Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Two Guns - Chapter 5 - Let's Dance

Sharon wasn't any better at waking up than at going to sleep; her right arm had slipped beyond the covers in her sleep and felt cool, so she drew it back in and wrestled the cover upward. The material bunched up around her neck like a thick, insulating collar; she buried her face in the fluffy pillow and closed her eyes again.


Her brain slowly flicked through the vivid images of past dreams, showing her ships and water - not the cold East Coast, but foreign shores she couldn't place. It was a sea made for diving into, azure and softly lit, perfectly calm with no waves to disturb it. Almost involuntary, she drew in her legs and arms more. A cozy sensation played over her body and kept her wrapped in layers of soft armor, a small cocoon against the cold and open world.



Mark breathed clouds of water vapor against the background of falling snow; the roof of the hotel was slick with flash-frozen ice, but spreading salt, sand and gravel was a welcome warm-up procedure. With his "track" roughly de-iced, Mark could begin his morning jog. He rather preferred a softer ground to go easier on his ankles, but the roof would do. He found it easier to think while moving, and when he looked down at his city - Manhattan just waking up across the river - he felt like everything was moving with him, stirring to keep pace. Despite the flakes of snow settling in his hair, he didn't really feel the chill anymore.


He started trotting mechanically. His muscle memory was chock full of this stuff, like a second brain in his limbs taking care of the details while Mark Simmons (Main Entity) plotted the overall course. His workout had been brutal once, taking up much of his day and requiring a custom diet, but these days, Mark was more interested in upkeep. He'd trimmed it down to something he could do without thinking about it, a little maintenance routine for his neurons that didn't require equipment or much room. So, he jogged, warming himself up further and getting his heart up to speed. He slipped on the ice when he tried to corner too sharply; reflexes took over, and he easily tumbled over his shoulder, sliding to a halt well clear of the roof's guard rail. Suppressing a laugh at his own clumsiness, he got up and brushed the dirt from his jacket.



"Disco?" Sharon asked from behind her cards; Mark looked at his hand (two pairs, Kings and Tens) and allowed himself a small smile.
"Too many people. Also, I suck at the hustle."
"How do you do that, anyway?"
"I don't know, that's the problem. I just wiggled around a bit and did the finger waving thing, like" - Mark switched his cards from right to left hand and did a passable Saturday Night Fever impression - "this. Terrible."
"Well, they got new dances now."
"It's like an arms race out there."
"But it's not the hustle."
"That's the problem. I fucking hate the hustle, but it's the only one I ever got any good at."
"But you said you suck at the hustle..."
"I suck worse with everything else. I'm more of a ballroom dancing guy."
"Ooh, now that sounds interesting. How come?"
"I'll tell you if you quit stalling."
"I'm not stalling, I want to know."
"You've held that hand for two minutes, you're stalling."
"I'm not..."
"Cards, on three. One, two " - Mark slammed his hand onto the table - "three!"

Then he got a good look at Sharon's cards.

"That's a..."
"...full house, baby," she said with a grin.
"Why were you stalling with a full house?"
"I wasn't stalling."
"Now, what was that about ballroom dancing?"
"Give me those cards," he said, then began to reshuffle the deck.
"Okay, it's either that or your jeans," Sharon said, leaning back in her chair.
"This isn't strip poker."
"Oh, please. You must be the only guy in the world who would turn that down."
"We're just passing time, DT."
"No, we're stuck in this goddamn hotel room that you all but kidnapped me to, so I figure we can either try to have some fun or kill each other."
"I can have fun with my clothes on, thank you."
"Well, alternatives were offered..."

Mark stopped shuffling. He leaned back in his chair and weighed his solemn duty against his emotional reactions. Women...

"Bodyguard job back in '74. They wanted me for a big dinner gala, undercover-like, so I had to learn how to waltz. Come to think of it, that girl was a pushy little..."
"Just sayin', you remind me of her."
"I can still take off my jeans."
"No, I wanna hear this. So?"
"So I learned how to waltz. Waltzed three hours. By all accounts, I didn't fuck it up too bad. Nothing happened. Went home, had a brew, job well done."
"And that's the whole story? Come on. That wasn't worth the buildup. I thought you killed somebody through ballroom dance or shit like that."
"I'm just a private guy, okay? I don't see how you knowing this helps my job. Hence, need to know."
"It's actually 'therefore'."
"'Therefore, the information is need to know.' I fixed that fragment, too."
"I see. So we've been reduced to this?"
"Your story sucked."
"Okay," Mark said, then leaned forward. "Your turn."
"Your turn."
"I didn't lose the game."

Without a word, Mark picked up the deck, shuffled it, then dealt five cards each for Sharon and himself. Before she had a chance to pick up, he took another card and flipped their respective hands over.

"One pair for you, and, whaddaya know, a Royal Flush for me! You lost."
"Did anybody ever tell you that you're kind of a dick?"
"Lady, I get that all the time."
"Okay, you know what? Fine. What do you want to hear?"
"Be quiet."
"What!? You just wanted me to tell you..."

Mark gave her the 'shush!' gesture; Sharon leaned back and threw her hands up. Men...


Antonio the Clerk had two problems: both were entry wounds behind his ear. He slumped over as the melange of neurons in his skull degenerated into a random neural storm, scrambling the signal of his conscious self while it faded to nothingness.

Then, he had no more problems.

Gary Winthrop lowered the suppressed .22 in his left hand. His right arm hung in a sling in front of his chest, not quite warranting a cast but still down for the count. He had a cut on his cheek, a limp in his step and a chip on his shoulder - he'd brought a couple of friends to fix that last one.

"You four," he said, gesturing with his gun, "take the stairs. You three cover the exits. The rest follows me."

The half-broken assassin shuffled into the waiting elevator, together with five of his subordinates - triggermen, all packing a dazzling variety of small arms. No chances this time.


"Elevator's moving," Mark said as he dragged Sharon to the arsenal room. "Where's your Glock?"
"In my suitcase."
"Good, it's a cop gun anyway."
"I can't leave that, I just got it today. And it's not like you" - Mark flicked his right wrist outward, propelling a blocky steel pistol from his sleeve into his waiting hand. Sharon watched as he casually cocked the weapon's hammer. "...have a gun," she finished.
"Unlock the door," he said, throwing her his keys; he stopped in place, turned around and raised his pistol, aiming down the hallway.
"How do you do that?" she asked while she opened the door. "Is it just stuck in there?"
"Spring-loaded," Mark replied tersely.

Sharon disappeared into the room.

"Okay, what do you need?"
"Pistols, I need pistols..."
"Coming up!"


"Now would be great," he said, his finger on the trigger. Sharon loaded a row of SIG 226 pistols on top of the table; Mark withdrew into the arsenal room after hearing approaching steps, retracted the Hi-Power and grabbed two of the SIGs. He stashed them in the back of his waistband, grabbed two more and nodded to Sharon; she took a Beretta for herself, caught his glance and took another one.

"Simmons!" came Winthrop's voice, deceptively soft and well-mannered. "You in there?"
"Sure am!" Mark shot back, gesturing toward a case of Flash grenades.
"I figured I'd give this the old college try - do you want to surrender?"
"Oh well. Nothing personal, though."
"Figured," he said, then nodded to Sharon.

Sharon hurled the grenade into the hallway; amid the curses, Mark spun out, guns akimbo. It was then that he noticed Winthrop's men behind cover, safe from the flash grenade - and within the second, they'd have a bead on him. He continued his trajectory, chased by bullets, then touched the wall opposite the arsenal door - and crashed through it, evading the barrage via concealed drywall. He tumbled, but still slammed into the original wall of the broader hallway. Noting that his window was slipping, he sprinted forward, Winthrop's bullets chasing him through the entire fake wall. The corner ahead was another fake wall; Mark crashed through it and into Winthrop's rear guard, shoving him against the very real brick wall behind him. A concussion later, Winthrop's exit strategy was rolling on the floor, puking his guts out - Mark favored him with his first shot in the back of the neck, killing him instantly. Taking advantage of the confusion, Sharon inched forward from the arsenal door and fired twice, cutting down another attacker with a solid double-tap; the others disappeared back into the hotel room doors, taking cover once more.

With the drywall mostly shredded, Winthrop could see the true layout of the hallway. A pillar close to the staircase had been disguised as the corner, in effect bisecting the original wide hallway into a small "fake" section and a hidden crawlway. The pillar was the only solid thing, offering Simmons cover from their gunfire. The arsenal room was at the other end, creating an effective trap. A quick glance at the arsenal end of the hallway showed that this wall was fake, too - probably a hidden escape route. Winthrop had to take a moment to admire the amount of preparation.

"Nice one," he shouted out.
"Thanks!" Mark returned.

Then they came up the stairwell.

Mark lunged forward, bullets whizzing past him from both Winthrop's position and the new arrivals, but he was too close, covering too much ground too quickly to draw a good bead on. He turned into the move, slamming his left shoulder into the new attackers while letting off a few shots at Winthrop. The latter had no chance in hell of actually doing anything; the former, however, knocked the attacker back down the stairs. Mark gave him four bullets as he tumbled down, and the fresh body crumpled against the handrail, not quite quick enough to go over it and land on the floor below. Mark whirled back behind the next pillar, taking cover from the climber's friends. They were pushing him further away from Sharon, and now Winthrop's gang had her cornered, with backup between Mark and them.


Sharon slammed the arsenal door close and blocked it with the table; it wouldn't hold the attackers forever, but it gave her a moment to take a better look at the arsenal. It was built into a normal hotel room; in fact, it was somewhat smaller than hers, but it followed the floor plan so closely that she could make out a section of wall that was dividing it from the rest of the room. Sharon gave that wall a good look; there was an indent and a keypad, suggesting an alternative exit - but she didn't have the code to open it.

There was a phone, though.

With no other option, Sharon grabbed the receiver and dialed the first number scribbled onto the paper inset.


"That's really good," Vincent Ratioli said, shoveling another spoonful of changua soup into his mouth. Alexandra beamed; her eyes periodically shot over to the somewhat disorderly state she'd left the kitchen countertop in.
"Thanks," she said.
"How'd you sleep?"
"Okay. Better than in the hospital."
"I can imagine."
"For one, nobody wanted my temperature at six in the morning..."
"Yeah, that's annoying," Vince conceded. "Too bad about the summer."
"Only six months to go," she said. "There's always a next summer."
"Except for Silvestro," Vince said, with that professional killer smile. Alexandra smiled and nodded.

The phone rang; Vince put down the spoon. The silver reflected his annoyed face for a split second before he got up, walked over to the phone and took the call.

"Ingues Residence."
"I need Simmons's cell number, now!" Sharon half-said, half-shouted.
"What the...where are you? Who are you?"
"I'm Detective Collins and I'm here in this fucking hotel, getting shot at, and I need Simmons on the fucking phone!"
"Hold on," Vince said, lowered the receiver and mouthed 'My guns!' to Alexandra. The girl took off, fully aware of the gravity of that request. "You still there, Detective?"
"Well, yeah, that's the fucking problem!"
"The number is five-five-five..."


The one thing Mark couldn't afford to do was get pinned down in a drawn-out gunfight, and yet, he was sitting there, exchanging shots with the stairwell team. The bullets chipped away at the pillar, exposing the steel rebar inside; another shot took out a skylight above Mark, raining shards of glass on the Enforcer. His reflexes had allowed Mark to have his arms above his head and deflect most of the splinters, but he could feel a few slipping beneath his collar.

This was going to hurt.

Mark got up from the crouch, steadying himself against the pillar; one large shard was stuck in the carpet, and while it wasn't as good as a mirror, it would do. He stepped forward with his right foot, turning in the process; it was enough to get one attacker into his field of view. They exchanged bullets; Mark was hit in the flank, but returned the favor with a clean head shot. He had to make his shots count, and that meant exploiting gravity once more - the dead attacker tumbled down the stairs, causing enough confusion to allow Mark to slip back to the hallway pillar, surprising Winthrop's team in the process of breaking down the arsenal door. After a few more shots, things settled back into a stalemate, but at least he was now in a position to actually shoot at the people trying to kill his charge.

Then the cell phone rang.

One member of the stairwell team climbed up; Mark had all the time in the world to line up a good shot and push lead through the bloke's voicebox. That left one more guy at the stairwell, but Mark desperately wanted to reduce Winthrop's team, not the rear guard.

"Somebody get that fucking phone!" Winthrop shouted; Mark discarded a spent SIG pistol and freed the phone from its pack.

"Busy!" he shouted into the receiver; "Door code!" Sharon shouted back.
"Royal Flush!" Mark howled, fired a few more suppressing shots at the stairwell and hung up.


The first hints of light appeared at the armored arsenal door as Winthrop's goons did their best to break it down; Sharon dumped the phone receiver and jumped at the keypad, trying to figure things out.

"Royal Flush, Royal Flush..." - she looked at the numbers, 0-9 - "gotta be a high straight," she murmured and keyed in 9-8-7-6-5: red light. "Oh, come on!" 5-6-7-8-9: red light. "Fuck!" she shouted, tried again, red light.

A shotgun blast ripped through the door near the lock; there was a fist-sized hole there now. Sharon raised her Beretta and fired twice, hitting the shotgunner in the leg. Her eyes flashed back to the keypad, and she noted the telephone-style letters on it.

"Royal Flush! Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten..." she murmured, her face lit up in realisation, then hammered 2-5-7-5..."Crap, what's the ten?" BLAM BLAM, another shotgun round into the door! Her thumb hit the zero: green light. Both doors opened; she quickdrew the second Beretta and laid down a hot welcome toward the outer door while she rushed out.


A car shouldn't be driven this way, but a fiery red Testarossa was a different matter all together: Vince shot across the Williamsburg Bridge, the engine comfortably purring a speed that would've redlined lesser automobiles. He snatched the car phone and pressed the first speed dial button.


Mark could hear the footsteps of the last stairwell soldier, but he was too busy laying crossfire on Winthrop's group to worry about that. Another SIG went dry; down to his last regular gun, he fired the rest of that magazine down the hallway, blowing even more holes in the drywall of the other escape route.

Then the phone rang, again.

It was, all said, a bad time for the last stairwell soldier to appear, because Mark glanced down at the phone on the ground, hooked his foot under it and propelled it into the aggressor's belly. They didn't call that phone model "brick" for nothing; it proved that it could be used to knock the wind out of someone without even feeling it and landed on the ground, still ringing.

"It's for you," Mark quipped, then snapped the Hi-Power from his sleeve and gave the goon a third eye. With a look of total determination, he snapped the second Hi-Power from his other sleeve and went down the hallway toward the arsenal room, hot in pursuit of Winthrop.


Sharon rushed up the fire escape, occasionally firing downward. The way to the ground was blocked - more goons below -, and she hoped to find a better route from the roof. The cast iron was slick, but she didn't stumble: in fact, things seemed to be going pretty well, aside from being hunted by half a dozen hired killers.

Well, she was screwed. But she looked good, and if it had to be that way, why not go out in a blaze of glory?


Mark rapid-fired his pistols into the drywall ahead, hoping to keep everyone still in the hallway from poking their heads out and shooting him, but he hadn't considered somebody hiding in the arsenal.

Call it a penchant for not being where he should be - or dumb luck -, but Winthrop's first shot actually went wide when Mark passed the arsenal door; the Enforcer slammed through the drywall, mindful of his diminished weaponry, and sought out another pillar to take cover behind. The killer merely lowered his pistol and followed at a leisurely pace.

"Typical, really. Big gesture, Simmons. Too bad you just wasted your ammo."

This section of the hotel was under more ramshackle in appearance, still broken down and badly in need of a couple dozen layers of paint to hold everything together. The hotel room doors were all locked: there was only one way Mark could have gone, and Winthrop was walking on it.

"Actually, I lied back there. It is personal. I broke three fucking fingers, Simmons. But that's not the bad part. The bad part was hanging there. You ever get that, Simmons? You see the pain coming but can't stop it?"

Winthrop turned the corner, sweeping around the pillar.

"It's coming, Simmons. I'm right here. You're fucked. How about some decorum, eh? Some dignity, you little cocksucker?"

Almost around the pillar...almost...



Mark came in from below, almost out of Winthrop's field of view; rolling on the ground, he kicked the killer's limping leg out, sending him straight to the floor. Winthrop struggled to aim his .22 at Mark, but the Enforcer moved too quickly, deflecting the gun arm with another kick before delivering a knife hand strike to Winthrop's throat. The killer dropped his gun and clutched his neck, but Mark's full-power attack had hit him in just the right place.

"Couple of points," Mark said, breathing heavily but otherwise mostly okay. "One, you don't ever go around a corner that close. Rookie mistake. Two, I knew exactly where you were, so shut the fuck up..."
"...!" Winthrop said, choking.
"...yeah, kinda like that. Three, you hide in the fucking armory and come hunting for me with your little peashooter? Grenades, motherfucker! There's like a whole case of frags next to the door!"
"Now, I suppose I wasn't very smart either" - Mark drew a knife from Winthrop's gear belt - "I let you live. See, I believe in second chances, redemption, all that crap. All you had to do was walk away."

Winthrop's face turned a lovely shade of blue. Mark twisted the knife in his hands.

"Crushed windpipe. Now, I'm no medic, but I think you need a tracheotomy."

Winthrop nodded frantically. Mark frowned, then flipped the knife and rammed it into the floor next to Winthrop.

"Good luck with that," he said, then gathered up Winthrop's pistol and walked away.


Up on the roof, Sharon sprinted for the roof access of the stairwell, her heart oscillating like a hummingbird on crack. Her steps were more confident here - who had de-iced the roof, anyway? -, and she came to a semi-sliding stop in front of the door.

Another keypad. Great.

The gunshots started before she could even touch the pad; she whirled around into a crouch and let loose, covering her low crawl toward a ceiling vent that offered - well, not exactly cover, but some concealment. She took a few deep breaths, then popped up again. In her mind, everything was crystal-clean: four baddies, two in the open, one just climbing the edge of the fire escape, the other unseen but somewhere...she let fly, a furious barrage from both barrels. The Berettas barked, their heavy size and single-action triggers making it much easier to keep them on target. She saw the climber stumble down the fire escape, and it took her a moment to understand that she'd hit him; her pattern slowly zeroed in on the two goons in the open. They returned fire instead of seeking cover; she felt bullets rush past her, but no matter what it was that let her do the shooting, it made her good enough to win this fight. The two goons dropped, their bodies pockmarked with little clouds of red mist while the slides on her guns locked back. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw the last thug approaching from the side. She whirled around and tried to get a shot off from her empty pistols.

It's an illusion, she told herself. I've got a round left. One shot...

Two Guns.

One shot.

I've still got one shot...


It went out but she didn't feel it, she shot him but didn't pull the trigger, but she must have shot him, because she was alive and he was dead, and there'd been a shot, one shot, that one shot...

That's when she saw a figure on the next roof - Vincent Ratioli. She recognised him from the drug bust two days ago; he held a Dragunov sniper rifle and grinned like a madman.

Behind her, the stairwell door flew open, releasing Mark into the cold. He swept the surroundings with the .22, shouting something that Sharon didn't hear.

Her hand shook a little, but it wasn't fear.

I'm alive.

I'm alive.

No comments: