The heavy steel door wasn’t locked, but, like every utility room door I’d ever encountered, it was stuck. Grunting in pain, I pushed down on the handle with my good hand and slammed my shoulder into it. It yielded with a screech of protest and I staggered into the room, managing to close it before collapsing against the far wall. I sat on the floor with my back against the cool bricks. I couldn’t hear any sound of pursuit, but hearing anything over the blood pounding in my ears would have been a trick.
My left wrist was broken, no doubt about that. Any pressure on the forearm brought waves of queasy grey pain. I’d also turned my right ankle in a spectacular tumble down an iron staircase. It would have been worse if the guy I’d been wrestling hadn’t broken my fall. I wasn’t sure if he was dead or just unconscious, but he was unlikely to come though the door any time soon. A few of my ribs were probably cracked, or at least bruised; I felt a cramping stab every time I tried to breathe deep. Other than that, a few cuts, scrapes and bruises, but nothing I couldn’t recover from. My lungs worked like a bellows. A shallow, painful, tentative bellows, maybe, but a bellows just the same.
I’d managed to keep a grip on my pistol. I clutched the .45 in my uninjured right hand like a heroin addict clutching his next hit. The slide hadn’t locked back, so there was still a round in the chamber. How many left in the magazine I couldn’t say.
I really wished I could. I replayed the last few minutes over and over and tried to count, but I couldn’t swear how many shots I’d fired. Certainly three. Maybe six. I argued with myself until it seemed too much like Dirty Harry, and gave it up as a bad job. I certainly wasn’t feeling lucky.
There was a full magazine in the pocket of my jacket, but changing magazines would require me to move, which hurt, and a large part of me argued for just making do with whatever was left in the gun.
My wiser if less kind self overruled that thought. It was possible that I was down to my last round, and if they burst—no, let’s be honest: —when they burst through that door, a single bullet wasn’t going to do the job.
I steeled myself, remembering my training. It’s just pain. Pain is only sensation. Messages from the nerves, dispatches from the front. Like a cool breeze off the ocean or the smoky bite of a good whisky or the touch of a woman. A sensation to be savored, proof that life still beat in the breast. It was all in how you chose to interpret those tiny electric impulses. Take the pain. Let it wash over you and enjoy it just to spite it. You know what you need to do: just do it.
I pressed the magazine release with my right hand, dropping the spent clip. My mind still rebelled at the thought of rummaging in my pocket with a broken left hand, so I engaged the safety, tucked the pistol under my arm and dug out the full magazine with my right hand. I slotted it clumsily into the butt of the weapon one-handed, then took the grip in my hand and pressed the magazine home on my knee, sighing in relief as I felt it click into place.
Since I knew there was a round chambered, I didn’t have to try to operate the slide one-handed. I took aim at the door, resting my shooting arm on my raised right knee. I’d have preferred a two-handed grip, but having my injured wrist anywhere near the weapon when it recoiled didn’t bear thinking about. Now any attempt to move it elicited a twinge not unlike someone stepping gently on my left testicle.
By the time I finished moving, my breathing was ragged, I was running with sweat and the world was fuzzy and grey through a haze of vertigo. Just my body’s way of letting my mind know that while it would follow orders, like the jaded, cynical old soldier it was, it wasn’t buying any of the Zen bullshit about pain that my oh-so-gullible brain was selling.
I tried to slow and deepen my breathing, as much as the pain in my side would allow, and the dizziness and nausea ebbed enough that the world swam back into sharp focus.
It was largely wasted on the room. It seemed to be a custodian’s office. Cheap desk, broken office chair with torn Pleather upholstery, an olive drab file cabinet covered in stickers—Harley Davidson, Teamsters, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and some Harry Crumb artwork—and a selection of mops, brooms, and cleaning supplies on a steel shelf against a wall. Posters of naked women, expensive cars, and naked women draped over expensive cars. Calendar six months out of date featuring a stunning blonde in a bikini holding a socket wrench. Holding it wrong.
Yep. Definitely a janitor’s office.
I concentrated my focus over the sights of my pistol, wondering if there had been some point during the past few days when I could have made a decision to avoid all this.
I heard my pursuers creeping up to the door, like Sandberg’s fog, on little cat feet. I thumbed the safety off, blowing out a deep breath, calming myself for the confrontation.
Had I been in a worse spot than this? I must have been. There was the time Cromwell’s cavalry had me cornered in that old stone barn. I had a musket ball in my leg and only a massive wheel-lock horse pistol.
But at least that time I’d had room to move, things to work with, even if I had to count straw and lanterns. Tools that fit my innate underhandedness. Here there was only one way in or out, nowhere to hide. Not an ideal venue for a quick-thinking coward. More for a stalwart hero, full of stiff-upper-lip, diehard fatalism.
A good place for a last stand, but I’ve never been a fan of last stands. I always like to think I have a few more stands in me.
Lewie Puller would have liked it. Probably would have said how the setup saved us the trouble of going out and finding the sons of bitches. But he was a head case. And apparently bulletproof. I don’t ever remember seeing him take cover, but all through Central America and the Pacific and Korea he never got wounded. I didn’t feel comfortable in a uniform until it had mud and grass stains on it, and I still caught my share of incoming.
I always got better though.
I hoped I’d have the chance this time.
I watched the door over the sights of the pistol, trying to control my breathing to reduce the rise and fall of the muzzle. Soft footsteps approached the door.
I concentrated on my sight picture, pushing all the pain and worry to the back of my mind. Wait for the target. Nothing exists but my target and me.
Suddenly, a movement in the corner caught my eye. A twisting and morphing of the shadows into something ...