Field of Flames
Much as I loved the heat, today I was sweating miserably in my body armor, packed into a van with several equally sweaty grunts. The prospect of encountering more police sent a chill down my spine, but a cold sweat was no better than a hot one. At least it was chilly today. I couldn’t imagine wearing a trench coat and armor in the summer. What if I went on the mission in a bikini? I pictured that for a moment—bullets flying, flames raging, me dying—and actually chuckled, so that one of the grunts looked at me funny.
The van stopped, the doors burst open, and I leaped out. My boot pounded across the pavement and the hem of my coat flapped at my knees, so that I felt bold and powerful as I flipped off my safety. We’d parked at the fire escape by the loading dock, hidden in an alleyway. Five other guys trailed behind me; four of them were mercenaries I already disliked, but all of them answered to my command. We kicked in the door and stormed inside, aiming to take the building over in just a few minutes. The IPD’s response time was slow, but not that slow. The clock was ticking.
The enemy would be prepared this time. Maybe Silvers hired mercs, too. I had no problem with that, but the others were on edge. There’d been no chatter on the way over, and Dick had left his boom box behind, thank Christ.
We rounded a corner and found the stairs; I led my squad up while the squad behind us took the first floor. Just as the first gunshots sounded, all the lights went out, so for a moment I could only see the red glow of Exit signs in the dark. But my squad flicked on barrel-mounted tactical lights. As if on cue, a man with a gun appeared in the hallway ahead of me, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the light. Then he doubled over and collapsed, because I’d shot him in the belly four times.
Search and destroy. I could do that. We were on Search, but I was in a Destroy kind of mood. I charged down the hall to the beat of pounding footsteps behind me. Ahead of us, someone unseen screamed in alarm, and three guys stampeded out of a side room. My squad’s bullets tore into one, but the others hid around the hallway’s corner and took potshots at us from their cover. I ducked low, reaching for my belt, and the guy behind me screamed as he took a bullet. His sacrifice paid off; I yanked out a grenade, cooked it for a few seconds in my hand, and threw it down ahead, so that the hallway rocked and pieces of wall—and the guys behind it—blasted across the floor.
We moved double-time down the hall and shot each of the downed gangsters without even checking to see if they were still breathing. Another thug poked her head out from further down the hall and got a bullet through the eye for her trouble. More thugs emerged from one room to block our path, but my squad mates and I advanced as an unbreakable wall, killing everything in front of us.
I felt a burning sensation on one arm and noticed my coat sleeve was torn. A bullet had nicked me. I shrugged it off, marching over the bodies of two dead thugs. I’d already proven that one bullet wasn’t enough to stop me.
When the hallway was clear, we peeked into every room but found the same thing: nothing, no stockpiles of drugs, money, or weapons. But one of the mercs kicked in the last door and found a broad carpeted room hidden by partitions—I guessed there were cubicles ahead. Hiding places galore. I stopped at the doorway and, in a rush of adrenaline, lifted my breathing mask. I said, “Come on, fuckers! Everyone in here has five seconds to come out unarmed before we light the place up!”
I’d scarcely put my mask back when a metal cylinder flew over one of the partitions and landed at my feet. “Flashbang!” I said, throwing myself to the side, and the stun grenade exploded in a horrible shriek so that only my earplugs saved me from temporary deafness. But I had to swing my gun around as four armed thugs burst from various cubicles, evidently meaning to ambush us. Lying prone on the floor, I was a small target, and I shot one thug then another as bullets whizzed over my head, until my squad mates came in after me and mowed down the rest.
Or so I thought. I climbed up and charged ahead, but another gangster appeared from one of the cubicles; he’d apparently avoided my squad’s fire, and he had a shotgun pointed at me. Then there was a bang, and I was on my back with a blazing pain in my skull and another in my gut. My Kevlar vest had held, surely, but I’d whacked my skull on the wall and white spots covered my vision. All around me, bullets ripped from barrels and tore through walls, people, and everything in between. I scrambled to sit upright, and a hand took my arm. Standing over me, one of my men said, “Commander, are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said, letting him help me up. Many of the partitions bore ragged holes now, and the enemy thugs were all ahead on the floor, bleeding or dead. One of my mercs had gone down, too, and I saw empty eyes past his cracked visor. That was inconvenient; I only had three grunts left now. I inspected my chest, running a hand along the body armor; my trench coat was torn up, but not a single pellet had reached my flesh. “Let’s go,” I said.
My brief injury had awoken me from my combat high, and now I felt every ache in my arm, chest, head, and even mouth where I’d been clenching my teeth. So far we’d seen no bystanders or office workers, only armed gangsters who could put up a fight. It was like the building was a shell of a real company. Did they even have janitors? Didn’t matter. I said, “Go in pairs. Wrap around the room checking every cubicle and office. You two go clockwise, you two counter-clockwise. Two minutes. Move!”
I checked my watch and found that three minutes had passed since our entry. We were running out of time. Now that I was upright, I noticed a closed door we’d passed on our way into the cubicle room. I took a deep breath, then charged and rammed my shoulder against the door. It held fast. I pointed my gun and shot the lock open, hoping none of my squad had seen that.
The room contained rows of chairs facing a smartboard up front, and nothing else. I was getting this bad taste in my brain, an inkling that we were in trouble. Outside my squad mates were muttering to each other, crashing through doors. I listened as the two pairs met and came back around to me. We’d torn through most of this floor now to no avail, and every second we wasted searching was a second closer to our mass arrest. If this whole thing turned out to be a wild goose chase…
Suddenly a boom shook the floor beneath me. I scrambled back, then stumbled and found myself sliding as the floor began to slant and collapse. I scratched along the incline, trying to cling on with my free hand. What the fuck now? If I fell, I’d drop a story into a pile of rubble, and I’d look like an idiot even if I didn’t land on rebar or something. Below me, the air was choked with drywall dust and agitated men shouted from all directions. Part of the floor had indeed caved in, but I’d found my grip on a crack and now held on with one hand, peering down. The guys below seemed to be Blackbirds, dressed like me, and I saw no immediate danger. When I had my bearings, I let go and slid down the collapsed section of floor, dropping five feet into the dust and rubble.
Someone yelped in surprise. I said, “Hey! What the fuck was that?”
One of the troops, I couldn’t tell who, said, “Grenade! Collapsed a support beam!”
I said, “You idiots didn’t fucking think before you dropped the floor under us?”
“A mistake, Lenton,” said a familiar voice. James materialized from the dust, towering over me as I struggled upright. James was already big; in his armor and coat, he looked like a giant. He said, “Any luck up there?”
“Nothing so far,” I said. I peered up at the hole in the ceiling to find one of my squad mates looking down. I said, “Find anything?”
“All the offices are empty!” the grunt said.
I said, “Terrific. Gather the others and come on down. Carefully!”
James had walked ahead of me. I followed him out of the cloud of drywall dust and found corpses strewn all about, a few of them blown apart from perhaps the same grenade that had brought down the ceiling. James was looking at a pair of double doors, unopened but with their window glass blown in by the explosion. I passed James and reached through one of the windows, unlocking the door. As I turned the knob and pulled, the door fell off its damn hinges.
What awaited was a meeting room with a colossal slab of a table stretching into the room; I couldn’t see how far, because the table and floor were covered in metal crates, at least a hundred. I knelt by the nearest one and fond a little square lock hanging off of the latch. One of James’s squad brought out some bolt cutters, and we cut the lock off and threw the lid open. The crate brimmed with cardboard boxes of 5.56mm ammunition, generally for rifles. I’d emptied a magazine of the same stuff shooting my way in. I said, “James! I think we found our motherlode.”
“No shit,” James said, squatting beside another crate. “Got a box of handguns here. No parts, no case, just a pile o’ pistols.” James took the bolt cutters and opened up a new crate, then fell back onto his hands. “Fuck!”
“What?” I said, and I peered into the crate. Semtex. Plastic explosives in large orange bricks, wrapped in plastic and bearing a paper label. “Oh fuck,” I said as some of the other guys crowded in to look. “How much is in there?”
“I’d say about ten pounds,” James said. “You could level this building with a fraction of that.” He growled and peered around at the other crates. “I bet the detonators are here somewhere. We can’t burn this.”
I said, “And this is just one crate. There could be more. If we set a fire and anything detonates…”
“The whole neighborhood has a bad day,” James said. “Everyone out! Leave it all. The police can clean this shit up.”
“Motherfucker!” I said, touching an incendiary grenade on my belt; I’d really wanted to use it. I stomped out of the room and kicked the wall on the way out; it seemed foolhardy to kick one of the crates, though I certainly got the urge. By now both squads had clustered in the main room, kicking up more drywall dust, muttering and warning each other about the explosives.
James led everyone out of the collapsed room, down the hall to an entryway with sunlight flowing in. Two vans were pulled up to block the exit, their back doors facing us, but James drew the radio off his belt and said, “Squad one leader here. Let us out, southeast exit. We’re clear to RTB.”
The vans pulled away from the building, and James caught up to one, yanking open its back doors. “Go! Pile in!” he said. The mercs rushed ahead of him and scrambled one by one into the van. While James and I stood back to direct the boarding, I recognized a few Blackbird guys climbing in. So they’d made it out, too. Well, most of them. Three of them.
When the compartment was stuffed with dust-covered armored men, James shut the doors and the van lurched forward. Now I could hear sirens down the street, even through my earplugs and helmet. We were out of time. Our teammates were already loading into the second van, but they jostled and shoved into each other in their haste. Words like “too late” and “fucked” passed my ears, but I gritted my teeth and stood by, waiting for everyone else to get in.
The last guy in was a mercenary with a dent in his helmet. As he stepped up into the van’s compartment, his foot slipped and he fell onto his face, hands slamming down onto the floor. The other troops laughed or barked at him, but as he struggled upright, the van’s tailpipe spat exhaust and it drove forward, off the sidewalk and onto the street. The fallen guy sprinted after the van and just barely managed to catch his teammates’ hands, and the van’s back doors flapped as it whipped around a corner and drove out of sight.
I looked at James and he looked at me, both of us incredulous. The sirens were louder now, screaming, closer. And a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalks around the intersection, gawking at us.
“Now what?” I said. We’d come in five vans, but I saw none of the other three.
James was on his radio before I’d reached for mine. He said, “Van four, you left without us!”
“Sorry, squad leader. It’s too hot back there!”
“Fucker,” James said. “Van two, come to southeast exit for a pickup!”
“We’ve already departed!” said the radio. “We’re a mile out!”
Before James could retort, a new voice on the radio said, “Hold onto your hat, Jimmie boy!” A second later, Dick rolled up in a bright red Lamborghini Gallardo and honked at us. “Hop in!” he said, laughing.
I stared at the flaming red car, trying to imagine what my idiot boss was thinking. James just charged forward and yanked open the passenger’s side door. “Lenton!” he said, and I ran toward the car. Already I could see flashing red and blue at the edge of my vision.
As I reached the Lamborghini, a pair of cop cars appeared from the traffic in the distance and tore toward us. I reached for my rifle but froze, not wanting to add Cop Killer to my rap sheet. But James said, “Use a grenade!”
“The fun kind!” Dick said, and I grinned. So that was his plan. I yanked an incendiary grenade from my belt, crushed the lever, and yanked out the pin. I lobbed it into the middle of the street, far from any onlookers, and the grenade popped alive, oozing smoke in a thick cloud that hid the approaching cars. Then orange motes of light spewed from the canister like kicked embers, and the whole thing lit on fire. I turned away automatically to protect my eyes. I wondered if the thermite would burn a hole right through the road.
I turned around to find Dick tumbling out of the driver’s seat. “James, what the fuck!” he said.
James said, “Lenton! Get in! Drive!”
Without thinking, I said, “Coming!” and stepped over Dick, leaping into the driver’s seat. Dick fumbled a moment for the back door, and we slammed our doors shut at the same time. I glanced at the rearview mirror and found Dick glaring at me. James was in the passenger’s seat, loading a clip into a blocky MAC-10 submachine gun. Behind me tires squealed as the cops braked or swerved to avoid the burning grenade, and ahead was open road. Time to go. I slammed my foot on the gas and we shot forward.
Buckling his seatbelt, Dick said, “Why the fuck is it so important that she drive?”
“They’ll be shooting at us,” James said. “You can stay down if you’re back there.” James rolled down his window, leaning his helmeted head out. I pulled off my own helmet and shook my hair free; I’d see better with it off. I had a feeling that whatever came next would be crazy fun.
Cars screeched onto the road behind us as we blazed through a red light. They weren’t cop cars—I saw an old beater in the rearview mirror, gaining on us. I pointed them out to James, who said, “Shit. They’re following.”
“Who, the cops?” Dick said.
“No, Silvers’s boys. Lenton, take a left. Maybe they followed you to the target, Boss. But now they’re on our tail at a hundred miles an hour.”
I guided the wheel left and tried to curve gently through the intersection, but James still thumped into the door and cursed. Behind us, the dirty cars veered through the intersection the same way. This new street was crowded with traffic; I rocked the wheel about and weaved through moving cars, dancing to a cacophony of shrieking tires and honking horns. I heard a gunshot behind us and stepped on the gas harder.
“What’s our destination?” I said, glancing at the dashboard. I had a full tank and the car wasn’t overheating, plus it had some pep to it. But I doubted my chances of outrunning police cars for long.
“Lose em first,” James said, aiming his submachine gun out the window. “Then to a garage in Garden Center, at Greene and Marigold. We can call for a rendezvous there. Alright with you, Boss?”
“Fine,” Dick said.
“Tell me something,” I said, meeting Dick’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Why in God’s name do you drive around in a bright red Lamborghini?”
Dick scoffed and threw up his hands. “Because I have a small penis. I want women to chase after me. I like red. Whadaya want from me, Barb?”
“Hm,” I said, and looked forward again. I’d heard sirens ahead; I jerked the wheel right and narrowly dodged a cop car that aimed to block our way. I could see everything ahead, hear everything, even through the sirens and gunshots and screams. I wondered how I could do it, how I was still calm. No easy answer came to mind.
Behind us came a sound like two cars body-slamming each other, and I laughed. Our allies in their vans were nowhere in sight, and two different groups were gunning for us. One would be tough, but two I could handle. Another gunshot came from behind us and a sedan began to grow in my rearview. A man was aiming something out the window. I said, “Heads down!”
The gun spat lead at us, popopopopopop, and bullets thumped into the back of our car. “Fuck!” Dick said, and then the gunshots were a lot closer, because James had returned fire. I had no time for the sedan on our tail; another police car had burst into the intersection ahead, and we were poised to plow right into its driver’s side door. I spun the wheel and hammered down on the brakes, praying I could pull off the trick I had in mind. Our tires screamed as we swung around and struck the cop car side-to-side, shearing off its mirror. For a moment I got a good look at the cop’s wide-eyed stare, and then I gunned the engine so that our cars scraped apart and we tore off down the road again, leaving the cop car to block our other pursuers.
“Don’t shoot the cops!” I said when James took aim. “This is fucked up enough as it is.”
“No guarantees,” James said.
Dick said, “Can we put on some music? I’m freaking the fuck out here. Come on, let’s get some radio.”
I glance down and mashed the radio’s power button. The Clash came on: “…feels so bad, guess my race is run. She’s the best girl that I ever had, I fought the law and the law won, I fought the law and the—”
Click. “I’m not listening to this now,” I said, and Dick groaned. “Sorry about your car.”
“Whatever,” Dick said. He muttered something else, but I ignored him, watching the road ahead. Amidst the civilians swerving and crashing to get out of our way, a truck had veered into the wrong side of the road and was aiming at us. It smashed past one smaller car then another; I curved into the left lane, and the truck moved to block me. I had seconds before we hit head-on.
“Brace yourselves!” I said, clutching the wheel in a painful grip. Moments before impact, I pointed the nose of our car right, then veered left instead. I was hoping the truck would just miss us. Instead it clipped the side of our bumper, and the Lamborghini spun out of my control. I pumped the brake, and the wheels shrieked as we veered to a stop.
We’d done a circle or two, and now we were between lanes, blocking the road. James, braced against his door, pointed his gun out at the truck, which had curved onto the sidewalk and crushed a metal trashcan in its path. James fired, and the truck’s cabin exploded in red splotches. “Go! Go!” James said; I spun the wheel and put us back on the road. The cops were right behind us now.
Dick said, “I’m gonna be sick. Fuckin pull over, I’m gonna be sick.”
I said, “No time. Throw up out the window!”
“Maybe you’ll hit the police,” James said. “Lenton, ahead!”
“I see them,” I said. The intersection ahead had a green light, but Silvers’s goons had the road blocked with three sedans in a semicircle. Like cops in a firefight, the thugs were taking cover behind their cars, guns pointed our way. It was a deathtrap. I said, “I have an idea. Reload and take aim.”
“Fine,” James said. I held my breath, making up my mind. If I failed, we’d crash and be sandwiched between the thugs and police, shot to bits from either side. If I succeeded… I could see a gap on the right side, if I could manage a turn without smashing into a pole. I told myself I could do it.
When we were forty feet away, the thugs began firing without hitting a damn thing. I laughed as I drove right at them and saw their looks of fury turn to horror. I held my breath until just the right moment—then I turned a hard left and slammed down on the brake. We drifted through the turn in a wide arc, and James opened up on the thugs, spraying bullets into cars and bodies. I let up on the brake when we’d spun almost a full circle, and we shot toward the gap on the right. The Lamborghini shuddered as we mounted the curb and sailed through the corner, hitting neither car nor pole on our way through. I heard police cars crashing into the sedans seconds later.
I tried to think of something cool to say. All I managed was, “Huh. Three lefts make a right.”
“You—you crazy bitch,” Dick said. “You—that—you—that was fucking—”
“Awesome,” James said, and he smiled at me. I blinked, trying to figure out if I was hallucinating. “Knew I put the right woman behind the wheel.”
I said, “Thanks. But we’re not in the clear yet. Look.”
The street ahead was mostly empty, but one cop car had escaped the trap and was still following us. With no more obstacles, it was gaining easily.
James said, “Turn left here. See if you can hide in the traffic.”
“Okay.” I braked and swung the car through another red light, but the cop made the same wild turn behind us. Now the street ahead was congested with other cars, and the sidewalk was clustered with people.
The cop car came to our side before I could honk my way through. It angled toward our back bumper, probably aiming to throw us into a spin, and I mashed the brake so it ground against the Lamborghini’s side instead. I glanced left and saw the guy behind the wheel: Detective Anthony Vargas. Tony.
Tony stared at me, mouth hanging open, even as he jerked his wheel to force me off the road. The Lamborghini sideswiped some unfortunate driver on the right, and I shoved back, waiting for the right moment to break away. I’d taken my helmet off, and Tony had seen my face. I’d unpack that later.
James was still wearing his helmet, though, and Dick was doubled over and out of sight. I could still protect them. I jerked away from Tony’s car and crushed the brake under my foot; we slowed, and Tony kept going. Before Tony could even brake, I spun the wheel and turned us down a small side street, then another, then another. I juked the Lamborghini around parked cars and people crossing the road, until the surrounding businesses gave way to cramped apartment buildings. We turned into a housing project and I watched the rearview mirror. No more thugs. No more cops.
I sighed and slumped back in my seat. My shoulders ached from being tensed for so long. James said, “Take us down Marigold. Guy I know owns a chop shop at the end. We need to get this car off the road.”
“Okay,” I said, and I guided the car along the street at thirty miles an hour. I was tired. People stared at our smashed and bullet-ridden car, but I had no more fucks to give.
Dick said, “He saw your face?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s okay, Barb. We’ll get you set up somewhere safe. We find out what they know, clean up after today’s mess. It’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Thanks,” I said, but I didn’t feel like it would be fine. My adrenaline-fueled joy had crashed into a wall of frustration. I steered us down Marigold and into the garage without seeing a single other driver on the road. Oh, there were other drivers, alright, but I didn’t see them.
We climbed out and James spoke to a portly man in a jumpsuit, calling him Joe. I leaned against the wall, out of sight, and watched as Dick stroked the hood of his ruined car. James’s phone went off, and he stepped away from Joe and answered it. He didn’t look happy.
James took two long steps over to Dick and said, “Boss. Hotel got attacked.”
Dick opened his mouth then shut it again. I moved over to listen. “Tell me,” Dick said.
James said, “Silvers set a trap for us. Maybe she suspected we’d be hitting her cache, or maybe the cache itself was a trap. That’s why those fucks in the sedans were on us. They were after you and our HQ.”
“Hm. Alright,” Dick said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m not surprised. Disappointed. Not surprised. Hotel was too public, anyway. Now we gotta hide from more than just the cops.”
“Hiding?” I said.
“Wrong word,” Dick said, looking my way and smacking one fist into the other. “We’re regrouping, and we’ll attack again. We get her back, Barb.”
Something grew at the edge of my mind, roaring, thrashing—something fiery and raw. But I felt cold everywhere else. I pictured me stomping Silvers’s face in with big heavy boots, and I and put on a smile that I didn’t feel. I said, “Good. We get her back soon.”
“Soon,” Dick said.
James and Dick spoke to Joe while I unloaded insurance, registration, and tools from the Lamborghini. James drifted over to some other half-built cars and had himself a smoke. Joe found bandages for my bloody arm. Finally I called Viola and asked her to take me home. I didn’t look forward to the trip. After such a wild rush in the driver’s seat, I knew I’d hate hitching a ride, as just a trapped and helpless passenger.