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The pain speared from his shoulder blade to his spine and down—raw, bloody agony that consumed him and made him want to sink back into unconsciousness. But at the same time, urgency beat through him, not letting him return to oblivion.
The mission, the mission, must complete the mission.
But what was the mission? Where was he? What the hell had happened to him?
Cracking his eyes a fraction, careful not to give away his conscious state if he was being watched, he surveyed his immediate surroundings. Tall pine trees reached up to touch the late summer sky on all sides of him, their bases furred with an underlayer of smaller scrub brush. There was no sign of a cabin or a road, no evidence of anyone else nearby, no tracks in the forest litter but his own, leading to where he'd collapsed.
He was wearing heavy hiking boots, dark jeans and a black T-shirt, all of which were spattered with blood. Something told him not all of it was his, though when he moved his arms, the agony in his right shoulder ripped a groan from his lips. He felt the warm, wet bloom of fresh blood, smelled it on the moist air.
Shot in the back, he knew somehow. Bastards. Cowards. Except that he didn't know who the bastardly cowards were, or why they'd gone after him. More, he didn't know who the hell he was. Or what he'd done.
The realization brought a sick chill rattling through him, a spurt of panic. His brain answered with I've got to get up, get moving. I can't let them catch me, or I'm dead.
The words had no sooner whispered in his mind than he heard the sounds of pursuit: the sharp bark of a dog and the terse shouts of men calling to one another.
Theyweren't close, but they weren't far enough away for comfort, either.
He struggled to his feet cursing with pain, staggering with shock and blood loss. He didn't know who was looking for him, but there was far too much blood for a bar fight, and the pattern was high velocity. Had he killed someone? Been standing nearby when someone was killed? Had he escaped from a bad situation, or had he been the bad situation?
He didn't know, damn it. Worse, he didn't know which answer he was hoping for.
The mission. The words seemed to whisper from nowhere and everywhere at once. They came from the trees and the wind high above, and the bark of a second dog, sharper this time, and excited, suggesting that the beast had hit on a scent trail.
One thing was for certain: he needed to get someplace safe. But where? And how?
Knowing he wasn't going to find the answer standing there, bleeding, he got moving, putting one foot in front of the other, holding his right arm clutched against his chest with his left. The world went gray-brown around the edges and his feet felt very far away, but the scenery moved past him, slow at first, then faster when he hit a downhill slope.
He saw a downed tree with an exposed root ball, thought he recognized it, though he didn't know from when. His feet carried him away from it at an angle, as though his subconscious knew where the hell he was going when his conscious mind didn't have a clue. Urgency propelled him—not just from the continued sounds of pursuit, which was drawing nearer by the minute, but also from the sense that he was supposed to be doing something crucial, critical.
His breath rasped in his lungs and the gray-brown closed in around the edges of his vision. He tripped and staggered, tripped again and went down. But he didn't stay down. He dragged himself up again, levering his body with his good arm and biting his teeth against the pained groans that wanted to rip from his throat.
Instead, staying silent, he forced himself to move faster, until he was running downhill through trees that all looked the same. He saw nothing except forest and more forest. Then, in the distance, there was something else: a rectangular blur that soon resolved itself into the outline of a late-model truck parked in the middle of nowhere.
Excitement slapped through him, driving back some of the gray-brown. He didn't recognize the truck, but he'd run right to it, hadn't he? It stood to reason that was because he'd known it was there. More, when he'd climbed into the driver's seat, he automatically fumbled beneath the dashboard and came up with the keys.
It took him two tries to get the key in the ignition; he was wobbly and weak, and he couldn't lean back into the seat without his shoulder giving him holy hell. But he had wheels. A hope of escape.
He couldn't hear the dogs over the engine's roar, but he knew the searchers were behind him, knew the net was closing fast. More, he knew he didn't have much more time left before he lapsed unconscious again. He'd lost blood, and God only knew what was going on inside him. Every inhalation was like breathing flames; every exhalation a study in misery. He needed a place to crash and he needed it fast.
After that, he thought, glancing in the rearview mirror and seeing piercing green eyes in a stern face, short black hair, and nothing familiar about any of it, I'm going to need some answers.
Knowing he was already on borrowed time, he hit the gas and sent the truck thundering downhill. There wasn't any road or track, but he got lucky—or else he knew the way—and didn't hit any big ditches or deadfalls. Within ten minutes, he came to a fire-access road. Instinct—or something more?—had him turning uphill rather than down. A few minutes later, he bypassed a larger road, then took a barely visible dirt trail that paralleled the main access road.
The not-quite-a-road was bumpy, jolting him back against the seat and wringing curses from him every time he hit his injured shoulder. But the pain kept him conscious, kept him moving. And when he hit a paved road, it reminded him he needed to get someplace he could hide, where he'd be safe when he collapsed.
Animalistic instinct had him turning east. He passed street signs he recognized on some level, but it wasn't until he passed a big billboard that said Welcome to Bear Claw Creek that he knew he was in Colorado, and then only because the sign said so.
His hands were starting to shake, warning him that his body was hitting the end of its reserves. But he still had enough sense to ditch the truck at the back of a commuter lot, where it might not be noticed for a while, and hide the keys in the wheel well. Then he searched the vehicle for anything that might clue him in on what the hell was going on—or, failing that, who the hell he was.
All he came up with was a lightweight waterproof jacket wedged beneath the passenger's seat, but that was something, anyway. Though the fading day was still warm with late summer sun, he pulled on the navy blue jacket so if anyone saw him, they wouldn't get a look at his back. A guy wearing dirty jeans and a jacket might be forgotten. A guy bleeding from a bullet wound in his shoulder, not so much.
Cursing under his breath, using the swearwords to let him know he was still up and moving, even as the gray-brown of encroaching unconsciousness narrowed his vision to a tunnel, he stagger-stepped through the commuter car lot and across the main road. Cutting over a couple of streets on legs that were rapidly turning to rubber, he homed in on a corner lot, where a neat stone-faced house sat well back from the road, all but lost behind wild flowering hedges and a rambler-covered picket fence.
It wasn't the relative concealment offered by the big lot and the landscaping that had him turning up the driveway, though. It was the sense of safety. This wasn't his house, he knew somehow, but whose ever it was, instinct said they would shelter him, help him.
Without conscious thought, he reached into the brass, wall-mounted mailbox beside the door, found a small latch and toggled the false bottom, which opened to reveal a spare key.
He was too far gone to wonder how he'd known to do that, too out of it to remember whose house this was. It was all he could do to let himself in and relock the door once he was through. Dropping the key into his pocket, he dragged himself through a pin-neat kitchen that was painted cream and moss with sunny yellow accents and soft, feminine curtains. He found a notepad beside the phone and scrawled a quick message.
His hands were shaking; his whole body was shaking, and where it wasn't shaking it had shut down completely. He couldn't feel his feet, couldn't feel much of anything except the pain and the dizziness that warned he was seconds away from passing out.
Finally, unable to hold it off any longer, he let the gray-brown win, let it wash over his vision and suck him down into the blackness. He was barely aware of staggering into the next room and falling, hardly felt the pain of landing face-first on a carpeted floor. He knew only that, for the moment at least, he was safe.
Chief Medical Examiner Sara Whitney's day started out badly and plummeted downhill from there.
It wasn't just that her coffeemaker had finally gone belly-up. She'd known it was on its last legs, after all, and simply kept forgetting to upgrade. Sort of like how she kept forgetting to replace her anemic windshield wipers because they only annoyed her when it was raining. Or how she hadn't yet gotten around to having the maintenance crew that served the Bear Claw ME's office fix her office door, which stuck half the time and randomly popped open the other half.
No, it wasn't those petty, mundane, normal irritations that had her amber-colored eyes narrowed with frustration as she worked her way through her sixth autopsy of the day, dictating her notes into the voice-activated minirecorder clipped to the lapel of the blue lab coat she wore over neatly tailored, feminine pants and a soft blue-green shirt that accented the golden highlights in her shoulder-length, honey-colored hair.
No, what annoyed her was the memo she'd gotten from Acting Mayor Proudfoot's people, turning down yet another request to hire new staff, even though she'd only proposed to replace two of the three people she'd lost over the past year—two to the terrorist attacks that had gripped the city in the wake of a nearby jailbreak, one to the FBI's training program. What annoyed her further was the knowledge that she was going to have to work yet another twelve-hour day to catch up with the backlog. It didn't help that her three remaining staffers—receptionist Della Jones, ME Stephen Katz, and their newly promoted assistant, Bradley Brown—were all taking their lunch breaks glued to the TV in the break room, with the police scanner cranked to full volume as they followed the manhunt that was unfolding in Bear Claw Canyon, not half an hour away.
Sara didn't want to think about the manhunt, or the fact that the combined Bear Claw PD/FBI task force had lost two men in an op gone bad, leading to the manhunt. She didn't want to think ahead to those autopsies, and felt guilty for hoping the dead men weren't any of the cops or agents she knew. She also didn't want to think about the fact that until terrorist mastermind al-Jihad and his followers were brought to justice, people in and around Bear Claw were going to keep dying.
She didn't want to think about it, but she had to, because it was happening even as she stood there, elbow-deep in the abdominal cavity of an overweight, chainsmoking sixty-three-year-old man whose badly clogged arteries suggested an all too common cause of death. The autopsy was routine, but the events transpiring outside Sara's familiar cinder block world were anything but.
Bear Claw City was at war.
It had been nearly ten months since al-Jihad had managed to escape from the ARX Supermax Prison north of Bear Claw Creek, gaining freedom along with two of his most trusted lieutenants. Since then, it had become clear that al-Jihad's network was deeply entrenched in Bear Claw, twining through both local and federal law enforcement.
Each time a conspirator was uncovered and neutralized, new evidence surfaced indicating that the internal problems extended even further, and that al-Jihad was continuing to unfold an elaborate, devastating plan that the task force just couldn't seem to get a handle on. The cops and agents had uncovered pieces and hints, but the terrorists' main goal continued to elude them, even as the groundswell of suspicious activity seemed to suggest that an attack was imminent.
Of course, the general population knew only some of what was going on. Sara knew more than most because her office was intimately involved with the BCCPD, and because she was close friends with a tightly knit group of cops and agents, three couples plus her as a spare wheel.
The seven friends had banded together the previous year when FBI trainee Chelsea Swan—though back then she'd been one of Sara's medical examiners—had fallen in with FBI agent Jonah Fairfax. Fax had assisted in the jailbreak in his role as a deep undercover operative, only to learn in the devastating aftermath that his superior was a traitor and he'd been unknowingly working on al-Jihad's behalf. Sara, Chelsea, Fax and the others had managed to foil al-Jihad's next planned attack, but they'd only managed to capture one of the terrorists, Muhammad Feyd, who'd proven to be a loyal soldier and had defied all efforts to get him talking.
Al-Jihad and his remaining lieutenant, Lee Mawadi, along with Fax's former boss, the eponymous Jane Doe, remained at large even now, ten months later. In that interim, there had been other, smaller incidents, along with a deadly riot at the ARX Supermax. Which Sara so wasn't thinking about right now.
She didn't want to remember the men who'd died in the riot, or the one man in particular whose death had hit her far harder than it should have.
Focus, girl, she told herself. The day's only getting longer the more you stall.
Concentrating on the innards at hand, Sara went through the process by rote, weighing and sampling, dictating notes as she worked. But although the actions were automatic—they ought to be, after six years on the job, two heading the Bear Claw ME's office—they weren't without compassion. Sara's top-flight surgeon mother might consider her daughter's medical skills wasted on the dead, but Sara knew she worked for the families as much as the corpses, and took satisfaction from providing answers, shedding light onto causes of death that might otherwise be misinterpreted.