For an instant, I disconnected. My eyes and ears were screaming at me to move away from two tons of mini-van charging over the damp, sand encrusted asphalt, but it didn’t seem to register. I needed the last bullet in my gun and couldn’t use it. Not here, not just to save my worthless carcass.
Then I remembered the desperate, searching eyes of Paula. And I knew right there, that I’d do anything in my power to see them again. I watched as my arm snapped to attention and pointed the chrome-plated deliverer of death at the van. I didn’t feel myself pull the trigger, just the concussion of sound and air, as the van’s front passenger side tire exploded. The smell of burning rubber and exhaust hit me, as the diver over compensated and veered the van smack into a pine tree on my side of the road.
Forcing myself to my feet, I lumbered over to the van just as Zeezi opened the door. He must’ve hit his face on the steering wheel, because there was a black mark on his face from where he hit the black leather wheel cover and he touched his front teeth carefully, as if they were coming loose from the impact. A trickle of blood ran down his face. “Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus,” he whined. “I think my front teeth are loose. My caps are comin’ off. Did I hit my face?”
“Get in the woods,” I growled. “And if you make one more God damned sound I’ll blow your head off.”
As we headed off into the woods, the sun began to rise and the dark forest shadows gave way to gray skies and a light rain. Back at the campsite, Paragon decided it would be more comfortable to wait in the limo. Gino, Al and Tommy were busy trying to push the vehicle out of the Pine Barrens sand. It was a hopeless case.
“Are we movin’?!” Joe shouted back to them, trying to drive with one hand.
“You feel like you’re movin’, stunod?” gestured Al. “Give me a sec, here. I need a drink of water or somethin’.”
Paragon was “entertaining” Taylor and Paula inside the limo. He plied Paula with drinks, which she refused, and mostly just let Taylor sit there. He poured a drink of water for Al and prepared to step out of the limo.
“Excuse me,” he apologized to Paula.
Paragon got out of the limo and walked to Al. He threw the drink in his face.
“I told you to watch the God damned car!”
“I did, Mr. Giovanni. I didn’t see him slash the tires, it was too dark,” insisted Al.
“Did you at least find the hiker?” said Paragon, lowering his voice.
“No, but if we didn’t find him, the rangers won’t and by that time...” concluded Tommy.
“You woulda grow a brain in your head. Christ, how are we gonna get out of here?” muttered Paragon.
“We’ll just follow the road back,” said Tommy simply.
“Yeah,” said Paragon with confrontation in his voice. “What road is that, Tommy?”
For the first time, Joe, Gino, Tommy and Al looked back the way they had came. The thin grass, which the limo had trampled on the way in, had bounced back. It was if the entire forest had swallowed up the road. Already Paragon seemed to lose his sense of perspective. The limo had shifted during the attempts to move it and now the most likely direction to begin walking could be one of many choices.
“Joe and I could start walkin’ back,” offered Gino. “We’ll pick up a car and come back.”
“How are you gonna find us?” said Giovanni, growing in frustration. “You fuckin’ Grizzly Adams now, Gino?”
“But, Mr. G---”
“But nothing, you could be wanderin’ around for days out here.”
Paragon suddenly got an idea and pulled Taylor roughly out of the van.
“All right, white bread,” said Paragon insistently. “I want to know where your car is parked and how to get there.”
“I-it’s back at the college,” said Taylor quickly. “We hiked for 30 miles to get here.”
“Fuck!” said Paragon to no one in particular, pounding his gun against the hood of the limo.
“B-but there’s a ranger station n-not far,” he spurted.
Paula glared at him, as if betrayed somehow, then looked away.
“All right get back in the car,” instructed Paragon. “Gentlemen, we have a major fuckin’ crisis, here.”
“C’mon, boss,” assured Al. “Let’s do these two and start walkin’ back. We’ll catch up with Sal eventually.”
“Yeah, Al, we would, but we can’t kill ‘em here. This limo is one of mine and can be traced back to me, along with this.”
Paragon pressed a button on his key chain the trunk popped. He gestured for Tommy to open the lid and he did so. Inside were boxes full bullets, two Tech-9’s, two assault rifles and an uzi. There were exactly 2 clips for each gun.
“All right,” said Paragon, forming a plan. “I’ll report the limo stolen. We’ll take the license plates with us. You two take white bread and find the ranger station. We’ll catch up after we do the hermit.”
Tommy and Joe nodded in approval, as if they had a choice in the matter, loaded some of Paragon’s hardware and herded a terrified Taylor into the woods.
Some distance away, Zeezi had finally complained enough that I granted him a respite from our hike. Along the way, I spotted what looked like a humming bird, who’s nest was made in a human skull, which hung in a pine tree between two bare branches.
“Jesus,” said Zeezi, looking into the direction of my stare. “What sick fuck would put---”
“Probably just plastic,” I concluded. “People dump all kinds of weird shit back here.”
“Yeah, sure,” agreed Zeezi, continuing.
We dismissed the odd ornament and continued. Yet, somewhere above, in the darkness of the trees, I knew there was more to these bones. A whole skeleton perhaps, its ribcage splayed open and its bones contorted in whatever last desperate movement it made before death. I was circling the camp in a wide berth to keep Paragon and the others confused. Wheezing, Zeezi flopped down on a rotted stump and continued to try and con me.
“Whatever’s Paragon’s payin’ you,” he panted. “I’ll double it. You do him and I’ll fuckin’ quadruple it. I got more money in my pocket than that old fuck has in the bank.”
I took out the well worn piece of gold and placed it in the sand in front of me.
“What’s that? That real? You like gold, huh? Can’t blame you, money it ain’t worth shit these days,” Zeezi agreed. “All right, this guy I know, owns a coin shop over on Tasker--- Hook you up with whatever you want. Silver, gold, jewelry...”
“I don’t want your money,” I finally said, too irritated to let him continue. “And I don’t intend on killing you unless I have to.”
“All right, all right,” he relented. “What is that? What’s it for?”
“It’s a Spanish doubloon,” I explained. “Found it in a stream when I was fishing a few years ago. It’s part of the treasure Captain Kidd buried in the Pine Barrens. He beheaded one of his men so his ghost would guard the treasure.”
“Hmm,” replied Zeezi, mildly entertained. “Guess he’s not doin’ his job.”
“Oh,” I smiled sinisterly. “He’s never far off. It’s his anchor. Ghosts need that kind of thing, so they can remember why they’re here.”
“That’s true, that’s true,” agreed Zeezi, laughing to himself.
“Nate,” I called. “Nate, I know you can hear me, just get over here.”
“Is he here?” asked Zeezi, continuing to mock me.
“No,” I answered, picking up the coin. “But he will be, or I’ll chuck this worthless piece of shit onto the highway so some lucky camper can pay for his vacation. Nate!”
The fear drained away from Zeezi’s eyes. I was no longer a threat, just a crazy to be humored until Zeezi could gain the confidence of my imaginary friend. He would bolt on me soon or try to take the gun away. I knew Nate could hear me. He’d wait until that last second, when, frustrated, I pulled back my arm to heave the coin and---
“Wait, guv!” he said, stopping short and dropping his head onto the ground. “Cor’! You know what that piece o’ eight’s worth today? Camper my arse!”
Zeezi, of course, could not hear or see Nate, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable as I continued my conversation with what he perceived as the thin air. Nate put his head back onto his neck. It was always just a little crooked, like him.
“Is he one of yours?” I asked, already tiring of his company.
“Dunno. Suppose ‘e could be, I always liked a nice young, guinea strumpet,” grinned the ghostly old pervert. “Only one way to find out, eh?”
Zeezi was about to ask me if he could go to the bathroom, when I suddenly turned to him, dropped the doubloon, pointed the gun and said, “Pick it up.”
“Pick up the doubloon.”
“B-but, why?” asked Zeezi, increasingly worried.
“Because this way, I can find out if you are related to a 300 year-old, piece of shit buccaneer named Nate.”
“Now,” I insisted, cocking the hammer of the gun. “Pick up the doubloon.”
Trembling by my sudden bizarre interest in the coin, Zeezi cautiously picked up the hunk of gold. Nate’s semi-transparent form dove into his chest giving the balding gangster a start. The old pirate seem to relish the fear in his victim’s head, as he temporarily shoved his soul aside and borrowed his body. Only I could see the ghostly edges of Nate’s form sticking out from Zeezi’s body. His hat and boots most noticeably.
“Bloody ‘ell!” said Nate with Zeezi’s mouth distastefully. “What’s this bloke been eating?”
“Put the coin in his other hand,” I instructed. “And don’t drop it.”
“Right, right,” replied Nate/Zeezi routinely. “I ‘ave done this before.”
“Whatever you do, don’t get him killed,” I explained pulling out the sharpened penknife I had in my shoe and pushing Zeezi’s other hand into position.
“I’ll do me best. Believe me, this place is too crowded as is! Who would’ve thought,” he said, admiring Zeezi’s clothes and jewelry with interest. “That one of my descendants would reach these exalted ‘eights of wealth an’ influence.”
“Yeah, well, I’m gonna be borrowing the pinky ring.”
Nate finally realized what I was doing, but it was too late. I cut off Zeezi’s pinky with one precision cut. The pirate and Zeezi’s scream echoed through the pines along with the rest of the animal cries.
At the same time, Taylor had led Tommy and Joe to the ranger station. Joe was cradling a Tech-9, which was small enough that he could conceal behind the flap of his jacket. Tommy held an uzi with both hands behind his back. There was no way to hide an uzi. Tommy gestured for Taylor to knock and the shaken college student knocked on the cabin door. When there was no answer, Tommy kicked in the door.
Inside there was a radio, a map of the area, a phone, a desk and a few other Spartan furnishings. This remote location was used infrequently by the rangers, who used it mostly to store outdated files in the cabinets in the back room.
“Okay,” he instructed Joe. “Call Vito, tell him to send Vince down here with another car. Not a limo though.”
“Not a caddy,” asked Joe, as if that were beneath Paragon.
“Hey, it’s an emergency, we need to be inconspicuous. Bring a van, I don’t give a fuck,” said Tommy, then turning to Taylor. “You, watch for the ranger.”
“Yes, sir,” obeyed Taylor.
Joe made the arrangements. Vince would drive to a spot near or around the ranger station and spirit them all to more familiar climes in Atlantic City. Tommy gestured for Joe to skip the usual bullshit talk, but Joe waved him off, overconfident of their escape. Taylor spotted a packed mini-van with a spare donut pull up outside, but waited until the last possible second to inform his captors. Jackson got out of the van first and jogged ahead of his yuppie companions.
“Someone’s coming,” said Taylor finally.
“Be cool,” instructed Joe. “Don’t let him see us.”
But Jackson was too close to the station already, he spotted Tommy crouching behind the ranger’s desk. He pulled out his gun.
“It’s them!” screamed Jackson, running back to the van. “The guys that are after Sinatra!”
Panicking, Tommy and Joe forced Taylor out of the office and used him as a shield. They fired indiscriminately at Jackson and the van. Mike had already abandoned his driver’s seat to fall to the ground and aim his breech loader. One of the bullets grazed Joe’s arm, the same arm I had stabbed the previous evening.
At the same time, I was making my move to save Paula and quite possibly, Sal Zeezi. Gino and Al were comparing brands of cigars when I stepped into the clearing unarmed. They aimed their guns at me.
“Mr. Giovanni,” called Gino.
Paragon stepped out of the limo and looked at me as if I was annoying waiter who brought him his steak too late.
“So?” he asked.
“Let them go,” I pleaded. “They’re too scared to finger you.”
“Maybe, depends if you did the job or not.”
“I got Zeezi tied to a tree,” I explained. “He’ll get loose eventually and only I can take you to him.”
“Not that I don’t trust you,” he laughed. “But how do I know that?”
I tossed Zeezi’s pinky and pinky ring on the ground in front of him. Even Al got a little queasy.
“What are you? FUCKING NUTS?!” snapped Paragon.
The distraction was enough to give Nate/Zeezi enough time to step into the clearing behind Gino and Al.
“Don’t move,” he instructed. “Lest’ you want an iron ball b’tween yer shoulder blades.”
“Sal?” said Gino, unused to the English accent coming out of Sal’s mouth.
Nate/Zeezi grabbed Gino’s gun and tossed it to me. Paula, who was sitting at the open door of the limo, took Paragon’s gun and Nate/Zeezi took Al’s, which was an assault rifle.
“For once you didn’t screw it up,” I complimented Nate.
“Well, it would’ve been a bit easier, if you ‘adn’t done dis!” objected Nate, waving Zeezi’s bloody pinky nub at me. “I think you enjoyed that.”
“Where’s Taylor and the other two?” I asked Paula.
Paula was staring at the severed pinky on the ground. She inhaled and composed herself again.
“They forced him to take them to the ranger station,” she replied. “It’s about---”
“I know where it is,” I interrupted. “Odds are, no one’s there.
“Hey, Sal, you know it wasn’t anything personal, right?” Paragon bargained. “Let’s just make bygones be bygones. Whatdaya say, huh?”
Nate/Zeezi snickered, thoughtfully listening to the possessed gangster’s response before responding.
“Sal says--- Well, he just cursing like a sailor. And I should know, ‘ey? What a pathetic lot you are, you’d alla been keel hauled on yer first trip. Least, that’s what I woulda done.”
“He’s fuckin’ looney tunes,” gasped Paragon in fright.
Nate jammed the barrel of the gun at Paragon.
“Nate,” I ordered. “Keep your distance.”
“Aye, cap’n,” he reluctantly agreed.
“Stay here,” I instructed Paula. “If any of them give you trouble, don’t take any chances. Even with Sal over there.”
“You mean--- Just shoot them?” she whispered in horror.
“You may not have a choice,” I said grimly. “Sit tight, I’ll be right back.”
As I ran in the direction of the ranger station, I became more aware of the woods we’d been so blithely trespassing in. It was dense, thick and mostly untouched woods. Somehow the companies and the campers and the map makers must’ve missed this area. There was something pristine and primal about it. The dark canopy of trees made it almost like night.
Suddenly, Taylor staggered into the path in front of me. His face was frozen in absolute terror. His hair now showing wisps of white.
“Taylor,” I called. “Where’s the other two?”
“D-d-d-d-d-” he stammered incoherently.
Looking down at him I noticed some blood. His leg was broken near the ankle and he had been running on the snapped stump for several seconds. Perhaps the pain was finally reaching his brain, because he screamed with the kind of wholehearted forcefulness of a man who had lost all hope. I pulled him to the ground to help set his leg, but it was then I heard the breaking of branches just ahead and above me.
Joe came crashing through the trees and his limp, broken body got caught in the branches of a great pine. His chest had been ripped open by what looked like an animal. Then I looked up and saw it for the first time. My mouth was agape in awe and my eyes froze open. I could not take my eyes off of it. It was inconceivable to me, yet there it was.
Leathery wings with a span of about 25 feet, two distinctively hornlike objects on its head, a beak, which was stained bloody, dripping with flesh. Taylor looked up and screamed what my mind could not accept.