My trench coat was clinging to my middle—belted too tight, though I had no room to adjust it—and my boots were new and still stiff. My helmet was too large, and my breath hissed through the mask. I held a rifle in my hands for the first in a long time, some Heckler and Koch whose designation I’d forgotten. It kicked something fierce, but I’d been on the range with it for the last month, and I was a big girl.
Looking around, though, I felt like I was trapped in some surly, humorless war film that wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. I was stuffed between David on one side and the door on the other, while James and a line of guys I didn’t know sat across from me. We’d been recruiting, and the van was packed. No one spoke as we drove, though a few guys checked their magazines or fiddled with the filters on their helmets. The earplugs muted everything anyway.
Finally the van stopped, and I opened the doors to find Dick grinning up at us. As I climbed out, Dick said, “Hey there. You look nice today!”
“Jackass,” I said, shuffling aside to let the others disembark. With my trench coat, ballistic vest, belt, boots, gloves, helmet, and gun, I probably looked the least attractive of my entire life. These were work clothes, after all.
“Ready to give us a show?” Dick said, saluting, and I rolled my eyes. Then James came up and spoke to him, ignoring me. I turned my gaze to the building where we’d stopped: an innocent-looking business with a warehouse on the first level and offices on the second. We were in the industrial district, far removed from passing civilians, which was good because we were about to make a lot of noise.
James yelled an order and we all lined up at the curb, sixteen bodies in all. They had to see us now, with the two vans and Dick’s car pulled up nearby. Dick passed out of sight; I turned my head and saw him seating a boom box on the roof of his car, the kind you’d see the Beastie Boys carrying. Grinning, Dick turned its speakers toward the warehouse and pressed a button.
James said “Begin!” and we charged the building like hunting dogs let loose. Some horrible techno song spewed from behind me, tunneling into my ears as one of our guys kicked in the door. I sighted a guy in a dress shirt and put three bullets in his chest. The Chicken Dance. Dick was playing a techno version of the Chicken Dance. I rolled my eyes as I stepped over my bloodied victim.
My task today was upstairs, in the big offices overlooking the warehouse. We expected armed resistance guarding the paperwork, since this was one of Silvers’s main business hubs in Ingram. Sure enough, a shotgun roared behind a crate ahead of me, and one of our guys went sprawling to the floor. I darted behind a cluttered metal shelf, peeked my head out, and put a bullet in the shooter’s arm before James got him in the face.
James said, “Up the stairs, Lenton! Come on!”
“On my fucking way!” I hustled to the stairs behind him, flinching as a bullet pinged off the railing nearby. Silvers had more mooks here than we expected. Good.
James went up the stairs first, rifle blazing, and an office worker tumbled over the railing, dropping his pistol. James disappeared into a doorway above, still shooting. I rounded the stairs after him and emerged into a sparse hallway newly decorated with blood and bullet holes. James was looking into a room on our right; I peered down the hall and saw a thug aiming a Beretta. He got off a lucky shot that glanced my ribs, thumping off my vest close to the mended bullet wound. I put two bullets in him before my gun barrel jumped too high and a light fixture exploded. The man went down anyway.
The Chicken Dance was still blaring from outside. Some high-pitched whooping had joined the instruments, painfully audible even through the walls, my helmet, and my ear plugs. I caught up to James and another coated gangster at his side, while another two came up behind me. “Grenade,” James said, gesturing to a bend in the hallway ahead.
I said, “The boring kind, or the fun kind?”
“Flashbang, now!” James said. I yanked a cylindrical grenade off of my belt and shoved it into his hand. James lobbed it, and it bounced around the corner, exploding out of sight. I averted my eyes, and the earplugs dulled the squealing burst of sound that followed, but I knew Silvers’s people were in for a rough time.
We charged around the corner to find our targets deaf, dumb, and blind—two suited gunmen staggered about, and a man in business casual was clutching his ears on the floor. We opened fire, cutting them down in a heartbeat. As we leaped over the bodies, I noticed that one of them was a woman my age, now with a bloody cheek and a hole in her throat. Then I was past her and I gave them no more thought.
The hall ahead was busy with offices and the sound of shredding paper. The third door down was locked, and it held when I kicked it, then when David slammed into it. James slapped a tiny explosive charge onto the lock, and we took cover a few rooms away. One bang later, the door swung loose and we smashed our way in. Nothing would stop us now.
I broke into the last room and found a sweaty-looking office worker with his hands in the air. Papers were piled on the desk next to him with more scattered on the floor, and a shredder at his feet was jammed, choking on too many pages. “D-don’t shoot,” the worker said. I kept the gun trained on him as I snatched a few sheets off the desk. Asset reports, memos, and manifests from a few months before Silvers’s arrival in Ingram. Garbage. I reached for the shredder when the desk jockey moved.
“Freeze! Don’t you fucking move!” I said, surprised at the rasp in my voice; I wasn’t as used to screaming as I wished I was. The clerk held still, hands trembling, as I plucked a sheet out of the shredder’s mouth. Bingo. Plenty of unusual items were listed—cocaine, vehicles, and rifles—in a flimsy code Bollocks had already cracked. All of it was still downstairs or had passed through in the last week. I glanced up at the office worker, then bent down to empty the shredder. When he thought I wasn’t looking, the clerk’s hand darted behind his back and reappeared with a snub-nosed revolver.
Then his right eye exploded, and he went down with a wail. I hadn’t even gotten my finger on the trigger. I swung about and found James glaring at me, rifle pointed at the downed man. James said, “Come on, Lenton. No witnesses.”
“Got it,” I said. “Nice save.” I snatched a handful of papers off the shredder, looking anywhere but at the body.
“What’s that?” James said, his gear clunking behind me as he leaned in.
“Papers on Silvers’s business,” I said, offering him a few sheets. “Desk boy here was trying to shred them. The other offices might have more like this.”
“How bout that.” James held the pages close to his visor as he read. Then he laid them in a disheveled stack on the floor beside the shredder. “Bollocks’s people can comb through those. Our objective is still Search and Destroy.”
“Got it,” I said. I gave the room a more careful look around. Through the open blinds, I saw Dick outside dancing to his music. Dick wasn’t flapping his arms so much as throwing his limbs and hips around, grinning and bouncing around in front of his car. Surely he could hear the gunfire and shouts from inside. Sure enough, a thug with a pistol charged out into the street, aiming at Dick. A crack split the air and the thug dropped to his knees; I spotted Wes through a window of the building next door, drawing back the bolt on a hunting rifle. Wes fired again and the thug’s head burst open. Dick stared at the body, shrugged, and kept on dancing.
Soon enough I plodded out of the office with James, but with a pit in my stomach. That sight was more unsettling than all of the murder I’d just committed.
The office workers went down pretty quickly after that. Soon enough our hallway rang with footsteps instead of gunshots, and one by one each trooper announced that his office or hallway was clear. Someone shouted out the window, “The second floor is clear!” Dick yelled something back, but I didn’t stick around to listen. James led us back down the way we came, over bodies and loose sheets of paper stamped with bloody footprints. The dead were maybe two thugs to every office worker; Silvers had had quite the operation before we showed up.
Finally we stormed down the stairs and out front. On my way, I passed a line of guys with duffle bags heading in, probably to grab papers and loot.
“Yeah!” Dick said, throwing his fist into the air then stopping the music with a jab of his finger. “That’ll teach them to mess with the Blackbird Gang!”
Raising my visor, I said, “Is that what we’re calling it?”
“Damn straight,” Dick said. “Big win here today, once we grab our shit and get out. Feels good to stick it to the bad guys, huh, Barb?”
The bad guys? I looked Dick in his grinning face, trying to gauge how serious he was. I said, “That was quite a rush.”
“Boss,” James said, coming up beside us, “no witnesses. Drugs and guns in the warehouse. That was definitely Silvers’s staff in there.”
“Hell yeah it was,” Dick said. “Nothing says Bring it on like a warehouse full of dead henchmen, huh? Now we take the documents. The stuff in the warehouse I’ll leave for the blue boys to find.”
“Sure you don’t want it destroyed?” I said, touching a grenade on my belt.
“I’m sure,” Dick said. “It’s like we did their job for them!” Dick laughed, throwing his head back and planting his hands on his hips. “Now, James! Who’d we lose?”
James did a quick headcount, then another. “No one,” he said. “Gabe and Mitch each took a bullet in the arm, but they’re standing.”
“Great!” Dick said, glancing at his gathered troops. “I mean, not perfect, but great. We’ll get those two patched up back at base. That was a pretty good show. Total operation time—” Dick checked his wristwatch, which I noticed was even nicer than mine, “—five minutes. A little time to spare.” A shout drew our gaze to the warehouse door, where the guys from before rushed out, bags fat with papers and folders. Dick said, “Great, we got everything we’re gonna get. Now hurry the fuck up, everyone, before the cops show up!”
Dick beckoned us toward the vans, then skipped off to speak with the other team. A line of guys was forming behind our van, and I jogged over with James, eager to put the warehouse behind me. I climbed in and spotted Wes in the van, humming the Chicken Dance and fitting the pieces of his rifle into a case. The last man in shut the doors behind us and banged on the ceiling, two quick knocks. Right on command, our getaway van lurched forward and tore down the road.
Finally I dragged the stifling helmet off of my head. My hair was stuck to my cheeks with sweat, and my neck was painfully stiff. I wished I had more room to take off my gear, but the van was crowded with men much bulkier than me. I had to make do resting the helmet and rifle on my lap.
Our tiny, dark enclosure smelled like sweat, blood, and cordite. My armor, boots, belt, gloves, and all else were tight or chafing. My ribs ached where I’d been shot; maybe I’d find a bruise there when I hit the shower back home. And yet, for all my immediate misery, we’d just stormed Silvers’s warehouse and fucked up her operations, all without a single casualty of our own. Not bad for our first assault. It’d been fun, too. My heart was still racing, still hammering to the beat of howling gunshots and the fucking Chicken Dance.
I didn’t make it to the shower. I collapsed on the bed, necktie loose and jacket draped across the couch. I scraped my ankles together, trying to get my shoes off, but I gave up soon enough. The adrenaline had gone away and taken my energy with it, leaving me a puppet with its strings cut.
Now, alone with my eyes closed, I could look back. Total body count at the warehouse was put at twenty-eight people. I had no idea how many I’d killed—too many troops firing at once—but I remembered a few key scenes. There was the thug under the light fixture, the lady in the hall with burned retinas and a hole in her neck. The last office worker came to mind—I’d made eye contact with him, and I’d have killed him if James hadn’t fired first. Back then, I had no time to think. Now, I could do nothing else.
Fumbles climbed up on the foot of the bed and nuzzled my shin where the pant leg rode up. I shoved him away; he gave an irritable cry and the bed wobbled as he hopped off. Stupid cat, go away. Momma’s busy.
Who could I talk to? Who could I open up to about this anxiety, this fucking frustration? I’d climbed the ranks in Dick’s gang too quickly to make friends. I’d hung out with Bollocks occasionally, but I didn’t want to see him now. I wondered if Dick would talk to me for a bit. Then I wondered why I wanted to talk to Dick at all.
I thought of homeless veterans, those bearded guys I saw holding up cardboard signs across the streets of Ingram and NYC, who’d seen hell and were expected to go home and be normal citizens again. Some of them had escaped into a bottle and never come back up. Oh, what a fine idea. I rose from bed and stumbled into the kitchen, where I had a case of beer stuffed next to the veggies and milk. I’d told the guys I was too tired to go off and celebrate with them. I’d get shitfaced tonight anyway, all on my own.
Some time later, Fumbles came into the den and found me on the couch, mindlessly watching the TV as it played a romance film. Fumbles rubbed my feet for attention, and I let an arm flop down to the floor—not to pet him, but to reach the half-empty bottle next to him. Unsatisfied, Fumbles hopped onto the couch and lay down on my chest. He was looking me in the eyes, demanding more of my focus than I had to give. On a whim, I put the cold bottle against his cheek, and he recoiled but stayed on me. I set my beer back down, where it clinked against the growing pile of bottles.
Maybe Dick would talk to me about this shit after all. I was his employee, wasn’t I? He had a responsibility to hear my complaints. I’d make him listen. I’d bring it up at dinner with him. And that meant I’d have to ask him for another dinner together. A fun movie, more booze. I think we’d both have fun doing that.