This may look slightly familiar:-)
Damn Lister and the camel he humped his ass in on. David Dawson raised the bottle to eye level and blinked at the remaining liquid. Half gone. Well shit. He wouldn’t be able to keep this piss-poor excuse for an undercover operation much longer.
No one liked the drunken, dissatisfied sot he pretended to be.
No one tried to recruit him into their fucked up schemes.
After two weeks, he hadn’t gotten so much as a nibble.
And he missed Mavis next to him at night.
Very carefully, he lowered the bottle to the floor. Glass scratched the concrete. With a sigh, he let his head fall back against the lead-plated wall at his back. A cold breeze stirred the ribbons attached to the vents of the greenhouse.
Time for a new game plan.
Kidnapping Dirk Benedict and water-boarding him until the fat bastard gave up his cohorts would be a good place to start. Of course, Mavis wouldn’t be happy about the torture bit. Hell, he wasn’t happy about the torture bit.
But he needed a lead, a way into the vegetable thieves’s secret lair.
And it wasn’t going to happen sitting here smelling of Lister’s water-down brandy and pretending to be a loser.
He wanted to do something. Not sit here and roll the scraps of information around and around in his head. He rested his forearm on the planter box on his right. Verdant corn stalk leaves scratched the sleeve of his suit.
Especially when he had to do it alone. God, it really must be the end of the world if he missed that smart-ass Robertson.
Too bad he couldn’t come up with Plan B and get Lister to approve it. Red light strobed the greenhouse in bloody hues. The ribbons deflated to flaccid pink lines on the dingy walls and the air handlers in the vestibule roared to life. Water gurgled through the white pipes over his head. Someone was in decontamination, washing the alpha, beta and other Greek radioactive particles from their protective suits.
Hot damn! He was about to have company.
His heart raced. For a moment, he was a soldier hunting his enemy. Unfortunately, the other security forces who could cover his ass were across a nuclear wasteland. He’d have to play this smart. Observe. Gather evidence. Plan his counter-offensive. Besides, he didn’t know if these newcomers were his targets.
An alarm blared, rattling the triple paned windows. The door was open.
“Come on,” a man growled. “The shift will start in fifteen minutes.”
David raked his fingers through his hair. Great! A work crew. They’ll be here for hours. Once again he’d wasted his time and acting skills. Might as well head back to the mines. Maybe he should just approach Benedict and ask him for a stolen tomato.
“Nah, they’re going to be delayed.” Another man chuckled. His deep baritone was followed by a clang and hollow thud. “Someone forgot to fill their oxygen.”
David froze. Hallelujah! This was not the farming crew.
“They can always come without it,” a third man piped up. His voice was reedy as if it hadn’t settled into his body.
Younger perhaps. With steady hands, David parted the drooping foliage of the immature corn stalks. A screen of green blocked his view. Damn.
“And risk lung cancer?” The baritone laughed. “I don’t think so.”
Looking up, David stared at the readout on the wall. Nine-thousand-two-hundred-forty-four. And climbing. And that was this hour’s radiation blitz of their little valley. Anyone exposed to that amount could count on lung cancer, bone cancer and several other cancers only the survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl had ever heard of before.
If these men really had swapped full oxygen tanks with empty ones, the cocksuckers had just sentence three people to a horrible, drawn out death. Pushing the bottle against the side of the planter, David leaned forward. He wanted to see the bastards’ faces.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like waiting until the last minute for our harvesting.” Reedy squeaked. “We could get caught.”
David flattened his palms against the concrete. Cold leached into his hands. On all fours, he crawled toward the aisle between the planting beds.
“We’re not going to get caught.” Baritone tsked. “The bossman is smart.”
“So is the Doc.” The growler countered.
Mavis was smart. But so far she hadn’t been able to stop the poachers from stealing the fresh fruits and veggies from the communal gardens. David peered around the edge of the two foot high planting beds. No one stood at the end of the twenty-five foot aisle. He scanned the center planting area. Metal tripods supported bush beans and pea vines. Through the leaves and stubby vegetables, he made out the white thighs of the newcomers. Although their hoods were pulled back, the excess material concealed much of their profiles.
Of course, he had enough video surveillance stationed around the greenhouse. Eventually, they all would smile real pretty for the camera. Hell, maybe could even capture one of the bastards picking his nose and put it on the most wanted poster.
“She’s not that smart.” Baritone smacked one of the bean heaps. The tripod supporting it wobbled but didn’t fall over thanks to the wires running up to the beams supporting the greenhouse’s roof. The UV lamps overhead wobbled. “Besides she has her hands full now that her lapdog has run away.”
David stiffened. Fuckin-A. Lapdog? Him? Rolling back on his heels, he smoothed his nuclear-biological-and-chemical suit. He was a United States Soldier. And a damn good one, too.
“You think the rumors are true then?” Reedy’s voice wavered over the muffled tap of their protective boots. “The Sergeant-Major has left her for good?”
What? David blinked. That’s not the story they’d cooked up. The rumors was supposed to have Mavis tossing him out on his fatigue-covered ass.
“I didn’t hear anything about it.” Grumble’s voice flattened out as if the subject bored him.
He wouldn’t be bored when David hauled him before the judge. Besides, he needed to hear the gossip. It might pinpoint who else was involved with Ali Baba’s forty thieves. Through the beans, he watched his targets close in on the hydroponics baths on the other side of the greenhouse. Their white suits blocked out the globes of ruby red tomatoes.
“That’s because it’s all hush-hush.” Baritone snorted. The velvety green bush trembled and the ripped fruit disappeared into a pockets designed to hold a spare oxygen tank on their back. “But the Bossman knows. He said, the Bitch Doctor underestimated the lapdog’s loyalty to the service when she disbanded the military.”
Ignorant assholes. He vowed to protect the Constitution, not a uniform. His service to his country remained the same, it had just shifted into the civilian sector. With narrowed eyes, David peered through the foliage. A red ball shot up through the greenery. It fell and was caught by a hand with hairy knuckles. He’d bet his purple heart, that was Baritone.
“Guess the Sergeant-Major has a pair of balls after all.” Baritone chuckled. The tomato flew up again. This time no hand caught it. “Oops!”
David winced at the watery splat. Maybe he should introduce the jackwagon to the balled up fingers at the end of his wrists. He’d oops the cretin’s teeth right out the back of his skull for wasting food.
“What if the break-up is a set up?” Reedy’s voice cracked over the last word.
David scuttled backward. Fuckfuckfuck. Who was the little prick that could think outside the box? Then again, Lister’s op was more night light than hundred watt strength.
Baritone pulled two green tomatoes off the vine and dropped them on the floor. “The Bossman has ears inside the Doc’s quarters. It’s not a setup.”
Flinching, David collapsed against the wall. A listening device in their room explained Reedy’s version. He’d find that damn bug and destroy it. Mavis deserved her privacy.
Baritone pivoted on his heel and closed in on the next bush. “Stop being a pussy, Quartermain.”
Quartermain. David’s muscles twitched. Holy shit! No wonder the voice sounded young. Justin Quartermain was just seventeen. And he was the grandson of Mavis’s late neighbor. This betrayal would hurt her.
“I’m not a pussy!” Tomato guts oozed between Justin’s fingers and leaked into the gloves suspended from his wrists. “The Sergeant-Major is a trained investigator. He could be undercover. He could be looking for us.”
David carefully adjusted the corn fronds, concealing him better but still giving him line of sight. Everyone who’d attended the psychopath’s trial knew he’d investigated murders. Yet, most people remembered him as a soldier giving their departed loved ones a little dignity when they’d been collected for mass burial or doling out food that helped them survive the flu pandemic.
So why did Justin only see him as an investigator?
And why did he doubt the official version of his and Mavis’s break-up?
Was there an insider leaking information to the kid?
“David Dawson is a grunt–cannon fodder.” Baritone snapped the main trunk of the tomato bush then moved on to the next one. “He’s not even a real officer.”
Justin shambled behind him. The biohazard fabric whispered where it rubbed together. “He brought down the preacher man–took him out to the dessert and put a bullet through his brain.”
If only. David pressed his palms on the cold cement to keep them from rolling into fists. Trent Powers had deserved a bullet through the brain for caving in Private First Class Singleton’s head. Instead the bastard had gotten eaten by coyotes. Not that Powers’ fate was common knowledge. Of course, that didn’t make the scumbucket any less dead.
Or dampen the military conspiracists enthusiasm.
Baritone grunted and continued to pick the next bush clean. “Dawson’s nothing. A nobody. He’s incapable of thought beyond yes, sir and saluting.”
David rolled his shoulders against the soft fabric of his shirt. Nothing wrong with showing a little respect. Besides, the trio of tomato terrorists weren’t exactly pillars of leadership, otherwise why would they need a bossman?
Grumble shook his head but swallowed his disagreement. “I’ve got the last of the tomatoes.”
Baritone plucked the plants out of their buckets. Blobs of vermiculite and a length of cord swung down causing dark liquid to dot his suit. He threw the plant on the ground and stomped on it. Twisting his lower body, he grind everything in to the concrete. “Let’s get the potatoes.”
David thighs quivered. If the bastard was alone, he’d beat the shit out of him. But Baritone had company. And that bossman asshole would probably just send someone else to destroy the gardens. David would play this smart, give them enough rope to lynch themselves with. He inhaled to a count of four then exhaled. His muscles slowly relaxed. He would find them again, in the dark caves.
Baritone and Grumble’s wet soles squeaked as they stomped toward the tire forest. Green leaves sprouted from the stacks of black rings. When Baritone reached the first set of five tires, he rammed it with his shoulder. The tower toppled over vomiting black loam and fist-sized potatoes.
David ground his teeth together. God dammit! Those potatoes were supposed to be French fries on his dinner plate. Now they were being used for God knew what. Well, he’d follow the bastards and get the vegetables back. Justin would be the easiest target. But why start doing things the easy way now?
He’d go after Baritone.
Justin picked up a plant, plucked the brown spuds from the hairy roots then stuffed them in his spare tank pocket. “Aren’t we saving any for the others?”
Baritone kicked the other potato beds over. “Hell, no. Bossman says we’re to take everything that’s edible.”
“Why?” Justin shook the plant in his hand. Dirt dusted his suit and the small potatoes swung in circles from their stems. “We’ve always left stuff behind.”
“Because the bossman said so.” Baritone shredded plants after he ripped off their fruit. “The sheep following the Bitch Doctor need to be taught a lesson.”
Grumble stared at the ruins lapping at his feet. “They could starve.”
“So?” Baritone whipped around on his heel and grabbed the front of Grumble’s suit. “Sheep are made for sacrifice.”
Grumble’s suit shrink-wrapped his scrawny frame when he wiggled. “I didn’t sign on to kill folks.”
Baritone shoved his face into the other man’s until their helmets tapped. “Either you believe we survived the apocalypse to remake humanity or you don’t. I’m sure the Bossman would want to know which side you’re on before he ascends to power.”
A chill snaked down David’s back. Son of a bitch. That bastard Trent Powers had said similar things when he’d traveled with them. Someone had been listening.
And that someone was still in the group.
After a moment, Baritone released the man with a shove.
Grumble slipped on the loose dirt before falling. The single oxygen tank on his back clanged when it hit the floor.
Baritone loomed over him. “Which side are you on?”
On all fours, Grumble scuttled backward. “Yours. Yours, of course.” About six feet away, he stopped, raked the plants into a pile before shoving them stalks and all into the pouch at his back.
Shaking his head, Baritone retreated. “You’re on the side of the righteous, those worthy of being saved. We will guide the sheep onto the path of grace.”
Christ! The man was a religious nut job. Mavis hadn’t gotten rid of Trent Powers fast enough. His poison was still here. Still spreading. But how? Most of the bastard’s minions had been killed with him. The answer illuminated David’s thoughts. Well, hell, two minions had survived: Dirk Benedict and Jake Turner.
David smiled. So much for his boring afternoon. Hell, if he was right, he wouldn’t even get to finish Lister’s brandy before nabbing the bad guys. With luck, he’d be back in Mavis’s bed by nightfall.
“We shouldn’t take it all.” Justin added more potatoes to his pack. “They’ll start looking for us.”
He dropped the smaller ones to the ground, still attached to their roots and leaves.
Well, damn. David licked his lips. Maybe he should start with the kid. Except for the fact that Justin viewed him as the bad guy, they might just have a common aim.
Baritone kicked at the soil, spraying it in the air. “They’ll be too busy in the week ahead to look for us. And the Bossman says we’ll need to lay in supplies because things are gonna get real ugly, real quick.”
Dirt showered David’s position. Fuck. Lister was right. The vegetable thieves were after more than fresh salads. Regime change was on their menu.
“What’s he want with all of this anyway?” Potatoes wobbled in Justin’s fists. “I know he’s fat, but he can’t possibly eat this much food.”
Fat meant Dirk Benedict. Jake Turner was medium build. Was it possible not everyone knew Bossman’s secret identity? Or had David gotten it wrong? Maybe Jake Turner wasn’t involved at all. Nah. David shook his head. His gut told him the wormy lawyer was up to his briefs in sabotage.
But he had to prove it.
“You want me to tell him you said that?” Baritone hurled a potato at Justin. “You’ll be at the bottom of the food chain when he rises to power with the rest of the murdering soldiers.”
Murdering soldiers? David filed away the information. Maybe it would provide the key to Baritone’s identity.
With a hollow thump, the spud hit Justin left of square in the chest. The kid raised his hands to catch it. The potato bounced from hand to hand before falling to the ground.
David chewed on his bottom lip. Interesting. Justin Quartermain had the reflexes of a hunting panther. So why had he fumbled the hot potato? Perhaps, the boy was involved in his own investigation. But at whose behest? Lister? Nah, the general wanted this kept in the military family.
The lights blinked off then on.
No. No. Not now. David glanced from the door to the thieves.
“What the fuck!” Grumble screeched. “I thought you said they’d be delayed.”
“They should have been.” Baritone sealed his pack. “Let’s get out of here before they come down the mountain.”
“Bossman will meet us at the secret entrance, right?” Grumble yanked out several plants before closing his bag.
“Of course.” Baritone zipped down his visor.
Secret entrance? These fuckers had a secret entrance? Christ, what if they didn’t seal it properly. The cave system could become irradiated and then where would they go? They had about twenty radiation suits between all the caves, and they could only pump half an hours worth of oxygen into each tank. David shuffled his priorities. First, he’d find the asshole’s secret entrance, arrange to have it sealed forever, then he’d have a little chat with Quartermain.
Fabric swishing, the trio jogged toward the vestibule. Red light strobed through greenhouse. The light died, leaving only the buzzing UV light.
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ready or not, here I come. David peeked over the tops of the corn plants before straightening. Vertebra popped. Next stakeout, someone else could fold themselves into a pretzel. He picked up the brandy bottle, then collected the cameras stashed in the bean tripods in the center of the room. This one might give him a visual on their faces.
Whistling, he strode to the front and grabbed the camera wedged between the corn stalk and leaves. This one definitely would show him his enemy. He kissed the rectangular body then tucked it into his pocket.
Water gurgled through the pipes just as he set his hood on his head.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Either age was slowing him down or the workers were getting faster. So much for plan A. And getting caught would end his investigation just as he’d finally gotten a break. Avoiding the dirt scouring the floor, he raced to the back of the greenhouse. He parted the black flaps and slid inside the darkness.
Once it was safe to get away, he track the bastards and make them suffer.