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Ashley edged farther under the desktop in the cubicle, her fingers clutching the phone to her ear, her knees scraping against the coarse commercial carpet. Breathe
in, out, in, out. Focus, listen. Where is he?
Her breaths wheezed between her teeth, making a sharp whistling sound.
Calm down. He 'll hear you if you don't calm down.
"Why don't I hear any sirens yet?" she whispered to the nine-one-one operator.
"They're on the way, ma'am. Is the shooter still in the building?"
"I'm not sure. I think so."
"Stay where you are. Stay on the line. The police will be there soon."
Her fingers tightened around the phone. That's the same thing the operator had told her ten minutes ago- after the shooter killed Stanley Gibson.
They'd both been standing by the copier, chatting about nothing in particular while the machine spit out reports for their next meeting. A soft pfft sound whooshed through the air. A bright red circle bloomed on Stanley's forehead. His eyes rolled up and he crumpled to the floor.
Ashley had stood frozen, too horrified to acknowledge what her subconscious already knew-someone had just shot one of her coworkers.
That's when the screams began.
She'd whirled around. The shooter stood in the main aisle, his silver hair forming spikes across his head like porcupine quills. His dark gaze locked on her.
And then he smiled.
Ashley's fightor-flight instincts had kicked in. She ran. Around the corner, past the glassenclosed offices the managers used. Empty. Thank God. At least half the company was out to lunch. But the rest were here, like her, trapped between the shooter and the only exit.
She kept running, to the other side of the building, to another maze of cubicles. She dove into the nearest one and grabbed the phone from the top of the desk. That was when she'd called nine-one-one.
A terrified scream echoed through the room.
Ashley's pulse sputtered. "He's still here," she whispered.
"Help is on the way."
The operator's calm, matter-of-fact tone had Ashley clenching her teeth so hard her jaw ached. Didn't the operator realize people were dying? Had the woman even called the police?
Leaning as far out of the cubicle as she dared, she risked a glance down the main aisle. The shooter's progress through the offices of Gibson and Gibson Financial Services was marked by screams and shouts coming from the other side of the building.
The mournful wail of police sirens erupted outside the windows.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
"I hear sirens," she whispered. "They're close."
"Yes, ma'am. Are you still in the same location?"
"I haven't moved."
"I've notified the police where you are. They'll be there soon."
Ashley was really starting to hate the word soon. And she also sorely regretted taking the auditing contract in Destiny, Tennessee. If she were in her home office in Nashville right now, she wouldn't be cowering in a cubicle with a crazed shooter on the loose.
One of the young temps stuck her head out of another cubicle several aisles away. What was her name? Karen? Kristen? Ashley had only met her once and couldn't remember. The girl's face was ghostly pale, her eyes wide with terror as she silently begged Ashley for help.
Ashley's stomach jumped as if she'd plunged down a steep drop on a roller coaster. The girl couldn't be more than nineteen. Ashley had to help her. But how? Which cubicle was safer? Should she run to the girl, or have the girl run to her?
She sucked in a breath. Oh, no. Spiky gray hair showed above a row of cubicles down a side aisle. The shooter. And he was heading straight toward the temp.
Ashley frantically motioned for the girl to hide.
The girl's brow furrowed and she raised her hands in the air, not understanding what Ashley was trying to tell her.
In a few more steps, the gunman would be able to see them both.
"Go back," Ashley mouthed, desperately pointing at the approaching shooter.
He rounded the corner. Ashley ducked back behind the partitioned wall.
A high-pitched scream echoed through the room, then abruptly stopped.
She clamped her hand over her mouth. No, no, no.
A shoe scraped across the carpet. Ashley froze. A swishing sound whispered through the air, as if someone had brushed up against one of the fabric-covered cubicle walls. Close.
"Ma'am, the police are evaluating the situation," the operator said through the phone in her monotone voice.
Ashley quickly covered the receiver. Her pulse slammed in her ears as she waited, listened. Was the shooter the one who'd made that swishing noise? Had he heard the operator? Her hand shook as she gingerly hung up the phone. She couldn't wait for the police anymore. If she didn't do something, right now, she'd be as dead as Stanley Gibson.
Dillon Gray crouched beneath the window, cradling his assault rifle. He and the rest of his six-man SWAT team waited for the green light to begin the rescue operation in the one-story office building of Gibson and Gibson Financial Services.
Beside him, his friend since childhood, Chris Downing, watched the screen on his wristband, showing surveillance from the tiny scope he'd raised up to the window. "Casualties at three and five o'clock," he whispered into the tiny mic attached to his helmet. "One more at eleven o'clock. No sign of a shooter."
Dillon's earpiece crackled and his boss's voice came on the line. "Witnesses indicate there could be two shooters. Descriptions inconsistent. Shooters are dressed in black body armor. Kill shot will be a head-shot. They're using handguns. No long guns or explosives reported."
"Do we have the go ahead to move in?" Dillon asked, inching closer to the door.
"Negative. Still gathering intel. Hold your position."
His team looked to him for direction, their faces taut with frustration. They wanted to go in as badly as he did.
"Do we have a count yet on how many civilians are inside?" Dillon asked his boss.
"Negative," Thornton replied. "Workers are still pulling into the parking lot after lunch. Impossible to know how many escaped and how many remain."
Meaning there could be dozens or more inside. Defenseless. Hiding under desks, in conference rooms, in closets, waiting, praying someone would help them. What chance did an unarmed office worker have against men with guns, picking them off like targets at a gun range?
The stock of his rifle dug into Dillon's clenched fist. The Destiny, Tennessee, police department was small and more accustomed to patrolling acres of farmland and gravel roads than suiting up in flak jackets and storming buildings. His SWAT team consisted of beat cops, desk jockeys and other detectives like him, but they'd all been hunting and shooting since they could walk. And they trained regularly, and hard, for this type of situation. What was the point of that training if they cowered and did nothing? How many civilians had died in the few minutes his team had been crouching beneath the windows? How many of those civilians were their own friends and neighbors?
"The team is ready and willing to go. Strongly requesting permission to enter, sir."
"Negative," Thornton replied. "Stand down, Detective Gray. Await further instructions."
Chris tapped his shoulder. "Movement on the east corner," he whispered. "Appears to be a civilian. Belly crawling toward the exit." His tortured gaze shot to Dillon. "Heavy blood trail."
Dillon closed his fist around the mic so his boss wouldn't hear him as he addressed his team.
"Chief Thornton ordered us to sit tight and wait. You've got nothing to be ashamed of if you follow orders. Some of you have families to support. I don't. If he fires me, so be it. But I'm not waiting one more minute while people die inside. I'm going in."
Every one of his teammates raised their thumbs, letting him know they were all in.
He glanced at the only woman on the team, Donna Waters.
"Don't even say it," she warned. "You've never been sexist before. Don't start now. I'm not waiting outside while the guys get all the fun."
Dillon ruefully shook his head and held his fingers in the air. "We go in five, four-"
"Gray, what are you doing?" Thornton demanded. "I told you to stand down. That's an order."
"-one." Dillon waved his hand in a forward rolling motion.
Donna yanked the door open. Dillon ran inside, first as always, crouching down, swinging his rifle left to right, covering his team as they rushed in behind him.
"Clear," Dillon whispered, thankful his boss had shut up, leaving the airway free for communication among the team. When this was over, Thornton would give him hell, or fire him. But for now, the chief knew to butt out.
Dillon pointed to the injured civilian trying to crawl to the door. The two closest men grabbed the injured man and carried him outside. Dillon gave Donna a signal to wait for the two men to return before beginning her search on the west side of the building, while he and the two men with him headed to the east side.
The building formed a rectangle, with rows of six-foot-high cubicle walls divided in the middle by a line of glassed-in offices, bathrooms and conference rooms. Solid walls acted as firebreaks every twenty feet. The two teams would have to search and clear each section in a grid pattern before moving to the next.
When he reached the first body, Dillon sucked in a quick breath. The man was only a casual acquaintance, but Dillon had shared math classes with him in high school. The shooter, or shooters, had gone for a head shot. The vic never had a chance.
They continued on, finding two more casualties. A scratching sound whispered from the next aisle. Dillon crouched down and signaled his men to approach in a flanking maneuver from each end of the aisle. When they were in position, he held up five fingers, counting down. Four. Three. He rushed into the cubicle in front of him, silently continuing the countdown, as he knew his men would do. He climbed onto the countertop that formed a desk in the cubicle. When the count reached zero, he jumped to his feet and aimed his rifle over the top of the wall.
At the same time, his men rushed into the ends of the aisle to prevent escape. The scratching stopped. A young woman lay half in and half out of a cubicle, her face an ashen-gray color, with blood running down the side of her head. Her fingernails dug into the carpet, probably the scratching sound they'd heard.
Dillon stood guard over the top of the wall. Chris hoisted the young woman in his arms while the other man covered him. Together they retreated toward the exit, with Dillon watching over them until they were safely out the door.
Two civilians rescued. How many more were still hiding? And where the hell was the shooter?
A soft pfft sound had Dillon diving to the floor and rolling into the aisle. The cubicle wall near where he'd been standing seconds ago now boasted a small round hole. A bullet hole.
"This is Gray," he whispered into his mic. "I've got gunfire on the east side, fifty feet in. Shooter's weapon is silenced." He jumped to his feet and hurried to the end of the aisle.
"Affirmative." Donna's voice came through his earpiece. "West side clear so far. Do you need backup?"
"Negative." He peeked around the wall. "Witnesses reported two shooters. Continue search and rescue on the west side. I've got this."
"You sure about that, country boy?" A gun muzzle pressed against Dillon's back.
The shooter was playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek with Ashley, searching every aisle, every cubicle. So far she'd managed to stay one step ahead of him. Barely. She rounded the end of another aisle. Her breath caught in her throat. The shooter's profile was silhouetted against the wall of windows.
And his gun was pointing at a SWAT officer's back.
Ducking into the adjacent aisle, Ashley struggled to keep her breathing shallow, quiet, so the shooter wouldn't hear her. Gathering her courage, she risked another quick peek around the wall. The officer said something to the shooter. The shooter shook his head and gave him a gruff command. The officer tossed his rifle to the floor.
The exit door was only thirty feet away now. If Ashley was quiet, she might make it. But what would happen to the SWAT guy? He'd risked his life to rescue her and the others. Could she abandon him and leave him here to die?
No, she couldn't.
Cursing her conscience, she ducked back and grabbed one of the heavy, old-fashioned phones from a cubicle desktop. After unplugging the cord, she crept down a parallel aisle, hoping to sneak up behind the shooter. She offered up a quick prayer that he hadn't moved or turned around as she rounded the end of the row. Yes. His back was still facing her. But the SWAT guy was now facing the shooter, and Ashley, his hands raised.
Ashley crept forward, biting her lip, holding the phone in the air. She was pretty sure SWAT guy had seen her. He hadn't looked directly at her, but his body tensed, and the lines around his eyes tightened.
"Too bad your buddies left you by yourself," the shooter said. "Looks like they'll be carting one of their own out the door next." He raised his gun toward the officer's face just as Ashley swung the phone with both hands at the shooter's head.
But instead of hitting him, she hit empty air, spinning in a circle then falling against the wall beside her.
It took her a moment to realize SWAT guy had lunged for the shooter right when she'd swung the phone. He'd grabbed the shooter's gun and swept his legs out from beneath him. Now both men were rolling on the floor, wrestling for control of the gun.
"Get out of here," SWAT guy yelled.
Ashley realized he was yelling at her.
The two men rolled into the side aisle, grappling for control.
Leaving SWAT guy's rifle lying on the floor. "Go, go, go," the officer yelled again. "Get out of here, run!"
SWAT guy was heavily muscled and tall, but the shooter was on top of him and must have outweighed him by at least forty pounds. The pistol was slowly, inexorably moving up toward the officer's face, the only part of his body not covered in armor.
Ashley made her choice. She dropped the phone and grabbed for the rifle.
The shooter twisted toward her and slammed his foot against her calf. She screamed and fell to the floor. Before she could scramble away, he grabbed her long hair and yanked her in front of him like a human shield.
SWAT guy crouched in the aisle a few feet away, glaring at Ashley before focusing on the shooter. The wicked-looking hunting knife in the officer's hand, along with his glare, had Ashley groaning inside. Instead of helping, she'd gotten in the way and messed everything up. She hadn't realized the policeman had a knife, and that he'd apparently been about to use it when she'd interfered.
"Let her go," the officer ordered. "You're surrounded."
Ashley glanced around, stunned to see he wasn't bluffing. She hadn't heard or seen the other SWAT officers come in, but there were two on her left, another one on the far side of the shooter and, as she watched, a fourth officer entered the aisle behind SWAT guy, who was now crouched in front of the shooter, still holding his knife.
Surrounded was putting it mildly.
"Let her go," SWAT guy repeated.
The shooter scooted back, pulling Ashley with him, keeping his gun trained on SWAT guy. Ashley struggled against his hold, but he squeezed hard, crushing her in a painful grip against his chest. He scooted back until he was pressed against the wall and couldn't move any farther.