James threaded his way through the commotion on the ground floor, and, like his first entrance, no one paid him much attention. The men were more concerned with putting the fires out, and there was nothing about James that screamed he worked for the opposite side. He went back to where he'd seen last seen Langston, and scanned the area.
The smoke made it harder to see, and James was finally feeling it affect his breathing. It felt as though no matter how deeply he inhaled, he couldn't get enough oxygen. Worse, in this instance, it was impeding his vision. He had one goal, and it required a clean line of sight.
There. White hair, tall, thin frame. Langston was certainly on his way to an exit. And he certainly wouldn't make it there.
James lifted his gun and sighted down the barrel. He pulled the trigger once, twice, three times. Two the chest, one to the head.
It was overkill, literally. James knew with the utmost certainty that the first shot was fatal. And the blood seeping through his cleanly pressed suit was a clear sign no bulletproof vest had gotten in the way. Goodbye, Oliver Langston. That evil son of a bitch was history.
James ducked behind a pile of boxes as the men on either side of Langston returned fire. He glanced at his watch again, trying to remind himself that he had a rough countdown, nothing more. He could easily be off as much as twenty seconds in either direction.
He waited a moment, just long enough to be confident that Langston's men were merely firing in his general direction, and hadn't actually seen him. Hell, their quasi-random firing was likely hitting people on their own side. In any other circumstance, he would have used the smoke covering to employ the stealth he was so good at, and simply merge seamlessly into the chaos.
But right now he wanted out of the damn building, and he didn't care what kind of attention he drew. He'd be damned if the building exploded while he was crouched down trying avoid random gunfire. He stood and ran for the door.
He heard more gunshots. Though he was aware of the risk of getting shot in the back, he kept his focus on the exit. Even now, he didn't at all regret passing off his vest to Sam. He ran by clumps of men trying to control the fires, and though they turned to look at him, no one impeded his progress. The smoke was too thick; the noise was too loud. Few would grasp that Oliver Langston had just been shot and killed, and his murderer was bolting out of the warehouse.
James swore loudly when he saw the door he'd entered through was now swarming with men. For all he knew, they could be trying to prevent his escape or they were merely looking for reprieve from the smoke. Either way, there were too many for him to muscle through without using his gun. Samantha had his extra gun and his extra ammo. He was left with a half empty clip and no way of knowing what awaited him outside. It'd been relatively calm when he'd taken Samantha outside, but he doubted it had stayed that way. She sure as hell better have kept running toward his car.
He glanced at his watch. Right now he was ten seconds past due. Zack had been lying, or James had absolutely no time to waste. He turned sharply and headed for the line of windows. The first two were boarded up. The third was partially open, but not enough. The fourth was a large thick pane of glass.
He increased his pace, fired two shots at the glass, and braced for impact. The bullets hadn't broken the pane, merely weakened it, so he took a hard hit to his left shoulder as he leapt into the glass. It shattered, raining shards of glass upon James as he cleared the window frame.
James hit the ground in a roll, grunting. Even leading with his shoulder had bloodied up the left side of his face and neck. He didn't bother taking any further stock of his injuries. His only concern was that he still had use of his legs. He was back on his feet in an instance, running. Being outside wouldn't do him a whole lot of good if he was still in the vicinity of the building when it blew.
The thought had no sooner crossed his mind when he felt the ground shake below him. Never slowing, he glanced behind him to see the warehouse tremble violently. And then came the flames, bursting outward in a monstrous fireball.
He was still too close. Too damn close. James tucked his chin down, shielded his head with his arms, and ran until the heated shockwave from the explosion sent him flying into the air.
James opened his eyes, wincing. He was sprawled on his side on ground that was more dirt than grass. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious, though he guessed it couldn't have been much longer than a minute or two. The warehouse, though partially collapsed, was still raging with flames. The heat was suffocating in its intensity, and James knew he had to move.
He tried to sit up, and only then noticed the searing pain in his thigh. Simultaneously, his head swam and his eyes slid out of focus. He was well aware that being beyond the reach of the actual explosion was not enough, and he was fortunate to have survived at all. But, damnit, he still couldn't afford to be immobilized at this point.
Much slower this time, he pulled himself into a sitting position. He saw the chunk of metal pipe protruding from his leg and grimaced. It hurt like a bitch, but it wasn't bleeding particularly heavily. He figured the pipe had been pretty damn hot when it entered his leg, and provided a sort of self-cauterizing injury. Fortunate, but his right leg was all but dead weight at this point, and he was unable to tell just how far the pipe was in his leg. It could be very unwise to pull it out.
He looked around, and didn't see a single person. Had no one been far enough away to survive the explosion? Looking upon the warehouse, he doubted there was a soul alive inside.
As remote of an area the warehouse was in, James was certain emergency vehicles would approach soon enough. He needed medical care, but everything about him would be suspicious to the local police. His attire, his gun, his-
Wait. Where was the gun?
James rubbed his head, trying to remember. Had he holstered it before jumping through the window or had he kept it in his hand? In any case, it was gone now.
This didn't change the fact that he needed to quit surveying the scene and get further away from the building. He doubted he could stand, much less walk. He laid back down and turned on his stomach. Slowly, painfully, he began to army crawl, dragging his leg. He had no real intention of where to go, only to get away from that terrible heat. Once far enough, he would go toward the direction of his car, though he sincerely doubted he would make it that far. And if Samantha had driven it away, all the better.
Langston was dead, as were most of his men. If Samantha had done as instructed, she had been fully out of harm's way and now there was no one left to pursue her. James remembered Brian saying he'd talked to Wilkes and given their rough location.
James had been furious at the time. And now Brian was dead and James' best shot was for another member or two from the IDK to show up. It made James sick to think about it. Brian had been a true friend of his, and now he was relying on one last favor.
He stopped crawling and closed his eyes as his head spun again. He took slow breaths, trying to persuade himself to stay conscious. The idea of passing out and potentially waking up in hospital hooked up to painkillers was an attractive prospect, but he wasn't sure where Samantha was. He had told her to leave. But she was a stubborn creature, and had been from the very beginning. He thought about their first meeting. This had all started with an explosion, and now it was ending with one.
"Aw, I got my wish."
James tensed. He hadn't heard anyone approach, and that mocking voice was the last thing he needed.
He opened his eyes and laboriously sat up to face Zack. "You."
Zack grinned. "Man, bro, you look like shit. Rough day?"
Well, this was it. James was unarmed, injured, and had no more aces up his sleeve. "I'd say the odds are in your favor, Zack. Congratulations," he said dryly.
"If you're trying to imply this isn't a fair fight, I gotta admit that I totally don't give a damn. I've wanted to kill you since the day I realized you existed. And, hey, it was my snazzy bomb that made you all damaged."
There was silence as James stared at Zack emotionlessly.
"Yo, speak!" Zack said. "This is where we exchange our witty repartee. We've got to get on it quick, because I want to make sure I kill you before you perish on your own. And, note how I've got your gun." He presented the weapon in his hand with a flourish. "Sweet, ain't it?"
James just stared.
"I watched your dumb self burst through that window, and I watched that wicked "I can fly!" move of yours. I was pretty worried you were dead, but when I snatched your gun and I saw you were breathing. Oh, joy of joys! See, I don't just want you dead, I want to be the one to kill you. Desperately.
"Then you crawled pitifully, and here we are, happily clear of any other survivors. Though, as far as I can tell, everyone's toast."
Hearing Zack narrate his actions struck James with a deep surge of worry. How long had he been surveying the building? Had he seen when James exited with Samantha? Did he know where she was?
Had he harmed her?
"C'moooon, James, don't you have anything to say? Would you like to damn my name? Curse my brilliance? Gimme something!"
James held his even stare.
"Fine. Have it your way. In summary, I'd like to say that you suck, I'm awesome, and mwahahah- well… fancy this. Heya, doll."
Horrified, James turned his head. Behind him, Samantha was approaching, holding James' spare gun in her hands.
Damnit, no! That foolish, stubborn, idiotic girl! What the hell was she doing?
James knew with certainty that her skills were in no way comparable to Zack's. She'd never even been properly trained how to handle firearms. From experience James knew Zack was only about a fifty-fifty shot, but Samantha hadn't ever fired a gun, had she? Son of a bitch, why hadn't James given her any rudimentary lessons?
"Zack, let's just call truce," she said, still walking nearer. "Okay?"
Zack laughed. "Look, hon, I had no beef with you. I had every intention of letting you live, because I don't care about you in the least little bit. But here you are, pointing a gun at me and now I feel inclined to kill you."
"It's not pointed at you!" James snarled. She had it facing the ground, and James couldn't understand why she'd even taken it out in the first place.
"Oh, please, the intention is clear. You threaten me, and I eliminate you! That's how it goes."
"Let's all calm down," Samantha said. "Surely we can find some of bargain or-"
"Sam, leave," James snapped. "Leave! You shouldn't have shown yourself."
"What, so I was supposed to sit back and watch Za-"
"Yes!" James turned to Zack. "You and I both know she wouldn't have shot you. Just let her walk away. She's not part of this."
"It'd really suck for you if she died after all this, wouldn't it?" Zack smirked. "You're lucky I don't see the rationale behind twisting the knife in the wound. I'd do some serious damage to that girl while you lay there like a bum.
"Hmm, hmm, hmm." Zack tapped the gun to his chin, and James knew he was mocking them with his lack of concern. "Sam dear, I suppose you were starting to grow on me. You're willing to banter with me, and I like that. Walk away now, and there's a chance I might not shoot you in the back."
"I can't just leave!"
"Take it or leave it."
"Sam, go! Now!"
Samantha stayed rooted, ignoring James completely. "I know there is something we can offer you, Zack."
Zack was still smiling. "There is nothing I want more in this world than to kill James. If you were to strip naked and offer up some hanky panky, I wouldn't even consider it. Well… not consider it long, anyway."
"No, no, no," Zack scolded. "I was uncharacteristically kind and gave you your chance to come out unscathed. It ain't-"
"-my fault you didn't take it. I realize you're the little girl who's worried about her fallen hero, but we're still on opposite sides of this thing. It's been established that-"
"Zack, don't do it!"
"-you won't sleep with me, and once that's established I don't discriminate against gender. Right now you're just a person with a gun." Zack smiled brightly, pointed James' gun at her, and pulled the trigger.
The bullet caught her on the right side of her chest. It sent her into a full spin, and she collapsed to her knees, a stunned expression on her face.
"You son of a bitch!" James yelled.
Zack scoffed. "What are you going to do? Hobble up on your one good leg and rush me? Besides, she ain't dead."
No, she wasn't dead. And beyond developing one hell of a bruise, she wasn't terribly injured. James knew full well that Zack assumed the vest was bullet proof. He couldn't have been sure, and if his aim had been just a little higher he would have hit her unprotected neck. As it was, James suspected that Zack had wanted to hit her square in the chest to send her rocking backwards.
Had he done that, she wouldn't have taken a hard spin to the right. She wouldn't have exaggerated the force into a full circle, and she wouldn't have dropped the gun… dropped it so it was very nearly in James' reach.
Holy hell, that's one smart girl.
James glanced at Zack to see if he had noticed, but he was looking at Samantha and smirking. "Nice vest. A little big on you, but if you were to lose the shirt and work the cleavage I think you could pull it off."
How to distract from the gun lying in the grass? Even though she was on her knees, surely Zack would notice she wasn't holding it anymore. James edged closer to Zack –away from the gun- as though to attempt to rush him, as Zack had said.
"I see you, Jaaaames." Zack taunted, still looking at Samantha. "Admiring your girlfriend's fashion accessories does not kill my peripheral vision. How ya doin' there, kiddo?"
Samantha had one hand to her chest and was breathing hard. "That… really… hurt."
"It was suppose to, hon. Actually it was supposed to leave you a bloody mess, but this way is fun too. I am curious to what kind of quality we're dealin' with on that vest there, though." His smile never wavered as he pulled a second gun from his jacket with his free hand and then pocketed James'.
"Leave her be," James growled. A gun seven feet away did him no good in this scenario.
Zack ignored him. "Now, my gun doesn't have quite the brute force as our dear James' does, but it's much smarter. I do hope everyone catches my well crafted analogy there."
"Smarter?" Samantha asked, sinking back on her heels.
"Yep. Kevlar, for example... not quite the challenge. Shall we see?"
It was too late. Zack had fired the gun. Samantha collapsed backward and was utterly still.
"Hey, whaddya know!" Zack threw his head back and laughed.
That was all James needed. Furious, he lunged for the gun Samantha had dropped. He brought it up at the same moment Zack realized what he was doing.
Zack fired. James fired.
There were soft hands touching his face. "James? James!"
He opened his eyes, and there was the face of an angel. Samantha.
"No, no, don't sit up. God, you look awful."
"Where did he hit you?" James asked hurriedly, talking over her last words.
"Nowhere. I figured falling down was the best thing to do at the time."
"Nowhere?" He ignored her orders and sat up slowly.
"Yeah, missed me entirely." She smiled, tears in her eyes, and hugged him gently.
James intended to mirror the motion; there was nothing more he wanted than to hold her tightly. But when he tried his arm, a wave of pain stopped him. "Hell," he grunted. "Son of a bitch shot me in the shoulder."
"You got him way worse. I think you hit his stomach –he was bleeding all over the place and could barely run away."
"Well… only a little. But that doesn't matter. Are you… alright?"
He shot her a dry look. "Not quite."
"I mean, you're not going to die or anything, right? You've been through worse, right? I really need you to live, okay?" She had steadily increased the pace and pitch at which she was talking, and by the end the words were rushing forth in near hysterics.
"There's nothing to worry about. You should know by now it would take more than an explosion and a gun wound to kill me," he said, trying to encourage her to smile.
She was stone-faced. "James… there are two men with guns approaching us." She scooted in closer to him.
James turned to look. "Sam, those are IDK guys. The cavalry, I guess."
"So… it's over?"
She finally smiled, the sweetest sight a man could see. James knew he loved her, and no longer cared about keeping up appearances.
"It's a little hard to move right now. Lean in and kiss me, Sam."