Authors: Christopher Fulbright,Angeline Hawkes
Darkness fell across the parking lot of the North Star Motel and Truck Stop on Interstate 30 just outside of Greenville, Texas. The streetlights from the frontage road cast an orange glow over the scene. Aside from the thumping of the occasional big rig speeding by, the night was quiet.
The motel section of the North Star Motel and Truck Stop was a two-level building in the shape of a U with twenty units. In the center of the U was a swimming pool that had fallen into disrepair, the once bright tiles and lawn chairs faded by the sun, the concrete deck broken with weeds, ant hills rising from the cracks. The pool shone a sickly green, the rippled water reflecting in the scant illumination of the few outside lights. Asphalt around the parking lot was broken, ashen from years of dry, hot summers without a re-surface, potholes and fissures making an uneven, multi-leveled web of the ground. Three patrol cars parked in a V in front of room number five. Two more cars arrived for backup, thus exhausting the city’s supply of Sheriff’s deputies. The lights atop their vehicles strobed red and blue across the grime of the motel’s exterior walls.
Officers rushed from their cars toward the door of the hotel room, one of the larger men taking the lead. When they reached the threshold, the lead deputy, Sergeant Groves, lifted a handheld battering ram, slamming it into the cheap metal door handle, splintering everything in the general vicinity. The door burst inward. Three of the cops ran inside, yelling, “Hands up! Police!” and “Freeze!” Dogs barked in the distance amidst the crackle of police radios requesting updates on the situation.
The hotel room was old; worn wood paneling on the inside dated the decor back to the late 1970’s or early 80’s. The carpet was brown and filthy. The single bed was slept in but half-heartedly re-made. The backsplash for the nearby sink was cracked, hanging an inch and a half away from the wall, pipes exposed beneath, topped with a few travel-size toiletries. The faucet dripped, water tinkling down the rusted drain.
At first they thought the room was empty. There was a lot of shadow, and the darkness seemed to move at once.
A second deputy joined in. “I saw that.”
The shadows shifted, as if the darkness in the room was not only fluid, but an entity. The black in each corner grew deeper, while everything at the edge of the shadow seemed tense, ready to lash out.
“Step out of the shadows,” Groves shouted. “Now!”
They tensed, somehow expecting several men to materialize from the pools of invisibility, where only one appeared: their quarry, Bal Shem.
Bal Shem was dressed as if he were going to a business meeting with the devil himself: double-breasted suit, high dollar, not one of those cheap warehouse specials that came with a thin, free shirt. The red satin of his crisp tie glowed brighter as the red of the police lights cut through the dark of the room and washed over him in a burst of color. He stood, calmly and silently.
“Get out here where we can see you,” Groves commanded.
Bal Shem walked toward the light of the door, between the officers who parted like a biblical sea to let him pass.
“Where should I stand, gentlemen?” Bal Shem asked in a velvet voice, thick with the accent of the Middle East, tooled with the inflection of a London university. His polished Western appearance gave no hint of his primitive, cave-dwelling upbringing, nor did he appear the terroristic zealot who regularly relied on forced human shields to protect him from the bullets of his foe.
“Stop where you are!”
Bal Shem did as told, dropping his arms to his sides, not making any sudden movements that would give the deputies cause to fill him full of Texas lead. Groves muttered into his radio that the prisoner was secured. Bal Shem smiled a thin, tight grin.
“Check him out, Digger,” Groves said to the deputy on his right. Groves’s gun was leveled and held steady a few feet from Bal Shem’s forehead. He didn’t trust himself to not accidentally trip and separate Bal Shem from one of his toes with a stray bullet. The more Groves looked at this child-killing bastard, the more he wanted to wring his suave neck with his bare hands. An image of his own hands wrapped around Bal Shem’s throat, interspersed with flickering footage from news broadcasts of sprawled children, gutted and swollen in the dusty streets of some rural village, flashed through Groves’s mind. Nothing the U.S. government would do to this stinking bastard would be punishment enough for the atrocities Bal Shem had committed in the name of his god.
Digger, who looked eighteen if he looked a day, sidled alongside Bal Shem and quickly patted him down.
“He’s clean.” Digger gave Bal Shem another uneasy once-over with his eyes and stepped aside with an eagerness to be as far away from the prisoner as possible. Bal Shem stood motionless, just waiting.
“Of course, I’m clean, Mr. Digger. Only a moron would stand before—” he looked around as if counting the officers present, “
men of the law waving guns in my general area with a weapon on his person.” His lips smacked a little when he talked, dryly as if he needed a drink of water.
“Cuff him, Digger,” Groves ordered.
Digger fumbled with the cuffs, fidgeting nervously under the watchful eyes of Bal Shem. “Put your arms behind your back,” he said, voice hoarse like a boy in puberty.
Bal Shem raised an eyebrow, a mocking smirk creeping over his face. He gave no indication that he intended to put his arms behind his back. Bal Shem remained standing, hands outstretched.
“You got those cuffs on the prisoner yet?” Groves barked.
Digger hesitated. “He won’t put his arms behind his back, sir.”
“Just cuff the bastard. He ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
Digger slapped the handcuffs on Bal Shem’s bronze wrists. Bal Shem remained motionless. Digger’s hand rested on the grip of his holstered gun. It was clear the young officer meant it as a show of intimidation, but Digger’s face registered too much relief when his hand touched the black plastic grip, fear blanching his smooth skin white. Two more deputies were talking into their radios simultaneously, static and police jargon bantered around, filling the area with chaos.
“Let’s take him outside. This room stinks.” Groves waved toward the open door with his sidearm.
Bal Shem walked to the door flanked by gun-toting deputies. He looked straight ahead, toward the squad cars, his polished black oxfords clicking against the concrete like an old Hollywood tap-dancer. They made him stop beside the passenger door of the nearest patrol car.
“What do we do now?” Digger asked, a slight tremor in his voice.
Groves shot the young officer a look of mingled disgust and impatience. “We wait for the CIA
. We’re just securing the package.”
“Package, sir?” Digger asked, looking around as if he might have left something behind.
Groves clenched his teeth, his jaw twitching, but he replied nonetheless: “The prisoner. Bal Shem. The bastard in the cuffs.”
As officers cordoned off the area with yellow police tape, Groves leaned against the squad car, lit up a cigarette, and eyed Bal Shem with a mixture of disgust and impatience much the same way he’d surveyed young Digger moments earlier. Bal Shem’s ebony lashes blinked against the flash of red and blue lights that continued to bathe the parking lot.
Digger stared into the darkness, toward the gray ribbon of road that wound over a hill and beyond a line of trees, waiting for the CIA car to appear. He didn’t do a good job camouflaging his desire to be rid of Bal Shem.
“We should put him in the car,” said Digger. He shifted his eyes from Bal Shem to the car, and to Groves. Digger might be just a redneck, country boy, but he knew enough to know the whole lot of them were way the hell out of their league when dealing with the likes of Bal Shem. This wasn’t some drunk-ass idiot beatin’ on his wife and dog they were picking up. The only reason the goddamn CIA had them picking up this bastard in the first place was because they were expendable. The last cops that tried to apprehend Bal Shem ended up in so many pieces the coroner used ice cream scoops to fill up little boxes just so the officers’ families had something to fold a flag over and stick in a grave. This asshole was bad fucking news.
“What for?” Groves asked.
“I will not run away,” Bal Shem said in an even purr.
“You heard the man. He ain’t goin’ anywhere. It’s hot in there.” Groves flicked ashes onto the cracked cement underfoot. “We wouldn’t want the man to sweat up that fancy suit of his, would we, Digger?”
Digger frowned, hands twitching at his side, feet shuffling. Digger scuffed his boots on the concrete, kicking at a dandelion that had overtaken a large crack. “Where
Groves dropped his cigarette with a flourish of loathing, and ground it beneath his shoe. “Christ, Digger, I don’t know. Do I look like their goddamn mommy? Maybe they stopped off for coffee, maybe they’re using the can. They’ll get here when they get here.” Groves lit another cigarette and stuck it between his lips. “Ole Ball-less here, isn’t goin’ anywhere.” He gestured toward Bal Shem. “Out here in the middle of goddamn nowhere.”
Digger blushed scarlet, averting his eyes from the collected Bal Shem. Groves yanked his radio from inside the car. “I’ll check on them, if that’ll make you feel any better. Shit. You’re as bad as my ninety-five-year-old grandmother with your questions.” Groves leaned into the car, and then jerked himself straight, smacking the back of his head with a sharp
on the inside rim of the open car window.
An airplane screeched overhead, crimson and yellow plumes of fire streaking behind.
Groves stared upward, his cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, radio swinging in his hand.
The plane shuddered violently in mid-air and then exploded into a thunderous inferno. Metal and machinery zigzagged through the night sky, spiraling down to the earth in a blaze and leaping tendrils of smoke.
Digger froze where he stood as the other officers stopped conversation. All eyes turned toward the awful display erupting across the night sky. Dogs whined high-pitch wails in the distance. Emergency sirens were heard wafting over the wind. And, all at once, every cop radio in the parking lot began crackling, voices shouting over the airwaves. Cell phones rang incessantly. The momentary freeze of shock wore off just as suddenly as hands flipped open phones, fingers punched buttons, and officers reported in on their radios. All their voices responded as one, sirens turned on, and cars departed to the scene of the accident.
Groves spoke clearly into his radio. “We’ve got an Alert-3 about six miles west of H-systems, ‘longside I-30. Survivors doubtful. Inform Highway Patrol there may be wreckage on their roadway.”
“All officers report to the station,” the dispatcher’s voice crackled shrilly over the radio.
Digger looked around. The other cars had already left for the crash site.
“Shit,” Groves cursed and turned to the prisoner. “Okay, Mr. Bal Shem, we’re taking you to the station. In light of the current air catastrophe, our friends will just have to meet you there. It ain’t old Sa-dam’s palace, but it ain’t as bad as this dive neither.” Groves waved toward the motel.
“Why do you think they want us at the station?” Digger opened the squad car door.
Groves shot Digger a look that told him to shut the hell up. He was about to put his hand above Bal Shem’s head and warn him not to bump it, when Bal Shem kicked his left leg out from under him, leapt behind the sergeant, looped the connective chain of his cuffs around the front of Groves’s neck and twisted with a strength that didn’t seem possible for a man of such delicate build.
Groves’s face turned from red to blue. Air choked out of him. Digger sputtered, spitting, and cursing. He pulled his gun and pointed, back and forth, unable to get a clear view of Bal Shem without the sergeant in the way.
Groves clung to Bal Shem’s wrists with his big hands, trying to hold on and pry the terrorist’s grip free of his neck. The metal chain bit the deputy’s flesh, crimson rivulets of blood running over the front of his tan uniform and down his hairy arms. Blood spattered Bal Shem’s expensive suit, but the terrorist mastermind held fast, twisting the metal cuffs despite the pain of his own wrists.
Digger’s finger flinched on the trigger, and the gun kicked. Bal Shem thrust Groves into the line of fire, the big sergeant’s torso shielding Bal Shem from certain death. Groves didn’t fare as well. Digger’s bullets slammed into the sergeant’s face. The rear of his head exploded.
Bal Shem’s face was painted with the sergeant’s blood and globules of brain matter. His countenance shone hideously in the strobing lights.
Bal Shem untwisted his cuffs from the neck of the dead officer and bolted across the parking lot, toward the field and forest behind
the North Star Motel.
Digger slumped, screaming, beside the body of Groves, their radio screeching loudly in the car.
By one in the morning, military convoys rumbled into Hunt County blocking all roadways leading in or out. The lockdown happened so quickly even county officials were bewildered with the mobilization. Phone calls resulted in news that this was bigger than the Governor of Texas or anything the state had to do with it. The orders to enact martial law and seal the county came straight from Homeland Security and, presumably, above. National Guard troops were seen directing traffic away from the county on roads opposite the Hunt County lines.
As the town awoke from its slumber, shocked citizens stumbled outdoors in robes and slippers to retrieve their morning papers and watched jeeps full of armed soldiers bumping over their residential streets. Mostly the county residents stood on the side of the road gawking. A few of the more ballsy cowboys tried to pry some information out of whatever solider was nearby, but the standard answer was “more details will be forthcoming in the afternoon.”
At 6 am, Dr. Matthew Robbins drove into the Dairy Queen parking lot for his Saturday morning coffee with the old timers. Always observant, he hadn’t missed the patrols of soldiers or the jeeps and tanks blocking access to the exit and entrance ramps to the interstate. Robbins put his Cadillac in park and straightened the back of his sports coat as he got out of the car. The lot was pretty much deserted with the exception of a few familiar employee vehicles and the battered pick-ups of his coffee buddies. All retired Air Force, and, with the exception of himself and Burt Hill, all retired period. Burt was a family practice lawyer on the other side of town determined to work until they dumped his cold, dead ass in the ground. Robbins was the head of emergency medicine at Hunt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, and a trusty gut feeling told him this was going to be one hell of a day.
Best get my coffee and take what normalcy I can get.
Robbins opened the heavy door of the restaurant, the tied-on cowbell clanging the glass pane. The scent of bleach from the freshly mopped floors mingled with the smells of bacon, sausage gravy, and coffee. He looked over the red and yellow plastic furniture, toward the tired waitress, Gloria. Pot of coffee in hand, she hovered around his group of friends, piled into the three booths along the back wall. An ice cream poster hung on the wall above them, one corner drooping for lack of adhesive.
Hoover looked up and waved him to the back of the restaurant, a serious expression causing the wrinkles on his stubbly cheeks to crease even deeper. The men paused in their conversation to greet him as he slid into a vacant seat.
In the corner of the restaurant, near the two iron candy machines that always took quarters but never produced gumballs or sour chews, sat two soldiers, whispering over steaming mugs. They looked as tired as Gloria.
Robbins nodded in the direction of the soldiers. “Who’re the grunts?” he said to Hoover.
Before Hoover could reply, Gloria plunked a mug on the table and filled it too close to the rim. Black coffee sloshed over the top onto the gold-speckled tabletop. She pulled a dirty dishtowel from her apron waist and mopped the spill. “Sorry ‘bout that, Dr. Robbins.” She glanced over her ample shoulder. “I guess those boys got me nervous.”
“Not a problem, Gloria. You know I’d swim through a puddle of coffee if you made it.” He winked at the aging waitress. Gloria had been working here since before he’d left for the Air Force and the old girl was still here all these years later. Gloria smiled, rolling her eyes. She tossed some little plastic creamer containers onto the table and returned to her spot behind the counter.
Hoover waited a respectable amount of time after her departure and then lowered his head closer to Robbins. Robbins could smell the Marlboros on his breath. “You see the troops in town?”
“Have to be a blind man not to.”
Hoover looked at Ray, who looked at Dave, who looked back at Hoover. “I called Stewart up at H-systems. He couldn’t talk to me on those phones. Met me half way this morning on my way here.” He took a drink of his black coffee, wiped his mouth on a paper-stiff white napkin and continued, “Stew says that explosion last night — you know about the plane?”
“Well, Stew says the plane was taken down in a terrorist attack.”
“The hell? Way out here?”
“Yeah, some fat General was on board.” Hoover took another drink. “Apparently, whoever the guy was, he was instrumental in a bombing campaign of some terrorist’s village over in Afghanistan and the terrorist didn’t take it very well.”
“And Stew knows all this —
?” Robbins stirred his coffee with a dirty spoon, the metal clanking against the ceramic.
“Come on, it’s Stew. What don’t he know? Anyway, Homeland Security moved the risk level of the country to
— level red — and
Robbins scowled. “There’s got to be more to it for a lockdown.”
“That’s all Stew knew. He said there was supposed to be some press conference with a statement from the President this afternoon. Probably be on CNN.” Hoover waved Gloria over for a refill.
Robbins studied the faces of the other men, and shot a look toward the soldiers. “What about Careflight? Ambulances?”
“Locked down. No one
of the county,” Hoover said. “Martial law, and I heard we got ourselves a 9 o’clock curfew at night.”
One of the soldiers crossed the scarred floor, stopping beside the table where Robbins was seated. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but are one of you Dr. Matthew Robbins?”
“That’d be me,” Robbins replied, holding up a finger.
The soldier handed him a laminated tag with Robbins’s photo and social security number. A printed of ID of some sort. For him.
“Jesus, y’all are efficient.”
“This is your access pass to allow you movement during curfew hours. You need to wear your badge at all times when you’re out so there won’t be any confusion. The doctors and nurses at your hospital have also been given badges as well as law enforcement and fire personnel.” The solider sounded very official.
“Uh, thanks, I think,” Robbins said, “Couldn’t wait till I got in to work?”
The soldier shrugged. “They told us to find you here. We had a list of names and had to get the IDs to everyone this morning. Local medical personnel, mostly. Powers that be expect a busy day for you and your crew. You might have had trouble getting in and out of the hospital later without it.” The solider glanced at the old men. Then he gave them a nod and a thin lipped smile and walked away.
Robbins watched him go. “Why do I feel like I just became part of the Gestapo?”
Hoover chuckled. “Well, at least they won’t interfere with your work, considering how you live at that hospital.”
“What are you, my wife?”
“Hey, speaking of Gestapo—” Hoover began.
“Just make sure you put a big X in front of
and you’re forgiven.” Robbins motioned Gloria over for more coffee.
She waved the pot toward the door. “What did
“Oh, nothing really. Gave me a clearance pass to be out after curfew.” Robbins watched her pour the coffee. “Honey, if you want to leave the pot and save yourself some trips, we don’t mind.” He gave her a wink. She laughed and put the pot on the table. “We’ll tip big, we promise.”
Gloria laughed. “Two big spenders in one day? Soldier-boy left me a ten.”
“Good public relations,” Hoover said, chuckling.
Robbins’s cell phone went off. Rock guitar and drums blared as Gene Simmons’s voice sang from his pocket:
They call me Dr. Love…
Robbins laughed and stared at his phone. “Damn.
Hoover looked at him blankly.
“Kammie was home for a couple of hours. Kid always has a laugh changin’ her old man’s ringtone.”
“Never mind.” Robbins smiled and answered the phone. “Dr. Robbins.” Hoover struck up a conversation with Dave while Robbins took the call. He didn’t say anything but slid the phone closed a moment later. “Hospital. Gotta run, men. It’s been charming as always.” Robbins stood, downing the last lukewarm swallow of coffee. He dropped three bucks and a ten on the table. “That’s for Gloria.” He tapped on the ten. “Don’t none of you cheap bastards pinch it.”
“It’ll be there for her. Don’t want no Army men beatin’ us out on tipping,” Ray said.
“Although,” Hoover added, “This sets a dangerous precedent.” The guys shared a laugh.
Robbins started to leave, but then turned back around. “Hey, where’s Burt today?”
Hoover waved him off with a look that accused Robbins of being Mother Hen. “Sick. He’s out there near H-systems. Army’s got those roads locked down tighter than your ex-wife’s pussy.”
“It’s not his heart again, is it?” Robbins said, choosing to ignore the comment about the she-witch.
“He just said he was sick.”
Robbins frowned. “Thanks. Y’all take care.” A chorus of goodbyes followed him out the Dairy Queen door, the cowbell clanging behind.