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A Jonathan Grave Thriller Friendly Fire
By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Ethan Falk recognized the monster's voice before he saw his face. The voice in combination with the phraseology. "Be quick about it, if you don't mind."
Be quick about it.
With lightning speed — the speed of imagination — Ethan was once again eleven years old, his ankles shackled by a chain that barely allowed for a full step, that prevented him from climbing a ladder without hopping. The pain was all there. The humiliation and the fear were all there.
It had been eleven years. The monster's hair had turned gray at the temples, and hugged his head more closely. The features had sagged some and his jaw had softened, but the hook in the nose was the same, as was the slightly cross-toothed overbite. There was a way he carried himself, too — a square set to his shoulders that a decade had done nothing to diminish.
Ethan felt his face flush as something horrible stirred in his gut, a putrid, malignant stew of bile and hate and shame. "Look at me," he whispered. He needed the confirmation.
An old woman's voice startled him. "Are you even listening to me, young man?"
No, he wasn't listening to her. She stood there, a silver thermos extended in the air, dangling from two fingers. "You're out of half-and-half," she said. Her clipped tone told him that she'd said it before.
Because reality had morphed into the past with such sudden violence, the request registered as a non sequitur. "Huh?"
"My God, are you deaf? I said —"
The monster turned. Raven, Ethan's nominal girlfriend and fellow barista, handed the man his drip coffee, and as the monster turned, Ethan caught a glimpse of him, full-face. His heart skipped. It might have stopped.
The lady with the thermos continued to yammer.
Please need cream or sugar, Ethan pleaded silently. That would put him face-to-face with the man who'd ruined so much. The man who'd beaten him, torn him.
But apparently the monster preferred his coffee black. He headed straight to the door, not casting a look toward anyone. Whatever his thoughts, they had nothing to do with the sins of his past.
Perhaps they had only to do with the sins of his future.
"... speak to your supervisor. I have never —"
"No," Ethan said. The monster could not be allowed to leave. He could not be allowed to torture others.
He could not be allowed to dominate Ethan's life any more through recalled horrors.
Another customer said something to him, but the words — if they were words at all — could not penetrate his wall of rage.
Ethan needed to stop him. Stop the monster. Kill the monster.
He dropped the stuff he'd been holding — a tiny pitcher for the steamed milk and the spoon through which to sift it — and was deaf to the sound of them hitting the floor. People looked at him, though. Raven at first looked confused, and then she looked frightened.
"My God, Ethan, what's wrong?"
Ethan said nothing. There wasn't time. The monster was on the loose, out in the world, preying on other people. On other children.
Raven tried to step out in front of him to stop him — how could she know? — but he shouldered past her. He moved fast, not quite a run, but close to it. Fast enough to catch the attention of every pair of eyes in the shop.
As he passed the pastry case, he snagged the knife they used to cut bagels. It had always been the wrong style for slicing bread, with a straight edge instead of a serrated one, but they'd learned as a crew that if you kept a straight edge sharp enough, it would cut anything.
The whole rhythm of the shop changed as he emerged from behind the counter with the knife. The old lady with the thermos put it down on the counter and collapsed into a fetal ball on the floor, covering her head and yelling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"
In a distant part of his brain, Ethan felt bad that he'd scared the poor lady — all she'd wanted was a little customer service — but in the readily accessible portion of his brain, he didn't give a shit. Maybe next time she wouldn't be such a bitch.
The crowd parted as Ethan approached the door with his knife. He didn't slow as he reached the glass door, choosing instead to power through it as if it weren't there. The blast of autumn air felt refreshing after the stuffiness of the coffee shop. Invigorating. Head-clearing.
Where is he?
The shop lay in a suburban strip mall. There weren't many people milling about, but this was lunch time, so there were more than a few. The monster could only have gone but so far. He had to be here somewhere.
He saw a guy from a Subway sandwich shop chatting on the corner with a hot girl from the quick-quack medical place next store. She wore a checkerboard scrub suit that strained in all the right places. Ahead and to the left, a lady in a red jacket carried a take-out order from the ribs joint. ("You bring your appetite, we'll provide the bib.") Beyond that lady, tail lights flashed on the back end of a pickup truck, followed by the white reverse lights.
Shit, he's getting away.
He stopped himself from chasing, though, because he knew that the monster wouldn't be in the pickup. It was too far away. He wouldn't have had time to get that far.
Ethan pivoted to look the other way. He stepped around the corner of the coffee shop to look past the drive-through traffic.
There he was.
The monster walked easily, as if not a care in the world, on his way to the rest of his day.
Ethan took off at a run. He'd changed a lot, too, in the past eleven years. His shoulders had broadened, and he'd grown to six-two. The monster no longer had a chance of holding him down with a hand on his chest and a knee in his belly.
The monster had no chance of winning this fight.
Ethan ran at a full sprint, closing the distance in just a few seconds. When he was only ten or fifteen feet away, the monster seemed to awaken to the danger and turned.
Good, Ethan thought. Get a good look at me you son of a —
The monster led with a punch that came from nowhere and caught Ethan with withering force just in front of his ear. Light flashed behind his eyes.
But Ethan still had the momentum, and the collision took both of them to the ground between parked cars. The monster's head sheared a side-view mirror from its mounts, and then pounded hard against the pavement.
They landed in a tangle, with Ethan on top, in the command position. As his vision swam from the punch and the fall, he knew that quick action meant survival. The monster bucked beneath him, trying to throw him off. The guy didn't seem scared at all. He seemed angry. If he got free —
Be quick about it.
Despite the squirming and writhing, Ethan's right hand was still free, and it still grasped the knife. He raised it high.
In that instant, the monster seemed to understand what was going to happen.
In the next, Ethan drove the blade through the monster's left eye and into his brain.
* * *
"All units in the vicinity of the Antebellum Shopping Center, respond to the report of an assault in progress. Code three."
Detective Pam Hastings pulled her microphone from its clamp on the dash and brought it to her lips, keying the mike. "Detective One-four-three responding." With the white mike still in her grasp, she used the first three fingers of her right hand on the rocker switches to light up the grill lights and their counterparts in her back window. She cranked the siren switch all the way to the right — to the Wail setting.
Known throughout the Braddock County Police Department as a lead-foot (with the Internal Affairs reports in her record to show it), she didn't think about the future paperwork as she mashed the accelerator to the floor and let herself be thrown into her seat back as the 305-horsepower Ford Police Interceptor accelerated from cruising to holy-shit-fast in zero-point-few seconds. In that same amount of time, at least four other units likewise marked responding. Nothing drew a crowd of cops quite like violence in progress.
Pam didn't know where the other units were coming from, but she knew that she was only a quarter-mile away, and that almost certainly meant that she would be first on the scene.
"Units responding be advised that we've received multiple calls on this. Callers report a man in the parking lot next to the Caf-Fiend Coffee House with a knife in his hand. One victim appears to be down."
That raised the stakes. If the callers were right — and when multiple callers had the same story, the situation was almost always as reported — Pam was at best cruising into the middle of an attempted murder in progress. At worst, well, there was no ceiling on what the worst might be. She used her right thumb to release the snap on her thumb-break holster. If she was going to need her weapon, she was going to need it quickly. Milliseconds counted.
Peripheral vision became a blur as Pam pushed the speedometer to its limit down Little Creek Turnpike, switching the siren to Yelp as she approached intersections. She'd learned over her thirteen years on the job that if you move with enough conviction — whether on foot or in a vehicle — people will get out of your way.
As Fair Haven Shopping Center whizzed past her on the left — a blur of colorful signage and logos — she lifted her foot off the gas to prepare for the hard left onto Pickett Lane, named after a Civil War loser who led thousands of his men to slaughter at the Battle of Gettysburg. She couldn't live with the irony of dying on a road named after such a man. She tapped the brakes, but didn't jam them, taking the turn twenty miles an hour faster than the intersection was designed for, but a solid fifteen miles an hour slower than her tires could handle. Her seat belt kept her from being launched into the passenger seat.
The ass end of her cruiser tried to kick out from her, but Pam wrestled it back in line with gentle pressure on the wheel. The casual observer wouldn't have seen even the slightest fishtail.
Straightaway. The engine growled as she pressed the accelerator to the floor. Up ahead, as far as she could see, the traffic somehow knew to pull over. She saw cars in the median, a truck up on the curb on the right. This was the part of the job that she loved more than any other.
The Antebellum Shopping Center was now in sight, ahead and on the right, and she slowed. It was one thing to get to the scene quickly; it was something else to rush into an ambush. Because weapons were involved, county protocols required that she wait for backup. But because someone was in the process of being murdered, she decided to disobey the rules. The fact that the murderer had a knife and she had both a .40 caliber handgun and a 12 gauge shotgun within easy reach made the decision a little easier.
Pam cut her siren and slowed to twenty miles an hour as she turned into the shopping center. She pulled the mike from its clamp again and keyed it. "Detective One-four-three on the scene."
"Four-four-seven. Hold what you've got. I'm ninety seconds out." That would be Josh Levine, a cool kid with a big heart and a bigger crush.
Pam opted not to reply. A crowd had gathered in the parking lot outside the Caf-Fiend Coffee House, naturally forming the kind of semicircle that directed Pam's eye to the threat. The closest gawkers beckoned her forward, while the ones who were farther away continued to stare and point at the hazard.
"The situation is critical," Pam said into the radio. Translation: I'm triggering the backup protocol's exception clause. "Other units expedite." Translation: Run over anybody in your way if you want a piece of the fun.
She threw the transmission into Park, kept the engine running, and stepped out of the cruiser.
"He's up there!" a lady yelled. "Shoot him!"
Pam ignored her. In fact, she ignored everything but the events she saw play out before her. With her Glock 23 at low-ready, she approached carefully yet steadily, sweeping her eyes left and right, vigilant for an unseen threat, perhaps an accomplice. She tried to focus on her tactical breathing — four seconds in, four seconds held, then four seconds to exhale. It made all the sense in the world when she learned about it in the classroom, but it was pretty damned hard to do in real life. The combined energy from all the people watching her created its own form of heat.
Crime scene gawkers were a funny lot. Roughly a third of them thought you were a God, a second third thought you were Satan incarnate, and the rest didn't give a shit. They were the ones with the cell phone cameras. She saw three on her periphery, one of which hovered in the air at the end of a selfie stick. Of the thirty or so people who had gathered, none of them had pressed forward to help the victim or to confront the attacker. That was her job. The crowd's job was to film it and to offer criticism after the fact.
She'd nearly made it to the front when she caught her first glimpse of the gore. Two cars were painted with it, as was a tall, rail thin, terrified young man in the apron of a Caf-Fiend barista. The kid seemed confused. His artificially blond hair dangled in his eyes as he looked at the knife in his hands. It was as if he wondered where the knife had come from.
Pam raised her Glock to high ready and rested the front sight at the center of the attacker's chest. "Police officer!" she yelled. Her voice cracked a little. She hoped it wasn't obvious to anyone else that she was in way over her head. "Put the knife down or I will shoot you!"
The attacker held out his free hand as if to ward her off. "No!" he said. "I'm not the killer. He's the killer. He's a kidnapper. A rapist, and a killer!"
"Put the knife down!"
"You don't understand. I'm the victim here. He's ..." The kid's face seemed to clear, and he looked at his hand. At the blood. "Oh, my God." Then he looked at the bloody man who lay motionless at his feet. "Oh God, oh God, oh God."
Pam moved her finger lower on the trigger guard. The experts all agreed that inside of twenty-one feet, a man with a knife could kill a cop before the cop could pull a firearm from its holster. Correcting for the fact that she was scared shitless, but that her gun was already trained on the bad guy, a finger only a quarter inch from the trigger pretty much canceled out that research. If he took a step toward her, she was going to blast his heart out through his spine.
"Listen to me!" Pam yelled. Her voice was firm and strong this time. "Put the knife down and lie down on the ground."
"I'm the victim!"
"You're the victim with a knife," she replied. "You're putting me in danger, and you're putting all these other people in danger, too. Put the knife down. Do what I tell you, and then I'll listen to your side of the story."
In the distance, the sound of sirens crescendoed. One of them would be Josh Levine. If he thought she was in mortal danger, he would shoot before talking.
The assailant didn't move.
"What's your name?" Pam shouted.
The kid seemed confused. Perhaps it was the ordinariness of the question.
"Your name," Pam prompted. "What is it?"
"Um, Ethan. Ethan Falk."
Pam lowered her weapon a few degrees. "Nice to meet you, Ethan Falk. I am Detective Hastings, and I am here to arrest you. Whether you're innocent or guilty, victim or perpetrator, is not my concern. All I know is that right now, there's a man on the ground at your feet, and you're standing over him with a bloody knife. What would you assume if you were in my position?"
"It looks bad, doesn't it?"
The comment struck Pam as funny and she smiled. "Yes, it looks bad. So how about you put the knife —"
"But I didn't do —"
"Listen to me, Ethan! Do you hear those sirens? Those are other cops, and when they arrive, they're going to see you still standing there with a knife. They're going to see the blood, and there's going to be many more guns pointing at you. You don't want that. Please just drop the knife and —"
He dropped it. The knife landed flat on the victim's belly. Baby steps.
"Thank you, Ethan," Pam said. "Now, keeping your hands where I can see them, I need you to step forward into the road —"
Just then, a Toyota driven by a soccer mom in a pink top sped down the parking lot aisle that separated cop from felon.
"Jesus," Pam cursed. "Really?" Refocus. She stepped out into the roadway and pivoted to her right, keeping more or less the same distance between herself and her suspect.
"Four-four-seven is on the scene." Josh Levine had arrived.
Pam's portable radio was out of reach while she was covering the killer. She wished she could tell everyone to come in easy. To her suspect, she said, "Ethan, I need you to take two giant steps forward into the street and lie flat on your face, your hands out to the side."
He seemed to be caught between reality and someplace else.
"Come on, Ethan, I know you can do it."
"Don't shoot me."
"I won't shoot you if you don't threaten anyone. Come on, two big steps forward, and then just sprawl on the ground. We'll get past this one step, and then everything else will be easy."
Excerpted from A Jonathan Grave Thriller Friendly Fire by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2016 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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