He fidgeted in his fatigue jacket pocket for his pack of Winston cigarettes as he kept a watchful eye. His fingers brushed his gun. No one around except a junkie who passed by weaving and muttering to himself. The stink in the nearby alley made Angel’s throat restrict. It was worse in Vietnam, he remembered. You never got the smell of the dead out of your nose or the sight out of your mind.
Angel’s homecoming from the war five months ago was fraught with uncertain times and nightmares that chased sleep away. He wandered through life like a phantom, straddling reality, not back and not gone. Platoon buddies whose lives were wasted in the war walked side by side with him. He saw them, even if no one else did.
The sound of footsteps and someone singing echoed among the rundown buildings. Angel put his hand in his jacket pocket for his gun and settled it along his side. He went nowhere without it. From one war zone to another. His silent pact: he survived Nam; he would survive here.
“Easy, Angel, it’s me.”
Angel put the gun away.
Bobby Sullivan stood next to him. They gave each other a soul brother’s handshake and embraced.
They had come home from Vietnam to a collapsed economy and a society tearing itself apart. One Irish, one Italian and barely in their twenties. Bobby, tall with long straight red hair, Angel short, with curly black. They shared a common background. Both came from the street, got drafted, and sent to Nam. They wore the same set of clothes: dungarees and their olive drab army fatigue jackets. The two vets also shared a purpose. It was 1971 and the days of peace and love had shattered when the Ohio National Guard shot anti-war protesters at Kent State and Florida cops killed black students at Jackson State the preceding year. This past spring over a thousand vets, organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, marched on Washington DC and flung away Purple Hearts, Silver and Bronze stars, and other medals on the steps of the Capitol Building. They occupied offices in congress and refused to leave until forced out by Capitol Police. Revolution was in the air, and Bobby and Angel wanted to be part of it. They vowed to get back at those who sent them and their friends to that hellhole in SE Asia.
“Didn’t mean to rattle you, Angel. I’ve been back longer than you. Forgot your instincts are still on the surface.”
Angel relaxed the trip wire in his head.
“Where’s the meeting at, Bobby?”
“A place on Dewitt Ave. We got time to do a toke or two. Just don’t let the demons creep into your head.”
“That only happens when I’m alone, Bobby.”
A bitter late fall wind washed over them.
Bobby hunched his shoulders to the cold. “Let’s go. Hope the fuckers paid their heat bill.”
Dewitt Ave was in a rundown part of town. Empty lots with trash and rubble of burned-out buildings. The owners cashed their insurance checks and split town long ago. A few buildings that survived the wrecking ball were broken up into student housing. Cheap rent, party time, and hopes of a gleaming future. Old, dilapidated hotels catered to transients on their way through to another journey in their desperate lives. A never-ending conduit of misery and shattered dreams until they met a dead end. Young combat veterans with damaged souls walked the streets angry at people who cheered on the war and turned a blind eye to a homeless vet sleeping in the park.
Bobby and Angel reached Dewitt Ave and the meeting place in an old apartment building.
They walked up the rickety wooden steps to the third floor. The smell of incense seeped under the door. The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” was blaring from the stereo system inside, as were voices, some strident, and laughter.
Bobby knocked three times, then two, and the door opened. A tall, black man wearing a black and gold Dashiki shirt with bell bottom jeans welcomed them.
“Hey, brother! Come on in.”
“Ricardo, my man. Nice digs.”
“Yea, man. It’s a steal.”
“This is my friend Angel.”
“Nice to meet you, Angel. Any friend of Bobby is my friend.”
Bobby and Angel walked into a large room filled with people. Most were sitting on the floor, a hookah between them. Chairs were almost non-existent. A few looked at them as they came in and then looked away.
“You didn’t tell me we were going to a party, Bobby.”
“We aren’t. This is just the cover. The people we want to meet are in another room.”
Ricardo walked them down a long corridor. He knocked on a door and stuck his head in.
“Show them in,” said a voice in the room.
Posters of Che Guevara and Angela Davis hung on the walls. Bundles of pamphlets sat on the floor with ‘Power to the People’ in big bold black print. In the corner were three shotguns and a couple of old M1 rifles.
Bobby and Angel stepped into the room. Six people stared at them.
Angel looked at the people who sat around a long rectangular table. Two white guys, one with long brown hair, a red headband and a Fu Manchu mustache, the other with blonde hair and a full beard. A beefy black man with a black beret sat between them. Two black women and one white woman with honey-colored hair stared back at Angel with stoic faces. All three wore Afro hairstyles. Everyone at the table under thirty years old.
“This your friend, Bobby?”
The voice came from the black man with the black beret. He wore a fatigue jacket, a black sweater, and jeans. His pockmarked face was clean-shaven except for a small goatee.
“Come in and sit.”
Angel thought, this guy is all business, not a smile on his face.
“They call me Julius. Bobby has told us about you. He’s been with us for a short time but has already shown he is a soldier in our fight to end the war and liberate the people.”
Julius nodded to Bobby.
The white guy with a Fu Manchu mustache and shoulder-length brown hair broke in and pointed at Angel.
“How do we know he isn’t a cop?”
Julius turned to him.
“Because Bobby knows him and trusts him, Raymond. That is good enough for me. We need his expertise.”
Julius’s brown eyes burned right through Raymond.
Raymond leaned back in his chair.
“This is just an initial meeting, Angel. You’ll get to know the others and get some political teachings later. Until then Bobby will fill you in.”
Bobby whispered to Angel. “That’s our cue to leave.”
Outside, Angel lit a cigarette.
“Damn. Them’s some hardcore people.”
“You said you wanted to get even. Those are the people that can do it,” said Bobby. “Calls themselves the Peoples Vanguard. The people at the table have gone underground.”
Angle looked at Bobby; apprehension clouded his mind.
“That Julius guy had on a fatigue jacket. Is he one of us?”
“I don’t think so. He asked a lot of questions about our training, and I had to explain some things to him, like to someone in boot camp.”
“So, what now?”
“I’ll call you when Julius has another meeting. Right now, I’m heading to see Donna when she gets out of work at Woolworths and hopefully get her over to my pad.” He grinned. “Later, man. Oh, and I’m getting a car.”
“Cool, Bobby. Later, brother.”
Angel walked the three blocks to the apartment his parents rented over on Spruce Street in an area known as Little Italy. The apartment building needed some work on the outside, but his mom and dad kept their place painted and clean. Down the street was Angel’s Aunt Philomena, called Aunt Phil for short, and his Uncle Mario. Across from them were their children and grandkids. An enclave of Italians who looked out for each other.
Angel stepped onto the sagging front porch, went into the building, and walked up the long wide stairs to the second floor. Inside the apartment, his mom stood over the stove and stirred the tomato sauce for tomorrow’s dinner. It had already simmered for hours since she got out of work at the shoe factory. The smell of garlic, meatballs, and sauce permeated the apartment. Rosa Ranalli stretched her back. Her short, stout frame was worn out from long hours at the shoe factory and the stove. She swept back her hair, prematurely white at 45 years old.
Angel walked over to his mom and hugged her. He grabbed a chunk of bread off the counter and dipped it in the sauce.
“Man, that’s good. How I missed that in the boonies.”
She patted her son on the cheek.
“Take some more. We need to fatten you up some.”
Rosa turned inward thinking of the day she and her husband Frank stood in the Greyhound bus station and said goodbye when he left for Vietnam. The tears wouldn’t stop, and she feared she would never see her baby again. They thought he was being a good American, fighting in the war. But the news on TV got worse. When she and Frank watched Walter Cronkite and the nightly news, her tears would flow again. Frank would try to calm her saying he came back from World War Two and Angelo would come back from this one.
He came back, skinny, haunted and hard. She almost didn’t recognize him when he got off the bus. And his eyes… what had he seen that would make his eyes look that way, she thought.
Angel walked into the living room. His dad was asleep in his chair, the newspaper on the floor, and Hawaii Five-O on TV. On the table was a family portrait from three years ago of him, his parents, his older sister, married and in another part of town, and his younger brother away at college, the first one in the family to do so. He went to his bedroom and closed the door. It was a small room, enough for a bed, a dresser, a nightstand, and a table he could put his turntable and stereo receiver on. Stacked against it were a few albums. Angel put a new album by a group called War on the turntable and let the tonearm down on a track called Slipping into Darkness. He opened the window a few inches, pulled a joint out of the drawer in his nightstand, and lit it. He put his gun under the bed.
Angel woke and screamed in the middle of the night. The demons had crept in.
Rosa, wrapped in an old faded blue bathrobe, rushed to the room. Her little boy was no longer five years old, but instincts kick in no matter how old your child is.
She pulled him close and rocked him in her arms as she did so long ago.
“Angelo, Angelo, you are home. You are safe.”
Angel, half-asleep, wasn’t sure where he was and struggled until he saw his mother’s face.
“Ma, they just won’t stop! I keep firing, but they keep coming! Jackson’s dead Ma; they blew his face away!”
Angel sobbed as his mother hugged him tighter. Tears welled in her eyes.
The next morning Angel walked into the kitchen. Rosa was already by the stove, tonight’s sauce simmering. It was 10 am and his dad had long ago gone to work at the garage where he was a mechanic.
“Buongiorno, Angelo. The coffee is perking.”
“Morning, ma.” Angel liked that his mom still spoke Italian.
He hugged her.
“Sorry about last night.”
“Don’t you worry none. Your war is over. You are home and safe.”
I wish that were true, ma; I wish all that were true, he thought.
“Here, a plate of scrambled eggs will be just the thing for you.”
She sat down beside him.
“Angelo, maybe if you got a job, your life would be much better. Your father said there might be an opening at the garage pumping gas.”
“No offense, ma. But working with dad and him still giving me orders would drive me crazy. Besides, Bobby’s girlfriend might fix me up at Woolworths.”
That was a lie, but anything to bide time.
They heard the door open on the first floor.
“Hey, everyone. It’s Bobby.”
“Come on up,” yelled Angel.
“I smell sauce,” said Bobby as he entered the apartment.
“You smell right, Bobby Sullivan. Grab a piece of bread and help yourself,” said Rosa.
“Mrs. Ranalli, I could stand here all day and dip into this sauce.”
“You know, Bobby, in the old days, no Irish kid was allowed in the neighborhood, let alone in the house.” She smiled. “I am glad times have changed and my Angelo has friends like you.”
“Me too, ma. Them Irish kids are tough.” Angelo grinned at Bobby.
“I’d show your right here, but I don’t want your mom throwing me out before I get more sauce,” Bobby said.
“Let’s go to my room and listen to some music. You got the new Rolling Stone with Hunter Thompson?”
“Yeah, I am done with it. It’s yours.”
Once they got into Angel’s room, and they put music on, Bobby told him there was another meeting with Julius on Friday.
“I think this one will be a little more laid back. He just wants to talk with the two of us without the others being there.”
That Friday night Bobby picked Angel up in his “new” 1967 VW. He honked the anemic horn twice and Angel came out and placed a knit hat on to keep the cold at bay.
Angel got in the VW. The radio was barely audible and the heat non-existent.
“Shit, Bobby. You gots to get an American car with a real heater.”
Bobby laughed and shifted into first gear.
The ride was brief, only a few blocks. They went up the stairs of the apartment building they had been at before and knocked. Ricardo let them in and left. All was quiet tonight. There was a party somewhere else, and Julius put out the word that he wanted everyone out.
“Hey, guys,” said Julius from an overstuffed chair near a window. “Come on in.” He placed a book of Langston Hughes’s poems on the table next to a picture of a young black man in uniform. “Want a beer?”
Well, this is a different Julius, thought Angel.
“Sure,” they both said in unison.
“Follow me,” said Julius as he led them into the kitchen.
He grabbed three Schmidts out of the refrigerator and smiled. “I’m kind of partial to Schmidts, hope you don’t mind.”
“Free beer is always up my alley,” said Bobby.
“Let’s sit here,” said Julius.
The kitchen table had a metal top and legs. The mismatched chairs were bought at the Salvation Army for a couple of bucks apiece.
“I wanted to talk with you about your time in Vietnam first, then down with some business. Most of the brothers around this neighborhood who have come back won’t talk about it, or they are so strung out they can’t. I thought you guys might rap with me for a while.”
Julius knew he made a mistake when he looked at Bobby and Angel.
“Oh, brothers, I’m sorry.” He hung his head and his eyes watered.
Angel looked at Bobby. He knew he didn’t want to talk about Nam either, but Julius’s reaction to their stone faces confused them.
“Why you asking us that?” Bobby said coldly. His laughing self had left the room.
“My little brother was there.”
“So why don’t you ask him? Where is he now?” Angel asked.
“Where is he now?” An anguished look erupted on Julius’s face. “I visit him now and then… at Spring Forest Cemetery.”
Bobby softened. “Sorry, man.”
The big man that was all business the first time they met had shrunk down in Angel’s eyes. He too felt the pain of losing someone in the war and wanted to get even.
“His name is… was, Curtis. He got drafted in 1969. Went from boot camp to San Diego and then to Vietnam. He was only there for three months. We got the letter he was killed in March 1970 in some ambush at a place I can’t even pronounce. Damn near killed my mother when she got the news. I shoulda been the one that went. I know how to fight. He never did. They killed my baby brother, and I don’t mean the Viet Cong. The government did.”
Julius cleared his throat and waved his hand absently in the air. “We don’t need to talk about the past, just the here and now and the future.”
“We’re down with that, Julius. What do you want from us?” asked Angelo.
“There is a discussion in the group about taking action. The Man is ignoring us. We need the government and Nixon to pay attention.”
Angel and Bobby leaned forward.
“What kind of action?” said Angel.
“Taking down that Army recruiting office on State Street. It’s all by itself. Raymond thinks we need to show our leadership for the revolution. He is pushing this hard, and I agree with him. Nothing is going to change by demonstrating or handing out newspapers and flyers. More brothers are going to die in this war if we don’t help stop it. That recruiting station with its sweet talkers has to go.”
“You don’t need much to do the job,” said Bobby. “You got explosives?”
“We have a source,” said Julius.
“Just me and Bobby. We don’t need amateurs tripping over their feet or freaking out. We can handle this by ourselves,” said Angel.
“OK, we have a meeting Tuesday to go over the logistics,” said Julius.
Angel and Bobby slammed their beers.
“We got to head out, Julius,” said Bobby. “See you Tuesday. Let’s book, Angel.”
Once outside and in the car Angel said, “Well, that was weird.”
“Let’s go over to Terry’s Tavern. Here, light this up,” Bobby said as he passed a joint over to Angel.
“Does that cheap-ass radio go any higher? I can barely hear the music.”
Bobby turned it up, but Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones barely came out of the tinny speaker.
“Here, I’ll sing it to you,” Bobby said.
Angel turned his head. “Please, man, no. I’ve heard your singing. I can hear the radio just fine.”
They both laughed as the VW made it’s way to Terry’s.
Terry’s Tavern was a typical neighborhood bar with a mix of people, young, old, straight, and heads. They went into the bar and sat on the last two bar stools in the place. It was smoky and music blared out of the Jukebox.
“What’ll you have, Angel? I’m buying. Got my unemployment check today.”
“Same as you.”
Bobby ordered two drafts with shots of whiskey on the side.
“Julius had some balls asking about Nam,” said Angel.
“I wasn’t sure why he was asking us until he mentioned his brother. I know you didn’t want to talk about it. Shit, he is a civilian, he would never understand what we were up against… and why we did what we did to survive and protect our buddies,” said Bobby. “You and I have had times where it just spilled out of us, but talk about it with dudes that weren’t there? Fuck that. And it certainly wasn’t like those war movies we grew up on. Shit, guys get shot and just fall over? No one blown to pieces? No blood? Fucking joke.”
“I hear ya, Bobby. If we knew what it was really like more of us would have gone to Canada.”
A guy weaved up to the bar next to Angel and ordered a drink. He was about 40, with short brown hair, medium build, his tie askew on his button-down collar and white shirt.
He put a pudgy white hand on Angel’s shoulder. Angel tensed, and became silent and still, like a gathering storm.
“Hey, longhair, maybe you and your buddy should serve before you wear those jackets. Yea, I know it’s fashionable now, but you hippies wearing them make me sick.” He glared over at Bobby.
Bobby’s green eyes turned dark and cold. He got up off the stool and stood next to the drunk.
“Hey, asshole, we both served our time and did our tour.” He bent the drunk’s wrist back and pulled it off Angel’s shoulder. “And by the way…” He whispered in the drunk’s ear. The drunk blanched.
“Sorry, fellas. I didn’t know.”
“No, you didn’t, motherfucker,” said Bobby.
“Here, have a few on me.” The drunk reached into his pocket and threw two crumpled dollars on the bar and scampered away.
“Jesus, Bobby. What did you say to him?”
Bobby’s smile was back. “Nothing important. Hey, the man said the beers are on him. Let’s drink up and get the fuck out of here.”
At two in the morning, Bobby pulled his VW in front of Angel’s place.
“Talk to you later, man. You gonna make it up those stairs?”
“No problem. I’m an expert,” slurred Angel as he staggered into his building.
The following Tuesday Bobby picked up Angel and they went to the meeting with Julius and the Peoples Vanguard.
When Ricardo let them in, they could hear heated voices in the meeting room.
“Why should it just be those two?” said Raymond. “We don’t know this Angel guy. More of us should be with them.”
Ricardo knocked on the door.
“What!” said Julius.
“Angel and Bobby.”
“OK, let them in.”
When they walked in, Raymond was angrily stubbing out a cigarette in the filled ashtray in front of him. The others eyed the newcomers intently.
“Time you knew everyone here,” said Julius testily.
“This is Raymond. He was part of the Liberation Front until it got smashed by the cops. He was lucky not to get caught when they had that bogus drug raid at their headquarters.”
Raymond scowled and nodded.
“Next to him is Ericka. She worked with the Panthers in Oakland before moving here.”
Ericka gave them a clenched fist salute.
“Next to her is Vanetta. She is doing outreach and food banks for the black community on the Northside. It is her neighborhood, and she is doing great work.”
“Sarah and Burt come out of the student anti-war movement and continue outreach at the University.”
They flashed Bobby and Angel the peace sign.
Julius turned back to the two vets..
“Let me be clear. We have our above-ground work and we have our underground work. Under no circumstances are you to tell anyone you know about this committee. Understood?”
“We got it,” said Angel.
“You know that this war isn’t stopping and more young brothers are still dying. Raymond has said, and we agree, that we must step up our activities and take it to the Man. We need to show them we will do anything to stop this war and liberate our people. The Peoples Vanguard is going to bring the war home to America.”
“You know why we recruited you, right? We need people with your expertise. Vietnam vets have that. Raymond believes the movement of vets into organizations like ours is critical. We saw what you all did in DC in April. Fuck man, you all marched on Congress and threw your medals away! You scared the shit out of them honky mothers.”
Raymond’s eyes bored into Angel.
Bobby caught it and sensed hostility. What the fuck? Does he really think Angel is a cop?
“Our plan,” continued Julius, “is to destroy the recruiting station on State Street. There is no one there after nine, so there won’t be any casualties. Raymond thinks more of us should go with you.”
“No way, Julius. I told you before, it is me and Bobby. We know what we are doing. No offense, you fuckers don’t and if anyone has a bigger grudge, other than Julius, say so.”
Raymond sat there smoldering.
“Bobby, have you thought about how you are going to go about it?” said Ericka..
“Standard procedure. Angel and I will recon the area a couple of times to see if there’s hidden dangers or civilians and make a plan. Search and destroy.”
“We have done this before,” said Angel. “That’s why we are here, right?”
The next day a call was placed to Police headquarters and the Red Squad, the department responsible for surveillance of radical groups in the city.
“It’s me. It’s on. They are going to bomb the recruiting station on State Street.”
“I won’t know until next week. They got two radical vets to do it for them. Julius is going to get the explosives for them.”
“We have been getting reports from the FBI about vets. We need to send a powerful message to these traitors.”
“Oh, I agree. Makes me sick. I will keep you updated.”
“What about that nigger, Julius?” said the detective.
“I’ll take care of him the same night.” said the caller.
“And the rest of that crew? They going to be at the recruiting station?”
“Nah. The vets didn’t want anyone else around. Called us rookies. We’ll have to round them up later. I am sure we can find something to charge them with. They’re all drug users.”
“Good. We have to nip this group in the bud. They have been making inroads in the community with that rag of a paper they give out and recruiting too many people to their ranks. That demonstration in front of City Hall last month really pissed off the mayor. And now a bombing, thanks to you. That should get us both a promotion when we bust them. Keep me posted.”
Detective Benson hung up the phone and reached into his drawer for a series of letters from the FBI. It required local police to follow their lead in infiltrating and setting up radical groups with the purpose of eliminating their leaders and arresting as many as they could. The FBI operation was called Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO. Although the operation ended a few months ago after it was exposed by activists, local and state police kept up their activities to break the movement. The powers that be wanted these groups eliminated. And the upside? A lot of promotions within the ranks.
Angel woke up the next day feeling rested and upbeat, excited at the prospect of blowing up the recruiting station.
He went into the kitchen singing.
“Angelo, you are in a good mood. You slept well last night?”
“Yeah, best in a long time.”
“Here, sit down and eat.”
“Just coffee and toast. Bobby is picking me up in a little while.”
Angel finished and went outside and waited on the porch. It was a bright morning, and the day warmer than usual for December. Bobby pulled up and Angel got in the VW.
“I figured we would check out the recruiting station in the daytime front and back and do it again tonight.”
Angel grinned. “Lead on Sargent Sullivan.”
After a couple of hours, Bobby dropped Angelo off at his place.
“I’ll pick you up at nine. We hit a few bars, then take a walk by the place and see if there is anything unusual. Sound like a plan?”
“Ok with me. Catch you later,” said Angel.
That night, after a few beers at some local hangouts, Bobby and Angel drove over to the recruiting station, got out of the VW and walked around. It was 11 pm, and the street was quiet. It was an industrial area, no night shifts and no houses. They walked around casually, talking like two friends just out for a walk, but their eyes and ears were tuned. The recruiting station was dark, no late-night cleaners inside. Angel and Bobby walked around a side street and scoped out the back of the recruiting station and the glass door. They got back in the car and Bobby dropped Angel off at his place.
Bobby headed to the Shamrock Inn on the East Side for last call. Some of the regulars were there, and guys he grew up with. A few had gone over to Nam, but most had not. Bobby was a hero in their eyes, but he didn’t feel like one and he made his views known. No, he didn’t like Nixon, in fact he hated him. He told them we needed to get the fuck out of Vietnam. He didn’t wave the flag, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought. One of his non-vet friends remarked that he used to be a lot friendlier. Those were the guys that brought the worst out of him. He clutched his beer bottle, “you caught me on a bad day,” was all he said. What he wanted to say was that even on his good days, he struggled from sliding into a bad day. His time in Nam was still raw to him. He had his inner explosions under control. He wasn’t sure Angel did.
Angel caught the same flak from his father. The constant comments about his long hair, not having a job and his political views. You sound like a communist his dad said. That is usually when Angel stormed out of the apartment and walked the neighborhood, his long-dead platoon buddies next to him.
The following day Bobby called Angel
“Why don’t we go downtown tonight?” asked Angel. “Different crowd, more chicks.”
“That my friend is an excellent idea.” said Bobby.
Downtown was bustling with students from the university. Almost the same age as Angel and Bobby, but a universe apart. Angel looked at them as they walked the streets. They never had to fight for their lives or their friends. They didn’t face kill or be killed. They didn’t have the nightmares or the feeling the walls were closing in. No thousand-yard stare.
At the corner of Court and Washington stood The Blue Moose, a bar mostly for students.
Angel stopped Bobby. “Let’s go in here.”
Bobby looked in the big front window. “Are you sure? Doesn’t look like our type. But they are playing good music.”
They went in to the crowded bar. Cigarette smoke and something sweeter hung in the air.
“I think we will be fine here,” said Angel. “My turn to buy. I got my check too.”
As their beers were served, the discussion turned to the recruiting station.
“Looks simple enough, Bobby. Dark in the back of the station. Glass door. Smash it, put the explosive in, and split.. Makes you wonder why they hadn’t done it before. More talk than action? For us it is just like another day, I guess.”
“Yeah, and we are the new guys. Like being on point, expendable. Something doesn’t smell right.”
“You can’t think Julius is a fink, do you, Bobby?”
“No, not him. Others I’m not so sure about.”
“Let’s do it and figure out what we do after,” said Angel.
The bar continued to fill up and they blissed out, reminiscing about dances at the Sheraton and their favorite movies in the time before they were drafted, the boundary between normal and horror. It did them good to talk about the past.
The two vets went to the final meeting before the bombing. As usual, Ricardo escorted them to the meeting room. The mood inside was not tense like the previous meeting.
“We would like you to do it on Thursday next week,” said Julius.
“You guys up to it?” said Raymond, who seemed to be more upbeat than usual.
“We’re ready. Right, Bobby?” asked Angel. “Where are the explosives?”
“Outside in the garage,” said Erika. “Too dangerous to keep in here.”
“You come back here Thursday night and I will give the package to you,” said Julius smiling. “This is a big deal, brothers.”
At 11pm on Thursday, Julius met them at the door and walked them into the kitchen where the explosives sat on the table in a suitcase.
Angel opened the suitcase and looked at the three sticks of dynamite with the disconnected timer and blasting caps. Bobby nodded to Angel and they walked out the door.
A few hours earlier, twenty local police had assembled at the police headquarters.
One of them addressed his fellow police officers, some in uniform, others in undercover civilian garb.
“Tonight we are going to eliminate a threat to our city and the country. As you all know from recent reports, the so called Peoples Vanguard has been involved in seditious activity. We have also learned they plan to bomb the Army recruiting station on State Street.”
A ripple of angry comments and murmurs rippled through the gathering.
“I will lead two operations. The first to apprehend the leader of this group and second to eliminate the threat at the recruiting station. The operations are as follows… “
At 11: 30 Ricardo came out of his room dressed for a late night on the town.
“You going to be alright here by your lonesome, Julius?”
Julius laughed. “You my mother now?” Julius looked at him wearily. “It will be nice and quiet here tonight. No meetings and no partiers.”
“OK. Later then.”
Ricardo walked out the door, giving Julius a clenched fist salute as he left. Julius settled into his chair and picked up his book of Langston Hughes poems from the table next to a picture of Curtis in his Army uniform. A shotgun nestled in the corner.
Angel and Bobby went to the Rockbottom Diner. Coffee and food tonight. No bar run. They were on patrol in a few hours and needed to be sober. It was midnight.
At the same time, Julius was dozing in his chair, the book of poetry in his lap.
Silent footsteps came up the stairs to the apartment door.
A battering ram smashed the door in. Julius startled, looked at the first person through the door, his police badge hanging from a lanyard on his neck.
“You?” asked Julius dumbstruck. He looked over to the shotgun in the corner, too far to reach in time.
“He’s going for the gun,” yelled the cop.
Eight cops opened fire with shotguns, rifles, and pistols.
Julius was shredded. The book of poems, blood-soaked and tattered, dropped to the floor. The shattered picture of Curtis fell face down.
The lead cop stood back and surveyed his work, a smile on his face.
“You guys take care of the scene. I am going to gather up the other team for the recruiting station.”
At the Rockbottom, Angel and Bobby were on their third cup of coffee. The eggs, hash browns and bacon long finished, the plates taken away. It was 1 am, and the bar crowd was coming in, famished from drinking and hoping to ward off a hangover with a full belly before they went home.
“We should do this job early and go home, Bobby. Doesn’t matter if it is 1:30 or 2, right?”
“I’m with you on that. Let’s get this over with. I don’t think Julius will mind.”
They drove over to a side street off of State, parked the VW and got out. Angel held the bomb. A light snow drifted down.
“You get set up, Angel. I’m going on recon.”
Angel went behind the recruiting station and hid in the darkness away from any street lights and cars that might drive by. He huddled against the building, trying to stay warm and focused. The time in the bush came back to him. His senses alert. He closed his eyes for a brief second. When he opened them, he saw Jackson and a few other buddies, long dead, standing around him.
Bobby walked a wide circle around the recruiting station, starting two blocks over. He noticed a jumble of footsteps imprinted in the new snow leading towards the station. His time in the bush perked. Something’s not right here. Bobby moved slowly towards the station, eyes searching everywhere for danger. He stopped near a house with high bushes and heard low voices.
“OK, now be alert. These guys will be here in a half hour. If we can’t take them alive, then too bad.”
Bobby saw cops and one civilian with guns drawn by the side of a warehouse near the recruiting station. The brightness of the new snow and the streetlights lit them up. The civilian with a cop’s badge hanging from his neck was the one talking.
It was Raymond.
“Fuck!” said Bobby.
Bobby backed away and circled around to where Angel hunkered down at the station.
Angel was still there but talking to someone.
Bobby came in from behind and Angel reached into his pocket for his gun.
“Angel, we got to get out of here. There are cops over at the next street. They are ready to ambush us. And get this, Raymond is a cop!”
Angel had a faraway look in his eyes. “That’s what Jackson told me.”
“Don’t you see him, Bobby?”
Bobby sighed and put his arm around his friend. “Come on, Angel, time to go home.”
They drove away from the recruiting station with the disconnected bomb to Division Street Bridge. Angel looked down at the river, its dark current swirled under him. He tossed the bomb into the water.
“Do you think Julius will be disappointed, Bobby?”
“Angel, remember, it was Raymond who set this up. Raymond is a cop and we were set up.”
“Oh, yea, right. We should warn Julius.”
“Let’s go there now and wake him up.”
Bobby drove down Dewitt Ave towards the apartment. He could see the lights flashing and cops milling about from a block away.
“Holy shit, Bobby!”
Bobby kept driving, a grim look on his face.
At the recruiting station, the cops were getting antsy. Raymond gave them their last instructions.
“OK, let’s move in, quietly.”
The force came to the front of the recruiting station and fanned around to the back.
No one was there.
Guns lowered, they looked around.
Two sets of footprints led away from the recruiting station.
Raymond stood incensed. “Let’s wrap it up. We got nothing.”
Bobby pulled in front of Angel’s apartment. The drive had been silent.
“That can’t be good, Bobby.”
It took Bobby a minute to reply.
“No, Angel, it’s not. I want you to go upstairs, grab some things and leave your mom a note. Tell her you are staying at my place for a few days. Do it quick… Raymond is coming for us.”
Angel came back down, threw some things in the VW and got in. Bobby drove away slowly, not wanting to draw attention.
They pulled up in front of Bobby’s apartment building.
“You stay here, Angel. I will be right down.”
Angel, confused, watched his friend go into the apartment. A few minutes later Bobby came down and threw a small suitcase into the back seat.
“We aren’t staying here, Angel. I am assuming Raymond knows where we both live. We got to lie low.”
“What the fuck did we get into?” Angel said.
“Hang tight. I have a place we can go to.”
Bobby pulled the VW around the back of a house on the south side of the city, turned it off and walked to the back porch. Before he could knock, the door opened, and a shotgun was pointed at his face.
“It’s Bobby Sullivan,” he whispered.
“Shit, man. What the fuck? It’s a little late, you know. I could have wasted you.”
“I know, Cat, but my friend and I need a place to crash for a while.”
Cat looked out at the VW.
“Is he one of us?”
“Yep, been back to the world for five months.”
“How’s his head?”
“Passable, but he is my responsibility.”
“OK, brother, our place is your place. Bring him in.”
They nicknamed the house “Camp Delta”. Everyone there was a Vietnam combat vet. Of the five, two had jobs, John “Cat” Catalano was unemployed and two went to community college. When Bobby and Angel walked in, a few came out of their rooms to investigate the commotion. They saw Bobby, waved, and sleepily returned to their rooms.
“Not much room in this place for guests, but there is a walk-in attic. It is clean and warm and I have a couple of sleeping bags you can use,” said Cat.
“Thanks. And Cat? Can you get a newspaper in the morning? We need to check on something.”
“Sure. Anything you want to tell me?”
“Not now. We need to crash. But we’ll talk tomorrow.”
In the morning, Bobby and Angel came down from the attic to the kitchen. Cat sat at the table, a cup of coffee and the paper in front of him. The vets that had jobs or classes had left already.
“Grab some coffee, it’s hot. Here’s your paper.” Cat looked hard at Bobby.
On the front page was a picture of the apartment on Dewitt, a side picture of Julius, and a bold headline: RADICAL KILLED IN POLICE SHOOTOUT.
“They killed him, Bobby,” said Angel, his voice anguished.
“What has this got to do with you two?” asked Cat.
“We had some meetings with Julius a few times and met some of his group.”
“They wanted us to blow up the recruiting station on State Street,” said Angel.
Cat stood up.
Cat calmed himself and sat back down at the table.
“OK, so how far along was this?”
Bobby and Angel filled Cat in on the details, including the fact that Raymond, whose plan it was to begin with, was an undercover cop.
“Man, he really set you guys up. Good thing you walked away and ditched the bomb. Those cops would have killed both of you. Listen, he has nothing on you. You weren’t found at the station and no bomb was found. You went to the meetings with Julius, but there is no proof you picked the bomb up, right?”
“No, Julius answered the door. Another guy named Ricardo lives there, but he was in his bedroom,” said Bobby.
“Bobby, you and I go way back and I think like you do about this fucking war, but this is way above my pay grade. I will march against this war… but bombing? I have had enough of that to last a lifetime.”
“Well, we didn’t accomplish that, did we?” said Angel.
“A damn good thing you didn’t! And seriously, they would have shot you with the bomb in your hands.”
Cat sat back in his chair. “Bobby, I’m going to move my car out of the garage. You put yours in there, cover it with the old canvas in the back. I will tell the others yours has engine problems. Another thing, you guys need to split up. Stay here a few more hours but brothers, you got to leave. Not everyone in this house thinks like us, and we don’t need that motherfucker Raymond tracking you here.”
Raymond sat in Detective Benson’s office smoking his third cigarette.
“What the hell happened, Ray?”
“Something spooked them. It was supposed to go down at 2 am. We saw footsteps leading away from the back of the building. It had to be them.”
“Well, the sun this morning has melted any proof of that, and you got no eyewitnesses. You don’t have a case against these two vets. They committed no crime. But you got Julius. Your report said he went for a shotgun. Will your team back you up on that?”
“Absolutely,” said Raymond, an icy glint in his eyes. “We eliminated a threat.”
“Unless you have proof of a conspiracy by the others, just stick to surveillance for now. Can you find them?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. The only one that knows I’m a cop is dead.”
Bobby and Angel decided Cat was right and went their separate ways. Angel went searching for Ricardo and members of the Vanguard to warn them about Raymond. He shed his fatigue jacket for an old coat Cat gave him and blended in with the down and out in the city. On the same track was Raymond, looking to infiltrate back into the group and trap the two vets in another scheme. Bobby went back to his old neighborhood and the Shamrock Inn. He needed to escape the thoughts that bothered him: that he put not only himself but Angel in mortal danger.
Angel walked down Dewitt towards the apartment, scanning faces. His long hair tucked up under his knit hat and the high collar of the coat up around his face. He looked but didn’t want to be seen. A few people stood around the apartment building and talked about the police raid. Most didn’t know Julius stayed there. In a small crowd of people stood Ricardo, agony etched on his face. Angel walked by him and said, “Ricardo, It’s Angel. After a few minutes walk down the street towards the park.”
Ricardo, shocked at the voice, hesitated, looked around, and after five minutes, calmly walked towards the park.
Angel sat on a bench. He took his knit hat off and turned the collar down.
Ricardo sat next to him, his eyes red-rimmed.
“Angel? You and Bobby okay? Fucking pigs killed Julius.”
“One of those pigs was Raymond,” said Angel.
“He set us up at the recruiting station. Bobby did a recon and saw him with a bunch of cops waiting to ambush us. You have to warn everyone.”
“I can do that, Angel. Julius entrusted me with knowing their hangouts and safe houses. I’m assuming Raymond’s is bogus.” Tears welled up in Ricardo’s eyes. “Julius and Curtis were my cousins. That’s why he trusted me to be the doorman. I didn’t do a good job of it, did I,” he sobbed.
“Raymond would have killed you too, Ricardo.”
Across town, Raymond stalked the University looking for Burt and Sarah. He questioned people, some a little harder than he should have. A few became suspicious and word spread; beware of Raymond, he is unhinged.
Raymond wanted Bobby and Angel, dead or alive. His brother, a career Army officer, was in Vietnam on his second tour, and Raymond thought anyone against the war was a communist who aided the enemy. He held a special contempt and loathing for veterans who turned against the war and the country. Raymond joined the police with the sole purpose of being an undercover cop who would do whatever it took to bring the anti-war movement down. He infiltrated the Liberation Front, planted drugs in their office, and then told Detective Benson to make his move. The police raided it one afternoon and arrested 12 people. Raymond was conveniently somewhere else.
His cover in the Liberation Front was so convincing that when he met the Peoples Vanguard, they welcomed him, no questions asked. He destroyed one radical organization, and he was determined to destroy the rest as well. Julius recognizing him just before he died made Raymond smile. The thought of Angel and Bobby walking free made him furious.
Bobby Sullivan walked the streets of the city, deep in thought. He first met Angel at an anti-war demonstration at the Federal Building in the city during the summer, shortly after Angel came home from Vietnam. Angel was wearing a “boonie” hat and Bobby asked him if he was a vet. They struck up a conversation, each telling the other their unit and where they served. Angel was angry at losing friends and wanted revenge. They became fast friends in a sea of civilians who had no clue to what they went through. Bobby thought of Angel as the little brother he never had.
Bobby didn’t see Raymond come up behind him. He had let his guard down.
“Hey, Bobby! Hold up.”
Bobby turned, his face frozen. No emotion, but his brain was thinking “kill”.
“Shit, man. The pigs killed Julius,” said Raymond. “Do you know where the others are? We need to regroup.”
“I don’t know where they are, Raymond.”
Raymond lit a cigarette and glared at Bobby.
“What happened with the bombing of the recruiting station? You guys lose your nerve?”
Bobby shoved Raymond up against the wall of a building. People walked by heads down, not wanting to get involved in a fight between two hippies.
“You son of a bitch! I know you’re a cop. I saw you waiting to ambush us at the recruiting station. We got there early, fuckhead, and a good thing too from what happened to Julius.”
Raymond grinned at Bobby.
“You killed Julius?”
“My team and I did. We eliminated the enemy. You should understand that. By the way, where is your treasonous buddy Angel?”
“Right here, Raymond.”
Angel stepped around the corner of the building and shoved his .45 into Raymond’s side.
“Stay calm, Raymond. We are going to have a friendly chat.”
“Shit, Angel. Where did you come from?” a relieved Bobby asked.
“I was across the street and saw you, then I saw Raymond come up on you. When you went around the corner of the building, I got worried. I got here just as this dirtbag admitted to killing Julius.” Angel poked Raymond harder in the ribs with his gun.
“So now what are you two going to do? You can’t kill me, Angel, not here in daylight and with people around.”
Bobby saw the look in Angel’s eyes and recognized what he saw. Angel had gone to another time and place. He put his hand on his friend’s arm.
Angel focused on Bobby’s face and let his arm slip down. He backed away from Raymond, still on guard.
“You are a lucky man, Raymond. You don’t know how close you were,” said Bobby.
Raymond’s grin had disappeared. “So now what?” he asked.
“You are going to walk away from here, and a suggestion…leave town. Your days as an informer are over.”
Raymond laughed. “What makes you think so.”
“Because we are going over there and tell them all about you,” Bobby said, pointing across the street to the offices of the Barricade, a city-wide radical newspaper. “By the time we are done, and the news goes out, no group in this town will let you in, and you know what? There might be someone like Angel waiting for you at night, with no one like me to hold them back…or it might be Angel himself.”
“You assholes don’t scare me. Get the fuck out of my way.” Raymond pushed Bobby aside.
“Nothing worse than an undercover cop, Bobby.”
“Or a murderer.”
“Aren’t we murderers?” asked Angel.
“Angel, you and I were 19 and put in harm’s way, trying to survive. They made us killers and we were lied to about the war. We weren’t on the side of good and right, just the opposite. Someday people will understand.”
Angel wasn’t so sure.
“Come on, let’s go over to the Barricade,” said Bobby.
Angel and Bobby spent hours with the staff of the paper, telling them everything they knew about Raymond. An artist with the paper drew a likeness of Raymond for the story. The two vets had one condition: don’t print our names.
The Barricade came out with the story front page: Cop infiltrates local anti-war groups Kills local leader alongside the artist’s rendition of Raymond.
Late at night in Detective Benson’s office at the Red Squad, a dejected Raymond sat and stared at the paper with his likeness on the front page.
“Your usefulness as an undercover operative is over Raymond. But not to worry, you will always have a position on the force if you want it. But cut that hippie hair and stupid mustache,” said Benson.
“I’ll think about it. There are other places I can go. You can’t possibly think I can give this up do you?”
Raymond went out the back door of the police station and walked along Riverside Park towards the Division Street Bridge. He was angry that Angel and Bobby blew his cover. If he cut his hair and joined the force as a detective, he might bring them up on any charge he could fabricate. It was easy to do. If he stayed as an undercover cop, he would have to go to another city and start over. Angel and Bobby would slip through his fingers.
He thought on this as he stared at the river.
When Raymond turned around, a .45 caliber bullet entered his chest, blowing a hole out his back. He dropped to the ground.
“That’s for Julius.”
Ricardo stared at the face of Raymond as the life went out of his eyes.
“Here’s your gun back, Angel.”
“This was my last patrol, Ricardo. Toss it in the river.”
They walked away from Raymond. Neither showed remorse but Ricardo was shaken. For Angel it was just one more body.
“What you going to do now, Angel?
“Not sure. Maybe something will come to me on my walk home.”
“I won’t be going back to the apartment on Dewitt. Just couldn’t do it. When I get settled come see me, Angel.”
“Will do, brother.”
Angel began the walk home. He passed over the Division Street Bridge and thought back on the past few weeks. He would meet Bobby tomorrow to let him know Raymond won’t be coming for him. Life will go on. Angel wondered if his would. His mom said that he could work with his dad at the garage. He chuckled, if I survived Vietnam and the army I can survive working with dad. Angel knew he would never get the horror of the war out of his mind without help. Bobby told him about the new Vietnam veterans group that had rap sessions for combat vets healing open wounds of the soul. Next time Bobby went, he would go too. Angel looked up at the cloudless night at the stars. A meteor flashed. Someone has died went the old myth. The war was still going on and Angel wondered if the meteor was a kid just like him but face down in a rice paddy. Enough, he said to himself. He remembered his pact: I survived Vietnam, I will survive here. He turned the corner to Spruce Street and his parents apartment. He knew he would never forget his lost buddies, but he had to live. As he got closer to the apartment, the ghosts of Jackson and the others faded. Angel’s mind cleared. He was home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lee Conrad lives in upstate New York, is a Vietnam-era veteran, and worked at IBM, and as staff at a major labor union. His stories have appeared in Down in the Dirt, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Longshot Island, Commuterlit, Ariel Chart, Sundial Magazine, The London Reader, and The Magazine of History and Fiction.
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