“First off. . . please clear an entire afternoon to read A Thousand Bayonets”
Chapter One The Shootout
John Webster was hiding in the loft of an old abandoned barn, watching and waiting, clutching his voice recorder tightly. He stared moronically at the red light, watching the numbers count slowly upwards, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, willing the red light to continue and praying the batteries would hold out on him.
Below John, five shadowy figures huddled close, speaking in whispers. In the papers, they were known as the Heart gang. Webster knew only two of them by reputation: Kenneth Dzyinski, el capo, the big boss, the head honcho and Anthony Hewson, the right-hand man. The other goons were big, burly creatures, clad head to toe in leather and silver chains, steal-toe boots. Except for, perhaps, their mousy-grey, badly trimmed beards, they might not have looked out of place in an S&M bar.
“He ripped off two of my earners last week.”
“You sure it was him?”
A deep glottal eastern-European voice said, “Hunter has entered a game he can’t possibly win.”
Must be Dzyinski, John thought.
Up in the loft, John held his breath, not daring to move. In the distance he could hear the low bawling of a horse, the pitiful howl of a dog and the chilly wind as it slowly knocked against the barn. And just as he was acutely aware of these sounds, he was suddenly not aware of them all.
He was transported to a small, colourful Bazaar, cream-coloured buildings stood on each side. Thick dust particles rose in the tepid air getting into John’s face, into his eyes, up his nose. The Bazaar was mostly empty except for a few cautious patrons, moving quickly on their way. John was in the middle of the dusty road, just standing and watching as people bartered for goods, the same voice recorder tightly in the palm of his hand. At night time, John was a regular patron of this place.
John struggled to focus again on the barn. He tried not to be afraid. He refused to think of what would happen if they caught him—probably some half-hearted torture before a bullet in the temple.
He looked down at his silver Olympus recorder and the small constant red light. He felt the straw against his neck and chin. It tickled and scratched his skin, willing him to sneeze to make some kind of sound. He rubbed his eyes briefly, trying to regulate his breathing.
The gangsters were mumbling again. Would he be able to pick up their voices so far away? Webster wasn’t sure. He concentrated on his voice recorder, then he was safe from fear, from his mind thinking up different scenarios. It was a trick he had learned a long time ago—how to stave off the unwanted.
Who had taught him that? His first thought was his dad, John Webster senior, but it couldn’t have been the old theatre critic. It must have been a soldier—they knew all sorts of tricks, tricks not written in any manual.
He was back at the Bazaar, his cameraman, William Russell, by his side. Webster pushed his fake Ray-Bans up on his nose and looked briefly up at the vast featureless sky. Every building of any height had been flattened long ago by bomb or by missile. The surprising result, John found, was you could look down even a small alley and look on, across the flatness, seemingly forever, like you were looking to the end of Earth. And in a way, John figured, you kind of were.
John and William were the only two foreigners there. Everybody gazed at them with dark suspicious eyes. William was setting up his camera, installing a new battery getting ready to shoot live. Webster dug the toe of his shoe into the red dirt when he heard the escalating roar of car motors. He looked up to see a caravan of small vehicles arrive. John supposed there must be people in those cars, but all he saw were AK-47s glistening in the harsh light.
Chaos erupted through the Bazaar. Suddenly there was an explosion—a mouth of flame engulfing everything. The surrounding houses and buildings tore a part, ash everywhere, blowing and flowing in the stray wind, wiping across, hitting John in the face.
A large creator ripped into the Bagdad street and to John it almost seemed as if the devil himself had broken his encasement from hell. Piles of rubble formed, broken and cracked stone. There were cries for help and there were cries for death. Bodies had flung around like ragdolls and blood trickled into the gutters, blood trickled down the hill, blood trickled like cannels of water, running right past where Webster stood frozen, timeless, a roar in his ears.
Men ran around with AK-47s. The casualties seemed endless. Men and women dead. Children dead. A was being dragged away from open flames, his legs torn and shredded so badly they were almost unrecognizable. An old lady had the skin and flesh stripped from her arm and only a glossy white bone was showing. She waved her surprisingly bloodless stump at Webster. The human ash rose and seeped into the sky, filling and chocking things, engulfing the world as it was.
And John just stood there, microphone in hand. William Russell next to him was filming everything, swivelling his camera back and forth. But John couldn’t move. Never had he felt so insignificant, unable to do anything. Shock had settled in, nestled in, numbing his nerves and mind.
They are too far away, John thought. If only there was a way to get closer without been seen.
He raised his head, peering over the edge, his weight on his elbows. He could seem them, the light casting their long shifting shadows against the oak panel walls.
One of them said, “this seems risky.”
“All great men took leaps of faith.”
“Who you like for the job?”
“The Findley brothers.”
Suddenly the door swung open and John saw two masked men with submarine guns step into the room. John glanced at them long enough to know they had bulky shoulders, barrel chests and baggy clothes. John closed his eyes, buried himself in the straw and held his breath. If he had known any prayers then, he would have started reciting.
An ominous pause filled the room, seemingly lasting forever. Then a series of unmistakable sounds—an eruption of noise thundered through the barn, seismic in proportion, like the opening of a fault line. And Webster could feel, rather than see the wooden walls shudder around him. It lasted no more than a couple of seconds – nano seconds maybe – before the cold metallic sounds ceased to be, overtaken by the sound of footsteps pounding the compact dirt then the loud while of screeching tires on gravel.
Webster waited before lifting his head. The barn smelled of singed ham. The vibrations still ringing in his ear. Still, he didn’t move, not for a long time. His body mostly buried in straw. He listened wondering if anybody was a live down there, but he heard nothing move, nothing stir, only the loud thumbing of his own blood in his head.
Maybe they would come back, just to make sure. He waited some more. He seemed to lay there for ages, but eventually he pressed his palms down, lifting his body up. His limbs didn’t seem to want to cooperate. Every part of him seemed stiff and numb, deep frozen. He put his foot down on the rung of the ladder, almost missing his footing and falling forward. The smell became worse. It crawled up his nose, clung to his clothes, his skin, his hair. His stomach wrenched violently in protest.
The sunlight poured through the windows hitting the ground, splintering into white and blue light. The bullets had ripped the bodies, breaking them a part. They lay spread eagle. Their guns sat just out of reach. Rigid faces leered at him with carrion eyes.
John felt his knees try to give. He struggled to remain upright. He had to get out of the barn, into the open light. The door stood only a few steps away, but it seemed like miles. He didn’t look down. He didn’t know how he propelled his body forward but somehow he reached the door. He grabbed the handle. It took all his strength to try and open it.
The bright sun his face, yet it seemed cold, tangy and clayish. He closed his eyes and sunk to his knees, feeling the broken dirt on his hands. He couldn’t feel anything.
Somewhere in the distance he heard a low mournful wail. What was that? He realized through his foggy consciousness the sound was getting closer. Then he recognized the sound. It was the sound of sirens. A line of police cruisers appeared over the hilly horizon, speeding along the path, lights flashing, leaving bilious ash-red clouds in its wake, chrome rims spinning around and around in the dirt. They were coming to save him.
The cruisers stopped, swung around. The police got out, guns drawn, crouching behind their vehicles. John put his hands in the air. The police instructed John to lie down, which he did, his cheek against the dirt. His hands were wrenched behind his back and handcuffed. He was then lifted up and put into the back of a cruiser.