Navigating a hairpin turn, I gripped the steering wheel hard and did my best not to slide in the driver’s seat. If the butcher knife tucked beneath the back of my thigh shifted, it would open up my leg. The blade was angled in, the handle sticking out toward the console, within easy reach. The acrid smell of burning rubber leaked in through the dashboard vents. I resisted the urge to flatten the gas pedal again; I couldn’t risk getting pulled over, not given the deadline.
I flew up the narrow street, my hands slick on the wheel, my heart pumping so much fear and adrenaline through me that I couldn’t catch my breath. I checked the clock, checked the road, checked the clock again. When I was only a few blocks away, I pulled the car to the curb, tires screeching. I shoved open my door just in time. As I retched into the gutter, a gardener watched me from behind a throttling lawnmower, his face unreadable.
I rocked back into place, wiped my mouth, and continued more slowly up the steep grade. I turned down the service road as directed, and within seconds the stone wall came into sight, then the iron gates that matched the familiar ones in front. I hopped out and punched in the code. The gates shuddered and sucked inward. Hemmed in by jacaranda, the paved drive led straight back along the rear of the property. At last the guest quarters came into view. White stucco walls, low-pitched clay-tile roof, elevated porch—the guesthouse was bigger than most regular houses on our street.
I pulled up beside the cactus planter at the base of the stairs, tight to the building. Setting my hands on the steering wheel, I did my best to breathe. There were no signs of life. Way across the property, barely visible through a netting of branches, the main house sat dark and silent. Sweat stung my eyes. The stairs just outside the driver’s side window were steep enough that I couldn’t see up onto the porch. I couldn’t see much of anything but the risers. I supposed that was the point.
I waited. And listened.
Finally I heard the creak of a door opening above. A footstep. Then another. Then a man’s boot set down on the uppermost step in my range of vision. The right foot followed. His knees came visible, then his thighs, then waist. He was wearing scuffed worker jeans, a nondescript black belt, maybe a gray T-shirt.
I slid my right hand down to the hilt of the butcher knife and squeezed it so hard that my palm tingled. Warmth leaked into my mouth; I’d bitten my cheek.
He stopped on the bottom step, a foot from my window, the line of my car roof severing him at the midsection. I wanted to duck down so I could see his face, but I’d been warned not to. He was too close anyway.
His knuckle rose, tapped the glass once.
I pushed the button with my left hand. The window started to whir down. The knife blade felt cool hidden beneath my thigh. I picked out a spot on his chest, just below his ribs. But first I had to find out what I needed to know.
His other hand came swiftly into view and popped something fist-sized in through the open gap of the still-lowering window. Hitting my lap, it was surprisingly heavy.
I looked down.
A hand grenade.
I choked on my breath. I reached to grab it.
Before my splayed fingers could get there, it detonated.