The Gauntlet Assassin/Thriller/Chapter 1
Saturday, May 6, 2023, 11:05 a.m.
Lara attached the LifePac and watched it hit the man with two-hundred joules of electrical current. His eyes popped open, his pulse stabilized, and piss flooded his sweatpants. Terrific. He would live long enough to regret cutting off two fingers in an attempt to collect disability funds. She cauterized his bloody stumps and watched him breathe for a few minutes. Gangrene or sepsis might kill him eventually, but she’d done all she could. Lara stepped back from the sweat-soaked couch and packed up her equipment.
“You’re taking him to the hospital, aren’t you?” His wife grabbed Lara’s arm, her bony fingers transmitting misery.
“You said he didn’t have a med card.”
“If you leave him in the twenty-foot zone, they have to treat him.”
“I’m sorry, but I could lose my license if I do.” Lara shoved the portable defib into its pouch and strapped the pack around her waist. She had to carry it in public at all times, the privilege of having a freelance paramedic license. With the growing doctor shortage, anyone with medical skills was fully utilized.
“He has heart disease and needs an artery vac. This was our chance for treatment.”
“Oh christ.” Lara hated this aspect of her job. “Do you have a car?”
“I’ll help you get him into the vehicle, but you have to drive him.”
Lara hurried to her med van and hauled out the wheeled gurney she rarely used. She and the gaunt wife struggled to get the now-conscious but heavyset man onto the gurney, then into their small car.
“When you get to the hospital, pull him out, honk the horn and drive away.” Lara gave her a grim smile. “Good luck.” Walking away from the noncs, as non-covered citizens were called, never got easier, but she dwelled on it less now. She’d once been a homicide detective, a job that toughened her for the new world.
She started toward her van and her iCom beeped. Another 909 emergency. The location appeared on her screen in map form, a secluded home only a half mile away. Lara acknowledged the assignment with a push of her thumb and ran to her vehicle. Her body hummed with adrenaline as she raced up City View. What would it be this time? The neighborhood was probably too upscale for something like a gunshot wound or a domestic dispute with knife injuries. Lara scowled. She hoped it wasn’t another VEx accident with a chubby middle-aged woman trying improve her health with virtual exercise. Someone had called for a freelance paramed instead of an ambulance, so it could be anything.
Lara loved these moments. Rushing to a scene, not knowing what chaos she would encounter. In some ways, it was better than being a police officer because she kept on the move and did a lot less paperwork. She missed the authority of the badge though. She’d liked having people pay attention and feel nervous when she approached. It beat the hell out of her current personal life: a forty-two-year-old woman with no partner, no children, no power.
The house sat at the end of a long drive, behind a tall screen of Sequoias. Lara took note of the street number on the gate and kept moving. A black compact car soaked up sun in the driveway. The summer heat was coming on earlier every year. She parked next to the empty vehicle and glanced at her Taser on the passenger’s seat. The weapon was bulky to carry, but some neighborhoods and situations required it. Lara determined this wasn’t one of them. She touched the 9-millimeter in her shoulder holster as she climbed out. The gun went everywhere she did, but for most volatile situations, she preferred the Taser. Less blood and noise.
As Lara moved toward the house, the front doors burst open and a man barreled out. Behind him, a large black dog noisily gave chase. Lara backpedaled toward the med van to get out of their way.
Running man raised his arm. Lara dropped to the asphalt as he fired. She rolled and pulled her weapon, but his footsteps kept going and a second shot didn’t come. A car door opened, the engine cranked over, and he raced down the driveway. Lara let out her breath. As she stood, the dog turned back and charged into the house.
What now? The person who made the emergency call had likely been shot and still needed medical attention. Heart thumping, Lara glanced down the driveway and watched the black sedan turn left on the road. Her muscles unclenched and she decided to enter the home and check out the situation. She grabbed her Taser and tucked it into her waistband in case the dog turned on her.
As she hurried up the walkway, she made a mental note of what she’d seen of the assailant: five-ten, lean, dirty blonde, thirty-something, and a squarish face. Lara slowed and moved cautiously through the open front door, weapon ready. The big house was quiet and she crept through, taking in details. High ceilings, open floor plan, and two additional exits that she could see. One leading to the garage from the kitchen, the other into a pretty side yard.
No people, no black dog.
She made her way down the hall to a room near the end. Weapon raised, she entered the bedroom. A large man, wearing only black leather pants, lay on the floor. Blood had soaked into the pale-blue rug under him and sprayed the white satin sheets on the bed. A familiar salty smell mingled with the wet metallic of the blood. As stepped toward the victim, Lara recognized the scent: a mix of sweat and semen.
Lara slipped off her medpack and kneeled down. She heard shallow breathing and saw that he’d been shot in the shoulder. The black dog lay nearby, whimpering and watching her.
“Good dog. You stay.”
The man opened his eyes. “Thank God.” The dog started to get up, but the man snapped his fingers and it lay back down.
Lara began to pull out supplies. “You need the ER. Why didn’t you call for a regular ambulance?”
“It’s personal. I don’t want to report this.”
Oh shit. She should have left after the jackass shot at her. It was too late now. She couldn’t walk away from a bleeder. Lara lifted his shoulder to see if the bullet had gone through. He moaned and squeezed her wrist. The exit hole was twice the size of the entry wound and bleeding heavily, but she wouldn’t have to dig out the bullet. She laid his shoulder back to the floor. “What’s your name?”
Lara froze. “The federal employment commissioner?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be Washington D.C.? Overseeing the Gauntlet?”
“I’m flying out tomorrow morning—if I don’t bleed to death.”
“Is this your house? I thought you moved to the capital.”
“I kept my home here and a friend takes care of it for me. I come back whenever I can.” He grimaced as he talked.
Lara bit back another question and focused on her task. She grabbed a packet of gunshot gauze, a new product designed to fill such wounds and slowly dissolve as the tissue around it healed. The gauze had been invented by a Chicago ER doctor soon after the dark shift, as she called it. The Supreme Court had struck down a series of gun control laws and now weapons were everywhere. So were gunshot wounds. An entire industry had sprung up to treat them.
“We need to roll you over so I can bandage the exit wound.” Lara gave him her best smile, which wasn’t much. “This will hurt.”
“Do you have pain meds?”
“I’m not licensed for them. You know how the DEA is.”
Lara cauterized the major bleeders with a C-laser, sprayed the wound with antibacterial, then packed it with gauze. The white material soaked with blood before she could get the skin-sealing bandage in place. The sealer, as medics called it, had biologic properties that bonded with tissue.
She taped a padded exterior bandage in place and asked, “Who shot you, and why don’t you want to report it?”
“My lover.” He paused. “Going public was a political career killer even before the new Congress made homosexual acts illegal. Not that I’m gay. I’m bisexual.”
Lara didn’t give a rip about his sexual practices, but she watched his face for signs of lying, a habit from her detective days. She saw none. “What makes you think I’ll consider not reporting this? I could lose my license.”
“Because I’m the employment commissioner and you’re a contestant in the Gauntlet. I can help you if you help me.”
Lara’s pulse quickened. What was he saying? “Did you ask for me when you called the Paramed Service?”
“I didn’t have time. But I hoped it would be you.” He spoke softly, then waited.
Lara’s mind raced. The employment commissioner oversaw the contest, now in its third year, and he would rule on any situations that required a judgment call. He could disqualify any competitor too, including her.
Lara was torn. Her desire to win the Gauntlet was like a tumor growing inside her. Oregon desperately needed the grant money and the jobs that would be awarded to the winner’s state—and she needed a reason to keep getting up every day. Yet having the contest handed to her was not what she had in mind. “I don’t want to win except on my own merit.” She almost regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.
“Be more specific.” He sat up and she noticed that he was attractive in a pretty-boy way with dark wavy hair and high cheekbones. She’d only seen the commissioner a few times on the news, and the camera had not flattered him. Still, he was almost fifty and the black leather gear he was sporting made her a little sad for him.
“I don’t want your help. I want to win clean.”
“Could I interest you in some cash?”
Lara laughed. “Taking a bribe for not reporting this incident would be worse than simply not logging the GSW.” She began to pack her medical supplies.
“Tell me what you want. I can’t let this incident reach the police or the media.”
“Your boyfriend is a menace. He shot at me on his way out and should probably be locked up.”
Morton’s eyes widened. “Oh shit. I’m so sorry.” He scooted to the bed and leaned against it. “He’s having a bad reaction to some medication. He’s not usually like this.” The commissioner’s gaze slid away and Lara sensed he’d just lied to her.
“Does he have a criminal record?”
“No. He’s never hurt anyone before. He found out I cheated on him and freaked out. Shooting at you was just a leftover emotional reaction. He’ll calm down and be fine.”
“I want his name. For my own protection.”
Morton hesitated. “Richard Bremmer, but please don’t report this. I’ll lose my job.” He locked into her eyes. “And everything that goes with it.”
Lara wanted to get the hell out. After a quick look at the dog, which hadn’t moved since Morton snapped his fingers, Lara slipped her gun back into its holster and stood to leave.
“Are you going to report this?”
“I don’t know yet.”
In the van, she accessed her call log on her iCom and stared at the cursor, which was waiting for her to speak or type something. Crap. She was required to report the GSW, so that was the safest thing to do. If she lost her freelance paramed license, she’d be scrambling to find work like millions of others. She couldn’t go through that nightmare again. After leaving the police department, she’d been unemployed for years. Then the gun laws loosened and health insurance got scarce, so paramedics were suddenly in demand.
Yet, if she reported the incident, Thaddeus Morton would be investigated and likely removed from overseeing the Gauntlet. His last act as commissioner might be to disqualify her. If she kept his secret and he stayed on as a judge, he would owe her, and it couldn’t hurt to have someone in her corner while she competed.
If she brought home a grant, co-funded by AmGo and the federal government, Oregon would have money to spend on jobs and social programs. AmGo would build a facility in Eugene that employed thousands. Teachers and police officers would go back to work. Not her of course. She had burned that bridge thoroughly. Still, she was a cop at heart and she hated the way law enforcement had been crippled by the never-ending recession. Most departments now only investigated violent crimes, and detectives had a couple days to track leads. After that, the case went into the cold file and they moved on. It was shameful. So many victims with no one held accountable.
Lara slammed out of the van and ran back into the house. Morton had changed into jeans and opened a suitcase on the bed. He jumped like a startled cat when she burst into the room.
“What is the first phase of the Challenge like this year?” The Gauntlet had five phases that changed from year to year, and the details were kept secret until the program went live.
“It’s an elevated maze.”
Lara made a quick mental assessment. “I’d like to be paired against someone tall and female.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Beyond that, I intend to kick ass on my own.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“I hope your accidental shoulder wound heals quickly.” Lara bolted from the room before he could say anything else. No promises had been exchanged, but she felt a little dirty anyway.