The Gauntlet contrasts the lives of Zach Taylor—a married financial consultant on the verge of bankruptcy—and Sammy Biddle, a widowed church custodian tormented by flashbacks of the Vietnam War. Bound by fate, Zach and Sammy cross paths in the nation’s capital, where Zach employs a dangerous scheme to save his wife, Jenny, from the perils of an unjust legal system. With time running out, Zach learns hard lessons about friends and money as a violent confrontation with an unexpected twist leaves Zach and Jenny in the hands of a dubious ally.
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A padded elbow smashed the frozen window pane above the deadbolt in the basement entrance. Inside the three-level, brick-front townhouse, a flashlight beam panned the walls before casting a hollow circle on the door at the top of the stairs.
* * *
With satin sheets above his waist, Zach Taylor reached for the universal remote and yawned. He clicked the OFF button and replaced the wand on his nightstand. He could still hear the shower running in the bathroom. “Honey?” he shouted above the noise. “What time are you getting up?”
The shower stopped. A minute later, Jenny Taylor emerged from the steamy bathroom with a towel around her slender figure. Damp blonde hair clung to her shoulders. “Five at the latest.”
She walked across the plush pile carpet to her antique armoire and rubbed scented cream on her hands. The top drawer held an ensemble of colored bras and panties from Victoria’s Secret. She chose the red and white striped pair with pink pajama bottoms. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking the steam must have clouded your judgment,” said Zach.
Jenny took her toothbrush from the crystal jar atop the marble vanity and rubbed a clear spot on the mirror. “I have a workshop tomorrow and a ton of grading to catch up on.” She squeezed a dollop of mint-flavored Crest on the bristles. With thirty-three students in her class, the extra workload took a toll on her physical and emotional stability. More students meant more papers to grade, more report cards to evaluate, and more parents to contend with after school. Impromptu conferences were the norm, as well as parents who had no interest in volunteering for classroom projects.
She rinsed her mouth and spat. “You can set it to five-thirty but not a minute later. I need time to get ready.”
Zach stared at his trophy wife in the bedroom mirror and admired the way her breasts poked out from the front of her robe.
Jenny rinsed her toothbrush. She wiped her mouth on a towel and tore a length of floss from the plastic dispenser. She worked the upper teeth first, starting with the back molars before flossing around the front. Talking with her fingers in her mouth, she asked, “Did you turn on the mattress pad? I’m freezing.”
“What was that?” Jenny asked from the bathroom, swabbing her ear with a Q-Tip.
“What was what?”
Jenny flicked off the bathroom light and joined Zach beneath the sheets. “Never mind. I thought I heard something.” She kissed her husband of five years and rolled on her side with her back toward him. When she felt his hand rub her ass, she said, “My feet are cold.”
Zach persisted. “This isn’t.”
“I’m too tired.”
Zach moved his hand to her thigh, prompting Jenny to roll over and kiss him. “What am I going to do with you?”
Jenny planted a wet kiss on his lips. “I love you, but I need my sleep.”
Zach withdrew his advance and kissed her shoulder. With sex off the menu, he started thinking about the market. The damn market; the one thing in life he’d mastered; the only thing he knew well enough to manipulate and achieve the financial success his parents never could; success that brought him the good life with a house Jenny dreamed of and a pair of luxury cars in the driveway. Real jewelry, high-end clothes, and expensive dinners had become the norm—until a prolonged financial downturn threatened everything he’d worked to achieve and landed him in a slump.
Jenny rubbed her feet together. “Did your bonus check come in yet?”
“We need it to cover the mortgage this month.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“That’s what you said last month when I had to pull from savings to cover us.”
“How short are we?”
“Almost two thousand.”
Jenny sat up against the headboard and rubbed her eyes. “I’m serious, Zach.”
“Me too. Don’t worry so much. It will give you wrinkles.”
“I don’t have wrinkles!”
“Shhhh….” Zach pulled the sheets away and rolled out of bed. “I think there’s someone in the house.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
Jenny held her breath and listened closely. “Where?”
Zach made his way to the walk-in closet and flicked the light switch. Women’s clothes filled the closet top to bottom, except for a few feet of rack space where he hung his suits and ties. He pawed through a box in the corner behind the laundry hamper and found his old Louisville Slugger. Nicked and dinged from his glory days of college ball, the wooden bat felt solid in his hands.
“What are you doing?” Jenny whispered from the bed.
Jenny grabbed her cell phone from the nightstand. “I’m calling 911.”
* * *
Zach tiptoed in the dark, his footsteps masked by the thick, pile carpet. Peering around the corner at the top of the stairs, he waited and listened beneath a chandelier suspended from the vaulted ceiling. Moonlight reflected off the crystal fixtures. He could hear the sound of muffled conversation and tightened his grip on the bat, holding the wooden club like a caveman.
He descended the stairs one step at a time, hanging close to the guardrail for balance. He froze when he saw a shadow from the kitchen on the second floor. His heart pounded in his throat.
Another step brought him closer to the second floor landing where a dried pine needle pricked his foot. He cringed from the pain, drawing a sharp breath as a flashlight beam traced the wall in front of him.
He crouched to avoid being seen.
When the light disappeared, he glanced around the corner to the living room and made his way toward the edge of the basement entrance. From the top of the stairs, he saw a tall man in a ski mask carrying a laptop under one arm with his shirt hanging out of his pants.
Zach crept forward, shifting his weight to his foot on the lower step when he saw a second man in a ski mask holding a black canvas bag and a gun.
Do something, Zach thought. But all he could focus on was the gun. Part of him wanted to go back and wait with Jenny for the cops. Part of him wanted to defend his wife and property.
He swallowed dryly, clenching the baseball bat.
Prepared to confront the intruders, he changed his mind at the last second, slipping his sore foot on the step and banging his knee in the process. He stumbled and knocked the bat against the wall before he lost his balance and tumbled down the basement stairs. Dizzy and disoriented at the bottom step, he looked up and watched the world as he knew it go black.
© 2013, Jason Melby. All Rights Reserved.