The Crime Readers' Association

The Last Assignment

by J G Harlond

Sierra Nevada, California. Winter, 2025

The wind thrummed through the gap around the shutters, making the rough wooden boards rattle in such a way as to set off a rhythm in his head. He strummed an imaginary guitar with the swollen fingers of his right hand while his bruised left hand depressed the strings to form the chords. The rhythm became a repetitive melody. Then a menacing, insistent tune. He turned on his straw pallet, trying to block nature’s anger from his ears, but the tune would not go away.
Chill daylight crept into the sleeping area. Dan pulled himself to a sitting position and looked at his freckled, weather-beaten hands. Would he ever play a guitar again? Would he survive to see a real guitar again? Not the way things were going.

Voices broke through his morning misery. He struggled to his feet and joined the line for a slice of slimy white bread, a tin cup of water and another day of hard labour. He had infiltrated the Latino rebels as instructed; stayed with them when they were rounded up as illegal aliens as instructed; located the President’s secret California base as instructed – all without weapons, wi-fi, or gadgets – and now, without any bloody way out.

Leaving the food line, he shuffled into his work group’s labour line, keeping his fair, greying head low to avoid eye-contact but listening to the muttered conversations around him.

“There are only half of the guards here? What’s going on?”

“It only the oldies and Old Wheezer.”

“Poor Old Wheezer, if anyone needs a day off it’s him.”

“Where’s the rest? D’you think they’ve got a day off?”

“Nah, they’ve got it nearly as tough as us.”

“Don’t be stupid. You ever seen one break into a sweat shifting rocks?”

“What’s going on, then?”

The comments continued as Dan’s gang was joined by other captured rebels. Seeing they were socialising, an ill-fed yet obese national trooper jostled them into pairs to form a double file for the march up the mountainside to the fort.

“Hey, Generalissimo,” quipped one of his companions from the anonymity of their line, “where’s your troops?”

The aging, wobble-jowled corporal cradled his rifle, removed his stub of cigarette and spat on the ground.

“For your information, sonny, and to keep you up to date with the outside world, there’s a welcome parade for Her Highness the First Daughter.”

Vaya, vaya!” various Latinos responded in mock delight. “La Niña Toda Poderosa – aquí.

“Yeah, and she’s coming to inspect your progress, so you’d better be real good today, because if you aren’t, we’ll tell her and she can personally push you in that quarry and blast you to pieces as a special treat. Anything else you’d like to know?”

There were a few mumbled comments regarding who was sleeping with the corporal’s wife and mother, but the prisoners near the front remained silent: they were too close to either end of the rifle to make any remarks.

More national troopers arrived. Placing themselves at intervals along the marching column, they all set off up the mountainside towards the new fort – or palace, depending on your point of view. It was an exact copy of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The hole created by the quarried stone was being developed into the President’s mausoleum, like Franco’s in Spain. Dan had laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all, but nobody else could see the irony.

As they marched, Dan kept his head down, conversing with no one. His arms ached so much from the previous day’s labour and his hands were so blistered he feared even the thought of holding a spade. At the beginning of the assignment with the rebels he’d been obsessed with keeping his fingers safe and whole to operate the tiny gadgets and pistols he’d left stashed away in the Los Angeles camp. The rebels saw him as a clueless liberal foreigner, and he played along with it. They called him Dan because one of them said he reminded him of a British film actor. Another neat irony if the Daniel was who he thought it was. Now, without access to any form of back up or hardware, his cover was proving regrettably real: he hadn’t been trained for this sort of field work, and it wasn’t as if he could reveal his real identity to his captors. His organisation would deny him, anyway.

The sloppy crocodile turned left off the asphalt road and headed up a steep, stony track. Within a few yards, the elderly guard known as Old Wheezer was gasping for breath. He paused, hands on knees, trying to pull oxygen into his nicotine-damaged lungs. The crocodile came to a halt. A trooper set the old man on a convenient boulder and they moved off again, leaving the old nationalist to recover on his own. It had happened before: he would stagger up the mountain slowly, arriving in time for the return march. But not this morning, on this day he stayed where he was, too sick to fulfil his duties as an obligatory oppressor.

Dan’s group arrived at their allotted site. They were issued with spades, axes, saws, implements that could so easily be used as weapons, but weren’t because bored guards kept their rifles cocked; trigger-happy with ennui. The slightest hostile action resulted in a bullet.

Dan was assigned to a tree-felling group and given a rusty saw. His work party spent the morning pulling chopping down young trees, sawing them into logs then digging up the roots. Eating any berry or nut that looked remotely edible, they cleared a dozen square metres with their bare hands until a boy leading a mule laden with metal containers appeared with their midday meal. The men sat down on the chill, rocky earth to eat, too bodily weary to talk.

Storm clouds were gathering, there would be thunder and lightning by early evening: they’d get back to their shed soaked to the skin with no means of drying off or staying warm. If they got back? Lightning on a wooded mountainside had its danger.

Thunder rumbled. The ear-worm guitar melody in Dan’s head was joined by drums, then strident brass instruments lifted to a crescendo. Thunder and lightning – or a volley of bullets.

As they scrambled back to their feet for the afternoon session the sky opened. The guards cursed and ran for shelter in the cavern dug into the quarry. The immediate area around the prisoners was now virtually treeless, they had no shelter whatsoever. Rain fell in slanted sheets. The men worked on until a trooper emerged to take charge. Waving his rifle around, he ordered everyone to hand in their implements and line up for the return trek. Dan gladly relinquished his saw and got into place, but a gap down the column signified a man was missing. Smart Joselito. Either he hadn’t heard the order, or he was hiding, or he’d got away earlier when the troopers ran for cover. The prisoners exchanged glances then shuffled around to fill the gap, each hoping the nationalists were too keen to stay dry to count.

The crocodile slipped and swore its way down the rough track, now a rapidly swelling stream, until they came to a halt at the point where they had left Old Wheezer that morning. His body lay where he had toppled from the boulder, his head in a puddle, his rifle gone. The guards gathered around the corpse, arguing among themselves about whose fault it was. One man was detailed off with two prisoners to get a stretcher and there was a general disorder.

Dan briefly studied his partner on his right: a stick-thin teenager with acne. How bright was he, though? Dan motioned with his head to his left and then to his right; he would go one way, the boy the other. The boy nodded. Dan gestured ‘wait’.

They waited for what seemed an age until the stretcher bearers arrived. The guards, soaked to the skin, cursed as they struggled to get the sodden body onto the stretcher. Dan’s right hand poked the boy’s hip, and gestured ‘down’. Simultaneously, they hunkered down in the stony mud. Other prisoners followed suit. No guard came waving a rifle, ordering them to stand.

“Now,” Dan murmured and rolled off to his left. Rolling over and over, until his body was in a tangle of scrub and wet grass. Through briars he scrambled, all noise overlaid by crashing thunder and the electric storm directly above. Dodging between pines, he pushed his way as far and fast as he could from the work line.

As he moved, the insistent, gathering rhythm in his head urged him on. Staying low to the ground, dodging between gnarled trunks and over slippery rocks, he headed uphill away from the sierra road, not down to civilisation as they’d expect. Eventually, a sharp stitch in his side forced him to a halt. He was on a ledge. He lay flat and tried to see what was below.

The teenage boy had obviously lacked combat experience, lacked training or any sense at all. He must have rolled off the path then got to his feet and started to run too soon. They’d followed him. A rifle shot seared the curtain of rain, then another and another. Dan got to his feet and lurched into a hollow under a granite cliff. Lying back, he waited until his breathing slowed, until he could contemplate the next move.

For a few moments he felt himself relax. For a few quiet bars in his menacing personal tune, he enjoyed the forest smells around him, noted the resilient vermilion caps of huge toadstools. And then, rising, loud and louder, the music ended with an almighty crack that split the heavens above. A final cymbal signalled the bullet shattering a young man’s skull.

Despite it all, Dan slept for a couple of hours, curled up like a forest mammal and woke at dusk. The music had changed. There was a steady, string melody now. Then the bloody guitar again. Dum-di–di-dum-dum-da-dum . . . And he recognised it. Hah! Irony of ironies – he knew that theme tune. Crawling out of his hiding place, he stood and stretched. Moonlight and the promise of a dry dawn. Time to move down to the road, hijack a car and head back to the abandoned camp, then back to the city. A mission to be reported, a new assignment to begin. Preferably one that required a white shirt, a sharp suit and regular nights in a casino; he was too old for this field stuff. Way too old.

By the time he reached the sierra road leading back to the outskirts of the city the sun was over the horizon and he had a plan.

An armoured, black four-by-four pulled up beside him. Standing in the glow of the headlights fearing the worst, Dan smoothed back his hair, straightened the collar of his torn shirt to show he was Caucasian White and respectable, fully prepared to leg it back into the trees if necessary.

A huge, shaggy white-blond head emerged from the open back window.

“Need a lift, old chap? We’re going into LA. Quite safe now. California has capitulated and joined the President’s American States Association, and my friend in here has cleared all the foreign rapscallions off the streets.”

The voice was over-English and instantly recognisable. Dan nodded, but said nothing.

“Budge up, Vlad,” boomed the infamous Englishman, turning to his companion. “Plenty of room for one of us.”

Dan blinked and tried not laugh. Stuff the next assignment, reporting this bit of field work and information would get him a golden handshake, maybe even the silver vintage Aston Martin he’d hankered after for so many years.


Author’s note

As you may have guessed, this is a fictional account of a future situation had the events of November 2020 in the USA gone the other way. The tune in Dan’s head is, of course, the James Bond theme. You can listen to it here:

Read more about Jane G Harlond  here

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