Acceptable Risks

Natalie J. Damschroder
Available from Carina Press

The group started down, moving more slowly than Jason liked. He backed down the steps, tensing with each second that ticked by. He was missing something. He paused, listening hard over the clatter of dress shoes on concrete.
There was a faint, felt-rather-than-heard whump. The door on the landing they’d just left vibrated. Jason registered the explosion on some level other than his brain, and panic sped through him.
“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted, shoving his gun into its holster and racing down the steps. He hauled Adrina into his arms and followed Matt and Kolanko, letting the bodyguards take the rear.
The roar wasn’t as loud as he expected, but the heat was intense. He ducked instinctively and grabbed the rail so he didn’t stumble. Matt, one turn below him, looked up, his shocked face orange in the glow from above.
The heat receded, the noise abated, and they kept running. No one asked the obvious questions. Adrina clung to him, her face damp against his neck. He paused for a second to check her for injury, but she seemed unharmed, only scared.
He didn’t blame her.
Chatter from his operatives, reacting to the blast and reporting in from their sectors, buzzed in his ear, only half processed. Someone shouted from below. He did a quick-glance over the rail, keeping Adrina back. His men ran toward them, a few floors below.
“Here.” Jason handed Adrina to her father. She tightened her hold for half a second before letting go.
He faced back up the stairs, waiting. He knew the blast wasn’t the end of it. Thank God they had the floor to themselves, with orders to keep even housekeeping away unless summoned. There should have been no casualties. He tried not to think about the guys in the elevator shaft. Depending on where the explosives were on the floor…
There. A scrape of sound, maybe two flights up. Hard to tell, with his ears ringing and all the noise from below. But then he heard it again—just before a figure hurtled over the railing above, landing on the steps in front of him, already slamming a flat palm in his face.
Jason managed to deflect the blow, and the next one, and settled into a classic rhythm of block and strike. But his opponent had the advantage, backing him down the stairs, and was more skilled. Jason tried to sweep the man’s legs and missed. Then they reached the landing, and his superior height allowed him to actually land a punch on the guy’s cheek. The attacker’s dark eyes gleamed as he fell back. He obviously hadn’t expected street tactics. Jason allowed a grim smile. But he knew his opponent would adjust.
And he did. His foot kicked up at Jason’s crotch. He dodged, off balance, and saw stars as the man shoved his head into the wall. Jason rebounded toward the rail and the abyss on the other side, but recovered and snapped a punch into the guy’s nose.
And then, suddenly, there were three more. Jason fought fiercely, knocking out two opponents but knowing he wasn’t going to win. His goal was simply to allow time for the others to get to safety. A blow landed on his temple, blurring his vision. He used his stagger to land a shoulder in the second guy’s gut and was rewarded with a grunt, but a fist in his kidney banished his satisfaction. He gasped, trying to keep his feet, arms up to protect his face from the final strike.
But then Matt was there, at his back, turning him so they each faced one opponent. New energy infused him, and in short order both opponents were on the ground.
Jason panted, his hands clenched, waiting. Listening. These people were too determined to let it end here. But long minutes passed with nothing coming.
“Thanks for coming back.”
“Thanks for staying.” Matt didn’t sound nearly as out of breath as Jason did. Unfair. Of course, he’d only fought one guy.
Without discussion, they started searching the men sprawled all over the stairs. Jason radioed down for pickup and for the police, who were already on site.
“No IDs,” he said.
“Didn’t expect any,” Matt replied. “Kolanko and the girl are in—”
The only warning they had was a chip of concrete block hitting Matt in the cheek. Instinct had Jason in motion before the blood welled on his friend’s face. He leapt up the two steps between him and Matt, shoving him back against the wall, out of the line of fire. Something hot pierced Jason’s shoulder. He jerked, tripped over the legs of the attacker at his feet, and lost his balance.
He had only a moment to register the shock and horror on Matt’s face before tipping backward over the railing.

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