José enables the speaker function, then places the cell on the table. He folds his arms across his chest, evidently supremely confident in his plan. As I watch his face, set in a steel-hard mask of resolve, time stops for a still moment. The quiet before the storm, I surmise. I hold my breath. I tighten my arms around my son's form. Never have I wished harder for anything. My need to keep my family safe is a tangible thing, alive within me. And while I have Chris in my arms, safe for now, my husband is impossible to control or direct.
What will happen when José realizes that Christian will gladly give up anything, including his life, without so much as blinking, all to keep us safe? What then? There is no way I see him simply bowing out and walking away, admitting that he was wrong. His hatred and beliefs are so deeply embedded; there's no outcome here that won't end in a bloody showdown if Christian manages to find us. I can only pray that Taylor remembers the promise he made to me, because left to his own devices, my husband will not see reason, will not think his actions through when he comes face to face with the man who's tormented us for such a long time now.
The seconds drag by, torturously slow. They're in sharp contrast to the frenetic pace of my pounding heart. Christian's clear voice makes me jump when it breaks into the taut atmosphere brewing here on the boat. In response, José's mouth cracks into an ugly sneer and I know, I just know, that the deadly game is on.
"Grey," José drawls as if he's greeting a long-lost friend, not at all congruent with the clipped way Christian's answered the phone. "Glad you could make the time to take my call. I know how busy you are."
I bite down, flexing my jaw muscles, seething at his sarcastic tone. He's taunting Christian, no doubt trying to incite my husband's temper.
Christian's no-nonsense grit comes as no surprise. "Fuck you. Where is my family?"
"Now, now. Play nice. You don't want them to get hurt," José threatens, looking smugger by the minute.
Even across the line I hear Christian's gasp. "You're as good as dead, Rodriguez, but if you harm even a hair on one of their heads…" The implications are clear so he lets the sentence hang, pausing to let José absorb the full fury I hear in his warning.
"Don't you dare threaten me! I'm not some weak little girl who you can bring to heel with the crack of your whip. You're a sick bastard. You're the one who shouldn't be allowed around them!" José stabs at the air, gesturing his point despite the fact that he can't be seen by the man he's trying so hard to unnerve.
I groan, my stomach tightening with dread. He's pushing every one of my husband's buttons. The combination of Christian's self-loathing and his love for us is a potent, volatile force that will flatten everything in its powerful wake. José has no clue what he's unleashing, and though I would love to see my man crush him, I'm not prepared for the aftermath. Now I'm hoping that Christian is levelheaded enough to see José's taunts for what they are and not fly into the wild rage this conversation is designed to provoke.
"So why don't we settle this man to man, huh? Why are you hiding behind them? You want me, you've got me. Let Ana and Chris go." Christian sounds surprisingly reasonable, clearly playing José at his own game.
"Appealing offer," José muses, faking his interest for a beat, "but there's something else I want more. I've got something to prove to your gorgeous wife here. I want her to see the man you really are."
"Name it," Christian barks, not bothering with the preliminaries or bargaining anymore.
José chuckles. It's a mirthless sound, hollow, lacking in conviction. He thinks Christian will balk at whatever demand he levels. His loony grin stays in place when he spells out his terms. "I want everything. Every last red cent you can scrape together over the next forty-eight hours, transferred into my account. And FYI, just like this call, you won't be able to trace it."
What? He wants money? If this wasn't so fucking serious it would be laughable. He thinks Christian values his wealth more than he does us. Oh, shit! He's even more deluded than I thought. Then, with a new knot in my tense belly, the second half of the sentence strikes me. José must have some scrambling device in place on his cell. I've seen enough CSI-style shows to know that you can quickly and very easily triangulate a call to determine a caller's location, and I have zero doubt that Barney is working on tracking this one as we speak.
With a pang, more hope bleeds from my heart. My palms are clammy with the constant fear, the oppressive panic that's so close to overwhelming me. A trice later the extended silence brings me around to the now when I realize that Christian is taking too long to reply. I'd bet anything that he's waiting for part two of the demand, also not convinced that money is the only thing on José's list.
It's with more dismay that I concede that - of course - my intuitive man is correct. José is demanding the cash to prove a point. He has no intention of letting us go, but he's using us as bait to get what he wants. A sense of hopelessness hovers at the fringes of my mind, its long shadows stretching over me like cold fingers. Again I have to force myself to stay sharp, focused. The only thing that could make this situation worse is me missing an opportunity to get away.
"I'll give you whatever you want, but I want proof of life. Let me talk to my wife." Christian's voice cuts through my growing terror, sending a fresh spike of adrenaline charging though my system.
YES! I will silently in my head. Mutely my whole being begs with our captor to let me have just a moment with my precious husband while I try not to dwell on the thought that it could be my last.
"You have thirty seconds. Make it count, Grey. Once she sees the truth about you, I don't think she'll want to speak to you again."
José grabs the phone and holds it to his chest, preventing his words from reaching Christian. "Don't you fuck with me, Ana. Say your say. I'll hold the phone. Any crap from you and you know what will happen." His gaze flickers to Chris, making his point very clear.
I nod, showing my understanding even as loathing scorches my veins. My boy's head is still resting on my shoulder. I turn my head away from my son in an effort to keep the noise down and José shoves the phone in front of my face. "Christian, we're okay. Please don't do anything rash."
"Baby. Thank fuck. I love you. I'm so sorry, so fucking sorry. Stay safe, don't try anything!" I hear a thousand things threaded through his broken voice: love, desperation, regret. Each is twisting my insides, making me ache for us, for what could have been, for what might still be, for the infinite love between us.
Suddenly I'm floored by the rush of my bottomless emotions, the sentiments balling into a heavy lump that lodges square in my chest. My tears well, making me see the world through a shimmering film. It can't end like this. I won't let it end like this. Even with our kidnapper listening in, there must be some way to tell him where we are. Think, Ana! Dammit!
I draw a breath, hoping to steady the wobble in my proclamation. "Christian, I love you. Do you hear me? More than anything. This is not your fault. Thank you for taking us in, for loving me, for loving your son. Tell Grace we love her and…"
"That's enough!" José spits, jerking the phone away and glaring at me. He slams the handset back onto the table, quickly letting it go as if the device burned him. "You got what you wanted," he snaps at Christian as his eyes continue to drill holes into mine. I can tell that he didn't like our exchange. Hearing first-hand the sincerity in Christian's declaration of love, plus the fact that he gave in to the ultimatum so easily is not something I think José bargained for.
On the other end of the line I hear Christian making a strangled sound, a menacing growl – animalistic, raw, furious. It's strangely comforting, even under these horrific circumstances. Though I know he's mad as fuck, there is a part of me that responds to the primal instinct in him to protect us. It's one of the many reasons why I love him like I do.
Christian's baritone explodes in a gravelly whisper that in no way belies the dangerous edge of his statement. "I'll get you what you want but be ready, you motherfucker. I'm coming for you. You don't fuck with my family and get away with it."
"We'll see," José hisses. "I'll be in contact. Forty-eight hours, Grey. Don't make me wait." He cuts the call before Christian can reply. He turns his back on me then bashes an aggravated fist against the wall of the cabin. Though I saw it coming, it still makes me jolt in my seat. I hear him mutter a string of expletives. His movements are edgy, tight with the rage that fuels his insanity.
In my arms my son stirs. I turn my lips to his ear and coo gentle noises of reassurance. "Sshhhhhh," I whisper, thankful that he missed this whole debacle and eager for him to sleep for as long as possible. Any part of this I can spare him will be a win in my book. When Chris settles again I take what feels like my first breath in ages.
"Christian loves us, José. It's not too late. Walk away, please. This can only end badly." I know there's no reasoning with crazy, but I'd be mad not to try everything, even if it is a long shot. Maybe my words, hot on the heels of Christian's, will be enough to make José see the family he's intent on destroying.
Slowly he turns, facing me once more. "Shut up!" He grits. "He. Does. Not. Love. You."
Internally I wage a battle with the words that scald the tip of my tongue. Considering the state he's in, do I push or do I withdraw, saving him from the glaringly obvious problem he'll have if all goes his way? With a surge of courage I say my piece. "And I will never love you. Especially after all of this."
Christian and Taylor:
Christian bends at the waist, bracing his hands on his knees. His head is swimming, his heart is beating at a frantic rate, and his breaths come in short, shallow gusts. Rage consumes him, pounding in his veins as if his blood was made of it. A monster roars in his head, drunk on anger and the sheer need for vengeance. His muscles tremble in readiness to defend his loved ones but there is nothing on which to wreak his fury, his gutless enemy cowering behind his precious family.
On a ragged breath he straightens, balling his fists. "Fuuuuck!" he cries, letting the frustration out in a disturbing wail.
Taylor as well as every officer in the room feel his irritation, the palpable pulse of his ire. Respectfully, fearfully, they all keep quiet, giving him the space to regain his scattered composure. When he does, there's fresh resolve in his gaze, underscored by the determination that was forged by the hell of his past.
"Play it again," Grey orders hoarsely to the techie operating the recording program.
A relieved breath shudders through Taylor. Not for the first time is he impressed by his boss's incredible will of steel. Christian, in full problem solving mode, is something to behold, and will be an asset to them until they pinpoint the perp's location. But he knows that no amount of sense or reason will stop the man from killing José with his bare hands given half the chance. If they find him – no, scratch that – when they find him, Taylor is going to have to play a very strategic game to keep his employer from being charged with homicide, especially given this roomful of cops who can verify every one of the threats Christian slung at scumbag Rodriguez.
In silence they listen to the call again and again, letting the technician isolate background sounds that could point to the whereabouts of the missing trio. "There!" Taylor exclaims on the third loop. "That bumping noise. It comes at regular intervals, almost rhythmically, throughout the call."
A hush falls across the room as they huddle closer, listening intently to the muted thump that occurs about every five seconds. Christian looks to Jason, his brows drawn together in concentration. "Shit! It's familiar, but I just can't place it," he states, annoyed with himself.
"Take a break, sir, then come back to it. It'll come to you when you're not forcing it. We'll keep listening."
With a curt nod Christian steps away and pulls his phone from his pocket. If he's going to get José his dough in time, he'd better start making the arrangements. "I'll get hold of the bank." For a beat he swipes at the screen but then thinks better of it. Instead he finds his right-hand-man's gaze again. Frown lines streak his forehead. "I still can't believe that it's money he's after. It just makes no sense, Taylor."
Jason's gut knots. He can't lie to his boss, especially not when the man is staring him right in the face, but this is a conversation he was hoping to avoid. His employer and friend has more than enough on his plate right now, and adding his suspicions about José's ultimate intention isn't going to help matters – at all. But there's no hiding the truth. Grey is way too astute, leaving Taylor very little room to soften the blow he's about to deal.
"I agree, sir. I don't think he's played his full hand yet and in light of what he said during this last call, plus the facts as we know them so far, my instinct tells me that the money doesn't matter. He's done very well for himself; his most recent contract is worth millions in royalties alone. And if the cash isn't really what he wants, then the only logical deduction is that Ana and Chris are what he's after."
Christian's face pales just as his eyes turn wild with the gray storm brewing behind them. "You're saying that he wants to keep them," he breathes, cutting to the brutal chase.
Taylor has never thought of himself as a sentimental man but right here, right now, his confirmation hurts him almost as much as he knows it does his boss. "Yes, sir."
This time Christian doesn't allow the wall holding back the flood of his anger to break. Rather, he harnesses the emotion, letting it drive his determination to bring José down. "Over my dead body," he hisses quietly. "I'll mobilize the funds, just in case, but I want him found, Jason." His eyes flash like lightning as he growls, "My family is just that. Mine."
With a nod and crystal clear understanding, Taylor gets back to analyzing the recording while Christian channels his restless energy into a call to his bank manager. A few agitated commands, and ten minutes later Grey orders all his available funds liquidated and redirected into a single account, ready for transfer at a moment's notice.
When Christian rejoins Taylor at the bank of monitors, he's vibrating with tension. For what feels like the fiftieth time, Ana's voice, clear but shaky, rings across the room, asking Christian to tell Grace that they love her.
"Who's Grace?" the cop to Jason's left asks.
Absentmindedly Taylor replies while Christian refocuses on the thudding sound he heard earlier. "Grace is Christian's mother."
The moment the words leave his mouth the pin drops. Christian gasps just as Taylor turns to him. "And my boat," Christian breathes at the exact moment Jason counters with, "The Grace."
"Holy fuck! They're at the waterfront! That's the sound! It's a boat, knocking against the fucking rubber dock bumpers!" Christian bellows, his eyes like saucers as he shakes Taylor by the shoulders.
Suddenly the room explodes into activity with cops pulling GPS imaging for the marina, Sergeant Tony barking orders to mobilize a SWAT team, and Taylor relaying info to his own crew.
For a second, Christian pauses to take a breath amidst the chaos around him. Thank fuck his beautiful, clever wife kept her wits about her. Who knows how long it would have taken to find out where José was keeping them? As always, the swell of his feelings for her and his son shocks him; their unborn baby only adds to the joy he already shares with them. To him, there is simply no scenario where his family doesn't walk away from this shit, even if it costs him his life. And if he was going to die, fuck knows, he would be taking Rodriguez with him.
Fortified with his plan, he follows Taylor from the room. They rush through the corridors of the SPD headquarters before diving into a line of waiting squad cars. With sirens sounding and the distinctive flash of red and blue, they speed through the parting traffic, making their way to the waterfront.
At the marina, the officer in charge requisitions a vacant warehouse to set up a makeshift command center. Christian and Taylor glare at the man, both gritting their jaws at giving up the reins of the operation to the SPD. But running the show is secondary to keeping his family safe, and it's a small price to pay for the manpower it buys them.
Just out of earshot of the milling SWAT team, Taylor pleads with Christian. "Now is not the time to be concerned with gun control, sir. Please, take the weapon. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it," he reasons, knowing full well that it's an exercise in futility. His boss has never hidden his dislike for firearms, but he's counting on the severity of the situation to prompt him into making an exception.
"No. End of. I'm not about to bring a weapon into a situation where it might be used against me, or worse, against my family," he argues, his mouth setting into an obstinate line that Taylor knows only too well.
"Sir, please. It's precisely your family that I'm thinking of. José will undoubtedly be armed, and let's not forget that he took a shot at you not so long ago." The reminder is meant to shake Christian into action, but all Jason gets is a glower before Christian turns on his heel and stomps away, making a beeline for the man in charge.
"Fuck," Taylor mutters under his breath, squeezing his temples in frustration. He can't babysit Christian throughout this operation. They need every available pair of eyes and ears looking for Ana and Chris. The very last thing he wants to do today is to bring someone home in a body bag, least of all the man he's come to love and respect like a brother. After a patience-fortifying pep talk to himself he sets off after his boss, ready to argue the crap out of any of his ridiculous protests, even if it's the final thing he does as the head of Grey security.
Collins, Cindy, and Carl take up their places next to Christian and Taylor as they listen to Vic Neilson, the commanding officer, drone through the proposed tactical operational procedures. Their nerves are taut with strain, but none more so than Christian's. His annoyance is barely leashed. The slow process of deploying the task force groups is grating, his impatience evident in his tapping foot and his perpetually clenching fists.
When they finally splinter off into smaller teams he welcomes the hunt, to finally be on the ground, actively involved in finding his wife and his boy. They silence their phones and the two-way comms devices, then plug wireless buds into their ears to stay in contact.
At least Christian had the good sense to insist that the force keep the operation covert, with no storming troops to tip José off. Aside from the fact that he might bail with Chris and Ana, a cornered man is a dangerous, unpredictable creature that's best avoided. Also, with the way things are, they have the element of surprise on their side.
The crews all move to their assigned docks, fourteen in total. While Taylor and Christian take the left side of their concourse, Collins and Carl take the right. Cindy remains at the base, acting as the liaison between them and the SPD. No way is Taylor going to allow his team to be forced out of the information loop just because they're regarded as civilians. He wants a piece of José's ass just as much as his boss does.
Mercifully there are few people about in the cold of the night as they creep stealthily around the moored vessels. They board and search the crafts carefully. When they need to, they flash a search warrant then quietly interview the occupants of the boats as they come across them but, so far, no one has anything unusual to report.
Each side of a pier tethers about thirty bobbing boats, collectively offering a million different places to hide. A light drizzle of rain interferes with their visibility in the already inky dark, making the daunting task seem almost insurmountable. By the time they've searched the fifth vessel, Christian is tearing out his hair. "It's taking too fucking long!" he whispers loudly to Taylor. Let's split up. I'll take the end of the dock and you work from here. We'll meet in the middle."
Jason's heart sinks. He understands the urgency, but splitting up is tantamount to suicide. A pair would stand a much greater chance of overpowering a perp and surviving the ensuing takedown. "I strongly advise against it, sir. The risk…"
"Oh, fuck the risk, Taylor!" Grey interrupts with a scathing tone. "It's my damned family we're talking about here. The quicker we find them, the better. You can radio for Cindy to buddy with you. I'm going to the end of the concourse."
Before Taylor can voice any further protest, Christian turns and jogs away, heading for the boats moored at the end.
After the call to Christian and my ballsy declaration, José is not in the mood to talk to me anymore. Huddled in the far corner of the cabin, he makes a few calls, but I can't learn much more from his clipped replies to the person on the other end of the line. I catch the words visa and Colombia and that's enough to send shivers of dread creeping over my skin.
Chris's sleep-warm body jolts against me as he wakes up with a start. He pushes away from me then looks around, disorientation clouding his beautiful eyes. "Is Daddy here?" he asks softly. One of his hands curls into the fabric of my sweater in a nervous gesture that stabs at my heart.
"No, baby boy. But I did talk to him. He said to say that he loves you very much." I muster a smile as I comb my fingers through his messy mop. He looks down; hurt, confused, I'm not sure, and his mouth quivers with unshed tears. "Hey," I coo, "we'll be all right."
It occurs to me that this might be a good opportunity to school him in a few safety measures, just in case. With José still occupied, he won't be listening too closely to my conversation with Chris.
I shift my son, making him sit on my lap with his back to José. His head blocks our captor's view of my face. I keep my tone gentle, not wanting to scare him any more than he already is. "Chris, please listen to Mommy." Between my palms I frame his cheeks, making him focus on me. "If anything happens, if you get scared, you hold on to me, okay? But if Mommy tells you to go hide, you need to do that. Find a corner, like that one," I say, jutting my chin towards the end of the kitchenette counter. "Make your body into a ball, close your eyes, and stay down. Have you got that, honey?"
Chris chews on his bottom lip. His eyes are round, frightened, but I can tell that he understands. "This man is not our fwiend," he breathes earnestly, summing up the situation with a clarity that belies his young age.
Shit, shit, shit! My heart trips. Once more I feel that tightness around my chest, making it hard to breathe. "No." I shake my head. "No, he is not."
José's voice is conspiratorial again when he butts into our conversation. "Ah, enano. Finally you are awake. Tell your mamá to make us something to eat. Maybe you want to come and sit here with me, huh? We can get to know each other."
Just like I told him to a moment ago, Chris clings to me. A small whimper escapes from his lips. Hatred fuels the already acidic feelings I harbor towards my ex. I cannot stand the way he's scaring my child, but maybe preparing dinner is a good idea. At least I can use it as an excuse to keep Chris by my side and, if I'm lucky, I might be able to sneak a knife from one of the drawers. "No, he's grumpy when he wakes up," I lie. "He can help me in the galley until he's fully awake."
With Chris on my hip I take the few steps towards the kitchen counter, then sit my son on the worktop. There's a small porthole right in front of me, matching the one from the dinette across the narrow aisle behind me. For a moment I stare through it, oblivious to the raindrops running in wet lines along the glass. Somewhere out there is my frantic husband, no doubt worried sick about us, and armed only with an obscure clue from me. But even if he picked up on my ambiguous reference, there are so many boats here in the marina. I feel like we're the proverbial needle in a haystack.
At my side Chris makes a squeaking sound then clamps his tiny hand over his mouth. "What is it, buddy?" I frown, tilting my head in question.
His anxious gaze flickers to José before he replies softly. "Daddy." As if drawn there, his eyes move to the dinette window. There's a spark of recognition, a lightness in his stare that I can't ignore.
My heart skids to a halt. Could Christian be here or am I dealing with a very traumatized little boy? As casually as I can, I look to José. His head is down, bent over his phone. It's a good time to take a chance. My bag is still on the dining nook table. Under the guise of looking through my purse, I keep a close watch on the round pane of glass.
As the boat dips and rocks with a wave, a dull shaft of light briefly illuminates the outside and a flash of copper is all I need to know that my husband is on deck. The sight is both welcome and terrifying in equal measure. In no time flat my body is charged for action, battle ready, but paralyzingly indecisive.
Oh, fuck! Suddenly my jump-started brain is clogged with questions. Is he armed? Is he alone? A scenario where José holds a gun to Chris's head flits through my mind, sending me into a tailspin of panic. I know Christian will take our kidnapper by surprise, but in the confined space of the cabin, a close-quarter confrontation is inevitable. If José manages to squeeze off a shot, then this will end in a tragedy I can't bear to face.
On a shallow breath I channel Ray, trying to see my tactical options the way he would. The first thing that comes to mind is my son. I need to get him out of the way without arousing José's suspicion. From my bag I fish out one of his toy cars. I turn and lift him off the counter. To cover my plan, I place the little van in his hand and I tell him to play, but I nudge him into the hiding corner I showed him earlier.
Now I can focus on keeping my husband safe before he storms in and raises hell. The way I see it, Christian has no choice but to come through the door, but José is sitting in a spot where the opening door would shield him, offering him just enough time to react. I must get him away from there, closer to the middle of the cabin, and preferably with his back to the only entrance.
My mind scrambles for a way to make him come to me. With no time to lose, I settle for using my feminine wiles. "José," I call. "This bottom drawer seems to be stuck. Can you please help me open it?"
Grinning, he gets up and walks in my direction. "See, preciosura? A woman always needs a man to take care of her." The look on his face makes me shudder, his sweet words such an ugly contradiction to what he's putting us through. Fucker! I think, feeling disgust turn my belly. If Christian doesn't get to you first I could happily have a go at stabbing you – repeatedly.
My bleak vision is interrupted a second later as Christian bursts though the door, leaping onto José's back and taking him down with a solid thud against the floorboards. He makes a winded grunt. I hear myself scream as I scramble back, wanting to keep this from Chris. I would make a dash for it if I could but the wrestling, swearing men are blocking the tapered path to the exit.
José has managed to turn over but Christian is astride him, throwing wild punches and yelling. "Fucking filthy bastard! You're a dead man!" His face is set in a brittle mask of fury, and his opponent's is already a bloody mess.
Chris dives into my arms, wailing and knocking me over. I fall back, sliding down against the kitchen drawers as I hold my son. He presses his head into my neck, but I barely register the hot tears coursing down his face. As horrified as I am, I can't drag my eyes away from their twisting, fighting bodies. I cry out as José goes for the pistol still tucked in his pants, but Christian bats the 9mm away, making it skid along the floor – away from us.
"Shit!" I mutter. I could have used that gun but now it's on the other side of their intertwined forms. José's arms reach up as he tries to press his thumbs into Christian's eyes. He bucks wildly, throwing Christian off balance just long enough to roll them over.
On top now, José wastes no time before pummeling my husband with angry, red fists. The wet, slapping sound is horrific as it echoes through the small space. I feel so powerless. I want to help, but my boy clings desperately to me. I'm stuck in an impossible situation – choosing between my son's welfare and my husband's safety. And where the hell is Taylor?! My mind screams in frustration.
Christian growls and lands a good punch. For a moment José is dazed, then he tries to get away from Christian's relentless blows. With his arm outstretched, his fingers touch the tip of the weapon where it lies to one side.
"Gun!" I shout, warning my husband.
Again they roll over, bringing Christian back into the dominant position. He grabs a hold of José's collar and slams his head against the hard floor with a sickening noise.
By some miracle I remember the revolver José locked away in the top drawer. I scramble to my knees, careful to keep Chris away from the unfolding drama. With my free hand I pull at the drawer, rattling it as hard as I can, but it won't give. I slam my fist against the wood, angry at all the obstacles I've faced today. I look over my shoulder, making sure my husband retains the upper hand.
I yank on the second drawer in an effort to open it, but I tug so hard that the whole thing comes out, scattering utensils around me. In the gap I notice the top drawer rests only on a thin track of wood. From underneath the drawer, and with my heart beating in my throat, I work my fingers into the back opening, then wrench with all the force I can muster. The rails splinter away easily and the drawer falls backwards, spilling its contents into the drawer below that. Unseeing, I plunge my hand into the mess of plastic and steel and feel around for the canvas of the holster. When my fingers curl around the reassuring weight of the gun, I grab it.
Again I turn to watch the struggling pair. Both are sweaty, coated in sticky blood, and hissing through their teeth. José has his hands wrapped around Christian's throat but his hold is poor. The coating of blood is too slippery and my husband quickly captures his wrists. In a practiced move he pins them above his head. With his right hand he rains blow after blow onto José's head. In the scuffle José wriggles one arm free then reaches for the 9mm once more. This time it's well within reach.
"Christian, watch out!" I cry, but my husband does not hear me. He's caught in a haze of fury, blinded to everything but the face he's breaking with his powerful knuckles. I hear Chris's strained breaths in my ear and I realize that my son is having a panic attack. I have to do something. I fumble with the fucking holster to free the .38 special.
Appalled, I watch José's arm move in slow motion, pointing the handgun at Christian. Even though he can't see for shit, this close, there's no way he'd miss. I don't have a choice. I have to take the shot. If I don't, José will. I lift the revolver, holding my son between my raised arms. I take a breath to steady my shaking. The .38 might be small, but it still kicks when you fire. For that reason, I aim lower than my actual target. I pray that they don't shift too much. I can't afford to miss. Christian raises an arm, drawing back for what will be an almighty knockout.
On my exhale I pull the trigger. Reflexively my eyes squeeze shut, blocking my view for a second that feels like forever. I hear two shots, very close together. I can't tell which was first. My ears ring. Chris is shaking violently, still fighting for a proper breath. He's my first priority. I pry him away from me. The cabin is filled with smoke. I smell the sulfur of the gunpowder mixed with the metallic tang of blood. I don't know if my husband is alive.
My heart pounds in my ears. I fuse my gaze with my boy's. "Count with me," I say and begin to count, nodding my head with every passing number, keeping Chris focused on me, on my face. "…five… six. Breathe, baby boy," I soothe. "Seven… eight… nine… Breathe in and out." I show him, reminding him with my hand pressed to his chest. I watch his eyes come back into focus. I see his chest rising and falling more rhythmically. It's still quiet around us. Too quiet, I think just as I feel the first burst of fresh panic.
The quiet is broken when a haggard looking Taylor charges into the room, holding a standard issue Glock. "What the fuck?!" he cries before holstering the weapon and dropping to his knees next to two lifeless bodies. Christian is lying off to one side, his front stained with the color of dread. José's lifeless gaze is staring at me; accusing, unblinking, glassy, creepy. He's obviously dead. At least I didn't miss, I muse with an odd detachment. I know I'm in shock.
Taylor barks unintelligible words into a two-way device. The cabin is suddenly smaller when Collins and Carl fill it with their bulky frames. Chris is okay. He's breathing evenly, but still clinging to me like a little monkey. His face is pressed into my neck. He's still crying. And so am I.
On my knees I shuffle over to my prone husband. There's a jagged hole in the front of his shirt, right where I guess his heart is. There is so much blood. I gasp. My heart shatters, splitting into fragments I can never find and never fix when reality pierces through the fog of my numbness. I was too late. Too damn fucking late. My world closes in on itself. I'm lost to my grief.
Through the blur of my tears I see a pair of fingers rest on the pulse point in Christian's neck. I hear shouting but I can't make out the words. I press my son closer – it's like hugging a little piece of my husband to me. How will I live without him? How do I go on, have this baby that he wanted so badly? I hate José. I'm glad he's dead.
I startle when Christian's body jerks. I hear a rasping sound, like a ragged breath. He coughs and splutters, making a strangled noise. Taylor rolls him onto his side, into the recovery position. He faces me and blinks. I hear the words of relief all around me. My addled brain refuses to understand. I stare, gaping in utter astonishment. His eyes find mine. They're almost swollen shut but they smile. THEY SMILE!
My system thuds with new life, reconnecting my brain to my limp body. My husband is alive! I fall onto him, draping myself over him, squishing Chris and my body as close as possible to him. "Daddy is here," I tell my boy in a voice that I don't recognize as my own.
Chris curls one arm around Christian's neck, the other stays around mine. I hate that we've been through this but it's over. It's fucking OVER.
"I've got you," my husband vows, his voice gravelly but oh-so welcome.
"You do," I exclaim past the gushing tears, "but how?" I shake my head. I still don't know how this is possible. How am I holding my husband, alive in my arms?
Quietly he chuckles unevenly, still winded. "You'll have Jason to thank for that." He pats his chest. "Police-issue Kevlar, baby."
"Taylor needs a raise," I quip. My comment is met with the team's high-strung laughter. It will take us all a while to process the full extent of what happened, to work past the horror of the day, but we're safe – all of us. For now, that's all that matters.
Thank you for reading, please don't forget to review.
Christmas and Valentine's Meander are follow-on stories to the main story. I will be placing them in order after some reworking and then I will be doing an epilogue at some point in time.