Gun drawn, Chuck Zahorski stepped over the body parts strewn across the smoldering hallway and called out for survivors. A damaged klaxon brayed like a wounded donkey from somewhere on an upper floor. Ahead, through a wall of smoky water spraying from the ceiling sprinklers, Agent Higgs shepherded a line of executives out the auditorium. Zahorski nodded to him, let the civilians pass, pressed forward into the water, into the smoke.
Haze hung in the air of the blasted amphitheater thick as wool. Spent sprinklers had doused the fires leaving behind an ankle-deep sludge of ash, melted plastic and blood. More bodies amid the charred bleachers and rubble. How many explosions had he counted? Four? Six? Disgust bubbled up from his guts and coated his tongue with a coppery film. How’d they allow this to happen? Where was Lammin? Was Dallas still alive? The SNA executives? Please, God, don’t let them all be dead.
Footfalls behind him. Zahorski spun around, aimed, recognized his senior partner, and lowered his Kelbra .45. “Lammin?”
“Secure and away,” Dallas said. “Daughter missing.”
Zahorski shuddered as if he’d been slammed in the face with an ice block. He shook it off, said, “You pass Higgs?”
“Yeah. Don’t know who else survived. Internal coms down.”
“Wanna fan out? Find the girl?” Zahorski said and forearmed sweat from the side of his shaved head.
Dallas nodded coolly. The taller, older man seemed bent and hollowed-out by the sudden ruin all around; his thick hair and moustache ashy white with plaster dust, ghostlike. For the first time to Zahorski’s eyes, his partner looked old.
Dallas said, “I’ll double back to the stairs, see what’s above.”
“I’m garage and basement,” Zahorski said and sprinted across the auditorium past sparking wires to a side exit. He navigated his way through more fiery debris to an emergency stairwell that led three levels down to the executive car park.
Emergency lighting swathed the garage in carmine. Stacks of cars snug in their robotic parking cradles felt overly ordered on such a mess of a day. The car stacks formed isles Zahorski had to traverse, every corner a blind spot, a potential ambush point. The air was clearer here, though; a relief from the soot of the upper floors. Zahorski weaved between the towers of vehicles until bumping into a parking attendant armed with a tire iron.
“SNA Security,” Zahorski said and raised his weapon. “Show me your ID.”
“What’s going on in there?” the man said and handed Zahorski his name tag with its official SNA insignias and employee numbers.
“What do you think’s going on?” Zahorski said, handed him his identification back.
“Why am I—”
Zahorski heard a metal door clang shut a few yards past the parking cradles. “Get out through the auditorium,” he advised and headed off in the opposite direction toward the sound. Adrenaline coursed through his body and tensed his muscles. His firearm shook in his grip. No way to control it. After taking a deep breath to center himself, he progressed through the labyrinth of stacked vehicles to an emergency door set in a cement bulkhead.
Checked left and right. Made his way to the door. Pressed his back against the wall. Pushed the door ajar. Pistol still shaky, he entered the stairwell leading to the utility basement. Uncertainty broke away from his mind to lodge in his throat. Ahead of him he could hear footfalls pounding down the stairs. He leaned over an iron railing to try to catch a glimpse of who was running to the basement. A spark flashed from the dimness below followed by the report of a gunshot.
Zahorski fell back against the far wall in the stairwell, hand to the side of his face. A bullet had ricocheted off the railing into his right cheekbone. The nub of lead was a deformed tooth growing out his zygomatic arch. He dropped his gun, pressed two fingers over the bullet hole and slid along the bulwark into a squat. He looked at his palms, chuckled. They were slick with blood.
Blood. Lammin’s daughter, Carrie, wasn’t it? The image of the pretty little mixed Asian girl sprouted in his mind only to be trampled by a herd of questions. Was she still alive? Did they take her into that dungeon of a utility basement below the car park? Or had they already done her?
Plug up that ugly head of yours and move, he thought to himself. He tore a ribbon of cloth off his dress shirt and jammed it into the bullet hole in his cheek. He retrieved his gun, spat tooth grit and rechecked the landing. The terrorist had gone through the door below into the basement. One question answered. He descended the stairs, yanked open the basement door, and entered.
The red lighting of the parking garage gave way to the ghost-green of caged mercury vapor industrial lamps. Bent low, Zahorski found cover behind the steam turbine of a cobwebbed generator. He had never been this deep beneath Excelsior Tower Four. His eyes slowly adjusted to the oppressive dimness.
The basement had low seven foot ceilings lined with flex ducts that led to oversized HVAC metal head-of-wall joints. Colonnades of massive cement cylinders painted with stripes in international orange divided the disorienting space; between the columns were shadowy storage alcoves packed with discarded office equipment and unmarked cardboard boxes half-rotted to ruin. The cement floor was slick with mold.
Zahorski pulled the blood-soaked cloth out of his bullet wound, tore off another piece of shirt and stuffed the fresh stopper into the hole in his cheek. As he double-checked his weapon, a girl wailed a high-pitched scream somewhere amid the rows of cement columns. The shriek shot between the colonnades and struck Zahorski in his heart. Carrie Lammin? Had to be. Second question answered. Whole plan was probably to kill Lammin and barring that kidnap a family member to extort The Board.
“These are my demands…” a woman’s voice echoed from a far corner of the basement, hollow and final as a gravestone chucked into a wishing well. “I’ve got the Lammin girl. We are to be airlifted to the SNA rooftop runway where we will take an Aurora—”
“Show me the girl first,” Zahorski shouted back.
After a few heartbeats, an eight-year-old girl was pushed out from behind a pillar 15 yards ahead. Before the girl could even consider running, a hand reached out from the shadows and yanked her back by the pigtails.
“—spaceplane,” the woman continued. “Not one of those junk cargo ships either; I want a Wasp Class. Me and the girl and all of my remaining comrades will be flown to Mauritius where…”
Someone made a soft tongue clicking noise behind him now. Zahorski, already knowing it was Dallas, cranked his head to face him.
Dallas peered at him, his eyes asking the obvious questions.
The unspoken plan was clear: Zahorski would jaw with the terrorist, keep her distracted; Dallas would work his way to her rear flank through the far colonnades and from there, well, they’d have to improvise.
Zahorski spat a wad of blood and despite his speech being impeded by the loss of teeth, managed to say, “Your attack was extremely effective. Most of our communications are down. People are panicked up there. It will take a little time to get you what you want.”
“You better get me what I want immediately or the girl dies here, now. Death to the corporate machine! Death to The Board!”
Zahorski pressed his hand against his wound. Pain was beginning to starburst from his cheek to engulf his entire head, neck, and shoulders. He snorted like a bull, fought through the agony, said, “I’m gonna approach you slowly, unarmed, and we can discuss things rationally.” He hesitated. “Do not shoot me again.”
“No, you come near and I’ll blow this kid’s brains out all over the floor.”
“Then you and your comrades get nothing. I only want to talk, find out exactly what you require, and—”
“I am,” he said, stepping out into the open, his gun more casual in his grip than a glass of ice tea.
“You have a radio?”
“I do,” he lied.
The terrorist, Lammin’s daughter in front of her as a human shield, stepped out from behind the cement column; she was a chubby woman in her early 30s. Long black hair under a knit cap. Eyes wide and wild. Dangerous. “Drop that gun,” she demanded and pressed the nozzle of her own weapon against Carrie’s temple.
When Zahorski bent at the waist, pretending to lay his weapon on the floor, Dallas rushed out from the shadows and yanked the Lammin girl away. As the terrorist turned to blow Dallas into confetti, Zahorski took a shot and blasted her hand off at the wrist; her gun, still gripped by the severed appendage, spun off into the dark. Without a blink, Zahorski settled into a crouch, aimed, and let off three more rounds.
The woman sprawled across the floor. Blood gushed from the dime-sized hole in her neck. Somewhere in the shadows of the colonnades, Carrie Lammin was screaming in Dallas’s arms.
Zahorski approached the fallen fighter. She was still alive, but wouldn’t be for long. Her chest was heaving, hand to her throat, stump waving in the air, eyes wide; convulsing now and… smiling. Zahorski squinted in the dark, noticed she wasn’t chubby at all, merely padded up—a suicide vest.
“Bomb!” he screamed.
With the little girl over his shoulder now, Dallas appeared from behind a row of columns five yards ahead.
“Spook’s wired!” Zahorski shouted to him.
They ran hell-for-leather for the door.
The horrific explosion, the sixth of the day, engulfed the basement, shaking the 300 storied Excelsior Tower Four like a Champaign flute on a cement mixer. The entire city trembled from the blast. Still, the skyscraper stood tall. The corporations knew how to build something that could take a hit. And keep going.
★ ★ ★