Twelve Years Ago
“One,” Gains whispered. Inhale. Exhale. The muzzle of his Glock glinted six inches from his face. A bead of sweat dropped into his eye. He blinked it away, watching the wall opposite him as bullets from the intersecting corridor pelted the surface.
“Two.” Inhale. Exhale. The drone of the alarm blaring from every school speaker compressed his eardrums, almost as much as the concussion of the offending gun. He turned his head to the right and made eye contact with his partner, Agent Stevens. Gains flicked two fingers. His gray-haired partner nodded.
“Three.” Gains took two giant steps into the center of the hall, turned and extended his gun back to the corner where he had been standing.
Inch. He moved a little, revealing more of the hall beyond.
Inch. Gunfire. A bullet struck the fully exposed wall next to him…only feet away.
Inch. A little more.
Gunfire. Another bullet.
Inch. The alarm. The sweat.
A man in a silver and black mask crouched near the exit. Gains sighted him down.
The wall exploded inches from Gains’s face. He flinched. Squeezed. The shot went wild.
On his knees, Stevens thrust his gun around the corner. He sent several blind shots down the corridor, as Gains tried to line the masked man up again. The man slid around into an adjacent hall before Gains could discharge another round.
He ground his teeth. “Let’s go.”
Gun still extended, he rushed down the hall. He leaned his back to the wall opposite the connecting hall, just out of line of sight. Stevens did the same on the opposite side, repeating the same thing they had just done. Training. Stick to the training. Gains began inching around, watching his sights for the man in the mask.
Before he could maneuver far enough to see the end of the corridor, something rolled into view. Something round and black.
Gains’s heart clenched. “Down!”
He dove away, scrambling back the way he had come. His partner hustled at his side.
Fire and thunder consumed the hall around the corner where they had been. Mortar and debris flew through the air. The lights flickered overhead and ceiling tile fell. The shockwave compressed his head for only a moment before relenting back to the drone of the bell tone and the pattering of debris.
Gains looked back at the cloud of dust, no longer able to see the joining corridor.
Something slammed. A door.
“Come on!” Gains shouted. “He’s getting away.”
With gun at the ready, Gains plunged through the debris and dust. Stevens followed close behind and two steps to the side. The debris cleared midway down the hall, and they sprinted to the end where steel double doors waited. Gains leaned against the wall near one door. Stevens on the other side. They paused. Gains tilted his head closer to the door. Listening.
Scuffling and shouts echoed through the door. Gunshot.
Gains leaned against the push bar and swung out his gun as the door opened. Bullets spattered the building and the door. Gains dropped to his knees. The man in the mask fled, firing blindly behind him. Gains steeled himself and lined him up, ignoring the random gunfire. And squeezed.
The man collapsed.
Gains leaped up, Glock stretched out, and ran toward the fallen monster.
An arm moved.
Gains jumped to the ground and rolled, keeping his eyes on the target. The man stood to run again. Gains rose to one knee. Easy kill.
He pushed away his partner’s voice and took a deep breath. His finger twitched against the trigger.
The urgency in his partner’s voice made him turn his head as his gun remained stationary. Stevens knelt next to a man lying face down.
“Bevaldi,” said Stevens.
Gains swore and turned back to the man in the mask. Gone.
“He’s still alive, Markus.”
Gains went to his partner’s side. Bevaldi’s back was saturated with blood. “Stay with him,” Gains said.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Lots of sirens.
“Where are you going?” asked Stevens.
“To finish this.” Gains lifted the Glock to his shoulder and ran forward.
The land sloped to a small ravine with a flowing stream snaking across the bottom. Gains bent his knees for balance and slid down the loose scree. Tight shrubs guarded the water below, and Gains carefully crawled through them. Blood on the ground marked the masked man’s trail.
On the other side of the shrubs, he glanced in both directions, leading with his Glock. Clear. The stream was a mere trickle, but the impressions of boots were easily recognizable.
He pointed his Glock in the direction of the trail, and walked. Quickly. Gains panned his gun over the brush and strained his ears for the smallest sound beyond that of his own rolled footsteps and the gurgling water.
A crackle in the bushes. Gains swung the gun around and held his breath. A moment later, a bird chirped and flew away. He brought the gun back around and continued. After a hundred yards or so, broken branches, skid marks in the dirt, and drops of muddy blood indicated the man’s exit from the ravine. Gains followed through the underbrush, muscles coiled and senses engaged.
On the other side, boot prints ended where asphalt began. Gains swore again. His phone vibrated and he snatched it from his belt.
“You need to come back.” Agent Stevens’s voice was grave.
“Coming.” Gains returned the phone to his belt and looked again at the road. He hated losing. He wanted to roar and toss his gun in frustration. Instead, he holstered it and turned back to the ravine.
When Gains reached the school again, men in SWAT uniforms with riot guns secured the area. A pair of paramedics worked over Bevaldi. Gains shook his head. The idiot. He should have listened.
Agent Stevens stood near the exit door with another man.
Gains went to them. “He’s in a car. Have the road blocks been set up like I instructed?”
The other man answered. “Yes. Every road in a mile radius of the school and every major thoroughfare in a five mile radius.”
“Gains, this is Detective McKenzie,” said Stevens.
Gains nodded. “You’re too late.”
“Markus,” said Agent Stevens. “So were we.” The older man’s countenance fell with more wrinkles than normal.
Gains felt a gnawing in his stomach. He looked one more time at Bevaldi lying beneath the frantic work of paramedics, and sighed. He turned back to his partner. Stevens shook his head and then motioned toward the building.
“There’s more, Markus. Inside.”
“Bevaldi was wrong. We were late.”
Gains suppressed his boiling frustration and allowed Stevens to lead him back into the building.
Inside, he noticed the details of the hall for the first time. White and brown—like any other school, with latex ceiling panels and laminate square floors. Colorful bulletin boards hung beside each door, displaying the students’ latest achievements. An elementary school.
The gnawing grew.
Beyond the explosion debris and where the chase had begun, bloody footprints and smears painted the floor like wayward strokes of a brush. Agent Stevens and Detective McKenzie followed these, leading Agent Gains around another corner and through an adjacent hall. As they walked, the bloody footprints darkened and become more defined, less hurried.
Even without seeing the end of the trail, Gains knew where the footprints led. A door near the end of that hall was flanked by at least half a dozen SWAT and several other men, whom Gains took to be more detectives. The detectives watched them approach. One of them spoke, but Gains didn’t listen…something about waiting for CSU. Gains pushed past them all.
Five bodies lay strewn throughout the room. One was an adult…the teacher. Shot in the back and lying in a puddle of blood.
The other four bodies were in their own dark pools of blood. Tiny hands and faces, pale and lifeless. Gains clenched his teeth and fists…shaking all over, unable to control the boiling within any longer.
Seconds. If only they had come seconds earlier. That’s all it would have taken. Seconds lost. Seconds hesitated. And they had been too late.
A touch on the shoulder. Gains flinched, turning the hatred of his glare onto his partner.
“There’s a survivor,” Stevens said. His old face void of its usual hardness.
Gains allowed the edge to fade away. “Where?”
Detective McKenzie stepped forward. “She’s at the principal’s office. I’ll take you.”
He led Gains and Stevens toward the central area of the school. A set of double glass doors indicated the main entrance. Outside, police cars flashed their bright lights, beyond which Gains could see a crowd of students huddled in a parking lot.
Near the entrance were the glass windows of the school’s reception area. Several police officers stood beside the door. Beyond the reception area was an office near the back. The office door had a glass panel, through which Gains could see a man and a woman seated next to a little girl.
“The principal and the superintendent,” said Detective McKenzie.
The girl had a soft face, sallow and smeared red with dried blood. Her dirty blonde hair matted crimson, and her clothes were saturated to the point of almost being black. She stared at the floor with wide eyes, her lips clenched tight. Her entire body trembled as if the temperature were below freezing.
All of Gains’ anger melted away, leaving a pulsing sense of despair in its wake. “Is she hurt?”
“That’s what is so odd,” said McKenzie. “She’s not injured at all. Paramedics checked her from head to toe.”
“Why is she still in here?”
“With the school secured, we thought it best to keep her isolated, so as not to risk the other children seeing her.”
Gains looked out the nearest window to the children gathered outside. Some screamed and cried. Some just stared around in shock. A few played chase. The teachers all looked like frightened deer.
He turned back. “How old is she?”
“Where are her parents?” asked Stevens.
“Dead,” said McKenzie. “A call from a neighbor came in just before you called. Said she saw both cars still at home and went to go check on them, to see if they were sick. When there was no answer she peeked in a window and saw them on the floor. Looks like they were shot earlier this morning. Murdered just like the class. MO is the same and we’re pretty sure it was the same killer. Ballistics will verify it later this week.”
Stevens and Gains exchanged nervous looks.
“We think,” McKenzie continued, “that the gunman was looking for her.” He nodded his head in the direction of the little girl.
Gains pressed his lips together and nodded to his partner.
McKenzie tilted his head. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“I’m sorry. But that information is classified.”
“Is this about that nut-job Bevaldi?” asked McKenzie.
Gains glared at him. “Next of kin?”
“We’re working on that. It may take some time though. In the meantime, I’m afraid I’ll have to bring in social services.”
“That won’t be necessary. She’ll be coming with us.” Gains twisted the doorknob and stepped into the room.
The girl jerked her head up, fear-stricken. She darted her eyes to the principal and then back to him.
Gains eased closer and knelt. A backpack sat open near the girl’s feet. A few books and papers peeked out. Gains reached in and withdrew a colored sheet of a farmhouse. The sun blue, and the sky purple. The farmhouse was a mixture of orange and green. A yellow cow stood nearby. Yet it was obvious that the color choices were deliberate and calculated, the strokes measured and even—a child with a surrealistic eye for art. A second sheet was of a butterfly, purple and black. The coloring perfectly delicate. Realistic.
“Did you color this?” asked Gains softly.
The girl did not respond.
“It’s very pretty,” he said. “You’re very talented.”
Her body trembled.
“I know you’re scared, but you’re safe now. I’ll make sure of it, okay?”
The girl nodded, just a slight bob of her head. She lifted her face and looked Gains in the eyes, penetrating deeper into Gains’s heart than a first grader should be able to do.
“I’m with the FBI. Do you know what that is?”
She shook her head almost imperceptibly.
“I’m like a special policeman…we help people like you who are really scared. We’ll take care of you and keep away from the bad men. Would you like that?”
She nodded again.
“Soon I’m going to take you with me. We’re going to take you away from the school for a little while…someplace safe. I’m even going to send one of my friends to get some of your favorite things from home. Would that be all right?”
Her trembling lips parted and, in a whisper that was barely audible, she said, “Mommy and daddy say I’m not supposed to go with strangers.”
Gains smiled. “Your mommy and daddy are very smart. I bet they told you all about policemen too.”
“And I’m a very special policeman, here to protect you. But I tell you what, how about I tell you my name and talk with you. Then we won’t be strangers anymore. Then I’ll be a policeman and your friend. Is that better?” He pulled out his badge and opened it. “Would you like to hold this?”
She nodded and took the badge from his hand.
“My name is Agent Gains. What’s yours?”
A small smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. She leaned forward and whispered, “Sandy.”