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The Morning Shift.

by Oleg Volk

Hot, bitter coffee tastes especially good when the snow just outside the living room window is waist-deep. That day, the thermometer under the ledge showed ten below. To the left of the window, an old-fashioned clock indicated quarter to five. Anna had insomnia, again.

She has been up since three and moved downstairs to avoid waking up her husband. Han slept soundly, never woke up before nine and, if roused out of bed early, was not pleasant. On top of Anna's blue bath robe, an old coat fringed with rabbit fur helped the keep her from freezing outright. The high-backed wooden chair had enveloped the tiny gray-haired woman on three sides, with only her slippers showing past the carved oaken legs of it. Somewhere in the dark kitchen, their mutt Watson was sleeping soundly, twitching his long slender paws in synch with the tail. He had no trouble with sleep, either.

She had finished her book by four and turned the light off, trying to doze off. The vast den, interrupted here and there by bookshelves and potted plants, was getting uncomfortably frigid. Anna rose, clutching her robe closed. She had intended to put another log on the embers of the fireplace but, as she got up, the outdoor lights came on. A second later, she heard cars pull into her driveway. The engines died, one first, then the other.

Through the frost-covered window, several figures were visible, advancing briskly. "Wrong house", she thought "My, they are partying late." A doorbell chimed. The light came on in the bedroom upstairs, reflecting in snow outside. "Han can talk to these young men", she thought with relief. They lived some ten miles outside of the nearest town, but one still never knew who was out and about this late at night.

The sudden roar had shut off her hearing. She saw the dancing and flickering flashes outside, just as the light upstairs went out. A split second later, a blow on the door had shattered the glass and left the frame askew. A dark figure in a matte black helmet stopped at the threshold, scanning the dark interior with a slow, deliberate turn on the head.

Watson, waking up to a nightmare of noise and strange sights, did not linger on his kitchen mat. He streaked through the kitchen towards the stairs, his pale paws ghosting in the dark. The silhouette in the doorway followed the dog's path. A stubby weapon in the man's arms came alive, catching the poor beast with a long burst.

The dog's legs twitched awhile after he skidded on the smooth floor and slammed head-first into the first step of the stairway. The white wall of the hallway was pockmarked in red and black spots, alternating randomly. Anna watched the man reload, then reached to her right for a shotgun.

Now, you would ask: "Why would she even have a shotgun? You didn't say anything about her or Han being pedophiles or drug dealers or terrorists."

When her father died, some ten years ago, she had picked through the estate, trying to salvage what she could before the revenuer arrived. Hiding assets was more than Anna would have dared to do, but the old photos from dad's younger days in Hungary and other objects of sentimental value were hers by birthright. She found the single-shot .410, unregistered and all the more illegal for that, in her late father's office. Her first reaction was to turn it in, as she should have, but Han put his foot down. "We keep it, " he said.

We know that a shotgun is, at best, an anachronism in our modern times. One cannot hunt with it, and using it against people would result in long prison terms. The youths in many small towns have, in fact, made virtual career based on this fact. They would roam the countryside in packs and barge into homesteads. If unopposed, they would re-distribute whatever wealth they found, money, goods or women. Had a resident threatened them with a gun, they would retreat, report him to the police and pocket the reward.

For the past ten years, the shotgun had always been in the den, concealed by drapery. Anna had never fired it, for she had neither an opportunity nor ammunition for practice. All of the four slugs they had for the gun were kept in leatherette loops attached to the stock. Her vein-covered hand, numb from both cold and fright, pushed one of the skinny red cartridges into the open breech, then snapped it closed.

The shiny bead pointed right at the center of the intruder. He was silhouetted against the door, still looking around. "It's just a frigging dog", he shouted "I think you got 'em both."

Anna's eyes were fixed on the end of the barrel as her thumb cocked the hammer. The blast came immediately, as her other finger was already on the trigger. A soft lead slug is no match for body armor, but the plastic face shield was not nearly as strong. The man she had just shot in cold blood swayed back, then his knees folded and he sprawled across the floor, face first. The queer black weapon that he carried slid from his hand and came to rest over by Anna's feet.

For a brief instant, she could see so clearly: the dark puddle spreading from the ruined hamlet, a shiny brass cartridges staggered in the transparent magazine on top of the intruder's gun, and the tiny holes appearing in her picture window. She shrank back behind her substantial chair, just as the men outside sprayed the den with hundred of tiny tungsten core slugs.

It was fortunate than an armored car was available and no more casualties were taken. The ponderous six-wheeled vehicle crashed through the flimsy fence and fired its 6-pounder at the compound. Anna, still crouched behind her high-backed chair with a shotgun and three shells, did not answer. The trophy gun was of not use, for she did not know even how to grasp it. A few minutes later the cannon had hit the kitchen stove and set the gas line on fire.

The black-suited visitors had backed up, out of the way of the scorching heat. One of them kicked the mailbox, which was knocked over by the armored car on its way in. Black numbers on reflective plastic backing read "3576".

"Sarge!" he shouted, trying to overcome the ringing in his ears. "Wasn't it supposed to be 3567?"

They had called the HQ and confirmed the error. By then it was almost seven in the morning, but there was still time to set things right. The two cars followed the armored car down the narrow road to July Avenue, number 3567. According to a reliable informant, Joseph and Lisa Bergson who lived there, were in possession of at least four pre-ban books.

(c)1999 Oleg Volk