I pointed the pickup down I-20. The Dallas to Shreveport leg of the trip was going to be about three and a half hours long if I didn't push it. I wasn't going to push it. I had a loaded .357 magnum under the driver's seat – which wasn't illegal in Texas, of course, but still, I didn't want a hassle with the cops. Not to mention the baggie of weed that was pushed up under the springs of the pickup's passenger seat. That WAS illegal, so I especially didn't want any problems with the police. I'm sure they had my plate number and were looking for me, anyway. I'd dodge them if I could, negotiate if I had to. I was a clean cut, white, Purple Heart veteran – I could usually walk away from encounters with my stalkers, as I'd come to think of them.
And of course I was going to take some money from the casinos. Not illegally, but kinda questionably. The Chief had given me the numbers to play, and they were going to win. Keno is probably the dumbest way to try and take money from the casinos: it's like a giant bingo card with 80 numbers and you pick anything from 1 to 20 numbers, and if they come in, you win. Simple huh? But they fiddle with the odds.
I had eleven numbers to play, tomorrow at noon. Now supposedly the odds on exactly eleven numbers on a Keno card are about eight million to one. The casino I'm supposed to play at only pays $1 million on a $11 bet. That sucks, but not if you know the eleven numbers. You can play any fancy combination of numbers, of course, but the Chief only gave me eleven. For tomorrow at noon. The thing that bothered me most was the size of the win. $1 million was sure to garner some attention. Maybe I'd have to split it up and get lower odds but less attention.
I cruised down the interstate and thumbed my phone. Another illegal thing, I know: phone use while driving. Actually, it's not illegal (yet!) to drive and use a phone ... just to text. What kind of idiot would try to send a text message while he was driving? You have to take your hands AND eyes off the road. Might as well aim for a tree and then send the text message. To top it off, the damn thing has a GPS in it and they can track your location from it. But there's no way you can stay in touch with things without it. So when I wasn't using it, I kept it in a holder on my belt – but it was a special holder with a Faraday cage built into it. I know; I made it myself. The copper mesh of the cage keeps electronic signals from getting through.
Although they could probably track me from the GPS they implanted in my head during the operation. I couldn't do anything about that and it drove me nuts when I thought about it. Wearing a Faraday cage for my hat would be too far 'round the bend, even for me.
I looked at the phone. No message from the girl who called herself Io. She knew I'd be driving so I didn't expect a message, but I was just checking, you know? I clicked it off and put it back in the cage.
My mind drifted as the miles passed under the wheels. I could still see that damned IED go off in slow motion.
One year, eight months and fourteen days in Afghanistan, hunting "squirrels" with my SEAL team in the mountains – cave after cave. We were due to be shipped back to the States, when? Never. SEAL teams are never really off duty. We're just on duty in a place where there's no shooting, and we call that R&R.
We were driving in a pair of humvees back to our home away from home, after hunting unsuccessfully for squirrels for two weeks. They'd moved their camp to some other rat-hole cave. There was an obvious out-of-place log by the side of the road. We stopped well shy of it and unassed the humvees. Then the damn IED went off – too close to my position – from a different direction. I saw it: a flash of light, a big boom, Martinez' brains splattered all over me, and then I stopped seeing anything.
I was semi-conscious in the plane to Germany. Master Chief Raoul Martinez was talking to me. That was strange, I remember thinking, because the last thing I remember was the splash of his brains on my face. "You'll be OK, L.T. They patched you up in-country and they're gonna do it again in Germany. You'll be OK. Just keep breathing. That was our joke. If we all keep breathing, we'll all get to go home again.
And I could hear the medics: "Don't know why we even bother. This poor bastard's got his head half caved in. Just going through the motions, if you ask me."
Then another voice: angry, female. "Nobody did ask you. This man can hear you at some level. So talk like he's going to make it. Cause he IS." Then it was all black and quiet again. One year, eight months, fourteen days. That was almost ten years ago and the image came back like it was yesterday. Clearer than yesterday, as a matter of fact; I couldn't remember yesterday for shit.
I turned on the radio as the memory faded ... the miles skittered past toward Shreveport, LA., and classic rock filled the cab.
It was just after 6 p.m. when I pulled into the WalMart parking lot. There were two exits plus a separate entrance for trucks. That was good, but all the exits led to the same road. That was bad. I drove around to the Motel 6 that was on the other side of the vacant lot. That had only one exit. Very bad. The vacant lot between had a heavy brush cover, it looked to be mostly grasses. I checked in: cash of course, under the name of Jefferson Thomas. I was never any good with fake names. I handed over the fake driver's license – I wasn't any good with fake ID either, but I knew someone in Fort Worth who was. I had one more ID sewn into the stuffing of the passenger seat, in case I needed it.
I dropped my duffel in the room and looked out the window: a 15 ft. drop. Good. That meant nobody was coming in that way. Two standard exits in the hall, but there was a third – a service elevator. Good again. I wedged a match into the closed door and went out for dinner.
I grabbed some fast food and ate it in the truck. It's not that I like fast food – it's terrible – but if I'm in my pickup, I can move if something comes up. With nothing else to do until tomorrow, I went back to the room. Naturally, I parked in the WalMart lot, exited the truck with the cabin light off, and went through the vacant lot, bent low so I couldn't be seen easily, and entered the back door of the motel. I paused and checked my 6 to be sure I wasn't followed. It was clear.
I walked up to the room, checked my simple little telltale: the match was still crammed into the closed door, where I'd left it. I looked down the hall left and right – empty. Opening the door in a semi-crouch, I entered fast and shut it behind me. That way I wouldn't be silhouetted against the light from the hall. A quick look around the room and I could relax.
I turned on the TV and started my nightly routine. I was tired from the long drive and the sooner I started the sooner I'd be done. Bathroom first. I brushed my teeth and shaved. If you shave at night, and have to leave the room suddenly, you won't have any stubble in the morning when you find yourself somewhere else, and people won't notice you as much. That's simple logic. After that, I repacked the toothpaste, razor, and etc. in the duffel, changed into my sweats and put the sneakers with the Velcro closures next to the bed. Velcro sneakers were very wimpy, but again, if you had to leave the room in a hurry, it would be faster to put them on, and close the Velcro than regular athletic shoes that had to be tied. And of course, if you sleep in sweats, you're dressed. Again, simple logic. I repacked my duffle with the street clothes I'd been wearing. I went to the locked door and inserted two metal wedges between the door and the jam; they wouldn't hold forever but they would give me an extra minute or two.
The Chief's voice came alive in my head, "You know that you're nuts, don't you? You've been doing all that shit every night since you left the VA hospital, and you've never had to leave the room in a hurry."
I thought, 'I know, Master Chief. I'm paranoid. That doesn't mean they're not out to get me. You know the VA docs would have a fit if they knew about it.' As I lay on the bed, with the local news droning on in the background from the TV, my mind drifted again.
I was having lots of chatter with the Master Chief. It was the same old thing every time. I'd say "I'm not ready to wake up yet. I'm hurt, maybe I'm dead. I'm not ready."
After a few whiles (that was the only unit of time I had: a 'while'), he started saying "You goddam lazy son of a bitch of an officer. Wake the fuck up. It's time – past time." Then I'd say: I'm not ready. And then he'd curse and say I was. Round and round. Quite a few whiles.
One while, I opened my eyes and woke up. I couldn't move my arms – they were strapped down – and I had a funny tube running under my nose. When I looked around, I saw a female figure in white looking at a monitor. I croaked a question, "Am I dead?"
She turned quickly, "No, you're not dead. Do you want some ice chips? I can't give you water yet." I nodded, and she pushed a button on an electric cord. Another person – in pink this time – came in. Between the two of them, they got me some ice chips and I sucked on them. They extracted a promise that I would not pull the IV lines out – I promised, though I wasn't sure what IV lines were – and they unstrapped my arms.
I looked at my hands. In the back of each hand was a needle sticking in me, and each one was attached to a clear tube that ran up to a bag that was hanging from some kind of stand nearby. That was confusing. I brought my right hand to my face. I felt another tube running under my nose and it had little prongs coming out of it that were in my nose. That was confusing again.
Then I looked at the lady in white and the lady in pink. "If I'm not dead, where am I?"
The white lady said, "You're at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Do you know your name?"
"I'm..." and for the life of me, I couldn't think of it. "I'm an officer; Master Chief called me an officer. But I don't remember my name." I didn't know my name, but I knew more than I said. I wasn't going to reveal anything else until I was sure I was with friendlies.
"Yes, for the last four days, you seemed to be having quite a conversation with the Master Chief," said the lady in white. "That's all right. You had quite a blow to your head and you were out for 17 days. You were in Germany for the first 5 days, while they operated on you, and you've been here since. Don't worry about it, you'll remember your name soon enough."
The Master Chief said in my head, "Don't tell them about me. Not more than you have to. They'll think you're nuts and put you in the looney bin. And you'll never get out."
And then the local news turned into a talk show, and I was asleep. The voice in my head said, "That was good advice then and it's good advice now. If you have to be a little paranoid, that's ok."
It was late when I woke up. I turned off the idiot on TV who was talking to a movie star with a skirt that was slit almost to her waist. She had nice legs though. I took my phone out of its case, to check the time. 11:52. The phone began vibrating in my hand almost immediately.
I was instantly wide awake. Nobody had my phone number. And nobody would call at 11:52 at night. It was a text message:
If you are in Motel 6 Shrvpt get out now. Io
I rapped on the side of my head where the titanium plate was: tink tink tink. "Still think I'm too paranoid, Master Chief?"
Edited By The Black Knight and a mystery person who doesn't want a credit.