Pet Potato

The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery continues –

“No white smoke,” I mused aloud, more for myself than Tavius.

“Smoke?” Tavius grunted, his eyes narrowed. “I asked did you have a helicopter plan, not–”

I dropped to my knees, pulled Tavius with me, pushed him over on his back. He growled something unintelligible, growled louder when I lifted his shoulder, drug his arm underneath. I tossed the weapons away down past our feet like we’d dropped them, stretched out, kept a leg bent at an angle that killed my knee. The helicopter was a mile or more off, traveling in a straight line east, sounded like they were following the road, low and slow. Recon and Target Acquisition mode.

“This is your plan, Paro? We get uncomfortable and wait for them to come kill us?”

“The plan is we’re dead. The more uncomfortable you look, the deader you look. And the ground is hotter than we are. A domestic crew running a company checklist that can’t make us with thermal imaging or movement will call us dead if we look dead. They might try to get us to jump. Part of the process. If they put anything down, I don’t care how close, don’t fucking move.”  I stared at the sky, remembered when I’d played dead in the blistering sand. Turned out what I thought would be the last sounds I’d ever hear was the ground squad and two snipers I’d cut loose from the Taliban.

Saw you eject, Hot Dog. Kinda low. Laughter. They try to send you a bill for the Hog, you tell ‘em send it to us.

The helicopter passed us, west to east, still a mile north, running the route of County Road N had it not hooked a hard right turn. They turned, headed our way running County Road O, the way Tavius and the pair of biker mercenaries had come. The chopper flew directly overhead, no more than fifteen feet off the ground. The twin-jet roar punished us, the rotor wash flattened the sorghum. The sorghum bounced back up when the chopper moved, hovered over the road roller, or maybe the blast site. I heard the tail rotor spin away and knew they faced us. We had their full attention, checking our thermal imprints, looking for movement. After a forever minute they gained altitude, drifted back north. The unmistakable hammer on an anvil sound of their 30mm cannon spitting out a dozen rounds rattled through the empty countryside, followed by half the rounds hitting nothing but dirt, then the Whoomppfff  that told me either Rip’s pickup or my Cub were no more. It was all I could do to stay down.

They washed over us again with more altitude, hammered out another dozen rounds within yards of us, waited for us to rise from the dead and run. We disappointed them. They continued to hover until, after enough delay to get further instruction, they flew off east, then north. Not so far that they were no longer part of the near-zero audio landscape, far enough that we were out of range.

“Smoke?” Tavius groaned.

“Yeah.” I’d had the epiphany. “Listen. The van went up. No white smoke. No white smoke, no dynamite. The dynamite yesterday wasn’t Usman. It wasn’t anyone inside.”

“Send him a card. Why’d the helicopter leave us alone?”

“Because we’re dead.” I stood up. “And not left completely alone. That was my plane just went up.”

“Your partners?”

“Too close to a gas well or they passed noncombatant scrutiny.”

“What they need an Apache for?”

They? That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you. ‘They’ is you.”

“Now you’re fuckin’ with me just to be an asshole. My job, day one till now, is make sure you keep cooperating with Moreno. Hack your phones and your radio, follow you around, keep you both alive long enough to do whatever she’s supposed to do. I’m more’n half glad that goddam plane’s gone so I don’t have to listen to my handler bitch and call fool on me when you take off somewhere unannounced or she disappears. Nothing in my resource book about attack helicopters.”

“Your handler tell you about layin’ in a sorghum patch with a hole in your leg? How they set you up with a line of shit about the chiropractor and some rentabikers?”

Fuck no. Why would inside–”

“Lie to you, get you shot? Send an Apache to make sure you were gone or finish you,  blow up my plane and send pictures of all that shit home? Somebody up the food chain says lie to you, they lie to you.”

“You sayin’ the chiro’s not comin’?”

“Never was. You think that little shit and some armed bar rats rate an unmarked Apache?”

“Then who the—”

“Us, maybe.” I reached out, grabbed the M32 grenade launcher I’d tossed away. “More likely Ng’s posse.”

“Nobody but you’s said anything to me about Ng bein’ in this anywhere.” He eyed the grenade launcher. “What you plan on doin’ with that?”

“I plan to get even.” The Apache was on its way back, hammering out cannon rounds well over a mile away. I checked the M32, brushed it off.

Tavius rolled on his side. “You forget I been shot?”

The Apache swung down in a steep swing a quarter-mile away, faced away from us toward a slight rise in the road, hovered ten feet off the ground.

“They’re set up down there to close out whoever’s stupid enough to keep coming after the somos más badass deterrent strafe rounds we heard ‘em throw down a minute ago. They do their job,” I cradled the M32, “I’ll do mine.”

“Paro? You start talkin’ Spanish I get worried. What you mean ‘get even’?” I’d lowered to half squat, half standing, waded off through the Sorghum patch toward the helicopter. “What’d I ever do to you? Paro! Motherfucker, don’t you leave me here!”

***

Everybody’s a badass ‘till an Apache comes to town. I had a front-row seat to the Apache’s cannon making dog food out of a handful of pirates on motorcycles and a Ford custom van. Bodies and body parts flew from exploding motorcycles. The van collapsed in a ball of flames with the front end blown out from under it. Another round lit up the gas tank. The cannon hammering stopped, the Apache hovered, waited for any wounded to move, hammered out a few more rounds to be sure their mission kill score was a hundred percent. I knew the drill. The Apache would continue to hover, scanning the bodies for wounded to finish while one of the crew uploaded video, called in a cleanup crew, joked with com about how they’d smoked the ‘insurgents’. I fired two 40mm grenade rounds on top of each other into the tail rotor, didn’t wait to watch the gyro effect or the hard landing, but the power cut was obvious. Cocky assholes were about to find out Texas in the summer was a decent proving ground for wherever their next assignment landed them after losing an Apache to a supposed-to-be-dead man on a dirt road in the middle of domestic nowhere.

I jogged back, climbed up on the road roller, fired it up, shoved levers until it moved, crushed Tavius’s car. I shoved more levers, it reversed, pushed the concrete barriers aside the way a cowboy opens a saloon’s batwing doors. I dropped the key when I pulled it out trying to stop the thing. Never did manage to kill it. I grabbed the stainless Walther and clips on the way down, the roller ambled off through a field of high plains nothing at a quarter mile an hour.

Tavius had used the AR for a crutch to make it to the road. I pointed to the passenger seat of the Harley I’d started. He shook his head, loosened the tourniquet.

“I can ride.” He started the other Harley and made it to the pickup waiting in the road by my smoldering airplane.

“Somebody with a phone,” Dawson boomed, cop-like, while he helped me move Tavius to the back seat before Dawson took over the saddle. “Nearest hospital?”

“Shattuck. In Oklahoma,” Moreno said, phone in hand. “It’s–”

“Spent the night there one month,” Tavius shouted over the idling Harley, wrapped one arm around Dawson, pointed with the other. “Go.” The Harley roared off in the direction we’d come.

***

I sat in the open door of the pickup and chugged my second bottle of water. “Looks like the mail’s gonna be runnin’ late in Kerrigan today.”

Por qué? Are we not finished here?” Moreno, in my face, one hand on the door, one on the pillar. “You need last rites for your toy airplane?” She crossed herself. “Perhaps I should call a priest?”

“I need to think. Too many players, too much bullshit. The dynamite–”

“Think all you want, Paro, but not too much. Hora de ir a trabajar.” She let go of the truck, dropped her sunglasses on her nose, threw her left leg over the Harley I’d ridden, hit the starter and kicked dust all over Usman and me.

Usman rubbed his chin, consternation twisted his face. “What she say wit her barky bark words?”

“It’s time to go to work. Barky bark?” I fished another water out of the chest on the floor of the Ram.

“Yah. She talk dat shit, sound like dinky yap-yap dog I tink. Barky bark.” He tapped his fingers to his thumbs in a double hand puppet move to reinforce the yapping. “So what’s da what, Pilot? You shoot me now, leave me here?”

“You’re off the hook for the dynamite. Can’t kill you just because you’re not lovable.” I raised the truck bed cover, flipped cases open until I found the RPG. “We should have some fun before you drop me in Kerrigan.” I hefted the launcher. “You ever let one of these go?”

He shook his head no.

“It’s addictive.”

I drove us in closer to the grounded Apache, used a range finder scope to study the helicopter. Usman stood on the truck’s bed cover, wrestled with the launcher. I helped him get it stable on top of the cab before I unscrewed the detonator cover.

“Where dey now, Pilot?”

“Shufflin’ in the dust, workin’ on their story. Need ‘em to move away before you let that fly.”

Usman planted the RPG’s kick-up sight against his right eye. “Dey hear dis ting comin’, dey clear da fuck out.”

***

I’d told Usman he was free to do as he pleased after he dropped me in Kerrigan. He could abandon Rip’s truck somewhere after he knocked off a convenience store for some traveling cash or sell it to a chop shop or give it to some kid in the parking lot of an Arizona McDonalds. He looked sad when I hopped out on the edge of Kerrigan.

I took a few steps off the road, stopped, squatted on manicured grass in the shade of a giant pecan tree. I could smell fabric softener coming from the clothes hanging on a line a hundred feet to my left.

What a cluster. A relaxed morning, meet Woody and the biker mercenaries, let them blow themselves up with the van trap, pick off the stragglers. Forget that. With the entire crew now pissed off or dead, wounded or running off in different directions, no intel but what I could cobble together and no mission game plan in effect? I felt like the lone gunslinger in an old western movie where nothing moves but sweat. A lonely tumbleweed dances down an empty Main Street, bounces off a raised sidewalk, skips past shuttered storefronts, not a soul in sight.

I had an hour to wait for Moreno to deliver the mail at one o’clock. I don’t know what it is about tense situations that make you check your gun and your watch every two minutes, but it’s probably the same thing that made Michael Jackson grab his crotch a dozen times in a three-minute song. A need to make sure it’s still there, loaded, oiled, and ready when you need it. What I needed was some insight, some intel, some—

“Hey, Mister. You one a the helicopter people or a alien?”

Madre de Dios… I was so jumpy I almost shot her. Thirteen, fourteen, at most. Skinny legs in cutoffs almost to her knees. Worn, once-white Converses the size of snowshoes. A new, too big Metallica t-shirt with tour dates from the Seventies. No hat, dark bowl-cut hair. Darker eyes.

“Helicopter people?”

“The one parked over by the old bank. You hadn’t seen it?”

“I just got here.”

“Then you’re a alien.” Her eyes sparkled, lips tilted in an off-balance grin.

“I got here in a pickup.”

“Don’t matter.” The grin again. “What’s your name, Mister?”

“Paro. Comparo. You’re—”

“May. I shoulda been another April but Mom said April the Second was one April too many. We had a June already and since I was almost May she just rounded me up.” She held up three fingers. “April, May, an June.” The three fingers turned into an outstretched hand. We shook. “You some kind of Mexican, Mister Comparo?”

“Some kind.”

“Me, too.” She grinned straight up, showed some teeth. “Some kind. I ask, nobody can tell me exactly how much or when.”

“You worried about it?”

“No way.” She rubbed a copper arm. “I tan up good, turn Snow White in winter. Just curious is all.”

“Curious is good. Why’d you say I was an alien?”

“Ol’ Mathison, he ‘bout drove his truck through Miss Eggert’s house. Jumped out yellin’ ‘the world’s gettin’ blowed up east a town’.” She pulled a tin of Altoids from a pocket, offered. I held out my hand. She put one in the middle of my palm and pasted on that crooked grin again. “But Mathison finds any excuse he can to hit up Miss Eggert about aliens. Mom says it’s a wonder he gets anything done on his farm. June, my biggest big sister, she says he don’t have to work ‘cause he’s not farmin’ nothin’ but subsidies. I never ate one.” Her face devoid of emotion. “Have you?”

“Only when they’re in season.” I had to laugh. She joined me. “You seen anybody else around that doesn’t belong?”

“Like the NATO troops an the Chinese comin’ to take over? That’s who Flowers says made all that racket Mathison was goin’ on about. But Flowers, Mom says all that hair she hadn’t cut since 1970 an the stuff she used back then to bleach her brain, well… Flowers, she like had a pet potato for a couple years, went over to McDonalds in Shamrock one time to protest French Fries…” she gave me an are-you-getting-this look. “So she’s kinda, well, unreliable sometimes. But NATO, or Chinese, or it could be rainin’ sharks like on TV and Ol’ Mathison’d turn ‘em into aliens and drive up here ‘cause that’s Miss Eggert’s passion, aliens.”

“Whatta you think?”

“I think Flowers has forgotten all about NATO and the Chinese an is in her backyard dancin’ to invisible music, an Mathison is all about gettin’ himself some a Miss Eggert’s passion any way he can,” she snickered. “I don’t think you’re more helicopter people or the tattoo freak show that come in the big Cadillac looks like it’s from the mortuary. Or an alien, and you’re sure not a Chinese. Know what I really think?”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“You’re the reason the Sheriff told everybody to keep their heads down, go fishin’ or somethin’ but whatever, stay the heck away from the old bank today.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by

Phil Huston

https://philh52.wordpress.com/

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