• Kelly A Nix

Vengeance

Updated: Sep 26

A short story about a mother's bloody trail of love, loss, and rage. Read it here or download the ebook.

Download this file for Kindle readers:

Vengeance
.mobi
Download MOBI • 745KB

Download this file for all other e-readers (Kobo, Nook, Apple, etc.):

Vengeance
.epub
Download EPUB • 270KB

I pushed the full grocery cart through the parking lot as my five-year-old daughter, Kristen, screamed and flailed in full toddler meltdown. I could’ve killed whoever thought it was a good idea to put candy bars at every checkout counter in America. I’m sure every mom who’d ever denied their child a sweet treat and experienced the aftermath would’ve agreed with me. It didn’t help that I’d had to park on the far side of the parking lot because there weren’t any closer spaces available. So I hurried across the asphalt and held my head high as I ignored the judgmental glances from other shoppers and the melodramatic sobs of my only child.

I popped the trunk to my sedan as soon as we were close enough for my remote to work, and my phone bellowed from my purse. I stopped behind my car and answered the phone as Kristen jerked and rattled the shopping cart with an angry screech. Rolling my eyes at my child’s temper tantrum and my boss’s demanding voice on the other end of the line, I started loading the groceries into my car.

“No, I’m sorry. I can’t come in today,” I said, shaking my head. “Because I can’t just drop everything to cover someone else’s shift.”

With all the groceries in the trunk, I slammed it shut and stepped to the driver’s door to load my purse and keys. In Kristen’s current mood, I needed both hands free to strap her into her car seat.

“You know that I’m a single mom,” I said into the phone, not bothering to hide my agitation with my boss. “I have to arrange child care before I can come in for a shift, and my mom isn’t available to watch Kristen today.”

After dropping my purse inside, I stepped aside to open the door to the back seat and prep Kristen’s car seat. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement that made my heart sink into my stomach, and a gut-wrenching terror washed over me. Someone snatched Kristen from her seat in the grocery cart and dashed toward the back of the parking lot.

Without thinking, I dropped the phone and darted after them. Screaming for help, I begged someone to stop the tall, burly man carrying my child. I had never run so fast in my life. All I could think was that I had to stop him. I had to save Kristen. I managed to gain enough ground on him that I was only a few steps behind him when he jumped into an open, white van. I knew that if they closed that van door, I’d never see my child again, so I dove headfirst after him.

Even as the door slammed into my ribs with a painful crunch, I scrambled to free Kristen from her kidnapper. She screamed and bit at the larger man, and I clawed at his face as he kicked at me. When my nails found his eyeballs, he finally let go of Kristen long enough to knock my hands away from his delicate flesh. I yanked my daughter free and out of the white, unmarked van.

“Run, Kristen! Run to the store,” I said, setting her down on the asphalt. A man in the driver seat yelled at his comrade, who pulled out a knife. He stabbed at me from inside the van, and I stumbled away from his reach. As he started to climb out of the vehicle with an angry snarl, I grabbed the sliding van door and closed it on his face. I slammed it into his head once, then twice, before he shoved the door back, sporting a bleeding gash on his cheek and forehead. He cursed at me as I dashed after my daughter.

“After her,” he said to the driver, and I wasn’t sure if he meant Kristen or me.

Either way, I had to get my five-year-old to safety. Her little legs hadn’t managed to get her very far when I caught up to Kristen, so I yanked her into my arms and kept running. Flooded with adrenaline, I almost didn’t feel the excruciating pain in my bruised side.

Kristen hugged me with wide, fearful eyes as I darted between cars, making a beeline for the storefront. About halfway across the parking lot, I ran into the main street, hoping to get help against our pursuers. I glanced over my shoulder to find the van at the end of the parking street careening toward us. As I turned back, a large sedan backed out without seeing me and slammed into my right leg.

My daughter whined and clung to me for dear life as we tumbled to the asphalt, but I managed to control our fall well enough to avoid landing on Kristen. I cringed from the searing pain in my leg when I tried to sit up.

“Mommy,” Kristen said.

I gasped at the sudden jolt when the white van ran over us in the middle of the parking lot.

When I awoke in the hospital bed, I could still hear the echo of Kristen’s small voice crying out for me. Opening my heavy eyes seemed like the hardest thing I’d ever experience until I took a deep breath. Everything hurt, and I tried to call for help, but all I managed was a whine. I felt my mother’s hand squeeze my fingers as she leaned into my field of sight. She whispered comforting words to me. She promised that it was going to be okay, that we’d make it through this. I listened to her sweet, loving words and stared into her sorrowful eyes as my mind cleared enough for me to speak. I asked about the most important thing in my world.

“Kristen? Where’s Kristen?”

My mother took a deep breath as though to speak, then she broke into a soul-crushing sob and dropped her face into my bedsheets. A horrible fear of the inevitable truth seemed to squeeze my heart with a vice-like grip. Still, I needed to hear the truth. I tried to shake my head and ask my mother again, but my swollen face throbbed with outrage. Then a doctor walked into my hospital room and offered a gentle smile.

“Natalie,” he said to me. “I’m glad you’re awake. You’ve suffered some traumatic injuries, but I think we might finally be out of the woods.”

My brown gaze darted from the doctor to my mother and back, and I tried to sit up in my bed. “What-”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the doctor interrupted, motioning for me to lay back down. “You’ve just woken from a medically induced coma. Your muscles need to adjust to movement again after 2 weeks of inactivity. You suffered severe damage to your face and skull, a broken arm, leg, and two ribs. You have several months of rehabilitation ahead of you.”

I closed my eyes with a frustrated growl. I don’t care about any of this. I just want to know about my child.

“Kristen,” I said. “How is she?”

The doctor’s face fell, and he spoke in a sympathetic tone. “I’m sorry, Natalie, but you’re daughter died shortly after arriving at the hospital two weeks ago.”

A dam broke within me as I sobbed then screamed in anguish. My daughter, my child...just gone. I was the first to hold her the day she was born. She was so small. Even as she grew, Kristen loved mommy hugs and kisses. Her crooked smile always made my heart sing. Now she’s gone forever.

My mother and doctor tried to calm me as I writhed in the hospital bed, but the pain of my injuries paled against the agony of having my heart ripped from my chest. My entire world ended in a moment. I’d never again see Kristen’s eyes light up after learning something new. She would never grow up, go to school, meet a boy, or get married. She was gone. Just gone.

Several weeks later, I sat on the couch in my mother’s house with large casts on both my broken arm and leg. I could hear her cooking something in the kitchen while I stared at the photos on the wall. The family photos that once made me smile now seemed like an homage to everything I’d lost. My eyes bounced from Kristen’s newborn photos to her first visit with Santa to a lovely day in the park. That’s all I had left of her, pictures and memories, just like Tom.

I glanced at my late husband’s military photo then at the framed memorial flag that the Army gave to me when he was killed in action. He was the love of my life, and we’d spent many years together while he served his country. Between deployments, we’d enjoyed outdoor hobbies that strengthened our relationship, like camping and competitive shooting. A small photo of us captured on a mobile phone hung below his flag. We both wore shooting gear, including ear protection, ammo vests, and holstered pistols, while carrying rifles across our chests. I still remember the flirtatious joke he told me that made me throw my head back and laugh during the photo. He knew how to make everything fun.

A few years into our marriage, we’d decided to have a child, but he’d died before Kristen’s birth. Up until now, losing Tom had been the most devastating experience of my life, but at least I had Kristen. It was small comfort to know that even though he’d never met her, a tiny part of him lived on within our child.

Now, I had no one. Nothing could assuage this pain and loss. I don’t know why people kept trying to make it better. Since I’d come home, friends and family had stopped by to pay their respects and offer their condolences, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want their kind words and prayers. I wanted my daughter. Still, people kept visiting while I fought the urge to throw something at that wall of photos.

Today, one of Tom’s old Army buddies, Capone, stopped by the house. When my mother greeted him at the door, Capone snuffed out his cigarette and offered a respectful handshake to the older woman. I spotted his Harley-Davidson in the driveway, and when he sat across from me in the living room, I wasn’t surprised to see his scruffy beard had grown several inches since last I’d seen him. I eyed the motorcycle club emblem on his leather vest then nodded a greeting to Capone.

“Thanks for coming,” I said. He didn’t offer any condolences, just sat back in his chair and rubbed a hand over his knee as though it pained him.

“Did they catch who did this?”

“No,” I said as a surge of deep anger bubbled up into my chest. “A cop spoke to me in the hospital, but they hadn’t made any arrests. He said they were probably part of a human trafficking ring.”

“Human trafficking? In our town? That won’t stand.”

“The cop said that they were looking for a spotter in the store. That’s someone that hangs out in crowded areas and calls the snatchers when they find a good mark. Like Kristen and me. Last week, I called the cop that interviewed me. He said they’ve hit a wall, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to move forward.” I dug my fingers into the couch arm. “What does that even mean? They killed my daughter, and they’re getting away with it.”

“No,” Capone said, taking me by surprise. “That’s not going to happen. I promised Tom that I’d look out for you, so I’m going to look into this for you. I’ll ask the club to make it right. We can’t allow human trafficking in our territory.”

I breathed a little easier at his promise, and I offered a small smile. “Thank you.”

A few days later, I thanked my mother for the plate of food she placed in front of me on the kitchen table. We both knew I wouldn’t finish the generous portion, but I picked up the fork with my good hand anyway. After a few small bites, I heard the loud thunder from Capone’s Harley-Davidson in the driveway. I pushed the plate away and asked my mother to let him inside. When he sat down across from me at the table, I knew that the news wasn’t good from the look on his face.

“I got you a copy of the case file,” he said, handing it to me. I flipped it open and scanned the contents for anything that might catch my eye. I didn’t know what to look for, but I flipped through the papers and photographs until I found a photo of a man in handcuffs.

“This man, Ajay. They arrested him?”

“No,” Capone answered. “They brought him in for questioning. They suspect he was the spotter in the store. But he lawyered up, and they can’t get anywhere with him.”

“So the police won’t do anything. What about you and your club?”

Capone frowned and leaned back in his chair. “The club voted against getting involved.”

“What?” I slammed both fists against the table, grimacing at the pain that reverberated up my broken arm. “You said you would do something. They’re taking children. They killed my child.”

“I know, but-”

“So do something about it!” Tears rushed down my cheeks, stinging the still healing wounds on my face.

“Ajay’s lawyer is funded by a local crime boss named Viper. He’s big, powerful, and vindictive. We can’t pick a fight with him without putting our families in jeopardy.”

“Your families? My family is gone. Kristen was supposed to start kindergarten yesterday. Her very first day of school. Instead, she’s rotting in the ground with her father.”

“I’m sorry, Natalie.” Capone tried to take my hand, but I jerked away from his touch.

“Leave.”

“Natalie-”

“Please go,” I whispered. “I need to be alone.”

He complied with a reluctant sigh, then I stood with my mother’s help. I used my crutches to limp to my room and sat on the small bed. The aluminum poles slid to the ground as I stared into the mirror over my vanity. My smashed face sported several bruises, but it looked much better than the weeks before. Even with plastic surgery, I knew I’d see the scars from that awful day every time I looked in the mirror. I’d be reminded of everything I lost. Everything they took away from me.

Since the attack, I’d suffered so much pain from the loss of my only child to the broken bones throughout my body. Yet, no one was willing to make Ajay pay. Not he nor the other two would suffer for what they did to Kristen and me. They should feel my pain and the pain my daughter felt in her last moments of life. They should scream and cry. They should die. And if the police or Capone’s biker gang wouldn’t do anything about it, then I would have to do it.

I snatched my crutches from the floor and hobbled determinedly down to the cellar where we’d stored keepsakes after Tom’s death. I tossed old, dusty boxes aside until I found the large safe propped against the far wall. I wiped the cobwebs from the steel door and entered Kristen’s birthday into the keypad. I swung the door open to find mine and Tom’s guns. I’d locked them away after he died because I couldn’t bring myself to compete without him. Now, I had a new reason to shoot.

I peered over the knee-high barricade with my M4 rifle and fired two shots at a target on my left, then shuffled to a faux wall, pressing my back against it to peek out a window. I shot one mark on my right and two on my left. I emptied my magazine into a spring-loaded target on a wooden staircase, then swung my rifle over my shoulder, allowing it to hang from the strap at my back. I drew a brown M18 handgun from my belt, scurried behind a flipped table, and tagged the three remaining targets before dropping my clip and reloading a mag from my ammo vest.

From behind the safety glass at the back of the shooting-range, Capone clapped his hands as his lips clung to a lit cigarette. I holstered my pistol and joined him in the spectating area. He snuffed the cigarette against the sole of his biker boots and smiled at me.

“That was impressive, but you know it’s a lot different when the targets shoot back.”

“That’s what Tom said after every competition.” I adjusted my tactical earplugs, dropped my M4 into my gun bag at the base of a wooden bench, and sat down.

“It looks like the past few months have done you good.”

I ran a hand over the healed scars on the left side of my face as Capone sat on the bench next to me. I stretched my healed leg out in front of us and smiled.

“I’m almost finished with physical therapy, 100 percent mobility in my leg and arm. So I’ve decided to put Kristen’s life insurance to good use.”

“Is that why you called me to this gun range out in the middle of nowhere?”

“I wanted to thank you for the police file. It was very helpful.” I didn’t tell Capone that I’d used the information from the file to track down Ajay. I didn’t tell him that I’d spent every waking moment since I could walk crutch-free tailing the spotter to learn his routine. I had hoped my surveillance would lead me to the two men from the van, but Ajay didn’t seem to have in-person interaction with them. So I was left with no other choice.

“I need you to get a few things for me,” I said. “That’s what you do for your club, right? You get things that are hard to come by for most people.”

“Let me guess, that’s what Tom told you?” He smirked when I nodded. “Yeah, I guess I could call in a few favors. It depends on what you need and what you plan on doing with it.”

I pulled a folded piece of paper from my gun bag’s pocket and handed it to him. Capone eyed the items on the shopping list then frowned at me.

“On second thought, don’t tell me. I’ll get you what you need, but I don’t want to be involved in the shit storm that you’re about to stir up.”

“Thank you,” I said, pulling my .338 Lapua from the gun bag.

Capone whistled as he followed me to the long-distance range. “That’s a beauty. You got a place to keep all this stuff? You can’t keep it at your mother’s house.”

“I’ll buy a storage locker,” I said.

I arranged the bipod for my black sniper rifle and set my sights on the target at the far end of the range. After I missed my first shot, I snapped the bolt back and readied a second round. My next bullet grazed the target’s shoulder, but my third struck center mass.

“Looks like you could use more practice with that one,” Capone said before lighting a new cigarette.

“Yeah, Tom was always better at long range. I’ll just have to stick to my pistols.”

A week later, I sat in my car and stared at the blue house near the end of the block. The surrounding neighborhood seemed normal and pleasant. I’d have never guessed that a human trafficker lived here. I’d have never imagined that the man that helped destroy my life would host a poker game for the same five friends every Thursday. For weeks, I’d watched them drink, smoke, gamble, and laugh all night while Ajay’s wife spent the evening out with friends.

Tonight, I shoved another full mag into my ammo belt and holstered a second M18 handgun. I set both hands on the steering wheel and willed them to stop shaking. After tonight, I wouldn’t be able to turn back. I’d have to finish this one way or another. I honestly wasn’t sure if I could do it. Could I kill another human being? Could I snuff out a life? Could I cause Ajay enough pain and damage that his consciousness left his body forever? I glanced at a photo of Kristen on my phone, and I knew the answer.

I stepped out of my car, slipped my earplugs into place, and ducked into the alley behind the neighborhood. As I snuck closer to the blue house, I tugged at the uncomfortable bulletproof vest strapped to my chest and wondered if Capone could’ve found a less itchy brand. He’d done a fine job tracking down everything on my shopping list, but I hoped I wouldn’t need most of it. Like the tear gas and mask strapped to the back of my vest, I’d listed a lot of precautionary items or stuff I’d only need if the shit hit the fan. Who knows, maybe this would turn out easier than I’d anticipated.

I tugged the small, chain link gate open and stepped into the empty backyard. Scanning the house for signs that I’d been seen, I walked across the lawn to the back door and tried the knob. To my surprise, it turned, and I cracked the door until I could see into the house. The back door seemed to open into a washroom that connected to the kitchen. I knew from my surveillance that the front windows peered into the dining room and kitchen area, where Ajay hosted his poker buddies.

I squeezed past the backdoor and sneaked across the small washroom without knocking anything over. I held my breath as I pressed my back against the wall by the kitchen door. I drew one of my pistols and gripped it out in front of me like a life preserver to sanity. I glanced at the back door one last time before shaking my head. I could do this. I would do this. Right now.

I knocked the open kitchen door aside and pointed my pistol at the poker table. “Don’t move!”

At the same moment that I realized only four men sat at the table, I noticed movement to my left. I drew a second pistol with my left hand and aimed at Ajay, who stood in the living room door with an open bag of potato chips. He froze with one hand trapped inside the family size bag and stared at me with wide eyes.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Asked a man with a tribal tattoo on his face, and I snapped my head to him but kept Ajay in my peripheral. Tattoo face snarled at me, but he didn’t move from his seat at the poker table.

“Ajay is coming with me. Stay out of my way, and no one else has to get hurt.”

“Who are you?” Ajay said, shaking his head. “You can’t do this to me. I haven’t done anything.”

I fought the urge to pistol-whip him from across the room, and tattoo face seemed to have the same response.

“Shut your blubbering, Ajay. She ain’t going to do anything to us,” he said, sneering at me. “We work for Viper, and no one would dare cross him.”

“Oh, all of you work for him?” I asked, and everyone nodded. “Good, that makes this a lot easier.”

I swung my left pistol back to the poker table and pulled both triggers. I hit tattoo face in the chest multiple times, and as I kept firing, blood exploded across the room. While Ajay hid behind the living room door, two men at the table dove for cover, and the third reached for a gun under his blazer. I emptied my right mag into him before he got a shot off, but I had to duck behind the kitchen aisle when the three remaining thugs fired back at me.

I holstered my left pistol and drew a clip to reload my right M18. I waited for a lull in shots and then peeked above the aisle for a lay of the land. The two men in the dining room were covered behind the flipped table, while Ajay fired from around the living room door. I crouched back down and waddled to the right of the aisle, out of Ajay’s sight, and pied the corner by sneaking my pistol around the edge for a clear shot of one guy behind the table. He screamed when three bullets tore through his gut and chest. With the first man down, I could see the second man in the living room, but my aim was off by millimeters. He managed two shots in my direction, one of which ricocheted into my right arm, before I put him down.

Cursing at the blood and pain from my wound, I crouched behind the kitchen aisle one last time to holster my gun and pull the shotgun from my back swing. I stuck the barrel around the left corner and aimed for the living room door. The rock salt I fired blasted against the door, and I heard Ajay stumble back. I jumped to my feet and dashed for cover beside the living room door frame. I peeked into the room and spotted Ajay running for the front door. I hit him in the back with rock salt and, he crumpled to the floor with agonizing groans.

I used my foot to roll him onto his back, then I pointed the shotgun in his chest. With tears and snot bubbling from his face, he begged me not to kill him. I wondered if this was the first time that he’d ever regretted his life choices.

I parked my car two streets down from a junkyard on the edge of town and popped my trunk. I glanced around the dark road before ducking to the back of my car. I snapped everything I needed in place, tactical earplugs, ammo mags, my shotgun holstered to my back, the just-in-case tear gas and mask, my two handguns, and an itchy bulletproof vest. I reached for the M4 rifle but paused a few inches from the sleek metal.

My hands didn’t shake this time. I wasn’t nervous about killing again or getting caught by the police, or the moral implications of torturing a man for information. I did what needed to be done. What no one else would do. Ajay didn’t want to tell me what I needed to know, so I made him. It took four rounds of rock salt in various, painful parts of his anatomy before he told me who was in the van. He gave me the names of the men that killed my daughter. Ivan and Joey. Ivan was the man that grabbed her, and Joey was the driver that ran us over. Ajay couldn’t tell me where Ivan spent his time because he’d been promoted from snatcher duty. On the other hand, Joey worked at the local junkyard, a front for Viper’s seedier business. Ajay was a fountain of knowledge before I put a bullet in his brain. Now, it was Joey’s turn.

I snatched the black and tan rifle, swinging the strap over my shoulder, before snapping the trunk closed and darting into the cover of darkness. I’d spent the last two weeks watching the junkyard and Joey. It wasn’t the ideal place to confront him, but the rest of Joey’s routine involved his wife or children, and I wasn’t prepared for that kind of collateral. Instead, I’d surveyed the junkyard, planning the best approach and easiest path to isolate Joey. It didn’t help that Viper had bumped up security after the poker game massacre, which increased the on-site guards from four men to ten. This was going to be tricky.

I hid in some large bushes until shift change and then jumped the tall, chain-link fence at the back of the junkyard. I held the M4 across my chest as I crouched behind a row of wrecked cars. It was hard to anticipate each guard’s path since they weren’t disciplined enough to follow a set course, but I had a general idea of what to expect. They always maintained at least three men inside the office and garage, while the rest sporadically roamed the yard. Plus, they had a dog.

I scanned the dark area before sneaking between row after row of damaged cars. It wasn’t long before I spotted a guard on a smoke break, listening to his iPod and bobbing his head to the music. He sat on the crumpled hood of a sedan with his back to me. I pointed my suppressed rifle barrel at the back of his head and struck him with two bullets before he hit the ground. Even with the suppressor, I knew the other guards would hear the gunfire, so I dashed away from the bloody scene before anyone arrived to investigate.

On my way, I spotted one guard jogging toward the bloody mess I’d made of his friend, so I plugged him center mass. He bellowed a gargled scream from the ground, but I kept moving. When I turned a blind corner, I ran into a surprised guard with his pistol drawn. I slapped his hand away and jammed the butt of my rifle into his jaw. He grabbed the gun and yanked it from my grasp, and before he could turn the gun on me, I drew my right pistol and unloaded three shots into his gut. He crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain, and pressed both hands against his wounds as though that were enough to keep him from bleeding out. I snatched my M4 from the ground, where he’d dropped it, and darted away. Three down and seven more to go.

Plus, one dog. I’d forgotten about the dog until the giant rottweiler came barking and growling at me from across two rows of cars. He leaped over an old Volkswagen and sunk his teeth into my leg. Without thinking, I screamed and shot the dog in the head until it stopped chewing on me. Leaning against a nearby pickup truck, I tried to put weight on my newly injured leg and grimaced. I didn’t dare stop long enough to inspect the wound. I’d have to suck it up until this night ended.

After stumbling to the next row of cars, I realized that I had to reconsider my tactics. I couldn’t run anymore, but there were at least four men still in the yard, and most likely, three men would stay fortified in the office. I didn’t know why they insisted on the constant protection, but I figured Viper had something important hidden inside that building. It didn’t matter, Joey was always stationed inside, so I’d have to deal with everyone outside first.

I limped back to my first victim and found two men searching the area. I slipped inside a nearby Pinto and waited for the others. Much to my satisfaction, it didn’t take long for all four guards to assemble in the same search area. I yanked my gas mask over my face, pulled the pin on my tear gas canister, and threw it among the guards. To their credit, they tried to get away, but the gas strangled their lungs and burned their eyes, so they didn’t get far before I pumped them full of bullets. Seven down, three to go.

I found a cracked window on the side of the building that opened into a small side office. I chose to crawl through the window because I figured those left in the building would’ve posted up at the front and back doors at the sound of gunfire. I hoped I was right as I peered around the dark office. I noted two open doors, one seemed to lead to a bathroom, and the other led to a larger room, probably meant for an open-floor office plan. Instead, it housed a bunch of card tables with stacks of cash and money counting machines. It seemed I’d stumbled across one of Viper’s laundering scams.

As I leaned into the room for a better view, I spotted a hallway that seemed to lead to where I knew the back door to be. Directly across from me, two men stood with their rifles trained on the front door. I smirked at my foresight and drew my favorite pistol, and in doing so, I knocked my elbow against the door frame. My eyes widened, and I held my breath as one of the men waiting at the door lifted his head at the small sound. As he turned to investigate, I shuffled back to grab the door, and I slammed it shut when he raised his rifle toward me.

I dove into the bathroom as bullets sped past me. I scrambled past the toilet and sink to the door on the other side and dashed into the small hall that led to an attached garage. Knowing that they’d follow me, I hid behind a large toolbox between two garage bays. I filled the first man to enter with bullets, but the second slipped past me by ducking behind a metal desk. I darted between two barrels and a filing cabinet, trying to get a good angle on the man behind the desk. He stuck his head up from the desk before firing a few shots, and I recognized him as the driver of the van. I had Joey right where I wanted him.

I pressed against the office building’s drywall as I tried to maneuver closer to Joey without getting shot. Next to the offices’ doorway, I crouched beside a workbench as Joey sprayed the wall behind me with bullets. When he stopped to reload, I planned to move forward, but the final guard plowed into the garage, searching for the intruder. He stopped in front of me to glance around without realizing that I sat at his feet. I shot him in the head and kept moving.

When I was close enough, I hid behind a tall toolbox and drew my shotgun. I racked a shell for dramatic effect as one was already chambered.

“You’re the last one left, Joey,” I said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

“I don’t know how you know my name, but you can go screw yourself.”

I didn’t respond. Instead, I shuffled around the toolbox as he continued to hide behind the nearby desk.

“Did you hear me?” He shouted. “You can go to hell. We called for back up, so my buddies will be here soon. And Viper is going to kill you and everyone you love. You hear that, you bit-”

I shot him from behind with the rock salt, and he screamed, dropping his gun. I kicked the weapon away with my shotgun trained on him.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t hurt me. I don’t want to die. You can have the money and the kid. I won’t stop you. Just don’t kill me, please.”

“What kid?” I glanced around the garage for evidence of a child, but there was nothing. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Joey pointed to a door on the far side of the garage with a padlock and then to a set of keys on the nearby desk. My heart sunk at the implications. I wanted to charge over to the door, tear it down, and rescue whatever poor child they had locked away, but that wasn’t my mission.

“Where’s Ivan? The guy that helped you snatch kids off the street. Kids like Kristen.”

“Who?”

I fired at one of his legs, and he screamed in agony.

“My daughter,” I said. “You killed her.”

He blubbered on the ground as blood pooled around us. Time was running out.

“Where is Ivan?”

“He’s not here. He was promoted to personal security,” Joey said between sobs. “He’s one of Vipers bodyguards now.”

“Where can I find him?”

“I don’t know, man. He’s with Viper.”

The next shot nearly takes off his hand. “Where is he?”

“The nightclub. Viper spends a lot of time at a nightclub he owns downtown. Onyx. It’s called Onyx. Please. Stop.”

As pale as a ghost, Joey didn’t look good. “Please,” he murmured in slurred speech.

I slung my shotgun over my shoulder then shot him in the head with my pistol. I stared at his dead body for a moment, savoring the just desserts for one of the men responsible for my pain. I nodded once and then grabbed the keys on the desk to open the locked door.

Inside a dark and dirty cellar, I found a young, malnourished little girl. Grime and grease caked her long blonde hair, and bruises littered her pale skin. As I stepped forward, she scuttled to a corner of her prison cell and huddled next to a pile of human waste. I kneeled to the filthy floor and held out a hand to her.

“It’s okay, baby. You’re safe now.”

“My name is Natalie,” I said to the small girl in the front seat of my car as I drove across town toward my mother’s house. “Do you mind telling me your name?”

The girl, maybe ten years old, stared out the window and didn’t answer. She hadn’t said anything since I’d found her.