THE POTOMAC PENETRATION
By Marion Hillberry, writing as Stack Grannett
(discovered by Nick Slosser)
Not much is known about the reclusive Marion Hillberry, who penned the popular and patriotic Sanitizer series under the pseudonym Stack Grannett, except for the controversy surrounding his death … or rather his burial. Despite being denied enrollment in four of the five military branches due to a rare condition that caused his heart to grow upside down, Hillberry had Special Forces tattoos inked to his body anyway. Two months after he received a military burial with all the trimmings, the mistake was exposed and his body exhumed. It now resides in a nearby cemetery under a headstone that reads:
aka Stack Grannett
Though avidly read at the front,
This scribe Uncle Sam did not want.
His twenty-one gun salute,
The subject of much dispute,
Now Stack is a wandering haunt.
NICK SLOSSER found a paperback copy of The Sanitizer #1 being used as a shim to level out a bookcase full of cozy mysteries at Murder by the Book in Portland, Oregon.
The guard at the gate watched the WWII-vintage Army green Harley-Davidson WLA rumble to a halt before the barrier arm. For the millionth time he wondered how a janitor could afford those wheels. For the millionth time he decided the janitor, an expert with his hands, had probably restored the hog himself.
The guard didn’t need ID—the man never wore a helmet—but he said, “Nice day.” The janitor nodded, saying nothing as usual, and ducked beneath the arthritic motion of the barrier arm.
The guard watched him guide the chopper toward the parking structure, south of the main building, before hoisting this month’s Mack Bolan adventure. He settled in for another uneventful day at the Tutelo Nuclear Power Facility.
Minutes later, a powder blue Volkswagen Bug he’d never seen before sputtered to a standstill. The woman driving squinted at the sign on the barrier, obviously unfamiliar with the facility. Peering into the vehicle, he noticed she dressed like a professional. He also noticed that several blouse buttons were undone.
He cleared his throat. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Gosh, I hope so,” she said, pouting. “This isn’t American Amalgamated Inc., is it?”
“No, I’m sorry to say.” He moved his hand, which had been tickling his sidearm, so he could lean against her car. From above, her breasts looked supernaturally plump.
She dropped her eyes becomingly. “You don’t by chance know where American Amalgamated is, do you?”
“No, I don’t. But if you park over there and come inside, I’ll try to find the spot.” He pointed to the map.
“Won’t that get you into trouble?”
He glanced toward the facility. “Not if they don’t find out.”
“Oh, thank you so much.”
She parked where he’d indicated and sauntered across the road, her high heels clicking on the blacktop. This would be the last image he’d ever witness.
As he gazed, a man who resembled him in height, build, hair color, and uniform stepped behind him, put a silenced pistol to the back of his head, and pulled the trigger twice in rapid succession. The guard fell like a tipped cow.
The janitor strode toward the main building then turned toward the guard booth. He saw a woman holding what resembled a roadmap. Moments later, he saw the guard step out of the shelter, point at the map, and gesture down the road. Women, he thought. Never trust one to follow directions.
The janitor entered the main building, ready to face another day of calm predictability and Zen-like meditation, of steady, rhythmic labor through a pleasant, fume-induced buzz … which was just how he liked it.
A boy doesn’t dream of growing up a janitor, let alone at a gray-on-gray nuclear plant like Tutelo. But a man on the run doesn’t get much choice. So he swept and scrubbed and plunged and squeegeed and smiled while doing it. For Tutelo meant peace, a place where not even his old Agency cronies would think to seek him, because here even the lowliest mop jockey gets vetted at the highest clearance levels.
As the door slammed shut behind him, a small convoy of utility vans with darkened windows rolled through the gate—its barrier arm held high in mock salute—and cruised like Blue Angels to line up against the building. A rear door swung out and the VW woman hopped down, landing gracefully on her heels. She checked her watch—they were ahead of schedule—and positioned herself to observe the open stretch between the main building and the core containment facility.
It took twenty-five minutes for the site manager to begin his daily visual tour of the site. It took another six for the woman to pop out from behind a large pipe and sidle up next to him. Convincing him to cooperate took less than a minute and returning to the main building less than three. Including the gate, it took forty-four minutes and one dead body to penetrate Tutelo.
The woman stamped high-heeled prints like carnivore tracks straight through the recently mopped floor. Flanked by two mercenary-types—one bald, one blonde—she guided the site manager to the door that led to the heart and other organs—lungs, pancreas, and small intestines—of the Tutelo Nuclear Power Facility.
The janitor froze in place to avoid hitting her perfectly tapered legs and kept his eyes glued to the wet spot. The site manager took no notice of him, as usual.
Only the bald one hesitated, uncertainty etched upon his granite face. “Who’s he?”
The site manager searched for a name then said, “Nobody. He’s just the janitor.”
“Leave him,” the woman said. “He poses no threat.”
Baldy smirked and moved on.
Peering into the reflection off the mop water, the janitor watched her deposit the mercs outside the door. He stooped for an alternate angle and observed a tight group of men stroll through the front doors and fan out to block the exits. Some carried heavy bags, others steel-gray cases. To gain a closer look he knelt as if scrubbing a stubborn spot.
The men appeared relaxed, well-dressed and fit, diverse of nationality, and conditioned for physical combat. Several men streamed past the janitor, dragging their feet through his work, not even bothering to say he’d missed a spot; he was simply a rock parting insensate waters.
He observed Baldy and Blondie calmly deflecting a pair of disgruntled lab coats away from the door. These men were disciplined and professional. Judging from the gear, they were also highly trained and well funded, which indicated only one possibility: a Communist plot.
Even if these men weren’t true Reds, they would be funded by Reds. And the janitor hated Reds.
The janitor mopped his way toward the door, head down, dragging his left foot, muttering improvised lyrics to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.” He pulled his keys, but the mercs closed ranks, blocking his path. He tilted his head, giving them a cross-eyed stare, and grunted in protest.
Baldy shoved him back. “Go she-mop over there.”
The janitor pointed to the door, waving the keys and screeching. Clearly, he was retarded. The men looked at each other, worried that if he were not allowed to do his job, he’d throw a fit, screaming or banging his head against the wall. They hesitated then waved him through. He shuffled past, rolling the bucket over Blondie’s foot.
Inside, the janitor tiptoed to the corner and listened. Through the open door to the site manager’s office, he heard the woman:
“… no more heroes. The code please.”
This was followed by the ominous phut-phut of a silencer.
The janitor peeked around the corner to see four men standing guard. Footsteps approached from behind.
A man addressed him: “Hey … you.”
He recognized the rasp of Baldy, apparently reconsidering his decision. Planting his feet and clearing his mind of all worldly noise, the janitor gripped the mop handle as he would a Japanese bokken. The shaft felt good and hard in his callused hands.
“Come with me,” the merc said.
The janitor shook his head, listening for the sound of shoes slapping water, marking his moment.
His moment came. With a backward jab, he drove the end of the mop handle straight into the man’s spleen. Wheeling around, the janitor twirled the mop and struck the man in the genitals, the chin, and the top of his foot … in that order.
He was careful not to splinter the mop; like the Marine and his fatigues, he felt naked without it.
Tucking the handle into his armpit, he measured the distance and whipped the mop in a horizontal arc. He wrapped the wet tendrils around the man’s skull, instinctively correcting for the lack of hair, calculating that to rupture a temporal artery required a mere 200 psi. Dry, the tendrils would have left welts; wet, they became the bone-dry fingers of the Grim Reaper.
The janitor keyed another door and dragged the dead man inside, discarding his soiled, useless body like a worn condom. The janitor could have searched him for a gun, but knew he wouldn’t need one … no, preferred not to have one.
Down the hall, the woman’s heels clacked a telegraph message. He cracked the door to watch her strut by, swinging a sawed-off shotgun, her hips pounding an inaudible bongo rhythm. Following her, the two lab coats—nerds by profession—looked smitten, ready to either drop their pants or wet them on command. At the computer control room door, the lab coats tripped over themselves trying to be the one whose keycard filled the slot.
Backing out of his makeshift morgue, the janitor slopped mop water toward the same door. Through it, he heard the woman speak:
“Okay, boys, you know what I want.”
Drs. Ormond and Menefee found suavity difficult under normal circumstances, let alone staring down both barrels of a sawed-off. It didn’t help that the woman aiming from her smoothly rounded hip had leapt straight out of their comic book–addled dreams.
“You’ve seen my authorization,” she said, brandishing the shotgun with authority. “If you’re good, maybe you’ll see my credentials, as well.”
This woman could read a report on the plight of Ethiopia and make it pornographic. With tinted glasses, blood red lipstick, and long, dark hair pulled back and secured with a #2 pencil, she epitomized the modern woman: the career-minded professional in sheer hose, shoulder pads, and shotgun.
By contrast, Ormond and Menefee, in clip-on ties, button-down short-sleeves, and corduroy pants, perfectly embodied the overeducated, underpaid government drones they were. Ormond the physicist studied computers; specifically, the ins and outs of meltdowns. Menefee was a policy analyst whose expertise was power plant security. Used for evil, their combined knowledge could cripple a nuclear facility like Tutelo … or worse.
“Of course, I could start pressing buttons until I caused a chain reaction,” the woman said. “But then I wouldn’t need you, would I?”
Panicking, Menefee said, “Well, if—if it’s clear we were under duress ….” Ormond nodded agreement.
“Oh, that’ll be most clear,” she said. “Remember, the computer will only think there’s a meltdown.”
The PhDs got to work while she watched the monitors, her face bathed in their amber glow.
“There,” Ormond said. “Only one command left to type.”
She licked her lips, making them glisten. “Type it,” she said, “but save that final stroke for me.”
“Good,” she purred. “You know what turns me on more than thrusting one tiny atom into another, splitting it, and spewing its pent-up energy all over the other atoms until a catastrophic, earth-shaking, toe-curling meltdown?”
Ormond blinked. Menefee swallowed.
“What turns me on more are the boys who command such cosmic power.”
The men were dumbfounded. They had no reference point for this.
“Don’t worry, boys,” she said, “let mommy drive.”
Setting the shotgun across a keyboard, she dropped her skirt and stepped out of it, simultaneously unbuttoning her blouse. The combination of movements was both erotic and efficient. She peeled her bra downward to reveal two glistening red nipples adorning two perfectly round globes, each massive enough to bend light even as she bent men to her will.
Was she kidding? Hastily, lest she change her mind, the two men circumvented the console.
“Ah-ah-ah,” she chided. “First, show me the goodies.”
At speeds conceivable only to a Fermi or an Oppenheimer, they stripped to their tighty-whities.
She crossed her legs and pulled on a pair of purple rubber gloves, snapping each one into place. She beckoned them forward, her gloved fingers running through their hair to the backs of their skulls.
“Easy now, there’s enough for everyone.”
Gently, she drew them toward her, their eyes wide with passion and panic, until she had each one latched on like a newborn babe.
“That’s right, boys,” she cooed, “knock yourselves out.”
Slowly, her hands became fists gripping wads of hair, at first ardently, then sadistically. Ormond stiffened; Menefee followed suit. They gasped, muscles tensing, eyes bulging, backs arching, fingers clawing, feet kicking the climate-controlled air.
She dropped them both and watched with cool detachment as their bodies strained against the deadly tropical venom coursing through their veins and arteries. Drs. Ormond and Menefee died within seconds.
Gloves on, she peeled off the thin layer of latex that guarded her own skin from the poison. She scooted her chair toward the console and typed.
Alarms sounded: first in the computer control room, then throughout the facility. Using the backdoor provided by Ormond to a system-monitoring sub-program, she inserted a polynomial equation into a threat recognition algorithm, tricking the computer into thinking that the water level had dropped and the cooling rods were exposed, causing core damage and steadily rising core temperatures.
In short, she’d just faked catastrophic meltdown. Curling and uncurling her toes, she languorously sucked down a cigarette.
Bogus meltdown? What the hell was she up to? Push too hard and Uncle Sam might say, ‘To hell with it,’ and nuke the place … or worse, nuke the Russians. The janitor hated Russians, but he did so objectively. While cool logic dictated fiery hatred toward all Reds, bombing them would be madness.
The janitor needed a telephone.
Scanning the cleaners in the janitor’s closet, he dumped a whole bottle of bleach into the bucket. Then he put on rubber gloves and a gas mask. Finally, he grabbed a Walkman, zeroed the volume, and hit ‘play.’
Whistling “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the janitor pulled the mop and bucket toward the site manager’s office. The four men were still there, palming their weapons.
One of the men addressed him: “Hey … you.”
He continued his backward shuffle.
“Hey, buddy, turn around.”
The janitor slopped bleach over a wide swath. Head bent, eyes down, he covered an area about ten-feet square before looking up and acting startled. They stared at him. He pointed to his ears. Fiddling with the Walkman, he backed across his work and waited for the men to approach. They did, guns raised.
When all four had reached the centroid of the wet square, he hit ‘stop.’
“You scared the shit out of me, man,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. “Who are you guys?”
“Shut up and come with us.”
“Got to mop the floor. Can’t lose this gig.”
“Never mind the floor. Just come with us.”
“Are you cops? You sound like cops.” He pulled out a bottle of window cleaner and unscrewed the cap.
The man who’d been speaking cocked his weapon. “Come with us … now.”
The janitor dropped the window cleaner and raised his hands. The bottle hit dead center, blue liquid splashing over the bleach.
The men stepped back, but not far enough. Death was in the air. The janitor breathed calmly behind the mask. He had only one concern: that he’d slopped enough bleach.
Mix bleach and ammonia proportionately, and the reaction produces toxic gases called chloramines. But leave a surplus of ammonia to react with the chloramines, and it produces another toxic compound called liquid hydrazine, also known as rocket fuel, which can boil, spatter hot liquid, or even explode.
The men coughed and wiped their burning eyes, while the janitor kept his hands high above his head. Before they realized he’d tricked them, they were doubled over, unable to breathe.
Panic set in. Dropping their guns, they staggered around, trying in vain to fill their lungs. One slipped and fell in the middle of the mix, dead in less than a minute. The others lurched down the hall … but it was literally a dead end.
Impassively, the janitor watched them die before keying himself into the site manager’s office.
The janitor glanced at the site manager slouching in his desk chair, a half-inch diameter hole punched between his eyes. A crater in the back of his head sloshed blood and brains into a lumpy goulash on the floor. The janitor realized he was missing lunch.
“Mind if I borrow your phone?” he asked the corpse.
He found a phonebook and a flask of vodka and punched the number for the FBI switchboard in Baltimore. Vodka: the official liquor of Soviet Russia. He tilted the flask and grimaced. No wonder Soviets were so bass-ackwards, drinking rotgut like this. To win a war, even a cold one, men need something worth coming home to—a good woman, good TV, and good liquor. Fermented potatoes didn’t qualify.
Baltimore answered, and he told the operator he had information on the Tutelo situation. She patched him directly into the situation room.
A man’s voice answered: “To whom am I speaking?”
“Me,” the janitor said, taking another swig. “Who are you?”
“The United States government.”
“Which United States government?”
“Which government?—I’m SDIO.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.”
The janitor snorted. “We’re expecting an attack from outer space, then? Where’s the FBI?”
“They’re here. But any breach in our nuclear program warrants SDIO attention.”
The janitor chewed on that. The Agency might want him for betraying their own, subverting Operation Cyclone, and personally diverting one-hundred-and-fifty U.S. Stinger missiles away from the Afghan mujahideen, but the FBI and CIA were famous for not playing well together. He could talk to the FBI without fear of exposure.
But SDIO was new to the sandbox. Who did they play with? The janitor proceeded with caution.
“Still there?” the SDIO man asked.
“Consider me deputy director of this situation.”
The janitor chuckled. “Not from here, you’re not.”
“Yeah, well, China syndromes aren’t known for their delicate beauty, so let’s cut the crap. Where’s the woman?”
So the woman is in charge, he thought. “Don’t know. But I have killed a few of her men.”
“What’s a few?”
“Five down. But the situation out here is not what you think. The Tutelo Nuclear Power Facility is not—I repeat, not—undergoing catastrophic meltdown.”
“Listen, Mr. Deputy Director, if you can’t keep up, give me someone who can. My schedule’s packed here.”
Behind him a man stepped into the doorway, crouching, his gun aimed at the back of the janitor’s head.
“The whole thing’s a fake. The computers were tricked into reading a bogus meltdown. The core is stable.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. Now what are you going to do about it?”
The janitor drew his toilet plunger from a belt loop and twirled it like a baton. On open ground the mop offered greater reach and versatility, but for close-quarter combat the janitor preferred the plunger’s maneuverability.
“Hold on,” the man said. The janitor heard muffled voices. “The NRC’s already begun evacuating a twenty-mile radius.” The area included all of D.C.
“Evacuate the northern hemisphere for all I care. What you need to do is square it with the Pentagon. Powwow with Moscow and keep the Joint Chiefs from going on the warpath.” He swung the plunger, still twirling, in a hypnotic figure-eight. “Buddy, you need to notify the President.”
“Hold on.” He heard more muffled voices. “No can do.”
“What do you mean, ‘No can do’?”
“Listen—Potomac County, Tutelo included, drains straight into the Potomac River, which runs downstream toward Washington D.C. We’ve got a terrorist attack and a nuclear meltdown all within spitting distance of our nation’s capital. Do you understand the implications? We’re talking about World War III here.”
“Am I not speaking English? There is no meltdown.”
The janitor stopped the plunger, mid-twirl, gripping it instinctively like a Japanese tantō. Before the man with the gun could react, the janitor spun in place and batted the gun away. He jabbed him hard beneath the ribs, then slammed the suction onto the man’s face and pressed him against the wall. Windless, the man panicked. Instead of targeting the janitor’s fingers, he clawed the thick rubber.
“That makes six,” the janitor said, while the gunman crumpled to the floor.
“Oh. Uh … who are you?”
“Um … okay. To stand down, Washington—not to mention Moscow—will need more … much more.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with a phony meltdown? Fake stopping it?”
“Please hold.” There was a pause. “Sir, all you need to do is fix the computer till it says we’re safe. Until the computer says so, Washington won’t buy it. And neither will Moscow.”
“I’m sorry, but we’re out of options. Will you do it?”
“You mean clean up your mess?”
“I mean sanitize it.”
The words to “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China)” burned through his mind, but he couldn’t make himself whistle the tune. The janitor downed the remaining vodka.
He knew the Reds would never leave the computer control room vulnerable to attack; the terminals there would already be destroyed. That left only one option: the computers within the core containment facility itself.
To reach the containment facility required passing through the radiation showers—a ninety-foot-long bottleneck and potential death trap.
With a grim smile and a keycard lifted off the corpse of the Tutelo site manager, the janitor opened the chemical storage unit for supplies. He also grabbed a dozen shotgun shells and one dead Red, wheeling him down the hall in the mop bucket, arms and legs dragging.
As he’d expected, the Russians were playing it by the book—an old, dusty book. Three men—including a flamethrower—occupied the badge monitoring station at the far end of the showers. Anybody foolish enough to rush the stronghold would be rained on by bullets and baptized by fire.
The janitor dumped the Russian into a laundry cart, covered him with laundry, doused the fabric with isopropyl alcohol, and sprinkled the shells over the top. With a running start, he propelled the deadly parfait down the tunnel. It weaved and clattered over the tiles, but covered the distance in four seconds.
The Russians spurted ammunition, drilling fist-sized holes that vomited blood and brain matter as the Trojan hearse spun to a halt inside the monitoring station. Certain they had killed a potential assassin, they watched as the flamethrower unleashed hell.
At the first lick of flame, the alcohol vapors ignited. The resulting shockwave slammed the men into the equipment. Blue flames consumed the cart. Then the shotgun shells exploded like popcorn—all sound, no fury—and the men curled up, trying to protect their heads and genitals.
Like a vengeful dragon, the loose flamethrower thrashed its long neck, spitting fire. The janitor darted through the room, witnessing just enough to know the men would be charcoal before the dragon was spent.
Sharing a glass wall with the core itself, the computer room could only be accessed with the proper passcode … or a mid-sized explosion. But first, the janitor needed to get past the guards.
Using the large steam pipes and ventilation ducts crisscrossing the facility for cover, he moved ghostlike to their position and hid behind a forklift. That left sixty feet of open run, plus obstacles that offered minimal cover. He counted three Uzis and one Kalashnikov. Even for the janitor the odds were slim.
He held the plunger, reverently, as King Arthur might have held Excalibur. He doused the rubber end with blue cleaner and launched the bottle grenade style in a high arc. When it reached its zenith, the janitor howled like a wolf of the steppes to ensure his prey were alert.
“Chto za huy?” one cried.
“Govno!” another shouted.
All four whipped out their hardware and cut loose on the bottle. They stood in a circle, jerking off thousands of rounds, painting the ceiling with lead. The bottle landed at their feet, mangled and empty, but not before enveloping the men in a fine mist of blue death.
The janitor flicked a lighter, ignited the plunger, and threw the torch like he would a tomahawk. The chemical cloud became a miniature sun, engulfing the men in a yellow blaze. They scattered, screaming, their blackened bodies tumbling over rails and falling to their fiery deaths.
From the lower level, the janitor heard shouted commands and pounding feet. He didn’t have much time. He leapt through shattered glass, popped a panel marked ‘Danger—Do Not Open,’ pulled the motherboard from its slot, reinserted it, and shut down the whole system in a matter of seconds. As the computers rebooted, the lights and alarms went out, shrouding the facility in darkness and silence.
Using the radio static, enemy footsteps, and breathing, he threaded his way back to the radiation showers by echolocation. He approached the flickering glow of the monitoring station cautiously, finding nothing but charred corpses, glistening from the spray of the emergency sprinkler system.
Halfway through the showers, he heard footsteps at the far end. It wouldn’t take long before the enemy had him boxed in.
The janitor ran, turning on all the shower heads, except the center one. He pulled from his pocket two vials of cesium swiped from the chemical storage unit and clamped them between his teeth.
Soon, the thin beams of mini flashlights cut across both ends of the tunnel. Behind the flashlights, automatic weapons would be held by sweating hands and itchy trigger fingers.
The beams crossed like mythical swords, bouncing off the wet tile. The janitor spit the vials into his hand and tossed them each direction. The vials shattered mid-distance, sending up walls of sparks and flame as the cesium actually climbed the air from the force of its violent intercourse with water.
A split second later the tunnel blazed with muzzle flashes, each side squeezing their rods, squirting metal, and hailing white-hot death through the downpour.
Silence followed as flashlight beams rocked lazily to and fro, and the janitor dropped soundlessly from above. He had observed the uproar from a bird’s eye view, his hands and feet pressed against the walls of the tunnel, his back flat against the ceiling. And now it was time to hole up and wait for WWIII not to show.
Clanging and buzzing told the janitor that the system was coming back online. Lights flickered. Then he heard clapping. A silhouette stepped into the far opening.
“Bravo, cleaner.” It was the blonde merc.
“Toilet scrubber. Why do you fight us?” The merc sprung into the air, demonstrating a stunning martial arts routine. Considering the wet tile floor and tangle of dead bodies, it was impressive. Stepping over a leg, he added: “History is on our side.”
“It is inevitable. The USA shall fall. Or maybe you have seen too many cowboy movies—John Wayne bang-bang-bang.” He performed another kick, this time a reverse roundhouse.
Blondie laughed. He butterfly-kicked and stepped over another body, closing the gap. “Your capitalism’s immorality makes you soft.”
“Amorality. There’s a difference.”
“Not to the ditch digger and toilet scrubber.”
“You’re looking at a toilet scrubber.”
“Not anymore.” Blondie shifted his weight slightly, preparing for a final reverse roundhouse. To the janitor, who had been observing him closely, the move was a tell.
The janitor barely flinched. The flashlight he kicked skidded through puddles and wedged itself beneath the merc’s pivot foot. Committed to his rotation, he spun out wildly, like a satellite careening out of orbit, both legs flailing comically.
The janitor drove his knee into a kidney and grabbed a fistful of hair. He smashed the man’s head into the tile, twice, before his enemy kicked off the wall to free himself.
Dodging a wild elbow, the janitor bounced off the opposite wall, to execute a flying kick. He shattered the man’s nose and followed with an open-hand uppercut to the voice box. Blondie hit the floor, struggling for breath, eyes rolling back.
The janitor stood over his quarry. “By the way, the meltdown was phony. There is no attack. Your bitch boss screwed you.”
“Govniuk,” Blondie sputtered.
Sensing another presence, he looked up just in time to catch her lovely, curved silhouette at the end of the tunnel shouldering what looked like a complicated stovepipe—in actuality an American-made Stinger missile launcher.
“Speak of the she-devil,” she said.
The janitor ducked and covered behind the struggling merc. The rocket streaked overhead, scorching the air above him before rocking the tunnel like the proverbial hurricane.
The woman stood with her hip cocked, dangling her hardware. “Well done, Amerikanski, but your efforts were for nothing.”
He rolled the gasping man off him, reached around, and snapped his neck.
She continued: “As we speak, my network of moles and sleepers is gathering documents—documents that will be in my hands by midnight tonight.”
He blinked. “Of course! This was about evacuating Washington D.C.”
She beamed. “My crowning achievement. And you have become integral to my success.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“While my pawns infiltrated other targets—the White House, the Pentagon, SDIO headquarters, CIA headquarters, NASA—you were here, ensuring that America won the battle.”
Now he understood. “But lost the war … in space.”
She bowed her head. “Moscow cannot afford a gap in space—especially an X-ray laser gap—and by midnight tonight I will possess the information Moscow needs to plug that gap.”
“To maintain equilibrium.”
“If Moscow chooses to cooperate.”
“Cooperate? You mean compensate.”
“I’m worth every kopek.”
“I’m sure you are, but what if Moscow doesn’t agree?”
“There will be other bidders. Perhaps Libya or Afghanistan will go nuclear decades ahead of its time.”
“You’re mad,” he said, even as his ears rang with the distinctive squeak of a Queens-born native singing “Money Changes Everything.”
“No, the world is mad. As you Americans say, I just work here.”
He stepped toward her, but she shouldered her weapon, fingering the trigger, and chided him, “Ah-ah-ah. Until we meet again.”
He burrowed beneath the bodies as another rocket stabbed the air above him. By the time the smoke cleared, she was gone.
The janitor recognized the SDIO man by his voice.
“George Benjamin Kennedy. That’s quite a name. Washington, Franklin, and John F.”
The janitor shrugged. “I’m a patriot.”
“We know who you are.” The SDIO man slapped down a thick file. “Or more accurately, who you were.”
“Congratulations.” He glanced at the bare conference room walls, wondering if they were in Baltimore or somewhere else.
“Don’t get me wrong. I understand what you did and why.”
“Gee, I feel warm all over.”
“Personally, I think Operation Cyclone is a bust: unclear objectives, short-term gains, and heavy long-term costs. But you left your colleagues with nothing but their dicks in their hands—a big no-no. Just imagine the fallout.”
The janitor shrugged again. “Having had a couple Stingers turned on me personally, I have to say, boo-fuckin’-hoo. Can I go now?”
“Maybe later.” The SDIO man slapped a much thinner file on top of the thick one. “I have a job for you.”
“Hey, this is your second chance, pal, but I have no budget to carry dead weight. If you’re not interested, I know people who’d kill to see this file … literally.” He brushed his hands to illustrate. “Or drop a major-league marker in my back pocket.”
“Fucking bureaucrats,” the janitor sneered. “You’re all the same, sitting in your soft chairs behind your big desks, trading little favors, and trying not to expose your lily-white asses. You’ve forgotten what this country stands for. Well, let me tell you. It stands for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, like the right to bear arms and refuse service to anyone. It stands for private property and free enterprise. For owning a piece of land—land God-given and taken from nobody—and using it for something like oil or cattle or building something on it like a casino. But above all, it stands for the underdog: the man outgunned, outweighed, and outclassed. He might get beat down, but he don’t go down. Not for any man. Not willingly. Because Americans hate a punk. You know who said that? Patton. But I bet you forgot. So yeah, I’ll take your job, but not because you threatened me. Because I didn’t forget.”
The janitor started humming “True Colors.”
The SDIO man smirked and opened the thinner file: “Your first assignment: Code name: Scarlet Flower. Though her true identity remains unknown—even to her former employer, the KGB—she has many nicknames: the Siberian Siren, the Georgian Gorgon, Black Widow of the Baltic States, and most notoriously, the Steppenbitch. Apparently, she went rogue with a small detachment of men completely submissive to her, willing even to be castrated for her. You killed some of them.”
The janitor whistled, intrigued.
“Scarlet Flower currently possesses documents critical to our national security.”
“You mean Star Wars.”
“The Strategic Defense Initiative, yes. We believe she’ll sell the documents to Moscow for a premium, but we also believe she’ll threaten to assassinate the President to fast-forward the timetable and drive up the price.”
The janitor’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re scheduled to receive a medal at the White House in three days for your bravery in handling the Tutelo incident. We think that’s when she’ll strike. It doesn’t give us much time.”
“And this’ll get me my file back.”
“Well … we’ll see about that. I may have more work for you.”
“Fucking bureaucrats,” the janitor said, even as he thought: Three days to pluck the Scarlet Flower … I can hardly wait.
Be sure to check out the Sanitizer #2: The Iranian Insertion
Nick Slosser works at Murder by the Book in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He prefers cats to dogs, waffles to pancakes, samurais to ninjas, and Joan Jett to Lita Ford. Nick recently had a story published at Shotgun Honey www.shotgunhoney.net