There are some people who are simply obeyed, no questions asked. Police get argued with, firefighters are sometimes shot at, and even the FBI and Department of Homeland Security find themselves frequently at odds with civilians over even the simplest of instructions. So if you want to get someone away from their home with no questions asked, there's really only one choice.
“Mrs. Sanchez? Chuck Finlay, Metro Dade Gas and Electric.” Sam smiled down at her. “I'm here about the leak.”
“Leak?” Rosa Sanchez frowned at the tall, burley man with the handsome smile. “What leak, what are you talking about?”
“You didn't receive the call?” His eyes widened. “They probably decided not to risk the spark from the phone ringing. This is more serious than I thought!”
“What? You mean a gas leak?”
“Yes!” Sam's face was grim, now, his voice urgent. “I'd say we can risk ten minutes to get what you'll need, but we have to get you away from here!”
“That doesn't make any sense!” Mrs. Sanchez cried. “I don't smell gas!”
“That's the worst part!” answered Sam quickly. “You know, natural gas is colorless and odorless. The smell you associate with gas is an ingredient we mix in to alert you in case of a leak. If you don't smell it, then that means the leak has escaped that safety measure!” He squeezed past her, into the house. “Now come on! Pack up some clothes, and if there are any photographs or anything, get them together quickly!”
Eight minutes later, Sam was placing the third cardboard box into the back seat of the rental, and closing the front passenger door firmly beside Rosa Sanchez. She was a trim, handsome, brown-skinned woman, maybe ten years his senior, with warm brown eyes and streaks of silver in her space-black hair. She looked at him through the car window, then past him toward her house, sucking her lower lip between her teeth.
“It's a lovely house,” Sam told her as he climbed behind the wheel, “and it would be a shame to lose it, but it's not worth your life.”
“No,” she agreed, quietly. “It just seems incre兊le, unbelievable, that mi casa – the house where I loved my Fernando and raised Elpidio – could just volar, just blow up! It just seems impossible.”
“I know how you feel,” said Sam, as he pulled away from the house, hating himself for the lie, for dragging an innocent woman in a heartbeat away from the home she loved with his phony tale of explosive peril in the placid home. “But with that gas leak, it really could go sky-high at any moment.”
As he finished speaking, a flicker of movement drew his eyes. The house seemed to deform in the rear-view mirror, as if it had been a shaped rubber balloon that was suddenly, savagely being over-inflated, and it seemed as if the shallow roof tried to take off like a rocket before crumbling in the center to be engulfed by the fireball. Glass windows were shattering all through the block, and Sam heard himself uttering a high-pitched, almost squealing yelp of surprise as he swung the wheel to turn them down a side-street, the shock wave helping slew the rear end of the car around before he gunned it and got them into the lee of the neighboring houses.
Rosa and Sam stared at one another a moment with wide, awed eyes, both of their brains racing with the knowledge of how briefly they'd been out and away. Then, as they heard the distant sound of planks and other debris hitting the pavement – and neighboring houses – Rosa Sanchez bust into tears.
“Mike, I'm telling ya,” Sam said into the cell phone, pacing back and forth in Madeline Westen's back yard. Madeline was in the kitchen with Rosa, making her coffee. “It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw. No sooner had I told her the house could blow up at any second than the damn thing blew up!”
Michael chuckled grimly. “Sam, you must use this power only for good.”
“Oh, yeah, Mike, that's really funny!” Sam looked back at the kitchen window, the shadow of Madeline moving behind the curtain. “Listen, are you going to come out here and talk to your mom, and Mrs. Sanchez? She's got it that I'm not from the gas company, and my saving her life wins me some time, but she wants to know what the Hell's going on.”
“I'll be there, Sam,” said Michael, calmly. “I just have to pick up Yusuf first. Mom should be able to keep her occupied.”
“Okay, Mike,” said Sam. “But don't take too long, okay?”
“Soon as I can, Sam,” said Michael, and the phone signaled the end of the call.
Scorched Earth is a military strategy that's lost a lot of popularity since Sherman burned Atlanta. It's messy, it's cruel, it's wasteful, and it makes it a lot harder to make today's foe into tomorrow's friend. In covert conflicts, it's even less popular, because it draws so much official attention. But if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and terrorist organizations think they thrive on public atrocities, so when they start what should be a secret fight, they tend to fight it as if it was just another attack. With that mindset, Scorched Earth makes sense.
Have I mentioned that I really hate fighting terrorists?
The strip club was nearly empty. Yusuf sat in the same seat, drinking milk from a tall tumbler. The same stripper danced her way languidly along the narrow stage, moving instinctively in time to the music, eyes closed and head swaying dreamily, her body shining with oil.
Michael slipped into the seat beside him. “We have to go, Muhammad. Right now.”
“I heard about the bar,” the small, dark man replied. “As if anybody hasn't. More blood on my hands.”
“The good news is that we got your mother out of her house. I've got a place for you. Call it a safe-house. She's there now. Come on.”
They started for the door, and suddenly, Yusuf stopped. He dug in a pocket, and pulled out a handful of bills. Michael saw Benjamin Franklin on one of them. “Just a moment,” he said to Michael. “Please.”
Michael nodded, and Yusuf walked briskly to the dancer, holding up the cash. Her eyes widened as she looked at it.
“Go home,” said Yusuf. “I have been rude to you. There is danger. Go home.” He turned to the bartender. “Close up. Go home. Please.”
The bartender shook his head, spat a few derisive words of Spanish, and Yusuf replied quickly. The bartender turned away, polishing glasses. Yusuf looked back up to the dancer.
“Please,” he said.
Her eyes were wide as she looked at him. He shook the money at her again.
“I... All right.” She reached, took the money. “Thank you.”
She trotted quickly through the door into the back room, and the bartender snarled.
“Listen to them, friend,” said Michael, and he and Yusuf were out the door.
The Charger was turning out of the parking lot when the driver dove out of the rusty AMC Pacer they were passing, letting it run, unmanned, toward the wall of the bar.
A lot of people talk about the evils of violence on television and in the movies. The real problem, though, is not that they're too violent, but not violent enough. The violence of popular entertainment is sanitized, and as a result, people think that violence has no consequences. Take explosions. When Bruce Willis is running full-tilt away from an exploding car, truck, bus, spaceship or planet, it seems as if all he has to avoid are the flames and the shrapnel of that car, truck, bus, spaceship or planet, and he'll be fine. The fact of the matter is that what kills people in explosions is the simple brute force of the blast itself. Remember, that's what rendered the car, truck, bus, spaceship or planet into shrapnel.
The shock wave kills, and your job is to make sure that there's something solid between you and it before it can.
Michael stamped down on the accelerator as hard as he could, and slewed the Charger around to the left, leaping into the alley between a pawn shop and a locksmith. He put a hand on the back of Yusuf's slender neck and pushed him down toward the floorboards, and the shattering crash of the explosion rocked the car against the nearest brick wall.
Michael looked at the crushed side-view mirror hanging from the driver's-side door and cringed. For a car this old, they weren't that easy to find.
Yusuf straightened up, and looked at Michael. “We have to go back. Make sure she-- Make sure they got out!”
Michael regarded him for a moment. Clients were always telling him what to do. He hated it when they were right. He slammed the car into reverse, and screeched into a quick turn out of the alley to face back toward the strip club. The building had mostly collapsed, and flames roiled upward into thick, heavy black smoke. A swarthy man in jeans and an aloha shirt stood in the entrance of the parking lot, looking back at them, holding an Uzi.
One thing that you have to remember about weapons is that, for all the finesse and skill using them involves, there is a point at which any of them comes down to sheer brute force, and the bigger, stronger guy wins. The more weight behind the sword thrust, the more power behind the stroke. Bullets weigh a few ounces a piece. A 1974 Dodge Charger weighs around a half-ton.
Again, Michael floored the gas, and the Charger leaped forward toward the gunman. He stared for a terrified second, and then jumped left. Michael savagely swung the driver's door open, and caught him on the hip, flinging him viciously against the dumpster. The clang! his head made was loud in their ears, even over the screech of the Charger's brakes and the roar of the flames.
Yusuf rolled out of the passenger side as Michael did the driver's, and Michael stared at him for a moment, then nodded, and they trotted together towards the staff-only door on the side of the building.
The only reason they weren't blinded and suffocated with smoke was that much of the ceiling was now open to the sky, and they struggled through to the door marked “Lockers.”
Inside, the row of metal lockers, bent obscenely by the force that threw them, lay pressed against the wall opposite their anchors, and from the ridiculously small place underneath, one slender brown hand reached. Michael felt for a pulse, and the hand moved, and they heard the woman's cry for help. The far plywood wall of the locker room was warping, smoldering. The flames would be through soon.
Michael looked at the lockers, the hand, and Yusuf's slight frame.
“All right, listen, Mohammad. I'm going to try to get some of the weight of these lockers off her, You get her by the wrist and try to slide her out.” Yusuf nodded.
“Ma'am?” Michael called.
“Chantale!” cried the woman's voice, weakly, and Michael smiled grimly. The human impulse to make the insane normal with social niceties was an old friend.
“All right, Chantale. I'm Michael, and the man you've seen here so much is Mohammad. We're going to try to get you out. It's risky, because we don't know how you're hurt, but if you stay here, you'll burn, okay? This is probably going to hurt like hell, but try not to fight us.”
He got his back turned to the lockers, and bent at the knees, reaching back to grasp the edge of the lockers with his hands. “Ready?”
“Not really,” said Chantale, and Yusuf squatted down to grasp her wrist in both his hands. Her fingers wrapped hard around his left wrist in return.
Michael counted to three, and heaved upwards, using the muscles in his legs, and there was a loud metal-tearing sound, and Chantale screamed loudly, once. There was a sound from the plywood wall behind him, a soft Whoosh! and Michael knew the wall was igniting. The lockers shifted upward, and Michael bellowed, “Pull, Mohammad, pull hard!”
Yusuf backed up, step by step, hauling the screaming Chantale with him. She had pulled on a white tee-shirt, but it was tearing down the front, a jagged piece of metal hooked into it, and she shrieked as it started to tear into her breast. Yusuf released her wrist and darted in, pressing her skin back, gently, pressing her flesh down off the ragged points, and then he palmed her breast gently so that the back of his hand would scrape along the metal as he pulled her by her armpit. Once her breast was past the deadly metallic fangs, he moved back, his hands under her arms pulling her more quickly. Her left leg was smashed inside her blue jeans. The pantleg looked like a denim sack of lumpy cream-o-wheat.
Yusuf lifted her by the grip he had and Michael approached and reached down for her legs. He grasped her right knee easily, and then said, “I'm sorry, Chantale, hurt is too small a word.”
He took the ruin of her left thigh in his other hand, and and straightened. She screamed, sharp and loud, and Yusuf said, very tenderly, “That is good, Chantale, scream it out, it helps.”
Then they were out of the building and half-trotting toward Michael's car, and set her down on the alley floor, leaning back against the wall. She panted with her pain, teeth gritted, and slowly opened her eyes. Michael had found the Uzi and brought it back. There was an approaching howl of sirens.
“Ramon?” asked Chantale.
“The bartender?” said Michael, and on her slight nod, he shook his head. “Didn't see him, but I don't think there's much hope.”
The sirens were louder. Michael looked over at the form of the car-bomber. Unconscious? Dead? He couldn't chance it. He handed the Uzi to Chantale, and jerked his head toward the supine form. “Don't let him leave before the police arrive.”
“He done this?” Her voice was hard, and the Uzi swung up to point at the still form, muscles in her arm and hand rigid.
“No, Chantale,” said Yusuf, one gentle hand on her arm. “Trust me now. Trust me. No.”
She looked at him for a long moment, then her left hand was fisting his shirt, pulling him closer, and her lips met his cheek. “Thank you, sir.”
“Come on,” Michael said, as the sirens approached. Yusuf hesitated a second, then dove back into the Charger, and Michael was back in the driver's seat, starting the engine, putting the car into reverse yet again.
They missed the police by less than twenty seconds.
Michael's phone rang almost immediately after, and he scooped it easily out of his pocket, glancing at the display as he raised it. “Yeah, Sam!”
“Bad news, Mike.” Sam's voice was quiet. “Your mom's place is crawling with feds. DHS, mainly. You're red-hot as of right now. I'd ditch that Charger if I was you.”
“Gotcha,” said Michael, pressing the button as he slid the phone back into his pocket. He glanced over at Yusuf. “We're going to have to change some plans on the fly.”
He swung right, and drove toward the city's center.