A nearby burst of gunfire sent a family of cockatoos shrieking away into the night sky. In that moment, to my surprise and great relief, my mind became clear and focused on the job at hand. My bowels, in contrast, responded to the life-or-death situation by attempting an immediate evacuation. I managed just barely to control things by standing hunched over and hopping from one foot to the other, all the while keeping my gun pointed toward the two big rocks. Almost as loud as the birds’ screeches was the cursing that then came from Jimmy O’Shea’s men in the clearing halfway down the hill. They barked orders at one another, trying to locate the source of the gunfire (Rory I assumed, and later confirmed) which had left one of their fellows sprawled dead on the grass. In the trees behind me, something quietly snarled.
On the next hill there were shouts and gunshots and then the roar of an engine. In the clearing below, machinegun fire cracked and two more of Jimmy O’Shea’s men fell dead. Sweat beaded on my forehead. I stopped hopping—the levee was about to break. A long, Tarzan-style holler rang out up the hill. Okay, LaShawn seemed to be on top of things. Another crack in the clearing, and a scream from a wounded thug. One more crack and he stopped screaming. Rory was picking them off with frightening ease.
This was my chance.
I waddled to a nearby tree. It looked like a good spot. I could still see the big rocks, though the angle didn’t allow quite as clear a shot. By the churning in my belly, I figured I would only be there a minute. I put my gun on the ground and dropped my pants around my ankles. Leaning my back against the tree, I squatted with my feet well out in front of me. A sharp pain squeezed my gut, and then it happened. I’ll spare you the details, but if you imagine the impact of a soup-filled balloon dropped from a great height onto pavement, you’ll get the gist. I remained squatting, breathing long, relieved breaths, and dabbed the sweat from my face. Then the second wave hit. Afterward, feeling there was nothing left in my gastrointestinal tract to expel, I turned my attention to wiping. Having forgotten to gather leaves beforehand, it was with extreme thankfulness that I noticed a long mound of leaves within reach next to the tree. I plucked a handful of leaves one by one—they were kind of stuck to the pile, and I had to yank them free—and then began cleaning myself up.
Just as I was finishing up, I heard footsteps crunching up the hill. I lifted my eyes in time to see two men passing between the big rocks. Damn it, Rory had given me one job and I had stuffed it up. Well, I thought, I might still be able to take those guys out before they got any further up the hill. I heaved myself upright and away from the tree then crouched, feeling the ground—I was sure I had placed my gun only just in front of me. In the bushes to my left there was a low huffing. I kept still except for my hand, which crept around like an automatic pool cleaner, feeling in the dirt for my Uzi. Footsteps scrunched the ground. My fingertips hit something cold and hard, and… yes, gun shaped. I leaned forward and grabbed the weapon. With a click, a bright light shone in my face and I squinted and turned away.
“Drop the gun,” said an aggressive, British voice.
I froze, my thoughts racing.
“Drop the gun and stand up,” commanded the voice, “or I’ll shoot you in the face right now.”
I let go of the weapon, slowly raised my hands and stood.
“Bloody hell,” said another voice, less serious and more Scottish. “What’s going on here?”
I shielded my eyes and tried to get a look at the men before me. There were two of them, Jimmy O’Shea’s men, both armed. One was aiming a torch at my face. They were momentarily discombobulated (that’s eight) at finding me with my pants around my ankles. The Scotsman sniffed and gave a groan of disgust.
“He’s sh** himself.”
Shots fired again down the hill. An engine roared and a thick beam of light flashed and swivelled through the trees on the next hill. The two men in front of me turned to look, and I dropped to grab the Uzi at my feet. As I fumbled for the gun, half-blinded by the torch light and half-delirious with fear, the engine rumbled and the light grew brighter. My fingers were numb, I couldn’t feel a thing. A nearby bush snorted, and beside me, the long mound of leaves from which I had pinched my makeshift toilet paper crawled past me like a giant, hairy slug. A scream shot through the night and abruptly ceased, leaving a haunting echo. The two men turned back toward me.
“Grandpa,” said the leaf mound. (Or at least it sounded roughly like “Grandpa”.)
“Quick,” said the Scotsman, “shoot him!”
The British fellow levelled his gun at me. I went for the Hail Mary play and closed my fist around whatever was within grasp, hoping it would be the Uzi. A black demon beast leapt out from the bushes, knocking over the Brit, and latched its fangs onto the Scotsman’s forearm. He shrieked and dropped the torch, and the snarling beast dragged him away through the trees, thrashing him side to side like a rag doll. I rolled to the side, pants still about my ankles, and raised my hand to open fire—unfortunately my desperate, hope-for-the-best effort had left me clutching not a highly lethal automatic gun, but a small, thin stone. Though I squeezed with all my might, it did not fire any bullets. The Scotsman’s screams, somewhere in the darkness, reached a blood-curdling crescendo, then silenced. Recovering from a stunned moment of inaction, the remaining gangster got to his feet and raised his gun toward me. I squeezed the stone again—I didn’t know what else to do. The crawling leaf mound leapt up behind the gunman and took on humanoid form. With a swift, expert motion, the leaf-man slipped a wire over the man’s head and around his throat then leaned back, lifting him off his feet. A wild spurt of gunfire shot into the air, before Jimmy O’Shea’s man dropped his weapon and flailed frantically to get loose. The pair fell back onto the ground, and for a horrifying minute my would-be killer squirmed and kicked on his back like an upturned cockroach as the leaf-man sustained the choke.
The mysterious engine, now purring like a monstrous kitten, grew louder. The beam of light streamed out from the trees and onto the dirt track between the two hills. It was a headlight, a headlight guiding the tractor tyre, the tractor tyre inside which Budgie was now sitting, sitting in some gyroscopic seat rocking gently back and forward. He was wearing what appeared to be a pair of World War II pilot goggles, and his hair in a huge, tight spiral that would probably serve well as a helmet. As for the tyre, it was a rubber tank, rolling at high speed, bouncing over bumps and rocks. It was heavily weaponised, with mounted guns either side and, by the look of it, some sort of electrified lance projecting from the front. Budgie waved his hands over a holographic dashboard inside the tyre, and its weapons began firing. A rocket whooshed and sped toward the near side of the house. A second later there was a mighty crash, and a fireball rose above the trees.
I pulled up my pants and looked around for my gun (it was behind me). Carefully, I approached the gunman, who had stopped kicking. Padded steps trotted up behind me, and I turned to see the demon beast that had dragged the shrieking Scotsman to his death. It was a dog—a freaking enormous dog. Its fur was jet black; the moonlight lit up a thin streak along its back. I stood unmoving as it walked past me and then sniffed in the dirt near the dead man and the leaf pile. It snorted and locked its jaws around the dead man’s ankle, then dragged him off the leaves. The leaf-man sat up, the Goliath hound bounded over to him and licked his face, and in return he took the dog in a headlock and gave it leafy scratch under its blood-stained chin.
“Who’s a good girl?” he said.
The leaf-man stood and, with a flick of a buckle at his shoulders, shed his foliage. The leafy cloak dropped to reveal a man in combat gear, with dark face paint on his cheeks and forehead. His beard said he was crazy, but his sunken, keenly focused eyes said it was crazy on a mission. For a moment he stared at me yet seemed not to see me. The dog nuzzled his hand, he blinked and muttered to himself, and then smiled at me.
“Ezra!” I said.
“How ya going, Miles?”
“Oh man, am I glad to see you.”
“Come on,” he said. “We need to move.”
He walked back to the tree where I had left an awful mess, reached behind it and retrieved a backpack and a sniper rifle. I put my hand over my face.
“Oh, that’s so embarrassing,” I said.
I gestured to the tree. “I mean… I didn’t realise you were right there… If I had known… Oh jeez, I used your camouflage suit to wipe my butt. I’m so sorry, Ezra.”
He put the backpack on and took the rifle in hand. He came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Mate, when you’re on the front lines, there’s no such thing as decorum. You sh** when you need to. It’s just part of the job, don’t even worry about it.”
His hand moved from my shoulder to my face. Peering at me, he pressed my nose with his thumb, then pinched my cheek hard.
“Ow!” I said.
I backed up a step and rubbed my face. Ezra stared and gave a tiny nod.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
To the sound of gunfire and explosions below, we climbed through the scrub to higher ground.
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