Jimmy Alvarez was one tough mother. After reliving the firefight over and over in my head, I could only come to that conclusion. Shivering and covered in blood and dust, I hid under the bodies of my crew in some godforsaken ditch near an almond grove in California’s Central Valley while I prayed for twilight to fade into night.
“Bobby,” Rory Haines sputtered as he choked on his own blood, “tell Missy I love ‘er and make sure she gets my bounty after you bag the ol’ bastard.”
I nodded to make Rory feel better, but there’s no way I was gonna share that bounty with a dead man’s family. There weren’t many boomers left, and the ones who were were either nasty ol’ coots with a knack for survival or cats with more dough than Zuckerberg. Either way, you had to make each bounty count.
I preferred the ol’ coots myself. Most of ‘em were poor. And being poor made ‘em easier targets. The rich ones could afford tons of security.
I could smell Alvarez coming, a hint of cigar smoke drifting on the biting wind. What the man had done with railroad ties, rebar, and bear traps was inspired, if not horrifying.
Rory was wheezing again. I tapped his knee with my rifle to shut him up. But my gesture was about as useful as tits at a big dick convention.
Alvarez’s footsteps quickened.
“Shut the hell up,” I murmured with a kick to Rory’s bloody thigh that a shit-encrusted shaft of rusty rebar had run clean through. Rory would have tetanus for sure, but it didn’t matter. He’d be dead by morning.
Word had it that Alvarez was almost eighty. How that sombitch could move so fast was a goddamn miracle—and a nightmare for me and my crew.
The cigar smell was getting stronger, but the footsteps had stopped. I shut my mouth and played dead. If Rory wouldn’t quit his whining, then he was on his own.
Watching from beneath three lukewarm bodies, I saw the underside of a black combat boot kick dirt from the lip of the ditch. Rory squealed.
Alvarez carefully slid into the trench, cradling a scope-mounted AR-15 in his stubby arms. I couldn’t believe it. The man was five-foot nothing and couldn’t have weighed more than a buck fifty.
Either way, he was on Rory like orange on a pumpkin. Ol’ bastard took one look at Rory’s leg and double-tapped him in the head. Then, all nonchalant-like, Alvarez took two deep drags on his cigar.
Then he came closer. He poked and jabbed at Carl and Juan and Ashish. I held my breath. He rolled Carl’s bloody body off the pile and double-tapped him in the brain bucket, probably just to be sure. I quivered. He did the same to Ashish. Juan’s corpse was next.
I could barely breathe. If I didn’t do nothing, he’d shoot me too. It was a real grade-A goatfuck. Rolling the dice, I ignored every survival instinct I had, jumped to my feet, raised my arms, and begged, “Please, don’t shoot.”
Alvarez wore olive drab fatigues along with an ol’-school Vietnam boonie cap. His face was taut but wrinkled, weather worn but not beaten. He jabbed his rifle in my chest and chuckled. “You’re mine, son.”
I smiled like some dope stupid enough to think there was any chance of walking away from this.
The whole thing was ridiculous. Me, who came here to kill him, and Alvarez, who’d just snuffed out four of my men like it was nothing. And here we were, smiling at each other like two jerkoffs. I gave him my best aw-shucks face. He laughed and lowered his rifle. Just when I thought things were cool, he coldcocked me, and I was out like bellbottoms and eight-tracks.
When the Chinese called their treasury bonds, interest rates went ballistic, and Uncle Sam needed a quick fix to service its ballooning interest. Hiking up the death tax was the easy part, but the goddamn boomers wouldn’t die fast enough. So, the feds passed the Septuagenarian Protection Act of 2020 to accelerate the process.
Regardless of the details, that law changed my life. It’s what transformed me from an unemployed dirtbag into a highly bankable merc. You see, there’s not a single living politician who had the guts to send the police to round up these defiant ol’ fogies, so governments hired private military contractors on the down low. What the feds did to the ol’ coots after was their business, not mine. But the job paid well, so I didn’t complain.
In the early days, business was good. Not many people were willing to chase down ol’ folks, so the supply of hunters was low, but the demand for boomers was high. And back then, hunting boomers was like shooting fish in a barrel. The commies from the city with their anti-gun slogans were the easiest to round up, as were wealthy law-abiding urban conservatives who’d blindly trusted the system that made ‘em rich. I made a killing back then, and I didn’t even have to kill anyone to do it.
When other working-class kids saw dopes like me making a fortune, they all started getting into the biz. Then the law got looser than a ten-buck barracks whore, and it wasn’t long before it became legal to put the ol’ farts down. Before I knew it, mercs had depopulated most of America’s urban centers of their Septs, and we all had to go deeper into the country to make any dough.
That, my friend, is when the biz really started separating the men from the boys. The gun nuts in the sticks weren’t so easy to collect because they had the means and the training to fight back.
The ‘Nam vets was the worst. Most of ‘em was smart ‘nuff to un-ass the city and head to the hills before the feds passed the new law. And these vets really starting racking up the body count, especially among the amateurs. So much so that the pencil pushers in Washington soon required merc outfits to pass through reams of red tape for certification. Hell, that one move alone did more to consolidate the industry than rising body counts did. But as they say, “That’s all history now.”
I woke up in a crouch next to a shiny white toilet bowl. My wrists were handcuffed to a radiator. It was hot as hell, my head ached, and I had a big lump on my forehead. My stomach grumbled and I was parched. I had no idea how long I’d been out.
It was a miracle Alvarez hadn’t killed me, but I ain’t one to kick a gift horse in the balls.
When I looked up, Alvarez was standing in front of the sink, dressed like a pervert in tighty-whiteys and a spotless white wife-beater. He was shaving with a straight razor. Real ol’ school. Dog tags dangled from his neck like a good luck charm. His skin was rough as rawhide.
He tilted his head in my direction like a cocky drill instructor. Like I was the dumbest piece of crap he’d ever seen. “So you finally returned to the world of the living, ginger,” he said, referring to my red hair. “You’re probably wondering why you’re not taking a dirt nap, aren’t you?”
He smiled and then pointed at my right arm where my eagle, globe, and anchor tattoo had claimed all the real estate. “Why are you here trying to kill a fellow Marine, Devil Dog?” he asked, his stone-cold brown eyes boring into mine.
Like a moron, I grinned and said the first thing that came to mind. “Trying to make a buck, same as you.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “I got nothing against shooting boomers. Hell, if I were your age, I’d be shooting ‘em too. And I’m one of ‘em. They fucked everything up. Those hippy pricks spat at me and called me a baby killer after I risked my life for our country. All the while, those pinkos fled to Canada to avoid doing their duty. But a fellow Marine. You should know better, boy.”
I had no idea what Alvarez was gonna do next, but it couldn’t be any worse than this. He had a way ‘bout him. A way that made me feel real low, like I’d strangled a puppy.
“What’re you gonna do with me?” I asked.
He ran his fingers over his high-and-tight. “Catch and release, Marine. Catch and release. I got no business killing a fellow Marine.”
I shot him a confused look. “How you know I ain’t gonna come back and try again?”
“Semper Fi,” he said. “You just needed some corrective training. Now that I’ve done that, I know you ain’t coming back. ’Course, you’ll be surrendering you and your friends’ firearms in exchange for my generosity.”
That night, the ol’ man actually cooked me a porterhouse in his small kitchen and gave me as many beers as I wanted. I took him up on both offers. ’Course, I only had one Budweiser. I needed to stay sharp. You never know, the ol’ fart could always change his mind.
I guess being with someone he thought was a fellow Marine made Alvarez feel safe, even if I had tried to smoke him a few hours earlier. Or maybe he was lonely being holed up out here for so long. Probably just wanted some company.
It wasn’t long before Alvarez pulled out the whiskey and started telling me about his time in Kai San. Halfway through the bottle, the man was still lucid as a lark. But the more he drank, the more belligerent he became. He pushed me for stories about Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever it was I told him I’d served, but I refused. Told him some bull that I didn’t want to talk about it. He nodded as if he understood. Like we shared a secret only combat vets could know.
He was madder than hell that I only had one beer. In my defense, I told him I was Mormon and had had the first beer to be polite. He stared at me a good thirty seconds before he smiled and accepted my excuse. But I was worried he didn’t believe me. And if he didn’t believe me, I was done for.
As Alvarez was pouring the last drop of his bottle of Jack Daniels into his glass, the windows shattered. The steady thump thump thump of a machine gun violated our quiet evening.
I tackled the ol’ man, shielding him with my body. But Alvarez didn’t seem to care for my attempt to save him. He pushed me off and rolled onto his stomach. Bullets whistled over our heads like burping bees. Alvarez low-crawled from the kitchen to his den until he was underneath a pool table.
He quickly reached up and grabbed a cue stick from the table, then dropped to his belly. He low-crawled to a spot where five rifles hung on the wall. Keeping a low profile on the floor, he worked the cue stick into the trigger guard of an AR-15. The rifle fell from the gun rack and into his hands.
He slithered over shards of glass and took up a fighting position near the broken window. He aimed his rifle and waited. The steady thump thump thump of the machine gun began anew. Alvarez shifted his rifle, steadied it, then fired. The machine gun fire ceased. Alvarez rolled away from his firing position and established another one three feet away. Then he waited.
Huddled on the ground, I waved my hand at Alvarez. He turned his head at the motion. I pointed at the wall of rifles. Then I pointed outside. He stared at me for several seconds as if considering my offer, then nodded.
I low-crawled toward the wall and grabbed the cue stick. I worked a twenty-two off the wall and established a fighting position next to Alvarez.
It was dark outside and hard to see, especially with the light on in the house. I looked behind me and saw a lamp. I aimed and fired. Alvarez swiveled his head at me. His left eye was already shut. The ol’ bastard was already building up his night vision. He nodded in what I was certain was approval.
I listened while I waited for my night vision to kick in, struggling to filter out the sound of my heartbeat. Soon, the boys outside would be sending another man to the machine gun. But if they were smart, they’d established a new firing position. We waited until our attackers identified themselves with machine gun fire.
Sure enough, the boys began pumping Alvarez’s house full of lead again. I kept my rifle steady and scanned the places I’d be if I were setting a machine gun nest. Sure as shit, I saw the faintest tip of a head there. I steadied my rifle, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The firing stopped instantly. Alvarez gave me a thumbs-up.
I ducked down and moved to another window. The attackers would be attracted to my muzzle flash. Like clockwork, the next poor sod to take control of the machine gun shot my ol’ fighting position to hell, rendering it a riot of smoke and splinters. But Alvarez just waited calmly and then took a shot. Again, the machine gun fell silent. Then the ol’ man sunk to his belly and crawled to his back door.
You had to admire the bastard. He was gonna take the fight to the enemy. He looked back and gestured for me to follow. I shook my head. “We don’t know how many of them are out there,” I whispered.
He hesitated, then said, “Doesn’t matter. We stay here, they’ll kill us. Plus, I don’t want ‘em to wreck my house any more than they already have.”
I smiled and then nodded. I low-crawled to Alvarez and said, “Let me go first. I’ll draw their fire.”
He smiled and slapped me on the back. “I may forgive you yet, Marine.”
I slowly rose, grabbed the latch on the screen door, and opened it. I sprinted toward a Ford 150 in the driveway, making for its wheel well. To cover Alvarez, I pointed my rifle toward the almond grove where our assailants were hiding, then gave him a thumbs-up.
Alvarez ran toward the rusted Ford. The crack of a rifle shot echoed through the valley. Alvarez dropped, clutching his leg. I aimed my rifle in the direction of the muzzle flash, found my target and fired, dropping another attacker. I ran to the ol’ man. I dragged him behind the truck. Tearing off his lower pant leg, I took a look at his wound. “You’re gonna be just fine,” I reassured him.
Alvarez smiled and said, “You’re doing good, son. You’re doing good. There might be some hope for you after all, Marine.”
I stood up, pointed my twenty-two at Alvarez’s head and blew the ol’ man’s brains out.
“Good work, gentlemen,” I said as I stood over Alvarez’s limp body.
“Damn,” Skippy said, “What the hell took you so long? Kahn, Reed, Lee, and Marlow all got popped.”
“And your share of the pot went from one hundred and twenty-five grand to a quarter million dollars,” I said.
Skippy smiled. “Good point. How the hell you know he wouldn’t kill you?”
“He was a Marine. And he thought I was one too.”
“Hell no. I got the tattoo specifically for this op.”
“Shit,” Skippy said. “You are one twisted mo-fo.”
I smiled, then opened a box of cigars I’d looted from Alvarez’s home. “Let’s celebrate, boys.”
Skippy, Jonesy, and Big Jelly all grinned like the greedy, stupid pigs they were. I handed each of ‘em a cigar. “Any of you got a light?”
Jonesy nodded, pulled out his Zippo, and lit everyone’s cigars.
Skippy looked my way. “What, you not smoking, boss?”
I grinned. “Oh, I’m smoking all right. I’m smoking you.”
I put a bullet right between the eyes of each man before you could whistle “Dixie.”
Being a merc these days is tough business. Ain’t no way I was sharing that bounty with anyone.
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