THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009, 1:12 P.M.
A heavily modified VW bus barreled down an empty I-5 freeway near Fullerton, California. This bus looked ready to start a war, not carry protesters to oppose one. Its mostly black paint job interrupted with bright red love hearts sent a confusing message to the world.
In pursuit was a line of police cars, lights spinning, sirens blaring. Three black Cadillac Escalades followed the cops, their mission still unclear. High above the freeway, network news and police helicopters recorded every moment of the breaking news story for millions of enthralled viewers. People in breakrooms, living rooms, waiting rooms, bars, and coffee shops gathered in front of TVs and watched on phones and office computers. Productivity in the Southland had ground to a halt, again.
The people did love a good car chase.
Inside the bus, Angie Miller didn’t like what she saw on the large monitor in front of her. “VG, we’ve got a roadblock ahead.” Nervous, she sunk her hand into her afro and scratched her scalp. She felt something buried within the voluminous tight curls and wasn’t surprised to find a pencil. Some engineers used their ears to hold their writing instruments, she used her hair. She left the pencil where it was for safekeeping.
Her husband and copilot, Logan, turned away from his control table in the back to take a look at the monitor. “Interesting. I didn’t think the cops would do that. They usually just chase perps until they run out of fuel or do something stupid.”
“You think someone pulled some strings?” Angie asked.
“Probably. Considering what we found in those safety deposit boxes.”
Logan sat behind his table again. “Slow down and then lower us. If you see any spike strips, stop like we practiced.”
FRIDAY, JANUARY 2, 2009, 2:35 P.M. T-MINUS 41 DAYS.
In a quiet suburb of Irvine, California, a tow truck backed up to the driveway of Mr. and Mrs. Miller’s modest single-family home. On its flatbed sat a rust-covered remnant of a bygone era.
The garage door opened, revealing Logan Miller waiting to claim his prize. He checked once again around the garage to make sure he had cleared plenty of space. With his and Angie’s car gone, all that was left was an impressive collection of tools and equipment. A tinkerer’s paradise, where Angie and Logan spent most of their time.
The driver of the tow truck angled the bed onto the driveway and then slowly lowered the VW bus. Once on the ground and free of its tethers, the driver and Logan pushed the bus inside the garage. Paperwork wasn’t signed, but hands were shaken.
The door inside the garage leading to the house opened and closed. The garage door slid shut, and fluorescent lights blinked on.
“Remember to keep the garage door closed, VG,” said Angie. “We don’t want our neighbors getting into our business.”
“Understood. But it’s the middle of the afternoon. Nobody saw.”
“You don’t know that. There are plenty of unemployed people stuck at home these days. It’s bad enough the tow truck driver knows we’ve got this.”
“Don’t worry about him. I did some work on the side to cover the tow. Nothing about this,” Logan pointed to the VW bus, “is recorded anywhere.”
Angie looked the bus up and down. She didn’t seem too thrilled with the choice of vehicle. “Are you sure this piece of shit will do the job?”
“Not right now it won’t, but it will,” Logan answered. “Plus, I like the imagery. An old hippy wagon, armed to the teeth, taking on the rigged system. It’s symbolic.”
“If you say so,” she said. “So, what’s first? We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not like they’ll let us drive into LA with the cash. The cops, the mob, the bank. We’re going to get real popular real fast with all the wrong people.”
“I know, I know. Don’t worry, I’ve got some ideas brewing.”
Logan drew Angie’s attention to the front of the bus. “Check this out. If the police set up a roadblock and spike strips—” He pointed to the area where the bus used to have a front bumper. “I’m going to extend the front out a few inches and install an air suspension system, battering rams, and something special for those strips.”
Angie nodded her head. “Cool. I’m going to take a look inside. See what I’ve got to work with. Let’s take inventory and then create a task list.”
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009, 1:14 P.M.
Angie slowed the bus down and crawled toward the spike strips. As she was almost on top of them, she studied a ten-inch monitor mounted onto the dashboard. The image on the screen showed the output from a camera facing down at the road. She inched forward until she could see the spike strips. “In position. Lowering.” She grabbed a large, industrial-grade control panel that was wired through a crude hole in the dashboard and pushed her thumb against a green button. The suspension quietly hissed as the bus lowered. It stopped automatically when the bus was an inch off the ground.
Angie looked at her large monitor again. The police at the roadblock were looking at each other. A couple of them shrugged. Another monitor mounted at the rear of the bus, showed the cops behind them had stopped and blocked the road there too. They were well and truly surrounded. One of the cops started talking to them over his PA system.
“Please turn off your engine and exit the vehicle.”
“VG, are we going to do what he says?” Angie asked.
“I wasn’t planning on it. You take care of the strips and I’ll talk to the nice man.”
Angie smiled at her husband. She was scared but had never felt so focused in her life. This may be their last adventure together, but if it failed at least they’d be going out in style.
Sticking out of the floor next to the driver’s seat was a long lever. She pulled it back about three inches. The ground-facing camera showed two small forks extend from underneath the bus and under the spike strip. She pulled on the lever again and the small forks tilted upward. The strip slid back toward the bus. They were now free to move forward again, albeit carefully.
Logan began his discussion with the police over a PA system designed to disguise his voice. Angie had installed the system and thought it would be hilarious to make her husband sound like a helium-loving chipmunk.
“Hello. We’re very sorry, but could we ask you to move out of the way please?” Logan asked.
The cops didn’t seem to be in a playful mood.
“Turn off your engine and exit the vehicle.”
“I see. Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”
“Turn off your engine. You are surrounded.”
“Okay, well I did ask nicely. I’d like to apologize in advance for any damage we cause.”
Angie watched her large monitor intensely. The cop using the bullhorn looked at the rest of his team and threw his hands up. Most of the police still had their guns trained on the bus, but some others seemed to be having an animated discussion about what to do next.
She grabbed the industrial control again and pressed a red button that was directly under the green one. The bus lifted off the ground back to its regular cruising height.
Angie put the bus in drive and carefully guided the spike strip away to her left. Once she felt like she had covered enough distance, she pushed her forklift lever forward all the way. The forks leveled and then retracted. As they disappeared under the bus the spikes were dropped back onto the road.
“How we doing, VG? Those cops up to anything?”
As well as monitors providing views in front of and behind the bus, extra monitors, just regular twenty-four-inch flat screens found in any office, were mounted to the sides. With no windows, these four electronic panels and the tiny cameras that fed them information were the only way Angie and Logan could see the outside world.
“They mostly seem confused,” Logan said.
Angie reversed away from the spikes and then steered the bus towards the weakest point in the roadblock: two Dodge Chargers nose to nose, facing away.
Logan leaned over Angie’s shoulder to take a look at the monitor. “That’s it, slow and easy.”
The police outside started to react to the slowly approaching bus. The man with the bullhorn shouted, and some others opened fire. Bullets slammed into the metal-work, but nothing got through.
“See, I told you,” Logan said. “Nothing to worry about.”
The bus reached the parked Chargers and gently, but firmly, pushed them apart. Once clear of the roadblock, Angie hit the gas and the bus roared away.
Logan got back on his PA system. “Sorry!”
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, 2009, 5:35 A.M. T-MINUS 36 DAYS.
Logan pushed the door leading to the garage open with his back as he carefully carried two mugs of coffee. He could hear Angie inside the hollowed-out VW bus. He found her crouched down in front of the dashboard, tying together wires. She was wearing his favorite outfit: her vintage dungarees, blue t-shirt, and Dr. Martens with the red laces and big love hearts hand-painted on them. She had a notepad in her front pocket and a pencil wedged into her hair.
“You’re up early,” he said.
“I couldn’t sleep. Figured I’d get everything wired up.”
Logan reached in through the side door and handed Angie her coffee.
“Thank you.” She cupped her hands around the mug to warm them.
Logan took a couple of steps away from the bus. He had removed everything from inside except the driver’s seat. All the windows were gone too. The bodywork’s many rust spots, dings, and scratches were treated and ready for paint.
“What’s next for you?” she asked.
Logan’s eyes bulged, overwhelmed by the question. Where to start? He looked over at the long list of tasks they had written on their huge whiteboard mounted to the wall.
“Well, I figured I’d install the roll cage and the armor.”
“Great, what do I do while you’re doing that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you’re in here, you’ll be in my way. Can you work on something else until I finish?”
Logan was irritated. He was looking forward to doing something that wasn’t just boring prep-work. His mind was already set and happy. Now he would have to either find fault in Angie’s logic (not likely) or go back to his to-do list and pick something else. Angie seemed to understand. She climbed out of the bus and joined him.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Just give me today to finish the wiring, then you can install your roll cage tomorrow.”
He tapped his mug against hers and then leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“Why couldn’t you sleep?” asked Logan.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because we’re planning to rob a bank, and it’s likely we’ll get killed by the corrupt assholes we’re stealing from.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“But there’s more. I don’t want to hurt anyone, VG. At least, no one innocent, you know?”
Logan took a sip of his coffee. “I hear you. Don’t worry about that. We’re going to have plenty of ways to defend ourselves. I call them my ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power options.”
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009, 1:20 P.M.
Looking at the monitor mounted to the rear of the bus, Logan could see the police getting back into their cars to continue the pursuit. He sat on a plastic milk crate behind his control panel, a simple three-foot-high metal table welded to the floor. Several large buttons and levers were installed, like something from a low-budget 1960s TV show.
“Hey, sweetie. Could you do that little shimmy we talked about?”
Angie smiled. “Affirmative, VG.”
There was Angie again with that nickname. A reference to his skin, which was the color of vanilla ice-cream, and how his body and posture reminded Angie of a silverback gorilla.
Angie slowed the bus down a little, weaving left and then right, covering the entire width of the freeway. Logan waited until she was on her second full trip across before he pulled the first of three levers marked ‘spikes.’
“Time for a little soft power,” he said.
He pulled each lever slowly and at a steady pace. As he did, unseen motors lowered trays underneath the bus, loaded with homemade road tire spikes. Each one consisted of a couple of nails bent at ninety degrees, welded together at the bend. All the ends were sharpened to tire shredding points. Hundreds of them poured out onto the concrete making a nice line right across the freeway. Logan eagerly watched the monitor. As the police patrol cars hit the spikes, tires burst, and the entire front line came to a halt.
Logan punched the air. “Nice! That did it.”
Angie laughed and guided the bus back to the center of the freeway. She hit the accelerator. “Is anyone following us?”
“Hold on, I’ll take a closer look.” Logan used a small wireless remote to control the camera feeding the rear monitor, using one stick to zoom in, and the other to scan from left to right. At first, all he could see were damaged police cars, but then something new caught his eye. One of the black Escalades had pushed by the police near the hard shoulder. Its driver had wound his window down and was scanning the road for spikes. Once clear, the SUV picked up speed. His friends in the other Escalades tried to follow but the cops had stopped being polite, and once again had their guns drawn.
Logan zoomed in on the lead driver. “We’ve got trouble. Looks like one of Carmichael’s thugs is on our tail.”
Angie was not shy about expressing herself. “Shit-balls!”
“We’re not done just yet, sweetie. Slow down a bit.”
“Slow down? We can’t outrun them?”
Logan bobbed his head from side to side as he crunched the numbers on what he knew about the Escalade against his improvements to the VW’s drivetrain. “Er, not even close—we’re more tank than race car. We need to take them out now rather than have them around when we dump our payload. I might need you to do some fancy driving so slow down to twenty. This bus is a bit top-heavy. If we tip over, we’re finished.”
THURSDAY, JANUARY 15, 2009, 2:12 A.M. T-MINUS 28 DAYS.
“Look at this thing,” Logan said as he admired their handiwork. The VW bus still needed a proper paint job, but it now had push bumpers installed, two at the front and two at the back. Each one was mounted to a support beam connected to the undercarriage frame and stuck out ten inches from the vehicle. The bus had new wheels and tires, and the windows had been swapped out for thick metal plates. On top of the bus, Logan had installed a series of PVC pipes, openings pointed in every direction. It was still a VW bus (mostly), but less drive-out-to-a-field-and-smoke-something, and more drive-out-to-meet-bad-guys-and-smoke-them!
Angie stepped out from the bus and stood by him. “It certainly looks ready for action. How did your test drives go?”
“Not bad. That old turbo four from the Subaru Impreza looks like it’s going to work out. I got up to nearly fifty and it felt rock solid. Should be fast enough.”
“Doesn’t seem fast enough.”
“Trust me. We’re heavier than a Hummer H1. Once we get moving, we’re going to be very hard to stop.”
Angie grabbed his hand and led Logan back inside the bus. She invited him to sit on the milk crate behind the metal table welded to the floor.
There wasn’t a lot of space left inside the bus. To the left of Logan’s table was a portable television next to a row of car batteries wired together. Christmas lights were duct taped to the panels of armor installed in place of the windows. At the back of the bus, a metal box covered the new larger engine.
Logan eyed up the controls on his table and then noticed something new. “Ooh, is that for the—”
“Rocket launchers? Affirmative.”
Logan rubbed his hands together and smiled. Angie stepped forward to explain the five new buttons screwed into his table. “I still need to label them, but I arranged them in a cross with one in the middle so it should be self-explanatory.”
He pointed at the button at the top, the closest to the rear of the bus, and then the rest, going clockwise. “Rear, my right, front of the bus, my left?”
Angie nodded. “You got it. The air cannons on the edges are angled down a little so wait for your target to get close. The button in the middle shoots our payload. I’ll let you build the missiles.”
Logan smiled a big, childish I-get-to-blow-something-up smile.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009, 1:22 P.M.
Bullets smashed into the back of the bus. One of the Caddy’s occupants had stuck his criminal head out of the sunroof and was happily unloading his assault rifle in their general direction.
Logan watched the monitor as he fired again. More bullets found the bus, and the rear monitor went black.
“Shit, we lost the rear camera!” he shouted.
“Shall I speed up again?”
Recalling that the SUV was only about twenty feet directly behind them, Logan checked the portable television installed next to his table. It was set to a news channel covering their wild ride and, usefully, spent most of the time looking at the action via the chopper hovering above the freeway. “Hit the brakes.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Hit the brakes. We can take the hit; they can’t.”
Angie slammed her foot onto the brake pedal and the bus skidded to a halt. Logan fell backward off his milk crate but managed to hold on to the roll cage. Angie was pushed forward and she hugged the steering wheel. A moment later, the sound of the Escalade’s screaming tires stopped as it smashed into the back of the bus.
“Are you alright?” asked Angie. She turned around to check on Logan.
“I’m okay.” He hauled himself back onto his milk crate. He could hear the driver and gunman in the SUV shouting at each other. The Escalade’s tires started to squeal again and Logan could feel the bus being pulled backward. In the distance, the sound of police sirens got closer.
“They’re stuck on our push bumpers. Trying to get free.”
“Shall I pull?”
“Nope. I got this.” Logan looked at the cross of red buttons on his control panel and pressed the one at the top. A label above the controls now said ‘hard power!’
The sound of air rushing through the rear cannon was followed by the screams of one of the gangsters that had crashed into them. Logan figured it had to be the asshole with the assault rifle.
“Okay. Sweetie, turn to the right and slowly move forward. Then go left. We’ll break free.”
Angie did as instructed, and as she made her first left turn, the bus suddenly lurched forward having lost the extra vehicular baggage. She straightened the bus and hit the gas.
“Something’s wrong. The bus feels sluggish,” she said.
“We probably got a flat when they hit us. Just do your best.”
“Will we even make it to downtown? I’m struggling to get to thirty right now.”
“The run-flats will get us there. I’ll check the news, then tell everyone where we’re headed.”
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 11th, 2009, 11:35 A.M. T-MINUS 1 DAY.
Angie threw her half-eaten pizza into the box and patted a stuffed belly. “I’m never eating again.”
Logan happily helped himself to another slice of BBQ chicken heaven. Angie stepped away from the kitchen. The adjoining dining room and living room were empty—no furniture, ornaments, or photos—just a couple of backpacks and sleeping bags on the floor. Everything had been sold in service of their great big project. This was their last night in the house and tomorrow it would be owned by Carmichael’s bank. The bank they were going to rob.
This was their last act of defiance against a system that had blown a greedy hole in the world’s financial system and cost them their jobs. A world that somehow still saw women engineers as an unhirable peculiarity, especially black ones, and chose cheap youth over seasoned professionals who knew their shit. It had been quite a journey for them both. From productive members of society to disillusionment, and then outright rage at a country corrupted by, and in favor of, wealthy assholes. Over the years Angie had gotten tired of every step forward being met with a setback. Increasingly smaller wage raises offset by more expensive gas and groceries. A tax break met by an increase in their health insurance costs.
While folks at the top showered themselves with bonuses, Angie and Logan’s 401(k) halved in value. They were pushing fifty, and they still had student loan payments to make. Angie had always thought life was like a crowded concert with everyone jostling for a better view of the show. These days it felt more like a gladiator mosh pit with the wealthy elite sitting high and happy out of harm’s way.
“I’m going to miss this house,” she said.
Logan swallowed his pizza before responding. “Me too.”
Angie unzipped her backpack and pulled out her laptop. She walked back into the kitchen and opened it up for Logan to see the screen. “I finished the website.”
The laptop booted up, and Angie opened a browser window. In the address bar, she entered the location of her files to pull up the site.
“So, this goes live tomorrow morning?” Logan asked.
The page was simple with a photo of the finished battle wagon surrounded by text, headed with the title ‘PROJECT: PITCHFORKS!’
“I’ve got our basic statement here, and further down I list all the shady shit Carmichael’s banks and his local government stooges did to contribute to the recession. I reference supporting news articles too.”
Logan was about to fill his mouth with pizza again, but paused to say, “How is anyone going to find this?” The pizza entered his mouth.
Angie gave him an ‘are you kidding me’ look. “Because I know my shit, that’s how. Once we’re done with the bank, I’ll push this to our hosting account. It’ll be live. Then I’ll post links to it on our new social channels and send the website address to all the local media stations. It won’t take long to get noticed. By the time we get into LA, we’ll be trending.”
Logan nodded happily as he finished chewing his food. He washed down his pizza with soda and then wiped his mouth with a napkin. “So, tomorrow?”
Angie sighed. “Yeah, tomorrow.”
“Still time to back out if you want.”
“I know. I don’t want to. Do you?”
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2009, 1:43 P.M.
It looked like everyone in the world had gotten their message. As their VW battle wagon crawled into downtown Los Angeles, scores of people lined East Fifth Street. The police had cleared the road of traffic and were waiting at the junction of South San Pedro Street. Exactly where Logan and Angie said they would stop.
Hordes of people were held back by the police. With their monitors and television, Angie and Logan could see folks with signs, some simply saying ‘The 99%’ and others with thick red lines painted diagonally across approximate renditions of major bank brands and the White House. Some had even brought actual pitchforks, so it seemed the Millers’ message had struck a nerve. People cheered and shouted; the sound was deafening.
They reached the center of the junction and Angie once again lowered the bus. The crowd outside was going nuts in anticipation. Angie had been a little vague with the details on their website, but she expected most people had figured it out. Stealing from the wealthy and corrupt only to drive to one of the poorest parts of Los Angeles; of course, they were totally going to Robin Hood all over everything!
Angie left the driver’s seat and joined Logan in the back. He had already put on his backpack and helped her with hers. She took a couple of deep breaths and shook her hands to expel the nervous energy.
They faced each other and Logan gently cupped her cheek and pulled her close. Forehead-to-forehead, they both closed their eyes. “This is it, sweetie, no going back now. It won’t take them long to figure out who did this.”
“I know,” she said.
“To tell you the truth, I’m scared shitless.”
Angie laughed. “So am I, VG.”
Logan pushed forward a little and kissed Angie. She threw her arms around his neck. Their connection was as strong as it ever had been. They were two friends, coworkers, engineers, and lovers, raising their middle fingers at a system that thought it could do whatever it wanted.
Logan reached over to the cross of red buttons on his table and pressed the one in the center labeled ‘cash confetti.’ Then they watched the TV as the air cannons above them blasted thousands of twenty-dollar bills into the air. It was kind of beautiful to watch like it was happening in slow motion. The crowd outside, of course, went berserk and immediately rushed past the outnumbered cops in order to grab themselves some free money. People surrounded the bus as the windfall fell from the sky.
“And now, time for the smoke,” Logan said. He slapped his hand down on another button on his table. From the news chopper’s view on their TV, thick smoke billowed out from underneath the VW bus. This deterred some people, who ran away, but others covered their mouths with their hands or shirt sleeves and continued to grab as much cash as they could. From above, the bus couldn’t be seen anymore.
“Here we go,” said Angie.
Logan and Angie opened the side door of the bus and jumped outside. They immediately started to behave like everyone else, madly grabbing bills, while they stepped further and further away from their beloved bus. Their beautiful beast, their righteous chariot, disappearing into the smoke surrounded by people looking to share in the big score.
Once they made it to what was left of the police blockade, they turned away and double-timed it west on East Fifth Street. When they reached San Julian Street they turned left. They could still hear the crowds cheering and shouting. Someone on a bullhorn was trying pointlessly to calm the situation down. A few people late for the party ran past them.
On San Julian Street, Angie and Logan walked up to an old Ford Escort. Logan fished out the keys and unlocked the driver’s side door.
“Hey!” a voice called out. A young voice. An unknown voice.
Angie and Logan slowly turned to see a young black teenager holding a wad of cash in his hands.
“I saw you leave that van. I wanted to thank you for this.” He looked at the money in his hands.
Angie stepped up to the boy and pulled the pencil out from her hair. She pointed it at the kid like it was a knife.
“And what are you going to do now? Don’t push me, kid. Don’t mess with this engineer and her pencil.”
The boy looked a little panicked. “Oh, I won’t tell anyone. I promise!”
“What are you going to do with that money?” she asked.
“Er, well, this will help with my college fees.”
Angie felt this was too good to be true. She got closer, her pencil held just inches away from the boy’s nose. “Yeah, and what are you studying?”
“C-c-computer science?” he said as a question, as though unsure about his life choices suddenly.
“Sweetie, we’ve got to go,” Logan said.
Angie didn’t take her eyes off the boy. “You think this kid is telling the truth?”
Logan walked up to the kid and Angie. He took his backpack off, opened it up and grabbed a small yet stuffed envelope and handed it to the boy.
“Yes. Now let’s go.”
Angie holstered her pencil back in her hair. “Sure thing.”
The couple ran back to the car and got in. Seconds later, it took off down the street on a new mission. A mission that would see churches, charities, and homeless shelters suddenly finding anonymous and generous donations in places where the right people would find them.
A mission that would cause a sitting congressman to be exposed for his connections to Carmichael after the news media received damning evidence from an anonymous source. Illicit compromising evidence held in one of Carmichael’s banks as insurance to keep the local government official in line.
The vigilantes, nicknamed by social media as the #99Warriors, who were later revealed as Mr. and Mrs. Miller, drove down the I-10 freeway on their way to Phoenix. Angie turned off the radio as a couple of idiotic ‘experts’ debated the implications of their work in Los Angeles.
“It’ll be harder now that people know who we are,” Logan said.
“I know, VG.”
“You want to stop? Maybe take the cash we have and head for the border?”
Angie turned to Logan and smiled. “Nope.”