Indistinct shadows slithered along the ground to capture Denny’s attention, their fluid movements chipping away at his prospects for survival. The long-abandoned playground had inspired a certain insipid blandness during daylight, so contrary to the invisible fingers now tapping out death’s toll along his vertebrae. Its steady beat echoed the blood roaring in his ears. The few minutes of procrastination at the building’s corner permitted observation of the men waiting to greet him.
“About time you showed up. We’ve been standing here with our thumbs up our asses. Damned ironic you’d select this abandoned school… a nerd to the last thread.” Condescension entwined with impatience forced a new sentiment to infiltrate the atmosphere. One not associated with that voice in prior years.
“Larry? The past decade has been kind to you. Didn’t know you were brining Mitch…” Denny swallowed hard and stepped farther from the building’s dubious concealment. Fragmented swaths of moonlight playing hide-and-seek with the clouds illuminated his contact’s eyes, narrow and calculating.
“Wouldn’t miss this for the world, D. Didn’t want you spooked by the desolate setting and the two of us.” Mitch’s attire matched his counterpart with the exception of the long trench coat. Leather wings flapped about his calves in the strengthening breeze. The larger shadow glided on the extension of arrogance to stand abreast of Larry.
Years of disuse and neglect splintered paint on the once colorful roundabout separating Deny from whatever fate awaited. The thick metal disk had warped over time, its handles covered with rust and bird droppings. Decades ago, he’d played on this very structure with these men who’d shared his childhood dreams. His girlfriend had suggested the location to rekindle old feelings.
Long leather jacket in late August. He’s concealing weapons. “Why would I feel spooked among friends?” Swelling anxiety more accurately descried the gnarled, twisting apprehension snaking through his gut.
“Hmm.” Larry latched onto the u-shaped bar and gave the carousel a spin, the kaleidoscope of tainted colors blurring, distracting. “You’re not exactly the corporate spy type. Do you have the finished formulas? My contacts are anxious to measure the devastation and parameters of your weapon.”
“It’s not on me. You were supposed to bring cash, and yet I see no duffle bag.” Denny back-stepped, his intuition warning him to placate the predators while assembling a plan B. The hunters knew his nerdy brain compartmentalized data in neat little boxes, so might anticipate his moves.
“Cash is in the van. Shall we? I’m ready for a vacay on some sunny, remote island in the South Pacific.” Larry extended his right arm to indicate the lone vehicle along the deserted road behind him. “After you’ve inspected the payment and give us what we came for, we part ways.”
They intend to kill me. “Sounds good. I’m ready to leave these shores and never look back.”
Larry nodded his agreement.
Mitch’s flehmen reaction mimicked a horse’s curling upper lip exposing straight white teeth, the difference being a slight whistle instead of a deep inhalation. The swath of black hair escaping its elastic and drifting across his face couldn’t conceal the innate evil dwelling within his gaze. Decades of hard living had molded the bygone acquaintance into a formidable brick wall. They’d grown up brutal and remorseless.
“Now, you’ll be a rich man able to go anywhere and do anything you want. I should’ve known you’d find a way to weaponize the generation of liquid solar fuel.” Mitch scanned the perimeter, his restless gaze taking in everything, dissecting, qualifying, evaluating.
“It wasn’t my intention from the beginning.” His audible gulp boomed in his ears.
Caught in the shadows like a mouse awaiting the falcon to swoop low and spear him with sharp talons, Denny expected the hounds of hell to descend when the grind-squeak of the carousel pitched lower then fell silent. The toy of old coming to rest signaled the time for loitering over. He should have purchased a gun.
All remained quiet.
Hesitant steps carried no sound in circumventing the obstacle. He stopped outside of Larry’s reach.
“Let’s go.” Mitch’s sly murmur crackled in the silent night.
Frigid chunks of icy fear formed a barrier between thought and action. It wasn’t until falling into step behind Larry that a defensive strategy began to form. Like the squid skirting the jaws of a hungry shark, he’d propel himself just out of reach.
Mitch paced him from behind, staying outside of striking distance. Neither predator would expect the mollusk to grow such sharp teeth.
Unlike modern jungle gyms constructed from sturdy resins, PVC, and rope—metal pipes and plank wood shaped the old fortress which had filled his life with adventure so long ago. Decay and termites weakened the castle to the point several rotten stakes lay strewn in grass long overdue a trim.
A vestige of innate self-preservation forced Denny to dive for a wooden picket once part of the balcony’s railing as a whoosh sounded overhead.
Mitch’s hands closed on thin air.
The hyperextension of two fingers didn’t alter Denny’s focus despite pain shooting into his hand. Gymnastics had never been the nerd’s strong suit, but his southpaw grip on the crude weapon held tight through his tumble. Timeworn and jagged, it made the perfect lightweight weapon, a spear.
Fear focused his attention on the final outcome. Survival. He could feel it now, the hate that flowed from old friends. It tasted foul on the back of his tongue and coiled low in his belly.
A snort of disbelief escaped Mitch after the clumsy evasive maneuver. “Death doesn’t have to be slow and painful, but I can make it that way.” Moonlight gleamed off the blade extending from his hand, slicing the atmosphere in a figure-eight motion. “You were never one to buck fate. Why start now?”
A subdued guffaw from Larry preceded the admonition, “Not until we get the details, Mitch.” Cold, clipped words, so foreign to his previous demeanor.
“Not in this lifetime, you shits.” A snap kick to Mitch’s knee yielded a satisfying crunch and gasp along with his blade dropping to the ground.
“Ahhh…” As the leg buckled, Mitch windmilled his arms for counterbalance. Shock mingled with anguish hardened his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut.
In a daring move belying lack of fitness, Denny jammed the jagged edge of wood into Mitch’s stomach, both relieved and horrified with the resultant blood spilled. Crimson rivulets defined gravity’s path, following a line of least resistance over shaking hands as Denny stifled dry heaves. The sour taste of vomit filled his mouth. He was a chemist, not a contract killer.
Mitch grabbed the picket, preventing more than superficial insertion, his face a mask of hatred, rage, and promise of revenge. Like sociopaths, he viewed laws as basic guidelines.
Larry started forward but crashed to the ground with a forceful leg sweep. The horrific scene solidified into a future nightmare even as Denny reached for the discarded blade and stood. It flitted through his slippery fingers twice before he locked it tight in his grasp.
“Pricks. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you. Now, you’ll get nothing. I have another buyer lined up.”
Larry jumped to his feet and circled to approach his partner who balanced on one leg and clutched the crude spike impaling his gut. “Fool. You’ll never live to spend a cent. We have the backing to track you anywhere, through any country.”
“No.” A soft, frightened sound filled the space between them. It took several heartbeats to realize the small-animal note came from Denny’s own throat.
The click of a switchblade heralded Larry’s determination to see his threat complete.
“Your backing won’t like it if you leave a bloody trail linking to them.” Denny stepped back, his fingers slipping on the wet knife. He nodded toward the groaning partner. “How long do you think it would take them to find you once his body is discovered? Won’t they eliminate any threat to their motives and actions coming to light?” Point to the biggest nerd.
A small seed of doubt flourished in Larry’s eyes as he reached to steady his bleeding partner. The gravely snarl torn from Larry’s chest silenced when Mitch started to crumble.
“Not now, Larry. We can track him later. I need help.”
A calculated gleam crossed Larry’s expression, fleeting but indicative of a mind weighing options.
Denny backed away, knife at the ready. After ten steps and seeing his path clear without pursuit, he turned and raced for the copse of trees where he’d hidden his car. The night hadn’t turned out as planned, but he could work out another strategy.