"I can see why you like here," Grace said as she dropped a spoonful of peppermint ice cream into the coffee she'd just purchased from The Grounded Café. "... especially after retiring from the service so abruptly."
"Huh?" Ash replied. He felt his chest tighten at the intrusion of his past. "How...?" he couldn't finish the thought.
"Sorry, again," Grace said. "Reporter." She shrugged and tilted her head to one side.
"Gotcha," that made sense, the tightness released a bit.
"So," She glanced around a moment. Seemingly satisfied they were alone, she pulled out her phone and slide the screen to a web browser. "Are you sure you've never heard of Dr. Briar before this week?"
She pressed a bookmark and handed the phone to Ash. The website for Esion Etihw Institute was impressive. The facility on the front web page reflected a series of white buildings against a backdrop of send and brush inland from the beach in Malibu, CA. One building stood apart with 13 stories of glass at odd angles reflecting the light of the sun above and its reflection from the sand below. "No, I can't say I have heard of him before."
"The tall building is Esion Tower. They pronounce that second word like ET-Heeu. Check out the about page," Grace said as she took the phone swiped, clicked, and handed it back. Ash read the landing page.
"Have you ever wondered what is just beyond this world? Have you thought there had to be more? Religion and Spiritualists have let you down? Turn to science. Our work in quantum mechanics and extra-dimensional evolution is providing solid scientific answers to many of life's oldest questions. The Esion Eti'hw Institute was founded on the groundbreaking principals outlined in the thesis 'Unlocking the Extra-Normal Mind. A study of the human mind’s unlocked potential', By Dr. Richard T. Briar."
"This guy sounds totally off his rocker," Ash said as he handed the phone back to her. "I'd ask you if you were sure he's involved, but I met him yesterday. What do you think he's up to?"
"I know this much, when this guy shows up people die. I did find his name tied to various research grants dating back 20 years. He has open grants with DARPA, MIT, and several other universities. It's just a hunch, but I'm thinking that he's running human testing without approvals."
"But that doesn't make sense," Ash countered. "What kind of test involves emptying two clips of 9mm rounds into an old homeless man?"
"Good point..." Grace admitted. "I guess I'm letting my imagination get the best of me. But he's got to be up to something."
"And now I'm stuck in the middle of it..." Ash sat back and put his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes but the image of the bull came back again as the rhythm of 1,000 hoofs beat against his chest. The beating ceased when he opened his eyes again.
Grace had one eyebrow raised, "You alright?"
"I will be, maybe... Uhg..." Ash remembered. "I forgot my meds at the house. Come to think of it, I don't have a house right now either. That's a bummer."
"Hate to break it to you, but the hotels are booked with reports... like me." Grace bit her lip and put her index finger to her nose. Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. It made him feel like a side show, he shifted in his eat. "Tell you what... I've done my homework on you. I don't think you are a killer. I couldn't get much out of that Police Chief but I can tell he trusts you. I'm not letting you out of my sight, you are the best lead I've had on this yet. Let's get you up to your place and ask the deputy watching the house to get your meds for you. Then we can figure out how to get you a place for the night. Deal?"
"Sounds good to me," Ash felt his face heating up. "Thanks, by the way."
"Don't mention it," Grace packed her things into a messenger bag and they hopped in the convertible. The tires chirped as she threw it into gear and raced out of the parking space onto the street. She turned to him and grinned, then back to the road. Once out of the town proper, she down shifted and the engine roared to life. She raced around corners and bends. When they pulled up to his drive way there was smoke rising from the tree-line. As they turned a corner they found carnage. The police cruiser was burning whole filled with bullet holes. He imagined they would match the caliber of a rifle he owned. The officer on duty slumped over the doorway, obviously gone to this world. Yellow and red flames poked through every window, and crawled over the roof.
"This is no accident," Ash said. He punched the dashboard, a small crack left behind. He turned and looked every direction, then scanned the edges of the forest. No sign of people, no glints or reflections. "We need to leave, now!"
Grace didn't second guess him, she yanked the shifter into reverse and spun 180 degrees out of the path into the driveway. Dust flew from the back of the car and the tires squealed when she hit the road back to town. Ash was watching the smoke rise from his perfectly built cabin style home when he noticed a gray suburban coming around the bend and picking up speed.
The pit of his stomach dropped as the suburban gained on them. He reached to tap Grace on the shoulder and motioned to the back. "That's the same suburban I saw outside the café the other day. Faster!"
Grace tried to down shift for more speed but accidentally shifted too many gears down and the car slowed abruptly. The Suburban caught up in seconds and slammed into the back of the BMW. The tires chirped as she found a new gear and tried to speed away. Ash reached for his Glock to fire at the driver, then remembered he wasn't carrying any weapons. He searched the car for something, anything. "Do you carry a gun?"
"No," she said, then swerved around a corner. "But I'm about to start I think." He glanced at her and her eyes were wide, mouth tight.
The car jerked forward again as the Suburban made another attempt to crush them. The car jerked again, this time Ash felt the wheels lose their grip and the car slide into a fish tail. The car spun several times as it careened toward cliff. Ash knew these roads by memory, scanned the side of the hill, grabbed the wheel and aimed them for where he remembered was a bank of trees he'd used as a hunting blind the previous summer. "I hope this works," he half murmured.
The red BMW flew off the edge of the cliff and for a breathless moment Ash felt weightless. Is this what it's like to be Superman? Is that what people think about just before they die in a car accident? The thoughts battled for what seamed like an eternity. Grabbing Grace's seat belt and his, he yanked to tighten their hold and braced with his arms over his face, she copied him.
The sound hit first. Steal crunching, tires thudding, glass shattering, pop-hiss went the airbags. Then the airbags punched his arms and chest like a prize fighter. He'd have bruises if nothing else. He opened his eyes, surprised to be alive, and glanced around. The BMW rocked in the cradle of three massive crisscross trees growing out of the side of the mountain's edge. He turned to Grace, who was moaning but alive. "Are you hurt?"
"Define, hurt?" She said and turned with a forced grin. "That's some stunt you just pulled soldier. We're alive."
"I guess I still got it," he prided. Then he recalled the suburban. From this angle it would be hard to see the car from the cliff top. The rumble of an SUV engine hummed from 25 feet up at the top. "Can you move?" Ash whispered holding his finger over his mouth.
"I think so," She said and double checked her limbs. She nodded yes a second time.
Ash turned to climb out and over the back of the convertible. The climbers rope he'd tied to the tree at the start of summer was still anchored to a few branches. He'd left it hoping for one more good trip before the end of the season. This spot was nice because it was out of the way of normal hunters, and he wouldn't be asked for his license.
Ash went first, holding the rope with two hands and wrapping his feet around the bottom to secure himself. He inched down and then looked up to Grace to see if she got the idea. To his surprise she was already in position and nodding to hurry. A few rocks loosened and slid down the side of the hill.
Ping came a sound from the car, followed by a thunderous crack from further up the hill. Gunfire. Ash and Grace hugged the hillside to avoid the fire. The car was hit a few more times, one shot ricocheted off a branch an inch from Ash's head. They stayed silently in position, waiting.
After a few moments the suburban roared to life above and dirt flew over the edge peppering Ash's air. The sound of the engine grew distant, so they started to move down. His hands were burning, as he imagined Grace's were. They reached the hiking path that he'd used to get to the edge, and he was glad to be done with the rope. His callouses were still hard, but his palms were burning. He took her hands in his and they were bleeding slightly. He tore a piece of his shirt and wrapped each with it, then nodded to follow.
As they made their way around the farthest edge of the trail the branch to his right splintered, followed by crack from above. He glanced back to the top of the cliff and a clear sight of Sven standing at the tope with a scoped sniper rifle. They both held each others gaze for a moment, then Sven smiled and took aim. Ash threw Grace back against the cliff out of site and pushed himself unto her to hide himself too. "This should be fun!" a voice called from above.
Grace throat throbbed a systolic/diastolic drum beat against his cheek as he covered her. Her breath against his ear raced in sync with his. He knew that look. He'd seen it in his own eyes as he prepared for missions. This was a hunter of men.
Ash raised his head slowly to peak at the top of the cliff then led her by brail through the trails. When they reached flat ground he kept them in the shadows but he raced as fast as he could. "It's only for the worst emergencies," he confided as he led her over fallen trunks and deer trails. "I think this counts."
"Where are we going?" She asked.
"You'll see," Ash whispered. "Keep your voice down."
The canopy was still functioning as it was supposed to and Ash could only tell a building existed through the branches because he built it. Pushing a set of branches to one side, he turned the handle and opened the door. After Grace was inside, he put the branches back and closed the door, followed by a two by four mimicking an old castle lock. There were no windows, but he didn't need a lot of light. The messenger back survived the fall and he'd brought it with him. He reached in and found her phone and swiped it on. He didn't prefer modern technology but it made a good light for the moment.
The hide-away was one room, lined with three tunnels into the hill. "I need you to go down that way," he said motioning to the tunnel on the farthest right and handing her a flashlight he kept in a drawer. "Go to the end, it'll open at the base of a hill. Stay there at the edge of the tunnel until I come for you. OK?" Grace nodded her understanding, but her eyes were struck with terror. "You'll be alright. Trust me." She turned and headed down the way he directed.
Ash .... TBC
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