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LARGER than LIFE
By ALISON KENT
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Alison Kent
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOne week later
The structure shimmered like a mirage on the horizon.
Waves of heat danced above the hard-packed earth and around the hulking concrete bunker, nondescript, deceptive. A squat bulge like a pregnant belly atop the life teeming below, where the Spectra IT command center monitored the crime syndicate's Western U.S. activity.
And where the syndicate's filthy lucre was sent to begin the process of laundering. Deposits here, wire transfers there. This bank, that bank. Tricky sleights of hand.
Mick Savin dropped his binoculars and squinted against New Mexico's fireball of a sun glaring angrily over the Chihuahuan Desert. He was barely over the Texas border, but the bloody bitch in heat seemed to beat down with twice the number of red-hot hammers she had fifteen miles ago.
He'd left his Range Rover parked just inside the gate off U.S. Highway 62 and had hoofed it the two hours it had taken to get here-here being deep inside the seventy thousand acres of working cattle ranch that served as Spectra's cover.
His own cover, provided by the Smithson Group, the covert spy organization paying him a hell of a hefty salary, was that of a hunter scoping out prime locations for mule deer season. He had his paperwork in order and every reason to be exactly where he was ... almost.
His leased plot, the one designated in the documents above the Rover's driver's-side visor, was approximately sixteen clicks north. The fact that he'd run across the bunker's location at all was pure dumb luck.
Up until a month ago, he'd been chasing leads gathered in Coahuila, Mexico, by Smithson Group operatives Eli McKenzie and Harry van Zandt. The pair had managed to nail down a nice hard body of evidence before the explosion-the one that had wiped the holding center for Spectra's kidnapping and prostitution ring off the map along with a good chunk of Smithson intel.
All these weeks later, and Mick was still blowing the stench of that fireball out of his nose. The trail he'd most recently been following, the one that had brought him to New Mexico to begin with, was part of the continuing effort to tie up the loose ends of the mission that had kept Eli and Rabbit in Mexico for months.
Three days ago, Mick had been in Carlsbad looking for the missing girl that Stella Banks, Eli's woman, had originally headed south of the border to find, when he'd picked up thirty seconds of a scrambled communication.
In a panic, he'd relayed it to Manhattan and to Tripp Shaughnessey at the communications desk in the SG-5 ops center. Tripp had only been able to narrow the broadcast to an area boxed in roughly by Fort Bliss, Alamogordo, Denver City, and Odessa.
SG-5 had hustled to get Mick in, get him outfitted, and done so quick-like-a-bunny once they'd narrowed down the location of the Spectra IT command center. Mick had taken it from there ... and ended up here.
He eased from his stomach onto his side and let out two sharp bursts of a whistle. FM, the herd dog mix he'd picked up at the El Paso pound, trotted over on monstrous feet, shoulders rolling, tongue lolling inches from the ground.
The dog had been the final addition to Mick's cover, and so far man and beast had bonded enough that he'd stopped thinking of returning the mutt to his original fate. Then again, he didn't exactly see FM fitting in at SG-5's headquarters in Manhattan.
Hell, as it was, he barely fit in in Manhattan. He did a lot better making his way in and out of the Bronx, and figured if he kept the dog, he might get with Hank Smithson about retiring FM to the Smithson Group principal's Saratoga County horse farm.
After all, the mutt had been recruited as an SG-5 operative. Like Mick himself. And like the others-Christian, Tripp, Julian, Kelly John, Eli, and Harry. And, once this mission was done, if it all went down as planned, FM would've earned the doggie retirement.
The dog plopped onto his belly, haunches raised and ready, tail busting a move like nobody's business. Mick couldn't help but grin as he slipped the flash card from his camera into one of several slots cut into the sturdy leather collar ringing FM's solid neck and disappearing into his thick ruff.
"Whew, dude. You are in desperate need of hosing down." The dog's mouth clamped shut, his ears perked as far as floppy triangles could, his bright brown eyes grew sharp. Once Mick had gotten a whiff of more than dog, he took the comeback to heart. "Yeah. You're right. Me, too."
At that, FM started in with the smiling panting thing he did, doing a belly crawl closer as if he couldn't get enough of Mick's love. And since Mick wasn't getting any love anywhere, he let him.
"Yeah, okay, that's enough. It's time to go." He rolled up into a sitting position and reached for his canteen, poured a good long pull onto a stone that was smooth and bowled in the center. "We've got a bloody long hike back to the truck, so drink up, mate."
FM lumbered to his feet like the old fart he was and lapped up the water. Mick, his bones feeling just as ancient and creaky, did the same, tilting back his head, tilting up the canteen, cooling off with what water he didn't swallow then capping the rest for later.
His eyes were closed and he was using his bandana to mop them free of water when the dog first growled. It was a fierce sound. A terrifying sound. A gut-curdling, ball-shriveling sound that he hadn't heard since recruiting the mutt. He'd be damn well happy not to feel it shiver through his bones again in this lifetime.
Bloody hell. "F, what is your problem?"
And then he heard it, too. He heard it long before he saw it. His ears were clear, his eyes still blinking away the salty sting of sweat and the clean wash of water. An engine. An ATV. Roaring as the driver guided the four-wheel-drive utility vehicle over the rough and rocky landscape.
Make that two drivers gunning two ATVs over the rough and rocky landscape.
He settled his sunglasses back in place, making sure the sports strap around his head was secure, then bent and snagged his backpack and khaki outback hat from the ground. As the dog moved to stand protectively in front of him, he jammed his hat into place.
Reaching to scratch between FM's ears with one hand, he held the strap of his pack with the other, lifting it onto the toe of one boot. His nape tingled in that way it had of telling him he wasn't going to like much of anything about to go down here.
The first ATV pulled up on his left, the second on his right. Both drivers wore ball caps pulled low, reflective lenses, Wranglers, hiking boots, and snap-front, short-sleeved, Western-cut shirts in hideously ugly plaids. They also wore weapons that didn't fit the theme.
Weapons he'd seen most recently on the streets of Kabul and Baghdad. Spectra thugs, he quickly determined. If not, he was a monkey bone's uncle.
"Howdy, mates." He raised a hand in greeting as they left their rides running and approached on foot. "Hard to believe having navigated my way around the world, but I'm bloody well convinced that I'm lost."
Mick nodded, his nape itching and twitching fiercely enough now that he had to resist the urge to scratch at the bugs that weren't really there crawling over his skin. "That would be me."
"We located your vehicle back at the road, but you weren't on your lease." This from the first one's clone.
"Well, I'm damn glad you found us, or me and the mutt might've ended up walking in circles for days."
Clone one nodded. Clone two, being a clone, did the same. Somehow Mick wasn't mollified. The reflective lenses, he decided. He couldn't see their eyes. Couldn't see what was going on in their Spectra-washed brains.
FM wasn't so handicapped. His ruff stood in a fierce ring around his neck. A feral growl rumbled from his body into Mick's where the dog now sat on his foot.
Number one spoke next, while number two returned to his ATV. "We won't let that happen."
"Good deal, eh, dog?" Mick bent, scratched F's ears again, calming the animal as best he could. He needed the dog. He couldn't afford to have him go off on the clone brothers and risk getting himself shot. Not with all the surveillance intel stored in his collar.
In the end, Mick should've been more in tune to his partner's instincts. When the dog growled and lunged forward, he grabbed for his collar and missed seeing the rope. Number one swung the butt of his rifle, caught the mutt in the jaw. FM whimpered and went sprawling.
The rope sailed through the air and cinched Mick's arms tight against his upper body. "What the bloody fuck is going on, mates?" he growled. "I don't remember reading about this particular guided tour in your brochure."
Number two, at the other end of the rope, jerked Mick down to the ground. "What you did read was that trespassers would be shot."
From where he sat, Mick felt a surge of panic burst at the base of his spine and rise. "Trespassers, mate. Not poor lost fucks getting used to the terrain."
A second rope appeared in the hands of number one. Wordlessly, he sauntered over like a man with all the time in the world, a man loving his job, and used one end of the rope to bind Mick's feet.
That done, he tossed the other end to his partner, who gloated like a big bad steer wrestler having thrown his quarry to the dirt-the problem being that Mick didn't much like the impotent comparison.
He cast a quick glance at FM as the dog stirred where he'd crumpled two meters away. The sigh of relief Mick started to breathe was sucked quickly away, however, when the first clone produced a hunting knife and returned. The muscles between Mick's shoulder blades seized, relaxing only marginally once the other man made his intentions known, slicing into Mick's backpack.
He swore under his breath, grimacing as the pack was upended and the contents-camera, satellite phone, binoculars, energy bars-tumbled to the ground. Losing the equipment was a pain in the ass, but the real issue was the pack. He'd secreted away too many tools of his trade in the padded straps and thick leather base.
Clone one tossed away the pack like yesterday's garbage, squatted to examine the contents. He looped the binoculars around his neck, the camera strap over one shoulder, shoved the phone into a pocket. After a sniff at one of the energy bars, he left those on the ground.
And then he grinned at Mick and pushed up to his feet. "We're going to escort you back to your truck now, Mr. Savin. And hopefully next time you won't be so quick to get yourself lost."
Jesus bloody hell. He grabbed tightly to the taut rope circling his upper body, dug the heels of his boots into the ground. But his palms were already sweating, already slipping. He was unbelievably fucked. "I'm good with walking, mates. Seriously. Just point me the right direction and you won't see me back until opening day."
He watched-impotently-as the two men climbed onto their vehicles, his only saving grace the fact that one man held both ropes, saving him from being ripped apart. He'd simply be dragged to his death instead. The clones revved their engines, laughed like hyenas, revved them again.
He had a switchblade strapped to one calf, his SIG to the other, no time or way to get to either. He wasn't worried about shooting or stabbing himself; the holster and sheath were both secured. But either one would've gone a long way toward stopping this crazy shit before it got started.
Then it was too late. One hard jarring tug, and he was on his way to the great ops center in the sky. He did what he could to stay upright, to use his ass as a snowboard, but at the first awkward jerk of his legs, he went down.
He felt his shoulder go out first, two of his ribs seconds later. A shearing, shredding land mine of fire gutted the upper half of his body. He barely managed to hang onto the rope with one hand, to keep his head off the ground, his chin to his chest.
He shoved his useless fingers into his pants to keep his entire limb from dragging the ground and tearing away, and prayed the terrain would keep the machines from topping out their speed. He failed to take into account the duality of the mean streaks running down the bonehead clones' spines. They knew every bump, rock, and crater and hit them all.
Heat and dust and pain engulfed his hips, his knees, his torso. His spine stretched, threatened to snap. His head bobbed, smacked back. The cowboys up ahead yee-hawed. He thought briefly of FM, briefly of his Smithson Group partners and Hank, briefly of all the women he'd never known.
And then he didn't think of anything anymore.
If not for the dog, she never would have stopped.
She would have kept on driving, lost in thought-she had enough going on in her life to remain indefinitely, permanently mentally adrift-and man and beast would have both ended up as buzzard bait.
But Neva Case had always been a sucker for the underdog-canines included-and so she pulled her gleaming black, dual-axle, crew-cab pickup to the grassy shoulder, shoved open the driver's-side door, and jumped down.
"C'mon, pooch. Let's see what you're all about," she crooned softly, circling around the truck's bed to where the dog, a blue heeler mix-the markings were right, the fur too thick and too long to be pure-struggled to his feet to warn her off.
His growl was feeble, making her doubly glad she'd stopped. "You look a bit on the wobbly side, pooch. How long have you been out here?"
She took a step closer, leaned down and held out a hand to share her scent. His snarl lessened. His bared teeth vanished. He whimpered slightly, and when her next step took her closer, he offered his head to be scratched. She did, checking the tags on his collar, her hand coming away covered in blood.
"Oh, my." She squatted in front of him, let him give her a closer inspection while she carefully examined him, looking for a wound, finding a nasty gash along his lower jaw and a lump the size of half a Ruby Red grapefruit. "I see a visit to Doc Hill in your immediate future, pooch. Maybe he'll know where you belong. Your tags don't even tell me your name."
Her head snapped up. Her gaze honed in on the voice, searching the highway's shoulder between the road and the property line. She pushed up to her feet, made her way around the far side of the truck.
A man lay in the scrub brush halfway between the barbed wire fence and her front bumper. His clothes and skin were coated with dust as if he'd been discarded like so much garbage a day or so ago.
No one besides those dumping trash had reason to stop on this long stretch of rural highway between New Mexico and Texas. Trucks pulled stock trailers. Trucks hauled hay bales and feed.
Excerpted from LARGER than LIFE by ALISON KENT Copyright © 2005 by Alison Kent. Excerpted by permission.
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