Author: Kelly Cozy
Paperback: 370 pages
Publisher: Smite Publications (January 24, 2013)
File Size: 479 KB
Print Length: 370 pages
Publisher: Smite Publications (February 24, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Anonymous. That was Jennifer's life. But when she survived a domestic terrorist attack and her last-minute escape became the iconic image of the event, that life was over. Wanting only to disappear and become just another face in the crowd, she cashed in on her unwanted fame and moved to a small town, hidden away and safe.
Retired. That was Sean's life. A former covert operative - the kind the government denies exists - he'd been pushed unwillingly into a life of suburban peace and quiet. But his retirement ended when he saw Jennifer's rescue; from then on he only wanted to find those responsible for the attack, even if it meant turning rogue.
What Jennifer and Sean will both find is that nothing goes to plan, and their paths will cross in a way neither could have foreseen.
Ashes is the first in a two-book series.
Driving south out of the scrubby Glendale foothills, Jennifer Thomson took a moment to appreciate the city. In the clear March air, the skyline had a glamour it lost the closer she came. She took the moment but did not cherish it, for she did not know that before noon the sky would be sullied by a column of smoke and dust, that the skyline would be forever altered, that the sound of police and news helicopters would be audible for miles.
Jennifer drove as quickly as she dared without catching the attention of the California Highway Patrol. She was not anxious to get to work. Rather, she was trying not to be late. She had no one to blame but herself, having hit the snooze button once — or was it twice? — more often than usual.
But judging from the lighter-than-usual traffic, Jennifer thought she wasn’t the only one who would be tardy today. She wouldn’t have cared about being five (or fifteen) minutes late, but her boss did care, and Jennifer had no desire to hear Maggie Stone remark on her tardiness again.
Luck was with her. In the underground garage she found a parking spot close to the elevator. The maintenance man even took a break from hauling trash cans and held the elevator door open for her. Jennifer smiled and thanked him, then punched the button to floor eighteen. Now, if only her luck was in.
It was. Maggie Stone was nowhere to be seen, and the other employees were too busy getting their morning caffeine fix to notice her late arrival. Jennifer took advantage of the reprieve and paused to give her outfit a once-over. The gray skirt and pink sweater hadn’t needed ironing, but she wished — not for the last time that day — that she’d worn more sensible shoes. She ran a brush through her hair, picked up her travel mug, and went in search of coffee. A pot of French roast had just been brewed. Jennifer smiled, hoping that her luck would hold.
It would. Just enough to keep her alive.
* * *
She worked in a twenty-story federal building where the gears of government bureaucracy turned, slowly and inexorably — keeping records, allocating funds, processing forms, renewing licenses.
Her office was a branch of the grants department, and as undistinguished a cubicle farm as any she’d ever worked in. Pale gray partitions and mauve accents on the walls left over from the early 1990s. Inspirational prints with images of sunsets and mountain climbers, symbols of success and teamwork, bought frames-and-all from the discount office supplier. Modular desks, a PC resting on each. Plants on the desks and dotted around the room, nourished by fluorescent lights; the African violets thrived but did not bloom.
A small sign, Jennifer Thomson, Receptionist, marked a corner desk as hers. The desktop was more or less tidy — Friday had been a slow day, time for her to clean up. The bulletin board behind her held a calendar, a few Dilbert cartoons, a postcard her sister Cindy had sent her from Niagara Falls. Jennifer set her mug down and turned on the computer. She settled into her chair, with neither resignation nor enthusiasm. How had she described the job to Cindy? The career path of least resistance. Still, it paid fairly well and the benefits were good. What else could she ask for?
* * *
10:17 a.m., and Jennifer was on her way to the photocopier when she heard Carrie’s voice. Jennifer smiled; she could take or leave most of her coworkers, but she liked Carrie, always had. “Hi, Carrie. How was your weekend?”
Carrie shrugged. “Got stood up. Again.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Carrie grinned. She was a buxom type in her late forties, determined to live life as a blonde, and always ready to share her dating stories. “Don’t worry about it. I smelled this guy would be trouble the moment I met him. Literally. He bathed, I kid you not, bathed in Canoe aftershave.”
“At least it wasn’t Aqua Velva.”
“Thank God for small favors. Speaking of getting stood up, the copier guy didn’t come by Friday.”
“You’re kidding. The machine’s still down?”
Carrie nodded. “Only one still working is all the way over in HR.”
Jennifer rolled her eyes. “One of those days. Guess I’m off to HR.”
“Have fun. Be sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.”
Jennifer started down the hall, then turned back to Carrie. “Do you want to go out for lunch today? I didn’t have time to pack anything. There’s that new sushi place.”
“Sure. 11:30 do you? Beat the rush?”
“OK. See you then.” Jennifer gave Carrie a little wave, and walked down the hall to HR. She never saw Carrie again.
There was no line for the copier, and the papers didn’t jam once. Her luck was holding, Jennifer mused as she started back down the hall, though it would have been better if the damn copier repair guy had shown up. Still, she couldn’t —
The floor trembled and she stopped, had just enough time to think Earthquake? and wonder where the nearest doorway was when the entire building shook madly, whipsawed back and forth. She was on the floor, papers scattered around her, as the building shuddered and rattled. There was a roar, a giant’s bellow. She heard screams from the halls and offices, knew that she herself must be screaming but she could not hear it, could only feel her throat burn with the force of the cry. Overhead the fluorescent lights popped and broke, glass and plastic rained down, and now chunks of plaster and acoustic ceiling tiles joined the deluge. Jennifer curled up into a ball, hands covering her head, arms covering her face, feeling her breath on her forearms but still not hearing herself scream.
The building gave one last shudder and silence fell. No doubt there was more sound, plenty of it, but so deafened was Jennifer that she heard nothing. She felt cool air on her forearms and head. She pulled her arms away from her face but dared not open her eyes yet. There was light on the other side of her closed lids, more light than there should have been. She told her eyes to open but they would not obey at first. Finally she jerked her head and her eyes opened.
For twenty feet in front of her the hallway continued on. Full of plaster and ceiling tiles and bad art, but it was there. Beyond that, open air, the sky, an eighteen-story view of Los Angeles. Half the building had been torn away. Bits and pieces still fell past the gaping hole she looked out of. A live electric cable twisted in the wind, an angry snake spitting sparks. Office paper drifted down like oversize confetti, incongruously festive.
Jennifer’s eyes saw it but her brain was numb, unable to take it in. What had happened? It was unreal. Buildings simply did not split in two, leave you staring out a hole at eighteen stories of sky and the city below. It simply could not be —
She heard a scream and a man plunged past the hole in the building and kept going. Even through the ringing in her ears she could hear his scream, diminishing as he fell to whatever wreckage lay below. Another cry, this one words instead of a scream, a man’s shout of, “Jesus God!” and he was falling, like the first man, from the nineteenth or twentieth floor. He was flailing instinctively, somehow caught hold of something, and dangled there in front of Jennifer.
She wanted to help him but could not move; he did not ask for help, only stared fixedly. He began to shake, then jitter wildly, and Jennifer saw that he had caught hold of the electrical cable, his hands frozen in a death grip as the voltage coursed through him. She was transfixed, unable to look away as he jittered and shook; she hoped he was dead already, that he was not alive to feel his hair and clothes burst into flame.
Only when the smell of him burning reached her did she break her paralysis. She scrambled to her feet and fled from the burning man, from that dreadful hole in the building, looking for something or someone that would explain what was going on. She ran around the corner and right into Mr. Danvers, the department vice president. There was a cut across his head and blood in his hair but he was calm. He grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her. “Jennifer!” he yelled. “Come on, Jennifer! Are you OK?”
For a moment she could not find her voice. At last she croaked, “I think so there’s this man there he burnt up and what’s going on?”
He shook her again. “It’s a bomb or something. We’ve got to get out of here. I’m going to go see if I can find anybody else, you go on. Get out of the building, fast as you can.”
Automatically she started toward the elevator. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back. “No, the stairs, take the stairs. Just run, keep going.”
Jennifer watched him run down the hall and soon he was gone, disappearing into a cloud of dust. She stood for a moment, unsure of what to do, and now she could hear things. Screams and moans. Crumbling plaster and breaking glass. And a deep groaning — the sound of a building that had taken more damage than it could stand, was ready to come down.
Get out. Fast. She could do that. Could she?
Jennifer ran for the stairs. Just before she reached the stairwell she passed by a conference room and for a moment stopped, looked in. The walls of the conference room had been glass, and the people inside had been cut to ribbons. They lay bloody and silent amid their coffee cups and meeting notes. She recognized a few of them. Some their own mothers would not have recognized. She stood and stared. It couldn’t be real, couldn’t. They were filming a movie or something, she must have missed the memo. Soon the director would yell Cut! and all these people would get up and wash off the fake blood and everyone would have some donuts and she could get Bruce Willis’ autograph.
Jennifer felt someone — she never knew who — shove her and she joined the people running for the stairwell. Not many of them heading for the stairwell, not many at all, and she wondered how many were trapped or dead or dying in the wreckage.
She didn’t know. All she knew was that she did not want to be one of them.
Jennifer started down the stairs. Under normal circumstances eighteen floors would have been nothing more than a good workout. But now the stairwell was full of people, more of them every minute, some of them hurt and all of them frantic to get out before the building collapsed. Now the air was thick with panic and dust. Every time the building let out a groan or shudder they all froze, waiting, and when nothing happened they kept going. Halfway down someone panicked, started screaming that they had to go faster, damn it, faster. But for the most part they made the journey down in grim silence, perhaps afraid that any sound they made would hasten the building’s collapse.
At the third floor, the heel broke off one of Jennifer’s shoes and there was a dull flare of pain as she twisted her ankle. She stopped to take off her shoes and rest her foot for a moment. “Jennifer? You need a hand?” She looked up at the familiar voice. It was Carlos, one of the account managers. “Come on, we need to keep moving.”
“Thanks,” she said. He put one of her arms across his shoulders, and they began to make their way down the stairs. Now that they were so close, some of the panic left her. They were going to make it.
At the second-floor landing she said, “I think—”
She never finished the sentence. There was a grinding roar from above them and something crashed through the wall. The stairway buckled and they fell. Jennifer felt something hit her on the head with a heavy but painless blow, and then felt nothing.
* * *
Jennifer woke lying on her left side, arm pinned under her. The stairwell was lit only by a flickering fluorescent bulb; the air was heavy with dust that she could taste on her lips and tongue. Her body ached dully. She sat up slowly and pain shot through her shoulder and her head. Her left arm wouldn’t move. With her right hand she touched her head, felt wetness. When she looked at her fingers, they were red.
At least she could see. “Carlos? Carlos are...”
She could see Carlos, lying at the bottom of the stairs, his head cocked at what even to her unlearned eyes was a very wrong angle, eyes open and unseeing. “Oh no,” she whispered.
The building did not just groan; it screamed. So did she. “No!” Jennifer hauled herself to her feet with her good arm, her twisted ankle and lost shoes forgotten, and began limping down the buckled steps.
The door to the lobby was ajar a little bit. She tried to open it wider; it wouldn’t budge. Jennifer sucked in her breath and forced herself through. For a moment she was trapped, thought she would die stuck in this doorway, and if she had been able to breathe she would have screamed. Another burst of effort, the buckled metal tearing her sweater and scraping her back; she was through. The lobby was full of debris, twisted steel and broken glass that she dodged as best she could. Once a huge chunk of metal fell and she felt the wind of its passage as it missed her by inches. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a gaping hole in the lobby floor, dared not look closer. She squeezed through one more doorway and was outside.
Out. But not safe. She saw people waving at her, making frantic Hurry! gestures and understood that the last scream of the building had been its death cry. It was coming down.
Jennifer ran. She heard the sound of impact behind her and was lost in a cloud of dust, feeling debris fly around her.
She wanted to run, but couldn't see where to run to. She tried to scream, but could not even breathe.