Updated: Nov 8
The Baron prepared greatly in order to appear candid. If a book was being read upon entrance to his office, the cover was conspicuously always easy to see. To Dumond, no deed unwitnessed was any deed at all.
Today's was A Farewell to Arms. I suspected the Baron had expectation of a great war novel. I wouldn't dare embarrass him by inquiring if the romance was to his liking. Those who trespass upon his self-image once are not often afforded a second chance.
A slight show was made of finishing his paragraph, placing the bookmark, and neatly setting the paperback centered on the desk. We had grown accustomed to these little ceremonies over the last few months. We were content to indulge in this concise one. He wasted no time with questions when the four of us in the Headquarters section had taken our usual place.
The Captain and On-Deck took the brunt of the debriefing. Sometimes I would be called upon to reference my notes. Our surgeon, Crook, took pleasure in being included yet unencumbered in these meetings. He occupied his chair an ornate corner. A grim wallflower, he.
On-Deck retold the testimonies of each barge rider in meticulous detail. I filled in the blanks when beckoned. All the while in the Baron's eyes I saw the wheels turning. For all his eccentricities, we did not account him foolish. His business was for-profit, and he saw impact to his bottom line with each vessel accosted prior to his toll. Bandits from the West kidnapping potential payers would not be tolerated.
"Gentlemen," he began on the conclusion of our details, "this is going to require a once-and-for-all solution." He savored his slow, delta drawl. "Dealing with the occasional mouse in the pantry has never been my style. I prefer to poison the bastards in the nest. The scampering in the walls keeps me awake, you see."
Dumond stood and placed both palms firmly on the oak desktop. There stood a large light above him that served to cast a dramatic shadow over a hunched face. "With my dinner tomorrow, I want you to present to me your plan to solve this problem with finality."
We all found words unnecessary, nods would suffice. Gestures exchanged, we filed out of the room. Men less accustomed to confidence in silence may have cleared their throat to broach some baser humanity. We managed our way out to the grass courtyard with just the strikes of our heels.
We allowed a few more steps before opening the discussion to escape earshot of the building. The normal conversation topic after these meetings was often at the expense of our host, and the consequences of being a mocking guest weren't ones we fancied ourselves to sample.
"I like him, that Baron."
"Of course you would, Cajun. I'll bet you can smell the swamp on each other the way dogs smell shit." On-Deck was a bit looser with some of Sasquatch's boys. Cajun did most of our meal preparation, a task that often took all day and all of his attention. Squatch ran one fourth of our outfit, a squad we all referred to as the Dipshit Coven.
The squad was named partially for the manner in which they passed the time, and partially for what the Captain thought of it. They were a good introduction to our guideline on nicknames; if it sticks, it sticks. They enjoyed their occult aesthetic and off-kilter demeanor.
Helping Cajun was a man named Fogger. We were selective in our recruiting, but we are not free of mistakes. Crook declared him in constant search of a mirror in order to appear as if he were good for something. Such declarations will follow a man for his sixty. Assisting our resident cook in any way possible was his attempt to change his reputation, and with any luck, his name.
The Captain eyed him with judgement and impatience. He insisted on being given his food last, and only after all of his men had first been fed. This was a quality we all admired, but it did act as opportunity for his bear of a temper to show. Fortunately, food came in a manner in which no one could complain, and tensions from the meeting melted into blank-minded consumptions of stew or brooding over the topic soon to be at hand.
The Captain finished in a hurry, our signal to do the same. I'd barely wiped my face clean when I was tasked with summoning the Ones and Twos. First and second in charge of each squad. It was usually me charged with the herding of cats. My position allowed me to be the most candid and present with the Company, and as such, the most aware of where they liked to duck and hide.
I escaped the field tent with haste and gladness. On-Deck seemed the only one to not be in a foul mood resulting from the meeting with the Baron. Whatever plan the Captain was ruminating on he did not himself like. His second in command would learn of it at the same time as the rest of the squads' leadership.
Not without some difficulty, I sought and produced the men the Captain wanted. The Dude and Bowie of the Slothlords, Big Bird and Stonehenge of the Bad Luck Club, Blacklung and Bedsheet of The Daggers, and Sasquatch and Rickshaw of the Dipshit Coven.
I parted the flaps and entered with Big Bird, the last of the crew to gather.
"It's about fucking time, even Bowie beat you here," On-Deck chastised. It truly had not been that long, and despite his squad's reputation, Bowie was usually punctual. But the jab had been political. The mood was set for the discussion to be had. All attention sufficiently gathered in the crowded tent, the Captain began.
"Alright, it seems we've done our job well enough that we need to start doing other jobs. That's just the curse of competence, of course, and we've been here before. The Easties are what they are, but the Westies... they're evolving operations. The Baron wants a fix that won't require us tidying up once ever few weeks. That means we get one shot to put their whole business out of operation." He moved to the map laid out, "best as we know they're holed up in what used to be a small airport north of the Missouri river. There's a big tower there. They watch ships come in and get a good heads up as to who's trying the detour from the comfort of their own squat. That was fine until recently. They're hitting them farther north up the Mississippi now, maybe even the Illinois. That's a lot of ground but the reports are scant enough that it makes me think we're looking at independent raiding parties without some sort of operating base. Meaning, they leave home with what they got and come back with what they can. This is, of course, based mostly on precision guesswork." Squatch and Bowie were the closest to the map. Their outfit dealt with reconnaissance. Especially Bowie's boys, he figured a few days circling the wetlands to the north was in the cards. He figured right.
The Captain ordered Bowie's crew to move up as part of a group that also comprised half the Bad Luck Club and all of the Daggers. The rest would hang back and continue the job here at home under the supervision of On-Deck and Crook. The Captain would be joining this expedition.
He set a deadline 48 hours from the present. Squatch's boys would prepare the usual supplementary items in their support role. Food, ammunition, medical supplies. As much as could be scrounged, manufactured, or jury-rigged. The movement north would begin on foot and under the cover of night.
I told Bedsheet that the Captain volunteered me to go for the sake of the Log. He agreed, "figured you'd lose any curve left in your ass from sitting around in that tower too much, I bet."
I didn't mount a retort, it was easy to get bored around here, and taking up with Cousin at altitude was about the only interesting place I found to visit repeatedly. I shrugged him off.
Bedsheet continued cleaning the dirt from his fingernails with his expensive knife. "Considering he wants every last Cloak..." "...Dagger." "...right, Dagger... every last dagger on that trip with the half the treehuggers and cavemen, I imagine he expects things to get intricate."
Intricate situations were the specialty of the Daggers, very recently known as the Cloaks. It was what may have been considered clandestine work two decades prior, Blacklung and Bedsheet ran two sides of one nasty little coin. The squad name rotates depending on which philosophy is the One or the Two at the time. The debate over whether the blade or the sleeve that conceals it is more important has raged since The Sixty formed — and the niche for this squad developed itself. Bedsheet was an original member.
He would not confide to me that the further time churns on from the Decay, the less subterfuge seems to be required. That sentiment was worn on his face plainly enough since Blacklung was elected as the One only the month prior. He needn't vocalize it for others to know.
"If we were just going to raid their camp, why wouldn't we take all of the Bad Luck guys instead?" "Why indeed, Fixer. If the obvious answer isn't chosen, however, perhaps you're not considering the proper problem."
"What other problems?" I asked. "There are plenty to ponder. The ones you should worry about right now are the ones that 30 days of rucking and sleeping in the bush pose. When's the last time you've bivouacked with us for that long?" Bedsheet raised his eyebrow at me. He knew that I had become too accustomed to these softer assignments.
"Long enough that I should probably go bug Bowie's guys to help me pack." I admitted. "Agreed."
I took my own advice and left the Dagger's gathering area. I'd nearly forgotten some of the basics, ones that Bowie's crew did not let me off lightly for. I took the pokes and laughter in stride, it was deserved. Likewise, it was an easy price to pay to be properly prepared for this movement. I'd become glad I was.