**On Sale for Only .99 cents!!**
Scene (Dick Thornby and his less-experienced tech companion, Luke, have broken into a company’s computer complex and are holding Bev, an innocent worker, while they search for information):
“Stop right there,” commanded the older guy—he obviously thought he was in charge. “Bev here, she doesn’t need to know more about what we think is odd or what we’ve figured out. Right, Bev?” He gave a stern look at his cohort. “If you have found out all you’re going to find out, then let’s get the hell out of Dodge. I’d like to be out of this place before dawn. So would you.”
The hacker nodded. A wave of relief washed over Beverly.
The older guy tossed a packet of alcohol towelettes to his companion. “Wipe off the keyboard, the door knob, and anything else you touched or sweated on—gloves on or no. I’ll take care of Bev, here, and be with you in a minute.”
Her relief drained away. A gripping horror squeezed her heart. She could see the hacker’s face go pale and a look of revulsion flutter over his countenance before he spoke up. “Take care of ... What do you mean, ‘Take care of’?”
“It’s real simple,” said the older guy as he started opening up desk drawers at the table where she had been sitting. When he found her purse, he took it out and opened up the wallet.
“You’re robbing her?”
“Shut up,” growled her tormentor, as he rifled through the wallet, sorting through it and pulling out three items. He held them up before her once-again tear-filled eyes. “This,” he said in a professorial tone, “is your driver’s license, with your home address and, by the way, your social security number.” He held up a second item. “This is your address book and, judging by the lack of a wedding ring on your finger and your last name, my guess is this entry here is your mother, maybe your sister, but a blood relative who you probably love and all that.” He held up a third item. “This is your kitty cat, a young Persian by the looks of it.”
He leaned down to her, his face nose to nose with her own runny nose. “I’m taking these three items with me. I know where you live. If you move, I’ll still know how to find you. I know where your mother lives. I know how to find your adorable little kitten. If anyone, I mean anyone, finds out we were here tonight, if any alarm is raised, if any report is filed, there will be consequences ... life and death consequences ... to one or two or maybe even all three of these loved ones.” She flicked her gaze over to the hacker, his face red and contorted as his partner threatened her life. “Just because my friend here is a nice guy, don’t think for a minute I am. I won’t even tell him. I’ll just do it. I’ll just do your mother, your sweet little cat, you.”
She began to sob hysterically. She wished she had never wished for more excitement in her life.
The old guy moved toward the door. “We’re done here.”
* * *
They were back in the car before Dick let Luke speak ... or, more accurately, yell.
“What the hell was that?” Luke exploded as Dick started up the car.
Dick gave his partner an even, emotionless look as he answered with seeming nonchalance. “What the hell was what?” Truth told, he hated this part of his job. Bev was just some bright techie girl who, no doubt, worked night shift ‘cause she didn’t have much of a life outside of work. And here he had made her narrow little world darker and scarier. Still, he had to do what he had to do.
“You didn’t have to threaten to kill her,” Luke stormed as Dick jinked the car into gear and started pulling onto the back roads, headlights still off. “She was scared enough, for God’s sake. You didn’t have to say you’d kill her mother.”
Dick turned the car to the east as they came to a more major road, flipping on the headlights. “You’re right,” he answered as his hands worked the steering wheel, crossing hand over hand for the sharp turn. “If this was Cambodia or Albania or Kazakhstan, I would have just offed her. It’s simpler, it’s safer for me, for you, for the Subsidiary. But I don’t get my jollies that way and leaving her alive probably maintains a lower profile. There is a good chance the brass at Reality 2 Be will never know we visited their offices—a better than even chance.”
Luke stewed, squirming and fussing with the shoulder restraint on his seatbelt. “You didn’t have to traumatize her.”
“I do what I have to. The mission comes first.” He accelerated the car into the night. “She needed to be traumatized and, frankly,” he continued, catching Luke’s eye and staring straight at him for a few beats, “so did you. This is not a game. This is not Reality 2 Be. This is reality. And if you can’t handle what we do in reality to make it just a little safer for everyone, then you should leave and go play grab-ass in some software shop in Seattle or San Jose or back downunder and leave saving the real world to professionals.”
(Scene: Dick Thornby and his new partner, Ace, from the Czech Republic are taking a break at a local gathering after a long day searching for bombs on the Big Island of Hawaii)
Dick motioned toward the sign. “Want to hike across the lava before full-on dark?” He glanced around the revelry surrounding them. “My bet is this place probably won’t really be hopping for another hour or so.”
“Oh, boy,” grumbled Ace. “A stroll across sharp, black lava rocks in dimming light. Just what I’ve been dreaming about all damn day.”
Dick’s nose twitched. “There’s a path.”
Ace relented. “Okay, but I’m not looking for bombs as we go.”
Dick smiled. “Fair enough.”
The lava here was fresher and, thus, more barren. The din of Uncle Robert’s party quickly faded as they walked along the desolate flow as twilight gave way to full night. Surprisingly, the lava field was dotted with a smattering of shacks, tents, and even a full-blown house or two, though Ace couldn’t imagine how the squatting residents managed to haul water, food, supplies, or lumber, much less biological waste, across the broken gullies and sharp cracks of the lava field or why they would even want to do such a thing.
Before long the noise of the crowd fell away completely and the darkness deepened until there was nothing but black lava below and black sky above bedazzled with more stars than Ace had ever imagined, featuring a broad, bulging band of glittering light extending at an angle almost from horizon to horizon. She couldn’t help but stop to gaze at the spectacle.
“Sakra!” she whispered in awe.
“Damn impressive, isn’t it?” said Dick. “Most people who grow up anywhere near a big city have never even seen the Milky Way, much less the bright, expansive version you can see from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Puts things in perspective, I guess.”
Ace responded without looking at Dick. She couldn’t draw her eyes away from the heavens. “You mean it makes you feel small and insignificant, like nothing you do here has any real impact on the universe?”
She heard her companion give out a short huff. “Some people see it that way. Me, I think that if ... just possibly, mind you ... if we’re the only intelligent life in the big, wide universe of which the Milky Way is only an infinitesimal fraction, then keeping the world safe and its inhabitants as happy and healthy as possible is the most important, most monumental, and most sacred task in the universe.” He paused. “And, I think I’d damn well better not screw it up.”
“Ty jseš debil!” She turned to look at him in the dim light. “You are such a fucking idiot! The happiness of the entire universe doesn’t rest on your shoulders.” She shook her head violently and looked back to the heavens with a muttered: “Men! Everything’s always about you.”
Her accusation hung in the air for a few moments before Dick replied, his voice soft. “Maybe. But I’d rather believe my life matters and try to live up to the calling that implies, than decide nothing I can ever do will make a difference and prove the point by only fulfilling that potential.”
Ace wanted to believe him, to believe her life mattered, that she could make a difference, but so far her life ... and this mission ... seemed trivial in the grand scheme of things. And with the weight of the darkness enveloping her while the stars above twinkled at her from billions of light years away, feeling important was nigh impossible.
(Scene: Dick is vacationing with his family on Lake Michigan when he spies a pontoon fuel boat near the North Avenue water crib with hoses going down into the water)
Melanie’s hand tightened on his arm. “I don’t think this is any of our business ...”
Realization slammed home. “Get in the cabin, Melanie. Stay out of sight.” He ignored her questioning eyes and called forward to his son. Dick snatched up the radio receiver, its long, curled cord bouncing from the sudden movement. “Seth, call the Coast Guard. Tell them someone is dumping something into the intake at the water crib two and a half miles east of North Avenue Beach.” Seth rushed toward him. Dick tossed the handset to him and grabbed the throttle. “Tell them to hurry and to put a bird in the air. And take cover with your mother.”
“I don’t understand,” Seth said. “Gas floats. They can’t possibly get enough fuel in the intake sixty feet down to screw with the water.” Seth might be arguing, but he was still doing what he was told. He dropped down into the cabin as Dick slammed the throttle to jolt forward.
“Who the hell knows what they’re pumping and who the hell knows how long the hoses extend under the waterline. They’re fucking terrorists and we’re the only ones close enough to stop them.” He jerked the wheel to make a beeline for the fuel boat. “Ebola, coronavirus, ... prions for mad cow disease if they’re patient terrorists.” He, of course, had once stopped a bad guy dumping neurotoxins in the Glasgow water supply, but that was never made public, so he couldn’t mention it. But he also remembered a couple bulletins which had circulated publicly some months ago to water treatment professionals—he, of course, was on their mailing list for cover reasons. “Some asshole recently engineered cryptosporidium, already present in lake water, to be a lot more virulent. And then there’s that brain eating amoeba that was in the water down by Houston.”
Now that they were fast approaching the fuel boat, he saw three guys who had been lingering near the hoses look up and reach under their jackets.
“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He glanced down the stairway, where he could see Seth speaking on the handset. “Let your mother finish the call,” he commanded as they rapidly closed the gap to the other boat. He was headed straight for it at speed. “They’ve got guns. You need to take the wheel and steer away from the crib, then make as much distance as possible, in three ... two ... ONE!”
Dick spun the wheel hard to the right, slamming the SeaRay into a sharp turn away from his target as he took two steps and flung himself off the left side of the craft, barely clearing the fuel boat’s low railing and landing on the flat deck. He twisted and crouched as he hit, rolling to his left, toward the stern, as automatic weapons fire ricocheted off the spot he had been on just an instant before. He kept rolling until he put one of the tanks between him and the bad guys with guns, taking only a second to glance right, where, thankfully, he saw the straightening SeaRay accelerating away from the crib on a beeline for shore.
“Good work, kid,” he muttered as he turned his attention to his adversaries. He yearned to reach for his gun, but there was no point. While he would think long and hard about going weaponless in the field, he wasn’t on a mission. He was on a damn vacation with his wife and kid. And while whipping out a Walther PPK might get a Bond babe all hot and bothered, carrying on vacay wasn’t a smart thing to do when you were trying to work things out with your estranged spouse who was pissed off you’d kept her in the dark about being a spy. If things reached the point of fumbling and grabbing in the dark, he didn’t want her finding his nine-millimeter instead of finding out he was happy to see her.
He flicked a hand out from cover for an instant to draw fire. His opponents obliged. That told Dick two things. One, the tank he was hiding behind and the connected tanks undoubtedly below deck weren’t carrying gasoline or anything else flammable. Henchmen aren’t usually terminally stupid. Two, the sounds of their Mac 10s firing gave him a rough idea of their relative positions, which was crucial.
If you don’t have a gun and you are facing three mooks who do, your first task is to take a gun from the nearest bad guy.
He quietly took off his slip-on boat shoes, then flung them both out in a high arc to the side of the tank where the closest guy was—the side toward the crib. The shoes drew bursts from all three shooters—a bit longer from the closest adversary. While the burst was short, he knew that, combined with the shots already fired, the Mac 10 was empty or nearly so.
The click of an expended magazine falling to the deck followed in quick order.
That’s when Dick charged out from behind cover, roaring as he rushed forward, arms wide. As expected, the shooter had glanced down to snick in fresh ammo, so Dick caught him off-guard. Dick stayed low and tackled his opponent using every bit of the training he’d gotten when he played football for the Fighting Illini, wrapping his arms around his opponent’s mid-section, then heaving upward so the guy fell back. Then he flung his arms wide again just before the thug man hit the deck with a shuddering whomp, grabbing the barrel of the Mac 10 with his left hand and thrusting it down and back so the stock struck the guy’s chin. With his right hand, he wrested the weapon away, then leapt up, stomping on his adversary’s chest. He fired a couple shots from the just-reloaded gun without aiming, but in the general direction of where he’d last heard the others, just to make them duck for cover. Then, rather than retreating back from where he’d come, he pushed forward to the next cover, listening for his remaining enemies, while eyeing the hoses snaking off the side of the boat and tracking them back to the pumps feeding them.
Once he located the two pumps, he quickly fired two rounds into each. Sure, he might wish he had four more rounds to deal with the bad guys stalking him, but stopping the pumps—stopping the befoulment of the region’s water supply—was the top priority. Getting out alive was second place, as always.
After a burst of sparks and a staccato sound of wrenching gears and whining rubber belts, the pumps fell silent. The flat deck rolled with the waves, slick under his now bare feet. He couldn’t hear his pursuers, but he knew they were moving toward him with slow, careful steps. Sure, he could play cat and mouse with these bozos, but they had more ammo, better footing, and the luxury of teamwork.
Instead, he’d approach this with the same subtlety he was infamous for at the Subsidiary. He glanced about for the best way to blow the fucking boat out of the water.