I've had a concept for a story for a long time, but I'm not a writer. Rather than leave it rattlin' around in the back of my head until I'm completely senile...
Here's a quick synopsis, off the cuff....
The Gavel and the Bullet (working title)
Christmas was the worst. As he sat in the van, traffic rumbling by, Virgil tried to think of something that needed doing. Something to keep his mind from remembering what life was like for "normal" people. People that didn't have a "great cause". At least not one that virtually guaranteed that they would die violently. That people he cared about would probably die violently before him, and he would have to live his remaining time knowing that he led them to that painful place.
He tried to remember what it was like to married, to have a job, to care about world events, retirement, office politics. To watch the latest TV show, or care about movies. He tried to find a memory that would cut through the pain and the numbness, and make him feel like he belonged, or perhaps some return to childhood innocence. But he failed, or maybe didn't have the energy to try hard enough. And so, like so many times before, his thoughts drifted back to that night, when he stepped through to the other side.
He hadn't been in his right mind. It had been a crappy day, a crappy year. He'd driven as far into the night as he could and when the car sputtered to a stop, it's last gasp of gasoline sneezed back into the carburator, he found himself lost and very alone. Which was how he felt inside when he started the flight, and now he was that way on the outside, too. Somehow that gave him some resolution, that his outside and inside matched, and he felt more balanced and didn't need to continue to flee.
He sat there for a while, working on that realization, mostly subconsciously. Looking around, he remembered the spontaneous choices that led up to his current location only as a general blur. He was somewhere south of the city, but if he had his cell phone, and if there was a working network, he wouldn't have been able to tell someone where to find him. He would have to walk until he found a landmark. But he didn't care. He didn't want to be found. He wasn't sure if he ever wanted to return to anything. If he had a gun...
...or some way to redirect the car's exhaust into the inside. Ooops, out of gas. There was a dropoff to the side, so he headed for that, hoping for a log or big rock to sit and brood. He was in the woods, on a little-used road, probably on a farm or gravel pit or some junkyard's backyard. It was too dark to see much and the woods that had passed by his window had been in pockets mostly. But he was in them now, and he'd found a dark private refuge to wallow in his hurt.
Finding a place to sit, he sat. It was a dry creek bed and it felt secure. Sometimes he thought little, letting his subconcious churn, processing the horror of it all. And sometimes he'd relent and deal with it in his deliberate mind.
He'ld come home early. He walked in on them. She'd laughed at him and then she told him to leave. And then she came out and tried to make arrangements for him to pick up his things in a few days, maybe have coffee and discuss the divorce. There were some attempts to make it sound normal, sound good. She'ld obviously planned that speech for a long time, and drug it out way to early for him to be the audience she wanted. His world turned upside down. His sense of being was sliced and shredded, and so he fled.
How many times had that scene re-played in his mind as he sat there? 300 hundred? A thousand? The creek bed must have shielded him from some of the sounds. As he came out of his reverie, he rewound his memory and realized that he'd heard some other sounds outside his awareness. Muffled talking mostly, then shouting. It was the gun shots that roused him. And now the last of them echoed, and then kept echoing in his brain.
"Great", Virgil thought. "I was wondering how it could get worse." Most people, including himself, would be panicked and start running away from those sounds. So deep was his dispair, however, so strong was his dislike of what his life had become, that the thought that brought him to his legs, was the thought that if he was lucky, he might get himself accidently or intentionally shot. So much so, that he grabbed a short branch and resolved himself, when he found the source of the gunshots, to break into a run and lunge at the nearest armed man. He was back up on the road now, the same one that he'd driven over, wondering why he heard no more noises, was he going the right direction? Rounding a slight bend, he soon knew that he had run the correct direction. He almost forgot to yell, as he threw himself towards the two cars, one of which was illuminated by its dome light. His suicide wasn't working either, no one appeared to gun him down in startled reaction. Just these to damn cars. No wait. There's some dark lumps on the ground, one of which is moving a little. And groaning.
Standing there, he tried to take it all in. He was standing in a grisly crime scene, the kind you see on TV. The gunshots replayed through his mind and he landed on an explanation. There had been a lot of them, like a pack of firecrackers, a pause, and then two last ones, almost simultaneous. "Pa-Pow." He stood there a long time, processing. He shifted his stance now and then, trying to see more detail, when he felt that he could process some more gore. He was alone with dead people. This reality and the recent excercise was pushing his hurt away. He almost revelled in feelings that a normal person would experience. He envisioned being interviewed on TV, telling the story at the office. He delved into explanatory scenarios, things like gangland executions.
Eventually, he grew tired of all the nothing. No more groaning, not a movement anywhere. So he strode up to the nearest lump, somewhat illuminated by the light on the inside panel of the one open car door. Gave it a ginger tap on the bottom of its shoe and when no response was sensed, promounced to himself, "Dead". He found four more, two of them still clutching bags. One of the bags was actually a briefcase. All were dead. If not, he hoped one of them would suddenly sit up and pump a few shots into him. He wasn't filled with suicidal dispair at that time, it was just a residual expression of an intense feeling that he'd traded in for thoughtless risk-taking. It would wear off soon, but for now, he was daring life to do its worst. He felt more alive than he ever remembered (he realized later) and was riding a crest of cleansing exultation.
What should he do now? Take a gun? Take all the guns? Take one of the cars? Take a look through everything? He started with the bag. It was drugs. Hmm, he thought. That's what they look like. The briefcase was filled with money. A lot of money. So he did what anyone would do.
He closed it, grabbed it and ran. Like a jackal stealing prey from a lion. He didn't run too long, his fitness level was what one would expect from a work-aholic desk jockey. So he walked, and walked and walked, stopping to rest when he had to, trying to stay ahead of his thoughts, which caught up to him and began tormenting him in ernest. He fought them, using justifications and rationalizations to counter the guilt and the realizations of folly.
One of the first outposts of civilization that he encountered, was a Philips 66 station, with a motel behind it. The bathroom at the gas station was typically gross, and that was where he transferred some money to his pocket. He bought some snacks and checked into the motel.
And that is how he ended up sitting in this van tonight (a van paid for with the stolen drug money), waiting for Mr. Mustache to come home. Mr. Mustache had a real name, and our "hero" knew it, of course. But he enjoyed the false sense of power that renaming someone implied. This same false sense of power was being generated through the van's interior, which looked more like his old electronics lab, but with more notebook computers. One computer was a display for security cameras, showing eight different views of the street around the van, in that abstract graininess of infrared images. Two other cameras showed similar multipaned camera images, most of vacant spaces - many from unusual angles of view. Three more were idling, waiting to record audio from dozens of hidden devices scattered in Mr. Mustache's townhouse and tiny backyard. Another displayed a map and a moving icon.
Virgil had become a vigelante. He still had some of the original drug money. And he still had all of the money that he stole from the dead pusher's replacement last year. Now he was working on his third heist, wondering what mistakes he'd made in the early stages, what mistakes he was still making, which one would get him and/or his co-conspirators killed. Or worse.
Cindy was a hooker. Well, that was the last "real" job she'd had. These days she'd had several jobs, some real, some just part of the personas. They met one morning when he was trying to plant a bug. She kept bugging him, and he'd taken a risky chance that he would no longer take these days. Back then he was nervous and desparate to plant the device and bug out. He should have just abandoned the mission, come back later. He thought she had given up and left him alone, but it's hard to dissaude a working girl by loitering around a doorway on her turf. Why she was even working at that time of the day was a mystery. She should have been out in the evening, when his targets would be inhabiting that doorway.
So she had seen him plant the bug. And he saw that she had seen it. So he unplanted it and tried to escape. He expected her to make a scene, to yell and attract attention. But her voice was low, and her body blocking motions were the same she used to work customers that needed some time to realize that she could be their perfect date for the next half hour. "What was he doing?" "What was that thing in his hand?" Like a child with cookie crumbs on his face, our hero could only respond with inane responses and denials. He'd practiced some scenarios for being caught, and had some pepper spray in his pocket, but this wasted bit of flesh before him had him completely flumoxed.
The situation ground on like this for a minute or so, and Virgil was desparate to escape. The hooker stopped and studied his face at length, and then she whispered conspiratorially, "Please buy me some coffee. We can talk. We might be on the same side." Virgil had nothing to talk to her about, but he'd rather not talk to her somewhere else, anywhere else.
She led him to a gas station and he bought two coffees and a pack of powdered sugar donuts, which they took outside. He could make a break for it, but he was still trying to decide how much this lady had compromised his mission, whether he would have to break it off and move on to another candidate. "Are you a cop?" she asked, and just before he gave the answer which took too long to formulate (which was "yes"), she answered for him. "No, you're not a cop..." "Why would someone, who's not a cop, be bugging where Rolo hangs?" She watched Virgil's eyes closely as she said the name "Rolo", and got what she was looking for. "Who are you working for?" This was obviously rhetorical, and Virgil responded by studying a crack in the sidewalk. Two ants were tugging on the same piece of something, generally making progress toward the street, but not nearly as much as they would have if the cooperated.
"How do I find out whose side you're on? she speculated out loud, fishing for a solution. Virgil found his voice and asked "Who is Rolo?", without trying to sound ernest. "Whose side are *you* on," he continued, and then, "who is..." (trying to form a thought "...against this Rolo?"
"I am" she blurted, and then looked surprised. The conversation had turned intimate in a blink of an eye, two tortured souls had made a connection and impulsively trusted each other. Each studied the eyes of the other and found no warning sign that the trust was folly. Then they both looked away and studied some meaningless view, searching for the next step, a direction. Cindy opened the donuts and wolfed one down, gulping at her coffee, and brushing the powdered sugar from her lips with the back of her hand. "What do you have against Rolo?" he asked quietly. "I have my reasons," Cindy said, firmness in her voice.
He found out later that Rolo had killed her two year old son. Rolo had been her pimp's boss. Virgil didn't go back to replant the bug, Cindy gave him more info than a dozen bugs would have. Five weeks later, he'd made his second heist, while Cindy was at rehab. She got out a few months later, and then a few months after that, and then she checked herself out two weeks after that. Virgil had paid for the rehabs (well technically, some dead pusher had), and had made Cindy his "other" mission. She seemed to want to get clean, but not because she wanted a better life, she just didn't want to continue her old life. After the three attempts, she gave up. Not able to solve her problem, Virgil made a deal with the devil and brought her in. Every logical reasoning was against it, but he needed her help and his instinct was that the work would keep her mind off of using.
She was good. She could drop bugs in places that he couldn't bluff his way into, without any nervousness. He would worry about her every time she came back from a mission, her demeanor having reverted back to her days of addiction. As much as possible, though, he steered her to more "upscale" missions, as time progressed he was going after people higher and higher up the food chain. She always wore at least two wires, and they reviewed the recordings over and over afterwards, critiquing and playing "what if". "What if someone you know showed up?" "What if you walk into a sting and get arrested?" "What if the kingpin wants to take you to dinner?" "What if his muscle wants to play?"
Virgil realized early (but not early enough) that they were being way too risky working heists in Atlanta, where people knew them, and transferred operations to Tampa. He also stopped letting Cindy use roles from her old life, and they developed a portfolio of personas. Virgil never really became all that convincing, except perhaps as cable installers or other technicians. As more conspirators came on board, Virgil became the puppetmaster, and developed a habit of constantly mumbling to himself.
Cindy bought her dead son a new grave, but never, ever visited it. Virgil took her some pictures, and she kept them.
They never talked about her son again, but they both thought about him, together, in the darkness of a van or one of Virgil's safehouses. They would pass long hours sharing this silence, Virgil preferred sharing Cindy's grief, instead of rehashing his failed marriage/life. He did plenty of that too, when Cindy was gone.
He'd checked on his a few times, but she seemed to have happily moved on with her life. She was married (and pregnant the last time) to some new guy. He'd never talked to her once after that fateful night. He'd sent a postcard, carefully worded to make his dissapearance as non-suscipious as possible. He'd called his boss, apologized for missing the last several days, and resigned his position, citing marriage troubles and the need to leave town. He did this from a pay phone. He'd thought of using a prepaid cell phone, but then thought that that might arrouse extra suspicion if anyone check the phone records. He said he was going to live with his brother in California for a while. Which he had actually foolishly considered, but Roger had moved from the last known address/phone number and Virgil knew that would make it conveniently difficult for anyone to find him through his brother. Roger was Virgil's only remaining family, and Virgil had no real friends. It wasn't that Virgil couldn't have had friends, but he had always buried himself in his work. This preoccupation was the single greatest source of discontent with his ex-wife, He'd try to be more attentive, to be a better husband/companion, but would always fall back into his old habits. The last time, it seemed like Janice had finally accepted him as he was, and had stopped nagging him about it. She seemed happier, and Virgil felt relieved. Janice hadn't accepted, however, but had moved on.
Perhaps Virgil would have moved on also, if he hadn't stolen a briefcase of money. He might have found another woman. But he came to understand that any other woman would be just as unhappy with him as Janice had been, a realization that left him dispondant when he dwelled on it. Filling his days with surveilance activities kept him from dwelling on such dreary matters, replaced that dismal life with one that was often exhilerating.
Jay was another matter. Jay wasn't a tortured soul, just an adventurer trapped in a nerd's body. Unlike Cindy, Jay was a wreck on missions, his stutter becoming pronounced. It didn't take long for them to turn that to an advantage, his face had been formed a little strangely anyway, long and a bit goofy. If someone become suspicious, Jay acted confused, and stuttered intermiably.
They'd met on the phone, when Virgil was trying to obtain some electronics that only the military should have. He'd tried to convince Jay that he was working on a hobby project, but Jay kept stringing him along. Jay would agree to sell the parts, but kept making up excuses for delaying the delivery, all the time pumping Virgil for information about the project. After a few months of this, Virgil decided to write the effort off. He felt pretty secure that his contacts were untraceable, so he finally just told Jay exactly what he wanted the parts for. He did it jokingly, actually adding some extra drama to it. And then he started to tell Jay to forget it before hanging up. But Jay wasn't daunted at all. After a few weeks of begging, Virgil agreed to let Jay help in a limited manner, still trying to keep distance, to protect both parties. Eventually, he relented and brought Jay in 100%.
Virgil didn't like it. But his activities were becoming more successful. His arsenal of tools was becoming more sophisticated.
Virgil's greatest fear was in getting caught by the police, on whatever level. Prison was not somewhere Virgil wanted to spend the rest of his life. He'd taken to carrying suicide pills, and Cindy and Jay did also. Jay's contacts with the military were a constant source. If he disappeared, would someone invistigate? If he didn't disappear, would he accidently spill the beans?
He worried about Cindy, but not so much about her getting killed. He'd become convinced that she had little chance of a decent happily-ever-after life. Between missions, she was restless and reckless. She had a face that could be either ugly or pretty, depending on her mood. Between missions, she was sullen and the best way to get through those breaks was to drug herself to sleep. She'd sleep on and off for a few days, drag herself into the bathroom and not emerge for hours. When she finally did, she was bright and cheery, usually and for a few hours life seemed normal. But unless a mission was emminent, she'd slide into a mope. And Jay, bless his heart, would make things worse. They got along fairly well on missions, when Cindy would take charge in the field, but he didn't know how to deal with her otherwise.
But Jay's safety did worry Virgil. Jay had insisted on joining the team, and swore up and down that he knew the dangers and was willing to accept the consequences. But Virgil knew better. To Jay, it was just a game. A game he wanted to play, not to be the towel boy. He was in it for the ego, and ego's need to brag. Virgil was convinced that when things went wrong, it would probably because Jay's inner child shot his mouth off somewhere. At least he didn't drink...
Virgil tried to quit once, but he let Cindy talk him out of it. It hadn't been hard, but he promised himself, that if he could ever think of something else that they both could do to make life tolerable, he'd quit in a heartbeat. In the early stages, he'd given a lot of lip service in his thoughts to how his activities were for the "greater good", that he was some kind of Zorro. But he was too pragmatic to hang his hat on that hook for too long. He was in it for the excitement, the pseudo power, the distraction from life's heartaches. One second he felt like a predator, stalking unsuspecting prey; the next, he would be the prey, hoping to avoid the gavel and the bullet.
Maybe someday, when his war chest was big enough, he'd find charitable uses for the excess. But for now, he didn't have enough safehouses, escape plans, and spy tools. He had dreams of huge computing resources, processing covert recordings for interesting conversations. And he balked at charity. Philanthropic giving was problematic. It was hard to give anyone money without leaving a trail. Also, thinking about those who were in need of help, made it hard for him to live in this other world. Maybe he would just learn how to do the Swiss bank account thing and use it to give to the top 10 charities. He'd cross that bridge later...
The tracking device under the car registered to Mr. Mustache was finally coming home. The icon on the monitor suddenly appeared on the map a few blocks from Virgil's van, jumping half a mile from it's last location. Virgil sat up, licked his lips and keyed an alert code (2 short beeps) into the communicators. He typed a cryptic note about developing a movement detection alert for the program and uttered what had become a ritual expression, "Show time!"