bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 21

Last Week: Holt lost it, and fought back.
This week: He could bleed his life away before he gets another chance to fight for it.

Chapter 21

            I yelped, grabbed my leg and rolled around on the floor. Cracked tile fell from the wall, and I launched into a litany of curse words, watching the blood leak onto my hands.
It took a while for my brain to connect with my body. After the initial pain, I kind of just sat there clutching my wound, staring at it, disconnected. It was just something else in the world that had happened. I stared at it like an art project. Like one of those paintings in the psych ward. Maybe it was shock. I remember thinking I should have been shocked.
If they hit the femoral artery in my leg I was dead. Now I was going to bleed to death. I looked underneath my hand, and waited for blood to shoot across the room in the same rhythm of the pulse pounding in my head.
It didn’t. That seemed like a good thing.
            I started to make a tourniquet out of my belt and then realized I had on overalls, no belt. So I dragged myself over to the guy passed out on the floor and stole his. After I’d wrapped the belt around my leg, I debated on whether or not to tie him up by his shoelaces. I wound up checking his pulse and decided to take his coat too.
I was cold. He was colder.
            As I pulled his army jacket off I realized I hadn’t even searched him yet. There was a moment of hope when I went through his pockets and discovered what I think was a 9mm. Browning auto. It was empty. He had a butterfly knife and some rolling tobacco. That was it.
            I rolled myself a cigarette and played with the knife. I tried to stay positive, telling myself I was a little better armed again. Big deal, I had a knife. So what? I was still pinned in by three or four guys who, judging from the way they had been shooting, had more guns and ammo than the ATF. My mind wandered—Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. I cocked the gun, lit the cigarette, and thought about drinking. Might as well just step out and let them shoot me. I sat on the floor, staring into space, trying to come up with an idea before I bled to death or my leg fell off.
            After a while I figured everybody was stonewalled. Anybody who moved got shot. I snuck through the shadows in back of the bathroom and managed to come up on the other side of Little Hitler in the doorway. I didn’t bother to check his pulse. I hit him on the head one more time so he wouldn’t be any trouble, and then sat down in the stall so at least they wouldn’t know where I was.
About an hour later everybody was waiting for somebody else to do something. Wes and Frosty didn’t have any firearms, and they’d have to be more than just crazy to come charging in. The beat cops fired an occasional shot in their direction just to remind them of that. Meanwhile, if the skinheads went after Wes and Frosty, I could shoot them. They knew where I was, and that I was armed. What they didn’t know was I had next to no ammo, and I was a lousy shot. I hoarded every bullet, not firing the entire time.
            Out of boredom I set some of the toilet paper rolls on fire and tossed them over the shelves they were using for cover, just to taunt the bastards. I could hear them cursing and stomping the fires out. That was about all the action for another hour, and I realized I had screwed up. If anybody was going to smoke anybody out, I was in the worst position. I hoped I hadn’t given them any ideas.
            “Wes! Frosty! Can you hear me?”
            “We can all hear you, asshole,” somebody said from behind the shelf in the stockroom.
            I kept that in mind. 
            “Wes! You guys okay?”
            “Never better!” Wes answered. “You making friends, Holt?” I could barely hear him through the door and the dog was barking.
            “And influencing people!” I said. “Listen, I got two hostages over here—”
            “Shoot ‘em,” Wes said. “Let ‘em know you mean business.”
            “You hear that, boys?” I yelled.
            They fired another shot at the wall. Strangely enough, it hit the corpse in the head.
            “Hey, Wes!” I said, “I only got one hostage over here now!”
            “Good!” he said.
            I didn’t bother with details. I figured it was better to let them think they’d killed one of their own. Somebody from behind the stockroom shelf screamed. I don’t know if it was the shooter or the wounded, but somebody was in pain. Good.
            “Wes, I need you to open the door, and come out shooting!” I yelled. “They’re behind the shelves right across from the office.”
            Guns fired from the stockroom shelf in every direction. I held my breath, hoping Wes wouldn’t announce he was unarmed.
            “No problem! Gimme a li’l time,” Wes said.
            If I could get their attention on the stockroom door, maybe I could get out of here.
            It was quiet for a while, other than the whimpering of the wounded coming from behind the shelf, and an occasional rattle from the other side of the stockroom door. Wes was doing something. I hoped it wouldn’t get him killed.
            I counted off how many men they had in my head again and came to the conclusion that there were three of them left. I hoped.
            I was laying back in the dark, lighting another cigarette when the wall behind me went K’tang and started rumbling.
At first I thought Wes might have come up with some secret weapon. Maybe he was blowing something up or dropping something through the ceiling. The wall started shaking. Maybe he was about to drive a car through it.
I felt a vibration and heard the clanking sound again. Once. Twice. Louder the second time.
It was the water pipes. It’s common knowledge in colder climates that when the temperature drops below zero you have to leave some water dripping through the pipes or they’ll crack open and start leaking. The wall cracked and a small, cold stream came tumbling out of the wound.
Then, the entire tile wall—the back of the ladies room I was leaning against—exploded and a waterfall poured in. I jumped back, but it didn’t do any good. Buckets poured out of the wall in a steady stream.
I remember it being. Cold.
And then I was colder. Wet. And screaming. It was like when something hits you really hard in the head and you’re still conscious. And you’re not being hit any more, but the pain, the feeling of being hit, it becomes part of you. And you try to walk it off, but that pain just digs in to the bone and stays, and there’s nothing you can do about it but wait.
I stumbled around, sloshing in the water, one hand on my head and the other on the gun. My vision completely whited out.
I thought about Trotsky on the other side of the wall. The blow to the head. Unconsciousness as mercy. Death as a release. The real Trotsky. His body shaking with a pickaxe in his head.
The real Trotsky had lived thirty more hours. I could still hear him screaming.
Then I was in a pool. Shin high. No sense of time.
I sloshed over to the stall and beat myself so I could feel something—anything, but the cold. I sat on the edge of the toilet trying to ignore my feet, stinging, frozen and burning at the same time.
I still had what was left of the cigarette hanging out of my mouth like a mass of wet toilet paper with wood pulp leaking out of it. I wadded it up, smeared it on my face and threw the rest at the dead guy on the floor. Then sat in the dark and shivered for a while, trying to figure out how long I’d been in this room.
My recovery wasn’t going quite as I’d planned it.
            I had to adjust the tourniquet on my leg. I was bleeding, hungry, and cold. If I didn’t drown, I’d freeze to death. And if I didn’t freeze to death, I’d bleed to death. If I didn’t bleed to death, there were still at least three people with guns that wanted to kill me.
After a while the walls closed in. I had maybe an hour, and then I’d have to go out into the stockroom.
            I tried to dry my hands. Eventually, I rolled another smoke and thought about the institution I had met Jack and Wes in. How it really hadn’t been so bad.
            Wes and I had sort of forgotten to synchronize our watches for our master plan. I didn’t even have one. I guessed it would take him maybe half-an-hour to open the door, if that’s what he was doing, and that would be about as long as I could last.
I finally came to the conclusion it wasn’t the bleeding, or the cold wet. It wasn’t the corpse in the water. It wasn’t even the fact that I’d rolled a lousy cigarette.
It was because I was sick of all this.
Is it mentally ill to be depressed if you really have a reason to be depressed?
Because this particular here and now sucked.
Jack was dead. My wife was dead. My best friends were all dying and so crazy they didn’t even know it.
And the world was upside down.
And three or four men out there were trying to make things worse?
“Hey, sane boy! You, Bud Spud—Regular Guy! Tell me, which way’s North?” I think I said it.  And I was walking around in circles again, one hand clenching my head and the other holding on to the gun.
            I crept to the door. Little Hitler was still out cold, dead or brain damaged. No great loss. I grabbed the other corpse by the collar, and using the wall to support myself, propped him up. I slung him out the door by one of his arms,
hoping it would look like he was walking out the door—which would have been pretty damn impressive considering he had a hole in the top of his head.
            Then he didn’t have a head. I have no idea what kind of shells these guys were using, but his head just exploded. I’m not even sure if they thought he was me or were just trying to show me they were ready.
It was intimidating but, then again, it wasn’t. If I was going to die, quick would be good.
At least I wouldn’t remember it.
            I snuck back into the dark, and was creeping up behind Little Hitler so I could use him for a shield, when I heard what had to be the stockroom door slamming open. To this day I still have a visual from behind Little Hitler’s pimply, half-bearded neck—the door flying open and falling off its one remaining hinge.  
There was smoke, and there was fire…
Okay, there was dust, and something like candlelight or an oil lamp burning. In my minds eye though, it’s still smoke and fire.
            The dog came leaping through the door and before they could shoot her, somebody had hurled two bottles through the air from behind. There were flaming rags stuffed in the top of the bottles. The first one must have hit the floor behind the shelf and then somehow skipped across the concrete. There was a line of flame from behind the stock piled on the floor.
            I was still watching that when the other bottle bounced off the wall behind the shelf. And the wall burst into flame. There was a lot more yelling and screaming.
            My boys had brought Molotov Cocktails. I knew the stuff Jack had in that bottle was acetone.
             As the dog veered off to her left, a shot rang out, and must’ve hit her because I heard a “yip.” She veered off even more to the left and hid behind some boxes. I ran out my door to the right, carrying Little Hitler in front of me for about two yards before I just decided to drop him. He was little, but still too heavy. My feet were numb and I could barely run.
I had just enough time to hide behind the corner of the office and kick off my soggy boots. I jumped up and down on my good leg, hoping to feel some circulation. Once I got around that barrier, I’d have to run to the right of the shelf. And then we could all shoot each other.
            Wes came through the door. Wes arriving anywhere was an event in itself. But this, this was an entrance.
He was holding a wire display rack in front of him, using it for both a shield and a battering ram. A bunch of kitchen utensils still hung from the hooks, swinging back and forth and flying off into the air. His machete was tucked in a cloth wrapped around his waist like one of the Arabian Knights.
            The barrel of a hunting rifle came up as one of the men behind the shelf aimed at his chest. Wes threw the entire display rack at the guy, who not only had to dodge the rack, but also the collection of tin pans and knick-knacks flying off its hooks.
            When the rifleman began to raise his gun again, Wes chopped at its stock with his machete. The thing may have been dull, but it was iron. The blade chopped down on the guy’s right hand, and the gun barrel scraped across the floor. Frosty was in the doorway throwing bottles at the guy’s head.
Dragging the rifle by the butt with his good hand, the gunman turned to his right. Thing stuck her head out of a pile of boxes and growled, eyes glaring, teeth bared. Her lips vibrated in a spasm above the gum line, the tremor of a spring-loaded trap.
            The gunman stopped, looked into the dog’s eyes and started to turn back down the aisle. He saw Wes behind him and froze like a baseball player caught in a rundown.
            Wes swung away. If the blade had had an edge, he would’ve Captain Kurtzed the dude, and a head would have rolled down the aisle like in old Samurai media. Instead, the guy’s feet just stuck to the floor, and his body stayed in one place while the machete hit him in the neck. His head snapped awkwardly to the left, folding itself over the blade, then it just kind of wobbled around on his neck while his eyes glazed over. He collapsed right in front of The Thing. Hackles up, she growled and Canine jaws snapped in a vise-grip on his neck. Her head thrashed. His head wobbled. When she let go he was chest down, but his eyes looked up toward the ceiling.  
            I never heard his neck snap, probably because at that moment Frosty dropped a three-gallon keg on the floor and kicked it off with the heel of his foot. Then lit up another Molotov and threw that.
            I realized then I wasn’t going to get any better diversion than this—the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed. Wes’s gunman was falling to the floor, and that drum that Frosty had kicked was uncorked and full of olive oil. Some of it spilled as it rolled and little waves of flame zipped across the floor as it splashed and ignited. Whoever was behind the shelf was probably jumping back or behind something.
            My feet slapped the concrete like duck flippers, completely numb, as I limped from cover over to the front side of the shelf. I jumped between two big boxes on the floor that had been blocking my view, and pushed one clockwise so I could crawl in between. We already had them surrounded on three sides; and the dog was at their flanks waiting to pounce on anybody who tried to run.
            I pushed open a path between the boxes and slid through on my stomach. The plan was to climb to my feet, jump up screaming, and come up shooting. I never got the chance. One of the rifles I had seen was a shotgun.
            The barrel cracked the left lens of my glasses, and I heard something click. My head was still clearing from getting popped in the eye when Frosty’s drum of olive oil lit up. Instead of just exploding and throwing Italian shrapnel everywhere, the oil acted like rocket fuel, and shot the drum into the gunman’s hip. The upper part of his body—and the double barrels of the gun—rocked back on impact. The gun fired over my head. Almost blinding me, but aimed high.
I grabbed a hold of the double barrel with my left hand, and emptied the pistol into the guy’s face with my right. The puncture wounds didn’t make me vomit anymore, didn’t even cut through the moment.
            The Little Oil Drum That Could continued to tour the aisle in a small circle of fits and starts, spreading more fire. The flaming oil ignited both the store stock, and the bodies lying on the floor. If they weren’t corpses yet, they would be. I held onto the shotgun and backed my way out of the boxes, standing up just long enough to fall on my ass and slap some sparks out of my hair.
            I sat there a second and took inventory. Behind that aisle of stock, a wall of flame was peeking its head over and headed my way. Wes’s voice pulled me out of it.
            “S’go! S’go! C’mon!” I almost hugged him, but I started checking the gun for shells instead. Frosty came out from behind the fire with the damned dog in his arms. They were both smiling.
            He sat her down, and she limped towards the back door, stopping about ten feet inside, and sitting down, waiting for us. Frosty grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall, and kept the fire at bay while Wes and I started yelling at each other.
            “We’re going to need our packs, coats, meds, anything we can grab. Fast!” I said.
            Wes didn’t even acknowledge what I had said, but simply ran back into the store. I started to run after him but my feet wouldn’t let me. When I almost fell over, Frosty handed me the fire extinguisher. He motioned with his head and then went into the store himself. I don’t know if they were brave or just stupid, probably both, but it struck me then that if I were to pass out or something they’d both end up trapped in the flames. I scooted my way over closer to the stock and tried to keep a pathway open.
            Wes came through the door dragging three backpacks on one arm, and three small fire extinguishers on the other. He dropped them just behind me, turned around and went back in. Frosty came out with a handful of coats and a bundle of Indian fabric. He was about to head back in when Wes came out carrying two more bundles, motioning him back. We dragged and shuffled all of our stuff toward the back door, and sat down by the dog.
            It was a lovely fire. We watched it eat fine imports from all over the world.
            “I think we got more coats than we came in with,” Frosty said.
            I looked at the infantry jacket I had borrowed, and realized Frosty was wearing one too. “We should probably put our old ones back on,” I said, “or somebody outside is going to think we’re those guys and we’ll end up getting shot at.”
            “Or worse,” Frosty said, “somebody will think we are those guys.”
            The leaky plumbing was giving us enough time to collect ourselves while we made sure we had everything we’d need. A path of cold wet ran from the ladies room to the sales floor. Regardless, we were sure to end up saying we could have used such-and-such later, no matter what. We had to get out of there before the smoke got to us.
            The fire had done a pretty good job of drying me off, but I still shook what was left of my socks out, letting them dry while we went down our shopping list. I attempted to stand up and get my boots from the washroom while I still had the energy. The dog limped back with me, and picked one of them up like she wanted to play at first. Then she wound up dropping it at my feet like we were reading each other’s minds, both of us thinking, Fuck this.
She licked my wounds, and I looked at hers. Turned out, she hadn’t been shot but a flattened ricochet, or maybe some shattered concrete, had cut the shit out of her right flank. I wiped it off with some water. She jumped but didn’t whimper.
            It took maybe five minutes to figure out that if we didn’t have it by now we wouldn’t. So we packed up our stuff and headed for the door. Wes opened Jack’s bottle of the hard stuff and held it up in the air as if for a toast, before he took a swig and then passed it to Frosty. I pulled a bottle of soda out of a box by the wall, toasted everything goodbye, and drank the whole thing in one swig. Then I reached over and got one for the dog.
            Frosty gave me the fireplace poker to use as a cane and the dog and I limped, as they walked, for the door.
            Something wasn’t right.
            “What about Jack?” Frosty asked.
            “Viking funeral,” I said. “I think that’s what the toast was for.” It took him a second to understand, I think Jack would’ve though. It looked like the whole place was ready to burn down anyway. Frosty turned around and toasted again.
            “Hey! Hold it,” I said. “What did you guys do with Little Hitler?”
            “Little Hitler?”
            Before either of them could go on I interrupted. “Little Hitler. I left him lying outside the bathroom. The little blonde-haired, bearded guy. The one Jack said he hated so much? You know, ‘You guys are dead?’”
            “Oh, him,” Wes said. “Little blonde haired guy?”
            “Yeah! Where is he? I left him laid out by the bathroom door.”
            “I dunno.”
            “I never saw him.” Frosty said, “Then again, I wasn’t looking for him.”
            “That means he’s still around here somewhere,” I said. We all looked at each other and then glanced around the stockroom.
            “Hey, if he’s still back there, he’s good as dead, ‘less he got keys to the front door.” Wes said the whole sentence like one word.
            “And if he’s not, he could be waiting outside for us.”
            “He might’ve just run away,” Frosty said.
            Wes waved his head back and forth, saying no. Frosty paced around not believing it himself. I put my head in my hands for a second. Then we all looked around and shrugged our shoulders. I thought about the little bastard going to get reinforcements.
            “Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.
            None of us rushed to put on our packs. Frosty went to the edge of the door, opened it a crack, and said, “I’m going to take a look around. Cover me.”
            How the hell was I going to cover him with a shotgun?
            Wes had the same rifle that had been aimed at his head a few minutes before, a Remington 30-06. Before I could say anything Frosty handed me a pitifully small pistol, and ran across the alley, taking cover behind the garbage cans. I kept a lookout on everything within my range while Wes glanced down the sights of the rifle, scanning the skyline.
            “Hey, Wes,” I said. “You even know how to use one of those things?”
            “Sure, point and shoot.” He pulled the trigger and a window shattered across the street.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 20


Chapter 20

            “Oh, so you weren’t using force when you were shooting at us?” I yelled, as sarcastically as I could. Wes and I grinned at each other like twelve-year-olds secretly spitballing the teacher.
            “That was a mistake,” the voice said. “Our man thought you were hostile.”
            “He stood up and shot a guy for no reason!” I said.
            “If you surrender peacefully there will be no problem!” These guys were crazy. And stupider than the sack of doorknobs they needed to open the door.
            It was quiet for a minute, and then everybody jumped when Jack fired at the door. Or rather, he fired through the crack in the door. I guess he agreed with me.
            “Grrrdamnit!” There was a lot of yelling from the other side. “Oh! That’s it! You shooting at us?” He kicked the door. “We try to do you a favor! And you shoot at us? You’re dead motherfucker! I know who you are now! You know that? You’re dead, asshole! We got no problem killing you! You’re dead! You’re mine! I know where you live!” The guy punched the door every other word. If he was trying to scare me, it was working. “C’mon out! What are you? Chickenshit? I know what you got—”
            Jack shot the door again.  That meant we only had six bullets left, I’d counted them. But it wasn’t a waste of ammo because it shut the guy up. Jack had been around crazy people enough to know when to deal with them, and this wasn’t one of those times.
            There was some mumbling on the other side of the door so we took the opportunity to huddle around.
            “He knows who you are?” Frosty said.
            “Not me,” I said. “The guy’s psychotic.”
            Wes, Jack, and Thing all looked up with the shamed expression of a dog that had just peed on the floor. Thing was the only one of them that had.
            “Oh no,” I said. “You guys? You guys… know these guys?”
            “Rockford,” Jack said. He tried to shrug his shoulders with his palms in the air, the official expression of fuck-ups worldwide. Then he made those annoying little quote marks with his fingers.  “Remember? I told you we ‘borrowed—’”
            “You guys STOLE A CAR from these maniacs?” I left out the, “How could you be so stupid?” part.
            “We had to go somewhere,” Jack said. “We were freezing to death, and we sure as hell weren’t going to join up with them.”
            “We didn’t think they’d follow us,” Wes said.
            “I don’t think they did.” Jack winced and clutched a hand to his wound. “I think they just suspect it was us.”
            “You mean realized it, don’t you?” Frosty said.
            “‘No, we can’t steal a car in the city,’” I mimicked, whining through my nose. “We have to steal one from THE FUCKING NAZIS IN ROCKFORD!” My head was exploding.
            “Hey, they left the car running. We used it. When we got to the city it broke down. We wasted almost two days trying to start another one. That’s why we didn’t want to waste time trying to steal a car.”
            Great, Jack and I were back to the same argument, and he’d proved his point. It was a waste of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more.
“So, the whole parade of idiots just marches into the city, and we’re all trying to kill each other now. That’s perfect. Just fucking perfect.” I was growling more than yelling.
            Frosty started cursing again, kicking trash on the floor around. If he’d had a death wish plan, we’d screwed that over completely. If Jack hadn’t already been wounded, I think Frosty would’ve used the fireplace poker on him.
            “I’m sorry,” Jack said. His eyes were messed up, and he sounded kind of lost. 
            Nobody said anything. The door rattled.
            “I hate that little blonde fucker yelling at us,” Jack said, through his teeth. “Little Hitler, can’t even grow a beard, Napolean complex twice his size, and just plain mean. Evil mean.”
            “Same guy that was shooting at us with that rifle?” I said.
            “Yeah,” Jack murmured, not mentioning it was something else he hadn’t told me.
            “Kill him,” I said. “Just don’t waste any bullets.”
            Voices behind the door. It started rattling again.
            Wes went around the fixtures and walked to the left hand side of the door—machete in one hand, crowbar in the other. “Get mean back,” he said, and stomped the door with the heel of his boot.
            There was more cursing from behind it. He must have hurt somebody. Two shots fired from outside and hit the display case. Wes practically did a back flip over it and landed on his feet, waving us all back.
            Jack leaned back in his seat, unmovable, his arm extended, gun aimed at the at the door’s edge. I climbed to the right hand side of the floor fixture. If he missed anybody coming in, I’d try to back him up.
Of course I couldn’t have felt like any more of a fool, holding that giant spatula in my hand. Sure, it was a weapon, but with a big fork in my other hand and a tenderizing mallet hanging from my overalls, I looked like the greeter at a Savage Barbecue.
Now there was muttering on both sides of the door. The four of us exchanged glances, telling ourselves we could do this. On the other side they were probably saying the same thing.
            Something clunked by the latch and part of a crowbar forced its way through the crack in the door. They had their work cut out for them if they were trying to push the crowbar in far enough to twist the hook around and pull. Then they still had to force the door back towards themselves. It was an impossible job. They pushed the pry bar in, turned it, and then applied force.
            Jack fired a shot through the wall, just to the right of the door. The curved end of the bar on our side went up. Whoever had been pulling on it went down. More voices yelled and gave each other orders. The first voice kept telling us we were dead.
            Something smashed a hole in the wall next to where Jack had shot. The whole panel shook. That wasn’t good either. They were checking to see how thick the walls were—and if Jack could shoot through it with that little .22, it might be just one layer of drywall. One thin layer. The voices in the stockroom spread out along with a series of thumps that echoed all around us.
            “They’re looking for a place to break through the wall,” I said.
            Everybody glanced from side to side in an effort to guess where. I turned around just in time.
What I saw wasn’t somebody climbing through a hole in the wall, but a guy sneaking up behind us through the men’s room door. That was twice today I’d turned around and somebody had materialized behind me.
            He had to be at least twenty feet away. Our eyes met before I looked right down the barrel of a pistol.
I had a big spatula.
Time stopped.
            “Lookout,” Frosty said, not like he was telling me to be careful, more like a guitar player might yell before a solo. Lookout, here it comes!
            The man with the gun glanced over just in time to see a weighty, little tortilla press bounce off his head. If you’ve never seen a tortilla press, picture a waffle iron. The two sides of the press sort of jumped around what had been Frosty’s hand, and he threw the whole thing overhand by the hinge in the middle. It was like a steel butterfly flew through the air and closed its wings on the gunman’s face.
            His pistol fired in the air and ricocheted off a ceiling beam. The man just stood there, dazed. Jack looked over, but didn’t shoot. He motioned with the gun, and gave me a nod: Go on, do it. He wanted me to take the guy out. 
I don’t think I could have done it if someone hadn’t told me to. I dropped the fork while I was charging and wrapped both hands around the handle of the big iron spatula. Before either of us had a chance to focus, I closed my eyes and swung as hard as I could.
It stuck in the side of his head. When I let go, the handle hung in the air in front of me. The gunman stood there shaking, eyes wide, mouth open.
            I don’t remember seeing him fall. His body kept twitching, but I don’t remember watching it. What I remember is an episode of those “Great Murder” shows on The History Media—the one where Trotsky, this Russian guy, got assassinated with an ice pick in his head. Only when I looked back, my guy had stopped twitching.
            I do remember this sick feeling, more in my chest than my stomach, like I was going to puke part of my sternum out. It was like Jack’s cheap acetone vodka; I’d swallowed something and I had to keep it down. I shook a second. Then I was somebody else.
            There was banging on the door, and thumping on the walls surrounding it. The beat cops kept trying to wedge something in the opening and Wes kept kicking it in on their fingers. Frosty kept his eyes on the walls, fire poker in hand.
            I came back in focus about the time Jack started throwing up blood again, at least it looked like he had been. This time he hadn’t had the savoir-faire to lean over and do it so neatly. His eyes were glazed and the dog stopped barking and sniffed the air. I started to rush over, but Jack waved me back and pointed to the men’s room.
            I picked up Trotsky’s gun, a.38 revolver, and headed back to see how all these guys kept popping up behind us.
            I imagined space-thugs beaming down directly in my path, surrounding all of us with futuristic technologies that only existed in my head. My thoughts were clinically racing again; I could think fast, but I couldn’t concentrate. I wish I could find a way to express the speed with which one thought leads to the next—your brain churning through every possible, and impossible, option, no matter how ridiculous. Nobody had to tell me to think fast.
            It didn’t take Einstein to figure out the gunman had come down through a hole in the drop ceiling of the washroom. I hadn’t even thought of it before; the rest of the store had these huge warehouse ceilings, but the restrooms—which were right by each other but on opposite sides of the stockroom wall—had drop ceilings. All that trash piling up in the ladies room hadn’t been Frosty. Some son of a bitch had been casing the joint all along, grabbing snacks and eating them on the way out.
            Somebody else had had an entrance into the building all along, probably through the ventilation or from another store. I thought about the dog growling at night and the pitter-patter of little rat sounds. They had been waiting for us, counting the days. Too scared to come in, they had simply kept watch, scoped us out and waited. Then we had forced them to come in anyway.
            I stepped up on the toilet seat and pulled myself up on the side of the stall. In one motion I stood up and grabbed onto the edge of the opening in the ceiling to balance myself. It was hell pulling myself up. Not until my viewpoint cleared the ceiling panel did it occur to me that somebody could be up there playing whack-a-mole. They could have taken my head off.
Nobody was there. Trotsky’s backup must still be in the ladies room. Great, this was going to be like fighting in a tunnel.
            I jumped back down to the floor, and had to take a second before I could head back to the sales floor, my knee was hurt. When I opened the door, the sales floor had become a combination of the Alamo and every old zombie media-vid you’ve ever seen.
            One of the metal shelves from the stockroom was wedged into an opening in the door and the beat cops never stopped trying to wedge more stuff in there to get it open. It was metal against metal, and only a matter of time. Wes would jump over the barrier, knock back whatever he could with a tenderizing mallet, and then he’d have to jump back immediately because somebody shot at him.
One of them was dumb enough to try to squeeze himself through the door for a second. He realized that wasn’t going to work about the time Wes broke his arm with the mallet.
            Frosty was running from side to side, making sure nobody came in through the drywall. Every once in a while something would poke through the wall and Frosty would poke right back. For the most part though, something was holding them back. The majority of the walls turned out to be concrete, lined by steel beam construction—thus the fire door—but there was one section they kept poking through, maybe just paneling and drywall. Frosty wound up guarding that. They wound up being forced to concentrate on the door.
            The dog was barking and running around Jack in circles, guarding him. I ran over to Jack, in an effort to tell him about our worries with the tunnel rats in the ceiling.
Jack was dead. He had the gun in his hands on his lap, and his eyes stared blankly at the door. I checked his pulse and where it had been real fast, now it was nonexistent. He’d bled out.
            The dog looked at Jack and then looked at me, as if there was something I could do about it. Just like she had done back at her dead master’s apartment. Maybe she thought I could wake him up, or wave my hands and he’d come back to life. Broke my heart all over again; first looking at Jack, then the dog’s eager eyes, looking into mine like I was going to fix it. I took the gun off Jack’s lap.
            “Wes, Frosty, they got a tunnel in the washroom ceiling. I’m going to see what I can do.” I was trying to sound tough, but my voice cracked. And I was crying.
            Here’s where my thoughts get a little weird. It might have been the wrong meds, or withdrawal from alcohol, protein shock from all the food I had been eating, emotional overload or just plain feeling human. But I stopped asking “why.”
In the East they say that to live is to suffer, but in the West we ask “why.” The people of the East seem to accept a world of turbulence, shit and tsunami, and just keep keeping on, damn near happy. Meanwhile, on our side of the world if people don’t have the right car, clothes or toothpaste, it’s cause for an emotional breakdown. It’s all about fear. At that moment I finally stopped asking why. Fear is the problem.
These guys had killed Jack. I would give them something to be afraid of.
            In the long run, one of the things that has always depressed me was how pointless human life can be. If you look down through the ages most people die struggling for some piece of land or food, or their back gets broken just trying to get by. For a while there people were fortunate enough to die of old age, but for the most part, most of us just wear out. Or we’re casualties on some planner’s chart for acceptable ratios of death.
            People live one moment and then comes the moment they don’t. You think you’re a war hero destined for greatness, and then, in the middle of your great charge, a cannonball takes off your head. If you’re lucky somebody with a chart writes it down, and you get to pretend your life—or your death—was exactly how you planned it, instead of just the sum result of the less than tolerable decisions you were given. If you’re lucky, you get to make one or two good decisions. Bubbles in a tidal wave.
            Everything was slow motion. I walked back to the washroom, ignoring the pain in my knee. The dog followed me, wondering why I hadn’t woken Jack up yet. Frosty and Wes were hollering just as loud as the idiots on the other side of the door.
            And I had two guns.
            I added up about five bullets in each and hoped I was right. I should have given one of the guns to Wes but I wasn’t thinking. Too late.
            This time, when I got to the men’s room I stepped up from the toilet seat to the top of the stall barrier like I was walking up a staircase. The revolver cleared the ceiling before my head. I should have waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, except there was already somebody waving a flashlight across the support beams that held the ceiling up.
The beams were the steel-iron warehouse type, about a foot wide. It took no small effort to pull myself up there, hoping they couldn’t see me. I climbed up onto one knee. The light hit me in the eyes.
My brain argued with me. Take time, take aim; don’t waste ammo. Don’t be stupid, if you don’t shoot you’re dead anyway. I pulled the trigger.
The flashlight fell on top of a ceiling panel below me, and before it had stopped rolling around, a body fell through that. My man must have been crawling across the beam because it looked like I had shot him in the back. He laid there on the floor with the fiberboard from the ceiling and part of a light fixture wrapped around him. I don’t even think he was armed.
            I hoped he was dead—or at least paralyzed. I was trying to save ammo. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t have time. I left the .22 in my pocket, saving it for close quarters. I only had to crawl about twelve feet and was above the ladies room on the other side of the wall. Candlelight peeked up through the hole in the ceiling. Nothing was moving.
            The whole time I kept telling myself to stop and plan, I needed a plan. But my body just kept going. I lurched over the side of the beam, trying to go down the same way I had gotten up, using the stall and toilet as a staircase. It was a good theory, but a bad idea. I stepped down from on top of a wobbly stall to the edge of an open toilet, and ran face first into the other side of the stall. My head bounced a foot backward, but I didn’t fall over.
            When I snapped out of stupid, I realized nobody else was in the room. My nose was bleeding and my knee was blown, otherwise I might have just walked out into the open. Being forced to wait while the stars spun around my head might have even saved my life. Gradually, I heard voices coming from the stockroom.
            I edged slowly over to the door and stopped. I could open the door and go out with guns blazing, but I didn’t know how many of them there were. I’d look pretty stupid stepping into the center of a circle of armed men and getting my head blown off.
            I could peek through the door and see what I was facing, but I’d probably end up just like Trotsky did over on our side of the wall. Or I could wait. But the barbarians were banging at the gate for Wes and Frosty.
            I was still wiping tears from my eyes when I realized they weren’t trying to bust down the stockroom door. There was whispering, and some hammering noise, but it didn’t sound like they were trying to slam a square peg into a round hole anymore.
            I waited.
            I couldn’t hear exactly what anybody was saying, except for that one guy still going on about how we were dead, nonstop.
            “Where are Tuck and Noah?” I thought I heard one of them say.
            Probably dead, I guessed, but I wasn’t exactly about to dance out and give these guys the news. Somebody giggled about something, and I heard footsteps approach the door.
            Okay. Plan B.
            I couldn’t very well hide in the ceiling, and pretend to be their flashlight buddy with my knee blown out. It was out of the question. What I could do was go back and hide in the stall, be all sneaky, and stand on the toilet so they couldn’t see me. But I was too damned tired.
            I blew out the candle and stood next to the door with my back to the wall.
            The kid walking in stopped, probably because of the dark, and looked like he was just going to stand outside holding the door open. So I had to grab him by the collar and pull him in, hoping the whole time nobody else was with him.
            I hit him medium hard in the head three times because I didn’t want to knock him out, and then I kept poking him with the gun. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I’m pretty sure I had my knee on his chest and the gun pointed at his head when I told him to shut up.
“You make another sound, and I’ll beat you to death.”
            He groaned a couple of times, and I hit him again. I don’t know where, but it must have hurt because he gasped like he was going to yell before I hit him again. I got the gun either in his mouth or his ear, and that shut him up.
            “I will beat you to death, and then shoot you,” I whispered through my teeth.
            He started flailing in the dark. Something hit me in the face, one of his hands probably, and I slammed his head on the floor.
            “You tell me how many friends you’ve got out there and I might just let you live.”
            “You’re dead, motherfucker,” he mumbled. Great, it was that guy.
            I’m pretty sure I hit him in the head again, he was pissing me off. The “You’re dead” guy was Jack’s Little Hitler. I was torn up by the fact that Jack hated this idiot, and then had to die with him yelling at him the whole time.
            “How many of them are there, you piece of shit?” I hit him again.
            “No, I’m not—”
            I hit him again.
            And again.
            I grabbed him by the hair to slam his head into the tile one more time.
            “I dunno. Ten, maybe. Ten. There’s ten of us. Ten, counting me,” he said.
            You don’t count.
            I left Little Hitler knocked out on the floor. There wasn’t time to waste any ammo on him. The very next second, somebody else walked in the door.
I hit him in the head so hard I thought I’d broken the gun. Then I pulled him to the side as fast as I could, and realized I had at least one hostage. I was kind of hoping it would be this one and not the “You’re dead” guy.
            When I pulled number two in, I saw the rest of his friends all gathered on the other side of the stockroom, around the barricaded door. They were murmuring to each other, practically whispering in each others ears and giggling. They had guns, and one guy was using a hammer and screwdriver to take the door off the hinges.
            If you ever want to piss off somebody who’s clinically depressed, just giggle. It was as much that as them trying to take down the door.
I eased the door open and shot two of them in the back.
            “You guy’s leave, and I won’t kill your two buddies in here!” I yelled, hugging the wall in the dark.
            Guns fired and bullets punched holes in the door. Tiny rays of light shined next to my shoes. I don’t think they heard me cursing. By now there was so much yelling and shooting going on, I couldn’t understand anything either. I started to pull Little Hitler over to the wall so he wouldn’t get too shot up, and then I got an idea.
            “Coming out,” I hollered. I picked up Hitler and stuck his head out the door. They stopped shooting. Wedged into the opening, he slid down on his ass into an almost sitting position. He made a good doorstop.
            I broke the bathroom mirror, and held up a piece of it so I could see outside without getting shot. I could see what they were doing, but that was about it.
Let’s face it. I’m not that good a shot. I wasn’t exactly going to be able to aim around the corner with a mirror. I’d used most of my marksmanship skill on that prodigious display of back shooting I’d just done. Not that I was ashamed of it. I just didn’t care.
They were dragging their screaming wounded behind a row of shelves, and screaming along with them, running around in circles. They didn’t know whether to shoot at me, shoot Little Hitler, keep working on the door, or take care of their wounded and possibly dead. I tried to bluff them out.
            “If you leave now, I won’t kill you or your friends,” I said.
            Somebody fired, not through the door where their fearless leader was propped up, but through the wall. The bullet punched a hole in the tile about a foot from my head. One of the guys I’d shot in the back had been holding onto a rifle. I guess somebody else had it now. Apparently, they weren’t going to throw down their guns in surrender and beg for their lives. I didn’t feel quite so confident all of a sudden.
            I had two shots left in the revolver. A total of seven left to shoot how many guys? There were two in here, Trotsky, and the flashlight guy made four. The two shot in the back. That was six. What about Camo-pants, did he count? Okay, that meant there were three, maybe four, left. I hoped my shooting was better than my math.
            I banged the back of my head against the wall trying to come up with an idea. The longer I waited, the more time they had to build a better fort behind that shelving, get better organized. Problem was, now they were concentrating on me. If I’d have been smart enough to wait until they almost had the door open—and then started shooting—at least they’d still have Wes and Frosty to deal with.
            “Wesley! Frosty! Can you hear me?” I yelled.
The only response I got was another shot through the wall. This one punched a hole in my thigh.