I wasn’t going to let whoever he was shoot me in the back. I whipped around and…No one. Six feet away, on his back, I spotted the moaning man. I kept the Browning pointed at his center, walked up to yet another new face from the Kerrigan Bank Robbery clown car. I saw his weapon, a 9mm with a huge clip, next to his out stretched right hand. I put a boot on his wrist, picked it up. He wasn’t bleeding, but he was gurgling, moaning, whimpering.
“What…the hell,” he coughed, “is in…that thing?”
“A friend makes them. Like a Hornady Critical Defense, with a lighter powder load. Think air marshall.”
“I don’t want it to go through you, I want it to knock your ass down and leave a hole like a bowling ball going in. And a Mac truck if it exits.”
“Must be a hell of a vest you have on,” I said. “Again. Who are you, what do you want?”
“Everybody wants fucking Moreno. Why?”
I knelt down, put a knee on the holes in his shirt. He tried to scream, gurgled instead. “Two rounds. Vest impact probably broke a couple of ribs.”
I put the knee down again
“Awright! Fuck me …Woody…Woody!”
“Moreno’s fiancé? What does he have to do with this?”
“He…I…that was his…we’re his…crew…”
“The sitting ducks in the middle of 66 were Woody’s?”
“Yesss…goddammit…” he moaned. “Get off, will ya?” I let him breathe. “He’s not her…that’s all…front…”
“Nice to know. So what’s your gig?”
“His pilot…Woody’s…Used to be pilot…”
“Why does Woody need a pilot and a crew?” I heard the sirens, knew I needed to blow before I turned into an all-night witness.
“His idea…no convicts…pros…”
“Some pros. Woody’s got the whole program, or what?”
“They both have…The professor…sent it…”
“The dead one?”
“There’s another one?” He tried to roll to his right, gave it up, looked at me with fear and pleading in his eyes. “Help…me?”
“I’m not out to kill anybody.” I glanced over my shoulder. Fucking sirens. “Help is on the way.”
I ejected the round in the chamber of his nine, tossed it out of reach. The breather the rain had taken was over and it had come back with a vengeance. I climbed into the Ram, no headlights, eased around the back of the ghost gas station and then out onto old 66, lights on. Two blocks to the east the Sheriff stopped me. I rolled down my window, the wipers on high throwing water in the cop’s face. I dialed up some country boy for him.
“What the hayell happened back there?”
“You see anything?” He was a muscled up Hispanic kid, holding down his own best County Mountie poker face, despite the water being thrown in it.
“Nuh-uhhh…” I drawled. “I come up 83, hung a right on 66, lookin’ for gas, and a taco place I thought used to be there.”
“That place is closed. You stop at the Phillips another two blocks east, the tacos’ll give you gas. So you saw nothin’ on the way in? Nobody comin’, nobody headed outta town?”
“Nuh-uh. Nothin’ but that car on its side back there in the road. Some kinda rollover wreck from the rain, I reckoned. Didn’t bother to stop ’cause I seen the ambulance comin’.”
I killed my wipers when he asked for my license and insurance. I handed them over, told him the truck belonged to my boss, papers were in the glovebox. He checked the inspection sticker, told me never mind, handed everything back and said have a nice night. I started to say “That would be a nice change” but left it, said, “You too, officer.”
I headed east a few blocks, past the Phillips with the dangerous Taqueria, turned north on Main, hooked a right on road N that would take me the nearly three miles to Moreno. While the wipers fought the rain I tried to get my head around not one but two bank robbery teams, one shot all to hell and the pilot out of commission, at least one dead undercover government man, no sign of Tavius after the stock tank, and who knows what damage to the convicts in the Texian. Add two purported CIA agents, half a story from Moreno and the headlights that had been stuck to me like bug guts on a Gulf Coast windshield since I was on Main Street that were now closing in and the nice night I’d been told to have was going south in a hurry.
There was no way to make better than twenty miles an hour in the rain, tops, so outrunning anyone on a ponding strip of two-lane blacktop in Texas at night in an unweighted pickup with too much torque wasn’t an option. Neither was running without lights. They were thirty yards behind me and closing, no gunshots yet. I rolled my window down, rested the sawed-off Rip sent along on the door sill thinking I’d poke it out angled back and blow out their windshield when they started to overtake me. I glanced in the mirror, watched as they suddenly veered left off the highway, hung their wheels in the mud and their tumbling lights told me they’d rolled a couple of times. I hit the brakes, pulled off on the shoulder and ran back in the dark, my Browning hand up in the slicker.
It was the shot-up, bloodied-up SUV that had hauled ass from the Texian shootout, upside down, the top almost flat in front. The driver was cut in half, half in and half out of the driver’s side window, the passenger was twenty feet back up the road. Nothing human contorted that way was alive. I trotted up, studied him long enough to find a few of his pockets, went fishing for his wallet, stuck it in the pocket of the slicker.
Back at the SUV I noticed an assault rifle clone visible from the rear passenger side. I reached in for it and saw what had bloodied the back glass when they’d passed me in town, gagged. I’ve been in a war zone, volunteered for medevac duty on heavy casualty days. Nothing prepares you for looking on a face chewed away by automatic weapons fire attached to a smashed body. I straightened, choked back the bile that crept up, checked the clip in the rifle, empty and useless, and dropped them. In the limited vision afforded by the rain and night, I saw no other lights, heard no sound but the incessant pounding of the rain and approaching thunder. I shivered and the headlights on the SUV winked out. I took that as a sign and beat it back to the truck.
According to the Ram’s odometer, I was exactly 2.7 miles from where N crossed FM86 and as far as I could tell there was nothing. Nowhere for Moreno to be. No place to hide. No shelter. I felt sold out and lucky over the SUV that failed, shivered against the wet cold again. I started to back the truck out, turn around when at the edge of my headlight swing, maybe twenty yards off the road, was one of those ubiquitous old, ‘dead dreams live here’ overgrown, wooden plank stock barns. I killed the lights, decided not to risk getting the truck stuck going off-road in what I couldn’t see, grabbed the sawed-off and stuck the Browning in my belt. I was about full tilt tired of Moreno and her bank robber games, but climbed out into the rain again, if only for the opportunity to tell the lying bitch what was on my mind.
Halfway to the barn I took a turn to my left, approached in a wide arc to the corner furthest from the road. The mud sucked at my heels, my boots squished. Sounds I hoped were drowned out by the rain, rising wind, thunder and approaching light show. I made it to the far corner of the barn, leaned in before the first close bolt of lightning lit up the night. Nothing fucks with your night vision like lightning. Everything goes positive back to negative in a second, the bright flash turning golden into orange into deep violet, leaving you blind and vulnerable until the night reappeared. I stepped into the barn between some missing slats, immediately shed the slicker. I hated to, but it was cumbersome, possibly noisy and easily seen in the dark, worse in a lightning flash. Furry things scattered over my feet and away when I dropped it. Barns and the things that lived in them were my least favorite part of the rural experience.
I kept my head below the wall of a horse or milking stall, raised my voice. “Moreno? We need to talk.”
A handgun barked from somewhere, the bullet thudded into the back wall of the stall I was in. Okay, maybe we won’t talk.
I crouched, poised to scan the barn with the next lightning flash. When it came, halfway through my scan I saw Moreno in the middle of the barn, standing on an upturned slat box. The kind built with staples and wire and thin, flimsy wood. That the countryfied real estate flippers make replicas of and sell for $120 in their rustic furniture shops. The next lightning flash told the rest of the story. There was a rope around Moreno’s neck, hung from a beam that ran side to side across the barn. The rain had turned the gray wood black, and for a second I doubted it would hold her if the crate were gone. I started to take a step, my boots…Goddammit…They squished in the muck like a wet elephant fart. I rolled on my heels into the stall wall before the handgun barked again, the bullet low and in the mud, but too close to where I’d been for comfort.
I thought this should be the place where the bad guy talked to John Wayne, told him how he was going to die, so John could reload and figure his adversary’s location. No such luck. To get a read on a muzzle flash I’d have to stand and the way this night was going the lightning would flash and I’d be part of the carcass count.
I kicked my boots off with my heels, swung one and took out a plank in the stall and this time I saw his muzzle flash. Not quite a diagonal across the barn. With the lightning and his muzzle flash fresh in both our eyes I lunged out of the stall and rolled across the muddy ground, the sawed-off tucked into my chest. This must be what pigs feel like. I thought about asking whoever it was if she was worth it. One of us dead, both of us pigsty filthy. I tried it.
“She’s not worth it, brother.” The muzzle flashed toward where I’d been.
“Then what’re you doing here?”
Good fucking question. “Lapse of reason?”
“Shut up, pilot.” The handgun barked twice into my old corner. Shut up was a plan I could live with.
I wanted to see him in the lightning that had become increasingly frequent, the thunder right behind it shaking the barn, the ground. I scooted on my butt, my back hugging the outside of the stalls but he stayed hidden no more than forty feet away. If I could make it to the big gap in the middle in front of Moreno, maybe I could throw myself over the stall he was in, or…Right. Fuck it. Rambo had the night off, there were no good ideas
Lightning exploded so close I could smell it, smell the air burn, felt like I was in the spotlight of a circus ring, but the muzzle blast still pointed to where I’d come in. Whoever it was, they weren’t looking, they were holding their ground, waiting for me to rush them or pull a white knight rescue on the damsel in distress, exposing myself in the process. Not a bad idea on their part, since I’d considered both of those but found them high on stupidity and machismo, low on survivability.
I kept up the pig-on-his-ass scooting until I’d reached the gap in the stalls, Moreno straight in front of me. Her hands were tied behind her with something white, like a napkin or a handkerchief. She was gagged and blindfolded with the same material. I felt around, found a chunk of something metallic and heavy, threw it across the barn. This time the muzzle flash followed the noise. The good news was that I was still across the barn as far as they were concerned. The bad news…I still didn’t have a viable plan.
I studied the barn from the comfort of moldy hay and wet pellet feed during the next two lightning explosions. Ringing the barn was a storage loft, maybe 8 feet off the ground, four feet wide. Its support poles had collapsed in places leaving the ledge to droop, its weight pulling in on the outer walls. I was still curious if the beam would really hold her when whoever was two stalls away got impatient and answered that for me. He yanked on something, rope, wire maybe, and the crate fell into the mud. Moreno dropped. I lifted the shotgun, fired once into the beam where the rope was tied off, pumped it, fired again. The beam split, Moreno fell into the mud next to the crate, knees first, then onto her side. The two pieces of beam swung down, one crashed into a stall on the far side, the other missed me by a foot, knocked a hole in the wall behind me, wrenched itself from the frame. It stood upright for a long few seconds and fell inward, landing inches from Moreno.
I pumped another round and blew out the wet, rotting ledge support in the corner closest to the hidden handgun man and felt more than saw the barn start to twist in on itself. One way or another we were dead, so I crouched in a wet sock-footed pig-muddy run to Moreno, scooped her up, ran on, fell into a stall. The pistol, directly across from me now, barked once, twice, and again while the barn collapsed. I rolled on top of Moreno and waited for the dying barn to bury us.
The slow, grinding deluge of collapsing debris was mostly broken by the stall I’d landed in. When the creaks and groans and crashing eased back down into the sounds of rain and thunder, I opened my eyes, found myself in a lean-to made of barn siding, wet vines, mud, and the short stall wall. I listened for the handgun to start up again, waited for someone to rip the fallen slats up, rake us with bullets.
Nothing but more rain and thunder.
After a short forever I rolled off Moreno, embarrassed that after risking at least one of our lives dragging her from one patch of mud to another I hadn’t even bothered to check to see if she was alive.