My eyes popped open. The truck was running, and the inside of the cab was an inferno from having the heat on full blast. I was still sitting on the driver's side but bent over, face against the passenger's seat, arm back behind the seat in mid-reach for the thermos.
I sat up. My back was in knots. The headache behind my eyes meant business. The pain pills had caught up with me, and I'd paid the price. I rolled the window down an inch, welcomed the cool wash of air over my face.
Dawn poked through the trees, bathed the winterscape in shades of orange. The snow on the ground was even and unbroken. An unspoiled wilderness. It looked like a picture postcard.
I flung open the driver's side door, stumbled into the snow, and threw up on it.
I grabbed a handful of snow and held it to my face.
Any one of a hundred things could have gone wrong while I was passed out. Tina might have returned to the house and found the carnival of death I'd left behind. Or the police, same story. Or she might have tried to call, got no answer, became suspicious.
Or maybe they were all still asleep. It was just dawn after all.
I got back in the truck. Up the mountain.
I crept up slowly, the truck bouncing on the rugged trail, until the forest split around a calm, silver lake. The road curved around to the right, roughly following the shoreline. The closest cabin was barely a frame. Through the trees another hundred yards around the lake another cabin was perhaps two-thirds finished. Directly across the lake sat the only cabin in sight, which was fully built and clearly inhabited. A thin tendril of smoke oozed from the stone chimney.
A blue sedan in front. It was too far to see the Florida plates, but I knew they were there.
My head throbbed. My mouth was dry, still tasted faintly of vomit. I was in no mood for sneaking around. I followed the trail around the lake, pulled the.32, and set it on the seat next to me.
Dawn stretched across the surface of the lake. A slight but steady breeze pulled at the chimney smoke above the cabin. The cabin was built with brownish-red wood. It had a roof that peaked in the middle like a capital A, and a window above the door- a loft maybe- and a larger window to the side of the door.
I parked twenty yards from the cabin's front door. The lake was close behind, the dock jutting out into deep water, no boats. I stepped out of the truck, stood looking at the front window, but the morning glare kept me from seeing inside. If they were awake, they couldn't help but notice me. I had the.32 in my hand, down at my side like a gunslinger. I was fed up with waiting. Maybe I'd just walk up there, knock on the door. Or kick it open.
The tall, fat one in flannel took away those options when he stumbled from the cabin, firing wildly at me with his revolver. He ran through the snow toward the sedan, keys in one hand, pistol pointed back at me, pulling the trigger blindly. Three shots went overhead. One punched through the truck's windshield.
I threw myself down on the snow, aimed under the truck and fired the.32. I caught him in the ankle, and he went down. Another shot on the top of the head. He twitched once, and that was it.
I stood. Brushed off the snow. I went to check on him. Dead. I picked up his piece, stashed it in my pocket. It bulged next to the Minelli cannon.
In his attempt to flee, Tall-n-Fat had left the cabin door open. I walked in, stood just in the doorway. The cabin was one big room with a loft overhead, the ladder going up immediately to my right, probably a bed up there. A fire had burnt low in the large, stone fireplace, only glowing embers and gray ash remaining. A large carpet stretched in front of it.
A cot had been hastily erected within warming distance of the fire. Amber lay stretched out on her stomach, eyes closed, hair across her face. She was pale. Her wrists were tied under the cot by a length of cord. Tina sat in a wooden chair next to the cot, her legs crossed, eyes meeting mine calmly. She held her enormous magnum to Amber's head.
I said, "Your pal tried to run. Didn't make it."
"I never really thought Dave had the stomach to go all the way with this," said Tina. "That big ape with the long hair gave us a lot of trouble before we killed him, so when we saw you coming around the lake, I guess Dave decided to cut his losses and go."
"Not you, huh?"
"I've worked too hard," she said. "I requested undercover so I could get close to Jeffers. I don't like FBI work really, and the pay sucks."
"So you found a way to make it profitable," I said.
"Yes. Jeffers was as corrupt as anyone I'd ever seen, but weak, easy to manipulate. My friends and I decided we could just about do anything we wanted. When those ledgers went up for grabs... well, it was just too good of an opportunity to let pass."
"But it blew up in your face, didn't it? A fly in the ointment. Me. So I went in and shot all of your friends dead."
Her eyes grew hard.
I said, "And now I'm here to kill you."
"I don't think so," she said. "You obviously want the girl, or you wouldn't be here. Think you're fast, Mr. Gunman? Not fast enough to-"
She took the bullet just above her left eye, her mouth jerked in mid-sentence, and she fell forward in front of the chair, her butt sticking in the air. She still clutched the revolver.
I approached cautiously, pried the gun from her hands and stuck it in the other pocket. It clanked against the other Minelli cannon.
My coat was full of guns.
I went through Tina's pocket and found the locker key, exhaled with relief, and stuck it in my pants pocket.
I slid my bowie knife out and cut Amber's bonds. Once I'd turned her over, I had a good long look. She wore a loose, powder-blue T-shirt and jeans. Bare feet. I checked her over. I'd been through a lot to find her, and I wanted to make sure she was okay.
She had fresh tracks down the inside of her left arm from a needle. They'd been giving her something. That's how they'd kept her quiet. She was passed out now from the junk. I prayed there was no permanent damage.
She looked terrible. Behind the pale, drawn face dwelt a remnant of the beauty my brother saw in her. I brushed the hair from her eyes. So sad and young, but I'd make sure she and Danny had a chance to ride into the sunset.
I touched her cheek. Her eyes flew open.
I sat up, jerked my hand away.
Her eyes grew round with terror, lips pulling up exposing teeth in a horrified grimace. A muted scream tore from the depths of her throat.
"It's okay," I said quickly. "It's me. Charlie."
Her eyes were glassy, unfocused. She didn't recognize me.
Amber thrashed wildly, and I backed away from the cot. She leapt to her feet, darted past me, making little grunting noises of fear as she ran through the front door.
"Wait!" I followed.
She looked back only once, her face a study in pure animal fear, her only instinct to run. Her little, naked feet punched deep holes into the raw snow. I ran to cut her off from the road, moving awkwardly, my hands holding the pea coat pockets to keep the guns from spilling out.
She sensed my intercept course and turned toward the lake. Her feet pounded down the wooden planks of the long dock. I ran after, thinking I had her trapped when she got to the end of the dock, thinking that I'd explain everything. If that didn't work I'd simply grab her, drag her kicking back to the cabin.
It didn't happen that way.
She showed no sign of slowing, hit the end of the dock at full speed, and launched herself, arms spinning, legs still pumping. She hit with a stinging splash, went down, the dark lake closing over her.
I hesitated only a moment, then dove after her.
I was swallowed by the watery silence, went down quickly, deep. Every muscle raged against the cold. I forced my eyes open into darkness, the world above a silver blur of daylight. Below me, a white arm beckoning in the murky depths. I was tangled in my pea coat, shrugged out of it. It was gone. I was distantly aware my pain pills were in the inside pocket. No time to worry about it. Already the dreamy wish to succumb to fatigue overwhelmed me.
I pushed the thought aside, stroked toward the arm. Amber came into view, her eyes closed. She floated arms above her, hair a billowing halo. I took her, my hand closing over her thin wrist. I kicked upward, swimming with one arm. The surface seemed a mile away.
They say your life flashes in front of you when you're about to die, but I thought maybe I was seeing ahead, not back. Everything happened in eerie slow motion as I floated upward. The pictures in my head were of Danny and Amber and Ma in Michigan, and of Marcie. Nothing about the monkey cage, my old life, Stan. It was as if I'd shed them into the wet darkness with the pea coat.
My lungs burned, eyes stung, limbs felt lifeless, leaden and slack. I stroked hard.
I broke the surface, swallowed air with loud, coarse gulps, spit water, coughed. I pulled Amber up next to me. Put an arm around her, swam. She wasn't breathing.
I swam to the dock, reached, my fingertips finding a hold on the rough planks. No way. I didn't have the strength to pull myself up. I paddled for shore. I was about to give it up when I felt the bottom with my feet. I heaved Amber up with both arms, kept putting one foot in front of the other until the lake was behind me.
Amber slipped out of my arms to the snow-covered shore. I knelt next to her, pinched her nose, tilted the head back. Her T-shirt clung to her skin, nipples thrusting against the fabric. I covered her mouth with mine. Blew. Where had I learned this? It didn't matter. I kept at it.
She coughed water. I turned her on her side and let her finish. She sucked breath, sobbed. We shivered together on the shore, teeth chattering. She let me help her up. We walked with an unsteady sway back to the cabin.
I'd found a stack of cut wood at the side of the cabin under a tarp. I carried in an armload and built up the fire. I turned my back as Amber removed her wet clothes. She sat in front of the fire, wrapped herself in the blanket from the cot. I found a pair of sweatpants a size too small for me, but I put them on and hung my wet clothes next to Amber's on the makeshift clothesline I'd fashioned from a ball of twine.
I rifled the shelf above the little stove and was elated to find a coffee can, but my hopes were dashed when I found it empty. There were tea bags. I boiled water, found cups. I filled the cups, offered one to Amber.
She took it, nodding, staring out the window.
"I'm sorry." Her eyes didn't waver from the window. "I'm okay now. I'm glad to see you." She cleared her throat. "Is Danny...?"
"He's in the hospital, but he's alive. He'll be okay."
That seemed to be enough. She sipped the tea.
I drank mine. A surprisingly soothing warmth started in my belly and spread outward. I felt the wet clothes. It would be a while. I put another log on the fire.
"I'm sorry I ran. I didn't know where I was or who you were."
She was still rattled, almost catatonic, but she was getting better. She'd been through a lot. Too much. But she was getting better.
She drank tea, her eyes still on the window. "Someone's coming."
I went to the window.
A black luxury car, a Lincoln, parked across the lake. It stayed for a moment, then started the slow circle around the shore. I watched like Tina must've watched, felt maybe like she'd felt. The certainty of approaching dread.
"Who is it?" asked Amber.
"I don't know." Please don't be Mercury.
The car passed the frame of the first cabin, kept coming.
How could it be Mercury? I must've been suffering from the worst kind of paranoia. How could he have tracked me down to Tennessee? My mind whirled.
Certainly that was it. Mercury could make someone like Jeffers talk easy. He'd say how I'd been there looking for Tina. Mercury could follow the same trail.
The car passed the second cabin.
It didn't matter. Trouble was on the way. How it happened was now irrelevant.
The car stopped well behind my truck, and the driver stepped out.
He wore a black suit with a fat, white tie, gleaming wingtips, black overcoat. He held a flashing nickel automatic. It looked like a.357 Magnum Desert Eagle, enough gun to kill me three or four times.
I turned to Amber, put my finger against my lips. She nodded.
My guns were at the bottom of the lake.
I grabbed the bowie knife and the fireplace poker. I scurried up the ladder and found the loft. I kept to one side of the window, watched Mercury carefully. I couldn't open the window without drawing a faceful of bullets, so I watched and waited. Mercury stripped off his topcoat and threw it across the hood of his car, began circling the house to the left.
I already knew the front door was the only way in or out. The two windows in back were small, and he'd have to make a racket of broken glass to get through. He'd see Amber in the blanket by the fire. That didn't matter. He knew somebody was here anyway. He'd seen the chimney smoke, same as I had.
If it came down to speed and strength, I'd lose. But I had experience and patience.
I'd rather have had speed and strength.
Mercury came around the other side of the cabin. He'd finished his survey, and I knew a guy like him wouldn't lay siege. He'd want it done, and he'd come in the cabin right through the front.
I went to the edge of the loft to wait, fireplace poker in my hand, knife sheath stuck in the back of the sweatpants.
He kicked in the front door. Amber didn't even flinch.
"Where is he?" asked Mercury.
I couldn't see him, but Amber turned her head slightly to his voice. I used that to judge his position. Amber didn't say anything, just pulled the blanket tighter around her.
I reached as far to the right as I could with the fireplace poker and tapped the floor of the loft.
The cabin shook with the thunder of Mercury's automatic. Three slugs tore through the wood where I'd tapped the poker. By the third shot I'd already jumped.
I landed in front of him. The pistol was still aimed at the loft, so I swung the poker, caught him on the wrist, and the pistol clattered across the cabin's wooden floor. Mercury took the blow from the backswing on the side of his neck, staggered back. I brought it back for a killer blow, swung down for his head. He blocked it with a forearm, but I knew he would. When his forearm came up for the block, I leapt, kicked him in the ribs. He flew backwards through the window. Glass rained.
He wouldn't just have one gun. I couldn't let him reach inside his jacket or down to his ankle. If he got a pistol out, I was all done.
I leapt through the window after him. Landed on his chest, brought the poker down for a quick blow. He caught my wrist with both hands, twisted, jabbed a thumb into a pressure point just below my palm, and I had to give up the poker.
But I squeezed my injured hand into a painful fist. Punched three times, once across the jaw and twice in the eye.
Mercury twisted, rolled over and bucked me off, kicked out backwards and caught me in the gut. I scrambled to my feet but he was already up.
We faced each other three feet apart. I'd lost the surprise, but I grabbed the knife from behind, drew it, threw the sheath away. I had to stay close, so I could go for him if he went into his jacket for a gun.
But he smiled. A little blood down his mouth, right eye just starting to swell.
I stood cold in the snow, barefoot, wondering what to do next.
"How's it going, Lloyd?"
"Good," he said. "Beggar sends his regards."
"How did you find me? Jeffers?"
"Of course. He said Tina was from Tennessee, and that you were probably headed there too. The phone book had two listings for Tina. This cabin and the house back down the mountain. I went to the house first. You left quite a mess."
"Lloyd, I'm not going back to Orlando. I'm done. I know that. There's no reason to do this. All I want to do is help the girl. She's had it rough. You don't need to bother with me. I'll even tell you where the books are."
He scrunched up his face, thinking about it. "Sorry, Charlie," said Mercury. "Nothing personal, but you've been a whole lot of trouble. Beggar says you have to go. Now, here's what's going to happen. You're going to have to see if you can stick that knife in me before I take three steps back and draw my Berreta. One way or another, we finish it."
Our eyes locked. Then he moved.
He stepped back, his hand flashing into his jacket, and I leapt for him with the knife. It was a trick. His hand came right back without the pistol, and he stepped forward, caught my knife hand and twisted. I kicked him away but had to lose the knife. He swung a fist. I ducked under and punched him in the gut. He caught my arm, pulled me forward, and head-butted me in the nose.
Blood exploded down my face. I staggered back. He came after. I punched. He blocked and kicked my legs out from under me. I sprawled in the snow, tried feebly to scoot away. He pulled his Berreta, pointed it at my chest.
"I just wanted to know," said Lloyd. "I wondered if I was better than you, and now we both know it. I'm going to kill you now. Nothing personal. Beggar wanted me to tell you that this bullet was for Sanchez."
I flinched at the sound of the gunshot. Mercury's face exploded. His blood sprayed across me, dotted the snow with red stars. He fell backwards, landed flat, a grizzly snow-angel.
Amber stood naked, legs spread, Mercury's shiny automatic in her little fists. I wobbled to my feet, went to her, took the gun, wrapped her in my arms. She cried a long time against my chest, both of us barefoot in the snow.
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