Retired Delta Force operator, Master Sergeant Jonathan "Jad" Bell, is Wilsonville's lead undercover security officer. The threat begins with the announcement of a hidden dirty bomb, but quickly becomes something far, far worse.
Trained since the age of seventeen to save innocent victims from impossible hostage situations, Jad scrambles to assess the threat and protect the visitors. He will come face to face with a villain whose training matches his in every way-and presents a threat Jad may not be able to stop.
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By Rucka, Greg
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2012 Rucka, Greg
All right reserved.
Mario Vesques was sure he was going to make it, right up until he saw the knife in the dog’s hand.
He had no idea where the blade came from; what he did have was just enough time to realize he was in trouble, and then the cartoon animal was lunging at him in a way that Vesques recognized, had seen before, but yet couldn’t immediately place. Only as he got his left forearm up for a cross-block, felt the tip of the knife nicking skin as it split his sleeve, did it click.
Modern Army, as taught at Fort Benning, Georgia, courtesy of the United States Army; and through the adrenaline rush he saw the irony that he and whoever was wearing the Pooch suit shared the same pedigree. The absurdity of it all—Vesques in his maintenance coveralls and this man in his dog suit, right paw missing to reveal a Caucasian hand and the blade it held—that they had shared, at some point, the same masters, perhaps the same history, perhaps even the same instructors. That they might’ve, somewhere, sometime, stood together as brothers in arms.
But the blade was stabbing at him again and again, and Vesques was backpedaling now, stumbling once more through the door he’d just exited, the compressor room off the Flashman West maintenance tunnel, the one running east-west the length of the park. Dimmer light within, after-hours power management, and Vesques knew the room was a death trap, that there was no way out of it other than the one the dog now blocked.
The whole thing had been a fluke, what had seemed to be, finally, a stroke of good luck that had turned inexplicably, absurdly bad. Six weeks almost Vesques had been working the park, placed there just to make sure things stayed safe, that no one got bold, got any bright ideas. Six weeks working on a whisper that nobody believed would pan out—and he didn’t, either, to tell the truth, thought it another wild-goose assignment. But he did his job, the job he was trained to do, and tonight—tonight—he had thought about maybe checking the compressors, just to be sure. He hadn’t known what he was looking for, but intuition had said, hey, air-conditioning, put something into circulation, and he had listened, because in training they had told him that intuition was more often what would save his life than take it.
Except this time.
After-hours staffing, maintenance and custodial working one to six, nobody supposed to be around except other men and women wearing the same coveralls Mario Vesques now wore. Which was why, when he saw Pooch heading into compressor 4, off Flashman West, well, that was definitely worth checking out. Which was why he’d waited until Pooch had emerged again after two minutes, had headed down the tunnel and disappeared, before going to take a look himself.
Shining his flashlight over and around the ductwork, the pipes and compressors, even getting down on his belly until the beam revealed a shape just poking out from behind the compressor itself. Reaching, straining for it, and his fingers had closed on the tail of a nylon duffel bag. Pulled the bag free, looked inside. A folded, paper-thin jumpsuit. A gas mask. A disassembled pistol, and Vesques guessed that was how it had entered the park, one piece at a time. A cell phone, but that wasn’t the jackpot, as far as he was concerned. The jackpot was the radio, military-grade hardware with not one but two extra batteries, and that meant there was a plan in place, one that required communication and coordination, and this was only one part of it.
So he zipped the duffel shut and he put it back where it belonged, and on a whim swept his light around the room one more time, into the dark corners. Reflected light jumped back at him.
He’d gone in for a closer look, seen that his flashlight had bounced from the screen of a disposable cell phone, and that the phone wasn’t alone. Wired up, and good, a proper IED, but a small one, so small he could barely find the charge on it. The phone itself taped to a small plastic baggie, and powder in the baggie, and his throat had gone dry at that. Not the explosive, oh, no, that wasn’t what made his stomach cramp; but that powder, whatever that powder might be, he was sure that was trouble.
Trouble enough that it was time to go, time to make the call and report what he’d found. Time to maybe get the operators in here, people who knew what they were doing with biological agents and IEDs and the like.
Left it where he found it, and he’d backed out of the room, turned, and seen Pooch ten feet away.
Holding a knife.
Tools on his belt jangling, flashlight still in hand, Vesques brought it up, across, trying to club at the hand holding the knife. Hitting high, what should’ve been a bone-crushing blow lost in the padding on the costumed arm, and now Pooch was slamming into him, full-body, the same costume cushioning the impact but doing nothing to diminish the weight. They fell back together, Vesques dropping the flashlight, both hands seeking the knife, and then the white heat bursting through his vision.
Tasting copper in his mouth.
The vibration of his head hitting concrete again, the blurred flash of Pooch looming over him, human hand and dog’s paw, the knife gone. His hair tearing. Kicking back, struggling, and then the world losing sound, vision splintering, as his skull was bashed into the floor.
And his last thought, bitter and angry, as he saw Pooch’s insipid, eternal grin.
“Just how old are you?” Bell asks.
She stops, her back to him, arms raised, T-shirt exposing bare back to bra. It’s ten at night in Skagway, Alaska, the start of July, and sunlight still hints the sky, slants through the blinds at the window, touching pale skin and painting it bronze. Then she finishes the movement, draws the shirt over her head, discards it with a toss as her black hair falls down her back. She half turns, grins at him, pure mirth.
“Old enough,” she says.
This is probably true, Bell thinks, at least in the abstract. Most of the summer population up here are college kids, working forest-service internships or manning the cafés and storefront industries that cater to the regularly scheduled cruise ship arrivals. Tourists come like clockwork, swarm through the town like worker ants in a managed rush for souvenirs and photographs, retreat before dinner for their all-you-can-eat floating buffets. This girl, she’s at least twenty, Bell figures, though he could be wrong; gauging ages has never been his strongest suit. Height, weight, distinguishing details, those he can record and repeat at the drop of a hat, nearly twenty years of training having turned the act into one of instinct. But ages? He’s never gotten the hang of that, and it’s been nagging him for the last two weeks of flirtation with this young woman who’s been pouring his morning coffee at the Black Bean. Now she’s unlacing her hiking boots, and not unintentionally giving him a view of her cleavage, and Bell has to admit that her cleavage, like the rest of her, is more than a little alluring.
Boots, kicked off, land in the corner, and she straightens to face him while reaching around to unfasten her bra. She’s grinning like before, white teeth visible in her growing smile, an amusement that again has Bell wondering at her age. Young enough that sex is a game, something only ever played for fun. It’s been a long time since he stood in front of someone like this, to do this, and instead of feeling older than she, now he’s feeling suddenly younger, adolescent and hormonal, and he resists the urge to mock himself.
“Why?” she asks. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better.”
That gets a laugh, and she begins unbuttoning her Levi’s.
“You going to watch or get undressed?”
Bell thinks that getting undressed is probably the best idea.
There are two sniper teams positioned around the market square, two men to each, and Bell has command. They came in at night unseen, buried themselves amid wreckage and refuse, two rifles, two cones of fire, and a long wait for a killing that may not come to pass. CIA intel fed through JSOC and into the field, and four operators are now in a place they technically shouldn’t be, waiting to kill a very, very bad man. It is a dawn that calls for precision work.
“Spell me,” Bell says, taking his eye from the scope, lowering his head, blinking fatigue away. Despite six hours of motionless waiting, his body feels fine, relaxed and steady. It’s the eye that needs the regularly scheduled maintenance. Beside him, Chaindragger shifts from behind the spotting scope, settles behind the rifle. Somewhere across the square, Cardboard and Bonebreaker are doing the same thing, alternating watch to stay razor-ready.
Sun rises, bleaching the world with heat, the square coming alive. Old men with white beards and ageless women swathed in black, children beginning to spill from homes and hovels, raising dust as they play. Bell watches as six of them begin kicking a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags and all the tape they could scrounge up. It’s a good ball. When the smallest of the players pounds a kick into it, it flies true.
Bone’s voice comes into his ear. “Warlock? Vehicle, White.”
Bell swings the spotting scope to the north side of the square, picks up the vehicle instantly. It’s a battered Benz thirty-plus years past warranty, rusted panels and peeling paint. The car coasts to a stop, squeezes between a Transit van and a donkey cart, idles. A Toyota pickup slides past. The Benz rolls forward another twenty meters or so. Stops again, now alongside the largest of the fruit-and-grain stalls on the square. Door opens.
“That him?” Chaindragger murmurs.
Bell stays on the man, the weathered skin and scraggly beard. Boy’s eyes in a man’s face.
“Red,” Bell says, and he keys his mike. “Red. Negative target.”
Confirmations come back. Bell watches the man vanish into the crowd, disappear forever.
There’s silence, but Bell knows they’re all thinking the same thing.
“Warlock?” Bone says, finally. “This is some fucked-up shit.”
Bell says nothing for several seconds before rolling to his side and reaching for the sat phone that leads back to Brickyard. “Fuck it,” he says. “Sending it uphill.”
“Roger that,” Chaindragger says with quiet emphasis.
The square continues filling up, full of life. The Benz isn’t the only car in the square, not by a long shot.
But all four shooters know it’s the only one that’s going to explode.
The last sunlight goes, replaced by a low moonrise, and she comes back from the bathroom carrying a glass of water, stops at the side of the bed. Bell, on his back, looks up at her, watches as she drinks, then brings the water to his lips as if aiding an invalid. He swallows, feeling thick and drowsy, out of practice in too many ways. The last time he had sex was with Amy, four months ago now, just after the divorce went final. A final fuck hurrah, making love with a passion that took them both by surprise. After, they’d lain together for half an hour in silence before she’d left his side for the last time, moving to dress.
“Why are we doing this again?” Bell asked.
“Because you’re a good lay,” Amy said. “And so am I.”
“Not my reference.”
“I know your reference, soldier.” She turned from his gaze to pull on her panties, an awkward modesty that transformed eighteen years of marriage, of intimacy, into wasted days. “We don’t love each other anymore.”
This girl, who’s not Amy, sets the glass aside, then slips back into the bed, rolling onto her belly, breasts pressing against Bell’s chest. He feels where her body has turned cool from the night air beyond the blankets, feels her stealing his own body heat to replace hers. She props herself up on an elbow, rests a cheek in her palm. With her other hand, she begins to tour his body. An index finger traces the puckered line along Bell’s left shoulder.
“How’d you get this?”
Bell turns his head to look at the scar, turns his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I got shot.”
“You were in Iraq?”
She laughs, concluding that nothing he says can be trusted. Drags a finger across Bell’s chest, then down, stopping at the right lower abdominal. “This one?”
Her hand moves lower, takes a slight detour, and she offers a naughty grin before continuing to his right thigh.
“Something sharp, yeah.”
Bell obliges. She examines his arms, takes his right hand in hers. He feels the slight brush of her fingertip between his thumb and forefinger, distant, as if from far away.
“This a callus?”
“That is a callus.”
“How do you get a callus like that? There?”
It’s a gun callus, earned by putting thousands of rounds through a pistol seven days a week, from morning to night to morning again. It’s earned on the range and in the Shooting House, live-fire exercises on endless repeat until shooting is like breathing, until missing is Not An Option, and it’s kept by taking that honed skill and applying it to the enemy. It is a killer’s callus, a warrior’s mark, an operator’s badge of honor.
He doesn’t say any of that.
“Yard work,” Bell tells her.
She looks at him, eyebrow arched, then bends her head so her hair brushes over him in a wave. He feels her tongue light between his fingers, her lips as she kisses her way along his arm, onto his back, where she stops again.
“Wasn’t too bad.”
“Does it hurt?” she asks. “Getting shot?”
He doesn’t answer at first. Thinking of Amy again, how she never once asked. How her face would fall and her eyes would turn dark, how her lips would draw thin and tight. But she would never make a sound. She never would ask.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Bell says.
Bell switches the sat phone off. Chaindragger’s heard just one half of the conversation, but he knows what’s coming, and still he hasn’t moved.
“Pack it up,” Bell says, and then says it again for the benefit of the radios.
“We got a VBIED parked down there—,” Bone starts to say.
“We are ordered to pull out.” Bell cuts him off. “Brickyard says mission abort, return to LZ Venus.”
There is another heartbeat’s pause, then the confirmations come back to Bell’s ear. Chaindragger is already at his knees, breaking down the rifle. A shout carries through the hot, still air, and Bell looks out at the square once more. Without optics, more than one hundred meters away, figures look like animation tests, waggling, hopping, running back and forth. He sees the makeshift soccer ball sailing through the air, bounce to a stop in front of the parked Benz.
“Sons of bitches,” he mutters.
Chaindragger looks up at him. Like Bell and the rest of the squad, he’s let his hair grow out, now to his shoulders, his beard a scraggly mass of black hanging from his coffee-dark face. Wearing the local color, the way all of them are, baggy trousers and a long shirt-coat to the thighs.
“It’s wrong, Top,” Chaindragger says. “We’re better than this.”
Bell blinks at him. Looks back to the square, the sun now high enough to give glare to the air itself, it seems. He sighs, knowing he’ll catch hell for this from every echelon between here and Florida.
“LZ Venus.” Bell pulls his pistol from where it’s been riding at the small of his back, moves it to the front of his pants, then heads for the stairs. “I’ll catch up.”
He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking one of the American Spirits from her pack, when daylight begins to return. Dawn peeking through the blinds, as if hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto. She’s sleeping still, her lips parted slightly, as if, even in dreams, she remains mildly amused by Jad Bell.
Bell finishes the smoke, walks to the window, pulls the tilt cord, and the slats part and more light flows. He feels it on his naked body, stares out at the trees, wondering how much longer he’ll have to do this, wondering when it’ll end. He’s made his way from Baja to here in the last four months, left the day after the papers were signed. Hugging the coast north, sleeping in his car or in a tent or just under the stars, taking the odd job now and again. Video chats via laptop with Amy every week, mostly so he could talk to Athena. They didn’t have much to say; she was pissed as hell at him, and he couldn’t blame her. She was six when the war started, Bell remembers. Ten years is a long time.
Guilt flashes, and he turns to look at the girl in the bed, sees that she’s opened her eyes, is watching him. The smile is gone.
“You want to talk about it?” she asks.
“No,” Bell tells her, and turns back to the window.
Bell runs a circuit of the square, keeping eyes on the Benz, and he’s thinking the whole time that there’s a whole slew of reasons Brickyard told them to abort, and that getting atomized by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device is probably at the top of that list.
This is a fucking fool’s errand, Bell thinks. VBIED, and too many variables. Is it on a timer? Is it call-in activated? Radio detonated? And if one of the last two, then some son of a bitch is on overwatch with a phone or transmitter in his hand, waiting to press the button, and he will—he absofuckinglutely will—do just that thing if he sees Bell getting curious about the Benz.
Which means approaching that car is out of the question, at least for the moment.
“Black, clear,” Cardboard says in his ear.
“The fuck are you doing?” Bell has to turn to a building face, keeping his voice low.
“Black is clear,” Cardboard repeats, the hint of his Alabama drawl stronger on the last word. “South of the square is clear. And as we were positioned Red and Green, then your overwatch on that vehicle, Warlock, we must deduce, is on White.”
Bell looks to the south side of the square, then the west, then the east. Colors are direction: White north, Black south, Red and Green for east and west respectively. Nowhere does he see Bone, Chaindragger, or Cardboard, but that’s not a surprise; no more of a surprise than the fact that none of the squad has done as ordered. Bell shakes his head slightly, then realizes the building he’s sheltering in front of is on the White side, the north side, of the square. If there’s overwatch on the VBIED, it’s going to be in here.
“Guess I better take a look inside,” he says.
“I guess you’d better,” Bonebreaker says, and Bell can swear to God the man’s trying not to laugh at him. “Unless you want someone to come hold your hand, Top?”
“Think I’ve got this—”
“Target, target, target,” Chaindragger hisses, cutting in. “Approaching Green, say again, I have eyes on target.”
He showers after her. She lives light, the bathroom uncluttered, only essentials, and apparently makeup consists of an eyeliner and a lipstick, both courtesy of Burt’s Bees. When he’s dressed, she takes his hand, and they walk together to the Bean along streets that are just beginning to stir. Her hand is warm and slight, and his feels big around it, and when they turn the corner onto Broadway she leans her head against his shoulder, squeezes his upper arm through the overshirt he’s wearing. Fourth of July bunting and American flags still hang from houses. Bell looks back, can see the stacks of two cruise ships in the port. It’s early enough that the onslaught has yet to begin.
They separate entering the Bean, she disappearing behind the counter into the back to emerge half a minute later tying a barista’s apron around her middle. There’s a scattering of local color present, and Bell earns a nod from one or two, recognition. He’s been around just long enough that the outsider edge is beginning to dull, but still, he’s viewed as transient. She pulls him a double espresso, puts a blueberry muffin on a chipped plate for him, brushes the back of his hand with hers as he takes them. Bell moves to a table with a view of the window. There’s a copy of the Skagway News on a chair, and he takes it up, reads while listening to the growing murmur of conversation around him. Outside, the first tourists have penetrated this far, peering into windows as if visiting a zoo.
He finishes his breakfast and she slips out from behind the counter, bringing him a new cup, fresh coffee this time, and takes the empty espresso away. Fingertips brush the back of his neck as he turns, and when he swings his head to follow her, she’s looking back at him, the mirthful grin, full of promise for tonight. He can’t help grinning in response, then turns back to the paper, catches sight of a man he knows too well through the window, on the opposite side of the street, moving among the clots of tourists.
He folds his newspaper, sips his coffee, watches this man he knows step inside. Watches him stop at the counter, talk to her. A coffee to go. He exits again with paper cup in hand, turning right, past the window once more, then out of sight.
For a moment, Bell seriously considers not moving, and the thought surprises him. He likes Skagway, he likes this girl, this place, mucking through the woods and fly fishing, the thought of the solitary, silent winters, and, he realizes, there would be worse places to live and die. But he no sooner thinks it than he knows it’s not home, though he’s damned if he knows what or where home is anymore.
He takes his coffee with him as he steps outside.
She watches him go, wonders why he didn’t say good-bye.
“Board, Bone,” Bell says. “Clear White.”
Both men come back, roger that. Bell can hear each of them moving even in the brief instant they radio their confirmations.
“On Green, crossing Red. I’m parallel, ten meters.”
“Give him room to breathe.”
Bell steps out of the way of two burka-clad women walking hand in hand with their children. The noise in the square is constant—voices, livestock, vehicles, conversation and shouts, haggling and haranguing. Bone and Board pass him on either side, no one exchanging looks, and Bell picks up Chaindragger first, opposite him on the Black side, and then, a half second later, spots the target coming up to his left. The man is walking alone, indistinguishable from any other man in the market, indistinguishable from the squad, in fact. Just another tanned face in dusty clothes with a beard and ragged hair sticking out from beneath his hat. And like just about every other goddamn male over the age of ten in the region, packing an AK slung over his shoulder.
There is nothing good about this situation, Bell thinks. They move on target and it goes wrong, the overwatch on the Benz panics. It’s all about the timing now; if Board and Bone can locate and neutralize the overwatch, if they can secure the bomb, then he’ll have a free run on the target. But if they can’t, if the target doesn’t have the common decency to remove himself to a location where he can be quietly put down, the whole thing’s a scratch.
Bell times his approach, passes behind his target without a glance, and the man continues threading his way through the crowds. The plastic soccer ball suddenly rises, arcing through the air, and from the corner of his eye, Bell sees the target head it down, back to the cluster of kids. Laughter and approval, and for a second Bell wonders if those children would be so delighted if they knew the man who just joined their game for an instant has lost count of the men, women, and children he’s murdered.
“White Alpha, clear,” Bone says. “Moving to Bravo.”
First floor clear, moving to the second, and the building only offers three floors, which would make things so much easier, except it’s not the only building on that side of the square. Bell turns, following after the target, maybe eight meters between them. Chain is on his left, falling back; he’ll cut north, try to get ahead of their man.
They’re getting closer to that Benz.
“Bravo clear, moving to Charlie.”
Bell is about to confirm when there’s the rip of AK fire to his right, to the White, the north, side. The crisp crack of 7.62 on full auto, then a second assault rifle joining the first, and all at once the market square bursts into an entirely different frenzy, weapons slipping from shoulders, women and children starting to scatter as voices rise from warning to hysteria. The target stops and pivots, his weapon coming up in his hands, and Bell can read his calm amid the sudden chaos, knows that in half a second, the man in front of him will read the same thing, and see him as the enemy.
With no pause, still walking forward, Bell draws his pistol from its place at his waist and places two shots in the target, head and neck, a double-tap released without conscious thought. The target drops, deadweight, and Bell keeps moving, pistol now against his thigh. People surge on all sides, and for an instant Bell believes no one has noticed, is about to call for Bone and Board, for the Sitrep, when he finds himself staring at one of the soccer players, a boy no more than twelve, that absurd jury-rigged ball in his hands. For just that instant, they’re looking into one another’s eyes, and then Board is in his ear.
“Clear,” he’s saying. “Had it on dial-in, we’re clear.”
“Venus,” Bell says. “Now.”
They all roger that, and Bell and the boy stare at each other for a half second longer, and then the boy is backing away, turning, running. Chaindragger is coming toward Bell now, and they fall in together, picking up speed, starting to hustle with the crowd, blending in. Cardboard and Bonebreaker appear, making toward the Green side, but hold up for half a second, waiting so they can group up again. Bone takes the opportunity to look past them into the emptying square, spots the body on the ground.
“Paid in full,” he says.
Bell keeps moving. The flow of traffic has changed with the lack of gunfire, and now a woman screams, one of their freshly laid corpses revealed. People rush back into the square, voices rising again, confusion, consternation. They skirt the corner of the mosque, and they’re just about to turn when the pressure wave hits them, leading the blast from the Benz.
Bell feels himself lifted from the ground, feels his legs fly out from beneath him. He lands hard, somehow on his back, head ringing and bile in his throat. He attempts to roll, can’t manage it on the first try, curses himself, and pushes again, this time making it onto his stomach. He’s been turned around, he realizes, facing the square again.
The blessing of the blast is that it steals his hearing, and so he can’t hear the pain, only see it, but that, in its own way, makes it worse. Through dust and smoke, he can see that where the car was there is now nothing, a crater ringed in black, and all around, on every side, there is blood and meat and the dumb show of those miraculously spared blinking in their concussion-stupor. He hears a thread of someone’s keening, sees the dead. Old men and young, women and boys and girls, and there are the wounded, clutching at themselves where holes that shouldn’t be are, where limbs that once were have gone absent. Bell’s gaze falls on the boy, the plastic ball in his hand, its bottom half sheared by the blast.
Just like the boy.
Board is pulling Bell to his feet, shouting at him, words dim. Bell nods, knows what he’s asking. Bone is supporting Chain, blood rushing down the side of his face in a sheet. They push off, heading for their vehicle, then for Venus and Brickyard, trying to put this all behind them.
Knowing they never will.
Bell finds him two blocks down, standing at the corner, and it’d be a believable tourist act if it weren’t for the military-issue haircut and the ramrod posture. Civvies notwithstanding, you can take the man out of uniform, but some men—you will never take the uniform from the man.
“Jad,” the man says, apparently admiring the trees.
“Colonel,” Bell says.
The man turns to look at him, the slight curl of a smile as he takes Bell in, then shakes his head. “You look like a pilgrim who’s lost his way, Master Sergeant.”
Bell considers that, then finishes his coffee. There’s a garbage can at the edge of the abused lawn beside him, and he sets the empty cup atop it. “You’re here to help me find it?”
“I’m here to offer you a job,” Colonel Daniel Ruiz tells him.
The empire was born from a boy, a girl, and a dog.
This was post–Second World War, the start of the baby boom generation, and there was a market for all three, though the truth is that it was the dog who made things happen, it was Pooch who was the real hit, and Gordo and Betsy were really only along for the ride, at least at the start. But Willis Wilson, twenty-six years old and recently returned from the Western front, had just enough genius in him to market the dog with the brother-sister pair, and since you couldn’t get the one without the others, he succeeded in marketing all three at once. And market them he did, slipping between newly made Madison Avenue satin sheets with an eagerness that, to abuse the metaphor, would have made a whore blush.
The second part of Wilson’s genius was an understanding of the incipient collector’s nature of a child’s mind. Kids collect things; they always have. From interesting pebbles to pressed flowers to bits of string to baseball cards to comics to model horses to books about dinosaurs or trains or heavy earth-moving construction machines, collecting is, perhaps, one of the means by which children come to terms with their world, one of the means by which they learn.
And, certainly, one of the means by which they play.
With Gordo, Betsy, and Pooch, Wilson made damn certain that there was always something else to collect. The trio were recast over and over again, thrown into new environments with new accessories, new costumes, and new narratives to support them. All but the most basic sets were marketed in limited runs, available for only a limited time. Beginning with the Cowboys and Indians Set in 1948 (with Gordo the Cowboy, Betsy the Squaw, and Pooch the Texas Ranger Dog), followed closely by the Space Explorer Set (Gordo the Space Explorer, Betsy the Space Homemaker, and Pooch the Space Dog) the same year, and then by the All Grown Up Set (Gordo the Executive, Betsy the Homemaker, and Pooch the House Dog), Wilson Toys succeeded in making, marketing, and, most important, selling toys that children wanted.
With a vengeance.
Gordo and Betsy’s roster of friends grew. More accessories, more toys, more play sets, and, from there, books, radio, and, inevitably, television, and the metamorphosis of Wilson Toys into Wilson Entertainment. Lovable Pooch debuted on NBC in 1958, much in the mold of other children’s television programs of the time. Gordo and Betsy presented fun and games and displayed their commitment to self-promotion before a live studio audience, with each show culminating in the debut of an all-new Pooch cartoon. The show was staggering in its mediocrity, but it exploded the popularity of the characters. A second offering followed in 1961, the hour-long variety show Gordo and Betsy’s Showcase, which introduced and furthered the adventures of Wilson Entertainment’s ever-growing cast of characters.
By the time Gordo and Betsy’s Showcase went off the air in 1977, it had served as the gateway drug to Wilson Entertainment for three successive generations.
In 1955, Wilson purchased the rights to Clip Flashman, a second-tier pulp-comics character who had enjoyed brief popularity in the late thirties and early forties as a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon knockoff. Flashman, like his more successful counterparts, traveled interstellar space with his best girl, Penny, at his side, and between repeated battles to save the universe managed to seduce just about every alien queen he came across (and there were a lot of alien queens out there who needed seducing). Promoting “American values” even as he defended the Star System Alliance, the character was seen—even at the time—as laughably simplistic and painfully derivative.
Wilson saw the same in Clip Flashman, but he saw far greater potential, and set about revising the character in a manner that, much as he had with Gordo, Betsy, and Pooch, would enable Wilson Entertainment to exploit the franchise to its fullest. No longer was there Clip Flashman, Defender of the Star System Alliance. Now there was a comprehensive—and painfully complicated—Flashman mythology, which included a timeline that “discovered” other heroes of the same name and that recast Clip as a future iteration of a continuing and unbroken legacy of heroism. Clip was joined by Skip Flashman, Cowboy Extraordinaire; Royal Flashman, Backwoodsman and Revolutionary War Hero; Lion Flashman, Two-Fisted Adventurer; Justice Flashman, Secret Agent; Valiant Flashman, Knight of the Round Table; and, ultimately, the Flashman, Superhero.
The combination of complex mythology and endless collectibility made the Flashman franchise an enormous and immediate success among preteen and teenage boys. It certainly didn’t hurt that in every incarnation, Flashman had at least one sexy, mysterious femme fatale to tangle with time and again. By 1960, the year before Wilson’s passing, the Flashman franchise had expanded to novels and comic books, and the first of what would be many feature films was in development.
Upon his death, Wilson’s estate was inherited by his wife, Grace, and their two daughters. Like her husband, Grace had long since identified Disney as Wilson Entertainment’s main competitor, and while she lacked her husband’s creative spark, she more than made up for it with an almost savage business acumen. Despite the success of Pooch and his ilk, despite the continuing loyalty of the Flashman fan base, Wilson Entertainment had yet to break out of the American market, something that Grace understood as crucial to the company’s future. She wanted what she saw in Anaheim; she wanted a piece of the Disney pie, and to obtain that, she needed Disney’s universal appeal.
The problem was that Gordo and Betsy were unmistakably American, and, worse, rapidly becoming dated. Of all the Wilson Entertainment characters, including the Flashman franchise, Pooch was the only one to have made any substantial gains in the international market, primarily through animation. It didn’t take a market research team for Grace Wilson to see why: Pooch didn’t walk, didn’t talk, didn’t wear clothes. For all his lovable hijinks and overly affectionate lunacy, Pooch was, through and through, just a dog. And there are few animals as universally accepted and loved as a dog, as a quick peek over at Uncle Walt’s camp only served to emphasize.
It took six years of development, until 1967, before Grace Wilson introduced the Flower Sisters to the world in a debut as carefully orchestrated as any Wilson Entertainment had done before or has done since. Unveiled in Wilson Entertainment’s first full-length animated film, the Flower Sisters were targeted at the audience the Flashman franchise had left behind, namely, girls. Moreover, there wasn’t a human to be found anywhere in their domain. The Flower Sisters existed in the Wild World, where anthropomorphized animals walked and talked and wore wonderful clothes. A world where Lilac, a meerkat, and Lily, a gazelle, and Lavender, a lioness, could be the best of friends, and all share the same shy devotion to the noble Prince Stripe, Tiger of the Realm.
The movie became an instant classic. The dolls became instant bestsellers. And Grace Wilson got what she wanted.
The Flower Sisters were big in Japan.
Ground was broken for the Wilson Entertainment Park and Resort—commonly called WilsonVille—in April of 1978, near Irvine, California, with construction completed in January of 1980. Previews and VIP tours ran throughout the late spring, ending with the park’s grand opening on June 4. Like everything else Wilson Entertainment had done up to that point, it was an expertly executed affair, the culmination of nearly a decade’s marketing and sales work. The park had been rated by the Orange County fire marshal for a maximum capacity of one hundred thousand people, and all passes for the grand opening had been sold two years in advance of the day.
WilsonVille advertising took aim at Disney and the Magic Kingdom directly, painting the park in Anaheim as “tired” and “old.” WilsonVille, the advertising promised, was the newest, and the best, and had something for everyone. Guests could raid ancient pyramids with Lion Flashman in a desperate race to stop Agent Rose from escaping with the Mystic Eye of Ke-Sa. Parents and children were invited to float along the Timeless River with Lilac, Lily, and Lavender acting as their personal guides while they searched for the missing Prince Stripe. Children of all ages could experience screams and thrills as they rode the fastest, tallest wooden roller coaster in the world—Pooch Pursuit—based, marginally, on the Oscar-winning short cartoon of the same name.
And that was just what was featured in the brochure.
On average, WilsonVille sees more than thirty thousand visitors a day, more than twice that number during the peak summer season and on holidays—Christmas, New Year’s, and the Fourth of July all being exceptionally busy. A minimum of three thousand “Friends” staff the park, but the number can rise to just shy of six thousand during the aforementioned peak periods. “Friends” is the WilsonVille catch-all word to describe park staff, from the mostly unseen custodial crew to the performers working in costume on stage and at large in the park to the catering personnel and clerks. If you’re wearing a WilsonVille name tag, you’re everyone’s friend, whether you like it or not.
The park went nonsmoking in 1998, and alcohol is not permitted or served anywhere within its confines, save for the members-only club, the Speakeasy. The unmarked door to the club is concealed amid the apparent stonework walls adjacent to Agent Rose’s Safe House, beside a jewelry shop, and requires a password for entry. Membership is available solely to season-pass holders for an additional fee, and to select VIPs in the company of senior Wilson Entertainment officials.
WilsonVille is open from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year, although on Fridays and Saturdays there is a “Secret Sunrise,” when individuals who have purchased the privilege can enter the park as early as 7:00 a.m.
Since its opening, the park has ceased operations on only one occasion, September 11, 2001. Rides were brought to a halt and all attractions were closed. Park guests were then escorted by Friends from the premises via preestablished evacuation routes. Outside the park, they were refunded their entry fees and given free day passes by way of apology. The WilsonVille gates were then barred, and a security sweep of the entire 156-acre park, as well as its surrounding support buildings and parking structures, was performed.
Nothing was found.
The park resumed normal operations the following morning.
“You come recommended.” The man, Matthew Marcelin, smiles, shaking Bell’s hand. “Highly recommended.”
“All lies,” Bell says.
Marcelin laughs politely, raises the buff-colored folder in his free hand. The w-e of Wilson Entertainment is embossed, surprisingly subtly, on its face. “If so, you’ve got a lot of impressive people willing to lie on your behalf. Take a seat.”
Bell does, and Marcelin follows suit, dropping into a warship-gray Aeron chair behind a chrome-bordered desk. Bell puts him in his early forties, but he can’t be certain—that age thing again. The man is balding, bespectacled, and wearing a suit that puts the one Bell is wearing to shame, and Bell’s suit isn’t poorly made by any stretch. Marcelin sits with his back to the floor-to-ceiling tinted window, and through it Bell can see glimpses of Irvine and the profile of WilsonVille itself, the park visibly active even from this distance. The crests of two separate roller coasters, their trains of cars whipping in and out of view. There’s the point of a pyramid, and something that looks suspiciously like the summit of Mount Everest. A stretch of green, the canopy of some faraway and make-believe forest. Heat haze distorts it all, a sliver of the Pacific in the far distance, shimmering in the July Southern California sunshine.
Marcelin flips the folder open with one hand, uses the other to slide his mouse along a Gordo, Betsy, and Pooch mouse pad, clicks without looking at what he’s doing. Glances up at Bell with the briefly pained expression of a man who’s forgotten his manners.
“I didn’t ask: Would you like something to drink, Jon? Is Jon all right? Or do you prefer Jonathan?”
“Friends call me Jad.”
“Then I’ll take the invitation. Water? Soda? Coffee? We can do you a latte, if you like. There’s a barista in the lobby; I’m sure you passed the stand on the way in—no trouble to send someone down for something.”
Bell did indeed see the barista, a woman who in no way looked to him like the one at the Black Bean, the girl in Skagway, and yet by her presence brought her immediately back to mind. Steaming milk in a metal pitcher beneath a lobby-wide mural of the Flower Sisters and their friends, serving a line of Bluetooth-wearing executives, and Bell could swear they were all half his age.
“I’m good, thanks, Mr. Marcelin.”
“It’s Matt, please.”
“I’m good, thanks, Matt.”
Marcelin nods, drops his eyes to the folder again. His eyeglasses slide down his nose, and he uses his thumb to push them back into place, not his index finger. Bell notes it, hates himself for doing so, for thinking the gesture odd, for wondering what it might mean when it doesn’t have to mean anything. Marcelin is still reading, so Bell goes back to looking over the office.
It’s a big office, a corner office, but pretty much what Bell had been led to expect. Park memorabilia, statues of Pooch in various poses, some of Gordo and Betsy, too. A movie poster of the latest Flashman feature film, this one featuring Dread Flashman, pirate-rogue and Scourge of the Mirror Sea. A powered-down television set, and a remarkably modest glory wall of only three photographs. Bell takes that as a sign of Matthew Marcelin’s restraint, because Matthew Marcelin is chief of park operations and at a guess is pulling down seven figures annually, easy. A man like that is going to have more than just a photograph of himself with the current First Family; another with the assembled Friends of WilsonVille, taken—Bell assumes—outside the park gates; and another with the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“You talk to David Gonzalez recently?” Marcelin sits back in his chair as he asks the question, conversational. He’s got a good manner, and though they’ve only spoken once prior, by phone, he’s relaxed with Bell, as if he’s known him for years.
“You know David?”
“He does some consulting for us now that he’s left the Bureau.”
“Haven’t talked to him in two, maybe three years.”
“I gave him a call about you, you know. He tells me I can’t do better.”
“He’s being generous. I didn’t know he’d gone private.”
“About eighteen months ago.”
“He consults for you?”
“We brought him in to do a walk-through of the offices. You noticed the security, I’m sure.” For emphasis, Marcelin lifts the Wilson Entertainment IFF chip–enabled ID badge that’s clipped to his lapel.
“That’s not in the job purview, is it?”
“No, no, it’s a park position. If you’re still interested, of course.”
Bell raises his hands slightly, shrugs at the same time. “Why I’m here.”
“Have you ever been to WilsonVille before, Jad?”
“No.” He pauses, thinking about all the times he and Amy had talked about making the trip, taking Athena to see the Flower Sisters in person. But it had never reached operational planning, had stayed a theoretical family vacation. “No. Never managed to make it happen.”
Marcelin rises. “I think I can fix that for you.”
It takes just under twenty minutes to drive the five miles from Wilson Entertainment’s corporate HQ to the park, a Friday in summer’s traffic, and Bell thinks it would’ve been faster to walk. Marcelin drives a new Audi sedan, air-conditioned comfort, and they wind through acres of packed parking lot before reaching the VIP spaces. The park, even from outside, is visibly crowded, and for the first time Bell has a true sense of its scale. One thing to study the maps of 156 acres of WilsonVille; another thing entirely to meet it in person for the first time.
Marcelin parks, waits for Bell to join him, then turns and gestures toward the redbrick promenade that leads to the main gates. Ticket booths line the approach on both sides, roped walkways to guide the guests to each window, and there’s an audible buzz of excitement, children’s voices mixing with teen laughter and adult grumbling. A thin seam of music threads through the air, piped from hidden speakers, what sounds like a movie sound track to Bell’s ears. The ticket booths themselves are designed to look like oversize doghouses, Plexiglas windows at the front and back, access doors on the side.
“Normally, I’d take you through the main entrance, give you the full experience,” Marcelin is saying. “But the crowd’s a little thick today. The alternate entrance is this way; we tend to use it for VIPs or special events.”
“Those aren’t the only two accesses to the park?”
“Oh, God, no. There’s facility maintenance along the northern side, chain-link and ugly as sin, then the inner park wall, twelve feet high, concrete. We do everything in our power to hide that stuff from the guests. Normally, that’d be the way I’d have brought you in, but seeing as it’s your first time, well…” Marcelin trails off, heading toward a side gate done in what appears to be weathered wrought iron but on closer inspection Bell thinks it’s stainless steel with a very good paint job.
Before they even reach the gate, a young black woman has appeared, wearing a blue blazer with a small w-e embroidered in gold thread above the left breast, an elegant and matching name tag pinned in position right below it.
“Mr. Marcelin, always nice to see you, sir!”
Marcelin takes a fraction of a second, just long enough to note the woman’s name on her tag, responds to her cheer in kind. “Nice to see you, too, Marjorie. This is Mr. Bell.”
“Welcome to WilsonVille, Mr. Bell.” Marjorie’s smile is luminescent, almost unbelievable in its sincerity. She holds a radio in her left hand, against her thigh, so discreetly it’s easy to miss. She’s turning back to Marcelin. “Is there anything you need today, sir?”
“Can you give me the number?”
“Just a moment.” She takes a step back from the two men, still smiling, turns as she raises her radio.
Marcelin leans in. “Security staff.”
“Is that the uniform?”
“No, she’s dressed as a greeter. There’s no security uniform per se, though most support staff wear the blue blazer so they can be recognized. Outside that, as long as it’s park-approved wear, it’s fine. Most of your people will be working plainclothes, so to speak. Some in costume.”
Bell removes his sunglasses, looks back toward the main gate. A discreet redbrick path slopes from where they’re standing toward the entrance, and a quick count gives him eighteen men and women in what looks to him like “park-approved wear” circulating in the immediate vicinity of the turnstiles, and some of them are clearly cheerfully answering questions and offering directions. But not all of them—perhaps half that number, sharing the same cheerful smiles, is doing nothing but keeping a careful watch on the entering crowds.
“It’s all eyeball on entry?” he asks Marcelin.
“You mean of the guests? Yeah, we considered metal detectors post–nine eleven, but it was deemed unviable. Just too many people coming in and out. Bags are screened after ticket purchase but before reaching the entry. We’ve got a battery of sensors and the like running as well; you’ll see those when we go up to the command post.”
Marjorie is back. “They’re expecting to hit sixty-four thousand visitors today, Mr. Marcelin.”
Marcelin makes a face, then quickly hides the expression with a smile. “Thank you.”
“Have a lovely time, sir. Mr. Bell.” She moves off again, takes up a position in the shade provided by the canopy that overhangs the gate.
It’s a whirlwind tour.
Matthew Marcelin leads the way along grand walkways and semihidden paths, around kiosks and attractions, speaking all the while about the park, its history, and the history of Wilson Entertainment. They pass the Flower Sisters Theater, moving with a sudden surge of the crowd as the show lets out along the banks of the Timeless River, then through the edge of the Wild World Woods, where Lilac, Lily, and Lavender are seated in a pavilion, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Bell is surprised to see that the Flower Sisters do not wear masks but instead sport elaborate makeup with their costumes.
“Character portrayals have very stiff requirements,” Marcelin tells him quietly as they watch the three women cheerfully engage their admirers. “Lilac, for instance, must be five feet two exactly, with weight between one hundred and one ten, tops. Lily has a little more play—five seven to five eight—but cannot weigh more than one twenty-five, and she’s got to be strong enough to wear the harness for her horns. Hard to find someone tall enough who’s also strong enough and who can convey the necessary grace of a gazelle. Lavender is five five to five six, but weight is less of an issue. The part is very active, a lot of jumping and tumbling, so they tend to carry more muscle. We normally cast athletes—gymnasts are best, cheerleaders almost as good—for the part.”
“You said security officers dress as characters?”
“We actually call them safety officers, and yes, on any given day maybe ten percent of the performers are also working security.”
“They’re required to fulfill the needs of their role if called upon.”
Bell nods, listening as he watches the three women banter and laugh with each other as much as with their crowd of young fans. Lavender does a handstand suddenly, much to everyone’s delight, then proceeds to walk about like that to cheers and laughter. Lily scolds her for showing off, and just as quickly, Lilac reminds the other two that they’re all friends, and that they all love one another.
A sudden hush comes over the Flower Sisters. Lilac points in Bell’s and Marcelin’s direction, emitting what is, even to Bell’s ears, an alarmingly cute squeak before hiding behind Lily. Lily draws herself up to her full height, something that makes her seem even taller due to the gazelle’s horns she’s sporting, and then Lavender is taking up a protective stance in front of the other two. For a moment, Bell wonders if they’re reacting to Marcelin when he hears a growl from behind him.
“Hendar!” Lavender says. “You’re not welcome here!”
All heads turn, small voices gasp, and several children actually recoil, hiding behind parents in much the same fashion that Lilac is now hiding behind Lily. Bell turns with the rest of them, finds that he’s looking at a man, five ten, dressed in black and moving toward them with a predator’s purpose. His makeup is as black as his clothing—a jungle cat, a jaguar.
Hendar the jaguar growls, “But we could have so much fun together, Lavender.”
There’s a tittering from some of the parents, more quavering from the fans, and Marcelin is motioning to Bell that they should move on. His last glimpse of the impromptu show is of Hendar circling the pavilion as he and Lavender snarl at one another while Lily and Lilac apparently use the opportunity to concoct some cunning plan.
They visit the Pyramids of Ke-Sa, watch what appears to be an endless throng of college-age men and women queuing up to ride the attraction. From within the largest pyramid, Bell can hear unearthly laughter, gunshots, and screams of glee as passengers on the ride are assaulted and assailed by the evil that Agent Rose has unwittingly unleashed. Further along, they’re suddenly in the Old West, where Skip Flashman is having a roping contest with some tough hombres in the shadow of Dead Man’s Mine. From the side of Mount Royal, mine cars loaded with shrieking passengers appear, then vanish again into the tunnels. They stop outside the enclosure to the Clip Flashman show in Terra Space, where it’s paired with a tower ride done up as a 1950s rocket ship, the Star System Alliance Defense. The Friends working the attraction all wear retro-future period garb, the line tended by men and women in one-piece mechanic’s coveralls, caps, and belts heavy with space-age tools. One of the Friends, a man in his late twenties with an Afro-Caribbean complexion and the name Isaiah embroidered on his breast pocket, offers Bell a Clip Flashman comic from a pouch on his belt.
“No, thank you,” Bell says.
“Never too old for adventure, man!” Isaiah counters, pushing the comic into his hands. “The adventure never ends!”
He returns to working the line, and Bell keeps a straight face, watching him go, and wondering how long Chaindragger has been in place here.
“Let’s take a break, get a drink,” Marcelin says as they leave the bright red rocket ship behind them. “I’m sure you’ve got questions.”
“A drink would be good.”
Thus far, they’ve been describing the park counterclockwise, but now Marcelin reverses direction and they’re heading northeast once more, this time along different pathways. If anything, the park has gotten more crowded since they started the tour, and the sign at the entrance to Pooch Pursuit warns that the wait is seventy-five minutes from this point, and still there are people lining up in the shadow of the enormous wooden roller coaster.
Marcelin cuts directly north, suddenly, along a narrow alleyway with shops tucked away on either side. The architecture has abruptly shifted from middle America to early-twentieth-century Europe, right down to the cobblestones beneath Bell’s feet. A jeweler’s on one side, high-end WilsonVille Clothing beside it, and opposite them, an art gallery. A bronze one-to-two scale statue of Pooch is on display in the window: asking price, six thousand dollars.
Bell can understand waiting seventy-five minutes to ride a roller coaster. He would never do it himself, but it is, at least, explicable. But six large for a glorified paperweight?
Marcelin has stopped beneath an archway, the words Gateway to Adventure chiseled into the stone above. He knocks on an almost concealed door, and immediately a wooden slat slides back, a gruff voice asking, “Password.”
“It’s a dog’s life,” Marcelin says.
Bell does his damnedest not to laugh out loud.
The door opens, and down a flight of stairs Bell finds himself in a small and rather cozy bar. The descent into cool and quiet is so sudden, in fact, that it’s only as he takes a seat in one of the booths that he realizes just how intensely noisy the park is. Some two dozen more guests are in here, all of them adults, most of them in groups, nobody drinking alone. A cocktail waitress comes to the table immediately, hands each of them a drinks menu. Marcelin orders a beer, and Bell does the same, and Marcelin upgrades to a pitcher for the two of them.
“Only place in the park to get alcohol,” Marcelin says. “Members only—you get the password when you get your membership. I find it particularly ironic that the club’s called the Speakeasy.”
“Not by accident.”
“Very little that happens in the Wilson Entertainment empire happens by accident, Jad.” Marcelin grins, straightens up in the booth as the waitress returns with the pitcher of beer, two glasses, and a bowl of pretzels. The pretzels are in the shape of Gordo, Betsy, and Pooch. “Give you an example. You saw Hendar?”
“The jaguar, when we were walking through the Wild World. The thing with the Flower Sisters.”
“Hendar is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. He debuted DTV almost a decade ago.”
“Direct to video. Flower Sisters—like the Flashman franchise—is on a very strict schedule. With the Flowers, it’s three DTVs a year, one feature every third year. But DTV, variable income stream. Lot of times the releases, they just fly right under the mainstream radar, it’s only the diehards who notice them. Parents buying them for their kids as presents and substitute babysitters. This one, this DTV, was called Flowers in the Fall.”
“Hell, yes. Cute pays for my daughter at Stanford and two alimonies.” Marcelin pours beer for each of them, still speaking. “Anyway, movie came out, and we got hit from all sides. Parents groups went nuts. Accused us of trying to corrupt their pwecious wittle childwen.”
Bell grins, tastes his beer. He’s expecting something that’s been through a horse first, and is surprised by the hoppiness, the pleasantly bitter and clean taste that immediately washes away the coating of park that has caked the inside of his mouth. Marcelin nods in approval.
“Penny’s Pale Ale. We put our name on something—or the name of one of our characters on something, more precisely—we damn well make it quality. You can only get it one place. Right here.”
Bell tops off each of their glasses. “Flowers in the Fall.”
“Right. The primary accusation was that Wilson Entertainment was racist.”
“Hendar. Jaguar. Villain. Black.” Marcelin shrugs. “I can see where it came from, but it’s a bullshit accusation. They’re animals, for fuck’s sake. If you’re going to call us racist for having a jaguar as a bad guy, you better accuse us of miscegenation at the same time. I mean, Jesus Christ, we’ve got a meerkat, a gazelle, and a lioness all dewy-eyed over a tiger. But nobody ever talks about that. Let alone the fact that Lavender should’ve quite literally had Lilac and Lily for lunch ages ago.
Excerpted from Alpha by Rucka, Greg Copyright © 2012 by Rucka, Greg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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