Monday, July 29, 2013

Baxter: Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Four

This time it was her turn to give a little grunt, down some pills and take a hot shower, but she did it with considerable less drama than Baxter had. 
He took another shift sleeping, drifting away to the sound of the water in the shower. He awoke to the smell of bacon.
“I had to walk across the street to that Denny’s,” she said. “I realized you were right about ordering stuff now that we look so different. Not worth it.”
He tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes. She pointed at a steaming paper cup of coffee. “I got us the works.”
She had, and he tucked in ravenously, somehow disregarding that he’d eaten a fairly substantial steak just a few hours before. 
“We need a plan,” she said.
He nodded, his mouth full of French Toast.
“Obviously I need a clean ID, so we need to clear one of my caches, at least one--”
“Where are the rest,” he asked after swallowing more coffee.
“I’ve been largely international lately, and like I said, in the States its only the East Coast, so...Chicago, Philly, I’ve got one in New Orleans, Orlando...”
“Gotcha.” He took another bite and considered her. Her hair was not styled, he could see the hat she’d worn to get the food. She looked young, fragile, her cheekbones prominent without the softening of her ordinary brown hair.
“What?” she asked, suspiciously.
“The hair makes you look really young.”
“Perv,” she said.
“Well, that’s what people are gonna think of me, isn’t it?”
She laughed. “Oh, well.”
“So much for not drawing attention.”
“I’ll settle for the wrong kind of attention. Still nothing on the news,” she added.
“You think we’re clear of satellites?”
“I think we’ve got a head start at least, I’m sure the truck helped, but they can’t know we’re here, we settled in for, what, 12 hours? they’d have made a move.”
“If they’re not leaking our IDs to the public, maybe not. They could be here and waiting for us to make a move.”
“You don’t think they’d have made a move on me when I went to get food. Or you?”
He nodded slowly and drank some more coffee. “I can go along with that.”
“So,” she said, getting back on track, “a plan.”
“Well,” he replied, “long term, are we on the same page?”
She looked up from spreading jam on a piece of toast. “Smith?” she asked.
“I think we’re on the same page with that.”
“So we don’t have a plan, but at least we have a goal.”
“Okay, then here’s what I suggest. Before we get your cache, caches actually, it’s not going to be cheap to go against someone that far up the food chain--”
“You’re asking me to spend my money to clean up your mess?” 
“I think it’s safe to say it’s our mess now. And that was not my fault.”
She shook her head and took a long drink of OJ. “I can still resent you,” she said.
“Feel free, doesn’t change anything.”
She nodded, satisfied.
“So before we start pooling resources, I think we need to go to ground for a while. If we get out of here without trouble, we get a new car, I think we can start assuming we’re in the clear. That being the case, instead of making a move right away, I say we hole up somewhere. Let them keep drawing that circle bigger until it’s the whole country, or the whole continent, and then we can come out and play.”
“That’s your plan?”
“Well less a plan than the next step, I guess,” he said. “But it gives us stages. We go to ground for a week or two, let things settle a bit, then we go collect some of your caches, maybe get us both passports with pictures that look like us now so we’re less obvious and then--”
“Won’t work,” she said.
“What won’t?”
“Passports,” she said. “If they get scanned, they’ll be flagged. The algorithms are too good now, it’s why you were flagged enough though you were presumed dead. Long presumed dead. We can’t use passports. Period.”
“So we can’t leave the country.”
“And they’ll know that. So the circle’s not that big after all.”
“It’ll have to be big enough. And while we’re in hiding we can be putting together our bigger plan, mapping your caches...”
“You really don’t have any more?”
“We’re living off the last one. I cleared all the old ones years ago, actually put most of the money in the bank like a schmoe.”
“So we’re going to spend some time collecting all my guns and money and while we’re doing that, we’ll be figuring out what to do with it?”
He shrugged and dipped a piece of bacon in a puddle of syrup. “Best I got.”
“And where will we be going to ground?”
“Oh,” he said, grinning, “you’re gonna love this part.”

Baxter: Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three

When he woke up the sun was on its way down. The TV was on, muted, and the news was running. Perhaps she’d been bored, but he thought it more likely that she’d been making sure they weren’t on the news. 
“I used your clippers,” she said from the doorway to the bathroom. She was backlit, and he couldn’t really see her, except that she was missing hair. She stepped out of the bathroom so that he could really see her, and he gasped. 
She’d used the bleach kit and an electric red dye, and he could smell the chemicals in the air, now that he was paying attention. Her hair was pulled up in three small knots on top, and the sides were buzzed to military length sidewalls. 
“Three looks in one,” she said, acknowledging his surprise without pleasure. She pulled a hat on and he saw that she simply looked like she had short hair with the red fauxhawk covered up. Then she took off the hat, snapped the rubber bands out of the knots, and let the red hair fall. The sides were shorter, but the hair down made her look much less punk.
“Guess I probably couldn’t get away with that,” he said.
“Probably not,” she agreed. Then she raised her eyebrows, looking at the bed.
“Right,” he said, rolling over. He tightened his abs to sit up and grunted. “Ow, dammit.” He sat up and shuffled off the bed like an old man. She handed him a bottle of ibuprofen. 
“Order some room service or eat a trail bar,” she said, “don’t take them on an empty stomach. Oh, and I set up the phones. Gun’s there.”
She climbed onto the bed, grabbed the coverlet, rolled up in it, and went to sleep.
Baxter nibbled something, took the pills, and then took a hot shower, which helped his stiff and aching joints to no end. 
Then he was looking at himself in the mirror, and he wanted to go back to bed. The strain of the past 24 hours was heavy on his face, he would swear he had developed jowls overnight, and the purple beneath his eyes was pronounced. He smiled weakly, and when he saw how sad and old it made him look, he broke through it with a grin.
“You were having fun yesterday,” he reminded himself. 
He was definitely too old to do something as extravagant as Barnes’ look, but he did what he could. He massaged some brown dye into his hair and then sat at the window, peeking through the curtain at the parking lot while it set. They were on the first floor, and just like at lunch, he still had the dread feeling that he’d see a black Town Car and know the jig would be up. Blaze of glory time, because he sure as fuck knew what would happen if he was taken alive.
But there was simply a regular evening’s traffic, a large sunburned family dragging bags and shouts in the hall a few minutes later. He saw a relationship that was so out of place (she gothy, him a good ol’ boy) that it was either a professional arrangement or true love. 
He went back to the bathroom, washed out the dye, trimmed the sides of his head down and teased the remainder into a rat’s nest with some product she had left on the sink. The tube of paste had red fingerprints on it. His mouth made an unimpressed line when he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like he was trying way too hard. But he also didn’t look much like Jerry Sumner or Baxter, so that was something. His laziness had provided him with a few days’ growth of stubble, and he crafted it into a goatee. It made him cringe, but he supposed that was a good thing. 
He put a hat on over his too-shiny hair and went out. She was asleep, he didn’t dare lie back down again, so he went for a wander. The sun was down and the evening was cool, moving onto cold. He was more or less in the mountains, after all. He found a franchise steakhouse and decided it was good enough. 
He was feeling bloated, sipping on a Coke when the phone buzzed in his pocket. He’d only grabbed it from habit, it had been sitting next to the gun, which was in his waistband. The number ringing was listed as “1”. He answered.
“Where the fuck are you?”
“Went for a walk, got something to eat.”
“I told you to get room service.”
“I don’t look like the guy who checked in.”
“You think the food guy would even pay attention?”
“Ah, I just got antsy, listen--”
“Shut up and get your ass back here. Do you kn-- Just...get here.”
Baxter left some cash on the table and walked fast back to the hotel. His full belly didn’t encourage him to run. He used his key card to enter a side door and found the room without anyone noticing him.
The lights were on, the curtains closed, and partly thanks to her bright hair, Barnes looked pale and drawn.
“What. The. Fuck Baxter?”
“What?” he asked, baffled.
“Six hours, you asshole. Six hours I sat in here, no book, no magazine, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for you to get your sleep. And as soon as I go down, you bail on me. When I woke up I thought you ditched me!”
“Oh, God, look, I’m--”
“Shut up, Baxter. You think this is easy for me? I haven’t had even one day to wrap my head around this shit and I woke up alone. I wasn’t sure you were coming back. I was scared to call you. Christ you fucking asshole.”
“I’m didn’t mean--”
“I don’t care! This isn’t about you at all, you dick, this is about me being terrified. You’re used to being on your own, I’m not.”
He moved to her, holding his hands up placatingly.
“Stop right there,” she said. “You touching me is not going to help this at all. Now, you knob, here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m going to get into that bed and wrap up again. You’re going to put your arms around me, outside the covers until I fall asleep. This is not a reward, this is the only way I know I’m gonna get anymore rack time, is that clear?”
He nodded, finally clueing to the idea that he should not speak at all. 
She huffed, laid down, rolled up. He climbed on after her, putting his left arm under her head and right arm over her waist. 
“Ugh, what the fuck did you eat?”
“Onion rings,” he admitted quietly.
“You’re disgusting.”
It was only another ten minutes before her breathing slowed, and he gave her another ten to make sure she was under. His left arm was almost asleep by then. He gently slid his arm out from under her head, and she made a soft noise of protest, pulling her legs up, pulling into herself. 
He sat next to her on the bed for a long time, considering her. When was the last time he had been afraid, really afraid? Not these last 24 hours, certainly, he’d been pushing himself too much to stop and consider being afraid. And there was the fact that he’d also caught himself grinning at the fun time he was having. Fear? Not today. Or yesterday. Or...on 9/11 he’d been startled. He’d been a nervous wreck when he cashed in his bonds, but was he really scared? He didn’t think so, not exactly. The last time he’d been really afraid... 
He’d been lying on a concrete floor, trying to speak in spite of cracked ribs and battered body, trying to get one word out because he didn’t want to die. She was out there, she was waiting to hear from him, and as much as he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to leave her alone, either. Chapstick. 
He shivered a little at the memory, not the temperature. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, feeling the warmth of her sleeping body through the cover. 
“I apologize,” he said, giving her a gentle squeeze. “I really do. I’m sorry.”
She sighed in her sleep and her body seemed to relax another degree. Maybe that was good enough.
He turned on the TV then, and punished himself by watching bad movies with closed captions. Twice there were sounds in the hall, the second time he was halfway to the gun before they died away. Her fear was not contagious, but her fear was so palpable that he couldn’t blow it off, either.
He was still awake when her eyes snapped open at 4 a.m.

Baxter: Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Two

On the way to the car dealership they split up, both stopping at several stores on the way, both buying hats, changing details about their appearance, hoping against hope to throw off the eyes in the sky. 
“So I said, shit, you hang onto it, fix it when the belt comes in, and in the meantime, we’ll just buy a clunker to get home. Give it to the kid when he comes home from college, he’ll be happier ‘n a pig in shit, right?”
The car salesman (call me Mark!) seemed far more thrilled to be starting off a day with a sale than worried about getting a cash deal. Barnes stood by and smiled when referred to and otherwise played the little woman to a T. Baxter even managed to get Mark to throw in a tank of gas. That required them to take the truck into the garage, where Baxter and Barnes climbed in, hoping to hide their ownership, at least temporarily. 
They wound up with the small Ford Ranger, a pickup with no delusions of greatness. The gear went behind the seats in the cab, which was handy, and the four-wheel drive might come in handy on the mountain roads.
“That was too easy,” Barnes said, as they pulled away. 
“No,” he replied, “that is what people are like outside the city. We talked the part, we looked the part, he bought the story. Sometimes it’s that easy. Not usually, but sometimes.”
“We’re still going to trade cars again in Bend, right?”
“Yes, and on my other ID, just in case. If we can find any long-term parking, I’m game to steal a car instead, so long as we get to Boise tomorrow. It’s not big, but it’s big enough to go to ground in if we have to.”
The highway toward Bend wound in a generally southern direction through woods and foothills. Every so often, Baxter would think of the drones and the hair on the back of his neck would stand up. He didn’t mention it again. She was probably right, but if she wasn’t, there was no point in arguing. 
After driving in silence, he tried the radio, but there was nothing but static and weak signals. 
“Will they put us on the news?” he asked.
“What?” she’d been staring out the window, half-tranced.
“Well, it’d be an easy way to run us down. Put us on TV, make us public enemies.”
“Smith would have to admit that you exist, someone would remember your picture, your face. So that would mean admitting he fucked up. He’s not going to want any public attention on this at all.”
“Well that’s good, right?”
“It means his resources are limited, any way.”
“And he’s got less soldiers than he used to,” Baxter grinned fiercely.
“That too.”
“What about ID scans?”
“That’s a better question. He has the IT resources to pull a lot of photos looking for us, so even once I have a clean passport, we shouldn’t use it. They won’t have the time or bandwidth to try to track us by cameras like we found you, but ID scans they probably always pull anyway.” 
“How did you find me?” he asked.
She barked a laugh and then covered her mouth, looking surprised at her own reaction. When the hand came away, her lips were tight, trying to hold her laughter in.
“You won’t believe it,” she said, and she told him. Poor little Frank Dixon who was just hanging out with his dad. The amber alert, the ATM photo, and Smith sending Falconer to do her second only official wet job.
“Now tell me why you got so lazy,” she demanded.
“I didn’t at first,” he admitted, and that was how he told her the second part of his story: the traveling, the settling down, the entertainment, the bad habits.
“I never thought of it as being lazy,” he said. “Mostly I felt like I deserved it because I’d spent so many years working so damn hard.”

The gently winding road eventually worked its magic, and Barnes was snoring softly, head propped against the window. Bend was only another hour or so, and Baxter realized he was starving already. 
Everything was 50/50 he’d told her, and that was always the way it felt to him, now that he understood it. There probably weren’t drones after them, or they’d already be a smoking crater. By now they’d thrown off the satellites or they hadn’t. They’d keep pulling tricks, just in case. It was all they could do.
He looked over at Barnes. He hadn’t thought about her in a long time, but partly that was training. Once he had been clear of his old life, he’d thought about it as little as possible, there was no profit in it. The scenarios where they’d come after him had fallen to the other side of the 50/50 equation, so he’d stopped worrying about them. Somewhere along the line it had become evident they weren’t going to come for him...and yet here they were. 
Pulling off the highway he picked out a Best Western where they could stay. Less than a mile away he found a mall. They condensed their possessions once more, carrying nothing but her Sig, a dismantled MP5, his extra ID, and his money. 
They went shopping, buying entirely different outfits and changing. They bought extra changes of clothes and two new backpacks. They stopped at a drug store and stocked up on essentials. He also bought hair clippers and she bought bleaching kit and hair dye. He bought them a set of cheap prepaid phones.
They split up, her leaving the mall by one entrance twenty minutes before he left by another. They had lunch separately, both sitting by themselves in a corner of a fast food joint, watching for unmarked black cars to burst into the parking lot. 50/50, Baxter reminded himself. Nothing happened.
They reunited in the hotel lobby at an appointed time, and he checked them in as husband and wife. One bed, of course, wouldn’t do to draw attention. People sometimes remembered such things. 
They unpacked and repacked in their room, laying out the new outfits they’d wear the next day. The food he’d eaten was slowing Baxter down, and he eyed the bed.
“Go ahead,” she said, “I slept in the car, I can stay up for a while.”
He raised his eyebrows to ask “are you sure?” and she just nodded.
He didn’t question her, just took off his shoes, flopped facedown on the bed and let sleep take him. It wasn’t until after he woke up that, more than anything else, this clearly meant he trusted her. He wondered if she thought the same thing.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Baxter: Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One

They were in a two-story parking building next to a mall, about the only parking lot in Hood Canal with a roof. There were only a handful of cars in employee parking, but no security cameras. 
“I think we’re gonna have to risk the bigger city,” Baxter told her as he popped the lock on a silver Taurus. “Anything we take out here in the sticks will be reported too soon for us to get very far.”
“And no time to repaint the car, and license plate won’t matter to the satellites. They’ll track the only silver Taurus that left Hood River in a certain window.”
“So we need to get to the city stat so we can get something from long-term parking and get a head start.”
“Or rent a car on one of your workings IDs.”
“Or both.”
“Or both.”
The Taurus turned over and he popped the trunk. She deposited their bags and wrapped guns and climbed in next to Baxter. 
“So we need a stopgap, something to slow them down, more than a switched car,” she said.
“The Dalles is nearby, it’s a bit bigger.”
“How does that help?”
“I don’t know. We could hole up for the day and steal a car which would give us overnight to run before it’s reported, but that would require us sitting tight for twelve hours in a small town, and it’s too risky.” He sighed. “Be honest, how hard do you think they’re looking?”
“Smith had both of us via satellite before the Blackhawks showed up. Ops told me we weren’t a priority, it took me until you were driving along the river to get you on camera. But maybe they were lying and had you the whole time.”
“Assume that.”
“Then they’re not going to let us go. We’re lucky they’re not us already.”
“We could buy a car.”
He looked at her. He looked at the clock in the car. “Wow, that’s pretty obvious. Cash up front would be suspicious, but we can sell a story. Be a couple hours before a lot opens. Should we risk it?”
“Risk it in The Dalles,” she said. 
He nodded. “Sold.”
He backed the car out of the parking space.

It took almost another hour to reach the Dalles. They found a Fred Meyer that was already open, and bought new outfits. Then they scouted and found an auto dealer that was not too big to pass up an unusual deal. They repacked their bags, partly dismantling the MP5s, and took everything with them. The silver Taurus was left in another cover parking garage and they left separately and by different routes. 
They met in the lobby of a hotel, entering via different doors. There was a cafe in the lobby and they skipped the buffet line and sat in a booth, both on the side that faced the main door. As soon as she was seated, Barnes slipped the Sig out of her waistband and placed it on the seat between them, covered with a napkin. 
They both ordered coffee, he opted for pancakes, bacon and overeasy, she went with a Benedict. When the food arrived, she ate first while he watched, then they traded. When they were finished, she watched while he drank more coffee and read the road atlas. 
“Depends on how fast we want to go,” he said, after flipping some pages. “We can go straight south of here, stay in Bend for a night. We buy another car to keep the trail cold, and then we either drive east to Boise, or go to Boise and keep heading south until we get to Reno.” He shook his head. “I guess Reno, it’s closer to L.A., and that’s the eventual target, right? We can’t take you on a plane with the ID you have.”
She frowned. 
“We might be able to get a train in Boise to Salt Lake, keep heading south, find another cache. But I don’t know if we want to be stuck on a train.”
“No, we want the flexibility of a car.”
“Well then shit.”
“The longer we’re on the run the further they have to assume we’ve gone. They won’t concentrate in Oregon anymore, they’ll have to look at Boise and Seattle and...Sacramento, I guess?”
“Right, then San Francisco, Vancouver, L.A., Salt Lake and Vegas.”
“And then the country.”
“Circle gets bigger.” She ran her hands through her hair and blinked. She looked tired. Her leg bounced, so she was still amped up, but it would catch up with her soon. She looked up at the clock near the entrance.
“I guess we can leave,” he said, “keep talking about it in the car. We have to get that and we have to leave town no matter what.”
“We shouldn’t go there when it first opens.”
“I’d normally agree with you, but this is a small town and we’re paying cash. Guy at the lot’s gonna remember us no matter what.”
“I guess,” she said. “Let’s go sell a story, then.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Status Update

Whelp, the internet is out at my house again, so I may not be updating as frequently. I also got a bit of work that'll take the rest of the week, but I'm having fun with Baxter, so I will keep up to a chapter a day at minimum and I think I'll keep coming back to it just because I'm enjoying myself.

Tominda Adkins has become another patron since I last posted an actual blog here, and I'm incredibly grateful. Her name will crop up in the book as well. 

It's amazing how good an anti-depressant this book has become. I may not be chipper when I'm out and about, but even if I'm not motivated when I start, the work really buoys me when I'm actually at it, it's kinda of awesome. 

Anyway, Chapter 20 is up, which brings us to the end of the first balls-out action stuff, and the end of what I've written thus far. That was, as far as I'm concerned, the end of the first act, so that means the book is more or less 1/3 done (in my head at least). We shall see. 

Baxter: Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty

“East or west?” she asked when they reached the bottom of the hill.
“Where’s your nearest cache?” he asked her.
“Oh, we’re on the same team now?”
“They want both of us, don’t they? You’re gonna need a new ID and money. If they killed my accounts, they killed yours, too, right? And burned your IDs. You might be worse off than me at this very moment.”
She shook her head, frustrated that he was right, but not ready to admit it.
“Where do we go?” she asked.
“We have to switch cars, maybe a couple of times, we need a mall or a big parking garage, just in case there’s satellite coverage. I’d like to think we’re not that important, but I think Smith just proved otherwise.”
“What’s close?”
“Fuckin’ nothing, that’s the problem. Portland or Vancouver, I guess, but I don’t want to backtrack.”

“I can look it up on my--” she froze, looked at the dashboard, where her phone sat neatly in a cradle. “Shit.”
Baxter pulled it out, opened the door, carefully placed it in line with the front right wheel. “Back up,” he said. She did, running over the phone several times. He found a bottle of water in the door and dumped it over the remains.
“It took two hours for the last chopper. Ground response will be on the way faster, but there’s still a delay. Turn left.”
“Are you sure?”
“Trust me.”
She didn’t, not anymore, not really, but they had to start somewhere. 
He found her road atlas and checked it intently. “There’s a bridge coming up, few miles at Hood River. There’s a small highway heading south. A few towns where we can switch cars and get lost in the sticks.”
“But if they manage to track us the whole way, they can trap us anytime they want.”
“There’s nowhere good to deploy from around Portland. We could make it very tough.”
“What about going back to Portland. There’s got to be another route...Highway 26, right? Go south from here, head back to the city.”
You want to backtrack?” he asked doubtfully. 
“They’d assume we couldn’t possibly go back where we started, won’t they? I would.”
He thought about that. “Hopefully. We have to assume if they’re really coming for us they’ll have teams everywhere and it’ll be easier to hide in a bigger city. Plenty of malls to choose from, anyway. Priority one is breaking any tail we might have, which means a lot of chicanery for the next hours or day, and then we light out to...”
“Where’s your nearest cache?” he repeated. 
“L.A., I guess.”
“Not Seattle?”
“I never come to the West Coast, I think Smith has someone else. He sent me because it was you, remember?”
“L.A. it is then.”
“And how do we get there?”
“Same way everyone else does, we drive, we take a train, we fly, whatever.”
She looked at him. “You know it’s not that easy.”
“Sometimes it is. I did it.”
“No one was chasing you.”
“But I had to act just like someone was, just in case.”
“So, what, this is round two for you?”
“Except this time I know someone’s chasing us.”
“Is that why you’re not freaking out?”
“Maybe. Maybe I know it’s a waste of energy. How are you feeling, anyway?” he asked. 
“Really, really amped up.”
“You want me to drive?”
“No, it’d be even worse.”
“Okay. Will you be all right?”
“I’ll be fine!”
“It’s different when you know they’re Americans, isn’t it?” he asked quietly. 
Her eyes slid to him, but her head didn’t turn.
“That’s not what I was thinking about,” she said.
“You will.”
“Tell me how you did it.”
“A magician never tells--”
He stared ahead, and a sign for the bridge came into view. He took a deep breath. 
“I was late for work on 9/11,” he began. “And I had this briefcase with me...”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baxter: Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen

The Jeep and the smoke husking seemed to fill their line of sight. The corners of the yard were visible past it, but it lined up perfectly with the entry way, and it seemed like all there was, a panorama of destruction. They’d seen, and created, much worse. 
There was a string lying on the wood of the deck, leading into the house. She bent, grabbed it, yanked. The cranky old shotgun, hidden under the house, managed a single loud bang, although apparently nothing else. It might buy them another second. 
“Draw right, after three shots, I’ll target left.”
“Double it up, go reverse the second time.”
She hesitated, but only for an instant. “Roger that.”
Baxter approached the right side of the smoldering Jeep, knowing there were four armed men behind it somewhere. He checked his footing, looking for tell-tale dig marks where he’d laid to rest his ugly Serbian surprises, the primer of a shotgun set to explode upward like a tiny landmine when someone stepped on it. It fired a burst of fire, overfilled with powder, as well as a handful of shot. The fire ignited the gas that soaked the ground around the improvised mine, so the wounded would fall into flame. Ruthlessly effective. 
He was about to step around the edge of the Jeep, at the trunk end, when he saw the suppressor on the barrel of a submachine gun. He dropped one pistol, reached out and shoved down, the shoulder strap pulling the soldier’s head into view. Baxter shoved the remaining Glock into the space between helmet and flak vest, firing three rounds into throat and neck. He ducked, picked up the spare gun, and popped around the corner, into the open, firing wildly at whatever he might find. 
What he found was another soldier, trying to back away from the immediate violence visited on the guy he was following. Baxter and soldier saw each other at the same instant, but Baxter’s instincts were better, more deeply ingrained. Or maybe he was just better. 
Baxter dropped to his knees and leaned back at the waist, muscles protesting, and the three-round burst from the MP5 went right over him. In return, one Glock round hit the soldier in the groin. The other just missed the opening at the top of his vest, and as he crumbled, Baxter turned to cover the sight line to his right. No one. He grabbed the fallen soldier, pulled him close, popped him in the throat, stripped his submachine gun. 
He went back the way he had come, but she wasn’t behind the Jeep anymore. He hadn’t registering her firing when he had, as agreed, but he hadn’t really put out a burst of distracting fire, either. The soldiers had made a pincer, perhaps in anticipation of their aggression or perhaps seeking the same edge. 
“Clear!” he shouted, his voice loud, his nerves crawling.
“Clear,” she said in return, but it was weaker. 
He backed away from the Jeep, leaned around to scope past the hood, and then walked into view. The unfortunate soldier who had discovered the bear trap was sprawled flat, limbs at awkward angles, half his leg torn away. Someone had shot him. 
“Yeah, I put him out of his misery,” she said, “second I heard you fire. Then this asshole was right on top of me.”
“Yeah I got one--” Baxter turned and really looked at her for the first time. A soldier was slumped over her, blood was all over her face. “Jesus are you--” 
“I’m fine, it’s his blood. He’s just too fucking heavy. Hurry up.”
Baxter grabbed the shoulder of the flak vest and hauled the soldier off Barnes, feeling a twinge in his back at the action. He’d pay for it later, he was sure. 
The got behind the Jeep, feeling more secure behind it than open to the field. 
“Where’s the last one?” he asked.
“How many did you get?”
“Two on my side, so there’s one soldier, and two pilots, I guess.”
“Side arms for the pilots, fuck ‘em, this isn’t their job.”
“Hey, pilots!” Baxter roared, and he heard a crow caw in response. “I don’t care where you are, but don’t let me see you and don’t even think of shooting at us. Just wait for your ride home. Fire a round into the air right now if you can hear me.”
There was a long, pause, and the silence after the shooting and the yelling and the rush of blood in his ears was astounding. Finally there was the pop of a handgun.
“Good move!” he yelled again.
They were kneeling in the lee of the Jeep, she was reloading. 
“Do we wanna smoke the last guy out?”
“Well he didn’t shoot at us when I came to get you, that’s a good start. He could have run, he could be waiting for instructions. Grab that gun, we’ll both hose down the trees and make a run for the car.”
She mopped at the blood on her face with a sleeve and considered. “There’s two bodies on your side of the Jeep?”
“Strip at least one for parts before we run.”
He did, dragging both soldiers, one, and then the other, behind the car. His back protested again, and he could feel how hard he was breathing, and for truly the first time in his life, in defiance of grey hairs and middle-age spread and everything else Baxter thought, “I’m old.”
With fresh magazines and a spare each, they readied themselves. He pulled the pin on a stolen grenade and held it. He looked at her. She nodded. 
“Way easier than Herzegovina,” he said, heard the ping of the spoon as it popped out of the grenade, and he threw it. After it blew, they charged out into the yard, splitting at the fresh brown explosion pothole. In controlled bursts, he shot right, she shot left, and they laid suppressing fire over the trees, ran, fired, and reached the road.
“I’ll cover,” he said, turning his back on the road, and walking slowly back. He changed the selector on the gun, firing one round to the left, one to the right.
“Go!” she heard him yell from behind, and he turned and ran as she took on cover duties. He ran past her, slid in the dirt.
“Changing!” he said, and switched magazines. Then he rolled onto his stomach and took over covering. “Go!”
She ran past him, and a moment later he heard the car turn over. He got up to one knee, still popping single shots to either side. The bullets could be a colossal waste, or it could be all that prevented the final soldier from getting the drop on them. The horn honked, he climbed up on his feet, fired a final shot, and climbed into the car. 
He didn’t look back, just slid down in the seat to make a smaller target. 
“Huh,” Barnes said, and an instant later, there was a hollow bang and Baxter saw the soldier bounce off his window. “Guess he did a runner.”
“Pussy,” Baxter said, drawing himself up in his seat. He looked at her. “Want me to get that off you?”
“Please,” she said. 
He undid a snap-clip at the butt end of the MP5 where it rode on her hip, and slowly drew it over her lap and away. He put the safety on, placed it in the backseat, then put the safety on his, drew it over his seat, and put it with the other. He shrugged awkwardly out of his plaid shirt and draped it over the hardware. 
“Got your Sig?” he asked her.
“I’ll hold onto it.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“It’s kind of halfway down my pants now.”
The car reeked of cordite from the guns and from their clothes. There was a hint of gas fumes as well, and a soup├žon of something else, maybe burnt tires. 
Baxter writhed in his seat, reaching into a too-tight pocket. He pulled out a miniature radio headset, stripped from one of the bodies. 
“Ops, come back.”
“This is Ops, sound off.”
“Negative, this is the mark, not the team. I want you to tell Smith that I don’t have what he wants. Repeat, he thinks I have something. I don’t know what it is. I don’t have it. Tell him to back off.”
“I don’t--”
Baxter rolled down the window and dropped it out.

Baxter: Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen

The Blackhawk landed, it didn’t hover. There were two pilots in the cockpit and four black-clad, heavily-armed operatives in the rear compartment. The chopper landed facing the house, as Baxter predicted, and the four soldiers deployed, two at a time. Two dropped to one knee, the others ran forward, took up a new position, dropped to one knee, and the first soldiers advanced again. As they did that, Lindsay Barnes, nee Falconer, lined up her first shot. 
It hit directly in front of the pilot on her right, but the canopy denied the bullet, and a spark flashed in the rotors from the ricochet. The pilot’s hands flew up in panic, but that was all. As she adjusted her shot, she saw him talking into his mic, and she knew she’d draw fire any moment. The second rifle shot hit the base of the rotor the chopper made an angry noise in response. 
“No one leaves,” she murmured, and dove for cover. 
Gunfire rattled and whined against the siding of the house, mostly focused on the top windows. On that signal, Baxter rose up in the living room and concentrated his fire on one soldier. There was no good shot to get through the armor, but that wasn’t the point. Three shots mid-mass put him on his ass and the others dropped. An instant later, there was a mist of pink around the fallen soldier and Baxter heard the report of the rifle from above him. 
One down. 
Behind the fight, the chopper tried to lift off, and a haze of oil spilled into the rotors, causing an abstract, messy swirl. Baxter dropped for cover as the soldiers recovered, taking cover behind the Jeep, returning fire with their MP5s. 
Baxter pulled the end off a flare he’d found in the trunk of her car. It burst into blinding life, and the threw it out the window. 
He thought he heard a screamed command, and two of the soldiers dove away from the vehicle, up and running as the fire from the flare ignited a puddle of gas, which streamed up the side of the Jeep. Baxter dove down again, hands over his ears, mouth open to keep his ear drums from bursting.
The gas tank was pretty empty by this point, but it did the trick. The gas tank combusted with a whump and the Jeep rolled over on its side, away from the house. The soldier who wasn’t as fast had his leg pinned beneath the Jeep, and his teammates, mercenaries apparently based on their reactions, were content to let him burn and scream instead of pull him free. 
Barnes popped up and covered the copper for a moment, unable to find the soldiers through the flame and smoke. The helicopter had rotated about 30 degrees, enough to maybe wing the pilot, but both of them were spilling out the door on the far side, using the chopper as cover. 
There was a swirl of smoke as a downdraft swept it away from the smoking Jeep in the yard. What little gas remained was burning off. Another Blackhawk swept overhead, and she felt the vibrations more than she heard it through her ringing ears. She saw ropes drop from it. 
The two soldiers on the ground fired blindly at the house to cover for their compatriots, but Barnes was confident she tagged one of the soldiers waiting to rope down to the ground before she retreated to cover again.
At more or less the same moment, they both wished that they had headsets to talk to each other. There was no way to form a plan together now, it was all improv, and Baxter feared for Barnes’ keeping up, and Barnes just accepted they were dead. 
They had never considered this possibility, they’d been too focused on the fight they knew was coming to imagine a bigger one. And of course, they’d believed Smith, goddammit, of course they had, and of course he’d lied. 
Three or four more soldiers were on the ground now for a total of...six, there were six. Only six, she specified. That was all. No big deal.
She heard the bark of the Glock from below her and stood up, matching his shots with her Sig. She saw a soldier coming around the Jeep on the left side, so close he must have been roasting, and he slapped a hand to his thigh and fell over. As he hit the ground, it erupted up beneath him, and suddenly there was blood and he was on fire. 
Neither of them saw the soldier who came around the right side of the Jeep step in the bear trap, but even through their partly-deaf ears, they heard his scream when it closed over his ankle. Two more down, almost as quick as thought, and just like that, the odds were back to the original equation. The two of them, four enemy combatants. But maybe only half the ammo now. She wanted one of those MP5s. 
The gunfire fell off as the soldiers regrouped. They were in the shelter of the Jeep, covered by the smoke, coming up with something. And as soon as they had time to think, as soon as they had a plan, the home team advantage would evaporate. 
She ran down the stairs, bringing the rifle and the spare Glock with her. 
“Take it!” Glocks have no safeties, so she didn’t throw it, simply slapped the second gun into his hand. The rifle stayed over her shoulder. “Reload and cover me!” she yelled, and although his face registered surprise, Baxter, old and unfit as he was, didn’t hesitate. He slapped a new magazine into one gun, checked the load in the new one, and followed her out onto the front porch. 

Baxter: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

After she finished sharing her ideas, Baxter threw out a few of his own. 
“So, the kitchen sink,” she said, when he finished.
“Little bit of everything,” he agreed.
“You know we’re probably gonna die, right?”
He shrugged. “You wanna just sit here and wait for them instead?”
“Blaze of glory it is, then.” 
They got to work.

The Jeep was moved directly in front of the house, about fifty feet away. It could serve as cover for the attackers, but it would prevent them from landing right next to the house. Her car was moved to the driveway of the first house, a fall back retreat option. 
At Baxter’s urging, she broke down and ate something. It wasn’t optimal, but it was better than nothing, and she knew she would need to be alert. 
Baxter siphoned some gas from the Jeep’s tank, and then went to work in the yard with a metal dustpan from the kitchen, using it as an improvised shovel. He had a big spoon for detail work. He dug small holes on both sides of the Jeep, extending it’s effectiveness as a barrier. 
They couldn’t afford to waste ammo or draw attention by test-firing the shotgun and they only had six shells left after Baxter’s mad science experiment. She loaded both barrels and put the shotgun in position. Then she double-checked the .30-06 and took it upstairs to her sniper’s nest. She put furniture, books, cushions, and anything else she could find against the wall beneath the windows looking out over the yard for protection. As soon as they knew where she was, they’d concentrate fire on her position.
When he was finished with the yard, Baxter piled stuff in front of the living room window to shield his initial position. While he was doing that, Barnes came back inside, filthy from crawling around under the house. She dropped a heavy wrench in the kitchen. 
“Gas is off,” she said. Stray bullets puncturing propane lines was not something they wanted to deal with. The fridge and stove would stop working, but it didn’t matter anymore.
The knives were still all over the house where Baxter had set them, and his second Glock went upstairs as a fallback option. 
“Okay?” she asked, looking around.
He thought for a moment, wondering if they had missed anything.
“Best we can do,” he said. 
They did a walk through, checking the preparation, looking for holes. They stood in the yard, turning in opposite circles, trying to think like the enemy.
“So,” he said, repeating salient points, “they’ll infil by chopper, and we have to figure they’ll land over there,” he said, pointing across the rough road. “Not enough space otherwise. Human logic dictates they’ll land facing the house--”
“--if they land at all.” 
“Right, if they land at all. If they don’t, two less guys to worry about. If they do, odds are they’ll land facing the house because that’s the way the mind works, and they’ll be sitting ducks.”
“Best case scenario they’ll land because they’re not expecting an attack, and they won’t be at full readiness. At least one free shot.”
“Best case.”
“Worst case, they drop in ready for action, and there’s two less guys and one less chopper to worry about.”
“And no matter what, we have to assume they’ll get an emergency broadcast out, which means reinforcements and a cleanup team within another couple of hours.”
“You don’t have another boat stashed somewhere, do you?”
He shook his head. “You got my best effort.”
“It was pretty good,” she acknowledged.
They looked at each other, years of shared experience resurrecting between them. 
“Just like old times?” he suggested.
“We’ve had worse odds, but we usually had better equipment.”
“Feels like Herzegovina.”
He nodded, “What did we have, one grenade, two clips and a broken AK?”
“And you painted all those broomsticks black and put them in the windows so they just couldn’t be sure how many guns there were.”
“Odds were worse then.”
“You were better then,” she said, but she was smiling when she said it.
“I make up for youth with age and experience.”
“You make up for youth with ten years of being a lazy bastard.”
“You win,” he said. “That, too. Buy you another warm Coke?”
They were turning for the house when they heard the soft whipping of helicopter blades.
“Too late,” she said quietly. They both looked down and realized they’d grabbed each other’s hands. They didn’t look at each other. He squeezed her hand once and dropped it.
“Game time,” Baxter said, and they ran for the house.