Jougs and Vorant timed the first smoke bomb for a few seconds after the first explosion blew up the shed in the backyard of the light blue one story house where they’d taken refuge. With the shed in flames and excess smoke billowing, they were certain the stalker bird would fly to the back. Any nosy neighbors would be sure to run to the side of the house to get a better look. The second explosion and smoke bomb would require precision timing and the perfect targets. Jougs carefully slid open the living room window overlooking the side of the house where the backyard gate stood slightly ajar. From the window he could see the edge of the flaming shed as well as any neighbors daring enough to investigate. Vorant knelt near the front door where he watched the street through the hole in the pane he’d broken earlier. The two men breathed easily, while they confidently waited.
“Get your hands off me!” the bean pole shouted.
“I’ll kill you!” the pock-faced brute growled.
For Gaseleo and Butano there would be no escape. Their useless yells and mindless squirming only served to infuriate the already impassioned Mercury’s Elite Guardsmen who knew these men were somehow responsible for the murder of their king. Kent and a third guardsman threw themselves into the melee. The six men struggled until a nearby explosion rocked the normally quiet neighborhood. Gaseleo thrust an elbow into the chin of the Merc holding his upper body which proved enough to loosen the man’s grasp. Unfortunately, the effort was for naught as the other Merc slammed his foot into Gaseleo’s knee, snapping it. When the pain hit, Gaseleo passed out. Kent scrambled off of Butano, willing Fulco to show him where the explosion came from. Butano took the opportunity to grab Kent’s foot, causing the young bard to stumble over the unconscious Gaseleo. Enraged, one of the Mercs pulled out a cudgel and proceeded to educate Butano on the error of his ways.
“General Tomlyn, we’ve finished our vote,” Adonis said. “We’ll need privacy to proceed. Whether here or elsewhere matters not.”
“Of course,” the general nodded to the justices, yelling, “Captain Prescott!”
The captain once again left Goldie’s side to attend to the general, “sir?”
“Find a suitable and private location for the justices.”
“Yes, sir!” Captain Prescott said. Before he ran off, he added, “dinner is in the works, General. It should be ready for 1800.”
They’d only been on the road for ten minutes and already the brutal silence was more than Ensign Balin could stand. He had hoped that his cousin, Colonel Dagon, would explain once they were in the privacy of the militia truck. He contemplated breaking the silence, but feared the repercussions. Whatever was going on, apparently Dagon needed time to think. The restless ensign checked the time on his watch: 1620. They should make it to Ambrosia before 1830, which meant the Templus Dining Hall would still be open. Which was fortunate because he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, just thinking of food made his stomach rumble. Dagon glanced over at Balin, but before the colonel could say anything his own stomach added its opinion to the conversation. Without meaning to, Balin laughed, “guess we both need to eat.”
Dagon snorted, “only entitled to one meal a day, soldier.”
“Aw, that’s war regs,” Balin whined.
“So it is,” Dagon exhaled. His grip tightened on the steering wheel. “Did you have breakfast?”
“Yes, sir. Why?”
“We’re at war.”
Balin stared at Dagon who stared at the road. “Sir? I know we were attacked, but has the Kaiser declared?”
“There’s been no formal declaration,” Dagon explained, never taking his eyes off the highway. “I received a message. I’ll know more when we arrive. For now, suffice it to say, we’re at war.”
“Is that why I had to bring the justices down?”
“You did that because your liege ordered it.”
“Well, yes,” Balin agreed, “but, why would he, sir? I mean, aren’t they in danger?”
“The whole realm is in danger,” Dagon said with the finality of someone certain that things were about to become much worse.
Private Willy Jessup paced in front of the smoker’s dugout, a half-smoked cigarette hung from his lip, as he beat an unopened pack against his palm. When he saw Commander Dante exit the building he crushed the cigarette into the ashcan and left the dugout. “Hey, sir!”
The commander resisted the urge to grind his teeth. After the meeting with Dr. Javert, he had no desire to squander any more of his precious time with anyone even remotely associated with the Sanctuary City Medical Center. Of course, Dante also knew better than to waste potential opportunities. He needed to know more about Jessup before he could make a decision. If the young man was a legitimately unstable soldier, he had uses. But, if he was a plant, then anything Dante said would get back to Javert and Peters. “Hello, Jessup.”
“I don’t mean to bother you, sir,” Jessup said as he averted his eyes, “uh, well, my ride isn’t here. Do you—oh, never mind.”
“Out with it,” Dante ordered.
“Could you give me a ride?”
“Depends. Where to?”
“Just north of the old church. My sister’s got a place in the Mazard Apartments. That dickhead doctor gave me leave while they get my paperwork in order.”
“So, they decided?”
“Yes, sir.” Jessup chewed the inside of his cheek while clenching both fists. After a moment, he added, “they’re kicking me out.”
“I see.” Dante said, “it’s on my way. Come on.”
The commander shrugged, “never leave a man stranded. Let’s go.” He started walking into the parking lot.
“I certainly appreciate it, sir,” Jessup said as he fell in line.
Dante laughed, “don’t thank me yet. You haven’t met my driver.”
“You have a driver?” Jessup froze. “Who are you, sir?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well. Yes. Yes it does.”
“Commander Randle Dante, Sr.”
“I’ve heard of you, sir,” Jessup said in awe.
“What’d you hear?”
“They gave you command of Polkner after you…” Jessup nervously scoped out the parking lot before whispering “after you caught Fleet Admiral Ironside with an underage whore.”
“Word does get around,” Dante chuckled.
“Is it true?”
“I didn’t catch him,” the commander answered, “but I know who did.”
The hair on Dante’s neck stood upright as he wondered if the young man had just sent some unseen person a signal. When no one charged them, Dante relaxed, continuing the walk to his waiting car.
Lt. Musgrove leaned against the hood of the car cleaning his nails with a small pocket knife. He could tell by the way Commander Dante was walking that the man was beyond irritated. He wondered how much that irritation had to do with the Mohawk-ed out soldier trailing the commander. Musgrove folded the knife, depositing it back into his pocket as he circled the front of the four-door sedan, an all black Iago Citadel. Having driven most of his career, Musgrove understood timing. He waited until the commander was within a few feet of the car before he opened the door.
“Lieutenant,” Dante nodded, “we’ll be giving Mister Jessup a ride to—where?”
“Mazard Apartments. Just north of the old church.”
“Do you know where that is?”
“Of course,” Lieutenant Musgrove replied, a good driver always maintains the appearance of unlimited navigational knowledge. As it so happened, Musgrove actually knew the Mazard quite well because his uncle had lived there before the stroke. Once Dante and Jessup were in the back of the Citadel, Musgrove finished his circuit around the back of the car, and climbed into the driver’s seat. The old church, Trinity Orthodox, was one of those city landmarks that most locals didn’t think about, but that outsiders frequented for its beauty. “If traffic is kind, we’ll be there in 20, sir,” Musgrove said as he put the Citadel in gear and pulled out of the parking space.
“Truth,” Carmel slurred.
“Truth!” the group repeated.
“Okay. Okay,” Machine said. “I’ve got it.”
Locos motioned for the private to lean closer, “whisper. I’ll tell you if it’s good enough.”
“How many men have they met down here?” Machine attempted to whisper, but failed.
“No. No. No,” Locos hissed. “Not good enough. We need information, remember?”
“Fine. You pick,” Machine stood up from the table. Half of his clothes were on the floor. Barefoot, he walked across the cold concrete into the kitchenette, “where’s the rum?”
“Is that your question?” Carmel snickered.
“Absolutely not!” Locos answered.
“Here’s our question: how many men have you met down here, in the last two weeks?”
Machine shot Locos a dirty look, then grinned.
“Praline, can you remember the last two weeks?”
“I don’t know,” Praline snorted, “kinda the same as the two before that.”
“You have to answer,” Locos reminded the girls, “I won that hand.”
“Oh, alright,” Carmel huffed. “Let’s see. There was Shadow Blade, Jack Spade, and Jameson. Can you think of any others?”
Praline twirled a lock of her blonde hair, “you forgot Bobbert.”
“Bobbert! How could I forget Bobbert? Poor man. Always being neglected.”
The girls giggled.
“Is that all?”
Neither responded, they exchanged a look, then giggled some more.
“Machine, name that item of clothing,” Locos ordered.
Private Richard Machine examined the shirtless women, “I say we keep going with their tops, sir.”
“I told you don’t ‘sir’ me. I work for a living,” Locos growled. To the ladies, he said, “you heard the man. We’ll have those bras, now.”