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…