Laura woke with a start. She instinctively picked the small alarm clock on the bedside table and brought it close to her eyes. The thick red lines spelled out 8.30 am. She looked lazily around the room. The heavy green curtains were still drawn across the French doors that opened to the balcony. The little light that managed to filter through couldn’t give her a hint of how bright it was outside.
Suddenly, she leapt out of bed and rushed into the bathroom, her mind ablaze with apprehension, flipping through multiple excuses for one that would be plausible enough to convince her commanding officer. She quickly slipped out of her nightdress and stepped into the shower, turned it on and let the cold water rain on her.
Then she remembered. She had the day off. She started laughing at herself. How could she have forgotten? The same commanding officer she was intending to give an excuse had himself given her the day off the previous night. Maybe the tiredness had gotten to her brain. She turned off the shower and stepped out and into the bathtub. She turned on the tap, lay down on her back and waited as the warm water rose around her.
She mused on the weird events of the last night. She had been called from her apartment just when she was about to retire. She had raced to base, thinking there was some sort of emergency. What else could have made them call her at such an hour? But when she arrived, everything was as she had left it four hours earlier.
Puzzled, she reported to the commanding officer, who was sitting behind his desk, looking distractedly up at the roof. When she was seated opposite him, he had withdrawn a large white envelope from a drawer and handed it over to her. “I’m not authorised to see what’s in there. Study it, commit it to memory, then shred it, together with the envelope and burn it in that ashtray,” he said. “The jet is prepped and ready in Hangar Four. Good luck… Oh, and you have tomorrow off, and this briefing didn’t take place. See you on Friday.” And with that he walked out.
She wondered what on earth the officer was talking about, but couldn’t bring herself to ask him anything. As soon as the door closed behind him, she flipped over the envelope and studied it. There were no markings on the outside. Not her name. Not the name of the sender. Not even a postmark. She opened it carefully, anxious with trepidation. Inside the envelope were two clipped sheets of paper.
When, three minutes later, she finished reading the instructions typed on the pages, she had wondered why that information had to be treated so specially. To her eyes, they seemed rather ordinary instructions. However, she had done as she was told, shredding and burning the envelope and its contents. She had left the office, gone to the mission room and put on her flight suit then headed for the hangars.
The sound of water splashing on the floor brought her back to the present and she stretched her leg to turn off the tap. She stared at the ceiling and suddenly felt that she didn’t really fancy the bath. She submerged herself for a few seconds then came up, angry that she had gone to the trouble of drawing the bath. She stepped out and opened the drain.
After dressing, she made herself a cup of coffee. She sat down with it and a leftover sandwich from the previous day’s breakfast. She wondered what she would do now that she had an unplanned day off. Perhaps go visit her mother? She was always asking to see her. But she dreaded going home, because she didn’t like answering questions about when she would bring a man home.
Halfway through her coffee, she thought she heard the sound of water splashing in her bedroom. She put the cup down and stuffed her mouth with a huge slice of sandwich, rose from the table and headed for the room.
The moment she opened the door, she was blinded by bright sunlight streaming in through the windows. She was puzzled. She didn’t remember drawing the curtains. But since she was alone in the house, she figured she must have done it absent-mindedly. Besides, it didn’t matter much in the moment. She was now sure water was spilling out of one of the taps in the bathroom.
She slowly walked towards it, suddenly, inexplicably, apprehensive. She stepped in and saw that the bathtub was full and the water was overflowing over the rim. “Damn,” she muttered, swallowing the piece of sandwich in her mouth. She leaned over to turn off the tap. Her hand never got to it. Because, right at that moment, a pair of strong hands grabbed her by the waist and pushed her into the overflowing bathtub.
Flailing in panic, she managed to bring her head out of the water for a quick breath. And for that fraction of a second, she came face to face with her assailant. It was a very attractive woman of roughly equal age to her, leaning over the bathtub, her face grimacing with the effort of holding her down.
The woman pushed Laura back underwater, holding her by the neck this time. Laura struggled against the strong hands tightening their grip around her neck. Through the wavy surface of the water, she saw a contorted smile appearing on the face of her assailant. She could feel the strength leaving her limbs. Her energy was waning.
She was running out of time. She had to think fast, if she wasn’t to die in her own bathtub. She let herself go limp, hoping it would fool the woman into thinking she was losing it. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. She was about to change tack and start struggling again when the grip on her neck loosened, just a bit.
She pounced instantly. She raised her hands and caught the other woman by her collar and pulled her down. Caught by surprise, the woman toppled and fell into the water beside her. Quickly, Laura twisted around and sat on the woman’s torso, pinning her hands with her knees, as she raised her head out of the water for a long-needed breath. Then she lifted the woman’s head out of the water. “Who are you?” she shouted. The woman, though visibly bewildered by the sudden turn of events, stared back at her without a word. “What do you want?”
The woman started to struggle to free her hands. Laura responded by shoving her head below the water and steadfastly holding her there for a minute. The woman started going limp, but Laura didn’t let go. She kept her down until her breathing, and the water in the tub, calmed. Then she stepped out and looked at the still figure, clad in a tight pair of black trousers, black blouse, and a grey jacket.
Then the gravity of her situation seemed to suddenly dawn on her. “Oh, my God,” she muttered, her hands rising to her head. She wheeled and rushed out of the bathroom. She hurriedly pulled off her wet clothes and put on dry ones; a multi-pocketed pair of trousers, a white blouse and a dark blue jacket. She wriggled her feet into a pair of sneakers.
She stuffed her wallet and phone into her trouser pockets. On her way out of the room, she stole a glance at her dressing mirror. A very frightened woman stared back. Her keys were on the kitchen table. She grabbed them and headed for the door.
As she was turning the key in the lock, the sound of a metallic cough came from behind her. A portion of the wall next to the door exploded, and chunks of concrete showered onto her face and hands.
She left the key stuck in the lock, turned around and saw the woman she had left in the tub, standing at the other end of the corridor, aiming a pistol straight at her head. She raised her hands slightly into the air. The other woman approached, her wet clothes dripping onto the carpet.
“Laura… that’s your name, isn’t it?” she said in a low voice. “I knew you’d be tough, but still I’m impressed.”
Laura stared back at the woman, unable to believe her eyes. How had she come back to life?
“What do you want?” she asked. The woman inched closer, the gun trained on her head. Laura took one step back and founder herself pinned to the door.
“Turn around,” the woman hissed. Slowly, Laura turned around. She felt the cold nozzle of the gun pressing against her skull. She could hear the her breath now. “That was good,” the woman whispered. “Really good. Beating me at my own game and leaving me for dead, that was impressive. But you are the one that’s supposed to die. Not me.”
“Then why not just pull the trigger?” Laura asked. “You have me point blank.”
The woman chuckled. “Well, maybe I don’t want to shoot you,” she said.
Suddenly, Laura felt a sharp tinge of pain on the back of her head. Her face smashed heavily onto the door, a dizzy feeling suddenly coming over her, and clumsily turned around. Just as she came face to face with the woman, a sharp kick landed on the side of her abdomen.
Though still dizzy, she instinctively rolled over to the side as another kick rushed past her head. The door banged loudly as the woman’s boot rammed into it. Instantly, she withdrew her feet as though she had not felt anything and wheeled for Laura, who had by now shakily risen to her feet.
Laura side stepped as the woman flung a blow towards her cheek, ducking and driving a fist into to the woman’s lower abdomen. The woman groaned as she quickly responded with a hard punch to Laura’s chin. As Laura stumbled dazedly backwards, she woman lunged for her neck. She caught her, wheeled behind her, pushed her to her knees, and secured her elbow around her neck.
Laura felt the air cut from her lungs and chocked before realising that she was being strangled. She struggled futilely against the woman’s hands, but the stranglehold was quite secure. The woman had watch on her wrist. Laura strained her eyes to read it. She would at least have the fortune of knowing the time her death. The watch showed some kind of countdown, with one minute and fifteen seconds remaining and counting.
“Die,” the woman whispered in her steely voice. “Just die.”
Laura, with energy she didn’t know she had left, forced herself back to her feet and, still holding the woman’s hand, bit into it. Her assailant shrieked in pain and loosened the stranglehold. Laura held onto the hand she had bitten, twisted it and moved behind the woman, facing the opposite direction. She snapped the hand over her shoulder and simultaneously arched her back.
She felt bones shatter in the arm as the woman flew through over her. She landed with heavily onto her back on the floor a metre in front of Laura. The gun flew from her left hand and skidded under the coffee table.
Laura pounced, landed on the woman’s torso and started to rain blows on her. She watched as her bare hands turned the woman’s face into a bloody pulp. At one point, she raised the woman’s right hand to her face, so she could see the watch. Fifty seconds. Counting down.
She dove under the table, her right hand held out for the gun. She caught it as she made contact with the ground and rolled over to face the woman, who was struggling to rise, her face a mess of scarlet. She raised the gun, waited for the woman to face her, and pulled the trigger twice in quick succession.
The gun coughed innocuously and two red holes materialised on the woman’s forehead. She slumped back onto the carpet, finally, really, dead. Laura jumped from under the table and dashed for the door, patting her trouser pocket to confirm her wallet was still there. It was the countdown on the woman’s watch that made her do it, though she couldn’t explain it. All she knew was that she didn’t want to be there when it got to zero.
She turned the key that was still stuck on the lock, pulled it out and pulled open the door. She burst out of the house, pulled the door shut behind her and made for the staircase at the end of the hallway. The corridor was empty and quiet. Everyone had presumably gone off to work and school.
As she reached for the railing at the landing, the deafening explosion came. The floor shook violently beneath her feet. She looked back to see her door flying out and banging onto the opposite door, followed rapidly by pieces of wood and fabric, and then a cloud of dust, all in less than a second.
She turned and ran, or rather flew, down the stairs, holding the railing at each landing and jumping down to the next one. This was what her training had been for. She had never thought that she would have to face combat on the ground when she had enlisted for the air force. The training had been intense, preparing her to fight on any arena, on land, in the air and at sea. Now it all made sense. Threats could be found anywhere.
She burst into the lobby on the ground floor and glanced around. Luckily, the concierge was not present. Her bloodied hands and riffled hair would have certainly caught his attention. She made for the exit, praying that no one would see her before remembering futilely that there were CCTV cameras in the lobby. Someone was bound to see her, even if not in real time.
The parking lot was peaceful. Her car rested alone in the middle of the lot. Hurriedly, she retrieved her wallet. She brought her left hand up to open it and realised she was still holding onto the gun. She dumped it in the left pocket, opened the wallet and retrieved the car keys. She pressed the button on the holder and the doors unlocked with a beep. She raced to the car, got in and started the engine.
To be continued...
Read the previous installment here.
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