The driver glanced up to view the rear of the bus in the interior security mirror; he was a survivor of hundreds of Chicago public school field trips. He turned his ever-watchful eyes back to the road in front of him. He was quite used to loud and even raucous behavior on his bus during these trips. The only time he ever arrived home without a headache had been the time he had driven the children of the Japanese delegation that had been visiting Chicago as its sister city. After the last migraine-laden trip he had made, as the substitute driver for the company he owned, he had vowed to hire additional backup drivers. He glanced once more into the security mirror. Oh well, he thought, at least the ad is in the paper.
He noted the sharply bright red uniform garbed man sitting at the back of the bus surrounded by several small children who looked up at him rather adoringly. He wouldn’t have been able to get such a good look except the guy happened to be right in the middle of the back seat, so Rosco’s view wasn’t hindered by the high backs of the plush seats arrayed behind him. Normally people didn’t hire one of his long distance touring coaches – with comfortable seats and equipped with a bathroom – for kids. Once, some posh private school had wanted one for a day trip and he had flat-out refused to rent them one. To hell with the extra money, he’d be damned if he’d drive a busload of kids and not be able to see them all. He’d made an exception for these Eskimo kids, they probably don’t get such fancy treatment at home, he figured.
Seemed his impulse had been right, this bunch was well behaved. In fact, he had been rather unnerved so far during the drive by the soft voices of the children. Regardless of the dreaded migraines he received during trips with Chicago students in his care, he was, nevertheless, used to the loud chatter they provided as he drove.
He’d been told these were mostly ten-year-olds but they seemed smaller. Eskimos must be shorter, he thought. Sure enough, the four adults along with them were short: two were young women in their twenties and two were elders whose sex he could not quite determine since they both had baggy clothes, long braids and nearly identical sagging, lined elderly faces.
The young women, he assumed they were the teachers, walked up and down the aisle of the bus speaking to the children in a language Rosco couldn’t identify. Despite that fact that he couldn’t understand the words, years of listening in to teachers talking to students on trips told him they were enjoining the children to behave and be quiet. It seemed rather silly, since the kids were so well behaved anyway.
Having finished their rounds, the teachers found empty spots among their charges. Then they turned to the man in red at the back of the bus, apparently waiting for him to do something. Rosco waited.
The man in red gently disengaged from the kids who clung to him and came forward to the front of the bus where Rosco was waiting for somebody to tell him that they could be on their way. Apparently, that someone was going to be the red dude.
Indeed, the man said politely “We’re ready to leave now.”
“Good,” said Rosco, “Just so that I’m clear: to the Botanical Gardens, leave everybody at the front gate. Pick up at 11:30 by the bus drop.”
“That is correct. We will be taking the children on a tour first and then they will have some free time to explore the gardens. And then after that directly to the Chuck E Cheese on 4th and Main.” The man in red winced, “Not the best nutrition but I wanted to children to experience some things they didn’t have at home.”
“So, like, Eskimos don’t have pizza?”
“Actually, Mr. Drisco, the proper nomenclature would be Inuit, not Eskimo; though that is a remarkably common assumption; though, it is perhaps not as confusing as talking about Indians from India as opposed to American Indians.”
Rosco took advantage of an intake of breath by the man in front of him. “Call me Rosco. Say, so that language they are all speaking is Esk . . . Inuit language?” He wondered briefly if all Canadians were like this.
The man in red nodded.
“Sounds nice,” Rosco observed, “I heard you speaking it to the kids, Mister . . .”
“Constable. Constable Benton Fraser. Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I first came to Chicago on . . . um . . . we can leave now, Mr. Dris . . . Rosco.” The Mountie’s cheeks had turned a slight tinge of pink in embarrassment for he had been warned recently by his commanding officer that recounting his own personal history at every introduction was counterproductive to the image of the RCMP.
With that, the Mountie picked his way back along the aisle of the bus to the seat where his young fans were waiting to climb all over him. Normally, at this, Rosco would turn to call to them to stay seated, but they were so nice and quiet that he hadn’t the heart to reprimand them. Anyway, there were no seat belts so the only reason to keep them in their seats was to keep the mayhem to a minimum and it didn’t seem likely that violence was going to erupt with this group. So let them have their fun.
They were half-way to their destination, going along a tree-lined. residential boulevard when the two lady teachers, as he supposed they were, stood up together and squeezed in single file up towards the front of the bus. They’re so tiny, Rosco mused, they could almost walk side by side in the narrow aisle if they wanted to.
The girls stood beside Rosco and he glanced sideways at them as he drove. Such shy little things. Probably too timid to ask what they wanted. Maybe one of the two old people need to go to the bathroom and couldn’t get to the back of the bus while it was moving. He’d had that happen before with seniors trips. In fact, elderly people hardly ever used the toilet on the bus and he didn’t blame them. When the bus gave a lurch, you didn’t want to be in there.
Then, at a stop sign, Rosco was able to turn right to them and saw, to his shock, that one of them was holding a pistol. It was close against her chest facing the front of the bus, out of the view of the children.
“At the next intersection, pull over to the northeast side and park there. Don’t say anything and don’t make any sudden moves.”
The woman who had not spoken reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a weapon of her own. She too held her gun against her body but it was pointed towards the back of the bus. The first woman said, “Say a word or make any move that doesn’t have to do with steering this contraption and my cousin, Tilly, will starting picking off these kids like rabbits in a shooting gallery.”
Rosco quailed inwardly but he knew better than to disobey. After all these years he was hoping he’d have been able to get through his career without any gun threats on one of his buses but this was not to be. What the hell could they teeny little women want?
As he had been directed, Rosco pulled the bus over. It was easy enough since he just happened to be driving north and he wouldn’t need to try a u-turn. Christ, they planned this well, he though as he parked alongside the sidewalk.
A rustle went through the bus as the children noticed they had made this unusual move and then stopped. A few of them murmured some words in Innuktituk. Rosco heard the Mountie reply to them in their own language in reassuring tones. Then, calmly he rose from his seat.
The woman who had been identified as ‘Tilly’ raised her pistol into open view for the first time and, arm fully extended, pointed it straight towards him, down the narrow aisle. The children Rosco could see shrank towards the windows on each side and he could only assume the others were doing the same.
“Joon, Tilly, is there something you want to talk about?” the Mountie said, very gently and very slowly.
“Not with you, Ben,” said Joon said, and brought her own gun into plain view, pointing it at Rosco’s head.
“Matilda. Juniper. Please,” Fraser repeated, “Just, tell me what it is you want.”
“First, I want you to sit back down in the back of the bus, back where you were, so I can see you,” said Joon and jiggled the gun slightly around Rosco’s ear to make him understand what would happen if he disobeyed.
Fraser raised his hands slowly in a gesture of surrender and slowly backed down the aisle of the bus. He lowered himself into his seat and made a very deliberate show of lowering his hands until they came to rest spread eagle on his knees. Tilly kept her gun trained in his direction the whole time until he was safely seated, then waived it back and forth across the bus to demonstrate that she could shoot any of the occupants at will. There was no need to tell anyone to stay still.
“Now you, American pig, you’ve got some kind of radio or phone there,” said Joon. “Call the cops and tell them you want Detective Ray Vecchio from the 27th District. We’ll talk to him and nobody else. If we see anyone else, we start shooting.”
This was no time for heroics, Rosco decided. Too many children’s lives at stake. If he lunged for one girl closer to him, Joon, the other one, Tilly, would have time to shoot. He couldn’t take both at once and he couldn’t talk to the Mountie, who was certainly the only other useful adult on the bus, to make any plan. The old fogies would be no help but at least they weren’t making any fuss. They were as docile as the kids, thank God.
With the same slow deliberation as he had seen the Mountie employ, he reached for the microphone of his radio.
For the twenty minutes that they waited, cars drove by on their several errands, with drivers occasionally mouthing curses, shaking fists or giving a rude finger when they had to go around the oddly placed bus. Inside the bus, the only movement was the uneven, frightened breathing of the children and Tilly’s occasional wave of her pistol.
Rosco noted one green car – it looked pretty old - pull up to the curb just kitty-corner to where he had parked. From the front seat, there emerged a tall man with very short dark hair, a flapping tan trench coat and a very prominent nose. He walked slowly towards to the bus, holding his arms away from his sides, his fingers splayed so that the occupants of the bus could see that his hands were empty.
“So, that must be your Ray,” said Joon as she watched him from the corner of her eye. Tilly only allowed herself a brief glimpse behind her, and then turned back to towards the bus’ seated occupants.
“You’re right, Ben. He is cute,” Joon said.
Ray reached the front door of the bus and stood waiting.
Rosco glanced towards Joon and looked questioningly at her. “Do I open the door?” he risked saying.
“Our representative is going to go out. Wait until she’s in position on the stairs, then open the door,” Joon ordered him.
That’s our chance, thought Rosco. When one of the girls goes out of the bus I can make a move on the other and the Mountie’ll help. One of us will be able to get the gun off her.
Then Tilly, from her station facing the rear of the bus, turned to one of the elders and said, “Now, Grandmother.”
One of the two elders hauled herself painstakingly to her feet and ambled along the aisle forward towards the door. She came face to face with Tilly and it was clear that the fat old woman could not squeeze past the girl. Rather than give way backwards, Tilly, her gun still trained on the group, stepped up on one of the seats so the old woman could pass. Then she jumped nimbly down without losing her aim.
When the old woman reached the front of the bus, she turned around and spoke for the first time. She craned her wrinkled neck upward and craned for a look at the Mountie in the back. “Fraser, don’t do anything foolish. My granddaughters will shoot if they have to. We have nothing to lose.”
Rosco didn’t expect the Mountie to talk back, but to Rosco’s astonishment the man said, “You would let them kill the children?”
It was the girl, Joon, with her gun still pointed at Rosco’s head, that answered, “It’s our whole way of life that will die if the second dam is finished. There will be no more game. You saw what the first dam did to the game in the valley. Wiped it out. The second dam will submerge our entire hunting ground. It has to stop.” She hesitated a moment and continued, “Your own father lost his life fighting these people. Can we do less?”
“You’d sacrifice the children?” insisted the Mountie.
Shut up, shut up, what are you thinking, Rosco screamed inside his own head.
“Yes, and ourselves. And you. Our few lives in exchange for the many generations that will come. You bet I would. I was hoping you’d be on our side, Ben. You should be with us. Look what the dam did to your father.”
The Mountie fell silent. Joon shrugged and spoke to the old woman. “Grandmother, go out now and tell our story to Ben’s friend. Tell him what we want.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Fraser demanded from the back of the bus, causing Rosco to shiver in fear at the man’s audacity. Was the idiot trying to get them all killed?
“It’s simple, Ben,” the old woman spoke again, her voice crackling. “We want a promise that construction on the dam will stop. This we must have. If not, Juniper and Matilda will use their guns.”
“You can’t win,” said Fraser, “They’ll pretend to agree and then they’ll betray you. You have no power.”
“Ben, you shut up!” yelled Tilly. “We have power. The power of the media. Grandmother will tell Ray to spread the word to reporters. Stupid Americans. They do nothing but watch TV. We will all be on TV. When the promises are made for all to hear, they will have to be honored. Public pressure. We’ll make sure everyone knows that if they are not honored, more people will die. Our land is being flooded to make electrical power to ship down to the Americans to run their TV’s. We won’t let that happen. Grandmother, you go out NOW.”
There was room in the front of the bus for the old woman to ease past her other granddaughter. She grasped the molded plastic handrail with one gnarled, papery claw and grunted as she let herself down the first stair.
Rosco had the ingrained urge to jump up and help the old woman down the steps. He actually jerked upwards a fraction, but gulped and settled back into his seat as Joon brought her gun close to his nose.
Oh, she was so close, he could easily grab the gun, but that other girl, Tilly, was out of reach and the Mountie was too far away, in the back of the bus, to get at her before she took out some of the kids. They were still stuck.
When the grandmother reached the bottom step, she paused. At a nod from Joon, Rosco opened the door. He kept his head turned towards the outside to see what was going on and Joon didn’t prevent him. He saw a look of surprise on the big-nosed detective’s face at being face to face with a short, fat old woman. The grandmother put out one foot to get down to the ground.
With the same instinct that Rosco had, the detective instinctively reached out an arm to help the woman come down.
Despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, Ray wouldn’t have been Ray without some preliminary grousing. He was well aware that he was a major pain sometimes so he had tried to work it out of his system as he drove. Jeez, couldn’t Canadians ever go anywhere in a group without getting hijacked? First the trainload of Mounties and now this.
Then he cast about in his mind to remember if Benny mentioned whether Dief was going to be along. After brief reflection, he found a memory of a conversation between Benny and himself and replayed it:
Himself: A nice romp in the park. Dief’ll like that.
Benny: Animal’s are not allowed in the Botanical Gardens, Ray. Diefenbaker is very disappointed. He is quite fond of flowers.
Himself: You know what you need to do? Get Dief one of those harnesses the blind dogs wear, then put a pair of sunglasses on one of the kids. You could take Furface anywhere that way.
Benny: I’m not sure that’s legal, Ray.
Himself: It’s against the law to impersonate a police officer, Benny. I don’t think there’s an actual law against impersonating a seeing eye-dog.
Benny: It would be unethical, Ray.
Which had pretty well settled the matter right then and there as far as the Mountie would be concerned and meant that Benny was all alone on the bus with that bunch of civilians.
The Riv reached the designated corner and Ray parked at a point as far as possible from the bus while still being on the same intersection. This served a couple of purposes. It would marginally improve the Riv’s chances of surviving a shoot-out and increase, also marginally, the space Ray would traverse before reaching the bus. Ray wanted as many extra seconds as he could get to survey the territory without looking like he was stalling. As slowly as he felt he could get away with, Ray emerged from the Riv, took a preliminary look around the area and then started to walk slowly but purposefully to the spot where the bus was parked.
Why choose this street corner? What was there about it that had made the hijackers choose this particular spot? Residential area. Upscale, mostly rich houses with spacious yards. Most of the houses were set well back from the street. Lots of trees. Lots of bushes. Hmmm. Lots of space between houses, all filled with thick bushes and very few passersby.
Walking as slowly as he dared, Ray tried to sense whether there were people around He didn’t have a word for the particular sense but sometimes policemen and hunters, among others, developed the ability to feel the presence of others, even when they can’t see them. Yes, there it was. The feeling of many pairs of watching eyes. Ray risked slowing almost to a stop and scanning the surrounding bushes for signs of movement among the branches. He didn’t see any movement, but weren’t there dark spots in places that weren’t in the right spot to be shadows in the angle of the morning sun?
The instructions relayed by the bus driver had been for Ray to come alone. Nobody had heard the voice of the person giving the instructions to the bus driver so Ray didn’t know the number or gender, let alone what was the beef of the hijackers. No other officers were visible near him but he was wired for sound. Tiny microphones inside his shirt would transmit to the S.W.A.T. team, the negotiator and Welsh who all waited out of sight two blocks away.
The name of the bus company was painted on the side of the vehicle: Rosco Drisco Bus Lines. The bus driver was a Rosco Drisco, he had said. The driver was also the owner. What effect that may have on the situation, if any, Ray didn’t know but it may or may not be a factor. Well, that was one piece of information he could safely manage to relate to the listening team. He certainly didn’t want to mutter to himself “Oh, it feels like there are people hiding in the bushes”. Well, he couldn’t be too obvious in any dropped comment, but at least he could casually say to himself “Rosco Drisco Bus Lines” and make it sound like he was just reading it aloud.
Ray forced himself to relax a bit, forced himself to breathe. Fraser was in there, with all those little kids. He wondered if Fraser was wearing that bright red tunic or casual clothing. Then, involuntarily, he snickered aloud at his own folly. The Mountie escorting his fellow Canadians on an officially sanctioned visit? For sure Fraser was a sitting there – a target in bright red saying ‘shoot me’.
Ray had been hoping this was one of those yellow school buses from whose windows you could always make out the kids inside. Nope. This was a luxury model, the windows tinted. Ray couldn’t see anything or anybody inside. That would be good for the team to know too, but no, it wouldn’t be safe to comment aloud. Ray let his eyes rake the side of the bus, hoping it looked casual, wondering if the Mountie had found some way to be near the emergency exit. Where ever that was on this deluxe thing anyway.
Within only a few beats of Ray reaching the front door of the bus, the door opened. A tiny, wrinkled, fat old Inuit woman was on the second step from the bottom and as soon as the door was at its widest, she clutched the railing and leaned out a foot to come down the last couple of steps. Without thinking about it, Ray reached to help her down.
A little girl beside Fraser whispered in a barely audible voice “Constable Fraser?” as she leaned into the arm of his red serge tunic.
Fraser leaned slightly to indicate he was listening, but stayed facing front towards Tilly. He whispered back “Yes, Janice.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Be quiet back there! Ben, stay where I can see you,” commanded the small woman with the gun trained on him.
“Janice has to go to the bathroom,” Fraser explained calmly.
Tilly fell silent and waited for Joon to answer. This confirmed what Fraser had been suspecting. Joon, his childhood friend, was the mastermind of the operation and her cousin, Tilly, her lieutenant. What role other than spokesperson their grandmother was playing, Fraser couldn’t tell. He didn’t know either the old woman or her husband very well.
“There’s a toilet on the bus. Janice, you see it. Right across from you,” Joon said from her spot right in the front of the bus, with her gun still pointed towards Rosco. “You may use it, but don’t lock the door. You see, Ben, we have a bus with nice, big, soft seats. We didn’t want the kids to be too uncomfortable since we might be here a long time.”
Not too uncomfortable before you kill them, Fraser didn’t dare say aloud. So that’s why you and Joon paid so much for a fancy bus when were just going to be out for a few hours.
The little girl only leaned into Fraser, clutching at his sleeve with her tiny hand.
“It’s okay, Janice. Joon says you can go ahead. She won’t hurt you,” Fraser assured the terrified girl, hoping to God that he was actually telling the child the truth.
What accursed things power dam are, Fraser was thinking as the girl slid herself off the seat and squeezed past him, so closely that Fraser could both feel and see her shaking. What a monstrous effect they have on people. Surely, they must be alive. They drink in water from one end, make power of it and excrete from another end – just as a living thing eats and eliminates to make its energy. Malevolent forces driving otherwise law-abiding men like Gerard to kill their comrades to keep them going and otherwise loving women like Joon and Tilly to threaten children to stop them.
The old woman accepted Ray’s hand and grunted a little as she touched the ground. “Walk with me to the middle of the street,” she said in an Inuit-accented cackle.
“Um, ma’am, there could be cars coming,” Ray told her, condescendingly, thinking: What - are there no cars up there? She can’t know there is a roadblock, can she? Naw, she couldn’t possibly know that. At least he hoped she wouldn’t know that.
“Don’t patronize me, young man,” the wrinkled skinned woman startled him by saying, “Just wait a second. You will see why we don’t have to worry about cars.” She raised her voice and called out, “Group one. Now, my children.”
The surrounding bushes rustled in four spots, one on each corner of the intersection and men in combat fatigues, carrying rifles, rose from their cover. They came forward and formed a square in the middle of the intersection.
“Now, we walk,” the grandmother told Ray and took his arm. She steered him to the center of the formation of men. Once the two were inside the square, the armed men faced in towards them. There they stood: the tall, thin man and diminutive, tubby woman, arm in arm surrounded by the men, as though they were all about to begin some surreal but deadly dance. One man stepped back a bit and positioned himself with his back to the bus so that he could survey the area and kept his rifle readied as he panned the area for any back up people that might have come with the Chicago cop.
Then, with a crisp, “All clear, Grandmother,” the lone riflemen retook his place in the formation.
“Group two, now, my dears,” commanded the woman. Eight more people came out and fell into place, two between each of the original four, and all armed like their confederates. Now numbering a dozen, they shuffled a little until they were in the form of a circle surrounding the grandmother and Ray.
The first four remained facing inward and the second group turned to face outward.
Then, in the final movement in the odd ballet, the same man who had separated himself before took a step into the center of the circle and the others shifted slightly to close the gap. Ray noted that he was older than most of the others. He also noted that from the look of him he was about Ray’s own age.
“We can talk now. Nobody will bother us,” the old woman assured Ray. “My grandchildren and nephews – they are very protective of me.” She smiled warmly at the
man standing with her inside the protective circle, with his rifle poised straight at the Chicago cop’s chest.
Ray found only small comfort in the fact that his instincts had proven trustworthy after all. I’d rather be wrong and not all alone surrounded by armed Inuit. No, not alone. Granny the Commando was by his side, still hanging on his arm. And Junior there, next to the old woman, wasn’t shaking a bit. At least I don’t have to worry about se trigger fingers Ray thought to himself. These people are well trained if nothing else.
Inside the bus, Fraser waited for little Janice to return to her seat. Most likely, he thought, the child had never had so much attention paid to her use of restroom facilities – at least not since she was a baby and being toilet trained. The busload of children waited with him, all hardly breathing. After what seemed like a very long time, came the sound of the toilet flushing. The faint slosh wouldn’t even have been audible under normal circumstances but in this situation, all voices were silent and all ears strained to hear what was going on. Janice emerged and threw herself into Fraser’s lap, blushing as red as his tunic in her embarrassment.
Fraser risked putting his arms around the little girl and was relieved when Tilly did not object. He held Janice for only moment and then said, gently, “You should get back to your seat now, okay?”
The child gaped at him, wide-eyed. He smiled encouragement to her as best he could. With a little gulp, she slid off his lap and on to the seat beside him, but still leaned against his sleeve with her little fingers clutching at the red wool.
Only then did Fraser look up at Tilly, his glare saying: See how you are frightening them. Tilly met his gaze defiantly.
Joon’s voice broke the silence. “I hope your friend had the good sense to come alone, Ben.”
“Why? Is he in danger from your grandmother?” Fraser knew he shouldn’t be using this tone, but his anger was beginning to emerge. Fear for the children’s safety had been crushing back any other emotion, but now that more than half an hour had passed and nobody had been threatened any further, other feelings were welling up in him, rage the chief amongst them. He knew that he had to hold back his feelings for everyone’s sake. Stay calm. Stay alert. Look for a chance to get the women off balance and get control of the situation.
If only he were not so far away from the bus driver. Mr. Drisco was large, but not fat and most likely very strong. Fraser had been watching him. Although Drisco hadn’t moved very much, what movements he had made had been quick and purposeful. He wasn’t fidgeting. For a man with a pistol to his ear he was, in fact, as calm as Fraser could expect a man to be. If only he could get the man’s attention and manage to establish some signal between them, a forlorn hope. With the whole length of the bus and two armed women between them, Mr. Drisco was the only partner Fraser could hope for in this situation. The only other adult on the bus was the girls’ grandfather. Fraser berated himself for not noticing before that there were only these two elders on this trip, when he would have expected more to come along. Undoubtedly, the grandfather was siding with the girls and his own wife. He couldn’t expect help from him.
Fraser noticed that the grandfather, as well as the children that sat on the same side of the bus as the old man, were turned to the windows and staring out. This made sense. The door of the bus was on that side. Ray and the grandmother must be visible to them. If only he could know what was going on out there. Any knowledge could be useful in forming a plan.
What of Ray, was he alone? Was he in danger? Joon and Tilly seemed to have this too well planned for any part of it to be random. There had to be a reason why they were stopped at this particular corner at this particular time and not at any other place and time during the weeklong itinerary.
How could he find out what was going on outside the bus? Well, Mountie, he told himself, the first most obvious way to get something you want is simply to ask. He cleared his throat, as an attention-getting device rather than from any physical need. Joon and Tilly both responded as he expected, by looking in his direction.
“Your grandfather is in a position to see what’s going on outside. Would it be all right if he told the rest of us what he is seeing?”
Joon answered with a low, sinister laugh that made Fraser shudder. It was a horrible enough sound coming from anyone’s throat, let alone from this diminutive woman, his childhood playmate. “Sure. No reason why not, Grandfather, tell us what is happening outside.”
It was the first time since they had boarded the bus that any comment had been addressed to the elderly man. He answered without turning away from the window, as though talking to himself. “The American is taking off his clothes.”
Ray waited in the center of the circle, flanked by the two Inuit – the elderly woman and her helper. No generation gap among these people, he thought, and then mentally kicked himself for allowing such silly thoughts to enter his mind during such a tense moment. Comic relief. Perfectly understandable. Stay calm, Vecchio. Wait them out. They have this well planned so they’ll tell you what they want to tell you in their own good time. Chill.
The woman spoke at last. “Are you armed?” she asked Ray.
Ray thanked the Lord in Italian that he was able to answer this blunt question with absolute honesty. “No ma’am.”
“Because you were told to come alone and unarmed.”
“And I’ve done that,” Ray informed her.
“Now you have to understand, dear, that we believe that all living things should be treated with respect. You said you were unarmed so I won’t insult you by searching you.”
She waited and seemed to expect some answer so Ray said, “Thank you kindly, ma’am” and again inflicted a mental kick to his own rear end as punishment for having such a big mouth.
“But we do have to take precautions. You could be hiding something in your clothing. It would be against our customs to search your person. That would be an intrusion. Very rude. Very disrespectful.”
Around them, a few of the men in the circle snickered.
“So, my dear, I’m going to ask you to just give your clothing to my boys and they’ll hold it safely while we talk. They’ll give it all back to you after and you can leave with whatever equipment you came with.”
Oh, you have to be kidding, thought Ray.
“Now, isn’t that only fair?” crooned the woman, sweetly.
The man with them in the circle stepped back a few paces, as though to give Ray room to maneuver. Ray stood still, not really sure if they were all serious about this. The man waved his rifle and Ray saw that, yes, they were serious.
He began by shrugging off his trench coat. One of the men facing inward handed his rifle to the man beside him and reached out to relieve Ray of the coat. Ray had to be impressed with the discipline of this group. Not one of the eight men watching outward from the circle so much as turned his head during all this exchange.
There was no help for it. Ray took off his shirt and undershirt and handed them to the waiting hands. There were the microphones nestled and securely taped to his hairy chest and exposed to view. He froze in place, waiting to see the woman’s reaction.
“Take those off, too, dear,” she said calmly, and, it seemed to Ray, not without some amusement.
Ray ripped the microphones from his chest, letting out an involuntary yip as the tape pulled his chest hair. The man with his clothes held out his palm. Ray dropped the microphones, tape still attached, into the hand and wondered, as he did so, whether this would be his last act in the world. He had warned the S.W.A.T. leader that this was a bad idea. Once again, he was proven right and once again, it was not helping the situation.
But the woman only said, “Keep going.”
Ray took off his pants gratefully, too relieved at not being shot on the spot when the microphones had been found to feel embarrassed. The same man who had his other clothes took his pants. Then he slung all the garments over one arm and took his rifle back from the man beside him.
Ray complied. That left him standing in the middle of the road in only his boxers.
“Almost done now, dear,” the grandmother assured him.
“Oh, yeah,” said Ray. He took off his watch and handed it out in front of him. Nobody made a move to relieve him of it, so he tossed it in the direction of his shoes and, fortunately, it landed in one of the loafers.
“You know what I mean,” she insisted.
Ray’s hesitation, as well as his token remonstrance, was involuntary, “Do we really have to do this?”
“Young man, we’ve already seen that you are not to be trusted.”
Damn the S.W.A.T. team, their actions had set this up. Ray was worried about all the little kids watching from the bus. And all the residents who might be able to see through their hedges to the street. And Benny seeing him like this. Maybe he was not so lucky to be alive after all.
“Don’t worry, child. Whatever you have in there – I have seen before. And probably better, too,” observed the elderly woman.
Ray dropped his shorts and stepped out of them. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of handing them over, though. He just let the discarded boxers lie there. Okay, it was a useless gesture and might infuriate someone but how much humiliation could a guy take? His impulse was to cup his hands around himself but he fought it. Better to stand tall and make the best of this. What the hell? At least knew Granny probably hadn’t seen very much better than what he had to show.
His thoughts were confirmed by the woman’s soft but appreciative, “Well, well.”
It was the man in the circle with Ray and the old woman who reached out and used the tip of his rifle to lift the shorts from the ground. They slid down the barrel of his rifle and dangled there when the man resumed his aim into the center of the circle
“Can we talk now?” asked Ray, trying to show assurance though he knew that goose bumps were lining up in little rows all over his skin
“Yes, we will talk now,” said the grandmother.
Ben could not help but remember the last time he had seen these people he had once called his friends. It had been so many years ago, since he had been in Innusiq’s house with his extended family: parents, grandparents, his sister, Juniper (affectionately called ‘Joon’ by the family), cousins – Tilly among many others. He could still smell the leathers, furs and fat melting on the stove. But in this situation, he knew could not afford any complacency about the friendship he had always felt for these people. He could not let his memories intrude on this situation
So, he sat very still with his fingers splayed on his knees and willed himself to remain quiet for the sake of the small children around him. He would count on Ray to be the excellent officer that he had come to know as his friend and brother. He would wait. The children’s safety must come first. But then, he was well aware of the fact that Joon and her family would count on that. They knew him too well. He was going to have to find some way to turn that to his advantage.
High overhead, Regan Miles, of the Channel 7 News traffic department, turned her headphone-covered head towards the chopper pilot with her news microphone in hand. “Did I see what I just think I saw?” As Regan spoke, her cheeks had a lovely, slight scarlet tinge to them, which only made her light auburn hair seem a bit brighter in the reflected light of the chopper’s small cabin.
“If you saw a dude standing in his birthday suit the middle of a circle of rifles, then, yeah,” Marco the chopper pilot grinned and continued. “I think we saw the same thing. Tom, how about you?”
“Roger the naked dude,” responded the cameraman with them.
“Good, so I’m not imagining it.” Regan wasn’t a prude, but she also wasn’t the kind of person that: one – enjoyed seeming someone else embarrassed and, two – lived with the dreaded thought that someday a live feed on her shift would end up being the talk of the sniggering behind the cameras for the rest of her life. She dreaded winding up some day in one of those shows about media bloopers. She was a warm, good-hearted person that the camera liked. She had her own group of followers among die-hard early morning viewers.
“Want me to come in a little closer, Regan?” Marco asked.
“No, hang back,” Regan said. “We don’t want to do anything to get anybody mad. We know the police are involved, we saw those cruisers and the roadblocks cutting off the area.”
Regan, being a realist of sorts, knew that this could garner her shift a scoop, but the last thing she ever wanted was to be responsible for a breaking news feed at the cost of somebody being shot up. And the bus down there? Was it part of the story? Had all those gunmen came in the bus? But then again it could be full of innocent people. It would be best to go carefully.
Regan’s earpiece began bussing in her ear as a technician at their home base began seeing Tom’s feed coming in to monitors. She listened to directions from the floor director at the station. She wasn’t surprised to hear the announcement that they were going to play this as breaking news. She licked her lips and turned towards the camera positioned behind her, ready to go ‘live’.
While they waited, the pilot. reached inside in his flight jacket pocket and pulled out a very small, very classy looking digital camera. “You know, I have this new digital camera I got for my birthday in my pocket. This might be good for a few nice shots, don’t you think?”
Regan grinned. The entire station knew Marco was a gadget freak and teased him mercilessly about it. She was also well aware that the station manager would love a good still shot even though their own video feed could be used to get stills. The station manager’s office walls were covered with shots garnered on his watch.
All three occupants of the chopper went in to professional mode when they heard the direction from the floor director that: “One, two, three: we are now live.” Regan listened to the words in her earpiece of the anchorperson on duty cutting in and announcing a ‘breaking story’. She gripped her mic a bit tighter.
Regan nervously tapped at on the plastic casing of the control mike in her hand while the pilot, Marco, rummaged the area around him with one free hand trying to keep the chopper in line and get his camera’s power switch to turn on. Both Regan and Marco could hear the chuckling of the camera operator sitting behind them as he directed his camera towards the action on the ground.
Marco held the chopper in place for a moment . . . pointed his camera and got his shot. He grinned and put the small device back into this pocket. “Got it!” Marco finally announced, happily, “Tom, he addressed the camera operator behind him, “Keep the live feed going to the station. “
All three occupants of the chopper went in to professional mode again when they heard the direction from the floor director. Another announcement of a ‘breaking story’ buzzed in Regan’s ear. She gripped her mic a bit tighter. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is Regan Miles in the Channel 7 News Chopper. We’re over a stretch of road near Chicago’s Botanical Gardens, where it appears that some kind of situation is taking place. Traffic is already backing up in several directions. It might be advisable to stay away from the Lake Cook Exit of the Eden’s Expressway going east. I would also advise avoiding Route 41 North. Use I-294 to avoid adding to the congestion.
Regan turned her head toward the action below her and kept talking. “I can see two men and a woman standing in the middle of a circle of maybe ten to fifteen armed people. One of the men in the middle is holding a rifle. The other man, now this is for real folks, appears to be naked. We can’t tell much about the woman, though she appears to be small. The entire area is blocked by police cruisers and no traffic is getting through in either direction. I can also see a large bus parked at in the intersection, but I can’t tell if there is anyone inside the bus or if it has anything to do with this situation.”
Regan kept talking, describing to what she knew was a later afternoon light audience of viewers. She also knew that whatever she said and did in the next two or three minutes would be played and replayed mercilessly throughout the next 24-hours. She could feel her face beginning to tense up as she thought of all the school buses that would potentially be affected by whatever was going on below them. She relaxed a bit when she heard the floor director announcing a cut of the live feed and she heard the announcement that they would be back with more on the story the minute they had anything definite to report.
Marco kept the chopper hovering near the scene keeping an eye out for any police aircraft that might show up in the area. Tom placed his camera on his knees and pushed his face against the glass of the chopper’s door nearest him. The three of them waited, knowing they would be sitting tight for some time. Regan tapped her earpiece and asked the floor director to have one of the staff call her home and let her babysitter know she was going to be running late today.
Ray eyed the bus from the corner of his eye as he stood with his bare feet planted squarely on the pavement. He tried to keep his breathing even and relaxed even though the feelings he that he had in the pit of his stomach nearly demanded that he do something. He tried to control the nervous buzzing that was beginning in his ears. He continued to force himself to stand still and listen hoping that some small chink in their plan would come his way.
The sound of helicopter blades rent the air surrounding his captors. Ray stood his ground but watched the suddenly nervous fingers on the triggers of the rifles trained his way and slowly raised his hands.
“Hey, take it easy there. If you had done your homework right, you would know that that is a traffic copter. We have this thing called ‘news’ here in Chicago. Traffic backs up and then one of the television stations sends a chopper in to let people know about potential traffic backups.” Ray stared straight into the eyes of the old woman. “Give me break here. My bosses made me wear the mike. I told them it was a stupid idea. I don’t want to be caught in the middle of a cross fire, especially with kids in the picture.”
But even as he said, what he hoped was calming words, a ridiculous picture of his naked butt on the evening news at 5 made him moan inwardly. His mother . . . his mother was probably going to see this. Why God . . . why was this his life?
The old woman tilted her head ever so slightly and seemed to be listening to the hovering sound of the news copter settling in overhead. Then, she smiled.
At first, Ray was astonished, and then his body relaxed, figuring the situation out just an instant before his brain caught on. “That’s it, isn’t it? You want publicity and lots of it. You don’t really care about holding up traffic or keeping those kids hostage in that bus. You’ve got an agenda, Lady. What, not enough news stations up in Freezer-Land?”
Ray’s brain was back on duty, now that he sensed he was out of immediate danger of being shot. He assessed the situation and came up with the only thing that made sense. “I get it. You wanted Fraser involved and you wanted me involved. This has to do with the dead Mountie thing again, doesn’t it? You figured that you weren’t getting enough attention up there from your news media so you decided to get some built in PR by using Fraser and me. Fraser and me, we high profile enough for you? I ought to be flattered.”
He allowed himself a quick glare of superiority to show in his eyes before tamping it down. “Well, smart lady; you got your news item. Shots of my family jewels are probably on every television channel in town right now. How are you going to get out of this without anyone getting hurt?”
So wrinkled was the old woman’s face that it wasn’t apparent to Ray, in his stressed state, that her brow and mouth were now contracting in a thoughtful frown. She was considering her options. The appearance of the media this early in the operation wasn’t part of her and Joon’s original plan, but she hadn’t survived all these years without learning to adapt to changes.
“Detective Vecchio, your bosses are smarter than you think.” Then she turned to the man holding Ray’s microphone. “Give him back his hardware, Timmy.”
Timmy obeyed immediately, handing Ray the microphone and wires, still adorned with remnants of masking tape and Ray’s dark hairs stuck to them.
“I see you’re not ashamed of the considerable gifts Nature has given you. You stand up proudly,” the grandmother said, eyeing those gifts as she spoke.
Ray figured this was a compliment and nodded carefully to acknowledge it.
“Even so, I think you would be happier with your pants on.”
Ray nodded again, much more vigorously.
“Who is on the other end of this? Tell me the truth, child. It is wrong to lie to an elder.”
“It feeds to my lieutenant, three blocks from here.” It also fed to several other cruisers and the S.W.A.T. team but Ray risked holding that extra information back. It wasn’t a lie to tell only a part of the truth, he decided.
That information seemed to satisfy the woman. “Then I will make a deal with you. Make it possible for me to speak to your lieutenant through this thing and I will let you have your clothes back.”
“Hmmm,” the woman considered.
“Work with me here. We weren’t expecting this to be a two-way broadcast. Isn’t that at least worth giving me my shorts?”
This time Ray could tell the woman was very pleased. He watched the wrinkled skin around the old woman’s eyes crinkle and then relax as her mouth lost its taut look of stress. He watched the almost mellow look that entered her eyes before the look was replaced with a look of sharp speculation. Ray felt his stomach churning again.
“My people believe in the Anua that give life to people and animals and special places. Maybe a spirit animates that helicopter and it seeks to help me. Talk to your lieutenant and tell him to arrange for that helicopter to broadcast live what it sees, and for my voice to be patched through to your networks.” She turned to the man holding Ray’s shorts. “Give him his underwear, Innusiq.”
“Uh, ma’am, I’m not used to being barefoot outside. There’s stones and broken glass. You think I could have my shoes too?” Ray noted the huge Channel 7 logo on the side of the chopper and knew that that ‘live feed’ that the old woman wanted was probably already in progress. He wondered just how many people were getting a real close and personal view of his backside. He groaned inwardly trying to keep his frustration in check.
Across town in the Vecchio home, Maria and Tony’s three year-old was sitting in her little, child-sized rocker watching TV as her Aunt Francesca sorted the laundry that sat in three baskets at her feet.
“White sock . . . red sock . . . Ray’s sock . . .” Francesca placed each sock in its own color or person coordinated pile. She was barely watching what was on the screen of the family television. In fact, she hadn’t even noticed when the volume on the set had changed subtlety and an announcement banner began playing along the bottom of the oversized screen. She did look up, however, when the toddler began bouncing up and down in the little rocker.
“Butt…Butt…Unka RayRay.” The small child pointed and laughed at the screen.
Francesca looked up when she heard her brother’s name just in time to a catch sight of a scene apparently filmed from high above.
“OH, MY GOD!” Francesca dropped the sock pile that had been resting in her lap to the floor as she stood up in a reflexive motion of shock. “Ma! Ray’s on TV! MA!”
Ma Vecchio stopped pounding the bread dough she was working on when she heard her daughter’s voice screaming from the living room. She listened and then grabbed a dishtowel from the table beside her. She rushed down the hallway and stood in front of the huge, 43” inch screen that had taken over the living room when Ray and Tony had found it on sale several years ago. She watched in horror as the image on the television switched back and forth from a long shot of two men and a woman surrounded by armed figures to a very clear, very close shot of her son’s naked body. She stumbled back, sat in Ray’s favorite, overstuffed chair, and sat staring at the screen.
Francesca rushed over to her mother and patted her shoulder affectionately.
“He’s in the middle of men with rifles! My boy! They’re going to shoot my boy!”
The only thing Fraser could knew about what was going on outside the bus was what he had been told by the old man. His mental image was of Joon’s grandmother and Ray standing together alone – perhaps on the sidewalk. And Ray, for a reason that Fraser had to believe was a good one under the circumstances, was stripping.
That didn’t bode well for Ray’s being in a position to come to their rescue. Fraser leaned back against the soft plush of his seat and started weighing the risks of taking proactive steps on his own when one of the children, sitting just behind the old man’s seat, blurted out, “Look at how many soldiers!”
The Mountie bolted upright with a jolt that dislodged poor little Janice.
“Tilly!” he demanded, outraged, “What’s going on out there?”
“You never mind, Ben. Just stay quiet.”
Fraser rose, too outraged to care for his own safety. “I’m going to look out that window. Shoot me if you think it will help the situation.”
Tilly was leaving all the decisions to her cousin. She waited for Joon to respond for them.
“Let him look, if he’s so curious.”
Fraser moved to where the youngster who had spoken up was sitting. The boy and the girl beside him both slid out of their seats as they saw the Mountie approach, and Tilly did not comment upon it. Fraser climbed into the seat beside the window and pressed his forehead against the tinted glass.
“Innusiq!” Without turning his head away from the view, he intoned, “You must be insane.” Only then, did he turn away from the window and lean forward into the split between the seats to address the grandfather.
“Are you condoning this?” He’d known the grandfather and grandmother, although not well, since childhood and decided the time was right to address them as he did in the days when he was playmate to their grandchildren. “Grandfather, do you and Grandmother truly approve of this?”
Joon shrieked angrily from the front of the bus, “You shut up! It’s none of your business! Mountie!” She spat out the word as though it were a curse.
“Half an hour ago you said I should be on your side. Joon, if you’re going to be an effective terrorist you have to be clear on who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. There’s no room for dithering. I can’t be with you when my best friend is standing out there with gun barrels pointing to his chest.”
“Do you approve of this?” Fraser insisted, hoping to get some reaction from him. Fraser recalled from his childhood that Grandmother was the matriarch of the family and would normally speak for both herself and her husband. Perhaps with her safely outside he could stir some reaction from the grandfather.
“No, this is not right,” the elderly man said, very quietly. “I didn’t know things would go this far. Juniper, how did you get all these weapons across the border?”
“We didn’t have to, Grandfather. I arranged for us to buy them here, there are some Native American groups here that are very sympathetic to our cause. ”
“Not right,” the man repeated stoically as he continued to look out the window. “Not right at all.”
“You can say that again, Gramps,” put in Rosco from the front of the bus, prompting Joon to jab the barrel of her pistol briefly against his cheek.
Regan Miles was in high gear. She loved her job, but beginning five minutes ago, she had left her job as a traffic announcer behind temporarily and had become the Channel 7 newsperson on the spot. Now she was broadcasting live nation-wide feed to the major networks, covering a serious hostage situation. She was above all a professional and kept one ear open listening to her floor director and her eyes peeled on the situation below them. She listened carefully as she was told that the man without clothing had been wired for sound and that a live feed of sound had been requested by the Chicago Police department to the news media via a sound wire the male hostage had been wearing. Being the professional that she was helped her to maintain a calm attitude as the chopper’s blades cut through the air.
So, first she described what she could actually see of the scene below. Then she went on to explain, “I can’t see inside the bus. However, I’ve received information from Channel 7 that the man in his underwear below us is a Chicago Police Detective named Raymond Vecchio. The bus parked on the corner is filled with Inuit children, two teachers, an Inuit elder, and an American bus driver. A Canadian Mountie is also inside the bus. No one has been inside the bus since we arrived. It is not known at this time what the status is for any occupants of the bus.”
“The woman you see standing in the centre of the circle is Mrs. Taliriktug, granddaughter of Arnaaluk Taliriktug, known for her stand on Inuit rights. She appears to be the spokesperson for hostage takers, who appear to be Canadians. I understand that in a few moments she will be patched in live through the microphone Detective Vecchio is holding and will make her demands known.”
Nobody outside the bus knew that the two Inuit teachers were not hostages at all but participants in the operation. Mrs. Taliriktug did not offer any additional description and the presence of her menacing circle were visual distraction enough to keep anyone from wondering whether there were also armed conspirators inside the bus.
Mrs. Taliriktug delivered, to millions of viewers, her eloquent plea for the preservation of her people’s hunting grounds and ended by saying that if she and her followers were allowed to leave unhindered and not followed, they would leave their guns behind and disperse harmlessly. The bus would be allowed to go on its way with passengers and driver untouched. It was a masterful bit of diversion. She had her national coverage without giving up her principal hostages. She could still control the situation.
Lieutenant Welsh ended up having his fifteen minutes of fame as well. Coached by the S.W.A.T. team leader talking into one of his ears and his own superiors by radio at his other ear, he agreed to the terms.
The events of earlier played in reverse. First, as was agreed, the circle of gunmen put down their weapons in a pile on the street. Then, using Ray’s cell phone, Mrs. Taliriktug placed a call. Within five more minutes, as had been pre-arranged by her with the police, two mini-vans with local license plates were allowed to pass through the roadblocks and pull up on the scene. Only a few seconds of the intervening time were needed for Ray to jump back into his clothes.
Sighs of relief were being heaved by viewers all over the country, and it seemed as though it was all over when a single gunshot cracked inside the bus and a bus window exploded in shattered glass.
One thing Rosco did notice was that the Mountie was now sitting very much nearer to Tilly’s position than he was before. Neither woman was telling him to go sit back where he was. Good. Now both Fraser and himself were within grabbing distance of one of the women. Rosco felt sure that this Canadian would be quick enough to disarm the woman near him if Rosco provided sufficient diversion. Of course, the problem remained how to make a diversion without getting himself or anybody else killed. Neither Fraser nor the grandfather had given any description of what was going on outside since Fraser’s last comment.
Rosco figured he could play with that at least. “What’s happening out there now?” he asked to nobody in particular.
“The American has put his clothes back on,” the grandfather said. Apparently, this was the thing of most interest to him in the entire proceedings. As though as an afterthought he added, “And everyone has left except the American and my wife. They are out there together alone.”
Fraser grunted lightly to confirm this information. He leaned out into the aisle so that he was within Rosco’s view. He widened his eyes. Is that a signal to me, Rosco wondered? He widened his own eyes in response and the Mountie lowered his head just a fraction. Rosco dipped his own head, barely perceptibly. Contact had been made.
“A shot!” Ray screamed. Chivalry took over without his even thinking about it and he threw one arm around the old woman and dove to the pavement, taking her down with him.
“Stay down!” he yelled, and rolled over onto his back beside her. His hand reached for a weapon before he realized he was unarmed.
“Don’t panic, dear,” Mrs. Taliriktug said with a calm dignity incongruous with her ungainly position sprawled on the ground, “That shot went through a window, not a person. Everyone inside is still safe.”
“Damn it! You’ve got armed people INSIDE the bus! What kind of game is this?”
Regan and her team were too far above the ground to hear the sound of the shot but Regan, her cameras still trained on the scene below, was able to make out the explosion of glass out the bus window. She breathed a mild oath and then ordered Tom to point his camera at the bus.
As the loud noise of the gunshot rent the air, the children could hold back their tension no longer and started screaming.
“I’m going to have to have a talk with my wife. She’s gone too far this time,” was the old man’s answer and he stepped down to the pavement with a groan, holding his hand against his hip. “Take the children to the Botanical Gardens, Benton. They’ll need to stretch their legs after sitting for so long.”
Fraser had to smile at the old man’s words for he knew all too well that it would only be after hours of kid glove handling by some member of Chicago’s Department of Child and Family Services that his charges would be allowed to return to the custody of some Canadian – probably himself or the Inspector. He was also well aware that his own debriefing would make him unavailable to the children just when a familiar figure would be most helpful to them. He thought wistfully that a romp in the park might very well benefit the children more than the smothering of official attention to which they were shortly going to be subjected.
Ray was grateful that in the intervening time since the incident someone had edited the film, adding obscuring patches over Ray’s private parts.
Diefenbaker lifted his head towards the television screen and let out a sound that could only be described as a lupine groan. He dropped his head to cover his forelegs that were stretched out in front of him. Then he covered first one eye then the other eye with his paws, before making another faint groaning sound.
“What’s your problem?” Ray demanded of the wolf, then, thinking better of getting a direct answer, looked to Fraser for the translation he knew would be forthcoming.
Fraser was glaring sternly at his wolf friend. “Have you no consideration? You’re hurting Ray’s feelings.”
Diefenbaker shifted one paw from his eyes and woofed a brief response.
“Well, a human without clothes SHOULDN’T embarrass you,” the Mountie scolded. To Ray, he explained, “It bothers him to see a human naked. It makes him think about how uncovered he feels twice a year when he blows his coat and has to go around in just his furry undercoat.”
Ray’s face hadn’t lost an embarrassed pink tinge since the news had started. He was also annoyed that, once again, he had saved a bunch of Canadians and, once again, he wasn’t going to get credit for it. “Hey, we had a potentially deadly situation there. Me being naked? Is that all anybody cares about?” With a harrumph he lapsed into disgruntled silence.