By Gary Phillips
That evening Warfield and Critch Duling stood on the rooftop of the Zenith Vending Machine Company in the Antelope Valley. The temperature in the desert area was warm and both men sweated in their dark clothes – their work attire for breaking and entering and more.
“Got it,” Duling said, down on a knee. He manipulated small knobs on a device the size of a smartphone, but thicker and heavier. This had a wire lead he’d attached to a digital read-out alarm pad attached to a short, stout pillar. He’d just deactivated the system with his gadget.
“Good,” Warfield said, snugging one of his gloves on his large hand, then hefting a pick axe. The head of the pick axe had been spray painted black so its metal wouldn’t reflect light. He raised it over his head and sunk the pointed end into the roof’s shingles, tar and plaster and wood frame beneath. He then pried loose some of the roofing material and pulled the head of the tool free. Again, he raised the pick axe over his head and brought it back down. And again he tore loose a small section of the roof, the muscle under his shirt bunching and releasing on impact. They’d already done an infrared body heat scan of the premises with another gizmo they’d brought with them and felt confident the place was devoid of warm-blooded inhabitants.
Once more Warfield tore into the roof and once more chunks of roofing came away due to his efforts.
“Want me to spell you?” Duling said.
“I got this, you save your strength. I know how delicate you are.” He was barely breathing hard.
“I appreciate that,” Duling said dryly. He watched Warfield bring the pick axe up and bring the pick axe down in rhythmic, steady strokes. His face was impassive and it struck the former second-story man that Warfield looked more like a pneumatic-powered automaton whose sole function was here at this moment. That prior to this time and afterward, he might well cease to exist.
In about half an hour, only once pausing, Warfield put the pick axe aside. He used the side of his gloved hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Duling used the side of his work boots to knock aside the now destroyed roof material. Warfield had opened up a good-sized oval revealing a metal inner substrate. He stepped back as Duling undid the flap of a bike messenger bag. This was lined in foam and he extracted a glass container the size of a thermos. He unscrewed the top and poured out stingy amounts of a liquid the consistency of pancake batter. He traced the oval with this chemical compound. It smoked and bubbled on the metal and ate its way through the two-inch steel.
Duling stood. The location of the vending machine business was at the end of a cul-de-sac in an industrial section. There were no pedestrians nor cars passing by – at least near them. All was quiet. Warfield nodded. Duling raised his foot and brought it down. The eaten away oval of metal gave way at the edges and clattered onto a concrete floor as it landed inside the building.
The two slipped on their night vision goggles and descended through the fresh hole on a thin, strong line of knotted nylon and cable blend. Each man had strapped around their torsos utility belt bandoliers with several types of equipment in their pouches. In shoulder holsters they also carried handguns of particular modifications. An older gentleman of Warfield’s acquaintance had designed the guns. They looked like ordinary 9 mm semi-autos yet shot near silent rounds, the suppressor built into the weapons’ chambers. The man who built the guns had once been a vigilante known as the Silencer, active in the ’70s through the ’90s. The sidearms could also be switched over to explosive rounds as well.
Once in the facility, Duling and Warfield prowled about, initially only noting the accoutrements of what the company supposedly offered
“I’m not getting any signal like what Asimov identified for us.” Duling looked at the screen of the device he’d used on the roof. He walked past a band of modern–style vending machines. They were devoid of product but from the titles on them, some were made to dispense candy and sodas, and others, healthier pre-packaged salads.
“I heard that,” Warfield said, standing near the repair section for the vending machines.
Duling’s instrument started to beep. “Getting a reading, Luke. There’s a door back here.” He pointed and started in that direction.
Warfield started moving that way too when both heard sounds. There was a scrape and the bumping of metal on metal.
“Son of a bitch,” Duling exhaled.
“Well I’ll be,” Warfield said.
Before them several of the vending machines, rocking side to side on flex tube legs, clanked and waddled forward into the middle of the floor like mechanized penguins. Other joined them as their fronts opened and turned in on themselves, gears whirring and servo units sequencing their pre-programmed movements. What had been individual vending machines slid one section onto another, other sections coupling and merging seamlessly in an almost organic way. The totality of the new construct suggested a bear – a eight foot plus bear. Gears, hydraulic lines, bolts, rods telescoped one into another and multi-colored sections of shaped metal composed the body and legs, its claws and fangs. The transformation took less than a minute to happen.
“Didn’t see that coming,” Duling muttered. He’d unlimbered a small grenade but the mechanical beast, complete with an accompanying menacing growl, sprang at him before he got a chance to throw it.
“Critch,” Warfield yelled as he dove aside.
Duling had also dived aside, into a row of other vending machines he hoped don’t change into flesh eating mechanical bear cubs. His lower leg had been swiped by a metal claw, shredding this pant leg and flesh.
Warfield rolled a twin of the grenade Duling had under the bearbot now upright on two legs. The grenade exploded but the assembled beast leaped upward on its spring-loaded legs, avoiding the brunt of the blast. It now crouched on all fours on the floor, the green glowing eyes in its head zeroed in on Warfield.
“Heads up,” Duling announced from where he’d scrambled atop one of the vending machines. He fired several explosive rounds from his gun. Mini-explosions boomed heat and light and smoke in the closed space. The robot bear, one of its; legs now leaking hydraulic fluid, rammed the machine Duling was perched on and it fell over. He went flying into some of the other vending machines.
Warfield was on his belly and also leveled explosive rounds at the thing. The bear turned, back on its hind legs and released a stream of fire after it opened its maw. Warfield rolled and scrambled away, seeking temporary safety among the hulks of vending machines in the repair area.
“I don’t like this<” he said.
“You’re telling me, Duling answered. “My leg’s killing me.”
“No, I mean, I think we’re just being played with, delayed and distracted. Let me check something.” Warfield dared to look around from a bulk he’d hidden behind. The bear was on all fours again, some of its parts and casing were strewn about on the floor, but it still functioned. Warfield clamped into place a motorized magnification lens onto one eye of his goggles. He zoomed in for a view of the inner workings partially visible inside the bear’s chest.
“You’re not going to like this, Critch.” He said as he sprinted toward the bear construct.
“Oh man,” the former safe cracker whined.
Outside two passengers and a pilot in an MD 500 helicopter hovered into position over the vending machine business one of them owned through a series of dummy fronts. A satisfied smile animated this man’s face as the building blew up from within. Glass exploding from the windows, stucco and plaster and wood propelled like canon balls through the air.
“Goodbye, Mr. Warfield,” the man said. He was in his late 40s with a cleft chin and combed back hair. The chopper’s plexiglass canopy shone orange and red, reflecting the colors of destruction as the facility burned. The man said to his companion, “You do good work.”
The other man dipped his head slightly. An observer would have noted with his V-shaped mouth, almond eyes and slanted eyebrows, he had cat-like features. The copter roared off into the night sky.
Raised deep amid the cracked concrete and weathered palms of South Central L.A., weaned on the images of Kirby and Steranko in comic books, and Hammett and Himes in prose, Gary Phillips also draws on his experiences – ranging from being a community organizer, teaching incarcerated youth, to delivering dog cages – in writing his tales of chicanery and malfeasance. His latest work includes the graphic novel Big Water, co-editor of Black Pulp, and the novella, The Essex Man: 10 seconds to Death.