Paroxysm

Back at the bridge, the sound of the Toyota diminished into the distance, and the highways truck’s doors flew open. Six men got out, dressed alike in coveralls and orange vests with fluorescent stripes. Except for Wexler, the blond from the shotgun seat, all of them were in their twenties, hard-looking, easy moving men with flat eyes. They worked quickly and purposefully, not needing to be told what to do, arranging plastic cones and wooden sawhorse barriers to block the road at both ends of the bridge.

When the barricades were in place, two of the men lifted handheld traffic control signs from the carry-all, and went out on the road at either end of the span. The rest of the crew ranged themselves along the bridge’s parapet, and began a desultory tapping at the concrete with hammers and cold chisels, like geologists taking samples. Wexler unclipped a walkie-talkie from his belt and rapidly tapped the “send” button three times. The radio squawked twice in reply.

For two or three minutes, there was no sound or movement other than what the young men were doing to the parapet. Then a beat-up blue pick-up came around a bend in the road and pulled up at the barrier. The truck bed was piled high with bales of alfalfa, the driver a stringy old woman in overalls and a straw hat.

The blond man approached the driver’s window. “You live in Prescott Springs?”

The old woman nodded. “I run sheep on a place the other end of the lake. What’s the trouble here?”

“No trouble,” said Wexler, nodding to the sign holder to open the barrier. “Maybe some cracks in the pilings. We’re just checking it now. You can go through.”

The pick-up ground forward with a clash of gears, and the barrier closed behind it. Two minutes later, a Dodge minivan came around the curve, driven by a soft faced man wearing a designer shirt and a Cartier watch. His carefully coordinated wife looked alertly at the activity on the bridge, while the two kids in the back seat kept their eyes and fingers on their hand-held video games.

Wexler smiled at the driver. “Hi. You folks live in Prescott Springs?”

“No,” was the reply. “We’re just going to picnic by the lake.”

The blond man shook his head. “Sorry. May have to close this bridge soon. Since it’s the only way in or out of town, you could be stuck here a couple days.” He pointed with his chin back the way the minivan had come. “Saw a pretty nice spot back down the road, you want to try it.”

The driver spoke over his shoulder to the kids in the back. “Sorry, guys.”

The wife frowned, but the kids paid no attention. The man shrugged, said “thanks,” put the vehicle through a three-point turn, and headed back down the road out of the Prescott Valley.

Minutes passed and nothing more came down the road. The only sounds were the men’s aimless tapping at the parapet and the chuckle of the river washing past the bridge supports. One of the men picked up a pebble from the deck and dropped it into the water, listening to the “floop” it made as it broke the surface and watching the ripples rapidly break up on the moving flow. The man reached for another pebble; as he did so, he found Wexler’s gaze on him, and a shiver went up his back as he read the message in that furious stare. Then he saw something that instantly made him drop the stone, reach for his hammer and get looking busy. A black limousine with tinted windows eased into view around the hill and approached the barrier.

The squad leader turned to follow the other man’s gaze, then snapped to attention as the car came to a stop and the rear passenger window rolled halfway down. The face framed by the glass and chrome was of a man in his late fifties. The lean cheeks and thin lips bespoke an ascetic temperament, to which the dark, sunken eyes added more than a tinge of cruelty. Before his retirement from the military, Parker DeVoin had never been the kind of general soldiers would gladly follow into hell; he was instead the kind of martinet who would consign to perdition any man who failed to meet his exacting standards.

His eyes swept over the activity on the bridge, then came back to the squad leader. “Your report, Mr. Wexler,” he said.

“Phase one on track and on time, General.”

DeVoin nodded. “Carry on, Lieutenant.”

“Sir!”

The man almost threw a salute, but checked the reflex in time. The limo window rolled up and the car moved across the bridge toward town. The lieutenant turned to the man who had dropped the pebble.

“Hagen!” he barked. “Relieve Medford here.” He indicated the man with the slow/stop sign. “I want you where I can see you.”

Hagen left his hammer and vaulted over the barrier in time to catch the sign the Medford tossed to him. Another car was coming, and he walked out into the middle of the road. The squad leader came up behind him, put his lips close to the younger man’s ear and said, “This ain’t Bragg, asshole. There’s no company punishment, no confined to barracks. You fuck up, the general’s gonna tell me to put one through your useless, empty head, and you know I’ll do it.”

Hagen swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”

“Now stop the car and be polite.”

“Yes, sir.”

The black van had been parked since mid-afternoon in the tumbled-down ruin of a hay barn five miles from the bridge into Prescott Springs. The three men DeVoin had assigned to this part of the operation had not passed the day lounging around or playing cards. Two had kept watch at either end of the old building, one scanning the road that ran by the front of the barn at a distance of about two hundred feet, the other keeping an eye on the open crop land behind. Neither had seen anything worth reporting. The third man had stayed close to the van’s radio.

Now the two watchers opened wide the barn’s doors on creaking hinges, while the third man climbed behind the wheel and started the engine. The two men on foot walked out to the road and scanned it for traffic. There was nothing, and one signaled the driver to come out.

The van bumped along the short rutted track to the road, and the two sentries climbed in. The vehicle nosed onto the blacktop and turned toward Prescott Springs. The driver brought the speed indicator up to a point a few miles per hour below the speed limit and drove sedately toward town.

The van’s passage was without incident until it was two miles out from bridge. Then the driver saw a distant pair of headlights appear in his sideview mirror. “Company,” he said.

The others craned to look through the van’s heavily tinted rear windows. “Coming up fast,” said one of them, with the flattened vowels and slight nasal tone of central Canada.

The third man opened a locker bolted to the floor of the van and extracted an unloaded M-16 assault rifle.

“Here you go,” he said in an accent that was pure back road South Carolina. He handed the weapon to the Canadian and brought out another for himself, then reached back in for two full magazines of ammunition.

The driver heard the snicks and clicks of the weapons being readied, but kept his eyes moving between the road and the vehicle that was closing the distance between them. He calculated that he was now a little more than a mile from the bridge — say a minute-and-a-half — and relaxed. Whoever was on his tail would be Wexler’s problem.

“Put ’em away,” he told the men in the back. “We’re covered.”

When the van reached the flashing lights and road flares that marked the blocked bridge, the driver slowed long enough to let the bridge squad leader identify him, then wove through the barriers and followed the road into town. Before the van cleared the bridge, Wexler had already turned his attention toward the vehicle coming up behind.

The car was a late model Range Rover, with all the options, driven by a sharp faced man who didn’t balk at paying three figures for a pair of shoes and four for a suit. His name was Tresider. He made an easy $300,000 a year selling moderately valuable tax planning advice to people who’d recently made more money than they’d ever known what to do with — lottery winners, heirs of recently dead doting aunts, and the like. He was not used to having low-echelon civil servants block his smooth and enjoyable ride through life.

“Do you live in Prescott Springs?” asked the blond man in the highways department reflector vest.

“What business is that of yours?” Tresider responded.

The man patiently repeated the question.

“I’m visiting,” the tax planner snapped back. “A friend has a cabin on the lake and he’s letting me use it for a few days.”

Then the man offered some nonsense about cracks in pylons, and being stuck in town. Tresider simply began talking over the squad leader’s words, a technique he’d learned in dealing with bureaucrats. “That’s not my concern,” he said. “I intend to be here all weekend anyway. Now move that barrier and let me through.”

“Can’t do that, sir,” was the response. “My orders are to let only local residents cross, all others to be turned back.

Tresider couldn’t believe it. “You let that car ahead of me go across,” he said.

The highways man said nothing.

It had been a long time since the tax planner had not got something he wanted, and he did not feel like breaking the pattern now. “We’ll see about this,” he said, and opened a briefcase that lay on the passenger seat. Out of it he took a satellite phone, and fixed the blond man with a meaningful look. “What’s your name?” he said.

Without waiting for an answer he began to punch in the private number of a senior state official who confidentially — and quite illegally — passed Tresider the names and phone numbers of lottery winners.

Satellite phones had their own separate heading in Wexler’s orders. No one with such a phone was to be allowed to cross the bridge under any circumstances, and he could extrapolate from that fact that if he let the man in the Range Rover complete his call there was a definite potential for compromising the mission.

The lieutenant reached into the car and wrested the phone from the man’s hand while he was still dialing.

“How dare…” Tresider began, but stopped abruptly when Wexler’s other hand entered the vehicle holding a small black automatic pistol.

“Get out of the car, sir,” Wexler said.

Tresider did. Wexler gestured toward the carry-all with highways department marking. “This way, sir.”

It was the politeness that did it, Wexler knew; it kept them off-balance and docile, didn’t panic them the way shouted orders and insults might have.

They walked toward the carry-all. “Look, whatever this is, there’s no need…” Tresider said.

“Stop here, please, sir.” They had reached the open doors at the rear of the vehicle. Wexler looked up and down the road, saw nothing. “Place your hands on the top of the vehicle and put your head back,” he said.

Tresider did as he was told. “Look,” he started again, but never finished, because Wexler had already returned the automatic to its holster under his shirt, and had drawn from his back pocket a loop of thin wire strung between two pieces of polished hardwood. He dropped the wire over the tax planner’s head, crossed his wrists to tighten it around the man’s neck, and simultaneously brought up his knee into the small of the victim’s back. He yanked back smartly and broke Tresider’s spine even as the sudden shut-off of oxygen to the brain brought unconsciousness.

The body slumped to its knees, the arms and head coming to rest on the floor of the truck. Wexler told two men to put the corpse in the back of the Land Rover and cover it with a plastic sheet from the carry-all. They would drive it toward town and park it off the road near the bottling plant. As the vehicle pulled away, he took out his walkie-talkie and said, “Homestead, this is Blueberry.”

The radio crackled, and Macklin’s voice came back. “Homestead. What’s your report, Blueberry?”

“Confirm Pinochle,” Wexler said. “Also, we’ve had a flat.”

“Copy that, Blueberry,” Macklin radioed back. “Is the flat fixed?”

“All fixed,” the lieutenant said.

“Copy fixed. Homestead out.”


Paroxysm is available in print from the Archonate Bookstore and Amazon. It is also available as an eBook from the Archonate Bookstore and Amazon (for the Kindle).