The bagman was on the back seat, bound with duct tape, unconscious from a close encounter with a leather jacketed, lead-weighted blackjack. The money was in a heavy duty, plain brown paper shopping bag with twisted loop handles sitting 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 filled with mustard-banded bundles of hundreds, a hundred bills in each ten thousand dollar bundle.

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

    Apparently word got out about what Mudflap had planned. The information about the every other month meth purchase by the Devil’s Deacons motorcycle “club” had come from Ella, Mudflap’s latest squeeze, a stick thin oriental mulatto with a wicked heroin habit. Ella had been turned out to the club for a royal train-bang as part of her break-up with her previous boyfriend, 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 three primary motivations for ripping off deserving outlaws, an on-and-off secondary career. He hadn’t felt the desire for revenge at first, not over the gang rape of Ella, who had already been banging several club members behind Roy’s back and Mudflap’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: was there perhaps some kind of estate involved? Chance had fed her hundreds, one at a time, in return for the story – piece by piece.

    Ella hadn’t seen it firsthand, but she’d heard from a gleeful Roy how Club Prez Louis “Hammer” Head had used his long handled 28-ounce rip claw framing 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 like this. 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 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. Occasionally bad people died as part of the process. Chance would have enjoyed the opportunity to do away with Mister Hammerhead, as part of this mission 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 financially. Not bad work for an old guy.

    The hard part of the mission was just ahead now. He could smell the danger before he actually saw the road block up ahead. It looked like things were going to get intense, quickly. He hadn’t expected this kind of action so soon. His planned escape route was cut off. He was going to have to improvise.

    “It’s about to get interesting, Mudflap,” he said to his friend who wasn’t there. He’d taken the bagman’s Chevy Blazer along with the money and the bagman – all part of the plan. He shifted it into four-wheel drive on the fly -- time to see if the Blazer 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 back and forth on the gravel road, spitting sprays of gravel.

    As if goosing the Blazer was the signal they been waiting for several men stepped out of the woods alongside the road and started firing at him. Two actually walked out to the middle of the road ahead to take serious aim. An ambush! They 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 M1911 Colt .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, punching and puckering sheet metal. Chance steered left handed, used his right to raise Ottomatic cross-body. He aimed and fired instinctively as he raced by.  

    Ray Charles was slow and sweet and in the middle of Georgia when he went silent, the radio taking a hit. Chance was pulling the trigger now, pistol bucking in his hand, Blazer filling with gunsmoke, hot brass tinking off the steering wheel, dash and windshield with each loud round expended and ejected. In his peripheral vision he saw two gunmen go down, unsure if they were hit or seeking cover. The two men in the road ahead were moving in opposite directions, fleeing, but still firing at the oncoming SUV. The windshield starred from multiple shots. There was a satisfying bump as he caught the shooter on the right. That man disappeared under the Blazer as he blasted away at the one going left.

    The roadblock was coming up fast -- a collection of vehicles, cars, a van and motorcycles -- more waiting gunmen. It was now or never. Chance saw his opening, steered right, right 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 motorcycles starting up to give chase. Good luck with that, he thought. Those were street bikes. 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 entire area before committing himself to the mission. He knew there was an old logging road not too far through those woods at the bottom of the pasture. First he had to get through the wet area seeping its way into a farm pond. The Blazer spewed up rooster tails of mud, grass and cattails as he slewed through, some bikes bogging down behind, others 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 trying desperately not to get hung up on a stump. The passenger side mirror was gone now, the right front fender crumbled, rubbing on the tire. He had no idea where his pursuers were, just that they weren’t in sight anymore. The Bronco slid onto a regular gravel logging road: long abandoned, it was an obstacle course of fallen and leaning trees. One struck the windshield, caving it partially in, making it even more difficult to see.

    A beaver pond flooded the road ahead. It would be okay if he could keep on the gravel base of the road hidden beneath the water. He could see where the road exited the water into woods again. Dead sticks of drowned trees became roadside markers as he aimed for that opening into the woods. Water started sliding over the hood. The Bronco’s engine coughed a couple times before catching again, water finding its way into the air intake. Then it was rising free of the pond, climbing a short hill into the cover of thick woods, sputtering back up to speed.

    He smelled the danger, started to turn just as the 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. Struggling to ward off the blackness closing in he lost control and ran into a tree, head-on, 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 airbag, knocking the breath out of him. He popped the door open, fell out onto the ground.t

    He rolled onto hands and knees, getting his bearings. Stood and looked in at the man in the back, crumpled up in the foot well now. Chance opened the door. The captive was moaning, as much from fear as pain. He knew what would happen now was going to be bad.

    The man kicked at him again. Chance grabbed his legs, dragged him out, let him fall to the ground, kicked him in the ribs. He pressed the button to eject Otto’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 -- ,jacked the slide to chamber one. He aimed the pistol at the man who’d caused him to crash.

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

    Chance leaned in close.

    “If you’re smart you’ll follow my backtrail when you get yourself free,” he said. “Follow me and you’ll die.”

    He let Ottomatic’s hammer down, used the heavy pistol to slap his captive unconscious again. He 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 mile away now.

    His means of escape -- unless the Devil’s Deacons found him first.

THE ROAD THROUGH SUCCESS (chapter 1)

STARK REALITY (CHAPTER 1)

Hammerhead (chapter 1)

    Revenge is a viper, a cold-blooded, remorseless serpent that carries its own particular poison. Jose Rodriguez thought he understood revenge. What he didn’t completely comprehend is that vipers sometimes have a mind of their own.

    Jose “The Croc” Rodriguez was feeling exceptionally good – high, having just smoked some righteous bud. He had taken care of his most recent problem, the old man who had the cojones to threaten him over his attempt to take on the beautiful 14-year-old Consuela as his next project. He’d brought Maria home to enjoy for the evening, prior to her departure. Tomorrow she would be on her way to Mexico, sold to a brothel near the US border. Reluctant to enter the life at first, he had turned her into a willing, enthusiastic whore at the tender age of sixteen. He intended to enjoy the fruits of that success one last time prior to her departure.

    The Croc’s smile, featuring the prominent lower incisor for which he’d earned his nickname, was half in anticipation of the delights awaiting him, half in silent celebration of the death of the old gringo who dared confront him, try to warn him away from ripe little Consuela. He only wished he could see the Americano’s face when he found the big surprise waiting for him in his ratty old Range Rover.

    The old dude had shown a lot of nerve advising Jose of “consequences” if he continued his pursuit of Consuela. Guess he’d figured out by now what shape “consequences” can take when you fuck with The Croc.

    Jose turned the air conditioner up. It was sticky hot and he planned to further heat up the bungalow with Maria, so he’d better start cooling things down now. She disappeared into the bathroom to prepare herself. He put some music on. Garifuna music -- Punta Rock --  Creole rhythms, West African percussion – electric guitars weaving through the drums to invite body movement.

    Jose dimmed the lights and shed his clothes, tossed them on a chair. The fat money belt he put on the table for now. He slid his naked ebony body under the rumpled light blanket on his bed. He would ask Maria to dance for him before letting her under the blanket. His groin stirred at the thought of her undulating sleek brown body.

    His rising erection faltered at the feel of something moving beside him beneath the covers. It disappeared entirely when he felt the sting and burn on his lower back. He leapt from the bed, tossing the blanket aside and turned to look, hoping to find only a scorpion.

    Let it be a scorpion, was his silent prayer.

    He wasn’t getting off that easy. He watched in horror as the serpent shape uncoiled, slid toward him. Scales like brown velvet, hourglass markings, large triangular head of a viper, head shaped like a big spearhead …  fer de lance. The deadliest, most aggressive, most feared snake in Central America. The sinuous form slithered toward him, uncoiling and recoiling, preparing to strike yet again. He snatched his machete from the table, swung, broke the snake’s back, leaving it rolling in agony. Even as he took satisfaction in this kill Jose felt a second burning sting, looked, found yet another snake hanging from his leg, fangs hooked in his upper calf.

    He bellowed in rage, snatched the snake free of his flesh, flung it against the wall, stepped forward to lop its head off with the big well-honed blade. He turned toward the sound of screaming to see Maria, standing naked in the lighted doorway of the bathroom, hands over her mouth now, as if to hold in the sounds of her terror.

    Two snakes. It was two snakes he paid to have planted in the gringo’s Range Rover. Were these the same two snakes? How could this be? He was good as dead. Many considered a spearhead’s bite so deadly that the best remedy was a quick swing of the machete to amputate the bitten appendage before the poison could spread. That remedy wouldn’t work with this burning bite on his back. The best bet for survival was the anti-venom stocked by all the hospitals. What was the chance of surviving two bites? One thing was certain. The sooner he received the antidote the better his chances.

    He tossed Maria the keys.

    “Drive me to the hospital,” he ordered. “Take me to the one in Belize City.”

    “Just let me get my clothes,” she turned back into the bathroom.

    Two quick steps and he had her by the upper arm, fingertips digging deep into her soft flesh. He thrust a bathrobe at her, grabbed one for himself, started dragging her toward the door.

    “Fuck dressed,” he spat. “Get going now. Now.”

    Jose yanked the terrycloth belt free from the loops of his robe as they got into his new Mercedes ML350 SUV. He tied a loop in one end of the cloth belt, wrapped it around his leg just above the knee and threaded the other end through the loop. Pulling the belt tight to make a tourniquet, he settled into the passenger seat. The best thing he could do for himself now was to be quiet and still, delaying the spread of the poison by his still-racing heart, which had gone into high gear at the sight of the first snake.

    “Go, go, go,” he said to the still shocked woman he had purchased, used and sold. The new whore he was supposed to deliver tomorrow.  “Belize City … hospital… come on, bitch … drive …”

***

    The door was open, lights on. The Croc and his latest young victim had left in a real hurry. He wasn’t going to have to pick the lock again. Chance Wilder slipped into the bungalow, eased the door shut. First piece of business was the snakes. He searched for, counted the snakes. Two – one dead, one still dying – all accounted for. He used the abandoned machete to decapitate the still-writing snake with the broken back. Then he began searching the home of the pimp and procurer, the human trafficker who called himself “The Croc.”

    Was that a money belt on the table?

    Revenge is cunning. A lifetime could pass and then you’d find it lying in wait. Chance Wilder was wondering if the two men sitting at the bar were lying in wait for him.

    He was finishing the Sunday evening shift, easy time behind the bar. The crowd was smaller, generally laid back, unlike the desperate-to-have-some-fun-and-get-laid Friday and Saturday evening throngs. Things were slower on Sunday evening. There was time for conversation with the customers. These two guys had been asking innocuous questions as part of their conversation for the past hour – pretending to be interested in him as a person.

    They had introduced themselves, asking his name. He suspected the names they provided were bogus -- that they were making sure they had the right person. They commented on his odd name, Chance, asking its origin.

    “I was discarded in a trash can as a baby,” he said. “It was by chance I was found.”

    They talked about his job.

    “I’ve thought about tending bar,” one of them said. “Seems like a good gig. How do you like it?”

    “I like it,” he said. “I like people. This is a good place to find them.”

    People assume a guy of retirement age takes a job like this to supplement his social security check, but Chance didn’t need to work. He didn’t need social security, either. He had enough stashed away to keep himself more than comfortable for however much longer he lived.

    However-much-longer-he-lived had always been a kind of tenuous thing, anyway

    “Slow night, huh?” the man with the badly healed broken nose asked.

    “The way I like ‘em,” Chance said.

    He tended the bar three nights a week – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday – the slow nights. – fewer people, fewer tips, fewer brawls. In addition to meeting a lot of interesting people his public persona made him available to those who wanted to get in touch. Problem was, there was always the possibility that some of the people looking to get in touch might be seeking revenge for some past adventure. Chance thought these two guys, a pair of bruisers, might be part of that group. The one with the out-of-kilter nose had a gold hoop in his earlobe. The other had a neck tattoo peeking above his collar.

    So Chance got ready for whatever. He regretted keeping his pistol in the hard-sided briefcase along with the night deposit cash bag. Getting it out now would be way too obvious. No sense forcing the issue, turning whatever this was going to be into a gunfight while there were other customers in the way. These guys were a tag team, watching him in tandem. When one went to the bathroom the other stayed at the bar, eyeing him. The only time that at least one of the men hadn’t been watching was the moment when Zab Judah decked Vernon Paris in the ninth round of the welterweight bout on the ceiling high TV down at the end of the bar. Everyone was looking at the screen while the referee counted him out, wondering if he’d get back on his feet.

    He’d used that moment to take a small step to the left, reach under the bar to retrieve the lead-weighted, leather-sheathed blackjack with a spring steel handle. He slipped the sap into his left front pocket where its shape was hidden by the bar towel he kept tucked in his belt -- disguised the maneuver by wiping his hands. Bartenders get their hands wet a lot. Once in a while they got them bloody, too.

    “How’s a guy get a gig like this?” the tattooed neck one asked.

    “It helps to know how to mix the drinks,” Chance said. “But anyone can pick that up. There’s a lot of other things go into being a good barkeep. In my case it’s a disability that makes me a good choice for the job.”

    “How’s that?”

    “I have this condition – partial face blindness. I don’t remember people. So if someone looks young I always ask them for an ID. I never assume I’ve already seen it. I always ask.”

    “Must annoy some people, asking all the time.”

    “Well, it’s a bar, so there are some customers who actually appreciate me forgetting who they are, if they were ever here.”

   “Just thinking how it would piss me off.”

    Chance sighed.

    “Sometimes it seems like I’ve made a career of pissing people off. Truth is, if you guys walked out of here right now I’d totally forget I’d ever seen you. You wouldn’t be mad about it, would you? Most people aren’t.”

    The guy with the bad nose gave him a hard look. Appraising. Wondering if Chance had figured out what was coming. If maybe what he had just said was some kind of warning.

    “We usually stay to the end,” bad nose said.

    Chance nodded his understanding, turned, moved down by the TV, used the dimmer switch to turn down the volume on the jukebox. Someone had just loaded it with three songs now that the boxing match was over. He flipped the light switch twice.

    “Last call,” he hollered.

    Other than the pair of heavyweights at the bar there were only two couples – both seated at tables. One couple got to their feet, started putting their coats on. The woman waved a good night at Chance.

    “Drive carefully,” he said.

    The male half of the remaining couple carried his rocks glass to the bar. Chance made him another Rusty Nail. Totaled his tab. Rang it up. The guy stuffed a couple bills in the tip jar

    The pair at the bar got two more long neck Buds. Chance removed their empties. He rang up their tab. Cashed them in. Bad nose put the change in his pocket. Nothing went in the tip jar. Cheap prick.

    He already had the cases of beer stacked and waiting. He restocked the beer cooler while the table customers finished their drinks. Just as he thought would happen, the two bruisers stayed on, nursing their beers, waiting until the last customer left.

    You’re on your own now, old timer, he told himself.

    “You need to finish up,” he told the two.  “I’ve got to close.”

    Acting like obedient customers they chugged the last of their beer, rose from their bar stools. The one with the bad nose extended his hand.

    “Nice to meet you, Chance,” he said.

    Chance knew it was a mistake, but he put out his hand to shake, nonetheless. Sure enough the bruiser squeezed, trapping his right hand in an iron grip. The guy’s face broke into a wide grin as his buddy started moving down to the other end of the bar, planning on coming through the gate opening to get behind the bar with him. He wasn’t in any hurry. It was an old guy they were dealing with, after all.

    Bad nose’s satisfied grin didn’t last long. He was pulling Chance forward, off balance, which put the wrong kind of pressure on his bad shoulder, the one that took a bullet less than a year before. The pain made him angry.  Chance pulled the sap from his pocket with his left hand and lashed out with a roundhouse that caught his captor on the temple with a nice thud. The hit was just a bit harder than he would have delivered if he hadn’t been angry. Suddenly the iron grip was gone. Chance was free. Bad nose was falling backward taking little steps trying to keep his balance, stay upright, a losing effort. Chance turned to meet his partner who, after a moment of disbelief, now realized what had happened, and was putting a little hustle into his approach – now behind the bar and coming.

    Chance reached down between the sink and the beer cooler, hoisted the fire extinguisher. Backing up he pulled the pin, aimed the nozzle, then advanced behind a cold blast of CO-2 directed at his attacker’s face. Now it was the attacker backing up, eyes closed, hands up to protect himself.

    Chance stopped spraying, hoisted the heavy steel cylinder shoulder high. As the man took his hands away and opened his eyes Chance drove the extinguisher, base first, into his forehead. The man’s eyes rolled back, showing nothing but white. He fell over backwards. Chance tossed the extinguisher aside, snatched up the sap he’d dropped . He walked over the fallen attacker behind the bar, stomping his groin and solar plexus in a little two-step dance on the way.

    Bad nose had reeled away from that blow to the temple, trying to stay on his feet, but crashing to the floor in a tangle of table and chairs. Now he was doing a push up, trying to get back up. Chance stomped the middle of his back, flattening him back to the floor, gave him another good shot to the other temple with the sap.

    Both men were out cold. He went to the front door and locked it. Got out the duct tape and made sure the two weren’t going to get back up. Then he called Phil, one of his girlfriend’s sons.

    “I’ve got a little situation,” he said.