The door to the gas station opened with a tinny gling, the antiquated bell chiming as Devin entered the store. The sound was a testament to the essence of the small backwoods town. At best it was quaint; at worst it was a sign of dilapidation in the middle of snowy nowhere.
As he entered he picked up one of the newspapers by the door, reading the headline: Holy Man Murdered Outside of Ohio Mosque—Imam Basam Al Nassar Shot to Death in Car.
The person behind the counter was a young man. He was too old to be a boy, but he hardly exuded an aura of maturity. He was blond, with shaggy hair that hung in his eyes. Lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears were all pierced. The Virgin Mary was tattooed on the side of his neck. He didn’t seem to notice Devin’s approach at first, until the clipping sound of expensive shoe heels were within feet of the counter. The checker looked up, face startled.
Devin was used to it. His skin was black, which meant he looked different from the locals. The result was distrust. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t sink to showing it—no sign of weakness. Instead he advanced with purpose, stopping at the counter.
“Can I help you?” the checker asked, eyes darting over the new face.
Devin said nothing, simply sliding a crisp fifty-dollar bill across the glass.
The checker nodded through his unsettled demeanor. “Just the gas?” he asked.
“And the newspaper,” Devin said, voice articulate and commanding. Then something changed. He felt it in his stomach this time. No images, just the sinking feeling of finality and irreversible death:
Soon. Too soon.
Not days or hours.
His cellular phone came open with a snap.
Devin reached into his wallet, swiftly removing and writing on a business card before sliding it across the glass countertop. He tapped his index finger on the card, indicating the neatly written script across its back. He tightened his vocal cords, voice intense.
“I need you to call the police. Tell them to send a car to this address. A woman’s life is in danger. Do you understand?”
Devin was looked over skeptically. “That all depends on what you have in mind. What’s your business here?”
Small towns, Devin thought cynically. People always talked about the joys of small town living, but he personally found it infuriating—nosy people who didn’t trust you if they hadn’t grown up with you. At least in the city you had a reason not to trust each other.
“Do it,” he said with a commanding edge, “and do it now.” He left the store, pushing through the curtain of early-spring snow.
The young man behind the counter looked over the letters, taking a moment to let the information sink in. He brushed his thumb anxiously across his lower lip, shifting a piercing. “Hey?.?.?.?” His voice dragged inarticulately. “Hey, Gary.” The checker lifted his head, calling to the far end of the gas station near the refrigerators on the back wall.
“Yeah?” a voice called back.
A gruff-looking man with a craggy face approached the counter. “What is it?”
“That guy just told me to have the cops sent here,” the checker said, handing over the business card.
Gary looked it over, thinking for a second. “I know this place,” he said with a nod. “Outsiders trying to tell us how to run our own town,” he growled, then crumpled the card in his fist.
The eggs were burning.
Brett cursed quietly under his breath as he reached for the skillet, trying to keep breakfast from turning to coal.
The kitchen phone rang.
He lifted it from the cradle, positioning it snugly between his shoulder and cheek as he fought with the eggs, waving smoke away with a towel.
“Yeah?” he said through a cough.
“This is Gary.”
“Hi, Gary; how can I help you?”
“Some guy just came by the gas station. Black fella, nice suit, fancy coat—looked like he might work for the IRS or something.”
Brett paused. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“He wanted somebody to send the cops over.”
“Why?” Brett stammered, eyes moving toward the CCTV monitor on the countertop.
“Do you think he’s headed here now?”
Brett continued to stare into the monitor. “How long ago did he leave?”
“Just a second ago.”
He watched as the black-and-white screen flickered: it showed the image of the girl as she sat tied to her chair in the dark basement room below, hair hanging across her bowed face, morose from her captivity. “I can’t talk right now,” Brett said shortly, then hung up.
This was a problem.
Hannah’s head hung, long brown hair in her eyes.
Her face felt pasty with cold, fatigue, and pain. Dark lumps covered her body, swelling bruises on her cheek and forehead from rough treatment. Arms behind her back, she sat in a chair, wrists and ankles tied to the wooden frame, chair legs bolted to the floor.
The room was dark. Mattresses and foam padding lined the walls and windows to soundproof the basement room. Tan foam lined the seams between sound-buffering pads, rippling in imperfect bubbles and waves, frozen solid in time as it had been spewed from an aerosol canister. A tiny security camera was fixed in an upper corner.
Time stood still for her. One long unbroken moment of darkness and fear was all that filled her memory. Hours? Days? Weeks? She had no perception of how long she had been there. They had turned on lights at moments, brilliantly hot and bright, stabbing at her eyes, then extinguished them for what could have been days on end.
Every time she fell asleep they woke her. Feedings were sporadic—two meals she knew could have only been forty-five minutes apart. Judging time had been easier when they were still playing music—something they had done to make sure she couldn’t hear them until they realized how well they had soundproofed her room. The length of the songs had given her a perception of time, but now that measure was gone, and her sanity was going with it.
Hannah had been raised in a conservative Christian home. It was something she had taken at varying degrees of seriousness throughout the phases of her life, but here, now, in the abyss, in her hour of darkness, she clung to it.
At first her prayers had been specific, personal, and directed to God as if He were standing right in front of her. Now she was tired, her mind swimming. Her lips mumbled out a tiny incoherent appeal, begging for rescue, pleading for light, imploring for continued safety, hoping upon terrified hope that the sanctity of her body would not be violated. Through her pleas she felt God draw closer and her sanity slip further away.
She was hallucinating. She had to be, seeing things that had happened long ago or not at all—and she felt it coming on again. It had been different each time, but she always felt it coming. This time it was a taste, like the bright tang of a penny in her mouth.
Then she began to see things that weren’t there—
A cold car.
An Islamic holy man praying for forgiveness that Allah, the merciful and just, would have pity on him. He had recruited young, innocent Palestinian men to bind explosives to themselves—to walk into crowds of Israelis—to kill—and to die.
He had failed for years to free Palestine from Israel.
He was an American now, the imam of a small Ohio mosque. A man of peace.
Sitting in the car, waiting for it to warm up.
Thoughts of his sons—wanting to kiss them before they went to sleep.
A pedestrian in a heavy coat walking in the direction of his car.
The man reached into his jacket.
Clawing at the car door—trying to escape. The first bullet punching through the glass.
Pain. Skin breaking. Muscle splitting. Bone shattering.
Horror. Pain. Grief. Screaming.
The windshield blistering with holes.
Thoughts of his wife—of his children.
Body torn to pieces by the striking of lead.
Minutes later a jogger in the middle of the street, stammering into his cell phone. “The windshield is filled with bullet holes and there’s blood?.?.?.?everywhere!”
It all came over her like a flood, a pouring out of pictures in her mind. But then there was one more thing. Not an image, but a feeling—that half a continent away someone else had felt it all happening too.
The sedan thundered down the wet, snowy dirt road. White snow, brown mud, and ashen gravel kicked up and out from the sides of the vehicle. The silver automobile cut through the road’s debris like a blade as the surrounding world blurred into fleeting streaks.
A midsize luxury sedan with a manual transmission—as always, the vehicle of choice the rental company had in his file. Devin had rented it at the airport expecting to have more time, but he didn’t. He hadn’t expected to cut it so close, but there was no reasoning with it now. All he could do was drive, hands gripping the wheel as if he had to wrestle the sedan to the ground like a beast.
The snow had stopped falling for the moment, and that helped—a little. But what a horrid frozen wasteland to be trapped in. Back home in New York, spring had already begun—sunshine all over. But he had to be called here: to the only place in the entire continental United States to have a blizzard, where snow had fallen in buckets and the sun hadn’t been seen in days.
To his right Devin saw the house appear over the horizon as the silver car glided up the hill. Five minutes at the most. He was almost there. He checked his phone again and snarled—too far from any kind of cell tower—a snowy wasteland.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he focused himself, aligning his will and his strength in faith. Some would call it a prayer. Devin resisted that word prayer. To him it was a necessary requisitioning of needed resources—spiritual or otherwise, it didn’t matter.
It was his thoughts narrowing into a finely focused, single-minded bolt of mental force, preparing for imminent havoc.
Hannah’s mind swam.
She saw him as her world dissolved to white.
Tall, handsome, dark skin.
Sitting at a dinner party.
Pausing. Something changing.
A thought or epiphany.
The man boarding a plane.
Strikingly handsome in an olive-colored suit that seemed to radiate class, money, and power. His frame stood strong in the midst of the frozen breeze, his tight muscular body accented by the hang of the trench coat over his strong shoulders.
He had been afraid for her, more than just for her captivity; for something far more treacherous. She paused. How afraid should she be for herself?
Brett growled in anger. It was really fear, but he denied it by letting it bubble out in a swell of wrath.
“I should never have let you use my home!” He was frantic, nearly wringing his hands. “This can’t be happening!”
Snider and Jimmy stared at him, unmoved. They didn’t take him seriously. They thought he was prone to panic, that was all.
“Calm down,” Jimmy said sarcastically.
“Calm down? Calm down?” His face burned. “We’ve got a girl in the basement. That’s kidnapping! And this fella’s gonna bring the cops!”
Snider, middle-aged and dressed in black, stepped forward. “And what if he’s not?” He was the leader, the one who had approached Brett, offered him money for the use of his home. Brett knew he had a reputation for being somewhat shady, but Brett liked money. And now things were getting serious.
“If you don’t settle down, you’re going to look suspicious,” Snider continued. “And then what will you do when he really does bring the cops?”
Brett waved his hands nervously. “This has gotten out of hand. We can’t do this anymore.”
“What do you suggest?” Snider asked. “That we dispose of her?”
There was a long silence as they all looked at one another; then Brett turned sharply, heading for his room.
“Where are you going?” Snider asked.
Brett called back, “I’ll deal with this!”
The turn was a blind corner, covered by snow. Devin slammed on the brakes, and the car lost control.
The back end of the car swung wide, losing traction in the slick of white. The tires left wide swaths of grime as the side of the car crunched into a pack of snow. Devin worked the sedan into gear and eased into the gas—the engine revved, the vehicle rocked, but he didn’t move forward. He gave the pedal a futile stomp, but he knew all he was doing was chopping ground into snowy pulp.
His eyes lifted, mind calculating the distance—maybe a hundred or so meters. He shoved the door open and climbed out into the snow. Cold ran up his foot, into his throat. It wasn’t the cold of the snow; it was—
Panic. Anger. Desperation.
Blam. Blam. BLAM!
The killer’s face, covered with relief.
His foot slipped, his body nearly going down. It had snowed again the night before, and the snow was as deep as three feet in some places. Devin lifted his burning legs, body heaving forward through the thick mass beneath him.
He’d done forced marches before. Ten years of military life had provided him with everything he needed in this moment, everything he’d ever needed to live this life.
Devin looked up.
Shimmering blue steel nestled in a form-fitting glove of padding. The scent of gun oil wafted from the case, sweet and lethal. Brett lifted the firearm, felt its weight as he removed a magazine swelling with a full allowance of rounds and thrust it into the grip’s base.
“What are you doing?” Snider demanded from behind as he cursed in exasperation.
Brett snapped the safety off, shoving past Snider toward the door. Snider shoved back, slamming Brett’s shoulder blades into the wall.
“Answer me!” Snider shouted, face filled with wrath. “What do you think you’re going to do with that?”
Brett’s face burned with reckless emotion. “This is my house. I’m going to protect myself my way!” He stared into furious, unforgiving eyes.
“I swear if you do anything stupid I will put you in the ground!”
Brett shoved back to no avail. A third voice called from the hall.
“Hey, guys. There’s somebody coming.”
Snider moved to the window, betraying none of his worry. To his left Brett leaned, hand resting against the window frame, twitching with near-frantic energy.
The man outside was coming up the snowy drive, drawing closer and closer.
“This is bad,” Brett said again. “This is very bad.”
“Calm down,” Snider ordered. “I’ll deal with this.”
“We’ve got to get rid of the girl.”
Snider shook his head. “Do you want him to find the girl or a dead body?”
Brett groaned, agonized.
“That’s not the answer.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
Snider went calm, looking at the other two men. “Let our visitor in—”
Brett tried to protest.
“—then kill him.”
Devin reached out to the door with an ebony hand.
Frantic whispers slipped through the door. They were stalling.
The door opened, and a middle-aged man in black jeans, a black button-up shirt, and a tan undershirt looked back at Devin.
Devin smiled disarmingly. “Good morning, sir. I hate to say it, but it looks like I might have been driving too fast for the conditions. I seem to have slipped into the snow.” Devin pointed back over his shoulder to the sedan’s front end consumed by a drift. “My cell phone isn’t getting a signal, and I was wondering if I could use your phone.”
The man looked past Devin, examining the buried vehicle in the distance. “We can help you dig that out.” He gestured toward a younger man standing behind him.
The man stepped aside welcomingly. “My name’s Snider. You look completely frozen—why don’t you come in and warm up? I’ll pour you a cup of coffee. There’s a fireplace in the next room if you want to sit there for a few minutes before we dig out your car.”
“Thank you, sir.” Devin stepped across the threshold, knocking the snow from an expensive shoe. The interior carpet was factory standard beige, the walls white. Devin’s eyes scanned the room, looking for any hint of the girl. He remembered what he’d seen. She had to be in the basement, but for now he was just going to have to see what he was up against.
Snider squared up to Devin. “Jimmy here can take that wet jacket of yours and put it in front of the fire to dry it out.”
Jimmy reached for Devin’s trench coat.
“Thank you,” Devin said, as he felt strong arms grab his own—restraining him from behind.
He threw his weight back, shoving against Jimmy. Fighting. Struggling. Lashing out.
Throwing his weight back he lifted his legs, heel landing in Snider’s chest with a thud, sending the man crashing back. The man behind him spun him and the world blurred. Devin kicked backward, going for the knee—
Something jammed into his neck, hard.
He tried to fight. Tried to knock it away. A repetitive, electric clicking.
Brett heard the fighting and the sound of dead weight hitting the floor as he ran back up the stairs, Beretta in hand. The intruder lay on the floor, limp. Brett’s hands began to shake.
“We’ve been found,” he said, voice anxious and wavering.
Jimmy groaned. “Shut up, Brett.”
Brett’s face flushed, his ears turning bright pink. “No. I’m not going to shut up,” he shouted, gripping his pistol. “This is bad. This is very, very bad, and we’re neck-deep in it.”
“Knock it off.”
“No. We’re all going to go to prison. Do you understand that?”
“It was just one guy—”
“—who’s now lying limp on my floor!” Brett’s tone raised an octave.
Snider knelt over the intruder’s slumped form. “Take him to the lake in his car. Make it look like he lost control and went in.”
“Like an accident?” Jimmy clarified.
Snider nodded. “These roads can be treacherous in snowy conditions.”
Brett watched as Jimmy hoisted the intruder over his shoulder, heaving him out the front door. “You know the police are going to tie this back to me.”
“Calm down,” Snider snapped.
“Stop telling me to calm down. They’re not going to tie this to you. They’re going to tie this to me.”
Snider ran a hand through his hair wearily. “Where’s breakfast?”
“Don’t try to change the subject. This is serious!”
“Finish breakfast,” Snider ordered as he moved down the hall, back turned.
“Don’t you walk away from me!” Brett blustered as he stomped after him, gun in hand. “I’m talking to you!” He reached out, putting a hand on the black-clad shoulder, then felt it twist as Snider spun.
Brett doubled over with his arm cocked violently in the air, wrist screwed in an unnatural direction, a strong hand shoving his shoulder down like a fulcrum. A knee to his stomach and the pistol hit the carpet.
Snider came close to Brett’s ear. “You do not talk to me that way”—his tone was soft but ferocious—“or so help me you’ll find yourself in the lake next to our uninvited guest here. Got it?”
Brett felt like his arm was about to be torn from its socket.
Brett didn’t say anything; he only groaned in agony. A whimper escaped him; then he felt the force of the floor as Snider gave a brutal shove. He lay there, groaning, carpet pressed to his cheek as he watched Snider scoop up the pistol and walk away.
Jimmy came back in the front door and Snider handed off the Beretta, then looked back at Brett.
“Finish breakfast. I’m hungry.”
Brett sat up, leaning his aching body against the wall, seething. He touched his nose. Blood.
His shaking hands clenched.
Hannah listened intently. They’d done a good job of soundproofing the room, but there was only so much foam and mattresses could keep out. She held her breath, trying to hear more.
It had sounded like fighting. Shouting mostly, but things hit the walls, shaking the beams down to her shadowy basement.
There wasn’t much time for her, she supposed. They were getting desperate. What little she could make out from the tone of the shouting told her that. They weren’t going to keep her around much longer. That was certain.
What was the point? Two decades of living. She was nineteen years old and alone. A college freshman, living in the dorms, failing to adapt. Her roommate liked to drink and liked guys even more—Hannah had come home to find a “do not disturb” sign hanging from her own door at least once a week all semester, forcing her to sleep on a couch in the downstairs commons. The food in the dining halls was bad, the company worse. All she had wanted was to go home.
She didn’t want to be a college graduate with a career. All she wanted was to meet a nice man and love him, feed him, raise his children. It was an old-fashioned and naïve desire, all her professors and friends had told her that, but still it was the life she wanted.
She wanted peace and quiet and love and cookies made for her children—not an education or a life in the fast lane, but her
grandfather had made her go, wanting her to get a degree in business so she could make the family business more profitable.
The sensation was in her temples this time—soft images blending one to another.
Her eighth birthday party.
She wore a cowgirl hat and boots.
A chocolate cake with sprinkles.
The number eight embedded in frosting, a single flame rising from the wick.
Her friends smiling.
Her childhood dog, Max, licking her face.
The stinging all over her.
Crying in her grandfather’s arms.
—her grandfather’s arms.
Hannah lifted her head. She wanted to live.
Snider dialed the phone.
“Yes?” his employer said across the line.
There was a pause. “What do you need?”
“Some guy started snooping around.”
“I think it’s time you told me exactly why you hired us to kidnap the girl.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t—”
“I swear, we’ll kill her now.”
There was another pause.
“Are you watching the news?”
“Do you mean the murdered imam?”
“Are you guys responsible for that?”
“We need control of our situation.”
“And the girl’s kidnapping provides you with that?”
“We’ll double your money.”
Snider sneered. “We’re now connected to a politically charged killing. You’ll triple our money, and you’ll have the rest of it for us tonight, because after that we’re sending her back in a garbage bag!”
Devin’s thoughts floated.
Confused—in the front seat of the car. The car hood breaking the ice, plunging into the water.
The windshield cracking—leaking. Breaking. Cold water spilling in.
Body seizing from the shock. Lungs filling with ice water.
Devin’s eyes opened—darkness everywhere. His whole world shook as his head slammed into something. How had he gotten here? On his back, in some dark, confined place.
His world shook again with a jarring slam as he heard the engine rev.
He was in the trunk of a car.
It smelled new or at least freshly detailed—like his rental car. He shivered in the chilled trunk as his mind put it all together. It was his rental car. He remembered what had flashed through his mind. They were going to send the car into a lake with him in it, make it look like an accident. But it wouldn’t look like an accident if he was in the trunk. He remembered what he’d seen—
They weren’t going to leave him in the trunk. How had they gotten him here in the first place?
Something had pinched him in the neck, hard. There had been some sort of ticking sound and—
They’d hit him with a Taser, an electrical stun gun. Police and military used them for restraint purposes. He’d had to use one himself on several occasions when he was with intelligence. They were available to private citizens too for self-defense, and he’d been hit with one of those.
They weren’t going to take any chances. They were going to stun him again for good measure, put him in the front seat, and send him into the lake. He wouldn’t even have to drown. The water was cold enough that the chill would get him first. The shock of it alone would be enough to suck the air from his lungs, cause his muscles to seize. The impact would batter his body, and the breaking glass would slash him to ribbons. The water would cut off his air, choking him to death.
And if he survived all that, his lungs would fill and burst.
Brett moved into the living room, his body still sore. The TV was on—the morning news—all about this murdered imam in Ohio.
Brett watched for a moment and thought.
They were going to have to get rid of the girl, no matter what Snider said. It was going to have to happen.
He looked on the ottoman.
Devin fumbled in the dark. He couldn’t find what he was looking for.
Just the previous summer he’d been led to the trunk of an older-model car where a four-year-old boy had accidentally trapped himself on a sweltering day. He read up on it afterward. He’d learned of the eleven children who had died in the summer of 1998, trapped in the trunks of automobiles. As a result, new standards required the auto manufacturers to have interior release handles inside every trunk manufactured after 2000. Most glowed in the dark with pictographic instructions inscribed on them. Devin saw nothing.
He searched with his eyes and his fingertips. He couldn’t find the latch. This wasn’t right. The rental was a brand-new car with all the latest safety requirements. They must have removed the safety latch somehow in the fear that he might come to and search for it, exactly as he was doing now.
There was another option—he could kick out the backseat and find himself face-to-face with his captor, a fight he would have to win against a man who was almost certainly armed.
He turned back to the trunk latch, feeling with his fingertips.
Snider stood in the kitchen, touching his forehead. It all gave him a headache—the logistics of it all. It was supposed to be a simple job, not this. The news was playing in the background—some Muslim had been murdered. He rubbed his temples.
He trusted Jimmy, but it still bothered him to delegate something like ditching a body to him. Why hadn’t he done it himself? Why hadn’t he made sure it was flawless?
Because, he reminded himself, Brett was the biggest problem they had. Someone needed to keep an eye on that trigger-happy?.?.?.
Where was Brett, anyway?
Snider stepped out of the kitchen and looked around. Then his eyes fell on the ottoman.
The pistol was gone.
Devin’s fingers glided across the plastic surface of the trunk’s latch cover and found the edges. He worked at the plastic, but his short, manicured fingernails couldn’t work their way underneath.
He traced the cover farther up. The cover was the size of his hand, roughly the shape of an egg, and at the top he felt two small indentations, one on each side of the release. His fingers worked their way in and the cover came loose. He felt blindly at the mechanism, working at it with his fingers.
Cold metal and a long, thick wire running the length of the mechanism.
That’s it, he thought. He pulled. The trunk popped and white light exploded off of the snow, flooding Devin’s eyes.
An old country road. Trees streaming away on each side.
He hurled himself out into the snow, rolling with the impact.
Brett moved to the door, unlocked it, and pushed it open gently.
There was the girl. She looked up and saw his face. His heart skipped as he tightened his stranglehold on the pistol’s grip behind his back. She’d seen his face. She could identify him.
Now there was no changing his mind.
He stepped in, closing the door.
Jimmy slammed on the brakes as he saw the trunk burst open in his rearview mirror. To the left he saw the man lift himself out of the snow and dash for the trees at the edge of the road.
The vehicle came to a sliding stop in the snow. He lunged at the passenger’s seat, clawing at a pile of things he’d brought along for cleanup. He snatched the Glock pistol with his rubber-gloved hand and glanced back at the escaping figure in the mirror.
He launched out of the car door, spinning in a single fluid motion, the handgun resting on the roof of the car as he braced himself to fire.
Only time for one shot before the man slipped into the trees?.?.?.
The gun sounded like thunder.
Snow exploded off the burdened branches of an evergreen, sending white scattering through the air like a starburst. Devin hit the ground and rolled, then quickly scrambled back to his feet and sprinted into the trees.
Hannah stared at the man. He stared back, hand hiding something behind him.
He stood there, not moving, as if he were trying to work up the courage to do something. Her mind skimmed across the surface of possibilities. There were only a few options of things he had come for: her body or her life—or both.
The doorknob at the far end of the room turned, and someone pushed on the door. The man in front of her flinched, then turned around quickly, showing her his back—and the pistol he was holding.
The door opened.
“What are you doing?” Another man, dressed in black, looked around the room.
“Nothing. I was just?.?.?.?”
Hannah stared at the pistol. She wanted to scream, to tell the second man what she saw, but she couldn’t. She tried to speak, but her voice held in her throat.
“You don’t belong in here,” the second man announced.
The first man nodded. “You’re right.” As he spoke he tucked the firearm discreetly in his belt and moved toward the door, following the other man.
Jimmy moved into the trees, lowering his head beneath a branch—eyes sharp and attentive, handgun at the ready. The tracks were clear and distinct in the deep snow.
Just beyond, the world was darker, the ground shadowed by the canopy of trees. He looked for blood—there was none, but there were gaping tracks in the snow. He pushed on toward his quarry.
That was all Hannah heard for several moments. Then she heard it, even through the padding—
Arguing. Yelling. Shouting.
She held her breath for a moment then threw her head up, attentive to the noise—
The gunshot was deafening.
Devin pressed his back against the tree, his stalker so close he could hear the crunch of snow. He took a long, deep breath—and held it. He had to be completely undetectable, or he was dead.
Jimmy squinted. Just ahead he saw it—the cloth of a trench coat peeking out from behind a small tree. He took in a breath and stepped gently.
Carefully. Silently. Agonizing as he placed his feet in the packed snow at the bottom of each track he followed.
He was getting closer. Rounding the tree. Then his moment—
Jimmy threw himself forward, the pistol in his hand blasting.
The coat was empty. Riddled with bullets, it hung from a branch, limp and vacant. Cursing to himself he looked around frantically.
Something rammed between his shoulder blades, and he went face-first into the snow, pain stabbing at the base of his skull, chest slamming into the icy cold. His vision only went black for a moment.
He pushed up with a fist then felt an arm swoop around his neck, his chin locking in the cleft of the man’s elbow. Jimmy fought to bite the other man’s arm as he struggled to gain hold with his clawing fingertips. A hand pressed expertly against the base of his skull.
He threw elbows to the side, punches to the face. He clawed, scratched, and tried to jam a thumb under the man’s eye to put it out. The choke hold only tightened. Jimmy felt his body being thrown as he was fought deeper into submission, forced to his knees, his vision swinging hard to the right—
He saw it.
In the snow.
He snatched the cold metal, swinging it upward toward the black man’s face.
One bullet would do—
The pistol bucked in Jimmy’s hand as a round exploded from the muzzle, firing off into the air as a well-placed strike knocked the weapon away. The other arm continued squeezing, and Jimmy reprised violently.
Sweat ran down his back, sweet and slick.
His face burned. Muscles flaming.
Frustration. Burning rage.
He fought to bring his restrained arm to bear—the pistol going off again and again and again, blasting away at the snow near their feet.
He screamed in anger.
The man he would have murdered was quiet, calculated.
Jimmy snarled as the weapon was stripped from his hand, tumbling into the snow.
They both went back, slamming into snow. The air left Jimmy’s lungs and he gasped. The other man’s legs wrapped around his own, holding him down tightly. Trapped.
How did this happen? He was going to kill this man. In cold blood. But he was losing control, body locked in an expertly executed choke hold.
He gasped for air. Gray crept into his vision. Sight blurred. Consciousness slipped.
His world went dark.
Hannah was bleeding from her wrists, the ropes cutting deep into her soft flesh as she tried to work her way free. Her bruised wrists twisted under the stinging strain of the ropes that bit into her. A trickle of her own warm blood slithered down her finger. It hurt so much, but she just kept working.
She wanted to live. She wanted to see the sun.
Footsteps down the hall. Nearing.
Her work became more rapid, trying harder to free herself from the expertly tied fetters.
The door opened. She saw a man dressed all in black. He came close, leaning by her ear. Hannah went stiff—except for her lip, which quivered uncontrollably.
Devin climbed into the silver rental car and looked around. The keys were still in the ignition. He turned them and heard the rush of air—
The woods. The girl.
Snider, aiming his pistol deliberately.
“Please don’t kill me. Please!”
The girl, back turned, walking away.
Devin set the sedan into reverse, easing into the gas. He felt the tires grip and begin to slowly roll out of the snow—couldn’t rush it or he’d get stuck. He turned the car around, working the wheel to the left.
Devin pushed the gearshift forward, locking it in place, and fed the gas. The car began to move forward, gaining speed, then took off, blazing down the snowy road. His eyes glanced at the dashboard—a mile ticked over faster than it should have for the conditions. Then another. And another.
“Please don’t kill me. Please!”
The words played over again in his mind, frantic and desperate.
He was driving much, much too fast for the conditions. The back end slipped, and he adjusted the gearshift. The car was fishtailing. Too fast, he thought again, but he had no choice now. No other option. Not now. Not with the future racing toward him.
He recognized the landscape. From the other side, but this was it: his turn was just ahead, where he’d hit the drift before.
Devin’s fist wrenched the emergency brake skyward.
He spun the wheel.
The car snapped to a ninety-degree angle, sliding to a stop—right in front of the long drive.
First gear. The sedan leapt into action.
The engine snarled.
Second gear. He laid into the gas.
Over a small hill.
The house ahead.
Like the chiming of a bell announcing the drawing of midnight, the words repeated in his mind:
“Please don’t kill me. Please!”
No more time. The future was becoming the present.
The gas pedal touched the floor. The car began to fishtail, the front end nosing to the right. Devin overcorrected as control of the car slipped away from him. He fought the vehicle as he felt it tipping inexorably out of control. Something slipped beneath the car, the tires losing all traction—he was completely out of control, the car swerving perpendicular to the long drive. His foot pumped the brake, but the wheels were no longer propelling the car, only the force of gravity pulling him down the incline—screaming across a layer of slippery packed snow—careening toward a tall embankment at the end of
Devin braced for impact, and his entire body shuddered as the silver sedan plowed into the drift. The seat belt snapped tight, constricting against his chest as the force of the blow threatened to throw him out the far side of the car. The shock wave subsided, and he reached for the door handle with a disoriented hand.
Devin threw the door open and got out, Glock pistol in hand—raised in anticipation of trouble.
He stared down the iron sights at the front door of the house, only feet away. Devin moved from the car with purpose and speed, eyes locked on the front door, weapon held out in front of him as he moved up the steps.
Devin turned the door handle and gave a hearty kick, sending the door flinging in. He charged across the threshold and paused, weapon ready, arms locked in place, body turning with the pistol. He moved in.
Left turn—one sharp movement as he glared down the iron sights.
To the right—same.
Devin moved into the kitchen. On the counter was a black and white monitor—a room. Chair, bonds—that was where he’d seen the girl—but the room was empty.
Then he saw it—something more shocking. Next to the monitor was a lapel pin. A royal crest—he recognized the symbol. The Trinity knot—a triquetra—under a crenulated label: the sign of the Firstborn.
No color—simply the symbol itself. It didn’t have any of the distinctive colors: the red of the Domani, the gold of the Ora, or the blue of the Prima. But it was the symbol of the Firstborn—that was simple enough to see. And more disturbing than anything else he could consider.
A cool draft played against his cheek, and he turned. The sliding glass door was slightly ajar. Devin moved forward, looked through the glass at the distant trees—
And saw them.
Hannah screamed again.
Snider shoved her into the trees. She fell down, and he reached for her, grabbing her hair roughly with a fist.
“Do not make my life more difficult than it has to be. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
Hannah nodded, and he pulled her to her feet. They kept walking, deeper and deeper into the trees.
Snider stopped in a clearing, a hundred yards beyond the tree line. She went to her knees. He lowered himself down to her ear, whispering.
“That way,” he said, pointing deeper into the trees. “Start walking that way, and don’t look back.”
She turned and looked at him. Her first thought was that he was letting her go, then she looked him in the eye and felt—
He’d killed before—
A deal gone bad.
A job gone wrong.
Intimidation gone too far.
To survive in prison.
To repay a debt.
She saw it all—
He was going to kill her too.
“Get up.” His voice soft but stern.
She stood and looked into his face. “Please don’t. Please don’t kill me. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
“Start walking,” he said flatly, “and don’t turn around.”
She held for a moment.
Hannah turned slowly, facing the snowy trees ahead of her, and began to walk. One foot in front of another, waiting expectantly for it to happen any moment. She turned her head, saw the man in the corner of her eye still standing there, pistol in hand.
“Keep going,” he instructed.
Another step. Another moment of life.
Her entire body went stiff and she looked down—she’d stepped on a twig.
She stopped, turning back to Snider.
“I didn’t tell you to turn around,” he reprimanded, as if she were a child. As she looked back into the trees she sucked air, slowly.
She looked at the trees. So beautiful. The snow and the early-morning sun. Her heart slowed. Her muscles relaxed. If this was going to be the last thing she ever saw, she was going to embrace it.
Days in a dark basement had driven her back to the faith of her childhood; now it filled her entire heart and mind.
She was coming home.
The gunshot was loud, hammering in her temples as if a hole had been punched in her eardrums. A single round fired in the stillness of the snow, echoing endlessly through the trees.
Snow dropped from branches. Birds took off into flight. And the blast rolled through the world.
She stood for a moment, waiting to feel it, but all she felt was the chill in her feet and in her lungs. Hannah looked down. No wound.
Slowly she turned around and saw Snider clutching his chest, bleeding from a steaming wound. He coughed, face confused, and a trickle of blood ran down his lip. The man hit his knees and went face-first into the snow.
The body lay there, steam rising from the hot wound. Beyond stood a man—tall, handsome, black skin—a pistol in hand raised expertly, face blank, a single twist of smoke rising from the muzzle of the weapon.
He approached Snider’s body, weapon pointed down, kicking the Beretta pistol away. Kneeling down, he checked for a pulse. When he was satisfied, he put his own weapon on safety and looked up at Hannah.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
“Good.” Then he took her by the arm and led her away.