(Highway 36, Tooele, Utah, five years ago)
A desert carpeted with caskets.
If Jigsaw Hannigan had any literary or poetic pretensions, that’s how he would’ve likened it. Actually, the caskets were the countless storage magazines, or igloos, that spouted outside the main gate of the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility just off Utah Highway 36. Even more arresting was the mountain range many miles beyond that.
Sacrifices to Echtghe, the Irish Mountain goddess, worshipped by his blue-faced ancestors who ran howling through the woods of ancient Hibernia.
Timothy “Jigsaw” Hannigan, his brother Seamus, O’Leary, Ditch and Brigit were camped out on Highway 36 between the Tooele facility and the Dugway Proving Grounds. In spite of the chill of the approaching night, moist half-moons had formed under Jigsaw’s arms and his blue denim shirt dug into his armpits. The black road unspooled into the mountains like errant videotape and Jigsaw looked down it for headlights before thumbing the talk button of his walkie-talkie.
“All clear on Victor Xavier.” Translation: No sign of the transport.
“Keep your eyes peeled, Jig.”
Yeah, no shit. Why d’ye think I’m freezing me stones off in this Godforsaken wasteland?
Sitting uncomfortably on the undercarriage of a ’92 Mercury Sable, Jigsaw lit a Woodbine cigarette and looked for his brother Seamus, who was camped with the rest behind a rare and handy dune beside the road. The tan tarp over the 25-foot lorry also camouflaged them from the eventually oncoming Army semi. The plan was disturbingly simple, bordering on the simple-minded. In fact, Jigsaw had almost accused his sibling of cribbing the harebrained scheme from any of three dozen cheap American action movies. Fake an engine failure, make skid marks across the highway, then flag down the driver as they approached the stolen car that they’d deliberately overturned. The only thing missing was Scarlett Johansen flashing her thighs.
He let his mind play with that visual for a minute as he sat watching the necrotic sky deepen from purple to black, enjoying what might be his last smoke.
Seamus had promised that once the truck had halted they didn’t need the drivers to get out, which was probably a violation of their protocol, anyway. All they needed were clean head shots from the dunes. Jigsaw would’ve preferred tranqs but he was sure that the windows would remain rolled up and bullets would penetrate much better than darts.
All in all, Jigsaw would rather be building fieldstone walls in their hometown of Belfast. Even while fighting shoulder to shoulder with his brother against the loyalist forces, his real heart lie in masonry. There was something deeply satisfying in the puzzle-like nature of the oldest form of that profession, in fitting the right stones in the right places and making an even, flat surface with capstones. He never used mortar. Mortar was for idiots who weren’t possessed of the abilities or the patience to jigsaw the proper stones together. And, to his jigsaw mind, this plan stank worse than month-old haggis. Seamus hadn’t seemed to take into account the soldiers inside the transport might immediately draw their guns or at least think it suspicious that a civilian vehicle was on a highway used primarily, if not exclusively, by the U.S. Army Materiel Command.
Jigsaw ground his cigarette into the asphalt and checked the highway again. He pictured the transport moving through the night, the light from its headlamps splashing the desert road, its Army occupants talking about baseball, their last sexual conquest, anything but the load of chemical nerve agent named VX riding ten feet off their asses. VX killed in fifteen minutes and all it took was a little blob the size of a quarter to knock off a man. It stayed deadly in open air for a week. A smear on a leaf was all that was needed to spread it. The locals were nervous about the outdated munitions heading to Tooele for incineration since over 6000 sheep had been accidentally killed by VX in 1968. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation when you considered the alternative. The VX had to be moved. It was contained in outdated munitions that had to be handled by civilian safety engineers or qualified Army hazmat teams wearing moon suits.
There wasn’t much chance of mistaking for a civilian vehicle the transport that would be carrying the nerve agents. This particular highway had been all but reserved for use by the Army on their various milk runs. However, his brother had found that in order to not call attention to their payload, the semi wouldn’t be accompanied by MP jeeps. According to the disposal schedule, the warheads should be coming down the road any minute.
Jigsaw thought about using the walkie-talkie again but caught himself. There was nothing to report but the sound of the night life of the desert beginning to stir. He knew what Seamus would say if any doubts were voiced. Instead, he focused on a tiny moving object that just caught his eye. The lizard skittered across 36 then froze perfectly, its mouth wide open. Even in the deepening gloom, Jigsaw could see that the lizard’s claws were gripping the tarmac as if preparing to be dislodged by some irresistible force. This reminded him of a poem he’d read in middle school by a Yank who’d written about a lizard at a nuclear bomb-testing site but he couldn’t recall the poet’s name. Did the lizard sense something in the wind that even Seamus couldn’t?
Not to worry, he’d say. And he’d say it again for emphasis. Mum always half-seriously considered Seamus the idiot of the two while they were growing up in Belfast. Timothy was astounded that the two of them shared the same DNA.
Yeah an’ who’s the idiot now? It’s me in the line of fire with fake blood on my forehead like it’s fuckin’ Halloween while Seamus is safe behind the dunes.
Earlier, Jigsaw had taken his Glock 25 and bashed the inside of the windshield to simulate a head trauma. If Seamus had any other reason for pulling off this stunt than the one he had, Jigsaw would’ve told him to take a flying leap in a pint of Guinness. But family is family, after all.
Headlights, about five miles down. The transport had left Dugway right on schedule.
“Possible visual confirmed on Victor Xavier.”
“Roger that. Get in position.”
The desert was already colder than the Reaper’s nut sack and he hoped that the potholed asphalt was warmer. Leaving the binoculars and walkie-talkies in the overturned car, he obligingly stretched out on Highway 36 and remembered with a start that he’d forgotten to ask Seamus if Army protocol allowed stopping for a human or turning him into road pizza.
Ah, shit, I’m gonna kill you if this fuckin’ lorry doesn’t get me first. Watch me get bitten on the arse by a rattlesnake or whatever else they have out here.
Still, he had to admit, this was the most vulnerable the munitions would ever be. Back in Ireland, they’d quickly ruled out entry in either facility. As good as Seamus’ IRA intelligence-gathering was, they hadn’t a chance of getting inside, even though official reports had chided the base and others like it with sloppy security. Sneaking in and shooting their way out was problematic, at best, but you had to be careful with this shit. They’d been able to “appropriate” VX antidote kits sold to and stored in an area hospital, the cocktail of three chemicals needed to counteract the effects of the nerve agent. But Jigsaw wasn’t sure if he could trust his brother or anyone in his motley crew to inject him in the right place at the right time if worse came to worst and he wasn’t very enthusiastic about field testing it.
Propping his head up in his right hand, elbow resting on the road that was still radiating leftover heat from the sun, Jigsaw watched the headlights of the truck grow larger. His stomach got tighter by the second. A chill grabbed hold of his spine, like Death’s fist had wrapped around his tailbone and was traveling north.
The contingency plan was to shoot out the tires if it didn’t look as if they’d stop and Jigsaw couldn’t roll out of the way in time. It was always good to have a contingency plan but this one was hairy. There’d be no telling where the transport would end up. What was the stopping distance of a semi traveling 70 mph, with its wheel rims suddenly scraping asphalt? The thought of the truck turning over on him was chased from his mind by an equally grim one: If there was an accident and VX was released, he had fifteen minutes to make his peace with God. Considering the company he kept, he figured it would take a lot longer than that.
When the truck looked as if it was a mile away, he nervously looked to the dune on the south-bound side of Highway 36 and hoped his brother and their chums brought their “A” game tonight. Peter O’Toole never prepared for a role as much as they did. But the missing piece was what was bothering him, the X factor. What would the soldiers do?
The lights began lapping over Timothy’s now-prostrate form as the truck climbed the last rise. He anxiously waited for the sound of the pneumatic brakes and his breathing got quicker and shallower when he didn’t hear them. The wind, sweeping down the highway, hit his damp shirt and he shivered. The lights got more intense and he coiled his muscles to spring out of the way. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the lizard opting for the more discreet form of valor and it daffily scampered into the dunes. At least someone here had some common fucking sense.
The hard part was lying still.
C’mon, stop, you assholes.
Finally, just as the roar of the diesel engine and the eighteen wheels began to shake the asphalt, his nervous patience was rewarded by the low-pitched whine of the air brakes being engaged. He lifted his head and the grillwork of the semi blotted out the dark sky. He got up and began staggering to the truck, just as the script called for.
“That’s far enough! You’ll have to move your car, sir.”
Jigsaw continued stumbling toward the man, dabbing at the fake blood on his forehead.
“I lost control of my car,” he said in his best Yank accent, “and I hit my head on the windshield. Damn coyote. Should’ve run it into the ground. Shit!”
“You’ll still have to move your vehicle, sir. You’re impeding official Army business.” The soldier, who looked all of twelve years old and whose Midwestern accent practically guaranteed that he still had cow shit between his toes, opened the window all the way so he could be heard. “We can call you an ambulance if need be but you’ll have to move your vehicle.” Jigsaw looked behind him at the upside down sedan and back with a wry look at the boys playing soldier. So far, the plan was working perfectly. They couldn’t simply drive around the wreck without turning into the dunes and Seamus was counting on them being smart enough to know they’d get stuck in the sand trap.
“That’s the problem, soldier boy. It’s dead. Like you and your boyfriend.”
The young soldier knit his brows. He looked in the direction of the dune and the muzzle flash was the last thing he saw.
Jigsaw pulled out his Glock 25, steadied himself with a deep breath and squeezed off two rounds into the passenger side. Both soldiers were still, slumped in their seats. The dune disgorged the rest of the band and Seamus rejoined his brother.
“See? No problems, just as the Aussies say.”
“Let’s get this over with.” Jigsaw stepped away. He didn’t want his brother to see that his hands were still shaking. That truck had come close. The heat of its engine felt like a dragon’s breath.
“They’re over here,” announced Ditch and all five walked to the passenger side.
Switching on powerful halogen flashlights, Seamus and his five accomplices began sliding out what they came all the way from Ireland for. The munitions were loaded into various-sized slots like bottles of spring water. There were 4.2 inch cartridges, 155 mm warheads, 750 pound bombs, 55 mm rockets. The only munitions the plane hidden in a hangar at the Salt Flats could handle were the M56 rocket warheads, which weighed a mere ten pounds apiece. Each warhead carried enough VX to decimate half a small city or a very big township.
Small but deadly, like desert scorpions.
They already had access, through Seamus’ gun-running connections, the M56 rocket launchers, as well as to more conventional munitions. But mere M56 grenades weren’t enough for what Seamus had in mind this time. After they secured ten of the outdated warheads, Seamus signaled his people into the seemingly abandoned box truck.
A muffled crack and the sharper sound of glass being shattered, and all Jigsaw felt was a sting in his back. Blood began soaking his chest, which looked alternately black and red in the truck’s headlights. The strength in his legs failed and he dropped to his knees. He got out two words: “I’m hit.”
He saw his brother turn and take aim at the truck. Evidently Jigsaw’s hand hadn’t been steady enough to do the job right on the passenger. He knew what Seamus would say.
Always got to fight your battles for you, isn’t that right?Darkness crept into the edge of Jigsaw’s vision and the desert night opened its arms to him. The last thing he thought of was the name of William Stafford, the Yank who wrote that lizard poem. Funny what pops into your mind at the oddest times, he thought as he succumbed to the night.