The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #1: Once you have arrived at your assigned location, hunker down and wait for ancillary instructions from your Assignment Coach.
A lamppost lit view from the window—crows quarrel over a dead rat in the gutter.
CNN, I haven’t turned it off for two weeks. Images of desert proxy-wars percolate through the cable; ISIS driving US Iraq-abandoned Humvees and armoured vehicles; teenage recruits firing AK-47s into the Mosul sky. Domestically, unarmed American black men shot dead while reaching for their ID; the unqualified buzzkill of the Republican National Convention.
The assignment is to instigate a shakeup, by diverting the ginger haired sociopath’s motorcade down the street below my window. I have his picture taped to the wall, a smug man in orbit round himself. He’s got Secret Service protection, naturally. That will complicate things. There’ll be revolution if I accomplish my assignment. A master class in failed democracy, for all those who care to attend, and everyone must.
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #4: Continue to take prescribed performance enhancing drugs until instructed to discontinue.
There’s food for a few more days, and I keep my iPhone charged. They may have forgotten me, or abandoned my mission without bothering to call. This happens from time to time. I continued to inject the methamphetamine they supplied me with in ever increasing dosages, against protocol, and my supply ran out two days ago. The situation has become dire.
The room’s haunted, or I’m hallucinating. The ghosts walk through one wall, across the room, and disappear into the other.
Out of boredom, I disassemble and clean the rifle twice a day, being careful with the scope. Its zero’s set. The octanitrocubane satchel charges are in an Eddie Bauer backpack on the nightstand. An RPG launcher, with rocket mounted, stands in the corner by the door, like an umbrella waiting for rain. I’ve spent days wondering if these are the right tools for the job, but they’ll have to be.
My room is well situated over the busy skid row street below, Central Avenue. The hotel is old, though. It disgusts me. It’s a slum, on the edge of a vast precinct of slums and housing projects. There are rats in the walls, junkies in the halls. Roaches fuck in the empty soup cans I’ve thrown onto the floor. The deranged and the addicted come here to die. A woman’s body was retrieved from the stuck elevator, yesterday. She died waiting for rescue that never came. Her screams and weeping went on for days, getting quieter over time, until only the hush of ordinary cruelty remained. She must have died slowly in the dark, jonesing all the way. Her body had been in there for a week, before a repairman found it. The rising smell alerted no one.
The iPhone rings. For some reason the ringtone is Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock. I make sure that the triple encryption is on, and answer.
“There’s been a delay,” someone says. “The target’s gone off the radar, so to speak.”
It’s a voice I know. A woman I must have met at indoctrination, or during training. Nameless, monotone. A survivor of enough assassination assignments, I assume, to have earned a telephone on a desk in a cubicle, surrounded by a hundred other Assignment Coaches, each managing multiple operatives in various stages of waiting, execution or flight.
“Yes?” I say. “What do you mean by delay?”
“I mean that you have to hold on,” she says.
“For how long?”
“We’ll be in touch.”
“Wait! Don’t hang up.”
“I need things,” I say.
“We gave you expense money.”
“I can’t leave, though—in case….”
“Don’t worry about that,” says the woman. “The target’s stationary, for the moment. It’s his day off. He’s at the Marriott downtown, probably sweating all over some twelve year old they scooped at the mall. He won’t go mobile for another eighteen hours. Besides, yours is only one of several possible routes to the airport. The itinerary is open to change. Go out and get what you need. Get receipts.”
“I need more shit. I don’t think dealers give receipts.”
“Shit? What do mean?”
“Crank,” I say. “Meth.”
“Discontinue use. You don’t need it at the moment. Things have stalled. We’ll let you know when it’s necessary to start taking it again. Stand down, rest up.”
“You can’t be serious. Fuck, I need it. I can’t go without it now.”
“Symptoms of withdrawal are to be expected,” says the woman. “You’re sleep deprived. Take a nap, and endure.”
“You must be joking. I’m crashing like a Malaysian 777. I was told to take it, to keep myself ready. Now I really need it. You’re right, I haven’t slept for days. There’re ghosts….”
There’s a click, and a fresh silence on the line.
I’ve been watching the dealers on the street from my window since I arrived. They’re mostly pink-cheeked, clean-jeaned juveniles who drive in from out of the neighbourhood. Their bosses use them because they aren’t hooked, yet. It’s thought that they won’t swallow, snort or inject the inventory. But when they finally do, which is inevitable, they’re damned where they stand.
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #10: When told to stand-down by your Assignment Coach, rest, restock and study analysis.
For the first time in days, I leave my room to go outside, and pass through the lobby on my way. The lobby’s post-apocalyptic. It’s an impact crater. More ghosts. There are three frail old men, sitting in a shabby row. Threadbare clothes on a threadbare couch. Hoary hands on canes. I can see right through them. A woman in a corner confers with her own personal invisible, beneath a dark and dusty framed picture of a nineteenth century aristocrat on a stallion in the countryside. The clerk sitting behind the wire-mesh glass looks up from his internet porn; someone naked, in handcuffs on the screen.
Outside, the sidewalk’s a perpetual motion machine. Dead storefronts, faded graffiti, prison tattoos. Scammers, hookers, junkies and dealers. Bodies nudged over to the curb. Vehicle traffic hardly moves. There’s a slow procession round the block, men driving family cars, looking for bargain basement sex. Lunatics cross the street blindly. The cops cruise through occasionally, but never stop. It’s a bottleneck. Only a major emergency detour would force the target’s motorcade down such an impassable street. That must be the plan.
I haven’t changed my clothes or taken a shower for more than two weeks. I blend in. There’s a dealer I recognise from looking out of my hotel room window a few feet away, talking to a drag queen. The dealer’s white, dressed like a department store rapper, trying too hard. I approach, and stand next to him with my fists in my pockets, tight and trembling. He takes one look and walks away. Shit.
The drag queen looks me over.
“You’re some kinda fucked up, boy,” she says. “You gonna follow him, or just stand there and melt?”
I shiver and smile. Now I get it. I’m supposed to follow the dealer to a more practical spot. I go and find him in the crowd.
The deal takes place mid-block, away from the corner, beneath a broken surveillance camera. We’re surrounded, hidden in the chaos. Our eye contact is brief. He’s impatient.
“What you want?” he says, trying to sound bad, missing the mark.
“Meth,” I say.
“You stink, man.”
“You shit your pants?”
“I might have,” I say. “I don’t remember.”
“How much you want?”
“Fifty dollars,” I say. “What will that get me?”
“What kinda junkie are you, don’t know what fifty’ll get you?”
“You’re a cop.”
“Hell no. Do I smell like a cop?”
“No,” he says. “You smell like a pig.”
“C’mon, I got the money here in my hand. See?”
What follows is a relaxed current of motion, a clandestine double jointed hand-off. The ease of it surprises me. I’ve never done this before, but something occult inside of me has assumed control. Drugs and money exchange simultaneously, in what looks like a failed handshake, after which the dealer looks away. It’s over, fast. I got more for my money than I’d guessed.
For the dealer, though, I no longer exist. If I was on fire, he’d just step away. He hates junkies. I should go and shoot-up, but I resent his attitude. I stare, and hate him back.
“You have nightmares,” I say, but don’t know why. Maybe it’s the same death wish that got me here in the first place.
“What? Fuck you. Fuck off.”
“It’s the junkies,” I say. “People like me, your clientele.”
“Don’t push it, freak. Disappear.”
“We occupy your sleep, like insurgents.”
“I’m warning you,” says the dealer, drawing a switchblade, making a show of it. It snaps open.
I can’t stop, though. Violent isolation and vivid cravings have transformed me, have somehow made me telepathic. I see deeply inside of him. He’s a piss-puddle of dread. The knife in his hand is meaningless.
“Junkies surround you in your worst dreams,” I continue. “Don’t we? Clawing at you, grasping and pulling you down onto the pavement. Legions of us. Tearing your skin right down to the bone, ripping out your eyes with our filthy fingernails, stabbing you with dirty syringes, each one of us looking for a fix. Ten thousand fixes, a hundred thousand. We want what you can’t possibly deliver. You struggle. You call out for your mamma. You seek Jesus. You’re desperate to escape. You’re in agony, but we won’t back off. We’re mutilating you. Smothering you in our stench. But you can’t stop us. You wake up screaming; you’ve wet yourself. The fear feels like a bullet in your gut. You fumble like a fool, reaching for a weapon. But who are you gonna kill, nightmare tweekers or yourself? And when the nightmare’s all over, and you’ve put the panic back into its tiny cupboard somewhere in your sick little brain, you still know that you have to return here, this sidewalk, with your pockets full of junk, the terror phosphorescent on your skin. Just look at you, you pathetic sack of shit.”
His eyes are wide, chin back, shoulders up. I’ve tapped into something. How or why’s a mystery. Maybe clairvoyance is a gift of sleeplessness, appearing without restraint.
Without warning, he thrusts his blade into my side, through the ribs. The force of the blow, his fist on the handle of the knife, throws me off balance. I stagger and fall. He walks away. The fluid crowd fills his vacated space. No one looks down at me, as I scramble to stand.
Then I hear Jailhouse Rock, and answer the phone.
“Hello,” I say. The knife has pierced a lung. I’m coughing blood. I try to focus. I’m drooling dark red spittle.
“He’s moving,” I hear my Assignment Coach say. “We didn’t expect it. Protests are springing up across the city, and the protesters are way more organised than we thought they’d be. They’ve blocked nearly every possible escape route. His motorcade may be coming your way. Where are you?”
“On the street.” I touch my side where the knife went in. Lung blood, everywhere.
“Get back up to your room,” says the Coach. “You’ll know if the motorcade is coming your way when you hear three explosions a couple of blocks away. Car-bombs. The blasts will box them in on three sides, we hope. Turning left down Central will be their only option. The bombs will detonate simultaneously. Wait for them before you make a move. The cops will try to clear the street. The SUVs may even take to the sidewalk, but even if they do the convoy will be moving slow enough for you to get off your shots.”
Get off my shots.
“I’ve been thinking,” I say. “The rifle you gave me, and the SUV’s bulletproof glass, they don’t add up.”
“You have what you need. Take the initiative. Do what you have to.”
“Yes, but a little direction from your end would…. Hello?”
A familiar silence.
I run into the hotel and up the stairs. The lock on the door to my room is sticky—the key won’t turn. Several tries, and after dropping the keys multiple times, it finally opens. The rifle is disassembled and lies on an oil cloth on the bed. I’ll have to reassemble it. Where did I put the shells? Panic.
Rigs and other paraphernalia are on the dilapidated dresser. I throw down two small baggies of crank, and then look into the cracked mirror above the dresser. In just two weeks, I’ve become a zombie. What happened? Who cares? I begin the mix, using water from the swamp toilet down the hall. Two points—no, three points—to 12 units of water, then I load the syringe. There are still good veins in my arm, in spite of the bruising and spreading infections. Finally, it’s time to inject. The sting of the needle piercing the skin sets off a conditioned flow of endorphins in my brain, not the buzz I’m looking for, but at last a sign of hope. I’m moments away—
And in a second long precursor to catastrophe, time dies, and is then ferociously resurrected.
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Appendix 6, Sec. 9.7—Explosives in an Urban Setting—Lateral Damage: A blast wave is pressure expanding supersonically from an explosive core, preceded by a shock of compressed gases. The detonation of explosives in a city setting differs from that in an open area, like a battle field. In a city, the blast wave will be forced to funnel along the street grid, and be constrained by structures along its path, making the potential for significant lateral damage very high.
The sound of the blasts is deafening. The building quakes, and I look up from my arm in time to see the window shatter, and feel a fast moving wave of glass missiles, large, small and microscopic, wash over me as I’m pushed off of my feet and onto the floor.
My face and other exposed bits of me have been torn to shreds. My clothes have been ripped to pieces. I’m oozing blood and macrophage from the neck up, and I’m nearly deaf. The syringe remains full, but its needle is bent in my vein. Blood runs into my now lidless right eye, from above where the flesh of my forehead once was. I blink, and try pushing the plunger down. It won’t budge.
From somewhere nearby, I hear a faint rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I answer the phone: “What the fuck. Are you using nukes?” I lisp and slur my words. Large portions of my lips and cheeks are gone.
“It was a bit too much, I admit,” says my Coach. I can barely hear her, but it’s obvious that she’s rattled.
“Speak up,” I shout.
“We’re sorry,” she hollers. “We used ISIS defectors to build and plant the car bombs. We flew them in from Iraq last week. They’ll provide us with a plausible deniability mechanism, but they clearly lack the subtlety necessary for a more civilized milieu. That’s beside the point, though. Are you still viable?”
Viable? I’m on the floor with much of my facial epidermis ripped away, I have what I must assume is an ultimately fatal stab wound to my lung, and I still need a fix.
Standing up, I jam the iPhone between my shoulder and what’s left of my ear. It nearly slithers away in a smear of blood.
I try to remove the syringe from my arm. It breaks, but the needle remains steadfastly hooked into my vein. What’s left of the meth and remaining syringes have been blown off the top of the dresser, to who knows where. I begin to hack up blood again, more with each cough.
“I’m viable,” I say—cough, cough, cough. Spit.
“Good,” says the Assignment Coach. “Maybe we overdid it, but the plan worked. The motorcade was forced to turn left. We’re following it now, via satellite. They’ve stopped for the moment, but they’re headed in your direction, very slowly. There’re bodies everywhere, but there’s also a mob forming on the road. Mass-hysteria caused by the blasts, who knows? Radio chatter indicates that the police, wherever the hell they are, are preparing to use tear gas. Your neighbourhood’s gone berserk. Looting’s already begun. Looks like we’ve provoked a riot. Unintentional, but perhaps to our advantage. Get to work.”
I disconnect, and do a quick inventory. It’s time. The sniper rifle, the Armalite AR-50, even with the armor piercing incendiary shells, probably won’t do the job unless I’m closer. I’m going through serious withdrawal now, my hands too shaky to reassemble it properly, or get off an accurate shot.
I grab a Glock and extra clips from the nightstand, and the backpack of satchel charges. Then the RPG launcher, with the rocket attached.
Then I take a moment to tug at the needle hooked into my forearm. It’s good and stuck. Looking into the mirror again, I see the zombie only without a face, just gore and flesh fragments, exposed bone, teeth and lidless left eye. The zombie’s carrying a polymer-framed automatic handgun, rocket launcher and enough explosives to take down the hotel and every adjacent building for a block and a half. I open my hotel room door and run, through the haunted lobby and out onto the street.
In a very short time, the desperate people of a desperate neighbourhood have risen up. Whore hunting family men are being pulled from their cars, robbed and beaten, their vehicles set ablaze. Pawnshops and convenience stores are being raided, the proprietors shooting back. Three motorcycle cops try to navigate and take control of the throng. They blow their whistles, sound their sirens and rev their engines, and are quickly taken down. A pickup truck drives by with thugs in the back, wielding AR-15s. Suddenly, it looks like Baghdad, only with Hip Hop music and gangbanger wheel hubs.
Standing on a bus stop bench, I scan the stormy scene. Then I see them. A half a block away, approaching through the swarm, three SUVs. All of them with men wearing flack vests over their starched white shirts and striped ties, standing on the running boards, firing indiscriminately into the crowd with fully automatic assault rifles.
It’s my target; my long awaited love.
I jump off the bench, moving mechanically, getting closer, looking for the best vantage. I’m walking quickly, as implanted data begins to flow in my head, like an organic code. Then I hear, with my nearly deaf ears, what might be the screech of tires behind me. I turn round, and there’s the pickup, with seven heavily armed locals in the back.
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #28: Recruit local inhabitants to your ends, wherever and whenever possible.
The passenger side door opens, and a well-dressed man of the hood steps out, with a .45 auto in his hand. This is no department store rapper. From his stance and cold approach, I can tell that he’s something else, altogether. He’s a warrior, and this is the beginning of his war.
“Where’s yo face at?” he says, making me aware once more, that I’m a virtually faceless man, bleeding profusely from my side. I hack up more blood.
“Most of it’s back in my room,” I say, lisping and slurring.
He folds his arms and strokes his chin.
“And what’s that for, Frankenstein?” He points at the rocket launcher.
“I’m on an assignment,” I say. “You see those SUVs stuck up the street?” I thumb over my shoulder. “That’s the apricot dick-weed nominee you’ve been watching for the past year, saying he’s gonna build a wall and make America safe for white people again. Someone on high thinks he might win the election, so I’m here to frost his cake.”
“For real?” says the Warrior. “You a shooter?”
“And that be him, Mr Whitey Man Tan?”
“I hate that mother fucker.”
“He hates you more,” I say.
“He ain’t got no right comin’ down here after the shit he’s been sayin’.”
“Hey,” a teenager shouts from the truck, “his guards are killing everyone.”
“Shit,” says the Warrior. “How much you want for that rocket gun, you got there?”
“Waddaya you give me?” I say, my allegiance to the cause rapidly dissolving.
“Hundred,” he says.
“Two,” I counter.
He pulls out a wad, and peels off the bills. I offer over the weapon.
“Glock for sale, too?” he says.
“No way. This chunk might help me get out alive.”
“Ain’t no one gettin’ outta this alive,” says the Warrior, and taking the rocket launcher form my hand, he aims it at me. I wink back, reach forward, and release the safety.
“Now you’re ready, my friend,” I say. “But don’t waste it on me.”
“Ain’t gonna,” he says. “Just seein’ what you’d do. You cool, for such a gruesome mother fucker.”
“Thanks,” I say, and pulling a small brown booklet out of my back pocket, I recite—
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #11: When attempting to disable a lightly armoured civilian vehicle with a rocket propelled grenade, fire first on the front wheels to disenable steering, forward mobility and braking capacity, thus rendering the vehicle immobile. Then attack the body of the vehicle with remaining rockets and or whatever weapons remain.
“Righteous,” says the Warrior.
Then I take a satchel charge out of the backpack, and recite again, The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #17: Nothing is bombproof, provided the bomb is large enough, and well enough placed.
“I’ll throw these in,” I say, pointing out the triggering mechanism. “You only got ten seconds to get the hell outta Dodge once that’s set. Then take cover, baby. Works best when placed directly under the vehicle, so you or one of your homies has got to get in close.”
“Fuck yeah!” he says, grabs the pack, and gets back into the truck. He smiles and waves as he and his crew drive away, up the street toward the stationary trio of SUVs.
* * * * * * *
The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #35: After successfully completing an assignment, wait for the Assignment Coach to contact you. Be patient, as this may take a while. Do not seek medical aid if injured, no matter your condition, as doing so may draw attention to, and compromise, your mission.
I think about Rule #35 as I lay in a morphine haze, watching a TV screen, from a gurney in a hospital emergency ward gone mad. I arrived here in an ambulance filled with six other seriously injured street people, and have been triaged to near the front of a very long line.
Fox News footage shot from a helicopter is repeated over and over as the world marvels at the unanticipated and improbable end of a wanna-be politician. Some mourn and some cheer as images of his body, in a lake of blood on the pavement fades into a television commercial for Walmart.