Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 20

The Wind in Our Face

I

     It was a perfect day. One of those days that blue sky goes on forever,

because there are no clouds to stop it. Hot but not too humid. Green grass

everywhere and butterflies floating in the breeze. The smell of spring turning to

summer.

     Graduation would be held on the football field, with us seniors on the

grass and our families in the bleachers. Our group of friends had agreed to meet

beforehand in front of the clock tower. I parked the Pinto across Stephenson Street

and walked to our meeting place. Heather stood by herself in front of the

evergreen that months ago she’d decorated with the spirit of Christmas.

      As I walked across the street our eyes met and I couldn’t help but smile.

Even though my head pounded from my encounter with Mr. Daniels, I didn’t care.

This was parole day, a day to finally celebrate our freedom from the crimson brick

prison. I kept looking down at my feet because I wasn’t use to the black gown

obscuring the length of my legs. All us guys wore black and the ladies silver.

     Heather looked gorgeous as usual, her hair done up all fancy with braids coming

out of her graduation cap, her gown sparking in the sun light.

     “Where’s Roman anyway?” I asked.

     “He insisted on walking of course. I don’t even argue with him

anymore.” Heather stepped up to me and adjusted my tie. “I thought you’d be

jumping up and down today.”

    “Why is that?” I asked.

     “Because the worst day of your life ended up being the best, silly.”

    “What the hell are you talking about, woman?”

     “Hello…Sally and you. She told me about last night.”

     The smile on my face faded. “What about last night?”

     “You honestly don’t remember?”

     I searched my memory banks—number four green at the Country Club,

the party at Scotty’s, Jack Daniels, Sally telling me she was going to take me

home, and then…I woke up in my own bed. “You’re shittin’ me right? I was

toasted. Everything’s fuzzy.”

    “Anthony Falcone! You spend your whole senior year trying to get with a

girl, and when you finally do you forget?”

    “It can’t be. There’s no way I’d forget.”

     “Well I think you better at least act like you remember. Girls like you to

remember things like that. We’re odd that way.”

     As I stood there trying to recall last night’s events, our friends began to

arrive—Pick and Scotty drove up together, Jack and Johnny in the Vette, Sam

Peterman. All of them patted me on the shoulder or made a point to shake my

hand—something teammates do when you have literally dropped the ball. I wasn’t

sure if it was all moral support. Some of it might have been congratulations for my

apparent conquest the night before.

     A dirt bike pulled a wheelie from the railroad tracks all the way to the

clock tower. Its rider was none other than Brunno, with his black gown flowing in

the wind like Evil Knievel. When his front tire finally hit the ground, he threw one

of his arms up as if he had just jumped the Grand Canyon. Jack and Johnny

clapped. I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than for Brunno to be arriving to

his high school graduation on a dirt bike.

     “He’s never gonna be right is he?” I asked.

     “His dad got him the bike as a graduation present. I guess he couldn’t

wait to test it out,” Johnny the Killer said.

      Out of the corner of my eye I saw Roman walking by the tracks down the

street. His head was tilted up toward the sun just like that first day I watched him

walk home from school. He walked with his cap folded neatly under his arm and

as he got closer I could see his smile widen from ear to ear. I wondered what his

valedictorian speech would be about. I imagined it would be very different than

the story I got in that long ago email—about the suicidal nerd and his friend the

jock. After all it was never about me saving him, quite the opposite in fact.

     Heather walked to meet him on the sidewalk. Roman picked up the pace

at the sight of her. His whole face was a smile and then all at once, he stopped and

just stood there. His smile faded away, replaced by a look of utter disappointment

and loss. That image still burns in my mind to this day. He didn’t even have to

look to know they were there—it was one of Roman’s special abilities that I could

never fully understand. I followed his eyes as he scanned the landscape.

    A black van sat on the side street that intersected Stephenson. Another

idled in the parking lot just south of the school. The third crept up the street

behind Roman. Above a jet-black helicopter floated over, its shadow gliding over

the asphalt. Roman gave a brief frown to Heather, dropped his graduation cap, and

in a second he was across the street sprinting for the gravel parking lot just across

from us.

II

      Even geniuses make mistakes and now Roman found himself in a fenced

in parking lot, both exits of which were blocked with NN vans. The third van idled

on Stephenson waiting to see what its prey’s next move would be. Agent Johnson

sat in the passenger seat of his van, looking down the row of cars at the boy who

had become his nemesis. Roman backed up to the fence, scanning the parking lot

frantically for a way out. His eyes landed on Brunno’s new dirt bike as two of the

vans began to converge on him. Roman jumped on the bike, failed twice at kickstarting

it, then pushed the pedal down one more time, slamming it hard and

throwing all his weight into it. The roaring of the engine pulsed through the air

and Roman wasted no time in giving it its full test run. Instead of trying to avoid

the van in front of him, he drove straight towards it. A few feet away, he stopped.

    The agents in the van looked at each other, puzzled. A second later Roman hit the

throttle and spun around, throwing the gravel of the parking lot into the van’s

windshield. He made an aisle where there wasn’t one, slipping through the small

crevices between car doors. I saw a mirror fly off at one point.

    The NN vans recalibrated their attack. Even though they were bulky and

slow in that small parking lot, it was only a matter of time before they cornered

Roman, dirt bike or not. Roman kept up his cat and mouse game, zigzagging in

and out of cars and trucks, continually making his pursuers adjust to his route. I

imagine Roman thought of it as chess—if you make your opponent move enough,

sooner or later he is going to make a mistake.

    The NN turned out to be a worthy adversary. They cornered Roman on

the south side of the lot. To his right was a wall of cars up against the fence. To

his left was another row of cars, but at the end of them sat Johnson’s van. Even if

Roman repeated his previous routine and passed through the line of cars, Johnson

blocked his exit. In front and behind Roman were the other two vans, each rolling

toward him, cutting down the free space between them. Roman let them get closer.

     At a distance of ten feet both vans stopped, one in front and one behind

him. Their doors opened ready for the agents to pour out. Roman pulled back on

the throttle, lifting his front tire off the ground and landing it on the hood of the car

to his left. An instant later Roman’s motorcycle was jumping from car hood to car

hood, bypassing the van in front of him. The agents scurried back to their seats

and the doors slammed shut. The driver of the van threw it into reverse, hitting the

gas and peeling out backwards in an effort to beat him to the exit. It was too late.

Roman was at high RPMs, darting up Stephenson Street. The vans and helicopter

followed him.

    “We’ve got to help him,” I said.

    “We’ll never catch up to them,” Johnny the Killer countered.

    “We don’t have to. I know where he’s taking them,” I said.

    “They were fifteen-passenger vans. I couldn’t count how many agents

there were because of the tinted windows, but they looked to be full,” Heather said.

    “Forty-five of them,” I mumbled to myself. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”

    “What are we waiting for?” Sam Peterman asked.

    I looked around at the guys. Roman had affected each of them for the

good in some way; still I didn’t expect them to risk their lives. But I knew what I

had to do. I started to jog for the Pinto.

    “I’m going too,” Heather said.

    “Count me in,” Sam Peterman said.

    “We’re going to miss graduation to fight a pointless fight?” Pick Bryant

asked. “Even if we all go they’ve got us outnumbered. They’re the government

for God’s sake. What are we gonna do, fart on ‘em?”

    “My mom will kill me if I miss graduation,” Scotty added.

    “Fuck your mom Scotty,” Johnny the Killer said flatly. “Do you think the

janitor would have a second thought if it was one of our asses in the sling? Hell no

he wouldn’t. He saved Apollo. I owe him.”

    “He threw me a bucket of balls after every practice,” Peterman said.

    “He gave back all the blackjack money at my dad’s bar,” Pick added.

    “He helped me with my b-b-business math,” Brunno said.

    “We all owe him,” I affirmed.

    “I don’t owe him shit,” Jack Rollings whined. “The only thing he ever did

for me was dislocate my leg. I’m not missing graduation for that piece of shit.”

     “He also relocated your leg,” I said.

     “You’re going,” Johnny said, pointing at Jack.

     “Bullshit,” Jack responded.

     It was the only time I ever heard Jack disobey a direct order from Johnny.

    The insurrection did not last long. The Killer had enough with the talk apparently.

He grabbed Jack, dragging him by the collar as we ran to our vehicles. We piled

into the cars to go help our friend.

III

    The Kawasaki KX500 glided over the black asphalt of Collingston,

running red lights, cutting in between cars, and reaching speeds of 100 miles per

hour. In minutes the buildings of the business district and the homes of

neighborhoods were left behind, replaced by farmland and forest. Roman could

see the shadow of the NN helicopter following on the road alongside him.

    The NN vans followed at a close distance and though they had a more

dubious time with city traffic, they never lost sight of their fleeing prey. Agent

Johnson loaded the odd pistol that lay in his lap with something that looked like a

watch battery. His tinted window slid down into the door. Johnson stuck the pistol

out, aimed carefully, and shot the short silver cylinder. The tracer hit the motor

casing on the bike and stuck like a magnet to a refrigerator.

    The traffic had lessened since leaving the city limits and now it was only

three vans and a dirt bike for as far as the eye could see. Route 1 straightened for a

good five miles at one point, a perfect time for the NN to make its move.

Johnson’s van sped up to pass the Janitor’s dirt bike in the left lane and then cut

back in front of him. The second van pulled into the oncoming traffic’s lane and

mimicked the speed of the dirt bike. The last van came up behind Roman, just a

few feet from his back tire. The NN made a moving barricade, and now the mobile

walls started to slow down, forcing Roman to decrease his speed.

    “Should we take out one of his tires?” A voice said through Agent

Johnson’s earpiece.

    “Negative,” Agent Stenworth answered. “The target is to remain intact if at

all possible. Decelerate until we have him stopped.”

    Roman had other ideas.

    He cut the bike to the right—the only direction he could go—and veered

off into the cornfield next to them. The vans stopped in the road, watching as

Roman and his motorcycle disappeared into the forest on the other side of the field.

The chopper flew over the tree line but came back when it could not see him

through the brush.

     Johnson looked at the GPS monitor in his hand. Roman inched along the

screen as a small blinking dot. “I put a tracer on his bike. He can run but he can’t

hide anymore.”

    “He will be ours soon enough,” Stenworth said.

IV

    Our group parked a little less than a mile away from Buttworst’s house,

disrobed from our graduation gowns, and hiked it through the woods. We stopped

at the tree line fifty yards or so from the teacher’s long driveway and watched as

the NN unloaded from their vans. I spread the leaves of the greenery in front of

my face to count thirty men, all dressed in suits and ties, shoes shined to

perfection. Most of them removed their coats after exiting, revealing the belts

around their backs and shoulders that held their holstered guns. Besides their usual

side arms I could see a smaller weird-looking pistol. It looked like those lighters

with the long barrels that could spark a flame at the squeeze of a trigger. It must

have been the dart gun that Roman had become familiar with in that Iowa

cemetery.

    Half of the agents spread out, swarming over Mr. Buttworst’s house and

garage. The other half formed a circle and stood like soldiers at attention, scanning

the environment for the man they sought. There was never a spoken word, but still

they moved like lions hunting—communication was replaced by years of skillful

repetition. They were a football team that had practiced a certain play so many

times it just became instinct. Johnson and a smaller man stood in the center of the

worker bees, watching patiently as the area was secured enough to begin their

search. The smaller man seemed to be Johnson’s superior. He looked more like a

college professor than a skilled agent of the government. He had thin rimmed

glasses in the shape of perfect circles, a large bald spot that covered more of his

head than his hair did, a fragile-looking stature, and height that seemed to diminish

next to the towering Agent Johnson.

    One of the agents returned with a black gown in hand. Another followed

with Roman’s suit coat, pants, and dress shoes. “Agent Stenworth, we found these

in the loft above the garage,” one of the agents said.

    “There’s no one inside the house or on the immediate grounds,” another

said.

   “I smell a trap. Someone doesn’t change out of clothes unless they have

clothes to change into. He’s thought this out,” Agent Johnson said, sounding

certain.

   “Easy, old friend,” Agent Stenworth advised. “I don’t care how good he is,

we have him out manned and out gunned. It is only a matter of time.”

   “Don’t underestimate him.”

    Stenworth looked down at his GPS scanner. “Very strange. According to

this he is within three feet of us circling at an astounding pace. I hear no

motorcycle.”

    The Agents looked around with their dart guns in hand. Johnson looked

around and then up. I followed his gaze to the crow soaring overhead. Johnson

pulled his gun out and aimed. There was a soft click of his silenced weapon and

the bird fell to the ground. Johnson walked over to the dead bird and knelt down.

    “Crows are a very curious bird. They like anything shiny,” Johnson said as

he opened the bird’s beak and produced his silver tracer.

    “Regardless, he’s out there somewhere. Find him,” Stenworth ordered as

he pointed to the woods behind Buttworst’s house and garage.

The wall of agents spread apart—leaving a good twenty yards between

each man—and slipped into the forest. Johnson and Stenworth remained in the

gravel driveway. Stenworth talked into the toothpick-size microphone in his hand.

    “I want a report every twenty minutes.”

    “What ya reckon R-R-Roman did with my bike?” Brunno tried to whisper.

    “I’m sure it’s in a safe place, Brunno,” I said back.

    “What’s the plan here?” Johnny cut in. “There are only two of them left. I

say we rush the bastards. There’s eight of us.”

    “That’s a great fucking plan until they take out their guns and shoot us,” I

said back.

   “Good point. I should have brought my gun,” the Killer said.

    It was useless to even argue anymore about Johnny’s gun. Something

occurred to me at that moment—it might have been a mistake coming here.

Roman knew all along what he would be up against, when this day finally came,

what the NN would do, how they would try and capture him, what their procedures

would be. We might just be in the way, maybe even be a handicap. As I looked

down the row at my friends squatting behind the brush in their best slacks, ties, and

dress, I started to feel guilt. Not only had I taken their graduation away from them,

but all of them except Heather were naïve as to what we were really up against. I

suggested that we just wait and see what Roman had in store for the NN. My

classmates complied for the most part, except for Jack who backtracked through

the woods to take a piss.

V

     The forest behind Buttworst’s home sloped downhill to a small ravine with

a creek running through it, and eventually flattened out from there. As the agents’

distance from their starting point increased the webbing of leaves and branches

overhead thickened, sheltering them from the light of the sun. Here and there

single rays of light broke through the leaf barrier, turning the environment into a

patchwork quilt of light and dark colors. Not only was it hard to see at times, but

also the forest seemed to be twenty degrees cooler.

    Agent Marick walked slowly, twigs snapping and dead leaves rustling

under his feet; holding his dart pistol with both hands, he constantly checked the

12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions around him. Several times he thought he saw the

young teenager he’d been instructed to find, but it turned out to be just a shadow

on a bush or the odd shape of a tree. Marick was a young man himself, no more

than thirty years of age, recruited by the NN after college and then three years with

the CIA. He had no wife or children and the NN seemed to be a perfect fit for him.

    This was the first time in his career that he felt out of place—wearing dress

attire and polished shoes, walking through a forest he wasn’t familiar with, and

losing line-of-sight contact with his fellow agents a hundred yards back. He

wondered what the “target” had done or had known to deserve the wrath of thirty

NN Agents. This was the largest-scale mission the agency had taken on since

Marick had joined it. After several minutes of thought and considering the

possibilities, he could not come up with a satisfactory explanation for the mission.

This Roman Swivel must hold the keys to a good number of problems that plagued

the NN.

     Agent Marick’s speculation would not be resolved anytime soon.

Something very hard hit him in the head—a rock maybe—and now as he staggered

in a circle, trying to check the surroundings for the source of the projectile, his

vision blurred and his body moved in slow motion as if he were under water. The

occasional beams of light breaking through the tree cover might have been

sunshine hitting the ocean floor. As Marick finished his circle-scan of the area, his

one-time prey suddenly stood inches in front of him—as predator.

   Although still unable to focus well or aim, Marick pulled the trigger on his

dart gun anyway, and was surprised when he felt something like a needle penetrate

his own chest. Roman had turned the gun so that it was pointing at Marick. As the

dart’s sleep poison crept into his veins and blackness started to close in around his

eyes, Agent Marick was one step closer to understanding what all the fuss over

Roman Swivel was about.

VI

    “Why did we even come if we’re not going to do anything? This is

bullshit,” Johnny the Killer said.

   “Watch your voice,” I whispered back. “We came in case he needs our

help. And until he needs it we’re going to sit here and be quiet.”

Johnny shook his head.

    “Is Jack back yet?” I asked.

     The Killer looked around down the line of our squatting friends and then

toward the vegetation behind us. “Don’t think so. I’ll go get him. He’s probably

talking on his cell phone or something stupid.”

    “Hurry up, and be careful,” I said.

    “I don’t know if this is good or bad,” Heather whispered. “If it’s good that

their search is taking so long, I mean.”

    Before I could answer her there was a clicking sound behind us, and I

heard Johnny say two words—“Oh shit.”

    Six agents stood behind us with their dart guns pointed. Jack was already

in cuffs crying like a baby. His bathroom break had turned out to be very costly.

    “Everybody up,” one of the agents ordered.

VII

     It took only a matter of minutes to herd us out into the open gravel drive,

cuff us, and force us down in a neat little row on our knees. Johnny and Brunno

both tried to resist, only to be beaten down in seconds. The Killer and the wrestler

with all of their brawn and bull-headedness were no match for the NN Agents,

whose quick hands and joint locks brought them to submission.

     Agent Stenworth now called off the search, and the Agents began to return

one by one. Johnson walked by each of us prisoners, looking us over to make sure

we were faces he recognized from his previous spying escapade to Collingston.

Jack continued to sob and I could tell it was wearing on Stenworth’s nerves.

    I could sympathize with Jack I guess. Here we were on graduation day,

hands cuffed behind our backs and knees in the dirt like we were about to be

executed. There was a time when I would have been shitting myself like Jack, but

nine months with the janitor had changed my mindset in such situations. I counted

only twenty-seven agents now—three less than before. Sure they might be out

taking a piss or just taking their time returning, but by the look of urgency on

    Stenworth’s face I’d bet that Roman had something to do with it. For some reason

I knew everything was going to be all right. I knew Roman would save the day

once again. That was, until Agent Stenworth spoke.

    He looked at Johnson. “Marick, Washington, and Jackson are not back

and are not responding to their radios.” Stenworth looked at the eight of us as he

thought to himself.

    Jack’s cry only got higher and now there was a mucousy cough with it.

    For a brief instant Stenworth and me had something in common. “Would

somebody shut him up please?”

    The agent next to Jack shot his dart into Jack’s arm. Jack’s crying slowed

and eventually stopped—like a song in a tape player in which the batteries were

dying. Jack fell face first into the dirt in front of him.

    “That’s fucking…” Johnny didn’t get out the last word. Another agent hit

The Killer in the side of the neck with a drugged mini-arrow. He too was now

asleep.

    “Careful with those things,” Johnson said to his comrades. “We don’t

have an unlimited supply.”

    “Don’t worry my friend, it will only take one to stop young Swivel,”

Stenworth reassured him. “Which of his friends will get him out here the

quickest?”

    Johnson looked at me and then Heather. “The girl.”

    Stenworth hoisted Heather off the ground by her cuffs. “I know you can

hear me, Swivel. I’m going to make life very uncomfortable for your girlfriend if

you don’t show yourself. I don’t wish any harm to anyone, not even you, so do the

sensible thing.”

    Stenworth waited a couple of seconds and when there was no response he

pulled on Heather’s hair until she screamed. Heather tried to wriggle herself free

and then tried to back into his grip, maybe to throw him over her back like Roman

had taught her. But Stenworth stopped her counter-move by jamming a knee into

her back. Heather was sent sprawling, her face hitting the dirt.

   “Stop!” A winded voice yelled.

    Roman appeared from behind Mr. Buttworst’s house, his chest pumping

hard for oxygen as he ran—wherever he’d been in the woods, he‘d had to move

fast to get here. The glimpses of the warrior that lived somewhere in Roman’s soul

were now fully apparent—he wore camouflage and his face was a brown, green,

and black mosaic of paint. The friendly janitor I had grown to love was firmly

entrenched in the art of war.

    Roman continued to run toward us, then regained his senses. He stopped

thirty yards away. I could see the struggle going on his eyes—he wanted badly to

help Heather to her feet. My worst fears were now realized. We’d followed

Roman to help him, but in fact we had done the exact opposite. We were no more

than helpless worms dangling on the end of a hook.

    “I don’t suppose you’re surrendering?” Stenworth asked Roman.

    “Never,” Roman responded.

    “Have it your way. Put him to sleep boys,” Stenworth ordered.

    The dart pistols rose and fired. Twenty-seven sharp tips hit Roman in the

chest and torso, like he was a bull’s-eye at the firing range. A second or two

passed but Roman remained on his feet. Instead of falling to his knees, he pulled

the darts one by one out of his chest and stomach and threw them to the ground.

Johnson and Stenworth looked at each other.

    Roman pounded on his chest with his knuckles. It sounded like he was

knocking on a plastic bucket.

    “Some sort of body armor,” Stenworth murmured. “I guess we’ll have to

do this the old-fashioned way.”

    Twenty-five of the agents—all but Stenworth and Johnson—surrounded

Roman in a matter of seconds. They formed a circle around him. Roman put his

hands in the pockets of his camouflaged shirt, and pulled out two dart pistols—

spoils from the three missing Agents in the woods. With a pistol in each hand,

Roman’s fingers squeezed the triggers on both guns, sending the poisoned darts

plucking through the air with the sound of a blowgun in the jungle. Nine darts and

a total of three guns later he was out of ammunition, but the weapons had served

him well. All of the poison projectiles had found skin to penetrate, and those

agents had stumbled around, eventually falling to the ground. Eighteen agents

were left standing.

    Roman dropped the last empty dart gun as the circle of his remaining

pursuers closed in. The first Agent punched Roman in the chest, only to retract his

hand, shaking it from the collision with the makeshift body army under Roman’s

fatigues. The agents adapted, aiming their fists and feet at Roman’s head and legs.

    It was the same dance as before all over again—Roman ducking, blocking, and

getting his own offensive blows in during the few split-second windows of

opportunity. As many times as I’d seen it, it was still amazing—how two arms and

two legs could block and duck the attack of so many. Roman could sense their

swings coming—dealing with the ones in front of him with his eyes and dealing

with ones in back of him without ever turning to look.

Stenworth looked at Agent Johnson.

    “I told you he was good,” Johnson said.

    “Yes he is.” Stenworth reached into his suit coat and produced a taser.

     He walked toward the fight in front of him.

    Two Agents grabbed Roman’s arms and held him as Stenworth charged in

with his high-voltage device. Roman struggled to free himself but failed. Blue

electricity sparked between the silver poles in the taser. Just before Stenworth

placed it against his neck, Roman jumped onto the unconscious body of one of the

agents. The two agents continued to restrain him by the arms.

    Stenworth held the zapper against Roman’s neck, but he did not convulse.

Instead the two agents holding him jerked and spasmed. Roman had grounded

himself somehow by placing his feet on the unconscious agent so that the current

passed through him and his arms, into the two agents restraining him.

    Before Stenworth realized he shocking his own men, Roman lifted one leg

in the air and launched a succession of quick kicks . The first kick connected with

Stenworth’s stomach, the second with his taser, and the third with his nose. The

taser flew through the air and landed in the grass. The current stopped and the

agents on Romans arms fell to the ground like robots unplugged from their power

source.

    Stenworth picked his broken glasses from his face and felt his nose, which

was broken and badly disfigured to the right side of his face. He squeezed it

between his index finger and thumb, popping the cartilage as closely as possible

back to a straight position.

    The remaining agents descended on Roman again, only to be met with a

flurry of his feet and fists. Agent Johnson ran to one of the vans, opened its sliding

door, and produced a strange-looking rifle. Attached to the side of the gun were

several balls. He flipped up the sight on top of the rifle, looking through it, and

walking towards the battle. He stopped about twenty feet away and waited.

    The window of opportunity opened—the battle separated briefly,

untangling Roman from the agents and placing him dead center in Johnson’s scope

with his arms momentarily down. The rifle fired and through the air spun a rope

with a ball at each of its ends. The rope hit Roman and wrapped around his torso,

binding his arms to his sides. Johnson fired again, this time bagging Roman’s

ankles. Legs bound tightly together, Roman fell to the ground like a toppled

monument. The fighting was over, the grunts and punches of battle gone. All was

silent.

    I turned my head to look around for my fellow classmates. In the

excitement and panic they must have taken off—cuffs and all—into the woods.

I’m not sure how far they would get not being able to use their arms. All that

remained were Heather and I, and the unconscious Jack and Johnny.

Four agents walked over to Roman, picked him up by the cabled ropes that

imprisoned him, and headed for the vans like they were carrying a large piece of

luggage. I saw no struggle from Roman—the cables were too strong—and he lay

horizontally in the air, carried at arms and ankles like a mummy. Two Agents

opened the double doors on one of the vans. I got to my feet awkwardly because

of the handcuffs and as they carted Roman by I put a stiff shoulder into one of the

men. He brushed me off like I was a fly and I fell backwards to the ground.

    “Roman!” Heather shrieked.

    There was a grunt from Roman, as if to acknowledge her and at the same

time show his frustration at being captured. Heather struggled to her feet and ran

at the agents with arms cuffed behind her.. I don’t know what she thought she was

going to do—and she probably didn’t either. Sometimes there is no rational

thought when you want something so badly. Sometimes there is only hope.

    Heather threw herself at one of the agents holding Roman. Her slight

body didn’t budge or even unbalance him. She twisted her shoulders back and

forth, trying to break the handcuffs binding her. When all her efforts had failed,

she began cursing the agents at the top of her lungs. An agent pushed her to the

ground. Heather hit but sprung back up, as if her adrenaline had turned the hard

ground into a trampoline. She charged again only to be met by a strong

backhanded. She hit the ground and lay again with her face in the dirt.

    Agent Johnson walked over and scooped her up, standing her back up in a

vertical position. He wiped the mud from her eyes. There was a deep hacking

noise in Heather’s throat, and she returned the Agent’s gesture of kindness by

spitting in his eye. The snot/spit stuck to Johnson for a second and then dribbled

down his cheek. He wiped the mucous from his face.

    “This isn’t how you treat people,” Heather said. “Making them do things

against their will. Roman’s a good person and you want to warp him into

something he’s not.”

    “We’re good people too, Ms. Hawthorne,” Johnson said. “You’re not

seeing the big picture.”

    “To Hell with your big picture. I hope he ends up killing every last one of

you.”

    Johnson didn’t respond. He only nodded to the men still holding Roman,

and they slid him into the van.

    The agents started to close the van doors but were stopped short by a loud

gun-blast that echoed from the house that in all directions. The bullet was shot

straight into the air as a warning or an attention-getter. Or both. The bullet came

from one of two forty-four magnums in the hands of a man also dressed in

camouflage. But his camouflage was everyday attire: hat, boots, and all. The man

who held his silver six-shooter in the air was none other than Carl Stumot.

   “The boy is not to be taken. They say,” Carl said.

    The flaps of his gentleman’s cap covered the tops of his ears. His green

army coat hung down past his waist and the whiskers of his beard were held

together below his chin by a band. The silver pistols glimmered in the sunlight as

they hung down at his side. Wherever Carl had been for the last month, he seemed

to be in top form.

    “I don’t believe it,” I mumbled to myself.

   “What now?” Agent Stenworth said and then laughed.

   “Mr. Swivel’s neighbor,” Johnson replied, “Don’t know much about

him.”

   “Who are you and who is the ‘they’ you refer to?” Stenworth asked.

   “Carl Stumot I am. And they…” Carl looked into the woods behind him,

“are they.”

   “Stumot…Stumot…” Agent Johnson thought out loud. “As in Colonel

Stumot?”

   “Aye, ’tis Colonel Stumot.” Carl nodded his head.

   “Ninja sat under him in Korea,” Johnson whispered to Stenworth.

   “I think you’ve found yourself in the wrong war, old man,” Stenworth

said.

   A few of the agents laughed under their breath at Stenworth’s comment.

Their humor was cut short by a bullet piercing the forehead of the agent standing

directly beside Stenworth. The shot killed him immediately and he fell to the

ground with the smile still stuck to his face. The remaining agents unsheathed

their guns in unison.

   “No, ’tis the right war Carl is in,” Carl said shaking his head.

    “Hold your fire,” Stenworth ordered his troops. “Our fight is not with

you, Colonel. This doesn’t involve you.”

   “Nor has it ever been with Carl, just all around him. I am here for the

boy. They say he is to be freed.”

   Stenworth shook his head in frustration. “Who in God’s name are they?

Who is giving you orders?”

    Carl pointed with the barrel of one of his guns toward the woods. “They.”

Everyone including myself looked into the woods and its outlying areas. I

squinted to see something—an alien maybe—but only shadows filled the gaps

between the trees of the forest.

    “I don’t have time for this nonsense,” Stenworth said as he fired his gun.

    The rest of the agents followed their commander, emptying round after

round at the crazy colonel. Carl raised both of his pistols and returned the gesture,

making no effort to find cover. Heather ran behind the van, and I followed. The

agent, whom Carl had just disposed of, lay next to us at the rear wheel of the van.

Huddled over, hands still cuffed behind her back, Heather went to the body and sat

sideways on the man’s stomach.

   “What the hell are you doing?” I demanded.

    “If they’ve all got cuffs, they’ve all got keys. Help me out here.”

    I waddled over to the corpse and we sat, backs to each other, while I

helped her pat down the body. Rummaging over a dead body is one thing, but

doing it with your hands behind your back is hardly appealing. There was a

circular object attached to his belt—something like a small tape measure—and a

pair of keys hung from it. My hands groped their way blindly up his leg towards

the belt, grabbing his dead private area before I reached the keys.

    “Gross,” I whined.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Let’s just say I’m probably the only man alive besides a mortician that

has felt up a dead guy.”

    “Do you have it or not?”

    “Got it.” I pulled on the keys, which were connected by some sort of

retractable string to the object on the man’s belt. After several attempts at

unlocking Heather’s cuffs I finally got it in the hole so to speak. Heather discarded

her cuffs and unlocked me a lot quicker than I had her. The gunfire had stopped.

    I peeked around the edge of the van, almost certain I’d see Carl lying in a

pool of his own blood. But I was mistaken. Carl was still standing in the exact

same spot. Mr. Buttworst’s windows were shot out and I could see the outline of

Carl’s form on the house in bullet holes. As the warm May breeze kicked up, both

sides of his green jacket flowed in the wind, exposing fifty or so bullet holes. The

sunlight showed through those little empty spheres, and for a second Carl in his

coat looked like an angel with wings. Not one bullet appeared to have hit him.

    Carl stood there reloading his six-shooters one bullet at time. He was some time-warped

version of a cowboy, living through high noon without a second thought of

luck.

    I looked at the ground to find it littered with more NN bodies. There were

now only eleven agents still on their feet. Heather pulled on my sleeve. I followed

her as quietly as I could behind the agents and we snuck into the van that housed

our friend. I watched out the back of the van as we began unwrapping Roman’s

arms and ankles. The process was slow—the cables were wound tightly around

him—and we had to literally unroll his body one turn at a time to get them off.

   “Impossible,” Stenworth said. “There’s no way we could all miss that

many times.” Stenworth pressed the button on the handle of his gun and a small

red laser dot appeared on Carl’s forehead right between his eyes. Stenworth held it

there for a second to make sure he was on target and then pulled the trigger. Carl’s

hat flew off, shredded into a million pieces by the bullet. And as Carl continued to

load his pistols, feathers fell to the ground around him, like snow in winter.

   “Ha! Maybe your goddamn gun is bent,” Carl said.

Stenworth put his gun back in its holster under his armpit. “Apprehend

him before he gets his guns loaded,” he ordered.

   “What’s happening?” Roman asked.

   “I don’t know,” I replied. “Carl just took out half of the agents; they shot

back at him but never hit him once. It’s like magic. Now they’re all charging

him.”

   “I have to help him,” Roman said.

   “Just a couple more turns,” Heather said.

   The eleven Agents—including Johnson and Stenworth—were on Carl in

seconds, throwing punches and kicks not to restrain him as they had with Roman,

but to kill him. Carl blocked and maneuvered with a grace I had seen only in

Roman, landing a few good licks of his own here and there. Stenworth pulled his

gun at point blank range and squeezed the trigger. There was nothing. No bang.

    No click. No silenced pluck. Nothing. It was like the gun refused to fire.

Stenworth reached down to his ankle, lifted his pant leg, and pulled a dagger from

its sheath.

    Roman was free of the cables now, and he jumped from the back of the

van like he’d been shot out of a canon. He ran with a speed I’d never seen, even

out of him. He was at the battle instantly.

   “Let’s see if you can dodge this,” Stenworth said, throwing the dagger at

Carl.

   “No!” Roman screamed as he flew through the air and tackled Agent

Stenworth.

   It was too late. Carl’s luck—or magic—had run out. The knife toppled

end over end through the air, sunlight glinting off it as it went. The blade went

dark as it slid into the front of Carl’s throat. Carl made a gagging sound. He put

his hands up to his neck and fell backwards to the ground. Roman ran over to him,

touching his chest and then the knife, settling finally on just holding Carl’s hand.

   For once Roman didn’t have the answer. He couldn’t save his friend. There was a

gurgling sound in Carl’s throat as if he was trying to tell his young friend one last

piece of wisdom. Carl’s smiled, winked, and then died there on the ground in front

of Buttworst’s house.

   An agent lunged for Roman, only to have his scrotum smashed by

Roman’s heel. The Agent fell to the ground convulsing from the pain. Another

came only to have his fingers snapped backwards to his wrist. Another’s knee was

buckled. An ear ripped off. An eye pushed into its skull. At the end of Roman’s

fury stood Stenworth.

    Roman charged him, only to be stopped by a knee to the ribs from Agent

Johnson. Roman fell to the ground holding his chest, the wind knocked completely

out of him. He charged Stenworth again only to be slammed to the ground by

Agent Johnson once more.

   “Face it kid. You’re only prolonging the inevitable,” Stenworth said.

   “How many people are going to have to die before you come to your senses?”

   “I don’t know,” Roman responded. “How many do you have?”

   “How about this one?” Stenworth said.

   A second later I was on my back holding my side. The son of a bitch shot

me. I remember lying there looking up at the sun, not really in pain, more pissed

off than anything. I just couldn’t believe he shot me. What a fucking coward.

   Roman kicked the gun out of Stenworth’s hand and just stood there, the

circuits in his brain working their formulas and strategies. The rest of the agents

that Roman had bulldozed through were slowly getting to their feet and my friend

started to take a few slow steps back toward the woods. “If you want me, you’re

going to have come and get me,” he said. And with that Roman disappeared into

the tree line. The eleven agents who were still able to followed him in.

VIII

    Heather ripped off my shirt and rolled me onto my side. She pressed

around the wound examining me like a doctor would. I think her prodding was

more painful than the actual bullet hitting me. “It’s just a flesh wound,” she said.

    “What the hell does that mean?”

   “It means the bullet just grazed you, ripped the skin some but didn’t

penetrate.”

   Heather tore a strip from the bottom of her dress all the way around then

helped me to my feet. She tore one of my sleeves off, wadded it into a ball, and

placed it against the wound. She wrapped the torn-dress bandage around my

stomach so my compress was secured, and then tied it.

   “Now what?” I asked.

   “Now we help Roman end this once and for all.”

   “Easier said than done blondie.”

   Heather jogged over to one of the dead agents and pried the gun out of his

hand. Her sundress was unraveling at the bottom, smudged with dirt and mud, and

her hair looked as if she had just woken up. She could have been straight out of

the trailer park, but I knew better. No matter what the circumstances or how she

looked her beauty always showed through. Was it beauty or courage? Maybe

sometimes they were one and the same. In that instant I knew why Roman went to

such extraordinary circumstances to be with her, why he risked so much.

   “Move it,” Heather ordered, snapping me out of my trance.

   “I don’t know about bringing the gun,” I said, jogging behind her into the

forest.

   “I don’t know either. But we’re bringing it.”

   We jogged along a trail covered with dead leaves. It was a route that Mr.

Buttworst used on his hunting expeditions and it was no wider than a foot. I’m

sure in the fall and winter it was more visible but now plants and vegetation grew

up on both sides, making it as narrow as a bicycle tire.

   Heather ran at a good clip in front of me. I wanted to think she was so far

ahead because of the painful wound in my side, but let’s face it, Heather could run

laps around me on my best day. You don’t keep up with people that run at 6 AM

every day unless you do it yourself. She seemed to sense my lagging and slowed

down the pace against her better wishes. The trail split into a Y ahead of us.

   “Which way?” she asked, not missing a breath.

   “Right.”

   “Are you sure?”

   “Positive. I know where he’s taking them.”

   Our marathon continued and as we got deeper into the forest, although we

couldn’t see them, we could hear them, the dry leaves and twigs snapping under

their shoes, and the whispers of voices into earpieces. The trail started to descend,

and I knew we were close now. I told Heather to stop and led her off the path into

the brush. We walked to a drop off and spread the leaves in front of us. Roman

stood at the bottom of the hill. His path to freedom had turned into a dead end.

   Behind him was a huge rock out-cropping at least a hundred feet high and just as

wide, something the glaciers of a million years ago had placed there to stop him.

In front of him stood a wall of NN Agents, some holding their sides, some even

doubled over from shortness of breath. Roman seemed to be unaffected by his

sprint through the woods. He was calm and his stance was nonchalant, like he’d

just finished strolling through the woods to watch birds.

   Heather took two steps before I grabbed her shoulder. “He doesn’t need

us. Not yet anyway. Just trust me.” I took the gun out of her hand in case she got

trigger-happy and placed it between my belt and my back. I glanced down at my

side to see the crimson spot on my shirt growing bigger than before.

   One by one the NN Agents produced their handcuffs, waiting in

anticipation for the order from their commander. Stenworth fidgeted with his

glasses, the lenses of which were long gone. He seemed to be preoccupied with

bending at least the frames back to how they had been before meeting Roman’s

foot. The entire situation was just another day of business in the work of the NN.

Johnson was not so passive. He looked at Roman and then around at the

landscape, trying to read his nemesis’s plans.

   Stenworth spoke. “This is where it all ends, Mr. Swivel. I am curious

however as to what is going through that mind of yours right now. What does a

genius think at a time like this, in a situation there is no way out of, in a problem

that can’t be solved? Does he go into denial because deep down he thinks there is

no such thing as an unsolvable problem?”

   Roman answered immediately. “No, he thinks that at the beginning of the

day thirty agents tried to obtain him but only eleven are left. He thinks that no

matter who those agents are or who they work for, in the end they’re just overrated

grunts doing somebody else’s dirty work, taking orders from a man who has made

the cardinal sin of warfare: never ever underestimate your opponent. He thinks

that if those agents come at him one more time every last one of them will be

committing suicide.”

    Agent Johnson scanned the tree line again, turning in a complete circle

this time, searching for something, anything that might indicate an ambush. He

looked up at the rock wall behind Roman, but saw nothing his nemesis could use to

his advantage.

   Stenworth smiled. “You overestimate your abilities.”

   Roman raised his fists and spread his feet to a fighting stance. “There’s

only one way to find out. Bring your out-of-date agents and see what the future

holds.”

   “So be it.”

   That wasn’t exactly a direct order but the NN charged anyway, mostly out

of anger I suppose, at Roman belittling them and their commander. Their angry

steps lasted only a few seconds. The dead leaves beneath their feet gave way,

sending them to their doom. Large wooden spikes—tree trunks and large limbs—

sharpened into spears awaited them at the bottom of the short pit. Stenworth

teetered on the edge of the pit only to be pulled back to safety by Agent Johnson.

   The rest of the agents fell, and fell hard. It sounded much like a butcher shop—

first the dull slice of the blade into the animal’s carcass and then the splattering and

splashing of its guts on the floor. It impaled the majority immediately, poking

somewhere through the lower end of them and then exiting out the neck, sternum,

or mouth-nose area. The spikes had such a large diameter that upon penetration

the blood poured out like pressurized water from a fire hose. One unfortunate

agent did not die instantly. Instead his fall landed him horizontally, his torso

somehow missing the spikes. His four limbs however were harpooned in a

mangled mess. Agent Stenworth silenced the agent’s agony with his gun.

   I had commented to Roman just weeks ago that it felt like we were

digging a grave. For once I was right. Of course I wasn’t there for the sharpening

of the trees or the covering of the hole with the leaves and vines. I found myself

following Heather down the hill toward Roman, at first running and then sliding.

The shrubs and branches tore into my side something fierce on the way down. I

remember thinking how lucky I was to have that little slit rather than a big one like

the agents in the bottom of Roman’s pit.

   Roman walked heel to toe along the narrow walkway of ground between

the pit and the rock wall behind him. He walked around the edge of the pit and

was now face to face with Johnson and Stenworth.

   “You just killed some of the best soldiers in this country, men I have

served with, some for more than a decade,” Stenworth said.

   “I killed no one. I even warned them that coming after me one more time

would be suicide. You killed them by not taking my advice.”

   “Johnson,” Stenworth said, “you never said anything about him being such

a smug little prick.”

   Johnson didn’t respond. He took off his suit coat, folded it neatly, and

placed it on the ground.

   Stenworth charged Roman. Two rights, a left, two kicks, a roundhouse.

   Despite his slight demeanor, Stenworth packed a quick and powerful punch, and

even though he was relatively the same size as Roman he seemed to be stronger.

   Roman blocked every one of his attacks.

   Johnson walked around Roman and now there was a man to deal with both

in front of and behind him. Stenworth took a step forward only to be kicked in the

stomach. Without putting his foot back on the ground, Roman kicked behind him

at Johnson’s knee. The bigger agent blocked the kick.

   Heather and I made our way down and stopped fifty feet from the

standoff. She grabbed for the gun in my belt but I slapped her hand away. The

bright sunlit spots that had poked through the top of the forest earlier were gone

and now the tops of the trees swayed back and forth, exposing dark almost purple

storm clouds overhead. There was a loud sound like rushing water and the wind

tore through the leaves of the forest. The cool breath of Mother Earth seemed to

drop the temperature twenty degrees instantly. I could hear the beginning drops of

the storm tap on the canopy of leaves overhead. I thought about how beautiful the

beginning of that day had been, a day so full of hope and possibilities. The

approaching storm put a final exclamation point on a downward spiral. Thunder

cracked in the distance.

   Roman defended himself from the hands and feet of the last two agents,

slipping one of his lightning-fast jabs in from time to time. But the experience of

his opponents began to show. They were just toying with him—Johnson would

attack with a quick assault only to back away and let Stenworth finish it, one agent

regaining his strength while the other dealt with Roman.

   Roman had already exhausted a great deal of his energy on the rest of the

NN. Now he was fighting the best of that broken unit. Roman started to make

mistakes. Roman tried to throw a punch only to have his nose smashed in by

Stenworth’s fist. A kick from Johnson buckled his knee. Roman stopped himself

from hitting the ground with his hand, but Stenworth swept it out from beneath

him. Roman was on his back now and Johnson jumped, hoping to land on his

smaller opponent. Roman rolled away and the giant landed on all fours.

   There wasn’t enough time in a fight like this to use your hands to get up.

Roman did a whipping motion with his entire body—something like doing the

worm on a dance floor—his feet hi the ground sending the rest of his body to a

vertical position. Stenworth kicked him in the stomach sending Roman back a

couple of feet doubled over in pain. There was a loud cracking sound to the kick—

the body armor over Roman’s chest and stomach must have broken. He coughed

and a bloody mist sprayed the air in front of him.

    Unsatisfied, Stenworth continued with a series of fists to his face, beating

Roman down until he was on his knees. Roman’s torso swayed back and forth

from delirium. Stenworth unsnapped the handcuffs off his belt and opened them in

one fluid action.

   Before I could stop her, Heather pulled the gun from behind my back,

fiddled with safety, and then began firing at Stenworth. I couldn’t see where the

bullets were flying, but I knew where they weren’t. Heather was shooting up

everything in the forest except her target.

   Agent Johnson pulled out his gun calmly and aimed at her. “Drop it.”

   There was no doubt in my mind that Agent Johnson meant what he said

and would not miss if he fired. There was equally no doubt in my mind that

    Heather would never drop the weapon. I did the only thing I could think of. I

grabbed her hands and pulled the weapon away. She ran towards Roman. I tucked

the gun behind my back and followed her.

    Roman took advantage of the brief confusion and knocked the cuffs out of

Stenworth’s hand. They flew a good twenty feet and landed in the pit. Stenworth

pulled out his gun and stuck it against Roman’s forehead.

   Johnson tried to grab Heather as she ran by him but only grasped a handful

of her dress. A section of it tore around her stomach, but it failed to slow her

down. She jumped on Stenworth’s back, locked her arms around his neck, and

squeezed with all her might.

    Where Johnson had failed to stop Heather, he succeeded with me, catching

me on the neck with his forearm. My head hit the forest floor and I swear it

bounced like a basketball. I watched through blurry eyes as Stenworth grabbed

Heather by the hair and slammed her to the ground. The collision literally knocked

the fight out of Heather and now Stenworth held her by the back of her head and

stuck his pistol to her temple.

   “Even better,” he said. “Now Mr. Swivel you are going to put the

handcuffs on yourself, or I’m going to blow her brains out the side of her pretty

little head.”

    Johnson walked towards them and produced his handcuffs—the last pair I

imagined.

    Roman was still on his knees, barely able to maintain his posture. The

green and brown camouflage of his clothing now looked almost black from the

sweat and blood that saturated it. His eyes were swollen almost completely shut

from the last of Stenworth’s beatings, and blood flowed down his face in several

thin streams. The rain came down despite the shelter of the trees and although it

was dark, I could see in the lightning flashes, Roman holding out both of his limp

arms.

    “Don’t do it, Roman.” Heather stole the words right out of my head.

    It was too late; Johnson clasped the cuffs around Roman’s wrists. It

sounded like a jail cell slamming shut. Stenworth backhanded Roman across the

face sending him backwards into the mud. Roman was finally down on his back,

and for the first time, was not getting up.

   Stenworth grabbed Heather by the hair and dragged her toward the pit of

spikes.

   “What are you doing?” Johnson demanded.

   “I want him to know what it feels like to loose people you care about. Just

like he killed our friends,” Stenworth said as he approached the pit.

   “Have you gone you mad? We have him. That was our objective. There

is nothing in our orders about killing innocent teenagers.”

   Stenworth proceeded as if Johnson had not spoken, now pushing Heather

in front of him. She tried to wiggle her way free but Stenworth was too strong. At

the edge of the pit as he was about to push Heather in, Johnson grabbed

Stenworth’s arm. Heather swerved away from the edge of the pit and retreated a

couple of steps.

   “Do I have to remind you that I’m in charge here?” Stenworth said.

   “I’m relieving you of your duties,” Johnson said as he let him go. “You

are not thinking clearly. We have met our objective and now its time to call the

chopper and go home.”

   Before Stenworth could respond, Heather kneed him in the nuts. His feet

slipped in the mud beneath him as if he were trying to balance himself on a sheet

of ice. Johnson grabbed for him again, but this time Stenworth fell into the pit.

   The spike he landed on entered the back of his skull and stuck through where his

face used to be.

   I got to my feet. The dizziness in my eyes was replaced with annoying

raindrops. Roman was still on his back in the mud. Johnson and Heather stared

down at the pit, neither of them able to believe what had just happened. This

might be my only opportunity to save Roman. I pulled the gun from behind my

back and looked at it.

    I’d been shooting before—hunting with my uncles and cousins and target

practice at old coffee cans at the abandoned mine—but a marksman I was not.

And this wasn’t the movies where every bullet fired seemed to find someone to

hit. I searched my memories to recall the last time I had even held a gun besides

today. Johnson was only thirty yards away but the pressure was definitely on me.

    Heather had fired god knows how many shots earlier and there was no time to see

how many bullets I had left. I told myself to just keep pulling the trigger until it

didn’t fire any more.

    I closed one eye and raised the gun. Johnson was right in the line of sight

but Heather was just beside him. If I screamed for her to move Johnson would be

onto me and probably cut me down where I stood. I waited. The two of them

didn’t move, like they were at a casket paying their last respects—Johnson out of

shock for the loss of his friend and Heather because she had just killed someone.

Finally she snapped out of it, noticing Roman on the ground, unmoving.

She ran over to him and lifted his head from the mud, wiping the dirt and grime

from his face. Roman coughed up blood.

    It was now or never. Johnson’s chest was in line with my barrel. I pulled

the trigger as fast as I could. Three bullets fired from the chamber and then only

clicks. The first two did nothing but alert the giant agent. Johnson tried to jump

out of the way but the third bullet stung him and he fell to the ground holding his

right thigh. Johnson managed to pull his gun from its holster, aimed it at me, and

then dropped it with a grimace of pain on his face.

    Heather had Roman on his feet by the time I got to them. We grabbed him

under the armpits—Heather on the right and me on the left. It would’ve been

easier if Roman’s hands hadn’t been cuffed, but we ran anyway, pulling our friend

between us, his feet scraping the ground. The only thought in my head was to get

as far away from Johnson as possible. At two hundred yards in the clear we

stopped out of exhaustion. Dragging Roman’s dead weight—even though he was

relatively light—gave us the workout of a lifetime. The blood that covered me

now from my armpit to my waist wasn’t helping matters either.

    The trail we ran down now was wider than the previous bicycle path had

been. It was wide, flat, and no foliage hung over it. The trail was all that remained

of an old railroad line that Union Pacific had once run. The iron rail was long

gone, only the rotting wooden ties littered the side of the trail.

    Roman regained enough strength to stand on his own and seemed to be

getting his second wind. I was doubled over from cramps in my legs and stomach.

Heather was looking down the long trail at Agent Johnson. He was ripping long

strips out of his shirt, tying them around his thigh just below the crotch area.

Agent Johnson was on his feet and hobbling at a good pace straight toward us.

    “Which way should we go? Should we get off this trail and take our

chances through the woods?” I asked.

    Roman looked through the swollen lids of his eyes, first at the giant agent

he had seen so many times running after him, then in the other direction. “If a train

used to travel this route, the trail has to come out somewhere. Do you still have the

keys to the cuffs?”

   I reached in my pocket and then remembered. “The keys were on a chain

on a dead agent’s belt. I didn’t even think to take them off.”

   “What about trying to break them off somehow?” Heather suggested.

    “There’s no time,” Roman responded.

    Agent Johnson was less than a hundred yards away.

   We took off down the trail again. Roman lagged a couple of yards behind

us, but at least he could run on his own. It’s not easy to run without your arms and

Roman lost his balance several times, tripping over a fallen branch or stepping into

a small hole. We picked him up each time and dragged him until he got his feet

back beneath him.

    Eventually there was a hole in the forest wall, the exit that Roman was

sure would be there. It wasn’t like coming out of a cave, when the light ahead

became brighter and more apparent. The storm had darkened things so much I

think outside the forest was blacker than inside.

    We were greeted at the exit with a rush of wind that almost blew us right

back into the woods. The rain came at us sideways, a horizontal bombardment of

cold water that stung when it hit the face. In front of us was a broken-down

suspension bridge a hundred yards long. The iron skeleton of the structure was

still there—a rusted blue color—but the tracks and railroad ties were missing.

Straight down the middle of the bridge there was literally nothing, but to both sides

there were three feet of walkway that was probably meant for people. The bridge

stood at least a hundred and fifty feet above the Hobè River. The thunder was close

now, and I swore a bolt of lightning hit not three feet in front of us. It was almost

like God was telling us to turn around.

    But we couldn’t turn around. Agent Johnson would be on us in a matter of

seconds.

    “Walk as far away from the middle as you can, and make sure to hold on

to the beams,” Roman said.

    Heather went first, me second, and then Roman. There was plenty of

room on the walkway; the only problem was that the wood was a couple hundred

years old and it had probably been that long since it was maintained. I could feel

the planks stretch under my feet. They were soft from rotting and could break at

any moment. I held onto the iron beams and refused to look down at the violent

water below. After about a thousand baby steps Heather and I were near the end.

    It dawned on me then that Roman had not said a word from behind me. I turned

around.

    Roman stood about halfway between us and the other side, throwing off

the broken body armor as well as he could with his cuffed hands, shifting his

weight on the floor of the bridge as if he were testing to see which planks were

most likely to break.

    “What’s he doing?” Heather asked, starting back for him.

    I grabbed her arm, not sure why. Roman had become part of me over the

last nine months, a brother. After all it’s not the blood that runs through our veins

that makes us family, but the life we share.

    Roman had his back to us. “Stay back,” he shouted. “I’ve got an idea.”

    “Please Roman, just come this way, come with us,” Heather pleaded.

    “Don’t let her come this way, Tony,” Roman yelled over the rage of the

storm.

   “Let me go!” she said, twisting as I grabbed for her other arm.

   “He’s got to finish this, Heather.”

   The tougher-than-nails woman began to cry. She was human after all. I

put my arms around her and hugged her. But I think the gesture was more for me

than for her.

   Agent Johnson appeared out of the woods, almost dragging his injured

leg. He would take a step with his good leg and then swing his other leg forward

by using his hips. He surveyed the decaying bridge, mulling it over with

suspicious eyes and trying to read the battered face in front of him. Johnson

stepped onto the walkway. He probably thought the same thing Roman did. It was

something that had to be done.

    Johnson stopped about ten feet away from Roman and glanced down. The

rain pounded both of them and the ironwork of the bridge creaked under the

persistent high wind. Johnson leaned toward the railing, trying to take the weight

off his wounded leg. He produced his cell phone, pushed only one digit, and held

it up toward the sky like an antenna.

   “You’ve outdone yourself, Roman. Don’t you understand how valuable

you are?”

   Roman didn’t respond.

   “You are beaten, Roman. In minutes reinforcements will be here. There

are no trains coming by for you to jump on this time. It’s just you and me on a

bridge. You’re coming with me.”

   “You need medical attention.” Roman responded.

   Johnson pulled the Kimber from the holster under his arm. In the same

motion he shot Roman in the leg, just above the knee. “I guess that makes us

even,” Johnson said.

    Roman buckled down to one knee. There were no screams from the

former janitor, not even a look of surprise.

   I could hear something in the distance, a low humming noise. I looked

down the length of the river to see the NN helicopter almost skimming the water.

   It was the same one that watched over us at school and it was on us now in

seconds. At the bridge it ascended, trying to hover above Roman and Johnson,

tossing back and forth in the high winds.

    The aircraft was black, colorless, and blended into the backdrop of the

storm-filled sky. Its contours looked more like the construction of the stealth

bomber than any helicopter I’d ever seen. A door opened from the bottom, and

from it a cable lowered. The cable stopped when it hit the bridge next to Johnson’s

feet. The rush of the wind coupled with the blades of the copter made for difficult

small talk.

   “Time’s up, my friend.” Johnson shouted.

   Roman struggled to his feet. Somehow he was able to stand on his bullettorn

leg. His hair blew to the left as if someone had a hair dryer next to his head.

   He yelled back. “I’ll never fight for the NN.”

   Johnson grabbed the cable next to him, as if to steady himself from the

wind and his weak leg. “My mission is to bring you in. There are others that will

deal with your reluctance. You underestimate our scientists, young Roman.”

    Roman stared at the agent standing just feet from him. He looked at the

helicopter hovering above, at the floor of the bridge, and then turned around to us.

    The wind almost knocked him over but he balanced himself just before collapse.

    He looked through the swollen slits that used to be his eyes. And although

I couldn’t see the brown in them from that far away, I could read everything I

needed to know by the expression on his face. It was a look of gratitude. A look

of love and friendship. But most of all it was good-bye. The bullet graze on my

side was no match for the sickness I now felt in the pit of my stomach.

   Heather knew as well. “Please, Roman,” she whispered. And then

screamed through the roaring wind. “Please, Roman. No!”

   She fell into me, and I caught her and held her close.

   In spite of his bruised eyes, he winked, a gesture that only Roman could

make at a time like this. Something that was supposed to comfort her. But we

both knew better.

   Roman turned back toward Johnson, closed his eyes, raised his cuffed

hands above his head, and jumped off the bridge. The wind seemed to grab him

and Roman floated off the bridge. He made no contorted twists with his body or

any effort to brace for the impact with the raging river far below. Roman’s posture

was limp as he fell, something like a long overdue sleep, and as he plunged into the

rushing water, Roman seemed to be at peace.

    Johnson hobbled to the edge of the bridge, looking for any sign of this boy

and man he had chased for so long. And when there was none, without hesitation,

the giant agent dove off the bridge himself.

    There was nothing but black water and its white peaks below. The

helicopter dropped back down to its wave-skimming position and combed the

length of the river several times. After no success it floated back up to bridge

level, its tinted black windows seeming to look Heather and I over for several

seconds, as if we were somehow hiding Roman. Finally convinced, it flew off into

the distance and was gone as quickly as it had come.

IX

    I’d like to tell you that that day in May ended on a happy note. That the

sun came out and Heather and I scampered down the river bank and found Roman

lying there unscathed. That we brushed him off, took him to graduation, and he

gave his valedictorian speech to the patiently awaiting crowd. All of that of course

would be a lie. We never found Roman on the side of the Hobè River or anywhere

else for that matter.

   There was a memorial service two weeks later when all search efforts had

been exhausted. More than two thousand people came to pay their respects.

Roman knew nowhere near that many people, but somehow his legend had touched

them. Heather refused to go to it. She said memorials were for the dead and

Roman was no such thing. I think it was because she physically couldn’t go

through it.

   Mr. Buttworst, instead of calling the authorities about the dead men

littering his lawn decided to haul them with his tractor down to Roman’s pit, put

them with the others and bury them all together. There was one body out of that

group that Mr. Buttworst did not bury, however, because the body was no longer

there. The body of Carl Stumot was nowhere to be found. Only the dagger was

present. The crazy old man had managed without prior knowledge to not only

show up at the battle at Buttworst’s, but he had also disappeared after dying.

People ask me how he did it. I tell them the truth, that I don’t know. When they

don’t buy that, I tell them aliens were involved. That seems to satisfy them.

X

August

    I sat on Roman’s porch steps looking at Carl’s house across the street. In

the last three months I’d become a caretaker of sorts. In between classes and

baseball practice I found time every few days to check up on the houses. I dusted

the walls that were Roman’s baseball cards and even kept the bees in Carl’s

basement alive. I owed them both that much I suppose. Part of me showed up

there in hope that maybe they’d come back. That maybe Roman didn’t meet his

end at the bottom of that river and maybe Carl really did cheat the thin blade of

death.

   It was always easy to reminisce on those steps. When that hot August

breeze touched my hair, I always thought of Roman, of how he walked home from

school with his head tilted toward the sky with not a care in the world. It seemed

so odd at the time. But now it made perfect sense. We should all be thankful for

the wind in our face.

   A red Mustang pulled up in front of the house. The blond that exited it

was a friend I had talked to very little in the last few months. I think we reminded

each other of Roman, so in our grief we made some unspoken pact to avoid each

other.

   I stood as she made her way up the walk and hugged her when she got to

me. I felt her slow tears against my cheek and her tight grip around my chest. We

sat down together and did not speak for several minutes. Heather kept my arm

around her and rested her head on my shoulder.

   The buoyant and bouncing ball of energy was long gone. Heather was

pale, skinny, and looked ten years older. I knew exactly how she felt.

   “I’ve puked every day since he’s been gone. Every time the phone or

doorbell rings I race to see if he’s there. To hear his voice. I sleep in his flannel

hoping that his smell never fades away. I play our conversations over in my head

for the same reason. My mother’s worried I’m going insane. Roman said that time

dulls the pain. I was beginning to understand what he meant. But last week in my

dorm room, that Evanescence song “My Immortal” played on the radio. Do you

know the one I’m talking about?”

   “Yes.”

   “That goddamn song follows me wherever I go. Elevators, restaurants,

bars, it tortures me. Anyway in my room I finally had enough, threw my pillow at

the radio and knocked it off the shelf it was on. It took the shelf below with it, and

smashed two of my dolls into a million pieces. It was the cheerleader from my

grandma and the doctor Roman gave me for Christmas. I left the mess and went

home for the weekend. I think I’m going crazy, Tony.”

   “I don’t understand.”

   Heather reached into the purse behind her and pulled out two fully intact

ceramic dolls, a cheerleader and a doctor. They dangled from her hand, both with

little string lassos around their waists.

 

 

 

           


 

 

 

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