Noon, 16th July (4 days later). Skirmish
Max looked around the small living room and again noted the liberal placement of family photos. The room was as much a shrine to Kris’ family as it was a place to relax and catch up, just as they were doing right now with Kris’ parents in their suburban home in Brisbane.
‘That one’s my favourite over there,’ Kris’ father said from the centre of the couch, his wrinkled and spotted hand pointing a finger towards the sideboard across the room.
Max turned to look and amongst the plethora of other photos crammed into every available space, he found a picture of what looked like a skinny young, blonde haired girl in a red sports uniform.
‘Stop it, Dad!’ Kris chirped, elbowing her father in the ribs from where she sat next to him. ‘I didn’t come all the way here to get embarrassed by you. You do that every time I bring people over.’
‘She’s right, dear,’ Kris’ Mum said from the opposite side of Kris’ father, ‘besides, if you really want to embarrass her, you should get everyone to look at that one over there.’
Max glanced around and found Kris’ mother pointing to a side table with a teenage looking Kris in a school uniform smiling away and proudly showing off her dental braces.
Elsa giggled from the chair next to Max, forcing Kris to shoot her a not so friendly look. Elsa shrugged meekly, but the smirk stayed well and truly in place.
‘That’s it,’ Kris said abruptly, making to get up. ‘We’re out of here. I love you guys, but I didn’t come here to get...’
‘Oh, hush,’ Kris’ mother said, ‘and sit down. I’m going to make tea. Orders, please?’
Kris’ mother stood up and looked around.
‘White with two, please?’ Elsa asked.
Max shook his head.
Kris’ mother turned to Peter who was pretending to stand from idly in a far corner of the room. He also shook his head and held a hand up.
‘Black, no sugar,’ Kris said.
Kris turned to her daughter and frowned. ‘When did you stop taking milk?’ she said. ‘Milk’s good for you.’
‘Mum, I stopped having milk in my tea when I was sixteen,’ Kris replied, pulling a face. ‘You say that every time and while you’re in the kitchen, I think you better get Max something to eat. It’s been at least an hour since he devoured anything, so he’s probably starving.’
Kris’ mother turned to look at Max, who looked back a little uncertainly. Max failed to articulate anything and so Kris jumped in.
‘He’s just being polite, Mum,’ she said. ‘You said you had some roast lamb left over. Toss some of it on some bread and that’ll keep him happy.’
Max simply shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
‘Good,’ Kris’ mother said. ‘I don’t allow hungry men in my house. If you’re hungry, you eat.’
Shuffling out of the room, Kris’ mother kept up the monologue, fast becoming inaudible as she moved out of earshot.
‘You’re going to eat and you’re going to like it,’ Kris said, pointing a finger at Max. ‘Pete, you better sit yourself down too before she comes back or she’ll make you sit. Men don’t stand in mum’s house either.’
Peter cast a sideways glance out to the kitchen where Kris’ mother had disappeared to and for a moment, actually looked a little uncertain as well.
‘So, Max,’ Kris’ father started, ‘my little girl tells me you’re going to save the world. How do you feel about that?’
Max turned back to Kris’ father and found an old man’s and a father’s careful face looking back. Despite his advanced years and almost bald and sun splotched scalp, the man was clearly his daughter’s father. Sitting side by side, Kris and her father’s resemblance was obvious. Even the old man’s witty and often cheeky personality proved he and Kris were cut from the same cloth.
‘I’ll do my best, sir,’ Max said straight back. ‘That’s a promise.’
Kris’ father held Max’s gaze for a moment and then slowly nodded. ‘Can’t ask more than that of a man and from what Kris tells me, your best is a show worth watching.’
This time Max nodded. Elsa reached across and rubbed her husband’s thigh, allowing Max to grab her hand and squeeze it.
‘I told you, Dad,’ Kris followed up. ‘Max is the real deal. It’s a pity we can’t get you out to watch him train, but maybe I can get some of it on film and email it through.’
‘You can try,’ Kris’ father replied, frowning and shifting in his seat. The internet’s gotten all squirly. Some days it doesn’t get out of bed at all.’
Kris smiled and slapped her father on the arm. ‘You and the internet,’ she said chuckling. ‘Who would have thought you’d even be on speaking terms with it? An old bloke like you.’
Just then, Max twitched his head slightly to the side. Peter instantly registered the movement and tuned his own senses. Releasing Elsa’s hand, Max smoothly rose and turned to the doorway leading out to the hall. The conversation between Kris, her father and Elsa meandered on, while Peter swiftly stepped away from the wall to follow Max out of the room.
Out in the hallway, Max paused and looked both ways. The floor plan of the house was simple with a central hall running the length of the dwelling and all the rooms coming off either side. Max looked to the right and found one of Abdullah’s security guards standing at the rear door of the house, keenly peering through a gap in the curtains over the glass pane in the rear door, marking any activity in the backyard. Max then looked left and found another of Abdullah’s security guards in a similar pose, looking out the glass pane of the front door.
Peter flicked a glance to Max and froze. Max suddenly had that look about him. All purpose and while he wasn’t tense, Max was ready. Lifting his wrist microphone to his mouth, Peter spoke to his team who were waiting outside on the street in the armoured Land Cruisers.
‘Any action out there?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ came the reply from one of his men. ‘All clear. You coming out?’
‘No. We’re good in here. Out,’ Peter said, closing the link and returning to Max. ‘What’s up, mate? You look spooked.’
Max didn’t respond and instead started walking down the hall towards the front door. Peter quickly stepped off after him, trying to look past his bulk to the guard ahead. Hearing the approaching footsteps, the guard glanced over his shoulder to see Max flick his head, indicating he wanted the door open.
As the man pulled the portal ajar, Peter called out, ‘Hold up, mate!’
Peter’s effort failed as Max crossed the threshold and stepped out onto the steps leading down to the front yard. Peter raised his wrist microphone as he quickly followed behind.
‘Sword is coming out the front,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Cover the street.’
As Peter exited the door, he found Max halfway down the stairs, while in his peripheral vision, he saw his team tumbling out of two of the three black Land Cruisers on the opposing kerb. Max reached the bottom of the stairs and walked out the front gate and onto the footpath where he stopped. This allowed Peter to catch him up a few moments later and stand next to him.
Peter then looked both ways along the street, firstly to confirm his team had taken up full covering positions up and down from him, but also to see if there was any other activity in view. The street was empty.
‘What’s on your mind, big fellah?’ Peter asked quietly as he continued to scan the surrounds.
‘Something’s not right,’ Max evenly replied as he too looked around, slowly and methodically.
‘How do you know?’ Peter carefully asked, checking the Land Cruisers to make sure the three vehicles had their drivers all on seat and ready.
‘Heard something outside and it was wrong.’
Peter paused and instinctively visualised drawing his own gun in rehearsal for a threat he could not sense. ‘You heard something outside?’ Peter pushed. ‘That’s it?’
‘That’s how it works for me,’ Max answered, his gaze fixed down the length of the street to the right. ‘Don’t ask me why, but when it happens, I know I need to be ready.’
Peter didn’t say anything in return and then he saw Max’s jaw line firm up. Immediately he flicked his attention round to align with Max’s gaze down the street.
‘There,’ was all Max said, his tone quiet, but deliberate.
Then Peter saw the car. A maroon, dual cab ute had turned onto the empty street about two hundred metres down and was driving towards them. Peter squinted and then noted the first hint of trouble.
‘Draw and hold,’ Peter said into his microphone. ‘The ute’s packing.’
Immediately, all four of Peter’s men reached into their jackets to draw their handguns, letting them rest in front with double-handed grips, ready for use. Strategically positioned at four corners, they now had Max’s position covered from all directions.
‘Watch your cross fire,’ Peter continued. ‘Let’s hope we discourage them from visiting.’
The ute came closer and now Peter clearly saw what he had suspected. He did not know how many occupants were inside the vehicle, but two men stood on the rear tray, holding onto the chrome roll bar at the back of the cabin, which indicated they were not out for a friendly jaunt. Then one of the men banged his fist on the roof and that was enough to convince Peter to draw his own gun and let it hang by his side.
Peter snuck a look at Max and saw that his expression had set like granite, his eyes boring into the incoming vehicle. Glancing down, Peter found Max’s fists clenched, his forearms like roped steel.
Turning back to the house, Peter called out to the guard at the top of the stairs, ‘Keep everyone inside! We got this!’
As Peter turned back to face the ute, he heard the front door of the house close and the locks snap into place. Then the ute slowed and crawled into the firing zone set up by Peter’s men. None of his team flinched. Neither did Max, but Peter could literally feel the man’s leashed aggression burning off him. Every shred of Peter’s military experience screamed at him that this was very soon going to get out of hand. Then the ute stopped in the centre of the road right in front of Max and Peter.
‘Oooooooweeee!’ one of the men on the back tray called out, his long, straggly hair flaying about as he looked wildly around at each of Peter’s team. ‘Look at all these boys and their guns!’
Even from where he stood on the kerb, Peter could see the wide dilation of the pupils of both men as they leered at everyone. His whole body tensed.
‘They’re wired,’ Peter said into his wrist microphone and loud enough for Max to hear. ‘Might even be a suicide run.’
Then the front and back passenger doors of the dual cab flew open and three equally as frantic men climbed out, all of them armed with makeshift clubs filled ranging from baseball bats to tyre crowbars. Up on the tray back, the two men bent down and lifted up their own timber off-cut clubs. They then jumped to the ground and lined up in front of Max and Peter with their comrades.
‘What’s on your mind, boys?’ Peter asked, his tone flat.
The loud one from the back tray spoke up in answer. ‘We’re back to finish the job.’
Peter read the faces of all five men as he replied. ’There’s nothing here for you. Best you leave now.’
The leer on the man’s face broadened and he turned both ways to look at his own crew. They all sneered back and shook their heads. Peter slowly moved his gun round from his side to rest in both hands at the front.
‘Ooooh, look?’ the thug cooed as he pointed at Peter. ‘He’s got a gun too.’
’And I don’t want to have to use it. Now go.’
The thug’s sneer turned into a snarl. ‘Why don’t you put your gun down and see how you go with just your hands?’
‘Not today. Last warning,’ Peter said, affixing his gaze on the lead thug. ’Get back in your car and leave. Now.’
The thug raised his wooden club and opened his mouth to respond, but a voice from up in the house cut him off.
‘That’s them!’ shouted Kris’ mother. ‘They’re the ones who robbed us!’
Peter snapped around to see Kris and her parents at the window of the front living room. Kris had her arms around her mother, whose face had drained to pale white. Next to Kris, her father’s eyes raged.
‘Hey, boys, there they are!’ the thug called out. ‘Say hello!’
All five men raised their hands and clubs and started waving up at the window, their collective actions more demented than friendly.
‘We’re done here,’ Peter said, raising his gun and levelling it at the lead thug. ‘Back in the car! Now!’
All four of Peter’s team mirrored his actions, raising their own weapons. In a heartbeat, the street strained with tension. Then everything changed.
Max stepped off the kerb and in front of Peter’s gun, blocking his aim. All five thugs instantly removed their attention from the house and adjusted their gazes onto Max. The wild looks in their eyes suddenly sharpened to the new threat. Max had made them hesitate.
‘Out of the way, Max,’ Peter said through clenched teeth.
‘No,’ Max returned. ‘They’re mine.’
The leer returned to the lead thug’s face as he hefted his length of timber. ‘So, you want a piece of this do you, big man?’
Max said nothing, his feet planted on the bitumen, his stance shoulder width and his clenched fists by his sides. Peter side stepped to the right to regain his aim on the lead thug.
‘Step away, Max,’ Peter pushed. ‘We’ve got this.’
’No. I’ve got this,’ Max replied. ‘They’re all going to die.’
Max’s spoken words again made the thugs pause. Glancing at each other, they started to lower their clubs. Even the leader shuffled his feet as he looked from Max to Peter and back again. The tension tightened.
‘Max!’ called out another voice from the house. This time Peter didn’t have to turn to recognise the source. It was Elsa. ‘No one dies today!’
The scene remained frozen. Peter scanned all the faces of the intruders, searching for any sign of their breaking ranks. At the four corners, Peter’s team members held their aims on the nearest thug, their fingers pressed against the triggers of their guns. Max held murderously firm.
‘Max!’ sounded Elsa’s voice again, but louder this time as more of a command than a warning. ‘No one dies! I mean it!’
A subtle movement forced Peter to look down at Max’s fists as they unclenched, a fleshy pink colour replacing the white in his knuckles. The thugs all looked at Max again and then at their leader as he spoke again.
‘Well, you heard the lady,’ he said, his hesitation seeping away while rehefting his club. ‘Let’s see what you got. Come on, boys!’
As a group, the thugs started to spread out in a half circle around Max, leaving the leader in the centre. Max stepped forward three careful paces, his movements like liquid ice and his lancing gaze driving into the man across from him. Peter cast a quick glance into the cab of the ute and spotted the driver still in place, ready for a quick getaway if needed. Simultaneously, Peter’s team adjusted their positions to keep their aims on the crew of thugs.
He couldn’t afford the milliseconds to look, but Peter knew they had steadily attracted attention from other residents up and down the street. Heads and eyes peered out over window ledges and from behind curtains. Some brave souls had even ventured out into their front yards and Peter knew at least one smart phone was out and recording the entire event. This would be all over the internet in minutes, but first it had to end.
The lead thug glared back at Max, his wild eyes crazily looking him up and down. In return, Max’s chiselled face held eyes of spitfire and then, it was on.
With eyes bugging out and a mad cry, the lead thug suddenly lunged forward, his club raised high. Max did not budge. As the thug closed, he swung his club down towards Max’s skull, his cries pitching higher.
Instead of moving to avoid the strike, Max whipped his left hand up and simply caught the block of timber as it came down, stopping the strike dead in the air. Then, without pausing, he pulled the club inwards to himself, bringing the thug stumbling in closer and without releasing the weapon, Max snapped his open right hand into the face of the thug, sending him flying backwards off his feet. The man was instantly unconscious, releasing his hold on the club as he sailed away.
The attack and brutal outcome happened so quickly that none of the surrounding thugs even reacted. Max now stood in the middle of the street, wooden club in hand and the lead thug crumpled on the bitumen a few paces away.
Peter blinked. Yes, he had seen that happen. Then another thug moved and then a second. Both men came from opposing sides, but not fast enough. Dropping the club, Max dropped to his haunches and pirouetted on his right foot, swinging his left leg out in a reverse sweep towards the incoming thug on his right. A split second later, the man crashed to the ground, his legs cut ruthlessly out from underneath and his tyre crowbar twirling away. His head cracked against the asphalt and he was out.
The second thug closed in, his cricket bat swinging, but with blinding speed and flawless balance, Max continued his sweep and then shot upwards off his left leg to launch into the air. The thug’s bat cracked into Max’s left hip, but he didn’t feel it as he twisted in mid flight and brought his open right hand crashing down onto the man’s crown. The blow stopped the man dead in his tracks, instantly stunning him. The thug’s knees melted and he toppled backwards to the road, unconscious.
Seeing an opening, the remaining two thugs charged forwards. Max took a step back and braced himself. The thug on his left swung his wooden club at Max’s head, while the thug on the right aimed his baseball bat at Max’s midriff. Making a choice, Max quickly stepped back another pace and rotated his shoulders around to the left to launch a direct punch at the incoming wooden club.
Max’s right fist smashed into the timber club and the wooden off-cut cracked underneath his clenched knuckles. The violence of the impact jarred the weapon from the thug’s hands, leaving him puzzled. Then the incoming baseball bat behind Max smacked into his exposed lower back.
Gritting his teeth, but not flinching, Max ignored the blow and closed in on the dazed thug in front of him. Two strides was all it took for Max to reach the man and then effortlessly lift him off the ground to hurl him overhead towards the footpath. Moments later, the man crashed into the grass, the wind knocked completely out of his lungs.
In a flash, Instinct drove Max to turn and raise his left forearm just as the incoming baseball bat cracked into it, blocking a blow to his head. The resulting crack suggested Max’s arm had just broken, but he behaved like nothing had happened.
The thug just stared at Max with vacant eyes, disbelief rampant in the look. With a flick of his forearm, Max ripped the bat from the man’s grasp and claimed it for his own. Taking a step towards the man, Max forced the thug to take a step back. Continuing to advance and sidestep, Max steered the man towards the ute where he eventually backed up against the cab.
Lifting the baseball bat up in front of him, Max gripped both ends with each hand, while he held the thug in his glare. A splintering sound crackled in the silence, prompting the thug to glance down at his former weapon. Looking at Max’s hands, the thug noted the blinding whiteness of Max’s knuckles as he gripped the bat.
Even from where Peter stood on the kerb, he heard the splintering. A second later, Max snapped the baseball bat in half with his bare hands, shards of timber clouding the air. The eyes of the thug almost popped clean out of his head. Max’s expression did not shift.
‘Leave him be, Max!’ came Elsa’s voice from the stairs as she started to climb down them. ‘Back away!’
Max did not move at first, but then a few moments later he stepped back from the now trembling thug. Dropping the remains of the bat, he let his open hands fall to his sides. Elsa dodged the bodies scattered on the bitumen and came up by her husband’s side to gently place her hands on his shoulders.
Peter eased his gun down and spoke into his wrist microphone. ‘Get the driver out of the car,’ he ordered, ‘and be careful. He could be armed.’ Instantly, the four of Peter’s men moved to converge on the ute.
Suddenly, the ute’s rear tyres screeched and smoked as the driver sought to escape. In the split seconds for the rubber to take grip, Max reacted. Turning, he grabbed the back edge of the rear tray as the ute pulled madly away. Elsa’s hands scrabbled for her husband, but instead grasped thin air. Holding on at arm’s length, Max hung off the back of the ute, his orange shoes dragging on the bitumen.
‘Hold your fire!’ Peter yelled, forcing his entire team to drop their aims to the road. ‘Cruiser One after them. Let’s go!’
Peter started sprinting across the road to the nearest Land Cruiser, which already had its engine running. Two of his team followed immediately behind. Seconds later, the big four-wheel drive had screeched a half-circle around and was in pursuit. Meanwhile, Elsa had locked her gaze onto the speeding ute and her husband hanging off the back.
As he hung on, Max consciously checked his grip on the edge of the tray and convinced himself it was firm. Then with his feet still dragging on the asphalt, he strained every muscle in his upper body to pull himself upwards. Max’s shoulder and back muscles bunched like twisted towels as he hauled himself in. Then with enough purchase, he hooked his elbows over the tray edge and lifted his feet clear of the road. If he cared to look, Max would have seen that his orange shoes had shredded clear at the toes and his feet were bloody and scraped, but the pain did not register.
Then, using his core muscles and pulling his legs in, Max flipped himself over and into the back tray of the ute. Using his momentum, he rolled towards the cab and sprang up to grab the chrome roll bar. Through the small window into the cab, Max noticed the driver turn and spy him, his eyes bugging out.
A second later, the driver reefed on the steering wheel to send the already speeding ute into a wild swerve. Max held on with both hands, his posture rock solid, his intention resolute. Removing one hand, he cocked his fist and then piled it into the glass, instantly shattering it.
The cab filled with glass fragments and confusion. The driver inadvertently reefed the steering wheel back the other way and the car violently lurched to the opposite side of the street. Max swayed, but his balance held as he gripped tight.
Instinctively, the driver tried to right the trajectory of the careering vehicle, but over corrected and lost control. In that split second, Max looked up and ahead and saw that the street was rapidly coming to an end, terminating at a t-intersection with suburban houses on all sides.
With no human control, the ute swerved again and this time turned too sharply, forcing the front right tyre to bite into the bitumen and compel the rear of the car to pitch upwards. The driver screamed. Max reacted.
As the rear tray lifted beneath him, Max automatically vaulted straight up, using the vehicle’s rising inertia to push him higher. Then flicking his feet upwards, Max started to somersault backwards as the ute flipped underneath him. As the rear of the ute’s tray passed below, Max reached out his hands to place them flat on the steel to steady himself as the car continued to flip.
Then as the ute completed its overturn, Max completed his own somersault and landed squarely on the now exposed underside of the ute as it slammed, rear end first into the road. With arms held out wide, Max gained his balance and rode the upturned vehicle along the bitumen as it screeched and groaned beneath him.
Looking up again, Max noted the ute was entering the t-intersection and he was out of time. The wreck of the ute ripped over the kerb at the end of the street and started to lift off again. With his footing gone and the house in front now filling his vision, Max jumped again.
Back down the street, Elsa had not moved. As the ute had retreated away from her with her husband being dragged along behind, Elsa had remained transfixed. Kris had run down from the house to stand next to her, her own reaction just as horrified. Then the ute had flipped and finally crashed into the house at the end of the street.
Peter’s black Land Cruiser suddenly obscured Elsa’s view of the scene and like waking from a nightmare, she startled and then she was running. Kris launched after her, the two women sprinting down the road. Elsa’s parents by now had also come down from the house and were standing in the middle of the road with Peter’s team and Abdullah’s security guards surrounding them.
Onlookers filled front yards down the length of the street. Gasps and shocked cries filled the air. Then the brake lights of Peter’s Land Cruiser came on as he reached the crash site, the vehicle’s tyres screeching. Elsa and Kris were still running. Pandemonium owned the street.
Hurling himself from the front passenger seat of the four-wheel drive, Peter hit the road and ran over the kerb, his two team members right behind. Looking around, Peter searched everywhere for Max, but the lawn was void of any bodies. He then looked up to the house where the upside down ute had smashed through the front facade, its hulk smoking and groaning and covered by debris.
Rushing forward, Peter climbed up the wreckage and into the house. Standing in the ruined living room, he looked around. Again, no bodies, but plenty of carnage.
‘Check the driver,’ Peter yelled, ‘and be careful! He could still be conscious and armed!’
The two team members immediately drew their guns and redirected their attention to the cab of the ute.
‘He’s not,’ sounded a voice from behind Peter. ‘He’s out.’
Peter spun around and looked over the wreckage of the ute to see Max rise up on the other side. Blood trickled down the left side of his face and his shirt was completely ripped apart.
‘You okay?’ Peter called out as he started to scramble across the mess.
‘Fine,’ Max replied as he bent down to lift something from the floor, ‘but this guy’s not so good.’
Peter finally reached Max and found him standing still, propping up the driver of the ute with only his right hand. The man was completely limp with a busted bottom lip. Peter just stared at them. Off to the side, Peter’s two team mates did likewise. An odd silence fell over the scene.
‘Max!’ sounded Elsa’s voice.
The cry broke the spell and Max lowered the man to the ground. ‘You better look away, fellahs,’ he said. ‘I’m about to get into trouble.’