FIVE | Moving Targets
Astrid froze at the sight out the windows. The entire wilderness came at her as if she were driving a car. Ridley shoved her into the fireplace to avoid a gunshot. A bump in the hill sent both he and the gunman tumbling. The gunman flapped his arms and cracked his head on the ceiling. Ridley slammed to the floor. He spread his arms and legs like an insect to find balance.
Chairs and lamps tumbled. Astrid caught a bottle of rum rolling by. Noticing a gunman finding his legs, she sailed it into his head. Glass and alcohol coated him. Ridley took the moment to move. He charged over the dining room table as it skidded past and kicked the man. They struggled over his rifle. Ridley pressed the hammer against the man and jammed the trigger down. The flint set his liquor-soaked arm aflame. He shrieked. Ridley ignored the gaining volume, bent, and lifted the man by his legs out the window. His spine wrapped around a passing cedar.
One other man sounded angrier than all the others. Amidst snapping trees and the eroding soil posing little competition to the surging cabin, he ordered the remaining men to open fire. When they glanced out the window and understood there was no sure safety in leaping at the passing woodland, they obeyed.
An earthy splintering blasted through the cabin. Half a treetop erupted through the front window. The cabin had halted dead on the driveway switchback.
“They don’t have guns! Just draw down on ‘em!”
A simple command. Astrid stayed pressed into the fireplace. Ridley peeked here and there to find an angle. They were not good shots. To remedy this, the men abandoned their cover and moved in closer. The floor was slick with blood and spent shell casings. Balance was a task. One man circled around the fireplace’s corner. His sights centered on Astrid. She stabbed him in the kneecap with one of her silver chopsticks.
Again, she thanked Ridley for his maniacal fear of her. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely misplaced.
The man tumbled. Three inches of six were in his leg. His groans went right out and gave way to blubbering howls.
The forward momentum tossed to drive the spike home sent Astrid out of the fireplace into the center of the room. She was sooted across her face and up to her elbows. An animal trophy dropped from the walls. A lion-skin rug hung from a rafter. The place was sugared in broken glass and gasoline. It smelled of smoked wood and burnt rum.
Astrid pawed at her body. Nothing broken. She was entirely exposed though.
She tilted her neck to survey the damage. None of it mattered when she heard a weird wail. It rolled, approaching, and the wail became a blaring, angry noise, until it was a full, bleating honk.
What remained of her father’s mantle and its rigid stonework gave way. A truck cruised through into the room. Astrid rolled away from the toppling debris under the dining room table. Her ears were still ringing from the elephant gun, but she could still catch the impolite, impatient honking from the truck’s horn that had parked itself squarely in the living room.
SIX | Arthur Remington III
Arthur wiped leather polish off of his tongue with his fingernails. He had kissed the steering wheel quite hard in the crash. He checked his atrocious hair in the rearview mirror.
“Christ, old boy,” he said to himself. “A mop like that. You look like a lesbian with a horrible affectation for fur hats. And, let’s be honest, you smell like flame accelerant.”
Empty bottles spilled out into the living room floor when he flung open the driver’s side door. His silk robe unfurled. It was yellow with patterned tiger stripes. He was wearing bathroom slippers. Three flintlock pistols were fastened to his chest. Two sheep-bladder skins of his own design were slung over his shoulders. He sucked absinthe from one through a tube fixed on his shoulder.
Stones from the shattered fireplace covered the vehicle’s hood. The cabin creaked against itself like a Spanish galleon. She held true. Two men showed their faces from behind a set of African tribal shields. Arthur took one pistol in his hand at the sight of them. Shuffling steps carried him about the room as he searched the debris.
None of it satisfied him.
“Young boy!” Arthur said.
One of the men answered. “Me?”
“Either of you. Doesn’t matter, you’ve both got eyes in your heads. Have you seen anyone else skulking around the property?”
“Arthur!” Astrid cried.
Arthur whirled. “Astrid, my dear!” he proclaimed, arms thrown open. He jogged toward her.
“Arthur!” Ridley cried next.
Arthur halted to face Ridley. “Ridley, my dear!” he proclaimed again.
“You know him?” Astrid asked.
“Of course I do. He hired me to get the sphere from you.”
Arthur clapped, hands flattened like they were flippers. “And have you got it, then?”
Ridley showed him the sphere.
“When on earth—?” Astrid asked.
“C’mon, it was a long gunfight,” Ridley said. “Arthur’s the only fence that could get full value for it once I had a chance to study the thing. D’you know him?”
“Give it back to me,” Astrid demanded, failing to snatch it from Ridley. “Well, Arthur was also the one who told me you had the chess piece I needed.”
“I’m afraid so, Ridley,” Arthur babbled. “I came as quickly as I could. I even canceled a prior engagement to be here.”
“You told me to kill her, Arthur. First, I can’t kill a damn woman. Second, you told me she was dangerous—in ways I couldn’t imagine.”
“She is dangerous—” Arthur said.
Astrid spoke with him. “—I am dangerous.” She sighed. “He told me I ought to kill you, as well, Ridley.”
Arthur turned his head so his lips could reach the tube on his shoulder. He sucked until his mouth was full of absinthe and then swallowed.
“Yes,” he said after a gasp of air. His teeth were soiled green. “Yes, the words you have said remind me—of me. They must be true. Yes, they must! All the drinking though, my dears. All the booze, and women, and the duh-rinking, Lord above! And the boys—well, it’s enough to make a man forget about the little details.”
“You forgot?” Ridley said.
“Yes. I forgot. Well, look at us all standing here, chittering like a, uh, like a flock of hermit thrushes, yes! Let’s go, let’s go, you two. I’ve brought the car around.”
“You ain’t going nowhere,” one of the men said, pistol readied.
Arthur put his hand to his mouth in embarrassment. “Oh, motherfucker, are you aiming to leave me with a fright?” he asked. “Dare you imagine where I’ve been? In my whole life? Look at me. Dwell upon my visage. Imagine what a man such as I has conquered. Can you imagine how many lions I’ve eaten? Can you imagine how many leagues of man’s maddening earth I’ve marauded across? Do you know how many women I’ve had, how many bodices I’ve ripped? And do you know how many miles of dick have traveled through me?”
He took a jar from out of the truck’s cab. He emptied it of ash and bone in front of the men. “Your employer. The fellow I hired you from. His house burned down. Whoosh! Whole thing. A freak kerosene spill of sorts. He was inside, sad to say. So, you don’t work for him, or anyone, any longer. However, would you believe I have the keys to his residence in Palo Alto, a structure which has not burned down yet? I’m the executor to his estate and he wanted you to have the house. There you are. You can keep the ashes. His wife didn’t want them. She’s a cunt. Ciao, bellas!”
Ridley and Astrid moved for the door.
“Children, no, I’ve brought the car around!”
Nothing could be said. Arthur had already put his foot down on the gas pedal. Kindling and rock spun beneath the tires. The tread caught. The truck shuddered free from its resting place. Arthur and the vehicle drove backward from the remains of the fireplace.
Stone and heavy beams collapsed around the cabin door. The building frame moaned in desperation.
Seeing the fireplace struggle to hold its place, Astrid seized Ridley and flung him like a shot-put. He swam in the air with unfit limbs. Ridley pancaked into Arthur’s waiting truck-bed.
Exhaust fumes invaded every pocket of his lungs. The truck engine revved higher. Arthur was holding the wheel to one side, spurting dirt from the rear tires as he spun in a gleeful circle, amazed he was succeeding at his bizarre mechanical achievement. On one revolution, he caught sight of Astrid bursting from the shuddering stone chimney. On the next revolution, he ducked bullets. The mirrors popped off. The windscreen spiderwebbed. Arthur leaned back in his seat and kicked at the glass to smash it away.
“Christ. Astrid!” Ridley shouted in panic. Arthur kept cackling, driving the truck in its mad pirouette. Ridley lunged for Arthur from the truck-bed. He took a pistol off his chest. “Dammit, Arthur take your foot off the pedal!”
“That is a flint-lock pistol, my boy. It was one of only three made for King George. I hate to admit, but it is inaccurate!” The truck fish-tailed. Ridley was thrown against the side. The pistol fell away, crushed under the wheels.
Ridley shrugged. “Well, now there’re only two.”
“What I meant was—you ought to use something more modern, child!”
Astrid lunged under the truck. She scuttled beneath like a lizard as it spun, hiding from her attacker.
“Stop spinning! Stop the car, Arthur!” she shouted repeatedly as she kicked the man’s hand away. The heel cut him above the eye when he got too close on the second try. They both crouched and sidestepped with the spinning vehicle. He clawed through the blood in his vision.
He saw the truck come around.
Ridley was kneeling with his rifle barrel resting on the truck’s edge. He was steady. Point-blank. The gunshot made a rushing riverbed of his skull, inaudible through the over-revved engine. Astrid didn’t notice it had happened until the man’s limp body was run over twice more before the truck came to a halt over her.
Astrid exhaled hard. She checked her prize and smiled. The Incan sphere was hers.
She rolled from under the truck, greeted by Ridley’s waiting hand. “Managing?” he asked, jerking her to her feet.
She waved the sphere for him to see.
Ridley held up the black glass bishop in reply. “It appears we still’ve the foundation for a fair bargain, if you’re still amicable to the terms, Miss Cornwallis? And, if you’re still curious about what really became of your mother?”
Continued in Part 4 . . .
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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