I was getting sick of the body armor; it reminded me too much of Navy fatigues, though it also gave me the same sense of power. I felt even more powerful surrounded by big guys I knew, dressed just like me, ready to kick ass together. One last time, I told myself. And I hoped it would be true.
Garrison’s roads were nicer than the ones in Ingram, but I could hardly appreciate them. I’d slept poorly last night, mired in conflicting thoughts, and I wouldn’t get to pay off that sleep debt until I got home safe. Calm before the storm? No, not really. I wasn’t calm; I think none of us were.
The vans pulled aside and I was the first out. Evidently Garrison had the same blight of abandoned buildings as Ingram, but even the apartment building ahead was well-dressed, orderly, and sterile. An occupied building might have had plants on window sills or kids playing in the yard; this one was well-maintained but only that. Still, a few second-floor windows were lit up even close to midnight. This was the place.
We had our orders, and we got to business. Wes and his spotter crossed the street toward another building’s fire escape, seeking a vantage point. James, my squad, and I charged the front door while the other team circled around back. Dick stayed behind at one of the vans; I glanced back and saw his eyes on me.
Then the other van exploded from below, and I lost sight of him.
Sudden gunfire mixed with shattering glass as an array of black-clad figures opened fire from the apartment building’s windows. A deeper shot pierced the night as a hunting rifle roared, and I could barely hear James say, “Go! Go go go!” I kept my head down and sprinted for the front door, crashing through it with my shoulder.
What the fuck was happening? Dick had been a few yards away from the bombed van, likely shielded by the undamaged one, but I was in no position to go search for him. As I entered a hallway, something metal bounced off the walls and landed ahead. “Grenade!” I said, flinging myself around a corner. One of the newbies was too slow and the blast launched him over me, filling the entryway with drywall dust and blood.
I was on my side, head pounding, when two bulky men appeared from a stairwell. I aimed for center mass and opened fire, but the thug only staggered, and the two men ducked as they aimed at me. My allies were all behind me, and I had nothing in the way of cover. I rolled and aimed and sprayed bullets frantically until the two grunts went down screaming.
Behind me was chaos; half of my team hadn’t even reached the front door yet, fallen to a hail of lead from the windows. Across the street I saw Wes aiming from the fire escape—only he wasn’t really aiming. The rifle tumbled from his grasp as he clutched a gushing wound on his chest. He tumbled over the railing and fell three stories to the ground.
When did Silver’s boys get body armor? Helmets? Car bombs? Snipers? Grenades? What the fuck had we walked into? I waited in a cloud of dust while a few of my guys caught up, then charged toward the second floor where our target awaited. We still had a building to clear and product to destroy. I just had to find it.
As I emerged from the stairwell, rifles fired ahead and one of the Blackbirds behind me caught a bullet in his neck. I ducked around a corner as a shotgun roared down the hall, then leaned out and took potshots of my own.
I hadn’t even thought to bring incendiary grenades, only flashbangs. I paused a moment to think on that—Sure, why not. I rushed down the hallway, barking for my men to stay close. Black-clad gunners were in cover around the corner ahead, but I plucked the pin on a stun grenade and bounced it off the wall. “Go!” I said as I chased the grenade, rounding the corner a second after it went off.
Four grunts awaited, all covering their blinded eyes except for the massive guy with the shotgun. I aimed for him first, but the shotgun roared and something crashed into my arm. I staggered back, pumping the trigger, while my allies caught up behind me. When they rounded the corner, we tore through the four grunts in seconds.
He got my left arm. My coat was ripped up, and I bit back a cry as I knelt, trying to focus on the wound. The pellets had torn into muscle. I could barely think around the pain. I could barely breathe.
With one arm taken out, my rifle was useless to me. I let it hang on its strap and drew my pistol instead. Shouldering my pain, I somehow managed to march down the hall, tailed by my three or four remaining Blackbirds.
We burst into one room, then another. Then another. All empty. The very air seemed to stick to me, my skin damp with sweat or blood, and my mask was choked with smoke and dust. I stepped into another apartment, blinking hard to clear the tears away. Empty. Gutted.
Behind me, a gun cocked. Before I could blink, it fired twice. And before I could turn around, it fired twice more, so that I spun to find my guys dropped to the ground. One of them, I think named John, was still standing. Through his visor, I saw stark terror on his face before the gun fired again and he collapsed onto his knees. Only then did I see the shooter.
James stepped into the doorway, holding a smoking revolver. He’d taken off his helmet, and he had not a scratch or drop of blood on him. “James,” I said, “what the fuck?”
“Drop it, Lenton,” James said, pointing the revolver my way. I hadn’t had time to raise my gun, but now I wanted to, just to see a moment of fear in James’s eyes before he blew me away. Instead, I opened my hand and carefully dropped my pistol to the floor.
This was wrong, all wrong. I needed to find Dick, to make sure he was safe. I said, “Why’d you shoot them? Did you set us up?”
James said, “Who the fuck you think did it?” It hit me that his Magnum only held six rounds—but his left hand snapped up with a 9mm aimed at my chest. “I’d drag this out if I could, but Silvers wants everyone done quick.”
“Why?” I said. When had James betrayed us? After he killed Tony? Before? Was he the one who ratted out Viola?
“You,” James said, “and your fucking boyfriend are the death of this organization. You drove the Blackbird gang into the ground, one dumb-fuck move after another. Silvers was ready to roll up on Dick’s hideout with a goddamn grenade launcher. I convinced her to try the subtle route instead.”
The longer I could keep James talking, the longer… what? What could I do? We were in a battlefield, alone, and James had the upper hand. I had no one coming to rescue me. I said, “What’d we do? What do you think we did?”
James said, “Mostly just you.”
James holstered his revolver and clutched his 9mm in both hands. He said, “You took risks. You let the cops onto us time and time again. I know you got pulled over again; I know you’ve talked with the cops. You even got friendly with that detective. Maybe you’ve ratted on us, maybe not. Either way, you’ve been fucking us over ever since the start.”
I said, “You are completely full—”
“And this war,” James said, “this fucking gang war. Our business has been shit since you manipulated Dick into doing this!”
“You supported that!” I said, resisting the urge to step toward James. “You were right behind it.”
“My mistake,” James said. “One I intend to correct now. You—you fucking harpy—have been steering the boss around by his cock for months. I had no idea he was that weak, not until you showed up.”
I wanted to shoot James in his fucking head. Not because he had turned on us or orchestrated this fuckup or was about to kill me. No, I wouldn’t let him talk about Dick like that.
James said, “So we’re finished. This gang that I spent my best years on is finished, and it’s thanks to you. So now I’m gonna kill you for it, leave you to burn. Silvers gets her revenge on Dick, and believe me, she’s gonna go to work on him. So, any last words?”
Unbreakable. The word hit me like smelling salts, jarred me from my fear. I muttered, “Yeah. Fuck you.”
James said, “What?”
“Fuck you!” I dropped to the floor and James fired, but the shot just grazed my shoulder. My hand found my dropped pistol and James fired again, so that a lead fist crashed into my chest. I toppled back as I aimed at him and fired and fired and fired and fired. My helmeted skull hit the floor, and James’s shots hit me in the chest again and again. I kept pumping the trigger, the same robotic motion, until my gun was clicking empty.
James’s eyes were wide and bloodshot. A few bullets had stopped at his body armor, but the rest had torn off chunks of his cheek and neck, so that gouts of blood spewed over his chest. “You—you cunt,” James said as he wavered, buckled, and fell. “How…”
My lungs burned. I couldn’t breathe. But I said, “I wore a vest.”
It was several long seconds before I found the strength to move. I yanked open my coat and loosened the straps of my body armor, letting precious air, thick with dust and gunpowder, into my lungs. Then I folded upright, screaming through my teeth, and tried to stand. In front of me, James was still down. My hand wavering, I pointed my gun at his face and pulled the trigger. It only clicked. Empty. Oh yeah. I patted along my belt for a knife, then rammed it into James’s throat. Then I fell onto all fours and began to crawl out of the room.
The apartment building was on fire now; the heat hit me in a wave, sapping what remained of my strength. I had a vision of me catching fire, screaming and slapping at the flames as they cooked me. I probably deserved it. But instead of burning, I reached the stairs and closed my eyes, then tilted and let myself tumble down, wailing all the while.
The door was just down the hall, and I was still alive. I kept crawling until I found the strength, or found something, to stand and walk. I had to find out what had happened to Dick. I had to.
My vision was a haze of smoke and dark spots; I couldn’t tell which was which. Halfway to the door, a blast of nausea wrapped in a wave of pain hit me. I lifted my helmet and threw up onto the floor, then staggered through it and kept going. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t let myself stop. My eyes were filled with tears now, but at least the helmet kept the smoke out. Thank god for small miracles.
Finally I stuck my head out of the front doorway, and my body followed. My gun was still clutched in my hand, empty and useless. I fell to my knees as I emerged onto the front lawn, staggering around a hunk of burning wall. Someone was screaming somewhere, but the sound cut off. I saw no vans to pick me up; one was a burnt-out husk, and the other was gone.
I saw no one, in fact. Maybe Silvers’s people were inside the building murdering the rest of my allies. It didn’t matter to me; Dick was gone and I was going to die here. I failed. He was gone. I was going to die.
Then tires squealed as a vehicle pulled up at the curb. A car I recognized, maybe. “Help,” I said without thinking. “Help.”
“Oh my god. Barbara.” It was a man’s voice, but Dick never called me Barbara. My collar seethed with pain as I tilted my head up to look. The night was too dark to see his face. No, I realized, his face was just dark. Through my cracked visor, I made out Bollocks, wide-eyed and scared. He said, “Please, stay with me. I’ll get you out.”
“Keep your head down,” I said. “Crazy accountant, coming to this fucking warzone.” The pain was dulling, becoming background noise. It almost tickled.
“I’ll get you out of here,” Bollocks said, and the pain came right back as he gripped around my middle. Over my shoulder he said, “Hello! Is anyone there?!”
“Dick,” I said, coughing around the taste of vomit. “They took Dick.”
“It’s okay, Barbara,” Bollocks said. He began to drag me forward, and I think I passed out from the pain for a moment, until my belly hit something soft. A car seat? Bollocks gripped my shoulders, but I pushed his hands off and turned myself over. My chest, sides, arm, and collar were a seething mess of agony, but I collapsed onto my back and the door slammed shut. The sounds of burning and gunfire shrank away, like an airlock had been sealed.
I heard Bollocks say, “Stay with me, Barbara.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. Something was welling up in my throat and I was afraid I’d vomit again. “They took—they took him.”
Bollocks said nothing. The car’s engine revved, and the ground gave way beneath me as I faded into black.