The bullet was in the air, and Peter knew this. How he did so, I cannot truly say. There is a Japanese swordsman by the name of Isao Machil who reportedly has the same talent. The Japanese is an entertainer and, during his performances, will cut a firearms projectile in half with a katana. I have not personally had an opportunity to observe these theatrics, but it is said that Machil has a sense, that while not telepathic, is well beyond what typical physiology can explain. His sword moves as if it knows the intention of the universe.
Peter rarely had a larger sense of anything. Also, at that moment, he was not in possession of a sword. His response therefore was to use the other weapon at his disposal. In Peter’s case this was, itself, Peter. He snapped the necks of the men standing to his left and right. From there, things tended to get, most unfortunately, violent.
It is not fair of me to judge Peter in this circumstance. I had recruited him precisely because of his virtuoso performances of bloodshed and cruelty. Peter’s blond-mopped, almost boyish, frame was to death what Baryshnikov was to ballet, Picasso to painting, or God is to the apocalypse. He simply could not contain the enormity of his talent. No, although I was not there at the time to stop it, I blame myself for this. I feel no guilt, of course, but to impugn Peter for killing is like faulting the scorpion for stinging the frog. The action was simply in his nature. Like the insect in that fable, however, the violence doomed not just its victim, but its perpetrator.
The first bullet struck harmlessly at Peter’s feet. There was a puff of smoke, the tang of burnt ozone, and an explosion of a fifty caliber rifle. Even those without Peter’s preternatural senses could then easily detect the inevitability of death. The shot might have been meant only as a warning, an indication that our would-be business partners controlled the field and would not tolerate the sort of unruliness in which Peter was, even at that moment, engaging. We had used much the same tactic many times in the past, especially when establishing the reputation of our peculiar organization. Long distance snipers are an effective deterrent to your typical criminal element.
Peter rolled on the dirt. He was at the center of a circle of cars, black limos mostly, but also the unassuming Chevy pickup in which he had arrived. Peter loved the simple things. Not all in our company had his modesty. I myself acquired a Bentley in our earliest days. Bull, Angelique, and Duke had come to the meeting in an electric blue Cadillac. But the make or model of the cars were not the issue at hand in this scenario. What mattered was that they were encircling. Except for Peter’s truck and the Cadillac, each car was filled with a certain criminal element of the Italian persuasion.
Prior to this encounter, the Italians had been, if not friends, at least peaceful trading partners. That peace had now ended with two bodies. As men, the bodies’ charge would have been to escort Peter to their master. If all had gone well, words would have been exchanged, hostile words perhaps, given the threat of the bullet, but just words. Now we were all beyond talking. Peter had been patted down, was weapon free. The tree line surrounding was at least a hundred yards out beyond the cars. Peter found himself in nothing but field. He was in the open, had no means of attack at distance. His only defense was the bulk of the two bodyguards themselves.
It is likely that the two gangsters may not have been fully dead at that moment. A spinal cord severed at the cervical region prevents neural impulses from traveling downward to exert necessary control over the heart and lungs. Without these vital inputs, the brain and the essence of the person are assuredly doomed. However, like the heads that blinked at their audience upon executions at the guillotine, the men whom Peter assaulted would have had a horrified, if only momentary, perception of the circumstances around them. Fire came in from every direction then, and if the men with the broken necks were not previously deceased, the bullets that raked their bodies certainly accelerated their time course toward whatever afterlife they could hope for.
Peter found a pistol at the hip of one of the formally-human shields and returned fire with his trademark preternatural accuracy. He breathed in slow and deep, releasing a round with each easy exhale. From what I know of Peter, it is likely that his pulse never even quickened at this moment. He was, after all, lying prone, and not in need of any physical exertion. I would guess that his face was angelic and cool at the moment of the killing. Four of the enemy fell with six bullets.
The score was not perfect. Even a savant is limited by the performance of his instrument. The Italians had a flair for the dramatic. Both their clothing and weaponry were dark and stylized, much more impressive in appearance than in operation. The barrel of the revolver that Peter had commandeered was poorly grooved, and so he missed two shots. This left eleven enemies in the field, dressed in Armani elegance and with Uzi’s clack-clacking away. Also, there was still the mysterious sniper who kept an uglier, but more effective, means of killing at his disposal. If the enemy’s tactics were similar to our own, there would be a spotter with the sniper. So, thirteen enemies in all. This surviving fraction of their greater power was equal then to the full number of our company. We, so particular in our nature, we were few.
Of our thirteen, only five were actually present that day. I, as already indicated, was indisposed. The others, well, we can account for their whereabouts later. Not being at the location, they were of little significance in this battle. Remaining at the scene, first was Peter. Beautiful, doomed Peter. At other times, he alone might have been the equal to thirteen men slowed by their own suits. But he was on low ground, and hindered by unfamiliar firearms.
That Peter had a clear firing path to those he had killed meant that those surviving had an equal view of him. The bodies of those that he had slain kept him protected for a short time. If he had remained still, it would have been longer, but motionlessness was not in Peter’s nature. He crawled out looking for a weapon from the second, broken-necked man. Peter counted perhaps on the impressive inaccuracy of his opponents. Sheer numbers, both of enemies and of bullets, overwhelmed him. His blond hair was reddened then, as were his teeth and face.
Next to die among our number was John Bull. The sniper found him. Bull, as he fashioned himself (to this day I am not sure if that was his real name, or all an affectation) was a large man, a former Recon Marine, who used his bulk for close-in combat. He had made a run to the blue Cadillac. Bull was surprisingly fast for a man of his size, but the body armor likely slowed him. He never went to a meeting without it.
This is not one of those moments of irony, such as when a man is drowned by his own seatbelt. The armor did stop a bullet that day -- a smaller round was found lodged in the back plate when we removed it for the burial -- but, in the arms versus armor race of modern warfare, the fifty-caliber was the victor. One round blew right through Bull. The other took his arm off. In the movies, a bullet to the extremity is easily survived, but to those who have observed it, we know otherwise.
I should mention at this point that I have been accused of too often referring to movies when I explain a situation to the world. I apologize to those who find this grating. Our very organization was inspired by cinema, or, at least, in counterpoint to it. That being said, I know of no better way to introduce the first survivor of the day, Angelique, than to say that she was Black Widow, but with darker hair and eyes. Angelique had dark, dancing, violent eyes.
Both Angelique and the character in the film were women quite skilled in combat, but even more so in turning their extraordinary beauty into an attack more subtle than the sharpest blade. This is not to minimize Angelique’s other assets. I’ll leave that to Lightweight, whom you will meet later. Perhaps my readers are too sophisticated to have watched a movie based on comic book superheroes. (It’s called The Avengers, which is at least apropos in title, if not in style, to our story). The actress who plays Black Widow, Scarlet Johansson, is both beautiful and subtle in her acting. This gives her a particular nature. Unlike the male thespians playing supermen or Roman gods, Ms. Johansson could leave the set with her powers intact. She, like Angelique, could turn men’s minds soft and their nether regions hard. Her sex itself was power. Of course, the actress would never have been able to mimic Angelique’s skill with a long rifle.
This is all to say that Angelique should be credited in other areas, but that day, it was the knife of beauty that she used. She opened her magnificent eyes, as if in fright, and ran headlong into to her would-be killers. They waved her forward, noticing even in the midst of battle the curves of her thighs and breasts, missing the glint of the stiletto she kept folded at her wrist.
I do not fault the Italians for their weakness, no more than Peter for his strength. By the nature of my craft, I am not a judging person. Also, a vulnerability to beauty is a commonality, one of the few things I share with other men. This was my first downfall, and thus a source of fascination for me. I have an interest in others in so much as they help me understand myself.
The Italians were as psychopathic as any other gangsters when it comes to women, but they did have a slight tendency toward the romantic. This was rooted in as much misogyny as Lightweight’s, but it was less pure hatred and more a sense that women have no agency or power. The Italians, stunned by Angelique’s appearance, believed her incapable any sin beyond adultery. Perhaps they welcomed this sin, thinking her sex would be a prize for freeing her from former masters. They opened their arms to her. She, in turn, opened their eyes, and closed them.
I wonder if they thought it worth it? Well, not exactly worth it, as they died. There are few things any would consider recompense for that. However, it is at least a fair possibility that had all the information being again the same, the Italians would have chosen to go down that path a second time. Wise choices do not always lead to pleasant outcomes.
Certainly the Italian’s last moments would have been pleasurable; a damsel in distress hurtling toward them, their guns blazing at outnumbered and doomed opponents. Here all their base impulses -- for violence, for sex, for an uneven victory over other men -- these were combined into a scenario where they might be redeemed. The Italians could do good, do well, by doing evil. The reward of Angelique, the perfection of her female frame, would be the surest proof of their virtue. Then there was brief pain, and whatever darkness or light the afterlife comprises. It was a mistake that would have been worth repeating.
Angelique killed three. Among these was the caporegime who had summoned her to his back seat. This was the leather-clad lair where Peter, in peacetime only moments lost, would have been escorted. The Italian chieftain, and his two closest guards, gurgled blood. It dripped from necks cut in strokes that came so fast that they almost seemed as one. I suppose that, like the two Peter ended with broken necks, their trio’s true death may not have come as instantly as I had previously related. Slit throats and pierced hearts are messy, sticky, and unpleasant things. Like the Italians, I romanticize a bit the actions of beautiful women.
Gore versus beauty aside for the moment, the simple math of Angelique’s three victims left ten of theirs against the three of mine. Arithmetic is not always as easy as it seems, however. For example, Angelique’s three bodies are less than the four that Peter’s bullets found. It might thus seem that Peter was the greater murderer for the day. Certainly his lifelong count of bodies is a feat almost unparalleled in the history of war and crime. But I will award the victory of the day to Angelique. Her actions not only beheaded the snake of that Italian crew, but allowed Walter to find the weapon that more than evened any advantage of simple numbers.
Bull had made the mistake of going for the Cadillac. Duke still cowered there, by the way. His role in all of this was simply to duck, and to fire a few quick rounds to no effect from that vehicle. Certainly the powerful sedan would have been quicker in escape than Peter’s truck, but, as Walter knew, escape for our kind was never really an option. He had ridden shotgun in Peter’s pickup, and chose to return to it, knowing what the vehicle had inside. Peter, after all, was just as wealthy as the rest of us, and no more prone to long-term savings. He had no love for the trappings of luxury, but Peter spent his money on things that he enjoyed. What he liked was killing.
Let me explain what Peter kept, and Walter sought so quickly in that moment. In some of the more colorful parts of the world that I and my compatriots had previously inhabited there is such a thing as a “technical.” This is what passes for motor cavalry to warlords with small budgets. One takes a simple, non-military vehicle, typically a pickup truck such as Peter possessed, and attaches to it a weapon that costs ten times the value of the car. In most places, the weapon was pilfered from a wealthier army, such as our former master’s. Peter, however, had bought his honest. Illegally, but honest. Peter purchased from an arms dealer an M2 heavy machine gun. With the deal he also obtained a pop-up tripod that he could conceal beneath the aluminum hard-top of his pickup bed. It made his truck a technical.
The M2 has been called the mother of machine guns. It is the weapon with which Audie Murphy held off six tanks and three hundred German Soldiers in World War II. The quality of the weapon has only improved since that time, while the durability of human targets has remained as soft. The M2, or “Ma Duce” for those who hold it in affection, is what Hollywood imagines a machine gun should be. Again, I know I digress to film, but the M-16s or Kalashnikovs, which in the movies are singular engines of certain death, in life hold less than five seconds worth of ammunition. If fired for longer periods from larger magazines, their barrels will melt down. The M2, however, is air-cooled, belt-fed, recoil-operated, five-hundred and fifty rounds a minute of murderous perfection. It is much like ourselves. Its firing was a fair tribute to those two of our number lost that day.
I suppose I should at this point introduce Walter Smite, the operator of the gun that effectively ended the battle and started the larger war that day. What can I say about Walter? He is scar faced, bald, ugly, thin and tall. A mongrel of indeterminate ethnic background, Walter was never inclined to dwell much on his past, even with me. He was the first of our company, my eyes and ears, my own left hand. I am left handed, although he uses his right primarily. He never had Peter or Angelique’s super powers when it came to killing, but I’d rather have him on my side in a fight than any other. He is a man’s man and a human’s monster, the closest thing a person like me could call a friend. We enjoyed each other’s company.
“Well, that went sideways,” he said upon conclusion of the battle.
Angelique complained somewhat about his tactics at this point, or so I’m told. Admittedly, the gun had likely garnered some attention. Even from the isolated forest where the rendezvous was held, the sound of the machine gun combined with the rising smoke from the remnants of the vehicles would be a task to hide. Mort was an expert in covering up such things, but he was not in their company that day. Also, the firing of such a weapon is not without collateral damage. The gold bullion present at the site would survive, but as to the million in cash for which it was to be exchanged, its paper was as vulnerable as flesh to gunfire.
Duke chose this moment to come forth from his hiding place, and set about searching for the sniper in the bullet fractured woods. He found a body with his fallen rifle, a blond fellow, like Peter, converted to a redhead. The spotter, if they used one, was undiscovered.
“Fucking bastard,” Duke kicked the dead man after dragging him back to the center for disposal with the other corpses Walter was piling up.
“Fucking Peter,” Angelique rejoined. “He should have kept his cool.” (She was not as forgiving as I of men’s natural inclinations.)
Walter alone was focused on the future in this moment. “Fuck all of ’em. We’ve faced worse. Now let’s find the valuables, and burn whatever else we can. Mort’ll be in here to clean up the rest once we’re out.”
“We leaving Peter and Bull?” asked Duke.
“Put ’em in the back of the truck, and fold up Ma Duce. Angelique and I will search the vehicles.”
“Already on it, Major.” Angelique sprung to work in response to Walter’s quick command. “The money wasn’t in with the Italians I gutted. Must be in one of the trunks.”
The team, I am sure, moved with magnificent efficiency, hiding the bodies first in case they should be discovered, and then scavenging what could be saved. An Uzi round had hit the engine block in the Cadillac, so the gold had to be transferred into the truck along with our honored dead and the heavy gun. In one limo, filled with fifty caliber holes, half the cash was discovered as a pile of smoldering paper. Some could be salvaged, so that was only half of half-a-million that was lost to friendly fire. It was Duke who made the larger discovery in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental. Its rear end had miraculously remained un-punctured in the hail of gunfire. Duke popped the lock with a screwdriver.
“Major,” Duke called to Walter, who was otherwise occupied seeing what bills were worth keeping from the half-burnt stash. “You are going to want to see this.”
Both Walter and Angelique came forward in anticipation of untarnished cash. Such was present in that trunk, but this was not what had merited Sergeant Duke’s particular attention. Roped, gagged, and miraculously alive and unwounded in the trunk was a woman, a redhead if I am being particularly descriptive.
Angelique, ever being the practical one, not prone to the sentimentality towards her own gender that others sometimes harbor, drew her sidearm to do the obvious. Walter, however, even more cold and practical in his way, stopped her.
“Search her first. See if she has any ID. If the Italians were keeping her alive, she could be valuable in some way, something we can trade to get us out of this shit storm.”
Duke did the honors without being particularly selected. Although neither Walter nor Angelique would have been aware, he was probably trying to cop a feel. Duke’s sexual proclivities were not as macabre as an individual such as Mort, so he was not attracted to the fact that she was near death. However, he also was not selective. She was an attractive woman after all.
“Got a wallet,” he said, removing the leather purse from her back pocket. She struggled, kicking outward, and it slipped from his hands as he drew it out. A flash of gold appeared on the ground.
Walter picked the opened wallet from the bloodied mud, spotting the identification that all three figures recognized from our earlier lives together.
Was the equal refrain from each. The badge said NCIS, which, for the uninitiated, is the Navy’s criminal investigation branch. She was military, and we, for all our twisted nature and ice cold blood, had set this up as the rule to organize our organized crime: We don’t betray each other.
“So what you gon’a to do, Major?” Duke asked nervously.
“What are we going to do,” Angelique corrected. “Killing a squid isn’t a call he gets to make just on rank.”
“No, this one is above my pay grade.” Walter shook his scarred head and took out his cell phone. No bars this far out, but there was a satellite option if he hooked to the scrambler in the Cadillac. “We need to call the Bird.”
The Bird, you see, was me.