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By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The pounding on the front door meant trouble, a staccato beat delivered by a heavy hand. It bore the urgency of a neighbor with news that the house was on fire. In the living room, just fifteen feet away, the pounding ripped Jolaine's attention away from her computer search for the best business schools. In one year, her life would look a hell of a lot different than it did now.
She uncurled her legs from beneath her, placed her laptop on the end table, and edged toward the foyer. It was, after all, her job to answer the door, just as it was her job to deal with the emotional turmoil that defined fourteen-year-old Graham, who was supposed to be steeped in homework by now—homework that she knew he wouldn't be doing because he was one of those kids whose four-oh average came with zero effort. He ranked among the biggest reasons why next year would look so different.
Her heart hammered at least as loudly as the fist on the door as her bare feet crossed from carpet to marble. She considered ignoring it. At nearly ten o'clock, was there really an obligation to answer? The fact that she was separated from her nearest weapon by two flights of thirteen stairs didn't help at all. Why hire a bodyguard and then forbid said bodyguard to be armed in the house?
The pounding continued. "Bernard!" a voice yelled from beyond the door. "For God's sake, let me in!"
Jolaine had nearly reached the door when Mr. Mitchell—Bernard—barked, "No!" He'd appeared on the steps behind her.
Startled by the sharpness of his tone, she whirled and was even more surprised to see that he'd armed himself with a tiny MAC-10 automatic pistol. Dressed in the kind of pajamas that she'd seen only in old television shows—light blue with dark blue piping—he held the weapon at the ready, but with the muzzle pointed at the ceiling, his finger clear of the trigger guard. His apparent familiarity with the firearm startled her.
"Step away, Jolaine," he said as he hurried down the stairs. "I'll get it." By the time he reached the foyer, Sarah, his wife, had started down behind him. Her nighttime attire consisted of gray sweats.
Nothing about this was right. Mrs. Mitchell never appeared downstairs after nine. Jolaine took two giant steps backward, into the living room archway.
As the pounding grew more desperate, Bernard Mitchell slowed his gait.
"Bernard!" the visitor yelled. "There's no time!"
Bernard cast a glance back at Sarah. From Jolaine's angle, she couldn't see his face, but the reaction he got from his wife was at once heartbreaking and terrifying. It was a look of surrender, of inevitability. Jolaine fought the urge to ask because in just a few seconds, she would see for herself.
The man on the outside was still pounding when Bernard pulled open the door without even a peek through the peephole. With his MAC-10 pressed to his shoulder, he looked ready for war. Jolaine calculated her escape route.
The instant the door separated from the jamb, a little nothing of a man spilled inside onto the marble floor. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he had a mop of gray hair, but all Jolaine saw in the first seconds was the blood. The front of his clothes shimmered in it, and as he collapsed onto the stone, spatters dotted the tiles.
"Gregory!" Bernard yelled. If Jolaine was any judge, this was not the man that he'd been expecting.
On the steps, Sarah made a yipping sound and glided to the foyer as Bernard cleared the man's legs from the threshold and closed the door.
"God, what happened?"
"They know," the man gasped. "I'm so sorry. They know." Jolaine detected an Eastern European accent, and as he spoke, he passed a bloody slip of paper to Bernard. "Here it is, Bernard. I'm so, so sorry."
Mr. Mitchell's hands trembled as he lifted Gregory's shirt, presumably to find the source of the bleeding. Jolaine looked away. She'd seen enough bullet wounds to recognize the damage at a glance, and she didn't care to see any more.
"Call an ambulance," Mr. Mitchell commanded.
Jolaine spun around and hurried toward the phone in the kitchen.
"No!" Sarah said. "Jolaine, go upstairs and get Graham out of the house."
Jolaine froze. She understood the words, but they made no sense. To get him out meant to take him somewhere, and she hadn't a clue where that might be.
"Gregory needs a doctor," Bernard said. His voice broke.
"He needs an undertaker," Sarah corrected. She fired a look at Jolaine. "Graham. Now."
"Tell me what's happening," Jolaine said. She heard the stress in her own voice—the borderline panic—and the sound upset her. This was not the time to lose control.
"Not your concern," Sarah snapped. Her face was a mask of something awful. If Jolaine had encountered the same expression in Jalalabad, she would have assumed the presence of a suicide vest. "Do your job, Jolaine. Take my son to safety."
Jolaine wanted to ask for more details, but realized that they were irrelevant, at least for now. Everything about this screamed urgency of the highest order. Graham had to be roused and dressed. That was step one, and given his personality, it was a big step. Step two and beyond were for later.
The man on the floor was doomed; of that, Sarah was correct. His skin looked like gray construction paper with hints of blue around his nose and mouth. As Jolaine passed him on her way to the stairs, she made a point of not stepping on the blood.
She was living a nightmare. The nightmare. This was what she'd been hired to do, and this was why they ran all their emergency drills, though Bernard had never said why, and Jolaine had always sensed that it was all about an overinflated sense of self-worth. She'd never really bought into any of it.
Her job was to protect Graham while at the same time never cluing him in to the fact that he needed protection. She had a hard time believing that he'd never caught a glimpse of her weapon as she drove him to and from school, or wondered why he needed an au pair at his age, but he'd never said anything—at least not to her—so she'd assumed him to be as clueless as he pretended to be. He had a hell of a surprise in store. First, she had to haul his skinny, cranky ass out of bed and get him dressed.
The silver light of the television disappeared from under Graham's door as Jolaine approached. It was, she knew, anything but a coincidence, and she wasn't the least bit surprised to see him sprawled on his stomach, feigning sleep. She slapped the wall switch and right away missed the days of the incandescent light-bulbs with their instantaneous illumination.
"Graham!" she barked. "Get up. Get dressed."
He made a grumbling sound, and Jolaine realized that she'd misplayed her hand. If she'd ordered him to go to sleep, he'd have leaped out of bed. She didn't have time for this. They didn't have time for this. She grabbed the sheet at the line where it draped beneath his bare shoulders and stripped it down to his ankles. Given his recent adolescent obsessions, she felt relief when she saw the flash of blue boxer shorts.
"Hey!" He whirled to face her. "What the hell—"
"We need to leave. Now."
"Get out of my room! You can't just—"
Jolaine planted her hand on his chest and pushed him down into the mattress. "Listen to me, Graham," she said. "A man has been shot and is dying downstairs in the foyer. Your parents are terrified. You and I are leaving this house in one minute. You can be dressed and cooperative or naked and unconscious. I don't care which." She bounced him once to emphasize the point, and then she left for her own room on the third floor.
Her space in the attic had been converted into the nicest apartment she'd ever lived in. The stairway terminated in the middle of what she thought of as her living room. Two gabled windows provided an impressive view of rural Indiana. Her living room led to a tiny yet fully functional kitchen, beyond which were the bathroom and bedroom. Paranoid of being photographed in her sleep or in the shower—Graham was a budding photojournalist—she kept the doors locked all the time.
This was a bugout, and as with all such things, clothing didn't count. Only weapons and ammo counted. She pulled open the nightstand to reveal her daily carry weapon, a reduced-size Glock 27 chambered in. 40-caliber Smith & Wesson. In a single motion, she stripped off her Indiana University T-shirt—when in Rome, right?—and stretched her elastic Kangaroo holster around her rib cage. Having done it a thousand times, her hands knew exactly what to do. Five seconds later, when the two straps were secured, she holstered the pistol under her left armpit and shoved two spare ten-round mags into their designated pockets at midline. With the T-shirt back on, no one would know that she was armed.
She moved to her closet. Ignoring the temptation of the suitcase and clothes, she instead reached to the top shelf, where her Colt M4 lay snug in its case. She pulled it down, swung it to the floor, and worked the zipper. The aroma of gun solvent and oil enveloped her and brought an odd sense of calm. She lifted the carbine by its pistol grip and eased the charging handle back to reveal the ass end of the bullet she already knew was there. That round, combined with the others in the curved magazine, ensured a full load of thirty 5.56 millimeter bullets.
Reaching back into the bag, she grabbed two more thirty-round mags, leaving another five in the bag for later. She zipped up the gun bag and stood, slipping the two mags into her back pockets, then reached back to the top shelf for her bugout bag—a tactical vest festooned with pockets that held still more ammo, plus some rudimentary first-aid supplies, a flashlight, two knives, a thousand dollars in cash, and the kind of stuff that she figured she might need if she needed to keep Graham and herself alive for a couple of days on the run.
Jolaine shrugged into the vest without fastening it, battle-slung her M4 across the front of her body, then lifted the gun bag and headed back downstairs for Graham.
He'd managed to find a pair of jeans, but he remained shirtless and barefoot. "Come on," she said. "We're going."
"But I'm not—what the hell are you wearing?"
"Your one minute is up," Jolaine snapped. "Grab something for your feet. We're getting out of here."
"Just another minute—"
Jolaine grabbed his biceps and pulled. This was about survival. If she had to beat him senseless to save his life, she was perfectly willing to cross that line.
"Let me go!"
Jolaine ignored him, just as she ignored the distant sense of satisfaction that came with hurting him a little. Adolescent angst and anger had hit Graham with staggering force over the past twelve months, turning him into a monster.
Not quite five-nine, the kid weighed nothing, so when Jolaine pulled, he followed. She worked out, he played video games.
Why was she being such a bitch?
Okay, Jolaine was always a bitch, but that was part of her job, and at some corner of his brain, Graham realized that he brought that side out of her, but this was at a whole new level. He yelled as her fingernails stuck into the soft, sensitive flesh of his armpit, but she didn't seem to care. As he dug his heels into the carpet to slow her down, she merely squeezed tighter and pulled harder. He had no idea that she was that strong.
"Are you serious?" he asked. "Are we really leaving?" And what was with all the military crap she was wearing?
Graham wasn't even sure his feet touched the stairs as he more or less flew to the first floor. That's when he saw the blood. That's when it all became real. The man on the floor writhed in agony. "They know," the guy said. "Oh, God, they know, they know ..."
Mom and Dad were arguing about something—they seemed really angry—but if Graham could hear the words beyond the thrumming of fear in his head, he couldn't understand them. They came out as random sounds: fight, die, kill. He even heard his own name in the mix. He tried to pull away from Jolaine, to be with his parents, but her grip was like iron.
"Mom!" he yelled.
Sarah's head snapped up, but her face wasn't the face he was used to seeing. Her eyes had a dead set to them, like a doll's eyes, and her mouth was set in a tight little line. "Get out," she said. "Go with Jolaine."
"I love you, Graham. Never forget that."
That was the line that triggered the panic in his gut. So simple, yet so final. Of course she loved him. She was his mother. Why would she think that he would assume anything else? Her words had a finality about them that made him want to cry.
He started to say, "I love you, too," but before the words could form, the front door burst open, as if propelled by explosives, and a bunch of men dressed in black flooded into the foyer. His dad shot one of them in the head at point-blank range, and the air turned red.
At the sound of the bursting door and the gunshot, Jolaine pushed Graham to the ground and planted a knee in his back to keep him there while she brought her M4 to bear. The collapsed stock plate found her shoulder and her finger found the trigger without thought. She popped one of the invaders with a shot to his chin that all but sheared his head from his shoulders. It always sucked to be one of the first people through the door.
Then the enemy adapted and the shooting started in earnest. Sarah and Bernard both dove for cover as the front wall and windows exploded in the fusillade of incoming rounds. Within two seconds, Jolaine realized that she needed to leave while there was still some chance of getting out alive. If they hadn't done so already, the attacking forces would soon surround the house, making escape impossible.
Do your job.
Easing the pressure on Graham's back, Jolaine grabbed the nape of his neck and pulled him first to his knees and then to his feet. "We're going out through the kitchen," she said softly into his ear.
"But what about—" The rest of his question was lost in the next volley of gunfire.
Jolaine focused on the solution, not the problem. That was the secret to surviving any emergency. What was done, was done. Her only chance for mission success was to push all of that away, and concentrate on the single goal of guiding Graham to safety. Everything else, including her own survival, was secondary.
The focused commitment calmed her. The cacophony of the gunfight became so much background noise as she focused on their exit. The car keys were on the peg beside the garage door, just where they were supposed to be. She snatched them up with her right hand and switched them to her left to keep her dominant hand free.
The door to the garage opened with a thump and a hollow echo as she pushed it open. She noted in an instant that the exterior doors were still closed, but scanned the area for threats anyway before pushing Graham through the opening. "Get in the Beamer," she said, gesturing to the late-model BMW 740Li that sat in the closest bay of the three-car garage.
"We can't leave them," Graham objected.
"Would you rather die with them?" Jolaine heard the words before she'd considered them, and regretted the coldness of her tone. She closed the door behind them. In case Graham had any designs on changing plans, Jolaine kept her left hand on his shoulder as they negotiated the four steps down to the concrete floor of the garage, steering him toward the car. Her right hand stayed clasped to the grip of her M4 as she moved backward and sideways to keep the muzzle trained on the door she'd just exited. "Climb in the backseat and get on the floor," she said.
Graham tried to wriggle free. "They're killing my parents!"
"Your parents are fighting back," Jolaine snapped. "And they want you out of here. You heard that yourself from your mother." She turned her attention from the door and the threats that seethed behind it and focused on Graham. In the silver light that passed in through the windows in the garage doors, his eyes glimmered with tears. She felt her heart skip as she considered what he was going through.
Jolaine tried to adopt a less threatening posture. "We need to get out of here. It's my job to keep you from getting shot. By any means possible. Now get in the backseat and lie on the floor." As an afterthought: "Okay?"
Excerpted from End Game by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2013 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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