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Final Remedy
by Daniel Steven


 Washington was burning.
    On the steps of the Capitol, Lieutenant Colonel Jubal Harker returned the salutes of the helmeted soldiers at the machine gun post. They looked scared. The fires to the north reflected in their eyes, and Harker turned to watch the flames rise in tall columns through the moonlight. Already the ferocity of the rioting had exceeded all predictions. Blacks against soldiers, blacks against police, blacks against whites--all just a few blocks from the White House. The center of the free world resembled the besieged capital of a banana republic.
    Although Harker wore the uniform of the greatest Army in the world, he felt impotent, as powerless as a Roman when the Gauls approached the gates of the Palatine.
    Someone behind him said, "Jubal! Jubal Harker? Is that you?" He turned and recognized Quint Mullen.
    "Quint!" said Harker. "This your unit?"
     "Damn right," said Mullen, proudly. "I've got Second Battalion." Mullen was short and muscular, a guy without a neck. He had been a few years ahead of Harker at Virginia Military Institute.
    Mullen's eyes glanced down at Harker's midsection, as if expecting to see something missing. He quickly jerked his gaze back to Harker's face and said, "I heard about what happened in Vietnam." Harker turned away and grunted, but Mullen bulled on, "They didn't make you retire?"
    Forcing a grin, Harker said, "Guess I'm just too valuable."
    Mullen snorted. "Sure you are. Who you with?" He looked at Harker's combat fatigues to locate a unit patch.
    "I'm at Fort Detrick. It's my permanent duty."
    "Yeah, that's right, I remember now. How'd you end up in 'Nam?"
    "I volunteered."
    "Oh," said Mullen, not really surprised. Every career officer understood that combat experience was a prerequisite for promotion to the higher ranks. Mullen asked, "So what are you doing here?"
    "My headquarters company is reinforcing the Federal Triangle."
    Mullen gestured toward downtown. "Do you believe this?"
    Harker clenched his fists. "It's been waiting to happen. The city's two-thirds black."
    Mullen nodded again. "Yeah, you're right." He pulled out a pack of Camels, offered one to Harker, and lit up. "Hell of a week, isn't it? First the bombing pause, then LBJ says he won't run, then the assassination. Hell of a week."
    "That's for sure."
    A youngish-looking Captain walked up from the command post and saluted. "Colonel," he said to Mullen, "we got orders."
    "Where?" said Mullen.
    The officer pointed his chin in the direction of the fires. "Looting patrol."
    "Son of a bitch," said Mullen. "I was hoping they wouldn't need us. Christ, we don't even have riot gear! Son of a bitch."
    Harker growled, "What'd you expect? The civilians don't give a shit about us." He continued quickly, "Mind if I tag along?"
    Mullen gave him a long, appraising look. Finally he said, "It's gonna be damned frustrating, you know. We're not allowed to fire our weapons except in self-defense."
    Harker nodded obligingly. "Well, if you've got an extra gas mask, I'd like to observe. I'm sick of hanging around here."
    Mullen shrugged. "If that's your idea of fun."
    The battalion of soldiers climbed onto trucks. Harker followed Mullen, squeezing his six-foot frame into the back of Mullen's command jeep. The jeep led the battalion convoy up Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Square, where an acrid pall of smoke hung over the White House; the main gate was defended by a company of D.C. National Guardsmen carrying bayoneted rifles.
    Everyone worries about the Commies, thought Harker, but it wasn't the Commies who were threatening the White House.
    The battalion detached a platoon to reinforce the Guardsmen, then drove back down Pennsylvania Avenue and turned north on 7th Street. They saw few civilian cars.
    A transistor radio was jammed into the jeep's dashboard; Mullen switched it on and fiddled with the dial until he found some news.
    "--Assistant Police Chief Jerry Wilson said of the extensive damage by looting yesterday afternoon that police were unable to make many arrests because of a shortage of men--"
    "That's a crock," said Mullen. "They had orders not to interfere--"
    "Shh," said Harker. I want to hear this."
    "--and tonight," continued the announcer, "Negro radical Stokley Carmichael spoke at his storefront headquarters--" They could hear the tape recorder click on, and then Carmichael's, soft, gentle voice: "Go home and get your guns! When the white man comes he is coming to kill you. I don't want any black blood in the street. Go home and get a gun and then come back because I got me a gun--"
    "Sources have reported," continued the announcer, "that Mr. Carmichael later attended a memorial service for Dr. King at Howard University, and was seen with a pistol--"
    Harker murmured, "Of course."
    Mullen reached out, violently switched off the radio and said, "I'm not listening to that crap!"
    "Look!" someone yelled.
    They were entering the riot zone; all around them were burned-out husks of buildings. The column of trucks halted and the paratroopers dismounted.
    Harker stood aside as the battalion's officers, consulting service station maps, led the soldiers in different directions. He joined a platoon heading up 7th Street.
    Just north of Mt. Vernon Place, the platoon put on gas masks and climbed over the remains of a police barricade. They marched through the sooty streets, dodging bricks and bottles, occasionally lobbing tear gas at gangs of blacks. In the distance, gunfire punctured the night.
    On H Street, there were only gutted storefronts and collapsed tenements. People dashed into broken store windows, grabbed whatever they could find, and sprinted into the shadows left by broken street lamps. Harker stopped on the sidewalk, took off his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
    Suddenly he heard a yell from the soldier in front of him, but before he could react he felt a blow to the side of his head. He staggered backward, still on his feet, and stared stupidly at the rock that had glanced off his skull and was now skittering to a stop on the sidewalk. Someone pulled him roughly into the middle of the street.
    Dazed, Harker looked above him and caught a momentary glimpse of white teeth and black faces glaring down from a second-story window. Struggling with his holster, he managed to get his pistol out and pointed upward--but the faces were already gone.
    Time stopped. Harker closed his eyes, and through pain and blackness an image appeared, an image of an open tent flap covered by insect netting, a bayonet slicing through the netting.    Then a black hand, with long fingernails, tossed a grenade through the newly-cut opening.
    Someone was shaking his shoulder, and he heard a voice say, "Sir! Sir! You O.K?" The soldier's voice, filtered through a gas mask, sounded alien. Harker opened his eyes and put his hand up to his temple; it came away bloody. He swayed and said, "I don't know. You tell me."
    The paratrooper looked at the wound for a moment, then said, "Don't look too bad. But you might have a concussion. Better see the medic."
    "No!" said Harker. "Use your first aid kit. Just slap something on."
    The soldier shrugged and said, "O.K." While the rest of the platoon waited, he bandaged Harker. Then they resumed the patrol.
    Harker joined the soldiers in rushing at some of the larger groups of looters, threatening them with tear gas grenades. The looters would momentarily disappear, then reappear as soon as the platoon passed. It was a charade.
    Finally, the platoon lieutenant stopped to guard what was left of a men's clothing store. Harker removed his gas mask and breathed deeply of the foul air, trying to get hold of his turbulent emotions. It seemed incredible that the vendetta had followed him halfway across the globe. They want to kill me, he thought. They will never give up. Bastards.
    A wave of hate swept through him, bringing confidence and energy. He looked at the deserted street and realized there would never be a better chance for some payback. It was a wonderfully satisfying thought.
    He walked down the street and into an empty doorway. About a hundred yards behind him, two black men carried a console color television through the broken display window of an appliance store. They walked, crabwise, toward a nearby alley.
    Bastards. Unseen by any of the soldiers, Harker ducked into the alley ahead of the looters. The two men appeared a minute later, intent on their prize, not noticing him until it was too late.
    "Hello, boys," Harker said as he stepped out of the shadows. "Nice night for looting." He drew his pistol and pointed it with both hands. The nearest looter's eyes widened and he said fearfully, "Wait a minute, man, I--"
    It was a glorious moment. Harker watched the man's face as he squeezed the trigger of the .45. The heavy slug threw the looter backward, ripping an enormous hole through his forehead. The television crashed to the ground, shattering the tube.
    "Motherfucker!" screamed the second man--actually a kid, not more than 16. He stood there, eyes wide, staring alternately at his dead friend and at Harker.
    "You pay for that television, boy?" said Harker.
    "I--no, man. Let me go, please!"
    Harker motioned with his pistol. "Go on, get going."  The teenager gulped, turned, and ran.
    Harker let him get five yards before shooting him in the back. The impact carried the kid a foot in the air and sent him sprawling forward into the filth of the alley. Harker watched him gasp for air and die.
    And it was precisely then--standing near the bodies of the looters, inhaling the pungent aroma of tear gas, gunpowder, and death--that Jubal Harker had his vision.
    He saw that the rioting would be quelled, and normalcy restored--but nothing would change. He saw that there must be a final reckoning, a last campaign. Maybe not in ten years, or even twenty, but someday. And he was the right person, in the right job, at the right time, to meet the challenge. Not just for revenge--although he would get that, too--but to change the track of history.
    Harker's career, his experiences, his whole life pointed to this one moment, to this supreme instant of enlightenment.
    He heard shouts and the sounds of combat boots as the paratroopers came toward the alley entrance. Harker turned and ran toward the other end.

Copyright 1996 Daniel Steven  

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2002, Daniel N. Steven