Liberator Part IX
Taylor's eyes began to leak. “Will they be all right?”
“If we have anything to say about it,” Hardesty growled, “They will.”
“What do we have to say it with?” Wilson asked quietly. “That sniper rifle? You told me you'd used it like a club.” He rolled his shoulders, walked around behind the couch. “Bend the barrel? Throw off the sights?”
“Marksmanship instructor,” Hardesty said, “doesn't mean sniper. Does mean gunsmith, though.”
Wilson blinked at her. She smiled a slanted smile and raised a shoulder at Bidwell. “Your responsibility, Wilson. Mine's different.”
“Vengeance?” Wilson's voice and expression went arch.
“Clear my name,” Hardesty said, simply.
“How?” Bidwell inquired. “Seems like a lot for one woman to tackle.” She twisted around to look up at him, and he went on gravely, “One woman who actually has a job already – tutoring and protecting one small boy.”
“I'll resign,” she began.
“No,” Bidwell said. “We'll help.”
“Taylor needs -- “
“Us all, yes,” Bidwell said. “We'll need him before this is over, probably. Look, Angela – I know what's at stake, here. Mikaela's my friend. The girls are Taylor's friends.” He stopped, tamping down a raw edge of something in his voice; Hardesty could almost hear him counting to ten. “Ben is my friend, as well as my boss. If I let anything happen to his children, to his wife – how am I supposed to face him after that?”
“Depending on how involved the Regents are in this,” Hardesty said, “You might be choosing to let his Presidency end. How do you think he'll react to that?”
“So long as I'm telling him about it afterward as a vague possibility, and not a fait accompli, he'll be fine,” Bidwell said. “Of the two, he'd rather lose the job than his family.”
“I'd lots rather he didn't have to lose either one,” Wilson put in. “This is not a plan, people. This is an emotional catharsis, and I won't say we can't all benefit from it – if all it does is make us feel a little less helpless, that's a good thing too. But if you're serious – and I don't doubt for a minute that's how you feel – we can't just go charging off in all directions.”
“First,” Hardesty told him, “I need to look over that rifle.”
Taylor raised his head. “What do you need me to do?”
“Stick to your dad like you were glued on,” Hardesty told him. She vaulted the back of the couch, sat beside him. “Taylor, listen to me, okay? You're the most important person in this room right now. Your job is to make sure that you and your Dad stay safe. It won't be easy and some of it will be absolutely no fun at all, Taylor. You've had to grow up – hard and fast – a lot in the last few months. But you aren't done yet.
“Tell me about Tasha.”
Taylor's ersatz spectacles lent his earnest expression a melancholy air. “What do you want to know?'
“What did she want to study?”
“She likes airplanes,” he answered. “She wants to be an engineer, and design jets that could go faster and farther on less fuel.”
“The Palmer School,” Wilson said, “would be perfect for a budding engineer. The math and science curriculum there is designed to prepare students for MIT or UCLA advanced placement.”
Hardesty gave him an appreciative glance. “You do your homework, too.”
“When Taylor's ready,” he began.
“I wanted Tim to accompany my son to school,” Bidwell said, “so he'd have someone familiar to rely on.”
Hardesty pursed her lips. “Lots of confidence in you, Timothy.”
“Uncle Tim knows how things work,” Taylor said. “He's just like you, Miss Angel. Well ... not exactly like you. But he knows the same things, about how to do something, how to get people from place to place, how to win an argument with my Dad.”
All three of the adults glanced at each other from beneath raised brows.
“Tasha thinks he's awful cute, too,” Taylor said. “Kayli thinks she's got a crush on him.”
Hardesty smiled, showing off dimples. “That,” she said, “is really good news, Taylor. Does Kayli like him too?”
He shook his head. “She doesn't not like him. She just hasn't ...” he stopped. “Kayli doesn't like anybody, the way Tasha likes Uncle Tim.”
Wilson, whose cheeks were scarlet and whose lips were gnawed white, looked helplessly at Hardesty without letting Taylor see his face, and mouthed, “I had no idea.”
Bidwell put a hand on Wilson's shoulder, threw a nod toward the bedroom. Once they were out of sight, Hardesty heard Bidwell talking to Wilson in a low, reassuring voice.
“How about you, Taylor,” Hardesty said. “Do you like anybody the way Tasha likes Wilson?”
He considered. “I like you, a lot,” he said. “But I don't think it's the way Tasha likes Uncle Tim. I think Dad likes you that way, though. So, would you stay on with us, if he asked you to?”
Stunned, Hardesty opened her mouth, but couldn't get words out for several seconds. Finally she managed, “If he asks, sure.”
Taylor grinned hugely. “I'd like that. So what are we going to do now?”
“Well,” Hardesty said, “I guess I'll teach you a little bit about firearms, Taylor. Hand me Wilson's backpack, and let's get started.”
Taylor lifted the black nylon bag from beneath the coffee table. “Do you want me to turn off the TV?”
“No, leave it on,” Hardesty said. “We might hear some important news that we'd miss if it were turned off.” She didn't add that she felt sure Wilson and Bidwell needed the background noise to reassure themselves. She opened the main zipper of the backpack and lifted out the lower receiver of the take-down rifle, carefully.
“This is a stock,” she said. “This is a receiver ...”
Half an hour later Bidwell touched her shoulder. “Can you take a break, Angela?”
She lifted her head to look at him squarely. “In about a minute more, we should be done.”
He nodded and she fiddled minutely with a last adjustment on the newly-assembled rifle. “That sets the windage, and this ...” she showed Taylor, “adjusts the elevation. Any questions?”
“Why is it so heavy?”
“Helps damp down the recoil,” Hardesty said. “Makes the weapon steadier on a rest.”
Taylor nodded. “Okay.” He looked up at his Dad. “I think we're done, now, Dad.”
Bidwell winked at the boy. “Grab a glass of milk and a couple of cookies for Uncle Tim, would you?”
Taylor glanced up, noticed that Wilson still hadn't come back into the room. “I embarrassed him, huh?”
“You think?” Bidwell asked. Taylor sighed and walked over to the kitchen sink, where he washed and dried his hands then hunted for a glass and saucer. While he poured milk and counted out chocolate-chip cookies from a bakery bag, Hardesty slipped the pins back out of the takedown points on the rifle. “What shape is it in?”
“I need to reset the sights and seat the barrel so it's aligned with the chamber correctly,” she answered. “It'll work as it is, but I wouldn't want to depend on it at any kind of distance. Over about 300 yards it'll be out yay far.” She held up her finger and thumb, spread them apart from roughly three to over four inches. “Much more than that and you can't depend on your shot at all. I'd know more if I could go someplace and zero it in.”
“So what it's really good for,” Bidwell murmured, “is likely to be a bluff.”
Hardesty nodded sharply. “Yes sir.”
Taylor stepped through the door with the cookies and milk, and Bidwell nodded.
“We can't afford a bluff, Angela,” he said. “I've been talking to Tim. We'll get one crack at this, if we're very, very, very lucky.”
“It's always better to be good than to be lucky,” she said. “How many more rifles like that does the Detail have?”
“Four,” Bidwell said, “Tim thinks. No more than four, anyway. Maybe only two.”
“Does he know who carries them?”
“He says nobody carries them full-time. They're too awkward for fast work in close.”
She grinned toothily. “Depends on how fast and how close. That one was really handy when I ... acquired it.” Something caused her to turn pensive. “I'm a little worried about that Marine.”
Bidwell's attention went to the TV, where a “Breaking News” graphic flashed. “I think you can stop worrying about him, Angela.”
“Oh, damn,” she murmured, recognizing the face if not the name.
“They'll be hunting you for murder, now,” Bidwell said, ashen-faced.
Hardesty looked up at him and shook her head. “I'll be hunting them.”