Torsten Dahl book 1 - Stand Your Ground (6 page)

“Keep going,” he gritted. “Don’t stop for anything.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly glimpsed dark, running figures passing the pool. A pair of gunmen flanking the scattering crowd. A split-second glance showed them firing their weapons into the air as their eyes tracked his family.

An elemental dread inhabited Torsten Dahl – his worst fears made real: These men were here for him. Ordinarily, on any normal day, he would have figured out a way to end it, to take them out of the game, something he’d done a thousand times as a soldier. Today, his world was a wholly different place. Even if he could stash the kids somewhere, their pursuers might still find them and use them as leverage.

So Dahl wouldn’t take a chance, not today. Maneuvers spun through his mind, but he could act on none of them. Ways out presented themselves, but they all came from the perspective of a soldier, not a parent. The hot concrete passed beneath his bare feet and the sun burned down; waves washed across the far beach.

And Dahl spun in purgatory.

What to do?

In the end, he was left with no option. The two closest armed men swerved in his direction, aiming to intersect Johanna’s run. Dahl gauged the distance of those behind the closing pair – the only reason he could imagine for their delay was that they were enjoying scaring the vacationers – and called out for Johanna to stop. She pulled up quickly as Dahl slammed on the brakes and deposited the kids at her feet in the span of three heartbeats. Then he whirled, rising to meet the oncoming challenge. Already, he believed intuitively that they were here to capture, not kill. His pursuers’ eyes and body language betrayed it. Nick Grant had sent these men. He had a vast score to settle that he intended to do at his leisure.

The worst kind of debt to repay.

The men approached within ten, then five feet.
Perfect
. Hand to hand was more to Dahl’s skillset. A moustached man wearing wraparound sunglasses pointed his gun barrel at Dahl, but he was having none of it. Sweeping the weapon aside with one hand, he let fly a fist with the other. The moustache whipped to the side as the neck turned and a cheekbone shattered. A healthy yell confirmed the man’s utter surprise. The second man slipped around the first as he fell, swinging a rifle-butt at Dahl that caught him a glancing blow across the forehead. Blood flowed and Dahl blinked, head suddenly pounding.

“Bad move.”

“Don’t think so, man. Where’s
your
back up, eh? Still in DC?”

This told Dahl quite a lot.

Still concentrating on three separate sectors – the kids, the rear assault and the ongoing skirmish – he placed both hands over the man’s wrists and wrestled with the butt of the rifle. His opponent was strong, forearms bulging with muscle, but Dahl was stronger, grunting as he twisted the man against his will. The butt came around. Dahl pulled and then pushed suddenly, surprising the man. The force of the thrust loosened his grip and sent the weapon hard against his teeth and lips. He sputtered and the rifle spun away, useless. Dahl delivered another haymaker, stunning him. By this time — Dahl estimated that less than a minute had passed — the first man had partially recovered. As he rose again, Dahl scooped him up, throwing him over a shoulder. Parasols and deck chairs shattered as the attacker landed among them, head first. His deep, ragged groan told Dahl he wouldn’t be getting up any time soon. Johanna dragged the wide-eyed kids away, instinctively moving toward the beach and shielding them from the worst of the battle. Dahl spun to check on his second attacker, blood now smearing the man’s mouth and chin. He had only moments.

“What do you people want here? With all these people?”

A grimace was his only reply at first. “Who says we want them?”

Not the right time for this, but an affirmation, at least.

Dahl gauged that his time was well and truly up. He jabbed a foot in the man’s face. When he stumbled backward, Dahl followed with a kick to the chest and stomp to the head, ensuring this enemy would not return to the chase soon. As he turned back to his family, another military mantra speared his brain.

Get their weapons.
But family needs cut through first.

“Torsten!” Johanna screamed. “Let’s go!”

Both Isabella and Julia cried out too, in reaction to their mother’s fear. Dahl moved to them quickly and gathered his family in a huddle. “Be strong,” he said, mostly for Johanna’s benefit. “Be tough like soldiers and we’ll get out of this.”

“We’re not fu—” Johanna started to say, then caught herself, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.

“C’mon,” he said calmly and picked the kids up again. “Let’s run.”

They set off like Olympic sprinters out of the blocks as booming salvos shattered the afternoon at their backs.

 

TEN

 

As Dahl took off again, a disturbing new thought started to twine, serpent-like, through his mind:
Could Johanna step up to protect their children?
He would have to fight, and he’d have to do it in front of his daughters. Dahl was coming to terms with that now. But could his wife plumb the depths of her capabilities and step up beyond anything she’d ever imagined? If not . . . they were in even poorer shape than he’d feared.

As Dahl and his family swept through a set of cabanas and more loungers, he became aware of a snuffling against this chest, and looked down to see Isabella staring up at him.

“Don’t worry,” the words almost choked in his throat. “We’ll be okay.”

A new building appeared ahead, in the center of a winding path. Called The Rum Shop, it offered only false shelter, but Dahl decided to use it to throw any spotters off. The place would have a back entrance and they could use that. The door was already open. He steered Johanna inside and then crashed through, kicking it shut behind him. Abruptly, the sounds of gunfire lessened and the human spirit tried to assure the uninitiated that they had discovered a sanctuary

“There.” Johanna pointed to the high, oak counter. “If we’re quiet they’ll pass by.”

Dahl shook his head. “We keep moving. Situations like this – you stop, you die.

“Don’t say—” She stopped herself.

Dahl ignored Johanna’s tearful glare, hugged the children even closer, and pointed to the back of the store. “Through there. Find a door.”

He paused for a second to peek through the door behind him. Back towards the hotel, the scene was a snapshot from Hell. The high façade towered over all, dozens of its guest-room windows shot through, glass cascading down as he watched. Palm trees swayed across the entire panorama of twisted, broken chairs and tables piled in haphazard array, umbrellas and chaise lounges thrown askew, men and women in swim-clothes crawling among the debris or trying to hide amid the pools, bottles and glasses and personal belongings scattered and half-destroyed, incongruous items like sunscreen and baseball caps lying forgotten.

Dahl turned and followed Johanna, who had found the rear door.

“Exit low,” he whispered. “Stay calm.”

She did, leading him down a path through a thick hedge that bordered another meandering path. Certain they hadn’t been seen, Dahl told Johanna to keep going, but at a slightly slower pace.

His arms were burning from the strain of his daughters’ weight, but he told himself to focus on what they needed: an alternative way out, or a reliable refuge.

The beach emerged at the end of the hedged path ahead, white sands stretching wide in both directions, large areas still showing signs of that morning’s early rakings. Dahl saw a crowd running to the right and stragglers to the left, and knew his earlier nucleus of a plan would now grow to fruition.

Isabella’s voice broke his focus. “Are we safe, Dad?”

Julia answered quickly. “Don’t be silly. Just shut up.”

Dahl knew what effect that reply would have. Of course, he couldn’t scold Julia, not when they were running for their lives, so he held his girls more closely. “To the right, Jo. Keep your head down.”

Following a trail of footprints, they sprinted across the sand. Its heat transferred instantly to Dahl’s exposed soles, but again he fought through the pain. The kids grew even heavier as the sand grew deeper, each step grueling punishment. Dahl looked back once they’d cleared the hedge line.

The sight tore a chunk from his soul.

Ten men burst from two tree-lined pathways, most of them clad in chunky, black jackets and camo trousers. They held their guns easily, betraying an alarming confidence that spoke of careful planning and expectancy of escape. Dahl liked the situation less and less with each passing second.

Something else then accelerated his downward spiral: a face he recognized and almost expected – the face he’d dreaded – stepped out into the open. Nick Grant. Dahl almost missed a step, caught himself just before sprawling headlong. Grant scanned the beach for just a moment before settling unpitying eyes on the running family.

No mercy. No holding back.
Dahl knew that now. Even if he hadn’t met Grant before, he knew the man’s reputation. Even if he hadn’t known that, he saw it in the set of his body, the frank, coldblooded stare.

Dahl clung to the two things that meant the most to his life and picked up speed.

“Don’t stop, Jo. Just keep moving.”

“My feet hurt.”

“Then pick them up. And
run
!”

His deliberate drama galvanized her to a quicker pace as shouts pierced the clamor behind them. Dahl chased the footprints of previous runaways, bending his route slightly seaward as he saw something on the horizon.

Ahead, two figures jogged toward them. Dahl felt his adrenalin fire for just a moment before realizing that these two were in fact policemen. Still, an inner voice told him to trust no one. The gap between them closed fast; neither cop reaching for his belt nor moving his hands out of sight. Dahl shouted as soon as the men approached within earshot.

“Terrorists! Shooting at the hotel and guests! They’re right behind us!”

He pitched his voice to what he hoped was the correct level of terror, enough to spur the cops into action. “Call it in,” he called as they looked past him. “I counted at least ten men.”

Disbelief lit one cop’s face, unease the other’s.

Hadn’t they questioned the other escapees and received the same information? The pair couldn’t tackle ten men alone; they should already have been on the blower.

“Look—”

They did, and as they stared past him, incredulity lit their features. Dahl saw inexperience and real fear and knew they were in serious trouble.

“Come with us,” he said, still moving ahead. “You can call it in as we run.”

He knew time was fleeing faster than the final death of day.

They didn’t move, so Dahl kept running past them; he couldn’t waste more time cajoling these men at risk to his family. A volley of shots rang out from behind. Dahl glanced back as both cops cried out, twisted and fell, their shirts shredded and bleeding. The assault team was down on one knee, the Facilitator among them, taking aim at the two cops. Again, Dahl’s immediate thought was to wonder why he still lived, why the killers hadn’t trained their weapons on his family. Clearly, he’d been correct: Grant wanted them all alive. The reasoning behind that couldn’t be good.

Johanna’s scream spurred him on, made his feet pound into the sand. If Grant were here to avenge his old supposed debt – Dahl couldn’t think of any other reason – then they’d never be safe until the Facilitator himself were dead. But that scenario didn’t sit right with Dahl. Grant only showed his face and traveled to a particular country when the deal at hand was vastly important. Profitable. Could the Facilitator be juggling two missions? It had to be. Even if Grant had tracked Dahl here from the start, Dahl couldn’t imagine him marshalling such resources for the hunt. Not alone. Not unless he expected payment in return.

The real Dahl rose up in him then, the Mad Swede, perfectly controlled rage pounding at his gut, inciting him to action. But the Mad Swede would already have weapons in hand. The Mad Swede wouldn’t have been caught out on the open beach with his family. In truth, the gunmen were too far away anyway, and his family too exposed.

He ran on, encouraging Johanna along, sensing rather than seeing the pursuers picking up their own pace now, closing the gap. In his peripheral vision, he saw the two downed cops still crawling, still alive with survival instincts kicking in. A minute later and four more shots rang out.

The cops had been executed in cold blood, right there on the hotel beach. An unnecessary execution by men who – more than uncompromising – were cruel.

Ahead, the jumble he’d seen earlier on the horizon grew clearer, confirming his hopes.

Boats
.

With an escape plan now firmly in mind, he ran harder, ignoring the spasms in his strained arm muscles, urging Johanna to greater speed with every charging step.

 

ELEVEN

 

Dahl practically threw Isabella and Julia feet-first into the last speedboat on the strand, the one closest to the ocean. He yelled at Johanna to jump in, already spying the keys dangling from the ignition, and understanding why. Hearing gunfire, a panicking man might abandon the boat and run away on foot, seeking town and the safety of buildings and police stations rather than heading straight out to sea, where safety was just as fragile.

No gunshots split the day apart, but Dahl didn’t have to look back to know Grant and his men remained hard after him. If they wounded Dahl, it was all over, but even that option appeared to have been ruled out by Grant . . . or whoever was calling the shots. Still . . . best not to test them.

He pushed the rear of the craft hard across the sand, telling Jo to get ready at the ignition. Isabella and Julia hunkered down, fitting their bodies almost beneath the seats, their tiny forms so fragile that Dahl experienced a rash surge of helplessness. He turned his panic for them into fury, driving his shoulder into the boat’s stern, shoving it across the wet sand and into the foaming breakers. Water splashed him. Wet sand squeezed between his toes. An incoming wave almost toppled him, but Dahl held on.

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