April of this year
ne moment, the April sky was clear. In the next, it was darkened by a roiling cloud of black smoke. Even from a mile away, the blond man in black leathers knew what it was.
Two minutes later, his nerves as tight as piano wires, he rolled his Harley to a stop at a respectful distance from the source of the oily smoke. The sight was overwhelming. An inferno was consuming a house and a new Nissan Titan pickup truck parked in the driveway, the flames shooting fifty feet into the air, the intense thermals jetting the black smoke cloud hundreds of feet straight up. The neighborhood, in the fashionable LA suburb of Manhattan Beach, was familiar. So were the house and the truck - they were his.
He reached into his jacket for his phone and hit the speed dial. His older brother, Chuck, answered.
“It's me,” he said, his voice catching in a suddenly dry throat. “They torched my house.”
“I'm sorry, dude.” Chuck said. “I didn't mean for you to get mixed up in this.”
“I know. You've been really careful. Shit happens, I guess.”
He flinched as one of the truck’s tires exploded. “It's unbelievable. The whole house is burning, but the fire department isn’t even here yet.”
He heard a siren in the distance.
Chuck's voice brought him back to life. “Damn! They could still be around there somewhere. You'd better get moving.” They disconnected.
Sliding the phone back into the pocket of his leather jacket, he saw the roof of the truck collapse, the temperature nearing the melting point of steel. The firebug - he knew who it was - must have used homemade thermite, a lot of it. Even from half a block away, he could feel the heat on his face. The houses on either side were starting to char, too, emitting wisps of smoke that wafted through the shimmering air.
He took a deep breath and motored away from the fire at a discreet twenty-five miles per hour.
* * *
The late hours of the following evening found the two men in Chuck's ‘66 Stingray convertible, parked at a cautious distance from a rundown building whose neon sign, above a weatherworn boar on a chopper motorcycle, blared out the name “Hawg Heaven.” The pig’s trailing banner read “Best Ribs In San Bernardino County.” They had watched their targets arrive, then waited as the last customers trailed out around two a.m. The desert night was clear and balmy. It was quite pleasant to wait under the stars in the convertible, actually.
Except that some of the stuff they'd brought, now piled behind them, didn't smell so good.
“We’ll have to move on after this, you know,” said Chuck. He was older by five years, the younger man’s half-brother. “The Baja Cartel will want some payback from whoever whacked their distributors, and it's not like we can fight a war with them.”
They waited, watching the parking lot and the flicker of the neon sign.
The younger brother, Larry, said, “We should head up to the Bay Area like we talked about, talk to the old man. I bet he's not using that back acreage anymore.”
Chuck nodded. “Yeah, it's time. Move to the suburban countryside, live among the vineyards. Stop worrying about the cartels and looking over our shoulders for more outlaw biker assholes.”
“I understand about the cartel, but I thought these particular bikers were our problem, and that we wouldn't have to worry about them after tonight,” Larry said, after a pause.
The neon light flickered out. A last patron stumbled out to his car. They waited until his tail lights disappeared from view. Only the targets’ vehicles remained in the parking lot: three motorcycles, a custom pickup truck, and a Cadillac Escalade.
Chuck looked at this brother. “There are always more, that's part of the problem. Get going, now. It's time to move the Harley.”
Larry slipped out of the Stingray and walked to the roadside, ten yards back, where a Harley Davidson Fatboy leaned on its kickstands. He'd acquired it earlier in the day - some idiot with more money than sense had left it unchained - and it now bore the license plate from his own motorcycle. He had doctored the Fatboy to be identical to his own bike, even down to a few artfully applied dents. He grasped the handlebars and ran it across the road to the parking lot. Once he had it parked near the front of Hawg Heaven, he reached into the saddlebag and removed a plastic box that bore a strip of duct tape and had a nine-volt battery connector dangling from a hole in its side. He snapped the connector onto a battery he'd brought, then used the duct tape to fasten the battery to the box. Then, he set on the box on the bike's gas tank and trotted back to the Stingray.
As usual, Chuck was a stickler. “You set it on the gas tank?”
“Yeah, man, just like you said.”
Chuck idled the car to the back of the building, out of sight of the road. The two men untied the two heavy cloth-covered bundles that rested on the trunk lid, slid them to the pavement, and then unloaded the gear bags.
Three minutes later, the brothers were in the building, Chuck pocketing his lockpicks as the younger man blocked the door open with one of the gear bags. They eased their packages through the opening and went in.
As Larry eased the door closed behind them, Chuck caught his eye and mouthed, “You okay?”
Larry could feel an unbelievable adrenaline rush starting up, his limbs growing twitchy and weak, but he nodded, gave what he hoped was an insouciant grin, and picked up his share of their burdens.
Thirty minutes of silent preparation found them pressed against a wall outside the door to an upstairs "private party" room, listening in the dark. They could hear the rumble and bark of men inside, talking and laughing. Larry met Chuck's eyes, and worked hard to look calm and steady. He'd noticed Chuck watching him while they cleared the lower floor, too.
He watched Chuck activate the miniature eavesdropper he carried in his shirt pocket, put the earpiece in his ear, and press the audio pickup against the door, moving it from side to side periodically so the directional feature would tell him where the room's inhabitants were located. Larry saw him hold up his hand, the fingers spread. All five of the building's occupants were in the room.
Chuck pocketed the listening device and drew out the handgun he'd brought, the .40 caliber H&K USP. Twelve rounds in the magazine, one chambered, and a spare clip in his pocket. Behind, Larry adjusted his grip on the Mossberg riot gun Chuck had given him, the one called the Persuader. Nine rounds of buckshot.
Chuck turned, held up two fingers, and pointed right. The two on the right are yours. Larry nodded, his breath coming fast, the increasing adrenaline surge making his hands and knees feel shakier by the minute.
With his fingers held up over his shoulder, Chuck counted to three, then kicked the door hard, just above the knob. As it exploded inward, he crouched and skittered through, sweeping the interior with the H&K. On the right, two men sat at a table, beer glasses in hand, looking up, startled.
Sixty seconds later, the brothers were hauling three bleeding survivors into chairs - none of the wounds would be fatal in the next few minutes - and duct-taping their arms, legs and waists into place.
* * *
Ten more minutes found them bundling cash from the safe into two nylon bags Chuck had brought. Larry counted only thirty thousand dollars - not as much as the hundred grand that had burned up in the house fire the bikers had set - but it would have to do.
With their primary mission completed, the brothers went back down the stairs, brought in their last two bundles - the source of the bad smell that had enveloped the Stingray - and unwrapped them.
The fabric, used bedspreads from a Salvation Army store, came away to reveal two corpses. The brothers arranged the bodies face down, pointed away from the clubroom door, limbs splayed. On the back of each one, Chuck placed a plastic box, identical to the one resting on the gas tank of the stolen Harley.
They packed up their weapons with the cash and simply walked outside to the Stingray, leaving the bikers taped to the chairs, shouting obscenities.
A single turn of the key started the rumble of the four hundred twenty-five horsepower engine; Chuck drove out to the deserted road and stopped about two hundred yards away. He took a garage-door remote control from the sun visor and extended the makeshift antenna that had been taped to the side of the box.
He looked back. “This is about as far away as we can get and still have this thing work.” Larry met Chuck's eyes and saw the question there. Last chance to change our minds. Do it, or not?
He remembered the inferno at his house and the searing heat that had reached out to him, parching his skin from tens of yards away. The bikers were sloppy executioners, but they would never give up. He gave Hawg Heaven his middle finger.
“Okay, then, it’s checkout time,” Chuck said, and pushed the button. Hawg Heaven went up with a blinding white flash and a roar, breaking windows and setting off burglar alarms in the few buildings nearby. The shockwave rocked the Stingray on its springs.
Larry felt the pressure front hit like a burning slap to the face. He'd read about explosions, and seen them in countless movies, but none of that was like the real thing. The impact of what they'd done bloomed in his mind; it took everything he had to look cool and calm for Chuck.
The Stingray accelerated, putting down a little rubber as detritus from the building's destruction began falling around them.
“Semtex costs more than, say, Molotov cocktails,” Chuck said, when they were out of range of the hail of plumbing fittings and roof tiles. He grinned. “But you have to pay a little extra for quality, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“The decoys were smart.”
“I liked it,” Chuck said. “Two crispy critters, all the ID burned away by a premature explosion. And a burned-out bike in front, with your license plate on it, just barely legible.”
“So,” Larry said, after a contemplative minute or two, still feeling the lethal intimacy of the mass of superheated air that reached out for them. Even two hundred yards away from the explosion, it had felt like an oven. “I gotta ask. Isn't someone going to trace the two bodies and find out who they really are?”
“No,” said Chuck. He glanced over and grinned. “Today was my lucky day. A guy I know found me a couple of homeless guys that died when their cardboard shantytown burned, and for a few hundred bucks, their paperwork got lost. They never went into the system.”
They rode in silence for a few minutes, secure in the knowledge that they were now demonstrably dead. Soon, they came to the outskirts of the town of Banning, where Larry had parked his Harley.
“Will that guy Bear figure it out?” he asked, as they neared the spot where he'd left the motorcycle. Until a few minutes ago, Bear had been the employer of the men the brothers had just detonated.
“The cops will,” Chuck said, “but Bear probably won't. Even if he does, it will be a few days at the earliest and we'll be out of reach. What do you say we split up? I’ve got something to take care of, and then I can meet you in a few days. Why don’t you go on ahead north?”
The younger man grimaced. “I might as well. It’s not like I have anything left to pack. I'll get a motel room, clean out my safe deposit box in the morning, and get on the road.”
He looked at Chuck. “What about your crew? Bear will hunt them down once he knows you're out of the picture. Shouldn't we warn them somehow?”
They approached the gas station and the parked Harley came into view, bearing its new license plate.
Chuck glanced at his brother. “None of those guys would piss on us if we were on fire. Let them figure it out for themselves. Everybody down here has to think we got blown up along with those Aryan Supremacy geniuses back there.”
Larry reached under his knees to wrestle his helmet into his lap from the floor of the car, concentrating on it, aware of his brother's scrutiny. He knew Chuck was wondering how he’d cope with what they had just done. Chuck counted on him to be good at handling the money and pulling off the occasional long con, but this was the first time he’d had ever gone in heavy like this.
“Okay,” he said, staying casual. “Use email to keep me posted.” He started to get out of the car, but turned back and reached out a hand, smiling, making sure Chuck knew he could handle it.
“You'll hear from me soon,” Chuck reached his own hand across from the driver’s seat. They shook.
“Hey,” he said, keeping Larry's hand in his grasp. “You were great today. I'm sorry you got pulled into the muscle end of this, and about your house. I didn't realize these guys even knew you existed.”
Larry tightening his own grip, aiming to reassure. “Look, don't worry about it, bro'. I owe everything to you. Besides, we're out of it, now. When we get settled up north, everything will be different.”
“Sure,” Chuck said. “A whole new leaf.” He slapped Larry's shoulder with his free hand.
Larry extricated himself from the 'Vette, dropped one of the nylon bags of cash into a saddlebag, and swung one leg over the Harley's saddle. Just before the motor caught, he heard Chuck shout one last thing. “Dude! Watch your back!”