The flat punch of the explosion ripped through the air. The cop’s face disintegrated in a mess of red, and he was sent sprawling backwards with the impact of the heavy bullet. He flopped down into the dirt, legs kicking.
Then Jones cocked the.475 revolver a second time and shot the other cop before he had time to react. The bullet caught him in the chest, blowing his heart and lungs out through his spine. Blood spattered against the windscreen of the police cruiser. The cop crumpled into the dust without a sound.
For a moment nobody moved.
The report of the gun rolled around the open countryside. The two cops lay motionless. Jones turned his back on them.
Ben stared at Jones, and then at the other agents. One of them was grinning. Two were impassive. Then he saw the expression of horror on the woman’s face. She hadn’t been expecting that.
‘Hell of a kick these things have got,’ Jones mused, weighing the big revolver in his hand. He took off his dark glasses and fixed Ben with a wry look. ‘Looks like you’re in deep shit now, Mr Ben Hope.’
Ben stood away from the Chrysler. He pointed at the two dead cops. ‘Why did you do that?’
‘I didn’t,’ Jones said. ‘You did. We all saw you do it. It’s your gun, your prints all over it.’
‘What do you want from me?’
Jones smiled. ‘Answers. But not here.’
He walked up to Ben. The smile was gone now. He cocked the pistol again and stuck it in his face. ‘You’re under arrest, cop-killer.’
Ben looked around him at the agents. Five on the ground, at least two more behind the tinted glass of the cars. He evaluated distances, positions, body language. His eyes flicked from Jones to the muzzle of the gun and then back again. This was the second time in a few minutes that someone had pointed a pistol at him like this. He’d let the young cop do it to him, but there was no way he was going to tolerate it from this guy.
Besides, Jones had just made a big tactical error. Maybe he was too used to pointing a short, stubby Glock or SIG in people’s faces. Or maybe he was just cocky and showing off in front of the others, like some kind of movie hero. But the long barrel on the hunting revolver meant that its muzzle was just four inches from Ben’s head.
One of the first lessons he’d been taught, many years before, was never to hold a gun too close to the other guy. It was just asking for trouble. An expert military shooter would stand back and keep some distance between himself and his enemy, precluding any attempt at a disarming move. And disarming moves were something that had been instilled in Ben through endless training. They’d saved his life more times than he cared to remember.
He debated it for an instant. Could he do it?
The move took less than a second. He grabbed the end of the barrel and jerked it sharply back towards Jones’s face. The curved edge of the revolver’s ebony butt caught the agent right in the teeth and smashed through them into his mouth.
Jones screamed, blood spraying from his lips. Ben yanked the gun back the other way, tearing it out of the man’s fingers. Jones went down onto his back in the dirt, writhing and clutching his face, pieces of teeth spilling out from between his fingers.
Then before anyone could react, Ben was hitting the deck, rolling fast in the dust, grabbing his bag, reaching for the latch on the Chrysler’s door. He ripped it open and threw himself behind it, using it as a shield, just as the agents pulled their guns.
There was a ragged volley of gunfire. Bullets thudded into the door.
He cocked the gun and was about to shoot back, but then hesitated. Did he really want to do this? Getting into a gun battle with government agents was a lot more trouble than he’d reckoned on. He didn’t want to hurt anyone unless he had to.
But something was telling him he had to. One of the agents was in his sights. No point in shooting to wound with a gun like this. Going for the shoulder would tear off an arm and kill the guy anyway from blood loss and shock. He fired, dead centre of mass. The gun boomed and kicked savagely, and the target went down like a tree.
More gunfire tore through the bodywork of the Chrysler. Ben half stood up behind the bullet-riddled door. The woman had her pistol levelled at him. She was looking right down the sights at him. Only had to pull the trigger.
But something told him she wouldn’t shoot. So he shot the agent next to her instead. The bullet sent the guy spinning violently back against one of the big black SUVs.
Two more agents had spilled out of the black Chevrolets and were tearing guns from holsters.
Ben leaped into the Chrysler, threw himself down into the footwell. He twisted the key, threw it in drive, one hand on the wheel and the other punching down hard on the gas. The big car lurched violently forward, wheels spinning, door flapping open. He drove blind for twenty yards, staying down as bullets smashed through the bodywork and shattered windows sprayed him with broken glass, then hauled himself up into the seat as the Chrysler swerved wildly down the road.
The agents were running back to their cars. The woman was helping Jones to his feet. Then the black SUVs were spinning their wheels in the dust and coming after him.
The twisting country road was empty and Ben used all of it, clipping the apex left and right as the heavy car slewed on soft suspension. The windscreen was an opaque web of cracks. He used the barrel of the revolver to knock away the shattered glass. Wind roared into the car. A straight opened up ahead of him. The needle climbed. Eighty. Ninety.
They were still right behind him. The revolver had one round left. It wasn’t a gun he could reload on the move, like any modern automatic. It was a hunter’s gun. A gun for a patient man. Every cartridge case had to be hand-ejected and reloaded one at a time. No good at all.
A shot boomed out and Ben ducked as the wing mirror and most of the window pillar was torn away in a storm of plastic and metal fragments. He threw a glance over his shoulder and saw the agent hanging out of the window of one of the SUVs, the wind tearing at his hair and clothes, bringing a stubby shotgun back to aim. Another shot, and a wad of lead pellets ripped through the Chrysler and took a bite out of the seat next to him.
Swerving all over the road, Ben reached out behind him with the revolver. Last shot. He fired without aiming. The recoiling pistol almost took his hand off as the huge bullet cannoned through what was left of the back window and smashed into the front of the SUV. In the mirror the big vehicle skidded, slewed sideways and rolled. The shotgun shooter was spat out of the window as the car flipped over, wreckage spilling across the road. The second vehicle swerved around it and kept coming.
Ben was driving like he’d never driven in his life. More shots rang out. There was a bend up ahead in the narrow road, trees and bushes on both sides. He threw the Chrysler into it.
An old man was leading a mule across the road, right in front of him.
He instinctively twisted the wheel and the car sailed off the road. It smashed through the foliage. Branches speared through the broken windows. He was almost shaken out of the seat with the juddering impact as the Chrysler hurtled down a bank.
For a second he thought he could see a way through, and that he was going to make it.
But then, too late, he saw the fallen tree-trunk. There was nothing he could do.
The Chrysler was still doing about fifty when it crunched into the trunk. Ben was thrown forward violently into the inflating airbag. The rear of the car rose up, wheels spinning, engine roaring. The Chrysler turned right over on its nose and then came smashing down on its roof.
The impact stunned him for an instant. There was ringing in his ears and the taste of blood on his lips. He was upside down, wedged against the steering wheel with the buckled roof pressing hard on his shoulder.
Running footsteps, a cracking of twigs. Voices. A cry of ‘Down there!’
He kicked against the dashboard, forcing his body out through the buckled window. He somehow managed to get himself twisted round, and crawled out of the wrecked car. Then he reached back inside the window and grabbed his bag and the empty Linebaugh. An unloaded gun was still a better weapon than bare hands.
He was in dense thicket, tangled thorn bushes sprawling all around him like coils of barbed wire, tearing at his hands and face as he struggled to get away. He broke free of them, staggered to his feet and glanced around him, breathing hard, heart pounding, forcing his brain to focus after the numbing impact of the crash. Trees and bushes blocked his view in all directions. He could hear voices through the screen of vegetation behind him. He slung the bag over his shoulder and broke into a sprint, ripping through the scrub and darting through the narrow gaps in the trees.
He beat back a low branch and suddenly there was an agent standing there, gun raised. Ben didn’t slow down. He slid to the ground and skidded through the dirt with his right leg straight out in front of him. His foot caught the man’s knee and brought him down. The 9mm pistol in the agent’s hand went off, the shot going wide. Then Ben was on top of him, and clubbed him hard over the head with the butt of the empty revolver. The agent went limp in the dirt, still clutching his pistol. Ben tossed the hunting revolver into the bushes and ripped the 9mm from the guy’s fingers. The magazine was full. The ugly black steel was comforting in his hand.
But now the echoing report of the gunshot over the treetops had drawn the others. He could hear the voices converging on him, and the crackle and rustle as they came chasing through the bush. They were close.
He ran on. The dry red earth underfoot turned to slippery mud as he stumbled into a stream. He leaped over rocks and scrambled up the opposite bank, fingers raking in the dirt.
The woodland was thickening now. He clambered over fallen trees and through sprawling thickets of thorns. Then the foliage parted and he could see a grassy rise up ahead. He made for it, away from the voices. There was still a chance of escape.
The thump of his heart was met by the deafening chop of rotor blades. A helicopter burst out from over the knoll, banking steeply, only twenty feet from the ground. It roared in towards him like a bird of prey, nose down and tail up, the wind from the blades tearing at his hair and clothes and flattening a wide circle of grass. A pair of shooters hung out of its open sides, wedged in tight with automatic rifles trained on him. Gunfire ripped a swathe of earth at his feet. He turned and ran back the other way, threw himself behind the husk of a fallen tree and rattled off three double-taps at the helicopter as it roared overhead, punching a line of holes in the black fuselage. The blasting wind of the rotors blew up dust, tore up vegetation debris and made his eyes water. The chopper veered sharply up to avoid the tree line and began banking to come in for another pass.
A 9mm pistol was no kind of weapon against aircraft and military rifles. But it was all Ben had. He squared the sights on the advancing helicopter and loosed off five more rounds. Nothing happened. The chopper kept coming. The shooters were bringing their weapons back up to aim. He saw the red dot of a laser sight rake across his leg, and he jerked it away just in time. A storm of splinters flew up from the tree trunk before he even heard the shots. He hauled himself to his feet and ran for the cover of the bushes as bullets tore up the ground in his wake. The chopper passed overhead. He ran fast and blind through the thicket, leaping over rocks and ruts. Twice he stumbled and almost went down. Thorns tore at his hands as he swiped them out of his way, and then he was suddenly in a grassy clearing.
But he wasn’t alone there. Two agents had headed him off. They were fifteen feet away, yelling at him to freeze, a pistol and a twelve-gauge pointed right at his head.
For a moment it was a standoff. He kept the gun trained on them, wavering it from side to side. His mind was racing. Shoot the one with the shotgun first. The guy with the pistol would probably get off a round, but a single bullet was more likely to miss than the devastating hail of pellets from a short-barrelled scattergun at this range.
But a second later the odds were climbing fast as more of them stepped out of the bushes. The woman was to his right, at three o’clock. Jones was at ten o’clock. Then another guy appeared behind the first two. Five on one. With a circle of guns trained on him, there was nowhere to go and no other choices.
He tossed his weapon and put up his hands.
The woman was frowning at him down the barrel of her gun. The look in her eyes seemed to be telling him he’d made it worse for himself by running. That seemed to matter to her. He didn’t know why, but he somehow knew she didn’t want to be there, and she wished this wasn’t happening.
Jones’s eyes burned furiously in the mess of blood that was his face. He gave a garbled command, and two agents grabbed Ben’s arms and flung him down on the leafy ground. He felt the bite of a plastic cable-tie around his wrists. A knee in his back and the hard steel of a gun against his head. Then a sharp prick as someone jabbed him with a needle.
‘You’re going sleepy-bye for a while, motherfucker,’ he heard Jones say through smashed lips.
After that, Ben was diving down into a black pool and the voices around him became echoes and died away to nothing.