Burn My Dread
I never knew why, but when I was waiting for a phone call, I always felt a need to use the phone. The call I was waiting for could come hours or days from now, so there was no harm in the interruption. I took a seat on the hotel room bed and dialed.
I said, “Dad?”
“Barbara.” Dad’s voice was rough, tired. “Barbara, are you alright?”
Unexpected, but good so far. I said, “I’m fine, Dad. Still healthy. I got hurt a while back, though.”
“I see,” Dad said, and gave a long pause. “Will you tell me what happened?”
I hated lying to my dad. He always saw through it, and it never made me feel any better. Even as a kid, sneaking out at night or drinking in high school, lying to Dad had always done more harm than good.
“I was in a shootout,” I said. “A man shot me in the chest a bunch of times, but I was wearing a bullet-proof vest and all that happened was I broke a few ribs. I guess you’ve gathered what I’ve been up to lately.”
“I saw the news,” Dad said. “So it was real. That time you were arrested, you really were a part of that burglary.” I let that one hang in the air. “I’m sorry to hear that, Barbara. I’m disappointed. I truly am.”
I said, “I know. I deserve it. I was thinking I’d say something like ‘I got in over my head!’ or ‘I never meant for this to happen!’, but that’s not really true. This is entirely my fault.”
“That’s not good enough,” Dad said, and my throat seized up. “You have a lot to answer for. I’m sure you do. Have you killed anyone, Barbara?”
I said, “Yeah. No one who didn’t deserve it.” Thugs, gangsters, James, the guy in the office. Tony. Faces flashed in my eyes and I clenched the phone in my hand. Some of them deserved it, probably. I’d killed or gotten them killed either way.
Dad said, “You must have called me for a reason. To rub it in, perhaps? To let me know without a doubt that I failed as a father?”
“No!” I said. “It’s just…” Just that I was probably going to be dead or in prison within the next two weeks. I said, “I’m at an endgame. We’ve been fighting with another gang. They won.”
“Turn yourself in,” Dad said. “Do the right thing, Barbara. You’d be safe, at least. You ought to make things right.”
I said, “I can’t go yet. They took someone I love.”
The line was silent for a long time. I said, “Dad?”
“I’m here,” Dad said. “So you intend to save this person?”
“Or die trying,” I said. “After all of the dumb, stupid, violent shit I’ve been up to—”
“There’s one thing I still have to do. The gang’s finished. I’m on my own now. But I have to save him, and I’m the only one who can.”
“Barbara, please!” Dad said, “I can’t imagine what sort of danger you’re in. Please turn yourself in.”
“I’m not broken!” I said, too loud. “I’m unbreakable.”
I’d said it without thinking, and I half suspected he’d shout at me. I was surprised when Dad laughed instead. He said, “So that’s how it is. You’ve made up your mind.”
“You’re not mad?” I said.
“I’m very mad. My daughter has thrown her life away for the sake of a street gang, and now she’s endangering herself for a man I’ve never met.” Another laugh. Eerie, and unlike him. “But I know how bull-headed you can be. I was, too, and so was your mother, before…”
“Before,” I said. Before Mom started hurting herself.
I said, “So there’s a good chance I’ll be killed trying to save him. And I’ve got a good chunk of cash hiding in the bank with no—”
“I refuse,” Dad said.
“Won’t you just—”
Dad said, “I refuse to lay a hand on your filthy money, Barbara! You don’t deserve those funds, and how dare you try to—”
I said, “But you’re the only one I even care—”
“—conscience by foisting your blood money onto me, as if you can—”
“Shut up!” I said. Too loud again. Someone in the next hotel room hammered a fist against the wall. I stayed silent. So did Dad.
“Still there?” I said.
“For some reason,” Dad said.
I said, “If you don’t want the money, I’ll make an anonymous donation to a charity or whatever you want. I’ll give it to Church of Christ. They can put it toward a mission.”
After a pause, Dad said, “That would be good. It’s better than nothing.”
“No skin off my back,” I said.
“I miss seeing you at church, Barbara.”
I said, “I’m not a kid anymore, Dad.”
“You never let me forget. Do you still care, Barbara? Do you still have your faith?”
I never thought about it. In high school, singing and waving hands, having faith was easy. In the real world, when I was burning and killing, God never showed his face in any way I could see.
Pacing the hotel room, I said, “I don’t think God cares about me, Dad. I haven’t asked for his help and I certainly haven’t gotten it.”
Dad let out a long sigh. He said, “Any lecture of mine would be meaningless to you now, wouldn’t it.”
“I still called,” I said.
Dad said, “And your mind is made up.”
“You intend to save someone now.”
“I do. If it takes my life, that’s fine.”
“I have faith in you, Barbara,” Dad said. I blinked my eyes and wondered when they’d become so wet. “I’m ashamed of myself for not calling you. If I had—”
“This isn’t your fault, Dad,” I said. “I’m an adult. I’m a selfish, psychotic, fucking stupid adult and I came here all on my own.”
Dad said, “I don’t believe that for a moment. If I hadn’t pushed you so hard, if I had let you grow on your own…”
“It’s too late now,” I said. “But understand this, if nothing else. If I die soon, it’ll be because I chose that risk. I’m not here because you set me on this path or anything like that. I came here for me.”
Dad said, “Not for the one you mean to save?”
“Well—” I stopped myself. I wanted to see Dick again. I wanted it with all my heart. But why did I want to go alone, why was I so adamant about it? Why didn’t I call the police, report a kidnapping? Why…?
Because I loved Dick? Sure. Because I get committed to every stupid idea I come up with? Sure. Because just once after everything I’ve been through, I want to do something good, something that actually makes a difference for someone?
“For me,” I said. “Because I chose my path and I’m not afraid to walk it until the end.”
Dad said, “You sound like a fool. An arrogant, misguided fool. You sound like me.”
“I know,” I said.
“I love you, Barbara. I should have showed you more.”
Maybe. I said, “I love you, too, Dad.”
Dad said, “You’re going to destroy your mother, you know. She’s already tearing her hair out with worry about you.”
Another fuck-up, another thing to try and set right. I said, “I know. Maybe I can put her mind at ease. Can I talk to her?”
There was a shuffling on the other end, and Dad said, “Yes. Let me hand the phone over. I’m sure she’d enjoy that.”
I made my next call from a restaurant booth. This little Mexican diner was well-lit and had painted murals across the walls, but it was casual enough that I stood out in my suit. I waited until the servers were out of earshot, then took out my phone.
“Skylar,” I said. “How do you like it here?”
On the other end, Skylar said, “Albany’s boring. The skyline’s plain, like a motherboard. There isn’t enough air pollution or big ugly skyscrapers. I saw a show at the Egg and it was alright.”
I rolled my eyes. Shame on me for assuming Skylar would spend her time searching for Dick. I said, “Missing Ingram?”
“You got me,” Skylar said. “So what’s up?”
I said, “Your investigation into Silvers’s territory. Any progress?”
“Yeah,” Skylar said. “Silvers’s people mostly do business in West Hill. But she’s holed up somewhere in Roessleville.”
I said, “That’s more out of the way than I expected.”
“One of her dealers talked a bit. I’m trying to narrow it down to a neighborhood, so I’m going there tonight to visit.”
“I’ll meet you there,” I said. “I’m at lunch now. We can meet for dinner and compare notes.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Skylar said. I was about to reply when she added, “Not used to having people check up on me like this.”
“Are you safe?” I said. Viola came to mind and I felt my stomach turn. “The last one we sent fact-finding ended up dead.”
“Well, seeing as how I’m not incompetent—”
“Hey!” I said. “Don’t you talk fucking about Viola like that!” A family of three stared at me; the kid they had was maybe eight years old. I lowered my voice and said, “Competent or not, this is the lion’s den. I’m responsible for dragging you here. Of course I’m gonna try and make sure you’re safe.” And I wouldn’t say it, but Skylar looked like a high school kid, and she was tiny, barely up to my shoulder. I’d never forgive myself if she got hurt.
Skylar said, “Sounds like you were close to whoever died. Sorry. But Barb, listen. You pay well. I’m willing to go the extra mile here if I need to. I’ll be fine. If Dick’s here, I’ll find him.”
I sighed. Damn kid. I said, “Okay. You talked to Alison yet?”
“Uh-huh,” Skylar said. “That girl packs some serious heat. And she got me surveillance equipment, too. A whole van. When we find Silvers’s hideout, we’re gonna bug the entrances. No one suspects a pair of cute girls just passing by.”
And no one ignores them, either. I said, “Just be safe. Be careful. If you need to pull out, if your cover or whatever is blown—”
“Let me do my job, Barb,” Skylar said. “I’ll talk to you at dinner. Okay?”
I thought about arguing more. Not worth it. Damn teenager. I said, “Okay. See you.”
She hung up. My quesadilla arrived. I had thought I was past worrying at this point; I’d either survive to find Dick or get killed. But Skylar, and even Alison? I had this frustrating urge to keep them safe.
What the hell kind of mom had I turned into?
“Is that the place?” I said. Through the van’s window, past the dim yellowed glow of streetlamps, I saw what looked like an innocuous office building, well-maintained and surrounded by a grassy lawn.
Alison, in the passenger’s seat, craned her neck to look. She said, “That’s right. Skylar picked out that one from a dozen just like it. The tracker we put on Silvers’s car led us here over and over.” Alison glanced back at me, wearing a little smile. “Silvers could be in there now, counting money or doing blow.”
Burying the urge to drive our van through the front door, I said, “Is Dick in there?”
Alison frowned and lowered her head. “Don’t know yet. Skylar got a bug in this afternoon. We’re just waiting and watching.” My eyes drifted to the building, and I felt a hand on my arm. Alison said, “If Dick is in there, we’ll find out soon. In the meantime, the Baroness has given us leave to start planting the heavier gear.”
“Good,” I said. I was eager—and anxious—to unload some of the explosives in the back of the van. “When can we start planting?”
“In about three hours,” Alison said. “The building goes quiet at 2 AM. But slow down a bit. You should wait to attack until we know Dick’s in there, right?”
I said, “No. If Dick’s—” I clenched my teeth. “If Dick’s dead, and he’s been dead for a month and all of this planning and spending was useless, I’m not just gonna leave quietly. I want to tear Silvers a new asshole.” I pointed a finger toward the office building. “I don’t want to just burn the place down. What is that in the back, C4? Semtex?”
“C4,” Alison said.
I said, “Silvers brought guns and bombs and drugs into my city and humiliated me and my boss, and her thugs fucking shot me. If I can’t save Dick, I’m taking her down with me. I swear it.”
“Understood,” Alison said. “A little deranged, but I get it. When do you want to do your strike?”
“Tomorrow night,” I said. “If I can. I’ll wait for more information if you insist. But if Silvers doesn’t have Dick in there, nothing on this earth will save her from me.”
Alison sighed. “Jesus. I’m glad you’re on our side. You’d be a thrilling enemy, or a terrifying girlfriend.” My eyes widened and she chuckled. “Okay, Lenton. Tomorrow night. It’s your life, but I’ll do what I can to preserve it. You could say I’m protecting a potential asset.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said. “I’ve waited weeks—no, months—for this chance. This is gonna be either a rescue mission or a rampage. Hopefully both.”
I was in my car, watching the office building. More men were going in every hour since 10 AM, mostly big white thugs. My phone’s ring scared me out of my vigil. I took deep breaths as I picked up.
“Barbara,” Skylar said. “I found him. We found him. He’s inside the office building for sure.”
My insides flipped. I said, “Where?
“In the basement. They’ve been talking about a prisoner, and one of them called him Dick Garrett by name. He’s right under their feet.” Skylar took a deep breath. Maybe she was as excited as me.
I said, “I’m outside the hideout. I’ll call Allison and put on my gear. I’m going in.”
“Now?” Skylar said. “In the middle of the day?”
“I’ve waited long enough,” I said. “You’ve been a big help, and I’m grateful, but I’ll be doing this alone. I don’t need a little voice in my ear. You broke the building’s security system?”
“Yeah, yesterday,” Skylar said. “Are you sure about this, Barbara?”
I had considered that same question all morning. The dumb part of my brain had made the decision for me. I said, “No. But I’m gonna do it. Wish me luck. See you on the other side.”
“Good luck,” Skylar said. “Holy shit, I’ve gotta watch this. Give her hell, Barb.”
I hung up and sent a text message to Alison. Then I stuffed my phone into a dashboard compartment; I wouldn’t need it going forward. I pulled the Mazda out of sight, got out, and popped the trunk open.
Waiting inside for me were my toys. The body armor, trench coat, helmet, boots, grenades, ammunition satchel. A Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle, and that lovely Pancor Jackhammer automatic shotgun, loaded with buckshot this time. The recoil was going to murder my arm if the weight didn’t, but it was worth the rush from carrying so much gun.
I stopped at the passenger’s side door and opened it up. Inside the glove compartment was my pistol, the trusty USP Dick gave me. Bollocks had picked it up somewhere, probably from the Danbury building’s remains, and left it in the Mazda for me. I slipped it into my shoulder holster and marched toward the office building.
I was ready.
The loading dock was clear, and I hid behind a line of well-trimmed hedges as I made my approach. With my text to Alison, the clock was ticking. I climbed up to the man-sized door into the loading dock with a few seconds to spare. There were no passersby, no gangsters, no innocent office workers stumbling around.
I was just finished picking the door’s lock when my first bomb went off.
An explosion roared from the opposite side of the building, far from me. I crept inside, rifle raised.
This was no innocent office building. Two well-dressed men inside the dock had already drawn guns, and they hadn’t even noticed me. I shot one in the head, then the other, and leaped over a body to the far door. I wrenched it open, and the second bomb went off, caving in an entire corner of the building.
I stepped into a hallway where guys were running away from me, chasing the blast’s sound. No one saw me, and I held my fire. But as I rounded a corner, a man the size of a linebacker smashed into me.
I caught myself against the wall and aimed from my hip. The man was more surprised to see me than vice versa. Two gangsters had stopped behind him, a woman and a man, and all three were in collar shirts and slacks. The big guy blocked my aim with his body; the woman pointed a gun at me, and we fired at the same time.
Her bullet hit the big thug from behind, but I sprayed through his stomach, and she wailed as a bullet hit her, too. When the big guy doubled over, I aimed down the sights and shot her in the face. The third one had a pistol aimed at me; I saw its blocky barrel in a frozen moment before he fired. The bullet crashed into my chest, and I shot him right in the forehead. Maybe he was wearing body armor, too. He went down either way, and I ran past them.
Any distraction was only good until the victims caught on. I had to find the stairs down, find Dick in the basement, and take him out through a fire exit, which would almost certainly trigger an alarm. I had minutes at best before the entire building closed in on me. But I had memorized the office building’s layout, had gone over it again and again with Skylar. Take a left, go straight ahead, right, and then fifth door on the right to the basement. And I was already halfway there.
I was panting by the time I reached the end of the hall. Rooms with locked doors sat on either side of me, but no troopers with shotguns burst out this time. Even so, I peeked around the corner and saw two more men down the hall, aiming my way. They’d heard the gunshots. Bullets whizzed my way and I jerked my head back. Little craters burst along the concrete wall nearby; those were powerful slugs. I plucked a grenade from the satchel against my rear and lobbed it around the corner.
My teeth chattered as the bomb went off, and a shower of concrete dust flooded the air. I rounded the corner with rifle raised, but both of them were dead, torn apart by metal shards. One of the thugs was a woman; I glanced at her mangled face as I ran past. Whatever.
I didn’t notice the speakers along the ceiling until they crackled to life. A tinny voice said, “All staff! The explosions at the northern wall are a diversion. We have at least one armed intruder near the loading dock, south-east corner of the building. Squad A, arm up and attack. Squad B, defend the stairs. Shoot to kill.”
Despite my unease, or maybe because of it, I laughed. It was nice to feel acknowledged.
I ran along a hallway that bordered the yard via the left wall. I’d debated blowing my way in through that wall, but Skylar had suggested the loading dock, and she was right. I ran straight ahead, past a hall that branched to the right. A bullet struck my shoulder mid-stride; I cried out in pain and fell. I rolled back the way I’d come as another bullet just missed my head.
I was bleeding down my arm. The bullet had passed through the back of my shoulder; I clenched my teeth as I raised my rifle. Around the corner, a woman’s voice said, “Who the fuck is that? Whose bright idea was it to storm my building at two in the goddamn afternoon?”
I threw a grenade around the corner toward the voice. When it exploded, I braced an arm against the wall and climbed up, hissing at the pain. I took a deep breath then sprinted across the opening, glancing right. The walls were torn apart, but my shooter was nowhere in sight. I jogged ahead again, putting her behind me. I had no time to hunt. I had no time to be wounded.
Finally the hallway turned right and I found a stretch of rooms on either side, offices or storage or god knows what. But guns were pointing out of those doorways, lining the hall on either side. A man’s voice shouted, and I shot one unlucky skull poking out before all of them took potshots at me, crouching in doorways or peeking from cover. I darted back around the corner, putting a block of concrete between me and them.
This was probably Squad B, and only two of them had the armor and rifles I’d come to dread since Garrison. But there were seven of them, with enough cover that I couldn’t just get them all with grenades. The shooting stopped, and I knew it was a matter of time before two or three thugs came down the hall after me, or someone caught up from behind.
Past my earpieces, I strained to listen for the sound of approaching footsteps. I switched to my shotgun, letting the rifle hang at my back. In seconds a man in black body armor stepped around the corner and I shot him in his gun arm, so that he staggered back; then I blew his face off and he collapsed. Before I could breathe, two more thugs with pistols leaped around the corner, and one of them shot me twice in the stomach as I blasted the other. I lunged at my shooter and slammed his unprotected head against the wall. The other thugs started shooting down the hall at me again, and a bullet hit under my arm, another on my breast. Each was like a solid punch, and I growled as I pulled the stunned gangster around the corner with and smashed his face against the concrete one more time.
At least two of the thugs had automatic weapons; they were laying down sprays of covering fire so I couldn’t even peek out. For the first time, truly the first time, the sheer insanity of my task hit me. How many thugs were in this building, fifty? And one of me, coming in alone, leaving with a rescued prisoner? What the fuck was I thinking?
I threw out a metal cylinder and listened as it spewed smoke into the hallway. The shooting continued, random and chaotic, and I stepped around the corner, staying low, creeping toward the nearest room on the right. A bearded man in the doorway was shielding his face from the smoke, and he hadn’t even noticed me as I gave him a shot from the Jackhammer. I took his position and threw a grenade into one of the opposite rooms; it went off and someone screamed, blasted into the cloud of smoke. Another obstacle dead. Killing the last two thugs was easy; I leaned around the corner and shot at the muzzle flashes, blasting each of the fuckers with buckshot. I barely had to think about it.
A shot came from the corner behind me, fired blindly into the smoke. My heart was pumping, my forehead was sticky with sweat, and I was sore and bleeding. But I stepped out and felt along the wall to the next door, my long-awaited fifth door on the right. I blasted the lock with the Jackhammer and kicked the door open. A set of downward stairs awaited on the other side.
Another gunshot from behind. I switched to my rifle again, and as I backed into the doorway, I said, “Come get me, Silvers, you arrogant, psychopathic whore! I’ll fucking kill you if you get in my way!”
I knew exactly what I was thinking.