Monday, December 10, 2012

The eighth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome.
Wayne C. Grantham


An aerotaxi stopped in front of a private hangar at the Tecate airport. The taxi was a silent flying car, capable of carrying up to six passengers behind the driver. It was stylized, with chrome and body sculpturing reminiscent of 1960’s American ground cars. It was painted a two-tone yellow and red.
Mars got out, still limping clumsily with his electrosplints and a cane. He started toward the office door, but turned as he noticed an open hangar door, a man working on a small, ancient single-engine aircraft just inside. Stepping just inside the great doorway, he saw that there were two other planes in the building.
A little distance from the small plane, there was a large twin-engine craft. It looked like an old passenger plane. After studying the plane for a minute, Mars realized that it was an old Gooney Bird--an army C-47, also from the World War II era. It had several inspection doors open and an engine exposed.
Beyond that was a sleek, modified US Navy WWII Corsair, which had been repainted a shiny black with gold accents. He slowly walked around the little plane, admiring what he soon realized was an old classic Piper. The sheet metal cowling had been removed from around the engine.
“About a hundred years old, isn’t it?” Mars asked as he came around to the nose of the plane, where the man was torquing the bolts on one of the heads.
“A 1945 Piper Cub, fully restored and flight worthy,” said the mechanic, unable to keep the pride from showing on his face. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m told that I can find a pilot named Smitty Alvarez at this airport.”
“That’d be me.”
“Are you a World War II aficionado?” Mare asked, gazing again at the old aircraft.
“This period produced aircraft with a lot of personality. They’re fun to fly and fun to restore.” Smitty said.
“My name is Mars Marlowe, Detective Lieutenant of the San Diego Police, now working for Dos Rios. I’m working on a murder that took place in San Diego, a little over two weeks ago.” Mars stepped around to the other side of the plane, which allowed him to face Alvarez.
“The murder had a smuggling aspect to it, which made me think of you.”
“How so?” Smitty asked. He stopped tightening the bolts and took a fist grip on the torque wrench, slapping it into the palm of his other hand.
“You’re obviously involved in smuggling. Perhaps Miss MacDougal was a competitor?”
Smitty started slapping his hand with the wrench. “Maybe you’d better explain that, Marlowe. Are you accusing me of killing Valerie?” he asked. “Smuggling isn’t even a recognized concept, much less a crime, here in Freestate.”
“It was you who killed the pilot of the helicopter I was in the other day.”
“You were in that chopper?” He said. Then, after a moment, he added. “See that empty space over there?” He pointed to an open area of the hangar, beyond the other two aircraft. “The plane that belongs there is scattered all over the California desert. That was self defense.”
Mars waved his hand over his visible medical gear. “You see I’m a bit of a wreck, myself.”
“Looks like you were lucky. I watched that chopper go down.”
“You were in violation of California law,” Mars said. “You were failing to comply with a lawful order from a legal authority.”
      “Fuck California law! Fuck your legal authority! I don’t accept the morass you call a legal structure. I had business in--none of your business.”
      “It's standard procedure to turn or shoot down unauthorized planes attempting to cross the border without authorization. The pilot was doing his job,” Mars explained clearly and patiently, as to a child.
      “Fuck his job, too!” was Alvarez’ reply. “He blew up my plane and he was about to shoot me out of my parachute. I was defending myself.”
      “I’ll admit that his decision to fire on you in your parachute was a bad one. I tried to get him to shear off and let you go. On the other hand, you’d have saved yourself some trouble if you’d have turned away and gone to a nearby airport in San Diego....”
      “Look, Marlowe,” Alvarez pointed the wrench at Mars. “I don’t give a rat about California law. You say you work for Dos Rios. I’m a client. Valerie was also a client. I know....knew Valerie. Anything I can do to help, I will....but let’s not talk any more about California law.”
      “Ok, truce. The point is moot now, anyway.” Mars said, in an attempt to ease the tension. “What do you know about Ms. MacDougal? What was she doing in California?”
       “She was importing Free State electronics for sale in California. She was becoming quite wealthy, in fact.” Smitty answered, trying to suppress a hint of envy.
      “Smuggling’s a risky business.”
      “Valerie was very good at self defense. Spent a lot of time working at it,” Smitty said, shaking his head sadly. “Lot of good it did her.”
      “She was ambushed,” Mars said. “It was at least three men lying in wait. Not much one person can do against those odds, although she put up a damn’ good fight.”
Mars left the airport and took another taxi to his apartment. As he stepped out of the taxi, he reminded himself that he wanted to purchase a new sidearm to replace the old Para he’d been issued in San Diego. It was very dated, here in a place where most folks carried sidearms and the market was quick to offer innovations to attract the many customers looking for something new and better. He remembered seeing a weapons shop not too far away, so he limped gingerly off in that direction.
Mars stepped into the weapons shop, thinking that his old .45, as good a weapon as it had been, would have to be set aside in favor of some newer technology. It was time to see what Freestate had to offer.
He was perusing the glass cases, looking at the various handguns in the glass case when a middle-aged man, beard reaching his chest, graying blond hair reaching his shoulders and tied around the crown with a blue, rolled up bandana, entered from a rear room.
“He’p ye?” He asked.
“I guess it’s time for a new sidearm,” said Mars, still eyeing the many weapons, large and small and everything in between.
 “How d’ye plan to use the weapon?” The salesman asked. “D’ye want a gun to use, or to just hang on yer hip?”
“Well, I hope I won’t have to use it, but working for Dos Rios....”
The guy interrupted. “Y’work fer Juanita? Why didn’t ye say so! Some folks call me Gunny, but I wish they wouldn’t. I’m Olaf.”
“Funny,” Mars remarked. “The rangemaster at the San Diego PD range calls himself Gunny.”
“All rangemasters call themselves Gunny. You mean Al Ericksen? Is he calling himself Gunny too, now? I’d go up there and whip his ass, ‘cept I’d get arrested ‘fore I got to ‘im.”
Olaf reached out his hand, and Mars shook it.
“Mars Marlowe,” he answered, trying to concentrate on the storekeep and peruse the many weapons within the glass cases simultaneously. “I just dropped in from California....”
“Haw, haw!” Olaf burst out with a booming laugh. “You the San Diego cop that crashed up by the Wall?”
“That’d be me! Miss Chen got me out of the hospital and talked me into working for her.”
“You must be a good ‘un. Juanita usually calls California cops stupid thugs, or worse.” Olaf kept up the jovial smile that was almost a chuckle, as he talked.
“She had a few choice comments for me too, at first.” Just then, Mars spotted a weapon that looked like the one Miss MacDougal had owned. He pointed. “Olaf, let me look at that one. I saw one like that recently, and got a chance to handle it, but not fire it.”
“This is an Alvaro’s Small Arms .50 caliber caseless with twin magazines. A fine weapon, but hard to control in full auto.”
Olaf opened the case and drew out the large handgun. He dropped two magazines from in front of the trigger guard onto the counter top and opened the action. After inspecting the breech through the magazine port, he offered it to Mars, handle first.
“This th’ one?” he asked.
Mars checked the breech, and then worked the action a couple of times. “This is the one.” He hefted the weapon a couple of times, aimed it at the wall clock, looking at the sights and checking the balance.
“Y’wanna try ‘er out?”
“Sure,” Mars replied, still getting a feel for the weapon in his hand. “Where do I have to go?”
 “Just step out back to th’ patio. There’re some targets out there. Y’ can’t use bangers, and don't shoot anything structural or shoot over top o’ the mountain.”
Olaf handed Mars a box of ammo. Mars examined the box. “McSorley Cartridges. 25 .50 Cal CSLS. Full Copper Jkt Lead.”
“Target ammo. Feels th’ same’s th’ good stuff. Try ‘er out.” Olaf held the door open.
      Mars stepped up to the firing bench, loading both magazines while looking over the targets downrange. He loaded eight rounds each, and slid them into the slot in front of the trigger guard until both magazines snicked into place. After jacking a round into the chamber, he fired three slow rounds at a pig silhouette about two hundred yards away. The first shot puffed the dirt just left of the silhouette. The second hit the pig with a dull thunk. The third missed just above the pig. Holding low, he fired three quick rounds; the puffs tracked upwards, all three missing the pig silhouette. He tried it again, they tracked higher. The third round hit way up the hillside. Mars unloaded the weapon and went inside.
      Mars handed the pistol back to Olaf, action open, magazines removed.
      “It gets pretty wild as the magazines empty out and the gun gets lighter.
      Olaf turned the weapon over, looking at the barrel. “Ya’d prob’ly get use’ta it if ya shot it more. I c’n port th’ barrel f’ya.”
      “Nah.” Mars shook his head. “I hate those. Blind you in the dark.
      “OK, let’s try this’n.” Olaf pulled another weapon from the case. It was similar, but slightly bigger, with a longer barrel, and all gray metal. He showed Mars the action. “It's a SISA. Fer San Ignacio Small Arms. Stainless. Weighs a mite more. Same caliber, same cartridge.”
      Stepping back outside, Mars checked and loaded the SISA. He fired several single shots and a few short bursts, emptying the weapon and reloading. He found it much easier to hit the pig, even while firing three-shot bursts. As he prepared to take the gun back inside, he did a double take. Wait! No brass to pick up.
He’d always been able to relax after a particularly stressful day’s work by sitting down at his workbench and reloading some ammo.
Time marches on, he thought. Satisfied with the weapon, Mars opened the action and reentered the store.
      “This one, I can enjoy. How much?
      “Two bits,” Olaf said, running a wad, saturated with solvent, through the bore of the first handgun a few times.
“Two bits?” Mars looked at Olaf in disbelief. “I saw a Sierra just like this for one seventy-nine.”
      “There ain't no Sierra like this,” Olaf said, wiping out the solvent with a dry wad. “You c’n have it f’two thirty-five.”
“And you throw a box of ammo and a pair of extra mags.”
      “We-elllll,” Olaf tugged at his curly beard dubiously. “I won't make much on it, but....done.”
      Olaf reached out his hand, Mars shook it.
      “You can skin me by selling me a cross-draw shoulder rig and a pair of magazine pockets. “Charge it to Dos Rios,” he said.
      The following afternoon, Mars and his new partner got out of an aerocar in Ensenada, in front of a five-story modern building. There was plenty of glass on the front face of the building, and a spacious atrium/sitting room with a salt water aquarium, populated with several brightly-colored tropical fish, which they passed as they entered. The aquarium comprised one wall. There were several sofas, easy chairs and low tables arranged around the central walkway entrance to the building. Mars, no longer wearing the leg splint, was still limping with his briarwood cane as they walked through to the elevators.
      Mars had been partnered with another of Juanita’s insurance investigators, a young woman introduced as Annette O’Malley. “She looks young, but not much gets by her,” was part of Juanita’s sales pitch to Mars.
      Mars argued against the need for a partner, “She’ll only slow me down,” he said. “I don’t want to be responsible for an inexperienced rookie, nor do I want to have to argue with a veteran who already knows everything.”
      At last, he gave in to Juanita’s pressure that he’d have a second pair of eyes. She turned out to be a very fit, athletic young woman fully as tall as Mars’ five feet nine inches. She was an attractive blonde, and a smart, yet practical dresser.
“She also has far more knowledge of Freestate tech and local customs than you,” Juanita added. “And, there will be times when you’ll want a witness.”
      Mars and Annette O’Malley exited the elevator on the third floor and followed a hallway a short distance to an apartment door. Annette pressed a button next to a speaker.
      “There is no one home. May I assist?” said a robo-voice.
      “Dos Rios. Annette O’Malley. Investigation.”
      “Verifying,” the robo-voice said.
After a five-second delay, the apartment door clicked open. Mars followed Annette inside. They passed through a short hallway with a coat closet into a large, luxurious living room. The living room....indeed the entire apartment was decorated in 1930’s art deco style. The room contained an entertainment center, the controls to which were installed in the casing of a thirties-style stand-up radio. There was a recessed conversation pit with a stainless steel fireplace and a wet bar.
“I'll give this room a once-over,” said Annette.
      Mars went toward a door opposite the dining area. “Maybe there's an office.”
      The apartment had two bedrooms, the smaller one having been turned into a library. Mars spent a moment looking over the bookcases, finding a few titles he had in his own library. In San Diego, he remembered. There were two easy chairs in the room, with art deco-style reading lamps above and behind. At the back, facing a window with a view of the beach, there was a large desk with a built-in computer.
Mars went through drawers of the desk, examining a few of the items within and putting them back. He turned the computer on. The monitor slid up out of the desktop, showing a mountain pasture scene. He tried to get into the documents files, but they were password protected.
Annette entered the room and looked over his shoulder. “I have her passwords in an emergency file,” she said. “Just a sec.”
She lifted her sleeve and tapped at her forearm computer. “Ok. She only used three.” She wrote them on a notepad, pushed it over to Mars. “The first one opens the computer.”
“Thanks.” Mars typed in “19dodge68.”
“Copy the memory into your cuff. We’ll take it with us,” Annette said, leaving the room. “I’ll check the kitchen.”
Mars, still in the early stages of using the “cuff,” the wrist videophone, computer and camera that he’d first seen on Valerie MacDougal’s wrist, had to concentrate to get the computer’s memory to empty into his device. Hampered by the sling immobilizing his right arm, handling the controls of the cuff was quite a task. When his cuff finally indicated he’d saved the computer’s contents, he erased the computer entirely and turned it off.  
Meanwhile, Annette was quickly going through the cabinets. They were well-stocked with food and utensils, but nothing of relevant to the case. She moved on to the bedroom, where she looked through the closets and dressers. Nice clothes, a couple of spare weapons and a moderate supply of ammunition, but nothing to capture her attention. Hearing the click of the front door latch in a way that sounded like the intruder was trying to be quiet, Annette quickly rejoined Mars in the library.
The little fat man who was well paid to kill Mars Marlowe was not the sort to confront a foe and conquer him face to face. He would win no fights, he feared any sort of direct confrontation. Yet he had killed several men--with no thought for collateral damage. He set a measured amount of explosive against the wall behind which was the rest of the apartment. The timer was set for only fifteen seconds. He wasn’t heard entering the apartment, nor was his silent snicker heard as he started the timer. Then, in his haste to escape the area, he let the door latch click as he opened it to let himself out.
      “I heard. C’mon.” Thinking the intruder was still in the apartment, he took her arm. “We have what we need and we don’t need a gunfight here.”
      He led her through the bedroom and they quietly slipped out onto the veranda. He removed his arm from the sling to be able to use his arm, hoping he could use it effectively and that he wouldn’t re-injure it. They helped each other climb down to the first floor patio. Annette, in truth, was helping Mars more than the other way around.
Just as they planted their feet on the ground floor patio, the building erupted above them. The explosion rolled them out onto the beach, and they were pelted, and finally buried as burning debris rained down on them. Mars tried, with partial success, to protect Annette with his body.
Morning found Mars back in a hospital bed, lying face-down, with burn dressings on his back and legs, electronic sleeves around his knee and ankle, glutures holding several cuts closed. Annette entered his room wearing an apparatus similar to the one Mars had only recently removed. Her electrosplint was a small one, wrapped around her foot and ankle. She also had another small electrosplint on her left elbow, which was immobilized in a sling, and dressings on her hands and right shoulder. She had black eyes and a bandaged nose.
“Thanks, Mars,” she said. “I know it would’ve been worse for me if you hadn’t gotten me out of there.”
      She bent down to kiss Mars’ lips, his head turned to one side. Mars started to respond, but pulled back with a grimace of pain.
“Ow!” he blurted, then tried to smile. The attempted smile also hurt. “Ow!”
“Ooh! Does that hurt?”
“Yes.” He said with a grimace.
“Ow! She cried. Then, she bent to kiss his forehead, carefully trying to miss two glutured cuts.
“Ow!” he said again, but reached up to put an arm around her.
Neither of them noticed the doctor, who stepped into the room behind Annette. “You two keep that up and it could become embarrassing.”
Annette stood up too quickly, grimacing with pain while flushing with embarrassment as she stepped back from Mars’ bed.
“Oh! I wasn’t going to....I guess the close brush with death made me go off just a bit,” Annette said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right, Miss O’Malley.” The doctor answered, smiling. “It’s just that we vidmonitor every room, and we wouldn’t want to have anything embarrassing placed in the hospital record.”
 While Annette stepped back and smoothed off her hospital robe, the doctor checked the readings on the computer and the life signs monitor. After clucking about for a few seconds and making an entry into the computer, the doctor excused herself and left the room.
“I’m sorry, Mars. I guess almost dying makes you do stupid things,” Annette said as she patted her hair into a semblance of order.
“And I’m sorry to have been less enthusiastic that I wished to be,” his smile looked crooked around the glutured cut under his lip.
“No, it’s not funny. It’s more important than that. I’m your partner. That was unprofessional, and I apologize.” She paused for a moment, formulating a question. “Do you get banged up this often in San Diego?”
“Law of averages is catching up.” He smiled. “You?”
      “A first. I’ve never encountered a mad bomber. There aren’t many murders in Freestate.”
      “Have you learned what happened?” he asked. “Anyone else hurt?”
      “Six apartments were destroyed or seriously damaged. The two next door residents were injured. They’ll be ok. Fortunately, no one else was home.”
      “I got a name,” he smiled gingerly. “I saw it while copying the main drive. So, our trip wasn’t a complete waste.”
      “Valerie's killer?”
      “Maybe. One of her biggest customers. We have to consider her smuggling as part of the case.”
      “So, the investigation leads us back to California?”
An aircar flew silently over the Wall, and a couple of miles over the border mountains. Just beyond the Wall, the car swooped down and landed on a rarely-used dirt track.
      Annette flipped a few switches on the aircar's dash panel. She drove the car to a turnout amongst a small stand of live oak trees, and parked.
“Just ahead is Highway 94. About a quarter-mile to the left along the highway is the Dogpatch Motel, an old inn where you can wait for a taxi.”
      Mars, now dressed in clothing more normal in California, took her hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
“You now have it within your power to blow Freestate off and go back to your old life...” she said.
      “I have a lot of thinking to do,” he said gently. “It’s no small thing, leaving the country you lived your whole life in. Freestate has some very important advantages, though. If I do go back, it'll be after all debts are paid, and in the wake of proper goodbyes.”
      “Be careful. And put it on the record that I do hope you come back.”

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