Vengeance Burns Hot–opening chapter

There.  Tucked among the grapefruit–someone had left an old flip-cover cell phone.  Lewis darted his eyes back at Captain White, who looked down at the list in the grocery cart.

Do it.

Lewis backed a step, reached a hand behind him, probed where he’d seen the phone, bumped loose a grapefruit, shifted left–there it was.  He grabbed it, watched the grapefruit roll toward the captain, bounce off the cart’s back wheel.  White and that stooge Bailey spun around but by then Lewis had stuffed it in his back pocket, dropped his arms to his sides, casual, nothing to hide.

“Sorry, Sir,” he offered, retrieving the grapefruit.

“Jesus, Lewis,” said White.  “Make yourself useful and go get eight bags of oranges.”

“Yes, Sir.”  He returned the grapefruit to the stack, dislodged another one that took aim at White’s foot.

“This look like a bowling alley?”

“No, Sir.”

White picked it up, sent it flying back.  Lewis caught it.  When White and Bailey turned toward the refrigerated greens, Lewis slid around the side of the grapefruit display and headed for the oranges.  He’d been doing a bajillion pushups every damn day but eight bags of oranges still felt heavy, not like they’d feel to White, his arms thick as firewood, his chest like some comic book hero.  Lewis wished he weren’t so damn skinny.

At least his beard matched the others.  Shaggy, springing out at their cheeks and down their chins enough to snag yellowjackets mid-flight.  In a week or two–after they struck–the Patriots United Militia of America would all be clean-shaven.

Lewis would give anything not to be there then.

Maybe, just maybe that cell phone would be the means.  If he didn’t get caught–and didn’t get the hell beat out of him, or worse.  He set the oranges on the floor, leaned down as though to tie a shoe, quickly transferred the phone to his right front pocket, where it wouldn’t be as visible through the fabric.

If he connived some chance to make a call, if the damn phone even worked—to whom?  Certainly not 9-1-1.  Try telling some jaded dispatcher the long story that put him in this mess.

What’s the nature of your emergency, Sir?

How about the loss of his soul?  Marinated in anger, drilled to kill.

If he triggered a law enforcement response, many would die.  He would likely die.

“Beg your pardon, Captain White,” he said when he reached the other two.  “I need to use the latrine.”

“You can wait until we’re done.”

Of course.  PUMA soldiers went nowhere alone.

“Yes, Sir.”

If he couldn’t try the cell phone here, he wouldn’t be able to use it at all.  Especially not at their compound out of range in the canyons west of Ellensburg.

What if he turned and bolted from the store, sprinted who-knew-where until his guts burst, as long as it was away?  But they’d catch him, they’d get the hell out before anyone with a badge could show up, and that would be the end, of course.  Not just an escape, but a permanent exit.  Bye-bye, cruel world.

The phone was his only hope, although if some crazy-ass ring-tone suddenly blared out next to his crotch, he had no idea how he’d explain it to White.  He’d have to hand it over.

They moved through the meats and canned goods.  White’s slate-gray eyes seemed aware every direction.  If someone lobbed a can of soup at them over the top of the aisle he’d not only see it, he’d catch it, leap above the top of the shelving, and put a dent in someone’s skull.  They picked up five-pound bags of rice, black beans, kidney beans, split peas, boxes of energy bars—and five bags of disposable razors.    In the magazine section, a Rhino .357 pointed off the cover of Guns and Ammo. two of those plus a Gun Digest into Bailey’s cart.

“For you and the other soldiers—you ought to be reading.”

“Yes, Sir.  Thank you, Sir.”

It would be rotten to drag his father into this mess, but who else?  His father knew about combat, always used his head, figured stuff out when everyone else panicked.  Not that Lewis heard about any of it from his father.  Other soldiers—U.S. Army Special Forces—they talked up his father at reunions and parties.

At the register White rang a little bell to summon the cashier.  “Pick yourselves a candy bar.”

Lewis put the closest one into Bailey’s cart.

“Thank you, Sir.”

White paid from a roll of cash.

“The latrine, Sir?”

“What the hell.  We’ll all go.  Long ride back.”

In the stall Lewis grunted a couple of times, added a groan for extra effect, managed to loosen the bowels.  Finally White and Bailey left.

The cell phone was not locked.  It did not have one of those tiny keypads.  Knowing White would storm back any moment or send Bailey to do the same, Lewis fumbled with the number pad, cursed when he messed up and had to start again.  They’d catch him for sure if he tried a voice call.  He moved his fingers quickly, didn’t bother spelling every word.

His father would get the idea.  If he read it.

More likely he’d see the strange incoming phone number and delete the message and that would be that, all this trouble for nothing.  Lewis took a breath, cleared his mind, began entering the numbers at the end of the message, the most important part for getting his ass away from the band of idiots he’d gotten himself mixed with.

The bathroom door swung open, banged against the wall.

“What the hell you doing, Kline, camping out?”

Lewis swung the arm with the cell phone behind him.

Did White see it?  A quarter turn and he’d be looking through the crack on the side of the stall door straight at Lewis in all his crap-posture glory.  Lewis brought his other hand back, transferred the phone to it, gave a split second look at it down low next to the wall, enough to see and touch the “send” button, then dropped the phone behind into the toilet.

Like an idiot.  He had fucking panicked.  He hadn’t finished the numbers.  No one would find him, not his father, not anybody.  Even if White left–which he showed no intention of doing–he couldn’t risk the time it would take to retrieve the phone and imagine if White saw him hunched over with his hand in the toilet as though to swish around his own shit.  Funny, yeah.

On the return trip White exited the freeway, parked the pickup close to a shopping mall not yet open.  They sat on a bench in the sun outside the entry, looked across acreage of a nearly empty parking lot.

“That it?” asked Bailey.

“Just watch,” said White.

Ten minutes later an armored truck entered the little lot in front of the bank, stopped parallel.  The driver exited.  From a distance they could see he carried a pouch.

“Soldier Kline, see how if you’re standing on that island under the hedge maple you can see everything in front of the bank, the whole mall parking lot, across to the trees on the south side?”

“Yes, Sir,” said Lewis.  Which direction could he go, when the time came?  North instead of south, perhaps, get his ass in the Burger King at the street corner, mix with the crowd, duck into the bathroom before White came looking, shit, put on a cap and start flipping sausages.

“Soldier Kline, I want you to think of all the ways this mission can go bad,” continued White.  “What’s one?”

“Both guards get out.”

“They won’t do that.  It’s not part of their protocol.”

“So both guards get out.”

White nodded his head.

“That’s why you’re the trailer, Kline.  Make sure you game it.”

Back on the freeway an hour from the bank, over Snoqualmie Pass onto the east side of the Cascade Mountains, White leaned across the front seat, removed an envelope from the glove compartment, handed it to Lewis.

“Open that envelope and read what it says.  Loud enough so Bailey can hear it, too.”

It was addressed to the Wenatchee World.  Inside, the letter had been typed, including words X’d out.  Of course–no computers or electronics at the compound.  The feds would find them.

For immediate release

Effective immediately the Patriots United Militia of America, otherwise known as the PUMAs, warn U.S. citizens against doing business with any bank larger than a small community or regional variety.

The PUMAs have declared multinational banking syndicates antithetical to the values of a free people.  The days of international corporations controlling governmental agencies to repress citizens worldwide without consequences soon will come to an end.  Action will be taken against an unnamed large bank as well as governmental enablers.  Because the PUMAs respect innocent and uneducated citizens, we urge all people to withdraw their money from large banks and to cease all commerce with them.  Do not be caught in the crossfire.  The PUMAs also encourage so-called “elected” representatives to examine their consciences.  Ask yourselves if your actions conform to the Constitution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.  Representatives who speak and act against the present tyranny of government will be spared, but those who serve as toadies for corporate and governmental domination will be subject to elimination.  The PUMAs hereby warn citizens that it will be extremely dangerous to associate with tyrannous representatives.

Other freedom-loving militias–now is the time to act.  Are you mere Keyboard Commandos or are you the real deal?  Prove it.

“Wow, Captain White, that’s awesome,” said Bailey from the back seat.  His beard was more brown than red, with a short blonde crew cut atop his head.  “How long do you figure ‘til it’s a full-bore revolution?”

Yeah, sure, tomorrow.  Fucking numbskull.

“Hang on, Bailey,” said White.  “It took years of resistance and small actions before the original American Revolution began, and I expect some years to pass before we reach critical mass this time.  That’s why we must succeed.  I expect us to inspire the local militias who’ve been waiting for their cue.  We’re the head of the hammer.  Wake up, people!  You’ve been anesthetized.  Time to take back our democracy.  You ready for that, soldiers?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“How soon, sir?” asked Bailey.

“Soon.  There’s another one in there for the Seattle Times and another for the Spokesman Review.”

“I’ll get them for you, Sir,” offered Lewis, and before the captain could object Lewis had pulled from the compartment a small stack–two letters and a warranty for tires that he put back.  A smaller slip of paper fluttered to the floor and reflexively Lewis picked it up, his eyes unable to avoid a glance.  A vehicle registration for Henry Baker.

So you’re Henry Baker.  Captain White Sir.

Whatever that meant.  Or the truck belonged to Henry Baker.  But White wouldn’t be so stupid, driving someone else’s truck.

Burning under the glare from White/Baker/whoever-the-hell-he-was, Lewis shoved the registration back in the glovebox.

“They can’t say we didn’t warn them,” said Bailey, oblivious in the back.

“Exactly,” agreed White, half-staring at Lewis, half-staring at the road.

“Sorry, Sir,” said Lewis.

“I trust you two,” said White.  “That’s why I bring you on these trips.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“These hills are crawling with turkeys,” he said.  “Did you know, Soldier Kline, your dad and I bagged plenty of ‘em?  Did you know how highly we regarded him in Special Ops?”

“What?”  Lewis felt as though the air had been knocked out of him.

“Oh, yes, soldier, believe it.  I know your father, know him well.  We wanted his helo.  Taliban never hit it.  He had a sense about the RPGs and the SAMs.  We’d scorch through the air and all the sudden he’d drop us like a stone on some lip of land and we’d haul ass and off he’d go, night black as hell, no moon, gone like a phantom.”

He caught his breath but felt queasy, dizzy.  Was that why White had recruited him so heavily?  It had been a year since he’d responded to a blog post White had written.  Now none among them had any web presence, no cell phones, nothing.  They did not exist.

“You’re a talisman, Kline, a piece of your old man.  Combat will do that to a man, make him superstitious.  You’ll find out soon enough.”