Monday, June 13, 2011

Running Homeless Chapter One

Al Lamanda

Copyright © 2011 by Al Lamanda
All rights reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

[Add trademark disclaimer for Crown Victoria.]

First Edition
First Printing: July 2011

Published in 2011 in conjunction with Tekno Books and Ed Gorman.

Set in 11 pt. Plantin.

Printed in the United States on permanent paper.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data (attached)


For Ethan and Lois.


Bone-dry heat rose off the desert floor to slap you in the face. Even at night, the heat was oppressive. Breathing was difficult, as if trying to suck air through a thick wool blanket. He took shallow breaths, which had a calming effect on his mind and body. Sweat, which should have been pouring off his skin, wasn’t flowing. That’s how you got into trouble in the desert. Sweat evaporates on contact with the air, creating the illusion that the body isn’t losing fluids. If you don’t drink enough water to replenish those lost fluids, heatstroke overtakes you, bakes the brain, and death soon follows.
From his perch behind the wire fence that surrounded the small, private airport, he took several sips of water from a quart bottle hung on his belt. He wanted to smoke, but resisted the urge. At night, even the tiny flame of a match could be seen for hundreds of yards. He settled for a stick of spearmint gum instead. As he chewed, he looked at the massive stainless-steel Rolex on his wrist. It was painted black to prevent reflecting light at night. The time was twelve-forty a.m. If the plane were on time, it would land in twenty minutes. If it were on time. Flying at night was a difficult enough task; flying a small aircraft under the radar on a moonless night had to be particularly trying for even a highly skilled pilot.
He picked up the night-vision binoculars, turned on the power and used them to scan the immediate area surrounding the airport office. Harnessing a minuscule amount of light, the binoculars allowed him to see in near-total darkness, although with a green tint. He remembered from somewhere that the color green is the easiest color for the human eye to see in darkness. With or without the binoculars, he knew that the human eye was sensitive to movement at night. That was why you could see a mouse scurrying across the floor in a dark room. If the mouse stood still in the shadows, chances are you would never see it.
However, mice were not on his menu tonight. Humans were. Specifically, men. If the intel was correct, six of them. Four arriving in the plane, two on the ground, probably inside the office right now, drinking coffee.
He scanned the area around the office, the hangar, and the runway, but saw no movement. He trained the binoculars on the office windows, but if the men were inside, they stayed away from the windows. That was smart. That’s what he would have done. Minimizing the risk until the last possible moment enhanced the chance for success. Exposure, even brief, reduces the success ratio. You never know who might be watching. Waiting. Planning an ambush.
He glanced at his watch again. Seventeen minutes to the hour. If the plane were on time, in a few minutes he should hear the faint sound of the engines. He heard a noise and used the binoculars to trace it to the source. A hangar door was opening. A man stepped out, visible in faint outline. The man was smoking a cigarette. He could see the red ember glow brightly as the man inhaled.
The man was confident he wasn’t at risk. That was a serious mistake. Knowing that risk was always present, was always just around the next corner, separated the amateur from the professional and the living from the dead.
At least in this line of work.
His line of work.
He concentrated on seeing the man’s face in the binoculars. The man was about forty, with thick, heavy features, a strong chin and receding hairline. The man inhaled on the cigarette again and the end glowed bright red.
He lowered the binoculars and focused his eyes on the tiny red dot in the dark. If he had a high-powered rifle with a good scope, he could have put one right through the center of the man’s skull.
He stared at the red dot, fascinated by the tiny spark of light against a backdrop of black.
* * * * *
She said, “How do you feel tonight, John?” Her voice was soothing, a constant like an old friend.
He was in the serving line at the mission in San Diego. Holding a tray of hot food, he looked at her from where she stood opposite the counter. “Fine,” he said.
“That’s good,” she said. “Don’t forget, you have a doctor’s appointment at four.”
“Am I sick?” he said, more a question than a concern.
She smiled. “No, John, you’re not sick. It’s just your yearly physical. We need to keep you in the pink if you’re to keep helping out around here.”
He nodded. “That reminds me. We need at least eight more bundles of shingles for the west roof. I’ll be out by tonight.”
“Write down what you need and I’ll see to it that it gets delivered,” she said.
He nodded and walked away to an empty table by the window where he could look out while he ate. As usual, the sun shone brightly and the temperature stayed right around eighty degrees, although the breeze coming off the ocean kept things comfortable while on the roof.
Outside the window, some men from the mission hung around after eating lunch. Their clothes were seedy, as were their hair and beards. Not that his own clothes weren’t just as used, but he laundered them regularly in the mission laundromat and did his best not to rip or wear them out. If something happened to be torn, he repaired it with a sewing kit stored under his bed. He shaved often, three or four times per week. He wore his graying hair short in almost a crew cut, not to be fashionable but because it was easier to deal with in the heat.
Spending so much time shirtless on the roof lately had tanned his skin and given his face a hardened, leathery appearance. It made him look mean and angry, he thought, although neither was true. He didn’t feel mean at all, though he tended to stay aloof and he could be perceived that way by others living in the mission. Angry wasn’t even on the table. How could he be angry about anything when he couldn’t remember a single thing about his life?
Amnesia, they said. Caused by blunt force trauma, they said. He may or may not regain partial or full memory, they said. In the meantime, he didn’t know one damn thing about his life. Not who he was, how he lost his memory, if he had a family or how he arrived at the mission. Just what they told him, which wasn’t much. That he was taken by ambulance from San Diego General to the mission after a month’s stay a year ago. How he arrived at SDG, neither he nor anybody else had a clue.
She was suddenly at his table. A small notepad and pen were in her hands. “You said eight bundles of shingles?” she said.
“That should finish off the west roof,” he said. “I won’t know about the south roof until I get up there.”
She nodded and scribbled on the pad. “Anything else?” He watched her write. She had beautiful hands, sensual fingers. He’d read or heard somewhere that you could tell a great deal about a woman from her hands. What that was, he had no idea.
“Maybe another dozen boxes of nails for the roofing gun,” he said. “And knee pads, the kind made for roofers. It’s rough on the knees up there.”
She made another note. He watched her write on the pad. She was a striking-looking woman of thirty-five or six, with shoulder-length dark hair and piercing, coal-black eyes. The tip of her tongue poked out between her full lips as she moved the pen along the paper. It was very sensual to watch.
“I’ll take care of this today,” she said. “Just don’t forget your doctor’s appointment.”
“Four o’clock,” he said. “I won’t forget, Julie.”
She smiled at him.
* * * * *
He suddenly became aware that the red ember of the cigarette was no longer visible. He scanned the area with the binoculars, but the man was gone. Probably returned to the office. He glanced at his watch. Twelve minutes to one. As he removed the wrapper from another stick of gum, he heard the faint sound of a plane engine. He scanned the dark skies, but was unable to pick it up just yet. Judging from the sound, he figured it was ten minutes from its runway approach.
Then, suddenly, the runway lights came on and the landing strip was a beacon in the dark, deserted desert canyons. He didn’t look at the lights because they would ruin his night vision, and it would take a good half hour to get it back. Instead, he focused on the airport office. A light had come on and he could see the outline of two men at the window. They, like him, were waiting for the plane to land.
But for altogether different reasons.
* * * * *
James Farris read all the reports several times before making the decision to call in his second-in-command, Ben Freeman. At sixty-two years of age, Farris had grown cautious about who he delegated assignments to. With just ten months to his retirement, Farris had spent the past year grooming Freeman as heir to his throne, so Freeman drew assignments only when classified a Level Five priority, which this one was.
Farris picked up a file, opened it and glanced at the contents one more time. Behind him, bright sunlight shone through the window that faced the Washington Monument. In another hour, he would close the drapes or bake from the heat. Even with the AC on high, that sun on your neck baked the skin raw.
He closed the file and made a small notation in the top right-hand corner. The notation was in code, a code that only he and Freeman could decipher. When Freeman took Farris’ chair, he would create his own personal code, but for now, Farris’ code was the word of the day.
Ten more months and his life’s work would come to fruition. His pension, though substantial, would come from some obscure government agency no one had heard of or would question, not even Congress. He had stocks, bonds, investments and a personal 401(k) in excess of a million, more than enough to make his retirement years comfortable. The thing was, he wanted to go out on top with one more major assignment under his already impressive belt. The fighter’s mentality, he supposed. More likely, his ego.
The file on his desk was just such an assignment.
Ben Freeman arrived exactly on time. Farris expected no less. At forty-six, Freeman stood six foot two and had the wide build of a well-conditioned athlete. The only concession to Freeman’s age that Farris could see was a slight graying of his thick, dark hair around the ears.
Freeman took the chair opposite the desk. Farris said, “I’ll come right to the point on this one, Ben. Extreme prejudice is called for, nothing less. Understood?”
“What’s the mission?” Freeman said quietly.
Farris spoke freely. His office was above reproach, above eavesdropping and the usual Washington leaks and bullshit. “The government of an unnamed country in South America finances its military through drug trafficking into the States. DEA has been working in conjunction with the FBI and Homeland Security to shut this operation down. Twice a month, a plane delivers shipments of cocaine and heroin to a private airport in New Mexico that operates as a training school. Two men own the school and are the contacts for the cartel that makes the delivery. Make it known that the operation is closed and that any additional activity by this government on American soil will not be tolerated.”
“Extreme prejudice,” Freeman said.
“The next shipment is in exactly two weeks.”
Freeman nodded, then said, “I’ve used John Tibbets twice since his relocation to San Diego. I think he can handle this job.”
“An extraction team to shut him down, but otherwise, yes, alone.”
“He’s still that good?”
“He’s aging like fine wine, James,” Freeman said. “Plus, if something should go wrong, it’s the mad ravings of a homeless amnesia victim.”
“But, nothing will go wrong.”
“Contact Doctor Monroe and have him begin prep work on Tibbets immediately,” Farris said.
“Should I go along as part of the extraction team?” Freeman said.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Farris said. “You’re not a field agent anymore and besides, if the extraction team is good, you won’t be needed.”
Freeman nodded. “I’ll give Monroe a call right away.”
* * * * *
The twin-engine propeller plane came in low against the backdrop of dark sky. The man at the controls knew what he was doing. He brought her in at an airspeed of about sixty-five knots and touched down on the runway with the lightness of a feather hitting ground.
The time was three minutes past one a.m. He removed the wire cutters from his belt and snipped a hole in the fence large enough for him to fit through. By the time he was on the other side, the plane had rolled to a stop in front of the hangar doors.
He removed the twin, blued Ruger .22-caliber pistols from the small of his back, inserted twenty-round magazines into each and racked the slide. On the end of each pistol, he secured a four-inch-long black silencer. Always assemble your gear last so you’re positive you didn’t overlook something.
Men were emerging from the plane.
He started walking toward them. He was in no particular hurry and moved with the grace and fluidity of a cat in its prime about to undertake a hunt.
Two men emerged from the office to meet the men coming off the plane.
The Ruger pistols felt like extensions of his hands, like they were a part of his flesh and blood and bones.
Four men had exited the plane now, upping the total to six men in all.
He closed the gap to five hundred feet. He was walking from shadow into light, and even if they’d had time to allow their eyes to adjust, he would be difficult to see. They were shaking hands, distracted by each other’s company.
He closed the gap to three hundred feet, then two hundred.
They turned and started walking toward the office.
The gap closed to one hundred feet, then fifty.
One of the men from the plane must have sensed something, because he slowly turned and peered into the shadows. He appeared confused and he died with that look on his face as he took two shots to the head. The silenced Ruger pistols produced little more than a cough, but the man’s violent reaction as he fell caused the remaining five men to turn around.
One man screamed when bits of skull and blood splattered onto his shoulders. Two rounds in the face silenced him.
The other four, confused, but frightened into action, started to run for cover. He was close now, just ten or twelve feet from them, and it became target practice. He shot the third man twice in the head. The fourth man threw himself to the ground, but he shot him once in the neck and once more in the face, and he was dead before he landed.
The remaining two men put their hands above their heads. He put two shots between the eyes of the fifth man. As the sixth man started to cry and beg for his life, he shot him point-blank in the head.
* * * * *
Set back off the road around the perimeter of the airport, Freeman’s crew of six agents watched the scene unfold outside the hangar on a closed-circuit television monitor. Earlier, an agent had installed a mini camera on the fence that was equipped with night-vision capabilities.
As the plane landed, Tibbets emerged from the shadows and used the cutters to penetrate the fence. They watched as he made his way toward the six men.
“He’s getting ready to rock and roll,” an agent commented.
“Is this guy as good as Ben said he is?” another agent said.
“I don’t know,” the first agent said. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
They watched the monitor with intense curiosity, anxious to see what would happen. Their curiosity quickly turned to silent awe as he went about the task of assassination with the skill and timing of a master surgeon. In less than eight seconds, all six men were dead.
The agent closest to the monitor said, “Holy motherfucking shit.”
The leader of the four-man extraction team said, “Give him a second to reprocess and shut down, then we’ll move out.”
* * * * *
He looked at the six dead men at his feet. Six men, twelve bullets, less than eight seconds. He tucked the Ruger pistols into the waistband of his pants, then reached into a pocket of his light windbreaker for his cigarettes. He cupped his hands to hide the tiny flame of the match, then took a long, satisfying puff.
With his right foot, he turned over a body to look at the man’s face. The dead man had the thick features and skin color of a South American, but of which country there was no way to know by looking at him.
Suddenly, the Rolex on his wrist started to beep. He didn’t remember setting the alarm. He raised his wrist and looked at the massive watch. He wanted to shut the alarm off, but he hesitated. He found himself staring at the black face of the Rolex, transfixed by some unknown force that tugged at him.
* * * * *
Shirtless, John sat on Doctor Monroe’s examination table while the doctor listened to his heart with a stethoscope. In the corner of the room, Ben Freeman waited until Monroe completed the physical, then said, “So how is he?”
“Remarkably fit,” Monroe said.
“I can see that,” Freeman said. “I meant up here.” He tapped his forehead with a finger.
Monroe smiled and turned to John. “John, how do you feel?”
“Fine,” John said.
“Are you ready for your mission?” Monroe said.
“And what is your mission?”
“To terminate a drug cartel with extreme prejudice.”
“Yes,” John said. “Extreme.”
“How do we turn him off when the mission is completed?” Freeman said.
“Preprogrammed suggestion,” Monroe said. He removed a heavy, black Rolex watch from the pocket of his white lab coat and held it up for John to see. “John, when you hear the alarm on this watch sound, what will you do?”
John looked at the watch. “Wait.”
“For what?” Monroe said.
“The extraction team to take me home,” John said.
Freeman looked at Monroe. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said.
“It isn’t that difficult when you work with the same subject over a period of years,” Monroe said. “There’s a comfort level.”
“Can I take him?” Freeman said.
“And he’ll answer to me just like the other times?” Freeman said.
“Tell him something,” Monroe said.
Freeman looked at John. “Put your shirt on, John. We have to leave now.”
John stood up from the examination table and reached for his shirt. At six foot two inches tall, Freeman wasn’t used to looking up at people, but damned if John didn’t tower over him. Even in middle age, John Tibbets was no one to mess with. Freeman knew that only too well.
“I need him back in one week,” Monroe said. “After that, the posthypnotic suggestions weaken and he’ll be more difficult to control.”
“I know,” Freeman said. “Not to worry.”
“But I do, Ben,” Monroe said. “Like a father sending his son off to war.”
* * * * *
The four men that made up the extraction team cautiously exited the van and made their way down to the airport. They were dressed all in black, including Kevlar vests, and carried M16 rifles slung over their right shoulders and nine-millimeter pistols in holsters on their belts. They were experienced, highly trained men, ex-military handpicked by Ben Freeman for their suitability.
They reached the hole in the fence and silently passed through it. The team leader spotted Tibbets by the hangar and motioned with his right hand, giving a point-look signal. John appeared to be doing exactly what Freeman had said he would do upon hearing his watch alarm sound. Stand and wait.
The team leader led his men closer to their target.