Codename: Danger – Part One

This is another story from my Empty Quiver Collection. Each story in the collection features Augments (superheroes) who appear as secondary characters in the Crimson Son series. Reggie’s, or Danger’s, sole power is the ability to sense trouble, much like Spiderman’s “spidey sense”. This was meant to offer a not-so-subtle commentary on the poor state of race relations in the US and the peril and distrust experienced by many black Americans.

Written years ago, Reggie in many ways fed my ideas for Ace Grant, Demonslayer, a project I’ve put aside. Writing characters outside your personal experience is necessary to any good story not intended to be a biography. I’ve always approached those characters with care, but as racial tensions recently worsened from their already terrible state, I began to question my approach with Ace Grant.

There’s a lot of pain out there. From the start, I wondered if I had any right exploring it. If I was adding anything to the conversation. Ultimately, I chose to put the whole project on hold. I support the needs of people to be treated with respect and be valued and I realize there is no equal footing now or historically for many marginalized groups.

At the same time, I want the truth of my own voice on the page. If that’s the musings of a misguided racist, so be it. If it’s a thoughtful commentary on the disaster that is US race relations, all the better.

I’m still debating, still trying to square all this with my art. I’m not sure there will ever be a time when I know the answer. What I’ve written though, I’m proud of and will gladly share for you to judge.

Without further ado, part one of Codename: Danger by Russ Linton.

Fear soaked Reggie’s shirt. Well, humidity was mostly to blame, but the fear was there. He’d traveled the world on the government’s dime. Of the places he’d been, the humid ones were his least favorite. Remote ones, his second least. This place was both. But the fear was a regular hazard of the job.

Sweat. Jitters. A tug at his stomach which could be anything from a threaded knot to a clenching fist. Right now it was a steady pressure.

“What are we at? Two brownstar? Five?” Winston asked Reggie.

Winston, which wasn’t his real name, knelt in front of a pile of canvas bags to the side of the runway. A pair of bugeyed mirror sunglasses rested on his forehead and he squinted at Reggie scrunching a nose caked with sunscreen. An open guayabera and a tshirt underneath, he looked exactly like a white dude in Central America who was trying too hard.

“I don’t know. Two. Maybe three.” Reggie had worked with his CIA handler long enough to develop something of a code to describe his danger sense. When they were in deep shit, brownstar ten. An annoyance, something that might slow them down but was not likely to get them killed, a three or less.

“Only the one bag?” Winston stooped and dug for the bottom. “Only this one set you off ?”

Standing before the pile, he wasn’t sure. Every last canvas lump tugged at his gut. A steady pull—nothing mortal, but palpable. Winston dragged a bag from the bottom and unzipped it slowly.

Inside were stacks and stacks of white bricks.

Reggie knew exactly what it was. He’d seen it before, outside the neatly taped and stamped rectangles. Powder. Stuff you could cook into little white stones like shattered sugar cubes and melt in a spoon. Wedge in a glass pipe.

Winston dug through the bag, lifting each brick like he were delivering a newborn and placing it on the ground. He tested the weight of each in his hands and examined the lining of the bag. “You sure? There’s nothing here.”

“What the fuck do you mean, ‘nothing here’?”

His handler squinted into the blazing sun behind Reggie. “Nothing that isn’t supposed to be.”

“It’s a pile of coke, motherfucker!” Reggie looked at the dirt road leading to the airstrip. The clearing was edged by rolling hills braided with crops. Further out, he could see the deeper green of a jungle canopy rising along smooth peaks. The dust had settled and the Soviet truck loaded with rebels was already out of sight. “We just gave a bunch of kids some machine guns for a pile of coke. You don’t see a problem?”

Winston sighed and started returning the bricks to the bag. “What are you, MacGruff the Crime Dog? We lost the last shipment and nobody can say what happened. I brought you to make sure the delivery wasn’t dangerous. Like a bomb or tracking device.”

“Looks plenty dangerous.”

Winston stood. “Getting soft on me, Danger?”

“Soft? You ain’t seen what this shit does to people. Where’s this going?”

“On the plane.” Winston lugged a bag off the ground with two hands and shuffled toward the DC3 on the runway. Earlier, when Reggie’s danger sense got a “hit”, Winston had convinced the rebels to drop the bags away from the plane. They didn’t seem to care—less work for them and more for the stupid Americans. “C’mon, give me a hand.”

“Fuck this,” Reggie muttered as he hoisted a bag over his shoulder.

The fear tingled under his skin and he pushed it into the background like a radio station between decent tracks. All things considered, this had been an easy mission. Not even the truck full of thugs with rifles and rocket launchers had set him off. They didn’t care. This was business as usual for them.

He dumped the bag inside the plane and headed for another. What choice did he have? Refuse to load the damn covert plane with drugs? Then what? They’d sit here and argue and spend more time swimming in this weather. Winston had never pulled his piece on him, probably knew he’d sense before it happened, so he didn’t think it would ever go that far. But the best thing now was to get home.

Several trips later, Reggie was halfway to the plane with another bag when the sensation he’d so easily stuffed into the background leapt in his chest and hammered his diaphragm. He sucked in a breath and straightened against the weight of the overloaded rucksack.

“Danger?” Winston was stepping out of the plane, the cargo door low to the ground on the taildragger. He reached behind him to the .45 holstered against the small of his back. “Everything okay?”

“Six … maybe seven.” Eyes wide, Reggie scanned the horizon. A plume of dust crested the hills opposite the road.

Winston jogged out from the shadow of the wing to stand next to Reggie. He followed his gaze. “Keep loading. I’ll get the plane fired up.”

Reggie didn’t pull his eyes from the horizon until Winston disappeared into the plane. He checked the pile—they’d whittled it down from a waisthigh mound to a single layer of half a dozen bags. Reggie dropped the one in his hands and ran for the open cargo door.

The wing mounted engine on the far side sputtered and smoked before buzzing into a steady spin. Reggie leapt into the hold. An aging beast used for military cargo, the inside of the plane was a spartan, unpartitioned tube. The canvas bags lined the walls, leaving a single walkway open straight into the cockpit. Winston sat at the controls running through his preflight. Reggie settled into the copilot seat as the second engine spun up.

“You get all the bags?” Winston shouted.

Reggie figured it was best not to answer. He leaned forward to look out the window. In the distance, the trail of dust stretched closer. A beatup pickup bounced over the open terrain. He couldn’t say for sure, but there were men riding in the bed, rifle barrels sticking up beside them.

Winston backhanded Reggie’s arm. “The bags, how many left?”

Reggie gave him a slow one count with his middle finger. “I’m not dying in the jungle for a bunch of blow. I can do that shit back home!”

Broad mirror glasses reflecting the finger, Winston jumped up and slung his headphones over the back of the seat. Outside the cockpit window, the truck was nearing the edge of the runway. In the hold, Winston had disappeared through the blinding gap of the cargo door. Reggie cursed and raced after him.

“Are you crazy?” he yelled, making the short hop to the ground.

Ahead of him, Winston was grabbing two of the large canvas bags, one in each hand and waddling toward the plane like a duck in traffic. Following Winston’s lead he hefted two of the bags off the ground.

The tightness in his gut moved to his chest.

A round sparked off the fuselage. Through the dicing propeller blades he could see the truck racing up the runway. A gunner stood in the bed trying to steady his rifle on the roof. It all seemed like a dumb exercise they’d have done in Basic and later, at the farm. Live fire, carrying weight no human being should carry; execute the mission, screw personal safety.

Reggie had never been all about that. It only got worse after the Augmentation. Now, when his body told him to run, he fucking ran. Fighting the ache in his shoulders, he reached the door as Winston got ready to swing down for more. With a grunt, he tossed a bag in front of Winston, nearly knocking him off his feet.

“Stow that one!” he shouted. His senses flared and dust kicked only a few feet away, the roar of the engines drowning the shot and the impact. He tossed the other bag in and rolled into the cargo area. Winston tried to step around him to the open door.

“Hell, no! You really need me to say?” Reggie held up all ten fingers.

Goddamnit. He could read Winston’s lips above the engines. He turned to secure the cargo door as Winston raced to the cockpit.

Full throttle, and Reggie stumbled drunkenly into the copilot’s seat. They raced toward the pickup. Winston sat back, tightlipped, lost in the trance of instruments and the feel of the plane through the yoke. Another sudden pull in his gut, closer this time. Reggie ducked in his seat, his hands in front of him. Muzzles flashed from the oncoming truck and the cockpit window spiderwebbed.

“Short flight to the Caribbean, we’ll touch down at fifteen hundred,” Winston spoke with all the concern of a commercial pilot over an intercom. Reggie closed his eyes and sank back into the cold dampness of his shirt—the humidity no longer to blame.

To be continued…

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