|Art by Tom Leins|
“What gives, ma belle? You really going to shoot me with that antique?”
“Shut up,” April muttered, the hard edge in her voice silencing him, if only for a moment. She took in the scene below, waiting for her mother to acknowledge the just-sent text. She kept the gun on him, squeezing the grip of the pistol a little tighter, her palm chalk-dry and steady.
April had known, of course, from a young age that her mother wasn’t like other moms. She didn’t cut the edges off peanut butter sandwiches and she didn’t carpool her to soccer practice. Instead, her mother had taught her how to defend herself. How to pick the safest seat in any room. How to watch and listen to people when they let their guard down.
Her mom had taught her how to survive.
That made for a harsh childhood, if not entirely joyless. Still, when she was a child, she had pined for the soft touch of a TV mom, someone to stroke her hair and read her a story, to tell her the harmless lies of how little girls would always find happiness, if they only had the courage for a little dream-chasing.
By the time she turned 18, she knew she had come out ahead in the deal.
Souterrain—or whoever—had been right about one thing. The gun was old, a gift from her grandfather, FedEx’ed to her from a phony address on her ninth birthday. One of the three he had remembered. It came in a boxed frame, clearly meant to be a souvenir or some sort of investment piece. Joyce, ever practical, had insisted that it be put to use. Souvenirs are pointless, she had said. Everything should have a purpose. Otherwise it’s just taking up space, a piece of clutter, a knickknack.
Otherwise it’s just a relic.
April had taken that to heart. Her dorm room was monkishly clean and the few possessions on display were always practical and understated. Her class schedule and assignment deadlines were on a large whiteboard, carefully written in clean block letters. Always black ink. She never kept anything she could do without. What was there to put out, to show off? Her mom had put her in hiding years ago. How simple our lives become when the past is a ghost, one seeking no reckoning.
“What’s the plan?” Souterrain asked. “Maybe you got one step ahead of yourself? You’re thinking, peut être, is there a way out for me here?”
It had been senior year. High school. Early June, just ahead of prom. She was at a bookstore café, sitting outside with two friends. Time had gotten away from them. They headed home but she had lingered. It was summer and the day was finally getting dark. She wanted to feel the wind getting a little cooler as it crossed her face and her legs, lean and bare in shorts. To enjoy the last bit of her macchiato in relative peace. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.
She had been stupid to walk across the parking lot alone. She had never noticed the guy lingering by the corner, tall in a tight bomber jacket, whose pace increased as she set out towards the beat-up Jetta Joyce had managed to gift her from afar. She didn’t see him until she caught a glimpse in the driver door glass, his fingers reaching towards her...
“Cherie?” Souterrain asked. The phone buzzed in her free hand. It had only been seconds but had felt like ten goddamned years.
...tn that parking lot, the bomber jacket guy’s hand never made it any closer. She spun, her keys splayed between her fingers like claws. She raised her left hand, protecting her face, and pulled the right one back, dropping weight on her rear leg. Fist cocked. Ready to strike. He took one look at her eyes, dark and dry and without fear, without doubt. He turned and bolted across the lot. She watched him go.
She had been dealing with men like this all her life—Ronald, Souterrain, grabby assholes in that parking lot and beyond. Men who thought, to varying degrees, they could take, without consequence, what they wanted. That they were owed something.
She read the text. She fought the smile, tried to keep it in. But a little squirmed out, tugging her lips upward.
Souterrain looked up.
“Good news, ma belle?” he asked, his own smile taking shape. “Anything worth sharing?”
She shook her head. Wordlessly, she drove the butt of the gun into his left temple. His head snapped as the skin over bone split, and then he slumped back.
She grabbed zip-tie cuffs from his belt and looped them around his wrists. She would check to see if he was still alive later. But shooting him now would mean some things would go unanswered. If there was a way out of this, mom deserved all the answers she wanted.
April picked up the dropped sniper rifle and snapped the bolt. She lowered herself to the ground, peering through the scope to the loose hell below. She took aim, her finger curling around the trigger. The metal was cool on her cheek. Reassuring. She allowed herself another look at the text.
OK. I love you, was all it said.
Dario Marchand failed.
Upon emerging from the arcane procedures that repaired his pulped brain, and after the brief wonderment at finding himself alive, a kind of alive, his first thought was revenge, and that adamantine drive brought him a string of successes up to this very moment, on the precipice of victory.
From an early age he'd known he was free of what he considered the shackles of conscience. They'd found him squatting in front of the turtles' shells he'd smashed with a hammer, calmly watching their agonized death throes. He couldn't understand their horror, which he soon came to see as a weakness easily exploited, because he learned that, counterintuitively, society was constructed for people like him, not them. So he rose fast, pretending to feel if it served his purposes, until Joyce and Samson finally saw him for what he was. When he rose again, an unholy Lazarus, the only thing that mattered was erasing those who for a brief moment saw him out of his shell. And he had almost literally moved mountains to do so.
What did him in was the blind spot shared by all psychopaths: he never accounted for defeat via human bond, because while he could dazzle with an ersatz portrayal of such, he never really understood it.
Joyce failed too.
She failed to repair any bond with her father before he expired in front of her. She had not been particularly interested in doing so, and considered it largely his responsibility, so in the end her grief was for what might have been rather than the broken husk of the con man collapsed into himself.
And she had failed as a parent herself, in a thousand ways, and every one of them had hurt because of what the con man had done to her, but she succeeded in one way only, which was to preserve some shred of that bond between mother and daughter, so that the text, OK. I love you was the final catalyst for April to calm herself and squeeze the trigger.
The bullet did not fail.
The bullet, a Winchester USA .308 hollow point boat tail, is the sniper's ammunition of choice in part because its boat tail is more aerodynamic and thus potentially more accurate than your garden-variety hollow point, and April was a good enough shot to take advantage.
The military version of this bullet has a much smaller hollow than the hunting variety to conform to the Hague convention ban on expanding bullets. Will Souterrain was quite unconcerned with conforming to the Hague convention, but on a practical level wanted to avoid the trail of breadcrumbs that came with employing military-grade ammunition, and thus used the hunting variety with a larger hollow, which makes the bullet mushroom on impact, doubling the size of the wound and wreaking havoc on soft tissue.
Which is exactly what it did when it struck Dario Marchand's reconstructed skull and entered his brain, and this time there would be no abhorrent resurrection.
Joyce marveled at the acid-etched clarity adrenaline gave her. The thunderous crack of the rifle sounded like a single, deep strike on a bass drum. She watched Dario’s face change, twisting from a sneer of aggression, into a slight shock of surprise, one eye starting to clench closed as the other grew wider, wider, wider, travelling further and further beyond the confines of his skull until his head burst like a water balloon, bringing the battlefield back to full-speed clarity.
She tried not to think of him these days, but when she did, she dreamed she’d be the last thing he saw before she pulled the trigger. She wanted to watch him die.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
Part of her past lay dead before her. Part of her past was dead behind her in the van. She’d dreamed of her dad’s funeral, not so much how he would be laid to rest, but the comfort that would come from knowing he’d always be in a single spot from that day on. He probably would have wanted something better than a novelty combat van as his casket, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. His past was still coming back to haunt her, but he never would.
A strange feeling welled up in her. She felt unmoored. Lost. Tears formed in her eyes. Not for her father. Not the adrenaline dump. What was this? She slid backwards out of the van, keeping low, slithering on her back until she flipped and started belly-crawling for safety, eyes tearing the whole way. Lips trembling. She’d always been able to turn emotion into aggression on the battlefield. But she couldn’t stop this. Was it her impending death? Was it the loss of everything she’d worked so hard to build and contain in retirement?
The next thing she felt was the tip of a steel-toed boot in her ribs. Must be what the van felt like… she thought as she flipped over, hand scrabbling for her pistol. She was way too slow.
A man in black tactical gear barked into his commpiece that the target was down, checking her face to verify pre-kill, shuffle-stepping back to raise his rifle. Smart enough to keep a safe distance before he put a bullet in her head. All of this in less than a breath. Quick as a hiccup, her dad used to say. Joyce blinked away tears, determined to look her killer in the eye. His rifle leveled, he had her dead-red.
Everything happened out of sequence. She heard the shot. Then he spun, arms flailing like a modern dance. Then his rifle went off, a quick double-tap aimed at nothing in particular. His lips twisted into an almost-comical O shape, tongue lolling out. Joyce began to wonder if she was already dead. He spun a perfect pirouette on one foot, left leg going limp and wobbly, head tilting back as a geyser of blood erupted from the entrance wound above his ear and the exit on his neck simultaneously.
Joyce pushed herself up to standing, keeping low to avoid the hellstorm around her. She heard the familiar strain of a quick double bird whistle that she’d taught April years ago when they took their first hunting trip. Always know where the other one is, that’s the safest place to be.
She looked to the ridgeline and saw her, still locked in, eye in the sky, ready to clear a patch for her.
Keep moving. Heart’s pumping, keep the legs pumping.
Now she understood where the tears were flowing from. Pride. Her daughter, saving her twice now, giving life back to her mother.
Joyce had to get to the ridge. Mother and daughter would be the only two walking out of Hell today, Joyce was sure of it. Heaven help anyone who got in their way.
She hadn’t run this fast since the chaos in Kampala. Later, the press would compare that retreat out of the African hellstorm to the Saigon evacuation of 1975, and Senators at the hearings would say that it was a shameful moment in American history. All Joyce knew is that when the Inferno comes to Earth, when destruction reigns supreme and Death is having a field day, goal number one is survival. Save yourself is all that counts, and any loved ones in the vicinity, if saving those closest to you is a possibility at all.
In Kampala, in streets cluttered with the dead, collateral damage of the vaccination testing, she had let nothing stand in her path as she made her way to the fleet of the helicopters they had sent to get those involved out. She had a sweat-drenched cloth over her mouth, gloves on her hands, and nothing much else but her weapons on her. The Kampalans attacking Westerners, the outraged roving bands, had receded from view somewhat, cowed themselves perhaps by the sheer number of dead in the streets. The flies, the rot, the stench. The merciless sun. The vultures that had flown miles and miles to partake of what for them was a feast.
It was not only Africans who were dead, but mainly Africans, the unwitting guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical testing that had gone off the rails.
As always, she had been sent to help contain a mess, but this mess was beyond damage control. Deals between governments, contracts that were signed, private and public money that mixed and moved around and wound up in banks in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. What helped Big Pharma and the U.S. government enriched the African leaders who volunteered their people for human trials. It had all happened before, in years past and in different countries—Africa the drug-testing field—so no one could have anticipated the horror show that resulted, how testing for a vaccine to stop a spreading virus exacerbated the spread of that virus and in a place where the virus, unlike back at home in the States, had not yet infected a large part of the population. Uganda was decimated, and all she could do was get out. She didn’t have time or inclination to think about the greedy, incompetent assholes who’d set this disaster in motion; she concentrated on her reasons for wanting to continue to live, and foremost among them was April.
April, her rescuer, whose shooting now was keeping her alive.
Just keep fucking moving.
You can make it.
Joyce had a vague thought that in retirement she should have drunk and smoked less. She should have kept her body in better condition. But what would have been the point of retirement then? No, she could do it, she could ignore the searing pain in her chest and thighs and get herself up the incline. She had reached the point where the ground tilted up and the ridge began.
Behind her, the sounds of yelling, cursing, shooting.
That hellstorm hadn’t abatated, but a glance she took over her shoulder told her that no one had followed her into the clearing. Those who may have tried must have paid.
“Who’s at the top of that hill?”
“Kill that motherfucker!”
The fear and disorganization back there, the discipline of the rifle holder on the ridge’s peak. My girl, Joyce thought. My clear-eyed baby. Her daughter was a still and slender form against the dark night sky.
Joyce did the double bird whistle to let April know that she was good, almost there.
Then she heard the sound.
It came from above, a humming getting closer. Still running, she looked up, and she saw the massive helicopter. It had been back there far above them throughout the firefight. Joyce could feel the wind from its spinning blades. At the top of the ridge, she fell onto her chest, panting, and she extended her arm to touch her daughter’s.
April had swiveled, eye off the rifle scope, and managed a flash of a smile at her.
A man lay on his back beside her, semi-conscious, moaning. He had blood on his scalp and zip-tie cuffs around his wrists. His face looked familiar, but Joyce couldn’t quite place him at the moment.
Down below, where she’d been, the pitched battle was raging on, but none of that mattered now. The helicopter consumed her attention.
April raised her rifle to shoot, then lowered it. She knew better than to fire at the chopper and waste a bullet.
Was it going to come down?
It descended low enough so that Joyce could make out, by what light the sky gave, two figures inside, the pilot and another person.
“Shit!” Joyce said.
The person in the back was the only person it could be, Joyce thought, realizing that her whole pretense of a peaceful retirement had been a joke. What had she been thinking? That she could truly escape these people?
She waited for the helicopter to land.
The story concludes right here tomorrow.