The decrepit wooden door crashed inward, a quick burst of sunlight tearing into his eyes from across the dimly lit garage. Jake jumped a mile, his bruised jaw tightening in a painful clench. The shrill sound of the splintering wood had jerked his heart up into his throat…but his senses fell completely numb at the sight of the gun that was pointed straight at his head.
Taggert leaned back against the couch, keeping a watchful eye on the door as he waited for Sonny’s return. Ashton had finally calmed down enough to listen to REASON, as opposed to irrational feeling, and agreed to go wait it out with Zander across the hall. As irritated as Taggert had been by the man’s big mouth and un-checked temper, he couldn’t help being somewhat intrigued...and somewhat envious. In spite of their outward problems, his passion for Alexis was unyielding and unabashed. Though he was loath to admit it, Taggert could connect with Sonny – with the ferocious sense of duty and responsibility he’d exhibited in these horrific days. But the emotional enveloping that a woman could inspire in a man, as Alexis had in Ashton, eluded him.
Taggert rose, restless. He thought about Dara, about Hannah as he paced the marble floor. His head had told him there was good reason why they’d detached from him so easily, and he from them: not the right time, not the right person. Maybe – maybe not. Maybe the detachment his job demanded had simply spilled over into his personal life, whatever personal life he’d allowed himself. Maybe it simply reinforced the brick wall he’d begun to build around him with his first youthful heartbreak.
As he found himself stopped in front of Sonny’s desk, his eyes drifted down to the telephone - the proverbial watched pot that wouldn’t boil. It had been a long time…and it crossed Taggert’s mind that Malloy might have changed HIS. Zander has spoken the truth: Sorel was both insane AND a murderer. His viciousness toward a helpless woman spoke volumes as to what he’d do to one of his own turned traitor. To actually make good on this, Malloy would have to have a death wish...or have gone insane himself.
Taggert suddenly began to sweat, overtaken with the fear that he’d made a fatal error in judgment. This was NOT a thing that he’d want on his head. As he leaned his palms against the desk, steadying himself against his own static nerves, the throbbing in his temples came back full-force.
Thomas’s eyes covered every inch of the dank, dusty garage in seconds, his arms training his weapon on the first thing that moved – the ONLY thing that moved. The two men stared each other down, both hearts racing like fury. Jake’s mouth had gone completely dry. Even so, he forced the words out.
Thomas stepped forward, then a few feet off to the side. He slid his foot backward, finding the edge of the door. With a swift move, he’d kicked it shut behind him.
Jake lifted both hands up a bit higher, making sure Malloy saw he was unarmed. He swallowed hard, trying to keep his mind clear. He would be reporting back to Corinthos himself. Malloy’s EXACT words – that was his order. He looked Malloy in they eyes as he answered back.
Thomas took a moment before lowering his arms, his eyes suddenly recognizing that the look on the man’s face was one of terror. It hadn’t occurred to him before, but the fear of being set up had been a two-way street. He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly before speaking.
“412 Central Avenue. Downstairs, in the basement. The back room.”
Jakes suspicion still held. He narrowed his eyes and gently rubbed at his throbbing face. Thomas flexed his fingers in response, remembering the sound of his hand as it hit the man’s jawbone.
“Your employer will find what he’s looking for.”
Jake raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? What else will he find?”
Thomas’s face reflected his confused.
“WHO else? Where will YOUR employer be, while mine is finding what he’s looking for…supposedly.”
“Indisposed. It’s safe, I swear on my grandmother’s grave.”
Thomas began to back up, his hand searching for the door behind him. As he pulled it open, broken hinges loudly squealing in protest, he looked up at the man once more with a final directive.
“She’ll need a doctor.” He looked as if he was going to say more, but his eyes just fell to the floor in silence.
Jake regarded him intently, trying to listen to what his gut was telling him. Malloy’s sudden bark jolted him.
“GO! For God’s sake, get her out of there!”
And then, as abruptly as he’d appeared, Malloy was gone.
Taggert needed some aspirin.
He remembered seeing Sonny toss the bottle into the top drawer, but his supply had been quickly depleting. Reaching down, he gave a pull on the drawer handle and it opened with ease. The second his eyes saw the bottle, he froze.
“My God…” He whispered to himself.
His eyes shifted to the door, then back to the bottle lying amidst various pens, papers and such. The full force of Sonny’s abject fear had just been brought home: Corinthos had left Taggert, who’d spent years devoted to throwing his butt in jail, alone in his home with his private desk UNLOCKED. Taggert’s moral code had never been put to such a test. But he would not break faith.
He quickly closed the drawer, aspirin and all else untouched. Turning away, Taggert rubbed at his temples and cursed himself for being so soft – but knowing it was right. To use the situation to his own advantage would be unconscionable. He wouldn’t do that to Alexis, and he wouldn’t even do it to Sonny. He shook his head in disgust. He could have lived a long and happy life never having to regard Corinthos as anything more than pond scum.
But NO! Here he was, feeling actual PITY. How could he not, when the man was even more emotionally detached than Taggert? He couldn’t even see the true reason for the depth of his distraction, admit to himself the true core of his vulnerability. The fact that Taggert saw it made him feel like an unwilling voyeur. At least he wouldn’t have to stick around and watch when Sonny’s dawn began to break. Poor Ashton might just be in for a whole new kind of hostile takeover – the kind a man never sees coming. Or maybe he does.
In the shadow of 412 Central Avenue, Thomas stopped to catch his breath. He’d moved as quickly through the streets and alleys as he could without drawing any unwanted attention. He didn’t know who was out there, prowling and watching. Both men were powerful and each had their army. Thomas was now on his own and an enemy to both sides.
As his heart rate slowed, his breaths coming more easily, he lowered his eyes to his watch. It shouldn’t take Corinthos more than twenty-five minutes to show up - thirty, tops. It had been just five since he’d left the garage, and now his fear of discovery was doing battle with his instinct to go to her just one last time. The setting sun sent a thin reflection bouncing off the Lincoln and across the ground in front of him. It looked like a sword and it threatened him, taunted him with the possibility that he’d made a mistake. That something, somehow, had gone terribly wrong. He looked once more at the shiny black car, squinting against the moving reflections of light.
No, it wasn’t possible! It wasn’t…
“RING, damn it!” Sonny yelled at the phone that stood on the desk in stubborn silence.
Johnny slammed the door shut behind them as he and Sonny finally returned. Taggert sprung from the ottoman.
“What the hell have you been DOING over there, feeding them milk and cookies and reading them a bedtime story?”
He’d felt a twinge of resentment at having been left out of even a small facet of this. Ever the detective, always wanting to know. Sonny gave him a dirty look.
“Maybe I should have. Since I had to EXPLAIN things to them, like they were children, PACIFY them, like they were children…what do you think, Johnny? Maybe Detective Taggert’s idea would have been just as effective but far less time consuming.”
Taggert frowned. “What’s the problem? I thought they understood and were okay with everything as is?”
Sonny sighed and poured himself a glass of water. “Ashton suddenly started making noises like he wanted to…help us out. He wanted to come with us, which we all know can’t happen.”
“And we all know WHY it can’t happen…” Taggert stopped himself too late. It just slipped out.
Johnny’s head snapped up, eyes large and sad. He’d already felt it to be true, but he hadn’t been prepared for such an abrupt confirmation. Taggert’s head dropped.
“It’s okay boss. I knew. You’d have said something if things were any different.”
Sonny smiled. “See Taggert? I told you Johnny was a smart man.”
Sorel was out of the way, he KNEW that! He’d unlocked or opened all the doors that led to her, and he’d checked on her again before leaving for what he thought would be the last time. But he knew deep down what it was that nagged at him. It was the feel of her face, the fever whose relenting had been all too brief. She didn’t response to his touch or his words, and it scared him. He told himself that it was still too soon for the aspirin to have taken effect, that it was best for her to sleep. Thomas squeezed his eyes shut and talked himself down.
“Don’t do this, don’t blow it now. Don’t be an idiot like Sorel and walk right into your own trap.” He muttered to himself under his breath.
“She’s fine…she’ll be fine!”
Again, he checked his watch. Thomas knew that his choices were pretty much gone. He glanced around the alley before quickly moving across to the other side without regard to the Lincoln with the fresh dent in the hood. Rounding the corner of the three-story warehouse that stood directly behind #412, he hoisted himself up to the bottom rung of the fire escape and climbed his way to an open window on the top floor. Thomas disappeared inside, and keeping his body hidden, he would watch and wait. Twenty minutes – that’s what he’d give him. If Corinthos didn’t show by then, he’d call for help himself.
Sonny walked over to Taggert. “Speaking of flapping your gums…I take it you’ve made all the calls, set everything up?”
“My back-up is on standby. I had to tell Mac the whole story, but he’s the only one who knows the details of who, why, and so forth. The officers that will be involved know only that it’s a kidnapping & rescue situation.” He glanced at Johnny before continuing.
“An ambulance and EMT are standing by as well. Just in case. Everyone’s ready to roll on my orders.”
Johnny moved to the couch, needing to sit. He loosened his tie a bit, while Sonny poured him some water without being asked. Johnny took it gratefully.
“Thanks Sonny.” The sudden ringing sent a stream of water spilling down his shirt.
Sonny was on the phone like lightning. “Corinthos. Jake - what have you got?”
Johnny found his legs, rising with a renewed energy while Taggert prepared to write down every detail on his pad.
“412 Central Avenue…down the stairs, in the basement. The back room? Got it. And Sorel?” Sonny frowned. “That’s it, “indisposed”? You didn’t press him?” Sonny sighed. “No – no, I understand. But he didn’t threaten you with it? God. He swore on…okay. Well, let’s hope your gut is right. What? What else?”
Sonny slowly ran his tongue across his lower lip before biting down on it. It was a gesture Johnny had seen before and didn’t like to see again – not this time. Sonny’s eyes darted to Taggert, who was waiting for more with his pen poised in the air.
“Don’t worry. We’ve got that already covered. That’s it? Alright. If you remember anything else, no matter what it is, you call my cell. And Jake? I LOVE you!”
Sonny dropped the phone back on the desk and pulled a key from his pocket, opening the one drawer that always stayed locked. His back to Taggert, he slid the revolver out and tucked it into his belt.
Taggert looked at Johnny’s pallid face. “Oh please! Is he for real?”
Sonny turned with a chuckle. “Habit. You can make your calls once we hit the lobby.” He pointed toward the door. “I don’t want them to know that we’ve gone. I don’t trust Ashton not to do something heartsick and stupid, like following us.”
He took a deep breath and looked steadily at both men, a wide dimpled smile spread across his face.
“Okay, let’s do it. Let’s bring Alexis home.”
Thomas shivered at his perch on the third floor, beside the open window. The sun was quickly fading, though each glance at his watch made him feel like time was slowing down. Impatient, he leaned his head out the window, scanning up and down the street for some sign of Corinthos.
As the growing chill in the air sent a fresh throb of pain through Thomas’s hand, it suddenly occurred to him that he might have made a grave mistake. The poor guy had already been knocked senseless by Thomas, only to have a gun aimed at his face a few hours later. He’d clearly been unprepared for the first incident and terrified by the threat by the second. If he’d considered the gun as a hostile prelude to something even larger, rather than the self-protective measure that it was…it he told Corinthos about it…
A quick flash of movement captured his attention. Carefully peering out the window, Thomas caught sight of an ambulance coasting its way into the driveway of a building two doors down. He sat up to look more closely, laying his palms against the window sill. The next sight was a blessed one.
A large dark blue sedan pulled alongside the ambulance, the engine cut. The first man to get out was not familiar, the second man was: Corinthos.
"Thank you.” Thomas whispered as he tore himself away from the window. His heaviness lifted away at last. It was finally over.
And he’d kept his promise.
Taggert went first, soft-footed, with eyes and ears at full attention. He was taking nothing for granted. One hand was held up behind him keeping the other two men a safe distance back. With the other hand, Taggert maintained a firm grip on the handle of his gun. He crept upon the Lincoln with care, looking through the smoky windows for any sign of movement. His fingers closed around the handle of the door – it was locked. Taggert stepped further up the length of the car, placing a palm flush beside a small dent in the hood. No engine heat: that car had been there a while.
Taggert motioned to Sonny and Johnny, who quietly took their places beside the door of the building. Johnny’s head was in constant motion, searching the alley for any possible threat. Taggert slowly turned the knob and opened the door as Sonny held his weapon close to his shoulder, ready to act. All they saw inside was a short, empty hallway with an open stairwell at its end.
“Johnny.” Sonny’s voice was low. “You stay here by the door. Watch our backs & keep an eye on Taggert’s people.”
Johnny nodded, silent, closing the door behind them as Taggert and Sonny disappeared down the stairs. They tread as softly as the metal steps would allow, their eyes meeting as they reached the bottom. Guns raised and ready, Taggert led the way down the fully lit corridor.
Sonny’s heart was pounding blood through this head like thunder. The stark silence surrounding them made it all the louder. The last few steps to the last open door were agonizing. Sonny’s hand began to shake in anticipation, and he clasped his other hand against it for steadying strength. Taggert halted his movement a few inches from the doorframe, narrowing his eyes to peek through the thin slit of space between the metal hinges. Satisfied that no one stood behind the door, waiting to spring, he firmed his grip on his revolver and readied himself to strike.
In a quick and solid move, Taggert spun around and stood, gun extended, in the center of the doorway. Sonny saw his eyes shift, left to right, before focusing on one spot within the room. Soon, Taggert’s arms slowly dropped, lowering his gun to the ground. His mouth opened slightly as he drew in a sharp breath. Before he could speak, Sonny had shoved him aside and burst into the room. What his eyes saw made his hands release, his revolver falling noisily to the floor.
Alexis lay still, her body twisted at the waist, her head and right arm hanging limply over the edge of the cot.
Sonny’s throat had gone stiff and dry. He tore across the room, falling to his knees beside her. Taggert quickly pulled out his two-way radio to bring in the EMT.
“Alexis, I’m here. Honey, come on, wake up.” He pulled her upward, gently, rolling her back onto the cot.
“Come one Alexis, wake up. It’s Sonny. Talk to me.” As he brushed the hair away from her face, his eyes were met with marks of Sorel’s violence that marred her skin.
The tone in Sonny’s voice sent a creeping panic through Taggert. He stuck his head out the door and yelled to Johnny.
“Johnny, it’s all clear down here! We’ve got her! Let the medics in!”
Johnny’s voice yelled back. “I see them. They’re on their way. Is she alright?”
Taggert didn’t answer. He moved toward Sonny, wanting to help…somehow. The sight of the red and purple bruises trailing her face and neck, the large scrape across her forehead stopped him from coming any closer.
Sonny’s fingers stroked Alexis’s face again and again, as if he couldn’t believe she was real. “Alexis…please, please wake up. Come one honey, open those beautiful brown eyes of yours and yell at me for taking so damn long to find you. Please Alexis.”
Her face was so hot beneath his touch, her skin so flushed. His hands moved down her bandaged arm, pulling the gauze strips away from the angry scrapes and tracks now blazing freely beneath his gaze.
Sonny winced and hung his head. His eyes became wells, teaming with hot rain. As he lifted his eyes to her face, he whispered a promise of his own.
“I will see him dead for this.”
And then, he froze. “She’s not breathing.”
There was no movement, no rise and fall of her chest. He tried to find a pulse in her throat…his fingers searching frantically for what they could not find.
“Oh God…Taggert, she’s not breathing!”