Before Julia and Patrick had completely rolled to the safety and cover of a nearby sofa, the room was awash in a sea of splintering wood, shattering glass and crumbling plaster. The glass of the window fragmented into pieces with loud pinging sounds as the bullets smashed through it and sought their targets.
“What is going on?” Patrick gasped as he flinched with the sound of every piece of furniture that was demolished by the intrusive bullets.
Julia did not answer him. Her focus was on the window. Her heart was pounding, not with fear or anxiety, but with the anticipation of a gunfight. There were clearly more than one sniper out there, and given the position of her apartment at the building’s topmost storey, she knew the snipers were firing from the window of the flat opposite hers, in the building on the other side of the road. They couldn’t be at the roof-top because the building’s roof was made up of corrugated sheets. Adrenaline coursed through her body as she turned her face to the doorway that opened into the corridor. Her bedroom was at the end of that corridor. A Glock 39 pistol lay hidden at the bottom drawer of her bedside armoire, and a semi-automatic Smith and Wesson was nestled under her pillow. She had to get to those guns.
“Jules – you’ve been hit!” Patrick choked out. His hand came up to her face. “You have blood on your face.”
She was barely aware of the stinging pain radiating from the spot on her cheek where she’d been brushed by a bullet. She lifted the hem of her blouse to mop at the faint trickle of blood.
“Let me see – let me see. . .” Patrick was trying to pull her face around to look at the injury.
She shook off his hold, and turned a grave expression to him. “Listen, Patrick, you have to do as I say, you hear? Stay here.”
“What do you mean? Who –”
“Stay here, Patrick.” She lifted her hands in a gesture signaling him to stay put. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
“You’re leaving me here?” He sounded panicked. “For chrissakes, what’s going on?”
She didn’t bother answering that. Instead, she got down on her stomach and began to slither forward with crab-like motions. A hail of brass shell casings fell all around her and the air was thick with the smell of cordite as the assailants outside continued firing from across the street. She got to the doorway and angled her body upward to slip past the partially-open door. A stream of bullets slammed against the door, narrowly missing the hand she lifted to shove the door open. She swore and retreated immediately. They obviously had the doorway in their sights.
“Julia!” Patrick hissed in a frantic tone.
She ignored him and darted a quick look around. What couldn’t they see? she thought. Her eyes fell on the bookshelf, and a small, grim smile twisted her lips. It was time for Plan B.
She slithered toward the shelf and slammed her palm against a small knob at the bottom of the wall beside it, cleverly hidden from any eye not looking for it. There was a whirring sound and the bookcase slid sideways, revealing a concealed wall-safe the size of a small cupboard. She spun the dial, setting the combination. The tumblers clicked and she pulled the door open to reveal a small array of shelves outfitted with a modest arsenal. There were gleaming pistols with loaded rounds stacked beside them. Sharpened knives were stocked in a middle shelf, ranging from the scalpel-bladed flick-knife to the patterned Bowie knives and Sharpfingers. At the bottom rested a shotgun, a pump-action Remington 1100, with a box of cartridges beside it, waiting to turn the piece of armoury into a deadly weapon.
She may have been out of the game, but there was no way she was leaving herself vulnerable to any stray element that walked in on her from her past. This arsenal was what she called her ‘just-in-case plan.’
She picked out a Heckler and Koch P30 automatic, slammed a loaded chamber inside it and slipped forward to the windowsill, all the while aware of Patrick’s astonished stare on her. She felt the cool rush of air flowing into the room, uninhibited, through the shattered windows, as she took up a firing position. Then she placed her hands on the sill and began to fire back at the snipers. Her shots weren’t silenced and the bangs she let off tore through the nightly atmosphere with startling loudness. She couldn’t see anyone she was firing at, and her aim wasn’t to target and kill. She simply wanted them to know that she was armed and dangerous, and would give them a fight.
She fell back against the wall, away from the window. And waited. There was a brief respite, and then the snipers sprayed the point where she shot from with answering fire. She crawled to another spot and fired back. She could hear screams as panic resulting from her firing ripped through the neighbourhood. Someone would call the police, she knew that. And the snipers knew that too. The time they had to accomplish whatever objective they had was quickly winding down. She was forcing their hand.
For a few quick moments, the gunfight raged on, with her loud shots reverberating across the street in response to their silenced fire.
Soon, through the din, came the distant wail of sirens. She heard it. They must have heard it too, because they stopped firing at her. She let off a few shots all the same. There was no retort. She nodded. It was just like she thought. Now, she had to come up with a plausible story for the police, explaining why she was engaged in a gunfight with unknown gunmen. She knew what she would say. But the problem was Patrick.
“Patrick. . .” she called out softly. She began to rise to her feet. The room was shadowy with most of its lights blown out by the shooting. “Babe, are you there?”
First, her acute hearing picked up the faint sound of her front door opening and the fainter sound of footfall. Then Patrick suddenly burst out from the corner where he was, “Julia, look out!”
The blow that landed on her neck was from a fist, and the pain from the point of contact exploded into her head, making her momentarily dizzy and knocking her to the floor. A figure pounced on her and clutched furiously at her right hand, trying to tear away her weapon. She fought back hard, shaking off her dizziness and delivering several sharp punches to her assailant’s kidneys. The pained grunt she got was male, and her attacker let up on his assault. That was the edge she needed, and she took it, pushing herself away from the man and struggling to get to her feet.
The man, however, was faster. He lashed out with a sweeping kick that took Julia’s legs right from under her. She hit the floor hard and her head banged against the wall with a force that caused an explosion of stars before her eyes. She swung her hand, still grasping the firearm, in the direction of her attacker. She heard something slice through the air moments before the man’s baton hit the pistol and knocked it out of her hand. As an added measure, he delivered a searing blow to the upper thigh of her right leg with the baton. She gasped as pain, made unfamiliar by two years of civilian living, splintered through her body.
As her vision cleared, she could see that her opponent was already regaining his feet. She didn’t want to risk another spinning kick and have her legs taken out from underneath her again, so she used her feet to propel her backward as fast as she could go along the floor of the living room. The moment she took off, her attacker was almost right on top of her. She made it as far as a cabinet beside the TV’s console before the man took another swing with the baton and connected with her ribs.
As he raised the baton for another strike, Julia rolled hard to her left, out of the way, and ripped open the nearest cabinet door. The baton missed its mark and banged against the wood, and Julia shot her leg out, feeling some satisfaction when it connected with the man’s groin. He yelped and staggered back, and she quickly leaped to her feet, going after him and jabbing at his face with a long, raking left. He blocked the punch and counter-punched with surprising speed. Julia, who hadn’t had a fight in several months, saw it coming a shade too late, but managed to get her shoulder up in time to half-smother the blow. It was hard enough to send her off balance. A left-hand punch followed her and caught her on the side of her head.
But she clouted him immediately in the ribs with a right. He grunted. She feinted with her left, then caught him with a solid right-hand punch on the side of his neck. The man staggered and dropped his hands. Julia jumped in and hit him hard on his jaw. He reeled back, and she socked him in the belly. She kept moving in, belting him with right and left punches, having some of them blocked and knocking back the man’s counter-punches.
They both were gasping for breath now, and her aggression was causing the man to back away as fast as he could from her. Another blow from Julia caught him on the side of his neck, and the impact sent him reeling across the room, knocking over the centre table. He landed on his back, amid the debris of Julia’s bullet-ridden furniture. He was scrambling up when Julia dived forward to finish him. Instead, her feet hit the overturned table and she came down with a thud that shook the breath out of her.
Her opponent had her cold then, and he didn’t miss the chance. He pounced on her, slipping his fingers around her throat and squeezing shut. Her airways began to snap shut and she struggled, her body bucking wildly and her fingers tearing at the man’s hands and face. He tightened his grasp, and her scream choked out of her mouth in a gargle. The world began to swim before her eyes in splotches of black and white.
She was going to die. This was it.
Goodbye, Patrick. I’m sorry I never got to tell you that I –
She heard the sound of glass shatter against her attacker’s head. His grip around her neck slackened as he grunted again, and his fingers slipped away. Air rushed into her lungs and she sucked it in greedily, gratefully. Her vision cleared in time for her to see the man swing a backhand blow at Patrick, who had brought her dining table vase down on his head. The fist struck the side of Patrick’s head and he was propelled back to land on the floor.
The man turned back to Julia to meet her punch landing flush on his face. She heard the satisfying squish-crunch sound of the bridge of his nose collapsing under the impact. He shrieked as blood gushed from his nostrils. He fell back from her, and struggled to his feet the same time as she did. But he wasn’t about to attack her again. Clearly, he’d had enough as he darted for the front door and disappeared behind the corner. As Julia made after him, she could hear him thundering down the staircase.
She stopped herself from running after him. She would not catch him, and going after him could lead her straight into the ranks of his friends, the shooters from outside.
She shut the door and turned to face Patrick, who was getting to his feet. He weaved a little as he stood and raised his hand to gingerly feel the side of his head that was punched.
“Babe, are you okay?”
At her question, he turned his head to her. His eyes were snapping with rage and his breathing was raspy. “You!”
“Look, Pat, I can explain. . .” She started toward him.
“Don’t you dare come any closer to me!” he barked, lifting a warning finger and backing away from her. Then he spat at her, “Who the hell are you, Julia?!”
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