Updated: September 27, 2022
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Abi Spencer awakens to an empty house with what feels like a SWAT-Team converging onto her property. Without any knowledge of why and her husband Brad nowhere to be found, she slips out of the house and on the run into a high-tech nightmare she could not have imagined, with an enemy that is seemingly relentless.
RELENTLESS – D.S. FACTOR
Ominous storm clouds rolled through the skies over Orchard Mills just shortly past midnight. By twelve-fifteen, the first signs of rain began to softly drum against Abigail Spencer’s bedroom window. Still half asleep, she mumbled softly to herself and rolled over, fluffing up the feathers inside her pillow and then sinking back down into it, her breath coming and going evenly.
By the time the digital clock on the bedside table silently changed to 4:49, the storm had reached gale strength. The soft rumble of distant thunder was replaced with earsplitting thunderbolts that brought Abi quickly up out of bed. Absently moving across the room, she reached for the white plush robe that Brad had slid from her shoulders just hours ago before discarding it at her feet. She pulled it up and around her body now, at the same time trying to clear her groggy mind.
“Brad?” she whispered as she turned to face the other side of the bed. The covers had been tossed aside, and surveying the room, she found herself alone. Hmm, she thought, perhaps he decided to polish off that Italian takeout after all?
Humming an old Coldplay tune to herself, she left the room and made her way down the hall to the top of the stairs and began her descent. As she rounded the banister on the landing, something outside the window glimmered briefly and caught her eye. The boat house. What are the boat house lights doing on at one o’clock in the morning? Only she wasn’t positive the light was actually coming from the boat house. She waited patiently until the next bolt of lightning had come and gone. When the strobe-like brightness had faded, the glow coming from the boat house remained, reflected several times over in a drop of rain rolling slowly down the pane of glass.
Turning, Abi descended the remaining stairs, and entered the kitchen. She called out again for Brad just in case he was in the house, with the steady clicking of the living room clock as her only answer. Returning briefly to the bedroom, she dressed, grabbed her cell, ran back downstairs, slid into an old comfortable pair of Brooks and pulled her windbreaker down from the hook by the entryway. Just as she was about to go outside, she realized she would need an umbrella, for the kitchen windows were being pelted with a steady stream of rain. After grabbing the umbrella from the hall closet, she stepped out into the strengthening storm.
Nearly losing her grip on the umbrella’s handle due to a fierce wind, Abi made quick work of the journey to the boat house, careening to the ground only once while sloshing her way through mud puddles as thick as pancake batter. Panting as she reached the boathouse door, she took hold of the doorknob and rotated it to the right, while at the same time putting the bulk of her body weight against its wooden frame. The door did not move. “Fuck.” she muttered to herself, then proceeded to reach deep into the pocket of the windbreaker to withdraw the keys to unlock the door. The key slid easily into the lock and Abi twisted it to the left. The sound of the tumblers releasing signaled that the door was now free to open, so she tried the knob again. This time, the wooden door creaked open, thudding loudly against the wall inside.
Initially, the light from inside blinded Abi to what lay beyond the door, but soon her vision cleared and she found herself alone in the empty building. Water lapped softly against the hull of the Spencer’s Bayliner, and except for that and the sound of thunder outside, the room was silent.
To Abi’s right was a worktable covered with a number of boating necessities: an open container of Pennzoil Marine Oil; a tattered fish locating map purchased eons ago from Big Earl’s Bait & Tackle on the way to a fishing expedition on Saylorwell Lake; an open-faced reel with its guts lying on the table next to it, as if once apart, its owner couldn’t put it back together again. Well, she smiled to herself, Brad was never much of a do-it-yourselfer.
Without warning, something slapped gruffly against Abi’s ankle. The blow however wasn’t hard enough to cause her to lose her balance. Spinning around, she scanned the floor at her feet. What she discovered there momentarily left her gulping for air.
Propelled from the water was an arm that once again took aim at her ankle, and the opportunity to knock Abi off her feet. The second blow was a bit higher than the first, and packed considerably more power behind it. For a miniscule moment, she thought she would be able to retain her stability, but seconds later she felt herself falling into the cold shock of the very deep and darkened lake.
Breaking the surface of the water, she reached for the wooden post that moored the Bayliner inside the boathouse. Her fingers grazed its edge, but then she was ripped from the shore and forced beneath the lake’s surface. Kicking at her attacker with her free leg, she desperately tried to tear her foot from the man’s grasp. She could feel the need for oxygen burning her lungs as the man slowing pulled her deeper into the water and away from the safety of the boathouse.
I’m going to die. Could I really die in practically my own backyard? Her body was steadily being pulled out and along the shore of the lake, perhaps twenty yards down the south shore. Still beneath the water‘s surface, her body screamed for air. But then, strangely, the movement stopped. Abi began fighting with renewed energy, as the man slowly raised his arms to her face and placed huge hands over her mouth. Damn. Damn. Damn. Her mind said haul off and belt him, but her latest attack had melted away her strength and she now felt utterly helpless.
Unexpectedly, the water became darker and Abi found herself staring at the worn insides of a rowboat. Disorienting at first, the boat had been inverted in the water and bound to the shore by a rope connected to the remains of a dock Brad had altered for the purpose of keeping the boat’s metal inside from frying its occupants when they first got in. The storm’s power had begun to wane, but a steady machine gun sound continued to pelt the underside of the boat. A small pocket of air above the water line and below the bottom of the boat allowed Abi to inhale her first breath in what seemed an eternity. In reality, the whole ordeal took place in just under two minutes.
“Abi,” the man whispered into her ear.
“Oh my God, but what…?” she spat incredulously.
Brad attempted to again cover her mouth, but she peeled his hand away, turning to face him. “What the hell are you doing?” she muttered, with a mixture of shock, anger, and fear.
“Ssshh,” he whispered. “Be still, and we’ll find a way out of this.”
Seconds passed quietly by, accompanied only by the dissipating rain and the soft chirping of crickets coming from the thatch of weeds growing close to the water’s edge.
Abi’s eyes had at last adjusted to the darkness under the boat, and she looked at Brad with pleading eyes. “Please…,” she hesitated, lowering her voice. “Please tell me what’s going on? What are we hiding from?” she murmured under her breath.
In the eerie darkness, his reply hung fearfully in the air. “It’s not what babe…it’s who.”
Brad knew that the next moments would be crucial to any hope he had of getting himself and his wife of nearly four years to safety, so he silently hoped that the action he was about to take would somehow be right. Turning to face Abi and explain, he was stunned to discover that, like a ghost, she had slipped away and vanished into the murky water.
Clawing her way up a steep and impossibly muddy bank, Abi pulled herself from the frigid water. Through a small grove of pines near the shore, she could see movement both inside and outside their home. Although the distance was too far to know with certainty, she could swear that one of the men was holding what appeared to be a gun. “What is this all about?” she whispered to no one, shivering as she made her way behind a particularly large tree.
Recalling that she had abandoned Brad behind in the lake, she turned around and began making what she hoped was a silent and uneventful trek back to the rowboat. As she was approaching the water, from the corner of her eye, she spotted one of the men from the house making his way to the same spot. Ducking quickly behind a tree, she watched the man with horror as he unloaded a pistol into the bottom of the rowboat she had moments ago deserted.
For nearly a full minute, the shock froze Abi’s feet in place behind the pine tree she had used as cover. Coming to the realization of what she had witnessed, she began to slowly back away, slipping further into the safety of the grove’s many trees.
The gunman eased his way down the bank, entered the water with a flashlight in hand, and made his way out to the rowboat. With his free hand, he lifted the boat up to get a better look at what lie beneath. From the pale pink tinge of water that shone underneath, he knew that his bullets had struck their intended target. A slight smile appeared on his face as his flashlight beam first encountered the face of Brad Spencer, bloodied and lifeless.
At first stumbling backwards through the wooded countryside, Abi slowly increased her pace, eventually turning to run the last hundred yards or so through the copse of trees at a dead run. Reaching the edge of the thicket, she bent over, placing her hands on her knees and inhaling deeply until her breathing slowed again to a more manageable pace.
Trees began to thin out as Abi reached the edge of the Spencer’s acreage. Hazarding a quick glance back to the darkened path that she’d just traversed, she saw no immediate signs of those in pursuit.
Paralleling the property’s edge was a dirt service road that led to an old and somewhat dilapidated garage. The building was a holdover from the original owners dating back to the early thirties, and Abi thought if a strong wind began to blow, it would be reduced to a ramshackle pile of wood in short order. Brad had always talked about tearing the thing down, but then Abi’s father began storing an old Ford pickup in the garage soon after they had moved in, and they couldn’t bring themselves to take it down and leave the truck to the mercy of the elements.
Over the years, a barren, dirt path had been worn around the perimeter of the garage, and like so many times before, Abi silently walked the muddied path to the opposite side of the structure. A sliver moon cast a ghostly shade of blue against the aged wood as Abi approached the side entry door. Before pulling it open, she wiped a small swath of window clean with the sleeve of her still damp windbreaker and peered into the darkness beyond. Sensing no danger from unseen occupants, she gradually pulled open the door and slipped inside.
Cupping her hands to her eyes and leaning against the passenger-side window of her father’s pickup, she strained in weak, filtered moonlight to see if the keys were in the ignition. With almost a detached realization, she detected movement at the window on the opposite side of the garage. Concerned, yet refusing to yield to panic, Abi moved swiftly around the front of the vehicle to the driver’s side door, yanking it open, just as the window over her left shoulder shattered. Briefly hampered by the explosive blizzard of glass, Abi nonetheless slid in behind the wheel of the Ford, gripping the steering wheel and sliding her right hand down to the ignition, returning with only air as her hand came up empty.
Cursing under her breath, she franticly began searching the car for keys, slipping her hands beneath the mats with no success. Where would he put them? she thought to herself, popping open the glove box and throwing its contents to the floor. An unmistakable jingle signaled that the keys had been stored within the compartment’s contents. Snagging them from under the passenger seat, she pulled herself to a sitting position, and came face to face with the shooter, who was rounding the edge of the vehicle just as Abi was about to crank the key in the ignition to bring the Ford’s engine coughing to life.
With unnatural swiftness, Abi felt a vise-like grip take hold of her throat as a handgun came to rest at the side of her temple. Hastily formulating the genesis of a plan of escape, she slid down in the seat, while at the same time thrusting her left arm out, making direct contact with the outside of the gunman’s elbow with enough force to send the gun skating from his hand and into the darkness of the truck’s underbelly.
Wrenching the driver’s side door fully open, the gunman entered the pickup’s cab, forcing Abi to search blindly for the passenger side handle, pressing her back painfully into the door itself. Soon she could feel the cold metal as her hand encircled it, jerking up, only to find the door locked.
“You are one huge pain in the ass, lady,” the gunman barked at Abi as a hairy-knuckled fist came flying forward, connecting solidly with her face, resulting in an explosion of excruciating pain. Knocking her nearly unconscious, she nevertheless was able to grasp a chamois towel from the floor of the Ford and propel her arm forward with enough power to sink a six-inch shard of broken window glass into the gunman’s exposed collarbone with a gruesome slicing motion. “I’m sure you meant ‘pain in the neck’,” she softly whispered as the man’s body fell onto her own.
Extricating herself as best she could from beneath the dead man’s bulk, Abi reached back over her shoulder, unlocking the door and pushing it open. Crawling back into the cab, she slid her arms under the man’s back and began tugging under his armpits to lug him free from the truck. Although her frame appeared to be thin and the thought of her hauling the man out quickly may have seemed amusing, numerous years of cross-country running coupled with regular strength training and kickboxing made the task considerably less difficult. With a disconcerting thud, the body dropped soundly to the garage’s cement floor.
With a sense of urgency, Abi dragged the gunman back to a darkened corner of the garage. In an attempt to reduce the chance of the body being found immediately, she pulled an auto tarp down from a shelf above and rashly threw it over the corpse, the thought of the gruesome blood trail on the floor giving her away never entering her mind. Several lawn chairs stacked nearby were plucked from a pile to serve to anchor the tarp to the floor.
After unlocking the garage door latch from inside, she returned to the pickup, jumped into the driver’s seat, closing the door behind her with what seemed like enough noise to wake the dead. Glancing back to the tarp, she was relieved to note however that her attacker had fortunately remained in his recently acquired state of lifelessness. A brash attack of uncontrolled, terrorized laughter suddenly took over at the thought of the dead man returning to life, and it took fully a minute to regain her composure.
The timeworn leather of the truck’s seat was now covered with copious amounts of wet, but somewhat tacky blood. The interior itself stank of a harsh, metallic scent, and after nearly retching, Abi snatched the chamois towel from the floor and wiped as much of the red substance from the seat to the floor.
Gripping the ignition key in her hand once more, she turned it and felt the vehicle sputter to life, although as always, the engine was a bit rough and had a tendency to cut out until it was fully warmed up. “Thank you, God,” she whispered aloud to herself as the engine hit its stride and, gripping the knobby and stiff gear shift handle, she engaged the clutch and accelerator, and slipped into first gear.
Abruptly, the side door again swung open and a second gunman entered the garage, meeting Abi’s wide eyes with his own steely gaze. Enough already, she thought to herself. Without hesitation, she tromped on the accelerator, kicking the Ford into action, plowing through the double garage doors like the proverbial runaway locomotive, sending pieces of splintered and rotting wood flying in multiple directions, with the open door flopping in the wind.
Gathering speed as she navigated the deep, sloppy ruts on the edge of the field that served as a road, she chanced a fleeting look back and was rewarded with several gunshot rounds careening off the truck bed, the last one shattering the back window and lodging itself into the dashboard just above her father’s police scanner (ancient, but hopefully operational, she thought to herself). How she managed to reach over and close the door in the midst of the barrage of gunfire was anyone’s guess.
Realizing that her escape had only been dumb luck, Abi concentrated on closing the distance to the main road that would bring her to what she hoped was safety, not knowing that the trip would be far rockier than the ruts beneath her tires, and that safety would return, if at all, in the form of a face she would struggle to recognize.
Caroline Kramer had had just about as much Law & Order and Maury Povich reruns as she could stand for one day…actually three days if you were counting, which of course, when it came to a throbbing migraine, she most definitely was. Maury had presented the shocking story of a young man who denied in no certain terms that he had fathered a child with his stepmother, resulting in a profanity-laced fist fight with his father, the audience enraptured by the sheer spectacle, shouting and egging the men on. The camera panned over to Povich, who was encouraging them to talk it out, while simultaneously filming every second of the confrontation.
She had left her lab late Monday morning, feeling a most intense episode coming on, and her headache meds had yet to significantly temper the pain. She found it strange that she wasn’t experiencing the usual bouts of nausea associated with the onset of the migraine, but being a chronic sufferer, she simply began popping the melt away tablets she still had on hand, washing them down out of habit with Classic Coke, and patiently waiting for relief.
Caroline had worked as Director of Research and Development for MA1 in their complex just outside of Branson, Missouri for nearly six years. MA1 was an acronym for MedAmerica One, Inc., a Fortune 500 company that partnered with leading pharmaceutical companies to develop sophisticated drugs and improved therapies, selling the successful results to a variety of clients from around the globe. Caroline never failed to marvel and wonder at what sometimes seemed like a supernatural ability in her staff to discover and render simple scientific compounds into complex medical miracles. She only wished now that her own miracle would arrive and she could get off the sofa and back to work.
Although forty-three, Caroline had a healthy youthfulness about her, with a flawless complexion, luminous hair the color of a deep Merlot wine, and an independent spirit that proved quite popular with her male colleagues, both young and old. She was also both outgoing and approachable, often finding others confiding in her the most intimate details of their lives and feeling their appreciation for the sage advice she was able to provide.
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