As the train slowed to a stop at Chihuahua Station it was besieged by hordes of food and soft drink vendors. The din of hawking and haggling and the jostling as passengers crowded to the train windows had wakened Charles, but he made a presence of sleeping, slumped in the seat with his straw sombrero over his eyes. The wooden slats of the seat gouged into his back, as they had the whole trip from Topolobampo. He watched the sunbeams peeping through his sombrero and concentrated on slowing his breathing as the Mexican customs and immigration officials approached.
"Señor." A hand tapped his arm. He straightened up and slowly raised the brim of his grimy hat, yawned, and rubbed his eyes which were ringed by layers of desert dust that had blown in through the open train windows.
"Documentos, por favor," said the official.
"Sí, Señor." Sleepily, Charles rummaged through the pockets of his soiled shirt, discovering as if by chance his forged tourist card. Is this what you want, Señor?" He laid on a thick American accent.
The official took the document without replying and his nose twitched with disgust as he scrutinized the issue date and the personal identification features. Charles had 'aged' the forgery by putting it inside his boot and later, adding a dash of cheap mescal to enhance the aroma. The official surveyed him with a glare of disapproval and looked as if he were going to vomit.
Charles looked back at him and yawned. "Excuse me."
Are you returning to the United States?"
"Then I must take your tourist card."
"I have enjoyed my stay in Mexico, Señor."
Yes, I'm sure you have." The official shook his head and moved down the aisle of the third class coach.
Charles turned his sigh of relief into a profound yawn and stretched to satisfaction.
"Señor, do you want tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, something to drink?"
He saw a little Indian girl on the platform, looking up at him with expectant brown eyes. She struggled with the weight of two great baskets, one loaded with food under a once white cloth and the other clinking with soft drink bottles.
"Yes, I'm pretty hungry. Let's see what you've got."
She raised the cloth as if unveiling a sculpture.
"Hmm, I like the looks of the enchiladas. What's in them?"
"Onions, chiles and chicken, Señor."
She gave him an appraising look. All blue-eyed people had lots of money. That's what her mother always told her."Two pesos each, Señor." She shuffled her bare feet among the banana peels and corn husks that littered the station platform.
He laughed. "What do you take me for, chica, a crazy gringo tourist?"
"Oh no, Señor, but these are very good enchiladas."
"Maybe, but they are very small. I'll give you fifty centavos each."
"One peso, Señor."
"Okay, fifty centavos."
"You speak English very well." She giggled and looked coy.
"Give me ten enchiladas and two bottles of orange soda." He gave her the money through the train window and received his purchase wrapped in coarse brown paper. Since he had no table, he spread the paper out upon the train seat and devoured the enchiladas picnic fashion. They were very hot.
The air horn of the diesel locomotive excreted its unmelodious blat just as he finished the last bottle of soda. He handed the bottles down to the little girl as the train began to pull out of the station and waved goodbye to her. "Tell your mother I couldn't find any chicken in her chicken enchiladas. It must have run away."
The little girl waved back, hiding a broad smile with her other hand.
The train growled across the shimmering desert and arrived in Juárez late in the afternoon. After a good meal of steak, beans and cold Carta Blanca, Charles found a taxi to take him to the outskirts of the city.
"Do you know how to get to Juanita's whorehouse, Señor?"
The driver nodded enthusiastically. "Sí, Señor!"
"Okay, if you can get me there in less than half an hour I'll give you fifty pesos."
The driver opened the door. "Get in."
They sped away from the cab stand, narrowly avoiding collision with a Pemex truck, screeched around corners, paying no attention to traffic lights or policemen, skidded over streetcar tracks and leap-frogged over the spiderweb network of dirt roads which went off in every direction from the city. On these roads one found the thieves' market, the bordellos, the rendezvous of smugglers, the sites where illicit transactions of every kind imaginable and unimaginable, occurred.
"Juanita's is just ahead, Señor." The driver pointed with one hand and guided the lurching Chevy with the other. How he saw anything through the dusty windshield was a mystery.
"Perfect. You've made it with time to spare. I hope you have retro-rockets on this thing." Charles held on the door-frame to keep his head from being driven through the roof as the car bounced over the rough road.
The driver laughed and slammed on the brakes. They skidded up to the entrance of a nondescript adobe house in a choking dust cloud.
"When you want to come back, just tell Juanita." The driver opened the door for him and accepted the extra fifty pesos with his regular fare.
Charles waited until he had driven away, making a show of arranging his rucksack and tying his bootlaces. Hearing the bolt being drawn back on the door, he ran around the corner of the house, out of sight from the entrance, and headed off into the sagebrush.
"Nobody out here," said a woman with a piercing voice.
Charles heard the door slam as he walked back to the road. Removing the map from his rolled-up raincoat, he took his bearing. There was nothing special about Juanita's, except that it was close to the border. He went back into the brush and followed the road until he came to the international boundary fence, taking care that no one saw him.
The sun had begun to set, but there was ample light for him to observe the U.S. side with his binoculars for any signs of activity. He was at a point just over twenty miles out of Juárez. It was desert, with nothing but the smoke of El Paso's smelters to indicate the existence of a large city. He took a compass reading to make sure it was smoke from the smelters and not a brushfire, then arranged his pack for the hike.
When it was dark, he left his hiding place in the brush and advanced upon the fence, making a neat hole in the wire links with his cutters. Having enlarged it sufficiently, he put his pack through and followed it, squeezing through the gap which the wire grudgingly yielded. He pulled the gap closed and repaired it with a length of baling wire from his kit.
A startled bird flew overhead. He stopped working and listened, slowly scanning the darkened brush and cactus for the cause of the disturbance, but he saw only the full moon and heard only the gurgle of the shallow Rio Grande behind him.
There was quicksand in the Rio Grande. That's what everyone said. He waded into the muddy water, his belongings on his head, and tried to avoid splashing so as to evade the ears of any border patrolmen in the area. Reaching the other side, he walked in the coolness of the beautiful desert night, trailing a piece of sagebrush behind him to cover his tracks in the sand. The owls, coyotes and crickets gave him musical accompaniment, and the sage and yucca perfumed the air. He felt like whistling, but decided against it. Following a dry stream-bed, he reached a culvert and crossed under a highway, then made his way into the desert, away from signs of habitation.
At daybreak he was well across the border, but it was still unwise to travel by day, so he found cover beneath a rock out- crop. He ate some of the tortillas he had saved from his meal in Juárez and took a few sips of water from his canteen. Then he stretched out upon the cool stone slab and slept.
Around noon he woke up, ravenously hungry. He ate a few more tortillas, but he craved meat. Shrewdly he surveyed the rocky area where he had taken refuge. He cut a stout pole of brushwood and looped some baling wire at one end of it, arranging the loop so that it could be tightened by pulling on the free end of the wire.
In a shady crevice near his hiding place he found what he wanted, a big diamond back. He pried the angrily buzzing rattlesnake out of its den and placed the loop around it. After severing its head with his hunting knife, removing the entrails and skinning it, he built a small fire of dry sticks and roasted the clean white meat on a wooden skewer. With salt, the rattlesnake was delicious, roast chicken tasting no better. He ate his fill, leaving the remainder of the snake to dry in the blistering sun. Hearing the sound of a spotter plane, he crawled into his cool recess in the rocks. The fire was out and there had been little smoke. He listened to the crows calling from their perches on the saguaros and fell asleep.
That evening he heard voices. They were discussing him, or rather what to do with him before they stripped him of his valuables. "The gringo is asleep," whispered one called Juan.
"Then we must make sure he does not wake up," said Domingo.
The rock declivity acted like an ear trumpet, and Charles heard everything. He began to snore and rolled over so that his hand now rested upon his snub-nosed Colt. His assailants were just below him, on the point of ascending the gradual incline of the rock stratum. He heard their sandals as they dislodged the screes at the base of the outcrop. They were coming up. He was about to sit up and start shooting when he heard a weird groan from one of the men. It hardly sounded human.
"Cristo y los cantos!" exclaimed one.
"Diablos!" added the other.
In the bright moonlight they had happened upon the remains of the rattlesnake Charles had nearly finished. There was no doubt that the snake had been cooked and eaten.
"A warlock!" shouted Juan as he made his getaway.
"Saints preserve me from specters!" screamed Domingo, running after him.
Charles laughed long and loudly. After gathering his kit together, he began the night trek toward the lights of El Paso.
He trudged through the dilapidated entrance of the Hotel Fisher in the old part of town, his heavy boots clumping on the rickety wooden floor. The hotel was a relic of the cowboy era, boasting high ceilings covered with embossed sheet iron, all the rage in the eighteen-seventies, he thought, dropping his pack on the dusty floor.
He caught the eye of the desk clerk. "Evening. Nice place you've got here – electric lights, wall-to-wall floors. Any vacancies?"
"Gawd, another hippy!" exclaimed the desk clerk, who had been giving him a hard look from the time he came in the door. The wizened little man's beady eyes glared at him from beneath his green eyeshade.
"Hippy?" Charles looked around. "No, not me. I've just been out doing some prospecting."
"Sorry about that, I really am." But the clerk continued to survey him with suspicion. Prospectors had equally bad reputations.
"Got a room?''
"Oh, sure. Here you are. Just sign the register." He shoved a yellowed sheet of paper across the warped planks of the counter. Charles signed it 'W. Irving,' and gave his address as the Great Northern Hotel, Bodie, California. Bodie was a ghost town, which made things even more interesting for the clerk as he studied the information.
"Ah, do you have some identification, Mr. Irving? Police requirement, you know." He snapped his metal sleeve garters of officiously.
"Sure." Charles took out his forged California driver's license and showed it to the clerk.
"Sorry, but things are getting tight these days. Used to have lots of the locals, businessmen mostly, comin' in with floozies. Now that they have to give their real names, they take all their business to Juárez. It's a cryin' shame. That's why we got rooms vacant. Take your pick."
"Where can I get a bath?"
"End of the hall. You'll find soap and towels in your room. Payment in advance." The clerk held out his hand.
"Right." Charles counted out the money carefully to make sure he didn't encumber the hotelier with an over-payment.
The bathtub had long since lost its enamel and needed cleaning. He found some laundry soap and filled the tub, which he cleaned as he washed his socks, shirt and underwear. After thoroughly rinsing and wringing out his clothes, he filled the tub and got in, luxuriating in the hot water. The towel was slightly shredded, but served to dry off with. Clad in his trousers and boots, he went back to his room and hung out his laundry on the cold steam radiator under the open window.
He looked out at the bustling street below, thronging with sellers and purchasers of contraband, arms and gold, and listened to the noises of the traffic and the pigeons cooing on the ledge below the window. Before he went to bed, he cleaned his revolver and laid it on the nightstand beside him. He lay in bed for some time with the light off, watching the threadbare curtains billowing in the desert breeze, the neon lights in the street turning them into gossamers of brilliant pastel.
He got up late the next morning, shaved and went across the street to the Chinese restaurant where he had breakfast. The egg foo yong and beer were just right, and he felt completely restored. Leaving the restaurant, he went down the street to look for a suit, something more conservative than the Italian pimp outfits then in fashion.
He came out of the shop wearing a charcoal grey, single- breasted suit, a new pair of shoes, new shirt and tie, the complete ensemble making him look like a young banker who might have owned the bank. It was certain he would not be mistaken for a seller of used cars or insurance. This was soon to be to his advantage. Outside the clothing shop he found himself in a large crowd. Both sides of the street were lined with people.
"What's up?" he asked a man who looked like a rancher.
The man looked at him, shifted his chewing tobacco to one side of his mouth, and spat. "'Merican Legion parade today."
He heard a blare of trumpets, and saw a local high school band come up the street, led by shapely drum majorettes. The girls were all blondes and drew whistles and obscene comments from the largely Mexican crowd. Following the band came the walking wounded of the American Legion, paunches, gray-heads and double-chins at the ready. The crowd grew hostile, and Charles made out what they had begun to chant: "Muerte a los gringos y la tierra para nosotros."
"So that's how it is." he thought. "'Death to the gringos and land for us.'"
The hatred of the crowd was palpable. He could feel it radiating in all directions. Carefully, he began to edge toward the wall of the building.
A homemade bomb went off, making a loud bang and raising a cloud of white smoke in the street. A policeman blew his whistle and sirens screamed. In no time the milling crowd was confined within the length of the block by an array of police cars and motorcycles. Charles cursed under his breath. He wasn't worried about bombs.
The police lines were too close. If he ran into a shop he would be seen and pursued. He picked the whitest policeman he could find.
"Excuse me, Officer, may I get through?"
The policeman looked him over. "Well, Sir, I'll have to check your package."
Charles undid the string and removed the cover of the box. "Just some old clothes I was taking to the Salvation Army."
"Sorry, Sir. Orders are to search everybody."
"What's going on, anyway? As you can see, I'm new in town."
"Tijerina's gang, the Brown Berets, up to their usual tricks. Okay, boys, let him through." The policeman waved him on.
On the way back to the hotel he bought a cheap suitcase to carry his kit in. He checked out of the Fisher and walked to the bus station.
"Oakland, California," he told the ticket clerk.
"There's one leaving right now. You can make it if you hurry. Door number eight."
"Thanks." He pushed his way through the crowd and found a queue that was disappearing through the doorway. After seeing 'Oakland' among the names over the lintel, he gave his ticket to the driver.
"Bus eleven oh four, right over there." The driver pointed to one of the blue-and-white monsters which growled in the smoke- filled den.
He entered the bus and wrinkled his nose at the familiar aroma of recirculated flatus which was chilled by the air conditioner to the temperature desired by the thermostat. He preferred the heat and dust of the open train windows to this, but now he was in the United States and consumption was mandatory in this consumers' paradise. The windows could not be opened in any case, other than dire emergency.
The bus was nearly filled, but there was a vacant seat at the front, next to a middle-aged man, wearing a tweedy-looking business suit.
Charles nodded to him. "This seat taken?"
"Nope, it's all yours." The man's friendly smile was somehow reassuring, and Charles felt more at ease. He was tired of being a target for special observation and ready antagonism. Now, perhaps, he was blending into his background. He placed his suitcase in the overhead baggage rack and sat down.
"Going a long way?"
"Oakland," said Charles, adjusting his backrest, "and you?"
"Well, looks like we'll be seeing a good deal of each other. My name's Irving, Bill Irving," said Charles, shaking hands.
"Dave Tucker. Glad to meet you."
The door closed, air brakes hissed, and the bus roared out of the station, leaving El Paso's skid row behind.
"You do much travelling by bus, Bill?"
"Not if I can help it."
"No, you don't look the type."
"Oh?" Charles felt the hair begin to rise on the back of his neck.
Tucker smiled. "I play a little detective game with myself, try to size people up, Let's see, I'd take you for a banker, young vice-president type. Am I right?"
"Sorry, you missed, but you're right on one count. My car broke down and I'm short of cash, so I'm going on by fartmobile."
"No credit cards?"
"Don't believe in 'em."
"Cash on the barrelhead, eh?"
"Usually. What line are you in?"
"Novelties. Got my own company." Tucker took a business card out of his breast pocket and handed it to him.
Charles studied the card. "Do you get around much on buses?"
"No, I'm like you. I try to avoid 'em, but my wife and I planned one of those 'see America' tours, and I couldn't go, so I'm using my ticket to do some business trips on. Never again, I can tell you!"
"Do you see much of your family?"
"No, but I got the greatest little wife and couple of kids you'd ever want to meet." He showed Charles some pictures.
"Umm, nice house."
"And it'll be all mine when it's paid for."
"When will that be?"
"Let's see ... Another fifteen years, I guess. You married, Bill?"
"No, can't afford it just now."
"It's the greatest thing going, marriage. You really should, you know."
"Why? So I can go into debt, wind up as a divorce statistic and raise a couple of strangers for a decadent society? You must be joking."
"Jesus, you're not a commie, are you?"
"No, just real conservative."
"What sort of work ya do, Bill?"
"I think you're pulling my leg." Tucker shook his head and looked out the tinted window, watching the desert flash by.
Suddenly, there was a muffled pop outside and the bus began to swerve from side to side, crossing the white lines. The driver was fighting the wheel, his teeth gritted with the effort of holding the huge vehicle on the road and avoiding collision with other traffic. "Blowout!" exclaimed Tucker.
Expertly, the driver regained control of the bus and slowed down, stopping on the shoulder of the highway.
"Sorry, folks," he said through the intercom, "we've just had some tire trouble. I'm afraid we'll be delayed for awhile until a relief bus comes along."
The passengers groaned, not realizing how lucky they were to be alive and uninjured.
"Good work," said Charles to the driver. "That was real Grand Prix stuff."
The driver leaned back in his seat and rubbed his shoulder. "Thanks. I don't mind telling you it had me worried for a moment."
"You get many blowouts?"
"Some. We shouldn't get any, but the company likes to retread 'em a few times too often, That's between you and me, you understand."
"The dirty crooks."
"It's all right for you to say that, but I've got a wife and kids to support. If I didn't, I could write a book ... Oh no!"
"There goes the air conditioner."
"That's all we need."
The driver opened the door and stepped out into the furnace heat of the desert. "I'll flag somebody down and get word to the next station. Enjoy the cool air while it lasts." He pushed the door shut behind him.
"Well, I'm for a walk around," said Charles.
Tucker looked glum. "Not me. Careful you don't fry yourself out there."
It was quite a while before the driver got someone to stop and take word to the next town. Charles hoped the financial reward promised was sufficient to insure co-operation. By this time the interior of the bus had become like a bake oven and the passengers began to file out to stand beside the road. Charles noticed a pretty young brunette who seemed extremely fatigued. She walked slowly off into the bush, her head nodding.
"Probably doesn't like the stink of that toilet on the bus," he thought.
For some reason, six strapping negroes, with stylish Afro hairdos, got the same urge for desert exploration and followed her. Ten minutes later he heard faint screams among the cactus.
"They're raping her!" screeched an elderly woman, who would have traded places with the girl if she had been able.
The passengers rushed off in the direction of the screams, led by the driver. They reached the girl and found one of the Afros on top of her, very much as they had imagined.
"Now, why don't you folks jest turn around and go back to the bus. Don't you know you is where you ain't wanted?" The black waved a forty-five caliber pistol at them in a good-natured manner, leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that he viewed the situation as quite unimportant, but would just as casually kill someone if pressed.
The passengers looked at the driver. "Look," he stammered, "I've got a wife and kids. You don't expect me to ..." Whatever they expected, it was not the driver's affair.
"Come on," said Charles. "You heard the man. Let's go back."
"Tha's what I calls a real smart boy. Go on, you folks do like he say." The other negroes laughed.
"Well, I never ... !" exclaimed the elderly woman. "And you call yourselves men."
"Listen lady, there's no contest. Let's go." Charles took her arm, but she shrugged him away. He grabbed her and forced her to come with him. "I don't know what your problem is, Ma'am, but you're only going to get someone killed, and I really don't fancy that."
"Yeah," said Tucker, "you don't see any James Bonds on this bus, do ya'?"
The girl moaned.
"And what if she were your daughter, or your wife?"
"I'd hope she was on the pill," said Charles, as he led her away, accompanied by the other passengers.
Back at the bus, the passengers spoke in low tones. Few of the men could look one another in the eye. The old woman was busy haranguing all who would listen and the bus driver was on the verge of tears.
Charles went over to him. "Listen, I know you can't do anything about it. Don't take it so hard. You did right,"
The driver was trembling. "It's a hell of a business, and on my bus, my bus!"
"They do seem to be taking their time. Look, you don't know anything, understand?" Charles gripped his arm and whispered into the driver's ear.
"How do you mean?"
"Just keep the passengers here 'til I come back."
The driver swallowed and nodded that he would, and Charles strode off into the desert.
"What's up?" asked Tucker, who had watched Charles leave.
"Don't know, exactly," said the driver. "You know that fellow?"
"No, not really, but I'd say he could be poison if he took a dislike to you."
"What's his line?"
"Says he's retired, but he packs a gun."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, I just know, that's all." Tucker had no wish to elaborate. "Probably one of those gangsters."
"Him? A clean-cut kid like that?"
"Things are different these days. Got a light?" He offered the driver a cigarette and took one for himself.
Charles circled the spot where the girl was, listening to the hoots and catcalls of the blacks. He took off his shoes and moved quietly through the sand, dropping on all fours as the voices grew louder. He saw them beyond the clump of cactus. They had their backs toward him, cheering on the one who was now raping the girl. "An arrogant bunch," he thought, as he took aim at the one holding the gun, and he was glad that he had cut x's into the soft lead noses of his .38 cartridges.
He fired, traversing the revolver like an automatic weapon. Four of them went down before the other two even discovered the source of the gunshots. The fifth ran off, but didn't get far. He fell and impaled himself on the bayonets of a yucca. The one on top of the girl was not very agile. Unfortunately for him, the forty-five was too far away to be of any use, He crawled off as fast as his lowered trousers permitted, but Charles easily overtook him and fired the last bullet into the negro's head at close range. He was a big fellow, and his body slumped upon the sand like a wounded rhino. "Wouldn't like to tangle with him," thought Charles.
He went back to the girl. She seemed exhausted and gasped for breath between sobs.
"Come on, pull your panties up and let's go." He didn't understand all there was to the 'permissive society,' but he felt that she had received what she had asked for. He wiped the sand off the forty-five and checked the magazine to see if it were loaded. After slipping his shoes on, he searched the bodies for additional weapons, but only discovered a few switchblade knives. He found a substantial sum of money in one of the negros' socks and put that into his pocket. One of the bodies groaned. A hard kick to the temple stopped that.
"Well?" he said, sticking the pistol into his belt. He looked at the girl and saw that she had gone to sleep. "Of all the lazy ..." He reached over to pull her skirt down and glanced at her bare thighs, a strange place to have so many mosquito bites, he thought. But they weren't mosquito bites. As he raised her up, he saw more needle marks under her arms. Cursing, he threw the girl over his shoulder and struggled back to the bus.
"We heard shooting," said the driver."
"Yeah, that was me. I got the jump on the one with the gun, twisted it out of his hand, and cut loose. I don't think I hit any of 'em, but I sure scared 'em. At the rate they were going, I'd say they should touch down at Cape Canavaral sometime this evening."
Most of the passengers laughed, relieved of the uncomfortable burden of responsibility. They made way for Charles as he carried the sleeping girl into the shade of the bus and laid her on the oil-soaked gravel.
"What's wrong with her?" squawked the old woman.
"Well, Ma'am, aside from being kicked, raped and man-handled, I'd say she was loaded with heroin."
"No! A nice-looking girl like that."
"Young people, today!" exclaimed another passenger, just as the relief bus pulled up.
Charles took the first driver aside. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't make a big thing about this."
"But I've got to make a report."
"Look, do me a favor. Have you considered what those guys would have done if they had come back?"
"Well, at the very least they would have held everybody up and stolen the relief bus."
"Yeah, I guess so."
He passed the driver a hundred dollars. "Go on, buy the kids a present."
"Hey, thanks a lot. I sure can use it."
"It won't hurt that bunch to get a little thirsty, now, will it?"
"No, serves 'em right." The driver chuckled as he deftly folded the sweaty notes and put them into his shirt pocket.
Everyone who was able slaved to transfer all the baggage and cargo on to the second bus. By the time they had finished, they were soaked with perspiration and ready to drop from heat exhaustion. The temperature had reached its zenith, and all the desert creatures had long since left the hot sand for the comfort of their burrows. Stepping into the air-conditioned bus was like going into an arctic gale. As the last of the passengers got on, the old woman turned to the first driver.
"Aren't you going to call the police? I think it's just awful, having those criminals running around out there."
The driver wiped his streaming forehead with a sodden handkerchief. "Ma'am," he said wearily, "where have you been the last decade, or so? 'Call the police,' you say. Do you think they grow on trees? The other driver says there's trouble in Las Cruces. Do you think the police have got nothing else to do but run around in the desert at this hour, chasing rowdy passengers?"
"Rowdy passengers! Well, I never ..."
"Until that girl wakes up and lays a charge of rape, you won't even get them for disturbing the peace."
"But they threatened us with a gun!"
"Can you prove that?"
"We all saw it, didn't we?"
"Yes, but we're white and they're black. No judge or jury would think of prosecuting."
"Please get on the bus, Lady, we're holding up the other folks."
The girl was dead when they arrived in Las Cruces, a sweltering town full of riot police and drab National Guard vehicles.
"Passengers will please remain on the bus. We are leaving immediately." The driver looked nervous.
"What's up?" asked Tucker.
"Don't know, exactly," said the driver, "but I hear somebody's taken over some ranches or farms hereabouts, and they've got artillery, or something. That's why all the soldiers have been called in. We'll be in military convoy as far as Albuquerque."
Tucker's jaw dropped in amazement. "Hell! What do you make of that?"
Charles shook his head and said nothing. He could have told him what the latest reports said about the El Paso area. That was why the area had been chosen for infiltration. The reports were accurate, and not to be found in any newspaper. He looked out the window and watched the ambulance drive away with the body of the girl. "Well, there she goes."
Tucker craned his neck to look out. "That really was a shame. Poor kid. Those coons sure had it comin'."
"You mean, their little run in the sun?"
"I'm sure you didn't leave 'em in any condition for running." Tucker winked.
"My dear Sir, whatever do you mean?"
"Okay, I won't be pushy. I'm just proud to meet up with a real man, for a change.
"Don't mention it, please."
"The girl, what do you suppose ..."
"Umm, I'd say it was heroin."
"It's poison. Don't the kids know that? Just like taking poison."
"Yeah, but that's what they heard in high school about tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. When it comes to heroin, the kids figure it s just another cry of 'wolf.' Besides, heroin's a pleasant way to die. You're so high you don't even care about it."
They left Las Cruces in convoy with three other buses, escorted by jeeps mounting machine-guns. Soon they were growling down the four-lane highway, spewing rank exhaust fumes over the desert.
"But seriously, there must be a way of stopping this heroin epidemic," said Tucker.
"You can't stop it. You can control it, but no one will make any money out of that. You come up against the churches and the gangsters, just like Prohibition. Bad laws make big money, you know."
"And how would you control it more effectively than it's being controlled?
"I don't get you."
"It's very simple. Let people know that taking heroin is just like taking death on the instalment plan, then let them do it. I understand that an addict has about two years to live if he can get all the heroin ne wants. If not, that could be arranged."
"You mean, make sure the addict dies?"
"But that's murder!"
"Depending on your definition of the term. I only suggest this scheme so that normal, non-gangster society can be allowed to function. Naturally, the addict population would be segregated from the non-addict. Slum areas could be reserved for them. The present shooting galleries would continue to operate, but they would be free."
"I don't see how you can use free heroin to stop heroin addiction, and murder ... !"
"But you want to stop the spread of heroin addiction among productive members of society and take power from the gangsters who are spreading corruption."
"Well, then you must identify the sources of heroin addiction and eradicate them."
"Sure, that's logical, but what are they?"
"Despair and the profit motive."
"What you advocate is that all persons who are fed up with life should be given a pleasant way out."
"Why not? What have you got against people that you should force them to live?"
"But what if someone, an addict, changes his mind and wants to rejoin society?"
"He could be given a chance to return, cured somehow, if that's really so important to you."
"There's something monstrous in the idea. I don't quite know what it is, but ..."
"You don't think a man has the right to take his own life?"
"No, that isn't what I disagree with. It's just that you're advocating wholesale suicide."
"Why not? Do you think that the world is any better for being crowded with unhappy people, people who can't cope with life, old people who only have the pain of arthritis to remind them that they are still alive?"
"There's a flaw in your argument, but I can't quite get at it."
"The reason you can't find the flaw, but are still not satisfied with my proposal is that you are only midway to accepting its major premise, and I think that events will draw you all the way over so that you will accept not only this idea, but others which will seem even more extreme."
"You sound like a college professor. Just what do you do for a living?"
"I told you. I'm retired."
"Okay, okay. Hey, would you look at that!"
They drove onto an overpass, part of a massive cloverleaf complex. Nestled in one of the great loops were the smoldering ruins of a modern service station and restaurant. Military ambulances and cratered asphalt indicated that the damage was other than an ordinary insurance conflagration.
"Looks like mortar work," said Tucker.
"Yes, the place has been under bombardment. Incidentally, have you ever seen the Pont du Gard?"
"No, what's that?"
"A tremendous Roman bridge-aqueduct in France. These big freeway bridges remind me of it."
"Do they look the same?"
"No. The Pont du Gard is beautiful. It's a reminder of Rome. One day those bridges will be reminders of the United States."
"You mean of the U.S. as a great country?"
"No, like decadent Rome, a country of great buildings and little men."
Charles had dozed off, despite the spine-curving uncomfortableness of the seat, and woke up as the bus bounced over the concrete apron of the station. It was dark outside.
"Folks, this is Albuquerque. I've got some good news and some bad news. Might as well let you know the bad news first. We can't leave Albuquerque until daylight. Army says the road's too dangerous."
"Aw, shit!" lamented one of the passengers. The others just groaned or mumbled to themselves.
"But here's the good news. The company'll pay for your overnight accommodation. Food's not included, though."
Sleepily, they stepped down from the bus and were herded into an establishment that made the Fisher look luxurious. They soon discovered the bedbugs had hearty appetites.
Next morning, after a greasy, over-priced breakfast, they escaped from the hotel and returned to the bus, to be greeted by the radiant company smile of a new driver.
"Morning, folks! Good to see yuh lookin' so fresh and cheerful. Army says we're cleared through to Gallup without escort, so we'll try to make up for some lost time. Hope y'all enjoy the ride." Without bothering to mesh the gears properly, he cannoned the bus out of the station and roared down the main street out of town.
"Fresh and cheerful!" grumbled Tucker. "He must have rose-colored glasses on."
"They look green to me," said Charles. "At least, that's how I feel." He scratched a bug bite.
"They got you, too, the little bastards." Tucker rubbed his ears and scratched the side of his neck.
"Yeah, we need de-lousing powder. Bet the driver didn't stay in the hotel."
"Just as well. You wouldn't want him driving the bus in our condition, would you?"
They arrived in Gallup that morning.
"Hope we won't be here too long," said Tucker. "Nothing to do in this dumpy town but watch drunken Indians in cowboy suits."
"Maybe they'd go for some of your novelties," said Charles, scratching his shoulder.
"New, they don't look like rubber tomahawk types to me." Tucker scratched the bites on his stomach. "Damn bugs!"
Their stop in Gallup was mercifully short, and soon they were speeding down the highway. Charles felt the bus swerve and looked out at the road ahead.
"Now what does that fool think he's up to?" exclaimed the driver.
A station wagon with its doors open was parked diagonally in the middle of the two lanes. The driver braked suddenly and took the bus around the obstacle by going onto the shoulder of the highway.
"There's nobody inside," said Charles.
"Oh, you'll probably find the Indian asleep in the brush," said the driver. That's what they do when they've had a few too many, just park on the highway."
"It seems pretty dangerous."
"Sure, mainly for people new to the state who don't expect it. It's a lot worse at night, though. You're right on top of 'em before you know it. No lights."
"Why all the drunk drivers?"
"They don't allow liquor to be sold on the reservation. If it weren't for selling liquor to the Indians, a two-bit town like Gallup would dry up and blow away."
"Wouldn't it make sense to sell booze on the reservation so the Indians wouldn't have to drive so far?"
"Not only would you have the saloon keepers on your neck, but you'd have the car dealers screaming for your scalp as well."
"I guess the car dealers and saloon keepers never drive on these dangerous roads."
"It only happens to the other guy, right?" The driver down- shifted and tapped the brakes.
"Hey, what did we get into, a funeral procession?" Tucker looked at the line of cars ahead.
"Looks like there's been a train wreck over there. People are helping themselves to anything they can grab." The driver pointed beyond the roadside.
Charles saw a cluster of automobiles, like dung beetles, parked around a smashed refrigerator car.
"Umm, grapes," said Tucker. "I could do with a box of those."
"So could I," said the driver, "but the police wouldn't like it. Those grapes gotta be left in the ditch to rot."
"Here they come," said Charles, seeing a pair of police cars, their red lights flashing. All along the wrecked train, people were running to their cars and driving off in every direction.
"Look at 'em scatter!" exclaimed Tucker. "Hell, I wish I had a bunch of those grapes right now."
It was hot the following day when they pulled into the Indio bus station.
"All right, folks, this is Indio. You'll have a forty-minute lunch stop here. Remember your bus number, thirty-one twenty- three." The intercom made the driver sound as if he had a bad cold.
"Good. I could do with a stretch. Don't think I'll have any- thing to eat, though." Tucker stifled a belch. "Breakfast nearly did me in."
They had just left the bus when swarms of little Mexican children besieged them, handing out leaflets concerning an agricultural workers' strike. A picket line of adults, overseen by a priest, barred the way to the bus station restaurant. The pickets waved placards in English and Spanish and chanted, "Viva la huelga!"
"What are they yammering?" asked Tucker.
"'Long live the strike,'" said Charles.
"I hope not. Maybe some of us would like to eat."
"Señores said a mustachioed Mexican picketer, "you don't intend to eat in the restaurant.":
"I don't," said Tucker.
"But I do," said Charles.
"You should not do it," recited the Mexican. "The owners have bought food harvested by Mexican bracero labor, imported scab labor whom they pay slave wages."
"I'm sorry," said Charles, "but aren't you a Mexican?"
"Me, Señor? Oh no. I am a U.S. citizen."
"So you don't want the farm owners labor any more?"
"That is right, Señor. All foreigners must be kept out. It is unfair competition."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Charles, "but my stomach is complaining and I don't think it will be satisfied with a strike leaflet."
"Please do not break the picket line, Señor. I have nine children to feed."
"You look as if you can barely feed yourself. Why did you have so many?"
"Señor," he said, fingering a heavy gold crucifix, "because I am a man and a good Catholic."
"We all have our crosses to bear, amigo," said Charles, breaking a path through the picket line.
They entered the bus station restaurant, its familiar reek of diesel fumes, old cigarette butts and disinfectant assaulting their nostrils, smells which added flavor to the otherwise insipid food substitutes on display. The tawdry rock-and-roll that blared and crackled from the inescapable loudspeakers lent a broken-down carny atmosphere. Seeing the glum, seedy-looking patrons and attendants, Charles thought that there was nothing wrong with the place a good hydrogen bomb couldn't cure.
"Think I'll have a toasted cheese and coffee," he said.
"Nothing for me," said Tucker. "You can have one of my stomach mints afterward. I think I'll sneak a look at those girly magazines."
"Don't ruin your mind."
Charles took a seat at the counter. Because the place was crowded, he sat next to a border patrol officer, a big man wearing a revolver, Sam Browne belt and campaign hat.
"'Scuse me, Officer," he said, "but aren't you working a little bit north of the border?"
"Got to," said the patrolman. "We're trying to catch the ones already in."
Charles succeeded in attracting the waitress' attention and got his coffee, if that was the word for it, half a cupful of brown liquid, most of which had been slopped into the chipped saucer.
"Wetbacks?" he said, pouring the spillage into his cup.
"Yeah, and then some. Not just Mexicans, though, Asiatics."
"Bad? Hell, it's a flood."
"Well, I'll be damned. Never heard anything about it." Charles decided whatever the brown liquid was, he didn't like it.
"Read the papers lately?" The patrolman wasn't drinking his 'coffee' with much enthusiasm, either.
"Haven't you heard anything about the new tong wars in Frisco?"
"No," he lied, "haven't heard a thing."
"Well, they're keeping it hushed up. Don't want to scare people, but even so, something has to get out now and then."
"Guess it does." Charles sniffed his toasted cheese sandwich. It smelled of hot plastic.
The patrolman finished his coffee with grim determination, since he'd paid for it. "Well, gotta check the next bus."
"Sure try to."
"Think I will have something after all." Tucker took the patrolman's seat. "Don't know what, though. It's almost time to leave."
"Try a date milkshake."
"You know, Indio, 'The Date Capital of California.'"
The waitress made him a date milkshake, using highly chlorinated water, soya bean 'ice cream' and genuine imitation essence of date extract. Tucker offered debased currency in payment for the debased milkshake, but the waitress told him to pay at the postcard counter instead. Charles wondered if the postcards tasted any better than the 'food' served in the place.
"What's that?" asked Tucker, interrupting his guzzling to look around.
Charles wiped his chin with a paper napkin. "The Mexican kids are throwing rocks at the windows."
As they approached the cash register, trying to stay away from the plate glass, Tucker reached into his pocket.
"No, it's my treat," said Charles. "Just watch your head. That window may go any time."
Tucker ducked and moved behind a revolving book stand. "Well, thanks for the milkshake, Bill. I keep forgetting that you're a rich, retired so-and-so."
"That's right." Charles peeled a twenty-dollar bill from the dead negro's bankroll.
They sprinted out a side door, and followed the other passengers, keeping their heads low to avoid flying rocks. Charles was nearly run into by a policeman in riot gear who puffed after a Mexican boy. Some of the pickets were using their staves against the policemen's batons.
When everyone had boarded the bus, the driver slammed the door and hastily backed out of the terminal parking area, narrowly missing collision with an incoming bus. Sirens shrieked from every direction.
"Did you enjoy your 'milkshake'?" Charles gave Tucker a wry smile.
"Still waiting for my stomach to deliver the verdict," said Tucker, scratching a bug bite on his arm.
"Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to real food."
"Don't know. You think they export it?"
"Could be. Maybe the Russians are eating it. They pay in real money, gold, you know."
"Maybe so. Gee, I can remember when I was a boy in Iowa. There was a bakery down the street from us. They made the best bread and pastries. Even made their own candy." Tucker looked wistful as he remembered.
"You mean you could actually taste something when you bit into a chocolate eclair?" Charles was eager for reassurance.
"Oh boy, could you! The pastry shells were delicious and buttery by themselves, and when they put in the thick, fresh cream and poured on the real chocolate that would melt when you looked at it, it didn't matter if you were king of Big Rock Candy Mountain. You just couldn't get anything better than that. Hey, you like chocolate eclairs?"
Charles nodded. "I seem to remember eating some that were very good, but I was just a little kid, then. They don't have any flavor to speak of, these days, so I don't buy 'em. I was beginning to think my tastebuds had got disconnected, or something."
"There's nothing wrong with you. No, the flavor just isn't there anymore. I don't get it. We pay taxes to support the price of cream and butter, flour, and all the rest 'cause there's a surplus, and all you can find in the stores are things made with chemical substitutes. I just don't get it."
"Oh, it's easy to figure out what's going on. The farm racketeers twist the government's arm to buy the real stuff, and the chemical food crooks twist the other arm so the government will hang onto the surplus until it spoils or can be dumped secretly in the ocean. I remember the poisoned potatoes outside my town. The government took my parents' tax money to buy the potatoes and poison them to keep them off the market. Meanwhile, my parents were paying outrageous prices to buy worse quality potatoes than the ones being poisoned."
"It's a racket, all right. Look at that smoke. We must be coming to Los Angeles."
"Not for awhile," said Charles. "Almost a hundred miles to go. That's L.A. smog, all right. Hope you enjoy it."
Los Angeles was having a normal day of smog. It hit them as they got off the bus. Soon they were wheezing, coughing and wiping tears from their eyes. Tucker and Charles got back on the bus and closed the door, hoping to keep out the smog as much as possible when they left.
Charles gazed out the tinted window, idly watching a couple of maimed youths scavenging from garbage cans which stood outside the bus station restaurant. Evidently they were poaching on the preserve of some elderly winos who appeared and protested the youths' presence. One of the young men found half a loaf of stale bread in one of the cans, and the battle was on.
The winos were old, but they had their limbs, while both the younger men were on crutches, and one was missing an arm. The youths wielded their crutches skillfully, but they were no match for their street-wise elders, and were soon writhing on the filthy pavement after receiving vicious kicks to the groin.
Inside the closed bus, it was like watching an old silent movie. The old men ran off with the loaf of bread, and laughing negro children ran off with the amputees' crutches. The passengers boarding the bus grimaced, and drew away from the two suffering youths, fearing to catch some contagion from the gaunt figures.
"Probably Vietnam veterans," said Charles.
"I'm Korean War, myself," said Tucker. "Feel sorry for those kids. They're having a rough time."
"Guess you could call it that. I'm glad we're on our way."
They left the grimy station and turned onto the usual skid row side street where bus stations are unfailingly located. Suddenly the bus came to a halt. A policeman waved them over to the center of the street and they drove along slowly. On either side of them were police cars, vans, armored vehicles and policemen armed with rifles and shotguns. Against the walls, their backs to the street, stood Negroes being searched by policemen with drawn pistols and snarling Alsatians. More blacks were being herded out of the buildings and made to stand, feet spread apart, arms extended against the sooty walls of the tenements.
"Looks like a dope raid," said Tucker.
"Could be," said Charles. "Hope we get out of here. We're a sitting duck for a molotov cocktail."
"Well, I sure hope they find the stuff, whatever they're looking for."
"If it's heroin, the cops are only helping the Mafia keep the prices up. The get a percentage, of course."
"The C.I.A.? But that's a government outfit."
"Sure, but they control the major source of heroin in Southeast Asia, the Golden Triangle of Laos, and besides, they need the money."
"It's all documented, if you care to check me out."
Tucker shook his head. 'But why, man? A U.S. government agency selling heroin. It doesn't make sense."
"All the sense in the world. You'd admit that the U.S. has a tremendous problem with surplus population, wouldn't you?"
"You also know that the gangsters have a lot of influence in all levels of government."
"Yes, after Old Tricky's shenanigans ..."
"You're also aware that there's been a certain amount of limousine liberalism among the middle class over the years, a la J.F.K."
"Sure, but what ... ?"
"Well, say you were a really big gangster, one who wanted to make a lot of money and run the country as well."
"You mean, impose a dictatorship."
"You said it, not I."
"Okay, but I still don't see ... "
"Don't you see how vital heroin is to the set up?"
"No. You've lost me."
"Well, look at the surplus population angle. Heroin depoliticizes a person. Muggers and purse-snatchers aren't collecting for a revolution, just the next fix."
"Yeah, that's right."
"And as muggers and purse-snatchers, the superfluous people make themselves visible, hated and feared by people who might otherwise sympathize with them."
"I see that, all right. A lump on the head doesn't bring out any milk of human kindness, especially at election time."
"Right. Instead of backing limousine liberal candidates, the voters want 'law and order,' even if it means tossing the Bill of Rights into the trash can, and this is just the way the big crooks can increase their power. Most people prefer order to chaos, even if it takes a dictatorship to maintain order. This is exactly what certain interests are up to, creating chaos in order to grab power as the order-restoring dictators. Heroin addiction is a vital part of this very necessary chaos."
Tucker slumped in his seat and shook his head wearily. "I don't know any more. I thought I did, a long time ago. Things are changing too fast ... "
Charles fell sorry for him. Tucker reminded him of his own father who had disappeared years ago in the Rub' al Khali Empty Quarter. At the same time he realized that the incomprehension of Tucker and others like him, whether willing or not, was a major factor in the present unhappy situation. He wanted to grab all the Tuckers by the collar and shake them. "Why didn't you know?" he thought. "It was your duty to find out what was going on, damn it!"
He looked at Tucker and sighed with resignation. There was no altering the past, nor was there time for pity. He had returned to do what was required of him, without reservation.
The bus crept along with the traffic jam on the Golden State Freeway, and Charles looked out the window, remembering his first trip to Los Angeles as a child. The Pacific Electric Railway had taken him over the same distance in twenty minutes. Looking at his watch, he discovered that they had been able to go half as far in hair an hour by 'freeway.'
"At this rate, we'll be celebrating Christmas in Bakersfield."
"Wish there was a better way of going overland," said Tucker.
"There was, back in 1910. The old Pacific Electric, the 'big red cars' as we called them, could average seventy-five miles per hour. That's better than we're doing now."
"You weren't around in 1910, so how do you know?"
"Well, my senior friend, if you'd pull your eyes away from the boob tube, you'd discover there are things called books."
"Yeah, well, you can't believe much you read in them."
"Are you a Christian?"
"I suppose you've seen Jesus, then."
Charles smiled. "So in many ways, Mr. Tucker, you're much more 'with it' than I am. You're a member of the 'now' generation. The only distinction is that you can remember more than the median hippy, because you've lived longer."
"Well, I didn't go to college, if that's what you mean. I don't see that it would help much in my line of work."
"Maybe not, but I think Santayanna was right when he said that 'those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.'"
"You're sure a gloomy Gus. All right, so why aren't we doing seventy-five miles per hour right now, in a big red car?"
"Because the automobiles got in their way and reduced the speed they were allowed to travel. In 1920 the speed began to drop, until 1950, when the interurbans could only average twenty miles per hour. At that point, they ripped up most of the lines and stopped carrying passengers. Now they want to rebuild some of the system. The money the taxpayer has spent on 'studies' for the reconstruction have already cost more than the original construction costs for the entire system. It might jolt you to know that this freeway and most of the others follows the old interurban right-of-way."
"Well, why did the idiots take up the system in the first place if they're just going to build it again?"
"'Idiot' is a very strong word. Let's say everyone was just being human, that is myopic. Some wanted to sell cars and others wanted to buy them. Nobody thought of the consequences, and if they did, they didn't care. It only happens to the other guy, right?"
"Yeah, but now look at it. We're stuck. Haven't moved an inch the last ten minutes.
Well, it's all got to do with 'freedom.'
"Freedom disappears when it is available to everyone. The automobile, as we are now discovering, was meant for the enjoyment of the few. When it is enjoyed by everyone, it's no longer enjoyment. In fact, it's not even a way of getting from one place to another, as you can see."
"Do you think we should ban the automobile?"
"No, not at all. All problems are self-correcting. More roads will be needed to accommodate more cars, and soon, most of the places people used to go will be covered with pavement, so there'll be no reason to go there anymore. Then they'll stay at home and the traffic problem will disappear, except for adolescent joy-riders. The pollution is already killing off motorists, so that's another plus factor."
"Yeah, but by that time, the United States will look like a concrete jungle under a smoke cloud."
"Well, at least you'll be able to drive your car as fast as you like."
"Then there'd be no point to it."
"No, but any other solution to the automobile problem would mean a general exercise of thoughtfulness, honesty and restraint. Are you some sort of Utopian radical?"
"Hell, no, but I ... "
"Are you in the habit of assuming that people usually exercise thoughtfulness, honesty and restraint?"
"Under what sort of conditions would you expect this miraculous change to come about, other than in some radical Utopia?"
"Well, I see what you mean, but I'm no radical."
"Good. You were making me nervous there, for a moment.
Now that you know that I'm not a communist and I know you're not a radical, we should be able to relax the rest of the trip."
Tucker laughed. "I take it you grew up here, unless you have some sort of far-out interest in this smog-hole."
"Yeah. See those slum houses over there?"
"Yeah, there ought to be a law against building crap like that."
"Well, you probably won't believe it, but all that land used to be orange groves. The air was perfumed, like something out of Arabian Nights."
The bus pulled into the San Fernando station.
"Folks," said the driver, "we'll have a fifteen minute rest stop here. Don't go too far."
"I wouldn't worry about strays," said Tucker. "Nobody in
his right mind would want to tour this dump."
They got out and strolled around the bus, coughing and sniffing from the smog.
"It's a dump, all right," said Charles. "I remember when the pepper trees made arches over the streets and you could walk for miles in the shade."
"You must be imagining things. Pepper trees in this asphalt desert?"
"It wasn't a desert, then. The trees made it look like an enchanted garden."
"What happened?" Tucker lit a cigarette and threw the paper match upon the littered pavement.
"Car owners didn't like the leaves. They stuck to the cars and were hard to clean up, so they had the city rip out the pepper trees."
"'Arabian Nights,' 'enchanted garden,' huh? It's hard to imagine this dusty dump ever fitting your description. Come on, admit it. You're gilding your childhood a little bit, aren't you?"
"No. I've seen other places a lot prettier, but it's sad to see this place get so ugly. it took so little to keep it looking good."
They boarded the bus and once again, Charles looked out the window at the ruined town, a clear case of morbid fascination, he thought. The once-thriving business district had become a row of run-down buildings decorated with old election posters and signs which read 'bargain sale' and 'for rent' in Spanish. The human derelicts staggering along on the sidewalks took no interest in the boarded-up shop windows, nor in the interminable line of traffic that crawled through the town.
They drove past his high school where he saw sullen young hoodlums lounging on either side of the chain-link fence with its topping of barbed wire. Junked cars, some of them burned-out, lay abandoned along the roadside, and the bus bounced in and out of the potholes in the paving. They passed the old mission and the abandoned orange-sorting shed, its walls red with the slogans of Mexican nationalism. He was relieved when the bus turned onto the freeway and gathered speed. The thrice-daily traffic jam was breaking up.
It was long after sunset when they stopped in Bakersfield, a town which had lost any claim to individuality in the 1952 earthquake.
"I can't believe it," said Tucker. "Never thought I was going to make it. How about a drink to celebrate a safe arrival?"
"No thanks," said Charles. "Must pay my respects to the shrine."
"Well, I sure can use one after this trip. Last time I ever go by bus."
"Decided to stick to air travel, huh?"
"Yeah. At least I won't get into the mess. I can fly over it and pretend it isn't there."
"Well, goodbye, young fellow." Tucker waved.
"Take it easy." Charles watched him disappear into the murk of the bus station cocktail lounge and made for the sign at the top of the stairs which read 'gentlemen,' 'hombres.' The reek of disinfectant and stale cigarette smoke was very strong in the men's room, making him cough. He washed his hands and face and shaved with a rental electric razor. In lieu of a shower, he dashed some pungent shaving lotion under his arms. "Whew!" he thought. "Just like the proverbial French whore."
He went over to the battery of urinals which stood in a great open area under the glare of bright fluorescent lights. It was like being on stage. He found himself under the scrutiny of a negro. "If he doesn't stop watching what I'm doing and attend to his business," he thought, "he'll piss on his shoes." Charles zipped up and strode out, welcoming the diesel fumes of the waiting room.
"Passengers bound for Fresno, Oakland ..." said the saccharine voice over the public address system.
Charles found his seat on the bus and idly studied the faces of the passengers getting on. He recognized the negro from the men's room.
"Excuse me, is this seat taken?" he asked.
"No," said Charles. "It's all yours."
"A little chilly this evening." The negro spoke with an eastern accent and was tastefully dressed in a business suit. A cravat provided a touch of comfortable elegance. Charles looked down at his own graying shirt and rumpled suit, feeling thoroughly unkempt by comparison.
"Yes, it is chilly, but Bakersfield's a funny place," said Charles, "it can blaze and freeze in the same day."
"Is that right?" The negro stared at him. "Do you mind my asking you something?"
"No, not at all."
The bus rocked from side to side as it came off the driveway apron and turned into the nearest traffic jam.
"You're a foreigner, aren't you?" said the negro.
"What makes you say that?" Charles gave him a quizzical look.
"Well, your diction and accent, they're so precise and so modulated ..."
"Thanks, but what if I told you I was from California?"
"I wouldn't believe you."
"You're having me on."
"No. Oh no. Now I've caught you. You said, 'having me on' instead of 'putting me on'!"
"Oh, my gosh!" Charles shook his head. "Well, where do you think I'm from?"
"Europe. One of the Nordic countries."
"I deny it. What's more, I'll take the Fifth Amendment."
"All right, if you want people to think you're an American that's your business, but I'd brush up on my accent and vocabulary if I were you."
"Are you a linguist, by any chance?"
"No, but I always play a little detective game with myself when I get on a bus, and try to guess where people are from and what business they're in. The cut of your suit was one indication, definitely European style. I might even say Eastern European, if that's no offense to you. You're accent was the clincher." It was evident that he had made up his mind about Charles.
"Sherlock Holmes seems to be very popular these days."
"Ah yes," said the negro, brightening. "Are you a fan of his?"
"I certainly was. Holmes was one of my childhood heroes. I tried to read all of his adventures."
"'Quick, Watson, the game's afoot!'"
"... The swirling fog, a Hansom cab; footsteps on the stair. 'Ah, yes, a young man of high station, a foreign prince of Bohemian ancestry ...' 'Preposterous, Holmes!' 'Elementary my dear ...'"
"You like music, I'll bet," said the negro.
"My favorite classical composer is Bach, but I also like modern jazz. I find certain similarities. Cigarette?"
"Mind if I smoke?"
"No, go right ahead."
The negro lit a cigarette of an expensive brand, using a gold butane lighter. "I'm quite a record collector," he said, exhaling the smoke with calm assurance. "My apartment is simply bulging with them. I also have a good stereo-tape collection."
"That makes you quite a patron of music."
"I do painting as well."
"Yes! How did you guess?"
"Well, I play this little detective game with myself and ..."
"Not you, too!"
"It must be catching."
"Well, I'd surmise that Beethoven is one of your favorites, or Mahler. Am I right?"
"Sorry, I prefer the modern Russians," said Charles.
"Barbaric, man, simply barbaric!"
"Yes, I enjoy their expressions of power and sensuality."
"I must admit to certain barbaric tendencies," Charles smiled.
"I'd have taken you for a Brubeck man, even, but Russians!"
"Doesn't the image of Tartar cavalry sweeping across the steppes do something for you?"
"No, man," the negro suppressed a shudder. "It really turns me off."
Charles enjoyed the conversation and hardly noticed the passage of time. It was late in the morning when the bus crawled into the outskirts of Oakland. He noticed that the smoke pall was unusually heavy over the city and was confused by the unfamiliar route they were forced to take, as most of the streets were blocked by police barricades and motorcycle patrolmen. Fire engines came down the street, and the bus pulled toward the curb and stopped.
"Just look at that!" The negro pointed to a great column of smoke.
"There seem to be fires all around. Has there been an air raid, or something?" Charles pretended ignorance.
"You must be a foreigner. Man, those are riots. Got to have 'em whenever it's warm enough."
"Well, I've got to see my customers here. I hope some of them are still in business."
"What sort of business are you in?" "Ladies' lingerie."
"Yes. I've got a new line from Paris. I think it'll sell."
"New, you don't want to go around this place just now. Come over to my apartment. We can listen to records and ..." He put his hand on Charles' knee.
"No, you've got me all wrong, man." Charles laughed.
"Oh, sorry." The negro took his hand away.
The bus arrived at the terminal and hissed to a stop in the loading bay. Charles made his way across the crowded waiting room, hoping that he passed inspection from the closed-circuit television cameras that scrutinized all arriving passengers.
He entered a coin-operated photo booth, where he unpacked his suitcase. Quickly removing his tie and coat, he changed into his drab nylon jacket and battered straw hat. After studying himself in the mirror, he took off the hat and placed it under his coat, along with the knapsack. By slinging one pack strap over his shoulder and holding the hat and coat in place with one hand, he availed himself of a choice of disguises. The hat and knapsack meant 'hippy' to the police, and the nylon jacket and slacks meant 'worker' to the hippies and radicals. He saluted himself in the mirror, thinking that his was the strangest invasion in U.S. history.
Leaving his empty suitcase in the booth, he hurried around the queues at the ticket windows and found the street exit. Outside the bus station, he followed the discarded newspapers blowing down the boulevard and turned onto Telegraph Avenue, dodging the police cars and ambulances coming into Oakland.
The sidewalks teemed with forlorn remnants of a crumbling empire, young war veterans minus limbs from a war no one wanted to know about. They lay in the alleys in stupors from drugs, wine or starvation. Some rummaged in garbage cans for food. Charles frowned as he walked around a cadaverous young man who had collapsed into a pool of his own excrement. Swarms of old looking youngsters besieged him for handouts, filthy, claw-like fingers protruding from the sleeves of ragged field jackets.
Seeing his jacket and slacks, a white girl in the company of a bearded negro fixed him with a glare of pure hatred. "Go to hell you devil!" she shouted as he passed.
A police patrol van cruised slowly along the curb, its occupants displaying grim looks behind their protruding shotgun barrels. He felt trapped in between, a target of hatred for the police and the rabble. Hostile gazes followed him down the street, and he forced himself not to break into a run.
Approaching the university, he began to recognize some of the landmarks, or what remained of them, of the Berkeley he had known as a student. All the store fronts were boarded with plywood, most showing signs of recent fire damage. Water still trickled out of the entrances, and the sidewalks were littered with rocks, bricks and broken glass. He kicked an empty tear gas canister out of his way, and it clinked into the rubble-clogged gutter.
Firebombs had burned out the coffee house where he had celebrated logical positivism, and made often frustrated attempts to entice some of the marriage-hungry coeds into bed, a major operation in pre-pill America. A musty smell of burned wood and damp cloth pervaded the street, deserted except for the occasional police car or National Guard vehicle that passed, crunching over the broken glass with apparent impunity. The authorities hardly glanced his way. What could be looted from the shops had already gone and what was left had been burned.
At first he thought the smoke was getting thicker, but realized the sun was beginning to set. Through the haze he could make out a glowing orb beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The city was dying, and it looked as if the sun were dying, too. He quickened his pace, knowing there would be a curfew.
The winding roads of the Berkeley hills took him above the squalor of the city and into stands of pines that whispered soothingly in the moist sea wind. The rustic houses of the privileged flanked him on either side of the road, and he wondered what the occupants were thinking as they looked out over the ruins.
Soon he came to a split level house, just off the ridge road. His feet crunched on the gravel path which led up to the solid looking front door with its massive brass knocker. From the living room came the sound of a hi-fi playing classical music. He raised the heavy knocker and let it resound upon its polished metal plate. The door sprang open instantly, and he recognized the swarthy features of his colleague, Jesus.
"Hijo de puta! How happy I am to see you, Carlitos. Come
in, come in. You are early." Jesus pulled him in and took his knapsack which he put beside the umbrella stand. "I trust you had an uneventful trip."
"Fortunately." Charles smiled weakly.
"You look exhausted. Coffee?"
Shutting the door, Jesus followed him into the living room redolent with oil paints from an unfinished seascape that stood on its easel in a corner by the fireplace.
"Hell, this is a fancy layout!" Charles marvelled at his feet sinking into the carpet.
"You like it, huh? With the rent I pay, it should look good."
"I see you've broken away from abstract expressionism. I like it."
"I'm not quite satisfied. I fail to capture the full effect of sunlight upon the waves."
"Ah, but that breaker captures the full effect of the light shining through the wave. I can almost feel the spray."
"Such flattery!" Jesus looked pleased, nevertheless.
Heavy footsteps came up the stairs from the basement, and Charles turned to see the stocky, perspiring form of a balding man whose face bore smudges of dirt. The man stood for a moment, looking at him, his gaze that of a bird of prey. Then he strode forward and grabbed Charles by the arm.
"Charles!" The man's grimy hand felt like a vise.
"Hans, old man! Good to see you. Glad to see you're keeping fit as ever." Charles winced from the pressure.
"You are early. We were expecting you next week," said Hans, brushing at the dirt smudge he'd left on Charles' sleeve.
"All the better to be ahead of schedule. You need some help, I understand." Charles slumped gratefully upon the couch.
"We certainly do. You are a welcome addition to our little coffee club. Well, how does it feel to be back among your fellow Americans, Charles?" Hans chuckled.
"Nervous. You two seem to be thriving, though."
"I think we are all a little nervous, with anticipation," said Jesus. "Come along. We'll have some sandwiches and coffee on the roof."
They relaxed on lawn chairs and sipped Jesus' excellent coffee, while looking down upon the profusion of bright pearls that were the lights of the city. Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor accompanied their unspoken thoughts, and Charles felt a twinge of sadness, drawn out by the music and the panorama of the city that was going through its last agonies, a city he had known, grown fond of, and now must turn away from, not wishing to see its squalid death. From their hillside vantage-point they could see the fires glowing in the distance and hear the incessant wailing of sirens.
"So it's come to this," said Charles. "Never in my communist youth could I have imagined such a situation, here in my own country."
"Yes, it does seem incredible," said Hans, "even to me, to see Hitler's prophecy fulfilled – the inevitable collapse of a mongrelized culture." He poured himself a sherry from the bottle on the trolley. "Now, only dictatorship can save what is left of this country, but I fear that it will be a mean little dictatorship; no ideals or grandeur at all, just a petit bourgeois effort to keep the masses at each other's throats and off the backs of the rich gangsters. It is the Götterdämmerung, the death of the gods the Americans worshiped. The United States will be dangerous for many years, but its time of greatness has passed. Sherry, everyone?"
"Finish it up, muchachos. It will only go to waste, otherwise." Jesus held out his glass so Hans could fill it.
"'Jerez.' From Spain, isn't it?" asked Charles.
"Yes, the best."
Charles looked at the ruby liquid in his glass and held it up so that it glowed with the light from the street lamps and conflagrations in the city below.
"We'd better move fast," said Jesus. "My contacts at the university have informed me something very big is brewing."
"You mean more bombing and disorders sponsored by the government?" Charles raised his eyebrows.
"Yes, and then some." Jesus took a sip of sherry and rolled it over his tongue. "But the bombings of the government have been purposely amateurish and not aimed at valuable property or the means of production. The intention is merely to spread the fear of terrorism of the left."
"And the bombings of the left?"
"More enterprising, but sporadic and equally amateurish. They still think the workers are on their side, whether the workers know it or not, so they only bomb 'symbolic targets,' nothing that would bring the economy to a halt."
"Ah, yes," said Hans, rubbing his calloused hands together, "but there is another variable which makes haste imperative."
"And that is?" said Charles.
"The sheer volume of it. Everyone is joining in. Hired provocateurs, romantics, dissident groups, foreign agents are hurling bombs like confetti. Over four thousand bombings have been reported this year, some of which did lots of damage. It is becoming the new national sport. If we don't act quickly, we may be lost in the shuffle."
"Well, here's to the bombing of the middle, then. May it be more profitable." Charles raised his glass and drained the last of the sherry.
"And to an early night's sleep, courtesy of the National Guard's curfew," said Hans, rising from his chair.
"A warm welcome to your old country, Carlitos."
"Not too warm, I hope."
Morning came with the chirping of sparrows and the pungency of the smog which was already rising to the foothills. Charles and Hans followed Jesus down the spiral stairway which led to the basement.
"As you see, it is not a real basement, since it is carved into the hillside and gives a perfect view of the slope." Jesus pointed to a loophole in the basement wall overlooking the bay.
"We have already begun the tunnel," said Hans, directing his flashlight beam into a horizontal cavity in the hillside. "By our calculations we should be running into the drainage tunnel in a week or so, maybe less, since you are with us and we have Jesus' cafe con leche to fortify us."
"You flatter my poor efforts. Observe between the two trees."
Charles peered through the loophole. "Yes, I see it."
"There is only one other outlet for that drainage tunnel, as we have determined, and that empties down the opposite slope. They are to place the boxes just inside the entrance, which you can see is only a short distance below the roadway, so they are likely to think the pickup will be made from a car, however, we will be entirely underground during that part of the operation. The other outlet will serve as our exit. It drains into a pretty little canyon, with a well-shaded dirt road."
"Sounds like a vacationer's paradise. You ought to go into the tourist business, Jesus." Charles scanned the slope. "This house has the only view of the tunnel entrance. You realize ..."
"Of course. We've prepared a warm welcome for them." Jesus smiled.
"Good. Very good." Charles nodded appreciatively.
"But you have not seen everything." Hans led them back upstairs.
Outside the house they slipped and scrambled up a talus slope, clinging to clumps of sagebrush to steady themselves. At last they came upon a rock-strewn section of abandoned road.
Jesus kept lookout while Hans moved a piece of sagebrush, uncovering a rusty manhole cover. Taking a socket wrench from his coat pocket, he unbolted the cover and lifted it so that Charles could look in. The morning sun illuminated everything in the little room below. He saw tools, bombs, submachine guns, rocket launchers, and in the center of the display, a large steel tube that yawned up at them.
"Kleine Bertha," said Hans, "a 120 millimeter mortar."
"Compliments of the Minutemen?"
"Yes, and not the only bon voyage present they so kindly gave us, as you shall see."
"Hurry up, you two," said Jesus. "It is past our breakfast time."
Charles discovered breakfast at Jesus' was a round-the-clock affair, the only stopping point in a brisk schedule of digging, shoring, dirt-hauling and brief catnaps. It was an active week.
"Breakfast time," said Hans. "You go up and get started. I want to check the shoring at the end of the tunnel."
"Don't be too long, or I'll have everything eaten." Charles kicked off his boots at the foot of the stairs, hung his miner's hardhat on a peg, stripped off his overalls and tucked his T-shirt into his bluejeans. Jesus was a stickler for formality.
"'You load sixteen tons ...'" he hummed as he padded up the steps in his socks. The smell of bacon gave him a jolt of energy which propelled him up the last steps and into the kitchen. He swooped down upon the heaping plate of bacon, eggs and pancakes, devouring them with only slight pauses for breaths of air and gulps of coffee.
"... The rioters have begun to move into the suburbs of Boston. State police report incidents of sniping on principal freeways. The Governor of Massachusetts has declared a state of emergency.
And now for the latest sports summary ..."
"Flush that shithead and pass me some more scrambled eggs."
Jesus switched off the radio and returned from the stove with another frying pan of bacon and eggs. Seeing Charles stoking up with food, he smiled. "Now you know how we have developed such hearty appetites, Carlitos. Where is Hans? His fuel bunkers must be very low."
Hans burst into the kitchen, wringing wet with perspiration and covered with dirt. "We have broken through. Give me coffee and lots of sugar."
"Congratulations!" Jesus handed him a cup of coffee and a broom. "You can celebrate by sweeping up the dirt you've tracked into the kitchen and by vacuuming the living room rug."
Hans looked down at his feet in embarrassment, and they began to laugh. Jesus took the broom away and motioned him to sit down.
"Does our letter to the Governor meet with your approval?" asked Jesus, setting a platter of food before the grimy Hans.
Charles paused with his fork in mid-air and swallowed. "Yes but I would have preferred that it were signed 'Francis Drake' instead of 'Internal Revenue Association.' We are holding the state for ransom after all."
"I sympathize, but the initials were too good to pass up. We'll have the F.B.I. chasing Irish-Americans, while the C.I.A. scratch their heads wondering if some of their pendejos haven't got out of hand."
"To the jolly roger!" Hans raised his cup.
The sun would soon be up, thought Jesus, as he sniffed the morning air which carried a mixed aroma of sea, sage and crude oil from the refinery. He fingered the safety catch of the Sterling while squinting into the rolling mist which obscured the dirt road and blanketed the hills with a damp silence. Somewhere, he heard the occasional clink of tools, and knew that Charles and Hans were busy.
"I've never seen any like these," said Charles, as he lowered the nose of the rocket upon its simple launching trough.
"Homemade," grunted Hans, screwing in the detonator. "I thought we might use them up, as they may not be reliable. The principle is quite simple, you see: Black powder propellant, impact detonator, shaped plastique bursting charge. The 'guidance system' is not overly accurate at long range. A child's toy, really."
"Yes, buy a set now, and be the first child on your block to rule the world."
"And you would probably deserve it, too."
"The last one. You can cut the fuse short."
"I won't cut it too short, though. We need fifteen minutes."
"How did the truck carry all this?" Charles wiped the perspiration off his forehead with a sleeve of his coveralls.
"I made a few modifications."
"Heavy-duty shock absorbers, overload springs, special axles, extra-strong tires and rims." Hans lit the last fuse.
"In other words, you manufactured your own truck."
"I have discovered that people who buy pickup trucks really believe they can carry things in them. Ha, ha! Little do they know."
"Jesus must be freezing."
"He's not the only one. Coffee is in the truck. Let's go."
They made their way down through the damp sagebrush and onto the road, where they found Jesus with the truck.
"What took you so long? I've been standing here freezing, trying to see through this damned mist so long I'm beginning to see things that aren't there."
"See, Hans. What did I tell you?"
"I apologize for the fact that some of the detonator threads were rusty and delayed us, but the waiting is over. Get in. Did you leave the I.R.A. leaflets?"
"All along the road."
Hans let off the brake and they began to coast down the road which skirted the refinery.
"It's a city, not a refinery, and not a worker in sight." Jesus looked out over the well-lit panorama below them.
Charles surveyed the metropolis of boilers, separators, cracking towers and cooling columns as he wiped his greasy hands on his overalls. "What you see there produces nearly fifty per cent of the refined petroleum on the west coast. I should say, produced nearly fifty per cent after this morning's work."
"The Governor is not going to like it. He will have much explaining to do, and the oil companies will be very angry with him." Jesus smiled.
"Just his fault for being a skeptic and a verdammter tightwad," said Hans.
"Poor Governor." Jesus assumed an expression worthy of a hired mourner.
"Yes, poor Governor. How about some more coffee?" Charles passed him the steaming thermos flask.
"Might as well drive with lights, otherwise we'll never see our way through this mist." Hans shifted into second gear and engaged the clutch. As the engine roared into life he switched on the lights and clicked the dimmer switch to low beam.
Charles glanced behind them. "How long before ..."
"We have seven minutes." Hans looked at the racing second hand of his watch. "Six and one half. No one can interfere with the process now, not even if he knew exactly what was about to happen."
They were nearing the road which led to the freeway, when Jesus hit Charles on the arm. "Look, lights on the ridge!"
"There they go! Perfect timing, Hans."
"Ach, I didn't think ..."
"Look at that!"
Hans stopped the truck and they looked back in fascination as a catalytic cracking tower received a direct hit and burst into a gigantic pillar of flame. A huge tank of gasoline opened like the petals of an infernal blossom and hurled forth a demonic ball of fire. The tank farm floated and danced in a lake of fire, the air shuddering with the reverberation of explosions. The waning night became day as the refinery became a sea of flame, and the waxing day became night as dense black smoke poured up from the inferno in stygian clouds, blotting out the sunrise. Streams of burning petroleum were lapping over the retaining walls and pouring through breaches made by the rocket barrage.
"Scheisse! This place will be cordoned off in no time." Hans trod upon the accelerator and raced over the last quarter mile to the freeway.
Charles pointed. "Look, it's crossing the freeway."
The gasoline and fuel oil had rushed down the slope and on to the roadway, and cars in the constant stream of traffic were catching fire. Their fuel tanks exploded, adding to the inferno. Frenzied drivers accelerated, only to crash into others who had not seen the need for hurry. On the other side of the river of fire, more collisions occurred as impatient commuters crashed into their panic-stricken fellows who had braked to avoid the fire storm ahead.
One driver left the road and drove madly along the shoulder, but the flames had already reached his car, which soon lurched to a halt, enveloped in burning gasoline from its exploded fuel tank. A flaming figure ran from the car, waving its arms about until it was overcome. It sprawled, still burning, upon the pavement.
Hundreds of figures were propelled from their cars by the intense heat. They too were aflame, and they leaped and pirouetted in a fiery ballet until they were engulfed by the flood of burning oil that spread over the freeway.
Hans stamped on the brake peddle. "We must go north, but how are we to cross the freeway? The southbound lanes are already blocked."
Cars choked the three lanes they had to cross. In the northbound lanes there was not a car to be seen.
Hans rolled down the window. "Emergency crew, please give way!"
Several drivers complied. Now they were one lane away from their objective. One car stood between them and escape. White teeth gleamed in its driver's baboon-like countenance. "Go to hell, you muthas! White devils suck!"
"Jesus, the Sterlings. Hans, crash the fence when we get the car out of the way."
Charles and Jesus jumped out onto the pavement, firing bursts which shattered the windows of the car. Jesus covered while Charles opened the door. Out sprawled the blood-spattered body of a Black Panther, his pistol clattering on the asphalt. Charles pulled the driver's body out of the car and swung into the gory seat. He had no trouble starting the engine which was still warm. Engaging the clutch, he rammed the car in front, reversed and rammed the car behind, making enough space to maneuver. The stunned occupants of the cars looked at him, mouths agape. He revved the motor and crashed through the divider fence, bending the frail steel posts like spaghetti. Then he parked the car out of the way, wondering how the owner would claim on his insurance, and signaled Jesus to jump into the truck. As Hans drove by, Charles leaped into the rear. He looked back as the refinery rocked with more explosions and slipped a fresh magazine into his Sterling, reflecting that Black Panthers were exempt from taking out insurance.
They left the truck in its hiding place and returned to the house in Jesus' Volkswagen camper. It was noon when they turned into the driveway and backed into the vine-covered carport.
Jesus shook his head, seeing the two inert forms in the back of the camper. "Hey, you two, we're home!"
"Go to hell." Charles spoke in his sleep.
"Well, it's okay by me if you want to sleep in the car. It's just that there's cold beer on the roof."
Hans stirred and rubbed his eyes. "Beer, did someone say beer?"
"That's what I said."
"Donnerwetter! Now that's what I call a dilemma. Ach, the beer wins. But then I sleep all day. No interruptions."
Charles groaned. "That means I have to get out so you can get out. Never trust Hans when there's beer around. Hmm, it does sound good, though."
Laughing, Jesus pulled open the double doors of the camper. The two tumbled out and staggered bleary-eyed into the kitchen.
"I told you that you shouldn't sleep during the day. It puts you out of sorts."
"Listen to our Spanish professor. Now he wants to abolish the siesta!"
"A crypto-calvinist," said Charles, splashing water on his face from the kitchen tap. As he dried himself on the dish towel, he happened to glance out the window. "What time is it?"
Jesus looked at his watch. "Just after twelve."
"Would you look at that!"
"Yes, I saw it as I drove from the place where we left the truck. It is an early dusk."
"That sets the smog program back ten years, I'd say. Look over there. It looks like India ink pouring into the sky."
"It reminds me of Ploesti, after the Allies paid their visit. I tell you we shot down hundreds of the bastards, but, as you say, 'India ink in the sky.' Such a beautiful refinery. I think it will burn for days." Hans nodded in confirmation.
"What about the beer, Jesus? I thought you said on the roof."
"It will be if you bring it up with you."
"Well, how do you expect me to carry the beer and the lobster mayonnaise?"
"The what?" Charles opened the refrigerator. "Hans, look at this."
"A verdammtes feast!"
"I apologize, Jesus. If you'd like us to carry the beer, the lobster and yourself up to the roof, just say so."
"No, just bring the radio."
"... The toll of deaths has still to be concluded following the refinery holocaust which blocked the coast highway for five hours this morning. Fire department officials are still uncertain as to the cause of this disaster. At this moment, firemen are battling the flames raging through tinder-dry brush toward luxurious canyon residential areas. Traffic has been slowed in the Bay Area due to the smoky pall, and driving with headlights is requested.
Earlier today, three Black Panthers were killed and one seriously injured when two unidentified caucasians shot them in a gun battle which flared about five miles from the scene of today's refinery disaster. The two men ran amok with others when the refinery exploded. There was no apparent motive for the killings as police have yet determined. The search for these men is being continued.
National Guard units have isolated southwestern sections of Oakland after an outbreak of arson and looting last night which burned down most of the businesses in that area. Negro leaders are calling for black youths to obey the Governor's curfew order. Sniper fire has been reported, however, and persons are advised to remain clear of these areas until order has been restored.
Snipers today halted noon rush-hour traffic on the Nimitz Freeway. No fatalities were reported, but traffic is snarled and motorists are requested to use alternate routes.
And now, a word from our sponsor ..."
Jesus leaned forward and switched off the radio. "Nothing at all. Maybe the Governor thinks the refinery was some kind of prank, or a coincidence."
"You left the leaflets," said Charles, "so he should have enough to go on, and when the wreckage cools off, they'll be able to find the rocket fragments and deduce that the I.R.A. isn't just a one-shot outfit."
"You think they are already working on it?"
"You can bet your life they are. They've already sifted through their government provocateur organizations, like the Black Panthers, checked out the dossiers on the others, made discreet enquiries about foreign agencies, and now they're probably filtering questions up through the C.I.A. echelons to find out if those boys are working a caper. Then, of course, there are the D.I.A., the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and who knows what else."
"You shouldn't smoke so much," Charles admonished.
"One of the few vices permitted a priest."
"Yes, but now that you're not a priest, I suggest a few other vices may be in order so you can keep your health. Moderation in all things."
"Ach, what time is it?" Hans sat up in his chair and stretched.
"Nearly three o'clock," said Charles.
"But it's almost dark."
"Thanks to us."
"Did the Governor say anything on the radio?" "For a politician, he's been very quiet."
"He has ignored our request, then."
"That's what it looks like."
"So, we must continue with our bill of entertainment."
"Right." Charles finished his beer and stood up. "Well, I'm off to Los Angeles."
"See you tomorrow, Carlitos. Don't forget the keys to the Volkswagen."
Charles parked the camper on a side street near the International Airport, and quickly got out to strip the masking tape off the door panels. The name concealed by the tape was the same as the one on his white overalls, that of the airport's sanitary firm.
He drove into the immense parking lot, skirting the mass of cars simmering in the heat of a smoggy afternoon, bypassing the fantastic array of airlines, each competing, each losing money, each subsidized heavily by the taxpayer, each pumping tons of pollution into the atmosphere. In the center of this gigantic con game he saw the airport restaurant, a phoney space age artifact which could only have been stolen from an early Flash Gordon production, a glaring tribute to fashion rather than function. Still, he thought, it was fitting. The food they served was also fake.
The guard waved him through the gate and he drove in, backed up to the control tower building's service entrance and began to unload the shiny new waste receptacles, just like the ones in all the air terminal buildings. The guard, a negro, seemed to have time on his hands. He sauntered over to Charles who was busy setting the time fuses.
"Hi ya." He chewed his gum noisily.
"Hi. Pretty warm, huh?" Charles pushed the swinging cover, arming the last charge.
"Sure is. You new on the job, ain't cha?"
"Yeah. I'm really not supposed to be out here. Union rules ya know, but somebody's got to deliver these or the night crew'll blow their stacks."
"More trash cans, huh?"
A jet roared overhead, drowning out any conversation. Charles had the six trash receptacles lined up in a neat row, like soldiers ready for inspection. He hoped they were going to pass inspection, for at least two hours. He tilted one and rolled his warehouse man's dolly under it, trying not to show how heavy it was.
"Yeah, night shift say they have to sweep up. Papers on the floor, you know. They say the other ones are getting filled up too fast. Need some more. Would you mind holding the door?"
"New, come right ahead." Good naturedly, the guard opened the double doors and put down the stops.
A horn sounded at the gate.
"Jest shut 'em when you leave," said the guard, going back to his post.
Working rapidly, he deployed the trash cans into their designated positions, checked them against the diagram which Hans had given him, and looked at his watch. He had twenty minutes to catch his plane.
He dashed out of the building, kicked up the door stops at the entrance, slammed the doors on the camper and started the engine. "Take it easy, man." He waved to the guard at the gate.
"Yeah, take care. Like don't drink the water and don't breathe the air." The guard waved back at him.
Charles laughed, wondering where the guard had heard that. He parked the Volkswagen in a loading zone, peeled off the coveralls, shook the wrinkles out of his suit, and grabbed his empty briefcase off the seat. After making a final check that there was nothing left behind to indicate the course of the next few hours, he sprinted off to the air terminal, a businessman in a hurry.
He confirmed his reservation for Oakland and submitted to the scrutiny of a metal detector before boarding the plane. In case of capture, his only friend was a cyanide capsule.
The 'fasten seat belt – no smoking' sign lit up and he relaxed.
The Volkswagen was a masterpiece, he thought; fake license plates, parts scavenged from wrecking yards. Hans did good work, all right. An hour to go.
"Like a sweet, Sir?" The stewardess smiled, offering him a tray of cellophane-wrapped hard candies.
"Yes, thanks. What flavor do you recommend?"
Hans parked the pickup truck in the vast parking lot, just in sight of the control tower. He looked at his watch and was satisfied. A car drove up beside him, Jesus in his old Ford. He double-parked, leaving his engine running, got out and came over to Hans.
"No sign of Charles?" Jesus' eyes were watering from the smog. "I hope he has not had any difficulties."
"Nor do I. He is essential. We have over half an hour. Cigarette?" Hans shook two from his pack.
A big jet broke the sound barrier above them.
Hans lit Jesus' cigarette. "The bastards are guarding the planes, but they forgot about the airports."
"I hope we used enough explosive."
"All we had, but it should be enough to knock out the control towers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Too bad we didn't have more."
"But shouldn't two towers be enough?"
"No. I have calculated that we must knock out at least three to make sure the system breaks down. You see, each airport has a 'stack' of planes circling overhead, sometimes more than twenty at once."
"Like vultures circling over a dying animal." Jesus chuckled.
"Very poetic, but listen, when the tower goes, the planes will not be able to land, especially at this time of year, when there is ground fog. In another hour it will be dark. With luck, the mist should thicken."
Jesus surveyed the sea of cars in the parking lot. "I hope I don't forget how to get out of here."
"You won't. Besides, you don't have Kleine Bertha in your car."
"Someone is coming."
"It's Charles. Perfect timing!"
He came running up to them, the very picture of the harried young executive. "Sorry I took so long."
"Not at all. You are just in time for the party." Hans started the truck, set the hand brake and left the engine idling.
Jesus kept watch while they pulled back a tarpaulin covering what looked like a section of gas main.
"No, move the baseplate a little more. So, ganz gut."
"A beautiful sunset," said Charles. "Mine should have gone off by now."
"Then we can begin as soon as we have set up."
They raised the heavy tube into place and locked it into the swivel on the baseplate. Charles watched the tube move slightly as Hans turned the traversing screw.
"That should be on target."
"If you say so."
"Well, a little more deflection, then. Those parking area lights and the mist are not ideal for range-finding."
Charles cradled a round for firing.
"Observer!" shouted Hans, as he sighted across the muzzle.
"Sí Señor. I am observing."
"Tell me where it goes. Charles, are the bombs ready?"
"Fuses all set. Ready whenever you say."
The tube belched yellow flame and there was a tearing sound in the air. Charles and Hans peered in the direction of the control tower. Suddenly there was a great flash and a puff of smoke. The explosion resounded in the blowing mist.
Jesus came running from his observation post atop a nearby car. "Short! One mil depression." He ran back to the car.
Hans turned the elevation screw. "One mil depression. Fire!"
The tower was burning. Large chunks of material fell from the structure. The second shell caused the great radar mast to lean over and the third caused it to topple. High voltage electrical apparatus exploded with blue and green flashes and showers of yellow sparks, turning the misty evening into a weird technicolor day. The air smelled of cordite and hot oil from the mortar.
Quickly, Charles and Hans lowered the tube onto the truck bed, jumped out and assisted Jesus in tying down the tarp.
"Let Hans lead the way, Jesus. I'll go in your car."
Slowly, with lights on low beam, they drove out of the parking lot, the air shrill with sirens. When they had gained the freeway, they came abreast and held a steady speed so that they occupied two of the four northbound lanes.
"Ouch! These tetrahedrons are sharp." Charles sucked his bleeding finger.
"I'm glad you have made sure," said Jesus, his eyes on the road ahead.
"These are vicious. No matter how they land, there's one hollow spike standing up. Okay, let Hans know we're ready."
As soon as there was a clear space in front of them, Jesus waved to Hans who sped on ahead. "I'm ready to begin the run."
Jesus turned diagonally, crossing all four lanes while Charles scattered the tetrahedrons from the window, taking care that they fell clear of the car. They returned to the first lane and made the run again.
"That's it. All gone. Don't look, but a semi-trailer rig has just hit one. Oh, oh. There he goes. He's turned over."
Jesus glanced in the rear view mirror. "Yes, a big one. Nothing behind us now. Just a lot of headlights taking off in all directions. I don't think anyone will be following us, but I'll take the usual evasive action."
Charles stuck his head out the window and looked for signs of traffic control aircraft. "Nothing." He checked the magazine of his Sterling.
After many twists and turns, they came to a hitchhiker beside the road, and stopped.
"We're not allowed to take riders. This is a company car," said Jesus.
"Good evening, Hans. Shall we park here?"
"Yes, quickly. Both of you into the truck. We are late."
Hans wasted no time in rounding the curves of the narrow, winding road, turning off at the preselected site and stopping abruptly. "I don't think the truck will be seen from the road."
Charles looked out at the darkened shrubbery, listening to the crickets. "I hope the local teenagers don't decide to have their evening orgy down here."
"They shouldn't. It's a week night," said Jesus.
"You learn American customs very quickly."
"Jesus, help me with the tools. Charles, bring the frog. Orgies must wait."
"On my honor, I've never tried it in a car."
"Amazing! You must be the most unusual American in the country."
"Why do you think campers have become so popular? Oops!" Charles lost his footing, grabbed for a nearby eucalyptus branch, missed, and slid down the dusty incline in a seated position, holding the cast steel frog in his lap. He came to rest on the sandy bottom of the arroyo.
"You okay?" asked Jesus.
"Yes, damn it! There goes another expensive suit. Ouch!"
"What's the matter?"
"Rocks in my shoes." Charles dusted himself off.
"Why didn't you drop the frog? Did you think it would break?"
"I didn't want it to get dirty."
"Shut up, you two."
Over the crickets in the brush they heard the klaxon of a diesel locomotive, followed by the growl of the engines. A few minutes more, and the growl became a whine as the traction motors began to brake.
"He's over the hump and starting the downgrade." Charles checked to see that his Sterling was in working order. "That should be the first one. They've taken to sending a short train of empties ahead of the big ones because of all the rail defects and sabotage."
Hans looked up at the track. "We're fortunate there is a new moon tonight. As it is, we will be in full view from the road. We must work quickly."
"We'll have to work quickly if we're going to catch the big one." Charles kicked the frog. "It sure weighs enough."
Jesus looked at his watch and yawned. "Sangre de Cristo. Look at the time! If we were paid up members of the Terrorists' Union we wouldn't have to put in such long hours."
Charles laughed. "It has been a busy week, all right. After tonight, the Governor will be yelling for the Marines."
"Why do that, when all he has to do is pay us? Is he such a fathead?"
"It looks like it, along with the small group of crooks who put him in office."
Above them, on the other side of the arroyo, the rail joints popped and the ties began to creak. The rumble of the wheels grew louder, and suddenly the locomotive rounded the curve, its cyclopean headlight sweeping the track and verges of the right-of-way. The pilot train sped around the curve, lunged across the trestle over the dry canyon and was quickly lost to view.
Hans slapped Charles on the back. "Let's go!"
Panting and stumbling, they scrambled up the embankment, the smell of fuel oil and creosote strong as they knelt upon the line. Working quickly, they placed the frog on the outside rail of the curve and firmly bolted the clamps.
Jesus tapped the frog with his wrench. "I thought it was a piece of modern sculpture when I first saw it. What does it do, exactly, aside from derailing the train?"
Charles smiled. "Well, it serves as an art object and a conversation piece, but when it's used like this, it deftly raises the flange of the leading wheel, pulling it and the one opposite off the rails and onto the ties."
"And if the train is going fast?"
"That's when the railroad goes into competition with the airlines."
Hans rejoined them. "I've thrown the leaflets into the sagebrush above the line." He laid his hand on the rail which was still warm from the passage of the locomotive and its string of empties. A klaxon sounded. "The fast freight. Back to the truck! We'll see the show from the road."
They had just reached the truck when the sweeping headlamp of the train came into view.
Hans started the truck. "The time, please."
"Nine twenty-five," said Charles. "It must be the fast freight. Over a mile long."
"I said, it could be over a mile long."
"And going eighty miles an hour? This will be spectacular." Hans backed the truck onto the road.
"It isn't very economic, really, but it saves paying so much bribe money to the unions, and it's just right for our purposes."
The shining rails flashed in the beam of the headlight, and the train on the other side of the arroyo seemed much too close.
"Hans, you'd better get started."
The train rushed by in the opposite direction. Its locomotive comprised of eight diesel units, rounded the curve approaching the trestle and soared into thin air. For a moment, the train appeared to be flying, but illusion suddenly gave way to gravity as it plunged into the canyon. Tortured metal screeched as car after car followed the locomotive, wheels masses of sparks from the brake shoes. The ground shook and thunder rolled up from the canyon. Then the night vanished, dispelled by the garish names of burning gasoline from ruptured tank cars. Surrounding the yellow glare was a creeping green haze which curled up toward them, lifted by the air rising from the inferno.
The smell of bleach entered the cab of the truck as Hans accelerated. "Chlorine gas, my friends. It is time we left."
"... Making a total of fifty-one planes whose passengers and crew members have been rescued by the over-worked air-sea rescue teams.
And now, a special message to the people of the state: Ladies and gentlemen, the Governor of California.
'I ... I wish to extend my thanks to the citizens who have done so much to support the forces of law and order in these trying days.'
Thank you Governor. The weather report follows this important message from our sponsor ..."
"Hans, Jesus, wake up! The message!" Charles shook them from their slumbers beside the television set.
"Ja? The message, you say. Ach, I'd looked forward to wrecking the power station and those pipelines, not to mention the aluminum foundry."
"Easy, tiger. Now all we have to do is send the Governor our final instructions."
Alone in the house, Jesus watched the drainage tunnel outlet from the kitchen window. He could also see plumes of smoke rising from riot-stricken quarters of the city. Then he saw the delivery van.
It stopped over the culvert. Six men got out and looked down at the tunnel entrance. Apparently satisfied, they opened the back of the van and carefully removed some small but heavy-looking boxes. These they moved with great effort down the slope, placing them just inside the tunnel. When they had finished, they looked around in bewilderment, as if expecting to see the collector of the ransom nearby, pen poised to sign a receipt. They were obviously government employees. One of them looked up at the house, but did not see Jesus who observed them through a hole in the curtain. Having had a good look at nothing in particular, they got into the van and drove away.
Jesus reached beneath the sinkboard and pressed a doorbell button twice to begin the pick up. He raised his head, startled by a helicopter that swooped low over the house. "The damned fool will take the roof off," he thought.
The helicopter circled like a great dragonfly, apparently attracted by something in the area.
"Ah, so that's it. Now it begins." He turned on the television and adjusted the vertical hold knob at the back so that the picture jumped.
"... The chlorine gas remains in pockets and continues to hamper emergency crews in their task of clearing the wreckage. As you see in these films taken at the scene, wrecking crews must wear gas masks at all times. Here, they are removing portions of the trestle which was demolished when the train, acting like a huge battering ram, smashed into the supporting girders. Spokesmen for the railroad say the main line will be reopened to traffic in five days, at the earliest.
The toll of deaths from gas poisoning in the adjacent housing tract could now be well over two hundred. Hospitals are still unable to give conclusive figures on ..."
He heard the door knocker bang.
As usual, there were two of them. They looked so unstylishly clean-cut that they were impossible not to recognize.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Rios. We're Agents Morneau and Hayden of the F.B.I." They showed him their badges and paused to let their announcement sink in.
Jesus managed to look surprised. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I wonder if we might step inside," said Morneau, the senior of the two.
"Oh, yes. Please come in. Pardon me, but I must be forgetting my Latin hospitality." He showed them into the living room.
Morneau nodded to Hayden, reminding him of a duty he had to perform.
"May I have a look around the house, Mr. Rios?" asked Hayden.
"Certainly, but please let me know what I can do in the way of assistance."
"Now, Mr. Rios," said Morneau, "we don't want to trouble you, but unfortunately, we can't discuss our business just yet. I'd like to ask your co-operation in confirming a few details we've gathered."
"Of course. Please sit down."
Morneau settled comfortably on the couch and Jesus sat upon his artist's stool, facing him.
"First of all, you're an instructor at the university."
"Yes, I'm a part-time Spanish instructor, but I'm on vacation just now."
"Yes, that's right." Morneau thumbed through a notebook. "Do you own this house, Mr. Rios?"
"Well, I'm considering that. Right now I just rent it, but if there's an opening as a permanent faculty member, I'll certainly buy it."
Their conversation was interrupted by the helicopter swooping over the house.
"Excuse, me, Mr. Rios," said Hayden, returning from the upstairs bedrooms, "where does that stairway go?"
"Down to the laundry room. I'm afraid the light doesn't work. Would you like a flashlight?"
"Yes, I'd appreciate it."
"There's one in the kitchen. I'll show you where it is."
They went into the kitchen where the television was still on.
"... National Guard units have cordoned off the university campus after today's disturbances led by students in sympathy with ghetto revolutionaries. The Chancellor says little damage was done and that normal classes would resume tomorrow. The campus situation, he says ..."
"Caramba, that picture is lousy!"
"It keeps jumping," said Hayden, "so it's probably your vertical hold."
"Or possibly outside interference," said Morneau, "maybe an airplane."
"Gentlemen, you'll find the flashlight in that drawer. Would one of you be so kind as to tell me when the picture stops moving?" Jesus went behind the television set. "There, is that better?"
"No, it's not any different." said Morneau as Hayden rummaged through the contents of the drawer, looking in vain for a flashlight.
"Must be interference," said Jesus, who was not even attempting to correct the distortion.
The helicopter drowned out their conversation. It was so loud that Jesus hardly heard the two bursts he fired from his Sterling which had been resting behind the television stand.
Both F.B.I. men were thrown back against the sink, then toppled forward and crumpled into heaps on the kitchen floor. Behind them, the white cupboard doors were spattered with red polka-dots which started to run down in streaks like peppermint candy. Water sprayed up to the ceiling from a cracked faucet, and the tiles above the sink had been smashed by stray rounds. Empty cartridges rolled off the kitchen table, still smoking as they clinked upon the floor. One of the agents had caught his hand on the drying rack, bringing down a deluge of plastic dishes. With all the dishes, cups and saucers scattered about, they looked like two mental defectives who had quarrelled violently while playing house.
Jesus switched off the television. "Yes, Mr. Hayden, it was the vertical hold." He lit a cigarette and savored the tobacco smoke, noticing in his eagerness that his hands were trembling slightly. It had been as easy as fool's mate, he thought.
Skirting the blood spreading over the linoleum, he pressed the doorbell button to signal Charles and Hans in the tunnel that visitors had arrived and had been properly welcomed. Then he looked at his watch. His one-man rear guard action would have to last almost an hour, long enough for Charles and Hans to remove the gold.
After slinging his Sterling so that it hung behind his back, he went down to the basement to fetch his hunting rifle. The light on the stairway was in working order if one thought to screw in the bulb a bit more. Returning to the living room, he found the telephone ringing.
"Agent Rossi speaking. May I speak to Agent Morneau?"
"He's just gone down to the basement. Shall I have him come up?"
"Yes, right away. Are you Hayden?"
"Yes, anything I can do for you?"
"Listen, this is urgent. Rios, or whoever he is, may be one of the men we're looking for. Immigration has no record of anyone of his description. The Chilean Consul denies ever having issued a passport to him. Don't let him out of your sight, and get Morneau on the phone right away."
"Will do." Jesus smiled.
Instead of going in search of Agent Morneau, he ran upstairs and onto the roof, crouching under an awning lashed to the side of the chimney. The helicopter was an easy target, but the tail rotor presented difficulties. At last he had the drive shaft lined up in his telescopic sight and slowly squeezed the trigger. The rifle recoiled with a vicious crack as the powerful Magnum sought its target. No effect. The men in the helicopter seemed concerned about something, but were not deviating from their circular course over the tunnel area.
Jesus slammed the bolt home and took aim at the drive shaft once more. "Perhaps I must hit a universal joint," he thought. Steadying his aim by propping the rifle on the refreshment trolley, he was just squeezing the trigger when the shaft parted and the tail rotor stopped. Instead of firing, he ejected the cartridge and stood up for a better look. "Why waste a bullet on two dead men?"
He stooped, retrieved the gleaming cartridge, and strolled over to the balustrade, watching as the two men strove frantically to work the controls, but the aircraft did not respond. It began to corkscrew violently, then plummeted to earth, raising a geyser of smoke and dust on the hillside below. Soon it burst into flame setting a stand of firs alight.
Jesus ran down to the telephone. The line was disconnected and the dial-tone was buzzing. He replaced the receiver, looked at his watch, and raced across the room to the front door where he closed a simple knife switch, then carefully picked his way over the carnage in the kitchen and closed the switch beside the kitchen door. He slipped in some blood, caught himself on the table and escaped to the living room, pausing to wipe his shoes on the thick carpet.
Bringing his Sterling and hunting rifle with him, he hurried down the spiral stairway and reached the basement, stopping at the foot of the stairs. After taking five deep breaths, he felt calmer and was able to concentrate on his final task, the closing of the last switch. He forced himself not to think of the racing second hand as he coolly took all the extra ammunition from the gun cabinet and made a final check that everything was in order. Then he entered the dimly-lit tunnel which smelled fragrantly of fresh earth and newly-sawn timbers. Coming to the intersection with the drainage tunnel, he found Hans wearing his miner's helmet and lamp.
"How is everything down here, Hans?"
"Very good. Fortunately, we took the precaution of providing our own boxes. We discovered a few radio direction transmitters and a listening device built into their boxes, not the sort of 'extras' we require."
"No, it's not nice to be greedy. What about the gold?"
"I weighed the coins as I put them into our boxes. They come out just right. Here you are. You can help me carry the last box to the truck. My back has had enough."
Charles ran up to them, gasping for breath. "Booby trap is set in the tunnel."
"They've been on the phone. They know something funny is going on here. No time to lose." Jesus looked back the way he had come.
"Did you set the farewell salutes?" asked Hans.
"Yes. Mine will go off in about four hours." Charles checked his watch.
"And mine will go as soon as they arrive, which may be any minute," said Jesus anxiously.
"Good men," said Hans. "Now we get the hell out of here!"
They hurried down a sloping passage and came out into the shady canyon where an army weapons carrier stood. After loading on the last box, they hastily donned U.S. Army fatigues with National Guard insignia. Charles and Jesus jumped into the back and Hans jammed the truck into gear. Armed conspicuously with M-1 rifles, the two 'National Guardsmen' slouched against the wooden stake sides of the careening truck, their feet resting on ammunition boxes filled with gold eagles. The sunlight shining through the branches made leafy patterns of light and shade upon the green boxes as they raced down the canyon. Soon, Hans slowed down and turned into the paved road which ran through Tilden Park.
Charles heard another helicopter approaching and he looked up at the clouds. "Beautiful day, if you don't mind the smog."
"It's not the smog I'm worried about." Jesus looked back toward the house on the hillside where the helicopter was circling.
District Agent Rossi was beside himself. "Goddammit! Move those hoses." He beat the steering wheel of his car in frustration as a few firemen complied. There weren't many firemen available as it was, and most of them were exhausted from days of thankless battle in the ghettoes where conflagrations, crumbling masonry and sniper bullets had become a daily routine.
Rossi's junior, Fitzgerald, had never heard him use profanity before, and he was shocked. Fortunately, there were no members of the public around to hear, unless the three carloads of Treasury agents behind them could be classed as public.
There were groans and screams from the crowd which had gathered near the fire as the timber props gave way from beneath a modernistic bungalow. Majestically, it toppled into the furiously burning woods with a shuddering crash, accompanied by a cacophony of breaking glass. The flames leaped higher as they fed on this additional morsel.
"The only f---ing road in the area, and it has to be blocked by a goddamn fire!"
"Well, Sir, it was one of our helicopters that did it." Fitzgerald had a genius for saying the wrong thing at precisely the right time. The other agents in the car sucked in their breaths. But Fitzgerald was saved by the timely arrival of the Fire Chief, who poked his besooted head into the car.
"What the hell do you think this is, a pleasure drive? Can't you see there s a fire?" He was a desperate-looking creature, eyes ringed with fatigue, nearly mad from exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
"Federal agents," shouted Rossi. "Move your damn toys out our way, and be quick about it!"
"Toys! Listen, you meat head, this is a fire, and I'm in charge. We're moving no equipment until the area is secure. Can't you see the whole ridge is about to go up?"
"Let it go up! I'm the representative of the Federal Government in this area, and I can guarantee reimbursement for any losses incurred." Rossi's face was red, and the throbbing vein on his temple looked as if it were going to burst at any moment.
"And I'm King Kong. Why don't you f--- off!"
Rossi gave a shrill growl, like that of a puma ready to spring, and drew his service revolver. There was nothing anyone could do. The Fire Chief was a huge man, but the Magnums somersaulted him halfway across the road as they smashed into his body.
"Now, move those trucks!" Rossi waved the smoking weapon about, leaving no doubt of the fate in store for back-talkers.
"Yes, Sir, where can we park them, Sir?" asked the intrepid Fitzgerald.
"Drive them over the cliff, but off the road, immediately!"
The crowd grew ugly when they saw the first fire engine roll over into the flames, and other agents had to draw their weapons to allow the convoy to pass through. It was all a matter of priorities.
At last, they drew up in front of the house on the hillside. Agent Rossi led a group to the front door while others took up positions on both sides. Additional agents were working their way up the hillside in order to take the house from all directions. Rossi approached the door with drawn gun and kicked it open.
Agents Reilly and Funguido approached the tunnel swiftly but cautiously, the one covering the other as each made his dash up the brushy slope. Guns drawn, they rushed into the tunnel to find what they expected: Nothing.
Wordlessly, Funguido motioned Reilly to take cover against the opposite wall. They stood for a moment, listening to the trickle of water and the muted engine of the helicopter as it passed overhead. When their eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, they began to pick their way quietly over the rocks and broken glass littering the sides of the tunnel floor. They noticed the center of the floor had been swept clear of stones and other obstacles, and they could make out the tracks of a boy's wagon in the sandy spots.
Suddenly, the tunnel seemed to leap into the air. Both men were thrown down and stunned by the shock of an explosion. Regaining their senses, they looked around. The tunnel appeared intact. Nothing had collapsed. The water still splattered and trickled from above and the warm air still came in from the entrance below.
They resumed their careful tread along the sides of the tunnel until they found their way blocked by the rusted remains of a bicycle which leaned against some ruined lawn chairs, their canvas hanging tattered and mildewed.
Noiselessly, they put the bicycle out of the way, not noticing that it was bound to a piece of fine piano wire which ran back toward the tunnel entrance. As the wire went taut, some pellets dropped into a tray of acid concealed beneath a pile of rubble. They hadn't gone much further when Agent Funguido barked his shins on a boy's wagon directly in their path.
"Damn it! What is this, a kid's toy dump?"
Reilly was about to warn his partner to be silent, but his inhaled breath caused him to choke instead. Both men were dead by the time they slumped to the floor. When they were discovered a few days later, they had begun to mildew.
Hans drove exceptionally well. They sped around the tree-lined curves of the park road and came to the first intersection at the base of the foothills, stopping for a red light.
Jesus was about to say something when his breath was nearly taken away by the shock wave of the explosion. A great pillar of dirt and smoke rose from the hillside behind them.
Charles smiled. "That's one way to avoid paying the rent."
"Let them dig for evidence in that!" Hans laughed and put the truck into gear, driving across the intersection toward the campus.
Jesus beat his hands on the canvas top of the cab. "Hans, don't go near the University!"
Hans stopped. "Which way should I go, then?" He pointed to the columns of smoke rising to the north and south of them.
"Mierda! More riots. But there will be trouble at the University."
"It's the only way we can go, so we must take the risk. Charles, get into the cab with me in case I am wounded." Hans laughed as they drove on.
"What is it?" asked Charles.
"This reminds me of another trip I made, years ago, when you were only a child."
"During the war?"
"Yes. The roads were muddy. The mud nearly finished us. And then there was the silence."
"Yes, that is what made it so frightening. It was suffocating. The park forest reminded me of it."
"Where were you at the time?"
"Traveling west with the eastern front."
"You seem to be well-practiced at making getaways."
"Let us hope practice makes perfect." Hans mused grimly over the steering wheel. "It comes to the same thing if we are captured now, as it did then. 'Vitamin C' tablets." He chuckled.
"Let's hope we won't need them."
"No, my young friend, especially in your case. I have had some twenty good years after my last escape. I can only wish you the same after this one." He turned onto the tree-lined road marked 'University Drive.'
"No one around. That's ominous." Charles arranged the grenades and extra magazines for his Sterling so they would be in easy reach. He looked out the rear opening in the canvas. "How are you for ammunition, Jesus?"
"Five extra Sterling magazines, two full clips of M-1 and a box and a half of Magnums."
"Well, don't feel left out." He passed him six high-explosive assault grenades.
"Just to keep you from getting bored back there. And keep the Sterling out of sight. It's not G.I. You want us to look like urban guerrillas or something?"
Jesus laughed and laid the Sterling on the floor of the truck beside the ammunition boxes.
Charles tapped Hans on the shoulder. "Stop here."
"What the hell for?"
"We need those trash cans."
"I have no objection to looting whatever we can take with us, but this is ridiculous!"
Hans put on the brakes, and Charles leaped out. He came back with two large trash cans after he had emptied them by the roadside.
"That's right, Jesus, stand them up in the back."
"Charles, you are mad," said Hans.
"Not at all. Who's going to pick a fight with a garbage detail? Besides, the National Guard won't enlist us in any action if we keep the guns out of sight."
"Good thinking, Herr Oberst. It might even work."
"Jesus, give me your M-1. Hans, get out for a moment."
Charles waited until Hans was clear, then fired carefully aimed shots at the truck. Holes appeared in the door panels, the hood, and the windshield on the passenger's side. He stepped back to survey his work while Hans and Jesus stood by in consternation.
"Mad, Jesus. He's utterly mad."
"Do you suppose it was the late nights, or the lobster mayonnaise? I thought the lobster was fresh." Jesus shrugged.
"No, not the lobster mayonnaise. Such vandalism. Ach, my beautiful weapons carrier!"
Charles stood for a moment, debating whether another bullet hole would get any raves from the critics, then decided against it. "I like it the way it is. Let's get out of here."
"He seems to be regaining his senses," said Hans.
"Great art is always ahead of its time, but you'll both see very soon that I've made us an alibi." Charles returned the M-1 to Jesus.
"Or a conversation piece." Jesus swung into the back of the truck, and studied the road behind for signs of pursuit.
"Just humor me, okay?" Charles slammed the perforated door.
Hans drove carefully, but the sharp bend in the narrow drive obscured the armored personnel carrier until they were almost upon it. He hit the brakes hard, and the weapons carrier spun about, nearly hitting the a.p.c. broadside. The engine stalled, and the soldier manning the fifty caliber machine gun atop the a.p.c. looked over at them.
Charles cave him a cheerful wave. "Hi! What's cookin'?"
The machine gunner said nothing, returning his gaze to the large wooden house which he was covering with his weapon. Some troops were approaching the structure cautiously, in a classical enveloping maneuver, moving from cover to cover in short rushes.
A rifle muzzle poked from one of the boarded up windows of the house.
"Out!" Hans gave Charles a shove and threw his door open.
They jumped out of the truck as the machine gun began to fire, spraying the front of the house in a long burst. There was silence for a moment and Charles peered around the side of the a.p.c. where they had taken refuge. Looking up, he saw a tremendous gush of smoke from the chimney. Simultaneously, there boiled out of the house a great number of blacks, some leaping from windows others from fire escapes, all screaming and cursing at the top of their lungs.
"Down!" Charles pulled Hans with him as he hit the pavement.
The house swelled up, sprang into the air, and burst into a vicious cloud of flying splinters, glass and brick. The ground heaved, and a great, hot fist drove them hard against the pavement, leaving them stunned and breathless. When they looked up, the house was gone and so were the blacks and the soldiers. The machine gunner's arm dangled from the top of the a.p.c. for a moment before it plopped into the street beside them.
"Himmel! Was passiert mit ... What was that?"
Jesus wiped blood from a cut on his forehead. "A bomb factory. I warned you ..."
They sprawled on the pavement again as another explosion shook the area. Where the house had been, there was now a crater, belching flame and brightly-colored smoke as mysterious objects exploded with great whooshes.
In the background they heard the rattle of small arms fire and the squeak of tank treads. A broken power line flashed, writhing and cracking on a rubble-strewn lawn. Here and there, cars burned, filling the air with the stench of plastic and rubber. A pall of smoke rose from burning buildings.
Numbly, they got into the truck and drove on slowly, skirting the fallen electric poles and other debris that threatened to block the street. Somehow, Hans found a path through the chaos, while Charles and Jesus scanned the damaged houses for snipers. To avoid the litter in the streets, they drove over lawns and sidewalks, incidentally ruining the back fence and garden of the university's president who cowered somewhere in the recesses of his palatial house. There was no bravery among the corrupt.
Charles looked up as a searing roar split the sky above them. "Fighter bomber!"
The sunlight glinted on its fuselage as it streaked over the university library, which erupted in a black cloud of flaming napalm.
Jesus put his head through the rear window. "My students. They invited me to come with them, as if they were going on a picnic. The books were all right against bullets and bomb fragments, but ..."
Charles watched the column of smoke rise from the library. "I was a student here, myself."
"No, Carlitos! In this university?"
"Yes, but it was a little different, then."
Hans stopped. "Up ahead. What is that?"
Charles peered through the drifting smoke. "It could be smoke, but then ..."
"It must be gas."
"What kind do the Americans use?"
"At this stage, anything, but we'll have to take a chance that it's just C.S. gas. Jesus!"
"Now, listen. You've never been through gas before, but there's nothing to worry about. Your face and hands will sting like hell, but whatever you do, keep your mask on. Roll down your sleeves and button your collar. That will help some. I think it's concentrated in that pocket up ahead."
"You mean we must go into that?"
"I'm afraid so, but Hans won't take too long to get through it. Just sit tight and hold on."
"Caramba!" Jesus put on his mask and Charles tested the straps to make sure they were taut.
Charles adjusted his own mask as Hans put on his.
"Now, get ready for a special treat." Charles' voice was muffled even as he shouted. "Let's go!"
They drove into the sinister cloud that billowed and eddied around them. The area was saturated with gas. No shots came from the houses which were just visible in the haze, but a man staggered toward them, vomited, and blindly reeled down the street until he doubled up again to retch. This time he collapsed, adding his to the growing number of bodies that littered the streets and lawns of the suburb, sprawled in grotesque postures that reflected their agonized deaths. The truck lurched and bumped over the corpses, which provided the smoothest roadway amid the rubble of street-fighting.
As the gas thinned out, sniper bullets began to whistle around them. They were bypassing a lawn strewn with the mutilated remains of policemen when a molotov cocktail sailed into their path and burst, the sudden inferno blocking the street. Hans reversed the truck and backed away from the flames.
"Watch out!" yelled Charles, as a swarm of youths appeared from a side street, wearing gas masks and brandishing firebombs.
Jesus fired a burst which cut down the first group and whirled around to machine-gun another group coming at them from the other side. The youths fell, and some of the firebombs burst among the would-be throwers who vanished as suddenly as they had appeared, in pools of flame.
Skillfully, Hans took them away from the fires and into an area which had seen heavy fighting between National Guard units and well-armed rioters. They passed a line of a.p.c.'s which had taken direct hits from anti-tank rockets and were blazing furiously, their ammunition still exploding like fireworks on the Fourth of July, in sharp accompaniment to the crump of bombs in the distance. Charles was glad that his mask prevented him from smelling the roasted flesh as they drove over the charred bodies of the ambushed troops.
They detoured around an overturned school bus and found themselves confronted by a heavily-manned roadblock whose machine guns were all aimed at them.
Seeing that none of the soldiers wore masks, they removed theirs, grateful for the coolness of the smoke-laden air.
"Smile," said Charles. "This is it."
Hans managed a toothy grin and waved at the grim-faced National Guardsmen ahead. "You've got your Sterling out of sight?"
"Yes, but I'm pulling the pin on this grenade."
"Don't drop it in here."
"I'll try not to."
A dishevelled-looking lieutenant signaled them to halt, and they stopped at the barricade. "Now, what the hell do you guys think you're doin'?"
"Jeez, Lootenant," moaned Charles, "Ah think we got lost." He laid on a thick hill-billy accent.
"That ain't all," said Jesus. "You gotta do somethin' 'bout them snipers or you gonna be minus one mess detail."
"You guys just gotta be kidding!" The lieutenant looked at them and saw that they were not kidding. "Well, I'll be damned. We lost a tank column in there an hour ago, and you clowns gripe over a few snipers. What you don't have for brains, you sure as hell make up for in luck."
"Wal, now, what'd Ah tell yew?" Charles nudged Hans. "Ah thought that theah neighbahood was a maht unfriendly."
"Unfriendly?" Hans muttered. "Donnerwetter!"
"Okay, you guys, let 'em through." The lieutenant signaled for the troops to move the barricade, a county road department contraption militarized by the addition of strands of barbed wire. He waved them to come on. "Hey, let's speed it up now, or your cook is gonna serve late dinner, and I'm so hungry I could eat a nigger fried, roasted or on the half-shell."
They laughed appropriately.
Hans revved the engine and proceeded past the barricade, Charles with a silly grin, holding the grenade on the seat beside him. He saw the barricade close behind them. Now they were boxed in between two barricades. "I don't like this," he thought, and he felt his hand grow moist upon the casing of the grenade.
The lieutenant motioned them to halt. "Okay, just step out for a second. Orders are to search every vehicle leaving this area."
"Sure," said Charles, smiling at him and giving Hans a punch on the shoulder. "Go!"
Hans stamped on the accelerator. The weapons carrier leaped forward and crashed through the second barricade, scattering the soldiers who quickly knelt beside the road and aimed their weapons. Jesus shot the trooper who had swung one of the machine guns around, and Charles hurled the grenade at a group of soldiers who sprawled flat, just as they were about to fire a deadly volley. Hans accelerated, trailing some of the barbed wire and broken palings from the shattered barricade. Bullets flew in every direction as exploding grenades and bursts from the Sterlings spoiled the aim of the soldiers behind them. Ahead lay the open highway, not a car or truck in front of them.
"They're after us!" shouted Jesus.
Two jeeps mounting fifty-caliber machine-guns raced in pursuit, gunners firing bursts from their swaying platforms.
Hans put the accelerator peddle on the floor. "I don't think we can out-distance them. Keep your head down."
Jesus, lying on top of the gold boxes, fired both M-1's until the clips were expended. His rapid fire made the jeeps weave from side to side as the drivers swerved to avoid the bullets that ricocheted off the pavement in front of them. The distance was still too great for him to use the Sterling, so he took up his hunting rifle and began to fire slowly and deliberately, trying to hit someone or something vital on the jeeps. Accurate aim from the careening truck was almost impossible, just as it seemed to be from the bouncing jeeps whose bullets bit large chunks from the pavement or screamed overhead. No damage was done, despite all the shooting, but the jeeps were gaining on them.
Charles dropped a grenade which exploded only after the jeeps had sped past. Jesus rolled both trash cans over the tailgate, like depth charges. At that speed, they seemed to turn to rubber, bouncing up in the air and performing wondrous gyrations before they fell to the ground and rolled erratically across the pavement.
The driver of the nearest jeep zigged when he should have zagged, and was forced to turn violently to avoid collision with one of the trash cans. His jeep went into a spin, smashed into a concrete bridge abutment and burst into flames.
Bullets tore holes in the pavement around them as the gunner of the remaining jeep found the range. Hans swerved from side to side, throwing his aim off, but losing speed. Suddenly the windshield exploded, showering their lowered heads with shards of glass and angry splinters from the wooden stake sides. Charles saw blood on Hans' cheek and neck and was about to grab the wheel, but Hans pushed his arm away.
"I'm all right," he grunted, his eyes fixed eagerly on the road ahead.
Charles turned to look out the back window, hearing Jesus give a Latin version of a rebel yell. He saw the pursuing jeep go off the road and climb an embankment. It stalled for a moment, then rolled over and over and crashed back onto the roadway upside down.
"Snipers!" exulted Jesus. "Bless their dirty little hearts!"
Charles grinned. "I could hang a medal on every one of the bastards!"
"And I shall never complain about hard luck, my friends, not after today." Hans brushed some pieces of glass off the back of his neck.
It was nearly dusk when they pulled into the driveway of a suburban house not far from the burned-out refinery.
Hans knocked on the door. "Come on, Captain Barman, open up!"
The door opened as much as the security chain would allow, and out poked a double-barrelled shotgun.
"Who are you?" asked a woman with a frightened voice.
"Mrs. Barman," said Hans cordially, "it's Harry Holbrook remember? I chartered the Sandshark. Is the captain in?"
The woman peered out at them and sighed with relief at the sight of their uniforms. "Oh, Mr. Holbrook, please come in."
They entered a dimly-lit hallway and came into the living room where they found the captain and his two children watching television.
"Dear, Mr. Holbrook is here. I'm sorry, I don't know your friend's names. So you've all been called up." She said it as if they had been chosen to wash dishes after a church social.
"It's our duty, Ma'am," said Charles, modestly.
"What brings you out here?" asked the captain, not looking away from the riot scenes on television.
"... And the President has declared the State of California a disaster area. National Guard units are to be federalized and reinforced by regular army units due to the present state of emergency.
Here is a special bulletin ..."
"We wish to sail the Sandshark this evening as agreed," said Hans.
"Out of the question." The captain left his easy chair to turn up the volume, resuming his seat with a hiss of plastic cushions
"... Earlier today, three men made their getaway from F.B.I. and National Guard authorities with over a million dollars in gold coins stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. They are believed to be wearing National Guard uniforms and are using a military vehicle. A reward is offered for information leading to their capture. Federal authorities have mounted an all-out effort to apprehend these men, who are armed and dangerous. They were last seen ..."
"Allow me," purred Jesus as he took the shotgun from Mrs. Barman.
"Nobody move!" Hans covered the captain with his Sterling. "Now listen, and listen well, because I am only going to make this offer once: Come with us, Captain, you and your family. We have arms, money. There is a country in Latin America ..."
"Yes, I know what you've loaded on my ship. I opened one of the cases this afternoon. You don't use machine-guns for oceanography. You're crazy, all of you, and I won't have any part of this business. You can't use my ship for gun-running and God knows what else. I won't sail 'er out of berth for a bunch of cut-throat renegades."
"Captain, you don't understand. I offer you a good life, a place to see your children grow to become men and women. True, you will have to fight there as you will here, but there, the rewards are great, and here will be only dismal survival."
"Now I recognize that accent, Holbrook, or whoever you are. You're a Kraut, a dirty Nazi!"
"Look, Captain," said Charles, "I speak as an American. This country's finished. Can't you see what's happening?"
"... And the news has been brought to you by the makers of ..."
They saw a negro plunge a knife into the announcer's back. The television camera swung wildly, showing scenes of desperate struggle in the studio.
"Now listen here, all you soul brothers and muthas! This here's the Black Liberation Front, and we jest now got a piece of our rightful turf from these white devils."
The camera was brought to bear on the slightly out-of-focus face of a bearded negro who began reading from a prepared speech. "Fust of all, I say, power to the people!" He raised a clenched fist. Then his voice was drowned out by shouting and gunshots in the studio. The screen went blank, and there was no sound except for the hum of the transmitter.
"You are the one who is mad, Captain, if you choose to stay here."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"As you wish." Hans pulled the trigger.
The captain was thrown back in his easy chair, twitched, then lay still, his blood flowing down the sides of the chair to drip upon the carpet. The wife's screams were silenced by the shotgun blast which tore her in half.
"The children," said Jesus. "It's no good leaving orphans with unhappy memories."
Charles drew his pistol. "Easy kids, there's nothing to be afraid of." He knelt beside the whimpering children and shot each of them through the head, sending them sprawling across the living room floor. They lay peacefully, as if asleep.
"Too bad," said Hans. "The captain had a motorboat in his garage. There must be gasoline."
They found a large drum of it in the carport, just beside the garage. Jesus took two jerry cans into the house and splashed gasoline over the bodies and around the living room, pouring the remainder down the basement stairs, while Charles made molotov cocktails, using empty bottles and old rags from the trash bin. Hans was keeping lookout beside the truck when he saw Jesus come running from the house, just as flames gushed from the open windows on the ground floor.
He started the weapons carrier, waited for Charles and Jesus to climb into the back, then released the brakes, allowing them to coast down the driveway. The fire had reached the basement of the house and cans of paint and cleaning solvents began to explode, spouting vari-colored flames from the cellar windows. It was a warm evening, and the crickets were harmonizing pleasantly, lending an air of unreality to the burning house.
Charles and Jesus steadied themselves as Hans stopped abruptly in front of the next house on the street.
"I'll try for the picture window," said Charles, calling his throw.
After Jesus lit the rag for him, he gauged the distance with a practiced eye and hurled the bottle. It sailed off, trailed by the flaming rag tied to its neck, and crashed through the window, filling the darkened room with flame.
"Very good!" exclaimed Jesus. "Let me try the next one."
"Be my guest." Charles took Jesus' cigarette lighter.
"Do you suppose we are disturbing the next door neighbors with all this noise?"
"I don't think so. These houses are pretty far apart from each other. That's one of the advantages of living in an exclusive neighborhood, Jesus. You're never disturbed by your neighbors milk deliveries. Here you are, try that one on the other side of the street while I get this one."
When they had driven further, they looked back and saw the many fires twinkling like stars in the distance.
Charles sniffed the gasoline on his hands. "That'll throw them off the trail for awhile. We'll need all the time we can get to make some distance between us and this madhouse."
"Good idea, Carlitos, to burn the whole neighborhood, otherwise some bright one could have made a quick connection between the death of Captain Barman and the disappearance of the Sandshark."
"Barman was a fool." Charles spat over the side of the truck, trying to rid himself of the taste of gasoline.
"Hans was right. He should have come with us. The captain did not strike me as a stupid man, though he certainly behaved like one."
"System rejection," said Charles.
"Oh, it's just some political science jargon. It means that a system, in this case, a human brain, rejects facts and concepts which threaten it. Barman wasn't stupid, he was merely a fool who refused to see what was right in front of him."
They drove onto the deserted wharf. Beside them, the black hull rocked gently, lapped by the outgoing tide. White letters streaked with rust from the anchor read 'Sandshark' in matter-of-fact script. The ship was old fashion-looking, with a rakish funnel and clipper bow. Only the harpoon gun on the fo'c'sle indicated her speed and purpose, that of a whaling killer ship.
"He may have told the police about the guns." Jesus scanned the decks of the darkened ship for signs of life, his Sterling muzzle following his gaze.
Charles looked around the wharf. "Not likely. We got here pretty quickly. What's more, the police have their hands full."
"You're probably right. The authorities have enough to do coping with guns already out of boxes. They can't really concern themselves with ones lying quietly in their crates."
"How long to raise steam, Hans?"
"One, maybe two hours. I first must raise steam in the auxiliary boiler to heat the bunker oil."
"Good. Better see to that right away. Jesus and I will load the gold and see to things topside."
"Jawohl, Herr Kapitän." Hans saluted. "You are now in charge."
They watched Hans mount the gangplank and waited for him to signal 'o.k.' before taking the gold off the truck. Working quickly, they took the boxes on board, leaving them on the gangway beside the door to the cargo hold.
Charles opened the door before switching on his flashlight. They entered and drew the door closed. When he switched on the light, they saw that they were standing at the top of a steel landing, looking down at an array of neatly-stacked boxes and crates. The hold was pervaded by a clean smell of fresh grease and light oil which rose above the pine scent of the crates and pallets.
"'Oceanographic equipment.'" Charles chuckled. "It looks securely stowed. I'd hate to have this load of hardware shifting around."
"Hans supervised the loading. It was all he could do to keep the thieving longshoremen from smashing the boxes in order to pilfer the contents, even after bribing them not to. Bastards!"
Charles shined his light on an open box, the nails gleaming from its wooden lid. A crowbar lay beside it. "That must have been the one that got Barman into trouble."
"Just what I was looking for, a machine-gun. May I borrow your flashlight to find some ammunition for it?"
Charles walked down the gangplank and onto the wharf, listening to the clang of a harbor buoy and the slap of the waves. Pigeons cooed under the eaves of the warehouse. He looked up and saw clouds slowly moving across the face of the moon. It was so peaceful here, he thought. It was like finding a spring of clear water in the desert, and he drank in the atmosphere while he could. The oases of peace were fast drying up.
He started the weapons carrier and drove toward the end of the wharf, jumping out when the truck's course was no longer in doubt. It bumped over the timber curbing and splashed into the murky water, throwing a deluge of stinking harbor slime onto the dock. A look over the edge satisfied him that the vehicle was sunk sufficiently to be out of sight, and he returned to help Jesus stow the gold with the rest of the cargo. A few lusty heaves at the blocks, and the gangplank slid back upon the wharf. One by one, Charles thought, the ties were being severed. Now only the mooring lines remained.
A seagull flew down and perched upon the railing. It too, seemed anxious to be away.
Black smoke poured from the Sandshark's funnel, and the whine of the blowers announced that the ship was coming to life. Jesus kept watch on deck while Charles studied the charts and navigation instruments. From the dimly-lit wheelhouse he could see the glow of large fires in the riot areas, casting fitful light on the oily ripples of the harbor. Sirens wailed and small arms popped like strings of firecrackers.
Charles blew into the engine room speaking tube.
"How is everything down there?"
"Wunderbar! Plenty of bunker oil, steam-pressure rising, good condenser vacuum, injector pumps working fine. Both boilers will be up to working pressure in a few more minutes. Shall I run the main dynamo?"
"Go ahead, but don't show any lights."
"When does your farewell diversion take place?"
"Any time, now. Can we get underway?"
"Moment mal ... Yes! We have full pressure."
"Incidentally, which way does the propeller turn?"
"Thanks." Charles replaced the plug and stepped out onto the bridge. "Hola, Jesus!" he shouted.
"Sí, mi Capítan!"
"Cast off the stern moorings!"
"La puta madre! You mean we are leaving?"
"You better get us out of this parking place pretty damn quick. I see headlights coming this way."
"Will do. Just hop to it!"
Charles waited until Jesus signaled that the stern lines were cast off, then rang 'slow astern' on the telegraph. The engine room indicator answered, and the engine began its unhurried panting, pulling the stern away from the dock and out into the channel. There were cars approaching the wharf, fast.
Charles shouted from the wheelhouse door. "Cast off the bow lines! Get the machine gun ready. It looks like a send off party."
Jesus threw the bowlines into the water before they went taut, and Charles rang 'full ahead.' The water boiled around them. The ship quickly lost its backward momentum and began to move forward, the pilings of the wharf looming rapidly. It was a near miss, and Charles sighed with relief as the bow turned away from the wharf and pointed into the channel. The ship was gaining speed, and he brought the wheel around just in time to keep them from running onto the mud flats exposed by the lowering tide. His full concentration was devoted to steering, so he could only guess the meaning of the gunshots on the dock. When they were well away from the trouble, he rang down to quarter speed and kept to mid-channel. The bow wave diminished and the ship rolled gracefully in the harbor swells.
Jesus entered the wheelhouse, his face damp with perspiration. "That was some fine hotrodding, Carlitos."
"Thanks. I hope I never have to do that again."
"Well, we almost rammed the pier, sank a small boat, and ran aground on the mud. Other than that, we did okay."
"You mean that is not the proper way to leave berth?"
"No. It breaks the rules of seamanship, and when you break those rules, you run into danger."
"Not like the laws on land. You must break them in order to survive."
"Yes, but the laws of the sea are different. You can't bribe Neptune."
"Well, how are things, otherwise?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing. Who were those characters on the wharf?"
"Rioters, I think. They took a few shots at us, but they seemed more interested in breaking into the warehouse."
"Good. I was afraid they were police. We need at least two hours to get clear of this place, and if the tide turns, we'll need closer to five."
"They might try to stop us at the Golden Gate."
"If the word is out, they'll try to stop us a lot sooner. How are we fixed for anti-aircraft weapons?"
"I've got the machine-gun set up and some small heat-seeking rockets. Not much good against jets, I don't think."
"They'll have to do. Oh well, we'd look pretty conspicuous in a battleship, anyway, so it looks as if the old Sandshark is our best bet."
"Isn't that the gasworks over there?"
"That's it, all right."
Suddenly, the ship was caught in the glare of a searchlight. "Ahoy, there, Sandshark!" crackled a voice from a loudhailer. "U.S. Coast Guard. Stop your engines and prepare to be boarded."
"Jesus, get to the machine-gun and open fire as soon as you can make out the target. Try to keep out of sight!"
"Sí, Señor!" He ran out of the wheelhouse, crouching low, and shielding his eyes from the brilliant light.
Charles rang 'stop engines' and blew into the speaking tube "Hans, raise as much steam as you can and stand by!"
"Wird gemacht, Herr Kapitän!"
They would have made a hell of a U-boat crew, thought Charles.
On a brush-covered hill overlooking the harbor was a disused manhole from which protruded a large tube. A projectile was poised, ready to plummet down the mouth of the tube, but was prevented from doing so by a piece of heavy twine across which burned a length of fuse. The fuse had nearly burned through, when the twine snapped and the projectile dropped. The tube coughed bright flame and there was a tearing sound in the air. Heavily armed F.B.I. agents sprinted toward the concealed position, confident that they would receive the credit for capturing the elusive band of urban guerrillas which had inflicted such severe losses on them that day.
Jesus heard the tearing sound as it came nearer, and shut his eyes at the sudden radiance as the gas works exploded, illuminating the harbor and the Coast Guard cutter in a flare of brilliant yellow. He felt the blast of heat from the burning storage tanks and the breeze changing as the fire drew in the air.
By reflex he jammed the stock of the MG-42 hard into his shoulder and held it down with his left hand. He saw the splashes in the water near the cutter and felt the gun leaping against him. Hot cartridges glanced off the mooring cleat beside him, and he was vaguely aware that they burned his cheek.
He fired a burst at the gun crew who were trying to bring their Oerlikon to bear, scattering them over the deck. The red tracers pointed to the radio mast which wilted onto the roof of the wheelhouse, then walked over to the searchlight whose beam went from white to yellow to darkness. As he fed in a new belt of ammunition he heard the clang of the engine telegraph and felt the Sandshark surge forward, her bow rising in eagerness as it bore down upon the cutter. He saw men leaping into the icy, polluted water of the bay, frantically trying to swim away from the remorseless black hull and the voracious propeller.
Jesus clung to the gun and the mooring cleat with all his strength, but even so, the collision nearly made him lose his grip. The Sandshark bucked and rolled, leaving the Coast Guard cutter sinking in its wake, a few heads bobbing in the water nearby. He leaped up and threw some grenades into the water. If there were any survivors, he thought, it would not be his fault. Once again the harbor was in darkness, save for the fires which threw a greenish-glow over the bay cities.
Charles saw Alcatraz Island ahead, now used as a temporary detention center for rioters. A volley of shots echoed across the water, a pause, then another volley.
"Bodies floating in the water! Sharks are going for them." Jesus entered the wheelhouse with his thermos jug.
"To port or starboard?"
"Well, off to the right. The sharks are heading toward that island, where the shots are coming from."
"Alcatraz. They're shooting the prisoners."
"Coffee?" Jesus poured a cupful.
"Thanks. How'd you know I like milk and sugar?"
"You're just lucky. I made the whole batch with milk and sugar. That reminds me, I wonder if we went away and left the stove on."
"What's that beeping noise, Carlitos?"
"The echo-sounder. It tells you if you're running out of channel. You see the buoys over there, on the right?"
"I thought they were oil drums."
"They're a lot bigger than that. Those tell us we're in the channel. If they were on our left, you might hear this little box get real nervous, and it wouldn't be playing a bossa nova."
"If you know we're in the channel, why use it?"
"Just testing, besides, we've got company." Charles pointed to a huge dark shape ahead.
"Diablos! What's that?"
"At first, I thought it was part of San Francisco gone adrift, but it's an aircraft carrier. That's why I'm giving him most of the channel, but even so, it looks like a tight squeeze." Charles sounded the whistle.
"They may not know we're here."
"Isn't it better if they don't?"
"I don't know. Ever tried sharing a telephone booth with an elephant?"
The carrier's siren boomed out across the water.
"Well, that's what I call a friendly greeting. Hey, they're signaling ... 'Where-are-you-going?' Take the Morse lamp, Jesus. Tell 'em we're going fishing."
"Sí, Señor." Jesus flashed the word, 'fishing,' and received a reply.
"Caramba, those are wordy bastards! They say, 'we-have-become-fishers-of-men.' Now, what the hell do they mean by that? Carlitos, look!"
The carrier blazed with light, and over the water, from its shipboard address system came the sound of a hymn. They saw the gray hull decorated with the slogans, 'peace,' 'one way,' and 'Jesus saves,' surrounded by flower motifs in luminous paint.
"What's going on, Carlitos?"
"You missed the fall of the Roman Empire, right?"
"Well, take another look. We're getting a slightly modernized rerun. They've mutinied. The Jesus-freaks have taken over the ship."
"Amazing! The United States is really finished, then."
"Nearer collapse than I thought. Well, the seeds of destruction were there all along. A powerful combination, a slave religion and blind greed. All that was needed was the final working out of the process."
"It must be the end of an era." Jesus shook his head.
"I prefer to see it as a continuum, one in which we have an important part."
"Yes, but you can't divide continuums into college courses."
"So much the worse for college courses." Charles laughed.
The carrier sailed past them and Jesus breathed a sigh of relief. "For a moment, I thought they would try to stop us and use their guns to convert us, in the true Christian tradition. We priests have always relied on brutality to mold others into the faith, especially the children. Nothing like the cat-of-nine to instill the seven deadly sins."
"They're only beginners. What can you expect?"
They steamed back into mid-channel and ran with the tide which took them through the Golden Gate at great speed. Jesus looked up and saw the tall bridge fly over them. Soon, the lights and conflagrations of San Francisco Bay were only flickers in the distance. They followed the scudding clouds into the open sea, covered by the protective cloak of a gathering storm.
Charles rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch. "Take over, Jesus. I'm beat, but tonight I feel very happy. We've come a long way."
"I've always wanted to steer a ship."
"Hope you like it. You'll get lots of practice on this trip. Just keep us on this heading and watch out for other ships." Charles blew into the speaking tube.
"Good work, Hans. I'm off for my four hours' sleep."
"Sleep well, Herr Kapitän, and congratulations!"
Charles stood on the fo'c'sle, filling his lungs with delicious sea air in order to wake up. It was nearly time to go on watch. The first days had been ones of unmitigated fatigue, but now they were becoming accustomed to four hours of sleep every eight hours, day or night. He marveled that he had not grown tired of the sea, their constant companion these days. Maybe he should have been a sailor, he thought, looking at the watery horizon.
The sea was choppy, but free of swells, and a steady wind whistled in the rigging. They were well away from land, and the seagulls no longer cried in their wake. The sky was almost cloudless, but the barometer showed rough weather to be imminent. The weather was the least of Charles' worries at the moment, and he anxiously surveyed the pale blueness above the green horizon, but the sky was undisturbed either by sight or sound of aircraft. Reassured, he smiled in appreciation as a school of flying fish spattered against a wave. Dolphins were following off the starboard bow, adding their lusty splashes to the scudding whitecaps.
He watched the wind whip the smoke away from the funnel and saw the black bow knife steadily through the white-flecked sea, the foaming curl of the bow wave hissing past them as it fled the turbulent wake of the propeller. He strolled aft to the open door of the stokehold and felt the air rushing down to the furnaces below. It was time to go on watch.
He sped down the gleaming ladders to find Hans tending the engine with a cloth and oil can. Hans believed that machinery knew when it was loved, and responded accordingly. A strange belief, thought Charles, but why did otherwise good mechanics get into so much difficulty? There seemed to be something in it.
"Wie geht es, Dir, mein Liebling?" Hans gave one of the great piston rods a caress with his oily rag. He always addressed engines in the familiar.
Charles tapped him on the shoulder. "Everything okay?"
Hans leaned closer to speak into his ear. "Excellent. The engine daybook shows a very thorough and recent servicing. I insisted upon it, and after much bribery and cajoling, succeeded in having the work done. The workers grumbled, even so, because the ship would otherwise have been laid up at the end of whaling season, and they could have taken early vacation."
"Men who hate their jobs are never to be trusted. Any bearing trouble?"
"None. Bearing temperatures normal. Follow me."
Hans led him down through the intricate labyrinth of ladders and catwalks, guiding him through the pulsing jungle of steel and brass that took shape in the yellow glare of the lamps. The hissing roar of furiously burning oil, the keening of the dynamo, the click of the injector pumps were mere counterpoint to the all-pervading rhythm of the main engine whose steady metallic breathing was slight indication of the tremendous power needed to turn the huge crankshaft.
Charles looked up, feeling a blast of cool air from an open skylight that seemed far above them. He remembered his childish impression of his first visit to an engine room: He stood in the den of a huge animal whose hot, oily breath shook the world.
"She's a beauty, isn't she?" said Hans, catching his look of admiration. "You see the size of the drive shaft?"
Charles nodded, looking at the spinning pillar of steel.
"This beauty could twist that in two, like saltwater taffy. Amazing what a little boiling water can do." Hans pointed to the tachometer. "We're keeping a steady 360 R.P.M."
"What's the maximum?"
"Just over four hundred, but I wouldn't risk that for long."
"We're holding a speed of twenty knots. I calculate that we should rendezvous at Rio Sucio on the twelfth, as planned, but we're in for some stormy weather."
"That shouldn't slow us too much. I shall simply burn more oil."
They entered the tunnel where the great propeller shaft rumbled over the oily bilges, and Hans laid his hand on each of the huge bearings as a doctor would when examining a patient.
"Okay?" Charles steadied himself against the tunnel bulkhead.
"Perfect, but at this speed, we must check them every quarter hour, at least." He turned a valve to allow more oil on number three bearing.
"We mustn't have a bearing failure, you know."
"We may be able to reduce speed. My plot shows us off the coast of Chile. We've made a good deal of time, so that will give us three or four days' leeway on our schedule."
"Of course, and if we go down to twelve or fifteen knots, we will have fuel to spare."
"Depending on the weather."
"Yes, always the weather ..."
"How are the bilge readings?"
"Even after ramming the Coast Guard cutter?"
"Naturally. The bow is reinforced against ice floes. The bilges are virtually dry."
"How's the feed water?"
"My last check showed that the evaporator is doing its job. No precipitate."
"Congratulations on your choice of transport, Hans."
"No need to. You remember my father was from Hamburg and he taught me about ships. I used to sail with him."
"Why didn't you become a sailor?"
"Too ambitious, I guess. I saw opportunity for more advancement in the S.S."
"It looks as if you're a sailor, anyway. Have a sandwich." Charles drew a waxed paper packet from his dirty field jacket.
"Thank you." Hans unwrapped the sandwiches, crumpled the waxed paper with his greasy hand, and thrust the refuse into his pocket. He didn't mind grease on his food, but there would be no litter in his engine room. He devoured the sandwiches. "Umm, cheese and tomato."
"Sorry the tomatoes were a little green."
"No matter. It just reminds me ..."
"Reminds you of what?"
"Oh, of strolling through a tomato garden with an old friend."
"So, you have found me out." Hoess knelt down and fondled tomato which was beginning to ripen in the summer sun.
Hans looked down at him, his boots planted between the rows "Yes, I have eliminated all other suspects. No one can be stealing the gold but you.
"You know, my friend, I used to bring my girlfriend out when the tomatoes began to ripen ... The summer nights were warm."
"I imagine they still are."
"So you will arrest me, or shoot me, here in front of these Jews."
"You surprise me, Hoess. Such melodrama!" Hans raised the visor of his cap with his swagger stick.
It was hot in the sun. A prisoner had crept close to them pretending to weed the plot with his hoe. He was listening.
"Get away, stinking Jew!" Hans gave him a cut across the back with his stick. The little man's threadbare jacket was no protection from the blow and he made off, yelping apologies.
Hoess motioned Hans to have a closer look at his prize tomatoes. The two S.S. officers sat on their haunches, apparently discussing the merits of a scrawny plant. "Well?" Hoess looked expectant. His shrewd face showed he knew something was up.
"You misunderstand me, my friend. I only want you to know our situation ..." Hans drew meaningless hieroglyphics in the sand with his stick. The war is going badly."
"Finish the preamble and tell me what's on your mind."
"The V-weapons will come too late to save the Reich. We have lost."
"Ha! Even you, a loyal, incorruptible member of The Party have read the writing on the wall. Now I am beginning to understand/"
"Yes, you can help me. I am willing to help you, as you have seen."
"Quickly! The Hauptscharführer is coming."
"I must escape from here and you can help me."
"You have heard the guns, too."
"Of course. Even the prisoners are talking about them."
"They are getting louder."
"I know you have a plan." Hans drew closer.
"What? A prison officer planning to escape?" Hoess smiled.
"We will live to see stranger things if you help me."
"All right. You're included. On a certain day you will receive a suitcase. Guard it with your life. If you are discovered with it now, you are lost, and if you are discovered without it when the time comes, you are also lost. The guns will tell us when we must leave. I suggest you show some enthusiasm at the progress of my little plantation, Herr Hauptsturmführer."
"Heil Hitler, Herr Hauptsturmführer." The Hauptscharführer came to attention and saluted smartly.
"Heil Hitler." Hans returned the salute.
"I have to report, Sir, that the Herr Doktor requires you in the reception area."
A locomotive whistled as it shunted a long string of cattle cars onto the camp siding.
Hans straightened his cap. "I must go. There is never a let up."
"At least the breeze is blowing the smoke away." Hoess waved his riding crop toward the great crematorium chimneys. "I am thoroughly put off by burning bacon, these days."
"Pity," said Hans. "I don't think your tomatoes will ripen before the frost."
He didn't see Hoess again for several weeks. One day he discovered a mysterious suitcase in his room, a cheap wartime thing made of ersatz leather. It was fairly heavy, but he wasn't so curious as to force the catches and see what was inside. He hid it away in his locker, under an old overcoat. The camp was so busy he forgot about it.
Hans slept badly. The fever he'd contracted in North Africa had recurred. He lay in his bunk, sweating and shivering, listening to the rain beating on the window and to the incessant rumble of the guns. The lights went out and the air raid siren began to wail. Outside he heard the bark of a watchdog and the squelch of booted feet in the mud.
With trembling fingers he lit a cigarette and took a deep puff. He was thankful there was still real tobacco to smoke. No one on the camp staff was denied any luxury, not even the Jews of the Sonderkommando who ran the gas chambers and the crematoria. As for the inmates, well, the living-dead were beyond the need for luxuries. For them the gas chambers were the only appropriate relief from their condition. He had watched them on their last journey and saw that many understood and were even grateful. He fell asleep and dreamed of North Africa.
The heat was blistering. He didn't know where to turn his gaze. In every direction it was like looking into the heart of a blast furnace. The white sand threw the white hot glare of the sun into his eyes, even though he wore the darkest goggles available in the Waffen S.S. stores.
He was alone after a night of hard fighting. His tank had run over a mine and blown up, but he'd been thrown clear. While he was unconscious the battle had ebbed and flowed. It was daylight by the time he'd recovered his senses, and all was quiet, save for a rumble of guns, or was it surf? in the distance. He set out to rejoin his unit, but the cries-crossed pattern of tank tracks led him nowhere in particular. The merciless sun drove away all thoughts of duty and forced him to look for shade.
He quickened his pace at the sight of an overturned halfback. Beside it he found relief from the glare, but not from the furnace heat. He tried to sleep, but the heat and flies were stifling, so he covered his head and huddled miserably in the small patch of shade until sunset. Resuming his trek, he found a wrecked vehicle with radiator intact. He opened the drain cock and drank most of the brackish water, letting the remainder trickle into his canteen. An hour later, he was violently ill. Waves of nausea washed over him. Exhausted, he fell beside an oil drum and slept. The night was cold and he was forced to dig himself into the still warm sand.
Hans awoke to the all-clear siren and the lights came on again. He knew he'd been asleep because his dream was fresh in his mind. He'd almost expected to find sand and not blankets over his feet. Someone had covered him as he slept, tossing with fever. He smiled, feeling a strong affection for his unknown comrade. His fever was gone and he fell into a delicious sleep as soon as he'd switched off the light. In his exhaustion he was unaware that the guns had fallen silent.
"Hans! Hans!" A voice called to him. Of course he was dreaming again. He made no attempt to answer. Suddenly, he was being rudely shaken and slapped across the face. It was no dream.
"Hans, wake up! Do you want to die?" Hoess stood over him, a Schmeisser machine-pistol slung from his shoulder. It had been fired recently. "I have been looking for you everywhere. The others have gone. Get dressed, immediately!"
He understood the last words. Certainly he could get dressed. Automatically he pulled on his trousers, boots, blouse, tunic and pistol belt.
"Hurry! Do you want the Russians to catch us?"
The Russians. He shook his head. Now he was beginning to wake up.
"Idiot! Where have you left the suitcase?"
He pointed to his locker while he pulled on his greatcoat. Hoess ransacked the locker and threw the suitcase on the floor.
"Carry that, and come' with me. Quickly, quickly!"
He stumbled after Hoess. The S.S. barracks were brightly lit but deserted. Outside he found the bodies of four prisoners, sprawled next to two stout wooden boxes which were beginning to sink into the softening earth. A steady drizzle diluted the spreading bloodstains from the corpses.
Hoess lifted an end of one of the boxes. "Take the other end! Help me. No, no! Put the suitcase into the car. That is more important."
With some difficulty they placed the two boxes into the waiting Volkswagen scout car.
Hoess drove like a fiend. They sped out of the camp, through the great gate with its inspirational slogan and past the empty rows of cattle cars which stood on the railway siding. The prisoners had begun to wander about, and Hoess bore down on the horn. Zombie-like, they would half turn and dazedly stumble out of the way, standing to gaze emptily as the car rushed by. Soon they found themselves caught up in the westward flow of the retreating army.
The silence made the whole scene seem unreal, ghostly. The treads of tracked vehicles rolled silently through the deepening mud, the snarl of engines muffled by the rain. Exhausted men slogged onward without a word, like phantoms. The trees on either side of the road were spattered with mud thrown up by the frenzied passing of motorized columns. Slower horse-drawn transport plodded on either side of them, men assisting the horses in pulling the wagons, many of which were loaded with wounded.
"These are dead men," said Hoess. "The Russians will get them."
"And what about us?" asked Hans.
"We will die, too, if the mud stops us."
"It is getting deeper."
"Yes. We can hope the rain lets up for a moment."
They drove around a tank which had run out of fuel. The Volkswagen's wheels spun. They lost their headway and became stuck.
"Soldiers! Come over here, quickly," shouted Hoess.
He drove onto a firmer portion of road, assisted by the soldiers who forgot their exhaustion at the sight of the death's heads and lightning bolt insignia of the two officers.
It was lack of sleep that Hans remembered most. He vaguely recalled diving out of the car when an enemy fighter plane came down the road, machine-gunning the snarled transport column. Somehow, Hoess found his way around the burning vehicles and continued the endless journey.
They stopped in a forest, the boom of guns announcing that the American lines were not far off. Hoess careened off the road and into a clearing. They dug feverishly and covered the two boxes, taking care to pack the earth and recover the spot with alien fir needles. Then they opened the mysterious suitcase.
Inside were the boots, trousers and tunics of two Wehrmacht sergeants, in suitable disrepair. They changed out of their S.S. uniforms and buried them, along with the ashes of their identity papers.
Hoess drove the scout car up to a fresh bomb crater on the main road. They pushed the vehicle into the crater and staggered on a short distance, exhausted.
"... Kilometer fifty," muttered Hoess, barely audible.
"I said, the boxes are fifty paces due west of the kilometer fifty post."
Hans' mind reeled. "Must try to remember."
They dropped into a ditch beside the road and slept like corpses.
Hans awoke, feeling stiff and damp from the mist which filled thee forest and dripped off the fir branches above them. It seemed very quiet. Even the birds were still. He wondered what had wakened him. Idly, he looked around, glancing at the pair of boots beside his head. With a start, he realized that neither he nor Hoess had removed their boots. He looked up into the muzzle of a Luger pistol, held by a very young Wehrmacht officer.
"Deserters. I shall shoot you on the spot. Wake up your friend and stand over there."
Hans nudged Hoess who was feigning sleep and they both stood up, blinking their eyes. The mist was beginning to thin out and a bird was chirping on a nearby branch. Warplanes droned overhead, the crump of bombs mingling with the shudder of distant artillery fire. Otherwise, the sector was quiet.
They saw themselves surrounded by a squad of child-soldiers who were dwarfed by the clumsy helmets and weapons which they wore, weapons now aimed at them.
The boy officer stood back. "Do you have anything to say before I carry out the sentence?"
"Are you crazy?" asked Hoess. "Why do you say we are deserters?"
"Because you are separated from your unit. The orders are clear."
"Yes, I know all about the orders. We are from a field communications unit. The two of us had to abandon our lorry to the Americans and carry on on foot. We were trying to rejoin the main body, until we found our way blocked by the Americans."
"I can assure you we had no intention of deserting," said Hans, pointing to the ditch. "Do deserters carry weapons?"
"Weapons are easily discarded," said the officer. "I know nothing about an American advance. In any case, we are ordered to 'defend every inch of the Fatherland,' even though we die."
"Ach, mein Liebling, do you have a radio?"
Some of the boys giggled at Hoess' term of endearment. To them, the sixteen-year-old officer looked so old that they could not even conceive of his being spoken to as a sweet child. The officer frowned at them and they wiped off their smirks.
"We have no radio." The officer regained his composure.
"There is a scout car only a short distance up the road." Hoess pointed. "It has a radio. Try all channels. It sounds like American Broadcasting Corporation. You have been overrun, outflanked, surrounded."
"But we must fight on as our Führer has said."
"Suicidal nonsense! The Führer never intended that you should throw your lives away. Would you commit suicide in an American prison camp?"
"Of course not."
"Well, you are in one right now. The Americans are aware of your presence, but such an insignificant band of schoolboys is not even interesting to them. Face it: We are nicely in the bag, and the drawstring has been pulled tight. We are prisoners of war right now, and the enemy needn't bother feeding us."
Hans saw the pistol waver. The thought of food was potent.
"Perhaps ... Perhaps you are right."
"Well, I have nothing more to say." Hoess shrugged. "If you must shoot someone, you may as well shoot two tired-out German sergeants who are beyond caring, anyway. Then when the Americans swoop down upon you, you will discover that we were right, and you will carry the guilt with you the rest of your lives."
"Before you shoot us," said Hans, "consider your duty as an officer. An officer must always consider the welfare of his men."
He saw several of the younger boys brighten. So now they were men. He continued, seeking to wear them down, if not convince them. "No doubt you have fought well, and bravely. You are prepared to make the final sacrifice, but as soldiers you know that such a sacrifice is useless. The Fatherland expects you to survive, to carry on the race. That is your first duty. Now throw down those guns and come with us. The Americans will shoot us all if we wait until dark. If we surrender now, we will be in time for dinner!"
The pistol was still leveled at them, but at last it was lowered and thrown upon the damp fir needles of the forest, followed by the weapons of the child recruits. Hoess lifted the smallest on his shoulders and they all marched toward the American lines, hands raised, singing merrily.
Hans finished the last sandwich and looked at his watch. "Now for my four hours' sleep." He steadied himself against the catwalk railing. "The sea is rising, Charles."
"Yes, it could be a rough one." Charles blew into the speaking tube. "How is it, Jesus?"
"Lots of whitecaps and lightning on the horizon. The raindrops sound like bullets when they hit the wheelhouse."
"Okay, coming right up." Charles took a glass phial from his pocket and shook out some yellow tablets. "Sorry, Hans, no sleep for us if it's as bad as I think it is up there."
Charles checked the cargo hold, seeing that everything was still secured, and made an inspection tour of the ship, grabbing at railings and bulkheads for support. He was soaked in no time by icy raindrops, driven so fast by the howling gale that they stung his face. Waves broke over the bow and washed down the gangways, nearly bowling him over. He checked that the lifeboats and rafts were still intact, though he doubted they would be of any use if they had to abandon ship in such a sea. Like a deep sea diver, he struggled to the bridge with leaden steps, fighting the wind, and the violent tossing of the ship.
Inside the wheelhouse, it was a different world. He stripped off his sodden clothing and dropped it on the deck. His worst suspicions were confirmed by the anemometer and barometer readings.
"Damn it! Just what we need on this trip." He noticed Jesus looked a little green. "Seasick?"
"A little," Jesus swallowed, trying to stem his rising gorge.
"I'll take the wheel. Put on that raincoat and go out on the bridge. Take deep breaths and look at the horizon. You'll get over it."
"Thank you, Doctor." He managed to grin, despite his misery.
"And hang on, or you'll blow away!"
Jesus was gone for sometime, but suddenly blew back in with the gale, looking better.
"I'm all right now. I made a check of the hatch covers and ventilators. Everything seems to be tied down and buttoned up."
"Good man! Well, as the old saying goes, 'we've done what we can and will suffer what we must.'"
The wheelhouse was illuminated by constant flashes of lightning, but they could see nothing beyond the curtain of green water which deluged the thick glass of the portholes. The swells threatened to smash down upon the Sandshark, but the ship always rose in time, taking the lessened force of the breakers on her fo'c'sle.
"Hans, give us maximum revs. We're taking too much water on the bow."
"Ja wohl, Herr Kapitän. You now have the maximum."
The ship shuddered and the engine raced madly.
"What was that, Hans?"
"Propeller out of the water. Please steer into the wet parts, if you don't mind, or have you decided on flying?"
"Sorry, most of the water is no longer under us, it's coming down on top of us. You should see it."
"No thank you, Charles. I prefer being warm and dry."
The rain lifted, but the wind intensified. The Sandshark plunged into the troughs like a crash-diving submarine. Each plunge seemed like the last to Jesus who imagined the waves closing over them like the jaws of a monstrous boa constrictor. But each time the Sandshark would shake herself and bound up to meet the crest of the next wave.
"Don't look so sour, Jesus. The sea's playing with us."
"You talk as if the sea were a person."
"She is, don't you think'?"
"A very dangerous and unpleasant female, then."
"Well, she didn't ask us to ride on her back, so we have to take our chances."
"I'm not so keen on taking such chances as you and Hans seem to be."
"You're a paragon of caution." Charles laughed.
"Do you think I'll get any pension benefits from the University?"
The money won't be worth the paper it's printed on."
"Terrible, and there I was saving for my old age."
They both laughed. The idea of Jesus scrounging for a pedagogue's pittance was hilarious. They braced themselves as the ship rolled into another swell.
Charles looked out at the bounding sea. "Our storm is nature. That's where our strength and inspiration come from Don't you feel it, Jesus, a surge of power moving through you, quickening your pulse?"
"I'm more scared than thrilled. Still, the sea does have a sort of beauty, even as it tries to hurl us to the bottom. That's why man has invented religions, to insulate him from the beauty and terror of nature."
"You're on to it, there. Religion is for the weak and the lazy, a shelter from reality and a patent-medicine recipe for meaning. To live, a man has to face reality and find his own meaning. It's no good looking through the old glasses. The vision has changed and a new prescription is appropriate."
"In theology, you could be accused of being a personalist. That is the most complimentary of all the uncomplimentary labels I can think of."
"Well, until I tune in on a collective consciousness, I'm stuck with living as an individual. But that's the trouble with theology, isn't it? It always assumes that man should be angelic or have a different set of wave lengths, just like the Marxist theologians of politics."
"You mean that man should not try to improve?"
"Yes, but as man and not as an angel." Charles fought to bring the wheel over so the bow faced directly into the waves next onslaught.
"Doesn't drowning worry you, Carlitos?"
"I'd find it quite acceptable. I'd drown, knowing that I had nothing better to do."
"A strange thing for a young man to say."
"Not when you know at last that you're on the right track that you've found your real work. The satisfaction you get from that is a reward even dying can't spoil."
"But wouldn't you be disappointed if ..."
The ship plunged down, only to meet an uprushing swell and shuddered from keel to crow's nest.
"We won't have any rivets left if this keeps up. You were saying?"
"Wouldn't you be disappointed if you drowned now, denied a feeling of completion?"
"Drowning would be completion enough for anyone, I'd think."
"No, I mean, if you were denied the experience of doing what we hope to do when we arrive."
"There'd always be some experience to miss out on. Sure, I'd be disappointed, but look at it this way: If the risk of drowning is part of the price one pays for worthwhile experience, then it's a bargain. Would you trade places with anyone right now, if you could?"
"I didn't think so."
The storm lasted two more days.
Charles stood on the bridge watching the dolphins at play. The wind was down and both sea and sky had resumed their usual places, basking innocently in the warm sun. He raised the sextant to his eye and took a reading, then entered the wheelhouse and marked their position on the chart.
"That's it." He laid the pencil on the table. "Now to set the gyro-compass for automatic steering."
"Wonderful." Jesus was using the wheel as much to hold himself up as to steer the ship.
"We're almost asleep on our feet." Charles blew into the speaking tube. It was some time before Hans answered. "Ja?"
"Engage the steering engine."
"Okay to shut down number two boiler? Quarter speed doesn't require both."
"Yes. It's time we all shut down for a day or two."
"Wake me up when we hit the Cape of Good Hope." Jesus sat upon the deck of the wheelhouse, stretched out and went to sleep.
They had made excellent time, despite the storm, and were nearing their destination on the tenth, two days ahead of the deadline. With engine slowed the Sandshark passed up the river, threading its way among the paddle wheelers, ocean steamers, canoes and flotsam that made up the bulk of the traffic. Hordes of starveling river people gazed at them impassively from their stilted huts of palm thatch.
Jesus watched the verdant riverbanks, his Sterling slung from his shoulder. "Would you believe there were fewer than ten huts along this part of the river twenty years ago? Now there must be hundreds."
Charles looked at the huts briefly before returning his concentration to the river ahead. "Amazing, all right. What do those people live on?"
"They live off the river, mainly from what they steal from ships passing at night. The rest of their time they spend breeding."
"They look like a real scurvy bunch of cutthroats, hollow-cheeked dark circles under the eyes, unshaven, very much like us."
Jesus laughed. "Yes, and their looks aren't misleading. Years ago some gringo company thought of shipping bananas by barge. The tug with its string of barges was found grounded on a mud bank, the crew murdered. Not a banana was to be found. Two months later, people were falling into the river and drowning, drunk on banana beer. The pirañas grew quite fat."
Charles blew the whistle to warn off a motor launch which was moving erratically, the sound startling a flock of hiss birds which glided from their treetops, expressing their usual ill-temper.
"It's beautiful, Jesus."
"All of it: the dirty green river, those pestilent shacks, the jungle, the birds, the blue sky, that dead tapir floating over there."
"Of course, from a safe distance and with a poet's eye, even squalor becomes romantic. You will find the inhabitants who are trapped here quite unreceptive to your romantic view. For them, a crowded subway or a freeway traffic jam in a smoke-filled city would hold a thousand delights. Very few are poets, as you have probably learned. The very things which wrack a poet's spirit are sheer ambrosia to the masses. It amazes me, really, how a poetic sort like yourself could ever have been a communist."
Charles gazed into the distance. He steered the ship competently, but his thoughts were thousands of miles and many years away. "Well, I see the contradiction very clearly from your viewpoint. The political poet who becomes a communist believes naively that the injustice and squalor, the suffering, are all borne by people like himself, people with his own sensitivities, abilities and objectives. This is a very naive belief, much like believing children to be miniature adults. If the poet pursues his study beyond this first stage of naivete, he arrives at a more subtle stage in which he believes man may be changed, so that every man will become a poet in the poet's image. In these two stages, then, he passes from loving the masses as he thinks they are to loving them for what he thinks they will become, with his help, of course."
"He never doubts that man can be fundamentally changed?"
"Not when he has the communist mythology to fall back on." Charles laughed. "As I remember from my school reading, Wells and Conrad were having an argument. Conrad summed it up by saying, 'The trouble with you, Wells, is that you dislike mankind but believe it can be changed. I like mankind and know that it can't be.'"
"That sounds pretty cynical, to me."
"Call it what you like. I still prefer Conrad's side of the issue." Charles looked at his watch. "Oh, oh. You'd better catch up on your four hours' sleep. We'll need sharp eyes tonight."
It was black outside. Navigation was only possible with the ship's searchlight which revealed the riverbanks and turned the eyes of the crocodiles into glowing rubies. In the darkened wheelhouse, Charles listened to the ping of the echo-sounder and the steady panting of the engine. A large fish leaped out of the water and the splash made a cluster of pearls in the glare of the light. Bats, giant moths and myriads of other night creatures swarmed in and out of the beam.
Jesus came into the wheelhouse from the bridge, trying to fend off a cloud of mosquitoes with one hand while he gestured with the other. "Stop the engine. Switch off the light. I think I've seen it."
The clang of the engine telegraph completed the stillness of the tropical night and extinguishing the searchlight made its blackness total.
"Where did you see it, Jesus?"
"Out to the left. Look!"
A green light flashed the Morse letter 'V.'
"That's it, all right. Give the recognition signal."
The engine room speaking tube whistled and Charles removed the plug. "That's right, Hans, we're home! Looks like we'll sleep tonight."
"Wunderbar! I hope I haven't forgotten how."