“Ms. Vaughn! Get up!” The door of the suite flew open and a breathless female detective rushed in, locking the door behind her.
Payton bolted upright, instinctively reaching for the bedside lamp.
The lady detective rushed over. “Don't turn on the light!” Breathing hard, she grabbed Payton by the arm with a grip too strong for the slightly built lady and pulled her from bed. “They've found you. There are three, maybe four men out there.”
Payton felt disoriented, confused. With her number of sleepless nights growing by the day, she wasn't her sharpest at the rude awakening. She'd been removed so abruptly from her home she wasn't even sure what hotel they were housing her in.
How long had she been asleep? What was this frantic detective's name? There had only been a few, but they weren't protecting her because she remembered names. It was the other information they wanted. She shook herself from her drowsy state, still befuddled, but the detective's message was clear: Her life was in danger.
The bathroom light illuminated a look of ghastly terror on the detective's face. “At least one officer is down. I don't know how long we can hold them off.” She kept her revolver trained on the bedroom door while pulling Payton to the oversized window.
Payton realized her life could end within the next few minutes. It had never felt like a true possibility before, even with the warnings from the authorities. Her mouth hung open as she reeled from the unbridled fright in her protector's eyes.
had found her, and he wanted the only witness to his crime dead.
Muffled gunshots sounded in the outer room of the hotel suite.
“Go out this window. Move along the ledge to the adjoining room, where the officers sleep. They'll help you out of the hotel to safety.”
“What about you?”
“I'll hold the shooters off until you make it across the ledge.”
Something in the detective's voice told Payton she would not follow. She would sacrifice her life to save the witness.
The detective placed her revolver on the ledge long enough to fling the window open. Payton stuck her head out. Below awaited the black asphalt parking lot crammed with cars. She had prayed there would be an awning or at least grass. She turned to reason with the panic-stricken detective. “There has to be another way out.”
Having reclaimed the revolver, the detective lowered her arm from its ready-to-fire stance. “This is the only way.”
Payton looked out the windowâten stories down. The height took her breath away. She couldn't climb out onto a ledge in the middle of the nightâ
The bedroom door split near the top.
Another slither of wood near the lock flew away.
Payton's options became as terrifyingly clear as the horror on the detective's face. The tiny bit of steak she'd managed to eat at dinner burned the back of her throat as it threatened to come up. She crisscrossed her hands over her mouth to hold it back.
“Get it together!” the detective shouted, shaking her hard.
Gruff voices slithered underneath the door. Payton hoped the voices belonged to the police guarding her, but the lady detective's stiffening trigger finger discounted that theory.
“Ms. Vaughn, you have to go! Now!”
“Where are my clothes?”
The detective shoved her toward the window. “There's no time for that.”
“Hurry up!” the detective yelled, crouching and preparing to return fire.
Determined not to lose her life without one hell of a fight, Payton stepped out onto the ledge.
The window closed soundlessly behind her.
No turning back.
A pit of darkness waited below. A car's headlights eerily illuminated the asphalt of the parking lot at the rear of the hotel. Envisioning herself splayed on the ground with strangers shielding their eyes from her mangled corpse, Payton pressed her body against the rough brick wall of the building.
It was a temperate night with a clear black sky, but the night breeze felt like an arctic wind as it pummeled Payton's exposed limbs. Her teeth chattered as she moved sideways one small step at a time toward the open window. Tiny rocks scattered along the ledge bit into the soles of her bare feet. The wind whipped at her ankles, raising the hem of her nightgown. The resulting chill permeated her down to the bone.
Fear of falling made her pant rapidly with every step. Her chest heaved. She was breathing too fast. She stopped to catch her breath. All she needed was to get lightheaded and fall. She concentrated on remembering how badly she wanted to live and calmed her breathing to a slow, steady rate.
Payton looked down. Her head began to swirl. She pressed her back against the wall with a whimper. How had her life been destroyed by her ambition?
A flash of bright light burst from her suite. Then everything went dark.
“Oh God.” She fought against the internal shiver that cooled her and worked methodically to reach safety.
Payton climbed through the open window. She braced the ledge with both hands. With a new fear of heights, she vowed never again to allow her feet to leave the ground. She forced deep, soothing breaths into her lungs.
She had made it across the ledge, and the window had been open wide enough for her to climb throughâjust as the detective had promised.
You're safe. Calm down. Pull yourself together.
The unnatural silence in the hotel room exploded in Payton's head. She couldn't hear the gunshots from next door.
she told herself.
The upscale hotel has soundproof walls. But there are no sounds in
No one rushed to retrieve her from the ledge. The cavalry wasn't there to rescue her.
Uncanny quiet mixed with ghostly stillness.
Payton's body trembled. An instant freeze covered her fingers and the tips of her toes.
“Ohmigod,” she mumbled. She turned, slowly, in a full circle.
Bloody bodies. The mangled corpses were scattered near the entrance of the room. If there was ever any doubt about the seriousness of her situation, it vanished with the three lifeless policemen wearing blood-splattered uniforms, revolvers still in their grasp.
Violent spasms racked Payton's body. The sharp metallic scent of blood mixed with the intense stink of fear. She clamped her hand over her nose.
Safety. Get to safety.
The hotel was no longer a “safe house.” It had become a death house.
Get to safety,
her mind screamed.
Safety is out of this hotel.
Unable to stop and mourn and still save her own life, she tiptoed around the dead officers to the door.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Where would she go?
She could hear police sirens in the distance, but were they coming to her aid or racing to deliver the sick to the nearby hospital? If she hid in a closet, could they reach the hotel before the assassins found her?
She edged along the wall to the door, careful not to step in a bloody puddle. The stench fogging the room caused her to heave. Her hand covered her nose and mouth again, but she kept moving.
Slowly, carefully, she opened the door to the hallway. Gunshots rang out: two rapidly firing together, then one returning the shots. She could only guess who remained alive in her suite, or how many hit men were on the scene. She chanced looking out in the hallway. The corridor appeared to be another casualty of war. Debris was scattered across the carpet. Guest room doors stood wide open.
The sirens were closing in. The hired killers would hurry to make their escape. Or they would complete a suicide mission to eliminate her. She couldn't gamble on knowing what made a killer's mind work. No matter what they did, she had to get out of the hotel to safety.
She remembered her brief tour of the exits. “In case of an emergency,” the detective had said.
To the exits. Get out to safety.
Crouching low, she darted down the hall to the stairwell.