The authors (not in order of appearance) of this grand entertainment are:
Nick Kolakowski, Steve Golds, Richie Narvaez, Andrew Case, Beau Johnson, R. Daniel Lester, Terri Coop, James Hannah, Dan Fiore, Scott Adlerberg, Alec Cizak, Jason Beech, Eryk Pruitt, Jason Butkowski, S.A. Cosby, Michael Paul Gonzalez, Jerry Bloomfield, Tom Leins, Steve Weddle, E.A. Aymar, Seamus Heffernan, Matt Phillips, Ben LeRoy, Chad Rohrbacher, and Lein Shory.
Balled up in an uncomfortable motel bed, Joyce had once asked her father why they weren’t like other families. Why they never stayed in one place for very long.
Her father looked down at the medals pinned above his heart and gave a smile that even a child could tell was empty. He likened their way of life to a character from a western they’d just watched on TV.
“Remember how the man makes the cowboy stand put?” he asked. “He makes him shoot, but he’s useless. Right? Can’t hit a thing, just standing there all rigid. But when he moves, you remember what happens? How remarkable he is? He can hit anything. But only if he moves around. Well, that’s us, kiddo. You and me, we aren’t like most people. And everything special about us, it doesn’t shine if we stay put. That’s why we got to keep moving.”
Despite all her training—all the decades of focusing solely on the task at hand—it was impossible to ignore those words echoing in her head now.
Got to keep moving.
Maybe she’d stayed put too long. Maybe she’d lost her touch.
It made her blood boil to think maybe Dad had been right all along. Staying still…hell, just thinking she could live that peaceful kind of life had turned her dumb and lazy. Amateurish. And now here she was, surrounded on the side of a mountain, frozen. It was only a matter of time before more gunmen followed the two that just passed her.
Got to keep moving.
Her sudden lack of confidence felt like an ill-fitting sweater. In her old line of work, confidence was often all she had to work with. But at least Plan B still came easy to her.
She could go laterally, west around the slope until she hit the trail she’d planned on taking with the hidden dirt bike. Obnoxious engines in the middle of quiet wilderness were now a last-ditch option, at best. But even if she followed that same trail on foot, it would take about a day’s hike to reach a highway busy enough to hitch a ride to somewhere safe. East would take her toward Sam’s hideout, if her guess was correct. But going into hostile terrain blind was how she’d almost lost her dominant eye long ago.
The smartest course of action was to keep following the two gunmen, take them out quietly, and follow the intricate cave system to the other side of the mountain. She’d plotted the route before, and she could take her time in there. She might get hungry eventually, but there was at least fresh water deeper into the system.
She stepped where the gunmen stepped, closing the gap between them with a grace that most people simply don’t possess. By the time she had them within sight again, they were at the mouth of the cave, guns aimed into the darkness. The ‘roid-rippled goon Joyce first noticed trekking through the trees gestured to his long-bearded associate to head inside first.
Joyce was close enough to hear Roid Boy whisper into his radio that they’d stumbled onto a possible hiding spot. As Wizard Beard stepped toward the cave, Joyce crept up behind Roid Boy. One stride closer and she’d be able to reach for the knife sheathed at his belt. But before her foot even lifted from the ground, the air shook with a distant thunderclap.
Both gunmen turned.
“Shit,” Joyce muttered.
In Joyce’s experience, knowing how to stay alive meant knowing the difference between when to fight and when to run. And in that moment, she realized that she should have known better than to abandon the cabin and try for the cave. She could have been anywhere else, in an SUV with guns and money. But she’d let cold survival mode take over.
It wasn’t just whiskey Joyce had grabbed from the kitchen cupboard.
The same document that gave instructions for her eventual ashes also listed the details about every job she’d ever done. Every deed—good or bad—and the names of everyone who handed down her orders. Twenty-six pages of a long narrative that traced the whos, whats, and wheres of her life ever since she learned her father wasn’t actually in the military like he’d told her. Ever since she figured out that he wore that uniform to swindle people, town after town after town, and that behind them was a trail of fraud, forgery, and theft.
Ever since she ran away and never stopped running.
Got to keep moving.
The document was partly a drunk Fuck You to a complex system that never appreciated the sacrifices she made to keep it functioning like the slick machine it was. But it was also, in part, a confession—an explanation to someone who deserved one.
The envelope with the document had a particular address. What made her so foolish was that, somewhere out there in the world, there was somebody that she cared about. And as the gunmen turned their barrels on her, her anger at herself gave way to relief. If she died, and these men rooted through her stuff and found all her documents, and then considered her case closed with no further fallout, the letter’s addressee would finally be safe.
Joyce closed her eyes.
She expected only one gunshot before the lights went out. But there were two. And after a moment without any pain or draining of life, she opened her eyes in time to see both Roid Boy and Wizard Beard fall to the ground. Holes in their heads, blood and brain matter on the soil beneath them.
“Not exactly evasive,” a voice said from the cave.
Out walked Vivian Marchand, de facto head of the Underground ever since Sam and Joyce took out her husband. She held only a cellphone in her hand, while the four suited men that followed her from the cave pointed their firearms at Joyce.
Joyce gawked at the dead men between them. “You just killed your own men.”
“Underground men don’t get killed.” Marchand read the confusion on Joyce’s face. “You didn’t get my care package?”
“Oh, I got it.”
“You’ll have to forgive me if I say I didn’t stick my face inside.”
Marchand laughed. “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have to open the flap of a package to make it happen. I just thought you could use a little warning that they were coming for you.”
The pieces weren’t fitting together. Even Sam made it sound as if the Underground was behind this. Joyce asked, “Who are they?”
Marchand shrugged as she nudged Wizard Beard’s shoulder with a boot. “Bad guys, Joyce.”
Joyce was growing impatient. Gunshots only ensured more goons would be on their way, whoever they were. “Then how about we cut to the part where you tell me why you’re so interested in helping me.”
“Because these people are after me, as well, and you have some information in that head of yours that I need to beat them.”
Joyce allowed a smile. Whatever intel the Underground was looking for was most likely somewhere in her gear at that very moment. But nothing was funnier than the leader of the Underground asking her for her help. She asked Marchand: “And why the hell would I ever work with you?”
“For one thing, self-preservation. I’d imagine one enemy on your tail is better than two.”
Joyce shook her head. “Not good enough.”
“I didn’t say that’s the only reason.”
Vivian Machand smiled. “Because just like whoever is after us,” she said, “we know you have a daughter.”
The rising moon framed Vivian Marchand’s head in such a way it seemed as though she didn’t have a face at all, just a black mass. Two men on either side of her, each at the ready, she awaited Joyce’s reply.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Joyce continued to think this, tried to embrace it, but her mind failed to cooperate.
And she knew she had to play this smart, that it was imperative to keep a cool head, but Vivian invoking April as she had, the daughter Joyce had spent the better part of a decade shielding, it didn’t just change the game—it blew it the fuck apart.
Left to right and make sure you cut deep.
True. So goddamn true.
“Fine,” she said, looking into where she believed Vivian’s eyes should be. Was the woman smiling? Joyce didn’t know, but felt it was a pretty safe bet. “And I’m not going to ask how you’ve come across this knowledge. I'm not going to play games. We both know you know. But I will offer caution, Vivian.”
“You never cease to amaze me, Joyce. Not even here, where neither of us should be. Go on, dazzle me.” Vivian stepped forward, and yes, Joyce saw that the dark-haired woman she had wanted to kill on more than one occasion was, in fact, smiling. It was a pretty smile, too, one many men have fallen for, by choice or otherwise.
“Women like us, Vivian, we have cheated death. We have—”
“INCOMING!” The furthest sentry from Marchand yelled, and in those precious few seconds he bought them, instinct took them by the neck and put things into gear. Endorphins rushed. Muscles surged. Movement reigned. Two of Vivian’s men returned fire as they charged toward the cave entrance.
Inside, Vivian bent down and opened a military-grade case Joyce has opened many times herself. Inside sat a weapon that had been known to level countless playing fields. Once the last of Marchand’s men made it into the cave, Vivian moved forward, past them, but not before telling Joyce to “hold that thought.”
“And don’t take this as me being rude, either,” she added. “If anything, take it for what it is: me saving your ass yet again.”
Like she had in Milan so many years ago, Vivian Marchand then went down to one knee and proceeded to do what she has always done best.
She lit the night.
The mouth of the cave turned hell-colored as the stink of burned hair and charred bone filled the air.
“Let’s go. We don’t have much time.”
Joyce nodded and fell into step with Vivian, leaving one of the hired hands to replace the weaponry in the case. Another one of Vivian’s men pulled out his phone and activated the flashlight app, lighting their way as they headed deeper into the caves. Joyce marveled at what a rocket launcher could do in Vivian’s skilled hands.
Vivian snapped her fingers. “Sokolov, Andreyev—take point. Kuznetsov, Petrov—fall in behind.”
Curious, Joyce thought. The Vivian Marchand she knew would have rather crawled over broken glass than worked with Russians.
Vivian noticed the question hovering behind Joyce’s eyes, said: “Times change, Joyce. Alliances shift. You always were slow to embrace change.”
Joyce ignored the jibe and removed the whiskey from her bag, unscrewed the cap, and drank two inches as if it were Gatorade. “Want some?”
Vivian shook her head. “I haven’t touched a drop since Kampala.”
The second time someone has mentioned Uganda today. Joyce never liked coincidences. She raised the bottle and took another glug. “We’ll always have Kampala.”
Vivian smiled—but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Joyce replaced the bottle.
“Tell me, Joyce, how well do you know this cave system?”
“I take it there’s a way out?”
Joyce cast a withering look at her former boss. “There’s always a way out, Vivian.”
The older woman smiled that devastating smile of hers again, and this time it reached her eyes.
She looks good, Joyce thought, but then again, she always did.
The flame-grilled stench of their now-dead pursuers receded as they trudged deeper into the caves. The bodyguard’s flashlight casting malformed shadows in the subterranean gloom.
The realtor, Mr. Perez, had laughed nervously as he told Joyce that the caves were once used as a meth lab by a local biker gang called the Corpse Grinders—until five men succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning when the gas-powered generator malfunctioned.
Joyce studied Vivian’s face as they trampled dusty test tubes and bits of trash, but the older woman’s face never flickered. In their world, bikers and drugs and death barely warranted a mention.
One of the men, Sokolov or Andreyev—Joyce wasn’t sure which one was which—passed his light across the far wall. A jittery skull had been daubed on the uneven surface, with the legend ‘CG 4EVA’ painted underneath.
He grunted and said something in Russian to his buddy, who unleashed a deep, throaty cackle. Vivian joined in. Then they were all chuckling.
Joyce spoke four languages, but Russian wasn’t one of them. Her mind was awash with uncertainties, but Vivian never was much of a talker, so she needed to choose her questions carefully. She cleared her throat to regain Vivian’s attention over the laughter.
“If The Underground aren’t behind this clean-up op, then who is?”
Vivian raised a hand to silence her men, then turned to face Joyce. Up-close, in the dingy half-light, she finally looked her age. She sighed and withdrew the phone from her pocket, saying: “I imagine you will find this even harder to comprehend than I did.”
She passed Joyce the phone.
On the screen was Dario Marchand, a man she had last seen in a ditch outside Kampala with blood oozing out of a bullet-crater in his scalp. The luxuriant mustache was unchanged, but his thick black head of hair was no more—hairline replaced with a blotchy, uneven mess of scar tissue. His eyes, like his scalp, looked dead.
“No. It can’t be.”
Vivian nodded solemnly. “It can.”
“Samson shot him in the skull at point-blank range.”
Vivian shrugged. “He always was a tough bastard, Joyce. You know that.”
“It can’t be him.”
Her own scar tissue itched—the bullet-wound sewn up one-handed by Dario in Kandahar. He had been holding his own guts in at the same time. Joyce remembered her boss’s entrails pulsing like maggots on a dead dog, yet his grim smile of determination never fading.
Vivian replaced the phone without another word. “Kuznetsov. The merchandise.”
Joyce’s head spun. What fucking merchandise?
Kuznetsov, the largest of the four men, built like a pro wrestler, disappeared into the darkness. “I’m sorry I had to do this, Joyce. I really am. But I needed some insurance... in case you required any additional motivation.”
Kuznetsov reappeared, dragging the shrunken figure of an old man behind him. The man looked blurred and indistinct until he was dumped at Joyce’s feet.
She recognized the costume-store military uniform before she recognized the cadaverous features of the man wearing it. The old man dusted himself down and lowered his yellow-tinted sunglasses. They looked more absurd in here than they ever did when he was flirting with divorcees beside drained motel swimming pools.
His leathery features cracked into a gap-toothed smile.
Joyce was about to say something when the muted boom of a distant explosion shook the cavern.
Vivian touched her shoulder.
“So, Joyce, what were you saying about a way out?”
Joyce had been sixteen when she figured out the truth about her dad. They had taken a weekend trip from Tucson with yet another woman Joyce hoped might become her mom. Tombstone. Bisbee. The OK Corral and the abandoned silver mine. Then, at the end of the tour of Kartchner Caverns, when the guide turned off all the lights except for the spot on the 700-million-year-old pillar, she had seen her father duck his hand into the hopeful woman’s purse and slip out her wallet. The next day Joyce had gone straight to the recruiting station on Speedway and Wilson. Six months later she had fought in Iraq. She had never looked back.
After this many decades, Joyce saw the worn-out man in the cave with fresh eyes. As tough as the years of bullets and blows have been on her body, perpetual grift has been even harder on his.
But this was no time to reminisce. The clamor behind them suggested that the entrance had been breached. Joyce guessed that Vivian’s Russians could hold out against just about anyone. But Dario Marchand was not just about anyone. If Dario was leading the siege, he would break through sooner rather than later.
“The cave opens up to an underground lake, and then you can hike back up and come out on the eastern edge. But that will take almost a day,” Joyce said. She had walked this route before.
Vivian turned towards the mouth of the tunnel. It was pitch dark, but she was listening. She didn’t like what she heard. “We don’t have a day.”
“There’s another way. But it isn’t easy.”
Vivian smiled. “When have I ever asked for it to be easy?”
She said something in Russian to Kuznetsov. The big man protested, but she nodded firmly and repeated herself. He grunted and unslung his rifle. He signaled to the other muscle and they headed towards the noises at the front of the cave.
Vivian smiled at Joyce and her father, all sweat and charm. She handed the old man her own phone, switched to flashlight mode. “You lead the way. Joyce in the middle. I need my hands free for this.” She gestured to Joyce with a Sig Sauer P365.
Joyce didn’t like Vivian having the only freed weapon among them. She thought about how long it would take her to rummage through her bag and find the Desert Eagle. Too long. And slinging the rifle from her shoulder would be hopeless. Same with the shotgun. She turned to guide her father forward.
After five minutes, the tunnel started to slope downward. Joyce stopped them, saying: “That’s the river below us. The long way. We need to turn right.”
She nudged her father towards a narrow slit between the rock. Just wide enough for them to walk, so long as they went sideways, Joyce scraping on both sides of her body. Vivian kept her pistol trained on them from behind.
Joyce didn’t need to look back to know that Vivian was keeping a good six feet behind her. She could tell by the loudness of the breath, the scrape of the footfalls. If Vivian were closer, Joyce would have had a chance, even in close quarters, to spring back and grab the pistol before Vivian had a chance to fire. But Vivian knew that, too. Smart.
And even if Joyce could disarm Vivian, even if she could kill her, then what? Vivian knew about April, so Dario must have learned, too. And Dario was the one to worry about now. If Joyce took out Vivian, she would be alone in this tunnel with her useless father. Everything she had done to protect her daughter would have been for nothing.
The old man’s steps were unstable now as the path narrowed further. He held out the cell phone as the crack narrowed to almost nothing. Then he stopped.
“I can’t go any further. I can’t squeeze through that.”
Behind them, gunshots. A quick series of rat-a-tat-tats, then a long pause, then another burst. Then nothing at all. No voices. No footsteps. One side or the other had gotten the better of it. They would learn which one soon enough.
Vivian trained the gun on Joyce. “You said you could take us out of here. This is a dead end.”
“No. We’re here.” Joyce gestured upward. About twenty feet up, a sliver of light, trickling from between two overhanging rocks. “We shimmy up. You first, dad.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Of course you can, dad.” Joyce sidled up to her father and slipped her hand into his rear pocket. His wallet was the easiest lift she had ever made. “All you have to do is believe it. Just like you always do. Convince yourself and you can convince the world.”
He handed her the phone and she heaved him up, squeezed between the walls of the cave. He caught himself with his elbows. He slipped for a moment and pebbles tumbled onto Vivian and Joyce.
“Just keep going, dad,” Joyce murmured soothingly. “Just keep going.”
As he pulled himself to the ledge, Joyce exhaled almost as deeply as he did.
Vivian propped herself expertly onto the wall and started to climb. Even with one hand still on the pistol, she scuttled easily upwards. “Don’t try anything, Joyce,” she called back.
As her old enemy scurried up the wall, Joyce took the cell phone out to send a quick message: april its happening do just as I told you no time to explain mom
As Vivian crested out of the cave, Joyce deleted the sent message and pocketed the phone. She dropped her father’s wallet into her bag. She’d have time enough to see what he had been up to—and how he had fallen into Vivian’s hands after all these years.
She pulled herself quickly up the sides of the cave, instinct and training taking over. She shimmied into a patch of mountain hemlock in time to see Vivian and her father each sitting still, holding their hands in the air. Vivian’s pistol was on the ground in front of her crossed legs.
Standing ten feet away, smoking a compact cigar, training a Weatherby 18i on them both, was a familiar face. The nose was still swollen, but a fresh bandage had stopped the bleeding over that left eyebrow.
“Hi, Joyce. Nice party you’ve got here.”
“Samson,” Joyce said, relieved despite herself. “We need your help. Otherwise they are going to kill our daughter.”
They’d lifted off not ten minutes before when her phone buzzed in her pocket. Geez. April had told anyone who needed to know that she’d gone paragliding with Ronald. Why would they bother her? She resented having to take the damn phone with her in the first place. Of course, it made surviving a crash more likely. Authorities could track her in the mountains, send the rescue helicopter to wherever her rig dropped. She’d ignore it for now, just as she’d ignore Ronald swooping by her, showing off while trying to start a shouted conversation in midair.
They’d launched from the top of Mount Sentinel, like always. She watched the school pass below her feet, pretended to kick the steeple on top of University Hall. Thought about sitting in the stands of the stadium, rooting for the Grizzlies even when they sucked. The phone vibrated again, reminded her she had a message waiting. “All right, all right,” she said. “Let me touch down.”
Ronald passed. Ronald, his goofy lumberjack beard whipping this way and that in the wind. He said, “What?”
“Wasn’t talking to you,” she said.
“What?” he said, louder, as though the change in volume would convince her she’d been addressing him after all.
She descended toward the practice football field in between rows of University Village apartments, near the golf course. Like a leaf making its journey from branch to earth in early autumn, she floated left, then right, then left, then right, over and over, and found her feet running through the grass.
The phone nagged her.
She said, “This better be good.” She rolled up her wing and watched Ronald land a few feet away from where she’d touched down. As she placed her wing in her equipment bag, she noticed two gray pickup trucks parked alongside the fence surrounding the school’s soccer field. The trucks sat on jacked up axles. Unlike most of the skipjacks cruising Missoula in similar small-penis compensators, the men in the cabs were clean-shaven. They wore mirrored-shades and stared out the windshields.
She dragged her equipment bag to her jeep. Ronald followed her, carting out his usual request to “grab some coffee,” his limp-dicked way of inquiring as to whether her libido had suddenly taken an interest in guys who engaged strangers on Twitter in political arguments. All talk, no walk. They couldn’t fuck their way out of a paper bag.
“I got to study,” she told him.
He reminded her that he needed a ride back to his dorm.
“I know,” she said.
She offered to help him throw his equipment bag into her jeep. He declined. She took the opportunity to check the message on her phone. She saw who’d sent it and groaned. “Jesus,” she said.
“What’s the deal?” said Ronald.
“Nothing. My stupid mother.” Then she clicked on the message and her throat dried up. The message she’d hoped to never receive stared back at her.
The pickup trucks rumbled to life, interrupting her thoughts. The noise reminded her of someone suffering a loud, endless bout of diarrhea.
Her face must have given away her concern. Ronald said: “Really, what’s going on?”
“Ronald…” She forced him out of her way as she removed his gear from her jeep. “Emergency situation, buddy.”
“No time to explain,” she said, mimicking her mother’s words. She climbed into the jeep and started it up. As she pulled out, Ronald threw his hands up, donned an expression suggesting she’d run over his feet. She offered her best “I’m sorry” grimace and rolled, slowly, deliberately, toward South Avenue. Her eyes drifted to the rearview mirror. She sighed. Geez. She wished she didn’t have her mother’s instincts.
The men in the pickup trucks put their foul machines in drive and crept behind her as she tried to blend in with traffic.
The story continues right here tomorrow.