Refuge

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CHAPTER 33 – Avenged and Free

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

Erin had to fight the urge to abandon the others and run for her life as hard as she could.

Carl came first with his shotgun at waist level and pointed at Nate’s chest. He walked with a swagger and a grin, his emerald green scarf draped about his neck and loosely knotted at one side like an air ace of old. Secure in his sense of control as he held the power of life and death over the group of frightened people in front of him, he failed to notice the sudden flare in Nate’s eyes.

Behind him came Logan’s scurrying shuffle, the target pistol shaking in his trembling hand as he shoved it out ahead of him like a flashlight in a dark room.

Vince leaned on Mandy’s shoulder with his left hand and hopped across the carpeted floor to stand, at last, within just a few feet of his elusive quarry, beaming with the satisfaction of having them, after all this time and effort and pain, within his grasp. His right hand gripped the handle of the machete in a white-knuckled fist—its black blade with the gleaming edge extending toward the floor like an ominous finger of Satan pointing to Hell. The curved handle and part of the cylinder of the Colt Python protruded above his waistband, ready for a quick draw.

Trailing them all, at the end of the chain stretching back from the leather loop on Vince’s wrist, came Rachel. She stopped when the tug on her leash eased off then stood staring blankly until her gaze lit upon Erin’s face. She said nothing, but with recognition came a subtle awareness of her surroundings.

Erin gasped at the sight of the girl she had befriended in the shed. Only because she was aware of the possibilities under Vince, was she not surprised by the look of deep, long suffering in Rachel’s face. When not being dragged, she walked with the pace of a very old woman. When she stood, it was with a posture suggesting flesh hanging on a rickety skeleton like old rags. Her attention to words spoken and action taken in her presence seemed lacking, as though her mind had found a better place to occupy than her body.

Vince noticed her reaction and turned to gaze at the creature at the end of the leash, after which he sneered. “She’s a mess, ain’t she?” But, when he turned back to face the killers of his beloved brother, no joy lit his face. “You’ve led me on a hell of a chase. If Vic was with me, I might even have enjoyed it. But...Vic is gone. He... You...”

Rage roiled in his pale, icy eyes. His lips curled, quivered, twisted. The hand he had rested on Mandy’s shoulder to help carry his weight clenched into a spasmodic, vicious claw that dug into her flesh. With a wrench of his arm, he flung her whimpering away from him. Ignoring the pain in his knee, he stood with his feet planted wide like Attila the Hun on the bank of the River Po contemplating the sack of Rome. He raised the machete and held it upright before him like a scepter, gazing at it as though he could see blood running down its dark length.

Silence hung in the air. A cruel grin crept across his face as he jerked his fury under control. “Did you really think you could get away with murdering my little brother, my best friend, my…? I would have hunted you across every continent and sea, and to the gates of Hell and beyond for what you did.”

Erin fought to keep her voice calm when she said, “He was trying to kill Jason. It was self-defense.”

“Self-defense? What the hell does this look like—a courtroom? I don’t care what Vic was doing to you or anyone else. What I do care about is what you—and you—did to him. There are no more courts, no more cops, no more jails. And the Law is what I say it is. So, forget about self-defense; I don’t recognize it in this case. In fact, I don’t recognize any defense at all. I’ve already found you guilty.”

Vince rocked his weight onto his good leg to give his knee a rest and peered hard into Jason’s face for a moment. “...Wolfe. Right? You’re a cop!”

Jason silently returned the glare.

“Yeah, you’re the cop that shot Eric. So, you’ve killed both of my brothers. Oh, that has got to call for some kind of blood payment. Well, guess what—it’s payday.”

Vince hobbled over to lean on the railing. He said, “Oh, but I’m not gonna to let Carl or little Eddie over there shoot you. No, no. That’d be much, much too easy. Just boom and boom and it’d be all over. After what you did, and it’s over in just a couple of seconds? Oh, no. Not so quick, not nearly so quick.

“Since I learned about what you did to Vic, I’ve hardly thought of anything but what I was going to do to you when I caught up to you—both of you. And, you will be...delighted at some of the ideas I’ve got—oh, and of some new things I can do now. I’m going do things that probably haven’t been done since the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, I’m going to improve on most of what they did. You two are going to scream in agonies that would make those old church torturers blush from their own incompetence. Oh, yeah!” He slammed the blade edge of the machete into a banister post so hard it embedded. With a wrench, he jerked it loose wiped foam beginning to form from his mouth as he glared at his captives. “I’m going to enjoy this!”

His darting eyes came to rest on Emmie. “I think I may have a few ideas for this one, too. Maybe I’ll use her for a warm-up, just to get my technique down right before I start on you two. That should be stimulating, huh? Of course, I’ll let you watch. Or maybe I’ll just hang onto her for after you two are gone. I can probably find a use for her. I mean, I have a tag-along now, but she’s getting sorta used up.”

With a vicious tug on the rope still in his hand, Vince brought Rachel staggering forward to fall onto her knees beside him. Then, pulling the chain straight up, he forced her to stand again. “You see what I mean? Hell, she can’t hardly stand up.”

Erin stifled a sob, but she said nothing.

He eased off on the pressure, and Rachel settled back to a flat-footed stance.

Vince’s lewd grin broadened as he ogled Emmie’s shrinking figure. “But, this sweet, little creature before me looks strong. I’ll bet she could carry Rachel’s load without too much trouble. Eh?”

Jason remained silent, but the tension in his muscles set them to quivering.

“Yeah,” Vince went on. “And poor old Rachel, here, can make one, last contribution. I’ll use what’s left of her to experiment on, to develop my techniques, to perfect them. I don’t want you two dying on me too soon. Maybe if I’m really, really careful, you two could last for a couple of days. Who knows? Maybe even as much as a week, if I don’t get greedy and push too hard. Eh? You think so? But how would I know how hard to push unless I have someone to practice on, huh?”

Carl and Logan snickered, but neither dared to interrupt Vince’s tirade with input.

“You two will beg me to let you die. You will plead with me to allow you the final release of death. But you will go on...and on...until I have wrung every, last grain of pain from your shredded flesh and shattered bones. You will have the added pain of witnessing each other’s agony. Just that simple thing—knowing your own sight gives you suffering—will give me extreme pleasure. And for that reason, I will allow you to keep your eyes…for a while…well, at least one apiece. But first I’ll use the old man, here, for you to watch as a preview of what’s coming. He can add to what I learn from ripping Rachel apart.”

Rachel’s face flinched with the mention of her name. Her eyes made occasional darts about the mezzanine, but they always returned to glare at Vince.

“Yes, I think I will keep your whelp. While the three of you are praying for death, you will have the crushing weight on your minds of knowing that this child will live on. But, it won’t be a life to envy, believe me. She will be my pack mule. She will be my dog to beat when I’m bored. She will be my whore to pimp for a can of beans.”

Jason had pulled himself into a half-sitting position, but he was unable to further prepare any kind of defense or offense under Carl and Logan’s watchful glares.

Erin held Emmie close, but she was unable to further protect the shivering girl from the palpable hatred radiating from Vince like the searing heat of a torturer’s brazier.

Mandy had retreated to stand with her back against the wall next to an arched window where she kept her gaze on the floor in front of her.

“...will know every agony—pain—grief at every step that she takes for the rest of her miserable life. Look! Look at my moth...uh, look at Rachel for a glimpse of what your daughter will become.” Vince took a step away from the banister, grabbed Rachel by her hair and slammed her against the railing near Jason’s bed and the table next to it.

Rachel caught herself from going over the waist-high barrier. She leaned against it and turned her head to the side to gaze out from beneath straggly strands of hair across her twisted face and glowered at Vince. In his preoccupation with his new captives, he didn’t notice the fury raging there.

He eased back against the rail and massaged his knee a couple of times. It was causing too much of a distraction. “Does that thought give you pain? Eh? Can you picture the life ahead for this girl? I promise you, she will last longer than this whore I picked up on the road. Oh, yeah, I have learned many things, already, about the stamina of a human frame and mind, the capacity to withstand...”

As he droned on, focusing on the clear terror building on the faces of his new captives, he failed to notice the signs of growing defiance on the one he had brought with him.

Vince’s gaze swept across his captives, coming to rest on Erin as his smile broadened. “You see this?” he asked as he held up his open hand. Then, as he slowly closed it into a fist, “I can wrap it around your guts and squeeze....”

Erin gasped out a cry as she dropped to the floor and doubled over into a tight, fetal position, gasping and squirming in agony.

His fist slowly rotated. “I can twist your guts inside out without losing a drop of your blood…at least on the outside. Can’t promise anything about inside, though.”

Erin drew her knees hard up to her chin and screamed.

After a moment Vince opened his hand and slowly lowered it back to his side.

Erin’s body slowly uncurled. Crying, she lay panting, still clenching her belly, and looked fearfully about.

“Neat, huh? Damn, I wish I knew how I do that. There’s probably lots more I can do if I just knew how. Oh, well, I’ll work on it. I’ll probably hold back on using it, anyway, until I know how survivable it is. Hell, I might wind up killing you with it before I’m ready.” He glanced at Nate for a moment. “I’ve done it a few times with Rachel, but just short little tweaks. I don’t want to kill her; not yet; not ’til I’m ready. Maybe I’ll use the old man for that, to see just what I can do without touching him, and at what point I’ve gone too far and killed him. Should be fun. But there is a certain satisfaction in being able to actually hold a piece of flesh or bone in my hand, knowing its removal is causing you agony beyond your wildest fears.”

Rachel whined softly and slowly shook her head.

“...will learn every one of them, just as my mother is beginning to learn them. But your pup will be much more familiar with the tortures the body can tolerate than my mother ever dreamed of. I will—”

Rachel’s breathing became labored, and her gaze flashed around the room. A low growl from beside him interrupted Vince’s discourse. Within seconds, it expanded to a hideous screech.

All eyes, including Vince’s, turned to her.

Without a break in the vocalization, the screech became words. “—not your mother!”

Vince opened his mouth as though to respond to her protest. But, instead, as she thrust her face into his to repeat her words, he backhanded her. It wasn’t hard, but it should have been hard enough to knock her weakened and unsteady body backward a step or two. It only turned her head. And when she turned it back, her eyes spewed such venom he took a step backward. As soon as his eyes locked on hers, she reacted. She lurched forward, pinning him against the barrier at his back, pushing him, struggling desperately to shove him over it. He drew his other hand back to strike, the hand holding the machete. But she didn’t give him the opportunity.

She lunged with both hands ripping at his face, snagged and broken nails turning her fingers into talon-tipped claws. Vince reared back, but the banister prevented further retreat, and in trying to shield his face with his arms, he lost his grip on the machete. It clattered to the floor beneath them where shuffling feet kicked it across the floor and out of reach. She tore into him with a speed he couldn’t match and a ferocity that threatened to overwhelm him.

His hand grasped the handle of the Python and jerked it free. Just as she lunged for his eyes, pressing her body forward with her belly against the Python’s muzzle, it fired.

The gun was at an angle, and the low-impact bullet entered through the front and out the side, but the force of the contact wound spun her away from him in a spray of blood to land on her hands and knees near the foot of Jason’s bed. Her eyes flared with a blazing glare. She seemed to feel no pain, and rage had infused her weakened body with manic energy as she lunged back to her feet. He thrust the revolver at her and pulled the trigger again. But his aim was rushed and went askew. The bullet tore through her left triceps and spun her, again, to the floor. Again, she lurched to her feet, though with less strength than before. Her bleeding left arm hugged her abdomen with her hand cupping the wound in her side, but she didn’t look at either wound—only at him.

Vince reeled back against the railing and wiped his free arm across his face, wiping away some of the blood smearing his vision. His face burned like fire, and his mind fought to regain focus away from it and back to his adversary…his mother whom he had once loved more than anything, and whom he must now punish.

He lowered his arm, the weight of the Python assuring him that he was still armed, and he sought her out with the muzzle of his weapon. He found her blurry image, but she was no longer there at the foot of Jason’s bed, bleeding in agony from his bullets. On her feet again, she moved along the side of the bed to the head, to the small table there. Her right hand lifted something from the table, and she drew back her arm with it. Then, lunging toward him, she thrust the thing in her hand at him.

A new agony exploded through his belly like a red-hot poker, eclipsing the torture of his shredded face. It burned. It seared. It blazed.

Rachel staggered and dropped to the floor at his feet.

He sagged against the support at his back and looked down at the thing protruding from the middle of his abdomen. His shaking hand grasped the bloody cloth covering it and pulled it away, exposing a five-inch stub of heavy glass.

His gaze went back to Rachel where she curled up on the floor just feet away. Her eyes seemed to infuse him with hardly less misery than the thing in his belly. How could she, who had tended to him as a child with such love and tenderness, have caused so much pain? How could he not have known she would do such a thing? She had betrayed him and Vic to a life of hell. All these years from the time he was five years old had been a living betrayal. Even though he often had told Vic of how wonderful their mother was, he had known for years that she was nothing but evil. When he found her at Muir Beach covered with ashes like she was the last time he had seen her, he had vowed then to punish her. She tried to entrance him with her angelic beauty and her down-soft voice, and she did manage to mesmerize and bewitch Vic, but he knew her for what she was—evil. From the first, he had seen how she looked at the others, trying to entice them away from him as she did with Crissy. Carl and Logan, even Mandy, would have been powerless against her if he had not been there to counter her sorcery. And, still, every moment, she never stopped trying to bewilder him, to ensnare him back into her web of enchantment, to distract him until she could, again, leave him, abandon him.

But, no more! He would not be tricked again! His agony had freed him of her spellbinding beauty, so he could see her, now, for the true ogress she was. Now, as she crouched before him in her true form and glared her evil up at him, he knew he had won, at last. He had exposed her to the world, and he would punish her.

Propped against the railing and with less than three feet from the muzzle of the Python to Rachel’s breast, he made the mistake of pausing to relish the moment. For, in that moment, she struck again. She yanked the chain still connecting the two, jerking his left hand forward and spinning him to his right and to his knees. When the Python fired, the bullet went wide. The recoil was enough to jolt the weapon from his weakened grip, and it landed out of his reach on the floor beneath Jason’s bed.

She rose to her knees, as he could not, and, as he watched, she unhooked the chain from her collar and flung it to the floor before him. Her words, no longer shouted, but still in barely controlled outrage, echoed, “I am not your mother—and I am stronger than you!”

If only he could have sent the bullet tearing into her heart, the heart he had so dearly loved and hated at the same time, her punishment, her death, would have released him. But now he was still imprisoned in his own hatred that burned in his heart as much as the thing piercing his body. And, then, worst of all, as his consciousness receded into awaiting darkness, once again doubts began to worm into his final thoughts. What if he was wrong about her, after all? What if…? The last thing that registered in his mind before he slumped to the floor was his view of Rachel as she sagged back against the side of Jason’s bed with her face lit from within by the glow of a victor.

The suddenness and the ruthlessness of Rachel’s attack and the subsequent drama as it played out had frozen the others where they stood. Then, with the one-on-one explosion of violence as suddenly ending with Vince’s collapse to the floor, they all flashed back to the moment.

Logan was the first to react by shooting wildly, firing six times as he spun about and hitting no one.

Carl swept the muzzle of the shotgun up and around but never settled on a target before he pulled the trigger. Fire and buckshot surrounded by acrid smoke ripped the air beside Nate but did no more than destroy a square foot of wall several feet behind him. Carl jacked the shotgun pump to chamber another round, but Nate was quicker.

The foot-long blade of the fifteenth century dagger flashed from the sheath on Nate’s belt, and in an unrelenting onslaught, began to slash. With the first upward sweeping blow, Carl lost his grip on the shotgun slide along with two fingers. By the time the gun clattered to the floor, his wounds had tripled.

The honed tip of the dagger darted in to pierce Carl’s hands, arms, legs, slice across his belly and chest, one cheek of his face, his right ear. It was like a terrible, rigid snake, its single, razor-sharp, double-edged fang stabbing and slashing at every point on his body within range, and too swift to block or to evade.

Carl leaned, cringing against the railing where Nate had backed him. In horror, he gazed at the tip of the dagger slowly rise like the head of a cobra to the level of his throat. Then, slowly, with the delicate touch of a pick-pocket, it moved in to lift the emerald scarf from his neck without touching his skin, pulling the satin slowly away as the loose knot slid apart. The blade withdrew and delivered the strip of cloth into Nate’s other hand, which raised it to his lips and a tender kiss.

Nate’s eyes seared into Carl’s, and he spoke only four words. But those words put Carl to quaking in terror almost sufficient to cloak, for a moment, the storm of pain overwhelming him. Their portent was as plain as a tombstone. “She was my wife.”

Burning rage drove Nate’s arm as, with each swipe of the blade, he recalled his neighbors, his friends in Muir Beach who had fallen to the slaughter. But, mostly, there was the emerald scarf in his left hand that matched the one about his own neck, a scrap the color of laughing, loving, Irish eyes.

Wielding the long dagger like a short saber, Nate laid into Carl with surgical precision in lightning quick arcs at every unprotected surface. Within seconds, he bled from a dozen more searing cuts, often to the bone. When he backed away, Nate pursued. The honed steel continued to gash, to jab, to stab, guided by the unerring arm of a fencing master, crippling any attempt to fight back. In the time he would try to focus on any one wound, three new ones would appear elsewhere on his body. It was as though he were being fed into some terrible mincing machine.

With a desperate lunge, he shoved Nate backwards, where he tripped over a mate of the chair he had carried Jason in on and crashed to the floor. This left Carl free to make a mad, reeling dash for the stairwell, disappearing into that hole like a scampering rat seeking solitude in which to die.

Behind Nate, Jason’s heavy dagger flew and plunged deep into Logan’s right thigh. When Logan screamed and lowered the shaking pistol to stare incredulously at the thing protruding from his leg, Jason followed up by throwing himself to the floor and snatching up Vince’s machete. With a desperate heave, he threw it too.

The deadly, black length of steel wobbled wildly as it rotated end over end, invisible in the shadowy interior of the museum except for flashes of light from the honed steel at the beveled edge. Being designed for hacking and not throwing, the unbalanced bar of steel only nicked Logan’s arm near the elbow as it looped over his outstretched arm and clattered against the wall behind him.

The recently initiated killer yelped and lost his grip on the pistol, unable to prevent it from falling to the floor where it bounced at his feet and skittered away out of reach. Disbelief distorted his face with his eyes and mouth forming matching circles. With his voice shaking as much from rage as from the burning in his leg, he screeched, “You sonofabitch! You sonofabitch!”

Mandy rushed up from near the window and stooped for the pistol. Erin lunged for it at the same time, but Mandy’s hand got to it first. In mid-charge, Erin altered course and grabbed Mandy instead. Just as Mandy’s fingers were about to secure the gun, Erin’s clawed into the flesh of Mandy’s upper arm and wrenched her up and away from it, letting the gun clatter back to the floor. Using her forward momentum as well as Mandy’s while still gripping Mandy’s arm, Erin threw her spinning away across the floor. But as Erin’s grip released, Mandy caught herself on strong legs and allowed the spin to carry her around to face Erin. As she came to rest on widely spaced legs, her left arm flashed out to deliver a vicious, closed fist backhand blow across the side of Erin’s head.

Erin took half a step backwards and tried to re-focus her eyes on Mandy’s face, but her attention was drawn to Mandy’s hands. Mandy had assumed a well-balanced stance, knees bent, and back straight. Her arms, hands, and fingers did an elaborate dance as they went through the movements Erin recognized as those of a martial arts fighter.

Like a striking cobra, Mandy’s left hand shot out and jabbed Erin below her right eye. If Erin’s reflexes hadn’t pivoted her head a fraction at the last instant, the blow would have landed solidly enough to smash her to the floor struggling for consciousness. As it was, the skin split open across the outside corner of her cheekbone. She reeled back a half a step to regain her balance and focused again on Mandy’s dancing hands.

Erin’s mind flashed back to Crissy’s tale of her fight with Mandy when they had first arrived at Muir Beach. Crissy claimed Mandy fought like Bruce Lee, and that she didn’t have a chance.

Mandy did a fast spin on the ball of her left foot, then snapped her right leg out at she came around to deal a smashing impact to the side of Erin’s head. But, again, Erin’s toned body’s reflex saved her from suffering more than just another glancing blow.

She had hardly recovered when Mandy spun again, but in the opposite direction and on the other foot. As she came around with her left foot, Erin was just turning back to her and moved straight into the foot. It caught her high, though. Mandy had been aiming for the center of her face, to smash her nose, sending the shattered bone fragments into her brain. Instead, it struck Erin’s forehead.

Erin flew backwards from the impact. From flat on her back, through a galaxy of spinning stars, she saw Mandy bobbing and dancing toward her. She saw in Mandy’s eyes the intent to beat Erin to death—and enjoy doing it. Erin rolled over and vaulted to her feet. But Mandy was ready for her and delivered a breath-robbing kick to her midsection. Again, Mandy’s aim was high, and the blow landed on Erin’s sternum instead of her solar plexus where it would have paralyzed her diaphragm long enough for Mandy to finish her off. Erin’s rib cage absorbed the impact, but she still had to fight for breath. Somehow, she got back to her feet before Mandy could reach her.

Mandy wore a death’s-head grin as she stepped closer, finally understanding what Vince had been saying all along about the thrill of knowing she could kill and not have to worry about the law. She had participated in karate matches in training and minor competitions, but, of course, she always had to pull her punches. She had never been able to really let herself go to her fullest capability, to really put to the test all that she had trained to do—to kill. Now she could.

As Mandy drew within range for her long arms, she snapped out her right hand in an open-handed slap. Not really a blow, and not something she had learned in the karate academy; it was a blow of derision. She wanted to let Erin know she considered her to be no threat. She wanted Erin to know she was scoffing at any defense that she might presume to offer. The blow was not even hard enough to knock Erin off her feet. It was not intended to. It was meant as no more than a spit in the face.

Erin’s head snapped to the side and her cheek stung where Mandy’s hand had landed.

As the next instant began, her right foot dropped back half a step, and her body dipped as her knee bent, a movement much like a curtsey. Her right hand began clenching as it began its ascent above her knee. Her head came back around to focus on her adversary. By the time her hand passed the level of her chest it had compacted into an ever-tightening fist, and her knee continued to straighten, launching her upward and forward. Agonizing hours of burning muscles at her membership gym working with dumbbells and barbells, bench pressing her own weight, working on the torture rack they call the weight machine, and more hours of aerobics, and the bicycle, and the running, all now focused on this moment. Powerful thigh muscles propelled her body ever upward as she thrust her driving fist between the dancing arms before her. Erin’s fist slammed into Mandy’s jaw like a mallet of solid bone.

The crack of the impact echoed as Mandy’s jawbone snapped. The force of the blow spun her around and staggering across the mezzanine floor to crash headlong into the wall between two windows. With the force of the blow directed laterally rather than vertically into her skull and brain, and with a good part of the energy absorbed by the breaking jawbone, she did not lose consciousness. She sank to the floor and huddled there whimpering with both arms covering her head.

Erin watched Mandy bounce off the wall and go to the floor. “Humph!” she snorted as she turned muttering back to Jason’s situation. “Karate-chop that.”

As Logan stooped to retrieve his pistol, Emmie shook herself to action. When she saw the small but deadly thing coming back up to bear on her father, she drew the Landsknecht’s dagger from her belt and charged.

Logan saw her coming and raised his arm without the gun to block the blow aimed at his face, and the slim blade slid through the flesh of his forearm half way to the hilt. He screamed and jerked his arm back, wrenching the knife from her hand. He continued to scream and stare at the knife sticking out from both sides of his arm, enraged that even more pain was inflicted upon his person. He would have enjoyed bashing her head over and over with the pistol until it was unrecognizable, but she had lurched back out of reach. So, he raised the weapon to point at her head with the wide eyes glaring back at him. But before he had a chance to fire, sounds of movement from behind jerked him back to the cripple on the floor.

Jason tried to slide-crawl-roll across the ten feet of open floor between himself and Logan, but he failed to make it even half way before Logan jabbed the muzzle of the pistol out at him. Surrendering to his pain, he settled to the carpet.

Emmie spun around, wildly searching for another weapon—or, failing that, something with which to shield her father. Her mind screamed for her to do something, but it came up cold in its search for an effective course of action. She spun about seeking something—anything. What would stop a bullet? Her body?

Peering through tear-blurred eyes, Logan’s brittle grin broadened when he saw his adversary abandon his driving charge. His hand below Emmie’s dagger clamped onto his throbbing leg, his fingers hooked hard into the muscle on either side of Jason’s knife to try to ease the searing pain. His forearm burned with the cold steel buried there, and it added to the heat of his hatred as he raised his pistol to eye level and sighted along it into Jason’s eyes.

His lips quivered and puckered as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was hurting, and he was scared. He had joined Vince in the first place to avoid this kind of thing. Vince had been strong, and instilled fear in everyone around, fear that he, Logan, may be ordered by Vince to inflict pain and death, and so, cause them to fear Logan also. He was not supposed to be the receiver of pain. This was all wrong. But he would make him pay, this cripple. Even though Vince was no longer there to provide the shelter of his intimidation, he, Ed Logan, on his own, would make this bastard pay.

He still glared into Jason’s eyes over the top of the barrel as he pulled the trigger. The little .22 bucked slightly as the shot rang out, and the wood of the floor beneath Jason’s raised head and chest splintered where the bullet struck. Logan didn’t think he had pulled the aim off target, but he must have. For the second shot, he aimed at the middle of Jason’s forehead and pulled the trigger. Again, the target pistol bucked as the shot rang out, and the wooden floor kicked up more splinters from a bullet impact a foot to the side of the first one and, again, a foot or more off target. How could he miss so badly from only six or eight feet away? He’d fix that. He’d put the muzzle right inside the cripple’s mouth. He just had to be careful of the man’s hands. He’d need to get up close, then lunge forward with the gun before his victim could react. He led with the arm from which Emmie’s dagger jutted while holding the gun back against his body where it would be safe until the last instant. Cringing and cursing with each step he took on the leg sprouting Jason’s knife, he began edging forward.

Emmie dashed across to a nearby display of implements used by early farmers in their fields. She grabbed the long, gracefully curved handle of a wheat scythe. It was too heavy and awkward for her to hold and wield as it was designed. But, with the specter of death draping its dark shadow across her father, a strength beyond her years welled up within her.

With a firm, double-handed grip, she wrested the thing away from the wall. As she spun, the heavy, four-foot-long, arced blade accelerated as it rose, its path slicing the air barely above her father’s head before reaching the killer. It struck Logan just below his sternum, and the blade drove through the lower portion of his heart and wedged against the inside back of his rib cage.

Logan’s lungs expelled their contents with the impact. His grip on the pistol relaxed, and the weapon dropped to the floor. The wide-eyed scowl he had worn since his focus had centered on Jason got even wider along with his mouth gaping in a brief, twisted grimace. Then, it all went slack, and his legs began to go lax. The weight of the scythe’s long handle toppled him sideways and forward to land atop the back end of the blade, driving the point through his back and a full two feet beyond.

Absorbed by the drama of Jason’s lost battle and Emmie’s victory, Erin forgot Mandy as soon as the defeated woman struck the wall and slid to the floor. She didn’t notice the place where her opponent settled was within arm’s reach of where Vince’s machete came to rest after Jason threw it at Logan. Now, as she started toward Emmie and Jason, she heard footfalls pounding behind her. She spun to face a wild-eyed, machete wielding hellion bearing down on her.

Moving with reflex, Erin whipped out Helga’s Viking dagger and swept it up to meet the descending black blade. Catching the heavy machete on the dagger’s cross guard, she redirected the force of the blow by pivoting her shoulder and swinging her straightened arm in a wide arc to the outside where the machete sliced harmlessly through the air. She continued to swing the dagger around and back in to her body, then, driving it forward and upward, she drove the beautifully engraved blade to the hilt in Mandy’s heart.

At the sounds of Carl’s bumping scramble down the stairwell, Jason grabbed the shotgun from where it had landed, but quickly gave up in his effort to jump to his feet as an impossible dream. He collapsed back onto the floor, surprised not to see his throbbing leg oozing blood.

Nate swooped the shotgun from Jason’s hands and spun around to lean over the railing. He laid the gun across the brass rail and drew a bead on the dark opening of the bottom opening of the stairwell just as Carl stumbled out onto the floor. Steeling himself, Nate squeezed the trigger.

Jammed!

He tried to work the slide to free the wedged shell, but in his haste, he only made it tighter.

Carl’s fumbling hands manipulated the latch, and he jerked the huge door open. Instead of dashing out to make good his escape, though, he staggered backwards as if struck. He whined and whimpered and shook his head in vehement denial, his gaze still locked on something beyond the doorway. He staggered backwards until he tripped over the raised edge of the platform that held a horse drawn fire-cart on display. He began screaming as the door swung open, and the hunched figures of two aliens, one with a green bandoleer and the other, smaller one wearing multicolored, stepped inside.

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