20

“You cover me,” Aubrey said grimly from the edge of the woods. He had taken off his shirt, torn it in two, and cinched half of it around his forehead, apparently going for the Rambo look. “And if you’re thinking about scragging me, you better get it right the first time, because if you don’t, I’ll come back here and cut your goddam throat.”

“I’ll cover you,” Mel promised. And he would. At least from here at the edge of the woods, he’d be safe.

Probably.

“That crazy tweeker is not getting away with this,” Aubrey said. He was breathing rapidly, psyching himself up. “That loser. That druggie fuck.” And, raising his voice: “I’m coming for you, you nutbag druggie fuck!”

Chef had emerged from behind the Meals On Wheels truck to look at his kill. He redirected his attention to the woods just as Aubrey Towle burst from them, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Then Mel began to fire, and although the burst was nowhere near him, Chef crouched instinctively. When he did, the garage door opener tumbled from the sagging waistband of his pajama pants and into the grass. He bent to get it, and that was when Aubrey opened up with his own automatic rifle. Bulletholes stitched a crazy course up the side of the Meals On Wheels truck, making hollow punching sounds in the metal and smashing the passenger-side window to glistening crumbs. A bullet whined off the strip of metal at the side of the windshield.

Chef abandoned the garage door opener and returned fire. But the element of surprise was gone, and Aubrey Towle was no sitting duck. He was weaving from side to side and heading toward the radio tower. It wouldn’t provide cover, but it would clear Searles’s line of fire.

Aubrey’s clip ran dry, but the last bullet in it grooved the left side of Chef’s head. Blood flew and a clump of hair fell onto one of Chef’s thin shoulders, where it stuck in his sweat. Chef plopped down on his ass, momentarily lost his hold on GOD’S WARRIOR, then regained it. He didn’t think he was seriously wounded, but it was high time for Sanders to come if he could still do so. Chef Bushey stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled.

Aubrey Towle reached the fence surrounding the radio tower just as Mel opened fire again from the edge of the woods. Mel’s target this time was the rear end of the Meals On Wheels truck. The slugs tore it open in metal hooks and flowers. The gas tank exploded and the truck’s rear half rose on a cushion of flame.

Chef felt monstrous heat bake against his back and had time to think of the grenades. Would they blow? He saw the man by the radio tower aiming at him, and suddenly there was a clear choice: shoot back or grab the door opener. He chose the door opener, and as his hand closed on it, the air around him was suddenly full of unseen buzzing bees. One stung his shoulder; another punched into his side and rearranged his intestines. Chef Bushey tumbled and rolled over, once more losing his grip on the door opener. He reached for it and another swarm of bees filled the air around him. He crawled into the high grass, leaving the door opener where it was, now only hoping for Sanders. The man from the radio-tower—One brave bitter man among seven, Chef thought, yea, verily—was walking toward him. GOD’S WARRIOR was very heavy now, his whole body was heavy, but Chef managed to get to his knees and pull the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Either the clip was empty or it had jammed.

“You numb fuck,” Aubrey Towle said. “You nutbag tweeker. Tweek on this, fuckhea—”

“Claudette!” Sanders screamed.

Towle wheeled around, but he was too late. There was a short, hard rattle of gunfire, and four 7.62 Chinese slugs tore most of Aubrey’s head from his shoulders.

“Chef!” Andy screamed, and ran to where his friend knelt in the grass, blood streaming from his shoulder, side, and temple. The entire left side of Chef’s face was red and wet. “Chef! Chef!” He fell to his knees and hugged Chef. Neither of them saw Mel Searles, the last man standing, emerge from the woods and begin to walk cautiously toward them.

“Get the trigger,” Chef whispered.

“What?” Andy looked down at CLAUDETTE’s trigger for a moment, but that obviously wasn’t what Chef meant.

“Door opener,” Chef whispered. His left eye was drowning in blood; the other regarded Andy with bright and lucid intensity. “Door opener, Sanders.”

Andy saw the garage door opener lying in the grass. He picked it up and handed it to the Chef. Chef wrapped his hand around it.

“You… too… Sanders.”

Andy curled his hand over Chef’s hand. “I love you, Chef,” he said, and kissed Chef Bushey’s dry, blood-freckled lips.

“Love… you… too… Sanders.”

“Hey, fags!” Mel cried with a kind of delirious joviality. He was standing just ten yards away. “Get a room! No, wait, I got a better idea! Get a room in hell!

“Now… Sanders… now.

Mel opened fire.

Andy and Chef were driven sideways by the bullets, but before they were torn asunder, their joined hands pushed the white button marked OPEN.

The explosion was white and all-encompassing.

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