The eleventh chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome.
Wayne C. Grantham
Mars strolled along the Concourse in front of San Diego City Hall. It was early afternoon on a pleasant, sunny day. He towed an ordinary-looking luggage case with wheels, much like tourists might tow through the airport, or like attorneys pulled along on their way to the courthouse. Inside the luggage case was all the hardware and the software for the Fernando Eye Surveillance System. In fact, he could see a couple of attorney-looking individuals also walking along the concourse, though they looked more like they had places to go, walking much more quickly and purposefully than he.
There were also several other pedestrians walking along the Concourse. Some appeared to be civil servants going from building to building, some were probably businessmen looking for favors, permits and to pay fines or fees. A pretty young woman in shorts and a t-shirt jogged past, light brown pony tail dancing along behind. And then, as always in San Diego, there were the tourists, in shorts or short dresses, light and colorful.
This was the way Mars wanted it--plenty of people around. As he walked, he searched for the tell-tale blue jacket Willie Hahn would be wearing. And there he was. As the two men saw each other, they converged and shook hands, each leaving his case upright beside him.
“Besides you, no one knows what’s in here, right?” Mars asked. “Because if I have any trouble getting this to Freestate, you’ll understand that the responsibility will be yours and yours alone. Are we clear?”
“I can’t help it if there happens to be a mugger in the area. Robberies happen all the time.” Willie said. Mars saw a hint of fear in Willie’s eyes.
“Muggers are after wallets or purses, not luggage.” Mars smiled a nasty smile. “They don’t want to steal my socks and undershorts.”
They smiled, nodded and each nonchalantly took the other’s case. Mars noticed immediately the increased weight of the case he now towed.
Mars took the SISA out of its holster and held it under the flap of his jacket, trying to make it look like he was fishing for a cigarette. As he approached the HumVee, parked at the curb of a less-traveled side street, two men stepped out from behind the corner of a building. They were reaching into their jackets. Mars showed the SISA before they could draw, and they both stopped short. They showed their empty hands in a gesture of capitulation. Mars kept his pistol ready at his side as the pair sidestepped around him, not taking their eyes off him. Past him now, they hurried away.
There was something weird about those two. The event looked almost scripted, the way they backed off.
He holstered his pistol and opened the rear of the HumVee. As he hoisted the heavy suitcase into the back, he froze at the sound of a footstep, and a voice.
“Put the case on the ground and step away.”
He slammed the tailgate door and spun around the side of the HumVee, pulling out the SISA once again as a couple of rounds went zinging by behind him. Apparently, Willie was a cheapskate when hiring help. These guys weren’t much good, either.
He had bangers in one magazine and lead in the other. Before the thugs could react, Mars thumbed the selector to the lead bullets and put a round into the chest of each of the two men before they could level their weapons again. Their bodies slammed back against the wall of the building and went down, leaving ugly red stains on the wall. Mars quickly looked around; saw a couple watching, the woman’s hand over her mouth. The man took her arm and pulled her to cover behind a parked car. They were too far away to identify him, but the sounds of gunfire would draw more curious people, and the police, soon. He threw himself into the driver’s seat and drove away fast.
Having taken the suitcase to the Free Trade Company office in Chula Vista, Mars arranged to have the contents of the case packed in a crate marked “Bronze Statuary, Fragile, This Side Up” and shipped to a museum in Tijuana, addressed to the attention of Juanita Chen. She would verify the amount of the payment and keep him informed. Ten million dollars worth of gold had been in the case, and four million more would be paid to the wizard she would send to Sacramento to set up the system and train a technician in its use. He hoped that wizard had a foolproof plan to get himself and the gold out of Sacramento, intact and alive.
Mars left Chula Vista just before sunset and drove the HumVee north on Interstate 5.
The radio blared, “....Having established beachheads in several Baja California locations, our troops caused severe damage to Baja’s defensive forces before they were withdrawn. The attack was the result of the continuous intolerable economic war against California by Baja California. Governor Ballou will attempt to communicate with the Governor of Baja California and ask for an early surrender....”
Mars had read and listened to Freestate reports about the sneak attack on Freestate on his cuff, and had watched some video taken by Freestaters during the fighting. The news from California television was considerably different from Freestate reports.
The cartons carrying the computer, the input buttons and the other hardware and software had been shipped by Willie Hahn. By now, it should be in Sacramento and being prepared for use.
He didn’t think Willie or Blue would try any more shenanigans. No one would be able to make the system work without the instruction to be provided by Fernando Eye.
As Mars drove past the old San Onofre Power Station, refurbished and still operating, he began to suspect that a car that followed him out of the Las Pulgas fueling complex was tailing him. One of its headlights was less bright than it should be, possibly caused by a bad ground connection. He had slowed for a while, but the car didn’t pass, though every other car did. He kept an eye on the car until he reached Hollywood, where he exited the freeway and allowed himself to get tangled in the traffic on Sunset. He parked at a sleazy little diner where he could watch the HumVee while he had a cup. He took his time, hoping his tail would do something stupid, but in twenty minutes, he saw nothing.
Stepping outside, he went to the HumVee, looking about without seeming to. He was a thin bum-looking guy sitting on the sidewalk, the hood of his not-too-clean sweatshirt hiding his face, looking like he was asleep. He turned his back to him and made like he was fiddling with the passenger-side door. He heard a quiet sound of movement, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the guy coming at him with a blackjack. He ducked under the guy’s swing, hearing it thud against the HumVee’s side window. His motion became a punch as he tagged the guy in the kidney while he was extended. The guy sprawled, groaning, and tried to get up. Mars grabbed him by his plentiful mop of not-terribly clean hair, and lifted him high enough to stand on his toes and popped him in the solar plexus.
It was his skinny little pal from Waltzing Matilda, bandaged face and all. He brought the gasping kid up to face level, still holding him by a fistful of hair. Hoping the greasiness of it wouldn’t slip through his fingers.
“This must not be school, ‘cause you ain’t learned shit,” he hissed into the punk’s face. “You’re in the wrong line of work, kid. If you keep making mistakes like this, it’ll likely shorten your life.”
The punk tried to say something, but was still fighting for breath. “Bassett,” he coughed out. Mars was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about a hound so, still holding him up by the hair, he slapped the guy a couple of times in the face. The dressing on the side of his face started showing blood.
“Let’s start with a little respect for your betters. That would include just about everybody,” Mars hissed. “Why are you following me, and who sent you?”
“You know I work for Willie Hahn,” the punk managed to wheeze out. “He just wanted me to keep tabs on you.”
“Tell me the rest.” Mars shook him a little. He thought he felt some hair pulling out. “What was the blackjack for?”
He twisted his fist in the punk’s hair. He grimaced in pain. “He just wanted me to slow you.....Ow! Shit! He wants me to call him if you leave San Diego.”
“You’re lying, aren’t you? You were supposed to take me out and grab my truck, weren’t you?”
“H-he t-t-told me he’d h-hurt m-my girlfriend if I don’t!” he stuttered. “Dammit! Let go of me! I won’t do nothin’!”
Mars let the guy stand on his own feet, but he didn’t let go. “Better not. You can’t outrun a bullet.” Mars patted the holster under his jacket.
“And you’re not gonna call him, are you?” Mars added.
“No....How are you gonna know if I do, after you leave?”
“Well, I could just kill you now, but I’m a peaceable guy, and I don’t want to be leaving a trail of dead bodies. My lad, you’re coming with me. Give me your phone.”
Mars took the phone and dropped it on the sidewalk. He stomped it with his heel.
“God dammit! That phone cost me twelve hunnert bucks!”
“Part of the lesson.” Mars opened the passenger side door. “Get in the back.”
Mars handcuffed his right wrist to the leg of the back bench, well away from the driver’s seat. He got in and drove off.
From then on, he had an uneventful trip, driving fast up the old I-5 freeway. The punk didn’t say much, except to complain, and Mars didn’t say much either, except to tell him to shut up.
He dropped the kid off in Galt, a small town a few miles off the freeway, figuring it would take long enough before he would get hold of Willie and spill the beans. He should be able to keep from being found long enough.
“You’re not going to leave me here?!” The punk nervously looked around at the downtown area, most of which could be seen from within the HumVee.
“Cheer up, kid!” Mars gave him a giant smile. “I could’ve left you stuck in Lodi.”
He approached Sacramento in the early evening, pulling into a roadside fueling plaza. He needed some time for sleep, but first, he wanted to find out where the system hardware was and affirm that Blue was planning to make use of it. It was too soon for the Fernando Eye training to have begun, but the system’s hardware might have already been installed. That’d be all Mars would need, for now. By snooping around, and being seen snooping around, he hoped he could draw the killer out into the open. He was sure it was the same man who killed both Regis and MacDougal. The bad news--the killer would be after him.
The truck stop’s café was styled as an old-fashioned diner, with a counter that had padded stools attached to the floor facing the food prep counters, and a row of booths against the windows, with a scenic view of the fueling pumps. He sat at a booth, toward the back, with a little separation from the other customers. He hoped, how he hoped, no one with noisy children in tow would invade his corner of the diner. Seems most folks let their dogs raise their children these days.
The waitress, a buxom, fiftyish woman wearing a shorter skirt than she should, lumbered up to his booth.
She handed him a single, two-sided menu. “Coffee, cowboy? My name is Aleta. ”
After taking a quick peek at the menu, Mars said, “Coffee’ll be fine, Aleta. And your hot roast beef sandwich, please darlin’. With extra roast beef and don’t spare the gravy.”
“Big spender,” she smiled. “Roast beef isn’t for poor folks anymore. Got any plans for later?”
“Sadly,” he said, “I have to be across town in a couple of hours. Something I can’t put off.”
“Aleta,” came a voice from the cook’s little window. “Get your dates on your own time! This here is my time!”
Without writing anything down, Aleta, smiling grandly, strode back behind the counter and poured a cup of coffee, spoke to the cook in the little window, and returned to Mars’ table with perhaps a bit more spring in her step.
While enjoying his second cup of coffee, the classic-looking hot roast beef blue plate special was set in front of him. He wondering, while he wolfed down the gravy-soaked bread and roast beef, whether anyone interesting might be burning the late-night oil, After he finished eating, Mars laid his cuff on the table in front of him and started tapping commands. He’d been right. The Fernando Eye studs were in place in the State Capital.
After scanning a number of rooms which were dark for the night, and a room in which a couple of civil servants were enjoying each other’s company across the surface of a conference table, Mars found Blue Thompson at a desk in one of his private offices. The governor was on the phone. An aide sat opposite his desk, with a laptop. After sweeping the room, and taking a moment to adjust the audio just loud enough to hear, Mars set the computer screen on Blue’s face. He was pretty sure the country rock playing on the house speakers would mask the sound.
“....And who will bug those selfsame buggers,” Mars quoted a very well-known writer as he made minute adjustments on his computer.
“I sent him to your lab, where the hardware was delivered.” It was the voice of Willie Hahn, coming from the phone’s speaker.
“Good,” Blue answered. “We have the pickups installed where I want them. We’ll have the system on line, I’d guess, in a couple of weeks or so. We’ll be in touch, if I need anything else.”
Blue rang off and addressed the man who sat in front of him.
“Contemporary Electronics, out on Strawberry Drive,” said Blue. “They're also doing the prep and testing for “Operation Lights Out.” Get a good computer man out there to check on the guy from Freestate. Tell the guy I want the Fernando Eye operational by the end of the week.”
Mars zoomed in slightly on a map on Blue’s desk. It was an elongated sheet with a map of California and Freestate, with some lines and notes that he couldn’t understand, but looked like it could be some kind of plan that concerned both countries.
Stark made notes on his computer, an older, handheld Freestate unit. “We have a man there working on ‘Lights Out’ already,” he said as he snapped his computer off. “I’ll get him to ride herd on the Freestate guy. I’ll talk to him first thing in the morning.” He grabbed a jacket and left.
Mars closed the surveillance window and threw a $200 bill on his check, just as a very tired couple with three whining kids entered the diner. Ignoring them, Aleta approached Mars. “Y’all come back when you can, hear?”
“Looks like I’ll have to sleep when I’m dead,” Mars thought as he drove to a darkened area of the parking lot next to Contemporary Electronics. Staying in the dark, he went to the rear of the building to one of the lab's rear doors. He used his cuff to neutralize the burglar alarm, picked the door's lock and slipped inside. In the near-dark of this part of the parking lot, any surveillance cameras wouldn’t show a clear enough image to identify him, and probably wouldn’t be seen until sometime tomorrow.
Using a narrow-beam penlight, he saw that this part of the dusty-smelling warehouse was filled with rows of industrial shelving, filled with boxes of electronic parts and drawer units of small parts. Mars made his way through the maze, and past a row of file cabinets. He quietly opened a door to access the front of the building.
It opened into an unlit hallway, through which Mars felt his way until he found a well-lit laboratory which appeared to be empty of people. Nonetheless, the sound of someone typing into a computer could be heard. Mars worked his way quietly among the cubicles, work tables, computer stations and storage cabinets. He caught sight of a man in a lab coat, working on the computer with his back to him. Mars pulled his blackjack from his pocket. As Mars closed in and raised his arm, the computer man sensed something, and turned.
“What the hell....?” Mars stuttered. He lowered his hand.
“What are you doing here, flatfoot?” Smitty said, equally surprised.
“Still working on the MacDougal murder. The trail leads here, so far.” Mars stuffed the blackjack back into his pocket. “I thought you were an aircraft mechanic.”
“Planes are my hobby.” Smitty said as he turned back to the computer. “Software is where I earn my living. How did your investigation bring you here.....if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I made the guy who was Ms MacDougal’s biggest customer. I styled myself as another pipeline to Freestate technology, and sold him some stuff, it was shipped here.
“And I’m the brainiac who’s supposed to set it up and teach Blue’s technicians how to use it.” Smitty replied.
“So, you’re here in the belly of the beast. Have you heard of a California plan called ‘Operation Lights Out?”
“I’ve heard it mentioned,” Smitty said, turning to face Mars again.
“I overheard Blue talking with an aide about it.” Mars pointed at the computer. ”Can you find out anything about it? I’m pretty sure it might have something to do with Freestate.”
Smitty started typing, working the trackball, and typing some more. He paused, cussed under his breath and worked some more. After about five minutes, he began reading.
“I found it in here,” he said finally. He read for a couple of minutes and spoke over his shoulder. “Shit! It’s an attack plan designed to annex Freestate into California by means of military force.”
Smitty kept reading as he spoke.
“Haven’t you been paying attention? He already tried. And failed miser....”
“No, this is different; phase two,” Smitty said as his fingertips rattled over the computer keys. “That strike was designed to lull us into a false feeling of security, by making their military seem easy to defeat.”
“He’s a cold-blooded bastard, isn’t he? A lot of people died in that ‘dry run’” Mars said, a sour look on his face.
“The second attack could work,” Smitty continued. “They plan to kill our power satellite before the next attack!”
“What!?” Mars tried to read what Smitty had on the computer screen. The text was impossible to read from his angle from the computer screen. “How?”
“I don’t know. I’ll keep reading,” he said, continuing to scan and scroll. “You know, Valerie came up here a few times to teach Blue’s techs to operate something she sold them.”
“And if she found these files....” Mars muttered.
“Knowing her, she would’ve snooped around. She could’ve stumbled onto ‘em.”
“...And if Blue found out, or even suspected she knew....” Mars muttered.
“It's ‘lights out’ for MacDougal.”
“Bad joke, but that seems like the way it could’ve happened.”
“Agreed,” Smitty said. “She had told me she suspected something, so when she was killed, I scammed my way into a computer upgrade job to see if I could learn more about what happened to her.”
“Is this ‘none of your business’ you mentioned?” Mars asked, referring to their previous conversation.
“Yeah.” Smitty looked up at him. “And you're gonna fuck it all up.”
“You're in over your head,” Mars shot back. “You'll get caught, and be the next one on the slab. Even now, I doubt they’ll let you out of here alive.”
“Val MacDougal was a smuggler. She sold Freestate tech to Californians. Her biggest client was Blue Ballou. They bought stuff from her, but they didn’t trust her, and since you’re a Freestater, they don’t trust you, either!”
“....But you're different.”
“I don’t think they know I’m here yet.”
Mars paused. “Ok, as it now stands, my new best suspect is a character named Horiuchi, a CIATFBI man--the man who was with me in that helicopter.”
“Horiuchi, eh? Makes you wonder why he took you with him on that flight.”
“I don’t have to wonder. He was making that very clear when you flew by....”
“Incidentally,” Smitty looked up from the computer again. “He's been hanging around here a lot.”
“He’s been here? What does he do here?”
“Not my business. He only speaks with top management. He’s a cold-looking bastard.”
“He’s probably part of the war effort. I wonder if he’s involved with Operation Lights Out?” Mars rubbed his chin in thought. “California's overtaxing, overspending and up to its neck in debt with an employees' union that won't let its members work. What can California do to Freestate?”
“You'd be amazed how destructive a despot can be when his back's against the wall.” Smitty looked away from his monitor for a moment. “He can loot Freestate for far more than California’s debts, make himself even wealthier and have control over what is now the most productive area on Earth.”
“They’ve driven most of the productive middle class from the state by taxation and regulation. They’re cutting off the dole to the illegal immigrants and offering them menial jobs at subsistence wages as servants and laborers to support their lifestyles.
Smitty punched a few commands into the computer; smiled slightly as the program began to run.
“Many of them are moving to Freestate, to the benefit of all of us,” Smitty observed.
“Somehow, we’ve ended up on the same side,” Mars said. “Ain’t that just peachy?”
“I’m willing to bury the hatchet,” he said as he slipped a disc into the drive slot. “I'm downloading the ‘Operation Lights Out’ plan to a disc. I’ll need to get it to Governor Hancock.”
“Why not just send it?”
“We're screened for electronics at the door,” he said, watching the progress of the download. “Can't be done.”
“Nobody screened me,” Mars said, sliding his sleeve up to expose his cuff.
The door opened. A burly, uniformed security guard slipped into the room.
“Hold it! Who are you guys?” The guard, not the sharpest tack in the box, dropped his hand to rest on his holstered revolver.
Smitty turned to show his badge to the guard.
“Fred Smith. Programmer”
The guard relaxed visibly. “Oh, yeah. I remember you.” Then he remembered Mars.
“Wait....Who are you?”
Mars looked around without turning his body. He surreptitiously reclaimed the blackjack from his pocket. “I’m the Pizza Man.”
“Oh.” Then, he took another look. “I'd like some pizza. Say....Where is the pizza? And where's your badge?”
At that, Mars squared himself to the guard, who let his thumb unsnap the strap over his holster. He surreptitiously held the blackjack behind his thigh.
“Badge?” Mars said, stepping toward the guard. “I don't need no stinking badge.”
As the guard took a step forward to challenge Mars, Mars swatted the guard's gunside wrist with the blackjack. He quickly followed it with a measured blow to the head.
Smitty helped Mars drag the semiconscious, groaning security guard over to a support column and cuff him to it, using his own cuffs. Mars found the guard’s cuff key, tossed it across the room and took his sidearm.
“We'd better get out of here! Bring the disc.”
“I knew you'd fuck it all up.” Smitty said, returning to the work station.
“All you need is that disc,” Mars insisted. “You're done here. You want this pistol?”
The guard’s gun was an old Colt .38 revolver.
“That relic? Maybe I could pound nails with it, except that I don’t pound nails.” He took the gun and stuffed it in his trousers pocket. “Wait a sec. I should finish this.....”
Smitty attacked the computer with a vengeance. Screens flashed by on the monitor while he worked. Abruptly, he finished.
“....Ok. They'll be a while finding anything on that server. Let's go!”