Gut Instinct: A Taskforce Story
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Letter to Reader
Like the other Taskforce short stories, Gut Instinct gives readers new insight into different parts of the series. In this case, Gut Instinct begins where All Necessary Force ends. I received a multitude of correspondence from readers who wanted to know what had happened to Chase, Jennifer’s ex-husband. So I had a little fun writing that scene here. As for the story, I thought it would be interesting to put Jennifer in the hot seat for a change. Recovering from wounds received in All Necessary Force and not able to protect her as he had in the past, Pike is forced to take a backseat while she conducts the mission. Unfortunately, the Taskforce team Jennifer’s helping doesn’t want to listen to what she’s found, compelling Pike and her to go it alone. Read on and see if you think she passes the test.
Charleston, South Carolina
Jennifer went through the office with a dust mop one more time. Pike would be home any minute, and she wanted the place to look perfect. He had called earlier in the morning, from inside the airplane of his connecting flight in Atlanta, letting her know he’d managed to snag a standby seat.
She was starting to believe that the government was going to use him as a sacrificial lamb and had felt relief hearing his voice. Initially sure that the men in the upper echelons would do what was right, she’d grown worried that they would protect their own careers at the expense of his, regardless of the selfless acts he had accomplished saving those same bureaucrats — while getting pieces of his life chipped away in the process. He said he was walking okay, but the last time she’d seen him, he’d been in bed with broken bones and bullet holes.
She still hadn’t made a decision about what she was going to do concerning their fledgling company, an archeological firm designed to shield covert counterterrorist operations. Pike had talked her into becoming a partner because of her degree in anthropology — and other unique skills. At first she’d thought it would be exciting, but after seeing the toll it took, both on herself and on Pike, she was no longer sure. She’d thought of little else since her last conversation with Pike and had realized that it was really up to him. She knew in her heart that she couldn’t stay if he didn’t find a way to control the blackness inside him. She’d end up hating him, and she would rather leave first to prevent that from happening.
She went into their office bathroom, checking one more time to see if something nasty had magically appeared in the toilet in the last ten minutes. She heard the front door open and someone shout, “Hello?”
Her face split into a smile, and she ran out, shouting, “Pike!”
Standing in the doorway was her ex-husband, Chase. All six feet four inches, oozing false charm.
“Hello, baby. How’s it going? I told you I’d be coming by.”
She felt the terror seize her and circled the desk, putting it between them. She sat down so he wouldn’t notice her trembling.
“What do you want? I told you not to come here.”
“I just want a little help. Is that too much to ask?”
He clapped his hands, causing her to jump. He smiled at her reaction, making her feel weak and cowardly. You’re not the same girl. You are not the same girl.
He kept his hands clasped, pretending to survey the office.
“You’re doing pretty well for yourself, I see. I heard about that temple you found. Full of gold is what I heard. All I want is a little gift. Call it payback for all the money I spent on you.”
The door opened behind him and Pike entered the office, awkwardly walking with a cane, one arm in a sling. Jennifer saw his smile melt into confusion. Jesus, this just got bad.
“And you must be the partner,” Chase said. “Really good to meet you.”
Pike shook his hand, saying, “And you are?”
Jennifer said, “Pike, this is Chase, my ex-husband.”
She saw Pike’s face harden and knew that Chase was now in serious danger. Jennifer had told Pike everything her ex-husband had done, a sort of therapy to excise the fear she still held because of the beatings she had taken at his hand. It had been a mistake. Pike had become enraged, wanting to fly to Texas and confront her ex. She had stopped him, but she feared what he would do now. He might kill Chase. Literally.
Pike said, “Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here, while you can still walk.”
Jennifer shouted, “Pike! This isn’t your business. Go. Please.”
Chase said, “Yeah, you ought to listen to her. I’m just here for what’s rightfully mine. You say anything else to me, and you’ll have both arms in a sling.”
Like a child poking an alligator lying in the sun, Chase had no idea of the danger he was in. Jennifer had seen the darkness in Pike’s soul. Seen it spill out like pus from a boil, his ability to control it completely gone. She knew Pike could kill him easily, even with only one good arm.
She saw Pike begin to close the distance and shouted again, “Pike! Stop! Now!”
He did, although she could tell it was taking all of his self-control.
“Please leave,” she said. “I can handle this.”
Pike’s glare remained fixed on Chase. “You sure?”
With what looked like superhuman effort, he slowly turned toward the door. She could sense the pain he felt at the act. But he’s doing it. She felt a sliver of relief, then realized what had just happened. He was leaving because she’d asked. No other reason. He wanted to beat Chase within an inch of his life, probably wanted to punish him more than anything else on earth, and he was leaving.
I’m his stopgap.
For reasons she couldn’t explain, the fear left her.
Pike had his hand on the knob, when Chase said, “That’s a smart decision. This isn’t your business anyway.”
Jennifer said, “Pike?”
She tried to remain serious but couldn’t prevent a smile from leaking out. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I could use a little help here. To keep the fight fair.”
The pain on Pike’s face drained away, replaced by a smile that matched her own. Instead of turning the knob, he locked it.
“As you wish.”
Chase’s face scrunched in confusion, going from Pike to Jennifer. She circled around the desk, no longer trembling. She brought forth the memories she had tried hard to bury. The nights curled on the floor, begging him to stop. The shame of getting pummeled and being able to do nothing about it. Most of all, the loss of a daughter she never knew. She wanted to bring a little of that to the man in front of her, and she knew she now had the skills to do so.
Pike said, “Remember, hands high. Protect your head.”
Chase said, “What the fuck? A crippled man and a woman? You think that sort of two-on-one is a winner?”
Pike said, “No. It’ll be one-on-one. I’m just here to make sure you don’t use a weapon when you realize you’re going to lose.”
Jennifer saw Chase’s eyes flicker, for the first time seeing his confidence wane. The sight brought her strength. He said, “I’m not going to fight a woman. This is stupid. No matter how it turns out, I’ll go to jail.”
Pike said, “From what I’ve heard, you’ve never had trouble hitting women. Fighting’s a little different, huh? I’ll tell you what: You make it past two minutes and I’ll open the door. You get away from her before she puts you in the hospital, and you can run away.”
Chase’s mouth opened and closed, nothing coming out.
Pike continued, “But you ever come back, I’ll kill you.”
Pike’s face was a stone mask, but she could tell Chase saw the truth in the statement. She moved past him to the door, deciding to give him one more chance, “Chase, get out of here. This doesn’t have to end badly for you. Just go and don’t come back.”
He snatched her left arm in an iron grip she knew all too well. “I’ll go after I get my fucking money.”
She rotated her left arm in a tight circle, breaking his hold, and used her right to pop him with a jab, snapping his head back. She danced out of range, saying nothing.
He put his hands to his face, wiping his nose, his eyes scrunched shut. When he opened them again, Jennifer saw the temper. A look that used to generate fear now made her realize how pathetic he was. He walked toward her with his fists balled up at his sides, too proud to raise them and admit he needed to defend himself. Mistake.
She feinted another jab and he clumsily flung up his arms to ward it off. She leaned in low and hammered him with an uppercut into his floating rib When he reacted, she thumped his face with two fast strikes, then jumped back out of his reach. She found herself torn between wanting to keep hitting and wanting to drag it out. The thought surprised her.
Chase straightened up and screamed, charging at her, his arms windmilling in the air. She easily ducked under and booted him in the ass, driving him into the wall. He slowly rolled over, and she said, “Remember the miscarriage? The one you caused? She would have been about six now. About to start school. I often think about her when I’m alone. Then I fantasize about today.”
He slowly stood up, his face dripping rage, showing no intention of stopping his attack.