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Patriot Acts Excerpt (Ch. 03)

The second team had come in a Ford sedan. The sedan waited at the opposite end of the lot from where I entered, positioned almost directly between the two rows of pumps. My headlights splashed across it as I turned into the gas station, and I could see the car parked facing towards me. Its front doors were already open, and two men were standing behind them, wearing bulky winter coats and facing each other, as if conversing over the roof of the car. In the moment of illumination as my lights found them, I marked them both as Caucasian, each standing with his hands out of sight, hidden behind their respective doors. The one at the driver’s side door wore a watch cap, the other was bald.

There were two rows of pumps, three pumps apiece, and spaced to allow for four lines of cars to refuel simultaneously. I oriented the Civic towards the right-hand row on the inside, continuing to tap my brakes, as if bleeding off speed in preparation for a stop. With my left, I reached out to unlock my door, then rolled down the window. A gust of cold autumn air, smelling faintly of gasoline and motor oil, filled the car.

The follow vehicle turned into the station behind me, and I saw that it was a Jeep Cherokee, either green or black, it was hard to tell with the sodium lights. If it was coming to ram or pin the Civic, I was done, and for a half-second of pure terror, I thought that was exactly what it intended to do. But it pulled the turn tighter than I had, and I realized why; he didn’t want to risk getting hit by the cone of fire that would come from the Ford. Instead, the Jeep’s driver was going to come parallel, past the pumps on my right. I glanced over, saw only one occupant, the driver behind the wheel, also Caucasian, his hair dark. He didn’t look my way.

I put more pressure on the brakes, brought the Civic to a stop, turning the wheel slightly to the left, leaving the engine running. There couldn’t be much gas left in the tank, but the Civic wouldn’t need much to do what I wanted it to do. I had the Glock in my right, ready. At the Ford, the two men were still pretending to speak to one another, not looking my way. It was a big tell. At almost five in the morning in a deserted gas station, when a new car pulls in, shining its lights at you, you look at it. If you don’t, you’re hiding something.

To my left, the lights in the garage and the office were dark. If they’d been that way when Natalie had driven us past, on the way to the safe house, I couldn’t recall. I hoped they had been. If not, it meant someone had been working but wasn’t anymore.

The Cherokee passed the row of pumps, now turning slightly to the left about fifteen feet past the last one, coming to a stop, its driver’s door angled roughly in my direction. Ford, Cherokee, and Civic now described a chevron-like shape, with me in the Civic at the apex. It was a strong firing solution; if I tried moving forward, the shooters would tighten their cones of fire. If I tried to run, they could cut me to ribbons from two angles.

The Cherokee came to a stop, and that was the go-signal. The driver reached for something on the seat beside him, his weapon, and then I had to ignore him, because the two at the Ford were more trouble, at least at the moment. Each of them had already turned my direction, their hands coming up from where they’d been hidden behind their doors, and each held a submachine gun, an MP5, but the barrels were extended, suppressors fixed in place.

I tapped the accelerator lightly at the same time I opened my door, swung my legs around and slid out of the Civic, into a crouch, and I didn’t hear the shots as they opened fire, but I heard the impacts, the sound like rocks being driven into the body of the car, the sound of the windshield cracking. The Civic was still in drive, and it kept rolling forward, doing no more than four, maybe five miles an hour, and I stayed with it, stayed low, using the open driver’s door as a shield. Another battery of silent shots slammed into the car, but nothing penetrated, and that was as I’d hoped. Between the two panels and the window glass, it would take a meaner round than the suppressed nine millimeter the MP5s could fire to cut its way through.

I kept moving with the Civic as it rolled steadily forward, staying low. If I’d done it right, the car would be on course to meet the Ford, though it would take the better part of a minute to get there. It was going to be a very long minute, especially with three people shooting at me.

I reached out for the door, pushed it fully open to give me the most cover I could manage, then released it and went to a two-handed grip on the Glock, and it was only then that I realized that I wasn’t afraid. I was vaguely surprised to discover that I wasn’t truly worried at all. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the danger I was in, and it wasn’t that I didn’t acknowledge how perilously close to my own death I was standing. But as I moved, as I shifted my weight and stutter-stepped to keep pace with the car, as I brought the Glock up to kill the one wearing the watch cap, I felt precise, sure, even certain. I had done everything I could to even the odds, I had a plan, and either it would work or it wouldn’t, but there was only one way to find out.

I came out quick, sending five shots from the Glock at the shooter in the watch cap as fast as I could pull the trigger. He was the priority target; he was at the driver’s door of the Ford, and that made him the driver, and I didn’t want him getting behind the wheel and turning the tables on me.

My shots rang out, one atop the other, and the gunman wearing the watch cap jerked, then toppled back. The clatter of his MP5 hitting the ground rang across the lot, and I heard his partner, the bald one, call me a motherfucker, but I’d already hunkered back behind the cover of the Civic by then. Another battery of silent gunshots rattled the car.

“Fuck!” the bald one was shouting. “Fuck! Sean’s down, fuck!”

The outburst surprised me, not for the profanity, but because I’d taken them for professionals, and I’d expected them to remain professionally silent. Then again, perhaps I’d surprised them. After all, they’d quite possibly thought they’d caught me dead-to-rights and I’d just put them on notice that, no, I wasn’t planning on going quietly.

As if in answer to the outburst, the pre-dawn filled with the bark of an automatic rifle. No suppression on this weapon, and the reports were angry and loud, and it had to be the shooter from the Cherokee getting into the act now. This time, glass shattered rather than cracking, and in my periphery I saw the instrument gauge explode inside the Civic. Past my left shoulder, a gasoline pump sparked, the LEDs on its face shorting out.

“Where is he? Where the fuck is he?” the bald one shouted. “Mark! Do you have a shot? Do you have a shot?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“I can’t see him! I can’t—”

“Grant! Shut up, he’s—”

I pivoted in my crouch to face the Civic, letting it roll past me. As the rear panel came even, I leaned right and snapped off two shots in the direction of the Cherokee. Its driver, Mark, was at the rear of the Jeep, using it as both a brace for his rifle and as cover for himself. He’d probably exited from the passenger’s side, coming around as far from me as possible, and I had been right, the rifle was an automatic, an AR-15.

Both of my shots missed, smacked into the SUV, and I barely managed to tumble back behind my moving cover before Mark returned the favor, sending another battery of rounds my way. The trunk on the Civic snapped open, the latch destroyed by a penetrating round, and brake lights exploded, and behind me I heard glass shattering in the office, or maybe it was in the garage.

“You get him?” The bald one sounded shrill, his voice pinched and overloud with adrenaline. “Son of a bitch! Mark! Mark, you get the cocksucker?”

“Dammit, Grant!” Mark shouted in response. “Shut the fuck up!”

“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!”

Grant’s voice descended into muttering, then silence, and there was a pause, a moment of almost silence that might have lasted three seconds or maybe lasted ten, as each of us with a gun tried to figure out what to do next. The Civic was still tenaciously rolling forward, but slowing, losing momentum, and the engine was beginning to cough and splutter. A radio crackled from the direction of the Ford, but I couldn’t make out the transmission, or if anything was actually being said at all.

The Civic and I were coming parallel to the Cherokee, and I was going to have to do something about that. Maybe the MP5 in Grant’s hand couldn’t penetrate the Civic, but the AR-15 my new friend Mark was packing fired .223s, and it fired them quick, and at tremendous velocity. Cold-rolled steel or not, Mark’s shots would have no trouble punching through my car.

“Wait for him!” Mark shouted, suddenly. “He’s gonna break—”

I side-stepped along with the Civic, then broke cover again and pounded six rounds at Mark and his AR-15 as fast as I could, one after the other, pure suppression fire. It was a lot of bullets and a lot of noise, and it came at him fast, and it had the desired effect. He wrenched himself back, around the rear of the Cherokee, swearing furiously. Another rattle of rounds clattered against the Civic from the suppressed MP5.

The Glock had seventeen rounds, and I’d blown through thirteen of them. Or maybe fourteen. I wasn’t sure. Optimistically I had four left. I swung back to face the inside of my open door, realized that the Civic had almost reached the end of its journey. I shoulder-rolled out from the cover of the door, this time going left, and as I came up I fired two shots at Grant and his bald head, less concerned with hitting him than with keeping him preoccupied. Both rounds smashed the Ford’s windshield, beside where he stood, and he started to duck back behind his open door.

Then the Civic hit the Ford, and the Ford hit Grant, in the form of the door he was trying to use for cover. It wasn’t a fast impact, and it wasn’t—relatively—a hard impact, but it was still the impact of one car hitting another, and that was enough, that had been what I was after all along.

Grant grunted and went down and out of sight as if someone had dropped a bag of bricks on his head, and I went after him immediately, trying to capitalize on the moment and the brief advantage it gave me. Mark was screaming a warning to him, and there was another rapid string of barks from his AR-15, but I was vaulting the Ford’s hood then, the Glock in my right, and I didn’t dare look back and I wasn’t about to stop. I cleared the gap between the Ford and the passenger door, saw Grant on the ground, and somehow he’d managed to keep hold of his MP5, and somehow he managed to raise the muzzle in time, and somehow he managed to pull the trigger.

He’d set his MP5 to three-round burst, so that was what he fired, and that was what hit me. Rounds slammed into my chest, the sensation like being struck with a club very hard and very fast. I landed on my feet, but for some reason ended up on my right side, practically parallel to where Grant lay on his back, the MP5 still in his hands. Each of us moved to kill the other.

I was faster, and put two rounds from the Glock into his head.

Then I dropped my pistol, took his MP5, popped the magazine, and gave it a read. Eighteen rounds remaining. I slapped it back into place, ran the bolt, and then rolled onto my back, and when I did that, it felt like something tore open in my middle, low in the belly, ripping me apart with a line of acid and fire. I threw a hand out towards the Ford, reaching into the open compartment. Using the seat, I pulled myself upright with one hand, clutching the MP5 with the other, and the pain flipped, exploded, and everything from my right hip on down told me that I should, under no account, ever try moving like that ever again.

There was a tremendous amount of blood all over the ground beneath me, or so it seemed to me. Already, it had soaked my jeans. Some of it was certainly Grant’s.

Just not much of it.

There were two marks in my vest, where rounds had hit and died against the Kevlar. The highest was in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen, the other roughly middle, about where my navel was. The blood I was spilling was coming from further below. With my free hand, I reached around to the small of my back, beneath the vest, and discovered a hole in me that couldn’t have been much larger than an apple. Maybe a Fuji. Maybe a Braeburn. When I brought my hand back around, it shone black in the night, covered with more of my blood.

I wasn’t hearing Mark or his AR-15. There was a good chance he didn’t know I’d been hit, that all he knew was that there’d been a quick exchange of shots, and now there was silence. But he wasn’t calling out, either, wasn’t asking Grant for his status, which meant that he figured either I’d killed Grant and was still alive and kicking, or that Grant and I had killed each other. Certainly, if Grant had killed me, Grant would have announced the fact the same way he’d announced everything else that he’d witnessed.

I was getting cold, and it wasn’t just the night.

When Alena had begun teaching me, she’d done so, first and foremost, by showing me her training regimen. “Showing,” in this instance, had meant making me do it with her, and the first month of the process had been a living hell, had very well nearly killed me. It wasn’t just the diet and the exercise, it had been the choice of exercises. Between the swimming and the running and the combat practice, she’d thrown in ballet and yoga. Everything she did, everything she’d taught me, had been about one thing: control of the body, how to make it do what you wanted it to do, the way you wanted it done, when you wanted to do it.

Breathing had been one of the very first lessons. How to breathe properly.

I took a breath, forced myself to do it right, to bring it in deep to the lungs, to let it out slowly. I took a second one, then a third, and then, when I felt I wouldn’t have to scream when I moved, I shifted myself away from the side of the Ford, turning as best as I could to face the front of the vehicle. When I moved, it felt like I was literally ripping myself in two directions, as if everything below my pelvis was grinding itself to paste, and an ocean roar grew suddenly in my ears, and the night all around me turned white.

Then the night came flooding back, and I knew I had blacked out, that I’d lost seconds, hopefully only a handful. I’d pitched forward, almost doubling over, and I’d dropped the MP5 in my lap. That had been lucky, and it had probably saved my life, because if Mark had heard it hitting the pavement, he’d have forgotten about coming slow and careful. I got my breathing under control, took hold of the MP5, and forced myself to sit upright again.

Grant’s body lay to my side, his eyes open and unmoving. Through the open front doors of the Ford, I could see his partner, the one he’d called Sean, flat on his back. His eyes were closed. He had a boyish face, clean-shaven. The watch cap had come off when he’d fallen, and the hair on his head was cropped close, either brown or black. I couldn’t see where I’d hit him, but the blood that had spilled from beneath his body made me think wherever it had been, it had been high in the torso, maybe even the neck. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not.

The blood slicking my hands made controlling the MP5 hard, and I fumbled with the burst selector, trying to get it off three-round and onto full-auto. Then I listened for Mark and his AR-15 to approach. I hoped it wouldn’t take long. The way I was bleeding, long was something I didn’t think I could experience for much longer.

Something scraped the pavement, a faint sound, and it could have been nothing more than a leaf blowing across the lot. I raised the MP5 to roughly even with my head, supporting the barrel with my left, keeping my right on the trigger, pointing the muzzle downwards, towards the ground at an angle. It was counter-intuitive, and it was risky, but it was the only way to turn a direct-fire weapon like the MP5 into an indirect-fire one, and indirect-fire was the only way I could see out of this.

Firing like this—skip-firing—relied on the inherent strangeness of ballistics. Bullets don’t behave like billiard balls. Despite what movies and television portray, they don’t ricochet at perfect angles. This is why soldiers and cops don’t press themselves against walls for cover; if the angle is right and the surface hard enough, the bullet won’t bounce away, but rather will ride along the plane, sometimes as high as an inch or an inch and a half above its point of impact. If you’re leaning against the wall the round is riding when that happens, you can end up with a very nasty, very lethal surprise.

I didn’t like doing it, and I didn’t have terrific faith that it would work, but I didn’t see any other choice. I was bleeding badly, I knew it, maybe even bleeding out. I had an MP5 with eighteen rounds versus an AR-15 with quite possibly a reloaded magazine. Even if I had been able to stand for a straight-on fight, I was pretty certain I’d lose.

C’mon, I thought. C’mon, come and get me, you bastard.

It was what he had to do. His night, like mine, had become a total clusterfuck, and now he had to end it, one way or another. From the set-up for the ambush, it was clear they hadn’t expected that I would make them. But I had, and now Mark was down two buddies and all alone, and the last he’d heard had been Grant’s shots and mine, and now he didn’t know what was what. Like me, he was running out of moves and out of time. He could either climb back into his Cherokee and bolt, or he could approach the Ford and finish the job. And since I hadn’t heard the Cherokee starting up again, it was going to be the latter.

Distantly, somewhere ahead and in front, I heard the clack of a magazine being fitted into place, a bolt being slid back. He’d made his decision; he was coming to finish me, reloaded and ready. Probably swinging around behind the rear end of the Civic, using it for cover.

The ocean was rising once more in my ears, and the edges of my vision were beginning to lose color again. Sitting the way I was hurt, and I was sure it made the bleeding worse. If I waited any longer, the chance that I’d pass out seemed more and more likely.

My finger was slippery on the MP5’s trigger, but I got it down, laid a spray at the pavement, sweeping the barrel in a slight arc in front of me. I tried to count the shots, let up when I hit ten, but I was probably off by one or two.

There was an immediate scream of pain, and I heard first the AR-15, then Mark, hit the ground. He continued to scream, and he was loud, and I didn’t blame him for that. One of the rounds must have found a foot, maybe destroying a toe, maybe coming at him a little higher. There are a lot of bones in the foot, most of them small, and all of them delicate. There was a reason he was screaming.

I readjusted my grip on the MP5, pulled the trigger again, sprayed at the ground again, but this time I kept the trigger down until the weapon went dry.

Mark stopped screaming.

I tried very hard not to start as I began lurching towards the Cherokee.