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The gunman parried his attempt to disarm him by driving his knee into Seth’s elbow. It wasn’t enough to throw Seth off balance, but it got him the result he wanted.
With his hand wrapped firmly around the grip of the gun and his finger on the trigger, the man staggered backward several steps. His free hand reached around to the back of his shoulder, and Seth watched as his fingers stroked over the sharp, pointed blades of the throwing star embedded in his left shoulder. His own experience told him that the more the guy moved, the more damage the blades would cause, and none of it would be pleasant. Seth would take a gunshot wound any day over the vicious pain a throwing star was designed to inflict.
As wet blood seeped into the long-sleeved shirt the man wore, the fabric clung to his shoulder blade, deltoid and triceps. And yet still he had the upper hand, and Seth cursed the turn of events. On the outside, his facial expression remained blank. His body made the return trip from aggression to readiness. Seth would have to force himself to wait and hope for another chance to take control of the situation.
“Should I put a bullet through the good agent’s forehead?” the man asked, angling his body to keep Seth and Moser in his line of sight. “Then again, it was my mistake, wasn’t it? He told me not to turn my back on you, but I should have applied that same advice to the other government lackey in my midst.”
“You still haven’t told me who he is.” Seth kept his eyes trained on the gunman, but with his peripheral vision he assessed the situation. There were too many damn people. Any one of them could turn the next moment into chaos. “Or who you are. What should I call you?”
Through gritted teeth, the man answered, “You expect me to believe you don’t know my name after you recognized Janie’s in an instant?”
Sean Kessler. Seth hadn’t forgotten the man’s name or any of the images Janie Savoy had showed him that chronicled years of abuse at his hands. He didn’t plan on fueling Kessler’s sense of self-importance by admitting that he remembered his name. “It wasn’t a detail important enough to commit to memory.”
Kessler’s eyes narrowed with suppressed anger, but to Seth’s surprise, he didn’t take the bait. The man controlled his impulses well, and Seth wondered if the mystery man had taught him a few lessons.
Kessler turned his attention to Jules, who hadn’t moved from the spot she’d occupied before Moser made his play. “Get a clean bar towel and come over here,” he directed. Then, with his gun pointed at Seth’s chest, he said, “You are going to stay where you are and your Secret Service friend is going to come and sit on this stool where I can keep a closer eye on him.”
Seth split his attention between Moser, whose slow gait brought him closer to the front line, and Jules, who drew a white towel out of a cabinet beneath one of the bar sinks. She looked at Seth before following Kessler’s instructions, and all he could give her in return was a silent promise to end this as soon as possible. The question of how was a problem his mind was working to solve.
“Take it out and then wrap the towel around my shoulder,” Kessler told Jules.
“You don’t want her to do that.”
Kessler shook his hand, the motion erratic and all the more dangerous because of it. “Shut the fuck up,” he growled. “You’re the last person who gets to tell me what I do or don’t want.” He turned his pain-filled eyes on Jules and demanded, “Do it. Fast and quick. Like ripping off a band-aid.”
Jules looked at him and Seth read the question in her eyes. He lifted his brows in response. Kessler had no idea what kind of pain he was inviting, but Seth didn’t care if the asshole hurt, especially if it gave him any kind of opening to take him down.
To Jules, Seth said, “It’s not going to come out easily. You’re going to have to wiggle it out of the muscle.”
“Don’t talk to her,” Kessler erupted. He had eased himself onto one of the barstools to compensate for the difference in his height and Jules’. Now he shot off the stool, but before he could get close enough for Seth to make a second attempt to disarm him, he got hold of his temper and the caution he’d shown at the start of this fiasco returned. Sitting back down on the stool, he stared Jules in the eyes and commanded, “Pull it out. Fast and quick.”
Jules folded the towel and pressed it against his back, wrapping her hand around his shoulder as a counterweight. As a last minute precaution, she pulled a rag out of her back pocket and placed it over the sharp blades of the star. Then, grasping its center, she counted aloud. “One, two—”
Seth watched her attempt to extract the star from Kessler’s shoulder, but the roar of pain escaping through Kessler’s clenched lips told him everything he needed to know about the success of the operation.
“Fucking hell, you bitch!” he yelled. Kessler turned on her and swung his fist in a wide arc.
It never connected with her head. Moser grabbed his forearm and spun Kessler around, but before Moser or Seth could press the advantage, Kessler wrapped his left arm around Jules and pulled her against him. He held her like a human shield in spite of the agony of pain streaking over his face as the throwing star continued to do its work.
Kessler’s better-than-average reflexes had allowed him to fend off every opportunity that presented itself to reverse the balance of power. Seth added the information to the equation running in his mind, factoring it in as he continued to devise a way to get everyone in the bar to safety.
Lifting the barrel of the gun to Jules’ temple, Kessler barked, “The next time either one of you come at me, this one dies. Back the hell off.”
Seth took a step backward and Moser mirrored the movement. Raising his hands in a classic gesture of peace, Seth said, “Let her go. She didn’t hurt you on purpose. Throwing stars are intended to be more painful coming out of your body than going in.”
Kessler was not appeased. “You should give me what I want, because no matter what happens here tonight, this is the beginning. I’m the equivalent of patient zero.”
“What do you mean?”
“He chose me. He chose me to be the first one to pull out the first string. Others will come after me, and before you know what’s happening, your life will have unraveled,” Kessler spoke. He lifted his hand and turned it to give Seth another look at the maze tattoo. “They’ll all have one of these, but more importantly, they all have the same dossier on you that he gave me. Where you live, who you care about, the places you go, who you work with, the women you’ve fucked. All that and a hell of a lot more. You’re prey, and the predators coming for you won’t stop until you’ve given back all those you have stolen from us.”
Kessler’s zealous rhetoric raised more than one red flag, but the significance of his words heightened Seth’s alarm. If Kessler spoke the truth, then this wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the first domino falling. Kessler thought he was the one to send that domino into motion, but the real catalyst was the mystery man Kessler resisted naming. Kessler may have been the first domino, but the unnamed man was the one that tipped him over, intent upon starting an unstoppable chain reaction.
“Haven’t you noticed them?” Kessler taunted. “All his disciples flitting around on the edges and fringes of your life, stalking the shadows, causing stuff to go bump in the night.”
“Is he making any sense to you?” Moser asked.
Seth wanted to dismiss Kessler’s words as the ravings of a madman with a god complex, but instinct wouldn’t let him ignore the fact that there was truth in his vague statements. He had been aware of people who were where they shouldn’t be, of random coincidences that had felt like anything but coincidence, of a nebulous sense of menace with no tangible source. Seth hadn’t been able to find a wholly satisfactory answer to any of the little things that had felt wrong, and he convinced himself that he’d be giving into paranoia if he put too much emphasis on any one of them.
Clarity rang like a bell even as it smashed him in the head. The problem wasn’t that he had ceased his vigilance. The problem was that he hadn’t acted when he should have. Now that negligence was coming home to roost. For the first time in a long time, indecision paralyzed him.
“I can’t kill you,” Kessler said. “But I can kill everyone else in this bar. I can snuff out their lives one by one until you tell me what I want to know. Who would you like me to start with? The good agent? He’s lived a fuller life than the others.”
“He’s really going to kill us, isn’t he?”
This came from the same frat boy that had demanded Seth exchange Janie Savoy’s life for his. Seth didn’t respond, not because he thought the answer was obvious, but because he didn’t want to give anyone here more reasons to fear Sean Kessler. And yet, he needed to reassure them that they would survive the night.
He didn’t know what to say, but thinking on his feet in moments of extreme duress had been part of his training since before he fully grasped the meaning of the word. “Stay calm,” he started.
The frat boy lurched out of the booth and onto his feet. “No. I don’t think I’m going to stay calm,” he protested. “You have everything he wants, but every minute you refuse to give him this woman’s location is another minute that one of us doesn’t have. You’re risking all of our lives, and for what? Some woman who had the bad judgement to get involved with whoever this guy is?”
“You’re out of line,” Seth told him, cutting his gaze to him. “Sit down before—”
“Before what?” the boy challenged. “Before he pulls the trigger again and someone dies? I don’t have to listen to you. None of us does. I—”
The sound of the front door opening snared Seth’s attention. He hadn’t locked the door behind him and neither had Kessler. Turning to see the innocent bystander about to walk into an increasingly volatile situation, Seth’s heart stopped in his chest when he saw that it wasn’t a newcomer at the door.
It was Danielle. The look of abject terror on her face communicated in stark tones what had driven her to make a run for freedom while the frat boy created a perfect distraction. If not for the creaking noise the door made as it turned on its hinges, she would have been away and safe in the night before anyone had noticed her absence.
The paralysis Seth had felt just a short moment ago gripped Danielle in a merciless embrace. She didn’t seem able to turn back, nor could she move forward. She was caught.
“No one leaves,” Kessler stated, his voice carrying to every corner of the bar in such a way that no one present could fail to hear him.
His voice shook Danielle out of her paralysis, and she fumbled against the glass before managing to successfully push it open.
Kessler shoved Jules away from him and pointed the gun at Danielle. “If you want to die, take another step. I don’t care what you decide and quite frankly, spilling your blood has the upside of getting me one step closer to what I want.”
Pure instinct made Seth put himself in front of Kessler’s gun and shout, “Run, Danielle!”
Footsteps pounding over the floor. Scuffling. Metal on glass.
Seth heard the commotion behind him but his concentration stayed fixed upon Kessler. The throwing star limited the range of motion on the left side of his body, but he moved as though he was oblivious to the pain. Seth expected Kessler to push him off balance. Rather than sending his knee into Seth’s elbow as he had done before, he kicked out with his foot.
Seth blocked the blow with both hands, gripping Kessler’s ankle before he could strike his target. He applied torque, intending to flip Kessler off balance, but his opponent leveraged his weight and turned his body in the direction of Seth’s twisting motion. At the same time, he jumped off his standing leg and spun, his foot arcing through the air and aimed at Seth’s temple.
Letting go of Kessler’s ankle, Seth pivoted on the ball of his feet. He was just fast enough to avoid what would have been a debilitating blow to the head. As it was, Kessler’s foot struck his shoulder, dislocating the bone from its socket. Seth went down hard to the ground. Seconds later, he heard a sound he couldn’t mistake for anything else.
A body dropping to the ground.
He looked toward the door, and the sight that greeted him froze his blood.
A pair of vacant, dead eyes staring back at him. Only they weren’t Danielle’s.
Danielle screamed. “No. No, you can’t… No! Oh, no, please, no. Please you can’t be…No!”
The boy she’d been standing next to when Seth walked into the bar was now laying on his side. Blood pooled around his head, spreading outward at a persistent rate, and when it reached Danielle’s knees it simply kept on going, coating everything in its path.
Danielle’s wailing sobs echoed in every chamber of Seth’s mind. Whoever the boy had been, he’d been important to her.
And now he had been taken from her much, much too soon.
Kessler’s voice rose above Danielle’s sorrowful cries, and the words pierced his skin with the same deadly precision as the throwing star buried in Kessler’s shoulder.
“No one leaves.”
Read Chapter Five