The Naked Eye - A Trilogy

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Chapter 8

That night, driving along the river, a cool wind siphoning through the window, absorbed in thought, I watch as tiny splotches of rain blur the windshield. Later, as the spray of water droplets, cheating through the window’s narrow opening, being needling against my forehead, I reach over to roll up the window. Had I not been distracted by the sound of my phone ringing and finished turning my head all the way to the left, I might have actually seen the black car that had been following me for the last ten blocks pull up beside me. And had I not reached down to check the number, surprised to see the call coming from someone within the Internal Affairs Division, I may have realized what was happening and had time enough to react before the initial impact to the side of the car slams my head so hard against the window that I lose momentary consciousness.

With no one piloting the vehicle, the car hops the curb, crashes through an unoccupied bench, and sails across the pedestrian footpath, before plunging right into the river. As freezing water rushes through the air vents, it’s the shock of cold that jolts me awake. Watching water fill the cabin, I struggle with the seatbelt. It easily comes unclasped. But when I try the door, it doesn’t budge. Neither will the automatic windows. Frantic, I look around, desperate for some way to escape. Cold water climbs past my chest. I look up, see the sunroof. Hiking the lever that lays the driver’s seat down, I roll back, brace my legs against the small rectangle of glass. The roof bursts just as the car is swallowed by the water. Escaping through the narrow opening, I’m thrust along by the river’s inexorable current.

The weight of my clothes and the water’s icy chill make it difficult to swim. Struggling to keep my head above water, I watch as the steel towers of a nearby suspension bridge grow closer. Surrounding the bridge’s high arching trusses is a blanket of slow moving clouds. Meanwhile, far below the imposing structure, land gives way to dozens of jagged black rocks lining the bank. Slinking my arm around one of those rocks, I shed the jacket, choking and spitting up water more than two hundred yards from where I’d gone into the river.

It takes another minute to reach the shore where I roll onto my back, staring up at the night’s sky as a torrent of unrelenting rain pelts my face. Exhausted, I gasp for air not really thinking, not really wanting to.

At the sound of a car braking, doors opening, and pounding footsteps coming down the hill, I reach for my gun, but the holster is empty. It must have been knocked loose in the crash or swept away by the current. I need to run, to reach the street. A gripping pain fills my leg as I try to stand. There’s an open gash above my knee. Half-limping, half-dragging my leg, I reach the embankment. It’s a struggle to climb. Twice I slip, twice I get back up. At the top, I stagger across the intersection and into a tangle of intersecting alleyways.

I cover what must have been five full blocks before I stop to catch my breath.

If I’m to survive, it won’t be on foot, running. I need a place to hide. But, before I can finalize any sort of formal strategy the screech of brakes pulls my vision to the head of the alley where the doors of a black car kick open. My heart races as I take off in the opposite direction. Feet moving, sweat courses down my face, pooling around and stinging my eyes. I wipe at them with the sleeve of my shirt. From the corner of my eye, I watch as a rat scurries into a sewer grate. And that’s when it hits me. The old abandoned subway tunnels, the city is full of them.

As kids, my friends and I used to sneak down there all the time and had even converted a neglected subway car into our own private hang out, complete with discarded furniture we’d collected from the street. If memory served, the nearest entrance was only a few blocks away. The blood is electric in my veins. I feel no fear, only a wild surge to run. With volcanic energy, I take off in a full sprint.

The footrace is on as I cut up one alley and down another. Traffic thins the further away I get from the main highway. One alley leads to another, through a jumble of left and right turns. Rounding the last corner, it’s a straight shot up the street to the tunnel’s entrance. And I’m about one hundred yards away when the driver of the car turns in at the head of the alley.

Cut off, I go to turn around only to find the others charging up the alley from the other end. Closing in from either side, I look around for any escape. There’s a door to my right, leading to what the sign indicates is a spa and wellness center. It’s locked. But three pulverizing stomps rip the lock from the frame. As the door falls open, I scramble inside just as a pair of suppressed bullets whiz past my head.

Working my way through the darkness, I climb a nearby staircase, continuing down a long, narrow corridor past a series of doors. Selecting one of them at random, I turn the knob, slip inside. Alone in the dark, I fight to restrain my breathing. About twenty seconds later, I hear a single set of footsteps in the hallway.

In the tiny room, empty except for the door I just came through, I find myself defenseless, unable to run or even hide. Outside, I listen as, one-by-one, doors open and close, footsteps grow louder. Whoever it is, is checking each room.

Mind racing, an idea hits me. It takes a bit of maneuvering, but by the time I hear the door of the adjacent room open and close, I’m ready. The next four seconds stretch like infinity. Meanwhile, a single bead of perspiration tickles across the length of my nose, forming a large dangling bulb at the tip. Another bead of sweat forms behind it, building in size until it starts its own slow run down the length of my nose. The two meet, forming a large globule of dangling sweat at the end of my nose. The temptation to wipe it off is stymied by the sound of the door’s brass knob turning. Unwilling to move, I watch motionless as a dark figure enters preceded by a gun.

What he sees causes his heart to seize. Surrounded by half a dozen men with guns trained at his chest the gunman leaps back. His initial surprise is compounded by the reaction of his assailants as all six appear to stumble away from him. Finger flexed, he’s a split-second away from activating the trigger when his mind finally registers what’s happening. In a rush of relief, he lowers the weapon in his hand as the others do the same.

In the small hexagonal room with mirror-plated walls running from floor to ceiling, half a dozen dark shadows mimic his every move. Gun lifted, he points at the figure to his immediate right. In synchronized perfection, the others all point their weapons in the same direction. He tries the trick again, this time turning the gun on the figure to his immediate left. Again, all arms extend in that direction. In clockwise motion, he shifts the gun to the next mirror and again to the next. With a sigh, he lowers his weapon. But just as he does, I come swinging down from the ceiling, kicking him in the jaw so hard it knocks him unconscious as the gun in his hand is sent scattering across the floor.

His body lands with a dull thud.

In the blackened corridor, I glance over my shoulder at the dark and crumpled body on the ground. Lifting the gun, I put a single bullet in his forehead. The modified suppressor makes a short whistling sound.

“Is that you, Roc?” a low voice whispers as a figure appears at the top of the stairs.

The answer comes in the form of three distinct snapping sounds. Two put holes in his chest, the other drills one right through his cheek. The body tumbles backwards as his gun lands at the top of the stairs.

I collect the weapon before continuing down the corridor where I reach another set of stairs that brings me back down to ground level. Through a side door, I cross a large open-air courtyard beautifully decorated with several pillar base flower pots, a coy pond full of orange and white spotted fish and several tall stalks of bamboo. On the other side sit a pair of large red doors. The doors lead down another darkened hallway lined with rooms on either side. Bypassing all of them, I make my way toward the one at the far end. Hoping it’s either an exit to the side of the building or that it leads to one I tear back the doors, expecting to be met by the blast of cold night air. Instead, I’m enveloped in a thick cloud of billowing steam.

From six heated spas, built right into the floor, rises a palpable mist. What registers in my mind is not the uniqueness of the room’s design or function, but that none of the remaining three walls have doors on them.

I turn to continue my search for an exit but a sharp pivot torques my knee. Electricity rips through my leg like a shockwave. I fall, tumbling backwards just as the wall beside me explodes. A chunk of marble column sparks off, hitting me just above the eye. Blood pours down the side of my face. Instincts take over. Successive blasts tear through the wooden door above my head sending hundreds of tiny splinters into the air as I dive back into the room with the spa.

On the wall, just inside, there’s a panel with knobs that control powerful jets. I twist all six of them.

Air pumps.

Water churns.

I kick the door shut with my foot before leaping into one of the spas, descending to the bottom just as the door flies open. The bubbles make it impossible for him to see me or me to see him, but my imagination does fairly well playing out his scenario of options. His first impulse will be to simply fire rounds into each of the heated pools, but with six spas and a half empty magazine this is risky as reloading takes time and would leave him exposed. His next thought will embarrass the first and make him wonder why he didn’t think of it immediately. He’ll just wait it out. How long could I possibly hold my breath, sixty seconds, ninety tops?

He’ll wait, positioning himself for my inevitable resurfacing.

Reacting on pure instinct I’d given no consideration to just how disadvantageous this situation was for me. Certainly, I would have to come up firing. But even with two guns covering a full three hundred and sixty degrees with no way of knowing where the target might be standing means chances are I won’t even see him before a bullet drills my head.

But by the time I realize this time has run out.

I take a moment to plant my feet squarely on the bottom, gripping both pistols before surging out of the water. Why I chose to aim into the corners is anybody’s guess as even I had no logical justification for doing so. Arms extended wide in opposite directions I emerge in a cascade of rushing water, the weight of which slows my arms just enough that before I can trigger my weapons the room explode with two concussive blasts. The bullets reach my chest at almost 2,000 mph just as my fingers trigger bullets into two empty corners.

I’d chosen wrong.

The titanic force of the bullets knocks me back against the ledge of the spa.

A huge wave of water splashes over the side of the pool as my body sinks back below the surface.

The shooter exchanges his weapon for a smartphone. All around him water continues to roil. The phone comes alive with a beep. From a list of contacts, he selects a number and begins crafting a message. He’s about two words in when, from the corner of his eye, my body surfaces. He glances down and then back to the phone. Face down in the obscured water his victim floats lifelessly. The message is simple. Confirmed Kill. Send clean-up crew. He’s just finished typing this last sentence when the water moves. Fists emerge, clenched tight around the hilts of twin pistols.

Fire erupts around the torrent of falling water.

The impact sends his body crashing back against the wall.

There’s a loud smack as the phone bounces off the floor beside him.

Gasping for air, I slosh forward, struggling to pull my water-slogged body out of the pool. Slumped on the hardwood floor, I fight to breathe. It feels like a horse has reared up and kicked me in the chest. Blood spills from a wound in my mouth from when the force of the blast caused my jaw to smack up against my tongue. Had the bullets gone straight through they would have torn holes in both my heart and my left lung. Instead two large bruises color my chest. Beside me on the hardwood floor lies a torn shirt and the bulletproof vest I’d lifted off my first victim just before his partner appeared at the top of the stairs. Embedded in the vest are two flattened 9mm rounds.

It only takes a minute to recover my breathing, but the bruising in my chest, the throbbing in my mouth, and the pain in my knee keep me on the ground long after that. Hand trembling, I pick up the smartphone to read the message. It had already been sent.

Wet, cold and hurting from places unseen, I fight to ignore the pain. It takes effort to regain my feet, even more to find my way back to the alley, but once I’ve checked to make sure it’s clear, once again the adrenaline surges and I’m back to negotiating a labyrinth of pocket-sized alleyways until I find one that leads to an empty street with a telephone booth.

Racing over to it, I take advantage of the light inside to roll up my pant sleeve. There’s blood all down my calf. The cut is nasty, but not very deep. I reach a shaky hand into the pocket of my coat, come back with a wallet. The wallet is soaked and everything in it. I find the waterlogged business card I’d lifted from Dobb’s desk and dial “0”.

I’m breathing like a man drowning when the operator answers. I ask her to connect me to the number on the card. She asks me to wait while the number connects. I listen as the line seems to go dead followed by a series of small plinking sounds before it actually rings.

“Something wrong with your cell service that you have to call me collect?” Dobbs says, after accepting the charges.

“Pete, listen, I need your help. Someone’s trying to kill me.”

“Someone else you called collect?”

“Dammit, Pete, I’m serious. They just ran my car off the road. I barely managed to escape and find this phonebooth. I need you to hurry!”

“All right, all right, calm down. Tell me where you are and I’ll send a patrol car.”

I give him the address.

“Stay put,” he says. “I’ll have someone there immediately.”

I hang up the phone, bury my head against the glass. The thumping of my heart against the side of my throat makes it difficult to breathe. The pitter-patter of raindrops against the window offers a soft cadence. I close my eyes, take several deep, controlled breaths. There’s a sharp pain in my skull and another lump, this one from where my head slammed against the window, but no blood. I fight to suppress the awful sound of metal torqueing, tires screeching, and glass shattering.

WHAM! Jolted by the sudden smack against the window I leap back. WHAM! WHAM! The distorted shape of a man materializes through the wet glass. He’s pointing to something inside the booth. His lips are moving, but the sound is drowned out by the falling rain.

The accordion door clangs open.

“Are you taking up residence in there?” he hollers. “I’ve got an emergency here.”

I say nothing and slide past him.

Over my shoulder, he mutters something about a nearby homeless shelter.

The rain is coming down hard now, relentless waves that begin overflowing the gutters. Beneath the darkened alcove of an old theater building, I glance at my watch. There’s a large crack in its crystal face. The pain in my leg is sharp and concentrated. I pat around for my wallet, but it’s not in my coat. I feel my pants, but it’s not there either. The phone booth! I look up. There it is, resting on the shelf. I’d taken it out to retrieve the number on Dobb’s business card. I’m about to step out onto the sidewalk when the body of a dark luxury car with a dent along the front, passenger-side fender rounds the corner. The muscles in my shoulders pinch. In what feels like slow motion, the rear window draws down as a gloved hand emerges, palming a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

Glass shatters behind the crack of suppressed gunfire.

A body collapses.

Brakes screech.

The car’s side door kicks open.

I hold my breath, flatten into the niche of the brick wall.

From the car, a man, dressed all in black, rushes over to what’s left of the phone booth. Visual inspection: Dead. The target has been eliminated. There’s a wallet on the shelf. He checks just to be sure. The name matches. He looks back to the car, gives a nod. The dead man’s bloody face is captured on the shooter’s camera phone.

Wheels dig for traction as the car speeds away.

“Damn you, Pete,” I mutter. “Damn you.”

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