First chapters of The Human Disguise






From the end of the bar, Tom Wilner could look through the cavernous main room and pool hall and still see her dark hair as she leaned back in her chair. The boyfriend, Tiget Nadovich, sat next to her, wearing that dark jacket over his black shirt and black pants that Wilner had seen him in twenty times before.
It bothered Wilner that all the databases listed him as a citizen of the United States for the last eleven years. That meant he got it just before the ban on immigration. It also meant he got it just for being in the United States when the amnesty bill passed and everyone inside the borders of the country was awarded citizenship. The Congress limited it to the first forty- nine states because they saw the writing on the wall about Hawaii. Once the independence movement started rolling, no one wanted to stand up and say that the native people of Hawaii didn’t deserve their own country. Plus the fact that the United States was engaged in three wars at the time didn’t help their position.
That’s why the United States took in another twenty- seven million citizens in one day, and then conscripted most of them into the military. Somehow this creep had avoided ser vice, but he was legal and that didn’t make Wilner happy.
Wilner motioned for the bartender to bring him another Jax beer. Since the government didn’t get involved in much regulation of industry there were more products available in more places. Antitrust was a thing of the past. That meant a wider selection of beer and this New Orleans brew was originally deregulated to help raise money for Katrina redevelopment when the government gave up about ten years after the storm. Now everyone drank it. Wilner slowly sipped the beer as his eyes, almost involuntarily, stayed on the woman. Her dazzling smile and her dark eyes conveyed intelligence.
“Detective Wilner,” came a voice from behind him, making him jump.
Wilner turned, then shook his head. “Hey, Steve.”
“Hey, Willie, I thought you were busy to night, or were you just avoiding me?”
“Nothing like that. How’d you know I was here?”
“Your housekeeper.”
“When did you talk to her?”
“You aren’t answering your V-com. I called the house.”
Wilner nodded, looking straight ahead. He’d turned off his video communicator, which was a misnomer for a device that did much more.
“Why’d you come way out here?”
“Just a nice change. You get a different kind of people wandering through.”
“Yeah, folks that don’t want to see the cops. You’re not working on something, are you?”
He shook his head, too embarrassed to admit what he was really doing. He tried to change the subject. “Anything happen on patrol today?”
Steve nodded as he sat on the stool. “Oh, yeah, riding that bike from the Northern Enclave to the Miami Quarantine Zone is so exciting I never run out of stories.”
“What happened?”
“Nothing, you knucklehead. Same as every other day. Just a long ride in soggy weather.”
“Lot of area.”
Steve mumbled, “Damn Unified Police Force. I remember when each city could field a police department.”
“That was a long time ago. No one can afford the taxes now.”
They sat in silence until Wilner asked his friend, “Why aren’t you reading up on the aliens?”
“Go ahead and make fun. When they finally arrive I’ll befully informed and know what to do.” Then Steve scanned the room and stopped at the table with the beautiful darkhaired woman. “Oh, I get it.” He looked at Wilner.
“Are you crazy, following you ex- wife around?”
“We’re not divorced yet.”
“Has she called?”
“Has she even come by to visit the kids?”
“Once, for Emma’s birthday.”
Steve sighed then said, “You’re not armed, are you?”
“Out here, who cares? More shit goes down between the turnpike and the Everglades than the rest of the state. No one ever investigates.”
“But a gun in a bar, even by a cop, would land you ten years on a penal farm. Or worse, ten years back in the military in some godforsaken desert battleground.”
Wilner nodded. “You’re right, Steve. And I did leave my pistol in the car.”
“You crazy? In this place? Shit, I brought in two.”
Wilner had to laugh at his smaller friend’s attitude. They had gone through the police academy together and joined Florida’s Unified Police Force about three years after it had been established.
Besslia stood up and took hold of Wilner’s arm. “C’mon, buddy, plenty of places for a couple of cops like us to drink.
You don’t need to be here.”
Wilner jerked his arm free, still staring at his wife at a table of four men. For the first time he noticed that the men all looked similar. All in their thirties, with black hair, high cheekbones and dark eyes. For a moment he wondered if they might not all be brothers, but according to Nadovich’s limited profile he had no living relatives in the United States.
The door on that side of the huge bar opened and the rain drifted in. Wilner shivered slightly just thinking about the near endless rain out on the edge of the Everglades.
Steve said, “Global warming, my ass. I miss the days when August in Florida was warm. I even miss mosquitoes. What about you?”
Wilner settled back onto his stool, glad his friend had known enough to leave him alone about his wife. He said, “I don’t remember mosquitoes.”
Now Steve looked across the room. “Those two that just came in could be jihadis if they only had on their headdress.”
Wilner nodded. Muslim headwear had been banned in the United States for a dozen years now. Some of the Muslims had left to seek religious freedom elsewhere. He didn’t think any of them found it. But Besslia was right—with the dark hair and facial features these two did look Middle Eastern.
Then, to his surprise, the men walked directly to the table where his wife, Svala, sat with her boyfriend. The table welcomed the Middle Eastern men and then Nadovich leaned to Svala and she stood and slowly tromped toward the bar.
Wilner watched her come closer, but she didn’t look up. Past her he saw the men at the table huddle and then exchange packages.
“What’s that look like to you?” he asked Besslia, who had followed the exchange as well.
“Like there are too many of them and it’s none of our business.”
Wilner fought the urge to approach his wife. She’d never notice him all the way in the corner. That was his original intent. Now he faltered.
The door on the other side of the room opened again. This time a tall blond man slipped in quickly and settled, unnoticed at a table by the door.
Wilner made a quick assessment as the blond man scanned the bar and watched the table with Nadovich. He didn’t look that interested in the quiet table’s activities, but something wasn’t right about him. Wilner had been a cop for six years and he was starting to believe his hunches. Now he had a hunch they were going to see some trouble.
Another man entered from the door directly behind him. He was shorter than the first man, but also blond with light features. This one marched directly across the wide floor toward the table with Nadovich and his friends.
Besslia nudged him. “That don’t look good.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Here,” said Steve, poking him under the bar.
“What’s this?”
“My backup. An old Glock .40 caliber conventional handgun.”
“You really did have two guns?”
Steve smiled. “Hey, we weren’t all combat marines. I brought a knife too.”
Wilner accepted the small pistol. “Just in case something goes down, I’ll keep it.” It was light compared to his duty automatic.
They were issued conventional firearms, but the rounds were hot, 11 millimeter. Slightly bigger than the .40, only the military or police were supposed to have the rugged semiautomatic made by the venerable Beretta firearms company. Using super light alloy casings and concentrated propellant, his duty weapon carried 28 rounds stacked in a long magazine.
The short blond man shouted something in an unknown language as he came to the table and what ever he said got everyone’s attention. Even Svala turned from the bar and looked at the man. He spoke again and then turned and made a spitting sound of disgust.

That stirred the table as the two Middle Easterners stood up and backed away, one of them clutching the leather pouch Nadovich had given him.
Besslia said, “What’s this?”
Wilner slowly stood, gripping the pistol in his hand under the bar. “Easy, Steve. No harm in just talking shit. Let’s see what happens.”
Before he could hear Steve’s reply, gunfire erupted from that side of the room. The pops from the automatic weapon echoing in the tall, wide room like claps of thunder.
Wilner instinctively ducked and then moved to the corner of the bar to get a good view. The big blond man by the front door leaped and drew a knife as he fell on one of the men from the table. The others had scattered as the second, smaller blond man returned fire with a small machine pistol.
Then Wilner saw a flash and heard the crack a split second later.
Steve yelled in Wilner’s ear, “Christ, someone has a flasher. I thought only the military had them.”
“I guess there are some on the open market.” Then he stood to take another position closer to the action. As he came up from behind the bar another flash of light destroyed a jukebox as it surged past the intended target. An energy weapon, or E-weapon, had been nicknamed a flasher by the Eighty Second Airborne since they first came into use during the third Iraq war. The flash of light beamed through a prism of gases could melt steel, destroy living tissue and cause terror among troops. As the deadly devices matured, the weapons became smaller, but lost some of their power. This one was handheld and probably only good for two or three shots. That’s all it usually took. Instantly the jukebox melted and settled into a heap of glass and metal. An old country song skipped on an endless loop of a man singing “Live like you were dying,” over and over. It was still identifiable, but no one would ever hear the jukebox play any other song again.
The two blond men, working together, were wading into the group led by Svala’s boyfriend. The taller one used his knife to nearly gut one of the men from the table. The blade cut through his leather jacket and shirt, leaving a vicious gash where blood and internal organs looked ready to spill out onto the bar’s dirty floor.
The other man fired his pistol into the center of the group and reached for the satchel sitting on the edge of the round table. Nadovich also grabbed it and the satchel ripped apart, spilling several items onto the table and ground. He had his own pistol and pumped a bullet into the smaller blond man’s chest, sending him back a step. The noise, shouting, smoke and burning jukebox gave a level of confusion that emptied the bar at the edge of the Everglades in moments. Patrons fled out the door nearest Wilner as he and Steve started to advance toward the melee.
“Police, don’t move,” shouted Wilner as he ducked, knowing it would draw fire. He was mainly trying to scare the men outside. No one wanted to be caught with unlawful weapons like a flasher.
His shout did the trick, as someone threw a chair through a window and men started to flee.
Wilner looked to where his wife was standing at the bar. She was rushing to Nadovich’s side and raced out the front door with him. As Wilner stood to follow, another shot came from the fight, but this one was aimed at the two cops.
Two more men jumped out the shattered window. The taller blond man fell to one knee to help his wounded friend.
Wilner and Steve advanced, their pistols up and aimed at the remaining conscious men.
“Don’t move, don’t move,” he shouted, thinking of his last combat mission in Iran eight years earlier.
The big man slowly turned his head. It was the smaller man that surprised them. He had at least two serious bullet wounds yet he stood, turned and dove out the window.
Steve muttered, “What the hell were they firing? Blanks?”
The other man raised his hands.
Wilner looked over and saw one of the Middle Eastern men with a gunshot to his face. He was dead. The canvas satchel Nadovich had given him was by his side. The man with the horrendous knife wound lay on the ground, but was still moving.
As Wilner heard the sirens in the distance he said, “What a mess.” He watched as Besslia checked the corpse, then looked in the canvas satchel.
Steve whistled and held up the bag for Wilner.
He stared at what had to be more than a million dollars in standard U.S trade currency that was commonly called “suds.”
This whole night was going to raise questions.The paramedics had transported the knifing victim to the main district hospital and Wilner had the big blond man in custody. The crime scene guys photographed the body of the Middle Easterner and picked up bullet casings around the bar. Someone had finally unplugged the jukebox stuck on one line of an ancient song. Wilner was surprised that crime scene came to a bar fight, but because there were cops involved in the shooting, even though they didn’t hit anyone, the district commander thought it was smart to be thorough. Crime scene was too expensive to send out on every case, usually the victim’s family had to be wealthy enough to pay the expenses. But every once in a while the state showed good judgment. Besslia was searching the area around the table while Wilner waited for a detective to take charge of the scene. He looked at the big man and said, “You’re in one load of trouble.”
The man remained silent.
“You feel like telling me what it was all about?”
The man just stared at him. He had blue eyes and looked to be in his late twenties. His blond hair was cut so close to his head that it resembled a pale fuzz.
“One man dead and the one you stuck with your knife won’t survive.”
“He will live.” He had a deep monotone voice and a slight, unfamiliar accent.
The man repeated, “He will live.”
“I saw the wound, pal. His intestines were exposed.”
The man just stared at Wilner.
Wilner knew people occasionally survived catastrophic wounds. He had seen it himself, up close and personal. But flukes like that didn’t happen twice. The man he saw with the knife wound was as good as dead.
Steve walked over with something he had recovered from the floor of the bar. “Look at these.”
Wilner inspected the little electronics boards. There were five small, sophisticated circuit boards with high- end metal guides designed to fit some specific device. He wasn’t much of a technical guy, but he saw that the boards slipped into slots and were probably military in origin. They looked too expensive to be for anything else. He turned toward the blond man. “You guys were fighting over shit like this? Or was it the suds?”
The man stayed quiet. Wilner shrugged as he stood, then his V-com beeped. He stepped away from the man and mashed the receive key. A small video screen appeared with his boss’s face and he was obviously not in the office.
“Willie, what the hell happened?”
“Just fell into it, Chief. These guys started shooting and I was present.”
“And your moron friend, Besslia?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Look, Willie, I don’t care if you guys were in that dive with your weapons. All I care about is that it looks like someone is involved in the case when the media calls. You got it?”
“But, boss, I was a witness and . . .”
“C’mon, Willie, it’s late. Spit it out.”
“My wife might have been with one of the groups.”
The older man sighed and thought about it, then asked,
“Does it bother you?”
“You mean her involved in the case?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Well, Detective Wilner, this ain’t the twentieth century and the realities of a short staff and one police force have eliminated any need to worry about conflicts of interest. It’s yours. Find out who’s dead, who killed them and what the fight was over. Then move on. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And Willie.”
“There’s no overtime for this. Good luck.” The screen went blank before Wilner could respond.