She turned her head and leaned to look into the front seat.
As she expected, Kevin’s machine pistol was on the passenger’s seat, within his easy reach. Big magazine. Thirty rounds.
“Okay, Kevin, carefully use your right hand to pop the lock release, with the emphasis on carefully, and then put it back on the headrest.”
“Don’t get nervous and waste me for nothing.”
“I’m not nervous,” she said, and the steadiness of her voice astonished her, because she was shaking inside if not out, shaking like field mouse in the shadow of an owl’s wings.
“Gonna just do what you say.” Kevin slowly lowered his right hand from behind his head.
Martie glanced quickly at Zachary, who was keeping his hands high, beside his face, in order not to alarm her, even though she hadn’t told him to do that—and she should have told him—and then she looked into the front seat once more.
As Kevin’s hand seemed to float down toward the lock release, he said, “I like to play Carmageddon. You know that game?”
“I’d figure you for Kingpin,” she said.
“Hey, that’s some cool action, too.”
He pressed the rocker switch.
What happened next seemed to have been planned between the two men telepathically.
The locks released with an audible sound.
Instantly, Zachary threw open the back door and rolled out, and from the corner of Martie’s eye, she saw him reaching down to scoop the machine pistol off the floor as he went.
Even as Martie squeezed off two shots at the departing redhead and sensed that at least one might have hit its mark, Kevin dropped sideways onto the front seat and grabbed his weapon.
Her second round still booming like cannon fire in the confines of the car, Martie went to the floor, out of Kevin’s line of sight, pointed the Colt at the back of the front seat, and rapid-fired a horizontal spread of one-two-three-four rounds into the upholstery, not sure if the slugs would punch through all that padding and support structure.
Vulnerable from the front and above. Nothing preventing Kevin from returning fire through the seat, and him with thirty rounds to find her. If unhit, he might rise up, shoot down on her. Vulnerable, too, from the open door from Zachary outside with the second machine pistol. Couldn’t stay. Move, move. Even as she fired the fourth round into the seat, she scrambled for safety.
She dared not waste time backing up to open the door behind her, so she went out of the door that Zachary had opened, maybe straight into a hard barrage, with only one round remaining in her seven-round magazine.
No barrage. Zachary—for me, the emphasis is on hump—wasn’t waiting for her. He was hit, down, though not dead. With at least one and possibly two bullets in his broad back, the rugged beast was struggling onto his hands and knees.
Martie spotted what he was crawling toward. His pistol. When he’d gone down, the piece had tumbled out of his hand. It lay about ten feet in front of him on the snow-dusted ground.
All survival mechanism now, Sunday school and civilization no match for the savage in her heart, she kicked him in the ribs, and he grunted in pain, tried to grab her, but then he fell forward onto his face.
Heart knocking, knocking so hard that her vision pulsed, dimming at the edges with each beat. Throat crimped tight with fear. Breath falling like chunks of ice into her lungs, then rattling noisily out of her. She skated past Zachary to the machine pistol. Snatched it off the ground, expecting to be lifted and pitched by the powerful impact of multiple rounds in the back.
Dusty locked in the trunk of the BMW. Desperately shouting her name. Pounding on the inside of the lid.
Amazed to be alive, she dropped the Colt. Spun with the new weapon in both hands, squinting into snowy murk, searching for a target, but Kevin hadn’t been behind her. The driver’s door was closed. She couldn’t see him in the car.
Maybe he was dead on the front seat.
Maybe he wasn’t.
Hardly any glow remained in the winter sky. Not the color of gypsum anymore. Ashes now, and pure soot in the east. The falling snow was much brighter than the fading realm above, as if these were flakes of light, the last bits of day shaken loose and cast out by an impatient night.
Pearlescent in the car’s headlights, the snow—curtains behind curtains behind more curtains of snow—played tricks on the eye, and shadowy shapes seemed to steal through it where, in fact, no shadows moved at all.
In a genuflection to God-given instinct, Martie dropped onto one knee, making a smaller target of herself, surveying the gloom and the bright wedges thrown by the headlights, searching for any movement other than the relentless and utterly vertical descent of snow, snow, snow.
Zachary lay facedown, unmoving. Dead? Unconscious? Faking? Better keep one eye on him.
In the trunk of the car, Dusty was still calling her name, and now he was desperately trying to kick his way through into the backseat.
“Quiet!” she shouted. “I’m all right. Quiet. One down, maybe two. Quiet, so I can hear.”
Dusty fell silent at once, but now in spite of the hoofbeat thunder of Martie’s own galloping heart, she realized the car was idling. Clock-work engine. Heavy, damping muffler: just a soft, low whump-whump-whump.
Nevertheless, there was enough noise to mask any sounds Kevin might make if he was lying, wounded, in the car.
Wiping laces of snow off her eyelashes, she rose slightly from her crouch, squinting, and saw that the front door on the passenger’s side of the BMW was open. She hadn’t noticed it before. Whether wounded or not, Kevin was out of the car and on the move.
Arriving at Green Acres well ahead of the unsuspecting Jennifer and the two idiot nephews of Miss Jane Marple, Dr. Ahriman went into the restaurant to select a takeout snack to curb his appetite until dinner, which he would most likely have to postpone until late this evening, depending on events.
The corn-pone decor stunned his sensibilities, and he felt as though someone had rapped a shiny steel reflex hammer lightly against the exposed surface of the frontal lobe of his cerebrum. Oak-plank flooring. Country-plaid fabrics. Striped gingham curtains. Horrid stained-glass depictions of wheat sheaves, ears of corn, green beans, carrots, broccoli, and other examples of Mother Nature’s vast bounty separated one booth from another. When he saw the waitresses wearing blue-denim, bib-style culottes and red-and-white checkered shirts, with small straw hats barely larger than skullcaps, he nearly fled.
He stood by the cashier’s station, reading the menu, which he
found more gruesome than any set of autopsy photographs he had ever perused. He would have thought that a restaurant offering such grim fare must go bankrupt in a month, but even at this early hour, the place had business. Diners were stuffing their flushed faces with enormous green salads glistening with yogurt dressing, steaming bowls of meatless soup, egg-white omelets with stacks of dry cracked-wheat toast, veggie burgers as appetizing as peat moss, and gloppy masses of tofu-potato casserole.
Appalled, he wanted to ask the hostess why the restaurant didn’t carry this insane theme one step further, to its logical fulfillment. Simply line the customers up at a trough or scatter their meals on the floor and allow them to graze barefoot at their leisure, baaing and mooing as they pleased.
Preferring to be ravaged by hunger rather than to eat anything on this menu, the doctor hopefully turned his attention to the big, individually wrapped cookies displayed near the cash register. A hand-lettered sign proudly proclaimed that they were HOMEMADE AND WHOLESOME. Rhubarb-apple crisps. No. Bean-nut butter macaroons. No. Sweet carrot gingersnaps. No. He was so excited by the very sight of the fourth and last variety that he had his wallet out of his pocket before he realized they were not chocolate-chip cookies but were made instead of carob morsels, goat’s milk, and rye flour.
“We have this one other” the hostess said, sheepishly producing a basket of cellophane-wrapped cookies that had been hidden behind a display of dried fruit. “They don’t sell very well. We’re going to stop carrying them.” She held the basket at arm’s length, blushing as though she were pushing pornographic videos. “Chocolate-coconut bars.”
“Real chocolate, real coconut?” he asked suspiciously.
“Yes, but I assure you—no butter, margarine, or hydrogenated vegetable shortening.”
“Nevertheless, I’ll take them all,” he said.
“But there are nine here.”
“Yes, fine, all nine,” he said, scattering money on the counter in his haste to make the purchase. “And a bottle of apple juice if that’s the best you’ve got.”
The chocolate-coconut bars were three dollars apiece, but the hostess was so relieved to be shed of them that she let the doctor have all nine for eighteen dollars, and he returned to his El Camino more exuberant than he could have imagined being only moments ago.
Ahriman had positioned himself so that he enjoyed a clear view of both the entrance to the parking lot and the front door of Green Acres. He was settled behind the wheel, slumped in his seat, working on the second cookie, when Jennifer strode out of the rapidly fading afternoon.
Her stride was as quick and impressively long as it had been at the start of her trek, and her arms swung with undiminished vigor. Her ponytail bounced cheerily. Looking as though she had not raised the slightest sweat, she churned toward Green Acres, shiny-eyed and clearly eager to sit down to the finest of fodder and slops.
Creeping after Jennifer at an indiscreet distance, spewing blue exhaust fumes, as conspicuous as a spawned and flatulent fox on the trail of a rabbit, the aging pickup with camper shell entered the lot just as the ponytailed quarry opened the door to Green Acres and took her well-muscled haunches inside. They parked closer to the doctor than he would have preferred; but they would have been oblivious of him even if he had been sitting in a Rose Parade float, wearing a Carmen Miranda banana hat.
They waited a few minutes, apparently discussing their options, and then the blushing man got out of the truck, stretched, and went into Green Acres, leaving Skeet alone.
Perhaps they suspected that Jennifer had come here to meet the doctor himself, for a romantic tête-a-tête over bowls of bran mash and platters of steamed squash.
Ahriman considered walking over to the pickup, opening Skeet’s door, and trying to access him with Dr. Yen Lo. If it worked, he might be able to bring Skeet back to the El Camino and drive away with him before the other man returned.
Skeet’s program didn’t always function properly, however, due to the unfortunate custard consistency of his drug-addled brain, and if the encounter didn’t go smoothly, then the pie-faced partner might catch the doctor in the act.
He couldn’t just walk over to the truck and shoot Skeet, either, because with twilight, multitudes of the terminally taste-challenged were driving into the restaurant lot. Witnesses were witnesses, after all, regardless of whether they were gourmets or gourmands.
The blushing man came out of the restaurant and returned to the pickup truck, and after only two minutes, both he and Skeet went into Green Acres. Evidently they were going to conduct surveillance of Jennifer while shoveling down some swill of their own.
The doctor’s mood was ever rising, because he expected to have a clear shot at both men, in a suitably private setting, before the night was out, and then a dinner fit for a predator. He intended to use all ten shots in the magazine, whether he needed them or not, just for the fun of it.
The threatened rain had never fallen, and now the clouds were breaking apart in the twilight, revealing stars. This pleased the doctor, too. He liked stars. He’d once wanted to be an astronaut.
He was halfway through his third cookie when he saw something that threatened to spoil his wonderful mood. One row away and east in the parking lot stood a beautiful white Rolls-Royce with tinted windows, traditional hood ornament, and polished titanium hubcaps. He was shocked that anyone wealthy enough to own a Rolls and refined enough to choose to drive such a motorcar would come to Green Acres for dinner other than at gunpoint.
This truly was a dying culture. Rampant capitalism had spread wealth so widely that even root-chewing, grass-grazing vulgarians could drive in royal equipage to dine at the vegetarian equivalent of a Wienerschnitzel franchise.
The sight of this vehicle here, of all places, was enough to make the doctor want to consign his vintage Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to the nearest hydraulic automobile crusher. He looked away from the white beauty and vowed not to look again. To put the depressing sight out of his mind, he started the El Camino, popped a classic-radio tape of old Spike Jones programs into the cassette deck, and concentrated on his cookie.
On three sides, the ghost village. In centuries past, watchfires and tallows burning, mica-lens lanterns holding back the night. Now, no resistance to the frigid dark. Populated by wraiths, perhaps all of them merely figures of snow, perhaps some spirits.
To the south, behind Martie, half seen in the murk, stood broken and weathered adobe walls, two stories in places, a few feet high in others, with deep-set window openings. Doorless doorways led to rooms more often than not roofless and filled with debris, inhabited in warm weather by tarantulas and scorpions.
In the east, better revealed by the car headlights but still resist-ant to full revelation, tall fractured chimneys of stone rose from round stone formations: perhaps ancient ovens or fireplaces.
North lay the low curving walls of a structure largely blocked from view by the BMW.
Surprisingly, looming throughout the crescent of ruins were tall cottonwoods. In addition to the deep well that Zachary had mentioned, there must be water near the surface, within reach of roots.
Kevin could be circling Martie, moving from one crumbling structure to the next, from tree to tree. She had to get out of the open, but she dreaded the thought of stalking him—and being stalked—through this strange and ancient place.
In a crouch, she hurried to the car and huddled against the rear tire on the driver’s side.
The back door was open. Pale light from the ceiling fixture.
She dropped flat and risked a quick look under the car. Kevin wasn’t there.
In the backwash of headlights, the thin mantle of snow on the far side of the BMW was aglow. From this ground-level perspective, the otherwise pristine whiteness appeared in one place to have been disturbed by someone heading away from the car.
Rising into a crouch again, she leaned into the light that came from within the BMW, and she examined the machine pistol to make sure that nothing about it would surprise her if and when she was forced to use it. The extended magazine scared her. From the high ammo capacity, she inferred that the pistol was fully automatic, not just semi, and she didn’t have much confidence in her ability to control such a powerful weapon.
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