Her hands were cold, too. Fingers growing numb.
She closed the rear door and leaned with her back against it, studying Zachary. He remained motionless, facedown on the ground. If he was faking unconsciousness, waiting for her to lower her guard, he was supernaturally patient.
Before she could concentrate on Kevin, she had to know whether this man was still a threat.
After consideration, she approached him boldly rather than with caution, moving in fast and poking the muzzle of the machine pistol against the nape of his neck.
He didn’t move.
She pulled back the collar of his quilted ski jacket and pressed her cold fingers against his throat, searching for a carotid-artery pulse. Nothing.
His head was turned to one side. She thumbed back his eyelid. Even in the poor light, his fixed stare was unmistakable.
Guilt sutured her heart and mind together, so that the thought of what she had done caused stitches of pain to pull in her breast. She would never be the same person again, for she had taken a life. Although circumstances had given her no option but to kill or be killed, and though this man had chosen to serve evil and to serve it well, the gravity of Martie’s action weighed on her nonetheless, and she felt diminished in more ways than she could count. Gone was a certain innocence that she would never be able to regain.
And yet, cohabiting with the guilt was a sense of gratification, a cold and keenly felt satisfaction that she had acquitted herself so well thus far, that her and Dusty’s odds of survival had improved, and that she had shattered the gunmen’s smug assumptions of superior power. A thrill of righteousness filled her, and she found it simultaneously heartening and terrifying.
To the car once more, to the front door on the driver’s side, slowly rising until she could see through the window. The door open on the passenger’s side. Kevin gone. Blood on the seat.
Crouching below the window again, she thought about what she had seen. At least one of the four rounds she had fired through the seat must have struck him. There hadn’t been a lot of blood, but any at all meant that he was hurting and at a disadvantage.
The keys were in the car ignition. Switch off the engine, open the trunk, free Dusty? Then it would be two against one.
No. Kevin might be waiting for her to go after the keys, might have a clear line of sight on the interior of the car, through the open passenger’s door. Even if she obtained the keys without being shot, she would be an easy target when she stood at the back of the car, fumbling at the lock and opening the trunk lid.
Although she loathed the idea, the safest thing seemed to be to retreat across this clearing into the ruins to the south. Use the cover of the crumbling structures and the cottonwoods to circle east, then north. Get around to the other side of the car, where Kevin had gone. If she made a wide enough loop, she might come in behind the northern position from which he was covering the BMW.
Of course, maybe he wasn’t hunkered down and watching the car
from a fixed position. He might be on the move, too, doing the same thing that she was doing, just in reverse. Using the long-abandoned village and the trees to travel east, then south. Circling in search of her.
If she had to stalk him through the adobe-and-cottonwood maze, while he, too, was on the prowl, her chances of being the one to come out alive were dismal. She no longer had the advantage of surprise. And though he was wounded, he was the pro, skilled at this, and she was the amateur. Luck didn’t favor amateurs.
Luck didn’t favor the hesitant, either. Action.
Action would be Kevin’s motto, as well, drummed into him by whatever military or paramilitary specialists had trained him, and probably also by hard experience. She suddenly knew that he would be on the move, and that the last thing he might be expecting from a video-game designer and a housepainter’s wife would be for her to follow him boldly, seeking him out by as direct a route as she could possibly take.
Maybe this was true. Maybe it wasn’t. She convinced herself, nevertheless, that she should neither circle behind him nor lie in wait for him to appear, but aggressively pursue, tracking him by whatever spoor he had left in the fresh snow.
She didn’t dare cross through the headlights. Might as well just shoot herself and save him the ammunition.
Instead, she retreated in a crouch along the side of the car, away from the headlights. Against the rear fender, she hesitated, but then she moved around to the back of the BMW.
The red taillights were far dimmer than the blaze of headlamps, but the falling snowflakes turned to blood when they passed through the glow. The billowing exhaust was a sanguinary mist.
The plumes of vapor gave Martie cover but also blinded her, a crimson immersion, a fearful baptismal passage. Then she was out of the churning cloud, exposed and vulnerable on the north side of the car.
Action that seemed bold in the planning now seemed reckless in the execution. Staying low, but still a choice target, she angled at a run to the tracks leading from the open front door of the BMW.
Footsteps and drops of blood, half covered by the falling snow, revealed that Kevin had gone toward the round adobe structure, forty feet away.
She hadn’t been able to see this building clearly from the other side of the car. Now that she had a better view, she found the place more rather than less mysterious. A six-foot-high wall curving away into the darkness. The suggestion of a low domed roof. Hard to judge the diameter of the structure from this one aspect, but surely thirty or forty feet. Stairs, flanked by decorative stepped walls, led to the roof, where the entrance appeared to be located, and the logical deduction was that most of the building lay underground.
The word came to her from a documentary that she had once seen. Kiva, a subterranean ceremonial chamber, the spiritual center of the village.
As Martie hurried farther from the car, the shadows grew deeper, and by the second, torrents of snow obscured the spoor. The trail remained clear enough, however, because the footprints deteriorated into broad shuffle marks, and the spots of blood were replaced by more liberal spatters.
Her heart a tom-tom, her eardrums vibrating with a sympathetic beat, she followed him to the steps, dreading the possibility that he had climbed to the roof, had then gone down into the kiva, and was waiting there in the smooth round darkness. At the steps, however, he had hesitated, losing more blood, and then he had continued along the curving wall.
Martie moved with her back against the adobe, sidling around the kiva into ever deeper darkness, beyond the last reflection of the BMW headlights, holding the machine pistol with both hands, finger tense upon the trigger. The deep pitchy shadows were relieved only by the faintly luminous cassock of snow spread across the ground and by the phosphorescent falling flakes.
Muffled by the intervening structure and by skeins of snow, the idling car engine faded until it was barely louder than an imagined sound, and something near to silence settled around her. She listened for her quarry, for the scrape of footsteps or ragged breathing, but she heard nothing.
Even in this gloom, she was able to follow Kevin, though hardly at all by the marks that his shuffling feet had left. Now only the blood was clear enough to lead her, a drizzle of blackness across the virgin snow, laid down in looping script, as though he were writing the same number over and over again, and she thanked God that there was so much of it.
Instantly, Martie cringed at having expressed gratitude for the blood of another human being, and yet she could not repress a flush of pride at her effectiveness. This pride, she warned herself, might yet earn her a few bullets of her own.
Inching, inching, inching sideways, she remembered now and then to glance back the way she’d come, in case he’d circled the building and stolen in behind her. While looking back, she knocked her left foot against an object on the ground, and turning her head, she saw a dark shape more geometric than the patterns of blood. The clatter had been distinctive.
She froze, afraid she’d been revealed by the noise, but she was frozen also by disbelief. Not daring to hope, she finally slid down along the kiva wall, squatting, to touch the thing she’d kicked.
The second machine pistol.
She would need both hands to control the weapon already in her possession. She pushed Kevin’s dropped gun behind her, no longer worried that he might be creeping up from that direction.
Ten steps farther, she saw his large huddled form, his splayed legs dark against the snowy ground. He was slumped against the kiva wall, as though he had traveled all day on foot and was profoundly weary.
She stood just out of his reach, the machine pistol trained on him, waiting for her eyes to adapt even more fully to the unforgiving night. His head was tipped to his left. His arms hung at his sides.
As far as she could see, he produced no plume of breath.
On the other hand, there was insufficient light here to reflect upon the vapor. She couldn’t see her own breath, either.
Finally Martie moved closer, crouched, and gingerly pressed her freezing fingers to his throat, as she had done with Zachary. If he was still alive, she couldn’t walk away and leave him to die alone. She wasn’t able to bring help in time to save him, and even if help could have been gotten, she didn’t dare seek it under these circumstances, with possible charges of murder hanging over her. She could stand witness to his death, however, a vigil, because no one, even such a man as this, ought to die alone.
An arrhythmic pulse. A flush of hot breath across the back of her hand.
Like a spring-loaded trap, his hand flew up, seized her wrist.
She fell out of her squat, onto her back, squeezing the trigger. The pistol leaped with recoil in her hand, and bullets tore uselessly into the high branches of a nearby cottonwood.
Time out of whack, seconds as long as minutes, minutes as long as hours, here in the trunk of the BMW.
Martie had told Dusty to wait, to be quiet, because she needed to hear movement out there. One down, she had said. One down, and maybe two.
The maybe was the source of his terror. This little maybe was like the culturing medium in a petri dish, breeding fear rather than bacteria, and Dusty was already sick half to death with what it had bred.
From the moment they had put him in the trunk, he had blindly explored the space, especially along the bottom of the lid, searching for a latch release. He couldn’t find one.
In a side well, a few tools. A combination lug wrench, jack handle, and pry bar. But even if the locked lid could be pried open, the leverage would have to be applied from outside, not from within.
The thought of her alone with them, and then the gunfire, and now the silence. Just the ticking of the engine, a low vibration in the floor of the trunk. Waiting, waiting, feverish with terror. Waiting, until finally the waiting was unendurable.
Lying on his side, he worked the blade end of the crowbar along the edges of the carpeted panel on the forward wall of the trunk, popped staples, bent the edges of the panel, got his fingers around it, and with considerable effort tore it out of the way, flattened it on the floor.
He put the crowbar aside, rolled onto his back, drew his knees toward his chest as far as the cramped space would allow, and jackhammered his feet into the forward wall of the trunk, which was formed by the backseat of the car. And again, again, and a fourth time, a fifth, gasping for breath, his heart booming——but not booming so loud that he failed to hear another burst of gunfire, the hard ugly chatter of a fully automatic weapon, in the distance, tat—tat—tat—tat—tat—tat.
Maybe two down. Maybe not.
Martie didn’t have a machine pistol The creeps had them.
He held his breath, listening, but there was not immediately another burst of fire.
Again, he kicked, kicked, kicked, until he heard plastic or fiberboard crack, felt something shift. A ribbon-thin line of pale light in the blackness. Light from the passenger compartment. He swiveled around, pressing with his hands, putting his shoulder to it, heaving.
The dying man expended the last of his strength when he clutched Martie’s wrist, perhaps not with the intention of harming her, but to get her keen attention. When she fell out of her squat and onto her back, squeezing off eight or ten rounds into the tree, Kevin’s hand let go and dropped away from her.
As pieces of branches rattled down through the huge cottonwood, clicked off the kiva wall, and plopped in the snow, Martie scrambled backward and then onto her knees, gripping the machine pistol with both hands again. She trained the weapon on Kevin but didn’t squeeze the trigger.
The last bits of cottonwood descended as Martie managed to stop gasping, and in the returning quiet, the man wheezed, “Who are you?”
She thought he must be delirious in these last moments of his life, his mind cloudy from the loss of so much blood.
“Better make your peace,” she advised gently, because she could think of nothing else to say. This would have been the only valuable counsel anyone could have given even if this man had been a saint, and it was only more apt considering how far removed from saintliness he was.
When he summoned enough breath to speak again, the judgment of delirium seemed hasty. His voice as thready as any cloth that had been woven millennia ago: “Who are you, really?” She could barely see the faint shine of his eyes. “What were we. . . dealing with. . . in you?”
A chill passed through Martie, unrelated to the cold night or to the snow, for she was reminded of the similar questions that Dusty had asked about Dr. Ahriman, just before they rounded the turn in the ranch road and ran over the spike strip.
“Who... . . are you... . really?” Kevin asked once more.
He choked and then gagged on a thickness rising in his throat. The crisp air became brittle with a coppery scent that steamed out of him with his last breath, and blood flooded from his mouth.
At his passing, there was not even an eddy in the snow, neither the briefest glimpse of the occluded moon nor the faintest stirring through the trees. In this regard, her death, when sooner or later it came, would be like his: the world indifferent, turning smoothly onward toward the fascination of another dawn.
As in a dream, Martie rose from the dead man and stood, chilled and half bewildered, unable to find an answer to his final question.
She followed in her footsteps and in his, returning by the route that had brought her to him. Once, she leaned against the kiva wall. And then went on.
Curving toward the light, through hard-falling snow that seemed eternal, Martie held the pistol ready in both hands, troubled by an almost superstitious sense that a dangerous creature still was afoot, but then she lowered the weapon when she realized that hers were the eyes through which this dangerous creature studied the night.
To the clearing, toward the idling car, the encircling ruins. The world steadily dissolving and spinning away in the snowfall.
Dusty, having freed himself, was following a swiftly blurring trail of footprints and blood.