Fairfax blinked away his surprise. I had never asked for help before. Clearly, something was wrong.
It had been building for far too long. He might have possessed an inkling of my struggles, but knew far from the entirety. Which, of course, had been a deliberate precaution. In that moment, however, I had resolved to believing his complete innocence. Any involvement on his part in the dastardly plot against me didn’t logically follow his character.
Now, with the low mumbles of the station awkwardly resonating around us, he finally composed himself.
“Pray share, old friend, what ails you?”
“I’ll tell you in the car.”
I had to trust the chief could appropriately handle the after-shocks of my recklessness. A criminal had been apprehended. Maybe a man had been illegally detained. If it ever entered public knowledge, all he had to stress was that a vigilante had improperly escorted a man into an interrogation room. That it would ultimately correspond with collecting a person of interest was an inadvertent but happy coincidence.
I was occupied by larger concerns. Though I didn’t necessarily distrust Fairfax, I still hadn’t yet determined how far he could be trusted, innocent or not. Concealing my nervousness was easy. He couldn’t read the patterns strewn across my face. I didn’t want to convey the importance of the interview he was about to experience.
We departed swiftly, facing no opposition. Only once outside did he require assistance in navigating towards my car, after which we were away.
“Please assuage my doubts, Mr Howler, for I’m gaining the distinct sense a kidnapping is unfolding.”
“What’s leading you towards that conclusion?”
“Upon issuing an unusual request, you’ve bundled me into your vehicle with no further comment. How long am I to presume urgency and secrecy bind your lips?”
“Well, you’ve been very patient. Good job.” I was barely pulling out of the station.
“What’s wrong, Mr Howler?”
“I’m sure you remember my mentioning the dramatic appearance of a mysterious nemesis some months ago, complete with the delivery of a cryptic message. Their activities have now escalated rather worryingly.”
“Not overwhelmingly perplexing. A single sheet of paper always was a passive opening. You surely anticipated further developments?”
“Yes, and it’s within that context I’m trying to ascertain what exactly the note meant. The various incidents I’ve faced don’t seem to comply with a comprehensible explanation. The methods and motives are too disparate.”
“Perchance, are multiple antagonists on the horizon? You have yet to elaborate on these subsequent incidents, though I must believe they have not been letter-related.”
“Good instinct, though I’m fairly sure it’s one person. Still, why alert me with high-minded sequences only to later descend into violence?”
“That rewards your opponent by considering a definitive plan has been pursued all these months. Tactics might simply have shifted over this course.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“I must confess, despite having an accurate translation of the original note, the underlying meaning remains fleeting from my grasp. Ignoring, of course, the obvious overtones of death they wish to impart.”
“Apt analysis. Basically, I’m in pressing danger with no hope of uncovering who’s responsible.”
“I fancy your odds of rectifying that position.”
“Well, we’re headed in the right direction for it. What have you been up to recently?” He paused momentarily before answering.
“Actually, a case of interest. The prosecution against Graham Sheeves is blossoming fruitfully. He’s confessed with little resistance upon most accusations, which always expedites the process.”
“I can admit we were all probably lucky. My gamble was obscenely rash in hindsight. Thankfully, he was definitively guilty. It came only to a matter of what specific acts he had committed.”
“How much did I get right? He was abusing his operation as a front for orchestrating a child-smuggling ring, hence the need to distance himself from the original investor. By his desperation to avoid their impropriety, however, he stumbled over his next philanthropic target, misjudging how much pressure to exert. It fell apart pretty quickly from there.”
“Quite right. It rather appears his intimidation of those poor boys back-fired. It’s certainly fortuitous the case could be constructed with such ease; else we might have encountered other nastiness.”
“Definitely. Any particular reason why?”
“Mr Sheeves was eager to implicate your friend Matthew. I wonder we might have extended an invitation to interview, had Mr Sheeves not so comprehensively implicated himself at every turn.”
I had no doubt Matt’s indiscretions of a former life teetered dangerously close to the spotlight. Fairfax naturally knew nothing of them, nor how inexorably linked my own regrettable indiscretions lay. Perhaps, should he prove worthy, those secrets might be entrusted. It was a decision I wanted left to Matt, for the purposes of impartiality. My own judgement had too frequently been called into question of late, not least by myself.
We arrived at the gym. My life might have been a swirling mess of unfiltered chaos, but I wasn’t running. Stupidity, yes. At least it was mine.
Fairfax knew where we were in terms of road layout, but not the particular significance of our parking here. I instructed him to wait and he dutifully obliged. I was going inside to collect Matt alone. To escort Fairfax inside would represent unnecessary hassle and hinder my own attempts to procure Matt’s assistance. The two had never been formally introduced.
Mercifully, Matt was in his office when I arrived. It would have been a shame to disrupt one of his spin classes again. The brief flicker of confusion in his eyes was quickly snatched by consternation when he registered my appearance. Even in regular times, I rarely materialised without prior notice. Now, he could only predict some matter had tumbled awry.
“Matthew, this has been a long time coming.”
“I need your help.”
He raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile at his lips. Holding this portrait pose like a quizzical professor, he abandoned the papers on his desk, collected a jacket folded over his chair, and joined me in briskly marching back down the stairs towards the main entrance. As simply as that, the team had been assembled.
Matt’s stride faltered almost imperceptibly upon noticing Fairfax, I hoped from surprise more than any other emotion. Though he glanced to the side, I refused any opportunity to challenge my decisions until we were mobile. I wanted him trapped in the car before I revealed my plan.
“Knife under my right sleeve.”
Classic Matt. I had witnessed many times exactly how rapidly that knife could move to his right hand, or into somebody’s throat.
Fairfax was reanimated with a jolt as we re-joined him in the car.
“Collecting an object of importance?”
He was smart enough for the comment to have been deliberately inflammatory. Upon leaving the station, I had placed him in the rear, directly behind my seat. It was a vital pacification tool ensuring Matt’s contentment. Even had Fairfax not assumed it was Matt specifically, he well-knew another person had entered the car. That was obvious both from his seat, and the simultaneous opening of two, separate doors. Feigning ignorance was a passive aggressive undermining of Matt’s relevance, serving to be both petty and ironically counter-productive, by exposing his own insecurities. In response, Matt smirked menacingly over his right shoulder, in a display of power that was completely wasted. Perfect.
“Matt, Fairfax. Fairfax, Matt. Pleasantries established, I need both of your help. I am under attack, which has unfortunately meant both of you have been attacked. Together, we are going to destroy the attacker.”
“I am delighted to be humbly at your service.”
Matt visibly bristled at Fairfax’s sycophantism, glaring once more at him, and sliding his chair as far back as the mechanism allowed.
“All posturing aside, I have one question of fundamental importance for you. A few months ago, I noticed a trip-wire partially buried outside my home. Had I not discovered it in time, I would have been brutally incapacitated. Instead, I was even observant enough to identify pre-existing blood at one end, as if the perpetrator had accidently cut themselves when planting the trap. Do either of you want me dead?”
I was relieved to see them both grunt an assenting negative through shaking heads. That was stage one in establishing loyalty.
“Do you both want me alive?”
Their responses changed to the direct opposite. Vigorous nods, again confirming information I was hoping for, not that I didn’t always suspect it.
“Then why did I find your blood on a trip-wire outside of my house, a location neither of you should know?”
Their responses still mirrored each other in unison, but were this time a baffled silence, rather than motions or sounds. Neither exhibited any external signs for a while, both evidently processing the information internally. Matt seemed to recover his wits first.
“Vance, did you find two sets of blood, one from me and one from this guy, or are you talking to one person here specifically? I do not believe it can have been mine. Not to brag, but when was the last time I bled? Also, we both know if I wanted to kill you, it wouldn’t be with a trip-wire. Basically, who are you talking to here?”
Razor wire was not Matt’s style. It was too subtle. And laying a trap? Far too detached. His comment had been calculated to amplify the scrutiny on Fairfax. Obviously, my questioning had been deliberately vague. With Matt shedding suspicion from himself, it exerted a greater pressure on Fairfax to fill the silent vacuum we now left for him.
Disappointingly, he opted to say nothing.
“Matt is, of course, correct. I found one blood sample on the wire. Matching a Thomas Fairfax.”
Matt was fixated upon his dejected face. Still, with agonising seconds aching onwards, Fairfax propelled the torturous silence. The roar of tyres against tarmac bellowed, demanding an answer. The road was long and unceasing. He surely knew he could never evade the question. Matt’s knife was in his hand. Fairfax looked to his feet, and mumbled,
“I must confess an awful secret. I was victim to a mugging, approximately in my doorstep. Venturing into town, I was immediately harassed and knocked to the ground. I suffered multiple bruises. I’ll admit I thought it bizarre, but I was also lightly stabbed in the arm. My blood, therefore, has recently been extracted against my will.”
“You never mentioned this to anyone?”
“Did you catch their faces?”
“No. I perceived no value in sharing the misfortune. I presumed it would only humiliate my station, or hazard probing questions concerning my fitness for the job. No, I never gleaned their appearance. I was subjected to such overwhelming defeat.”
Perhaps violence was a growing theme. I purposefully neglected to mention my own assault, lest it further embarrass Fairfax’s own inadequacy to defend himself. One element of the plot against me was becoming increasingly clear. Someone had, almost half-heartedly, attempted to frame Fairfax. Certainly, there was little conviction or continuity to it. The theory had been dispelled with little exertion. But he had still been victimised. I could well imagine his frailty being exploited.
I considered driving Fairfax home. Satisfied by his excuse, I wondered if he had any more value to impart. Matt and I were preparing for war. He could hardly support our effort physically. That was of little consequence. It would be positive to retain the proximity of as many allies as possible. Besides, with a little, additional information, he might even prove capable of solving the puzzle surrounding my nemeses’ identity.
“Fairfax, do you recall the Hart brothers?”
“Yes?” He was startled, no doubt, by the dramatic conversational shift absolving him of further examination. Turning to address Matt, I continued,
“They were both found dead. By me. In the home of a man called Marky Grincher. I do not believe Grincher murdered them, for he was also found dead.”
Matt was immediately alarmed, whilst Fairfax was still grappling to understand the link.
“Whomever his masterminding this operation likely possesses intimate ties with an organised crime network. Presumably, the assault levied against you,” I intimated towards Fairfax, “was undertaken by the same individuals responsible here. Evidently, we’re facing a relatively numerous and powerful opposition.”
“I was also burgled, don’t forget,” Matt volunteered.
He was accurate, in that we three had all been targeted. There was still a lot to be unpacked. My plan was to review potential enemies in conjunction with the dual-expertise provided by two men knowledgeable in a variety of affairs. The Hart brothers could be conclusively removed from my list of suspects, though with Matt’s assistance we could undoubtably brainstorm more. Fairfax was more acquainted with those displeased by my more recent apprehension of criminals. There was plenty of time to compile a hitlist.
“Vance, where are we going by the way?”
Matt raised an eyebrow again but smiled broadly. Fairfax found himself able to divert attention from his own feet, his mood instantaneously lifted. The remainder of our journey was conducted in contemplative silence. From their respective, quivering states, I could only imagine each man’s mind churned furiously, probably over different matters. Mine was of fulfilment, and freedom. I was taking ownership of my life. I was fighting for my freedom. I could only wish the outcome would be satisfactory. I hardly asked for much from the universe. Only to not die, and to feel alive.
As we pulled around the final turn and approached the secluded shelter that was my home, carved into the hillside, it became apparent Matt had been pre-occupied more productively. He bounced out of the car and quickly circled the residence twice, closely examining different features.
With Matt absorbed by his study, I opened Fairfax’s door and led him inside, before navigating him into a chair. Matt burst inside, bubbling with notes he was eager to impart.
“Lovely view from the windows. Great visibility, even with the light starting to fade. You’ve found yourself a nice place, Vance. Those trees are, what, one hundred yards? Stretching probably a mile that way,” he motioned to the left in sweeping gestures. “Should be possible to defend, once we’ve established a preliminary perimeter line. Especially if we work through tonight. The road being the only entrance for vehicles is perfect. We can dig a couple of trenches, one disguised by the turn with another further along. I’m sure if we fashion some makeshift spikes, it’ll be easy to stop anything short of a tank. Now, the hillside might prove more difficult. It encompasses a large area. We can start tight to the house, and move outwards, laying a sparse number of traps. It’ll be important not to forget where we’ve put them.”
“How long do you think we have?”
“No idea, Vance. You have the most experience dealing with this person, your guess is probably best. It could be months; it could be minutes.”
“You would casually estimate months?” Fairfax weighed in.
“No, I don’t know.”
“We need to prepare for both extremes. If threatened by imminent invasion, we have to prepare now. That said, should the immediacy wear off, we need to balance contingencies. This property is ill-equipped to withstand besiegement, not least owing to limited resources. At some point, dismantling the road will restrict our own supply runs.” Despite the tentative afterthought, I wanted to stress the former consideration. We truly had no idea when to expect an attack.
“Forgive me, but are neither of your plans regulated by the bounds of contracted employment?”
“Delightful. I might be required to issue a phone call explaining my absence.”
“Listen, if we don’t know who’s behind this, we are not risking you making outgoing calls.”
“We cannot afford to be jeopardised by a misplaced call to the police.”
“Matt, it’s reasonable for him to call at some point. It won’t be now, and when the call is made, it can’t be traced back here. Even I’ve taken calls from here.”
“Vance, let’s talk outside for a second.”
I sighed, following him back out through the front door. Pointedly ignoring Fairfax was hardly beneficial. The time we were wasting might prove fatal.
I could understand Matt’s frustration, but it was still wrong. Much like the old adage regarding resentment, his hope was for a brewing, personal distaste of Fairfax to destroy the man in question, when the reverse would most likely occur. The situation called for union and companionship, not separatism.
Once outside, the remaining, dim light could barely illuminate our faces. The faint pink once-painted across the horizon had long-since conceded to a vivid purple, engulfing the trees in inky swirls. The heavy clouds still burdened with defending against the glimmering stars threatened to unleash rain. A fresh breeze cackled with the scent of looming wilderness. Trembling leaves shouted desperate pleas across the chasm between us. There was a glint of wicked determination in Matt’s eye. He was begging to be attacked tonight.
My own body found adrenaline pre-emptively pulsing into different orifices, stirring lethal viciousness wherever it passed. The night was our domain.
“Vance, I know you don’t like it, but you must accept reality. That man is dangerous.”
“I trust him.”
“You might not like him, but he’s never evidenced that belief.”
“Just because he hasn’t asked the wrong questions yet, it doesn’t mean he never will. Do they know who you are? No. This house, it’ll raise questions leading to the wrong conclusions. Same with Marky. I know you didn’t report him dead officially. That’s another future issue. Your man, he threatened to call the police. It’s clear where his priorities lie.”
“That’s hardly a fair accusation. He needs to call his boss. He won’t ask anything of us.”
“I’m giving you this option one time. We cut our losses and leave him. He’ll make his way back somehow. The two of us, we start again.”
Matt twirled away from me and paced to the end of the house. Leaning against the bricks on the corner, I heard him furiously muttering and twitching with exasperation. I was similarly fatigued by his relentless refusal to acknowledge how impractical it was to abandon everything. Like a switch, he returned, transformed into a statue of calm emanating only violent stillness.
“Who are you, Vance Howler? What have you become?”
A good question. Sadly, I would never answer him.
The tension between us was shattered half a second after the noise of smashing glass pierced the empty hills. An explosion of shards sliced through the air. Barely an instant later, the thunderous roar of a gunshot crashed into the house, reverberating through the ground. We froze.
Gathering ourselves instantly, Matt and I ducked, crawling towards the edge of the house. Aided by the glow of the house, we could just discern the arrival of five figures clad entirely in black. Under the cover of night, it had been impossible to cover their approach. They must have camouflaged behind the tree line, waiting in ambush for the descent of dusk before gliding up the hill, completely obscured by a cloak of shadows. It became apparent none of the five had fired the shot. Watching in sickly horror as they approached uniformly, each presented only a low-calibre pistol in one hand, and small knife in the other. An effective combination at medium and close range.
Matt had followed me, our chests embedded in the damp earth, inching painfully forwards. Now, as I glanced backwards, he nodded in acknowledge. A sniper. There was a sixth man.
Our only option was to hope the eclipsing umbra worked both ways. Just as this wave of intruders had evaded detection, we too could surely vanish into the chilly night. Turning our focus to the more pressing concern, the five had now climbed into the house, cautiously probing forwards with weapons unholstered.
I had no time to consider the violation of my home. It was surreal. My mind had adapted to this new mission flawlessly.
Five people were inside. Five antagonists, all armed. I had nothing. Matt had a knife. I was most acquainted with the floor layout, though it was too simple for that to become an effective advantage. One had flattened the wooden partition that shielded my bed from the room. One had entered the empty bathroom. Their confusion was visible. There was nowhere left to hide. Matt had crawled to my level, surveying the interior. I was rapidly formulating a plan.
There was another panel under my front door. It was connected to my fuse box, capable of manipulating all of the appliances. I could easily disorientate the intruders for crucial seconds, distracting them before plunging everything into pitch black. If I could somehow sneak inside, two grenades were taped underneath the kitchen worktop. There was a gun hidden in my left pillowcase. We could wait until they began canvassing the wider area, leaving the house in search. Even if they waited until day returned, we had time. Action did not need to be immediately. Levels of adrenaline and focus were high, but were gradually agreeing on the merits of retreating. My brain and heart could hardly relax, but instead conspired to revisit alternative options. I glanced at Matt, prepared to whisper my fresh terms of tactical withdrawal. I watched as he stood.
A number of times, I had witnessed Matt at his best. His most intensely optimised state. His most brutal. He truly was an artist, extravagantly painting egregious violence across a room with distinct flair. Never in the company of degenerate individuals had I witnessed such raw performances as his. The theatrical purity was awe-inspiring. Matt would savage his enemies as the finest gentleman comports himself in a classical ballroom, with the tenderest hand and most adoring gaze fixed his partner of that moment.
Now, almost nonchalantly, Matt entered the house from the rear, mimicking the intruders. Casually straddling the crippled pane, swinging his legs through the gaping wound in my sliding glass doors, he was inside with little hassle. His casual demeanour reflected remarkably similar mannerisms to the gestures he had employed earlier, when describing the trees and the hills. One man appeared to notice his arrival but faltered, soundless. His wide eyes and wide mouth, the only elements visible through his balaclava, were cemented in place. As Matt withdrew his right arm, blood burst from the man’s throat in choking gulps, spurting onto the floor. He crumpled, the sound alerting his partners.
It was already too late for the next figure. I watched in horrified fascination as Matt seized their slender frame, spinning so as to generate an obstacle between himself and the remaining three. Both hands were placed on their head, and their neck was contorted with a sickening crunch, snapping the bones and tendons. Guns were raised to little avail.
Either through their own incompetence, or Matt’s ingenuity, the final three figures were triangulated poorly. With the exception of one man peering from the bathroom, two further assailants tumbled backwards as the broken body of their former team member was launched at head-height. Embracing the momentum from that swing, Matt propelled himself into a slick roll. Bouncing into full extension, he delivered a perfectly timed jab catching another inquisitive soul beneath his chin. Ever in motion, Matt was already diving towards his next cover. I did little but blankly stare in stupefaction, as yet another man’s throat erupted.
Battling understandable confusion, the final two wasted precious seconds comprehending the demise of over half their team. It was time they could not afford to lose. As Matt turned to face them, the lips of the right-most man parted in a comical circle, silently uttering surprise that was rapidly extinguished by a flick of Matt’s wrist. His faithful knife loyally found its mark, vanishing into a widened eyeball. Our final attacker had long-since surrendered as Matt marched towards him, and was quickly dispatched with a butcher’s compassion.
I had to allow several moments for the transpired events to register in my dull cognition. In barely three seconds, my precious sanctuary had been splattered by a steaming red mist.
He winked at me, and I felt that familiar, perverse rush of euphoria. He was a man to have on your team. Matt was the most lethal weapon alive.
Since the shadow of sniper fire was still cast over the house, he had already ducked behind my kitchen counter. In a short burst, I quickly rounded the corner and sprinted to his side. We had to brainstorm our next moves. In these moments we performed at our best. Two enhanced beings perfectly optimised for combat in any scenario, self-taught and honed by the repeated experience of victory. My heart was slow. My brain was fast.
I rapidly diagnosed a quick summary of the situation. Matt and I were crouched behind an island, with a draw of weapons easily accessible at our backs. An array of various kitchen knives were complemented by the machete tucked into a false compartment underneath the cutlery. Five dead assailants were strewn around the room, each armed at least with a semi-automatic pistol and further knives, which would likely improve on my collection. My own aforementioned gun was a high-powered revolver. The grenades were fun, but ill-suited for the stealth I wanted to retain. From my house, the landscape undulated in a steep downward curve, towards the base of the hills, before gently rising once more into a wooded expanse. I hoped this would prove advantageous for, under the fresh cover of night, I could still comfortably navigate. Were I to have planned an attack of this scope, however, particularly with the benefit of time, I would surely have acclimatised to the immediate environment. At least one further attacker was lurking in those trees, well-acquainted with the terrain.
Our greatest issue was the stretch of open no-man’s-land before we could reach the protective shroud of vegetation. A sniper could be evaded, but they might have mounted a machine-gun for all we knew. Matt’s handling of the first wave bore no reflection of their skill. Mercifully, I had an idea. Several ideas, in fact. I was grinning broadly, still impressed by my wit and adaptability.
Turning to Matt, my opening statement was interrupted by a loud groan. We froze. Matt never left them alive.
Cautiously squinting at the darkened room, I felt a hot sweat of guilt cling to my shoulders as a wrenching knot sank in my stomach. His face contorted by anguish, Fairfax lay in a crumpled heap in the far corner. As he clutched vainly at his stomach, it was now impossible to miss the ugly smear of blood following him across the room as he desperately sought safety.
“Howler, my dear boy. I fear I might be in a spot of bother.” It was pleasing his indominable eloquence could withstand such agony.
“Looks like you’ve been shot.”
“It rather felt like that. I suppose it was my burgeoning assumption. Might you propose a solution?”
I lurched towards him in an awkward crawl, before settling at his side, angling myself away from the chilly breeze and clear line of sight.
He looked bad. The high-calibre bullet had ruptured the base of his sternum, tearing a jagged crater out of his chest and upper stomach. I could hardly imagine how he was still talking, let alone in possession of strength enough to move himself. There was nothing in the world I could do, except say goodbye.
“Let me assure you I’m feeling sorry enough for us both. I trust you. I graciously accept the finality of your word.”
There was nothing I could say. I slumped to the floor at his side and carefully placed a hand on his shoulder.
“You’re a good man, Howler. You should hear that more often. I know of your past struggles. They’re presumably guilty of finding me in this position now. But, and please forgive me as I ramble on in such tragic Shakespearean fashion, it’s important you are assuaged of culpability. I put myself here. I supplanted my own presence, for this most recent year of my life has been utterly superior to all others.”
I turned to face him, gazing as his blinking eyes made unerring contact with my own.
“I only wish I could once have seen your face.”
A soft, wry smile tickled the edge of his mouth, frozen in time forever. His eyes never blinked again. His body wilted and his mind vanished into some distant realm, I hoped. It was an immense shame the world would never again receive his thoughts. I was disappointed. I felt sad. Just an awful lot of loss. I managed one choking sigh, spluttering, and inhaling a rapid gulp of hyperventilated air. Matt performed an innocuous cough. I closed Fairfax’s eyes and wished him well.
That, I’m afraid, happened. It could have been prevented.
I was growing slightly confused. After firing a single shot, the sniper had fallen silent. Based on the timing of events, I couldn’t imagine that one of the intruders had reached the house so quickly. Why this confirmed, additional person had ceded to fire at least optimistic warning shots was a mystery. The chances of inadvertently betraying their position were slim. Perhaps we were being coaxed into lowering our defences and lingering out in the open. Equally unlikely if they knew anything about us at all. Had Fairfax not moved we might have triangulated the shot trajectory from the direction of impact, but it was a thought deserving of little credence.
Diving across the room, I grabbed my revolver and looked at Matt.
“I have a plan.”
With excruciating but apparently unnecessary care, we manoeuvred ourselves back to the front of the house. Unlocking my car, I instructed Matt to hide in the boot without closing the door. I hurriedly open the fuse box panel and uncovered the main switch. Moving back towards the car, I pulled the hand-break down, and felt it slowly crunch over loose soil down the hill. Guiding with the steering wheel, I waited until the line was accurate, and the car was nearing the lip of the hill. Sprinting back to the fuse box, I turned every appliance on in a brilliant flash of light. The TV roared, the coffee machine gurgled, and all of the overhead lights erupted into a disorientating blaze. Hurtling back towards the car as it teetered on the edge, I was forced to launch myself after the descending vehicle. Matt held the inside of the door with his left hand, planting his feet against my number plate, and barely caught my fingertips as we plummeted together.
I smacked hard against the ground and was thrown into a hideous tumble, pounded against the compressed earth. Floating for a blissful second, my hip crunched against a rock before Matt could fling me into the compartment at his side.
Thoroughly battered, my feeble wish was for the car to have been unnoticed. For a fervent half-second, I could imagine our would-be assassin praying in hopes of our extreme stupidity, that we might meander back into the house with a clear view. Distracted, our approach would have been concealed by the same darkness allied early with them.
Except I had been pretty stupid. True, when the interior lights first came on, the car was suitably hidden, and they had faded before I had guided us beyond the house. The lack of engine noise had prevented another potential betrayal. The navy paint was perfect camouflage. The only issue proved the grinding rattle as we rapidly tore across the uneven land. Each collision and scrape must have boomed across the open space, announcing my foolish thinking and demanding attention like the petulant child throwing objects from his pram. Even worse, we hit a tree.
Rarely had I been more furious with myself. To his credit, Matt never complained.
Bruised from the fall and crash, the few moments I need to compose myself were unavailable. Matt was bounding free, heaving me from the wreck and expertly flattening us both. Another shot exploded across the valley, and I heard a shattering of glass accompanied by a secondary bursting. Absently, I sketched some vague diagram in my head of a pierced windshield, and a ruptured airbag triggered during our collision. There was limited debate for peering my head into an unprotected space to confirm this theory. Clear thinking prevailed, which was convenient, since a bullet ricocheted from the bonnet a second later in a thunderous crescendo. We were pinned down in a scenario of my own devising.
The noise of a distant echo lingered on the air, still hunting a target. Matt gathered a clump of dirt in his hand, rolling it into a ball roughly equivalent to his fist. Smearing some of the dark remnants over his face, I followed suit, tousling my hair to apply a mat covering wherever possible. The dirt ball went soaring towards the sky, suspended so gloriously for a perfect second, before it was eviscerated, sending shrapnel fleeing in all directions as the roar of sniper fire hounded us once more.
Evidently, our opponent had a night-vision scope. My car ploy could never have sustained the element of surprise, but had still cheated us precious ground, closing the gap before the trees. Further advancement was perilous. Once had to assume, however, the advantage was ours. Between the tree and the car, we might have been stranded, but were at least well protected. I couldn’t foresee any feasible angle from which we might be struck without the sniper repositioning himself. Though that probability grew with each passing second, it remained a risk from his perspective, for we could at any moment emerge for the trees and quash the benefits of his vantage point. The long-range and unwieldy weapon would be invalidated by the thick proximity of trees, limiting his options. What followed, therefore, was a delicate bluff of sorts.
By releasing his probe, Matt had openly expressed a desire to move, testing the waters. By taking the initiative, we could claim the forest’s safety and unfettered freedom. By that logic, the sniper should remain entrenched, receiving at this moment the most likely chance of striking either one of his targets. Alternatively, were we to remain, their concentration might wane in the crucial seconds we escaped. Were I not fearful they might aggressively alter their position, I could have confidently slept, knowing it represented mental exhaustion for the watchman fixated on the faintest chance of our appearance. Who would be cautious, and who proactive?
It was all luck. These deliberations lasted me but half a second. Ultimately, we could only decide on one course, commit to it, and hope.
“Option A.” Matt whispered.
I was inclined to agree. They would anticipate a hesitancy, especially following the accuracy of their projectiles. Reading our bluff, they would expect us to hide, having successful convinced them to stay. Matt turned back, and I nodded. He counted down from three, as we rose to our haunches in a sprinter’s pose.
At the mark of go, we both charged with our lives literally depending on it. The trees grew closer. I selected the perfect trunk, aiming my bounds with precision. We both flew. I could feel the danger dwindling. The meters counted down, until they’d suddenly vanished.
We were safe.
“Think they’re moving?”
“Where would you go?”
“I’m not sure. But I have a reasonable idea of where they started.”
It was with trepidation we stepped forward. An unsettling sensation had been brewing within me since the placement of the first shots into the car. I was beginning to believe my tent, my private sanctuary away from home, had been violated.
It would have made for a very efficient camp. I suppose I could hardly blame their ingenuity. If they didn’t regret ever engaging with me, I would ensure their final moments consisted of pitiful vows to have never invaded my space. This was my world. They had encroached upon my territory.
We separated, Matt staying close to the periphery of the woods, as I plunged twenty meters deeper into the thicket. Our plan was to intercept the sniper, assuming they would be scrambling at us. They might be unaware, but it was safer to assume they had followed our dash with their scope, even if not bothering to chance an errant shot.
Soundlessly, in perfect synchronisation, we poured forth through the trees, guided by a slight rustle of the leaves. A shiny new moon had been unveiled from her packet, already sighing with translucent melancholy over the death rained upon the valley. For all she could mourn, we would be without remorse. Onlooking stars dipped in and out of attention, disinterested by anything that was not immediate action. The moon remained fixated, glaring at the harmless tracks we weaved, leaving any loose twig untouched.
I paused. Matt was still walking. Straining my eyes, I blinked into focus the presence of a shadow flickering suspiciously. A human figure gliding as a wraith directly towards Matt. The two were divided by barely ten paces, inching gracefully like confident lovers destined for the other’s embrace, embroiled in a tapestry of horror. It seemed by fluke rather than perception I had detected the new figure, for Matt was proceeding entirely unaware. With as much urgency as I dared muster, I turned in tight spirals, scanning for any indication of other people. It was impossible. Returning my focus to Matt, his antagonist had vanished. I dared not call out a warning. They couldn’t be warned, in case they hadn’t spotted Matt.
It was then I realised a discrepancy in one of the silhouettes. A tree outline minutely broken by the unavoidable contours of a human face. They were facing the valley two paces from Matt. Miraculously, he stepped the other side of the tree, apparently never learning of the avoided encounter. He glanced to the right, checking for my progress, and froze.
I was already moving behind them both. Should I be unaware of an impending collision, I wanted to avoid it. The best way to guarantee that was to trace Matt. Stalking him, my target was still patrolling the valley. Alert, but with their eyes crucially diverted. To ensure my knife didn’t glint, I waited until I was behind the same tree until unsheathing it. Matt was beginning to flounder with depleting caution.
A gust of wind whipped the surrounding leaves and my feet into action. I spun towards the unknown figure and stabbed them, cleanly and powerfully, directly in the left eye. She never even reacted before crumpling to the floor. I felt my lip curl into something resembling a smile. I recognised her as the fake mum.
I quickly caught Matt and relieved him of any pressing fears, with a curt reminder to stay vigilant. Keeping our steady and stealthy pace, we encountered no further obstacles. None, at least, that obviously emerged. Entire battalions might have slunk past in the feeble light. I still felt calm and assured. My hands were steady, my heart was patient. My brain, whirring and processing, was registering and responding to each stimulus instantaneously, creating a wider picture of the night. Few animals were in force. Nothing with a pulse wanted to impede me and Matt. Nothing except the sniper in the tent.
The barrel was protruding, parting the flaps. In the brief seconds I watched, various twitches and adjustments indicated an operative was still in control. We had been right in a sense. In two teams, however, one had stayed to cover the ground, the other had intended to catch us off-guard. We were just better. I was better.
“I want him alive.”
“That’s always harder.”
“We need information. We need to know if it stops here. There could be another. A superior mastermind. This could be the beginning of wave after wave. We might have to prepare for an onslaught.”
“Something’s telling me this is the last guy.” Matt’s hushed tone was growing irritated. I couldn’t understand this insistence, especially since it contributed towards squandering valuable time. Ignoring him, I proceeded.
“I’ll take the barrel left, you incapacitate. Not kill. We need this, Matt.”
He nodded, face neutral and shoulders tight. Once close enough, I actually heard the guy humming. Clearly, he’d placed far too much trust in his colleague. I yanked the gun from his hands at Matt rounded the corner, leaping underneath the fabric. I heard a wet squelch and nothing more. Two beats of silence.
Two more beats.
“This won’t make you happy.”
In those moments, pointless though it might be, a rapid surge of speculation is inevitable. A rush of hot panic clamped over my shoulders, breathing hard down my neck, oozing in steaming sweat from my chest. The imagination of the universe far exceeds that of man. Truth is stranger than fiction. No horror conjured by my dim mind could ever compete with the contents of that tent. The man was dead.
It was underwhelming, really. On a scale from discovering my evil doppelganger inside to finding the contents deserted, reality tended towards the latter. A dead man. That was it. I mean, I wanted him alive, but I didn’t recognise him. The nefarious plot might be ongoing, but I temporarily relieve it had not been an un-blind and revived Fairfax. I looked at Matt.
“It would appear he died.”
“Any idea how?”
“It might be my fault. I punched him in the neck. Quite hard. With a knife.”
“We have always liked the neck.”
He pondered that question. Something had shifted, and I could feel the tingle of moisture trembling in the atmosphere. A storm was coming. The moon, displeased by own actions, had sowed the seeds for our devastation, employing the wind and rain against us. She donned the mighty clouds as armour, plunging us into deeper umbra. The trees shuddered with anticipation.
“We need to disappear for a while.”
I said nothing. Matt was thinking aloud. I was still concerned. The goosebumps erupting on my arms and icy sweat trickling down my spine were not from the weather. There had to be another. Something was gnawing at the front of my brain, tugging impatiently. I was thinking so hard it became impossible to think about anything at all.
“We have to bury the bodies first. Let’s gather them all in a ditch here in the woods whilst night prevails. Then we have to deep-clean the house and hide the car. Then we move. Somewhere.”
Someone had found me. They had breached my security, only to deposit a cryptic note with no meaning or follow-up. A trip-wire had been planted, without genuinely intending to harm me. There were easier methods. It did, however, frame Fairfax. The blind man incapable of wishing harm upon me. A man who was subsequently humiliated, mugged, and killed.
“You don’t have another car stashed around here, do you? If not, I’m sure we can find one nearby.”
Matt, my faithful partner of almost a decade. His house randomly vandalised, his friend arrested. Implicated by his friendship with me and forced to abandon all he had built this past year. We had both of us nurtured separate lives, made attachments, established ourselves as legitimate citizens. Why, then, was Matt accepting our demise with ceaseless momentum?
He’d never really been convinced. It was I who insisted upon our premature retirement, for a number of reasons. Though it might have been for the best, he never interpreted it similarly. Matt was a dangerous man. He’d always hated sitting still. All it took was a slight alteration in perspective for everything to line up neatly.
“I fear there’s one more enemy left in these woods.”
“No Vance, they’re all dead. It’s just us. Just the two of us again.”
“And how would you know?”
“I’m hoping you’ve figured that out by now.”
“How did you ever find this place?”
“I taped a tub of blue dye to your car and punctured it. Every thirty seconds it dripped, so I could trace you from afar. I’m sure there were other ways. There’s no such thing as invisibility. Never has been.”
“You were hoping I’d think the note was from Fairfax?”
“You told me he likes riddles.”
“Why did you try and kill me?”
“We’ve known each other a long time. You’ve never been in any real danger.”
“Right. I was shot. You and Graham planned that together?”
“No. I really did meet him a few years ago, but he’s hardly the greatest guy ever. I thought you’d recognise him and want to take him down together. Yet you called the police and didn’t even bother to warn me.”
“Not sure you can play the victim here.”
“Look at what you’ve become, Vance. This boring life of abiding by arbitrary laws imposed to perpetuate all the injustices of this fake community. Why do you torture yourself by pretending there’s any value in human existence? We were so much better than it all.”
“It ended when we murdered two innocent people. That’s why I tried to transform myself into a force for good.”
“But you’re not a good person. How have you missed that? This new life of upstanding morals you claim to have carved, it’s a lie. You’re still doing whatever’s fun and easy, playing by your own rules. The only difference? You’re playing without me.”
“Vance, this whole façade is pathetic. You’re weak. You’re playing make-believe detective without caring for anyone involved. I hoped you’d quickly realise how shallow it all was and return to something meaningful.”
“What we did was far from meaningful.”
“Then don’t pretend anything matters. It’s not who we are. It’s not what we do. Remember our little homeless shelter project? How come you’ve never followed up on it? All the other attempts to implant something positive, you lose interest the second it starts. No one cares, life is pointless, let’s go back to being ourselves.”
The first splatter of rain caught me in the forehead. I hadn’t been losing myself. I’d never known who I was. Matt’s ultimatum was impossible.
“What now?” I said again. Matt sighed, his face upturned but eyes closed. The moon peered through the clouds as he exhaled a silvery cloud infected with despair. He shrugged.
“That’s for you to decide.”
We both knew the decision was already made. When we first met, it was by pure coincidence. Two boys awkwardly exchanging pleasantries in their first week of university, neither sure of how much to reveal or how much interest to display. Under the parameters of guided seminar discussion, the tension dissipated slowly. It felt uncool to engage with the topic, yet both were in equal measure fascinated. It was the first of many spirited debates. Their friendship evolved into that of an organic partnership. Two men, stranded in an uncaring world, alone no more. They might have flitted through relationships, drifted into other circles, even attempted to find themselves. But they could never be drawn apart, for in the other, one found the platonic conception of the self. Matt was tall and brave and daring and exceptionally gifted. I always knew he’d idolised my intelligence and emotional aptitude and quick wit.
Matt shot me.
That was the fundamental problem we now faced. There had never been any question of loyalty or pacts. We worked together solely by choice, nothing more. That we were effective was irrelevant compared to the joy we derived from each other’s company. That could never be replicated, especially under these circumstances. The partnership was dead. And so too one of us had to be.
The bullet struck me in my left shoulder, exactly where I had been hit before. Perhaps it was poetic. Matt was fast, but his aim had been unusually poor. The cold had tightened his muscles. Either that, or he’d subconsciously avoided lethality. Foolish. Only one of us would be afforded the luxury of philosophising about the direction of their life. Now was not the time for doubt.
I lay flat on my back, bleeding. My stomach was tensed, my legs arched and ready. Through the vibrations in the earth, I counted Matt’s steps towards me. As he infringed upon my periphery, lips parted to conclude our standoff with one final monologue, I launched into a backwards roll, kicking up and loosening the gun from his grip. The words of his closing sentiment were never gifted to the world. I reached for my own revolver, but was disappointed. It had evidently been misplaced somewhere between the car crash, our forest hike, and this most recent fall. It was remarkably short-sighted to not have checked.
Matt elbowed me in the face.
My jaw went slack and my lungs were crushed once again by heavy impact with the ground. I rolled again, twisting to my feet, and sprinted to a deeper section of the woods. Matt followed, with less success. Though we had adjusted to the dim lighting, it remained almost non-existent, generating immense difficulty with discerning oncoming shapes. I could read the trees better than Matt. After fifty paces, the stretch between us was sufficient to allow me to dive behind a cluster of roots. My pursuer had stopped running. He could recognise defeat.
Instead, I now followed him as he reversed course back to the tent. In the day, a trail of blood would have endlessly betrayed me. Though the storm had yet to materialise, the light spray and cloud cover culminated in distinct gloom. It was certainly an atmospheric showdown.
I crawled my way back to the clearing. Matt, still coated in soil, was crouched next to the tent. I knew exactly what to do. Whether I could was another matter.
How long Matt would wait was an unknown variable. It would not be dictated by his patience or succumbing to the elements, but solely on tactical considerations. A factor that, once again, fell to luck. I could be gone forever. Instead, I had returned. He would expect the latter. I knew now, of course, how my opponent had outlasted me in the waiting game. In the wider plan he was orchestrating, Marky Grincher and the Hart brothers were other obstacles easily overcome. It was remiss to have not identified his handywork, but it was without his signature, always displayed on public works.
Fortune was another unpredictable factor. The moon, clearly absorbed by the tension, poked through the clouds for a glimpse of our battle. I noticed my breath shine as an elegant beacon. Matt fired in answer. The wood splintered above my head. I collapsed. In a sudden rush of blood loss, my legs had failed. Panting on the ground, inhaling the damp moss, destiny had left my control. Nothing more than luck had kept me alive. Matt, poised as ever, must have been conflicted. Twice I could have died. Twice I should have died. I might have been dead at this moment.
Instead, back to my feet, I was edging around the clearing, melting between the shadows, always watching. Matt was motionless, thinking, plotting. I waited until I was directly behind him, with the tent between us, before drawing closer. On his haunches, Matt’s right hand was hovering just above the ground, clutching a knife. In his left was the gun.
I lunged, in a single motion ripping the nearest tent peg from the ground and impaling Matt’s right hand. The sharpened end embedded cleanly, lodging deep into the soil. His attention diverted by the fluttering tent fabric, Matt turned in agony as I brought my right knee under his chin. The force threw him backwards, dislocating his shoulder as it was torn between an air-born head and grounded hand. Yelping a noise I’d never heard uttered before, the gun was discarded. As I dutifully collected it, Matt stared at me with unadulterated panic.
“Please, Vance. You know I’d do anything.”
I did not miss. His head was thrust back a final time. The thunder of gunfire proved the impetus for the storm. Heavy droplets of rain bombarded me in lashing strokes as water sliced through the air. The sky was a seething mass of furious motion. A sheet of lightening illuminated the torrid scene, daring me to face my mutilated best friend. Nature’s great roar bellowed across the valley. Drenched, I looked to Matt.
Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the Harmless Escapism saga. Don’t worry – Vance Howler is not done yet… In the meantime, why not explore so other short stories? I also post travel blogs and various random contemporary commentaries. Feature image courtesy of Breno Machado via Unsplash.
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I really enjoyed this — perfect late Sunday morning reading with a cup of tea. Thanks for sharing!
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I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed the series!