A Drama of Terror
A Suspense Thriller by
Michael M. Hobby
Copyright 2008, Michael M. Hobby; All Rights Reserved
“It’s intellectually corrupt to condone mass murder for a political goal . . . to me. That’s just my opinion. Other people don’t agree, at all, and that’s fine. Perhaps they should read more--and not newspapers!”
[in Sundance Channel’s 24-Frame News: Journeys with John Malkovitch]
Life can be wonderful living free. How vivid the intoxication of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” with Tiffany’s sweat-soaked body lying beside me on deck, staring with cosmic abandon into the stardust strewn across the heavens. I can taste the cool margaritas we enjoyed as the moon bounced shimmering highlights from her hair with each gentle gust of sea-breeze. Or we might be sunning on the beach together sipping Pina Coladas, lust welling up with each chorus of “Shake You Down,” watching the Cargo ships pass by offshore in the hazy distance. That’s just about as good as it gets. Tiffany was more than a friend, but now she’s nowhere to be found. Wherever she is, she’s enjoying her salt aquariums, snorkeling the reef for Tropical fish to enhance her collection, or placing a new critter in her Invertebrate tank. Sometimes, late at night, I wonder if she still thinks of me.
As I hung up that night, an uneasy feeling arose in my gut about inviting my three closest friends over to discuss my idea. More than two years would pass before I realized just how foreboding that feeling was.
That statement and the story that follows might at times convey the impression that I am ambivalent. I am not ambivalent. I am not irresolute. As Nick in The Great Gatsby said, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever met.” Not privy to the criteria Nick considered in making his assertion, I will tell you what I consider the essence of honesty. Throughout life, we find it necessary to lie. We lie by smiling at those who disgust us, by withholding truths that might reflect poorly upon us, by ignoring facts that might cause our ideas to be rejected, by sometimes calling black white or white black. We must lie to survive. I do not regard these lies as dishonesty. The essence of honesty for me is, I do not knowingly lie to myself.
Part of what I’m about to relate I couldn’t have known, such as poor “Potts,” the driver of the Milk Truck. These days, I won’t talk to anyone without my palm recorder on, so I’m in debt to Simmons for allowing me to record his interviews with me and for supplying me with many details gathered during his interviews with others still alive, or with the survivors of those who aren’t. Though he’d never admit it publicly, I feel he understands me and how I got drawn into this.
Eric Stroder is not a bad person. In spite of what the media say and the slant they put on everything, I feel if you knew me, you’d agree that I have a good heart. I’m not that different from you; I’m patriotic, concerned about world events, and well intentioned. I never meant any good person harm, but no one can twist your probity or bring you down like friends. The people that took me down were all friends; I thought they were. Christof, “Kicks Iron,” and Carl can’t tell this story, because they’re all dead. But it has to be told. It has to be told because I desperately need people, people like you, to understand. If I could co-opt a segment of 60 Minutes, I’d tell all of America, but I can’t. They won’t even answer my letters.
I know that as you read this story, you’ll pass judgement on me. I only ask that before you do, you try to put yourself in my shoes as though you had been there yourself--in person. Times were very challenging then and everyone had an opinion.
I read or heard somewhere that a man thinks of challenge as constructive, whereas a woman regards challenge as destructive. Based upon the events and consequences that befell me, the women have it right.
I think it’s best to begin with what happened to Potts so you’re getting it from someone’s point of view other than my own, begin with what happened on that fateful day. The details Simmons obtained from Potts’ wife and others provide human insight, so the following is basically accurate. I already had Christof and “Kicks Iron’s” accounts of how it went down.
I don’t pretend to be a raconteur, but I was the closest person to most of those involved. For that reason, I feel confident I can relate a palpable narrative. Though I never met the man, I feel as though I knew Potts personally too, so I’ve taken the liberty of filling in the blanks where necessary to provide a readable story:
“You’d better do something about that gut, Potts,” Supervisor Smith admonished as Potts pulled away from the dock, wiping sweat from his forehead, “I’d hate like hell to have to give someone else our best route. You’re gonna collapse dead one of these mornings, I swear!”
“Mae’s puttin’ me on a diet, she say.” Potts replied.
“Yeah? Well, you have a good run, Potts!”
Smith knew it was a put off. Potts had carried an inner-tube around his waist as long as Smith had known him, bigger every year. Smith couldn’t understand why he didn’t fall forward when he stood up. He knew what Mae really did was shovel her husband enough southern Black cooking to fatten a pot-bellied hog. His shirt pocket was already wet from a sweat-soaked handkerchief.
“S’pose I will, Boss,” Potts answered, “S’pose I will.”
Maneuvering his Milk truck past the others, he was first out the gate. The other route drivers were still stuffing the day’s load into the back of their trucks. Overweight as he was, loading crates of dairy products plus the ever-growing list of non-dairy items didn’t just get him going; It worked up a dripping sweat.
“I wish Smith’d shut up,” he said aloud, talking to himself as he usually did driving along alone during the morning. “He think he's a Big Shot cause o’ Junior college and cause he's a supervisor. ‘Drop dead,’ my butt! My momma’s still kickin at ninety-one and my Grandma Washin’ton lived to ninety-eight, dippin’ snuff and eatin’ lard!”
He smiled, thinking about the men still loading their trucks.
“Yup! I'm still the fastest, sweatin’ or not, fat or not!”
Farmer’s Dairy was one of the few places already humming with activity at 4:30 a.m.
“Reg’lar folk don’t get up at 3:00 and be loadin’ at 4:00,” he often bragged to Mae.
There was something special about engaging the day accompanied by the stars, when the moon is still the brightest light on. The lights of the city shown with a special radiance at this hour, conferring the sensation that he owned the road. In the pre-dawn traffic, the Georgia air was sweet with the scent of Magnolias, Honeysuckle, and Muscadine. Within three hours, the number of vehicles would triple and the sweet odors would fade.
“It's a brotherhood . . . ,” he would say as Mae fried his eggs, grits, and sausage, “. . . men that starts out early. We are the real men, workin’ while the rest of em is snorin’!”
An unspoken awareness of their special, collective status suffused his mind as he jockeyed for position among the cars, vans, and trucks that characterized the hour. Together, they provided the resources and victuals the waking world would need two to three hours hence.
Slowing for his first stop, he met Clyde Hawkins tossing the morning paper on Lady Martin’s porch.
“Morning, Potts!” Clyde hollered out, lingering alongside the Milk truck, “‘sup, Dawg?”
“Just heard on the radio the heat index'll be toppin’ a hunerd today, prob’ly one-ten. I know’d it’d be hot. I wuz sweatin’ heavy when I finished loadin’.”
“It’s that belly o’ yourn!” Clyde cajoled; he loved to mimmick Potts' broken grammar. “I know all you do’s drink beer when yur off.”
“Yup, but yo Momma's so fun to drink with!”
“Funny,” Clyde laughed, “See ya round.”
Potts stood and they nodded before Clyde carried on with his paper route.
“Clyde's a member o’ the brotherhood, too; Out ‘fore dawn, workin’ hard, always smilin’,” he thought, grabbing Lady Martin’s plastic crate, already made up: two half gallons two-percent, one pound butter, one quart buttermilk. She’d call the office if he forgot the buttermilk. It had happened before.
“She's a nice woman,” he told Mae, after hearing about the phoned-in complaint, “but she's honery cuz a raisin’ six kids with no man.”
Occasionally, she’d be sitting on the porch swing, smoking a little cigar when he came, saying she couldn’t sleep. She liked sitting outside in the Spring just before sunrise so she could smell the pungent Magnolia blossoms from the two trees that shaded her front yard. Once, she’d even invited Potts to sit on the swing with her, but when he saw how small the hooks were that suspended it from the floor of the upstairs garret, he thought better of it.
“No thanks, Ma’am, but you're nice t’ offer.”
He gave her a free promo package of the “real good” coffee cakes as he left, but the next day she told him they were too sweet and made her teeth hurt.
“I only got halfn my teeth left, you know.”
“My bad,” he said in apology.
Leaving the Martin place, the truck was sluggish as always at the beginning of the route, fully loaded, sometimes even rocking perilously if he turned a curve too quickly. But as the morning progressed and the load lightened, it became much more responsive. He passed Clifford’s Auto, with its huge sign, WORK CARS! CHEAP, waving at the men loitering about. That was Clifford’s business: selling cars for a few hundred dollars that ran, but were old, rusted, dented up, or just generally looked awful, good only to get to work and back. They appealed to guys light in the wallet or just trying to get a stake together and such men constantly hung about the place, congregating just about the time Potts reached that point.
Having completed the neighborhood portion of the route, he turned toward Ft. Benning. He’d drop a good chunk of his load at the Base Commissary. Supervisor Smith had attached a new route slip to his clip board. The address was between here and the base. A new call-in was the only way his route ever added business. He could increase his commission if he’d knock on a few new doors every morning after finishing at eleven or so. Smith constantly nagged the drivers to make the effort. But Potts tired easily, especially in the heat, so he never did.
In a sparsely populated area he drove through toward the base, he espied the mailbox of the new drop. He turned into the drive, a long one, and was more than a hundred yards back into the trees before he could even see a house. No dogs came running out to trouble him as he stopped a few yards from the porch. He was relieved; He hated dogs. Once, a lady’s Spitz ran out when she opened the door to get her order, grabbed his pant’s leg, and tore it.
“Mae said if she know’d her number, she’d o’ called that lady!” He thought.
After filling the order for milk, cheese, and cottage cheese, he walked to the front door, positioning the plastic crate so when the door was opened, it wouldn’t bump it, but the crate would be in full view. Folks didn’t like it if you blocked their screen door with the crate. As he turned around to leave, the first dark blue haze of the approaching dawn broke in the east in stark contrast to a bright halogen flashlight beam that struck his eyes with such dissonance, it stunned him. He couldn’t see who held it.
“Hold it right there, or I’ll blow your Black ass away!”
Potts froze, terrified. A Red Neck! Did he actually have a gun on him, thinking he was a thief?
“I’m just deliverin’ yur dairy order, Sir.”
“Shut your country-ass trap and move over to that tree,” the man shouted, throwing the light on an enormous nearby Hickory with a three-foot-wide trunk.
As he motioned Potts toward the tree with the flashlight, the man became partially visible. He was White and muscled and looked like Rambo from the movie with his head shaved. Potts was mortified he hadn’t backed off when he said he was from the dairy. Confused, angry at the man’s attitude, he acquiesced when he saw the 12-gauge shotgun.
A large chain had been wrapped tightly around the trunk and secured with a padlock. The Rambo man gave him a hard shove as he neared, painfully bouncing his left knee off the bark as he fell against it.
“Listen, Mister, I just brung yur milk and cheese . . . ”
“I said, shut up!” The man yelled, smashing Potts in the stomach full-force with the butt of the shotgun. The blow was unanticipated, excruciating, doubling him over. Nauseated and momentarily unable to breathe, he offered no further resistance to a second man who appeared with handcuffs, slapping one side on his right wrist and the other through one of the links in the big iron chain. Then, the pair walked off in the direction of a freestanding garage on the opposite side of the house. One of them backed up Potts’ Milk truck, left running while he carried the order to the porch, and parked it in front of the rising garage door.
“Who are you?” A voice from the other side of the tree asked. The trunk of the Hickory was so wide, Potts hadn’t noticed him at first.
“Jus’ a second . . . ” he uttered, still trying to draw a full breath. After filling his lungs again, he leaned as far around the left side of the trunk as the cuffs sanctioned. A White man who looked to be in his fifties was likewise chained to the tree. Tall, spare, greying around the ears, and wearing an Army officer’s uniform, he looked to Potts like the “prominent citizen” type, an educated fellow who could go after anything he wanted in life. The kind of man who’s always confident and self-assured.
“I drives a Milk Truck,” he said to the well-dressed man. “Charlie Washin’ton’s my name, but folks just calls me Potts.” He extended his left hand and shook the right hand of the successful-looking officer. Awkward, but it sufficed.
“Who are you? Why are we chained to this here Hick’ry?”
“Colonel Horace Simmons, U.S. Army Intelligence, Ft. Benning. They grabbed me a block from my home as I left for the base this morning. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I’m wondering if they intend to kill me.”
“Y’ mean y’ think they be gonna kill us? They say that?”
“No, they’ve treated me with indifference since forcing me to drive here and chaining me to this damned tree.”
From his position, Potts could observe a flurry of activity. One of the men had opened the back of the Milk truck as another raised the garage door. His breath caught in his throat when he saw two blindfolded men sitting side-by-side on two chairs inside. Were they Black brothers? He couldn’t tell for sure at this distance; They were dark, but not that dark.
“They could be High-yelluhs,” he thought.
The two were handcuffed together, one’s right wrist cuffed to the other’s left. The Rambo man with the shaved head held a gun on them. As his eyes adjusted to the pre-dawn light, Potts decided they weren’t black. They looked more like Arabs or some other dark nationality.
“They gots ‘em two Arab-lookin’ guys blindfolded in the garage and they’re pointin’ a gun at ‘em,” he told the colonel. With slightly more light, his face looked drawn and deeply creased.
“I can’t move far enough to observe from my position,” Simmons said, “Tell me everything you see. How many of them are there?”
“Looks like two White felluhs, and one of em dud’n have no hair. They're unloadin’ my truck to the garage and the two Arabs . . . wait! There's another big, big, White guy sittin’ on a fork lift b’hin’ ever’one.”
“A fork lift?”
“Yeah, got it under a big wood’n crate, jus’ sittin’ there, with it off. Now he’s startin’ it. Y’ hear? I know you can’t see nuthin b’hin’ there.”
“Yes, I hear it.” Simmons was quiet for a moment.
“They’re switching the load, Mr. Washington,” he said, “How big is the crate?”
“Purty big. You can call me, Potts. Don’t think they can get that in my truck. It’s ‘bout two or three feet wide, real tall. Don’t know if it'll clear the door, but I doubt it. It's too far to see good.”
“You say the two Arabic men are blindfolded and cuffed together?”
“Which one is holding the gun on them?”
“Nobody, now. They're both unloadin’ product. That big, big man on the fork lift; he's watchin’ em.”
Simmons mulled over the crew’s actions, groping for a scenario: Three white men, one a Skinhead, one huge, were holding two Arabs hostage in addition to himself and a Milk truck driver. They were standing by with some type of load, ready to substitute it as soon as the truck was unloaded. They were in a hurry. What in hell could be their plan? Even more intriguing, why?
The combined din of an electric drill and a chipping hammer reverberated from inside Potts’ truck, once unloaded. The men were doing something inside. Presently, one of them emerged, carrying a rack detached from the interior wall.
“Colonel, Sir . . . they're strippin’ my truck, takin’ the racks off’n the inside!”
“That’s how they intend to get that crate to fit.” Simmons said.
Once the racks were stripped, the huge fork lift operator raised the crate into the air. Inching forward very slowly, guided by the other two, he inserted the forward end through the rear door. Potts was amazed that it actually cleared the sides and top, though barely.
“The crate’s goin’ in now, Sir. Looks ‘bout six or eight feet long. They're being real careful too and movin’ slow.”
“That’s bad, very bad, Potts.”
“I suspect that crate is a bomb. Given their actions, they must plan to have you drive it onto the base using me to get past the Guards. Tell me, do they wave you through in the mornings as they do me, or do they stop and inspect you, look over your load as they’re supposed to?”
“Corporal Jones? He know me like I'm his neighbor. He'll us’ly wave me on, most days; real nice man, drunk beer with me one afternoon when we run into one nuther at Jud’s. He says ‘Good mornin’ when I go in and he'll be wavin’ when I leave. Sometimes, I give him a quart o’ buttermilk. He loves cold buttermilk much as my Momma. She says she'll be drinkin’ it till she drops dead.”
“That’s it. They need me for my vehicle.”
“It'll be ‘ficial, you bein’ a Colonel and all.”
Simmons had acute instincts, but the two Arabs cuffed together didn’t seem to belong in the same scenario as the Black driver in a familiar Milk truck who knows the black corporal at the gate, a corporal who’s seen the truck come and go hundreds of times, often gets complimentary buttermilk, and wouldn’t smell a rat if it was suspended in front of his nose! They should never have cut back from three guards during the night watch at the gate. But why two Arabs? What was he missing?
“They got the crate in,” Potts announced. “They're puttin’ my product in front and b’hin’ it, so’s you can’t see no crate.”
“How old are our assailants?”
“The White men?”
“The one with no hair’s ‘bout twenty-somethin’, maybe thirty-somethin.’ The other two are ‘bout like him, I ‘spect. One’s comin’ towards us and the big man from the fork lift is with ‘im. Maybe he be a wres’ler.”
“He's the one who grabbed me. Don’t say anything to them, Potts. Just play ignorant . . . and keep quiet.”
“You da man. One’s bringin’ that gun. You thinkin’ he's gonna shoot us? My Mae’d be real unhappy if’n I don’t come home and I'm real scared ‘bout now.”
“They won’t kill you now, but they may kill me. Don’t say anything else.”
The two walked up, the one with no hair holding the key to the handcuffs. He unlocked Simmons from the tree and walked him to the garage while the huge man Simmons recognized as an American Indian pressed a gun against the back of his head with one hand, holding the other tightly against his forehead. It was quite painful.
“Potts was correct to call him huge. This guy’s a goddamn behemoth.” He thought.
They directed him to a third chair beside the other two hostages and cuffed him to the arm.
“They’re Middle Eastern,” he thought, seeing them closely. The men were docile. Neither attempted to glance in his direction or speak to him. Their facial expressions reflected dread. Somehow, they didn’t seem to go with the house. Had they also been kidnaped elsewhere and brought here? Did the crew own the place? The crew said nothing while proximal to him, so Simmons remained silent, remembering what happened to Potts when he spoke without being asked.
One of the crew who had gone into the house reemerged toting a suitcase. He was the one Potts had identified as a Skinhead, though Potts hadn’t used that pejorative. Simmons recoiled when he saw Skinhead was tracking blood with his shoes! The ghoulish footprints on the concrete made him reel with apprehension. Who’s blood had Skinhead walked through? Was the house an abattoir, with him about to be next? Skinhead was tall and wiry, obviously lifted weights, and had an ex-military aspect about him. Except for his shaved head, he could pass for Rambo, down to the red kerchief tied around his forehead. Placing the suitcase on the ground, he opened it. Simmons saw three identical items, consisting of a packed tube not unlike a severed bicycle inner tube with one end plugged, the other connected to a small electronic device. The tubes appeared to be about three feet long as Skinhead unwound them.
“This is a professional operation.” he thought. “No doubt.” So who were these assailants and what organization, if any, did they represent?
“Stand up, Assholes!” Skinhead half-shouted to the two Arab hostages, jerking on the cuffs binding them together.
They arose quickly, one of them shaking involuntarily from fear, the other almost falling back over his chair as Skinhead jerked the cuffs repeatedly, a stalwart ruffian. Simmons noticed swelling on their wrists, but in spite of the tightness of the cuffs, there was no bruising.
“They haven’t had them on that long,” he thought. “This crew is well organized, every detail planned in advance, no wasted time, and their plan seems to be progressing without a hitch so far.”
Skinhead jerked the men’s shirttails out. The more frightened of the two whimpered audibly. Did he fear he was about to be gutted, Simmons wondered? The blindfolds had the effect of intensifying their alarm.
“Hold up your shirts. I’m wrapping something around your waist. Do it!”
Each grabbed his shirt with his free hand, holding it high. The features he could discern from the exposed portion of their faces and the pallor of their skin were definitely Middle Eastern.
Skinhead wrapped one of the tubes around each of their waists, affixing a clamp at the proper position to hold each snugly. The small three-inch-square switch looked more like a belt buckle than anything else once it was on. Then his heart skipped a beat.
“Those are explosive belts!” he realized. The switch was a detonation switch. “Shit! If they blow, they’ll cleave these men in two!”
The dark-haired crew member intimidating them by alternately pressing the gun against the back of one’s head, then the other, had a tattoo on his gun arm, his left. “A Lefty,” Simmons noted. The tatoo combined a gothic head with a pair of jeweled, crossed swords, the word Death tattooed vertically to the right of the head. The whole was three inches square and positioned two inches or so below the elbow.
Skinhead nodded to Lefty, backing away and pulling a Luger from the small of his back. He appeared to be the crew’s leader. Lefty removed the blindfolds. Seeing one gun in front and another behind, the Arabs stood motionless, waiting for a command before daring to move.
“Raise your shirts and look at your waists,” Skinhead told them. They complied, turning almost as white as Simmons when they saw their situation.
“Relax! If you do as you’re told, you’ll be fucking your wives tonight. Get clever and they’ll be trying to stick the two halves of your bodies back together. Tuck your shirts in and comb your hair.”
He stuck a comb between the teeth of one of the men to hold. It took the two a moment to work out effective maneuvers with one hand cuffed. Then one relaxed his wrist, letting it follow the other’s hand movements until his partner’s shirt was neatly in and his hair combed, then tucked in his own, while the other relaxed his hand. It might have been comical to watch under different circumstances, but not now. Hell, Simmons was thinking, he could have a bullet in the back of his head at any moment. The fact they held him in reserve at the Hickory instead of taking him inside to suffer the fate of whoever’s blood Skinhead was tracking around the garage suggested they had a role for him. Precisely what, he wasn’t certain, but it would in some way facilitate their entry onto Ft. Benning.
The crew left Potts chained to the tree as the giant Indian pulled Simmons’s car alongside the Milk Truck. He shut off the engine and removed the key. His black hair pulled into a pony tail at the back made him look like a drug dealer, though he surmised this man was something else. Huge, his hard face pitted from wanton pimple-popping during adolescence, he reminded Simmons of a painting he’d seen of a fierce Indian Chief. He looked like Geronimo, or one of the other hostiles that gave the U.S. Army fits during the westward expansion. This “Chief” probably held a grudge as big as Geronimo’s toward the U.S. Army. What must he think of a colonel, a figurehead that symbolized Wounded Knee, an embodiment of all he most hated about the White man? His spine tingled as he considered the possibility of a one-on-one encounter with Custer’s fate, especially when he saw the knife in the Chief’s belt sheath. The handle was a section of polished deer antler six or seven inches in length, with a blade half again as long, and probably sharp enough to cut his throat like butter if that mighty arm took a swipe. Was that what happened to whoever was inside the house, whose blood Skinhead traipsed through before tracking up the garage? He cringed at the thought.
The Chief opened the rear doors of the car, walked to the Arabs, grabbed the cuffs with his big hand, and half-walked, half-dragged them. They followed like frightened sheep.
“Inside,” the Chief grunted, his voice as deep and harsh as the lines on his face. Simmons suspected the men would have run into the seat if they could. The Chief–-the terror he inspired--had them totally under control.
“Stand up!” Skinhead said to Simmons, removing the cuff from the chair. He rose, knowing the routine and pulled his own shirt out, holding it high. Skinhead seemed pleased by the gesture.
“You’ll be cut loose this afternoon if you keep your nose clean, Colonel. We’re not after you. You’re just a cog in a big wheel. Sorry for the belt, but we know we can trust you with it on.”
Simmons became stoic as the explosive belt was affixed around his waist, but as soon as he heard the buckle trigger snap shut, an irresistible sick feeling welled up in the bottom of his stomach, growing stronger as he pondered what the plan must be. Every man has something he most fears having to confront, something that induces mortal terror in his soul. It could fear of drowning, the thought of having a tube shoved up his nose and down into his stomach. For another, the prospect of burning to death. For him, an explosive collar definitely headed the list of horrors. When Skinhead flipped the switch on the device and a tiny, green LED began to flash, Simmons’ courageous stoicism vanished and a preoccupying terror set in. He tucked in his shirt.
After closing the free cuff over his other wrist, the Chief took him by the arm. Simmons walked briskly to the car of his own accord. Still, the Chief pushed him roughly into the driver’s side and closed the door. Lefty appeared with Potts, leading him back to the Milk Truck. He shouted at Potts to sit in the driver’s seat before he walked around to the passenger side still waving his Luger. A brief glimpse of Potts’ face revealed relief that he hadn’t been taken behind the garage and shot. It was also devoid of any plans for heroism. He was along for the ride, whatever it was.
Skinhead sat beside Simmons and inserted the key into the ignition. He held a switch in one hand and his Luger in the other. After pouring gasoline along the walls, the Chief flipped off the garage light, pulled down the door, and unwound a coil of fuse. After lighting it, he climbed into an innocuous Caprice, starting it. He left the passenger door open.
From the time they first pulled the gun on Potts until the three vehicles were ready to leave was less than thirty minutes.
“Damn, they’re good!” Simmons thought. The cognition left him even more nauseated.
“Here’s the plan, Boys,” Skinhead explained to the Arabs, “The colonel here will drive ahead of the Milk truck with you in the back seat. He’ll drive very slowly with the dome light on as you pass the Gate, so the guard can see you clearly. When you stop, Colonel, you’ll tell the guard these fellows are on official business from Afghanistan.”
“So that’s what they are, Afghans.” Simmons knew he would need to remember accurately every detail if he managed to survive.
“Okay,” he said to Skinhead, “Then what?”
“You’ll drive to the Officer’s Residential area and park next to the playground. I’ll be inside the Milk truck behind the Driver. If you fail to follow my instructions, they’ll be stuffing the upper and lower halves of your bodies into plastic bags, because I’ll push this DETONATE button. That’s all it takes. You two face the guard and smile as he waves at the Colonel. I’d better see your heads turned, looking at him too, or I push. Got it?”
Three nods indicated they all did. Skinhead removed the cuffs from the Afghans and from Simmons.
“When the truck starts, lead the way to the base, Colonel. Turn off anywhere along the way and they’ll find six body halves in a burned-out military vehicle. It won’t be pleasant.”
Simmons knew he wasn’t kidding. If the operation wasn’t a success, there would be no one left alive to report its failure. His mind raced as he tried to suppress the overwhelming nausea. He felt about to throw up. Throughout his career, he’d been in dangerous situations, but always in command, in control. From the moment of his kidnapping this morning, he’d witnessed tactics he taught others how to respond to. Now, all of his experience seemed like just so much bullshit. When you found yourself in a situation where your dignity, your control, and your self-will have been taken from you, all the pretentious theories and training go out the window. Your body and emotions refuse to cooperate. You feel weak, helpless, not like the powerful man you believed you were. The instant the green LED on his explosive collar began to flash, a sense of doom grew exponentially. It was difficult to be circumspect. Not knowing his captors made it more maddening.
Potts had cranked up his Milk truck, so Simmons turned the ignition and the caravan moved slowly onto the street, Simmons leading, Potts following, with the Chief and Lefty hanging half a block back in the Chevy.
“I’ll be back here with the load.” Skinhead advised Potts. “You do anything weird or let on anything’s unusual and I’ll splatter your brains all over the guard’s face. You got that?”
“Yes, Sir, no probl’m, Sir. I’ll be actin like nothin’s wrong at all.”
“Basturds,” he thought. “I’d be pushin’ his ‘lectric drill into his forehead if’n I could, for sure.”
Corporal Jones saw the Colonel approaching, with Potts right behind. He saluted Simmons as he stopped, lowering the window.
“I’ve got a couple of officials from Afghanistan with me and I’m in a hurry, Corporal,” he said, with an authoritative smile.
“Go right ahead, Sir!” Jones said. He’d waved him on hundreds of times, with and without guests. He peered into the back as the colonel passed and saw two smiling faces.
“Gee, those guys are really friendly,” he muttered . . . “must be an Afghan thing.”
He had little time to reflect upon their nationality as Potts came rolling up. Potts had a big smile too, even bigger than most mornings.
“Everyone’s so happy this morning. It’ll be light soon. Got anything cold for me, Potts?”
Potts nodded, still grinning, stopped the truck and stepped into the back.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Skinhead demanded in a whispered voice, very upset.
Potts raised a quart of buttermilk from one of the cases left in the front of the truck to hide the big crate, holding it up for him to see.
“An ever’day thing,” he whispered, stepping back out.
Skinhead held his Luger at the ready as Corporal Jones stepped up to the door of the truck to take the carton from Potts.
“This is well-chilled. Thanks, Potts.”
“Anythin’ for a Brother,” he answered, letting the clutch out slowly. As the truck began moving forward, the corporal stepped back and took a heavy draw on the carton.
“This is good, Potts!” He called out, failing to notice the Chief and Lefty in a car that had quietly advanced and now stood only a few hundred yards away, headlights off. They had eased up while he was preoccupied with the Colonel and Potts, weapons in their laps in the event anything went wrong.
Simmons parked next to the playground as instructed, hoping someone would see the vehicles and take note of their movements, but there wasn’t a single light on that he could see. The truck parked, Skinhead directed Potts into the back. Watching, Simmons wondered what he intended to do to him. As soon as Skinhead was out of sight, he jerked the left tail of his shirt out of his belt and examined the detonator. He turned it in his hand repeatedly flipping the switch off, but the LED remained lit!
“It’s a one-way trip switch and can’t be turned off. So much for being set free later if I ‘keep my nose clean!’”
Trying desperately to disconnect it so he could strangle that zealot with his own explosive collar, he was unable to dislodge it after several desperate, fruitless jerks. He saw Skinhead approaching and quickly stuffed the tail back in, trying not to move his torso. The Milk Truck’s engine and lights were off. Potts wasn’t with him.
“Get this thing moving! Drive back out the gate without slowing or stopping!”
Skinhead now held two trigger switches. The new one looked much more sophisticated. He entered a five-digit code and pressed a small, red button, holding it down for a few seconds. After a yellow LED began flashing intermittently, he put it into his shirt pocket.
Alarmed at the concern on Skinhead’s face and sensing imminent danger, Simmons drove faster than normal, slowing only when he noticed an MP Jeep turning from the side street ahead. They saluted as he passed, but this time, he didn’t smile or return the salute. Looking nervously in the rear-view mirror, Skinhead hadn’t noticed. The MP’s slowed and came to a halt, then turned around.
“Damn,” Simmons thought, “Can’t we get a single break? Now they won’t notice Potts’ truck. This operation is going down, whatever it is.”
After driving back out the gate, returning the salute of a puzzled Corporal Jones who only moments before had waved him on, Skinhead directed him to continue straight ahead.
“Why didn’t they leave the Afghans? I don’t get it. What’s their purpose?”
They passed Lefty and the Chief around a curve. Skinhead ordered him to stop and Simmons pulled to the side of the road. The sky was beginning to brighten. Skinhead lowered the window, then stepped out of the car and closed the door.
“Keep your headlights on and drive straight ahead. We’ll follow and blink our lights when we want you to pull over so I can remove the belts.”
“Why not remove them now?” Simmons pressed.
“Come on, Colonel, you know better than that. After we’ve reached a safe distance and you don’t have time to return to the base, then I take my belts back.”
Walking away, he rejoined his confederates as the Chief stepped out, opening the door for him. Skinhead was the boss all right. Simmons sped away, driving the speed limit. But his mind now turned exclusively to understanding the plot and how to disengage the explosive devices.
“Who are you fellows?” He asked, glancing back at the two Afghans and for the first time free to speak to them.
“Ahmed Abdelal,” the older one answered, reaching forward to shake his hand, “this is my brother-in-law, Caliph.” Simmons discerned Caliph as the fearful, effeminate one that seemed most afraid of the crew.
“You’re from Afghanistan?”
“No. We’re both Iranians.”
“Interesting; why did the crew want the Sentry to think you were Afghans.”
“We don’t know. My wife Dinah and I live at the Skyline Motel. We operate it. Caliph and her younger sister were married recently. They moved in with us after their honeymoon until they could find a place of their own.”
“How did you become involved in this thing?”
“Those three somehow got into the motel office about four this morning and burst into our apartment. Two of them had guns and the really enormous Indian man had that big knife. They gagged us. We couldn’t yell out. Then he tied us to chairs in the bedroom and made us watch while the other two raped our wives. Then, they made our poor wives suck them till they were hard again and switched, each raping the other one. It was horrible.”
“After the big Indian tied my hands behind the chair back,” Caliph said, looking down as though ashamed, “he pulled out his thing and told me to suck it. I just couldn’t, so he started slapping me each time I refused. Finally, he got really mad, untied me and threw me down on the floor, pulled my pants down and raped me from behind, while the other two were raping our wives the second time.” Simmons’ heart went out to him.
“He said, I reminded him of the ‘wife’ he ‘had in the joint’.” Caliph looked pitiful.
“They kept saying they would slit our throats if anyone resisted.” Ahmed said. “After they finished with our wives, they took off all of our gags and told them Caliph and I had to go with them for a few hours, that if they called anyone or did anything foolish, they would kill us, then kill them. We all believed they would, so we agreed to cooperate.”
“I’m sorry about the rapes, fellows. I can’t imagine anything more degrading or humiliating, especially to newlyweds. These men are deviants. So . . . they kidnapped you. Had you ever seen them before?”
“Yes, they checked into the motel late last evening and rented two rooms.”
“After the rapes, they drove you to that house?”
“Yes, to that house. It isn’t their house. They just kept us inside until you showed up and the Milk Truck came for delivery.”
“How do you know it’s not their house?”
“Because when we first arrived, they took us inside. There’s a dead man about seventy or eighty years old on the kitchen floor. His head was lying a foot from his body. They said if we failed to cooperate, that’s what would happen to us. We assume that big Indian did it. He’s completely mad. We’re terrified of him.”
“Yet he seems to venerate the Skinhead.” Simmons observed.
“Do you think they intend to let us go?” Caliph asked.
“Not a chance, guys! Sorry. They just don’t want our bodies found close to the base. They probably don’t want them found at all. I’m certain the Milk truck is set to blow. I don’t know what they put in there, but it’s very large. I just hope to God it’s not a nuclear device. It’s large enough.”
“What about the Black man?”
“They either killed him, or bound and gagged him and left him there. Either way, I doubt he’ll be in one piece much longer.”
“If you don’t think they’ll free us, what should we do?” Ahmed asked after they had driven a while. “We can’t get these things off of our waists. Are we just going to die. Is there nothing we can do?”
“I have a plan. These detonators probably won’t respond to a signal if they’re underwater. There’s a pond on the right about a mile from here. When we reach that point, I’m running this car off the road and into the water. Be ready to jump out as soon as the car reaches the edge and get those belts under the water fast! It’s our only chance. If they set off the plastic, we’re history and so is my vehicle. The authorities might even think we set the bomb on the base and were killed by some carelessness of our own while trying to escape. I don’t want anyone thinking I blew up my own base and then myself. The planning for their mission is so precise, if we die, there won’t be a single clue about what happened here, no corpus delicti”
“I can’t swim.” Caliph confessed.
“Then jump just as we reach the water’s edge. The sides slope toward the middle, so it won’t be deep enough to drown. Just get that belt detonator underwater quickly!”
Skinhead and his confederates were now gaining on Simmons, suggesting that they were about to pull them over and re-cuff them. Simmons could see the plan: They would drive them to a remote location. Once there, the Chief would cut their throats just as he had cut off the head of the old man lying in his own blood on the kitchen floor of the farm house. He had no regard for life, only for their cause, whatever that was. He speeded up, his hands trembling as they began blinking their lights and drawing near, signaling for him to stop. The pond was still a quarter-mile ahead. In desperation, he floored the accelerator. Ahmed and Caliph began muttering in their native language. He knew it was no paean they were chanting; they were praying for their lives! He wished he had someone to pray to. He hadn’t darkened a church door in twenty-five years. He wasn’t even certain being underwater would short out the devices or that if the electronic trigger became wet, it wouldn’t short the other way and detonate. He did know Skinhead might push the button any second, though, and he knew that if he were someone else, he wouldn’t bet a wood nickel on their lives. He saw the pond coming up and tried to assess the degree of force required to break through the chain-link fence and still reach the edge, so nauseated from facing virtually certain death, he couldn’t perform the necessary mental calculations. A bazodee fog eclipsed his thoughts. He was losing it. Deciding nothing really mattered but getting under that water, he stomped the pedal to the floor and veered hard to the right, lurching off the asphalt and careening down the slope. He hoped the element of surprise would cause Skinhead to delay pressing the button. If he thought it was an accident and happening so quickly, he might not realize the connection between the water and the devices. There was too much traffic now for the crew to hang around.
“Whoa, what’s happening with their car?” Lefty shouted, as Simmons’s vehicle lurched off the road bank, downslope through the fence, and skidded sideways.
“Damn, they’ve had a blowout; They’re going to roll!” The Chief exclaimed.
Skinhead hesitated, momentarily distracted. If he detonated now, it might draw unnecessary attention. They could end up drowning anyway.
“Yep, they’re rolling!” Lefty shouted.
Simmons’ bumper snagged one of the fence poles and combined with the muddy ground in the depression, caused the car to flip onto its side. It slid into the water at high speed, coming to an abrupt halt about twenty feet or so in, where the resistance of the displaced water overcame the momentum. It fell over onto its top upside down and disappeared from sight . . .
“Shit, they’re drowning! Let’s just get the hell out of here!” Lefty shouted again. Bypassing cars were pulling off the road from both directions to render assistance.
“Wait!” Skinhead said, “The belts! We have to blow them. If one of them were to survive, they’d give up our cover. We can’t allow the belts to be found intact.”
He pressed the “DETONATE” button.
The explosion threw glass, metal, mud, and water in all directions, including body fragments. The trio rushed away without looking back to increase their distance.
“That explosion wasn’t as powerful as it should have been.” Skinhead said. “One or two of the collars didn’t blow. They must have gotten wet.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just one was more than sufficient to tear them up,” the Chief exclaimed.“Keep moving. We have two minutes, thirteen seconds.”
A couple of miles farther, they heard the Milk Truck detonate in a horrific blast, throwing an enormous cloud of smoke, dust, and debris high into the sky.
“Damn, what a spectacle!” Lefty shouted.
They pulled to the side of the road, jumped from the car and watched as the cloud began to spread downwind, carrying death with it.
“That Milk Truck driver’s blown to bits!” Lefty laughed aloud.
“You’re a racist son-of-a-bitch, you know that?” The Chief scorned.“This wasn’t about him.”
“No, but it was still a helluva ride to the other side!”