#78 (a Max Chrome Christmas Story)

 

“They put a new engine in her along with a new fuel tank after they dried her out. Even put in new seats, but none of the schools would keep her around too long because the drivers would refuse to take her out, usually after a week,” Hunter says. He had rehearsed this speech dozens of times, but that was when buying the bus seemed like a great idea.

Max pats the front yellow fender. “Why was that?”

“They’d see and hear things.”

“Like what, exactly?”

“You know, the kids, the kids who died inside.”

“How did you end up with this thing?”

“I bought it. I thought maybe I could make money letting people go inside and sit for a while. Maybe rent it out to local haunted houses or corn mazes during Halloween.”

Max walks to the open door and looked in. “Why didn’t you?”

“It felt wrong, especially after I started to see the kids too.”

A breeze comes and the smell of the salvage yard’s rusting metal, oil, gasoline, engine fluids, and old tires wafted over them. “Hunter’s Wreckers” was a few miles south of Carbona, California, and a two-hour drive from Hillsborough where Max is spending Christmas this year. He and Hunter are old Army buddies and he jumped at the chance to get out of the house that holds many bittersweet memories.

Max says, “Why haven’t you just crushed this into a big, yellow paperweight already?”

“I’m afraid the kids will be trapped in the metal forever, you know, like the ghost of that airplane guy who got attached to the parts they salvaged from his L-1011. I read that kinda stuff can happen if you’re not careful,” Hunter says, referring to the ghost of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.

“Where did you read that?”

“You know, National Enquirer.”

“So you need me to get the ghosts to leave?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Can you do that?”

Max leans against the side of the bus and folds his arms. “Ghosts aren’t really my thing, but what the hell, right?”

“Thanks man, I didn’t know who else to call, you know.”

“I need to get some stuff out of my truck.”

They walk from the bus to the other side of Hunter’s mobile home where his Pitbull, Bone, leaps up barking until the chain snaps him back. Hunter shouts and the dog sits and growls.

Hunter pats him on the head. “Don’t worry about Bone, he won’t go near that bus. Never seen him afraid of anything until I brought that thing here, do you have a dog?”

“No, I’m never home.”

“So what do rich people do for Christmas?”

“My Uncle Ted and I celebrate on the Twentieth, partially because of Panama, but mostly because neither of us are big on Christmas day, and I like to be alone…usually drunk.”

“Sorry man, I didn’t know.”

“No big deal, I’m happy to help. Anyway, we spend a few days giving big checks to charities, you know, soup kitchens, shelters, S.P.C.A., toy drives, and then I take Uncle Ted and his boyfriend out on the town in S.F. which includes Beach Blanket Babylon.”

“Oh shit, that’s right, I forgot about your Uncle. That’s cool though.”

“And I would have been on my way back home to Bixby if you hadn’t called. But that’s cool though.”

“I really appreciate you coming, man. Hey, at least it ain’t no werewolf this time.”

Max pulled his Go-Bag from the rear of the cab of his Nissan truck. “See, it’s already a Christmas miracle. I need to work alone on this one; if I need something I’ll call you on your phone. You’ll be in the house, right?”

“Yeah, it’s getting cold. Just give me a buzz.”

Max walks past the growling Bone and back to the bus. The sun has dropped below the horizon making the sky orange and purple. Climbing into the bus he sets his bag on the driver’s seat, and pulls the lever that closes the door. The seats still smell new. Opening his bag he takes out his sage-green fleece pullover jacket, and puts it on. He pulls out a pair of small tactical flashlights, and his NVAG-9 aviator night vision goggles.

Max doesn’t have a normal job. Most recent holidays have been spent overseas working as a private security contractor.

Hunter knows this, and knows that Max’s work isn’t always about guns. Sometimes his old Army buddy is hired to deal with weird things. Back at Fort Ord in 1989 there was a werewolf. The Army denied this, but everyone knew about it. Max was the one who figured out who the werewolf was, a sergeant recently transferred in from Germany, and dealt with him.

The sergeant disappeared while the company was in South Korea, and the Army pretended like nothing happened.

Max walks to the rear of the bus and stretches out on the back bench. He was out of the country when the accident happened so he only knows the basic story about the bus. The year before during the wettest winter in a decade the #78 bus made a turn and drove down a road before the Sheriffs could block it off. The Russian River had jumped the banks on both sides and the rain was so thick that the driver never saw the water sweeping over the road. The river lifted the bus off its tires, and deposited it six miles downstream in some fallen trees. Twenty-eight kids on the bus, Kindergarten through Fifth Grade, and only twelve survived. The local news was full of harrowing stories of survival and loss, but Max never read them.

The last of the daylight is gone.

He looks toward Hunter’s double-wide mobile home and sees a small Christmas tree through the sliding glass doors. The blinking lights hypnotize him for a few minutes.

He smells wet, rotting vegetation.

Sitting up he inhales deeply to confirm the odor. He walks slow up the aisle, the scent is strongest in the back, so he turns around to stand where it is strongest.

A little girl in a dress cowers on the floor between the bench and the seat in front of her. She is wet and shivering, her eyes are wide from fear.

In the next second she is gone.

Max notes the time, just after six in the evening. The smell fades until only the new-seat fragrance remains. He sits back down and puts on his night vision goggles. His world turns green, but there is nothing to see. The bus is empty, the junk yard is empty, and Hunter is sitting in his recliner enjoying a beer. Turning the goggles off, he puts his feet up on the bench. Ghosts don’t show up on night-vision, contrary to what the TV paranormal experts say, but they are great for catching the living.

He is the only living thing on this bus.

Tapping jolts him awake. For a second he is angry about falling asleep until the sound overtakes his thinking. The tapping is fast and faint at first, but grows louder. He knows the sound, yet cannot place it. The tapping fills the bus accompanied by hissing. Sitting up he straightens his jacket and notices the rear windows are fogged.

He recognizes the noise – teeth chattering and shivering.

Lots of teeth.

Walking forward he doesn’t see anyone this time.

He starts to say something when he is overwhelmed by fear and sadness. This drops him to his knees and knocks the air out of him. Regaining control is a chore, but he gets to his feet, and starts breathing again. He understands that those feelings weren’t his and that they are imprinted in the bus, but it doesn’t make things easier.

“Kids, I know you’re scared, but you don’t have to stay here. You can go.”

The sound of chattering teeth and shivering is joined by tiny voices crying. Turning one of his flashlights on he sweeps the beam around the interior, but sees nothing. He runs to the front of the bus where he slams the door lever open, and jumps outside.

The noise has stopped and all he hears are his own gasps. He keeps his eyes closed until he clears his mind, and when he opens them he sees tiny hand-prints in the fogged rear windows.

Okay, Max, what do you do now? He thinks. He wasn’t kidding when he said ghosts weren’t his thing, but just like any extraordinary situation there is always a solution. He walks to the front of the bus and stands a few feet away. Bone barks a few times from inside the house until Hunter quiets him.

The golden rule of phantoms is: Ghosts were people too.

He strips the problem to the basics, there are a bunch of kids on #78, and he needs to get them out.

“How do you get kid outs off a bus that are too scared to leave?” he says aloud. He has no idea, he has no children, and he hated school busses when he was a kid. Bone barks one more time and he looks at the dog and waves. Bone’s tail is mostly straight up, its tight wagging knocks an ornament from the Christmas tree behind him.

Duh, the Christmas tree!

Pulling out his phone he calls Hunter and tells him they need to bring the tree outside into the yard by the bus. He gets up on the deck as his friend slides the glass door all the way open, and they both lift the tree out. Once it is deposited a few yards from #78 Hunter dashes back inside for an extension cord, all the time Bone is barking up a storm, but never steps out. With the tree plugged in, Max goes back into the bus.

“Guys, it’s Christmas, do you really want to stay on this stupid bus on Christmas?”

He gets off the bus and stands on the back deck next to Hunter.

Hunter says, “What now?”

“I have no idea. I’m hoping the tree lures them out.”

“And then what?”

“One thing at a time.”

Bone’s barking changes to a whimper. A blue ball of light appears inside the bus fallowed by a second, and then a third, and continued until sixteen were floating in the center aisle. One by one they drifted out of #78 and formed a circle around Hunter’s tree. Their heights were staggered, and Max assumed this was due to their different ages.

“What happens now?” Hunter’s voice is a whisper.

“I don’t know, this is my first bus-clense.”

“Whoa, check it out!”

A white-golden light forms above the tree and grows into a human shape, but is eight feet tall. The night air is instantly warm. The balls of light start to circle the tree, and the light form above them widens at its shoulders.

Hunter lightly kicks Max’s ankle. “It looks like it’s growing wings.”

“Yea it does.”

“Think it’s an angel?”

“I think so.” Max had seen angels before, this is a new one to him.

“Think it’s the angel of death?”

“No, too flashy.”

Hunter is about to ask how Max would know but decides he doesn’t want to hear the answer. The entire scrap yard is bathed in the golden light. The wings stretch thirty feet from tip to top. The circling balls of light rise until they form a blue belt around the waist of the tall light being. For a moment Max sees the balls of light change into the shapes of children, and change back. The tall being never reveals its face.

The scrap yard goes dark except for the Christmas tree.

Bone runs past them out into the yard where he runs around the tree a few times, and goes into the bus. He is back outside by the time they reach the tree. Max helps Hunter put the tree back into the house.

“Wanna beer?” Hunter says?

“No, I have to drive back to Hillsborough.” Max goes back out to the bus to get his bag. The air inside now smells like peppermint.

Hunter is waiting for him when he climbs off #78. “I owe you bigtime.”

“Tell you what, day after tomorrow how about you and I painting S.F. red. I’ll rent a limo, well hit Beach Blanket, and then take over the VIP room at Roaring 20’s for the rest of the night.”

“What’s Roaring 20’s?”

“The strip club on Broadway.”

“Like Wolfhounds of old.”

Max laughs; he hasn’t heard the nickname of his old unit in a while. “Like Wolfhounds of old. Lightfighter ‘til I die.” He starts to walk to his truck.

“Yo, Max, it’s a strip club with chicks, right?” Hunter grins.

“Fuck you, and Merry Christmas.”

 

 

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T-4 Two

 

Max had fallen asleep while resting his eyes. Tom didn’t mind too much, he understood how looking through a spotter’s scope wore a guy out. From their concealed perch up in the clock tower he could see above the forest all the way to the Polish border fifty miles away. The leaves were changing color under the October afternoon sky but the cold wasn’t enough to defeat his thermals and his sage colored fleece jacket. His right cheek was red from the butt of his SR-25 sniper rifle. He couldn’t grow a beard thick enough ease the friction from lying in place for hours at a time. They had been in position for 32 hours.

Laughing voices echoed from somewhere in the building. Max and Tom were in the administration building of the Dornier Sanitarium. The place had been abandoned since 1981 when the Soviets abruptly boarded up every window and bricked up the entrances to all of the doors. Tom listened holding his breath, and counted the number of voices he was hearing, he estimated that there were between six and eight children were playing a game somewhere below in one of the larger rooms, perhaps the dining hall. They began to sing a German nursery rhyme. This woke Max.

“Christ, can’t a guy get some shut eye around here?” he said, and looked at Tom and saw the concern on his face. “Are they getting to you?”

“It just bugs me, that’s all,” Tom said, lowering his head to look through the 16X Leopold scope on his rifle.

“Because they’re kids?”

“Yeah, it’s not fair. You know, being stuck here, it’s a fucking raw deal.” Dornier Sanitarium had been built in 1915 to house mentally ill children, mostly the mentally retarded, and severely autistic. The German government had used the place for research and performed experiments on the kids in hopes of finding cures. The ones that didn’t die on the table were left off in worse shape. In 1939, Hitler signed Action T-4, a plan to euthanize the mentally ill because, as he put it, they were “life not worthy of life”. The children were first to die,

“They sound like they’re having fun to me. I mean this huge building is theirs now,” Max said, getting to his knees and waiting for the blood to flow to his head before he got up.

“You telling me this is better than Heaven?” Tom said. He still peered through his scope.

“Never been there, dude, but I doubt it.” Max stood and went down one level to piss in the far corner. The machinery of the old clock had been removed in 1941 to be melted down and reused for the war. A few of the bricked up doors had been broken open by vandals and copper thieves over the years, but Max and Tom had found that the buildings were largely undisturbed. Whoever had broken in didn’t stay long. In 1941 the place was briefly used as a convalescent hospital for soldiers recovering from wounds from the Russian campaign. The Nazis abandoned it again in mid-1942 when they realized none of the wounded ever got better. Dornier had a 100% death rate. Max hadn’t bothered to tell Tom this fact. Navajos could be twitchy about cursed places.

Returning to the top platform he laid back down on his dark green foam mat.

“Wanna take a break?” he said.

“I’m good,” Tom said. He jumped when he heard the first door slam. A few seconds another door slammed hard enough that it made dust snow from the rafters over their heads. Soon is seemed every door in the building was slamming. Tom pointed to the building across the quad. “They’re doing it over there too.”

“Yeah, I hear that, weird,” Max said.

“So what the fuck is going on? Should we haul ass?”

“I don’t feel threatened, do you?”

Tom inhaled while he thought that over, and said, “No, I feel fear, but it’s not directed at us.”

“Same here, stay frosty,” Max said. He was comfortable with ghosts, and that’s why Tom had requested that he come along on this mission. He knew that if Max started to freak out then it was time to go. His friend’s calm helped him keep it together.

“Shit, someone’s at the gate, show time,” Tom said. Max popped the lens covers from his Steiner binoculars and looked to the left toward the tree-line where the fifteen foot-tall iron fences parted for the facility’s sole gate. An expensive black Mercedes sedan was pulling though and stopped. A man wearing a weathered white Fedora, and a blue and white plaid sport coat got out to lock the gate behind him.

“Why the fuck is he doing that?” Max said.

“One of three reasons, Bro, he’s careful, or the people following him have their own key, or the person he’s meeting is already here and we missed them on our recon.”

“Fuck. Do you think?” Max said. Dornier consisted of 9 three-story buildings covering twelve acres. They had arrived the night before scaling the fence from the forest in the rear of the sanitarium, and using their night vision goggles they searched all of the buildings finding nothing. The German government had intel that a man named Erman Klopf was using the place to make chemical and biological weapons to sell to Islamic extremists in the middle east. The Germans were afraid of blow-back should the WMDs be traced back to them, and they called the British government, who in turn called Washington D.C. The CIA was stretched too thin by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and east Africa to send anyone. Killing a German on German soil would have repercussions that none of the governments wanted to deal with if things went wrong, so they contracted out and called Drummel, who called Tom.

The Mercedes traveled the 300 yards from the gate and parked in front of the building directly across from the clock tower. The man got out of the car. Max recognized him immediately from the black eye-patch under his wide-rimmed glasses.

“Holy shit,” Max said in a whisper that made Tom turn away from his scope.

“What?” Tom said.

“Wait one.” The man walked from his car to the large mahogany doors that had not been bricked up like the rest, and used a key to open them. When the door was closed Max put his binoculars down. “That’s Heinrich-fucking-Steitz, he was the number two asshole in the T-4 program.”

“Wait, what? They didn’t hang his ass after Nuremburg?”

“No, he got nine years and went back to work for I.G. Farvin,” Max said, putting his binoculars away.

“No way,” Tom said, “The guy got a pass?”

“The British and U.S. needed him. He’d done a lot of work on genetics and biological weapons.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Fuckin’ A, Bubba,” Max said, and sat up. “Look at the bright side, we get to fix that mistake today.” He picked up his silenced UMP-45 and winked.

Tom got to his knees and stretched and said, “Aren’t we going to wait for Klopf?”

“He’s already here, you said so yourself.”

“I said that was an option,” Tom said, his elbows were stiff.

“Here’s where we fucked up: we’re both from warm states. I’m from Hillsburough in California, and you’re from Shiprock in New Mexico,” Max said, getting to his feet.

“It snows in New Mexico, dipshit.”

“Yeah, it the higher elevations, but not like it does here. How far to that building?”

Tom said, “Twenty-five yards.”

“If you worked here in January, how excited would you be to trudge over there and back six or seven times a day?” Max said. He was stuffing his gear into his pack.

“That would blow.”

“Exactly, and most places like this, like the old mental hospitals in New England, they all have tunnels connecting the buildings.”

Tom got to his feet and thought about this for a second, and said, “Oh shit, why didn’t we think of that before?”

“Evidently we’re morons,” Max said, flashing two thumbs up.

“So what else do you think might be down there?”

“Well, in places like Danvers and the West Allegheny Lunatic Asylum they had isolation wards, padded cells for the violent patients, and most had private operating rooms for their questionable work.”

“So there could be a fucking underground city that we missed,” Tom said, folding the bipod into the barrel of his rifle.

“Not exactly a city,” Max said, slinging his pack over his shoulders.

Tom flipped his rifle onto his back and chambered a round into his MP-7 submachine gun, and said, “There’s just the two of us, it might as well be a city.”

“True, but that works to our advantage. More guys would risk the op,” Max said. He was fiddling with the chin-strap to his black Protec helmet.

Tom smiled when he saw it and said, “When are you going to get a new brain-bucket?”

“This works just fine.”

“It won’t stop a bullet.”

“No, that means I have duck and stay alert, you know, cool commando shit,” Max said, clipping his NODs to the mount on the front of his helmet. “Besides, I don’t feel like spending a grand for your nifty high-speed Jedi beanie.”

“I picked this up for seven hundred bucks, fuck you very much,” Tom said, tightening the strap on his black Air Frame helmet. Both men double checked to make sure they’d left nothing behind and began to descend the stairs to the ground floor. Their NODs gave everything a lime-green tint as they moved quietly down the wall entry hall. “So where would the door be?”

“Near the kitchen, they would have loaded meals onto trays to distribute to the different wings,” Max said. They moved to the kitchen following the German signs overhead. Tom squeezed Max’s shoulder making him stop, and pointed to a trail of child-sized footprints in the dust-covered floor.

“Those weren’t there when we came through here yesterday. Why no shoes?” Tom said in a barely audible whisper. Max shrugged and continued into the large, industrial kitchen. Moving to a point in the center between two large cutting tables they paused to listen and scan the room. Tom began rapidly tapping Max’s shoulder. Max turned and he pointed to the far end of the room. A little girl Max guessed to be no older than eight stood looking at them. Her eyes glowed in their NODs allowing them to see she had Down Syndrome. She smiled and stuck her thumb into her mouth.

Max took a knee and said, “Where’s the door to downstairs?” His rusty German was pretty good after a week in country. Her smile grew bigger and she swayed side-to-side on her feet with her other hand clutching the side of her hospital gown. “I bet you don’t know where it is.” She took her thumb from her mouth and put both hands on her hips, and then spun around and skipped the short distance to the wood-paneled wall to vanish mid stride. Max moved to the wall and began feeling the wall for a leaver or release mechanism. Tom stepped forward and gave the panel a sharp push and it popped open. He stopped it when he heard the hinges squeal.

“How’d you know to do that?” Max said.

“Cheetahs had a door like this,” Tom said, referring to the strip club where he worked as a bouncer during his days at Bragg. He took point and opened the door carefully. Inside was a small landing, to the left was a dumbwaiter, and straight ahead was a rot iron spiral staircase leading down. Both of them turned on their targeting lasers and began the slow descent. It was a two-story drop to the bottom where they found a larger room filled with stainless steel meal carts. Tom went to the door and listened for a second before pushing it open. Max dropped an infrared chemlight on the floor in the hall so they could find it on their way out.

Unlike the ornate decor of the upper building, the underground was un-scenic concrete. Ancient gurneys and wheelchairs lined the south wall to their left, dozens of each. The years had been less kind here. Water had found its way through the cracks in the cement ceiling staining the floor where the pools would dry. Black mold climbed the wall an eighth of an inch thick. Max followed Tom along the hallway, his head swept right to left to right searching for threats. They passed many rooms, some with bedframes with leather straps, and others with moldy padding on the walls. On room had a dentist’s chair, Max grimaced when he saw it. Some patients were biters, and the hospital dealt with them by pulling out all of their teeth.

Something banged onto the floor somewhere ahead of them snapping Max back into focus. They waited a full minute before resuming their search. Tom came to a set of swinging doors and slowly pushed one open. I glow came from the far end of the hall 25 yards away. He estimated this was under the building where they’d seen Steitz enter. He resumed the stalking now moving heel to toe keeping silent. They reached a T-intersection where the floor went from bare cement to a black & white checkerboard tile.

Movement came from their right and they could see light seeping from under the ninth door down. Tom turned his head and nodded to Max. This was it; they would kick the door in (if they had to) and kill Steitz and Klopf, or whoever else was inside. Whatever pain they had in their joints was erased by the flood of adrenaline now surging through their systems. Tom began moving again but froze after three steps. The little girl from the kitchen was standing in the hall in front of the door where the light was coming from.

More children emerged from thin air, some in surgical gowns, some in shorts and with shirts, and others in white nightgowns. They ranged in age from five to fifteen. Unlike the little girl, their eyes were black holes set deep into their skulls. The little girl held out her hand with her palm out signaling for Tom and Max to stop. She smiled and put her index finger to her lips, and the others imitated her. One by one the children began to file into the lighted room passing through the closed door like smoke. The little girl remained in the hallway now sucking her thumb and swaying in the dark.

The sound of breaking glass filled the hall, and Max and Tom pulled their helmets off, and began fumbling around for their gas-masks. Once tight on their faces their helmets went back on. The whole time two men were shouting inside the room. Their shouts turned to yells, changing to screams. These screams went on for ten minutes, the final two of which the pitch of their cries rose four octaves. The doorknob began rattling and someone pounded on the other side begging God for help. The silence that followed was abrupt and thick enough to cause Max and Tom to hold their breath, until the first of the children reappeared walkinf through the door. Their black eyes now glowed brightly, the kids formed into a line and walked toward Max and Tom with smiles on their face. Some said hello with tiny voices, and other waved, and a few just went past looking straight ahead.

Finally the little girl came down the hall and stopped in front of Tom. She beckoned with her hand for him to kneel down.

She kissed him on his cheek and said, “Thank you for caring about us. Do not worry, we can go home now.”

“Save me a dance,” Tom said. She kissed him again and moved past him skipping down the hallway fading out of view with each joyful leap. Tom sniffed.

“You gonna need a minute?” Max said.

“Fuck you,” Tom said, sliding a gloved finger under his NODs to wipe his eyes. He stood and started moving to the door. The knob was locked when he tried it, and he took a step back, and kicked the door open splintering the frame at the strike plate. The lights forced them to flip their NODs up and turn them off as they went in.

“Well that explains how the Germans knew they were here,” Max said.

“Yeah, the power-drain, they most have traced it. Nice of them to tell us,” Tom said. His brain registered what his eyes were viewing. “Smack my ass and call me Sally.” Intestines were draped over the hanging lights like bunting. Small bloody handprints decorated all four walls and the sides of the laboratory tables.

“Jesus, they quartered them,” Max said. An empty, armless chest hung from a coat rack near the door with the flesh pulled back to reveal the ribs. Four severed hands were neatly lined on a counter next to a wall sink next to extensive lab equipment, much of it now smashed. “There’s Klopf.” Max removed his iPhone to photograph the severed head on the floor next to an old refrigerator.

“Looks like Steitz is over here,” Tom said, pointing to the other head lying on its crown. The wind-pipe and neck vertebrae showed signs of being pulled from the body. Max came over and kicked the head onto its side for a slightly less gory picture.

“Laptop,” Tom said, pointing to a desk in the corner. He went over to it and pulled out a USB leech-drive and began copying the contents. The Germans wanted all intel discovered here, but there was no reason not to copy it for the CIA and the Brits, both would pay generously for what was on this computer.

Max slipped on the large lake of blood in the center of the lab. “Whoops, Christ almighty,”

“Careful, twinkle toes,” Tom said.

“Eat me.” Max continued to take pictures while they both looked for anything that would be of value to the high priests of the intelligence world. Tom found six thumb-drives that he copied. Something hanging from the still ceiling fan caught his eye.

“Bro, what the hell am I looking at here?” he said, point it out.

Max frowned and said, “Those would be testicles.”

“Nifty, can we get the fuck out of here now? Tell me we’re done.”

“We’re done. I don’t see anything else we could use.” Max put away his phone and began to follow Tom to the door when something on the last table caught his eye. “Hold on, dude.” He grabbed Steitz’s car keys and continued to the door. Neither man spoke until they were outside.

“Do you feel it?” Tom said.

“Yeah, the kids are all gone,” Max said.

“Did we have something to do with that?”

“Probably, I mean I think that Steitz being here had a lot to do with it, but the fact is they must have known why we were here.”

“So they killed them instead?” Tom said, he took his helmet off.

“I think they did it so it wouldn’t be on us,” Max said.

“Bro, I think they did it because shooting those assholes wasn’t going to be enough for them.”

Max removed his helmet and thought about that for a second, and said, “You’re probably right.”

“They used their heads as soccer balls,” Tom said, slipping his NODs into their case.

“Well the good news is that we don’t have hike back to our car, we can take this.” Max gestured to the Mercedes.

Tom went over and Max unlocked the passenger door with the remote on the keychain.

“This is a nice car,” Tom said.

“Not for long,” Max said. He got in and started the engine. Abba’s music filled the interior.

“Fuck, the guy really was a monster,” Tom said, ejecting the CD from the dashboard stereo. He lowered his window and threw it like a Frisbee.

“How thick do you think that chain is on the gate?” Max said, revving the engine.

Tom grinned and said, “Not that thick, Bro. Not that thick at all.” He flipped up the latch on the dashboard and turned off the airbags. The computerized voice of the car protested in a stern female German voice.

“Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!” Tom said.

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads,” Max said, and floored the gas. A rooster tail of dirt and gravel spread out from behind the car as it launched down the driveway. The speedometer read 50mph by the time they reached the gate. The impact knocked the gate from its hinges smashing the rear windshield into a spiderwebbed pattern. The hood was creased into a tent-shape but the engine sounded good. Max fish-tailed the Mercedes as he made the sharp turn onto the county road. Tom hooted loudly while he set the radio to a rock station in Berlin. Max wondered how the Germans were going to take it when they found the bodies, or what was left of them. He would file a detailed report, but Max knew from experience that few people believed anything he wrote.

He smiled, this wasn’t his problem.