by Michael Kingswood
The slide of Jack’s Glock locked to the rear, his magazine empty. He reached for another one, only to find his pouches of spare magazines empty.
He was plum out of ammo.
There were at least two men left of the team that had come after him; the sounds of their movements gave them away, and right before he had shot off his last two rounds he’d heard one call out to the other.
There was no chance his final shots had hit anything; he had fired them blindly, around the corner of the marble column he was crouched behind. Just suppressing fire, to keep their heads down so he could move again. Except that now he was flesh out of ammo, and just as pinned down as he had been a moment ago.
And how did he let that become a surprise?
Jack had undergone extensive training over the years, and he’d learned early to keep track of his rounds fired so he’d know exactly what he had left.
But this op had gone so badly, so quickly…
It was supposed to be simple. Bring a bundle of cash to the drop off and swap it for the merchandise. What merchandise, Jack didn’t know and didn’t care. He was a courier, nothing more, working on a contractual basis, and he never asked what was in the package he had been hired to pick up and deliver.
He often had to do exchanges like this, though. And that carried a bit of risk for things to go wrong, which is why a guy with his former military and intelligence experience was the right man for the job. Most of the relatively few other professional couriers he had met had similar backgrounds to his.
But he had never had a job go this completely wrong, and without warning.
The cash had been left in a black canvas duffle bag stashed in a locker at the bus terminal three blocks from Jack’s hotel. His employer had given him the key along with his down payment for the job the night before.
This morning at 1000 he had donned charcoal grey slacks and a matching suit jacket, with a light blue collared shirt that he left open at the collar and his Glock in a shoulder holster beneath his left armpit, and black leather gloves. And he’d gone and retrieved the bag. As expected, no issue there, and he went to a charming streetside cafe, with yellow awnings overhanging the aging flagstone sidewalk out front and bare metal framed chairs set alongside round tables for two with white tablecloths and yellow placemats.
There he sat and enjoyed a light lunch and coffee, while he watched the Paris street traffic stream past.
He’d always hated this town; tried to avoid it whenever he could. But his last several contracts had sent him here, and this particular one had a nice paycheck associated with it. So he sucked it up.
Still, he couldn’t wait to get back to a place that didn’t have pretension so seemingly baked into its very soul.
After an hour of replaying the plan for the exchange in his head, he grabbed a cab and made his way over to the appointed place for the exchange.
It was a commercial building that looked like it could have been a museum, it was so extravagantly constructed. With a wide stone archway leading into a front courtyard, about forty feet on a side. It was paved with grey-white marble and ringed by square white marble columns that surrounded an eight-lobed fountain with a grey stone statue of a fish riding a wave up toward the sky in its center.
Naturally, water spurted out of the fish’s mouth, leaving a soft trickling sound that echoed off the stones of the courtyard.
Jack arrived at just after 1300, and found the courtyard empty except for a lone man, who stood across the fountain from the arched entrance.
He was older, approaching fifty from the look of him. Lean, with curly dark brown hair, nearly black, that was going grey at the temples, and a small nub of a nose that was crooked as though it had been broken a few times in the past. He wore a black leather jacket over a red shirt that buttoned halfway down his chest and was collar-less, and slacks that were just grey of black, and black leather shoes. His eyes were concealed behind round-rimmed sunglasses, and he gave the impression of continually scanning the area, checking all the angles.
When Jack stepped into the courtyard, the man stiffened slightly, then stepped back from the lip of the fountain. He was carrying a black leather briefcase in his left hand; his right was free, and lingering close to hem of his jacket.
There was no noticeable printing, but he was almost certainly carrying at four o’clock on his belt.
Jack raised the duffle bag, so his contact could see it, then slowly maneuvered clockwise around the fountain.
All was silent except for the trickling of the water. There was not even a breeze, and Jack was beginning to sweat from the early autumn warmth combined with the tension that he always felt when a job neared its pinnacle.
As he approached the man, he detected, alongside the odor of dampness from the fountain, the faint smell of lingering cigarette smoke. No surprise the man was a smoker; many in France were.
The man’s head turned to follow him as Jack approached, and when Jack stopped a dozen feet away from him, he gave a little nod.
“Manchester United sucks.” The man’s voice had, of all things, an Austrian accent. It was more high-pitched than Jack would have thought to look at him, and slightly raspy.
Too many cigarettes.
Jack replied with the response phrase his employer had given to him. “Not as bad as Liverpool.”
The man’s lips quirked ever so slightly. Then he set the briefcase down on the marble tiles, right up against the fountain’s lip.
Jack dropped the duffel bag and kicked it over toward the man.
He was just beginning to squat down to open it and check the contents when all hell broke loose.
At first Jack thought his contact had decided to pull a fast one, as four men in black fatigues and wearing black balaclavas sprang into view from between the rear columns just as the man was reaching for the bag.
They had rifles; in a glance he identified them as Steyr AUG bullpups.
As they raised the weapons, he cursed inwardly and began to raise his hands above his head.
But then Jack’s contact noticed his motion and froze, then turned. He shouted an oath when he saw the men and moved to draw his pistol.
One of the men’s rifles barked twice, and Jack’s contact went down, blood spurting from his back where the two rounds punctured the center of his chest and passed through.
Jack didn’t wait for them to decide to take him out, too. He dove toward the nearest column behind him, striking the marble tiles on his shoulder and rolling.
Another rifle fired, and he felt as much as heard the bullet zip over his body as he completed his roll. Then he slid around the column and got up into a crouch, drawing his pistol.
His ears were ringing from the percussion of the rifle shots, amplified and reverberated by the stone of the courtyard, and he went through the situation in the split second it took for him to reach his feet.
Someone had sold them both out; him and his contact. And he was alone, with a handgun, against four men who moved like they had training and who had rifles.
He was screwed.
It went through his head that they might be cops. He put that aside as quickly as it came. Their equipment was devoid of organizational logo, and if they had been cops they would have identified themselves as such immediately.
So, mercs. They wouldn’t take prisoners.
But if that’s how it was, he could at least go down fighting.
He heard their boots on the stones of the courtyard, as they spread out to either side to envelop him. If he stayed here, he was dead; if he was to have any chance, he needed to move. Make for the courtyard entrance. Although…
There had to be more than one way into this place. The men had to have come from somewhere.
Something to worry about later. He raised his weapon and edged around the corner of the column, muzzle first.
He immediately saw a black figure moving to his right. Reacting with instinct, Jack leveled the sights on him and made a trio of shots before pulling back to cover.
Multiple rifle shots from ahead, past the column, and to his left, and he heard the ricochets as the bullets struck the stone on the right hand side of the column, where he had just exposed himself.
He ducked left, and fired several more times at the first black figure he saw.
Then he drew a deep breath and sprinted back to the right.
It was about fifteen feet from his column to the next, and he would be exposed the whole way. But he was hoping they would have tracked with his last exposure and looking to the left side, while he went right.
A phrase went through his mind as he heard more rifle shots from behind him. “Kansas City Shuffle. They look left you go right.”
Then he dove as he heard the hiss-snap of a bullet passing close by.
So much for the Kansas City Shuffle.
He struck the marble and slid, and felt something tug at his right calf just before he reached the next bit of cover.
Pain followed a second later, and he looked down to see his slacks torn and red welling up from his leg. But a slow stream, not a flood, and he was able to move his foot freely.
A grazing wound then. Could be a lot worse.
Jack forced himself to his feet and looked to his right toward the next column, and saw an expanding pool of red.
He blinked, and risked a quick look around the corner, to be sure.
Son of a gun. The guy he’d shot at first was down, flat on his face. And the blood looked to be coming from his neck.
That was one hell of a lucky hit.
There were still three more of the bad guys, though, and they were firing again.
He fired as well, multiple shots from each side of the column, stopping to snap in a fresh magazine before doing it again.
The whole way his thoughts were racing. They wouldn’t fall for the Kansas City Shuffle again.
Hell, they hadn’t fallen for it the first time. Whatever, it had let him get this far.
He glanced right again, and got off a few more shots toward another of the figures before ducking back.
Three more columns, then he could make a dash for the archway…
More rifle shots, enough that he couldn’t hear anything else. But…he thought he only heard two distinct weapons. What had happened to the third guy? Had he hit him with his wild shots?
Duck left. He saw one of the mercs approaching the column he had just left, and he fired at him, then pulled back.
Just seconds left, and they’d have him flanked. Cover would be useless.
He swapped magazines again, then went right and fired. But this time he kept right on going, sprinting for the next column.
It wasn’t a grazing shot this time. He felt the impact in his left side, and about crumpled into the column, just barely making his way around to cover again.
The columns ringed the fountain. So he would have cover from the merc by the first column. For a few seconds.
But he was hurt badly now. He felt the burning just above his left hip, and his hip and thigh were already wet from the bleeding.
Even if he escaped, he wasn’t going anywhere bleeding like a stuck pig. The cops –
There was a lull in the rifle fire, and he heard, distant but louder by the second, the wailing sirens of the police.
The mercs must hear it too, and they wouldn’t want to get caught either. Maybe they would pull back.
Maybe he could get them to do it.
“Hear that? Not much time.” He shouted the words, trying to sound strong, confident. Defiant. He wasn’t sure how well he did.
The mercs didn’t respond verbally.
They did shoot again.
He went to return fire, and then realized he was out of ammo.
Son of a bitch.
Jack cast about, looking for something—anything—that could help him get out of this situation.
The wall of the courtyard behind his column was sheer, and even if it wasn’t, it’s not like he could climb it. Not injured as he was, and not without getting shot again.
More rifle shots. And the police sirens were getting louder.
Jack ducked his head around, and saw one of the men in black crouched behind the fountain, near where he had dropped the duffel and his contact had left the briefcase.
He pulled back just before another shot, then he heard one of men say something in a language he didn’t know. Though it sounded familiar; he had heard it before, though he didn’t understand it.
He couldn’t say when, just then.
The men fired again, then there were rapid boot steps.
Jack risked another look, and saw the three men, two moving quickly the other more slowly, with a limp. They were heading back toward the gap in the columns they had entered through. And one of them carried the duffel bag.
Son of a bitch.
Without thinking, Jack stepped out from the cover of his column and swore at them. The man at the rear stopped and looked back at him.
He didn’t bother raising his rifle, just his middle finger.
Then he followed his fellows past the columns, toward whatever exit they had used before.
Jack tucked his Glock back into its holster and moved as quickly as he could toward the far side of the fountain. It was slow, labored, the pain in his side becoming more intense with the second.
By the time he got to the place where his contact lay dead, he was almost doubled over, his left hand clutching his side.
He was beginning to get dizzy, and when he looked down at himself he saw why. His pants leg was completely slick with blood, and he had left bloody footprints across the marble of the courtyard.
If he didn’t stem the bleeding soon, he would be in big, big trouble.
The sirens were very loud now; he was in big trouble no matter what.
But then he saw the briefcase. Still sitting there, where the contact had put it. Unopened.
Unbelieving, Jack picked it up and tried to flip the golden latches—certainly not real gold, but who knows?—that held it shut.
Locked. Locked with a pair of combination locks, and he didn’t have the combo.
Apparently the bad guys didn’t either.
Or they were only after the money.
Either way, Jack wasn’t going to question his luck.
If he could somehow slip out of here and get back to his employer with the briefcase, he would have been successful with his part of the exchange, at least. And he could get paid.
More importantly, his employer wouldn’t think he had tried to screw him. Couriers had found themselves with contracts on their heads from former employers who they tried to shaft.
Jack certainly didn’t want that.
He stripped off his suit coat. Or tried to; his pained side didn’t make it easy. But he managed.
The he shrugged off his shoulder rig and dropped it into the fountain. The gun couldn’t be traced back to him; he had bought it from the local black market, and he had never handled it with his bare hands.
Then he balled up the coat and pressed it against his side to try to help staunch the flow of blood, and he picked up the briefcase.
The sirens were an overwhelming scream as he followed the mercs through the exit they had used.
Sure enough, there was a side entrance to the courtyard: a black wrought-iron gate that was hidden from side from the fountain by the positioning of the columns and the short alcove where the gate was tucked into. It was standing ajar from the mercs’ passage, and Jack wasted no time pushing his way through.
It opened into an alleyway that ran along the side of the courtyard and the building it was attached to. To the right, toward the main drag where he had come in, the sirens had stopped but he saw lots of activity as the police most likely were setting up a cordon.
They knew the city’s layout better than Jack did. If they didn’t already know about this alley, they would shortly, and they’d move to block the other end, wherever it came out.
Jack couldn’t tell, because the alley bent to the left a few tens of yards down in the other direction from the main street, following the building’s wall.
The alley was paved, but also dirt-crusted and unclean. There were 10-Gallon sized trash cans and other debris strewn about outside of closed red or blue or brown doors that led to the surrounding buildings. It was narrow enough it would be very difficult to drive down, except maybe in a Mini or one of those tiny Fiats. But even then…
Looking around quickly, Jack didn’t see any sign of tire marks in the dirt on the alley’s floor. That wasn’t definitive, but it suggested the mercs hadn’t driven away.
Regardless, he wasn’t going to. And he needed to get out of there rapido, or face the French prison system. And he didn’t want that.
He considered for a moment going back into the courtyard and playing possum; the innocent bystander who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He just as quickly threw that idea aside. He had gunshot residue all over his gloves and the sleeves of his coat and shirt, and there was probably an Interpol notice on him. At the very least his fingerprints were on file in the DOD database.
Also, he really could not let the briefcase out of his sight; and it would get confiscated as evidence for certain.
And he had no idea what was in it. Getting caught with it might make matters even worse.
So he set off down the alley as quick as his feet could carry him.
Thirty paces on, he knew he wasn’t going to make it out of there. He could barely walk, and he was getting more and more dizzy. Worse, despite the heat he began to feel cold.
He was swaying on his feet; but he had to keep going.
Couldn’t. Be. Caught.
He staggered against one of the alley walls. He hadn’t even realized he was going to do it until the stone of the wall smacked him in the chest.
He gasped as the impact made his wound flare up in a new pain. But he tried to force himself off the wall, to go on.
If he could just. Make. It.
He could get a doctor, square things with his employer.
He thumped into something else hard, and it moved.
His vision had darkened, but he thought it was a door? And it swung open under his weight.
Then there were hands on his shoulders, and he thought he saw wide eyes, looking at him with surprise and fright.
Something spoken in French, but he couldn’t make it out.
He tried to pull away, and found himself on the pavement…or he thought it was pavement.
The whoever it was who had caught him stood over him, and Jack thought he recognized him. Was that his employer?
He’d made it.
“Here it is,” he said, feebly. He hefted the briefcase. Or he tried to. He could only raise it an inch. “Take it.”
The person seemed to look at it, and he saw a shadow moving toward the briefcase’s handle. A hand?
Jack smiled in satisfaction. Or he thought he did. “Call doctor,” he said.
It sounded loud to his ears, but it came out just as a whisper. The young man, Gaston, who had followed him out of the door when he fell, bent over, taking hold of the briefcase as bid. But he couldn’t make out what the stricken man was saying. It was too faint to hear.
He could make out the rattle in the man’s throat a few seconds after, though. He had heard it on the streets many times, and before then from his own father as he breathed his last.
Gaston straightened and looked both ways down the alley. To the right, the way was clear; no one in the alley at all. To the left…the cops were out in the street there. And they would be coming down the alley soon.
Looking for this man.
He lifted the suitcase and looked at it. It was nice; made of good black leather, with gold clasps. Probably cost more than he had managed to make in the last month of begging and stealing whatever he could.
Gaston swallowed. Whatever was in the case, the man had been killed for it. And the cops would want it.
Which meant it was probably even more valuable than the case looked.
He glanced around; still no one.
Then he backed into the hallway he had just been coming out of and closed the door to the alley. He locked it, then hurried up to the seedy little flat he had managed to rent for the fortnight.
There to count his loot. And plan his certain to be much improved future.
* * *
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: