A Call To Arms – Snippet 07

“One of our people is in trouble,” Lisa told her. “Something serious.”

“You sure he’s not just playing games?” the civilian pressed. “Sure sounded like a game to me.”

“Missile Tech Townsend doesn’t play that kind of game,” Shiflett told him.

“And Case Zulu’s not something our people make jokes about,” Marcello added. “Especially not to their superiors. Commodore? Anything?”

“Maybe,” Henderson said. “Three apartment buildings in a row with underground garages…I’ve got four possibles within two klicks of the Hamilton Hotel.”

“Any of them have an address of three-eleven something?” Lisa asked.

Henderson blinked. “Three-eleven Marsala Avenue,” he said. “Four blocks from the Hamilton. How did you know?”

“The Tinsdale 315 is one of the components in Damocles’s weapons ranging sensor,” Lisa said. “Four down puts it at 311.”

Henderson grunted. “This guy’s quick on his feet,” he said as he tapped rapidly on his tablet. “It’s like Secour all over again. Must be something in Manticore’s water. Okay; police alerted — emergency one level — signaling they’re on their way. What is this Case Zulu thing, anyway? I assume it’s not actually a Manticoran car model.”

“Hardly,” Marcello said grimly. “After Secour, First Lord of the Admiralty Cazenestro decided our personnel needed more hands-on combat training. Originally, the final stage in that training was called ‘Zulu Omega: a full-bore combat scenario, some of it live-ammo, as intense and realistic as we could make it without actually killing anyone.”

“Some recruits have nightmares for weeks afterward,” Shiflett agreed.

“Yes, they do,” Marcello said. “Believe me, it leaves an impression. But after a while, our people started calling that stage just ‘Zulu’ or ‘Case Zulu.’ It’s turned into a sort of short hand for ‘everything’s going straight to hell and we’re all going to die.’ Like I said, it’s not something an experienced noncom like Townsend would use to his department head on a whim.”

“The Captain’s right, Sir,” Shiflett confirmed. “Either Townsend is facing guns, or thinks he soon will be.” She looked at Lisa, inclining her head slightly in salute. “Nicely done, TO.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Lisa said. “I just hope we were reading him right.”

Shiflett’s lip twitched. “I guess we’ll find out.”

* * *

“Man, I’m just running on half-hydraulics today,” Chomps said, slathering on all the embarrassment he could as he keyed off his uni-link. At least they hadn’t pulled out their guns yet. Maybe they’d bought the act.

Or maybe they were still waiting for a thumb’s-up or thumb’s-down from their boss. Either way, time to try for a graceful withdrawal.

“Guess I’d better get next door and find her damn car.” He took another step up the tunnel —

“You don’t have to go outside,” the first man said. He gestured behind Chomps. “There are connecting doors between the three garages.”

“Really?” Chomps asked, frowning.

“We do a lot of work in this part of town,” the second put in. “Most of these side-by-sides have a second exit.”

“Safety regulation,” the first man explained. “Come on — I’ll show you.” He brushed past Chomps and started toward the lines of cars, leaving only the second man between Chomps and the street.

Or rather, leaving the second man plus all the others working up there. Wincing, Chomps turned and followed the first man toward the cars. Trying fervently to figure out what he was going to do.

Were they really just going to show him a way out and let him go? That would imply that they’d bought the little impromptu he and Donnelly had put on. It would also imply they were extremely trusting souls, which Chomps didn’t believe for a minute.

But if they’d decided to kill him after all, why go any deeper into the garage? Why not just shoot him here and be done with it.

He felt his stomach tighten. Because once among the rows of cars they could drop him and not have his body discovered for hours. Ten meters ahead was a panel truck with a slightly curved windshield, and in the distorted reflection Chomps saw the second man fall into silent step behind him.

Keep it together, Chomps ordered himself silently. The two men were undoubtedly armed, and they were both out of grabbing range. Even if he was able to get to one of them, trying to use him as a human shield against the other would be useless. With his broad Sphinxian build, he might as well try to hide behind a flagpole.

Keep it together. How would they do it? Certainly the safest method would be to simply shoot him in the back. He’d already seen that gunshots didn’t seem to spark any notice from the locals. A nice, quick shot, and they could get back to the main business of the day.

But people who didn’t like leaving loose ends typically didn’t like taking any other unnecessary risks, either. And if they preferred not to risk someone calling in a fresh gunshot, the next likely approach…

He was watching the truck windshield closely when the man behind him slid a knife from inside his shirt and picked up speed, closing the gap between him and his victim.

It was all Chomps could do not to react. But he kept walking, forcing down the urge to turn and face his attacker. The man was moving into stabbing range, but he would probably wait until the group was at least within the first line of cars before he made his move, if only so that he and his partner wouldn’t have to drag the body so far.

Chomps let the man get to within half a meter. Then, he jerked to a halt, spun around, and slashed his left arm diagonally down and outward through the space between them like he’d been taught in the Casey-Rosewood salle.

To his astonishment, and probably that of his attacker, it worked. Chomps’s wrist caught the man’s knife hand across the forearm, knocking the weapon out of line.

Follow-up! Lunging forward, Chomps made a grab for the deflected wrist.

But his attacker had recovered from his initial surprise and snatched the hand back out of Chomps’s reach. His follow-up would probably be to make some sort of feint and then take another shot at burying the knife in Chomps’s torso.

There was no way Chomps would be lucky enough to block the next attack. That left him only one counter. Grabbing the man’s collar with his left hand, he reached down and got a grip on the man’s belt with his right —

And with a grunt of effort he lifted the attacker off his feet, turned halfway around, and hurled him into his partner.

The man in front had already turned back to face the fracas, his hand digging into his shirt for his own knife or gun or whatever weapon he had in there. He had just enough time to rearrange his expression into stunned disbelief before the incoming human missile rearranged everything else and sent the pair of them crashing to the pavement.

A trained operative, Chomps reflected, would probably take advantage of his opponents’ temporary disadvantage to make that condition permanent. But Chomps wasn’t trained, his attackers were rapidly sorting themselves out, and if he screwed up the only permanence he was likely to achieve was that of his own death.

And so he charged straight past the tangle of bodies and limbs, reached the first line of vehicles, and ducked in alongside the panel truck, running sideways through the narrow gap between the truck and the next car over. His only chance now was to go to ground, call the police, and hope he could play hide-and-seek with the killers until they arrived.

He had reached the gap between the first two lines and ducked around the truck, looking for the next nearest vehicle that would hide his bulk, when there was the crack of a gunshot behind him.

His first impulse was to take a quick, panic-edged inventory of his skin and body parts. He’d heard once that terrible pain didn’t always register right away — maybe he was half a minute from death and just didn’t know it. But he seemed to be uninjured —

“Freeze, everybody!” The stentorian bellow echoing through the underground structure could be produced only by the sort of portable amplifiers police forces throughout the galaxy used. “Hands where we can see them. Now!”

Carefully, aware that his arms and legs were still trembling with adrenaline and not at their most reliable, Chomps came to a stop and crouched down.

Twenty seconds later, a half dozen gray-clad figures came charging from the tunnel, their guns drawn and ready.

Chomps took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself. Then, raising his arms, he stood up and started toward them through the line of cars. Good cops, he knew, wouldn’t simply accept his word that he wasn’t one of the bad guys. Good cops would grab everybody in sight, throw on the cuffs, and haul them down to the station house to be sorted out at their leisure.

In fact, good cops would probably be very hands on throughout the procedure, possibly to the point of making everyone eat pavement while they passed out the restraints.

The Quechua City cops, as it turned out, were very good cops indeed.