Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving, 2008

            Dateline: Provincetown, Massachusetts, November 25, 2008
            Just weeks ago, Barack Obama had been elected the 44th president of the United States, yet liberal journalist Mike Flannigan is the only political pundit in America not writing about it. In fact, while his colleagues are exhaustively writing about every minutia of the historic election, Mike takes an ill-advised and deeply unpopular leave of absence from his magazine to go on an epic road trip up and down the upper east coast. Why?
            What was supposed to be an overnight trip began when he gets a cryptic email from his childhood friend, former bandmate and one-time lover Josiah (JoJo) Vandermeer. It's the first time he hears from him in years and the email reads only, "Let's get the guys together." Fearing the worst, Mike leaves his family and asks his editor-in-chief Ari Goldstein to see his old friend and perhaps reunite with his old band, the Immortals. There are questions surrounding the promising hard rock band's abrupt breakup back in 1978 that never sat well with the other band members.
            But while the group of middle-aged men get some answers and some of their old musical mojo back, Jo Jo suddenly dies on the road. This excerpt from chapter 44 of American Zen starts at Jo Jo's grave after the funeral and his husband, Jeremy Fleming, fearing being alone for the first time in years, invites Mike, Billy and Rob to share Thanksgiving dinner with him. During this chapter, Mike realizes what he should be grateful for and that, despite pressure from his editor and wife and kids to come home during a perpetually extended sabbatical, he actually has more to be thankful for than the other three men who have suffered even more devastating losses. They sit down to eat a dinner that was prepped by Jo Jo just days before his death, his final gift to his husband and friends.

            The service was brief and uneventful, although far from forgettable. Rob and I took photos with our cell phones and I emailed one to Doris with a brief expression of love and a promise to be home by tonight.
            My heart sank with Jo Jo as they lowered him into the rectangular grave. The three of us hung back, allowing Jeremy to throw the first handful of dirt onto the coffin lid six feet below. As I threw my own in, I realized with a start that the minute we turned our backs, Jo Jo would be swallowed up by the earth, hardly a trace of his existence allowed to remain besides our fragile living memory.
            As we were wiping dirt from our hands, Jeremy asked us at graveside, “I think it would be very nice if you were to join me for Thanksgiving dinner. There won’t be a reception because I didn’t want to have one and, besides, it’s Thanksgiving. But I’d be honored if you would join me.”
            It suddenly occurred to me that Jo Jo had prepared dinner just before we left for New York State. “No, the honor would be all ours,” I said, knowing the other guys would feel the same way.

            Back in the apartment, we immediately shed our jackets and inhaled the rich aroma of the turkey. The only thing that Jeremy had to do was pop the bird in the oven just before we went to the funeral home. Jo Jo had done all the prep work.
            Jeremy slipped on an oven mitt, pulled down the oven door and tore off a piece of turkey skin. It crunched lightly in his mouth. “Mm, perfect. I’m famished. I hope you guys are, too,” he said as he turned off the oven.
            Surprisingly, I was, despite my little accident at the funeral home garage. Remembering that, I decided to brush my teeth after I washed my hands for dinner.
            Rob and Billy were only too happy to help Jeremy clear and set the table. After all, what else did these men have but each other? Rob’s marriage hit an iceberg, Billy I’m sure lived totally alone and Jeremy just buried his husband. And me…
            And me?
            Epiphany sometimes sneaks up on you and taps you on the shoulder, clearing its throat and politely saying, “Uh, excuse me?” And sometimes it hits you from behind like a mugger with a blackjack (or a suicidal ex-SEAL), giving no regard for timing or the rudeness of its appearance. This moment was one of the latter.
            Yes, what about me? Why did I have to be here? Well, respect for Jo Jo and his efforts would be a good reason but why was I here instead of hightailing it home to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my own family? That was the point.
            I didn’t have to be here. It was a lesson, a fact that I should’ve always taken for granted. I didn’t have to be here. It was purely a matter of choice because I wanted to show Jeremy and Jo Jo the proper respect, because I didn’t want him to be alone. I didn’t want Rob to be alone. I didn’t want Billy to be alone. I had a choice. They didn’t.
            I had a choice because I really did have a loving, supportive, compassionate wife and three kids anxious about my absence. I had a good career doing something I loved to do. I was the luckiest bastard among all of us, if not the luckiest bastard on earth. I didn’t have to be here. I wasn’t that desperate to stave off loneliness.
            Jeremy seemed like a changed man. Obviously, some of it was an act, a conscious, maybe a desperate attempt to liven up the place, to establish some holiday spirit into the apartment. Far from being the merry widower, now that he was finally freed of over 90 days of crushing fear and oppression fretting and worrying over Jo Jo, he could almost be said to have a spring in his step as he hustled back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room table with steaming chafing dishes of food.
            He seemed to bow then quickly threw his head back, gathering with his hands his glistening, bouncy mass of brown hair and pulling it back into a perfect high and tight ponytail very much like the one Jo Jo wore when he was doing the prep work. He then wiped the sweat off his brow with his linen napkin before announcing, “We have food, gentlemen!” Billy loudly clapped his hands together and was first at the table, Rob just a half step behind. I wasn’t sure if they knew that Jo Jo had done all the prep work.
            Jeremy sat to the right of me and took my right hand as he bowed his head. I didn’t realize that he was into religion. He didn’t even go to the church with us last Sunday but he wanted to say grace, so I took Billy’s right hand in my left and so forth and we bowed our heads, our eight hands linked.
            “I think we all ought to thank Jo Jo for giving us this delicious food that we’re all about to receive. He did all the work. All I did was throw the turkey in the oven and pray I wouldn’t burn it.” He smiled and continued. “And this dinner, made with his own two hands, is in a way a perfect illustration of the kind of life he led. He was always thinking about others first until he was finally forced to think of himself.
            “But even then, I’d also like to think that, in his rare moment of selfishness, if you can call it that, we all benefited from the journey that we’d been privileged to share with him. We all benefited enormously from having known and loved him and that’s what I’m grateful for.” “Amen,” he added as an afterthought. I squeezed Jeremy’s left hand and smiled. He really said it for all of us.
            “Now, who wants dark meat and who wants light meat?”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chernobyl Dreams: Prologue

Some of you may know of Elena Filatova, the Russian girl who, at least until two years ago when the dispatches suddenly stopped, rode her motorcycle (pictured above with the ominously ironic KIA on the plate) into Chernobyl and Pripyat every year. During these dangerous and lonely trips, she'd bring her digital camera to document the decrepitude of both cities and put them on her original Angelfire blog.

The spirit of this girl, and the personality that shines through in spite of the nearly-unemotional clinical detachment in her running commentary, fascinated me so much that one day a few years ago I wrote a prologue featuring a fictionalized version of her and put it away. Picking it up a few months later, I decided this would be a great way to start an installment of my then-nascent Joe Roman series. By this time, the late Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy and its unforgettable anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander took the literary world by storm. And just as a grown-up Pippi Longstocking was Larsson's inspiration for Salander, a gentler, more romantic Salander became my template for Valentina Zolatovsky, or Val Zola for short.

If you've seen the B horror movie Chernobyl Diaries, then you'll have a pretty fair idea of what Pripyat and Chernobyl looks like over a quarter of a century after the disaster. But this prologue for what would become Chernobyl Dreams was written years before Chernobyl Diaries was filmed. When I put this up on Scribd about two years ago, it had gotten more of a reaction and more reads by far than anything else I'd put up. Chernobyl Dreams is to be the third installment of the Joe Roman series, one that sends him back to a Russia he'd fled twenty years before when his NYPD mentor and best friend gets shot under mysterious circumstances.


            The Russian girl throttling the Kawasaki Ninja knew that to veer off the road was pure death.
            This was literally true no less so than it is for sharks needing to stay in perpetual motion to remain alive. To veer off either side was literally to die for because asphalt does not absorb radiation. The scrub brush on either side of the deserted highway to Chernobyl was a different matter: It was steeped in it. But figuratively, the necessity of remaining on the road was no less real.
            Just 23, Valentina Zolatovsky, Val Zola to her few intimates, made the frightful trek once a year. She would quickly learn to do it during the brief Ukrainian summer so as to avoid as best she could a toxic snowfall.
            Since age 18, Val had faithfully gotten on her aging rice burner, Geiger counter and dosimeter in tow, to document on her digital camera what few had the courage these past 25 years to even contemplate: The uninterrupted disintegration of a major Russian city due to the fallout of Man’s arrogant stupidity.
            Virtually the only people she’d see in this part of the Ukraine were young army sentries at the two dozen checkpoints. Every year, at least one leering guard would look at the shapely girl in black leather and try to con her into stripping to take a chemical shower. She’d always avoid such a needless intrusion of her privacy by tartly wondering, for instance, how they’d fucked up to get such a shitty post. For the first time that didn’t work, she’d have in a leather saddlebag an additional deterrent in the form of a sawed-off 12 gauge Mossberg.
            More often than not, the bored and lonely guard would ask the girl with two or three extra pounds packed in her leather pants why she was out here by herself. Their rotation would not permit personal familiarity much less recognizance but word spread from one checkpoint to another about the brave or stupid girl on the Kawasaki that drove every year into the most dangerous No Man’s Land on earth.
            Since she chose to eschew even a nodding acquaintance with even the friendliest ones, she likewise didn’t wish to share her motives other than to say she was documenting Chernobyl and the surrounding area for her blog. This was true but it didn’t explain her impetus.
            Val Zola’s grandfather Sergei was one of the thousands of firefighters and soldiers who were sent straight to their deaths. The Soviet government of Gorbachev lied to these men even as they signed their death warrants and ordered them in without proper training or PPE. Rushing toward reactor four wearing nothing but their normal gear, the dying wave of humanity knew precisely what hit them. They were just never told how deadly the fallout truly was. 30 men had died in the first few weeks and Grandfather Sergei was one of them.
            He’d died mere days before his daughter Olga discovered she was carrying her first child. From childhood on, Val felt as if she owed it to him to confront the imperfectly-muzzled monster that had claimed his life.
            The plight of the Russian firefighters marched to their doom would remind her of the 343 firemen killed on 9/11. They, too, were unaware of the true scope of the danger and almost all of them perished when the towers fell with them still in them trying to rescue the employees.
            Those who’d hastily erected the already crumbling cement sarcophagus over reactor four were among the first to perish, including the chopper pilots who had lowered the blocks in place. Even their height and the downwash of the rotors couldn’t save them.
            The guards at the checkpoint weren’t the only people Val Zola would see in her annual pilgrimage. Once in a while she would pass an elderly couple in a wagon pulled by a sad-looking draft horse. They were the stubborn 300 remaining of a village of 3500 who, well into middle age by the time Chernobyl melted down, had intractably insisted on remaining on their ancestral farmlands. After forcibly evicting them, the Soviet government shrugged its broad shoulders and figured it was easier to leave them for dead than to argue with them.
            But the peasants refused to die and still refuse to this day. They were almost the perfect living embodiment of Nietzsche’s maxim, “Whatever does not destroy me makes me stronger.” Their meager harvests were irradiated because the soil was and they knew it. But not only did the gamma and X-rays not kill them, they’d acclimated themselves to it just as their hardy forebears adjusted to climatic and political change. In a way, they were immortal.
            Val’s musings on immortality put her in mind of a landmark she’d passed about back at the 86th kilometer marker. It was a giant stone egg, imported from Germany. She supposed it symbolized the never ending cycle of life, the eternal promise of renewal. It was an odd place to put such a monument, at one of the least populated and deadliest spots on earth this side of the Arctic. It sat in the middle of a killed field, the soil too toxic even for the most insistent scrub brush normally peculiar to the Ukraine. It might as well have been a 65,000,000 year-old dinosaur egg unearthed by paleontologists. In light of its bleak venue, the ovoid monument was more like a cenotaph to life: A memorial to something that now no longer existed in the area.
            Presently, her Kawasaki took her to the outskirts of the real victim of the meltdown: The city of Pripyat. Chernobyl was only marginally involved in the disaster like Woodstock was only marginally involved in the festival named after it.
            Pripyat was the thriving Pompeiian city from which many of the reactor’s scientists, engineers and technicians came. Through old clippings from Pravda, microfiche and reproduced articles on the internet, Val had read everything she could about that day. Ignorant of the enormity of the danger, the people of Pripyat stood atop the roofs of their large apartment buildings even as the first bright clouds of fallout were beginning their fatal sweep.
            Valentina killed the throttle of the motorbike as she approached what was Pripyat’s year-round amusement park. Its giant Ferris wheel stood idle as if an expensive plaything left abandoned by the child of a god or giant. Lovers, Val imagined, young men and women feeling spring enliven their blood, their hormones responding to the promise of love, held hands and kissed in these now rusty cars.
            On a previous visit, Val had walked into one of the long-vacated apartments. Behind the front door was a fishing rod and, on the wall to its left, a 1986 calendar with April 30th circled in faded red ink. The apartment had obviously been rented by a man, typically someone who’d worked at Chernobyl.
            Elsewhere, Val would see evidence of the paralyzed plans made by good Soviets for the annual Labor Day celebration on May Day. Now in Pripyat’s kindergarten, she saw more signs of the never-arrived festivities and the long-forgotten Soviet propaganda that went hand in hand.
            A warm dry wind stirred sun-bleached leaflets with pictures of famous and not so famous Soviet leaders and heroes. Now stripped of its once mandatory relevance, the propaganda had met the same fate as the Ferris wheel, fishing rod and every hearth and home in Pripyat. It was as if Chernobyl was the sleeping sickness that would spread and kill off the ailing giant that was the Soviet Union. In a little over three years the once proud superpower of Eastern Europe would begin losing territories like a leper shedding extremities.
            Val was careful to only walk into buildings in which the windows and doors were left open. Edifices are tailor-made for trapping radiation and, knowing this, the evacuated citizenry and the Red Army made opening the windows and doors their final order of business before their delayed but hasty exodus.
            As she was about to pass through the school’s front walkway, Val then locked eyes with a wolf.
She’d heard stories of the local fauna hideously mutated by the radiation warping their genes. Zoologists for the most part dismissed these as lies, hoaxes or rumors. But it would be fallacious to assume that so much radiation spewed out over a quarter century wouldn’t play havoc with the genetic code of every living thing.
Val knew of an American cardiologist who made his own annual pilgrimage to the area to perform free surgery on children throughout the Ukraine. The genetic deformities most often seen were atrial septal defects or holes in their hearts and thyroid cancer. But Val Zola saw on that same documentary horrific abnormalities such as a toddler whose brain grew outside of her skull and was protected only by a sack of skin.
Why should the fearless animals, to whom Man was a stranger, be any different?
Consistent with what she’d read and seen with her own eyes in years past, the wolf, a large, gray male with a head the size of a watermelon, looked nonplussed at her abrupt appearance. Since their top predator, Man, was only a rare interloper, they hadn’t cultivated any fear of humans. Only the smaller species of birds took flight at her presence.
The wolf’s mouth was distinguished by some hanging, bloody skin tissue and Val didn’t know if was the aftermath of a kill, an injury or a genetic deformity. It didn’t matter at the time because the lupine predator stood between her and the Kawasaki Ninja carrying her sawed-off 12 gauge.
Both woman and wolf locked eyes in a moment as frozen as the entire city of Pripyat. Then the large animal licked its bloody chops, turned to its right and loped away. Val quietly but deeply inhaled before getting back on her bike.
The next stop was the local fire department. In the first hours after the meltdown of April 26th 1986, the local firemen were the first responders, the ones who’d arrived in advance of the 650,000 “liquidators”. As with the firefighters, policemen, soldiers and helicopter pilots, the “liquidators” were issued inadequate personal protective equipment, training or an adequate briefing on the dangers.
They were hurled into the mouth of an invisible beast they’d never fought before, a neutron bomb detonating for 48,000 years that left the buildings intact but leaving no one alive. Many going into the 3000-30,000 roentgen inferno were fried on the spot. 400-500 roentgens over five hours is fatal to humans (ironically, roaches can tolerate up to 100 times that much).
And the emergency personnel never really knew what hit them because the meltdown was still a state secret. In fact, the people of Kiev were ordered to continue with the Labor Day celebrations until they, too, began dropping from radiation sickness a full week after the meltdown. Even the people of neighboring Pripyat weren’t evacuated until two days after the beautiful, shiny cloud had blown into the city like a deadly amoeba. The Soviet government of Gorbachev’s glastnost wouldn’t even admit there was an accident until Swedish nuclear reactor workers were found to have radiation on their shoes.
30,000-40,000 people died either directly or indirectly because of the fallout. The government’s official death toll was an absurd 300.
Val’s grandfather and 29 others had been among the very first to fall. In keeping with protocol and common sense, the bay doors were left wide open. Many, many firemen never made it back and neither did their engines.
            Large vehicles such as fire trucks are typically the most radioactive objects in the region. Instinctively, she glanced at her Geiger counter. Even standing 50-60 feet from one fire engine (amazingly, even after 24 years, the tires were still inflated), she was getting a reading of 763 microroentgens or about three quarters of a milliroentgen, which is 1/1000th of a roentgen. It was actually a minor exposure (a typical baseline city reading is anywhere from 10-16 microroentgens) but as Val was wearing no PPE, she didn’t wish to take any unnecessary chances.
            Besides, she knew that with every step she’d take toward the engine, the microroentgens would very quickly spike into milliroentgen territory and the greater danger would be not to her but her new digital camera. Radiation plays hell with hard drives.
            She got out her Canon Powershot SX20 and squared it as she began taking pictures of the engine and the plain cinderblock firehouse just adjacent. From virtually any angle and at her distance, it was impossible to see inside the engine. But Val gave it no thought-After all these years, who or what could still be inside?
            She moved on and took some more pictures of Reactor Four that so quickly killed her grandfather while keeping a very respectable distance (from even a kilometer away, the fallout leaking from the crumbling sarcophagus measured several hundred microroentgens or almost a full milliroentgen). She’d been here enough times to know and had been warned by her scientist father who’d gotten for her the government permit that got her this far that if she were to walk right up to number four, she’d glow in the dark like the magic trees and would be dead in a week or two.
            Calling it a day, Val Zola mounted her Ninja and sped away from the Chernobyl reactor, through the necropolis of Pripyat, past the peasant village, past the egg and all the way back to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
            Once in her studio apartment, she set right to work uploading her captured images to her computer’s hard drive. She minutely examined every image, sometimes comparing them to older ones with identical subjects to see what changes had occurred.
            At first, she didn’t see any changes out of the ordinary. The usual rate of disintegration, the flora’s shy but inexorable encroachment on manmade structures and vehicles. Then Val observed the pictures she’d taken of the fire engine. As when she was looking right at it, the reflection of the trees and buildings confounded any view of the truck’s interior. But she noted a circular white object against the driver side window.
            The glass was spider-webbed from some impact but she couldn’t tell either then or now if it was struck from within or without. She zoomed in on the picture that offered the best view of the round, white object. Using her photography software’s enhancement tools, she cleaned up the pixilation as best she could to no avail. There weren’t any details out of which she could divine any sense.
            Val Zola then played a hunch and decided to blow up and enhance the only picture she’d taken of the front of the engine. Then horror dawned on her, neurological lightning charging the top of her head.
            There, in the front of the white, round object, were two barely discernible black holes and, between and below them, another. And, beneath the roughly triangular-shaped hole, what looked like teeth.
            A human skull.
            Below the skull that rest against the driver side window was the suggestion of a tie and around it, what appeared to be a dark suit. She blew up and enhanced the image taken from the passenger side window and could barely see through the reflection of the fire station on the window what could be interpreted as a bullet hole in the side of the skull.
            Whoever had died in that fire engine wasn’t a fireman and he certainly didn’t die from radioactive fallout. Like 99% of us, Val Zola’s first instinct was to alert the authorities. But this was the most radioactive place on earth, a region that would remain uninhabitable for, best case scenario, 300 years.
            Who would investigate it?
            It was perhaps a short term mercy that Valentina Zolatovsky couldn’t see in the picture of the engine’s passenger side another reflection, this one coming from behind the fire station.
            She would’ve seen another man in a coat, looking right at her.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Toy Cop prologue


(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.”
            “Yeah, yeah.”
            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.
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