Hvysmker
61 min readJul 11, 2021

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Trouble at Johnson’s House. 16k Homeland Security gone wild.

Homeland Security is out of control. A despotic president uses the agency to control the US. Can he be stopped?

I THE INTRODUCTION.

Like an alarm clock, my bad leg wakes me at precisely nine am. I’m hungover, sunlight from a lone window burning my eyes. A little anxiously, I reach around and feel the bed next to me, finding to my relief that it’s empty. I vaguely remember that little runaway, Trina, had been trying to get in last night.

Nice girl but too damn young for my fifty-eight years. I smile sadly, knowing I couldn’t take it. Besides, anyone else sleeping with me makes my tame hooker, Shawna, angry. She’s kinda jealous of HER clientele. Like many of my friends, they’re both running from a runaway Homeland Security, now a symbol of an autocratic increasingly dictatorial government.

It’s nice that a young piece of fluff like Trina has the hots for me but I know it wouldn’t have lasted, couldn’t have lasted, and we’d both be worse off for it later. I have no idea what’s gonna happen to the girl and it’s not really any of my business. I’ve seen a good many of these runaways and they never last very long. In a month or so she’ll either be captured, hardened to the street and move in with some man, or go home to mama.

I live in the slummiest of the slums in 2030 Chicago. Johnson’s House, as we call it, is not really a rooming house and not really a home. It has no license and according to city records was torn down a long time ago. No city services means no interference from the authorities.

Built a hundred and eighty years ago on what was then the outskirts of town, it has managed to exist as rural, residential, industrial and now slum industrial. There are no officially occupied residences or open businesses for a dozen city blocks in any direction, only empty warehouses and bombed-out factories. It’s sort of an oasis in the heart of devastation. The city turned off power to the area years ago in an attempt to prevent fires. The only police cars we see are those of cops looking for a place to coop — sleep off the dull part of a shift.

We have an ancient diesel generator van Michael Johnson, the owner, picked up somewhere. It’s only turned on for a few hours a day, after dark. A smaller gasoline one is owned by Mrs. Olson for the kitchen. Her and her son, Tiny, cook for the residents of what is not a hotel but sometimes, on cold nights, sleeps dozens of homeless.

You get a good sandwich for a dollar, enough for a full day’s calories. The cleanliness is questionable, however, and the place would never be passed by a city inspector. An occasional rat and quite a few roaches add spice to her stew.

But then I, as well as the others, don’t really give a shit. Tiny makes homemade hooch in one of the abandoned buildings across the street. With cheap food, board, and drink the homeless congregate around us.

Speaking of giving a shit, the crapper is a shack sitting over a large sewer pipe going through the property. A resident, long ago — that used to work for the sanitation department — cut a hole out from inside the pipe and fixed things up. It’s also an easy place to dump the trash and is self-cleaning on the occasions when rainwater runs through it. If we’re ever raided, it will furnish a quick though messy escape for some of our seamier residents.

Our only convenient source of water is from a well dug when the place was built and sitting between the shitter and the house. It has one of those mechanical hand pumps sitting on one edge of a four-foot across hand-dug well. Luckily Tiny is a huge man, about six-foot-six and three-hundred pounds. He does all the pumping. Every morning, about six am, you can hear steady squeaking as he pumps enough water for drinking, cooking and a few baths. Needless to say, we don’t bathe all that often. But then, since all of us stink, none of us notice.

Me, I’m retired and on Social Security, with a small disability pension from the Texas Rangers. Yep, an old retired lawman. Forcibly so after an unfortunate shootout with what turned out to be an innocent man — presumably in that particular instance. It was easier to take a premature retirement with partial pay than to face an inquiry board.

A few years before being forced to retire, a perpetrator had given me a .38 round in the leg, which helped in putting through the papers. Now, I still make a little cash by helping people out — in an unofficial capacity, of course. Twenty years of detective work gone pretty much down the frickin’ drain. Also, I’m a full-time alcoholic.

Back to the house, since it’s important to this story. Johnson’s House is a two-story brick structure with those little towers that don’t mean anything but were popular in the mid 1800s. Right now they serve to attract pigeons, bats, and rats.

Upstairs, we have four large rooms, two on each side of a small central landing. I have one. The owner has one. The owner’s son, Junior, who isn’t around much since he deals drugs across town, has another. The fourth is reserved for girls and women, mostly paying by the night or week.

The first floor consists of a kitchen and a former living room, now rented by Mrs. Mary Olson and her son. They make a precarious living by cooking for residents and homeless in the area. The Olsons roll out mats at night and sleep next to the cook stove. The livingroom contains a television and is spotted with couches and chairs. Oh, also a large table to eat or play cards on.

A later extension, by far the largest, is for male renters, also mostly by the day or week. They sleep on rows of army cots. Hey, what do you expect for a couple of dollars a night? At least you get heat and somewhat clean blankets. Security is at your own risk, especially if caught stealing. There are one hell of a lot of places around here to hide bodies. Most, knowing that, don’t steal.

Altogether, none of us have or spend much money. Mike Johnson makes more during the cold of winter when sleeping outside becomes a hassle.

***

“Jerry, you had a phone call,” Johnny the Scab greets me at the foot of the stairs. He’s probably been waiting for me to come down, since most of the male residents are barred from going upstairs. “Some guy. A cop I think. He left a number.”

Johnny is our resident electronics expert. A drop-out hunted by the Homeland Security people simply for being a Muslim, he also does odd jobs for a living. I wish I had his expertise. Even illegally, he makes a couple of hundred dollars an hour — when he’s working. Johnny has some kind of telephone hookup, wireless of course, from one of the abandoned factories. Somehow, the place still has telephone service. Maybe someone forgot to turn it off, or the fact got lost in the cracks or something? None of my business and I won’t understand an explanation, in any case.

The Fundamentalist Christian people finally got their wish. The US is now a Christian country, all other religions unofficially banned, their proponents undercover or converted. Officially, you don’t have to give your political and religious affiliations to get a job. But with modern technology it’s easy for an employer to check. Anything but Christian and Republican and you can forget about advancement above manual labor.

With a few small exceptions, we now have a one-party system for the duration of the war. The old farce of voting on a national level has also been suspended until every terrorist in the world is killed or incarcerated. President Peterson is in charge, with total control over the remnants of Congress and the Supreme Court. Any congressman that dares to go against him risks both job and life.

“After breakfast,” I tell Johnny, slipping him a twenty. In my line of non-work, I sometimes have need of electronics. “I crave a bit of nourishment first.”

I go to the kitchen door, where a counter is set up, to get my meal.

“Hey, Tiny. Morning Mrs. Olson. Gimme a sandwich … and a eye opener.”

Tiny slaps together a thick sandwich of homemade bread, mustard, meat and eggs — about five inches thick. Also, he pours me a tall plastic glass of homemade whiskey. First things first, I drink half the drink down in one gulp, giving Tiny a smile and two dollars. He doesn’t tell me what the meat is and I’ve learned not to ask. For one thing, stray dogs and cats don’t live long around here.

Letting it hit bottom, causing a nice glow in an otherwise empty stomach, I stand back and nibble on the sandwich. While finishing the food, I use my empty hand to look at the telephone number Johnny gave me. Yep. Number One Police Plaza. I recognize the prefix. The extension is to one of the few cops I still have relations with, most having retired or gone to jail over the years. Yes, even police are in constant danger of being arrested then thrown into jail without any apparent reason. It keeps them on their toes and me at work. They’ve found that by using me they have plausible deniability.

“I found the information from a homeless snitch, here’s his name,” they can tell their bosses. “Not my fault if the info is wrong or was obtained illegally.”

Of course, finding me in an investigation isn’t as easy as finding him. Consequently, every dealing I have with them is suspect, maybe a setup to arrest me for some vague reason.

I’ve already spent two years in one of their secret prisons and that’s enough for me. The bastards picked me up at my former PI office and sent me all the way to frickin’ Lebanon, now one vast American and Israeli base. Two years later, reason still unknown, they brought me back and reinstated my pension. That was when I decided to get, and stay, lost.

I finish my drink and set out, walking, toward civilization. I have to find a public telephone to call back. Cellphones these days come with a GPS system cops can turn on whenever they wish. A prudent person past their teens learns to avoid owning one. Not only GPS, but also the included camera and speakers can be turned on as microphones. You can’t find a businessman that allows a cellphone in his office.

On the way, I think seriously of ignoring the call but I can use more money. Social Security isn’t too certain anymore, sometimes months late. And, with the current inflation, my small pension doesn’t last very long. Hell, with 60% unemployment and most able-bodied younger people either in jail or the military, I’m lucky to have even part-time work. The poor have gotten poorer and the rich super-rich, with middle-class only a dim memory for us oldsters.

On the way toward town, I pass seemingly endless blocks of abandoned factories and warehouses. Most manufacturing has moved to other countries, cheaper and with fewer petty business laws. Other areas of Chicago have been bombed or shelled by police artillery to stomp out suspected terrorists. At least the President hasn’t used atom bombs domestically like he’s done on other countries. “For us or against us,” are the watchwords — and that includes US citizens.

After finding a public telephone that actually works, I scout around the area, looking for a place to hide. One where I can see the telephone booth and hear it ringing. I find a location in a basement two abandoned houses away. I go down a set of outside steps and can see the booth through the bottom of a railing. The basement is deserted. I walk down a corridor and find a back door, leading to a trash filled backyard.

With all that recent garbage and trash, I know it must be the local dumping ground. In this part of Chicago, garbage collection is both a nasty and dangerous job. The collectors are known to have a good salary and to be easy prey for hoodlums. Lately, each truck has two armed guards, one on top and one riding beside the driver. Collection is sporadic, so neighborhoods commonly pile trash up in one location until collected by a guarded truck. This looks to be one of them. No matter. To me it means an easy escape if needed.

Finally, I walk over and call the number Johnny gave me.

“Chicago Police Headquarters, Sergeant Peters.”

“Give me extension G12.”

“Hold on, sir.”

“Sure.” I can hear a series of clicks on the line as the call is automatically traced and recorded.

“Inspector Edwards. Wha’ ya’ wan’?”

“Jerry.”

“Yeah … Jerry. Hey, man. I got’ see ya ‘bout ‘at money I owes ya. Wear ya at, anyways, uh? If’n ya wan’ it, ‘at is?”

“Around. Ain’t no hurry, Inspector. I trust you.”

“Ow’ bout in’a half’a hour, uh? I gots lunch a’comin?”

“Sure. You going near East Adams and twelfth? I can stop on my way home from work?”

“Ho’kay, ‘bout a half-hour, uh?”

“Sure, Inspector. If I ain’t there, wait a few minutes. I’ll be there. I can sure use it.”

“Ho’kay. See ya.” He hangs up.

I look around, not knowing what to do to kill a half-hour. Looking around, I see a street camera high up on a pole. Even as I watch, it swings over toward me, pauses, then swings away. It doesn’t take long for a call to be traced. I can’t stay here. After hearing the conversation, it might look suspicious. They could send a local patrolman to check me out.

I turn casually, check my watch and amble toward the front steps of my basement hideout. The lock is broken on the front door, as I figured. I want them to think I live there. Once inside, I go down to the basement to wait.

Ten minutes later, a police car stops and a patrolman goes in the front of the building, only to come back out, the car then leaving. I wait.

About a half hour later, a lone automobile stops near my hiding place. I see the pole camera above panning wide to take in both the front of my abandoned building and the vehicle.

It’s getting near lunch time and a few ragged-looking people are walking the street, steering wide of the obvious police car. With the difficulty of registration so high and price of gasoline prohibitive, only official cars and those of the wealthy use the streets. Since the wealthy don’t hang out in this part of town, residents know it’s a cop car.

I wait until ten minutes past the meeting time, eyes and ears searching the streets for any official activity — such as a SWAT van. If it is a setup, they’d probably be at the front door or making noises in the back by now. Finally, I go upstairs and leave by the front door, as if I live there.

Walking over to the car, I eye it carefully, ready to bolt for my basement if anything but the driver’s door opens. Inspector Olaf Edwards is a longtime friend. We used to work together in the Rangers. But, you never know. If it’s his ass or mine, I don’t want it to be mine.

I walk up to the driver’s door, stopping behind it at a distance of several feet, and wait. That way, I can watch the back doors of the vehicle and the driver will have to turn to talk to me, putting me at an advantage — able to run before anyone can get out. Not much — what with my bum leg — but a better edge than nothing.

Olaf opens the window, turning to study me closely.

“I’m goin’ a open a back wind’a a few inches, Jerry,” he says, “so’s ya can see I’m ‘lone.”

I nod, eyes still looking around, feet ready to do their stuff. At my age and with a slight limp, it won’t do me much good, I know. He lowers them and I look inside to see the car’s empty. I go around to the other side, hearing a click. The back door is still locked.

“The back, Olaf. I want the back seat.” Another click and I get in.

Now, he’ll have to turn around to get to me. On the way in, I test the door to make sure it opens from the inside, sliding a matchbook into the lock interface as I pretend to close the door, just in case he locks it from the front. Also, on getting in, I look for signs of a partition between the seats. Some of them have screens that can be raised and lowered automatically. I guess Olaf knows me well, because he chose one of the older-model police cars, one I’m familiar with. Without a word, he starts the car and drives away.

“Don’ trust me, Jerry, buddy?”

“These days of Homeland Security bullshit, I don’t trust anyone, Olaf,” I answer. “What’s up?”

“You ain’t no terrist’, Jerry. I vouch fer ya.”

“Someone didn’t four years ago, buddy. I spent two years in isolation.”

“Yeh? I din’t no ‘at?”

“Bullshit.”

“No bull. Those HotShot guys don’ tell us locals nuttin’. It ain’t in our records none.”

We’re silent for a few minutes, lost in our own thoughts.

“Wat’ I want is, wat’ I want is fer ya ta look fer some’un. I know ya lives in ‘at Slimy Slum part’a town. We thinks she’s in’air too. When we goes in, ever’one scatters like rats.”

“Maybe? What’s it to me? I get around in there pretty good.”

“Ow’ ‘bout ten ‘k’, on delivery? No questions asked?”

“Delivery? I gotta not only find her but bring her out?”

“Yeh.”

“Twenty. It might blow me in there. I might have to move afterward. Twenty and a travel pass back to Texas?”

“Fifteen … an’a pass. Hey, Jerry. I’m go’in on’a limb fer ‘at pass.”

I have to think for a few minutes. Lately, my own limbs have been getting stiff in the Chicago winters. Going back to Texas might be a good idea. Technically, a US citizen can still travel when and where he wants. But Homeland Security has a habit of checking public transportation often and at random — and few poor people own vehicles. A pass saying you work for the Feds goes a long way for your own security. It supersedes any local police searches or dragnets. Of course the rich, driving privately owned vehicles, are never stopped. Driving is the same for them as before 9/11, 2001.

While I’m thinking, I hear the news coming in on Olaf’s radio. It seems that another five-hundred troops are being moved to the Canadian border. According to the announcer, tensions there have escalated. The Canadians still refuse to turn over a former prime minister to us for terrorist activities. For weeks, we’ve been accusing the French Canadians of harboring terrorists, sneaking them across the border. I’d thought the US’s nuking of Paris would have been the end of the French terrorist matter. Obviously not.

“Okay, Olaf. But you have both the money and pass ready when I bring in your fugitive. Remember that Simpson deal? I found him for you, a real bad terrorist. The asshole was in his eighties and I found him in an old folks’ home. Some frickin’ terrorist. I want to be ready to leave right away.”

“Sure, Jerry. I cun’ pull in a coupl’a favors, get ‘at pass fer ya.” He pauses. “I’ll get ya the file. Tamarra’ same place, same time, okay? Christ, man. I’m gonna be up all frickin’ night, a’callin’ in favors fer ‘at pass.”

“Tell you what, Olaf. There’s an old blue Buick back where you picked me up. Slip the info under the back seat. I’ll get it tomorrow night.” That car has been around as long as I can remember. It sits just inside an alley and is too filthy for anything but rats to hang out in. It should be safe for a few hours. Besides, if I change my mind I can always say someone stole the crap.

“Ho’kay. Call when you got’ter out.”

When he brings me back I get out, go back to that front door, down to the basement and out the back. Then I go home. I don’t know what to do. I can’t say goodbye to anyone. It might look suspicious. What the hell, I’ll just play the cards when they’re dealt. There ain’t too many people around here, in the slum, so I probably know whomever he wants. Everyone stops at Johnson’s House now and then. Well, I think, it’s my last night to get drunk for awhile, might as well make the most of it. Tomorrow I go to work.

As it turns out, I don’t even have to buy. Tiny has a new batch of booze and someone else bought the first jugs. A party is in full swing when I return. Pouring a drink, I sit back to watch the action.

I’m curious about the new job and take stock of the current female population. They’re all downstairs for a change, getting free drinks.

There are only four of them at this time. They are: young Trina, a runaway; Shawna the hooker; Mary, a pregnant survivor of a Homeland Security SWAT attack; and a sometimes resident named Jesse. I guess I can’t discount Mrs. Olson. Although she’s been here forever, she could be cooking up bombs in her kitchen. Then, there are dozens of women living in abandoned buildings that sometimes come in for booze or a sandwich. Around here, the homeless move around a lot. As with migratory birds, many drift down south during the winter.

Ex-housewife Mary says she and her unemployed husband had been living in a small apartment house in the suburbs. Late one night the HotShots had surrounded and invaded the building, looking for terrorist suspects. Her husband had, when woken by two strangers with weapons, reached under his bed for a sawed-off shotgun. That was all it took. A civilian in possession of a firearm is a capital offense in Illinois. Punishable by firing squad. He was hauled away and never seen again.

Mary escaped punishment but was denied welfare. Eventually, she gravitated to Johnson’s House. She must get money from somewhere? But, if a terrorist, what could her function be?

Shawna, only a common business lady and occasional call girl, is unlikely. Pretty, but not the brightest kid on the block.

Mrs. Olson? Very unlikely but you never know what those Homeland Security guys are thinking.

The same goes for Trina. In her late teens, she isn’t old or hard enough to have committed many crimes that would tempt a national police force. Most domestic crimes are local offenses.

Jesse is another matter. She shows up, stays a week or two and disappears again. One night, going down the upstairs hallway to my room, I saw her in the ladies room cleaning a pistol. She’s in her late teens and could well be a terrorist, for all I know. Tonight, she’s back.

And, of course, there are a good many more women that live in the area, most with a man or three in one of the abandoned buildings. I know most of them, at least by name or sight. They show up occasionally for a hot meal, a warm cot, or to buy whiskey off Tiny.

I see Shawna standing at the kitchen counter getting a sandwich and stop her on her way past.

“You doing anything tonight?” I ask. “I could use the company?”

She sits down next to me, taking a long sip of my drink and nibbling on her food.

“I’m not in the mood, Jerry.”

“You want more money?”

“No. I’m just not in the mood.”

“Tell me about it?” I ask. She has that worried look, her eyes moist. Something must be wrong for her to turn down cash for favors.

“I gotta go back on the street. Hoof it again.”

“Why’s that? I thought you had a steady?”

“I did. It was a City Committeeman but it fell through. Now I gotta go back to the street.”

“What happened?”

“He said his wife saw us. I’d go to his office late in the afternoon, screw on his desk. He told me the other day that someone blabbed to his wife,” she says with a sigh. “Now I’m back to the stroll.”

We sit in silence until she finishes her meal, then she gets up to join pregnant Mary. So, I think, Shawna is also a suspect. Her ex-boyfriend would have enough political clout to get her put away and out of his life.

That thought makes me rethink Mary. The HotShots have been known to go after the family of suspects. They have a habit of threatening them with hot irons or waterboarding them in front of a spouse to get confessions. It’s a process that started during the Iraq part of the ongoing war on terrorism and is now completely legal according to the Supreme Court. So I can’t eliminate Mary, either.

Which only leaves Mrs. Olson and Trina and I don’t really know much about their past. For that matter, I guess everyone in the Slums is suspect. In this case, any woman. That realization means I need another drink.

I see that Johnson’s son, Sonny, is also here for a change. Although he sells drugs, he never uses. Not even alcohol. A smart guy. He isn’t here often, living somewhere across town, but visits his father occasionally. He soon leaves to go upstairs, probably to his room. My opinion is that he keeps a stash of drugs up there and is only back to load up to take to his other home.

As I finish my second drink, I see Trina heading up the stairwell. I go to the kitchen door, myself.

“Gimme a jug and another sandwich,” I order Tiny. “This batch is a little weak.”

“They can’t all be good, Jerry. You want it or not? Five bucks for the booze, one for the sandwich?”

“Yeah.”

I pay, take my goodies and go upstairs. I don’t feel like partying tonight, preferring to drink alone and think.

At the top of the stairs, I see Sonny talking to Trina, handing her a small plastic envelope. Now, that’s strange? I think. I’ve never seen Trina take anything before. She leaves and enters her room.

“What you give her, Sonny?”

“None of your frickin’ business, pig.”

Not very sociable of him. We never did get along. I sit my sandwich and jug on a hall table and turn back toward the asshole.

Then, before he can get past me, an evil glint in his eye, I grab the sucker by his jacket collar and slam his head against the wall, twice.

“I asked you a question, punk.”

“Screw you. I’ll get my old man on your ass.”

Since I still have hold of him, I give him two more whacks against the wall.

“Well?” I ask, sociably. “What you give her?”

“Double Snowball. Hey, man, she asked for it.”

“That’ll kill her. She ain’t used to that heavy shit.”

“Not no business of mine.” He shrugs, looking guilty. “I gotta go home.”

“Yeah? You don’t wanna be around when she kicks off. I can understand that. Leave it to your old man to take care of.” I slam him again and let him go. No way to reform that bastard.

Giving me an evil look, he scurries downstairs like a roach.

I hurry into the Ladies Room, a place off limits to men, to find Trina sitting, tears in her eyes while eyeing a large glossy white pill. She has a glass of water in front of her. I guess that’s what’s saved her. Taking the time to pour a glass of water.

“Gimme that damned thing.” I grab the pill, shoving it into my pocket. “What the hell you think you’re doing?”

She reaches out, fingers spread, causing me to back up. I think she’s attacking me. Instead, she surges upward, trying to stand, and grabs me around the neck to lay her head on my chest. Trina lets out a howl to wake the dead, then sobs more quietly.

“I — I — I want to die,” she whispers. I can barely hear her. “I can’t go on like this. Please give me the pill.”

“Come on. Let’s go to my room and have a drink. You can tell me all about it.”

“You don’t want to hear about the little rich girl.”

“Maybe I do.”

I escort her to my room, having to let her walk by herself since I have my crap to pick up from the table. Going inside, I sit her on a chair and settle at the edge of the bed after pouring us both drinks.

“Now tell me. Why do you want to die?”

She sniffles, then takes a large gulp of the drink before sprawling back in the chair.

“A month ago,” she tells me, “I was in high school. My father … my father….” She stops. Wrapping both arms tightly around herself, she shakes like a leaf in a strong wind, then continues. “He was a lawyer for the ACLU. I was a senior and just got my own car, my very own sports car. Now I’ve lost it all, even him.”

I have to wait while she pulls herself together and gives me a weak smile.

“We have a little ‘hidey hole’ built into the house. Father was usually fighting the government on one thing or another. So he had a small space built between two of the rooms on the second floor for us to hide in. It was between his room and mine, for emergencies.

“Anyway, he was going to Washington D.C. the next day. He had important things to tell at the UN Building. So he went to bed early. I was up doing my homework, with my door open.

“I heard noises downstairs. Looking down the stairs, I saw three strangers in suits walking back and forth. They … they, had … ugly guns. Scared, I pushed the button on my wall and hid in the hidey hole. I didn’t even try to warn him. I know I should have. We had rehearsed it often enough but I was too frightened. I just hid.

“I could hear shouting and banging around through the thin partition. I stayed in there for hours, hearing them outside, searching my room and probably the rest of the house.

“Then, after the sun came up, I ran. I didn’t dare look into Daddy’s room. I just couldn’t make myself look. All I could do was get in my new car and run.

“I ran out of gas. Still panicked, thinking they must be searching for me by then, I left the the car and ran some more. A nice stranger told me how to get here and I’ve been here ever since. I just can’t take it anymore, Jerry. I just can’t take the pain. I should have fought them. I know I should have. I should have warned Daddy. I had time but was too sca….”

I have to hold her dead weight. Trina simply collapses in the chair, fainting dead away. I put her in my bed and cover her up. Then I sit drinking most of the night, watching over her and thinking deep thoughts. Could she be the one? I finish my drunk, passing out on the bed beside poor Trina.

***

I wake late the next morning, hungover. Trina is already downstairs, seemingly all right. I go back to the meeting place, spending hours watching the junk Buick from a distance. I’m watching for any signs of watchers watching me. I also watch the camera on a pole, making certain it doesn’t watch me or the car. Finally, just before it gets completely dark, I take a chance.

While passing the vehicle, I bend down and jerk the door open, breath catching in my throat, heart beating wildly as I reach under the back seat. Nothing. Quickly I bend lower to search around in nasty shit, finally finding a plastic envelope under the front, not the back, seat. Grabbing it, I go back to Johnson’s House, taking a wide detour on the way.

***

Alone in my room, I open the envelope and read. It contains a half-dozen sheets of closely-typed paper. They tell of a violent terrorist, an active member of a large international organization. The woman is supposed to have killed eleven police officers during the last three years.

She killed eight of them in Milwaukee with one homemade bomb. The others were shot down while the — lady? — committed armed robberies. I immediately think of Jesse.

The last page has a fuzzy photo of the wanted woman. When I see it, I almost drop the sheet of paper onto my bed. It’s Trina.

I can only shake my head in wonder.

I go looking for her. Not to turn her in — I remember the old man I’d caught for them before — but to try to find out what’s going on. No way is that girl a hardened terrorist. One that killed eight cops at the age of fourteen.

I find her downstairs in the living room, reading a paperback romance novel.

“We have to talk, girl. Come upstairs with me. I have something to show you.”

“Then why didn’t you show me earlier?” she says, giving me a wry smile, “when you had a good chance?”

“Not that. This is serious.”

I take her up and show her the paperwork from Olaf.

“That’s silly. It’s not me. I — I mean the picture is but not that other crazy stuff.”

“Then why are they after you? Even the HotShots normally need a reason. Maybe to torture you in front of your father?”

“I don’t know. How would I know? Maybe because of him?”

“Whatever. In any case, we have to get out of here. If I don’t turn you in within a few days, this place will be crawling with cops and Homeland Security HotShots. They know you’re around here somewhere and they’ll send in the frickin’ army.”

“What can I, we, do? All I can do is run away again?”

“Maybe not. How would you like to go to Canada? It’s only a hundred miles or so from here. With the lack of traffic on the roads, we could make it almost overnight?”

“The television shows the army on the border. We’d never get there.”

I told her of my HotShot pass, coming when I turned her in.

“But you’d have to give me to them first. How can that help?”

“Maybe not. But you’ll have to trust me.”

“I guess so. What choice do I have? Or chance?”

“Then get dressed. We’ll leave here about six.”

II THE ESCAPE

I walk to a pay phone and call Olaf before he can leave for home. Hell, he spends most of his time at work, anyway. I tell him I found Trina and to meet me. This time I pick a better site. One far away from other living creatures, except of course for rats and roaches. Can’t get away from them. “Seven pm,” I tell him, “and I’ll have her there.”

Then, I go into my room for a last couple of drinks while I dig out my bastard-beater. It’s a police implement from my old Texas Ranger days. Looking like a eight-inch long aluminum pipe, a flick of the wrist will extend it to a two-foot club with a lead knob on the end. Its an innocuous looking weapon, until flicked. I have no idea if it’s illegal or not but it probably doesn’t bring a death sentence like a firearm will.

I then go downstairs to talk to Tiny. I can use a little muscle for this job.

“So, you come along to protect Trina in case something happens to me,” I tell him, slipping Tiny some cash. “And bring a half-dozen good sandwiches with you.”

“That’s all? What you up against, Jerry? I’m not fighting the frickin’ cops, you know?”

“No fighting on your part. I don’t trust her out there at night by herself. If things don’t go right, you can find her a place to hide. Not here. They’re sure to raid the House. She don’t know the city like you do.”

While getting ready, I take my personal items and clothing up to one of those little cupola thingies above the attic. They’re wooden with fake brick sides, only added for decoration. Unheated and drafty, the things aren’t made for occupancy but do have a lot of hiding places. I’ve already sealed off a four-by-four-foot space where I store everything I own of value that I can’t take with me. Trina has also asked me to put a small suitcase in with my things. Since we’re walking, all we can take with us is the clothing on our backs. The space won’t fool a serious searcher, but nobody ever goes up there.

***

Six-thirty. We’re watching a dull-gray full-sized van. It has to be a police vehicle. Who else would dare park here at night? I’ve checked the area for both cameras and other police. My bum leg is killing me from dodging around alleys and stumbling over trash, making certain we’re alone with the van.

“You two wait here. Trina. When I rub my hair, you step out under that streetlight.” I point to the lone light, one reason I picked this street. Few of them have working lights. It’s easier to mug in the dark. “Then turn around, show your face good and get back under here.”

“Under here” is another basement, this one with both a concrete block wall in front of it and a good escape route around the corner of the building. It will only take seconds for her and Tiny to be safely around the corner where even a police grenade launcher can’t touch them. “If you see me fall or raise both hands above my head, get the hell out of here. Don’t look back, just run like hell.”

Tiny looks out at the van, about twenty-five, thirty, feet away and nods slightly. He has a five-foot-long steel wrecking bar leaning next to him.

Finally, I brace myself and start over to the van. I’m almost dizzy from fear as I approach the darkened vehicle. I try to see inside but the windshield is blanked out. As I approach, the driver’s door opens a few inches and that window goes down, interior lights showing Olaf sitting inside.

I look in, noticing that he doesn’t lower the other windows like he’d done before. It might mean nothing … or a lot. It could be that the windows aren’t powered.

“You got her, Jerry?”

“Yeah. Let’s see the money and pass.”

“First, the girl.” He’s acting strangely, rolling both eyes without moving his head.

“I’ll let you see her but you don’t get her until I have my pay.”

I reach up to scratch my head. A minute later, we can see Trina coming up the basement steps. She does as I told her, pirouetting like a ballerina before rushing back to safety.

Silently and slowly, a grim look on his face, Olaf opens the door all the way. He seems very tense as he does it. I know something is wrong here. He hands me a plastic sack. In the dim glow of the streetlight, I see money in hundred-dollar bills. A nice stack of them, along with what I can barely make out as a HotShot travel pass. It says that the undersigned is a special agent for the Department of the Interior, on a mission and should be treated like royalty — for thirty days. I’ve had one before, a long time ago.

I look back at Olaf. Then, things happen, quickly and loudly.

Olaf makes an upward lunge toward the door, knocking me to the ground with his shoulder. At the same time I hear a loud gunshot. The back of the front seat seems to disintegrate into cotton fluff as a large caliber bullet goes through, hitting my friend in the back and drooping him over the steering wheel, one leg and shoulder half out of the vehicle.

From my position, knees on the hard ground, I twist to get out of the way, knowing it’s too late. I’ll never outrun such a powerful weapon.

I see a glint of metal on the lower part of Olaf’s leg. His trouser leg has been pulled up, with part of an ankle holster showing. I reach over, pulling out a small-caliber revolver.

As I bring it up, I see a grinning face over the back of the front seat. Without taking time to aim, I put three bullets into it. All this happens within a few seconds.

When my vision and hearing clears, the face is gone. About that time, I hear another sound and spin around, finger on the trigger. It’s Trina and Tiny, him with the large crowbar in hand. Motioning them out of the way, I push Olaf, as gently as possible, to the side and partially into the empty passenger seat.

I’ve never been more frightened in my life as I crawl into the vehicle, one knee on the driver seat, to look into the back of the van. I have to know and right away. It’s either take a chance with a gun in my hand, or run and get shot in the back.

A lone man in a dark suit is lying, sprawled out, in the back of the van. Reaching in over Olaf, I trip the latch on the sliding door on the passenger side.

“Get around there and check him out, Tiny,” I cry harshly, holding the gun on the man.

Tiny does and finds the asshole is dead, shot in the face.

“Let’s get them both into the back, Tiny. Trina. You drive. You had a car, so you know how. Me and Tiny have work to do back there.”

“I never drove anything this big. I can’t do it.”

“You have to do it. We can’t sit here. I don’t think there are any other cops around but there might be in a few minures. Now move your ass.”

As we transfer poor Olaf to the back and Trina gets behind the wheel, I can hear Olaf groaning. Can’t help it, he has to be moved.

“Drive back toward Johnson’s House,” I order. “Tiny. Let’s strip the suit off that asshole. Try not to get blood all over it. Keep his head up and he shouldn’t bleed out much.” With no heartbeat to pump the blood out, a corpse doesn’t leak a whole lot. Olaf doesn’t show any of the red liquid, though I can feel he’s still alive.

We drop Tiny off a few blocks from Johnson’s House, telling him to warn the others — especially Jesse. Trina is watching, with the interior light on, when I pull the corpse out to dump it into the back yard of a firebombed building, furnished by courtesy of the HotShots. Modern drone helicopters can now take out a certain half of a home from a thousand feet up. Much more accurate than the former two-block sections by winged aircraft.

“That’s mister Jablonski,” she tells me once we’re back on the road. “He works with Daddy at the ACLU office.”

“He was probably a Homeland Security spy, working undercover,” I reply, “and responsible for your daddy’s arrest.”

Now I tend to Olaf, not expecting to be of much help.

The government must have improved protective vests since my day. He’s wearing one that is dented in about a half-inch in the vicinity of his spine. That’s why he isn’t bleeding. I remove the vest and use a government first-aid kit to dress a large spreading bruise on his back. Laying him on his stomach on a rear seat, I buckle Olaf in and leave him to mend or die. It’s all I can do at this point.

There’s a thick briefcase in a corner. It’s filled with paperwork but nothing I can understand in that dim light — mostly legalese. After all, the dead guy was probably a lawyer.

“Head west until you get to Interstate 95, to St. Paul,” I tell Trina. It’s about four-hundred miles, maybe five hours. “Then we drive north for Canada.”

“But how do we get to Canada,” she complains. “It’s guarded on both sides of the border? The television says so.”

“The television says a few hundred troops and probably a bunch of local cops. That’s stretching it pretty thin. And they’ll probably be mostly near established military bases. They need a place to sleep and eat. It simplifies the logistics.

“There are plenty of small county roads along the border. Farm roads, some simply crossing a field and not even on a large scale map. We’ll have to try to find one. We’ve also got identification that might work at night when troops aren’t as alert. Let’s see now, a Homeland Security ID from the lawyer, a pass good for thirty days and Olaf has his Police Inspector identification. All that should scare most army sergeants.”

As we leave Illinois for Wisconsin, the road is virtually empty. With any luck at all, we should have a few hours before the two cops are missed. I change my mind, planning on leaving Olaf at one of the hick hospitals we pass, once we’re far from Chicago. First, though, I want to see if he’ll wake up. He might just die on us. That is one solution to his presence.

“Wat’a hell.” I hear cursing from the back seat.Turning around, I see Olaf trying to sit. He can’t rise more than a few inches from the seat. “Yeohh. Wat’a hell ‘appened ta me?”

“You were shot, buddy. It’s a wonder you’re still alive,” I tell him.

“I cun’t feel my feet’er legs.” He groans and lies back down, in defeat. “Nuttin’ down air at all.”

“We’ll drop you off at a hospital. Just take it easy.”

“Hell ya will. They’d only arres’ me.”

He tells me what happened at the meeting place. It seems that Homeland Security officers were keeping an eye on him, intending to arrest Olaf for something or other. He doesn’t know for what or why, but they wanted to wait until he had Trina in his custody. Knowing what Trina looked like, the now dead HotShot went along to identify her.

On the way, he told Olaf that he was also to be “detained” and that it would go easier on him if he cooperated about Trina. The reason they were after Trina was that they thought the girl had taken incriminating papers from her home when she’d left — incriminating to Homeland Security. The dead man was to find those papers and kill Trina so she couldn’t talk about them later.

Olaf had objected. The took Olaf’s official pistol and forced him to meet with me. When Olaf had tried to leave the car, the man had shot him.

“So it looks like I’m on’na lam too,” Olaf finishes.”Wear we goin’?”

“Canada.”

“You’re full’a shit.”

I have to explain, like I did with Trina. Olaf still can’t believe it, us going to a terrorist country like Canada.

“Come on, buddy. Just because the government says it’s a terrorist country, doesn’t mean it really is,” I try to tell him, seeing he doesn’t believe me. “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.”

We stop at a motel just before sunup for me to change license plates with another van, one sitting in a back parking lot. I feel it’s probably an employee van and won’t be noticed for quite a while. Who looks at their license plates? By the time the sun rises, we’re well into Minnesota and heading away from major cities.

What we need is a farming community near the border. A map from an all night convenience store shows military bases in blue, so they’re easy to avoid. I see one long stretch of the border, far from blue markings on the map and we turn in that direction.

Eventually, we know we’re near the border but not just how far. A series of one-lane farming roads degenerate to dirt and stone lanes. Carefully, we work our way north. I’ve heard that in some places a farmer will have part of his land in both countries, the border unmarked in the center of a cornfield.

“Watch out!” Trina yells from the passenger seat.

Tired and anxious, I’m driving at the time and barely avoid a ditch cut across a gravel road. Over to the side, I see a khaki-colored shack with a drawbridge-like device raised alongside it. When I stomp on the brakes, the large van slides on loose stones, stopping with one front wheel over the edge.

Shakily, we dismount, standing on rubbery legs while trying to calm our hearts down from the near disaster.

Not knowing what to do, I help Olaf out of the back. He’s feeling much better but can’t stand long unassisted. I have all three pistols in my belt and pockets and we have the identification with us.

I see the ditch is only about five-feet-deep and five or six across. Looks easy enough to cross but, knowing the military, it might well be mined. Nobody greets us from the shack. Trina goes over to look in a window.

“There are soldiers in there, all asleep,” she comes back and whispers. It’s still early in the morning.

“See if you can lower that bridge,” I tell her. I half carry Olaf over to the lifted walkway, telling Trina, “I’ll hold them off while you get Olaf across.”

“He’s too big.”

“You just frickin’ do it, you hear? Don’t give me any shit.”

Going to the front door of the shack, I gently try the door, letting myself in. There are four soldiers inside, three in bunks and one with her head down on a desk next to a window facing the graveled lane. That one must be the sentry. I grin.

Gliding silently around the room, I collect weapons. Most can be neatly dropped into slots in an olive-drab gun-rack, which makes it easy to lock them up. Keeping an assault rifle, I nudge the sleeping sentry on the back of her neck.

She jerks upright. When she sees me standing there, weapon aimed at her face, I see her eyes bug out and smell something foul coming from her. She shit her pants.

“Sheeeee,” I whisper, finger over my mouth.

Eyes bugging out, she nods.

Suddenly, there’s the sounds of chains rattling as the bridge comes down. The other soldiers stir, one sitting up. At first he doesn’t see me, simply yawning as he sits, puts on his boots and ties them. Eventually, his eyes brighten as he sees me and the sentry. A wave of my rifle and he settles down, a glare in his eyes.

“Everyone sit quietly,” I tell them, “and nobody gets hurt. You try anything and I’ll kill you.”

The man lies back down, still glaring, while the woman sighs, looking out the window. I can’t see the bridge from where I stand and don’t dare walk to the back of the shack to find a window. So I give my two companions fifteen minutes by the wall clock.

“What’s through there?” I point at a door in the back of the room.

“The latrine,” one of the men tells me. By then, they’re all awake.

“All of you get in there and keep your hands in sight while you do,” I tell them. I wait until they’re all inside, then move desk and bunks against the door. At least it opens outward. It won’t keep them long but gives me a chance to cross the bridge.

I stand, waiting, until I see the knob move. I fire a round high up in the door and it stops turning. Good, they won’t know when I leave — or so I hope.

Turning, I run out and around back, dropping the rifle into the ditch on the way. The bridge is down and my companions out of sight. Running across, I head for a wooded area on the other side.

Before I get out of sight, I hear firing behind me. The American soldiers have their weapons and are chasing me, into what I think must be Canada.

I drop to the ground behind a tree, pull one of the pistols and return fire.

We have a small war going, at least for a few minutes, before a tracked vehicle the size of a large pickup-truck comes along. It has a machine-gun mounted over the cab with which it sprays the road between me and my assailants, whom head back for the good old US of A — on the double.

A little too late for me, though. I feel a sharp pain in my side and begin to lose consciousness. One side or the other got me. Before I fade out, I see a maple leaf emblazoned on the side of the armored car.

III SAFE IN CANADA.

I don’t know what, who, where or how I am, only a feeling of abject peace while floating on cloudy white spaces, a sound of screaming intruding the serene setting. I remember a black dot emerging from a near distance, rapidly extruding to, at first, disturb my rest, then engulfing my non-form.

I wake. It isn’t quickly but sightless, in the form of first feeling a surface under myself. Arms. Arms move around a soft something, eventually to my face, reminding me that I have eyes. They open to sweep around a room. At first, the setting seems strange. As my mind settles, I see it’s a hospital room.

The screaming comes from the second of two beds, mine being one. A man covered with bandages, seeming head to toe with both legs elevated is making raucous noises, such as might be heard in the lower depths of hell.

A woman in a white coat rushes in, already preparing a hypo, rapidly inserted through layers of bandage into an appendage of the banshee. I’m not even certain which one. The blood-chilling scream tapers off rapidly into welcome silence.

Is it the feeling of my eyes on the medic, or my shuddering form that catches her attention? I’ll never know.

“Welcome to the living, Mr. Austin. Damn, but I already lost the bet. Mine was on you waking by noon yesterday. I’m usually pretty good at guessing.”

“Where am I? Am I under arrest?” I don’t see any uniformed officers looking in at us. No handcuffs on my wrists.

“You’re in Canada, Mr. Austin. As far as I know you haven’t broken any of our laws. For one thing, you haven’t been in any condition to.”

“What’s my prognosis, doctor?” I’ve noticed a pain in my chest, most evident while talking.

“Nurse. Nurse Allen, actually. Let’s see.”

She goes to the foot of my bed. Through the space between large feet, I see her consulting a tablet.

“Shot through the chest but apparently not hitting anything vital … Jerry. It seems your doctor, Dr. LeGrande, diagnosed it as damaging tissue close to your heart and wanted you sedated to aid an initial healing process.” He gives me a huge grin. “I’d suggest you stay as quiet as possible for a week or so. Move slowly and carefully. You can eat in that condition if you try, and we’ll continue the bedpans. Excess movement might exacerbate the wound. You should be fine in a few weeks.” She turns to leave, telling me to, “Use the button near your right hand if you need anything. I’ll have to page Dr. LeGrande to tell him you’re back with us.”

It’s only after she leaves that I remember about the others. Whatever, I think. It can wait awhile. Right now I have my own problems.

LeGrande comes in a half-hour later. I’m getting back to normal, though still feeling a tightness and pain in my chest. I don’t try to stand. I think the tight feeling is probably from layers of gauze around my upper body. It’s like a metal casing.

“So, you’re back with us, Mr. Austin.”

I sit on the edge of the bed and lie back when indicated, while he goes through all that doctor mumbo-jumbo, probing, pinching, and pounding. I notice his breath smells of mint and alcohol, wondering where he was called from. Maybe there’s a bar in doctor’s lounges in Canada? With that French name, does the US want him as a terrorist?

He gives me the same prognosis as the nurse. I have bed-rest for a couple of weeks. Oh, and I find Olaf’s already out of the hospital, legs working. That vest saved him from all but a very bad bruising. He and the girl are in police custody for a debriefing, probably getting political asylum and exacerbating the situation with US.

It isn’t until a little less than a month later, upon my full release into police custody, that I have my own brush with bureaucracy.

It occurs in a large ancient building in Montreal, across town from the hospital. Three plainclothes officers, the tall bulky non-humorous type, pick me up. The ride is in silence, ending in a fenced-off parking lot behind the building.

Inside, I spend four hours or so with a lady at a desk. There is no nameplate and she doesn’t give her name, only questioning me on my life history up to the shooting. Also filling out endless forms on her computer.

I’m then sent to a small lounge in the depths of the building. Before long, Olaf and Trina come in.

“Ya’re roomin’ wit’ me, Jerry. Hope ya cun stand my fartin’,” Olaf says while he hugs me.

“Guess that means I sleep alone again,” Trina says, sighing, head on my shoulder. “I had hopes, but they were rejected. You had your chance at the House,” she joked.

“Why the hell didn’t you tell them we were married when you had your chance?” I quipped in return.

“Too busy hauling fatass around.”

I don’t have any change and have to borrow money for the coffee machine, rejoining my companions at a table. “So,” I ask, “what do you think of living in a terrorist country?”

“Ya know, I feels kind’a safer ‘ere. Don’ haft’a watch ever word, or behin’ me all fuckin’ day.”

“Like he says,” Trina mentions. “Too impersonal, though. I miss the companionship and booze at Johnson’s House.”

“What they going to do with us?” I ask, looking around a mostly-empty room. The few people I see seem to be busy, hurrying with meals or sitting and quietly talking among themselves. Serious people, with little smiling. “Are we able to move around … leave when we want?”

“Except for meetings. No guards or nothing. They want to know all about life in the States. Olaf, here, is supposed to be getting a good job in their police department.”

“Yep. Ya’d like it, Jerry. No bull like in’a America. Jus’ like’a back in Texas.”

“What about you, honey?”

“I — I dunno. I told them about my suitcase. Daddy kept his best papers in our hidey-hole. I packed most of them before I ran. They don’t weigh much and I wanted something to remember him.” I can see fear in her eyes. “I think they want me to go back for them. I don’t wanna do it.”

“Son-of-a-bitch!” I feel anger showing in my own gaze, having to avert it away from the girl. “Why the hell didn’t you say so before? That’s why the HotShots are looking for you.”

“I dunno. Probably forgot.”

“Well, you can’t go back. You’d be lost in that kinda shit. Get caught the first frickin’ day. Olaf?”

He shrugs. “Don’ look’a me, buddy. I al’redy done asked. I’m too val’uble, they says.”

Uh, oh! My nimble brain processes the info. No fucking way! Being not as valuable as Olaf, street smart, and the only other one knowing where to find the damned things … I know my purpose. My fucking fate.

***

It appears the main reason keeping the US from invading Canada are non-acceptance by our only really staunch ally, Britain. They still prefer diplomacy when it comes to foreign relations. Also, the US realizes it’s greatly overextended at the moment. As America found out in the Middle East decades ago, conquering a country is not the same as owning it. There are always natives who object to the New Order. That means not only warfare but later garrisoning. We simply don’t have the manpower to station hundreds-of-thousands of troops in every country we win over by air-power. They probably think Canada can be beaten down by sanctions. No American beer, tooth paste, or tampons can be imported.

Right now, the world is pretty much split into three huge political blocks. There is, of course, the US and its allies. Then the Chinese with their huge population. The third contains India, Iran, and Russia, now joined politically and economically.

There is no more Israel. Somehow, enough nuclear devices had been smuggled in to wipe out 9/10s of their population, polluting the land with radiation, which led to the US and remaining Israelis taking over Lebanon, forcing many of their citizens into refugee status in Syria and Turkey. Us nuking Paris pretty much takes France out of global politics. Canadian authorities think that, eventually, most of the world will be aligned against present US policies of flexing its muscles.

***

“… so that’s what we want of you, Mr. Austin. Retrieve those papers for my agency and you can name your own price … at least pretty much.”

I have to smile at the last phrase. Guess I can’t ask to be prime minister.

Exactly as I figured. A quandary. In order to keep from being returned to the US, I need to sneak back in. Damn that bitch. If we’d have brought that paperwork with us I wouldn’t be in this mess. I’d even had it in my hands.

Johnson’s house has been a refuge, a fairly safe place for me. At the same time, Canada can’t seem to get an agent inside the Slimy Slum area, not to mention upstairs at Johnson’s House. Banging around in the attic would be impossible for them. Strangers are suspicious and take a long time to be accepted in the Slum. I, however, happen to be a familiar sight. Come to think of it, with the current anti-Canadian push, anyone with a Canadian accent would find it hard to fit in at Chicago … anywhere.

Guess if I want a new life, I don’t have a choice.

IV RETURNING TO CHICAGO.

Back in Chicago, I avoid dreary streets by using equally dreary alleys. Now that I’m probably wanted by the HotShots, alleys seem a tad safer. The Slimy Slums hasn’t changed in the eight months I’ve been gone except for a few new faces and the lack of older ones. People at this economic and semi-legal level tend to move around a lot, especially to follow the seasons. It’s late Autumn and many residents are moving south.

The Windy City lives up to its name, strong breezes ripping down alleys, stirring trash, rolling discarded liquor bottles and “jellyroll” drug envelopes but I’m comfortable in a plastic-like jacket. The chill breeze seems to either blow obnoxious odors upward toward a smoggy sky or past me too fast for my nostrils to take in.

My limp hasn’t changed, helping to tire already weak legs and compete with a dull ache in the chest from the recent bullet wound. At least that reminds me of my mission, that something HAS changed in the interim. I’ve moved from a bare alcoholic existence to a possible life in another country, even though now voluntarily putting it on hold to go back to the previous one. One change is that I’ve managed to give up drinking, at least until finished here. Or so I hope.

Cautious, I move toward Johnson’s House from the rear.

I notice the comforting “thud, thud,” of Mrs. Olson’s generator. As I pass the shitter, I look inside. Empty.

The well and its hand pump look normal. Uh, oh! Johnson’s generator van stands with the door open … highly unusual unless he’s in there puttering around. I look in and see he’s not there. The large machinery seems unusually dead. Trash has drifted inside, piling up against the machinery, something Mike Johnson would never let happen. That generator is his “baby.”

That same lack of tradition applies when I look into the living room from a back window. I see the same furniture, though it’s rearranged. The space is dirty as hell with people, men and women, sleeping around the room at random. One is even sprawled over the poker table, a hypodermic needle near his hand. Since one end of the table is within inches of the window, I see drug vials and a crack pipe lying next to an overturned salt shaker.

Shaking my head, I back up, wondering about my reception. I, naturally, haven’t paid rent while I was away though I carry enough currency on me to bring that up to date. But, I wonder, do I even have a room? Am I still welcome?

While searching for Trina, the authorities must have brought a taste of hell to this entire area. It makes a difference as to whether I can get up to the attic and my hidden stash. I think Mike Johnson will have saved the room for me, but is he even in charge? He’s always insisted on a reasonably clean home for us.

I hear the banging of pots or something in the kitchen.

Going around to a kitchen window, I see Mrs. Olson sitting on the other side of the glass, looking at me. At me? More like through me. Although I smile and wave, she makes no motion in return, staring straight ahead. I knock on the kitchen door. After a brief pause, it’s opened by Tiny.

“Jerry!” He backs up, eyes wide. “Where the hell you been, you bastard? You brought hell down on us. For three fucking days, cops and soldiers ripped through the Slums, arresting almost everyone without employment papers or a good reason for being here.”

“Me? How’s that. And ain’t you glad to see me?”

“Sure. But the Hotshots and half the fucking Chicago police hit this place like a ton’a fucking bricks. Two nights after you left. Trucks, sirens, helicopters, drones.”

“What could I do, let them have Trina?”

“I know, I know, man. It wasn’t your fault they wanted that fucking fluff. I miss her too. We had a thing going, you know?”

That shocked me. Little innocent Trina and that huge hunk of suet and muscle. I can’t picture it.

“She ran out of money and traded herself to me for food and rent,” he says.

I roll my eyes and nod toward his mother, still sitting by the window, looking out.

A tear forms in his left eye, rapidly wiped away by a huge hand. “She’s out’a it, Jerry,” he whispered. “They picked up all the women here, even her. Mama was gone six months, finally walking in that back door, giving me a strange look and sitting in that chair. She won’t talk about it, won’t talk much at all anymore.”

“Shit! I knew they’d be pissed after losing Trina … but … you know?”

“Not only here, but all around us. They knocked down doors and picked up all the women they found. When Mike Johnson faced them with his little .22 pistol, they shot the fucker down.”

“Mike’s dead? Who’s running the place now?”

“Not dead, but they hauled him away. Sonny moved back in. He’s gone up in the world, a distributor now. He doesn’t have to deal it himself, keeping maybe a ton of shit up in your old room.

“He leaves me and Ma alone but uses the place as a flophouse now. Buy and use your drug of choice here, then flop down and sleep it off. You wouldn’t recognize the place anymore. He tolerates me selling food here, but I have to give him a cut.”

“Why don’t you leave, Tiny? Move into that place you make your booze, for instance?”

He nods at his mother. “Ma wants to stay. This is her home.”

We finally get down to discussing where I’ve been. I’m free with him, telling the entire story. After all, he was there at the beginning, when I killed the HotShot in self-defense.

“You’ll have one hell of a time getting up to that fucking attic,” he tells me. “You’d have to pass through the second floor, where the drugs are stored. That’s Sonny’s domain.

“He doesn’t care much about downstairs, leaving it to me to maintain peace, but the second floor is his. “The door at the head of the stairs is now metal and barricaded and he employs four or five armed guards. Probably — since I’m not allowed there — some are awake at all times.”

“How you stand that fucker? He doesn’t seem your type, Tiny.” I laugh.

“Mama wants to stay here.” Sadly. He looks over at her.

The formerly hyperactive woman hasn’t moved an inch. The last time I saw her, she’d been rushing helter-skelter around the kitchen, stirring soup and chopping celery. Now she appears more like the celery.

“Can you get up to the attic for me?”

Tiny shakes his head, taking up a knife in one hand to approach what looks for all the world like a roasted rat, sans skin, head, and tail … a huge one. “No way. Nobody but Sonny and his friends get up there, and he doesn’t count me as a friend.”

I think for a moment. “They get Jesse? You know, the cute little girl that never smil-”

“Yeah. I mean yeah I know her, not yeah she was caught. Course, that was a long time ago. The way she’s going, I wouldn’t doubt the police have her by now.”

“Have any idea how I can find her?”

“Maybe. Maybe … just maybe…. Well, she used to hang out at that old iron works down around the 1200 block of Emery.

“She said once that they picked that place because of the thick metal floors and machinery inside. That it’s like a fort. Also, there’s an escape sewer, leading down toward the river.

“You ain’t thinking of storming your way up there, are you? Just to get your things back?”

For an answer, I swing my eyes over to stare out the window.

When I turn back, he’s still holding the knife and with a strange look on a broad Slavic face.

“There must be something really important upstairs? More than spare clothes and keepsakes.”

“Tiny, you wouldn’t believe how important. Important enough to overthrow our President for Life … if we’re lucky and I can get them to Canada.”

I actually see the huge man shiver. “I believe you, Jerry. You’ve always been a good guy to me. If you done gotta, you done gotta. Just … just let me know first, okay?” He shakes his head. Looking sad as before, he continues. “I gotta look out for Mama, you know. She don’t get ‘round much lately.”

“I will. I promise.” I pause, not knowing how to make an exit. The emotion in this room is almost palpable. “Well. I’ll see you around, Tiny. Goodbye, Mrs. Olson.” I nod in her direction. I’m probably wrong, but I think I see a sparkle in her eyes, probably from the sunlight. Grasping the knob, I leave for the backyard and a certain abandoned foundry.

***

I walk for over an hour. At one point I find myself crossing a busy street, something I’m not used to. Cars whiz by, traffic lights blink with hundreds of pedestrians walking back and forth.

I’m still dressed for the slums, looking like a bum and standing out in that environment. Maybe it’s paranoia, but I feel eyes on me as I go over to an intersection and cross the busy highway. I see spy cameras all the way but they don’t seem to be following me in particular. The police can be sneaky, so I’m not certain.

On a whim, I go into a store that advertises an ATM machine. My purpose is to spend a while inside and make a large but cheap purchase before leaving by another exit. If some bored police officer IS keeping track of me because of my attire he could lose interest. But, on a whim, I stop at the automatic money dispenser. To my surprise, I find my account still active. Not only that, but built up over the months I’ve been gone. I might be wrong, knowing how devious the police can be, but that implies I’m not a wanted man after all.

I go over the events in my mind. Olaf told me he never entered my surname in his records, only referring to me as an informant named “Jerry.” The HotShot I shot probably didn’t know it, either. Maybe, a big assumption, the Canadian authorities didn’t identify me by my full name? In the US, only Tiny knew I was involved with Trina’s escape. And Tiny himself was obviously not implicated. It could be that I’m not a wanted fugitive. Interesting, but hardly pertinent to my mission.

Of course I don’t get any cash out. Why take a chance? I have enough American money for my needs.

I eat a meal in a cafeteria there, then buy a cheap stuffed doll. It weighs little but comes in a large carton. I leave by a side exit, the colorful box in my arms.

Three blocks away, back in the slums, I silently try to hand the box to a little girl playing in the street, not needing to carry it all the way to the foundry. She shocks me.

“Mama, Mama,” she screams, backing away. Turning, she runs, yelling, “Terrorist, Mama. Terrorist.”

What the hell? I think. On the next block, I jettison the package into a doorway and keep on going.

The rest of the trip is routine, checking both ways and toward the sky before moving from one alley to another. I see what I think I remember as the right building. A faded sign affirms my memory.

I circle the grounds, almost two square blocks, looking for an entrance. During the second time around, I see a door standing wide open that I swear wasn’t the first time.

Nervous to an extreme, I force myself not to look both ways before striding purposely through the door, closing and locking it behind me with a sliding bolt.

I find myself midway into a dirty elongated room, tall and massive machinery standing quietly on both sides of a narrow aisle. There are ranks of small windows along the street side, starting at head high and extending to near the ceiling. Most seem to be painted black, but a few are broken and give a dim light to the inside. The odors of ozone, charcoal, and powdered industrial coke still permeate the interior. Even a hint of sweat signifying long ago manual labor — or is that only my imagination?

All thoughts of sneaking up on residents vanishes as my footsteps echo through the room, accentuated by bumps and cursing as I bang into unseen objects. Hell, they must know I’m here, anyway. That door was left open by somebody. But why? Were they coming in or, seeing me, leaving? Was it on purpose to let me in?

Sometimes, such as now, I wish I carried a weapon — even with the stiff penalty.

The room ends with several doorways, most double-sized to accommodate forklifts. The place is still silent, though I imagine eyes following my progress.

“Jerry Austin?” The sound seems to come from everywhere, reverberating through former silence.

“Yeah. Jesse?”

“The stairs are to your right, next to the manager’s office. I’m up here,” she calls.

Looking up, I see a light go on behind a row of several filthy windows on the second floor, a woman’s form silhouetted. Damn. A partial second floor and I didn’t notice. A guy can get dead that way.

A set of metal steps brings me upstairs, each step sounding loudly. Obviously, no one has a chance of sneaking up those stairs without being heard. No doubt there’s an exit, maybe over the roof?

An open doorway shows a dusty but comfortable lounge area, a handful of people sitting around. Jesse, dressed in army fatigues and all smiles, greets me with a firm hug, kissing my cheek.

“I thought you were dead, Jerry. Swept up at Johnson’s House.”

“I see you got out in time.”

“A few didn’t. Mrs. Olson, for one.”

“I know. I saw her and Tiny. She’s a vegetable.”

“So they let her go?” Jesse’s face is still smiling, though her eyes seem to shoot angry rays. “Anyway, thanks for warning us. It gave us time to run like rats. Infra-red doesn’t get through all this metal.”

She motioned toward her companions.

“You know Johnny the Scab. The blondie there’s named Janet. Harry’s the guy with the shiny dome, old fucker but still dangerous. He’s served several prison terms for violence.” She laughs, shaking her fist at the other old man in the room, besides myself, while he smiles back. “The other two are the Doubie brothers. Their family, on the south side of town, was mistakenly rocketed by a HotShot drone. They live for revenge.”

“We call ourselves the Troubles,” one of the brothers, both seeming in their early twenties, says. “Unoriginal, but on purpose. It’s a word that can be used in sentences without raising suspicious hackles. Everyone has troubles.”

“And, what do you Troubles do? I ask.

“Make trouble,” Johnny says. “Hey! Where you been and what you doing here? I hope we’re not that easy to find.”

“Can I sit? It’s been a long walk from the House.”

“Sure can. Take a chair.” Jesse does just that, pulling a rickety old lounger over for me. “Tell us about it?”

I do just that, laying out my problems. “…. So I have to get up to that fucking attic, get those papers, and take them back to Canada. They’re extremely important. Might even stop this cycle of warfare.”

“I don’t suppose it would be very difficult,” Jesse says. “I haven’t been to Johnson’s House since the raid, but heard enough about the place. Sonny’s a pussy on his own, but’s supposed to have some tough characters working for him.

“The guy’s got a big business. He brings drugs in from Afghanistan and Europe, selling to dealers in this part of the state. All he uses the House for is a warehouse. He sells it by the kilo, someplace on the south side of town.”

“I put in that telephone, myself,” Johnny says. “Disabling would be easy as hell. A two-minute job. Without it, he and his flunkies wouldn’t have any way to call for help. Slimy Slum doesn’t have cellphone towers or boosters.”

“All we’d have to handle would be a few guys upstairs,” I say, asking, “How you fixed for weapons?”

“We waylaid and stripped a couple of police cars once,” Harry interjects. “We got us all kinda stuff, even flash-bangs, smoke, and frag grenades. I could get up those stairs by myself.”

“If your heart doesn’t give out first,” one of the Doubie brothers says, laughing. “Leave that stuff to us younger guys.”

“Guys. Fuck you ‘guys’. Let me and Jesse do it. You men can stay home,” Janet says.

They seem excited. The raid is on.

One complication, though. Before we act, the US finally attacks Canada. So far, we’ve only used air power to bomb a couple of supposed terrorist targets inside the country, but Canada reciprocated by shelling a small town in Michigan. All without UN approval, of course. My guess is that the US can’t afford having a terrorist country like Canada at its border. No doubt there are plans to simply take over and absorb the place into the US. If so, they’ll try to do it without destroying too much of the infrastructure.

It’s bound to escalate. Yet another war and one infinitely complicating my mission. The border will be swarming with troops. There’s no way I can get back to Montreal now. If there IS a Montreal. The US has already nuked Paris.

“Sorry, Jerry,” Jesse says after we listen to the news on a radio.

“Sorry don’t cut it. We’ve lost the chance to save a world. Maybe millions of innocent people.”

“Not necessarily.” She pauses. “I never told any of you guys about my past. I have a brother. He works in the UN building in Washington. A low-level maintenance supervisor is all, but has access to many of the offices.

“I’ve been thinking. England hasn’t decided whether to join that trouble between Canada and the US, at least not yet. Those papers might swing them our way. I can see if he’ll try to get that info to the British.”

Better than nothing. It’s still on.

V THE CONCLUSION.

Three in the morning. Johnson’s House. With the new mixture of druggies, nobody bothers with security anymore. Just try to tell a drug addict to lock the door behind herself. It don’t fucking work that way.

We have no problem storming the building. Few of the residents are even awake, others watching through a hazy half-reality. It seems Sonny has no interest in the ground floor. No light shows around the door to the kitchen so Tiny and his mother are probably asleep. You can damned well bet their door is triple locked and I’m not going to try to wake them to tell him we’re here. It might alert any guards upstairs.

We’re armed to the teeth with illegal firearms and have no fear of police intervention. They don’t bother to patrol Slimy Slums and the only telephone in the area is, or at least was, hanging near the kitchen door. Sonny might have one upstairs, though unlikely. Even so, the hookup has been broken by Johnny.

With our stun and fragmentation grenades, my only real fear is fire. In a house this old, it can spread rapidly and my stuff is hidden over the attic.

Harry insists on holding the grenades and spearheading our efforts.

That worries me. That the man, even older than myself, is already gasping from effort. And his job is to rush up to and take out an armored door at a landing at the head of the stairs.

Although well armed, we have nothing high-powered — only a hodge-podge of pistols and light machine guns such as Israeli Uzis and Thompsons. That sort of thing uses only pistol cartridges. Fragmentation grenades are the only thing that will blow that door.

According to plan, three of us get into position, then hit the stairs. Harry’s first, stumbling badly, then myself, followed by Jesse with two Uzis, one in each hand. The Troubles are waiting anxiously for a clear path upwards. Janet is charged with covering our backs.

Three-quarters of the way up, Harry jerks upright and collapses.

“Harry. Harry. You okay?” I ask quietly, shaking him.

“Gimme a minute … a minute,” He gasps, shakily pulling a grenade from inside his shirt and trying to pull the pin. He falls back, pin still in the weapon. “A minute, man.”

I can hear yelling upstairs. They must have a peephole or something.

“We don’t have one. Here. Let me help.”

Knowing how important it is to the man, I lift his heavy upper body, giving him a chance to cock his arm and toss the soda-can shaped charge onto the upper landing. Dropping Harry to the treads and falling across his body, I wait.

The blast deafens me, even as it throws my body backwards. Shaking my head to try to clear it, I see the door open about three feet, hanging from one hinge.

“Out’a fuckin’ way,” Jesse screams as she rushes through and over the two of us. She has to jump over a large hole to land inside a splintered doorway. I have no time to fuck with Harry. Old bones rising to the occasion, I hurry to catch up with Jesse, my own Thompson primed and ready. Even my screwed up hearing can understand the ripping blast of her weapons as I clear the doorway.

I see two men down, blood beginning to cover the floor. There’s firing in what used to be the Girl’s Room. I take time to check out my room and the bathroom. Both are empty, except that bundles of what must be drugs are stacked to the ceiling in mine.

Sonny’s door is closed and locked, so I bypass it, going in to help Jesse.

She has that space under control, another man draped, lifeless, half-through an open window.

“You check the other rooms?” she asks, slamming a clip into a machine-pistol.

“Yeah. We got them. Go on downstairs and clear those other bastards out. Tell them we’re no longer in the drug business. I’ll go up and get my stash.”

She nods and leaves while I struggle up to the cupola and dig through Trina’s suitcase, finding a thick manila envelope containing her father’s papers. Finally.

Downstairs, I observe the rest of our gang collecting sleeping and semi-comatose drug users.

“Harry’s dead,” one of the Doubie brothers tells me. “It was too much for him.”

“He did his part,” I say, “threw the grenade.”

I see there are over a dozen druggies, many of them husky-looking.

“Hold it up a minute, guys,” I call out to the users, then turn to the Doubies. “One of you go upstairs and break open those packages in my old room. Why don’t we give these fuckers a pound or two apiece to haul these bodies out for us? Either that or we do it ourselves.”

“That should be enough to keep them quiet for awhile. Probably kill half of them,” one of the guys says. “Not that I give a shit.”

“And we still haven’t cleared Sonny’s room,” Jesse reminds us. “It’s probably empty but we have to make sure.”

Shit! I think. That was to be my job, to check ALL of those rooms.

“I’ll go,” I say.

Janet, Jesse, and myself go back upstairs. I try to open his door by slamming my shoulder into it, which only gets me a painful bruise. “Damn it.” Then I use the correct way to open a locked door, a flat-footed kick just below the knob.

As the door slams back on its hinges, I hear a whimpering voice. “Stay away. Leave me alone,” it says.

We find Sonny hiding under a bed. There are two pistols lying in plain sight, but he’s not armed. The cowardly fucker is too frightened to defend himself.

“Say your prayers,” Jesse tells him, only his head and one shoulder showing.

I sigh and stop her, gently moving her Uzi upward.

“Don’t. Jesse. He’s a worthless bastard, but he’s still Mike’s son. Would you like to tell his father you shot the asshole? I wouldn’t.”

“Get your ass out of here. You have two minutes before I shoot. And don’t let me see you again, anywhere. If I see you walking the streets ten years from now, I’ll kill you on sight. I swear I will.” Jesse spits loudly, turns and leaves the room.

“I’m sorry, Jerry,” he says as I help him up. “I can expl….” Seeing my eyes, he only shakes his head, going out to take the stairs three treads at a time and straight through the front door.

“Move it,” Janet screams at him, firing a short burst into the ceiling.

A few minutes later, we’re alone in the house. I see Tiny’s awake, talking to Janet.

“You better get the hell out of here,” he tells Jesse and me. “in case someone tells the police.”

“Who’s gonna call the cops?” Jesse replies. “Not Sonny. The druggies have enough shit to keep them happy for months. We have no bodies lying around. A little cleaning up, a new door upstairs and we’re home free.”

“One more thing,” I remind them. “We have to get rid of that roomful of drugs.”

I look at Tiny. “Looks like you have a house to run. At least until Mike Johnson gets released. If he ever does.”

***

Sounds of running feet wake me. That and conflicting voices raised in anger and fear. I look at a wind-up alarm clock sitting next to my bed. Exactly two in the morning.

Still dressed except for shoes, I swing my feet down to put them on. Grabbing a pistol, I stand. As I do, the door flies open, Jesse barging in. She’s armed to the teeth.

“Someone’s coming. Come’on, Jerry. Four of Johnny’s sensors went off at the same time, down the street a half-block. One could be a rat, four mean someone’s out there.”

In the living room, Johnny the Scab is hunched down, a pair of infra-red goggles covering a dusky face as he peers through a window. Like Jesse, his skinny little frame carries all sorts of weapons from a Mac-10 to a sheathed dirk strapped to one leg. He reminds me of Oscar Rat wearing knight’s armor.

“I can’t tell for certain,” he says. “They’re uniformed, though. The bastards seem to be everywhere but keeping a distance. Must be waiting for something. Bomber, maybe?”

“The papers. Jesse. The papers? Did they get out?” Shit, I think, I’ll put up a bitch down in hell if I have to die for nothing.

“I passed them on to my brother. He works in Washington. The British delegate at the UN should have them by now.”

Two shots ring out. I can’t tell if by us or them, the ones outside. No matter, since all hell breaks loose from both sides.

“It doesn’t look like we’ll ever know for sure.” Jesse gives me a serious look. “Or,” she says, “whether it will make any difference to the fucking world if they do.”

I see Johnny jerk to his feet, a spray of red coming from what had, moments before, been the back of his head. As he falls, more bullets stitch through the walls as some sort of heavy automatic weapon hits the house. A wall partition glows red, smoking from a tracer round.

I leave Jesse to grab a partial glass of something or other to throw on the coals. When I turn back, she’s gone.

There are only three or four of us left, maximum. Why don’t they rush us? I think. The firing stops, at least for a moment, giving me time to charge my own pistol.

Heart beating wildly, sweat pouring down my face, I walk through the chaos. And, I think, we spent the last week cleaning it up after getting rid of Sonny. Now, would you look at it?

I have to step over Janet, lying dead on the floor of the transient room. Half that wall is gone.

In the kitchen, a bloody Tiny sits, cradling his mother’s limp form.

“Get the fuck out of here,” he commands, tears flowing freely.

I still don’t see Jesse. The sound of a pistol followed by the staccato tearing sound of a light machine gun tells me she’s still around. It looks like only the two of us against the Chicago police, HotShots, and maybe the entire US Army.

Old legs threaten to give out with exhaustion from running, room to room, to make my and Jesse’s firing simulate many more shooters. Occasionally we pass each other, going in different directions. Sweat running down her face, she seems to be enjoying the conflict.

The firing stops, sort of peters out. I take the opportunity to sit at an ammunition table, one of several spotted around the house, to reload empty magazines. I hear the steady drone of some sort of aircraft approaching, followed by the ground shaking. Bombers.

A second strike sends shrapnel into the already fractured house. I can hear something collapsing upstairs.

Something snaps. An almost palpable cloud of helplessness settles over my mind, my body, my every fucking….

I don’t really wanna play anymore. I really and truly don’t wanna play. I’m too fucking tired and depressed, Mama. Please help me, Mama. Pleeease!

Remembering an old joke about nuclear attack, like an automaton I unload my weapon. Slowly, carefully, and mindlessly I wipe it carefully with a hankie and lay it gently on a table.

Unabashedly sobbing, I sit in a corner behind a bullet-riddled couch while listening to bombs drop around me. With a strange sense of peace, I feel the floor rise and fall beneath me, along with sounds of splintering walls as aerial ordnance explodes.

Spreading my legs, I force my head down, down, down, even farther … and try my damnedest to kiss my ass goodbye.

The End.

Epilogue: I started this story back in late 2001 when then President Bush declared “War” on terrorists, using the army against what he called International Terrorism. He pushed the Patriot Act through Congress and established the huge Homeland Security Dept.

To me it was, and still is, a police matter. If we had put a few million into beefing up international police forces such as Interpol, the matter might have been settled by now. Instead, there are now more anti-US terrorists than ever before, that number increasing with every bomb we drop killing innocent people.

I don’t like the assault on our freedom to control what at that time was only a few thousand terrorists, worldwide. I still think the powers of the Patriot Act and department of Homeland Security should be curtailed. I agree with the idea of coordinating US police, but don’t think we need a huge bureaucracy to do it.

The End … for now.

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Hvysmker