SpearPoint Publications

 

Like us on Facebook-Spearpoint

Upcoming Readings

No events scheduled.

SpearPoint email

Contact Mizeta at mizetasworld@live.com, or Howard at fhschneider@comcast.net

Undercover Agent - Episode Two

Karla and Detective Tabor checked in at the Portland FBI office lobby desk at two o’clock on the dot and were immediately ushered to the seventh floor. “She’ll be right in. Coffee?” the agent who had led them to the simply furnished, windowless meeting room asked. The agent was black, goateed, and sported dreadlocks down to his broad shoulders.

“Sure,” Karla said.

“Help yourself,” he said, nodding at the sideboard where a pump pot stood next to a plate of chocolate-chip cookies. He extended his hand toward Karla. “I’m Darrel James. The chief wanted me to meet you.” Then he shook hands with Tabor and said, “I heard about your North Portland meth lab bust.”

“Yeah, we were lucky,” Tabor replied.

Before Tabor could say more, the door opened and a tall, middle-aged woman in a brown pantsuit entered. She was a couple of inches taller than Karla’s five-ten and projected an aura of authority.  She glanced at Tabor, and in a tone of voice indicating respect for a fellow law enforcement professional, she said, “Detective . . .” After shaking Tabor’s hand, she turned to Karla and said, “Miss Hammer, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for taking time for this visit. You’ve done a great service to the agency, and to the country. The man you attacked was a wanted killer, responsible for scores of deaths. You’re a real-life heroine. We don’t get to meet many of those.”

“I didn’t have much choice. He was gonna kill me,” Karla said, then stepped over to the sidebar and filled a mug with coffee. “Is he still alive?”

The others followed suit and then sat down at the table. Karla and Tabor were on one side, James and the chief across from them. “I’m Hanna Marx, Special Agent in Charge of this office,” the chief said. “Detective Tabor filled us in on what you did. That was pretty gutsy. To answer your question, yes, he’s still alive, but in a coma. You must have hit him pretty hard.”

“Like I said, he was gonna shoot me. It was him or me.” After a pause, she continued, “There’s a reward, right?”

“Twenty-five thousand,” Marx said. “You earned it. It’s all yours. How do you want it?”

“Whaddya mean, ’How do I want it?’ A check or money order, or cash, whatever you guys do here.”

“I mean, do you want it all in one payment or paid in installments over a period of time? There will be some paperwork, too,” Marx replied.

Tabor saw that Karla was becoming anxious with how the conversation was going. He laid his hand on her arm and said, “Karla, the money is yours. Chief Marx will make sure you get it.”

“That’s right, “Marx said. “You’ll get the money. But there’s something else I’d like to discuss with you.”

“About a job? Detective Tabor said something about that.”

“That’s right. A job.”

“What kinda job?” Karla asked.

“Undercover agent,” Marx replied, getting right to the point.

“What? What are you talking about? Is this some kinda trick to cheat me out of the reward?”

“Let’s hear what Special Agent Marx has to say,” Tabor told Karla, wanting to calm her growing anxiety.

“It has nothing to do with the reward,” Marx interrupted. “We’d hire you as a consultant and pay a good fee. We need someone with street smarts to help us learn more about Portland’s human trafficking gangs. Someone who would never be suspected of working with law enforcement. Someone like you.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know anything about that stuff. I’m just a homeless woman trying to survive from one day to the next. I just want my reward money.”

Ignoring Karla’s outburst, Marx opened the folder lying in front of her and began leafing through the pages. “From what I see here, you should be able to get close to people running those operations. Two years in state prison for assault. No known source of income other than a paltry disability payment. Let’s see . . . broken leg and hip from when you were hit by a city bus. That explains the cane. Speaking of which, you used it pretty effectively on Baldoni yesterday. Where’d you pick up that talent? By the way, wouldn’t that be classified as a weapon now that you’ve used it in an assault, or should I say, another assault? Could be a problem for an ex-con. Especially one who’s missed meeting with your parole officer,” Marx said, looking at one of the pages from Hanna’s file.

“Listen lady. A single woman doesn’t last on the streets as long as I have without knowing how to defend herself, at least if she doesn’t have a pimp. Which I don’t—never have, never will. That’s not my thing. And another thing—it wasn’t assault, it was self-defense. So, don’t try to frame me for something that’s not true. And don’t threaten me with missed meetings from years ago that no one gives a shit about.”

“Relax, Karla. We wouldn’t do anything like that,” Marx said, putting the sheet of paper back in the file and sliding the platter of cookies in Karla’s direction. “So how do you get by, living on the streets? If you don’t mind me asking,” she continued, as if wanting to quickly change the subject.

“What is this, a social studies class? I just want to get my reward money and get the fuck outta here.” Karla barked, her impatience escalating.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy. If that’s what you want, no problem,” Marx replied as she stood, gathered up the folder and other documents she brought in, and prepared to leave. “Just give your bank account number and routing number to Agent James and we’ll get that done tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute. I don’t have a bank account. Can’t you just gimme the cash?” Karla asked as Marx approached the door.

For a moment no one said anything. Then Special Agent in Charge Hanna Marx slowly took her hand off the handle of the door she had been about to open, turned back to Karla and said, “It’s not quite that simple, Miss Hammer.”

Three hours later, Tabor and Karla were headed south on 82nd Avenue on their way back to Northeast Portland. Tabor suddenly pulled into the parking lot of a shabby strip mall, parked in an empty spot, and said, “they’ve got great burritos here,” pointing at a storefront with a bright red neon sign proclaiming, ‘Open.’ “I’m starving,” he said. “How about you?”

Seated at a Formica table, with burritos, large Cokes, and an assortment of salsas, Tabor said, “Okay. How do you wanna do this? We gotta have a system. A way to communicate, for Agent James or me to know if you need to meet, or if you’re in trouble.”

“You’re asking me? You’re the cop,” Karla replied, dipping her burrito into a plastic container of salsa verde. “You got me into this mess, so you better damn-well make sure I survive to collect my money in two years.”

“Hey. It’s up to you, too. Don’t lay it all on me. You agreed to the deal. You’ll come out of it with a nice bankroll and a clean record. How else would you ever get your prison time deleted from you file?”

“Yeah, sure. But only if I live. Sounds like these guys they’re after are major killers. They’ll turn me into dogfood if they find out I’m working for the Feds.”

“That’s why we gotta play it safe,” Tabor replied. “A cell phone is out—a homeless woman couldn’t afford one. And it would be a risk, anyway. If someone got suspicious and checked it, and discovered contacts with us, you’d be floating down the Columbia with a bullet in your head.”

“So, what do you suggest? Smoke signals?”

“A drop site. Someplace we can leave messages and check every day.”

Karla was silent for a while, savoring her carne asada burrito, then said, “How about using my mail box at the Hollywood post office annex? It’s where my disability check is sent each month. I’ll give you and James the combination.”

“That should work. Which brings up another matter. How do you feel about James?”

“Do I have any choice?” Karla asked. “From what that Marx woman said, at least what I thought she said, you two are double-teaming me. Like some kind of joint effort, and I’m the fall guy, so to speak.”

“It’s not like that. Think of us as your backup. We’ll give you whatever support you’d need. At least the FBI and the Portland police are working together for once. James is a straight shooter.”

“Look, Detective Tabor, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass for your love affair with the FBI. Or whether James gets the Man of the Year award or sings in a church choir. What I do care about are two things, and two things only. One—I get a bundle of money in two years, then you, and they, are out of my life. Two—if I run into trouble, you and Jimmy-the-Boy Scout come to my rescue. Got it? Does that compute?

An hour later, Tabor pulled up to the gate of the construction site where Karla had claimed the culvert pipe and had left the shopping cart with all her worldly belongings. The site was still closed and locked up, waiting for city and county permits before actual work started.

“What the . . .? That guy’s digging through my stuff!” Karla screamed. She opened the car door, jumped out, and ran toward the side of the lot where there was a break in the fence.

Tabor scrambled out and followed her.

“Get away from there, asshole. That’s mine!” she yelled, as she ran toward the man, her cane bouncing along the hardpacked dirt.

The man, a scruffy young black guy in dirty jeans and a filthy sweatshirt, looked up from digging through the cart’s load of clothing and other stuff. “What you gonna do, old woman, make me stop?” He laughed, then continued pawing around in Karla’s belongings, as if she weren’t coming his way. The next thing he knew was that he was sprawled on the ground and the woman who yelled was standing over him holding a cane with its tip pressed hard against his chest. “Hey, back off. I thought it was abandoned. I didn’t take anything,” he croaked.

At that moment, Tabor joined them and asked, “Is there a problem here?”

Karla looked at him as if she didn’t know him and said, “Buzz off, Buddy. This is none of your business.”

Tabor, realizing his mistake, said, “Whatever! I was passing by and saw what was going on. I thought you might need some help.” He turned and left without another word.

After Tabor was gone, Karla, after taking her cane off the man’s chest, said, “You’re not from around here. I know everyone in Hollywood. Who are you?”

The guy sat up and rubbed the knee Karla hit. She stepped back a pace and watched him painfully rise to his feet. Glaring at her, then nodding at the cart, he said, “There’s nothing in that mess I’d want, anyway. Can I leave? Or are you gonna hit me with that thing again?”

“Where are you from?” Karla asked, ignoring his question. “You sound like you are from somewhere in Africa.” From years of living on the streets and meeting all kinds of people, she had developed an ear for accents. “Where you been hanging out?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Just curious, that’s all,” she replied, then remained silent for a moment, as if turning over something in her mind. “I scored a few bucks today. Wanna share a bottle?”

The man hesitated a second, then said, “Why are you so generous all of a sudden? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, I just wanna make up for attacking you, that’s all. Sometimes I get a little excited. Is your leg okay?”

He flexed his knee and grimaced, then said, “You whacked me pretty hard with that damn stick.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to do any permanent damage. I just wanted to stop you from stealing my stuff. How about something to drink while you recover?”

He started to step around her, but then hesitated, licked his dry lips, and said, “All right. Why not?”

Ten minutes later, Karla returned with a jug of cheap red wine and joined the man where he sat in the shade of an ancient maple that would be taken down soon to make room for another boxy apartment building.

“My name’s Sue,” she lied, after sitting down across from him. She twisted off the screw cap and handed the gallon jug to him.

He took a long pull, then sat the bottle on the bare ground in front of her. “Bako. Yeah, I’m from Africa—Nigeria. I came here with my mother when I was nine.”

“Are you living on the streets?”

“When my mom died I had no place else to go. After traveling up and down the coast for a few years, staying here and there, I ended up in a camp in North Portland. Been there for the last three years.”

“What are you doing here in Hollywood?”

“Why all the questions?”

Karla detected the suspicion in his question. She took a light swallow from the bottle and passed it back it to him, then said, “Just curious, that’s all. No harm meant.”

After another long pull on the jug, then another, he said, “Checking out opportunities.”

“Opportunities? For what?” she asked.

“None of your business.”

“Relax. Forget I asked. But I know what you mean. Pickings around here are getting scarce, if you know what I mean—too many of our kind have moved in.” She took another swallow of the wine. “In fact, I’ve decided to leave this area. Maybe I should try North Portland. What do you think?” She sat the bottle in front of him.

“Might be okay. There’s space available where I live. It’s in a patch of woods on the east bank of the Willamette River—about a mile south of Kelly Point Park. It’s not a bad spot. You’d be safe.”

“I’ve heard the Russian mafia can be a problem in that part of town.”

“Not if you stay out of their business. Or stay on their good side. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”

“Are you sure about that? People say they’re dangerous. That they control everything—that they want a piece of anything profitable.”

“Just stay out of their business, that’s all. But there are others you gotta stay away from.”

“Yeah, like who?”

“Other gangs, that’s all.”

“How can you be so sure about that? How do you know what their business is?” she asked, pushing harder to get him to reveal his connection to a gang, if any.

He snatched up the bottle and took another deep drink, then said, “Trust me, I know.”

“Okay, I believe you,” she replied, the force of his statement suggesting that maybe he did have a connection. 

An hour later they started off toward the Hollywood Transit Center MAX Station together. Her belongings were crammed into two scruffy packs, one on Bako’s back, the other on hers. Her stout oak cane made every step a little easier.

Undercover Agent - Episode One

It was just another mistake, like so many others she’d made in her troubled life. Seems like nothing ever went right no matter how hard she tried, as if she had been fated from childhood for an existence of misfortune—the orphanage, half a dozen abusive foster homes, erratic schooling, a two-year stint in prison, and now—homelessness. But despite the hardships she’d faced and overcome, she was not even close to giving up her quest for a better life. A tiny, indomitable kernel of optimism miraculously persisted deep in her psyche. Like many others in her predicament, she was a survivor. That’s a given. But she was more than just that—she was a fighter. For some inconceivable reason she knew she would eventually make a life for herself beyond just getting by on a miserly disability check, panhandling for chump change, and collecting bottles and cans when she got down to her last few bucks. Every single day on the street she sought that elusive goal. Never for a moment, even in the darkest of times when others like her would have succumbed to despair, did she doubt that she would eventually reach it. Karla Hammer was determined to be an exception to the rule.

This particular screw-up occurred on a warm midsummer Southeast Portland morning. Karla woke to sunshine, fighting its way through fully leafed vine maples, streaming the opening of a culvert pipe from which Karla had chased a feral dog the evening before. Safe in the solitude of a hideaway apparently not yet discovered by other street people, she luxuriated in its quiet peacefulness and imagined how the day might go. She knew what she was going to wear, having purchased the perfect outfit at the Salvation Army store the day before—a red skirt and a bright yellow long- sleeve blouse. Her nails were trimmed and clean and her hair was freshly cut in a short bob by her friend, Mrs. Tang, an enterprising homeless woman who could be found most Sunday mornings at the Hollywood Fred Meyer recycle station with comb and scissors and an beat-up, old wood stool.

It’s only 6:35. I’ve got plenty of time, she thought. The poster she’d found taped to a telephone pole on 42nd Avenue advertised for background actors for a movie being filmed around Portland. They needed people to be in restaurant, shopping mall, and street scenes. Check in time was 9 o’clock and she had memorized the address: 655 NE 7th Avenue. She knew the bus route to get there and planned to arrive early.

An hour later, fortified with free coffee and donated day-old donuts from the Hollywood Senior Center, Karla headed off to the movie staging area where she planned to be among the first in line. It wasn’t only the $75 a day that would bulk up her savings, but a chance, no matter how slim, there might be an opportunity to escape her current life. She was a firm believer in that old adage, “just showing up is the first step to success,” or something like that.

Karla got to Seventh and Holliday at 8:10 to find a three-quarters-full pay-to-park lot, but no other people. No movie-making stuff like trailers or lights or barriers, or anything. Nothing. Confused as much as angry, she took the poster she had ripped off the pole out of her tote bag and limped over to the guy directing newly arriving cars into parking slots. “Where’s the signup place for this movie?” she asked.

Between cars entering the lot and checking for messages on his phone, the lot guy barely acknowledged the garishly-dressed woman who had a walking cane in one hand and a cloth bag looped over her arm, and a yellow sheet of paper in the other hand. She was holding the paper out for him to look at. He looked at it for a second, then said, “You’re in the wrong place, lady. The address is northwest, not northeast. See.” He pointed at the address. “If you hustle across the river you might make it. But you better hurry,” he said, as he turned to collect money from a driver in a BMW who came uncomfortably close to Karla as if she weren’t even there.

“I’ll take the Broadway Bridge, it’ll put me close to where I need to be,” Karla said to the lot attendant as she left the lot and headed north on Seventh. Even with a bum leg she was a strong walker and made good time, especially without her shopping cart. She had left it chained up and covered with a blue tarp at the construction site where her big culvert pipe was waiting to be buried in a few weeks.

Concentrating on getting to the movie location as fast as she could and focusing on the sidewalk with its occasional heaves and cracks, she didn’t notice an SUV creeping along the curb behind her, nor did she pay attention to the people walking toward or past her. But she came alive when two pistol shots went off close by and a silver-haired man in a red Reebok running suit a few paces in front of her was lifted off the sidewalk and catapulted backwards. The first thing she did was glance at the SUV. Why she did that is still a mystery to her, but, nevertheless, it’s what she did. And in so doing, she saw a man pointing a gun out the window. She locked into his eyes as he locked into hers. He shifted the pistol toward her but was unable to take a shot because at that moment the driver took off like a rocket, leaving the shot unfired and Karla alive. But the shooter had seen that she had seen him, and in his world that was something that would have to be taken care of—loose ends couldn’t be tolerated.

The police arrived a few minutes later, but since Karla had no interest in getting involved, and had her own priority at that moment, she didn’t hang around. She kept going as if nothing had happened, although she was shaken to the core knowing the shooter would have killed her if he could have. And she’d heard enough stories about hit men to know he might look for her.

When she got to Weidler Street, which was one-way going east, she went left toward the river, due west. That way she could see cars coming in her direction. She kept a lookout for the shooter’s SUV as she headed toward the Broadway Bridge eight blocks ahead. She wished she had the cart with her belongings so she could change into something less obvious—the red and yellow outfit was like a flag screaming for attention. The killer would be able to spot her from a mile away.

At MLK, she waited in the doorway of a shop for the light to change. When she stepped off the curb into the crosswalk, she saw the killer get out of the SUV, which was behind a pickup in the line of traffic stopped for the red light. Her heart skipped a beat and a wave of fear shot down her spine, but a surge of adrenalin propelled her forward. She was halfway across the intersection before the killer got to the crosswalk and started after her. Thoughts buzzed in her head. She immediately realized that if she kept going he would follow until he could take his shot without attracting too much attention, then escape in the confusion of a shooting. So, she did the unexpected and turned around and ran directly at him as fast as she could. He must have been surprised because he hesitated to take out his pistol. Instead, he glanced at the vehicles edged up to the crosswalk waiting for the light to change. He and the crazy woman charging at him were in plain view of dozens of people. As he turned back toward the woman he heard a loud whack and felt an intense pain in his left ear. Then, before he realized what had happened, he felt as if his airway had been blocked and he couldn’t breathe. He gagged and turned to run to where his partner waited in the line of traffic, but suddenly fell to the street, tripped by the cane the woman had thrust between his legs. As blood gushed from his smashed ear he struggled to catch his breath—his larynx had been partially crushed when she landed the cane across his throat. Looking up from where he was lying, he saw the woman raising what looked like a sturdy wooden stick above her head, preparing to bring it down on him. Before he was able to get his pistol out, she smashed the hefty oak staff onto the top of his head with all the force she could muster. His eyes fluttered, and he instantly went limp. The gun slipped from his hand and landed among splashes of his blood. Karla kicked the pistol away and stood waiting for what would happen next.

An hour later, after the ambulance was gone and traffic rerouted, and as crime scene technicians combed the area for evidence, Karla was sitting in Detective Tom Tabor’s unmarked police car explaining what had happened for the third time. He had just gotten word that the killer’s SUV had been spotted, based on descriptions provided by witnesses that had been close by when the confrontation took place, and the driver had been arrested. Tabor told Karla that the shooting victim, the man in the red running suit, was a mob informer and the shooter was a notorious killer for hire.

“Is there a reward?” Karla asked. “You wouldn’t have him if not for me.”

“There might be. I’ll check.”

“Look, Detective, this little sideshow screwed up my chance to be in a movie. So why don’t you make use of that phone you’re holding and find out whether there’s a reward, or not? I can wait.”

By that time, Tabor was used to Karla's directness, so, instead of putting her off, he made a call to a friend in the local FBI office. After another call, this time to a higher-up, who wanted to know more about the woman responsible for the capture, he smiled and gave Karla the news. “There’s a twenty-five-thousand-dollar reward. You have an appointment with the Special Agent in Charge of the Portland FBI office tomorrow afternoon. She wants to talk to you about a job.

Karla was stunned by what Tabor said—overwhelmed not only by the amount of money, but also by the possibility of a job. A job? She wondered. What kind of job? Cleaning woman, something out of gratitude? “What kind of job?” she asked.

“Not sure. Although she did say something about undercover. I think she’s impressed by what you did. By the way, so am I . . . oh yeah, she wants me to come along, too. I’ll pick you up. Where do you live?”

“I live in a big pipe at a construction site on Halsey. You can’t miss it. There’s a chain link fence with a Keep Out sign. Honk your horn, I’ll be waiting.”

 

Humphreys Peak

1 Comments

Humphreys Peak, eleven miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, at 12,637 feet is the highest point in the state. It is one of six mountaintops in the San Francisco Peaks range and lies a little north of its 12,356-foot sister crest, Agassiz Peak. The Humphreys Peak summit is reached by hiking the 4.8 mile Humphreys Trail that originates at the Snowbowl ski resort. The hike’s hazards are well known and include a steep trail strewn with loose rocks, above average risk of lightning strikes, winter avalanches, and unpredictable weather, including sudden heavy snowstorms.

This was the peak my friend John and I decided to climb one early April weekend in 1962 when we were graduate students at Arizona State University. We had been climbing together since 1958 and had done a lot of hiking and free-style rock climbing around the Valley of the Sun and surrounding mountains. Challenging climbs like Pinnacle Peak and Four Peaks honed our skills and kept us in reasonably good physical condition. We were confident—perhaps overconfident—we could handle just about any climbing challenge that came our way. Out of options for climbs in the immediate area, we figured it was time to take on the big daddy of Arizona mountains, Humphreys Peak.

We left Tempe around 4 a.m. for the hundred and sixty-mile drive to the Flagstaff Snowbowl and got there around seven. The parking lot was nearly empty (the ski lifts were already shut down for the season) and the sky was crystal clear. The forecast was for cool temperatures during the rest of the day with a fifty-percent chance of rain. We had our rain gear, however, and didn’t let the possibility of a little drizzle deter us from adding another climb to our tally.

After a breakfast of boiled eggs and doughnuts, we headed out, confident we would summit before noon, descend leisurely back to the Snowbowl by midafternoon, and then get back to Tempe for a celebratory dinner. Being in decent shape, the steepness of the trail was no big deal. We made good time along switchbacks taking us east through dense forests where stretches of shaded trail were sporadically covered with patches of snow. We weren’t even breathing hard when we reached timberline at the midpoint of the Agassiz Saddle (the ridge connecting Agassiz Peak with Humphreys) at an elevation of 12,000 feet. But shortly after we emerged from the forest into the open Alpine tundra, the weather suddenly changed. Low dark clouds appeared out of nowhere and the gentle breeze that had been pleasingly cool became a brisk, cold wind. We had only a short distance to go along the trail that ran north just under the west side of the ridge for a mile and a quarter to the peak. Since no rain or snow had materialized, and our parkas provided adequate protection against the wind, we ignored tales and warnings of sudden snow storms and forged ahead. But before we knew it, we were fighting a strengthening west wind as we scrambled over and around boulders and hard-crusted snow drifts that obstructed our progress and slowed us down.   

The amount and depth of snow on the trail increased as we got closer to the summit, making it difficult to keep going at the pace we had maintained earlier. Then, as if the peak had decided it didn’t want intruders that day, the weather abruptly changed again. At first it was tiny wind-driven, sleet-like particles that stung our faces, then after a few minutes they turned into heavy, wet flakes and we found ourselves in a full-blown blizzard. Still, we persisted, unwilling to entertain the thought of defeat.

Our destination loomed in the near-whiteout as a massive, indistinct dark form just ahead of us, like a menacing specter drawing us on with unexplainable magnetic power. Between dogged determination and disregard for common sense, we finally made it to the top. But when we reached the rockpile that denoted the highest point, swirling dense mist and thick snowfall obliterated the panoramic view that usually rewards Humphreys Peak climbers. With ferocious wind spinning around the peak we had no desire to linger. After a few minutes of wandering aimlessly around the summit savoring our victory, we agreed to head back down but immediately disagreed about which direction to take. The snowfall had buried our tracks, so we couldn’t simply retrace our trek to the summit by following them. This decision—which direction to start our descent—was the critical moment of what was supposed to be a simple “walk-up.” As it turned out, that little walk-up wasn’t quite that simple.

Anxious to get off the summit, John led off in what he was sure was south—the way back to the route along the west side of the ridge and on to the forest trail. “Wait!” I yelled over the howling maelstrom. “It’s this way,” pointing in the opposite direction.

“No, it’s not,” he yelled back, “the wind was from our left when we approached the peak. We need it to our right to get back to the ridge trail.” I didn’t argue with his reasoning—he was always good with directions—although I still had misgivings. Nevertheless, unable to justify objection to his confident assertion, and with heavy cloud cover and snowfall blocking the sun and distant landmarks that normally would have given us bearings, I followed, ignoring the shadow of doubt lingering in a corner of my mind.

By the time we got off the summit and to where the Agassiz Saddle trail should have been we were struggling knee-deep through a combination of old and new snow. The temperature was continuing to drop, and the strong wind had become a raging, erratic gale. As we struggled desperately to keep going, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to locate the actual trail since the new snow was covering the landscape with a uniform layer of featureless, white camouflage. Not only that, the by then total whiteout prevented us from seeing what lay ahead, whether the trail leveled out, as it should if it paralleled the ridge, or whether the slope continued downward, which, if it did, would be a severe problem. Unable to remain where we were because of the rapidly deteriorating weather, we blindly forged ahead, assuming we were heading southwest as we continued downhill.

When we stopped after a while to catch our breath, John said, “If we missed the ridge trail, we’ll keep going until we reach timberline, then turn left. We should find the forest trail as we get further south, where it comes out of the woods.” I sensed a level of concern from the look on his face belying the confidence projected by his statement.

“If worse comes to worse, and we don’t find the trail,” I said, “we’ll keep going two or three miles southwest until we reach the paved access road to the ski bowl. If we’re too far east of that road, we’ll eventually hit Route 180 in another mile or so. “It would take a while, but at least it’s a sure thing.”

John nodded, wiped snow from his face with his wet glove, and plunged ahead. I followed for a time, then took my turn as lead to forge through the deepening snow.

Several hours later we were pretty far down the wooded slope and in near darkness, which had come on earlier than usual because of the heavy cloud cover. The temperature had dropped further, and it was still snowing, but at least the wind wasn’t as strong because of the dense Engelman spruce and bristlecone pine forest we found ourselves surrounded by. The slope we were descending was steeper than it should have been if we were on the southwestern side of the mountain as John had confidently claimed we were. The slope was also cluttered with tree fall and boulders, both of which increased the difficulty of the descent and slowed our progress to a near-crawl.

When we took a break under a huge spruce, which provided a little relief from the falling snow, I said, “I think we screwed up when we left the summit.” It had come to me in a flash of clarity. The wind had been swirling around the peak in a tornado-like vortex, which, perhaps disoriented by the velocity of the wildly fluctuating wind and a total lack of visibility, we didn’t fully realize at the time. So, when we left the summit—supposedly back the way we came—we expected the wind to be our right, which would have been from the west. That was how we chose the way down. But because the wind was circling around the summit, when it hit us from the right we had set off 180 degrees opposite from the direction we should have taken. We had mistakenly headed off the summit due north, toward the Kiabab National Forest area with nothing but miles of dense woods, then desolate high desert and a few isolated Indian villages for sixty-five miles, all the way to the Grand Canyon. As a result of this lapse of common sense, instead of being on our way back to Tempe listening to rock and roll in a warm car, we were in a raging snow storm in a nearly pitch-dark wild woodland, halfway down a steep slope cluttered with forest debris that led nowhere —cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted.

“So, what are we gonna do?” John asked, worry bordering on panic having replaced his usual confidence.

“We have to keep going in this direction. To a fire road that runs east-west connecting Route 89 to Route 180. If we can find it, it’ll take us west to 180 and then south to the road to the Snowbowl,” I answered after picturing a map of the area in my head.

“How far would that be?” John asked, his worry evident from the quiver in his voice.

“From where I think we are now, I’d say about twenty miles.”

“Damn! That’s a long way. That’ll take twelve hours or more with all this snow. Maybe longer,” John replied.

“It’s hell of a lot closer than the Grand Canyon,” I said, then took off my daypack and got out the last two candy bars and handed one to John. “Keep a lookout for the fire road. It might be hard to recognize with this snow cover,” I said when we started out after finishing the Snickers.

After another few hours of scrambling down what seemed like nature’s version of a diabolic obstacle course, the slope gradually leveled off a bit. After what must have been a quarter of a mile later, we came to a narrow, treeless strip of snow that appeared to be running east west, or, from our perspective anyway, from right to left.

In the lead at that point, I yelled back to John, “That’s gotta be the fire road.” Even in the semi-darkness the smooth snow surface of the track cutting through the forest glowed like a silver ribbon on a dark cloth. It had to be the road we so desperately sought.

“Yeah,” he agreed as he came up next to me, breathing hard, and like me, happy to take a break from wading through deep snow. He scanned the view in front of us and said, “Yeah. That must be it all right.”

That was the moment we both knew we were going to be okay. Sure, we had a twenty-something-mile hike in the middle of the night in a nasty snow storm in a remote wilderness area, but compared to dying, that was an acceptable option.

The long slog back to civilization was without incident. But it goes without saying that there were times when we were so exhausted we had to stop to regain enough strength to start up again. But we always found the strength, and we never for a minute considered the alternative—giving up and letting the cold take us into the bliss of peaceful sleep. Instead, we drifted in and out of half-consciousness as we trudged along the fire road, oblivious to the absurdity of the situation.

Even though exhausted, we were ecstatic when we finally made it to the Rt. 180 junction, confirming that we really were on the right way to the Snowbowl. But we were disappointed that there were no fresh tire tracks—our hopes of a ride were dashed by the long stretch of unbroken snow. Not surprising, though. Who in their right mind would be traveling this unplowed, one-lane highway through unpopulated back-country in the middle of the night during a brutal snowstorm? Obviously, no one.

We pushed on, hiking down the middle of the highway, happy not having to maneuver around trees, logs, stumps, branches and every other hinderance hiding under the forest snow cover. But it was still arduous work, especially as tired as we were. As the road shifted from what we figured was due south to southeast, the snow gradually let up and turned into a light rain, then into a persistent drizzle. On we went, wet, cold, weaker with every mile, with every step. We didn’t talk, we barely noticed dawn breaking in the east, and we almost overlooked the sign to the Snowbowl. “That’s it,” I cried when I happened to lift my eyes from patches of blacktop from which by then the rain had cleared away much of the snow.

The road to the Snowbowl was easy to hike and we got to the parking lot in what seemed like an hour later, and finally to John’s car, to our salvation.

“What time is it?” I yelled from where I was wiping crusty snow off the windshield when John started up the car.

Seven-thirty,” he said, glancing at the dashboard clock. “Twenty-four hours after we started this goddamn adventure,” his tired grin saying everything that needed to be said.

Our next thought was breakfast. Half an hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a busy Rt. 66 diner. Before we got out of the car, I said, “After breakfast, let’s stop at the sporting goods store and buy a compass. 

John let out a long sigh, then said, “Why the hell do we need a compass? You can always depend on me for directions.”

Chuckling, I said, “I’m gonna have four pancakes, three eggs, bacon and hash browns,” as I unbuckled the seat belt and reached for the door handle.

An Old Ice Ax

1 Comments

Longs Peak, May 1971

With great caution we approached the narrow top-end of the steep permanent snowfield called The Dove. Four of us were roped in line—I was last. With each step on the crusty snow in the terrain alongside the main body of the field, Chuck, the lead climber, probed the surface in front of him with his long-handled ice ax to test the firmness and consistency of the snow pack. Finally, we reached the point where a sheer, smooth rock wall directly in front of us prevented further ascent on this side of the narrow tongue, so we would have to cross the icy upper tip.

The north chimney route that would take us to the 14,259-foot summit was on the other side of fifty feet of near vertical smooth ice stretching off to our left. This was the most dangerous part of the climb, and each of us knew it. Steep ice can be deceptive, especially on a day when bright sunlight is streaming down from a cloudless sky to warm the surface to a point at which it turns a little soft.We had been climbing up the boulder-strewn right-hand edge of the long snowfield for the last hour to gain 3500 feet in altitude. This brought us to about a thousand feet shy of our destination. We were determined to reach the summit early enough to make it back down before dark. Standing at the edge of the field, Chuck yelled over his shoulder. “I'm gonna cut steps. Be ready with your axes to stem a fall if anybody slips. Lean in a little, but not too much. We'll stay roped.”

But as Chuck started to hack the first foothold, I noticed a beat-up ice ax jammed into in a crack about seventy-five feet up the vertical rock face looming above us.

“Hey,” I called out. “Look at that ax up there. Someone must have gotten stuck. Probably didn't have any pitons and had to use his ax to anchor a rope to rappel down. It probably saved his life. Looks like it's been there a while. It'd make a great souvenir.”

“Yeah,” John, the guy roped in front of me, said. “But nobody would be dumb enough to try to retrieve it. Too dangerous a climb. Not that many handholds, and it’s just about sheer vertical,”.

“I've free-climbed worse than that. I’m gonna go up and get it.”

“Come on, man, don't be stupid,” John said. “Besides, we can't afford the time to wait for you. We gotta get to the summit.”

“You're right. I'll un-rope, climb up and get the ax, then catch up with you guys on the other side,” I said as I started to untie.

Chuck didn't like this departure from standard practice but was in no position to do anything about it. My three companions, still roped, spent the next 45 minutes slowly and carefully traversing the ice while I free-climbed the face. I was a half-decent climber, but still had to call on every bit of skill I had to make it all the way up. My closest call was balancing in a tenuous three-point position while I pulled the ax out of the crack with my free hand, an effort that almost resulted in me falling backwards off the one-inch rock nub on which my feet rested when the ax suddenly came free. But I held on and made it back down to where I had left my pack at the edge of the ice that I would now have to negotiate on my own. I strapped the ice ax I had been using before retrieving the old one from the rock face onto the side of my pack, hoisted the pack onto my back, and with the rescued ax in hand, prepared to rejoin the others.

By then the others were safely past the ice and inching along a narrow ledge leading to the chimney base when I called out that I was coming across. “I'll catch up at the chimney and follow you to the top.”

I took the first step onto the steep sheet of ice, gently placing my right boot into the foot hold that Chuck had cut earlier.  As I brought my left foot forward toward the next foothold, my full body weight now on the ice, the side of the first cut suddenly gave way and I shot downward like a launched rocket. I was essentially in feet-first free-fall. My pack had swung around and was raking the ice surface at high speed. Its keel-like effect prevented me from turning over into a position that would allow me to stab the sharp pick head of the old ax into the hard ice. I knew I had to stop before hitting the moraine at the bottom of the snow field over 3000 feet below. If I didn't I'd be pulverized instantly by the massive rock maze I’d enter at high speed.

My only chance of surviving would be to flip onto my side, or even better, my chest. I had to get into position to use the ax as a drag to slow down, or even stop if possible. At that high speed and angle I couldn't roll off my back, and I was gaining speed rapidly. Seconds passed like minutes. My brain was on auto-pilot, working hard to figure out how to do what I had to do. I didn't want to die. Especially like this. Another tragic but stupid mountain climbing accident. Then I sensed that the incline was beginning to level out just a little. Maybe enough to slow my slide so I could turn over. I tried harder, twisting violently to one side, then back to the other, rocking like a hobby horse, only sideways.

Finally, I made it over onto my left side and quickly swung the ax down as hard as I could. The pick head jabbed into the hard surface about three inches, the momentum and angle of my slide having added force to my downward thrust. I called up every bit of energy I could muster to hold the ax in position as it dug a narrow groove in the surface, throwing up a bright wake of air-born crystal ice glittering in the bright sunlight. I could tell at once that I was slowing. Only slightly at first, then gradually more as the seconds flew by. At last I came to a complete stop. I lay still where I had come to rest, unable to move. I was spent. After a few moments, I managed to raise my head and look around. I was shocked by what I saw. My boots were three feet from the moraine where big boulders and broken off hunks of jagged rock had been waiting.

My strength slowly returned. I stood up and carefully made my way to the edge of the snow field and looked up to where my companions should be. There they were, looking down at me, one with binoculars held up to his eyes. I waved. All three of them waved back. Then I remembered the weathered ice ax I still held onto and pulled it close to my chest. I held it there for a moment; the ax that had just saved its second life. Then I started the climb back up the mountain, determined to reach the summit with my climbing buddies.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Eleven

1 Comments

Bluefield, West Virginia, Sunday, 7:15 a.m.

“I hope it’s the old lady and her little brown girlfriend. I’d like to rip their heads off,” Klara said with a thick accent, the first words she’d spoken since arriving at the abandoned mine. Klara grabbed their weapons, handed an AR-15 to Nadya, and followed her through the door and along the side of the building to a six-foot-high stack of wooden crates. Concealed behind the stack, they had a clear view of the broad, empty lot all the way to the gate as well as the entrance to the elevator building.

Nadya scanned the area carefully, then said, “If there’s anybody out there, they’d probably try to get to the elevator. We’ll stay here for a while and see what happens.”

A little later, Klara edged closer to Nadya and said, “We’ve been here fifteen minutes. There’s nothing happening out there. If there is anyone here, and if they want to get to the elevator, they’re not gonna march down the middle of this lot. I’m gonna move over by the fence and see what’s going on there.”

Nadya watched as Klara darted across the empty space and take a position in front of a long equipment shed.

Staying close behind the flat-roofed sheds spaced along the fence line, Lena and Zula crept silently toward a high pile of gravel a hundred yards ahead of them, Suddenly Zeus turned back to where they had come from and growled. Zula spun around to look behind her and was propelled backwards by two quick shots that hit her in the chest. Lena dove for cover and tried to see where the shooter was. She saw a flash of camouflage uniform dart around the corner of one of the sheds. She crawled to where Zula lay in a pile of leaves and felt for her jugular vein. The pulse was strong. Then Zula opened her eyes and sputtered, “Damn. That hurt.”

Lena glanced at the two quarter-sized depressions in the vest and nodded. Yeah, I know what’s that like. You okay?”

“I’m good. At least we know we’ve got company. Did you see anyone?”

“A single shooter. Behind that shed over there,” Lena said, pointing.

“Should we send Zeus?”

“Too big a risk. Whoever it is would see him coming and shoot.”

Zula looked at the shed for a moment, then said, “I’ve grown to like flat roofs,” she said, then strapped her rifle across her back and dashed to the close end of the shed. Feeling a surge of power, she jumped up and grabbed the roof edge and pulled herself up. Keeping low, she crawled toward the far end.  

Lena answered when her phone vibrated—it was Rana. “We heard two shots. What’s happening?”

“We’re okay, thanks to Zula’s Kevlar vest. There’s a shooter over here. Zula’s going after him. I’ll stay put and see what happens. Anything where you are?”

“We’re behind a little tool shed. The elevator house is straight ahead, about thirty yards. There’s a stack of crates and a pickup truck between it and us. We’ll get to the truck and wait until we hear from you.”

When Nadya heard the two shots she realized they were from Klara’s Uzi—she knew that sound from experience. But she was concerned that Klara hadn’t returned yet and wondered what she should do. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of one of more people running fast on hard dirt. She rushed to the far edge of the stack of crates to catch a glimpse of someone ducking behind a red pickup about twenty yards away. “Shit,” she mumbled, and pointed her automatic rifle in that direction.

Crouched behind the northern end of the long equipment shed, Klara was listening for anyone who might be coming from the direction of the person she shot. “A clean kill”, she mumbled. “Now for the other one.” A fleeting image of Nadya telling her not to mumble to herself brought a rare smile to her thin, hard lips. Then she got onto her belly and elbowed her way to the corner and looked around. There was no one in sight. “I’ll go around the other way.” She ran to the front corner and peeked around. Again, no one. She slowly walked along the front of the shed toward the far end, her Uzi pointing ahead. Halfway there, she was suddenly crushed to the ground by a heavy weight landing on her shoulders. The gun flew out of her hands. With the reflexes of a trained martial arts expert, she twisted and turned with lightning speed to throw off whoever it was that dropped onto her from nowhere. An instant later, a cold-blooded Kazakhstani killer and the fearless daughter of a legendary Zulu warrior-chief faced each other across a narrow space of three feet, each intent on killing the other.

A flurry of movement and noise of a scuffle caught Nadya’s attention at the same time it did that of Rana and Jose. Nadya rushed back to the other edge of the stack of crates and aimed her rifle at the two women across the way but was unable to take a shot because of their moving around each other in a tight circle. At the same time, Jose signaled Jupiter to attack, assuming the woman they saw moving along the row of stacked-up crates with a gun would be distracted by the fight between Zula and her adversary. The gambit paid off—Nadya didn’t know what hit her. Before she could comprehend who or what it was, she was face down in the dirt with a growling monster’s jaws clutching the back of her neck. She hated dogs with a deep, black passion, ever since a neighbor’s rabid mastiff attacked her at the age of seven. “Get it off me,” she screamed.

Rana, automatic pistol in hand, called off Jupiter and said, “We meet again. This time on better terms. At least, for me.” She cuffed Nadya’s hands and feet, grabbed her by the coat collar and propped her up against the crates. “Who’s guarding the elevator?” Rana demanded.

“Screw you,” Nadya replied.

“Jupiter. Guard.” Rana said.

“Get him away from me,” Nadya screamed when Jupiter stepped between her stretched-out legs and bared his fangs in her face.

“The next command will be worse,” Rana said calmly.

“All right. Just take him away,” Nadya whimpered.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the lot, Zula and Klara were circling around each other in an age-old standoff between two combatants who knew they were facing a fight to the death, each one seeking an advantage. Then, before either one made a move, they heard a loud command and averted their eyes briefly enough to see Jose standing nearby. Pointing Klara’s Uzi at its previous owner, he yelled, “On the ground.”

“Thanks, brother,” Zula said. “You saved me a lot of trouble.”

Just then Lena ran out from behind the shed. When she saw Klara face down in the dirt, she gestured at the shed door and said, “Cuff her and take her in there.”

A few minutes later, Lena and the other three were huddled in the equipment shed. Nadya and Klara were trussed and gagged in a back corner. With information from interrogation of the two assassins, they were planning how to take control of the elevator away from Blacker and Hooper. Suddenly they heard the unmistakable wop-wop-wop sound of a helicopter in the distance. “Here they come,” Zula said, and they all knew who she meant—Captain Winters and his army ranger team. “Five minutes at most,” Zula added after listening at the open door of the shed.

While Lena and her family were battling the enemy above ground, Max was trying to control the growing unrest of the laboratory staff a hundred feet underground. He had propped open the doors so the elevator couldn’t respond to repeated signals for it to be brought back to the surface. He had no way of knowing who was making the requests or who they would face if they rode up with it. But he also realized that the trapped people were growing more desperate by the hour to escape, especially now that the program was apparently in shambles with Schlossman out of commission and Danforth and the two guards dead. On the other hand, what if it were Lena trying to retrieve the elevator? Lack of telephone communications made it impossible to know. He had to do something—they couldn’t stay where they were forever. With this dilemma in mind, he decided to carry out the plan he had been considering for the past hour.

“Dr. Mortenson, here’s what we’re going to do,’ Max said, waving her into an office and closing the door. After he explained the plan, he went into the elevator car and pushed open the ceiling hatch cover. Standing on a chair, he climbed up into the space above the car and replaced the cover. Then with the help of a colleague, Mortenson brought Schlossman from his office, forced him into the elevator and let the doors slide shut. By this point Schlossman was a shadow of his former self, trembling with fear and worry over what his boss would do about his leadership failure.

As soon as the doors closed, the elevator started its accent in response to the last UP command still stored in its computer. Forty seconds later, a single ring suddenly announced its arrival in the elevator building. Blacker and Hooper were shocked at the arrival and stared at the doors as they slid open. “Who are you?” Blacker said when he saw Schlossman cowering in a corner.

“Schlossman! What’s going on down below?” Hooper yelled. Blacker entered the car and coaxed the trembling director out and set him down in the only chair in the room. While Hooper and Blacker hovered around Schlossman, trying to calm him and get answers to their questions, Max silently removed the hatch cover and dropped onto the floor just as the doors began to slide shut. He stuck his hand between them and they reversed direction. When Blacker spun around to see what the noise was, Max sprung forward with a burst of energy.

Before Blacker could pull the pistol from the holster at his waist, in one smooth move Max slammed his fist into his face and grabbed the gun with his other hand. Hooper, already numbed by alcohol, was paralyzed with surprise. Schlossman passed out and fell to the floor. Before Blacker could recover, Max hit him two more times, causing him to collapse onto the floor where he lay unconsciousness.

In a state of enhanced power, Max heard the approaching helicopter. He pushed Hooper into the chair vacated by Schlossman and ripped off the drunk man’s belt and secured him in place. He then opened the door a crack and looked out. Seeing the coast clear, he stepped outside and surveyed the area.

Across the wide lot, Zula stood just inside the equipment shed door that was partially open. She was watching for the helicopter that was getting louder. Seeing movement next to the elevator building out of the corner of her eye, she glanced in that direction. “Dad!” she screamed. “It’s dad,” she yelled at the others. “Over here. Hurry,” she yelled at Max as he started across the lot to where he saw her standing by an open door. He entered the shed through the door Zula held open just wide enough for him to make it in. The helicopter came over the horizon as the door shut behind him.

Rana watched through a crack in the front wall as the aircraft touched down in the middle of the lot, about fifteen yards from the shed. After a minute or so, she said, “There’s five of them besides the pilot. They look like Army, and they’re armed to the teeth. One of them’s headed toward the elevator building. The others are staying near the chopper.

When Captain Winters entered the building, he was startled by the three men he found there. General Hooper was secured to a chair and smelled of liquor; a man he assumed was Blacker was sprawled unmoving on the floor, bleeding from a split lip and crushed nose; another man was lying on the floor mumbling incoherently. “What the hell’s going on?” Winter asked no one in particular.

“He’s a monster! You gotta kill him.” Hooper slurred. “He escaped from the lab, attacked us, then took off . . . ten minutes ago,” he managed to say.

“The old guy we captured in Mexico?”

“Yes.”

“Where are the guards? I didn’t see anyone out there,” Winter said.

“Don’t know. Didn’t answer our calls. Two mercenaries—women— went out— haven’t come back. Someone must have come to help Manus. Maybe the two women who escaped yesterday from where Blacker had them. You gotta take care of this mess.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Winters replied as he unbelted Hooper, then went out the door and ran to where his team waited. “Those guys in there are useless. They have no idea what’s going on, or who we’re up against. First, we’ll walk the perimeter. Joe, you and Terry take that side,” he said, nodding to his left. “We’ll take this side. Start at the gate.”

Rana watched the five men go to the gate, divide into two groups, then start down the fence lines. When she described this to the others, Lena said, “What do you suggest, Max?”

“I’ll leave that to you, Liebchen. I’ve been holed up underground and have no idea what the layout is up here. But there’s something very fishy about this whole setup. Schlossman, the guy who was in charge down there, is a sleazy bastard. The lab was run like a prison, and most of the science was second-rate at best. If the drunk old guy I found up top by the elevator is part of this program, that explains a lot. He must be the one Schlossman referred to as The General.”

“Blacker’s definitely off-the-books,” Lena added.

“For sure.” Zula said, “and this special ops team seems off-the-books, too. I bet they’re taking illegal orders from Hooper. The army wouldn’t be using war tactics on a civilian science project. Even a phony one. This whole operation stinks, if you ask me,”.

“Be that as it may, there’s five highly trained killers out there who wouldn’t hesitate a second to blow all of us away. So we better think up a plan, and do it quick,” Lena said.

“We better do something real fast because there’s a good chance those guys will find the three guards we left out there, then we’d be up against eight, not five, Jose said.

“We gotta draw them away from the perimeter. That’s where we left the guards,” Rana said.

“That’ll be easy. I’ll sneak out there, pull out the pilot and blow up the chopper. That should get their attention,” Zula volunteered.

“Then what?” Jose asked.

“We’ll rely on what’s worked in the past,” Max said. “Our superpower and two successful tactics—divide and conquer and strike fast and forcefully.”

‘So, what’s the plan?” Jose asked.

“How about this?” Lena said. “We split them into separate groups of two or three, then ambush them or take them down one at a time.”

“How can we split them up?” Rana asked.

Zula jumped in. “If I blow the chopper, they’ll probably all come running to see what happened. When they do, some of us can be positioned in different locations. When they spot us probably divide up and come after each one of us. The rest of us can be waiting in ambush for us to lead the targets to them. The dogs can help, too.”

“These guys have Kevlar jackets, so we’ll have to take them down with shots in their legs.”

“That’s better, anyway. We don’t want the army after us for murder. Inflicting wounds in self-defense will be easier to justify.” After a moment of silence, Lena added, “Any better ideas?” No one said anything. “All right then. This is the plan. Rana, let’s look at that layout of this place again.”

 

Five minutes later, Max and his family were strategically positioned in three directions from the helicopter. While they waited, Zula crept up on the helicopter from behind, yanked open the pilot’s door and pulled him out. With a pistol in his face, she tossed in a delay-activation grenade, then ran him back to the shed. After she cuffed and gagged him, she tied him to a support post with the other captives. The explosion went off as she stepped out of sight around the corner of the shed to wait for the soldiers to return.

When Captain Winters heard the explosion, he looked in the direction of the helicopter and saw a giant fireball erupt with billowing black smoke rising behind. “The chopper,” he screamed. “Come on!” he commanded, as he raced forward with his two men running next to him. Lieutenant Arnold and Sergeant Felix, along the fence on the opposite side of the property, heard Winters’ command and rushed to join their comrades. When they all got to the open lot they stopped short of getting closer to the fiery inferno and stood paralyzed with rage.

 “The pilot,” Felix screamed. No one responded.

Then there was a sudden flurry of movement, a flash at the corner of a long shed near the burning helicopter, a man next to a small building near a pile of wooden crates, and a quick movement near a line of huge dirt haulers.

“Captain! Did you see that?” Arnold yelled, pointing at the dirt haulers.

“There was someone by that shed over there, too,” Felix said.

“By that little building, too,” someone added.

“I saw it. We’re gonna take out these bastards,” Winters said as he checked his automatic rifle. “Arnold, you and Felix take that shed. You two, that little building down there. I’ll take the trucks. Let’s go. No prisoners, either.”

 

Suffice to say, Max and Lena’s plan worked as smoothly as a Swiss clock, exactly the kind of operation they were used to carrying out. Assess the situation, formulate a plan, execute it with absolute precision and competence, then savor the results. Of course, it never hurts to be able to conger up a touch of superpower when you need it.

Two hours later, Max and Lena were sharing coffee in the plush cabin of an Air Force transport plane with General Phillip Saunders. Saunders was head of a top-secret Army Defense unit focused on nontraditional weapons research. It was the only military group that was aware of Max’s superpower discoveries, at least officially. Hooper, Blacker and Schlossman were in custody, although specific charges had not been formulated yet, and for national security reasons, might never be. Irrespective of troublesome legalities, their futures were not all that rosy. The research staff had been liberated, and after appropriate debriefing and security arrangements, would no doubt be allowed to return to some version of their former lives. The captured and wounded combatants had been recovered and dealt with, and treatment of nonfatal wounds to Zula, Jose, and Zeus had been given high priority. All in all, Max and Lena were satisfied with the outcome of this rescue action and anxious to put it behind them. As soon as Max made his report to the President, they would be on their way to their home in Southeast Portland and to the peaceful life they craved. Lena to her rose garden, her book club and knitting projects, and to a new-found interest in painting. Max to his basement lab, his music, especially the piano lessons he planned to take, and, finally, to achieving fourth-degree black belt in Jiu Jitsu. Life was looking up now that no evil entities were seeking his secret superpower.

But, while our intrepid superheroes were enjoying their coffee 40,000 feet above the earth, two inconspicuous men were hunched over a small table in a dark corner of a working men’s tavern in the Black Sea port city of Burgas, Bulgaria. They were hatching a plot that would change Max and Lena’s naive plans in a way they never could have imagined, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted. 

 
 

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Ten

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 9:30 pm.

When Blacker checked the caller ID on his ringing phone he saw it was The General. “Damn! I don’t want to talk to him now. Gotta figure out what’s going on first,” he muttered to his companion, Jake, as he let the call go to voice mail.

“The old lady’s friend has stabs in her legs. Maybe they went to a hospital,” Jake said.

“Yeah maybe. But where, and which one? We need help if we’re gonna find them,” Blacker said. “I’ll call Nadya.”

“You again?” Nadya answered. “Now what?”

“The two women you captured have escaped. One of them’s wounded, probably went to a hospital. I need you to help find them. Fast.”

“It’ll cost you.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get paid.”

“Where are you? Where were they?” Nadya asked.

“The warehouse in Philly.”

“Who’d you have guarding them? Girl scouts?”

 “Maybe they had help. I don’t know.  I’ll check the hospitals in this area. You canvass the ones around the Indian woman’s condo. Do it in person since you’ll have to show phony ID to convince them you’re official.”

“We’ll get on it tomorrow.”

“I need to find them tonight. Do it now.”

“This is really gonna cost you.”

“Just do it!”

 

En route from Washington, D.C. to Aberdeen Proving Grounds: Saturday, 11:45 pm.

 

Lena answered on the first ring. “Find anything?

“Yeah. Hang on to your hat. The person Blacker’s been calling is an Army three-star general named Herbert Hooper. It’s a supposedly secure cell phone. Fortunately for you, not upgraded to protect against the latest hacking and tracing programs.”

“Did you get an address?”

 “He lives near Reston. I’ll text it to you. One more thing. I was able to set up monitoring of his calls. You’ll get a ping when he’s on. Thought that would help.”

“That’s great. I owe you for this.”

“I’m not keeping score. I owe you for a lot, too.”

After she ended the call, Lena said to Zula, “After we check on Rana and Jose, we’re gonna pay a visit to General Hooper.”

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Sunday, 12:10 am.

 

After visiting nine hospitals in the vicinity of the warehouse, Blacker was convinced Lena had not taken Rana in for treatment of the stab wounds anywhere in that area. In the parking lot of the last one, he called General Hooper, worried about what he had to tell him. His call was answered immediately.

“Did you find her?”

“Not yet. But we will, sir. I’ve checked the hospitals around here. Nadya said they aren’t at any of the hospitals around where she and Klara captured them, either. The guy watching the condo says they haven’t gone there.”

“I don’t like this, Blacker.” Hooper’s voice revealed worry rather than anger. “I think you’ve underestimated this woman. We don’t know if she has backup, or why her friend is with her. She’s a lieutenant in an army intelligence unit at Aberdeen. Maybe she’s an analyst or something . . . but you never know . . . although she’s probably not a threat to us. Another thing. I can’t get through to Schlossman. He’s my contact at the mine. Two of the guards went down to investigate and haven’t come back up. And they don’t answer calls. There’s still two guards up top, one at the gate, the other at the elevator. Something’s going on. I want you and your men to go to the mine now. I’ll join you in the morning. Bring Nadya and her crazy partner, too. We need to be prepared for anything. Captain Winters should get there with a four-man special ops team about six hours from now. Around six or seven in the morning.”

Relieved that The General didn’t explode in anger, Blacker calmed himself and said, “I’ve only got one man left, sir. But with those spec ops, and Nadya and Klara, we should be able to handle whatever comes up. We’ll head there now. But, sir. I need to know where it is. All I know is that it’s in West Virginia.”

“It’s an abandoned coal mine near Bluefield. The Hankerman mine, at the end of Hankerman Road, seven miles northwest of the Bluefield airfield. The elevator passcode is AI2020.”

When Blacker and Hooper ended their supposedly secure call, Lena put her phone away and said to Zula, “There’re right about one thing. They’ve underestimated us. Although I do believe we have a challenge ahead of us. If we go to Bluefield directly from the hospital where Rana and Jose are, we should be able to get to the mine by eight am or so. From what Hooper said, we’ll have quite a reception committee to deal with.

 

Aberdeen Proving Grounds Hospital: Sunday, 12:45 am

 

“Are you sure you’re up to getting out of here?” Lena asked as Rana changed from a hospital gown into her fatigues.

“Yes, mom. I’m stitched up, loaded with antibiotics and pain killers and bored as hell. Jose only had a flesh wound. No serious damage. He’s ready, too.”

“Then we’re going to West Virginia. Thanks to a General Hooper, we’re gonna have a mine party.”

“What are you talking about, mother?”

“I’ll explain on the way. It’s at least a seven-hour drive, so we’ll have plenty of time to make a plan. Zula’s waiting out front with an Army van and enough weapons to ensure our party will be a roaring success. Let’s find Jose and get going.”

“Did you retrieve my bag of tricks from the SUV we came here in?”

“Of course I did. I know how much you like your gadgets—and how useful they can be.”

 

Bluefield, West Virginia: Sunday, 6:40 am.

 

Jose pulled the van into the tree-shaded parking lot of a boarded-up Dairy Queen near the tiny Bluefield airport and cut the engine. “Wake up. We’re here. The coffee’s hot and the donuts are fresh.”

Lena opened her eyes at once, noted the time, stretched her long, muscular arms, and said, “Good work Jose. Zula and I needed the sleep. Looks like Rana got some, too.” Rana and Zula awoke almost as quickly as Lena did, and both were instantly alert, looking around and assessing where they were.

“I’m gonna take care of the dogs while you ladies devour that Dunkin Donuts gourmet breakfast,” Jose said. He got out of the van and opened the rear door to let Jupiter and Zeus leap out. A few minutes later, they returned from the woods that encroached onto the parking lot to find pans of water and food, which they attacked with impressive zest.

“Where’d you get all that?” Lena asked, nodding at the pans.

When Jose turned he saw Lena standing by the van’s side door, watching the dogs scarf down their meal.

“You were all asleep when I stopped at a Walmart on the edge of town. I figured you and Zula wouldn’t have had a chance to feed these guys in the commotion of yesterday. They need to be in top condition today.”

“We all do, don’t we? Speaking of which, let’s get on with it.”

Zula took the wheel and proceeded along Hankerman Road. She slowed a quarter mile before where Rana’s GPS indicated the road ended at the fifteen-acre mine site and pulled into a secluded clearing in the woods bordering the blacktop approach to their destination.

“Jose. Go through the woods to where you can see the gate. Find out how many guards there are,” Lena said, studying the layout of the site on Rana’s laptop. “The entrance to the shaft access elevator is a several hundred yards beyond the gate. There are seven buildings of varying sizes spread around the property between the gate and the elevator building. According to what we learned from Hooper’s call with Blacker, there’s gonna be at least twelve people to deal with. They’ll probably be dispersed in strategic positions between the gate and the elevator, so we have to clear them away one-by-one. And once we get through these, we gotta get Max out of the mine. One of Rana’s devices should be able to trigger what’sprobably passcode-protected access to the only way down to or out of where Max is being held.

Five minutes later, Rana’s phone buzzed, and Jose whispered, “Three men on the inside at the gate, decked out in full battle gear and heavily armed. The gate looks to be ten feet high and reinforced with thick metal crosspieces. A ten-foot-high fence goes off in both directions. There’s concrete blocks scattered in front of the gate to slow approaching vehicles. A small cinder block building next to the gate has a satellite dish and a bunch of antennas. Looks like a communication or surveillance post. This place is tight as a drum.”

When Jose rejoined the women, Lena said, “The gate’s out. We’ll have to breach the fence. We’ll split up and go in from opposite directions. That’ll divide their forces when they detect us. I’m guessing they’ve installed cameras around the grounds. If there’s twelve of them, the odds are three-to-one against us, so we’ll have to rely on Max’s superpower surging when the need arises—and the dogs. It’s worked before, it should again.”

“How should we split up?” Rana asked.

“You and Jose follow the fence line to the right. Take one of the dogs. Keep to the woods until you find a good spot to cut through with the bolt cutter. Zula and I will go the other way,” Lena said.

“We’ll take Jupiter. Zeus has developed a strong attachment to Zula,” Jose added as Zula passed out the Kevlar vests she included with the weapons she appropriated from the base when she “borrowed” the van.

“We’ll keep in constant communication with the walkie-talkies. And remember what Max always says in situations like this—strike fast and forcefully, no half-measures. But also keep in mind what I say as a mother—be careful.”

“If we can, we’ll try to take out the surveillance system. But we’d have to distract the gate guards to get to that communication post, Rana said.”

“We’ll see what we can do once we’re in position,” Lena said. “All right, let’s go.”

Ten minutes later, Rana spoke into the mike clipped to her vest,” We’re still outside, but in a good spot. There’s a little grove of pines on the other side, then a line of parked dirt-hauler trucks.”

“Okay. Stay there. There’s a place up ahead where Zula and I can cut through. Give us a few minutes,” Lena responded, then followed Zula along the tree line toward a spot opposite the backside of a flat-roofed shed of some kind, about 20 x 30 feet in size.

A couple of minutes later, hiding behind a dense bush about twenty feet from the fence, Lena whispered into her mike. “We’re ready. We’ll go in first. They’re probably monitoring this fence, so they’ll know when we cut it. Be ready for anything—let’s do it!”

“Mom. Hold on a second,” Rana said. “We can see the front gate from where we are. Let’s see if one or two of the guards go to check it out when you cut through. That would give Jose and me a better chance to get in and take out the surveillance system. We’ll wait to go in until we see what happens.”

“Good idea.” Lena said, nodding at Zula, who was ready with a bolt cutter. 

 

When they heard a buzzer go off, one of the men guarding the gate, the ex-special ops soldier, Jake, who worked for Blacker, ran into the control shack to check the screens. “There’s a fence breach in sector three,” he yelled. “Harlan, you and Buzz check it out. Go!”

 

Zula squeezed through the six-foot cut in the chain link, ran to the back of the shed, jumped high enough to grab the roof edge, pulled herself up, and scrambled onto the flat surface where she lay prone, close enough to the edge to see the fence. At the same time, Lena and Zeus squeezed through the cut and hid behind a row of 50-gallon barrels next to the shed. Just as Lena got there, she heard Rana’s voice in her ear bud. “Two guards are running toward a shed on the far side of the property. Must be where you and Zula are. We’re gonna go in now and take out the other gate guard and the control center.”

“Okay.” Lena replied, but said no more since at that moment two armed men ran up to where the fence was cut, stood for a second looking around, then separated, edging off in different directions. One walked slowly toward the barrels and the other one went toward the far corner of the shed, both holding automatic rifles at the ready.

Lena saw Zula’s head at the edge of the roof, pointed at the man directly under her and mouthed “now.”

When Zula dropped onto the guard below her, Lena sent Zeus off to the side from behind the barrels. When the Guard heading in her direction turned his head to follow the blur of Zeus speeding away, Lena sprang over a barrel and landed beside him, yelling “Zeus, gun!” At the same time, she deflected the gun with one hand and slammed the other fist into the man’s throat as Zeus clamped his jaws onto his gun arm and shook it so violently the weapon flew out of the man’s hands. When Lena kicked his legs out from under him, the choking and confused guard fell to the ground gasping for air. With practiced speed, and while Zeus stood over him, Lena cuffed the man’s hands and feet, then gagged him.

Meanwhile, the surprise of her attack from above allowed Zula to overpower her target with dispatch, and she drove him to the ground. He twisted around to shake her off his back, but her tenacious chokehold quickly made him black out. As soon as he was trussed and gagged like his partner, and their weapons were tossed over the fence into the underbrush, Lena called Rana.

“Two down. Where are you?”

“We’re still outside. We’ll cut the fence now. Can you get into a position to see the gate guard?”

“Give us half a minute. We’re gonna put these two in this shed out of sight. Don’t want them found by anybody too soon. I’ll ping you when we’re done.”

When Rana’s phone pinged three minutes later, she and Jose cut through the fence and crept to a line of dirt-haulers. Jupiter followed close behind them.

When the security alarm went off again, Jake ran into the hut to check the screens and was shocked to discover another fence breach. He ran out and looked around, then called Blacker, who was still in the building where the elevator was housed. General Hooper and the two assassins, Nadya and Klara, were with him. “We’ve got a problem. The fence was breached in two places. Harlan and Buzz are checking on one spot. I’ll check the one that happened just now.”

“General Hooper saw concern spread over Blacker’s face as he listened to the guard. “What’s going on?” Hooper asked when Blacker ended the call.

“The fence was breached. But our guys will handle it. Don’t worry,” Blacker said. “I’ll stay in contact with Jake.”

Hooper took a flask out of his jacket pocket and took a long pull.

 

Meanwhile, Rana and Jose slipped around to the rear of one of the dirt-haulers and watched Jake walk past, his eyes fixed on the fence where they cut through. “Attack,” Jose commanded. Jupiter charged forward like a silent missile and sank his fangs into the back of Jake’s knee, taking him to the ground instantly. Jake screamed and tried to kick the vicious dog away. Before Jake could, Jupiter released his jaws from the ripped-open leg and latched on to the arm that held his rifle, biting through flesh to bone. Jake’s screams were interrupted by a blow to the back of his head with the butt of the automatic rifle Jose held ready to hit him with again if necessary. But it wasn’t, Jake was out cold.

From their hiding place on the other side of the lot, Lena and Zula had a clear view of the gate and saw no other guards in sight. Lena was puzzled by the absence of more men. “If my count’s right, there should be five more. Why aren’t some of them at the gate?”

“Your count’s right, Mom. Could it be that the backup team of army guys hasn’t arrived yet?” Zula asked.

Lena nodded, then called Rana. “Do you see any more guards? We don’t.”

“No. The place looks deserted. Should we make our way to the building where the elevator is?” Rana asked, checking a sketch of the layout.

“That’s probably where the others are, or else down in the mine. Only one way to find out. But before we go down that path, you and Jose hide the guy you disabled, then take out the security system. If our suspicion is right, it’s in the gate house. We don’t want to be seen on any screens around this place.

Five minutes later, Rana informed Lena they’d deactivated the gate house computer and control system, then, “We’re ready,” she said.

“Follow the fence line until you’re even with the elevator house, then wait for my call. Zula and I will proceed along this side, past the elevator building and approach it from behind. Let’s go.”

 

Meanwhile, in the elevator building, Blacker and Hooper were growing more concerned over not being able to reach their men. They were also troubled by the fact that Captain Winters and his team had been delayed getting away from Fort Dix and wouldn’t arrive at the mine site for another hour. “We have to know what’s going on,” Hooper said, pacing around the little windowless room, taking frequent swigs from his flask. “The elevator won’t respond and there’s no reply from the two guards who went down there to check on Schlossman. I can’t get through to him, either. And nothing from the three men who were guarding the gate. Why the hell aren’t there security monitors in here? We don’t even know who’s out there. Or who the enemy is. Blacker . . . you have find out what’s happening.”

Blacker was astonished by Hooper’s unhinged yammering. The old man was losing control right in front of him and sounded nothing like the person he’d been interacting with by phone for the past three years. But Hooper was correct about one thing—they needed to know what was happening. Blacker turned to Nadya, who was watching Hooper with obvious alarm as he repeatedly punched in a passcode then pushed the elevator UP button, paced around the room as if seeking a way out, and sporadically screamed at Blacker. “Nadya, you and Klara get out there and see what you can find out. If it’s the two women who got away from the warehouse, take care of them,” Blacker commanded.

“Are you crazy? There could be a whole army platoon storming this place. This old guy’s off his rocker, and you have no idea what we’re into.”

Blacker pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Nadya. “You and superwoman,” waving the gun at Klara, “are on the clock. We’re not paying you to be afraid. Get going.”

Provoked by Blacker’s accusation of cowardice, and with deference to the pistol he held, Nadya opened the door a crack and peered out. “It looks clear. Come on, Klara, let’s take out these bastards, whoever they are.”

 

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Nine

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 9:25 pm.

When the sedan pulled up to the loading dock behind the derelict auto store, Blacker jumped out, glanced around, then screamed, “Where’s the Suburban?” When he saw two bodies sprawled near the SUV he assumed belonged to the backup guys he asked The General to send, he realized he’d lost this round. “Check inside,” he yelled to the man getting out of the sedan, although he knew there would be nothing to find other than his dead commandos.

He took out his phone. “Sir, There’s a slight change in the situation here in Philadelphia.”

“Are you back with the Manus woman yet? Got your finger fixed?—what do you mean a slight change?—what’s going on?” With a shaking hand, The General poured more Scotch and waited for Blacker’s answer.

“. . . I’ll get back to you as soon as I know, Sir.” Before The General could answer, Blacker ended the call and rushed into the building to find his companion. “What?” he said when he almost bumped into the commando standing next to a body on the floor.

“Only two of our guys here. One in there was shot between the eyes,” he said, pointing through the arch way. “This one’s throat’s torn open, and his arm’s shredded. Never seen anything like it. The two women are gone. They must have taken Garth with them.”

“How’d they do this?” Blacker bellowed. “What the hell kinda animal is she?”           

Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland: Saturday, 10:05 pm.

After Lena’s call the base hospital expected Rana and Jose, and the on-duty surgeon, Captain Hamilton, met them at the ER admitting desk. “Take Lieutenant Nair to OR three. This man,” gesturing toJosé, “to four,” he instructed the orderlies waiting with gurneys.

Back in the Suburban, Lena said to Zula, who was behind the wheel, “I need to ask our friend in the back some questions. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”

“Okay. Where to?” Zula asked.

Lena scanned the parking lot, then said, “Park at the far end, under that big tree. It’s dark and there’s no other cars around.”

When Zula opened the hatch door a few moments later, the man scrunched up in the cargo space opened his eyes and tried to say something through the rag stuffed in his mouth. His hands were cuffed behind him and his feet were tied together. Lena ripped the rag away and slapped him across the face. “Are you awake enough to talk?” she asked, then leaned in next to him.

‘My knee! I can’t stand it. I need a doctor,” he blurted out.

Lena smiled, then slammed her fist down onto his knee. He screamed and tried to pull away, but there was no place to go. When he frantically looked around, he saw the big heads of the two dogs staring at him over the rear seat. Their black eyes followed every move he made, and low, throaty growls told him they meant business.

“That hurt, didn’t it,” Lena said, drawing his attention away from the dogs and back to her. “But it’s only a taste of how it’ll be if you don’t answer my questions. Understand?”

“I don’t know anything. I was just doing my job,” he blubbered, his face contorted with pain.

“Just doing your job when you stabbed my friend in her legs? You enjoyed it, didn’t you. I could tell. That made me angry. You know, the kind of anger that rules out mercy, or compassion. Know what I mean?”

Panic and fear darkened the man’s face. “I was just following orders. I had to do what Blacker told me to do. Please . . . believe me . . . I don’t know anything.”

“Zula. Get the man’s knife. It’s in that bag on the back seat,” Lena yelled at Zula where she stood off to the side trying to ignore Lena’s interrogation. She knew what her mother was capable of.

Lena held the serrated knife edge a few inches from the man’s face. “Who’s Blacker working for?”

“How would I know?”

Like a streak of lightning, the knife flashed close to the man’s cheek and sheared off his ear. He screamed louder than before and shook his head back and forth, slinging blood over everything around him.

“Shut up and listen,” Lena yelled, ignoring the spatters on her face. “I want answers, not bullshit. Next, it’ll be the other ear, then your nose, then your lips, then eyes. Nod your head if you understand.”

The man nodded vigorously, whimpering and moaning at the same time.

“Let’s try again,” she said, and held the knife up to his face. “Who’s he working for?”

“He talks to him on the phone. Calls him ‘The General.’ That’s all I know.” He spoke so fast his words ran together.

“Where do they have Max?” Lena shifted the knife, ready to slice off his other ear.

The man’s gaze followed the bloody blade, and with a trembling voice he said, “I heard Blacker say something about a mine in West Virginia. But I don’t know where it is. He never said.”

“What do they want Max for?”

“Some kind of top-secret project. I think The General’s in charge. Blacker just does what The General tells him to do. Hires guys like me to do the dirty work.”

“Where can I find The General?”

“Blacker said he’s at the Pentagon. But I don’t know where he lives. I’ve never there. Don’t think Blacker has either.”

Lena turned to Zula and said, “We’re not gonna get anymore from this guy.”

“We can’t let him go free. He’d warn Blacker about us,” Zula said.

“We’ll figure that out later.” Ignoring his anguished plea to be let go and the bleeding wound on the side of his head, Lena stuffed the rag back in the man’s mouth, slammed the hatch door shut and said, “Let’s check out Blacker’s office.

Washington, D.C.: Saturday, 11:35 pm.

Zula pulled the Suburban into the parking garage across from the ten-story office building where Blacker had his office and nosed into a spot with a unobstructed view of the front entrance. The street was quiet, no one was going in or coming out of the building, and most of the windows were dark.

“Let’s go. “Lena said.

The glass door opened to a modest lobby with a security desk next to a bank of three elevators. A sleepy, uniformed, older man opened his eyes when the two women entered. “This building’s restricted outside of business hours,” he said. “Are you on the access list?”

“We’re with Blacker Consulting,” Zula said, as she and Lena stepped into the elevator car that opened up after she pushed the UP button.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I ‘gotta check.”

“We need to pick up some files. We’ll be right down,” Lena said as Zula pressed the third-floor button.

“Hey. Wait a minute,” he yelled, as the elevator door closed. “These damn people. Think they don’t have to observe the rules,” he mumbled.

Standing in front of the door to Blacker’s office suite, Lena took his finger out of her pocket, wiped the dirt from the parts store’s floor off, and handed it to Zula. “Give it a try.”

Zula pressed the finger against the security pad and the door lock buzzed. She pushed the door open, stepped inside, reached up and twisted the ceiling-mounted camera off its base, and led Lena to Blacker’s office. The door was locked and there was no security code pad, just a keylock.

“I’ll try to pick it,” Zula said, as she inserted her pick tool. When she couldn’t get it to work, she tried another probe, then another, each time without success. “Damn! Must be super secure.”

“Get outta the way!” Lena yelled.

Zula looked behind her to see Lena shoving the secretary’s desk toward Blacker’s office door as if it were a battering ram intended to break down a palace gate. When the door splintered, the two women rushed through and began searching every drawer, cabinet and crevice. Although they found nothing about a mine, a locked desk drawer they forced open yielded a high-security cell phone. There were only two numbers in the phone’s memory.

“One of these could be the general who Blacker takes his orders from,” Lena said. “My friend at the agency should be able to get a fix on who and where he is.” Lena took out her phone, punched in a code, waited a moment, read off the numbers, said a few words, then ended the call. “He’ll let me know as soon as he has something. Let’s get out of here before that security guard gets suspicious.” On their way out of Blacker’s offices, Zula took the disc out of the computer that recorded the security camera images. “In case the camera caught us before I disabled it,” she said, when Lena gave her a questioning look.

Lena’s phone buzzed as Zula pulled the Suburban out of the parking garage exit into a nearly empty street. “Find anything?” she asked, after glancing at the caller ID and answering. Lena listened for a few moments, ended the call and said, “One of the numbers is for an army general. Amos Borgward, lives near Reston, Virginia,” She gave Zula the address. “The other is for a Nadya Kaliyev in Trenton, New Jersey. Maybe she’s one of the women who nabbed Rana and me yesterday. First, we’ll see what the general has to say. We’ll settle with Nadya later.

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:40 pm.

After Danforth, whose elbow Max had nearly torn out of its joint, left the room where the staff had gathered at Max’s request, Max explained to the disconcerted group why he was acting as he was. “This project has the markings of a top-secret program run by a rogue individual, or group, intended to convert special operations soldiers into AI-enhanced automatons designed for programed warfare. The regular pentagon wouldn’t sponsor anything like this. Schlossman must be taking his orders from a powerful puppet master who, if whoever it is follows the typical playbook for an operation like this, won’t allow any of us to survive after achieving success. Too much at stake to risk us revealing what we’ve done, which would be against an unimaginable array of laws, policies and international agreements and guidelines, not to mention basic morality.”

“How do we know what you say is true?” someone yelled.

“Think about it. The secrecy, isolation, confinement, remoteness, absolute control, restrictions on revealing to each other details of what you’re doing. All of this is far beyond usual practice. Being down here is a death sentence. And I’m not ready to die yet.”

“If all this is true, what can we do? There’s no way out. Only Schlossman can call down the elevator, and if he’s controlled by someone like you describe, he wouldn’t let us get away,” Dr. Mortenson said.

“Then we’ll just have to—”

Before Max could finish his sentence two things happened simultaneously. The elevator alarm announced its arrival, and Danforth entered the room with a pistol pointed at Max.

“Come with me, Manus,” Danforth shouted, waving the gun toward the open door to the hall, seemingly unconcerned about the elevator alarm.At that same moment, two uniformed guards ran into the room, both holding semiautomatic rifles pointed at the frightened onlookers. Danforth, still holding the pistol, turned toward the closest soldier.The soldier saw Danforth’s pistol aimed in his direction and fired several rounds. Danforth catapulted backwards onto a conference table then to the floor. Blood gushed from an arc of holes across his chest.  

In the resulting pandemonium and confusion, Max exploded with a burst of furious energy. In one smooth, perfectly choreographed leap he kicked the M16 out of the nervous hands of the shooter and rammed the palm of his left hand under the man’s chin as he passed by. The guard’s head snapped back with a loud crack and he dropped to the floor. In a continuing fluid motion, Max landed upright at the side of the second mercenary. He grabbed the gun by its barrel and ripped it out of the man’s tight grip. Like a tornado, he twisted around in a half-circle and smashed the heavy weapon into the side of the doomed man’s head before he even had a chance to comprehend what was happening. The second commando joined his companion on the floor, by then awash with Danforth’s blood. At that point, twelve seconds had elapsed since Danforth’s return.

“Someone grab the elevator. Before it shuts down,” Max screamed.

Dr. Mortenson dashed out of the room and down the hall to the elevator and stuck her arm between its two closing doors just in time. “Got it! Come on. Now’s our chance to get out of here,” she yelled.

Schlossman came running down the hall toward the staff members where they crowded in front of the elevator as it filled to capacity. “Let me on,” he cried out.

Max, who was directing the loading of the eight-person-limit car, said, “Schlossman. Go back to your office!”

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Schlossman screamed as he tried to push his way through the group.

When he attempted to squeeze past one of the younger women, Harriet Fleming, the analytical chemistry technician, grabbed him by the lapel of his lab coat and flung him to the rear. “Take your turn, Schlossman. You can’t tell anyone what to do anymore.”

Max caught Schlossman as he reeled backwards from Fleming’s rough toss, gave him a gentle push along the hall, and said, “You’ll be the last one out of here. And I don’t think you’ll like what’ll be waiting up top for you, either.” Max watched as Schlossman disappeared into his office at the far end of the hall.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Eight

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6:25 pm.

 

Blacker sat in the passenger seat of a sedan speeding south on I-95 holding a piece of cut-off shirttail over what was left of his right index finger. “We’ll take an exit in about twelve miles. Left at the first intersection.,” he said, then awkwardly auto-dialed The General.

“Is he gonna cooperate?” The General said before Blacker could reply, then continued, “Where are you? Sounds like you’re in a car.”

“No progress yet, but we’re working on it. They’re playing tough, but we’ll get tougher. First, I gotta take care of my finger. She bit it off and I’m on the way to a hospital.”

“What? What the hell’s going on? The old woman bit off your finger?”

“I’ll fill you in later. Right now, send a couple more guys over there. I left three, but we better play it safe. I’ll get back as soon as I can. We’re at the hospital now. I gotta go.” Blacker said with The General sputtering obscenities at the other end. He jumped out of the car as the driver pulled up to the ER entrance.

 

Undisclosed location, Northern Virginia: Saturday, 6:30 pm.

 

The General placed a call as soon as the one with Blacker ended. “We got a problem. Blacker screwed up again. Send a couple of your men to the Philadelphia location as backup. Blacker and another guy had to leave for a while.”

He was silent a moment, then answered, “The old woman bit him. He’s on his way to a hospital. When can your guys get there?” A second later he said, “All right, if that’s the best you can do.”

Then he called Blacker. “Backup will be there in two hours. Keep me informed.” He ended the call, opened a desk drawer, took out a bottle of single malt and poured two fingers worth. “Son of a bitch . . .” he sighed, as he lifted the glass to his mouth.

 

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:30 pm.

 

It took every bit of will power Max could muster to restrain himself from attacking Schlossman when he heard Rana’s scream before the line went dead. Instead, he stared intently at Schlossman and said nothing. His thoughts were running through possible scenarios that might be playing out where Lena and Rana were captive. The best option was that Zula would rescue them. Then he remembered that José was planning to visit Rana when he left L.A. Both were proficient in superpower transformation, and he knew they would be impossible to stop if they had a chance to save the two women. His thoughts brought him to the only conclusion that made sense—Lena and Rana would be rescued, and his family would come for him. Together, they would take down this evil enterprise and whoever was running it. But he still couldn’t get Rana’s scream out of his mind, and hoped Zula acted soon.

“You look worried, Dr. Manus. Your wife and her friend, whoever she is, are obviously in a difficult position. Wouldn’t it be better for them, and you, if you cooperate with us? Why subject them to more pain when you can prevent it so easily?” Schlossman said, when he got over initial shock from the intensity of Max’s stare after the call.

Max stood and glared down at Schlossman sitting behind his gigantic desk, as if he were protected by its enormity. “It’s you who should be worried, Schlossman. Not me . . .. You have no idea what you’re up against. But you’ll find out soon enough.” He kicked the chair away, grabbed the cord of the secure telephone Schlossman used for their call with Lena and ripped it out the wall jack, then left the office, not bothering to pick up the overturned chair or close the door behind him.

“What are you doing?” Schlossman screamed, as Max disappeared down the hall. “Where are you going?” There was no answer, only silence.

 

“Dr. Mortensen, gather the staff and meet me in the cafeteria in ten minutes. But not Schlossman,” Max said, when he entered Mortensen’s lab.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“A return to sanity, that’s what’s going on,” Max answered.

“Gerhardt would never permit something like this. Why shouldn’t he be part of whatever you’re doing”?

“Dr. Schlossman’s no longer in charge,” Max said. The calm and strength in his voice was undeniable . . . and compelling.

“Who is?” she asked.

“I am.”

“What about Gerhardt?”

“The last time I saw him he was cowering behind his desk raving at the injustice of it all. Is that who you want as your leader?”

Mortensen looked at Max for a long moment, then said, “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6:30 pm.

 

Blacker couldn’t stand it any longer and stormed up to the admissions desk for the third time since he got there. “When can I see a goddamn doctor? Half my finger’s gone. I’ve been here two hours.”

“Sir. We’ve got four attendings, eleven nurses, and forty-seven people waiting to see them, most with conditions far worse than a hurt finger. I’ll call you when we can take you back.”

“Hurt finger? It’s been bit off. I need somebody to do something.”

“Do you have the missing piece? Do you want it reattached?”

“No! It’s gone. It landed on a dirty floor, then somebody stepped on it. I just want my finger sewed up, or whatever it is you people do. I gotta get back there. Just get me fixed up and let me get outta this third-world hellhole.”

This description of her waiting room did not sit well with the admitting nurse. “Sir. Go back to your seat and wait till your name is called. Next!”

 

Meanwhile, Zula was still crouched neara stack of lumber behind the derelict auto parts store where Lena and Rana were being held captive by Blacker’s thugs. When her phone vibrated, she saw it was José

 “Where are you?”

“Leaving Newark. I should get there in about an hour and a half. Any change in the situation?”

“Yeah. Two guys rushed out the back-door a while ago, jumped into a car and took off in a hurry. No idea how many are still in there. Don’t know what’s going on.”

“You’re not gonna try anything on your own, are you? Wait till I get there.”

“Just hurry. You have my location on your GPS, don’t you?”

“No problem. Just stay put. I’ll see you soon.”

 

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:40 pm.

 

Max surveyed the room and saw that every member of the research group was present. “Dr. Schlossman is no longer in charge of this project.”

A collective gasp expressed their surprise. “What do you mean?” Someone yelled.

“Exactly what I said. What you are trying to do is unacceptable, and the project ends as of this minute.”

Before Max could explain the reason for his drastic action, Keith Danforth stood and said, “You can’t do this. We won’t let you.” He looked around the room, as if seeking support, but there was only silence and confusion. Ignoring the others, he approached Max and said, “I won’t let you. What have you done with Dr. Schlossman? Why isn’t he here?”

‘I haven’t done anything with Schlossman. As far as I know, he’s in his office—sulking behind his big desk. And as far as you preventing me from doing anything, don’t even try.”

As Max turned away from Danforth and started to continue his address to the gathered scientists, Danforth grabbed Max’s arm and tried to pull him toward the doorway. “We’re going to Dr. Schlossman’s office and straighten this out. Come on!”

Max calmly gripped Danforth’s wrist and twisted it outward until his elbow was strained to the point of snapping out of joint. Danforth screamed at the pain and shifted his stance to prevent a dislocation. “Stop! Let go,” he pleaded.

Max released his hold and said, “I don’t want to hurt you. If you want to see Schlossman, go ahead. You won’t be missed here. Everyone knows you’re his informer.”

“Don’t you realize Dr. Schlossman’s called for help by now. You’ll be in shackles soon,” Danforth said, as he edged toward the door.

“Get out of here,” Max said, then watched Danforth go out the door and down the hall toward Schlossman’s office. He then turned to the group, held up his hand to quiet the chatter, told everyone to sit down, and proceeded to describe his plan.

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 7:50 pm.

 

“Are you here?” Zula answered when her phone vibrated.

“Five minutes if my GPS’s right. Can you get there by then?”

“I’ll be there.”

A few minutes later, a silver Camry pulled into a Burger King parking lot and parked next to where Zula sat at the only outdoor picnic table. Zula and José hugged, she greeted the dogs, and they exchanged a few words. Then, on foot, they hurried across a vacant lot toward a row of abandoned single-story buildings backed up to an alley parallel to the street the fast food restaurant was on.  “It’s that one,” Zula said, pointing to a chain link fence-enclosed property with a stack of lumber at the back of a parking lot, and a wide loading dock with a Chevy Suburban parked next to it. “There’s a break in the fence over here,” she said leading the way.

No more than two minutes after Zula and José, and his two dogs, Jupiter and Zeus, were hidden behind the lumber pile, an SUV pulled into the lot and parked by the Suburban. Two men were in the front seats. One of them appeared to be talking on a mobile phone.

“Come on José, this is our chance, “Zula said as she sprang up and ran crouched low to the ground toward the SUV. José and the dogs followed. When the man in the passenger seat got out he was greeted by a smashing blow to the back of his neck and dropped to the ground. Zula felt for a carotid pulse—nothing.

At the same time, on the other side of the vehicle, José grabbed the driver’s left arm when he opened the door, yanked him out and swung him around a-hundred-eighty degrees to smash into the rear door. Before the man could recover from the impact, José put him into a chokehold that took only sixty seconds to end his life.

“Now what?” José whispered across the roof of the SUV to where Zula stood.

“We convince the guys inside we’re the reinforcements.”

“Let’s do it,” José said, signaling the dogs to heel at his side.

Zula led the way up crumbling concrete stairs and pounded on the steel door next to a bank of three tall roll-up doors.

 Without delay, someone on the other side said, “Who did you say sent you?”

“Who do you think, asshole. We’re here to help you guys out,” Zula bluffed in the lowest voice she could. When the lock clicked, and the door began to open, Zula slammed her shoulder into it with enough force to knock the man on the other side backwards and off balance. As Zula and José rushed in, José gave a single command and nodded at the man trying to pull a pistol out of a holster on his belt. When Zeus leapt forward and set his jaws around the man’s gun arm, Jupiter jumped up and sank his fangs into the man’s throat. Within seconds, the dogs knew their job was done and ran after José and Zula, who were headed toward an open door leading into another room.

“What’s going on back there?” a voice came from the other room.

“No problem,” José yelled. We’ll be right there.”

“Who are you?” a brute of a guy said, when he encountered José as he came through the doorway to see what the noise was all about.

“I’m your replacement,” José said, then smashed his fist into the man’s face and kicked his right knee with enough force to twist it sideways at a right angle. The man collapsed in pain and José commanded Jupiter to guard him. While José was dealing with that guy, Zula raced past him into the big room where she saw Lena and Rana strapped to chairs. When she saw Zula, Lena yelled, “Watch out! There’s another one by the front window.”

Zula dropped to the floor as three bullets zinged above her, hitting the wall. At that same moment, José burst through the doorway, not knowing where the shots were coming from. “Aww, he grunted, and was thrown backwards from the force of a round piercing his left shoulder. He landed on the floor next to Zula, who held a Glock pointed at the man walking toward them holding a pistol aimed at Rana. Without hesitating, Zula fired, and the man dropped. It was over—at least this part.

Zula jumped up and ran to the man she shot and checked his pulse. “He’s dead. Jose. Are you okay?’ she yelled across the room.

“I’ll be all right. What about Rana and Lena?”

Zula used her knife to cut their PlastiCuffs, then focused her attention on Rana, who was barely able to remain upright in the chair due to weakness from blood loss and fighting off pain from the stabs to her thighs. Lena rose from her chair and said, “We should get out of here. Blacker may return at any moment with more men. We need to get Rana to a doctor. Jose, too.”

Zula picked up Rana and headed to the rear door, “We’ll take their Suburban.”

Lena picked up Blacker’s finger from the floor and put it in her pocket, then grabbed the men’s cell phones, pistols, and a field knife with an eight-inch blade, tossed them into a tote bag that sat near the doorway and slung it over her shoulder. “Jose, let’s drag this guy out back. We’re taking him with us,” she said, as she approached the man whose knee Jose had destroyed. He lay where they left him, on the floor writhing in pain, the dogs looking down on him and alert to his every move.

“Where are we going?” Jose asked, as he grabbed one of the man’s arms.

“To the hospital on Rana’s base. They’ll take care of you, too.”

“I’m not military. Why would they do that?” he asked, wincing with pain.

‘Don’t worry. I’ll make a call,” Lena said. Jupiter and Zeus followed, one on each side of the man who cried out every time his leg was jostled as she and Jose dragged him out the door and down the steps to the Suburban where Rana waited on the back seat.

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Seven

0 Comments

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 4:50 pm.

Zula scrunched down in the front seat of the SUV she borrowed from a friend and watched the four women approach along the sidewalk until her view was blocked by the van parked in front of her. When they didn’t walk past the van, and she heard the side-door slide open, she realized the van was their destination—that it belonged to the abductors. She jotted its license plate number on her arm, then slipped further down in the seat to avoid being seen. When she heard an engine come to life and the sound of leaves crunching under tires, she peeked over the steering wheel to see the van pulling into the street and heading away. After a moment to let it get far enough ahead, she followed, keeping it in sight from a safe distance.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Saturday, 6: 05 pm.

Blacker looked at the security camera screen and saw Nadya’s van pulling up to the loading dock of the derelict building. “They’re here,” he yelled. He signaled for two of four football-player-size guys to join him as he headed to the rear of the room where a steel door opened to the dock. Blacker told one of the other two to stay where he was near the window at the front of the building, and the other to monitor the security cameras they set up when they arrived earlier that evening.

“Take them inside and strap them to those chairs in the back room,” he told his grunts when Nadya and Klara forced Lena and Rana out of the van, careful not let their hoods slip off.

“You need us anymore?” Nadya asked after the big guys took the captives into the building.

“No. I’ve got enough manpower. Just get the hell outta here. And your money is on the way.”

“Good. You know where to find us if you need anything else,” Nadya said, as she climbed into her van. “Until next time, proshchay.”

“Yeah, same to you—you crazy bitch,” he added under his breath.

Seeing that Lena and Rana were securely bound in the chairs and their hoods removed, and after going through the things from Rana’s condo Nadya brought with them, Blacker called The General. “We’ve got the old woman. She’s Manus’ wife alright. Her brown-skinned friend is Ranaveetha Nair. Don’t know anything else about her, but don’t care either.”

Her “brown-skinned friend,” as you call her, just happens to be an army lieutenant stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She heads an intel operation and appears to be highly regarded, and well-connected. Looks like you’ve stepped into a hornet’s nest.”

“Me . . . or us, General?”

“Don’t play that game with me, Blacker. You’re the one that grabbed her, not me. So cut the crap, don’t do anything stupid, and wait for my instructions.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:08 pm.

Schlossman answered at once, anticipating a call from The General. “Yes?”

“We have his wife. Is he cooperating yet?’

“I’ll find out soon. He’s still talking to the research team, but should be finished soon. I’ll check and let you know.” Schlossman hung up and went to find Max.

At the same moment Schlossman left his office, Max stormed out of Riverton’s lab and hurried toward Schlossman’s lab, his rage barely under control. He intended to confront the director with the knowledge he had just confirmed during his questioning of the scientist responsible for coding remote-control algorithms that would monitor and command troops implanted with behavior-regulating microchips and who would be enhanced by Max’s superpower. Riverton referred to these AI-modified soldiers as CEFs: Controlled Enhanced Fighters.

As Max rounded a junction in the hall, he nearly knocked over Elizabeth Mortensen, the scientist he met in Schlossman’s office the night he was brought to the lab.

“What’s the big rush?” she asked, picking up the notebook she dropped when Max ran into her. “You look like you’ve had a shock of some kind.”

“I know what you people are up to,” Max said, “It’s not right. And I’m going to stop it.”

As he started to march off to find Schlossman, Mortensen said, “Wait. Let’s talk before you do anything drastic. You’ll only make things worse if you attack Gerhardt.”

Not sure what she meant, Max turned back to her and said, “What do you mean by that?”

She looked around, then said, “Come with me. We need to talk.”

Before Max could respond, Schlossman appeared from around the corner and stopped next to Mortensen. He gave her a stern look and said, “Is there a problem, Elizabeth?” Seeing fear in her face, he said, “It appears there may be. I’ll see you later.” Then, turning to Max, “Before I deal with Elizabeth, you and I need to talk. In my office.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  6:10 pm.

Zula climbed over the chain link fence and ducked behind a pile of half-rotted lumber at the back of the trash-littered gravel lot. The van that brought Lena and Rana to this abandoned auto parts store had just left, right after two over-muscled men in typically black attire took the two women inside. She saw the man she recognized as Blacker when he came out to the dock and then followed the others back into the building. There were only two vehicles parked by the loading dock, so she didn’t think there would be many more guards inside, if any at all besides the two she had just seen.

As Zula considered her options for rescuing Lena and Rana, her mobile vibrated an incoming call. “Hello.”

“Zula, it’s me, Jose. I can’t get hold of Rana or Lena. Where are they?”

“Jose! Thank God, it’s you. We’ve got problems. Where are you?”

“I just landed in Newark. I flew in from L.A. where I was visiting my sister. What the hell’s going on?”

“We can’t talk on the phone. Can you get to Philadelphia? I’m keeping an eye on a building where Lena and Rana were being held.”

“What? Being held by who? What are you talking about?”

“Jose! I’ll explain when you get here. You and I are going to take care of it. Okay?”

“I’ll rent a car and get there as fast as I can. Where should we meet?”

Zula gave him an address for his GPS. It was on North Beach Street, just off I-95,a spot where he could park without being seen. “You should be able to get here in two hours. Call me when you do and I’ll come get you. Did you bring the dogs?”

“Of course. I don’t go anyplace without them. I just got them from wherever they put them on the plane.”

“I’ll be waiting. Hurry.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 6:15 pm.

Max followed Schlossman into his office, waited until he closed the door, then as calmly, yet firmly as he could manage under the circumstances, said, “I can’t let you carry out this insane plan to use Artificial Intelligence to create super-soldiers. It’s not only unethical and dangerous, it’s beyond the realm of civilized behavior. It’s criminal. You’d have to be a demented psychopath to think it’s permissible to turn men into programed killing machines controlled by someone in a back room thousands of miles away.”

“Dr. Manus, with all due respect, your opinion about this project is totally irrelevant. A government group far more important than you and your outdated rectitude has authorized and supports this project. I don’t give a whit about your objections. And as far as what I assume is your intent not to cooperate is concerned, I believe you might change your mind after what you are about to hear.”

Schlossman then called the number The General had given him earlier.

“We’re here,” Blacker answered.

“Put her on,” Schlossman said.

“Say hello to your husband,” Blacker said, as he held the phone in front of Lena.

Lena shook her head and refused to speak.

Blacker glanced at one of his goons, who immediately stabbed a serrated knife into Rana’s thigh, quickly ripped it out and held it above her other leg. Rana cried out once, then gritted her teeth and stifled further outburst.

“She’s gonna look like Swiss cheese unless you say what I tell you to say,” Blacker said. “Tell him you and your Indian friend will be fish food if he doesn’t do what he’s told to do. Unless you won’t mind your friend’s face carved like a Halloween pumpkin by my knife-wielding companion who just happens to love that kind of fun.”

“Max. Don’t worry about Rana and me. Do what’s—”

Blacker yanked the phone away before Lena could say more and raised his other arm to slap her. But charged by Max’s superpower, and enraged by what they did to Rana, Lena anticipated his intent and snapped her head to the side. Just as his hand approached her face, she caught the index finger of his right hand in her mouth and bit down with all the force she could generate. The crunch of bone was obliterated by Blacker’s anguished scream. After she spit half of his finger onto the filthy floor, she said, “You shouldn’t have hurt her. Now you and your little boys here are really in serious trouble.”

“You shouldn’t have done that, old woman,” Blacker yelled,” sticking the bloody stub of his finger in her face. He nodded at the man with the knife, who jabbed it into Rana’s other leg. Rana screamed louder this time—the blade had struck bone and sent a shockwave down her entire leg.

Sitting in Schlossman’s office, with its polished walnut desk and expensive oriental carpets, Max heard Rana’s scream as if he were in the room with her. But from Lena’s statement, Max knew at once that Zula hadn’t been captured. He also knew that Zula would do everything in her power to rescue Lena and Rana, and that when Zula put her mind to something, she usually succeeded. There was hope, and he clung to it tenaciously.

But Max was still enraged, and Schlossman was terrified by the penetrating look Max gave him and the fierce determination in his eyes. But Schlossman quickly reminded himself that it was he who was in control, not this old man whose wife his employers had securely in hand. At least that’s what he believed at the time.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  6:20 pm.

Zula heard a door slam and saw Blacker and another man rush down the dock steps and get into one of the vehicles parked there. Blacker was holding a rag around his hand and yelling at his companion. The sedan’s tires spun in loose gravel as it sped out of the lot. Zula checked the time and figured Jose would join her around 8:30. She wondered if the two men would be back by then, and how many remained in the building.

To be continued . . .

Hijinks Under Ground: Episode Six

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 11:35 am.

Heads turned in their direction when Schlossman and Max entered the common dining room and took an empty table. The handcuffs missing from Max’s raw wrists could only mean one thing: Manus was going to cooperate. The chef approached with two cups of coffee.

“The works, Don,” Schlossman said, then looked around the room as the chef headed to the kitchen. Schlossman beckoned to a man and woman sitting together, who rose and made their way to the table then sat across from Max and Schlossman.

“So, Gerhardt, this must be Dr. Manus,” the woman said, looking at Max. “I’m Melissa Covington, and this,” nodding at her companion, “is Keith Danforth. We’re responsible for fine-tuning the behavior control algorithm and the primate trials.”

“Melissa, I haven’t had a chance to fill Max in on the details of our project yet. Perhaps you could wait until I do before you go into details about your work,” Schlossman said with an edge of irritation in his voice.

Max set the coffee aside, stood and said, “No problem, Gerhardt. This is as good a time as any to dig into the research. I’ll start with Melissa and Keith.” Then, turning to Melissa, he said, “Let’s go to your lab.” As he started toward the door, he looked over his shoulder and said, “You told me I had to understand the program if I’m going to contribute anything, right? That’s what I’m gonna do then. Ask Don to send along my breakfast and a fresh pot of coffee.”

Schlossman was momentarily speechless as Melissa and Keith rose and fell in behind Max without asking their boss’ permission, or even looking at him. When the three left the dining room, Schlossman yelled, “Don! Take his breakfast and a pot of coffee to Melissa’s lab,” then stormed back to his office.

Washington, DC: Saturday, 2:40 pm.

When Blacker’s phone buzzed he saw it was his guy who set up surveillance on DMV hits with South Asian names. “What’s up?” he answered.

“I’ve got eyes on the residences of all six. Three of the vehicles are in sight, and we’ll watch for the others. So far, we’ve only seen three women, and they were in the same vehicle. One looked like she’s Indian or Pakistani. The name on the DMV registration is Ranaveetha Nair

“Okay. Stay in touch.”

Fifteen minutes later, Blacker got a call from the general.

“We have an ID on the woman who came to your office a while ago. Lieutenant Zula Mabanga, Army Special Forces, stationed at Fort Meade. She must be someone special because she was recently transferred to a black ops unit as an instructor. There’s no mention of Manus in her file.”

“Why the hell was she interested in Bentz?” Blacker asked. “At least that’s what she said.”

“No idea. I’ll put a tail on her as soon as we locate her. Any news on the old woman who came in on that private jet this morning?”

“I’m working on it and will let you know if something turns up. What about Manus?” Is he cooperating? Anything new at the mine?”

“I haven’t talked to Schlossman today, so I don’t know. But I still want his wife and kids as insurance. The mine won’t stay secret forever. We have to speed up this project if we’re going to keep it under wraps.”

Noting urgency in the general’s voice, Blacker asked, “Is there a deadline I don’t know about?”

The general hesitated a moment, then said, “I intend to surprise the Russians when we show up at the 2018 joint US-NATO Military exercises. We need a game changer, and this would be it.”

“That doesn’t give us much time.”

“That’s why you need to get your ass in gear, Blacker. Bring me that Manus woman and the daughters, too.”

“Like I said, I’m working on it, Sir. Maybe we’ll have something tonight. At least the woman. Still don’t know who or where the daughters are. Are you sure they exist?”

“It’s rumored there’s two of them, but I’ve seen nothing specific. My intel guys are still searching. I’ll let you know if we find anything,” the general said, before ending the call.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 2:50 pm.

“Mom! Zula. Listen to this recording of calls Blacker had just now. One was about surveillance on my car. Someone must be out there now, watching. The other sounded like it was with someone in the military. They’ve identified Zula. This is getting scary.”

After the three of them listened to Blacker’s conversations, they realized danger was losing in on them. Lena spoke first. “We have to get out of here without being seen. We’ll have to evade whoever is watching Rana’s SUV, then find the mine they referred to. It must be in Bluefield. That’s where Max’s tracker went dead. Sounds to me like they intend to use Max’s superpower as a weapon, and plan to use us to coerce him to give it to them. But from what Blacker said, they don’t know you two are our daughters.”

“Rana was the first to reply. “That may be true, but they’re still out to find me. Probably because someone spotted me, and my SUV, this morning when I met you at that airfield.”

“That makes sense, so we have to do something to get out of here without them knowing. I’ll sneak out the back, find the stakeout and neutralize him.” Zula said. “Then we can head to West Virginia and find Papa.”

“We’ll have to get another vehicle in case they’ve issued an alert for mine.” Rana said.

“We’ll take mine, it’s parked down the street.,” Zula countered.

“No. They know who you are, so they’ll probably put out an alert for your car as well,” Rana said.

‘Hold on,” Lena said. “Zula, go out the back, over the parking lot wall and walk away. Then call Uber for a ride to Fort Meade. Beg, borrow, or steal a vehicle, then come back for us. We’ll deal with the stakeout then. If you take out the watcher now, they’ll know something is wrong and send reinforcements.”

Zula glanced at Rana, acknowledged her nod of approval, then said, “Good plan, Mom. I’ll go now.”

Washington, DC: Saturday, 3:05 pm.

“What?” Blacker said when he answered the call.

“Didn’t you say something about a tall black woman coming to your office this morning?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“The guy I posted in back of one of the target’s condo saw such a person come out the back door, cut across the parking lot and climb over a six-foot wall. That got my attention.”

“Is that the place with the three women?”

“Yeah. And one of them is old.”

“Bingo! Give me the address., I’ll take it from here.”

Blacker ended that call, then hit a stored number, desperate for it to be answered, and it was.

“What?” the woman who answered said.

“A location. Far as I can tell, there’s three women; an old white one, a South Asian and a Black. The black one is military, but she took off a few minutes ago. Unless she returns, you only have two to deal with.” Blacker gave her the address and told her that half her payment would be transferred as soon as this call was over.

Blacker had his assistant handle the money transfer while he called the general. “We’re in play. I’ll keep you posted,” he said, then ended the call.

Camden, New Jersey: Saturday, 3:10 pm.

“Klara. Get our stuff. We gotta roll.”

“What’s doing?” Klara asked, not taking her eyes away from a cage-fighting match taking place in all its gory splendor on a sixty-inch flat-screen TV.

“It’s the job I told you about. Remember? The easy seventy-five thousand. We gotta snatch a couple of women. It’ sixty miles from here, so let’s get going.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 4:10 pm.

“I can see what you are trying to do, and where there may be a few glitches. But before we adjust your approach, I need to talk to the other members of the group. Can you introduce me to them now?” Max asked Melissa Covington as he got up from the table where he’d been going through their experimental results. Keith Danforth, her assistant, was working at a lab bench across the room.

Melissa closed the notebook and said, “No problem. Jerry Riverton’s lab is next door. He’s creating the AI biochip implants and working on the biocompatibility problem. He’s looking forward to meeting you.” She rose and led Max out to the hall.

After Max and Melissa left, Danforth called Schlossman. “Melissa told him everything we’re doing. Now she’s taking him to Riverton.”

“Let me know where he goes after that.”

Washington, DC: Saturday, 3:55 pm.

Blacker answered the call he was expecting. “Yeah.”

“We’ll be there in five minutes. Any change in the situation?” Nadya asked.

“No sign of the black woman, and the other two haven’t left. Looks like it’s all clear. Go for it.”

“Where should we deliver the package?”

“Take both of them to the warehouse in Philadelphia. We’ll take it from there.”

“What about the black one if she shows up?”

“Kill her and get rid of the body.  She’s Army. I don’t want any military ties to this operation.”

“This is getting complicated, Blacker. What’s going on?” Nadya asked.

 “Don’t worry. Just do what you’re being paid to do.”

“Who’s the Indian woman?”

“Don’t know. Maybe a friend. But I want her in case she’s important to Manus.”

“What about your stakeout guys? Do they know we’re coming?”

“They know, but leave them out of it. They’re watchers, not fighters. You and your psychopath girlfriend are on your own. Call me when you’ve got them.”

Bluefield, West Virginia: Saturday, 4:30 pm.

It took only ten minutes with Riverton for Max to grasp the full extent of why he had been kidnapped and brought to this secret lab. They thought they could use his superpower to enhance Artificial Intelligence systems implanted into human brains in the form of microchips which would be integrated into brainstem neuronal networks.

It was a military operation with the objective of creating super-fighters endowed with super-human powers and remotely controlled via satellite. The ultimate human war machines. “This is the work of madmen, and I can’t let them do it,” he swore under his breath,” enraged at their intent to steal his discovery and employ it in such a reprehensible way.

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Saturday, 4:30 pm EST.

“He’s still there,” Rana said, peering out her front window. After a few minutes, she said, “A van just parked down the street and two women I don’t recognize are getting out. They’re coming this way.”

“Probably visiting someone who lives around here, but keep an eye on them,” Lena said. Then Rana’s phone rang and Lena answered. “Hello.”

She recognized Zula’s voice. “I got a car and am almost there. Be ready to leave in ten minutes. I’ll take care of the stakeout.”

“Zula’s on her way. We’ll get out of here after she neutralizes that guy out there. Pack what we’ll need,” Lena told Rana. Before Rana left to gather her equipment, she glanced out the window and saw the two women walk past the gate to her small yard and continue along the sidewalk.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock at the rear door. “Must be Zula. I’ll get it,” Lena said, as Rana was putting the last of her gadgets and some weapons into a duffle bag.

When Lena cracked the door to see who was there, it crashed open with enough force to slam her backwards, then head-over-heels when she stumbled over a half-full laundry basket.

“Mom! What happened?” Rana yelled as she ran into the back hallway. “Oh my god,” she cried when she came face-to-face with a big woman in military fatigues pointing a pistol at her midsection. Behind this woman was another one, petite with curly blond hair, kneeling next to Lena and holding a gun to her head.

“Don’t do anything foolish, honey, unless you want this old lady’s brains decorating this hallway. On the floor, face down. Now! Klara, cuff her, then this one,” the blond said, nodding at Lena.

Lena immediately sensed a growing feeling of strength and an urgent desire to strike out at the woman holding the gun to her head, but realized the risk of being shot was too high. She willed herself to stifle the urge to strike out, and wait for the right opportunity instead. She caught Rana’s eye and shook her head, instructing Rana not to try anything foolish.

In less than a minute, Lena and Rana were sitting with their backs against the wall with their hands bound behind them using plastic restraints. While Klara guarded the two captives, Nadya called Blacker. “Got em. No problem. You can call off your watch dogs now. Everything’s under control.”

“All right. But before you leave, search the place. Find the old woman’s phone, and computer if she has one. Look for any info about her daughters. I need them as well.”

“There’s a tote bag filled with what looks like military communication stuff, some guns, too,” Nadya said.

“Bring it. Must have been the black woman’s. She’s military.”

“Okay. Then we’ll head to the warehouse. Should be there in about an hour.”

Meanwhile, as Nadya was searching the condo, Zula took an exit off the Pulaski Highway and made her way toward Rana’s neighborhood. When she turned onto Rana’s street, she noticed the stakeout car pull away from the curb and speed off in the opposite direction. Then she saw four women come out of Rana’s condo, one of them carrying a black duffle bag. When she got closer, she realized the two in front were Lena and Rana, and saw their hands were positioned behind them, as if restrained. They also walked with a shuffle, as if their legs were shackled. Then she noticed one of them held a pistol at her side. Still half a block away, she pulled behind a windowless van parked at the curb. “How the hell am I gonna handle this situation?” she wondered, as she watched the women approach slowly along the tree-shaded sidewalk.

To be continued . . .

 

RSS feed