Too Bad (A Smitty Story)

 

 

She was a beautiful woman.
+++++Stunningly beautiful.
In the crosshairs of the 10-40×50 rifle scope her jet black hair waved like some erotic siren in the morning breeze.  She stood, facing two men, in a black dress that revealed long, sculptured legs.  And white heels.  The heels lifted her and sculptured the legs even more.
+++++Red lips.
+++++Lips, even from this distance and through the scope, glistened with a kind of sensual invitation. Around a shockingly narrow waist she wore a white leather belt.  White on black—with just a touch of bright red—completed the picture.  In the scope she looked like fantasy.  Something unattainable.  A vision any man would lust for.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Lifting a hand up he adjusted the scope to compensate for the slight cross wind blowing from his right to left.  A little over 900 yards.  So far away the bullet would arrive before the crack of the gunshot.  Removing his hand from the scope he gently clasped the plastic grip of the .408 caliber sniper’s rifle and settled himself in comfortably.  Gently, like a lover caressing his latest conquest, the right index finger extended and barely touched the wide trigger.
+++++Too bad.
+++++Too bad someone had to die today.  Too bad she got herself involved with the wrong people.  Too bad there was no other way to bring this dirty little mess to any other conclusion.  Too bad.
+++++Through the scope he watched her.  Saw her laughing at someone’s joke.  Saw the casual, relaxed way she moved among the two men.  Saw the heavy briefcase she gripped casually in her right hand.
+++++Too bad.
+++++He had to compensate for the slow roll of the large fishing boat he was using as a shooting platform 900 yards out in the bay.  But the waves gently rocking the expensive craft were constant and could be anticipated.  This far out on the blue waters of the bay he was far removed from the normal boaters coming into or exiting the cove where the wharf she stood, jutted out into the water.
+++++Softly the tip of his index finger on the trigger began to apply a little pressure.  The ugly machine in his hands . . . custom designed and built by a friend . . . was accurate out to 1,300 yards.  Just the blue steel of a bull barrel, a finely machined firing bolt, a built-in shooting bipod, the plastic shoulder pad with its built-in shock absorbing system.  And the big scope.
+++++When the gun in his arms belched fire and thunder he hardly felt a thing.  Not waiting to see if his bullet hit the target he slipped off the top of the fishing boat’s cabin and stepped into the cabin and started the boat’s powerful Chrysler engines.  Slowly turning the wheel to one side he got the boat moving.  Not too fast to draw attention.  Not too slow.
+++++Behind him, far away, he thought he heard the wail of sirens.
+++++Too bad.   Just too bad . . .
+++++” . . . it has to be done, Smitty.  She has to be the leak.  She’s the only one who knows where all the skeletons are hidden.  No one else does.  Take her out and we seal the leak.  We seal the leak and we stay out of prison.  Simple as that.”
+++++Simple as that.

Standing at the desk, in an office large enough to be some abdicated dictator’s throne room, he stood holding the color 8×10 photo of a beautiful raven haired woman dressed in a very skimpy bikini at the prow of a very expensive yacht.  Hair blowing in the wind.  A hand up to a cheek in an effort to move a sliver of raven hair from his eyes.  Beautiful.  Long limbed.  Stunningly attractive legs.  A figure that would make a eunuch grown in regret.
+++++Dropping the picture onto the desk, eyes as black as the soul of the living dead looked up at the man sitting in the high backed leather chair on the other side.  He was holding a very expensive cigar to his lips.  Lips that were molded into an irritating little smirk.  Dressed in a three piece Egyptian cotton suit, he looked like a very successful corporate lawyer.  Which in fact the was.   The lawyer part.  But one who worked for a crime boss by the name of Jesus Galanti.
+++++“Galanti wants this done?”
+++++The man with the black eyes spoke in a soft whisper.  But a whisper that could send chills down a spine.   Or even make a criminal confess to the cops voluntarily the moment he heard the dark eyed man’s name was interested in him.
+++++“He wants the leak plugged, Smitty.  A grand jury is breathing down his neck and the Feds have two task forces assigned to try and bring him down.  Someone is leaking information to the Feds. Information only two or three people in the organization would know.  She’s Galanti’s accountant.  She’s got her finger in every money stream our employer is involved in.  It has to be her.”
+++++Howard Hensley was not a corporate lawyer.  He was a well known criminal lawyer who had a reputation of taking on the more photogenic, therefore the most newsworthy, cases.  Everyone knew he liked defending the really big mob bosses in cases that might involve a six o’clock news sound bite.
+++++“When?” Smitty asked quietly, looking down at the photo of the woman again.
+++++“As soon as you can,”  Hensley grinned, pushing himself forward and reaching for an envelope on his well manicured desk.  “Here’s some money for expenses.  But don’t take too long.  The grand jury convenes bright and early this coming Monday.  If she’s their star witness and she isn’t around to testify the Feds will have nothing on Galanti.  So it’s imperative she’s removed from the scene no later than Sunday night.”
+++++Smitty took the heavy envelope and slid it into an inside pocket of his dark gray sport coat.  Eyeing the lawyer for a moment he nodded then slipped the photo off the desk and pocketed it as well.
+++++“The problem will be resolved by Sunday night.  Tell Galanti he can sleep soundly tonight.”
+++++Hensley painted that irritating smirk on his gray lips and nodded before reaching for the fat Cuban cigar. For his part the dark eyed hit man said nothing but turned and walked out of the large office.  Taking the elevator down to the ground floor he slipped the photo of the woman out and gazed at her intently.
+++++Beautiful.
+++++Too bad.

Two hours later he was knocking on the door of a large condo.  Dressed in the coveralls of an electrician and gripping a large metal took box in one hand he waited for the woman’s maid to open it.  But when the door opened it wasn’t the Hispanic maid.  Eyes dropping down Smitty looked into the smiling face of a seven year old, raven haired little boy.
+++++“Hi!” the boy said, smiling wide, green eyes bright as he looked up at the dark eyed man.  “You’ve come to fix the lights?”
+++++“Madre de dios!  Robbie, Robbie!  You shouldn’t do that!  Open the door to strangers like that!” the short, squat woman of indeterminate age cackled like an angry hen as she hurried to the boy, stepped in front of him and bodily moved him to stand directly behind her.  “Pardon, senor.  But the boy has no fear of strangers whatsoever.  None!  He drives his mother to tears and gives me high blood pressure every time he does this!  But, how can I help you?”
+++++Smitty, with blue contact lenses hiding his eyes and a body suit on underneath the overalls to give the appearance of a man fifty pounds heavier and definitely out of shape, smiled and shrugged.
+++++“Got two boys of my own, lady.  They drive me crazy as well.  But I hope they never change.  The super called and said you were having trouble with the electricity?”
+++++“Trouble?” the maid said, her face melting into a simple puzzle. “The only trouble we’re having is the switch in the kitchen.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
+++++“That might be the problem,” the disguised man said, nodding firmly.  “The super said you were having a problem with something and asked me to stop by and check it out.  Doing this on my lunch hour, lady.  Helping a friend out.  Can I come in and check it out?”
+++++“Sure!” the boy chirped, head sticking from and grinning as he looked up at Smitty. “Can I watch you fix it?  Please?”
+++++“Well,” the maid hesitated, looking indecisive, but then shrugging and shaking her head in confusion.  “I should call the senorita first.  But if you can fix the kitchen light she will be very pleased.  So come in, come in!  Let us close the door before someone else comes!”
+++++Smitty, disguised, smiled and half turned to briefly glance at the condo’s security camera high on the wall of the hallway.  He wanted to make sure whoever was watching. . . if anyone was watching . . . got a clear look at his altered face and physique.
+++++If the Feds were tapping into the security cameras he wanted them to chase ghosts.  If someone else was watching . . .
+++++He didn’t know about the faulty kitchen light switch.  But he believed in serendipity.  Walking straight to the kitchen, the dark haired boy following on his heels, he sat the took box down on a kitchen counter top and opened it.
+++++Forty-five minutes.  That’s all it took.  Forty-five minutes to electronically sweep the apartment.  Forty-five minutes to discover the place was heavily bugged.  Electronic bugs in the kitchen, the living room, the master bedroom.  High tech wireless bugs the Feds favored.  Smiling, the boy at his side talking his head off and watching everything he did, Smitty didn’t touch the bugs.  But he did plant a couple of his own.  Sent the boy back to the kitchen to get him a glass of water each time he sat one.  One in the woman’s bedroom.  One in the little office just off her bedroom.
+++++He even found the problem with the kitchen light switch.  One of the wires was hanging by a strand or two of bare copper wire.  With the quick efficiency of a man who knew what he was doing he cut the damaged piece off, peeled the plastic covering off another section of the wiring, and rewired the switch.
+++++Both the boy and the maid cheered and clapped when he flipped the switch on and the light came on bright and clear.  Saying his goodbyes he walked to the door and left.  The boy with the green eyes and raven black hair following him out of the condo and all the way down the carpeted hall to the elevator.  Constantly talking.
+++++When the elevator doors closed and the boy said goodbye, Smitty stared at himself in the polished chrome steel of the elevator walls.  On the face he couldn’t recognize himself was a quiet, almost forlorn mask.  There had once been a time he had a wife.  Once, a long time ago, they talked about having kids.  But the wife was gone.  And there was no thought about kids.   Until now.
+++++Three blocks away from the woman’s condo he handed the uniform and electric repairman’s truck back to an acquaintance he knew and climbed into his black Caddy CTS-V.  Driving away, watching in the rear view mirror the real electrician staring down at the five brand new one hundred dollar bills in his right hand in surprise, he smiled and turned at a corner and disappeared from view.  Glancing at the Rolex on his wrist, he thought he’d make the next stop in time.  But he had to hurry.
+++++There too he found the office heavily bugged with the Feds wireless technology.  This time he momentarily forced the security cameras of Smith & Dane’s Accounting office to experience a momentary glitch.  Enough of a glitch for him to slip through a ground floor window and enter the woman’s private office unobserved.  It took just three minutes to find the bugs and to install his own.
+++++One other place he had to go before his surveillance routine was completed.  It took even less time than it took installing the bugs in the woman’s office.  Driving away from the wharf he reached to his right and inserted the ear plug into his left ear and then on the little black box setting in the passenger’s seat he selected a number on a small dial.
+++++And began listening.
+++++It didn’t take him long.  Thanks to the pleasant but lengthy conversation with the woman’s son he had an idea where to look.  All it took was forty eight hours.  And then he took the shot . . .
+++++. . . three hours after his target went down.
+++++Standing in front of the door of the woman’s condo with a large bouquet of red roses cradled in one arm.  The moment his finger removed from the doorbell she opened the door and looked straight into his eyes.
+++++Raven black hair.  Green olive colored eyes.  Now red rimmed from her two hours of grieving.
+++++“Yes?” she said, tissue in one hand and her voice shaky.
+++++“Mommy, who is it?”
+++++The boy’s voice.  Still bright and fearless.  Still so constantly curious.  A smile played across his thin lips.  To be that way again.  Constantly curious.  Bright.  Fearless.  Instead he was . . .. What?
+++++“Mrs. Dane, a friend of ours asked me to drop by and bring you these.”
+++++For a moment the woman’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch in a sharp pang of fear.  Glancing at the roses and then up into the plain, ordinary face of the man standing in the doorway dressed in a sport coat and slacks, she made herself relax and stepped out into the hall.
+++++Smitty handed the roses to her and glanced past her at the boy.  His hand reached inside the left pocket of his sport coat.  Fingers wrapped around a small black box as his thumb pushed in a small button in the middle of the device.
+++++No one noticed it except those who were eavesdropping.  Suddenly their microphones erupted in a screeching noise so loud people wearing ear phones and listening in had to throw them off violently in an effort to save their eardrums.  The condo building’s security cameras became a sea of white fuzz so thick nothing could be discerned clearly.
+++++The electronic counter-measures would last only a couple of minutes.  Enough time for him to get his message across to the beautiful woman.
+++++“Mrs. Dane, my name is Smitty.  I am a professional hitman.  Two days ago Howard Hensley paid me a lot of money to kill you.  He wanted to convince his boss and your employer, Jesus Galanti, that you were the one who was leaking information to the FBI.  By killing you he thought all suspicions would be thrown off of him.”
+++++Color drained from her face.  Tears filled beautiful olive green eyes and began streaking down her cheeks.  But she turned silently, pushed her son back into living room of the condo, and closed the door firmly before turning to look at the man standing in the hall with her.
+++++“You killed Howard?”
+++++“We do not have time for questions and answers, Mrs. Dane.  Not if you and your son want to live. As I see, right now you have two very serious problems.  The FBI has your condo and your office bugged.  They’re trying to wrap you up into their little web of deceit just like they did with Hensley.  Problem number two is Galanti.  He’s furious his number two man was gunned down.  He thinks another mob boss ordered the hit.  I think I can eventually convince Galanti it was your boyfriend who was the leak.  But it will take time.  Right now it is imperative you and your son leave town.”
+++++One of Smitty’s hands came up.  Between index finger and thumb was a plain white 3×5 lined card.  On it was a name followed by the number five.  Reflexively the beautiful woman took the card from his hand and glanced down at it.
+++++“That’s the name of a wharf across town.  The slip number is on it.  Be there in one hour, Mrs. Dane.  The two of you.  I can get you out of town to a place that is safe for you and your son.  You can stay there until all this blows over.  But you must decide now.  I can do no more.”
+++++Glancing up to the security camera Smitty turned and walked away.  Leaving the beautiful woman standing in the silence of the condo’s hall . . .
+++++. . . Howard Hensley shouldn’t have given him the photo of the woman in the skimpy bikini standing on the prow of a beautiful yacht.  His yacht.  He shouldn’t have dismissed his lieutenant’s pleas not to use a cell phone . . . even if it was a cheap over the counter throwaway . . . and talk to the Feds while on the boat.  For all his flash and show time photogenic showmanship he wasn’t a very smart man.  It didn’t take long for the dark eyed man to figure it out.  The Feds had come calling on Howard Hensley. They had a noose around his neck but didn’t want to corral him just yet.  They wanted to play him and hope they could eventually hang Jesus Galanti.

The bullet hit Hensley in the back of the head.  Mrs. Dane and the other man she was with were twenty yards away when Hensley went down.  And as he had predicted, the bullet hit the target before the faint crack of a rifle going off somewhere came to their ears.
+++++No one thought about looking out into the bay at the large fishing boat slowly trawling the waters a mile away, half a dozen big ocean-going fishing poles rising up expectantly hoping for a big catch.

Reno

My eyes hurt; it feels like they’re boiling in their sockets. All around me the rattle of coins is incessant and overwhelming. Reels that spin and clunk hammer their own brand of pain into my head. Everything washes out in a swirling fog of noise and neon. Somewhere from a million miles away – or maybe right beside me – a claxon blares followed by a crash of quarters and a wild shout.
+++++“Oh yeah baby, that’s what I’m talking about!” People move towards the sounds.
+++++I have to fight my way upstream, drowning in a tide of bat-faced housewives clutching blue plastic cups and a convention of salesmen with sweat stained collars. They’re all craning to see which of their number has slain the beast and sated a need less desperate than mine.
+++++I burst through the back of the crowd and gulp in the refrigerated air, it tastes like I imagine pine needles might after a rainstorm, both sweet and sharp. The cool air passes in and through me; I drink it down and manage to hold some inside. That feels a little better, things become solid again.
+++++I start towards the cashier’s cage, choosing the one closest to the unmarked door hiding stairs to the parking garage. I join the shortest line, there’s only one woman in front of me. She’s arguing over the value of a giveaway Keno credit. Okay I can wait. I stare at my feet and watch the fog churning and climbing my legs, blue neon is flickering down amongst it like a static charge. I glance up and the woman is gone, the girl in the booth looks at me, pleasant and inquisitive from behind the grill.
+++++“Good evening Sir how can I help you?”
+++++I can’t speak; the words I have rehearsed in my mind for days won’t come to my lips.
+++++“Sir, are you ok? You don’t look so good.”
+++++I try to smile but know it appears on my face as a grimace. The girl looks anxious now, fingering the button on her intercom.
+++++“Sorry, I ate some bad shrimp.” I manage to blurt.
+++++She relaxes, the pleasant expression rests comfortably on her face again.
+++++I reach into my jacket, my hand lingers for a moment on my wallet, a voice tells me that there is still time, nothing is in play yet. I ignore it, my fingers move past the wallet and close around the grip of a nickel plated nine. I look to the floor again, this time seeing only the dust on my shoes and the dubious patterned depths of the carpet.
+++++“Excuse me, sir?”
+++++The gun slides free; it seems impossibly bright in the refracted light of gaudy chandeliers and pulsing video poker.
+++++“I want everything in the draw. No alarms and no heroics.”
+++++For a moment palpable fear dances naked between us, then vanishes as she screams.
+++++The nickel plate sparkles in my hand and I feel the trigger under my finger. I tighten my grip and it moves just a fraction, barely noticeable but I notice and so does the girl. How much more before the pistol bucks, cordite fills the air and dull metal punches a hole through life.
+++++“Drop the fuckin’ gun, asshole.”
+++++Security arrives breathless to stand behind me with arms braced and a Pernach clasped tightly between sweaty palms.
+++++“I said put it down, now!”
+++++One life or two, maybe even three, just another game of chance in a room full of them. The biggest gamble made not on the turn of a card, or the spin of a wheel but the pressure of a finger. There’s no time to study the pain only to make the play, to hit or hold, the odds are stacked but they always were.
+++++I feel the pressure and hear the sharp crack. The fog clouds back in on me, this time it’s chased through with a spray of red. I’m out of breath and tasting copper. My legs leave and the carpet rushes up to meet me. No cards  left to play I’m down to the felt. The house wins.

All I Need Is A Day

Chief O’Malley and Detective Sorelli stood in the dark, stale booth behind the one-way mirror. The booth still smelled like cigarettes from back in the days when you could smoke in it. The interrogation room was wired, the tape recorder on ‘pause.’ Jimmy sat back and took his earphone off, letting out a breath of Taco Bell.
+++++“We only got a day with him to talk,” the Chief grunted through the hoarse voice of the guy that put ALL of that smell in the air. “He’s been here long enough. He won’t lawyer up, but if we start asking the wrong questions, he might. We gotta’ get him to talk. He could bring down Richie Rich.”
+++++Richie Rich was engaged in everything, his fingers in many pies – hell, the whole damn bakery, from jacking freighters to fake IDs to the global sex trade. He got the nickname for the way he flaunted his ill-gotten gains; mansions, yachts, sports-cars; he even had diamond collars on his five Rottweilers.
+++++“What’s he lookin’ at now?” Sorelli said.
+++++“Just on what we have him on, at most, a year.” The Chief said.
+++++“OK, I can do it off that.”
+++++“Where the hell were you yesterday?” asked the Chief.
+++++“You could say I was sealin’ the deal…”
+++++“Is that why you got a shiner?” Sorelli touched his sore eye.
+++++“Nah, I was fucking the cleaning lady and I slipped on the floor wax.”
+++++“Smart-ass.” Chief chuckled. “Go in there. Seal the deal…”
+++++Sorelli hopped out of the booth and walked into the interrogation room, his game face on, cold as a rock in Antarctica. Joey Sips’ sat in the hard steel chair, his cuffed hands covered in tattoos, long goatee and bald-head rolling back and forth on his head. Sorelli’d uncuff him, but Joey’d lunge. Sorelli’d shoot, and no one would get Richie Rich.
+++++“Joe…” He said, just standing there with his hands in his pockets. “You know what we really want…”
+++++“Ya’ ain’t gettin nothin’ from me, pig” Joey leaned back, as best he could, and smiled.
+++++“We have enough to put you away for a year…”
+++++“Shit, and that’s all you got to threaten me with, bitch!?” Joey said laughing. “I did three years in Attica, motherfucker… I’ll do a year in the county standin’ on my head!”
+++++“If you want to…” Sorelli said, still calm. “You were a real bully in Attica, weren’t you…”
+++++“I got by…”
+++++Sorelli laughed. “You tortured the fuck outta that kid, Ian… what’s his name… Ian Braun?”
+++++Joey took a deep breath. “Little punk. Hell yeah I did!” He was proud of himself.
+++++“I just went down to Attica yesterday, know a couple guards there, ya’ know?” Sorelli said, “And I was reading your prison file. All the times you put that kid in the infirmary. Word was that you fucked him… and fucked his woman when you got out… that true?”
+++++“I ain’t fuck[ed] him… and that other thing wasn’t on my file!”
+++++“Oh, no… Ian told me that.” Sorelli commented, never losing his calm.
+++++“Fuck that punk.”
+++++“On that thought, hold on…” Sorelli left the room, back into the booth. He could see Joey twitchin’ with his fingers like an audience member waiting for the punch-line. The Chief leaned over as Sorelli pulled an 8 x 10 from his laptop case.
+++++“You better be going somewhere with this…” Chief said.
+++++“That’s where I was yesterday.” Sorelli replied. “And I am.” He walked out of the booth and back into the interrogation room. He flapped the photo before tossing it on the table.
+++++“Five years can change a man…” Sorelli said. “After you did that to him… and his old lady, Ian felt like he needed protection. So he joined up with the Aryan Brotherhood. That was five years ago. They made him hit the weights, push-ups, sit-ups, taught him how to fight…”
+++++“He didn’t even want to be seen talking to me on the field. I had to get him in administration after he ordered a riot… In Sing Sing.”
+++++“Thought he was in Attica…” Joey said.
+++++“We’ll he runs the AB for the whole New York prison system now.” Sorelli said. “He turned out to be a good leader, good recruiter. And he wanted you to know why he flipped you the finger in this picture…”
+++++Joey was rattled now. “Why?”
+++++“‘Cause that’s what he’s gonna’ have someone do to you every day you wind up in his prisons.”
+++++Sorelli let it sink in. Joey stared at the photo. Ian was a muscle-bound, tattoo’d ball of rage and hatred, and he had Joey to thank for it. He’d killed three people in Attica, and Lord knows how many deaths led a line of blood back to his kites and code words on the yard.
+++++“But I’m going to the county…” Joey said blankly.
+++++“Well… maybe.” Sorelli said.
+++++“Maybe!?”
+++++“One year is a county bid,” Sorelli said, “But if we tell the ADA we want him to recommend one year and one day, well, you know where you do that time…”
+++++“Excuse me… I’ll be right back.” Once again Sorelli went into the booth. The Chief’s jaw was as slack as Joey’s. Joey was gonna’ spill as soon as Sorelli walked back in there; they all knew it, even Jimmy.
+++++“Sonofabitch!” He said, slapping Sorelli on the shoulder.
+++++“Chief, can you call ADA Rockwell?” Sorelli asked. “He’ll be prosecuting. Ask him for some help with a sentencing recommendation before I go in… We can let Joey stew for an hour…”
+++++“What do I ask him to add?”
+++++Sorelli smirked.
+++++“All I need is a day.”

Monster

The red sky that morning should have been my warning, but I chose to ignore it. I had a job to do and I had to get there before the snow came.
+++++I drove from my house and onto the country lane, my speed picking up as I changed through the gears. Then it came, like a blanket falling from the sky. Huge white flakes hit the windscreen, the wipers doing nothing to shift them.
+++++I tried to slow the car but the brakes wouldn’t work. Surely the snow couldn’t stop them working. I pressed them again and they kicked in, sending the car into a skid. There was a loud bang and the car shuddered. Don’t panic, I thought, it was just a small deer or something.
+++++It was then that the weird thing happened. The car was motionless. Suddenly the roof started creaking; the noise of metal being crushed filled the cars interior. The side windows exploded outwards and within seconds I was being covered in freezing cold snow. The snow filled the car. I tried to push it away from my face but it was getting into my mouth, up my nose. With each panicked breath I took the snow entered my throat. Is it actually possible to drown in snow? I asked myself.
+++++I began to panic as the snow kept packing into the car. I was freezing, literally. I couldn’t move my arms anymore and the snow was freezing my throat. It happened quickly. I suddenly couldn’t breath and blacked out.

* * *

I woke up in a brightly lit room. I wasn’t in a bed, as you would expect, but sat upright in a chair. I looked around the room, looking for a door or a window, but there was nothing. It was only when I concentrated that I noticed that the whole room was moving, even the floor, almost cloudlike.
+++++“Where am I?” I asked out loud.
+++++“Where do you want to be?” asked a deep, booming voice.
+++++“Who’s that?” I asked looking round.
+++++“Your maker.”
+++++“My maker? What are you talking about? Where are you and where is this?”
+++++“I’m everywhere and you are in the decision room. This is where you meet your fate. You are to go through the door. There you will live for eternity.”
+++++The cloudy movement in front of me slowly parted to reveal a door. I got up and walked over to it, grabbing the handle. I hesitated a moment, looking back to see if there was anyone else in the room. I slowly turned the handle and in a flash the door was ripped from its hinges. The room was filled with flames. Hideous looking creatures flew through the flames, screaming and laughing. I tried to take a step back but couldn’t.
+++++“There’s no going back. This is your destination. This is your payback,” the voice boomed.
+++++I was suddenly grabbed by the throat and dragged into the flames. Pain seared through every nerve in my body as my clothing, and then my skin was scorched from my body. I screamed out in sheer agony but it was cut short as the flames burnt my throat. I was meant to see this happening to me as my eyes were somehow protected from the flames. I looked down at my hands and watched as the skin bubbled and burst, the same on my arms and stomach and legs. I could feel my face melting away and lifted my skeletal hands to touch it. I was looking like a monster, the monster I actually was.

* * *

3 Days Later.

“Holy shit! Boss, boss, you’d better come and look at this.”
+++++Detective Derek Morris walked to the back of the wreckage and looked into the boot. Four black bin bags were all open for him to look into. The body parts were frozen. The head of a young blonde woman stared up from one bag. In another there was an arm and a leg, the same in another and then her torso in another. The little toe and little finger were missing from both hands and feet. The same as the other nine bodies that had been found over the past fourteen months
+++++Morris walked back to the driver’s side and looked in at the smashed remains of the driver. He was frozen. The car had been under heavy snow from the worst snowfall the country had ever seen. It had been noticed by a snowplough driver and reported to the police. A rescue vehicle had towed the car from where it had hit a huge oak tree.
+++++“Maybe there is a God after all,” Morris said, “We couldn’t catch you but nature done our job for us. You met your maker.”

The Hater’s Club

At the ice cream store, a kid is staring at me with chocolate melt running down his lips and chin, mouth hanging open like a grotesque trapdoor. His eyes are huge, bark-brown olives. Worst of all, he hasn’t blinked once.
+++++I study my napkin for a solid two minutes. Looking up, I see the kid’s expression hasn’t changed a bit.
+++++His head is over-sized, a boulder atop his spindly neck and arms. I imagine taking a baseball bat and swinging, hearing his cranium crack.
+++++I read the sign that lists flavors and prices. I look at my fingers and notice there’s gray gunk under most of the nails.
+++++When I turn back around, I see that ice cream’s pooled around the kid’s neck, but he’s still ogling me the same way.
+++++I think; Okay, let’s do this.
+++++I stare back. I do it until my pupils dry out and sting.
+++++He still hasn’t blinked.
+++++I sneer.
+++++I wiggle my eyes.
+++++I go cross-eyed till I’m dizzy.
+++++I stick out my tongue
+++++I flip him off.
+++++He just stares.
+++++It’s starting to get monumentally creepy.
+++++His mom must be constipated, because she’s been in the can a while.
+++++The Asian guy behind the counter helps in the sherbet section.
+++++I need someone to see this – the bizarre kid who won’t stop staring.
+++++Oh, wait. What?
+++++I’ve been so distracted by the gawking going on that I haven’t realized until now that he resembles a guy from high school named Oliver Pratt.
+++++Oliver and I were in the same Hater’s Club: he hated me and I loathed him. That wouldn’t have mattered, but one day while I was in the restroom, Oliver and his buddies jumped me, then stole my pants and underwear.
+++++After that, I bought a voodoo doll that resembled him, with its twiggy cloth limbs and a puffy, hacky sack pouch for a head. I stuck a hundred needles through that ragdoll, concentrating, imagining I possessed supernatural intuition, a sixth sense that could make the pins real, puncturing Oliver’s pupils, neck, testicles.
+++++Two days later, Oliver was horsing around on a department store escalator, fell off, and plunged through a cosmetic counter made of glass. He bled to death before they’d even removed all of the shards.
+++++Looking hard at the kid now, avoiding his goggle eyes but taking in the other features, I see how he’s an identical version of Oliver Pratt.
+++++This guy is Oliver.
+++++I know it.
+++++I’ve got good intuition. It’s what caused all this in the first place.
+++++When the boy’s mom finally comes out, she says, “Oh, Ollie! Look at the mess you’ve made.”

***

Each night and every morning, I wake with pinprick sensations against my skin. I know they’re needles ready to be turned into broken blades of glass.
+++++I stop sleeping. I hardly eat. I see Oliver’s likeness everywhere.
+++++Something tells me he’s going to get his revenge, and soon.
+++++I know these things.

Sleep Tight

I hear the guy next door snoring through my wall every night. Tonight it drives me out of my apartment. His wife, leaning on the flimsy metal railing of their balcony unit, a cigarette tucked between her slender fingers, tells me he has apnea and she can’t get her husband to wear the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, mask at night. She’s out because her husband won’t wear a rubber cup over his nose. I’m out for the same reason, having a beer.
+++++She blows a pillow of smoke the wind pushes back over her pretty face. I think about how thirty years of smoking is going to soften those beautiful features into a mask of crags and wrinkles. Right now, she is nothing but cute in an extra long tee-shirt and bed hair she has to keep pulling back from her face.
+++++“He says it ruins our love life,” she says. She laughs. “Believe me, it was ruined before that.”
+++++I smile, pull a drink off the bottle. “How long you been married?”
+++++“Year. You got another one of those?”
+++++I pull one out of the cooler next to me, stand up to hand it over. Her fingers brush my hand. It isn’t an accident.
+++++“Thanks,” she says. “Maybe if I drink enough I’ll pass out and won’t hear him.”
+++++“Doesn’t work,” I say. She laughs. We clink the necks of our bottles against one another. When she drinks, she turns her head and shows me how her lips fit over the opening. She watches me watch her.
+++++“I’m Shelly,” she says. She holds her hand out over her balcony. I shake it.
+++++“Brian.”
+++++“Hello, Brian.”
+++++“Hello, Shelly.”
+++++We drink a bit more in the cool evening. The stars are out. A fat opossum from the field behind our units waddles down to the manmade pond and drinks from it. Shelly grimaces.
+++++“I wouldn’t drink that water,” she says.
+++++“I see guys catching and releasing from it all the time.”
+++++“All those chemicals.” She shudders.
+++++From inside her apartment I hear a panicked gulping, cry. It’s followed by a sudden storm of gagging coughs. It ends with a whistle. Shelly turns and slides the door to her patio closed.
+++++“Your husband okay?” I ask.
+++++“He does it all the time. He’s been told he stops breathing something like a hundred or so times a night. It’s why he has the mask. It pushes air into his nose to remind him to breath. But he won’t use it.”
+++++“Could he die without it?”
+++++She finishes her beer. “That was good. You think I could bum another?”
+++++“You caught my last one.”
+++++Shelly studies me. She smiles. “Hold on.” She slides open her door. “We’ve got some. I’m coming around.”
+++++“No, that’s okay,” I say.
+++++“I insist. Tom isn’t supposed to drink anymore. Alcohol and apnea apparently don’t mix.” She shoos her hand at me. I finish my beer and go inside. I don’t really want to go inside. The walls of the apartment are too antiseptic for me. I feel like I’m in a vacuum when I’m inside.
+++++I unlock my door and it opens. Shelly stands there with a six of Sam. Summer Wheat. I’m good with that. She holds it up and removes one. I take the six, putting it in my fridge, and take one for myself. We once again clink the necks of our bottles.
+++++“You single?” she asks looking around my place.
+++++“Can’t you tell?”
+++++I have NASCAR posters in plastic frames. There’s a cushy plaid couch heavy in red. I’ve got a couple of uncomfortable green chairs that I always feel like I’m slouching in when I sit in them. Everything faces the flat screen on the wall I don’t share with Shelly’s place.
+++++Shelly smiles around the bottle as she drinks. She walks past me and sits down on the couch. In the center of the couch. It leaves me four options: one of the two chairs, or either side of her. I sit next to her. We make very small talk. It’s difficult to keep a conversation going because I can clearly see she’s not wearing anything under the long tee-shirt.
+++++“So is Tom really that loud?” she asks.
+++++“You should know.”
+++++“I mean when you try to sleep. Our bedrooms share a wall, too. Like this one.” She raps her knuckles on the plaster. I put my hand on hers. “Relax, we won’t wake him. Nothing wakes him. I mean, sometimes I’m laying in bed wide awake because he’s snoring or your over here screwing someone and I’m caught in between.”
+++++I spit up a little beer. She laughs. “Here.” She lifts up on the hem of her tee-shirt and now I know how naked she is she is under it. She wipes the beer dribble from my chin. Our eyes meet and then we’re embracing. We fall back onto the couch and start kissing, exploring with hands.
+++++“I hear you,” she says. “I hear you over his snoring. I hear how happy those women feel and it makes me realize how miserable I am. It makes me think how I want to feel like them again, feel wild and out of control. It makes me want to be in that bed with you.”
+++++We can hear her husband snoring even as we make love in my bedroom.
+++++Shelly is a screamer. Straddling me, she seems to direct her ecstasy at the bedroom wall. She shudders and explodes and falls down on top of me. We lie there, breathing heavily. It slows. The room grows quiet. The world grows quiet.
+++++Even from the other side of the bedroom wall it is quiet.
+++++Shelly rolls her eyes up at the wall behind us.
+++++“Shouldn’t you go check on him?” I ask.
+++++Shelly rolls onto her stomach. She reaches out to the wall and gently touches it. The blankets slide down off her naked back.
+++++“Sleep tight,” she whispers.

The Fountain

I heard the rich tone of your voice before I noticed you. Nothing had changed, you looked the same. I watched you for five minutes before you turned and saw me. A smile lighting up your face as you strolled over to where I sat. Six months earlier I walked in on you fucking my best friend. You won everyone over with your smile.
+++++I arranged to meet you later by the fountain in the Gardens. You said it would be freezing and I asked where your sense of adventure was and that I would find a way to keep you warm. You were like a fish on a hook.
+++++I climbed over the wall and walked towards the fountain, thankful for the full moon. I sat listening to the ping, ping of the water as it hit the iron base. I had watched a gardener one day cleaning the fountain out, surprised at how deep it was. He had placed a collection of toys feared lost forever around the edge.
+++++I heard you shout as you came towards me, a feeble attempt to make me jump. I kissed you and handed you the brandy. I pushed you down and we sat on the wall around the fountains edge, me on your lap. Your hands were cold on my skin.
+++++You become less and less lucid as the Brandy hit its mark, helped on by the sleeping pills crushed into it. Your head falls heavy onto my chest. The bottle is empty as it drops to the floor.
All it took was one gently push and you fall in. It was easy to hold your head under the water. Your body tried to fight but it was no good. The drugs were too strong. I thought of the lucky coins thrown in for a wish and the lost toys on the bottom. Then your body went limp and I let go.
+++++I went out the way I came, taking the empty bottle with me and throwing it in a litter bin.

Surviving

Listen instead
Listen instead

It’s always hard, the winter.
The wind stiffens my
fingers and I can’t
reach the three keys above
octave that I need
to make the chord.
It’s winter all
the time now.
Seems like it’s
always night too.
But that’s not
the important thing.
The important thing is
I can’t make the chord.
Can’t make that chord.
I’ve been trying for a long time.
Damn house has fallen down.
Porch collapsed
Windows out.
Doors hanging open.
Cold wind rips through
the living room.
I’d really like to play that chord
before the piano falls all down too.
It’s mostly gone now anyhow.
It sits slaunchwise left because
termites ate through the legs.
Mice got to the strings
a few years back.
And there’s snow on the keys.
Just as well, I guess,
just as well that
I couldn’t hear the
chord if I played it.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you’d smile.
Wherever you are.
Wherever you go
when you’re dead.
Maybe you’d smile.
I’ll keep trying for that.
For that smile.
But it’s winter and spring
is a long way from here.

Innocent (A Smitty Story)

He saw her slide out of the front seat of her Toyota Corona and close the door before opening the left rear door.  A beauty in subdued mustard yellow.  Long brown hair.  Sculptured, athletic legs.  A long, lithe, athletic body.
+++++He almost smiled.
+++++No wonder Little Gabe fell in love.  Even from across the parking lot of the small apartment complex he could see both the beauty, and the country girl innocence, glowing like some neon light from her.  Two things that would draw Little Gabe to her like flickering candles drawing moths to the dancing flames.
+++++Tossing a long strand of hair over her shoulders she bent down and pulled out two large briefcases from out of the car’s back seat.  Setting the briefcases on the trunk lid she turned, threw more hair over her shoulder again, and closed the car door.  Aiming the clicker at the front she locked the car and then dropped the keys in her purse, threw the strap of the purse over a shoulder, and then reached for the briefcases.
+++++Her name was Erica Norton.  Teacher.  Taught fourth grade in Howard E. Johnston’s Elementary School over on Pine Street.  She was approaching thirty.  Never married.  Didn’t drink.  Never smoked. Lived alone, except for a cat named Alex, here in this apartment complex. Regularly attended church on Sundays and Wednesday nights.  A quiet mouse who lived a quiet unexciting, yet supposedly safe, existence.
+++++Until she met Little Gabe.
+++++Admittedly a beautiful quiet mouse.  But someone who had no idea how close to Death’s final whisper she currently skirted in the darkness.
+++++In the hot, humid night he stood partially hidden by a well manicured fir tree.  From his unseen vantage point he watched Erica step onto the sidewalk leading to the front door of the apartment complex.  A breeze was stirring, blowing strands gently away from her.  An image straight out of a beauty magazine photo shoot.  As she walked up the sidewalk the cloth of her dark yellow dress swished, revealing a lot of legs.  She held her head high as she walked.  Tall, statuesque.  Beautiful.
+++++In the darkness he slipped a hand into one pocket of his tailored slacks and wrapped hands around the cold steel of a switch-blade.  Sliding the folded knife out he remained motionless as Erica walked past him, the cicadas chirping loudly as if they were happy to see her.  In her wake the subtle aroma of expensive perfume filled his nostrils.  Dark black eyes watched her as she approached the entrance to the apartment complex and disappeared through the door oblivious to the drama that was about to take place.
+++++Click!  Using a thumb to press the button the switch-blade in his hands snapped open angrily. Expectantly.  Hungrily.   But the dark-eyed man didn’t move.  Blending into the night like some mythical harbinger of death  he remained motionless his eyes turning to look again at the dimly lit apartment complex parking lot.  He didn’t have to wait long.
+++++No sooner had the door of the apartment complex closed behind her when two doors of a black Ford Escape popped open and two very large men got out.  In the dim illumination of the tall light poles that rose like metallic Redwoods out of the parking lot asphalt he recognized them.  Two major hitters working for Jimmy McDougall.  A mean, vicious hood who didn’t take kindly to anyone within his organization stealing from him.  Especially to the tune of 500 G’s.
+++++Little Gabe should have know better.  Should have known taking money from the boss–money that would be instantly missed–would have disastrous and instant results.  Gabe found out the hard way. Four slugs in the chest after hours of being tortured was the justice metered out by Jimmy McDougall.
+++++The problem was Little Gabe didn’t talk.  Didn’t reveal where the five hundred thousand was hidden.  That omission really pissed Jimmy off.  So the order went out.  Grab the girl and bring her to a safe spot where no one would find her.  Maybe she knew where the money was.
+++++Gabe had been a tough little kid.  When he found him in a pool of his own blood strapped tightly into a chair in the middle of an empty warehouse it was too late to save the little guy.  But the kid was alive enough to recognize the dark-eyed figure standing in front of him.  One eye–the a other battered, pulpy, unable to open–looked up into the face of the dark-eyed man as a grin spread across his blood caked lips.
+++++“You gotta save her, Smitty.  You gotta save her!  She knows nothing about my little stash! Nothing!  But they’re gonna come after.  They’re gonna do things to her.  They’ll kill her, Smitty.  They’ll kill her.  You’ve got to save her!”
+++++For a few second the compact, hard, coldly handsome killer stared down at a kid who once wanted to be a friend.  A warm hearted, loud kid who loved to dance and play in a band.  But a foolish kid.  A stupid kid.  Stupid enough to get himself killed.  Still . . .
+++++“All right, Gabe.  Where does she live?”
+++++So here he was.  A dark shadow of waiting death eyeing two men walking toward the apartment complex with orders from their boss to find the money.  Do whatever it took to find the money.  But just find it.  And get rid of any trouble makers.
+++++The two large menacing silhouettes, walking shoulder to shoulder, moved past him on the side walk and stopped in front of the apartment complex entrance.  That’s when he moved.  Making not the slightest sound, the one known as Smitty came out of the shadows and stepped up behind the two.
+++++“Evening,” he hissed softly almost in the ears of both men at once.
+++++Their reactions were instinctual and violent.  Both jumped visibly in the darkness and whirled to face who ever it was who had just given such a fright.  Both were reaching inside their suit coats for guns hanging loosely in shoulder holsters.  Neither moved fast enough.  From out of the night the bright steel of a switch-blades slashed left and right with blinding speed.  Both men grunted in startled pain–someone moaned–and then both fell to their knees with heads bent down and copious amounts of blood . . . their blood . . . flowing like dark waterfalls onto the sidewalk in front of the apartment entrance.
+++++“That’s for what you did to Little Gabe, boys,” the savage hiss of a whisper came to them from out of the night.  “But be thankful I didn’t finish the job.  Both of you miserable miscreants will live.  This time.  Live to go back to your boss and give him a message.  Do you hear me?”
+++++One of the killers lifted a blood soaked, half mutilated face up and nodded.  He tried to focus his eyes onto the black shadow standing in front of him.  Hovering over him like Death itself.  But his eyes couldn’t focus.  Too much blood seeping down from his forehead stung his eyes and made them water uncontrollably.
+++++“Tell him I’ve found his money.  He’ll have it back within an hour.  All of it.  And when he gets his money it’s over.  Done with.  Finished.  No one touches the woman.  Ever.  Understand?”
+++++Both men nodded in the night.  Both came to their feet.  Their clothes were soaked in their blood. Both stood up wobbly.  Both began stumbling down the sidewalk toward the parking lot.  Smitty stepped to one side, folded the bloody steel edge of his switch-blade closed with both gloved hands, and watched the two best men of Jimmy McDougall move past him.  As dark-black eyes watched the killers stagger down the sidewalk leaving a bloody wake behind him his eyes narrowed and a grim expression spread across his face.  He should have killed them both.  Both had worked over Little Gabe for hours trying to make him talk.  Both loved that kind of work.  If there was any justice in the world both should be dead.
+++++But not now.  Not here.  Not tonight.
+++++Eyes turned to look at the apartment complex entrance.  And then eyes black as the night itself played across the front of the apartment building’s exterior.  There was a security camera aimed at the entrance in the hallway on the other side of the door.  He didn’t want to be seen tonight.  Not ‘officially’ seen.

***

She came out of the hot shower reaching for an oversized towel waiting across the small bathroom sink.  The small bathroom was a steaming sauna.  The walls, the shower curtain, the small mirror above the sink dripped condensing water from the hot clouds of steam swirling around the bathroom.  Drying herself off she eventually wrapped the large towel around her svelte frame and reached for a second, smaller towel.  Throwing her luxuriant brown hair in a pile above her head she quickly wrapped the smaller towel her head and reached for the knob of the bathroom door.
+++++Opening the door she came out of the bathroom,  steam following her in a long vaporous trail in the process.  Walking barefoot across the thick carpet of her bedroom she moved with the ease of a graceful feline across an African veldt to her queen sized bed.  The towel wrapped around her firm body slipped to the floor as she bend down to pulled the covers of the bed back–a hand sliding underneath a pillow curiously.
+++++When she turned around to face Smitty–revealing her beauty the ugly snout of a .38 caliber snub nosed Smith &Wesson was in her right hand and the hard look of a woman who knew how to handle the weapon on her lovely face.
+++++“Good evening, Erica.”
+++++The dark-eyed man sat in a chair pushed up against a wall directly opposite from the bed.  A leg crossed over the other, hands resting comfortable on a thigh, Smitty sat in the chair calmly, the suggestion of a sneer barely creasing his thin lips, and eyed the beauty openly with admiration.  She really was a beautiful, beautiful woman.
+++++“Who are you?  And what do you want?”
+++++“The name’s Smitty.   I’ve come to collect the little gift Gabe handed over to you the other day. And if I’m lucky—if you’re lucky—I might be able to save your life.”
+++++“What?” she snapped, the ugly nose of the .38 unwavering as it aimed toward Smitty’s chest. “What are you talking about?”
+++++“You know what I am talking about, Erica.  You knew something like this might happen.  Gabe’s dead.  And Jimmy McDougall wants his money back.”
+++++“I don’t have any money.  Gabe didn’t give me any money.  And I certainly don’t know anyone by the name of Jimmy McDougall!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips widened slightly as dark eyes played across Erica Norton brazenly. Brazenly enough to make the gun in her hand drop for a second and a crimson flush sweep across bare flesh as she quickly bent down and reached for the towel lying on the carpet to cover herself with.  He didn’t move.  Just sat in the chair and watched as the woman wrapped the towel around herself tightly and then lifted the gun back up and aim it at him.
+++++“He didn’t give you cash, Erica.  Not five hundred thousand in cash.  But something smaller. Much smaller.  Something that surprised me when I found it.”
+++++Beautiful eyes darted to one side–toward a large painting hanging on a wall to her left–worry and fear making her face turn even harder.
+++++“You found it?  The book of rare stamps?  How?  How did you know we converted the money into stamps?  He talked, didn’t he!  He talked!  I told him not to say a word!  No one would ever figure it out!”
+++++The sneer on Smitty’s lips didn’t change.  But somehow it became harder.  Colder.  Even cruel.
+++++“That was it, Erica.  That’s what tipped me off you weren’t the innocent little school teacher. Innocent no more.  Gabe wasn’t smart enough to come up with the idea to rip off Jimmy McDougall. Wasn’t smart enough to know how to convert cash into a fortune of rare stamps.  But you were, little girl. You were. You took the money and bought the stamps.  You told Gabe no one would ever suspect him and then sent him off to his death.  The only question left to be answered is this.  Did you love him, Erica? Did you have any feeling for him at all?”
+++++“That money was going to buy us a new life!  A new life far, far away from this place!  He didn’t want to work for his boss any more.  He wanted to leave the mob.  But he was about as  poor a little bastard as I ever met.  I told him we couldn’t run away without some money.  Lots of money.  He promised me he could get money.  Lots of it!  Now hand the book over to me.  Hand it over or I swear to God I’ll shoot you where you sit!”
+++++The hard eyes of a killer stared unblinking at the beautiful woman for a long time.  And then, moving slowly, he came out of his chair and reached into his suit coat and withdrew a small but thick leather bound book.  With a flick of the wrist the book sailed across the bedroom and landed on the edge of the bed beside her.
+++++“Your choice, Erica.  I either walk out of here and take the book with me and hand it to McDougall.  Or I walk out of here and leave it with you.  One offers you a chance to live a long and prosperous life.  The other guarantees you will be dead inside a week.  Which is it going to be?”
+++++“I can take care of my self, you bastard!” she hissed, lifting the gun and rapidly pulling the trigger of the snub nose revolver three times.
+++++Click! Click! Click!  Three times the hammer of the Smith & Wesson loudly smacked onto empty chambers.  Stunned, color draining from her face, she staggered back in disbelief and stared at the useless weapon in her hand.
+++++Smitty walked in silence over to the bed and scooped the small leather bound book up in one hand and slid it into an inside coat pocket.  Turning he moved across the room toward a set of sliding glass doors that led out onto a small balcony.  Sliding one of the doors open he kept a hand on the door as he turned and looked at her.
+++++“Jimmy McDougall ordered his boys to kill Gabe last night.  But in truth you’re his murderer, Erica.  His love for you killed him.  Yet even as he was dying he wanted me to save you.  Too bad, isn’t it?  Too bad he loved you so much.  Too bad he made me make a promise to him.  Too bad you’re probably going to kill some other patsy sooner or later.  Too bad justice has to be so blind.”
+++++Erica Norton screamed.  And screamed.  And screamed.  Screamed until she couldn’t scream no more.  But only an open glass balcony door and a dark, dark night heard her.

Bob North’s Football Boots

“I’ve got you a pair of boots,” said his father upon his return home from work that Tuesday evening. His selection for the team had come as a total surprise as he was much younger than the other boys and his ability wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. His father realised he was probably there more for his eagerness than anything else. He brought them home the next day. They were stiff black plastic with two blue stripes down either side and each one had eleven moulded studs. Size ones. They’d been dug out of the back of Bob North’s gas cupboard where they’d been forgotten about and they had that tart waxy smell, the same smell as his Grandad’s workshop and the PE store at school and other places that were starved of fresh air and daylight.

Weekends back then consisted of the Sports Report, John Helm and trips to a tiny little programme shop run by a short fat friend of his father’s called Bill. This one would be different. He was the smallest boy in the changing room on that Saturday morning. He looked round at the others with their broad shoulders and shin pads and he was absolutely terrified. His blue and yellow jersey was too big for him and it made him itch. He wore it outside of his shorts because he had ideas above his station, living in his own little dream world until the teacher who coached the team told him to tuck it in. As they ran out from the changing room everyone’s studs click-clacked on the tarmac that led to the pitch, and it was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. It was October, and the autumn air was dense and still, the sort of atmosphere that has been consigned to the archives of memory and doesn’t exist anymore. The grass still had the morning dew on it because it was still morning and he stood on the right wing, noticing how the sound of the ball being struck didn’t reach his ears until a couple of seconds after it left his team mates boot, so thick was the air, and so enormous seemed the field. They lost five-three. He had played a weak back pass which had lead to their fourth goal but other than that he had been quite pleased with his performance. He felt good as he made the short walk home, swinging his boot bag by his side and bending down every few yards to pick up a useful sized horse chestnut.

He spent the afternoon reading his copy of Shoot magazine, and drawing a picture of Peter Beardsley on a piece of printer paper. After eighteen months he’d made the right-wing position his own, with his younger brother coming in to play behind him at right full-back. His father bought him some new boots for his tenth birthday, leather ones with screw-in studs, and the old ones that he’d made his debut in once again were thrown to the back of a gas cupboard to be starved of fresh air and daylight. And forgotten about.

“Wuv Me, Tender”

Thanks to the wise words of Barry Manilow, Jesse became a singer. He knew he could make the young girls cry if they’d give him half a chance.
+++++“One for the money.” He stroked his left porkchop. “Two for the show.” Los Americanos Cantina wouldn’t wait all night, not even for The King.
+++++The karaoke regulars, their heads in their fishbowl margaritas, slobbered Lisping Elvis, Lisping Elvis as Jesse swaggered past the cash register. His speech impediment was more cwust for crust than thithy for sissy, but too late for splitting hairs—he’d been stamped. His Tuesday Elvis tribute was a killer, especially when he donned his white bell-bottom jumpsuit and burns.
+++++He handed the MC his song selections and mounted his booth far from the young, star-alike cliques. As Angie Ledbetter—his only serious competition—took the stage, he glanced up from his extra spicy guacamole and ordered more salsa picante. “Set my soul afiwer, Pedwo!” Heat helped him hit the high notes.
+++++Jesse air-clapped for Angie when she was done, stirred three packets of Splenda in his tea and thought how quiet the cantina would be if the kiddies here had their tongues cut out. He used to drink his tea with sugar, but at 43 he was bulging toward Fat Elvis. And he only had the one jumpsuit.
+++++“Give it up for Elvis!” The MC slid in a CD.
+++++Jesse Jailhouse-rocked past a table of Teenage Wynonna Judds. “Thank ya, thank ya vewy much.”
+++++He was winding up his arms to strike his famous boogie pose as the door to the cantina cling-a-linged. She hadn’t been at karaoke in weeks, but here she was: Tender, his little red-haired filly. This called for a song change ASAP.
+++++The MC reprogrammed the machine. Jesse kneed into his ballad pose. He locked eyes on Tender for the eight-bar intro.
+++++“Wuv me, Tender,” he sang. “Wuv me Twue.”
+++++Jesse knew the song was a droning downer. He rarely performed it, but if any song could make this young girl cry it was this one. He adored her, glowing in raging profile, arguing with the waiter, acting as if she wasn’t going crazy for his royal hips. He closed his eyes so he could sing to only her—and slit her generation’s throat. When he opened them, Tender’s booth was Tenderless. The song was over. Polite applause crackled over laughter and yapping.
+++++After three Garth Brookses and a thin Trisha, Tender took the stage. A tender Tanya Tucker. The high notes were thin, but the package was all there. The applause didn’t stop until Tender plopped down in her booth and lit a Lucky.
+++++“Pwetty wittle package,” Jesse mouthed as he passed her booth.
+++++The lights came up and the MC announced the night’s winner: “Angie Ledbetter for her rendition of ‘You Lie’!”
+++++He couldn’t win every night. It was his own fault. He’d thrown the contest by singing that slow song for Tender. He fastened his cape and headed to the parking lot in a flood of tequila-drunken youth. A pro, he never drank on karaoke nights. He loved his El Camino too much for that.
+++++“Lisping Elvis?” A little hand brushed his shoulder sequins. “My car won’t start.”
+++++He swivelled into the longing eyes of his filly, Tender. “It’s Kismet.”
+++++“Actually it’s my daddy’s Dodge. But whatever. Can you take me home?” She got into Jesse’s car without waiting for an answer.
+++++“Santa Cwaus is coming down your chimney tonight.”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++They drove. For miles. In an unpleasant silence. Tender was heady with cherry candy and smoke. She lived in Music City—twenty-five cherry-smoky miles to Nashville. “Awh you wonesome tonight?” Jesse asked and tickled his Dashboard Elvis. And giggled. And. Giggled.

I Saw What I Saw

It was a shortcut that I would regret for the rest of my life.  Don’t get me wrong, the scenery was beautiful.  A rolling landscape, secluded country houses and wildlife in abundance.  But, the beauty soon faded into insignificance when a sheep, covered in blood, ran out in front of me, causing me to swerve my car off the single track road and crash into a dry-stone wall.
+++++I’d approached a wooded area and was doing about fifty when I saw the sheep but managed to break and reduce my speed before the impact.  My airbag had activated and saved me from any serious damage.  After a moment or two, and a couple of prayers of thanks for still being alive, I pushed open my door, unfastened my seat belt and got out of my car.  I closed the door and lent heavily against the car, taking in painful, deep breaths.  I scanned the area for the sheep that I had seen, but it was nowhere in sight.
+++++I definitely saw what I saw.
+++++I eased myself away from the car and assessed the damage to the front of it.  It was going nowhere.  There was steam hissing from the radiator and there was a steady drip of black oil from underneath.  I fished my mobile phone from my pocket.  There was no signal.  Great!
+++++A sudden shriek startled me.  It came from the direction the sheep had run from.
+++++Another one, louder this time and closer, followed by another.
+++++What the fuck is that?
+++++My thoughts were answered when a dozen or more sheep ran from over the small grassy mound and across the road, exactly where the sheep that had caused my crash had come from.  Each and every one of them was smeared with dark, crimson blood.
+++++There was another blood-curdling shriek.  I looked round and decided the only way I could go was in the same direction as the sheep, into the woodlands.  If I went down the road I would be too exposed to whatever was out there.
+++++I started to run, clambering up the embankment where the sheep had gone.  The pains in my chest from the seat belt began to ease as I took in large breaths.  Suddenly, above me, there was a cracking of tree limbs and then, just feet in front of me, the lower half of a human body landed with a thud.
+++++Holy…shit!
+++++I carried on running, glancing down at the naked limbs, noticing that they were female.
+++++What the fuck is going on?
+++++Another shriek followed by a muffled scream.  I ran harder, the ground undulating beneath my feet.  The sheep had spread out but were heading in the same direction.
+++++Ahead, I saw a stream.  I noticed a small bridge off to my left and made a run for it.  I jumped down into the stream, just as another body part landed on a patch of heather at the side of the stream.  I splashed through the water and got to the bridge, scrambling underneath it.  I was struggling to control my breathing; my whole body felt like it was shaking.
+++++Another shriek.
+++++I turned under the bridge, keeping close to the stone wall as I peeked out in the direction of the noise.  I had imagined seeing some kind of bizarre bird like creature, but there was nothing.  Then out of the woods came a naked man.  His whole body was covered in blood and in one of his hands there was a human arm.  His head twitched from side to side, unnatural in its movements.
+++++Oh fuck.
+++++I looked out again, in time to see his mouth open and an ear splitting shriek ripped through the air.  I covered my ears, the sound almost painful.
+++++Got to move, got to move.
+++++The man walked to the edge on the stream, the bloodied arm still in his hand.  I slowly walked the eight feet or so under the bridge and crawled up the heather laden bank.  I inched up to the top of the stonework and looked back to where the man was stood.  To my amazement there were now two of them.  I don’t just mean two men; I mean there were two of them.  There was two of the same fucking bloke.  In unison their mouths opened and they let out an ear splitting shriek.
+++++What the fuck is happening?
+++++Fuck it!  I scrambled to my feet and ran.  I had no idea where I was going but I ran.  I ran harder than I had ever run in my entire life.  I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the two men were walking in my direction.  There was no urgency to their movements, which I felt wasn’t quite right.  It was only when I looked back in the direction that I was running that I realised why.  A few hundred yards ahead, to my left, a man was running across a field.  He was being chased by two naked men.  Within seconds they were on top of him and his limbs were ripped from his body.  His screams of pain and terror were instantly drowned out by the shrieks let out by his captors.
+++++This just can’t be happening.
+++++I turned to my right, jumped into the stream, ran through it and staggered up the other side.  I got my footing again and ran.  I ran for what seemed an eternity and never looked back.

* * * * *

I’ve now been hiding in this elevated position, behind a moss covered rock for what seems like an eternity.  The shrieks are still echoing on the evening air.  They still seem to be coming from the area below me.  I’m safe for now, but for how long?  I don’t know if I’ll ever get out of here.  It feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Everywhere I look there are fields and woodlands and hills and in the distance, mountains.  God’s country.  Heaven on earth.  Not on this day though.  Heaven can’t be like this.  Maybe I’ll know soon enough.
+++++What was that?  Oh, dear God. Please…no.  Our, Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy n….

Overnighter

When John Canvey came to me and said he needed a job doing, I was expecting the usual kind of thing.
+++++I am what they call a ‘man with a van,’ and I rent myself out, quite reasonably I think, to shift stuff from place to place.
+++++It can be anything; furniture to garden rubbish. I even got myself mixed up in the dumping of some toxic waste once. Anything goes really.
+++++Monday, John calls up and asks me to get over to his at my earliest convenience. He’s a bit posh is John and has a tendency to think that the rest of the world is thick, especially me. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know what’s going on around me.
+++++Me and him go back a long way and he has helped me out in the past, the not so distant past in fact, and we would always have each others backs if the worst ever came to the worst, which I seriously doubt it ever will since Mr. Canvey is far to clever for that.
+++++I get myself over there, and, as I say, I am expecting the usual so the sight of four suitcases stacked outside the front door doesn’t cause me any concern, one way or the other..
+++++“Sorry to call you over at such short notice, Sid, but this is a bit of a rush job and I knew I would be able to rely on you. This is going to be an overnighter I’m afraid and will take you out of town. Obviously I will cover your expenses.”
+++++He looked agitated to me, no idea why, and I’m not complaining. A night away is more than welcome. May even get a couple of beers and a game of cards in.
+++++We load the cases into the back of my transit.  John hands me a wad of cash and delivery details on a yellow post it note.
+++++“Listen here Sid.. I would be most appreciative if you kept the details of this delivery to yourself.. It’s some private stuff and I would rather not have to discuss it with Marilyn. You know what women are like… won’t ever let anything go.”
+++++I had to smile when he said that. We were on the same wavelength and it was funny to not see the magnificent Marilyn on the doorstep overseeing everything as she usually was.
+++++She was a looker. No doubt about that.. Hair ironed out as straight as ram rods and bleached to within an inch of it’s life. She liked her scarlet lipstick as well, that one. Bit too common for me.
+++++Touching my finger to the side of my nose I nodded as I looked down to check the details. Storage depot. Fine. No problem with that. Know the town well.
+++++“Can you be sure and unload before you park up and find a room for the night, don’t keep these cases on board until morning, will you?”
+++++Assuring him I wouldn’t, I climbed up in to the front of the van and raised a hand in salute as I pulled away. I would most likely be doing as he asked but he was never going to know if I didn’t, was he?
+++++I called up the missus, knowing she wasn’t home and after leaving a message, turned the phone off. Conscientious driver me, and I didn’t want any distractions. The message would have pissed Rita right off, unaccommodating bitch that she was. Liked the money she did, but was never prepared to be put out for it.
+++++As I left the slip road and joined the motorway I had a little chuckle to myself about the wad of cash and the post it note. Always one for effect old John, and who in the hell he thought could hear him I have no idea. But he knew what he was at, having been at it a long time. I opened the window and let the note be sucked away.
+++++No need for a map or Sat Nav, knowing this journey as I did, and after a couple of hours the need to piss arose so I pulled in to a service station and decided to get something to eat whilst I was at it.
+++++May as well make the most of the freedom. Be a lot going on when I got back and I needed to be ready for it. John may be superior to me socially but when it came to being in control, I beat him hands down.
+++++Three hours later, as the night is starting to close in, I arrive at the deserted assortment of lock-ups. Old John would be happy to know that I have delivered the cargo and it wouldn’t be hanging around in the van overnight.
+++++I back up to the same door as I did last month, get out the van and open it up. There is just enough light to see the suitcases from my last journey here.
+++++Unloading John’s designer luggage two at a time, I set Marilyn on the rack alongside Rita and tell them both to sleep well before I go off in search of a pint.

Heads or Tails

“Heads or tails, boy?” he asked.
+++++I could barely hear his voice. It was like something between a whisper and a croak, like the snapping of twigs in the undergrowth, the fracturing of bones.
+++++I looked up at him from where I sat on the floor. Just the same way as I had sat in assembly at school that morning. Except now I was sitting on dirt and dead leaves in the forest. And my hands and feet were tied together with wire. In assembly I had been told off for talking. Now I was too scared even to breathe.
+++++“Well, what’s it gonna be? Heads or tails?”
+++++The man shuffled over and knelt in front of me.
+++++His eyes were too big for his face. There was a pale sort of yellow colour where there should have been white. And black where there should have been brown, blue or green. He had lines around his mouth that seemed to be there to hold it up like those ropes that hold up tents. A smell came from within him that made me want to vomit. He only had a few teeth and his lips were as dirty as the ground beneath me.
+++++I could see blue sky through the tops of the trees and I could hear a plane somewhere far off. And here I was, thirteen years old, tied to a tree. An hour ago I had got home from school, changed into my normal clothes and taken my two dogs for a walk. I did it every day, well every school day anyway. They were Spaniels. Rescue dogs. I got them as a present for my birthday a few weeks back. I named one ‘King’ and one ‘Charles.’ I thought it was original but I don’t think anybody else did.
+++++“I will ask you one more time, boy. What will it be? Will it be heads? Or will it be tails?”
+++++He leaned towards me and grinned horribly before standing up and moving over to where King and Charles were tethered to a metal peg that he had banged into the ground. They had long given up barking and yelping. King seemed to be asleep or maybe just sulking. Charles was looking at me the whole time. I could see him shivering. It was getting colder, but not cold enough for a dog to feel it.
+++++“There, there little dog. Not long now.”
+++++Charles writhed on his leash and tried to back away as the man put out his big, grimy hand.
+++++“Heads,” I said at last.
+++++“What’s that, boy?”
+++++“Heads,” I repeated, looking at the dead leaves by my feet.
+++++“A fine choice.”
+++++Charles writhed some more and began to yelp as if he alone knew what was coming next. Even King managed to clamber slowly up to a standing position.
+++++The man reached into the inside of his coat pocket.
+++++I assumed he was looking for a coin.
+++++I assumed wrong.
+++++The blade of the knife looked so clean in his disgusting hand. The sun was drawn to it and it made it glisten like silver. I was appalled at its beauty.
+++++And I could do nothing as the man bent down over King and straddled him, one knee on the ground either side. I didn’t hear the knife go through King’s neck and I couldn’t hear the plane anymore. But I did here a pitiful thud as my little dog’s head dropped onto the forest floor. And in one motion he swung his arm and the blade carved Charles’ head from his quivering body.
+++++“I’d have gone for tails myself,” said the man as he wiped his knife against his soiled trousers. “But them’s the choices we make in life, boy. Them’s the choices.”
+++++And then he was gone.

The Mourning After

You wake up with dried blood adhering your head to the pillow. The vomit on the bed attacked your nose and your mouth opens as your stomach tried to evict something that is no longer there. A dampness around your groin doesn’t bode well for laundry day.
+++++Carefully you peel the pillow off your head and open your eyes. The floor spins clockwise while the ceiling is going the opposite way.
+++++You can’t remember anything about last night. Or at least nothing after necking absinthe in Shooters. The last time you were that drunk you woke up in a fountain located in the middle of a roundabout.
+++++Feeling your head you find no external injury. The inside is aflame with dehydration which causes spots to appear before your bloodshot eyes, but the outside is unscathed. So where is all the blood from?
+++++Then you see the pair of red stilettos lying tangled up in a white thong. Suddenly you recall the girl from last night, she was tall redheaded and she was wearing the sexiest red dress you’d ever seen. It had shown a hint of cleavage and a slit had kept giving you a flash of stocking top whenever she’d crossed her legs.
+++++You’d chatted and flirted with her. She’d laughed at your jokes, listened to your stories and left her hand on your arm long enough to show her intentions.
Her name was Siobhan or Sinead or something like that. It was Irish and started with an S. That much you could remember.

A lecherous smile crossed your face as you remembered the walk back to your flat. She’d dragged you into an alley and dropped to her knees to give you a taster of what was to come.
+++++You guessed she must be in the bathroom cleaning blood, puke and piss off herself. You’d never live this one down when the lads found out.
+++++So where had the blood come from? A hand rubbed across your face made your nose throb and you felt dried blood caked across your top lip. Thank God for that you thought. You hadn’t wanted it to be her blood.
+++++Getting out of bed you padded across to the window shivering. Had the bloody heating gone again? Drawing back the curtains you could see the smashed window.
+++++‘What the fuck happened last night?’ you asked the empty room.
+++++A glance out of the window showed a police car parked three stories below and two cops walking towards a body in a red dress.

Running downstairs in your boxers with no heed for decency, you sprinted out of the building reaching the body at the same time as the police.
+++++Her dress had ridden up around her waist exposing her crotch. One look at the cock between her legs made you remember everything.

Friday Night Fun

You don’t know why you didn’t get a taxi. You normally do. Something about saving money. But saving for what? It doesn’t seem worth it now.
+++++He’s standing there, staring at the bus timetable. You think his four brain cells are trying to work out what it means, when the next bus is due. You can’t stare though, that’s what he wants. That’s what he’s known for. Eyes down on the pavement. Your shoes are scuffed. Good night out, that’s what they’ll say. Did you get lucky in some alleyway? No, you didn’t. You got unlucky in a bus stop.
+++++He’s shaking his head at the timetable now. Probably can’t fathom it. From the corner of your eye you see his muscles tense. He’s only wearing a t-shirt. It’s freezing. Everyone else has a coat on, but he doesn’t look cold. Apart from his face, but that’s a different kind of cold. The worse kind.
+++++You sense he’s looking at you now, studying your face. You feel your cheeks burning. You want to look back at him but you don’t. You want to look at the bruise above his eye, the knife scar on his cheek, but you can’t. You want to smile. I’m just like you, you want to say. Waiting for the bus, that’s all I’m doing. But you know he wants more. You know he’s bored. You know how he entertains himself when he’s bored.
+++++There’s someone else sat next to you. About your age. He’s wearing a coat too. He could be one of your mates. But you’ve never met him. You can smell fear leaking from him. You can see him shift nervously in his seat. You don’t know him, you never met him. You wouldn’t ever want to harm him, but you want it to be him. If there’s got to be a victim, you want it be him.
+++++“What you staring at?” he says. You keep your eyes down. You notice the laces on your left shoe are crooked. They don’t match the right one. No symmetry.
+++++“Oi. I said what are you staring at?”
+++++The bottom of your trousers are frayed were they meet your shoes. You think you’ll buy some new ones next week. The man next to you is looking at his feet now. You think he’s looking at his own laces.
+++++He walks over towards you. Your heart misses a beat. He carries on past you. You can see his shoes. He stops in front of the other man.
+++++“I said, what are you staring at?”
+++++You sense look up. He looks at him, looks at the psycho. You tense your own muscles, you know what’s coming next. The punches start flying. You can hear them connect with his face next to yours. You feel a liquid hit your cheek. You know it’s blood. You’re still looking at the floor. There’s a piece of chewing gum trodden into the pavement. You wonder how long it’s been there and whose mouth it came from.
+++++The punches are still flying. He’s shouting no and please help but you still look at the gum. Blood’s trickled on top of the gum, right next to your shoe. You want to move away. But you don’t. What you really want to do is help, but you can’t. You’re frozen. You want to help him, to stop this, but you can’t.
+++++A flash catches your eye. You daren’t look, but you know what it is. A knife. He stabs him. You can hear the lunges penetrate the skin. You can see more blood dripping to the floor next to your shoes. Next to your clean but scuffed shoes.
+++++It stops.
+++++The knife clatters to the floor. He starts running. You want to turn and help the man but you can’t, not yet. You wait a few more seconds then turn. His head’s covered in fresh bruises and blood. Red’s gushing from a hole in his chest. Every breath pushes more blood out. You apologise. He tries to speak but he’s too weak. You’re convinced he’s trying to say don’t worry. You know he’d have down the same for you, he’d have done nothing too. That’s what you tell yourself as you stand up and walk away.

Who Are You? (A Smitty Story)

In the darkness the hushed voice of someone sobbing.
+++++Quietly.
+++++Softly.  Desperately trying to stop.  Like a child scolded severely might whimper alone in their bed.  Dabbing her eyes with a kerchief she sat in the semi-darkness in the backseat of the cab and held a cell phone to her ear.  Through the night the cab drove.  Fast.  With intent.  With a cold purpose as of yet unsaid.   Like some madman’s demonic kaleidoscope the interior of the cab lit up with the dull orange orbs of street lights exploding in a rapid staccato rhythm.
+++++But in her despair she sat huddled against the left rear door of the cab like a beaten pup hugging an immovable wall.
+++++An almost  pretty woman in her mid-thirties.  Conservatively but tastefully dressed in a skirt, a white blouse, with a navy blue jacket covering her bare arms.  Around her neck was a necklace with one very large black pearl hanging delicately just at the beginning of her cleavage.
+++++Her hair was pulled back behind her head and tied down into a tight bun.  Fair complexioned.  Neither beautiful nor unattractive.  A woman with a career.  A woman who did her job well and neither asked for nor expected anything out of the ordinary to happen to her.
+++++But tonight her hushed whisper for a voice sounded strained and her petite frame shook with emotion as she sat in the backseat of a cab at three in the morning talking on her cell phone.
+++++“I don’t know why he left, mother.  He just left!  Didn’t take a thing with him. Left his clothes . . . his toiletries . . . everything at the apartment.  But he wrote a note and left it on the bed.  Said he had to leave.  Had to get away. For my own sake.  Johnny never gave me a hint, never said a thing to indicate something was bothering him. It’s like . . . it’s like this just came out of the sky blue like a lightning bolt!”
+++++Johnny.
+++++Coal black eyes shot up to stare into the rear view mirror.  Eyes as black as sin itself.  Hard eyes.  Eyes filled with little mercy.  With a hand on the wheel the silent man drove the cab over semi-deserted streets, an occasional spike of light momentarily illuminating his face.  A face as hard as chiseled granite.  With sharp angles.  High cheek bones.  A razor thin nose.  And those eyes.  Those deadly dark eyes.
+++++Johnny . . .
+++++Years ago . . . a lifetime ago . . . he once had been called Johnny.
It had been a long time since he had heard that name.  A time much earlier in his life.  So many years past.  So many sins committed.  Layers of artificial amnesia encapsulating and then regulating that name and all the emotions which went with it into a part of his mind never to be opened again.  The name . . . the pain it always stirred within him . . . pushed aside and forgotten.
+++++Until tonight.
+++++“But . . . but Johnny wouldn’t do that, mother!  He wouldn’t just leave me!  He wouldn’t take all the money out of our savings account and just leave me!  I . . . I’m telling you something is terrible wrong.  Something terrible has happened!”
+++++In the silence of the cab the indecipherable voice of a mother scolding her child clearly written on the woman’s tear-streaked face.  Pain.  Fear. Worry.  Desolation.  All strokes of the emotional brush clearly seen the moment the interior of the cab lit up eerily from a street lamp.  As he eyed her through the rear view mirror he kept driving. And listening.
+++++“But mother, why would he do that?  Yesterday we went out and bought engagement rings!  Sat down with a local minister and talked with him about the wedding!  Now he’s . . . he’s gone.  Just left me.  Why?  Why?”
+++++A louder scolding voice coming out of her cell phone.  A flash of anger and with one smooth motion she threw the phone into her purse sitting on her lap and  set the purse on the seat beside her.  With her face streaked with black mascara and tears she turned to stare out into the night
+++++“What’s his name, lady.”
+++++A soft voice.  A gentle voice . . . but one edged with something else.  More a soft whisper.  Coming from the front of the cab.  From the dark shadow sitting behind the steering wheel.
+++++“Wha . . . what?  What did you say?” she asked, turning to look at the back of the shadows dark silhouette.
+++++“What’s your boyfriend’s name.  I heard a Johnny for a first name.  People used to call me that once.  Johnny.  Just wondered what  his last name was.”
+++++“Uh . . . uh . . (sob) . . . Menlow.  John Menlow.  Oh.  I’m sorry you heard all this.  I apologize for sounding so emotional.”
+++++“No need to apologies, lady.  I know how hard this ole’ world is.  I hear about it all the time in this cab.  What did your boyfriend do for work?”
+++++“Worked in an investment firm.”
+++++“Pretty good at it?”  the hiss of the soft . . . strange . . . whisper.  “Made some money at it?”
+++++She took the time to use a Kleenex to wipe tears from her eyes.  An odd warble of sound came out of her throat for an answer.
+++++“Jeesh,  shame he ran off will all your dough.  I’d be pissed.  Did you call the cops?”
+++++She shook her head no and covered the lower part of her face with the Kleenex.  She began shaking in silent agony as streams of tears flowed from her large eyes.  Dark eyes . . . as dark as infinity . . . watched her for a moment or two in the rear view mirror.
+++++Conversation ceased for the remainder of the ride.  When the cab pulled up to the curb of a large apartment complex he watched the woman climb out of the car, close the rear door of the car and step up on the curb.  When she tried to hand him the fare he lifted a hand up and pushed the money away.
+++++“You’ve had a rough day, lady.  Keep your money.  But tell me, you think this John Menlow is in trouble?  He’s in trouble and that’s why he ran off with your money?”
+++++“I . . . I think so,” she nodded, wiping mascara from her face.  “I know he loves me.  I can’t think of a reason why he would do anything like this unless something terrible has happened.”
+++++She stopped cleaning the mascara from her face with the Kleenex and frowned and looked at the cab driver for the first time.  Yet there was nothing to see.  The darkness of the street hid his face completely.
+++++“Say . . . who are you?  And why am I telling you everything about my personal life?”
+++++“Just a cabby, lady.  Just a cabby.  People tell me their problems all day long.  I’m like a priest.  I hear confessions all the time.  Hope things work out for you.  Maybe your Johnny might come back to you.”
+++++“I hope so, fella.  I really hope so.”
+++++Smitty watched her turn and walk toward her apartment building, head down, a Kleenex masking her face as she cried silently in great heaving jerks of her body.  He sat in the cab, black eyes unblinking, one hand riding high on the steering wheel, an elbow laying across the gaping hole of an open driver’s side window, and watched as she disappeared into the building.
+++++Johnny.
+++++So long ago.  A lifetime.  Another time.  Another place.
+++++Memories almost forgotten.
+++++Johnny.
+++++Into the night the cab disappeared.  Into the night  death began his relentless search for Johnny.  Some have the talents of an artist.  They paint on a canvas, or write on paper, masterpieces of wonder with color or with words.  Some men are good with their hands.  With hammers and chisels they can take a piece of freshly hewn wood and build magnificent mansions or . . . in stone . . . carve statues so breathtakingly life-like that,  to the naked eye, seem to breath and move as if made of bone, muscle and flesh.   Some men are gifted the eloquence so grand, so stirring, their words rouse passions and dreams in the hearts of all who may listen to them.
+++++But some men . . .  some men were born to inhabit the night.  To troll among the miscreants. The malevolent.  The homicidal unseen and unsuspected.  Born to hunt.  To stalk.  To seek out their prey and run them to ground in such a way their quarry never suspects their lives are about to change.  Or end.  Violently.
+++++It took Smitty twenty four hours to find Johnny Menlow.
+++++A hallowed out little man sitting on an empty bench in an empty, cavernous bus station.  The smell of diesel fumes strong in the air.  The black and white tiles of the floor in need of a severe scrubbing and a fresh coat of wax.  Figures here and there, dressed in various forms of the traveler and toting heavy looking suitcases and bags moved with the motions of the disillusioned.  Staring at the world with blank eyes.  Exhausted eyes of people long since forgotten.
+++++Jon Menlow sat on an empty wooden bench in the middle of the hollowed temple of the dead, bent forward, arms resting on his legs; hands moving constantly in slow motion.  Head bent down, eyes staring at the tile floor but not seeing.  Sat like a man  deep in his thoughts . . . deep in his damnations that were slowly, irrevocably, eating away his soul.
+++++Smitty stood several feet away and behind the back of John Menlow and eyed the man and the scene around him carefully.  In a huge building of this size there were no more than ten souls visible.  Yet John Menlow sat in the middle of the building and about as far as he could get from the set of wide double doors leading out to the rows upon rows of waiting buses.
+++++There were no bags or suitcases waiting silently beside him as he sat bent forward and hunched over.  John Menlow wasn’t going anywhere.  He was waiting.  Waiting like a condemned criminal waiting on death row for that final walk.  Waiting.  Stewing.  Remembering.  Remembering those he loved.  Those he had harmed.
+++++Smitty’s dark eyes narrowed as he slid a hand into the right trousers pocket and gripped the long, thin handle of a switch-blade.  Looking slowly to his left and then to his right he scrutinized each and ever individual near him carefully before returning his black eyes back to his quarry.
+++++John Menlow wasn’t sitting in a semi-deserted bus station waiting for a bus to take him into oblivion.  John Menlow was waiting for someone.  Waiting . . . and dreading . . . the moment when that someone finally appeared.
+++++Curious Smitty turned and walked to his left toward a stand of newspaper racks. Shelling out some coins he bought a day old paper and then moved to his right.  Moved to an empty bench some six benches directly behind John Menlow.  Sitting down and crossing one leg over the other casually he opened the paper and began reading as if he was someone waiting for a loved one’s bus to arrive.  But there was no reading the paper this night.  Tonight the hunter hid in plain sight and waited.  Waited to see what terror held this guilt-racked man to his wooden bench as firmly as guilt always did to a trapped man.
+++++Smitty did not wait for long.  Ten minutes later four men dressed in expensive casual sport coats and slacks, draped in gold chains and large gold and diamond studded rings on their fingers—creatures who never otherwise be caught in a bus station—passed him as he sat with the paper open in front of him and moved toward John Menlow.
+++++Four men used to money.  Power.  Death.
+++++Two men separated for the pack and moved silently off to the right and sat down on a bench.  The other two moved toward John Menlow.  One, a man with wavy black hair graying around the temples, with a small scar decorating his chin, was the pack leader.  The man in charge.  He had the look Smitty was all too familiar with.  The look of a killer.
+++++When they appeared in front of John Menlow the much younger man sat bolt upright and stared up at them.  Across the face of the dark man with the graying temples a cruel snarl played across thin lips.  He said something in a soft voice too faint for Smitty to hear.  Menlow, pale and moving with sudden, jerking, movements, nodded and reached inside his coat for something.
+++++The man with the graying temples snarled even wider as the man dressed beside him reached inside his coat menacingly.  Menlow pulled his hand out and reached up toward the smiling man.  +++++The smiling man offered an open palm and the small, brass colored form of a key momentarily appeared.  Menlow dropped the key into the smiling man’s open palm.  The gray haired mobster looked at the key for a second or two and nodded.  Handing the key to the man beside him he watched in an idle, almost bored fashion as the bigger man walked away and toward a long line of storage racks.  Carefully counting down the racks the big man came to the one he was hunting for and inserted the key into the lock.  With a twist of the wrist the gunsel opened the door and reached in for something.
+++++Out came a heavy blue canvas carrying bag.  A very heavy blue canvas carrying bag.  The man grunted when he pulled the bag out of the bin and dropped it to his side.  Closing the door to the bin he turned and stared across the station at his boss and nodded.
+++++The smiling man with the gray temples nodded and looked at John Menlow.  Something was said which made Menlow nod and then slump over and drop his head into his hands in anguished relief.  The smiling man laughed.  Laughed and turned to walk away.  But as he did his eyes turned toward the two men who had peeled away just a moment earlier.  Ever so slightly the smiling man nodded.
+++++And John Menlow’s death sentence had been officially decreed.
+++++Smiling man and his shadow walked out of the bus depot, passing Smitty sitting on his bench in the process and never looked back.  Lowering the paper the black eyes of death watched the back of John Menlow and waited.  Menlow, after visibly sobbing a few times, came to his feet, shoulders slumped over and head down, turned and began shuffling toward the exit.  He never saw the two rough looking, tanned creatures with their expensive clothes and gold chains stand up and begin moving toward him.
+++++Menlow shuffled past the dark eyed man sitting on the bench.  Seconds later the two heavy set, darkly tanned thugs of the smiling man walked past, neither taking any interest of the compact, thin looking man sitting at the bench folding his paper carefully in place and lying it on the bench beside him.  Their eyes were on their soon to be victim.  Neither had a thought in mind that anyone would dare disturb them in their grisly assignment.
+++++Smitty stood up and slid a hand into his trousers pocket as he turned and began walking toward the bus station’s wide exit.  In front of him, maybe ten paces away, were the back of the two thugs.  They followed Menlow out of the door and into the night.  Neither heard the silent footsteps of the compact, light framed man walking directly behind them.  Turning to their right they continued to follow John Menlow into the dimly lit wide expanse of the bus station’s parking lot.
+++++The night’s warm, muggy summer’s night breeze played across Smitty’s cold, angular face.  It would be raining soon.  A hard summer squall was blowing in.  Rain hard enough to wash away blood.  Wash away evidence.  Wash away the smell of death.  Silently Smitty pulled from his trousers pocket the folded form of thin handled switch-blade just as one of the two men in front of him slid a hand inside his sport coat for something while his other hand removed a long cylindrical object from a different coat pocket.
+++++From out of the man’s coat came the ugly black form of a long barreled revolver.  From the side pocket the cylindrical shaped object was quickly screwed onto the end of the revolver’s barrel.  But the man didn’t raise the revolver and its silencer just yet.  Menlow kept walking deeper into the semi-deserted parking lot toward a small sedan parked underneath a lonely, tall, brightly lit light pole rising up into the gathering gloom.
+++++Fumbling for keys Menlow stopped beside the driver’s side door of the sedan, back facing the two dark forms half hidden in the parking lot’s darkness.  The two had stopped only eight feet away.  Right at the edge of the bubble of light the single parking lot light pole threw into the darkness.   The two gunmen stood in the darkness and eyed Menlow emotionlessly.  Then the one with the silenced revolver lifted the weapon up and aimed it at the back of Menlow’s head.
+++++“Hey, fellas.  Either one of you two got a match?”
+++++The soft whisper of a voice came out of the darkness behind them.  Unexpectedly.  Unnervingly eerie to their ears.  Making both of them jump instinctively and turn to face the intrusion.
+++++“Listen, asshole . . . ” the one with the gun in his hand snarled viciously, dropping the weapon in his hand quickly to hide it behind his leg as he turned and faced the voice.
+++++He never finished his sentence.  Something long . . . thin . . . sharp . . . came out of the night and bit deep into his throat.  Fear, surprise, shock . . . all lit up the man’s hidden face at the same time.  Something tasting hot, salty, like brackish saltwater,  began to fill his mouth.  He felt like he was drowning.  He felt himself becoming light headed.  Dropping the gun from his hands he threw both of them up to his throat and felt the handle of the switch-blade, covered in blood, jutting out of his throat.
+++++“Jesus!”  the second gunman as he turned to look at his partner drop to his knees and then keel over, face first, into the pavement.  “What the fu . . . .!”
+++++Crack!
+++++The gunman’s right knee snapped in two from a blow like that of a sledgehammer smashing though a plaster wall.  He screamed, almost fell but caught himself, and bent over form the sheer excruciating pain.  It was his last living act.  The edge of a hand, like the edge of an axe, came out of the night and bit into the back of his neck.  There was another loud crack!  And he too dropped . . .  dead . . . onto the pavement with a broken neck.
+++++John Menlow was about to slide into his car when he paused, frowned, and turned to look behind him.  He thought he heard the muffled voice of someone.  Leaving the car door open Menlow took a couple steps toward the edge of the light and peered out at the darkness.
+++++“Hello.  Is there someone out there?”
+++++Silence.
+++++“Really. Is someone hurt out there?”
+++++Silence.
+++++And then behind him he heard a car door open and quickly slam shut.  Standing up straight, wide-eyed and thoroughly frightened,  Menlow slowly turned around and,  with eyes blinking wildly, stared at his car.
+++++A small, thin, but will built little man sat in the front passenger seat of his car and stared up at him with black eyes.  Amazingly black eyes.  Lying on the man’s left thigh was the cold blue steel of a Ruger .357 caliber revolver.  At the end of the six inch barrel of the weapon was the long round tube of what had to be a silencer.
+++++“Get in,” the strange man said in a soft, yet quite clear voice. “We need to leave, John.  Leave now!”
+++++John Menlow blinked a couple of times and then walked back to the open door of his car and slid in behind the steering wheel.  He didn’t say a word.  Starting the car he shifted down into Drive and drove.
+++++“We don’t have much time.  So you need to talk and talk fast.  How much was in that blue tote bag you had stashed in the locker.  And why did you hand it over to someone who so convincingly frightened you.”
+++++“Who are you?  And why . . . why are you wanting to know about my business?”
+++++Smitty turned his dark eyes toward the pale, ghost like features of John Menlow and stared.  Sat silently and stared.  The silence . . . those hypnotic, cobra-black eyes visibly sent chills down Menlow’s spine.
+++++“Okay,  okay!  I’ll tell you!  I’m an investor.  I work at a small firm ran by a guy named Clark Harris.  Just a small firm of Harris, myself, and five other agents.  Last week Clark disappeared.  Disappeared with two million dollars of investor’s money.  The day after it was confirmed Clark was gone and he had the money, a guy by the name of Nick Carsons came by the office.  Said that two million was his money and he wanted it back.  If he didn’t get it back by tonight he was going to kill all of us.  Kill us and our families as well.  I gathered up all I could find.  More like stole all I could.  Three-quarters of a million.  That’s all I could scrounge up.”
+++++“Stole money to save your friends and your girl friend.”
+++++“Yes!  How . . . how do know Marcia?  I mean, is she safe!  Is she all right?”
+++++There was panic in Menlow’s voice.  Terror etched a haggard look across his normally average face as he turned to stare at the dark eyed man.
+++++“She’s safe,” the soft voice replied in the darkness of that was the passenger’s seat.  “For now.  But you’ve got to go to her.  Now.  Take her and leave her apartment.  There’s a motel out on Highway 60 called The Goodnight’s Inn.  Take her there and wait for my call.”
+++++“But . . . but  I can’t go back to her.  I stole her money!  I stole a lot of people’s money!  She must hate my guts by now!”
+++++“She doesn’t,” the voice in the blackness hissed.  “Stop the car and let me out.  And then go to the woman who loves you.  Do what I told you to do.  Wait for my call.  I’ll take care of this mess.”
+++++John Menlow started to protest.  But those eyes . . . those eyes.
+++++He stopped the car and watched the small man slid out into the night and close the door behind him.  And he left.  Left Death standing in the darkness watching the bright red of the car’s tail lights fade into the night.
+++++Two hours later Smitty was sitting in the leather bucket seat of a CTS Cadillac parked parallel beside a street curb.  In one gloved hand was a cheap throwaway cell phone.   He was looking to his left.  Down a long street lined on both sides with cars parked and empty.  The night was lit up with bright neon signs of several bars and nightclubs lining both sides of the street.  But at the far end of the street was a black line of brownstone apartment buildings.
+++++Smitty was waiting.  Waiting for the lights of one particular brownstone to snap on.  When it did he used a gloved thumb to punch in numbers of a private residential number.
+++++“Yeah, Nick Carson’s residence,” a voice . . . not Nick Carson’s . . . answered in a bored fashion.
+++++“Let me talk to your boss,” a soft whisper drifted across the ethernet.
+++++“Who’s calling?”
+++++“Tell him the guy who just stole the three-quarters of a million John Menlow just gave him wants to talk to him.  I’m sure that will tickle Nick’s interest some.”
+++++“What . . . . !”
+++++There was the noise of a phone dropping onto a table.  Noise of heavy feet running across a hardwood floor.  A door slamming.  Seconds later the explosion of voices screaming invectives and foul language.
+++++And then Nick Carson voice screaming into the phone.
+++++“I don’t you who you are . . . I don’t know how that little bastard could have hired you!  But I’m gonna find you, you little prick!  I’m gonna find you and cut your heart out!  Steal my money, will you!  I’ll cut your heart out and then I’m going after this Menlow creep and his girlfriend and I’m gonna cut their hearts out!  Where the fuck is my money. asshole!”
+++++“Go to the window and pull the curtain back,” Smitty said softly.  Casually.
+++++From his vantage point directly opposite Carson’s brownstone he saw the second story curtains of Carson’s office flash open and the form of the man with the gray temples standing in the middle of the window.
+++++“Look down the block.  See the black car that’s turning on its headlights now?  That’s me.  I have your money.  And I plan to return it back to all of those who had it stolen from them.   Say goodnight, Nick.  And by the way.  You won’t be hurting anyone ever again.”
+++++A cruel little smile played across Smitty’s lips as he  pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at the glowing numbers of the phone’s dial.  A thumb moved slide across the face of the dialer and paused over the number eight.  Glancing down the street again he saw the form of Nick Carson still at the window.  The smile on Smitty’s lips widened as he pressed number eight firmly.
+++++The explosion was staggering.
+++++A ball of fire shot out of the second story window of the Carson residence and roared half way down the street.  The shock wave from the explosion was physical enough to rock every car violently.  Car alarms, by the hundreds, rose up into the night with a cacophonous clatter.  Glass, wood, pieces of brick shrapnel rained from the heavens.
+++++Almost instantly from all over the city police and fire alarms began wailing.  People flooded out of the night club and bars and ran into the street to stare at the burning crater that once was Nick Carson’s brownstone.
+++++Behind the gawking crowds a black CTS Caddy pulls away from the curb gently and moves away.  Black fading into black.  Like a ghost.  Like a wraith.  Like the Angel of Death himself.

 

Pursuit

They ran screaming from him, scattering to all points of the compass. Their young minds calculating the best way to escaper their pursuer. He selected one girl as his target and focused in on her. She was eight and was one of the least athletic children present that day. She would provide the easiest catch as her chubby waistline would make her slow and unwieldy.
+++++Her bulk was nearly as great as his, which meant he’d have a realistic chance of catching her. She was running away from him as fast as her legs would take her. Pigtails and shrieks flew over her shoulder towards him.
+++++The father observed with pride as the son hunted down his prey.
Now only thirty feet separated them and the girl was looking increasing fearful as she knew she was gaining ground. The only sounds coming from her mouth were gasping asthmatic breaths. No scream or shrieks came now. Every mouthful of air was forced into her lungs to oxygenate the driving pistons that were her legs.
+++++She was terrified of being caught by her pursuer as she knew exactly what his intentions were.
+++++Twenty feet behind her, the thumping of his superior weight sent great echo’s forward to increase her desperation. She had an idea and veered towards the creek.
+++++By the time she had crested the ridge which started the slope down to the burbling water the gap had closed to ten feet.
+++++She heard the shout of encouragement as his father drove him on after her. She’d never trusted the old man with his pointy face and stinky breath.
+++++Now she was heading down a steeper slope and was struggling to keep both legs below her torso. The mysterious force which was called gravity gave her upper body the extra propulsion the lower half lacked. A fall now would signal the end of her escape attempt.
+++++She glanced over her shoulder to see where he was. Her eyes opened wider as she saw he was now within a couple of feet of her. He saw the panic in her pupils and laughed a cruel laugh which further twisted the knot of nerves in her stomach.
+++++Her attention snapped back to her chosen route. A sapling tree lay straight in front of her so she veered left and executed her plan.
+++++As the tree drew level with her shoulder, she flung out an arm and used the infant oak as a pivot. Her momentum carried her through one hundred and eighty degrees and sent her panting back up the slope.
+++++The move worked, as her hunter shot past the tree before copying the trick with another tree and resuming the chase. She had gained herself twenty feet with the manoeuvre and his breathing was becoming more ragged by the second, as he too toiled up the slope.
+++++She didn’t look back until she reached the top of the slope. The glimpse she afforded herself was fatal, as her tired legs no longer fully obeyed her demands. Left and right legs collided when he was a mere five feet behind her.
+++++He paused gasping for air while as she hauled herself back to her feet with unshed tears in pleading eyes. When she was stood beside him, he simply touched her arm and said one damning word.
+++++‘Tig.’

Payback – Part 3: The Greater Good

Koff! Koff! Koff!
+++++Where am I?
+++++Gaakkkk!
+++++Oh shit – blood – shit. Oh god, here…
+++++Gaakkk! Koff! Koff!
+++++That’s the second time I’ve thrown up in two minutes…the smell is terrible – it’s in my hair and on my clothes…feels like there’s another waiting to come up. Jesus…can’t see straight…feel sick as a dog…right hand side of my body feels numb – no, not numb, dead.
+++++Last thing I remember – the airport – the car with Natasha…talking to her then I get cattle prodded from behind and looks like they’ve shoved me in the boot. Then…yes – someone, no, two others fried me again. Oh shit, here it comes again…
+++++Gaakkk! Gaakkk!
+++++Shit – just dry heaving now. That explains the splitting sensation running through my skull, the lights before my eyes and the fact that my right leg seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. Okay, think Amy – what would Mom and Dad do in a situation like this? Probably have never gotten themselves into this situation in the first place.
+++++What the fuck was I thinking, walking out of the airport like that in broad daylight. Should have come up with a disguise. Stupid stupid stupid! Should have turned and ran the minute I saw Natasha.

****

“Well, that’s one loose end tied up.” Courtney said as she focused on the road ahead of them. The lights on the bridge were out again, meaning that driving along it would require her undivided concentration. “That should cheer Adrian up.”
+++++“I don’t think he really cares either way,” Kelly replied. “He’s just focused on the business.”
+++++“Wouldn’t you be?” Courtney asked. “I mean, if you think about…”
+++++“Cut the chatter girls,” Natasha snapped from the back seat. “Just get us to the farm house – we’ll dump the car in the river far enough away from the bridge that it won’t be noticed. The odds of anyone finding the body there are almost nil.”
+++++“Aww, looks like you lucked out on cleaning out the trunk this time sis…” Kelly chirped.

****

Think Amy, think!
+++++Good thing I lifted that security guard’s pistol at the airport. If I shoot the lock off from here the bullet will more than likely deflect straight back at me. If I wait for them to stop to retrieve me then I’ll be outnumbered. Of course, there’s always the chance that they’ll just dump the car into a river or push it off a cliff…
+++++Either way – I have to try something. So, here goes nothing! Hate trying to aim with my left – I was always terrible with it compared to my right.
+++++Blam! Blam! Blam!

****

“Wha…?” The first gunshot rang out inside the car, narrowly missing Natasha as the bullet tore through the back seat. It smashed into the windshield, prompting Courtney to twist the wheel sharply. The second shot punched a hole through the roof of the sedan, while the third punched a hole in Courtney’s skull, painting the remaining portion of the front windshield with blood and brain matter.
+++++“Courtney!” Kelly screamed as she saw her sister slump over the steering wheel, her scream simply increased as the car skewed violently to the left and pierced the protective barrier that usually stopped vehicles from simply pitching over the edge of the road and into the raging torrent of water below.
+++++For a few seconds, everyone felt that sensation of weightlessness that came with a sudden, sharp free fall. The sedan twisted, rolling over on its self as it hung in the air. The vehicle slammed into the riverbank, skidding on its side and filling the air with a crunching noise usually heard by the participants in a head on collision a fraction of a second before the engine tore through into the passenger compartment.
+++++The air was suddenly still – the only sound was the noise of a few birds in the trees that lined the riverbank itself. There was a brief flicker of movement from the car as Natasha tried to haul herself out of the passenger compartment. As she pushed the door open and dragged her bruised and bloodied body from the car, she fell into the shallow water of the river. As she pulled her face out of the cold water, she saw it was coloured with her blood.
+++++“…Mom…”
+++++She heard Kelly’s weak voice from somewhere behind her. Struggling to get to her feet, Natasha half-stumbled, half-crawled around the wreckage of the car. Kelly was lying in the water, her head resting on a large stone where a pool of her blood was forming.
+++++“…Mom…I can’t see anything…”
+++++“I’m right here baby – I’ll go and get us some help.” Natasha said as she reached her daughter, cradling her in her arm.
+++++“Mom huh?” Natasha looked up – Amy was standing less than six feet away from her, pistol raised in her left hand and pointing it straight at the pair of them. Even in her current condition, Natasha could see that Amy wasn’t exactly one hundred percent either. “You know, normally this would be a very touching scene, but in light of the last two weeks I can’t think of a better way to make you suffer than to make you watch your own daughter die slowly.” Amy wobbled slightly, the sensation in her right leg still not enough to be counted on.
+++++Natasha sprung at her, knocking away her pistol with one hand while grabbing at Amy’s throat with the other. The force of her bull-rush knocked them down into the shallow water.
+++++“I’m going to kill you for what you’ve done bitch!” Natasha screamed as she pulled Amy’s head up, only to smash it back down against the rock-strewn surface beneath her.
+++++“NO!” Amy screamed, managing to get her left leg up under their bodies and push Natasha off her with whatever force she could muster. Amy heard some sort of grunting sound as she tried to clear her head whilst trying to get to her feet in anticipation of Natasha’s next strike.
+++++Amy’s vision was still blurry but she saw Natasha slumped against the underside of the sedan with a large spike of metal that was protruding from her stomach. Amy wobbled as she scooped the pistol up out of the water, and then turned to face Natasha. Blood was oozing out of her mouth.
+++++“I’ll do you a deal – you answer my questions and I promise you that I will get help for your daughter,” Amy said. “Refuse and I’ll kill you both right now.”
+++++“What’s it matter – I’m as good as dead already,” Natasha half laughed. “How do I know you’ll keep your end of the deal?”
+++++“You don’t – you’ll just have to hope that you tell me what I want to know.”
+++++“Okay…koff!…okay,” Natasha said, looking over towards Kelly. “I’ll tell you everything…”
+++++And she did.
+++++Natasha told me how my father had faked her death a number of times to flush out rogue agents within the Agency.
+++++How Knotmann had taken my mother’s work after she had left and tweaked it a little until it was worth more than anyone could possibly imagine. They called it the Bellerophon Project. The Ravenstone Foundation was born out of this and became their primary focus once the spy game had gotten old. Medical technology became the main source of income. The key members took their knowledge with them and became millionaires the legitimate way.
+++++Apart from the odd piece of wet work here and there, Natasha and Stone were the company’s lion tamers. Their job was to deal with former agents that posed a threat to the future of the business.
+++++“So, why chase down my parents? You knew they would never come out of hiding – why didn’t you just leave them alone?” By now Amy had lowered her pistol. Natasha looked pale – her blouse was stained with her blood.
+++++“Uuuhhgh…they had to be eliminated…don’t you understand? Everything was based on your mother’s research…no matter how successful we were…there was always the risk it would all come tumbling down…it was too important…”
+++++“So important that people had to die for it? People that were your friends?” Amy spat. “Is that how you repaid them? By killing them?”
+++++“…koff!…you’re so naïve – your parent’s knew the risks when they left…this was bigger than all of us…”
+++++“Who gave the order to kill my parents?” Amy said, kneeling down at Natasha’s side. “I need to know so I can end all this and get on with my own life.”
+++++“Knotmann…died on the island…you killed Stone…I’m last on the list…”
+++++“I really doubt that the chain ends with you – my mother warned me to watch out for you…buy you don’t look like much now.” Amy spat.
+++++“You still don’t get it do you? Jesus, this is it! This is your pitiful life that you’re living right now!” Natasha seemed to be fuelled by something else now. “Just…save my daughter…koff.”
+++++“Like you saved my parents?” Amy said, standing up. “You’re dead in a minute from my gun, then I’m going to go and finish off that daughter of yours over there, nice and slowly. Then I’m going to find out who’s behind all this and take care of them too. Just know that you bought this all on yourself. You and your little crew took away the only thing that mattered to me.”
+++++Koff…koff…tell it to someone who gives a shit bitch!” Natasha spat with a smile on her face. “You’re as good as dead when you walk away from here – they’ll hunt you down…”
+++++Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

****

2 days later

The funny thing is, after killing Natasha I felt even more detached than before. Rather than feeling good about it I realise that I feel sad. She was right – this is my pitiful life and there’s no one to blame about the course I’ve taken other than the reflection in the mirror. I have to finish what I’ve started – one way or the other.
+++++I called an ambulance for Kelly – I know now that we have a lot in common. We’re both products of our environment. There’s no reason for her to pay for her mother’s sins so dearly. Courtney on the other hand…well, nobody’s perfect.
+++++When I got to the hotel I found two surprises waiting for me.
+++++The first was Ethan. He told me how he had tracked me to New York using some of his father’s equipment. I wanted to tell him to turn and run – to get away from me as fast as he could because the longer he’s around me, the greater the chance that he’ll get hurt.
+++++The second was a complete dossier on the Ravenstone Foundation that he had compiled. The last two days have been spent deciding what to do. As I sit on my motorcycle, heading towards my destiny, his last words before I left still float around my head.
+++++“You may have bitten off more than you can chew,” Ethan said to me as I lay in bed with him. It’s getting to be a habit of mine, sleeping with him, but it’s one I don’t want to break. “I mean, you’re only one person.”
+++++“I have to finish what I’ve started.” I said, my voice wasn’t convincing.
+++++“You’re questioning if this is a good idea aren’t you?”
+++++“How did you know?”
+++++“You’re shaking slightly.” Ethan said, pulling me closer to him. He smells so good, so warm and safe.
+++++“Please…you shouldn’t have come here…”
+++++“Amy, I can take care of myself – besides, you needed my help whether you realised it or not.” He’s right – the dossier. That would have taken me weeks to compile.
+++++“Well Dorothy, I hope you find what you’re looking for at the end of this particular yellow brick road,” He said as he got up. “Because I don’t feel like attending your funeral just yet.” He begins to get dressed. Neither of us speak for the moment. “Look, there’s some equipment in the suitcase by the door – you might find it useful, plus there’s a bike downstairs for you to use.” He grabs a bag from the couch and moves towards the door. “I’ll be at Dad’s place if you want to talk about…this…when it’s all over.”
+++++So, here I am – standing at the front door of the Ravenstone Foundation. The last person I need to deal with is sitting in the penthouse of this building. I hope he’s enjoying his last day on Earth.
+++++I walk into the lobby – there’s one guard on the front desk. Before he gets a chance to speak I fire a bullet into his skull. Taking the master key to the elevator I override the controls and head straight to the penthouse. As the door opens I have both pistols drawn. The two goons in suits barely have time to register what’s going on before I blow their brains out. Surely I should feel something at my casual lack of regard for these men’s lives – but I don’t. Have I fallen so far that there’s no way back now?
+++++I head straight towards the double door at the end of the corridor. As I push it open, I expect there to be armed security personnel swooping down on me as I enter.
+++++“Welcome Ms Tempest, please come in. We have much to discuss.”
+++++I find myself alone in the room with one man.
+++++Adrian Stone.

****

He lifted the glass in his hand, examined the liquid within it and drank from it slowly, savouring the taste. As Adrian returned the glass to the table, he turned and looked out of the window, surveying the city below the headquarters of the Ravenstone Foundation.
+++++“Ms Tempest, please put your weapons away.” Adrian said. “This room is constantly monitored, should you choose to shoot me then the security complement will destroy this penthouse, resulting in your death as well as mine, so I don’t see why we can’t discuss things like sensible adults.”
+++++“You must understand why I’m here.” Amy said, refusing to relinquish her aim.
+++++“I want to say up front that as far as I am concerned, all the business you had with my business partners is over. I’m told that if you hadn’t called for assistance when you did, my sister Kelly would be dead now.” He said, turning to face Amy. “I thank you for that. My mother – on the other hand – deserved what she had coming to her, as did my father.”
+++++“What? Mother?” Amy said. “Well…sorry – not that knowing this would have made any difference.” Her stomach suddenly churned.
+++++“I understand. I asked my family and co-workers to leave all that business behind them when I joined the board. However, they persisted against my wishes.” Adrian replied. He looked at the pistols, which were still pointed at his face. “Well, now that we’re here, what’s you next step?”
+++++“What happened to my mother’s work – the Bellerophon Project? Did you turn it into some sort of biological weapon?” Adrian laughed at Amy’s suggestion.
+++++“Nothing so mundane, I can assure you – there’s limited profit and extensive jail time for that sort of endeavour.” He said. “No, your mother’s work created something with a far greater influence than that.” He got up out of the chair and scooped up the remote control from his desk. Amy felt herself tense, and then she saw the large screen behind him wink into life.
+++++“The Bellerophon Project is the proverbial golden goose of the medical world. It has allowed us to develop a drug called Temerax – which will inhibit and eventually reverse the production of cancer cell growth within the human body.” Amy felt her stomach drop. She lowered both of her pistols as Adrian explained more.
+++++“You see, we’re basically a giant pharmaceutical company. Over the years, we have been gradually phasing out our older drugs and replacing them with newer, stronger ones. Eventually we will get to the final drug – but in the mean time, there’s money to be made.”
+++++“You mean you let people suffer and die while you sit on the cure?” Amy was horrified. “That’s okay with you? Don’t you understand that by not preventing those deaths you are responsible for them?”
+++++”Oh, I understand completely my dear.” Adrian replied. “I have always made it a personal point to see the suffering of the masses at first hand, to feel their pain for myself, to understand their sacrifice. They are the martyrs for our cause, for the greater good if you will.”
+++++“However, the money we are earning is being put towards other projects. You have to understand, if we release Temerax in its final form right away, there will be a population explosion. The economic and societal infrastructure of the world just isn’t ready for the pressure that would bring to bear upon it, and in case you hadn’t noticed, there are very few places on this planet where one can be alone anymore. Part of the Foundation’s goals are to plough our profits into construction programs across the globe, education centres in the third world countries and trying to stabilise the more…contentious regimes on the planet.” He paused for a moment. “Unfortunately, people have been blinded by the materialistic gains they have achieved and allowed selfish, base desires to rule them and it has dragged the Foundation off course so to speak.”
+++++“And…my mother’s work…”
+++++“Will – in time – end the pain and suffering of millions.” Adrian said, walking towards Amy and taking hold of the pistols in her hands. He gently eased them free of her grip and looked her in the eyes. “Ms Tempest, I am truly sorry for what was done to you, but all of this violence can stop now. There is a suitcase by the door containing enough money to live three lifetimes over. I want you to take it, go back to Mr Saunders and become that which your parent’s wanted you to be.”
+++++“How do I know you won’t try to kill me?” Amy said. Adrian smiled at her.
+++++“What purpose would that serve? To be brutally honest, you’re nobody and I have much greater things to concern myself with. As far as I’m concerned you no longer exist.” Adrian said, extending his hand.
+++++We shook on it – and I knew he was right. It was over – the people who killed my parents had been punished and I finally felt something for the first time in weeks.
+++++Relief. Relief that it was all over. As I entered the lift I looked at Adrian Stone and realised he wasn’t a better person than me, he was just different. Just like Ethan.

****

As Adrian Stone watched Amy Tempest drive away on her motorcycle, the door to his office opened.
+++++“She’s clear of the building now,” His assistant said.
+++++“Thank you Iris.”
+++++“Should I arrange for her termination?” Iris said as she placed several newspapers on his desk.
+++++“Didn’t you hear a word I said on the radio? We’re leaving her alone.” Adrian replied as he opened the Financial Times. “Besides, we may need her services in the future. Now, what’s happening in the world today?”

Payback – Part 2: Safehouse

I rub my temples as I sit in the dark kitchen. I can hear the rain outside, like some sort of incessant drum beat to a song no one truly understands.
+++++The light flicks on and I instinctively shield my eyes.
+++++“How are you feeling?”
+++++The voice belongs to Malcolm Saunders – my father’s best friend in life and a man who owed his life, and those of his family, to my mother. He was always Uncle Mac to me.
+++++“It’s funny – I thought I’d feel different after watching Stone die.” I replied. He walked across to the kettle and switched it on.
+++++“Take it from me Amy, revenge is a hollow act,” Mac said as he dropped a teabag into the mug. “It never makes you feel better. How many sugars do you take?”
+++++“Two.” I said. “I don’t want to feel better – I just want them to pay.” Yeah, I sound bitter but then I think I have a right to.
+++++“And just where do you stop?” The second voice entered the room. I turned around. It was Ethan, Malcolm’s son. “Where do you draw the line Amy? At what point do you decide that you’re going to step outside of the circle of blood?”
+++++Ethan Saunders – Ethan is three years and a half older than me – so that makes him around 24 now. He was literally the only other person I interacted with while growing up. Ethan was my best friend – hell, he was my only friend. Whenever he and Uncle Mac came to the island I could barely contain myself. My parents knew I needed some sort of social interaction with another person my own age as I was growing up…and as I became older I tried to hide the fact that he’s the first man I’ve ever been in love with. If I’m being honest, I’ve had a crush on Ethan since I was twelve years old.
+++++And I don’t know what to do about it. It’s just another one of those things that Mom and Dad never got the chance to tell me about.
+++++I find myself holding back the tears as I look at Ethan. I know he means well, but he doesn’t understand.
+++++Actually, that’s a lie – he understands exactly what I’m going through – if there’s one person on the planet that knows precisely how I feel, then it’s Ethan. Only he chose a different path to me. Does that make him a better person?
+++++Two years ago THEY found Uncle Mac and Aunt Mary-Ann in the small town in Ireland they were living in at the time. They used a car bomb – about fucking typical of those bastards. Somehow Uncle Mac was thrown clear – Aunt Mary-Ann wasn’t so lucky. Mom managed to manipulate the hospital records to show that Uncle Mac died as a result of his injuries while Dad got him out of there. Ethan was staying with us for the summer – I remember hearing him crying himself to sleep some nights.
+++++I was too scared to go into his room at first – I didn’t know what to say to him. Then one night I found him sitting in the kitchen just like I am now. We talked until the sun rose – and I can remember every single word of that conversation. That was also the first time I ever kissed a boy too. I felt bad about it until Ethan told me not to, but he didn’t want to “take things further” until “he knew what he wanted to do with his life and until I was older.”
+++++“I’ll stop when it’s over.” I answer him – my voice is flat and I try to keep it free of emotion. Uncle Mac hands me the cup of tea. It sears the inside of my mouth as I take a sip from it – no one makes a cup of tea like Uncle Mac. Ethan says something to him – I can’t catch it – and Uncle Mac makes his way out of the kitchen, leaving me alone with Ethan.
+++++“How’s his hip these days?” I ask once I’m certain that we’re alone.
+++++“Not so bad as you’d notice, they got most of the remaining fragments out when they installed the new replacement six months ago,” Ethan replies, looking into my eyes with an intensity that makes me feel uncomfortable. “You’re expecting a lecture aren’t you?” I nod. “Well you’re looking at the wrong person for that.”
+++++“Aren’t you going to tell me to forget about it all and move on with my life?” I ask. Ethan shakes his head.
+++++“We’re different people Amy – you need to do this, I didn’t.” He said. I broke eye contact with him; something feels strange in my stomach when I look at him. “All I will say is that I want you to be careful, and you know that none of this will bring them back.”
+++++“I can’t forgive and forget…” My teeth are gritted together as I feel the tears starting to roll down my face. “I…I…just…”
+++++“Amy, it’s okay,” I can hear the sound of the chair Ethan is sitting in scrape against the stone floor. I can feel his arms around me – he wraps me inside his arms and it feels so warm, so safe, that I can’t hold it back anymore.
+++++I cry. I cry so much that Ethan’s shirt is stained with my tears where I bury my head in his chest in some sort of twisted reflection of my face. I can feel my legs starting to sag and he takes up the slack, literally holding me up in his arms.
+++++“Come on, you need to get some sleep,” His voice is quiet and calm. He picks me up and carries me upstairs into their guest bedroom. I’ve stopped crying now – I just feel weak, empty and alone. He turns to leave and I put my hand on his shoulder.
+++++“Ethan…I…I don’t want to be alone…”

****

I didn’t want to get out of the bed. There in Ethan’s arms I almost forgot about the sequence of events I’d set in motion. Almost. Reluctantly I pulled the covers back and began to get dressed. I noticed that there were the first few cracks of sun sneaking in through the blind on the window. I was in my underwear before Ethan woke up.
+++++“Every time there was a sound during the night you woke up,” He said. “Amy, you’re safe here – no one is going to…”
+++++“I thought I was safe on the island and look how that turned out.” Neither of us said anything for a minute. “I should go, I’ve risked too much by staying here.”
+++++“What?” Ethan said as he got out of bed. “You’re not making any sense.” I pulled my shirt on over my head and looked at him – his hair was a mess and he had put his boxer shorts on backwards.
+++++“I’ve lost everything – I can’t risk losing you too.” I said. He looked shocked, he was about to say something but my hand on his mouth stopped him.  “I need to go now, but I promise you I’ll be back. Say goodbye to your Dad for me.” I button up my jeans and leave the room before my resolve wavers. I didn’t say anything else to him before I left. As I pulled away on my bike I saw him watching me from the bedroom window.

****

 

new-york-city-12345New York
8 hours later

“Can you zoom in any closer?”
+++++“It’s from a satellite for god’s sake Courtney, it’s already blurred badly enough.”
+++++Both of them looked at the image that had been relayed to them from a contact in France. They then compared it to several other images from the surveillance cameras of the buildings surrounding the alley that Alex Stone’s car had been found in.
+++++“I’d say that’s our girl.”
+++++“At least Alex had something nice to look at before he checked out.”
+++++“Mmm…we’ve just got some imported video from Heathrow…that’s her. Looks like she’s coming our way.”
+++++“Okay, blow up whatever you can and print it off – I’ll go and warn Natasha.”

****

“There was a time when David Tempest and I were lovers. Did you know that?” Natasha Nicolov said as she felt the water running down her back. Behind her there was a snort of disgust as Kelly shook her head.
+++++“That’s gross! What makes you think I want to hear about that?”
+++++“It was a long time ago and far, far away. If it weren’t for his help I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Natasha said as she savoured the sensation of the sauna.
+++++“You have some way of showing your gratitude to him.” Kelly replied.
+++++“Hush little girl, there’s so much you have yet to learn…” Natasha’s comment was cut off by the door to the sauna opening. The rush of cold air accompanied Courtney’s entrance like a reality check.
+++++“Save it for another day. We’ve just got confirmation that the Tempest girl is heading our way. My guess is that she’ll be landing in forty five minutes with some unfinished business.” Both Natasha and Kelly stopped what they were doing. Natasha stood up and grabbed a robe from the wall.
+++++“Get the photos to my office – I told Adrian that this loose end needed to be dealt with but he wouldn’t listen to me.” Natasha said as she looked at the two young women standing before her. Courtney was every inch the sophisticated raven-haired temptress she was while Kelly looked more like a mall rat with her short spiked red hair. Despite both of the girls being nearly twenty-one, Natasha was surprised just how different they were from each other. “Follow me.”

****

The boardroom had a strange green hue to it. The table that occupied the middle of the room looked almost lost amidst the myriad of faces looking down at the lone occupant from an oversized screen with the word Ravenstone hanging above it in slate grey letters some eight inches in height. Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, Adrian Stone never took his eyes off the screen as he engaged his virtual participants in discussion.
+++++“…and at what point do we anticipate that Temerax will be viable for sale?” Adrian asked. A man occupying the bottom quadrant of the screen coughed and adjusted his tie.
+++++“We believe that the product will be ready by the end of the next financial quarter – subject to FDA approval.” He said. Adrian nodded.
+++++“Can we speed up the process? I’d like to make the announcement at the next shareholder meeting if at all possible.” The severe looking woman in the top right quadrant spoke up.
+++++“We can try Mr Stone – we would just need to go to human trials a month earlier than anticipated.” Adrian nodded at her response.
+++++“Very good, now to other business…” the sound of the door to the boardroom being thrown open caused Adrian to turn around. Natasha strode into the boardroom dressed in her robe, flanked by Courtney and Kelly. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll pick this up later.” He pressed a button on his desk and the screen winked off.
+++++“Adrian, we need to talk…” Natasha sounded authoritarian. Adrian sat down on his chair.
+++++“Save your breath, I already know what this is about.” He said. “Like my father and his predecessor, your obsession with the Tempest’s has gotten out of hand. For whatever reason you’ve held this grudge over them for nearly two decades, please remember that we are trying to run a business here.” Adrian twisted around on his chair, staring at the screen as a stream of data began to flow across it. “A business that does not need to attract any unwanted and unnecessary attention to itself.”
+++++“I am sorry about the death of your father Adrian,” Natasha said. “I’m simply looking to avenge it.”
+++++“Natasha, whilst I may grieve for my father privately I am under no illusions as to the deeply despicable flaws within his character,” Adrian said. “I am sure that his death was something that was long overdue. Now, if you wish to try and clean up this mess that you’ve instigated then do so – only please try to do so without drawing any attention to yourselves.”

****

 

Flight 261
London to New York
35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean

The flight is boring – even in business class. I’ve been sleeping as much as I can – this is only the second time I’ve been on an aeroplane in my life and it’s a new sensation to me.
+++++My sleep is filled with dreams that play through my head like the movies on the in-flight entertainment – only unlike the effects laden blockbusters produced by Hollywood, these are all too real…
+++++I’m sitting on a bench with Mom – we’re looking out over the sea and she tells me everything. I’m 15 years old and suddenly everything makes sense. The training, the drills, the incessant secrecy and the sense that we were living on borrowed time. It all falls into place.

Amsterdam
20 years ago

“Mr Knotmann wants the latest batch of the test serum for delivery to his office this afternoon.” Mary-Ann said to Katie as she entered the lab.
+++++“What? But it’s nowhere near ready – we haven’t even got the results from the latest animal tests back yet?” Katie replied, looking at her friend with an expression of bewilderment etched on her features.
+++++“I know – however it turns out that they have some guinea pig to trial it upon in the hospital wing.” Mary-Ann replied. “Looks like someone ended up on the top of the expendable list.”
+++++“Poor bastard,” Katie said. “Well, I’ll deliver the serum to Knotmann in a few minutes. I have a few more things to document.”

****

Knotmann peered over his glasses at the tray of test tubes filled with a reddish-brown fluid. He stroked the small tuft of hair on his chin obsessively whenever he was deep in thought. Seemingly satisfied with the samples, he handed them to one of the young research assistants – a man Katie knew went by the name of Moore.
+++++“Excuse me Mr Knotmann, but what exactly are you planning to do with the serum?” Katie said, feeling uneasy as she watched Moore walk out of the office. “It’s still highly unstable at the moment; as head of the research department any new trials should fall under my supervision.”
+++++“Indeed they should Doctor Westland,” Knotmann replied. “However, I’m taking personal charge of this project now. You will be briefed in full when the time is right. Now, I’m sure that you’re a busy person and I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work.” Katie recognised when she was being dismissed from something. Katie knew that any form of dissent was treated harshly by the Agency, yet as she got up and left Knotmann’s office the sensation in her stomach began to grow in intensity.

****

By the time Katie had returned to her office, she found Mary-Ann in an agitated state. She was visibly upset and the moment she laid eyes on Katie she dragged her into the ladies room.
+++++“What’s wrong?” Katie asked. Mary-Ann looked like she was on the verge of tears. She was gulping down big breaths of air as she was trying to stop herself from hyperventilating.
+++++“It’s David…”
+++++“What? What about David?” Katie asked, the knot in her stomach nearly doubling her over now.
+++++“He was shot…in the park…” Katie could feel her head starting to swim as the words started to sink in. “Katie…he’s the test subject.” Something clicked inside Katie, switching her over to autopilot.
+++++“I have to get him out of here – that serum will kill him.”
+++++“How?” Mary-Ann asked. Katie looked at Mary-Ann.
+++++“Okay, this is how we’ll do it…”
+++++Five minutes later, Katie headed directly back to the lab. As she stood at the door she could see Moore inside loading up the vials of serum. Entering the lab without saying a word, Katie went directly to the refrigerator. Inside she removed a series of tinted vitamin B shots that looked just enough like the serum to pass to the untrained eye.
+++++“I think that Doctor Evans wants to see you,” Moore nodded and walked out of the lab. Mary-Ann had agreed to distract Moore for just long enough to allow Katie to do what she needed to do. As she switched the vials over Katie realised that at least one was missing already. Cursing under her breath, she placed the vials in her jacket pocket and walked out of the Agency building.
+++++Lunchtime was spent at the bank, withdrawing half of her savings in cash and transferring the other half to a friend in Scotland. Katie went back to her rented apartment and cleared out everything of value to her; three photographs of her family, a necklace her mother had given her and her gun.
+++++As soon as she returned to the Agency building, Katie made an immediate detour to the hospital wing. Nothing could have prepared her for the sight she would encounter.
+++++David Tempest was barely conscious. His pupils were dilated yet he managed to recognise Katie’s face as she knelt down beside his bed.
+++++“I’m going to get you out of here,” She whispered. “Please hang on.” Katie felt David’s hand squeeze hers. A faint sign of understanding and life.
+++++Heading directly to her locker, Katie smiled when she saw the package in there that Mary-Ann had left for her. If things were going according to plan then her colleague would already be out of the building. Putting the small brown packet in her lab coat pocket, Katie just needed one more thing.
+++++A disguise.

****

The building was in chaos – the explosion had torn a whole through the power grid and everything was going into lockdown. The internal security personnel had orders to account for everyone going out of the building – yet they were drowning in a sea of people fearing for their lives.
+++++“Please, I’ve got to get this man to a hospital,” Katie said as she struggled to carry the security guard through the throng of people. One of the desk staff tried to stop her.
+++++“Dr Westland, where are…?”
+++++“He was caught in the initial explosion,” Katie explained to the guard – a man she knew as Curtis, she had no clue if that was his Christian name or his surname. “He’s got burns and took a nasty blast of Halon gas from the fire suppression system.”
+++++“Okay, go!” Curtis said, pushing Katie and the injured guard through ahead of the others clambering to get out of the building. The fresh air hit Katie like a brick, prompting her companion to cough as well. Once she managed to get to her car she pulled the baseball cap off the security guard and fired the engine to life.
+++++Looking over at David Tempest, she knew he wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least they had a chance. Her foot pushed down on the accelerator and Katie never looked back.

****

 

Rusk Holm Island
Off the coast of Scotland
Two and a half weeks ago

The shadowy figures seemed moved in tandem, covering each other as they approached the small balcony. As one opened the door the other stepped in, the stub-nosed rifle held in his hands and aimed at the bed. Joined by his colleague a moment later, he motioned towards the bed.
+++++“Hey, that’s a…”
+++++“Stone said to clear the island,” The other replied. “No questions.” He gestured to his partner towards the bed.
+++++“Excuse me,” The woman’s voice made both men turn around. “That’s my daughter you’re talking about.”
+++++Phfft! Phfft! Phfft! Phfft!
+++++Amy woke up as the two now very dead bodies hit her bed. Suddenly realising what was going on, she saw her mother standing at the bottom of the bed.
+++++“Come on Amy, it’s time.”
+++++Following her mother through the house, Amy found herself stepping over or around dead bodies. She was at a loss for words as they made their way down the stairs to the ground floor. As Katie reloaded her pistol while she walked, David limped made his way up from the basement.
+++++“We clear?” He asked.
+++++“We’re clear.” Katie confirmed. He nodded and lifted open he access door that was cut into the floor.
+++++“Mom, Dad…what’s going on?” Amy asked as Katie ushered her into the basement. David handed her a wetsuit and breathing apparatus.
+++++“They’ve found us.” Katie said. “You need to go.”
+++++“What? What do you mean, I need to go?”
+++++“You need to get out of here,” David said. “They don’t know about you and it’s us they are looking for.” Amy watched her mother load an automatic rifle.
+++++“But…the three of us…we could escape…”
+++++“We would just be delaying the inevitable.” David replied as he gently pushed Amy into the small opening in the floor that led out to the ocean. “Baby, we love you, but we can’t protect you anymore.”
+++++“You need to leave – get to Uncle Mac’s on the mainland, take the money that’s in your bank account and live your life.” Katie said, holding her daughter in her arms for the last time. “I want you to turn around, leave and never, ever look back.”
+++++“But…” Amy couldn’t see clearly through the goggles her mother had pushed over her head. She couldn’t determine if it was the condensation inside them or the tears that were streaming from her eyes. “I…I can’t do this…”
+++++“Yes you can,” David said. “Now go!” Amy turned and sank into the water. Before her head disappeared under the waves she saw her parents kiss.
+++++“Now, I figure there’s about two dozen of them,” David said as he slammed home a magazine into his pistol. Katie handed him a shotgun that he slung across his back as she began to load up her bag with grenades. “If we split up and work around the island in opposite directions we should be okay.”
+++++“You’re such an optimist,” Katie’s expression was grim. “Just promise me that you’ll meet me at the gazebo – I want to be in your arms at the end.”
+++++“I love you Mrs Tempest.”
+++++“I love you too.” Katie replied, kissing David again. “Now, let’s get this over and done with.”

****

I awake with a start as the plane touches down. By the time I’m through customs and making my way through the arrivals lounge I realise that I’ve picked up a shadow. She’s about my height, long dark hair and a glare that looks like it could melt glass. I make a few calculated stops at a several of the concessions just to confirm that she is actually following me then I decide to act when she’s pretending to look through the European copy of Vogue.
+++++“Excuse me,” I attract the attention of one of the security personnel. I stand close to him so she can’t see what I’m doing. “I’m really sorry about this, but can you see a woman with dark hair standing about thirty five feet behind me at the news stand?”
+++++“Yes ma’am,” He replied, casting a glance over his shoulder before looking back at me. The clasp on his holster is easy enough to pry loose.
+++++“Well, I overheard her talking to her friend about pick-pocketing some of the business class arrivals,” My lie is seamless as he returns his attention to the woman. My hand is ready to act.
+++++“Thank you ma’am, appreciate that.” The security guard replies and then moves towards her. As he brushes past me I manage to lift the pistol out of his holster and stash it inside my bag. Perfect! The guard has no idea that his weapon isn’t where he thinks it is. I head towards the airport exit without a second glance, confident that the delay will be enough to shake her.
+++++Once outside I head for the taxi rank. I’ve got a short stop planned at a hotel in downtown Manhattan before…
+++++The large black sedan screeches to a halt in front of me. The window opens and a woman is looking at me. I recognise her face from somewhere – maybe one of Dad’s files?
+++++“Amy Tempest, I presume?” Her voice is clipped and I realise who it is.
+++++Natasha.
+++++I think about pulling the gun from my bag – however I feel something stinging in the base of my spine. I have a fraction of second to realise what’s happening before I lose consciousness and slump to the concrete.
+++++“She’s one cocky bitch,” Kelly said as she returned the taser to her bag. Courtney walked out of the arrivals lounge to she her sister lifting the unconscious figure of Amy and dragging her towards the trunk.
+++++“Yeah, but we’ll soon knock that out of her.” Courtney said as she helped Kelly.
+++++“Hurry up you two, I want to get out to the farmhouse before sunset.” Natasha barked. Courtney nudged Kelly as she looked at Amy in the trunk.
+++++“I think you should zap her again, just to be on the safe side.” She said. Kelly had a wicked grin on her face.
+++++“I’m glad we’re on the same side.” Kelly said as she pulled the taser out of her bag again. “You’re an evil bitch.”
+++++“Takes one to know one.” Courtney replied as she slammed the trunk shut. “I call shotgun.”
+++++“I call nine millimetre.” Kelly snapped back as she hopped into the car.

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