Half a dozen figures wearing food-stained aprons bolted out of the kitchen into the dining area.
Followed by a figure wearing a ski mask and dark overcoat with the lapels turned up, an semi-automatic pistol in his left hand, the barrel pointed at the ceiling.
Movement at the corner of my eye.
Two more figures. Also with ski masks, overcoats, and carrying UZI submachineguns. They herded the serving staff further into the dining area.
Beyond them, the doors leading in the restaurant were closed.
Dammit. Bakersfield all over again.
I glanced over at Jake.
He gave a small shake of his head.
"Steven," said Callahan.
Callahan's muscle rose from his chair at the adjacent table, pistol clearing his suit coat from a shoulder holster beneath. An old Desert Eagle.
He strode forward, stopped in front and to one side of our table, and leveled the pistol at the gunmen. "Drop the guns," he said.
The figure from the kitchen turned toward Steven. Then he slowly pulled his overcoat aside with his free hand.
My gut dropped.
He was wearing a load-bearing vest carrying at least three blocks of C4, fully wired, with a plastic bag packed with metal ball bearings duct-taped to each block.
A suicide vest.
The figure smiled.
Then a short chatter.
Steven's head jerked back and exploded in a spray of blood, gray matter, and bone fragments. He dropped the pistol and toppled backwards on the adjacent table, slammed his head against the edge and flipped it sideways in a clatter of silverware.
A diner screamed.
"Quiet!" said Kitchen Man.
The scream trailed away into a muffled strangle.
I saw one of the gunmen lower his UZI.
"That's better," Kitchen Man said with a smile. "Instead of screaming, y'all should be singing hallelujahs. Because today you're going to be saved from your earthly trials."
The other two figures spread out along the front of the restaurant, still facing us, subguns leveled.
"History lesson," said Kitchen Man. "Ten years ago on this very day, the Alliance marched on the lawless states of the so-called Border League to reclaim rightful Alliance lands. Because the Lord commanded us just like he did Joshua: 'Ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and dwell therein for I have given you the land to possess it.' "
"Goddamn fanatical sons of bitches," said Callahan, lips pulled back in a snarl.
Kitchen Man turned to Callahan. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."
"Fuck you," said Callahan.
Kitchen Man leveled his pistol at Callahan and shot him three times in the chest.
Callahan jerked in his chair with each shot, then slid off, and thudded to the floor.
Kitchen Man pointed the pistol at me.
I held my hands above the table, palms out.
He gave me a nod, then pointed the gun at Jake.
"Are we going to have trouble with you?" Kitchen Man said.
Jake shook his head. "No trouble."
Kitchen Man looked from him to Callahan's empty chair then back to Jake. "You pick sinful friends."
"Client," said Jake and gave a small chuckle. "Actually, I always thought he was a pompous jerk."
Kitchen Man smirked.
"Okay if I sit next to my wife?" said Jake and inclined his head at me.
Kitchen Man glanced at me, then back to Jake and nodded.
Jake got up, crossed in front of our table, and took a seat in the empty chair to my left. He reached out, took my hand, then covered it with his other hand and squeezed. "It's okay," he said to me, loud enough for Kitchen Man to hear.
I looked at him, fighting down the frenzied butterflies in my stomach.
His expression said: Go with it.
I nodded and gave him what I thought was a nervous smile.
Kitchen Man slid his pistol into a leg holster and turned back toward the other diners. "Like I was saying," he went on. "Y'all have been chosen to take part in this historic occasion. It's now 19:45. In fifteen minutes, we're going to remind everyone that those who continue to live in ungodly ways will suffer the holy vengeance of eternal fire. And we're going to proclaim that moment with an example."
The other two figures shrugged off their overcoats and my chest tightened.
Both wore suicide vests. Like Kitchen Man's.
I counted four blocks of C4 in front and at least that many at the back, plastic-packed ball bearings also duct-taped to the blocks.
Kitchen Man reached up to his vest's lapel and unhooked a pen-sized cylinder. A length of braided wire connected the cylinder to the vest. He depressed a switch with his thumb and held it there.
Next to me, Jake sucked in air through gritted teeth.
"I know," I said, under my breath.
This could get ugly.
(to be continued...)