Rope Burn – by Phil Huston
“What is it we’re doing again?” Kylie set a small traveling bag of tools in the back of Kirklin’s truck and climbed in the cab, made a face when the door wouldn’t close. She wasn’t sure about the truck. Definitely not sure about Kirklin.
“Cas has gone limping off the coast of France with Shona. Asked us to see if there’s truth yet to what Elise let on about two old rust buckets. The Juliette, and me.” He reached across her and banged the door closed. They rode in tense silence until well out of the forensic lab parking lot and gone rural.
“You don’t like me, do you, Kirklin?”
“Not on you, Doc.”
“I’m ‘too pushy’, act like ‘I know it all’. I get rebound from it, especially with men. Older men it’s worse. Except for Caswell. I think he has a daughter. I know he had a wife. I mean it’s okay, it’s just uncomfort –”
“It’s not ‘okay,’ and that’s your bloody problem.” Kirklin let go of the wheel, held it with his knee while he lit a cigarette. “You ‘think’ and you ‘know’ and it’s ‘okay.’ You don’t think, and you don’t know, and it’s not ‘okay.’ Day’s end you’re an ill-affordable luxury.”
“I feel like I should object to that, somehow.”
He ashed his cigarette out the window, stared straight ahead. “You see something in a shop, eh? You like it. Maybe you’d wear it, or put it on the mantle or the wall, have it in your life. But the price? Nah. Not that you can’t afford it, but you won’t afford it. That’s you. And me and women.”
“We aren’t commodities we’re –”
Kirklin slammed on the old truck’s brakes and skidded onto a patch of gravel and mud by a farm gate, got in her face. “It’s not about you, or how women can do a man’s day. Four of us.” He held up a finger for each. “Cas. Elise. Orianna. Me. Playing at moneyed, disaffected ex-pats, dancing and drinking our way through what counted for civilized French Africa. Congo, Cameroon. Djibouti. Madagascar. Keeping watch on anointed weapons smugglers going off course for bigger money. Cas had a wife and baby at home, Elise was engaged, and there they were, thrown at each other, doing too good a job of it Cas’s wife would say. Ori and I were older and single and lived the part. We danced, we drank, we sweated and moaned and improvised bullshit for all listening. And bugged offices, phones, cars, cafes, hotels, shit shacks and shipping containers everywhere we went. Communication was pathetic when it wasn’t nonexistent. After six months, we’d become the intelligence mushrooms who’d danced our way into the crosshairs of the money typhoon. Our bloody handler, Richard Dunning, he knew well enough. We didn’t.”
He flipped his black cigarette butt past her head and out the window. Got closer his voice lowered into reverence.
“Cas saw the Jeep come ‘round a corner with small arms opened up and returned fire, no time to shout us down. We all sorted cover and returned fire, except Orianna. She stepped into the street, emptied a clip through the windshield. Killed the driver, confused the shooter long enough for Cas or Elise to take him out. Shooter fell into the driver, the Jeep wheeled left and punched Orianna through a wall not two feet from me.”
That sat in the air between them for a long moment.
“Cas took a superficial round in the leg. Elise took one through-and-through between her neck and right shoulder. Inches one way she’s dead, the other she’s lost an arm. Why? Because she raised up as well when Ori stepped off that curb. All down to me. I’d jammed after one round and hugged the ground. A good woman killed and another shot, saving my ass. Doing my job. Orianna was one who ‘thought’ and ‘knew’ and all was ‘okay’ and she died not knowing I worshiped the ground her shadow crossed. As a professional and a woman. You are an ill-affordable luxury, Doctor LeClare. All of you self-assured, think you’re indestructible, knowing all and all’s okay types. Tolerance, not ‘like’, is how I work with women. I won’t afford else.” He sat back, jammed the old truck into gear and threw gravel and mud at some cows that had gotten curious.
“The least you can do is tell me what we’re looking for.”
“Anything not right, Doc.” Kirklin ran his fingers down the inside of the Juliette’s hull.
They both heard the series of clicks echo off the steel-walled silence behind them. Kylie turned, started back, Kirklin grabbed her jacket and yanked her behind him. He swept up sand and dust, tossed it back in the direction they’d come. They both saw the thin line of broken green light at ankle level.
“Nice of them to let us in. How far is it to where sand turned glass?”
“We’re halfway. We –”
“Shit.” Kirklin searched the iron rungs going up to his right, grabbed a fistful of Kylie’s jacket again and hissed. “Do. Not. Move. Don’t think. Don’t know. Breathe and wait for instructions.”
He swept dust and sand into his hand again, reached up as far as he could, let it go over eight rungs, stepped up and repeated the process. Two more times and he motioned for Kylie to follow.
Thirty feet higher and twenty minutes later, covered in dust and sand, they sat side by side on a small landing below the open hatch to the deck. Kylie blew out a deep breath, let her shoulders drop. “What was that down there?”
“Pressure devices, armed by the photocell. We only heard them arm because we were to be further in and me chatting you up, not us looking for their handy work. Too much mess to be explosive. Chlorine or a hydrochloride gas, my thinking. They couldn’t leave that for an accidental tourist, someone had to activate the cell to trip the detonators.”
“Couldn’t we have run past whatever they were? Or around them?”
“Like a movie, all of them firing off behind us as we’re such agile gazelles? Not likely. Pull up the camera.” He waited until she had the app open, reached in his jacket pocket, clicked something and killed the Juliette’s video stream.
She immediately got a text alert, and stared dumbly at her blank phone. “Now what?”
“We wait. They’ll be along soon enough to see why the camera’s gone off and we haven’t shown ourselves.” He looked at her, still staring at her blank phone. “How’d you get our camera up so high?”
“From rock climbing.”
“Best news of the day, that.”
It took seven minutes for the two-man watch crew to start making noise below. Kirklin pulled his Walther and put two rounds down the bulkhead stairwell he and Kylie had come up, the shots angled to ricochet around like billiard balls.
“We’re armed, Kirklin,” echoed up the stairwell.
“Lovely. We’re streaming to Facebook,” Kirklin lied. “One of you, up the hole with a decent rope. I don’t like what I see, there’ll be a hole in the top of your head and I’ll be down with another for whoever’s still about.”
Kirklin tied the Navy man to a cleat, tied the remaining rope off to another. He gave Kylie his Walther, took the sailor’s Glock 17 and cut two big pieces out of the sailor’s ripstop jacket.
“I go down, you stream it to Caswell’s cloud. All’s well, you take youngster’s gloves and follow me. If not?” He nodded at the sailor, “Shoot him. And the one pops his head up out of the hole as well.” He grabbed the rope with the rip-stop rags wrapping his hands and dropped over the side of the Juliette.
Four of the longest minutes of Kylie’s life went by in silence while Kirklin slowly rappelled down. The bound sailor, a young, rugged, handsome-ish type, studied her with curiosity and malice. On the surface he looked the kind of lad who, if he’d had manners enough, she’d easily have gone Moor hiking or rock climbing with on a Saturday, and possibly the two of them would spend Sunday “recovering” together.
She watched Kirklin crack the other uniformed man’s head with the Glock and motion for her through the screen on her phone. The borrowed gloves were smoking when she landed.
Kirklin held the key fob out the window of the truck, just as he had with Caswell, and both their phones came alive with the Juliette’s camera. He tossed the fob into the door-less glove box on top of both sailor’s handguns, lit a black cigarette and let the smoke drift for a moment.
“You’ll run the weapons for Caswell immediately and upload the data, as they’ll find legs out of your lab before tomorrow’s sunrise.” He bumped her lightly on the shoulder with his elbow. “We wanted to see what they’d put up. Found out, eh? Thought you’d break a leg, landing. Your lad had something to say, did he, you two alone?”
“No. He stared at me like he didn’t believe I’d know how to shoot him until I chambered your old Walther. I…I want to apologize. Or something. That’s twice, had I gone my way I’d not have come back.”
“No need.” He glanced at her, pensive and wrapped inside herself. “I said I wouldn’t afford to like you. Naught about having you killed in my company. Naval Intelligence.” There was humor in his voice Kylie hadn’t heard before. “Oxymoron, that. All told I’ll sleep better knowing the Empire’s well-guarded by the likes of those two.”
“I won’t.” Kylie stared out the window at the fog creeping inland on her side, thought about having to shoot the handsome-ish sailor and not being able to. Saw him dragging her blistered, dead body out of the Juliette like it was all in a day’s work instead, and vomited out the window.
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