|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)|
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To that moment, Aislinn O'Connell had lived a life of comfortable, complacent routine... secure, untested, blissfully unaware of the sudden, gnawing grip of a fear that blotted out all else. And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Her heart pounded over-loud in her ears, her limbs trembled uncontrollably and she struggled to master the panic, raw and untamed that raced through her then. They would kill her, without thought or reason.
"Move! Move! MOVE!"
Instinct, long unused and almost forgotten, drove her to comply with the command from the menacing figure holding a semi-automatic weapon aimed steadily at the crowd of Sunday shoppers. Only a matter of seconds before the steady hum of normal life had been shattered by gunfire and shouted instructions. People scattered, screaming, as a sinister group of men seemed to materialize among them. Raw emotion was everywhere; terror propelling people along the mall passage as their captors drove them forward.
"Over here, all of you - NOW!"
They'd reached a large central courtyard where the corridors of the mall complex converged. Growling and impatient, the men motioned for the frightened shoppers to gather at its center. Pressed closely with the rest, Aislinn's wide-eyed gaze moved over the scene. To one side a middle-aged woman and her mother held hands. Clustered in front of her, several teenage employees were frozen in stunned disbelief. Glancing to her left, she met the steady gaze of the man who stood there, and a breathless moment passed as wide heather-hued eyes stared into reassuring green ones.
The barked command stifled the hushed voices, leaving them to watchas more darkly clad men streamed from each corridor, leading other shoppers and employees to join the group in the courtyard. Clearly one of the men directed the actions of others, gesturing intently and speaking in a curt, authoritative tone. The ever-growing group of captives stood under the watch of weapons held by men whose glittering eyes blazed hatred.
"You," one of the men gestured with his weapon to a girl standing trembling at the front of the crowd. Young and fresh faced, her long blonde hair was pulled back so that she looked all the child she was, "come forward."
The crowd watched as another of the men ran his large, work roughened hands over the girl, forcing her to remove the shapeless smock of her store uniform. Satisfied, the serviceman motioned her to a space against a blank wall, where a third man stood with weapon at the ready.
It would be a while before they'd reach him, and the man at Aislinn's side took full advantage of these few precious moments, his eyes moving over the scene, assessing the threat and watching, always watching. The men motioned shoppers to them in turn, checking for weapons before collecting identification, which they then tossed in a heap on the floor. Special Agent John Starke had no illusions about his fate if his identity were to become known. Intent green eyes kept moving over the scene, coming at last to rest on the frightened woman at his side.
She glanced up at him, sensing his gaze upon her.
Keep your head, he mouthed silently, earning a grateful half-smile in return.
Knowing he must take this same advice, John stood quietly with the others, waiting patiently for an opportunity to present itself. As it happened, it came in the form of the elderly woman who stood just to the right, her sudden loss of consciousness sending her sliding to the floor. Caught off guard, those closest to her reached to break her fall, her daughter uttering a strangled cry as she knelt at her mother's side.
"She's fainted," someone said.
Unseen in the sudden press of people, John slipped a hand inside the pocket of his jacket, deftly removing the folded identification he carried and dropping it to the floor. Questioning violet eyes caught the gesture, and Aislinn glanced from the worn brown case to his face and back again. It mustn't be seen. Understanding at once what he was about, she took advantage of her position at the back edge of the crowd to send the telltale item skidding silently along the polished floor, watching as it came to rest just under a huge granite planter that stood at the far edge of the courtyard.
"Get her up," the icy command came, and the woman's daughter struggled to comply.
"Please... she's 82 years old - she can't take this," the daughter begged. The men remained stone-faced, resolute.
The incident had caught the attention of the leader of the force, and he surveyed them from where he stood, his eyes ice cold and assessing. "Be about your business men."
The search resumed, ruthless hands moving over the old woman, her feeble protests falling on deaf ears. Her daughter was next, and then it was Aislinn's turn. She cringed as rough hands lingered about her waist for what seemed longer than was necessary. Amazingly, she'd held onto her purse during the chaotic rush through the mall, and she handed it over to another of the men, his malevolent gaze boring into her. She could almost smell his hatred and she shuddered, chilled. He dumped the contents, and her treasured possessions fell in a heap with the others onto the polished floor, "Pathetic."
Then it was over and she was shoved in the direction of the others.
John was next, the men handling him more roughly than they had any of the others. There was something about him that roused their dislike. "What? No ID?"
He shrugged, "Guess I forgot it at home."
The leader, overhearing the exchange, crossed to stand before them. "What's your name?"
"John," came the reply, "John Starke."
The older man returned his attention to John. "Forgot it?" he questioned, his wary gaze moving over the man before him. Tall, well built, a fighting man who knew how to handle himself, the rapid assessment came to him right away. Like his men, the leader disliked this one on sight. "Or... lost it perhaps?"
Aislinn's breath caught in her throat, and her gaze went unwillingly to the place where his identification had come to rest. She offered a silent, desperate prayer that it would escape notice.
"Forgot it." John maintained, his steady gaze meeting the other man's.
Wary grey eyes moved from John to where he had been standing. For a breathless moment it seemed he was satisfied with his inspection, but then the glittering gaze caught sight of something just visible against the polished floor. He strode over to the planter, bending to retrieve the well-worn case just visible underneath. He sent the younger man a triumphant look. "So then this one, right here, wouldn't be yours?"
John weighed his options, knowing his life hung on his answer. "That could be anyone's."
The older man flipped open the case, his eyes narrowing at the image that stared back at him. "Well... what have we here? A federal ID, with a picture that looks an awful lot like you," he paused, snapping the case closed with a crack that echoed through the tense silence. "Seems you've got some explaining to do g-man - "
John was spared giving an answer by the sounds of renewed fighting that suddenly split the silence - a shouted word, a crash of glass followed quickly by bursts of gunfire. The telltale noises sent ripples of panic through the assembled crowd; gasps and sobs escaping into the uneasy silence that followed. The leader of the men thrust his lone captive toward the larger group. "Don't let him out of your sight," he tossed over his shoulder, motioning for several of the men to follow as he headed in the direction of the gunfire.
In the next instant, more shouting, more gunfire, and pounding feet growing ever louder, coming in all directions. As the shots continued to ring out, a firm hand grasped Aislinn's arm, pulling her down to the floor and propelling her forward, ever forward along the hallway. Without time to think, she did as she was bid, scrambling toward the entrance to an electronics store just a few feet away. Behind her, the screams of the crowd mingled with the sounds of battle as the innocent and unprepared shoppers were caught squarely in the midst of the fighting.
"Keep your head down," John's stern voice came in Aislinn's ear though she needed no urging. Some unknown instinct was urging her toward the opening and the protection it could offer. Everywhere shots continued to ring out, mixing with the cries of the wounded and the screams of the shoppers as they sought shelter. Behind them, others had seen their route to safety and were scrambling to follow, as bullets came from every direction, striking walls, shattering displays and bouncing off metal surfaces with reckless abandon.
And then it was over.
In the breathless, eerie silence that followed time seemed to stand stock still for John and Aislinn, crouched behind a large display of computer monitors, their hearts pounding in their ears, though neither dared to move or make a sound. The silence was broken at last by the barely audible cry of a child, then another; agonized moans rose up to mingle with sobs of utter grief, and the whispered prayers of a woman carried plainly through the air. At her side, John shielded Aislinn's body with his own, aware only of an intense, driving need to protect her, to shelter her from harm and if need be, to lose his life at her side.
"Everyone up and out here NOW!" came the harsh voice of the leader, a barely discernable note of tension in his tone.
Aislinn sent John a questioning look, in that moment totally dependent on his direction. Fear had robbed her of her ability to think... to reason... to do anything but follow blindly the lead he provided for her. At her side, her companion hesitated a moment, glancing about the electronics shop where they had taken refuge. The place was relatively untouched, though cut off from the outside, and John cursed silently the lack of any immediately visible escape route. Out in the corridor orders were being given in a booming voice loud enough to carry through the tense, expectant air. "Search every inch of this place and shoot anyone you find in hiding. Do it now."
The decision made, John helped Aislinn to her feet. She did as he bid her, without thought or question, placing her trust, her very life, squarely in his hands. She held tight to his arm as they made their way toward the uncertainty of the hallway that led to the center courtyard. It was only as they reached the entrance to the store that they stopped, struck in that terrible moment by the devastation spread clearly before them. An ordinary, everyday place had become a blood soaked battleground - a chilling, strangely riveting sight that was branded instantly and for all time on the minds of those who took it in as they stumbled from their hiding places. In the next instant one of the armed men was motioning with his weapon for Aislinn and John, along with two or three others to move forward and they did as he bid, the hardened agent and ordinary woman both wounded to the core by what was displayed before their horrified eyes.
Bodies lay strewn everywhere, blood and gore seeping over the polished shine of the geometric designs on the floor. The wounded lay two or three together, sometimes alone amidst the shattered remains of a store window or display. Some had been trying to run... others to find shelter behind a display or potted plant... still more had clearly not had time to react and were cut down where they stood. Glass carpeted the debris-strewn floor, while bullets had left their marks on the walls and ceiling, clothing, electronics and toys lay scattered amid all manner of merchandise on the floor, and the survivors had to pick their way through the debris as they returned to their places. Some of those who lay sprawled about had begun to move; others lay where they had fallen, silent and still.
Aislinn could not take it all in... could not believe what her horrified eyes were seeing and she turned a frantic, frightened gaze to the leader of the men. John's grip was reassuringly firm on her arm, but she barely noticed. The bloody, garish images of a once familiar place were now burned into her mind, replaying themselves in rapid, merciless succession. Revulsion choked her and she squeezed her eyes shut.
"Stay back and keep quiet," her companion urged in her ear. John's well-trained eyes moved over the scene. Nearly 30 shoppers and 8 policemen dead or severely wounded, while their captors losses seemed far smaller - leaving them still nearly two dozen strong, well armed and seemingly unruffled by the sudden attack. Outside, sirens wailed steadily in the air.
"Reinforce our positions on the perimeter. I want them driven back far enough so there's no more little surprises," the leader ground out, gesturing to several of the men. To those who remained, he continued,
"Secure the area and post a watch."
His men were quick to carry out their orders, moving toward each of the corridors, while two well-armed guards came to stand before the much smaller group of shoppers. Two more remained standing stoic and silent at their leader's side, watching impassively as he returned his attention to his own wounded who lay sprawled on the floor.
"This day you give your life to our Cause, and you shall always be honored for your sacrifice," he said to the first, the steely eyes lighting with respect. The soldier murmured something that went unheard by the crowd, though it caused the men to offer a stiff salute. In the next moment the leader raised his weapon, firing without hesitation. The watching shoppers gasped, though the men made not a sound. He moved to stand over the second of the two, a younger, strapping teen with a shock of red-gold hair. There were no words exchanged this time, only a silent salute and the single shot.
The ruthless gestures drew horrified cries from those who watched. Aislinn cringed with the rest, instinctively burying her head against her companion's broad shoulder. He however, had not been surprised by the brutal action, recognizing the fanatical dedication of the members of this group. Sadly his world-weary heart knew what was to come next, and he slipped an arm about the slight frame of the woman at his side, pulling her closer, intent on shielding her. "Don't look," he warned, a hand reaching to cover her ears as well.
The leader moved from his place by his fallen men to the closest of the wounded officers. Gone was the look of respect, icy contempt lighting his eyes as he fired his weapon. One by one he stood over each of the uniformed men, delivering a fatal shot without regret or emotion. Another of his men followed behind, retrieving the weapons of the policemen and depositing them in a pile on the floor. Assured he had dispatched them all, he turned his attention to the first of the wounded shoppers, lying helpless and terrified where they had fallen.
"Please, no... "
The desperate words fell on ears that were deaf to pleading, a soul hardened and without feeling for those judged unworthy. This was a man with no place for the softer emotions, whether by nature or circumstance, fate or the lure of fanatical desire, he had become a fighter with no mercy in him - performing his duty with machine-like efficiency. Driven by an unseen force, his every action was cold, calculated to bring him maximum benefit. He raised his weapon, as if he was simply taking target practice, with no thought or care for the life that was about to be snuffed out.
Time moved with agonizing slowness, and Aislinn clung to her companion as the shots rang out, each more sickening, more final, than the one before. There was pleading and desperate, fervent prayers, but no mercy, no hesitation on the part of the leader. Cringing and utterly terrified now, Aislinn somehow managed to draw strength from the stranger at her side. A part of her sensing what he wanted so desperately to keep hidden - he was a threat to the men's intent. Her survival lay with him; of this alone she was certain.
The leader stopped in his progress through the wounded, his cold, assessing gaze moving between the helpless at his feet to the now sobbing group of witnesses. "Weaklings... you know little of blood and death, but you will learn. The days of pampered luxury and wasteful indulgence are over. Today marks the beginning of a new order - a new way of life.
"For this is the first step toward the time of service and sacrifice, hard work and determination, faith and loyalty." He said the words with all the conviction of a believer, though his eyes remained cold and distant, his expression detached. His gaze moved to the wounded at his feet. "It is your misfortune not to survive the battle," he paused, glancing again to the group of surviving shoppers, "and yours to bear witness to the lengths we will go to secure our Cause."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just finished reading this book and I must say I couldn't put it down! The author's very descriptive images keeps your interest going throughout the book & you just fall in love with characters. I was always curious to see what turn the story would take.The author has such in incredible imagination, you certainly won't be disappointed!!