(CHANGE ME #1 STANDALONE)
BY A.O. PEART
Lisbeth, the lone eyewitness of a shocking murder, believes the FBI witness protection program may be the only way for her to survive. But when a powerful explosion reduces the safe house to ashes, killing all of the FBI agents on duty, will she turn to a perfect stranger for help?
Ethan, an ex-Marine-turned-firefighter, has never really cared for any woman. He lives his life to the fullest, enjoying the bad boy stigma and cultivating a particular taste for dominant sex. Girls come and go, allowed to stay only long enough to satisfy Ethan’s wild appetite.
One morning at dawn, Ethan’s fire brigade is called to a fatal house explosion that levels the structure. When he pries open a trap door to the hidden panic room under the house, he find a gorgeous, though disheveled brunette. Lisbeth instantly turns Ethan’s world upside down, and he’s overcome by the burning desire to protect her, no matter the consequences.
Jack stood beside me. He was a big guy, even taller and bulkier than myself. At six-foot-two I towered over most of my buddies and coworkers. In our heavy fireproof coats, pants, and bunker boots we looked like giants next to the short and plump chief.
Chief glanced back and to the sides, as if making sure nobody can overhear us. “Jack, take the battalion lead. The captain stays here. I have a special mission for him.”
“Yes, sir.” Jack nodded and rushed into the building, no questions asked.
“What? You want me to leave my guys and stay here? What’s going on?” I was puzzled. Such thing has never happened before. I was the captain, and my team was my responsibility. But this was also a direct order, and I knew better than to question my superior.
The chief lifted his hand, palm facing me in a conciliatory gesture. “Jack can lead the team well enough. You are required to take on another task.” He motioned to the area where the excavation team was moving the equipment off the side. “You’re going to that panic room. With your Marine’s training, you’re my best man for the job.”
“Jack has received the same training as I have, Chief.”
He sighed and ran his hand through his thinning gray hair. “I know, Ethan. But Jack’s temper is better utilized there,” he nodded toward the building, “while you know how to restrain yourself. Besides, this… well, hell, I will tell you what the feds said. But that’s not to be discussed with anyone, Ethan. In that panic room is a sole witness to some big case the FBI is involved in. She’s young and terrified, and who knows in what state of mind she is after this mess here. They’re afraid she will pull out, and they’ll lose the only witness they need to pin down some troublemaker. What we need now is someone who can ease her out of there and make sure she feels safe.”
I gave him a skeptical look. Okay, so it was widely known that I had my way with women, although I would never kiss and tell. But some of the women apparently have done just that, because I’ve been quickly labeled as a “bad boy who won’t settle down”. No matter what, this was my private life, which I never mixed with my professional one. So why the hell would my superior hint at my special talents? I’ve proven to him and everyone else at work that when it comes to my job, I won’t be second-guessed.
“Ethan.” His bushy brows pulled together as he pinned me with his steely stare. “Look, the FBI needs her. She’s the only one who can testify in that case, and apparently there is some big fish involved that can’t be easily touched otherwise. I know you can talk to her and make her feel protected—”
“So that’s what this is about? Giving some poor girl a false sense of security?” I kept my voice low.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, son. That came out wrong.” The chief shook his head and exhaled forcefully. “Apparently, she’s been already hinting at pulling out, and so this,” he gestured around, “might be the last straw. What I’m asking is that you just try.”
I narrowed my eyes, looking at the spot where group 3 from Rescue 12 and a few black suits congregated in a circle. More feds tried to keep the media away. Several local TV stations were at the scene, cameras rolling. I spotted Anne, standing in front of the KOTS News Station camera, talking to a large microphone with the station logo on. When she gestured to the scene behind her, the fabric of her white button-down blouse stretched tautly over her round breasts. A fleeting recollection of those gorgeous tits under my fingers surfaced from some dark depths of my mind. My cock stirred, and a pang of desire ran through me. I pushed the not-completely-unwelcome memories out of my mind.
“That’s the order, Chief? I will do it, but I strongly believe I’m needed much more with my men inside that building.” I shoved my thumb over my shoulder, pointing to where my guys did what was absolutely necessary—killing the possible fire inside and preventing it from spreading onto the next building.
He sighed. “It’s a request. Please, Ethan. She’s my daughter’s age, just twenty-three; a college girl in the FBI witness protection program. The kid doesn’t have any family… she sure as hell could use some help from a firefighter.”
That did me in. Chief Holton’s daughter was born with Down syndrome. Her mother died, giving birth to her. The girl has recently developed a rare type of leukemia and was going through chemo treatments. She was the chief’s only child, and was slowly fading away. How could I possibly refuse his plea?
“Okay.” I nodded curtly and started to peel off my gloves and the heavy fire protection coat. The sun was up, and I was getting uncomfortably warm. “Is there a two-way communication established with that woman? A phone or a radio?”
“There was a separate landline, but it’s out of service now. Must’ve been damaged in the explosion. She’s not answering her radio either.”
“So no communication at all?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head.
We passed all the media, refusing the journalists’ pleads for comments about the incident. I bent at the waist, slipping under the barricade tape, Chief Holton following close behind. I heard him grunt in discomfort when he had to bend his bad knee to lower himself under the tape.
Two feds approached us. This time the chief made introductions. “Ethan, this is Agent Drasco,” he motioned to one of the left, “and this is Agent Cornell.”
They both nodded.
“This is Captain Ethan McCoy from Rescue 8. I briefed Captain McCoy about the situation,” Chief Holton told them. We need to move in. The lady in there might need medical attention.”
“How is the air supply in that panic room?” I asked.
“The room is equipped with air scrubbers. They draw in fresh air from outside and can filter it indefinitely,” Agent Drasco explained.
Long enough to wait out a chemical attack for example. Or, at least the worse of it. Must be the well-constructed safe room. I thought. “So smoke from the fire should be no problem then,” I said.
Agent Cornell cleared his throat and said in low baritone, “We are not completely positive on the air scrubbers functionality after the explosion. The system might’ve been damaged.”
“Is there an escape shaft?” I inquired.
“It was checked already, and the access is blocked by a heavy debris.” Agent Cornell shook his head.
“So let’s have our guys clear it.” What were the feds waiting for? Shouldn’t that be done already?
Drasco and Cornell exchange a fleeting glance, just a flicker of the eye, but it was enough for me to catch it.
Cornell drew in a breath. “The explosives were deposited at the escape shaft exit. Good part of the passage has collapsed.”
“So now this trap door here is the only way out, right?” I knew the answer, but without the complete blueprints of the underground structure I wanted to make sure we aren’t missing anything.
“Correct,” Drasco confirmed.
The excavation unit was done with clearing the area and salvage operation. They knew how to work fast and efficiently. Uncovered, was a small, steel trap door in the warehouse concrete floor. I kneeled by it and carefully ran my hands over the metal. There were four handles flush with the surface of the door. I wrapped my fingers around one handle opposite the massive hinges, fitting my hand into the round recess under it. I yanked on it. Nothing. I suspected the door could only be unlocked from the inside.
“I doubt we can simply pry it open. This isn’t going to be easy.” I examined the edges closer. “Can we get some tools to try?” I asked the guys from the drilling crew.
“This door is designed to be unlocked only from the inside,” Agent Cornell confirmed my theory. He crouched next to me and rapped his knuckles on the metal surface. “And it is soundproof, so she wouldn’t hear if we tried to communicate with her.”
As expected, there was no response from the room. This was a real-deal safe room, not the stuff you see in the movies, where the person inside might be verbally coerced to do something that the attacker wants. Sound insulation in real life was done to eliminate such nonsense and also to prevent anyone on the outside from hearing what was going on the inside, like a phone conversation with the police. But with such powerful explosion, there was no doubt the woman inside knew something went very wrong. So why wasn’t she trying to get out?
Agent Drasco stood a few feet away with three other dark suits, quietly talking on his cell phone.
“Ethan. Here!” Chief Holton handed me a crowbar.
A guy from the drilling crew walked to the opposite side of the steel door. He held another crowbar. I stood up and hooked my crowbar under the edge of the door. The other man did the same.
“If it doesn’t budge easily, we might need to try one of the excavation machinery to lift that door up,” Chief Holton announced. “By the looks of it, it’s too thick to spring free with the crowbars.
“Yeah. We can’t even make a dent here,” I murmured, repositioning the crowbar. “Let’s get tow equipment in here.”
At that moment I heard a muffled sound like a distant scraping, coming from the trap door. Everyone else around us must’ve heard that too, because the quiet conversations ceased, and we all gaped in that direction. The door slowly lifted an inch and then a few more. I was kneeling right by it, so I grasped the handle with one hand and hauled up the door up, opening it completely. A pair of wide-open, bright-green eyes stared at me from under a shock of dark, tangled curls. Lush, pink lips slightly parted, but not a sound came out.
“Miss Glasson!” Cornell stooped down, his hands on his knees. “I’m Agent Cornell, FBI. This is Captain McCoy and Chief Holton, both from the Portland Fire Department.
The green eyes darted from Cornell’s face to mine to Holton’s and back to mine. They locked with my eyes, holding me hostage, spellbinding me with almost a child-like intensity. God, she was gorgeous; breathtaking even, with her pale complexion highlighted with a little splash of pink over her high cheekbones. Those green eyes were huge, framed in thick, long lashes. She was scared too; I could sense it, although she fought not to show it. She bit on her lower lip to keep it from trembling.
I extended my hand to her. “We’re here to help, Miss. Are you hurt? The paramedics need to see you now.”
She took my hand. “My name is Gloria,” the girl whispered. Her skin was warm against mine, her hand fitting perfectly inside my hand.
“I’m Ethan,” I whispered back. Why was I whispering?
“What happened here? It was horrible to be down and not knowing.” She looked around, her eyes wide.
“There was an explosion. I’m sure the agents will explain everything to you.”
“Where is Agent Vera? Agent Kolaski?”
I slowly shook my head from side to side. “The whole structure was leveled. Nobody survived. I’m sorry.”
She stared at me, open-mouthed and then said, “I slept in the safe room, as always. Agent Vera told me to secure the door last night and only open it when instructed by her or Agent Kolaski. How… what caused the explosion?”
“We don’t know yet. Here, let me help you out. Careful now.” I gently grasped her elbow with my other hand. She had small bones and not much meat over them.
Before climbing out, she hastily put her hood on. It fell down past her forehead, shading her face from view.
Chief Holton and one of the feds were on Gloria’s other side, trying to assist with guiding her out of the chamber, but she placed her palm flat on the ground and pushed herself up, swinging one knee out onto the ground covered with chunks of concrete and other debris. She still held onto my hand though, squeezing it hard, until it hurt.
I winced. For such a slim woman she packed some muscle, at least in her grip.
The feds swarmed around us like black crows. Agent Cornell was asking her questions and declaring her absolute safety. Gloria shied away from them. A deep frown settled between her dark brows, while her delicate mouth curved down as if in resolve to block off his assurances.
“Are you a paramedic?” she asked me hopefully. “I feel nauseous.” There was pleading in her eyes. She was shaking.
I wrapped my turnout coat over her shoulders, and she accepted it with a look of gratitude on her face. “Yes, ma’am, I’m trained as paramedic.”
Drasco came up to Gloria and said quietly, “Miss Glasson. As soon as you’re checked by the EMTs, I have an order to take you to an undisclosed location.
“No!” she backed up, bumping into me.
The contact made my body aware of her even more than before. The top of her hood brushed the spot under my chin, and a shiver ran through me, straight to my cock, which stirred and strained against the fabric of my bulky pants.
“No. I want to be left alone. Do not follow me,” she said without moving away from me. She looked straight at Drasco. “I was promised the absolute protection. Is this what you call safety?” Gloria angrily motioned around.
“Miss Glasson,” Cornell hissed. “Not here. Not with the witnesses around, please.”
“Fine,” she murmured.
“Let me take you to the rescue rig.” I touched her back.
She nodded and walked with me. Chief Holton and the feds went with us. Two of our EMTs were by her side already, but she seemed to want to stay close to me. That didn’t really surprise me. I was used to women gravitating toward me, as if I reeked of pheromones. But there was something different about Gloria.
I was born and raised in Poland. When I was just seven-years-old I decided to learn English, because I wanted to translate my favorite Polish fairytales.
I write in multiple genres, including paranormal, fantasy, urban fiction, sci-fi, contemporary, and short stories. I am a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Western Washington Chapter, author critique group, Writers In the Rain, and several authors’ and readers’ networking groups on Linkedin, Facebook, and Goodreads.
I love reading good books almost as much as writing them. I describe myself as “European born, American by choice”. I can never decide which season I prefer—summer or fall. I speak with Polish accent and love listening to the Southern drawl. I am passionate about watercolor painting, fashion—especially stilettos, rock climbing, environment, and organic food and gardening. I live in the Seattle area with my family and a chronically curious cat, Cinnamon.