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The Summer in Secret

As Ben Saunders drove into Santa Yglesias that June Wednesday, smoke plumed from the demonstrations going on since late March. From the overpass above the city’s government sector, he heard the sounds of shattering glass and shouts through bullhorns.

Pulling his sky-blue El Camino into a stream of police armored personnel carriers, the load it covered rattled over broken pavement and piled trash. Tucked into the convoy, each confrontation between mobs of cops and and crowds of protesters was a tangle of rushing bodies, shouted curses, thrown bottles and whipping billy clubs. Press camera crews threw shaky lights over the surging scenes, the rolling clouds of pepper spray and tear gas.

A handful of protesters trapped a cop in a doorway, pounding him to his knees and stripping him of his riot gear. Rolling his window down, Saunders called out, “Ten bucks for the handcuffs.” He smiled, a huge, shit-eating grin playing across his face.

For a twenty he got the handcuffs and the cop’s steel-toed combat boots

***

Ben had called from the road as he drove into the subdivision of an unincorporated section of Santa Yglesias. Parking in front of a neat, split-level home, Jaime Martinez was waiting on the driveway with a drink.

“Jack and Coke?”

“Jack and Coke. Give me a hug.”

The two men embraced, then Jaime ushered him into the house. He noticed the faint outline of a pistol butt under Ben’s loose shirt. Settling in the game room, Jaime said, “I expected to see Micky with you.”

“Ventura’s a day behind me. We were in a disaster recovery training session in Austin and he had to stay over for a meeting. He’ll be here tomorrow early.”

“Never saw you two pushing mutual funds,” Jaime laughed.

Grinning, Ben explained, “The money’s great and the company likes to hire vets. I had a finance degree when I enlisted. That’s another thing they liked. I’m working on an MBA, while Micky’s doing his master’s in Computer Systems Analysis. Lot of IT work available in finance. Have you heard from Nico?”

“His flight from Philly is due in tonight. He’ll drive out in the morning. He’s on summer break from Muhlenberg in Allentown. He says this trip will give him more real-world experience for his PoliSci classes.”

And you? What takes up your days?”

“FedEx by day, then night classes. I’ll finish my Bachelor’s in another semester, then decide which way to jump.”

“Coolness. I’m glad you decided to push on with college. So fix me another drink and tell me the 411 on Jamal.”

Jaime fixed a drink and passed it to Ben. “Critical. They put him in an induced coma a week ago. Those cops fucked him up bad.”

“How’d he end up on a curb getting his ass beat anyway?”

Anger set in Jaime’s face.
“This spring we had 4 civilians killed by the cops in less than 10 days. Jamal’s sisters are into politics and got involved early on with the demonstrations. The sheriff is a racist scumbag with a force of thug deputies. Things got ugly almost overnight. So Jamal went downtown one day to watch their backs. The way they tell it—and video verifies it, Jamal was herding a group of them away from a baton charge when he got blasted in the back. The cops were “only” firing rubber bullets but the barrage knocked him down. Then they piled on. He got tased a few times, then one of the fuckers blasted him at point blank range with a shotgun. Again, it was “just” rubber slugs but Jamal took four or five in the back and head.”

Jaime sipped from his drink before continuing. ‘It took nearly an hour for those bastards to call EMS. He nearly bled out and they were still taking whacks with their batons. Not that Five-O gave a shit. Free shots at a black man is what they live for.”

“They’ll learn payback’s a bitch, Jaime. Where can I stash the equipment I brought from Houston?”

Pointing at Ben’s glass, he said, “We’ll have one more then drive over to the warehouse I rent.”

As he headed to the bar, Jaime asked, “Say Ben? What’s that you got under your shirt?”

“Good eye, as always.” Standing, Ben reached back, pulling a stainless-steel Smith & Wesson 1911. It held nine rounds and had custom staghorn grips. “I don’t screw around with 9 mm’s anymore. I do a .45 caliber head shot, then go smoke a Macanudo.”

You need more ice, Ben?”

***

With Jaime directions, Ben drove through gaudy sections of gas stations, car washes, strip centers and Mom and Pop convenience stores. Interlaced throughout were apartment units, family four-plexes and shabby frame rent houses. They pulled into a small business park and stopped outside one of the units.

As Jaime unlocked the garage bay door, he explained, “As you can tell, Corona County has no zoning. Which makes this ideal for our purposes. The strip is busy 24/7, so no one will notice vehicles entering and leaving at odd hours. And there’s lots of parking.”

Entering the space, Ben saw a gleaming, gold ’72 Harley Super Glide and a partially restored Triumph Daytona. A boom box sat next to a beat-up tool cabinet. The rest of the furniture was a scarred, six-foot-long table and chairs, two short couches, a microwave, a Mr. Coffee coffee maker and a full-size refrigerator. Tucked in a corner was a low-backed desk chair and a small worktable with various tools scattered on the surface. Except for a 75th Ranger Regiment banner and a Dilbert calendar, the institutional grey walls were bare.

Going to the refrigerator, Jaime grabbed two Red Stripes and handed one to Ben. Sweeping his hand around the warehouse, Jaime said, “When the neighborhood association got on me about working on my bike in my own driveway, I found this place. The rent’s cheap and its air conditioned–which is a plus, believe me. I keep my reloading equipment here, too.”

Pausing, Jaime reached into a jeans pocket. “Here’s a key for ya. I have keys for everybody, so we can move independently.”
Slipping it onto his key ring, Ben said, “Looks good, Jaime. We have more than enough room to work from. Okay to back the truck in? I want to get unloaded and then get something to eat.”

Jaime nodded. “How much shit did you bring?”

Ben gave an evil laugh and went to start the truck. After moving inside the warehouse, he started unloading supplies from under the camper shell. As he handed them over, Jaime’s face grew sober.

There were four cases each of double ball rubber shotgun slugs and slug/pepper blast shells. Three cattle prods and two King Cobra Enforcer stun guns. Sixty zip tie handcuffs in packs of twenty. Two collapsible police batons. Finishing, he pulled out two hundred rounds of .45 caliber ACP and two soft-sided gun cases.

As Jaime carried the gun cases to the table and unzipped them, Ben laughed. “Those are government issue, by the way.”

Inside each was a nine round Mossberg 590A1 12-gauge shotgun with a twenty-inch barrel. They were the workhorse weapons the Rangers used for door breaches during raids overseas. Jaime looked at Ben, astonished.

“Oh come on, man. You’re telling me you didn’t take yours home from Afghanistan?”

“Naw man, I was trying to get my own ass home is all.” Shrugging, he confessed, “Well, with a little hash to tide me over the peacetime transition.”

“Dude, the hash fits in the shotgun butt. That’s what me, Micky and Nico figured out.”

“I didn’t see picking up a gun once I got home.”

Taken aback, Ben nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, yeah. I hear that.”

Jaime sighed, saying, “Circumstances change. This ain’t the country I enlisted to serve and protect.”

Ben nodded. “I hear you, man. All the enemies are home-grown now. And all the more dangerous for their “patriotism.”

Jaime paused to look over the equipment. “We’ll need some burner phones. We can run by the discount store on the way to dinner.”

“Micky’s got it covered. He’ll use his department discount–and cash, at a place the company uses regularly. So where’s a good place to eat around here?”

***

It was mid-morning Thursday and the stragglers were present. Nico and Micky looked a little travel-weary but alert. Both men had called from the road, hungry. So bags of McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches awaited them as they arrived. Grouped in the game room, the men began discussions for the forthcoming operation.

“So Micky, how’d the mystery meeting go,” Ben asked.

“Stressful, man. Instead of commuting two days a week, I got transferred permanently to Austin to head the Disaster Recovery team. I told them moving now, when I’m deep into my master’s program, would complicate things. I was assured that with the annual endowment the company gives UT, it wouldn’t be an issue. Then they laid a salary bump on me. So there it is.”

Nico Moretti shook his head, snickering. “A raise in salary and a transfer to Party City has you down? First world problems, brother. You need a hug?”

The group laughed as Nico threw his arms out and Micky charged in for a full abrazo, Nico lifting him off his feet to swing around the room.

As they drank their coffee, Jaime passed around copies of a dossier.

“This covers the last three year’s incidents. It’s chronological. There’s also a list of eighteen cops who’ve gotten away with the same crap they laid on Jamal. We’re talking shootings, beatings, illegal stops, daily harassment. And some got away with murder. Sheriff Older enjoys it when his boys play rough with minorities. He runs for re-election on it. Guest stars on talk shows with stories about ‘stemming the hordes of criminal illegals.’ And never mentions the brutality directed at any brown or black face. Mad Mike Older has forgotten he’s a sheriff and thinks he’s a field marshal…”

“Of storm troopers,” Nico said.

“Right. And we’re gonna teach him how a resistance deals with that.”

Looking over the pages, Micky asked, “Jaime, how’d you get this intel? I’m seeing their work schedules. I’m seeing addresses and GPS tracking for their movements. How’d you get this?”

“FedEx and the phone. Have you any idea how easy it is to do recon in my job? Hide in plain sight, man. And the schedules are easier still. It’s something I learned from a co-worker. He and some buddies had a really sick betting pool going about monthly traffic fatalities in Corona County. They kept track by calling the Sheriff’s Department every day. The cops never even asked why they wanted the numbers. They just…turned them over. As a cover story, I called to set up lunch, to set up court dates, shit like that.”

After the astonished laughter died down, Ben said, “This operation isn’t much different than a dozen snatch and grabs we ran overseas. Terrorizing them is the basic idea. We catch them coming from or going to work, to their mistress’s house, leaving a cop bar at two am. Then we stun them, strip the duty belt off, use the zip tie cuffs to hogtie them and apply the spray paint. Pink, because that’s Older’s favorite color of disgrace. Then you take a photo and run like Hell. If the cop has a taser, we keep it.”

“Why photos?” Nico asked. “And what do we do with the cop’s gun and duty belt once we take the taser?”

Micky spoke up. “I’m tight with a guy we can use. He’s in and out of Texas all the time. We hunt together, go to the range when he’s in Houston. He has an export business, licensed and legit, that deals refurbished equipment to police departments in Mexico and South America. It’s all the smaller cities can afford. He can mix what we give him with an outgoing load and next week a cop in Sao Paulo is wearing Corona County surplus.”

Jaime answered the photo question. “Originally it was a shaming tactic. I was going to make flyers and post them around town. But Ben and I kicked that around and came up with something lots better. Remember Turner Farrell, the reporter we rescued from militants in 2012? He’s got a column, syndicated from his base at the Denver Times Herald. And since it took eighteen months for the Pentagon to move on his rescue, he loves to do stories on government mistreatment of civilians. For maximum embarrassment to Das Sheriff, we’ll get the photos to him. With a Western states’ angle, Farrell will eat it up.”

Jaime asked the group, “How much time can you guys spare? We want this to roll out quickly but this is a two-part op and it won’t work overnight.”

“I have three weeks, counting vacation and leave to finish my thesis,” Ben answered.

“Ditto,” Micky replied, then turned to Ben.” Hey man, you’re still writing?”

Ben chuckled, “Naw, it’s been done. My boss doesn’t need to know that, though.”

“I’m taking most of the summer off,” Nico replied. “I can stay as long as needed, provided I have a place to sleep. Do I have a place to sleep?”

Micky asked, “Yeah, I’d like an answer to that, too. But first, what’s this about a two-part op? What’s Part Two?”

Jaime grinned wickedly. “Let’s just say we’re gonna turn the heat up—literally. In the meantime: quarters. Ben is crashing with me. I’ve got a spot about a quarter mile from here for you two. My great-uncle is in Sinaloa all summer, visiting relatives. You’ll stay at his house. He’s Okayed using his truck, too. So Nico, you can turn in that rental car.

Let me caution you guys. Older has a chokehold on this town. He’s got a special intelligence unit that targets his political enemies. So we’ll only group up at the warehouse, okay? And we need to avoid visiting Jamal. Older’s likely got the hospital covered Once Jamal’s out—and we’re done, we’ll get in touch with him.”

The other men nodded.

“Alright. Ben, if you’ll show Micky where the warehouse is, I’ll follow Nico to the rental agency. We’ll meet you there, then I’ll run ‘em over to my great-uncle’s crib. We’ll kick off tonight.”

Standing, the group moved towards the door.

***

Jack Fisher was a twelve-year veteran of the Corona County Sheriff’s Department. Along with his long-time partner, Bill Calder, he’d been cited six times for excessive use of force. Notorious for pulling his service weapon when agitated, several of his arrests had gone before grand juries weighing charges against him for abuse of official power. Each grand jury had no billed him. He’d also been cleared of two fatal shootings, one involving the recent demonstrations.

As Fisher unlocked his car door on the way to an eight to five night shift, he didn’t hear the stalk of footsteps. He did feel the 5500 kilovolts from the cattle prod that took him to the ground, helpless and in pain. He was swiftly relieved of his duty gun belt, zapped again, then tightly cuffed hand and foot with zip ties. From shoulders to butt, he was spray painted pink. There was a flash of light from a cell phone camera and a final jolt from the cattle prod before he was left cringing on the driveway. He was only discovered when his wife answered a phone call from his shift commander over a missed roll call. Her screams when she went to explore why her husband’s was still in the drive woke the neighborhood and deafened the lieutenant in charge.

***

Giant pickup trucks in a Southwestern state full of modern-day cowboys drew no attention. So Jaime’s Patriot Blue Dodge Ram Laramie drew no stares from neighbors as it sat parked in a dark cul-de-sac. He fired-up the big hemi engine after receiving a text from Micky. Slipping between quiet houses, Micky put the mask, cattle prod, spray paint and captured gun belt into the Dodge’s cargo box and took the passenger seat. They rumbled away from the sidewalk.

Simultaneously, on the far side of the county, Ben and Nico were pulling into the back parking lot of a popular cantina/restaurant. Nico gathered his equipment from the silver Chevy Silverado’s crew cab and slipped through the mesquite trees toward his mark.

***

Two other deputy sheriffs, from different substations, missed roll call that night. A fourth was delayed arriving home and found cuffed, helpless and wet in the early morning dew of a nearby park. Each man’s personnel file was thick with civilian complaints of abuse and illegal actions.

Shifting to different areas as the addresses dictated, the second night the Rangers began using the tasers lifted from Fisher and the others. Five officers could confirm that the darts and 50,000 volts were considerably more painful than a cattle prod.

Bill Calder got his on the third night, as he staggered from the Hogshead Draft House at 3 am. Two more deputies were taken down leaving for patrol after late night beers at Rio Bravo Tex-Mex. One deputy went missing in mid-shift. After a frantic search of the district, he was found hogtied in the cactus garden outside his married girlfriend’s condo.

To keep tensions high, the Rangers changed tactics as they moved into new zones on the fourth night. With this operation, they brought out the Mossberg shotguns, loaded with Double Ball rubber slugs. After tasing-and-cuffing them, they blasted the deputies’ vehicles, shooting out windows and leaving huge dents everywhere the slugs hit. Any ricochets were a painful lesson on how it felt to be a target of the “non-lethal” rounds so casually used by the police.

***

Nico unlocked the warehouse door and entered, frowning, tensely slapping a folded newspaper against his left leg. The rest of the team were centered around the dinner table, drinking coffee or checking their phones.

Ben looked up, waved and said, “You get the equipment package off okay?”

Nico nodded and replied, “FedEx Ground to Baltimore. Micky’s buddy will have the goods in about five days. You know, we forgot to talk about what to do with our proceeds from the sales.”
Jaime grinned and said, “The Jamal Livingston GoFundMe account. To cover his medical bills. Micky set it up last night. Cool?”

“I didn’t think of that. Very cool.”

Still frowning, Nico brought up another subject. Holding up the paper, he said, “I’ve read the Santa Yglesias Gazette every day, front to back. Since we started, not a word about what we’ve done. Without the public knowing, we’re wasting our time. But there is something that maybe we can use. Sheriff Older is being sued—again, by the Feds and the ACLU, over his treatment of prisoners. It’s been what, over 105 degrees every day we been here. The prisoners not crammed fifteen to a cell, this prick has them sleeping outdoors in tents. That’s after he works them all day on his chain gangs. Goddamned chain gangs. In 2021. So I have an idea on how to make Older feel the heat himself. It’s visual, it expands on Jaime’s idea and it guarantees press coverage.”

“Pour yourself some coffee and let’s hear it,” Ben said.

***

Situated on a large, quiet lot lined with ironwood and willow trees, O’Hara’s Grill & Cue was a favorite hangout for the Southeast substation’s deputies. About twelve-thirty a.m., the place was brimming with drinkers and rowdies. Deputy Jimmy McCullough excused himself to make a call and stepped outside. About ten minutes later, the rolling cacophony of car alarms drowned out the bro-country music blaring in the club. Half a dozen off-duty deputies stumbled outside to investigate.

A massive, poisonous wave of heat brought them to a halt. Every car, truck and SUV in the parking lot was on fire, flames crowning hoods and roofs. A stench of gasoline, melting paint and plastic drove them back inside. But not before they saw McCullough laying hogtied just a few feet outside the fire’s perimeter. Several men dragged him into the club just as vehicle tires began to explode. The night manager called the fire department. Not that they were much help. They were busy with a similar fire at the Hogshead Draft House. Later in the night, engine companies from those two squads were dispersed to Sully’s Ice House and Club 10-36.

They were followed by the media–print and TV. This time, the story made the news.

***

Two nights later, Ben and Nico were sitting in Rodolfo’s Inn, waiting on take-out pizzas when they overheard a back table erupt with laughter. A table of firemen were passing their cell phones back and forth, laughing hysterically. One of them, burly and slightly older, left the table with two empty pitchers and approached the bar.

Nico said, “Don’t we know him?”

Ben looked over. “Oh yeah. Ballinger. Can’t remember his first name. We ran some ops with his team.”

As Ballinger waited for the bartender, he glanced at Ben and Nico. His face creased with a huge grin, he walked over to shake hands.

“Long time, fellas. How the hell are you, Ben? Nico, what’s shaking, bro?”

Ben grinned back, saying, “I see you couldn’t stay out of the desert. How’s your ever’thang?”

“Oh shit, man. The Army got me hooked on SPF100 and I can’t break the cycle. It makes me feel smooth all over!”

“St. Louis, right? You’re set up far from the Mississippi, son,” Nico said.

“Damn you got a good memory, Nico. Before I enlisted, I did my training and two years in a St. Louis fire house. But it’s too damned cold at home and the department here was offering bonuses to sign up. It’s not the greatest situation. But the cost-of-living is low and I’m saving my pay. Tell you something, man. I got no ex-wives, no ex-kids and when I get ten years in, I’m checking to see if Ibiza needs firemen. This is not the country I enlisted to serve. Not anymore.”

As Ben and Nico exchanged looks, the bartender returned with full pitchers of beer. Ballinger paused, then said, “Let me deliver these to the youngsters, then we can talk.”

As he returned, beer mug in hand, Ballinger gestured towards a side table. Ben and Nico grabbed their drinks and followed him.

Ballinger sipped his beer, then said, “You’re in town about Jamal Livingston, right? I read about the beating. I dropped by the hospital but they weren’t allowing visitors. Has anyone told you about the sorryassed redneck county sheriff?”

Before they could answer, Ballinger said, “This is how bad the guy is–his deputies have stopped us from answering calls. Yeah, his people say they can’t “protect” us from gangs in certain neighborhoods. So they blockade the streets to keep us away. I’ve seen them pull their weapons on an engine company trying to get to an active fire. EMS, too. They pistol whipped a paramedic following my ladder truck to a site. How goddamned racist can you be to stop firefighters from doing their job?”

“Yeah, we’ve heard about Older and his thugs. You remember Jaime Martinez? He filled us in when we hit town,” Nico said.

“Yeah, I see him around. Let me tell you something Jaime probably don’t know. My captain met with Sheriff Older about his deputy’s bullshit. Older didn’t back up an inch. Laughed about it. Said it was his duty to ensure government property was handled safely. But he also let slip that he personally keeps track of incidents like the paramedic’s beating. He’s got video files in case someone wants to start trouble. So the captain got curious and asked to see some. Older showed him three or four of his men kicking ass. He calls it “arrest diversion therapy.” He keeps them on his office computer, to pull up whenever he needs to get off, the sonofabitch.”

“You asked if we were here about Jamal,” Ben said. “We—me, Nico, Jaime and Micky Ventura, are lending tactical support for the Livingston family while they get a lawsuit going. Maybe you want to help out.”

A sly smile slowly crossed Ballinger’s face. Just then another burst of laughter came from his buddies table. Looking from Ben’s face to Nico’s, he laughed softly to himself. 
“Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I want to help. Serve it up.”

***

Local temperatures were in their fourth day over a hundred and five degrees when the central air conditioning at one of the sheriff’s outlying stations went out at eight am. When the maintenance engineer went to check on the unit, situated behind the station at ground level, he found it on fire. He quickly used his cell phone to call 911 for assistance. That day there were two more fires at sheriff’s stations scattered around the county, the last being reported at eleven pm. The next day, another scorching hot day and three more random a/c fires at stations. The following day there were only two a/c fires. But the flames from one damaged several illegally parked official vehicles. The county jail remained untouched during the rash of fires.

The air conditioning units were uniquely vulnerable to attack since they were added long after most of the stations had been built. The existing roofs weren’t strong enough to hold commercial-sized central air units, so they had been set on the ground behind fencing.

Each incident was handled briskly and professionally, with firemen clearing the buildings while carefully checking the air ducts and offices for damage. The fire marshals inspecting the suspected arson were unusually forthcoming with the media and their comments and conclusions were widely reported. Official statements from the Sheriff’s department raged about foreign-based terrorist attacks and the lack of immigration controls on the southern border. The FBI remained silent.

There were two final fires. Ballinger’s engine company, a pumper truck and EMS were called to Older’s headquarters, the double-sized a/c units being a serious concern for a wider-spread event. As the building was cleared, no one noticed three extra men onsite. It was only later, when the fire marshal allowed the press access to the building, was it discovered that the sheriff’s office had been vandalized–walls, windows and furniture striped in wide swaths of pink spray paint.

And it was only two weeks later, when Turner Farrell’s reports, complete with screen grabs and video transcripts of widespread violence and civil rights violations in the Santa Yglesias Sheriff’s Department, began appearing in the Denver Times Herald, did Older suspect that his computer had been accessed without his knowledge.

Farrell invoked the First Amendment when asked the sources of the evidence that came to him “over the transom,” in a medium UPS box. The FBI descended on Older. The Department of Justice swiftly hammered out a tough consent decree with the state’s Attorney General that would govern the sheriff’s department’s management, training and procedures for seven years. The day after Jamal Livingston was released from the hospital, lawyers for the county Board of Supervisors began negotiating a settlement for damages related to his arrest. And the Jamal Livingston GoFundMe account reached one hundred and seven thousand dollars, courtesy of veterans groups, civil rights groups and anonymous donations from Maryland and Ecuador.

***

“Well hell that was fun. Your next vacation, how about we try invading Ibiza so I can start my newest career sooner?”

Gathered in the warehouse, the team fell out laughing.

Ben replied, “Nope. You stay here and earn that island life, son. And I expect to see promotions and commendations on your record before you go. Me and Micky are on the road tomorrow, Jaime. I got to get this youngster packed and ready for Austin. So you get your great-uncle’s house back. You’ll take Nico to the airport?”

Nico spoke up, grinning. “I’m sticking around for a while Ben. I’ve got the rest of the summer to help Jamal with rehab. And maybe I’ll join the fire department. I like the way Ballinger mixes judicious parts gasoline and jet fuel in a plastic jug, stirring with a highway flare.”

The group raised their drinks to the fireman, who bowed from his seat on the Triumph.

“Who’s talked to Jamal anyway? Jaime,” asked Nico.

“Talked to one of the sisters. He’s still hurting. He’ll need your help, Nico.”

“He’s got it. I meant to ask you earlier, Micky, how’d you hack Older so fast?”

“With old guys, it’s easy. It took about 20 minutes the night before. Their initials and birthdate are always the login. And with Older, there were only three possible passwords: John Wayne, George Patton or some mix of both. It was Patton.”

“And with that, we’re gone, brothers. I need to gas up the truck and get packed. Micky needs to watch me do all that since he’s done packing. I’ll leave the keys in the mailbox.”

Micky and Ben shook hands all around and left. The others settled in with Red Stripes and Nirvana. Outside, traffic rumbled the garish streets into the night.


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