This posting features Chapter 48 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
The parking lot was quiet — too quiet. No birds, no ambient automobile noise, no airplanes droning overhead. He scanned the horizon for the inevitable helicopters but saw nothing. A few scattered clouds lazily crawled across the sky, but otherwise all was drenched in a deep rich blue.
Kneeling into a bank of weeds below a willow tree, he watched and waited. He took solace in the realization that he was invisible from the road. As an added plus, the tall grass all around him made stealth impossible. If anyone found his location — an unlikely prospect, he knew, but not impossible — the interloper would not enjoy the advantage of surprise. Better yet, surveying the parking lot, he had an unobstructed view of Room 212 of the Demopolis Econo Lodge.
Shifting slightly, he leaned against the tree. He had grabbed as many bananas and pastries as he could carry from the breakfast area in the lobby, loading up on bottled water as well. Peeling a banana, he slipped a piece into his mouth and chewed listlessly. Squinting, he cut his eyes left and right, right and left. He was in for the long haul.
His greatest strength as a Marine had been his steely resolve and his ability to do whatever the circumstances required. Some fellows were jittery; they had to be moving all the time. They were combat-ready, their fingers itching on the trigger of their carbines. Steve Harris had shared their ferocity when gunfire erupted, but he knew the real test of nerves occurred earlier. A man had to be physically fit, true enough, but he had to be mentally prepared before the firing commenced. He had to bide his time.
Bide his time. When he stopped to think about it, he had been biding his time during all the months he had hidden beneath the protective cocoon of WITSEC. He had almost allowed himself to be lulled into complacency. Once upon a time, he would have been eternally vigilant, never trusting a soul, never leaving his fate to chance or the supposed incorruptibility of others. He now knew, once and for all, that faith in his fellow man was for fools. It was a lesson he vowed never to forget.
A truck careened into the parking lot; Steve was instantly alert. He reached for his Glock, flipping the safety off, resting his palm on the edge of the grip. Easy, easy: No need to overreact. Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. Stay loose.
The truck swung past the weeds, farting black smoke from the tailpipe, and he could smell the exhaust. In its wake, a soft breeze rippled through the grass. From inside the cab came the rhythmic beat of a rap song played at an absurdly loud volume.
Poised for trouble, Steve bent lower so his line of sight barely cleared the tall grass. A gentle breeze fluttered past, cooling his sweat-drenched back where his shirt stuck to his skin. His heart smashed against his ribs, seemingly keeping time with the rap anthem.
The truck jerked to a stop next to the lobby and two black men threw open the doors. Laughing, they spoke in loud, gleeful voices as they sidled to the rear. The hammering beat wafted past them as the rapper chanted a woeful tale of life and death in the urban ghetto.
“And that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” the driver said to his companion. “He say some shit and I say some shit, and the next thing you know he’s like, y’know, all up in my face.”
“How come he didn’t bust you up?”
“Bust me up? Bust me up? Maybe I bust him up.”
“Yeah.” Laughter. “I like to see dat.”
“You see dat all right.”
The trash talk continued as they lifted the rear door and watched it roll to the top of the truck. The driver hopped into the bed and rummaged through the back. A moment later, he leaned out and handed his colleague a yard trimmer and a pair of goggles. He leaned back into the shadows and emerged with another yard trimmer and a second set of goggles. Hopping from the truck, he left the door open.
“I ain’t sayin’ he a bad ass or nuthin,’ least he ain’t a bad ass like he say.” The driver raced to the cab, leaned inside, and cut the engine. The rapper fell silent in mid-syllable. In the absence of the pounding beat, the voices sounded abnormally loud.
“He’d whip your ass,” the passenger said.
“Listen, Shug, he ain’t got it goin’ on.”
“Uh-huh. And you do.”
“More’n him. Dat’s for damn sure.”
“Okay, Mookie. Okay. Whatever you say, man.” More laughter.
The two fellows disappeared around the side of the Econo Lodge, yard trimmers in tow. Their voices drifted back through the parking lot until the sound of the yard trimmer motors starting up masked whatever else they said.
Wiping his brow with a napkin, Steve relaxed and slipped another piece of banana into his mouth. He reached down to the Glock, flipped the safety on, and heaved an exaggerated sigh. They were the only people he had seen stirring in the Econo Lodge for the past hour.
Running through various scenarios, he wondered if Mary Ellen already had spoken to the police. Perhaps, trusting no one, she had headed for the safety and anonymity of a friend’s house. Maybe Dave Tremblor had apprehended her, in which case the police would not arrive. Perhaps the police were in place and he had yet to see them.
No, he rejected the last scenario. If the police had arrived, they would have set up a secure perimeter around the hotel. They would have interviewed guests and employees. No one would have been allowed in or out, least of all the talkative, rap-happy landscapers.
As he turned over the possible permutations and combinations in his mind’s eye, Steve heard a sound, faint and indistinct, almost masked by the swish of the grass rustling in the breeze. Instinctively, he leaned away from the tree while crouching lower to the ground.
Not 30 feet away, he saw a large man dressed in black, his eyes shaded by sunglasses, creeping around the side of the building. His face was turned partially away from the willow tree. Steve could not see him enough to know who he was.
He could be Dave Tremblor, he thought. This man sported the right kind of wrestler’s build. Steve wished he had a pair of binoculars.
Whoever he was, the stranger decked in black was watching the Econo Lodge intently. He seemed to be facing Room 212 but it was difficult to know what he was doing. Clearly, though, he was no landscaper.
After staring at the building for close to five minutes, the fellow turned and scanned the grounds behind the parking lot. For one heart-stopping moment, Steve thought the man had spotted him. The sunglasses hid his eyes, but he did not seem to be focused on the high weeds surrounding the willow tree. In fact, he seemed to be focused on the willow tree itself.
Oh, shit, Steve thought as the stranger marched away from the parking lot. He’s headed right toward me.