10PM – December 5, 2014

People always use the same kind of metaphors to describe the cold: biting cold, cold that nips at your nose and fingertips, a cold snap. Hell, even frostbite follows the same nominal scheme. My bodily response to cold must be different than most because I don’t buy it. I think all those cute terms are so much horseshit. If I was pressed – gun to my head – to make a fitting metaphor for the feeling of cold that was constrained to types of mastication, the best I could do would be ‘gnawing’. Myself, I’ve always thought of cold more like the spread of a terminal disease. When you think about it, that’s exactly what it is; when heated, molecules are in an excited state, but they’re always striving to return to a comfortable, more stationary equilibrium. You can stave off cold by covering up or sustaining the usual biothermal reaction through eating but, eventually, the tissues will give way, the heat will escape into the larger world, and you’ll die. Cold is just as terminal as cancer or smallpox.

I sat in my shitty little AMC Eagle watching the streetlight-illuminated mall parking lot like a hawk and trying not to think about the cold inching its way into my hands from my fingertips. The heater had gone out long ago, about a month after I bought the car. When the engine was on and I was cruising at a good speed, I was lucky to have some warm air trickle into the cab from under the hood. Parked, watching Christmas shoppers bustle about their festive business, the only thing keeping me warm was a large Thermos of coffee. I was collecting pictures for my upcoming article on holiday violence. In truth, it was an article I ran twice a year – on Black Friday and closer to Christmas – for the last three years on various media outlets. I changed the associated images, the location, the item in question, and the severity of the violence, but the social commentary never changed. Freelance journalism doesn’t pay very well, so I try to get my money’s worth out of my work.

My mind wandered back to the choices I had made that got me stuck in freelance journalism. Out of college, I got a great job in a top 20 market. I quickly rose through the ranks and became known for my hard work and dedication, To keep up that level of productivity as my position and responsibilities rose exponentially, I turned to self-medication. Then, I started treating myself on weekend. It didn’t take long for me to be arrested for picking up prostitutes and cocaine downtown. I was in jail all of six months, but I became untouchable after that. No station wanted my face associated with it. The print newspapers were all but dead. I had no choice aside from worrying my writing out to hundreds of news websites and make pennies on the dollar compared to what my writing used to be worth. Now, here I was sitting in a forty year old car at 10 PM on a Friday wearing a stained dress shirt, my head pounding from drinking myself to sleep too many nights in a row.

But I had a plan. I have a friend on the police force. Actually, he’s not so much a friend as he is a cop I used to see when I picked up my regular girl downtown. He was grateful for my silence after I was picked up and feeds me small scoops from time to time. The scoop he texted me with this morning wasn’t small. It was extra extra large, bucket of popcorn size. The entire state was afflicted by a rash of kidnappings. It was possible, though my source couldn’t confirm it, that the kidnappings weren’t confined to just or state. Needless to say, all forces in the state and the local FBI office were running around like panicked mice and interorganizational communication lines had turned into a governmental game of Telephone. Still, one thing was clear; children were being stolen.

The kidnappings weren’t the type of “child on a bike never comes home” incidents that were the usual preamble for cases reported by the media. These were brazen, violent attacks that left parents, babysitters, and bystanders injured and – on at least one occasion – dead. The brutality of the attacks led the local Chief of Police to suspect they were the work of the Cuelho Cartel, a Mexican-American gang with ties to European drug runners. Beyond that, a number of the reports indicated that the assailants had been speaking in German, which had to brass suspecting that the Cartel’s European partners had sent muscle across the Atlantic. My contact had further informed me that the local SWAT force was geared up and ready to roll at a moment’s notice. They wanted to be on-scene at the first hint of the next kidnapping so they could nab and question one of the attackers.

My police band radio was tuned to the frequency dispatch would be using to notify SWAT of any incoming kidnapping calls. I was ready to speed of as soon as I heard SWAT do the same. An eyewitness account of the first takedown of this statewide shitstorm would go far. Even farther if I caught some good video to go with it. I checked my dash mounted Go-Pro to make sure it was set up and ready to record as soon as I got the call. It was an inexpensive camera, but I was still forced to eat cheese sandwiches and Ramen for two months after I made the purchase.

“Team Seven, Team Seven. Kidnapping and assault in Grove City. Corner of Wendy and Irwin. I’m setting the destination in your GPS.”

“Damn!” I shouted at the radio. No exact address. Still, I should be able to get to the intersection the dispatcher had indicated and at least try to spot a SWAT vehicle. I pictured them in one of their armored battle vans, but I had no idea if that was a real thing or just on TV. I threw my phone in the passenger seat, suffered through the Eagle’s typical hesitation to start when it was cold, and jammed my foot onto the gas pedal.

Grove City is a residential neighborhood. I guess that made it an ideal place from which to steal children, but it struck me as odd that police cruisers were blocking off roads that saw more dog walking and street hockey than car traffic. If struck me as odd that an army of armed and helmeted men were stacking up in front of a medium-sized house with toys strewn out over the snow-covered front yard. I sloughed off my unease, parked my car, and hurried to remove my Go-Pro from its dash mount and attach it to the chest harness I wore. I crept on foot back to Wendy Lane, where the strike was about to go down. I tried to be stealthy, but it didn’t matter; all attention was on the house.

A raspy voice rang out from one side of the house. I had taken German in college, so I was able to recognize it as Germanic, but it was definitely not German. Still… there was something familiar about it.

“Kuener recken!” Came the shout again, still so familiar. And then I had it. ‘Kuener recken’ was a line from The Song of the Nibelungs. It meant ‘brave heroes’ in Middle High German, a predecessor to modern German that was at least 500 years old. I shook my head. Only scholars of German literature spoke that language.

The SWAT officer at the head of the column threw something into the splintered, open door of the house and quickly turned his head away. An explosion of sound and light filled the house, visible to me through the two large windows along the front of the house. As soon as the blast went off, the officers swarmed into the house. I could hear yelling, screaming, and the sharp report of gunfire. I expected the excitement to be over in seconds, the helmeted men to walk out with their prize and drive him back to the station. The screams and shots continued. I could see the uniformed cops at the end of the street starting to get antsy. One pulled his gun.

A SWAT officer emerged from the front door of the house, moving in sort of a running limp. His left leg was covered in blood. Enough blood that it was visible in spite of his black fatigues. A second figure chased after him. This one seemed to wearing a large fur coat and some sort of Kabuki mask. The assailant in the coat threw his hand up to his shoulder and swung a large chain at the SWAT officer like it was a sword. The officer managed to block the blow with his matte black shotgun, which was ripped out of his hand when the figure in the coat jerked back on the chain. The figure bent down, his gloved hands scrabbling for the shotgun like a fumbled football. He seemed to investigate the weapon for a minute once it was in his hands, then he hefted the large gun to his shoulder.

Five sharp pops erupted to my left and the figure in the coat full face first into the snow-covered front lawn. The uniformed officer who had drawn his gun stood frozen with a dazed look on his face. Then, with a muffled yell from one of the other uniforms, they all drew their weapons and ran toward the house to assist their comrades.

As they approached, all Hell broke loose. A second SWAT member crashed through one of the large windows, glass and curtains billowing out after him. Inside, someone had gotten spooked and set their rifle to full auto. A line of plaster dust exploded into the crisp winter air as bullets tore through the house’s exterior. The advancing uniforms ducked low to avoid getting tagged by friendly fire. When they had duck-walked close enough to the open door and shattered window, they opened fire with carefully aimed shots, giving the SWAT force inside enough breathing room to retreat out of the house. The squad commander was the last man out, dragging another man by the strap of his kevlar vest and firing his submachine gun with one hand. He was a real hero in action. His was the shot would bring the money. I made certain my body pivoted to stay focused on him as he left the house so the Go-Pro would have a good view.

Once outside, the SWAT team fell in with the uniformed officers and took potshots at the assailants inside. Oddly, with the SWAT officers outside, I heard no gunfire coming from the house at all. Were all of the gang members using chains and other melee weapons like the one that had been gunned down outside? If so, how could they possibly be a match for well-trained soldiers with projectile weapons?

Then, as I turned to investigate the right end of the house that had erupted in thick, black smoke, I got my answer. The man in the coat, the man who had been shot several times in the back, the man who had been sprawled out facedown in the snow got to his feet. The injured SWAT officer the man in the coat had been chasing looked up from tending to his injured leg and began scrambling backward in a terrified crabwalk. The large fur coat must have had some sort of kevlar lining.

The stray pops of gunfire and shouts from spotters were drowned out by a new sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once. It sounded like a crumpled tin can falling onto an iron skillet and making a low ping, or perhaps an iron cowbell. The metal sounded old, though, and had the distinct timbre of being cracked in several places. I turned a futile circle looking for the source, discovering only that the sound was louder in the direction of the SWAT operation. The sickly ringing grew louder, completely drowning out the sound of the injured SWAT officer’s sidearm that he had managed to free from its nylon thigh holster. The man in the fur coat jerked backward, reacting to two shots as though they were nothing more than stinging sleet blowing in the wind. A third and final shot hit him in the head, spouting a faint pink cloud that quickly dissipated. He fell once again.

From the thick smoke on the side of the house emerged a veritable giant of a man. He had the physique and swagger of a professional wrestler and wore the same mask as the other assailants, though he wore no fur coat. His flesh looked twisted, melted, like a burn victim. He stalked toward the fallen assailant ringing a rusted old bell with one hand while carrying a doll in the other.

“Jesus,” I said, not realizing I was speaking out loud as the doll writhed in his grip.

It wasn’t a doll. It was a child. He held it by the torso like it was a hollow toy. A SWAT officer broke from the line of men firing into the house and ran toward the large man. When the officer had moved within ten feet of the man, he dashed forward and kicked the officer hard before he could fire his weapon. The officer flew through the air with the speed of a hurled brick and landed on the windshield of a Camry parked in the driveway, the shatter-proof glass cracking under him like an eggshell and collapsing into the cabin of the car.

The large man lumbered to the fallen assailant and cast something down at the body which immediately burst into flames. He looked down at the burning body for a short moment and then sprinted away on his long legs. His path took him directly behind the line of SWAT and uniformed officers, but his inhuman speed carried his large frame past them before they could adjust their aim and loose a shot. The remaining fur-coated men ran from the back doors of the house after the taller man like a pack of dogs following their alpha. The fire from which the large man had emerged had now spread to engulf one entire half of the house and showed no sign of stopping.

The fighting over, the uniformed officers reached for their radios, no doubt calling for other mobile units to give chase to the gang of strangely clothed men. The uninjured SWAT officers split into groups and began assessing the damage done to their brethren. I panned my body – and the Go-Pro – across the scene. The officer who had been dragged from the house seemed to be moving, though feebly. The man with the injured leg was sitting in the snow and removing his helmet. Of the three, the officer who was kicked through the windshield seemed worse off; I hadn’t seen the person move an inch since they came to rest after the forceful kick. A different officer was checking vitals when I decided it was a good time to duck out of sight if I wanted to avoid being arrested. I trotted back to my Eagle as I tried to make sense of what I had seen: a German kidnapping gang who worked – without guns – for a Mexican cartel, enforcers who wore animal fur and horned masks instead of tactical clothing, some sort of ethereal bell that sounded their retreat. I reminded myself that had been speaking an antiquated version of German, so I added intellectual to my list of traits for the kidnapping group.

I started up the car, waiting for the slight stall, and drove directly to the local ABC affiliate. I had footage for which they would pay top dollar for exclusive national rights. I needed to get my check and get back on the road in case SWAT decided to mount a second offensive.

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