Chapter One – Scars
A year later, it was the silence that still haunted her dreams.
The floor had recently been waxed. It was an odd thing to remember, given the circumstances, but right away she had noticed how it had gleamed even in the weak ambient light that funneled in from the open concept office space at the mouth of the corridor. If the overhead florescent lights that lined the hall had been lit, it might have been positively blinding. That wasn't an option though, even had she wanted it to be. Every few feet, glass littered the checked linoleum flooring. Above each puddle, the ruins of broken light bulbs stared down from the light fixtures, the jagged shards reminiscent of shark's teeth.
Six heavy oak doors stood sentry, evenly spaced down the length of the hall, three on each side. From a previous visit she knew that the first five opened into modern meeting rooms complete with rolling office chairs and faux wood folding tables. There were windows in the meeting rooms but none faced out into the corridor so the daylight that filtered in from outside was trapped behind the heavy doors.
The further down the hall you went, the darker it got. It was only at the sixth door, the furthest down the hall on the left which, unlike its brothers, stood open, that a pool of white light spilled out, bathing the floor and adjacent wall in a warm glow.
The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
In retrospect, it was the silence that was more unnerving than the dark. It was an all-encompassing silence, so thick it was nearly tangible. She had never used noise cancelling headphones before, but she imagined it would be akin to that. It was as if all sound had retreated from the building, like the tide ebbing before a tsunami. If there was a clock hanging on any wall in the open concept space behind her, she heard neither "tic" nor "toc". Outside, she knew that cars rushed past on the freeway less than a mile away but none of that traffic hum penetrated the silent movie that was unfolding in the single-story cinder block office of Advent Travel.
The Kevlar vest dug into her side. She had pulled it on hastily and only realized it wasn't sitting right that very moment. It was too late, as she took her first few tentative steps down the corridor, to adjust for comfort. Her hands were otherwise occupied now, keeping her gun levelled at the warm light at the end of the hall. The muscles in her shoulders quivered, admonishing her for holding her 9 Millimeter steady at shoulder height for much longer than she was used to these days. A fat drop of sweat raced down the curve of her spine at the same instant a cluster of smaller droplets broke loose on her forehead. She wiped them away quickly on the shoulder of her T-shirt before they had a chance to trickle down into her eyes and blind her.
Logically, she knew that the dimensions of the hallway didn't change, but the intensity of the moment played tricks on her eyes. She could have sworn the walls narrowed the closer she drew to that sixth door, encroaching on her until she had the claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in a trash compactor. She stepped carefully, every movement intentional, hyper aware of how loud the crunch of glass would be in the abyss of silence that enveloped her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her partner doing the same, advancing with a delicacy that was impressive for a man of his generous frame.
Five feet from the open doorway they halted simultaneously, as if they were matter and shadow. Here, the silence that had dogged them down the hall eased slightly and she could discern muffled sounds coming from the kitchenette - shuffling feet, the low rumble of a voice, a truncated sob.
Shit. He's got people in there.
She knew that that had been a distinct possibility when she cut through the parking lot and saw the unclaimed vehicles, but she had dared to hope. The confirmation sent her heart rate skyrocketing and hardened the knot in the pit of her stomach. It took a conscious effort to slow her breathing, drag her attention back to the situation at hand and activate her training.
Moment of truth.
Catching her partner's eye with a slight nod of her head, she motioned to a spot ten feet ahead of them on his side of the hall, just past a heavy metal door that served as an emergency exit. If she could sneak over there without being seen, they would have the room covered from both sides of the doorway. It would have to be her; her partner's size would virtually guarantee that someone would see him slip through the light. They couldn't take the chance it would be a wrong someone.
Ferreira returned her nod and, without words, the plan was set.
Inching forward silently, Ferreira craned his neck to peer into the kitchenette. Eyes locked on the light, her entire body tensed in anticipation of the leap that she was about to make, her hamstrings vibrating with adrenaline. She had to move quickly, stealthily. No mistakes, not even the slightest squeak of rubber sole on linoleum. She had to be a ghost.
Ferreira nodded and she took off like a flash, darting through the light to the other side of the hallway.
The second she was concealed in shadow again, she whipped around and trained her gun back on the doorway. The motion sent strands of her ponytail flying around to the side of her face where they got summarily stuck in sweat and tickled the corner of her eye. She shoved them off impatiently as she waited in nervous anticipation.
No outcry from the room. No gunshots. No sounds of pursuit. She didn't realize that she had been holding her breath until it escaped in that moment like a quiet gust of wind.
From her position on the other side of the door, she could now see the part of the kitchenette that
Ferreira could not. Between the two of them, they had a clear view of the small huddle of people who sat, side by side, along the back wall of the kitchenette. Their colourful shoes created a rainbow against the white tile.
The subject himself, dressed in a gray business suit with a navy vest underneath, alternated between the partners' fields of view, leaving hers and entering his, leaving his and entering hers, as he paced back and forth in front of the huddled audience. Dressed as he was, he wouldn't have seemed out of place if it weren't for the AK-47 that dangled from his right hand.
A tinny voice crackled in her ear, nearly making her jump. It only said a single word through her earpiece, but that single word flooded her system with relief and she realized she had been waiting anxiously for it since they first pushed through the glass doors that led to the foyer.
The SWAT team had arrived. Finally.
Her role in this whole ordeal could now change from rescue to hold and secure, to preventing any further casualties, until the experts assumed control. She was taken aback by the gratitude she felt for that; she wasn't used to intense field operations like this anymore and it was proving far harder to quell her nerves than she wanted to admit. In her most recent roles with Major Case and the City-Federal
Homeland Security Task Force, intensity was typically reserved for the interrogation room and didn't include the threat of an AK-47. That was okay though, the specialist cavalry had arrived and were on their way in. As long as the subject didn't appear to be about to harm anyone in the meantime, the bad timing of their arrival could be erased.
Spoke too soon.
A tall, well-dressed and well-tanned man sat sandwiched between a middle-aged woman with grey streaks in her hair and a round-faced young man in his twenties. From the way he carried himself, even from his undignified position on the floor, she could tell that he was a man who was used to giving the orders, not taking them. His sharp blue eyes followed the subject as he paced back and forth, his struggle to submit to the will of the mole-like man before him almost palpable. The tense set of his shoulders gave the impression of a coiled rattler preparing to strike. Watching him shift his weight and turn his face up to glare at his captor, she mentally willed the man to hang in there just a little bit longer.
Help is on the way.
Her telepathy failed in its attempt to charm the snake. Helplessly, she watched as the man sat up straighter and began speaking from his place on the floor. His specific words were inaudible but the deep timbre and sharp tone that floated through the quiet were clearly not meant to de-escalate. They were designed to provoke. Perhaps a sharp reprimand would have been appropriate in another situation and sent the smaller man cowering, but the roles were reversed now. This time the subject turned to his superior, cocked his head and pressed the AK-47 against the manager's temple.
No, no, no, no. Shit!
Adrenaline rushing through her veins, she burst out of the shadows into the doorway of the kitchenette and leveled her gun at the suspect.
"Police! Drop your weapon!"
As the subject lowered his weapon and turned, time seemed to assume an unhurried crawl. Ferreira moved forward to join her in the doorway and, in what felt like slow motion, together they resumed the call for the subject to drop his weapon. Her eyes (and she found out much later the eyes of her partner as well) were so focused on the inky black of his AK-47 that at first she failed to notice the other weapon that sat strapped to his chest, mostly concealed under the navy blue vest.
When the bomb exploded, time stopped altogether.
It was always the explosion that woke her.
Sometimes, she would shoot upright in bed, gasping for air; others, she would wake up fighting her tangled sheets in a panic, chest vice tight. This time, it was just her eyes that flew open. The rest of her body remained motionless, as tight as twisted cable. Her pulse thudded in her ears and her skin tingled from the tip of her toes to the crown of her head. Her senses were on high alert, eyes straining through the dark for the nameless enemy, prey deciding whether to fight, flight or freeze.
It took over five minutes for her parasympathetic nervous system to wrangle control of her body from its panic. Slowly, muscle by muscle, her arms and legs relaxed and her breath came easier. Her eyes drifted closed again, her heart slowed and the nauseous feeling in her gut abated slightly. It was only when she started to shiver that her brain finally registered that she was soaked in sweat right through to the mattress.
Wearily, Alex Eames pulled herself up to a sitting position and threw her legs over the side of the bed.
The red numbers of the alarm clock on her bedside table read 3:02 AM. The dreams had been early tonight.
Pushing herself to her feet, Alex walked stiffly toward her small ensuite bathroom, muscles aching from the prolonged tension of an indeterminate number of hours. What time had she fallen asleep again? It felt like mere minutes. Stopping briefly at the open bedroom window, she allowed the breeze to drift over her damp skin and raise gooseflesh. Outside, a car idled partway down the street and rock music emanated from an open garage a few houses away.
In the tiny en-suite, the face that stared back at her from the mirror was haggard, worn down by too many nights like this one. She soaked a washcloth in water as icy as the tap would permit and pressed it against her face, the prick of the cold water against her skin a welcome distraction from the aches throughout her body. When she dropped the cloth back into the basin and returned her eyes to the reflection before her, the scar on her right cheek where the shrapnel had kissed her face glowed bright red and angry. It wasn't a large scar at all, in fact most people never noticed it, but on nights like this it seemed to dominate her entire face. With a sigh, Alex scrubbed at it with the palm of her hand as if that could make it disappear.
Sometimes on nights like this she was able to flop back in bed and fall asleep quickly, completely exhausted.
Tonight was not one of those nights.