|Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons living, dead, space aliens, goats, forum posters, editors, beta readers, musicians, or writers are purely coincidental. There may be sexual content so if this, in any form, offends you, please cease reading this lest it send you screaming from the room. If you are not of legal age to read this, please don't.|
|Chapter 9: Train Wreck|
The ride back to the ranch began with a shared feeling of elation; they’d turned the tables on the liquor store clerk and had gotten what they wanted. However, that was as far as the shared feelings went. The gamut of emotions that followed varied from person to person.
For Brandon and Chase, it had been a rude awakening of sorts. For the first time, they had been confronted by open hatred from a member of the public. In the past, Chase had faced homophobia from his parents and the former lead singer of Instinct, and Brandon had, in his own past, faced hate from his own parents and those he thought of as friends. But never before had they encountered it from someone that they didn’t know. They had expected some such reactions when they decided to come out, but the difference between an intellectual acceptance of a possibility and having it slap you in the face had been unnerving for them both, for the dose of harsh reality had served to plant the bitter seed of doubt. Like any seed, it would grow if given fertile ground.
For Jon, the encounter had not been in any way unexpected. In a sense, he was surprised that it had taken so long to occur. His own thoughts on the matter were that Brandon and Chase had no control over what gender they were attracted to, so as far as Jon was concerned, sexuality was like eye color; you were born a certain way and that was it. He hated the fact that so many people couldn’t accept that fact, but the reality of it had affected him far less than any other member of Instinct. For Jon, it was an unpleasant, yet far from unforeseen, burden that Brandon and Chase had no choice but to endure as best they could. Jon had long ago resolved that they would always have his support, but he knew it was a burden that they had no choice but to mainly bear alone.
Eric sat in the back of the Jeep, uncharacteristically quiet and somber. Of all the members of Instinct, the scene at the liquor store had the greatest impact on him. He did not need to envision what it would be like if, every time you went out in public, you had to wonder if an open display of hatred or worse was just around the corner; he’d just seen the reality of it. That thought led to another, as Eric wondered if he could face that kind of angst on a daily basis. An imperceptible shake of his head was the only outward sign as he concluded that that road was not for him.
The silence became awkward as they climbed out of Telluride on Last Dollar Road. Deciding that he’d had enough of the hush, Chase said to Brandon, “Good thinking on changing the order a little. I’d feel a hell of a lot worse if she’d have won.”
A single, subtle nod was Brandon’s only reply. The incident was still grating at him, and he wondered how common such reactions would be. Helen had already mentioned a few troubling facts and figures. Instinct had done enormously well from their impromptu tour, riding the wave of publicity that accompanied saving a major city from annihilation. Being national heroes had tempered any negative response to their coming out, but the public’s attention span, as always, had proven brief. The demographics of Instinct’s fan base, which was heavily weighted by teen males, was far from a good fit for an ‘out’ lead singer and drummer. That particular ‘set of chickens’ was now well on its way home to roost, as reflected by a downturn in album sales. The decline had been small, merely a pullback from the dizzying spike which had resulted from all the publicity surrounding the bomb plot, but according to Helen the demographic data did not bode well long-term.
As usual, Helen had been blunt and to the point. In her opinion, Instinct was in the process of losing a goodly chunk of its teen-male fan base, due to the ‘gay issue’. The further their status as national heroes faded into the past, the worse it would become.
Helen’s solution had been somewhat drastic. Get ahead of the curve, and reach out to other demographics. With that in mind, the new album had been named Changing Lanes, signifying a shift in sound. The new focus was on rock ballads rather than hard-driving metal-edged rock. That promised a wider audience and a more accepting demographic base, and they’d hung their hats on it as the solution. What remained to be seen was whether or not it would work.
All those facts weighed heavily on Brandon’s mind, as the fear that his and Chase’s coming out might will spell the end of Instinct returned. One cranky liquor store clerk was no more than an irrelevant statistical blip, but the confrontation had rekindled the doubts. Every member of Instinct felt it, but none of them wanted to acknowledge it by giving voice to the fact. Instead, they let it hang heavy, like a dark and malevolent cloud upon their lives.
The effect was nonetheless apparent. They passed most of the ride in silence, absent their normal banter, each lost in their respective thoughts, together but alone, with only the dusty, rutted road for company.
Upon arriving back at their ranch, they went their separate ways for a few minutes. Mainly they concentrated on getting cleaned up for the party, throwing on some clean clothes, and though none would admit it even to themselves, staying out of each other’s way.
Of them all, Chase felt the sudden distance the worst. Coming out had been his idea, and so had the wedding. He could tell that Brandon had pulled back into some kind of a shell. That hurt the most. Always before they had been able to talk openly with each other about anything, but now that vital link of communication seemed sundered. The bitter seed had found its fertile ground. In that, Chase was not alone.
Helen noticed the change in the guys’ demeanor. People have their moods, so she was not, as yet, overly concerned. As soon as they had piled back into the Jeep and headed for the Jacobs ranch, Helen returned to her paperwork. Barbra, busy with her own reams of memos and forms, glanced across the kitchen table and asked her lover and partner, “I know something’s eating you. What’s going on?”
Looking up and smiling, Helen replied, “Just a lot of small things. Eric’s trip to the Canary Islands for one. Setting up a wedding is one hell of a big job, and he’s never done it before. Maybe I should let on that I know what he’s up to, and offer to help. On the other hand, he does a better job when he thinks he’s acting alone. I’d like this to go well, for Eric’s sake. This is really the first big responsibility he’s taken on. He’s becoming an adult, and I want to see him succeed on his own so I need to give him as much leeway as I can.”
Barbra nodded in agreement. She shared Helen’s opinion that the Canary Islands were an ideal location, and had been an inspired choice on Eric’s part. However, like Helen, she knew that so much could go wrong, due to the complexity of planning required.
With his departure just two days away, General Bradson worked late into the night, putting the finishing touches on his battle plans. The one thing he kept foremost in his troubled mind; no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.
The General had decided, by virtue of necessity, to go with an asymmetric tactical concept. Hit the enemy by surprise and use their own strengths against them. The key, he knew, was flexibility; only a fool would count on the enemy reacting as expected. Therefore, General Bradson concentrated on backup and alternative strategies for each phase of the rescue attempt. He was well aware that something, most likely several things, would go badly wrong. The odds were not to his liking, but he saw no alternative. Doing nothing, in his mind, guaranteed his son’s death. Therefore, any chance was better than no chance at all. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ he mused, and continued with his task.
Jim helped carry the last of the kegs into the Jacobs Ranch house, which was situated a few hundred yards south of Instinct’s home. The bikers were already there in force; word of the raging bachelor party had spread like wildfire. As they set down the keg, Jim took note of the expressions on some of the biker’s faces as they looked at Brandon and Chase. Most of them were normal enough, but Jim saw the flash of trouble in two sets of eyes: ill-concealed disgust. Jim pretended not to notice, but knew he’d have to keep an eye on those two. He’d also seen a few glances of unease and dislike from a few other bikers, but not to a level that Jim thought would rise to the surface. The club presidents, who knew which side their bread was buttered on, had laid down the law. Going against the orders of a chapter president was never a smart move, but Jim held no illusion that the two bikers he’d pegged as trouble were particularly bright.
Still feigning a focus on setting up the alcohol, Jim paid attention to the rest of the assembled bikers who were lounging around in the main room of the ranch house. The place was crowded, and a mess; empty beer cans everywhere, and a few bikers had hauled some hay bales inside for additional seating. Seeing no further sign of trouble, Jim allowed himself a hidden smile; he’d originally expected to have trouble with several bikers, and two was a number that he knew he could handle. Putting a trip to the barn on his schedule for later, Jim finished setting up the kegs in their buckets of ice.
Turning to face the far end of the room where the two chapter presidents, Mad Mike and Brody, were engaged in an animated discussion, Jim grinned. “It’s a little earlier than I planned on, but what the hell. It’s my party, and I say let’s get started!” Jim yelled, loud enough to shake the rafters.
Following their informal yet very strict hierarchy, the many bikers lounging around the room let the two club leaders draw the first beers.
Brody, decked out in well-worn leathers and a sleeveless denim jacket, stepped up and clasped Brandon’s hand in an iron grip. “Hey, dude, good to see ya again.”
Brandon, familiar with the ways of bikers, was the most comfortable of the four Instinct guys. Returning the crushing grip he said, “You too, man. We probably wouldn’t be breathing if not for you and your guys. Thanks.”
Brody shrugged, angling his head in Jim’s direction. “That’s in the past. We just want to give ‘ole Jim here a fitting send-off on his last night of freedom.” Brody lowered his voice to add, “If you or Chase have any trouble from any of my guys, let me know right away and I’ll deal with ‘em personally.” That message got through to his crew, loud and clear, though the two bikers that Jim had pegged decided that their chapter president had made the announcement for the sake of appearances. They could not have been more wrong.
The music started, and the distinctive chords of a classic biker favorite, Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild,’ echoed through the old ranch house.
With no pool tables with which to occupy themselves, the bikers put the furniture to use by playing quarters for shots of whisky, all the while downing cup after cup of beer.
Within an hour, Jim was feeling very good indeed, and ambled over to the corner, where the four Instinct guys were shooting the breeze with a few of the bikers. Jim pretended not to notice, but he saw the two troublemakers sitting a few yards away, occasionally casting evil glances in Brandon and Chase’s direction.
Smiling in anticipation, Jim hooked Brandon by the arm and hauled him over to a vacant table, and began setting up for a round of quarters. Pretending to be just shooting the breeze, Jim leaned over and whispered, “Do me a favor. After a round or two, say you’re going to grab a hay bale to sit on, and head for the barn. You’ll likely have company, but I’ll trail ‘em out of here. Don’t try to take ‘em on yourself or you’ll get your ass kicked. Just delay ‘em and I’ll be there within seconds. Can’t have a party without a dance, ya know.”
Nodding as Jim’s smile took on a wicked cast, Brandon made sure that he and not Jim drank the next shot. Brandon could easily tell that Jim was pretty well lit, but he trusted his friend. Brandon had hoped that he and Chase could leave before their presence caused any trouble, but Brandon knew that Jim was relishing the idea of cleaning the floor with someone. It was Jim’s party, so Brandon had no real qualms about his own obvious role as bait. The only thing Brandon didn’t realize was that there would be two guys coming after him.
After doing as he’d been asked, Brandon walked out the back door, heading for the barn, fifty feet away. As Brandon neared the barn’s side door, he heard the back door of the house open behind him. Ignoring it, Brandon walked into the barn and towards a disordered stack of hay bales. He glanced around, but saw no sign of anything that he could use as a weapon.
Jim and some other bikers had taught him how to fight back in Phoenix, but Brandon had no illusions. He knew that one-on-one, he had no chance against a biker, particularly a big one who undoubtedly had far more experience at fighting, as well as being larger and stronger. It would be a short fight, of that there was no doubt.
“So what do we have here,” the not-unexpected voice from the doorway said, and Brandon turned to face the two bikers. They walked in, side by side, advancing on Brandon with unmistakable menace. The bigger of the two, who out-massed Brandon by nearly two-to-one, clenched his fists and said, “Not so tough without your buddies, are you?” With casual menace, he unslung a length of heavy chain from his belt.
“You shitheads are really brave when it’s two against one,” Jim said, slightly slurring his words as he stalked into the barn. “He’s a guest at my party, so you’ve just disrespected me.”
The two bikers’ heads snapped around at the sound of Jim’s voice, then turning to face Jim and backpedaling as Jim came within arm’s length. Jim didn’t slow his approach, instead cocking his massive arm back and using his momentum to throw a right cross at the larger of his two opponents. It would have been devastating, had he connected.
Jim’s massive fist cleaved the air where his opponents’ head had been a moment before. Off-balance, Jim staggered forward as the second biker saw his chance and dropped into a roundhouse kick, slamming his foot into Jim’s knee from the side, sending the big biker crashing down like a sack of wet cement.
Coming to a halt face down on the barn’s floor, Jim stopped moving as Brandon watched with a mix of concern and horror.
Jim’s sudden defeat left Brandon with a bit of a problem; two hostile bikers and no way out. He knew that he couldn’t take on one, let alone two. The soft whirr of the heavy chain in the larger one’s hand left no doubt as to their intent as they turned on Brandon.
Inside the house, Eric stood in the kitchen, shooting the breeze with two bikers from Mad Mike’s club, discussing the relative merits of electric and acoustic guitars. This conversation led directly to a discussion of Harleys versus Japanese motorcycles, and Eric wondered what it was like to ride a big Harley. One of the bikers took a pull from his hip flask, and thanks to the dimming effects of far too much alcohol, forgot the dire warning of his club president and out of habit, offered Eric the flask.
Eric took a small pull, and instead of the whiskey he’d expected, felt the familiar, welcome burn of tequila. With his face lighting up in delight, Eric took a second, much longer pull, and then a third. Too late, the biker remembered his leader’s warning and recalled what was in his flask. Easing the silver container from Eric’s grasp, the biker hoped that the warning had been exaggerated. The look in Eric’s eyes, combined with the newfound lightness of the flask, belied that forlorn wish.
Well into the long night’s work, General Bradson’s phone interrupted his train of thought. Operating via their standard procedure, he activated his encryption and listened through the resulting static as his contact asked a few questions regarding the equipment manifest. The only item that the contact seemed to have qualms about was the cannon, but he assured the General that he could likely obtain it.
General Bradson found himself impressed by the unnamed man’s fieldcraft and respect for security; he’d asked no question regarding the operational plan itself. The General didn’t notice when the man’s demeanor shifted slightly, becoming more amenable and supportive. The contact preferred it that way.
Breaking protocol, the contact, seated at the edge of a clearing on Santo Antão Island in the Cape Verde’s, chose his words with exquisite care. “General, there is another matter that I must broach.” General Bradson nodded to himself, he’d expected as much, and braced himself for an increase in the price. The contact’s following words, however, wiped the smile from the General’s face. “Fel and I were discussing the mission. We all know that the odds against success are long. However, there is a way to guarantee success. The item you recovered in Los Angeles, to be precise. If you could exercise your contacts, and perhaps liberate that item, I can arrange transport for it.”
That, the general decided, was a rather smooth and casual way of asking for a nuclear warhead. The bomb the General had recovered from Dodger Stadium was what the contact, in his circumspect manner, was asking for. On the face of it, it was a plausible request. Unlike American nuclear weapons, the nuclear warhead in question lacked Permissive Action Links, known in military circles as PAL. PAL was the means by which command and control of American nuclear warheads was exercised. The exact implementation often varied, but what the PAL-protected warheads had in common was math. Advanced nuclear designs, in the pursuit of miniaturization and maximum yield, utilized asymmetrical implosion, often with multiple focal points in the fission pit, relying on shockwave interplay rather than raw explosive power to achieve critical mass. That required a very specific firing sequence on the shaped charges, one that could be deduced only by the bomb’s designers. Without the correct code, the control unit would not fire in the required sequence, rendering the bomb useless. For that reason, the bomb recovered from Dodger Stadium was the only one in the United States that could be readily put to unauthorized use.
Unsure of how to answer, the General hesitated. The contact misread the General’s pause for uncertainty and said, “We regret having to ask this as we know the risk to you, but it appears to be the only way to assure success. If that bomb was used on the big base a dozen miles from the target, it would render the air-defense radars in the region blind and distract their forces. It would give us the edge we need to save your son.”
General Bradson considered the words, wondering if the contact was being truthful. It took the General only a fraction of a second to decide that he was not. The clue had been the contact’s implication that they had only just thought of this. That was preposterous for such an obvious tactic. The General mistakenly assumed that the real goal was money; such a device would be worth many millions of dollars on the arms market. The General didn’t have to considerer his response; the request was impossible. The thought of using the device had indeed crossed his mind, but contrary to the contact’s apparent belief, the device had been disassembled. It no longer contained its plutonium core and thus was useless, even if he could have figured out a way to get it out of Edwards Air Force Base. The General gave the only answer that he could under the circumstances. “The device has been rendered inert, and even had it not, there is no way I could do as you say. I do not have the means. I do, however, have a plan that should make the mission a success.”
The contact disguised his disappointment as he said, “It was only a thought. It would have been far easier with it, but I have faith that we can succeed. I am a man of faith, you know. I am looking forward to our meeting, General. Safe travels.”
Nonplussed, the General ended the call. He now suspected, even more than before, the possibility of duplicity on the part of the contact and his crew. The General wished that he had some alternative, but knowing that he did not he resolved to go through with the venture. He resumed his planning, scribbling furiously in a notebook as he studied a map, his job now further complicated by the necessity of allowing for the even higher chance of betrayal. He let out a troubled sigh, feeling more alone that he had since the day cancer had claimed his wife. He was smart enough to know that his own chances of survival had just decreased, but he’d never thought they were high to begin with. He had never much cared about that; he knew that if he came home he’d be landing in a jail cell, which made the concept of survival far from alluring.
Brian was his only child, and furthermore the only thing he had left of his beloved wife. General Bradson had no qualms when it came to trading his own life for a chance to save the life of his son.
Returning pen to paper, and
sketching out a new tactical approach for the extraction,
General Bradson wondered if his current planned means for
arrival in the Cape Verde Islands needed some changes. As things
stood, Eric’s jet would be delivering the General into what he
knew to be a lion’s den. Perhaps a little insurance couldn’t
hurt, provided that Eric was agreeable.
A mutter of thunder echoed off the nearby volcanic crags, signaling the commencement of the afternoon’s storms as the General’s heretofore nameless contact, sweating from the oppressive humidity, strolled across the clearing towards the small ramshackle house. Taking one last backwards glance at the men training on the improvised obstacle course, he entered the building – something that the mercenaries were not allowed to do.
Taking a seat in a back room, cooled by the clattering old fan, he waited for his employer to finish some paperwork.
Two minutes later, after finding a convenient stopping place, the employer glanced up to ask, “Any luck?”
The contact shook his head. “No sir. General Bradson claimed that the device has been disassembled, and implied that the parts are not at the same location. He also claims that he has no access to what remains.”
With a nod and a disgruntled snort, the employer focused his full attention on his underling. “Unfortunately, that meshes with the information I have developed. It was a good play, but we knew it was a long shot. We had to make the attempt though.” The employer tapped a huge pile of dog-eared paper that dominated his squalid desk, and told the contact, “Yuri, there is so much to do. I think I have spent half of my time since leaving the hospital doing paperwork of one kind or another, half making deals, and the remaining half developing procurement sources.”
Yuri smiled at his boss’s odd humor. “Thus accounting for one hundred and fifty percent of your time. That would be beyond the scope of most men, especially when you are dealing with doctors so often,” Yuri said in an admiring tone, one that accurately reflected his feelings on the matter.
The boss leaned back in the ancient desk chair, nodding. “A few more grafts and they are done, they claim. Perhaps then they will cease their infernal poking and prodding. Still, I cannot complain. I would be dead were it not for you. You risked your life pulling me from the building and that is something I shall never forget. In a way, my injuries are fortuitous; they have changed my appearance at a time when I most needed to do so.”
Yuri gave his employer an honest, appraising glance, taking in the man’s ruined, hideously scarred face. ‘What a price’, Yuri thought, not for the first time. The explosion had taken them all by surprise. Yuri’s own life had been saved by happenstance; he’d been shielded from the brunt of the blast by virtue of being behind a forklift. His employer, he surmised, had been in part shielded by the structure of the lathe he’d been uncrating. The bomb, according to press reports, had been within its heavy base. It had all happened so fast; a flash of heat and light, a pain in his ears, and then the thick clouds of dust kicked up by the blast, all of which had served to disorient Yuri. His first instinct had been to escape from the collapsing, burning warehouse. Dropping to all fours, he’d crawled in the direction he’d thought the main door lay, but the confusion had sent him in the wrong direction. He’d heard screams from by his side, and a glance through the flames had revealed his employer’s burning body.
There was no real issue of loyalty; Yuri had acted out of unadulterated self-interest. He’d had no wish to be alone, penniless, and on the run in South America, so rescuing his employer was his only real recourse. It had cost him some first-degree burns on his hands, but somehow he’d managed to pull the man from a pile of burning debris. He’d nearly given up when he’d seen the extent of the damage: a missing arm and a face already blistering from the flames. The fire itself had served a purpose; Yuri had used a burning piece of wood to partially cauterize the stump of the severed arm.
Dragging his employer from the building had been one thing; saving his life had been quite another. Once out, Yuri had no idea what to do. By default, he’d loaded the unconscious man into a car and driven off, enduring the rising pain of his own scorched hands.
Given the circumstances, he’d known that a local hospital was out of the question, so he’d driven south, out of the city, thinking to find a small rural clinic. His employer had saved them both by briefly regaining consciousness and giving Yuri a name and a district. An hour later, after asking for directions from a shocked passerby, Yuri had found the fancy clinic; an upscale plastic surgeon’s office, which catered in part to wealthy medical tourists eager to save a few bucks, but also cultivated a different clientèle; those needing to change their appearance for legal rather than aesthetic reasons.
Yuri’s employer had been near death by the time they’d gotten him inside. Penniless, Yuri had waited in a small room, eyeing his own bandaged hands, wondering how he could survive as a wanted man in a strange and unfamiliar land. With great relief he’d heard the surgeon’s report that his employer would perhaps live, and gratefully accepted the offered hospitality; a guest room at the surgeon’s rural estate.
Progress had been slow at first; burns to his employer’s cheeks and nose requiring skin grafts, and one ear so badly burned that amputation had been the only recourse. His employer had been left with a horrendously scarred and disfigured face, a missing arm, and a missing ear. Yuri had been present on the day when the doctor had at last acceded to his patient’s demand for a mirror. To Yuri and the doctor’s surprise, upon seeing the scarred mask that his face had become, his employer had merely smiled, or tried to thanks to his disfigured lips, and said, “Irony, and fate. The universe has a sense of humor indeed.”
It was only then that Yuri learned his employer’s preferred – and now even more appropriate – name: The Scar.
© 2008 C James
Please give me feedback, and please don’t be shy if you want to criticize! The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions.
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading, support and advice, and for putting up with me.
Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice.
A big "thank you" to to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice , and to Captain Rick for his advice.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.