Parker was struck by the incongruity between the television reporter’s calm demeanor and the appalling scene behind her of smoke, fire, bodies, probably the smell burnt flesh. Yet there she was, dressed to kill, talking with the same neutral voice she might have used to read the weather report.
“As you can see Dan, there’s not much left of what was once a Greyhound bus carrying sixty-eight people from San Francisco to Los Angeles. At this point, there do not appear to be any survivors.”
The voice of the news anchor said, “Julie, what are authorities there telling you about the cause?”
“Dan, I spoke a few minutes ago with Sargent Miranda Brock from the California Highway Patrol, and she told me that they believe the explosion was caused by a bomb in a suitcase in the luggage compartment. No one has claimed responsibility, but at this point they are treating it as a terrorist attack.”The anchor said, “That was Julie Mendez of affiliate station WBNA in Stockton, California. Thank you Julie.”
“Thank you, Bob,” she said.
“Julie will be keeping us up to-date on this story as it continues to unfold. Now we go to John Baccus for another in a seemingly unending string of bus bombings.
The image changed to a man standing in the rain holding a microphone in his hand. He looked disheveled and wasn’t wearing a tie. Behind him was another smoldering pile of wreckage.
“John, where are you and what’s happening there?”
“Dan, I’m standing on Interstate 35 about ten miles south of Emporia, Kansas, where two hours ago another Greyhound bus has been blown up. Twenty-three people are reported dead. Six more are in critical condition at local hospitals. An FBI task force has arrived on site and is setting up a command post. Just a moment ago, I spoke to Special Agent Robert Peters, who tells me that the bus was destroyed by a suitcase bomb. Although no one has claimed responsibility, our initial assumption is that it is the work of the Second Amendment Resistance Patriots. The task force — ”
The camera switched back to the station anchor. “I’m sorry, John, but I have to interrupt you to take our viewers to what appears to be a third bus bombing.”
The image switched to a woman facing away from the camera, looking toward a bus fully engulfed in flames. She turned to the camera, her face white, her eyes big.
“Are we on? — Oh, okay.” She pushed her hair back and straightened up. She did not look nearly as calm as the first reporter.
“This is Mara Henderson of station KBNA in Macon, Georgia. Just minutes ago, this Greyhound bus exploded as it was pulling out of the bus station. We don’t yet know how many people were on board or whether there are any survivors, but it’s hard … it’s to believe anyone could survive that.” The camera zoomed in on the wreckage of the bus, still fully engulfed in flames. Two firemen could be seen with a fire hose pouring water on to the conflagration.
“Firefighters are on the scene,” she said, “but as you can see, they don’t have it under control yet. We’re still waiting for — ”
Parker flipped to another station, and was greeted by the all-to-familiar image of Admiral Jackson Reynolds, decked out in full uniform, complete with a panoply of medals. Parker had little use for Reynolds, even if the man was a genuine war hero and one of the most popular men in the country. Rumors were rife that he would run for President in the next election. Polls showed that he would easily beat everyone in the likely field of opponents.
Prior to Reynolds’ tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that group functioned mainly in an administrative role, advising the Secretary of Defense, and communicating his decisions to the four branches of the military. When Reynolds became Chairman, he transformed it into a hands-on operational team, with himself fully in charge. He was able to do this for two reasons.
First, the country was under attack from within by the Second Amendment Resistance Patriots, a homegrown terrorist group that had never accepted the results of the last election and considered the administration of President James Carson to be illegitimate. They drew most of their support from unemployed and underemployed blue collar workers who felt they had been left behind economically and who did not approve of what they saw as the on-going leftward drift of their country. The group also attracted others with different but overlapping agendas, like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Reynolds used the rise of SARP to consolidate and streamline the military chain of command to enable deployment of military resources where they were needed quickly and effectively. Also solidifying his grip on the military.
Second, Reynolds had gained near god-like stature in the eyes of many Americans. When the Chinese had tried to invade Taiwan, Reynolds had personally directed the two carrier groups that engaged the Chinese navy and air force in a brief but fierce battle. The image of Reynolds on the flying bridge of the USS George W. Bush, wearing dark sunglasses, scarf fluttering from his neck, smoke swirling around him from a missile hit … it was a perfect image that imprinted itself into the minds of the entire nation. A very MacArthur moment. Obviously staged, but effective nonetheless. After that, even the President couldn’t clip his wings, and it was unclear who had the greater authority: President James Winston Carson or Admiral Jackson Franklin Reynolds.
Reynolds had a gift for rhetoric, and was becoming increasingly public about his criticisms of the Carson administration. He was, in Parker’s view, a demagogue, a dangerous thing to have in a Republic. His appearance on Parker’s television set was no exception.
He stood at a podium and pointed at someone in the audience, who asked, “Admiral, when will the President declare martial law?”
It was a planted question, one that played right into Reynolds on-going criticism of the Carson administration. “Well, Rich, that’s a tough one. Martial law is not something to be — “
An aid approached him and the two stepped back from the podium to consult. When Reynolds stepped back to the microphones, his expression was grim.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed of yet another bus bombing. That’s three in the last six hours. Rich, you asked exactly the right question.”
He looked directly into the camera, “President Carson, America is under attack. The citizens of this great country cannot walk down the streets of their towns and cities with fear. It has to stop. My question to you is, When are you going to do act?”
He walked off stage, leaving the camera focused on an empty podium. It was classic Reynolds.
Parker flipped the television off, and let his head fall back on the couch. It had been a busy week for the SARP: An Amtrak train in Boston, a Federal Court House in Houston, two power plants sabotaged, turning off the lights across New England for ten hours. And now the three Greyhound buses. The attacks had been going on for months, but recently they had accelerated. They were well planned and coordinated. As much as Parker distrusted Reynolds, the man was right about one thing: America was under attack.
Was Jerrod somehow involved in it? The questions the FBI had asked him suggested that they thought so. He couldn’t imagine Jerrod knowingly working with a terrorist organization. But he was up to his eyeballs in something.
He got a beer from the fridge and flopped back down on the couch. He and Jerrod had been friends since they were kids back in Kentucky. It was an unlikely friendship. Jerrod played basketball and baseball in high school, spent Friday and Saturday nights cruising and drinking, and always had a girl on his arm. Parker was a nerdy kid, more interested in books than sports or booze or girls. That, of course, made him the object of considerable derision and bullying. But Jerrod had an uncanny knack for showing up at just the right moment to convince the bullies that they should find someone else to harass.
Grinder was one of those bullies. Nobody knew where he got the name Grinder. His real name was Adam McDonald. Maybe it was because he was a defensive lineman on the school’s football team, and had a reputation for being a hard hitter. He was also an asshole.
One afternoon, after school was out and most people were gone, he and two of his buddies caught Parker in the school parking lot. Grinder put a big hand on Parker’s chest and pushed him up against his car.
“Hi ya Porker,” he said. Parker was seriously overweight back then, which earned him the moniker Porker. “I got a big date this weekend, and I’m a little short on cash. I was thinkin’ maybe you’d find it in your heart to loan me some.” He emphasized the word loan.
“Sorry, Grinder,” he said. “I don’t have any money.”
They both knew that wasn’t true. He worked part-time at Radio Shack, and always had plenty of money.
“Awww, Porker. You’re gonna make me lose faith in the basic goodness of human beings. An that just ticks me off. You wouldn’t wanna tick me off, would you?”
The smart thing would have been to give the asshole a twenty and call it good. But something snapped inside him, and he said. “Grinder, you were born ticked off. Your mama must have been real surprised when she discovered she’d given birth to an asshole instead of a baby.”
A slow smile formed on Grinder’s face. “Jesus H. Christ, Porker. You just made my day.”
Parker’s bravado — or idiocy — vanished and was replaced by terror. He was dead meat. But then Jerrod appeared out of nowhere, sauntering up behind Grinder’s friends, Benny and Frank, in his usual nonchalant way.
“Hey Parker. Been lookin’ for you. Can you give me a ride home?”
Everyone turned to look at him. He stepped between Benny and Frank, forcing them to move out of the way, walked up to Grinder and kicked him in the crotch. Grinder was big and strong, but Jerrod’s kick was right on the money and he doubled over with an “Omph”. Jerrod followed up with a round-house fist to the side of his head, hitting him in the eye. Grinder fell to his knees, and Jerrod kicked him in the face. Blood spurted from his nose.
It all happened so fast that Benny and Frank didn’t have time to react until Grinder was on the pavement spewing blood everywhere. Frank grabbed Jerrod from behind in the bear hug, lifted him off his feet and swung him around toward Benny, who came in with a punch to Jerrod’s stomach, followed by three solid hits to the face. Jerrod managed to kick him in the knee, which elicited a yelp, but didn’t slow him down.
Parker decided to weigh in at this point, and threw a wild punch to Frank’s lower back. As luck would have it, he connected with something tender, and Frank let go of Jerrod. Unfortunately for Parker, he turned around and slugged him. The last thing he remembered was a feeling of utter surprise as the ground leaped up and hit him in the face.
When he regained consciousness, Grinder and company were gone, and Jerrod was sitting with his back against the wheel of Parker’s car, pinching his nose to stop the bleeding. He grinned at Parker.
“I think we lost that one.”
Parker grinned back. “You should have stayed out of it.”
“Now what kind of thing is that to say to a friend who just rescued you from a Grinder beating?”
Parker gingerly felt around his left eye. “I wouldn’t say you rescued me exactly.”
“Well, no, I guess not. But hey, I tried.”
“That you did, Jerrod, that you did.”
After high school, Parker moved to Bozeman to study philosophy at the University of Montana. Not that U of M had much of a Philosophy Department. What it did have was Renda Ford, who for some reason never clear to him had decided to attend there. Parker was in love with Renda Ford, so he followed her to Montana. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in love with him, but by the time he figured that out, he had decided he liked Bozeman. So he stayed.
Jerrod joined the army, where they made him a medic. He came back a changed man, and not for the better. Two tours of combat duty had messed with his head. He lived with his parents for a while and then moved to Bozeman to live with Parker. He got his associates degree at the local community college, and a lot of counseling for PTSD. And Trish, who had come into his life at just the right moment. She somehow grounded him emotionally.
Now his friend needed his help again. Only Parker didn’t know where he was. Or what kind of trouble he was in. Or what he could do to help. He got up to get another beer and nearly ran into Jerrod and Trish, who had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of his living room.
“Whoa,” he said as he stumbled back and fell on to the couch.
Trish was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat, but didn’t offer the disparaging remarks a situation like this would usually call for. Instead, she held her finger to her lips in a shushing gesture, and held up a 4×6 index card. In big block letters it read, YOUR HOUSE IS BEING WATCHED.
Questions were tumbling around in Parker’s head, along with the thought that he might be dreaming. He mouthed, “I know.”
She held up another card that read, THE ROOM MIGHT BE BUGGED. She had more of them in her hand. Parker nodded. He already knew his phone was tapped, and wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone had planted listening devices in his house sometime when he was away.
The next card read, JEROD HAS A TELEPORTATION DEVICE.
He looked at Jerrod, who held up what looked like a television remote control. It seemed small for a teleportation device. Not that Parker had any idea how big a teleportation device ought to be.
They were watching him. Waiting. Presumably to see how he would react. The problem was that he couldn’t seem to find an appropriate reaction. Fear seemed like a good choice. But he wasn’t really afraid. Awe might be a good one, and indeed he was feeling some of that. Disbelief? That was his dominant reaction, and certainly the most reasonable. Except that he had just seen it in action. If it wasn’t a teleportation device, it was something just as impossible. And he knew that Jerrod had something the government wanted real bad. He decided to go with suspension of disbelief for now, and simply nodded.
They both looked relieved. Trish held up three more cards in quick succession.
WE NEED YOUR HELP.
WE WANT YOU TO COME WITH US.
YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO COME BACK HERE.
Parker nodded and held up a finger to indicate that they should wait. He went into his bedroom and packed a small suitcase with clothes, toiletries, and a few other items. It didn’t occur to him to say no. Jerrod and Trish were his friends, and this was what friendship was about. Besides, he had the feeling he was about to embark on the most amazing adventure of his life, and he certainly didn’t want to miss that just because it was unbelievable.
He returned to the living room, grabbed his jacket from the chair he had left it on, and mouthed, “I’m ready.”
* * *
Jerrod jumped them to the motel room, and they talked into the early hours of the morning. Parker listened to their story, asked a lot of questions, held the device — it didn’t respond to him either — went on and on about how they couldn’t trust the government, and finally admitted that they probably didn’t have any other choice.
“What I’m not clear about,” he said, “is what this Dr. Joe’s agenda is. What does he want?”
Trish said, “He wants us — Jerrod, I mean — to help him stop the assassination.”
“Okay. But then what?”
Jerrod was lounging on one of the two beds with his eyes closed. By this time he was only half-way following the conversation, which was mostly between Parker and Trish. Without opening them he said, “Well, he seems to believe the device should be returned to its rightful owners.”
“Really.” Parker was good with sarcasm. “You think he has the authority to decide to give up the most powerful weapon in the world? Without talking to anyone about it?”
It was a good question. Surely Dr. Joe would be under obligation to turn the device over to his superiors. In fact, he would probably get into a whole lot of trouble if he didn’t.
Trish said, “If he was going to take it away from us, wouldn’t he have done it already?”
“Not necessarily,” said Parker. “Jerrod is the only person he knows can use the device. He might be able to find someone else it will respond to. But maybe not, or maybe not in time. So he needs to get Jerrod on his side. He needs Jerrod to trust him, to believe that he doesn’t want the device, to believe that he’s going to let him give it to the aliens. Assuming the aliens ever show up.”
Parker took a long swig from a bottle of orange juice. “But once the President is safe, all bets are off. Here’s what I think: Once we are in that safe house, we will find ourselves effectively under house arrest, constantly watched by McClellan’s people. They will be presented as our protection team. But in truth their job will be to ensure we don’t abscond with the device, and, when the time is right, they will take it.”