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Base Camp One, Louisiana
"No," Ben Raines said. "Absolutely not."
Ben was working in his garden, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. He was on his knees putting young tomato plants into the freshly turned dirt.
"It's going to happen, Ben. With or without your approval, it is going to happen. You know it is," Mike Post said. Mike was standing just outside the turned earth, so as not to get his shoes dirty. He was smoking a pipe, and the cherry-scented tobacco mingled with the smell of sun on the young tomato plants.
"Raines City, Louisiana? Not in my lifetime," Ben insisted.
"Not Raines City, Louisiana," Mike corrected. "It will be called Raines City, Capital District. Though it will probably be referred to as Raines City, C.D."
Ben looked up from his planting. "Ha. You mean like Washington, D.C. Only we reverse the last two letters and it becomes C.D. Who the hell came up with that idea anyway?"
Ben chuckled. "I might have known. Hell, he doesn't need to stroke the old man to get to Anna. She's crazy enough about him as it is. He ought to know that."
"It has nothing to do with Harley stroking you to get to your daughter. It has everything to do with you being the father of our country."
"Look, the airport has already been named after me. And the middle school. Isn't that enough? I'm not comfortable with that shit, Mike, and you know it," Ben said.
"Of course you aren't. Nobody except megalomaniacs really wants something like this. Fortunately, this doesn't need your approval. Though those of us who would like to see this come about would appreciate, if not your blessing,at least your acceptance."
"I've got work to do with these tomato plants," Ben growled.
At the Ben Raines Middle school, the bell was ringing for lunch and Miss Tremont, a pretty, young black teacher, had lunchroom duty. She stood just on the dining-room side of the serving window and looked over at the lunch that was being served today.
"Meat loaf and gravy?" she asked. "Haven't you ever heard of eating healthy? Salads? Vegetables? Baked fish? Goodness, if I ate here every day, I would weigh a ton. I'll just have an apple."
Doney Wheeler, one of the kitchen cooks who, by her girth, showed that she obviously enjoyed food, laughed.
"I swear, Miss Tremont. You're so skinny now that if you turned sideways you wouldn't even cast a shadow. You've got to put some meat on those bones if you ever want to attract a man."
"What are you talking about, Doney. Miss Tremont already has more men sniffing around her than there are bees to clover," one of the other teachers said, and the others laughed.
The doors to the cafeteria opened and scores of children came running in, shouting, laughing, pushing, and shoving.
"Children, children, don't crowd," Miss Tremont said. "From what I can see in the kitchen, they prepared plenty. There's enough for everyone."
"Broccoli? Yuk! We've got broccoli," one of the boys said.
"Broccoli is good for you," the girl behind him advised.
"Well, I ain't going to eat it."
"I'm not going to eat it," Miss Tremont said, correcting him.
"See? She ain't going to eat it either, and she's a teacher."
"No, that's not what I mean," Miss Tremont said.
"She's was telling you not to say 'ain't,'" the little girl said smugly.
A van turned into the alley behind the school. Miner Cain, the driver, maneuvered it carefully around a Dempsey Dumpster, then parked it right behind the delivery door of the cafeteria. Just before he got out of the van, he flipped a small toggle switch and, immediately, a digital readout, in red, began counting down from 5:00 to 4:59, 4:58, and so on. Miner stood just outside the cab of the truck, monitoring the readout for a few seconds to make certain the timer was activated, then walked rather quickly to the end of the alley, where he climbed into a large black Lincoln. Two men were waiting for him in the Lincoln.
"Is it armed?" the driver of the limousine asked. The driver was Cletus Doyle.
"Yeah," Cain answered. "And I watched it for a few seconds to make sure the timer is working."
"Let's get out of here," Glen Burkett said. Burkett was a passenger in the right front seat.
Doyle drove down the driveway, but before he could enter the street, he was stopped by a rather stout, gray-haired woman. The woman was a crossing guard and she stood in front of him, holding up a stop sign, while half a dozen children, who had permission to go home for lunch, crossed the street.
Doyle drummed impatiently on the steering wheel. "Come on, come on, come on, you little bastards," he said under his breath. "What the hell are you doing, going so slow? Get your asses across the street."
"How much time do we have left on the timer?" Burkett asked.
Cain glanced at his watch. "About three and a half minutes," he said.
The last of the children crossed the street and the crossing guard started to let the Lincoln go. Doyle took his foot off the brake and the car rolled forward a few feet, but then another child appeared and started across the street. The gray-haired woman, who had turned to leave, waved the boy across, then turned back to her duty station and held the stop sign up importantly.
"Yeah, yeah, I see your goddamn sign," Doyle said. "Get that little shit across the street, will you?" Again, he expressed his impatience under his breath so the woman couldn't hear.
Halfway across the street, the little boy stopped right in the middle of the road, then bent down to tie his shoe.
"Come on!" Burkett said, sticking his head out the window and calling to the crossing guard. "What the hell is he doing?"
The woman turned toward the boy and, seeing him, blew her whistle, then motioned for him to hurry across.
"Thanks, lady," Doyle said once the boy was across and she waved them on.
Back inside the cafeteria, several of the children were already seated and eating their dinner, while nearly as many were still progressing slowly through the line. Miss Tremont finished the apple, which was all she planned to eat for lunch, and leaned over to throw the core into the garbage scuttle. At that precise moment she just happened to be looking toward the back wall of the cafeteria. As she did so, she saw something that was so strange to her that her brain was unable to assemble the information in any sort of logical way.
What she saw was the back wall moving into the kitchen. At first, it appeared that the wall itself was moving, almost in slow motion, as if in some cinematic effect. Then, the wall broke up, turning into several large black chunks of material, surrounded by a flash of white-hot light.
The rupturing wall allowed the shock wave of the explosion to rush through the kitchen. That had the effect of turning cinder blocks, bricks, stoves, and metal cabinets into massive pieces of shrapnel, rather like a very large Claymore mine.
Miss Tremont didn't see all that, however, for one piece of stone preceded the rest of the blast, and that stone struck the attractive young teacher in the forehead, killing her instantly. In dying as quickly as she did, she was spared the trauma of watching so many of her young charges killed in the same explosion.
Ben and Mike were sitting on the back patio of his house. Jody, Ben's malamute dog, was sitting beside Ben with her head resting on Ben's knee. The men were eating toasted cheese sandwiches and drinking lemonade. Ben held a glass of lemonade in one hand, while his other rubbed Jody behind the ears.
"I've been thinking about writing a book," Ben said.
"An autobiography?" Mike took a swallow of his own lemonade, wishing it was something a bit stronger. "That would be good."
Ben laughed. "Not likely. Autobiographies are written by retired politicians. I'm neither a politician nor retired. No, I'm thinking about writing a novel. I used to be a novelist, you know."
"Of course I know that. Everybody knows that. You were a good one too," Mike said.
Ben chuckled. "Well, I don't think I was ever in danger of giving Hemingway or Steinbeck, or Herman Wouk, any serious competition. But I'm rather immodestly proud of the fact that I did have my following."
"Yes, you did. And as I recall, you had a loyal following of fans, and a rather concerned following of government officials," Mike said.
Ben laughed. "You got that right. As all the reviews said, some of my novels were considered controversial. I think it was that, the controversial part, that managed to get the attention of the feds."
Mike's cell phone rang before he could respond to Ben, and holding up a finger as if to excuse himself, he flipped open the cover.
Ben continued to rub Jody behind her ears, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw the look of horror come onto Mike's face.
"Have emergency services been notified?" Mike asked into the phone. "They have? Good. Yes, of course. I'm with General Raines right now, but I'll get there as quickly as I can." He turned his cell phone off, then looked across the small table toward a curious and concerned Ben.
"What is it?" Ben asked.
"There's been a bombing," Mike said.
Mike nodded. "Yes, and dead," he added. "Many dead, in fact."
"Damn. Where was it? Was it a cafe or a shopping mall?"
"Worse," Mike said. "It was a school."
"It was your school, Ben. The Ben Raines Middle school," Mike said gravely. "The bomb went off just behind the cafeteria at lunchtime. Whoever the bastards are who did this, the sons of bitches planned it so that it would inflict the maximum number of casualties. Can you imagine anything that evil? They wanted the bomb to kill as many kids as possible."
Ben was silent for a moment, absorbing the gruesome news. "How many dead, do we know?"
"We don't have a number yet. The only report we have is that casualties are high. I'm going right down there," he added, getting up quickly. "Would you like to come with me?"
"Absolutely," Ben replied. "I'll try and stay out of everyone's way, but I feel I should go."
Helen McLeod walked to the front window of the SUSA National Bank in Base Camp One, and she looked out as yet another emergency vehicle drove by.
"Another one?" Linda Wade asked. Like Helen, Linda was a teller in the bank.
"Yes. That makes seven," Helen said as she returned to the teller counter. "Four ambulances, two police cars, and a fire truck."
"Could you tell where they were going?" Dewey Flowers asked. Dewey, who was president of the bank, had come to the door of his office when they started hearing all the sirens.
"No." Helen replied. "All I know is they were heading east."
"It's a little frightening," Linda said. "It sounds like they are coining from all over town."
"It certainly does. There must be a big fire somewhere."
There were no customers in the bank, but at that moment Doyle, Cain, and Burkett came in. The sound of the sirens increased as the door was opened, then quieted somewhat as the door shut.
"Good afternoon," Helen called to them, smiling at the three.
"Good afternoon," Doyle replied.
"We were just talking about all the sirens that are going outside," Helen said.
"Yes, we hear them," Doyle.
"All I can say is, something very big must've happened," Helen insisted. "Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars have been coming by for the last several minutes."
"Something big did happen," Doyle said. "The Ben Raines Middle School was bombed."
Helen gasped. "Oh, that is awful!"
"God in heaven, who would do such a thing?" Linda asked.
Doyle smiled broadly.
Inexplicably, Helen felt a sudden chill. She wasn't certain why, other than the fact that the man's broad smile in the face of the news of a school being bombed seemed more than merely inappropriate. It seemed evil.
Funny you should ask that," Doyle said. "We did it. "My friends and I." He took the other two in with a wave of his hand.
"My God, what a terrible thing to joke about," Linda said.
"They aren't joking," Helen said, her voice made tight by the constriction in her throat. She wasn't sure how she knew, but she knew.
"You had better listen to Helen, Linda," Doyle said. His evil smile broadened. "She knows what she is talking about."
Helen gasped again. "You know our names? How is it that you know our names?"
"It's called preparation," Doyle said. He and the two men with him opened their jackets then, and pulled out Uzi machine guns. They sprayed machine-gun fire all around the bank. Bullets smashed through frosted-glass panes, ricocheted off marble floors and walls. Helen, Linda, and the other tellers screamed, shouted, dropped to their knees, and covered their heads with their hands.
"Please stand up," Doyle said.
No one moved.
Doyle nodded at Cain, who fired another short burst from his machine gun.
"I said stand up!" Doyle repeated.
The bank employees slowly, fearfully, stood up.
"What is this?" Dewey Flowers asked, hurrying out of his office. "What is going on here?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Flowers, but your presence here is superfluous," Doyle said.
Doyle turned his gun on Flowers and fired. The bullets caused the bank president to jerk and shake. His shattered heart emptied itself of blood and the front of his white shirt turned red as he went down.
Doyle turned his gun back to the tellers, all of whom were looking on in openmouthed horror.
"Oh, good. We seem to have everyone's attention now," Doyle said. The fact that his tone was light, almost jovial, gave a bizarre overtone to the incident and, somehow, made the whole thing even more evil.
"Now, I want you to empty your vault into bank bags. And I'm going to ask you not to try and give me any bullshit about not being able to get into the vault. I wouldn't like to hear that," Doyle said.
"You just killed the only one who has access to the vault," one of the male tellers said.
"Wrong, Mr. Goss," Doyle said. "I know that you have access to the vault. I asked you not to lie to me. Perhaps I should have warned you, I don't like being lied to." Doyle shot Mr. Goss; he died immediately.
Now there were only female tellers remaining, and they screamed in fear, shock, and horror as they saw their two male colleagues lying on the floor in spreading pools of blood.
Doyle had already carefully cased the bank, and he knew who could get into the vault. He turned his gun toward Helen McLeod. "That leaves you, Helen McLeod. Like Mr. Flowers and Mr. Goss, you have access to the vault. Or are you going to tell me otherwise?"
"No, no, I'm not going to lie to you," Helen said in a voice she was barely able to keep from breaking. She stuck her hands in the air.
Doyle chuckled. "This isn't a Western movie, Miss McLeod," he said. "I'm not robbing a stagecoach. I didn't say, stick 'em up, did I?"
"Stick 'em up," Cain said, laughing, and the other two bank robbers laughed with him.
"N-no," Helen stammered.
"Well, you can't open the vault with your hands in the air, can you?"
Helen stood there for a moment longer, petrified by fear.
"Do it now, Miss McLeod," Doyle said patiently. "Open the vault."
"Y-yes, sir," Helen stammered, hurrying toward the vault.
"You other ladies," Doyle called. "As soon as she gets the vault open, I want you to start filling your bank bags with money. And if I or one of my friends see you putting anything less than a twenty into the bags, we'll be forced to kill you. Do I make myself understood?"
Nervously, and with hands shaking so badly they could barely put the money into the large canvas and leather zipper bags, the women began scooping banded bills from the vault shelves and dropping them into the bags.
Outside, emergency vehicles continued to speed by, their sirens and horns blasting.
"How are we doing on time, Number Two?" Doyle asked.
Cain checked his wristwatch. "Five minutes," he said.
"Ladies, please do hurry," Doyle said.
As Cain checked his wristwatch, his shirt sleeve pulled up a bit and Linda saw the tattoo. The tattoo was of a skull's head inside a triangle. She fought hard not to show any reaction to what she saw.
The skull's head and triangle was the symbol of Die Kontrollgruppe. Linda knew that because her husband was writing a thesis on the various militia organizations within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Just last night, she had helped edit some of his material.