(narrated by Kristi Alsip)
The force of the impact from the other vehicle threw them both forward into the dash. Dazed, Leine shook her head to clear it. She stomped on the accelerator, but the SUV stayed with them. Leine made a hard right around the next corner. The other vehicle dropped back slightly before it surged forward and smashed into the sedan’s rear corner, causing the car to fishtail. She steered out of the slide and turned again. The SUV drove up beside the sedan and broadsided them, sending them over the curb and into a parking lot. The truck followed and slammed into the back end, shoving the car over a raised median, high-centering them.
The car lurched to a stop. Leine unbuckled her seat belt and dropped down in her seat, pulling her gun from its holster. Yuri followed her lead, the whites of his eyes visible. “Shit—” Yuri started to say, but Leine held her finger to her lips.
She reached up to position the rearview mirror to get a look at the hulking SUV now affixed to the trunk of her car. No one occupied the driver’s seat. No gunfire erupted from the other vehicle, which was odd. Leine glanced at Yuri, the bruises under his eyes more pronounced because of the ashen pallor of his face.
“Stay down,” she said in a low voice. Yuri didn’t argue and slid the rest of the way onto the floor. Leine wasn’t about to let the driver of the SUV gun down Yuri. He still had too much information she needed.
She eased her door open and crouched low as she stepped outside. Alert for movement, she crept around the car, edging closer to the truck and stopping to listen at varying intervals. The silence struck her as odd. Typically, when someone made that kind of grand entrance they used the surprise generated to complete their objective. In this case, Yuri was still alive and so was she.
She continued around the vehicle, checking underneath the SUV for a visual, but saw nothing. The driver could be standing behind a wheel, or might still be inside. She eased her way toward the rear of the truck, scanning the area to make sure someone hadn’t slipped around from behind to take Yuri out.
With her back to the SUV and gun in front of her, Leine rounded the end of the vehicle. The kick came out of nowhere and temporarily paralyzed her right hand. Her gun fell from her grasp and clattered to the ground. The next one hit her in the ribs. She staggered backward and turned as a wall of t-shirt-wearing muscle crashed into her and they fell to the ground, knocking the wind out of her. Ignoring the stabbing pain in her side, Leine brought her knee up and at the same time grabbed the barrel of the man’s gun, barely forcing it away as he pulled the trigger.
The report was deafening.
Her ears rang, the muffled sound like that of sand particles shifting underwater. His other hand closed around her throat in an attempt to crush her windpipe. Focused only on survival, Leine gripped the gun barrel with her left hand and tried to pry his fingers off her neck with the numb one. She managed to bend his hand far enough the wrong way to put pressure on his trigger finger and loosen his hold on the gun. In response, he let go of her neck and moved away to retain the grip, creating space between them. Recognizing her razor-thin advantage, she wrenched the gun from his grasp and thrust her knee into his groin. She was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath.
His face a grimace, the man grabbed her neck with both hands and squeezed. She pushed hard against him with her left hand and knee, creating enough room to maneuver the gun between them. Dark spots appeared in her periphery and her eyesight dimmed as oxygen deprivation threatened to overtake her. Summoning a last surge of strength, she willed her right hand to respond, rammed the forty-five into his solar plexus, and pulled the trigger.
Eyes wide, his mouth open in an O, he gripped his stomach where the bullet entered his abdomen. A dark red stain appeared and spread across his shirt. He glanced at his hand, now covered in blood, and then at Leine. It was the first time she’d gotten a good look at him. She’d seen him somewhere before.
Leine shoved him backward and he crumpled onto his side. Coughing, she winced as she struggled to her feet. She tried to take a breath and doubled over from the searing-hot pain that arced across her rib cage. She took a moment to recover, then staggered to the SUV, hand gripping her side. After reassuring herself that no one else waited for her inside the truck, she returned to search the man’s clothes for identification.
His pockets were empty. Leine wasn’t surprised. Memories swam their way to the surface as she studied his face. It didn’t take long before she realized how she knew him. Startled, she stepped away from the body, the implication clear. She shook it off and opened the passenger door to search the interior of the truck.
On the console was a manila folder marked Confidential with her picture clipped to the front. She skimmed its contents then closed the folder and tucked it under her arm as she searched the rest of the vehicle, ice-cold awareness creeping up her spine.
Finding nothing else of value except the keys in the ignition, Leine exited the truck to assess the damage to her car.
The rear end was severely impacted, but if she could uncouple it from the SUV and push it off the median, it would be drivable. As she skirted the side of the car she realized Yuri was no longer hiding on the floor. In fact, he was no longer in the car. She scanned the street in both directions, but there was no sign of him. Her struggle with the assailant had been the perfect distraction for his escape.
She climbed into the SUV and gingerly leaned against the seat as she started the engine and shifted into low gear.
The sound of metal against metal set Leine’s teeth on edge. An agony in time passed as she braced herself and tried to find a comfortable position while she pushed her car off the curb. As soon as all four wheels hit asphalt, and the SUV disengaged from the back bumper, she returned to her car. She pulled out of the lot and turned right onto the busy boulevard. The new evidence chilled her as the realization spread.
The left side of the folder bore a familiar stamp.
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