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.”