With a VENGEANCE
By Eileen Dreyer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Eileen Dreyer
All right reserved. ISBN: 0312265778
It was the cicadas that pushed everything into critical mass.
The cicadas and a paranoid schizophrenic.
The cicadas, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a hat made of defective aluminum foil.
But mostly, it was the cicadas.
St. Louis in the summer is miserable enough. Hot, humid, and suffocatingly still, it resembles an anteroom to hell. Tempers shorten. Frustrations sharpen. What would be annoying any other time becomes unbearable.
But that summer was even worse. A cicada population of biblical proportions had awakened from two separate periods of dormancy to drive every person in the bistate region to violence. Breeding and eating at a ferocious rate in their hurry to mate and die, the insects whined out a satanic symphony of grinding dissonance that could incite a saint to suicide.
Within days, minor car accidents escalated to hostage situations, suburban soccer morns were arrested on felony weapons violations, and sporting events saw more action in the stands than on the field. The recently declining violent crime numbers swept right back up, police ran double shifts, and emergency departments started stockpiling antipsychotic drugs like nuclear arms.
Which meant that nobody was really surprised when the disturbance call went out at 11:32 A.M. on a late-July morning for the four hundred block of Ohio Avenue on the city's south side. A bare-bones kind of street, Ohio boasted faded brick multiple-family dwellings that housed the substrata of people hanging on to the fringes by their fingertips; new immigrants, ex-project inhabitants, chronic defaulters. In a word, the kind of block where disturbance calls were as common as bill collectors.
Usually, though, the calls came long after lunch, when the avenue's less wholesome tenants woke from their nightly revelries. Eleven-thirty was a little early, even on this kind of hot, still, muggy day.
But then, the cicadas were out.
The responding unit arrived on the scene at precisely 11:53 A.M. to be met by a young black woman up to her elbows in toddlers, and one teary-eyed ten-year-old in a pom-pom skirt. A baby on one hip and a hand on the other, the mother didn't bother to wait for the cops to get all the way out of the car before she started in on them.
"He crazy!" she shrieked, waving her free hand at the undersized cheerleader who slumped next to her. "He tried to boil my baby, say she a devil, and all she done was try and sell him some damn candy bars. You get in there and drag his skinny white ass down here 'fore I boil it myself, you hear? My Sherees, she gotta sell forty bars by tomorrow, and he got the whole box in there, that crazy fucker."
Busy slipping batons into belts and caps onto heads, the cops, a rare two-person ride that consisted of a young white male and a more mature black woman, nodded like synchronized swimmers.
"You know this man?" the female officer asked.
"He jus' moved in a coupla weeks ago," the mother said, following them up the sidewalk, the kids orbiting in place. "He in there with squirrels and bats and shit. I saw it when I grabbed my baby. Motherfucker's crazy!"
After a few more pertinent questions, the officers left the woman in the street and ambled into the unremarkable square brick building whose only ornamentation was a bouquet of blue plastic flowers stuck into the address, atop which several of the ubiquitous cicadas were mating.
Back on the street, the young mother raised her voice above the noise to regale gathering neighbors with her eyebrow-raised, neck-snapping rendition of Sherees's run-in with the new neighbor. She'd gotten to the point where she'd grabbed little Sherees out of the crazy motherfucker's arms when two quick pops brought the group to sudden silence.
From the second floor of the apartment building.
Everybody turned that way. Little Sherees, her tears dried, looked up at her stunned mother. "Mama, you tell them 'bout the gun that man stuck up his pants?"
Which was about the time the crazy motherfucker started yelling about hostages.
Maggie O'Brien was still securing her medic vest when she opened the door to the command trailer at the corner of Ohio and Wyoming. A normally unprepossessing 120 pounds over a five-foot-five-inch frame, Maggie looked instead like an extra from a Chuck Norris movie. Her thick umber hair was tucked up under a blue kerchief, and her rather normal figure was rigged out in blue-dyed urban cammos, elbow and knee pads, jump boots, Eagle pack, Camelback hydration system, body armor, overloaded medic vest, and gas mask. She carried her Kevlar helmet under her arm and her gloves in her helmet. SWATBabe, as her friends had dubbed her, was on duty.
The four hundred block of Ohio had been evacuated of all but police equipment and personnel. Two perimeters had been established, the interior perimeter two apartment houses wide, the exterior taking up the entire block. Strobes flashed, radios crackled, uniforms cluttered the street, and a smaller knot of like-camouflaged men clustered near the midnight blue trailer Maggie approached just beyond the interior perimeter.
Maggie had been beeped no more than fifty minutes earlier and had joined the rest of the newly minted St. Louis City/ County Cooperative Special Weapons and Training Team only moments before. It was her third call as the team's Tactical Emergency Medic, the first that was still active by the time the team arrived. The very first in which she'd been called into the trailer. She hoped nobody noticed that her hands were shaking.
"You want me, Lieu?" she asked, stepping up into a tiny space containing way too many bodies and an overworked air-conditioner.
"Other side of the trailer, Mags," the scene commander said from where he was bent over a grease-pencil-marked schematic of the block. "We have a medical situation inside the negotiators need you to help with."
Maggie nodded and backed out. It was standard operating procedure that the command center stayed separate from the hostage negotiators. The negotiators needed to establish a positive relationship with the hostage taker, something that could be jeopardized if that negotiator looked up to see the commander sending in the troops on a "shoot to stop" order. The way the St. Louis team had set it up, a third person stationed himself with the negotiators to relay news to command by headset. When a hostage situation involved a possible medical problem, the medics were trained to evaluate and assist along with the negotiators.
So Maggie knocked on the back door of the divided trailer and waited for one of the extraneous personnel to decamp before climbing aboard.
"We've got a medical person coming to talk to you, Bob," one of the negotiators was saying into the phone, his voice low and calm and soothing. The kind of voice you'd use with a jittery horse or a crazy person. "... yeah, sure, sit back a second. Let me fill her in, and I'll let her talk to you."
The negotiator was a middle-aged, medium-sized black guy with old, soft eyes and fidgety hands who looked oddly out of place in jump boots and high-tech gear. Surreptitiously putting the caller on hold, he turned Maggie's way.
"Well, don't you look fine," he greeted her with a smile.
She grinned back. "I look like a click beetle on steroids." It wouldn't do to give her father's old partner the kiss she usually greeted him with. "Hi, Uncle John."
"Tommy would be so proud."
Maggie held on to her smile by force of will. She didn't need to know how proud her father would be right now.
"Oh, shit," the other guy in the trailer moaned. "I just knew it. If we have a crazoid, O'Brien can't be more than five feet away."
The other guy Maggie knew, too. A sergeant out in Manchester where Maggie played paramedic part-time, he was trim and slim and military-issue, right down to his blond buzz cut and snapping gray eyes. And he just loved being a cop.
"What do you mean?" John asked, forehead creased.
The other guy scowled. "Don't you know? Maggie here's not just a nut magnet. She's the pilgrimage destination for every psychotic, schizophrenic, and dome-headed geek in the Midwest."
"Slander, Flower," Maggie disagreed. "I'm sure I don't pull any more net-jobs than anybody else."
Flower, nicknamed in an homage to Bambi because of his unfortunate preference for Mexican food, hooted in derision. "So you really think it's a coincidence that you're the medic called for a guy who tried to parboil a pom-pom girl because her candy bars were possessed?"
Maggie shot Flower a sheepish grin. "Could happen to anybody."
Maggie spent a moment wiping the sweat from her forehead. It was damn near a hundred degrees outside, she was carrying about seventy pounds of equipment on her, and the cicadas were driving her to distraction. And to top it off, she had to score her first negotiating gig with John, whom she respected more than almost anyone in the world. Even the meat locker air-conditioning in the trailer wasn't much help.
"I assume the medical condition is more than just little voices?" she asked.
John's smile was a bit tight. "Suspect and hostage have both suffered gunshot wounds. Suspect to the right arm, hostage to the right thigh. That's all he'll give us so far. The suspect's name is Montana Bob."
Maggie forgot about the humidity and sat down on the other chair. "Bob?" she asked, peeking out the window. "No kidding. And in an apartment, too. I'm so glad. He's been camped out beneath the Fourteenth Street overpass for years."
"You know him?" John asked.
"Didn't I tell you she would?" Flower retorted.
Maggie smiled. "Oh, sure. You've seen Bob, Uncle John. He hangs around the Toe Tag Saloon all the time. He's a regular at the Biltmore." The Biltmore being the nickname for Blymore Memorial, one of the big trauma hospitals in the area where Maggie served most of her time as a trauma nurse. "Brings me flowers. Bob's a paranoid schiz with delusions of U.N. invasions. Which means the candy bars aren't really satanic. Probably more along the line of a transmitter from 'them.'"
"Them?" John asked.
She smiled. "You know, John. 'Them.' CIA, FBI, aliens. The ones who are trying to take over. The ones who wire his head and try and get him to do bad things. The candy bars probably had a diabolical device planted in them-computer chips being the latest favorite-to control his mind."
"To kill him, actually," John said.
Maggie nodded. "He is kinda fun to play with, isn't he?"
"The hostage he shot," Flower snapped, "is an officer."
Maggie stopped cold. "We know who it is?"
Her Uncle John looked hard at her. "Yeah, Mags. It's Scan Delaney. He's fine right now. We want to keep him that way."
Maggie was real proud of herself. She didn't give herself away by any more than by a blink or two.
"You know him, too, I'm assuming?" Flower asked.
Uncle John smiled gently. "Maggie knows everybody in the city. She grew up in the department."
Maggie did her best to smile back. "Delaney's dad and Tommy were asshole buddies," she said. "We kind of grew up together."
Then, before John could reassure her again, she set down her helmet and held out her hand for the headset. "Tell me what the status is."
"Delaney and Myla Parker answered a disturbance call. Evidently Montana Bob saw the uniforms and pulled out the .38 nobody knew he had. Sean got Myla out before Bob got him. That's been about.... oh, seventy-five or so minutes ago."
"And Sean took a shot in the thigh?"
"Right. He says it's-"
"Just a scratch," Maggie answered along with him. "He said the same thing last year when we put a chest tube in him."
A breath. A quick close of the eyes to lock out Uncle John's distress.
"Okay." Maggie nodded and flipped the mike on. "Bob?" she greeted her longtime patient, her tone an instinctive echo of John's. "It's Maggie-o, Bob. Can you talk?"
There was a brief moment of silence, a scuffling sound on the line, and then the tremulous voice Maggie knew so well. "You bastards. You've taken her, too."
Maggie couldn't help but grin. Well, at least she was on familiar turf. "No, Bob, I swear, it's Maggie. Nobody's hurt me. You know I won't let 'em hurt you if you listen real close."
Maggie fought down the urge to scream and nodded. "Okay, Bob, can you see the big blue van outside? I'm gonna step out the door and give you our sign. Now, I'm going to be dressed like them, Bob, but that's okay. They're here just to make sure nothing worse happens, you understand? If you listen to me, nobody else is going to get hurt. Okay?"
"I'll shoot you if you're lying."
John, on the other headset, twitched with distress. Maggie waved him off. "I hope you would, Bob. Now, watch out the window."
"Be advised," Flower was murmuring into his own headset to the command post. "Subject is approaching the front window. Believed to be nonhostile."
"C2 to A10," Maggie heard in the receiver taped to her free ear. "Make entry to building on my word."
Which meant that while they knew where Bob was, the entry team was going to sneak inside to get closer to Bob's apartment.
Maggie yanked off the headset and eased her way out the door. It was oddly quiet out there, even the cicadas hushed. Weapons had been raised a notch higher, all attention focused on that window.
Maggie saw a shadow in the apartment window, saw the blinds raised. She caught the sight of a lot of pale skin and the dull glint of metal and almost laughed.
"What the hell?" one of the guys demanded.
"C2 to A10, suspect is visible in side one number three window. Go now."
Maggie ignored the voice. She never acknowledged the dark snake of police that slipped toward the rear door. Lifting her arm as high as she could, she flipped the Longhorn salute. There was a pause, and then the odd figure in the window disappeared. Maggie squeezed back inside the van.
"Did I see what I thought I saw?" Flower demanded, lowering the binoculars he'd been using.
"A naked man wearing a steel pot on his head?" Maggie asked, reclaiming her chair. "Sure. His aluminum foil hat must have stopped working."
"What does that have to do with the Longhorn salute?"
"Bob went to University of Texas," she said, sliding the headset back on.
"Hence the moniker, 'Montana Bob,' obviously."
Maggie grinned. "The CIA took over Texas years ago."
"I'd heard that," John concurred.
"Bob?" she asked, back on line. "You there?"
"Thank you, Maggie," he whispered. "You walked the valley of death for me. Just for me, for me. But you have to get out. They know I know, and they're going to kill me. I don't want them to kill you, too."
Excerpted from With a VENGEANCE by Eileen Dreyer Copyright © 2003 by Eileen Dreyer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.