All the King’s Queens – Chapter 12: Breaking News

The only thing Thomas Sellars can do is stay put. Two minutes ago, he received a text from Stephen Callahan telling him to stop drilling. There are police officers snooping around the property, meaning any unnecessary noise must come to a complete halt until they leave. Thomas is more than happy to comply. He has no intentions of going back to prison.

The last hour has been murder on his equipment. Dylan Tanaka’s safe is much more difficult to penetrate than he had originally anticipated it would be. Already he’s completely worn down three titanium drill bits. The fourth one that’s currently being used should last 10 to 15 more minutes. Judging from the reading produced by his ultrasonic thickness gauge, Thomas estimates he’s almost 80% through. That would probably mean sacrificing this drill bit and wearing down a fifth one pretty well, though it may be salvageable if he’s lucky. He’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. For now, he will enjoy the unexpected break that – if he’s being honest – he really needs.

“Ahhhhhhhhhh,” he says after taking a long swig of water from his bottle. “That hits the spot.”

He wipes a cascade of sweat off his brow with his sleeve. Thomas knows he probably smells like old socks, though that is the least of his worries. The idea of cops on the premises, investigating some shit that happened outside (Thomas is certainly going to rain hellfire down on the dimwit who let one of the hostage escape, unless Stephen plans to torture them instead, in which case he’ll gladly sit back and watch that unfold), is enough to give him massive anxiety. He feels his chest tighten. He isn’t in any danger of suffering a heart attack, but an incredible amount of stress on the human body can do things you would never expect.

“Come on, everyone. Just settle down up there. Hold tight,” he whispers while looking up at the ceiling, imagining his comrades sitting around one floor up. “Those bastards will be gone before you know it. Just play it cool…and don’t make any noise or let any of those bitches escape again.”

Thomas peers down at his phone for updates from Stephen. So far, he’s received none since the initial text telling him to cease operations.

“Damn it.”

***

The ominous red glow of police vehicles is still making Stephen nervous, even though he has no imminent reason to feel fear. All he needs to do is wait them out until they all leave. Then, he and his team can resume their activities. The bandits and hostages are sitting around a long hallway stretching from the foyer all the way to the dining room on the far end of the house. It’s the only large part of the house that isn’t near any windows. Stephen is the only one standing, looking at his phone for updates from Bill Marks. He’d know if the police were to request special reinforcements to deal with a hostage situation. It definitely pays to have friends like that on your side.

So far, nothing noteworthy to report from Bill. This is good news, Stephen believes.

Through the kitchen sliding glass door, the group can see a few flashlights dancing around the backyard. They aren’t able to understand what the officers outside are talking about. However, that matters very little to the people trapped inside. Stephen decides to let the light coming from Dylan’s bedroom stay on in order to maintain the charade that he’s all alone. Dylan prays silently to himself that the cop he spoke to understood that he was talking in code. Will help be on the way? Will there be an end to this nightmare that results in these criminals getting what they deserve? Dylan could only hope so.

“How is everyone feeling?” Stephen whispers to the hostages. For a long moment, nobody speaks. Melanie finally looks up, appearing as exhausted as she’s ever looked before.

“Fine,” she whispers back, not wanting to talk too loudly and incur the wrath of her captors. “We’re all doing fine. I’m guessing no more bathroom breaks for the rest of us?” Melanie resists the urge to look at Peggy, who for whatever reason reeks of urine. She’s sure to have a compelling story to tell, though that will have to wait for later – assuming there is a “later.” That is not guaranteed.

“That’s right. I think your friend here, no pun intended, pissed that opportunity away for all of you,” Stephen remarks with too much self-indulgence. Nobody seems to be smiling from that, which is not a surprise. “Just sit back and don’t do shit. If you have to pee all over Dylan’s carpet, so be it. It’s not like that would be the worst thing to happen to him today. Would it, old friend?”

“No, it would not,” Dylan admits. “I’ve experienced far worse.” Shortly after settling in the hallway, Dylan was forced to undress and return to Stephen his pants and shirt. He is now naked again with a fleece blanket wrapped around his body.

Cortez tries to maintain a stone face while he replays in his mind the incident with Peggy Cole in the bathroom. How the fuck did he lose his self-control like that? He’s a professional who has been in this business long enough to know that you don’t screw around like that while on a job. When you’re at work, it’s all business until it’s over. He’s tried to avoid making eye contact with his colleagues – especially Stephen Callahan, the big boss – knowing he’s in for some sort of sadistic punishment after this is all over. Heck, he may never do another job again if word of this spreads among the organized crime community. If exile – similar to the type of ostracization that Dylan has experienced these past few years – is what he has to endure instead of a bullet through his skull, that’s a price he’s willing to pay. He can always (hopefully?) find a legitimate job that pays a decent salary somewhere. It won’t be nearly as thrilling as being a criminal, but it sure beats having to work with people who would always be suspicious of you. Or would have an itchy trigger finger if you screw up again.

And if there’s anything that’s considered a near-death sentence in this business, it’s being labeled as “unreliable.” That’s the quickest way for your work to dry up. Or for you to end up with a bullet in your head.

“I don’t see no more flashlights, boss,” Roddy says quietly to Stephen. He nods his head.

“Good. Go to the living room and take a quick look, alright? And, obviously, don’t be seen by anybody, got it?”

“Oh yeah. I got it. Don’t worry about me. You can trust me.” Roddy shoots Cortez a dirty look. Cortez looks down at the floor in shame. Xander, who truly feels bad for Cortex, wants to say something encouraging to him but knows that now is not the time nor the place. Roddy tiptoes across the hallway toward the foyer, which connects to the living room. Once there, he sees no more flashlights outside. But that doesn’t mean the pigs are gone for good.

Roddy rushes to the front curtains. He stands against the wall next to them, then lifts a portion of the curtain with his finger. As cautiously as he can, he peers out to see what’s going on outside. All he sees in the distance are a few cop cars still parked close to the main gate. It’s fortunate that it’s dark outside, which makes it easier to see flashlights. It doesn’t appear as though there are any more police officers on the property itself. This is good news. Finally, he spots a few flashlights bouncing around the house next door on the left. It’s too far away to make out any voices, but that’s good enough for him. As quickly as he left, Roddy tiptoes back to the hallway to report the wonderful development.

“Boss! It appears as though the pigs have left. They’ve moved on to the next house, over there.” He points in the direction of where he saw the flashlights dancing around in the night air. Xander, who apparently was given the task of going to the dining room and checking out the backyard for any remaining cops, suddenly returns behind him.

“All clear in the backyard. We’re all alone. Not a soul in sight,” Xander happily reports. This pleases their boss immensely.

“Excellent! This is exactly what I wanted to hear. That didn’t take long,” he turns to Dylan, who’s still sitting on the floor. “And you have one hell of a large backyard. I guess they really bought your story, that you’ve been asleep the whole time. They don’t suspect a thing. Wonderful!” Dylan looks up from the floor, trying to figure out what Stephen’s next move will be. It appears as though that dimwitted cop didn’t catch on to the clue he left of wishing him good luck on catching them. Dear Lord, how much more obvious did he have to make it?

“I say we return to the basement,” Stephen suggests. “Up, everyone. Let’s get moving!”

All the hostages comply with his command. Two minutes later, everyone is back inside the gym, huddled around the same spot as before. It’s as though nothing happened. As if Peggy’s daring escape attempt was all for naught.

***

A quarter of a mile down the road, close to where the bandits parked their two vehicles, a SWAT van creeps up behind three more police cars. Right behind them are two FBI vehicles, one a sedan and the other an SUV. Four ambulances are not far behind them, obviously without their lights or sirens on. As quietly as possible, the six blocks of 43rd Avenue are taped off to prevent motorists or pedestrians from getting through. At this ungodly hour that shouldn’t be a major problem. However, precautions must be taken when hostages are involved. Two cops are situated on the street, each facing a different direction, instructed to tell drivers to take alternative routes for the time being.

Inside the SWAT van are four highly trained snipers who will be placed on the roofs of the two houses neighboring the Tanaka residence; as well as eight additional team members who are specially trained to handle hostage situations. Riding shotgun in the FBI car is Special Agent Jillian Mendoza (who will be the point person during the duration of this crisis), who is hard at work debriefing Robert L. Baker, the hostage negotiator sitting in the back seat.

“Once we make contact with whoever the hell is holding this woman and, presumably, Dylan Tanaka hostage, we will make sure to remind them that we have snipers up on the roofs and additional SWAT officers ready to storm the premises at our command,” Mendoza says. Baker takes notes on a pad of paper, the old-fashioned way. She appreciates that touch. “Sound good? I just want to be clear that this could be nothing close to resembling the crisis we think it is. It’s possible Tanaka is an abusive boyfriend who’s holding that woman against her will. However, we can’t assume that.”

“I understand,” Baker says. “Anticipate the worst, hope for the best. I know how it goes.” After scribbling down his last final notes, Baker checks his phone to see what time it is. It’s 2:19 a.m. The sun won’t be up for another four hours or so. The cover of darkness will work to their advantage, at least for the time being. “Great. Let’s get this show on the road. I don’t exactly find these types of assignments fun per se, but it is what it is. It’s work, important work, and it needs to get done or people die. Can’t have that happen, can we?”

“No, we can’t. You’re right about that. Okay, we’re here,” Mendoza says.

The SWAT van parks near the entrance of the cul-de-sac, far away out of sight from anybody inside the Tanaka residence. Unless they have night-vision goggles, there’s no way anyone can see a black van and SWAT officers dressed in all black from this far distance. As quietly as possible, the police already on the scene, led by Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez, have evacuated all the neighbors and moved them to a single house right at the corner of Winchester Drive and 43rd Avenue. Most of them are wearing pajamas or whatever clothes they could put on in a hurry. Mendoza notices how frightened the final few neighbors are who enter the safe house. It always breaks her heart to see innocent civilians caught up in horrifying situations like this.

A few police officers with flashlights pretend to inspect the houses next to the Tanaka residence. Within five minutes, all four snipers are inside their respective houses, looking for entrances to access the roofs. Getting ready is always the part that makes Mendoza the most nervous. She believes that a hostage-taker is the most likely to lose their cool and start killing hostages when they see police getting in position. Once everyone is in place, guttural fear kicks in and they are less likely to act irrationally. She hopes that pattern continues on this fateful early morning.

“Are we ready?” she asks into her earpiece.

“Yes, we are. All the snipers are in place. Over.” She recognizes the voice responding back to her as Cory Langdon, one of the best sharpshooters in the region. The SWAT are technically police officers, so they don’t work too closely with the FBI unless the shit hits the fan. But everyone in the regional Bureau office knows who Cory Langdon is – he’s that renowned.

She looks up to visually confirm that all the snipers are in position. They are. Good!

“Good evening, everyone,” Officer Dietrich says to the newly arrived feds. “Me and my associate, Officer Gutierrez, have successfully evacuated all civilians to the safe house down the road. No innocents should be in the line of fire.”

“Great! Thank you for that. I’m impressed you were able to wake up that many people at this late hour of the day,” Special Agent Mendoza remarks. “As you can see, the snipers are on the roofs. The SWAT members are in position in front of the brick wall. They’re all wearing enough body armor to shield them from any spikes on top of the wall. We’re ready!”

“Okay, let’s roll. I’ve already been on the property, so I’ll make the introductions, sound good?” When Dietrich sees the hostage negotiator approach him, he immediately gets the feeling he’s about to be usurped by someone above his paygrade.

“Hello, Officer Dietrich. My name is Robert L. Baker. I’m the hostage negotiator,” Baker introduces himself to the veteran cop. He and Dietrich shake hands.

“Yes, I know who you are,” Dietrich says.

“Your reputation precedes you,” Gutierrez chimes in, who suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Even Mendoza, who’s usually hyper-observant when engaging in a crime scene, is surprised to see this young lady show up to the conversation without being seen. “No activity on the ground floor, from what we can tell. Very few lights are on, except for one single light in the foyer. As you can tell, there’s one light on somewhere on the third floor. Probably a bedroom. We don’t have blueprints of the house, so I’m just guessing here. Rich people like Tanaka can keep secrets your typical ordinary person can’t. And I don’t know if you know this already, but our guys found something of keen interest in the backyard.”

“What is it?” Mendoza wants to know.

“A ten-inch half-circle of glass was cut in his screen door. Someone broke into his home for sure. No doubt about it,” Gutierrez reports. The two FBI agents look at each other, their nonverbal glances signaling that this is confirmation that something is afoot. Tanaka isn’t alone in his own home. After a brief moment of silence, Special Agent Mendoza turns to Dietrich.

“How did you make contact with Tanaka?” Mendoza asks.

“Right over there by pressing the call button,” Dietrich says, pointing to the callbox next to the gate. “That’s how we spoke at first. I asked him to come down and he did so after an unusually long time.”

“How long?” Baker asks. He takes out his pad of paper and restarts taking notes. The two police officers aren’t as impressed by his diligence as Mendoza was.

“Five or six minutes. I can’t imagine it would take him that long to get from his upstairs bedroom to the front door, but it did,” Dietrich says. “Especially when a police officer wants to talk to you after a shooting. The way he dressed was also unusual. He wore black pants and a black shirt that was way too tight on him. Almost like it wasn’t his. Like he had to wear it for appearance’s sake.”

“Hm. That is strange,” Mendoza concurs. “Well, let’s get started. Go to the callbox and request to speak to him again. Tell him we suspect the shooter is somewhere inside his house and that we request to enter his home. If he refuses or seems tongue-tied, that’ll tip us off that either he’s directly involved in something sinister…or someone inside his house is up to something sinister. Either way, we’re going to have to intervene whether he likes it or not. Sound like a plan?” Baker, Dietrich, and Gutierrez all verbalize the consensus that this is a solid plan. As Special Agent Mendoza and Baker chat among themselves, Officer Dietrich slowly approaches the callbox that he used earlier. He takes a deep breath, looks up at the sole light emanating from the third floor, and presses the “call” button. It takes a few moments until someone answers it. After a brief muffled sound, Dylan’s voice can be heard on the speaker.

“Yeah? Hello Officer. Did you catch the bastard who shot my neighbor?” Dylan Tanaka asks, a slight hint of nervousness in his voice. After many years on duty, Dietrich has grown adept at interpreting the various ways people attempt to hide their nervousness. Tanaka, to his credit, is doing a pretty good job at appearing to be (somewhat) calm.

“No, however my officers suspect whoever shot your neighbor might actually be hiding somewhere inside your home. We saw that the sliding glass door in your backyard had a portion cut out of it. We think someone has broken into your home. May several of my guys enter your premises, Mr. Tanaka?” Dietrich sees a few officers taking a couple steps forward so they can listen in on their conversation. The experienced officer shoos them away with his hand, not wanting too many people in blue uniforms to be seen in the security camera view. The fact it’s taking Tanaka a long time to respond is indicative that something is definitely not right.

Downstairs in the gym, Dylan is holding the transistor radio close to his chest as Stephen screams obscenities upon hearing Officer Dietrich request several cops to enter the home and search the premises. There’s no way everyone can hide in a closet or pantry while multiple officers search every nook and cranny. The mess Thomas has already made trying to break into the safe is damning enough. The five hostages relish watching their usually rational captor suddenly become explosively irrational at the flip of a switch. Dylan, who attempts to remain emotionless on the surface, cannot help but feel joy inside seeing his former colleague realize that his master plan is tumbling down like a ton of bricks.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKK!!!” Stephen screams at the top of his lungs. His associates cower in fear as they realize that they too are going down with the sinking ship. Stephen kicks a wastebasket across the room. Thankfully, it’s empty. “Give me that bloody radio, NOW!”

Dylan obliges. Stephen, with the radio in hand, takes several deep breaths. He knows he must remain calm and logical if he and his men are to have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting out of this mess intact. Of course, he hasn’t forgotten about the secret ace up his sleeve that he has enclosed in his backpack (which is sitting next to Thomas Sellars’ duffle bag of equipment). In fact, he brought that along just in case disaster were to strike. This, unfortunately, constitutes such a disaster.

“Hello, officer,” Stephen calmly says to Dietrich. “Well done. Well played. I thought I could get away with it, but apparently that wasn’t in the cards for me tonight.”

On the street level, Dietrich looks back at Special Agent Mendoza and Robert L. Baker. Both of them scurry over to the callbox to listen in on the conversation unfolding. “Who am I speaking to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“My name is unimportant. You will find out soon enough. For now, you can call me Steve.”

Baker’s eyes pierce into Dietrich’s eyes. This is where a professional hostage negotiator is needed, and everyone present knows it. Officer Dietrich kindly steps aside to let the FBI man do his job. Meanwhile, Officer Cunningham and a few other police officers are setting up several powerful floodlights across the street, all pointed at Dylan Tanaka’s house. Four lights are being set up in the bedrooms of the two neighboring houses (to give the snipers a better view of the property) and three more in front of the gate. Any moment now, the entire mansion will be lit up like a Christmas tree. There’d be nowhere for someone hiding behind a curtain to evade being seen.

“Hello, Steve. My name is Robert Baker. You can call me Rob. I am with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Is it safe for me to assume that we have more than a simple house party happening in there?” Baker, a veteran FBI agent in his mid-40s, is a tall balding man with a grey goatee, thin brown-rimmed glasses, and a logo-less dark blue baseball cap. The first thing he wants to do is discover the hostage-taker’s intentions.

“Yeah, you can say that. I suppose there’s no reason for me to lie to you, huh? I’m surrounded by cops, FBI spooks like yourself, and probably the National Guard right at this moment, am I right?” Stephen paces back and forth in front of Dylan and the four other hostages. Roddy, Xander, and Cortez split up to see what kind of mess has developed outside the house.

“I can’t say we invited the National Guard, but everyone else you spoke about is here right now, yes,” Baker politely informs “Steve,” the villain of tonight’s festivities. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You seem like a smart, reasonable man. Who are you, Steve, and how many people are inside that house?”

“Let’s just say I’m a former disgruntled employee,” Stephen says, which is technically not a fib. “I have beef with Dylan Tanaka. Well, a lot of people do, so that biographical tidbit shouldn’t reveal who I am just yet. And I’ll be honest with you, Rob. I have five hostages in here. Dylan is one of them. You probably met the naked woman who tried to escape, right?”

“Actually, no. I heard about her, but I have not personally met her. In fact, I just arrived a few minutes ago. So I’m new to the party. I apologize for not bringing beer.” In an instant, all the floodlights turn on almost simultaneously. The bright white light temporarily blinds everyone near the gate, including Baker. He squints and faces away from the lights in order to regain his vision. “Do you see that?”

The floodlights are very visible through the gym’s upper windows. “Yes, I clearly see that you’ve apparently turned on all the lights in the neighborhood. Well done,” Stephen sarcastically remarks. The lights do add a much-needed ambient radiance to the basement, though no one is in a mood to form interior decorating observations at the moment. “Let me guess. There’s a SWAT team that’s about to arrive.”

“No, the SWAT team is already here. We have multiple snipers hiding in various locations, all with a clear view of the property. The street has been closed off to the public. And the neighbors have been woken up and escorted to safety. So, we can hang out and chat all night long, if you’d like. But I somehow doubt that would interest you.”

Stephen releases the “talk” button and swears to himself. “You’re all pretty lucky right now,” he says to the hostages. “You may have a way out of this that doesn’t result in a bullet going through your head. Good for you, fuckers.” He returns to speaking to Baker on the radio. “No, that would not interest me. Not in the slightest.”

“How many associates do you have with you?”

“Four others. All armed. Including me.” Stephen takes out his pistol and cocks it for good measure, making sure that the sound goes through to the other side.

“I see. Is anyone hurt?”

“No, just my pride. I thought I had an airtight plan. Everything was going so well until that slutty bitch escaped from our grasp.” Stephen glares at Peggy. She smiles back at him, satisfied that her daring escape ended up bearing fruit. Seeing this makes Stephen point his gun right at her face. Everyone gasps. “Speaking of which, I could shoot her right now. She’s in front of me, just a few feet away. One pull of the trigger and her brains will be smeared all over the wall. Should I do that, Rob?”

“Of course not, Steve. Let’s not do anything that you’ll regret later. Breaking and entering, combined with taking hostages and threatening to do them harm, carries a hefty enough prison sentence for you and your friends. If you add murder to that list, the consequences will be more severe. Don’t do it. Spare their lives. You don’t need to hurt anyone to prove your point.” Everyone surrounding Baker cannot believe how cool and collected he is right now, including Special Agent Mendoza, who smiles watching him go to work.

“Oh? And what point is that, Rob?”

“I don’t know for sure, but you said you’re a disgruntled employee. I’m thinking you want to punish Mr. Tanaka for wrongdoing. You want to kill him and his friends. Is that right? Why else would you be there?” Off in the distance, Baker sees that the entire cul-de-sac is packed with police cars, ambulances, and a few firetrucks (just in case). Combined with snipers on the rooftops and powerful floodlights making the mansion glow like it’s in the middle of a fish tank, it’s quite a scene right here in this (usually) quiet neighborhood.

“That’s exactly why I’m here, very perceptive of you,” Stephen lies. “So in other words, you’re trying to convince me that Dylan here has already learned his lesson, you know, being taken hostage at gunpoint, that sort of thing. Pretty traumatizing unto itself, huh?”

“Very much so. I’m pretty sure this is a night none of your hostages will ever forget, no matter how long they live.” Special Agent Mendoza, listening in on the conversation, is surprised at how intelligent this “Steve” guy sounds. If he’s a former disgruntled employee, as he claims he is, he certainly passes the smell test. Baker resumes the conversation. “Your situation is hopeless. We have you surrounded. You know that. You and your friends are going to face criminal punishment since you’ve already committed many felonies. Adding murder to that list will do you no good. Now, I can foresee you looking at this as a suicidal mission. Your beef is with Mr. Tanaka, but chances are your associates don’t feel the same way about him. Is that correct?”

Stephen looks at his fellow bandits, who have all returned to the gym after inspecting the outside. The look of dreadful fear on everyone’s faces is palpable. “Yes, you can say that.”

“Alright, so that means they probably are not up for a suicidal mission, even if you are. You might be willing to shoot every single hostage and then take your own life shortly before the police come running into the house. However, since we just established your associates don’t feel the same level of hatred against Mr. Tanaka as you do, they wouldn’t want to add “accessory to murder” on their rap sheet. Am I on the right track here?”

“Yes, you are,” Stephen says with a strong hint of defeat in his voice. He knows where this guy is going with this.

“So, that means they probably wouldn’t want to see you kill any of them. Because doing so would make their punishments even more brutal than it already will be. And since we established they aren’t as willing as you are to take your own life before the cavalry rides up over the nearest hill, odds are…they’ll try to stop you from killing anyone. They have every incentive to do so, right?”

“Yes.”

“At any moment, one of your guys may attempt to frag their commanding officer, or stage a mutiny, or whatever analogy you want to use. Are you familiar with this terminology, Steve?”

“I am, Rob. I’ve read about the Vietnam War in school. I know what fragging means.”

“Good. So…you don’t really want to shoot any of the hostages. Not Dylan Tanaka, not the woman, not anyone else we haven’t met yet.” Baker knows he’s this close to talking Steve off the ledge. The best way to do that is to frame his actions in terms of his own value system and how irrational behavior will undermine his own objectives. This is the best way to save lives. Persuade the hostage-taker that killing hostages will invalidate the very reason he’s taking hostages in the first place. Thus far, it seems to be working. “I shall be blunt. You seem like a smart guy. If you kill any of the hostages, your own men will probably do the same to you shortly afterward…to save their own hides. From our conversation so far, it doesn’t seem like you’re best friends with any of your associates. They’re probably hired guns, right? Employees working with you on a one-time basis. You don’t particularly care about them…and they don’t particularly care about you. Which means one of them – or all of them – will not hesitate to take you out if it means minimizing the body count and saving themselves from additional prison time. There’s a major difference between ten years in a federal penitentiary and, oh, say twenty-five years, or forty years, wouldn’t you say, Steve?”

“There certainly is, Robby boy,” Stephen smirks at his new pal. “Damn. You’re good at what you do. I can tell this isn’t the first hostage situation you’ve tried to diffuse. Very clever.”

“Thank you. But let’s return to your predicament, shall we? Since we just established your friends aren’t willing to go on a suicide mission, even if you are, you want some semblance of a victory, am I correct? You know your situation is hopeless, but that doesn’t mean it has to be meaningless. Unfortunately for you, the longer you talk, the more likely this fragging is bound to happen. So, this means you need to surrender as quickly as possible, lest you risk that terrible outcome becoming more and more likely to happen by the second.” Baker is confident he’s got him where he needs him. He has just (hopefully) saved that woman’s life, and possibly everyone else’s lives. If this ordeal ends with no dead bodies – pending the poor man who’s being rushed to the hospital at this very moment – that’s an A+ grade he deserves for this job.

“Hot damn. You’re good. Very good. Alright. Very well. You win. I think we should meet face-to-face, Rob. How does that sound?” Stephen looks right at Dylan, who also has a twinge of hope in his eyes. Melanie whispers something into Henry’s ear. Peggy and Monique are huddled close together but don’t say anything to each other. As angry as he is right now, Stephen isn’t a monster (technically speaking) who wants to actually kill people just for spite. And as much as he hates Dylan with a fiery passion, he probably couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger and end his life if it came to that point. He’s thought about it, of course, but he’s smart enough to know that obsessive feelings you get while stewing in your prison cell don’t necessarily translate into the real world.

“Okay, that sounds good to me. I would–”

“Except I’ll bring along two guests, just to prove that I haven’t already killed everyone. Well, you already heard from Dylan Tanaka briefly, so you know he’s alive. But, you don’t know for sure that the other four are alive as well, am I right?”

Baker, Special Agent Mendoza, and Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez give each other suspicious looks. Where is he getting at? “You are correct. We do not know for sure that you haven’t already killed anyone. Do you plan to visit us by the gate? I can assure you no one will impede your walk from wherever you are to the front gate,” Baker says. He makes a hand signal asking the police to clear the area as much as possible. After the officers had finished searching the property, they kindly left the area and shut the gate behind them by pressing a button located on the interior of the brick wall. They have no way of getting back in unless they break down the gate or scale the wall.

“I like that sound of that. Over and out,” Stephen says tongue-in-cheek. He switches off the transistor radio and tosses it to Roddy. He catches it with one hand, with his Glock in the other. “Dylan and the black guy. Come with me. Calmly.” He points at Dylan and Henry, who both slowly stand up after being summoned. Henry shakes his leg to get rid of a mild cramp. Dylan is the first to walk toward the door. Henry trudges along behind him. Stephen carefully follows both of them from behind just in case either of them decides to dash to their freedom like Peggy Cole attempted to do.

“Roddy, come with me. You two, stay behind and make sure none of these bitches do anything stupid, okay?” Xander and Cortez both verbally communicate their understanding of their boss’s order. Roddy unsheathes his firearm and follows Stephen, Dylan, and Henry to the door. Cortez, who’s keenly aware of his role in creating this mess in the first place, watches the three women like a hawk, determined not to repeat his earlier mistake again. Then again, he’s also aware that any of his associates will shoot him on the spot if he even comes close to screwing up a second time. Professional criminals tend to protect their own…until the very moment a dimwitted idiot jeopardizes their lives or livelihood.

Once their boss, Roddy, and the two hostages have left the gym, Xander decides to break the silence and take charge.

“Now, I’m only going to say this once. If any of you bitches decide to do anything, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I won’t hesitate to kill you. Got it? I got orders to only shoot you if you attempt to mess up our plan. Well, clearly that shit has already happened, hasn’t it, you dumbass?” He doesn’t need to look at Cortez in order to get his point across.

“Yeah…sorry man–”

“Ah, ah, ah, ah! I don’t need a fucking apology from you, you dumb piece of shit. Because of your dumbass, we’re all going to fucking prison, unless the boss man has any tricks up his sleeve. But whatever. If the loot we’re stealing is as valuable as everyone says it is, we may be able to cut a deal and avoid time in the slammer,” Xander says, who seems to be trying to talk his way into persuading himself that everything will be all right. So far, it sort of appears to be working.

“We get it. You want us to sit still and not move a muscle,” Melanie speaks up. “Or you’ll shoot us dead. Or whatever. Is that what you’re trying to say?”

“Yeah, you tranny. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say.” Xander points his gun right between Melanie’s eyes. She doesn’t flinch, though Monique and Peggy do. This makes him laugh. “I don’t know if you’re a dude or a ‘roided up chick, but you have balls. For sure. I got to respect that, as fucked up as that sounds.”

“I’ll accept your respect, for what it’s worth.”

Xander nods his head. Cortez lowers his gun, not wanting to accidentally shoot anyone prematurely before he has a reason to. Monique seems to be on the verge of tears again. And Peggy, the muscle chick responsible for getting the police here, can only grin at her captors. The two guys may hope that Stephen has an ace up his sleeve, but she has a hidden surprise of her own that she plans to reveal soon when the time is right.

***

Most of Dylan Tanaka’s neighbors are wealthy but largely anonymous individuals. They made their fortunes the traditional way: Climbing up the corporate ladder, stocks and investments, or family wealth passed down from generation to generation. Being woken up in the middle of the night to police officers telling them to quickly dress, evacuate their homes, and stay put in a safe house until a hostage crisis down the road comes to an end is certainly not a chain of events that any of these folks have ever experienced before…or will experience ever again.

There is, however, one neighbor who may not have ever personally experienced a crisis like this, but she’s reported on it as part of her day job.

Nicole Jarrett, a television video editor with eight years of experience working for Channel 7 News, and her husband live three houses away from Dylan Tanaka. During the media blitz that rocked their quiet little neighborhood in the wake of a national scandal involving their most famous (or infamous) resident, Nicole’s network was given easy access to interviews with the man himself because of her proximity to Dylan. And, it goes without saying, because they’re on friendly terms from being good next-door neighbors. Nicole has always treated Dylan with respect – even when the label “war profiteer” was maliciously thrown at him – which he deeply appreciated. When times were tough, Nicole was able to put her personal opinions aside (she actually thinks Dylan belongs in prison, though she’d never tell him that to his face) and still treat him kindly. That’s the spirit that has allowed her to work in the cutthroat business of television news media for so long.

Even though the police warned all the neighbors not to call or text their friends and family about this ordeal – because they were afraid if this were featured on the news the bad guys would panic and start shooting the hostages out of fear of being caught – Nicole couldn’t help herself. She’s a newswoman, and she must do what she’s been trained to do for the majority of her professional life: Report newsworthy information to her colleagues as soon as possible, lest they risk a rival station breaking it first.

Right now, all the civilians have gathered in the basement of Cory and Veronica Martinelli, who live in a house closest to the entrance of the cul-de-sac, on the corner of Winchester Drive and 43rd Avenue. Cory and Veronica have made hot tea for everyone (including a few of the police officers who’ve regularly checked in with them to provide infrequent updates on the ongoing situation) so they aren’t seen as indifferent hosts. Very few conversations are happening. Some folks have miraculously fallen back asleep. Nicole cannot fathom how anyone could go back to sleep when a group of armed terrorists has broken into Dylan Tanaka’s house and taken him hostage. When no one is looking, she texts her colleagues at the station who would be up at this time. The morning news broadcast begins at 6:00 a.m., which isn’t for another four hours, give or take. However, the anchors and crewmembers working the morning shift should be up by now, eating breakfast and showering. Thankfully, Derek Nguyen, the morning producer who decides which stories will be featured in every broadcast, is awake and excitedly responding to her illicit texts. As they’re texting each other, a news van is speeding toward their location, with a helicopter not far behind. She tries to respond to his messages without anyone seeing her – especially the cops.

DEREK NGUYEN: Holy shit! If this is for real this is the story of the century lol

NICOLE JARRETT: No kidding. Cops are everywhere. More cop cars and FBI guys are showing up literally every minute. It’s a circus. SOOOOOOOOOOO EXCITING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

DEREK NGUYEN: It sure is lol

NICOLE JARRETT: You have Bob and Candace on the way, right?

DEREK NGUYEN: Yes ma’am! They’re literally on the road right now. They should be there in less than 10 min. No traffic. Should get there soooooooon

NICOLE JARRETT: Thanks Derek

DEREK NGUYEN: Ur welcome. Stay safe. Don’t get shot!

NICOLE JARRETT: I won’t lol

DEREK NGUYEN: 😊

NICOLE JARRETT: 😉

And with that, the very scenario that the authorities were trying to avoid is about to unfold. Word spreads quickly around the local news scene, so it would only be a matter of time before a few of their rival networks – Channel 4, 5, and 13, respectively – caught wind of the word on the street that one of Seattle’s most infamous residents may be executed by a gang of terrorists.

Sure enough, word does spread like wildfire, even at this late hour. Newspapers, TV stations, bloggers, and magazines never sleep. And people who spend way too much time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also rarely get the eight hours of shuteye that they need. The army of police cars with their lights flashing makes this section of Seattle look like a block-wide Christmas decoration. Many of the neighbors within a quarter of a mile have also awoken to the endless sirens that have roared throughout the night. With this comes people complaining about this on social media. And eventually, local news people will catch on and see a pattern.

Something sinister is brewing at Dylan Tanaka’s house.

By 3:00 a.m., the story begins trending on Twitter. The phrases “Dylan Tanaka,” “hostage situation,” “terrorist attack,” and “active shooter” all trend locally, but so far not a peep nationally. It is already 6:00 on Sunday morning for people on the East Coast, so it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it. And when they do, it’s sure to lead all the Sunday morning news shows. No talk about politics, the 2020 presidential election, or the economy. All the attention is bound to be on a small scale but dramatic scene happening inside one single home in Seattle, Washington. This is, without question, not the kind of attention Stephen Callahan had wanted when he planned this heist.

Nicole also has friends who work at a rival news station. She sends them a few cryptic messages saying her station has the scoop for the story of the year. One person has already responded, indignant that she’s not revealing more information. The other two are probably still asleep. Even though she’s full of adrenaline at the moment, Nicole would rather be sleeping if she could help it. However, sleep will have to wait.

Five miles away, the Channel 7 News van races toward the scene. Inside are a reporter, camera operator, photographer, and technician (who is also driving). As they pull up to 43rd Avenue, the van screeches to a halt when they see the whole street blocked off with yellow police tape. One of the officers swears to himself when he sees the news media have shown up. A few moments later another news van from Channel 5 appears. Then, a Seattle Times reporter riding a bicycle finds himself temporarily blinded by the seemingly thousands of red and blue lights flickering all over the neighborhood. Up above, a police helicopter has finally arrived on the scene, shining a bright spotlight – as if Winchester Drive needed additional bright lights – on the roof of Dylan Tanaka’s mansion. An already maniacal scene has just been kicked up a notch. Soon, it’ll get much worse once the national news outlets find out about this developing crisis.

What helps spread the word is an anonymous Twitter personality named Rufus P. Little, a Seattle resident who tweets nothing but weird rumors, hearsay, and chatter collected from a police scanner radio he (or she or they) owns. With an incredible 278,549 followers, Rufus tweets content at all hours of the night – including federal holidays – and is usually pretty reliable. Or at the very least, his content is entertaining enough for more than a quarter of a million people to want to consume it. As of right now, Rufus is tweeting furiously about a developing situation happening in the private home of infamous Seattleite Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics who should be in prison but isn’t. His first tweet announcing the shocking news that Mr. Tanaka is being held at gunpoint by terrorists (or some sort of group of criminals) was retweeted 57,102 times within ten minutes of it being sent out. Subsequent tweets have accumulated similar engagement statistics.

Give credit to Rufus P. Little (who’s garnered a following beyond the Pacific Northwest, though the majority of his audience is from the greater Seattle area) for ensuring that newsmakers on the east coast are alerted to this dramatic situation. While he’s not a fan of Mr. Tanaka, he doesn’t want any harm to come to him. Unless the people holding him hostage are Syrian parents whose children were killed in a drone strike caused by faulty analytical intelligence. Then it would be him getting his comeuppance.

By 3:15 a.m. (6:15 on the east coast), all the major national television news stations have picked up on the story. ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and BBC are all reporting on what’s going on to millions of viewers in the United States and the United Kingdom. The usual left-wing and right-wing commentators choose to emphasize either the “corrupt billionaire experiencing blowback thanks to his crimes against humanity” or “(possible foreign) terrorists hold American civilians hostage” angle, depending on what gets them more clicks and social media followers. Even the crackpot conspiracy theory websites, who still think Dylan Tanaka is somehow a member of the Illuminati or the New World Order or whatever, get in on the action, insisting Dylan has been continuing his top-secret work for the Pentagon and the Department of Defense and that he’s now become “expendable” in the plot to take over the world. Or, Dylan “found out too much” and is being executed in order to ensure his silence. No matter where you choose to get your news, the CRISIS BREWING IN SEATTLE (a not-so-subtle reference to the Emerald City’s greatest cultural contribution, the Starbucks Corporation) is the top trending story across the nation (and certain parts across the globe).

A sample of announcements should shed light on what the “national conversation” sounds and feels like:

CNN: Breaking news out of Seattle, Washington. A few hours ago, local police were alerted to a possible hostage situation developing in the home of Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics and consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense. At around 1:40 in the morning local time, a 9-1-1 call was made claiming a shooting had happened right outside Mr. Tanaka’s private residence. When police arrived on the scene, they discovered that he and at least one other houseguest were being held hostage by armed gunmen inside his home. It is unknown at this time how many gunmen there are, how many hostages there are, and whether or not Mr. Tanaka or anyone else has been shot or killed. This is a developing story, so stay tuned for further updates on this…

Fox News: We’ve just gotten reports that multiple armed terrorists have broken and entered into the home of former U.S. military contractor Dylan Tanaka, who you may remember was subject to a lengthy and public federal investigation for his activities combatting terrorism in the Middle East. Local police are not speaking to the media at this time, but an unnamed source close to the situation says a hostage crisis is brewing in Seattle. We will try to gather further testimony from eyewitnesses in the meantime. We do not yet know if anyone has been killed, though we do know at least one adult male has been shot and is being taken to a local hospital. More on this story a little later…

MSNBC: We interrupt for breaking news developing in Seattle. There are reports of a hostage crisis happening inside the residence of Dylan Tanaka, the former CEO of Perseus Analytics who had previously been working on a top-secret antiterrorism project for the U.S. government. Tanaka was the subject of a congressional investigation into his activities developing drone technology for the military and American intelligence agencies. The investigation resulted in Tanaka resigning from his position, Perseus Analytics dissolving, and several of his top lieutenants serving federal prison sentences. As you may recall, the reclusive billionaire did not face any jail time for his actions. Now, it seems like he is being held hostage inside his own home. Local authorities are not speaking to reporters on the ground. Eyewitnesses say several people, not just Tanaka, are being held at gunpoint. It is unknown at this time how many gunmen there are on the scene or if there are any casualties. One source who lives in the neighborhood says a man was taken to a local hospital after suffering some sort of injury. We will update this story as further developments come in. In other news, it appears that the White House will…

BBC: Good morning. Breaking news from the United States. American businessman and former military contractor Dylan Tanaka is reportedly being held at gunpoint inside his home in Seattle, Washington. At about 1:40 in the morning local time, police were alerted to an alleged shooting that had occurred outside Mr. Tanaka’s private home. Authorities later discovered a much more serious situation developing, though it is unclear at this moment how that happened. Several eyewitnesses say a significant police presence is now on the ground, as civilians have been escorted out of their homes and transported far away from ordeal. In addition to serving as a consultant for the American military, Tanaka’s former company, Perseus Analytics, contracted with the British government on several top-secret defense projects. Perseus Analytics’ U.K. headquarters used to be located in London before the company dissolved and merged with The McDermott Corporation. It is unknown whether or not there have been any fatalities. According to a source inside Parliament, the Prime Minister has been briefed on the situation, as Mr. Tanaka was working on a special project for the RAF before resigning from his position as CEO. We will keep you informed about this ongoing situation as we learn about further updates…

As national news outlets begin to report feverishly on this crisis, Rufus P. Little is rapidly becoming something of an international celebrity. His keenly accurate tweets, or at least they’re seen as accurate by the millions of people who are sharing his updates, have reached the furthest corners of the globe. Reporters who are too lazy to fly out to Seattle to investigate are simply sending him DMs asking for timely updates before he gives them away to the public for free. Rufus, not surprisingly, “blocks” them out of spite. Just because he’s willing to do their job for them doesn’t mean he’s going to give them inside knowledge just so they can chase Twitter clout. Rufus is a man of the people, after all. And the people deserve better.

As Stephen, Dylan, Henry, and Roddy walk outside on the driveway, at least half a dozen helicopters (two belonging to the police and FBI and the other four to local TV news stations) are swirling around up above. The deafening noise hurts their ears, though they quickly adjust and do their best to drown out the bedlam. They have more important matters to worry about. The driveway is clear but it is impossible to not notice the large crowd of people – mostly police and SWAT officers – gathered on the other side of the gate. It looks like an angry mob of armed militants getting ready to storm a foreign embassy. Stephen is walking right behind Dylan with a gun pointed at his neck. Roddy decides to be less dramatic, choosing to have his firearm in hand but not pointed at Henry directly. He knows the chef won’t attempt to do anything stupid like flee or climb the gate to escape. Stephen estimates there has to be at least forty or fifty police officers, and a dozen or so SWAT members, in attendance of today’s makeshift neighborhood block party. He sees a couple plainclothes people in front of the gate, which he guesses are the FBI people he spoke to earlier.

“Good morning, Steve,” Baker says to Stephen as the group comes to a complete stop. The fact that there are dozens of guns pointed in his direction makes his heart race a million miles a minute. He’s sure the others are feeling the same way.

“Is it morning already? God, it’s been a long night,” Stephen wryly replies.

“Yes, it has. You’ve been busy.” Baker takes a look at the man he just spoke to through the gate callbox. He’s exactly what he expected him to be: Fairly tall, clean-shaven, dark brown hair, dressed in all black, well-spoken, and determined to get away with whatever it is he’s trying to get away with. “Steve” looks like a schemer who’s planned this out, even for a worst-case-scenario such as this one. Stephen stops about ten feet away from the gate. Baker takes this as his cue to resume speaking. “Let’s talk like adults. As you can see, there’s no way you’re escaping from this nightmare. Eventually, even if it takes all day, or all week for that matter, you and your men will be brought into police custody. There’s no denying that. Do you agree, Steve?”

“I agree. Mr. Tanaka here and his personal chef are sure to want to end this nightmare as soon as possible,” Stephen says. Henry raises his hand to make sure the authorities know who he is. Dylan will never forgive himself for putting his friends in harm’s way. “You’ve probably noticed how calm I am right now, have you not?”

“Yes, that has crossed my mind,” Baker says. “How are you, Mr. Tanaka?”

“Oh, I’ve had better Saturday evenings,” Dylan jokes. “I sort of, uh, wish I had decided to binge-watch something on Netflix instead of dealing with this circus.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, not even a scratch or a bruise. Other than the fact Mr. Callahan here and his buddies have been pointing guns at me all night long, I’m doing just fine.” Dylan looks at Stephen to see if he’s upset that he just revealed his name. The cops would have found out who he is sooner or later.

“Are you Stephen Callahan?” Baker asks. “The former Perseus Analytics executive who spent two years in prison–”

“Three,” Stephen interrupts. “Three. I spent three years in prison. Yes, you probably recognize me from the congressional hearings. Or that stupid PSA I did for Greenpeace all those years ago. I am indeed Stephen Callahan, Mr. Tanaka’s former right-hand man. We used to be close. We used to be friends. Well, I think it’s safe to say that’s not exactly true anymore, isn’t it?” He raises his gun to the back of Dylan’s head. The cops behind Robert L. Baker and Special Agent Mendoza draw their weapons in response. Baker puts his hand up to tell everyone to stand down. The police lower their weapons.

“Yeah, I’d say our friendship has come to an end. That ship has sailed. You’ve burned a hell of a lot of bridges tonight, buddy,” Dylan says. “Don’t expect a Christmas card from me this year.”

“I guess no letter of recommendation for you,” Henry chimes in. This makes Baker and Mendoza laugh. Roddy wants to laugh but refrains. Dylan smiles.

“Enough chit chat,” Stephen begins. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. I do have a backup plan, believe it or not. And Rob, this involves you. And you.” He points to Special Agent Mendoza, correctly sensing a well-dressed woman standing next to the hostage negotiator would be a person of importance. “I figured there would be a small chance that tonight’s plan would go haywire. So I planned accordingly. I have an ace up my sleeve. Want to hear what it is?”

Dylan and Henry, who are both aware of Stephen’s plan to steal top-secret scientific documents, have no idea what this “ace up his sleeve” is, or the fact that he even had one to begin with. The two men figured Stephen and his bandits simply planned to show up, break in, threaten Dylan with his life if he doesn’t cooperate, steal the loot, and walk out of here as quietly as church mice. As they are about to find out, Stephen came prepared.

“I am quite curious how you intend to get out of this pickle.” Baker points up in the sky at the police helicopters flying circles around the neighborhood. He doesn’t need to remind them of the dozens of police officers, highly trained SWAT team members, and snipers strategically positioned from above. “What is it?”

Stephen clears his throat, enjoying his temporary moment in the spotlight (both literally and figuratively speaking). He hopes he delivers a convincing performance since he’s pulling this out of thin air. He brought the dirty bomb with him, but that’s a last resort, not a Plan B. “I have several associates that I’m working with. Four of them are working with me tonight.” He gestures to Roddy, who nods his head. Roddy doesn’t know where Stephen is going with this, but he decides to play along and pretend like he’s fully informed about what he’s about to say. “The others are working, let’s say, elsewhere. Here it goes. I’ve planted a bomb in this city. It’s not large, but it’s significant enough to kill everyone who’s within, say, a 25-foot range. Now, in five to six hours, a new day will begin in Seattle. It’s Sunday, but not everyone likes to sleep in. People like to go to brunch, church, or watch sports in their favorite bar. Hidden somewhere is a bomb that will go off if anything were to happen to me or my men. Understand?

Special Agent Mendoza, Robert L. Baker, and Officers Dietrich and Gutierrez exchange quick glances at each other, expressions of surprise and dread filling their faces.

“Do you know where this bomb is located, Steve?” Baker asks. His eyes focus on Stephen’s face and voice inflection. Part of his FBI training included reading people’s verbal and physical expressions to see if they’re lying or not. Callahan, whether he knows this or not, is a hard man to read. This was evident during the congressional hearings. It’s evident now.

“I do not. That’s the beauty of my plot. I gave orders to my associates to hide the bomb in a random location. It could be anywhere. A car trunk. Inside a trash can. Under a restaurant table. In a library. Under a bus seat. Near the train tracks. Anywhere. It’s small enough to hide in plain sight,” Stephen teases. He senses genuine fear out of the hardened FBI spooks and the lead cops. “You can’t possibly evacuate the entire city. You can send the bomb squad to every public location possible, but that’ll only make my friends paranoid that something has happened to me. And if they feel like our mission has failed, they’ll detonate the bomb just out of spite. You could see upwards to twenty, maybe thirty people dead. Maybe more, if they hid the bomb in the right place. Wow, what a predicament! Bet you didn’t see this coming, did you?”

“How do we know you’re telling the truth? You could be lying.” Baker counters with no emotion in his voice. Dylan, who’s just as shocked as everyone else is, hopes Stephen is lying through his teeth to save his own hide. He’s a bad man (as he clearly found out tonight), but he’s not a mass murderer. Unless you count the work they did in Iraq and Syria…

“Yeah, I figured you’d say that.” Stephen puts down the gun once he sees the police back off. “Well, can you really take that chance? Can you really assume I’m lying just to save me and my colleagues from facing jail time? I could be. I could have just pulled that out of my ass. But…can you risk it? One of my men inside the house can send a simple text to a certain someone and, well, the bomb goes off. Yeah, it may not do that much damage at this early hour, but for sure people will die. Is that something you want to have to deal with, officers?”

Dietrich and Gutierrez both look down at the ground. They’re still trying to process the horror of possibly having to deal with a Boston Marathon-style terrorist attack in their very own city. They choose to not say anything to him out of defiance. Dylan suspects Stephen’s lying and that there is no bomb, but then again before tonight he never thought he’d be angry enough to pull off everything he’s already pulled off up to this point. So, it’s not totally unreasonable.

“I thought so,” Stephen says triumphantly. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the ace up my sleeve. If I don’t make it out alive, I can guarantee you that people in this city will die. That’s the truth. You can choose to not believe me, but you do so at your own peril. Can you risk it?”

“No, we cannot risk it. Whether we want to or not, we have to take your threat seriously,” Baker acknowledges with a hint of defeat. “Okay, Steve. I hear you loud and clear. How shall we proceed?”

“I’m glad you asked!” Stephen quickly looks back at Roddy, whose expressionless face signifies that he’s also adept at playing along. Roddy knows the bomb threat is bullshit…but he’s doing a heck of a job selling it. For that, he deserves to be commended. “I want a private airplane waiting for us at Boeing Field. Me, my four men, and Dylan will all board it and go to a place of my choosing. After the flight has landed, I will call my other men and tell them to retrieve the bomb from wherever they’ve hidden it and dismantle it. There will be no evidence. The city will be safe. The four other hostages, one of them the black fellow standing right over there, will be left behind. As soon as my plane is ready, they will be released. How does that sound? Do we have a deal?”

A long silence ensues. Baker, Mendoza, Dietrich, Gutierrez, and a few other high-ranking police officers all huddle together like a football team planning their next drive. Stephen, self-satisfied with his performance, looks back at Dylan and Henry. Both men are trying to figure out if Stephen is telling the truth or is full of bullshit. So far, neither of them has any clue. Three excruciating minutes later, the feds and cops break the huddle and return to chatting with Mr. Callahan.

“Okay, Steve. You win. We all think you’re lying, by the way, but we’ve come to a consensus that we can’t take that chance. You could be telling the truth. And if you are, there could be major blood spilled on the streets of our city. We can’t abide by that. Not one damn bit. If you’ll excuse us, we have several phone calls to make. We’ll let you know when your chartered flight is ready. Now, how does that sound to you?”

“Like music to my ears,” Stephen says with the smuggest expression one could possibly give.

***

“I don’t like how long they’re taking,” Xander whispers to Cortez.

“Relax, man. The boss man knows what he’s doing. Yeah, he was pissed off, but he looked like he knew what he was doing,” Cortez reassures him. Melanie, Peggy, and Monique are still sitting together underneath their blankets. Melanie really has to pee but knows there’s no chance she’ll be able to. Not after what Peggy pulled earlier. She’ll be lucky to fart and not get shot.

“What is he doing?”

“I don’t know man. I’m just trying to stay positive, you know? Maybe he has a backup plan, I don’t know,” Cortez says with frustration. Still mad at being responsible for this mess, Cortez is doing whatever he can to redeem himself. Remaining positive and steadfast in accomplishing the mission is the only thing he can do right now. That, and prevent any of the three ladies from trying to escape again.

“Hey, baby,” Peggy says to Cortez. She has a plan to escape…and sincerely hopes the other two gals are game as well. If they aren’t, this could backfire spectacularly. “Would you like to tell everyone how I managed to escape? It’s quite a story, if I may say so myself.”

“Shut the fuck up, bitch!” Cortez snaps. “No, I ain’t saying shit! Nothing! And you shut your mouth, okay? If you talk again, if any of you say shit, I’ll put a bullet right through your fucking head.” He points his pistol at all three women in an attempt to demonstrate toughness. Peggy knows she has him right where she wants him.

“No kidding! The reason you won’t say shit is because you were too busy drinking my piss!” Peggy laughs hysterically. Melanie and Monique look at her, shocked to hear what they just heard. “Isn’t that right? That’s how I did it, girls. He couldn’t help himself. He knows who I am. He loves me. He worships me. He’s one of my loyal subscribers, after all.”

“Oh, wow!” Monique says. “You are a celebrity, baby girl. Of course this perverted asshole knows who you are!”

“I sure am!” Peggy continues. “He really, really, really, reeaaaaaaaaaally wanted to drink my piss. Like, for real. He literally asked to drink my pee. That’s fucking gross, but it’s what he wanted. And when I did, when I crouched down over his face and pissed everything my bladder was holding, this creep literally drank it all! Like he was at a piss fountain!”

Xander bursts out in laughter. Melanie and Monique play along and add to the ruckus. Cortez is beet red, blushing like he’s never blushed before. Peggy smiles at him, knowing she’s pushing all the right buttons.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU FUCKING BITCH!!! YOU FUCKING CUNT! YOU FUCKING WHORE CUNT!” Cortez screams at the top of his lungs.

Instead of shooting her, he decides to walk right up to her and slap her in the face. Peggy wanted him to do this so she could pull off her escape plan. Just as he’s a few feet away from her, Peggy stands up, bends her knees slightly, and pulls the switchblade out of her vagina, where it’s been secretly hidden this whole time. Peggy struggles to push the little release switch because her vaginal juices have made the knife slippery. Fortunately, she succeeds at extending the blade before Cortez could comprehend what was happening. In the blink of an eye, Peggy grabs Cortez’s right shoulder and jabs the blade as deep into his belly as she possibly can. Cortez goes from feeling extreme anger to feeling extreme pain. He cries out, in shock that a blade that long has penetrated his torso…seemingly out of nowhere.

“What the fuck?” Xander blurts out as he watches his comrade get attacked by the lady with big boobs. Melanie, who’s sitting closest to where Xander is standing, leaps from the bench and tackles him to the floor. Monique, surprised at first that all of this is happening so fast, stands up and tries to find a weapon to fight with. She cannot find one.

“Sorry, buddy,” Peggy says, twisting the knife inside Cortez’s stomach. “It’s not personal. I hate to lose a customer tonight, but you’re an asshole who deserves what he’s about to get. I’ll make sure to piss on your grave after they’ve buried you. I’m sure you’ll actually enjoy that!” Peggy pulls the knife out of Cortez’s belly and shoves it back in. This makes him scream even louder. He coughs up blood and spits it all over the floor.

Meanwhile, Melanie overpowers Xander. She knocks the gun to the floor. As he attempts to reach for it, Melanie wraps her powerful right arm around Xander’s neck. She doesn’t want to kill him, but she doesn’t know what other choice she has. She watched enough WWF wrestling back in the ‘80s to know what a sleeper hold is. A few of her muscle worship clients have requested that they put them in a sleeper hold, but every single time she’s refused, saying it’s too dangerous. She regrets not trying it at least once so she could have the experience of successfully doing it.

“Good night, sleep tight!” Melanie says to Xander as he struggles to escape from her strong grip. As the seconds pass by, his resistance diminishes noticeably.

A few feet away, Cortez falls to the ground, bleeding profusely. Peggy holds the knife above his face. She considers going for the kill shot, until Monique interrupts her thought process.

“Hold on, darling. I know how to finish him off,” Monique says. She notices out of the corner of her eye a bunch of heavy free weights lying around about twenty feet away. Monique, who has been training nonstop for the Olympics for the past nine years of her life, finds a 150-pound dumbbell sitting on the floor. She bends down, picks it up with perfect weightlifting form, and walks it back toward Cortez.

“Holy shit, baby…” Peggy mutters under her breath.

“The bastard deserves this. They all do.” With that, Monique squats down and (without arching her back) with all the force she could muster heaves the 150-pound dumbbell high in the air. It’s not quite a clean and jerk maneuver, but it’s pretty damn close. The heavy cast iron dumbbell lands squarely on Cortez’s face, exploding it in a pool of gooey blood and loose flesh. Peggy stands back to avoid the carnage landing on her bare skin.

Out of breath and feeling as powerful as she’s ever felt, Monique leans forward to admire her handiwork. Sure enough, Cortez’s skull has been completely smashed. Brain matter is splattered across the floor. Combined with being stabbed in the belly twice, Cortez is as dead as a doornail. Peggy wipes sweat off her brow. Monique can feel her shoulder and back get strained while attempting this heavy lift (without stretching or using proper form). Even Melanie, who’s still trying to put Xander to sleep, stops what she’s doing to react to what Monique has just done.

“HOLY SHIT! Wow! Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn girl,” Peggy squeals, punching Monique lightly on the shoulder. “You just killed him. Fuck, he’s dead. No doubt about it. He’s soooooooooooo dead. You fucked up his face real, real, reeeeeeeeeeal good!”

Melanie, Peggy, and Monique all gather around Cortez’s carcass. Xander is fast asleep several feet away. No man alive can ever escape from the clutches of Melanie’s enormous biceps. Monique takes Cortez’s gun. Melanie picks up Xander’s pistol. Peggy wipes off the switchblade with one of the blankets. The three strong, confident ladies look at each other, knowing they have one mission and one mission only. Peggy decides to speak for everyone.

“Let’s go rescue Dylan and Henry, and bring these motherfuckers to justice.”

Melanie and Monique don’t say anything because there is nothing else to say.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 10: Daring Escape

For twenty-eight minutes, four bandits and five hostages sit together in complete silence. Nobody even wants to make too much noise breathing (which becomes more difficult the longer everyone has to endure each other). Melanie has snuggled up next to Dylan. Peggy still has not let go of his hand. Monique and Henry are leaning against each other shoulder to shoulder. After what seems like an eternity, the silence is interrupted when Thomas Sellars briskly barges into the room. Stephen gets up when he sees him enter and approaches him. They speak together near the door, their conversation unintelligible, conducted in hushed tones. A few minutes later, Thomas returns to the storage room while Stephen lumbers back to his spot. When he sits down, he decides to break the gym’s silence.

“He’s making good progress. He says he should be done within an hour. That’s good news for all of us. We can leave soon with our loot, and you can leave with your lives,” Stephen promises the hostages. He looks at everyone individually. “This nightmare will soon be over. Trust me.” He looks at his watch and sees the time is now 1:14 in the morning. Moments ago, Stephen received a text from Bill Marks informing him that the security systems are now back online everywhere in the region. This means they cannot leave the property without being caught on camera. However, that shouldn’t be a problem because they’ll leave with masks on. Plus, the bandits have every reason to believe that none of the hostages will report them to the police.

“How do you plan to get away with this? We clearly know who you are,” Henry asks. Stephen is amused that it’s Dylan’s chef who asks this probing question.

“Ah, yes. You’re right. You do know who I am. You may not know the first and last names of my associates, but you certainly know me, which theoretically should be good enough,” Stephen says. “However, we also know who all of you are. You’re Henry, the cook. That’s Peggy, the porn star. This is Melanie, the professional bodybuilder. And that’s Monique, the aspiring Olympic athlete and future gold medalist. And of course, the man of the hour, Mr. Dylan Tanaka. So your identities are not a secret.” Stephen flips through everyone’s confiscated driver’s licenses, reading the names and addresses of all of his hostages. He flashes them in front of his audience, like a magician showing the anxious crowd his deck of cards.

“Miss Wright lives in Chicago at 19903 87th Avenue Southeast, the lovely Miss St. Martin resides at 2477 Santiago Boulevard North in Miami, our famous porn actress Peggy Cole lives at 9090 Cortez Road Southeast, apartment number 540 in Las Vegas, and Henry lives in a humble little condo in West Seattle. Pretty close to one of my favorite pizza places,” Stephen taunts the crowd. “And we all know where Dylan lives and sleeps. Hell, I also know who he sleeps with. Or at least, who is willing to actually sleep with him.” He gives Dylan a cruel look, knowing he’s as emotionally drained as can be. Dylan doesn’t justify his taunts with a response. Besides, he has none to give.

“Damn it,” Peggy murmurs.

“Oh yeah, you can see why it would be dangerous for any of you to turn us in to the police. Or the FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD, DOJ, or whatever alphabet soup federal bureaucracy would have jurisdiction over an investigation into our, um, illegal activities.” Whistling at the sudden realization that he could be potentially in extremely hot water if caught, Stephen drops the taunting act and becomes serious for a moment. “So, you all keep your mouths shut. Don’t say a word about what happened here, what we stole, and whatever we plan to do with it. Actually, I don’t think any of you know what we plan to do with the intel we retrieve tonight. That’s advantageous to us. Let’s keep it that way. What’s the expression, Dylan boy?”

“Loose lips sink ships,” Dylan educates the group.

“Bingo! That’s exactly right. I could never keep the verb tenses straight. Thanks for knowing the exact phrasing. Anyway, you all saw how we easily broke into Dylan’s very expensive home and took you all hostage. You see we have guns and are not afraid to use them. If we have the technical know-how to subvert Dylan’s advanced security systems, you can be damn well assured that we can track all of you down and hunt you down like wild rabbits. We’re deeply connected. We have associates everywhere. Literally everywhere. Am I right, boys?”

“Oh yeah. Everywhere. For sure,” Roddy confirms.

“I got a buddy who lives not far from you, Miss Wright,” Xander says directly to Melanie. Her eyes widen, goosebumps suddenly forming on her skin. She doesn’t know if he’s being serious or if he’s just trying to frighten her, but can she really take a chance? Her life depends on it.

“Wow. That’s crazy. What a small world!” Stephen smirks. He’s pretty sure he’s scared the hostages straight. None of them are going to try anything stupid or unnecessarily heroic. Now is the time to hammer the point home in case there is still any ambiguity. “This means you stay silent about tonight for the rest of your lives. If you squeal to the authorities, we’ll know about it. We may not know exactly who squealed, so that means we’ll just have to silence all of you just to make sure. Do you want to risk it? Do you want to risk your life and the lives of everyone sitting next to you? And we won’t just come after you all. We’ll come after your friends, family, and anyone we think is important to you. I mean, we know Dylan is important to all of you. I can easily come on over at any time and put a bullet between his slanty Asian eyes.”

Dylan, still committed to not giving Stephen the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him, dismisses this racist comment as being par for the course. He always assumed Stephen was an honorable man. One supposes that notion should have challenged during their time working for the Department of Defense. The occasional glee he would exhibit when a successful drone strike killed hundreds of militants (they tried to avoid using the word “terrorist” because not all of them were formal members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Boko Haram) should have raised alarm bells. Unfortunately, Dylan just assumed his colleague was excited to have contributed toward a heroic effort to save innocent civilians from barbarians. How wrong he was, in retrospect. Stephen is and always has been a “grade A” psychopath.

“You just keep getting more and more charming,” Monique says to her captor. “You may get away with this, but one day your time will come. Your luck will run out. You can’t keep doing things like this forever. Eventually, your fun will come crashing down.”

“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” Stephen admits. “You’re right, Missy. One day I will face my day of reckoning. Some day. Not sure when, but I’m sure it’ll be thoroughly unpleasant. But, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. That day is not today, I’m sure of it. Your day of reckoning, however, could be today if you do anything stupid to piss me off.”

All the hostages look down to the floor, almost simultaneously. Stephen gives a look to Roddy. Both men seem to agree that their message has been received and understood with crystal clarity. They shouldn’t have any persisting issues with these five frightened, vulnerable souls. In less than an hour, they should be able to stroll out of this place with their loot successfully stolen and not a care in the world. Soon, they’ll have wealthy bidders from across the globe begging them to sell their intel to them. And Stephen will make sure he gets the best deal he possibly could. Nothing less than the most lucrative.

“Hey. Speaking of getting pissy, I got to pee. Like, real bad,” Peggy speaks up. The other hostages all look at her. Stephen turns around to face Miss Cole.

“Well, we’re all human. I’m glad none of you pissed or shitted yourselves up to this point. I’m quite impressed with that. I may be a cruel monster, but I can’t deny that when nature calls, one must pick up the phone.” Stephen looks at Cortez, who appears to be getting bored listening to everyone lecture each other while they wait for Thomas to break into the vault. “Cortez. Take her to the bathroom. I saw one across the hall, is that correct?”

“Yes. It’s a changing room with shower stalls and lots of toilets,” Dylan confirms. “You can take her there. It’s literally just across the hall.”

“Uh huh. Go. And don’t do anything stupid, you hear me? No drama. No foolishness. Nothing that will risk your life or the lives of your beloved friends,” Stephen issues a stern warning. He looks right at Peggy’s face as she stands up and drops the blanket to the floor, revealing her naked muscular body. Until now, all the bandits have forgotten that the hostages are actually naked since they’ve been huddled up in these fleece blankets for the past thirty minutes. Cortez’s heart jumps at the sight of one of his favorite porn performers walking toward him as nude as the day she was born.

“I hear you. Yeah, nothing stupid. I got it. I’m just going to take a piss, wash my hands, and come back here like a good little girl,” Peggy promises her lead captor. Stephen nods his head without saying a word. He glances at Cortez, who starts to head to the exit.

“Let’s go,” Cortez instructs Peggy. She follows behind him at a timid pace.

“If any of you also need a bathroom break, just speak up. But you can only go one at a time. No group trips to the toilet. Got it?” Stephen offers. Everyone nods their heads meekly. As Cortez and Peggy leave the gym, the four remaining hostages return gazing at the floor. This is enough of a confirmation. “Good. I’m so happy at how cooperative we all are. This is going swimmingly!”

***

Cortez, like a true gentleman, opens the door to the locker room/shower room for Peggy. She smiles at him, showing her appreciation for his kindness. Yes, she’s angry at all five of the thugs who’ve taken them hostage, but the bulk of her rage has been directed at Stephen Callahan. She knows the rest are simply hired goons doing a job for a paycheck. For the rest, it’s not personal. It’s all business. As a former professional bodybuilder and current hotshot in the adult entertainment industry, Peggy Cole knows a thing or two about doing whatever paying job you can to get by. The bills must be paid somehow. Food won’t just materialize on the table out of thin air. You have to work in order to eat, sleep, and play. So because of this, she can rationalize why these men have turned to a life of crime in order to make their living. It’s certainly not an honorable living…but it is a living nevertheless. She hopes one day they will all wake up and decide to abandon the life of crime. Everybody has a conscience, right?

Right?

The locker room is spacious, just like the other rooms in the building. It looks just like one you’d see at a small fitness gym. Dylan sure knows how to spend his money, Peggy thinks to herself. There are wooden benches everywhere, a few metal lockers (for guests), and a row of sinks with ceiling-high mirrors. On the far side of the room, there’s a short hallway that leads to a walk-in sauna and a few individual toilet stalls. Cortez struggles to find the light switch but eventually does. Peggy watches him check her out once the room is fully lit.

“Do you like what you see?” Peggy asks him with a strong condescending tone.

“Uh, yeah, actually,” Cortez stammers. “Um, er, hey, I actually know who you are. I’m a big fan. I’m actually one of your subscribers. I love your videos.”

Before entering into the nearest toilet stall, Peggy turns around to face him. She looks surprised. “Really? Well, that’s quite a coincidence. Never in a million years did I ever think one of my fans would hold me and my friends hostage at gunpoint. Are you still going to subscribe to my channel even after what you and your loser buddies are doing tonight?”

“Oh yeah, of course. I, uh, I hope you aren’t pissed off at me. Honestly, this is just a job. I don’t want to hurt any of you. I don’t want anyone to get shot or nothing. That’s not my style, you feel me?” Out of nowhere, Peggy’s intuition kicks in. She sees an opportunity. She clearly heard Stephen’s fire and brimstone speech about the damnation they’d experience if they squealed to the cops or attempted to escape. However, Peggy doesn’t intend to let these bastards get away with it. Not if she could help it. Keeping mum forever isn’t in her DNA.

“I can believe it. To tell you the truth, I’m not really angry at you or the other guys. The main guy, that motherfucker, I hate his fucking guts. You can believe that!”

“Oh, I believe you. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like him neither, you feel me? He’s smart and all, but he can get really intense for no reason, you know what I mean?” By now, Peggy realizes that they are down the hall in another room separated by large glass doors and a longer hallway. Plus, everyone is hanging out on the far side of the gym. That means she and Cortez are really far away from everybody. Nothing they talk about can be heard, which also means they can make a lot of noise and (theoretically) nobody will be able to hear them. Peggy keeps this observation to herself as she formulates in her mind an escape plan. She has a funny feeling about that Callahan guy. He may seem calm on the surface, but he’s shown just enough “crazy” to tell her that he could be a loose cannon. He insists he doesn’t want to shoot any of them, but how sure can they be of that? What if he decides at the last minute to execute every single one of them just as they walk out the front entrance with their loot? Or, what if he decides to kill just Dylan? The thought of that poor man lying on the floor surrounded in a pool of blood is enough to make hers boil.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I know you’re no innocent boy, but I don’t hold anything against you. How long have you been living this kind of life?” Peggy comes closer to him, drawing his gaze entirely on her face (a face, it should be noted, that many plastic surgeons have worked on over the years). Cortez looks down at her puffy red lips, wanting to kiss her sooooooooooo badly. But he’s a professional and cannot let his guard down. Right now, she says she needs to use the bathroom, so that’s what she’s going to do.

“Uh, not too long. Say, didn’t you say you had to pee? May…maybe you should, uh, do that now, you know?” Peggy strategically circles around him so that her strong body is covering the exit. If he wants to go back to the locker room, he’ll need to get through her first. Also, she knows he cannot resist her. She’s met enough of her fans throughout the years to know how they normally react when they see her in-person for the first time. They usually go nuts, losing all sense of dignity and sense of decorum. This guy appears to be no exception. This can work to her advantage.

“I do. Now you tell me, big boy, how long have you known about me?” She rubs her enormous breasts together and pinches her nipples so that they stand straight out like pointed arrows. Cortez cannot help but stare at her 40FF cup size. He swears they’re the largest pair of boobs he’s ever seen before. Involuntarily, as if under the control of a magic spell, he begins rubbing his fingers across her hardened nipples.

“At least four years. Maybe longer than that. I don’t know for sure…”

Before Peggy can ball her hand in a fist and punch him in the face, Cortez snaps out of his trance and back off a few paces away from her. He takes a deep breath, refocusing himself on the job at hand…and ignores the growing erection developing in his pants.

“Okay, okay, okay, let’s stop this. Right now. You said you have to pee. Now, do it. Just DO IT, NOW!” He points to the closest toilet stall. The authoritative tone of his voice tells her that he’s smart enough to not let his horny imagination get the best of him. Unless…

“Okay, sugar pie. You’re right. You win.”

“Hold it!” Cortez puts out his arm to stop her from going into the stall. “You, uh, do have to pee, right?”

“Yeah, I’m about to burst if I don’t go right now, so move it or lose it buster.”

“Uh, um, would you mind if…uh…would you mind doing me a favor?” Almost giving up on the idea of executing a daring escape, Peggy sees that perhaps this guy is being led by his horniness after all. This could be the opportunity she so desperately needs!

“Go on, sugar. What favor can I do for you?” She gives him a coy look. When she bites her lower lip suggestively, this makes Cortez unwillingly blurt out his deepest, most forbidden fantasies to a woman he’s had a celebrity crush on for years.

“This will sound really weird, but…” he tails off. Peggy urges him to go on by raising her eyebrow. He takes this as permission to say whatever he needs to say to her.

“…Could you pee in my mouth?”

Stunned but not scandalized, Peggy’s eyes open wide after hearing Cortez’s dirty request. She’s been in the porn industry long enough to have seen and done it all. It’s been several years since she’s participated in a fetishistic video involving urinating in someone’s mouth, but she (technically speaking) does have experience in this arena. Her first foray into a “pee-pee video” was a gang-bang episode of a now-defunct late-night pay-per-view erotic public access TV channel. This must have been at least twenty years ago, maybe longer. She laid on the floor while eight (or nine) men stood around her and peed into her mouth, all over her face, and everywhere else on her body. She hated doing it, but it paid a decent amount of money. The director eventually became a close friend of hers, and they went on to make several videos together in the coming years (none of them involving urine, for the record). So in a gross sort of way, it was totally worth it. Peggy insists she still gets the occasional nightmare where she can distinctly smell it in her sleep. And when she wakes up, Peggy feels like going to the bathroom will trigger her PTSD. But this time around, he’d be the one receiving it, not her. That’s a step in the right direction.

“Sure, baby. I do that all the time,” she fibs. “Get on the floor, NOW!”

Without hesitation, Cortez lies down on the floor like a trained puppy. He slaps himself in the face a few times, as if trying to test to see whether or not this is a dream. It’s not. Or maybe he likes getting slapped before a bitch pees on him. Who knows? Peggy stands over him, spreads her legs wide, and squats down so that she positions her vagina directly over his mouth. Now it’s her turn to take a deep breath so she can calm her nerves.

“You ready, darling?”

“Oh yeah! I’m ready. You know I’m ready. LET’S GO!”

“Good. Just lay there like a good, obedient little boy and let mama do the rest.” A few seconds later, Peggy releases her bladder. She goes as slowly as she can so that she doesn’t urinate too fast or too much. Cortez’s mouth is wide open, gleefully taking in as much of her golden yellow urine as possible. He makes a nauseating gurgling noise as he drinks Peggy’s hot smelly liquid. She looks up so he cannot see her face as she cringes with disgust. Peggy becomes even more repulsed as she feels a steady stream of warm urine overflow out of his mouth and pool around her bare feet. She struggles not to gag. Cortez, to his credit, appears to be having the time of his life. For as long as she lives, Peggy Cole will never understand why people have this fetish. But they do. And they apparently get turned on by this. She’s not usually a judgmental person. However, the strong odor and uncontrollable sounds of arousal coming out of him make for another horrid memory that will forever be burned into her brain.

Finally, she completely empties her bladder. She has nothing left to give him. She stands up straight and looks down at Cortez. His eyes are closed, and he has the biggest shit-eating (or pee-drinking) grin on his face. He licks his lips so he can enjoy every last drop. Seeing this makes Peggy want to vomit all over him. Maybe he’d enjoy that too?

“Oh, girl. That was fantastic. I loved it. Every second of it. Thank you, baby girl.” Cortez gets up off the floor and looks at himself in the mirror. He sees his shirt is all wet. Thankfully, he’s wearing all black so none of the guys will notice. However, they might note the pungent smell…

Before he can turn on a faucet to wash up, Peggy grabs the back of Cortez’s head and knees him in the face. He lets out a sharp cry of pain. Now properly bewildered, Peggy holds on to as much hair on the back of his head as possible and sees a white-painted brick wall in front of them. She winds up, grits her teeth, and smashes his head against the wall as hard as she can three times. Peggy lets go and watches Cortez drop to the floor like a ventriloquist dummy. She leans over him, seeing an ugly gash on his forehead and a modest amount of blood dripping down his cheek. The three powerful collisions knock Cortez out cold. She backs off so she can accurately observe his unconscious body. Cortez doesn’t move. Sure enough, he’s not getting up anytime soon.

“Sweet dreams, you sick fuck,” she says to him, knowing he cannot hear a single word she says.

Peggy sees Cortez’s gun in its holster. She picks it up and flips the safety switch from “safe” to “fire” with her thumb. She takes one last look at the perverted idiot lying on the floor like a pathetic passed-out drunk. Satisfied with her beat down of him, she exits the bathroom. Treading carefully, she knows not having shoes on will make it easier for her to walk around without being heard. As she leaves the locker room, she looks down the hallway to see if the safecracker guy is still at work. She can hear the dreadfully annoying sound of his drill cutting through metal to confirm that he is in fact still going at it. The gym door is closed, so no one inside can see her sneaking around with a loaded Glock 19.

It’s been almost a year since Peggy last fired a gun. One of her boyfriends is named Wally, a proud self-professed gun nut who lives on a survivalist ranch in the middle of the Nevada desert. They met while shooting a promotional video for a gun convention that was coming to the MGM Grand Conference Center. She wore a skimpy bikini, carrying a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle as suggestively as possible, and strutted around a stage as Wally and some other spokesman stood front and center to invite the viewers to the convention. During their lunch break, she and Wally snuck off to the bathroom to quickly fuck. They exchanged phone numbers and stayed in touch. For the last four years he’s been one of the seventeen lovers (Peggy is proudly polyamorous to a fault) that she sees regularly. Dylan is one of them, of course, but Wally is great because he lives in close proximity and shatters the smear that guys like to shoot guns because they have small penises. Wally isn’t nearly as big as Kit or Henry, but he can hold his own and not feel ashamed. He taught her how to shoot all sorts of guns, pistols included. She’s not a great markswoman by any stretch of the imagination, but for the time being she’s probably the most experienced shooter out of all her friends holed up in the basement.

“What the fuck should I do?” Peggy desperately whispers aloud to herself. Should she storm inside the room and blast her way toward liberating her friends? Or would that put her and her pals in even more danger? She thinks long and hard about what to do.

I have a gun, but so do the three other men that are inside that room, she figures. My friends would be in the line of fire if I went in there “guns blazing.” That is a risk I cannot take. Instead, I need to get out of here and call for help. Once I’m outside, I can start screaming my head off until one of the neighbors hears me. They can call 9-1-1 and get a fucking SWAT team in here to take care of the rest of these motherfuckers.

“Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. Call for help,” Peggy decides. She hurries up the stairs, her body running on pure adrenaline. She sprints toward the front door and dashes outside. The fresh cool summer air has never felt so damn good. Knowing time is of the essence, Peggy has to get help as soon as she can. By now, that Stephen guy is probably getting suspicious at why they’ve been in the bathroom for so long. Suspicion breeds paranoia, which breeds anger, which could lead to his friends getting shot by the madman. She must act now.

It takes only twenty-five seconds for Peggy to run down the driveway and reach the front gate. The darkness of night prevents her from seeing the walk-through pedestrian door located right next to the car gate. She frantically looks around for a way to leave the property.

“Damn Dylan, how the fuck do you get out of here?” She yells in frustration. “How the fuck do I leave? There has to be a door somewhere!”

Giving up trying to leave the traditional way, she looks up at the gate and wonders if she could climb over it. The ominous metal spikes at the top deter her from even trying. She spots a lone light coming from the next-door neighbor’s house. On the second floor, only one window is illuminated. And, it appears as though the window is open! Peggy can faintly see a pair of white curtains waving gently in the cool summer breeze. Deciding that her options are limited, she does the only thing she knows she can do at the moment.

“HEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYYY!!! CAN YOU HEAR MEEEEEEE? HELLO!!! HELP! SOMEBODY GET HELP! CALL THE FUCKING POLICE!!! HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLP!!!” Peggy screams at the top of her lungs. She’s never screamed this loud before in her entire life. Out of breath and desperately trying to save her friends from untimely deaths, Peggy almost gives up screaming until she sees a porch light turn on at the house. If she had her glasses on she could better see the figure of the woman sticking her head out the window. A few seconds later, an older man in his mid to late 60s walks out the front door, an annoyed look on his face. She doesn’t blame him, though. She’d be upset too if an insane woman interrupted everyone’s sleep by screaming her head off nonstop in the middle of the night.

The old man trudges along slowly, drowsy and not wanting to deal with this commotion. His name is Kurt Ward. His wife, Bethany, is the woman who’s watching the drama unfold from her bedroom window. The Wards are friendly to Dylan Tanaka, but they are not exactly good friends. In the months after the federal trial ended, a seemingly endless stream of newspaper reporters, TV news vans, helicopters, bloggers, and idiotic tourists came by the neighborhood on a daily basis to get in contact with Seattle’s newly infamous war criminal who got away scot-free. The racket these intrusive morons caused made living in this cul-de-sac an absolute nightmare. There were times when Kurt couldn’t even drive to and from his house to run errands. The massive crowd of people would clog up the street. A few times TV news vans would actually block his driveway! He had to call the cops in several instances when they wouldn’t leave at a decent hour. The good news was that after about six or seven months, the bothersome traffic subsided and life eventually returned back to normal. Still, Kurt and Bethany couldn’t forgive Dylan for those hellish several months.

They also aren’t the biggest of fans of endless Middle Eastern wars, which is a whole other matter.

“Quit your yapping! Dear God, stop making so much goddamn noise! People are trying to sleep around here. Damn it. What seems to be the problem?” Kurt asks as he approaches the front gate of the Tanaka Residence.

***

“What the fuck is taking so long?” Stephen asks his men. “She said she had to pee, not take a long shit. I don’t like it. Xan, go check it out. Tell her to get going and not wipe her ass.”

Xander, amused but not willing to show it, leaves the room without saying a word. Now that there are only two gunmen and four hostages, both Stephen and Roddy remove their firearms. This sends the message that being outnumbered is no reason for any of the four remaining captives to try anything bold.

“Trust us, we’re not attempting shit,” Henry reassures both gunmen. “We’re staying put.”

“It’s just a precaution,” Roddy insists. This sort of puts everyone at ease. But not really. It’s never a comfortable feeling when men with guns are standing within an earshot of you. Melanie begins to worry for Peggy, unsure if she’s done anything imprudent that could lead to her tragic demise. Dylan sits back and wonders how this nightmare will eventually end, if at all.

Across the hallway, Xander pokes his head into the locker room. The lights are on, though nobody seems to be around. He can’t hear the sound of anyone peeing.

“Damn, look at this place,” he says to himself as he meanders around. “It’s like a real gym in here. Shoot, the rich sure know how to live!” As he approaches the toilets, Xander instantly notices the horrible smell of urine wafting down the narrow corridor. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, Xander has always had an excellent sense of smell. Right now, it’s definitely a curse. His eyes look down, as if his nose knows which direction the smell is coming from. He gasps when he sees Cortez lying on his back, apparently either knocked out…or dead.

“Holy shit! Cortez, you alright?” He bends down and shakes him violently. Xander tries his hardest not to puke as the smell of urine invades his delicate senses. “Motherfucker, what happened here? Did that chick pee on you and knock you the fuck out?”

As if the accusation alone caused him to awaken so that he could defend himself against such a factually accurate guess, Cortez’s eyes slowly open, his vision foggy from his head being slammed against the wall multiple times. Xander grabs him and brings him to a sitting position. Then, he sees the blood trickling down Cortez’s face. He grabs a nearby towel, places it on his forehead, and tries to wake him up even faster.

“Dude, what the fuck happened to you? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay…” Cortez looks around at his surroundings but can barely remember what just happened to him. He knows he has a concussion, though this is something he’ll have to soldier through. Right now he has much bigger fish to fry. “That bitch knocked me out cold. For real. Where is she?”

“No idea. The boss man asked me to come over to check on you. You were gone a long time. He got suspicious. That’s all. Looks like he was right,” Xander says, cleaning off the blood from Cortez’s cheek, chin, and neck. The wound has already begun to clot, so the worse of the bleeding has stopped. From Cortez’s perspective, everything is blurry, hazy, and unfocused. He hopes this doesn’t last long.

“I…I think that bitch got away,” Cortez reaches for his gun and doesn’t find it. “Oh shit! She took my gun. Fuck, she’s packing heat now!”

“Damn it! We got to go. Come on.” Xander gives Cortez a hand to help him to his feet. Xander sprints back to the gym with his partner struggling to keep up. Standing up and running is only making his massive headache even worse. Less than twenty seconds later, both men burst through the doors to alert their boss about the missing hostage.

“Boss, boss! She’s gone. The bitch disappeared. She knocked him out, took his gun, and fled somewhere. We don’t know where,” Xander blurts out. Everyone freezes when they wait for Stephen’s reaction. Mr. Callahan closes his eyes for a moment, then picks up his chair and throws it across the room. It lands on top of a stationary bicycle, making a loud CLANG noise.

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!! What the fuck do I pay you pieces of shit for? How the fuck did she escape? You had a gun. She’s unarmed. No, she literally had NO FUCKING CLOTHES ON, YOU ABSOLUTE DIPSHIT!” Stephen’s face becomes red with hot rage. Both men, including Roddy, flinch at their boss’s explosive temper. Dylan can only smile, enjoying seeing his former colleague throw a tantrum like a small child.

“Go look for her. NOW! She’s probably trying to escape. Try the front gate. And keep things quiet,” Stephen growls. “All three of you, get going. I’ll stay behind. And don’t start shooting unless she shoots first. I don’t want to wake up the neighbors. GO!”

The three men don’t bother to ask any questions. They immediately take off, running up the stairs on the way to the front door. Stephen paces around, his head looking down, trying to formulate his next move. An escaped hostage was not in his plans. In fact, Dylan was the only person he anticipated would be home. The four others were a total surprise. If this bitch blows their cover and somehow gets ahold of the police, this operation will be a failure. He’d have no choice but to tell Thomas to stop drilling, pack up his things, and get out before the cops arrive. And any chance of repeating this operation is next to nil. This is a once-in-a-lifetime heist that could go off the rails in a hurry if his men don’t catch up to her in time.

“Well, now I know how you feel, Dylan,” Stephen remarks, surprisingly in a much calmer mood.

“How so?”

“Now I know what it’s like to have to work with incompetent underlings. I’m sure this isn’t foreign to you, is it?” Stephen cannot bear to look at Dylan, knowing he’s probably enjoying seeing him explode in a rage. His eyes remain focused on the floor.

“Yeah, I know what this is like,” Dylan says. “I mean, who hasn’t had to deal with the occasional intern who makes the coffee too strong…or the hired thug who lets an unarmed naked woman beat him up and steal his gun?” This elicits a laugh from the rest of the hostages, further enraging the lone criminal left in the room.

“Fuck you all! Fuck this shit. I’d stop laughing if I were you. When my boys catch up with her, I’ll bring her back down here and shoot her in the head myself. All of you will have to watch her brains explode out of her skull. How does that sound? Huh?” Stephen’s threat shuts up the hostages immediately. The reality sinks in that if she gets caught, Peggy would certainly be executed. Everyone returns to feeling grim. “Oh yeah. That’s what I thought. You’re not laughing anymore. Are you?”

Silence.

“That’s what I thought.”

***

It wasn’t until Kurt Ward came within twenty feet of the front gate that he noticed three highly unusual things about the woman whose screaming has woken up the entire neighborhood (Kurt has already taken his contact lenses out, limiting his vision). First, she’s naked. Second, she’s muscular. As in, more muscular than a lot of the guys who work out at the YMCA he regularly goes to. Third, she’s carrying a firearm. These three facts make Kurt realize that his evening is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

“Um, ma’am. What’s going on? Why…uh, why are you not wearing any clothes? What the hell is going on here?” Kurt is a modest man who realizes his wife may be watching this interaction. He tries his best to only look at the woman’s face and not dip his eyes too low.

“You got to call the cops! NOW! We were having a party, then these armed men showed up and took me and my friends hostage, you got to call 9-1-1 right now! They took our phones. Do you have your phone on you?” Nearly out of breath, Peggy almost starts crying tears of joy knowing help may soon be on the way. Her heart sinks when she sees the man reach into his back pocket and not take out a phone.

“A hostage situation? Sweet Jesus. Uh, my phone? Oh, no I do not. My phone is in my house. I, uh, I can go back and–”

Before Kurt can finish his sentence, both he and Peggy hear the front door of Dylan’s home burst open. She turns around and sees three dark figures running toward her. Out of instinct, she drops to the ground even though she’s carrying a loaded gun. This move saves her life, as she hears a loud “BANG!” noise reverberate throughout this (previously) quiet neighborhood. She watches the man fall to the ground next to her. Peggy cannot tell who fired the shot, but it hits the man directly in his stomach. Her ears burn from hearing him holler out a blood-curdling scream that certainly will wake up even more neighbors. Her second instinctive decision, this time motivated by vengeance instead of self-preservation, is to point her gun at the three black figures and randomly fire two shots in their direction. The three men start shouting as they fall to the ground to avoid getting hit. Both shots miss. One bullet hits the garage door and the other hits the top of a chain-link fence. The distinct “CLANG!” sound is a dead giveaway. The shouting from the men ceases as they come to the realization that unnecessary sound will reveal their locations.

“Don’t move! Or I’ll fire again. And trust me, motherfuckers, this time I won’t miss!” Peggy quickly looks up and notices a porch light hanging right above her. It’s attached to the top of the front gate. There’s another one on the opposite side but this particular one is of more interest to her. If it’s activated by a motion sensor, a sudden move could turn it on. This would certainly give away her position and make her a sitting duck. She creeps away from the light just to make sure.

“Ohhhhhhh, my God! I…I’ve been sh…shot!” the man cries to anyone who’s willing to listen. Peggy doesn’t dare look back because she needs to concentrate instead on the three gunmen laying on their bellies ahead of her. She can’t see them but she knows they’re out there. They are wise to not make any noise.

Several hundred feet away, Bethany Ward, who heard all three gunshots but (as of yet) is not aware that her husband is currently laying on the pavement bleeding to death, goes to her phone and calls 9-1-1 like a good citizen. Her voice shakes as she waits for the operator to pick up on the other side.

“9-1-1 what is your emergency?”

“Oh! Uh. Hi, my name is Bethany. I live on Winchester Drive, right off 43rd Avenue. Th…there seems to have been a shooting. My husband is out there, trying to figure out what’s going on. He’s not back yet, I don’t know where he is…”

“Ma’am, please try to remain calm. You said there were shots fired? About how many?”

“Oh, uh, three I think. Yeah. Three.”

“Okay. Three shots fired. Has anyone been wounded, as far as you can tell?”

“I don’t know. Oh my God, my husband is out there! He might be hurt! I need to go to him–”

“No, please ma’am. You need to stay on the line. We need more information. Please don’t go. You said you live on Winchester and 43rd Avenue. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you. Where did the shooting take place, exactly? On your property or somewhere on the street?”

“I…I…I don’t know. It’s dark. I can’t see real good. There was a woman shouting just now. My husband, Kurt, he went outside to see what all the commotion was about.”

“Is the woman possibly the shooter?”

“Maybe. Th…that’s possible. She…she was screaming her head off, making a lot of racket. Probably woke up the entire neighborhood. But I don’t know. It’s too dark to see. Please hurry!”

“Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ve just dispatched some patrol cars to come your way. They should be here in a few minutes. Please stay on the line and provide us updates if anything new happens.”

“Uh, okay. I…I can do that.”

“Please remain calm. Help is on the way. You’re doing great. You really are.”

On the other end of the line, the operator sends a message to all patrol cars on active duty in the area to head over to 43rd and Winchester to investigate a possible “active shooter” situation. Specifics are unclear. No known casualties. Three shots fired. A woman was screaming earlier. She could possibly be the shooter. Proceed with caution.

Just as the police scanner begins to alert nearby patrol cars to arrive at the scene as soon as possible, Peggy stands up and runs behind a neatly trimmed rosebush located about twelve feet away from Kurt’s body. She’s still on the other side of the gate, unaware of how to escape. But right now, escaping is not on her mind. Avoiding being shot by not one, but three gunmen, is currently at the top of her “to-do” list. She quickly glances at the man and is relieved to see he’s still alive. He’s not making any noise, but she can clearly see him writhing around the pavement, holding his stomach with both hands. Poor fellow, she thinks to herself. He may have been rude to her, but he’s still an innocent bystander in all of this.

“Okay, fuckers! I’m packing heat. You know that now. I know you all are, too. So let’s not do anything stupid, alright?” Peggy yells into the darkness.

“Fair enough,” Roddy says, still laying on his belly in the driveway. Xander and Cortez are lucky to be on the grass where it’s much more comfortable. “You want to be a good girl and come back inside with us? I have a clear shot at that old man. I can kill him right now if you don’t do what I say. Do you want his death on your conscience, you bitch?”

This makes Peggy stop and think. She looks back at the wounded old man, hoping somebody has called the paramedics by now. If help isn’t on the way, he’ll bleed out and die. Now, it’s not just her life that’s on the line. It’s also his.

“No, I don’t want that on my conscience. You son of a bitch. Okay, you win. All of you. I’m coming out…”

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! Hold it right there. Not so fucking fast. Toss your gun toward us. Any direction. We don’t give a shit. Toss it back to us and come out with your hands up. You hear me?” Roddy orders. Peggy curses under her breath, knowing she has to give back to them her only trump card. But if she doesn’t, he’ll murder this poor old man. She lobs the gun high in the air in the direction of the voice. It lands six feet away from Xander. He picks it up and hands it back to Cortez. “That’s a good girl. Thank you.”

“I’m coming out now. Don’t shoot me or him, you promise?”

“Oh yeah, I promise. I’m a man of my word. Come on out, you raggedy old bitch,” Roddy snarls at her. He gets on his feet, which gives permission to Xander and Cortez to follow suit. Peggy hates being blatantly insulted like that, but she knows there’s not a damn thing she can do about it. Not right now.

Taking one cautious step at a time, Peggy stands up and walks out from behind the rosebush. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the old man still wiggling around outside the gate. A dark red pool has formed around his body. She tries not to react to the sight of blood. Peggy Cole loves all sorts of movies and TV shows – except for horror. She can’t do horror. It’s too much for her. All that dying, killing, bleeding, and screaming…it’s all so oppressively unpleasant to watch.

“Okay,” she begins. “Here I am. Let’s go back inside.”

Before Roddy can respond, the distinct sound of police sirens echoes softly in the distance. All three gunmen look at each other, horrified at what’s about to happen. Given the distance of the sound, Roddy estimates they’re about two to three minutes away, tops.

“Fuck! Run for it! Back inside the house, NOW! GO, GO, GO!” Roddy commands his two comrades. Xander and Cortez do not hesitate, sprinting back to the front door and reentering the mansion as fast as possible. Roddy waits a split second to make sure Peggy doesn’t attempt another dash for freedom. When he sees Peggy catching up to him, he turns around to catch up with the others. Roddy stumbles a bit when he trips over a step leading back to the house. Peggy notices a small object fall out of his inner jacket pocket. Roddy, however, is so scared of being caught by the police that he doesn’t notice that he’s dropped something. As he runs inside the house, Peggy bends down to see what he dropped. She picks it up and sees that it’s a switchblade. Nine inches, give or take (she’s an expert at guessing the exact measurements of objects that long).

Looks ideal for hunting wild game, Peggy determines. Or evil men.

“Well, well, well. Look at what we have here…” She tries to hide the long knife behind her forearm by cupping it in the palm of her hand. It’s awkward, but she’s got to do what she’s got to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. She no longer has a gun, so this gift left behind by that idiot will have to suffice. Suddenly, that idiot shouts at her from inside the house.

“Get back in here, you fucking bitch! If you don’t, I’ll fucking execute your fucking friends!” This forces Peggy to have to make a quick decision. She needs a weapon but has to hide it somehow. She can try to keep it behind her forearm…but it would only be a matter of time before they discover it.

Then, it suddenly dawns on her what she needs to do.

Fifteen seconds later, Peggy Cole is back inside the house. The sounds of the police sirens grow louder and louder. Cortez slams the door shut. Xander finds all the light switches in the foyer and turns them off. Peggy stops dead in her tracks when she sees Roddy pointing his gun directly at her forehead.

“Come with me, you fucking cunt. And don’t you even think about escaping a second time. If you do, your friends will be no more. Guaranteed. We’re done fucking around. Got it?”

Peggy gulps after hearing this unambiguous threat. “Yeah. I got it.”

“Follow me. RIGHT NOW!”

Roddy storms back to the basement. Peggy follows him. Xander and Cortez remain behind just in case she does anything unwise. She can still smell her urine drenched all over Cortez’s clothes. Peggy wonders if he’s told any of his colleagues why he reeks like that. She doubts it.

They reach the bottom of the staircase just as two police cars enter the cul-de-sac. A third is not far behind. Dylan’s home is constructed well enough to block out a lot of outside noise. When a thunderstorm hits he can barely hear it. None of the people down in the gym can hear the police sirens, a testament to how well the contractors built his home all those years ago. Roddy dreads having to deliver even more bad news to his boss, but it has to be said as soon as possible if they’re going to have any chance of getting through this without finding themselves in a jail cell.

“Boss! Bad news, man. We got her, but she somehow called the cops. Or some old man on the street called the cops. We don’t know for sure,” Roddy reveals as he and the rest come back into the gym. By now, Stephen looks haggard, ready to burst at the seams at the slightest provocation. “They’re coming. The fucking cops are coming. We’re fucked.”

“No, we’re not. Not yet,” Stephen says in a voice so soothing it shocks everyone in the room that he can remain so calm when he demonstrated a lack of emotional control just a few minutes earlier. “Did anyone see you?”

“No. Someone saw her, though.”

“Okay, but not you? Or Xan? Or the other one?” Stephen insults Cortez by not even mentioning him by name. Cortez knows he deserves it so he doesn’t feel too bad about it.

“I don’t think so. We all got away before the cops or anyone else saw us.”

“What about the old man?” Xander asks Roddy.

“What old man?” Stephen asks. “You mentioned him before. Who is he?”

“I don’t know. Some guy who happened to be talking to her on the other side of the gate. I shot him, when I was really trying to shoot her. It was an accident,” Roddy confesses.

“Is he dead?”

“Nope. He’s hurt bad, but not dead. At least, not yet,” Peggy answers. Stephen walks up right to her and slaps her in the face with the back of his hand. Dylan and Henry make a sound of protest, but nobody pays attention to them. Melanie and Monique stay quiet, not wanting to incur the wrath of any of these men who are about to lose their minds.

Peggy rubs her cheek to soothe the pain. This is not the first time an angry man has slapped her out of nowhere. It’s happened to her far too many times to count. An abusive ex-boyfriend of hers, back before she lived a polyamorous lifestyle, frequently slapped her when she didn’t do what he asked her to do exactly the way he wanted it done. Cooking, cleaning, household chores, grocery shopping, you name it. He was a former porn producer who was exiled from the industry after being verbally abusive to too many young actresses on set. That should have been a red flag to warn her to stay away from him, but she couldn’t help herself. He was handsome, charismatic, wealthy, and devilishly arrogant. They broke up after two rocky years together. She learned many valuable lessons from that failed relationship.

“You sure do know how to treat a lady,” she teases Stephen. “Your mother must be so proud of you.”

Stephen considers pistol-whipping her but decides against it. Now is the time to solve a much more pressing crisis at hand, not punish this worthless slut for disobedience.

“Sit down. Over there.” He points to where the other hostages are sitting. Peggy complies without putting up a fight. Melanie stands up to hug her as she returns to her friends. Dylan is too emotionally numb to move.

“Dylan. Do you have a room anywhere where we can view a live feed of the security cameras?” Stephen asks. He hesitates to take too many steps toward the hostages out of fear that all of them will pounce at once and rip his heart out.

“Yes. It’s actually upstairs. Second floor. Close to where you found us.”

“Show me.”

“Okay.”

Dylan stands up with his blanket still wrapped around his naked body. He takes a moment to regard his former colleague, who looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. Dylan is pretty sure he’ll have one himself soon enough. Misery loves company, right? Melanie extends her hand toward him, wishing him good luck. Dylan grabs it and grips it tightly for a moment before letting go. He and Stephen leave the room to go upstairs, leaving the three exhausted gunmen alone with the four remaining hostages. Nobody says a word while the two former Perseus Analytics executives go search for a view of what’s happening outside.

Outside near the gate, two of the police vehicles stop in front of the body lying on the pavement. The third vehicle parks in front of the Ward’s driveway. Bethany runs outside, still in her pajamas, wanting to see what’s happening with her dear husband. One of the police officers calls for an ambulance to show up. The other, a man named Connor Dietrich, is a 57-year-old burly cop who’s been on the force for 31 years. Officer Dietrich inspects the body of Kurt Ward and is thankful to see he’s still breathing. The younger officer accompanying him, a short young man named Cunningham, attends to the wounded victim. He gently turns the man on his back so he can better inspect the wound. Sure enough, it’s one single gunshot to the stomach.

“Gunshot wound, sir. Just one. I don’t see any other trauma on the body,” Officer Cunningham tells the elder officer. “I assume you’ve already called for an ambulance?”

“Yes, it’s on its way,” Officer Dietrich reassures the youngster. Cunningham nods.

Immediately, Dietrich recognizes the property. He knows this neighborhood is home to a lot of super-duper rich families. The type of folks who would expect a top-notch police response if anything bad were to happen around here. Usually, nothing too dramatic occurs in these parts of town. This is probably a first, at least for the residents of this cul-de-sac. Dietrich pulls out a flashlight and shines it on the property behind the gate.

“This is Dylan Tanaka’s house,” Dietrich proclaims. “I knew it looked familiar. Wow. He sure does live like a king.”

“Really? Dylan Tanaka? Damn. I knew he lived around here, but I never knew exactly where,” Officer Cunningham says as he tries to keep the old man at bay until the paramedics come. “Sir, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah, I can hear you just fine,” Kurt Ward says to the young officer. “Fuck, eh…whoever shot me better…better get the electric chair, y…you know?”

“We’ll see to that, trust me,” Officer Cunningham comforts the wounded man. “What’s your name?”

“Kurt.”

“Well, Kurt. Don’t you worry. An ambulance is on its way. You’re heading to the emergency room pretty soon. Probably not the way you’d like to spend your Saturday evening, huh?”

Kurt grumbles something unintelligible, clearly not in the mood for small talk. Officer Dietrich gives the young man a dirty look, telling him to cool it with the gratuitous chatter. This shuts Cunningham up really quick. The sound of an ambulance making a sharp turn into the cul-de-sac distracts everyone from the momentary awkward pause.

“You see? They’re right on time,” Cunningham says. Unfortunately for the two officers, the wounded victim passes out from shock, preventing either of them from asking additional questions.

“Damn it!” Dietrich curses.

“Looks like we’re going to have to do some old-fashioned detective work,” Cunningham says.

Officer Dietrich grumbles. He sees the third police officer, a young woman named Kerry Gutierrez, trying to comfort the man’s wife. Bethany Ward is screaming and crying, desperately attempting to get closer to her husband. Officer Gutierrez tells her that seeing her husband surrounded by a pool of blood would be too upsetting to witness and could traumatize her. She does her best to restrain her. Dietrich turns away, figuring that part of the situation is already taken care of. He steps away to make room for the paramedics to attend to the gunshot victim. Right now, he notices several households in the cul-de-sac have turned on their bedroom or porch lights, awoken and curious to see what all the hubbub is about. Two paramedics pull out a stretcher from the back of the ambulance. Officer Cunningham assists in lifting the man up onto the stretcher. Dietrich figures a younger man without creaky knees should do the backbreaking labor instead.

As Officer Gutierrez questions the distraught wife and offers to give her a ride to the hospital, Dietrich shines a flashlight onto Dylan Tanaka’s property. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. Not a single soul in sight. As dead as a morgue. He approaches the gate and tries to open the pedestrian door. It doesn’t budge. So, he concludes, the shooter couldn’t have run through the property. How would he or she have gotten in?

“It seems like nobody saw who did the shooting,” Cunningham tells Dietrich. “The wife heard the gunshots but couldn’t see clearly who fired the bullets. In fact, believe it or not, she had no idea her husband was hit until she came outside her house and saw him lying on the pavement. Can you imagine that?”

“Hm. It’s dark and this street is poorly lit, so that’s not a surprise,” Dietrich says. There doesn’t appear to be a single light on in Tanaka’s house, which is curious considering every other household in the neighborhood has its lights on by now. A few folks have even stuck their heads out their front doors to see what all the excitement is about. Yet, Dylan Tanaka is nowhere to be seen. The shooting, after all, did happen right in front of his property.

“What should we do?” the younger officer asks.

Officer Dietrich sees a callbox located next to the pedestrian gate. The next logical step seems all the more obvious.

“We ask Mr. Tanaka what the hell just happened.”

***

Off to the side of the cabaret room is a large closet that Dylan converted into a security room. He asked the folks at McDonald & Pierce Security Systems to install several large computer monitors in this room, all of them showing a live feed of all twelve security cameras located outside the house. The few cameras that are inside the house just have their feeds directly stored onto the cloud. Dylan and Stephen enter the room, turn on the lights, and look for which monitor feeds from the front gate camera. Monitor #7 appears to be the one.

“Holy shit, Dylan. This place looks like a casino. Look at all these monitors.”

“Yeah, something like that. Speaking of which, how the fuck did you break into my house without triggering any of the alarms?”

“I’ll tell you later, old sport,” Stephen says with a smile. Dylan chooses not to react. “The police have arrived. Not too many cop cars, from what I can tell. There’s already an ambulance taking that guy away. I hope he lives.”

“Damn. That’s Kurt,” Dylan says remorsefully. He can tell by the man’s terrible comb-over that it’s Kurt Ward. “Fuck, I hope he makes it.”

“It looks like one of the cops is trying to buzz in. Can you answer it when he does?”

“Yes.” Dylan picks up a wireless transistor radio sitting in a charging station. “I can talk to whoever is at the gate right from here. No need to access my phone, although I do get a notification when someone tries to speak to me. Lawrence does too, so if he’s up at this hour – which I sincerely doubt – he’ll see that someone is trying to buzz in too.”

“When that cop does try to talk to you, you play along and say everything is cool and quiet around here, you understand?” Stephen taps the gun in his holster. Dylan doesn’t need to be told twice what that means.

“Oh yes. I understand as clear as day.”

“Good.”

A split second later, the transistor radio starts making a sweet melodic ringing sound. Dylan waits a few seconds so it doesn’t appear as though he’s standing right by the radio expecting a late-night visitor out of the blue. Stephen was about to tell him to answer it until he figures out what Dylan is doing. He smirks at his former boss’s cleverness. Finally, Dylan picks it up and presses the “talk” button.

“Yeah? What do you want? It’s late. I’m trying to sleep.”

“I’m sorry, sir. But my name is Officer Connor Dietrich. I’m with the Seattle Police Department. There’s been a shooting right here outside your home. Can you please open the gate so I can come to talk to you?”

Dylan gives Stephen a quick look. Stephen nods his head silently.

“A shooting? Oh my God! That’s horrible. I’m a heavy sleeper so I didn’t hear anything. Yes, I’ll open the gate and will be down in a few moments.” Dylan presses a button on a control panel, which opens the front gate. Stephen and Dylan watch on monitor #7 the gate slowly open and Officer Dietrich walk onto the driveway. Dylan puts the transistor radio back in the charging station.

“I need to get dressed. In something. I can’t just come out wearing nothing but a fucking blanket.”

“You’re right. That’ll look, uh, odd. Hold on.”

Stephen backs off and proceeds to strip off a few items of clothes. He takes off his pants, jacket, and black t-shirt. He’s a tad taller than Dylan, so it won’t be a perfect fit. However, time is precious and this is the best he can do for now. Dylan takes the hint. He puts on Stephen’s black pants, zips it up, and puts on his shirt. It’s way too tight (Dylan’s persistent workout routine has really paid off, apparently), but it’ll do. Stephen decides against giving him the jacket.

“This is good enough,” Dylan says.

“I agree. Now go downstairs to the front door. I’ll stand close by, out of sight. Remember, if you do anything stupid, you and your friends will pay the price. Not just me.”

“Uh huh. No worries, old friend. I got this.”

Less than a minute later Dylan turns on a light in the foyer while Stephen finds a convenient place to hide behind a couch in the living room. The curtains are drawn in the living room, but he wants to play it safe. Stephen is less than forty feet away from the front door. Dylan sighs, then opens the door. The bright red police lights flashing in the distance temporarily blind him.

“Good evening, officer.”

“Good evening. You are Mr. Tanaka, am I right?” Officer Dietrich politely inquires. He looks at Dylan’s strange appearance and wonders how a man so wealthy could dress so…plainly? A black pair of pants, no socks, and a black shirt that looks like something he wore back in high school isn’t the type of clothing he’d expect a billionaire to wear around his palatial home. Dietrich makes a mental note of it and quickly moves on to questioning him.

“Yes, that’s me. You must recognize the house.”

“Yup, that’s the reason why. Tell me, Mr. Tanaka, I want to be clear that you didn’t hear any gunshots just a few moments ago? Probably about ten or twelve minutes ago.”

“No, officer. Like I said, I’m a heavy sleeper. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m sort of feeling a slight hangover right now. Too much scotch earlier today, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” Officer Dietrich laughs. “I am so sorry to have to wake you up at this late hour. But as you can see over my shoulder, a man has just been shot.” Dylan sidesteps to the left so he can see the ambulance beginning to back up so it can race to the nearest hospital. The sight of Bethany, tears streaming down her face, is heartbreaking. “We have not been able to identify the shooter, however, given the fact the victim was lying on the ground right in front of your property and facing your property, it seems reasonable to me that the shot came in this direction. I’m about to call in more officers to look around your property, is that alright with you?”

“Oh, yes. Please do so. By all means. If there’s a dangerous shooter in this area, we need to find him immediately,” Dylan urges. He feels the palms of his hands get sweaty as he watches Officer Dietrich mumble something into his radio, most likely calling in for reinforcements. Seemingly within seconds, a few more police cars show up out of thin air, as if he had magically conjured them up. But Dylan realizes those additional cars were probably already on their way. “Does that mean I need to keep the pedestrian gate unlocked for the time being?

“Yes, that would be great. I wouldn’t want any of my boys to have to climb the fence, now would we? Anyway, we recommend you stay in your home and not leave until me or another officer gives everyone in the neighborhood the “all clear” signal, alright?”

“Of course, that makes sense. I can do that.” Dylan’s left eye begins to twitch. Dietrich sees this but says nothing.

“Good. Have a nice rest of your evening, sir. We may be in touch later if we find further evidence that warrants your attention.” In the back of his mind, Officer Dietrich believes the shooter is hiding somewhere on Dylan Tanaka’s property. This is his first time actually talking to the man…and he seems just like how he appeared on TV interviews. Polite, well-spoken, and saying exactly what needs to be said using the exact words necessary. He still cannot believe that the guy is allegedly a war criminal. He seems nice enough.

“Sounds like a plan. Good luck catching them,” Dylan says with special emphasis on the last word.

Officer Dietrich walks away, noticing the weird way he said “them” just now. Why would he use the plural form of “him” (or “her”) when there is only one alleged shooter? Was he just being “gender neutral,” which apparently is all the rage with society these days? As he ponders this, Dietrich walks by the garage door and notices something strange. He shines his flashlight on the top left corner and sees a small hole. After looking at the hole for several seconds, it dawns on him that it’s a bullet hole. Whoa. And given the strange way Dylan Tanaka behaved…

“Cunningham,” Dietrich says to the young officer as he walks through the pedestrian door back onto the street. “Tell the new guys who just showed up that we’re inspecting the Tanaka residence first. And…”

“Uh, yeah?” Cunningham asks, confused why Dietrich would pause mid-sentence.

“…I think either he’s involved with the shooting, or there’s an uninvited guest staying inside his house. I don’t know why, but I got a funny feeling. He acted like he was, I don’t know, being watched by someone, you know what I mean?” Like Dylan Tanaka himself, Connor Dietrich has always had a keen sixth sense about oddities like this. He’s dealt with enough domestic violence cases to know when someone is trying to act normal but struggles to because their abuser is watching them from a distance, testing them to see if they’ll remain loyal or rat them out to the cops. This probably isn’t one of those cases, however there are some similarities, he notes.

As of now, seven police cars are parked in various places around the cul-de-sac. The ambulance is long gone. Officer Gutierrez approaches Dietrich as he watches Cunningham summon the other officers to plan an inspection of Tanaka’s front and backyard.

“Hey there. So I just got done speaking to both the wife and, very briefly, the man who was shot. Remarkably, he woke up and was actually able to speak to us,” she says. “Despite the wound to the stomach. He’s lucky the round didn’t pierce any major organs. I’m guessing after minor surgery he’ll be back home within a day or two.”

“Well, you don’t know that until a doctor gets to look at him. What did he have to say?”

“He says the woman who was screaming was standing on the other side of the gate over there,” Gutierrez points to Dylan’s front gate. This further confirms Dietrich’s theory that Dylan Tanaka is directly involved somehow. “And you won’t believe this part. Are you ready for this?”

“Not only was she armed, but she was naked. She actually fired two shots toward the house, most likely at whoever was chasing her around,” she continues. “I think we got ourselves either a really, really, really bad case of domestic violence here, or…”

“…Or what?” Dietrich asks.

“Or she’s being held hostage in there. The man didn’t know how many people were chasing her. At least two, maybe more. I think this is serious. Want to know my theory?”

“Please, do tell.”

“I think whoever was chasing the woman was trying to shoot her but accidentally shot the old man instead. It wasn’t intentional. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She screamed for help, he came out of his home to investigate, and a bullet intended for her pierced him instead. That sounds feasible to me,” Gutierrez concludes. Dietrich has no doubt that this young lady will make a fine police detective one day. She’s bright, easy to talk to (which comes in handy when you’re interrogating people, especially serial liars and psychopaths), and can think like a criminal. Those skills are what police departments look for when deciding who should and shouldn’t get promoted to better paying jobs.

“I think your theory is right,” Dietrich confirms. “I walked past his garage door and saw a bullet hole on the top left corner. It must have been from when the woman fired back at her captors.” Oh, great. Now they’ve got a much more complicated mess on their hands. This is going to be a long night, he fears. His shift ends in two hours, but he has another funny feeling that he’s going to have to work overtime today. “Damn! I’m one lucky son of a bitch.”

“Huh?” Gutierrez was about to turn to leave. “Why do you say that?”

“I’m glad you told me that now, not before I spoke to him,” Dietrich thinks aloud. “If I had mentioned to him a shootout had just happened on his property, if he also is being held hostage – which is a possibility – whoever the bad guy is might have killed him right after our conversation ended.”

“Wait, what? You didn’t tell him there was a shootout? What did you tell him?”

“I told him a man was shot. I didn’t say a woman was involved or that she shot back…in the direction of his house. If I had asked him about the, uh, naked woman who was on his property, he would have been forced to acknowledge her. And that would’ve complicated matters…” Dietrich rubs his chin. The stubble reminds him to shave whenever he gets the chance.

“Which leads you to believe he’s being held up at gunpoint by someone who was right behind him, out of sight?” she posits. Both officers look at each other and don’t need to say anything. They know this is a likely theory. Whoever is holding him and the woman hostage told Dylan Tanaka to “play it cool” and pretend he was sleeping the whole time. Hell, he even lied about being hungover just to make his story more believable. If Dietrich had mentioned that there were two people exchanging gunfire, one of them a naked woman who was screaming bloody murder on his property, him sleeping like a baby and being completely oblivious to whatever had just happened wouldn’t have been plausible. That explains why Dylan was dressed so weird and referred to the shooters as them

“Holy shit,” Dietrich curses to himself. “We need a SWAT team and a hostage negotiator here, NOW! And keep things quiet. Don’t make any sudden moves. I think we’re being watched.” Officer Dietrich points up toward a security camera perched high above the front gate. Officer Gutierrez peeks at it without moving her head too much. Once again, they don’t have to say what needed to be said because they were both thinking the same thing.

“What else do you know about this…naked woman?” he asks. “Besides the fact she was screaming like a banshee?” This question makes Gutierrez blush a little.

“Well, he said that she’s, um, that she’s muscular…”

Dietrich cranes his neck forward. “Wait, WHAT? Muscular? Like a, uh, like a bodybuilder?”

She nods. “Yup. Like a bodybuilder. Or a football player. And, she has gigantic boobs.”

Dietrich blinks after hearing this news. Gutierrez smiles. For once, he’s completely speechless.

***

“Good job, old boy,” Stephen says as he and Dylan walk back down the stairs. He gives his former boss a light pat on the shoulder. “I think he believed your story. They’ll just send a few cops to look around your backyard, find nothing suspicious, and move on over to the other houses. I think me and the boys dodged a bullet, no pun intended. And they seem to have no clue about your slutty little friend who tried to escape. That’s good. They think you’re all alone in your quiet little mansion. Just you sleeping off a hangover. Oh by the way, I liked that touch.”

“Yes, it appears as though that’s what they think,” Dylan says, hoping that the cop caught on to the clue he spilled at the end. Stephen didn’t appear to notice. “Well done. You just might get away with this score of yours.”

“Yes, it does look that way.” Stephen’s triumphant grin makes Dylan want to punch him in the face so, so hard.

“Who do you think the cops will think shot my neighbor?” Dylan asks as they reach the basement.

“Oh, they’ll probably conclude it was a common burglar who wanted to steal his wallet or something. It looks like your neighbor either had already died or has passed out from the pain. Either way, he’s obviously in no position to talk about what happened to him.” Stephen and Dylan come back into the gym. Judging from the mortuary-like atmosphere, it seems as though nobody had moved an inch since they left. This is probably a good thing. Everyone stares at them as they approach, eagerly anticipating an update.

“Good news, gentlemen!” Stephen begins, in a much more positive mood than before. Everyone is a bit confused why Dylan is wearing some of Stephen’s clothes. “We’re in luck. Hell, we should head to Vegas after this and gamble to our heart’s delight because we’re on a lucky streak! First, the cops have no clue about us. They think Dylan is all by himself in here. Second, the old man you shot hasn’t talked yet, so they have no idea about that bitch over there or any of you. So he’s either dead or passed out from the pain.” This news brightens the faces of all the bandits. None of the hostages seems too thrilled; believing their one chance at being rescued has been squandered for good. Dylan sits back down next to Melanie. He takes her hand again.

“However, we’re not out of the woods yet. The cops are coming over to inspect the property. Just the outside, so don’t worry too much. This means we need to move to an interior room.” Stephen points to the windows on the opposite corner. “Let’s move. NOW.”

Relieved to know their screw-up didn’t result in them getting caught, the bandits instruct the hostages to stand up and follow them. The hostages, deflated that their chances of escaping this nightmare unscathed are still dire, do not protest and obediently follow orders. Melanie and Dylan hold hands. Henry stands close to Monique and Peggy as if he’s taken it upon himself to act as their personal bodyguard.

Though he doesn’t say anything, Dylan is confident there is light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn’t know why. It’s just a gut feeling. The only question is:

How long is the tunnel?