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Near the front entrance of the rustic log cabin, nestled in a grove of white pine, he picked up movement.
He dialed in the targets—two armed guards, shooting the breeze instead of paying attention.
Changing his focus, he scanned the side of the cabin, his gaze settling on a window void of curtains.
Light shone from inside the room.
He zeroed in on a single individual.
"Bingo," he whispered into his headset mic. Their objective was still alive. He'd been tied to a chair. A black hood pulled over his head made him unidentifiable.
"All units. The package is being held in the northwest corner bedroom. There are two, I repeat, two armed bogeys at the front entrance."
"Copy that, Marathon. We'll set up for extraction."
The hostage turned his head in response to something outside Carson's view.
A man clad in a suit entered the room, smoking a cigarette.
Adrenaline pulsed in Carson's veins.
He swung the scope back toward the front of the cabin, getting a new fix on the guards.
This mission seemed too easy. The directorate had given IAops the logistical coordinates, including a dead-on estimate of the number of bogeys they'd encounter. The only thing he didn't know was the agent's name.
Caution raked his nerves. It was a simple hostage rescue, something he and his team had done dozens of times. They'd secure the agent, transport him back into the fold, where the CIA could deal one-on-one with the possible security breach.
"Marathon, we're in position."
"Copy that, Domino. Stand by."
Carson panned back to the bedroom window.
The man in the suit was stillin the room. Still circling the agent, his jaw flapping rapidly as he spoke.
The captive shook his head in response to his captor's words.
The man stopped and raised his hand, but stopped short of striking the hostage.
Anger hissed in Carson's veins. As much as he wanted to rain retribution down right now, he was powerless to stop the abuse. They had to wait until the agent was alone, or risk a human shield situation. Something he wouldn't do.
"Hold up, Domino. The sight picture isn't clear."
Seconds stretched into minutes. Tension knotted the muscles between his shoulder blades while he watched and waited for the bogey to leave the room.
The man pulled something from his jacket pocket.
Carson trained his focus on the activity, watching him raise a clear vial and shove a hypodermic needle into it, drawing the plunger down.
The man removed the needle and grasped the agent's arm. The agent flinched, and his head drooped forward.
Whatever he'd been given had put him out in seconds.
The bogey pocketed the paraphernalia and left the room, closing the door behind him.
"Domino. You're clear to go."
"Copy that, Marathon."
Carson listened for the sounds of his men's swift annihilation of the enemy.
He had to smile when Nitro's voice came over his earpiece. "The fun and games are over."
"Copy. I'm on the move. Nitro, we'll take the front. Domino, Tux, you've got the rear. Joker, hostage protection."
"Roger that," said Agent Cyrus Hunt, also known as Joker.
Carson eased out from behind the prickly tree and moved into position, pausing next to the front door.
Nitro, aka Agent Mark Jarrett, stepped out of the darkness and took up a ready position on the opposite side of the entry, a flash-bang grenade in his fist and a grin on his face.
"It's a go," Carson whispered into his mouthpiece.
In one fluid motion he raised his leg and jammed his boot into the front door.
It burst open.
Nitro tossed the device into the house.
They took cover beside the doorway.
The percussion grenade exploded.
Smoke belched from the doorway.
Glass shattered at the side of the house, signaling that Joker had entered the room where the agent was being held.
"Go-go-go!" Lunging forward, they rushed into the cabin, using the commotion as cover.
Resistance came in the form of the man Carson had seen administer a shot of something to the agent.
In one swift move Carson side-kicked the man in the solar plexus.
He flew backward into a chair, his eyes wide with surprise.
"Stay put," Carson commanded, backed up by Mark Jarrett, who trained his 9 mm on the bogey.
"All clear," Agent Eli Carico said as he stepped through the haze, followed by Agent Nick Shelby.
"Round everyone up," Carson ordered.
"See who they work for."
Eli Carico grinned. "My pleasure."
He didn't doubt it. Eli could make a tight-lipped thug spout like a shaken can of soda.
"Don't have too much fun. There has to be enough left to put detain in detainee."
"You got it." Eli and Mark escorted the man outside, where he'd join his fellow bogeys for a round of questioning.
The smoke from the flash-bang grenade cleared as Carson entered the room where Agent Cyrus Hunt stood next to the unconscious hostage.
"I saved the unveiling for you. This here is a real surprise package."
"The guy in the suit Mark and Eli escorted outside shot him up with something just before we hit. He has a syringe in his jacket pocket and the bottle the drug came out of. See what it is."
"Copy that, but this hostage isn't a he." Cyrus left the room, a grimace on his face.
Carson studied the restrained agent dressed in black from head to toe, his gaze eventually settling on narrow feminine ankles just above female-issue service flats.
"Damn." He felt sick as he untied the cord that held the black sack over her head.
He loathed anyone who would brutalize a woman, and he had the scars to prove just how deep his conviction ran.
Carson pulled the hood off, releasing a mound of hair the color of burnt mahogany.
Disbelief pounded inside his brain.
He went to his knees in front of her, sliding his hand under her chin, he raised her head. Need, instant and uncontrollable, jolted his body.
Staring into her face, he mentally traced the line of her jaw, allowing his gaze to settle on her mouth. He remembered the taste of her lips on his.
He lowered her chin to her chest and released her, caught off guard by the heat that crept up his arm and fanned out through his body.
He knew her, but in the rift between reality and fantasy, he struggled to bridge the chasm with the facts he'd been given months ago.
Carson stood up, every muscle in his body cranked tight.
Agent Ava Ross was legally, physically and categorically dead. She'd died four months ago in a plane crash. He'd read the damn dossier himself, but he'd just made a positive ID, right down to the tiny mole on her right cheekbone.
She was still alive, flesh and bone, and a hell of a long way from Annandale, Virginia, the last place he'd seen her before her overseas assignment.
"Joker, do you copy? What was in the hypo?" he said into his open headset mic, wishing to hell his chief medical expert, Luke Haden, was in the forty-eight, instead of nursing a guilt trip on Maui with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
"Copy, Marathon. The vial contains lorazepam."
Relief coursed through him. Lorazepam was a mild sedative. She'd come out of it soon, depending on the dosage. "Copy that. Come back and sit with Agent Ross."
"I'll be right there," Cyrus said into his mouthpiece. A moment later he appeared in the doorway of the bedroom and stepped inside. He covered his mouthpiece. "Did you say Ross, as in Ava Ross? You worked diplomatic detail with her in D.C. for a couple of weeks right after our mission in the Middle East."
"Yeah. She was serving as an attaché to Borisov."
"She's supposed to be dead."
"That's what I thought." Carson watched curiosity slide across the face of his number two man.
"We need to get her out of here. I don't like the feel of this operation. What's the word on the bogeys?"
He glanced down at Ava. What did the Russians want from her? The fact that they were holding her as a hostage proved they knew she hadn't been aboard the downed aircraft along with their ambassador.
He would make it his mission to find out why. He only hoped he could live with the answers when he discovered them—and he would, all physical attraction to her aside.
"Let's get her back to the warehouse. She's got no apparent injuries, but she needs a head-to-toe assessment. We'll take it from there."
Carson untied the ropes binding her body to the chair.
She fell forward into his arms.
He scooped her up. The physical contact drove hot shards into him, superheating the blood in his veins as he carried her out into the living room. He was conscious of another time when he'd done the same, only her bedroom had been his target destination, and the contact skin on skin.
With the military precision of a drill sergeant, he hammered his thoughts into line and positioned Ava on the sofa.
"We'll take the bogeys back to the warehouse. You can work your magic on them there." He glanced up at Agent Eli Carico.
"I'll get the van." He pulled open the front door, looked side to side and vanished into the night.
Agent Nick Shelby sauntered out of another bedroom with a laptop computer in his hands. "They've been talking to someone. I'll take this apart at the Lazy-B lab, see what I can find." He put the laptop down on the dining-room table next to a window and opened the computer. "How's your Russian, Hunt?"
"Better than yours, Romeo," Cyrus said, a broad grin on his face. "Tatiana helped me brush up."
"I'll bet she did." Agent Shelby gave him a smirk. "Was that before or after you gave her a submarine lesson?"
"Knock it off. Let's clear the scene, package the targets for transport and get the hell out of here," Carson ordered, unsure why his men's banter had set his nerves on edge. Normally it had the opposite affect.
"I'm on it." Cyrus sobered and left the cabin, closing the front door behind him.
The air inside the small room sagged with tension.
Carson tried to shake it off, but couldn't. Something wasn't right—he could feel it in his gut.
Glancing out a side window, he caught a glimpse of movement in the trees at the edge of the perimeter lined with pine and buck brush.
His agents doing their jobs—nothing scary about that, unless you were the target.
Caution worked through him as he trained his stare on Ava. She appeared peaceful in her drug-induced slumber. What had she gotten herself into?—or out of?—he wondered.
She'd been one of the top attachés to Russian ambassador Yuri Borisov, who'd died in the plane crash four months ago along with his entire entourage.
A plane she was supposed to be on.
But here she was, a hostage in a small cabin high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. It was a hell of a long way from the wreckage, tanked at the bottom of the Bering Strait, three thousand miles away.
The first sniper bullet came through the window next to Agent Shelby and blew apart the laptop computer on the table next to him.
The second round bored into the wall on the opposite side of the room.
Carson lunged for the light switch next to the front door. The cabin went black.
A barrage of gunfire echoed through the trees.
"Nick! You okay?"
Posted October 15, 2011
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Posted May 4, 2011
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