Outsider – Linda Castillo

She’d always known they would come for her. She knew when they did that it would be violent and fast and happen in the dead of night. Despite all the training, the mental and physical preparation, she’d also known that when the time came, she wouldn’t be ready. She wasn’t sure what woke her. Some barely discernible noise outside the front door. The scuff of a boot against a concrete step. The clunk of a car door as it was quietly closed. The crunch of snow beneath a leather sole. Or maybe it was that change in the air, like the energy of a static charge an instant before a lightning strike. She rolled from her bed, senses clicking into place. Her feet hit the floor an instant before the front door burst inward. She smacked her hand down on the night table, snatched up the Sig Sauer P320 Nitron, seventeen plus one of lifesaving lead. In the living room, a dozen feet thudded against the hardwood floor. A cacophony of shouted voices rang out. “Police Department! Get on the floor! Hands above your head! Do it now!” Two strides and she was across the room.

She slammed her bedroom door shut, slapped the lock into place. Spinning, she yanked her jacket off a chair back; she jammed one arm into the sleeve, covered her head and shoulders, and sprinted to the window. Without slowing, she bent low and dove. An instant of resistance as she went through. The sound of snapping wood and shattering glass. The pain of a dozen razor cuts. The ground rushed up, plowed into her shoulder. Breath knocked from her lungs. Snow on her face, down her collar, in her mouth. Spitting, she barrel-rolled and scrambled to her feet, kept moving.

Keeping low, every sense honed on her surroundings. She stuck to The Plan, the one she’d lived a thousand times in the last days, and she sprinted to the hedge that grew along the chain-link fence. Around her, snow floated down from a starless sky. A glance over her shoulder told her there were vehicles parked on the street, no lights. Typical no-knock warrant. Or was it? She was midway to the alley at the back of her property when she spotted a silhouette in the side yard, thirty feet away, moving toward her fast, equipment jingling. “Halt! Police Department! Stop!” In an instant she noticed a hundred details. The big man dressed in black. POLICE emblazoned on his jacket. The nine-millimeter Beretta leveled at her, center mass.

“Show me your hands! Get on the ground!” Crouched in a shooter’s stance, he motioned with his left hand. “On the ground! Now! Get down!” She swung toward him, raised the Sig. Simultaneously, recognition kicked. He was a rookie. Young. A good kid. She murmured his name, felt the knowledge of the decision she was about to make cut her and go deep. “Don’t,” she whispered. His weapon flashed and the round slammed into her shoulder. Impact like a baseball bat, the momentum spinning her.

Pain zinged, a red-hot poker shoved through bone marrow from clavicle to biceps. An animalistic sound tore from her throat as she went down on one knee. Get up. Get up. Get up. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him step back, lower his weapon. He went still, looked at her for a too-long beat. “Drop the weapon! Get on the ground! For God’s sake, it’s over.” Then he was shouting into his lapel mike. She launched herself to her feet, flew across the remaining stretch of yard, her feet not seeming to touch the ground.

A volley of shots thundered as she vaulted the chain-link fence, pain snarling through her body. All the while she imagined a bullet slamming into her back. Then she was in the alley. No police lights. No movement as she darted across the narrow span of asphalt. Heart pumping pure adrenaline, she hurdled the fence, entered her neighbor’s backyard, stumbled to the garage door. She twisted the knob, flung the door open, lurched inside, slammed it behind her. Breaths hissing through clenched teeth, she rushed to the truck, yanked open the door, and threw herself onto the seat, trying desperately to ignore the pain screaming in her shoulder, the knowledge that she was badly injured, and the little voice telling her The Plan wasn’t going to work. Her hands shook as she fished out the key, stabbed it into the ignition, turned it. She jammed the vehicle into reverse, stomped the gas pedal.

The pickup truck shot backward. A tremendous crunch! sounded as the bumper and bed tore the garage door from its track. The metal folded over the tailgate and was pushed into the alley, crushed beneath her rear tires. She cut the steering wheel hard. Red lights in her rearview mirror. Twisting in the seat, she raised the Sig and fired six rounds through the rear window. A thousand capillaries spread through the glass. The smell of gunpowder in the air. Ears ringing from the blasts. Ramming the truck into drive, she punched the gas.

No headlights. Moving fast. Too fast. She sideswiped a garbage can, sent it tumbling, overcorrected. The truck fishtailed and she nearly lost it, regained control in time to make the turn. On the street, she cranked the speedometer to eighty, blew the stop sign at the corner, kept going. For the span of several seconds, she was an animal, mindless and terrified, hunted by a predator that had scented her blood. The only sound was the hiss of her breath. The pound of a heart racing out of control. The hum of panic in her veins.

The knowledge that there was no going back. Her entire body shook violently. Her brain misfiring. Fear shrieking because she didn’t know how seriously she was hurt. Because she knew this wasn’t over. That this nightmare she’d been anticipating for weeks now was, in fact, just beginning. At James Road she hit a curb, backed the speedometer down to just above the speed limit, forced herself to calm down, kept her eyes on the rearview mirror. No one knew about the truck. All she had to do was stay calm and get the hell out of the city. For God’s sake, it had seemed like a good idea when she’d conceived it.

As the adrenaline ebbed, the pain augmented. Her shoulder throbbed with every beat of her heart. Looking away from the road, she risked a glance at it. Blood had soaked through her shirt, into her coat—which still wasn’t on properly—red droplets spattering onto the seat at her hip. The sight of so much blood piled another layer of fear atop a hundred others. Nothing broken—she could still move her arm—but it was bad, potentially life-threatening if she didn’t get to a hospital. But she knew emergency room personnel were required by law to report all gunshot wounds to law enforcement. For now, she had no choice but to keep going. Eyes on the rearview mirror, she made a right at Broad Street and headed east, praying she didn’t run into a cop. Even if they didn’t have her plate number or a description of the vehicle, she’d have a tough time explaining the bullet holes in her rear windshield, not to mention the blood.

By the time she hit the outskirts of Columbus, the snow was coming down in earnest. The wind had picked up, driving it sideways, and she could see the whisper of it across the surface of the road in front of her. Soon, it would be sticking. As much as she didn’t relish the thought of slick roads, especially with an injured shoulder, she knew it might work to her advantage. If the state highway patrol was busy with accidents, they’d have less time to look for her. The problem was they weren’t the only ones looking. The state police were the least of her problems. They weren’t the ones who would cuff her, walk her into a cornfield, and put a bullet in her head. She needed help, but who could she trust? Twice she’d picked up her cell phone to make the call. Twice she’d dropped it back onto the console.

The realization that there was no one, that at the age of thirty-five she’d cultivated so few meaningful relationships during her lifetime that there wasn’t a soul on this earth that she could call upon, made her unbearably sad. Against all odds, The Plan had worked; it had gotten her out the door and into her vehicle. How ludicrous was it that she didn’t have a destination in mind? Or maybe she simply hadn’t believed she was going to survive long enough to need one. She took Broad Street past Reynoldsburg and the Pataskala area and then turned north onto a lesser county road. The snowfall was heavy enough to obscure visibility by the time she hit the outskirts of Newark. The bleeding showed no sign of abating. As the miles inched past, it formed a sickening pool on the seat at her hip. There was no pulsing or spray, which meant there was no catastrophic vascular damage. Still, the pain and trauma were making her nauseous and light-headed. By the time she hit Ohio State Route 16 East, her heart was racing and she was shivering beneath her coat.

Her hands were shaking and wet on the steering wheel. To make matters worse, visibility had dwindled to just a few feet and she inched along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Three hours had passed since she’d fled her house. Early on, she’d made good time and managed to put over fifty miles between her and her pursuers. In the last hour, conditions had deteriorated; she’d encountered a total of two motorists and a single snowplow. The pavement was no longer visible and she’d fallen to using mailboxes, the occasional fence line, and the trees and telephone poles on either side just to stay on the road. It wasn’t until she passed the sign for Holmes County that she thought of her old friend. A lot of years had passed since they’d spoken. There was some baggage between them—and probably a little bit of hurt. But if there was anyone in the world she could count on, it was Kate.

… As she drove through another band of heavy snow, even the poles disappeared from view. It didn’t look like a plow had made it down this particular stretch; the snow was several inches deep now and there wasn’t a single tire mark. Slowing to a crawl, she drove blind, squinting into the whiteout, struggling to find the road. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, the irony of it would have sent her into hysterical laughter. That was how they would find her—bloodied and clutching the steering wheel and laughing like a hyena. The truck wasn’t equipped with four-wheel drive, but the tires were good and holding their own. The tank had been full, and there was still half a tank left. Enough to get her where she needed to go. All she had to do was stay on the road and not get stuck. She idled over a small bridge, reached down to turn up the defroster.

The tree came out of nowhere, a black beast rushing out of the maelstrom like an apparition. She yanked the wheel right, but she wasn’t fast enough. Steel clanged. The impact threw her against her shoulder harness. The front end buckled; the hood flew up. The airbag punched her chest hard enough to daze. Cursing, she disentangled herself from the airbag, wincing when her shoulder cramped. The truck sat at a severe angle, nose down, bumper against the tree. The engine had died. The headlights illuminated a geyser of steam shooting into the air.

Struggling for calm, she jammed the shifter into park. If she could get the truck started, she might be able to wire the hood shut and be on her way. She twisted the key. Nothing. “Come on,” she whispered. “Come on. Come on.” She gave it a moment and tried again, pumping the gas this time, but the vehicle refused to start. Closing her eyes, she set her forehead against the steering wheel. “Fate, you are a son of a bitch.

” The raised hood caught wind and rattled, spindly branches scraping against the surface. Pulling out her phone, she checked the battery. Plenty of juice, but no bars.… The laugh that tore from her throat sounded manic in the silence of the cab. She had two choices. She could leave the relative shelter of the vehicle and find help. Some farmer with a tractor who could pull her truck from the ditch so she could be on her way. Or she could stay put and wait for dawn, which was hours away, help that might not come—or the local sheriff, who would likely ask a lot of questions she didn’t want to answer. As far as she was concerned it was a no-brainer. Unfastening the seat belt, she shoved open the door and stepped into the driving snow.

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