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Gracie stumbled to an abrupt stop. 



Twenty feet ahead of her in the middle of the road stood a boy, tall and beefy, his age, Gracie guessed, somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen. Next to him stood a girl, much smaller and younger.


Both children were dressed in woodland camouflage pants. The girl wore a hot pink top, the boy a black T‑shirt with strange, indecipherable lettering on the front. There was something at the outer corner of the boy’s right eye, possibly a tattoo of some kind.


Gracie might have thought they were ordinary children out for an ordinary morning stroll, except the boy held a black, semiautomatic assault rifle that was almost as big as he was and the girl had a pistol strapped to her waist.


Behind Gracie, Minnie growled.


“Shhh, Minnie,” Gracie whispered. She unclipped the leash from around her waist and fastened it to the dog’s collar, wrapping the other end several times around her hand to shorten its length and keep the dog close by her side. Then, surreptitiously, she unclipped the pepper spray from the sling and pushed it into the pocket of her sweatpants for easy access.


She looked back up to the two children who stood unmoving on the road ahead. “Hi,” she said, lifting a hand.


Without warning, the boy commanded, “Whistle, Heather.”


The girl grabbed up a pink whistle hanging from a lanyard around her neck and blew it.


Then with well-practiced ease, the boy dropped one knee to the ground. In one fluid move, he lifted the assault rifle, aimed it at Gracie, peered through the scope, and yelled, “Freeze or I’ll shoot!”




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