James Paronoa was shocked out of his sleep at 5:08 am to the sound of broken glass. The momentum of rising upward made him bounce on the bed.
He looked at his alarm clock. “Damn,’’ he said, threw off the blankets, and walked to the window to see where the noise came from. “Might as well forget going back to sleep,’’ he grumbled to himself.
He saw men in black jackets with yellow letters on their backs across the street. They smashed the window pane in the storm door to burst into the home. Muffled yelling, then cursing, was all he could hear. Then banging in the house and dull thuds were added to the noise as if furniture or people were being slammed into the walls.
James quickly got himself dressed, threw on a pair of jeans that were lying on the floor and a flannel shirt that was hanging from a desk chair. Porches were now lighting up as the neighbors also were awakening. Curtains opened then fell back to their hanging position, doors opened with half-awake people looking outside. A few walked out of their homes and out into the street.
The men with the yellow-lettered jackets spread out to those houses where people awakened. “Go back inside,’’ some of them yelled. “Or we will arrest you, too.’’
Like good, little sheep, the people went back into their homes without a word spoken.
James heard the men say that, but he still walked outside. The door to his upstairs apartment was in the back of the building, and unlit. He could easily sneak down the stairs and not be seen. He tiptoed around to the side of the building that had no streetlight, near some high shrubs. Now able to see better what was going on, he watched his neighbor, Abagail Merritt, being forced into a black, four-door Lincoln Crown Victoria. She was being manhandled by three of the officers, her face beat up, blood trickling from her nose.
James counted the men in the jackets. Ten. It took 10 of them to beat the shit out of her and arrest her, he thought. And there were others still in the house. As he peeked through the shrubs, he could still hear banging noises in the house from the men he didn’t count.
Two more men in jackets came out, one carrying a laptop computer and Abagail’s cell phone. About a minute later, two others walked out of the house empty-handed.
James already knew what Abagail was being arrested for. Abagail was a freelance reporter who contributed to a bunch of internet publications. Not many people read them because the websites were obscure. And not many people that read them believed they were true because Abagail’s sources were always confidential. James was Abagail’s sounding board and a mediocre editor to some of her news stories.
Recently, James was reading one of Abagail’s news stories that reported the governor was bribing reporters and newspaper editors to stay quiet over a tax hike that would be used to silence state residents who openly opposed the governor’s policies. What Abagail also uncovered was that the federal government stood behind the governor on this hike and what the money would be used for.
In disbelief, James asked Abagail after reading the story, “This already happened?’’
“Yep,’’ said Abagail. “The only thing anyone really knows is that everyone’s income tax will be going up the next fiscal year. No one knows the real reason because of all the conflicting stories out there in the city newspapers.
“One of the official stories is that it’s supposed to alleviate the property tax burden,’’ Abagail continued.
“You’re going to be the first one that gets shut up, Ab.’’ James was joking when he said it. “How do you know the US government is involved?’’
“My source is from Washington D.C.’’
“How do you know they aren’t blowing smoke?’’
“It’s a risk, I know. But I know the person’s name and the offices he held in D.C. And he’s not my only source; I have others that work for the state. Everything is checked and double-checked.’’ Abagail carried on about how the states and the feds are corrupt, the undermining of rights, the brainwashing of the public, and how people have been thrown in jail to rot away. “And by the way, if the FBI comes looking for me, they’ll be looking for you, too.’’
As James stood there among the high shrubs, his stomach began to feel like a bottle of soda being shaken. He realized that he could be in some trouble, too. He buried himself deeper into the shrubs until the cars drove away.
James stepped out of the shrubs, oblivious to what he should do. He thought once they look at her cell phone and laptop, anyone she knows is going to be nabbed. And he thought further, these guys that took Ab weren’t staties. They were feds. And finally, he figured that her latest news story was true. Maybe all of them were.
James walked up the stairs to his apartment slowly, trying to think of what he should do: to help himself and Abagail. He showered quickly, got dressed for work, and threw some clothes in a bag.
He got into work early. So early that one of his coworkers mentioned it to him as he was punching his time card. He walked quickly to the cubicle that his ex-wife worked at. She wasn’t there yet, but he saw her getting out of her car from the window that overlooked the parking lot. James met his wife at work and less than a year after they were married, they were divorced.
James ran to the lounge area where the time clock was located, waited for her to come in. When she saw James standing there she came to a stop, stepped back, looked at him strangely, like she was scared of him.
“What did you do?’’ she asked. She grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him back to her cubicle.
“Nothing.’’ Suspiciously he asked, “Why? What happened?’’
“People were pounding on the door two hours ago, asking for you. They weren’t dressed like cops, but they were some kind of law enforcement.’’
“What did they say?’’
“They wanted to know where you were. I couldn’t tell them.’’ She took a breath. “You did nothing? Bullshit. For people like that to wake me up out of bed, you must have done something.
“They were pointing guns at me, Jim.’’ She began crying while she spoke.
“I didn’t. My neighbor got arrested about the same time you got the knock on the door.
“You didn’t say anything to them, right?’’
“No. I don’t know where you live and I don’t care either. What are you, sleeping with her?
“No. It’s worse.’’
His wife got herself prepared for work, taking papers and stationery out of her bag, all the while sniffling and wiping her eyes, and bitching at James. When she looked up, he was gone. He quickly walked out of the office, down the stairs to the rear exit of the building.
He didn’t walk to his car, thinking it might be risky. After taking a long view out of the window of the exit door, he stepped out gingerly, looked down both sides of the building and kept walking. Speculation turned into reality after hearing his ex-wife, and now he was scared to the point where he couldn’t think in a linear direction or with any logic.
He tried to stay away from people, but he couldn’t avoid everyone. He came to an intersection in town. There was a crowd of people watching and listening to a black man in a white shirt preaching. As James walked by with his head down, the man raised his voice, pointed at James, saying, “You cannot hide.’’
When he heard the preacher say that, James looked up, and the color left his face. He and the preacher stared into each other’s eyes, and James’s mouth was wide open and his eyes were huge. And again, the preacher said, “You cannot hide from God’s judgement.’’ The people in the small crowd agreed, saying “Yes’’ and clapping at the preacher’s words.
That made James walk faster. He lost so much focus on his surroundings that a bus driver had to honk his horn for James to stop before he got slammed, stepping off the curb. He ended up walking for eight miles, completely across town to a friend’s house. And he never knocked on the door until after an hour’s wait.
James viewed the cars parked along the street, looking for license plates that were municipally-owned or government vehicles. He didn’t see any, and finally, he knocked on the door. A scruffy-looking man answered, and noticing James’s face, he smiled.
“Hey,’’ the man said. “Come on in.’’
“I need a little help,’’ James said as he walked inside.
“Oh no,’’ said the man. His name was Gabriel and was a friend of James since childhood. “You didn’t get married and divorced again? I don’t think my couch could take your violent sleeping habits.’’
“No. This is worse.’’
“You knock up that goofy chick?’’
“Shut up, idiot, and listen. I need a piece of paper, and an envelope, a stamp, and a ride. You think you could do that for me?’’
“Jim, why don’t you calm down and tell me what happened.’’
“Right.’’ James explained everything that transpired since the time he was jolted out of bed: Abigail’s arrest, James’s ex-wife’s knock at the door with guns in her face, and how he just walked across town, trying to stay as discreet as possible.
Gabriel perked up after hearing the story. “Wow. I remember meeting Abigail at your apartment a few months ago. Now, she’s actually a hero.’’
“It’s possible she might be dead. Or at least in jail for the rest of her life. And no one will know,’’ James said.
“You know, you’re a fugitive for being the good guy? The government’s corrupt and they’re chasing you down. That’s pretty cool.’’
James looked at Gabriel, grunted “Hmmph. It sounds cool when you know you’re not the one being chased.’’
Gabriel noticed how sloppy James looked: sweaty and worn out, his clothes disheveled, his hair a mess. “I suppose I could understand. You look like you’ve been run through the ringer. You tired?’’
“A little. I need to write letters to the local newspapers. Tell them what happened. I need to let Ab’s family know what happened, too.’’
Gabriel moved quickly around the house, retrieving all the stationery supplies that James needed to accomplish his task.
James had a pen in the breast pocket of his shirt. He wrote:
“To Whom It May Concern:
I cannot tell you my name, which goes against your policy of letters to the editor, but please read this letter in its entirety.
A woman named Abigail Merritt was arrested by the feds at about 5:30 am, Monday, August 22. This woman never broke the law. At least not for what she was arrested for this morning. You might actually know her. She is a freelance reporter and has written some articles over the past few years that exposed some corruption practices that state and local governments were involved in. Please send a reporter to find out what happened to her because no local law enforcement was involved and she may not be allowed to contact anyone to let family know of where she is or why. She is a very close friend of mine. You can start by asking questions to people in the 400 block of Brader Street in town. The people there that came out of their homes to witness her arrest were threatened with arrest themselves if they did not go back into their homes.’’
Sincerely, A concerned citizen
James sighed after he finished. “All right. We need to go to a copy machine. You have some cash, Gabe?’’
“Absolutely,’’ Gabriel responded. “Us good guys are going to set things right.’’
James made over 100 copies of the letter and sent it to as many places as he and Gabriel could think of: the two local newspapers, the three local television stations, Abigail’s family, James’s and Gabriel’s family, 30 different radio stations that reached more than 40 miles beyond the city’s limits that they lived in. He sent it to the big city television stations in Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. He even sent it to the department of justice in Harrisburg and the FBI in Virginia. Out of the 100 plus copies James made, he sent his letter to 44 different places. And he kept the extra copies to send the letter out again if the television stations and newspapers decided to do nothing about it.
“What’s next?’’ asked Gabriel.
“You think we should go to the police? No local cops were at Ab’s house this morning. Maybe they could be a help,’’ James said.
“Maybe the cops knew it was going to happen and were ordered to stay out.’’
James continued when Gabriel stopped talking. “And they’re just waiting for me to show up at the station to be arrested.’’
“Sneaky bastards,’’ Gabriel mumbled.
“Do you know if there’s any public phone booths around?’’ James asked.
“Not in town. But the truck stop has them. There’s a whole room of them.’’
James and Gabriel drove 32 miles west of town on the interstate and came to a huge facility that had a convenient store, two restaurants – one for vegetarians and the other for carnivores – a souvenir store and about 60 gas pumps that surrounded the building complex. James directed Gabriel to cruise around the parking lot. He wanted to see if there were any federal government-owned vehicles. James thought this facility could be the staging point for their raid that morning.
They were deliberate in looking at each license plate as they drove between the rows of cars. A white Ford Explorer backed out quickly as they crawled at two miles per hour. Gabriel hit the brakes while the Ford slowed to a stop, blocking the way forward. The two men in the Ford both stared at James and Gabriel.
“They didn’t cut the wheel as they backed out,’’ said James.
“You don’t think that’s strange? To have such a big vehicle and not cut the wheel when backing out of a parking spot?
The man in the passenger side of the Ford got out of the car and walked to Gabriel’s car. He was tall with what James thought was a military-style haircut. He was wearing a gray suit and black tie. He took long strides to get to Gabriel’s car. James pulled the latch of the car’s door in case he needed to run. The man reached the driver’s side door and bent down. Gabriel opened his window.
“Do you guys mind keeping that spot open?’’ the man asked. “We have a friend that has to pull a small trailer into that spot and he just arrived. We’re taking a trip and we got permission to park it here overnight.’’
In his relief, James let out a gust of air from his lungs that could have knocked down a small house. “Yes. It’s all yours,’’ he said.
The man thanked them and walked back to the Ford. Gabriel turned his head to James with big eyes and a broad smile.
“Ho-ly shit,’’ he said to James.
“Mine wasn’t about to be holy; it was going to be rectangular shaped and dark red.’’
They were both relieved that they weren’t facing an FBI goon and continued through the parking lot until they found an open stall to pull in to. James told Gabriel to walk to the front door of the convenient store area, keeping an eye out for anyone that might look like a fed.
James then followed. He was cautious with wide open eyes, trying to see everything: every car, every tractor-trailer, every person. He tried to keep low enough not to be seen as he walked between the cars, but to still see as much as he could. He made it to the front door where Gabriel was waiting for him, and Gabriel led him to the public telephones.
Gabriel kept lookout while James made the phone call to the police station.
“Hello? Is this the downtown police station?’’
“Yes,’’ said the man on the opposite end of the line. “How can I help you?’’
“Was there an arrest made at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 am, today?’’
“That’s information we can’t divulge, sir.’’
“But it’s public information, right? If I was a newspaper reporter you would have to tell me.’’
“No. That’s not true. Not anymore.’’
James hung up the phone, looked at Gabriel. “I think she’s screwed.’’
“No answer?’’ Gabriel asked.
James shook his head and said, “Nothing.’’
Both men walked out of the public phone room. James was in the lead and took two steps toward the meat-eater’s restaurant, then stopped. His chest started pounding and he couldn’t believe what he saw only 30 feet away. Abigail was sitting at a booth with two men in suits. He could see that her face was still beat up but it was clean and harder to notice. James stepped backwards toward the phone room and as he backed up, he stopped Gabriel, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him back, too.
James had trouble breathing. He told Gabriel what he saw; it stuttered out of his mouth between gasps of air. He held Gabriel by the shoulders. “We gotta go now.’’ The phone room had two entrances: one leading to a restaurant and the other to the convenient store. James looked beyond Gabriel, to the convenient store, then turned his head to look behind him, into the restaurant, then looked over Gabriel’s shoulder, then he looked back again, trying to speak all the while.
James gave instructions to Gabriel to walk in the lead, slowly. Both men crept along the back of the convenience store area, along the coolers and freezers, past the soda, milk and ice cream. And then they walked slowly toward the front door to make their exit. Both James and Gabriel were staring at the cashier for too long while walking. And the cashier was staring back.
“Can I help you fellas?’’ she asked. Her voice was brusque, gruff. And she had the size to back up her tone. Not only was she tall, but she was wide, too. And James and Gabriel were intimidated, considering the circumstances. Both of the men shook their head, and James said “No’’ in a low voice that anyone would have a hard time hearing.
The cashier smirked at them, likely believing that she scared them. Gabriel muttered, “Bitch’’ as they walked out the door.
James grabbed Gabriel’s sleeve and they walked to the car as fast as possible. “Get in,’’ James ordered. Before Gabriel could turn the ignition, James suggested that they do something to help Abigail.
“Let’s wait and see where they take her when they come out of the restaurant.’’
“I don’t think we could run the fed agents over without hitting Abby,’’ Gabriel said.
“No shit. There has to be some stealth involved here.’’
They both watched the door of the meat-eating restaurant. Two hours went by before Abigail and the two agents walked out of the building. It was dark, after 9:00 pm. They didn’t walk to a car. They walked between the 30 gas pumps on one side of the building, across a wide island of grass with a high concrete curb around it to a hotel. James and Gabriel jumped out of the car at James’s urging and ran past the meat-eater’s restaurant, the convenient store, the vegetarian restaurant, and the gas pumps over to the hotel. They stopped at the front door to look inside, and one of the agents was at the front desk signing for one or more rooms with Abigail and the other agent standing nearby.
“Here’s what you’re going to do,’’ James said, gasping for air from the run across the parking lot of the truck stop. “When they leave the desk, you follow them. Get on the elevator if they do and find out what room Ab is in.’’
“Then what? I hope I’m not going to do all of the dirty work here.’’
“No. I’m one of the people that they want. That’s why you have to find out what room she’s in. Any dirty work after that, we’ll both do.’’
The hotel had only three floors, so neither man thought this was going to be a difficult task. Gabriel walked into the lobby of the hotel and smartly pulled his wallet out of his pocket, stood behind the fed agents and Abigail. He heard the clerk tell them the numbers of their rooms, and the agents walked away with Abigail. James had walked in as the agents were leading Abigail away, but stayed close to the exit. Abigail looked back, noticed both James and Gabriel, and James saw the surprise in her eyes, but she turned her head quickly to not give away anything to the federal agents.
Once the agents walked to the elevator, James ran up to Gabriel. “Change of plans,’’ James said. “Up the stairs.’’
They both sprinted up the stairs to the third floor. James ordered Gabriel to peek down the hall to see what room Abigail was staying in. As Gabriel was poking his head between the door and its frame, the agents were standing at the doors of the rooms they were assigned by the front desk clerk. The problem was that the door from the stairwell clicked as Gabriel opened it, and he was spotted by one of the agents as he peeked around the door frame.
One of the fed agents yelled from his position, “Stop right there.’’ Gabriel slammed the door closed, and the agent came running down the hallway. Before Gabriel could run down the stairs James grabbed his arm. “Stay here,’’ he told Gabriel desperately. He stepped back to the wall, and immediately the door whipped open and the agent barreled through it, lunged at Gabriel. James pushed back on the door with all his might, hitting the agent’s leg, knocking him off balance. He then threw himself at the agent with a cocked forearm, aiming for the back of his head.
A constantly changing plan never works out well for the people who keep changing it, but Gabriel backed up in fear of a raging federal agent. And as he backed up the agent fell forward. And James’s forearm missed the falling agent and smacked Gabriel in the chin as he lunged at the agent. All three men bounced down one flight of steps, the agent bearing the worst of the fiasco. James’s forearm had so much force behind it, that it knocked Gabriel into the wall, putting the agent at the bottom of a pile of three men. He smacked his skull on the third concrete step in the flight, knocking him out cold.
“That didn’t work out too well,’’ James said.
“No shit,’’ Gabriel said. He spoke with a new found lisp or some kind of speech impediment. “I think you broke my jaw.’’
“We got to get this guy out of sight.’’
Since both James and Gabriel were feeling the pains of bouncing down a flight of concrete stairs, neither moved. “We’ll put him in the janitor’s closet or something,’’ James said. He patted the agent down, found his gun and a stun gun. He took the stun gun.
The agent who was with Abigail arrived at the door with his gun drawn, told James and Gabriel to stand up. James said he couldn’t because his leg was broken in the fall down the steps.
“You assholes are in some serious trouble,’’ the agent informed James and Gabriel as he walked down the steps.
“For what?’’ James asked. “We did nothing at all. Your buddy here came after us.’’
Gabriel was opening and closing his mouth, trying to fix the problem with his jaw. The fifth time he opened, he heard a hard click, felt the pain and winced at it, then muttered, “Hummph. You didn’t break it after all. Back to normal.’’
The agent completed his walk down the steps. “We work for the US government. We can pin anything on you.’’
“We’ll see,’’ James said. His lips were pressed together hard, like someone had grabbed them and held them closed tightly. “We saw what you did to Abigail, and she didn’t do anything to be arrested.’’
The agent laughed. “You’re so naïve. You call yourselves citizens, but you’re really only subjects. You can disappear. Like your friend upstairs,’’ he said, pointing his thumb over his right shoulder. “She disappeared, and you two are going to join her.
“It’ll look like an abduction, and in 20 years, someone will find her remains in the woods about 100 miles away after everyone gave up searching for her.’’
At that, James was seething. He clenched his fist around the stun gun, and the agent was so confident in himself that he wasn’t pointing his gun at either man. James leaned to his left, his right arm swooped around and he pressed the trigger on the stun gun just as it hit the chubby, bald agent. He fell over, limp, on top of the other agent.
James felt for a pulse on the agent and felt his heart was still beating. “Okay. We’re not going to jail for murder. Self-defense is our way out but we should get the hell out of here now.’’
Both men stood up and began searching the men for handcuffs, keys, and anything else they could find. James took both of the agent’s guns, found one pair of handcuffs, two keys for the handcuffs, and the second agent’s stun gun.
“I think we should strip them of their clothes, then cuff them to the bannister with just their shorts and shoes,’’ Gabriel said.
“Good idea, but I don’t think we have enough time. We have to get Abigail and get out of here.’’
They took everything that was recovered from the agent’s pockets, put the cuff on the wrist of one agent; James grabbed the other cuff wove it through the bars of the bannister, and cuffed the other agent’s wrist.
“They’re not going anywhere for a while.’’
They both ran up the stairs to find Abigail. She was already at the doorway to the third floor, where the brawl began. She grabbed James by the arm once he and Gabriel reached the top of the stairs, pulled him toward her and kissed him on the lips.
James liked it and kissed back.
“You actually came looking for me,’’ Abigail said. “Thank you so, so much.’’
“That wasn’t our original intent,’’ James said. “But when we saw you in the restaurant, we came up with a plan.’’
“Not a good one either,’’ Gabriel added.
“Why are there only two of the feds here? I counted fourteen this morning.’’
“Back in town. They found out where you live and they’re going to arrest you tomorrow morning.’’
“All because I read your articles?’’
“Yep. You know the truth.’’
James freed Abigail from the handcuffs, tossed the agent’s guns into one of the rooms, and got out of the hotel as fast as they could run. They sprinted across the parking lot to Gabriel’s car and drove away. James realized that he couldn’t go home to his apartment, couldn’t go to his job. He couldn’t do anything that he always did before that day, and it started to worry him. He thought, “I have no life anymore.’’ He thought about everything he went through: constant running, constant fear. But he was able to accomplish something productive and helped his friend avoid jail for doing nothing wrong, for being honest. He also figured that Abigail’s life was just as finished as his. She could still continue to make reports, but instead she’d be doing it from a hotel room or from a car. He smiled inwardly, and thought, “I could brush up on my editing skills.’’ But that was small and unimportant because he knew that he and his friends would be running forever.