Blood soaked the carpet, surrounding Rune like a blossoming rose. What he thought would have been the killing blow by Hastings simply put him in a state of misery he had never experienced before. His skull ached as if it were being tightened in a vice, and the rest of his broken form cried out in echoes of pain that mimicked the agonizing cries of a banshee.
He didn’t have to guess that his wounds might be fatal by this point. And even if they weren’t, he knew Hastings would finish the job once he was finished cleaning up his wounded face. But the fact that Rune might be at the end of his days did little to convince him to give up just yet.
Not until she was safe.
Footsteps echoed across the foyer tile. When Hastings reached the living room carpet and knelt, the overwhelming scent of musk cologne filled Rune’s nostrils to near suffocation. “We were family, you and I,” Hastings grumbled.
Rune tried using his good arm – his right arm – to push himself up, but Hastings simply pressed his foot against Rune’s back, pinning into the carpet so hard it was as if he wanted Rune to fall through the floor to the gruesome basement below.
The basement where she was being held as prisoner and slave. Hidden from those who loved her, from those who had been searching for her for days, weeks, months – for what felt like forever. And yet, she was right under everyone’s noses the whole time. Hidden in plain sight – sort of.
“As a guest,” Hastings said, “you shouldn’t snoop. That’s a law of common decency and a rule of common courtesy. This is my house. My home. My sanctuary. And the last thing I want people to do in my sanctuary is to go through things that they have no business going through. It turns you from family to thief. And I abhor thieves.”
“She’s just…” The act of speaking left Rune’s throat parched and raw. He squeezed his eyes shut as a wave of pain shot through his ribs. When it passed, he took as deep a breath as he could and tried to speak again. “She’s just a girl.”
“Mmhmm. Just a girl. So-” He grabbed a tuft of Rune’s hair and lifted his head so he could see Hastings’ face. The long wound running diagonal across the man’s left eye and nose still bled somewhat. The knife had been too dull to kill, apparently. “Why did you insist on trying to take her?”
Rune spit blood. The spittle hit the carpet and spread through the fibers. Hastings grimaced as if Rune had a strange disease he was infecting the home with. “She’s not yours.” He released his grip on Rune’s hair, and Rune’s head plopped down in the thick carpet.
Hastings stood and then traveled across the living room to the small bar against the north wall. Rune heard the clinking of Hastings’ glass decanter as he poured a shot glass of whiskey. Rune squinted through the space underneath the oak coffee table and watched the turbulent weather outside the sliding glass door. The patio furniture was being strewn about by the wild tempest as dark storm clouds filled the sky, and violent wind caused havoc and mayhem.
Out there, out in the storm, was freedom. A freedom Rune knew he might never see again. But it was a freedom he had to win for the girl. His gaze wandered to the couch just a few inches from him…
“You’re an interesting breed, Mr. Rune. You and I were partners on how many ‘missions’? We toppled governments, assassinated would-be megalomaniacs, and even stole from the rich to give to the poor and lazy. We lived it up. We saved the world. All under our own banner. Not the government’s. Not the peoples’. Our own.
“But now, all of a sudden, seemingly out of left field, you have a bleeding heart? Give me a break. I stood there while you shot Abdula in the face. We both lit the fires that burned down Synop. And you held my head while I nearly drifted off to death in the desert of Gera.
“Brothers! We. Were. Brothers! You and I.” Hastings’ soft footsteps made their way across the carpet back to Rune. He knelt again, but all Rune could see of him was the shot glass suspended by the man’s thick fingers. “Since I do consider you family, I’ll give you a choice. I can make your next few days an absolute living hell – after which I’ll kill you. Or, you can forget about the girl and move on with your life. We don’t have to do anymore missions together, but we can agree to disagree…like gentlemen. Civilized gentlemen who understand one another.”
Rune closed his eyes, but all he could see, all he could feel through the carpeted floor, through the basement below him, was the young girl, beaten and bruised, sexually abused. He couldn’t erase her from his mind. Her bright, green eyes glowed in the darkness of his mind, and her frail, fragile figure appeared in shadows that pleaded with him to help.
Rune had been there for her birth. He had been there for her Kindergarten graduation. He had been there for her first school dance. And, even if it was his last act, he would be here for her now…
“What’ll it be, Rune? You either die here, or you live out there.”
Rune shut his eyes and took another deep, painful breath.
“Did you hear me, friend? Did you hear my proposal? You’re lucky I’m even giving you a choice. Your kind – the kind that interfere in family affairs – are the kind I’ve been hunting and killing for years. But you’ve earned points with me because you saved my life more than a few times. A few feathers in your cap are going to get you out of this scrape, but it’s the last Hail Mary you’ll get from me. Take it. I’ll patch your wounds, and I’ll send you on your way.”
Rune opened his eyes and slowly lifted himself to a sitting position. The act alone scattered pain in every area of his body. Bones were broken, flesh was cut, and all of it screamed at him to stop moving, to lay on the floor and give up the fight. He looked up at Hastings who was sitting in the black recliner, sipping his whiskey. The room was unlit and dim, save for the clouded sunlight outside and a brief flash of lightning every three minutes. But he could still make out the copies of Armor and Ammo stacked on the coffee table, a subscription that Rune had gifted to Hastings last year.
Hastings set his glass on the coffee table and stood to his feet. “What’ll it be?”
Rune used the couch for leverage to lift himself to a standing position. At first, he wobbled a bit, and the dizziness that passed through his skull nearly knocked him out cold. But he soon gained his footing and established a position facing Hastings, only the coffee table between the two men.
Hastings raised an eyebrow, the cut across his face shifting in the dim light. “You can stand? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You are a patriot, and patriots always rise.”
Hastings started around the coffee table, hands clasped behind his back. “I know you think you have a connection to the girl. But you don’t. Not really. She has no relation to you. She has no real connection to you. Forget about her. Live your life. Go buy an island somewhere, have a hundred supermodels delivered there, and live out your days in peace.”
Rune raised the pistol he had slid underneath the couch during his fight with Hastings. “That’s not a life for me.”
Hastings raised his arms halfway in a lazy gesture of mock surrender. A knowing grin crept across his face, and the lack of surprise made him seem almost stone-like. “This isn’t worth it. You do anything to me – anything – and they’ll be on you. All of them. You know that. I know that. You’re not examining all the angles, Rune. They all lead to your end.”
“I know.” Rune fired the gun three times. Each shot hit its mark as deep red stains blossomed through Hastings’ white dress shirt. He blinked twice and then collapsed upon the coffee table as it crashed to the floor.
Rune wasted no time heading down to the basement, though it took him longer than desired with his injured leg and his dizzy spells. He entered the hot and humid space, the stained walls and hollow rooms lending a suffocating sense of isolation. He hobbled to the room at the end, blew the lock to pieces with the pistol, and found Marissa on the floor in the corner, startled by Rune’s intrusion.
Rune stood for a moment, awestruck by her familiar presence. Though her face and arms were caked in brown filth, and her hair was chopped at uneven slants, and her clothes were tattered and torn, he still recognized the young girl he had helped raise over the years.
“Where’s my dad?” she asked, her voice calm and strong.
Rune rubbed his short beard and motioned towards the hallway. “We need to leave.”
She stood to her feet, but refused to move from her corner. “Where is he, Rune? Where is my father?” Her emerald eyes sparkled with tears.
Rune shrugged. “Dead. There was no other way.”
She stood, staring at him for what felt like an eternity. Then a slight grin cracked across the corner of her mouth, and she nodded before finally leaving the room. “Good.”