The First Three Chapters
BOOK THREE IN THE DARDIAN DRESHAJ SERIES
The cry had been brutal, loud and short; its pitch and the profound plea heard within it. Inmate Primo Ahmetaj startled awake, then rose into a sitting position before he realized he had moved at all. Life watching is what they called it. Fearful, being painfully aware, straining to listen, waiting to see what unfolds, knowing nothing can be done about the outcome.
All he wanted to know was if his life was in danger or someone else’s.
Unable to stop his heart from beating stronger than an athlete’s, as the seconds ticked by he became more uncomfortable. The mattress beneath him didn’t help. Thinner than a gymnasium mat, it offered little relief from the cement slab it rested on. It wasn’t until he drew a breath that he realized he had voluntarily stopped his lungs from functioning. Living each moment in dread had turned him into a different man. No wonder when his father visited, the first thing he mentioned was how his son no longer looked the same.
Whatever the noise had been, the tier had now gone silent. Prison life had moments like these – intermittent bursts of unimaginable pain forced out of the mouths of grown men. After four years he still hadn’t got used to it.
From where and from whom the cries had come from would have made a good television series; it could have become its own version of ‘The First Forty-Eight Hours,’ except this was prison. A more fitting title would have been, ‘The First Four Minutes and Eight Seconds,’ because any longer than that another inmate might lose his life and the series would never end.
In the ‘Hours’ series witnesses helped cops and detectives solve crimes. This didn’t happen in prison. Detention officers never told what they knew; it never made it into their reports unless they wanted to punish someone. From what Primo learned, the DOs were usually behind it.
Inmates never said anything either. Most were too afraid. Those who weren’t had learned the hard way to keep quiet and follow the rules.
It was the sound of one-hundred-year-old iron bars screeching across metal that made Primo get out the bed and investigate. If anything prison was days on end of constant routine. It was past lights out and well after midnight. No one should have been on the tier at this hour, not even the officers.
The Adjustment Center was where no man wanted to be. Located inside San Quentin State Prison, the AC was a SHU, a secured housing unit. It housed one-hundred-and-two of the more than seven-hundred death row inmates. A reporter once mentioned that the inmates who resided in the AC were considered the most dangerous, convicted felons captured in California.
If this were true, Primo didn’t belong there.
The AC was a separate, contained building on the prison’s grounds. Even the officers who worked in it were contained to it, unable to move freely around the rest of the facilities. Because the rise of attacks on officers had quadrupled in the past decade, the officers wore riot gear at all times just in case.
Standing next to his bed, his eyes adjusted to the light. The only natural light he had came from a window high in the wall. It shone light on the cell door, but only at eye level.
Another cry. It was high pitched and abrupt, the same as the first, except this time Primo knew exactly what it was. It was followed by laughter, the kind inmates made when they were up to no good.
Other cells on the tier came alive. Profanity and cries for help bounced off the walls and ricocheted down the hall. Inmates Hollister and Wallace were the loudest, unsure if they were the targets of whoever was making a visit.
The tier didn’t have a mechanical locking system. To get inside any of the cells, someone had to have a key.
Primo reached for the sheet on his bed, hoping he had time to rip it into strips. If his hands were wrapped he could fight longer.
A key turned in the lock of his cell door.
Two inmates came forward, one a Hispanic with dark hair. The tattoo across his forehead read Barrio Azteca, a gang founded in the jails of El Paso and considered the most violent in the U. S.
The second was a white male. A Nazi boot was tattooed to each cheek. A swastika brought attention to his forehead. The number fourteen was tattooed below his mouth. Anyone who’d done time knew the number stood for the fourteen-word-rallying slogan for white supremacy. We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.
If the Aztecas and the Skinheads were working together it meant the payoff was worth the truce. More than one officer had to be behind this as well; the payoff worth taking the risk. Mr. Azteca had a shank made of Plexiglas gripped tightly in one hand. Skinhead held loosely to a shank made of metal with a nice pointed end.
Primo tried to grab the blanket off his bed at the same moment a guard showed his face long enough to pull the cell door closed.
Both inmates rushed forward with their shanks held at threatening levels.
The shower head was of a unique design. Four feet wide, its continuous pulsing threads of water created a spacious curtain. Aaliyah lifted her chin so the water dotted her face; she gave a start when it felt like daggers as thin as needles stung the tips of her rounded breasts. Again lost in the pleasure of having a few minutes to herself, she reached for the shower gel, squeezing the slippery soap on her skin while trying not to think about the changes that had occurred inside her husband’s company.
It was two weeks ago when Dardian made the official announcement. If for any reason he was incarcerated or murdered, Aaliyah would run Harlow Enterprises, and all the companies that fell under its umbrella.
Harlow’s office managers were flown in, each of them flying under an assumed alias. The employees Dardian trusted most had also flown in. Like Dardian, these men risked prison terms if the company’s operations were ever exposed.
That many of them didn’t like the boss naming his wife as his successor wasn’t surprising. Before she married Dardian she had been a cashier at Wal-Mart. With Dardian as her trainer she could now shoot semi-automatic pistols and rifles with both hands.
Being able to shoot had come natural. Her father had been a homicide detective for more than twenty years. Add in three agonizing years of mastering jujitsu and self-defense. Although her skills weren’t on the level of the other men who had been in the room, she could have given any of them a run for their money if forced.
If that hadn’t been intimidating enough, Aaliyah was far too different from their girlfriends and wives. If anything, shopping was the best skill the men in the room could award their wives. Without realizing it, Dardian had prepared Aaliyah to become president and CEO of Harlow, and if given time, she could also become Queen of the underworld.
This was proven when Kevin Jackson stood to his feet and clapped; a buoyant grin spread across his face. Paul McCain had also risen and clapped.
Harlow employed two-hundred-and-eleven men and one woman. Of that number, fifty-eight men and one woman had relocated to California solely because Dardian and Aaliyah were there, and at any given moment were ready to prove just how loyal they were.
When the others saw McCain’s reaction, with slight hesitation, they also rose to their feet. Perhaps because they felt they had to. Not only would they have had fifty-eight reasons to sleep with one eye open. Dardian was standing in front of a desk, reclined against it with his hands stretched out on both sides of him. According to the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI for the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch, Padukshëm was the highest paid and most efficient contract killer in American history.
The men inside the room knew Padukshëm’s true identity.
It was none other than Dardian Gjon Dreshaj.
It was this reason they clapped, whether they wanted to or not and even had smiles on their faces as their palms beat together like monkeys for an evil master.
Staring over her shoulder, Aaliyah noticed the blue light flashing over the security pad near the shower door. A blue light meant the home’s phone line was ringing. Waving her palm over the digital panel mounted on the tile, the water turned off. By the time she yanked a towel from the towel rack, the blue light stopped flashing, then began again.
Whoever was calling had hung up and called again. There were only a few people who had her home number. Those who did only used it when it was absolutely necessary. There was no time to wrap the towel around her. Dripping with water, she made a mad dash inside her bedroom and gripped the phone before the call was again transferred to voicemail.
The man on the other end breathed heavily. Aaliyah sensed the pain it caused him to talk.
Gunfire erupted in the background. The un-mistakable ta-ta-ta-ta of an M16 full auto suppressed. Intermittent bursts. Glass shattered. Hard objects collided. The speed, intensity and variety of direction told her that whatever was happening was taking place at that moment.
“Kreshnik?” It was hard to tell if it had been his voice, but still she thought it was.
The gunfire stopped suddenly. Men were yelling for someone to stand down and give themselves up. Through it all Kreshnik was still breathing heavily.
“It’s me,” he whispered. “It’s too many of them. They’re going to get me.”
Another gunshot. A man moaned.
“Mëshirë,” Kreshnik whispered. “Get out of the house. Kayla …”
A blast loud enough to make her ear ring disconnected the call.
Dropping the phone, she wrapped the towel around her and ran out of the bedroom. Down the hall, side by side, were the bedrooms where her children were sleeping. Entering the first she came to, she lifted her one-year-old daughter, Aviana, in her arms, then ran to the adjoining bedroom. Three-year-old Dritan was asleep on his knees with his face buried in a pillow. Feeling the urgency in which he was being awakened, he startled and stared up at her, then climbed into her arm.
Two of her six all-black Alsatians, Hero and Maggie, heard the anxiety in her movement as she fled down the hall. Coming from separate rooms, both ran to reach her then with her as they made their way down the mansion’s staircase. Downstairs, the remaining dogs had risen to their feet. Black pointed ears and dark eyes listened and watched intently, waiting for instructions.
It was at that moment when Aaliyah realized her conversation with Kreshnik had been too brief.
Could someone already be on the estate’s grounds?
Slipping inside the library, the children were sat on the floor and the home’s security system was pulled up. Maggie and Hero stayed beside her. Matilda, Delilah, Bruno and Goliath stood ready to attack at the library door.
The security cameras showed no signs of anyone being there. Because Dardian had been raised in Albania and had trained the dogs, his language of Shqip was what they understood most.
“Jashtë,” was all she said as she lifted the children and ran for the front door.
Goliath raced in front of her out into the yard searching for an enemy. Aaliyah wouldn’t wait for him. Goliath knew how to track her by her scent once he was done.
Matilda led the way. Bruno and Delilah brought up the rear.
Inside the garage, Aaliyah chose the Suburban because it had been purchased for moments like these. A titanium Sig Sauer P229 pistol and an untraceable cell phone were locked inside its glove compartment. The gas tank was always kept full. Bottles of water and high protein bars were stored underneath the seats.
While the dogs climbed into the back, Aaliyah strapped the children into their car seats. Goliath ran inside the garage and jumped into the back seat behind her.
Running toward the corner of the garage, Aaliyah pulled open a drawer. What cash she saw, she took. She also grabbed a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, hurriedly putting them on. Because of her constant training, a pair of her running shoes sat near the garage door.
Now fully dressed, she sat behind the steering wheel and grabbed the keys from the cup rest. The glove compartment was unlocked long enough to take the cell phone out of it.
While backing out of the garage, she tried calling McCain. The phone rang four times, then went to voicemail. This was unusual.
Paul McCain was Harlow’s lifeblood. Not only was he a co-founder, he had singlehandedly implemented the company’s covert method of communication to diminish law agencies from decoding direct messages to kill. McCain breathed, ate and slept Harlow. At any time of the day he answered calls on the very first ring.
There was no use in calling Dardian. Today was a workday, which meant his cell phone would be turned off.
Outside her home’s gates she pulled up to the first of two cars. Inside them were Harlow employees. They were added protection to protect the boss’s family.
“Go back to the office,” Aaliyah said. “Don’t come back until the okay’s been given.”
Both cars’ engines started and pulled up behind her to make certain she reached the main street all right.
As she drove she tried calling McCain again.
Again there was no answer.
Fearing McCain was meeting the same fate Kreshnik was, Aaliyah called the one man she believed who could give answers.
The call she made was to a private law firm in New York City.
Nine-year-old Kayla Ahmetaj gripped tightly to the cell phone in her pocket. Her grandfather had given it to her in secret before she boarded the plane.
If there’s trouble in California, call the number inside it.
As long as she could remember, her grandfather, Kreshnik Ahmetaj, always gave instructions.
Run before danger gets close. It’s the only chance to get away.
Always stay alert.
Try and spot your enemy before he spots you.
It wasn’t strange that her grandfather had given her the cell phone and not her mother. Gia Ahmetaj had been acting as if she were totally clueless, and maybe she was. It was too hard for Kayla to tell. During the flight she had chatted and laughed incessantly, and drank a considerable amount of champagne. No one could have known from looking at the four of them that they were coming to California to live in hiding.
Traveling with her and her mom were two female bodyguards. Michelle and Shawna had also acted strangely to Kayla. Instead of telling her mother to quiet down or not drink so much, they had smiled pleasantly at her, and, only when Gia wasn’t looking, would give each other a look of disgust before rolling their eyes to the back of their heads.
All three of them were stupid in Kayla’s mind. At nine, even she knew her mother shouldn’t be drinking. Why her grandfather had chosen Shawna and Michelle, Kayla didn’t know. Usually he was much better at choosing the bodyguards she needed.
In the past there had been Lika. She had worked all of two weeks before she was run down by a car just outside of New York City. Barbara had been the best.
For four years Kayla and her mother had lived apart. While Kayla lived in hiding, Gia had lived a life as if she were single with no kids.
Going to public school was out of the question. During those four years Barbara had been her mother, protector and school teacher all in one. It was when her grandfather visited that living in hiding had been the most fun. Kreshnik had been keen on having loads of junk food and tons of buttery popcorn while the two of them stayed up late watching movies Kayla loved.
Games of hide-and-seek would sometimes last for hours. Fortresses made with blankets and sheets and held together by sturdy pieces of furniture were where they spent many rainy days. Laughter was nonstop. It was sought at every chance. The three of them could have been a family with her grandfather taking the place of her father, Barbara taking the place of her mother, and Kayla being their only child.
The first time this thought had come to her was during a game of hide-and-seek and she couldn’t find them. Going outside had been against the rules. The million-dollar, four bedroom home Kreshnik had secured in Portland, Maine had been the location the krye of New York had chosen to hide his only grandchild.
A swimming pool, the property surrounded by trees higher than the sky. A narrow kitchen opened to a formal and informal living room. Each of the bedrooms held sparse furnishings on top of hardwood floors. Each of these rooms had been empty when Kayla had searched for them that day. Thinking the two of them had hidden on the third floor that also served as the attic, she had been running toward the stairs when she noticed the dining room door was closed. A turn of its knob proved it was locked.
Cupping her hands over her mouth, she ran inside the living room to enter the dining room from there.
Its door had also been closed and locked.
This was cheating!
Locked doors meant neither of them would be found.
Against her grandfather’s warnings, Kayla had run out of the house and into the backyard. Running up to the dining room window, she pressed her face against the glass.
Barbara and her grandfather were facing her; both of them were naked but neither was looking in her direction. Until that moment, Kayla had never seen anyone naked before. The sight of large, rounded breasts with nipples that looked like chocolate dimes made her eyes grow wide. The chocolate dimes were hard and erect, and swinging in a circular motion. Barbara was leaning over the table. The tablecloth and dinnerware had been pushed to the side. Behind her, Kreshnik lay on top of her like an animal would. Seeing Barbara’s mouth part as she screamed out had frightened her.
Falling back from the window, she ran back inside and locked the door. Later the two of them found her inside her bedroom watching television. Both behaved as if nothing had happened. At moments, Barbara would smile at her grandfather and her grandfather would smile back. Only then did Kayla realize that the two of them liked each other and what she had witnessed hadn’t been some kind of assault.
If it hadn’t been for what happened later, she and Barbara would still be living in Maine.
Kayla didn’t mind. The thought of living with Gia, Michelle and Shawna didn’t appear to her as if it would be any fun.
It had been a week ago, and one week before her grandfather was due for another visit, when Kayla had been awakened by breaking glass. Too frightened to climb out of bed, she listened as footsteps rushed up to the second floor. Barbara had run out of her bedroom when shots were fired. The sound of something falling, and Kayla could have sworn her grandfather was screaming in her ear.
It had been the fastest she had ever moved. The blankets and sheets had twisted around her feet, temporarily slowing her down. It was as she climbed out of the window in her closet when she heard footsteps come inside her room.
The rooftop was slippery, its slants deadly. Crawling on her hands and feet, she slid then fell off of it down onto the second floor balcony. Not waiting to see the faces of the people who were after her, she ran down the stairs into the backyard. Finding a hiding place underneath the vinyl top over the neighbor’s Jacuzzi, she waited for hours before she called her grandfather.
Maine was no longer safe. New York City wasn’t either.
She had been standing in a window in her grandfather’s home, nervously picking at her jeans when she and her mother were reunited. Gia reeked of nauseating perfume, stale cigarettes and booze. Dressed in black, tight leather pants and an off the shoulder shirt, she was barely able to stand on her feet as she swayed while encouraging Kayla to give her a hug.
‘Your nënë is here.’ The smile on Kreshnik’s face as he spoke looked as if it had been forced. Against her grandfather’s wishes, Gia spent the next night partying with friends. The reason she gave was the need to tell her friends goodbye.
The thought of spending the rest of her life with Gia caused Kayla to scratch at the hard enamel over the phone.
Michelle made certain the four of them were close together as they debarked the plane. Exiting the gate, and making their way toward the departure lounge, Kayla glanced at the people around them. Coffee, grilling hamburgers and the smells of a deli hit her all at once.
California was different. The people dressed differently. Behaved differently. A girl her age refused to hold the hand of her young brother. Two adults behind her took no notice as they talked and hurried to catch their flight.
Gia had stopped in front of a collection of costume jewelry and purses on display at a small Bijoux Terner shop.
At baggage claims, Michelle grabbed their suitcases and handed them to Kayla and Gia to carry.
Pulling the luggage strap behind her, Kayla stepped out of the airport and into the California night.
There were no stars. This surprised her.
From the corner of her eye, she saw two men walking in a swift gait in her direction.
Shawna and Michelle noticed the men, too. As soon as their heads turned in the men’s direction, a windowless van screeched to a halt in front of the limousine waiting for them at the curb of the loading zone, blocking the limousine from moving forward.
Run before danger gets close. It’s the only chance to get away.
Kayla turned on her heels when she saw a rifle point out of the van door. The sound it made, the rapid tat-tat-tat-tat reminded her of Maine. Shawna’s eyes had widened and her back gave a deep arch as she fell to the ground. Kayla screamed along with the others around her, as Shawna, too, fell to the ground.
A man wearing dark clothing and gloves forced Gia inside the van.
Families small and large ran back inside the airport. Others ran blindly between parked and moving cars. Cars slammed on brakes or rear ended the cars that were stopped in front of them.
Move with the crowd. Always make sure you’re not separated and alone.
The arm of a man swung out of nowhere and knocked her to her knees. While down she stared at a man approaching her from the van. What was interesting about him was his haircut. It was high and tight and similar to the way her father had worn his hair when he’d been in the Army.
Scrambling to her feet, she noticed that the two men she had spotted first were staring at her, but no longer came toward her. They, too, had Army haircuts. One of them looked at Michelle, then nudged his partner in the arm. The two of them ran off in the direction they had come.
Kayla shot to her feet. Ducking low, she hid between two parked cars in the loading zone when she heard one of their windows shattered.
A woman gave a high-pitched scream.
More people were running. Some had gotten out of their cars and taken cover.
Seeing a man with small children run out into the airport traffic, Kayla rose to her feet and ran after him.
Tiny rocks felt as if they were shooting up at her from the asphalt, striking her ankles.
“That man is shooting at that kid!”
“Stop running!” It was a man’s voice. “Stop now!”
A siren blared somewhere in the distance.
Run until you find a safe place to hide. Only then should you make your call.
She hit the parking lot with her mind as sharp as a steel trap.
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