Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chapter 31 (part 1)

Stinging heat flared on my cheek.  A harsh male voice cut through the blackness I drifted in.  Opening my eyes, Dominic’s features engulfed my field of view.  His eyes burned into mine.  Why did he look so angry?

“Ella!”  It was a sharp whisper, my name on his lips.  “Wake up, Ella.  You will not leave me.  Do you understand?”  

I closed my eyes and shook my head to clear the fog still pressing at me.  The sting on my cheek came again.  Did he just smack me? I questioned myself.  My eyes snapped open to find that his face still hovered inches away.  

“Why are you angry?” I croaked.  My throat was so dry.

“I’m not angry, Ella.  We need to get Allison and get back to the cabin.  I can’t take care of you out here.”

Allison.  I scanned my surroundings.  I was laying in the leaf litter, but I was at the top of the hill.  I didn’t remember climbing the last yards to the top.  Twenty feet away, the boulder that formed the roof of the cave protruded from the crest of the hill.  I started crawling.

Peering over the edge of the rock, relief rushed through me when I saw Allison huddled in the protected corner of the small cave.  “Allison,” I whispered, trying my best to make my voice sound normal.

She looked up, her blue eyes red-rimmed from crying.  “Mommy?”  Her whisper was coarse.  

“I’m here, baby.  I can’t climb down, so you need to come up.  Okay?”  

“Okay.”  She began the tricky task of maneuvering her small frame around the rocks to climb up to me.  

Dominic helped me sit up to wait for her, standing behind me so I could lean against his legs.  

When Allison got to me she crumpled into my open arms.  We rocked together, crying at our joy of being reunited.

“I was so scared, Mommy,” Allison cried into my shoulder.  

“I know, baby.  I was scared too.  But we’re together now.  We’re gonna be okay.”

“I heard gun shots.  I thought. . .  I thought. . .”  She couldn’t finish the sentence.  She thought I was dead.  She didn’t know how close I’d come.  She didn’t have to know.

I stroked her hair and shh’d in her ear, trying to calm her.  My poor little angel had been through so much, and for the last hour or so she had thought herself an orphan.  My heart wept for her.

Dominic knelt behind me.  “We need to get back to the cabin,” he murmured.  “You need to rest,” he paused, and we both surveyed the forest.  “And Jennings is still out there.”  While he spoke the last aloud, it was more of a vocalized thought than a statement to me.

I stood and took Allison’s hand, squeezing it.  “You’re right.  Let’s go,” I said to Dominic.  

We took a more direct path back to the cabin, keeping watch the entire way.  When we got to the building Dominic went to the front door, while Allison and I went to the back.  We snuck in the basement door through which we had escaped earlier.  

We were standing in the dark, cluttered space when Allison tugged on my arm.  I bent down to hear her whisper.  “Mommy, what happened to your arm?”

My heart raced a few beats.  She didn’t need to deal with the fear that information would surely produce.  But she was in this mess, too, and she deserved the truth.  “One of the bullets hit my arm.”  A sharp intake of air at my ear broke my heart a little more.  “It’s okay, though.  It just hit the outside.  It bled a lot, and I’ll need stitches, but I’m fine, baby.”  I dropped to my knees at her side and wrapped her in my arms.  

Pulling away, I led her to the corner by the stairs.  I hadn’t heard anything from upstairs.  It was too quiet.  I would have thought Dominic would’ve come to find us by now.  If the front door was locked he would’ve come around to the back, but he hadn’t.  So where was he?

“Allison, I want you to stay here,” I whispered.  “I’m going to check upstairs.  You still have your gun, right?”

“Mm-hmm,” came her murmur through the blackness.

“Good.  Same as before.  You stay here until I come to get you.  Just sit here on the floor against the wall.  Okay, baby?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“That’s my girl.  You are doing so good with all this.  I’m so proud of you.”  I hugged her again.  “I love you, sweetie.”

“I love you too, Mom,” she whispered as she hugged me back.

I left her there on the floor, her fear likely spiking yet again, and I made my way upstairs.  I moved with as much stealth as I could manage in my physical state.  That meant I had to use my gun hand to support me as I crawled, making it particularly cumbersome. 

I stopped at the top, listening for Dominic.  Muffled voices came from the living area.  I strained my ears to hear what was being said.  

“She won’t come for me,” Dominic said.

“Oh, I think you underestimate her need to protect,” said another male voice.  Was it Jennings?

“That’s what you underestimate, Bill.”  Yup, it was Jennings.  “She won’t come for me because her daughter comes first.  Ella won’t put her in danger for anyone.”

“Perhaps.  But she can’t get anywhere without you.  You have the car key,” Jennings pointed out.

I didn’t need the key.  The car was unlocked, and I knew how to hot-wire.  But Jennings was right about one thing.  I wouldn’t leave Dominic.  I trusted that Allison was safe, and so I would do what I could to save Dominic.

Taking a breath, I chanced a peek around the corner.  Dominic sat in the corner of the sofa along the wall.  Bill Jennings paced in front of him, his pistol trained on Dominic.

I sank back to the top step and rolled my eyes.  What next?  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Chapter 30 (part 3)

I tried to sit up, and Dominic surprised me by helping.  I thought for sure that he would insist on me staying here while he went for Allison.  But he had no idea where she was, so I had to go.

We reloaded the guns and headed back to the basement.  To keep the door quiet, Dominic wrestled the dresser blocking it out just a bit.  The small amount on one side was exponential on the other, and the door opened wide enough to slip through without any added noise from scraping furniture.  

We moved slowly, Dominic following my lead.  I crawled on the ground, putting much effort into avoiding my injured arm.  The painkillers were beginning to kick in, and with the adrenaline pumping through my veins, I felt virtually no pain.  Unless I leaned on the arm.

The two of us slipped behind the boulder on top of the hill with no problems.  Once there, we rested.  Dominic took the opportunity to scan the woods looking for more snipers.  We had at least one more man to contend with, but I was betting on two or more.  I didn’t think that Agent Bill Jennings would be the type to sit in a tree and wait.  Besides, he had been in street clothes when he came to the cabin.  While it was possible he had changed into camo, I didn’t think it was probable.  He didn’t seem the type to do the dirty work, preferring to step in at the last minute, after his men took out the heavy hitters, so to speak.

Dominic came to sit on the leaves beside me.  “How’re you doing?” he murmured, looking at my wound.

“I’m okay.”  I waited till his gaze met my eyes.  “I’m scared, Dominic.  There’s at least one more sniper out there.  And I’m betting that Jennings is waiting until he thinks it’s all clear before he comes.”

“I know.  I was thinking the same thing.”  His gaze moved out into the woods again.

“And what about Ritter?” I added.  “If Jennings is working for him, then he know where we are.  It’s obviously a set up.”

Dominic shook his head slightly.  “I don’t think Ritter would get his hands dirty at all.  He’s more of the bring-me-a-report type.”

I took a deep breath and blew it out.  “Well, I need to get to my daughter.  And then we all need to get the hell out of here.”  I rolled onto my hands and knees again.  “Let’s go.”  Dominic fell in behind me.

It felt like it took decades, but we finally reached the bottom of the hill below the cave.  We were crouched behind a thick bush.  I needed to rest before attempting the climb.  Looking up the incline, it was daunting.  If it wasn’t for Allison hiding in the cave near the top, I knew I’d never be able to make that climb.  But the love and willpower of a mother should never be underestimated.  I would go willingly into Hell’s inferno to protect my little girl.

The crunch of leaves underfoot froze me in place.  Dominic and I stared at each other.  The green of his eyes was lit with fear.  The footfalls were slow, calculated.  

Dominic decided to take a chance, and lowered the .22 to peer through the dense shrub.  Sniper, he mouthed.  I brought my fingers to my ears as the rifle’s safety snicked off.  Seconds later, the blast rocked the valley we huddled in.  

Sitting back on his heels, Dominic released a heavy breath.  He rested the rifle on the butt, and leaned it against his shoulder.  His face held tension that aged his sculpted features a few years.

I laid my hand on his knee and squeezed.  When he turned to me, his eyes were a hurricane of mental pain.  

Dominic may have had a past twisted up with drugs and illegal firearms.  He may have been involved in brutal fistfights when he was younger.  But he had been young and stupid, caught up in the lucrative underground business and the power it could bestow.  The few fights he had been in were the results of him being attacked by disgruntled underlings, and he never went over the line, doing only enough to defend himself.  He never pursued a grudge.

Deep down, the man had a good heart.  He loved people and went out of his way to help out his friends.  Hell, all those years ago his instinct had ensured that he went to jail instead of me.  When it came down to it, Dominic would put his own life on the line to save a stranger, so the fact that he’d shot and killed two men today was eating away at his soul.

I felt the torment from killing a man, too.  But my circumstances were different.  I was fighting for the life of my child.  Only my own death would stop me from laying to rest those who intended to harm her.  Knowing that the man I shot wouldn’t have hesitated to do his job, which obviously entailed killing all three of us, I had no regrets in taking his life.

Dominic leaned down, his lips against my ear.  “That wasn’t Jennings,” he whispered.  

I hung my head.  We had at least one more person to contend with.  One more person hiding out there in the woods with no way of knowing in what direction the danger lay.

I looked around slowly, scanning the terrain, the trees.  Then, taking a fortifying breath I pushed to my feet and began the arduous trek up the steep incline.  Only a few feet up, my arm started throbbing.  My breathing became shallow and labored, and was sweating profusely.  Using the trees scattered across the face of the hill, I pulled myself along with my right arm.  My legs were burning, and my vision was beginning to haze, but I was nearing the top.

Once there, I collapsed on the ground panting, fighting to remain conscious.  Dominic dropped on his knees beside me, pushing my hair from where it clung to my face and covered my eyes.

“Jesus, Ella.  What the hell are you doing?  You’re gonna kill yourself.”  The words were harsh, but his tone was distraught.

“Allison.”  It was all could get out.  The exertion of talking required too much energy.  I closed my eyes and tried to fight the blackness again.

Dominic’s hand patted my face.  “Ella.  Stay with me, Ella.  I need you.”  He turned my face to his when I opened my eyes.  “I don’t know where Allison is.  I need you to find her.  Stay with me.   For Allison.”  

The concern and fear etched on his face confused me.  Allison should be at school.  It was the middle of the day.  And what a beautiful day it was.  Spring’s warmth was pushing through the last remaining tendrils of cold left by winter.  The trees were covered in bright green buds where their new leaves would unfurl in a week or so.  Birds were singing their songs as they returned to their summer homes or passed through on their way farther north.

Then I looked at the sky.  It should’ve been bright blue, but I saw only a dark face surrounded by blinding white light.  The rays spoked out from behind the man’s face like the light of Heaven behind an angel.  Was he an angel?  

Oh, my God.  I thought.  I’m dying.  Who’s gonna take care of my baby?

I was vaguely aware of the angel calling my name.  It seemed so distant.  Like he was miles away instead of right there in front of me.  

Everything started to fade.  The world turned grey and gradually darkened to a black so dark terror instantly wrapped its cold fingers around my heart. 

I must be dead.  I mused.  I’m dead, and the angel left me here.  And there’s no one to care for Allison.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chapter 30 (part 2)

He climbed down from the counter.  “Maybe we should each take one.  I’ll go up in the attic, and you take the guy out front.”  He paused, studying me with a fatherly gaze.  His eyes raked my face.  “You’re really pale, Ella.  I know you want the guy who shot you, but I don’t want you up there.”  He stroked my face with his knuckles.  “If anything happened to me, you wouldn’t be able to get down by yourself.  Then what would happen to Allison?”

I jerked away from him, the movement making me dizzy and proving his point.  The bit about Allison was really and unfair ploy.  True, but unfair.  I saw the logic in his reasoning.  Sighing, I conceded his point.  “Okay.  You win.  But you have to help me get set up.”  I grabbed a glass and filled it with water, then swallowed sixteen-hundred milligrams of ibuprofen.  The bleeding had been slowed, but I would pass out from the pain if I didn’t take something.  Turning back to Dominic, I said, “And of course I’m pale.  I was shot, Dominic.  I lost a lot of blood.”  Maybe I was bit brusque, but my nerves were stretched beyond their limits. 

To Dominic’s credit, he didn’t acknowledge my tart tone.  Leaning forward, he planted a kiss on my forehead and lead me back into the bedroom.  “Do you think you can hit that guy with your pistol?”

“Oh yeah.  He’s right at the top of the hill,” I said as I peeked through the curtain again.  I met Dominic’s green gaze.  “You shoot first.  Hopefully that will distract him enough for me to get a clear shot.”

He just nodded, his eyes drowning in turmoil.  He buried his hands in my hair and pulled my face to his, pressing a hard kiss to my lips.  “We’re gonna get through this, Ella.  And then I’m gonna make it all up to you and Allison.”  Then he turned and left the room.

I heard him scrambling up into the attic space a minute later.  His body slid across the ceiling behind me.  A few more shuffles and bumps gave the impression that he was building up something to rest the rifle on.  The less the barrel poked out of the vent, the better.  One thing in Dominic’s favor was the darkness up there.  His scope lens wouldn’t reflect any light back to the sniper.

My heart was pounding.  From my injury, and from the anticipation of the imminent  showdown.  The fast it thumped behind my ribs, the more blood I would lose.  I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to hold my head up.  Dominic had to be quick.

Long seconds ticked into endless minutes.  The black haze began pushing it’s way back into my head, fogging the periphery of my vision.  But I kept my eyes trained on the man in the tree at the top of the hill.

A thought occurred to me then.  If that man turned around, he’d have a clear view of the cave where Allison was hiding.  She should be laying low, completely invisible from the ground.  But from the trees?  I wasn’t so sure.  I couldn’t take that chance.  My bullet had to be on target the first time.

The explosion from the attic startled me, and I flinched.  The man in the tree was more surprised than me, the boom nearly knocking him off balance and out of the tree.

I took aim and fired.  But the clouds edging into my vision threw my aim off.  The bullet hit him in the shoulder.  He toppled backward, feet over head, landing on the ground with an audible thump.  If I had any hopes that the fall would dispatch the camo-clad brute, alleviating me from putting a bullet through his heart--or head--they were dashed when he moved.  

Trying to push himself behind the tree he had been perched in, the man struggled to pull his weight with his good arm while dragging his weapon with his now dead right arm.  I hoped he was right handed.

Placing him between my sights again, I took a deep breath and blew it out.  Then I squeezed.  The second bang deafened me, and my world went black for an instant.  

Seconds later the light swam back to me through the depths.  Everything was blurry, but I could make out the limp form of the sniper.  His head was propped up on the tree trunk at an odd angle, his body lying prone on the leaf litter he blended with so well.  I had no idea where I hit him, but he was definitely dead.

I turned to find the man out by the road.  His methodical movements indicated he was searching for the shooter.  Well, I wasn’t going to give him a chance to blow my other arm to bits.  Or any other part of me, for that matter.  I ducked away from the window, rolling onto the bed on my back as I fought to hold on to my consciousness. 

Dominic bounded into the room.  “Did you get ‘im, Ella?”  

I couldn’t see his face through my closed eyelids, but I imagined him gazing at me on the bed, pale and seemingly unconscious.  Or dead.  I could feel his fear overtake his excitement.  

“Ella?”  His weight sank onto the bed.  His hands felt my face, by pulse, and examined my entire torso.  Looking for wounds?  Then they returned to frame my face again.  “Stay with me, Ella.”

“Mmmm,” I moaned.  Talking required too much energy.  As did opening my eyes.  But I wanted him to know I was still with him.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?”

I moved my head side to side an infinitesimal amount, and thankfully Dominic picked up on it.  

“Okay.  Good.”  He sounded lost, like he didn’t know where to go from here.

Strengthening my resolve, I opened my eyes and found his gazing down at me.  He looked as lost as he sounded.  “I’m okay.  Mostly.  Tired.  Gotta get to Allison.” 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Chapter 30 (part 1)

Using the line of light allowed by the open door, I scanned the basement room.  Empty.  I closed the door as quietly as I could with the surrounding furniture, wincing at the scraping of the wood on wood and the click of the latch.  All was quiet inside.  Pulling the pistol from my waist, I slunk through the room toward the stairs.  

I was terrified to round the corner.  My fear paralyzed me for endless seconds before I snapped out of it.  Dominic was somewhere in this inky gloom where just minutes earlier a gun had sounded.  He could be injured.  Or worse.

I took a chance and stole a peek around the wall, but all I could see was blackness.  I didn’t know what to do.  Should I use the flashlight and check the other room, or should I just get up the stairs?  I was torn.

If Dominic was all right, why wasn’t he waiting for me here?  Then again, if he was the victim, why wasn’t the bad guy waiting for me here?  The unmitigated stillness was baffling.  

After an eternity, I made my move.  Peeking around the corner, I squeezed past the wall and tiptoed up the stairs, my .44 leading the way.  

I was met with more silence.  I checked under the beds first before grabbing the rifle from where I stashed it under the mattress.  Another peek through the curtain revealed the two snipers still at their posts.  Scanning the trees in the distance, I noticed what looked like Bill Jennings’s car parked way off down the entrance road.  

If the guy in the basement was Jennings, then all three of the men we had seen were accounted for.  If not. . .  Well, I didn’t want to think about how many men could be out there.  

I checked the side window.  Perhaps I was a bit careless with moving the curtain.  Just as I saw the flash of another sniper’s scope, the window shattered and fire lit up my left arm.  The report came a second later.

I couldn’t help the cry that escaped my throat as I twisted back on the bed.  Pistol still in my right hand, I clutched my arm just below the wound.  The bullet had torn through the flesh and muscle below my shoulder.  It wasn’t a through-and-through shot, but it wasn’t a grazing either.  

I laid there on my back, lower lip clenched between my teeth in an effort to take away from the pain searing my arm.  It did no good.  I tried to remain still and quiet, but it was difficult not to rock with the pain.  I risked rolling on my right side, and curled into a ball.  

Blood was soaking my clothing and the comforter at a rapid pace.  I needed a tourniquet, but I didn’t think I could make one myself.  Blackness began to swim into my vision as I looked around for an adequate strip of cloth.

Pounding behind me.  Where did it come from?  I struggled to hold onto consciousness.  

“Ella?  Oh my God.  Ella!”  The voice was distant, foggy.  Heaviness sank the world at my back.  I sank with it until a pinching pressure squeezed my shoulder.

“Ahh!”  The cry tore from my lungs, the pain bringing me fully awake again, though my vision was foggy at the edges.  I looked up to see Dominic’s face hovering above me, his eyes darting from mine to the wound in my arm.

“Stay with me, baby,” he said.

Baby?  He never called me that.  Maybe it was the stress of the situation.  But that simple word turned my thoughts to my baby.  

“Allison.”  It was a creaky plea meant to implore Dominic to take care of her if anything happened to me.  But I wasn’t going to give in easily.

“I need to wrap the wound, Ella,” he said, ignoring my one word appeal.  He bunched up the comforter and held it to my mouth.  “Here.  Bite down on this.”  

Obliging, I opened my mouth and let him stuff the blanket in.  I bit.  Using a strip torn from a sheet, he bandaged my shredded flesh while I howled into my gag.  When it was done and the tourniquet was doing its job, the pain began to ebb.

Dominic wiped the sheen of sweat from my face.  As he stared down at me, his eyes pooled.  He wiped the tears away and helped me sit.  “We need to get out of here,” he said, his voice husky.

I shook my head.  “These men aren’t gonna let us leave alive, Dominic.  I need to get to Allison, and that means we have to fight.”

“Can we go the way you sent her?”

I looked at the shattered window and shook my head.  “If that guy had been there before, he would’ve seen us.  He would’ve had a clear shot as soon as we stepped out the door.”

“The guy in the basement is dead.  It wasn’t Jennings.”

I sighed, both for Dominic having to kill a man and for the knowledge his information provided.  “I saw Jennings’s car out on the road.  The other two men are still at their posts.  That means there’s at least one more than we knew.  Probably more.”  I looked at him.  “Who is Jennings?”

Dominic rubbed his scruffy face with his hands.  Hands that were covered in my blood.  When he pulled them away, he looked to be painted for war.  How appropriate. 

“Jennings is the agent I’ve been working with all along.  I guess he’s on Ritter’s payroll, too.”  He sounded defeated.  He had a right to be.  The man he’d been working with to take down Luke Ritter, ultimate drug lord, had been batting for the other team.  Dominic had been duped.  Nothing more than a pawn in the chess game between Ritter and the FBI.  Hell, the DEA and ATF were probably hot for the scumbag, too.

I squeezed his knee gently.  “It’s not your fault, Dominic.” 

He looked at me.  “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here,” he said.  “It’s my fault your family’s been torn apart.”

I didn’t argue with him because he was right.  His presence brought this turmoil back into my quiet life and shattered it from the inside.  I didn’t want him to beat himself up over it, but this was not the time to point that out.

I changed the subject back to the current situation.  “We need to pick off the men we can see from inside.  They have no idea who’s alive and who’s dead in here.”

“But we don’t have the firepower to snipe them if they’re far away,” he interjected.  “The .22 is the most accurate gun we have for distance, and it won’t go as far as that guy out by the road.”

“Well, maybe if we can get the guy right out front, and the bastard that shot me, we can slip out the back.  Maybe shooting his buddies will draw him closer.”  There was a chance.  But first we had to get the other two. 

I didn’t want to go near the blown-out window.  I thought about how to get a shot at the guy on the side.  My gaze lifted to the ceiling.  “Is there an attic?”

The roof peaked side to side, so a vent would give access to the side of cabin.  The same side as the window I was shot through.  It was worth a try.

In the corner of the kitchen we found a hatch in the ceiling.  It took some effort, but we were able to pull it down.  Dominic stood on the counter and poked his through the opening, using the flashlight to cut through the dark.

“It’s empty,” he said looking down at me.  “And it looks like there’s a vent on each side.”

“Good.”  I handed him the rifle.  “Slide this up, then you can give me a boost.”

He took the gun.  “There’s no way you’re going up there, Ella.”  His tone left no room for negotiation.  But I wasn’t negotiating.  In order to do this right, we both had to go up.  Besides, I wanted to take out the son of a bitch that shot me.  Payback. . . It’s a bitch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 3)

Dominic thought for a few seconds.  “I think there might be a small door.  More like a crawl space or root cellar.  Let’s check it out.”

I opened the basement door, and Dominic turned on a flashlight.  “Allison?” I called in a loud whisper.  “Sweetie, it’s mommy.”  

She didn’t answer, but I heard a shuffling noise off to the right.  Dominic swung the beam of light toward the sound.  More shuffling, but no visual.  My heart started racing.  Something wasn’t right.

I grabbed Dominic’s hand and moved the light along the floor.  In the back corner, behind a floor shelf, the toe of a large boot peeked out.  That was not my little girl.  I kept the light moving so the intruder wouldn’t know we’d seen him.  There was no sign of Allison.  I hoped she was on the other side of the stairs, and not in the hands of the enemy.

Tugging his sleeve, I pulled Dominic’s ear next to my mouth.  My voice was no louder than a breath as I whispered, “I’ll look for Allison on the other side.”  He nodded.  Handing me the flashlight, he used the beam to illuminate his hands as he gestured that he would go after the man hiding in the back.  While I didn’t want him to risk the danger that surely waited in the dark corner, Allison came first.  I did not intend to leave her alone and terrified.

I left Dominic standing in the dark and crept to the other side of the basement with the flashlight.  I didn’t call her name.  She wouldn’t answer, and I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t yet another man on this side of the stairs.

I moved slow, letting the flashlight trace the perimeter of the room.  I looked under the decrepit furniture that had been stored for who knew how long.  In my search, I discovered the small door Dominic had mentioned.  I was blocked by the edge of a dresser, but I thought I’d be able to wriggle it open enough to squeeze Allison and myself through without making too much noise.

If I found her.

Then, way back in the farthest corner, I saw her small hand on the floor.  It disappeared when the light hit it.  Creeping closer, I acknowledged that I still couldn’t talk to her, so I used the light to let her know I was coming.  I stopped in front of her hiding place, crouched down, and put my hand where she could see it.  

When she grabbed my fingers and squeezed, my heart about burst.  I tucked my head into the tight spot she had found and smiled at her.  Indicating she should keep quiet, I gestured for her to come out.  

Once she was free, I wrapped her in my arms and shed silent tears of joy and gratitude.  My little angel was safe.  Losing Michael had been hard.  Both times.  But when I thought my baby might be in the hands of my enemy. . .  I couldn’t live without her.  She was what I lived for everyday.  

Loud shuffling sounds came from the other side, and I paused, listening.  I heard a grunt, then the sounds of struggling.  It was time to leave.  Using the sounds of the skirmish to hide our escape, I opened the door and Allison and I squeezed through.

We were under a small overhang that shielded us from the view of anyone hiding nearby.  Of course, it would also hide them from us.

“Are you okay?” I whispered to her.

She nodded in response.  “Someone came through the outside door,” she whispered back.

I squeezed her to me.  “I know, baby.”  

The crack of gunfire from inside the basement spooked us.  Allison yelped, and my hand flew to her mouth to mute her cry.

“Okay, Allison.  Listen carefully.  I want you to crawl as fast as you can through the woods.  Go over that rise, and stay on the other side of that boulder.”  I pointed to the hill that ran alongside the cabin and a massive boulder embedded in it.  “Once you get over, head to the cave.  Stay low, and zig zag.  Hide behind whatever you can.  Use the gun if you have to.”  I hugged her to me again.  “I’ll come find you.  I promise.”  Pressing a hard kiss on her forehead, I said, “Now go.  I love you.”

She took off through the trees, low to the ground like she’d been playing army her whole life.  She did well with using small shrubs and fat trees to hide her body from the view of the cabin.  Once she disappeared behind the boulder, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.  

I waited for a couple minutes after she slipped behind the rock, then I turned to reenter the cabin and whatever waited in the dark of the basement.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 2)

Throwing off the blankets, we moved through the cabin in silence.  Through a small slit between the curtains we spied two figures moving in different directions through the trees.  A car began bumping its way down the drive toward the cabin.  As it approached I thought it looked remarkably like the Chevy that had given chase back in Ohio, and my heart began racing.

Dominic and I moved away form the curtains so the driver wouldn’t see us.  I headed to the bedroom and woke Allison, urging her to be silent and quick in dressing.  I had slept in my clothes, and so went to arm myself.  I made a quick holster for the nine using a scrap of a torn sheet and slipped it through Allison’s belt loops.  

Her eyes shone with fear as I tied the gun securely to her hip.  Whispering, I told her, “Someone’s here.  I don’t know who it is, so I want you to hide in the basement until I come get you.  Find a good hiding place that’ll be hard to find.  Don’t make a sound.  Don’t come out, no matter what.  If you need the gun, just pull this,” I indicated an end of the fabric strip tucked into her front pocket.  “It will untie the belt and you can use the gun.  You remember how to, right?”  

She nodded.  “Red means fire.  Both eyes open.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Aim for the body.”

Her matter of fact repetition of the basic rules broke my heart.  My little angel was again taking a huge step in the growing up process.  And once again she was taking a step she should never have to take at her tender age.  A step I wished she never would’ve had to take.

I handed her a flashlight.  “Only turn this on if you need it.”  My eyes searched hers before I wrapped her in my arms and squeezed.  “I love you, baby.”

“I love you too, Mommy,” she whispered back with tears in her voice.  

Leading her down the stairs to the basement, I opened the wooden plank door.  Bending down, I gave her another tight squeeze.  “Remember,” I whispered, “Only come out for me.”

“Okay.  Mommy?  I’m scared.”

“I know, baby.  I’m scared, too.”  I kissed her.  “Now, use the light to find a good spot.  Then shut it off until I come for you.”  

When the flashlight switched on, an exterior door was illuminated.  I stayed her hand with the light shining on the door.  “If anyone comes in through there, don’t move or make make a sound.  If you feel in danger, leave through there.  Go to the little cave we found and hide there.”  

I hugged and kissed her again.  “Don’t worry, baby.  We’ll be okay.”

She just nodded and swallowed visibly before moving into the dank basement.

I closed the door, climbed the stairs, and slid Dominic’s .44 into my waistband.  He pointed to the rifle by the window in the bedroom.  There I wouldn’t be visible from the living area, but I’d be able to see both the front and side of the cabin.  

I watched through the window as a man climbed out of the car.  He was short, but beefy, with a slight paunch at his middle.  His head was bald, but whether it was nature’s doing or clippers, I couldn’t tell.  The black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans were nondescript.  He could be anybody.

The confidence in his step as he approached the cabin, however, indicated that he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing.  Maybe he was part of the FBI team that put us here.  If so, what was up with the men sneaking through the woods?

When he stepped onto the porch, he disappeared from my line of sight.  Seconds later, a knock sounded on the door.  

“Yeah?”  Dominic’s voice was hard, less of a question than a demand for the knocker to identify himself.

The answer from the other side of the door was muffled to my ears, but Dominic answered with another question.  “What’s the password?” he demanded.

Password?  There was a password?  Why wasn’t I aware of this password?  I listened as the muffled voice answered, the click of the door opening indicated he got the answer right.  

“Bill,” Dominic said in a low voice.  “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to make sure you got here and had everything you needed.  The tank for the generator was full?”  He sounded young, but there was something in his voice that didn’t quite mesh with his nonchalant words.  He sounded tense.  

Dominic’s tone changed to match Bill’s.  “Yeah.  Everything’s fine.  Still doesn’t explain why you’re here, though.  You’re not supposed to be here.  That’s the point of a safe house, Agent Jennings.”

The edge in Dominic’s voice screamed trouble.  If this Agent Jennings wasn’t supposed to be here, why was he?  

“Where’s Mrs. Boothe?” the agent asked.

Dominic didn’t answer right away.  I listened to his foot steps track around the other room.  As he approached the doorway, he spoke.  “I’m not ready to have her come out yet.  I still want to know why you’re here.”

That was my indication to stay put.  I stole a look out both windows, trying to see if I could identify the other men’s locations.  It was a futile effort.  Unless they were wearing hunter orange, I’d never be able to pick them out of the trees.  They could’ve been anywhere by that point.

I sat on the floor beneath the window, pistol at my back, rifle across my lap.  There was nothing for me to do but wait and listen.  I hoped that Allison was okay down in the darkness of the basement.

Jennings’s voice floated through the doorway in a soothing wave.  “It’s okay, Sterling.  We got Ritter, so you guys can come out and head home.”

Silence from Dominic.

“Why do you look like you don’t believe me?” Jennings asked.

Dominic’s voice was stiff, edged with doubt and distrust.  “This wasn’t how we agreed you’d notify me.  You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Yes, well. . .”  Jennings didn’t finish the thought.

After a long, strained silence the door opened, and Dominic said, “I think you’d better leave, Bill.”

A gruff humf preceded the closing of the door.  

I watched through the curtain as Bill Jennings walked to his car.  Pausing at his door, he looked through the trees to his right.  Following his gaze, I found the first of the two men hiding in the woods.  The guy wasn’t far from the front door, but he perched in a tree so that a quick glance around leaving the cabin wouldn’t reveal him.  He was armed with a sniper rifle, and didn’t acknowledge Jennings’s glance.

When the agent looked off in another direction, I did the same.  The second of the men was off in the distance with a clear sight of the cabin door.  The scope on his rifle flashed in the morning light as he sighted Jennings.  Both men were in full camo.

When the agent drove off down the drive, Dominic returned to the bedroom.  “There’s at least two snipers out there,” he murmured in my ear.

“I know.  They’re both out front.  Is there a back door in the basement?”  My heart was racing.  If there wasn’t a back door, we’d have to sneak out a window.  And that was counting on just two men watching.  If there were more scattered around the back, we were done for.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 1)

Chapter 28 (completion)

After emptying two clips between the two of us, it was clear that Allison was a natural with a gun.  Our designated target tree was riddled with bullet holes.  All within an area the size of a man’s chest.  That was all that mattered.  If she was using this gun in the near future, she’d hit her target.  But I prayed she wouldn’t have to.

Chapter 29

We were tramping around in the woods and shooting at trees for an hour and a half, and when we returned Dominic glanced at me before turning his attention to Allison.  “So?  How was it?”

She gazed up at him, her eyes glittering with exhilaration.  “It was awesome!  Mom said I’m a natural.  Did you know she was six when Gampy taught her how to shoot?  But she shot a rifle.  I only got to shoot a hand gun.  But I hope she’ll teach me to shoot a rifle, too.”  It all tumbled out of her mouth so fast I could barely understand her.  

My hand fell to her shoulder and squeezed.  “Allison.  Stop.  Let’s not forget the other lesson we learned.”

Her excitement fell a few levels, and she dropped her eyes to the ground.  “Yes, Mom.”

Dominic looked up at me, his expression solemn.  Then he stooped down to be at eye level with Allison.  “And what was the other lesson?” he asked her.

Her blue eyes found his, the twinkle diminished but still sparking.  “Mommy taught me how to shoot in case the bad guys come.  I need to know how to protect myself if I have to.”  She stared at her fidgeting hands.  “If I have to shoot someone, I aim at his body.”  Her voice dropped as she said it, the hope that she would never have to commit the act pushing through.

Dominic gave her a smile meant to boost her up.  “Well, let’s hope that never happens.  Now, who’s hungry?  I’ll cook.”

We ate a substantial meal of white rice smothered in beef stew.  The stew was from a can since we didn’t want to spend excess time cooking, but it was fabulous to sit down and eat as a family considering we’d been eating in restaurants for several days.  Even though Dominic wasn’t part of my dwindling family.  But he fit nicely into the gap that had been widening since Michael’s accident.  

Allison was the first to head into the bedroom.  “Mom?” she called through the open doorway.  “Can I sleep by myself tonight?”

I looked at Dominic who gazed back with amusement.  Walking to stand in the doorway, I asked her, “Why do you want to sleep alone, honey?”

The mischief in her grin was not lost on me.  “Well, I just thought that you might want to talk to Mr. Dominic for a while after I go to bed.  If you sleep in the other bed, you won’t have to worry about waking me up.”

“Well, Mr. Dominic is sleeping in that bed, but I can sleep on the sofa if you want to sleep alone.”  

A little air leaked out of her bubble.  “But it’s a big bed.  You could share it.”

Unable to hide my smile at her matchmaking attempt, I shook my head at her.  “Get ready for bed, Allison.  I’ll handle the sleeping arrangements.”  

I went back and sat next to Dominic on the sofa.  “She wants us to share the other bed so she can have that one to herself.”

He was all Cheshire cat as he grinned at me.  “I’m okay with that.  In fact, I’d enjoy that very much.”

“I bet you would.”

“I bet you would, too,” he whispered in my ear.  

An electric pulse shot through my body from where his breath kissed my skin.  I leaned away just enough to turn my face to him, my eyes finding his smirking lips before tracing the planes of his face to drown in the green oceans of his eyes.  He was so close.  Just a breath away.  My mouth hungered for a taste of his.  Just a wee little tidbit of the sweet nectar.

The look in his eyes told me he wanted the same thing.  But I wouldn’t do that with Allison still awake in the next room.

It bothered me that she was so accepting of the romantic role Dominic could play in my life.  I was glad that she accepted him, but her father had just been killed.  Why would she push me toward another man?  Why wasn’t she angry and upset over this whole situation?  

It occurred to me that maybe my little girl was just much more resilient than I knew.  Life had handed her one hell of a lemon basket, and most of them were rotten when she got them.  Yet, here she was, picking through basket, tossing the lemons beyond salvation, and cutting the bad spots out of the others to make the flavorful lemonade she could fashion.

She came out of the bedroom in her pajamas and gave me hug and kiss.  “Goodnight, Mom.”

“Goodnight, baby.  Sweet dreams,” I said hugging her back.

To my surprise, she then gave Dominic a hug.  “Good night, Mr. Dominic.”

He chuckled as he returned her embrace.  “Good night, Allison.”

We sat on the sofa for about an hour after Allison went to bed.  We didn’t talk, just cuddled against each other.  His fingers combed through my hair, calming me.  When they began to skim my sensitive neck and throat, I sighed and stretched for more.

I felt his breath against my ear.  “Lie on the floor, Ella.  On your stomach.”  Understanding his intent, I complied.  His weight settled just below my rear as he straddled my hips.  The strength of his hands massaged my shoulders, working out the tension of the last few days.  He worked down my back, up again.  Down my arms.  

When he returned to my back, the breadth of his hands spread wide, his finger tips reaching around to my sides.  The touch became tender, a sensual brush over the cotton of my shirt as he grazed the curve of my breasts.  Drawing lower, he tugged the hem of my shirt up to expose bare skin.

Heat flared where his skin scraped my own.  My muscled clenched in response, but as he skimmed over my back in a lazy caress a different sort of tension took over.  I felt his weight shift.  Then his mouth was at my neck, kissing just below my hairline.  He worked his way to my ear, flicking his tongue before sucking the lobe between his hot lips.

I rolled beneath him, catching his mouth with mine.  The kiss was leisurely.  I was in no hurry to jump in the sack with Dominic.  It was exquisite just to be kissed, touched by a man.  And this man ken precisely what I needed.

A hand found my breast and massaged tenderly, teasing the silk of my bra under my shirt.  A leg moved between my own, pressing against my body.  I pulled my free leg up and around his waist, pulling him into me, forcing his need to press against my body.  The fire between us raged, turing sweet desire into hungry need.  We rolled together, groping, trying to get more contact through the barrier of clothing between us.

Dominic pulled his shirt off, and I traced the hard lines of his body.  Needing to taste, I sat up and flicked my tongue over him, my lips joining in as I suckled.  He pulled my shirt over my head, leaving it as a blindfold and pinning my arms behind my head.  The moist heat of his mouth surged through me as it fell on the top of my breast. 

But when he reached around to free them of the restraining bra, I flipped my shirt back down.  However much my body screamed at me for stopping him, my mind wasn’t quite ready for the intensity.  

An understanding pain filled his eyes as he gazed at me.  Then he pulled me into him, wrapping me in a bear hug and groaning into my hair.  “You’re killing me, Ella.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.”  I busied myself with straightening my clothes.  “Maybe we should just go to bed.”

A heavy sigh escaped him.  “Okay.  Will you at least sleep in the bed with me?”

Turmoil tugged me in two directions, but my need to be comforted through that turmoil was stronger than the desire to remain distant and the lust.  “Yes,” I said in a tired voice, and I walked into the bedroom.  

In a gesture that was pure compassion, Dominic wrapped himself against me in the bed.  I fell asleep in his arms.  

As the glow of dawn was just beginning to push through the inky night, a thump outside woke me.  Dominic sat up at the sound.  He looked down at me, fear sparking in his fully awake eyes.  

I propped myself on an elbow and listened.  In the distance another low thud sounded.  Dominic and I stared at each other.  Those were car doors.