Thunder Clap: Bad Company, Stranger Characters

The straps holding him into his wheelchair were very sturdy. Nothing short of a chainsaw would be getting him out of the chair until they were removed. The wheels were firmly locked in place by the clamps in the floor of the van. Matthew Sykes leaned back in the chair and did his best to get comfortable. At the very least, that was one thing wheelchairs had in their favor – they were intended for people who spent a long time in them.

The stress ate at him for a while, inevitable considering his circumstances, but mostly he worried about his wife and whether she’d met her guards or made her flight rather than his immediate circumstances. He’d never been the worrying kind, business wasn’t kind to those who couldn’t have confidence in their decisions, but the situation he was in was unique, and not directly a result of his own decisions. But even with all the stress he was under, certain facts, like being woken up very early, were inescapable. As the van roared to life and started towards it’s destination a gentle sloshing sound from one side of the van slowly  lulled him to sleep.

Sykes woke to the sound of a low flying jet coming in through the back door, currently open to allow the big man from earlier and a new friend of his to wrestle a second wheelchair into the back of the van. It took only a few minutes for them to clamp it in place and tumble out the back. They were silent during the whole process and Sykes saw little point in talking to them.

And the van’s new occupant was doing plenty of talking for everyone, laughing and joking about the wild living of young people these days. He sounded almost like a stereotype of a ninety year old man, his voice gone a little high and wheezy, and he was speaking with an odd rhythm that suggested he was a little short of breath. Sure enough, as the men who’d brought him in moved away Sykes could see that there was an oxygen tank attached to his chair and tubes running up to his nose.

The man’s obvious infirmities didn’t seem to have handicapped his voice or good humor, though. Once he was in place and the back door was closed again, leaving them alone in the relative darkness of the early hour, the old man turned to Sykes, a glint on his glasses the only sign of the motion, and said, “Well, son, what brings you here this time of night? Most respectable men are still asleep right now.”

“I couldn’t really say,” Sykes said, rubbing absently at gritty eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Oh, six thirty, I would guess,” was the answer. “I’m surprised you don’t know. Didn’t you fly in?”

“No,” Sykes answered quickly and decisively. After a moment’s uncomfortable silence he added, “I tried learning to fly once. I don’t trust myself on planes now.”

The old man gave a huff that might have been a laugh. “That why a man your age is in that chair? It doesn’t suit to run from the things that weakened you.”

“I’ve lost four parents in this life, to suicide, drugs and airplanes.” Sykes shrugged, more uncomfortable by the moment. “It’s a short enough list of things to avoid, and not likely to get any longer.”

Another awkward silence. “Sorry, son. That was rude of me. I think I’m loosing my touch.”

“No worries,” Sykes said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “I’ve made my peace long ago.”

“Still, it begs the question,” the old man said. “If you didn’t fly in, and I didn’t, why are we at an airport?”

“I don’t think we’re going to learn that any time soon.” Sykes looked his companion over again. It was hard to tell in the light but he really didn’t look like anything other than an infirm old man. “Speaking of obvious questions, what brings you here?”

The gleam of the old man’s smile was back. “Me? Old Stillwater just couldn’t pass on the chance to get back in the field. If I don’t keep my hand in the game I’ll keel over and die. What about you?”

“I suppose…” Sykes trailed off and tried his best to sort through the possible answers to that question. “I suppose I’m paying for my sins.”

“As good a reason as any. Poor choices or poor friends?”

Sykes chuckled ruefully. “You can’t have the second without the first. But in my case, I think it was mostly bad friends.”

“Poor choices are easier to straighten out, poor friends tend to fight back,” Stillwater said. “My sympathies. Had a few friends that didn’t get on with reason in my time.”

“Just a few? I’d think a man your age would have had more friends than that.”

The old man laughed. “Okay, more than a few. But only a few that really went off course. Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems – it isn’t always.”

“No,” Sykes said softly. “I’m pretty sure it’s bad.”

“You’ll just have to be better then.”

Sykes narrowed his eyes, trying to make out the old man’s expression in the dim light of the van. He didn’t sound insincere. “What do you expect me to do under these circumstances?”

“For starters you can get your mind on the problem.” Not insincere but definitely annoyed. “I know you got a life outside this van, but I served on ships full of guys that had lives outside the hull. When you spend your whole shift on the sonar, listening for the Kraut U-boats coming for you, there’s nothing you can do but listen and think. So you learn to plan ahead and good. Who do you talk to as soon as you hear the screws in the water? How fast can helm be notified of incoming torpedoes? What do you need to do to light a fire under whatever needs burning?”

“You must have been a real terror to your ratings.” Sykes shook his head. “Still, you do have a point. What-”

The back doors of the van swung open again, cutting off his next question. “Alright, it looks like everyone is here.” There were two new people at the back of the van. The speaker had a smooth, cultured voice and the clean, elegant cut of his suit could be made out beyond the harsh glare of parking lot lighting behind him. “I was caught a bit unawares and I do apologize. However, now that everyone is here I suppose we can set things in motion.”

He turned to the other new person, a tall, African-American woman who looked like she’d fit better in a Greek myth than modern America. Her long, tan vest covered a shapely figure from shoulder to knee and her charcoal clothes were accessorized with paracord and a host of indistinct but dangerous looking equipment. The man handed her a slip of paper and said, “If you’d care to get behind the wheel, this is a list of your destinations. I’ve already spoken to the rest, they know where they’re going and where to get off. Your instructions are on the next page. Don’t read them until you reach your final destination.”

The woman took the papers hesitantly. “What about you?”

“As always, I have my own business to attend to. You take care of yours and this will all end as planned.” The well dressed man clapped his hands together and said, “I suppose we should get on our way. Good luck and stay out of trouble. At least, until it’s time for you to cause it. Then you can do as you like.”

The two men from earlier climbed into the back of the van and pulled the doors closed behind them, then found seats on some crates strapped into the back corners of the van. There were no real chairs, although the brief illumination while the doors were open was enough to see that something had been bolted along one side of the van at some point. A half a dozen tanks about the size of fire extinguishers strapped down along the opposite side was the source of the sloshing sound heard when the vehicle was in motion.

While one of the two men was the man who’d come to Sykes’ door earlier in the day, the other was a strange, nondescript man with brown hair and an athletic build. Sykes frowned. “Who are you?”

Stillwater answered. “That’s my tactical agent. It’s been a while since I did field work, but when talents came out of the woodwork a while ago Sumter thought I should have someone to keep me out of trouble.”

“You mean this doesn’t qualify?” Sykes asked, incredulous.

“This is the definition of trouble,” the brown haired man answered. “But it’s also the biggest chance a guy like me gets. Chief Stillwater wasn’t the only one who couldn’t pass on the chance.” He broke into a grin. “We’re on our way to catch the biggest criminal Project Sumter has ever let get away.”

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