Chapter 07

Wanderer Chapter 07

 

Present – Erast (Ben) – On the road

 

When I bought the bus ticket, I made sure to give myself enough time so I could be the first on the bus. I grabbed a discarded newspaper off a bench and waited for the driver to show up. He finally shows up, takes my ticket and stows my pack under the bus. But I still have my small daypack and in it is my ten-millimeter, my recharged Wasp knife and my Ka-Bar. It is great to be travelling by bus because you can still carry on board most of the time. Occasionally the TSA does random screenings which mess things up, but not today. Plus I am sure Ms. Donaldson has the airports watched, if not by professionals than by all the fucking bounty hunters out looking for me.

 

I go right to the back of the bus by the head and take the whole row of seats. I want to make sure I can profile everyone as the get on the bus and from here I can see everyone as they board. Plus, these are the second best seats on the bus if you don't mind the smell of shit. I've been through enough shit already so a little bit more doesn't matter.

 

I hold the newspaper I grabbed in front of me and I about shit myself. It's a fucking tabloid and the bastards have cooked up some crazy-assed story about me being abducted by aliens and being anally probed. If I ever find the bastard that wrote this piece of shit poor fiction he is going to learn about anal probing with a Ka-Bar.

 

The bus is slowly filling up and I make sure to check each new arrival. It's an eclectic mix as usual. Some are older adults that don't have the money to fly and don't want to drive - they always have some fear when they get on the bus and are easy to spot. There are the normal young people looking for a cheap way to travel as they explore the country, their youth and each other. A couple of Arabic guys get on the bus which attracts my attention since they will bear some watching just in case.

 

But the last couple to get on the bus stroll all the way to the back. They are way outside the normal profile and now have my full attention. They are the wrong age (late twenties to early thirties), their clothes are too nice (high end designer labels), and they both have too much jewelry. But the most obvious problem is that she doesn't have a purse and he doesn't have a backpack or messenger bag.

 

At first I worry they might be looking for me, especially when he walks up to me and requests, "Pardon me we were hoping to have this row, would you possibly mind moving?" He then gives me a perfect smile. There's no way in hell I'm letting these two behind me so I lower my paper and reply with an accent, "I am sorry, but I need to have this row to be close to the toilets. Sometimes I get sick when I travel." Anger briefly flashes across his face, he roughly yanks the hand of his partner and they take the seats right in front of the head - the worst seats on the whole bus.

 

The driver climbs aboard, closes the door and we finally leave the station. Heading west and away from this God forsaken city I fold the fucking tabloid and put it on the seat beside me. I watch as we leave Washington DC, hoping this will be the last time I ever see this place again. I’m glad to be leaving the city but even happier to finally be leaving Ben Blaine and my old life behind me. Now Ms. Donaldson and I can get on with our own, separate lives.

 

Present – Liz – Plane flight to Tajikistan

 

The twins are really taking such good care of me. I am worn out from all the drama today: First fighting with Jens about the hospital, then the total destruction of my office, next Jens' huge fight with Maria and then her taking Maria and flying like a Ben-batty bat out of hell to see if he is still at 'the shop'. I had hoped I could just head back to my apartment and crash, but the twins assured me we still needed to go to Tajikistan to pick up the two girls just in case Ben wasn't at 'the shop'. And I knew they were right. Anyway, they made all the arrangements while I rested. Now Ira is rubbing my feet with lotion after she first washed them. I complain, "Ouch Ira that's a little too hard."

 

She smiles and answers, "Sorry Ms. Morgan, sometimes I do not know my own strength." That is certainly an understatement. Since Jens healed her she has been like a superwoman and I'm glad she was because she was able to control an uncontrollable Jens on our flight back from Germany.

 

Mira hands me a drink - a nice rum and diet coke. I take a sip and I believe there's much more rum in this drink than there is coke. But hey, it's a long flight and it won't matter if I get a little drunk since the twins are here to keep me safe. Mira sits beside me, smiles at me and starts to sing – well I guess she's trying to sing but it is truly terrible and when Ira joins her, it's not any better. Wow, finally something the twins don't do well!

 

I take a big gulp of my drink and try to enjoy the song as it slowly starts to grow on me. It's in Tajik and has a haunting and soothing melody so I ask, "Mira, what is the name of this song you are singing?"

 

Ira continues but Mira stops and replies, "It is called The Mother's Song and our mother used to sing it to us when we were little. I will tell you what it is about."

 

The song begins by addressing a child who is not yet born. "Here you are, your motherland, your motherland, dear child. Listen and I'll tell you about your kishlak." Then it shares about the life of an ordinary mountain village, how it is full of such care and tenderness and love for the people there and their customs. Then comes the culminating moment: the festival for the birth of the child. "It is a shame that you will not remember this day, dear child!" Indeed it is because Ira and I have seen the ritual procession of women ringing bells and the whirling dance of the old man is quite captivating, beautiful and harmonious. Then the festival is over and the mother is rocking her baby in the cradle. At the end, the words are repeated exhorting the baby not to forget his motherland.

 

Ah so it's a lullaby - that explains why it's so soothing even with their poor singing abilities. Shoot that reminds me of something. I'd totally forgotten what I asked Sam to do for me last time I was in Tajikistan and I need to call him ASAP. Shit I sure as hell hope he doesn't want to train me. Damn, I'm beginning to sound like the twins. I sure hope he doesn't expect to fuck me for the information as I promised him I would. The last thing I want is that bastard's baby in my belly! I snap myself out of the impending stupor and announce, "Mira and Ira, thanks I feel much better. But I need to make a few very private phone calls before we reach Tajikistan. You two need to go to the back of the plane, and Ira because of your sister’s super hearing I'm going to ask you to cover her ears until I finish with these calls.

 

Present – Mira and Ira – Plane flight to Tajikistan

 

I reply, "Ms. Morgan I have lost almost all of the super hearing I had before and Ira has lost most of her strength. In fact I am very worried my hearing will diminish to the point it was before Ms. Donaldson helped since that was almost intolerable."

 

Ms. Morgan crosses her arms and orders, "Mira I can tell you're not lying to me otherwise I'd be very upset. Okay you do not need to have Ira cover your ears, but you both still need to go to the back of the plane. In fact I want you two to go into the toilet until I come and get you."

 

Ira complains, "Ms. Morgan, please! Do not punish us and send us to the stinky toilet."

 

But she will not relent and explains, "Ira, I'm not punishing you two. There is just some very private information, which if it comes back the way I expect, will be a very big surprise for the both of you. Now scoot and get those asses of yours in the toilet."

 

We both slowly walk towards our bathroom banishment. Ms. Morgan gets impatient and says, "I said scoot and I mean it! Now stop wasting time and get moving."

 

We speed up just a little, get into the tiny toilet, then Ira looks at me and says, "Mira, Ms. Morgan has become very wise to most of our tricks and we need to come up with new ones."

 

I answer, "Yes she has. I think she might even know we sometimes can read her lips. I wonder what very private phone calls she needs to make."

 

Ira grumps, "I bet they are to that evil Ambassador Clark. I think she promised him training for his help to get us out of the country. If she did I will kill him before I let him train her since she could become impregnated with his baby and that would ruin our plans."

 

Suddenly my vision of all three of us with big round bellies from Mr. Blaine's babies leaves. I frantically say, "Ira this time you are right. We cannot let Ambassador Clark train Ms. Morgan. You know him best because you were with him the most. Could one of us distract him with training so he would leave Ms. Morgan alone?"

 

Ira giggles, "Mira he is a very perverted man and even Baba Yaga1 would distract him. I fear however it will be a most odious duty. Shall we play our game to see which one of us it will be?"

 

1 Baba Yaga is a witch-like character in Slavic folklore. She flies around on a giant mortar or broomstick, kidnaps (and presumably eats) small children, and lives in a hut which stands on chicken legs. In most Slavic folk tales she is portrayed as an antagonist.

 

I dread playing the game with Ira because somehow she almost always seems to win, but it is part of what we do. I do briefly remember the one time we played the game and though I lost, it was really a big win because I met the young and so handsome L.Cpl. Blaine. Ira clears her throat and adds, "Mira stop wishing that when you lose it will be like the time with L.Cpl. Blaine. You were very lucky that time. Let's play!"

 

We have no straws this time so we do rock, paper, scissors. I chose rock and Ira chose scissors and loses. She pretends to be upset but I can really tell she isn't, "Shoot Mira, now I will have to do this terrible thing."

 

I hug her and whisper in her ear, "Thank you my sister, I know you lost on purpose."

 

As I hug Mira I think, yes my sister I did lose on purpose. I cannot risk you, now that we have stopped taking our pills, becoming impregnated by this beast. You have always held on to the 'secret' wish it will be Mr. Blaine and it would devastate you if it was anyone else. Besides, he will wear a tool cover if he wants to train me and he will also just happen to expire from a heart attack.

 

Present – Liz – Plane flight to Tajikistan

 

The phone rings three times and as Sam picks it up and I say, "Greetings Sam how are you?"

 

If I could see him I'm sure he'd be leering as he greets me, "Liz Morgan, as I live and breathe. I wondered if I would ever hear from you again."

 

I reply, "Hey Sam guess what, we're headed back to Tajikistan again."

 

He interrupts with, "Are Miranda and Irina with you?"

 

The fucking old letch still thinks he can bed both of them at the same time - shit that'd kill him. What is it with men and their constant obsession to take two women (even more so with twins) to bed at the same time. Like one woman can't easily wear out the horniest of men. Shit! Most of the time I still have to finish things myself long after they are 'worn' out and sleeping, I reply, "Yes Sam they are with me. You know they're my body guards and travel with me everywhere. And you also know they're still off limits to you."

 

He replies, "I have some information for you."

 

Damn, he's baiting me so I casually reply, "Oh really?"

 

He sounds puzzled as he replies, "You know, the information you asked me to acquire."

 

I yawn into the phone (damn I think Mira's cocktail has me a little tipsy), "Oh yeah I remember that now. So what did you find out?"

 

He bargains with, "I'd like to tell you in person."

 

Ah he's going after me now thinking I'm easy and that I'm going to fall into his bed again with my legs wide open. I counter with, "I hoped you would tell me now, but I'm sure we can discuss this and other things when we're all together. You know, me, you, your wife... So how long have you two been married?"

 

He yells in frustration, "God dammit Liz, you've become totally unreasonable since you've met those two body guards of yours! We used to have a very mutually enjoyable and beneficial relationship."

 

I explain the truth of the matter, "Sam, not to deflate your ego, but being raped by coercion is never enjoyable and the benefits I got from you were marginal. Look there was a time when I needed to fuck men and women to get information, but those days are gone. I can usually get everything I need from the Internet or in other ways. I asked you as a friend to find things out for me, and you did. So you can either freely tell me, or I will find the information using other methods."

 

He asks with worry in his voice, "And if I don't tell you?"

 

I laugh at his concern, "Sam, I won't tell your wife. I'm embarrassed as hell at what you made me do and I'd just as soon forget it."

 

He sounds relieved and admits, "Thanks Liz, I guess I owe you."

 

I continue, "Yes you certainly do. Now, the information please…"

 

He says, "Liz, I've got several things to tell you, some great, some good, and some border on bad. The great - your reporter instincts we're correct, he certainly without a doubt is. The good - things were never formalized so you shouldn't have any issues. The bad is the government is sure your body guards know the location of two young girls who have a king's ransom in gold which was stolen from Kuwait. They are going to give you hell if you try to take the girls or the gold out of the country."

 

I think - yeah they do know where those girls are but I had no idea about the gold, I need to ask them why they didn't share that little fact with me. I joyfully reply, "Thanks Sam, in some things you're still the best. Now tell me, did you happen to get the paperwork done for the first thing we talked about?"

 

He says, "Liz, of course I did. Oh, there will be a little fight about it, but once they learn they're fighting those twins of yours, they won't give you any problems. Did you know this whole country is afraid of those two?"

 

I grin, "Yeah they can be pretty scary sometimes. See you in a few hours Sam." I end the call and want to jump for joy, but that's Jens job. I can't wait to give them their surprise. But how in the hell are we going to get those girls and the gold out of this country? Perhaps Sam can help with that too. You know he's been a good friend and perhaps I just might throw him a mercy fuck for all the help he's been. I have been really horny lately.

 

I yell, "Mira and Ira get those sneaky asses of yours up here right now!"

 

Present – Ira and Mira – Plane flight to Tajikistan

 

Ms. Morgan yells for us and it sounds like she is angry. I look at Mira and say, "She sounds angry to me. Do think she discovered one of our plans?"

 

Mira replies, "She is very smart but I do not think she discovered them."

 

We hear her yell again, "Don't make me come back there and drag your sneaky asses out of that bathroom."

 

I say, "We need to see what she wants and pretend to be totally innocent and sad."

 

Mira agrees, "Yes those are some of the things we do the best."

 

We exit the bathroom and slowly walk towards Ms. Morgan with our heads hanging and with very sad looks in our eyes.

 

She takes one look at us and laughs, "You two remind me of puppy dogs. Now quit the melodrama because I have an important question to ask you."

 

We raise our heads but still have the sad looks on our faces. She ignores the looks and asks, "Why didn't you two tell me the two girls also came with some extra baggage?"

 

Mira gives her a puzzled look and responds, "Ms. Morgan, we had to buy them some clothes because all they had were old rags. If it is a problem we can leave the nice clothes we bought them and replace them in America."

 

Ms. Morgan shakes her head, "Mira and Ira I do not mean literally extra baggage. I'm asking why you two never told me about the gold!"

 

I think this is very good she is distracted by the question about the gold. I reply, "Ms. Morgan we did not think it was an issue."

 

She raises her voice and declares, "Not a fucking issue! Sam just told me your government is sure you two know where the girls are and they are serious about getting the gold."

 

I look at Mira, "If Sam knows about it then it is true and this presents a problem for us."

 

Mira answers, "Yes this is a big problem. They will certainly try to follow us and then intercept us when we have the girls and the gold. We need another plan."

 

I repeat, "Yes we need a very good plan."

 

Ms. Morgan starts to stumble a little so I catch her and help her to her seat as she complains, "Mira, I sure hope you didn't drug me." Then she slowly falls asleep.

 

I look at Mira and she giggles, "Well, it was just a little bit of drugs added to too much rum."

 

And I start to design a plan for how are we going to get the girls and the gold out of our country.

 

Present – Zarika and Yasmeen – Tajikistan

 

I have been lying on my bed, facing away from Yasmeen pretending to sleep since I saw our husband on the television. While really I have been crying the whole time. Before I missed him very much, now I cannot tolerate the pain in my heart. I helped him to escape and then he saved me from the terrible things Hussein did to me but most of all he talked to me and helped me heal from those things and made me feel like he could forgive me and love me. I wonder why he has not come for me? I know he might be able to forget silly and childish Yasmeen because she was such a little sneak and tricked him into being his second wife, but how can he forget me and his promise to me since it still rings like a bell in my ears. It even drowns out the terrible noise Yasmeen makes when she sings.

 

'Yasmeen the annoying' (my new name for her) yells, "Zarika, wake up! The man with no tongue, who cannot speak is here and he is trying to tell us something."

 

I roll over and see he is all excited and is carrying luggage. I jump up and say, "Yasmeen, he is carrying luggage. Do you know what that means?"

 

She jumps up excitedly and says, "Does it mean he brought us more new clothes?"

 

I swear the television has totally rotted what little mind she had so I reply, "No Yasmeen, I think he wants us to pack all our clothes in the luggage."

 

He nods his head and Yasmeen grumps, "I knew it was too good to be true. The nice ladies are going to take back all the clothes and leave us with filthy rags again."

 

I am tired of her stupidity so I punch her as hard as I can. She falls on the floor and I yell, "No 'Yasmeen the annoying', it means our husband is coming for us."

 

She yells, "I may be 'Yasmeen the annoying', but you are 'Zarika the zit-face'!"

 

I am not sure at first what she means but then I realize she's teasing me about the temporary blemishes I have on my face because of my age. It makes me miss Mama because she would know of natural treatments which would remove all my blemishes. But Hussein tortured and killed my whole family and other than Ben I am all alone in the world. I insult her with, "Well you sing so badly I am amazed the television has not exploded!"

 

She jumps up and yells, "Your mama!"

 

'Yasmeen the annoying' dares to insult my dead mother! This is too much! So I begin to hit her in the face and on her head.

 

I insult Zarika but I do not know why she reacted so badly since all I did was use a phrase I heard on television. She is hitting me very hard in my face and it hurts very much. I began to yell and plead, "Zarika, please stop! You are hurting me very much."

 

She does not stop and finally the man with no tongue, who cannot speak saves me from her. I hug him very tight because I am very afraid of Zarika right now. He give both of us a very big scolding - it is funny how he can still scold us even though he cannot speak and Zarika stops but still gives me very angry looks.

 

I apologize, "Zarika, I am sorry that I made you very angry. I do not even know what I said that was so bad. Please forgive me."

 

She looks coldly and threatens, "Yasmeen, you insulted my dead mother. If you ever do that again I will kill you!"

 

She scares me because I can tell she is serious. While I have killed by accident when I had to and it made me very sick, she has killed on purpose and I think even enjoyed it. I reply, "Zarika, I am sorry, it was a silly saying I learned on the television and I will never use it again with you."

 

Zarika seems happy for the moment and starts to pack her ugly clothes in the luggage. I go to my bed, pick up my mirror and I am shocked! 'Zarika the zit-faced', chewchemek suka has punched me many times in the face. I can tell already my eyes will turn black and I will have many bruises on my beautiful face. The worst of all is they will not be gone by the time I again meet my husband! Oh, I am very angry and I will find a way to make her pay for this!

 

Present – Jens – Headed to 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

The twins finally come through with some information about Ben's location and give it to me. I'm not so sure they haven't received other information they didn't reveal. Those two – well they have more going on than they normally do and I sure as hell don't know what the extra action is but I plan to find out. I need to ask Maria - now that's just too funny since my girl Friday just happens to have the name I chose when I almost seduced Ben for the first time. I have always wondered how my life would have been different if things would have worked out that night. I would have gladly traded all my many accomplishments just for the chance to go back to that night – I would take Ben into his bedroom instead of to the club, I know that's what he wanted to do and that was what I wanted and expected to do later that night. I sure as hell would do that now. Oh, if I would have been smarter and more direct back then!

 

Shit! I'd better get my mind back on driving since I almost hit a fucking car!

 

Present – Maria – Headed to 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

My princess boss had better get her head out of her ass or we're all going to fucking die! It was like she became distracted and forgot what she was doing then swerved so hard I swear the van was on two wheels. I was just waiting for it to tip over completely when it came crashing down on all four wheels.

 

Well someone shit his pants and it wasn't me, but the stench is filling the whole van. I look around and can't tell which bastard it is. I sure as hell don't want to sit where he's sitting on the way back, if there is a fucking way back. I need to tell my princess boss that one of the big parts of my job is being her driver and if she disagrees then we'll just have another little fight. She surprised me the first time but that won't happen again.

 

 I need all the fucking help I can get so I grab the cross around my neck and start silently reciting the rosary. Something I never did in Iraq and had not done since I was a little girl. I suddenly wish I had about twenty Saint Christopher's around my neck! Then I think I remember they kicked his ass out of being the patron saint of travelers. Now that's got to suck being fired as a saint! But not as much as my princess boss's driving sucks! Oh shit! Why the hell did she hit the brakes since it tosses us around so badly in the back of the van. I think one guy's fucking arm is broken.

 

Present – Jens – Headed to 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

I see someone in a tree, realize it's a fucking sniper, slam on the brakes, jam the transmission into reverse and floor it. I hear Maria yell, "Hey you want to cut out the idiot driving up there. I think you just broke someone's arm."

 

I'm busy as hell driving backwards, slide around the corner, hit the brakes, stop and yell, "Sorry there was a sniper in the tree ahead and I didn't want us to get shot!"

 

Maria is beside me fast as hell and says, "No Shit! A sniper in the DC suburbs! Where the fuck is that bastard! I'll go get him and I'll only hurt him a little bit just in case he has any information about that bastard fiancé of yours!"

 

I like the hell out of her and she's a woman after my own heart, but I do need to have a little talk with her. "Maria, I'm the only bitch around here that gets to call my fiancé names."

 

She replies, "Yes prin- I mean yes boss. But if I can't call him names what the hell can I call him? Alfred E. Neuman?"

 

I almost giggle because she came close to calling me princess again. I guess compared to her my life probably looks like a fairytale. But I'm only one person's princess and I can't wait for the day he finally crowns me his queen. And her selection of the MAD magazine character describes Ben's action right now to a 'T'. He's fucking M-A-D!

 

Then it strikes me incredibly funny that I chose the name Maria Gonzalez as a whim, and now here she is helping me find my run-away fiancé. Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways. I reply, "When I'm not angry as hell at him I like to call him my run-away fiancé."

 

She answers, "You got it boss lady. Now where the hell is this fucking sniper bastard so I can go get him?"

 

I yell, "Matt or Jim, whichever one of you didn't shit your pants get up here and drive." Then I turn to Maria, "In the first place we're going to go get him. I'm sure as hell not letting you have all the fun. Besides, I still have on my body armor. Now that I've finally got a decent girl Friday helping me out I don't want to lose her."

 

Present – Maria – Headed to 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

My new princess boss floors me with her comment: She doesn't want to lose me? I'm a woman and I thought I pretty much understood my own kind, but my princess boss confuses the hell out of me. I fight back the tears and decide I need to give Millie a hell of a gift for getting me this job!

 

She opens the door and we slip out of the van as one of the guys, the one with clean pants, takes her place and she commands, "Listen Matt, keep an eye on us and when I give you the high sign hightail it to the shop and we'll meet you there." She's a smart little princess boss, because she doesn't even let him slam the door.

 

She turns to me, "Maria, he's in that tall tree right over there about a fourth of the way up on the right side." I look but I can barely see him. Damn, my princess boss has good eyes too! She continues, "I will give you two minutes to circle around the block and come up behind him. Since I have the body armor I'm headed straight towards his tree to draw his fire. Now this is important, do not fire at him unless he first fires at me. And then I just want him wounded."

 

I grin at her and ask, "Does shooting his prick off count as just wounding?"

 

She giggles and replies, "No Maria, I think that borders on total devastation."

 

Oh well, at least she has a good sense of humor. When I asked my squad leader that question in Iraq he chewed my ass off. It didn't matter because I still shot the bastards in the crotch whenever I got the chance. Let them try to get it up for one of their seventy-two virgins after that! Yep, five-point-five-six is the ultimate cock-block - keeping Muslim virgins safe for years.

 

I started my run around the block. As I approach the back of the tree I hear him cough, not once, but three times! Shit! If this guy is a fucking sniper I'm Mother Theresa. I walk right up under the tree but the pretend sniper doesn't even hear me so I wait impatiently for my princess boss. It's too bad I can't shoot just half his prick off because that would be so much fun (or maybe it would just put a nice hole through it) but orders are orders.

 

It's about time my boss finally approaches. I watch the shitty sniper move when he notices her - yeah, no way he's a fucking sniper. He moves his weapon and I ask in warning, "You ever been shot in the dick with an M4? If you make one more move, that's where my rifle is aimed and my trigger finger might just slip."

 

He jumps so I fire a round right between his legs and threaten, "Move again and this one's going to be three inches higher."

 

Present – Jen – Headed to 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

Shit! Maria just fired a round. I dodge and run towards the tree. As I arrive the pretend sniper (yeah I figured out he wasn't a fucking sniper) was sniveling, "Please Ms. Don't shoot me in the dick!"

 

I walk up and Maria says, "Sorry boss but he was taking aim at you. I was just protecting my boss."

 

I glance up and down the street and at least her shot didn’t attract the attention it would have two months ago. The way the guy is sniveling, and the obvious smell of urine makes it funny as hell. I comment, "Good job Maria, if he doesn't tell us exactly what we want to hear, shoot his worthless dick clean off his body." I wink at her so she grins and returns the wink. Damn I like her style even if she is a little more cowboy than I am.

 

I say to the sniper-wannabe, "You get one chance to tell us the truth. Otherwise Maria will separate you from your manhood. Do you understand?"

 

He snivels, "Yes Ms. I will tell you whatever you want."

 

I begin my interrogation, "Have you seen Ben Blaine at 'the shop" today?"

 

He stops sniveling and asks for confirmation, "Banzai Ben?"

 

I almost yell in response, "Hell yes that's who I mean! Tell me all about it."

 

He asks, "Would it be okay if I came out of the tree because I have something to show you."

 

I nod at Maria and she says, "First lower your rifle butt end down, then slowly get out of the tree. If you fuck around at all I'll shoot you in the leg and then shoot your dick off twice."

 

I grin at her since she's one brutal bitch when she needs to be - sort of a bit more out of control me. I grab his rifle and notice it's a pretty damn nice M40 clone. Then he comes out of the tree and stands with his legs crossed. Maria says, "Spread your legs boy, it'll only hurt worse if I have to spread them with a round first." He complies and I wink at Maria because now it's my turn for some fun.

 

I ask, "Do you know who I am?"

 

He says, "Yes Ms. you're the former fiancée of Banzai Ben."

 

I control my fucking anger at his stupid comment and correct him, "No, I'm the current and only fiancée of Banzai Ben and he's going to fucking marry me when I find his ass. Now how do you know him?"

 

He reaches towards his pants. Maria almost fires in response to the movement but he says, "No don't fire. I want to show both of you something in my wallet."

 

Maria says, "Next time you want to move you'd better ask for permission first. Go ahead."

 

He pulls out his wallet and hands me a folded up piece of paper, I open it and note it's a target with about a two inch group. I flip it over and there's my run-away fiancé's writing - I can tell because it looks like the scrawl he left on his note to me. I read:

 

I recommend that Sniper Steve becomes a Marine and be allowed to try out for the sniper training. I verify he fired this group at 100 yards with a piece of shit Norinco M-14 clone using open sights. I personally think he's going to be one hell of a Marine.

 

SGM. Bennie Blaine Ret.

 

I look at him and asked, "He was at 'the shop' and gave this to you. How long ago was that?"

 

He replies, "Yesterday Ms. Donaldson. He left in a big hurry after the reward poster of yours showed up on the television and no one's seen him since then."

 

I probe, "What else can you tell me about his visit?"

 

He thinks for a minute or two and responds, "Well, I went and got some pizza and beer, he had half a Canadian bacon pineapple pizza. He and Dwight disappeared for a while and came back with some interesting weapons I'd never seen before."

 

I stop him and had him describe the weapons in detail. Then I wonder what the fuck my Ben is planning to do with those weapons but I guess this fits with his general craziness. I order, "Okay continue."

 

"Well, some really good looking – well she wasn't a woman, she was a guy dressed like a woman came in. I heard she was actually a Stasi agent when she, I mean he almost slit a guy's throat. She or he and Banzai disappeared into Dwight's office and, well excuse me Ms. he looked really happy when he came back out."

 

Maria gives me a 'what the fuck' look and I chuckle, "Steve, Ben is not that type of man so keep going."

 

"While they, were in the office, another man came in. I heard he was a doctor. Banzai and he went into the office and Banzai didn't look so happy when he came out this time. Then he saw the reward poster and left in a hurry, such a hurry he left his car at the shop."

 

I ask, "So how did he get away from the office?"

 

Steve replies, "I don't know Ms. because he and Dwight went through a door and only Dwight came back. Do you think I can have my target back?"

 

I evaluate him: He's pretty milk-toast but he is a good shot and the Corps just might whip him into shape. As I return his target, he looks relieved and asks, "What about my new rifle? Dwight said it was a gift from Banzai Ben." I open the action and note it's not even loaded. He explains, "Yeah, I didn't have any money with me to buy ammo."

 

Suddenly I liked this kid! Yeah he pissed his pants, but Maria would have had most men doing that. He was standing watch with an empty weapon and that takes balls. Ben was right. This kid just might make a hell of a Marine. I return his rifle and say, "Get the hell out of here before I change my mind."

 

He begins running away from the shop and I do have to admit he sure can run fast.

 

Maria looks at me, "You know we should have kept him just in case we needed more information."

 

I grin and reply, "No, he told us everything he knew. Let's go see if your intimidation works with Dwight, because I think he knows a hell of a lot more than this kid did."

 

I gave Matt the high sign and Maria and I sprint towards 'the shop.' I am pretty sure we missed my run-away fiancé, but I bet I can get some good information out of Dwight on what he plans to do with those weird assed weapons and hopefully where the hell he is headed.

 

Present – Dwight – 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

Banzai put the fucking fear of God in me when he lightly chewed my ass about the shop. He sure is different than he used to be because before he would have ripped me a new asshole. Even though it was mild it still had a huge effect on me and I knew he didn't think I'd do anything. But I rushed right back to 'the shop' after letting the bounty hunter bastard out of his trunk. I laughed because the bastard was so fucking scared he left his car and took off running in his bare feet. I called a meeting of all the old originals and we cleaned house just like Banzai told me we should.

 

Once 'the shop' was empty, I looked at the guys and said, "We need to move all the weapons out of here right now." I had planned for this action years ago so all weapons were all on racks which rolled. I opened up the secret room and we rolled everything out of 'the shop' and into the secret room, transforming 'the shop' back into a machine shop.

 

We all sat around the table, drank beer, told lies and watched the tube. Banzai's fiancée came on for another commercial, this time in full combat gear and mad as hell. Ted said, "God damn that is one angry bitch. I hope we never meet her."

 

Present – Jens – 'The shop'- Washington DC

 

Maria is a fast runner, but I am fucking motivated and even with the gear on beat her to 'the shop'. I hit the door and burst into the room. It looks totally different than in my vision and I am confused. Maria flies in right behind me and says, "Hey, I thought there were supposed to be weapons all over the wall." The rest of the team roars in and they appear to be just as confused as I am.

 

There's a bunch of COFs2 sitting around a table and the oldest and crustiest one of them holds up a beer and says, "Care for a drink former Sgt. Donaldson."

 

2 Crusty Old Fart

 

I march over to the table with Maria right behind me and I declare, "You must be Dwight Regan."

 

He responded, "Present and accounted for, former Sgt. Donaldson."

 

Maria gets all excited, points her rifle at him and says, "Where the fuck is her fiancé?"

 

He doesn't show any fear when he smiles at her and states, "You have to be the prettiest young thing to ever hold a rifle on me. You're lucky as hell I'm such a broke down old warrior otherwise I'd get upset, take that rifle away from you, spank your sexy ass with it and then kiss it to make it better. Now you two have broken into my shop fully armed with an assault team, pointed rifles at me and my friends and acted with belligerence. If you don't want me to call the police then I'd suggest you put down your weapons, have a beer with me and ask me nicely what you want to know. You do know it’s easier to attract a lot more bees with honey than vinegar."

 

I look at the guys and determine force isn't going to work, not with this group. They've faced down fear many times and dying to them is just one more thing they're waiting for. I command, "Okay everyone, especially Maria. Stand down."

 

Dwight says, "I've been expecting you." He looks at the other guys and says, "Thanks guys, but you'd better beat it." Maria gripes, "Hey boss, are you just going to let them go?"

 

Dwight answers, "Listen, I'm the one with the little bit of information. If you don't let them go, you aren't getting anything out of me."

 

I order, "Let them all go. Maria, simmer down and come sit with me at the table."

 

We sit at the table, Dwight hands us both a beer, Maria looks at me and explains, "Boss, I never told you this but I have a little drinking problem. I get really mean and nasty when I drink."

 

Dwight laughs and says, "Shit that's fine because we all do and the older I've gotten the meaner and nastier I've gotten. Here, have a cola."

 

I pop the top on my beer and take a big drink, set in on the table and size up Dwight. I finally state, "You owe Ben because he did something for you." I could tell because Ben's marks were all over his life, I could almost smell them.

 

He raises his beer and says, "You know you're as smart as you are pretty. I told Ben he was a fucking fool for leaving you, but he wouldn't listen. Yeah honey, he saved my life plus gave me the money to set up this machine shop and has given me great advice ever since then."

 

I grin at him, "So you told him he shouldn't leave me? What did he say to that?"

 

He smiles at me, "You know I wished I would have been lucky enough to meet a woman like you. It would have made my old age much more pleasant. He told me some bullshit story but he left out the most important parts. It was like he was embarrassed to tell me something. I'm telling you the truth Ms. Donaldson…"

 

I interrupt, "Call me Jens."

 

He continues, "Okay Jens you can call me Dwight. I argued with him twice until he was so pissed off he was going to leave. I knew he had made up his mind so I helped him because I owed him."

 

Maria interrupts, "If he's your friend and saved your life then why are you betraying him now by telling us all this."

 

He gives her a good hard look, "Damn, Jens, she's a lot like you but with a much shorter fuse." He winked at her and continued, "I'll tell you why: Yes I owe him but I felt at the time he was making a huge mistake with you. And now that I've met you, I know he's made a huge fucking mistake. It's my job to help my friend and right now I know the best help I can give him is helping you two find him."

 

Dwight went on to tell us almost everything. I never asked him where all the weapons went. He was just going to tell me where my run-away fiancé left the car he borrowed from Dwight when we heard. "This is the ATF we have this building surrounded. Throw down any weapons you have and come out with your hands up."

 

Maria overreacts, jumps up and says, "Those bastards will never take me alive. I'll kill them all and let God sort them out."

 

Dwight laughs and says, "Damn you're a fiery one - I bet you're hot in the sack too! Listen I've been planning for this. Sgt. Donaldson, order your aide to simmer down and your group to follow me."

 

I calm Maria down as he takes us into his office, pulls back a carpet, opens a trap door and says, "He left my car at the bus station, but that was many hours ago. Follow the tunnel and it will take you out into a drainage ditch half a klick from the shop. If you want you can leave your weapons inside the tunnel and come back for them later. One more thing, if he contacts me I will make sure to call you. I'm going to kick his sorry ass the next time I see him."

Maria says, "Stand in a long line Dwight, I've got sloppy fifths and you're behind me."

 

He laughs as we sneak out of the building.

 

Present – Dwight – 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

I make sure they're gone and then walk to the front door, slowly open it and the ATF agents fly into the room. I recognize two of the bastards because they lurked around 'the shop'. Damn bastards, I'm going to give a couple friends a call and see if we can't do something about their spying asses. The lead agent demands, "Where are all the weapons you had here?"

 

I look at him with amazement and answer, "I have no idea what you're talking about. This is just a private machine shop that I use to help friends and to keep myself busy. Why don't you sit down and have a beer with me. By the way, do you have a warrant to search my property, or has America become such a police state you don't need one anymore?"

 

He hands me a warrant which I look at it and declare, "Well, it's legal, so feel free to search anywhere but please don't break open any tool boxes since I'll be glad to unlock them for you."

 

One of the bastards says, "I swear to you, just earlier today this place was full of weapons."

 

I look at him and say, "Sir, I don't know who the hell you are but you must need glasses worse than I do." Then I offer him mine.

 

The lead agent says, "Well since we're here we might as well look around." They are thorough with their job and they thoroughly make a royal mess out of everything. I don't even worry when they trash the bookcase because War and Peace was broken after we moved everything into the secret room. Finally the lead agent says, "Shit there's nothing here so let's get out of here." I yell, "Come back anytime you guys, but next time take the time to have a beer with me."

 

Present – Maria – Escape from 'the shop'- Washington DC

 

The old guy was quite a flirt and had a certain charm to him; I just might have to wander back there some day on my time off and give him a tumble. Sometimes those old bastards know their way around and they are usually grateful as hell.

 

We're running down the tunnel and I ask my princess boss, "So what do you make of all the intel we just got?"

 

She replies, "Dwight gave us great information. Something changed my Ben and I'm not sure what because he did some sort of mission where I don't think he killed anyone - before he would have killed them all. I'm almost sure the Stasi agent was to help with disguises and the doctor was to help with his medical condition. Unfortunately, I think we're too late and he's left DC."

 

That is what I pretty much figured out too and I continue, "So what's next?"

 

My princess boss replies, "We need to head to the bus station and see when the departures heading west were. He's on one of those buses."

 

I wonder how she knows he will head west. If he's thinking, west will be the last direction he heads. But my princess boss is the boss and I will follow most of her orders.

 

Present – Erast (Ben) – On the road

 

I switch between watching the scenery and keeping an eye on the two in front of me. The more I watch them, the more my concern grows since they are hinky as hell. I slip the Ka-Bar out of my daypack and attach it to my leg. I put the Wasp knife on my other leg and even slip the ten mil into a low back holster covered by my jacket.

 

They are too active for my liking since they keep watching all the other passengers, never looking out the window at the scenery. It's almost like they are following or looking for someone or something. They especially watch as people head to the toilet and I even see them taking notes on a small pocket notepad.

 

The guy starts to turn so I avert my gaze out the window as he says, "Pardon me, I forgot to bring anything to read, might I please borrow your newspaper."

 

I reply with accent, "Yes you may but I am afraid it is not very good, it is what you Americans call, a, a, a tabloid." I hand him the trashy tabloid.

 

He read the headline and remarks, "Look at the garbage they try to make people believe Millicent, they are saying the fiancé of Ms. Jennifer Donaldson has been abducted by aliens and is being sexually assaulted on their ship."

 

Millicent! When the fuck did a Millicent every ride a bus? She giggles a bit too perfectly and replies, "Really Reginald some of these people will believe anything." Okay that caps it: Reginald and Millicent on a fucking bus means something is totally wrong with this scene.

 

I decide I need to be proactive so I ask, "Pardon me, but I heard American's enjoy this sort of drama and story."

 

She looks back at me and says, "Perhaps some of the burgher class might be fooled by this drivel but not us. You're accent is adorable, where are you from?"

 

I proudly reply, "Moscow, Russia."

 

She nudges Reginald and says, "Dear, you must let me out to talk with our fellow traveller. It has been simply ages since I've met someone from Russia."

 

He stands up and lets her out. She comes back, sits beside me and asks, "Как Вас зовут?"

 

"What is your name?"

 

I can tell because her Russian is not very good that she's probably memorized a few choice phrases. I reply, "Меня зовут Эрэст Петрович Фэндорин и Ваше имя?"

 

"My name is Erast Petrovich Fandorin and your name is?"

 

She giggles her too perfect song and replies, "Меня зовут Миллисент Хьюс."

 

"My name is Millicent Hughes."

 

I decide to really test her and state, "Рад знакомству, Пёс ёб твою мать!"

 

"Pleased to meet you, a dog fucked your mother!"

 

She giggles and answers, "I am afraid you have exhausted all my Russian, what did you just say?"

 

I smile and lie, "I asked what a beautiful woman like you is doing on the bus."

 

She giggles and flirts with me, "I have heard about how romantic and poetic Russian men are."

 

I wave my hands and tell her, "Yes and we owe it all to Pushkin, Он - сердце и душа России."

 

She gushes, "Oh that was beautiful, what did you say?"

 

I reply, "I said Pushkin is the heart and soul of Russia."

 

She leans close to me and whispers, "But wasn't he black?"

 

She is really grating on my nerves so I smile and reply, "He was the great-grandson of a slave from Cameroon who was sold at auction in Constantinople and bought by the Russian ambassador Abraham Petrovitsch Hannibal. He was adopted by the 18th-century tsar Peter the Great. So he was not completely black."

 

She smiles and says, "Well that makes me feel a little better."

 

I finally realize what she's really doing: She has positioned herself in such a way to distract me from her partner. I say, "Pardon me, but I must attend to my needs in the toilet."

 

I get up and notice her partner has moved closer to a group of people while she has distracted me, and he is on his mobile phone. I don't take long in the head and I open the door. She is by her partner but sees me and comes running back beside me. The first thing I notice is my daypack has been moved. There was nothing in there of importance so I don't worry. This time I position myself so I can watch the bus but she keeps trying to distract me, "So tell me all about Moscow?"

 

I've grown tired of her game and say, "Millicent, I would love to do that. But right now I am very tired and do not feel well. I think I would like to take a nap." I pull a ball cap out of my daypack and pull it over my wig, recline my seat and pretend to sleep. She says, "Okay, but I expect you to tell me all about Moscow later." Then she returns to sit beside her partner. They both look back at me, but I'm pretty good at fooling people so they assume I am asleep.

 

What I'm really doing is watching them and trying to figure out what sort of scheme they are running. They are interested in a group of people that I watched when the group got on the bus but I didn't notice anything out of place. He's been spending way too much time on his mobile phone. I look at my watch, note it's about an hour to the first stop and I decide whatever is going to happen will happen there. It’s obvious those two are uncomfortable as hell riding this bus and aren't going to ride it any longer than necessary.

 

Present – Jens – Hunt for Ben- Washington DC

 

We escape into the drainage ditch, I whip out my phone and call a cab. I know we won't be able to go get our van back from 'the shop' until the fucking ATF agents leave, or possibly forever. We also took Dwight's suggestion and left our weapons and my combat gear in the tunnel. We look mercenary enough without attracting that much attention.

 

As I do a search (damn this new phone is nice and it's fast as hell) for bus stations in the DC area. I yell, "Shit!"

 

Maria jumps and asks, "What's wrong boss?"

 

I reply, "Did you know there are four fucking bus stations in the DC area and Dwight forgot to tell us which one."

 

She volunteers, "Hey I'll be glad to go back and find out which one."

 

I'm not sure but I think she has a bit of the hots for Dwight but she can't go back right now, "Sorry Maria, but the place has to be crawling with ATF agents by now and you'd really fuck things up if you went back." I do a new search, which takes forever, for all the bus departures headed west then I yell, "Double Shit!"

 

Maria jumps again and says, "Boss what's the trouble now?"

 

I complain, "There are about twenty-five bus departures headed west from DC for the time period when my run-away fiancé left. While some take a direct route, others go all over the fucking place."

 

Maria questions, "Are you sure he's headed west. If I was him and knew you knew he'd head west, I would head north."

 

I look at all the departures and say, "Shit yes he headed west because he knew I would check and find all the fucking departures. I'm sure he did it just to piss me off some more. And he sure as hell has done that."

 

She replies, "Well what's next then boss?"

 

I say, "We need to get back to our command post. I have some serious hacking to do."

 

The cab finally shows up but since there isn't enough room for all of us, he promises he will call dispatch and get another cab for the guys. I don't want to ride with them anyway, not after one of them shit his pants.

 

Present – Maria – Hunt for Ben- Washington DC

 

So far this has been my best day since I got back from Iraq but now it sounds like my princess boss is going to park her ass in front of a computer and it's going to turn into hell. I think for a bit and ask, "Hey boss, didn't you say Ben did some sort of mission in DC?"

 

She looks at me and grins, "You're right Maria, I'm sure he did with all those weird weapons he borrowed from Dwight."

 

Yeah, I need to ask her about that later - what the fuck is he going to do with a M4 crossbow, play fucking Robin Hood? I offer, "While you're doing your computer shit, why don't I see if I can find out anything about the mission."

 

She smiles at me, "Maria, that's a great idea! You really won't have anything to do and we should see if we can get any information because we might get some clues from it."

 

I tell the cab driver, "Hey mac, turn right ahead, go four blocks and drop me at the police station."

 

He replies, "Sure thing babes."

 

For a second I think about kicking his ass, but he's probably the last white cab driver in DC so I ignore his comment. I question my princess boss, "You're sure you'll be okay if I leave you alone?"

 

She laughs, "Maria, how can you ask me that when I already kicked your ass once today."

 

I remind her, "Excuse me, but I think we fought to a draw."

 

She giggles, "You're right, I was just teasing you." So she does have a sense of humor, now I just have to figure it out.

 

I ask, "Give me a call when you get back to the network just so I know you're safe."

 

She giggles, "Yes m-o-m I will. Jeez Maria, I'm a grown woman and can take care of myself."

 

The cab pulls up to the police station and I bail out. "Good hunting boss."

 

She yells as the cab speeds off, "Good hunting Maria."

 

I walk into the station and realize lady luck has smiled on me since the desk sergeant is a friend of mine from Iraq. He shipped out about a year before I did. Plus, I threw him a couple of lays because he kept my ass out of jail for a couple bar fights I was in. I walk up to the desk and say, "Hey Geronimo, plow any good ho's lately?" He's part American Indian, we called him Geronimo in the sandbox and I guess I never stopped.

 

He grins, "Not since I nailed you I haven't. So what brings you to the good part of town?"

 

I laugh at 'the good part of town'. If this was any part of DC it would be the rim of the asshole, you know, the last part shit sees right before it falls into the crapper. I answer, "I was in the neighborhood and was looking for some information."

 

He gets serious and says, "Maria, now you have me worried because you're looking for information. Please don't tell me some poor bastard pissed you off again and you're looking to find him."

 

I laugh, "No Geronimo it's legit this time. I've got myself a hell of a job and I'm trying to find out something for my princess boss."

He says, "Get your ass over here and let me smell your breath, because I think you're drunk again. You're working for a fucking princess, now that's a joke."

 

I step close to him, cough in his face and say, "You satisfied?"

 

He looks closely at my face and says, "Yeah, you're not drunk, but shit Buttercup, who beat the hell out of your face."

 

I give him a dirty look, "You know I hated that name in the sandbox, and now that I'm here I hate it even more."

 

He laughs, "Yeah, probably just as much as I still hate you calling me Geronimo."

 

He has a point so I apologize, "Sorry about that, but I never did learn your real name."

 

He grins at me, "I'm Fred. Now tell me, is the person that did that to your face still among the living?"

 

I laugh, "Hell yes she is, she's my princess boss, but you probably know her better by the name of Jennifer Donaldson. We had a real knock-down-drag-out for my job interview."

 

Fred laughs like crazy, "Damn you must be hard up as hell to work for her. Especially after that embarrassing as hell…"

 

I interrupt, "Fred she's my boss now and not even a good friend like you can insult my princess boss, that's my job. Besides she's paying me six big ones a month."

 

His mouth drops open, "No shit! Looks like you finally found you a gift horse, just don't beat her to death. So what sort of information are you looking for?"

 

I reply, "Well, you know we're looking for her bastard fiancé…"

 

Fred interrupts, "Yeah bastard is putting it mildly. What sort of fucking moron dumps a woman like that? He needs his ass kicked."

 

I continue, "Yeah I agree and get in the back of a long fucking line that's forming. Listen we think he might have done some sort of unusual para-military op recently in the city. Have you heard anything about something like that going down?"

 

He says, "We still have a shitload of that stuff happening here but there have been a couple strange ones in the last two days, let me go find them."

 

I wait and watch the cops bring in the dregs of society and realize that if it wasn't for my princess boss, I was well on my way to becoming one myself. I had even considered turning a few tricks for some cash, but I was always able to gather enough off my unlucky nightly fight companions that I didn't have to stoop that low.

 

Fred comes back, hands me two reports and says, "Just remember you didn't get these from me."

 

I just start to look at them and my phone rings, it's my princess boss, but it's too fucking early for her to have made it to the station. I answer the call and hear…

 

Present – Jens – Hunt for Ben- Washington DC

 

I realize the cab driver just took a wrong turn so I say, "Excuse me, I think you just took a wrong turn."

 

He replies, "No Ms. Jennifer Donaldson I didn't." I get worried so I pull out my phone, dial Maria and put my thumb over the speaker so she can still hear, but he can't hear her speaking.

 

Then I boldly say, "Listen, I don't know what sort of shit this is. But if you don't take me to the Truth Network immediately you're going to be in big fucking trouble."

 

He answers, "Threatening a federal agent is a felony you know?"

 

Shit! I should have known there were no white cab drivers in DC anymore. I challenge, "Prove to me you're a fucking federal agent."

 

He holds his ID up against the plastic divider in the cab and says, "You satisfied now?"

 

I answer, "So SSA Hotchner of the FBI what do you want with me and why the hell are you holding me against my will?"

 

He says, "Ms. Donaldson we are both looking for the same thing, your missing fiancé."

 

I wonder what the hell Ben did that has the FBI looking for him and decide I'm sure as hell not helping them find my Ben. I reply, "Not just us, with the reward I'm offering I think most of the country is looking for him. Why is it you're looking for him?"

 

SSA Hotchner replies, "I wanted to question him after the DC serial rapist case and he wouldn't grant me an interview. Now he might be a person of interest in a couple more cases. But they aren't serious."

 

I can tell right away the last part is a big lie! They must be very serious and I ask, "So why are you detaining me, I sure as hell don't know where he is otherwise he'd be one unlucky son-of-a-bitch because I'm going to kick his run-away ass when I find him."

 

He pulls into an underground parking garage, stops the cab, turns and looks at me and says, "I just want to warn you: Be careful that you don't obstruct our efforts to find him."

 

I inquire, "So is detaining a civilian without properly identifying yourself first and pulling into the parking garage on Fourth and Broadway normal operating procedure for the FBI?"

 

Present – Maria – Hunt for Ben- Washington DC

 

I hear my princess boss talking to the cab driver and it sounds like she's being fucking kidnapped. Shit I knew I should have stayed with her. I look at Fred and say, "Look this phone call is from my new boss and it sounds like she's been kidnapped by our cab driver."

 

He says, "Give me her mobile number, we can track her from that and get cars rolling to catch them."

 

I give him her number and he flies into action as he says, "You want to ride in one of the patrol cars?"

 

I reply, "Hell yes I do!"

 

He says, "There's a car waiting for you out front, just stay out of the officer's way or you'll get me in trouble."

 

I run out to the front of the building and jump into the waiting squad car, I look and damn it's another old friend from Iraq. This time I've learned my lesson so I say, "Damn it's good to see you again, listen I never learned your real name in Iraq so tell me what it is now."

 

He grins at me, guns it and hits the lights and siren, "It's good as hell to see you again Buttercup, shot anyone in the dick lately? And you can still call me Tex."

 

Yeah that was a joke, Tex was from Vermont. I replied, "I almost shot one poor bastard in the dick just today, you keep calling me Buttercup and you might be the second one."

 

He laughs, "Okay Maria, I just had to get even for you saddling me with Tex. Sarge told me you're working for this Donaldson chick now?"

 

I answer, "Yeah it's the best damn job I've had since Iraq and I sure as hell don't want to lose it."

 

He states, "From what I hear it's about the only damn job you've had since Iraq. You really should have just joined the force."

 

I answer with embarrassment, "I tried but failed the psych evaluation. They said I was too aggressive and had anti-social and violent tendencies."

 

We slide around a corner and he laughs, "Shit you made a big mistake and told them the fucking truth on the damn test. We all have the same problem and the only way we got in was to lie our asses off. But after Iraq this was the only work we found that gives us the same rush."

 

I say, "Well today's been the best damn day I've had since Iraq and I sure as hell don't want to lose my princess boss and this job."

 

Tex answers, "Damn Maria, you really care for her don't you? You carrying?"

 

I reply, "Yeah, I care a hell of a lot for her. She's the only woman I've ever known who fought me to a draw. No, I'm not carrying but I could sure use a piece."

 

He reaches down his leg, pulls up a snub nose revolver, hands it to me and says, "Now don't go shooting anyone first and asking questions later. There's going to be about thirty cops here because your princess boss is big shit. So let us handle this and only use this if you have to. This is also my throw away gun3, so if you use it, wipe your prints and dump it."

 

3 Throw away gun – a gun carried in case an officer needs an alibi.

 

I check it to make sure it's loaded and Tex says, "Looks like we're the first one here, so it's show time! Listen, let me get out of the car first and you stay behind your door and cover me."

 

I'm thinking, like hell I'm going to stand around and let you fuck up the best job I've had since Iraq!

 

Present – Jens – Hunt for Ben- Washington DC

 

I finally hear the sirens and I know the cavalry is on its way! SSA Hotchner looks at me and demands, "What did you do?"

 

I smile, hold up my phone and reply, "Mess with the best, die like the rest! You should know better than to pull this bullshit again: It didn't work with my fiancé Ben and it's not going to work with me!"

 

I watch as a cop car pulls in and then I'm amazed when Maria bails out while the car still moving and runs up to the driver's door of the cab. SSA Hotchner just starts to say, "You bitc…" but never finishes because Maria yanks him out of the car and is kicking the shit out of his ass!

 

She yells, "You fucker! I'll teach you to kidnap my princess boss, I'm going to beat your sorry ass until you don't have any ass left."

 

I jump out of the car, notice his badge and credentials on the front seat, pocket them and watch the show. By now there are five other cop cars, one cop pulls Maria off SSA Hotchner. His coat falls open and someone yells, "He's got a gun." Then the ass whipping really begins when he's jumped by about ten cops.

 

Maria comes over to me, "Sorry about that boss, I got here as soon as I could. Man, are they kicking his ass!"

 

I look at her and reply, "Yeah SSA Hotchner of the FBI is going to be pretty sore tomorrow."

 

We watch as they start Tasing the hell out of him for 'resisting arrest'. Maria says, "I just kicked the shit out of a fucking FBI agent."

 

I grin at her and say, "Let's get the hell out of here so I can dump his credentials. Then you can claim you never knew."

 

We hear the snap of Tasers as we walk away as the police yell, "Stop resisting arrest or we'll Tase you again."

 

Maria looks at me, puts her arm around my shoulder, hugs me and says, "Thanks boss, this was one hell of a good day."

 

I say, "So what did you find out about missions Ben might have done."

 

She pulls a wad of papers out of her pocket and says, "Once we get you safely to the network, we will see."

 

And I wonder again if it was fate that I just happened to choose the name Maria Gonzalez.

 

Present – Erast (Ben) – On the road

 

Yes Millicent and Reginald are certainly out of place and up to no fucking good but I'm no closer now to figuring out what they are doing than I was before. All I can do is watch and wait - two of the things a sniper does best. And even though I'm not technically a sniper anymore, I still make use of the many years of training.

 

I wonder why I seem to find trouble wherever I go: First it was the DC serial rapist, then Dwight's tail, then bastard rape gang in the alley and now these two fuckers. It used to be I was lucky as hell, but now I wonder if all my luck is gone. It seems like everywhere I go I run into trouble - if this keeps up I'm going to have to change my name to Double Trouble.

 

The driver pulls over into a busy as hell truck stop rest area and slows to a stop. Millicent and Reginald stand up but don't move until the group in front of them moves. Then they follow the group outside with me right behind them. I watch as the group separates and the women head to the ladies room with Millicent right behind one of them. She stops the girl in front of her, asks her a question and they end up at the back of a long line. I see Reginald and he is definitely keeping watch on the rest of the truck stop. I walk up to him and ask, "Where do you and Millicent go after here?"

 

He glares at me and answers, "Beat it you commie bastard foreign piece of shit! I had to be nice to you on the bus but I sure as hell don't have to here. Leave me alone or I'll fucking break you in two."

 

I pretend to be offended, head outside and wait around the side of the building closest to the door. Ten minutes later Millicent comes out, supporting the girl she was talking to with Reginald right behind her. The girl is obviously their target and she's even more obviously been drugged. I hear Millicent say, "That's okay honey, we all get a little sick sometimes. We'll take care of you." And they walk towards the corner of the building where I am.

 

I slip back around behind the building and see a midnight black Cadillac and suddenly things make sense to me. I run over to the car, pull my Ka-Bar, give the car a flat fucking tire, then hide in the bushes and wait. Reginald comes running around the corner carrying the girl, takes one look at the Cadillac with the flat tire and whines, "Shit! We've got a flat tire. Millicent, help me get this little cash cow in the car then I’ll change it."

 

I step out of the bushes and say, without my accent, "You two aren't taking her anywhere."

 

Reginald takes one look at me and says, "I've had my fill of you, commie bastard. I've fucking warned you and now I'm going to kick your ass."

 

He sets the girl on the ground and walks confidently towards me and threatens, "I'm a black belt in ka-ra-tay and I'm going to teach you to stay out of other people’s business."

 

I wait till he gets close. As he takes a swing at me, I block it and punch him in the nose hard enough so it breaks with a satisfying snap! He's tougher than I thought because he yells, "You little shit! You broke my nose! Now I'm going to kill you." I see him go for his gun, but he's too late because my ten-mil barks, I hit him in the forehead and the whole top of his head evaporates!

 

Millicent screams and pulls a gun, so I shoot her right between the eyes and watch as the back of her head explodes leaving a fine red mist in the air.

 

I run over to the girl - she's semi-conscious and pleads, "Help me. Those two are trying to kidnap me."

 

I look around and the two shots didn't even attract any attention. I guess that's because this is a noisy truck stop, there are semi-trucks running out front creating a hell of a noise and the gunfight (it was more like a slaughter) was in the back. I searched like hell to find the two cases so I wouldn't leave any evidence. I wasn't worried about the projectiles because they were frangible4 and any evidence of them was gone.

 

4 Frangible rounds are designed to disintegrate on impact.

 

I don't want to carry the girl because it will attract too much attention so I instruct her, "Listen you need to try to walk and I will support you."

 

She answers, "What happened to those two kidnappers?"

 

I reply, "Don't worry, they won't bother you anymore."

 

We get to the bus and I help her up the steps. The driver takes one look at her and says, "If your drunken girlfriend gets sick on my bus, you're cleaning it up."

 

I reply with my accent, "Yes Sir! I will make sure she does not get sick and if she does I will clean it up."

 

He yells, "I damn near left you two. Next time you two want to have a rest stop romp, make it a quickie."

 

I apologize, "Sorry Sir, to make you wait, we will not do it again."

 

I help her all the way to the back row where my seat is, put her closest to the window and the bus starts to move. Once things settle down and we're on the move I take a good look at her and notice she seems familiar, but I can't quite place the face. She's young, about eighteen or nineteen, quite beautiful and has definitely been taken care of well in the recent past. She has the remnants of a very nice French manicure, an expensive salon dye job on her hair and her teeth gleam they are so white.

 

I do a quick look around and find the injection site - it's at the base of her neck on her upper back. I squeeze, some fluid comes out and I taste just the tiniest drop on my tongue and determine from my time at the spy school that its fast-acting sodium pentothal. She should be fine in four hours or so once she sleeps it off. But she will have one hell of a headache when she wakes up.

 

Well my mystery girl who are you and what did those two want with you? One thing for sure, that group you were traveling with sure doesn't seem interested in you since not one of them have come back to ask about you or check on you. They're all seated up front where they were before and getting better acquainted with each other.

 

I decide I at least need to retrieve her things so I walk up to the group and ask, "Where's her stuff?"

 

One guy gets up pulls down a pretty good sized backpack and says, "You're welcome to her man. She's one cold fish and wouldn't put out." The rest of the girls giggle and one says, "Yeah she was a real drama queen diva."

 

I take her backpack and stow it above our seats. Well, with the danger gone, I guess now is as good a time as any for a nap.

 

Present – Thom – TSIFFTS - Washington DC

 

I'm sitting in the truck stop by myself thinking about all the hell that's gone on the last two days. Rescuing Linus and Hammer attracted a hell of a lot of attention - attention which we don't like or need. Liz did cover us well with the terrorist story. But with our mission, and the brutality of the mission in the alley we came across and then the attack on an FBI agent by the police, things have gotten way too hot in DC. All the worthless senators and representatives are clamoring for martial law to be invoked again. I'm thinking it's about time to get the hell out of DC while we still can.

 

My mobile phone rings and it's a number I don't recognize but I still answer. I hear, "You know, I can't think of nothing finer than…"

 

I laugh and complete the quote, "…a fine naked woman holding a gun. Dwight you sorry old son-of-a-bitch how the hell are you?"

 

He replies and his serious tone kills any joy I have, "Thom not well at all. I think I really screwed up."

 

Oh shit, what the hell is going on? I know with Dwight this is going to take a long while because the poor bastard is starting to suffer from dementia: Sometimes he's lucent as hell, other times he's a disaster. I motion for the waitress to refill my cup of coffee and ask, "Dwight, tell me what's going on?"

 

He starts, "Thom you ever heard of Banzai Ben Blaine?" I believe with the constant reward commercials running on television the whole country has not only heard of him, most of them are looking for that stupid bastard. I still can't believe he would dump that cute as hell fiancée of his - he must be nucking-futs.

 

I answer, "Yeah Dwight the whole country knows Ben Blaine." I remember his military career: He was one bad-assed Marine and would have made a hell of a TSIFFTS member.

 

Dwight says, "Well he stopped by 'the shop' a few days ago to pick up some gear for a mission. And Thom it was the strangest gear I could ever imagine him taking."

 

I interrupt Dwight and get him to describe the gear in detail and suddenly my blood runs cold, I say, "Okay Dwight, please continue."

 

He says, "Well you know I sort of let security slip at 'the shop'." I think sort of, there wasn't any security anymore! He continues, "Well, Ben told me with as bad as things were I probably had a couple of ATF agents in the crowd and suggested I clean house. By the way, did I mention I met his cute as hell fiancée and her hotter than hell aide? They are both pissed off at him."

 

I interrupt, "Listen Dwight, stay on track." He's really bad right now because he probably had a few to many beers.

 

Dwight replies, "Oh yeah sorry. Well we cleaned house and moved things into storage and Ben was right since we had a raid by the ATF this afternoon. I recognized two of the bastards as guys who used to hang around the shop. I was wondering if you could do something to persuade them not to come back anymore. Otherwise I can't reopen 'the shop'."

 

Son-of-a-bitch! There's only one way of I know to dissuade a federal agent from doing their job and that's if they disappear. I wonder if the old fool knows what he's asking. I say, "Dwight, you do know what you're asking me to do?"

 

It's quiet for a bit and I hope he passed out, but I wasn't that lucky as he says, "Yeah Thom I do, and I sort of figure you owe me this."

 

I get pissed as hell and say, "Dwight you're a son-of-a-bitch to bring this up again. I'll do this for you because I owe you. But after this we're not even friends anymore so don't ever call me again!"

 

He says, "Well be that way!" He gives me their names, then hangs up on me.

 

I put my head in my hands and think, how in the hell can I do this! But how in the hell can I avoid doing this! My honor won't allow me to ignore debts, even a debt like this, when they are called in. But if I do this, then I'm going to throw everything away that I've worked so hard to build, the TSIFFTS group will be gone and so will all my old friendships and relationships, because I will have to drop out of sight for a very long time, if not forever.

 

I'm sitting in the booth, trying to figure some way to avoid the unavoidable when Byron walks in, takes the seat across from me and says, "Thom you look like you're one dead dog away from a good country song. What the hell is going on?"

 

I look at Byron, and realize his friendship is the one thing I will miss the most. I answer, "Byron, head back to the trailer and call the team together. We need to have a meeting."

 

Present – Byron – TSIFFTS - Washington DC

 

I've known Thom a very long time and I've never seen him look like this, not ever. I even think he has been crying. But he's too proud to admit it and I'm much too smart to ask. There are some things you just never ask some men, no matter how close you are. But Thom is in some sort of huge crisis and we are his band of brothers and need to support him.

 

I hustle back to the trailer, climb inside and announce, "Okay everyone, and this goes double for Linus and triple for Hammer. Something has happened with or to Thom and he's on the edge of losing it right now. He's asked for me to get you all ready for a team meeting and before he comes I want you to know, we as a team need to support the hell out of him no matter what it is. It's time we all put away our own agendas and pull together because for most of us, we're the only family we have. I have no idea what it is, but let's listen to him and not get in a big fight with him. Do you all agree or do I have to kick some ass before this even starts!"

 

Present – Linus – TSIFFTS - Washington DC

 

Well, I've never seen Byron like this before! He and Thom go way back and if Byron feels this way and is acting this way then it's important as hell. Because for once Byron's not being the peacemaker, he's acting like the leader.

 

And I know my role right now is to ride herd on Hammer. I pull Hammer aside and plead, "Listen Hammer, you and Thom don't get along at all. I'm going to ask you as a friend to not say or do anything at all during this meeting. Because whatever you say Thom will take it wrong. You want to yell at someone, we can get away from here and you can yell at me later."

 

He looks at me and replies, " Linus, Thom an' Ah micht barnie an' disagree, but Ah still feel he is mah brub an' Ah was awreddy plannin' oan nae yakkin'. But thenk ye fur remindin' me."

 

"Linus, Thom and I might fight and disagree, but I still feel he is my brother and I was already planning on not talking. But thank you for reminding me."

 

I want to try to get some information on what is coming, so I make a phone call to Liz Morgan to see if she'd heard anything. She doesn't pick up the phone, but then I remember she is headed out of the country on some sort of mission for Jens.

 

So I decide to call Jens to see if she might have any ideas. She answers, sounds depressed and asks, "Hey Linus, how's it going? Are you calling to give me some information about Ben?"

 

Yeah she's all broke to hell about that fucking bastard going crazy and leaving her. I reply, "Hey Jens, I wish I had some good news for you but I've got nada."

 

She sighs and adds, "Well, we missed catching him before he left town on a bus and he's taken to wearing a disguise so we don't know what he looks like. I've hacked into all the bus station's security cameras, grabbed the videos and I'm running facial recognition software on them right now, but it's going to take hours. Please tell all the other teams he's headed west and to keep an eye out for him. Shit I almost forgot, we found the mythical 'shop', met the guy who runs the place and he gave us most of the information we have. We would have gotten more but the fucking ATF chased us out of there."

 

Wow, there really is a 'shop’. I ask, "So what was the guy's name?"

 

She said, "His name is Dwight Regan and he's former Air Force STO. Linus, I'm not sure he's quite right in the head anymore, but he was a hell-of-a-lot of help. He gave Ben some weird-assed weapons for a mission and we have a good idea what Ben did with them from a police report my girl Friday acquired."

 

That name sounds familiar, now where did I hear it before? Thom had reported to the team about their gruesome find and I wondered, "Jens, was one of those weapons some sort of crossbow?"

 

She gets all excited and says, "How the hell did you know?"

 

I answer, "Jens three of our crew came across the aftermath of Ben's mission and they found the crossbow bolts. What did the police report say?" I wasn't sure I wanted to tell her what Thom and the guys found, it was sickeningly brutal.

 

Jens replies, "Well Linus, it was sort of vague and said something about nine guys being injured and one killed. The police are satisfied it was a rival gang so the case is closed, but the FBI, especially one annoying agent that kidnapped me has a feeling Ben might have done that one and the mission you guys did. By the way, good job on taking out that terrorist cell."

 

Damn I'm glad I didn't tell her the details about what Ben did and I'm also glad she supports what we do because she's smart as hell and figures out most of our missions. I decide I need to change the subject, "You were kidnapped by an FBI agent? How the hell did you escape?"

 

She laughs, "My girl Friday came flying in and kicked his ass. Then I pocketed and disposed of his ID. The police pulled her off him and saw his gun and then they beat the hell out of him and Tased him until he ended up in the hospital."

 

I laugh, "So he's the bastard the police beat to hell?"

 

She's in a better mood, "I'd say they beat him to hell and back. Hey Linus I need to go, keep in touch and let me know if you hear anything at all about Ben."

 

I say, "Jens, I will make sure all the teams keep an eye out for him. He's one of the best at hiding but sooner or later he's going to make a mistake. When that happens, we will all be there for you."

 

I hang up the phone and silently curse Ben's crazy ass! He's putting my adopted kid sister through hell and I'm going to make him pay for it.

 

Thom walks into the trailer and from his looks Byron wasn't telling us all the facts. He's the worst I've ever seen him. He looks like he's been locked in a fight with the Devil himself and they both lost.

 

Present – Thom – TSIFFTS - Washington DC

 

Well, it's time and I can't delay the inevitable any longer. I get out of the booth and head to the trailer – it’s probably the last time I will ever do this. As I open the door, everyone looks at me from their seats at the table. I walk up to the table and announce, "I have two things to discuss with the group: The first is just information and we can discuss it; the second I will not take or allow any discussion on. Do you all understand?"

 

They all nod their heads and I continue, "I'm pretty sure Ben Blaine was the one that took out the street gang."

 

Linus says, "I agree with Thom on this, even though it is out of character for him to be so brutal."

 

I blink my eyes at him and wonder how in the hell he found out, and I request, "Okay Linus give us your information."

 

Linus continues, "The key is the crossbow bolts you found. I found out Ben had recently acquired an M4 upper that was a crossbow. He also acquired a Wasp knife, which is normally used on sharks by divers. It sounds to me like he used that on the one bastard."

 

I add, "I agree with this, it's consistent with the information I have."

 

Jim asks, "Shit! We've all heard of him, why didn't he just kill them like he normally would have instead of leaving them like that?"

 

I shake my head, "Now that's the thing that no one seems to know the answer to."

 

Linus adds, "By the way the DC police think it was a rival gang however there is one FBI agent who feels that Ben might have done the mission he actually did plus our mission."

 

I laugh, "Shit! Ben's good but not that good. By the way this wouldn't be the same FBI agent the DC police beat and Tased to hell would it?"

 

Linus laughs, "Yeah it is the same one. By the way Ben's left DC and is probably headed west. Thom, we need to contact the other teams and have them keep an eye out for him."

 

Ah, now I know, Linus has been talking to Jennifer Donaldson so I add, "I will do that for two reasons: One we owe it to Jennifer Donaldson and two Ben seems to be somewhat unstable right now."

 

Todd signs, "Unstable hell! Leaving a fiancée like Jennifer Donaldson is totally deranged."

 

We all laugh and Hammer says, "Ah dunnae kinn fa thes bloke is but he soonds crazier than Ah am. If that's th' case Ah hink we need tae fin' heem."

 

"I don't know who this guy is but he sounds crazier than I am. If that's the case I think we need to find him."

 

We have a good laugh and for once Hammer doesn't upset me. I look around at my only family and say, "Well, I think we've finished this so I have one more thing to say. And before you even try, I'm going to tell you, I've made up my mind and I'm not changing it."

 

They're all looking at me, I choke back the tears as I say, "Effective immediately I am resigning from this team. I have a duty to perform which if I was on this team or a member of TSIFFTS would jeopardize everything. So after I am done with that duty, I will be dropping out of sight probably forever. Byron, either you or Linus are now in charge. I'm taking my pistol, a rifle, ammo and one of the cars. Guys, you're the best. It's been great working with all of you so take care of yourselves. And if I don't see you here, then I'll see you all in hell." I grab everything and leave a totally silent trailer. Once outside, the tears I held back slowly trickle down my cheeks. I jump into the car and leave everything and everyone I care for behind me.

 

Present – Todd – TSIFFTS - Washington DC

 

The second Thom closes the door the trailer erupts in swearing and name calling and blame calling. Didn't these guys listen? I slam my hand on the table so everyone stops, looks at me and I sign, "Sit down, shut up and watch what I have to say before I kick all your asses."

 

They sit down and I sign, "I may be mute, but are the rest of you deaf? Thom didn't resign this group because of what any of you said to him or what any of you did to him. Didn't you hear him say he has a call of duty?"

 

I wait and Jim says, "Yeah Thom did say that."

 

I sign, "What else did he say about it?"

 

Linus adds, "He said it would jeopardize the team and TSIFFTS if he stayed after doing the mission."

 

I continue to sign, "You may not know it, because you guys have always seen him on the team. But Thom and I are both lone wolves and prefer to work alone."

 

Byron asks, "Well if that's the case, why did we always go on missions together."

 

I reply, "You can answer that yourself if you think about it."

 

I watch Byron think and he finally says, "Thom was making sure I was safe?"

 

I sign, "Damn straight Marine!"

 

Linus says, "Well what do we do now?"

 

I reply in sign, "Byron you and Linus should co-lead the team."

 

Byron argues, "I'm sure as hell not going to lead this team." Linus adds, "Neither am I!"

 

I sign, "Byron, you're the closest to Thom and you need to help lead this team because you understand him the most and there will be more continuity. Linus, you need to help because of all your field experience."

 

They look at each other, and finally Linus volunteers, "Byron I'll do my part if you do your part."

 

Byron replies, "Shit I never wanted this but Todd's right."

 

They both say, "So what do we do now?"

 

I look at everyone and sign, "What would Thom do in this case?"

 

Present – Jack – Truth Network - Washington DC

 

I drag my tired ass into the Truth Network after Masha giving hell because I wasn't doing enough to help find Banzai. I have no idea what the crazy fucker is doing now, but he's got everyone pissed as hell at him and the whole fucking country is after him for the reward Jennifer is offering. I hope the hell she knows what she's doing because someone might try to collect it dead or alive.

 

I walk into the biggest dump of an office I've ever seen. Jens is there busting her ass working on a computer and some hot looking Latino chick mouths off, "What happened gramps? Get lost on the way to the crapper."

 

Jens looks up, sees me and runs into my arms and starts crying. I hold her and she finally sobs, "Jack, what the hell is Ben doing?"

 

Damn him, he's hurt the hell out of the best woman in the world, next to Masha! I don't know how I'll do it, but I'll figure out some way to kick his ass for this. I tell Jens, "I have no idea this time. Why don't you tell me everything you know and we'll see if we can figure it out together. By the way, who's the mouthy babe?"

 

The babe gives me a dirty look and Jens introduces me, "Jack I'd like for you to meet my girl Friday, the real Maria Gonzalez."

 

I blink my eyes look at Jens and say, "Maria Gonzalez, you have to be joking!"

 

She stands up and challenges me, "What the hell is so funny about my name? All day long people have been laughing about it."

 

I look at Jens and she says, "Maria we need to have a little talk."

 

Present – Maria – Truth Network - Washington DC

 

When my princess boss tells me the whole story about how she used my name to try to seduce her fucking fiancé, suddenly everything made sense to me. Especially the way the twins acted towards me when they first met me. Those boney, skinny, sneaky bitches knew the story and they chose me for my name.

 

Now the question is why did they do that? I ask my princess boss, "So how many people know about this story?"

 

She says, "Jack, my Dad and I are the only three."

 

I question further, "Liz doesn't know about it?"

 

They look at each other and Jack replies, "I don't think she would know about it. Why do you ask?"

 

I don't want to tell them yet, so I hide my suspicions with, "It's no big deal I was just wondering."

 

My princess boss says, "Okay Jack here is everything we know..." And she tells him all we know while I try to figure out what those two twins are doing - whatever it is I don't like it at all.

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