My life, a work in progress.
Fourteen minutes into the mission, and things were looking pretty good for Ranie Scott, considering. He was squatting with his back to a brick wall, just inside the compound, waiting for his breath to come back. Not moments before he’d had to silently – he hoped – climb the 12-foot chain link fence topped with new barbed wire, not before having to disable the electric current running through the fence from the control box just inside the one rear gate. The electric fence was a major oversight by Lance Beach, the spotter on this job, and one that would have stopped him, if not fatally, at the outset. He’d have words with Beach in the morning.
The small spark of a damp weed against the fence had alerted him to the fact that the fence was wired. He was fortunate that tonight’s lightning storm provided cover, both auditory and visual, for the disabling of the high-voltage charging system with his silenced HK45. The rain didn’t dissuade him from his task; in fact, the mission had been on hold, waiting for just such a night, as it considerably helped by increasing the night’s background noise to a more comfortable level for maneuvers. On a still night, the rattle of a chain link fence or the metallic ting of snipped barbed wire fence could echo dangerously. He’d seen no movement in any of the lighted windows of the main house, nor seen or heard the guard dog who was loose somewhere. At least Beach had alerted him to that.
The rain would keep the dog under cover. It would also keep common burglars at home, so the lone security guard inside would probably be less vigilant. Scott’s senses, however, were tightly tuned, not distracted by the rain, thunder or occasional lightning that had assisted him just prior to his fence climb. He stood, sheltered for the moment by the garage roof overhang under which he’d squatted, and made out the corner of the machine shed that blocked the doghouse from view. He padded quietly to the far corner across the cement drive, hugged the shed wall, and pulled a ziploc bag from his thin backpack. Opening it, he pulled the cord lashed around the thick ham bone, and winding back, swung it around the corner toward the doghouse.
Quickly sprinting back to the other side of the machine shed, he silently jumped up on the outside pallet rack that held myriad tires, scrap parts and used 55 gallon drums. He crouched for several minutes to give the dog time to settle in with the bone, then stretched himself down and quickly walked toward the east wing of the manor house. Only three windows were lit – a second floor pair covered by sheer curtains and a first floor frosted window that glowed somewhat blue. The former he knew belonged to the master bedroom, the latter the small security room. Beach had determined that the lone guard, a 56-year old retired security van driver, spent most of his time on duty browsing the internet. An alarm system, but no cameras, was his only monitor of outside conditions.
Undoubtedly the guard had by now noticed that the electric fence wasn’t functional, but Scott guessed he was too comfortable inside on a night like this to bother coming outside to check on it. He’d probably connected the charging system failure with the fortuitous lightning strike, an assumption he’d come to regret by morning. The owners of the house probably had complete faith in their security arrangements, an assumption they’d come to regret by morning too. The dog had probably assumed that meaty bones just naturally dropped out of the sky, an assumption that would never be corrected. Scott, Beach, Woodsey and the new kid Spatz had diligently thought through all these assumptions, and would be counting their cash in another state by the morning.
Smitty pulled the sedan away from the curb and slowly began his circuit around the city block. Despite his nervousness, he noticed his stomach grumbling, and regretted not taking the time for breakfast that morning. He was in such a hurry not to be late he had completely forgotten to eat.
“What the hay,” he thought, “They won’t be done for a ‘nother half hour at least, I got plenty of time to stop at Gloria’s.” It was his favorite restaurant in town, or rather, the only one within a half-hour of this lonely corner of Arkansas. Smitty had grown up here in Beauford, near the bottom of the 15 in his graduating class, preferring to tinker around engines rather than books. He’d begun doing minor car repairs at Doc’s Auto on the east end right out of high school, and while becoming an expert auto mechanic, never had much ambition to go further, preferring the slow life of a small town. Gloria’s Home Cooking was a regular stop at least once most days.
“Mornin’, Smitty,” a cheerful voice called out. Darlene, the granddaughter of Gloria Wells, for whom the restaurant was named, was the current owner, cook, cashier and waitress. “Late start today, huh? Get’cher usual? Momma made us a coffee cake fer Sunday dinner yesterday, I can cut ya a piece,” she continued, setting a chipped white coffee cup on the counter and pouring it full. Of course, Darlene knew everyone in town, and served them up home cooking and conversation at least once a week. She kept an eye out for Smitty, an only child whose parents had passed years ago.
“Um, yeah, that’s good. I mean, uh, eggs and everything, plus ‘at coffee cake. An’ I gotta get going. Lots to do today.”
“Oh? Whose car you workin’ on now?”
“Car? Oh, um, well, Ol’ Man Jenks needs a exhaust put in, and ah, you know, a bunch of other small stuff. I gotta get goin’,” he concluded, looking out the windows down the street where he’d come from.
“Hmm,” Darlene replied. She could tell Smitty wasn’t telling all. “Ok, Mister Top Secret Project, you know. I’m just yer best friend in the whole world. You don’t have to tell me anything. I’ll just make yer breakfast and feed ya, don’t worry about me!”
Smitty hung his head. He knew he was hiding something, but just couldn’t tell Darlene what he was involved with. He was always open with Darlene; she was like a sister to him. He felt terrible. “Aw, Dar, it’s just… Oh, I don’t know, there’s some things a man’s gotta keep to hisself, you know? I ain’t mean to be secretive or nothin’, I just got some stuff to do an’ can’t tell nobody about it.”
“Ok, fine, fine.” Smitty was the only customer at the time, and the next few minutes were difficult and very quiet. His breakfast finally arrived, and Darlene stood behind the counter refilling his coffee cup. “I”m sorry, Smitty, I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that you and me haven’t had secrets from each other before. I don’t know what to make of it. Is everything all right?”
“Sure!” Smitty answered quickly, but then added, “I guess.” He glanced out the window again, and back to his plate, his cheeks reddening.
“Who you lookin’ fer, child? I ain’t seen you so worked up in a long time.”
“What is it, honey? You can tell me.”
“You know that ol’ house I got? Well, I… oh, man, I is in such a mess, Darlene,” he hesitated, holding his head in his hands. After a moment, he continued, “I ain’t been able to pay no income taxes fer a coupla years now, Doc’s just don’t have enough business to keep up.” He sighed deeply.
“Oh, Smitty,” Darlene said, “I didn’t know things was that bad. You should’a told me!”
“Well that’s not the worst part yet. These outta town guys in suits come in last week and told me they was gonna report me to the IRS, but if’n I’d help ’em out with a job, they’d gimme two thousand dollars! Dar, that’s mor’n enough to pay all my back taxes! Oh, I didn’t know what to do, so’s I just said yes, an’ here I am, but I think they’re doin’ somethin’ terrible.”
“What do you mean, here you are? What are you supposed to be doing?”
“Jest driving. You know, pick ’em up when they finish their business at the bank, and drive ’em out to the county line bridge. Oh, it just don’t feel right,” he wailed.
“At the bank?…” Darlene paused. “You don’t think…”
Their conversation was interrupted by a siren. Quickly turning toward the front window, Smitty looked on as the squad car pulled up to the bank building and two officers bounded out and into the front doors. Smitty and Darlene couldn’t speak; a hundred thoughts going through their heads. A minute later, the officers led out two men in handcuffs and into the police car.
“Did you know…”
“Oh, I didn’t even ask what their business was, I know I shoulda, but I was in such a mess,” Smitty moaned. “That coulda been me bein’ arrested, if’n I’d been waitin’ for ’em at the curb like I’s supposed to. Glory be, Darlene, if you hadn’t a kept after me with your questions, you’d be seein’ me in tha jail. Jes’ like yer mother, never a minute o’ peace around here when she was around…”
“Why you ungrateful wretch, Smitty, I oughtta smack you silly, you old good for nothin’…”
She stopped and began to grin as Smitty looked up at her, beaming. “Gotcha!”
“You!” Darlene reached over the counter and hugged Smitty around the shoulders.
“I’ll get them taxes paid somehow,” he said. “An’ I ain’t gonna do no more work for strangers without askin’ more questions!”
The rain pattered on the window, interrupting the silence in the downstairs office, somehow in sync with the tapping of the keyboard. The harshness of the cold fluorescents seemed to match the mood of the gray light from the window, where dark clouds overshadowed the dewy landscape. “A miserable way to start the week,” he thought, glancing outside at the drops running down the window pane. “I”m glad I didn’t take a vacation day today.”
Jim Beckett’s original plan was to take the whole day off in order to work on the yard, as the cool wet weather seemed to have taken a turn toward spring over the weekend. Moody April had changed her complexion again, however, and this week was gearing up to be a wet one. Sure, and with the warm spell, his grass was likely to be quite tall by the time he could get the mower out on the soggy lawn.
He sighed, and turned back to his computer. Jim typically spent Monday mornings scrounging for work to take him through the week; things were pretty slow at his company at the moment. This morning, however, his inbox was already full. “That’s a relief,” he thought, “Looks like I have more than enough work for this week, and I won’t be gazing longingly outside today for sure.” He smiled wryly at the sudden way his attitude could change. “What a creature of circumstances.” The phrase, “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” ran through his head.
The explosion assaulted his ears, as ceiling tiles and debris rained down upon his head. Stunned and wide-eyed, desire for self-protection kicked in and he scrambled under his desk. The lights flickered and went out, and an eerie silence echoed through the office, the raindrops hardly a flicker at the edge of his senses. The daylight shone through the window, gray daggers through the dust. Beckett couldn’t imagine a more bizarre situation.
Shouts and loud footsteps echoed through the floor above, echoing down the connecting stairway. At first he felt a sigh of relief, but that quickly turned to terror as the voices became clearer. “Go, go, go! Call out bodies; we can’t have witnesses!” “Looks like 6 down!” A female scream rang out, then was cut short after several loud shots. “Make that seven!” “Blue, check the basement. Red, the server room, quickly!” Terrified, Beckett , pulled his chair up to the desk, and made himself as invisible as possible, as more footsteps clattered down the stairwell. He several pairs of black boots run by, then “All clear, no bodies!” and the men ran back upstairs.
Beckett heard muffled voices, then “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” as the footsteps quickly moved toward the front door, then silence again. Trembling and too terrified to move, he laid on the floor, waiting for what seemed an eternity. In reality, eternity lasted only a minute, and another explosion rocked his world, louder than the first. It was a Monday morning Jim Beckett would never forget.