07 February 2005: Mark Brand.
“I have to pee. Watch my bag.”
07 February 2005: Mark Brand.
Dante watched. Susan peed.
They were sitting in the United Airlines concourse lounge in
Omaha, Nebraska. Their plane had linked with the sky bridge
and was unloading its passengers. Dante and Susan were
due to board this plane in eighteen minutes. He watched
her cross the lounge, weaving around tired college kids and
young families and a menagerie of carry-on luggage.
Dante turned halfway and watched the ground crew (he remembered
hearing them referred to somewhere as “throwers”) unloading
the luggage from the plane’s fuselage. Despite the fact
that the workforce consisted almost exclusively of fat, ragged
looking men in Carhardt coats, it didn’t take overly long, and
they appeared quite gentle with the luggage. He watched
his own blue Tumi case with the P220 stashed inside disappear
up a loading ramp. The fuselage cargo door closed at last,
and they fuel truck pulled away just as Susan returned from
“It’s fucking disgusting in there, and some woman is breastfeeding
her baby,” she shook her head, “You might as well just let him
lick the toilet seats.”
“Any port in a storm?”
“Not for that. Ecchhh.”
“Speaking of which,” Dante paused to drape his arm around her,
she snuggled closer amiably enough, “do we have any good leads
on a wet nurse for Jasper?”
She sighed heavily. Dante read more than a little exasperation
with the situation in that sigh.
“I tasked one of Rockland’s lapdogs to screen them.”
Dante considered this.
“By ‘screen’, do you really mean, ‘scare the living shit out
“I don’t even see why we have to have a wet nurse anyway.
What is this, the eighth century?”
“Just a directive. Infants at that age have been shown
to do very poorly without the undivided attention of a breastfeeding
mother for any length of time. CP insisted.”
“CP are a bunch of computer dorks who think about boobs too
much. Finding someone healthy and qualified who can be
easily disposed of in a few months is harder than it sounds.
There’s a decent immigrant population in the Omaha area that
will do pretty much anything for a buck, and a few rural women,
but we don’t want her to be too…” Susan made a grimace, “That
would be way worse than just bottle-feeding him, which we should
just do anyway. It won’t make any difference.”
Dante shrugged and raised his eyebrows: not my rules.
“How do you think they raise orphaned babies?”
“Sue, it’s not my call.”
“Don’t “Sue” me..”
“All right, all right,” Dante held up both hands.
There was a deep pause where the only sounds between them were
the typical cacophony of a morning airport. Finally, she
“Want some Starbucks?”
Across the concourse, three nappy-headed baristas were performing
the alchemy of coffee. One ritual, which no doubt infused
the black liquid with something sweet and/or creamy, involved
placing the coffee into a machine which then spit it back out
at what sounded like about 8700 degrees Fahrenheit. The
machine whined and fluffs of steam emanated from it. Dante
imagined the molecules of the coffee being torn apart by some
“What time is it,” Dante asked, “Aren’t we boarding soon?
There might be coffee on the plane.”
Susan looked down at her left wrist (silver Movado, Christmas
present from Dante four years ago).
“Ten minutes ago. I wonder wh…”
“Attention passengers of United Airlines Flight 2914 with service
to Syracuse Hancock, your plane has arrived but we are having
the ground crew do some extra checks before we board.
Estimated time of takeoff is ninety minutes. We apologize
The rest of the announcement was lost in the groans of the lounge.
Susan sat back and did her best not to pout.
“Starbucks?” she asked again, after a moment.
He shook his head, and pointed his finger.
To the left of the Starbucks Atomic Research Center was a McDonald’s
Express with your basic, everyday coffee pot simmering a glass
bucket of mud.
In pod 21, Margaret danced with herself. She was at that
painful in-between age when the desires of her body had made
themselves known, but were not yet clearly focused. Needless
to say, there was a significant amount of Emo music, photos
of young masculine heartthrobs, and dancing with herself with
both arms wrapped around her own shoulders. She was always
somewhat embarrassed by this, and would have turned absolutely
green if anyone had seen her prancing and swooning. Here
and now, she was beautiful. Soft and sweet. Dare
she even think… sexy? Outside her pod, she was just Margaret.
Margaret of the bad skin, Margaret of the ugly glasses, Margaret
of the dumpy rear-end, Margaret of the Munchies.
She somehow knew in her heart that keeping her pod cleaner and
not eating so much would do an enormous amount of good for her,
but it was so much work. And so pointless. Why keep
it clean when no one ever came over? Why cut back on the
food when all it ever did was make her horribly, unbearably,
hungry? No amount of self-improvement had yet penetrated
the everyday life of Margaret Barnaby. She wished she
had a big sister that could teach her how to be beautiful.
Someone who would show her the little tricks that made being
gorgeous and popular look so easy. The worm of jealousy
turned in the apple of helplessness, and thus the lackluster
viewing career of Majestic-21 marched snoringly on.
But back to the dancing in pod 21. She felt, in some remote
part of her mind, the crunch of cellophane and paper plates
under her sock feet. Her mind, her unusually special mind
(as her old teachers and Grange handlers had always referred
to it) was working on a particularly pleasant fantasy about
a young man named Andrew who seemed to do nothing all day except
chop wood in a tight t-shirt and wrap his arms around her.
She thought for sure that this would be the time that Andrew
would do something else to her, but unfortunately that was when
the phone rang.
Instead of standing in a huge field with a young man’s muscled
woodcutter arms around her, she was once again just Margaret.
The arms that were wrapped around her were her soft, fleshy
ones. The hands that stroked her back were her own.
She was momentarily immobilized by her mortification.
The irrational but persuasive idea that someone had seen her
just then was hard to put out of her mind. She lived,
after all, in a hotel of eavesdroppers.
She had to hunt for the cordless handset among the piles of
girl-debris on the floor. She found it, mercifully, on
the third ring.
“Hello Margaret,” said Susan’s voice.
“You sound a little out of breath, sweetheart,” Susan had always
been nice to her. Not big-sister nice, but maybe distant-aunt
“Ummm… no, I was just… doing some jumping jacks.”
“Oh. Well, good for you.”
There was a dreadful moment when she thought that Susan must
know exactly what she had been doing. She took a deep
breath and closed her eyes.
“Actually, we just got the word that we’re going to be stuck
here at the airport for a while, I was wondering if you could
maybe drop in on our little buddy and see what he’s up to.”
“Can I do that? He’s not on the playlist for the morning,”
said Margaret. She knew it was a thin excuse, her playlist
was always small (or non-existent) in the morning. Nonetheless,
there were clear rules about the appropriate uses of Army time.
“Do you have anything scheduled for the next forty minutes or
Margaret brought up the text version of her list on the living
room panel. They were having her watch a car salesman
in Salt Lake, an alderman in Maine somewhere, and a private
in the 83rd infantry that seemed to do nothing but pushups.
She had liked watching the soldier (such arms!), but the boring
surveillance playlists had taken their toll on her. She
hungered for something more exciting, and that was exactly what
Susan was offering her.
“Nothing until later,” Margaret said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Can you patch me in when you get him?”
“Thank you Margaret.”
“Oh, you’re welcome!” she squeaked in pleasing-authority voice
that she hated in her own ears, “I’ll talk to you in a minute!”
The line clicked.
She slapped herself in the forehead for sounding like such an
idiot on the phone. At the same time, she felt a thrilling
tingle at even being asked to do such a thing for the Assistant
Director. She took one last Grasshopper cookie from the
package on the floor and undressed as she went.
Margaret clicked the second lock on her pod door, the one meant
to signify that the viewer within was in his or her negative
stimulus tank and not to be disturbed. She peeled off
the socks that she had slept in, sniffed at them involuntarily
and tossed them into the corner. She shucked out of her
pajamas and put her hair into a series of padded rubber bands.
She had long since gotten over her timidity about being naked
in the tank, but the tickle of seaweed hair on her shoulders
always felt gross. She had also never outgrown the plastic
swimmer’s goggles. She just couldn’t seem to make her
eyes stay shut.
She dipped her feet and calves into the tank and connected the
18-gauge needle extension to her right arm port.
The new type of rebreather had a tension hose on it, so that
once you were strapped to it, you didn’t rotate more than 90
degrees in any direction.
“Eyes read M-21,” the voice was never soft or loud, never male
or female, “Standing by.”
“Freelock,” Margaret said.
“Polling playlists, please hold.”
Though Margaret had never met any of the tank technicians, she
suspected that they were checking her pod number against the
playlists for the day. She was allowed to use the technology
in her pod whenever she liked outside of her daily assigned
viewing, it was a practice called Freelocking that usually involved
people spying on their old friends or just plain peeping on
strangers. She didn’t quite dare tell them that she was
viewing something for Mr. Nagel and Susan.
“Freelock confirmed, M-21. You may proceed.”
“I’d like a phone patch if I could, Eyes.”
“Go ahead, M-21.”
She said the number slowly and clearly. When she finished,
she slipped the straps of the rebreather over her head and secured
her goggles. As her torso slid into the water, the viewing
mixture began dripping into her arm and the lights in the pod
In the vacant emptiness of the warm tank, there was only the
ringing of a distant phone.
07 February 2005: Mark Brand.
09 February 2005: Mark Brand.
“Hello, Susan.” Margaret’s voice was reproduced mechanically
to make it intelligible. She sounded like a heavily medicated
version of herself. She spoke very clearly and with enunciation
that she could never seem to manage in real life.
In the old days, there had been serious difficulty perfecting
a method of two-way communication in the negative stimulus suite.
The low gurgling sounds reverberating down the tank rebreather
were impossible to decipher, so throat microphones were installed
in the jawline of the masks and interpreted somewhere down the
line. The challenges associated with this were twofold.
First, each viewer had to meticulously familiarize the Eyes
computer with their voices. Otherwise “head” would come
out “bed” or “dead”, or “dead” would come out “deed”.
Once the computer could achieve 98% correct interpretation,
there existed the difficulty of lag time. Despite the
incredible amounts of system resources that could be brought
to bear on the computations, there still existed a 0.25 to 0.50
second delay on the line. 0.25 doesn’t seem like much,
but there were times when it may have made all the difference
in the world. In any case, it wasn’t exactly Pacific Bell.
“Do you have our little guy?”
“Stand by. Still processing the last lock manifest.”
“There’s no hurry.”
Images disjointed resolved into something resembling a life,
a living. It was a little more than seeing, a little less
than feeling. Somewhere in the neighborhood of being there.
She knew somehow by the forward sag of her shoulders and the
not-quite-steady feeling in her midsection that she was locking
on a woman. Oddly, her chest seemed to be crying.
The person she had locked on (Darah or something, she had forgotten
the mother’s name) did not do her the favor of tilting her head
far enough south to actually make visual contact with baby Jasper.
Instead, she kept her eyes firmly fixed on the middle section
of a copy of People. The side-to-side motion of her eyes
made Margaret want to look away.
“What do you have?” Susan’s voice was much more distant now,
filtering through the liquid of the tank. The voice quality
was clear, but still sounded like it was coming from an old
“She’s feeding him, I think, or trying to,” Margaret yelled,
forgetting that she didn’t have to talk over the screaming baby.
She was the only one who could hear him.
“Are they still at home?”
Margaret tried to resolve the peripheral glances that Mrs. Darah-Or-Whatever
made off the edges of her magazine page.
“Hard to tell, give me a sec.”
Suddenly, the silence was deafening. Evidently, baby Jasper
had discovered his lunch. At this, Dara-Or-Whatever finally
did look down at her chest and to Margaret it looked like there
was a baby resting on a huge, peach-colored pillow. Jasper’s
eyes were closed, but it was clear that he was an adorable baby.
Even Margaret, who still found no small measure of anxiety associated
with the entire process of babies, was affected. She let
out a little coo-ing sound involuntarily. A moment later,
obviously unsure of what the sound was, the Eyes coordinator
cut in on the speakers. Susan also had apparently heard
“What was that, M-21?”
“Margaret, I can’t hear you.”
She cleared her throat, an action which probably sounded after
vocal filtering like white noise on an old television set.
“Nothing. It looks like…” she trailed off for a moment
as Darah-Or-Whatever’s eyes drifted off to the opposite wall
of the room. It was a sitting room and on the coffee table
to the left was a framed photograph of Jasper and his mother
in a green-draped hospital operating suite.
“…it looks like they’re still at home. The mother is reading
a magazine on a couch or chair or something and t looks like
Jasper is… uh… eating. Or sleeping. Or both, I don’t
“Any sign of early departure?”
By some stroke of luck, Darah-Or-Whatever had simply stared
at the far corner of the room for the last few moments and given
Margaret an excellent resolve for most of the room. There
were no signs of packing or luggage or imminent departure.
The only things she did see were scattered piles of half-folded
baby clothing and toys, mixed here and there with a pair of
pumps or sandals. The television remote said Sanyo on
it, and there weren’t many buttons. The walls were mostly
white with just a few posters and small Kmart Home decorations.
Even by Margaret’s standards, it was obviously the home of someone
who had no expendable income.
“Doesn’t look like it.”
As Margaret was saying this, the lids of Dara-Or-Whatever’s
eyes slowly closed. “I’ve lost visual resolve,
Susan. I think she’s taking a nap. Should I maintain
“No, that’s all right. Thank you Margaret, you can unlock
now. We’ll be calling you on Monday morning. Make
sure you get some sleep tonight. Tomorrow is going to
be a big day.”
“Ok,” Margaret said, it was all she could think of.
18 February 2005: Mark Brand.
Susan clicked her cell phone closed and slid it into her handbag.
“Just having lunch, apparently.”
Dante nodded, sipping at his coffee.
“Attention passengers of United Airlines Flight 2914 with service
to Syracuse Hancock,” the bored-looking teenager at the ticket
counter glanced down at his screen, “We have just been informed
by the pilot that our aircraft is being taken offline for repairs.
The next plane to land at this concourse will take its place.
The next plane will be arriving from Cleveland at approximately
six-fifteen P.M. We apologize for any inconvenience this
may cause you, and we appreciate your continued patience.”
Susan bit back a snarl. Dante just chuckled to himself.
“I told you.”
“Should we get another plane?” Susan asked.
“By the time we set it up, this plane will be ready to go.
Besides, the workups on Jasper and Dora and my gear are already
on the cart to be packed into the next plane.’
“Well, I can call the guys at Syracuse, but then what do we
“We’ll have to pull an all-nighter.”
Susan blew out a sigh and slid down into the relatively shallow
terminal chair. She flicked the cell phone open again.
After what seemed like the longest wait in recorded airline
history, they finally were able to board the second plane.
The maddeningly impassive flight crew made no mention of their
six-hour delay. The captain, cheerful as ever, informed
them that they would be arriving in Syracuse Hancock at “just
a hair past nine”. It was 9:15 when the plane actually
touched down and 9:45 by the time the baggage rollers started
moving. They met the asset callsign Harry at the taxi
and shuttle bus lanes shortly after.
“Is there anything to eat where we’re going?” Dante asked quietly.
“We have some pizza and wings at the apartment, sir,” replied
And with that, Dante had exhausted the only bit of small talk
he had prepared on the asset’s behalf.
“Is this the vehicle we’re going to be using?”
“Yes, sir. It’s been retrofitted with a tactical package.
Self-sealing tires, bullet proof glass and rocker panels, reinforced
gas tank and double-duty suspension.”
Dante peered over the back of his seat. There was a space
roughly the size and shape of a small pickup truck bed with
carpeting instead of a liner. A retractable black cover
slid out from the back of Dante’s seat to close off the space
hatchback-style. There was no equipment at the moment
for dealing with Jasper, but tomorrow it would contain a padded
basinet with blankets, diapers, toys, and bottles of formula.
Though it was a small space, it had been carpeted all the way
up to the interior walls to afford them some degree of soundproofing.
Harry pointed out that the black floormats could be placed over
the roll cover to create additional sound dampening. Enough,
at least, for their 17-hour, 1200-mile run for Hitch.
Harry, like most assets called up after a lengthy stretch of
nothing, was being very formal and very quiet. He was
a large man with broad shoulders and a heavy jaw, his head was
shaved and he had a close-cropped goatee. Definitely bouncer
material, or possibly militia. Bathed in orange, arc-sodium
streetlights they drove over the steel and concrete swirls of
the interlaced Syracuse roadways. It was a fairly new
city, compared to many other East coast cities, but it had the
look of something poorly kept. Dante suspected that there
might be quite a lot of grime between the cracks of it.
“Fuck, I hate flying,” Dante said, running tired fingers through
his hair, “Let’s never do it again.”
Susan nodded her agreement in the shadows on the other side
of the Chevy SUV’s back seat.
They arrived at the safe house (a rented motel room, actually)
at 10:15. The other two assets, Kevin and Gene, were already
there. Susan and Dante gratefully accepted paper plates
with flat New York-style pizza and spicy Buffalo wings.
After a short trip to the washroom for Susan and a half a bottle
of soda for Dante, they got to work. The guns were cleaned,
the maps examined and re-examined, the baby equipment loaded,
the sequence gone over again and again until they were red-eyed
and restless. This restlessness unfortunately carried
over even after they had agreed to try and relax for a while
None of them slept. Dante was unsurprised to learn that
the Syracuse sunrise was nearly as haltingly grungy as the dim
evening glow of the skyline. They set out that morning,
the morning of the operation to grab Jasper Daniels, feeling
like college kids who had stayed up all night cramming for a
23 February 2005: Mark Brand.
“Confirm target location, M-21.”
“She’s off the plane, it looks like she’s getting her luggage.”
Susan’s cellphone had been replaced by a hands-free headset
with only a left sided earpiece. Her right ear was nestled
against the metal stock of an M4 carbine rifle with a 12X telescopic
sight. She was situated on the roof of a combination storefront
apartment building on South Salina Street. She had huddled
behind the façade of the building’s roof, and a large
bag of dog food served as her firing position. To her
right, eyes peering into huge binoculars, was callsign Harry.
“Do you copy that, Peacock-1?” Susan asked.
“Copy,” said Dante. He was situated a block away in the
SUV with callsign Kevin. At this point, much would depend
on whether or not Dora Daniels took the bait.
“How are we doing, Gene?”
“In place. No sign of her yet.”
“Look sharp, baggage claim is very close to car rentals.”
Dante’s eyes surveyed the street. It wasn’t much different
from good old Cabrini Green in Chicago. The buildings
weren’t as tall, the homeless blacks not quite as grim looking,
but there was definitely the hunger of poor city folk.
And the anger, too. What would be referred to in Chicago
as a bodega was here probably just called a gas station, but
bullet-proof plexiglass and microwave burritos were universal.
As was the cardboard box full of $1-a-pair socks in the corner
by the stack of Mountain Dew crates. The fire hydrants
on the street had a rusty look from cracked paint. The
Rust-Olem red had flaked in places from regular use. The
lines on the street were faded to just a suggestion.
Two young black men wearing faded basketball jerseys strolled
past, shooting Dante and Kevin suspicious looks. Dante
might have passed for a black guy in this neighborhood if he
had been alone, but Kevin had an Eastern Bloc look to him.
White as the driven snow. White people were as rare in
this stretch of Salina Street as silver dollars. So were
nice automobiles. Dante knew that they left the SUV alone
for more than an hour they were likely to come back and find
it stripped to the bone, or gone entirely.
The young men, teenagers really, kept walking. Sagging
shorts over worn high-tops. It was as blatant a cliché
as could be imagined, and Dante felt a momentary bright stab
of hatred for them. He had fought his way free of Cabrini
Green so many years ago that now looking back it didn’t seem
like it had really been that hard.
Dante could see the storefront atop which Susan and Harry were
perched. It had been boarded up and closed some time ago
and no one lived in the apartments above it. Flanking
on either side were cheap co-ops and rental units with injection-molded
furniture on their cast-iron balconies. Across the street,
an enormously fat man with short legs was sweeping the sidewalk
in front of DEBORA’S HAIR AND NA L S LON. Two of the neon
letters had burned out, and even in the daylight looked grungy
“I have her,” said Gene, distantly.
“Keep your distance,” Dante warned, “a hundred yards if possible.”
“She’s putting the baby into the car seat. He’s wearing
a faded yellow onesie with a red knit hat. He’s….” Margaret
trailed off, “He’s going to be in the right rear seat.
Behind the passenger seat.”
Dante started the SUV’s engine.
“She’s pulling out,” Gene said.
“Go,” Dante responded.
Dante tried to picture the whole thing in his head. The
baggage claim area of Hancock exited into a semicircle of taxi
and shuttle lanes that was approximately two hundred yards from
end to end. Susan had gotten into her car and Gene was
pulling out behind her. They would drive out onto a frontage
road of some sort and then onto a connector for I-81.
They would then drive south toward the junction of I-81 and
the New York Thruway. They would plan on taking the Thruway
west toward Rochester from there.
“What’s our intercept time?” Susan asked.
“Five minutes,” Gene responded, “Maybe a little longer.”
She racked a round into the chamber of her rifle.
“We’ve just gotten on the ramp for I-81.”
“What’s our speed, M-21?”
“Ummm… looks like about 58. 59. 58.”
From the seat next to him, Kevin worked at a small laptop.
“Two minutes till the thruway.”
23 February 2005: Mark Brand.
Dora Daniels was not a stupid person, she just tended to make
awful choices. The first awful choice had been to lose her
virginity at 14 to Henry Jarvis. The second had been getting
knocked up at age 16, the third had been shacking up with the
dreadful Mike Rupert, the fourth had been not trying to get some
sort of child support out of him when he blew town a year ago,
the fifth had been… Well, there’s no point in dwelling on
it, the girl was just a victim of extraordinarily bad decision
Jasper, who had not ceased crying for the past hour, was something
she did not count as a mistake. The lost sleep, the constant
feedings, the senseless wailing that burnt out the very endings
of her nerves. It was all worth it. He was her prince,
a boy without fear of poverty or lost dreams or hopelessness.
She would give anything for him to have a life better than her
She had met Adam on a website for young single parents.
In high school, when all she had to do was get up in the morning
to get attention, she had never pictured herself as one of the
piteous creatures that surfed through internet classifieds.
Adam’s listing was the only one with a picture that looked even
remotely handsome. Most of the other men were nerdly thirtysomethings
or old men with dirty ideas about young mothers.
They began chatting on the message board and soon they were
talking easily about her pregnancy, families, and loneliness.
It turned out that Adam’s wife and baby daughter had been killed
four years ago in an auto accident. To Dora, he seemed
like the one person in the whole world who might actually be
a decent match for her and Jasper.
She was sure, as she acknowledged she always had been in the
past, that this time it was a good decision. This
time the limb she was about to go out on wouldn’t break under
her. This time there were far too many coincidences, too
many little details that all meshed together. Fate was
maybe too strong a word for what she and Adam had, but it was
the closest word that came to mind.
For the fourth time, Dora glanced in the rearview mirror and
saw that Jasper had spat out his nuk. Some genius of years
past had invented a nuk with a lanyard attached that could be
fixed to a nearby object. The newborn-sized pacifier dangled
alongside his head from a rainbow colored ribbon. Dora
reached back with some difficulty, keeping her eyes on the road
and simultaneously grasping the pacifier, and popped it back
in his mouth. Jasper looked at her with the half-asleep/half-lunatic
eyes of an infant amidst a crying jag as if to say: What
the fuck are you doing, woman? Can’t you see I’m upset?
He promptly spit it out once more.
She sighed and resigned herself to another hour of this sort
of driving. As it turned out, though, it was only a moment
later when she spotted the flash of the red and blues behind
“Shit,” she hissed, for once unaware of the little ears.
Woop. The siren sounded once.
She pulled off of the right hand lane and onto the shoulder.
She jumped a little when her tires hit the rumble strips.
Jasper was screaming louder than ever. The great big state
trooper got out of the Crown Victoria and it rocked on its suspension
with his weight.
“Damn it,” Dora gritted through her teeth. The rental
agreement from Hertz was still on the passenger seat beside
her. She reached for her purse and knocked it into the
foot-well. Pocketbook and lip balm and mini-pads and wet-naps
all spilled out onto the floor of the Neon.
She glanced into the rearview and saw the gray uniform of the
New York State Police. She put her head between her hands
against the steering wheel, wanting to cry. The Statie
knocked on her window.
“License, proof of insurance and registration please, ma’am.”
“Sure… Jasper, shhhhh,” the baby wailed, “it’s in my purse.”
Dora leaned over into the foot-well of the passenger seat and
retrieved her pocketbook. After a brief moment of terror,
she finally located her driver’s license floating free among
a small wad of receipts and cash. She handed it over,
along with the rental agreement.
“It’s a rental,” she said, as if the yellow license plates hadn’t
given it away already.
“Is there anything on here that I need to know about?”
The trooper made no motion.
“No, I haven’t even been pulled over in years…”
“Put the car in park and shut off the engine, I need to run
your license plates and registration.”
Dora sighed heavily.
She watched the patrolman return to his cruiser. She took
Jasper out of his car seat and rocked him gently, trying to
calm his inconsolable cries. It was only a moment later
that the trooper returned.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid this is a stolen car you’re driving.”
“What?” Dora asked, suddenly losing all interest in the baby.
“I just rented this car a half an hour ago at Hertz at the airport.”
Dora put the pacifier into Jasper’s mouth again and sat him
back in the rear car seat. She asked him to repeat himself.
“This car belongs to a man in Pennsylvania who reported it stolen
six months ago.”
“Well that’s not my problem, the fucking company…” she caught
herself, “sorry, the company I just rented it from is
responsible, not me. How was I supposed to know?”
The officer held up his hands and for the first time his impassive
face showed a sympathetic smile.
“It’s all right ma’am, you’re not being charged with a crime.
I called Hertz and the rental agreement is legit. They
didn’t know that this was a stolen car either, and we’re trying
to establish who they bought it from and when.”
Dora felt better instantly. The idea of being charged
with a crime in an unfamiliar city, especially with her baby,
“Oh, ok officer. I’m sorry I snapped…”
“Well, don’t apologize yet, because I have one more piece of
bad news for you. You’re going to have to follow me to
the station in that car so we can impound it.”
“Are you serious?”
He nodded, gravely.
“I called for a tow, but dispatch gave me the order. Unfortunately,
I can’t let you take this car anywhere except directly to our
“Officer I have a baby here, what am I supposed to do after
The trooper looked past her at Jasper. He frowned minutely.
“Well, you don’t have to give a statement or anything, where
are you headed?”
“Are you coming back through on the way out?”
“I’ll make some calls on the way, maybe I can get one of the
Avis guys to meet us at the impound. Your rental fees
will all be refunded, I’m sure the Avis guys will be happy to
get your business.”
“Shit,” Dora said, chewing on her lower lip.
“I’m really sorry about this, ma’am. I just can’t let
“All right, all right,” Dora cut him off, “let’s go. How
far is it?”
“Just a couple of miles.”
“Yeah, take it slow.”
23 March 2005: Mark Brand.
“We are on the way, Peacock-1.”
“Outstanding, Featherbed. Everyone copy that?”
Various affirmatives over the channel.
“She’ll be in the box in three minutes. Keep your heads
Dante reached down and started the SUV’s engine. He reached
into his coat pocket and chambered the first round in his P220.
“I’m here,” Margaret said, sounding like a doped recording from
a hundred years ago.
“What’s going on?” Dante asked, trying not to sound irritated.
“Nothing, they’re just driving. They just passed a place
called Hiya… hiya-something.”
“Hiawatha Boulevard,” said callsign Kevin.
“They’re driving about 55. What exit are we looking for?”
“Seventeen,” said Kevin, automatically.
“Seventeen,” said Dante.
“They’re at 22. Wait, 21a.”
Dante motioned to callsign Kevin, who closed his laptop and
traded it for a pistol in the glove box. The two of them
opened their doors and switched places quickly.
Dante spared a glance at the roof of the abandoned storefront
and caught the glint of Susan’s rifle scope.
After they had switched places, Dante gave the street one last
glance. From here on out, there would be no more preparation.
“This is M-21, they just passed exit 18.”
The two basketball kids that had walked past were now quite
a ways down the street. They might hear the gunshots,
but by the time they figured out what was happening, but the
time anyone did, Dante and Kevin would be halfway to Rochester.
“Peacock-2, can you see them yet?”
“Negative,” said Susan.
The man sweeping the front steps of DEBORA’S HAIR AND NA L S
LON must have swept the same spot four or five times by now,
but there he was, just fucking around again. Suddenly,
Dante felt a deep tug of intuition.
“Peacock-2, do you see the shopkeeper?”
“No, I’m watching the exit ramp.”
“Peacock-2, the shopkeeper directly across the street, he’s
“Wait a second,” Susan said, “I’ve got them.”
Dante turned, and was surprised that he could see them as well.
Salina Street was a long and fairly wide avenue and he spotted
the cruiser almost immediately.
“Be ready to do the shopkeeper, too. I think he noticed
“I have positive visual contact,” said Susan.
Dante knew she was focusing unwaveringly on the approaching
car. He looked back at the storefront and saw the fat
shopkeeper disappear into the front door. There was no
time to debate it further, they just needed to get Jasper and
get out of there.
Callsign Kevin dropped the SUV into gear.
04 April 2005: Mark Brand.
What followed occurred very quickly.
Dora and the baby drove along behind callsign Gene until they
were directly in front of the abandoned storefront and across
from DEBORA’S HAIR AND NA L S LON. At this point, Gene
pulled the Crown Victoria over to the curb and put on his flashers.
Not knowing what else to do, Dora pulled in behind him.
At just that same moment, Dante and callsign Kevin screeched
to a halt behind the Neon at a 45-degree angle, blocking both
Gene got out of the car and looked at Dora, holding both hands
with palms front in the “stay-put” gesture. Confused,
but not completely duped, she turned in time to see Dante approach
the rear right hand side of the Neon. This was the most
difficult moment in the entire plan, and much counted on slow
reaction time from Dora. It took one second for Dante
to exit the SUV, and two more to reach the back of the Neon.
By the time he reached for the rear passenger side door handle,
he knew she had beaten him.
She recoiled like a wolverine and sprang at him. Instead
of reaching out with her free right hand, which would have bought
Dante a few extra moments, she dipped down and unfastened her
seatbelt first. She scrambled over the console, fishtailing
as she dove, and grasped Jasper’s coat. Dante gripped
her wrist and tried to wrench it away and she sank her teeth
into the flesh on the backs of his knuckles. He pulled
back his bloodied hand and brought up the P220.
Something that looked like a high-speed rock flickered off of
the Neon’s roof. Then another, then three more.
He reflexively ducked, and a spatter of hits too numerous to
count followed. A tire blew, glass shattered. The
sound of gunshots had rendered him half-deaf, and this made
the silence of Dora screaming in his face somehow more terrifying.
Her teeth were covered in wet flecks of his blood. A bullet
like a raindrop came through the driver’s side window and stabbed
a hole in her jeans at the thigh. She didn’t even notice.
Her fingernails dug into his face when he reached in a second
time. Somehow, she had already wrestled Jasper’s car seat
free and had put him down into the foot space of the rear seats.
Wedged in there, anyone who tried to take him would have to
go through Dora first. Dante ducked back around the passenger’s
side front door of the car to get out of the line of fire.
The world became a drumline of pistol and rifle fire.
It was impossible to tell how many people were involved, but
it was certainly many.
“What’s going on? Who’s out there? M21 come in.”
His headset, which he couldn’t hear over the screaming and the
gunfire, sounded like it was in another room.
“…two or three unknowns… doorway…down…”
Dante risked a peek around the front end of the car. Callsign
Gene lay bleeding in the street, clutching at his midsection.
Beyond, in the salon doorway, the fat shopkeeper had returned
carrying an assault rifle. The man was standing his ground
and firing at the rooftop where Susan and Harry were perched.
Heavy rounds chipped away at the façade brick and Dante
saw the barrel of Susan’s M4 pointed skyward. No one was
firing at Dante, however, and the rounds stopped falling on
the Neon the moment he ducked behind it. He could still
hear Dora screaming as his headset started to resolve.
“Peacock-1, are you there? (gunfire popping)”
“Ya…,” Dante began, as one of the young black men with the basketball
came running around the car. Dante realized, as the kid
brought up a pistol, that things had fallen rather completely
out of control.
Dante heard the door of the SUV open and callsign Kevin shot
the kid down. Once more heavy gunfire started walking
back toward them. Kevin tried to turn in his tracks and
ended up skidding on the cement and falling down. As his
body hit the ground, it jittered with bullet strikes.
In the next instant, Dante saw the door to the Neon swing closed.
The silver lock knobs clicked down.
“Someone take the fucking shopkeeper!” Dante shouted, not knowing
if anyone could hear. The lighter note of Susan’s M4 could
be heard above the crackling of pistols and the assault rifle.
The undercarriage of the Neon sang with ricochets. Dante
waddled, scrambling as quickly as possible, to avoid the bullets
aimed for his feet and ass. Another tire blew loudly.
Dante made his way to the rear passenger side rocker panel of
the Neon and tried the door. It wouldn’t budge.
He peeked over the windowsill and saw that Dora was rooting
in her purse for a cell phone. Her body still covered
Jasper completely, and there was no clear shot. Dante
fired his P220 into the passenger side front window and reached
in to trigger the electric lock, ignoring the clawlike fingernails
he felt. The door finally gave and he ducked into the
front passenger seat. Bullets started coming through the
front window of the Neon and he threw himself over the console.
His face was in the seat cushion on the driver’s side when he
felt Dora stab him with the nail file.
04 April 2005: Mark Brand.
Dante roared in pain and he heedlessly threw himself on Dora.
The redness of combat had taken over, and no bullets or broken
glass would keep his hands from throttling the life out of her
throat. As it happened, that wasn’t necessary. She
had been shot already in the legs and arm at least three times
and was bleeding clotted gore into the foot space in the rear
seats. Jasper, as unhappy as a baby had ever been, was covered
in his mother’s blood.
She made one more exhausted stab at him with the nail file,
but he batted her hand away and grasped Jasper. He pulled
on the baby’s flimsy pajama outfit and hauled Jasper up and
into the crook of his left arm like a bag of groceries.
His right hand he used to push himself off of the console and
driver’s seat. Dante backed ass-first out of the passenger
side door and rolled backward onto the pavement. The flesh
below his suit’s elbow would be raw later from concrete-burn,
but he barely felt it.
Dora’s mouth was open in a tortured shriek that he couldn’t
hear over the deafening gunfire. The sound of a dozen
jackhammers in an amphitheatre. The shopkeeper, as fearless
a man as Dante had seen in a long time, was still standing his
ground out in the open in front of the nail salon. The
man had the blackened stock of the assault rifle firmly against
his shoulder and was pounding Susan’s rooftop position with
measured bursts. Ducked behind the bogus police cruiser
was the other young black kid, who had picked up callsign Gene’s
pistol and was firing two-handed at the rooftop.
“Stay down, Peacock 2!” he shouted, hoping that Susan could
As Dante scuttled backward across the pavement on his ass, the
shopkeeper noticed him. Out in the open, crab-walking
toward what he hoped was the direction of the SUV, Dante suddenly
found himself face-to-barrel with the assault rifle. In
a flicker, he brought up the P220 and fired a few unaimed shots
in the general direction of the nail salon door.
The door jamb, an older wooden type popular on buildings built
before 1950, exploded only inches from the shopkeeper’s face.
The man spun and ducked through the open door. Dante immediately
fired a few rounds into the police cruiser as well and the black
kid dropped out of sight.
“Now, Susan!” he yelled, not knowing if he even still had a
good audio link.
His only answer was more gunfire, but at least this time it
wasn’t directed at him. Jasper, who was squirming more
than could be expected of a tiny infant, nearly got out of his
grasp. Dante gathered a fistful of his tiny overalls and
grasped him like a football securely in the crook of his left
arm. With the flat side of the pistol, Dante pushed himself
up into a standing position and retreated toward the SUV.
The driver’s side door was still open, but the passenger side
was closer. He made for it, trying to hug the angles of
the cars that would protect him.
Now it was Susan and callisign Harry’s turn to let loose.
The M4 rattled heavily from the rooftop and the large pane of
glass that was the front window of the nail salon disintegrated.
To Dante’s surprise, it was answered almost immediately from
within by the shopkeeper. Once more the heavy rifles annihilated
any sense of the soundscape. It was because of this that
Dante failed to hear the lighter note of the black kid’s pistol
as the smaller bullets began to fall around the hood of the
SUV and near Dante’s head and shoulders.
He dropped reflexively, this time landing near the front passenger
side tire of the SUV. The bullets followed him across
the vehicle’s armored front end and grille, not harming the
SUV itself but putting Dante in significant danger of catching
a ricochet. A pistol round caught the tire near him and
sunk into it. The tire itself was proof against gunfire,
but the strange reverberation snapped Dante into action.
He scrambled backward until he was behind the passenger side
door, he felt bullets punch at him through the armored side
panel and glass. Dante placed Jasper on the floor in the
foot space, and crawled up over the seat and console toward
the driver’s side.
The bullets from the black kid stopped for a moment, Dante glanced
out through the windshield to see the kid reloading the pistol.
He took the opportunity to reach out into the open air and pull
shut the SUV’s driver side door. The instant the door
closed the gunfire became muted in the closed interior.
Jasper, wailing his little heart out, was safe on the floor
and out of the line of fire.
04 April 2005: Mark Brand.
“The shooter behind the car is reloading,” roared Dante into his
headset. He didn’t realize that he was yelling, because
the sound of his own voice was so far away in his ears.
He heard nothing from the audio link, but saw Susan and callsign
Harry squeeze off a few rounds into the direction of the nail
salon. The kid behind the bogus patrol car had disappeared
Dante had to right himself in the driver’s seat in order to
get back behind the wheel. This was more difficult than
it sounds, given the complex console between the seats.
His foot stuck momentarily on the emergency brake handle and
he had to scramble awkwardly to get both feet under the steering
column. Once he was situated, he reached for the ignition.
The key was gone.
Now, I’m really fucked, he had time to think,
before a spatter of bullets cracked across his windshield.
Despite the ballistic glass, he flinched away.
“No key, no key!” he shouted into the headset. Still nothing.
Susan was popping off rounds sporadically from her perch and
Dante saw callsign Harry climbing down the fire escape behind
the building’s façade. Somehow, the shopkeeper
had holed up in the nail salon and they were coming down to
get him. The front window of the salon still sputtered
flashes of gunfire and glittering brass casings.
Dante took a quick glance over the front seat and floor of the
SUV, scanning for the keys. Nothing. He saw where
callsign Kevin lay, now quite completely dead. The man
must have taken the keys with him when he got out of the driver’s
seat. The body was lying out in the open, and it was too
far to stay under cover of the bulletproof SUV. Dante
gritted his teeth and opened the driver’s side door again.
“Cover!” he yelled, hoping that if the audio link didn’t work
at least Susan might hear his voice across the street.
Callsign Harry had reached the bottom of the fire escape and
was trading fire with the kid behind the cruiser.
Dante hit the ground and ran low and fast toward Kevin’s body.
It was his hope that Susan would keep the shopkeeper occupied,
but no sooner had his feet hit the ground than bullets started
falling near his feet and legs. He dove forward, falling
flat and scraping his chin on the asphalt. He rolled Kevin
over and frantically fumbled in his pockets. He looked
up in time to see the shopkeeper break cover and fire directly
at him. He didn’t feel the bullet that sank into the meat
of his calf, but it did send him sprawling. Susan, at
last given a clear shot, gunned the shopkeeper down.
Dante’s hand grasped the key, and he tore it free of Kevin’s
pocket. As quickly as his legs could manage, he hopped
back toward the SUV. Behind him, Susan turned her attention
to the police cruiser and raked it with rifle fire. The
black kid crawled out from behind the car, bleeding from a half
dozen gunshot wounds, and died on the pavement.
Dante motioned to Susan and Harry that he had gotten Jasper
in the SUV, and to flee. Susan slung the rifle and started
down the fire escape ladder. Dante was nearly back to
the open driver’s side door when the Neon suddenly squealed
to life and spun backward into the SUV. The open door
was bashed closed and dented inward and Dante avoided being
hit by mere inches. He had time, as the Neon crunched
past, to see the hellish , bloody face of Dora grinning in the
starred windshield. The SUV, proof against bullets but
not against the blunt physics of another car, jigged sideways
and up onto the curb. Dante just stood there for an instant,
not believing what had just happened. Dora’s car came
to a stop and her head fell forward. The top of her hair
was a mess of gore.
It was about this time that Dante first noticed the wailing
of sirens. Susan was close enough to shout now.
He cupped his hands in front of his mouth.
“We’re leaving! Everyone in the truck!”
It had been agreed upon earlier that they would all take separate
cars away from the scene, but that was before the ambush had
been turned on them. The first of the newly arriving police
cruisers pulled into view, lights flashing. Susan turned
and ran toward him without hesitation, and made it. Harry
either failed to hear him or decided that it was too far to
run. The M Level agent raised his pistol and fired a magazine
into the windshield of the nearest cruiser. Dante tried
to cover him for a moment with his P220, shooting out the tire
of the other squad car, but as soon as the cruisers came to
a halt, it was all over. Heavy police shotguns tore him
Then Susan was at his side, her face an impassive hare-lipped
mask. Her arm bled freely from a wound that Dante couldn’t
see. His own abraded face reflected in her sunglasses.
She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him toward the SUV.
Buckshot and pistol rounds began haunting their progress and
she turned for an instant, taking him with her, and rattled
off what was left of her M4’s magazine in their direction.
Dante saw blood spray against one of the white cars. They
02 May 2005: Mark Brand.
When they reached the SUV, the Neon was still wedged against the
driver’s side door. While Dante unlocked the back door of
the SUV, Susan reached into a hip pocket and loaded a fresh magazine
into the M4. She shrugged the backpack from her shoulder
and took out a plastic bag with something limp and soft in it.
The door was open in Dante’s hand and he crawled in, once more
fighting his way into the driver’s seat. He was greeted
by softer gunfire and louder baby crying. He lifted Jasper
into the rear compartment and laid him in the back compartment
behind the seats. His door was closed and dented inward
at a painful angle that he had to wedge himself into.
Hard hits on the windshield from gunfire. At last he managed
to get himself back in place and put the key in the ignition.
The heavy engine thrummed to life smoothly and he motioned for
Susan to clear away so he could push off the Neon. Susan
shouldered the rifle and fired at the cruisers again, causing
the police to dive back behind their own cars for cover.
Glass and paint chipped and shattered at the other end of the
street. Susan stuffed the empty bag back in to the backpack
and turned the rifle on Dora. In her lap was the decoy
baby corpse. Lacking the time to set the car on fire,
Susan cut them apart with the M4. Dante knew that this
wouldn’t be as convincing as charred remains, but they had long
since passed that point. Bullet-riddled would have to
He clicked the lock free and Susan hurried around to the front
of the SUV. She glanced up at Dante through the windshield,
and that instant she was shot several times. Without thinking,
Dante rolled his window down and switched his pistol to his
left hand. The bullets once more sent the police scrambling
for cover, but after the second trigger pull the hammer clicked
on an empty chamber. He fingered the release reflexively
and slammed home a fresh magazine. As he did this, he
saw Susan struggle to rise, holding onto the rear passenger
side rocker panel of the Neon.
He forgot about the pistol for a moment and threw the SUV into
reverse. He backed away abruptly and cranked the wheel
hard to the left. Dante pulled the SUV close enough that
he could throw open the passenger door to shield her.
She reached up into the cabin and he grabbed an arm that was
slick with blood. He pulled her into the passenger seat.
Maddeningly, the police were breaking cover now, running at
them across the riddled and strewn hellscape that Salina Street
had become. Covering fire crackled across the front of
the SUV. Dante put the transmission into reverse and started
backing up. Susan took a moment to gasp for air and shook
her head to clear it. Incredibly, she cracked the top
of her window and swung up the M4. The sound of full-automatic
rifle fire was deafening in the SUV’s cabin. One of the
uniformed officers fell abruptly and another clutched at his
arm. Everyone dove for cover, but Susan cut them down
as they ran.
After what seemed like thirty hammer blows to the head, her
magazine ran dry for the final time. Her good hand fell
from the rifle’s trigger and into her lap. The M4 remained
in midair, suspended by the bulletproof glass that was still
pinning it to the top of the door frame. She stared off
into nothingness, and if it weren’t for her uncontrollable coughing,
he would have thought her dead a half-dozen times over.
He floored the accelerator and they sped back up Salina Street.
In thirty seconds they had gained the freeway and two hours
later they would be in Pennsylvania.
Behind them lay the bodies of all three of their sleeper M Level
assets, the shopkeeper, the two black youths, Dora Daniels,
an anonymous deceased infant (later assumed to be one Jasper
Daniels, her son), and a number of Syracuse police officers.
South Salina Street, never known for being the safest place
on earth, had been torn apart. DEBORA’S HAIR AND NA L
S LON was hanging in shredded ruin from the very support frame.
Ballistic experts would dig no fewer than two hundred rifle
and pistol slugs out of it. A rented Dodge Neon, which
was estimated to have been hit by over seventy rounds, sat on
three flat tires. Ahead of it was a stolen police cruiser
originating from Parish, NY. Not to mention the two first
SPD cruisers on the scene which had been shot up beyond repair.
The roof of an unoccupied storefront/rental unit had been stripped
of paint by bullets as well. Blood would be found up there,
along with a pair of binoculars. Amazingly, stray bullets
had killed no one, though there were reports of unexplained
bullet hits as far away as four blocks. In all over seven
hundred empty shell casings were recovered. It was the
bloodiest four minutes in the history of a street already quite
familiar with blood. Somewhere West, Dante and Susan cruised
as casually as possible back toward Nebraska. Jasper wailed,
Susan coughed and bled, and Dante tried to hold them together
long enough to get home.
The Nu-Car smell of the SUV’s leather upholstery now had an undertint
of cordite and copper. Susan was trying, for the fourth
time, to get the magazine of Dante’s pistol to catch. She
had picked up the gun from the console and managed to hit the
release, sending the empty one onto the floor at her feet.
Dante’s eyes skipped back and forth between the rearview mirror,
the baby in the backseat, and Susan. He paid very little
attention to the road ahead of them. They were doing roughly
seventy-five, westbound on the last leg of the New York State
“Fuck,” she said.
Susan’s hands shook so badly that she dropped the full magazine
into her lap. With a long-eyed stare, she grimaced and
reached for it again.
“Wait, here,” Dante said.
He took the whole thing from her, snapped it in, and handed
it back. She held it in both hands like a little girl,
her left eye had begun to swell badly and redden. Dante
knew that she must be at least half in the grip of shock.
He touched the button that engaged the coil in her heated seat.
Not quite the same as real first aid, but it was the best he
She appeared to have been shot in the left shoulder, left hip,
and an inch left of where her navel would be under her shirt.
Her coughing was ragged and wet, but strong. Her lungs
were still functioning and her diaphragm was under control.
There didn’t appear to be any loose pieces of bowel or internal
organs, and that was something. Except for the swollen
red eye, she seemed alert. She caught him looking her
“J-just… d-d-d… drive.”
Jasper finally cried himself out and lay in the back seat in
a state of miserable, whimpering half-sleep. Dante knew
that feeding times had come and gone, but the baby-gear they
had brought was still secured in the cargo area of the SUV.
Dante didn’t dare pull over, even at a rest stop. All
he needed was some idiot with a cell phone to see Susan’s colorful
appearance and the law would be on their trail again.
As they passed into Pennsylvania, Dante started hunting for
a motel to stop in. Susan had now been fighting shock
for the better part of four hours, and she had begun to drift
in and out of consciousness. Somewhere after the Niagra
Falls exit, she had stopped speaking clearly and simply focused
on breathing. He finally found a roadside motor lodge
near Erie that had two things going for it: drive-up parking,
and a bored middle aged Indian proprietor who took cash happily
and didn’t ask twice when Dante gave the name “Gomez”.
A quick scan of the room revealed the typical Pennsylvania cubbyhole
motel room with the obligatory half-dozen heavy duty locking
mechanisms on a flimsy, hollow-core fiberboard door. He
immediately turned the television on and up to full volume.
Hopefully the sounds of afternoon TV would muffle Jasper’s yelps
when he woke to the interior of this room.
After wrapping the sleeping Jasper in his coat and secreting
the baby in the room, Dante went back to the SUV and walk-carried
Susan straight through the door to the bathroom, where she promptly
grimaced at the awful linoleum tilework and vomited into the
sink. The bullets had punched holes through her clothing,
driving fibers of her black sweater and turtleneck into the
wound. Dante absently thought about the imminent prospect
of infection, but for the time being that was the least of their
worries. He helped her sit on the floor between the toilet
and the bathtub/shower and held her head while she spat a wad
of blood into the blue toilet water. She choked and sputtered
for a moment before getting her breathing back under control.
They managed to get her shirt and pants off and Dante examined
the wounds as she shivered on the cold tile.
The shoulder wound was clean through the meat of her deltoid
muscle and out the back. A fleck of bone here and there
might have meant that it nicked her shoulder joint on the way
through, but it had stopped bleeding and the bullet was no longer
inside her. The wound in her abdomen was actually further
off-center than he had originally thought as well. Though
it continued to bleed and there was no sign of an exit wound,
it didn’t appear to be leaking anything unnatural or “sucking”
(like when cowboys get gut-shot in Westerns, Dante thought).
The hip wound was something else entirely. The bullet
had either struck at an unusual angle or in just the wrong place,
but for whatever reason, her left hip from the midline of her
thigh to the top of her hip bones was torn open and still bleeding.
Dante poured water on it to flush away the grime that had accumulated
around the wound, but this only served to hasten the bleeding.
He tried using his belt as a tourniquet, but the wound was too
far up on her thigh and it bled around both sides of the belt.
Finally, he managed to stop the heaviest of the bleeding by
folding a presumably-clean hotel towel in half and leaning against
her hip and groin. She scrabbled on the floor and moaned
sharply at the pain, but she bore it and soon enough the vicious
shaking subsided a bit. The flesh around her hip looked
like something a dog had chewed at, and the blood continued
to ooze. He tore the bedding free of the mattress and
placed all four layers over her, hoping that the shock would
recede as well.
“Sue, can you hear me?”
Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably and her jaw clenched
and unclenched in waves. She was unable to form a word,
but instead her good eye rolled toward him. She tried
to say something and managed to bite into her tongue.
“Shit. Never mind, don’t talk,” said Dante, “we can stay
here for a few hours to rest, but we’ll have to move on soon.
If you want, I can call 911 before I walk out the door and we
can get you to a hosp…”
This time the answer was clear, Susan shook her head sharply.
Dante studied her for a moment to make up his own mind, and
finally went out to the SUV to get the baby gear and the first
02 May 2005: Mark Brand.
17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
The little motel room they had rented looked like as much like
a war zone as the mayhem they had left behind in Syracuse.
While Susan sat and shivered on the bathroom floor, Dante undressed
Jasper and washed the blood off of him as gently as possible.
The baby squirmed furiously after a moment or two and then started
protesting in earnest. He was surprisingly strong.
Twice Dante had to put the infant down on the bed and let him
flail and scream, but the little creature seemed never to tire.
He obviously hated being bathed and getting his little arms into
the outfit they had brought took almost five minutes.
Dante wasn’t unsympathetic to the little boy’s cries, and he
tried to hold the child against his chest and rock him.
He even danced around in the motel room like he had seen mothers
do, but this seemed only to slightly help. Jasper was
inconsolable. The pacifier they had brought with them
was almost a joke, as Jasper seemed very practiced at spitting
it onto the floor only seconds after he got it into his mouth.
There was some bottled milk in the baby gear, and Dante warmed
the bottle using the coffee maker and a pot of water.
Jasper ceased screaming long enough to rapidly down the bottle,
and then promptly fell asleep again. The baby squawked
intermittently as Dante worked on Susan. He discovered
another gunshot wound on her left wrist that had taken a half-inch
piece of meat out of the space where her forearm met her hand.
This he had missed because it hadn’t been obvious before and
wasn’t bleeding much, but suddenly it made sense why she was
unable to reload his pistol. He checked her over for further
wounds, but found none. He didn’t dare go probing into
the wounds or turn her over to see if the hip had an exit wound,
but he managed to cover and bandage the shoulder and abdomen.
Nothing in their small-ish first aid kit was going to be adequate
for her mangled hip, however. He took the largest bath
towel he could find and wrapped it around her leg from her knee
to as high on her hip as he could get it. It oozed a small
amount of blood, but nothing too severe. He tied the towel
off and used his belt to apply even more steady pressure over
the wound. Susan winced when he did this, but her capacity
to writhe in pain had diminished. When he was finished,
he used the emergency scissors in the first aid kit to cut her
pants into shorts and split one leg up the inside seam so that
he could get them over the bandage. This turned into an
agonizingly slow, twenty-minute struggle. The shirt proved
much easier, though it was still covered in significant amounts
of blood. The shoes he didn’t even bother with.
Her sock feet would have to be sufficient. Her left lower
leg had started to change color in several places anyway, and
Dante thought it likely that she was losing circulation to it.
Once she was dressed, he retrieved the sleeping Jasper from
the bed and tucked him into the plush baby-carrier that they
had brought in the SUV. The brilliant thing not only kept
the baby from thrashing around, but also zipped up nearly to
the infant’s throat like a large Easter basket with a built-in
strait-jacket. This he easily secured in the special soundproof
cargo area of the SUV with straps that had been installed specifically
for that purpose. The empty bottle, bloody baby clothes,
and dirty diaper he tossed into the SUV as well. He did
not want the bloody mess the manager would find to be associated
with an infant.
The SUV did not have a cell phone of its own, but as Dante turned
to go back for Susan, he remembered for the first time his headset
and Callsign Kevin’s laptop. He took the computer from
the SUV’s floor and booted it up. It only took a moment
to see that the machine was either damaged or the battery was
dead. A weak electronic wheeze came from the tiny processor
fan, and then silence. He tried plugging it back into
the console cigarette lighter and got a standby light but nothing
more. He put the headset on and listened. There
was only silence.
“Majestic, can you hear me?”
For the first time, Dante started to feel like he always did
when things had spiraled out of his control. It was the
deep and weary draining feeling of “Uh oh.” It was the
feeling that he had only now realized that this was some sort
of awful dream and what remained was trying to wake himself
up. At that moment it felt like the earth had was being
levered, and he was the fulcrum that was bearing the load.
He tapped a button with his left hand and lowered the driver’s
side window. The fresh air hit his face and drove away
He reached down and gathered up the spent shell casings and
loose gear that had littered the floor and stuffed it all onto
the floor in the back seat. Mercifully, the rear of the
SUV was a large bench seat that was almost as wide as Susan
was tall. If he could position her there somehow, and
belt her in, he could drive almost non-stop without disturbing
her wounds too badly. He made a mental note to grab some
of the hotel pillows.
He went back to the room and made a last scan to be sure he
had left no damning evidence.
“All right, Sue,” he said so she could hear, “This is going
to hurt like shit, but we need to get moving.”
He pulled the fitted sheet from the bed to make a sling for
her leg, but as it turned out, that was unnecessary. Susan
was dead. She sat in the same position she had been in
when he went outside, but a pool of blood was widening under
17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
an unfortunate fact over the following sixteen hours. Despite
all the laws of auditory physics, you really don’t ever
get used to the sound of a screaming infant. There lies
in their vocal chords a very special kind of modulation that defies
acclimation. A blaring alarm clock, a fire siren, a 747…
none of these things possess the sheer distraction potential of
an unhappy baby. Such vocal range, such depth of emotion
can be brought to bear. One moment the cry is indignant,
the next quasi-painful, the next a hopeless, senseless wail.
Dante was treated, through the majority of Illinois, to a vocal
tour-de-force of remarkable strength and breadth.
Given the flat, tedious landscape that they traversed, he hardly
blamed Jasper. They stopped a twice at rest areas so Dante
could hastily fill the SUV’s tank. He didn’t venture into
the predictable food courts or convenience stores. He
would make this trip without a single stop for food or bathroom
facilities. He urinated as necessary into an empty water
bottle, and Jasper was left to thrash around in the heavily
padded cargo area. Though it had seemed irrelevant at
the time, the assets that had obtained him the vehicle had assured
him that a baby would easily survive a full-speed collision
while penned into the cargo area. Crash-proof it may have
been, but certainly not sound-proof. The four coffee-cup
holder sized air holes let plenty of Jasper’s unhappiness out.
Dante’s headset remained frustratingly silent. In an older
time, before the decentralization of the viewers and of their
respective regional management, there would have been a S.E.E.
team dispatched immediately after losing contact along the pre-determined
vector of approach. Meaning somewhere along I80/90 a pair
of fresh SUV’s would have met them halfway and escorted them
in. As it were, Dante had hoped at least for some sort
of acknowledgement that he had made it out. There was
no safety in using land-lines and with the headset non-functional,
there was no way to otherwise safely communicate with the Grange.
It crossed Dante’s mind that the attention of the authorities
that he had gained with the botched grab was, in all likelihood,
quite severe. They might not have found Susan’s body right
away, but if the foreigner at the motel desk had seen them leave,
or if some maid went in to turn down the bed… Dante involuntarily
stared into the rearview whenever someone came along behind
him. For all he knew, his trail was as cold as stone.
Or open road behind him might just mean whoever was following
was trying to avoid spooking him. In either case, the
best course of action was not to try contacting the Grange using
something so desperate as a civilian phone line or service.
With any luck, Margaret would try to lock back onto him or the
baby and manage to see one of the highway signs. Failing
that, she might try locking Susan or one of the assets, and
at least be able to alert someone who could help him.
Now that Susan was dead, however, Dante realized that he was
effectively without friends. Margaret might help him,
but if she did it would be as much a byproduct of her own blundering
as any skill or foresight on her part. The Grange administration
didn’t care if life or death were imminent. They just
provided papers in the mailbox. Dante had no direct superior.
Despite a young voice crying his little lungs out, Dante felt
very much alone. He keyed the cruise control up to 82.
As fast as he dared drive without provoking speed traps.
The heavy SUV was chugging fuel, and soon he would have to stop
17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
in Iowa, Dante heard an unusual grinding noise in the front end
of the SUV. Something akin to the sound a grocery store
shopping cart makes when a pebble is caught in front of the wheel.
It went away as quickly as it had come, so he ignored it.
A few miles later, it ground again, this time more loudly, and
the vehicle’s frame shuddered. He tried applying gas to
even it out, but this only made the shuddering intensify.
Jasper suddenly quieted at the strange vibration.
The steering wheel jerked suddenly to the right, and Dante fought
it briefly to keep the vehicle on course. The vibrations
started rattling his teeth, and he reluctantly pulled over into
the breakdown lane. As he brought the vehicle to a stop,
he noticed a right-sided lean that he had either failed to recognize
after hours of driving or simply not noticed due to his lack
of sleep. He clenched his teeth. This was going
to be a bitch.
Jasper started crying again, only softly at this point, but
Dante knew that it would get louder and louder. He rolled
up the windows. Fortunately, it wasn’t a particularly
warm morning, and the baby would be fine closed up in the vehicle
for a few minutes. Hopefully, that would be all it would
take. Dante slipped his pistol into the rear waistband
of his pants and put on his four-way flashers. The highway,
fortunately, was dominated at this hour mostly by semi trucks
and weekenders. It was a slightly ominous-looking day,
with low-lying gray clouds to the edges of the horizon in all
directions. He felt a few patters of rain as he made his
way to the right side of the SUV.
It was as he had feared: the right front tire of the SUV
was flat. Not simply flat, either, but rather spectacularly
flat. The thickened self-sealing tires had lasted over
1000 miles of high-speed travel, but either a piece of road
debris or a bullet from the shoot-out had eventually torn through
the hardened rubber. At some point, the millions of rotations
of the tire had broken down the integrity of the circle, and
flattened it out slightly. He could picture in his head
the tire slowly wearing down on the blacktop. Dante also
knew from looking at it what had caused the rattling and vibration.
At the end, the vehicle had started riding directly on the rim,
which was bent beyond repair. The rubber of the tire had
started disintegrating between the road and the rim, and his
nose was filled with the stench of burning tires.
Dante unlocked the rear cargo door and it slid upward, revealing
the special cargo area and a screeching but clearly unharmed
Jasper. As soon as the hatch opened, the crying intensified
significantly. In the middle of the cargo space an infant
seat had been firmly attached to the frame. It looked
like nothing so much as a miniature version of a street-racing
seat. Buckles with soft belts everywhere, soft foam full-support
contouring cradled the profoundly unhappy Jasper. One
whiff was enough to know that things had been shaken up in his
diaper. Dante realized that he would somehow have to change
the child’s diaper here on the side of the highway before they
continued. He reached further into the compartment and
grabbed a lukewarm bottle. Jasper, fighting at first,
decided that food from Dante was better than no food at all.
Abruptly, the yelling stopped and was replaced with an almost
hypnotic sucking sound.
Wasting no time, Dante, pulled the soiled diaper free.
He managed to change the baby, who had foregone fighting in
favor of eating. Sensing that all was well for the moment,
Dante replaced the bottle with a pacifier and closed the cargo
door. The spare tire, thoughtfully, had been attached
to the vehicle’s deck lid instead of under where Jasper was
seated. Dante had the jack under the SUV’s frame in a
moment and was cranking it up as fast as possible when the first
“Fuck,” he mumbled under his breath, and his eyes closed in
a moment longer than a blink.
Only the bottom of the car’s frame was visible under the SUV,
but it had nice clean lines. Unmistakably a European import.
The man behind the wheel looked like a younger pre-midlife version
of Santa Claus. He was wearing an olive t-shirt with shiny
aviator sunglasses. In the passenger seat sat a plump
young black woman with highlighted curly hair that hung into
“You need a hand honey?” came the inevitable question.
He had been parked on the interstate breakdown lane for almost
ten minutes now, and some part of him was surprised that it
had taken this long. He stood up, brushing his hands as
casually as possible on his pants. The young woman was
just trying to be friendly, but he was dangerously close to
shooting both of them and stealing their K-car.
“Hey!” Dante waved, amiably, “No, I think I got it. In
fact I’m almost done. Thanks though. I’ve got my
cell in case I need it.”
He waved the power pack for his headset.
The bearded fellow in the Volkswagen simply nodded and gave
him a strange little salute.
“Good luck!” the woman said to the windshield, as they drove
away. It was shortly after this that it started to rain.
The jack was the sort that operated by turning a short, bent
handle around a greased and threaded accordion. It gradually
raised the chassis enough to spin the wheel freely. Just
enough to get the wheel loose. He immediately locked the
parking brake and got to work with the pygmy lug wrench.
By the third bolt, his shirt had wet through and by the fifth
he felt as though he had been thrown into a pool with his clothes
still on. He stood back and fetched the tire a solid kick
with his boot and it came loose of the wheel hub. He threw
the entire apparatus onto the ground without a further look.
The bent aluminum rim had shreds of black melted rubber hanging
from it in tatters. He seated the spare and was tightening
the first bolt when the second car stopped. This time
there was no mistaking it. The rocker panels were poorly
fit, there were black scuffs along the bottom sill of the passenger
door. There was a characteristic squeak of rusty suspension
as the large-ish man got out of it. The second car was
a white Crown Victoria.
a chance that this wasn’t an unmarked police cruiser, but it seemed
unlikely. The man was dressed in the ubiquitous uniform
of a highway patrolman. Officer Whoever pulled directly
in front of the SUV instead of alongside. As if he had pulled
Dante over and not simply found him there. This was standard
procedure, Dante knew, to prevent someone from easily driving
away. He didn’t know if the same ruse would work on a real
cop, but he greeted him as he had done before, with one hand holding
his headset power pack.
“Mornin,” Dante said, wiping the rain off of his face with the
back of his right hand and wiping it on the seat of his pants.
He kept both hands where the officer could see them, but his
right hand was close to the hidden pistol. Hopefully the
fact that it was in his waistband wasn’t horribly obvious given
that his clothes were soaking wet.
“Hello,” the officer replied, “you have to get moving as quickly
as you can.”
This was unexpected, and fortunate given the circumstances.
Only a bored highway patrolman would be so rude to an out-of-stater
who was obviously in trouble. This meant that he was,
in fact, a real highway patrolman and also that Dante and Jasper
weren’t being too closely followed. Perhaps the immigrant
owner of the motel had minded his own business after all.
It seemed almost too much to hope for.
“Yes sir, I was just finishing up,” Dante turned to the lug
nuts again and resumed tightening them. He noticed with
some trepidation that when his head was close to the SUV’s rear
door he could faintly hear Jasper crying within. Out of
the corner of his eye, Dante could see the cop consider just
getting back into his car. It was pouring darkly now,
and rain sluiced off of the cop’s brimmed hat.
“Here I’ll help you a little,” the cop said, finally.
He opened the cruiser door and took out two red sticks.
The caps popped and the flares ignited. He placed one
in front of his own car and one behind the SUV, at a fair distance.
“At least I can make sure you don’t get yourself run over by
some dumb-ass trucker. You wouldn’t believe the ones I
catch that are drunk or half-asleep or both…” The cop, trying
to be amiable, was starting to walk back toward Dante.
He stood with one hand on the SUV’s roof, watching Dante tighten
the last lug nut.
“No kidding,” Dante said, “they drive drunk?”
“Yep,” said the cop, “some of ‘em drive naked.” His eyebrows
raised, as though sure this would impress Dante.
Dante realized at this moment that a watershed was coming.
The tire and tire-iron he could stow on the zippered spare-tire
bag on the back hatch door, but he couldn’t open the door of
the SUV without the cop hearing Jasper scream. It was
pouring, and both of them were soaked now. Dante offered
the cop his hand, who shook it perfunctorily.
“Thanks, sir. I pretty much had it, but it was nice of
you to stop, just the same.”
“No problem. Where you headed?”
“Omaha. I’ll have to get this tire replaced somewhere
close, though. Do you know anywhere? Don’t know
how good this spare is.”
The spare was identical to the other four: heavy load, self-sealing
ballistic tires good for 1000 miles even if riddled with bullets.
“Hoover’s Sunoco off of exit 110 has a service station in it.
They could do it, no problem. They won’t hose you.”
“Thanks again. I gotta go take a leak, you mind?”
Officer Whoever looked up and down the highway. It was
empty as far as the horizon in both directions. He shrugged.
Dante rolled the tire back over to the rear of the SUV and put
the tire-iron on top of it. He then strolled a few feet
off of the highway into ankle-high grass that was blowing rather
furiously in the rain. He dropped his fly and, fortunately,
managed to pee.
“Do you have a cat in there?” Officer Whoever asked, almost
Dante turned, still spraying urine in an arcing stream, and
shot the cop three times. He died with the same look of
puzzled semi-concern on his face. The gray uniform hit
the ground in a wet splatter. Dante finished peeing and
rolled the cop’s body off of the highway shoulder. Before
five minutes had passed, Dante was on his way again.