Chapter 25 - Showdown

"It's impressive how much damage this vehicle can take, isn’t it?"

MacMillan's comment, in the circumstance, should have been comically absurd but Vin replied as if discussing new cars on a sales lot.

"They are a from the Army. They’re a tough bunch." Vin said, his body turned sideways and his arm aloft marking a straight line to a spot between MacMillan's eyes. "I 'spect you're not even bruised."

Mac chuckled, the tip of his Desert Eagle looking like a large, unwavering black hole. He, too, had turned to lessen his body’s target area. "You'd be right."

Vin, however, read something in his adversary's frame – maybe it was the ever-so-slight curve of one shoulder that nearly formed a hunch or the flat nature of his eyes, but Vin's instincts whispered that Mac was hurting. The Humvee door was wide open and he stood just outside after climbing down from the absurdly high driver's seat. Peripherally, Vin didn't see any blood on him and any further inspection would have to wait because for now because he didn't plan to release the hold of MacMillan's hard stare.

The two simply paused in time as they measured and weighed for a handful of long and drawn out moments.

Then Mac shifted his feet, causing Vin’s heart to slow even more as he dropped into his targeting frame of mind. This was sniper territory, the waiting, but the clipped distance between them added an unfamiliar sense of exposure. Vin felt as naked as shorn lamb before a hungry wolf. Anyone else would feel fear or anxiety, he thought with a passing memory of JD, but instead he simply settled comfortably into this familiar mental zone. Vin felt the corner of his mouth tilt into a lopsided grin.

The talisman necklace was out of sight but even though Vin did not see it, he knew it was there. Because of it, he only had one choice guiding his aim: Right between Mac’s eyes. The target area was so small Vin needed every advantage and his suspicion about Mac having an injury gave that to him. Mac, on the other hand, had Vin’s entire torso - the largest body mass - for his target.

Somewhere in the compound behind them, Vin heard shouting and the crackle of fire and smoke made his nose tingle, but all of that was mere background to the situation at hand.

“Shall we make this sporting?”

Vin narrowed his eyes at the question. He didn’t hear any stress or note any sign of pain in MacMillan’s voice and his arm remained steady as oak. Vin held his pose, crosshairs centered between eyebrows, as dark curiosity tickled. “Go on,” he finally said.

“Quick draw. Like a couple of cowboys.” Mac grinned, baring teeth. “Then one of us will die with some dignity.”

“Is he fucking nuts?” crossed Vin’s mind in a voice sounding strangely like Chris Larabee’s. He studied Mac’s eyes. “He’s serious.”

“Hm,” Vin mused. “How would we start?”

Mac twisted his wrist and in a second that made Vin’s finger twitch until the Desert Eagle pointed skyward. Slowly, he exposed both palms and held his arms wide at shoulder height. Vin’s heart fluttered and, without releasing his eyes from Mac’s, he mirrored the action a second later. Then, together, their arms fell at a slow, measured pace to their sides until both gun muzzles pointed to the ground.

Mac’s dark eyes smoldered with something resembling respect. His lips parted in a smile. Vin got the feeling he’d done this before and suddenly felt like his edge was lost. In quick compensation, he sharpened his focus to the small target area of Mac’s forehead and soon all he heard was his own breathing and heartbeat and all he saw was that singular sweet spot and the book that was Mac’s eyes.

Seconds stretched and everything slowed. Vin’s grip on his gun was sure and steady, his footing secure. He counted two breaths and was surprised to see a drop of sweat slide through the kill zone in his sights - the fleeting realization that his foe was hurt vanished when the anticipated cue reared in Mac’s eyes.

Two shots, nearly simultaneous, rang Vin’s ears. He saw MacMillan’s head snap up in a weirdly silent way and Vin lost his visual target as an invisible force shoved him back. Vin grunted when he finally came to Earth, briefly tasting sooty dust before an explosion of pain bloomed fireworks across the sky. Then, suddenly numb, his world collapsed into complete darkness.

The city’s edge came to a standstill when the first curl of smoke rolled upward, a black smudge against the fading blue-gray sky. Terror tingled her spine when Ronnie noticed that the immobilized crowd around her looked east and whispered in shocked awe. She turned slowly while dread twisted her stomach, knowing exactly where the smoke originated. Fear froze her, and then a loud boom boiled more smoke and she ran.

Ronnie fisted her skirt away from her legs and dodged the gathering crowd, weaving a path back to Gustavo. He was the only other motion in the stalled scene of spectators, heading toward his car as his security men broke a path between bodies.

“Gustavo! Wait!”

He glanced up at her voice, stopping next to a black SUV at the curb. Ronnie got there just as security opened the door. Panting more from fear than exertion, she reached for his arm and was instantly blocked by one of the guards.

“Let her through!” Gustavo snapped. He took her hand and pulled her to his side, and then into the back seat of the car. The vehicle leaped from the curb seconds later.

“Sir, this may not be a good idea,” the driver started.

“Shut up and drive!” Gustavo ordered before turning to Ronnie and meeting her eyes. “This will be dangerous,” he said to her. “Are you sure about this?”

Ronnie nodded and squeezed his forearm. “Yes. I have to know!” Her gut told her that Vin was at the center of it all, but she needed to see for herself to ease her mind.

Gustavo nodded and flipped a console open, retrieving a large handgun. He quickly checked it and slipped it under his coat and out of sight. Ronnie swallowed hard to settle her stomach. All she wanted to do was scream.

They weaved up the road, leaving the city behind and soon ran into opposing traffic. Cars, trucks and motorcycles shot down the road in quick succession and then the road was clear. One more turn revealed people alongside the road, trudging along in a broken line. Their eyes were wide with fear.

“Ana,” Gustavo whispered as they passed. “Rosa, Ramon - the house staff.”

Ronnie squeezed his arm again and chewed her lip. They followed a trail of blue-black smoke which began to thicken over the road. The driver slowed and turned on the headlights but it did little for visibility. Another muffled explosion rattled the windows and caused the thinning line of people to hunch and quicken their pace.

The SUV crawled around the final turn to the compound and the driver braked suddenly. Ronnie saw a black Hummer crumpled into a tree and partially blocking the road. Their driver edged around the corner of the vehicle. Ronnie saw a figure on the ground.

“Vin!” she screamed, yanking the door handle. She jumped from the SUV while it still moved and ran to the prone form, falling to her knees at his side. “Vin?” She wanted to gather him into her arms, but Ronnie refrained and her shaking hands quickly checked for any obvious injury. She gasped at the bloody hole near his left armpit. “Oh no! No!” she breathed, plucking up one of his arms to check for a pulse. Holding her breath, she forced herself to calm and concentrate, rewarded when she felt a strong beat under her fingers.

“The other one is dead.” Gustavo crouched near her. She glanced over and saw Gustavo’s men next to another man. “Ronnie - I have to leave you.”

Ronnie gave him a fleeting smile. “I know. Thank you. Find your family.”

He nodded and rose, calling for his men. Ronnie turned her attention back to Vin and looked for something to bind the wound. She heard the car doors slam and when the SUV pulled away, she felt terribly alone. Just when she decided to search the other body for bindings, Vin’s eyes fluttered.

“Vin?” Ronnie stroked his cheek.

Vin groaned and his features hardened with pain. She leaned over him and encouraged him to focus. Finally, his eyes drifted open and he found her through pain-crimped lids. “Ronnie. Get his necklace. I have to . . .” His effort to rise ceased with a distressed groan.

“Lie still! You’re hurt.” She pressed against the freshly oozing wound.

“I need it. His necklace. Please, I need . . .”

Ronnie knew he wouldn’t stop. “I’ll get it, you stupid fool.” Tears burned her eyes. “Now lie still!” She pushed to her feet and moved to the other body, her step faltering when she saw the red hole in the exact center of his forehead. Glazed eyes stared skyward; the dull reflection bumpy from smoke and dirt, a small detail Ronnie knew she’d never forget.

She forced her eyes away from the forever stare to the dead man’s neck, seeing nothing at first. The uncontrollable tremble of her fingers made the search tricky, but Ronnie managed to tug at the shirt collar until she uncovered a leather lanyard. She pulled at it, noting the artful carving in the narrow strap and wondered what it meant. Something caught, and Ronnie jerked the strap hard to release a small vial that rattled a grey-colored lump inside. It held fast.

Curiosity disappeared with another explosion from the compound and fine debris rained down a moment later. Ronnie yanked the necklace over the corpse’s head and hurried back to Vin. He was panting hard and his face was damp with sooty sweat.

“I have it. Look.” She held up the leather strap and let the vial dangle before Vin’s eyes. Etched pain lines softened for a moment when he saw it.

“Thank you,” he breathed. “We need to get out of here.”

“Hold on.” She slung the lanyard over her head and tucked the vial under her blouse, and then helped him to sit up. “I need to stop the bleeding.”

“I know where he stays. He has a Jeep.” A boy appeared from nowhere.

Surprised and a little ashamed that the boy managed to sneak up on her, Ronnie gave him a quick glance. He looked to be about twelve years old. She recognized him from the city. “Give me your shirt,” she said. “I need a bandage.”

The boy took off the button-down shirt he wore over a well-worn t-shirt with a faded design. “Here. I’ll help.”

“Omar,” Vin rasped. “It’s too . . . dangerous.”

Ronnie and Omar worked quickly. Vin groaned as the pressure bandage did its work, and although his head reeled and his vision tunneled dangerously, the pair managed to get him to his feet.

“Where?” Ronnie asked, pulling Vin’s good arm over her shoulder.

On Vin’s other side with his arm around Vin’s waist, Omar nodded down the road. “That way.”

“Quit talkin’ like I ain’t here,” Vin mumbled, head lolling forward.

“Shut up,” Ronnie snapped, fighting to keep balance. “You’re getting out of here.”

Vin snorted as he awkwardly shuffled his feet. “Okay, boss lady.”

Ronnie had to smile. “Glad you finally figured that out,” she shot back. “Now move.”

Gustavo’s driver got as close as he dared and stopped the car. In unison, the doors opened and four men cautiously exited, their eyes fixed on the burning structure. A scattered few men with hoses aimed alarmingly poor amount of water on the inferno. They were black with smoke.

“Get those men back,” Gustavo ordered. “Water around the house. Try not to let it spread.”

Two of his men dashed away, shouting orders. The remaining guard stood close, ready to protect his boss if needed.

“The house is gone,” Gustavo said matter-of-factly. “I need to find Felix.”

He took off at a fast walk, unable to tear his eyes from the lava-like fire devouring the family home, and Gustavo wondered why he felt no remorse; this was never home to him, not really.


Gustavo stopped and faced a young man streaked with soot like everyone else. “Elario.” He recognized one of the grounds keeper’s sons. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, sir, but Mr. Felix is still inside. He would not come out. He was crazy.” Elario stopped talking and his eye grew bigger when he realized what he just said.

“It’s all right, Elario,” Gustavo soothed. “I know.”

“He broke everything and screamed and started the fire. We didn’t know what to do!” Elario twisted his fingers together as he spoke. “Your papa, the Jefe, he is inside, too.”

Gustavo spun around and took a step toward the house, but his guard stopped him. Just then, something cracked inside the inferno and part of the roof collapsed in a shower of embers. Elario gasped.

“I am so sorry, sir!”

Gustavo, unhearing, simply watched hungry flames devour the structure with an odd sense of how beautiful the orange monster was in the growing dark. After this painful death, he would be reborn. Gustavo Carnicero realized at that moment that he could stop the madness his family started. He finally had control.

He felt - relief.

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