KERRI'S WAR (Volume 3 of The King Trilogy)

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Chapter 80

Steve and Kerri left The Prince of Wales at 6:40 P.M. and hurried to Kerri’s BMW at the rear of the hotel. Driving on Queen’s Parade, Steve managed to park in the Shaw Theater’s lot and follow Kerri into the building with 30 seconds to spare before curtain time.

Itzic Neiman, driving his black 200 Mercedes E320, found an empty parking space at the rear of the lot. He turned the motor off, hoisted himself from his vehicle, then scanned the lot to ensure no one was looking at him. Satisfied that he was unnoticed, he walked to a densely treed area behind the lot and urinated. When he finished, he zipped his fly and returned to his car. He lit a cigarette and leaned against his front fender.

Mengalli approached from his right. He removed the glove from his left hand and withdrew a cigarette from his package. He smiled and raised his left hand to show Neiman that he held a cigarette. “Could I ask you for a light?” he asked.

“Sure,” Neiman said, then reached into his pants pocket and removed a red Bic lighter.

Mengalli placed his cigarette between his lips and allowed Neiman to light it. He kept the cigarette in his lips, waited until Neiman returned the lighter to his pocket, then plunged his six inch dagger into Neiman’s stomach and yanked it upward. With a powerful twist of his wrist, he turned the knife to ensure maximum internal damage, and that his victim would quickly bleed to death. Neiman, experiencing extreme pain, groaned and slumped forward, his eyes wide, displaying shock. Mengalli left his knife inside his victim and held him in a vertical position. He walked and half dragged him to the area in the trees where he had just urinated, then slowly lowered him to the ground. He removed his knife and cut Neiman’s throat to stop the groaning and put him out of his misery. He dragged the body into a dense thicket of Downy Serviceberry and Silver Maples, relieved it of his wallet, money clip and keys. This maneuver was a departure from Mengalli’s standard operating procedure. Normally, his victim’s body would disappear, never to be found. In this case, however, he had no viable alternative. He knew the body would eventually be found, but proving the identity of its killer would be impossible.

He scanned the area to ensure that no one was looking, then walked slowly to Neiman’s Mercedes. He climbed into the driver’s seat and opened the glove compartment. He was delighted to find a Sig Sauer P224 pistol, complete with two ammunition clips. He stepped from the Mercedes, locked it, then returned to his Cadillac Deville to wait for Kerri King and her male friend to exit the theater.

It was minutes after ten when he saw them heading for their car. He was disappointed to see that they were surrounded by a large crowd, all of whom were obviously interested in talking to Kerri. The crowd had forced him to delay his move. He waited impatiently and watched as his subject continued with what seemed like endless conversations. He smiled when he saw Steve open Kerri’s door and help her get in.

Steve climbed into the BMW’s driver’s seat and was about to start the engine when Kerri reached for his hand and stopped him. “Did you see Itzic?” she asked.

“No,” Steve replied, immediately turning his head in the direction of Neiman’s Mercedes. “His car’s there, but I don’t see him.”

Kerri reached for her wireless transmitter and spoke into it. “Itzic, it’s Kerri. Where are you?”

No reply.

“We’ve got to find him,” she said, anxiety elevating her heart rate. She reached for her door handle.

“No!” Steve shouted. “Stay in the car! There’s a reason he’s not answering, and if it’s serious, the last thing you should do is get out of this car.” He reached for her left hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry for shouting, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’m worried, Steve. What should we do?”

“Get back to the hotel. You’ll be safe there, and we can figure out what to do next. Maybe it’s simple. Hell, he could be asleep in his car.” Steve started the car and drove the short distance to the hotel.

Mengalli followed. He entered the hotel’s parking lot, stopped and idled his engine, waiting until Kerri’s BMW had come to a stop no more than fifty feet away. He drove quickly and stopped his Cadillac perpendicular to and directly behind the BMW. He left the motor running, jumped out and raced to open Kerri’s door. He leaned in and pointed Neiman’s Sig at her. “Get out,” he ordered. “I will shoot if either of you say a word.”

Shocked and terrified, Steve and Kerri processed the implications of the demand and stepped from the car. Kerri stared into the black eyes of her captor and knew immediately that he was Jeffrey Wheeler’s answer to her threat. Steve tried desperately to think of what to do, but everything he considered resulted in a threat to Kerri’s life.

Mengalli pointed to Steve. “You will drive my car. Get into the driver’s seat now.” He glared at Kerri. “Get in the front with him. Remember, I will shoot if either of you make any attempt to draw attention to what we are doing.” He waited until his captives were seated, then climbed into the seat directly behind Kerri. He poked Steve’s shoulder with the muzzle of Neiman’s Sig. “Drive us to Niagara Falls. Take the Niagara Parkway. Do not speed or do anything to attract attention. You will die if you do.”

Steve reluctantly started to drive, aware that he was expendable, likely to be shot as soon as his captor no longer needed him. He and Kerri remained silent, both frantically trying to think of a way out.

The Cadillac had covered almost two thirds of the twenty kilometer trip when Mengalli broke the silence. “Turn left here and stop at the railing,” he said. Steve turned into a long and narrow paved observation area. He brought the vehicle to a stop several feet from a two foot high steel guard rail.

“Turn off the car and give me the keys.”

Mengalli accepted the keys from Steve, then stepped from the Cadillac. He removed his dagger from his pants pocket and threw it as far as he could over the railing. He knew it would fall into the trees at the bottom of the Niagara Gorge. He even knew it would eventually be found, but there would be no finger prints on it. He still wore the glove he had on before he murdered Neiman.

He climbed back into the Cadillac and returned the keys to Steve. “Give me your wallet,” he demanded. Steve removed his wallet from his rear pants pocket and held it above his right shoulder. Mengalli took it and removed his driver’s license and birth certificate. He closed the wallet and dropped it over Steve’s shoulder onto his lap. He tapped Kerri’s head with his Sig. “Give me your purse.” Kerri held her small black purse over her left shoulder. Mengalli took it and found a plastic card holder inside. He removed her driver’s license and birth certificate and returned her purse to her.

In less than five minutes, Steve, following Mengalli’s orders, turned left off River Road onto the approach to The Rainbow Bridge, a beautiful steel structure spanning the Niagara River and joining Canada to the Untied States. He followed a heavy volume of traffic onto the bridge. To their right was a clear view of the majestic falls, both Canadian and American. They could hear the thunderous roar of the cascading water and see the enormous cloud of mist, illuminated by numerous colored spotlights. With their lives to consider, none of the Cadillac’s occupants paid much attention to the stupendous view, however.

Mengalli handed the birth certificates and driver’s licenses to Steve as his moved into one of the long lines of vehicles waiting to pass through the U.S. Customs checkpoint. He included his forged Pedro Lopez passport. “Give these to the inspector. Do nothing but answer his questions. If he asks you where we are going, tell him we are going to Niagara Falls, New York for a late dinner. I will kill Miss King if you say or do anything else.”

After ten minutes of waiting and inching forward, Steve rolled the Cadillac to a stop beside the kiosk in the sixth inspection lane. He rolled his window down and handed his documents to the Customs officer, a clean cut, twenty something male. The officer glanced briefly at each of the documents, then stared at Steve, looking for eye contact. “Where were you born?” he asked. No expression.

“Toronto, Ontario,” Steve replied, desperately trying to think of a way he could signal to the inspector without triggering a shooting spree from the back seat.

The officer stooped and stared at Kerri. He asked her the same question, even though her birth certificate gave him the answer.

“Toronto,” she answered, experiencing the same frustration as Steve.

The officer stepped from his kiosk, leaned and locked a suspicious gaze at Mengalli. He opened his passport and studied the photograph and vital statistics on page two. “I see you were born in New York, sir. Where is your home?”

“New York.”

“Where are you going?”

“Niagara Falls, New York. I’ve never been there. My friends are taking me to Dinner there.”

“How long do you plan to stay?”

“Not long. We’ll be right back after dinner,” Mengalli lied.

To the horror of both Kerri and Steve, the officer smiled and returned the documents to Steve. “Enjoy your dinner,” he said, then returned to his kiosk.

“Turn there. Get us on the Robert Moses Parkway,” Mengalli ordered as Steve drove from the checkpoint. Steve did as he was told, now silently pondering his precarious situation. It was obvious that the man in the back seat, whoever he was, intended to kill Kerri. There was no other apparent conclusion. It was also obvious to Steve that he was expendable. With each passing minute, his redundancy increased. He had to do something, soon. He had no idea what his captor’s plans were, but he assumed they did not involve returning to Canada. He also knew it would eventually be necessary for the man in the back seat to sleep, and that it would be difficult to do with two hostile captives. One, or both, would have to go.

Twenty minutes later, Mengalli directed Steve to exit onto the Niagara Thruway, Interstate 290. Steve continued to follow instructions until they were heading west on the New York Thruway, Interstate 90, and into the darkness of uncertainty.

Almost twenty minutes had passed in tense silence when Steve glanced at his rear view mirror. He noticed that the man in the back seat had his gun on his lap and was nodding. He decided to risk breaking the rules. He turned up the heat and gave the cruise control toggle a single tug, increasing the vehicle’s speed by a half a kilometer an hour. He waited thirty seconds, then did it again. Kerri made eye contact with him and waved to him at chest level, indicating that she agreed with what he was doing. He continued the procedure until the Cadillac’s speed had reached a hundred and forty kilometers an hour, almost seventeen miles per hour above the posted limit.

His heart pounded when he looked in the rear view mirror and saw the flashing red and blue lights of a fast approaching police vehicle. Within seconds the blue and white Custom Ford Crown Victoria had matched the Cadillac’s speed and was moving parallel to and beside it. Steve glanced to his left and saw the state trooper pointing excitedly with his right index finger, signaling him to pull over onto the shoulder and stop. Steve turned to face a very angry man in the back seat. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Obey him. Answer all of his questions. I need not remind you of what will happen if you don’t. The registration and insurance are the glove compartment.”

Steve brought the Cadillac to a skidding stop on the highway’s shoulder. The police car, its red and blue lights still flashing, stopped a short distance behind. Steve saw the Crown Victoria’s internal lights come on as the trooper opened his door and stepped out. His heart raced as he watched the trooper put on his broad rimmed hat, turn on his flashlight, then approach the Cadillac. He rolled his window down and looked up at the trooper. He had decided that this might be his last chance to save his and Kerri’s life. It was high risk, but he had to take it.

The trooper shone his flashlight at Steve’s eyes. “Good evening, sir,” he said. “Were you aware that you were driving well over the speed limit?”

Every fiber of Steve’s body wanted him to shout “Yes!” to the trooper, but fear of receiving a bullet in his head prevented him from doing so. “No, sir,” he said.

“May I see your license and registration, please?”

Kerri handed the Cadillac’s documents to Steve, then he handed them and his driver’s license to the trooper. As he did, he stared at the trooper and silently mouthed the word “HELP”, then used his thumb to point at the man in the back seat. His heart rate accelerated as he continued his stare, searching for an indication that the trooper had understood his silent plea.

The trooper, with the aid of his flashlight, examined the documents, then took one step backward. He placed the documents in his breast pocket, kept his flashlight in his left hand, and unclasped the leather flap of his holster with his right. He took a firm grip on the handle of his Glock 17. “I need all three of you to step from the vehicle,” he said.

Before Steve and Kerri could respond to the trooper’s demand, Mengalli opened the left rear door of the Cadillac and jumped out. He hoisted his Sig above the window frame, and shot the trooper. A brief muscular reflex of the trooper caused him to point his flashlight at his face, revealing a circular red dot in the center of his forehead, an inch below the brim of his hat. He was dead before his body crumpled to the gravel.

Enraged, shocked and scared, Steve made a decision. He jerked his gear shift into reverse and depressed the gas pedal to the floor. The Cadillac’s rear wheels spun, spitting sand and gravel forward. Mengalli instantly lost his balance as the Cadillac lurched backward. He clung tenaciously to the window frame with his left hand as the door squeezed him against the vehicle frame and dragged him with the heels of booth feet scraping the shoulder’s surface. Using both hands he could have righted himself, but instinct and loyalty to his profession refused to allow him to release the Sig from his right hand. A normal man’s first instinct would be to save his life. Mengalli, however, was far from normal. His first was to kill the man who had caused his discomfort. He tried, but the bullet missed and left a hole in the roof above Steve’s head. He lifted his Sig to try again, but shot wildly into the night when the Cadillac slammed violently into the front of the police Crown Victoria with a loud metal crunching bang. The force of the collision forced the rear door into Mengalli’s face, bloodying his nose and forehead.

Steve jerked the gear shift into drive and again floored the accelerator. The Cadillac’s rear wheels spun and spit gravel like bullets into the damaged front of the Crown Victoria. Then the Cadillac shot forward, wrenching Mengalli’s left rotator cuff and weakening his grip on the window frame. Determined to complete his assignment, he clung bravely, then arched his right arm upward to take aim at Steve’s head.

“Zig zag, Steve!” Kerri shouted. Steve swerved sharply to his left, shifting Mengalli’s body angle and ruining his aim. The bullet pierced the windshield in front of Kerri. Her first impulse was to crouch into the foot well, but she turned instead to see Mengalli lose his grip and disappear. “You did it!” she shouted. “The son of a bitch is gone!”

Kerri and Steve sped westward at the limit on the New York Thruway, silently mourning the death of the trooper who had saved their lives. They also experienced an exhilaration neither had expected. The left rear door was still partially open, the rear of their vehicle was crushed, and night air whistled through bullet holes, but neither cared. Incredibly, they were free of the torment of impending death, free to do or say whatever they wanted, without having to worry about receiving a bullet in the head. The man in the back seat, whoever he was, was gone, hopefully dead.

Steve continued to drive west until he reached a cloverleaf at Dunkirk, a city on the south shore of Lake Erie. Happily, he exited, crossed the overpass, and entered the eastbound lanes of the Thruway. He reached for Kerri’s hand and squeezed it. “I love you,” he said.

Kerri turned to smile at him. She was amazed that several months earlier he had been in a coma, an unlikely candidate for survival. Now he had just done an amazing job of saving their lives. “Me too you... Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You are the most courageous man I’ve ever known.”

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