Chapter 10 — Allies of Coincidence
Jeremy practically leapt out of Lani's car as it skidded up to the curb. He threw it in park, engine still running, with a mental apology to his absent partner for his poor driving. The bar was already surrounded by the Tacoma police, and they weren't about to let anyone nearby. Even him.
"Who the fuck are you?" asked a patrolman, moving to stop him. They were just beginning to set up barricades around the area.
"Jeremy fucking Ashe, Federal fucking Bureau of Investigation," Jeremy snarled. He waved his badge in the young man's face. "Get me whoever's in charge right the fuck now."
"FBI?" asked a nearby lieutenant, looking up from his binoculars. He'd been trying to see anything inside the shuttered bar windows. Jeremy vaguely recognized the man, but the lieutenant definitely remembered him from the way his face fell. "Goddammit, not you again. The hell are you doing here?"
"I'm taking over. Give me a radio."
"Aren't you outside your jurisdiction?"
Lani, if you don't recover fast, I'm going to end up shooting one of these fuckers soon. "I have blanket jurisdiction on any crime involving a firearm in the Cascadian region right now. Permit of my investigation into the Rallsburg incident. That includes this whole fucking state, if you weren't clear on that." Jeremy picked the man up and shoved him against the nearest van. "Call it up the line, motherfucker."
As the hapless lieutenant did so, Jeremy took a pair of binoculars from a visibly intimidated patrolman and took a look at the bar. "Someone brief me."
"Nine confirmed armed hostiles," came a sharp report from his side. A sniper, braced against the hood of the car with one knee on the ground. Former military. No cop calls 'em hostiles. "Minimum twenty civilians. Shots fired."
"What are the fuckers using?"
"Glocks and sawed-offs, sir."
Thank God for competent troopers. "Thanks." Jeremy leaned over to match his sightline, but it wasn't any better. He turned back to the lieutenant. "Any demands?"
"No, sir." The lieutenant looked like he'd just been reamed from on high yet again, to Jeremy's satisfaction. "They haven't said a word."
"We haven't communicated with them at all?"
"Bar phone is disconnected, and they're using a jammer to block cell service. We didn't want to risk approaching and losing the hostages."
"Good call." Now that Jeremy had authority, he was beginning to calm down. He didn't need to antagonize anyone unnecessarily. "Perimeter secured?"
Jeremy nodded. "I'm going in."
"You're what?" the lieutenant asked, aghast.
"I need to talk to these motherfuckers alive, and I'm not going to wait around for them to get shot coming out."
"What about the hostages?"
Fuck 'em. I've got bigger fish. "I'll make every effort to secure their release." He grabbed a vest from the back of the nearest truck and strapped it on. "Cover me."
"No backup?" asked the sniper.
He grinned. "All yours, sir."
Jeremy knew he was being irrational and reckless, but at this point he didn't care. After so many false positives, so many armed crimes in progress that turned out mundane and ordinary, this time had to be different. It didn't follow any pattern at all. A strange location, no demands, and an armed and organized group? In the same region the presumed-dead Hailey Winscombe was supposedly sighted only the night before?
If they weren't connected, it was such a crazy-ass coincidence that Jeremy would be letting his superstitious partner down if he didn't pursue it.
They'd identified the body of the man that had gone to Canada to kill Boris and Dan as a virtual nobody. The guy was a hourly wage drone and frequent sport hunter. Absolutely nothing to tie him to the men he'd tried to murder—except that he was from Elma, the nearest town of any size to Rallsburg.
Jeremy had combed the town thoroughly with a practical army at his back, Aderholt included, but they'd found nothing. The chief was following up other leads to the west along the coast, while Jeremy took the Olympia and Tacoma areas. Any violent crime involving firearms, or even the hint of some kind of organized crime activity, and the local cops were sure to get a visit from their local feds.
He might have enjoyed getting to pester them so much if he weren't still flying solo.
"Give me some direction," he asked the sniper directly, ignoring the protesting lieutenant.
"Best we can tell, they moved everyone to the back, then started sending them into the front one by one. It's fucking bizarre, sir."
Looking for someone…? "Is there a back entrance?"
"Locked up tight. When we approached, they took a shot at the ground to warn us off."
"Locked up but they took a shot?"
"There's a window. They put one guy there."
"Excuse me, sir," interrupted the lieutenant. Jeremy rounded on him with a glare, but he stood firm. "If they aren't making demands and they haven't started killing anyone, wouldn't it be better to wait?"
"That we know of," the sniper pointed out.
"Shut up, Stebbins." The lieutenant scratched his head. "Why risk them killing the hostages? They've gotta come out sooner or later."
"Do we have any drone cameras? Snakes? Anything to get us a view inside?"
He shrugged, infuriating Jeremy. Don't you know your own fucking equipment? "SWAT's still on the way. Maybe fifteen minutes."
"How the fuck did I get here before your SWAT team?"
"We only have the one local one, sir, and they were off the clock. Had to call them in."
A muffled gunshot and a flash of light filled the spaces around the blocked windows, causing them all to flinch.
Jeremy shook his head. "Too late. I'm going in through that back door to negotiate."
"You're fucking insane," the lieutenant shouted as he ran off, dropping all pretense of chain of command.
Yeah, probably. But I've got two friends hurt by this mess now, not just one. Jeremy picked up the radio he'd grabbed from the truck, running an earbud up underneath his vest as he ran. He handed off his sidearm to the barricade a hundred feet away from the back door, then held up his hands and started walking down the alley.
The back door was set into a plain stone wall, with a dumpster and a small shattered window on one side. Jeremy could see the bullet from the warning shot lying up against the wall, an ominous mark that served as a line in the sand. He stepped across it apprehensively, his hand raised in clear surrender.
"Turn back, Agent Ashe."
…I really hate being famous. "I just want to talk."
The voice that answered sounded as nervous as he felt, but Jeremy refused to turn around. "I don't want to shoot you."
"And I don't wanna get shot, so how about we figure this shit out?" Jeremy took another step forward. "I'm unarmed."
"I— I saw." Even stammering. Fuck, this guy is either high as a kite or scared as a little kid. Either way, dangerous to have a gun. "I still can't let you in."
"No one else is with me." Jeremy tried to dredge up his hostage negotiation training. Keep him calm, don't make any sudden moves, try to build rapport. Easy. "What's your name?"
"I don't think I should tell you that."
Jeremy smiled. "Smart. Well, you already know my name, so I can just skip that part." He glanced over his shoulder briefly, making sure the police weren't moving.
"What are you doing?" the voice asked.
Jeremy snapped back to his original position and froze. "I was just making sure my friends back there don't do anything stupid." In his ear, quiet radio reports gave him an update on the incoming SWAT teams and the building in general. No change, but there was no way out of the bar. They'd even checked for sewer exits, legitimate or secret.
"We're pretty confused though. You guys haven't asked for anything. That's kind of the next step here."
"I don't know how these things are supposed to go." Everything about this voice sounded a bit off to Jeremy. It wasn't angry, or bitter, or even crazy. Scared, for sure, but it didn't fit any of the other usual profiles he'd expect for a hostage-taker. The fuck is their agenda?
"Well, you started off right. Got your building, secured it and the people inside, no weak spots. You did good there."
Jeremy was confusing him in the right way. Complimenting them would both serve to build up their relationship, and make them think they really were secure. It was true they hadn't missed an entrance, but it wasn't exactly hard for SWAT to make their own.
He took another step forward, and to his relief the voice didn't react. "But you're supposed to go to step two now, where you tell us your demands. If we don't know what you want, how are we gonna make this all go away for you?"
"I'm... not really in charge here."
Jeremy smiled again. "Well you're doin' a great job so far. But the guy in charge didn't tell you what he wants?"
"No, he did, but I can't tell you that."
This bullshit is getting old. Jeremy took another step forward. "Nothing at all?"
"Well, he's gonna want us to be let go. Just go without being charged or anything."
Don't ever say no in a negotiation. Don't say yes either, but you can't just shoot them down. One more step forward. Jeremy was almost at the door. "If nothing bad has happened in that building, then we might be able to work that into a deal. But you gotta be straight with me."
"Can you do that?"
"I outrank all the shit behind me. You've seen me on TV, right?" Might as well use this bullshit fame for something. I doubt he knows a damn thing about police hierarchy. "I'm a federal agent. That means I'm above the state level. I can make a lot of things go away in a deal, but only if you can give me something in return."
"I don't know… I don't think I was even supposed to talk to you."
"Talking's the best way out of this, trust me." Jeremy took another step. He could probably grab the door if he reached out for it, but he could also get a pile of bullets in his chest. Not the time to see if this damn vest works… "But you guys gotta be communicating back. I'm unarmed, and you outnumber me almost ten to one. If you let me in, we can start talking and find a way out of this mess."
"...I should ask them first. We're doing something important here. We can't just stop."
And make me start this whole shit over again? Fuck that. "You can't do that though."
Start bullshitting like you've never bullshitted before. "You guys don't have enough people. If you leave the door, my friends back there will try to break in. They've got tons of firepower itching to go. Military surplus shit. I don't want that, and you don't want that either. But if you just pop it open a crack and keep your guns locked and loaded, they can't move a muscle, because we all just want to go home without getting shot. Just like they're doing now, right?" Jeremy shrugged. "What am I gonna do on my own in there?"
"...I'm opening the door. Make sure they don't move."
"You got it. I'm reaching for my radio button, okay?"
"Okay. Go slowly."
Jeremy reached up to the button on his earpiece and tapped it. "I'm going in now. Stand by."
"Solid copy, standing by. Over."
The door slid open, just wide enough for Jeremy to squeeze in. The bright spotlights made it almost impossible to see anything inside beyond their view. All he could make out was the tip of the pistol owned by the voice he'd been making friends with, just barely sticking out into the light. Not taking a single chance.
The pistol waved a little, prompting him forward. Jeremy took a few steps inside, hand still raised in surrender. As soon as he'd entered, the door slammed shut and the room plunged into black.
Well, I made it in. Now what the fuck do I do?
Jeremy squinted in the darkness as his eyes started to adjust. He was curious what the owner of the voice looked like. To his vague disappointment, it was someone utterly boring. Twenty-something, plain dark jacket and jeans, clean shaven, short haircut, white. Paler than white, actually, with how nervous he looked. No identifying marks, and probably lower-middle-class. If he entered the guy into a search, Jeremy doubted he'd get a single useful result.
Despite that, the young man still had a loaded gun pointed vaguely at Jeremy's chest. His finger hovered dangerously near the trigger.
"I should take you to the guy now."
Jeremy shook his head. Keep playing the supportive guy, keep them off their guard. "If you do that, no one's guardin' the back door. You gotta stay here, right?"
"So just straight down the hall to the back room?"
"How'd you know where it was?"
Jeremy shrugged. "We downloaded a blueprint of the place when we got here. The internet's a hell of a thing."
The guy's eyes widened. "So you could just break in from anywhere?"
Come on, just let me go alone. "Maybe, but that's not gonna happen. I'm here to make sure no one gets hurt, remember?"
"Right." The guy waved him off with the gun. Jeremy winced as the barrel swung upward past his face twice. "Go, then. I'll stay here and watch."
"You got it." Jeremy turned, as uncomfortable as he was putting his back to the guy, and started down the dark hallway. There was an empty employee bathroom, door thrown wide with the lights on, and at the end of the hall were two doors on opposite sides. The left door was brightly lit, and Jeremy could make out the floor of the bar through the threshold. The right door, by process of elimination, had to be the store room where they expected the hostages to be.
There was a pool of blood on the ground between the two, and splatter all over the wall.
Jeremy kept forward, one step at a time, his hands held up high. Call out now or try to get the drop on them? I'm unarmed, but if I can get one of them, can I flip the hostage situation? Nah, they don't seem to be a tight group. They'd probably just shoot us both. Gotta go in as myself.
Jeremy took a deep breath, then bellowed down the hall. "Hey, whoever the fuck's in charge! Negotiator coming in!"
A head immediately popped out of the store room, closely followed by a sawed-off shotgun. "How the hell—"
"I'm just here to talk," Jeremy called back. He lifted his hands even higher with emphasis. "I'm totally unarmed. Your guy cleared me."
"Go back," he growled. "We're almost done here, then we'll leave. You don't need to be involved."
"Hate to break it to you, but they're getting ready to raid your asses. I'm the only dumb motherfucker standing between you and a sniper." Jeremy kept walking forward, since the shotgun apparently wasn't going off anytime soon. "Talking's the only way you're getting out of here in one piece."
"Look, Agent Ashe. We're on the same damn side. So just shut up and let us finish, and everyone goes home happy." As soon as Jeremy was within a few steps of the doors, the man raised the shotgun threateningly. Jeremy froze in place. "No negotiation."
On the same side? Sides of what? "This isn't the way to play this."
"I know what I'm doing. We know what we're doing." Had to remember to say 'we'. This really isn't a unified group. The man jerked his head in the direction of the bar area. "Go in there and sit down. We're done talking."
I'm losing him. "Talk to me, if we're on the same side. Maybe I can help you out."
He shook his head. "Done talking."
"But what if—"
The man fired the shotgun directly into the ceiling, sending a shower of dust and debris through the room. Jeremy's ears were ringing, but he could still make out the screams from inside the store room. "Done talking!" the man shouted.
Goddamnit. Jeremy reluctantly kept walking and entered the bar area. Terrified hostages and their uncertain guards awaited, all watching the doorway and wondering what the latest gunshot meant.
"This is the last goddamn distraction!" the man shouted, turning back to the store room. Jeremy wished he could look inside and figure out what was going on, but there were too many guns ready to go. Every man he'd encountered so far had been willing to fire.
I can't just give up now. These guys know something I don't. Why are they here?
Jeremy glanced around the bar. None of the gunmen seemed to care where he sat, but they were getting antsy. No one was talking, so they'd probably been instructed not to. Jeremy couldn't hope to get information out of another hostage. Shit, I'm a hostage now too, aren't I? This went well. Lani, why weren't you here to talk me out of this shitty plan?
"Hey, A— —she."
Jeremy's ears perked up. It sounded like someone was whispering right next to him. He could feel the vague tickle of air on the curves of his ear, and their voice lacked any tone or substance. But no one was anywhere near him.
"C— you he— m—"
Jeremy slowly rotated his head, looking around the room. No one else had noticed. His radio had stopped working a few minutes ago, presumably blocked by whatever jammer the men were employing. The hostages were mostly looking down at their respective tables, too terrified to move, and none of the gunmen seemed more alert than usual. Am I finally cracking?
"—on, this has gotta work."
It came through more clearly. A vaguely feminine voice, though it was hard to tell from only a whisper. Jeremy quickly glanced over only the female hostages, and he caught it. A college girl, with short brown hair and thin-rimmed glasses, sitting at the far corner booth with a gunman a few feet away.
Her lips had just moved.
Jeremy started making his way over to her, but she very slowly shook her head slightly in place. The man watching her didn't seem to notice.
"If you can hear me, take a booth where you can see me. Nowhere nearby, and make sure they won't notice your mouth moving."
Fuck it. Who knows what's going on anymore? Jeremy sat down at the nearest bench where he could clearly see the girl, but her dedicated man wouldn't have an angle on him.
"God, finally. Sorry about that. It took me a second to figure out how to make it flow around the room."
Jeremy raised his eyebrows as high as he could, but the girl seemed only to be casually glancing around the room. She wasn't actually looking at him.
"If you're talking, hang on a sec. I need to make it two-directional." Well why the fuck didn't you say so before?
Wait. Make what two directional?
"Okay, try saying something. As quiet as you can."
Jeremy had no clue what she was expecting to happen. They were halfway across the bar from each other, and it wasn't exactly silent in there. A couple of the gunmen were talking, and they could still hear the shouts of the leader in the store room. Not to mention the sirens and general chatter of the anxious cops surrounding the structure.
"Something," Jeremy whispered, so low he could barely hear it himself.
Immediately, he could hear her frustrated whisper in his ears again. "Not perfect yet. Gotta try something else. Can you say a bit more? Longer sentences."
Jeremy sighed. "What the fuck is going on in this stupid-ass town? I fuckin' hate Tacoma."
The girl laughed, although it sounded more like a loud exhale without any tone to her voice. "Everybody hates Tacoma, man."
Jeremy nearly fell out of his chair in shock.
"Stay cool, Agent Ashe," she said quickly. "Don't wanna give it away to our friends with the guns."
"How the fuck can you hear me?"
She winced. "A little quieter, please. That sounded like a stage whisper."
"You're across the goddamn room!"
"Yeah, but I'm carrying your voice. Also mine, and getting all those sound waves to bounce around the room is hard enough without trying to change their volume. I've never done this before." She shrugged. Jeremy wished he could see her face more clearly. Who the fuck is this girl?
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look, I'd love to play twenty questions with you, but we really don't have time." She tilted her head slightly at the doorway. "You saw the blood, right?"
"They killed one of us already. They're gonna find my friend in there sooner or later, and they're gonna shoot him too."
Who the hell is 'us'? Why are they shooting them? Who are you? "Why?"
She slowly shook her head one side to the other. "Not the time for that."
Fuck you. "Fuck you."
Her face fell. "You seemed like a smart guy on TV. I'm really underwhelmed. I need your help, okay? I can't get back into that room. They won't fall for my dumb pretty girl act again. I can beat them if I can get the drop on 'em."
Boris Morozov popped into Jeremy's head. Their encounter in the woods, where Lani had been shot, warning of impossibly strong individuals lurking amongst them. Is this girl what he was talking about?
She's not wrong. They're probably going to kill more people given the chance, if they already started. I've gotta do something about that. But fuck if I'm gonna let her leave without getting something out of her.
Build up empathy. "I met Boris and Dan in Canada," he started.
"Yeah, no kidding. I watch the news. You started a manhunt for them." Her face moved slightly, but Jeremy couldn't tell what she was doing from so far away. The gunman standing by her table glanced at her, but—seeing nothing out of the ordinary—looked away again. "You made our lives a hell of a lot more difficult."
"I'm not answering that."
Work with me, goddammit. I don't think we're supposed to be enemies. A young woman walked through the doorway from the store room. She made a beeline for a guy Jeremy assumed was her boyfriend with a tearful reunion. They sat huddled together at their table, while the gunmen shifted around uneasily. "These guys don't want to be doing this. This isn't at random, and most of these people don't matter. They're hunting you and your friends. Am I wrong?"
"And I'm here to stop them. So we're on the same fuckin' side."
"In this building, sure. What about tomorrow?"
"I can't see the future, can you?"
"Not yet." The girl glanced up at her personal guard, who was checking his watch. "They keep checking the time. They've got a schedule. It takes them a couple minutes to check every person before they send them through."
"And they don't even know each other, do they?"
"I haven't heard a single one of them use their name. The motherfucker at the door didn't know the plan and was stupid enough to let me in. This is not a coordinated fuckin' group."
"They're coordinated enough." She glanced at the doorway with a worried expression, and if Jeremy could make it out from this far away, it must be bad. "I don't think they're gonna shoot anyone else though. Just us."
"You wanna bet all our lives on that?"
"I have to bet my life every day I step outside."
Holy shit that was bitter. "Girl, you don't have to tell me that twice. But we're not the only two fucks in this mess."
"Look, Mr. Ashe," she started, her voice getting a bit more harsh—and a bit louder. Jeremy felt weird that she was still trying to be polite despite everything. If ever there was a time to drop fuckin' formalities… "I'm on a clock here. As soon as they get to my friend, they're going to shoot him. I can't stall them anymore, so it's up to you. If you've got a brilliant idea to take them out, now's the time. If not, can I please beg you to just keep them busy long enough?"
"...Long enough for what?"
"For my backup."
Well that's ominous as shit. Jeremy decided to go for a hail mary, hoping beyond hope it might convince her to trust him. "Jackie?"
"...No? Wait, how do you know Jackie?"
"Long-ass story. She used to be my partner. Boris told me she's still kickin'." He paused. "I'm trying to find her. I don't care about anything else."
The girl hesitated. "We don't know where she is."
Fucking hell. "Can you get her a message?"
"...I can try."
"I'll do anything you want, if you can tell her to call me."
She nodded slowly. Another person walked through the doorway from the storeroom, reminding them both of the ticking clock. Jeremy tensed up, wondering what he'd just promised. "Do you think you can get one of their guns?"
Jeremy shook his head. "I'm not killing anyone. Not unless they shoot first."
"They already killed Harold!"
"And if I open fire, this shit becomes a bloodbath. It's still nine against one."
"One. You're a civilian."
"I'm less of a civilian than you are. I can take 'em."
Fuck me, I'm beginning to like this girl. "I need them alive so I can figure out what the fuck's going on."
"...You said you'd do absolutely anything."
"If you tell me to, but this is a bad idea."
"So give me something better!"
"You said you've got backup coming, right? Where from?" The girl hesitated. Jeremy didn't bother to wait for her to answer and filled in the gaps. "Rallsburg, right?"
God-fucking-dammit, I need to talk to her. Not these ass-clowns. "Called them right away?"
"How long til they get here?"
"Girl, if you don't give me anything to work with—"
"I don't know how fast they can move. It's fast, though."
Fast like they've got a fast car? Or something else? "Can we assume it's within the next ten minutes?"
"Maybe? I don't think my friend has that long."
"So we're back to stalling." Jeremy scratched his chin. "What if—"
"Crap. We're out of time." Another person stumbled in from the store room as she spoke.
"There's only one person left."
"You can hear him too?"
"Plan B time. Put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Ashe."
"What do I do?"
"Distract the guy next to me long enough for me to make my move. After that, get to the other room and don't let them kill anyone."
"How the hell is this gonna—"
Jeremy had no reason to trust her, and plenty of reasons not to. As best he could tell, she was the closest he'd ever come to figuring out what happened to Rallsburg. Everything about her screamed suspicious. He wanted to sit her down in an interrogation room and keep her there until he felt satisfied.
On the other hand, she sounded a lot more confident than he did. Her self-assuredness was infectious. Jeremy made a split-second decision to do as she asked. She'd made him a promise, and he had to pray she kept it.
Unless I can just catch her with the army I've got outside. That's always an option.
Jeremy stood up suddenly, catching the eye of the gunman next to the girl's table. He strode confidently at the man. "Hey."
"Go back," he grunted.
"I was hopin' you had a light?" Haven't smoked in twenty years. "Trying to calm my fuckin' nerves here."
"Look, man..." he started, turning away from the girl's table. His gun followed, leaving her wide open. Jeremy tensed up, ready to dodge out of the way. He expected her to blindside the man, leaving Jeremy free to snatch up his weapon. From there, he'd have to dive into the nearest booth to take cover.
Girl's gonna get me shot.
The girl's hand flew out. Her lips moved, but Jeremy couldn't hear her anymore. A handful of light grey dust flew out of her hand. It dissipated into the air, vanishing from his sight in an instant.
A thick cloud billowed into existence. Jeremy would have sworn it was from a smoke grenade, except that it apparently came out of nowhere, and deployed way faster. White smoke poured into the bar, without the expectant hiss—or any sound at all really. It may as well have been a thick fog bank that rolled in. In fact, Jeremy could feel sudden moisture in the air. He was pretty sure it was a fog bank.
Jeremy dove to the side and landed heavily on the nearest bench. He twisted around to get eyes on the gunman. The girl darted out from her seat and plowed into him. She slugged him in the chest with a single fist. With the weight difference between the two and the strength of the punch, he should have felt it for sure, but he wasn't going anywhere.
The gunman flew backward ten feet though the air into the nearest wall. He crumpled to the ground, wheezing. His gun clattered to the floor.
"Shit!" Jeremy gasped.
Gunshots rang out, pouring into the fog. Jeremy stayed in cover, as bullets snapped by and cracked into the wall. They're fucking blind firing!
A hazy shape moved through the fog, up near the ceiling. The bullets were all whizzing low, where they expected her to duck or take cover. The fog doubled over in density. Jeremy's world became almost pure white. He could barely make out anything more than a foot or two away from him.
More gunshots, interspersed with the clicking sound of an empty gun. A thump and a crash. Men were groaning in pain. A hostage was screaming.
"Ashe? Ashe, what the fuck is going on?"
Apparently the jammer had been broken or turned off somehow. Jeremy fumbled for his radio key. "Stand by," he coughed, feeling a pain in his chest from how he'd landed.
"Fuck that!" cried the lieutenant. "We've gotta get in there!"
And fuck up my only lead! "Stand the fuck by!"
The gunfire cracking by his booth had stopped. Jeremy rolled off the bench and stumbled to his feet. The fog was dissipating, blown away by the bar's ventilation little by little. As it cleared away, Jeremy saw gunmen scattered against the walls. Several had arms twisted completely around, clearly broken. The actual guns had been thrown to the far wall, gathered in a pile well out of reach of anyone.
The girl was standing at the doorway, panting. Across from her stood the leader with the shotgun, an old man held tight as a human shield.
"It's over, bitch," he growled.
Jeremy started to move toward them, while the leader's attention was entirely on the girl.
"You guys want to die out here?" she asked him.
"If we take you out, yeah. That's worth it."
Jeremy only had a few moments left of the half-fog cover. He barreled down the bar. Come on, girl. Take this opportunity. Don't you dare let me get shot.
The leader fell for it. He glanced at Jeremy for just a moment, his shotgun moving for just an instant.
The girl sprang forward. She didn't have any sort of technique. No fighting style whatsoever. She just leapt and put her fist straight into the guy's face.
He flipped over backward, groaning in pain. His nose exploded in a pool of blood. The hostage fell away and ran for the far end of the bar.
The girl didn't waste any time, sprinting into the back room. Gunfire echoed out, but Jeremy doubted any of them managed to hit her.
A moment later, he had to dodge out of the way as a bundle of guns flew by, landing near the first pile. Jeremy bolted across the room to pick one up, while the erstwhile hostages gawked at him. Or they're just gawking at the girl who just flew across the fucking room and took out eight guys with guns on her own.
What the hell did I get myself into?
"Is that it?" asked a shaky voice. A young guy, just inside the store room. The girl helped him walk out, carefully stepping over the guy she'd just dropped onto the floor, currently soaking up the pool of blood.
"Yeah, that's all of them," she answered, patting him on the shoulder. Their quiet footsteps were suddenly the only sound through the entire bar, while everyone left watched them walk through the place. "Come on." She glanced up at Jeremy. "That's it, right?"
Jeremy glanced around. "How the hell did you do that?"
She shook her head. "Not here."
We won, damnit. No one even got hurt. Answer me. "What about—"
A gunshot pierced the silence. The girl and her friend fell to the ground, followed by Jeremy a split-second later. A few more shots followed, all going wide. He awkwardly raised the gun from where he'd dropped and fired.
Jeremy got him twice in the chest from only a few feet away. The ninth man, who'd come to investigate after hearing the fight from the back door, dropped dead.
"Zack? Zack, come on!"
Jeremy glanced over, expecting the worst, but to his surprise the guy looked totally fine. A faint trail of smoke drifted up into the air near the kid, issuing from a completely flattened bullet on the ground near him. Nothing had struck him. Zack looked shell-shocked, but unharmed.
The same couldn't be said for the old man who'd so recently been a human shield. He'd taken one to the face and was slumped back against the wall. The girl spotted him, and her face fell.
"Nothing you could do," Jeremy grunted. He walked over to the nearest gunman and knelt down, checking for a pulse. The guy was still alive. "I'm going to call in the troops now."
"These guys aren't going to stay down forever. It's gotta be now."
"Let us get out of here first."
He laughed. "Girl, this place is fucking surrounded. You're not getting out of here."
"How am I gonna get your message to Jackie then?" she whispered, though Jeremy heard it plain as day.
"She saved us," murmured a woman behind Jeremy.
"Let her go."
"She didn't do anything..."
Fucking hell. Popular support. The girl glanced around at the people slowly rising to their feet. She adjusted her glasses, which had fallen askew in the fight. "Let me go," she repeated firmly.
Jeremy didn't get a chance to decide. The radio in his earpiece squawked out a panicked "Incoming!"
The front door of the building exploded.
Jeremy struggled to his feet. He'd managed to hang onto the gun from the force of the shockwave. The girl was also back on her feet, pale-faced and looking worried. If that girl's worried… shit.
Her friend Zack looked like he'd given up on standing. He started crawling for the back as fast as he could, refusing to look over his shoulder for any reason. As Jeremy looked up at the front door, blinking away dust and grit, he saw it.
A seven foot tall, blank-faced human-like thing. It seemed to be made of asphalt and concrete, without a head or anything resembling legs. It had torn the front off the building. As Jeremy stared, his mind simply not comprehending what he was looking at, the monster slid over the threshold, plowing debris out of the way like it was nothing.
"What the fuck is that thing?"
"Just don't get near it!" the girl shouted, backing up a few steps. She turned and grabbed the nearest table by the edges. With a grunt and a heave, the girl tore the slab of wood clean off of its steel foundation.
Jeremy gawked at her. The girl couldn't be more than a hundred and thirty pounds. She had muscle, sure, but this was ridiculous.
She hurled the table straight at the monster. It struck directly in the center with a sickening crunch. The impact drove it back a dozen feet through shards of glass and wood splinters, straight outside and into the street.
"Get everyone out through the back, now!" she shouted. Jeremy didn't need to be told twice.
He thumbed his radio. "We're bringing the hostages out the back right now. Hold fire."
"Copy that, holding fire. Over."
"Ashe, what the fuck is that thing?" screamed the lieutenant.
"Get off the net, you ass-wipe motherfucker!" Jeremy snapped.
The monster was slowly making its way back inside. Jeremy ran and grabbed the person nearest the door, who'd frozen in terror. After a few moments' attempt to shock her to her senses, he gave in and lifted her. Thank god she's light. Carrying the woman on her shoulders, Jeremy bolted for the back door, while the girl stood her ground in the center with another table at the ready.
A drumline of gunfire echoed from the front door, peppering the monster from behind. Most of the bullets simply struck it and fell down to the ground, if they didn't ricochet off at terrifying angles. Jeremy clicked his radio back on awkwardly with one hand, trying desperately to hang onto the woman he was carrying at the same time. "Stop fucking shooting it! You aren't doing anything!"
The gunfire continued heedless. Motherfucking amateur Tacoma P.D... Jeremy made it to the back door, where a few of the other former hostages took the woman off his hands. He shouted a thank you as he turned around and went back to the main room.
He returned just in time to see the girl slam the monster with another table, driving it back once again. "Can you kill that thing?"
"No!" she shouted over the continuing gunfire. She was staying well out of the direct line of fire, just in case, but they both winced as another bullet bounced off and struck a bar stool. "Can you get those idiots to stop shooting?"
"Is everyone out?"
"Then screw it! Let's bail!"
The girl reached down and scooped up her friend with one arm, as easy as if she were lifting up a feather. Jeremy wasn't even surprised anymore. As the monster relentlessly pursued them through the bar, they sprinted for the back, leaping over the groaning would-be gunmen still laying about the place. As the impromptu trio made it out the backdoor, they emerged into chaos.
Another one of the monsters was in the middle of the barricade the police had set up. Unlike the first one, it didn't seem to be attacking anyone in particular. In fact, it was going out of its way to avoid hurting the many, many cops firing their guns pointlessly at it. Jeremy wondered why they'd even bothered to shoot it in the first place, until it reached the nearest car in its line.
The monster picked up the car like it were a toy in its two blocky hands. Without a single sign of strain, it launched the cruiser into the air, sending it flying off into the distance. It crashed down into an empty stretch of road.
"What are they doing?" Jeremy asked the girl, leaning close and shouting to be heard over the rapid staccato of gunshots.
"Making an escape route, I think."
"For them," she shouted back, nodding back at the bar. "I don't think he knows we won in there."
"Who the fuck is he?"
"Sorry. I'm taking my chance here while no one's looking." She shot him an apologetic look. "See you around."
She reached over and grabbed her friend in a tight bear hug. Jeremy started to move, but she coiled her legs and jumped. His eyes widened as she bounded a good fifteen feet into the air, no problem.
Jeremy watched in bemused dismay as his one good lead literally flew out of his hands.
I give up.
A second later, his eyes widened even further. They were flailing around in midair, and not in a good way.
Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.
They were coming back down. Jeremy sprinted to where they were falling. He dove, managing to catch them just before they landed. The girl shouted out in frustration as they collapsed in a painful heap.
She rolled off him with a groan. After pulling herself together and getting back up to a sitting position, she coughed out a sentence. "Well... that... didn't work."
The gunfire was finally slowing, as more officers realized they couldn't do a thing to the monsters. They continued to stroll through the barricades, clearing them away while avoiding the men entirely. Jeremy reached out a hand and helped the girl back to her feet. From where they'd landed, they stood in the shadows of the alley.
No one was likely to see them unless they came back into the bar, and with the still-active monster between them and the police, no one was coming through any time soon. Jeremy was panting from all the running and carrying. The girl seemed even more exhausted than he was. They both took a moment to recover in the relative safety of the shadowy alleyway.
"What… the fuck… is going on?" he panted.
"I'm more tired than I thought I was." The girl opened her bag and started digging through it. "Oh god, I forgot to pack it."
"I mean all of this!" Jeremy growled, gesturing back out at the street where the monster was throwing another empty car through the air. The police were forming a wide circle around it, but no one seemed to have any idea what to do about it yet. Jeremy half-expected the national guard to show up at any moment.
"Someone wants to kill me, and all my friends, and they're willing to do a lot to get us." She rolled her shoulders, squinting from the strain. "I think I pulled my wing. Can an imaginary wing muscle be pulled?"
"I'm gonna be honest, I'm really trying not to think about what just happened," she continued, as if he hadn't asked. "I've never hurt someone before. Not like that. I don't know what I'm doing."
Jeremy realized, finally, how young she was. She was probably just out of college, if that. He'd been under fire before. He'd been in fights, both as part of his career or just at random. She had no clue how to deal with the aftermath.
"You're doing a hell of a lot better than I did," he answered, trying to sound comforting.
She shook her head. "I couldn't have gotten us out without you."
"No, I mean my first time gettin' shot at. I was fucking terrified. Couldn't move a fuckin' muscle."
"Oh." She frowned. "You mean back when you were in the Seattle police?"
"Christ, everyone knows my story now don't they?"
"Perks of being famous." She sounds like she's speaking from experience.
"...Who are you?"
She hesitated. "Were you really Jackie's partner? We didn't see anything about that when we researched you."
"Why were you lookin' me up?"
"You're the guy in charge of investigating us, of course we're gonna look you up."
Well there it is. Confirmation. "Tell me what happened there."
"I mean, if you don't have a pretty good idea by now, I'm disappointed in you." She gestured out at the monster in the street. It had now completely cleared a path to the bar. A second monster emerged from somewhere down the street, joining the first. They moved to block a path to the bar and stopped, staring down the terrified cops with blank faces.
Seeing no further movement, the gathered officers started resuming normal activity. Except for the faint chatter, the constant squawking on Jeremy's radio, and the sound of vehicles squealing around, the scene was surprisingly quiet. The hostages were loaded into ambulances and quickly evacuated. None of the officers seemed to be willing to approach the bar yet, with the monsters standing guard, so Jeremy and the girl were yet undiscovered.
"Those things are what killed everyone?" Jeremy asked.
"Not exactly, but close enough." She shrugged.
Her friend groaned. Zack, if Jeremy remembered right. He crawled to the wall and collapsed against it, curling up into the fetal position. "Shit," he murmured.
"Hey, Zack?" the girl whispered. He didn't answer, shivering in place.
"He's in shock," said Jeremy. "He's gonna need some time."
"We don't have time though."
"Well, whatever the hell was going on out there seems to be done."
"They're just waiting for their backup, same as me."
Jeremy looked at her sharply. He'd forgotten she'd called in backup. "What happens then?"
She gave him a weak smile. "Nothing good."
The smile gave her away. She could change her hair and her face as much as she liked, but the structure underneath didn't change. He'd seen that smile hundreds of times, among the thousands of photos they'd pored over for the case. "Hailey Winscombe."
She sighed. "It's about time."
"So if you're from Rallsburg, and your backup's coming from Rallsburg… is everyone left on our list still alive?"
"I dunno. Who's on your list?"
Jeremy got to his feet. "I can't let you leave."
Hailey shrugged. "You couldn't actually stop me."
"You want to fucking go?"
"Dude, I just beat up a seven foot golem with a table, then flew into the air right in front of you. Take a hint. You're out of your league."
"You can run, but he can't," Jeremy said, tilting his head at Zack. "He's not going anywhere any time soon."
Hailey was getting angry. "Why won't you people just learn already? Stop trying to force us into this crap."
"This isn't the first time someone's tried to use Zack as leverage. You wanna know what happened last time?" Her eyes flashed with fury. "A whole town got wiped off the map." She leaned over and shook her friend. "Zack, come on."
"No. Not again," he groaned.
"Zack, we gotta go. Now."
"Where is she?" Jeremy asked. His hand hovered near the pistol he'd grabbed up, holstered and ready. He didn't dare grab it yet, but he was ready to at a moment's notice.
"I told you, I don't know." Zack was coming back to his senses as Hailey helped him to his feet. "I'm sorry."
Jeremy took a step toward her. Hailey shook her head apologetically. She whispered something he couldn't hear.
They both vanished into thin air. Jeremy was looking at nothing but the concrete wall of the alleyway. He dove forward, reaching out desperately, but found nothing at all.
They were gone.
Squealing tires brought him to his senses. He looked up, half-expecting to see Hailey and Zack on the back of a truck or something, but it was quite different. A truck was barreling down the road at him. More precisely, at the two golems blocking the road to reach the back door. Officers dove out of the way as it sped through, and at the last possible moment the golems slid to either side to let it past. The moment it crossed the line, they reformed, blocking out the officers once more and leaving Jeremy alone with the truck.
Jeremy watched dumbstruck as the gunmen emerged from the bar and piled into the back. He half-heartedly lifted his stolen pistol, considering taking a shot from the shadows. What's the point? There's too many of them, and I need them alive. They'd just get away with one more wounded. As the last one got into the truck, Jeremy realized his opportunity. He lowered his aim for the rear tires.
The ground surged upward in front of him. A monster, another golem, was growing directly out of the pavement. It emerged as if the ground were being stretched out to create it, though the surface beneath was left unaffected. Just as Jeremy pulled the trigger, the golem solidified to block the bullet. Similarly, another golem had blocked a gunshot from the front, as a sniper on the police line had a similar idea.
The truck gunned its engine and took off. The golem in front melted, crumbling into dust in a second as the truck blew through. A few remaining intact cruisers squealed away after it, but it was futile. As soon as any vehicle began to close the gap, a golem would emerge underneath it, either grinding the car to a halt or sending it careening off to the side of the street. The truck turned a corner, without a single car pursuing it, and vanished into the night.
Jeremy fell down against the wall. He dropped the gun on the ground and rubbed at his eyes, letting out a deep breath.
Now what the fuck do I do?
"Good morning. It's Saturday, October 27th, and this is the news. Three dead at the scene of a horrific standoff last night between the Tacoma police department and an unnamed group of armed men—"
"Three dead!" Aderholt growled, pausing the video. "Three motherfucking dead, you asshole. What the fuck were you doing there last night?"
Trying to find some answers. "My job, sir."
"Like fuck you were." Aderholt jumped ahead in the video.
"Heavy criticism was leveled at Special Agent Jeremy Ashe, who arrived at the bar minutes after the first call and subsequently took command. Against the advice of the ranking officer at the scene and breaking protocol, Ashe entered the building as the negotiator."
He paused it again. "You're not a fucking hostage negotiator."
"I've been trained, sir."
"Like twenty fucking years ago? Fuck you, Ashe. And what the fuck was this?" He jumped ahead again.
"Was this related to the Rallsburg investigation in any way?"
"No. I just happened to be in the area."
"Do you have any comment on the video of Hailey Winscombe from this area? Are the two connected?"
"That video was determined to be a fake. Miss Winscombe is still believed to be deceased."
"Why did you take over for the trained police negotiator?"
"One of the hostages had already died before I entered the building. I felt the situation would continue to escalate and that we could not wait for further support."
Aderholt paused it again. "That was not your fucking call to make. You should have waited. Your blank check doesn't cover jumping in on every random crime you feel like, Ashe."
Just doing what you told me to do, jackass. "If I hadn't gone in, I'm fairly certain the rest of the hostages would have been killed, sir."
"Still not your call. You've given me a shit-ton of paperwork."
"Sir, if I may ask—"
"You may not, you ass-fuck, but I know you're going to anyway."
Again, my fucking job. Jeremy shrugged. "What have we learned about the golems?"
"The what now?"
"The monsters, sir."
Aderholt shook his head. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
"I'm sure you must have a dozen reports from the officers on the scene, in addition to my own."
"Look, I read those fucking looney-bin reports from the Tacoma P.D. Giant fucking road monsters. But all you've got to back it up is a few shaky dash cams of cars getting rolled over, not to mention the cameras that were straight up destroyed. No one got hurt. The only deaths were gunshots we can trace back to the terrorists. No other witnesses, no evidence. I'm calling mass fucking hysteria."
"Do I seem crazy to you, sir?"
"Yes, you goddamned motherfucking asshole shitstain. You seem crazy to me. We just went over that. That's why I'm fucking sidelining you."
Goddammit. Not now. "Sir?"
"I can't fire you, and I can't put you on leave or suspend you, as much as I'd fucking love to. But I can take you off this case, and you bet your worthless ass I'm pulling you. You're going to sit in your office and stay there. You come in at nine, you leave at five, and you do not move an inch outside this building without clearing it with me first. Do you have that down, or do I need to ram it so far up your ass it reaches your tiny brain?"
Come here and try it. "Yes sir."
"Dismissed." Aderholt turned back to his monitor, still fuming.
Jeremy immediately went back to his office. Lani's desk still sat dishearteningly empty. As soon as five o'clock rolled around, he'd go visit his partner and fill him in on the whole debacle. Jeremy leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.
A phone buzzed in his jacket pocket.
Jeremy sat up with a start. His phone was sitting on his desk in front of him. Not in his jacket, which hung off his chair back. He'd taken that jacket off last night, after dragging himself in from Tacoma in the middle of the night to write up his report before going home to sleep.
Gingerly, he reached into the side pocket. There was a small, cheap burner phone in it. He flipped it open.
360-555-9926: Thanks for what you said about me. I passed on your message. No promises.