beyond Bethlehem (chapter 1)

 The bagman’s bodyguard was left behind, busy hugging a tree, gagged and handcuffed. The bagman lay on the back seat, bound with duct tape, unconscious from a close encounter with Thumper, Chance Wilder’s leather-jacketed, lead-weighted blackjack. The loot sat in a heavy duty, plain brown shopping bag on the front passenger seat. The bag smelled like Egg Fu Yung – recycled from Chinese take-out. Good choice, Chinese food is heavy; so is a bag full of bundled Benjamins, a hundred bills in each ten thousand dollar bundle.

    “We’re in it now, Mudflap,” Chance Wilder said out loud, talking to his absent friend, Maurice “Mudflap” Morrison, missing for a couple months now, rotting in a hidden grave somewhere. He’d been talking to his dead friend a lot lately. It only seemed appropriate. The rip-off was Mudflap’s idea, one Chance had initially rejected.

    Apparently word had got out, got back, and the bikers knew what Mudflap had planned -- the rip-off of the every-other-month meth purchase by the Double D’s, the Devil’s Deacons motorcycle club.  Mudflap’s latest squeeze, Ella, a stick thin Latina with a wicked heroin habit, had delivered the news of Mudflap’s demise. Ella had been turned out to the club for a royal gang-bang as part of her break-up with her previous squeeze, Roy, the club’s Sergeant at Arms. She was all about getting even.

    Revenge is a bitch. Chance knew all about revenge, it was one of his primary motivations for ripping off deserving outlaws, an on-and-off lifelong secondary career. He hadn’t felt the desire for revenge at first, not over the gang rape of Ella. Hell, according to Mudflap, she’d already been banging several club members behind his back and Roy’s, too.

    He hadn’t felt the need for revenge until Mudflap’s disappearance. Hadn’t even known he was gone until Ella came around inquiring: had he left some kind of assets that might benefit a common-law companion? Chance had fed her hundreds, one at a time, in return for the story.

    Ella hadn’t seen it firsthand, but she’d heard from a gleeful Roy how Club Prez Louis “Hammerhead” Head had used his long-handled 28-ounce rip claw hammer to bust up Mudflap piece by piece before delivering the Coup de Grace head shot.

    That was it, all the motive Chance needed. He had three criteria for a mission. His victims had to be bad people; they had to deal in significant sums of money; and he had to feel a need for revenge to justify it all. The beauty of it was that bad people got their money through ugly means that generally didn’t allow them to complain to law enforcement.

    The Devil’s Deacons met all three criteria now that they’d offed Mudflap. Chance would have enjoyed the opportunity to do away with this Hammerhead asshole, but the opening didn’t present itself. For now he’d have to be satisfied knowing the rip-off was going to really hurt the biker and his gang. The real satisfaction, though, was in honoring Mudflap’s memory.

    “Not bad work for an old guy,” he said aloud.

     His celebration was premature. He smelled the danger, spotted the road block up ahead, still in the process of being assembled. Things were about to get intense. The planned escape route was cut off. He’d have to improvise.

    “It’s gonna get interesting, Mudflap,” he said. He’d taken the bagman’s Chevy Blazer along with the money and the bagman – all part of the plan. He shifted the Blazer into four-wheel drive on the fly -- time to see if it could blaze its own trail. Instead of slowing down for the roadblock, he flattened the gas pedal, started looking for his best off road route as the hijacked ride fishtailed, spitting sprays of gravel from the narrow country lane.

    Ambush! As if goosing the Blazer was the signal they’d been waiting for, two men stepped out of the woods alongside the road and started firing handguns. One man actually walked out onto the road ahead to take serious aim. The bikers must have known something was up – some prearranged signal maybe – the lack of phone call or something like that. Something he hadn’t anticipated.

    He yanked out Ottomatic, his .45 cal. semi-auto. No need to roll the window down. It disappeared in a cascade of crumble as a barrage of bullets struck the Blazer broadside, punching and puckering sheet metal, shattering glass. Chance steered left handed, used his right to raise Ottomatic cross-body, firing instinctively.  

    The pistol bucked in his hand. The Blazer filled with gunsmoke and hot brass tinked off the steering wheel, dash and windshield with each loud round expended and ejected. In his peripheral vision he saw a roadside gunman go down, maybe hit, maybe seeking cover. The man in the road was fleeing the oncoming Blazer, still firing at it. The windshield starred from multiple shots. Ray Charles, slow and sweet and in the middle of “Georgia,” went silent, the radio taking a hit. There was a satisfying thump as Chance swerved onto the road shoulder and that shooter disappeared under the Blazer.

    The roadblock was looming, coming up fast -- a collection of vehicles -- car, van and a couple motorcycles -- more waiting gunmen. It was now or never. Chance saw his opening, steered through the barbed wire fence, bouncing out into a pasture, cross country now, fence posts popping out of the ground, wires trailing, finally breaking. He could hear the roar of motorcycles starting. Good luck with that. Those were street bikes, choppers. They weren’t up to what he saw ahead.  Of course, he wasn’t certain the Blazer was either. He glanced at the dash – no ruby warning lights, nothing sparking, maybe the radio was the only casualty.

    He’d scouted the area before committing himself to this. There was an old logging road not too far through those woods at the bottom of the pasture. First he had to get through this wet area seeping its way into a farm pond. The Blazer spewed up rooster tails of mud, grass and cattails as he slewed through, bikes bogging down behind, some veering off, searching for parallel paths.

    Chance picked an opening between trees and slid through, hoping for the best. The beastly Blazer ricocheted off one substantial tree, mowed down several smaller ones before breaking through onto an old skidder trail covered with slash from some past logging operation. He wrestled the wheel to get the Blazer on track, and plowed through brush and slash, struggling desperately not to get hung up on a stump. The passenger side mirror was gone now, the right front fender crumpled, rubbing on the tire. He had no idea where his pursuers were, just that they weren’t in sight anymore. The Blazer sprang from the skidder trail onto an old abandoned dirt road. It was an obstacle course of fallen and leaning trees. One struck the windshield, partially caving it in, making it even more difficult to see.

    A beaver pond flooded the road ahead. He needed to keep on the track of the road hidden beneath the water. He set sight on the spot where the road exited the shallow pond into the woods again. Dead sticks of drowned trees became roadside markers as he aimed for that opening. Water started sliding over the hood. The Blazer’s engine coughed a couple times before catching again, sputtering from water that found its way into the air intake as it rose free of the pond, struggled up a short hill into the cover of thick woods, and bucked its way back up to speed.

    He smelled new danger just before an unexpected blow caught him on the right ear. Holes appeared in his vison. The captive in the back seat had come to. Duct-taped, he’d still managed to jackknife and position his body to deliver a two-booted kick at the back of Chance’s head. He struggled to ward off the blackness that was closing in, but lost control and ran into a tree head-on, just enough off-center that the Blazer jumped around to the left as it came to a sudden stop. He took a solid whack from the exploding airbag. The door popped open. He fell out onto the ground.

    Groaning, he rolled onto hands and knees, getting his bearings. Blood splattered the ground, dribbling from his nose. He got to his feet and wrenched the back door open, looked in at the man crumpled up in the foot well. The captive moaned, as much from fear as pain. He knew whatever happened now was bound to be bad.

    The man tried kicking him away. Chance grabbed his legs, dragged him out, let him fall to the ground, and kicked him in the ribs. He pressed the button to eject Ottomatic’s empty clip, caught it in his left hand and stuffed it in his pocket. He replaced it with a full clip, eight new rounds – slapped it in and ,jacked the slide to chamber one. He aimed at the man who’d caused him to crash. Taking him had been a mistake.

    “Don’t, no, please,” the man was pleading.

    His value as a hostage was gone. The man was just dead weight now, no longer useful. He’d just slow Chance down. Chance leaned in close.

    “Follow me and you’ll die,” he said.

    He let Ottomatic’s hammer down, used the heavy pistol to slap his captive unconscious again. His chest ached. It was from that airbag, he told himself.

    “It’s not a heart attack,” he said aloud.

    He leaned into the Blazer and dropped the pistol into the bag of money, hugged the bag to his chest and took off running down the old logging road, the arthritis in his knees flaring. The woods road would lead him to Spot, his hardtop jeep, stashed about a half a mile away.

    His means of escape -- unless the Devil’s Deacons caught up with him before he got there. He was breathing hard. His chest was burning. Shit.

    “It’s not a fucking heart attack,” he muttered, panting.