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Survival Challenge

written by: James H Dobbins, PhD

 

They approached the house early next morning. Moving in through the woods surrounding the house and yard, they looked for any signs of activity. The children were home, not at school. The assassins watched as Tom left for work. He kissed Louise goodbye as he prepared to leave. “How touching,” said Hassan. He had just confirmed his plan. They will waste all three; mother and children. They will accomplish what Blue Team leader failed to do. That will surely raise his value in Saleh’s eyes.
Louise was in the kitchen near the window, looking out over the back yard. She was thinking how beautiful the woods are, the woods now crawling with death. Wishing she could open the patio door to let in the Spring air and listen to the birds, she also knew that the realities of her situation demanded she keep the house locked. She looked under the eaves at the wasp nests she just sprayed from the open window. She was thankful that the wasp and hornet spray she used has a twenty-foot spraying distance. That is always one of my rituals this time of year. Hope I get to do it next year.
Hassan, Ibrahim and Purple Leader were watching Louise. Hassan had a telescopic sight on his weapon, providing a clear view of Louise through the open kitchen window. He felt he could take her out easily enough from their distance, but if she moved at the wrong time and was merely wounded, she could call the police and spoil the operation. It would also violate the prime directive to leave no evidence of the hit. Hassan decided not to take that risk. No blood and no signs of struggle was the directive. Hassan checked to make sure his syringe was handy and still full. This dose will immobilize her. The rest is easy.
As Louise walked around the kitchen finishing the morning chores, the black clad figures moved from tree to tree, ever closer to the house. Hassan said, “We knock her and the kids out, grab the bodies, and leave. No more risk than necessary. And no evidence of any kind left. No fingerprints, no DNA, like nothing happened in there.”
They advanced up against the back wall of the house where they could not be seen. While they stood outside, Hassan jimmied the basement sliding glass door to grant them access to the den. The security rod was jammed in the track. Hassan was forced to use a glass cutter and short metal rod to weaken and break through the bottom of the door to enable them to raise the security rod enough to open the door wide enough to slip in. So much for not leaving a trace of entry. They moved across the basement den to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the kitchen. Hassan listened to Louise humming accompaniment to the songs on the radio. Her swan songs he thought.
From the carrying case on his belt, he withdrew the syringe prepared for her. He went over again and again in his mind how he will surprise Louise and inject her before she has a chance to defend herself. It will be over in a few moments, with little or no noise or alarm. The strong sedative will dissipate quickly in her system, leaving no trace, not that he cared. They will then sedate the children the same way, or even leave them alone if neither spotted them and if that becomes preferable. Hassan worried about Saleh’s command to make it look like an accident, but he was running out of time and decided to take overt action. The circle cut in the basement sliding door pretty much excluded an accident. He must succeed, or Saleh will kill him. Daisy, sensing something was amiss, went on alert, her attention focused on the door.
Motioning for Ibrahim and Purple Leader to wait at the bottom of the stairs, he went up one slow step at a time. He listened at the door, getting accustomed to her movement around the kitchen, until he was able to tell when she was directly on the opposite side of the door. He turned the knob slowly until the deadlatch was fully retracted. He burst into the room toward Louise, syringe aimed for her neck. Daisy, ever at her side, barked and lunged for the intruder’s arm. As Daisy clamped her teeth around Hassan’s forearm, Louise instinctively spun around to face her attacker. The distraction of the dog broke Hassan’s attention enough for Louise to grab the nearest weapon she could reach; the wasp and hornet spray. She started spraying continuously in the direction of the assailant’s face, the thin steady stream hitting him in the eyes, nose and mouth. Hassan dropped the syringe and stood in the middle of the kitchen screaming and holding his hands to his eyes, all the while trying to defend against Daisy who was biting him every place possible. While Hassan grasped blindly for her, spinning in all directions, Louise dropped the can and rushed up the stairs to the children, Daisy at her heels.
Where are the boys? What do I do now? Where do I go? Are there any others down there? How many? Are they already in the house to finish the job? How do I protect my kids? I’ve got to get word to Tom.
She ran straight to the boy’s room. Louise prayed her head remain clear. She grabbed the boys and pulled them into the large clothes closet in her bedroom, telling them to be very quiet. Randy began his barrage, “Why, Mom? Why be quiet? Is it a game? Who was that yelling?”
She was feeling just a little crazy but forced herself to calm down. “Yes, it is a very important game, just like hide and seek. You must be very still and quiet. I will cover you with a blanket and you play very quiet hide and seek. Whoever stays very quiet will get a great big Slurpee when I come back to find you. And this is very, very important. Do not move; not for anything. And if you hear a loud noise, stay very, very quiet. I may have to make a very loud noise. Do you understand?”
“Sure, Mom. It’ll be fun. Come on David. Let’s play.” She put Daisy on a down-stay in the room with the boys.
Louise grabbed her cell phone and called Tom’s number. It went to voice mail, so she left a message. She called Mike’s number and left a message and then raced to the home station CB near their bedroom door. She switched to channel 9 and activated the mike. “Breaker, breaker. Anyone there? Emergency. Over.” She felt sort of foolish, hoping she was doing this correctly. A friendly voice answered her. “What’s up little lady?”
“Please contact my husband. Tom McCabe. Works near Cedar Lee School. Handle is Big Daddy. Please tell him Big Momma says bacon. Understand? Bacon. Now. Please!” Louise let the mike fall and considered her next move.
“I don’t rightly understand, but I’ll try, little lady. Peace. 10-4.”
Tom got the message in his car unit. “Some little lady is right hungry and wants you to bring home some bacon, pronto. She sounded right insistent. I’d do it if I was you, fella.”
“Thanks. I will.” Tom hung up and called the Sheriff’s office. “Please let me speak to Deputy Bill Grayson. It’s very important.”
“Sorry sir, Deputy Grayson isn’t on shift ‘till four. Can anyone else help?”

***

Said al Hussein, the Purple Leader, climbed up the stairs from the basement, followed by Ibrahim. He heard Hassan screaming and didn’t want to join him just yet. He got up to the kitchen and peered in. Hassan was holding his eyes and moaning. Not seeing anyone else, he helped Hassan to the kitchen sink and turned on the faucet, so he could flush his eyes. Hassan held his face under the faucet, letting the cool stream of water run over his eyes. Gasping, voice quivering with pain, Hassan said, “Get her. No matter what else, get her.” He knew his life depended on it. If they left the house alive, and she was still alive, he was dead.
Louise went to the large storage closet at the top of the stairs. From her vantage point at the door, she had a clear view of the stairs. She searched the top shelf for the Barska pistol safe containing the Smith & Wesson .357 magnum Tom kept there. She entered the four-digit combination and the spring-loaded door popped open. She always questioned the wisdom of keeping the gun loaded, since it has no safety, and still questioned that practice, but right now she was so nervous she was not sure she could load it herself without dropping all the bullets. Her hands were shaking, and her mind was racing furiously as she talked to herself. Stay in control, Louise. Deep breaths. Is it loaded? Yes. Hollow points. I’ve always fired .38’s, never a .357 magnum. Will it kick too much for me to control? Calm down and think. I need to keep it steady. Tom said it has a 7-pound pull, but a hair trigger once the hammer is cocked. What can I use to steady it? The camera tripod. Where is it? Louise found it by the camera equipment in the corner. In a matter of seconds, she was set up, and waiting, hammer cocked.
With all lights out in the windowless closet, and with the hall light out, Louise crouched behind the closet door, closing it halfway. She saw the stairs through the crack between the door and the door frame, between the four hinges. Are there any others? How many? How long before they get into the house? She adjusted the tripod height so that the barrel was resting on top and was pointing down the stairs. Ear protectors. I need ear protectors. She realized that if she shot the gun in the closed room the noise would deafen her for some time, and she needed all her senses as alert as possible. She found the ear protectors and placed them on her head, but not covering her ears just yet. Then she heard it above the groans and the sound of running water. A faint noise downstairs. The hinge squeaked on the kitchen door leading to the library. They were in the house looking for her. She put the ear protectors in place, cocked the hammer, placed her index finger near the trigger, and waited. Remember, squeeze, don’t jerk.
All of a sudden, the ominous barrel of an AK-47 came around the bottom rail, followed by Purple Leader. He was dressed all in black, including headgear. Tall and wiry, he had a strange looking smile, if that’s what it was - sort of dark - and moved lightly on his feet. He started up the stairs, one slow step at a time, every sense alert. Louise prayed, ‘Please let the kids be quiet.’
The gunman climbed up the stairs, stopping at every step, looking and listening for any sign of her. Louise’s heart beating sounded like little explosions in her ears. Every time she inhaled it sounded to her like a hurricane. When he was halfway up the stairs, she held her breath and aimed the .357 at the middle of his chest. She started to squeeze as she had been trained, but stopped, noticing that his chest looked funny. He has a vest. She adjusted her aim for the middle of his face, thankful he was stopping at each step. He stopped at the middle of the staircase, looking directly at her. She squeezed. The .357 kicked up, exploding in her hand. The hit man fell backwards down the stairs, following what used to be most of his head. All parts came to a stop at the bottom, blood covering the landing, some parts sliding down the wall at the bottom of the stairs, a gaping hole in the middle of what a few moments ago was his face. Louise, feeling no remorse, moved the ear protectors back, cocked the hammer again, and waited.
Hassan, barely able to see, knowing that all hope of a quiet snatch and grab was dashed, listened. Ibrahim approached the stairs, examined the remains of Purple Leader, and recalled Hassan’s boast just before they entered the house. “This should be the easiest job you ever did.” He smiled and peered around the edge of the stairs. He looked all the way up, searching for any motion, any sound, that might give him a clue as to her whereabouts. He noticed the partially open door and stared at it unflinching.
Oh my God, he sees me. He figured it out. Now what do I do?
“Got you, bitch,” Ibrahim said in a quiet whisper. Louise knew there is no way for her to escape, and she is all there is between this assassin and her children. Everything is up to her now. There is no way Tom is able to get home in time, even if he got the message right away.
As quietly as possible, she reset the ear protectors, moved the tripod out of the way, and lay flat on the floor so that she still had a shot, but would be harder to hit.
The assassin looked at the remains of his companion and considered his movements. He decided on a plan of action. He would set the AK-47 on fully automatic, swing out into the stairwell in one motion, firing as he did, and destroy the door and everything and anyone behind it. He has a full magazine modified to hold sixty instead of the usual thirty 7.62mm rounds. With a firing speed of 400 rounds a minute, he can empty the magazine in about ten seconds. He has a spare magazine ready and would empty that as well if needed. That kind of firepower will also prevent her from firing back, or so he hoped. She had to be behind that closet door. He heard no footsteps upstairs after the shot, and the one point from which she had a direct shot like that was from the closet. He would aim for the middle of the door. From his angle, that should hit her right in the chest.
In one smooth motion, he leapt onto the landing, firing as he did. The strange noise of the AK-47 was unreal to Louise even with her ear protectors on. She had never heard anything like it and would never forget it. She felt the oak door being destroyed above her, pieces flying everywhere. She thought about how Tom went to great expense to have solid oak doors installed throughout the house, with four hinges instead of the usual two. She brought herself back, forcing herself to concentrate on one thing; her target. If she did not, her children, her cubs, were dead. She was all the protection they had right now. They were bound to be scared to death.
Ibrahim was standing fixed on the bottom landing as he fired. He decided to wait until he destroyed the door before moving up. The AK-47 kicked in his hands as the bullets tore into the door. He enjoyed seeing the pieces of oak flying in all directions but was surprised that the bottom half was still attached upright to the frame instead of leaning as it should if the door was attached by the normal two hinges. When he emptied the first magazine, the entire top half of the door, maybe even more, was gone. Louise cocked the hammer and lay silent, wood chips and door splinters on the floor all around her and on her. The assailant inserted his second load and listened for any movement. Hearing none, he climbed up the stairs, one careful step at a time, listening for any sign of life with each step. If she’s dead, he thought, I’ll take some proof, perhaps an article of jewelry or clothing, or even better, a finger. Then I’ll be out of here to prove my worth to Saleh. To Hell with the kids. What can they tell? Louise rested the handle of the revolver under her left palm and, taking aim at his head, squeezed. The bullet caught him squarely in the middle of the neck, carrying a baseball sized clump of esophagus, windpipe, and shattered spine as it left the rear of his neck, slamming into the wall behind. He never knew what hit him. No pain. He just dropped where he stood and fell back, or rather slid back, down the stairs, landing in a heap on his companion. She pulled off her ear protectors. She heard a stumbling sound as Hassan, still in the kitchen, groped for the kitchen door and went out to the deck. She wanted to chase him down and hit him with more than a can of wasp spray, but she didn’t know if any others might be in the house. The whole thing took less than fifteen minutes. It seemed like five hours.
Are there more left? she wondered. She was still frozen in place when she saw a white handkerchief on the end of a night stick being waived up and down at the base of the stairs. She just watched.
“Louise, It’s Bill. Are you alright?” She jumped to her feet and ran for the bedroom closet. The boys were still under the blanket scared out of their wits.
“Mom, Mom, you made a too loud noise. Randy and David scared.”
She sat on the floor and hugged them both, tears of relief pouring down her cheeks, Daisy trying to get into her lap with them.
“Mommy, you sad?” asked Randy as he wiped a tear from her face with his little hand.
“No, Honey, just very happy you and David are okay.” She jumped when she felt the hand on her shoulder and looked up. It was Bill.
“It’s okay, Louise. You got both. Remind me never to get you mad at me.”
“How did you know?” she asked.
“I heard your CB call for Tom telling him you needed bacon at home. I was off duty but had my own CB home station and scanner turned on. From your tone of voice, I figured something was wrong and got here as soon as I could. I called Mike, too. He’s on his way but it will take a while.”
Tom rushed through the door and stopped cold when he got to the bottom of the stairs. Having seen Bill’s car in the driveway, he called, “Louise, you okay? Louise! Bill, are you there?”
“Tom, Tom,” yelled Louise as she bounded down the stairs and literally leapt into his arms.
“The kids?” he asked.
“They’re fine. Randy just fussed at me for making a loud noise.”
“Sounds like he’s just fine.”
Louise turned to Bill and asked, “Can you do me a favor? Would you keep the boys up there until the mess downstairs has been cleaned up? I don’t want them to see this sight. I have to be down here for a while.”
“Sure. We also have a special officer who is very good at that. She’s on the way over now with the crime lab unit and the ambulance. I called them before I came up but didn’t give them much detail.”
“There was a third man. I heard him running out after I shot the second gunman.”
“He’s gone by now. There’s no one else here.”
Louise and Tom looked around downstairs. Louise stopped to stare at the two bodies, feeling no emotion; no sorrow, no remorse, no joy. A dead possum on the roadside evoked more compassion from her than these two. She walked to the back deck and looked out into the yard while Tom stood in the hall and stared at the hit men. She saw a lone man near the ridge in the distance working his way through the woods, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. It had to be him.
“You missed, you sleazoid scum-sucking pig,” she yelled as she gave him an obscene gesture anyone in the world would understand. She knew he could hear her even if he had trouble seeing and knew what that would do to his Arabic sense of manhood. Hassan disappeared into the woods. Louise knew that by the time Bill called for the K-9 unit, the intruder would be gone. It was too dangerous for those still in the house to chase a trained assassin on foot, not knowing what his remaining weaponry might be or the true extent of his injury.
Louise went back inside the house and again examined the two dead men for any obvious clue. She wrapped her arms around her body attempting to reduce her shivering. She felt strangely detached. She thought about how close these two sons of bitches had come to killing her and her children. She was glad they were dead. Tom looked at her.
“You okay?”
“Yes. I’ll be fine. Just feel wired together a little differently right now. My emotions are a bit mixed up. It’ll take a little while to get back to normal, assuming I can remember what that was like. It was so very long ago.” Tom held her close and kissed the top of her head.
The commotion erupted in earnest. The ambulance, no lights or siren, arrived along with the sheriff’s deputies. Mike also arrived and examined the hit men before searching for Louise and Tom. Bill joined them after the guardianship of the children changed hands, and said,
“I told them I’d remain here and take your statement and bring it to the station later.”
Tom looked up. “Thanks.”
“You feel up to talking?” asked Mike.
Louise answered, “Sure. What have you learned?”
“The bad guys are being fingerprinted. It’ll be hard to get a positive ID on them for facial recognition. Also taking DNA samples to match against our database. Why did you aim for the head? The body center mass is the usual preferred target.”
“I did aim for the body, but it looked funny. Unnatural. So, I changed aim. I figured they wore bulletproof vests.”
“Good move,” said Bill. “They had Kelvar vests. You wouldn’t have killed them if you’d tried a chest shot.”
Mike said, “These guys are pros. They had all the best equipment; full-auto rifles, top of the line assault gear, the best. The shoes are our best lead. We’ll take dirt samples and run them through the FBI lab. We may be able to match what we find at the farmhouse.”
“Of course, you will. We know that,” Louise said impatiently.
Bill said, “You know it, and I know it, but it’s all part of building the proof, the chain of evidence, when it comes to getting a warrant.”
Tom said, “They’re after you in earnest now, Honey. You’ve gotten in their way, and you’re a woman. They also know they exposed themselves in this attack. It wasn’t successful, and they lost two of their operatives. They think you didn’t find anything substantive the other day, but they also must move fast now. Try to rest. We’ll talk some more tomorrow.”
“Let’s talk now. I’m too keyed up to rest. I don’t understand why they attacked me this way. The attempted road accident I can buy, but why expose themselves with so blatant an attack, with all the attention that would draw? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not like Saleh. It’s like a last-ditch effort before giving up. I wonder if Saleh ordered this hit or if the guys who were here were acting out of desperation. Is Saleh still in charge?”
Bill said, “That’s too much for you to deal with right now. You just try and get some rest. I’ll leave a deputy here with you. But from what I see, I think the rifle attack was a secondary move. The syringe on the kitchen floor will tell us more, but I’ll bet that was the intended weapon of choice. Take you out and then dump you someplace. No fuss, no mess.”
Tom replied, “I agree. Thanks for helping.”
Louise called to Bill, “Be careful analyzing the syringe from the kitchen floor. The bug I sprayed and who escaped was holding it. Check for prints.”
“Will do. Get some rest.”
Tom asked Mike, “Mike, will you keep an eye on Louise for a minute. I want to go upstairs to take look at the closet.”
“Sure thing. Glad to.”
Tom went up the stairs, avoiding even small pieces of evidence, to examine the closet where Louise had been. The debris took his breath away. In the middle of this she kept her cool and wiped them both out. What a woman I married. Tom picked up a shaft from the oak door about two feet in length and brought it downstairs. He wanted to put it on his workbench in the garage later on. Now he wanted to focus on Louise. When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he rejoined Louise and embraced her, holding her head against his chest.
“You feel so good. I’m so proud of you. I couldn’t live without you.”
Mike walked Bill to the door and said, “Bill, I want this kept very quiet, if you can. No reports yet. No news broadcasts. Not anything. Ambulance report was for a kid hurt in a fall from a tree. Can you manage that? I want to see how Saleh is getting information. If from the inside, the ruse won’t do anything. If from the outside, it might show us something.”
Bill replied, “Sure, at least for a time.”
Mike turned to Tom and Louise and said, “I’m going to run. You guys try and rest as best you can.”
Louise looked up and, hugging Mike, said, “Thanks Mike. Thanks for everything.”
Tom, shaking Mike’s hand, added, “Thanks. You’re always there when we need you.”
Mike replied, “I try. Looks like I was a little late for this party. Bye.”
Finally, everyone left. The evidence was removed - both of them. The area was cleaned thoroughly. The children would not see anything. Tom and Louise went upstairs, Daisy right behind them. Having checked the children, they laid on the bed alone in their bedroom while the children played in Randy’s room just across the hall. Louise curled up in Tom’s arms and just lay there, both afraid of what they knew they would face. After a while, she said, “I was so scared. I thought I’d never see you and the kids again. I wish I could turn time back and do things differently. I was so sure of myself.”
“You did great. I don’t know how you did it. You must have been one cool customer. You did everything right.”
“I was anything but cool. If I had not just sprayed the wasps and if Daisy had not been with me, I would be dead right now.”
“Well, I think you are one impressive broad,” he said, smiling. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. More than I can ever tell you.”
They laid quietly, holding each other, each very much aware of the risks to come, each knowing they were on a greased slope with no off-ramp. They would have to see this through, no matter what, and they both knew their biggest exposure was the children.
Tom asked, “What do we do if they go for the kids next time?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she replied. “One thing I do know, they have to speed up their timetable now that they know we are on to them and they missed me. Twice. They can’t tolerate more delay. That means we can expect something very soon. We need the translations of the papers I found and need them yesterday.”

James H Dobbins, PhD

James H Dobbins, PhD

I’m a former officer for the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command who helped create our nation’s first computerized military “Command and Control” system; was a member of the Apollo Flight Support Team in Houston; and supported many intelligence and weapon programs, including the acoustical signal processor program (ASP) featured in The Hunt for Red October. More recently, I’ve worked in the Intelligence Community (IC) as an acquisition expertproviding support to the FBI, CIA, DIA, DOD, and National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) under the Director of National Intelligence. I am a recovering lawyer with a Ph.D. in technology program management from The George Washington University and a member of Mensa. I retired in 2015 and besides what I hope will be a new career in writing I also enjoy making handmade functional pottery in my home studio. I’m an accomplished speaker, having presented at many national and international conferences as well as arguing cases before the Virginia Supreme Court. I’m active on social media, a member of The Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and the Virginia Writers Club.
James H Dobbins, PhD

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