For the umpteenth time, Henry fiddled with the bud in his ear.
“Try not to pay attention to it,” Plasencio’s voice said. The volume was way too loud, but Henry didn’t know how to adjust the speakers, and didn’t think right now was a great place to complain about it.
He was standing at the other end of an enormous lot, riddled with shattered brick, mortar, and debris. He was in the Bronx again, staring across the open area as the sun was sinking behind him, right at the abandoned parking garage.
He’d walked one big fucking circle this week.
This was the place Stephen had designated. But he had never designated a time. So Plasencio had taken that to mean as soon as possible. Only a minute after Stephen had ended the call Plasencio starting briefing him on what was going to happen once they got to the garage. Then he was quizzing Henry, making sure he understood exactly how the procedure was going to go, what Henry was expected to do as middle man, and what Henry should do if everything went wrong. Then he was being fitted with a bullet proof vest, ushered out of the police station and hurried into a white unmarked van.
He still wasn’t comfortable with the equipment they had given them. The earpiece Plasencio had given him was too big, and only worked one way. He could hear the agents, but couldn’t speak to them. He also had no idea where the agents were currently. Plasencio had told Henry where to expect them to arrive – in a nice little perimeter in and around the garage, once the sting was up – but not where they were going to be coming from. He looked around himself nervously, the suitcase dangling heavily from his hands. His palms were wet with sweat, the skin on his face thick with perspiration. His head was still pounding. It probably had something to do with sustaining more than one possible concussion.
If the agents were already set up for an ambush, Henry was mightily impressed. He was standing in a very wide, open area – and those were few and far between in the city. Stephen had, unwittingly or not, picked a very beneficial location for his purposes. That same white unmarked van that had dropped Henry off at a corner about two blocks away wouldn’t have been able to pass itself off out here, on the edge of no-man’s land, where the only vehicles that coexisted with the landscape and broken down and squatted themselves onto the lot decades ago. Henry didn’t know how they were blending into the surroundings.
He envied them. He stuck out like a rusted nail in the surrounding dirt and rubble. He felt as though there were eyes sticking to him from the windows of the parking garage, watching every move he made, as he picked his way slowly across the lot.
Henry put his hands back down by his side. He swallowed and breathed heavily through his nose, keeping his eyes on the ground underneath him, and his pulse normal. The distrust he felt for Plasencio and his FBI was tripling three-fold with every step he took. The man was very professional. And that was Henry’s whole problem with him. As soon as Henry had completed that call – as soon as he had been equipped with the suitcase and thrown out into the chilly, autumn evening – it had been right back to business. Plasencio was very concerned with fixing this whole situation, to making sure no more lives were taken. But he didn’t seem very overly concerned about Henry’s. He was like one of those lawyers who cared more about their winning streak than the guilt or innocence of his clients.
That was when Henry realized just how low his chances were. As he had been sitting there in that van, shrugging a big, workman’s jacket over his new Kevlar vest, they all looked at him like a criminal. All the agents, preparing their equipment. The S.W.A.T. guys, field stripping their guns as they prepared to head out.
They all knew he had a record. And they probably knew about the murder. About the men Henry had been forced to kill. But they didn’t look at it like that. The way they stared, Henry felt very expendable.
He paused on top of a bank of debris, as the wind battered him backwards. He glanced around himself again. He could see the Projects in the distance, the sagging power lines and haphazardly hazardous storefronts that looked as though they were about to cave in at any second. They surrounded him in a panoramic view, as the sun continued to set, its last orange rays bleeding across the sky. He exhaled sharply, and his breath appeared before him.
“What is it, Martin?” Plasencio asked, his voice emerging tinny from the earpiece. “Are you alright?”
Henry was very still for a moment. He could perceive, very suddenly, that he and Stephen were going to be standing in the middle of something like a giant fish bowl. Only there were guns aimed over their heads, pointing in either direction. And they were caught in the crosshairs.
He closed his eyes a moment, and then slid down the other side of the bank, kicking up dust and shattering glass underfoot. He was counting on Plasencio to be a man of his word. He was counting on the fact that the police might be able to protect his son and Carmen if this meet went wrong – and the rest of his family too. As they had been preparing to leave the station Plasencio had even volunteered to send an escort over to his mother’s apartment. It almost seemed too generous.
But Henry needed to believe in that. He needed to believe that Holden had a chance – that he was safe. That Henry’s mistakes couldn’t get to him.
He was nearly there. He passed the same dilapidated cars, with the radios and engines gutted, the seats torn out. As he trudged by, he thought he spied a lump curled up in the backseat of one of the vehicles, snoring wheezily under a soiled quilt.
Henry stopped in front of the garage’s front entrance. It was gated and locked, nailed into place and a tarp taped across it, which the neighborhood artists had been so kind to graffiti. He stood staring at the mural a moment. It was very cartoonish – like something he or Stephen might have drawn as a kid. It was a man with a bicycle, chugging a cigarette, his arms long and distended like tentacles, and, of course, there were penises drawn everywhere.
“I kind of like it.”
Henry turned on the spot. Stephen was just rounding the corner, his hands stuffed into his pockets, a tetchy smile hovering below his sunglasses. His appearance took a moment to sink in for Henry. He was much like he remembered him – much like Henry had dreamed him, for that matter – tall and lanky, the same thick dark hair, the same dark eyes. But he was much thinner than Henry remembered, a skeleton of his former self. He seemed to shrink in the black winter coat he was wearing, and his jeans and dress shirt almost looked too big. There was a piercing in his right ear that Henry also didn’t remember.
“You’ve lost some weight, Henry,” Stephen noted, sliding his sunglasses to the end of his nose and looking Henry up and down. Henry stared back at him a moment, taken off-guard.
“I was actually just thinking the same thing about you.”
The corner of Stephen’s lips twitched, whether in humor or irritation Henry couldn’t tell. He stood staring awkwardly, his heart thumping rapidly, and his chest ached. He couldn’t shake that his first inclination was to step forward and give his brother a hug.
“Are you alright to be up and about?” Stephen asked. He was still gazing at the graffiti mural retrospectively, as though he was avoiding Henry’s eye. Henry frowned at him.
“What do you mean?”
“I understand you’ve been through a lot these past few days. And no,” Stephen said, cutting Henry off just as he was drawing a breath to speak. “Before you go off again about how I’m such a horrible person, I was just trying to inquire about the nature of your injuries.”
Henry touched at his chest timidly, now hyperaware of the bandages that were being sweated through beneath his shirt and his Kevlar, masking the enormous burn marks, bruises, and bullet wounds. No, this week had not been a good week for him. Henry was about ready to pass out.
“I’m fine,” he said crossly, putting his hand down. He shifted the suitcase between his hands. He thought he saw a smile renew across Stephen’s face.
“I always admired that about you, actually,” he said, glancing over at Henry. He couldn’t see his brother’s eyes through the sunglasses – he couldn’t tell if they were smiling too. “You’re so goddamn tough. Mom’s trooper.”
Henry felt bile shift around in his stomach. He rubbed at his sweating forehead with the back of his hand. He couldn’t hear anything from Plasencio’s side of the earpiece. He knew that the agents would be listening in, but the microphone wasn’t on him. It had been planted somewhere else. He felt very alone.
Stephen laughed suddenly, shaking his head.
“Why that face?” he asked.
“What face?” Henry demanded.
“You look like you just ate something sour.”
Henry could feel himself squirm. He’d come here expecting to get this over with very business-like, especially after his last conversation with Stephen. He hadn’t counted on Stephen being so chatty. All of Plasencio’s instructions had flown from his head.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now, Steph.”
“Why not?” Stephen demanded. It was disconcerting to see him frown, when Henry still couldn’t see his eyes. “This is the first time I’ve seen you face to face, since… when?”
“You picked me up from prison.”
“Yeah. And I saw you Christmas Eve too. I had dinner with you and Carmen.”
Henry felt his face straining, his mouth puckering as he fought down a retort. An enormous sadness was welling up inside his chest. He stared down at his shoes – at the suitcase that still hung from his sweating, pink fingers. He was freezing, the wind biting into him, and yet slick with perspiration.
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Henry,” Stephen went on, tapping his side twitchily. Henry looked him over curiously. His posture was rigid and nervous. “I meant it though. About Mom. You’ve always been a family man.”
Henry could feel his mouth twisted into an uncomfortable, hard line. He put the suitcase down on the ground between them. He hadn’t come here to talk about family problems with his brother. There were FBI and S.W.A.T. watching them. Plus anyone else Stephen himself might have brought with him. Stephen looked down at the suitcase thoughtfully.
Henry nodded stiffly.
“I don’t think it’s empty either,” he said as Stephen knelt down beside it, tipping the suitcase gently onto its side. “It’s pretty hefty.”
Stephen glanced up at him from underneath his sunglasses. For the first time, Henry saw his hungry, bruised eyes.
“You don’t know?”
Henry shrugged awkwardly.
“I didn’t ask.”
Stephen chuckled. Henry felt his heart skip a beat as Stephen undid the latches, cracking the case open. It was all Henry could manage not to look around himself, ready for the inevitable to happen. Plasencio had said: as soon as the drop occurred, they were going in.
Stephen was raking his fingers across the top of the Styrofoam mold, his nails chinking gently against the glass tubes. Each chink frayed at Henry’s already thin nerves. It was odd, looking at his brother kneeling over the new suitcase. He’d been having great difficulty imagining his brother’s involvement in all this. But now here he was, watching the way his brother’s mouth parted, the way he exhaled, and gazed over the vials almost lovingly. Henry swallowed as his brother plucked one of the tubes out of its mold.
He held the vial up to the evening light. It was dim. The light that remained in the sky was really only a shadow of the sun, which had already sunk beyond their view. Henry could feel a twist and turning in his stomach. An unease. There was something about the vials, he noticed, that seemed strangely dull.
He watched as Stephen turned the vial over in his hand. He curled it up softly into his fist, and then pressed it against the side of his face thoughtfully. Henry had to fight down the instinct to shout and stop him. It was like watching a man squish a nuclear reactor into a bear hug.
Stephen glanced at Henry peculiarly, with the trace of a leering smile. He stood up again, holding the vial flat in his palm.
“It’s not warm,” he said.
Henry felt his heart drop. As he looked down at the vial Stephen extended sharply, the images before his eyes collided violently, and he blinked with dizziness. His headache had increased tenfold.
It was a fake. Of course it was a fake. Henry felt like an idiot for not knowing. He hadn’t asked Plasencio because the man had assured him it wouldn’t matter. They were supposed to be here already. Instinctively, he reached up for the earpiece and tried to pass it off as scratching his beard nervously. There was nothing. He could hear nothing from Plasencio’s side.
“I really expected as much,” Stephen went on, bending down slowly onto his haunches, replacing the vial in its mold. He sneered at Henry sardonically. “Don’t look so surprised. But you were right, Henry. We had to try.”
Henry heard a pop go off in the distance. He fought the urge to turn around and look. Stephen’s face was strained and pale, holding back a vicious kind of glee. Henry scowled at him.
“There needed to be a lot of us here to make it work,” Stephen replied.
There was another pop. Closer. Henry could feel the blood draining from his face.
“You poor soul, Henry. This is way above your pay grade. Literally.” He had that smug expression on his face again. Henry stared at him blankly, growing colder with every second. “And you were right, I shouldn’t have brought you into this. That was my fault. But can I really be blamed? Here I was thinking, hey, maybe we’re still family. You know. After all those fucking years.”
It was like someone had flipped a switch in Henry’s earpiece. Suddenly the noise was back, as loud as ever, ricocheting with the sound of many men screaming and shouting. Henry flinched, his hand twitching by his side. Stephen smiled.
Above all the other commotion, Plasencio’s voice bellowed.
“DO NOT STAND DOWN! DO NOT STAND DOWN! GET THE –”
There was spout of heavy gunfire that blasted into Henry’s ear, echoing faintly in the distance behind him. This time he did turn to look. It was coming from straight behind him, too far from him to see, all the way on the other end of the lot. He could hear the bullets reverberate all around the block.
“But you were never my fucking family, were you, Henry?”
Henry turned around. Stephen was glowing with anger. He took an involuntary step back. It was difficult to hear him over the gunfire blasting in his right ear.
“If Carmen had disappeared for seven years, would you have looked for her? If your son had left home, would you have looked, Henry?”
He was shouting now. Henry looked at him painfully. He was rooted to the spot by fear. Plasencio was still shouting orders into his ear, so loud and piercing he thought he was going deaf, but he had no idea if any of them were directed towards him. What was he supposed to do? Was he supposed to hold his ground? Run?
“Stephen –,” he began weakly.
There was an enormous BOOM! It shook the ground beneath them, kicking up a thick layer of dust at his feet, and battered him around. The glass from the windows above him blew out with a bone-shattering crack, raining down on them. They both ducked, covering their heads. Henry could feel shards of glass cascading down the back of his neck, nicking the sides of his bruised skull. He could hear Stephen laughing.
Something grabbed him by the collar. Stephen held him up by his shirt front, so that his feet barely touched the ground. Henry reached out, grunting, smothering Stephen’s face, trying to push him away. His sunglasses fell to the ground. The eyes which stared at Henry were wide and bloodshot.
“I never really mattered to you, until you needed me,” he hissed. Henry slid his hand up, covering Stephen’s face, digging his thumb into his eye. With a howl, Stephen dropped him onto the ground. His back smacked against the sharp spines of brick and broken glass sickeningly. A white light flashed, and the breath was knocked out of him.
He blinked open his eyes, his view splitting into double. Stephen hovered above him, a gun drawn and pointed level with Henry’s eyes. Stephen was seething, his breathing harsh and fast, as a torrent of bullets could be heard firing in the garage behind him.
“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” he growled, closing his left eye to aim.
“MARTIN!” Plasencio screamed into his ear. “MARTIN! RUN! GET BACK TO HEADQUAR – AHHHHHHH!”
Over the sound of Plasencio’s scream, there was a hail of shots and bodies being torn apart. There was a static screech in Henry’s earpiece.
“Run rabbit run,” a staunch voice bellowed into his ear.
Henry watched as Stephen’s finger coiled around the trigger. He flipped onto his belly, trying in vain to crawl away.
He heard the shot rip into him, and felt the impact cleave into his very bones. It vibrated through him, emptying out of his body in a chilling scream. He flopped onto his back again, kicking wildly. He hit Stephen’s hand, and the gun began to fumble out of his fingers. Henry felt his body heave up as he launched himself at his brother.
Their bodies collided and tumbled onto the ground. They rolled through the dust and debris, cutting their arms and faces, screaming, grasping at each other’s’ necks.
“RUN RABBIT RUN!”
Stephen rolled on top of him. He clenched a hand down on top of Henry’s throat. He was half-blind with dirt, half-deaf with gunfire. He hitched his knee up, catching Stephen in the gut. He heard the air escape his brother’s lungs. He hit him again.
Stephen’s fist came flying at him, and he caught it roughly against his arm. He was about to try and roll him over when he realized there was a massive shard of glass in Stephen’s fist, held only a few inches away from his eye. Stephen was struggling against Henry’s block, his entire arm shaking with the effort. Henry gritted his teeth. Stephen leaned down, putting his entire weight onto Henry’s arm. Henry screamed.
Henry kneed Stephen in the groin again. Stephen replied by smashing Henry upside the head. Black and red dots bloomed in front of his eyes. Then he saw the shard flying at him. He reached a hand up and missed, and it went plunging into his shoulder, sharp at first, and then warm and soft.
Shrieking, Henry managed to get his leg out from under his brother and kick him backwards. He rolled onto his side, as red began to gush down his chest. His hand found a chunk of brick and fastened onto it.
Stephen charged him again. He leapt onto him. But this time, Henry took his momentum and flipped him over, onto his back. Sitting on his brother’s chest, he brought the brick crashing down.
He sat there a moment, panting, the brick slick and crumbly in his hand. He let it drop. His brother was stared up at the dull autumn sky, blinking and dazed, a spot of blood dripping from his scalp. With a growl, Henry punched him across the face again. His head lolled to one side, unconscious.
Henry rolled off of him, falling back. Orders and random electric charges were still being issued harshly through the earpiece. He tore it from his ear, throwing it away from him. He could still hear the gunfire quite plainly. He looked around himself incredulously. It was a warzone in downtown Bronx.
The ground exploded beside him, pieces of shrapnel smacking him in the face, knocking him onto his side. Scrambling to his feet, he looked around himself frantically. He spotted a man in the second-story window, a bandana tied across his mouth, sighting a rifle at him.
Henry lurched forward, his vision bleeding together, searching desperately for Stephen’s gun. A shot clipped him on the side of his head as he grabbed it, and he tumbled backwards.
“HEY!” he screamed roughly, his voice breaking. He held up the gun as he tried to get back to his feet, but he could hardly see straight. He caught sight of Stephen’s body on the ground and leveled the gun that way.
“I’LL KILL HIM! I’LL KILL HIM!”
There was an incredible explosion which shook the earth. Henry was nearly thrown off his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a car in the distance – a white van – enveloped in flames.
Stumbling, he reached down and grabbed his brother around the chest, holding him against him. A white hot rod of pain shot through Henry’s chest and he bit down a cry. He looked down and saw that Stephen’s body was pressed against the shard of glass embedded in his shoulder – much closer to his neck than Henry had first judged.
Adjusting his body, Henry rested the barrel of his gun against Stephen’s jaw. The ground was still shaking dully from the detonation in the distance. The shooter in the window wasn’t firing for the moment. Henry began to back up, struggling to hold Stephen between him and the window.
A gunshot flew past Henry’s ear, striking the ground behind him.
“FUCK!” he shouted, stumbling. He felt Stephen’s body jerk in his arm.
As Stephen screamed it, another shot was already being fired, narrowly missing the two of them again.
“DON’T FUCKING SHOOT!”
Silence came rushing in. It made Henry’s ears ring. He couldn’t hear a thing. He could barely see which window the shooter stood in. He began to back up again rapidly. He felt Stephen’s feet moving with his, easing the load. He could feel his brother’s chest heaving as he shouted, but he couldn’t hear what was being said. He nearly tripped as he was walking, the gun nearly slipped from his hand. He felt Stephen wriggle.
“HEY!” he shrieked, though he could only hear the word as it reverberated inside his own chest. He dug the gun into Stephen’s chin. His brother held up his hands in surrender.
He kept stepping back, one foot behind the other. His eyes were trained on the parking garage ahead. He could feel Stephen’s voice, moving sluggishly through the air, talking away – talking at him. But the only thing he could really account for was the heavy, rugged breathing that scalded his chest. The warm flow of red that seeped from around his collarbone.
He passed the half-way mark – the rusted cars. He saw, in his peripheral, with a flash of panic, that two armed men, also wearing red bandanas around their mouths, emerged from behind them. Stephen waved his hands at them. Henry could only pick up every other word.
“DON’T!” he heard. “DON’T!”
He continued on. He looked back and forth between the two shooters anxiously, his teeth gritted and slightly bared. Every step backwards felt like walking on stints of broken bone, shooting pain that rocketed throughout his entire body. Bursts of blackness still hovered in front of his eyes. He could feel the muscles in his arms screaming from the strength it took to keep Stephen pressed to him.
He watched as a group of fighters, dressed similarly to the rest, spilled out of the parking garage in the distance. They stared across the lot at him and Stephen. Henry growled wetly, adjusting Stephen’s weight, blood filling up his mouth. He could feel the heat from the van fire at his back.
Suddenly, he stepped down onto smooth pavement. The change in ground shocked him and he stumbled. Other men with guns crowded into his periphery. There were wearing black Kevlar, jeans and flannel, and the bandanas over their faces. Some had painted a red “A” for anarchy over their bulletproof vests. Henry could feel eyes boring into him all around, circling from behind the van, stepping out from the awnings of closed down shop fronts and glaring down from windows. His pulse was a hummingbird’s flight in his ears.
The hand with the gun slipped. He couldn’t hold it anymore. Panicking, he shoved Stephen forward at the nearest shooter, turned and ran.
Something struck him squarely in the face. He fell backwards, teetering on his heels, the sky and the buildings and the men painted in red, covered in guns, blurring together in one long ribbon of color. He leaned back into darkness.