Herky Huffman/Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area
Deer Park, FL
If Joyce has spent the last half hour wandering in that occluded land between wakefulness and darkness, between a place of placid dreams and the urgent, scared whisperings of her reunited and broken family, the thick gasoline in her wounds kicks her back to reality with a particularly vicious boot.
Tears well in the corner of her eyes. She blinks them away and looks to Samson. “Yeah,” she says. “Do it.”
“God damn, you are the bitch that won’t quit,” her ex says, his voice breaking with relief.
“Mom.” It’s April. Kneeling by her side. Her daughter takes Joyce’s hand in her own, carefully, trying not to disturb the bullets in her shoulders. “Are you sure?”
Joyce nods. “Gotta stop the bleeding. Gotta be able to move.” She tilts her head towards the grove of trees that line the parking lot. Night sounds come from the woods. Predators and prey, each singing their songs.
“Get me a stick,” she says. “Something to bite down on.”
April returns a minute later with a solid piece of pine branch, three quarters of an inch thick. She crouches, and places it in her mother’s mouth.
“You ready for this?” Samson asks.
Joyce bites down. The stick tastes of swamp-water.
Samson flicks the lighter and brings it down, searing her shut.
The pain is haunting. Exquisite. Joyce feels the world dim at the edges, feels everything sliding into gray. She fights through it. Focuses on the wide green eyes of her daughter. The fear and affection she can see in them. Focuses on the sound of wings in the trees and the far-off rippling in stagnant water. The whispers of tearing beaks and the snapping of primordial jaws. She pulls herself back, and when the pain finally dips, she realizes she has bitten through the stick completely.
They help her to her feet. Souterrain’s bullet has shattered her left shin, so she can only move while leaning on one of them, but the shoulder wounds are manageable. Not for most people, but for her. Her bones grind on each other as they move, and a couple of times she wants to scream, but chokes it back. She’s been through worse, in Kampala, Kandahar, in all those other places too bare and desolate to even have a name on the map.
“Help is coming,” Samson says. “I called Barry first. Figured he owes us, but he’s… something’s up. Don’t know what. He might be further up the creek than us, even.”
“Doubtful,” Joyce says. “So, who is it?”
They arrive at a small sitting area at the edge of the lot, a wooden bench with pentagrams and ‘HAIL SATAN’ and ‘69 TIL I DIE’ and ‘SLAYER’ and ‘JUGGALO JUICE GOT ME CRAZY’ scratched into the grimy surface. A steel drum trash can sits next to it – McDonald’s bags and a pair of wet hiking boots spilling out the top. It smells terrible.
“Don’t be mad,” Samson says. “It was that guy I told you about. From years back. The guy who got into all that trouble down in Haiti? Flint.”
Joyce’s eyes flash. “Ingersoll?”
It’s Samson’s turn to be surprised. “How did you know that?”
“I killed two of his men today. Watched him and some white witch kidnap an heiress out of a motel room. They’re trying to kill Barry and steal his heroin.” She rubs her hands together.
“Give me a gun. I don’t think they’re going to be happy to see me.”
The sounds of the night stop, and somewhere, from behind the trees that surround them, a wicked rumbling rattles forth. Joyce feels her mouth go dry. Feels the pain in her shoulders begin to whisper again.
“You say he owes you?”
Samson pauses. Remembers the jungle. The tree, bodies, stripped of both clothes and meat, strips of skin hanging like gruesome confetti. The group that descended on them as he and Flint and the rest of their company had stood, awestruck and terrified by it.
“Not quite. We’re bonded in… other ways”.
Headlights appear at the end of the parking lot, behind the helicopter, swarming towards the bench.
“Mom,” April says. “They’re going to help. And if they don’t, I’ll kill them myself.”
Joyce grins. Fuck, it feels good. “I know you will. Rip out their god damn throats.”
The phalanx of bikes stops in a line. Flint climbs off and approaches Samson, a tall, bone-white woman on his heels. Her black hair blows in the still night, the ends of it matching the darkness and somehow becoming part of it. When she smiles, her eyes light up yellow, like long dead starlight.
“Samson, I ain’t expected to see you alive again.”
They stand away from each other, six feet, too close for either to make a sudden move with a knife or a fist.
“She needs help, Flint.”
Flint looks at Joyce. “That little lady doesn’t need help,” he says. “Bitch might need stitches, but she ain’t need help.”
The woman has approached Joyce as the men talk, and she realizes only after the woman has approached that she has shifted closer to April, a maternal instinct. The woman smells like ash and blood, of ancient dirt and dried marrow. She bends and meets Joyce’s eyes, and in their pale coldness, Joyce can see murky death and base cruelty, can almost hear chanting in some long-forgotten language.
An alligator growls from the undergrowth. The three women look and watch as it opens its jaws and hisses.
The woman rises, then returns to Flint. “Whatever you can do, you should do,” she says, her accent quiet under the sound of idling engines. “This woman is a mistress of death, just like me.”
More headlights sweep into the lot then, two black SUVs and a long, armored limo. They come to a stop thirty feet from the bikes. Doors open, and men get out. Barry Paradise. A thin short Asian man, and the driver, holding an AR, get out of the limousine. Dervishi and eight Albanian goons climb out of the SUVs, everyone but the old man armed with long guns, sidearms, and blades.
“This is quite the meeting we have here,” Dervishi yells in greeting. “A collection of killers, thieves and snakes. We’re going to hash things out now, ensure that Mr. Xu is made whole and his concerns are dealt with, and then I, well, I’m taking the woman, and I’m going to eviscerate her.”
Joyce sees Flint and the Witch-bitch trade looks, then Flint turns to Samson. “You ready to go?”
“Fuck it,” Samson says. “Dead in a swamp is better than dead in a desert, right Joyce?”
Joyce rises and pulls April behind the bench, taking the gun from her daughter’s hand. “I just wanted to bury my piece of shit dad,” she says.
The alligator hisses.
Gunfire cracks the night.
Herky Huffman/Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area
Deer Park, FL
Joyce is the first to fire. She is woozy and barely conscious. Her eyelids feel heavy, but she fires the .38, shooting Ingersoll in the cheek. But she’s so out of it she’s not even seeing Ingersoll, she’s seeing a gunrunner who tried to rape her once, in Karachi. Of course, he’s dead, dead by Joyce’s own hand, but she doesn’t remember that in her current state. Before Ingersoll is even on the ground, everyone reaches for their weapons.
“Goddammit, Joyce!” Samson says.
Dervishi pulls his Glock and fires at Joyce, missing and hitting Samson in the shoulder. Samson groans in pain. He looks at April and says, “Protect your mom! Get her into the brush!” As Samson reaches for Joyce’s .38, Dervishi fires again, but Barry Paradise knock the gun away and the shot goes wild. Barry is on Dervishi at once, trying to get the gun.
Samson has the .38 raised to shoot Dervishi, but his view is blocked by one of his bodyguards. Samson pops off two shots in quick succession, knocking down each of the two men. He swivels the gun towards Dervishi, who is on top of Barry, and puts a round through his eye.
The Albanians and the bikers have now turned on each other, exchanging volleys, and bodies are dropping right and left.
“Fuck you!” screams Odin Lee, Flint’s Sergeant-at-Arms, charging at an Albanian with a hatchet raised above his head. Before the biker gets close, he’s brought down by a gunshot to the temple.
April is straining to drag her mother into the brush, and Samson is standing in front of them with the pistol up. No one is paying any attention to them now. They are almost to the brush when a giant white trailer truck appears behind them. The side of the truck reads WILD CAT KINGDOM, HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA. The truck stops and everyone stops shooting to see what is going on. April even stops dragging Joyce.
The Witch steps forward a few feet, now alone in the middle of the clearing. Her arms are raised outward and she’s looking up to the sky, holding a book of skin in her hands.
“The devil wills it!” she screams.
Troy climbs out of the truck and goes to its rear, unfastening the lock. The Witch, her face still up towards the heavens, cries madly, “Tigers!”
Troy swings the trailer doors open and tigers start jumping out one after the other, and they’re running toward the bikers and the Albanians.
Samson turns and grabs Joyce’s arm, helping his daughter drag her deeper into the brush.
There are a dozen or so tigers, all in attack mode – and at least a dozen guns are being fired at them. Mrs. Q and Troy stand beside the trailer, watching and laughing.
A stray bullet hits the limo’s gas tank, and the car explodes, catching a couple of the Albanians on fire. The tigers are on them in an instant, and there is a flaming tiger mauling a flaming Albanian. One of the tigers encounters an alligator and the two creatures square off. Within seconds, the alligator has its teeth clamped around the tiger’s throat. Xu tries to run but gets flanked by two tigers, who kill him and then engage in a fight to the death over his fresh meat.
The Witch is still standing in the middle of all this carnage. She lowers her head to read from the sinister looking book of skin in her hands. She reads a passage aloud in a language no one else understands. “Domo-chi-ha-nu-aht-cha-rang!” Almost as soon as the words leave her mouth, a tiger leaps at her, open-mouth first, destroying her face.
Samson looks down at Joyce and grabs her hand. “I’ve always loved you, kid. Don’t die on me now.” Joyce is unconscious and doesn’t hear a word Samson says. April, crouched across from him on the other side of Joyce, holding her other hand, sees the tears in Samson’s eyes. “I don’t understand,” she says. “If you loved her—”
The moment is broken when a crawling Barry Paradise emerges from the brush behind them. Samson raises the .38 and sticks it in Barry’s face. He squeezes the trigger but the pistol clicks empty. Barry’s eyes are big and he says, “Hey, hey, hold it there, kemo sabe! I came to help!”
Samson stares at him. “Why should we believe you now? You know I can kill you with my bare hands. Especially now that you went and got fat in your old age.”
Barry nods towards Joyce. “Let me help her.”
“What? You got a needle and thread on you?”
“No,” Barry says. “But I know somewhere nearby we can go. Besides, you’re gonna need me. Joyce and I have got the same blood type, Samson, and she’s lost a lot of fucking blood.”
Mrs. Q and Troy are standing beside the trailer, smoking Pall Malls and watching the tigers kill everyone.
“Fucking Flint shouldn’t have tried to double-cross me,” Mrs. Q says.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t say something when you found out he was ripping you off six months ago,” Troy says.
Mrs. Q looks at him and grins a big brown-toothed smile. “Revenge is a dish best served cold, Troy, my boy.”
“You know what I think? I think you’re just pissed because he took Annalisa away from you.”
She shrugs. “Why can’t it be both things? Does it really have to be just one?”
“But what about all these other fuckers?” Troy says. “They didn’t do shit. Why make all of them pay for Troy’s mistakes?”
Mrs. Q cackles. “They’re all guilty by association. If they wanna hang out with scum like Flint, they can all die beside him.”
Troy is standing there, staring at her, trying to figure it all out, when Samson’s hand with the X-Acto knife reaches around and slices his throat. Mrs. Q turns just in time to catch a left hook from Barry in the jaw. When she topples to the ground, Barry stomps on her face, burying the heel of his boot in her skull.
A moment later, Samson, Barry, April, and an unconscious Joyce are all inside the cab of the vehicle. Barry is behind the wheel.
“Who are we going to see?” Samson asks. “This better not be some more of your bullshit.”
“Hey man, when has Barrington Paradiso ever let you down?”
Somewhere in Central Florida
April feels sorry for any detectives tasked with piecing together what happened in the swamp. Shot-up bikers and Albanians? Probably a typical Tuesday in most of Florida. But throw in the tigers? Alligators? A witch with her face chewed off?
Heck, come to think of it, that was also probably a typical Tuesday in Florida.
Barry screeches his way from dirt roads to highway and then down another exit onto gravel roads, deep into a streetlight-free neverwhere full of humming insects. After maybe twenty minutes, a glow appears through the trees ahead, resolving a few moments later into a cinderblock box of a building, windowless and sign-less.
Barry parks on the side of the building away from the road. “Get her out,” he says.
“Where the hell is this?” April asks, worry creeping into her voice.
But Samson is smiling. “I thought this place burned down.”
“You’d be wrong on that front, buddy-boy,” Barry says, kicking open his door. “Now move. Joyce could use a fresh pint or two of blood. And I could sure as hell use a drink.”
While Samson and April lift Joyce from the vehicle, Barry punches a seven-digit code into the small keypad beside the metal door, which pops open. He holds the door as the rest of the group enters, a motion sensor already activating the lights overhead.
“It’s called the Candy Store,” Samson tells April. “Anything a fine young criminal could ever want.”
“Wow,” April says, deadpan, but her eyebrows rise in a way that suggests she’s genuinely impressed. The fluorescent lighting plays over a metal table in the center of the room, bracketed with enormous drawers filled with medical gear and supplies. Plastic curtains shield off that medical area from the rest of the space, which looks like an upscale pimp’s weekend getaway: plush leather couches, giant televisions hooked to game machines, a full bar, and even a few vintage arcade machines that pop and hum to life.
Samson sets Joyce on the table and proceeds to tear open drawers, fishing out the medical supplies he needs. Barry rolls up a sleeve and makes a fist, ready to give as much blood as it takes, but Samson says: “No. Look over there.”
Barry follows Samson’s finger toward a glass-fronted fridge behind the table, where racks of blood in plastic bags await the veins of whatever criminal needs them. What a relief. Barry is willing to do whatever it takes to save Joyce, of course, but his blood might be a little questionable after however many decades of hard living.
“Who runs this place?” April asks.
“It’s commonly funded. Brokers, upscale fences, they pay a little bit of a tax, and these places are set up all over the country. Neutral ground, always open to whoever has the code.”
On the table, Joyce groans and cracks open her eyes. “How are we not dead?”
“God hates us too much,” Samson says, prepping a blood bag before pushing a needle under her skin. “He’s gonna make us live. Watch out, this is gonna be cold.”
“Oof,” Joyce rolls her head around until she spots April. “You doing alright, kid?”
April takes her mother’s hand. “You wouldn’t believe the shit you missed.”
Joyce snorts laughter, then winces. “Hell, I probably wouldn’t. Here’s the important thing: is everyone dead?”
“Probably,” Samson says. “I mean, if they weren’t shot, burned, stabbed, torn apart by a tiger or eaten by an alligator…”
“Then they’re a badass cockroach of a human, and we’re probably better off leaving them alone,” Barry says. He drifts from the medical zone to one of the leather couches, where he plops down and, grabbing a remote control, flicks on a television. Turns it to the news, which is beginning to chatter about mega-violence, no details.
Joyce, with April’s hand in her right, reaches and takes Samson’s hand in her left. She lies there, pale and sweating as her veins fill with strange blood, feeling the pulses of her daughter and babydaddy sync in time with hers. “You know what I’ve learned through the course of all this weird shit?”
“What’s that, mom?” April asks. “Always carry a backup piece?”
“What kind of cynical bastard am I raising?” Joyce shakes her head. “No, it’s that family matters. And only family. From now on, we stick together.”
The Manager’s Office @ The Paradise Parlour
Pompano Beach, FL
The taste of blood is beginning to pool in the back of Zygmund Dervishi Jr.’s mouth. It mixes with an unfamiliar texture – either bile or stomach acid – which burns his esophagus. The faintly metallic sensation overwhelms his senses and every ragged breath tortures his lungs.
It isn’t the first time he’s tasted his own blood; in the back of his mind he knows it is likely to be the last. He manages to pull his damaged body upright and leans against one of the thick wooden legs of the desk.
He had figured that this would be straightforward – find Barry Paradise, torture him, then kill him in the most gruesome way imaginable. And Junior had quite the imagination in that respect. He’d decided to bring two men along with him to help out – physical brutes who were as limited in their intellect as they were capable with their fists. Junior also knew both of them were as loose-lipped as washerwomen from the Old Country, and tales of Paradise’s painful, drawn-out demise would be circulated amongst the rest of the guards within a matter of days.
Maybe even his father would hear them? Maybe his father would be proud of him? Pride was an emotion he was only vaguely aware of. In fact, it is something Junior only ever really felt when exercising extreme violence. Oh, the things he had planned to do to that fool Paradise…
“Is there anyone else?”
The clean, precise English accent pierces Junior’s blood-soaked daydream. For a moment, he starts to open his mouth, intending to fire out a defiant retort – one last challenge to the unknown assailants. The words choke in his throat and he realizes the question was never intended for him.
“There’s one more.”
The response is softer, the lilting feminine tone belying the carnage that Junior has just witnessed.
“He’s behind the desk.”
There’s a hint of an accent. Fucking Chinese, Junior thinks.
“I hate it when you go off-script,” the Englishman adds, and then Junior hears the sound of footsteps in the cramped office environment.
“We were supposed to do this without drawing attention to ourselves. You know how much I hate taking jobs from a savage like Flint Ingersoll…”
Junior turns his head to the left and sees a tall figure sweep past him. The man turns his head for a moment and briefly appraises the hulking Albanian on the floor. Steel grey eyes stare through a pair of glasses and look him up and down, pausing only to take in the ornamental dagger embedded in Junior’s torso.
“Nasty,” he says without breaking stride.
Junior watches as the Englishman crouches in the far corner of the office, and proceeds to pull up the carpet with his bare hands. It’s at this point that Junior feels a second presence. He finds himself staring into a pair of dark brown eyes as the woman gazes at him, her head tilted to one side, determining how much of a threat Junior poses to her.
This is the first time he has actually seen her, even though she had discovered them in the office just after they arrived. She had been like a whirlwind of violence; punches and kicks tearing through Junior and his two cohorts in what seemed like the blink of an eye as she danced around the three tree trunks of men. There had been the glint of light reflecting from metal and the next thing Junior felt was a burning, searing sensation in his stomach. Looking down, he could see the thin red line across his shirt that was expanding rapidly, followed by the sight of the triangular shaped blade thudding into his chest with enough force to knock him from his feet. Though prone, he could just make out the sight of another blade flashing, before Ilic fell to the floor clutching his throat. He was followed by the sound of bones being broken, and Sunjic dropped to the floor – very much dead.
The dismissive look that flashes across her face fuels what remaining rage Junior has left in his dying body and he tries to snatch her skinny throat in one of his paw-like hands. At least I can kill her, he thinks to himself. Her speed is frightening – he barely even registers her movement as she catches his hand and twists his wrist in an impossible direction.
The sound of the bone breaking and the stifled scream from Junior’s mouth fills the room.
“Jesus! Really?” the Englishman counters, momentarily distracted from his task.
“I’m trying to concentrate here!”
The statement draws Junior’s attention to the corner once more; the Englishman is in the process of opening something that is embedded in the floor. There is the sound of locks finally acquiescing to the combination being entered, and a proclamation of success.
Junior’s head slumps down now, resting heavily on his chest. The last few breaths in his lungs are even more painful than before, as his respiratory system begins to fail. The Oriental woman grabs a tuft of his hair and lifts his head. He manages one last look at her elfin face, and takes two heavy intakes of breath, marshalling himself one final time.
“Kurva e ndyrë,” he spits at her, blood and spittle hitting her face.
Her expression remains impassive as she grips the handle of the blade embedded in his chest, twisting it viciously before tearing it free from his body. Wiping the bloodied blade on Junior’s shirt, she stands up as she looks across at the Englishman. He’s holding a medium-sized book that he has removed from the floor safe, a smile on his face.
“Human skin? Yes, it’s bound in it,” the Englishman says, with relish in his voice.
“That’s it? That’s what we’re here for? I thought we were after Xu’s black tar heroin?”
“Oh no – no, no, no! This is much more valuable than mere heroin. Flint Ingersoll tried to get it for his wife as a 50th birthday present, but Mr. Paradise outbid him in an auction on the dark web. I doubt he ever really realized what he’d actually acquired.”
He laughs – a strange mixture of elation and tingling nerves – as he studies the book.
“He seems to think it possesses some sort of spell…”
“Let’s go,” she cuts him off, “I need a shower.”
They leave the office as quietly as they entered, heading towards an unremarkable car parked to the rear of the building. The Englishman fires up the vehicle and puts it into drive.
“You know he called you a fucking bitch, right?”
Mr. Xu’s Armored Limousine
Driving North on I-95
Barry Paradise sees the out-of-state number flash on his phone and thinks it might be one of his girls. Some bullshit drama that can wait. Stripper dramas can always wait. He sighs, decides not to answer. Outside the armored limousine, the coastal lights blur past them. He doesn’t feel like he’s about to get eliminated, not yet. His years of experience tell him there is still a way out of this. Somewhere. Somehow. The smug look on Xu’s face – not smug…confident – tells Barry that he does not have the upper hand. Shit has gone sideways. More than it already had.
“You never did tell me,” he says.
“What’s that?” Xu doesn’t look at Barry when he responds.
“Where are we headed?”
“To meet a friend. I believe I said that.”
“Shit,” Barry says.
Barry’s phone buzzes again. He waves it at Xu. “You mind?”
Xu shakes his head once.
“Yeah, Barry Paradise.”
“Simon? It’s Garfunkel.”
The voice on the line is familiar. Too familiar. “The fuck?”
“You still living in the gutter down in Pompano Beach, brother?”
“Is that really you?”
“It’s me, pal – your old buddy, Samson. I’m still alive and kicking. Can you dig it?”
Barry looks at Xu from his peripheral vision. The fucker is eyeballing him. “Yeah. I can dig it, man. What you been up to?”
Samson’s voice cuts out, comes back again: “—put her down in Deer Park, according to GPS on my phone. Thing is, we’re in some shit. Joyce is losing blood and—”
“I said, we got into some shit. Joyce is bleeding out and we need you to patch her up. Or somebody to patch her up. I can take a car, but I need you to set me up with a backroom doc. Or come up yourself. You still in—”
Barry slowly swivels to face Xu who pins him with the pointed gaze of an assassin.
Xu says, “I expect your honesty, Barry.” He looks down at his own cell as it buzzes in his hand. He raises his eyebrows and lifts the phone to his right ear.
Barry says, “I’m into some bad shit myself, brother.” Beside him, Xu listens to a voice on his own cell, giving precise nods.
Samson grunts. “Anywhere we can go? Somebody you know?”
Barry says, “How the fuck did you get into this?”
“I don’t know, brother. I was doing my thing, soaking my brain in whiskey, when I got scooped up by Will Souterrain. Fucker drags my ass down here and next thing I know…Shit, he’s plugging Joyce and I … I took him out, brother. Eliminated his sorry ass.”
“I wish, brother. This is some sick shit. I’m neck deep in the gator pond right now and Joyce might bite the bullet. Thank God April put the chopper down okay.”
Barry clears his throat. He closes his eyes, tries taking a deep breath to calm himself. It doesn’t work. His day has gone from shit, to double shit, to triple shit and more. Getting Joyce into this was one thing. Hell, she got herself into it. By accident, maybe. But still. But bringing Samson into it – the guy who saved his life twice, in two different shitstorms? No – not an option. Even for the greasy skunk that Barry Paradise had become. He gulps and says, “I can’t help you.”
“I can’t help you. You got the wrong guy.”
He imagines Samson making some kind of judgment call on the other end of the line, trying to measure out whether this is legit.
“You’re busy,” Samson says. “I think I get it.”
“I think you do.”
“I’ll be seeing you.”
Barry ends the call. He swivels his head to look out the window.
Xu says, “Who was it, Barry?”
“Some shitbird got himself arrested. Wanted me to bail him out.”
“Do you moonlight as a bail bondsman?”
“No,” Barry says. “But I’ll lend cash at fifty percent interest.”
“I just got an update from Zygmund,” Xu says.
Barry doesn’t look at him. “Yeah – he still wants to toast my ass, right?”
“You should give him more credit.”
“Ha – that fuck? No thanks. You know, most of the organized crime around here… Shit, it’s not quite organized. I mean, it’s small time shit. If you really want to know. Just pure child shit, the way you guys run things. You got the look down – I’ll give you that. But the actual organization part of it… I mean, fuck me. I wish you all would get your shit together. We could knock the bikers out of this thing, get the Russians in their fucking place. And we could—”
“Was it Joyce, Barry?”
“Joyce? Fuck no.”
“A friend of hers, maybe?”
Barry shakes his head, still looking out the window.
“Funny,” Xu says. “It seems Joyce escaped. With the help of an assassin.”
Barry turns to look at Xu, but he comes face to face with the black eye of a nine millimeter handgun. It is pressed against the space between his eyes.
Xu says, “Is this organized enough for you, Barry Paradise?”
Herky Huffman/Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area
Deer Park, FL
“Who was that on the phone?” April asks, walking toward where Samson Bell had wandered out of ear shot.
“Wrong number,” he says, solemnly.
“But you said you had a friend—” April begins before Samson cut her off.
“I said it was a wrong number.”
“But you called them—” April argues.
“Let it go. I have to think.”
April huffs and spins on her heel to go back and check on her mother. She has her mom’s fire, Samson thinks.
Samson scratches at his grayed whiskers, trying to figure out his next move. Barrington Paradiso was a scumbag when he knew him; even more so after adopting the Barry Paradise moniker. But there was a bond, a fraternity of sorts, after what they saw in Kampala, Kandahar, Kaliningrad – all shitholes beginning with the letter ‘K’. Samson had pulled Barry’s ass out of the fire twice –that’s not a debt you walk away from. You could disagree, sure – hadn’t Joyce busted Barry’s nose once with a shotgun? But when you get the phone call, you put that shit aside, and you do whatever you can… if not for Joyce, then at least for him. If Barry says he can’t help, that’s only because Barry is worse off than they are at the moment.
“Good luck, brother,” Samson mutters to himself.
He looks back to where April is arguing with her mother, who is now sitting up in the helicopter despite the loss of blood. Joyce is a tough bitch… and even more beautiful now: blood-loss, extra wrinkles and all. He’d never admit it to her, but he never got over her. She was a scar from the good old violent days that just wouldn’t heal.
He joins the two women, mother and daughter, at the downed helicopter.
“Samson, you look like shit,” Joyce groans.
“Ditto, kid,” he retorts, hoping the swagger in his voice hides the worry in his heart.
“Don’t… don’t call me fucking kid,” she coughs.
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” pleads April. “You said you had an old friend who could patch Mom up. She’s lost so much blood…”
April has her mother’s sparkling green eyes. The black-and-white CCTV footage that Samson had seen in the years she grew up without him didn’t do them justice. Those pools of green are starting to glisten over as tears well up.
“Ah, c’mon, don’t start that shit on me,” says Samson, wiping away a tear from her cheek. “Your mom is the strongest lady I know. One hundred and ten percent bad-ass bitch. She’s going to pull through this.”
She has to pull through this, he thinks.
Samson Bell isn’t a romantic. More often than not, paranoia gets in the way of traditional human interactions. But in his way, he loved Joyce from afar – keeping tabs on her, on their daughter, staying close but never too close, watching over her through paid informants, through hidden camera footage, through an online trail that was faint, nearly imperceptible, unless you knew where to look and what to look for. He can’t watch her bleed to death in the middle of a wildlife refuge in fucking Florida, of all places.
“Hand me your mom’s phone,” orders Samson.
April does as she is told. Samson punches in random numbers, hoping the old networks aren’t as fucking dysfunctional as the old operators like him and Joyce.
“Disney Resorts, come experience the magic,” comes the chipper voice on the other end of the phone. “This is George speaking. How can I make your day more magical?”
“Shut the fuck up,” demands Samson. “Viv, I don’t know if you still have this line bugged, but we’re in a jam, and you owe us for Dario. We’re in Deer Park. Send help – you can track the signal to know where to go.”
Samson hangs up, hoping the message made it to where it needed to go.
“You called her?!” exclaims April. “What the actual fuck are you doing??”
“Getting the band back together,” grins Samson.
“We don’t have a lot of options right now, kid… err, April,” he says, quickly correcting himself. “Vivian may be the devil we know, but I’ll pick that over the hell I don’t know coming our way.”
“She’s fucking dead, Samson! If you hadn’t abandoned Mom and me during that shitstorm in Sierra Nevada, you would have known that!”
“Mom took Vivian out herself,” spits April, defiantly.
Samson’s grin falters. He is equal parts embarrassed over shitty intel, shamed for having snuck away, proud of Joy for taking out the Boss Bitch, proud of April for the steel rod in her spine, and what is that last feeling? Right, the feeling of being royally fucked.
“Okay, one more roll of the dice, sweetheart. This guy’s the real deal. An old Delta Force buddy. I fought beside this guy in Grenada, Beirut, Panama City…”
He removes a scrap of paper from his wallet and taps in the number.
“Flint? It’s good to hear your voice, brother … yeah, I know I owe you a crate of scotch and a new pool table … listen, man, I need a favor from you and your boys. A big, blood-soaked favor… you know Deer Park?”
Samson tucks the handset in his jacket pocket, hoping he just did the right thing. Flint and his boys are a fucking A-Bomb, and it is just as likely that no one will make it out of Deer Park alive… but this is their one shot.
“One hour, kid. We just need to hold out for one more hour.”
He examines the outside of the helicopter prop, looking for something.
“Hey, is there any fuel left in this bird?”
“Not enough to get it off the ground,” responds April.
“I don’t want to get it off the ground. I just need enough to start a really hot fire.”
He pops open a panel, and yanks a fuel line loose. He turns to Joyce, who us slipping in and out of consciousness.
“You’re not Mr. T…” she says, weakly.
“Babe, I’m sorry, but this is really going to fucking hurt.”
To be continued…
Mr. Xu’s Armored Limousine
US-1, outside Vero Beach, FL
In his formative years, Mr. Xu had been a sickly child. Skinny and frail, the boys in the neighborhood had found him an easy target. He survived those years by hiding in the shadows. The hapless quarry pursued in an endless chase. A boy who resigned himself to constant beatings, who regarded such physical and mental torture as a perverse act of fate.
Then everything changed. One grey winter’s morning, an old man stood in the hallway. A deep knowing shone in his eyes. A benevolent smile lighted his wizened face.
“This is your Grandfather,” Xu’s mother said. “He’s come to live with us, from the mainland.”
There was an instant bond. The old man taught his grandson many things. The value of his wisdom was tenfold. Yet, there were three major lessons that shaped Xu’s life. The first was how to read the lies in a man’s face; the second, no matter how strong and smart we appear from the outside we are all riddled with weakness; and the third, which in Xu’s mind had always been the most important, that the hunted became the hunter once he mastered and practiced the art of violence.
Xu constantly kept these in mind, more so when he spoke with men like Barry Paradise. A man, who for all his soft-talk and honeyed words, couldn’t disguise that flash of betrayal in his eyes every time he spoke.
Perhaps he’d been sharper in his day. Liars needed excellent memories. And age took few prisoners, especially when neglect kicked in and a man tried to reinvent himself.
Xu smooths his palm across the cool leather seat, closing his eyes momentarily. He’s listening to a CD of Hengyi’s Plum-Blossom in Three Movements; Paradise’s breath is loaded with irritation as the harmonious flute sounds wash over them.
Xu opens his eyes. “There’s no doubt these Outlaws are savages. All that grease and hair.” He steeples his long pale fingers and fixes Paradise with a stare. “Yet why now? And what triggered such a random act of violence?”
Paradise sucks the air in through his teeth. “They’re not the smartest bunch in town. They want to move in, push you out. I guess they ran out of patience.” He hesitates for a second. “I kind of liked Zhang, to be honest. One of your nephews, wasn’t he? It’s a shame he ended up like that.”
Xu releases a reflective sigh. “Yes. Family’s the most important thing. My grandfather taught me that. He was a brilliant man. Taught me lots of things. Taught me that respect is everything. A man is nothing if he loses face.”
Paradise leans forward. “Too right. That’s why I reckon we should gather your soldiers and captains, get on over to Wild Cat Kingdom and blast those greasy motherfuckers out of existence. I–”
Xu holds out his hand, forcing Paradise to fall silent. “What’s the rush? They’ll get what they deserve. As Sun Tzu once said, ‘I do not fear an army of lions, if they are led by a lamb.’”
Paradise rolls his eyes. “They’re tigers, actually. But I get what you’re saying. Let’s just sort it.”
Xu fixes him with a long stare. “Your impetuousness troubles me, Mr. Paradise. I wonder if there are other motives behind your impatience?”
Paradise shuffles in his seat, then folds his arms across his chest. “Those fuckers tried to kill me. It’s an act of war. And if we’re talking proverbs, then I don’t know shit about Sun-fucking-Tzu, but I’m with big John Wayne on this one and ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’.”
Xu shakes his head and sighs, opening his mouth to say something, then falling silent at the crescendo crash of cymbals of his ringtone. He answers with a dubious “yes?” frowns, then says, “Zygmund, now this is a surprise. To what do I owe the honor?”
Xu listens in silence, then raises his eyebrow. “Has he now? That’s interesting to know.” He shoots Paradise a vexed look. “In fact, it changes everything, although I’m sure you’re not telling me this from the goodness of your heart. What can I do to repay such kindness?”
Xu nods. “Yes, I’ve heard of her. I’ve captains in that vicinity. Good thinking your end. I’m sure we can get to her quicker than you can.”
Xu fixes Paradise with a stare as he hangs up.
Paradise casts him a dubious glance. “What the hell did Dervishi want?”
“To kill two birds with one stone.”
Paradise sighs. “There you go with those fucking proverbs again.”
Xu flashes him a knowing smile. “No more proverbs, Mr. Paradise. Straight talking from now on. It seems you and an old friend are about to be reunited.”
Above Central Florida
The three men sit in tense silence as the helicopter tilts towards the murky swampland. Troy had been sending regular updates via cell phone as he tailed the DeWitts in his Benz. It’s funny what you can make a Tiger-keeper do with a few hundred dollars and a bit of charm. The last update was the execution of the Dervishi girl – which complicates matters greatly.
The cell buzzes and a message appears. The man with the gun picks it up.
‘DEY R OUT SIDE DOLLYS – TROY X’
The helicopter glides over a couple of lakes, following the path of the US-192. After a couple of minutes, they see it. A battered beige Tercel parked outside an electric-blue glowing diner.
“Found you again, putain,” smirks Will Souterrain.
The helicopter approaches in a wide arc, and the Tercel accelerates away from the gravel lot.
Will Souterrain had always known exactly what to do to get what he wanted; as a kid he could bring on tears with a blink and burn his cheeks scarlet with shame, without feeling a goddamn thing. In high school, he was handsome and knew it. He targeted the weak, and manipulated them into doing his bidding. He saw his school friends as mere toys that he could play with and destroy once he was finished with them. Folks around Will began to vanish. But no one suspected him, why would they? He was smart, charming and had no motive. He had almost escaped detection, if not for The Underground. They took Will in and honed his talents. He had the power to negotiate and settle conflict without bloodshed, but when it was required, he killed brutally and unflinchingly. It was this skill set that helped him – alongside his old friend Zygmund Dervishi – escape his holding cell within three days.
One Week Earlier
Outskirts of Paradise, CA
Will looked at the barmaid at the Golden Flamingo Casino bar. She was around forty, a couple of pounds too heavy and had a face that was set into a permanent scowl. She seemed tanned but her face didn’t match her neck or hands. He inhaled, and then switched on the smile and walked on over. The name tag read ‘Lilith’.
“Ah chère, please can you help me?I’m looking for a gentleman.”
“Aren’t we all?” said Lilith, forcing a smile.
“Ah, it could be your lucky day then!” Charm came to Will as naturally as breathing.
Lilith looked down and blushed slightly.
“He’s called Noah, Noah Schmidt, you know him?” Will looked intensely into her eyes.
“I never heard of Noah, what’s he look like?”
“Older guy, crooked nose.”
Lilith slapped her yellowing fingers to her forehead. “Oh! Mr. Whiskey. He’s the guy who steals all the free drinks. We keep an eye on him. How do you know him?!”
“Let’s just say I’m an old friend” beamed Will.
“He loves the vintage slots, over there.” She pointed a talon towards a smoky neon corner.
“Merci, Lilith,” Will winked.
As he walked away his face turned into a grimace. Disgusting bitch, he thought. Will sauntered around the slot machines. He wondered why smoking had not already been banned in casinos. The thick stench of stale cigars and beer made him nauseous. He didn’t understand gambling, he saw it as a weakness of character.
Will found him hunched in a corner over a Native American-themed slot machine.
He looked up at Will, briefly, then carried on feeding a crumpled dollar bill into the machine.
“How did you find me, asshole?” he slurred.
“I just looked up the nearest bar,” laughed Will.
“I heard you’d been locked up… how’d you get out?”
“Well… Noah, is it? I have friends in very high places… and I smuggled in a razor blade, you wanna know how?” Will taunted.
“What do you want?” he asked wearily.
Will gently pressed the Desert Eagle into the small of his back.
“I want you to come with me, old-timer.”
Near Kissimmee, FL
Dervishi was not a stupid man. He knew that Will Souterrain owed him after helping him escape the facility. He also knew that Joyce DeWitt was a tough old bitch, and it would be insanity not to have a Plan B. He was angry about Katja, not because he grieved for his daughter, but because he saw it as an insult. DeWitt would pay. Tonight.
The helicopter lands bumpily in an abandoned parking lot, around the corner from Dolly’s, as Souterrain awaits further directions from Troy. He roughly pushes the handcuffed Noah Schmidt out. The old drunk crumples to the floor in a heap.
“Get up Noah! We’re going to have a family reunion!”
Noah Schmidt glares up at him from the gravel lot, eyes burning with fury.
Noah Schmidt is one of the many aliases of Samson Bell.
Father of April DeWitt. Ex-partner of Joyce DeWitt. Former member of The Underground. A very dangerous man.
Near Kissimmee, FL
“Mom, I’m exhausted. We need to take a break, find a motel, anything. Somewhere to crash for a few hours.”
“Give me time. That diner back there wasn’t safe – far too exposed. I’m looking for somewhere. But only for a few hours. Dervishi is coming for us – and he will never stop.”
Joyce notices something up ahead. It looks like a big wheel. She slows down, pulls into a parking lot. This place seems to be an abandoned theme park and the wheel is a giant, rusted Ferris Wheel. Behind it sits a half-rotted rollercoaster. They get out of the car and Joyce retrieves as many weapons as she can carry.
“We can sleep here for a few hours,” Joyce says.
“Over there, the Tunnel of Love. There will be seats big enough to sleep in.”
As they climb through a hole in the fence, they don’t see Troy drive past them in the Benz, headlights off. He stops half a mile down the road, sends a text to Will Souterrain, updating him of their location.
Souterrain replies, telling Troy to disable the car somehow – then get the hell out of there.
Troy approaches the car, wedges open the hood with a crowbar from his trunk, cuts every single wire he can see. Then he unhooks the battery terminal, slowly lowers the hood back down and leaves.
Joyce hears the helicopter blades, but she is so exhausted she can’t focus. The chopper gets louder. April climbs out of the boat she has been sleeping in.
“Mom, mom! Someone’s here!”
Joyce gets up and April follows. The helicopter has landed in the parking lot, opposite their car.
They run to the car, but it won’t start.
In the darkness, it’s difficult to see, but Souterrain appears to be dragging someone behind him. He opens fire, spider-webbing the window of the old Tercel.
The women get down low in the front seat.
“Hang on baby,” Joyce says, and opens the driver-side door and returns fire. She leans out further, to get a better angle, and catches a bullet in the shoulder from Souterrain.
“Stay down, Joyce. It’s over.”
Closer now, he fires another round and hits her in the other shoulder and she drops to the ground losing her weapon. His next bullet hits her in the left leg.
She lies exhausted, in the gravel. An abandoned theme park? Is this it? After surviving Kampala, Kandahar and Kaliningrad, is this where she finally checks out? Fucking Kissimmee?
Souterrain hoists the old man up by his collar for the two women to see.
“Look who I have here, Joyce. Samson! You might not remember this drunken run-down old man, April, but he’s your father! At least you inherited your mother’s genes!”
April steps towards the shabby form of her father.
Samson focuses on his daughter, for the first time in a long time.
Souterrain laughs nastily, gun still trained on Joyce’s prone body.
He doesn’t see Samson remove a boxcutter from his back pocket. The old man seems to turn back time as he turns swiftly, shrugs off Souterrain and slices him open with the blade – from his right ear, down the middle of his face. He is blinded and Samson frenziedly stabs the knife into his neck, his arm, his eyeball.
April steps forward and shoots Souterrain in the stomach twice. Pop. Pop.
Samson disentangles himself from Souterrain and helps Joyce to her feet.
“Let’s get out of here, ladies.”
The pilot is leaning against the chopper, smoking a cigarette.
April runs full tilt towards him, takes him out with two shots to the head.
Samson heaves Joyce into the back of the helicopter and climbs in after her.
“You can fly this thing, kid?”
“Fucking A, I can.”
Samson nods and she starts the chopper.
“Samson, will Mom be okay?”
“She’s losing a lot of blood, but me and your mom have been in worse scrapes than this and survived. An old friend I know should be able to patch her up.”
He smiles grimly, evaluating Barry Paradise’s dubious needlework skills. The guy is more used to getting strippers hooked on smack than sewing up combat wounds these days.
April slowly pulls the joystick back and the helicopter takes off. She turns the chopper around and sees the blood-soaked figure of Souterrain in the parking lot – rifle pointed up at them.
A trembling Samson leans out of the helicopter, with Joyce’s rifle. The bullet hits him square in the chest.
The chopper shoots up into the night sky and heads back towards the coast, as she follows the reborn Samson’s hazy directions towards the coast.
After ten minutes the helicopter starts to shake and rumble. The more April tries to control it, the more it shudders.
“What the fuck?”
To be continued…
Ronald Reagan Turnpike
Near Sweetwater, FL
Troy’s monkey-shit brown Hyundai smells of stale fast food.
20 minutes into their escape, a gas tank light flashes an intermittent red E.
“We need gas,” Katja says.
April grunts. “Give me directions. Where’s the nearest station?”
“Ahead, four, five miles.”
They are running in the dark, lights off, the road barely visible in front of them. They knew the helicopter had landed, and so far, it wasn’t visible. Maybe it hasn’t taken off again? They check the rear view and side mirrors: no vehicle behind, no lights in the air. April is counting on getting farther away, putting enough distance between their vehicle and any pursuit, so that they can get lost, camouflaged in traffic. She runs the engine as hard as possible, but it’s a Hyundai. It acts as if anything above 55 would cause it to shake apart. They can see the overhead sign atop a pole declare GAS in bright illuminated letters.
“Is there a highway, a well-traveled road nearby?”
Katja shrugs. “Maybe?” Katja had never paid attention, had never really driven anywhere on her own. Her father’s men had usually driven her for ‘reasons of safety.’ Safety from what, she was beginning to learn.
“First, we get gas,” April pulls into the station, “then we get lost.”
The pumps are a no name brand, self-serve. “Check the glove compartment for some money, anything. I don’t want to gas and dash. Best not to get the cops on us too.”
With a flourish deserving of a magic trick, Katja reaches into her pocket and pulls out a shiny black credit card. “Don’t go anywhere without it,” she smiles.
A search of the glove compartment yields an X-Acto knife, a small caliber .22 five shot knock off, a box of bullets, and a few crumpled bills. There’s some loose change in the middle armrest compartment, along with a pair of binoculars. Troy’s measly treasures.
“Useful?” Katja asks, handling the gun.
April laughs. “If we were planning on shooting rats down at the city dump, maybe.”
“There’s also this,” Katja says, suddenly serious. She tosses the small box over. “Ribbed for your pleasure,” she grins.
“Troy is one considerate man, first his car, now this.”
Opening the box, April notices half the condoms gone. “Troy’s a player.”
Both girls say, “Mrs Q!” and start laughing.
In the store, April tosses Gatorade, granola bars, beef jerky, chocolate, three burner phones, a handful of $25.00 prepaid phone cards, and a three-fold state map on the counter.
“Road trip?” the sleepy-eyed clerk asks.
“You bet,” says Katja.
They add a pair of cheap sunglasses, two t-shirts – one that brightly yelled – “These Colors Don’t Run”, and the other – “Keep on Truckin’, Mama.” They also grab two long sleeve zippered sweatshirts and some flavored lip gloss. It’s a large pile. April throws on two empty two-gallon plastic gas containers.
“Planning on doing some grass cutting?” the somewhat less sleepy-eyed clerk asks. “Sure am,” Katja says, plunking down the card. “After the road trip.”
The card goes through.
They fill the car and the gas cans, which they place in the trunk. Then they set off, following the attendant’s directions to the main road.
Just as the Hyundai departs, the now wide-awake clerk receives a phone call.
“What? Who? Is there something wrong with the card, I mean my butt is on the line here… okay, so the card’s good. Yeah, two of them, they just left here, I think they’re headed to the highway…”
The entrance ramp looms directly ahead. The girls begin their access and head a whirring sound somewhere above. Twisting their heads, they can see the helicopter’s running lights. A searchlight jerks around, unsteady, highlighting the sides of the road. April stands on the accelerator. Suddenly, in the rear view, April sees the flash of two distinct sets of elevated headlights, two oversized SUVs, she guesses. Those vehicles barrel forward. The Hyundai’s straining engine drowns out the whirring. There are too many cars up ahead. They’ll have to merge into heavy traffic on the highway.
One of the large SUVs bangs the Hyundai’s bumper. The lane beside them has a small space, but a Chevy truck, approaches quickly in that lane, trying to prevent them from merging. April swears, and with a swerve, fills the space, forcing the Chevy over. The ball-cap wearing driver gestures wildly and shouts. Shots begin to rain down from the helicopter, pinging wildly through traffic, kicking up solid chunks of roadway concrete. The Hyundai lurches further, losing itself in the traffic. April watches behind as a vehicle spins out, hits another, which hits another. Soon there are distant flames. The helicopter moves away from the chaos and up into the darkness.
“Do you think,” Katja says, “that they think…?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know what to think.” April pauses, “Strip open one of those phones. It’s time to call Joyce.”
Ronald Reagan Turnpike
Outside Sweetwater, FL
Sarah knows the way to the Tiger Lady’s place.
“I used to fuck a guy who works for her,” she tells Joyce.
It shouldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes to get out there from here, but some kind of fiery pile-up has traffic stopped going in the opposite direction, and the rubberneckers and emergency vehicles mean their side is just creeping along, too.
The sun presses down into the blacktop and the Tercel’s A/C was shot. Sarah digs a car wash flyer out of the pocket in her door and fans herself. Joyce is used to the heat.
“I saw a TV show about a guy who kept tigers once,” says Joyce. “He was a nut job.”
“I only met Mrs. Q once. That’s what they call her, Mrs. Q.”
“Is there a Mr. Q?” asks Joyce.
“Not that I know of. Troy, that’s the guy I knew, he told me she’s mostly into women, but will basically fuck anything when she gets in the mood. She likes to watch, too. Gave me $500 to let her sit in a chair in the corner of her own bedroom while Troy fucked me on her bed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know anything else about her? If she’s hooked up with The Outlaws she’s not stupid, and she’s not sweet. What about security? Were there guards? Cameras?”
“Not that I remember,” Sarah says. “Oh, well, I didn’t see it, but Troy said there was a dungeon under the house.”
“I know. It sounds like a joke. I assumed he meant a basement, maybe with S&M shit. Troy was always trying to make himself sound like a badass. He kept this shitty little pistol in his glovebox. Liked to call it his ‘cannon.’”
Joyce considers this. If The Outlaws used Mrs. Q’s place as a hideout, they might also use it to store things, like cash or drugs. And people, like Annalisa. Before she disappeared, the rich girl was crying about Satanism and chainsaws, and Joyce knows that Flint Ingersoll’s old lady fancied herself a witch.
“You think Annalisa knew where Barry was keeping that heroin?”
“That’s my understanding,” says Sarah. “I have no idea what she saw in him.”
Traffic starts moving. Joyce is looking out the window, but Sarah can’t see her eyes behind her dark glasses. Who is this woman? Had she gotten lucky, hooking up with her? What chance did she have of getting that heroin on her own? And what chance did she have to get Helen back if she didn’t have the money to get an apartment so she could show the judge she had a steady place to live? Was this hard woman in her passenger seat her ticket home? Or a ticket to some fresh hell?
“He must have had her thinking she was some kind of queenpin,” Sarah says finally, musing. “Girls like that, all the money in the world, but no power. No control. It’s all daddy’s purse strings, daddy’s shadow. She thinks she’s running wild, but she’s just reacting. I bet she’s never had anything she could really call her own. Anything she earned. I bet she does know where it is.”
“And she doesn’t strike me as a person who will hold up under the kind of questioning The Outlaws are likely to engage in.”
“Especially in a dungeon.”
“Especially in a dungeon,” Joyce agrees.
There’s a sandwich shop at the turn-off to the tiger sanctuary and Sarah pulls in.
“I need to pee,” she says.
“Keep going,” says Joyce.
“I’ll just be a minute.”
Joyce pulls out her gun.
“That your daughter there?” says Joyce, motioning to the photo of Helen.
“What’s her name?”
“Please don’t hurt me.”
“I’ve got a daughter, too. Her name is April. She’s 20-years-old and she was kidnapped this morning. If I don’t come up with one-million dollars by tomorrow, the men who have her will start cutting off her body parts.”
“I don’t have time to fuck around. I don’t have time to worry about whether the cashier in there is on Flint Ingersoll’s payroll and has our description and is going to call Flint and tell him where we’re headed. I need to get to this tiger lady and see what I’m dealing with and I need to do it now. Clear?”
“Good.” Joyce lowers her gun. “Now drive. You can pee behind the car when we get there.”
Ronald Reagan Turnpike
April grips the steering wheel with her left hand while punching her mother’s number into the cell with her right. The call goes right to voicemail.
“Damn, God damn, shit,” she curses. She hits redial, getting the same result. She hands the phone to Katja. “Keep redialing. If someone answers, give me the phone – fast.”
Katja does as she is told.
Joyce and Sarah near the entrance of the tiger sanctuary, classic rock still blaring from the radio. Ted Fucking Nugent, ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. Joyce chuckles at the irony. When the song ends, she hears a faint buzzing from her backpack. Her phone, she realizes. The number isn’t one she recognizes. There were 17 missed calls from it – someone obviously trying to reach her. The phone buzzes again. She answers.
There’s a moment’s hesitation.
“Mom? Mom? It’s me.”
“April? Where the fuck are you?”
“I… We escaped.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Katja, Dervishi’s daughter. We’re on the freeway, on our way out of Homestead.”
“Jesus Christ, that’s where we are.”
“Mom, who is ‘we’?”
“Never mind. Are you going north or south? “
“Good, stay on the phone.”
April hears her mother tell someone to turn the fuck around.
“Drive until you get to an exit,” her mother tells her.
“What the hell are you doing,” Sarah screams.
Joyce points the pistol at her.
“Pull over,” she orders.
Sarah does as she is told and Joyce collects her .38.
“Get out,” Joyce orders.
Sarah starts to argue as she exits the car. They are on a rural road; kudzu grows thick on both sides.
Joyce gets out of the passenger seat.
“What about the money?” Sarah asks.
“Don’t need it anymore. My daughter escaped. That means I don’t need you anymore either.”
Without hesitation, without caring that she is about to make a little girl an orphan, she shoots Sarah in the face. Quickly, she rolls the body into the roadside brush and drives away.
“Mom,” April screams. “Are you okay? Who’s shooting?”
“It’s okay,” Joyce says. “Where are you?”
“Coming up on exit 34.”
The day has turned to nothing more than a red smear in the west. Night is coming on fast. Darkness is their friend.
Checking the GPS on her phone, Joyce sees that April is only 20 miles away. If she makes a right off the freeway, the road will dead end at a canal. Perfect, she thinks.
“Take the exit and go right. I’m 15 minutes behind you. Slow down when you get on the secondary road. And stay on the phone.”
Joyce stabs the accelerator. Traffic is light, she stays in the slow lane doing just under 85.
Damn, she thinks. Could it be this easy? Meet April in a few minutes and be on their way? But to where? She’s tired of running and doesn’t know where to go next, doesn’t know who can help her at this point. But, the thought of having April with her gives her hope. She realizes none of what she had done in her past was a game. Even though her enemies played ruthlessly – and for keeps.
All she wanted was to retire, stare at a lake, read good books and sip good bourbon in the afternoon. She had that life – briefly – but now it seemed so long ago.
Her thoughts are interrupted.
“Mom, we took the exit.”
Joyce sees a sign saying that she is two miles from the exit.
“I’m right behind you. Drive to the end of the road.”
April continues down the back road, the Hyundai’s headlights illuminating nothing but darkness. Minutes later she sees lights behind her.
“Mom, is that you?”
“Yep, I see your taillights.”
Joyce pulls up behind the Hyundai, turning off the headlights. She grabs a roll of duct tape from her pack.
“Get what you need from the car,” Joyce says.
She helps the girls load their gear into the back seat.
Then, she tapes the gas pedal to the floorboard, reaches through the window, shifts into drive. The Hyundai bucks forward, gets airborne as it breeches the lip of the canal. There is a loud splash and as the car sinks, the only trace is a dim glow from the headlights.
Joyce then points a pistol at Katja. Hands the roll of tape to April.
“Tape her wrists, ankles and mouth.
“Just do it,” Joyce orders.
Only when Katja is bound and stashed in the back seat do Joyce and April hug.
“Everything will be okay,” Joyce tells her. But the words sound hollow, both knowing they may not be the truth.
They return to the freeway and continue north.
“Let me use that phone,” Joyce says to April. “Smart move, using a phone that can’t be traced.”
She dials a number. A man answers on the second ring.
“Hello, Zygmund,” Joyce says. “The tables are turned. I have Katja. If you want to forgive that debt that has nothing to do with me, you can have her back – and you must promise there will be no retribution.”
There is a moment’s hesitation. Then laughter.
“I will hunt you and your daughter down. And your death will be brutal.”
“Yeah?” Joyce says. “I’m tired of this shit. It works both ways, Zygmund. You of all people should know that.”
She grabs the pistol, turns and empties it into his daughter.
“Come for me and you will die the same way.”
She ends the call and drives on through the night.
To be continued…
Near Vero Beach, FL
Flint Ingersoll rides nowhere without his Witch; that’s what the rest of the gang called the woman now perched behind Flint on the back of his Harley. She is 5 feet of wiry muscle, black hair, black boots and blue eyes deeper and colder than starlight. Flint’s Sergeant-at-Arms, Odin Lee, glares at the back of her head and, as though she had heard his thoughts at 70 miles per hour down a Florida highway, she turns and looks straight at him.
Flint makes the motion that they are to pull over to the side of the road. The sun is deep in the sky, a ball of fire that had burned all breath out of the air. Odin pulls his bike to a stop. Pale dust lingers in the light as the other five bikes draw up on the highway side. There is silence. The sudden absence of the bicycles’ bestial growl makes Flint’s ears buzz. He turns to the Witch and says, “You tell these boys what the bones said this morning, darling.”
“They only one bone she interested in,” Odin says, lighting a cigarette.
“Hey, shut the fuck up,” Flint snarls. “This little thing has brought us nothing but good luck, and don’t you forget that not one of you. She was the one cast the spell that made Wild Anthony get et up by Gators. She was the one put a curse on that Cuban feller, what was his name now?”
A thin man pipes up from the back of a blue Harley. “I recollect that man’s name was Arturo, boss.”
“That’s goddamn right, Arturo, and you know what happened to that greasy summbitch after he ripped us off cold for a half a mil?”
There is silence. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air as the bikers look from one to another, eyes hidden behind aviator shades or dime store knock-offs.
“Ain’t none of you know? Honey, tell these shitheads what the dark Lord done unto Arturo.”
She speaks with an English accent that is hard and cold as marble. “He burst into flames.”
“Into motherfucking flames,” Flint says.
Odin coughs, the necklace of gator teeth he wears rattling against his chest. “So, uh, boss, what has all this got to do with Barry?’”
Flint turns to The Witch and says, “Well, tell my boys what the bones said, girl!”
“Barry is cavorting in a sexual congress with Annalisa.”
“Shit,” one of the boys says.
“It gets better,” Flint says, “tell ’em about the Chinese.”
“His path is obscure, but through the ancient divinatory power of the Runes the great beast has told me that Barry is laundering money for the Chinese.”
“That fucker Zhang,” Odin says. “Remember when he sold us that cheap molly at Chinese New Year and we all to a man had the goddamn shits for a week?”
The gang shifts uncomfortably on the leather seats of their vehicles and nod.
Flint continues: “So here is the plan, fellers. We roll up here, where Barry is currently poking my dear sweet darling Annalisa, we gonn’ beat the piss out of ’em, then we’re taking what’s left of ’em up to Wild Cat Kingdom to feed ’em to the fucking tigers.”
“The devil wills it!” The Witch screams. Flint kicks his bike into action and they were back on the road, a screech of tires, yelling and dust rising into air as thick and dark as blood.
Joyce listens to the bikes approaching and turns to Zhang.
“You, that window over there. Sarah, you watch Barry Limp-dick. He moves, you drop him like the Lord dropped the Hindenburg.”
“You, cash money, get some pants, get out of the shithouse and get to the door; greet these hairy fuckers, yeah?”
Annalisa starts crying, “It’s The Outlaws, and you have no chance, honey. They have Satanic orgies and chainsaw assassins and I once heard they fed a man his own dick and…”
“Shut the fuck up!” Zhang and Joyce shout at the same time.
The bikes fall quiet and the silence is like the silence of the jungle before death comes running at you from the darkness. Then there’s a knock on the door, a timorous, almost gentle, knock.
“Annalisa, honey, I know you’re in there and I’m going to give you the chance to open the door and come to me before….”
“Flint!” She screams suddenly, still half-naked, “there is a heap of ’em and…”
Joyce strikes out and knocks her to the floor as the door bursts open and two of The Outlaws kick their way inside. They hold sawn-off shotguns and fire wildly. A blast catches Zhang square in the face as Joyce, stone cold, methodically takes out both bikers with precisely aimed double taps. She hears her father’s voice quietly in her ear, the amount of times he had told her, “breathe deep and squeeze that damn trigger, girl, don’t pull on it like a door handle!”
The smoke clears. The air stinks of blood, filth and gunpowder. Joyce looks over at Sarah, “Report!” she barks. Then, remembering where she is, she adds, “are you OK?”
“They took her,” she says. “Some girl like a ghost, she came in here quick as a cat’s claw and took her.”
“Shit,” Joyce says, “then they took my million dollars.”
Barry gestures to Zhang, “he told me one time The Outlaws hide out at that Tiger place out near Homestead when they want to lay low; they know the chick running it or something.”
Joyce glances at her watch. “Then let’s get to it.”
Wild Cat Kingdom
The two girls approaching the compound catch Troy’s attention right away. Who the hell are they? The helicopter behind them is weird too. Working next door to Mr. Dervishi has always been an adventure, but this is different – definitely not the way Mr. Dervishi usually handled things.
He’d usually call in advance, speaking politely with that weird hiss of a voice, ask if the tigers needed feeding, then tell Troy to expect company within ten minutes. Troy knew better than to ask questions like who are these people? And why are they being fed to the tigers? He minded his own business, just like Mrs. Q instructed him to. As for the tiger feedings, sometimes Troy would watch, sometimes he wouldn’t.
But the girls? Who knows what they’re all about? One of them looks like family, Mr. Dervishi’s daughter, maybe? The other girl is a mystery. Both of them step up to the wall with that helicopter closing in behind them. They look behind them at the helicopter, then over the wall, then behind them again.
They crouch in a bush five maybe six feet in front of the wall like they’re contemplating jumping across it. Bad idea, Troy thinks.
They see Lacy sleeping just across the wall and Grace twenty feet away also dozing, then they make the leap, tip-toeing along the wall, eyes wide and heads on a pair of swivels.
Troy didn’t know who was stupider: people who thought they could outrun a Goddamn tiger or people who thought they could outfight one. But it was always one or the other. It never occurred to any of the poor bastards Mr. Dervishi brought over that their best bet was to bluff, raise their bodies up, standing as tall they could as they could, arms stretched wide. Make the tiger think twice about lunging at something that size.
Or just make a loud noise, enough to make the tiger think he was fucking with the wrong kind of beast. But no. It was always fight or flight.
Bluffing didn’t always work, but hell, it gave them a chance. Troy wonders if these girls will figure that out.
The girls freeze when they hear something rustling in the weeds up ahead. Troy smirks. That would be Zeke, he thinks. He sighs, wonders if the girls are worth saving, or if it’d be more fun to see them get eaten, then decides, why not? He opens the back door, waves the girls inside — quietly, so as not to wake Lacy or Grace.
The girls turn, but don’t move. Probably because they don’t know yet that Zeke is headed that way. But Troy knows they’d better make a move quickly, so he waves again, urgently. Come on, he mouths.
The girls exchange glances, still not sure what to do. The mystery girl, the one Troy guesses is in charge, jerks her head toward the door and they slip toward it and inside.
“Good move, ladies,” Troy says. “One more minute and you’d a had ole Zeke to deal with.”
“I’m guessing Zeke is not the gardener,” the mystery girl says.
“You’re guessing right. Now how about you explain to me who you are and why you think it’s a good idea to hop a wall into a compound full of jungle cats.”
“I’m Katja,” one of them says. “My father is Zygmund.” She points to the other one. “This is… my friend.”
Troy sends his gaze back and forth between the girls, figuring there must be more to their story than this. “Keep talking”
The mystery girl says, “Right now we really need to get somewhere else. Can you help us?”
Troy says, “Don’t move. Let me have a word with Mrs. Q.”
Troy climbs the staircase, hoping Mrs. Q isn’t taking a nap because being woken up always makes her cranky as hell. He reaches her room and knocks. With a sigh, she says, “What do you need, Troy?”
He opens the door and finds her seated in her wicker chair, wine glass in hand, barely clad in a silk bathrobe. It’s a look that might seem seductive to somebody more perceptive than Troy.
“We got company downstairs. Mr. Dervishi’s daughter and her friend were fumbling around in the compound. How do you want that handled?”
She addresses Troy slowly and carefully. “Call Mr. Dervishi and tell him to come and get his spoiled piece of shit if he doesn’t want her to become a meal.”
On his way down, Troy gets on his cell phone, dials.
“Hello, there,” Mr. Dervishi answers.
“Mr. Dervishi. This is Troy from next door and just felt you ought to know —“
At the bottom of the staircase, the girls are waiting for him, guns drawn, faces stern. Troy clicks the call dead.
The mystery girl says, “If I remember correctly, I asked you a question before. But maybe I didn’t ask politely enough. We really need to get somewhere else. Can you help us?”
“I believe so. What do you need?”
“The keys to a car would be nice,” the mystery girl says.
He digs in his pocket and fishes out the keys. “This one’s for the Benz in the driveway.”
“How about something that won’t attract as much attention?”
“Well, there’s my Hyundai.”
The girls grab the keys from his hand, zip away before Troy can tell them the passenger side window doesn’t roll all the way down. Then he turns to find a bigger problem in the driveway. The helicopter has landed and it looks like the pilot is waving him over.
The Budgetel Motel
Vero Beach, FL
Barry Paradise stood over what was left of Zhang, thought about whether to put his pants back on, but pulled a t-shirt off the dresser instead, walked to the door, waddling half-dressed as Winnie the Pooh.
He could hear cars and bikes rumbling and rattling out of the parking lot, toward God knows where. He tried to close the door, but they’d made a mess of it getting in. The busted door swung back towards him, opening just as twelve-year-old Rachel McMasters of McAllister, Oklahoma passed by in her family station wagon, the vacationing family, as frugal as they were unattractive, having come back for lunch after a morning at the beach pier. Now, they were heading back to the beach, but not before young Rachel a received a rather substantive view of every inch of Barry Paradise’s inches, a look that would fill a psychiatrist’s notebook in ten years and lead to a one-woman show and a Tony award in a year, it must be said, of stiff competition. Barry watched the slack-jawed pre-teen roll by. He said “cute kid,” leaned the door closed as best he could, then walked back to roll Zhang.
Barry laid the cash out on the dresser, paper and coins. He laid the switchblade on the dresser. The cellphone. The wallet. The two pistols. Barry reached down to Zhang’s ankles, found another pistol. Laid it on the dresser.
He looked into the mirror behind the dresser, studied his own half-clad form. He squinted, to see whether that was still his toughest look. Working in a strip club, with mirrors on ceilings, on walls, on disco balls, you just start to avoid looking into them at all. Barry sucked in his gut and puffed out his chest as every man who has ever walked by a mirror has done at some point. He looked to the left, then the right, wondering again about his best side. He knew Annalisa was only with him to get back at her parents, same reason she was with that biker. And he knew it was only a matter of time before the biker came for her. He’d hoped he’d have finished with the bikers by then. He looked again into the mirror.
“Why take the risk?” he asked himself in the mirror.
But he knew the answer. Annalisa was telling him what he needed to know about the bikers. She was using him to get back at her parents, and he was using her to learn about the bikers.
“Pump her for information,” he said to himself, then laughed and laughed. He reached down to his dangling manhood, vigorously scratched. “If I end up with crabs again,” he said, but didn’t finish.
Krystle. He couldn’t believe she’d take this so seriously. No, Sarah. She was back to Sarah now. He was keeping the name. She couldn’t even take that with her. Just her anger at being fired.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. Looked at himself in the mirror, but decided he was done talking to himself. Only freaks did that.
He toed the corpse below him. “Zhang, old buddy. How did she talk you all into coming here? How did you talk Joyce into coming? Did you all come back for revenge?” Barry shook his head, stood and started walking around the room. “No. That couldn’t be it. Joyce needs a million bucks now, and she wouldn’t waste time with me.”
He walked back to the bathroom, pissed near the toilet, walked back to Zhang’s body. His plan to turn the Outlaws against the Chinese was just as dead as the man on the carpet, he thought.
“Come on, Zhang. Why come here seeking vengeance on me when Joyce needs the cash? Tell me, old pal. What were you doing here?”
Zhang, being dead for the past fifteen minutes or so, didn’t say anything.
“Because if Joyce thought I had a million stashed in this motel room…,” he trailed off. “Doesn’t make any sense. And you wouldn’t care. And Sarah, just being mad, she couldn’t talk Joyce into this because Joyce doesn’t care about that, she just needs,” and that’s when he realized. Sarah told them about the stash of heroin he was trying to move. Of course she did. They came for Annalisa, because she’d be soft. The thought made Barry scratch, again.
He looked at himself in the mirror again, the t-shirt not quite hiding the roll beneath his belly button, a cavity that once held a roll of quarters during an interesting night in Aruba.
Pantsless as Donald Duck, Barry Paradise stepped across the corpse to the man’s cellphone on the dresser. He lowered himself down towards Zhang with a grunt and pressed the dead man’s forefinger against the back of the phone. The wallpaper is a picture of Zhang and his kids at Disney World. In front of the Cinderella Castle. Cute. Not knowing the number by heart, he scrolled through the recent calls until he found what he needed.
The man picked up on the first ring. “Zhang, where are you?”
“Xu, it’s Barry Paradise.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this. I’m sorry. The Outlaws got him.”
To be continued…
Pho King Vietnamese Restaurant
Pompano Beach, FL
Without a word, Sarah leads the way outside, jogging briskly across the parking lot. Joyce and Zhang follow her to her car: a two-door Tercel, beige and old enough to have a mortgage. Joyce moves to the passenger side.
“Nope,” Sarah says, flicking her chin to Zhang. “He can ride in the back.”
Joyce lowers the seat, waving Zhang in. By the time Joyce settles, his knees are only six inches off his thick chest. The police will be here in minutes, so any complaints about legroom will have to wait. Sarah toes the gas and they slide into the midday traffic.
“You’ve got a plan?” Joyce asks.
“She got fired from her job,” Zhang says from the back. “Revenge is not always a great motivator. Makes you sloppy.”
“I’ve been thinking on this for a while,” Sarah says, slowing for a red. She punches the radio and Kiss begins blasting through the vehicle. She drums the wheel.
“Then you better let us in on it,” Zhang begins. As he starts to say more, Sarah turns the volume up, drowning him out.
Joyce shifts in her seat, giving Sarah an appraising look. “You two have history?” she asks.
Sarah switches lanes as they exit the intersection. A shadow crosses her face.
“In that job, you end up having history with a lot of guys like Zhang,” she says, eventually.
Joyce nods, allowing herself a quick moment to take in the trees rolling by, the sun warming her arm. She turns back to Sarah, noticing a small picture hanging from the rear-view: a little girl, no older than six.
“Where are we heading?” she asks.
“Barry has been working on a big score for the last 16 months or so,” Sarah says. “He was getting tired of dealing with the Chinese, and has been working a new buyer on the side for a while. The idea was to grow that business, then get his new partners to take out the Chinese. Then they would take over the turf.”
“Who exactly is he dealing with?”
“A local biker gang. The Outlaws.”
Joyce lets loose a short, sharp whistle. “Pretty ballsy,” she says. Knowing Barry as she does, she’s almost impressed.
“Pretty fucking stupid, too, but I guess the line between the two just gets blurrier all the time,” Sarah mutters. The car picks up speed.
“He’s not going to just give us a million dollars,” Joyce says.
“No, but we’ve got some leverage,” Sarah says. “Barry makes some bad relationship choices.”
One eye on the road, she opens Instagram on her phone and hands it to Joyce.
“Annalisa Bryell,” Sarah says. “21 years old, blonde, and richer than God.”
“Bryell?” Joyce asks. “Like, Bryell Cosmetics?”
Sarah nods, fishing in the cupholder for a pack of Trident. She pops a piece loose. “Only child, crazed party girl and sole heir to a $4.2 billion company.”
“What’s she got to do with Barry?”
Sarah works the gum between her teeth, softening it. It has clearly been in the car for a long time.
“They’re fucking,” she mouths around the spearmint wad.
“Damn,” Joyce says. “Barry really has upped his game in the last few years.”
“Hey, can you turn the music down?” Zhang asks. He’s twisting in the seat, and his open suit jacket shows both of his holstered guns – and a spreading patch of sweat on his chest. “I’m only getting a bit of this.”
Sarah and Joyce both cast glances back at him. Joyce shrugs.
“Her car,” she says. Sarah continues to tap her hands on the wheel. Kiss has given way to Aerosmith. Zhang sits back, his scowl deepening.
“Barry keeps a tight schedule,” Sarah says. “The Budgetel on 31st is where he takes her. And today is one of two days a week they meet up there. Plus, he’s obviously lying low after today’s festivities. So, we’re going to swing by and say hi.”
Zhang pushes his head between the two seats.
“Why would Barry’s make-up whore girlfriend give us anything?” he says.
“Because Bryell isn’t just Barry’s whore,” Sarah said. They are coming up onto the motel now. She palms the wheel and guides the creaking Toyota into one of the many empty spots. “She’s tangled up with Flint Ingersoll. He runs the Outlaws in Florida. And Barry’s a dead man if he finds out.”
Sarah cuts the engine. Silence falls for a moment.
“Her, too, I’m guessing,” Joyce finally says.
“Yup. Especially since the deal Barry’s cooking up is helping the Outlaws pretty much take over the heroin trade all across the southeast coast, with Fort Lauderdale the hub. Right now, Barry and his girl are sitting on about $12 million dollars of black tar H.”
“Jesus Christ,” Joyce mutters. “Where is it?”
“I dunno,” Sarah says. She leans over, opening the glove box to pull out a snubnosed Ruger .38. “Let’s go ask them.”
Joyce chews her bottom lip. Pros and cons are being weighed.
She glances at her watch.
Zhang pushes his head through again to face Joyce. “Listen to me. We have no idea what’s waiting for us up there. We’re going in blind based on this… poledancer’s story. This is not, by any measure, a plan.”
“Look, asshole,” Sarah snarls. “The guy in there just tried to take you and your pals out. I could give a shit, but if I were you, I’d be a little less Sun Tzu about this and maybe a bit more Oldboy.”
Sarah and Zhang both look at Joyce. She takes in the building. Cheap. Rundown. Sheets probably made with more asbestos than cotton.
It’s exactly the kind of place a guy like Barry would fuck a rich girl.
“Okay, Zhang,” she says, popping her door. “You call for help. Or you come with us. Let’s see if we can get you excited about something more than pho.”
Katja and April have made it down precisely one hallway and a flight of stairs when the guards show up. Just two of them, but thick like all of her fathers’ thugs. Big shoulders, big necks, and fat fingers on little guns. Katja has spent her whole life around men with guns, but studiously never learned to tell one kind of firearm from the other. The guards would get drunk and play rounds of Pesë Katësh and boast about the makes and models of their sidearms. But they were all just guns to Katja.
Come to think of it, she couldn’t tell the guards apart either. There is the 250lb sack of flour with beady eyes and a broken nose on the left, and the 250lb sack of flour with beady eyes and a broken nose on the right.
It is the one on the left who speaks first.
“Come on back, little girl.”
“I’m not your little girl.”
“No. You’re your father’s little girl. And I’m your father’s bodyguard. And you’re trying to take the prisoner out of the compound. So, I call you whatever I want.”
The one on the right chimes in. “Yeah. I call you whatever I want too.”
The oaf steps towards her and Katja ducks back before he can put his hand on her shoulder. She still has some rights. She is her father’s daughter, and he still runs this place and she isn’t about to let any meatball run his hands all over her.
“Just back off.”
The sack of flour on the left steps closer. “Your father always call you difficult. I don’t think you’re difficult. I think you might be easy.”
Sack of flour on the right cracks his knuckles. “Yeah. Easy.”
Katja looks over her shoulder to see if Nicky’s granddaughter can help. But the girl is nowhere to be seen. Katja is alone, at the bottom of a stairway, with two big men who think she is their property.
Where did she go? April had been with her just as they came down the hallway, and Katja could swear she was right behind her on the stairs. Now it was just Katja and the two barrels of fun. She can tell them they don’t have the right to touch her, but she can’t actually stop them from touching her.
Katja starts to sweat. What had she been thinking, trying to break out? Every time she had tried before, the guards had brought her back and joked about it over platters of Tavë Kosi and bottles of raki. But she had never been trying to take a prisoner out before.
Maybe she can make it back to her room? Pretend she had been sneaking out to the bathroom or something? She is at the bottom of the stairs. Slowly, she climbs them backwards. The two men are coming at her. Slowly now. Carefully. Without a worry in the world.
“Katja, just stay still. We’ll bring you to your father. You can explain to him why you run off alone.”
“Or maybe you explain to us privately first. We have a few questions you could answer.”
She is halfway up the stairs. At this point, just getting back to the room safely would feel like a success. She thinks she should turn and run, but these men could probably catch her before she made it.
One more step backwards up the stairs. The two men, slobbering greedily now, pursue her. The first one speaks again.
“Katja. It isn’t going to hurt, we promise you. You might even enjoy it. Just come with —”
And he starts to gargle. His eyes bulge. He stumbles forward grasping at his trunk of a neck. He stares upwards.
Katja looks up too. April is wedged against the knee wall, straining with the fishing line she has wrapped around both arms. It’s digging into her forearm, but not nearly as much as it’s digging into the neck of the flour-sack on the left. The ogre’s eyes start to roll back and he gives up on pulling the line away. Dangling now, his feet just off the ground, a human pendulum under April’s command.
The other one pulls out his gun, almost too small for his enormous hand. But as he lifts to aim, April swings the fishing line and clocks the second monster with the first. April leaps from her hiding place and slips the strangled man’s gun away. The second oaf is recovering from his knock, but not quickly enough to keep from being shot twice in the forehead with his partner’s gun. Thick red ooze gurgles out the front and back of his head as his tumbles down the stairs, decorating the white staircase walls on the way.
April hands Katja the first man’s gun and starts down the stairs.
“Which way do we go, Katja?”
Katja can’t speak. She is having trouble breathing. She has never held a gun before and this one is so heavy, even though it is so small. April is retrieving the other weapon from the bottom of the stairs.
“There is no time to panic, Katja. You said there was a wall that wasn’t electrified. Which way?”
Katja catches her breath.
“Let’s get on with it.”
April turns and runs from the bottom of the stairs. Katja collects herself and takes off right after her. In two minutes, they are at the rear wall. Eight feet, no wires, and thick wetlands behind.
Katja hears a dull engine somewhere behind them. Not a car engine. Something crisper. Something whirring. April hears it too.
“Quick. Over the wall. What’s behind it?”
April clasps her hands together to support Katja’s foot. Katja stands secure as April heaves her up and she climbs over. April scurries right behind her. The sound from behind them grows louder.
They are in a hazy swamp. Their feet slip into the ooze with each step. There are no trees, no real cover. Just endless gauzy grasses and ferns, punctuated by little lakes.
“How far does this go, Katja?”
“In most directions, twenty miles. But just north, there is another compound. I’ve never been there, but I don’t think it’s safe.”
April stares ahead. It’s within sight. Another low wall. And beyond what look like empty open acres.
“What do you mean?”
“The woman who lives there keeps tigers. They say there are twenty of them. She calls them rescues but they are full grown tigers. They just wander the property. The other people my father has captured, he always jokes that he is taking them next door to feed them to the tigers. I don’t know if he means it, but they are never seen again.”
The whirring is louder. April looks up. A black speck in the sky. About a half mile away, a helicopter is making its way towards the compound. April’s expression sours.
“Katja. I know who is in that helicopter. And believe me when I tell you that it is worse than any compound filled with tigers. If we are on the open marsh, they will find us. So, it looks like we only have one option.”
“Yes. It looks like we do.”
The Budgetel Motel
Vero Beach, FL
The loud snoring of the large man next to her wakes Annalisa Bryell up. Barry Paradise always fell asleep right after sex. Their relationship had never been based on sweet-nothings and I-love-yous or cuddling afterwards. The deal was pretty straightforward: Barry Paradise liked fucking her sweet, young, spoiled ass.
She enjoys the feeling of rebelliousness. The whole relationship is a big, fat middle finger to her parents. She’d been educated at the most expensive schools her parents could afford. She lived in a huge, fancy mansion in a pink bed with satin sheets. She was taught to be a nice and decent young lady. She hated that life. She hated how her parents always tried to make her a carbon copy of themselves. That is probably why she had gotten involved with Barry in the first place. What could be more shocking – or more obscene – than fucking a thuggish pimp like him?
Well, maybe fucking an Outlaw biker like Flint Ingersoll. A man that was six feet two of testosterone and tattoos. The kind of man that took a daily shit on conventional white-picket fence life. She knew it was a dangerous game she played, sleeping with both of these dangerous men. But it was exactly that danger that made her feel alive, got her more of a high than all of the drugs she’d tried out during her search for independence. Her search for a life that was as far removed from the life her parents had plotted out for her.
She slips out of bed to pee. Barry could sleep through a Slayer concert after he’d climaxed. The toilet looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since Bush was still running the country. She remembered him having bought her a nice necklace for her 16th birthday. He used to visit the same country clubs as her dad. Oh, what a beautiful contrast those days at golf courses and fancy wine-tastings were to the orgies the Outlaws sometimes organize.
Not daring to sit down on the toilet seat she hunches above it. She’s startled by a loud banging against the door and isn’t sure what to do now. Should she go have a look? Open the door? Stay there? For a minute she wonders if it could be Flint – having found out about her secret affair with Barry. That could mean the death of her, and surely Barry too. She feels trapped.
The door flies open at the third kick. You can count on fleabag motel doors to be about as sturdy as a matchstick. Joyce enters the motel room first, shotgun out and ready to blast away any nasty surprises. The only nasty surprise was the unruly chest hair on Barry’s naked chest. Startled by the unexpected visitors, he jumps out of bed.
“Ironic that such a big dick is swinging such a small one,” Joyce quips.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Joyce? You’re supposed to be…” Barry doesn’t finish his sentence.
Zhang and Sarah step in, flanking Joyce. They are carrying their handguns, barrels aimed casually at the floor. Barry’s sense of surprise only increases.
“Krystle? What the fuck?”
Sarah aims the .38 at her former employer, relishing the sweat that had started to form on his brow.
“You really should learn to treat your staff better, asshole!”
Barry holds up his hands, his face forming an apologetic smile. “It was nothing personal, babe. Just business.”
Joyce racks her shotgun. “Was it just business too when you screwed me over?”
“Ah shit, you know how it is, Joyce… With all the free internet porn, amateur hookers and chicks learning to pole dance as a fucking hobby, business is hard. I need to wheel and deal a bit.”
Zhang now aims his gun at Barry. “You’re dealing with the wrong people now, asshole.”
Barry backs off further, until his back was against the wall. “Come on… Take it easy. We can talk about this like civilized people. I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Maybe we can. Where’s that rich bitch you’re screwing?” Joyce asks, looking around the room. Barry is silent, but he really doesn’t need to say anything. A small sliver of light is visible under the bathroom door.
The sound of boots announce that the intruders are getting closer to the bathroom door. Annalisa quickly locks the door. Without Flint’s protection she doesn’t feel as rebellious anymore. She just feels scared. Scared of what these people want and what they are going to do to her. They don’t sound like bikers. Flint would never use women as enforcers.
Someone tugs at the door. “Open the fucking door, bitch!”
Annalisa feels her eyes begin to sting, her heart racing faster than any cocaine rush. Tears start to stream down her face.
“Open the fucking door or I blast through it with my shotgun!”
With shaking hands, she manages to unlock the door. It flies open and she looks into the barrel of a huge shotgun in the hands of the toughest looking woman she has ever seen. She feels incredibly small and vulnerable, naked in the small bathroom.
“Don’t shoot me!” Annalisa pleads.
“Get your skinny ass out of there and behave. If you do that you have nothing to fear,” the woman tells her.
That’s when she hears a rumbling sound coming from outside. She knows that noise all too well. It’s the sound of Harley Davidsons.
The tough woman has identified the sound as well.
To be continued…
Katja watches as the white panel van makes the arc of the circular driveway, coming to a stop in front of the large double doors of Zygmund Dervishi’s modest 8,200 square foot mansion. Sitting on nearly twenty acres of land, the compound is secured behind large gates and walls, every inch viewable by a state-of-the-art system that includes cameras and biosensor alarms. This was in addition to the dozen guards on patrol – mostly Albanian thugs with thick arms and thicker heads, each armed with H&K MP7s or Sig Sauer P226 depending on their post. When Vilmar Tarchaj, a mid-level Rudaj officer, came down from New York for a little fun and sun, two dozen more guards were made available with a phone call.
When Katja sees her brother manhandle the lithe woman out from the back of the panel van, hands bound with a pillowcase over her head, she knew that her father would be making that call. Junior pulls the linen case from the woman’s head, and her hair falls away and reveals younger features than Katja had expected. The woman – not much more than a girl – couldn’t be older than twenty. Junior says something to the girl, she spits in his face and attempts to drive a boot heel into his foot.
Good for you, Katja thinks.
Junior wipes the spit from his face, looks at his hand incredulously before bringing the palm across the girl’s face. Katja sees blood erupt from her mouth as the girl collapses to her knees on the concrete drive. Two-steps at a time, Katja takes the stairs to the front entranceway, pulling open the doors to see her 76-year-old father, though shrunken to a mere 5’11”, verbally tower over her 6’8” mountain of a brother.
Zygmund turns, flashes his pearly dentures. “Katja, my girl, where are you off to in such a rush?”
“I…” Katja starts to huff, catching her breath, “I saw the van pull up and Junior….”
Her father pulls her attention completely, as he often does when he engages people in conversation. He has an evocative quality. People need to listen when he speaks. Those glimmering and seemingly oversized dentures, dentures that replaced healthy rooted teeth 25 years prior when he became Zygmund Dervishi, were captivating.
Zygmund waves Junior past and Katja sees her lumbering brother carry the bound and bloodied girl through the doors into the large foyer. Transfixed by her father, she does not watch where they went. “Dear, you seem to be worked up?”
“I saw Junior hit her. Why is she here? You said you were out of that business?”
The dentures flash again, “That was a misunderstanding. I’ve talked with your brother. We are of the same mind. He won’t hit her again. I promise.”
He pats her on both shoulders. “Okay?”
“No!” Katja pulls away, the trance is broken for a moment. “You can’t trust Junior with anyone, especially women. Who is she?”
“Do you remember ‘Uncle’ Nicky?”
Katja nods. He had come to her sixteenth birthday nine years ago, and the two were quick friends. ‘Uncle’ Nicky was a kind man, who always brought presents when he visited. He told Katja that she reminded him of his daughter. Both were smart, strong, and too independent for their own good. His daughter and he were estranged, but through friends he had kept tabs on her, and he would regale Katja with second-hand stories of his daughter’s adventures.
“Our new guest is his granddaughter, April.”
“She’s Joyce’s daughter?”
Katja never really knew how old Joyce was, or even if Joyce was real. But she imagined that Joyce was always that young girl who ran away and joined the military. Katja wished she could run away, but the best she could do was sneak out where the compound met wetlands at the back of the property. If she stays out overnight, one of her father’s men would find her and bring her home.
“Yes, Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know that you knew about her? But how could you not? Nick was always going on about his daughter, the war hero.”
He guides Katja into the house. “And you are right, I can’t trust Zygmund Jr. He has appetites that well… he can’t control. But you, my favorite daughter, I think I could trust you with this job?”
Favorite daughter? Only daughter, thought Katja. Zygmund Dervishi had been blessed with eight children among three wives, and a mistress. Katja was the sixth, and her mother had been wife number three. Junior was the youngest, born to her nursemaid, and – as a bastard – should have no rights to the family name, but their older siblings, all boys, along with wife number two perished in a fire before they were born. Katja’s mother drank herself to death, and Junior’s mother had been replaced multiple times over. Such are Zygmund Dervishi’s blessings.
Katja has so many questions, but she feels the answers would be more truthful from the girl, than from her father. She suspects extortion of some kind. Or a power play, maybe. She knew ‘Uncle’ Nicky was criminal of some sort, otherwise he wouldn’t have dealt with her honorable father. She also knew, despite the many gifts, that he wasn’t a man of means either. The girl would have the answers.
“Yes,” Katja says.
The smile widens, and those dentures gleam again.
“This pleases me,” Zygmund says and pulls his daughter into his embrace. “You won’t fail me.”
Katja knocks on the door before entering the large bedroom, one of eight in the main house for family and guests. The bed is empty and Katja tries to scan the room before she is knocked sideways by the door, the handle catching her in the side. She rolls back into a crouched position with a full view of the room. April had been hiding behind the door. Knocking was a poor choice, but Katja hadn’t expected the girl to be combative or trained in any way. She barely blocked a forward kick and then Katja tried a sweep to catch April’s stable leg. It wasn’t enough to knock the girl down, but it did put her off balance. Just enough for Katja to plow forward into the smaller girl.
Shoulders pinned, Katja looks down at April. “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to…”
April rams her knee into Katja’s pubis, and Katja reels back, thankful she wasn’t a man, hurting nonetheless.
“Wait!” Katja yelled.
April was already to her feet and heading for the door.
“Stop!” Katja reiterates. “You go out that door, you’ll never see your grandfather again.”
April turns, and Katja couldn’t read the expression on the younger girl’s face. It was part confusion, part sadness, part anger… mostly anger.
“I can help you escape,” Katja offers.
April’s right fist goes white-knuckled and pulls back.
Pho King Vietnamese Restaurant
Pompano Beach, FL
“You’re not what I expected.”
“You think I care about your expectations?” Joyce tells the man in the black suit.
The restaurant is empty except for the two of them and a sad-looking young lady staring into a steaming bowl of noodles. The octogenarian hostess leans against the back counter reading a magazine. When Joyce comes in, she just points toward the man in black. It seems odd to be meeting a Chinese gangster in a Vietnamese restaurant but maybe Xu’s captain just likes the food?
“I’m Zhang. Sit down and have something to eat.”
Joyce sets the briefcase on the table.
“I’m in kind of a hurry.”
“Best Pho in all of Florida.”
When Joyce doesn’t respond, he pulls back his sport coat to show the twin Glocks holstered under his arms.
Joyce is considering whether to tell the man to go fuck himself – or pistol whip him and then tell him to go fuck himself – when the hostess shouts something in a language Joyce doesn’t speak, and reaches under the counter.
The old lady comes up with a sawed-off shotgun, just in time to see the front window explode. Her head disintegrates as the sound of machine-gun fire fills the air.
Joyce hits the floor, drawing her pistol as the wall behind her is stitched with bullet holes. She figures Zhang met the same fate as the old lady but he is on the floor next to her with his guns drawn. One is pointed at the front of the restaurant and the other is pointed at Joyce’s head. He’s a lot quicker than she anticipated. Either he is that good, or she is getting old.
Joyce keeps one eye on the barrel of the gun in her face and the other on the front of the restaurant. She sees two masked men step inside holding assault rifles. They sweep the room, but neither one looks down.
“Friends of yours?” Zhang asks.
Joyce double-tapped the one in front in the chest without taking her eye off Zhang.
The second man brings his eyes to the floor, only to take bullets from three guns, as Zhang decides Joyce might not be his enemy.
They both roll to their feet as two more gunmen come in through the kitchen. Joyce takes out the one on the right with a headshot while the gunman on the left is shredded by Zhang’s twin pistols. Other than the bleach blonde cowering under her table the dining room is clear. They move into the kitchen.
There are two dead bodies inside. One has a bandana and dark sunglasses, the other a chef’s hat. The chef took a bullet. The other guy had a cleaver embedded in his forehead.
They both reluctantly lower their guns.
“Shame, he really was the Pho King.”
“No, he made the best Pho, he was like the king of it.”
“So, if they weren’t your friends. Who are they?”
“This is your town, you tell me,” Joyce says as she heads back into the dining room.
The young woman who’d been eating in the corner is standing by the briefcase. She sees Joyce and raises her hands like she is about to be arrested.
“Why are you still here?” Joyce asks her.
“To tell you they’re Barry’s people,” she says.
Zhang raises one of his guns.
“Yeah? So are you. You’re Krystie or some shit. I saw you dancing the last time I was there.”
“It’s Sarah now. Barry fired me this morning.”
Joyce grabs the briefcase and opens it up. She isn’t surprised to see it is empty.
“I should have known he would hold a grudge,” Joyce says.
“So, the fat bastard set us both up,” Zhang says as he lowers his pistol.
“I take it you guys might want some payback,” the woman says.
“I’ve got more pressing matters,” Joyce replies.
“The reason I’m asking is, I have a way to do it that will benefit us all.”
Zhang holds up his guns.
“I have my own way, thanks.”
“Will you shooting his fat ass make you a millionaire?”
Joyce stops and looks at the young woman.
“Talk fast,” April says, her fist still cocked. The way she has shifted her stance tells Katja everything she needs to know. This girl has been well trained.
“I saw what you did to my brother in the driveway,” Katja says. “That took courage. But courage won’t help if he gets his hands on you again. Not even our father can stop him when he is angry.”
April’s eyes narrow. “That caveman is your brother? And the disgusting old man is your father?” She looks Katja up and down. “You certainly got a monopoly on the good genes.”
Katja shakes her head. “Americans. You think this is a time for jokes?”
“Okay, no jokes. Why would I trust you to help me get away from your own family?”
“Because I need your help as much as you need mine. More. I’ve been wanting to get away for years.” Katja takes two steps to her right and sits down, holding up her hands in a placating gesture. “I know Nicky. Your grandfather.”
“That puts you one up on me,” April says. “Shame you couldn’t make his funeral this morning.”
The shock on Katja’s face seems genuine. “He’s dead?”
April waves this away, but the fact that Katja is surprised does a lot to convince her that the girl is, at least, not part of the Dervishi inner circle. “Later. Tell me what we’re up against if we try to get away.”
“A great deal,” Katja says. “State of the art security systems and cameras. A dozen heavily armed guards.”
April sags a bit. “What makes you think we can get past that?”
“Two things,” Katja says. “First, the guards’ shift change is in thirty minutes. There will be a few minutes of opportunity to slip between them. Second, the back of the property adjoins wetlands, an offshoot of the Everglades. There’s still a wall to get over, but it’s not electrified, because of the water. I’ve gone out that way before, but they always find me and bring me back. You have training. You must have friends, resources. You can help me get away for good.”
April bites her lip, thinking. “Sounds risky. I could just wait for my mother. Sooner or later she’ll be showing up here, and she’ll have either what your father wants or a small army. Probably both.”
“Your mother,” Katja says. “The legendary Joyce.”
April had begun to relax, but now she tenses visibly. “How do you know that?”
“Nicky,” Katja says. “He told me many stories of her exploits. Her heroism. It was she who trained you, yes?”
“Tell me,” Katja says. “Did she train you to await rescue, like a princess in a tower? Because this was not a part of the training I was given.”
“Fair point,” April concedes. “All right. When do we move?”
“Now,” Katja says, standing. “We can be at the back of the house when the shifts change. I’ll guide you past the outbuildings. With luck we can disable one of the guards and arm ourselves. Then we’ll have to run.”
“Running I can do,” April says. “Let’s go.”
In a room in the basement that Katja has never seen, Zygmund Dervishi watches on a monitor as his wayward daughter and the DeWitt girl slip out of the bedroom. Another screen immediately picks them up in the upstairs hallway, sliding along the wall as they make their way to a staircase.
Dervishi pushes himself back from the desk, sighing heavily but congratulating himself on his instincts. He was right to never let his daughter know that the security measures outside the house extended inside its walls as well. He swivels in his chair to face his monstrous son, standing against the door with his arms folded and a grim smile on his face.
“I told you not to trust her,” Junior says. “She has betrayed us. The penalty is death.”
Dervishi grunts. “No. I have plans for your sister. The Dervishi line must be strong. I need the grandchildren she can give me.”
“I can give you grandchildren,” Junior says. “Strong, healthy.”
With lightning speed Dervishi stands and backhands his son viciously across the face. “Are you questioning me, boy?” He seizes the younger man’s chin and stares into his eyes. “What if you die, like your brothers, eh? What if you are sterile? No.” He releases the boy and turns back to the screens. The women, he sees, are now in the kitchen, and have armed themselves with knives. Clever little bitches, but being clever will not save them.
“Katja must live,” he saiys. “But she does not need hands or feet to serve my purposes. As for the DeWitt girl, she’ll die soon enough alongside her whore of a mother.”
“Good,” Junior says. He pushes himself off the wall. “I will go and stop them.”
“The guards can do that,” his father says. “I have another task for you. The fool Paradise has betrayed us. He tried to kill DeWitt himself, and even worse, he drew the attention of the Chinese. Go and demonstrate to him the error of his ways.”
Junior looks longingly at the screen. “But the girl.”
“She will be here when you return.” Dervishi’s voice tightens. “Do you remember what happens when I have to repeat an order, boy?”
Without another word, Junior turns, opens the door and leaves. Now alone, Dervishi picks up a phone from the desk and presses a single button. As he waits for a response, he watches on separate screens as his son goes out the front door and his daughter and the DeWitt girl go out the back.
“Things have gotten complicated,” he says to the voice on the other end of his call. “I need to speak to Souterrain.”
To be continued…
Everglades City, FL
Joyce was still on lockdown when Ronald offered to have her father’s cadaver tossed in a pit and burned with the corpses of the bikers and the mercenaries. She had no qualms about this particular scenario, but April insisted that her grandfather deserved a proper burial, so Joyce relented.
Everglades City was the only place that Joyce and her father ever returned to during her childhood – for reasons that remained unclear. In her mind, it’s the closest place he had to a hometown. Their second stay was far briefer than the first. It was also the first time that Joyce ever fired a gun. An ancient Webley Top-Break Revolver that her father had sourced in Gainesville two months previously. She was 13.
Her father clattered through the motel door, his fake military uniform splattered with dark blood. He was being pursued by a fat man in a leisure suit, who had a complexion like boiled meat. Joyce instinctively reached behind the bedside drawer for the gun – which had been affixed to the cheap furniture with criss-crossed carpet tape.
Her first shot splintered the door frame – something her father never tired of reminding her – but her second winged the fat man and sent him scurrying into the dank night, bloodied but still alive.
Her first kill didn’t come until her 18th birthday. On the Kuwaiti border with an M24. A high-ranking official within the Iraqi Ground Force, they later said. Like it mattered.
Joyce takes a slug of scotch from her hip-flask and lights another small cigar. She stares at the warped casket holding her father’s withered husk and feels a slight twinge where her heart used to be.
The preacher-come-gravedigger – a stooped alcoholic with a milky left eye – finishes the service and shuffles towards the rusted John Deere mini-digger without a word.
Across the other side of the grave is an old man. A fellow mourner. No obituary notices were posted in the local papers, so Joyce figures him for a kook. A ghoul. A nutjob. Ten minutes ago, he unfolded a bottle-green lawn chair and sat down, sipping at a McDonalds thick-shake.
40 feet away, in the parking lot, Ronald leans against the SUV, twirling his keys irritably. His thick beard glistens with sweat, and his tracksuit has discolored under the armpits. He is scheduled to deliver Joyce and April to Eglin Air Force Base by midday, so they can board a flight to Mogadishu, from where they will make their own way to Kampala – towards whichever bloody reckoning awaits them.
Joyce turns back to the man in the lawn-chair. His big dentures gleam in the early morning sun as he smiles at nothing in particular. Something feels off about this.
She turns back to Ronald, just in time to see his windpipe hacked apart by a monstrous-looking specimen in a zip-up coverall.
Joyce reaches into her clutch bag for the Seecamp LWS 2.
The working girls she used to talk to on motel forecourts referred to pistols this size as ‘hooker’s handguns’. Useful to scare off the kind of Johns who didn’t believe in ‘safe words’, rubbers and pricing structures. Those women – haggard lushes for the most part – supplied her with makeup, tampons and other valuable life lessons that her father was ill-equipped to deliver.
She pauses – hand on the pistol grip – when she sees the red dot of a sniper rifle skitter between the torsos of her and her daughter.
The triggerman is poised behind the John Deere. The preacher lies crumpled in the dirt, his neck snapped.
The man in the lawn chair clears his throat.
“You have my condolences, Ms. DeWitt. Your father was a … fascinating character.”
His English is precise, but heavily accented. She can detect a Balkan inflection, but can’t pinpoint his exact country of origin.
“He was very proud of you. My princess, he called you. Desert Storm. Special Forces. Purple Heart. Black Ops. Once he started talking, he never stopped. He told me you once killed 100 Africans in one day! Marvelous.”
Joyce nods tersely, face burning with shame at the unpleasant memories that refused to stay buried in Kampala.
“Unfortunately, your father owed us a lot of money, Ms. DeWitt.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, licking strawberry milkshake off his blistered lips.
“One million dollars. Or, one hundred and fourteen million Albanian Lek, if you prefer.”
Beside her, she feels April’s lithe body tense.
“Mom? Who are these people?”
Joyce says nothing.
The man with the combat knife is beside them now. He runs the blood-slick blade across April’s dress and grins nastily. He has to be at least 6’8”. He twists April’s hair in his fist and spits in the old man’s unfilled grave.
“You have 24 hours to get me my money. Every hour after that, I will have my son, Zygmund Jr., cut a piece off your enchanting daughter and feed it to his fucking dogs. The Dervishi Family always gets its pound of flesh – something your father failed to truly appreciate.”
Senior tosses the empty milkshake container into the grave and folds his lawn chair.
Voice cracking, Joyce shouts: “Where can I find you? When I have the money?”
The old man grins – big dentures sparkling again, and shrugs.
“Ask around. I’m well known in certain circles. But don’t believe everything you hear about me. The truth is generally far worse, young lady.”
Zygmund Jr. marches April between the gravestones and Joyce considers putting a bullet in his spine, but she has been drinking for two hours and doesn’t want to risk hitting her daughter.
He passes the girl to a masked man next to a white panel van.
The kid is far tougher than Joyce ever gave her credit for. The shit-storm in Sierra Nevada proved that. If Dervishi is true to his word, April should be able to hold out for 24 hours with these goons.
As the van rumbles out of the parking lot, Joyce considers her options. No cash. No contacts. Just an itchy funeral dress, a Lo-Jacked agency SUV and a dead handler.
Who the hell can she reach out to, down here in the ass-crack of Florida?
Barrington Paradiso was a slim, softly-spoken Jamaican who worked with Joyce and Samson for three years in the mid-1990s. He was one of Dario’s former proteges, discovered in a Kingston crack-house during a search and destroy mission. The kid – who was sat on a suitcase full of product – pulled two Uzis on Dario, threatened to wet him. He was 5.
Barrington and Joyce shared a birthday and a blood type, but very little else. Dario cultivated the boy’s sadistic tendencies and indulged the queasier aspects of his personality. As a killer, Barrington was cool and efficient. Ice water in his veins. He was an asset. Until he wasn’t. The last time Joyce saw him – in 1996 – she broke his nose with a shotgun butt after an incident with a 19-year-old Finnish girl at an amputee brothel in Kaliningrad.
During one of his rambling, drunken videocalls, Samson gurgled with laughter as he told Joyce that Barrington had reinvented himself as ‘Barry Paradise’ – a brash nightlife impresario, with three increasingly garish strip clubs in Pompano Beach.
Joyce removes the utility knife strapped to Ronald’s calf and hacks through the middle of his right index finger, careful to avoid his dead gaze. This gives her access to his cellphone and the lockbox full of guns in the trunk.
She slips into the air-conditioned interior of the SUV and taps ‘Paradise Parlour, Pompano Beach’ into the dash-mounted sat-nav with bloody fingers.
90 minutes over the I-75.
She opens the timer function on Ronald’s phone and sets it for 24 hours, before tossing the handset on the passenger seat.
24 hours to find one million dollars.
And save the only human being she has ever truly loved.
The Paradise Parlour
Pompano Beach, FL
The only thing sadder than the girls working the pole at a strip club this early in the morning are the men watching them. At least the noon crowd comes in under the guise of the buffet lunch, even if the lunch isn’t much more than reheated fried chicken and deli meats that glisten unnaturally underneath the LED lighting. Those guys, men with expense accounts, they’ll pay extra for a “dance” in back, cameras off, bouncers just far enough they can hear but they can’t see. They’ll throw out the extra green, or just hand a credit card and say to keep it coming until they…
These early-bird fuckers, though, they won’t even pay for an extra peek of asshole. They mount up in Pervert’s Row with a handful of ones and sip sodas and seem completely content getting less than what you’d get on your phone with a shitty signal. No money to be made here. So why even fucking bother?
Because it’s the perfect time for Barry Paradise to discover who the rising talent is – or who’s on the decline. New girls, you can’t put them on stage in prime time. Too many times, big tits and perky asses, think they’d be a natural, fresh meat that gets up there and freezes up. Fucking humiliating. For Barry. He guesses it’s the same for the girl, too, but he’s not losing sleep over that.
No, Barry Paradise knows time is money, and he’s not wasting either if he doesn’t have to, so his girls all start out here. He figures, if they can squeeze dollars from the brigade of losers who’ll darken the doorstep of an adult entertainment complex while the rest of the world is ordering Grand Slam specials, then they work their way to later shifts, and might be worth a spot during the Big Show, where the real money is.
The girl dancing right now – stage name Krystle, the fifth spelling variation on that he’s given a girl this year – she’s on her way down. She’d had potential when she started, but potential don’t mean shit when you stick a needle in your arm and track marks show up underneath black light. What she doesn’t know, as she’s shaking her shrinking ass to 2 Chainz, is this is her last dance. There is no more money to be gleaned from her. No more marquee value in that fake name on the sign outside. And once she’s gone, he can send that spelling back into the mix, distribute it to another chick with raging daddy issues looking to make untaxed cash.
Because money is the reason for every season for Barry Paradise. Ever since Dario dragged him out of that shit-hole in Kingston. Dario, who became his surrogate father, who taught him all the things a good father teaches a son, like to break down and reassemble a rifle in the dark, or how to take out four attackers unarmed, the only person walking away. Things Hallmark doesn’t have cards for.
The clusterfuck in Klaipeda – nine dead, and two months of bribes and diplomatic negotiations, with an emphasis on the bribes, before he could come home – had been the last straw for him. That’s when he decided being Barrington Paradiso wasn’t worth it anymore. That was the birth of Barry Paradise.
So, what if he isn’t the reed-thin kid he’d once been? Filling out the loud suits he sports every night. Three-piece jobs, his growing stomach straining the six-button coats, neon colors and patterns louder than the club music. He’s worked just as hard building this empire as he did killing all those people. Feels that gives him the right to sit at his bar and to drink rum and pineapple juice at 10:05 a.m., to judge the malcontents gathered around the stage and the one on it. This is his little kingdom.
The song ends and Krystle steps off the stage. He nods over to Bones, the head bouncer. Bones, who’ll escort Krystle to the dressing room, tell her to gather her personal items, to leave her costume in a plastic bag, and who’ll walk her out to the parking lot, to either her car or to the bus stop, however she got there. It’s not Barry Paradise’s problem anymore.
As the DJ calls Amethyst up on stage, Barry glances toward the security video feeds on the closed-circuit TV behind the bar. An SUV slides between yellow lines in the parking lot, and a woman gets out.
Even in the graininess of the closed-circuit feed, Barry can ID that face. He’s never forgotten it; you tend to remember people who bust your nose with a shotgun butt. He sees her coming toward the club entrance, carrying herself with a stride borne of determination. Nothing good comes from that.
Barry Paradise throws back the last of his rum and pineapple juice and heads for his office, where he’s got a gun waiting. Thinking as he walks, How’d that bitch get here from Everglades City so fast?
Whoever had calculated the drive time to Pompano Beach had never been through the Underground’s defensive driving training. Joyce also doubted the unknown programmer had ever seen his daughter in the clutches of a knife-wielding psychopath.
She parked by a box truck to give herself as much cover as possible. Ronald’s weapons cache hadn’t disappointed but this required finesse. Luckily, his trench-coat almost fit her.
Every club like this had a variant on the same smell. Decades of smoke, sweat, and lust blended into a fug of despair. The knuckle-dragger manning the front desk looked her over. Instead of the challenge she’d expected, he shrugged and said, “Office is in the back corner.”
It was nicer than she expected. Honey oak furniture that had been fashionable in the ‘80s played off a couple of decent prints. It smelled better too.
“Damn, Joyce, you got old.”
“Better than getting fat, Barrington. At least, I earned these scars.”
The tension melted a fraction with his laugh.
“It’s Barry now and a lot of work went into this fine figure. Sit down and have a drink.”
He motioned to a chair exactly in front of his desk, and flipped over a pair of glasses.
Not even on a bet, she thought.
“Mind if I take off my coat? These funeral dresses aren’t built for comfort.”
His eyebrows came together in a facsimile of genuine emotion. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
“That makes one of us.”
Joyce scanned the room. The obligatory ‘80s fake brass coat tree would do nicely. Keeping her body angled from him, she slipped off the trench-coat. In one smooth move, she swept it over the top-heavy rack and sent it crashing to the floor. His momentary distraction was all she needed to get to the side of his desk. When he turned toward her, he was looking down the 12-gauge barrel of the bullpup she’d slung under her arm.
“Okay Barry, the shotgun you have mounted under your desk is useless now. Even if you have it on a swivel, I’m out of the arc of fire. Mine, on the other hand, is ready to go.”
He was cool, she had to admit. Keeping both hands in plain sight, he poured himself a drink. After throwing it back, he said, “Nice piece. You and your damn shotguns. I thought you were more of a Benelli girl. That’s what you clocked me with.”
“I didn’t have time to shop. But this is the Kel-Tech KSG. A steel-polymer hybrid that’s less than ten pounds fully loaded. And it is fully loaded. Double-aught in the left mag and Bernanke slugs in the right. Fifteen total including the one in the chamber. We need to talk.”
Another drink, but his hand wasn’t quite as steady this time. “We’re good, Joyce. I know why you’re here.”
That surprised her but her aim didn’t waver. “Go on.”
“Everybody knows your old man was crosswise with the Russians.”
“What the fuck ever. They’re all Russians as far as I’m concerned. They come in here and don’t pay for their vodka and they’re rough on the girls. Nothing empties the club faster. I hate them.”
“So, you’ll help me?” It was hard to keep the note of hope out of her voice.
“Oh, hell no.”
At that, she jammed the muzzle into his temple. The spiked bezel dug into his skin and drew blood. “Then I might as well shoot. It could be the highlight of my day.”
“Calm your tits, Joyce. I can’t help you directly. First, I don’t have that kind of cash on hand. It’s tied up in real estate. Second, Dervishi made it clear that anyone who gave you money would owe him twice as much. However, I have a proposition for you if you’ll take that gun outta my face. I know I can depend on your trigger discipline, but I don’t want to bleed on my favorite shirt.”
Joyce stepped back and dropped her weapon to waist level. He didn’t speak as he dabbed at the wound with a chartreuse silk handkerchief. When he was finished, he poured two short shots of whiskey.
As he sipped his drink, her last bit of patience fled the building. “Talk, Barry. Now.”
His crooked smile and sly expression puzzled her. “I can’t help you. But there is someone with the juice to get you what you need and they hate the Russians even more than I do.”
Silence and a few more dabs with his hankie. She shouldered the shotgun and said, “Who?”
She hoped she’d kept her shock hidden. His smile told her she’d failed.
“Yeah. Here’s my proposition. I do some business with them on the side. I act as a, shall we say, clearinghouse for certain merchandise. Xu’s people come and go with packages and I mind my own fucking business and pocket my fee. However, a courier got himself shitfaced, thought he was in love with a dancer, and she pulled a switchblade on him. He’s in the hospital and Mr. Xu expects me to make it right. I’ll give you ten grand for walking-around money and arrange an introduction with one of Xu’s captains if you’ll deliver the package.”
“I’ll take that drink now. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Another smile, this one is triumph, as he handed her the glass.
“It’s your only chance, Joyce. Dervishi has pinched off every resource you might have in this part of the state.”
The whiskey was the good stuff and she relished the mellow burn.
“Seriously, Barry, why are you doing this?”
“I wasn’t lying about the courier. I’m in a bind. Also, you and me have history. That broken nose was the beginning of the end of my career as a thug. Yeah, even I can grow up. Second, Dervishi’s son used that knife of his on one of my girls. She was a sweetie. Not like the others. I wanted to find her a good rich daddy who’d treat her like a china doll. Junior ruined all that. After the bandages came off and she saw her face, she ate a bottle of pills. Not even a whore deserves that. You might be just the stick of dynamite I can shove up his ass. So, do I make the call?”
Joyce held out the glass for another splash and said, “Make the call.”
Barry refilled them both and said, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
To be continued…
The Exquisite Corpse (Volume 1), edited by Steve Weddle, and co-created by Nick Kolakowski was completed in April 2020, and made available as a free download in multiple formats via Do Some Damage. Please check it out and spread the word.
Volume 2 is on the way, so make sure you are caught up with the story so far!
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