Carlos Villanueva stood at the edge of the parking lot and looked over Manassas Battlefield Park. Lifting the binoculars to his eyes, he examined the field below one more time. Joel Perry sat in jeans and a T-shirt in the grass at the edge of the meadow, looking at the ground and not moving a muscle. Not another soul in sight. “I don’t like it, Tab. He’s all alone, no one else to meet us. Daniels said he’d be out here, too.”
Sergeant Tabitha Grubka sat in the passenger’s seat of Carlos’ coupe, tightening the laces on a combat boot. “Joel’s probably being watched from the tree line. I bet Agent Daniels simply doesn’t trust us. After what they’ve been through, I’d be pretty careful, too.” Finally satisfied with the fit of her boot, she climbed out and closed the door. “Not that I’m complaining, but I’m way out of my element here. I’m a bit-chaser, not a rifleman.”
Carlos turned around long enough to give her a good-natured smirk. “That’s why the rest of the team have weapons, and we don’t.” He glanced at his watch. “Well, five minutes past H-Hour. I assume Joel’s waited enough. Let’s go.”
They strode out of the parking lot, past the visitor’s center, and down the hill, Tabitha occasionally rearranging portions of her battle uniform. Carlos glanced over his shoulder. He could barely see Erick at the top of the hill, watching the western side of the park. Dave Gunderson would be watching the other side. Not that Carlos felt any safer. No weapons, no radios, he said. If I’m wrong, what’ll they tell Tab’s parents when they send her home in a coffin? His stomach did a couple extra flip-flops for good measure as he stole a glance at Tab. Besides squirming in her bulky uniform, her face looked as pale as his felt. Her eyes darted constantly, looking for some undefined threat from the trees.
When they drew within a few meters, Joel raised one hand over his head. With the other, he held out a radio.
When Carlos took it, a short squawk came from the speaker, followed by a familiar voice, one he’d only heard on the phone the day before. “Sergeant Villanueva, this is Agent Daniels.”
Okay, we play it this way. Carlos keyed the handheld. “Go ahead. This is Villanueva.”
“Tell Corporal Perry he can stand up, and thank him for his cooperation. You can go now.”
Carlos scanned the tree line at the edge of the field again. The late afternoon light made it impossible to pick out any details among the greenery. “I thought we were going to meet today, Jon.”
“Maybe another time.”
Carlos cursed under his breath. He wanted answers, not more questions. “What’s NADIA?”
“Something you don’t talk about on a radio.”
“Jon, you can tell me what I need to know, or I can keep digging until I find everything out, including where you’re hiding Bunny Kalinsky. He’s facing quite a suite of federal charges, you know. What’s it going to be?”
He unkeyed the radio and motioned to Joel to go back to the lot. Not taking his eyes from the trees, he whispered, “Meet Dave up there. I have a recorder in my car. Start talking. Everything you remember.”
Daniels’ voice crackled from the handheld again. “There’s a cannon fifty meters to your left, over toward the stone bridge. Look in the muzzle. Out.”
Carlos’ heart jumped. “No, wait a minute! Daniels, where are you?” Silence was his only answer.
Tab pointed. “There’s the cannon.”
“Hang on,” said Carlos. “I’ll go check it out. If it’s a trap, get back to the car. Round up the others, and zero in on Daniels and his crew. Comb the damned woods till you find them.”
Handing her the radio, he said, “Make ’em spill their guts.”
He approached the cannon slowly, looking for wires or hidden antennas and mumbling to himself. His hands shook; he stilled them by force of will. “This is ridiculous, they’re on our side.”
His inner voice answered. Oh, are they? What makes you so certain they’re friendlies, Jéfé?
He carried on the conversation with himself all the way to the cannon. “Because if they were working for the bad guys, they’d have popped me and Tab for even asking about NADIA.”
Or they would have put one of their antimatter bombs in this cannon, ready to take out the whole park, right? Reach in—I dare you.
“Shut up, Carlos, they’re the good guys like us.”
How do you know?
He was at the cannon. “’Cause I’m going to find out right now.” Shining a penlight down the muzzle, he saw a tangle of litter and several pop cans. “I hope there aren’t any spiders in there.” He took a deep breath and began to withdraw the trash one item at a time.
He unwadded the fourth candy wrapper to find a series of numbers scrawled in marker on the inside. After tossing the rest of the trash in the nearest can, he returned to Tab. “GPS coordinates.”
She hugged herself and shivered in spite of the heat. “Let’s just get out of here, Carlos. I get a bad feeling—”
--from Critical Mass
* * * *
Good day, fellow Castaways! Congratulations again, Lisa Reece, our winner of the Irving's Cabin contest!
This week, Once again, you've seen the picture behind the story, and now, you get the story behind the picture! Yay, hoo-rah, and other colorful interjections of a celebratory nature.
As indicated in the scene above, this shot was taken at the Manassas Battlefield Park at Manassas, Virginia.
The entire week I was in Virginia, the weather was cool and rainy. It never actually stopped, though sometimes it let up to a light mist. It lent a kind of haunting sadness to the place where, in July of 1861, nearly 5,000 men died in the first land battle of the American Civil war.
I arrived at the Visitor's Center and climbed out into the rain and wind. I made a mad dash to get inside the center just before the rain really cut loose, and browsed around inside for a while until the weather let up.
As soon as the clouds relented, I ran outside and pranced around like a total and complete fool. I don't think the staff quite understood why I was so excited about being there. Sure there was history all around me, and I was drinking that up like a sponge. But I also had to get the best shot I could before the rains busted loose again.
I ran up and down the line of cannons behind the Visitor's Center, taking shots here and there. I took the one I posted above, with the water droplets dangling from the bottom of the barrel, and the colors struck me. In the background, you can see a farmhouse that was rebuilt, as the original was blasted to matchsticks by artillery.
I didn't get a chance to wander the whole park. The battlefield plain is pretty big, after all. But it inspired in me a sense of loss, as well as commanding a quiet reverie for the significance of the drama that unfolded so long ago.
I intend to go back to see it all. I would encourage everyone to see it.
Next week, we'll post Stop 6. Till then, stay frosty.