered as he gently untangled his whiskers from chubby fingers.

The young priest bowed to him, then swaddled the baby in a thick, soft cloth. He turned and faced the idol, which dominated the wall opposite the altar.

It was wrought from iron, with two golden horns curling from the sides of its head. The throne upon which it sat was carved from the same rock as the temple, but had been polished smooth to reflect the glow coming from the huge mound of embers burning beneath it. Its eyes, crafted from flawless red jewels, glowed against the dark stone of its bearded face.

Two outstretched arms beckoned to the priest. The waves of heat rising from below the god seemed to make its fingers move before his eyes.

As he took his first step, the young priest placed his hand on the child’s head and whispered, “Etezh.” The child’s dark eyes immediately closed in slumber.

Behind him, the white-clad priest began to chant in an ancient language.
Bal Haamon!
God of our fathers!
Bal Haamon!
Father of the people!
Bal Haamon!
Protector of the city!
We bring you our offering!
Accept our sacrifice and bless your people!
Crush our enemies, end our struggles!

The younger man sang along with his master. He moved with the rhythm of his prayer as he slowly walked toward the idol. His eyes watered from the heat rising from the throne’s base, and tears ran down his smooth cheeks. The god’s red eyes glimmered in the shadow of its beard as he placed the child in its arms. Stepping back, he bowed low to the idol.

As he straightened, the idol’s arms fell to its lap, and the young priest glimpsed the cloth bundle, pale against the god’s dark throne, drop into the fire as a stone drops into water. A brief flash of light and pungent smoke overcame him for a moment, then his vision cleared to show the smiling face of his god.

Both men bowed until their foreheads touched the stone floor. After a long moment, the older priest rose and spoke to his assistant.

“Bring up the other one,” he ordered.

~~~~~~

The young priest sat on a ledge overlooking a moonlit beach. Below him, small blue flames winked from the surface of the marshlands at the water’s edge. Behind him, he could hear his master packing away their vestments and sacramental vessels. He breathed in the cool air, feeling its soft caress on his red face.

A gentle hand on his shoulder brought him out of his reverie. He looked up into the smiling face of the older priest, now wearing a simple, drab cloak over his clothing.

“Bal Haamon smiles on us,” he said, taking a seat next to his assistant. His tone, as well as the look on his face, was exultant.

“He demands a high price for his happiness,” the younger man said quietly.

“He provides for us, and he will bring our people back to glory.”

“Is this what the god wants?” the young priest asked morosely. “How many more children must we give to him?”

“This is how our forefathers worshipped,” the older man replied, “and we have fallen far since we neglected our god.”

“So, there’ll be more?”

“Oh, yes, there will be more,” his master said with a grave nod. “Three hundred were given to save the old city. We will sacrifice as many as it takes to elevate its replacement.”

He looked out upon the water for a moment, then clapped the younger man on the shoulder.

“Come,” he said, “let’s get back to the city. It’ll be dawn soon.”

The War – Episode 27

December 31, 11:55 PM Eastern
Louisville, Kentucky

 

Jeanine stirred the coals with a poker, then put a large log into the fireplace. Behind her, she could hear Jim switching the television back and forth between New Year’s Eve programs. One showed one of the latest pop tarts squeaking her way through an up-tempo version of a forty-year-old folk song, while the other had a band, which was old enough to have played that song at their first rehearsal, grinding their way through a big band tune. Neither seemed to be keeping her husband’s interest.

As she turned back toward the family room, he settled on one of the news stations. It showed a long pan of Times Square, which would normally have been wall to wall with revelers braving the cold to ring in the New Year. Tonight, however, only the stage had a crowd around it, and even that was sparse. When the camera panned around the brightly-lit square, Jeanine saw two lines of police in armor and helmets, as well as several dark-painted armored cars, arrayed around the crowd.

“Think something will happen?” she asked as she sat down in her chair and picked up her drink. On the TV screen, a police helicopter flew noisily over the top of the stage. The singer did not miss a beat, however, and continued to hop around and mouth the words to her song.

Jim shrugged. He had been quiet all evening, yet seemed restless as he played cards with Jordan before putting him to bed.

“Don’t know,” he said, ice ringing against the side of the glass as he lifted his bourbon from the table, “Wouldn’t surprise me.”

His wife reached over and caressed his shoulder. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Went by the recruiter’s office yesterday,” he replied.

What?” Jeanine sputtered.

“We’ve talked about this,” Jim said, “I’ve been thinking of joining the Guard for a while, and you said it sounded like a good idea.”

“So you’re joining the National Guard?” she answered, a look of shock on her face.

“No, I was talking to the active duty recruiter,” he replied, finally taking his eyes off the TV and facing his wife.

You what!” she exclaimed.

Jim shrugged. “I wasn’t going to sign back up without talking to you,” he said, “I just wanted to see what I could do.”

“And?” she demanded.

“There’s not much need for a middle-aged fobbit,” he replied, “Even when I showed them my DD-214 and degree, they didn’t have anything for me.”

Jeanine relaxed a bit. She had tried to read Jim’s discharge papers, and the laundry list of assignments and training had made her eyes cross. If the recruiter had turned him down with all that, then he would not be going anywhere.

“Honey, I know you want to do something…” she said.

“Other than sitting here on my ass and pushing electrons around at work?” he said darkly as the image on the TV changed to the crystal ball at the top of a tower in Times Square.

“Baby, we need you here,” she said, “I need you.”

“Line was out the door,” Jim said, looking down at his tumbler, “Everything from high school kids to a couple of Vietnam pilots trying to sign up. Recruiter said it had been like that for days, and even the ones they can take are on a waiting list.”

Jeanine sat silently for a moment as the brightly-lit ball on the TV screen started its descent.

“What are you going to do?” she asked quietly.

“I’ll figure something out,” Jim replied as the crowd on the TV counted backward to zero.

Jeanine got up from her chair and sat down on her husband’s lap. Putting her arms around his neck, she held his head close to her and kissed him tenderly.

“Happy New Year, sweetheart,” she said, “and thank you for being here for us.”

 


 

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

Christmas Minivandians Story

I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas.  Since it’s that time of year and The War isn’t exactly uplifting, I thought I’d share a short Minivandian’s story.  This may or may not be in one of the new books coming out in the next few months.


The Samaritan

Nicholas of the North leaned back in his seat.  It had been a long night, but he was finally approaching the end of his journey.  His tired eyes gazed yet again at the team of reindeer that pulled his sleigh.  He dimly remembered how fresh and anxious to get underway they had been the night before, but now, their heads drooped and their steps were more plodding than prancing.  Still, they kept moving, with the silver bells on their harness marking the rhythm of their gait.

A light snow fell from the leaden sky, and the flakes hissed along the polished wood of the sleigh’s body.  The tromping of his team’s hooves in the snow was quiet, and the whooshing of the sleigh’s runners as they ran along their path was hypnotic to his tired mind.

One good thing about using reindeer, he mused as his eyes drooped, is that they don’t need much direction from me when they know they’re close to the barn.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered grumpily as he rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to force them to focus properly. Immediately, though, he felt a pang of guilt.  The effort of delivering his packages and sacks was nothing compared to the joy of those who received them.

“I just need something to eat and a nap,” he said with a tired smile, “Of course, tomorrow starts the months of eating well and exercise to make up for all of the cookies tonight, don’t they, boys?”

The pair of reindeer closest to him lifted their heads and looked back at him.  He wasn’t quite sure, but he thought he saw smiles on their muzzles.  His reindeer reminded him so much of the hounds he had kept as a young man, intelligent and hard working.  He smiled as he looked into their gentle, brown eyes.

Truth be told, he wasn’t hungry.  Sweets from the four corners of the world filled his belly, and he’d sampled drinks, hot and cold, intoxicating and not, of all manner.  But a little of his wife’s home cooking would do him wonders.

“A little Eyrisch coffee would hit the spot,” he thought to himself, and the thought made his smile even broader.  Yes, having an Eyrisch wife did have its benefits.

Nicholas went back to listening to the cheerful ringing of bells and the hiss of the sleigh as it made its way across the ice field.  Just as the sun started to turn the horizon pink, he dozed off.  Dreams of comfortable beds, warm baths, and sunny beaches drifted through his mind.  He was about to bring a fruity rum drink, served by a buxom wench in a grass skirt, to his lips, when the sound of the surf stopped.  It was replaced by a sound not unlike a great beast defending its den.  He looked up, and the curvy lass had been replaced with the visage of his lead reindeer.  She was looking down at him, then turning to look off to the side, then back again.

Nicholas sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  His sleigh was stationary in a vast snowfield, it’s icy surface scoured almost smooth by the wind.  The pre-dawn gloom made it look like the surface of the moon.  Regretfully, the tropical sun, fruity drink, and pretty girl were gone, replaced with eight reindeer, a snowbank, and a cold wind whipping down from the north. He heard a low, rhythmic growl coming from a nearby hump in the snow.  His reindeer looked at him expectantly, and the leader tossed her head as if to say “What is making that noise?”

Nicholas looked at the mound of snow before him.  If he concentrated, he could feel the life that lived under it, and his sight let him know that there was no danger.  Even so, he took his mace, Kringol, from its resting place in the sleigh before he stepped down.

The snowbank was the only feature more than a few inches tall for as far as the eye could see, and no tracks, save those of his reindeer and sleigh, marred the frozen landscape.  Whatever or whoever was under the snow had been there for a long while.

Nicholas stepped forward cautiously, feeling his felt boots crunch through the thin crust of ice which lay atop the snow with each step.  As he reached the edge of the drift, he reached out again with his senses.  He could feel rough fur and steel in the mound, but no ill will.  Again, he could not see anything in the near future which signaled danger, but a twinkle came to his eyes as he saw the small form asleep under the snow.

Nicholas drew himself up, put Kringol up on his shoulder, and chuckled to himself. Taking a deep breath, he shouted loudly enough to be heard for miles around.

“Hello!” he boomed out in his deep voice, “Anyone alive in there?”

At the sound of his call, the growling snore cut off. The silence was perfect in the snowfield, as none of the reindeer moved, none of the bells jingled, and the being in the snowbank held its breath.

Suddenly, with a roar, the snow exploded up and out.  In a flash, a fur cape was thrown back and a small figure burst from the drift.

“Stand easy, lad,” said Nicholas of the North, who only smiled at the violence of the boy’s reaction to his call, “You’ve nothing to fear.”

The young man stood up to his full height, which brought him to about chest level with Nicholas.   He was filthy, with stringy hair, which might have been brown or red if its owner were to wash it, reaching to his shoulders.  His feet were bare, but he gave no mind to them as he stood in the snow.

The ruined snow cave, in which he had been asleep,  contained a small pack and the pelt of some animal, which he had apparently been using as a blanket during his long winter’s nap.  He was stocky, but had the look of someone who ate only when food could be found, and had not been able to find anything of substance for quite some time.

His clothing, cut in the manner of the barbarian tribes that roamed the vast northern prairies, were made of wool, but were too small for him and had been worn threadbare. The boy seemed to have no other clothing to guard against the cold.  In his hands he held a small knife, its blade and hilt showing signs of hard use, but its edge sharp and keen in the light of dawn.

The boy’s green eyes glared at Nicholas, who had begun to laugh at the fierce expression on the child’s face.  For a moment, he held the jolly old elf’s gaze, then he looked away to the sleigh and reindeer.

“What do you want?” he demanded through teeth clenched either to look warlike or, more likely, to keep them from chattering.  Nicholas couldn’t be sure, but he thought that he saw a shiver run up the boy’s back.  Apparently coming out of his cozy little den so quickly had put a chill on him.

“I am Nicholas of the North, son of Epiphanius, young man.  Who are you?” replied Nicholas.

“I am Dodjevir, son of Sooka, son of Bestefar, of the tribe of Eikhjelm.  Are you going to try to rob me?” answered the boy, trying to puff himself up and look fierce.  To Nicholas’s eye, he looked like a boy who sorely wanted to square off like a man, but did not quite know how to properly do it.

“Rob you?  Far from it.  I’m known as a…. giver of gifts, I suppose you could say,” said Nicholas, the twinkle returning to his eye.

“I require no gifts from an outlander like you, old man!” retorted the boy.  His voice, which he had been forcing down into a baritone, broke into a squeak as he spit the words past his teeth.  The wind caught his stringy, dirty hair as he tossed his head, which gave the impression of a young lion who was just starting to come into his mane.

“Oh, I think you will like what I have.  Come, come, let me take you somewhere that is warm.  My wife will feed you, and I will give you a better place to sleep than a snowdrift.” said Nicholas.  He gestured to the sleigh with his free hand, yet still kept a firm grip grip on his mace.

“I require none of your charity!  I was born here, and this is how I wish to spend my winter,” the boy replied forcefully.  Now Nicholas was sure he could see him shivering from the cold.

“Well, at least put on your shoes and coat while we talk,” said Nicholas, “I would never forgive myself if you froze to death while you were being stubborn.”

“I l-l-ike the c-cold!” the boy hissed, his body shaking violently.

“Now, be reasonable, Dodha… Didja… I’m sorry, but how do you pronounce your name again?”

“Dodjevir!” the boy said, his voice quaking to the rhythm of his shaking.

“Do..sha..fear?”

The boy’s shoulders slumped.

“Fine, just c-call me ‘DaddyBear.’  Everyone else does,” he huffed, his voice falling away from its earlier bravado.   Now, he truly looked miserable to Nicholas’ eyes.

“Well, I’ll work on it.  But, please, wrap up in something.  You may be a barbarian, but even the most stern of warriors knows to dress for the cold,” Nicholas replied.

The boy’s eyes narrowed and he seemed to consider the older man’s advice for a moment.  Without another word, he backed toward his belongings.  Never taking his eyes from Nicholas, he reached down and picked up the white and gray pelt from the snow, then drew it across his shoulders.

A breeze brought the smell of the fur to Nicholas’ nose, and its stench made his reindeer stamp and shy.

“What is that you’re trying to wear?” he said, wrinkling his nose.

“It’s a warg skin,” the boy said proudly, “I killed it myself just before the snow flew!”

“Next year, remind me to bring this boy skills in curing hides,” Nicholas murmured to his reindeer.

DaddyBear seemed more comfortable once the thick fur insulated him from the cold.  He looked down at his belongings, then up at the sleigh.

“You’re still welcome to come home with me,” Nicholas said, “Or I could take you somewhere else.  There isn’t enough snow here to dig yourself another den, and I doubt you’ll find any game within a day’s walk to feed yourself until spring.”

The boy considered his words for a moment, then with a shrug, nodded his assent.

“All right, old man, I’ll accept your hospitality, but I will not take it as a gift.  I do not take charity,” he said defiantly.

“Good enough,” Nicholas said as he turned back to the comparative warmth of his sleigh, “Gather your things and get in.”

As DaddyBear picked up his meager belongings, Nicholas picked up several empty bags on the front seat of the sleigh to make room for his new passenger.  But when he picked up the last of them, rather than being light and slack like the others, it was heavy in his hands, and he felt something solid and heavy within it.

Nicholas looked up to the lightening sky.  A wry smile came to his lips as he whispered, “I guess this means I was meant to find the boy.”

DaddyBear, the stinking warg pelt wrapped tightly around his shoulders, dumped a half-filled leather haversack on the seat.  He sat next to it, making sure to keep the pack between himself and Nicholas.

“I do believe that I have something for you, young man,” Nicholas said with a chuckle, “It appears that I have but one gift left, and it has your name upon it.”  He thrust the sack into the boy’s empty hands.

DaddyBear looked from the sack, to the old man, then back to the sack.  He undid the string holding it shut, reached inside, and withdrew its contents.  It was an axe, its iron head still showing tool marks from its making.  The polished handle, made from fine-grained hickory, shone in the early morning light.  He ran his fingers along its blade, nodding at its sharpness.

“Thank you.  It’s a fine gift, but I have nothing to give in return,” he said finally.

“There is no need, my son,” Nicholas replied, “Just remember that to give without expectation of repayment is a fine thing.”  He picked up the reins and whistled to the lead reindeer, who bawled out a command.  Soon, they were racing across the snowfield, leaving the rude den far behind them.

“Now, will you come with me, or would you like me to return you to your own home?” Nicholas asked once he was sure they were back on the path to his home.

DaddyBear looked up from his new axe, chewing on his lower lip for a moment.

“I could come with you for a few days, I suppose, but I will not stay beyond that,” he said.

“And what will you do then?”

“What I’ve done since I left my father’s house: find my own way.”

Now it was Nicholas’ turn to think.  Then, a thought came to his mind and a smile split his face.

“How about this?” he finally said, “You come home with me until my wife says you’re not skin and bones anymore.  After that, I’ll take you to the home of someone I know.”

“Who?”

“Have you ever heard of Blacktooth the Kossak?  He has a son your age, and he’s always looking for new warriors.”

The boy thought about that for a moment, then nodded.

“I’ve never heard of him, but if he will take me on as a warrior, and not as a servant, maybe I will be able to stand it.”

“Good, good,” Nicholas said, “Now, let’s get home.  I hope you’re hungry.  Sorcha always puts on quite the feast for everyone when I get home.”

His laughter and booming voice trailed behind the sleigh as they made their way through the snow.  Behind them, the wind filled in the sleigh’s tracks, as well as the hole left when DaddyBear had leapt out to face Nicholas.  By the time the sun burst over the horizon, there was no evidence of their passing.

The War – Episode 26

December 24, 11:47 PM Eastern
Washington D.C.

The bishop stood up from his seat beside the altar and looked out at the congregation. The dark suits of security guards, who were standing along the walls and in front of the doors at the back of the chapel, contrasted with the red and green of the Christmas decorations in the chapel’s windows. He had relented on the security guards only after the worshippers told him that, without them, he would be giving Midnight Mass to an empty church.

In the first row of pews, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice rose to their feet and looked up to him. The bishop glanced at the missal a young girl was holding up for him, then reached down and closed it. Stepping around the altar, he raised his arms to the congregation.

“My brothers and sisters, I want to close our time together by asking all of you to pray for peace,” he said, “Peace for our world, for our country, and for the people who are suffering pain and grief tonight. The evil of the world is great, but the love of our Father and His Son is greater. Just for a moment, let us turn away from the ugliness of the past few days, and embrace the light descending to our world tonight.”

The bishop raised his hands higher.

“The Lord be with you!” he intoned.

“And with your spirit,” the congregation responded.

“Let us pray,” the bishop sang as the congregation bowed their heads, “Heavenly Father, we gather together to celebrate the birth of Your Son, and we ask for a rebirth of our spirit in this dark time. You once sent a spark to kindle the flame of our faith, and tonight we attempt to rekindle His message of forgiveness and love.”

“Father, watch over those who watch over us,” he continued, “cherish those who have returned to You, and hold those who suffer and mourn them in the cup of Your hand.”

He paused for a moment and looked out on the people, his people.

The bishop raised his right hand in benediction over his flock, and sang, “May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The congregation, made up of the powerful men and women of Washington, crossed themselves and replied “Amen,” then looked up at him.

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the bishop called out.

“Praise be to God,” the congregation recited as they reached down for their coats and purses.

“Yes, praise be to God,” the bishop said quietly as the organist started in with the first few bars of “Joy to the World”.

 


 

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

The War – Episode 25

December 20, 05:17 AM
Austin, Texas

Tracy looked earnestly into the camera as the reporter held the microphone close to her face.

“…We will stay here to safeguard their right to assemble and worship as they see fit until the uproar diminishes,” she recited as the lights from the camera and the streetlight above her threw shadows on the sidewalk.

The reporter pulled the microphone back and looked at the camera in a well-practiced motion. “Thanks, Tracy,” he intoned into the microphone, “This is Bryce Harrison for News Channel 17.”

Bryce waited a few moments, then lowed his microphone and turned back to the young woman.

“Thanks for doing the interview,” he said, “The network wants to see how people are reacting to all this.”

Tracy swept the stocking cap off of her head and ran her fingers through her blonde hair. She shivered a bit in the pre-dawn chill, but smiled at the reporter.

“We’ll be here,” she said, “The yokels around here aren’t going to take it out on these poor people.”

Bryce resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he started winding up the cord to his microphone and walking back toward the station’s truck. His cameraman was already packing things up in the back, and the producer was talking rapidly into her phone.

“Well, I hope it stays quiet for y’all,” he said. Now that the camera was off, a bit of a west Texas twang came through. Tracy smiled at that and sat down on a lawn chair, pulling a warm blanket up to her chin.

“Oh, we’ll be all right,” she said, “This is a quiet neighborhood, and there’s a police station just down the road. Andre over there has them on speed dial. Matter of fact, a bunch of us are going to go take a walk around the lake once the sun comes up while he keeps watch.”

Bryce nodded absently as he finished with his microphone and handed it to the cameraman. His producer put her cell phone in her pocket and walked over.

“We’re heading down to Webberville,” she said, the words punctuated by puffs of vapor from her breath, “There’s a group of men guarding a day-care center there with rifles, and the boss wants some shots to feed to the network.”

Bryce and his crew finished packing up and left, waving to the small crowd of people as they went. Tracy settled back into her chair and waited for the sun to rise so she could stretch her legs. Her stomach rumbled a bit, and she considered eating one of the protein bars in her pocket, but decided to wait until after her walk. To distract herself and pass the time, she chatted with the people in her group and texted back and forth with several friends on her phone.

Just as the sun peeked over the horizon, a silver minivan pulled to the curb next to them. The driver was an older woman, her dark hair done in the style Tracy liked to call the “East Texas Football Helmet.” The woman smiled as she got out of the van and pushed the button to open the sliding door behind the driver’s seat.

“Mornin’, y’all!” she called out cheerfully as she reached into her vehicle and pulled out several brown paper bags. She turned and beamed as she held them up and walked over to Tracy and her friends. They were watching her wearily, and Tracy checked to make sure Andre had his cell phone out before standing.

“Can we help you?” she asked.

“Well, I heard that y’all were out here this morning, and with it being so damp and cold, I thought you might like something warm to fight off the chill,” the woman said, handing the bags to Tracy. The smell of cinnamon and yeast wafted up as Tracy took them in her hands.

“I’m Ellen Crockett from just up the way, and my friends and me over at the Antioch Baptist Church all got together and made these for you. The big one there is cinnamon rolls and biscuits, and the little one there is something my sister-in-law made for y’all,” she continued, her smile never wavering, “She said it’s gluten free.”

Tracy smiled a bit as she opened the bags and saw the pastries inside. Her stomach went from rumbling to full-on gurgle at the scent.

“Oh, and I almost forgot!” Ellen said, turning back to her minivan, “I’ve got tea, hot chocolate, and coffee for y’all, too!” She leaned down to fetch the cardboard drink holders on the floor between the seats, and her jacket hiked up a few inches. Tracy’s eyes bulged a bit when the large frame revolver Ellen wore on her belt came into view, but did not say anything as the older woman turned around with her arms full of steaming cardboard cups.

“Wow,” Tracy said as her friends clustered around her, “That’s wonderful. Thank you.”

“Oh, darlin’, don’t you worry about it. Y’all are doing the Lord’s work watching over these nice folk,” Ellen said, dismissing the younger woman’s words with a subtle flap of her hands after handing the drinks off to one of the other people in the crowd.

“Now, I gotta run back home and get my husband off to work,” she continued, opening her van’s door, “Y’all take care, now.”

She got into her vehicle as Tracy and the rest of her group started picking up hot drinks and pulling huge cinnamon rolls from the bags. After she started the motor, she rolled down her window and leaned out a bit.

“I won’t be able to bring y’all lunch, but don’t be surprised if you’re not invited inside to share a meal. These Sikhs are such wonderful people,” she said, “We couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”

“Sikhs?” Tracy said.

“Why yes, honey, didn’t you know you’re standing in front of the Sikh temple?” Ellen said with a smile as she rolled up her window and pulled away from the curb.

As she drove down the block, she glanced up at the group in her rear-view mirror and smiled mischievously.

“Bless their hearts,” she said as she turned at the next corner.

 


 

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

The War – Episode 24

Part III – Aftermath

 

December 20, 07:02 AM Eastern
New York City

The anchor looked at the teleprompter in front of her as the producer counted down with his fingers, then pointed to her.

“Good morning, I’m Joanna Metzger, and this is your Morning News,” she said, keeping her voice even, although she could feel her pulse race from the multiple cups of coffee she had guzzled after being woken from a nap in her office an hour earlier.

“We have an update on the situation in Tucson, Arizona, this morning. The governor’s office in Phoenix has reported that all available National Guard personnel have reported to their armories, and patrols of the streets of Tucson have begun,” she said as the words scrolled up the prompter. On the monitor next to her, shots of soldiers in combat gear standing under harsh sodium lights were replaced by video of a large church with two tall bell towers.

“Officials say that the fighting in the city has ceased since the killing of several terrorists outside the Cathedral of the Ascension late last night, but urge all citizens to continue to shelter in their homes and cooperate with law enforcement and the military. Sources say federal troops from a nearby Army base also took part in the fighting, although that information has not been confirmed by the Pentagon.”

The monitor on her desk switched to a scene of a bombed out gas station with a mountain in the background. Numbers scrolled down from the top of the image as she continued to speak.

“Casualty numbers are continuing to come in, but the Department of Homeland Security reports that well over a thousand people died yesterday, with many more injured. The Department of Education has asked that all schools in the country remain closed until after the winter holidays.”

The monitor changed back to a view of her, and she turned toward the second camera.

“No further attacks occurred last night, and so far this morning, things seem to be quiet. The reason for that is a case for speculation. Are our attackers through with their campaign, or have lucrative targets become scarce in the aftermath?”

The monitor changed to a panning shot of Times Square, lit up by multiple advertising signs and animated screens, but devoid of people except for several police officers and soldiers.

“Across the country, this is the scene that is playing out. Malls, theaters, schools, and anywhere else you would expect a crowd are all deserted.”

The monitor changed to show the inside of a large shopping center.

“At the Mall of Columbia in St. Paul, many stores have closed temporarily due to a lack of customers, and sometimes even employees, willing to risk coming to the mall.”

“Not everyone is staying behind locked doors, however,” JoAnne said as she lifted her chin a fraction of an inch, “In Austin, Texas, volunteers have come out to stand watch over houses of worship.”

The monitor changed to a shot of a pretty young woman wearing an iridescent nylon ski parka and a matching stocking cap. Behind her, several other people either sat in folding chairs or stood holding printed cardboard signs that read “STOP THE HATE!” in red letters.

“We are here to guard this place of safety for our Muslim brothers and sisters, who are rightfully afraid of a backlash from the American people after the horrible events yesterday. We will stay here to safeguard their right to assemble and worship as they see fit until the uproar diminishes,” the woman on the monitor said into a microphone bearing the network’s logo.

JoAnne nodded sagely, then turned back to the first camera.

“The President has called for Congress to return to Washington, where he plans to address a joint session of Congress on Monday evening. We will, of course, carry his speech here and on all of our sister networks,” she said as she continued to read from the teleprompter.

“The President-Elect has also returned to Washington.  Our sources report that he and his advisors have been included in the decision making after yesterday’s attacks, and he has taken to social media to make a pledge to hunt down those responsible and bring them to swift justice.”

She paused for a moment as graphics of several posts flashed across her screen.  Several of them had words blurred out or removed due to the network censors.  After the image on her monitor returned to the newsroom, she looked back up at the camera.

“That’s your news update. From all of us here in New York, our thoughts go out to those impacted by these horrific acts. Stay tuned for a special episode of ‘Ricochet,’ where Morgan Brown-Trier will speak with Mohammed Aziz from the American Islamic Council and Cherise Taylor-Bernheim from the group ‘Moving People Forward’ about yesterday’s attacks and what America can learn from them.”

The last line scrolled off the teleprompter, and the light above the camera went off.

 


 

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

The War – Episode 23

December 20, 1:37 AM Mountain
Tucson, Arizona

Major Chism listened to Captain Davis’ report over the radio.

“How many are there, over.” she said into the handset.

“We shot four of them, and two ran back into the building,” Davis answered, “There may be more, over.”

“What’s your status, over,” Chism said.

“We have one Whiskey-India-Alpha, but it’s minor,” Davis replied, “We’re watching all the exits we can find. We need resupply in seven-six-two, but all other ammunition is good, over.”

“Roger,” Chism said, “Once the November Golf elements come on line, we’ll get you what we can. Can you clear the building, over.”

There was a pause, then Davis answered. “Negative,” he said, “I’ve only got a squad with me and one vehicle. Can’t cover all the exits and still have enough to clear, over.”

“Roger, we’ll send what we can to keep them contained,” Chism said, “but it may be a while, over.”

“Roger. They’re not going anywhere except on foot, and I think I can keep them in the cathedral, over.”

“Anything else, over.”

“We don’t have any grenades. They’d make clearing the building a lot easier, over.”

Chism nodded. “Understood. Will advise when more resources become available, over.”

“Roger, out.” Davis said.

Chism put down the handset and felt her shoulders droop. “How long until the National Guard comes online?” she asked.

Tech Sergeant Braun, who sat at one of the desks on the other side of the trailer, peered at his screen and said, “The Public Affairs company says they’re assembled at their armory. They should be here soon. The armor and MP companies are still getting their people together. Probably won’t see them until tomorrow morning.”

Chism cursed under her breath. “We need people and guns now, not in a few hours,” she muttered.

Travis looked at the map thoughtfully, then said, “The police might have some flash-bangs. Those’ll be better than nothing if Davis wants to try and clear the cathedral.”

Major Chism pulled her cell phone from the front pocket of her uniform, then punched in a number written on a sticky note affixed to the map. It took two attempts before her phone connected and the call went through.

“Quinones,” a gruff voice said at the other end of the line.

“John, this is Holly Chism over at the National Guard CP,” she said.

“Got any good news for me?” the police captain said, “All I’ve got is two helicopter pilots who won’t fly below a thousand feet without somebody on board to shoot back.

“Got some soldiers up from Huachuca, and we’re pretty sure they’ve got the bastards cornered over at the cathedral,” Chism answered.

“Right. After somebody shot at my chopper, I sent some of my tactical people over there. Ought to be arriving any time,” John said

“Good. Our man on the ground says they’re stretched thin, so having a few more people to maintain a perimeter will help,” Chism said, “You wouldn’t happen to have any grenades, would you?”

“Hold on,” Quinones said, then the line went quiet as he put his hand over the phone. After a moment, he came back.

“We’ve got a few crowd-control devices we can send over. Will that work?” he said.

“It should,” Chism replied.

“OK, I’ll have one of the cars swing by and grab them on the way over there,” John said, “By the way, was that your machine gun everyone heard?”

“Yeah,” Chism said, “They’ve got one on their vehicle, and they loaded it before they left.”

“Sweet,” Quinones said, “Hope they put it to good use.”

“Tell your people that their contact at the cathedral is Captain Davis. He’ll fill them in and put ‘em where he needs them,” Chism said.

“Will do.” Quinones replied, “What did your man do with the staff?”

“Staff?” Major Chism asked, a sinking feeling hitting her stomach.

“You know, the priests. There’s always somebody at the church,” Quinones said, then his tone changed, “Aw, shit!”

“Davis didn’t say anything about seeing anyone else. Do you think?” Chism said.

“Well, we’ve either got a hostage situation, or…” Quinones said.

“Or the sons of bitches killed them,” Chism muttered, “Wonderful.”

“I’ll shake loose as many people as I can and get them over there,” Captain Quinones said.

The two ended the conversation. Chism blew her breath out and sank into a chair.

“Well, it’s better than nothing,” Travis said.

“At least they shouldn’t be able to break the perimeter without being seen,” Major Chism said, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands, “Now to get enough people over there so that Davis can get his people inside and root them out.”


 

Captain Davis crouched behind the police SUV as he and its driver, Lieutenant Grayson, talked. Grayson wore gray fatigues with yellow patches, and had a carbine slung across his broad chest.

“Captain said that once we were sure we had all of them here, he’d pile on,” Grayson said, his blue eyes scanning the front of the cathedral.

“And until then?” Davis asked.

“Well, there are four of us, and after Ulzana picks up those noise makers y’all wanted,  and gets here with his people, that’ll make eight,” Grayson said, “We’re all shooters, or what’s left of the shooters.”

Davis nodded. “OK, we’ve got the back and the south side covered with the Stryker and my people. If y’all can keep watch on the north side and here out front, we can at least keep them from disappearing again,” he said.

“Yeah, I think we can handle that,” Grayson said, turning to look at the cathedral, “Kinda thin, though.”

Davis started to speak again, but his radio squawked.

“Six, this is Echo-Seven-Whiskey. There are four civilians inbound to your position, over.” Sergeant First Class Wilson reported.

Davis was keying the microphone to answer when several people walked up to the rear of one of the trucks parked on the street and stopped. They were all carrying guns, but were careful to keep their muzzles pointed skyward.

Davis moved his hand from the microphone to the pistol grip of his rifle, but did not lift it from its muzzle-down angle.

“What do y’all want?” he called out in a deep tone.

One of the civilians, a heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap and a tan jacket, walked a few steps forward. He kept his hands up at his shoulder with his palms forward, and seemed to be taking care to not make any sudden moves.

“I’m Bob Taylor, and we’re some of the volunteers from over at the convention center,” he called out, “When we heard the shooting over here, we thought we’d come over and help out.”

Davis looked over at Grayson, who shrugged. “We’ve got civilians manning checkpoints and guarding stuff all over town,” he said quietly.

Davis thought for a moment, then stepped out from behind the SUV. “Thanks,” he said walking forward slowly, “Does anyone know you’re here?”

“Rick McCoy was calling in to the police to tell them we were on our way over,” Taylor replied.

Grayson keyed his handset and called into the police command post. After a few moments, he gave Davis a thumbs up.

“All right,” the Captain said, “we appreciate the help.”

Davis stepped over to Taylor, putting his hand out. He took it and gave it a firm shake.

Davis motioned all four of the civilians over to the SUV, and gave them a quick rundown on what had happened in the last half hour or so.

“So we’ve got an unknown number of people, all armed, holed up in there,” he concluded, “We’re going to keep them here until we have enough people to clear the building.”

“Works for me,” Ramon said, “I had enough of clearing buildings in Mosul.”

Davis nodded, then said, “OK, my people have the back and this side. Lieutenant Grayson and his crew have the front. That covers the main entrances, but we need someone to watch the north side. Can y’all take that?”

All four civilians nodded. Ramon thought for a moment, then asked, “We don’t have a radio. How will you know if we see something?”

“We’ll hear the gunfire,” Davis said with a smile.

The small, dark-haired woman, who Taylor had introduced as Jennifer, snorted at that. All of the civilians picked up their weapons and started heading up the street. Davis watched both the building and the small group as they made their way up the block and then turned down the street next to the cathedral.

“Think this is it?” Grayson said as he looked over the facade of the church.

“I hope so,” Davis said.



 

Stefano pulled the pin out of his last bomb. The tripwire he had strung across the hall at knee height vibrated for a moment, then stilled. The tall gunman turned and walked quickly down the hallway into the cathedral’s annex.

“Anything?” he said to Rodrigo. The shorter man shook his head and put down the stolen police radio.

“No, jefe,” he said, “I think the battery’s dead.”

“Well, between the explosion, that idiot Armando, and a damned tank shooting at us, every cop in Tucson must be on his way,” Stefano said bitterly, “and now we’ve lost the trucks and the heavy guns.”

“What’re we going to do?” Rodrigo asked.

“There’s a parking garage across the street,” his commander said, “We’ll get there and see if we can steal something.”

He thought for a moment. “How is he?” he asked.

“Not good,” Rodrigo replied, “He lost a lot of blood.”

“Leave him,” Stefano said, “Make sure he’s dead before we leave.”

Rodrigo looked down for a moment, then lifted his head and met Stefano’s hard gaze. “Yes, jefe,” he said, “I’ll make sure.” He walked into the room where they had laid Armando and kneeled down next to the man.

The heavyset man was dopey with pain medication, but opened his eyes when he heard Rodrigo come in.

“Armando, we’ll be leaving soon,” Rodrigo said, “What can I get you?”

“I’m staying?” Armando asked. The pain in his leg from the shattered bone and where the tourniquet bit into his thigh had lessened with the injections of narcotics, but he knew he would not be able to put any weight on it.

Rodrigo nodded grimly. “You can’t be captured,” he said slowly.

“Leave me my gun and a grenade,” Armando said, “I’ll make sure I take a few with me.”

Rodrigo pursed his lips. He had planned on giving Armando another pain shot and opening his tourniquet, but letting him go out like a man would work just as well.

He leaned the stricken man’s rifle against the wall next to him and pulled a grenade out of his thigh pocket. After looking at it for a moment, he put it in his friend’s hand.

“Don’t forget to pull that pin when they come for you,” he said, “I’ll see you in paradise, my friend.”

Armando nodded his thanks and closed his eyes as Rodrigo stood and walked out of the room.

Stefano and the remaining men waited for him when he walked into the kitchen. He nodded to the leader, who wordlessly picked up his pack and walked toward the door.

 


 

Ramon took a few minutes to place his people so that there were two sets of eyes watching every window and door on their side of the cathedral. Luckily, there were several places to put them where they could observe both the main church and the outbuildings next to it without being completely exposed. He put himself at the center of the long block facing the church complex, using a column in the parking garage as cover.

From his vantage point, he could see all but one of the ornate wrought iron gates which led out of the cathedral’s grounds, as well as the blown-open door on one of the outbuildings. He looked down at the street and saw Jennifer’s shadow from where she had settled on the second floor. He cursed to himself for not having her break the light before getting into position, but without a radio, there was nothing he could do.

He had put her up there because he had seen what she could do with the rifle she carried, and it made as good a spot as any for a sharpshooter. It was less than one hundred yards to any spot on this side of the complex, but nothing said the terrorists would come that way. He knew she could hit anything she could see on the roofline or even in the two towers at the front of the building, and that was probably good enough.

He looked the other way, but could not see any sign of Bob or Rene. He took a moment to look around at his own surroundings, then looked back at the hole where a door used to be. He tensed when he saw movement in the doorway, and a man carrying a backpack and a rifle come through. Ramon slowly brought his carbine up to his shoulder and eased the safety off.

He sighted down the barrel of his gun as several more figures moved out into the shadows and walked silently down the side of the building toward the gate. Movement at the corner of his vision showed Jennifer’s shadow moving slightly as she saw them as well.


 

Stefano slipped through the kitchen door as the last of Rodrigo’s men walked out into the dark alley. The path to the street was narrow, but it was only a few yards past the gate to the parking garage, and from there they would quickly be on their way south.

Rodrigo, weighed down with his pack, came to the gate. He fiddled with the latch for a moment, then the gate gave a slight squeal as its right half swung out over the sidewalk. Stefano quickened his pace, wanting to push the men across the street and into the safety of the garage. He was just passing the first of the men when he saw a flash from across the street.


 

Ramon aimed at the short man at the front of the shadowy line of figures. He put his finger on the trigger as he saw him start to open the gate to the street. He slowly eased up on the slack, then felt the trigger break and the recoil of his first shot. Above him, he heard the roar of Jennifer’s rifle as she also opened fire.


 

Something slammed into Stefano’s chest, and he went to his knees, trying to breathe. In front of him, his men were shooting at the parking garage, but two of them fell almost immediately. He tried to shout to Rodrigo, but could not get any sound to come out of his throat. He looked for his subordinate in the flash-lit gloom, but then saw his body lying on the concrete next to the gate, a pool of blood flowing out from underneath him.

Stefano reached for a grenade in his thigh pocket, but fumbled when he tugged at its opening. He hung his head down so that he could use his eyes to guide his hand in doing something he had done hundreds of times. Around him, he could dimly hear his men screaming and the thump of their rifles. His hand closed around the grenade, and he pulled it out. He brought his head up as he lifted the grenade to his other hand, and saw that all but one of his men were down. As he pulled the pin from the grenade, the top of that man’s head lifted away in a spray of dark blood, and he fell bonelessly to the ground.

Stefano let the grenade’s handle fall away. He heard it ping as it hit the wall next to him, then fall onto the walkway. He hugged the grenade to his chest, and was surprised at how wet the front of his shirt was. As he waited for the grenade to detonate, he whispered, “Allahu Akhbar!”


 

The grenade’s explosion was almost muted to Ramon’s ringing ears after he had emptied his magazine at the men slinking away from the Cathedral, but he ducked down when he saw its flash. Above him, Jennifer’s rifle barked one last time, lighting the alley with its muzzle flash.  He heard Bob and Rene fire off the last few shots in their magazines, then the only sound he heard was the echo of gunfire traveling down the street.

 


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

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.

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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