The tires slammed into the hard gravel shoulder with a harsh growl; the sound of a dog getting ready to pounce. I could feel the sweat seeping down my neck and lubricating the creases in my skin. I whipped around and saw nothing but two-lanes of flat-top bathed in northern Ontario darkness. The boomerang curve I had just ripped around was out of sight, but as of now, I could see no headlights.
That was good.
I took a second to compose myself, running a hand down my sweat-covered face, and fixing my tie in the rearview mirror. I unclipped my revolver from it’s home in my docker’s clutch behind my left arm and opened the door. I moved quickly, there was no time to waste. I glanced at the black expanse behind the car, sighed in relief and threw open the back door.
I bent inside, feeling my shirt pull from the tight grip of my belt, and grabbed the leather case from the seat. It seemed to stare at me. The twin gold latches on the front were eyes, the handle hanging down was the curved grin.
You know what you’re doing Sammy?
I snagged the handle and yanked it from the seat, slamming the door as I straightened up. My back exclaimed in protest as I did, causing me to call out in pain and fall forward into the front of the car. I reached around, placed a hand to the wound there and felt blood. I had pulled it open again. I didn’t bother with it then though, there was no time.
I looked up as wind poured itself down the funnel created by the empty chute of highway and the tall trees on either side. It squirmed and pushed its way under the open lapels of my jacket and chilled my chest.
What have you done Sammy?
I looked down at the case clutched in my hand. In the glowing moonlight, my fingers looked like they had been covered in chalk. I didn’t have much time, but I stood frozen in the middle of the right lane of Highway 60. I knew what I had done.
I had done the right thing.
I stared at the case for a second longer, willing it to contradict my thoughts. It didn’t. I wanted to put the case down, it felt almost hot against my palm, and greasy. Greasy with the blood that went into acquiring it.
I wanted to reach into my inside pocket, remove the wallet resting there, and open it to look at the single picture occupying the many plastic sleeves. Then I heard the roar of an approaching engine.
I had a second to wish I could have hid the car somewhere, before I ran around behind the trunk and down into the ditch. In the dark, it was a miracle I didn’t snap my ankle. I stumbled to one knee, feeling the wound peel open like a pair of sticky lips and belch fresh blood down into my underwear. I grimaced as I stood feeling the weight of the case in my hand. It was definitely going to slow me down.
I turned and looked at my car sitting silhouetted in the moonlight. The tires now at my eye level glinted, and then the screeching of tires announced the arrival of Clarkson and his boys. Headlights fanned around the boomerang curve and sped down toward me. I dropped to my belly, feeling the dampness of yesterday’s rain still soaking the thick boggy grass. I smelt dirt and stagnant water. A bug zipped by my ear and flew off to better places.
Three cars in all sped by, each of them ripping over 140 down Highway 60 in the middle of the night. I prayed during my escape that a moose would choose that moment to dart across the road, causing all three of their cars to meet a fiery end. It appeared my prayers were in vain.
I placed my forehead to the earth and prayed again, hoping that somehow all of them had missed the black Sedan parked on the shoulder. When I heard no screeching of tires after five seconds, my heart leapt.
Then, like the screaming of a trio of witches being burned at the steak, tires screeched against concrete, and as I lifted my head from the ground, I saw the headlights coming back in my direction.
It wasn’t over.
I got up and ran for the trees. A wide field lay before me, and after a slight rise in the earth, the trees, thick and black, stood like a wall. Only visible are the thick trunks of those trees standing in the front lines, illuminated by a faint moonlight. Behind them is blackness.
You sure you know what you’re doing Sammy?
I glanced down at the case, swinging in my hand. The ground lifted beneath me and I almost stumbled again, but with a quick foot I managed to stay upright. I reached the edge of the forest and the beam of a flashlight froze me in place.
“Going somewhere, Sammy?” The voice echoed across the field behind me, high and nasally. Barely reaching my ears through the channel of wind blowing over the empty space between the road and myself.
Keeping the case gripped tightly in my left and the gun in my right, I turned and faced them. Three beams of light, glowing like the eyes of a three eyed beast, were trained on me, all three of their holders standing on the raised mound at the top of the ditch. I knew in all three of those hand’s matching pairs was a gun; a gun with a barrel pointed directly at me.
I didn’t raise my weapon, I was outgunned and attempting a cowboy move now would only end in me earning three extra orifices.
“Just thought I take an evening hike,” I called back. “You know the trails are quietest at night Clarkson.” My mind flashed to dirt flying, a shovel in my hand, Clarkson standing beside me, holding a gun to another man’s head as I dug his grave.
“Yes, you’re right there, Sammy,” he said. His tone of voice was that of a father speaking to son. “You shouldn’t be out there, Sammy.”
“I am quite happy here,” I said. Sweat was soaking my body and the cold wind chilled me to the bone. There was silence from the road. Only the sound of the wind rushing through the trees filled the void. I thought about turning to run, but thinking about it, delayed me too long from actually doing it. Clarkson spoke again.
“Now Sammy, let’s talk about this, what do ya say?” I hated his voice. It sounded like he was speaking from behind his nose.
“Talk then,” I said. I could feel my muscles wanting to shiver, the cold rattling my body and turning my muscles into ice cubes in a glass. Clarkson sighed, the sound reaching me over the field and sounding like someone getting ready to sneeze.
“You know how this will end, Sam,” he said. There was another of those long pauses as he allowed his words to sink in. I merely waited for him to continue. I had heard this speech before, except all those times I had been the one standing beside him holding the flashlight, not the one standing alone on the other side of it. “I don’t want that, you don’t want that.”
Let’s all just work this out, I finished for him in my head.
“Let’s all just work this out,” he said.
“I know how you work things out Clarkson,” I yelled back, seeing a puff of my breath rising above my head and disappearing on the wind. “I’ve seen it enough times.”
It will be different this time.
“It will be different this time, Sammy,” he said. I could see his silhouette moving, opening his arms as if expecting me to step back to him and embrace him.
“You’re right,” I called back. “It will be different this time.” I took a slight step back, feeling the giant maple tree against my left shoulder. “I think I wi-“ I stopped talking and raised my gun aiming at the man holding the flashlight on the far right. My movement was quick, so my aim wasn’t as true as it could have been, but I knew I wouldn’t miss. The revolver created lightning in the darkness as the bullet exploded from the chamber in a flash. When I finished pulling the trigger I immediately swivelled on my back foot and planted my back against the tree, once again praying it would be thick enough to stop the bullets that were on their way. I heard a shriek of surprise and pain, enough evidence to conclude my shot had hit the mark.
Gunfire exploded from the street. The sound echoing across the darkness. The shots seemed so loud I wouldn’t have been surprised if they heard them all the way in Toronto. I counted the shots and both remaining guns were emptied into the tree behind me. Pressed into the hard bark of the tree, the cut in my back pulsed and throbbed.
I held the case in front of me, clutching it to my chest like a teddy bear. I had done this unconsciously, and with a small hiss of disgust, I placed it down between my feet. I turned and peaked around the edge of the tree. Clarkson, his silhouette almost a full foot taller than the one on his left stood in the same place. The third flashlight lay on the dirt of the shoulder, casting a random beam of light into the darkness.
“Just another one to add to your tally eh, Sammy?” Clarkson said.
“You’re one to talk about tallies, Clarkson,” I spat back.
“You don’t want to piss me off Sammy.” I laughed. Despite the fact that my heart was hammering hard enough in my chest to hurt, and my body was nearly hypothermic and bleeding from a stab wound, I was laughing. The human body was an amazing thing sometimes.
“Alright Sam, enough of this, either throw out the case, or we’re coming in to get it.” I heard the snap of his fingers, and almost stepped out from behind the tree and made my way over to him. Conditioning can be a hard thing to break sometimes. I gripped the tree bark with numb fingers and stayed where I was. I didn’t have to look to know what was coming. I heard the crunch of gravel as more pairs of feet stepped from the vehicles.
“Now, Sammy! Throw out the money.” I sighed.
“You once told me that family is the most important thing, above everything else.” I glanced down at the case between my shoes.
“Yes Sammy, I did.” I could practically hear the smile in his voice.
“You told me that we should do anything for each other.”
“Yes, Sammy.” I heaved a final sigh, getting all of the air into my lungs that I could.
“Well, this is the final order of yours I will ever listen to.” I bent, but it wasn’t the case I picked up, but a large rock, flecked with shards of quartz that glinted in the moonlight.
“Here’s the case.”
I turned from the tree, still keeping it between me and the gang at the road, but moving enough to allow me space to throw. As my arm notched back I again thought of the sole picture occupying my wallet. It was taken a few years back, before the illness, before the hospitals, before the surgeries, the meds, the pain, before all of this. I thought about my daughter’s smiling face when I told her everything was going to be alright. We needed to leave the country, but it would be okay, the new doctor would fix it. She only smiled that same smile, and nodded her head.
That was forty-eight hours ago.
I released the rock, air pushing from my lungs with the effort. I aimed for Clarkson’s head, and if I had played Little League as a kid, maybe I would have hit the mark. As it is though, I never played any sports as a kid and the rock sailed over his right shoulder and smashed the passenger window of the car behind him.
I expected a yell, a scream, any sort of angry exclamation, but there was nothing. Absolutely no response came from the other side of the field. I stared at the black column that was the tree in front of me then moved to peak at what was happening. All the time keeping in mind how quick Clarkson could be and how true his aim was.
Nobody had moved. Clarkson and the original flashlight holder still stood with the beams pointing directly at me. Now however, a cluster of shadows had appeared behind them. Clarkson silently lifted his hand and snapped his fingers. The sound like the snapping of a twig.The group behind Clarkson exploded with movement and the harsh chuckle of boots on gravel quickly turned to the hissing thump of shoes on grass as the group of shadows ran toward me.
I snatched the case from between my feet and ran into the darkness.
It didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t going to get far with the case. It was as heavy as a cinder block and just as awkward. Shrubbery snagged it, trees bumped it sending me spinning in half circles like a drunken running back, and my shoulder soon ached with fiery pain from the relentless weight.
I don’t know how long I ran for, but eventually I was more climbing than running. I cursed myself for not carrying a flashlight with me, as I stumbled continuously, bashing my knees on hard granite, and listening to the constant ripping coming from the knees of my pants as I went down. I could feel blood pouring into my shorts again, and my knees soon joined the symphony of pain that was becoming my body. I heaved myself over rocks, pulling the case along behind me, using thin sapling trees and bigger rocks to haul myself ever upward. I glanced quickly up the hill, not wanting to take my eyes from my feet for too long, and through the sweat stinging my eyes, I could see faint moonlight through the wall of trees. The trees started to thin a few yards ahead of me and appeared as if a clearing was up ahead.
As it turned out, not having a flashlight worked to my advantage. As the group of shadows entered the trees, each of them flicked on a light, however, they spent more time using them to navigate their footsteps then actually keeping them trained on me. I was able to drift left of the group, trying to get them to reach the clearing first. If my memory served, the clearing ahead would be Horizon’s End. The tallest cliff face in Algonquin Park.
I stopped shy of the clearing, the moonlight now permeating the thinning canopy and turning everything a few shades brighter. The group was closing in, their muffled voices drifting through the trees and their flashlight beams cutting the darkness like glowing elongated knife blades. I whipped around, searching frantically for a place to hide, knowing the edge of the cliff would only leave me a sitting duck. To my left, a fallen tree affronted the moonlight like an aggressive streak of black marker across a sheet of grey construction paper. I ran to it and hurdled over the top. The case slammed into my knee as I did and I had to bite back a scream of pain as I landed on the hard ground. I just made it.
A beam of light stabbed through where I had just been standing. I glanced up and watched it scan the darkness above the fallen tree before disappearing. I released breath in a rattling wave. I listened as the group debated which way I could have gone. I craned my ears, held my breath and attempted to get some gauge on which direction they were heading. Slowly, the voices started to drift from my left to my right. Why would they be approaching the cliff?
Some morbid curiosity causing them to go peak and see if I had fallen to my death, or was it a trap? I risked a quick glance over the tree, the pain in my knee throbbing as I used it to push myself up.
The group, I could see there were five of them now, stood in a tight cluster at the edge of Horizon’s End. Each man was probing the darkness over the edge of the cliff with their flashlight.
I saw my opportunity.
Whether it was a trap or not, I needed to do something. I was stuck. I had ran myself into a bottleneck and the only way out was over the cliff or Clarkson and his boys. So, the chance to rid the world of five scumbags in one go was just too good to pass up. I had to do something with the case though. I would need both hands for this. My gun was out of the question. As good of a shot as I was, I would only be able to down two, perhaps three of them before the remaining ones turned me into a human stick of Swiss cheese. No, I had to do something else, and I already knew what that was.
I turned, trying not to make a sound, kneeling to keep myself hidden. I started to feel around for space beneath the tree to slide the case. My hands slid through the wet leaves and pine needles coating the rocky surface. I pushed more ground cover aside, then nothing. I was like a blind man feeling for a point of reference. My hand moved through nothing but thin air. I pressed my cheek into the fallen tree and prospected further; more nothing, more nothing, then rock. My fingertips struck first, then I pulled my hand back and felt rock again. In the dark I knew I had found the perfect place. I reached back and grabbed the case, sliding it on it’s belly into the crack.
I held onto the handle for a second longer, praying for the third time that day that the crack was only a shallow one and not one of those canyons that seemed to go all the way to hell. I heaved breath, watching the beams of light still investigating the cliff’s edge.
I gripped the handle for a moment longer. Watching the beams of light still prospecting over the edge of the cliff. I imagined the deep chasm I was about to drop the case into. I could practically hear the thuds and bumps as it fell down, deep into the earth, sliding through cracks and crannies like a gum ball falling through one of those elaborate machines. I thought the men around the edge of the cliff looked like they would soon realize there was nothing to find over the black edge of the bluff, so I heaved in a final breath. I told myself that compared to the trouble I had already gone through to obtain the case, crawling through a few tight spaces and dark cracks would be a cake walk. I didn’t think it would come to that though. I let go of the handle.
I could smell the dank odour of wet wood and could hear the crunching of the group’s feet but I could hear nothing from the crack beneath me. As if I had dropped the case into a black hole and it had disappeared. My heart sank, with every moment I heard nothing my heart sank further, instead of the case it was my heart I had dropped instead. Finally, after what seemed like hours I heard a crunch. It was faint, but it was there. I told myself it sounded like a crunch of twigs and dried leaves, like I had dropped it into a pile of old spring runoff. It made sense, heavy rain tended to wash all sorts of debris into these crevices.
That was a problem for later though, I had bigger fish to fry, five of them to be exact. Taking a final glance over the fallen tree, making sure none of them were looking my way, I crept into the darkness around the far edge of the tree. I used the darkness to my advantage and the massive maples rooted in the rock for cover. I searched for a log, thin enough for me to carry, but thick enough to hold the weight of five grown men. Luck was with me. I found an old downed sapling that wasn’t surrounded by too much foliage. I didn’t want to have to pull anything loose and get the attention of the group at the cliff. It came up rather easily though, and moving slowly I crept back out of the trees bent low, holding the log beside me like I meant to pole vault with it.
I knew the view from Horizon’s End was a great one. It offered kilometres and kilometres of Algonquin forest that seemed to go on forever. Now however, as I approached the group at a run, holding the stick out sideways, the view was nothing but black. The rock, glowing grey in the moonlight, merely disappeared and melded with the black only a foot from where they all stood.
My device worked perfectly, well, nearly perfectly. While still a few steps from the group, the man on the far left turned and our eyes met. A combination of fear, anger, and determination flew from my mouth in a scream. This caused the other four to turn around, all four turning around a once like it had been choreographed. They didn’t have time to raise their guns. The first man did though. He raised his gun and I stared down a barrel that looked as wide as a a subway tunnel. I heard the blast as he pulled the trigger. The bullet droned by my left ear like the worlds biggest bee, then the log I was holding struck all five of them and swept them off the cliff. The wind chose that moment to gust, rushing up from the ground far below the cliff’s rocky peak and lifting the only part of those men it could; their screams. I was greeted with a hurricane of them. They echoed around my head like stubborn mosquitos and seemed to go on for far too long. I knew Horizon’s End was high, but I didn’t know how high until that moment. I guess any height would seem high when it is gauged in screams. I threw the log over to join them and as I did each of them cut off one after the other like someone running around a TV store and slamming down power buttons.
I took a breath, feeling the cold wind on my face and allowing myself, for the first time during the whole ordeal to think about the idea that I may make it out alive. The idea was always lingering at the back of my mind. I had put a curtain in front of it, but I could still feel its presence. Now, I pulled the curtain back and peaked in, but not for long.
My mind was just turning back to the case when I felt something cold and metallic press into the place where my spine connected to my skull. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time someone had placed a gun to the back of my head, so the sensation wasn’t a new one, this didn’t dull the flood of fear, anger and adrenaline that flooded my veins like the gun barrel had pushed some invisible button. I felt the first drops of rain beginning to fall on my face, the strong wind carrying the storm in with ease.
“Put your hands behind you, Sammy,” Clarkson asked. His nasally voice rising slightly to be heard over the strong wind. I slowly moved my hands behind my back, I really didn’t have much of a choice. Staring into the black in front of me, trying not to imagine what it would be like to take the same trip that my five friends just did, I tried to think my way out. “Good,” he reached around me without a word and pulled my revolver from its place under my left arm. He tossed it over the edge. I watched it cartwheel through the darkness and disappear. “Now, where’s the case, Sammy?”
“Not here obviously,” I spat. I was scared, damn terrified, but I knew I had the advantage here. Clarkson couldn’t kill me, at least not yet, or else he would never get his precious case back.
“So tell me where,” he said. He tried to keep the anger out of his voice, but he failed. I’d been with Clarkson’s gang for close to four years and I’d seen him angry countless times. He played the cool cat, but lurking behind the first corner was a rabid dog.
“Why should I?” I said.
“Well, this gun should be convincing enough, or maybe the nice trip to the bottom of Horizon’s End that awaits you if you don’t.” I laughed. The sound carried out over the cliff’s edge like a string of invisible balloons.
“You won’t kill me, Clarkson,” I said, turning and slapping the pistol out of my face. He took a quick step back from my sudden movement, and raised the gun back to face-level. The barrel was practically wrapped around my nose. I glared down the cold length of metal into his eyes. He stared back, a crooked smile on his face.
“Why are you so sure?” he asked. I opened my mouth to tell him what I had reasoned out before, but he cut me off. “Oh, you probably think I won’t kill you because then I will never find the case.” I tried to stay calm. I could feel the drop behind me now, the vast emptiness pulling at my back like a magnet.
“I’ll tell you Sammy, $500,000 may be enough to remove the rotten grape inside your daughter’s skull, but unlike you, I won’t get myself killed for it.
“You’re the one with the gun here, Clarkson,” I said. I was merely grasping for time now.
“Yes, but I know they didn’t call you Slick Sam for nothing.” He took back his retraced step. “Last chance, tell me and maybe I’ll just shoot you instead of making you jump.”
My eyes never left his. I could feel the tears, hot and acidic behind my eyes. The anger surged in my body and my limbs started to shake.
If I go Clarkson, you’re going with me. I promise you that.
“I think I’d rather let Mother Nature keep the money then let you have your greasy hands on it.”
I heard the gun go off and my eyes instinctively clamped shut. I waited for the pain, or perhaps there would be no pain. I would be..well…wherever you end up when you’ve reached the end of the road. It was about the time I realized I was still thinking that I felt the searing pain. It started in my left thigh where it felt like someone had stabbed me with a red-hot poker. The knife wound in my back felt like a tickle with a feather duster compared to this.
“You son of a bitch,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Where is it, Sam?” he asked.
“Blow it out your ass, Clarkson,” I spat. The barrel left my face and the gun went off again. I felt the bullet enter the meaty muscle of my thigh, like a fist punching into deep snow, but I didn’t feel the pain. I looked down and saw the ragged hole in my jeans where the slug had entered. I don’t know where the pain went, slipped out the other side of me along with the bullet perhaps. I knew then I was in trouble.
Another gust of wind rocked the cliff’s edge swaying us both on our feet; with my weakened leg I almost fell over.
“Ready to talk yet?” he asked. I didn’t answer this time. Black wings were starting to flutter over my vision and I realized that last shot must have severed something very important. I could feel blood filling my shoe.
It was time to move. Fast.
As if my thoughts had summoned it, the rain came rushing in. I was beyond feeling now, but I knew Clarkson wasn’t. His eyes slitted against the onslaught of water and his gun wavered for the first time. I dipped left, and if my leg had been uninjured the ruse would have worked perfectly, as it was though, it hardly moved with the rest of my body, as responsive to my brain’s signals as a black of wood. It still worked though, and with a staggering lurch I lunged at Clarkson with both arms up.
I knew the money was gone. I knew my daughter was gone, and I knew I was gone. I tried to reason that my daughter would be happier on the other side. No more doctors, no more hospitals, no more tests, no more pain. But Clarkson was still to be held responsible. If not for him she could have had at least a fighting chance at life. He had killed her, and now I was going to kill him.
He got off two more shots before my hands were around his neck. I felt new holes in my arm and my stomach, but this didn’t stop me. He released a startled gasp when my cold wet fingers first touched the skin of his neck, then it was choked off as I clenched down. Water leaked down into my eyes and soaked into my clothes. I was already soaked though, soaked in my own blood. The gun went off a few more times. I couldn’t tell the bullets found their mark or not.
Biting back the darkness behind my eyelids I started to turn Clarkson around so that he was at the cliff’s edge. When he realized what I meant to do, he started to struggle harder. Bucking his body and slamming fists into my face and sides, foam spraying from his strangling mouth, he tried to free himself.
I got him where I wanted, then the power clicked off.
My eyes went black and my muscles slack. It must have only been a split second, like a short power surge on a TV, because my hands never moved from Clarkson’s neck. Through my loosened grip though, he managed a choked breath.
“Sammy, stop, please,” he gasped. He meant to say more, but I choked it off. I had him at the edge.
An abyss of blackness lay three feet behind his heels. I fainted again. My last realization being that I was falling forward. I tried to push Clarkson, but I wasn’t sure how much strength I mustered.
It must have been enough. When I came back to reality, for what would be the last time, I was laying flat out on the rock, a flat tilted surface like the world’s shortest slide to nowhere.
I was sliding forward, something was pulling me.
I willed strength, using muscles and nerves that felt like they were covered with sand, and opened my eyes.
He was only a head with arms, the rest was gone. Rain pelted into his upturned face which was strained with the effort of pulling on my arm. He was using it as support. I wanted to stop him but the black wings were already fluttering behind my eyes and it was taking all my effort just to stay conscious. I smiled. It took every once of concentration and strength I had, but I managed. Clarkson had sealed his own fate.
“Sam, Sammy, help,” each word coming between grunts of effort as he tried to haul himself back from the edge of death using my arm. He was having trouble though. The last bullet wound he’d put into my arm had made it slick with blood, and his hands slid through it like he were trying to grip a stick of butter.
He slipped back, lunged again, his eyes wide with fear, slid back and lunged forward, missed, and was gone. Both arms and his head vanishing in a blink.
I listened to him scream. Through the driving rain I craned my ears for it. With that done, the wings started to flutter again, creeping over my vision like a living cataract.
I let it come.
I was aware of still sliding forward and somewhere, back in the depths of my mind a voice was telling me this was bad, I was going to fall down.
I ignored it though, and the last thing I registered was the sensation of falling, not down though, but up.