Chapter 08: The Stairwell

Lila’s breath came in short, panicked gasps.

The last few seconds, a run from the kitchen galley to the stairwell, had been terrifying.

As soon as they had emerged from the relative safety of the kitchen walls a shot had rung out, then another, and another. Shane had gripped her arm harder, painfully, as they dashed from one cubicle area to the next, and his gun firing so close that her ears felt stuffed with cotton, along with a distant ringing. She could hear nothing else, momentarily deafened by the shots.

As they had weaved out of one hallway and into the next, wood had splintered and flown from the lacquered 17th century cabinet outside of her office. The gunshots blasting simultaneously from the far end of the hall, another shot ricocheting past her ear. The world had tilted on its side, tangling and rolling, as Shane pushed her down with his body and snapped off another burst of gunfire in the shooter’s direction. He had dropped like a sack of potatoes. One minute a living, breathing human being, the next, a marionette without strings, limp on the floor, blank eyes staring. Lila swallowed a scream.

Shane had picked her up then. Just one quick yank and she was vertical. She might as well have been weightless.

“Stay with me,” he hissed in her ear, a sound she could barely hear, “We need to head for the stairwell.”

The second man could disguise his footfalls, but not when he was at a full run. The sound of his feet came at the same time as a flurry of shots, one of them shattering a tall enamel vase on a pedestal just inches from Lila’s head. She screamed and hit the floor, the hard concrete below the thin industrial carpet jolting her injured arm painfully.

Shane turned, pivoting on his heel as he fired. Glass shattered, the wall of an office shredding into slivers. He reached down, picked her up by the waist and then shoved Lila into a corner. She winced as she felt a bruise begin to rise on her undamaged arm where her body slammed into the metal edge of a door. Her shoulder took the brunt of the impact and she huddled on the floor, staring at a carpet covered in enamel shards.

Each day, on her way to her office in the morning, she would walk this hallway, just so she could enjoy the scenes depicted on the beautiful vase. It was 15th century, from the Ming dynasty, and priceless.

Well, it had been priceless.

The shots were deafening – her ears rang and her head ached. With each gunshot, her body jerked in terror, pulling away from the noise, although there was nowhere to go. She was trapped in a corner. She covered her face, curling into a ball, wondering if there was some way to make herself invisible.

Where was Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak when it was needed most?

Suddenly, there was silence. Her ears were still ringing, and she felt more than she heard the thud of a second body hitting the floor. She was too frightened to look. If Shane was dead, then the killer was going to put a bullet in her head next.

Why bother looking up and seeing the gun pointed at me. Better to just close my eyes. 

A hand closed on her arm, yanking her upright again, elicited a sob of terror.

Shane pulled her close and Lila opened her eyes to the view of a black shirt, tight over a muscled chest.

The assassin was on the floor, a spot of red blossoming on his chest. His eyes were open, staring, and Lila watched death take him. The eyes dulled and went blank. Shane had kicked his gun aside as a precaution, scanned for any other intruders, and then pulled her away from the body and on through two sets of doors to the safety of a quiet stairwell. His hand was bruisingly tight on her wrist but Lila didn’t complain.

“Oh my God, oh my God, what just happened back there?” She skidded to a stop, her high heels scraping and the sound reverberated off of the cement walls. The handrail dug into her back and the cement wall of the stairwell was ice cold against her. She shook in fear and shock and she barely noticed Shane’s hands as he ran them down the front of her. He turned her around effortlessly, checking her back as well.

She gasped as his hands ran over her, “What are you…”

Nothing, no wounds.

Damn, but that had been close.

He breathed a sigh of relief. He’d let himself get distracted, and very nearly gotten them both killed.

“Are you hurt?”

“What?”

She couldn’t think, the shock of what had just happened hit her, a dark hand of fear clutching at her heart and throat, squeezing them tight. She felt dizzy.

Can’t catch my breath.

She wheezed, struggling to inhale and exhale. Lila closed her eyes. She tried to concentrate on relaxing her throat, her chest.

She hadn’t had a panic attack in years. They had come in the aftermath of her father’s death, in her early teens. She would think of the fear on his face, those moments alone on a trail, miles from home, when he had collapsed, slipping from his bike, boneless onto the ground. His face first bright red, then white as he had gasped for breath, willing his heart to return to a steady rhythm. It hadn’t, and he had died there on the rough bike path, her screams had finally brought help, but it had been far too late. Shortly after that, she had been struck with her first panic attack. It had taken years for her to learn to control them. Guided meditation, a prescription for Xanax that she rarely used, and finally a mixed martial arts instructor who was a firm believer in breath work.

Not even the fight in the garage on Friday had triggered one, but the past few seconds sure had.

His hands paused, “Lila, look at me.” He tipped her head up and she opened her eyes reflexively. “Hey. It’s okay, I’ve got you.”

She nodded, her eyes wide with panic, her throat and lungs still fighting for air. There wasn’t enough air.

He set her back against the cool concrete wall, his body close to hers, and he placed a warm hand on her chest. She could feel his warmth, his breath slowing.

“Look at me, Lila. There is only you and me here. Match my breath,” he murmured, “just focus on the breath.”

Shane’s ears strained for any sounds. They didn’t have time for this, there could be more of them out there. He recognized the signs of a panic attack – it wasn’t so different from an asthma attack and he had certainly seen his fill of those. He needed her to be able to run, but she couldn’t do that if she was in the throes of an attack and he sure couldn’t carry her down forty plus flights of stairs and fight any more would-be killers off.

Her body, shaking against his, was distracting him from the job at hand. He could smell a faint whiff of perfume, possibly jasmine, mixed with her natural scent. Desire, so akin to the adrenaline rushing through his body from the shootout, flooded through him again.

What is this woman doing to me?

His hand, resting on her chest between her breasts, itched to move to the left and encompass her breast. He wondered how her nipples looked. The vision of her body, stripped of everything but that black lace bra he had seen tantalizing hints of, and thigh-high stockings, leaned against the stairway railing flitted through his head. He imagined leaning in and slipping his tongue between those red lips, turning her gasps into moans of desire.

The smaller head hardened, straining against the durable denim, eager to turn that “fight or flight” response into a “fuck her senseless.”

Damn it, this was his client.

“Just, breathe.” He whispered, trying to channel calm and ignore the attraction he felt. He willed his dick to go back to sleep and it gleefully ignored him.

The seconds ticked by and gradually her breaths slowed from the ragged gasps to even breaths in and out. The pounding of her heart no longer a visible thing.

“I’m okay.” Her voice was faint.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” He leaned down and pulled one of her shoes off, then the other. He stared up at her, Lila flushed. It felt intimate. “This way you can run easier.” He smiled at her, “And far quieter.”

He grabbed her left hand, “Come on, we need to leave…now.”

“Wait!” She resisted as he pulled her down the stairs, hugging the wall. “Oh my God, we can’t just leave them there!”

“Yes, we can. They are dead, both of them.” Shane replied tersely, “We need to get out of here, now. Before any more come along and try and kill us.”

More?!” Lila squeaked, “But…”

He stopped, his body still close to hers, his breath warm, “Were either of those men the same guy that attacked you in the garage?” He was so close that she could feel him, hard against her. Her body quivered uncontrollably in response.

“No…he was shorter, heavier…but…”

“I don’t know why someone wants you dead, Ms. Benoit, but I can guarantee you they are getting pretty insistent. If you want to live, you follow my lead, and do as I say.” He was so close and scary with his intense stare, that Lila felt her heart rate speed up even further, jackhammering in her chest, so close. He had killed two men. A man who was trying to kill her, but still.

He began to pull her down the stairs and she resisted, “Wait, my purse, it has my keys and wallet in it. I can’t leave it here.”

“Shit.” He paused, thinking. “Wait here.” And with that, he vanished through the door, as silently as the two men had. It closed with a soft click.

It couldn’t have taken any more than thirty seconds for Shane to return, but it had felt like forever. Lila trembled. She felt exposed, helpless, standing there in the stairwell alone. Every creak, or gust of air, and Lila was convinced someone would appear ready to finish the deed. She jumped when the door opened, biting down on her tongue with an aborted yelp of fear.

Shane smiled and held her purse out to her. Her laptop was shoved inside, half in and half out of the purse.

“I thought you might need it.”

“Thank you.” She took it from him and wrestled it onto her uninjured shoulder.

“Come on,” he said, “we need to get out of here. Now. Stick to the wall side and avoid the inside railing.”

Lila wondered if there were more lurking, just waiting for her or Shane to lean over and look down. A quick head shot, the roar it would make in this echo chamber of a stairwell. She nodded and slid along the wall, her heels tucked securely into her arm sling.

Kurgen Real Estate was located on the 39th floor of a building known as One Kansas City Place. It took a long time to get down thirty-nine flights of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, Shane stopped abruptly and placed a hand on her shoulder, pushing her firmly the stairwell wall out of sight of the door and its sliver of a window. They were at P2, the second level of the parking garage, and so far there had been no other people, no one with bad intentions, or good, had appeared, but it was clear that Shane wasn’t taking any chances. He pressed her against the wall and quickly stole a glance through the window.

“Wait here.”

He opened the door, the latch clicking quietly in his grasp and the door creaking just enough to start Lila’s heart thumping. She couldn’t help but imagine hearing the sound of a gunshot and watching Shane collapse to the ground. He peered out, and slowly edged his body out the door. A few seconds later he beckoned to her.

“It’s clear. Follow me.”

A moment later they were in his car. He had opened the driver’s side and unceremoniously shoved her in.

“Stay down. Out of sight, until we get out of here.” She didn’t argue, simply folded her body into the tiny space, still out of breath from running down 39 flights of stairs. He didn’t tell her about the dead parking attendant, sprawled in the booth, a single black hole between his eyes with a spray of the poor man’s blood painting the glass on the far side of the toll booth, as he quietly drove out of the parking garage and onto the darkened city street outside.

The terrifying events of the past ten minutes, combined with the cold of the car, and of the outside, the temperatures having suddenly dipped into the 30s after sundown, brought on a fit of shivering that no amount of heat from the car vents could abate.

Once they had moved out of the city, and Shane was sure no one was following, he turned down the road, heading for the safe house, and reached over to help Lila out of her cramped position. She had a run in her stockings. He sucked in his breath, she was wearing garters, he caught a flash of them as she struggled out of the footwell and into her seat. She smoothed down her skirt, but not before he had seen a flash of black lace juxtaposed against a smooth white thigh. His dick hardened, then throbbed eagerly in his pants, as randy as a middle-school boy eyeing a cute girl in the seat in front of him.

He let out a small groan of discomfort as he calculated how long it would be before he could get to the safe house, explain the Code and what would happen next, and see her off to bed so he could go to his own and jerk one off.

Although I’d much rather fuck her senseless. Damn, but why didn’t I get a fat asshole to protect?

Lila continued to tremble. She stared out at the dark night, “My apartment is on the Plaza, in the other direction.” She said it without any real conviction, shell-shocked at the images the last few minutes had given her. She had seen the blood on the glassed-in wall of the parking attendant’s booth.

Shane reached over, squeezed her left hand, “I’m sorry, but those two guys showing up changes things. It wouldn’t be a good idea to go to your apartment right now. I’m taking you somewhere safe.”

He used his most professional tone, the one he reserved for the rich fucks who paid a hell of a lot of money for him to keep them safe from all of the people they had screwed over.

Lila couldn’t have screwed anyone over. He didn’t know what she had done or seen, to deserve this, but he was going to protect her. His fingers strayed to the delicate bones in her wrist and he felt his pants tighten in response.

If only he could get back control of his body and do…his…job.