Posted: October 8, 2012 in Single-run ("One off") Stories

The perfume of toasted crust, melted mozzarella and sizzling pepperoni was still faintly lingering in his nose—or perhaps just the mere illusion of it as his mind held on to the memory.

Not a new memory nor a strange one. It was the scent of a weekly tradition—Friday night pizza out with his family. His daughter’s warm hand in his as they walked through the darkness of a mid-autumn evening, and then his wife’s fingers slipping more coolly but just as comfortingly into the fingers of his free hand.

A family of three strolling down the streets of a relatively quiet urban neighborhood in New Judah, traffic relatively light and pedestrians milling about on their own journeys. As the conclusion of every Friday night dinner visit to Leonore’s Pizza called for, his journey with the two most important ladies of his life was leading them toward their car, parked on one of the side streets tonight—Oberon Street—with blessed meter-free parking thanks to the timely departure of a big Ford 250 pickup as they made their usual approach toward the main thoroughfare of Abraham Avenue, which Leonore’s and a host of other establishments called home. The gap left behind on Oberon by the truck’s departure had made for one of Douglas Jeffries’ easiest parallel parking maneuvers in weeks, given the family vehicle was a modest-sized and lovingly worn-in—though some might cynically call it “pretty beat-up”—2003 Subaru Outback.

A good night, and one to finish in the usual Friday way with a trip through the drive-through window of the Frosty Duchess.

I just keep feeling every time we go there that Jack and Kim are finally going to get sued over that name by Dairy Queen, Doug mused as they neared the street where the car was parked. Especially if the big-wigs of that chain ever find out they’ve copied every Dairy Queen product and renamed it slightly. Not much distance from a Dilly Bar to a Chilly Bar or a Blizzard to a Hailstorm.

A good night, Doug thought, and he hoped Sharon and Ruby felt the same.

And then they stepped off Abraham onto Oberon, with a sudden shift from dining and retail to quiet graystones and brick townhouses.

The blocked-off road and sidewalks about a quarter of the way down the block was unexpected, with small piles of debris and grimy puddles in between them and the Outback suggesting that a storm sewer had backed up or a sewer line burst while they had been dining. A detour sign pointed to a nearby alley, meaning a short walk to the next avenue over. A man in a white hardhat and orange vest was puttering about, scratching the back of his neck and briefly taking note of the trio as they walked past.

Doug gave him a pleasant nod, and led his family onward.

A small inconvenience that would mean a short trip to the next street, then around the corner and back down Oberon from the other direction. Get dessert, get back home, and then maybe finish his article for Good::Evil, the transhuman-news and feature magazine for which Doug worked as a regular freelance contributor. Much more satisfying and substantial kinds of articles, he thought, compared to the more shallow celebrity-style approach of SuperNews, TransWeek or PoweredPEOPLE—and even more so compared to the sensationalistic tone of Celebrity Crimefighters or excessively militant style ofCostume & Ammo—though Lord knew he’d done work for all of them to pay the bills.

Simple as could be. Dinner, dessert, a little work and then maybe settle in for a movie with Sharon before bed.

Until a van pulled up at the other end of the alley and a man hurriedly got out, as the family reached the halfway point of the alley. Doug felt Sharon’s fingers tense against his own as her urban threat radar went off in her head almost in sync with his own. With a smooth assurance, the husband and wife made a sharp U-turn, pulling Ruby with them.

“Shit shit shit shit,” muttered Sharon, and then punctuated that with a “Fuck” as both parents looked up to see the city worker coming from the end of the alley where they’d entered. Suddenly, the unexpected street blockage made a lot more sense.

A trap.

I bet he was the driver of the pickup who so helpfully provided us a space on Oberon, too, Doug decided as the man in the hardhat approached.

“What do you want?” Doug asked the faux city worker, shocked at how calm and level the words came out, given how much his guts were twisting and his legs quivering at the moment. All he could think about was how this would be a really convenient time for one of the many transhuman heroes he had profiled or written about over the years to swoop in and save the day.

The answer to his question came from behind him, though—the man in jeans and a leather jacket who’d blocked that end of the alley with his van. “Your wife and daughter will keep me company while my partner there takes a ride with you in your car and you go someplace to answer questions for our employer.”

No one was coming. No transhuman heroes. No baseline police. No one. Not in time, anyway.

“I’m just a writer; I can’t possibly have anything you…”

“A writer who knows how to contact a lot of different transhuman heroes in ways no one else knows,” answered the man dressed as a street maintenance worker, pulling out a pistol. “Your wife and girl will be fine with my friend in the van. Safe and sound, as long as you play nice. Now you come here and send them the other way.”

Safe. They’ll be safe. Or so he said.

No, they won’t, Doug reasoned. I bet I won’t live past my questioning, and I’m supposed to trust the bodies and minds of my wife and girl with a criminal?

He was torn, though. The intersection of Oberon and Abraham was so near and yet—with at least one armed man here—so far away. A world away. A nigh-unreachable physical intersection as he stood at the intersection of protecting his family or putting them at risk.

Or both.

Never let yourself be taken away. Never give the criminal control. Fight. Never trust.

“Sharon,” Doug said, very quietly and quickly. “When I say, run with Ruby ’til you can call 911. Now!”

He let go of Ruby and rushed the man with the gun. There was no time to worry if the one behind them was similarly armed. No time to worry whether Sharon and Ruby were running yet—or at all. No time to worry how close the driver of the van was. No time to worry about survival.

Only time to be a human shield and fight a hopeless battle on the slim chance it would buy time for Sharon and Ruby to reach safety.

In a split-second, it occurred to Doug that the man with the gun wouldn’t dare shoot him if his boss wanted to question him. That hope buoyed him.

I’ll ruin his shot and my ladies will get away and..

The sudden heat and weight in his chest seemed all out of proportion to the crack of the pistol just a few feet away from him, and he realized the man must have panicked and shot out of reflex when he rushed him. Doug suddenly wanted nothing more than to slump to the ground, and then wondered why he hadn’t been flung backwards by the impact of the bullet.

Because the movies always lie about such things, he thought almost giddily. Even the sound of the gun isn’t what Hollywood says it should be. So much more “pop” than “boom.”

As the heaviness increased in his chest, and it became so much harder to breathe, he wondered if his lung had been punctured. Wondered how much time he had before he couldn’t stand. Wondered if his family was running and how far they had gotten.

He pressed forward, driven by fear for his loved ones. Driven by desperation. And somewhere even deeper, driven by anger.

How dare you threaten my family. How dare…

Doug pushed forward, and there was another cracking sound, and the world seeming to turn black at the edges of his peripheral vision. A dark halo surrounding him and suffocating him. But he could still see enough to know the man with the gun seemed a little afraid, as if he wondered why the reporter in front of him wouldn’t just fall already. The second bullet seemed to enter in the same place as the first one, Doug thought. The pain seemed less this time, but the heaviness worse.

“Stop shooting him, you stupid son of a bitch!” the van driver shouted. “Stop shooting! We need him alive you moron!”

Doug heard running behind him, but focused on another task.

I need him to stop shooting me I can’t take this my family my family need time stop shooting me.

Pressing up against the man, and feeling as much as hearing the gun discharge a third time, as a hot line seemed to draw itself along the side of his torso—a flesh wound, this time, but the added pain made him swoon—Doug grabbed hold of the man’s gun with both hands, and used the only weapon he had left. He sunk his teeth in his attacker’s throat and bit deep and hard. He heard a shriek, and spun the man around. Bit down more as he shoved with mindless, brutish intensity.

Maybe he thinks I’m a transhuman who won’t die using fangs to rip out his throat if only that were true is my family safe am I gonna die am I…

There was a fourth sharp cracking sound, but this time not a bullet, as Doug realized his opponent’s skull had connected sharply with a brick wall. Suddenly, dead weight was dropping from Doug’s weak grip as the man collapsed, unconscious. The thump of a body; the thunk of a gun hitting pavement. Sounds of feet behind him.

Doug turned in a movement both sluggish and abrupt somehow, like a movie zombie smelling fresh prey, and faced the man running toward him. Refused to fall, no matter how much his chest burned and how much it hurt to breathe. No matter how rubbery his legs and how the world seemed to be sinking and spinning all around him.

Blood in his mouth, Doug heard a voice growling, “One more” and realized with a shock that it was his own.

“One more!” he roared, almost stumbling, red spittle spraying out toward the other man, who was suddenly scrambling to a confused halt, wondering as much as his partner had why this slightly potbellied, balding, middle-aged journalist wouldn’t just fall down already.

Rage is a fuel. Pain is a catalyst. And love conquers pain, Doug thought with a sudden, odd clarity. I have a duty. The blackness at the edges of his vision seemed to become something more clear and sharp, like crystal. Sharp, glassy edges to give him focus and pain to sharpen him and keep him awake. He turned sharply from a street of fading life onto a street of sharp resolve.

“I’m going to chew off your fucking balls and spit them into your mouth and make you swallow them and then I’m going to make you throw them back up,” Doug said in a snarl. “Not done yet.”

If the man possessed a gun, he clearly had forgotten about it. Or decided his would be as useless as his partner’s. He did have a knife in one hand, but that hand was trembling.

“Fresh meat,” Doug growled, feeling the clarity begin to fail him. The world getting ready to collapse on itself. His body ready to collapse with it. “Payback. No one touches them. Not on my watch.”

The second man turned and ran toward the van—Doug wondering if it was fear of him or a certainty that the prize was about to die and he needed to flee before his boss found out.

Doug realized something was weighing down his right arm, and looked down to see a bloody gun in his hand—the one that had already wounded him thrice. How? Had he picked it up? When? Before the man ran or after? Why?

What was a gun for again?

Lazily, almost confused now as to what the heavy metal thing was in his hand, Doug fired toward the running man. Once. Nothing. Twice. Nothing. A third time, and the man stumbled. Doug wasn’t sure where he’d shot him—the hip or lower back maybe.

And Doug strode, reluctant legs marching along despite the protestations of his chest and his blurring consciousness.

No. Not getting away. No more chances. Not again. Police need them both to find their boss. Revenge. Justice. Lesson.

The man got up again to limp toward the van, and Doug fired again, into his right buttock.

Shot in the ass, Doug thought, almost saying the words out loud in a giggle. So absurd. Somehow so appropriate. I can’t let you die, not matter how much I want you dead. But I can’t let you run, either.

Another bullet in the other buttock, and the man went down again, his chin striking the pavement and several white fragments flying through the darkness from his mouth. And then Doug was standing over the prone man, legs wobbling, gun trying so desperately to slip from his grip.

Another shot into his ass, then two into the back of his right kneecap and one in his left knee. And then click after click after click on an empty magazine.

I’m a magazine journalist firing on an empty magazine, his brain babbled at him. Ironic? No…no…ludicrous, maybe. Or insipid. I’m a writer and words fail me in my final moments.

With all the noise, there would be several calls into the police by now, and Doug had a sudden fear he would be shot again, a searing terror that he’d be gunned down as a presumed criminal when the police arrived, and he dropped the spent pistol. Staggered away from the man who couldn’t run now and probably couldn’t even walk—might not even be able to crawl at more than a snail’s pace.

As he walked by the first man, still unconscious, Doug kicked him in the head but couldn’t tell if there was any strength behind it.

He lumbered, and almost fell. Took several steps away from that man, thinking with a ridiculous certainty that he could reach the car well down the block when he got back to where he had entered the alley. Oblivious to the fact there was a cellphone in his pocket; that such a thing even existed and could allow him to call for help.

There was nothing in his mind but agony and exhaustion. Bullets and blades. Victims and villains. And the end of the alley, which he almost reached before he finally fell.

He could see his wife and daughter in the distance, and memories flooded back. His mind sparked again, weakly. They were not nearly close enough to Abraham Avenue to have been safe. Not close enough to be in sight of people who could help. They hadn’t run as far or as fast as they should have. But Sharon had her cell phone out, and next to her face. Making a call 911 probably.

Why didn’t they run farther? Panic-induced stupidity or blind trust in me? Doug wondered, and decided it didn’t matter. Only that they were safe. Or seemingly so. Only that they would live. He wondered as the world turned black if he would live, then decided it didn’t matter.

God,that was stupid, Doug thought, sharp clarity stabbing through him again as sharply as the pain in his chest. All of it. The right choice. Necessary. Maybe even brave. But stupid as hell, rushing a man with a gun. Then facing down a second one.

He took a deep, slow breath and groaned in agony at that simple act. As darkness gathered in his vision again, and he felt his life spilling onto the ground and into the spaces of his rib cage not already occupied by organs and bones—hovering as he did at the crossroad of life and death, he thought: If I survive this, the next question I’ll have to ask a hero during an interview is whether they do what they do because they’re brave.

Or because they’re idiots.

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