Watching the black sedan circle past for the third time, I crouch in a ditch just off the highway. Instinct cautions me to stay invisible, to ignore the cold rain. Hiding in the brush and debris lining the road, I follow the scarlet tail lights as they grow smaller in the distance. The lights flash twice before swerving out of sight. I am left kneeling in a ditch half-full of rain, the heavy drops plastering my hair against my skull.
I have the sudden and overwhelming urge to get moving, to start running. I scramble up the bank, glance quickly to the left and right, then sprint across the blacktop and into the trees on the other side. I pause behind a century’s-old water oak, its spidery limbs brushing the ground and swaying in the heavy wind. I glance down and realize I’m clutching a wide-brimmed hat. I put it on, bend the front down over my face, then pull up the collar of my leather coat and walk away from the road toward the darkened cityscape on the horizon.
My nerves are tingling, electric. The sensation of time running out is becoming tangible. I stuff my hands deep into the pockets of this unfamiliar leather coat and move with haste toward the silent buildings. Lightning crashes close by, bathing the town square for a nanosecond in silver light. Thunder echoes off the buildings. Leaning into the storm I walk faster, my breath releasing in white clouds.
Long cold fingers of fear tickle the nape of my neck.
“Screw it!” I mutter and start running – hard. Increasing my pace, I angle down a dark alley toward a covered loading dock illuminated by a weak security light. I splash through the rain and dodge a pair of rats the size of dachshunds. The platform is a few inches higher than my belt. I take the steps two at a time and vault to the top, sliding on the rain-slick concrete. Rain soaks the first few feet of the dock, but when I move to the rear and deep into the shadows, I find it almost dry. The tattered, faded, and moldy awning provides a measure of protection from the storm.
I bend over, my hands on my knees, my breathing ragged and harsh. A five-gallon bucket offers me a place to sit. For the first time since – since I don’t know when – I can relax.
Reaching into an interior pocket of the coat, I pull out a crumpled pack of Camels. But it’s not completely empty. Something other than a cigarette is in there. I find a Zippo lighter in an adjacent pocket and thumb the wheel in a quick grinding flick. The brass torch flares to life allowing me to stare into the cigarette pack. My body spasms, threatening to spill the contents of my stomach.
I stumble across the bucket and trip over several large bags of garbage, tearing them open and spilling the contents. I catch a glimpse of a dark form in one of the bags before my lighter sizzles and dies as I stumble back into the driving rain.
Shaking uncontrollably, I barely manage to flip the lighter’s lid open. I nervously thumb the wheel once, twice and a third time before the amber glow bursts from my trembling hand. Before my eyes can adjust to the sudden yellow illumination, I know that the severed finger in the pack of Camels will perfectly match the body lying at my feet.
I regain my composure and confirm the contents of my stomach will stay put. The young blonde woman appears to be in her mid-twenties. It doesn’t take long for me to figure out that the severed finger didn’t cause her death. The single red and black bullet hole in the middle of her forehead accomplished that.
Thunder explodes again close by. I instinctively duck.
“There he is! There’s the bastard!” shouts a voice from the mouth of the alley.
I turn and see flashlight beams bouncing off the wall, scouring the ground, and weaving toward me. A second volley of thunder rumbles down the brickwork canyon. Except this thunder whines and sends sparks dancing off the bricks beside me.
My mind is a bit foggy, but it doesn’t take me long to figure out that the “bastard” they are looking for is me, and that the thunder is their guns. I jump from the loading dock as the bucket beside me splinters and shoots into the air.
I obey my body’s basic instincts. When my mind screams, “Run!” and my ass takes off down the street, I don’t argue. I just keep my feet pointing in the right direction and try to keep my balance. And this is the situation I find myself in: fleeing blindly down a debris-laden alley, rain in my eyes, and wind in my face as hot rounds of lead scream past my shoulders.
A blistering whine again sends sparks showering off the wall beside me, letting me know the shooters are getting their range. If I don’t find someplace to hide, and soon, wondering why a severed finger is in my pocket will be the least of my worries.
I exhaust the last of my adrenaline as my lungs burn hot inside my chest. The lead continues to fly as if I am in a western movie, where bad guys never run out of ammo and Colt six-shooters blaze like hand-held Gatling guns.
My coat snags on the rear bumper of a stripped-out Volkswagen Beetle, spinning me around and taking my feet out from under me. My head smacks the pavement with a blinding thud. Torrents of pain and a meteor shower of stars explode in my skull. The second I lose my footing a bullet rips through the rear of the Beetle. The car rings out like a distorted church bell in a Stephen King novel. Rolling across the ground I hear several shots crease the air over my head. The Volkswagen continues to chime its deadly requiem as additional rounds strike it.
A door on the left side of the alley stands slightly ajar. I grab a fist-sized brick and throw it as far as I can down the alley. It bounces and crashes against garbage bins one-hundred-fifty feet downrange. I spare a quick glance over the top of the VW. The men aim their flashlights further down the alley. With their attention elsewhere, I lunge toward the gap in the wall, through the open door, and roll into the dark building.
I grab the remains of a dilapidated filing cabinet and push it against the entrance. It falls against the partially closed metal door with a heart-stopping crunch, jamming the door shut. The temporary barricade won’t hold forever, but it should last long enough for me to make my escape and put a little distance between me and my pursuers.
The room is almost pitch black; a few streaks of muted light seep through the grime-coated windows facing the alley. Keeping my back to the frames and shielding the lighter with my body, I thumb the wheel on my Zippo; it blazes forth with a burst of yellow-white light. As my eyes adjust to the fiery glare, I survey my temporary sanctuary.
It had been someone’s office years or decades ago. A partially collapsed desk sits in one corner of the room, one of its cracked and splintered legs lies under it. Remnants of the ceiling cover most of the desktop. I push off the crumbling plaster searching for a weapon, even a long-forgotten letter-opener, anything to protect myself with until I sort out what is going on.
The only thing I find of interest is a men’s magazine from 1992. Most of the pages are stuck together from years of sitting in the musty room, but one retains the image of a young woman lying on her back, stretched out seductively on a zebra skin rug. Her blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked face is turned up toward the camera, a pouting kiss frozen for eternity on her face. She is clad in nothing but a pair of staples. Damn those staples.
It is time to move on, to try to find a place where I can make sense of what is happening. Besides, the Zippo is getting hot and running short on fuel. Maneuvering by the feeble light, I trip over something that clinks and rolls away. I set the lighter down and drop to all fours, scrambling around on the slick moldy carpet like a blind man playing a solitary game of Twister. My fingers brush across a heavy, cold pipe.
I nod my approval.
Gripping it hard in my hand makes me feel secure. I take a couple of practice swings; it carves the air nicely, the open-end singing like wind over an empty bottle. Until a better weapon presents itself, the pipe will have to do.
The lighter flickers and dies. It relights feebly on the fourth try, the flame only a half-inch high and sputtering.
Holding the flame at waist level, I make my way through the ruins of the office, searching for an exit door. I sidestep collapsed shelving units, piles of wire hangers, and bolts of rotted cloth. In the back corner of the room, I find a heavy metal door that leads deeper into the building. I try the knob, but it is either locked or frozen shut. I push against it, trying to rock it loose. The door doesn’t so much as creak; the only exit remains the one to the alley and its pack of especially unfriendly men. Picking my way back across the office floor I detect movement out of the corner of my eye. I spin to find a disheveled, animalistic face appearing ahead of me. The person blocks my path and moves to intercept me no matter which way I step.
“Back your ass up, or I’ll arrange your face in a way nature never intended!” I raise the pipe.
The silent man wordlessly mocks me as I speak.
“I’m warning you!” I tense and wait for the man to respond.
Call me chicken, call me a coward, but I have had enough of being shot at, nearly electrocuted, and mocked. I am getting the hell out of Dodge.
I step toward the door and the face rushes me at the same instant. I bring the pipe down in a quick, singing slash. The face explodes and drops in a shower of glass.
“What the hell?”
Darkness blooms the second I swing my makeshift club. I thumb the lighter, once more coaxing it back to life. Despite my soggy clothes, being shot at and running for my life, I laugh. My silver friend provides just enough light for me to realize that I have whipped the shit out of a freestanding full-length mirror.
Picking up a shard of glass the size of a dinner plate, I stare at the image, first in disbelief, then in shock. The face on the mirror fragment is that of a stranger.
A mind-numbing realization settles over me. I begin to recreate my day. The last thirty minutes or so are easy, then everything kind of muddles grows confusing. My hazy memories start about the time I stumble – or am thrown – from a car. Before that, nothing, nada, zip. The previous hours, days, weeks, years all gone.
I shuck out of my coat and rifle through the pockets, avoiding the one with the severed finger. From the right front pocket, I pull out a blue Bic pen with the cap nearly chewed in half, seventeen cents in change, a small brass key, and a pack of matches from the Center Rack pool hall. That one surprises me. I don’t feel like a pool shark, so why the matches and lighter? Preparation, as in the Boy Scouts? That is one thing I am sure of: I am no Boy Scout.
All my clues as to who I am lay scattered across the grimy desktop, illuminated by the now failing light of the lighter. Knowing that my existence began little more than half an hour ago is sobering. A stiff shot of strong liquor would help to cure that feeling.
Drawing up my courage, I force my hand back into the inside coat pocket and extract the crumpled Camel cigarette pack. I dump the contents on the table. First, the finger with the bright red nail polish tumbles out, followed by a few shreds of tobacco. Nervously I reach into the pack to see if anything else is crammed inside. A small picture folded in half falls out.
When I unfold the photograph, I receive another disturbing shock. It is a picture of the dead chick. She is sitting in a restaurant booth, her legs crossed, arms folded at the waist and head cocked to the side. A mug of beer with the head still foaming sits at the edge of a plate of nachos. Okay, maybe not as wholesome as I thought, but definitely not deserving of having her life blasted away and dumped with the garbage.
A bolt of lightning strikes nearby. The concussion rocks the walls and causes more plaster to fall from the ceiling.
I flinch and try to get my buttocks to relax their grip on my shorts.
The lighter blinks out and refuses to ignite.
Angry voices at the door freeze me in place. I grip the iron pipe tightly. Someone tries the knob. When it fails to turn, they throw themselves against it. The door shudders on its hinges but doesn’t budge. Without a visible rear exit, I will have to put my faith in the rusted-out filing cabinet and wedged-shut metal door.
The sounds outside quiet for a moment. Then another crashing explosion rocks the door. The top bends in slightly. Two more attacks, each one as vicious as the one before, fail to budge it another inch. Someone cusses rather eloquently in the alley. It is something about mothers and fornicating, but I can’t be sure. When the voices calm, I relax just a bit.
The footsteps echo down the alley, gradually growing fainter.
I sit heavily against the desk and let the pipe drop from my hand. It hits the damp carpet with a muffled thud. My heart skips a beat as I fear the men might hear the sound and return. When no one tries the door again I manage a deep breath. I count to a hundred and back to zero before making another move. I need to think, to sort out what is happening and how my world has turned inside-out; I need a place where I’m just another face in the crowd.