Chapter 1: Mordor CHAPTER 1 Mordor
It was just July, and Northern Jersey was crud-luscious. Petroleum by-products in the form of iridescent goo accrued on all surfaces, leaving them slippery and gleaming. Vegetation of no species or color known to earth rioted and crept everywhere. Three-foot-long bull crickets, albino and pink-eyed, chirped in the marshes as if meat was on the menu for tonight. It sounded like saws on radiators. Brooks burbled, rivers gurgled, sewers clotted, algae mutated. Superheated sea zephyrs floated in over the swamps and townships, bearing the fragrance of small, dead mammals or large, dead Italians.
The rust was general except on wood, where rot was general. To the north, in the refinery zone just below Newark, various vapors and gasses drifted to the ionosphere, forming a plate on the industrial entities below, trapping an atmosphere full of carcinogens and other poison fogs. Here and there spurts of flame lit the clouds, giving the landscape a wondrous satanic cast. It looked like Mordor.
A few miles off the turnpike that bisected this slough of despond and connected Philly to New York, Ace’s Truck Stop addressed the darkness with flickering fluorescent lights—those that weren’t out, that is—and eighteen pumps of diesel and only four of gas. It was strictly for lower-tier trucking companies, not the big boys closer to the big road, on tighter schedules. If you wanted fuel and state troopers, you stayed on the turnpike; if you wanted fuel and discretion you came here.
Around 4 a.m., a high-end Peterbilt hauling sixteen wheels’ worth of van slid into the station, though not progressing immediately to the pumps. The truck—it was a huge beast, definitely the King Tiger of cross-continent haulage—kept its options open for a few minutes. In time, the doors popped open, and a lean figure debarked and quickly disappeared under the van. In a few seconds he emerged, and to watch him move was to know him. He was lithe, slim, quick, attentive, perhaps more lizard than man. A high-capacity pistol clearly nested under the shoulder of his otherwise unnecessary coat, and a Tommy Tactical baseball cap sat atop his crew-cut crown. He moved with a kind of unself-conscious precision, still the schoolboy athlete. He looked like he knew what he was doing. And he did, which is what made him different from most men: formed by Texas high school football, Ranger School, Special Ops, and nine years with Combat Applications Group Delta, then ten years in service under contract to various alphabet-lettered entities the world over, some of which were even legal. Now in service to only himself, he sold boutique security to those who could afford it, and was known to have never lost a shipment. He got $8,000 a day, all expenses and all ammo; of the latter, he’d used up quite a bit as a variety of dead caballeros the nation over could testify, if the maggots ever cleared out of their throats. Call him Delta, after a onetime employer. Everyone else did.
He finished his security run-through on Ace’s. No other vehicles inside. The pumps deserted, needing only credit cards to open them to commerce. A small convenience store supervised by a sleepy Nigerian studying thermodynamics in a glass booth, amid racks of candy bars, salty fried chips, antacids, condoms, off-brand soda pop (“Rocket-Kola”), and suchlike. In shadows, nothing. No discordant notes, no anomalies. More important, Delta got no vibes from those weird little twitches tuned to the subtlest whispers of aggression that had saved his life many a time.
He turned, waved, signaling the tractor-trailer inward for $500 worth of diesel. It kicked into gear, issuing sounds like a Jurassic apex predator clearing its throat of phlegm and blood after a nice sit-down of Thanksgiving bronto, and edged ahead. Its shiny paint scheme of red, white, and blue magnified the wan beams that came from the overheads so it seemed to move in its own penumbra of sparkles and neon, and someone expertly guided it to the trough, clearly a trucker of mature and assured skill.
Delta watched it come. Then the lights went out.
Anzor slithered to the edge of the canopy that covered Pumps 18 through 22, and shot the security man in the head. He used a rifle called an AK-74, the 74 designating, as had the previous model’s 47, the year it was adopted by Soviet bloc forces. The Soviet bloc has long since disappeared, but the rifles may be found in abundance the world over. The 74 distributed a .22-caliber bullet at 55 grains, designated the 5.45 X 39, smaller, lighter, faster. The point is to allow soldiers to carry more man-killing ammunition for the same weight, following the principle adapted in 1966 by the Americans in Vietnam with their M-16 round, the 5.56mm.
The Nigerian, lost in the nuances of mechanical statistics of perfect gas, did not hear the sound of the shot, because the rifle was suppressed. The tube at the muzzle takes the snap, crackle, and pop out of the gunshot by running its excess gasses through an obstacle course of switchbacks and arroyos inside, and it slows as it negotiates, so that when it finally emerges it has lost energy and does not shatter eardrums and windows but instead resembles a loud burp.
In any event, that’s why the Nigerian did not look up when Anzor entered the store. So he did not see a bulky man in dark sweat clothes and a watch cap pulled low to his ears. Neither did he see him lift the rifle, acquire a sight picture through a Sovbloc red dot. If the Nigerian saw anything at all, it may have been a peripheral of the burst of gas that emerged after the bullet, which penetrated the glass booth, leaving an almost perfect image of a spiderweb, and struck him above the left eye.
Meanwhile four other men, equally dressed, equally armed, had descended from other canopies. Like Anzor, they were immensely strong, formed by long, sweaty hours in the gym in pursuit of gargoylesque muscle mass to make their tats gleam more menacingly in the sunlight when an opportunity for such display came. These four also knew what they were doing. They moved quickly to the cab of the Peterbilt and poked at the windows with their AK-74s.
The drivers understood that they were taken. They did not expect mercy nor did they receive it. They were marched back along the body of the van, and the executions proceeded without much ceremony at the doors. One muffled shot each, behind the ear. That was the business they were in.
Again things went according to plan, their bodies then heaved by two of the raiders through the open van doors. No clues would be left for law enforcement to discover who had employed the drive team and what the probable highjacked cargo might have contained. The victims would know, of course, but too late to react intelligently. They would thrash about and beat, torture, and kill in their immediate sector of the jungle, but they would not solve the mystery until the criminals wanted it solved.
Two men used a stolen credit card to pump the four hundred gallons of diesel into the beast while the one among them who had more or less mastered such a sophisticated and gigantic piece of machinery climbed into the still-warm driver’s seat, familiarized himself with a panel, and turned to await the go signal.
Meanwhile, Anzor had returned from his sanitation responsibility in the store, just as the men were climbing into the rear of the van.
“Anzor,” Uncle Vakha said in his native language, “go check the security. Make sure he’s dead. Bring his wallet and weapon.”
Anzor, the youngest of the cousins, ran to his task. He was eager to please the patriarch, and quite excited at the way things were going. He had not fought in the war, and his kills were limited to drug shootouts and beatings in back alleys, here in America and in his homeland. He wanted to prove to his uncle and his brother and cousins that he was up to the task.
He approached the facedown man, placed the muzzle of the suppressor against his neck.
The only impression he had was of speed. The man beneath seemed to enter another dimension, and Anzor found himself in a chokehold from an extremely practiced martial artist, a wrist of death pressing hard against his larynx and the muzzle of a large Glock against his skull.
Why was Delta not dead? Part of it was luck, since men of his disposition somehow discourage bullets from finding a lethal spot; they always just miss or only slightly wound him, concussions knock him down but not out, he comes back to operational reality fast, and he figures out the next option without losing a lot of sleep over the failure of the last. But part of it was tactical too. The black ball cap, which seemed to mark him as just another wannabe mall jungle operator in a world full of them, actually concealed a net of overlapping Kevlar disks that shielded the Delta brain. Though it was only Level II, suitable to stop pistols alone, it had in this case, aided by a slightly acute angle of fire, managed to deflect the bullet off into the Jersey night. It could do nothing about the impact, however, which downloaded full-force into the brain.
It conked Delta out, hard. He had no memory of falling to the pavement and opening a laceration along his cheekbone. Besides unconsciousness, it filled his brain with images of porno-blondes from Texas strip clubs doing interesting things to himself and each other. Thus he awoke several minutes later with a headache and hard-on and a deep curiosity about what was going on.
The world was now horizontal as he was flat on the asphalt. His head felt like someone was clog dancing on it. He could see the boots of the raiders as they conferred near the rear of the truck. Now it came back to him. He presumed that Cy and José, the drive team, both good guys, slept with the fishes. In any event, his job was not to save them but to save himself first and the shipment second and, failing that, gain as much operational evidence as possible from the event, to help the inevitable track-down that had to happen next. But then he saw the commander—whoever, as they were all in black watch caps and sweats—indicate that the conference was over and sent each to his next job.
Delta saw one pair of boots detach and head his way. He knew instantly what for, and he knew as well whoever it was had no deep well of experience, or he would have already head-shot the fallen man.
The boots approached and ceased to move; he waited as the shooter bent to press the suppressor against his neck and then ripped him down with a move that is known to only a few of the warrior elite, and involves pain, leverage, and totality of will, all at light speed. The next time the world stabilized, he had the Glock 10mm against the fool’s temple and his neck in a vise grip ten ounces from unconsciousness and twelve from death.
First instinct, as always, was to kill. Pop this motherfucker and go to strong isosceles on the four silhouette targets forty feet away. But he had no full-auto capacity. Though a superb shot, he knew the boys who faced him were too. He’d get two definites before they got their 74s into play and pegged him and went on with the job, figuring on a much better split for the swag. So that was a no go, both for professional and personal reasons.
He yanked the boy to his feet and turned him to orient toward the others, who by this time were aware of the emergency.
“Guns down, motherfuckers, and kick ’em away or I toast this punk and take as many of y’all to hell as I can.”
Whether they understood his Hill Country patois or not, they complied. The guns went to the asphalt, and were further removed from activity by strong shoves at boot end that sent them skittering away.
“Stay put and this kid lives. Otherwise he’s breakfast.”
Using the boy’s throat as his control point, he edged backward, out of the zone of light. He could see the four men tensing, coiling, building in rage and energy, as the distance increased. It was a slow drag through perdition, the boy hard against him, their legs moving in syncopation, the long backward walk seeming to take an epoch.
But then the darkness had them.
“You tell Papa that if he has the guts or time to go on a bug hunt in the swamp for me, I’ll kill him last and slowest. Now it’s nap time, Junior.”
With that he clipped the boy hard with the butt of his pistol, right under the left ear, and sent him folding to earth.
He turned and melted into the black.
Ibragim and Khasan were first to the rifles, but Uncle Vakha’s command voice froze them.
“No!” he screamed. “You stay put. Let him see you do nothing.”
The young, so stupid. It was Khasan, the smartest, voicing dissent.
“Let him go. We will not spend hours in the dark trying our skills against his. He is too good, we do not have the time.”
“—is all right. See!”
And indeed, Anzor, hand cupping his head under the ear, stumbled back into the light, caught himself, fell, and struggled to regain footing.
“Get him. Now. We must leave.”
Ibragim and Khasan ran to their youngest brother or cousin (it varied), got him by the arms, and half guided and half carried his addled body back to the scrum.
“I know I did not miss—”
“Now what, Uncle?”
“Into the truck.”
“To Coney Island?”
“Coney Island is dead. Or we are dead if we go to Coney Island. The guard will bear witness, the Russ will put one plus one together. The Cossacks will be on the streets with guns in their hands and blood in their eyes tomorrow, and all snitches and rats at full alert. No force on earth can save us in New York.”
“But it wasn’t—”
“No, it wasn’t. But who could guess they’d have a superman guarding. We counted on cartel shooters, not whatever that fuck was. We guessed, we lost.”
“So, the truck is full of fuel, the highway is clear. We get in, we drive. Always under the speed limit, always moving west. Too much Russ in LA. We will go north, perhaps to Seattle or Portland. It’s very simple. Flee or die. It is quite possible we may flee and die, but that is for the future to tell. A few hundred miles out, you will call your loved ones and explain the change in plans.”