May Day. Southeast Denver, Colorado.
Her name was Sadie Hawkins and she was only nine years old.
On the day she died, she was home from school with a sick tummy. It was a condition she’d awakened with and her mother was always one to be safe rather than sorry. Mom had phoned the main office at George M. McMeen Elementary School, just four blocks away, to inform Ms. Chesapeake that Sadie was not coming to school today. Mom was a divorcee and a career woman by necessity rather than choice. There was no man of the house to bring home the bacon; he’d run off a long time ago with a stripper half Mom’s age and didn’t pay support.
Mom placed a lot of trust in Sadie. She couldn’t afford a sitter or day care so, on days like this one, Sadie was trusted completely to stay at home alone. Mom only had two rules for Sadie on the home-alone days: stay inside and don’t answer the door for anyone. Not. Any. One. No matter what — even if Sadie thought she knew the person on the other side of the door. Those were the rules.
Sadie obeyed Mom’s rules without question.
That’s why, when they came for her, they made a phone call.
Mom didn’t have rules about answering the phone.
She picked up the phone on the third ring and said, “Hello?”
The voice on the other end was deep and resonant and easy to get lost in — a male voice. The man knew her by name.
“Hello, Sadie. Why aren’t you in school today?”
She didn’t know the voice but the voice was without a hint of threat. She had no reservations about answering his questions.
She was too young to know that the worst kinds of men had voices like this one did.
“I have a sick tummy,” she answered immediately.
“That’s not good, “the voice said. “Would you like to feel better, Sadie?”
“Well, I feel better than I did when I woke up.”
“I’ll bet I can make you feel better than you do now. Do you like the Powerpuff Girls, Sadie?”
She felt a jolt of excitement at the mention of Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles.
“I LOVE THE POWERPUFF GIRLS!”
“I know you do. Would you like to be a Powerpuff Girl?”
“I want to be Buttercup! Can I be Buttercup?”
“Yes, you can be a super invincible Powerpuff just like Buttercup. And all you have to do is listen to me. Are you listening to me, Sadie?”
“I’m listening! Really, I am!”
“Sadie, call your operator. Code nine one one.”
A strange thing happened to Sadie Hawkins; she ceased to exist. Physically, she was still there. Mentally, psychologically, she was gone. Her little hand was white-knuckling the phone. Her little blue eyes had switched channels and were lit with the cold fires of a reptilian need to kill.
“Are you there, Sadie?”
The voice that answered didn’t belong to Sadie. If a voiceprint could have been made and entered into evidence, the print would indicate that another person entirely was on the line now. The voice didn’t belong to a little girl with Buttercup ambitions. This voice was much older, worldly. And meaner. Much. Much.
“That little bitch is gone.”
“Ah, very good. Do you know who this is?”
“Yes.” Monosyllabic. Clipped like a soldier would answer.
“Excellent. We are parking out front now. I want you to come outside and come with us.”
“Do it now.”
She hung up the phone and went to the front door. She unlocked the deadbolt and flung the door open. She unlocked the security door and stepped onto the porch. She was still dressed for bed in pink Powerpuff Girls footie pajamas.
She marched down the walk like a parade-field soldier. The lawn to her right and left was in sore need of a good mowing.
Parked at the curb was a large white van marked GREEN MECHANICAL. The side panel door slid open as she descended the two steps to the city-owned sidewalk. She climbed into the van and the door closed behind her.
The van pulled away from the curb, signaled at the intersection and turned left.
Inside the cargo compartment of the van was a stoic-faced man dressed completely in black. His black suit looked Bureau-issue. His Oxford shirt and tie were black. Socks and wing tips — black. His sunglasses were wraparound-style and, of course, those were black, too.
The MIB was sitting in a bucket seat that was bolted to the deck, swathed in the deep shadow. The rear compartment had no windows. A curtain sectioned off the driver’s compartment from the rest of the van. The little girl that now wasn’t knelt before him without having to be told.
In the MIB’s lap was a steel case, wider and narrower than a briefcase. He popped the latches and set the open case on the deck in front of the little girl. She felt a sexual flush that was way beyond her nine years of life at the sight of the case. Knowing what was inside the case gave her a warm fuzzy at the prospects lying ahead.
The rifle case contained an Armsco AK-22 assault rifle. It was the spitting image of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle but scaled down considerably to fire the puny .22 Long Rifle cartridge. For a four-foot sixty-pound munchkin like Sadie Hawkins, the weapon was perfect. No recoil, no huge muzzle blast. Just aim. And shoot and shoot and shoot.
Five deeply blued banana magazines and a razor-edged Communist bloc bayonet were nestled around the weapon on the foam, shiny with oil. The personality driving Sadie knew the magazines were custom jobs that held sixty rounds each.
The man in black said, “Gather your tools, Leia 31. You have a very important mission. You are the high water mark in our secret campaign. After today — nothing will ever be the same.”
The little girl deftly snatched the rifle up out of the case and fluidly pulled the charging handle back, locking the bolt to the rear. She flipped the rifle tummy up and slammed one of the five magazines into the magazine well. She let the bolt cycle, chambering round one into the weapon. Next, she affixed the bayonet to the lug on the barrel that had been installed after market, locking the blade in place and ready for some serious hack and slash. She laid the rifle on the deck next to her and attacked the aviator’s kit bag next to the MIB’s bucket seat.
She pulled out a nylon-mesh assault vest, OD green in color and tailored to her slight frame. She loaded her extra magazines into the ammo pouches. Above the ammo pouches, ALICE-clipped to the chest area of the vest were six fragmentation grenade pouches, each securing one of the deadly eggs. She donned the vest like a practiced professional, buckling the waist clip and sternum clip. She pulled her long blonde hair out from under the collar and used a loose rubber band on the deck to tie her hair off in a ponytail.
Then she plucked up the rifle and held it at the ready. She pivoted on her knee to face the side panel door.
And the van came to a stop.
It was very strange.
Midge Hathaway parted the drapes from the table in the kitchen just to be sure she was seeing things correctly. At her age, a second look was always a good idea. From her line-of-sight, she had an excellent view of the front of Samantha Hawkins’ house. She had noticed the nondescript white panel van pull to the curb in front of the Hawkins residence and merely noted its presence out there while continuing to scan the morning edition of Investor’s Business Daily for companies that fit the Warren Buffett investment criteria.
The little pink-clad figure emerging onto the front porch of the Hawkins house made her look up again. She recognized little Sadie Hawkins marching purposefully now down the front walk and disappearing out of sight on the curbside of the van. A moment later, the van pulled away from the curb, signal flasher on for a left-hand turn. California rolling stop then into a sharp enough arc to coax a squeal out of the Michelins.
It almost seemed like a low-key getaway.
The curb in front of the Hawkins’ place was vacant; Sadie Hawkins was gone.
Midge Hathaway blinked, momentarily confused. Where had the little girl gone? Did she get in the van? She must have gotten into the van. It was the only rational deduction. But something didn’t seem right about that conclusion.
Another white panel van pulled to the curb in front of the Hawkins house. It was identical to the first van; in fact, she almost thought it was the same van until three men in white coveralls emerged from the van on the curbside and went up the walk to the house. The men wore leather tool belts bristling with screwdrivers, ratchets, snips, pliers and power drills. All of them wore dark sunglasses and black baseball-style caps, bills pulled low. They entered the house through the front door that Sadie had left wide open.
That was when she had stood up, went to the window and parted the drapes to get a better look.
Her mind was a tempest of questions. What was going on? While furnace work was not out of the ordinary, especially for the aging homes in this neighborhood — why two vans for the job? And why was the first van dispatched just to pick up Sadie Hawkins? Perhaps friends or family of Samantha Hawkins operated this company (GREEN MECHANICAL for future reference). And it was lunchtime. Maybe the first van picked Sadie up for a lunch run. If the friends or family conjecture held water, the lunch run pick-up was making more sense. This theory was going to be easily provable — the first van would be back within the hour with Sadie and fast food in tow.
Two of the three Green personnel exited the house across the street and hurried back to the van. Midge Hathaway noted their apparent urgency. That seemed odd as well.
The two Green personnel must have climbed into the van as the van rocked slightly on its shocks. When the men reappeared on the curbside of the van, they were still hustling but hindered by weight. From the looks of the steel footlocker being strong-armed by these two men — who weren’t scrawny specimens by any stretch — that box was packing some impressive density. Midge speculated that the footlocker was probably the job toolbox.
By now, her mind was laser-focused for anything that didn’t seem “right” about this picture. She hit the jackpot this time. These men were wearing gloves. Latex gloves. Gloves like doctors wore in the OR while digging around in the innards of radical surgery patients. Latex gloves were exactly good for nothing in a trade like commercial and residential sheet metal work.
She could only think of one reason why non-doctors would want to wear gloves like that: so evidence like fingerprints would not be left behind.
The conflict within her was fierce. She was torn between calling the police immediately and fearing what the repercussions would be if her paranoia was, in fact, wrong. Having been in civil service, she knew summoning the police on wild goose chases could now bring down civil or criminal penalties — depending upon the disposition of the police responding.
Better safe than sorry. She would give these guys thirty minutes. By then, the first van should return with a safe Sadie Hawkins in tow burdened with multiple bags from Taco Bell. And if not….
She glanced at the clock on the stove. She’d give it thirty, well, twenty-nine minutes now.
In twenty-nine minutes and four blocks away, it would be twenty-three minutes past the end of the world.
A well-planned nightmare was off and rolling rolling rolling…like thunder on Hell, sure.
Lunch recess. George M. McMeen Elementary School.
Fritz Culpepper (Fritz the Ditz to his wise-ass compadres of the third grade class) was staying low and using the swing set east of the basketball courts to cover his construction efforts in the gravel quad sharing the fence line with the staff parking lot and bus lanes on the Tennessee side of the campus. Fritz was the brunt of a lot of third grade jokes, which tended to lean towards the cruel and thoughtless end of the spectrum — completely normal behavior for children that age to persecute one another with. A fact that school administrations all over the country had seemed to develop spontaneous amnesia towards in the last ten years.
Fritz was excavating a series of roadways for the bucket of Matchbox cars he had sitting on the gravel near this micro-public works project in the making. Fritz was showing all the signs of a bright future as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He liked math, science and social studies — subjects shunned by the “in” crowd that spent recess on the baseball diamonds or jumping around on the basketball court like hormone-swelled baboons.
The baseball-sized green-colored object that thumped into the gravel next to him broke Fritz’s focus on his task at hand. He immediately knew what it was but didn’t have any clue that it was real. That thought never entered his mind. It had to be a realistic replica, smuggled onto the playground by some daredevil that liked to live life on the brink of expulsion.
Fritz picked up the U.S. Army-issue anti-personnel fragmentation grenade and looked for the bomb chucker.
He saw a whirlwind in pink running at a dead sprint away from the quad and towards the basketball court.
And that was all.
The quarter-pound of Composition B detonated like four-hundred decibels of shouting goddamned Hell in the palm of his little hand. And Fritz Culpepper, seven years old, ceased to exist in any tangible form. There wasn’t enough organic matter left of him to fill a Dragonball Z lunch box with.
The shock front of the explosion in unison with a cloud of white-hot shrapnel did the mangler on the eight kids perusing the swing set. The kids were swatted out of their seats and catapulted on wings of thunder and smoke into and through the chain-link fence ten meters south of the launch point. Of those eight, only one survived and she was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of her life.
In six minutes, another six lives would be cut short, six more righteous sacrifices in the birthing of a New Amerika.
The blade was raised, ready to fall and Lady Liberty was on the guillotine.
When the sun rose again tomorrow, the Land of the Free would never be the same again.
The Coach had a natural way with the kids. He was a Gulf War veteran with the 82nd Airborne and the kids knew it. The kids loved to hear the stories of the 100-Hour War. The tanks rolling, the bombs dropping, the oil fires burning out of control, the pain of having to follow the incomprehensible orders to stop short of turning Baghdad into the Middle East’s biggest parking lot…kids were fascinated with war and killing. When kids found out that he had been in a war, the next question was always ALWAYS the same: “Did you ever kill anybody in the war?”
The Coach was the senior PhysEd teacher at McMeen and a reserve patrolman in the Denver Police Department. He managed his wards like a good-natured drill sergeant. The kids loved the quasi-military decorum and discipline he ruled with. They were getting something that the touchy-feely school of child coddling could never provide: boundaries and guidelines for behavior. There were rewards and there were punishments, yeah.
Lynzie Walker, one of the school’s fifth-grade teachers, had asked the Coach to spend the day circulating among the classrooms sharing information with the kids about life as a police officer. He was, of course, in his patrolman’s uniform and he was carrying his department sidearm: a Glock .40 S&W.
He was on the second floor, in the hallway walking with the pretty Ms. Walker, when the first grenade boomed in the play yard and his mind instantly catalogued that doomsday noise and gave it a name: M67 fragmentation grenade. He’d chucked many of those green baseball bombs while in the Eighty-Duce.
What washed his guts through with equal parts of ice water and rage was the thought that some lunatic was dropping those flesh shredders onto a playground full of kids — elementary school kids, for God’s sake!
The building physically shook in the passing of the shock front; windows rattled in the panes and downstairs, glass shattered.
Ms. Walker gasped as the air pressure change gave her an unexpected feel-up and ruffled her hair and hemline. Her face drained of color and her eyes widened with fright. She almost crumpled to the polished floor tiles but the Coach was quick to give her the support her knees were suddenly lacking.
He hooked her under the arm and spun her about to face him, chest-to-chest close so she had nothing else to consider but the serious edge to his gaze.
“Ms. Walker, go back to your room and lock the door.”
“Do it! NOW!”
Her hand went to her mouth and she started to weep but she broke away and went back down the hallway towards her room, doing as she was told. Good girl.
The Coach drew his sidearm. There was no safety on a Glock; it was always ready to fire. The Coach ran for the stairs.
The pretty little hate machine went to a knee at the curb, bringing the semi-automatic assault rifle up and onto target acquisition. Casualty number eight in what the media dogs would later label the McMeen May Day Massacre was Assistant Principal Luther Maddox. He was rushing out the school entrance to intercept the pink-clad four-foot-tall juggernaut before she entered the school with a loaded firearm. That was, of course, strictly against district policy and somebody was going to be suspended till the second coming of Christ over this incident. The thought that this little girl might put five high-velocity Yellow Jacket slugs into his face never occurred to him. The fact that she’d just vaporized several of her former classmates with U.S.-issue ordnance was also something that he didn’t have an intellectual grasp of at all. He didn’t know hand grenades from Chinese fireworks. What he was sure of was that his relative perch in the school pecking order and a loud, authoritative voice would serve to instantly defuse this situation with no more injury.
He was just across the threshold of the door, opening his mouth to verbally disarm the girl when she dropped to a knee and fluidly sighted the rifle. The last thing Maddox saw before the back of his head erupted with blood pudding was the muzzle flash of the first .22 hollow point leaving the rifle’s barrel. The next four reports had no more excuse than an itchy trigger finger.
She ran into the entry foyer — haphazardly decorated like some bedlamite’s vision of the Babylonian hanging gardens by the Botany Club. She jumped over the shattered mess that used to be Luther Maddox to get through the doorway. The butt stock of the rifle was still pressed aggressively into her shoulder; her cheek was welded to the weapon behind the open sights, both eyes open as she scanned for her next kill.
The main office was directly to her front. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls afforded a panoramic view of Luther Maddox’s violent exit from this life to the four women clerking in there. They goggled dumbfounded at tiny Sadie Hawkins, all eyes and mouth through the glass barrier that separated predator from prey. Sadie smiled angelically at the four horrified women over the top of the scaled-down Kalashnikov before picking them off left to right like birds in a cage.
The Yellow Jacket rounds sounded like the cracks of a matador’s whip, snapping across the sound barrier with sharp pops that reverberated through the school like a death sentence in Morse code. A door opened in there against the wall and Principal Levin poked his balding noggin out to see what the hell was happening in the outer office; he saw the four bloodied women on the floor dead or dying before he saw the pink specter of Death drawing a bead on him through the shattered glass wall.
He was still very agile for his age. He pulled his head back just as three more headshrinkers bit wood on the doorframe. He slammed his office door in a panic, locked it and ran behind his desk. He palmed the phone and hit the auto-dial 911 function.
She didn’t have time to waste on Levin. There were other fish to fry. She stalked across the foyer and dropped the now empty magazine from her weapon. It clattered to the tiled floor and she removed a fresh mag from the assault vest buckled over her Powerpuff Girls jumper. She slammed the new magazine home and released the bolt to cycle the first round off the top.
She sprinted down the hall looking for fresh blood.
The rest of his life or the end of it could be just a few breaths away.
He listened, gauging probable distances and angles.
He heard wet shoe-scuffing on the polished concrete, like heels were trying to dig in for purchase but weren’t getting anywhere due to the presence of a slick lubricant, something like oil or blood…and paddling hand-slaps that were having the same locomotion problems that the shoes were. His stomach rolled knowing what that was all about. What it meant to the person down there now heartbeats away from that last breath, that final darkness.
There was a bleated, “Please don’t!” belonging to a woman, one of the teachers. He knew her voice but couldn’t process her name. Her voice was crazy with fear. Lucid with the knowing of what was coming next.
If he just stood there and did nothing.
The Coach pivoted around the corner, raising the Glock as he came about, finger already squeezing into the trigger as he found his sight picture. The shock of what he saw over the front blade of his handgun was like a neurological flash-bang that made his trigger finger check fire, scrambled his training all to hell and left him somewhere he had no rehearsed drills to fall back on.
Whatever he’d been expecting to find, nothing prepared him for this.
“Sadie?” was all he could gasp.
The sight of Sadie Hawkins was like a psychic neutron bomb. The little girl standing, wolverine bloodlust twisting her features with what looked like a midget AK-47 pointed down at the gut-shot woman on the floor. Her eyes, her face, that munchkin assault vest buckled over the pink Powerpuff Girls jumper with those huge cartoon eyes showing through the nylon mesh — it was like something out of a Tarantino flick. But this scene wasn’t hip or cool with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.
It was a shock to his soul that caused him to hesitate in the heartbeat that would have made the difference.
The little pink-clad Reaper’s concentration shifted from the whimpering, gutless wonder at her feet with the mention of that name again, that name which washed her brain over in a scarlet redrum rage. The midget AK swung up and locked on with no hesitation. Her battle drills were perfect. Nothing was going to break through and crash this death dance burned into muscle memory.
His muzzle had dropped. The extra half-second to snap back up on target cost him.
They both opened fire on each other at the same time across the space of twenty feet.
Her aim was Deadeye Dick. And he was only shooting to wound. That’s what happened when the heart gets mixed up in the trigger finger. He couldn’t bring himself to it. He was a father, too, with a little girl just about Sadie’s age.
He couldn’t do it.
And it cost him.
The four-round salvo of .22 stingers cored his chest center mass. He’d left the vest in the trunk of the squad car. There was nothing under his uniform shirt but a clean white T-shirt. The transfer of energy from bullets to body backed him up three steps. Two of the mushrooming slugs severed the brain-to-body commo at the spine and his legs didn’t work anymore. He crumpled to the floor helplessly.
It was like watching a slo-mo music video with no song. Sadie was bucked off her feet, the midget AK tossed off to the left of her windmilling pantomime to the floor. The .40 S&W round caught her just below the left collar bone, closer to the shoulder joint and mushroomed through, spraying a bloody meat mix out behind her.
She hit the floor and slid for twenty feet on the slick of her own blood. She kicked and shuddered for about a second. Then she sat up like a Jack-in-the-box, her eyes like glass marbles, and her face was pale. She pulled a Walther PPK/S from a holster ALICE-clipped to the front of her vest.
He drunkenly slapped the floor around him, lamely trying to palm the Glock that was seven feet out of reach. His dying instincts were true; it was his interpretation that was all wrong.
The back-up piece wasn’t for him. The PPK/S was for her.
Her voice was scoured of all emotion and feeling — she sounded more like a sci-fi android than a nine-year-old girl that loved watching Powerpuff Girls.
Before he surrendered to that long, clawing slide into oblivion, he watched with displaced awareness as Sadie Hawkins pressed the PPK/S into her forehead and pulled the trigger. Her dead torso flopped back into the raining wreckage of her own head.
He cried for Sadie Hawkins. He cried for his own daughter, his daughter who lost her daddy today.
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