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STRATAGEM Chapter 25

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham

PREVIOUS CHAPTER

TWENTY-FIVE

LYNDA STORM NEVER THOUGHT THIS DAY WOULD ACTUALLY COME. But with everything Roger had prepared her for, what was happening with Derek must be the kind of situation her late husband had anticipated.

Roger had concealed his life and career as a covert operative from the children and the rest of the civilian and much of the intelligence world. Perhaps Sabine had suspected, but Derek? Well, he had always been trusting with his dad and most likely had no clue.

It had been more difficult for Lynda to conceal her knowledge and training from the kids, though. Maintaining the guise of a highly educated artist who’d given it all up for the domestic life, while secretly learning how to handle firearms, emergency protocols, and contingencies such as her husband’s death (sudden or otherwise) had been harder than anyone (including Roger) could appreciate.

The fuel pump gurgled as she walked toward the Quick Stop’s mini-mart, reminiscent of an old country store. Hopefully, she’d be able to buy some supplies there before going off the grid.

She opened the screen door and it protested with a rusty groan. Fighting the corroded hinges, she pulled it fully opened and glanced back at the car where Derek remained with Paige and Hulk, the entire setting evoking scenes from a late-night horror movie. The flickering fluorescent lights above did little to counteract that impression. Situated in the middle of nowhere on a tiny rural road to the same, it was a wonder this alleged gas station was even open for business.

“Hey!” a gruff voice inside the store said. “Come in or get out. You’re lettin’ the flies out.”

“Sorry,” Lynda said, jolted out of her thoughts. She stepped inside and smiled at the man at the cash register.

“What do you want?” He said, not even trying to hide his annoyance.

“I’m just going to get a few things while filling up.”

“Well, don’t ask me for anything,” he said, lifting his newspaper to block her. “I just collect the money here.”

“Okay.” Someone’s a grumpy Gus. She picked up a shopping basket and went through the aisles picking up toothpaste, toothbrushes, a bag of dog food, some snacks, and a half-gallon of milk.

“Aw, dammit…” the attendant muttered. “Really? Twice in one night?”

Lynda looked up and out the window.

Another car had just pulled up at the pump across from her car. Its occupants stepped outside and rather than start fueling, they walked around the side of the store.

“Dummies,” the attendant said and once again raised his newsprint shield. “Gonna need the bathroom key!”

Pulling up to the pump but not pumping gas seemed suspicious. A tingle ran down Lynda’s back.

Trying her best not to appear concerned, she picked up a pack of D-cell batteries and placed them in her basket. Just as she took a step toward the cash register, the screen door groaned open.

A man wearing a black suit and a woman in a female version of the same stepped inside.

“Well, what do y’all want?” the attendant grumbled.

“Fuel.” The woman said. Then they both went through the aisles looking for something. Judging by their body language—or lack thereof—that they were not there for gas.

Lynda placed her items on the counter and ignored the attendant’s glare. “Pump number three,” she said.

He took his time ringing up and bagging her items, while the man and woman—a pair of foxes in a hen house—stalked about without a basket, not picking anything up.

“Seventy-six, twenty-eight,” the attendant said.

She took out a fresh $100 bill and slid it to him. “Thanks, and keep the change.”

“Do I look like I need your charity, you little—?”

“Good night.” As casual as she could act, Lynda stepped out of the store and walked toward the car. She could barely make out Derek behind the window. He kept looking over her shoulder and mouthing for her to “hurry up.”

Forcing herself to appear nonplussed, Lynda resisted running back to the car.

Her heart clenched as she reached for remote control to unlock the door.

Chirp-chirp!

The locks opened and she popped open the trunk.

As she put the bags inside, she noticed the two strangers approaching the convenience store’s door.

She shut the trunk quietly and moved toward the driver’s side door.

The Quick Stop’s screendoor groaned.

Without hesitation, she got into the car and started the engine.

Derek blew out a breath. “Mom, what are you—?”

“Hold on.” She put the car in DRIVE and slowly pulled away from the fuel pumps toward the road.

“I was trying to tell you—”

“Shhh!” She looked both ways on the desolate road that led to obscurity on either side, then turned right and drove away at a normal speed.

“Mom!”

“All right,” she said, exhaling steadily. “Sorry, I had to be careful.”

“So you saw them?”

“Yes.” She glanced over to meet his gaze. “Do you know them?”

“I’ve seen people—or something—like them. The eyes.” He pointed at his own.

Lynda shook her head and looked into the rearview.

Nothing.

Good.

“I didn’t make eye contact with either of them,” she said.

“How did you know something was wrong, then?”

“I just sensed it.”

Something caught her eye.

A glimmer in the rearview.

Then it was gone.

She kept looking back but saw nothing in the mirror other than the faint crimson glow of her taillights reflecting off the asphalt and surrounding brush.

Just when she felt she could take a normal breath again, she saw it.

A pair of headlights behind them growing larger and brighter.

And in through the windshield, two pairs of glowing blue eyes.

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Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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