Read The Land of the Free Online
Authors: TJ Tucker
A beaming Derek Ellis walked out of
the US headquarters of Helsing-Tilbury in downtown Chicago Monday morning. His
life had been in turmoil since Torres had suspended him from any dealings with
the US government. Then, when Torres himself made it clear the suspension was
permanent and nonnegotiable, he was pushed into a new kind of arrangement. His
financial problems were now over, likely forever. His long serving staff could
be retained, and he would be vindicated after all.
At the lunch table at the Perrin
Gourmet, the maître d’ instinctively seated Ellis’ group far from the other
guests, to keep others at a safe distance from his overwhelming perfume.
Whether this was Ellis’ intent or not, he never let on. He filled in his three
senior staff on their new roles, but made it clear that much of what was going
to happen would be secret. “The operation is going to be compartmentalized,
and you’ll only know your own compartment. After today, and for the
foreseeable future, you are not to communicate with each other at all, only
with me.” The arrangement was nothing unusual, as they had done the same in
the past when sensitive operations were in the planning stages.
“Derek, you never fail to amaze
me,” said Ian Rennson, chief of operations at Morningstar Security. “Time and
again, you pull a rabbit out of a hat, just when things are looking bleakest
for us. You tried everything and failed before you managed to put this deal
“This deal in rough form was
available to me before, but it was a real departure from what we normally do.
I tried everything to avoid doing it. I tried to stay with the government
until it was clear Torres would have none of that.”
“What’s with him anyway?” asked
“The administration just doesn’t
appreciate what we do,” said Ellis. “They don’t want to deal with the serious
problems that come up when they occupy a country, so they hire us to solve
them. And then they don’t want to hear how we solved their problems. And when
they can no longer ignore the fallout from their own invasion, they blame us
for the blowback. If we had peace in the world, I’d gladly retire. But
they’re the ones that keep starting wars and making messes. I’m tired of being
the scapegoat when all I’ve ever done is to support their agendas, and save
them from failure, over and over. This time, things will work differently.
That Puerto Rican Episcopalian will live to regret the way he treated me.”
“Is there a government involved in
this one?” asked Rennson.
“You can’t ask that question,”
answered Ellis. “Only I can know the big picture until everything comes
together. That’s the only way to maintain security.”
“You have my backing 100 percent,”
said Rennson. “I trust you implicitly. You’ve always delivered in the past.”
“Thanks Ian,” said Ellis, less than
overwhelmed by his obsequious sidekick.
As the group finished their lunch
and prepared to split up, Ellis turned to Rennson and said, “Ian, I’d like to
speak with you alone. The rest of you can go. I’ll be in touch.”
“What is it Derek?” asked Rennson.
“There are a couple of loose ends
that have to be tied off. It seems Tilbury isn’t organized enough to keep
their own secrets, so we’re going to have to help them out a little.”
After treating Cam Burrows’ leg
injury, the medical staff at the San Gustavo facility gave him a narcotic that
eased his pain, but also put him into a deep sleep. He awoke in something like
a brig. The room was clean, and there was a functional toilet and a bed. The
door was locked from the outside, but there was a large window. It was glass
reinforced with steel wire. Burrows quickly sized it up and realized he had
nothing that could break the glass. In any event, the steel wire would hold it
together. He had an unobstructed view of one of the runways, and could see
some of the activity outside.
Such a large base on the doorstep
of the United States had to be a major threat. If by any chance it had not
been noticed, unlikely as that seemed, Burrows could possibly be the only
American to know of its existence.
General Kim seemed awfully cavalier when
I said he’d be spotted before long. He’s got something up his sleeve
thought Burrows. He kept looking out the window, and noticed that most of the
people were probably Chinese, not Mexican.
At least that tells me who’s
paying for all this, and where the flights are coming from
. A few days
passed, and the flow of aircraft continued uninterrupted. One afternoon, the
flow of cargo planes ceased. Within a half hour, a small private jet landed on
the airstrip, and Burrows could make out Kim and several others forming a
A tall, well dressed Caucasian man
stepped off the private plane, and the people waiting took turns shaking his
hand and bowing incessantly. They made their way to the building that housed
Burrows, and the private jet moved off the runway. The flights of cargo jets
So who’s in charge here?
seems to be Kim’s superior, and I’d bet he’s American
Burrows did not have to wait long
for his answer. A group of men walked down the corridor outside his cell,
setting a slower pace than was typical for the guards. One of the men leaned
against his door, which creaked slightly. They were speaking to each other,
and Burrows thought he might just be able to pick up the details of their
discussion. He tiptoed to the door and put his ear up against it. It was an
American voice, there was no doubt about that. It was probably the man he saw
“Did he see the whole operation?”
“He saw much of it. We have to
assume he saw it all.”
“Go back to his vehicle. Take it
to the middle of nowhere and blow out a tire or two. To make it look like it
was stolen by drug gangs. Rip out the electronics, and shoot out the
radiator. Wait a week or so for his bullet wound to heal completely. Then cut
off his water. Let him go about three days without water, and take him out to
the vehicle. Let him go and forget about him. It’ll be too late to change
“Yes, Mr. Ellis, we will take care
of it.” Burrows could make out Kim’s voice very clearly.
So they want to make it look
like I got lost and died of thirst. And in a week or so, whatever it is that’s
going on here will have run its course
. Burrows was glad for the advance
warning of his presumed fate, and began planning an alternative scenario.
As the Helsing-Tilbury corporate
jet taxied for its turn to take off from Chicago’s Midway Airport, the senior
executives of the company were already letting their hair down and drinking
champagne. The flight was to an essentially meaningless conference in Las
Vegas, yet 12 of the most senior managers were on the plane. CEO Shane
Magnuson sat beside CFO Ken Drule. They clinked glasses and Magnuson said,
“Well if we can no longer make any decisions on how to run the company, we
might as well enjoy ourselves for a while. There’s no way they can keep things
going like this indefinitely.”
“You got that right,” said Drule.
“The money I’ve been forced to spend is staggering. I don’t know how I’m going
to explain to another company how I allowed things to get so out of hand.”
Magnuson gave a laugh and patted
Drule on the shoulder, then stood up. The rest of the passengers paused what
they were doing and gave a listen to the Chief. “Folks, here’s to operating
Tilbury the way we’ve been asked by the owners. You’ve all done a fine job and
I’m proud to work with you. Remember that in the end, the preferences of the
owners are what dictate the operations in a company. When you were asked to
produce profits, you did so admirably. Today, profits are not asked of you,
but you’ve been responsible nonetheless. So now we’re going to have some fun.
My only rule is no cameras pointed at me in Vegas, and you’d also be smart not
to point them at each other. This is going to be memorable.”
There was raucous cheering of
Magnuson’s admonitions, and all returned to their drinking. Magnuson asked
Drule as an aside, “Who do you have running the shop?”
“Scott Peters refused to come
along, so I left him in charge. I doubt he’d be much fun if he came along.”
“He can sign the checks, and that’s
all we really do anymore,” said Magnuson as he refilled his champagne glass.
The plane reached the runway and
made a smooth takeoff. The brief quiet during takeoff was soon replaced by the
loud party atmosphere that characterized this group on this trip. The
explosion caught everyone by surprise for the instant they were aware of it.
The small pieces of debris rained down on farms for several miles, and marked
the end of the management group of Helsing-Tilbury.
“Scott, this is Derek Ellis.
You’re about to be named the acting CEO of Tilbury.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s been an unfortunate
accident. The plane bound for Vegas has gone down. All of management is
presumed dead. You’re the highest ranking surviving manager.”
“So that’s why you told me not to
go to Vegas.”
“Let me be clear, Scott. It’s not
your role to question these things. As far as you know, you were simply lucky
not to be on that plane. If you can’t follow my instructions and keep your
opinions to yourself, I can’t guarantee I’ll keep you in the operation.”
“No problem, Derek. I understand.”
“Good. Now send me copies of all
correspondence you’ve had on our operation. I want to know what everyone
“Sure thing,” said Peters.
“Yes. All the research and reports
on the oil industry that you’ve accumulated. I need all of it sent overnight.
I want it all on my desk tomorrow morning.”
“It’ll be there.”
“One more thing. I need you to
send a check for one million dollars to Joe Frattano. I’ll send you the
details by email and I want it to be for ‘consulting services rendered.’”
“Isn’t that the brother of the
Secretary for Homeland Security?”
“Didn’t I tell you to not ask
questions, Scott? I didn’t just mean don’t ask with your mouth. I meant don’t
ask inside your head. Can I count on you to make this adaptation right now?”
“Sorry, I’ll be completely quiet,
effective right now.”
“I think you’ll live longer that
way,” said Ellis.
John Corson set out for Silver Lake
at nine in the morning. He fought his way up I-95 and skirted New York City to
the East. His mind was already savoring the promise of cool water and the
scent of balsam fir at the end of his journey. He relaxed as he traveled
through the pleasant but still highly civilized corridor through the
Catskills. The air was still that of eastern seaboard summer, clean but humid.
As he often did while driving long
distances, John’s mind returned to the accident. After all these years it
still haunted him as much as the day it happened. The same questions arose in
his mind. If only he hadn’t been so idealistic. He couldn’t help thinking the
crash was rigged. Was he reading too much into it after all those years of
remorse? No, he didn’t believe that. There was more to it, like that time
just before the accident when he’d been held up in the alley. The assailant
didn’t want his money. He only kept him in place at gunpoint for a moment,
until a man in the shadows stepped forward and said “You need to keep your
curiosity to yourself. People might get hurt.” It couldn’t have been a
coincidence, coming just before the accident.
John’s thinking was interrupted by
the end of the toll highway at Albany. After some minor traffic from Albany to
Glens Falls, he entered the Adirondack Park, savoring his favorite stage of the
drive. The road slanted perceptibly uphill. Before long his air conditioning
began to blow uncomfortably cold air, so he turned it off and opened his
sunroof. He could smell the balsam fir and the cooler, drier air with all the
scents of the forest he had come to love so much. The sky was an azure blue.
These days were ideal, he thought. There would be a beautiful warm day,
followed by a cool evening and a crisp night. He finished his drive on side
roads as he closed in on Silver Lake.
Feeling sticky from a day of
driving, John pulled onto Island Road and saw the still prominent sun
reflecting off the water. Pulling into Robbie’s camp, he quickly looked
around, and seeing nobody, changed into his swimsuit in the car. He ran down
to the boat dock and without slowing sailed through the air into the water.
The cool water surrounding him melted away the accumulated stress of the long
John surfaced, turned onto his
back, and swam out a little further, looking up at the house for any sign that
Robbie was in. Seeing nobody, his glance lowered to the water. He recoiled as
he saw something white floating in the water just beside the dock. He must
have jumped right over it. He swam frantically to the dock, grabbed the still
dressed body by the shirt collar and dragged it to the dock. It was a male.
He was afraid to look too closely at the corpse, because deep down he knew what
he would see when he did. Robbie’s body was now cold to the touch, dead in the
John pulled Robbie’s body out of the
water and laid it on the dock. He thought to return to his car for his cell
phone, but he remembered there was no reception up here. Instead he ran up to
the cottage to find a land line. He opened the door and stopped in his
tracks. The place had been turned upside down. It was a remarkable mess for
such a sparsely furnished place. Robbie’s shotgun had not been touched.
Neither had his wallet or the cash in it. His car keys were still there, but
all cabinets, cupboards and drawers were dumped on the floor. The sofas were
turned upside down with their liners cut open, and the sofa cushions were
likewise cut open. There was a sweet, almost fruity smell in the cottage. It
was somehow familiar to John, but he couldn’t place it.
What were they looking
for, and did they find it?
was all John could think about. If they did
not, he could expect some aggressive attention in the near future, as he would
be surprised if his arrival had gone unnoticed.
The police arrived within a half
hour and turned the quiet lakeside community into a scene of pandemonium. John
was sure by now that Robbie was killed because of what he had wanted to discuss
with him. The killers were probably professionals, so he was sure the New York
State Police would find nothing useful.
John answered most of their
questions forthrightly, but held back any mention of Robbie’s call or the panic
he had obviously felt. He had no concrete information, and it was obvious in
any case that foul play was involved. They had found a hypodermic needle mark
on Robbie’s arm and signs of constriction on his wrists.
John stayed in a local motel that
night, and underwent more questioning the following morning. He decided to go
home, bitter that his memories of Silver Lake were now indelibly tarnished by
the murder of his good friend. Jess had to be told, and comforted. And John
himself was shattered. Robbie had been a constant in his life, going back to
when their little girls played together. Even when he was the one helping
Robbie through tough times, the friendship was what made John feel human. Now,
he just wanted to hide himself away from the world.
John had a lot of time to think on
the long drive home. He had tried to warn Robbie off pursuing things that were
best left alone.
If only he had listened to me
thought John. His grief
was crushing, but right now he had another duty. He would have to stop in
Albany to tell Jess the news.
How do you tell a girl that her father has
just been murdered?
Jess wept quietly. She hid her
face in her hands, and only the quaking of her body betrayed her grief. John
did his best to comfort her, and slept on her sofa that night. He stayed with
her for a time the following morning, but felt helpless to do anything for
her. He left later in the afternoon and went straight home. He sat motionless
for the better part of a day. His girlfriend called to check on him, but John
had no time for her. There was no way he could explain to her, someone he’d
only known a couple of years, how being part of Robbie’s family was his last
link to his own.
Robbie Linssman’s funeral was a
small affair held in Kingston NY, on a rainy and humid early September day. In
attendance were Jess, a few mutual friends, and some unfamiliar people from
Helsing-Tilbury. He made no attempt to strike up any conversations. He
assumed that most of those people only came because it was expected. They
worked with Robbie or conducted personal business with him. They did not have
to console a daughter who’d just lost her father too early, remembering how she
looked when he told her.
At least she’s safe
John thought to himself.
John took Jess out to dinner after
the funeral. He never failed to notice the looks others gave Jess, a beautiful
girl of about 5’8”, flowing light brown hair and svelte but shapely
proportions. “Do you have a boyfriend or anyone you could spend time with to
get over this?”
“Not really. I had one when we
were in school but it didn’t work out. He was just too shallow, and I won’t
waste my time on someone who doesn’t have the sort of depth I need.”
“So you’re alone” observed John.
Jess’ mother and Robbie’s ex wife had died a few years back.
“Yeah I guess. I have friends at
work, but nobody really close right now.”
“Then I’ll keep tabs on you for a
while if you don’t mind.”
“Thanks, that’ll be nice.”