At the command, a dozen rifles spat into
the cool desert air. Harmon wasn't blindfolded but he had closed his eyes, yet
could still see the flash from each rifle barrel. Bullets zipped past his ears.
A stream of urine worked its way toward his socks.
Unwounded, confounded, he opened his
The commander of the rebels, the one
with the million dollars bounty on his head dead or alive, was pointing at
Harmon's pants and laughing. The others dropped the barrels of their Kalashnikov
knockoffs and joined him.
Harmon stole a glance at the three bodies,
mercenaries like him, who had already met the firing squad that afternoon.
At the direction of the commander, the
youngest of the rebels approached, drew out his K-bar and cut the zip tie suspending
his arms above his head, secured to rebar protruding from the wall of the
mostly demolished apartment building. He grabbed Harmon by the collar and
dragged him forward until he was nose to nose with the commander.
The leader's breath was overripe with
garlic. "You see how quickly people can die out here? If it isn't a bullet
or a missile it’s a scorpion bite or AIDS or a famine. The only magic that
keeps you alive is money. Are you ready to work some magic for us?"
Harmon nodded vigorously.
They pointed the way down the street
with their rifles. As he walked, Harmon couldn't stop thinking about his mates,
how, when asked one by one why they should be kept alive, all played a false
card: children at home, sympathy with the rebel cause, expertise that could be
useful. He'd been the only one savvy enough to declare that he could be
ransomed for money. Lots of money.
He was guided into the shell of a
storefront, where more rebels squatted against the walls. The commander handed
Harmon the cell phone he'd taken from him when they were captured. "You
call. We want a million dollars. American dollars."
Harmon took the phone, wondering if his
captor was so unsophisticated that he didn't realize the army could use it to target
him. He pulled up his supervisor Tom's cell phone number, dialed the
international code first. Luckily, Tom answered after a couple of rings.
Harmon explained the situation.
"Oh sweet Jesus," Tom said.
"And the others?"
"They won't need ransomed."
"You mean they escaped?"
"Well fuck. Look, I need to talk to
the CEO. Give me half an hour."
"Don't waste time," Harmon
said. "I doubt I have much."
He hung up, turned to the commander.
"They'll call back."
you an hour," he said,
directing his men to once again restrain Harmon's wrists and ankles in zip
After what he guessed was twenty
minutes, the phone rang. The commander picked it up, said, "Hello."
He listened for a moment, then held the phone up to Harmon's ear.
"Tom?" he said.
"I'm Harold Branch," the voice
on the phone said. "The company attorney."
"Sorry, Harold, but I don't need
legal advice at the moment. I need a million dollars."
"I understand your predicament, but
it's not that easy. A million dollars is a lot of money. How much do you think
they'd settle for?"
"A million dollars."
"And the others are dead?"
"Roger that," Harmon said.
"Jesus," Branch said.
"Let's not make it four for four.
When can you get the money here?"
"A million bucks? It's just not
going to happen, Harmon. We're barely above water this quarter. Tell him we can
do $250,000. That's the limit of our insurance. Now, if there was some way we
could get our hands on the reward…"
"You cheap bastards," Harmon
The commander stamped a foot, grabbed
the phone from him. "A million bucks," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Or we shoot your friend in the head tonight."
Harmon couldn't hear Branch's response,
but he could tell it was longwinded and displeasing to the commander by the
frown that buckled his lips.
"No, you understand," he
eventually said. "This is not a negotiation." He picked up his rifle,
whispered something to the solider closest to him, then fired a single round
into the dark. Immediately, the soldier screamed for him.
"That's just one leg. One million
dollars. You call back when you got it, we arrange the swap."
He listened for another long moment,
then said, "Not going to happen? You really don't give a damn about your
employee, is that it?" He hung up.
"You don't seem to have any
friends," he said to Harmon.
"That must be a hard way to live. You
see these men?" He gestured toward those surrounding them. "We die
for one another. Your friends, they won't even open up their wallets."
"Give them time," Harmon said.
"They'll come around."
"We'll call one more time,"
the commander said. "In the morning. Then, the bullet."
The group was evidently exhausted from
running from the army day after day, and soon fell asleep, all but one guard
stationed in the doorway who never took his eyes off Harmon.
At dawn, just as the growing light gave
Harmon hope that things would change with the next phone call, he saw, crossing
the face of the sun, an approaching cruise missile.
In the instant before he exploded,
Harmon had the time to realize that for a company whose bottom line was death,
the choice of collecting a million-dollar bounty or paying a million-dollar
ransom was really no choice at all.
Tom Barlow’s other stories may be found in
anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Dames
and Sin, and Plan B Omnibus, and periodicals including Switchblade, Red
Room, Pulp Modern,
Heater, Plots with Guns,
Mystery Weekly, Needle, Thuglit, Manslaughter
Review, and Tough.
His novel, I'll Meet You Yesterday,
from Bundoran Press and short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo, from
Pagespring Press, are available on