He was the obvious choice, of course, our secret weapon: seven feet of laser-eyed, ducktailed crimefighter in a bulletproof package. There was some debate about whether he’d be sufficiently light-footed, but those of us who’d seen him on the dance floor and the basketball court had no worries in this regard. And he was wearing his high-tops.
But the boss, whoever he was, wanted to wait until dark, so we sat. Somebody in a Spartan Security windbreaker brought us a bag of drive-through burgers, but nobody, not even Elvis, had much appetite.
“Are the press still back there?” I asked Robbie.
“I think some of them are,” he said. “But I think most of them got called away to cover other stuff.”
“I hope not angry mobs tearing the Wardman apart, looking for us,” I said.
Ginger didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking. She was imagining, as I was, Jillian locked in a closet, sending out her Morse-code messages again and again, hoping that somebody could hear them, but not really knowing if they were being received or not. Had they threatened her? Had they hurt her? Whatever they’d done to her, they hadn’t made her forget her Morse code, and this was a consolation.
Elvis and Paul studied the floor plan.
At 8:30, Teddy gave us the signal. Elvis got out of the van, and Paul got out, and there was further conferring with the suits. Then Elvis leaned back in and said, “Okay, Hank, let’s go.”
“Me?” I said. I wasn’t resistant, only astonished. My law enforcement experience consisted of one year as a fifth-grade crossing guard, and my training ran to NYPD re-runs.
“I might need a roost,” he said. “And besides, you will only ask me questions about it later.”
The notion that I could give Elvis a roost was laughable, but I got out of the car. Paul unzipped my tan jacket and helped me into a black Spartan Security jacket. He fitted me with an ear bud, and supplied me with a gas mask that made me look like a postnuclear mosquito.
“I can’t see where I’m going,” I said, trying to find my feet at the ends of my legs.
“Leave it off unless you need it. Here.” He pulled it down and stashed it over my shoulder.
“Where’s his?” I said, gesturing toward Elvis.
“He says he doesn’t need one,” Paul said.
He slipped something else over my head. “Night-vision goggles,” he said, fitting them over my glasses. He picked up my hand and guided it to the scope. “Check it out,” he said. “You’re going to have a few extra inches here, so watch where you swing your head.”
“Cool,” I said. I didn’t feel cool. I felt like an idiot, and way underprepared for this mission. And now I had a scope attached to my nose.
The next thing I knew he was smearing something black on my face. It felt greasy and had a faint waxy odor. He took hold of my wrists, one at a time, in a businesslike way and smeared the same stuff all over my hands.
He started to hand me a gun, a revolver—that much I knew—and without thinking, I raised my hands and stepped back. He thought I was helping and reached around me. I felt the cold steel brush the skin of my lower back.
“Look,” I said, “I’ve never fired a gun before.”
“That’s why we’re giving you a revolver,” he said. “You ever play cowboys when you were a kid?”
“I was usually the Indian,” I said. “I had a thing for bows and arrows.”
He looked at me. Then he reached around me and removed the gun to show it to me. He produced a flashlight from somewhere and shone it on the gun.
“This is the trigger,” he said. “You put your trigger finger on the trigger, and wrap your other hand around that hand to steady it. Keep your fingers away from the cylinder, aim low, and squeeze the trigger to fire. This is double-action, so you don’t cock it. Just keep firing till the sucker hits the floor. Don’t worry about the hammer. Got it?”
When I didn’t say anything, he said, “Don’t worry. Elvis and I have your back. Just don’t let it fall down your pants leg and blow a hole in your foot.”
Relief flooded me. “You’re coming too?”
He replaced the gun in my waistband and said, “You bet your ass.”
He blackened his face, pulled night-vision goggles over his eyes, hoisted a coil of rope to his shoulder, and turned to Elvis. “We’re ready to rock.”
Elvis was wearing his dark-blue Hoyas sweatshirt, and although he wasn’t sporting night-vision goggles or a gas mask, his face was also blackened. In the dim light from the flashlight, he looked a menacing giant, and his face was grave.
“We’re approaching from the back,” Paul said. He showed us a sketch of the site. “Two houses here, nobody home in this one, feds have talked to the folks on this side.” He pointed. “We go through the fence here, walk along the fence line, go over the fence again here. We want to approach from this direction. Window here is a bedroom behind the living room, where our guys are watching television. This window is a bathroom off the kitchen, so pretty likely to be covered. Jillian is in a closet here, on the second floor, over the kitchen. Your access is through this window from the roof of the garage. Okay?”
I heard Teddy’s voice in my ear. “Ground floor toilet just flushed,” she said.
Paul grinned at us. “Timing is everything.”
The van dropped us off on the street just past North George Mason, our target. The bicyclers, who had changed into dark jeans and pullovers, met us there. The neighborhood was quiet and the odors of fried meat and fabric softener hung in the still air. One or two porch lights were on and blue light glimmered from behind curtains in living-room windows, but the curtains were all closed. Both of the houses we stood in front of, two large white Cape Cods, were dark.
“There’s your entry,” one of the cyclists said, nodding at a gate in the fence to our left. “The homeowner will keep the lights off until we give her the all-clear. There are trees back there, which will give you some cover, but trees mean twigs so watch where you step.”
We passed through the gate and began walking. The night-vision goggles gave everything a surreal quality. Elvis stepped softly for a big man. At the back fence, Elvis boosted Paul, and then me. I held on to the rough wooden tops of the slats and eased my body down. Paul caught me and slid me down until my feet touched the ground. Elvis landed quietly behind us. We skirted the yard and crossed under the dark bathroom window to the back of the garage.
“Roost me up, Hank,” Elvis said, his eyes on the roof.
I swallowed, gritted my teeth, and bent down, locking my fingers to make a shelf. I was determined not to make a sound, and I tried to will all of my adrenaline to flow into my hands.
I didn’t need it. He was surprisingly light. Before I realized it, I heard the soft scrape of his sneaker against the roof shingles. As I straightened, a hand appeared in my line of vision. I grasped it and felt myself levitating. Then I was on the roof. Paul stayed below, but I saw him give us a thumbs-up sign.
We crossed to the window. I was behind him when he burned a hole in it. There was hardly any sound at all, just a flash of light and a faint whiff of hot metal. I made a note to myself to take a robot along on any future missions of this kind.
We climbed into a carpeted room empty of furniture, with only ghostly indentations to show us where furniture had once stood. It had the musty scent of a long-uninhabited space. The crescent moon did little to illuminate the room. But to our right as we entered through the window was the rectangle of the closet door that was our goal—a door with the illusionary grain of hollow-core and a cheap faux-brass doorknob with a keyhole at its center.
The sound of amplified applause drifted up the stairs. The volume was quite loud, I was gratified to note. We weren’t directly above the living room, but I still worried about creaking floorboards.
“Tell her we’re here, Hank,” Elvis whispered.
“How do I do that?” I said.
“Don’t you know Moose Code?” he asked, obviously surprised.
I shook my head. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll think of something. Don’t panic.”
Since the only one likely to panic under the circumstances was me, he didn’t respond.
I put my ear to the closet door, but I couldn’t hear anything. I raised a hand and drummed my fingers on the laminated wood. Silence. I tried again. This time I got a response, a faint tapping. I hoped she wasn’t trying to give me an important message. But surely she could already tell from my drumming that I was not adept at code. Unless I’d sent her an inadvertent message—“your dry cleaning is ready” or “snakes for dinner” or something like that.
A key left in the lock was too much to hope for. I backed up and went to stand next to Elvis.
The success of this operation depended on Jillian’s response. She didn’t seem the hysterical type, but who knew what they’d put her through.
This time I was able to see the flash of light in his eyes—so bright that I had to turn my head. When I looked back at the closet, the doorknob was gone.
I crossed to the closet and gently pulled the door open. Jillian sat against a far corner, her feet bound, her arms tied in front of her and resting in her lap, duct tape across her mouth. She was dressed in a khaki skirt and an Oxford shirt. Her shoes and jacket lay near her on the floor. Her pantyhose were badly run. Her hair, which had apparently lost its clip, was down.
She blinked up at us. I felt a rush of tenderness so powerful that for an instant, I couldn’t move. Elvis moved past me and hauled her to her feet.
I didn’t see what he cut the ropes with, but he handed them to me and I set them softly on the carpeted floor. She grimaced as he peeled the duct tape away, but she didn’t make a sound. He whispered something to her, and she nodded, tried to take a step, and stumbled against him. He caught her, and while he held her upright, I bent and vigorously massaged her legs. When she tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a thumbs-up, I took her by the other arm and we guided her toward the window. Elvis bent to retrieve the shoes and jacket, but Jillian caught his arm and shook her head.
I stepped out onto the garage roof, pulled the goggles down, and leaned back in to help Jillian. As I did this, my scope scraped the window frame and Jillian stepped back with a tiny yelp. We froze. I strained to hear any sign of a reaction from the room downstairs, but nothing happened.
Jillian crossed her hands on her chest in a gesture of penitence, but she was grinning and her eyes were crinkled in mirth. I waved her out, worried that her amused astonishment at the sight of me in night vision goggles would cost us our whole operation. She straddled the window ledge, then leaned against me as she stepped through. Elvis came last, walked ahead of us to the edge of the roof, then kneeling, took Jillian’s wrists and lowered her to Paul. He did the same for me, and despite the pain in my shoulders, I descended in a fog of heady exhilaration. On the ground, I turned to help Paul lower Elvis, who was hanging from the edge by his fingers.
I heard Paul say softly but distinctly, “All clear. Everybody’s out. It’s all yours.”
And we ran.
Nothing happened—at least, not at first. The van stood idling at the curb. As we reached it, Paul grabbed Jillian’s wrist, and said, “Explosives, Jilly. Did you see or smell any explosives?”
She shook her head. “But I didn’t see anything, Paul. And the garage just smelled like a garage to me.”
The van door slid open. Joe was behind the wheel. Ginger pulled Jillian into a bear hug, whispering fiercely, “Thank god, thank god, thank god!” Elvis and I climbed in. From my vantage point, all I could see of Jillian in the dim interior was her shaking back.
“Jesus, Ginger, give the chick some oxygen,” Robbie protested.
Ginger must have loosened her hold, because, with a sigh, Jillian disengaged and leaned back against the seat. Her eyes glinted, and I thought she was crying. I reached over the seat and patted her knee awkwardly.
Then I realized that she was laughing as well as crying. “What the hell was that you were playing on the closet door, Hank?” she said. “The theme music from Bonanza?”
“It was supposed to be the William Tell Overture,” I said.
This set off another fit of giggles— uncontrolled, but not hysterical. “There I am, sitting in the dark, bound and gagged, barely able to breathe from the closeness and the stench of sweat and Kung Pao chicken and hoisin sauce, and I hear this tapping. When I couldn’t translate it, I knew it must be you, Hank. You can’t imagine how comforting that was, to know that you were on the other side of the door, just madly tapping away. And I thought that if you were there, Elvis and Larry couldn’t be far behind. So I just crawled into a corner to wait and see what would happen.”
Ginger interrupted her. “But are you all right?”
Jillian sighed. “Yes, yes, Ginger, I’m fine, apart from the ribs you broke when I got into the car.”
Joe handed back a bag from the front seat. “Here. Take your mind off your troubles, kid.”
“Is this what I think it is?” She took the bag eagerly and looked inside. “Awww, you guys! A tomato and mozzarella Panini! You shouldn’t have.”
Joe eased the van away from the curb. “Larry’s got the beer.”
Larry handed her a bottle, smiling.
“You guys!” she said.
Joe drove around the corner and pulled in behind the plumbing truck. We were now parked a block away from the house we’d just left and, as he pointed out, upwind of it. It was visible through the front windshield. We pointed out the house to Jillian.
“Gee, it just looks like an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood, doesn’t it?” she said through a mouthful of sandwich.
“They’re evacuating the houses on either side,” Paul said, “in case there are explosives.”
Robbie was leaning over, his elbows resting on the back of Jillian’s seat.
“So what happened to you?” he said to her. “Were you scared?”
The second question seemed gratuitous to me, but Jillian didn’t seem to object. “Those guys were scary,” she said, “but the scariest thing about them was that they didn’t really seem to know what they were doing. They seemed to be flying by the seat of their pants. They chloroformed me, so I missed the first part of what happened. I woke up woozy and my head hurt but I couldn’t feel it because my hands were tied behind my back. I could still smell the chloroform”—she made a face—“and I was just too tired to get up. They had blindfolded me. I knew I was in a moving car, but it wasn’t dark enough for a trunk, and I was lying flat, so I assumed it was a van of some kind.”
She took another bite and chewed. “I think this is the best sandwich I ever ate. But I may never eat Chinese food again.”
“Then what happened?” Robbie prompted her.
“Well, then, the van broke down or something—it was really weird—and that made them edgy, and they started shouting at each other. They never said a word to me, except to order me around. And then one of them got in the back with me and put something against my head, which may have been a gun. It felt like a gun. And he said, ‘No talk.’ At first I was sure I was a goner. I could hear the other guy banging around in the engine. And then, for the longest time, nothing happened. This guy with the gun, or whatever it was, smelled like tobacco and sweat. Sometimes they’d trade places, and the other guy smelled exactly the same. And I smelled of Chinese food, of course. I couldn’t hear any traffic sounds, or even ambulance sirens or anything. It was weird.”
“Larry stopped the world today,” I told her, “for more than an hour. No power. That’s why you didn’t hear anything.”
Her eyes opened wide and she looked from Larry to Elvis. “You stopped the whole fucking world on my account?”
Larry smiled. “No, not on your account.”
“We didn’t even know you were missing, Jillian,” Elvis said earnestly. “If we had known, we would have come sooner.”
“Aww, thanks,” she said, reaching out to touch him on the cheek. She took a swig of beer. “Man, I can’t believe I missed it! The whole world came to a standstill, and I didn’t even know it.”
“Larry can do it again, if you want him to, Jillian,” Elvis offered.
She grinned at him. “Let me think about it, big guy.”
“So then what?” Robbie persisted.
“There’s not much to tell. When they started the van up again, just like that, I figured maybe they’d fixed it after all,” she said. “The guy who was on guard duty climbed out of the back and got into the front and we drove off. When they took me out, I could tell from the smell that we were in a garage, probably. They took me upstairs and locked me in the closet and that was it.”
“Didn’t they say anything about what they were up to?” Ginger asked with a worried frown.
“Not to me,” she said.
“Ten o’clock,” Paul said. “Time for Heroes.”
A van pulled up ahead of us and about a dozen dark figures emerged. I could dimly make out the distorted profiles caused by gas masks, goggles, and weapons.
“Should I go open the door for them, Paul?” Elvis said.
“Better let them have their fun, big E,” Paul said. “They love to break stuff.”
We heard the sound of breaking glass as the tear gas canisters hit the front windows. We heard shouting, but couldn’t make out the words, and then a faint crash that might have been the front door. More police cars and vans suddenly appeared, and the house was washed in artificial light from floodlights, as smoke billowed from the windows, reflecting the staccato red flashes of emergency lights.
It was over before the smoke had cleared. Two men, bent over, retching and rubbing their eyes, were escorted out onto the front lawn and made to lie face down while they were cuffed. Porch lights were flickering on up and down the street as curious neighbors came out to see what was going on.
“Show’s over,” Joe said, and started the van. “Score one for the good guys. Let’s get Jillian home.”
A large hand appeared before my eyes, silhouetted against the light.
“Give me six, Hank,” said Elvis.
My hand burned for hours afterward.