Escape Clause

Chapter One

Peck popped a Xanax, his third of the night, screwed the cap back on the pill tube, peered over the top of the bush and through the chain link fence, and in a hoarse whisper, asked, "You see the other one?"
The big man with the rifle whispered, "Right by that tree, above the first one. She's looking down at him."
"Get her."
The big man rested the muzzle of the rifle in the V of one of the chain links, pulled the trigger: the rifle made a "pop" sound, not much louder than a handclap, which shouldn't be audible for more than a few dozen yards.
And they waited, then Peck said, "Ah, you dumb shit, you missed her. You missed her. She should be down, but she's not. She's moving."
"Might have hit that brush, deflected the shot..."
"She's moving out in the open. Reload."
"I'm doing it, get off my fuckin' back, will ya?"
"Can you see her now?" Peck asked. "She's getting curious about why the guy's just lying there."
Pop.
"Got her. Saw it hit."
"Sure she's down? We don't want to make a mistake."
"She's going down now..." the big man whispered, "I'm pretty sure."
Peck could smell the nicotine and tar on the other man's breath. The big guy was addicted to Akhtamar Black Flames, and almost always had one stuck to his lower lip; just not now. Peck reached out and slapped him on the back of the head and said, "I don't want to hear that pretty sure. You know what happens if you're wrong? We're dead men."
"You fuckin' slap me again and I'll stick the gun butt up your asshole and twist it sideways."
A small man crouched next to the big man with the rifle and said, "I saw them get hit. I saw it, man. Both of them. But who knows if it was enough?"
They all went silent for a moment, peering into the dark. Two bodies lay in the short grass, unmoving. The fence was twenty feet high and stouter than a normal chain link; a prison fence. With no sign of movement on the other side, Peck said, "Hamlet: cut the fence."
"What if they're faking?" The small guy had half-circles under his eyes, so dark they looked like broken blue poker chips.
"You're the one who said they got hit," Peck said. The soapy touch of Xanax was slipping into his brain.
The small guy said, "Maybe we oughta split. I'm not feeling so sure about this."
"We're here. It's done. Cut the fuckin' fence," Peck said.

Hamlet's side-cutters made a grunt sound as he snipped each piece of wire. Grunt-grunt-grunt. They'd come well-equipped: they wore rubber kitchen gloves and black trucker hats and in addition to the gun, had brought a roll of black tape to put the fence back together when they left.
Hamlet was cutting a wide oval in the fence, leaving it hinged on one side. He'd gotten halfway around the oval when the big man, Hayk, hissed and touched his brother's arm and whispered, "Someone's coming."
They sank into the brush and Hayk moved the muzzle of the rifle around until it pointed out at the perimeter road. Twenty seconds later, a man in a gray uniform ambled along the road, looking at nothing in particular, talking to himself.
When he was directly opposite them, forty feet feet away, they could hear him say, "I told him not to give her the money. She'll blow it on herself. That's what she's going to do, and you know it. It's not gonna get to your mom at all. She doesn't give a shit about your mom..."
Peck realized that the security guard was wearing an ear piece and was talking into a cell phone. He lost the thread of what the man was saying as he disappeared around the curve of the frontage road. When the guard was well out of ear-shot, Hamlet whispered, "I think he had a gun."
"No, he didn't — I checked that out," Peck said.
"Not in the middle of the night."
"The guards are not armed," Peck said.
Hayk said, "Ham, keep cutting. We're almost there."
Hamlet went back to cutting and two minutes later, pulled open the fence, like a gate.
Peck said, "Go on. Crawl through there."
"Why don't you crawl there?" Hamlet asked.
Peck had no immediate answer for that, and the Xanax now had a good grip on him, so he said, "All right, I will. Hold the fence." Hamlet pulled the fence open, and when Peck was through, he turned to Hayk and said, "Give me the gun."
"Not loaded."
"That's okay, I'm gonna use it as a poker."
Hayk handed him the gun and Peck crawled fifteen feet to the first body and poked it with the gun's muzzle. No reaction. That was a good thing. The other body was ten feet further on. He poked that one, too, got no response.
He turned around and whispered, "We're good."
"Told ja," Hamlet said, too loud.
Peck whispered, "Shut up, you fuckin' moron. Get the dollies in here."

Hayk pushed the dollies through the hole in the fence and rolled them over to the bodies. The dollies were the kind used by garden shops, with a flat bed over big soft wheels.
"Goddamn, heavier than hell," Hayk said as they lifted the first body onto a dolly. They couldn't see much further than fifteen or twenty feet away, and the moon didn't help: it sat right on the western horizon, and splashed a silvery light off the trees around them. The contrast made it hard to discern shapes and movement.
"Gonna have to push them through the fence one at a time, right out to the perimeter," Peck said. Despite the Xanax, he was sweating heavily, not from the hot summer night, but from fear. He could smell the stink of it on himself.
They loaded the second body on the second dolly and pushed them one at a time through the fence. Then Peck and Hayk dragged the dollies through the brush to the edge of the perimeter road, while Hamlet pulled the fence back into it's original configuration and taped some of the cut ends together with strips of black duct tape. Five quick repairs and the fence looked good as new, in the night, anyway.
When Hamlet joined the others out at the perimeter road, Peck said, "I'm going to scout. When you see the laser, bring them."

They nodded and he moved slowly along the very edge of the perimeter road, where he could quickly step into the brush if he needed to. Peck had planned the whole operation and he knew there were only a couple of night guards. From that point-of-view, having a guard pass by only minutes before was a good thing, if a little scary. That meant the other guard was a half mile away, and the one they'd seen probably wouldn't be back around for an hour or more.
The perimeter road curved gently to Peck's right. When he'd gone to the exit point, and had seen nobody, he stepped out to the edge of the perimeter road, took a laser pointer from his check pocket, aimed it back toward Hayk and Hamlet, and played the red dot across their hiding place.
A moment later, in the ambient light from the parking lot, he saw them move out onto the road, pulling the dollies with their motionless load. They moved slowly at first, and then more quickly, and finally began to trot.
The tires were almost, but not quite, silent; there was no one to hear them. When Hayk and Hamlet came up, Peck led them across the road to another chain link fence, which they'd already cut. They rolled the dollies through the fence, down a mild slope to the edge of a grassy yard, with a darkened house eighty feet away. They waited there while Hamlet repaired the fence. A scummy pond lay off to their left, home to any number of green-and-black frogs, but the frogs had sensed the stealthy movement through the trees and had shut up.
When Hamlet finished with the fence, they eased the dollies across the grassy yard to the back door of the garage, pushed the back door open, and pulled the dollies inside and closed the door. Hayk took a flashlight out of a cargo pocket and turned it on.
The van was waiting. They rolled the dollies up a handicapped ramp into the back of it, closed the door. Hamlet and Hayk got into the van, Hayk as the wheelman, while Peck went to the door into the house, stepped inside and looked out the kitchen window at the street.
He was looking out at a suburban neighborhood, a bunch of three bedroom houses where everybody worked day jobs and the kids went to school: the houses were almost all dark, and the street was empty.
He hurried back to the garage, pulling the house door closed behind himself, and pushed the wall switch for the garage door opener. The garage door went up, but no light came on, because Peck had thought of everything: they'd loosened the garage light. Hayk drove the van out of the garage, Peck pushed the wall switch again, and the door started down.
There was an ankle-high infra-red safety light that beamed across the door opening, to keep the door from closing on children who might be standing beneath it. Peck stepped carefully over it — he really had groomed the plan, he thought, with nothing left to chance — went to the van, and climbed into a back seat.
Hayk rolled it down to the street, took a right, and Hamlet said, "Made it."
"Almost," Peck said.
He could smell the bodies in the back, like hot and sweaty bad breath.

Chapter Two

The cloudless sky was blue, of course, but that kind of hot pale blue that tended almost to green, if you were lying naked in a Minnesota swimming hole looking up through the branches of the creek-side cottonwoods, thinking about nothing much, except the prospect of lunch.
Virgil Flowers was doing that, bathed in the cool spring water and the scent of fresh-mown hay. Frankie Nobles's oldest son was windrowing the teddered hay, riding a '70s International Harvester tractor, the original diesel engine clattering up and down the eighty-acre field on the other side of the crooked line of cottonwoods.
Virgil usually managed to evade the whole haying process, pleading the exigencies of law enforcement, but with this last cut of the summer, Frankie had her eye on him. All her farm equipment was marginal, and though a neighbor would be over with his modern baler and wagon, two thirds of the bales — the small rectangular ones — would be unloaded in the barnyard.
From Virgil's point of view, there was one good thing about this — the neighbor would keep a third of the hay for his trouble. The bad thing was, somebody would have to load the other two thirds of the bales on Frankie's ancient elevator, and somebody would have to stack it in the sweltering, wasp-infested barn loft.
"Why," Virgil asked, "Are barn lofts always infested with wasps?"
"Because that's life," Frankie said, back-floating past him on a pair of pink plastic water-wings. She was unencumbered by any clothing at all. They'd have the swimming hole to themselves until the tractor stopped running, and then the boys would take it over. For the time being, their privacy was assured by a sign at the beginning of the path through the woods, that said, Occupied, with newcomers required to call out before entering. "In the hay-lofts of life, there are always a few wasps."
"I'm allergic to wasps," Virgil ventured. He was a tall blond man, his long hair now plastered like a yellow bowl over his head.
"You're allergic to haying," Frankie said.
"I can't even believe you bother with it," Virgil said. "You have to give a third of the hay to Carl, to pay for his time and baling equipment. Whatever hay you manage to keep and sell, the feds and state take half the money. What's the point?"
"I feed the hay to my cattle," she said. "And we eat the cattle. So there are no taxes."
"You don't have any cattle."
"The feds and state don't know that." She was another blond, short and partially slender.
"Please don't tell me that," Virgil said. "Your goddamn tax returns must read like a mystery novel."
"Shoulda seen my mortgage application," Frankie said. "One of those ninja deals — no income, no job. Worked out for me, though."
Honus, a big yellow dog, lay soaking wet on the bank, in a spot of sunshine. He liked to swim, but he also liked to lie wet in the sun.

Frankie kicked past and Virgil ducked under water and floated up between her legs. "You have a very attractive pussy," he said.
"I've been told that," Frankie said. "I've been thinking of entering it in the state fair."
"I could be a judge," Virgil offered.
"You certainly have the necessary expertise," she said.
"Speaking of state fairs...Lucas should have been killed," Virgil said, floating back a bit. "I can't believe the stories coming out of Iowa. I talked to him about it last night, he's up to his ass in bureaucrats, like nothing he's ever seen. He said he's been interviewed a half-dozen times by the FBI. The goddamn Purdys almost blew up the presidential election. Would have, if he hadn't been there."
"Lucas is a crazy man," Frankie said. "He chases crazy people. That's what he does, and he likes it. Anyway, that's the Iowa state fair. I'd enter the Minnesota state fair."
"Probably do better, as far as getting a ribbon," Virgil said. Frankie's knees folded over his shoulders. "Lucas said the Iowa blondes are really spectacular."
Frankie said, "Wait a minute, are you sayin' that I'm not spec..."
She stopped and they turned their faces toward the path. Somebody was scuffling down through the trees, in violation of the Occupied sign. Honus stood up and barked, two, three times, and Virgil and Frankie dropped their feet to the rocky bottom of the swimming hole, and Frankie called out: "Hey! Who's there?"

The scuffling continued for a few more seconds, then a tall, slender, wide-shouldered blonde emerged on the path and chirped, "Hi, Frank."
Frankie said, "Sparkle! What are you doing here?"
"I'm about to go swimming," she said. There was more scuffling behind her, and a heavy-set man who probably thought he looked like Ernest Hemingway, with a Hemingway beard and Hemingway gold-rimmed glasses, stepped out of the woods. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a schematic drawing of a host and chalice, and beneath that, the words, "Get Real. Be Catholic," plus Madras plaid shorts and plastic flipflops.
He looked down at them and said, "Hello, there."
Sparkle pulled her top off — she was small-breasted and didn't wear a brassiere — then her shorts and underpants, and jumped into the swimming hole. When she surfaced, Frankie snarled, "You really, really aren't invited."
"Oh, shut up," Sparkle said. She looked at Virgil. "You must be the famous Virgil fuckin' Flowers."
Virgil said, "Yeah. Who are you?"
Sparkle looked at Frankie and said, "You didn't tell him?"
Frankie looked like she was working up a full-blown snit. "No. Why should I?"
Sparkle turned back to Virgil and said, "I'm Frankie's baby sister."
Virgil said to Frankie, "You have a baby sister?"
"Aw, for Christ's sakes," Frankie said.
"Careful," Sparkle said. "You don't want to piss off Father Bill."
They all looked at the big man, who had removed his t-shirt, glasses and watch, and was now stepping out of his shorts, to reveal a dark brown pelt, speckled with gray, that would have done credit to a black bear. "That's me," he said. He flopped into the swimming hole, came up sputtering, and said, "Gosh. Nobody told me it'd be this cold."
"What's the Father Bill stuff?" Frankie asked.
"I'm a priest," Bill said. "Part-time, anyway."
"He's a priest nine months of the year, and a bartender and libertine the other three," Sparkle said.
"I work over at the Hanrattys' Resort during the summer, tending bar," Bill said. "I'm a fill-in priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis the other nine."
"Must be nice for you," Frankie said.
"It's convenient all the way around," Bill said. He had a mild, low-pitched voice that came out as a growl. "The Hanrattys are always hard-up for seasonal help, and the bishop gets a fill-in guy and only has to pay him for nine months."
"And you get laid," Frankie said.
"A fringe benefit," Bill said.
"Hey! I'm a fringe benefit?" Now Sparkle was clouding up, or faking it, pushing out her lower lip. Virgil hadn't seen the family resemblance before: Sparkle was tall and slender, Frankie was short and busty. They clouded up exactly the same way.
"Okay, a major fringe benefit," Bill said.
"That's better."
"Aw, for Christ's sakes," Frankie said again. And again, to Sparkle, "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I thought I'd stop by and see my beloved sister — and I'm also doing the last bit of research for my dissertation. I'm interviewing migrants at the Castro canning factory. I thought Bill and I could share your spare bedroom."
Frankie peered at her for a moment, then asked, "Does old man Castro know about this?"
"I haven't made what you'd call appointments, no," Sparkle said.
"You're going to get your ass kicked," Frankie said. "He's a mean old sonofabitch. When it's about to happen, give me a call. I want to come and watch."
"I was hoping Virgil could have a chat with the line manager over there... you know, about prisons and stuff."
"You don't be dragging Virgil into this," Frankie said.
"What's your problem, Frankie? Virgil's a cop, it's a part of his job," Sparkle said.
"He investigates after the ass-kicking, not before," Frankie said.
"What's this all about?" Virgil asked. "Why is... Sparkle? ... going to get her ass kicked?"

Sparkle, back-floating between the cop and the priest, explained: she was working on her Ph.D dissertation about seasonal migrant labor, both the social and economic aspects, at the University of Minnesota. She'd spent two years among the vegetable growing fields of southern Minnesota and was now moving upstream to the factories. When she had incorporated the factory material, she'd have her doctorate.
"Why would that get your ass kicked?" Virgil asked.
"Because old man Castro has a deal with this village down in Mexico," Sparkle said. "They provide him couples to pick the cucumbers and work in his pickle factory. He pays the man a buck or two above the minimum wage, which makes him look like a hero, but the wife also works and doesn't get anything — so his pickers and factory workers are making a little more than half the minimum wage, when it's all said and done. He would rather not have this documented."
"And you're going to write that in your dissertation?" Virgil asked.
"I am."
"Okay. I can see why you might be headed for an ass-kicking."
"See? Crazy shit," Frankie said to Virgil. "You should introduce her to Lucas, since Lucas likes crazy shit so much."
"Who's Lucas?" Sparkle asked. She'd turned to her sister and stood up in waist-deep water, her back to Virgil. He noticed that she had an extremely attractive back, tapering down to a narrow waist. Backs were largely unappreciated in women, Virgil thought, but not by him.
"Another cop," Frankie said. "Actually, ex-cop. He's the one who saved Michaela Bowden's life down at the Iowa state fair last week."
"Really!" Sparkle said. "I would like to meet him."
"Ah, for Christ's sakes," Frankie said a third time.
Father Bill had ducked his head under water, and had come up sputtering. "I don't mean to be critical on such short acquaintance, but do you think you might find some way to employ vulgarity or obscenity, rather than profanity, at least when I'm around?" Father Bill asked Frankie. "A nice round, 'Oh, shit' or 'Fuck you,' is much easier to accept than your taking of the Lord's name in vain."
"Ah, Jesus," Frankie said.
Virgil said quickly, "She means the Puerto Rican, not the Lord."

The two women paddled up the swimming hole, where the creek came in, nagging at each other. Virgil stayed at the bottom end of the pool, with Bill, and Bill apologized for their abrupt entrance, saying "Once Sparkle starts to roll, there's not much you can do about it."
"Is her name really Sparkle?"
"No, but it's what everybody calls her," Bill said. "Somebody at Hanratty's told me that her birth name was Wanda."
They looked after the women, who'd gotten to the top of the pool, where the water was shallow. They floated there, still arguing, then Frankie stood up and dove forward. Bill's eyebrows went up as she did it, and he said, "Oh, my. When the Good Lord was passing out breasts, it looks like Frankie went through the line more than once."
Virgil said, "Yeah, well... I guess."
Bill: "You're embarrassed because I'm a priest and I'm interested in women."
Virgil said, in his quotation voice, "Kiss and rekiss your wife. Let her love and be loved. You are fortunate in having overcome, by an honorable marriage, that celibacy in which one is a prey to devouring fires or unclean ideas. The unhappy state of a single person, male or female, reveals to me each hour of the day so many horrors, that nothing sounds in my ear as bad as a the name of monk or nun or priest. A married life is a paradise, even where all else is wanting."
"Really," said Bill, sounding pleased. "Who said that?"
"Martin Luther. In a letter to a friend."
"Luther. I don't know much of Luther, other than he had horns, a forked tale and cloven hooves instead of feet. But he said that? You're the religious sort?"
"Not so much — at least, I'm not that big a believer in institutions," Virgil said. "My old man is a Lutheran minister over in Marshall. He used to soak me in that stuff and some of it stuck."
"Good for him, good for him," Bill said. "You'll have to send me a citation for that letter, so I can read it all. Martin Luther, who would have thought?"
"Is this relationship with Sparkle... a long-term thing?" Virgil asked.
"No, no it isn't. I've spent time with her the last two summers, but of course, the other nine months I'm celibate and she doesn't put up with that."
"That seems very strange to me," Virgil said.
"It seems fairly strange to me, too, but I find both sides of the equation to be rewarding," Bill said. "Of course, I may go to hell."
"No offense, but I don't think the Church gets to decide who goes to hell," Virgil said.
"I'm not offended," Bill said cheerfully. "In fact, I agree — but don't tell the Church I said that."

The two women came paddling back and Frankie hooked an arm around Virgil's sun-pinked neck and said, "Sparkle's going to be here for a while. You keep telling me you're going to get a queen-sized or a king-sized bed, and this would be a good time to do to do it, because I'm going to be sleeping over a couple times a week."
"I can do that," Virgil said. "That old bed is shot."
Frankie said to Bill, "You can go ahead and fuck Sparkle, but I don't want her squealing and screaming and all that — keep it quiet. I got kids."
Bill said to Sparkle, "Maybe we ought to find another place."
"No, no, no... this is convenient and I like hanging out with my nephews," Sparkle said. "Another thing, of course, is that Castro's goons won't find me out here. Besides, if you tie me up and gag me, nobody'll hear a thing."
They all looked at Bill who said, "Sometimes I have to struggle to keep my head from exploding."
"That's called the Sparkle effect," Frankie said.

They paddled around for a while, until, from the bank of the swimming hole, a phone began playing the "Theme from Jaws." Honus stood up and woofed at it, then lay back down, and Frankie said, "Uh, oh."
Sparkle: "What's that?"
"The emergency number from the BCA," Virgil said. "I gotta take it."
He'd hoped the other two would leave before he had to get out of the water, but all eyes were on him as he manfully waded out of the swimming hole and sat on the bank, fumbled the phone out of his jeans.
Jon Duncan calling. "Jon, what's up?"
"We need you up here," Duncan said. "Right away, this afternoon."
"What happened?"
"That whole thing down in Iowa, at the state fair last week, has upset the apple cart," Duncan said. "You know our fair starts this week, there're gonna be more politicians up here, campaigning, and we're worried about copy-cats."
Virgil groaned. "Man, don't make me work the state fair."
"No, no, we got that covered," Duncan said. "But everybody's committed, now, at the fair, and we've got a new problem. A big one."
"What's the new problem?"
"Somebody stole the Amur tigers from the zoo last night. Shot them with a tranquilizer gun and hauled them out of there. Since it's a state zoo, it's our problem."
"What? Tigers?"
"Yeah. Somebody stole the tigers... two Amur tigers. Pride of the zoo. Listen man, you've got to get up here," Duncan said. "There's gonna be a media shit storm starting tonight on the evening news. We gotta get the tigers back: and we gotta get them back right now."

Chapter Three

They caged the tigers separately in the bottom of the old barn, in what had once been cow stalls. Since a chain link fence had been enough to keep the tigers separated from any number of chubby, well-fed, delicious-looking Minnesota zoo visitors, they'd wrapped the stalls with more chain link. The cage doors, made from chain-link fence gates, were locked with steel snap shackles.
There'd been no electric power remaining in the barn, the wires gnawed through by rodents, so they'd bought two long orange cables which they plugged in at the house and then laid across the barnyard into the lower level.
Inside, the Simonian brothers had rigged up three work lights from Sears, hung from the rafters, and screwed in hundred-watt bulbs. The work lights were plugged into a power strip at the end of one of the orange cables. The light was bright, harsh, and threw knife-edged shadows over the interior of the barn.
There were no windows.
Against one wall, they'd installed a makeshift table made of four-by-eight sheets of plywood, sitting on aluminum sawhorses, and covered with plastic sheeting. Five waist-high meat-driers were plugged into the second orange cable. Four plastic tubs would hold discarded guts and unneeded tiger organs. A hose, also strung over from the house, would wash everything down.
Though the barn had not housed cattle for decades, there was still an earthy odor about it, not entirely unpleasant, which took Hamlet Simonian back to happier days on his grandmother's farm in Armenia. Happier at a safe distance, anyway.

They'd wheeled the tigers into the barn and into the cages on the dollies, and rolled them off onto the floor. The male tiger was tough to move, even though they only had to move him a foot or so off the dolly. His formidable muscles were slack as bed sheets, and simply hard to get hold of, and the cage was small enough that they couldn't work standing up.
When they finally got it done, they locked the cages, locked the outer door, and went and hid. They'd give it until the next day before they returned to the farm, in case somebody had been watching and got curious about all the activity in the middle of the night.

They met again at the farm the next morning, to start work.
"Shoot the fuckin' tiger, Ham," said Winston Peck VI. Peck popped a Xanax. "Do it."
Peck was a tall, broad-shouldered man, brown hair now touched with gray. He had a tight brown Teddy Roosevelt mustache and wore gold-rimmed glasses with round lenses. He looked like a college athlete going to seed in middle age: he was thirty pounds too heavy.
"I dunno man," Hamlet Simonian said. He was bulb nosed, with dark hair, what was left of it, and sweating hard. He had a Remington .308 in one hand; the night before, they'd used a tranquilizer gun, shooting darts, to take the cats out of the zoo. "Now it seems kinda... terrible. A terrible thing to do."
"You knew what was going to happen," Peck said. "You knew the plan."
"I didn't know I was going to be the shooter. I thought Hayk..."
The two tigers looked through the bars of their separate cages with a kind of quiet rapaciousness. They were beautiful animals, gold and white with ripples of black, and orange eyes. They were hungry, since it hadn't seemed to Peck that there was any point in feeding them.
If the snap-shackles on the doors were suddenly undone, Simonian had no doubt what would happen: they'd get eaten. Forget about the gun, forget about running, those tigers would eat his South Caucasian ass like a hungry trucker choking down a ham sandwich. A Ham Simonian sandwich.
"Ham, shoot the fuckin' tiger."
"Why don't you do it, man? I don't think I got the guts," Simonian said. "Maybe we ought to wait for Hayk. He'd do it." Hayk was Hamlet's brother, and was much larger, stronger and meaner than Hamlet.
"Because I don't know how to do it," Peck said. He was getting seriously impatient. Killing the tiger wasn't the only thing he had to do this day. He was a busy man. "I've never shot a gun in my life. And we need to get started. Now."
That wasn't strictly true — he'd shot rifles on several occasions, and a shotgun, in the company of his father, but he wasn't sure of his skills, and mostly didn't want to be the one to shoot the tiger.
"Ah, shit." Simonian edged up to the male tiger's cage. He was by far the larger of the two, though that wouldn't matter much if either one of them got out. The smaller female, Katya, weighed nearly four hundred pounds and to the nervous Simonian, it seemed like twenty pounds of that was teeth and claws. Getting taken down by Katya would be like getting attacked by a four-hundred-pound chainsaw.
And forget about it with Artur, the muscular male. He was six hundred and forty pounds of furry hunger. He could take your head off with one swipe of his well-armed paw, and then crunch it like a walnut between his three-inch canine teeth.
"Shoot — the — fuckin' — tiger," Peck said.
Simonian lifted the gun and looked down the iron sights at Artur, who stared calmly back at him, unafraid, even though something about his eyes suggested that he knew what was coming. Drips of sweat rolled into Hamlet's eyes and he took the gun down and wiped the sweat away with his shirt sleeve, then brought the gun back up and aimed right between the tiger's eyes, five feet away, and yanked the trigger.
The gun went off and to Simonian's surprise, the tiger dropped to the floor, stone cold dead. Katya, the female, screamed and launched herself at the cage's chain-link fence, which ballooned out toward Simonian, who scrambled away from the maddened cat. The muzzle blast inside the barn basement had been ferocious, and Simonian could hear his ears ringing; it was a moment before he became aware that Peck was running around the barn shouting, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!"
"What? What?"
"You shot me, you asshole," Peck said. He was holding his hand flat on his head, and when he took it away, there was a splash of blood in his palm. His baseball cap, which had been given to him by a crew member of the movie The Revenant, lay on the floor. Peck told people it was a gift from Leonardo DeCaprio himself, though he was lying about that.
"Let me look, let me look," Simonian said. Behind him, Katya threw herself at the cage again, a rattling impact that bent the chain-link fence.
"Hurts, hurts, hurts," Peck cried, still wandering in circles.
Simonian watched the big cat nervously as he and Peck moved to one of the work lights, and Peck tilted his head down. Through his thinning hair, Simonian could see a knife-like cut that was bleeding, but seemed superficial. "It's not bad," he reported. "Must have been a ricochet, a little piece of scrap of metal or something. You could press some toilet paper against it and the bleeding would stop."
"You sure?"
"Pretty sure. It looks like a little cut," Simonian said. "It's nothing."
"Hurts like a motherfucker, I'm lucky I'm not dead," Peck said. "I'm going to go find some toilet paper. You drag the cat out of there."
"Drag the cat? Man, he weights six hundred pounds or something..."
"Use the dolly. I didn't expect you to throw it over your shoulder, dumbass," Peck said. "I'm gonna go get some toilet paper. I'm bleeding like a sieve, here."
"Okay."
"Speaking of dumbasses, where is your dumbass brother? He was supposed to be here an hour ago."
"He had to get a knife, some kind of special knife for removing the skin," Simonian said. He dropped the rifle, which hit the floor with a noisy clank, and Peck flinched away. Simonian picked it up and said, "No bullet in the thing." He tapped the bolt.
"No bullet in the thing," Peck repeated, shaking his head. "You're a real fuckin' gunman, you know that, dumbass?"
"If I'm so big a dumbass, how come I shoot the tiger and it drops dead? One shot?"
"Blind luck," Peck said. He added, "I gotta get some toilet paper." He picked his hat up off the floor, looked at it, said, "You shot a hole in it. This was my best hat, and it's ruined. I'm lucky you didn't shoot me between the eyes." He tramped off toward the door and out onto the slice of green lawn that Simonian could see from where he was standing. A second later, Peck stepped back and said, "I'm sorry about that dumbass thing. I'm a little tense, you know? That was a good shot, I'm proud of you, Hamlet. I mean, except for the part where the shrapnel hit me. You're sure the tiger's dead?"
"He better be," Simonian said, "Or Hayk gonna get one big surprise when he tries to skin that bad-boy."
"Yeah," said Peck. "I'm going to get toilet paper."
He disappeared into the sunshine, headed for his truck, where he kept a first aid kit. He wasn't really sorry about calling Simonian a dumbass, because Simonian was a dumbass. He had to pretend, though, because he still needed the brothers. For a while, anyway. That was simple good management.
Back in the barn, Hamlet Simonian turned back to the cages where Katya was making sad and desperate purring sounds at her mate, as though trying to rouse him from a deep sleep.
But, Simonian thought, she knew he was dead. He could see it in her eyes, when she turned to look at him.
A thought occurred to him: he should shoot her now. He shouldn't wait, despite Peck. If he didn't shoot her now, something bad would happen. Like, really bad.
He thought about it, then started rolling a dolly over to the dead tiger's cage. He didn't have the guts to shoot another tiger, at least, not on the same day that he'd shot the first one.
But not shooting the girl, he thought, was a mistake.
They were going to make it anyway.