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Afghanistan, Pakita Province
I can see the target,” Simon Kincaid said, his attention on the cluster of buildings directly below them.
“Any movement?” Avery Solomon asked. As the commander of A-Tac, a black-ops division of the CIA, Avery was in charge of their mission. And Simon could think of no one he’d rather follow into a red zone.
At the moment, the team was zeroing in on a suspected terrorist encampment in a hidden valley in the Afghan mountains. It had taken the team three days to hike into the hidden basin after a midnight airdrop courtesy of an Air Force Black Hawk.
“Nothing at all. In fact, the place looks deserted. Which seems odd considering the intel.” Simon frowned, lowering his field glasses. “This would be a lot easier if we had a full set of eyes and ears.”
“Yeah, well, the mountains block satellite access,” Avery said. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.”
Simon had to admit that given the choice he’d rather have all the bells and whistles Langley’s technology could provide. But there was also a rush in depending only on boots on the ground. That and a bitter sense of foreboding. The last time he’d walked into a situation like this one, it hadn’t ended well. Simon closed his eyes, fighting memories, his leg aching in protest. The truth was that the raid in Somalia could never truly be relegated to his past. Hell, he carried it with him every goddamned day.
“You okay?” Avery asked, his gaze probing, as usual, seeing too much.
“I’m fine,” Simon said, fighting irritation. It wouldn’t do to snap at his boss. Besides, he’d moved on, and this was just another mission, the similarities to his past irrelevant. “Just a little concerned about the lack of activity down there.”
“I’ll second that,” Drake Flynn said, materializing beside them. When not tasked with an operation, Drake was an archeologist by profession, which meant he was an expert at extractions—both living and dead. “Tyler and I scouted the far perimeter, and we didn’t see any signs of life.”
“Which means they were tipped off,” Tyler added, dropping down next to Simon and lifting her field glasses. Tyler was the unit’s munitions expert. A whiz with all things ordnance, she also taught English at Sunderland, an interesting dichotomy to say the least. “Or maybe our intel was wrong.”
“Not a chance,” Nash Brennon, the unit’s second in command, said with a frown. “More likely it’s a trap.”
“We certainly can’t ignore the possibility,” Avery agreed. “But we’ve also come too far to turn back now.”
Their intel had identified the hidden compound as being run by a fanatic named Kamaal Sahar. Sahar, an elusive son of a bitch, had been tied at least indirectly to several terrorist attacks occurring in the Middle East over the past five years. And, there was also intel connecting him to the Consortium, an organization seemingly bent on facilitating international terrorist agendas, most likely for their own financial gain.
A-Tac had had its share of run-ins with the organization. Most of them before Simon came on board. But he’d been present for long enough to know that they were a viable opponent, a direct threat, not only to the unit, but to the nation. And as such, an enemy that had to be destroyed—whatever the cost.
“So how do you want to proceed?” Nash asked Avery.
“We go in. But cautiously. Even if this isn’t a trap, there could be civilians present.” His gaze moved from his number two to the scattered buildings below.
There were maybe half a dozen, most of them looking the worse for wear. Living in Afghanistan, especially in this province, meant existing in the middle of a war zone. One that the majority of the world’s population most likely didn’t even comprehend.
The village was situated around a square, a dilapidated fountain in the center. On the far side, one of the structures had a hole in the roof, the result of mortar rounds. And nearest to them, two more buildings had also been damaged. At the far end, a storefront with rooms upstairs seemed to have minimal damage and the two-story building next to it showed no visible signs of attack. Unlike the other structures in the town, it was constructed of stone, making it look out of place amid its mud-stuccoed neighbors.
Throughout the region, U.S. forces had constructed buildings in an effort not only to shore up support for allied troops but also in a somewhat misguided attempt to improve villagers’ lifestyles. Problem was that said villagers weren’t always so keen on having their lives changed. And even when they accepted the modern additions, often the insurgents managed to take down new buildings almost as quickly as they were erected.
“I’m thinking, if there’s anything to find, it’ll be in the stone building,” Avery continued, breaking into Simon’s thoughts. “It’s the most defensible place in the village.”
“Copy that,” Nash said. “But to access it, we’re going to have to come in hot. Until we reach the first building, there’s nothing down there to give us cover. Which doesn’t bode well if you’re right and there are civilians.”
“So what we need is a distraction,” Simon mused. “Something to hold their attention long enough to allow us to get into town and gain cover.”
“I might be able to help there,” Tyler said, reaching into her bag to produce a cylindrical grenade.
“Flashbang.” Drake grinned as he looked down at the weapon. First developed in the 1960s, nonlethal stun grenades were meant to incapacitate combatants, using sound and light to disorient. “That ought to do the trick. But how do you intend to put it into play? Even a professional ballplayer hasn’t got enough of an arm to launch that thing from here into the village.”
“True enough.” Tyler nodded, pulling a second grenade from her duffel. “But if I use those boulders on the far slope for cover, I just might be able to get close enough. And if the grenades detonate on the far side, all the better for you guys coming in from here. If anyone’s down there, they won’t be able to formulate a coherent thought, let alone attack someone. It should buy you a few minutes.”
“And you really think you can make it down there without being detected?” Avery asked, clearly considering the idea.
“Yeah. Piece of cake.” She slid the grenades into pockets in her flak jacket. “And if things go south, you’ll still have your distraction.” Her smile belied the seriousness of her words. “Just give me a few minutes to get into place.”
“You get the hell out of there as soon as you release the grenades,” Avery instructed. “Radio when you’re in place.” Avery tapped the earbud tucked inside his ear. “And if you can’t get back to us, then head for the rendezvous.”
“Copy that,” Tyler said, already in motion.
“All right, people, let’s make ready,” Avery said, as he watched Tyler disappear into the scrub as she worked her way over to the far slope. “We want to make sure Tyler’s efforts count for something.”
The team moved into action, checking both weapons and gear. Everyone was silent, left to their own thoughts, and Simon felt the familiar rush of adrenaline that always accompanied a firefight. The enemy might be different, as well as his comrades in arms, but the battle was always the same. Us against them. And no matter how many wins or losses, it seemed there was always another fight just around the corner.
It was never-ending.
Which was just as well, because Simon was good at fighting. Hell, pure and simple, he lived for it. A win was worth whatever losses they might sustain. It was the greater good that mattered. At least that’s what he told himself in the middle of the fucking night when his mind was filled with thoughts of the dead. People he’d loved and lost.
“I’m here,” Tyler said, her voice sounding hollow across the distance of the mountain basin. “Thirty seconds until detonation.”
“Copy that,” Avery acknowledged, as he nodded for everyone to get ready.
Below them, the little village erupted with white light and the roaring reverberation of Tyler’s flashbang.
“Go,” Avery mouthed, his voice lost in the fury.
Moving on instinct and adrenaline, Simon headed down the rocky slope, his feet skimming across the rock-strewn ground, his focus on the closest building. They had maybe fifty yards left to cover. A second explosion sounded below them. Tyler still at work. Somewhere in the distance, Simon thought he heard the sound of machine-gun fire.
His thoughts flew to Tyler, but then he pushed them aside. Nothing mattered except the objective. Take the village and neutralize any terrorists they might find.
He was the first to hit the rock fence that surrounded the closest building. A barn maybe. It was crudely built, and the roof was badly in need of repair. He slid to a stop on the left side of the building and cast a quick look over his shoulder as he inched forward. Nash and Drake were right behind him, Avery bringing up the rear. The sound was abating now, the smell of magnesium-laced smoke drifting on the air.
As Nash slid into place beside him, Avery and Drake moved into the barn itself. After a silent count of three, Simon cautiously peered around the corner. Dust, kicked up in the wake of the grenades, swirled around the fountain. Silence stretched through the village, deep and deadly.
Simon hesitated a heartbeat and then swung into the square. Nothing moved. “We seem to be clear,” Simon said into his com unit’s mic.
Nash followed right behind him, Drake and Avery stepping out of the barn just ahead. The wall fronting the barn offered a modicum of protection as they moved forward.
“Nothing inside,” Avery said. “Looks like the place has been deserted for a while.”
“So maybe this was a bum steer,” Simon said, his attention jerking to a flash of movement on the far side of the square. “Or then again maybe not.” He nodded in the direction of the motion, only to release a breath as Tyler’s blonde hair caught the sun as she moved around the building’s edge.
“It’s clear over here,” she said, her words echoing in his ear. “Nobody’s home.”
Nash moved away from the protection of the wall, and after lifting his hand to signal his intent, dashed across the dusty square to join Tyler on the other side, the two groups flanking the square now as they moved forward.
Still nothing moved, and Simon released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Maybe Tyler was right, and their intel was wrong, and this was just some godforsaken hellhole in the middle of the mountains.
They searched the next two buildings, again with nothing to show for it. The ravages of war were everywhere, from the damaged walls and rooftops to the abandoned signs of humanity. A faded photograph, shattered china, and a child’s ball.
Moving more quickly now, intent on exploring the storefront and the stone structure, Simon led the way, gun at the ready. Avery and Tyler came next, staying low, moving almost in tandem on their respective sides of the square. Behind them, walking backward, Nash and Drake kept eyes on the rear, making sure there was nothing to threaten from behind.
Simon slowed as they neared the stone building, his senses going on high alert. There was still no noise, but something had triggered his attention. He motioned the others still, eyes narrowed as he swept his gaze across the windows on the remaining buildings. Nothing moved. But still he waited. And then after a slow count to ten, he took a step forward.
Bullets strafed across the square, sending dust spiraling into the air.
“Fall back,” Simon shouted, not bothering to use his comlink. He dove for cover, another round of fire whizzing past his shoulder as he rolled to the relative safety of a building. “We’ve got a sniper.” This time he spoke into his com unit, his eyes still searching the buildings in front of him for signs of life.
“Looks like we were right about the stone building,” Avery said, pointing to a top window on the far left.
Sunlight flashed on something metal, and the curtains swayed ominously.
“Son of a bitch,” Drake growled, moving to crouch beside them.
Across the way, Nash and Tyler were huddled behind an abandoned cart of some kind.
“You guys got a shot?” Avery asked. “Angle’s impossible from here.”
“Negative,” Nash replied. “Besides, either he’s moving or there’s more than one of them. The first shots came from a different window.” He motioned to a window two down from the one where they’d just seen movement. “I could try to ease my way around back.”
“Won’t work,” Tyler’s voice replaced Nash’s. “There are windows on at least three sides. We make a move, he’ll see, and odds are, he’s got a shot.”
“So what?” Drake groused. “We just call it a day and head back into the mountains?”
“Not likely,” Simon said, his mind already working on the angles. “I can’t get a shot from here, but if I can make it up to the second floor over there, I should be able to take the son of a bitch out. I’ll just need covering fire.”
“Well, whatever we do, I think sooner is better than later.” Drake raised an eyebrow, his grin at odds with the grim nature of their situation. “The longer we sit on our asses, the more time the hostile up there has to call in reinforcements.”
Avery nodded his agreement. “Simon, you’ll go on three. We’ll hold him off, and as soon as you’re clear, I’ll follow behind you.”
“I don’t need—” he started.
“Help. I know,” Avery said, cutting him off with the wave of a hand. “But I can draw the hostile’s fire better from closer in. And in order to get the shot, you’re going to need me to get the asshole to engage. Otherwise he’ll just move out of range.”
Simon started to argue again, but stopped himself. Truth was he preferred a solo act. That propensity had become his Achilles heel in the SEALs. Hell, it had probably gotten Ryan killed. He blew out a breath and nodded, moving into place as Avery held up his fist.
One finger, two, and then three.
Simon dashed into the opening between the two buildings, the gunman above them immediately opening fire. Nash and Drake both responded with volleys of their own, and Simon just tucked and ran, feeling the ground beneath his feet reverberating from the shots.
In what felt like an eternal stretch of minutes, he made his way onto the rickety planking that served as a porch for the store-fronted building. There was a sporadic continuation of gunfire and then, like before, everything was quiet.
“Everyone okay?” Simon spoke softly into his comlink.
“Affirmative,” Avery responded. “You in one piece?”
“Roger that,” Simon said. “Moving into place now.”
Turning his attention to the task at hand, he made quick work of searching the bottom floor, relieved that there were no surprise residents. Then, taking the stairs two at a time, he hit the upper floor just as the shooting began again in earnest as Avery moved into position.
Simon crossed to the window, kneeling so that his head was just barely above the sill. It took a moment to locate the gunman again. But after a volley from just below him, Simon saw the movement he was looking for—a flash as the sun hit the muzzle of the machine gun, three windows closer from where they’d originally spotted him.
Simon pulled his rifle from his pack and adjusted the scope. He’d come to A-Tac as a logistics man, but when Annie Brennon, Nash’s wife, had announced that she was retiring, he’d taken on her duties as team sniper as well. He steadied his hand and closed an eye, waiting for Avery to work his magic.
“I’m engaging now,” Avery said, a blast of gunfire from directly below Simon underscoring the words.
Unlike the previous window, the one the gunman occupied now was curtainless and open. All the better to take him down. Simon smiled as the man leaned into view, his gun trained on Avery.
Sucking in a deep breath, Simon squeezed the trigger.
The man’s eyes widened and then he fell forward, half in and half out of the window.
“Hooah.” The cry over the comlink came from Tyler. And Simon pumped a fist in response, his gaze searching the area for anything to contraindicate the idea that the shooter had been acting alone.
Everything was quiet, and with a sigh of relief, Simon headed down the stairs to join the rest of the team.
“Good shooting,” Drake said as Simon stepped back into the square. “Got him in one. Don’t think Annie could have done it any better.”
“High praise,” Simon acknowledged, his body still pumping adrenaline. “Gotta admit it was one hell of a rush.”
“Now you sound like her, too,” Tyler said with a laugh as she and Nash joined them on their side of the plaza. “But swear to God, I don’t see the point of such a risky maneuver if you can just blow the damn target.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes you just don’t need the overkill,” Nash said, his tone teasing. “But in a pinch, I’ll take whatever works. Hell of a shot, Simon.”
“Any chance it’s Kamaal?” he asked, rolling the body over so that they could see the face.
“There aren’t any really clear pictures of the man,” Nash responded. “But I’d say this guy is way too young.”
“Pity, that.” Simon nodded down at the dead man. “Would have liked to have taken him down.”
“Another day,” Avery said, coming up to stand beside them. “For now, let’s just be grateful we got the shooter. For all we know, this guy called for reinforcements, and although I’d put money on us in a firefight I’d just as soon avoid one, if possible. So I’m thinking we need to move fast if we want to search the building.”
“Roger that,” Nash said. “So you think there’s anything to find?”
“Only one way to know for sure.” Drake grinned, then strode off for the building, the others quickly following.
At the door, they stopped, backs to the wall, as Avery reached out to open it.
“Wait,” Tyler said, quickly feeling along the frame for signs that there might be some kind of booby trap. “It’s clean.”
“All right then,” Avery said, “I’ll go first.”
The big man swung into the doorway, leading with his gun, and after calling “clear,” the others followed him inside. The first floor was a one-room affair. Ratty furniture was scattered around with seemingly no thought to decoration. A sofa lay overturned, and a table had been flipped on end. Behind it, a fireplace smoldered, half-burned papers spilling out onto the hearth. Boxes littered the floor, and an open crate stood in the center of the room.
“Looks like weapons,” Tyler said, motioning to an old Soviet stamp on the side of the crate as she peered inside. “I’m guessing, from the indentations, old PK machine guns.” She lifted a bed of man-made straw to reveal what had most likely been a second layer of weaponry.
“A holdover from the Soviet/Afghan war?” Nash asked.
“That or maybe just old cast-offs.” Tyler shrugged. “The Russian black market is full of serviceable but outdated equipment. And there are always people ready to buy.”
“Like our boys here.”
“Guy up here was packing a PK,” Drake said, leaning over the stairway banister. Nothing to identify him. But there’s crap all over the floor up here, too. Looks like whoever was using this building moved out on the fly.”
“Leaving dead dude to hold the fort?” Simon quipped. “Talk about hazardous duty.”
“Everyone fan out for a look,” Avery said as he bent to pick up a torn piece of paper. “Maybe we’ll still find something.”
“Most of the paper is too burned for anything to be legible,” Simon said, sifting through the singed rubbish. “But there’s a notebook here that looks salvageable. The covers are toast, but the pages inside are relatively untouched.” He held out the charred notebook. “Unfortunately, I can’t read Arabic. Nash, what about you?”
“I can speak it fairly well,” he said, taking the notebook from Simon and flipping through the pages with a frown. “But I’m not nearly as good at reading it. It’d take me a couple of days to make any sense of this.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Avery shook his head. “We can get someone at Langley to translate when we get back.”
“Well, it’s definitely schematics of some kind,” Nash said.
“So we’ve got weapons and diagrams.” Avery frowned. “Seems to verify our intel that this was more than a simple village.”
“Not to mention having their own personal sniper,” Tyler added. “My guess is that he was finalizing clean-up with an eye to our arrival.”
“And when forced into action, he started shooting.”
“Yeah. And I’m betting it wasn’t a voluntary assignment,” Tyler said. “He had to have known it was suicide.”
“Maybe he thought he could scare us off.” Avery took the notebook from Nash, carefully stashing it in his pack. “Or maybe he thought it was a fast ticket to all those virgins.”
“Well, wherever he ended up, maybe his hasty exit will play to our advantage somehow.” Simon was back to sifting through the refuse in the fireplace.
“Damn well better,” Avery said, “because it seems like lately, no matter what we do, we’re always just a few minutes behind the ball. Anybody got anything else?”
“This count?” Drake asked, coming down the stairs holding out a small black box. “Looks like an external hard drive. I found it mixed in with some other destroyed electrical equipment.”
“Don’t know what you expect to get off that.” Simon wiped the soot off his hands as he studied the box in Drake’s hand. “Looks to me like someone took after it with a hammer.”
“I’ve seen Harrison resurrect worse,” Avery said. Harrison Blake was the team’s IT guru. “Hell, if we’re really lucky maybe there’s something on it that’ll connect to the Consortium.”
New York City, Hospital for Special Surgery
So on a scale of one to ten, how would you rank the pain?” Dr. Weinman asked as he probed the deep scars running across Simon’s thigh.
“Three,” Simon said, fighting against a grimace, pain radiating up into his hip. The long hike through the Afghan mountains plus the stress of the firefight had aggravated his injury, his pronounced limp causing Avery to send him to the orthopedist for a look-see.
“So a six.” The doctor released the leg and scribbled something on his chart.
Simon opened his mouth to argue, but Weinman smiled. “Look, I’ve been patching up people like you for most of my career. Which means I’m more than aware that in your world, a three would definitely be a six for the rest of us. God’s honest truth, probably more like an eight or nine.”
“Apples to oranges,” Simon said, his smile bitter. “The rest of you wouldn’t have a leg full of shrapnel. So am I cleared for duty?”
“Yeah.” Weinman shrugged. “You’re good to go. There’s no new damage. But I’m afraid as long as you insist on engaging in the kind of work you do, there’s always going to be risk. And sooner or later, there’s going to be additional injury. So it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
“Nothing I didn’t already know,” Simon said, jumping off the table to get dressed.
“I assume you’re still working with the PT?” the doctor asked, glancing up over the top of his glasses.
“Actually, I’m not. With the new job, there just isn’t time to come all the way into the city. But Sunderland has a great gym. And I’ve memorized the moves by now. So it’s easy enough for me to work out on my own.”
“Well, I suppose that’ll have to do,” the doctor said, still scribbling in the chart. “Just be careful not to push too hard. Do you need something for the pain?”
“No, I’m good.” Simon shook his head as he shrugged into his shirt. The pain meds only dulled his brain, slowing his reflexes. And in his line of work, that wasn’t an option. Besides, he prided himself on being tough.
“There’s nothing dishonorable about managing pain,” Weinman said, correctly reading Simon’s train of thought.
“Look, I said I’m fine.” Simon blew out a breath, forcing a smile. The doc was only trying to help.
And if Simon were truly being honest, he’d have to admit that sometimes, in the middle of the night when the pain threatened to overwhelm him, the pills were his only ticket to oblivion. But he’d seen what had happened to men he’d fought with when the meds had taken control. And he wasn’t about to let himself go down that path. No matter how fucking much it hurt.
“It’s up to you.” Weinman shrugged, closing the chart and rising to his feet. “But if you change your mind, I’m only a telephone call away.”
“Good to know. But I’ll be okay.”
“All right then. We’re done.” Weinman paused, his gaze assessing. “Until next time.” Leaving the words hanging, he turned and left the room, and Simon blew out a long breath.
The bottom line was that he knew he was on borrowed time. His injuries had been severe enough to force him out of the SEALs. And sooner or later, they were probably going to mean an end to his career with A-Tac, at least in the field.
But for now, he was determined to carry on. He was a soldier. Pure and simple. And just because he could no longer be a SEAL, he didn’t have to settle for some piddly-ass desk job. A-Tac was as good as it got when it came to working counterterrorism. And he was lucky to have found a home there.
And he sure as hell wasn’t going to fuck it up by letting his injury get in the way. Anyway, all that mattered now was that he was good to go. Which meant he could get back to Sunderland—and the hunt for the Consortium.
He walked out of the exam room, striding down the hall, ignoring the twinge of pain shooting up his leg. Compared to a couple of years ago, this was a cakewalk. And the way he figured, another year and it would hardly be noticeable. Everyone in his line of work lived with injury. It was part of the package. It just wasn’t something most people could understand. Their idea of the fast lane was eating fried food on a Saturday night—his was perpetrating a raid on an Afghan terrorist encampment.
He waved at the receptionist as he walked through the waiting room and pushed through the doors of the clinic. Dr. Weinman’s offices were on an upper floor of the hospital, the corridor leading to the elevator lined with windows looking out over the FDR Drive and the East River. Outside, beyond the congestion of the highway’s traffic, the river was flowing out toward the harbor. A tugboat, barge in tow, was making its laborious way upstream. Above the swiftly flowing water, the skyline of Long Island City stood illuminated against the bold blue sky.
It was the kind of day that made a kid want to skip school. And suddenly Simon was struck with the thought that everything was right with his world, the past firmly behind him and the future beckoning bright. It had been a long time since he’d felt hopeful about anything. Hell, with his past, who could blame him. But maybe it was time to move on. There wasn’t much point in letting the past, or the future, for that matter, hold too much sway. Better to live in the now.
He laughed at the philosophical turn of his thoughts. Had to be the hospital. All that life and death crap. He stopped for a moment at the door to a large waiting room. Inside, a small army of nurses were triaging patients, most of them nonambulatory, with bleeding wounds and broken limbs.
But the blood was fake, and the moaning and groaning more about theatrics than pain. A disaster drill. He’d seen a notice in the elevator on the way up. Judging from the chaos ensuing inside the room, he’d have to assume it wasn’t going all that well. Of course, if it been the real thing, the hysteria would have been much worse. But this was just play-acting, and thankfully, he didn’t have a role to play. With a rueful smile, he turned to go, then stopped, his brain conjuring the picture of a blue-eyed blonde in green scrubs.
Frowning, he turned around again, certain that image must be wrong, that his mind had merely superimposed a memory onto a stranger. He rubbed his leg absently as his gaze settled again on the woman. She had her back to him, her sun-streaked ponytail bobbing as she talked to another woman also wearing scrubs. She was waving her hands, her slim fingers giving additional meaning to her words.
Even from behind, he knew that his instinct had been dead on. He knew the curve of her hips. The turn of her shoulders, the grace of her long, lithe legs. He recognized the way she stood, the way she moved. Hell, he’d have known her anywhere. And then she turned, as if somehow she’d felt his presence, her eyes widening in surprise and then shuttering as she recognized him.
His mind screamed retreat, but his feet moved forward, taking him across the room until they were standing inches apart. Behind her, out the window, he could still see the river, the blue of the sky almost the same color as her eyes.
“J.J.?” The words came out a gruff whisper, his mind and body still on overdrive as he tried to make sense of her being here in New York.
“I go by Jillian now,” she said, her voice just as he’d remembered. Low and throaty. Sexy. “It’s easier.” There was a touch of bitterness in her words and a tightness around her mouth that he’d never seen before.
He paused, not exactly sure what to say. It had been a long time. And he hadn’t thought he’d see her again. Memories flooded through him. The smell of her hair. The feel of her skin beneath his fingers. An image of her standing with Ryan in her wedding dress, eyes full of questions, Simon’s heart shriveling as he chose loyalty over everything else.
J.J. was Ryan’s girl. She’d always been his. Since they were practically kids. And one drunken night couldn’t change that fact.
Ryan was his best friend and he’d failed him—twice. Once an eon ago at a college party, and the second time, years later, in a compound in Somalia. He’d managed to avert disaster the first time, common sense and loyalty overriding his burgeoning libido. But in Somalia, he hadn’t been so lucky, and because of his decisions, Ryan was dead. J.J. had lost her husband. And there was nothing Simon could do to make it right.
“I can’t believe you’re standing here,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s been a while since I saw you last.”
“Four years,” she replied, the words a recrimination.
“You look the same,” he said, wishing to hell he’d never seen her. He didn’t need this.
Again she laughed, but this time with humor. “You always were a flatterer.”
“Yeah, well, I guess some things never change,” he said, studying her face. There were faint lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. And her hair was longer and slightly darker than before. But over all, she looked like the girl he remembered. Except for the smile.
J.J. had always been smiling. Or at least that’s the way he’d chosen to remember her. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been anything but happy. He’d never forget the pain etched across her face as she’d accepted the flag that had been draped across Ryan’s casket. Simon had promised to come by later that day. But instead he’d left town. And never looked back.
“You look good, too,” she said, her eyes moving across his face. “So what brings you to the hospital?”
“Check-up,” he sighed, rubbing his leg. “But it’s all good. I’m healthy as a horse.” And babbling like a fucking idiot. She’d always been able to reduce him to baser levels.
“I’m glad,” she said. “I heard you left the team.”
“Didn’t have much of a choice.” He shrugged. “But I landed on my feet, and I’m doing okay. What about you? You a nurse now?”
“Something like that.” She nodded. “Speaking of which, I suppose I ought to be getting back to it.”
“Right,” he said, the silence that followed stretching awkwardly between them.
And then, with an apologetic shrug, she turned back to her “patients,” and Simon forced himself to walk away. Hell, the past was better left buried. Hadn’t he just been having that exact thought?
He stepped back into the corridor, and then, despite himself, turned for a last look. She was bending over a man with a rudimentary splint on his arm, her fingers gentle as she probed the imaginary wound.
Almost involuntarily, his gaze rose to the window, his senses sending out an alert. A high-pitched whine filled the room, the glass on the windows shaking. The sky disappeared as the window turned black. For a moment, everything seemed to move in slow motion. And then, all hell broke loose as the windows shattered and something rammed through the side of the building, the walls shredding like corrugated cardboard.
People screamed, and Simon called her name. “J.J.”
One minute she was standing there, eyes wide with confusion and fear, and the next—she was gone.
The air was acrid with the smell of smoke combined with the metallic odor of gasoline. Jillian’s eyes opened as self-preservation kicked in. Visibility was almost nonexistent, the lights either blocked or extinguished. Neither of which made sense. She tried to push to her feet, but her body refused the order, and panic laced through her as she tried to figure out what was going on.
The last thing she remembered was Simon. Which was odd in and of itself considering how long it had been since she’d last seen him. She shook her head, trying again to move but finding her limbs still unresponsive. Despite the choking smoke, she forced herself to breathe, letting the rhythm of her rising chest soothe her into calmer thinking.
She was in the hospital. She’d been leading an emergency preparedness drill. And Simon had walked into the room. So at least she wasn’t crazy. But then everything after that was a little more hazy. She remembered a whoosh of air followed by what had sounded like crumpling metal and shattering glass. A car accident of the nth degree.
But there was no way there’d been a car on the fifteenth floor of the building—which left only a couple of possibilities. The least being a bomb. The worst something on the scale of 9/11. She opened her mouth to scream, but smoke filled her lungs and she coughed instead, the inside of her throat burning with the effort.
She turned her head, trying to see. The smoke had thinned slightly, and she twisted up, stretching until her body rebelled, her muscles spasming with the effort. Drained, she dropped back to the floor, but not before she’d ascertained that she was pinned underneath something. Heavy and metal, from the looks of it, although whatever it had been, it wasn’t anymore. Again she tried to fill her lungs with air—this time breathing shallowly, mindful of the smoke.
“Help,” she called, the word coming out somewhere between a whisper and a croak. She could hear people moving, screams filtering through the metal surrounding her. “Help,” she cried again, louder this time.
“J.J.?” a voice broke through the barrier. Simon. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” she called, her voice rising as she was filled with both hope and fear. The metal above her groaned and shifted, the pressure on her legs increasing. “I can’t move. I’m stuck.”
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his voice nearer now.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head, even though he couldn’t see her. “But I don’t think so. There isn’t any pain.” The fact wasn’t necessarily a positive sign considering she was pinned, but panic wasn’t going to help anything.
“That’s good,” Simon said, his voice more reassuring than she could have imagined. “Now we just have to figure out how to get you out of there.”
She nodded. Again aware that it was pointless, but the movement made her feel more secure somehow. “What happened?”
“I can’t say definitively,” he answered as a piece of the metal directly to her left was yanked away. She could see the floor of the room, faint light filtering through the opening. “But it looks like a helicopter crashed into the side of the hospital. It came right through the windows. You’re trapped underneath part of the fuselage.” His head appeared suddenly just to her right, his green eyes filled with concern.
“What about all the people?” she asked, thinking of the staff and volunteers that had filled the room just before the collision.
“They’re being evacuated. And emergency responders are on the way.”
“How many dead?”
“Can’t say for sure. The pilot and his passenger. And at least five or six others.”
“Oh, God,” she said, closing her eyes against the threatening tears. She’d been working with these folks for almost a week. Knew most of them by name and several well enough to think of them as friends.
“Yeah, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.”
There was a pause, and Jillian stiffened. “What?” she whispered, turning her head so that she could see his face. “What aren’t you telling me?”
He hesitated for a moment, his expression grim. Then he reached out to grasp her free hand. She tightened the grip, waiting. “The helicopter’s fuel tank was ruptured when it came through the wall.” That explained the smell of gas.
“You’re worried about an explosion.” A shudder worked its way up her spine.
“Yes.” The word was spoken quietly, lending it credence as it hung between them.
“But I’ll get you out,” he continued. “No man left behind, right?” She thought she saw a flicker of something in his eyes. Regret maybe, although she wasn’t sure why.
“Easier said than done. I can feel the fuselage. It’s pinning me. And it’s got to weigh a ton. There’s no way you’ll get it off me without help. And there’s not time for that.” She could smell the leaking fuel. Panic rose, but she shoved it down, her gaze locking with his, her decision made. “You’ve got to get out of here, Simon. There’s no sense both of us dying.”
“No fucking way.” He shook his head.
“It’s suicide for you to stay. Either the team of rescuers will make it up here or they won’t.” She tried to keep her voice emotion-free. “I haven’t got a choice, but you do.”
“And I’m making it,” he said, pulling his hand from hers, his face disappearing from the space he’d created. For a moment, she actually thought he’d left, but then another piece of the refuse was pulled free, his face red from the exertion. “Now if I can just find something to use for leverage.”
“It’s too heavy. Even you’re not strong enough to get it off.” She attempted a smile, but failed as the fuselage shifted again, the pressure robbing her of breath.
“I don’t have to get it all the way off.” He bent down, rummaging through the wreckage. “I just have to lift it enough for you to slide free. Do you think you can do that?”
She tensed her muscles, still not feeling any pain. “I’ll give it my best.”
“Can’t ask for anything more.” His answering smile was reassuring, and she nodded as he pulled a section of rebar free. “This should do the trick.”
Working to insert the end of the rod underneath the fragment of the helicopter that had pinned her to the floor, he cursed, possibly in pain.
“Everything okay?” she whispered, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Yeah, it’s fine. I just burned my hand—the whole thing is really hot.”
He nodded, then grimaced as he tightened his hold on the rebar. “On my count.”
She sucked in a breath as he counted down, muscles primed as he called “three.” She could feel a little movement, but it wasn’t enough. She still couldn’t move. The pressure increased as he let go, and any hope she’d had evaporated.
The room was deadly silent now, the smell of fuel growing stronger.
“You need to go,” she whispered, the pressure on her chest intense again.
He looked up, his gaze colliding with hers, the resolution there unmistakable. “One more time.” He adjusted his stance, and then, with a second count to three, shoved against the rebar, the muscles under his T-shirt rippling with the effort.
At first there was little difference, a slight easing of the pressure, and then the metal groaned as it slid sideways. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Moving on a burst of pure adrenaline, Jillian slid from underneath the twisted fuselage. The resulting wave of pain was instant and intense, but she was free.
She rolled to a sitting position, fighting a wave of nausea, more than aware that their time was running out. The smell of smoke drew her eyes to the left and the fire burning near the twisted body of the helicopter, the flames licking toward the expanding pool of fuel beneath it.
“We’ve got to move now,” Simon said, echoing her thoughts as he scooped her into his arms, and she fought against another wave of pain.
“I can walk,” she argued, shuddering as she caught sight of a body, a nurse from the hospital, Gail something or other. The woman’s eyes were wide, her mouth open in a silent scream, one leg twisted at an inhuman angle. Blood stained her scrubs and the floor beneath her.
“Don’t look.” Simon pulled her closer and headed across the room through the smoke to the elevator bank.
“Too late,” she whispered, heart hammering as tears filled her eyes.
Behind them, the room seemed to shimmy and then erupt. The sound of the explosion reverberated off the walls, shards of metal and glass flying through the room like shrapnel as a giant ball of fire erupted from the center of the wreckage.
Heat buffeted her exposed skin as Simon ran into the comparative safety of the hallway in front of the elevators. His body blocked hers as the room behind them splintered into a fiery hell—the heated flames reaching out across the room with an intensity that melted the carpet beneath their feet.
Propping her between his body and the wall, he reached out with one hand to yank open the door to the stairwell. Then he shoved her through, slamming the door behind him, the sound accompanied by the sharp thwack of shrapnel against the metal on the other side.
“That was close,” she said, suppressing another shudder.
“It’s not over.” The warning in his voice was echoed as the stairs shook beneath them. “Can you move on your own?” He shot a glance down the stairwell and then moved his gaze back to hers.
“Yes. I think so.” She nodded, her feet already moving as he wrapped an arm around her, propelling them down the stairs. Above her head, she heard the shearing of metal and a tremendous crack as the landing broke away and fell in a hail of rubble onto the stairs just behind them.
“Keep moving,” he yelled over the din, his arm tightening as he practically carried her downward, the sound of the collapse still roaring in their wake, a billowing cloud of smoke and dust enveloping them as they ran.
In what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than minutes, they’d covered the distance from the fifteenth floor to the first, Simon sweeping her back into his arms as they hit the bottom landing and burst through the doors into the pale rays of an October afternoon. There were first responders everywhere. Along with dazed people. Patients in beds, doctors in scrubs. People in crisis.
Her first thought was that she needed to help them.
But before she could put voice to the words, her vision went blurry, her mind fuzzy, and her last coherent thought was that, as impossible as it might seem, Simon Kincaid had just saved her life.
Sunderland College, New York
What do you mean she’s not there?” Simon asked, gripping his cellphone as he tried to hold his temper in check. The last time he’d seen J.J., she’d been huddled in the back of an ambulance, ready for transfer to another city hospital. They’d been separated after making it down the stairs, each of them being checked out and then Simon answering questions from the first responders.
Still, he should have followed up. Checked on her in person.
He’d told himself that she wouldn’t have wanted to see him. But the truth was that he was a coward. He’d only just begun to put Ryan’s death and the events surrounding it behind him. And J.J. only brought it all to the surface again, the memories still painful and raw. It was more than he was ready to handle.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the nurse said, her voice pulling him back to the present. “Ms. Montgomery was released shortly after she arrived.”
“Fine.” His voice was clipped as he disconnected, his anger directed more at himself than anyone else. He’d assumed the docs would have at least kept her overnight. Which meant he’d still had time. But now… hell, now she was gone. Which was a good thing, surely. J.J. was fine. And preliminary findings had ruled the crash a horrible accident. End of story.
“Checking on the woman from the hospital?” Harrison Blake asked as he stopped next to Simon in front of the professor’s elevators in the Aaron Thomas Academic Center.
The building, which housed the college’s renowned think tank, also sat atop the underground complex that served as headquarters for the American Tactical Intelligence Command. A-Tac. The elite CIA unit was made up of not only experts at covert activities but also some of the top academicians in the country. Simon considered himself lucky to be a part of it all.
“Yeah.” He nodded as Harrison used his key to activate access to the elevator. “I just wanted to make sure she was okay,” Simon continued. “Which obviously she is, because she’s been released.”
He hadn’t told anyone about his history with Jillian Montgomery, her new name making it more difficult to connect the dots even if someone was inclined to do so. He’d shared some of his past with Hannah Marshall, A-Tac’s intel specialist. But everyone in A-Tac had secrets, so none of them was in the habit of probing too deeply. At least not without invitation or provocation. And Simon wasn’t inclined to provide either.
“Well, she’s damn lucky you were on site,” Harrison said, with a shrug.
They stepped into the elevator, and Harrison lifted the Otis Elevator plaque to insert a second key. For the most part, students were turned away by the sign at the elevator. And without a key, even if they tried to take the elevator, they’d only have access to a suite of offices on the top floor that conceivably served as a professors’ lounge. Of course, with the proper keys, the elevator took occupants down to the sub-basement levels and A-Tac’s operational center.
“Yeah, well, it’s over now.” Simon frowned, pushing thoughts of J.J. out of his mind. “Any idea why Avery called a meeting?”
“No. Just that it’s important. I figured it was probably something to do with the stuff you guys brought back from Afghanistan. Maybe the brain trust at Langley found something when they translated the notebook you recovered.”
“Have you had any luck with the hard drive?” Simon asked. Harrison was the unit’s computer forensics specialist. One of the best Simon had ever worked with.
“Not yet.” Harrison shook his head. “Damn thing was obliterated. I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull anything intelligible off it. But I haven’t given up yet. Sons of bitches tried to destroy it for a reason.”
The elevator doors slid open, revealing a large reception area, another ploy to fool students who somehow managed to make it this far. Of course, entering here was a sure ticket straight to Avery’s office. Besides serving as A-Tac’s commander, he was also the dean of students, and his reputation as a hard-ass, in both incarnations, was well earned.
Harrison slapped his palm against the bust of Aaron Thomas, a Revolutionary War hero who served as A-Tac’s unofficial mascot. A spy for the American side, he’d also been a political philosopher of the day and, as such, a teacher. And in that way, his life and times served to mirror the twin objectives of A-Tac.
A section of the far wall slid open, and the two men walked through the opening into the heart of the beast, so to speak. Harrison grinned. “Hannah always says it reminds her of the bat cave.”
“Well, you’ve got to admit, we’ve got a lot of the trappings,” she said, appearing at the doorway to the war room. Hannah Marshall was the unit’s intel officer. Her glasses today were a deep magenta, a contrast to the purple streaks in her spiky hair. “We were just wondering if you guys had found something better to do.”
She linked arms with Harrison, pulling him over to the large table that dominated the center of the room. At the front, Avery stood deep in conversation with Nash, his expression grim. Simon wondered what had the big man so upset. It had to be something pretty damn serious. He’d learned over the past year that nothing much fazed Avery.
On the right side of the table, Tyler sat next to Drake, the two of them laughing at something, the light glinting off Tyler’s hair. The sight triggered the memory of J.J. standing in scrubs, blue eyes wide as she recognized him. Then, like some kind of montage, his mind moved to another picture, a younger J.J., lips swollen from his kisses, her sweet breath fanning across his face.
He shook his head, clearing his thoughts as he moved to the opposite side of the table, feeling, as usual, like the outsider. It was stupid. He’d been through hell with these people. But in their line of work, friendship came at too big a cost. It was a lesson learned in the heat of battle and not easily forgotten.
When it came to an operation, he’d give everything he had, but no matter how much he liked the people he worked with, it was safer to keep them at arm’s length. The price for anything more was just too damn high.
He dropped down into a seat. Hannah and Harrison had moved to the front of the table, both opening laptops. The room had several computer stations around the periphery and a large screen above Avery’s head on the far wall. There were monitors built into the table as well, the room’s equipment state of the art.
Nash joined Simon on his side of the table, frowning across it at Drake. “I’ve got to say you’re not looking too good.”
“No shit.” Drake sighed. “Truth is, I haven’t slept in two weeks. Doctor says it’s teething.” Drake and his wife, Madeline, had a six-month-old, Brianna—named in honor of Harrison’s sister. “I love my daughter more than I ever could have imagined, but, I’ll be honest, I think I’d be better off bunking somewhere else for the duration.”
“Like eighteen years?” Nash smiled with a fatalistic shrug. “Trust me, it’s worth the pain. I’d give anything to have had those early days with Adam.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just blowing hot air. Although I have to say I’m not sorry Madeline and Bree are off to California to visit Alexis.” Alexis was Tucker’s wife. The two of them spent most of their time in Redlands although they had a house here at Sunderland too.
“Yeah, Annie and Adam were stoked about the trip, too,” Nash acknowledged. “Although I think the promise of going to an Angels game played a large part in Adam’s excitement.”
“Hey, what can I say, the kid has great taste in baseball teams. And although I’ll definitely miss my wife and kid, I’m looking forward to some down time. I’m telling you, Simon,” Drake said with his usual easy grin, “if you value your sleep, think long and hard before you have kids.”
“Not an issue.” Simon held up a hand to underscore his words. “I don’t think I’m exactly father material.”
“That’s what I said.” Drake laughed as he propped his chair back against the wall. “And look at me now.”
“So where’s Tucker?” Simon asked, with a frown. Tucker was Drake’s brother. And, like Simon, a fairly new member to the team.
“Off with Owen. NSA business,” Tyler said. “The two of them are thick as thieves these days.” Owen was Tyler’s husband, and he worked for the division of NSA tasked with policing the other intelligence agencies. It didn’t always make him the most popular guy on the block. But he seemed like a stand-up guy, and Tyler loved him, so Simon figured he was okay.
“All right, people.” Avery cleared his throat, signaling a beginning to the meeting, and Simon sat forward in anticipation.
“So what’s with the summons?” Drake asked, raising an eyebrow. “You got a new assignment for us?” He sounded so hopeful that Simon hid a smile. Fatherhood was definitely taking a toll.
“Possibly,” Avery said. “Or maybe I should say an old one.”
“The Consortium.” Nash’s expression darkened, the two words hanging in the air almost like a challenge, everyone’s mood sobering in an instant.
“Again that’s a maybe,” Avery repeated. “At the moment, we haven’t got anything tangible to tie them in to any of what I’m about to tell you. Hell, we can’t even prove for certain that what we found isn’t just some kind of cosmic coincidence.”
“Well, for the record, my gut is telling me it’s anything but,” Hannah was quick to add.
“Your hunches I believe in.” Drake’s smile was tempered with a wry twist of his lips. Hannah had been part of the team who’d gone off book to rescue Madeline and Drake from a Consortium trap in Colombia. Flying the helicopter, no less.
“So what have we got?” Nash prompted, pulling everyone’s attention back to Avery.
“The guys at Langley are still working on the notebook we uncovered,” Avery said, nodding at Hannah, who hit a button and pulled up the image of a burned page. “But they’ve managed to decipher at least part of it. Something that I think you’re all going to find relevant in light of recent events.”
Hannah hit another key on the computer and the page dissolved into a newer version, the enhanced image courtesy of Langley’s forensics department. She adjusted slightly, and the diagram became clear.
“Holy shit,” Simon whispered, his eyes riveted to the screen. “Is that what I think it is?” The diagram was a blueprint. The layout exactly the same as the hospital floor where the helicopter crashed. He could see the doctor’s office, the hallway, the waiting room, even the windows—it was all there.
“Sure as hell looks that way.” Avery turned so that he, too, could see the schematic on the screen above him. “Especially when you take a look at the second diagram we found.”
Hannah hit a button and another image appeared on the screen next to the first.
“It’s a map,” Drake offered.
“Yeah, but of what?” Tyler asked, still studying the newest projection.
“This will help,” Hannah said, hitting another key. The scribbles on what looked to be streets cleared, the words in English now.
“It is the hospital.” Simon frowned up at the screen. “The East River and the FDR are clearly marked. I can see York Avenue and Seventy-first Street. And the blank space between Seventieth and Seventy-first, that’s the hospital. Son of a bitch.”
Everyone was leaning forward now, eyes riveted to the screen above them.
“There’s also a notation on the blueprint.” Hannah used a pointer to highlight Arabic words at the bottom of the diagram. “According to the guys at Langley, it reads fifteen east, southeast.”
“That’s the location of the floor where we were hit.” Simon felt a shiver of trepidation, or maybe forewarning, work its way up his spine. “Fifteen east. And the windows in the waiting room faced south and east. They were mapping the goddamned hospital.”
“Exactly.” Avery crossed his arms, his gaze moving to encompass them all.
“So what’s with the name?” Nash asked, still looking at the blueprint. “My Arabic sucks, but that definitely looks like a name. Yusuf, right?”
“Yes,” Hannah said. “But so far we haven’t been able to tie it to anyone specific. Unfortunately, it’s a common name, and without a surname, it’s almost impossible to ID him. Although I’m still digging.”
“Maybe it’s just a doodle,” Drake suggested.
“Yeah well, doodle or no, I’m thinking it’s got to mean something,” Simon said. “Maybe this Yusuf orchestrated the crash somehow. Or was at least part of the planning. I’m assuming we’re no longer considering it an accident.”
“Not definitively, no.” Avery shook his head. “All we can say for certain is that the documents we found seem to indicate that the crash was planned. Although we still can’t ignore the initial investigation. The teams involved found evidence that definitely supports the idea that the crash was indeed an accident.”
“But evidence can be manipulated,” Tyler said, her eyes narrowing as she studied the screen.
“And there’s no way some dude in the Afghan desert was just farting around drawing the schematics for the exact place where a helicopter happened to crash. There’s got to be something more to it.” Drake was leaning forward now, hands flattened on the table.
“Especially when you add in the encampment’s possible connection to Kamaal Sahar and the Consortium,” Nash said.
“Which is why they’re reopening the investigation.” Avery crossed his arms over his massive chest.
“They?” Tyler asked.
“Well, us, technically. But we’ve been ordered to work with Homeland Security on this one.”
“Because that went so well last time,” Drake said, shooting a look in Nash’s direction.
“Well, to be fair to Homeland Security, Tom was CIA when he screwed things up.” Nash frowned, the memory obviously still rankling even after all this time.
Tom Walker had been Nash and Annie’s handler back when they’d worked operations in Eastern Europe. He’d gone on to a high-level job with Homeland Security and used that power to try to railroad Annie. Simon hadn’t been there when it happened, but according to Hannah, not only did Avery get the man to admit his complicity in Annie’s predicament, he also got Tom punted so far down the ladder that he was lucky to still have a job in intelligence.
“Yeah, but it was his position at Homeland Security that made your life hell,” Hannah reiterated. “Yours and Annie’s.”
“Well, we’re fine now.” Nash’s eyes softened for a moment as his thoughts clearly moved to his wife, and Simon couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to know that someone cared enough to always have your back. “And we can’t hold the entire organization responsible for Tom’s actions. They were actually pretty decent once the dust had settled.”
“And you handed them Kim Sun on a platter,” Tyler said.
“Yeah, well, it’s all old news. And I say, if working with Homeland Security gives us a better chance to catch these bastards, then I’m in.”
“Good,” Avery said, his expression inscrutable. “Because it’s non-negotiable. If nothing else, we need them so that we can maintain our cover.”
“So when are we going to meet this liaison?” Harrison asked.
“Should be any minute now.” Avery nodded toward the door to the hallway. “I left her in my office. She had to take a call.”
“She?” Drake queried, his eyebrow back in play.
“Yes. She was on site when it all went down. Which means she and Simon will be able to hit the ground running.”
“Me?” Simon felt a frisson of worry trickle through him. Surely he was jumping to conclusions. J.J. couldn’t be with Homeland Security. He replayed their conversation in his head, realizing that at no time had she said exactly what her role in the drill had been. When she hadn’t corrected him, he’d just assumed she was a nurse.
“Seems logical, considering you were there and that the two of you have already met.” Avery’s voice seem to be coming from somewhere far away, the world suddenly moving in slo-mo. The door swung open, and a woman in jeans and a mouthwateringly tight T-shirt strode into the room, blonde ponytail swinging.
Jesus, God. J.J. Shit. He was screwed.
Simon leaned back against the wall as Avery introduced J.J. to everyone. He still couldn’t bring himself to think of her as Jillian. It was like turning her into some kind of stranger. But then again, maybe that’s exactly what she was. Just because he’d known her a lifetime ago didn’t mean that he knew her now. He watched as J.J. smiled at Drake, reaching out to shake his hand.
Jillian Jane Montgomery. Named for her two grandmothers. Her mother, a product of the Deep South, had actually called her Jillian Jane. J.J. had hated it. He and Ryan, best friends since grade school, had met Jillian at college orientation, and the three of them had been thick as thieves from that moment on. Ryan had actually been the first to christen her J.J. And it had caught on quickly in the way that sort of thing always did.
When she’d married Ryan and become a Jackowski, it had only seemed more fitting. Hell, Ryan had even teased her that she could go by the moniker Three-J had she been inclined to a career as a rapper. Simon remembered her laughing at the notion, striking a pose, cap turned backward, finger brushing her nose. They’d had some good times, the three of them.
But now Ryan was dead, J.J. had a new name, and he was—hell, he’d moved on, too. And her being here didn’t change any of that. Whatever they’d shared in the past, bottom line, he’d killed it.
“So now that everyone knows everyone else,” Avery said, pulling Simon from his tumbling thoughts, “we need to get to work. And the first thing we have to do is find something concrete to refute the evidence that this was an accident.”
“What do we know so far?” Drake asked, tipping his chair back against the wall again.
“The flight originated from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at the East River Piers,” J.J. said, glancing down at an open file folder she’d laid on the tabletop. “The helicopter is owned by Aerial Manhattan. The company’s been around for almost twenty years, and their reputation is solid.”
J.J. nodded to Hannah, who hit a key on her computer and the company’s logo flashed up on the screen. Simon marveled at how easily she’d assumed a leadership role. Not that he should have been surprised. In college, she’d always been right there in the thick of things. Meeting every challenge they’d set for her. Just one of the guys. Until she wasn’t…
But then she’d married Ryan, and, well, in truth, the three of them hadn’t spent as much time together after that. But she’d seemed to fall into the role of military wife with the ease and grace with which she did everything else. And to hear Ryan tell it, their life had been pretty damn close to idyllic.
“They provide myriad services,” J.J. continued, “a lot of it generated by Wall Street. They offer travel for executives and delivery of time-sensitive documents. And with the downturn of the economy, they’ve also started offering high-end tours of the city.”
“So what was the reason for this particular flight?”
“According to the flight manifesto, the helicopter was booked for a flight over Manhattan. Basically thirty minutes seeing the city from on high.”
“I’m guessing that cost a pretty penny,” Drake said, the words preceded by a low whistle.
“So what do we know about the guy who booked it?” Tyler asked.
Hannah flashed another picture up onto the screen. A middle-aged balding man with the paunch to match. “Meet Eric Wilderman.”
“He’s an insurance executive out of Des Moines, Iowa.” Again J.J. checked her notes. “He was here for a conference and booked the tour online. We’ve got confirmation that he did indeed attend the conference, along with nothing suspicious in his background. Basically, just your average businessman.”
“Which of course is exactly what you want when home-growing a terrorist,” Tyler said.
“True enough, but this guy’s jacket is clean. He was born and raised in Iowa, was a finance major at Iowa State. Married once early on, but it ended in divorce. No kids. He owns a house in the suburbs that’s almost paid for. Relatively no debt. And nothing to indicate that he could be bought.”
“Considering we only just found out that this might not have been an accident, you seem to know a lot about this guy.” Simon wasn’t sure why he’d made the statement. It was certainly something they’d have done had they been investigating from the beginning. But it somehow didn’t sit right to know that J.J. was already one up on them.
“I have pretty much the same information,” Hannah said, clearly following Simon’s train of thought. “In fact, when we compared notes earlier, it was pretty much a draw.”
“Sorry.” Simon shook his head, wishing he’d just kept his mouth shut. “I didn’t mean to start a pissing match.”
“Look, I just hit the ground running when I got home from the hospital.” She shot him a look, and he ducked his head, angry at himself for letting her get to him. “I got a call from my superiors telling me that I’d been assigned to work with you guys. They faxed me everything they had on the crash.”
Simon swallowed a curse. It was bad enough that J.J. was here as a liaison, but now it looked as though she had already wormed her way into Hannah’s and Avery’s good graces. He knew he wasn’t thinking rationally, but he didn’t want his old life bleeding into his new one. And now, with her here, it was already happening.
“What about the pilot?” Harrison asked, cutting into the building tension, real or imagined.
“According to information from Aerial Manhattan,” Hannah replied, “he’s been an employee for just over eight years. Before that he flew Black Hawks for the army. Served in both Iraq wars, received commendations for valor and was discharged honorably.”
“Super.” Simon shook his head, blowing out a long breath. “So we’ve got Mr. Middle America as a passenger and GI Joe as the pilot. Not a lot of room to support a terrorist plot.”
“But we’ve still got the diagram of the hospital and the map found in the middle of the Afghan mountains. In what we believe was a terrorist encampment funded by the Consortium. I’d say that’s worth digging a little deeper,” Nash said. “So, Avery, where do you want us to start?”
“Well, first off, we’ll be moving headquarters to the brownstone in Manhattan.”
“Beats a hotel,” Drake said. “So what do you want us to do?”
“I’m thinking you, Nash, and I can help Tyler check the scene and see if there’s anything the original investigators missed.” Avery pushed away from the table, his gaze encompassing the entire group. “And then follow up with the FAA. They’ve commandeered a warehouse nearby to examine the wreckage in more detail.”
“Hannah, you and Harrison will set up shop at the brownstone. The usual array of equipment. And Simon, you’ll be working with Jillian.”
He stood up, avoiding J.J.’s startled gaze, but relieved to see that he wasn’t the only one feeling unsettled. “What do you want us to do?”
“Head to the city and start with the ME. I want to verify that the people in the helicopter were really who we think they were. And ideally, once you’ve all had the chance to examine the various pieces of the puzzle, we’ll have a clearer idea of what the hell happened. And, if it proves to be an act of terrorism, who was behind it.”
City Morgue, Midtown Manhattan
The crash victims had been sequestered in a separate lab at the city morgue, the idea being to keep the bodies together in one place until the autopsies and investigation had been completed. White plastic sheets had been set up around the perimeter, and though they added an antiseptic feel, the air was still permeated with the chemically infused stench of death.
In the course of his career, Simon had seen his fair share of bodies in the field. But seeing someone lying on the slab, y-shaped Frankensteinesque stitching adorning his or her chest, was more disconcerting somehow.
The bodies were on tables aligned neatly in two rows, death forced into some semblance of macabre order, several autopsies clearly in progress. In a corner, perched on a stool, a gray-headed woman with wire-rimmed glasses was multitasking, studying something underneath the lens of a microscope while eating what looked to be a pastrami sandwich.
“Sorry,” the woman said, swallowing a bite of her food as they walked into the room. “I wasn’t expecting you for another half hour or so.” She laid the sandwich on a table and brushed the crumbs from her face. “I have to grab lunch when I can. I’m sure you understand.” With an apologetic smile, she pushed off the stool and strode across the space to meet them, extending a hand. “Lydia Rochard. I’ve been put in charge of the autopsies.”
“What’s the final body count?” Simon asked after introductions had been made.
“I’ve got nine here. And there are two more still on the critical list at the hospital.” She nodded at the bodies around her. “But obviously we’re hoping this is it.”
J.J. had moved to one side, her gaze locked on the body of a young woman half covered with a sheet. “I knew her,” she whispered, the words more of a reflex than anything else. “She had two kids. One of them still a baby.”
“Sorry,” Lydia said, pulling the sheet over the woman. “I didn’t realize you were acquainted with the vics. If it helps, she was caught by the helicopter’s rotor. She died instantly.”
J.J.’s face shuttered, and Simon laid a hand on her arm, but she pulled free, her shoulders straightening as she faced Lydia and the body. “So was that true for most of them?” She gestured toward the shrouds lining the room.
“Yes, fortunately,” Lydia said. “Most of the victims were either caught directly in the path of the helicopter or sucked out of the windows. There’s nothing anyone could have done,” she said, her sympathetic gaze landing on J.J.
J.J. shivered, crossing her arms over her chest, no doubt remembering just how close she’d come to dying herself. Then she sucked in a breath and lifted her head, eyes clearing as she obviously pushed the memory aside. “So, have you autopsied the pilot and his passenger?”
“I started on them first,” Lydia said as she ushered them through the plastic sheeting to the back of the room and two sequestered corpses on tables. “But I’ve got to tell you, there wasn’t enough left to ID them visually. They were both burned pretty badly. Although the vic in the passenger seat was wearing a watch inscribed with the initials E.W.”
“It isn’t conclusive, but it’s a start,” Lydia said.
The canvas-covered mounds looked innocuous enough, but Simon had seen the explosion firsthand so he had an idea of just how badly the bodies would have been disfigured. “Was there enough to get DNA?”
“Yes. And I’ve sent it off for verification. For obvious reasons, the specimens are a priority, and the lab is working as fast as they can, but unfortunately it still takes time.”
“So which is which?” J.J. asked, her face devoid of emotion, but her fingers clenching into fists as she clearly fought against her unease.
“This was the pilot,” Lydia said, tilting her head toward the closest body. She reached out and pulled the sheet back. Simon’s stomach roiled, and J.J. bit back a gasp. “You want me to cover him back up?”
J.J. shook her head, her hand still covering her mouth. And Simon marveled at her strength. “So do you have a cause of death?” she asked.
“Blunt force trauma.” Lydia nodded. “You can actually still see the point of impact here.” She pointed to the man’s skull, most of the skin burned away, and a deep indentation just above one eye socket. “I’m guessing it happened when they hit the building. He was most likely thrown against the instrument panel. Truth is I’m surprised he wasn’t tossed right through the window.”
“Might have saved his life,” Simon mused, hoping the poor bastard hadn’t suffered too much.
“Not likely,” Lydia said.
“So he died instantly?” J.J. asked.
“Unfortunately, no. There was evidence of smoke in his lungs, which means he was alive when the fire started, and I understand that wasn’t until sometime after the crash.”
“Yeah. About fifteen minutes or so.” Simon couldn’t pull his eyes from the mutilated body.
“But I thought you said it was blunt force trauma?” J.J. frowned, her puzzled gaze catching Simon’s.
“It was,” Lydia confirmed. “Or more accurately, a brain bleed caused by blunt force trauma. When a person takes a blow to the head, the brain moves within the skull in the direction of the blow, for the most part, absorbing the shock. But if the blow is strong enough, the brain is slammed, quite literally, into the wall of the skull.” She jerked her head back to demonstrate. “And then in worst-case scenarios, it rebounds off the other side.” She swung her head forward. “Which causes tremendous bruising and swelling.”
“Hematoma,” Simon said, his eyes back on the body.
“Right. In some cases, the swelling itself can be lethal. But if the hematoma breaks or tears, then the brain is going to fill with blood. And unless there’s immediate medical care, chances of survival are nil.”
“But when I checked the guy, he was already dead,” Simon said. “Before the fire started. So how did he wind up with smoke in his lungs?”
Excerpted from Double Danger by Dee Davis Copyright © 2012 by Dee Davis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 27, 2013
I'm a huge fan of romantic suspense but a really good one can be hard to find in my opinion. I've got my go-to women who are just queens of the genre and now it looks like I've added another author to that list. Hot damn! I love when that happens! This was my first book by Davis and as soon as I turned that last page I was hopping over to Goodreads to add all of the rest of them to my buy list.
Double Danger leaned more towards the suspense side than the romance side of things but I still loved it. It was fast, action packed, had me intrigued and loving every second of it. And the romance side of things? While not a huge focus of the story was nicely done and had me falling for Simon and JJ.
Because the romance was more a secondary storyline there weren't too many steamy scenes but what was there was GOOD! Like make-you-pant good ;) I really liked both JJ and Simon and that they had a past together. They did end up being one of those couple that I wanted to shake and do the whole "Come. On. You. Two! Talk. Dammit!!" They're both fighting demons from the past that'll break your heart a bit and that involve the other but the two just couldn't seen to get it all out in the open with the other. Took them a while to finally get with the program but thank the stars they finally did.
I really loved how Davis actually wrote the story. It was so easy to get lost in the investigation and hunt for the people behind the terrorist attacks. I really felt like I was sitting around the table with the team when they were mulling over things and talking all the details out. Fantastic writing. She also gave just enough so you know what's going on but still having questions about how it all ties together just like the team does. I loved that and how it kept me a little on edge the whole time.
So, in the end...excellent suspense with a nice side of romance and a damn sexy cover. Perfect for getting your heart racing and your blood pumping. I'll definitely be back for more of Davis and the A-Tac team.
Posted April 5, 2013
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Posted January 1, 2013
Enjoyed this story which fits right into the series. Had a bit of a believeability problem with the background of the relationship between Simon and Jillian (and dead husband), but it is fiction....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 20, 2012
Posted December 20, 2012
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer/Jessica & posted at Under the Covers Book Blog
Davis’ writing style keeps you submerged. You feel like you’re right there as each shot is fired and each explosion is detonated. And not only is the story interesting but the love story between Simon and J.J. is believable!” ~Under the Covers
In the 6th installment of the A-Tac series Dee Davis is at it again, this time with Simon and his story. Now Simon is no average Joe when it comes to being in battle, hell he has the scars to prove it. But when Jillian aka J.J un-expectantly comes back into his life and into the chaos the A-Tac team is in, Simon finds himself caught right in the middle of it all. Dealing with terrorists is a piece of cake, partnering with a long lost love to take them down may prove to be his biggest challenge yet.
After losing her husband, J.J. decided to get her life back on track. Now working for Homeland Security J.J. finds herself in the middle of a fight between terrorists and the man who stole her heart, Simon. Will she be able to fight the battle with A-Tac and within herself to finally let go of Simon once and for all? Or will she be consumed by him like she was so many years ago.
Davis’ writing style keeps you submerged. You feel like you’re right there as each shot is fired and each explosion is detonated. And not only is the story interesting but the love story between Simon and J.J. is believable! Unlike most couples, these two are adults! They know they have something, they know they have issues to work out but they also know that in order to stop a terror attack they must push aside their issues and work together.
What’s even better about this couple is their chemistry. Simon and J.J. are hot for each other all the time! Each touch and stroke is like fire running through their veins. The mere sound of the others voice has them discombobulated. I love it!
If explosions, gun fights and fast paced action are your thing then Double Danger will have you turning pages faster than you can blink.
*ARC provided by publisher
Posted December 18, 2012
Double Danger by Dee Davis
Double Danger is action pack one thing after another. This a A-Tac novel. The first one
that I have read but hopefully not the last one. It does have some love scenes that I skipped over.
The characters are a mixture of good and bad guys. Men and women from different agency backgrounds working on stopping terrorist attacks.
Simon Kincaid fromer U.S. Navy Seal now working for A-tac as one of the newer agents. He is in a raid in Afghanistan but the group has already left but they left some clues behind about a attack.
When Simon is back in New York at a hospital he sees a old friend from collage who married his friend Ryan on his seal team. In fact on his last mission as a Seal that he was charge of and got wounded his friend Ryan died as a hero.
Simon cared for Jillian Montgomery but she always picked Ryan over him. She was at the hospital on the emergency diaster mock incident. When a helicopter crashed into the hospital and she was trapped. Simon was able to rescue her and they made it out barely others were not so luckly.
Homeland Security agent Jillian was assigned to work with A-Tac agency with Simon was closely. The attack on the hospital looks like a accident but the more they look into it the more dead bodies turn up.
I think if you had read the previous books would bring a little more understanding but this book does stand alone. I am sure thier will be another book in the series to come, that I look forward to reading when it comes out.
If you like action pack suspense novel this book is good.
I was given this ebook to read in exchange for honest review from Netgalley.
12/18/2012 PUB GRAND CENTRAL PUBLISHING Imprint Forever 368 pages
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