As his newly assigned soldiers began furiously gathering supplies, Carl returned and reported with shocking deference that the flanks were secure. It seemed that for all their fury, Cityside was stunted in their organization. Carl quickly credited Mack with this advantage for the Riverside. Mack remained focused on the kitchen and break room. His troops should have been in place. It was painstaking waiting for the action.
Mack heard it first, obviously. Carl and the rest of the troops stationed behind him soon followed. The Thompson twins were screaming in agony. Carl claimed to be able to see steam rising from the apparent burns on the faces of the Thompson twins, but Mack chalked this up to excess zeal. Whatever the case, Mack received a text from Little Sammy and, soon thereafter, one from Fat Steve. The plan had worked. Jimmy and Fat Steve were stopped short of infiltrating the break room, but they had the kitchen well secured with their three reserves. This meant that the Riverside had secured the refrigerator, which had thankfully yet to be defrosted and cleaned out, and the vending machines. This, in other words, meant the world.
Apparently stunned by the move and the repercussions of losing the kitchen, Cityside quieted down. Things came to a bit of an unofficial ceasefire. Mack took the opportunity to order Nicholas to retreat into the storage room to locate the security monitor. He was then to find an undisclosed location, even to Mack, and do nothing but spy on Cityside. He would become their intelligence and communicate solely via text message with Mack. Mack also had Carl double-check the security points at the entrance door and the flanks. He dared not send anyone into the kitchen. It was too sensitive a location.
Mack was temporarily feeling good about his command. He had been cautious, yet clever. Riverside was secure and safe. Perhaps it was his training, after all, that had risen to the occasion. Or perhaps it was his God-given leadership abilities. Whatever the case, Mack did start to feel that his confidence was misplaced. Something had been missed. But what? He could not see it. He tried to see it. He wanted desperately to see it. He could not see it.
Mack had texted Little Sammy that he and Cindy should return from their vulnerable positions in the ventilation system and report back to him. He and the others could hear the two crawling backwards overhead. And then, Mack's alert level reached level red. As the vent door started to open, all of Riverside was ambushed by the sound of three gunshots. Cindy, to her credit, immediately pulled the vent door closed. Mack focused on the vent. He saw three splatters of red.
"Gosh darn it," Carl exclaimed. Everyone, including Mack, looked at him. "Dan Callahan," Carl said softly.
The reality of the situation overcame them all. Though he no longer needed to clarify, Carl continued his thought.
"Dan Callahan. He's a paintball enthusiast."
They all deflated in the realization. Mack tried to keep his cool.
"Right. Right. How could I have overlooked that?"
"It's not your fault, Mack," comforted Sally Morris. "We all did."
Mack looked at her as though that was not an acceptable excuse. Or at least that was how he intended to look at her.
"Ok, so, Dan Callahan, for some bizarre reason, brought his paintball gun to work. What does that mean? Let's think. Ok. How many paintball pellets could he have possibly brung with him? We'll just entice him to use them all. Decoys. Shadow games. And then we can get Cindy and Little Sammy out of there."
"Unfortunately, buddy," Carl started, "I overheard Dan talking at the water cooler this morning. He was going on a weekend retreat. A paintball retreat. He could be packing hundreds, thousands of pellets."
"Son of a bitch." The Riverside troops looked at Mack as though he had an actual decision to make. Mack looked back at them while trying to muster the courage to make the only rational decision. He pulled out his phone, opened it, and texted Little Sammy the following: "Stay in place, Little Sammy. Cindy too. You performed admirably. We'll come get you when we can."
Mack tightened his jaw and managed to congratulate his troops on a job well done. He said that he was going to take stock of things. Make sure everything was secure. Instead, Mack found an isolated cubicle, cowered underneath the desk, placed his head in his hands, and cried like a toddler. He also wondered whether he would be able to bill for his time spent strategizing the deaths of his co-workers that day.
Mack awoke early. It was still dark outside. He had hardly slept. He was still haunted by the thought of poor Little Sammy and Cindy trapped in their airborne coffin. The tight quarters. The darkness. The discomfort. Mack had also heard several paintball shots sparingly throughout the night. It seemed that Dillon and Dan Callahan were just torturing his Riverside comrades. As the rising sun started to faintly light the office, Mack could see the spots of various colored paint, confirming what he had heard during the night.
Carl awoke. The Riverside troops stationed at central base, the overturned desk, began to follow suit. They all noticed Mack staring at the vent overhead. Mack finally noticed his troops and saw them reflecting his concern.
"No worries, friends. I'm sure Little Sammy and Cindy are just fine. They are tough. I texted Little Sammy last night. Ordered him to turn his phone off to conserve its battery. We don't know how long he and Cindy will be up there, after all. I ordered him to text me at dawn, and I'm certain we will hear from them soon."
This seemed to ease the fears of Mack's squadron. But there was no time to dilly-dally.
"Now, Carl, grab some bottles of fresh water and candy bars from the supply bin behind the conference table. Relieve Arnold of his post and make sure Samantha wakes up to take his place. Outfit the flanks with sustenance and get a status update from each of them and report back here. Don't forget, Jimmy and Fat Steve love Snickers bars. They deserve it."
Carl fled to fulfill the simple assignment.
"The rest of you, ready yourselves. Double-check your weapons. Relieve your bladders. Eat. Drink. Meet back here in ten minutes."
Mack found a cigar strewn amongst the rubble. He did not smoke, but it felt appropriate. He placed the unlit cigar in his mouth and fiddled it from side to side. He would settle for chewing on it and removing it during dramatic moments.
His troops began to return. Shockingly, they honestly did look refreshed and ready. Carl also returned, much faster than need be. He was desperately out of breath. This gave the impression of having important news. In reality, he simply wanted to impress, secure his position as second in command.
"Mack. Mack. Ok. Look . . . status update. Status is the same. No problems."
"Nice. Umm, nice work, Carl. Look, everyone, I heard from Little Sammy. He and Cindy are just fine. They are scared, I'm sure. But they are also brave. Still, they have to stay put for the moment. Now, we're dug in tight. We are secure. I fear that means we have to prepare for . . ."
"Send out your best fighter!"
Mack pretended not to be startled. He suspected that he had failed. Dillon was yelling ferociously from Cityside.
"Send out your best fighter!"
Mack peeked above the overturned desk that was central base. He and the rest of his troops saw Bill Heller approaching the left flank with his open hands held by his sides. Bill Heller was 6'9" and ably over three hundred pounds. He had been a high school football player highly recruited by several Division I colleges, in 1972.
"Oh, crap," Carl spoke up. "Cityside is challenging us. This is how they did it in ancient times. The two best fighters dueled for the destiny of their respective militaries."
"Jesus, how many bad movies have this guys seen?" questioned Mack.
"Send out your best fighter, cowards!"
Mack sat back down behind the overturned desk. He looked at his troops. It was the saddest collection of physical specimens any leader had ever imagined commanding. Mack tightened his jaw to keep it from dropping open. As the predestined leader of Riverside, he knew that it would fall to him to be crushed by the giant.
To Mack's eternal gratitude, Arnold Garvey, just relieved from night watch of the sustenance supply bin behind the conference table, crawled into central base.
"Me," Arnold said softly. "It has to be me."
Mack and the Riverside troops looked at Arnold. They were thankful and relieved. Of course, Arnold. It did have to be. Arnold owned and operated a dojo wherein he gave karate lessons to children. He was a black belt, according to rumor at least. But he was also 5'5" and had never been in an actual fight during his forty-nine years of life, according to fact. Nevertheless, he was clearly the most qualified candidate, inasmuch as he was the only remotely qualified candidate. It would be a classic battle of various disciplines, brute force versus technique.
Mack simply nodded at Arnold. Others said their thank yous and patted him on the back. With understated bravery, Arnold stood up, though Mack suspected Cityside still would not be able to see him, and headed toward the left flank. Yesterday Bill Heller was Arnold's co-worker. Today Bill Heller was Arnold's mortal enemy.
"Arnold," Mack called out, "I mean, Sensei Garvey." Arnold glanced down over his right shoulder. "Good luck, my friend. And remember, Bill's football career ended because of three knee surgeries. All on his right knee." Arnold nodded just once, and deliberately. He resumed his quiet stroll toward the left flank.
Upon arriving at the proverbial line of demarcation, Arnold opted to scale the barriers in lieu of compromising his Riverside's security. Upon landing in Cityside, enemy territory, Mack saw Arnold bow to honor his opponent, his opponent who took the opportunity to charge like a rhinoceros. Arnold aptly sidestepped the advance and began landing a series of blows from all angles that flustered but did not hurt Bill.
Arnold retreated after a final spinning back kick to Bill's jaw, which only slightly turned his head and did not budge his positioning. Arnold then dared another flurry of attacks, but he was caught in mid-air by Bill and thrown back ten feet against the sidewall. Arnold managed to land gracefully, but nonetheless painfully. Bill began to charge through the series of cubicles still remaining on Cityside instead of going around them. The last thing Mack, or anyone on Riverside saw was Arnold skillfully using gymnastics to escape the charge. The two warriors disappeared behind the kitchen on Cityside.
Mack, satisfied that the one-on-one duel was beyond his witnessing or control, returned to his troops.
"Ok. Look, people. We absolutely cannot trust that this will settle our war, whether Arnold wins or not, though he will. He will, people. Dillon cannot be trusted. Melody lowered her head in shame and retreated behind the others to hide her tears. He must be using this as a distraction. Be on alert. Arm yourselves. Spread out and find cover."
Mack sent out the "91" text to all locations. He still could not see what was becoming of the duel. He only saw the debris resulting from the chaos. The occasional file of papers, chair, and even computer monitor being tossed into the air. Then, silence.
Mack received a text message from Little Sammy. From his advantageous viewpoint, Little Sammy reported that Arnold had injured and immobilized Bill Heller, taking out both his injured knee and good knee. Unfortunately, however, Arnold found himself trapped behind enemy lines. True to Dillon's nature, Arnold would not be allowed safe passage back to Riverside.
Immediately thereafter, Mack received a text from Kevin at central intelligence. Kevin was reporting an impending attack. Dillon was preparing a surge on both outer flanks.
"People! People! This is it! Cityside is attacking! Divide yourselves. Half to the left flank. Half to the right flank. Go! Go! Go!"
The troops followed Mack's command. He felt uneasy. He scanned the perimeter for signs, clues, anything. He needed confirmation. He needed information. He texted Kevin for an update but received nothing in return. It was the cliché calm before the retarded storm.
Dillon's scream made Mack shiver. Something was wrong. Everything was wrong.
Arnold's decapitated head came vaulting over the kitchen. It landed on Riverside and rolled impressively close to central base where Mack was crouching. He looked down, alone, into Arnold's still opened eyes. Mack stared without expression or emotion. He had screwed up. That was certain. He said to no one but himself, as his troops were all now spread thin and vulnerable, "God help us all."
Text reports began to frantically assault Mack's phone. The flanks reported terrific activity. Frantic sounds. Signs of attack. But not actual physical penetration or contact. Dan Callahan riddled Little Sammy and Cindy's last known location in the air duct. Again, however, no physical contact or injuries were had. Mack scanned the battle zone. What was happening?
The terrible truth of it all descended on him instantaneously. He did not have time for texting. He only had time to stand and scream.
"It's a decoy! They're going for the kitchen! Troops! Riverside! To the kitchen! We must protect the kitchen! Jimmy! Fat Steve! Watch out!"
It was too late. Mack leapt from central base and started charging toward their stronghold, as did his troops from both flanks. Their progress, however, was impeded. Inflamed debris was launched from Cityside, skillfully creating a semi-circle of fire and heat, blocking Riverside's path to re-enforce their brothers in arms guarding the kitchen position. Those who dared cross the fiery border were immediately sniped by Dan Callahan.
Mack stood still. He stood silent. Carl approached from behind him, out of breath as always. They could only stare through the flames. They could only hear the screams and battle cries of Jimmy and Fat Steve as they were certainly being overwhelmed. Mack and Carl stood defeated.
"Sounds like they're puttin' up a helluva a fight," Carl consoled.
"Yeah, but for how long," Mack questioned, feeling the need to squash all optimism.
Assuming the worst had happened, Mack, Carl, and Riverside were unprepared for the final blow of the Cityside assault. Riverside saw a second makeshift rope, braided computer chords, thrown up and over air duct near the ceiling. The rope was violently yanked down and the outlines of Little Sammy and Cindy were seen falling to the floor on the kitchen side of the fire.
Eventually, but much too late, the office sprinkler system engaged. Mack, Carl, and the Riverside troops stood upright, not unafraid, but stunned. They stared as the smoke began to thin. The lifeless bodies of Jimmy and Fat Steve could be seen clearly, crushed and wedged between the barricade and the side walls of the kitchen. If nothing else, this at least prevented Cityside from engaging in a full-on frontal attack, for the time being.
Though it was still morning, both sides had had enough, even the victors.
"Mack!? You still alive, Mack!? . . . I'll take your cowardly silence as a yes."
"Wow, that's the dumbest freaking thing I've ever heard," Mack thought to himself. "I would be silent if I were dead, too."
"Mack! That's enough fighting for one day, huh!? Come claim your pathetic dead! We will finish you off tomorrow! Enjoy your last night in this office, Riverside!"
Before realizing the dire circumstances in which he found himself, Mack could not help but think that he had never enjoyed a single day or night in the office.
Solemnly, Mack engaged in the necessity of doing as he was told. It came naturally to him, in the office. He was trying to dislodge and drag Fat Steve from his horrific final resting place. He was struggling to do so and without success. Eventually, Carl and several other Riversiders joined him. They spent the next two hours putting out what remained of the fires and collecting their troops, as they had been ordered. Perhaps they had been outmatched all along. It was impossible to deny.
Part Two of Four