“I know you,” Missy said, not rising from her chair. None of them did. “You witnessed several executions before you wandered off and dedicated your life to eradicating alcohol one drink at a time.”
Paul guffawed and Len coughed in a suspiciously merry manner. They were regarding Harding not as a harbinger but a welcome diversion from an otherwise humdrum life. Jerry noted Harding’s color had darkened several shades in the few moments they had spent together.
“I’ve made my peace with that,” Harding said. “All part of the program. You’ll all get to experience something similar when they throw you behind bars and extract every fascinating bit of information about how sick all you fuckers are.” His voice rose a little. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves. How many people have suffered and died just so you could scratch an itch?”
Jessica rose to her feet, her face a mask of the furious self-righteous. “Now look here one second, mister. If you think you’re going to get away with lecturing us about the suffering our addictions cause, you are suffering sad delusions. Let’s contain ourselves just to the family of the poor man wielding the shadow you gunned down because you were drunk, and tell me that you haven’t done the same Fucking THING!” Her voice rose at the end until she screamed the last. She was only a little vindicated that Harding looked shocked, as though this perspective had never occurred to him.
Len pulled on her arm lightly. “Dear, don’t forget there’s the good people of AA arriving at any moment.”
On his other side, Jerry started. He was so involved in the events unfolding(like a soap opera!) he had forgotten he was part of the cast. He checked his watch. At any moment was an apt way to sum up when their lives could come crashing down, or anybody’s life for that matter. The world was a damn fragile place.
“Of course,” Jessica said, composing herself immediately and sitting back down, looking attentively at Harding. “So, you filthy hypocrite, what do you intend to do with us?” Her voice was casual, her eyes were not.
Harding thought, if those AA bastards come twelve-stepping in here it’ll just fuck everything up.
Jerry thought, if I could get close enough for half a second, I could break his arm in three places and take his gun.
Paul thought, I wish I’d brought my throwing knife instead of that stupid sacrificial blade I need to ditch.
Jessica thought, this can’t be happening. This awful man can’t ruin everything like this. I’ll kill him or die first. Her hand strayed toward her purse and the derringer inside it.
“Don’t do it, bitch,” Harding said, the gun snapping around to aim between her eyes, and her hand froze. “I’d rather not kill you right here so don’t make me.”
“Why not, you gutless wonder?” Missy’s voice was flat, unaffected. “Do we have to have our hands up first?”
Harding ignored her. He appeared to have made up his mind. “Up, all of you, and out the back door.” He gestured with the gun in a hurry-up motion. “Go on, move it! Out the back door, nice and easy, one by one, and line up against the wall outside. Once we’re out there I’ll call for backup and those AA slobs won’t need to know anything while they have their precious meeting.” He grinned, and it was a nasty grin, until it fell away. “Move! Now!”
Paul was at the top of the pentagram, and closest to the door. He stood slowly, keeping his hands visible, mind racing ahead to a time when he could place the knife strapped to his shin near his hand. Just as suddenly, it came to him that what if he were to just make a break for it? There wasn’t far to the door and if he made a sudden sprint, the element of surprise…
“Don’t even try it, shithead,” Harding snapped. “You may make it out but each of these motherfuckers won’t stand a chance, not at this range.”
Len stood and gestured. “Go on, Paul. It’s time we were leaving anyways. Our hour is up.”
Jessica could hear car doors slamming outside. True enough, their allotted time to use the church basement had run its course, and the next wave of desperate hopefuls had arrived.
Paul took a step toward the door.
“Slow!” barked Harding. “And keep your hands nice and visible. All of you. Then outside, against the wall. Move. If you’re not all out there, I’ll kill every one of you that is.”
Slowly, moving with a care normally reserved for explorers on the moon, Paul walked toward the door, holding his hands out at the waist, clearly visible as ordered. Jerry went next, then Jessica. Missy started to follow, then looked at Len.
“Go on,” he said, honey dripping from every syllable. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Missy didn’t look happy, but she went, keeping an eye on Harding as long as she could. As soon as she was outside, she took out the sharp silver spike holding her hair into its bun, letting it fall around her shoulders as she concealed what had started life as an ice pick up her sleeve.
The others had lined up as ordered, but their hands were all hidden. Jessica nodded once, and Paul flashed a peek of the blade behind his back. Jerry’s hand was in his pocket, the fist curled around something which for a wildly juvenile moment she thought was his penis, before remembering Jerry usually carried a blackjack. Together, they waited for Len to join them and for Harding to give one of them the slightest chance to end his troublesome existence.
Only, Len never came. The tension singing between all of them was palpable, their senses honed to a level most people never experience, straining for a hint of what was to come.
There were words. Len’s quiet voice, and Harding’s voice, rising and cracking. Then the gunshot.
To be concluded