The Thing Speaks for Itself

Read an excerpt from The Thing Speaks for Itself

The Thing Speaks for ItselfAs the breacher, Gracie made way for Charles to enter the house first. She stepped into a dark room and moved to his right. She entered with quick, precise movement, pistol level. The instructors at Brunswick stressed decisive action in the field. Sometimes any decision is better than no decision. Words to live by.

Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. When he ran, Ivan had drawn the blinds and cut the lights. Or maybe this was an everyday thing for him. She waited for Ivan to pop out with an AK-47 or RPG. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears. She took several deep breaths, looking for movement. Nothing.

A two-and-a-half-pound pistol sounds light, but the weight of steel and aluminum alloy kept the muscles in her hands, arms, and shoulders tight. There was no entry room or hallway. Entry rooms exist for those that can afford them. This was clearly a bare bones operation. The door opened out directly to a large living room to the left and an open kitchen to the right. The spartan room had no furniture, not even a TV. About ten feet away, on the left wall, was a dark stairway. Farther down that wall stood a door. Probably a bathroom, by process of elimination. The floors and stairs were covered in a pinkish Berber carpet. The kitchen floor was decked in faux marble vinyl sheeting.

“Clear?” Gracie said. She had meant that as a statement.

“You asking me? Cause I can’t see a thing.” Charles stood just to her left, facing the living room. His arms canted down at a forty-five-degree angle, taking aim at that offensive carpet. “Hit the lights.”

Gracie could now see well enough in the gloom. She spotted a switch in the kitchen. Staying low, she quietly moved across a few feet of open space. A counter top island separated the living room from the kitchen. She used it for cover. Her eyes darted around various looming dark shapes and shadows. A film of sweat formed on her forehead. “Maybe if you removed your aviators,” she said. She flipped the switch and squinted as a series of overhead LEDs blinked on.

“That’s better.” Charles walked slowly to the island, keeping his eyes on the room, particularly the stairwell, still pointing his P229 toward the floor. There was a sliding glass door on the back wall behind the living room. Charles nodded his head toward the door. “Do me a favor and keep an eye on the stairs and that second door.” He nodded at the probable bathroom door. “And why are you crouched behind that island. Fortune favors the bold. Anyway, you’re skinny enough that you make a smaller target standing up.” He made his way to the sliding glass door at a snail’s pace, half-dragging his left foot.

Gracie’s face flushed again. She stood, keeping her arms extended, the heavy hunk of metal shook in her hands, ever so slightly. She stayed silent.

Charles reached the door. “It’s locked. I’m guessing he’s either behind door number two or upstairs.” He walked toward the probable bathroom, pistol now raised.

Rooted in place, she watched Charles limp through the room. She wiped her left hand across her forehead.

Charles turned his head to where she stood in the kitchen. “Take a deep breath,” he said. “This is your first adventure with Diplomatic Security. What’s it going to be, cat or mouse?” He moved toward the probable bathroom door.

“My dad used to say that adventure is just bad planning.” Gracie took a step into the room. “Anyway, I feel more like the ball of string.”

Charles gave a little shrug as he hobbled with his back toward her. Gracie moved to follow him, walking upright through the barren living room. The carpet looked all the more ghastly under bright, cool LED illumination. She set herself up at the door handle, Charles to her left. He mouthed the words one, then two, then three. She opened the door quickly with her left hand, pistol ready in her right. It was a bathroom. An empty one. More faux marble flooring and thankfully someone had forgotten to put a shower curtain over the tub. Nowhere for anyone to hide.

“Looks like our friend went upstairs. It’s not wide enough for two at a time. I’ll go up first, you right behind,” Charles said. Gracie didn’t argue. He moved to the base of the stairs and paused. “This reminds me of a time in Spain. There were a bunch of Syrians that were…” He stopped and turned to Gracie, a few steps behind him. “Do you smell that?” he said. She did. It was smoke. “Idiot’s trying to burn down the house. Up we go.”

“Wait, give me twenty seconds.” Gracie already had her phone out, dialing Riverside PD. She let them know they had a fire on their hands and dropped the phone back in her pocket. “Okay, I’m right behind you,” she said.

The stairway switchbacked ten steps up. The smoke thickened with each stair of elevation gained. Maybe Charles had a chipper story about climbing into burning buildings in Peru or something. She’d have to ask him when they had Ivan in cuffs, saved the evidence, and were safely back out on that dead front lawn.

Charles stopped a few steps below the top step, scanned what was beyond, and then nodded back at Gracie. “Clear.” He stepped out of the stairway and Gracie joined him in a narrow hallway, about twenty feet long. There were three doors, two on the left and one on the right. The farther door on the left, near the end of the hallway, was open, letting sunlight into the hallway. The right side door was maybe halfway down the hall. The nearer door on the left was closed. Gracie guessed probable bathroom again, seeing as how it was more or less above the bathroom downstairs. Master of deduction. Gotta keep the plumbing together, people. The same sickly Berber covered the floor up here. Smoke hung in wisps just below the ceiling. It was getting harder to breathe.

Charles nodded at the first door. Gracie crept to the door. She tested the knob with a quick touch. It was cool. Charles kept his attention on the hall. Her hands shook harder now. This clearly was an adventure, by her father’s definition. Is this really what she wanted when she signed up for Diplomatic Security? The door in front of her said yes.

She opened the door quickly, pistol ready. Her second bathroom confirmed in one day. Small, cramped, with more vinyl. This one had a shower curtain. She quickly moved a few feet into the bathroom and swept the curtain out of the way, ready for Ivan to jump out. She let a long breath out, second empty bathroom confirmed.

Exiting the bathroom, Gracie gave Charles a nod as he glanced back at her. It was quiet in the hallway. Gracie expected to hear the crackle of Berber combusting, or at least Ivan’s heavy steps as he went about his work. All she got was a faint ringing in her ears. A noise crept in from outside. Distant sirens. Backup and firemen. That was good news.

Which door next? The open door down at the left or the closed near door on the right? From their angle in the hallway, they couldn’t see through the open door, but no smoke billowed out of there. Ivan was blazing his way to a federal penitentiary in the room on the right. They would hit that one first. Charles motioned with a nod for them to move down the hallway. The floorboards creaked a little under their weight as they neared the door. The carpet dampened the sound, but anyone listening would hear them coming.

They got into position. Charles set himself just to the left of the door. Gracie to the right. She bent her knees, putting her weight on the balls of her feet. Arms extended, ready to shoot. Her attention split between the closed door in front of her and the open one down the hall.

Charles tested the knob. The smoke thickened steadily; she could now see it filtering under the door, swirling into the hallway. The door was designed to swing into the room, and they were set to quickly follow it in. He nodded at Gracie. Here we go.

Charles mouthed the words one … two … and then the door burst from its hinges, splintering, flying into the hallway. A large shard of wood knocked Gracie’s right arm as it flew by her, taking her pistol with it to the opposite wall. She staggered backward. Something must have exploded in there. Smoke surged out of the room into the hallway. And then she saw that Ivan had followed the door out. He was standing between Gracie and Charles. His eyes were red from smoke. He breathed deep raspy breaths. His face, twisted in anger, had turned several shades of red.

There was a moment’s hesitation. Standing maybe four feet away from Ivan in the narrow hallway, Gracie craned her neck to look up into his face. Maybe three hundred twenty pounds of angry psychopath. Through the haze, Gracie could see Charles on his back in the hallway. Gracie stood her ground, unarmed, her right forearm bleeding from a long, shallow gash. Ivan had no weapon. His huge fists clenched and unclenched. “You’re burning down your own house?” Gracie said.  

“You break my door, you burn my house,” Ivan said.

Waves of heat reached out to her from the broken doorway. Smoke swirled around her, turning blackish blue. “What?” Gracie said. She coughed, and Ivan charged, right fist held high. Angry monster and rookie special agent. Hammer and nail. 

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