The entire time, however, Mack's mind was racing. He had not acted on a whim, after all. He had not been reckless or shortsighted. He had acted on information. He had acted on the basis of intelligence, or so it seemed. As Mack was finishing dragging Jimmy's corpse back to Riverside, he got his first piece of good news. Cindy was still alive. She tearfully explained what had transpired. After she and Little Sammy had collapsed into Cityside's stronghold, Little Sammy winked at her just before heaving his little body into the mob of Cityside troops that had surrounded them. Cindy escaped while Cityside was ripping Little Sammy apart. She started crying uncontrollably.
Mack had to hold back his own tears. He stepped beside Cindy, tapped her on the head. "Don't get down, Cindy," he tried to say with confidence. "Little Sammy was brave. He knew what he was doing. And we need you now. It's an omen that you are here. A positive one."
"No, Mack. No! You don't understand!"
Mack was caught off guard. He had not been refuted since assuming command. He didn't understand? What did that mean?
"Mack, I don't think you appreciate what we're dealing with," Cindy spoke sincerely. She had regained her composure. She was not ranting irrationally.
"Cindy," Mack questioned.
"Mack, everyone, listen. Last night, when Little Sammy and I were trapped in the vent, we saw something."
"Does Dillon have a gun? A bazooka," Carl asked frantically.
"No. No, just listen. We saw Dillon force Leslie and Ian to sit on opposite sides of a small table. They each had Citysiders standing behind them with knives placed against the back of their necks. Dillon, and I don't know how he knew this, pronounced that each had severe peanut allergies."
"A peanut allergy. I can relate to that," Carl said. "Me too. I'm a nut reactor."
"The personnel files," Mack deduced. "Peter McGee's assistant has all of our personnel files. The bastard."
"Yeah, that must be it," continued Cindy. "Anyway, Dillon placed seven crackers on the table and said that he had rubbed one of them in peanut butter."
"Son of a bitch," Mack responded, realizing what had happened before the rest of his Riverside troops.
"Yeah, Mack. Exactly. He made Leslie and Ian play peanut allergy Russian roulette. At knifepoint, he forced them to choose a cracker and eat it. They both tried to refuse, but Dillon threatened to have the other stabbed and killed if they did not comply with his maniacal game. Ian, to his credit, tried to grab and eat all of the crackers once he realized what was happening, but Dillon smashed his face onto the table and ordered his troop to place his knife on Leslie's throat. 'Either you both die, or you participate, and only one of you dies, for now,' Dillon said."
"Dillon watches way too many movies," Mack thought to himself once again.
"Dillon and the Citysiders laughed and taunted Leslie and Ian the whole time. They loved it. They got off on it. Little Sammy had to put his hand over my mouth. I could not stop sobbing. Eventually, Leslie picked up the fourth cracker, swallowed it, and went into anaphylactic shock. She died squirming on the floor to Dillon's immense delight. After that, he walked over to Ian who was staring down at Leslie with tears in his eyes, and without hesitation rammed a pocketknife into his throat. Dillon did not laugh as he watched Ian die. He appeared to only stare and appreciate his death."
"Cindy? Cindy? Look at me," Mack insisted. "Why are you telling us this?"
"You can defend yourself against a person, Mack. But not against evil. You must confront evil. Attack it. Destroy it."
Mack was stunned and inspired by the ominous message. He did not break eye contact with Cindy as his mentality and facial expression transformed from indecisive to passion. Cindy's survival and return to Riverside had been an omen, a positive one. Mack assumed his position at the forefront of their central base. He looked at his troops. He looked at the bloodied and soot-covered faces. He looked at despair. And he was pissed.
"This is my fault. Blame me. I was too complacent. I was too proud. I was too defensive."
Mack vaguely heard the objections of his devoted followers. He vaguely heard abbreviated explanations as to why he was not to blame. He did not care to hear any of it. He was, after all, pissed off.
"The kitchen is lost," Mack exclaimed, in order to quash any objections. "The kitchen . . . is lost. Organize your weapons. Tend the wounded. Stockpile any food you can find. We will need it now. And someone get me a head count. Dead, wounded, fit to fight. No, Carl. Not you. You come with me. We need to find Kevin."
The Riverside troops dispersed and Mack and Carl began fighting their way through the rubble and chaos of office furniture and supplies behind central base. It was difficult to navigate, like thick Laotian brush. Just as Mack was considering that they might never find Kevin's secret intelligence location, he heard Carl claim success from thirty feet away. As Mack approached, he gauged by the silence that his fears had been on-point.
He approached Carl who was kneeling beside a large copy machine that had been beaten and cracked all over its exterior. Mack instantly credited Kevin with this camouflage, as not enough debris could have possible struck the machine to inflict such damage. Mack read the solemn look on Carl's face.
Mack crouched down beside Carl and looked inside the open front door of the copy machine. He saw nothing at first glance. Carl, expecting this, reached his hand out and tapped a piece of dark cardboard. It was a false back. Kevin had been ruthlessly clever in his endeavor, even more so than Mack had expected or initially realized. Carl removed the cardboard exposing Kevin, lifeless. Mack picked up a sharpened aluminum lid from a soup can, the object that had evidently been used to cut Kevin's throat. The downside to Kevin's well thought out location was a lack of escape. He was doomed upon being found.
Mack's mind started churning. He looked around Kevin's body for clues. The security monitors had been destroyed. But that was the obvious goal of the attack. He continued to scan the murder scene, all the while trying to not let Carl know how desperately he was examining the situation. Carl had found Kevin with such relative ease, after all. Mack could not get this thought out of his head.
"Buddy," Mack finally spoke, "I think we need to talk."
As Mack and Carl returned to central base, the exhausted and disheartened Riverside troops were stunned to see Mack escorting Carl at knifepoint. They started peppering the two with questions and concerns.
"Listen. Listen! Listen up, people. Kevin is dead. His throat was cut. I gather you all know who I believe to be the culprit."
"Carl? . . . Why Carl? . . . I don't believe it! . . . I can't believe it!"
"I didn't want to believe it either, people. But this is war. I have to rely on my intuition, or I die. We die. I received a text from Kevin. Well, that appears to not be accurate. I received a text from Kevin's phone regarding the Cityside attack. A decoy text. False information. It was intentional. And it was effective, obviously. With the security monitor at his side, there is no way that Kevin could have made such a mistake. Mark, get over here. Mark! Get over here! Check Carl's pockets, carefully."
Mark, stunned by the turn of events as were his fellow Riversiders, followed Mack's orders, nonetheless. He searched Carl's shirt pocket and then started feeling around his pants. For a moment it seemed that Mark was relieved in that he would not find anything. But then, Mark pulled out Carl's cell phone.
"Check it, Mark," Mack insisted. "Check it for all incoming and outgoing messages, texts, and calls."
Mark proceeded to decipher the phone. It was unlike his. He was nervous and fumbling.
"It's, uhh . . . it's . . . it's blank, Mack. There's nothing."
"Yeah, Mack. Everything has been erased."
"Damn. Well played, Carl. I didn't know you had the foresight. Dillon must have coached you well."
"Listen, Mack," Carl started to plead.
"Shut up! Shut up! Mark, keep looking. Anything else in there?"
Mark anxiously felt through the rest of Carl's pants pocket. He felt something. He reached further, grabbed the items, and slowly pulled them out for all to see. He said nothing. He only looked at Mack, terrified. He raised his hand to the side of his face displaying the contraband, four Snickers bars.
"Mack, Mack, just wait," Carl started to plead again. "Listen, Mack . . ."
"Son of a bitch. You son of a bitch! You couldn't even let Jimmy and Fat Steve have their Snickers before you sentenced them to death!? What!? That would be too wasteful!? You and your Cityside compatriots are that freaking greedy!?"
"No, Mack! No! That's not it!"
Mack was not listening. He was already convinced. He punched Carl in the side of the head, causing Carl to stumble forward and fall to the floor. Mack stalked after him. As Carl tried to stand, still pleading for reason, Mack punched him again, this time in the jaw, knocking Carl several feet back toward the left flank. Mario and Nick, seeing the internal dispute for the first time, looked just as stunned as their counter-parts had at central base minutes earlier.
Carl was hurt. He was no longer trying to stand. Nevertheless, Mack delivered several more blows, kicking Carl closer and closer to the barricade being guarded by Mario and Nick, who said nothing. Finally, Carl's limp body came to rest against the barricade.
"So, what, Mack? What's the end game here? You going to kill me now?"
"No, Carl. I'm not going to kill you. I would never do something like that. An unarmed man, like Ian, Little Sammy, Kevin. I'm not so despicable. You set me up from the beginning. Right from the start. You are a murderer. Get up. And get out of here. Get over to Cityside. Where you belong. And just pray that they don't kill you. Pray that they believe with all your bumps and bruises that you did not give up any information. That you did not betray them, as you betrayed us. And, Carl, if I do ever see you again, I hope you are holding a weapon. Because I will kill you."
Mack nodded at Mario and Nick and motioned with the bloody knuckles on his right hand over the barricade. Mario and Nick followed their silent orders, inasmuch as it appeared that Carl was not physically capable of scaling the barricade on his own volition. They lifted him off the floor and forcefully, but not violently, pushed Carl onto Cityside.
"Mario, gather all the troops. Everyone. The right flank. The door. Everyone. Nick, come with me."
"But Mack," Mario started to question.
"Just do it, Mario. If Cityside wanted us today, they could have had us."
As all the Riverside troops gathered at central base, Mack could hear people filling each other in. Kevin's death. The false intelligence. Carl's treason. Mack stood silently and waited for the riling in the crowd to calm down on its own momentum.
Mack looked at his army, now consisting of thirteen Riversiders, half wounded, all hopeless. He felt the need to inspire. He felt uninspired.
"Ok, look, troops. I mean look, co-workers, friends. We haven't many options. In fact, we have only one option. Cindy there, she laid it out for us. We can either surrender, which will likely result in all of our deaths, as there appear to be no civilized rules to this brand of warfare. Or we can fight. We can confront and destroy evil. We can stage one final attack. We can go down swinging."
Though this latter option did not arouse cheers and energy, it garnered head movement and eye contact. At that point, that was the most energetic response that Mack could hope to receive.
"Fine then. It's decided. We fight. Now, again, the kitchen is lost. We are clearly limited in numbers. There is not much strategy left to decipher. It's either right or left. I suggest a full attack on the left flank, only because if, by chance, we are defeated, one or two of you may be able to escape through the entrance door, though I wouldn't count on it. I will fight to the death. Anyone who wants to leave, secede, or simply hide, do so now. You will not be judged. Do what you need to do. In the mean time, I am going to go take a moment for myself. I suggest you all do the same. And get a good night's sleep."
Mack left central base. He found a spot in the corner and sat aloof on a pile of boxes while looking out the window at the river, his river, wondering if he would ever see it again. He did not cry. He did not sob. He had no tears left to give. Only his blood. It was time to act. Time to be bold.
Mack returned to central base. He looked thoughtfully at his Riverside troops who had all stood to mark his presence. He still could not believe that he was being shown such respect for no rational reason. There was only one thing to do.
Mack quickly turned and placed his hand over Melody's mouth. He skillfully placed his right leg behind her body and slammed her to the floor falling immediately on top of her still with his hand on her mouth. Mack heard the shock, once again, of his Riverside troops behind him. Melody was trying to squeal but he was muttering it effectively.
Mack was furious, enraged. He grabbed Melody's right hand and held it up. He looked it over thoroughly and slammed it back down to the floor. Mack then grabbed Melody's left hand and held it up, and found what he was looking for.
Using his off hand, the hand that wasn't pressing Melody's mouth shut, Mack isolated her pinky finger, the only finger on her hand that was not adorned with a long, fake, pink fingernail. He then slammed her hand back down to the floor again and proceeded to slowly remove a fake, pink fingernail from his breast pocket. He saw Melody's eyes widen. She finally realized what was happening. Mack reached for the knife he had earlier placed against Carl's back and quickly stabbed Melody in her left breast. Expecting her response, Mack leaned as forcefully as he could on the hand covering Melody's mouth and lowered his face to within inches of hers.
"So, Mel, according to the rumors in the men's room, Dillon says that you have very sensitive nipples. Judging by the look of agony on your face, I guess he was telling the truth. You little bitch."
Mack subtly twisted the knife still penetrating Melody's left breast and loved every second of it. Feeling an overwhelming sense of cruelty, Mack wanted his pure joy to continue, but realized that it could not. He quickly lifted the knife from Melody's left breast and then lowered it immediately back down into Melody's skull. Blood sprayed all over his shirt and face. He did not care.
Looking more animalistic than he had ever imagined he ever would, Mack turned back toward his troops. He licked his lips, because it felt appropriate, and then immediately regretted it. It tasted too warm and salty.
It was his first known, direct kill. Mack did not feel remorse or any other emotion. He was instantly certain that such an event would not haunt his thoughts or dreams, that is if he were lucky enough to survive. He was fighting evil. Every action was justified. Civility did not exist in the vacuum of war.
Mack spoke with surprising calm. "Troops, sit down. Please, just sit down. Hear me out."
They followed his orders. This time out of fear, not respect.
Knowing that words would not justify his ruthless actions, Mack reached into Melody's pockets and removed two cell phones. He set aside the pink one, obviously hers, and began manipulating the drab one. He found his key and held it up. It was a message from Kevin's phone to Mack, telling Mack the misinformation about the Cityside attack earlier that day. Mack looked around to make sure that the point had been made. It had.
"That's right, people. Melody was the traitor. This is Kevin's phone. She killed Kevin, while we were all sleeping, I'm assuming. Melody remained loyal to Dillon, who fucked her over more ways than thrice. Guys, you know what I'm talking about. Carl and I found her fake fingernail inside Kevin's clenched fist. He was thinking of us even as he was facing certain death. He was securing a clue. Carl is not a traitor. He is, in fact, more loyal and more Riverside than any of us. And that's why he let me pretend to beat the crap out of him and convince everyone that he was the traitor. It had to be convincing. It had to be convincing so that Melody there would believe it. So that Melody would believe it and text Dillon, thus Cityside, that we are attacking the left flank tomorrow morning."
Mack looked around at his troops, making sure that they were on his side. They were smiling. They had all secretly hated Melody, and now they were glad that they had reason to do so. And they were proud of the cleverness of their leader. He was protecting them. He was being . . . proactive.
"Carl, if he is still alive, is on our side. He is our new intelligence. He is -- our hero. Now, here's the plan. The real plan. While Carl and I were looking for Kevin, we found a stash of ammonia and cleaning fluids left by the cleaning crew. As Carl and I figured it, we need to fight fire with fire, albeit a bit delayed. The only problem is, we need a delivery system. We need a way to smother Cityside with flammable fluids. Think, people. Think."
Much more quickly than Mack expected, Tina proposed an idea. He had not heard Tina speak in his two years in the office.
"Mack! Mack! Oh, yay! I have leftover balloons in my desk drawer from Sally O'Neil's retirement party."
"Sally O'Neil," Mack asked incredulously.
"Yeah. I mean, you didn't come. Not many people did. But we had a retirement party for her. Well, I did. She didn't make it either. But I have a bunch of balloons left over."
"Excellent, Tina. Well done. Take Mario for protection and go find them. The rest of you, especially you smokers, even you closet smokers, this is no time to be prideful, gather your lighters and matches. We need them all."
Part Three of Four