Rhondi Vilott Salsitz

Writing as Elizabeth Forrest

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DAW Books
Spring 1997

Spense could taste the rise of smoke in the air. It crept in through the fissures, through the breaches in the room, the tunnel, damning them all. He could not get the girl out, let alone himself, if smoke overcame him. He took a step forward. Gunnar's hand and blade flashed down to Jennifer's neck. "My faithful will protect me."

The father moved then, flinched, and as he moved, a blast shattered the back of the room, deafening, the air filled with dust and debris, the walls sundering. The shock drove Spenser back into the doorjamb, coughing, his eyes filled with grit, his lungs choking, his ears ringing. The wall of computer equipment crumbled, and the machines set off a series of loud, popping, minor explosions like a chain reaction as they blew. The air stank of electrical fire. He blinked wildly, trying to clear his eyes and saw Davidsen still standing, surrounded by wreckage and ruin.

Spenser drew a clear breath. "Your faithful are dead."

He looked to the rubble on the floor. Nothing could be seen of Jennifer's father, and all that he could spot of her mother was a length of champagne hair, streaked with red, and one arm and shoulder bared by a concrete block. He heard her moan, but could not see her face.

Davidsen twisted slightly, as if also listening, then tossed his head, throwing his hair back from his eyes. His movement loosened the mantle and it fell from his shoulder, exposing the AK47 slung across his back. Jesus Christ, and how long would it be before the reverend remembered that and filled his hands with it, spitting out death among the unworthy?

"Stand clear," he said to Spenser, smiling slightly, the one chipped tooth in front giving him that boyish look, so famous on television and the intemet. "Let me pass."

"Give me the girl."

Davidsen looked down at his arms, vaguely surprised, as if he'd forgotten he held her. He took the knife up and smoothed her hair back from her face tenderly, the edge tinged pinkly with her own blood. "She goes with me," he said, as if suddenly come to his senses. He started to move to the door.

One stride and Davidsen halted, one leg held back, stuck. He stared down at his ankles and kicked to free himself. Spense could not see what it was that held him as Davidsen wrestled in the debris. He convulsed in fury.

"Let go of me! You are my sheep, my grass! Stupid son of a bitch, do you want me to die down here?" He plunged against whatever trapped him from the ruins. Jennifer's fingers moved again, drawing at the air, plucking at nothingness as if gathering up consciousness. Spense was out of time.

Davidsen's face, mottled with fury, spat venomous words at the rubble and he could see a corded hand and arm, straining, holding to Gunnar's ankle. Davidsen dropped the knife and twitched his shoulder, swinging the AK47 around.

Time fled completely.

Spense threw the meds case. The battered aluminum body missed Davidsen by the barest of margins and slammed into an upright of the wall. It rang liked a churchbell as it hit, and Davidsen froze, transfixed. Spense grabbed her from his arm, her limp form as light and fluid in his arms as a rag doll. A tiny moan left her as he took her up. "It's all right. I've got you," he whispered into her hair, as he turned and bolted with her.

Davidsen, his voice hoarse and manic, screamed at him, rending Spenser to the bottom of his voice. "Give to the Lord what is the Lord's!"

As he slipped through the doorway, the whole tunnel seemed to shiver, and he could see the black coil of smoke, low and hungry, crawling down the corridor's throat. From the corner of his eyes, he then saw Davidsen bring up the AK47. He leapt, his momentum carrying him into the open on an angle.

Bullets whined past him. The tunnel wall spit out gravel like angry wasps. He never looked back. Jennifer stirred against his chest. He ran, holding her tightly, feeling her bloody warmth seep into the neck of his shirt. She murmured, so faintly he could not understand her words. He brought her down, checked her wounds ... torture wounds, shallow, except along the wrists, where crosscuts bled insistently, yet not life threatening unless left unattended. He ripped the hem of his shirt and bound them. What in God's name had Davidsen been doing to the child?

"I have you," Spense told her. "You're safe now."

If he could find his way out of hell.

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