Chapters 26 and 27
Christine is not a happy camper as she meets the newest member of her Black Ops team - Pine Coffin Hardy.
Indeed, Christine is far from impressed by Pine Coffin....until she sees him in action.
Christine sat in the backseat of the Tahoe and watched the scenery fly by for a moment, then turned to Harry.
“So, who is the next agent you want me to meet, Harry? A zombie? A toddler with a black belt? A zombie toddler with a black belt?”
Harry snorted. “Very funny, Christine. I think you’re trying to cover up for an obvious infatuation with Dr. Noble.”
“I’ve known you for a long time – since you came to me in 1971 - and I’ve never seen that look in your eye.”
“You’re crazy!” Christine exclaimed. “’Look in my eye’, my ass. I’d rather set my gums on fire. I’d rather eat a broken-glass sandwich. I’d rather swallow gunpowder and wash it down with warm blood.”
Harry held up a hand with a heavy sigh. “I get the picture you paint so beautifully with words. But denial ain’t a river in Egypt, my dear.”
Harry and Christine had arrived on Earth, and had been picked up by an ESG agent named Phillips near Dupont Circle.
Quentin Phillips didn’t work for Harry, or even JHAD… he was a friend willing to help out in a bad situation. A valuable friend lent by Gabriel, who always had an ear out for special circumstances.
They were going to meet the next agent on Harry’s list. Christine hoped this one was better than Noble - but then, who was she kidding? Anything was better than Parker Noble.
The black Tahoe’s air-conditioning struggled to cool off the interior. Spring was long gone and sweltering summer days had taken its place. Phillips’ button-down was soaked through. He turned in his seat and handed Harry a notepad.
“That’s what I got so far, Harry. James Hallstatt is – sorry, was – a scumbag. A nice lady at the liquor store gave me a possible address on his mom and kid.”
Harry nodded. “Thanks, saves us a lot of legwork. The address is on here?”
“Yes.” Phillips said.
“Good. We’ll go there after meeting with our new operator.”
“I’m afraid that I’m needed elsewhere, Harry.” Phillips looked back over his shoulder. “I can give you another two hours, but then I have to go.”
“Oh? What’s happened?”
“The Shannnxi Dam collapsed in Manchuria yesterday. The death toll is 15,000 so far. We are putting together a relief shipment of medicine here in Washington. I’m flying out in one of the planes to protect the cargo when it arrives.”
“How many aircraft have you got?” Christine said.
“Twenty 747 cargo planes, all loaded with donated medicine and food. Every single time we do this, though, somebody comes along and tries to steal our stuff…usually to sell on the black market. The ESG is taking extra precautions this time.”
Christine had met many ESG agents over the years, and had always admired their dedication to a largely thankless job.
The ESG – Environmental Services Group – was an intervention agency that handled man-made disasters on Earth, and was managed by the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael.
The twin Archangels had been dealing with natural calamities since 525 A.D., but recent oil spills and nuclear screw-ups had changed the ESG’s business plan somewhat.
When a tanker piled up on a reef, or a reactor tried to eat its way through the planet’s crust, ESG agents were there instantly – and they could be seen in any news report, disguised as relief workers. In life, the average ESG agent had served their home country with distinction in some capacity that bettered mankind. The afterlife had done nothing to change that dedication.
The ESG wasn’t connected with JHAD, but favors could be called in occasionally. Harry had a lot of pull, which explained Quentin Phillips and the ride.
The Tahoe made a left off of Massachusetts Avenue and proceeded into a pleasant, well-heeled neighborhood with oak trees shading the street. The SUV pulled to stop near the German Embassy in the West End, and Harry gestured Christine to get out and follow him.
Harry strolled casually, lighting a cigar and seeming to enjoy the sun. Christine looked around at the expensive gated homes and walled embassies on the quiet street, the tall trees and the manicured lawns.
Not far away, a posh school was letting out elementary-grade kids out for the day. Like the children in the bus bombing, they all wore sharp school uniforms.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Harry said.
“Wonderful.” Christine replied, annoyed. “Going to fill me in on this new operator?”
“Certainly, dear. Pine Coffin Hardy is an American legend. He - ”
Christine held up a hand. “I’m sorry, what did you say his name was?”
“Pine Coffin Hardy.”
“Pine Coffin Hardy.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Harry, come on. You expect me to believe that a woman - at some point in time, had a beautiful little baby, and decided to name her child Pine Coffin?”
Harry nodded, bemused. “That’s his name.”
“Okay, I’m just going to let that go for the moment. Continue.”
“May I, sweetheart? Are you sure?”
“Go ahead.” Christine said. “Spin your web of deceit. I’m used to it now.”
Harry cleared his throat. “Pine Coffin Hardy – as I was saying – was an American legend in the boxing ring. Except…Hardy was a black heavyweight champion at the turn of the century…an era where a black boxer that defeated a white boxer could get a guy lynched real quick.”
“Duh, of course.”
“Don’t interrupt.” Harry smirked. “Fortunately, Pine Coffin’s sheer personality overcame the racism at the time, which is really saying something. Hardy went on to own several New York nightclubs, became a winning race car driver, an actual bullfighter, and a secret agent in World War One.”
“Wow. Sounds like a genuine tough guy.”
“That’s not the end of his mucking about. After the war, Pine Coffin was the first man to trek around the globe on its polar axis, and he did that unsupported. He led expeditions up the White Nile, and Norway’s Jostedalsbreen Glacier. He also hiked to the South Pole…solo, using only surface transport – which hasn’t been done since.”
“How did he die?”
“That’s between Hardy and God, and neither of them are talking.”
“Yep…. but I have a theory.”
“I’m all ears.”
Harry put on sunglasses. “We know that Hardy went to prison in 1921 for gun-running…and not just any gun-running. He was very busy buying up every rifle he could get his hands on and shipping them to Africa.”
“Yes, Christine…Africa.” Harry stopped for a moment and gazed skyward. “In 1924, Hardy was released from maximum security in Sing Sing, and he transferred all of his wealth to his brother – then boarded a ship for Uganda.”
“Uganda! Back then, that was the armpit of the world.”
“Yes - still is, in fact.” Harry said. “It seems Pine Coffin Hardy had a real problem with the corrupt military coup that had taken place there. A serious problem. His diaries were confiscated from prison – and they revealed a desire to put an end to the oppressive, brutal government then in power.”
“Oh, yeah?” Christine asked, fascinated. “What did he do?”
“I think that Hardy did what he does best.”
“What was that exactly?”
“I think Hardy went to Uganda, hooked with a few mercenary rebels, and took on the whole Ugandan Army. The whole damn army. He was certainly never heard of again, and may have very well ended up in front of a firing squad.”
“I guess his mom was right in naming him Pine Coffin.”
Harry nodded and pointed. “There he is now.”
Christine followed Harry’s finger to a mountain of a man standing in the middle of Swann Street, daring traffic to mess with him.
Several young children skipped across the road safely, waving at the behemoth. It took her a moment to figure out what Pine Coffin Hardy was doing.
When Christine did, she punched Harry in the arm. “Do you think I’m blind, Harry? Give me a break!”
Pine Coffin Hardy, perhaps America’s original badass, was a crossing guard.
Harry waved at Pine Coffin, who smiled magnificently, revealing a full gold-plated grill. Christine shook her head in disbelief, estimating that the black man weighed about 450 pounds, with absolutely zero body fat.
Hardy had a shaved head under his crossing guard hat, dark trousers about to burst at the seams from the leg muscles inside - and a cute, white plastic sash draped over a bulging knit shirt.
“Hi, Harry.” Hardy said in an incredibly deep voice. “Been a long time.”
“Hey, Pine Coffin. How’s it going?”
Pine Coffin Hardy spread a hand, indicating the kids. “Can’t complain.”
Harry grinned, placing a hand on Christine’s shoulder. “This is the agent I was telling you about.”
“The wonder girl?” Pine Coffin Hardy turned his charm on Christine, bowing slightly. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
“Likewise.” Christine said evenly, blood boiling.
Harry turned back to Christine. “Hardy loves children. This was supposed to be punishment, but he seems to like it.”
“Punishment for what?” Christine seethed. “No, wait! I don’t care! I can’t believe this crap! First Noble, the man-child plumber…and now Hardy, the school crossing guard? What’s he going to do, Harry? Beat bad guys over the head with his little stop sign?”
Harry never got a chance to answer. First Christine heard a distant rumble, and mistook it for thunder – or work being done at the small construction site on the corner.
But it wasn’t thunder.
Nor was it the jack-hammer staccato from the construction workers.
The street shimmered 75 yards away, causing soccer moms to swerve their cars and children on the sidewalks to scream. The construction workers backed away from the site, abandoning their tools.
The shimmer rapidly changed into a blast furnace, ejecting figures onto the rippled pavement, then the rip closed behind them.
Several horsemen rode toward Harry and Christine at full gallop. Their physical appearance was hard to describe, and the closest thing Christine could think of was a combination of Wild West cowboys, French Legionnaires and the Road Warrior.
The horses they rode were skins containing liquid fire, and another matter altogether.
Christine was thunderstruck. “What the hell, Harry?”
“Precisely.” Harry said calmly. “Help me get the children to safety.”
A bald man, apparently a gardener for the lush home across the street, waved at them. “Over here!”
Christine and Harry quickly gathered a knot of kids and pushed them toward the open gate. Phillips had collected another group of children, and ushered them into a relatively secluded yard surrounded by trees.
Christine squinted at the approaching horsemen. “What are they?”
“Scinde Irregulars.” Harry explained. “From Out Town, probably. This is turning out to be an interesting day.”
“Out Town…you mean in Hell?” Christine was puzzled. “What are they doing here?”
“That’s a very good question.”
The well-armed horsemen were much closer now, and she could see they wore sweat-stained chinos and dungaree shirts with leather vests and chaps. Each had on either filthy cowboy hats or flat moutons. A couple of the Irregulars were armed with Martini-Henry rifles, while the others carried Mannlicher cavalry carbines, and all had fixed bayonets. The horses they rode were buckets of thick skin over an underlying fire, and obviously from the dark side.
Christine smiled mischievously. The riders hadn’t noticed the human tank converging on their course…then she grimaced. This was going to be bad.
“Go, Mr. Hardy!”
Christine turned quickly at the sound of young voices. The schoolchildren had gotten over their fright, and were moving closer to the sidewalks.
“Watch this!” Harry called over his shoulder. “Pine Coffin is like a freight train…but he hits harder!”
Pine Coffin Hardy clothes-lined two horses with his tree-trunk arms, and the accompanying thud felt like an earthquake as the horses were stopped dead in their tracks, falling to the street.
“Ohhh, Black Hawk down!” Christine winced, imagining broken bones and really mangled X-ray results at the ER.
The riders went sprawling on the pavement as Phillips yanked opened the rear tailgate of the Tahoe and retrieved Remington shotguns. He threw one to Harry and another shotgun to Hardy, keeping one for himself.
Christine held out her hands, but received nothing.
She frowned, running after Harry. “Umm, what about me?”
“Next time, I promise.” Harry said with a smile.
Luxury cars and SUVs had been abandoned along the street. The children snuck up to get a closer look, despite the danger. Christine tried shooing them back; but most were too occupied with their smart-phone cameras to notice.
Pine Coffin Hardy raised his shotgun with one hand and blasted a rider off of his horse, then used the stock of the gun to knock the beast to the ground, sparks flying. The horse screamed, disintegrating back to Hell.
Hardy picked up an empty Saab and sent it hurtling toward the horsemen. The demons dodged the car - then pulled to halt as the automobile tumbled down the street.
Harry and Pine Coffin Hardy stood side by side, with Phillips backing them up. The largest demon of the bunch moved forward, gazing down at Christine. He appeared as if he hadn’t bathed in years.
“I’m John Jacob,” the demon said with a Yorkshire accent. “Commander of the Scindle Irregular Horse. Just want a word with the lass, if you don’t mind, boys. Don’t need to be any more trouble.”
Christine was surprised. John Jacob was a British-born inventor that had earned a trip to Hell back in 1891, and had formed up a mounted battalion made up of French, English and American damned souls. Christine hadn’t the slightest idea how they knew her - or what they wanted.
Harry snorted. “Do you know where you are, son? This isn’t the OK Corral. This is YouTube America. Ten kids are filming this with their iPhones, and nobody on the other side is going to be very happy about that.”
“What’s an…iPhone?” John Jacob said. Obviously, he’d been out of touch for a while.
Harry and Christine looked at each other, shrugging.
“It doesn’t matter.” Harry answered. “You gentlemen need to head back where you came from. We can write this off to a costume party gone wrong.”
“Need the girl, sir.” Jacob spit tobacco. “Just hand her over and we’ll be on our way.”
Pine Coffin Hardy stepped forward. “You gotta go through me first.”
The mangy horseman next to Jacob sighed. “Have it your way.”
Hardy lifted his shotgun to his shoulder and the horsemen drew their revolvers, hammers clicking.
Christine noticed something out of the corner of her eye and raised a hand. At that moment everyone came to a complete standstill as a chubby boy with a large backpack shuffled across the street…right between Pine Coffin Hardy and the horsemen.
“Sorry! My mom is waiting. Got karate practice.”
Pine Coffin Hardy grunted in wonder, then double-cocked his shotgun and fired several rounds pointblank at the horsemen. Two fell, blood spraying. Hardy disarmed the demons – breaking their rifles in half, then shook open the chambers of their revolvers and showered the asphalt with brass rounds.
Harry pumped round after round into John Jacob. His horse reared, spilling guts of pure flame. Jacob jumped to the ground, landing like a cat, then grinned and dusted his riddled jacket off.
A scraggly but large French demon yelled and picked up Harry around the waist, running him back-first into a concrete traffic pole. The pole crumbled with the impact and Harry slid to the ground. Phillips shot the demon, but was backhanded into the Tahoe, causing considerable damage, and losing his gun. The traffic pole, severely weakened, fell on the SUV with a crackle of electrical sparks – narrowly missing a small group of children.
“Harry!” Christine started toward him, but Harry held up a hand.
Two horsemen grabbed Pine Coffin Hardy, which was a big mistake. He slammed the two demons together with enough force to rattle window panes. Kids on both sides of the street cheered.
One of the English horsemen rebounded and charged Hardy, hitting the crossing guard with his full body weight. Yet another mistake. Hardy didn’t move an inch.
“What are ya made of, partner?” The horseman said. “Cement?”
Pine Coffin Hardy laughed, knocking the English demon down with a sledgehammer blow.
Pine Coffin Hardy stood up straight and looked over at Christine. “All right. Now we get serious.”
Christine was astounded. “That…wasn’t serious?”
Pine Coffin Hardy waded into the three demon horsemen that had collected their wits, and were scrambling to reengage. Each had a braided-leather bullwhip, slashing the air with supersonic cracks inches from Pine Coffin’s face. Hardy growled, grabbing one of the whips in mid-flight and yanked the horseman off his feet.
The other two demons took advantage of their friend’s downfall, striking at Hardy with lightning speed. He took several slashes to the face as the demons tag-teamed him. One punched while another whipped, and it was very clear these dark denizens had been working together a long time.
The bullwhips cracked and the demons reared back for another shot.
But then something happened that Christine wasn’t expecting from a man of Pine Coffin Hardy’s size and stature. With speed and grace that belied his huge body, Hardy twisted and snatched both bullwhip shanks in midair, pulling them from each of the horseman’s clutches.
He punched one of the horsemen so hard in the face that the demon literally fell apart in an explosion of burnt dust. The other horseman didn’t have time to register shock at his comrade’s demise before Hardy tore his limbs off, pulling the denizen’s Colt sidearm and shooting an approaching French damned soul in the chest several times.
The French demon flew back, arms askew, disintegrating back to Hell at the same time.
For good measure, Pine Coffin and Phillips pumped round after round into the remaining dark ones. The damage was, of course, fatal. All of the demons except John Jacob slipped back to Hell in agony.
Jacob gazed at the scraps of leather and dungaree on the pavement. He smiled at Hardy, popping a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth.
“You, boy, are a strong mamba-jamba.”
Pine Coffin Hardy swelled with indignation. “It’s 2012, dickhead. You need to leave that racist shit behind.”
“Figured there might be a chink in that armor somewhere.” John Jacob grunted and lit his cigarette. “You sent my men back….and that’s fine. You should know, though. I’ll get my men together pretty soon. Then we’re going to string you up.”
Pine Coffin Hardy chuckled. “Uh-huh. Bring it.”
“We will, boy.” Jacob said. “I still need the blonde to come with me, now.”
Christine stepped forward, angry as a hornet. “Look, you bat-licking fuckstain asshole. You’ve endangered children with your cowboy antics, and it’s time for you to leave. As for me, get used to losing, bitch.”
“Listen here, little lady,” the demon said, “this ain’t personal, just business.”
John Jacob drew his revolver with his right hand, grabbing Christine by the shirtsleeve with his left, almost faster than the eye could follow. She was astounded by both the speed and brazenness of the personal attack. Pine Coffin was quicker, fortunately, pulling a large brass and steel falchion knife, slicing upward with unbelievable response – right through Jacob’s gun arm.
Christine was suddenly holding half an arm.
She looked at it in amazement; the demon’s hand still had a firm grip on the Colt Revolver. John Jacob squinted in concentration at her, mouthing moving like a guppy. Letting go of her shirt, Jacob reached for the severed arm.
“Nuh-uh.” Christine scolded. “Mine now.”
“No fair.” The demon horseman lost his focus and staggered back a couple of steps. Phillips and Harry stepped up behind Pine Coffin, watching with wide eyes.
Christine turned her back on John Jacob. “Pine Coffin, mush him.”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Pine Coffin Hardy searched for a moment, selecting a piece of thick cedar leftover from the construction site. He hefted it with an evil smile and advanced on John Jacob.
When Hardy swung, the crack was like a homer at Yankee Stadium. John Jacob of the Scinde Irregulars – and the makeshift bat – exploded into a million pieces.
Christine stood next to Harry, mouth open. “I want him on the team.”
“I figured you might.” Harry said.
Harry and Christine walked back to the Tahoe with Pine Coffin. Christine toted the severed arm, not quite sure what to do with it. With a kind smile, Harry pried the gun from the hand of the dismembered arm, shoving the revolver into his waistband. Then he tossed the arm into the bushes.
“Would have made a nice paperweight.” Christine said. “For your office.”
Harry sighed. “You are so thoughtful, but no, I think I’ll pass.”
Phillips was busy trying to bend the mangled fender away from the front tire of the beat-up Tahoe, without much success. Pine Coffin pointed to the damage.
“Need some help with that?”
Phillips nodded. “Yes, please.”
Pine Coffin pulled the entire fender off with a gentle screech of metal, then removed the crumpled hood.
“Thanks.” Phillips said. “Not quite sure how I’m going to explain this to my insurance carrier.”
Christine made a face. “You know the box on the accident report form to describe how the damage happened?”
“You’re going to need a really big box.”