A Small Omission
Willie was almost sorry that he'd done it. Almost.
Behind him, the small town of Coenburg shrank in the distance, standing out against the moonless night sky thanks to the still raging fires. He glanced nervously back and gunned the engine again, drawing some protest from the overburdened truck but picking up much desired speed.
"Whoa, Willie," Lou said from the passenger seat. "Don't blow the engine just yet. Rescuing the booze has been our only saving grace. Terry might let us off with a scolding if we can get this stuff to him."
Willie grunted and looked again into the rearview. Coenburg was nearly out of sight now; he eased off the accelerator, allowing the truck to rocket along at a speed only halfway to suicidal.
"Better," Lou said, slouching into the seat.
"It's for the booze, not you," Willie said.
"Then thank God for booze."
"Like He's really going to accept it coming from the likes of you."
"You ain't exactly a priest yourself."
Lou had a point. A priest certainly wouldn't have left Coenburg the way he did; then again, what else could he have done? Nothing—that's what; Holy man or not, there wouldn't have been any other choice. Still, were he a priest, he might be able to at least soothe his conscience with prayer. Killing was something he'd acclimated himself to, and that long before he came to work for Terry. Abandonment and betrayal though…those were new and nauseating, but had he really done either of those? No. They were dead, and the only reason he was not with them was because he had realized it and left.
Willie felt a jab against his side. Lou was staring into the rearview, calling for his attention.
"Willie, we're being followed."
He was right. Plainly visible was the unmistakable shape of a Ford Model A. It was running dark, but following too eagerly, making it easy to pick out. They couldn't be from Coenburg, and Terry never sent anyone to follow up; that meant they had to be feds. Was it just coincidence that they had shown up so quickly? Did they know who they were following? Not eager to find out, Willie put more weight on the accelerator and roughed out a plan.
"The nearest town is Helsin, twenty miles down this road," Willie said. "Terry used to keep a safe-house there before the routes changed; it might still be there. We could make a run for it."
Lou ignored him.
"There are only two guys in that car that I can see," Lou said, still squinting into the darkness. "We could take them."
Lou smirked. "Aren't you eager to add two more feds to your resume?"
Willie scowled. He was already unhappy that he had any feds on his resume at all. They took the killing of their own seriously; made working around them a pain. Never mind that it had just been bad timing; it still made him an good catch, and if these particular feds had already gotten wind of what happened at Coenburg he was going to be an especially good catch.
"I've only got half a clip left on the Thompson," Willie said. "It doesn't leave us much of a chance if either of them is seriously packing." A light flared as the car behind them turned on its headlights.
"So what do we do?" Lou asked.
Willie was sure Lou wasn't going to agree to running, the damned fool. If he was so eager to get his hands dirty he could just jump out and play by himself. Willie was less than a second from explaining this when the truck butted in to remind him that it had the final say.
The engine gave out with a single, frame-rattling thud, straining Willie and Lou against the seatbelts as the truck lost every scrap of momentum in its transformation from a getaway vehicle to useless deadweight.
Willie sighed in relief when the truck managed to come to a stop without flipping, then grabbed Lou's arm to keep him from reaching for a gun. Lou must have been getting desperate; it took a surprising amount of strength to hold him back
"Don't be stupid Lou. There isn't enough of anything for a running shoot out."
"So we're just going to get ourselves caught?" Lou made another reach, but Willie kept his grip.
"Listen to me closely Lou. If you tell them exactly what I tell you to, we might have a chance." Willie let go of Lou, who made no more attempts for his gun.
"I'm listening," Lou said. "Start talking."
Willie had been in an out of interrogation rooms throughout the course of his career, and he'd yet to be wowed by any of them. The problem was a lack of variety. Just whip up a bright light, a worn table, some old, uncomfortable chairs, and presto. No, the rooms never changed; what changed were the interrogators. Those could be violent, calculating, empathetic, or some hideous combination; the worst of them got a special pleasure from getting people to talk themselves into a confession.
The man who entered after Willie was as unremarkable as the room, yet he carried himself with authority. His only weapon: a huge briefcase, its seams straining to hold in the sheer mass of paper that'd been stuffed into it. If that was background material, then it probably pegged the man as a talker.
"Good morning William," the man said. "My name is Robert. I hope you've been enjoying yourself." Robert pulled back one of the old chairs and seated himself squarely across from Willie's side of the table. "We've talked to Louis already, and there are a few things that need some clearing up before formal charges are pressed."
"Have I done something wrong?" Willie asked.
"I've got a right to know what I'm being charged with, don't I?"
"Well, if you want to be formal, let's see." Robert made a big show of dragging his briefcase onto the table and shuffling for the papers. "Ah, here we go, William Jennings Tyson: wanted for no less than eight counts of murder, four counts of arson, various smuggling charges, and an as yet undetermined number of crimes related to his little stunt in Coenburg."
"My little stunt?"
"Oh yes, your little stunt. It's not that hard to connect you. We did catch you fleeing the scene, didn't we? In a truck that four of our agents had reported involved in Terry's smuggling operation?"
"We didn't have any choice about that truck," Willie said.
"Well, yes, that kind of brings us to the point of this interview." Robert replaced Willie's file in the briefcase and pulled out a much thicker stack of papers. "We already have enough to go to trial with the old stuff. It's Coenburg that's got us interested." He hefted the stack. "Louis had a lot to say; all of it very creative. I want to hear your side of the story."
Willie eyed the papers. "Why do you think I've got something to add?" He flinched involuntarily when Robert slammed down the stack, adding yet another injury for the dilapidated table to groan about.
"Because, William, I am not an idiot. You're already in trouble for the last two agents you killed, even if those were 'accidental.' Four more are dead in Coenburg now, and it doesn't look like an accident. " Robert leaned in close. "And, those four were mine. After this, I have to go make arrangements with their next of kin, so I'm not in the mood for screwing around. Tell me what you know, and if I find it's to my liking we might be able to work out something a little lighter than death."
Willie had no doubts now that the man was a talker. They always offered leniency first, even if they were pissed; refusing it merely dug a deeper grave.
"It…was not supposed to happen like it did," Willie said.
Robert sat back in his chair. "Go on."
"I don't know what Lou was doing up there—never met him before then—but I'd gone to enjoy the fishing."
"Yeah, fishing—they haven't passed an amendment against that, have they?"
Robert made a note on one of the papers and waved away the question.
"I got into town about a week ago," continued Willie. "I've been to Coenburg just about every spring for the fishing; sometimes I bring friends."
"This time you brought Anthony Scalia, John Walthman, and Richard Sargentino, correct?" Robert asked. Willie nodded.
"Yeah, Tony, John-boy, and Dick. Tony brought along Lou. We stayed at a small inn near the lake—been there almost forever—called the Atomic Crab; owned by a quiet old guy I never knew who kept to his own business. Really nice place—get up whenever you want and fish the day away. I was trying my luck with tr—"
"What was everyone else doing while you were fishing?" Robert asked. Willie shrugged.
"Sleeping in, rigging a card game, chasing girls—things respectable gentlemen do when they're not occupied."
"Right. Tell me about the," Robert squinted at his notes, "second day you were there, when you first noticed agents Shepherd, Parette, Ashton, and Milikan."
"Is that who they were? None of us caught their names, we just knew they were feds, and that they weren't what you'd call normal."
"Never hid their badg—"
"How were they not normal?"
"Oh, well…they just didn't act like people are supposed to act, always staring into nothing or at things like an ashtray when there was a perfectly good-looking broad right beside them." Willie shifted uneasily in his chair. "Never talked either; gave people this stare. Sometimes, the people they looked at brought them things—like they'd asked for it even though they hadn't said a word. No car either, or any place to stay. They disappeared at night."
"You were tracking them then?" Robert asked.
Willie put up his hands. "Hey, feds in a sleepy little town like Coenburg way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, we figured there might be something going on." He leaned forward, checking from side to side as if he was speaking about a conspiracy in a crowded bar. "Didn't take us long to find out either. It was the fourth day, right at dusk; we were following them—just following; we weren't looking for trouble. When they rounded a corner, Tony ran ahead. By the time we caught up there was nothing to find. Tony disappeared with them."
"You looked, of course?"
"'Till about eight, then we went back to the Crab. But he came back, stumbled in around midnight; his clothes were torn and he was bleeding bad out of his whole face. We tried to ask him what'd happened, but he just kept blabbering. 'Get out,' is all he said that made sense before he died."
"Died? What of?"
"We couldn't stop the bleeding, but I don't think that's what killed him. There were these lines going across his chest, like someone cut him up and did a half-assed job stitching him back together." Willie paused, then looked Robert straight in the eye. "I think they stole his guts."
Robert held the gaze.
"What, exactly, are you implying about my men, William?"
"They weren't men."
"And how did you reach that conclusion?"
"They acted even stranger."
Willie nodded, settling back in his chair. "Yeah, you'd think, after doing what they did, they would stay away from the guy's friends, but it was business as usual—wander around during the day, staring at things; disappear at night. I tried to pick a fight with one, and that's when I knew."
Robert smiled thinly. "Yes, gave you the 'cold shoulder,' did he?" Willie frowned.
"That's not funny. I couldn't feel my hand for an hour after that. People aren't supposed to be that cold, and they're supposed to at least notice you when you punch them."
Robert made a scribble in his notes and shuffled forward a few pages before he looked up again. "Tell me about the tunnels," he said.
"Not much to say. There was a huge system of them below the town, built by the original founders for some reason. We first found out about them—two days after Tony died—when the old guy who ran the Crab asked us to help him move something downstairs."
"What were you moving into the tunnels?" Robert asked. Willie smiled innocently.
"Barrels of something—teddy bears, maybe. How should I know?" Robert made another scribble in his notes.
"Okay. What did you find in the tunnels?"
"Nothing, at first, but about half a mile from the Crab we ran into this solid metal wall. A door just…appeared when we touched it. It whooshed up into the wall itself, and beyond it had to have been where your agents were disappearing to at night."
"And you waltzed in without the least bit of trouble. No passwords, no locks, no nothing?"
"Guess they figured they were too clever at hiding it."
"What was there?"
"Not much, but all of it interesting. There was only one room, low roofed and shaped like a saucer; well lit too, but there weren't any lamps that we could see doing it.. There were some open boxes, and we found eggs in them; big ones, about half the size of bowling balls—all green and leathery. We wanted to bring one back, but whenever we tried to pick any up we started to feel sick. Lifting the box didn't do anything, but we didn't want to make our visit that obvious. We left after that."
"The idea came to us and we acted on it. Just as well—don't think your 'men' would have blinked at killing us if we'd been caught. They must have found out about it anyway because it was after we left the tunnels that things went bad." Willie squirmed. "People had been disappearing long before we'd shown up, but they started to disappear in groups of ten or more, sometimes in broad daylight. All the phone lines were down and anybody who tried to run disappeared even faster. We saw the agents then."
"Me, Lou, Dick, John-boy, and maybe four other guys and their families. We were all holed up in the general store; it was the heaviest built and not connected to the tunnels, since it was new and all. We never thought those agents might've learned how to dig—well, sort of dig anyway."
"With little ray-guns , right?" Robert extended his thumb and pointer, a child's imitation of a handgun.
"I thought it was kind of funny—hadn't tried to kill anyone like that since I was a kid—but those things they had clipped to them were no joke. It only took a second for the man next to me to go to pieces."
"He went crazy?" Robert asked. Willie shook his head.
"He was cut up. Crack. Sizzle. Next thing you know he's in kit form."
"You shot back, of course?" Robert asked.
"Damned right we did! It took a ton of lead, but we finally put that guy down and kept him down; not before he got two more of the family men, though. We—the families and us that is—decided we should risk making a break for it rather than get picked off one by one."
"I thought anyone who tried to run only disappeared faster?"
"They disappeared because your agents got to them. Since there were only three left—all down in the tunnels—our plan was to get them to come out into the open so we could shoot them up enough to keep them from following. We left the last family guy to guard the hole—to keep your agents thinking we were still around—while the rest of us got the explosives set—"
"There were explosives just sitting around?"
"They kept a couple boxes of TNT and timers at the Crab—'for really nasty rats' is what they said."
"The old man and his staff."
"So he led you do—"
"No, he was gone by then—the first to disappear, almost."
"What was the dynamite for? Were you thinking to flush my men out with it?"
"I already told you they weren't men—and no, we weren't going to dynamite them, not if we could get some of their egg things—thought we might get a better reaction if we threatened to blow up a few. We drew straws and Dick was stuck with stealing them. He made it back with a few; died right afterwards."
"He didn't come back with a box?"
"That's why he died; he carried them back in his jacket—box was too heavy for him, I guess. It wasn't a pretty death, either; bloody pink foam was coming out of his ears and he was starting to get squishy—"
"No need to go into the details," Robert said, flipping ahead a few pages. "So, you got the eggs. It sounds like you had them right where you wanted them."
"We thought so too, but we didn't. Your agents figured out what was up when Dick got back. They overwhelmed the guy we left behind and started running for us; stopped about twenty feet outside of the Crab and just pointed their finger things. They wanted those eggs back. They were demanding it. I can't say I know why I knew they were demanding it; if you looked at them the words just seemed to pop into your head. I heard John-boy tell them what they could do with their eggs as I went around back with Lou, and that's the last I ever saw of them."
"Clever plan. Let everyone else distract my men while you made off with the booze."
Willie bolted out of the chair fast enough to make the tired contraption succumb to its age and shatter against the wall. He stared hard at Robert. "That was not our plan. We were going to dump the barrels and then load everyone up; the agents melted everyone and we had no choice but to run!"
"They melted them?"
"Nobody was shooting back; they had to have melted them. Lou and me didn't stop to think that someone might've survived; we got into the truck and drove."
"Leaving the families to die." Willie turned to face the wall.
"They were in the store the agents popped out of; they had to have been dead too. Even if the agents didn't get them, that explosion did. If we hadn't left when we did, we'd have been caught in the blast!"
"About that blast—"
"What about it?"
"What do you think caused it?"
"I…don't know," Willie said, still focusing on the wall. "We hadn't set near enough dynamite with the eggs to make something that big, and it's not like the town had a self-destruct button." Willie uncrossed his arms and shoved them into his pockets. "I think it was Dick's doing. He brought a bundle of TNT with him when he went to get the eggs; must of set it in their saucer."
Robert made one last scribble on his notes before he sighed and pushed them aside. "William, I'm going to be honest with you. This whole interview has just been for my own entertainment; I wanted to see how close you could keep your story with Louis'." He rubbed his forehead. "It went on far too long, but it was a good effort all around. There were only a few small divergences: Louis told us that Richard was the one who brought him along, not John; also, it was Tony's brain that my men stole and not his guts. There are some more, but they're irrelevant because Louis was willing to tell us what really happened.
"What…'really' happened?" Willie asked. It had to be a bluff, something to trick him into making a crack in his alibi; Lou couldn't have folded on him that easily, could he? He turned and saw that the look on Robert's face said that it wasn't and Lou had.
"You're surprised," Robert said, smiling coldly. "Did you really think you could bully him into trying this insanity defense bull? We know who you are, William Tyson, and we know how you operate. Three years you spent solving 'problems' for Terry, then you screw up and kill two bureau men. Terry should have had done away with you right then, but he's the sentimental kind of jerk who likes to squeeze as much money as he can out of everything before he throws it away, so he gave you an easy little escort job—"
"Alright, alright, so Terry wanted me to escort some barrels of something from Coenburg to him," Willie said. "I stand by everything else." Robert's smile turned predatory.
"Do you? How about those families you abandoned? There never were any families William, were there? We know that Coenburg is—was—nothing but a smuggling waypoint—known for years; that's why we had agents scouting it in the first place. See, here's what I'm thinking: the men up there wanted more than you could give for those barrels, so you and your guys tried to force a discount. They wouldn't budge, and my agents came in to end the standoff. To you, they were just a convenient distraction. When it was all over, you decided to burn everything and move on, so you piled up the bodies and set a few buildings to explode. I'll also bet that you didn't find out about those tunnels until then, because then you would have known that they were stuffed with tons more booze and God knows how much raw explosives."
"Had a productive talk with Lou I see," Willie said. Robert stood and put his notes back into the briefcase.
"Like I said, this was just for my own entertainment. We've got enough to get the death penalty, and unless you're willing to give us enough rope to hang Terry with, there's no chance of getting it lessened." Willie turned again to face the wall.
"I ain't talking."
"No, I didn't expect you would." Robert patted Willie on the shoulder as he turned to leave. "Take a little time to ponder your situation on the way to Death Row, William; a lot of men come around and do what's right."
Willie was surprised to find how relieved he was to be back in his cell. His gambit may have failed, but he had not expected it to work in the first place. Lou and he were new faces to each other, too new for either to really trust the other. That didn't make the betrayal sit any better, but it did harden resolve.
"Sorry about that Willie," Lou said from the next cell over. A thick concrete wall separated them, but Willie could still see the sneer on Lou's face. Little bastard probably thought he'd been very clever to pin everything on him, someone the feds would be happy to string up in exchange for an acquittal.
"You did what you had to do, I guess," said Willie as he reached down to fiddle with the crease on his pants leg. "Would've been nice if you'd maybe taken the blame for some of it. I might've been out in two hundred years with good behavior."
Willie heard Lou laughing behind him. When he turned, Lou was standing in front of the cell and gripping the bars, bending them just enough to let him squeeze past.
"That's a neat little trick," Willie said, inching his way back as Lou advanced. When Lou spoke again, it wasn't with his mouth; the words just popped into Willie's mind, along with an annoying buzz—like static, only somehow painful.
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry," Lou said. "Things didn't go off like we'd planned."
"How long— "
"The whole time. Don't feel bad about not noticing; we're not that cold once we get used to a body." Lou rubbed his hands together. "Now, if you'll just stand still, I'll make this as painless as possible." Willie collapsed. The static was a thousand times worse, each pop and hiss like a bomb going off inside his brain. The world around grew dark, cold—his lungs refused to give him air.
"Why?" Willie asked.
"We don't want you raising alarms. You may have made most of that story up, but you left in all the important details."
"Not…all," Willie said, wheezing as he used what little strength he had to flip onto his back and take aim. He fired before Lou could react, using the ray like a high-energy knife to cleave him in half from the head down.
The white noise stopped, and the world jumped back into full relief. Immediately, there was a heated debate between Willie's stomach and lungs over whether to vomit first or take in a huge gulp of air. His stomach won out and Willie rolled onto his hands and knees to keep the mess off himself. When his stomach finished, he wiped away the residue and kissed the ray-gun still clipped to his hand. Grabbing it had probably been the only smart thing he'd ever done; now he had some options. Willie shakily got to his feet, spitting on Lou's smoldering remains once he managed to brace himself against the wall.
Come to think of it, this turn of events had probably been for the best. It veered from his original escape plan only in that he'd been given a justifiable reason to chop Lou in half. If it wasn't for the leftover queasiness, his still being in a prison cell, and the likelihood that guards were about to arrive in swarms, the moment might have been enjoyable. Shouting from somewhere too close for comfort jolted into his awareness as the after effects faded almost to nothing. Willie squeezed around the bars Lou had bent and ran for the nearest wall bordering the outside. Once there, he stopped for a quick breather, feeling no reason to hurry. The ray-gun would make quick work of the wall, and after that, he'd be a free man.
Guards began to fill the hallways, aware now that he had escaped, and hoping to catch him on his way to one of the conventional exits. Willie laughed quietly to himself as he stood and took aim at the wall, imagining the look on that Robert guy's face when he was told how Willie had made his own exit, thank-you-very-much. He was about to commence with the cutting when the back of his mind grabbed his consciousness and threw into it the image of agents Shepherd, Parette, Ashton, and Milikan eagerly waiting for him on the other side with their own ray-guns up and ready.
The idea was enough to make Willie pause. Those four were dead, of course; there was nothing to fear from them, but who's to say they didn't have friends, friends that had to be in on whatever they were up to? Willie lowered his ray-gun, dumbstruck that he'd been stupid enough to believe he was a free man. Jesus Christ, he was stuck in the middle of something so big he couldn't know whether he'd stepped into it or been pushed! He'd just be hunted once he got out, and if he stayed it was a sure thing that the prison's walls wouldn't keep him safe; nevermind the death sentence. At least he wouldn't make such a pitiful target outside.
Willie smiled. No, he wouldn't let himself go down easy. He would have a purpose: to be the biggest pain in the ass those guys had ever experienced. Step one was to get past this wall.