"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Friday, January 16, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Five

She was on her feet, gun in hand, before the hiss of angry words had faded.  In the darkness she couldn’t see much more than a large shape backlit in moonlight looming in front of her, but there was no question Mitch had somehow found her.

“Why the hell did you run?”  His voice was rough, more than annoyed as he stepped toward her.  "You understand English?"

No way.  He didn't really just say that to her.  Rage boiled as her own words were thrown back in her face.  “Stop right there,” she ordered. “Don’t come one inch closer.  I’m just mad enough to do something I won't regret, you lying bastard.”

Ignoring her, he moved closer and lifted a hand toward her. “What are you talking about?”  Whatever he might have said next died in his throat when he heard the slight click of the safety on her pistol being thumbed off.  Hands up in surrender, he eased back a step.

“You can either hike back the way you came, or stay here until daylight, I don’t care either way.  I just want you to leave me alone.”

“Sweetheart, he murmured, you know I can’t do that.  I managed to throw Solares and his goons off your scent and they’ll spread the word that I’m involved which will eliminate half the idiots who think they’re trackers.  But there will be others, and they won't care that I've got this. They’ll come looking for that target on your back faster than you can run.”

“You managed to throw them off?”  She snorted. “That's not what I heard. I know I’m nothing more than a contract, a payment for services rendered.”

“Jesus, would you just hold on a sec and let me explain?”

“I’ve wasted enough time listening to you.  Drop whatever weapon I'm sure you’re carrying and move over by that tree, she said, gesturing behind him.

Crossing his arms over his chest, she had no trouble reading his belligerent stance or the scowl he was broadcasting that gave new meaning to bad attitude. “Hear me out,” he said between clenched teeth.

“Not interested.”  Slowly backing up, she reached down for her pack and shrugged the strap over one shoulder.  When Ace stood next to her, she grabbed his collar.  “Stay away from us.”

She moved into the trees, hoping to lose him in the solid darkness off the main trail, but before she’d gone more than a few yards, a soft series of low whistles brought Ace to a sudden stop next to her.  He looked over his shoulder toward the dark silhouette that stood at the edge of the trees, then back at her, a low whine loud in the silence.  Mitch's voice slid like ice down her spine, ruthless and cold.  “You leave?  It will be alone.  The dog stays with me.”

There had never been a time, not through four years of running, when she thought she'd actually have to shoot someone.  She knew she couldand woulddefend herself and protect Ace if it came down to a choice, but to actually feel it, relish it, savor the compelling urge?  Not until this man, in this moment, when she wanted him writhing at her feet more than she wanted her next breath.

She dug deep for control before saying in a cool, almost casual tone, “You really don’t listen well, do you Mitch?”  Shifting, she tightened her hold on Ace’s collar. “I’m struggling not to shoot you where you stand for that threat.”  She bent to whisper in Ace’s ear, then murmured, “But what you don’t know, smart guy?  I can stop anyoneincluding youfrom taking control of my dog.”  Before he could digest that news, or the fact his brother was the only one who could have set up a fail-safe and given it to her, she unsnapped the strap on the saddlebags. Before they'd hit the ground, she was snarling, “Strike!”

In an odd, slow-motion flash of disbelief, Mitch watched as his favorite dog, all one hundred and thirty pounds of him, leaped into the air and hit him dead-center in the chest, knocking him backwards with the impact of a head-on collision.  He hit the ground hard enough to painfully jar his spine, followed by the air whooshing out of his lungs in a loud burst when the weight of an intensely focused predator landed on his upper body.

Wrapping his arms around the dog, Mitch rolled, straining to contain the brute, though really he only hoped to survive long enough for the annoyingly clever woman to call the dog off before he lost some vital piece of his anatomy.  She kept surprising him, throwing him off-balance.  His threat had been nothing more than bluster to stop her from leaving before he could explain himself, but she hadn’t hesitated to counter with her own, more effective move.  If he wasn’t in danger of having his throat ripped out, he’d be laughing at being bested by her.  Christ, she was amazing and there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to have her.

“Hold,” she said, voice clear and commanding.  Man and dog both stopped wrangling and without much effort, Ace again had him pinned on his back. The only thing keeping teeth from his neck was the sheer strength in his arms as Mitch pushed against the dog’s chest.  She was very tempted to let Ace have him, but it didn’t feel right.  Not that she didn’t want the bastard brought down a peg or twenty, but she didn’t want Ace to be the one to do it. Setting her pack on the ground, she walked over and plucked his gun off the ground where it had fallen in all the rolling and grappling.  Ace didn’t move, intent on holding Mitch down.

Arms shaking from the effort to keep the dog away from his face, Mitch wheezed, “Please, baby, let me explain.  It’s not what you think.  None of this is what you think.”

“What should I be thinking instead, Cartwright?  You clearly threatened to take my dog! I told you what he means to me and you didn't hesitate to use that against me.”  She threw his gun as hard as she could into the underbrush then tucked her own into the small of her back before retrieving the saddlebags.  Reaching into a pocket, she quickly pulled out a thick roll of duct tape.

“Come on, honey.  Let me up.  He was having trouble breathing, his words gasped out in a staccato rush.  I was desperate.  Just trying to stop you.  From leaving.  Already told you.  I’d never really.  Take him away—”

“Save your breath.  You don’t have anything to say that I want to hear.”  She crouched down at his feet and began to wrap the tape in tight bands around his ankles.

Mitch tried to shift Ace off to one side just far enough so he could take deeper breaths.  “Duct tape?”  He grunted when the dog moved, though breathing was easier now. “What are you thinking?  That won’t work, though I’m pretty impressed that you carry a roll in your gear.”  When she paid no attention, he went on.  “But I should point out.  Unless you plan on letting Ace eat me for dinner like a trussed turkey, I’ll be loose five minutes after you’re done taping me up.”

“Five minutes is more than enough time.”  He almost missed what she muttered under her breath, “I’ve had lots of practice being a ghost.”  A tiny nugget of information to mull over later, he thought, feeling the tape wind around his boots and partially up his legs.

Once he was secured, she stored what was left of the roll in the saddlebag, called Ace to her and fastened the pack around him.  Then she stood for a minute, her hand on the dog’s head as they both looked down at Mitch.  Taking in great lungfuls of air, he stayed flat on his back, rubbing the tremors out of his arms from pushing against the force that was Ace, beads of sweat glistening across his face in the moonlight.  Even dirty, disheveled, and on the losing end of a bad day, he was still handsome, strong.  She scowled, reined in thoughts that had no business being in her head. He was nothing more than a lying ass out for the money.

After struggling for a moment, he sat up though didn’t make any attempt to free himself, instead rolling his shoulders, then shaking out his arms.  “Damn, that dog is powerful,” he muttered as he reached down toward his boots.  Then he froze, staring at the complicated loops and twists that bound his legs.  He raised his head and locked eyes with her, frustration mixed with respect as he realized what she'd done.  He made a last attempt to convince her to wait, to listen.  “Come on, give me a minute.  I can help if you'll just

She laughed.  Even under the circumstances, he liked the sound, husky and warm.  “Let’s see, you’re on the ground, big ass dog just sat on you, and your legs are duct taped.”  Smiling, amusement in her voice, she said, “While I, on the other hand, am standing here, in control of said big ass dog, legs free to take me anywhere I care to go. Huh. Seems like you’re the one in need of help.”

Bending to reclaim her pack, she settled it over her shoulders, made a slight adjustment in the straps and stepped back under the dark canopy of trees.  “Ace, to me,” she said softly.  After a long look at Mitch, the dog trotted quickly to her side.  Resting a hand on the back of his thick, muscled neck, she watched Mitch begin to pick and pull at the layers of sticky tape. 

“Good luck getting that blade out of your boot," she said, her laughter like salt in a wound.  "And stay away from me, Cartwright.  I’m done with this crap.  Go home.”

He looked up, mouth open to snarl a reply, but she was gone.  Silently, both woman and dog had vanished into thin air.  Mitch wrenched at the bindings, but damn, as with her other skills, apparently she was also proficient at wrapping fucking tape.  It took several long, pissed off minutes before he finally managed to make a decent enough hole in the tape to pull his knife out of his boot, then he hacked savagely through the remaining bands, luckily without shredding his jeans or stabbing himself.  His admiration for her had morphed into deep irritation by the time he was able to get to his feet and brush off the dirt and debris.  Walking a short distance back down the trail, he retrieved his pack and her rifle, stashed behind a tree, glad now he’d had that foresight.  What she didn’t know made it easier on him, and obviously he needed every advantage he could get.

Opening a side pocket in the pack, he drew out a bottle of water and downed it in one long, continuous swallow.  Then he looked up at the moon and smiled.  She was going to be spitting mad when he showed up again, something he was anticipating with an eagerness that should have been embarrassing, though he didn’t give a fuck that it wasn’t.  His only real concern was the dog.  And damn, it would have been nice if his brother had given him a heads up on the fail-safe deal, at the very least shared the damn word with him.  Still, he'd get around Ace and he’d figure a way around her, too.

He’d marked the general direction where she’d tossed his gun and spent some time getting scratched and more irritated while he searched in the brush for it.  Finally, gun in place at the small of his back, he returned to his gear and sat down.  He’d give her a little more time, let her cool down, then maybe by the time he caught up she’d be ready to hear him out.

Rummaging in the pack until he found a trail mix bar, he ripped the paper off and sat munching contentedly as he stared up at the sky, his thoughts bouncing from her to the dog to his brother.  He wanted more of that mouth and her sweet sugar scent. All over him.  He wanted to hug Ace and praise him for protecting her, even from him.  He wanted to beat the shit out of his brother because…well, the list was growing longer by the hour.

     But he also had to get out of these mountains and connect with Mike, get an update and more details about the woman—for starters, her real name and who she was running from. And he wanted to check on things at the compound.  Mike was in charge when he was out working, but Mitch had two litters due within the next week or so and always tried to be there for the new arrivals.

Although his career was hardcore and sometimes sucked him dry, once he was back home with his dogs, he found solace and a refuge.  Proud of his kennels, his dogs were trained in security and as body guards; they excelled in law and drug enforcement.  People might not know his face from the next guy, but most of the criminal element knew a Cartwright dog just by looking…usually moments before the dog ripped them a new one.

Ready to go, he dug into his jacket, taking out a small GPS device and thumbed it on. A little red dot flickered against the green glow of the map on the screen.  He got to his feet, put an arm through one strap of the pack and carried it loosely over his left shoulder; in his right he hefted the rifle and walked into the dense forest, his steps soundless on the pine needles.  Less than a handful of people knew that he didn’t trust anyone with his precious dogs and that each one had a tiny, almost microscopic device—one he’d developed himself—implanted in the bottom edge of the left ear.  He could track the location of every dog he’d trained.

Mitch smiled. Oh yeah, she was definitely going to be bent when he turned up out of the blue again.  His chuckle, quiet and soft, followed him into the trees.