Novel: the Nine of the North (NotN) [Book 4]




the Nine of the North
Archer Garrett
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This is a work of fiction.  All of the characters, organizations and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2013 Archer Garrett. 
All Rights Reserved.
No Part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.
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Acknowledgements:
My wife, for her patience during this project.
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About this Book:
The events in this book take place immediately after the conclusion of the events in Kratocracy.  Reading the Western Front and Kratocracy are both necessary prior to reading this book.
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Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food…
…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 3:17a, 18
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Chapter 1



Guadalupe Mountains; Southwest Texas

The man smiled as he leaned across the aisle and shouted over the rhythmic, whomp, whomp whomp of the Chinook’s rotors, “So, you’re the two that were over Padre Island?”

Barrett glanced at Holt and then back towards the man, before replying, “Yeah, well, what’s left of it.”

“You the one they call Barrett?”

He nodded.

“You’re pretty well known in these parts.  Name’s Jennings.”

At least, Barrett assumed the man meant Jennings.  The name rolled lazily off the man’s tongue with a thick Texas drawl, and sounded more like Jin-nins.

Barrett smiled and replied, “Pleasure to meet you.   This is Holt.”

Without uttering a word, Holt thrust a gloved hand at Jennings and exchanged a firm, but friendly, shake.

“Y’all don’t know how much what you done out there has helped us.  When you started pushing back against the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, it changed everything.  There hadn’t been much hope in Fort Bliss for a long time, to be honest, and you changed that.”

“How so?”

“Well the cartels are always looking to take advantage of a situation, and if you blink your eyes, the board’s done changed.  You must’ve hurt the Alliance something bad in Matamoros, because after that, the Sinaloas cut a swath deep into the Zeta’s and Gulf’s territory.  Everything is hearsay down south, and you know how drug men like to exaggerate, but the word was that the trees in Monterrey run out of branches to hang Zetas from.”

“How’d that help you when you’re five hundred miles from a bunch of dead narcos in Monterrey?”

“With the Zetas broken, the Sinaloas turned their full attention to the Juarez Cartel.  We’d been getting pounded with rockets every day for weeks.  I felt like I was across the river from the West Bank.  Now, we might get rocket fire once a week.  I’d almost forgot what the sun looked like I’d been in the ground so long.”

“Sounds like the Sinaloas might be the new player along the border.”

Jennings nodded.  “Maybe so, but we’ll deal with them when the time comes.  Until then, I wouldn’t mind if the torch got passed back and forth a couple more times and a few more branches got stretched.”

Barrett tried to force a smile, but his thoughts wandered into much darker places. 

“I’m afraid there’s far worse that we have to worry about than the Sinaloa Cartel.”

Jennings sighed and began to speak, but the chopper suddenly banked hard to the right, causing him to nearly tumble from his bench.  He cursed at the pilot as he arose and began to stumble towards the cockpit.  After several moments, he returned.

“Reckon I spoke too soon.”

“Rockets?”

Jennings nodded.  “Too dangerous for us to fly in to Bliss.  We’ve being diverted to Dell City; ‘bout eighty miles east, as the crow flies.  We keep a couple of vehicles hidden there for times like these.”

“I prefer the ground anyway,” Holt replied.

Before turning to leave again, Jennings said, “I should get back to the cockpit; stay up on what’s going on in Bliss.”

Holt watched the man walk away, while Barrett turned his gaze to the others.  His eyes caught Isabel’s for a fleeting moment, before he quickly averted her stare.  They had spoken only when absolutely necessary since their time in Nuevo Laredo.

He knew he should not fault her for doing what he could not do.  It was not as if they could have released the Imam.  They had known his fate from the moment they abducted him from the dark alley.  She had only done what the men knew had to be done, yet refused to do.  If he was honest with himself though, he knew that was not the real reason for his distance.

She had cared for him enough to bear the unconscionable, to kill a man not out of self-defense, but rather because her actions saved someone she cared about from shouldering the burden.  He had only known one other woman that would have done the same for him.

He knew that there had been a moment between them on the rooftop in Nuevo Laredo. Even though he had said they could only be friends, he was afraid that eventually they would be more.  Every time he looked at Isabel, he saw his wife, and his heart would break anew.  Even if he could overcome the pain, he would always compare her to Olivia.  Try as she might, Isabel could never be Olivia.  Isabel may accept his defections and distance at first, but eventually she would grow to resent him.  Besides, even if he could somehow push through his grief, the world was different now.  Life was cold, unforgiving and short; he could not find love again, only to have it taken away by a world that cared not for such things anymore.  So he used the Imam as his excuse to push her away.  In time, they would be friends again, but he had to separate himself from her, at least until the feelings subsided.

Beside Isabel, Rodie and several of his irregulars anxiously waited for their flight to end.  Unable to convince his sister to stay with him, Rodie had decided at the last minute to join Barrett and the Gray Riders as they traveled west.  With the cartels’ influence in Laredo waning, the others remained behind to reclaim the city.

As the Chinook cleared the rugged peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains, the tiny community came into view.  Barrett reasoned that no more than three or four hundred people had called the deceptively-named Dell City home.  Now, it was nothing more than a mocking reminder of its former self.  Most likely, the farmers and ranchers in Dell City had only a glimmer of an opportunity to escape before their quiet enclave was overrun by narco soldados.   Those that did escape would have abandoned generations of blood and sweat, for the uncertain life of a refugee.  The men and women that braved landscapes such as these were not known to be the type to back down from a struggle of any sort.  He mourned for the former residents, knowing all too well that Dell City had most likely been transformed into a ghost town of the most literal sorts.

Founded in the forties after oil prospectors discovered a reservoir in the valley, Dell City had been a tiny island of green surrounded by an arid, border wasteland.   The limits of the irrigated crop circles were still apparent from above, but the once-lush vegetation had been reduced to a parched, desolate brown that faded into the obscurity of the monochrome desert.

The Chinook landed without incident in the field behind Dell City School, on Main Street.  As Barrett and the others exited the rear loading ramp, he paused momentarily to observe the bleak landscape that surrounded him.  Just to the west was a series of high crags, too stubborn to adjoin and be considered a proper mountain range.  Instead, their silhouettes rose from the haze on the horizon like borderland pyramids in some bizarre, West Texas necropolis.  Past them some innumerable distance, the low peaks of an unknown ridge could be vaguely discerned.  Above them, an endless parade of tiny cloud puffs obscured the sun as they slowly drifted eastward.

Jennings motioned for the group to follow him as the distinct sound of the Chinook’s rotors filled the air.  He weaved between several buildings as he navigated across the small campus.  Behind them, the chopper ascended towards the tufts of cottony clouds, before tipping slightly forward and aiming its nose at the high peaks they had crossed only minutes earlier.

Jennings directed the group to press tightly against the wall of the main building while he and several other men from Fort Bliss peered through their rifle scopes for any signs of a threat.  After several long moments of thorough observations, the group dashed across the open space towards a pair of rusted metal buildings.

One building housed a pair of Strykers, while the other contained two Humvees.  The group separated into four teams and quickly loaded into the vehicles.  In less than a minute, the vehicles rolled out of the nondescript structures and onto Main Street. 

The aging blacktop thoroughfare was a mural of tarred cracks and neglected potholes.  A thick coat of dust covered everything around them:  the street signs riddled with bullet holes, the jagged shards of glass that hung in the broken windows of abandoned stucco buildings and even the once-green leaves of the occasional shrub or tree that stood as a defiant contrast to the endless collage of sepia tones.

The rear Stryker slowed to allow the Humvees room to slide in between the larger, armored vehicles.  The convoy straddled the center line of the highway and roared towards the south as fast as the Strykers would allow.  A man in each vehicle opened the top hatch and vigilantly began to scan their surroundings from within the shielded ring mounts.  All of the vehicles were equipped with fifty-caliber, M2 machine-guns.  As the last of the warehouses and grain silos disappeared behind them, the only indication of civilization was the endless stretch of weather pavement before them, and the occasional, solitary power pole.  All else was the parched domain of a seemingly endless blanket of creosote bushes with an occasional honey mesquite or huisache.

After ten or fifteen miles the highway terminated at a T-junction.  Ahead of them, the charred remains of a truck stop and several vehicles stood as a solemn reminder of the cruelty of the borderlands.  The lead Stryker slowed only enough to safely maneuver the intersection as the convoy turned west on US 180.

Ever so slightly, the landscape began to change around them over the course of the next hour or so.  The silhouettes of the petrified pyramids slowly began to drift by them to the north.  Barrett found their presence to be strangely foreboding.  Like the harbingers in some strange desert Gothic, they filled him with dread.  He scoffed at his own thoughts and tried to usher them aside, but they refused him.

After crossing a series of barren river beds, the unknown ridges from before began to grow in size, slowly at first, but then with greater urgency.  Just as the highway began to cut into the syenite hills and begin its ascent, the lead Stryker abandoned the pavement and turned north onto a dusty, narrow ranch road.

Barrett turned to Jennings and asked, “What’s this place called?”

“We’re at the foot of the Hueco Mountains.  Just over those peaks, the outer reaches of El Paso begins.  We can’t go through there anymore.”

“Narcos?”

Jennings nodded, “Yeah, they’d lay and wait for us for days, maybe weeks, and then ambush us as we came through.  About ten miles north of here, past Cerro Alto, are a series of ridges we can follow over the mountains.  There’s about a dozen trails to choose from, so it’s harder for them to catch us.  Plus, it’s pretty well wide open, so we can see ‘em coming.  It’ll take the rest of the day to get to Bliss, but it’s safer.”

“I can stand the wait.”

Jennings smiled and replied, “I thought so.”

Just then, they passed a cluster of yuccas amongst a stand of tall mesquites.  Behind the concealment, a pair of trucks languished under the desert sun.  Their tires were flattened and their windshields had been shattered.  Rust had begun to creep outward from the countless bullet holes that riddled the vehicles.  Barrett gazed at the wreckage and then turned to Jennings.  The man shrugged innocently and said in his West Texas drawl, “Can’t say they haven’t tried.”

Cerro Alto loomed high overhead as they approached it from the south.  It was a solitary peak, not unlike the rugged pyramids from earlier.  The haughty crag made its rivals, in the range just beyond it, look like mere foothills in comparison, which in fact they were.  Barrett was once again consumed with the feelings of dread from earlier.  If he were on the insurgent side of this war, he knew where he would station his sentries.

“Do you scout this area?”

“We send drones through the mountains daily.”

“How many?”

“We only have four at Fort Bliss.  Usually half are flying over Juarez and the other half are flying everywhere else.”

“When you say half, you mean two.  And when you say everywhere else, you mean everywhere else, including these mountains, sometimes.  You might as well be scouring these hills through a soda straw.”

“Look, we do the best with what we have.  I thought you, of all people, would understand that.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t mean it that way; I do understand, believe me.  It’s just,” Barrett paused and pointed at Cerro Alto before continuing, “I feel like you’re putting us in danger right now.  I guarantee you that we’re being watched.”

“Dell City is the only safe place for us to land birds.  This is as safe a route as we have.  New Mexico to the north of us is hotter than you can imagine.”

“I can imagine pretty hot, trust me.”

“Well, maybe you can imagine.  It’s bad, very bad, to the north of us.”

“You need scouts on Cerro Alta at all times.  This is the highest point between Dell City and Fort Bliss.  Tomorrow, two of your men head back here.”

“I don’t know if you can make that call.”

Trust me, I can make that call.  And if I can’t, I know people that can.  I think you’re missing the point, Jennings.  You know why we’re here.  I personally smashed the feet of the man that told us that there was a nuclear device in Juarez.  And the girl in the Stryker in front of us, she put a bullet in his head, because we’d no other choice.  He was a Muslim cleric, do you get me?  There’re no Muslims in Mexico; they don’t exist!  Except now, they do.  Do you know what that means?”

Jennings nodded and looked down, as if he was a child being scolded.

“Well, let me inform you just in case.  They’re here for one reason, to kill you and me.  And they plan to accomplish that by detonating a bomb, and by training narcos on how to kill Americans.  And you’re operating like this is just some sort of border skirmish!  They helped wipe downtown Houston off the map, and they’re not done with us yet!  You need to wake up!”

The cabin of the Humvee fell into an awkward silence.  The driver of the vehicle refused to even glance behind him, for fear of eliciting Barrett’s wrath.  Instead, he focused intently on the road in front of him as the lead Stryker began to ascend the hills behind Cerra Alto.  Barrett cursed under his breath as he turned and stared out his side window.  The slopes of the surrounding mountains began to rise up around them as the convoy followed the narrow trail over the Huecos.

The lead Stryker was random in its selections as it approached forks in the trail.  The vehicles meandered to and fro along various paths.  Occasionally, the passages would turn back down the slope for several hundred feet to avoid an outcrop, but as soon as the obstacle was behind them, they would resume their ascent.  Time was against them, however.  The sun was beginning to hang heavy in the sky.  In a few short hours, darkness would be upon them.

From the corner of his eye, Barrett saw the quick flash of light and puff of smoke on the top of the hill high above them.  He reached over, grabbed Jennings by the back of his neck and shoved him forward and down.  As Barrett leaned low he shouted to the driver, but the sound of the explosion behind them was all that could be heard.  Twisted metal and debris from the Humvee behind them slammed against the back of their vehicle.  Thick black smoke swirled around them and filled the air.

A volley of rifle fire followed immediately after.  The rounds tore through the remaining Humvee and all around the men.

“Move ahead!  Up beside the Stryker!”

The driver coughed and spat blood on his lap as he struggled to turn the wheel.

The rear Stryker turned off the trail and began to climb the steep hill towards the assailants.  At the apex, a second man aimed his RPG and fired at the approaching vehicle.  The rocket ripped through the air and slammed against the vehicle’s slat armor.  Thick smoke billowed up from the deafening explosion, but the Stryker continued its advance unhindered.  A quick burst from the vehicle’s M2 ventilated the man, his body dropping immediately.  The first assailant swung up on his horse and spurred it feverishly, quickly disappearing behind the ridge.

As the Stryker crested the hill, an entire team of riders could be seen fleeing in the distance.  Hawkins spun the M2 into position and unleashed a hail of lead upon the raiders.  One by one, the riders all fell.  A lone horse galloped away from the scene of the slaughter.  The lifeless body of his rider dragged behind him, the corpse’s foot still caught in the stirrup.  A macabre cloud of dust followed the spooked animal as he disappeared over a nearby hill.  The vehicle maintained its position atop the hill as it continued to scan the surrounding area for danger.

With the threat above them neutralized, Barrett exited the Humvee and raced to the driver’s door.  He glanced back at the charred remains of the vehicle behind him and was filled with rage.  He pushed the feelings aside for the moment; he could attend to them later.  As he opened the door of the Humvee, the driver slumped out of the opening.  The man grasped at the door to prevent himself from falling out onto the rocky path, but his strength was faltering.  Barrett caught the man as he slid from his seat, eased him down out of the vehicle and laid him flat on the ground.  Two crimson stains blossomed on the man’s left side.  Barrett knew from the locations of the wounds that the internal damage was likely severe.

The man tried to speak, but a weak gurgle was all that he could utter.

Shhh,” Barrett whispered as he cradled the man’s head, “don’t talk.”

The man forced a smile and nodded as his hand fumbled up from his side.  Barrett grasped his hand and held it tightly, but the man groaned in frustration and pushed him away.  He reached under his shirt, clasped a crucifix and wheezed his final breath.

In the final moments of the soldier’s life, the rest of the world around Barrett had faded into the distance.  When he finally looked up, he was surrounded by Isabel, Jennings and several others.  Holt and the Gray Riders had emptied from the back of the lead Stryker and taken up defensive positions around the two vehicles.  Barrett pushed past Jennings and walked to the remains of the ruined Humvee.  The disgust from the scene caused him to turn and retch on the parched ground beside his feet.  He had not lost a single man on the border. Now, two of his own were dead, as well as two more from Fort Bliss.

A surge of repressed rage burned through his body again, slowly at first, but then with an increased intensity.  Barrett spun and lunged at Jennings with a fire in his eyes that had not been seen before by anyone but Isabel and Rodie in Nuevo Laredo.  A surprised Jennings recoiled in defense, but it was too late.  Barrett’s fist swung in a wide, sweeping arc and caught him on his jaw.  Jennings faltered and stumbled backwards, with Barrett close behind him.

Between each heavy fist, Barrett cursed and growled the names of the fallen Gray Riders:  Dixon and Walker.  When Holt and Ballentine finally managed to pull him off, Jennings’ face was a mutilated remnant of its former self.  The man shielded his head and curled up in the dirt, fearful of a second attack.  All the while, the scorched earth greedily drank the blood that trickled from his nose and mouth.

Barrett wrested himself free from the men, turned back and looked down at Jennings.  As their eyes met, Holt stepped between them and helped Jennings as he struggled to his feet.  After several awkward moments, Jennings averted his eyes.  Barrett spun in a slow circle, eyeing the faces of the others.  Most were as angry as him, but some appeared more shocked or grieved by the loss.  No doubt many of the men had come to believe that the Gray Riders were immune to the losses that others had come to expect.  After eyeing his team, Barrett spoke into his radio.

“Stryker Two.”

“Go ahead.”

“What’s your status?”

“All clear.”

“We need to move out; it’s not safe here.”

“Roger.”

He turned to the others and said, “Let’s get these bodies loaded up.  We’re chasing daylight as it is.”

* * *



An hour after sunset, they saw Fort Bliss.   Their lights had been switched off and they drove across the valley by the green hues of their night vision.  Jennings sat in the back seat while Ballentine stood vigil up top.   Barrett silently followed the lead Stryker; no one had spoken since they left the site of the ambush.  A voice on the radio broke the silence as it crackled to life.

“This is Bliss Gate North, identify yourself, approaching convoy.”

Jennings shifted in his seat uncomfortably and replied, “This is Jennings; we’ve got the delivery from Laredo.”

“Excellent!  What took you so long?”

Jennings paused for several moments before replying, “We’ll discuss later.”

“Roger.  Well, we’ve got someone I think our new friends will like to meet.”

“Roger; Jennings out.”

“Bliss out.”

The cabin fell silent for several moments, before Jennings spoke again.

“I think we need to talk.”

“I’ve said my piece.”

“I’m sorry about your men.”

“Doesn’t change anything.”

“I know.”

“While you’ve been holed up here in bunkers, we’ve been on horseback out there struggling to survive.  You might mean well, but you obviously don’t know what you’re doing.  You’ll do things my way, or we’ll leave here tonight.  I don’t care if we have to walk out on foot.  Otherwise, the next time one of my friends die because of somebody like you, I might kill ‘em.”

Chapter 2



Dyess Air Force Base; Abilene, Texas

Guano circled the U-2 in the Dodge Charger, while Morgan, the old man from California, carefully scrutinized the plane.  The “Dragon Lady”, as it was often referred to, appeared to Guano as something more like a glider than a jet.  With a wingspan of over one hundred feet, it seemed as if even the most gentle of breezes would lift it up and cause it to hover elegantly over the tarmac.

“Slow down,” Morgan grumbled to his driver. 

Guano silently complied with the old man’s commands with a meekness that was wholly uncharacteristic of him.  He had learned over the past couple weeks that Morgan usually had a high tolerance for foolishness, except for when they were around the U-2s.  Guano reasoned that Morgan knew the plane as good as any other man alive.  Every conversation that Morgan was involved in eventually turned to a discussion of the plane.  He mindlessly drew them on his notes during meetings, while his thoughts wandered from the topic at hand.  It was as if Morgan‘s subconscious was programmed to only contemplate this particular aircraft, and any moment that he was not consciously focused on something else, he reverted to the plane.  Guano was fairly certain that it was all the old man ever thought or dreamed about.

Morgan leaned his head out of the car’s window and meticulously performed the final pre-taxi checks that had already been reviewed twice by ground crews.

Morgan mumbled to himself as he cleared the plane, “…camera covers, removed; engine access doors, closed; landing gear pins, removed…”

The pages of his checklist rustled as a breeze swirled through the car and disturbed his concentration.  Morgan turned and scowled at Guano, but he refused to glance over at the old man.  Guano preferred not to illicit another painful rap of the clipboard against his head.

“…wheel chocks, removed.”  Morgan looked up from his notes and peered down the taxiway, before announcing, “Taxi route clear; signal the pilot.”

“Lobo.”

“Go ahead.”

“Clear for taxi.”

“Roger.”

The U-2 slowly began to lumber towards the runway.  The plane’s turning radius was nearly three hundred feet on a calm day, and much more with a strong crosswind.  Luckily, the day’s forecast of only the occasional, gentle breeze had held true.

Morgan pointed to the outriggers that were fastened precariously to the wings and said, “Watch the pogos; make sure they don’t fall out of their sockets.”

Guano nodded as he followed behind the U-2 in the Charger.

“It looks so clumsy.” Guano squeezed his eyes tightly shut and cursed himself for the words that had just leapt from his mouth.  Have you no control over your own body?  Idiot!

Guano was surprised when, rather than receiving a chastisement, the old man simply laughed, as if the young man sitting beside him was a complete and utter rube.

“You ever seen an albatross?”

“I, uh; I don’t know.”

“Well, you’d know if you had.  They’re massive.  There’ve been accounts of these birds having wingspans of seventeen feet.  They spend their entire lives out at sea, and only come ashore every couple years to mate.  But if you see one on the ground, it just looks awkward – like it’s out of place.  An albatross was made to be in the sky.  Put it anywhere else, and you might as well have it on another planet.” 

Morgan paused and pointed at the plane in front of them, before continuing, “That thing is the same way.  Doesn’t it just look like it would rather be in the air?  These planes aren’t hard to land because the landing gear’s in tandem, or because of the wingspan.  They’re hard to land because they don’t want to land.”

As Lobo taxied into position, he radioed the control tower and was given clearance to proceed.  Morgan unmuted his radio and began to communicate a series of pre-takeoff checks with the pilot.

“Shoulder harness?”

“Locked.”

“Canopy?”

After several moments, Lobo replied, “Closed and locked.”

“Equipment master switch?”

“On.”

“Hatch heater switch?”

“On.”

“Pitot heat switch?”

“On.”

“Ejection pin.”

“Removed.”  Lobo held the pin high as a visual confirmation, as he had done numerous times before in training.

Morgan exited the Charger and ambled over to the pogos that braced each wing.  He removed the locking pins and showed them to Lobo each in turn, just as they had trained.

After he had eased back into the car, Morgan radioed Lobo again, “Clearance for takeoff obtained.  Check all instruments.”

After several moments, Lobo replied with an anxious voice, “Instruments checked.  Overflow light off.”

“Release your brakes.  Godspeed.”

As the deafening sound of the jet engine filled the air, Guano began to furiously force his way through the gears as the Charger roared to life as well.  Try as he might, Lobo was far too fast for him.  In mere moments, at 60 mph, the wings began to rise and the pogos fell away and clattered along the runway.  At 80 mph, Guano and Morgan watched as the tail of the plane began rise.  Guano floored the accelerator, but he was no match for the plane.  With each passing moment, Lobo drifted further ahead of them.  At 120 mph, the plane was no longer restrained by the jealous ground.  The climb was gentle at first, but by the time Lobo reached the end of the runway, his ascent was impressive.

Morgan flashed a toothy smile, while Guano was simultaneously filled with pride and jealousy.

An elated voice crackled from the radio, “See you boys tomorrow!”

As Guano turned the car around and raced back to the hangars, Morgan looked at him and said, “I’ll never get tired of seeing that.”

Guano smiled and nodded as Morgan keyed the radio and said to Lobo, “Come home safe, son.”

“Roger that.”

As they sped away, Guano adjusted the rear view mirror and watched as his friend disappeared into the wispy clouds of the endless Texas sky.

* * *



Adrenaline coursed through Lobo’s veins as he ascended at the rapid pace of 270 feet per second.  Within a minute of takeoff, he had climbed 15,000’.  The adrenaline filled him with the urge explode from his seat, but his pressurized suit restricted his movement in an already confined cabin.  Instead, he radioed Morgan and focused his energy on a series of equipment procedures and checks.  At 30,000’, he engaged the craft’s autopilot and exhaled in relief.  Three minutes from takeoff, he was nearing an altitude of 50,000’, well above the cruising limits of a typical airliner.  Before he had left sovereign Texas airspace, he had climbed to a staggering altitude of 70,000’.

Lobo was filled with a dull sense of dread as he checked his coordinates and realized that he had just left the relative safety of the Republic.  In many areas, he imagined it was quite dangerous to be a Texan, especially in a stolen spy plane.  Texas still had a lot of friends in the surrounding states, but soon enough he would be in what could only be considered hostile territory.  Lobo knew the mission was extremely risky, but he hoped that Washington had been crippled to a point that he could make it back home undetected.

As he looked up from the panel of instruments and digital devices, his fears were immediately washed away by a wave of awe and wonderment.  It never failed; every time, it caught him by surprise.  Twelve miles below him, tiny tufts of altocumulus clouds dotted the distant sky.  Over a mile below them, their shadows cast a series of dark splotches on a vast expanse of rolling, green hills.

In the distance, a curved horizon wrapped around him for as far as he could see.  Close to the earth, the atmosphere was a vibrant blaze of azure.  Slowly, the sky dissolved into the deepest of sapphires, before finally fading into a black so complete, its very nature was enthralling.  Lobo stared off into the blackness of space as his mind wandered.  He mused that at that very moment, he could quite possibly have been the highest man in the world.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of being lost in his own thoughts, he contacted Morgan for a final series checks and flight protocol.

* * *



Langley, Virginia

Winston slowly wheeled himself down one of the numerous underground hallways of the sprawling CIA complex.  He paused for a moment to check the time, before feverishly quickening his pace.  The meeting had lasted much longer than he had expected.  He was late.  To most of the agents, another long and arduous day was coming to a close, but to Winston, the real work of the day had not yet begun. 

He had anxiously waited for a day much like this.  He had endured the burden of watching his nation plunge headlong into darkness, while he sat idly on the sidelines.  But what could he do?  Paralyzed from the waist down, he was unable to lead a resistance, much less survive without the men and women who were destroying the very principles that he so ardently believed in. So he had waited.  Through patience and perseverance, he had secretly re-cultivated relationships with his former colleagues in the West.  These free men, now enemies of the State, had come to trust Winston and consider him one of their own.  Finally, tonight, he could prove his loyalty and serve his country – even if his country no longer existed, except as perhaps an ideal in the minds of a few men.

At the opposite end of the fluorescent-lit hall, a group of men rounded the corner.  Winston smiled and held his head high as he rolled towards them, but on the inside his stomach turned.  As they met, one of the men leaned forward, put his hand on Winston’s shoulder and spoke in a voice of feigned interest.

“Winston my boy, how are you?”

Although twice the men’s senior, they always referred to Winston as ‘my boy’.  Winston wanted to grab the agent by his tie and violently jerk his nose into his forehead, but instead he continued to simply smile as he replied, “I’m well, gentlemen; how are you all?”

“Oh, you know us – just living the dream.”

Winston smiled and nodded but said nothing.

“Say, we were just about to go get some drinks; Winston, would you like to join us?”

“No thanks.  I’ve a lot of work left to do.”

“You must be the hardest worker the Agency has.  If everyone was half the man you are, this world would be a much better place.  See you around, Winston.” 

He could hear the men’s scornful whispers as they walked away.  After several jeers, the entire group burst into a roaring laughter as they slapped the lead agent’s back in approval.  Half the man, Winston allowed the words to echo in his mind.  No matter how many times he heard the thinly-veiled insult, it still hurt. 

He was suddenly filled with the urge to spin around and challenge the cowards, to roll up to the men and take a swing at each of them, but he thought better of it.  Instead, he hung his head and continued back to his office. 

No matter what he accomplished, to his colleagues at Langley, he would always be Winston Graymin, the crippled spook.  But to another group of men, half a nation away, he could be a hero.  He would shine a light into the darkness for all to see.  He would expose their crimes against their own people to the light of day, for Winston knew that sunlight was the most powerful disinfectant.

He closed the office door behind him and rolled across the room to his desk.  His workspace was oriented so that his activities were hidden from the prying eyes of the cameras that were surreptitiously stationed all around him.  Winston had often chuckled at the irony of having “hidden” cameras in his office, when he knew the location of ever camera in the entire facility practically by memory, and had access to all of their records with a series of simple keystrokes.

He removed a tiny device from his shirt pocket and inserted it into his computer.  A small window appeared on the screen, indicating that the program was now active.  Until the device was removed, the software would block the logging of his actual keystrokes.  Instead, a series of pre-recorded keystrokes would be broadcast to the monitoring devices on his computer, masking his true activities.

He had recorded the false entries the night before in his apartment, as he had labored for hours on numerous reports and dossiers.  He would upload the already completed submittals to the network throughout the night, further reinforcing the perception that this was just another one of the all-night, self-sacrifice sessions offered up to the Company by the hardest-working cripple in Langley.  Winston smirked at the thought as he removed his glasses and wiped the lenses clean with his wrinkled shirt.

He accessed the internet through a secure, anonymous network portal that was also stored on the tiny device.  After a rapid patter of clicks and strokes, he was deep within a forum for fans of some obscure television series that had not seen activity in months.  He clicked a thread started less than an hour ago by a new member.  The thread contained a single entry:  a garbled entry of letters, symbols and numbers.

Winston opened his top desk drawer and retrieved a small, leather-bound tome on astronomy.  He would glance from the screen to the book and shuffle through the pages until he found the section he was searching for, and finally make a mental note of the translation.  When he had completed the task, he was left with the following:

| 39o18’40.86”N | 88o47’55.05”W | 78,000’ |

Winston entered the coordinates into his computer and whispered to himself, “Just south of St. Louis.  Alright then, let’s turn north.”

After alternating between the tome and the keyboard for several arduous minutes, He posted a coded reply to the thread:

| Excellent | Right On Track | First Location: 41o52’21.82”N | 87o41’03.85”W |

After several moments of refreshing the page, another, coded post appeared immediately below his:

| Roger | Confirm Coordinates: 41o52’21.82”N | 87o41’03.85”W |

| Coordinates Confirmed | Good Luck |

Winston minimized the windows after checking his watch.  He turned and uploaded the first of the many reports that he would be submitting over the course of the night.  After doing so, he leaned back in his wheelchair and yawned deeply as he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

He could empathize with the unknown pilot in the skies over southern Illinois:  stuck in an uncomfortable seat for at least the next nine hours; exhausted, but unable to sleep.  At least he could slip away to the restroom, Winston thought to himself.  He also had little to worry about in the way of surface-to-air missiles.

For the rest of the night, Winston would dutifully submit the coordinates of the locations in the east that had suffered the most in the last several months.  He would pull the curtain back on all of the offenses of the new government.  Entire sections of cities that had been completely erased, internment camps filled with defiant citizens and members of resistance cells, the mass occupation of farming and agricultural centers by military personnel and much more – he would reveal it all.

After each location was documented by the U-2, Winston would pour over the data and images that were gathered to ensure that the full breadth of the evils committed by the new government had been captured.  If not, he would instruct the plane to circle back and perform a second sweep of the area.  Otherwise, he would direct the pilot, or perhaps the ground team, to proceed to the next location.  In the meantime, Winston would annotate the data and then embed it in an encrypted image file.  He then would post the innocuous image, most likely a scene from the television series that was the focus of the forum.

Winston was unsure who exactly he was communicating with.  All he knew for certain was that Reese Byers had contacted him and promised him that these people could be trusted.  Had it been anyone else, he probably would have balked, but he trusted Reese.  Nevertheless, his life would certainly be forfeit if his true motives for working late on that night were ever discovered.

A sudden knock at the door startled Winston and caused a course of adrenaline to rush through his body.  He fought back against the panic to regain his composure, and finally answered, “Yes?”

The soft tones of a woman’s voice filled the stale air as the door creaked open.

“Winston, is everything alright?”

He smiled in relief.  If radiance had a sound, it was her voice. 

“I’m fine; just another long night.”

“I saw your light on.  I just wanted to check on you before I left.”

“Thanks.  Do you want me to follow you out to your car?”

“You don’t have to; there’s security everywhere.  I’ll be fine.  Is there anything I can get you before I go?”

He feigned thought for a moment before replying, “No, thanks though.”

She smiled and said, “Okay; well, I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, tomorrow.”

He waited for several minutes after she left, before retrieving the empty pot from the coffee maker that sat on the credenza behind him.  He emerged from behind the desk with the pot in his lap and made his way to the deserted break-room.  He locked the chair’s wheels, leaned forward and precariously filled the pot at the sink.  It would have been much easier for her to have simply helped him with the task, but he abhorred the thought of relying on the assistance of others, even if they were as enchanting as Rebekah.  Far too often his reliance was later used as a means to ridicule or coerce him into assume additional work so that others might leave early.  Not that she would ever do that of course; she was different.  Even still, he tried to maintain as much independence as possible around her.

Upon returning to his office, he started brewing the coffee and resumed his activities, which, much like the pilot, was more waiting and yawning than anything.  As the hours slowly dragged by, Winston directed the plane to various cities in the Midwest and along the East Coast.  They recorded the devolution of Chicago into a third-world, tribal landscape.  They visited Cleveland’s massive internment facilities and the killing fields just north of Syracuse.

From there they traveled on to New Hampshire and Vermont – two states where pockets of resistance had been particularly strong.  They were also the two states that had suffered the most for their strong desire for independence.  New Hampshire’s slogan, Live Free or Die, had rung particularly true; sadly, the state was far from free.

Three pots of coffee later, they were flying south along the Eastern Seaboard.  Halfway home, Winston thought to himself.  They had swung wide around Washington because of the intense security in the area.  Instead, Winston opted for the wreckage that was Richmond and Charleston.  The stretch from Atlanta to Savannah looked as if it had suffered Sherman’s second coming, and Brunswick looked as if it had never even existed.

Satisfied with their progress, Winston pushed himself away from his workstation and checked his watch.  He had been following the plane for over eight hours.  He was swiftly approaching 48 hours without rest.  Winston’s eyelids defaulted to a closed position whenever he was not actively focusing on keeping them open.  Even though the three pots of coffee he had consumed were wreaking havoc on his body, he yawned deeply and decided that he would definitely require one more to get him through the mission.  He grabbed the empty pot and sluggishly rolled out of his office and to the break-room. 

He returned with a pot of water and a ten dollar bag of potato chips from the break-room snack machine.  Ten dollars for a bag of chips?  Who would’ve thought?  But then again, who could’ve imagined any of this?  The salty chips tasted amazing.  He savored every bite before welcoming them into his rumbling stomach.  He would have bought more if he could have afforded it, but he had scarce little money to spare.  He had no idea how anyone survived without the government rations.  Perhaps they didn’t, he mused.  He set the water-filled pot on his desk and the half-empty bag of chips in his lap as he continued to dwell on the thought.  Maybe he would just close his eyes for a moment.  Perhaps that would help him think more clearly.

Oh no!  The sound of his own snoring awoke him in a panic.  How long had he been asleep?  In the blur that was the first few moments of cognizance, he turned and knocked the coffee pot over on its side.  The water rushed across his desk, ruining everything in its path.  He cursed aloud and lurched forward to save the disorganized array of documents that were sprawled everywhere.  As he lunged forward his chair rolled backwards, sending him reeling to the ground.  His head collided painfully with the unforgiving, tile floor.  The throbbing agony inside his skull manifested itself as a weak gurgle as he lay in a motionless heap.

He struggled awkwardly to pull himself back up into his chair, but it continued to roll backwards.  Finally, he locked the wheels and managed to regain his seat.  As he rubbed his head and reached for the empty pot, a flash caught his attention from the corner of his eye. 

He watched as a tiny window at the bottom of the computer monitor began to fill with data.  He maximized the window and rapidly pattered the keyboard for several moments, before leaning back in his wheelchair and unleashing an incomprehensible slurry of vulgarities.  His heart palpitated and his stomach turned over on itself as adrenaline pumped through his veins.  He bit his lip and fought back the urge to turn and retch on the floor beside him.  Winston posted one final message:

| Hurlbert Field on High Alert | Mission Compromised |

Chapter 3



Barry Steam Plant; Bucks, Alabama

Freeman was filled with disgust as he paced the platform high above the remote facility.  He snorted as he leaned over the railing and peered through the darkness at the vast array of portable light plants below.  Legions of workers scurried about, like ants on an endless mission, to repair the damaged steam turbines.  He glanced over his shoulder at a pair of snipers standing vigil over the chaos below.  Guarding a power plant?  In Alabama?  How did he ever fall so far from grace?

He exhaled deeply as he continued to pace the platform and stare off into the darkened pine hollows that surrounded the plant.  He knew exactly how he had fallen from grace, of course, but it certainly had not been his fault.  Who could have ever imagined Brunswick would have turned into the disaster that it did?

Perhaps, he would concede, some fault may lay with him.  He had wholly underestimated his adversaries, and had paid dearly for it.  But surely he alone should not be held responsible for the miscalculations of others.  He had what – a hundred men against possibly thousands of insurgents that were willing to die, as long as they took a couple Feds with them?  Besides, the men that had been allocated to him were not soldiers.  They were soft-willed G-men from agencies like the DDP that did not have the training or fortitude to fight a guerilla war like it ought to be fought.  When they chased their quarry into the surrounding forests and swamps, their fate was sealed.  Most of the agents never returned.

They completely leveled Brunswick and St. Simons, but that had only been a frail, Parthian shot.  At least the insurgents would not have homes to return to, but he doubted that thought would ever cross their minds again – not while there was a reason left to resist.  They had faded into the surrounding wilds and farmlands, and woe to anyone who chose to bring the fight to them.

He had stood in silent anger and seethed as men in polished brass, who had never left their bureaucratic posts, rebuked him for his failures and crimes:  abuse of authority, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, and failure to obey an order.  Yet they had given him another chance.

Another chance?

As if he desired to earn their approval. 

He knew how to win battles and wars, but this new regime obviously did not.  A hundred men and a couple drones?  That may have worked in some third world pothole with the support of the local warlord, but never here.  Besides, Freeman snorted, all the real warriors had defected long ago, and were now training and fighting for the opposition.  Yet, here he was, having graciously been granted another chance.

As if they had a choice.  How many others like him were left to lead their dwindling forces?  Not many.

So there he stood, in the middle of nowhere, cleaning up the mess left by someone who was either incompetent, or more likely, had been allotted fewer resources than even he had. 

It seemed the last Federal response unit that had been assigned to the area had made a particularly fatal mistake.  The decision was made to destroy the power grid in areas that were known to be havens for the local insurgents.  The local grid was sporadic, to say the least, but even occasional, unreliable power was vastly preferable to none at all.  The resistance had responded by completely disabling the only power plant in the area.  Next, they destroyed the largest water treatment facility for a hundred miles.  Finally, they killed the entire, eighty-man team of Federal agents that had been assigned to the area.  Now, the urban areas to the south stunk of death and filth, and were plagued by anarchy on a level that was wholly indescribable.  Adding insult to injury, several of the fallen team’s WULVs and drones had vanished after the deadly assault. 

The insurgents’ message was perfectly clear to Freeman; they had leveled the battlefield.  They could survive without modern comforts, but could the teams of Federal agents?  Could they do it while living under the constant threat of death?  Freeman glanced down at several teams of armed men that were guarding the workers.  The strain was already beginning to show in their faces.  He desperately needed a lucky break; the entire unit did.  He had to prove to Washington that he was still a valuable asset, and he had to do it quick – there would certainly be no third chance.

Several headlights began to occasionally flash through the trees in the distance, their intensity slowly growing.  The SUVs turned east and began to snake along the plant’s entrance road.  Freeman’s radio crackled to life as he watched their approach.

“Freeman.”

“Go ahead.”

“We’ve got something for you.”

“I’ll be down shortly; prep them for my visit.”

“Affirmative.”

* * *



The old conference room was dim and sparsely adorned.  The walls were bare, save for the occasional poster about teamwork or working safely.  The long table and plush, leather seats had been replaced with a single folding table and a pair of metal chairs.  The only source of illumination was from a dull, flickering, fluorescent light.

The man leaned forward in the chair with his head held low.  He was barefoot and shirtless.  His pants were caked with mud, and his chest was smeared with crimson.  His wrists were raw from the rope that held them tightly behind his back, and his shoulders ached from the strain on his aging body.

The sound of the door creaking open caused his eyes to glance up and meet Freeman’s, but he quickly looked away.  Freeman circled the room, like a vulture carefully examining a wounded animal.  With his hands clasped behind his back, he silently observed the man from every angle, occasionally craning his neck or pausing momentarily.  The man ignored Freeman; instead, he closed his eyes and continued to hang his head.  The only sounds in the room were the occasional clicking of Freeman’s boots, and a light wheeze coming from the man. 

After what seemed like an eternity, Freeman took a seat opposite of the prisoner.  He removed a notepad from his coat pocket and placed it on the table, before producing several documents.  He took his time, silently reading the papers, before clearing his throat and finally speaking.  His words echoed through the empty room.

“Donald Greene, deputy; fifty-two years old.  Brother of David Greene, Washington County sheriff; sixty-seven years old.”

Greene looked up at Freeman, but did not speak.  Rather he held his gaze with tired, hollow eyes.

“It says here you’re a known sympathizer and supporter of the local resistance movement.”

Greene cringed as he struggled through a deep, raspy cough.

Freeman shook the papers at the man and continued, “It also says that you were aware of the conspiracy to commit the terrorist attacks against this facility, yet you did nothing.  That seems like odd behavior for a lawman.”

No response.

“There is even reason to believe that you may have been involved in the planning and execution of the attack.”

No response.

Freeman rocked back in his chair and exhaled deeply, before simply saying, “Fine.”

He arose and disappeared from the room.  Several minutes later, the door swung open and he reemerged behind a cart.  The creaking wheels protested loudly with every inch that they were pushed forward.  He stopped beside his chair and began to transfer the contents of a single tray to the table.  One by one, he held the sharp, metallic instruments up into the light, examined them closely, glared at the man, and finally dropped them from several inches above the table’s surface – allowing them to clatter loudly.

After several rather gruesome devices were dropped haphazardly on the table, Greene finally spoke.

“What’s all that for?”

“I think you know quite well what all of this is for,” Freeman said with a sneer.

“Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why’?

“I mean exactly what I said, son.” 

Greene’s voice commanded authority.  A surprised Freeman looked up to see eyes that were no longer hollow and distant, but full of contempt.  After a short pause, Freeman attempted to regain control of the room.

“I realize you’re just a stupid hick, but you’re not that stupid.  What we have here is a failure to communicate, and I don’t have the time to sit here with you and talk to myself.”

“You never asked me a question.  I’m not about to let you commence to cutting on me, just because you don’t know how this type of thing works.”

Freeman stared at the man incredulously.  A scornful laugh bellowed from deep within him and echoed off the surrounding walls.  He sat back down at the table and picked up one of the tools.  It was scalpel-like in appearance, though the blade was longer and sharply curved.  He rolled its grip across his palm with his fingers as he stared at Greene.  Finally, he spoke.

“You are Deputy Donald Greene?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I’m Sheriff Donald Greene now; my brother is dead.”

“How did he die?”

Sheriff Greene leaned forward and spoke condescendingly, “How do people die these days?  Do they die of heart attacks or cancer?”  He shook his head slowly from side to side, while continuing to stare deep into Freeman’s eyes, “No.  They die with a gun in their hands, fighting cowards like you.”

“Was he killed by the Federal unit that was here before me?”

“No.  He died long before them, but he might as well’ve.  He was murdered by criminals just the same.”

The room was filled with a heavy blanket of silence.  Freeman allowed it to settle over them for dramatic effect.  Just as he intentionally avoided questioning the sheriff in the beginning, it all served a purpose.  He had once been told that, much like baking a cake, the art of extraction required the perfect combination of timing and ingredients.  Different cakes required different approaches.

“How does it feel?”

“How does what feel?”

“To be a lawman on that side of the table.  The side reserved for the offender.”

“It don’t feel at all.  I s’pose it’s the side I ought to be on, being that the world is upside-down.”

Freeman snorted at the old man’s words and said, “Am I correct in assuming you are a supporter of the recent rebellious efforts in this area?”

Rebellious?  I took an oath, sir, like my brother before me.  We took our oaths before the people of this community – the people who chose us to act on their behalf.  We have fought to protect our communities, much like Augustin Washington did nearly three hundred years ago, a man whose son would go on to lead this nation.  But people like you don’t care about history, or values, or oaths.  Your loyalties change with the wind, to whatever suits your own selfish desires.  So tell me, which one of us is the rebel, and which one of us is merely leaning into the tide?”

“I’m not here to debate you, Mr. Greene.  I’m here-”

“You’re here to steal, kill and destroy – our freedom, our lives, our sacred honor.”

With the sheriff’s words, Freeman slammed his fist violently against the table.  The gruesome tools of torture flew into the air and landed on the floor all around them.  He leaned across the table, their foreheads nearly touching, and snarled at the old man, “I don’t care about your politics, sheriff.  I’m here for answers.  You’re going to give them to me, or believe me – I  will  hurt  you.”

“A tortured man’ll tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear.  That’s no way to get the truth.  I know; I’ve sat where you are.  But, I’ll give you your answer:  yes, I would’ve supported the men you’re after.”

Freeman returned to his seat and rapped the table with his fingers for several moments as he struggled to reign in his fury.

“Were you privy to the conspiracy against this facility?”

“I thought something like it might happen, but I was never sure.”

“So you weren’t involved in the execution of the attack?”

“No.”

“And you weren’t involved in the deaths of Federal agents assigned to this jurisdiction?”

“No.”

“What if I told you there were others who have said that you did in fact coordinate the terror strike against this facility, and then orchestrated the assassinations of Federal agents?”

“I’d say you tortured those people until they gave up a name.  And everybody knows my name.”

The sheriff’s response was unblinking and defiant.  Freeman reasoned that he was a skillful liar, or he was speaking the truth.

“I believe you, sheriff, but that gets me nowhere.  I need to know who committed these crimes.”

“I have my suspicions, but I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

Sheriff Greene shook his head from side to side.

“Then who is the leader of the insurgents?”

The old man wheezed loudly as he laughed at the question.  The sheriff’s response infuriated Freeman.  He reached into the tray on the cart and retrieved a pair of pliers.  As he leaned across the table, the sheriff reared back in his chair, causing it to tumble backwards and collide violently against the floor.  His bound hands were crushed underneath the force of the impact.  He cried out in pain and struggled to roll over onto his side, but it was in vain.

Freeman straddled the man and began to pry open his mouth.  Between his cries, he begged Freeman, “Wait, wait, wait!”

Freeman paused and replied, “Tell me.”

“Please, my hands.  Help me!”

Freeman unsheathed his knife and cut the sheriff’s hands free from the back of the chair.  The old man writhed on the ground as he rubbed his throbbing hands and bleeding wrists.

Freeman stood over him and repeated, “Tell me.”

After several moments, Sheriff Greene replied, “You people don’t understand.  There’s no Resistance in the way you expect there to be.  There sure ain’t no leader.  These are families and communities that are taking care of their own.  And you come in here and try to take what little they’ve left?  You can defeat an army, but you can’t control a people that’ve drawn a line in the sand.  I can tell you the names of people I know and places I’ve been, but the fact is, they know you have me.  If you go after these people, they’ll be ready for you.  You can’t win.”

Freeman stood silently over the sheriff as the words echoed in his head.  The hatred that boiled in him slowly turned to dread.  He was not afraid of the fight that lay ahead, but he was afraid of the fate that awaited him if he failed again.  Washington had already demonstrated that they would not tolerate those who were of no use to them.

“I want a list of names; everyone you know.  I want to know everything about this God-forsaken place.  And if you lie to me sheriff, I promise I will show you pain that you’ve never imagined.”

Chapter 4



Fort Bliss, Texas

Jennings and Holt stared through the one-way, observation mirror into the interrogation room.  They watched as a frightened narco soldier sat across from Alex, while Barrett towered over him and roared with fury.  Barrett would snarl at the man and accuse him of lying, while slamming his fist against the wooden table, causing the legs to jump from the floor.  Early in the interrogation, the man had called what he had thought was a bluff by Barrett.  Barrett responded by delivering on his promise, and commenced to pummeling the man’s face. 

Twice Jennings had attempted to end the interrogation, and twice he had been stopped by Holt.  Holt had tried to reassure Jennings.  “He’s a professional,” he would say, but even Holt was beginning to doubt his own words.  With the ambush just west of Cerro Alto the day before still fresh on their minds, Holt could not bring himself to blame his friend for his actions.  It was no excuse, but it certainly was a reason.

Barrett turned and stared at the glass with cold eyes, as if he could see the two men behind it.  They watched as he whispered something to Alex, and then saw as Barrett’s old friend nodded in agreement.  Alex arose from the table and exited the room, leaving only the guardsman and the soldado.

As Alex shut the door behind him, Jennings said, “That’s it.  He can’t be in there alone; he’s unstable.”

Jennings approached the door, but Alex stood as a solemn guard at the impasse.

 “A moment is all he asked for.”

Jennings glared at the old man, before finally returning to the window and continuing his watch.   On the opposite side of the glass, the soldado nodded in comprehension and mouthed, “Sí; sí,” as Barrett whispered in his ear.

Finally, the haggard guardsman emerged from the room.  Behind him, the soldado leaned forward and laid his exhausted head on the table.  Holt and Jennings followed Barrett to a small conference room, while Alex quietly departed in the opposite direction.

With the door closed behind them, Jennings finally spoke.

“That was pretty harsh for a man that voluntarily came to us.”

“That man is a murderer, or did you not watch the interrogation?”

“I watched it all, Barrett; all three excruciating hours of it.”

“Then you watched him admit that he’s killer, right?  He’s killed woman and children, after probably doing much worse to them while they were still alive.  And those, those were his fellow countrymen.  He’s killed his share of Americans too; more than he can count.  I bet he’s even killed some of your boys.  Who knows, he might’ve had a part in yesterday’s disaster, or have you forgotten about that already too?”

Jennings bolted up from his chair and growled, “How dare you!”

Barrett matched the man’s stance from the opposite side of the table and chided, “Save your righteous indignation for someone else.  I was there, remember?  I’m the one who did that to your face.”

“I’ve had enough of-”

“My men!  You killed my men!”

Holt slammed his fist against the table and roared, “Enough!  Both of you!  This is getting us nowhere!”  After several awkward moments, he turned to Jennings and said, “Can you give us a minute?”

“I’ll not have him-”

Holt raised his palm reassuringly at Jennings and repeated, “Give us a minute.”

Jennings, red-faced, stormed from the room.

With the two alone, Holt exhaled and turned to Barrett.

“You’re not winning any friends here, you know that, right?”

Barrett took his seat and stared at his brother in arms, but said nothing.

“Look, I know how much of a nightmare yesterday was.  I was there too; we were all there.  We all lost friends.  I’m not saying to forget those men, but we’ve got a job to do here.”

“I’m doing my job.”

“I know you are, but you can’t do this alone.  These people here, we need ‘em.  And you’ve got to cut Jennings some slack, Barrett.  He didn’t kill those men yesterday.  He took the safest route he knew, one that he’d taken dozens of times before.  It could’ve just as easily been him.

Barrett sighed and rubbed his temples for several moments, before finally whispering, “Fine.”

“And another thing:  I know what Isabel did wasn’t exactly right, but you’re not being fair to her.  Her head is not in the game like it should be, and it’s because of you.  Who are you going to blame if she gets herself killed?  We don’t need to bury anyone else.”

Barrett looked away, but said nothing.

“Can you live with the deaths of two women on your conscience?”

Barrett snapped his head back in Holt’s direction.  He scowled at his friend with narrow eyes and began to speak, but thought better of it at the last moment.  Instead, he slowly hung his head and closed his eyes.  After several moments, he finally nodded and said, “You’re right.”

Holt put a hand on Barrett’s shoulder and replied, “Of course I’m right.  Now, I’m ‘a get us some coffee and go find Jennings.  If you can refrain from stomping his ass again, maybe we can get something done.”

He opened his eyes, turned to his friend and smiled.

“I’ll try.”

Holt laughed, “Thanks.  I’ll be right back.”

After several minutes, the two men returned and took their seats.  Holt pushed a steaming cup towards Barrett and said, “Well, you’re the expert, tell us what you think.”

Barrett leaned back in his chair in silence for several moments, as if to gather his thoughts, before beginning.

“Make no mistake, he’s an animal.  He’s done a lot of things and there’s no remorse there.  In that respect, he’s a complete sociopath.  But he’s telling the truth, and he does want to help us find the bomb.”

“Why?”

“Because of hate, and maybe some other selfish reasons, but mostly hate.  He absolutely hates the Islamists; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person hate someone as much as he hates them.  He hates everything about them.  He also realizes that the cartels are being used, and that eventually, the Islamists will turn on them too.”

“So he knows where the bomb is?”

“It’s hidden in a network of tunnels underneath Juarez.  They’ll be moving it soon, so we need to work quickly.”

“How do we know it’s not a trap?”

“Other than my instinct?  We don’t.  But I told him that he’ll lead us there, unarmed and on point.  I also made sure he understood that if we’re ambushed, my dying breath will be spent making sure he comes with me.  I’ll haunt him in hell if I have to.”

“What’d he say to that?”

“He understood; I think he probably expected it.”

“When do we leave?”

“As soon as we can, no more than a couple days.  We can’t risk them moving it.  We need to have him map out the tunnels on an aerial, showing all entrance points.  From there, we need to know everything that he knows about this place.”

Jennings stood and said, “I’ll get with Alex and we’ll handle it.”

“Thanks.”

Jennings nodded, before turning and leaving.

The two men sat in silence for a while.  Finally, Holt spoke.

“You did good.”

Barrett feigned a weak smile.

“Let me handle the planning.  I think you should go talk to Isabel.”

Barrett breathed in the aroma of the coffee before taking a sip.  He stared blankly past Holt for a time, before finally saying, “Okay.”

* * *



The sound of the door caused her to turn and glance over her shoulder.  Though Isabel wanted to speak, she instead resumed her watch over the sun as it disappeared behind the rugged, mountainous horizon.  The desert sky was once again ablaze with the warm colors of dusk.  A few distant clouds obscured what was otherwise a perfect canvas above the beautiful but unforgiving landscape.

“Your brother told me you’d be up here.”

Without turning around, she said, “Can’t trust anybody.”

“It’s dangerous up here.  They’ve got snipers, and there’s always the rockets.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Barrett walked up beside her and leaned against the parapet wall at the edge of the flat roof.  She was several feet to his left, and still ignoring him.  They stood in silence for what seemed like an eternity to Barrett, before he finally spoke.  His voice was awkward and measured, like a man accused on the stand, fighting for his life.

“I don’t know what to say…” His voice trailed off.  He wanted to say more, but he did not know how.

“Your actions have said enough.”

As the final vestiges of the day disappeared behind the jagged cliffs, darkness and silence engulfed them.

“That night in Nuevo Laredo, I was wrong.”

He waited for a response, but she offered none.  Frustrated, he searched for more words, but none came.  Finally, he turned and began to leave.

Halfway across the rooftop she spoke into the wind, without turning around, “Why don’t you just tell me how you feel?”

He paused.  “I thought I just did.”

She laughed sardonically and quipped, “Hollow words, Barrett.”

Incensed, he replied, “I’m sorry, okay?  I used what happened that night as an excuse to push you away, but I did it because I careI can’t give you what you want.”

She turned to face him with narrow eyes.  Her words were cold and sharp as she replied, “How mystical of you to know what I want, and how noble to deny it because you know what’s best.  Please tell me, what do I want?

“You want me to be something, to feel something that I can’t feel – not now, and maybe never.”

She tried to laugh, but the sound was more of a half-sob.  He watched as she wiped her cheek before responding.  She was strong, but the pain was too much to hold back.

“I want my family back; the family that was taken from me, the family I’ll never know.  I want a husband and children, without worrying that they’ll be taken from me.  I want freedom, and not this watered-down façade that’s been sold to us either.  Freedom to live and choose and be.  That’s what I want.  What I need in this world is someone I can trust, someone I can rely on and depend on.  I need a friend, and I thought I had that.  But you took that away from me, so that makes you just like everybody else.”

“Wasn’t my intent,” he said meekly.

“I don’t care about your intent.  I need you to be the friend you said you’d be on that other rooftop not so long ago.  I don’t need you to worry about hurting me because you can’t give me what you think I want.”

“Don’t you want that?”

She crossed the rooftop and pushed against his chest with all the force she could muster.  Barrett stumbled backwards, surprised at her strength. 

“Of course I want that; isn’t it obvious?  Haven’t I made my feelings known?  But didn’t you make yourself clear that you couldn’t give me all of you?  And didn’t I accept that?  I know you don’t believe me, but I’ll take what I can get. 

Barrett, what I’ve got right now isn’t enough anymore.  I can’t keep living on hate.  Maybe your friendship will be enough, but I’ve got to have something else to hold on to, or else I’ll wind up no different than them.  I realize that now; I accept what I did in Laredo was wrong and I’ll live have to with it.  I need something in this life to anchor me; that’s what I’m asking for.”

Her last few words were almost unintelligible as her grief-filled voice cracked and faltered.  The veneer of independence and self-reliance that she had so carefully constructed was falling away.  She stood before him shaking like an orphan under the vastness of the starry sky.  She buried her head in her hands and wept.  In that moment, he saw her for what she really was.  She was not a woman with a vendetta against the world.  She was Isabel, tired and alone, pushing forward the only way she knew how – too terrified to stop, for fear of what demons of her own construct might consume her.  She was just like him.

Tears streaked down his dusty cheeks.  He had hurt someone that he had promised to be there for.  He had turned his back on a friend who needed him; a friend who had done nothing other than willingly shoulder a burden that he could not bear.  He stepped forward without a word and pulled her into his chest.  As they both wept, he rested his chin on the top of her head and whispered softly.

“Forgive me.”



Chapter 5

Tombigbee River, Alabama
Big Ted Lawson strained to see through the impenetrable darkness that was all around him, but it was in vain.  The starless sky was thick with storm clouds, and the heavy canopy of water oaks seemed to swell ever closer as he trespassed deeper into the river swamp.  Teddy paddled the canoe gingerly along the slough, careful to not disturb the water more than was absolutely necessary, for fear of alerting anyone that might be nearby.  Though no intruder should have been near enough to even hear a gunshot, Teddy was still fearful.  There were eyes everywhere these days, it seemed.
Somewhere in the near darkness, muffled amongst the chorus of swamp songs, he thought he heard a low, mechanical hum.  It was not the first time he had heard the noise, but it certainly seemed closer this time.  He quietly laid the paddle across the canoe’s gunwales and gripped the large revolver that rested in his lap.  He closed his eyes and listened intently, but the foreign sound was gone again.  All that was left was the various croaks and grunts of the swamp.
Teddy ducked under low-hanging patches of Spanish moss and recoiled from the wiry strands of the webbing that the massive swamp spiders were renowned for.  As he clawed a particularly large web from his face, his mind flashed horrific images of one of the creatures crawling in his hair.  He fought off his fears with humor, imagining using the spider’s steely strands for an improvised fishing line.  The thought did little to ease his nerves.
Though they still called him Big Teddy, Lawson was in dire need of a new name.  His flannel shirt hung loosely from his body, like a child playing dress-up in his father’s clothing.  His fat, sausage fingers were now bony remnants of their former selves.  The lifestyle that had afforded his excess was now gone.  Easy food was scarce, the energy to heat or power small electronics required greater effort and someone always needed help.  The community had pulled together, however, and had done well despite the realities of the harsh new world.  Not all was well, though.
The first harbinger of trouble was the violent drifters and groups that meant to breach the meager defenses of the small towns and reclusive fishing villages, and take whatever they pleased.  Sheriff David Greene had rallied the men in the early days and had managed to fight back the tide for a while.  The people had mourned his death, the death of a strong leader.  Deputy Greene had stepped forward and replaced his elder brother in the role of defender and organizer.  Like his brother, he was a man chosen by the people and he was deeply respected by them.
When the first wave of Federal agents arrived, Big Ted and the younger Greene soon realized that these men had not come to help, but rather quite the opposite.  Their mission soon became obvious:  confiscate, subjugate, and if faced with resistance, eliminate.  The self-reliant and independent communities under Sheriff Greene’s ward were immediately viewed as threats.  They were perceived as hotbeds for insurrectionist thinking, so they were targeted.
Unfortunately for the enforcers of the distant, crumbling governance, there was a problem.  The free men that claimed their home to be the rich soil along the meandering rivers and around the hidden, backwater lakes were not the type to bend easily from the waist.  The sheriff had pleaded for more time to reason with the Federal interlopers, but his intercessions had gone unheeded.  The first door that had been kicked in and the first man that had been dragged from his family had sealed the fate of the Kratocrats.  Looking back, Lawson reasoned a Federal force of ten times as many men would have still met the same fate.  He of all men should know, since Big Ted had led the local partisans against the Federal host. 
So they had sent their families to the other side of the river, mostly by way of Clayton, and they had devised their plans.  Vastly outnumbered, the agents fell quickly to the Minutemen.  It was hard for jackboots to find a neck to snap, when death seemingly lurked behind every fallen cypress and laid waiting atop every muddy bank.  The high-tech automatons that the fallen agents had left behind had astonished even Big Ted.  The other men had marveled at the futuristic hounds of war for hours when they first discovered them.  They had taken to calling the seized WULVs the “Dogs of Liberty”.  Hopefully very soon, he would be able to field them for use in their defense.
A low whistle from an arm’s length away caused Big Ted to nearly jump from his precarious perch in the narrow canoe.
“Easy Teddy, it’s me.”
Dear God, Clayton; you nearly gave an ole’ boy a heart attack.”
“Shhh.”
Lawson leaned into the darkness, in the direction of Clay’s voice and whispered, “What? Was I followed?”
After several moments of silence, Clay replied, “Don’t think so.”
“How long you been following me?”
“Hmm, ‘bout an hour.”
“I figured as much, but I wasn’t sure.”
“How you figure?”
“I thought I heard your trolling motor.”
“You ain’t heard me, Big Ted, ‘cause I ain’t used no motor.  You heard what you expected to hear.  In these waters, I’m an apparition; I come and go as I please.”
Teddy smirked and replied, “Ghost or not, I’m glad you’re here.  For a while back there, I thought I was lost.”
“How’s a boy like you, lived on this river his whole life, get lost in his own back yard?”
Lawson could hear Jake’s faint chuckle a little farther away.
“Easy for y’all to cast judgment, with your fancy goggles and big guns.”
“Judge not, my friend, lest we get judged.”
“That’s sorta’ why I’m here.  Pull me over to you so I can climb in and talk.”
Clayton silently urged the boat towards Lawson’s drifting canoe with the long push pole.  He and Jake each thrust a gaff into the darkness, hooked the rim of the narrow craft and gently pulled it towards them.  Metal scraped noisily against metal as the two boats connected.  The father and son each looped a rope to the front and rear of their shallow-draft vessel, and then to the canoe.  Once it was deemed secure, Clay handed the squinty-eyed Lawson a spare set of night-vision goggles.  He fumbled in the darkness for a moment, before pulling them over his face.  With the goggles in place, Big Ted transferred himself into the Sellers’ boat.
“Much better,” Lawson said with a smile.
“So what’s going on, Teddy?”
Lawson was silent for several moments before he sighed deeply and simply said, “Feds are back.”
“Knew they would be.”
“Well, this group’s judged it’s worth their while to kidnap the sheriff.”
“They’ve got Greene?”
In the green hues of the night vision, Lawson nodded at the men.  The boat was ominously silent, save for the occasional curse uttered by Clay.  The sounds of bullfrogs, insects and the occasional owl filled the void left by the men.  Finally, Jake spoke.
“Sheriff Greene knows a lot.  He’s even got a good idea of about where our camp is.  I hate to sound callous, but will he talk?”
“Son,” Lawson replied, “we all talk.  There ain’t nobody out there that can hold out when they’re having things done to them like we know these men are capable of.”
“So everyone’s a target now?”
“We’ve discussed this before, me and the others.  If any one of us was to be taken, we’d talk in circles as long as we could, and give up as little as possible.  I can’t expect any man to endure what they’re capable of, on account of me – not that they could anyway.”
“What now?” Clayton interjected.
“There’s probably more of ‘em this time, but I reckon they’re scared.  They know what we can do.  We’re a ghost story in their heads right now, and we need to keep it that a’ way.  Fear’ll make a man hesitate.  And all I need is a moment’s hesitation.”
After several moments, Clay sighed deeply and said, “Teddy, I want to help – you know I do, but my terms ain’t changed.  I’ll run your people and supplies across this river, but I can’t have me and my boys out there on the front lines.  We’re Switzerland, Teddy.”
“I know you are, and I respect that.  What y’all do is just as important, maybe even more so.  I wouldn’t ask any more of you.”
“Tell me what we can do.”
“We’ve got some wives that stayed on this side through the last fight.  I expect this time’ll be worse.  We need you to ferry them across to the other side; get ‘em to safety.”
“Of course.”
“Thank you, Clayton.”  Lawson cleared his throat and then continued, “When you get to the other side, there’ll be some ammo waiting for you.  Jim Levies’ wife’s been gathering supplies and organizing a reloading effort over there.  Couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“Didn’t you seize a lot of supplies from before?”
“We did, but I don’t know what we’re up against, so I’d rather have it and not need it.”
“I’d like a little something more for this trip, in case something happens.  Did you seize any big guns?”
“We got some rocket launchers; AT4s.”
“I think having one on hand would be good idea.”
“I can arrange that.”
With the terms settled, the men exchanged a few pleasantries, before Lawson climbed back into his canoe and slowly disappeared into the grainy-green darkness beyond the limits of their goggles.  With the dull silhouette of Lawson vaguely visible, he spun the canoe sideways and called out to the men.
“Have your Claire pray for us, my friend.  She’s a prayer warrior, you know.”
“I know; I will.  We all will Teddy.”
“Thanks.”
The two men watched as the darkness finally engulfed Big Teddy.  They sat in silence for a while, both afraid that acknowledging the situation might make it more real.  Finally, Jake spoke.
“You know we’re going to get dragged into this.”
“Son, we’re already in it.  Helping Lawson don’t make it any more or less so.  I reckon probably the first time any man decided that his life was his own, was the day he got dragged into this.  All over this nation, prob’ly the world, men are making choices about what ought and what ought not.  How this turns out, I have no idea.  But don’t think for a moment, the sides ain’t already been chosen.”
* * *

As Clay and Jake neared their hidden enclave, the younger Sellers flashed an infrared light in the direction of the camp.  A quick succession of responding flashes, visible only by use of night-vision, flickered back at them.  Geram had seen and acknowledged their signal.
They quietly drifted alongside the stairway and looped their bow and stern ropes around the rail posts.  The river was beyond its banks, but quickly falling.  The already swift currents in the narrow sloughs were continuing to increase as the main rivers pulled the floodwaters out of the swamps and bayous, and carried them south.  The muddy water around the camp was likely little more than a foot in depth.  By tomorrow night, that depth would probably drop by as much as half.
The men were eagerly met by Sasha and Moses as they climbed over the railing and onto solid footing.  The furry pair whimpered and whined as they jealously sparred for the attention of their masters.   The men paused for several moments to greet the dogs, before turning and beginning to climb the stairs.
Geram lit a kerosene lantern and hung it on a nail near the front door on the deck above them.  The light cast odd shadows in all directions as its dull glow pushed out into the darkness of the surrounding swamp.  He pulled the night-vision goggles off of his face and called out to the men below, “How’d it go?”
Clayton replied, “We got another job, and we’re getting a rocket launcher out of it.”
“What’s the catch?”
“There’s another group of Federal agents out there, and they’ll probably be scouring this area for ‘dissidents’.  They’ve already scooped up Sheriff Greene, so we don’t know what all they’ve learned from him yet.”
“Are Big Ted and his boys going to go after the sheriff?”
“Not sure.  If they are, he ain’t saying, but I don’t reckon I blame him for playing his cards close to the chest.  Never know when somebody else might get grabbed.”
Geram nodded, “Well, we can talk later; I’m sure you’re both tired.  Besides, Mom’s got dinner ready.”
As the three men reached the door, it suddenly swung open as Kate dashed through the threshold.  She wrapped her arms around Jake and squeezed him tight as she planted a loud kiss on his lips.
“Come on Dad,” Geram quipped, “let’s get inside, before these two make us sick.”
Clay chuckled but otherwise remained silently neutral as he and Moses followed Geram inside.  The living arrangements of the camp were cramped, so the others tried to grant Jake and Kate as much privacy as possible. 
Alone with Sasha, they sat at the top of the stairs and listened to the sounds of the river-swamp night.  Sasha curled up beside them and rested her head on Kate’s lap.  Jake draped his arm around his wife and held her tight.  She leaned into his embrace and said, “I was so worried about you tonight.”
He kissed her forehead and replied reassuringly, “I’m here now.”
“I know; it’s just, I don’t know – it’s probably nothing.  I just had such a bad feeling about tonight.”
“Maybe you just worry more now that – you know.”
“You’re probably right.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay I guess.  I’m scared.  And I wish the morning sickness would stick to just the mornings.”
Jake paused for several moments, before replying, “You know, Mom could probably help out a lot, if she knew.”
“I know she could, hun, but it’s only been about a month.  Let’s wait a few more weeks before we say anything.  It’s still early and so much could happen; we could lose it.  I just don’t want to anyone to worry just yet.”
He kissed her forehead and whispered, “We’ll tell them whenever you’re ready.”
Their conversation lulled as they sat in the darkness and held each other tightly.  After several minutes, Kate whispered, “I’m scared Jake.”
Shhh.  It’ll be okay.  We’ll be okay.”

8 comments:

  1. Now this I like, very well. Keep it up.
    Papa Mike
    III

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  2. Thanks; glad to have you back in the fold. ; )

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  3. Another good 'un

    Keep it up.

    Bob
    III

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    Replies
    1. Good, good, good. Keeping me in suspence. I've been busy reading everything I can that you are writing. I'm becoming a fan. Keep it up Garrett. I'll stick with you and Bracken. I carry my Kindle keyboard with both of you loaded in it.
      Papa Mike
      III

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    2. Honored Mike; I'm in good company with Bracken.

      Bob - Thanks as well.

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  4. I like Chapter 3, it's getting interesting and it makes you think of whats going to happen. Very Good Garrett. Keep it going....suspence.
    Papa Mike
    III

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  5. It just keeps getting better and better.

    Bob
    III

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  6. Glad you're liking it. This book has a lot more dialogue and delays a lot of the action until the end. I wasn't sure how that would go over.

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