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Zach Marshall instinctively ducked and yanked the steering wheel to the right after a sudden blast of gunfire rippled across his back window. The eerie sound of the bulletproof glass taking the impact of the shots rang through his ears.
In his peripheral vision, he noted a man and woman with guns blazing from the black van coming up fast alongside him. Muttering under his breath, Zach expertly maneuvered his vehicle as another barrage of bullets flew past his 4x4.
His cover was blown.
He aimed the truck into the thick cover of tall western red cedars typical of the Pacific Northwest, cut the lights and did a three-sixty. Zach reached for the subcompact .40 Glock he kept tucked in his shoulder holster. He steered the truck back onto the narrow logging road and positioned it so he was now on the bumper of the black van.
Memorizing the license plate number, he floored the gas pedal and lowered the driver's window. Gun in hand, he took quick aim and fired off a few shots, hitting one wheel. Despite the flat tire he caused, the van shot forward with a sudden burst of energy and disappeared into the damp, dark night.
The engine of Zach's 4x4 sputtered, the result of a couple of hits to the gas tank. Thankful it didn't explode, Zach turned the engine off with a twist of the key, and allowed the car to coast.
At least one objective had gone according to plan. He'd finally drawn a remnant of the enemy out of their hiding place.
Someone was onto him.
Three days later
"I'm en route to the inn now." Zach glanced out the driver's window, scanning the dark blur of trees that obscured the edges of the interstate.
Was another shooter hunkered down in the trees, training his scopes on the car? On him? He adjusted the speaker volume of the cell phone mounted to his dashboard. "Any leads on that license plate number I gave you?"
"Just that the van was stolen," Senior Agent in Charge John Castlerock answered. "No surprise there."
"What about prints? Did we find anything?" Zach asked.
"Sorry, Marshall. Clean as a whistle. Wish I had better news for you, buddy."
"Yeah, I figured as much. Those two knew what they were doing." Zach ran a hand through his hair and studied the county road in front of him. "At least the plan is working. I'm drawing them out in the open."
"Right. But a lot sooner than we thought. You want Agent Robbins to meet you at the inn?"
"Not yet." His gaze moved back and forth from the road to the tall trees typical of Washington State. "Let me get a feel for the place first. I'll let you know."
Adrenaline rushed through Zach like wildfire in a wind gust when he thought about the attempt on his life. The protection of the special glass and his quick maneuvering of the unmarked FBI vehicle on the empty logging road had saved his life the other night. That and luck. Or divine intervention. It had been a long time since Zach talked to God. Yet even he recognized God's saving hand.
He didn't want it. Or deserve it.
Placing his life on the line was a daily drill on this assignment. Especially the past couple of years. Drawing all factions of the enemy into one location was exactly what the Bureau had intended. The opposition would be on his tail for the duration. But time was running out. The agency's most recent intelligence reports indicated something big was going down. And soon.
"We're close, John. I can feel it. Let the team know I'll initiate an encounter with Julie before the night is over." With a sense of numb disbelief, Zach's thoughts raced back to the young woman he'd fallen in love with during his last semester of grad school. Disappointment sat heavily in his gut.
Could Julie Anderson, his old college flame, really be one of their prime suspects—a spy, selling national security secrets to terrorist organizations? Hard to believe the girl he'd fallen in love with and the criminal they sought were one and the same person. Maybe it was time they met again, under entirely different circumstances and with a whole new set of rules.
He'd seen the damning evidence of numerous calls placed from an unlisted number somewhere inside Shadow Lake Inn to several internationally known Russian terrorist supporters. "Once I check in, running into Julie will be a snap."
"Good. Your history with her might be just what we need to crack this case. I don't think she'll suspect you, but don't take any chances."
"Yep." Zach understood why the Bureau wanted to take advantage of their past relationship. But he didn't have to like it. "When we split eight years ago, it wasn't exactly on the best of terms."
"You were going to marry her, right?"
"Affirmative." Zach's heart filled with bittersweet memories of the deep love he'd had for Julie. And how she'd refused his proposal. He'd sped away on his Harley so quickly, he'd never heard her explanation. "It didn't work out." He kept an air of indifference in the tone of his voice. No need for the Bureau to figure out how devastated he'd been by her reaction. They already knew too much.
"Don't let any old emotions influence what you have to do. Sweet-talk her, Marshall." John chuckled. "I've seen you in action."
"Right." Zach drew a quick breath. He would take extraordinary measures to protect the lives and freedoms of the American people. All the agents he worked so closely with the past few years would, too. "You know I'll do whatever it takes."
"I'm counting on it. We can't afford slipups. Not with this bunch."
"You don't have to convince me." Zach's resolve hardened. His cover was blown. He needed to be more focused than ever. At their last meeting, John had hinted that Special Agent Richard "Tommy" Tomasino might have gone over to the other side. The last thing the unit needed was having a member turn. Muttering under his breath, Zach recalled the image of the woman firing her semiautomatic weapon from the passenger side of the black van. "Do we have any leads on the identity of the female shooter?"
"Negative. Our sources indicate that Yuri's wife, Katya, was just seen in Moscow the day of your encounter." John drew a quick breath. "She'd be our first guess. We're still checking our sources on that one. I find it hard to believe she wouldn't join her husband here in the States for what they're planning. Too bad you didn't get a better look."
"Not much to see with their faces covered in black ski masks. Except for that piece of gray hair sticking out from her knitted cap."
"Don't sweat it. I'm looking over a list of other suspects now," John replied. "We'll handle it from our end."
"Yeah well, keep me posted. I like to know who's trying to kill me."
"Don't blame you. I'll update Robbins. What do you need from her?"
"Detailed background checks on Julie's friends and associates, everything within the past eight years." Zach paused for a moment, his eyes scanning the heavily wooded area along the road. "Check the file we have on her late husband, see if he was a part of this before his death."
Zach blew out a long, deep breath. "I also want a full report on the British woman Julie hired six months ago. She could be the international connection we've been looking for. Maybe even our shooter."
"She's on our short list. I'll get the ball rolling and make contact with you at the resort."
"Where are you, John? What's your cover? When is your ETA?"
"You'll see me soon enough." John's words were followed by an ominous silence. "I need to fill you in on some new circumstances."
"What new circumstances?"
No response. John had already hung up. Great. Just what they needed. More surprises. As if the recent attempt on his life and sudden disappearance of Agent Tomasino weren't enough. Steeling his resolve, Zach let it go for now. He had his own problems. Winning Julie's trust was just one of them.
He planned to use their shared grief—Julie's loss of a husband, his loss of a wife and daughter—to bring them close again. Opening up to her, revealing his sorrow, his unspoken guilt, would be difficult. He hadn't shared that deep inner part of himself with anyone.
Zach muttered a series of curses under his breath and slammed a hand against the wheel. What kind of man had he become to even consider using such coldhearted tactics against a woman he'd once cared for so deeply?
But someone had almost killed him a few days ago and that changed things. He would do anything to gain Julie's confidence, to pump her for as much information as possible, to keep the bad guys from going for the kill again and from pulling off another horrendous crime against innocentAmericans.
The truck's powerful engine rumbled loudly as he continued the drive north to Shadow Lake Inn. Windshield wipers slid vigorously across the waterlogged glass of his replacement vehicle as the heavy rain continued its deluge.
Like the sound of a metronome, the rhythmic resonance of the wipers pulled his memory into the past. Zach's mind drifted back four years, to the last time he saw his late wife and daughter. His little girl would be in kindergarten this year if not for that horrible accident.
Images of Ashley's empty crib the night he'd flown back from an intense Special Ops assignment flooded his memory. Visions forever embedded in his mind resurfaced from that stormy, rainy night. Stuffed animals lying on the mattress where she played with them hours before, the tiny pair of bloodstained sneakers she wore when she died.
If only he'd been home instead of on a mission with the SEALs. Maybe he could've persuaded his wife Lisa to stay put, instead of driving in the torrential rainstorm she'd driven in that day. If only he'd been there for them. His gut tightened.
If only God had been there for them.
Zach adjusted the rearview mirror and checked the roadway behind him. Dark gray clouds loomed low on the horizon. In the distance, lightning flashed. A deep sense of loss burned in his heart. No more looking back.
He needed to keep a cool edge to solve the international case of espionage and terrorism he'd been assigned. If he didn't focus, he wouldn't live to see the results of his hard work. If he were a praying man as he used to be, now would be a good time to start talking to the Man Upstairs.
But it was too late for him and God.
There was no room in Zach's heart for faith. No place in his life for memories.
Julie Anderson dragged the cardboard box along the dusty floor of the old attic. Ignoring the stuffy surroundings of the dimly lit room, she pulled the carton toward her. Thunder rolled and heavy rain pounded the roof, charging the confined area with electric tension.
Julie set the box down in the muted glare of the small bulb and rubbed her arms in an attempt to warm herself. The image of the dead body she'd stumbled on during her morning walk two weeks ago still burned deeply in her mind's eye. Paul, the groundskeeper of the inn, dead, his body cold, his blood pooling on the grassy spot under the tall spruce trees. Julie shook her head and whispered a prayer she'd uttered many times over the past week.
God, please. Take that memory from my heart and mind. Angry over the still-unsolved murder, Julie vowed to overcome her dislike of small spaces to find the photographs in the attic. Maybe they held a clue to the identity of the killer.
The homicide detectives had come up with nothing on the brutal slaying. The police, hinting she was a possible suspect, seemed to be at a standstill in their investigation. How could they even think of her as the murderer? Using her cell phone, she had reported the crime to them herself.
Once she'd stopped screaming.
Taking a deep breath, Julie opened the dusty flaps of the old box that held all her photo albums. She peered inside. Would five-month-old photos from the inn's employee day provide her with a clue to the murder?
Suddenly heart palpitations squeezed inside her chest. She wasn't sure if the storm, the spooky attic, or the homicide at her beloved lodge caused her trembling. An old board creaked and she turned to look behind her. Why did she feel as if someone was watching her? Another wave of chills ran through her body and she shivered. The musty odor reminded her of the old shed at her grandparent's farm.
Were childhood memories haunting her again?
Julie prayed for God's presence to encircle her. Lord, help me not to give in to old fears. Heavy rain beat a relentless rhythm against the roof and a fierce wind whistled through the old wallboards. Wanting to run from the small space, Julie forced herself to stay. She took a deep, calming breath and then pulled an album from the box.
As soon as her fingers touched the soft velveteen cover, she knew the navy blue album in her hands was not the one for which she'd been searching. This one was older. How long had it been since she went through the old college scrap-book?
A brilliant flash of lightning cast eerie shadows on the wooden plank ceiling, revealing clusters of creepy cobwebs. An explosive clap of thunder echoed behind the flash of light, shaking the very floor on which she sat.
Not willing to stay in the confining space any longer, Julie decided to take the carton with her and look for the employee album in the safety of her office.