Trueblood heard the barking as soon as the elevator door slid open. He recognized the voice as Bart's although the sharp bursts had a different timbre, a loud but strangely meek hollowness absent the personality of their habitual bullying bluster. It was as if someone were doing a poor impression of Bart, or practicing to imitate him. And it continued longer than Trueblood remembered it ever had. Three or four in a row, then a pause, then three or four more. These series repeated without variation as though following the percussion notations on a music sheet. They continued while Trueblood walked from the elevator to his office, and diminished in volume after he entered and closed the door to the hallway.
Doris looked up from something she'd apparently been studying on her desk. Her face was tense, lips remaining pursed as they resisted her effort to stretch them into a smile. “Morning, boss,” she said, her voice low and tight with caution.
“Happy Monday, Doris,” Trueblood said quietly, then,” What's with that?” He tipped his head toward the barking, which had indicated no sign of letting up.
She motioned him closer and began speaking in a near whisper. “The goonies,” she said, using her name for the two WACKO men who of late had commandeered the National Drug Control Policy offices.
“Didn't think I could ever feel sorry for that bag of wind, but they've been making him do that ever since I got here this morning. It's been going on over an hour now. Poor Cathy came in here crying. Said she's never been so scared. They've made him kneel on the floor and say Bart Bart Bart like he does, you know, and they won't let him up.
“You know, boss, how irritating that was at first, for me, anyway, but I got used to it after a while. Hardly even notice it anymore. Until now.”
“Yeah, I know. Where's Cathy now?”
“I sent her home. She was afraid to go back over there.”
“Same two guys?”
“She said yes. The big goon and that skinny one, the one I think is creepier. Talks like an undertaker.”
“Did Cathy say what set them off? Bart's been cooperating with them, so far as I know.”
“She said she heard their voices get louder, Bart's, anyway, but she couldn't make out what he was saying. She went to the door to hear better, and that's when she heard the undertaker tell him to start that Bart Bart Bart business.”
“Did she say what he said? The undertaker?”
“She started crying again when she told me that part, and I was afraid her voice would carry and they'd hear her. She said once the undertaker started talking Bart hardly said anything anymore, until he started with the Bart Bart Bart.
“She couldn't make out most of what the undertaker was saying because his voice was so quiet, like it usually is. But then she said it got louder, when he told him, Bart, to start saying his name. He got real sarcastic, like, You like to bully people? Huh? Makes you feel like a big shot when you bark at them, make them say your name? Huh?
“Let me hear how you say it. Go on, bully me. Tell me how you say Bart! He started shouting at Bart then, saying he couldn't hear him, to say it louder, and pretty soon she could hear Bart saying his name, but the undertaker kept telling him to say it louder, and finally she said he told Bart to get on his knees.
“That's when she said she got scared and thought maybe they were going to shoot him, like they do in the movies, like they do when they make someone get on his knees. That's when she came over here. She was practically hysterical. I calmed her down but then she started crying again when she was telling me all this. I told her she might as well go home, then, that I'd tell Bart she was sick.
“And that would be the truth, boss. She was sick by then, and I'm starting to feel sick now, too. What on earth is happening here?”Trueblood braced both hands on the desk and leaned in toward Doris. “I can't answer that right now, dear, but I don't like the way things are going and I will get to the bottom of it. Things will probably get uglier before they get better. No point in you sticking around for that. Joe should be here soon as he's parked the car. If you can brief him the way you just did me, and tell him I'd like him to hang tight in his office, you can head on home for the day.”
“What are you going to do, boss?”
“I'm going into the lion's den.”
“Is that a good idea? Wouldn't it be better to wait until things cool down in there?”
“Doris, I don't think it's going to cool down in there unless somebody turns off the heat, and at this point if I can't do it I don't know who can. At least I'll have Joe as a witness in case these guys, these goonies, go completely off the rail.”
“You'll have me, too, boss. I ain't going anywhere.”
“You sure, Doris? It's going to get pretty loud once I'm in there.”
“Boss, you know me better than that. We've been together too long for me to turn chicken now.”
“It wouldn't be chicken, dear, just some free time. You certainly deserve it.”
“Boss, you're not getting' it. I'm not leaving because I wouldn't miss this for the world.” She grinned and shook her head. “Now go on. We don't want ol' Bart's voice to wear out.”
By the time Trueblood stepped into the hall on his way to Bart's office the barking, with no discernible variation in cadence or tone, had taken on the semblance of a tape loop. It changed only in volume, growing louder by proximity. The sounds, in their unfaltering, seemingly interminable, repetition, had lost their human connection to Trueblood's sensibility until he pulled open Bart's door and stepped into the room. Instantly several changes took place.
Trueblood's peripheral vision first picked up the hulking form of “Buford”, the goon with the shaved pink head, crouching near a corner behind Bart's desk. He appeared to be holding a pistol with a long barrel – silencer? -- in one hand. He was staring down at a lumpen figure draped in a brown suit coat in the corner. The suit coat was pulsing in synchronization with the barks, which now filled the room and reached Trueblood's ears with a terrible anguish. He was also aware of a smaller, thinner, motionless figure standing nearer the door. The man Doris called “the undertaker”.
Almost simultaneously with these perceptions registering in Trueblood's consciousness were the changes in his physiology. Contrary to the reactions of most people in fight/flight situations, with adrenalin kicking the heart into high gear and the mind able to focus only on the threat, Trueblood had always experienced a stillness and clarity he guessed was similar to a hypnotic trance. The difference was that instead of becoming immobile and passive, subject to the hypnotist's whims, he, Trueblood, was fully in control. The control was strictly rational and immune to distraction. Emotions were benched during these moments – that is, until he called forth whatever emotion was needed to fuel the action he decided to take.
He knew he had this unusual ability as far back as he could remember. It wasn't until he reached high school that he learned how to use it creatively rather than merely to avoid or win fights. Recognition came on the football field his freshman year. Not the practice field, where the contact was between teammates. It happened during a game, the first time a player from the opposing team slammed into him, knocking him to the ground unable to breathe.
After recovering his breath on the bench, Trueblood returned to the game with an entirely new mindset and sense of his place in the game. No longer just a game, football had acquired for him an element of combat that activated this physiological anomaly. It made him a fearless and fearsome operative with an authority of self-possession that all players on the field recognized intuitively when they saw how deliberately he moved and from the implacable focus of his eyes staring at them across the scrimmage line.
This attribute never failed him as he quickly became indispensable to his high school teams and throughout his rise to prominence with Washington U.'s Huskies. Without conscious input he slipped into this mode standing just inside the office door. He knew physical combat was potentially imminent, and thus was not surprised to feel his football composure assert itself, knowing at the same time the effect it most likely would have on the two men from WACKO he faced.
“Let him up,” he heard his voice order.