“You know some guy they call the Professor?”
“That’s a weird name.”
“Yeah it is.”
The RPG round floated down Sacramento Street as if suspended on a wire, whistling past the bunker, Sarge watching in disbelief, and then striking the Marriott dead-center. Horizontal fireballs shot out of a dozen windows and then, a moment later, bits of concrete and glass pelted the area like hailstones.
Sarge ran into the street and aggressively pointed at a group of women on the roof of an Italian restaurant. The women were looking in every possible direction with the exception of directly in front of them at the Marriott, seemingly unaware of the destruction that had occurred except that two of them had RPGs in their hands and another was holding a fresh RPG round as if it were a loaf of bread. “What the fuck, ladies?” he yelled. The women cupped their hands to their ears and shook their heads to indicate that they couldn’t hear him. Sarge came stomping back into the bunker. “Damn women. You give them a weapon and they are damn well going to shoot it. You can be sure of that.” He turned to Scooter. “Where you from again? You got a message for me or something?”
Sarge looked Scooter up and down. “Why are you in my bunker?”
“I heard there was a man called the Professor who would hire a guy like me.”
“A guy like you?”
Sarge looked to several of his men for help but they seemed to be equally perplexed at the conversation that was unfolding. “Did you get hit on the head or something? What the hell are you talking about?”
Three tanks with an assortment of armed men sitting along their fenders eating sandwiches, all of whom appeared to be vagrants, turned onto Market Street and passed the bunker, grinding their way towards the ferry building. The rooftop women cheered and showered them with uncooked pasta noodles, then flashed their breasts sequentially to form a wave.
“Thank you, comrade sisters!” one of the men shouted with a stiff, formal salute. He then swiveled towards the bunker, freezing into another salute until he locked eyes with Scooter. “Hey! It’s Cooter! Hey Cooter!… I know that guy!”
Sarge saluted back to the men. “Well, if you know Colonel Bobby, I guess you are alright.”
Scooter seemed to be having trouble breathing. “Where did you get tanks?”
“Mexico. They sent us helicopters too, but nobody can fly them.” Sarge made a tragic face.
“What are you going to do with tanks?”
“Well I’m not going to let the women have them. That’s for sure.” Sarge put a radio in Scooter’s hand and then turned and pointed at the Marriott, the second floor of which was on fire. “You want a job? I will give you a fucking job. I need you in there, thirtieth floor or higher. You are going to be my spotter.”
“Don’t call me sir. I work for a living.”
“Sarge… I don’t think they want to fight. I mean they aren’t going to attack you or anything like that. They really don’t seem to want anybody to get hurt.”
“Who the fuck are they? Are you referring to the United States of America?”
“I don’t care if they are going to attack us or not, Cooter. We are going to attack them. We are going to knock them back across the Sierra Nevadas. San Francisco is ours. They can have Reno if they want.”
“Oh. I though there were going to be negotiations.”
“Hell, I don’t know. They took out the cell towers. They took out the cable. I don’t know what is happening outside of this city and I frankly don’t give a crap. We are all I care about and we are going to attack. We meaning us–you, me, that guy, the lesbians on the roof, three Mexican tanks and whoever the fuck else we can find. Now get your ass in that hotel and get me some intel.”
Scooter tucked the radio inside his jacket and began meandering towards the Marriott like a kid on the first day of school. He was halfway when two navy jets strafed Market Street, knocking his cap off, sending him scrambling into the Marriott lobby where he dove head-first onto the marble floor, sliding a good twenty yards across its polished surface before crashing into a long-ago-abandoned concierge’s stand.
“Are you alive in there, Cooter? Over.”
Scooter rolled onto his back. “Affirmative. I’m in the lobby. There’s smoke. I think the fire is growing.”
“Listen close. You need to get above the smoke. Once you get up high, you will be fine. Take the elevator. You will never be able to walk that many floors. Wait one… Cooter, I am being advised that they have a bar on the top level of the hotel that spins in a circle. That is where I want you to set up. I want you to also load that backpack of yours with booze. Wait one… Start with the whiskey. Over.”
“Fuck that. We ain’t a bunch of rich assholes that need to show off. Eight-year-old will be fine. Over.”
When Scooter got to the bar, he found that the turning mechanism was no longer functioning but breathed a sigh of relief to see that all the windows were intact because it had been getting very cold in the evenings. He could see north all the way to Sausalito, where the bulk of the army was waiting, and east to Berkeley, which had recently been burnt to the ground. He rummaged through the bar and pulled four beers out of the cooler as well as an unopened bag of pretzels, then seated himself at the nicest table, the one with the best city view. Most of the activity was happening on the hill in front of him, basically eye-level, helicopters coming and going from the roof of the Stanford Court, the edge of where they were allowing the press to move.
Scooter, his mouth full of pretzels, stopped chewing and sniffed the air. Smoke was seeping into the room, making it harder to see. He quickly began lighting the candles on the tables with a book of matches he found behind the bar and was almost done when his radio squawked again.
“Cooter? This is Sarge. Over.”
“What do you see?”
“What do you mean where?”
“Well it’s almost a full three-sixty view. I see a lot of things. Can you be more specific?”
“Do you see the enemy gathering anywhere?”
“Hmmm… Sarge. I don’t want to upset you, but I really need to clarify this point–when you say enemy, are you talking about the United States Army? I think that is what you mean, but I just need to be sure.”
“Who the hell else would I mean?”
“No problem then.”
“Did you find the whiskey?”
“Yes. I’m all loaded up.”
“Okay then. Now, do you see the enemy gathering anywhere?”
“Wait one…” Scooter quickly walked the circle and then returned to his table. “All I see is something like a command post.”
“Well, it’s more like a media center really. I think they give press conferences there. I can see network trucks parked along the street in front.”
“That is a propaganda center… Where is this propaganda center?”
“It looks like the Stanford Court, a hotel on the top of Nob Hill. I stayed there once. It’s really nice. From there you can see the whole city. I’m sure they can even see you from there.”
“Okay then. That’s our target. Good job, Cooter!”
“You want me to come down? You need the whiskey?”
“No. We are going to attack without it this time. I’m sure they got whiskey in the Stanford Court. It will give the men something to fight for. I want you to stay put and observe. Let me know if they send reinforcements.”
“I can tell you right now that if you attack the Stanford Court, they are going to send reinforcements, a bunch of them. I mean they are going to send more reinforcements than you can possibly imagine. I don’t think there is any way for you guys to win that fight, tanks or no tanks.”
“Well, I appreciate your candor, Cooter. But we have to try anyway. This is our country and we have to defend it. Right?”
Scooter popped open a beer, put his feet up on the table and began tossing pretzels into his mouth as the smoke accumulated above him. He watched the three tanks transition into a spear formation and move in front of Sarge who was planted firmly in the middle of California Street, a squad of women with RPGs flanking him on both sides.
Scooter felt his satellite phone buzzing. He rolled his eyes, put his beer down and hurriedly wiped his fingers on the tablecloth.
“I need an assessment.”
“Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Do you know who is in command down there? Do you know their coordinates? Their intentions? Their strategy? You know any of this?”
“I know all of that. Sarge is in command. He somehow outranks all the officers in his unit. I’m still not sure how that works. It appears sergeant is the highest rank they have and general is the lowest.”
“Yeah. Write that down. That’s important.”
“Any intel on this Professor character?”
“No. Just Sarge. They can’t use their phones anymore so they are really disconnected from one another.”
“Like independent sleeper cells.”
“If you say so. FYI, they are really pissed about you guys killing the television. I mean you should probably turn it back on.”
“Can you communicate with Sarge and get him to talk to us?”
“I don’t think so. He’s pissed. I think you will have to leave the country before he talks to you. I don’t know that for sure. It’s just my gut instinct.”
Scooter watched the tanks approach the intersection of California and Powell and fire their guns simultaneously, causing the Marriott to shimmer just the slightest bit and the candles to flicker. He heard two explosions–a giant one through the phone and then a whisper of one from down the street.
“Good God! We just got hit!”
Scooter watched one side of the Stanford Court crumble into dust, entombing a helicopter that had been sitting on the roof.
“Jesus! They have tanks!”
“Yeah they do.”
Scooter could hear the frenzied discussions on the other end of the phone. He could see the tanks breaching the sandbag perimeter and crushing a machine gun, including a firing team, that had been blasting them. The smoke, both inside and outside the bar, as well as the falling debris made it hard to see, but Scooter was certain several of Sarge’s men, and women, were hit, many of whom he could see being dragged to safety. The tanks got stuck and unstuck repeatedly, pancaking news vans, navigating the intersection like teenagers trying to parallel park. But they eventually surrounded the Stanford Court on three sides and fired another barrage point-blank, causing a thin layer to be knocked off the ceiling of the Marriott bar and drizzle down through the thickening smoke. Scooter put his hand over his beer and coughed. There were muzzle flashes and then camera flashes as a group of individuals, who must have been correspondents, were flushed out into the street and began snapping photos as they ran for their lives.
“Cooter? This is Sarge. Over.”
“I read you Sarge. Over.”
“We are in the lobby and advancing quickly. What do you see?”
Scooter squinted. He could just spot something rise out of the Sausalito area, six things to be precise. At first he thought they were just hovering there, but then he could see that they were growing each moment and that they were in fact helicopters heading straight for the Stanford Court which stood in a direct line between Sausalito and him. “Incoming! Six choppers, Sarge!”
The helicopters separated into three teams of two, lined up and then unloaded a pair of missiles each onto their respective Mexican tank, causing the tanks to transform into shapeless fireballs. The hotel shimmied again. The surface of Scooter’s beer trembled slightly. Scooter coughed. He could see bearded men jumping off tanks, engulfed in flames. It looked like they were running to one another, trying to put each other out, but after a few quick moments, everything stopped moving and just burned. The satellite phone began vibrating on the table.
“Woodson, this is Special Agent in Charge Marcum. The Deputy Director is confirmed KIA. I am taking command of your mission from SFO. Can you get me up to speed?”
Scooter saw a trio, covered in battle soot, climb onto what remained of the roof of the Stanford Court–one man and two women, the women assuming cover positions as the man jumped and grabbed the metal railing of an access platform above him and pulled himself onto it. “Sarge,” he whispered.
“Talk to me, Woodson. We just got hammered. Talk to me. What the hell is going on?”
Sarge began working hand-over-hand on what appeared to be a line, each pull causing a California flag to surge another foot or so into the air, until it was at the very top of a flagpole. They then collected at the center of what remained of the Stanford Court’s roof and appeared to take a group selfie in front of the flag.
“Yeah, yeah. What?”
“What is their strength, man?”
The radio cracked. “Hold on…” Scooter dropped the phone and picked up the radio. “Sarge?”
“We did it! I told you! We took the Stanford Court! And I was right–the bar is fully stocked. We are drinking tequila shots with the reporters who didn’t get blown up and I want you to know that our first toast is to you, Cooter. You did good.”
“Cool. Hey how many men do you have now?”
Sarge’s voice began to crack with emotion. “We lost almost everyone. Now, it’s just me, two lesbians and a half-dozen unarmed, completely-useless journalists.”
“Okay. I’ll call you back.”
Scooter picked up the phone. “Three.”
“Yes. Sarge and two lesbians. They just took the Stanford Court.”
“Hey, can I call you back? I’ve been drinking a lot of beer and I need to find the head.”
“Be ready, Woodson. We are pulling you out of there. We have two SEAL teams inbound.”
Scooter jumped and grabbed the radio. “Sarge, they are sending in SEALs. I think you guys need to get out of there. Ooooh, yeah I can see two really fat helicopters coming in from the east. You need to move right now.”
“You got it, Cooter. Great work. Your name is going to be remembered for this.”
Scooter looked for the satellite phone on the table but then realized it was tucked under his chin. “Yup.”
“You know I can hear you on the radio, right? What the hell is going on? Are you playing both sides of this or what? Are you some sort of damn traitor?”
“No. Not at all.” Scooter reached into his backpack, pulled out a bottle of eight-year-old scotch, turned over a ceramic coffee cup and filled it to the brim.
“Are you in their command center? Are you with the Professor now?”
“I don’t think there is a Professor.” Scooter could see the attack choppers bank sharply and advance towards the Marriott, crossing paths with the really fat helicopters as they did.
“You know we have your signal locked-in?”
Scooter drank half the cup of whiskey. The sunlight was fading and the glow from the candles, pulsing from within a thin blanket of smoke, was taking over. Scooter coughed again.
The attack choppers began hovering directly outside the glass facade of the bar, the sunset illuminating the west side of them while their east halves existed as stark shadows. Scooter could see the faces of the pilots, also halved into two pieces–light and dark. They seemed happy.
Scooter drank the rest of the whiskey, refilled the cup and exhaled a deep breath. “Look, Special Agent whoever the hell you are… Why don’t you just leave it alone? I’ve been listening to this garbage for ten years now and I just can’t take it anymore. You can’t win anyway. I’m sitting here watching all this and I want to tell you that you can’t win this war.”
“Oh, we will win, Woodson.”
“I remember hearing one of them speak once in Venice. You know what he told me?”
“What did he tell you, Woodson?”
“He said that in any conflict there is always one side that is the Indian side. He said that that is always the just side and therefor that side always wins the war.”
“Woodson, I call BS. Indians have been getting their asses kicked in America since Columbus.”
“I pointed that very thing out to him. Know what he said?”
“What did he say, Woodson?”
“He said that if the Indians didn’t win, the war ain’t over yet… Yesterday I thought there was no way they could win, but know I see that there is no way they can lose.”
“Who was this man, Woodson? Was it the Professor?”
I hear it now. You can’t hear it, can you? You will never be able to hear it. They hear it. Now I hear it too. But you will never hear it.”
“Hear what, Woodson?”
“The guitars, man. Listen to the guitars!”
The choppers fired one missile each and the top of the Marriott exploded into whiskey and flames.