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Omega, p.18

Omega, page 18

 part  #3 of  Alpha Series



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  He answered before it had rung twice. "Layla?"

  "Yeah, it's me. I'm where you told me to go, in the trees on the median. They're right behind me, Harris, they're coming for me. Five of them, and they have big fuck-off machine guns. How did they find me, Harris? What do I do?"

  "I'm almost there. Run south, okay? Stay just inside the trees, but run south, closer to the southbound lanes. You'll know what to do when the time comes."

  "What the fuck does that mean?" I sounded shrill, but I had reason, I'd say.

  "Trust me, babe. Run south. Watch for me."



  I twisted and glanced around the trunk of the tree. They were approaching the trees, now. Shitshitshit. I took off running south, bouncing off tree trunks and ducking branches.

  Crack! Crackcrackcrackcrack! Bark exploded to my left, spraying my face with splinters. I ducked and cut right, then left, not daring to look behind me. The machine gun cracked again, and then another one, off to my left. They weren't playing around, obviously. No more orders to bring me back alive, clearly.

  Kill the bitch, I was sure they'd been told.

  I poured on speed, running as fast as I could, as hard as I could, arms in front of my face to knock aside branches. I felt something cut my right arm, followed a split second later by a snapping sound, and then the report of the machine gun. An angry buzz sounded on my left. I wasn't sure quite why, but the snap scared me more than the buzz.

  To my right, off in the distance, an engine roared; I glanced that way and saw a green SUV with a white roof bouncing at full speed across the grass. It's strange the details you notice in high-adrenaline situations: I couldn't have told you what kind of car the SUV I'd stolen was, nor the model of the jalopy I'd stolen in Sao Paulo. But somehow, in a split-second glance from over a hundred yards away, I knew the vehicle Harris was driving was a Land Rover Defender, the older kind you see used for African safaris in documentaries narrated by the late, great Richard Attenborough.

  I left the cover of the trees, machine guns still barking behind me and to my left. I ran out in the open now, risking glances every couple seconds at Harris. He didn't slow down, and as he approached behind me, I saw that his window was open and he was driving with one hand, a small black pistol in the other. I heard the bark of his pistol, saw the muzzle flash--silver dents appeared in the rear driver's side door, two, three, four, evidence that they were shooting back. Harris jerked the huge SUV to cut behind me and braked to a sudden halt, the rear end of the truck sliding and ripping up chunks of grass and spraying mud. He leaned over and threw open the door, and I leaped into the opening, landing hard on the bench. Harris didn't wait for me to get the door closed, just gunned the engine, slewing around in an arc, his right hand jerking the manual gear shifter down into second as his feet moved like lightning, popping the clutch and flooring the gas. The door swung open, bounced at the apex of its hinge-range, and then swayed toward me as the truck darted forward, hitting a hillock in the grass and going airborne. I got a handhold on the seatback and leaned out, hooked the door handle with three fingers, and jerked the door closed with a slam.

  Somehow, Harris was driving with one hand, firing his pistol out the window with the other, and still finding time to shove the shifter through third and into fourth as we picked up speed, still jouncing violently across the grass heading south.

  "I'm going to swing us around," Harris said, without looking at me. "I want you to get down under the window as we pass them." He accompanied his words with actions, downshifting to second and slamming on the brakes, hauling the wheel around so the truck juddered around in an arc, swaying and tipping precariously.

  All five of the bad guys were lined up abreast, guns lifted to shoulders, pointing at us.

  "Layla, get down!" Harris snapped.

  Gunfire erupted from all five of them, and I heard several metallic thunks as rounds hit the body of the Range Rover.

  "Fuck you," I growled. "Give me that."

  I snatched the pistol from him, held it in both hands and pointed the barrel at one of the bad guys. I squeezed the trigger, expecting the roar and the kick but still shocked by it. We passed by them so fast I wasn't sure if I'd hit anything, but it was the thought that counted.

  "You know how to shoot?" Harris seemed surprised.

  "I used to hook up with a guy who was a manager at a firing range. He showed me how."

  "Well it was a good shot," he said. "I think you winged one of 'em." He grabbed the gun back as we bounced along parallel to the northbound traffic.

  Holding the wheel and the pistol in the same hand, he shifted up into fourth and we went briefly airborne as we merged onto the blacktop, causing a pile-up when a little blue sedan had to brake and swerve to avoid us. I heard the crash behind us, but didn't spare it a look.

  "Just like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie," I said, hearing further metal-on-metal impacts.

  "You should have ducked. I fucking told you to duck, goddamn it." Oooooh shit. Harris was pissed.

  "Yeah, well...I never do what I'm told. Get used to it, buddy."

  "You want to live? You'd better learn to listen."

  "Are you really going to argue with me about this right now?" I asked, glaring at him. "You haven't even said hello."

  He stared at me, incredulous. "Hello, Miss Campari. How are you? Having a nice day? Would you care for some tea?"

  I flipped him the bird. "Don't be a dick, Nicholas."

  "I swear to fuck I'll throw you out of this car," he snarled. "Do not call me Nicholas. Not even my mother calls me that."

  "I'm having trouble reconciling the idea of you sitting in a tasteful Midwestern bungalow, drinking sun tea with your sweet little mother."

  This earned me a chuckle. "Everyone has a mother, Layla. Even me. But no, they don't live in a bungalow in the Midwest, they live in a condo in Florida. And my mother is not sweet, nor particularly little." A pause, and then he grinned at me. "Although, she does drink sun tea, funny enough."

  "What does she call you, then?"

  He didn't respond right away. "Not Nicholas," he said, eventually. He gestured behind us. "See if they're back there. Look back several car lengths."

  I twisted on the bench seat, peering into the dense traffic behind us. "Shit. Yeah, they're back there. Quite a ways back, like maybe half a mile or so, but they're there."

  "Vitaly's men don't give up. They'll keep coming until we kill them or they catch us."

  "No shit. They don't dare go back to Vitaly without results to show him," I said.

  Harris glanced at me, his gaze sharp, and his voice soft. "No?"

  I shook my head as I returned to my seat and buckled up. "No. They don't dare. He doesn't accept failure or excuses. You do what he tells you to do, or you die trying. If you show up and you haven't carried out his orders to the letter, he'll kill you. And you'll never even see it coming."

  "How does he kill them?"

  I blinked hard. "Knife to the ribs." I tapped two fingers over my heart. "He's got this switchblade, keeps it in his pocket. He'll just be talking, calm as anything. One second he's smiling, hands in his pockets, casual, the picture of understanding and congeniality. The next? That blade is between their ribs, and they're dead. He does it so fast, so easily. Doesn't even blink. I saw him do it at least six times in the four days I was his prisoner. He must pay those guys really well if they're willing to risk death any time they're in the room with him."

  "Recruit from the poor and desperate, pay them well, and they'll put up with just about anything," Harris remarked. A few minutes of silence, and then he glanced at me again. "Layla, when you were with Vitaly--"

  I shook my head, cut him off. "Not now, Harris. I can't go there right now." I focused on breathing slowly and evenly, staring straight ahead, refusing to blink, refusing to unclench my teeth. "Get me somewhere relatively safe first, and maybe I'll tell you what happened."

  Harris nodded. "I can do that." He checked his rear-
view mirror. "So I just gotta figure out how to lose these guys."

  "Do what you'd do if you were alone. Don't worry about me."

  "I just rescued you, Layla. I'm not about to put you in harm's way again."

  "Meaning you'd stop and shoot it out with them, if it were just you, right?"

  He bobbled his head side to side. "I'd ambush them."

  "So let's ambush them."

  "No offense, Layla, but I'm a highly trained combat veteran, and you're--"

  "I stabbed a guy in the eyeball with a pen I'd kept hidden in my cunt for over a week. I shoved it so far into his fucking brain that he died instantly. And that was after I broke his arm like a twig. I did this because he was in the process of raping me. I put on his blood-soaked clothes, his smelly boots--I had to wear his clothes because Vitaly had kept me naked the entire time--and I stole a car, stopped for supplies, drove to fucking Guaruja, walked several miles in the blazing heat, most of that distance either in the sand or uphill, without having any food or water. And then I stole a car right out from underneath the very men who were hunting me." I was getting a little worked up at this point. "And then--and then!--then I was nearly shot several times just now by those assholes back there. So I think at this point, Nicholas, there isn't much that's going to faze me. Figure out how you want to ambush these fuckers, and I'll help you kill every single goddamn one of those pussies."

  Harris's jaw worked up and down, as if he was trying to respond but didn't actually have any words. "Jesus, Layla."

  "If you were hoping for a damsel in distress, you've got the wrong bitch. I may be in distress, but I'm sure as shit not a fucking helpless damsel."

  A long, tense moment passed, in which Harris tried to figure out what to say. "You called me Nicholas again."

  "Yes I did, and you can either deal with it or shove me out of the car. I don't care. I'll figure this shit out, one way or another, with you or without you."

  "You're fucking impossible," he grumbled.

  I laughed. "You're just now figuring that out?"

  He shook his head. "No, you're just reaching an all-time-high impossibility factor."

  "Buddy, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

  "That's a scary thought," Harris said.

  "I'm from Detroit. Don't fuck with me." I crossed my arms over my chest and kept an eye on the passenger-side mirror, watching as the black SUV closed the distance. "They're getting closer. If you've got a plan, I'd start putting it into play if I were you."

  A body of water rippled pale blue in the distance; traffic was getting thicker and thicker by the moment.

  Harris gestured at the water. "Once we're past this causeway, we'll be hitting Batistini. I'll make my move there."

  "What's in Batistini?" I asked.

  "There isn't shit in Batistini, it's just the first suburb of Sao Paulo we'll get to. It's hard to ambush someone in the car on the freeway."

  "I guess that's true. But I've never ambushed anyone, so I wouldn't know."

  We were on the causeway that stretched out over the lake, and a sign over the road announced the exits for Batistini. It struck me as funny that despite the fact that I was in a totally different country and that I didn't speak, read, or write the language in the slightest, the highway signs were totally understandable anyway. I mean, I didn't understand the words, but based on the layout of the sign, saida was probably equivalent to "exit", and diadema was close enough to "diadem" that it probably represented the ring of highways around the city of Sao Paulo.

  Harris took the exit for Batistini, and sure enough, the SUV behind us followed, staying at least four or five car-lengths behind us. Obviously they had no intention of pushing the confrontation on the highway either. Too much risk of things going wrong in our favor, I guess. When we hit the residential area--which was a graffiti-tagged, run-down area--Harris gunned the engine and pulled away from our pursuers, twisted around a tight right turn, gunned it again so the tires spat gravel, pushing me back in my seat, the engine roaring. I heard tires squealing behind us, still several car-lengths back. I revised my estimate of the area as being poor, simply judging based on the number of well-kept cars parked on the street.

  Another long straightaway, a left turn, and then we were on a narrow gravel road running parallel to the highway, the scrub-covered hillside leading up to the highway on our left, a cinderblock wall hiding a junk yard on the right, full of rusting semi trailers, ancient buses, and random bits of metal. Harris pulled into a driveway, the highway on our left, a ramshackle warehouse or factory on the right. There was a short, low awning under which Harris parked the Land Rover. The outside of the warehouse on our right had been roofed over to create a porch, and on this makeshift porch was a cluster of middle-aged men, all of them hard-bitten and hard-eyed, weathered faces lined with wrinkles, sweat dotting their foreheads, brown glass bottles of beer in their hands, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. As Harris and I exited the Land Rover--which was older by a decade than I was, at least--the men on the porch stared at us, unblinking, mute. They were giving us the kind of stares a blond white girl would get if she were strolling down Cass Corridor at midnight. The kind of stares that say, "You are in the wrong neighborhood, and you'd best keep going if you know what's good for you."

  Harris circled around to the back of the Defender, opened the trunk, and hauled out a huge black duffel bag. He hung the bag on his shoulder, and it gave a heavy, ominous clank as he did so. One of the men on the porch said something in Portuguese, and if I was any judge of tone of voice, it wasn't polite. Harris reached behind his back and leveled the pistol at the man who'd spoken, stepping closer to the porch in that quick, careful, lithe movement men trained in combat all seem to use, keeping his torso swiveled to the side, presenting as small a target as possible. Harris spoke in fluent Portuguese, his voice low and smooth and even, but still somehow fairly snarling with threat. He gestured with the pistol, and the entire cluster of men stood up, gripping their beer and cigarettes, and vanished into the warehouse.

  "Do I want to know what you told them?" I asked.

  "No," was all he said, and grabbed me by the hand and hauled me across the road, where a break in the wall had been hastily boarded over with lengths of two-by-fours and scraps of corrugated iron.

  I climbed over the jury-rigged fence and then waited for Harris, who pulled me out of sight and used one hand to press me flat against the intact portion of the cinderblock wall.

  He set the heavy bag down at his feet and wiped his brow with his palm, then wiped his palm on his khakis. "Please listen to me very carefully now, Layla, all right? If we're going to have any chance of getting out of this alive, you have got to do as I say."

  I blinked sweat out of my eye and nodded at him. "Tell me what to do, Nicholas."

  He narrowed his eyes at me. "First, stop calling me that."

  "How about Nick?"

  He shook his head, irritated. "This isn't the time for this shit, Layla. Sure, Nick works. Now, are you done mouthing off?"

  "I wasn't mouthing off, actually, but if you want to see what that sounds like, I can--"

  "Jesus, Layla. Shut the fuck up and listen, would you?" he snarled. I shut my mouth with an audible click of my teeth, and gestured for him to continue. "Thank you. There's five of them, and two of us. You're not trained in the use of assault rifles, I'm assuming--correct me if I'm wrong, as you have a knack for surprising me. Point is, that's what they're carrying. What that means for us is this is gonna get gnarly. Bullets will be flying hot and heavy. I'm gonna put you in a position, and you're going to stay there, come hell or high water, until I tell you otherwise. You got it?"

  I nodded. "Got it."

  "I mean it. You stay...there. I don't care what you see or think you see, you stay fucking put. And keep your head down." An engine roared somewhere, and tires squealed. Harris cocked his head, listening. "They're close. We don't have much time."

  He unzipped the duffel bag, and sure as shit, it was full of gun
s. "Well fuck me running, Harris, where the hell'd you get your hands on all that?"

  "You forget I work for an ex-arms dealer," he responded, digging a pair of black 9mm semiautomatics out of the bag and handing them to me.

  "I didn't actually know that," I said. "Roth was an arms dealer? No shit."

  He glanced at me, digging four spare clips out of the bag and handing them to me as well. "Well, now you know." He gestured at the guns in my hand. "You can reload those, right?"

  I showed him I could by ejecting the clip, checking it, and sliding it back in place, tapping it home with the hell of my palm--gently, contrary to popular silver-screen mythology. "Where do you want me?"

  He pulled a short, compact assault rifle out of the bag, unfolded the stock, stuffed extra magazines in his back pockets, and slung the weapon by the strap on his shoulder and let it hang, then grabbed another handgun, this one a monster silver thing straight out of Dirty Harry. Zipping the bag, he secured it on his back and then led me at a trot through the knee-high grass toward the row of rusting trailers. There were a good half a dozen metal drums lying scattered in the grass, the kind of thing you'd see hobos warming their hands over in movies. Harris rolled one to lay between two closely parked trailers, grabbed a second and righted it, hauled it over, and then tipped a third to lay against both of the others, creating a makeshift barricade. The wall behind me was fully intact and all of ten feet high, so I didn't think anyone would be coming up from behind. I tucked the spare pistol into my waistband at my back--which is not as comfortable as TV would have you imagine--and the clips in my pockets.

  Lying down prone, I glanced up at Harris. "Well? Don't just stand there, doofus. Go find your own spot."

  He shook his head at me, a smirk quirking the corner of his mouth. When he was gone I closed my eyes and let myself feel the fear. I was fucking terrified, to put it frankly. None of this was normal, even for me. I'd been through some shit in my life, but lying in wait, preparing to ambush men who were trying to kill me? It was new. And not fun.

  I do not recommend it.

  But I've learned something important in going through all the crazy-ass bullshit life has thrown at me: if something heavy is about to go down, give yourself a moment to feel the emotions. Let them go, let them out, let them boil. And then shut it down--hard--and do what you gotta do.

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