beyond Bethlehem (chapters 1-3)

CHAPTER ONE


“You’re not the man you used to be,” Maurice ‘Mudflap’ Morrison said. “Fucking artist’s life has ruined you. Either that or you’re just too old for the action.”

    He was pissed because Chance Wilder wasn’t up for ripping off the Devil’s Deacons motorcycle club. Mudflap wore the gang’s colors when they met at Chance’s farmhouse studio. Mudflap wasn’t talking about his initiation, but they were full colors, he’d only recently earned the patch to fill the void between the rockers. Now he was talking about taking the club’s money -- serious money, drug buying cash money.

    Did the outlaw bikers even realize what an outlaw they’d let in?

    He’d brought along his latest squeeze, Ella. She was maybe thirty. He was closing in on seventy. She was stick thin, wearing a long-sleeved jersey to hide her arms. She couldn’t hide those pinpoint pupils, though. Junkie. She was wandering around the studio, looking at the photo displays.

    “Where’d you come up with her?” Chance asked when she went off to the bathroom, probably to shoot up.

    “She was riding bitch on a brother’s bike. He treated her rough. She got tired of being beat -- thought I would be a good protector.”

    “How does your bro feel about that?”

    “I’m still waiting,” Mudflap said. “Roy’s a big guy, Sergeant-at-arms for the club. He can’t quite figure out why I’m not scared of him, so he’s being a little timid about it, pretending he doesn’t care, but he’ll make his move when he thinks the time is right. In the meantime I’m having fun.”

    Chance suspected a large part of the “fun” was waiting for Roy to make that move, the anticipation. Mudflap liked riding the edge. Nowadays he was riding it on a Harley Fat Boy.

    Chance and Mudflap had met on the edge—the edge of civilization. Way back in Vietnam, serving in the same infantry unit, just a couple ground pounders. Chance had found real appreciation for the man during an ambush firefight. He was sitting there trying to figure out who and where he was, stunned by the mortar detonation that got him his first purple heart, when Mudflap grabbed him up and ran until Chance recovered enough to join in what became a two kilometer running firefight.

     He’d tried to thank the man.

    “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be taking up residence in some tiger pit.”

    Mudflap had brushed off the thanks.

    “There were a lot of bullets coming our way,” he’d said. “I just hung y’all on my back to protect myself.”

    That was the start of a lifelong friendship and an off and on criminal partnership. The criminal part started when they figured out why their unit wasn’t getting the material and ordnance it needed. Then the First Sergeant who’d made a killing on the black market had found a sudden shitty death when a fragmentation grenade came rolling in under the outhouse door. And Chance and Mudflap had liberated a footlocker full of cash.

    It was the first of many such operations to separate criminals from their money over the intervening years. Now Mudflap was proposing yet another.

    “The Double Ds do a regular meth buy from another club, call themselves Satan’s Savages,” he said. “It’s good money. Big money. And these guys are so paranoid about each other and the narcs they aren’t even looking out for any normal criminals like us.”

    Chance didn’t like it. He knew Mudflap probably needed a big score. He’d had more than his share since they’d left Vietnam, but he had a way of going through money quickly, which had him always looking for the next opportunity.

    Chance had three criteria for a “mission.” The victims had to be criminals. The money had to be significant enough to justify the risk. And he had to feel the need for revenge. That need for revenge just wasn’t there for this one. Yeah, these people probably deserved it, but they hadn’t actually done anything to him or anyone in his circle to earn that need for vengeance.

    So he said “no” to this one. Which upset Mudflap, who told Ella they were “outta here” as soon as she wobbled back from the bathroom.

    “Don’t even need you for this,” he said, walking away. “Was just being generous.”

    Turned out those were the last words he’d ever say to Chance.



CHAPTER TWO
 
A couple months later it was Ella at the door. Chance looked past her, out in the yard and to the driveway beyond, but there was no sign of Mudflap.

    “What’s up?” he asked Ella.

    “Your friend is dead,” she said.

    Wow. For a skinny little woman she could throw a wicked verbal punch. Chance took it in his gut. It knocked the wind out of his sails, staggered him, bruised his psyche.

    “Come on in,” he said.

    “I don’t suppose there’s any kind of estate …?” she said.

    “Tell me what happened,” Chance replied.

    “What’s to tell. He’s just gone. Not coming back.”

    “Where’s his body?”

    “Damned if I know. They buried it somewhere.”

    “Who’s they?”

    She went silent.

    He flashed all of his cash on hand, a little more than eleven hundred, bait to coax the full story from her. He pulled the rubber band off the roll of bills and flattened the stack. Folded it in half, lengthwise to keep it from curling. Gave it a little ruffle. She reached for it. But he didn’t let go, didn’t give it to her until she told him what there was to tell.

    “Who’s they?” he said again.

    “I don’t know anything firsthand,” she said. “But Roy, my former old man, was sure happy to tell me how Hammerhead used his big framing hammer to bust up Mudflap piece by piece until he was supposedly begging for that final shot to the head.”

    “And who the fuck is Hammerhead?”

    “He’s the prez of the Double Ds.”

    “Where do you think they buried Mudflap?”

    “Someone said something about a landfill, but I don’t know where.”

    “Ella …”

    “Yeah?”

    “You’d be smart to use this cash to get out of here for a while.”

    Her eyes got big when he handed it over, but he could tell she was thinking about the next big high, not a getaway.



CHAPTER THREE

He left the bagman’s bodyguard 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 money 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, talking to his absent friend, 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. He’d actually pulled it off.

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

     His celebration was premature. He smelled the danger, spotted the road block up ahead, still in the process of being assembled. His breathing quickened. He shook his head, but there was no denying it. Things were about to get intense. The planned escape route was cut off. He’d have to improvise. He barked a laugh.

    “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, automatically accelerating before he even decided what to do. There was no stopping now. He discarded the idea of smashing through the roadblock and started looking for the 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 the sweet smell of gunsmoke. 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 and bounced 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, desperate 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. Chance struggled to ward off the blackness that was closing in, fireflies swimming in his vision. He 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 mouth and 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. 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 of the fat bullets. He aimed at the man who’d caused him to crash. Taking him had been a mistake. Time to rectify that.

    “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, lifted and 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.