I promised Kate that I would take three weeks and do some push-ups. We’re at four weeks now.
Nova has taken to the dealing of death, or at least the theory of it, like a fish to water. I find myself sitting on the steps of the church in the mornings, cleaning my handguns and watching the road and skyline. Waiting for helicopter rotors to swoop in and disgorge dozens of killers or maybe a single car with someone better than me.
I pretend I don’t see Ronnie prowling the tree line with her trusty rifle, our very own counter sniper. Living in hiding like this is tense, every trip she takes to town could be the last. All it takes is one video, picture, anything and the Chairman could find us.
“Hey.” Her voice startles me. I hide it well, at least I hope I do.
“You’re jumpy.” She says, sitting beside me.
Clearly, I did not hide it well at all.
“Four weeks, just…getting nervous. Here, put that back together.”
I watch her smoothly assemble the handgun and check it, all the movements second nature. Nothing wasted, as it should be. She’s as good as I can teach her to be, from now on it’ll be as much learning on the job as it will be any innate talent she has for it.
She hands it back to me, I slip it into the holster and feel the comfortable weight against my chest. She’s smiling at me, one of those comfortable ones that makes me feel like she’s actually sort of happy here. Being like this.
A fucked up sort of happiness, by any standard.
It’s July now, school would be out. It’s also sweltering outside, the sun mocks me and the sweat stains are spreading.
“What do you say we take a run into town, I could use one of those chocolate and vanilla ice cream things. The soft serve.”
“A twist?” She asks, perking up a little bit. Probably going a bit stir crazy.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
We start for the rusty truck and Ronnie appears from the tree line, rifle over her shoulder.
“You’re not going anywhere. What do you want?”
“Come on Ronnie, we’re going for a treat. It’s hot, haven’t heard shit from the Agency. What are the odds they’re out in bum fuck nowhere?”
“Language!” Nova gives me a quick jab to the upper thigh, I bounce around as the Charley Horse sinks in. It must be the heat because Ronnie watches me, eyes darting to the tree line and then all the tension disappears.
“Yeah, what are the odds. Alright.”
Ever made a mistake? Probably, ain’t we all done a goof?
Well, ice cream was a mistake.
I lick at my cone in the front seat of the rust bucket, Ronnie in the back with her own and Nova in the passenger. We’re all content, forgetting for a minute that we’re in hiding with the pleasant experience that is McDonald’s ice cream. It’s hot, it’s sticky and there’s nothing better.
Across from the squat little golden arched hut is a gas station, something small towns have in endless supply. Just like McDonald’s. We’re not so far from the interstate that there’s no traffic, people making their way to real cities stop off here for a piss break and a coffee. Usually worn out parents just looking to shove a cheeseburger in their kid’s face to shut them up for five minutes, or a trucker trying not to fall asleep at the wheel.
Every now and then, it’s three black SUVs with a full complement of assholes. They’re not wearing tactical gear because that’s too obvious, but they look out of place. Suits that bulge in places they shouldn’t, hair cut way too short, sunglasses that they must buy in bulk at Goons-R-Us. Half of them wear black combat boots with their pants tucked in like the fuck-up discharges they are, the other half went with the much more fashionable tan combat boot.
“Shit.” I hear myself say. I can feel Ronnie’s tension, her rifle is a bit long to bring up fast and there’s a lot of them. “Stay still, maybe they won’t spot us.”
“The crew-cut crew?” Nova asks, frozen in place like the rest of us. We’re facing the gas station, through a grimy windshield that won’t keep us invisible.
Then they get out.
“Oh fuck knuckles.” I breathe out, one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the butt of one of my handguns. I’d stripped the rig off for the drive through and replaced it for the sitting. We should have gone back to the property to do this.
“What?” Nova asks. I’m too busy watching them to hear.
“It’s the Ridge twins.”
Kalvin Ridge is six foot one, I know that from his file. His hair is shockingly blond, you might even call it white. He looks like he could be eighteen or forty two, carries himself like he’s King Shit. He’s also one of the most prolific assassins in California.
His sister is Kayla Ridge. She is five foot eleven. Her hair is the same as his but it’s not short, she wears a ponytail. She’s currently sucking on a sucker and wearing too big sunglasses like some diva. She has that same age defying face as her brother and honestly I don’t think anyone knows how old they are. Both of them wear tan suits instead of the black suits that the goon squad wears, just to set themselves apart.
“Ronnie, when I get out, you take her the fuck out of here.” I say, eyes meeting Ronnie’s in the rear view. When I look forward again I see the twins. They’re not heading anywhere, no, they’re staring at the piece of shit rust box parked across the street.
What luck, they must be thinking. The odds of pulling off for a stretch break or gas turning into spotting their target is so unlikely you might think it unbelievable.
“Kid.” I say, revving the engine while watching the small army pour out of the gas station. Someone pops the SUV trunk and hands out compact weapons to them. I see the bulging bullet proof vests under their clothes that must be so uncomfortable. I see stern faces immediately begin to break into sweat.
“Yeah?” She says back, hands on the dash.
“Hold the fuck on.” I say, releasing the brake and reaching up to the front of the dash and pulling up on a small loop of canvas. It pulls up a heavy metal screen with Kevlar and ceramic plates shoved between two screens of steel, to protect the windshield. The engine block is reinforced too. The truck is surprisingly agile for being such a rusty piece of shit and takes off like a rocket, right towards the trunk where the weapons were being handed out.
It takes seven seconds to close the gap, listening to the ping of bullets off the reinforced frame. Someone shouts and I imagine the goons scatter. I hear screaming from civilians, fleeing the scene. Then we stop.
My head hits the steering wheel and things go fuzzy for a second but there is no time for that. I’m out of the driver’s side and shooting, Ronnie is out of the back. I trust that Nova is doing the same thing on the other side because if not we might just be fucked.
They weren’t expecting that, two of them go down with a serious case of ‘bullet-to-the-head-itis’ and the rest dive for cover. So do we, finding spaces between the SUVs and pumps to carry on this idiotic war around explosive fluids.
I drop to the pavement and empty the magazine of one handgun, finding shins and feet to put lead into. More men drop. Ronnie has her rifle up and is beside me.
“Where is she?” I ask. Then a man sails through the air and hits the SUV, crumpling the side in with his body. He doesn’t move and I see just the barest hint of a knife buried in his chest.
“I think she’s fine.” Ronnie says, taking a shot with her rifle at a goon coming around from the hood of the vehicle we are plastered against.
“OK, where are the twins?” I ask, looking for the blond hair. I don’t see it. Something tingles in my spine so I throw myself to the side, just barely dodging a falling knee from the top of the SUV. Kalvin hits the pavement with a grunt, his unprotected knee taking more damage from the pavement than he probably wanted. I come up and hit him with the butt of my pistol, right in the throat. He coughs and dodges the next attack I throw at him, pushing my arm away so that the shot I loose goes wide and hits nothing important.
Our fighting degrades into the chaos of close warfare, rolling and struggling for some high ground. I slowly gain the advantage, pushing my gun towards the side of his head while he desperately fights me with both of his hands.
“Stop!” Her voice is clear and all movement obeys it. I have my handgun tucked against the back of his head, not quite enough to kill him but more than enough to ruin his day and his pretty blond hair. I look over and see her. She has Nova in a headlock and a gun pressed to her head. Kayla Ridge has Nova. She mouths ‘I’m sorry’ and I shake my head.
Slowly, I release Kalvin and stand up, both hands in the air. Ronnie does the same. There are four men left, not including the Ridge twins. Six total and that’s enough to really ruin our day. Its a weird time to notice, but I realize there is ice cream splattered over my shirt from the crash. Kayla calls her brother over and he goes, limping on one leg from the damage in the other.
“Avery, so good to see you.” Kayla says. “Toss the gun.”
“I don’t think you’re being sincere.” She laughs at my joke, which is sort of surreal given she has a handgun pressed against a young girl’s head. I obey her, tossing the handgun in my hands towards her feet.
“What are the chances? We stop to fill up on our way to see about picking up your trail in Philly and here you are. Bet you’re pissed.”
“Yep. Kind of.” I say, holding my hands very still.
I try to talk to Nova with my eyes. I have one holstered handgun with enough rounds to drop everyone but I am not fast enough. I can see the itchy trigger fingers just waiting to be given permission to blow me away. I’ve killed a few of their friends.
In the distance, I hear sirens. Lots of them.
Time is running out.
Nova, look at me. Please. I clench my hands, just like a stretch rather than a threatening posture. I see a few twitchy fingers move but no one shoots. More importantly I see her eyes light up. She understands.
Kayla is still talking.
“I’m sorry, I was listening.”
She stops. Her eyes are as hard as rock and her face just behind it. Kalvin doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even crack a grin. He wants me to die, right now.
“He only wants her. You are expendable. Even you, Ronnie.”
“Fuck off, bitch.” Ronnie says, flipping the bird at Kayla. All the guns move to her with the movement, away from me. Just for a hair of a second. I feel the air gathering around my right hand so I do what I do best, aided by someone even better.
It’s faster than even I could have imagined. My hand is on my handgun before I’ve even taken a shooting stance. It’s out of the holster before most of them have registered my hand has moved. Kayla’s eyes are starting to go wide, Kalvin is tensing, the four goons are swinging their barrels back towards me. Ronnie is diving to the ground. Nova has her eyes closed.
My finger is on the trigger before I think, firing off the first shot while the air carries the weapon through an arc that passes by each of these assholes.
Goons one, two, and four die. Kayla takes a bullet to the shoulder that spins her away from Nova, her gun going off in a space where there is no head. Kalvin is hit in the stomach, dropping to his bad knee and crying out with the blood. My handgun keeps going, out of my hand and off into the street. It skids along the pavement and I cringe at the thought of all the scratches it’ll have. I also realize there is a burning pain in my trigger finger, where it’s bent at the wrong angle.
“You broke my finger!” I shout at Nova, trying to point at her. I manage to point at an almost ninety degree angle instead. “Shit!”
She isn’t listening to me, because she is aware of goon three, that didn’t die. My shot missed him and went over his shoulder. He is about to snuff out my life when I see, actually see, a physical wall of wind hit him and send him spiraling away into the air, thirty, forty, fifty feet away. He hits the ground and ragdolls with his face across the ground.
Kayla tries to bring her gun up to the back of Nova’s head. Her arm stops moving. Nova turns back, looking at her. Then to me, I see something in her eyes that I haven’t seen before. I don’t move.
I’m almost scared to move.
Kayla struggles against an unseen force to raise her gun, but it doesn’t work.
“You tried to kill me. You tried to kill him. You rotten bitch.” She hisses through her teeth. “I’m tired of running from you assholes.”
Oh shit. I take a step back. Kayla’s arm is shaking with the effort when it begins to move towards her brother, holding his stomach where blood pumps out between his fingers. He looks at her with big, sad, puppy dog eyes.
“Kayla?” He asks.
She screams when she squeezes the trigger and his head snaps back. One puppy dog eye left. He hits the ground and dies. I almost feel bad, you have to, right? We’re all monsters and they did threaten to kill her, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad. I still do though.
Especially when Kayla tucks that gun under her own chin with that same unseen force, and there is a flash and a gunshot and it’s all over.
Ronnie looks at me and I look at Ronnie. She asks me the question with her eyes, panic and fear raging around in them. Nova is ignoring us for now, standing over the bodies. I watch her, clenching and unclenching her fists.
“Hey, kid.” I say, moving slowly. “You OK?”
“Yeah. Let’s go.” Those sirens are getting closer so I don’t argue. Who would? After that. Yeesh.
We pile into the truck and it starts, luckily, carrying us away from the station and the mess we’ve left behind. I stop for a second in the street to grab my handgun and see all the terrified stares of the people that just witnessed an action movie in real life. I give an awkward wave and pinched lips smile at them, as if that will help.
We leave the mess behind us and head for the property, where it might be safe. Though we’ve given them a narrow search area now, which is a huge problem.
“Oh.” Nova says, looking back to the station. “I almost forgot!”
“What’s that?” I ask.
She closes her eyes and concentrates, then pushes a hand towards the bed of the truck. In the rear view mirror the gas station goes up in a fireball explosion, incinerating the vehicles and bodies in a raging fire.
“Oh.” I say, watching it burn and catching Ronnie’s stare in the same mirror. “Alright then.”
For the first time in all of this, and to my shame, I wonder if I made the wrong choice.
What the hell have I done?