The Swords of Wicked Men: Final Chapter?
This blog features Chapters 21-23 of my action novel The Day of the Gun. Interested readers can find the first 20 chapters under the “Archives” section of my blog listed as The Day of the Gun, Parts I-V.
“Please don’t kill me — please don’t kill me — please don’t kill me.”
The woman who was not Frannie Gilleland blathered on hysterically for half a minute before Steve could calm her down. “I’m not gonna kill you,” he assured her from the back seat of the Taurus, “if you do exactly as I say.” He looked out the side window toward the graves and wondered what kind of head start he had on his attackers.
Another thought, one almost equally as terrifying, struck her. “Are you gonna rape me?”
He ignored her question. Relaxing his grip around her neck, he concentrated on breathing normally. “Look, we’re in danger here.” He pointed toward the cemetery. “Whoever is shooting those people may be headed this way, and I don’t think they’re too discriminating about who gets hit. Now, start the engine and get us outta here.”
“How do I know you won’t kill me?”
“If I’d wanted to kill you,” Steve said in his most menacing voice, “you would already be dead. I need you to get me out of here so I can stay out of sight.”
She seemed to accept the logic of his comment. Without another word, she turned the key in the ignition, started the car, glanced over her left shoulder, and pulled onto the roadway.
A woman, her arms flailing as she ran, darted in front of the car and went careening past the road. She almost collided with the Taurus. Steve could see his newfound companion’s eyes in the rear view mirror; they were wide and scared.
“I can’t do this,” she murmured as she threw the ignition into park. “I can’t do this. Please!”
After the stress of that interminable afternoon, Steve snapped. Shaking his head, he slammed his hand against her headrest in frustration. “Damn, lady, I don’t have time for this! They’re coming!”
“Please,” she managed to whine before her words dissolved off into a flood of tears.
Steve knew the type. She was a Muffy. She probably had been daddy’s little girl throughout her cheerleader-prom-queen-editor-of-the-high school-yearbook career before attending Wellesley and marrying the president of the student body. In the ensuing years, she had pursued a minor career — fashion layouts at a magazine or photography for the local newspaper society page —before settling down with her hubby to crank out pink-cheeked, cherubic children like Chryslers springing from the factory floor. A pillar of the local community, she attended church regularly, cooked brownies for the school bake sale, and gossiped with her friends while they watched Waiting to Exhale on HBO and lamented the dearth of romance in their lives. They were harmless enough women, these Muffy types, but they fell to pieces in a time of crisis.
This was a time of crisis.
Rudely and with deliberate malice, Steve grabbed a handful of her blonde hair and yanked the quivering mass to attention. “Pull yourself together or you’ll make me do something we’ll both regret.” It was a bluff; he didn’t have a gun, and he couldn’t bring himself to shoot a defenseless woman even if he did, but she did not know these things.
She stared at him in the rear view mirror, her eyes and nose red from crying. “Oh my Lord,” she gasped when she saw the blood on his face and clothes.
He recognized the look. “It’s not mine. I’m not hit.”
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she exclaimed as she threw the car into Drive.
Under less frenzied conditions, he would have found her quite attractive. She was a petite, richly tanned, shapely blonde in her late twenties or early thirties. How she came to be at Jim Gilleland’s funeral driving what appeared to be Fran Gilleland’s car were questions for another time.
“We need to go,” he said. “I tell you what: You get me outta here, and I’ll let you go.”
For the first time since he had slid into the car, she looked hopeful. “Really? You promise?”
He opened his mouth to reply and stopped when he heard the unmistakable rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire from an automatic weapon. Squealing and the sounds of shattering glass — probably from a vehicle windshield — were uncomfortably close.
“I promise — now drive!” He slid onto the floorboard away from prying eyes.
She turned the steering wheel to dodge the cars and people ahead, but her speed was not fast enough to suit Steve. He pounded on the back of the car seat.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she assured him.
“Not fast enough!”
Something in her tone of voice sent a shiver through his spine. “What’s wrong?”
“A man up ahead,” she said, her voice rising an octave. “He’s waving a gun, a big gun of some sort.”
“Turn around,” Steve ordered.
“I can’t. There’re too many people behind me.” She paused. “Oh, my Lord, he’s comin’ this way.”
Steve lifted his head slightly so he could glance over the back seat. It was enough to tell him that the shooter was not a law enforcement officer, and that was not a government-issue assault rifle the burly fellow was brandishing about. Another fact inescapably lodged in Steve’s brain. The man was not indiscriminately firing his weapon. He was scanning the panicked group and the stream of cars exiting the cemetery. He was looking for someone in particular.
Looking for me!
He thought of opening the car door, rolling onto the ground, and sprinting toward the treeline, but he would never make it. Assuming he could get out of the Taurus undetected — and that was a big assumption — he doubted he could run the distance safely. This man was closer than the other shooters had been, and the nearest graves were too far away to provide cover.
No, he had no choice but to stay in the car.
“Hey — uh, what’s your name?”
She hesitated for a moment as she debated whether she should answer truthfully. Finally, she answered. “Mary Ellen.”
“Well, Mary Ellen, step on the gas and get us out of here.”
“But he’s in the road.”
Steve felt his control slipping away. A man can only endure so much stress before he loses control. “Then run over him,” he screeched.
“If that guy finds me in this car, we’re both dead. Run over him.”
“I, well I…. You can’t be serious!”
In a split second, before they could debate the point to death, Steve leaned up, pushed off the floorboard with his foot, and propelled his body across the front seat, landing on her legs. Judging by the surprised look on her face, she had not anticipated the movement. She screamed again, finally convinced that rape was the game all along.
Reacting on instinct, he swung his left leg beneath the steering column and stomped on her foot, which was poised on the gas pedal.
Steve ignored her screams, but the gunman standing 20 feet away did not. Hearing her voice, he turned to gaze at the woman barreling toward him in the dirty Ford Taurus. Something about the look on her face was strange. Even factoring in the mortal terror experienced by the mourners, this lady seemed especially wigged out. Her eyes, wide and frightened, also focused on him with an unusual intensity, as though she knew something about him.
“Hey,” he called to her as he raised his rifle.
The car lunged forward and plowed into the man’s thighs, literally knocking him off his feet and onto the hood of the car. His face struck the windshield with enough force to crack the glass. He discharged his weapon skyward. Even more surprising, the car kept going forward in a jerky manner that suggested a lunatic was at the wheel. It tossed the man onto the roadway and rolled right over his body as though he were a minor obstruction in the road, a speed bump or a dead animal. The vehicle came to rest 50 feet or so beyond his supine, unconscious form.
Steve jammed the brake with his left leg and rose up to look out the rear of the Taurus. He was still lying partially on top of the screaming woman, who was now covered in blood, but he had other matters on his mind. When he saw that the gunman had been subdued, he checked the perimeter for signs of an accomplice. Seeing none, he threw the car into Park, yanked open the passenger’s door in the front seat, and scurried toward the crumpled form.
“Oh, my Lord,” Mary Ellen gasped when she realized what had happened. “Is he dead?”
Steve lifted the man’s weapon and noticed with some surprise that it resembled the AK-47 rifle he had brought into the cemetery. “Shit,” he muttered as he rifled through the man’s jacket and discovered a .44 Magnum revolver, which he jammed into the waistband of his pants.
No question about it: The unfortunate gunman had borne the full brunt of the impact with the Taurus. His head hung at an odd angle, suggesting a broken neck, among other things. It was difficult to determine whether he was dead or alive, but if he somehow survived the collision, he had a long road of therapy ahead of him.
“There he is,” someone shouted. Steve whirled to see three men in dark suits gesturing at him. They held automatic weapons — probably Uzi submachine guns judging by the look of them — but he could not make out their faces.
Without waiting for gunfire, he lurched toward the car, his back screaming out in pain where he had struck it against the granite marker. No one was shooting — yet — but he knew it would start soon. He arrived at the driver’s side to find that Mary Ellen had locked the door. He felt as though an electric current had shot through his body.
“Open up, Mary Ellen!”
She sat there behind the wheel, her eyes wide and unfocused. If she heard him, she did not acknowledge it. Instead, she shivered and stared off into space.
He raised the rifle and pointed it at her. “Open it or I’ll shoot,” he said as he knocked on the glass with his gun barrel. That seemed to grab her attention. Blinking, she looked at him through a mask of horror.
The sound of the lock disengaging was all he needed to hear. He yanked open the door and shoved her into the passenger’s seat just as bullets slapped the pavement at his feet. Sliding behind the wheel, he slammed the Taurus into Drive and stepped on the accelerator.
“Get down,” he shouted over the din of bullets striking the roof of the car. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the back window shattered.
“Ohlordohlordohlordohlordohlord,” she chanted repeatedly.
Jerking the wheel, he sideswiped a parked Dodge Neon before he maneuvered through a tight cluster of people. Unfortunately, up ahead he saw an insuperable obstruction. Two large pickup trucks were parked so close together that nothing except a bicycle or a motorcycle could navigate through the narrow space.
“Shit,” he muttered. Looking around, he spied a gap between two cars. Unless he abandoned the vehicle — which he thought unwise — it was his only avenue of escape. Yanking the wheel hard to the right, Steve piloted the car onto the green expanse of the cemetery lawn.
“What are you doing?” Mary Ellen shouted when she saw they had left the road and were racing along the grass.
“Saving our lives,” he said as he hunkered over the wheel.
The Taurus bounced wildly across the terrain. Several times it came dangerously close to striking the adjacent wrought iron fence. A foam cup half-filled with coffee danced loose from the cupholder and bounced around the car, coating the occupants in a dark gray liquid. Steve struck his head against the interior ceiling, causing him to cry out in a surprised grunt. A few seconds later, he bit the corner of his tongue.
“Slow down,” the woman ordered, but the order went unheeded. Steve cut his eyes across the horizon, looking for any opening that would take him away from the scene and give him room to evade his attackers.
They plowed over an azalea bush and through a small row of pansies that the groundskeeper had carefully nurtured through the hard winter months. Steve recognized the plants from his days living as Kurt Martin, amateur gardener. Striking the corner of a large metal trash receptacle —“Pitch In!” it said — they spewed its contents into a wide arc in their wake. Someone would have a hell of a mess to deal with in the morning.
“Oh, God,” Mary Ellen shrieked as they approached a metal lamppost.
“I see it.” Steve cut the wheel to the right and they swung past the obstruction with inches to spare.
For a brief moment, he thought they had eluded their pursuers, but the passenger corrected his mistake. “Look,” she screamed, pointing to the roadway that ran parallel to the wrought iron fence. He cut his eyes to the left as something large and black raced into his peripheral vision.
A black Ford Explorer kept pace with the Taurus. At first, no one was visible through the vehicle’s tinted windows, but almost immediately, the passenger window descended. A young man in a dark suit leaned from the car and pointed a rifle at Steve and Mary Ellen.
Before a shot could be fired, Steve braked hard. The tires dug at the soft earth while the back end of the vehicle fishtailed. It seemed as though the car might flip over onto its side for one heart-stopping instant, but then it came to rest next to a dogwood tree at the edge of the cemetery.
“Another AK-47,” Steve muttered.
Mary Ellen reached for the door as if to flee the scene.
“Don’t do it,” he advised.
“You’re gonna kill me,” she said.
“They’ll kill you — shoot you down like a dog.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but he was already backing the car around the dogwood and shifting into Drive. They shot forward in the opposite direction from their original route.
Behind them, the Explorer screeched to a halt and the driver shifted into reverse. In doing so, the behemoth struck a parked car and seemed to spring forward. Without hesitation, the Explorer accelerated toward its prey.
“We’ll never outrun them,” Steve mused. The Explorer was too powerful and the driver too skilled. Besides that, he saw a Channel 11 news van headed directly toward him, blocking his only promising avenue of escape. With no realistic opportunity to elude his tormentors, he would have to become more aggressive in his tactics.
“Get ready,” he advised as he whipped the car in a circle and reversed course.
“What are you doing?’ she asked over the squeal of the tires.
“Hang on,” he said as he stomped the accelerator and raced toward the Explorer.
She understood at once what he was doing. “Oh, dear Lord, are you insane?”
“Apparently, I am.”
Steve, the former Marine, had learned in his other life that sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. That had been his mistake all along; he had ignored this simple precept when he had fled into hiding with WITSEC. It was against his nature to turn tail and flee. He had reached the limit of his tolerance for hiding his head in the sand.
The two vehicles careened toward each other in a bizarre game of chicken. Neither driver seemed inclined to veer off course. Steve could not see the driver of the Explorer through the tinted windshield, but the fellow must have had nerves of steel.
In the end, neither man swerved to avoid a collision. The Taurus met the Explorer head-on with a thunderous bang that reverberated through the cemetery. It sounded like a cannon shot.
The air bag deployed, striking Steve and Mary Ellen with such force that he was momentarily stunned, and she was knocked unconscious. He fought his way through the bag in a desperate effort to see what the occupants of the other vehicle were doing.
Sirens were shrieking everywhere in Parkwood Cemetery when Steve Harris dragged himself from behind the wheel of the Taurus. He spilled onto the pavement where he sat trying to catch his breath. He had left the AK-47 in the car, but he reached for the revolver still stuffed into the waistband of his pants. Judging from the sounds of the police cars, he realized he would soon be in police custody — if he lived that long.
Someone alighted from the passenger’s side of the Explorer and marched toward Steve with rifle in hand. This fellow also seemed to realize that he had minutes — perhaps seconds — to finish his job. He was bleeding profusely, but he would not be deterred from his assignment.
He raised the rifle and aimed, but he hesitated in lining up his shot. That second or two cost him his life. Lying on the ground, covered in the blood of others as well as his own, Steve pointed the .44 Magnum and shot his latest assailant in the face.
The man went down like a tree felled with an ax.
Steve’s actions in the next few minutes would haunt him for the rest of his life. Normally, he was a kind man who tried to live and let live. But the rules had changed. If Tony the Knife wanted a war, Steve Harris would give him one.
He got to his feet, staggered over to the Explorer, and wrenched open the driver’s door.
Three men were inside. The driver and a passenger seated behind him were unconscious or dead. Another man in the back seat looked up at Steve and his eyes went wide. He understood what would happen.
“You asked for this,” Steve said as he pointed the .44, pulled the trigger, and watched the top of the man’s head disintegrate into a red mass of blood, tissue, cartilage, and bone. Arterial spray and flecks of brain matter decorated Steve’s hair.
Turning, he pushed the airbag away, placed the revolver on the driver’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. He was again coated in a fine red spray. Wiping his face with his short tail and leaning into the back seat, he shot the unconscious passenger in the head, too. In less than a minute, he had killed four men.
The hunters had become the hunted.
Sirens squealed louder than before. If he were going to escape, he had to do it now. As he marched back to the Taurus, which clearly was immobile, he debated his next move. He decided to leave Mary Ellen in the car. She was irreparably hurt and traumatized by the events of the past few minutes. If she stayed behind, she would receive much-needed medical attention. Yes, she could tell the police about his behavior and actions, but what did she know, anyway? It was better to leave her and travel light.
Spotting a Channel 11 news crew, he gestured with his gun. “Go away with that camera,” he said. “Go on, now.”
The reporter, a pretty, thin-framed woman with a portly cameraman in tow, backed away. “Are you Kurt Martin?” she asked, but he had turned his head. “Bob,” she said to her colleague, “keep on him.”
Steve had just plotted his course of action when he heard a familiar voice. Paul Hewson, flanked by a dozen or so uniformed officers, stood in the roadway and pointed a pistol at Steve. “Martin, hold it right there,” he said.
Steve was standing next to Mary Ellen when he heard the cop’s order. His plan changed on the spur of the moment. Grabbing the woman by her hair, he hoisted her from the seat of the Taurus and planted the .44 against her temple.
“I’ve got a hostage,” he said.