Cover

Chapter 1

 

The driver of the semi-truck cab watched from his two side mirrors as two burly men loaded the idling eighteen-wheeler. He didn't know exactly what's in his cargo, but he had a hunch. It normally doesn't matter to him what he's transporting, but he'd been more than a little curious this time about the police escort. One of the loaders tapped the rear-steel-door after latching and locking it, a signal for him to get going. He threw the idling truck into first gear and released the air brakes. There followed a spitting sound of rushing wind as the air-brakes spewed beneath the diesel engine. The big-rig lurched hesitantly forward with a grating sound as it pulled away from the loading dock at the police station. The police cruiser turned on a roof rack of red and blue lights, but no siren. Gravel crunched under its tires as it led the way a couple of yards ahead of the procession. "Los Angeles to El Centro here we come," the semi-truck driver muttered under his breath.

****

An unmarked white van slowly pulled away from the curb and merged into traffic while attempting to covertly follow the big-rig as it swung away from the police station. It stayed far enough back in the deep reaches of the shadows, and kept under the guise of merging traffic. The van's driver covertly observed the big-rig's progress, never letting it out of his view, yet still remained out of the police escort's line of sight. A strike team of heavily armed men sat shoulder-to-shoulder on benches in the rear of the van. They checked their weapons repeatedly and spoke softly amongst themselves in their native tongue, with a clipped military cadence. They'd practiced this hit for weeks and were well prepared and confident in the outcome. They're here tonight for only one purpose; to get their money back. The cops raided their warehouse during a police sting of a suspected drug transaction just last week. And although the entire gang eluded capture, the cops still managed to find, and then confiscate over two million dollars of their ill-gotten-gains. Now all of it's riding inside a big-rig just up ahead, almost in plain sight, and these men were quite desperate to get their money back.

****

A man dressed all in black with a hoodie pulled up over his head, rode a beach cruiser nonchalantly across a deserted span of freeway overpass. It seemed as if he were simply out for an evening ride in the fresh air; perhaps to watch the sunset. He loitered about, and he appeared to be in no hurry. His ear plugs were equipped with a microphone linked to a cellphone, and he's in constant communication with the white van approaching him on the freeway spanning underneath. His heart galloped as he squinted into the gloom and spotted the procession advancing toward him. He noticed his team had been keeping a safe distance behind the small entourage, so as not to stand out. He could make out the flashing red and blue lights on the police lead car keeping pace just ahead of the semi-truck.

The convoy's making its way on an even keel in the direction of the overpass. He guessed they're probably going about the posted fifty-five mph. He pulled his beach cruiser up to the south wall and abandoned it against a light pole. He glanced over his shoulders north and south, noting there wasn't much traffic on the freeway at this time of night. This less traveled route had been carefully chosen by the police escort probably for just this reason. They'd obtained reliable intel from a well paid informant on how police had done this evening run many times. At least once a week they'd either transported illegal weapons, impounded drugs or other confiscated things to the Remote-Evidence-Lock-Up-location. These evidentiary items were frequently moved from the smaller central-evidence-depository in Los Angeles to a larger and more secure fortress located at an abandoned prison in El Centro. Their well placed informant said the police preferred using an unmarked semi-truck instead of using a more secure and more expensive armored truck service.

Like a ninja, the hooded man perched on the southern edge of the overpass wall. Soundlessly, like a black wraith, he dropped down on top of the speeding big-rig's trailer as it glided underneath the overpass. He slipped on the slick metallic surface, scrabbling on all fours, flattening and pressing his body prone. He was desperately attempting to keep from sliding off. He gulped in huge lungfuls of rushing air and spread-out prostrate. He crouched like a sticky frog there for a moment. He fought for purchase; the powerful draft threatened to rake him off into the night, like an insect. His crew had practiced this maneuver many times using a stolen big-rig on a desolate stretch of freeway. They'd repeated it over and over all this past week in preparation, building up from slower speeds all the way up to sixty-five miles per hour, but it never seemed to get any easier.

At last, he tapped his ear-piece-comm to signal he's okay, and safely in place. He knew his voice would be drowned out by the rushing wind if he attempted to speak into his lip microphone comm. He was relieved to hear the go-ahead signal tapping back, informing him all's clear down below and that he hadn't been observed or been compromised. He took his cue to proceed, and reached behind him zipping open his backpack, retrieving an acetylene torch. He clicked the self-ignition-pinpoint-flame on, and began cutting into the smooth sheet of thin aluminum, which encompassed the trailer's ceiling. Surprisingly, it wasn't thick, less than an inch, and the torch made quick work of cutting out a three foot wide circle. Sparks flew up into the air around him. The wind whipped the fiery particles which enveloped him in skeins as though he were in the midst of a pulsating ball of red, blue and purple flames, like Saint Elmo's Fire.

This was the most vulnerable time when he'd be most visible to onlookers. If someone should notice the pulsating light, and the sparks on top of the big-rig, they might think it's related to the nearby smokestack which belched embers and bellowed smoke on a regular basis. The escort car and the big-rig driver seemed oblivious to what's happening directly over their heads. There's no reason for them to look back or even to look upward. The churning sound of the diesel engine and the sixty mph wind obliterated any sound the man might cause. It took only a few minutes to cut a sizable oval in the roof of the trailer. After letting the glowing surface cool, he threw off the torch and his backpack, leaned forward, and used his elbows to punch through the cut metal. The lid dropped clattering inside, like into an empty tin can of beans. He flipped over and hung by his fingertips dangling from the ragged lip for a moment. Then he let go and dropped into the darkness of the mostly deserted trailer.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

"Your patient's waiting for you in exam room three Doctor."

Dr. Butcher removed the patient's chart from the rack attached to the door of room three and rifled through its contents for a moment.

"It's Mrs. Able coming in for treatment of pain symptoms from a case of chronic uterine fibroids," his nurse informed him in a clipped monotone.

"Ah yes," Dr. Butcher murmured, nodding absently while he studied the chart. "I remember this case well. Could you get me her usual cocktail? I'll draw it up myself."

His nurse stiffened, then gave a curt nod before turning away. She abruptly left him standing there while she fetched the requisite drugs, and a couple of sterile syringes. This wasn't an unusual request from Dr. Butcher. Lately, he preferred to be hands on when it came to administering pain medications. She felt petulant and scornful about it but hid it well.

Dr. Butcher eased open the door to exam room three to find Mrs. Able waiting impatiently on the edge of her exam table. He greeted her pleasantly, and began jotting a note in her chart. The table paper crinkled noisily as she anxiously adjusted her position. Her paper gown gaping open left little to the imagination. She knitted her brow, and frowned when she gazed up at his reassuring continence. Then she shivered, and immediately began to complain about the air conditioning.

Dr. Butcher kept a concerned smile frozen on his stoic face. He's present here in the room, but he hasn't been present anywhere for a long time.

"Can I fetch you a warm blanket?"

"Yes, please. Thank you," she replied with a fleeting smile.

He bent over and fetched a folded blanket from a cabinet under the sink. Mrs. Able seemed to relax somewhat, and she appeared to be grateful. He unfolded, then wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, and proceeded to cover up her lap. She fidgeted, and tucked the blanket snuggly in around her bare legs.

"Have you given any thought about what we discussed last time?"

Mrs. Able bunched up the weathered skin of her brow, and pursed her lips in apparent concentration while attempting to choose the correct words to reply.

"I talked to my husband at length about what you recommended. I think we both arrived at a mutual decision about going ahead with a hysterectomy."

Dr. Butcher tilted his head in acquiescence while scribbling in her chart. "I think you and your spouse are making the right decision Mrs. Able. That is if you and your husband are in agreement, and aren't planning to have another child."

She smirked, and almost laughed out loud at this remark. She brought her fist up to her mostly toothless mouth to stifle a guffaw. "Our youngest child is over thirty years old," she said rolling her eyes and wagging an index finger dismissively. "I think the three grown children we've got now are quite enough." She managed a half smile and shrugged, as if in bemused resignation.

Dr. Butcher returned her smile, and touched her shoulder reassuringly, silently agreeing with her decision.

The door creaked open a bit as his nurse re-entered the exam room carrying a metal tray of narcotics on an upraised palm, as though she were a waitress. The glass bottles rattled and clinked together as she carefully set the tray down on a laminated counter top. "There's an assortment of painkillers, sedatives and normal saline," she announced to the room as though she were rattling off a restaurant's special of the day.

"Thank you Sheila," Dr. Butcher quipped and smiled without mirth. He bowed his head and returned to his task as if in dismissal.

Sheila scowled and nodded her head brusquely a couple of times in acknowledgement. Without further comment, she hunched her shoulders, and exited the room, keeping her head bowed. She'd already conveyed to Dr. Butcher about how she's uneasy about all this. She voiced her concerns repeatedly, especially in the last week. She told him that she should be the one drawing up narcotic dosages for patients. After all, it's her nursing degree on the line. She's the one who's signature's on the narcotics form hanging inside the drug locker. She needed to keep strict records of what's ordered in each patient's chart. She jotted down on a ledger precisely the amount of what's been given to each patient. It's the law. She even has to document any unused medication subsequently disposed of as waste. She's the one tasked to count the drugs in the medicine locker twice a day. Once at the beginning of her shift, and once more at the end. Everything has to add up, be accurately accounted for, and it had to reconcile precisely. If there's a discrepancy, she'd have to write a lengthy report, and then send it along to the proper authorities.

Dr. Butcher has his own key to the medicine locker. He can go inside and take what he wanted should he desire to self medicate himself. That would come back to haunt him, however; especially if the local medical board got wind of it. He could face suspension or perhaps even lose his medical license if he's caught dipping into the clinic's narcotic drawer.

At the time of their discussion, Dr. Butcher sought to mollify her concerns with a soft voice laced with soothing reassurances. Eventually, she relented to his practicalities and stratagems. Although privately, she'd confided to her colleagues about how she couldn't shake an uneasy feeling that something's inherently wrong with his insistences to draw up the narcotics himself. Especially his being left alone to do so. She should at least be present to observe the whole process. This's how everyone else does it, in any hospital or typical doctor's office. It wouldn't be as much of a problem if it were simply an antibiotic or an allergy shot. He let her handle all of those mundane tasks. She trusted Dr. Butcher explicitly, yet she couldn't shake an uneasy feeling about this risky behavior. She went home night after night, wondering if she shouldn't confide to someone in authority.

But she didn't want to be a whistle blower, and she didn't want to get her boss into trouble. She's been his nurse for several years, and they worked together in concert like a well oiled clock. They're friends in and out of the work place. He'd been there for her when her family got sick, and he's always generous to her during the holidays with time-off and fat bonuses. He compensated her well, treated her pretty good, and most of all he gave her proper respect. This's the best job she'd ever had, considering.

She decided she might broach the subject one more time, and sooner than later. Somehow she'll find a way to convince him of the appropriateness of keeping to established office procedures where narcotics were concerned. One patient complaint to the local medical board and they could come in here, close this office down, and launch an internal investigation. She'd be the one under scrutiny then, simply for knowing about his impropriety, and not reporting it. She'd be placed under a microscope just for allowing Dr. Butcher to continue this risky procedure, in spite of his being her boss. She believed in the time honored check-and-balance protocols, and when properly done everything should always be kept above reproach.

Dr. Butcher turned his back to his patient now that they're all alone again, and began drawing up the dose. It's his favorite concoction he preferred to use on most of his chronic pain patients. It consisted of twenty-five mg of Demerol and twenty-five mg of Phenergan. Sure that the view's obstructed, he pulled out a sterile bottle he kept in his lab coat pocket and covertly injected half of the prepared dosage into it. He pocketed the bottle, mustered a faint smile, and turned back around with the half loaded syringe. Mrs. Able bent over a bit, moved the blanket aside, and raised up her gown. He wiped her skin with an alcohol swab and without ceremony he injected the remainder of the concoction into her bare hip. Afterwards, she made plans to see a gynecological surgeon and schedule a hysterectomy.

Dr. Butcher murmured some reassurances about her decision being an excellent one, bid her farewell, and exited the exam room after replacing her chart in the door rack.

Although cut in half, the injection still served to take the edge off of the pain she experienced from an enlarged uterus. Dr. Butcher had informed her that her womb was three times the normal size for a woman her age, and it has several knobby lumps protruding into her pelvis. He described it as approximately the size and shape of a grapefruit, and it's almost as though she has an alien baby growing inside her womb. Her enlarged uterus pressed on her bowels, frequently causing constipation and dietary irregularity. The mass made her feel full and bloated most of the time, and she often found herself having to suss out the closest restroom, for there's precious little room outside her bladder for expansion. She needed her enlarged womb taken out, she silently agreed to herself. She beamed with a renewed sense of hope as she dressed herself. She gathered up her belongings and then stopped by the receptionist to make a followup appointment.

Sheila mumbled to herself as she mechanically took her cue to turn the room over in preparation for the next patient. She noticed Mrs. Able seemed happy and content now after her pain shot. She gathered the empty narcotic bottles, raised one eyebrow while examining the empty bottles and the syringe, and then promptly dropped everything into a sharps receptacle.

The clinic's small and efficient. Just a few exam rooms, a small surgical suite, and some offices. Dr. Butcher's the only physician on staff at present. He sorely missed his wife Leah who'd served as the office manager. That's until cancer took her away from him. Her smiling visage had left him breathless from the moment they'd met when she applied for the position as office manager. Now, he only has emptiness, and a profound sense of loss pervading throughout every aspect of his life.

The blissful couple was married less than six months before she was struck down at too young an age. He's still in a profound state of shock from her loss. Instead of making a home and planning a family, he'd planned a funeral. Everywhere he looked he could visualize the evidence of where Leah had once stood. With inherent style and good taste, she'd decorated his medical office from the ground up. She'd made the exam rooms appear comfortable and pleasant, like sitting rooms in a warm home. All of his patients loved her as though she were part of their own family. They frequently brought her fresh baked cookies and brownies when they arrived for their scheduled appointments. Leah always made sure each exam room sported a fresh spray of cut flowers tucked inside beautiful vases. She adorned a round wooden table in the waiting room with a massive floral bouquet. Now the granite flower bowel sat empty, like a wordless tombstone silently memorializing her.

He still loved her so much. She'd become his whole life in a short time. He sat numbly behind his desk while waiting to be called in to see his next patient. He picked up a gilded-framed-wedding-photo he kept on his desk, and smiled at the memory it evoked. Their wedding day had been the happiest day of his life. After they each recited vows, and cut the cake, they'd run off for a two week honeymoon on Catalina Island. They'd hardly left their spacious cabana to explore the beaches and hotel grounds. The newlywed couple used room service rather than go out to eat in fancy restaurants.

They returned home to Los Angeles full of the promise of a wonderful life to be theirs for the taking. Who knew ovarian cancer would rear up its Hoary head, and rip all of those promises away from them? There'd been no symptoms at first. It proved to be a fast growing malignant tumor, however. By the time her symptoms first began to appear, and a diagnose made, it'd been far too late for surgery. It was classified as stage four, and it'd already spread to her lungs and liver.

Stubbornly, she'd refused all traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, along with the requisite surgical solutions. She's a registered nurse after all. Intuitively, she knew what lay in store for her, and she took the horrible news and prognosis in stride with stoic bravado. Everyone else in her life, including her new husband, had crumbled with the news. Yet, she bravely managed to soldier on and hang in there, right up until the end. She'd maintained a mask of denial, and she'd pretended she's doing pretty well to all outward appearances. She'd worked in her husband's office every day up until she was no longer physically able. Her pain's intractable, excruciating, and it must've been unbearable. Yet, somehow she'd managed to hide the pain from everyone. She'd always kept a contented smile on her face and displayed grace in her bearing. The massive church where her funeral took place was filled to capacity with friends, relatives, and many of the clinic's patients who loved her like family. Her obituary took up half a page in the LA Times.

Dr. Butcher fingered the rubber stopper atop the vial in his pocket, and shut his eyes tightly, fighting a welling of tears. He swiveled his leather desk chair around to face the window and gazed idly onto the busy street below. So many people clogged the city's sidewalks and surface streets. Los Angeles has hundreds of thousands of people living here. Why did Leah have to be the one singled out to die? Surely she'd been sent here to him from heaven; an angel who should've had a legion of better angels protecting her. Leah had indeed been blessed with beauty, intelligence and a mighty big heart. She'd won him over, and everyone she'd ever met, without even trying. Her dazzling smile, absents of guile, and selfless demeanor were rare commodities these days. Especially in this stark city.

Absently, he heard a discordant sound which jolted him from his reverie. It's a disembodied voice resonating from a desktop speaker, informing him that his next patient's awaiting him in exam room two. He swiveled his leather chair back around, and lurched his lean, six foot frame out of his office, without seeming to have any purpose or direction. He's just been going through the motions these days. His handsome face appeared permanently set into a perpetual smile, much like a circus clown. His clothing's rumpled, his dark hair hung disheveled into his eyes, and he badly needed a shave and a trim. There's no spark of life reflected in his gray eyes. Instinctively he knew what's expected of him. He must always show a confident and interested face to his patients, and to the public at large. It's his duty as a caregiver always to reflect a measure of positivity.

His parents had pushed him to succeed and to become someone extraordinary from an early age. He was raised in an affluent and influential family who sent him to the best prep schools in LA. He graduated university and medical school with distinctive honors in the highest echelon of his class. He meteorically rose to become the top resident in UCLA's Medical School's Surgical Program. Stubbornly, he chose to reject the usual career path of a successful physician. Instead of seeking a partnership in a bustling medical practice with his fellow up-and-comers; rather he preferred to launch out on his own into private practice. Instead of seeking out a patient demographic, who live in Beverly Hills or other wealthy fiefdoms; rather he sought out the areas populated by the indigent down-and-out-families. He wanted to serve those people who were struggling every day just to exist. These disenfranchised souls were the people to whom he wanted to make a difference.

That's before he said a final goodbye to his wife Leah, the love of his life. Now, nothing seemed to matter to him any longer. Even his once burning desire to make a difference in this world wavered like a candle in the wind. He no longer wanted to pay it forward, if he couldn't have Leah there at his side. He no longer wanted to be anything at all. He simply wanted to give up. His depression's as bone deep as the marrow, yet he refused to seek professional help. Nowadays, he just muddled through each day alone, without any purpose or inspiration.

The sequence of events of narcotic-medication-siphoning's repeated several times during the long twelve hour shift. Many injections were shortchanged on this particular day. His patients received enough of a dose to make them happy and take the edge off their pain. He felt no remorse for palming some of their dosage. He knew he had no excuse for his actions. He was presently in denial, and his sense of integrity had simply broken down.

He remembered once before when his wife lay on her death bed, wracked with intense pain. It was the first time he'd palmed some of his patient's pain medicine. He kept it handy should she require it. She had powerful pain pills prescribed by her own personal oncologist, but they sat unopened on her bedside table. She refused to be sedated, saying she could take the pain. She didn't wish to miss out on any of what's left of her life by having even a second of it reduced to a psychotropic blur. She's like a prize fighter all the way, suffering in silence, privately punching it out with her protracted symptoms. She didn't want to waste even a single moment of clarity. She desired to hang on to what remained of her precious life, tightly gripping onto those final threads with her long suffering husband there by her side. She managed to hold out all the way until the end. She passed peacefully in her sleep with her loving husband cradling her, cuddled up close to her back in spoon-to-spoon fashion. He awoke that dreadful morning to find her body cold and rigid, staring up at the ceiling with a smile etched on her peaceful face. He never got a chance to give her the dose he'd stolen, so he kept it. Eventually, he'd used it on himself.

The amount of narcotics he'd siphoned off today would never be missed. It'd be his word against whoever challenged it. Dr. Butcher kept his hands thrust into his lab coat pockets, tightly gripping the bottle of his precious concoction as if it were a talisman. At the end of the day, he'd planned to return to his spartan apartment, place a needle in the crook of his arm, and set up an IV drip. He'd been self medicating on a regular basis for some time. Wanting to numb his senses and dull the pain and grief he constantly felt. Anything to help him escape his suffocating loneliness for just a few hours. This time it's going to be different. The narcotics-laced-IV would be set for a slow drip, and he'd drift off into a certain-blissful-sleep, dreaming; remembering those happier times he'd spent with Leah. While he slept, his heart would fibrillate and seize up. He'd stop breathing, and he'd simply cease to exist. At last he'd be reunited with his precious Leah for all of eternity. He missed her so much. He wouldn't leave a suicide note behind. He hoped his life insurance policy wouldn't become null and void as suicide wasn't covered. It had to look like an accidental overdose or they wouldn't pay a single cent to his estate. He held out some hope that his life insurance settlements, coupled with his dwindling life savings, might satisfy most if not all of his mounting debts and obligations. An enormous trust fund had been given to him by his parents. He could've lived off of that trust fund like a rock star, but he'd refused to draw out even a single penny. He didn't care what his parents did with his trust fund after he died. He never wanted their money or any of their jet-set-life-style they're always foisting upon him.

****

Last to leave, Dr. Butcher exited his medical clinic just as the sun set into the western horizon over the pacific ocean. He slid across the ripped vinyl seat of his old beater of a car. It's the same nondescript car he'd possessed when he graduated from high school. And it'd been a used car back in those days. Now it's twenty-plus years old, its fenders and doors dented, its paint thinned down to the primer. And it had over two-hundred-thousand-miles on the odometer. But those were stop and go miles. He seldom left the city limits on road trips. Los Angeles's like a giant parking lot. If someone managed to get their vehicle's speed up to the posted limits on the choked freeways, they considered themselves lucky. His thumb fondled the rubber stopper on his glass bottle filled with his unique concoction, and he considered giving himself a little boost before heading out for home. He decided it might be a pretty good idea to steady his nerves, as his resolve for what he's planning to do tonight's beginning to wane.

'What's the harm or the hurry after all,' he thought morosely. 'The Grim Reaper can surely wait a little while before fulfilling its quota.' He attempted to syphon a couple of drops into a sterile syringe, after first casting glances all about to make certain he wasn't being observed in the gathering dusk. He planned on taking the freeway frontage road. Less chance of getting pulled over by a sheriff or the highway patrol while traveling that way, and he's in no particular hurry to get home. He stuck a sharp twenty-gauge needle into the rubber top, and began pulling on the syringe plunger while gripping the bottle with his other hand. He used his elbows in the contoured slots of the big steering wheel to guide the huge car out of the parking lot and out onto the street.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

The crumbling overpass was the only home the shaggy man knew at present. It lay on the outskirts of greater LA, on a lesser traveled freeway leading out of the city proper. This fringe area was undeveloped, and no homes or businesses were built nearby. Just miles and miles of empty desert and round topped foothills for as far as the eye can see. He shivered against the approaching night's chill as a sudden gust of blustery wind buffeted him. Even in summer the desert temps fall into the lower digits when the sun set.

Against the fluctuating desert weather, he wore an assortment of clothes, layered, mismatched, and ill fitting. His chosen overpass home was in a secluded lair, and he'd made it just the way he wanted it. He has his own private parking place hidden behind a large bush for a shopping cart filled with cans and bottles he'd collected from the sides of the freeway. People threw liter from their car windows along this stretch of highway like it's their own personal trash receptacle. He even picked up wads of paper and other trash stuck in the cyclone fence separating the freeway and the frontage road; not because he could sell or use them. He just liked to keep his yard nice, neat, and presentable. He squirreled some of the crumpled paper away in an abandoned fifty-five gallon drum. Colder weather's coming soon, and he might need the heat from a makeshift fireplace. He made just enough money from recycling to keep him in dollar menu items from a nearby fast food restaurant, and a convenience store kept him in an endless supply of cheap-rot-gut wine.

He kept hidden from view a fridge sized cardboard box to lie down in and to keep out the wind. Nobody in law enforcement ever bothered him as the overpass was located too far from the city. He could cuddle up in his sleeping bag and drink wine without any fear of being rousted by the local cops for public drunkenness or vagrancy. His scraggly beard and longish hair's twisted and matted. He hasn't bathed in weeks, and he's even getting somewhat used to the ever present onslaught of flying and crawling insects. His constant companion's a stray dog who never left his side. The mutt was a lot like him; a mixed breed.

He took another long swig straight from a bottle of cheap red wine, wiped his chin with the cuff of his shirt, and replaced the screw-on-cap. He stretched his lean frame and swung his arms like a whirligig, twisting side-to-side. He bent over to unlace and remove his scuffed hiking boots before snuggling deep into his tattered sleeping bag. He glanced down briefly on what passed for his legs and considered removing the matching pair of blade-like-prosthesis. The place where his stumps met the prosthesis cup's been causing a few calluses and some chafing. It's a constant reminder of his time spent fighting the Taliban insurgents in the Middle East. His mutt sniffed at where his foot used to be and sneezed. He reached down like he wanted to scratch his lower leg and idly realized the itch he felt's an all too familiar phantom-limb-syndrome. It's been years since both his legs were blown off in a roadside IED explosion, but ghost-like-feelings from a missing limb never goes away entirely.

The sun disappeared amidst a cloud bank into a multi-hued sunset. The areas surrounding the city of LA may have some of the nation's worst pollution, but the purple haze could produce an amazing and colorful sunset leading all the way into twilight. The dappled-half-light dwindled and soon his surroundings grew almost pitch-black. There's a street light, but the sodium vapor bulb went out over a year ago, and nobody has come out to change it. Not a problem as the loss of the lamp light reduced the light pollution and greatly improved stargazing. He raised his head and glanced all about him taking in a brilliant wash of stars on this cloudless night. He has a front row seat on the milky way galaxy as it swirled overhead. He began ticking off the names of the constellations one-by-one. He recognized a few heavenly bodies as well. Jupiter and Saturn formed a triangle with Mars. The moon breached the night's gloom from its hiding place behind the foothills, and he contemplated the fact it's a full harvest one. It lit up the vast desert like a massive klieg light as it rose over a sawtoothed-Sierra-Mountain-skyline. Long shadows from a forest of tall Saguaro cactus appeared like an advancing army of humanoids in a forced march on a ghostly foe. The massive cacti with candelabra like arms reached out, not wavering in the perpetual thirty miles-per-hour-wind from the north.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Dr. Butcher gripped the car's steering wheel with one hand while driving along the deserted frontage road which paralleled the freeway. There wasn't much traffic along this route. He knew this from years of experience driving home this way. This portion of the LA basin's largely uninhabited and currently wasn't used for much of anything except perhaps for some long-time-storage-units. There were a few abandoned warehouses and factories along the way, all rusting out from the inside, weeds taken over, forgotten and dilapidated. Mostly, there were vast stretches of empty land covered by tumbleweeds, sagebrush, and dirt. He attempted to draw up a couple more of the precious drops of his special concoction into the ten ml syringe. He fumbled with the slippery plastic, and cursed under his breath when he accidentally dropped it on the carpeted floorboard beneath his feet. He's only going about thirty miles per hour, which was the posted speed limit. His headlights speared forward into the pitch black darkness ahead. He blindly felt around the floorboards, seeking the syringe with one hand, steering with the other, all the while attempting to keep one eye on the road ahead.

****

The thief dropped into the blackness inside the trailer, and peered up at the jagged hole he'd just cut. He picked up and threw the round piece of metal like it's a discus, and with indifference he watched it roll up against a wall. As was expected from the intelligence gathered by a well paid informer, there were no armed guards waiting to bust him inside the trailer. Moonlight filtered down through the opening, revealing ten large stacks of cellophane wrapped bills. He took in a sharp gasp at the sight. There were more items inside, like confiscated illegal drugs, paraphernalia, and other material evidence to be used in criminal trials scheduled far into the future. He disregarded these items without even a second glance. He has no use for drugs. Without further hesitation, he yanked some orange bags from his web belt and began stuffing large stacks of money inside them. Each stack of bills fitted neatly inside the double lined bags. He used commercial grade zip ties to secure the tops after he first pulled up and twisted them into a bunch.

He secured and tested the rope ladder he'd brought with him in order to carry the bags up to the opening. Buffeted by hurricane force gusts of wind, he clambered out onto the roof of the semi-truck. He glanced all about to make sure the coast's still clear, and after receiving a tapping signal from the white van, he simply dropped each bag over the starboard side onto the freeway's shoulder. It's as if he were throwing trash filled bags onto the side of the freeway, one-by-one. His ear-piece-comm related constant fresh intel and furnished him updates as to approaching traffic. He also received updates telling him about when and if the salvaged pickups of orange money bags had been made. The white van simply pulled over, and men dressed all in black with ski masks leaped out and quickly recover the orange bags full of money. They repeated their recovery operation at pre-designated drop-off locations. 'The heist's going pretty well, barring any complications. Ahmed will be pleased, ' the hooded man reflected and smiled inwardly.

It's stifling hot inside the trailer, no windows nor air conditioning, and the air's dusty and stagnant. The roar coming from the hole he'd cut in the ceiling made a rushing sound, not unlike a locomotive traveling at maximum speed. He's sweating profusely, and his damp clothes stuck to him like snake skin. He wiped a sheen of perspiration from his brow with the back of his forearm and shown a tiny flashlight around in a circle to survey the inside of the trailer. In the beginning, he'd counted ten bags of money to deploy, and now he's almost halfway through with his task. Suddenly he heard a static filled warning in his earbud comm to "hold up a sec."

 

 

Chapter 5

The homeless man heard something heavy drop from an eighteen-wheeler as it whined by. He raised his head curiously from his cardboard-box-shelter and peered out. He shook his head side-to-side to rid himself of a wine buzz and some sleepy cobwebs. He squinted his eyes and observed an orange trash bag's now lying against a nearby cyclone fence. Curious as to why someone would throw something like that directly onto his front yard, he rolled out of his sleeping bag, pulled his boots on, and strolled over to where the orange bag rested against the fence. He scratched his head and wondered what's inside the bag, figuring it must be someone's trash, but he's holding out hope there might be a treasure trove of recyclable aluminum cans or beer bottles. He hoisted the unwieldy bag with both hands and hefted the weight onto his shoulder. He groaned realizing the bag was unexpectedly cumbersome. It's like a block of newspapers, and weighed a few more pounds than expected. He moved some scrub brush aside and sought out his stashed grocery cart to help him transport the bag across the frontage road. He intended to take the bag over to a secluded spot out of sight and away from the oppressive desert wind. He'd planned on searching it for any recyclables later on at his leisure.

He concentrated on pushing his over-loaded-cart, hunched over and bowing his head against the ever present thirty mph wind. He grunted as he slowly shuffled back toward his sleeping bag. His thoughts were numbed and jumbled by the halo affect caused by the cheap wine he'd consumed, and he's preoccupied on checking out the bag's contents. The wheels on his rusty old grocery cart rattled noisily and dragged as they're flat in places. The cart axel's bent slightly, probably resulted from the daily misuse of being pushed along dirt paths and gravel strewn blacktop roads. He's so distracted with getting the bag onto his grocery cart and leaning into the weight while pushing it ahead, he didn't see or hear the approaching car or even noticed the blinding headlights. Hardly anyone used this particular freeway-frontage-road, especially at this time of the night, so it's a complete and utter surprise to him when he's hit by a car.

The car's left front bumper struck him a glancing blow sending him and the contents of the bag hurtling into the air up and over the hood and the roof of the car. He tried to holler out, but the sound caught in his throat. He came down hard with a thud, sprawling on his back with his arms and legs splayed across unforgiving pavement as if he were making a snow angel. The back of his head bounced sickeningly off the gravel covered tarmac a couple of times. Just as he was about to lose consciousness he realized the orange trash bag must've been filled with money. He blinked his eyes rapidly in disbelief and thought he's hallucinating as hundred dollar bills wafted down around him like green leaves in a blizzard. He heard a percussive "Whump" sound close by. A small explosion sent up a dense cloud of red dye, which proceeded to rain down all around him in droplets. It covered him with a fine red mist from head to toe, and coated everything around him with a brilliant red glistening sheen. At first he shuddered when he thought the red mist might be his own blood. He watched out of a corner of his eye the car that struck him lurch sideways and fishtail before coming to a rest under the overpass. The engine rattled when the driver killed it. The car's driver's side door creaked open on rusted hinges. A large man emerged wearing a white lab coat. The man rushed over and knelt beside him. The homeless man, his mouth gapping open and closed, managed to spit out some grit and oily blood which clung to his cheek. He struggled to speak, but he was too dazed, and he couldn't take in a full breath. The wind's knocked out of him as though he'd been struck in the solar plexus by a wrecking ball. He silently wondered if his ribs were cracked.

Bewildered, he turned his head to the side and watched in amazement as another vehicle, a white van, screeched to a stop on the freeway side of the frontage road. Several heavily armed men all clad in black and wearing ski masks leaped out from the van's rear doors. They quickly scaled the waist-high-cyclone-fence, jumped down and surged forward shouting in a thickly accented, arcane language. They motioned threateningly with machine pistols, and pantomimed for both of them to stop what they're doing and for them to raise up their hands. The man in the white coat appeared bewildered as he stood up complying with their request, and raised his hands up high over his head. One of the men rushed up to the white frocked man and used the butt of his weapon against his forehead. Blood flew out in an arc around him, and he collapsed to his knees holding his head with the palms of his hands. He's struck once again, this time from behind, causing him to fall forward onto his face onto the pavement. He lay there motionless; his arms and legs sprawled outward beside the man he'd just run over with his car.

The homeless man laid his head down on the pavement and promptly lost consciousness. His dog trotted off into the desert barking shrilly into the night. One of the assailants aimed a vicious kick in response to the dog's ankle biting. The dog was evidently trying to protect his master.

****

A man who appeared to be in charge of the armed gang emerged from the passenger side of the van. He pointed menacingly all around with an automatic weapon. He shouted orders and gestured to his men to load what's left of the torn orange bag and its now mostly useless contents into the crashed car along with the two injured hostages. He pointed down a nearby access road leading out toward the desert, and he shouted some more terse orders to his men.

Dr. Butcher jerked awake just as this's happening. He knew in an instant the outcome of all this was probably not going to be good. They roughly stood him to his feet and shoved them both into the back seat of his own car. One of the men slid onto the driver's seat and grabbed the steering wheel while goosing the engine. The big car spun out and fishtailed down the access road leaving a plume of dust in its wake. He glanced backward and observed the rest of the crew hop over the fence and leap back inside the white van. He watched it whip back onto the freeway and speed off. He didn't know where they were headed but figured it had something to do with the bag of money. He had no way of knowing they're attempting to catch up with the eighteen-wheeler and the rest of their loot. The homeless man sitting next to him's bleeding profusely from several scalp lacerations. Dr. Butcher shivered and wondered if the man will be able to survive his injuries.

He can't fathom why these armed strangers kidnapped both of them in the dead of the night and from where did all this money come? And what's with all this red dye? It's all over his car and doted the windshield. At least he hoped it's indeed only red dye and not the homeless guy's blood. The driver attempted to use the windshield wipers but only succeeded in smearing the red stain all the more. He cursed in unintelligible gibberish, and leaned forward peering intently through the blurred windshield.

The homeless man's covered in red dye as well. Clearly the man's unconscious at least for the moment. His face lolled side-to-side, brushing against the passenger side window, leaving a blood tinged smudge. One of their captors riding in the front passenger seat, turned around abruptly and trained an automatic weapon menacingly on both of them in turn. His face sported a maniacal toothy grin and steely green eyes.

Dr. Butcher peered down and glimpsed his lost syringe now rolling around the floorboard at his feet. He watched in utter amazement when it came to rest against the sole of his shoe. He gently placed his heel on top to keep it from rolling away. Pretending to yawn, he covertly stretched his right hand down in an effort to retrieve it. He palmed it just as his captor struck him again upside his head with the butt of his weapon, which sent him straight backward bolt upright in his seat. He's dazed and somewhat nauseous from the pain in his forehead, and he felt a trickle of warm blood cascading down his face and dripping onto his shirt. But through it all, he somehow managed to hang onto that syringe filled with his narcotic concoction. He already figured his captor's plan was probably to make it look like his car had been in an off road accident and caught fire. He and the homeless man were most likely going to be bludgeoned to death, and their corpses along with his car were to be torched and everything burnt to a crisp. Hence no witnesses to identify them and no trace evidence would remain for forensic investigators to sift through.

He leaned forward suddenly when the guy with the gun turned his head for a moment to stare ahead. With a quick jab of the sharp needle, he jammed the plunger full of sedative into the driver's neck. The man yowled in pain, reached up and clasped the nape of his neck with his hand. Then he yanked the steering wheel sharply to the left while standing on the brakes with both feet. The heavy car canted and began rolling over and over down the rutted dirt road sending all of the car's occupants tumbling head over heals inside. The passenger door opened abruptly. The guy wielding the automatic weapon let go of it, and screamed when he pinwheeled out into the night. There's a "thump" like sound, and the cabin lurched upwards as the car rolled over him.

The crumpled car finally came to rest in a flash flood formed gully, and dust and noise settled. Dr. Butcher crawled out from a broken side window into thorny scrub brush, and scrambled to seek cover behind a berm. He coughed and spit out dirt mixed with bloody saliva and peeked out over the rim. He glimpsed the driver dangling upside down, still held fast by his safety belt. Blood gushed from a deep scalp wound on his forehead and flowed in rivulets into a sticky pool onto the vehicle's inverted ceiling. The driver appeared to be dazed, either from the sedative he injected into his neck or from the impact of his head with the windshield which's cracked like a spiderweb. He slowly shook his head side to side while murmuring incoherently in an unfamiliar guttural language.

Butcher witnessed the homeless man, now appearing awake and somewhat revived, crawling out of the car's shattered back window. He'd broke it out with a savage kick. Butcher watched him scuttle around the smoldering remnants of his bashed in car, and then watched him recover one of the discarded automatic weapons. He scurried over to Butcher's side by crab walking on knees and elbows over sand dunes and clumps of scrub brush. They stared at one another with a mixture of mute astonishment and exhilaration, and Dr. Butcher began to muster a grim resolve. 'This may not be the best day to commit suicide,' he mused to himself as he reflected on all of these recent events.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

A blinking red light and a discordant alarm began protesting in earnest at the operations headquarters in El Centro.

A thin man silenced the klaxon and picked up a red wall phone receiver. He punched in a set of numbers printed on a sign below the phone. A sleepy voice came on the line.

"This'd better be good," the man said. His voice's laced with irritation at having his slumber interrupted."

"We received an automatic warning signal indicating one of the dye packs exploded during tonight's evidence transport to El Centro."

"Call the escort cops on their two way radio. Order them to pull over and check out their load. Maybe they just hit a large pothole."

"Already done and done sir. They're currently parked on the shoulder of the freeway and unlocking and opening the semi-truck's rear loading doors as we speak. Backup's on the way out of the Rampart Division, and they've reported they're about fifteen minutes out."

The guy manning the operations desk and his supervisor heard the muffled voices of the escort cops barking orders to the semi-truck driver over the conference phone's two-way-speaker. Suddenly they began to hear the cops shouting in alarm at the sound of a vehicle screeching up. From what they've gathered from the mounting chaos and urgent voices, armed men had spilled out from the vehicle and had immediately surrounded them. They also deduced from what they heard that the escort officers were outnumbered and definitely outgunned. The escort cops were ordered to drop their weapons and get face down on the ground with the fingers of their hands laced together on the backs of their heads. The rest of the money bags were quickly unloaded.

Imprint

Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG Sonnenstraße 23 80331 Munich Germany

Text Copyright Holder: Reggie Ridgway
Images Copyright Holder: Images © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com, © lassedesignen - Fotolia.com, Cover design: Vivian Tan Ai Hua – http://www.facebook.com/aihua.art
Release Date: 07-09-2013
ISBN: 978-3-7309-3616-0

All Rights Reserved

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