Human Resources: Part Two.
by Mark Brand.
see also:
Human Resources: Part Three.

Human Resources: Part One.
forum: night.blind: Human Resources

a collaborative fiction.

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night.blind: 02.2.1: 07 February 2005: Mark Brand.
           “I have to pee.  Watch my bag.”

            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 the washroom.

            “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 of?’”

            “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 spoke again.

           “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 atom-smashing force. 

           “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 for…”

           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.

night.blind: 02.2.2: 07 February 2005: Mark Brand.

           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.

           “Oh, hi.”

           “You sound a little out of breath, sweetheart,” Susan had always been nice to her.  Not big-sister nice, but maybe distant-aunt nice.

           “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.

           “Whatcha need?”

           “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 so?”

           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 dimmed.

           In the vacant emptiness of the warm tank, there was only the ringing of a distant phone.

night.blind: 02.2.3: 07 February 2005: Mark Brand.

           “Hello, Margaret.”

           “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.”

          “It’s coming.” 

          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 basement.

          “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 her. 

          “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 know.”

           “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 the lock?”

           “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. 

night.blind: 02.2.4: 09 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 do?”

          “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 Harry.

          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 before leaving. 

          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 test.

night.blind: 02.2.5: 18 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.”

          “Will do.”

          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 and absent. 

          “I have her,” said Gene, distantly. 

          “Keep your distance,” Dante warned, “a hundred yards if possible.”

          “Will do.”


          “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.”

          “Intercept Featherbed.”

night.blind: 02.2.6: 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 making.

          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 own.

          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 her.

          “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?”

          “My license?”

          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.

          “All right.”

          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, was terrifying. 

          “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 impound lot.”

          “Officer I have a baby here, what am I supposed to do after that?”

          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?”

          Dora nodded.

          “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 you take…”

          “All right, all right,” Dora cut him off, “let’s go.  How far is it?”

          “Just a couple of miles.”

          “Follow you?”

          “Yeah, take it slow.”

          “All right.”

night.blind: 02.2.7: 23 February 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 down.”

          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 acting strangely.” 

          “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 us somehow.”

          “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.

night.blind: 02.2.8: 23 March 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 lanes.

          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.

night.blind: 02.2.9: 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 hear him.

          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. 

night.blind: 02.2.10: 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 completely.

          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 apart. 

          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 ran.

night.blind: 02.2.11: 04 April 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 suffice.

          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.

night.blind: 02.2.12: 02 May 2005: Mark Brand.
          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 Thruway.

          “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 could do. 

          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 over.

          “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 aid kit.

night.blind: 02.2.13: 02 May 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 the illusion.

          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 her.

night.blind: 02.2.14: 17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
          Dante learned 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 again. 

night.blind: 02.2.15: 17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
          Somewhere 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 car stopped.

          “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 her eyes.

          “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.

night.blind: 02.2.16: 17 July 2005: Mark Brand.
          There was 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 offhand.  

          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.

night.blind: 02.2.17: 16 October 2005: Mark Brand.

          Hitch approached rapidly.

          Dante now pushed the SUV without fear of being caught. At 95 miles per hour, the fuel pump automatically shut off. Dante knew this was to prevent the tires, which despite being bulletproof were not rated for high-speeds, from taking on an oblong shape due to sheer physics and spectacularly blowing out on the highway. They were only an hour from the Grange now, perhaps less. The fuel gauge read close to “E”, and Dante knew he would have to stop again soon, or risk running out of gas within easy driving distance of his goal.

          His car radio had been set to ‘scan’ on the off-chance that someone would mention something about a fleeing murderer in a black SUV, but thus far all it had done was mask Jasper’s furious babble and yelling with a thin overtone of rap music and country shit-kicking ballads.

          Someone’s bitches needed a smack, or someone’s mother was killed in a plane crash. There seemed to be no melodic in-between music anymore. Dante’s rearview mirror failed to reveal any signs that the law had caught onto him. He goosed the accelerator right up to the edge of the safety cutoff. He wasn’t worried about being pulled over by any of the Nebraska highway patrolmen or state-ies. Their dispatchers would be tied to the state-wide communication network that was overseen at some unknowable level by dedicated viewers and ancillary personnel. They would be instructed at the peril of their careers to stay out of his way.

          Sooner or later, however, the reality was that he was going to run out of gas. He didn’t know how far past the “E” that his gas tank would keep him running. At 95 miles per hour, the huge V-8 engine guzzling the stuff. .

          Now that they were so close, the journey almost complete, other thoughts had begun to creep back into his mind. Who would replace Susan as his assistant? Which of his sleeping insurance policies would come and help him do his job in the interim? He would need to find out who had tipped off the ambushers that he and his team would be making a grab for Jasper in that desolate stretch of Syracuse. He would need manpower. His influence meant nothing without the people to carry it out, and he couldn’t do everything himself. Sooner or later, he would need some friends.

          After shooting the Iowa highway cop, Dante had briefly thought about crunching the GPS transmitter capsule in his armpit, but that thing had been a bitch to have put in, and the person who responded to that particular distress signal was far more expensive and dangerous than he thought was really necessary. He had been in scrapes like this before, a number of times really, and had come out all right in the end.

          Dante’s stomach growled. He had not eaten or slept in over 24 hours, and his head was beginning to get fuzzy. He would have to get some coffee at the next stop. No sooner had he thought about coffee, than he could see it, almost smell it, dancing in front of his face like a mirage.

          Get it together, fuckwad. Only an hour left to go.

          After thirty more minutes, the gas gauge was firmly beneath the “E”, and Dante decided it was time to stop. Unfortunately, this particular stretch of Nebraska highway, only 40 miles from the Hitch Grange and chosen specifically for its remote location, was nearly as many miles in any direction from a highway travel plaza or gas station. The best he could manage for the immediate time being was a rest stop with a pay phone. Help would not be far, he would just sit and wait it out.

          He slipped a pair of quarters into his pocket from the “convenience dish” (christ, he thought, didn’t anyone build ashtrays into cars anymore?) and keyed the lock button on the fob. It was broad daylight, which was good. The highway traffic was steady but light. The seedy types that hung out at places like this after dark were just what Dante didn’t need at the moment. To his right was a cube-camper hauled by a dual-ie diesel Ford and a Chrysler minivan. To his left, four empty parking spaces and a dull American flag on a tall steel schoolyard-style pole.

          He strode quickly to the main building, a cinder block thing roughly in the shape of a house, and picked up the payphone.

night.blind: 02.2.18: 16 October 2005: Mark Brand.

          In the back of a small pizzeria about five miles outside of Hitch, a phone rang.

          “Uncle Cary’s.”

          “This is Dante. Listen up…”

          “Holy shit… er… I mean… sir…” Voices and the ambient noise of a pizza kitchen rumbled in the background, “HEY, SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

          The clattering lowered to a dull roar. Someone muttered a barely-audible “fuck you.

          “What can I do for you, Mr. Nagel?”

          “You can start by not using any names over the phone.”

          “Ss.. sorry.”

          “Don’t be sorry, just close your mouth and open your ears. I need you to bring yourself, a reliable car, and a five gallon can of gas to the rest stop between…” he trailed off, looking for the mile markers, “One eighty eight and one eighty seven.”

          A pause.

          “Did you get that?”


          “Write it down, if you have to, but don’t forget the gasoline, got it?”

          “Got it.”

          “Just park in the parking lot of the rest stop and I’ll find you. What color car are you going to bring?”

          “I have a red Sentra.”

          “That’ll work.”

          Another pause.

          “What are you waiting for?”


          The phone clicked dead.

          Dante had picked the number from one of two lists that he kept in his wallet. One list was had only four numbers on it. This was his A-Team. They were the people who had worked with him before and who he trusted. All four were hardened killers and highly-trained field agents. The second list was longer, perhaps a dozen numbers. These were the scrubs. They were people that could see and hear anything they needed to see and hear, because shortly thereafter they would be visited by one of the numbers on the first list. In this way, Dante felt confident that he could make his way back to the Grange without anyone ever knowing how close he had come to botching the whole thing up. Appearances, after all, were particularly important to his superiors.

          He hung up the phone and turned to go back to the SUV when suddenly the door of the ladies’ room flung itself open and a tall blonde woman of about twenty came flying out. She was wearing uncomfortable-looking heels that tripped her up and she fell with a hard scrape on the cement. Behind her, a stocky man in his early to mid forties strode out of the ladies room. He adjusted his glasses briefly and walked up behind her. The blonde was on all fours, and staring at the scraped palms of her hands, and her partner dealt her a vicious kick to the ass.

          “Fuck you, you fucking…” another kick, “How do you fucking like it?”

          The blonde started to cry and get up to run away. The man stepped on the back of her shoe and she twisted her ankle. This time she didn’t fall, but probably wished she had. As she turned and clutched at her ankle, he punched her in the belly. The woman made a spasmodic “oof”-ing sound and forgot about her ankle entirely. With the wind knocked out of her, she gasped emptily as the man grabbed her by the hair and started dragging her toward the camper. Dante reached for his pistol, but thought better of it. If a news story was going to be made here today at this rest stop, it was going to be about these two lovebirds and not him and Jasper. He turned quietly, making a point not to make eye contact with the couple, and walked briskly back to the SUV.

          A quick and painless exit, however, was something that apparently he wasn’t going to get today.

          “…uuuuuuhhhh (the sound of the woman drawing her first breath from her bruised diaphragm)….. heeeeeeelllllllpppp!” she rattled. It was the sound of a lifelong smoker’s voice in utter terror, and it was loud. Too loud. Dante looked around in spite of himself. He glanced at the camper and minivan, they showed no signs of life. The bathrooms were empty, as was the pavilion and drinking fountain.

          “Help! Help me mister!” She screamed a brief indignant little chirp as the man lost hold of her hair and she fell to the ground. He got another handful of it and her face scrunched in pain.

          “What the fuck?” she growled at him. Then she opened her mouth and let out a shriek that was so shrill it made Dante’s ears hurt. It sounded like an Elvis Presley fan’s mindless scream, amplified to Super Bowl volume. Surprised, even startled by it a little, the man let go of her hair. She whirled on him and scowled, putting both hands up.

          Not a terrific idea, thought Dante. The man with the steel-rimmed glasses gave her two quick slaps to the face. She covered the red place with her hand and started weeping again. “Don’t ever fucking do that to me again,” the man said. His voice sounded like Beryl Ives in the old Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cartoon. He punctuated each word with another of the quick little slaps. He mostly hit her hand this time, but Dante thought he might have gotten one of her eyeballs a little. She caved to the ground and covered her head with her hands. Dante, seeing an opening, kept moving.

          He reached the SUV a long moment later and opened the door. He swung up into the car to the unmistakable odor of baby poop. He stood back up at the driver’s side door and let the car air out a little. The couple had disappeared, but he could still hear slaps and crying so they had to be nearby. Suddenly, the dual-ie that was towing the camper pulled out of the parking space. Not the camper, which stood on its hind wheels and a pair of supports in the front, just the truck. It turned down the road to the highway on-ramp and disappeared, moving at full speed.

          Dante pondered this for a moment. If the police caught them in a speed trap and pulled them over, they would eventually be led back here to get the trailer. Suddenly his quiet little rest stop had become an unsafe hiding place. He put the key in the ignition and turned it.

          Nothing happened.

          He tried pumping the gas pedal with no luck. The starter ground heavily, but it wouldn’t turn over.

          Dante sat back in the silence of the SUV and closed his eyes to clear them of the anger and frustration. Then, in a moment of clarity, it hit him: the SUV had not been silent for almost an entire day. He turned his head and listened for the sound of the baby breathing through the holes in the cargo area. In a flash, Dante had opened the driver’s side door and popped the hatch. He ran to the rear door of the SUV and threw it open. Later he would have time to reflect on the stupidity of this, but under the circumstances it seemed like the only thing to be done.

          On the floor of the cargo bay was a small pile of empty milk bottles, discarded papers from road-food that Dante had bought, and a hideously stinky pooped-in diaper. Jasper’s fancy car seat was empty. The baby was gone.

          The full impact of this was not immediately apparent to Dante, because he had only enough time to glance at it and realize what had happened. The instant he had opened the SUV’s back hatch, it had tripped a gossamer fuse wire. He looked up to the highway on-ramp, and the camper two spaces over exploded.


night.blind: 02.2.19: 16 October 2005: Mark Brand.

          He might have been unconscious for only thirty seconds, but he figured later it must have been longer because it would have taken time for the fire to melt through his boot. In either case, when he woke it was to searing agony in his right foot. He waved and stomped it weakly, but the fire held on. In the end, the pain drove him into a sitting position and he beat the flames out with his lacerated forearms. He was bleeding from everywhere and heard a sound in his ears that he didn’t recognize. He listened to it for perhaps ten seconds before realizing that it was his own voice screaming.

          The parking lot of the 187-188 rest stop, 37.8 miles from Hitch, Nebraska, had become a bombed-out ruin. Dante realized with some amazement that he was sitting on the grass at least fifteen feet from where he had been standing when the camper went off. The heavy SUV had not moved, but it had rolled up on its side and burned. The Chrysler minivan was gone as well. Dante had not seen it leave, but assumed it was part of the snatch. There was nothing left of the camper except the twisted axle and lower frame which was still on fire. Fragments of it had blown out across the entire parking lot, and a nearby tree next to the bathrooms had caught on fire. Black smoke rose from a dozen separate burning heaps smoldering scraps of wreckage.

          Dante took off his jacket gingerly and looked for wounds. He had taken several smaller shrapnel pieces in his face and forearms, none of them serious. He left his boot in place, though he knew his foot was badly charred beneath it. Otherwise it seemed as though the blast had left him mostly unharmed. He had scrapes and bruises from the firefight on Salina Street, and the nail file wound on his ass had started bleeding again. He tried to struggle to his feet, but his legs were too wobbly. A tendon or ligament had sprung in his lower back and hip and it felt like he was walking on broken sticks. He fell hard on the concrete.

          He lay on his back and looked up at smoke-tinged sky. In all likelihood, the police or fire rescue squad would be there shortly. If they found him helpless like this, it would mean he’d be taken in for hospitalization and questioning. If that happened, the game was over. He had an idea that his superiors at the Grange would come and bail him out only so they could dispose of him quietly in some corn field.

          So he crawled. He was able to make some distance toward the pavilion and the wooded area beyond before he heard a car in the parking lot. He reached for his pistol but it was gone. He scrambled up on all fours and made a last desperate attempt to get out of sight, but faltered after a few shambling yards. All he could do was lie there, propped up by his elbows, and look at the parking lot. A large man in a uniform was making his way through the debris. Dante, who had grown up around men who were firefighters, knew that this was probably one of the EMT-types that they called “first responders.”

          Dante lay back and closed his eyes.

          “We gotta get outta here, man!” the EMT yelled, “Hey! Can you hear me?”

          As it happened, Dante couldn’t hear him that well. His ears were still ringing from the explosion. A pair of hands grabbed him and lifted him off the ground. Dante tried taking a few steps on his treacherous legs and found it easier with someone to help him balance.

          “There’s someone hurt in the Chevy…” Dante mumbled. There was only one rescuer so far and maybe if Dante could distract him long enough he could still get away. The EMT paused for a moment to look.

          “If there is, they’re fucked, man,” he said, finally.

          “There’s someone in there, I think,” Dante said again, futilely.

          “They’re not my problem, man. You are.”

          At this, Dante wondered if he was going into shock. It was all too surreal. He turned for a moment to look more closely at the EMT. For some reason, his uniform wasn’t grey or orange but neon green. Instead of a patch with a cross and serpent, his shoulder had a picture of a large-nosed Italian cartoon character on it.

          Amazingly, in the middle of the blast wreckage was a red Nissan Sentra.

          Dante started laughing, but stopped immediately because it hurt him too much to breathe that deeply.

          “What?” the insurance policy asked, suddenly sounding nervous.

          “Nothing, I’ll tell you later.”

          They hobbled back to the car and the pizza chef lowered him gently into the back seat. Dante was dimply aware of the spreading bloodstains everywhere.

          “Get my gun,” he ordered.

          “What?” He shook his head, “We gotta go, man…”

          “Get my GUN!” Dante roared as loud as he could manage.

          The insurance policy got back out of the car and looked around for a minute or two before he found it. It wasn’t easy because it didn’t look much like a gun anymore. The P220 had landed close to one of the piles of flaming debris and the bullets inside had cooked off from the heat. The pizza chef handed him a twisted, useless ruin.

          “Now can we go?” he asked.

          “Yes,” Dante said, “get off the highway at the next exit and take back roads.”

          “Where are we going?” the man asked.

          “The Hitch Grange.”



continue to Human Resources, Part Three.


copyright 2004-2005 Mark Brand.
Mark Brand is a massage therapist and medical assistant who lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with his wife/editor Beth. He has been writing sci-fi and speculative sociological fiction for approximately thirteen years and was a co-founder of the literary website His stories have been featured on and in the science fiction anthology Alien Light. He has also published a number of pieces of non-science fiction including a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Prince and The Pitchman (POD published in 2002 through Booksurge), an essay in the 9/11 retrospective To Wound The Autumnal City, and an e-book by the now-defunct Flagstone Publishing entitled "Bunnygirl". His current projects include a portion of the collaborative effort Night.Blind entitled "Human Resources", as well as finishing his second young adult fantasy novel, the upcoming The Journey of the Tallish Ten.