Chapter 10

In the midst of a very strange dream where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were trying to sell me a shammie to clean my car, which was buried in a massive pile of tapioca for some reason, Roosevelt paused in his sales pitch to look over at me and begin yelling randomly. Suddenly, Albert barked sharply. After a few confused moments of trying to determine whether this was part of the dream or not, I was jerked awake. Disoriented, I heard Albert bark again. Still bleary, I started to shout at him to shut up, but he barked again, and I realized something was very wrong.

Rather than the excited bellow that he usually bayed, Albert was snapping off deeper, more growling barks. Looking over at him, I saw his hackles up, and he stared intently at the patio door, low growls rumbling from somewhere deep in his chest. Albert is easily the sweetest dog I’ve ever known. I raised him from a pup, and I had never seen him react this way. Somehow, this alien reaction from him made every alarm in my head begin screaming that something was very wrong.

Standing slowly, I glanced around for a weapon while I flipped open my cell phone. I swore as I saw the dark screen, testimony to my need to charge. Moving slowly towards the patio, I wrapped my hand around the handle to a Ginsu knife soaking in the sink. Easing around the corner, I cut the light in the kitchen off and paused for a few moments to allow my eyes to adjust to the dark. Taking a few deep breaths, I stepped slowly into the kitchen, moving towards the charger on the counter. Another sharp bark from Albert snapped my head around towards the patio window, and my stomach immediately plummeted to the level of my ankles.

There was a dark silhouette crouched on my patio, barely discernible in the deep shadows reaching from the wall. The ghostly figure was backlit by the floodlights of a parking lot behind my place, and my mouth went instantly dry as I spotted the squat bottle in his left hand with a rag stuffed in the mouth. His other hand came up swiftly, and my mind shrieked a warning at me. Without thinking, I hurled myself back. Before my back painfully crashed to the ground, the window turned cloudy and exploded inwards, a sequence of shots cracking into the night. Albert’s barks became frenzied, savage. I shoved myself backwards in an awkward crab walk, keeping low as the cabinets splintered and dishes shattered, fragments raining down onto the floor, clinking off the metalwork of the sink.

The figure stepped through the door, and looked around. His face was wrapped in a ski mask, his clothes all black. Breathing heavily, his eyes fell upon me lying prone on the floor, and he leveled the pistol at me. My grasping hand fell upon a large block, and without thinking, I grabbed it and hurled it at my assailant. There was a sharp twang as the cable to the subwoofer snapped, and it glanced off his shoulder. A shot rang out, and I felt splinters from the floor spray off my face. I heard a brutal snarl, and felt Albert streak past, his low body moving faster than I’d ever seen. He crashed into the attacker’s legs, and I heard him curse as his feet tangled and he spilled to the floor. Albert barked, sounding alien and savage, and I looked up in time to see him sink his teeth into Ski Mask’s flank, right above the hip. He howled, lashing out with the bottle, and Albert yelped, the piercing noise sounding more like a scream as the base of the Molotov cocktail crashed across his snout.  Albert stumbled back into the corner. Ski Mask and I both sprang to our feet, and I saw him aim and fire at my dog, Albert screaming in pain again.

Roaring in fury, my vision flaring red, I charged forward. The attacker was clearly not as bulky as I was, but in this case, my weight was an advantage as I collided with him, pushing off my legs and driving him into the countertop. His back bent sharply over the edge, and I grabbed his hand and forced the gun back as he gasped in pain. He tried to push back, but was off balance and couldn’t gain purchase against the floor. I slammed his hand against the counter once, twice, and the gun clattered to the floor. Looking up at me, he tried to wrench free again, and without thinking, I slammed my head forward, my forehead crashing into his nose. I felt his cartilage crunch and he gasped, blood spraying over both of us. He sank down and I pulled back to strike again. He pulled his legs up and pistoned them out, slamming into my thighs and shoving me back. Stumbling back, I caught myself on the counter, feeling the tips of my fingers brush against the gun. Snatching it up, I turned back towards him in time to see flame flare brightly as he lit the rag of the Molotov cocktail, and hurled it directly at me.

As I twisted to the side, the burning bottle streaked past me, flew into the living room, and fell onto the sofa without breaking. The fabric of the couch immediately began to smolder. My eyes followed the bomb to make sure that it didn’t explode, and I spun back around to bring the gun to bear. Glass crunched beneath his feet as he fled out the shattered window. I clutched at the pistol, and tried to follow, but fragments of glass skidded under my feet and I spilled to the floor in front of the open window. Rolling over on my side, I brought the gun up and squeezed off two shots. I thought I saw a puff of red from his shoulder, but he kept going and vanished into the dark.

Clambering to my feet, I ran over to Albert, who was huddled in the corner. He was sitting up, but blood was covering his front leg, which he had lifted up protectively. I gathered him up, and ran out the door. Mrs. Edelman was peering out into the hallway and I ran over. “Take Albert, please!” Without waiting for a reply, I set Albert in her arms, and ran back into my apartment, ripping an extinguisher off of the wall as I went. Flames had just begun to lick at the fabric of the couch, and I sprayed white foam over the entire sofa. I picked up the bottle and dropped it in the sink, breaking the glass. The sharp scent of gasoline stung my nostrils as I turned on the faucet and leaned back against the fridge. I let out a breath, feeling like I’d been holding it for hours. Setting the extinguisher in the sink along with the glass shards, I turned and jogged over to Mrs. Edelman’s apartment.

The door was closed, but as I lifted my hand to knock, it swung open, and her frightened eyes peered out at me.

“Are you okay, Michael?” Her voice was wobbling, and some detached part of my brain commented on the fact that this was the first time she had really spoken to me.

“Yes, ma’am, I’m fine. May I come in and see Albert?” In stark contrast to her voice, mine was steady and a bit louder than normal, a phenomenon I remembered from the handful of serious situations I’d been in before. The fear and the shaking would all come later.

Nodding so fast I was afraid her neck would snap, she grabbed my arm and pulled me inside, slamming the door behind me. I heard the deadbolt snap, but I didn’t turn to check. Albert was curled up on a recliner, a knitted throw draped over him. A bottle of alcohol and a pile of cotton balls sat on an end table next to him. Kneeling before him, I took his head in my hands. “You all right, boy?” My voice nearly began shaking as I said this, and I realized the blind fury I had felt hadn’t gone away, it had just burrowed down and found a place to smolder. The idea that this person had tried to kill me was still a vague abstract, something to be considered at length later. But as I peeled back the blanket and saw the deep red crease in his front shoulder still dripping blood, my hands began trembling in anger.

“He’s going to be okay.” Mrs. Edelman’s voice was still vibrating, and I realized that it was less from fear than from some unknown medical condition. “It’s bleeding a lot less than when you gave him to me. I called the police, by the way.”

I nodded, pressing some gauze and cotton into Albert’s wound. He whimpered, and laid his head against my chest. “Thank you. I should go wait for them, but I don’t want to move him too much until I can take him to a vet.”

She waved impatiently, saying, “He doesn’t have to go anywhere. What happened in there? It was so loud, shots and glass breaking…”

But I wasn’t paying attention any longer. A small voice in my mind had begun screaming louder and louder, and had swelled to a shrill roar. Something was still wrong; this wasn’t over at all. My hand traced the outline of the gun in my pocket as I began silently examining why someone would want to come after me. This didn’t feel like a robbery.  I was obviously targeted. As I thought, an image swam to the front of my mind: one student during the interviews, in the corner, not talking to us but whispering furtively in his cell phone, glancing at us repeatedly, listening to us introduce ourselves to a student… giving our names…

Shit!” I stood up, spinning on Mrs. Edleman, interrupting her in the middle of a sentence. She looked at me, shocked, and I barked, “Where’s your phone?”

“Ummm… over there,” she said, her voice a bit more hesitant. “But I already called the police, and I think that…”

I was already dialing, cursing under my breath. After four rings, the voice mail clicked in. As soon as the beep sounded, I began shouting into the phone.

“Lopez, get out of your place now! Call the cops, tell them what you have to, but get them over there and get out! Someone’s coming, they just tried to kill me!” I slammed the phone down, and ran to the door. Removing the locks, I pulled it open, saying, “I’m going to Peabody Place apartments – tell the cops to get there as fast as they can!”

Without waiting for a reply, I ran down the stairs, stumbling a few times. I sprinted across to my car and jumped in, starting the engine and racing out of the parking lot. The car swerved slightly as I tried several times to plug the car charger into the base of my cell phone, and I heard a crunch as my bumper glanced off of a mailbox post. After a lot of swearing, it clicked into place, and I jammed repeatedly at the power button. The melodic chime seemed to be mocking me as it went through its startup cycle. I whipped around a corner, running a red light and earning an outraged howl of a truck horn which faded quickly into the distance. As soon as my screen came up, I punched in the number clipped to my visor. The phone rang twice as I whipped around a car, then a voice answered, sounding very annoyed.

“When I gave you my number, I didn’t mean you could call any…”

“Hanover, some asshole just broke into my house and tried to kill me, and I think whoever it is might be going after Lopez too!” I was yelling, and I knew I sounded crazy.

To his credit, he never missed a beat. “Understood. I’ll have patrol cars to both places within five minutes. Where are you?”

“About a block away from his place. He’s not answering his phone. The fucker shot my dog!” My voice sounded like someone else’s, someone hysterical. “Call for fire engines too, the guy had a firebomb with him! He shot my fucking dog!”

“Be careful. You see anything, blast your horn nonstop and wait for us. You understand me? I’m calling you back in three minutes; if you don’t answer, I’m telling the patrol cars to roll in hot.” I realized Hanover hadn’t told me to stop; maybe he knew that was a waste of time. “Be there to answer the phone, Whiting.” A click, and the line was dead.

“Shit, shit, shit!” I pulled around the last corner, seeing the Peabody Place Apartments sign (A Happy Place to Live, Ask about our three months free!). I drove into the lot, and edged into a parking space. Cutting off the engine, I began to dial Lopez’s number again. The phone rang once, and I began to slide out the door, when a loud whump snapped my head around. My stomach twisted as I saw a gout of flame spurt out of the front picture window at the front of my best friend’s apartment, bathing the parking lot in flickering orange light. I slammed my door and began running across the lot, yelling, “Fire!” at the top of my lungs. Bright white light flashed into my peripheral vision, and I turned in time to hear squealing tires and a car about a hundred yards away racing towards me.

Time seemed to elongate, stretching out like taffy. The next three seconds of events moved as smoothly and as clearly as if I was watching a video. Although I would like to say I reacted without hesitation, I froze, performing a flawless imitation of the spring doe in the brilliant floodlights of her oncoming judgment. The roar of the engine swelled as the low slung muscle car swerved to aim at me, streaking along the side of the building so close that sparks screeched off the driver’s side mirror, and some distant part of my mind realized that they weren’t braking, they were accelerating right towards me, they were going to hit me, and I needed to move, move now, but I didn’t. Instead, my head tilted up to an apartment further down from the inferno on the fifth floor, and to Lopez with his hands held high over his head, leaning out over the railing, as if he were praying to some pagan god, offering up the gleaming object in his hands as a sacrifice.  The part of your brain that comments while you’re drowning that you’re going to miss your three o’ clock dental cleaning informed me that the sacrificial lamb was actually an iron skillet he had borrowed from me a few weeks ago, but as soon as that thought registered in some back corner of my mind, his hands snapped forward with a powerful throw, and the skillet flew almost straight down, slamming into the driver’s side of the windshield.

The impact looked like a bomb detonating. The windshield didn’t shatter.  It exploded with a whiplash crack, spraying glass like shrapnel. Engine screaming as the driver’s foot jammed down as hard as it could go, the car swerved sharply, as if it had deflected off a billiard rail. Metal shrieked and ground in painful protest as the powerful car slammed into the thick concrete base of a streetlight, the back end actually lifting nearly three feet off the ground. It hung there for an instant, and in that frozen moment I saw the passenger fly through the tattered remnants of the windshield, his arms held out in front of him as if to ward off what was coming.  His body drove viciously into the side of my car headfirst, crumpling to the ground like a discarded rag doll. With a crash that sounded like a pitiful last rattle in comparison to the titanic smash of impact, the rear bumper collapsed to the ground.

Without realizing it, I had sunk to my knees, my jaw opened like an idiot. Every sound was muffled, but I could hear the roar of the flames, and sirens screaming in the distance. After a few hitching gasps, I shook my head and realized Lopez was shouting my name. Looking up, I saw him ushering Karen and her kids out of their apartment and towards the stairs. He was looking down at me, yelling something I couldn’t make out. Guessing correctly, I managed to croak out, “I’m okay!”, one of the most dishonest statements I’d ever made in my life. His jaw set, he nodded briskly and followed his neighbors down the stairs.

Climbing to my feet, my entire body shaking, I turned and stared at the pile of twisted metal and blood at the base of the sparking light pole, which was flickering on and off, strobing light erratically over the gathering crowd of tenants. Walking carefully towards the car, I pulled the pistol from my pocket and trained it on what was left of the driver’s side door. As soon as I got within two feet, I saw what was left of the driver, and the pistol fell to my side. My throat worked for a moment, and I leaned over, vomiting.

The driver’s eyes seemed unnaturally wide, staring forward, almost as if he was unable to turn away from the wreck of his car. The skillet was in his lap; blood had sprayed over the dashboard and twisted plastic of the steering wheel. It appeared as if the six pound cast iron square had struck his jaw on its tumbling ballistic path down. The bottom half of his face was hanging from the rest of his red soaked head, swinging gently from a tangled mass of sinew and gore. Unable to see further into the vehicle, I couldn’t tell the damage to his groin and legs from the impact, but my mind rapidly calculated the force from a chunk of iron moving at near terminal velocity colliding with a man already moving at a high speed, and I gagged again at the thought. Wiping my mouth off, I glanced over at the other unfortunate occupant, and couldn’t see details, just a crumpled heap at the base of my rear driver’s side door and the smear of blood and gristle slowly dripping down the paint. I started to move towards it, and a loud commanding voice rang out.

“Drop the weapon, now!” The voice brooked no argument, and I obeyed immediately, dropping the gun to my feet and bringing my hands up. A pair of hands roughly pushed me down to my knees, and I felt them frisking me. There was no resistance in me at the moment, my eyes still fixed on the horrific scene in front of me.

“What’s your name?” For a moment, I didn’t realize the cop was talking to me, but when he repeated it, I stammered out my name. At this, he pulled me to my feet. “Hanover said he’ll be here in a few, but until then, we need to keep you here.”

I nodded numbly, turning towards him and seeing the scene before me. Lopez and two others were spraying fire extinguishers through his ruined window frame, the flames already substantially lower. A fire engine pulled into the lot, its front tires tearing the grass up as it jumped up on the curb to allow an ambulance to pass. There were at least three cop cars that I could see, and the red and blue lights illuminated the scene from all directions. Two paramedics ran past me to the wreck, and I resisted the urge to tell them not to bother.

A third paramedic came up to me, and said something. I looked at him dumbly, and let him lead me to the back of the ambulance. After a moment, things began to clear, and I heard him say, “I need to get a patch on that.” He began probing at my head, and I reached up to feel what he was poking at. My fingers came away red, and I stared at them in shock.

“It was probably glass from the car; it’s all over the place. Flew everywhere.” He pressed a gauze patch to my head, and told me to hold. I sat there, numb, with my hand pressing against a wound that still didn’t hurt. After a few minutes, a hand fell on my shoulder. Lopez was standing there, his face red and sweating.

“You okay?” His voice was hoarse.

“Yeah, I think so. Someone tried to kill me at my place about ten minutes ago. I tried to call you, but no answer, so…”

Lopez nodded. “I was at Karen’s, asking if we could check Katie’s room. If I had been at home, it would have been…” He grinned for a moment, a bit of the normal attitude showing. “That would have been a bitch.”

I laughed, my voice still shaking.  “Why the hell did you have my skillet over at Karen’s?”

“Loaned it to her last night.  I was about to leave and she gave it back.  About a second later, I heard the explosion.”  He looked over at the car, and shook his head.  “I’m not buying you a new one.”

For a moment, we stood there chuckling, and then he leaned forward and pulled me into an embrace. “Shit, you dumb fucker, don’t do that shit again. I thought you were a fucking corpse. If a car comes flying at you, don’t be where it’s going to be.” His tone was joking, but his voice caught for a moment. I hugged him back, some of the tension bleeding away. Sitting down next to me, he looked up when we heard a voice.

 

72 Hours will be released on November 1, 2011!

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