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Until she chose to die, Katie Rush wasn't completely sure she had the guts. Sure, she'd considered it, she'd trained for it, but in the end there was always a doubt: Did she have what it took to trade her life for someone else's?
In that chaotic, oddly crystalline moment, it was very simple. She saw the gunman, she was out of rounds and there was a civilian being targeted. The calculations rose effortlessly in her brain: Given the angle of incidence, there was a seventy-five percent chance that the shooter would go for center mass, the safe shot. His ammunition wasn't armor-piercing. Of course, there were still decent odds that he'd choose the head shot instead, which was an almost certain kill at this distance.
It didn't even require a conscious decision. Her body just moved. She took a stunning blow to her chest, an impact that knocked her off balance and drove the breath from her lungs. She used the force in her favor, letting her weight fall against the boy who'd been in the line of fire and pushing him behind a parked car to safety.
"Agent down!", she heard someone yell, probably Special Agent in Charge Craig Evangelista; he was the one with the best vantage point of her position. She tried to take a breath but it was driven out of her by a second impact right over her solar plexus. Panic tried to smother her, but she grimly held on to her training, rolling on her side toward cover and ejecting the spent magazine of her Beretta as she did. Her right hand fumbled for the spares clipped to her belt and yanked one free, slapped it home with a precision built of hours of dry-fire drills, and completed her roll into a shooter's prone position, elbows braced. She acquired the target in a matter of a microsecondwhich was good, because he had already acquired her againand got off the first shot.
One was all she needed. She ignored the odds and went for the head shot.
The boy lying next to her was wailing and shaking. Katie felt calm, which she expected was the inevitable adrenaline shock as much as any real self-possession. She scanned the landscape for additional threats as the rest of the team swarmed in to apprehend any kidnap- pers who'd survived the firefight. There had been four of thema large crew, unusually so for such a risky crimeand they'd been more than willing to go out in a blaze of glory. Katie could only see one man alive and responding to the agents' shouts and commands. It wasn't the one she'd shot. He wouldn't be moving on his own again.
She slowly got to her knees. The pain hadn't yet reg- istered, but she had no doubt that later tonight her body was going to hurt like hell. She'd never taken a round before, but she'd seen the deeply colored bruises on other agents who had. Bulletproof vests saved lives. There was no promise that they'd do it painlessly.
At least she could breathe again, though not deeply enough to speak. She put her arm around the boy Samuel Kaltoff, thirteen-year-old son of a prominent Russian politicianand tried to smile reassuringly. The kid was a mess, but then, he'd been through a hellish ordeal. Three days in the hands of captors who'd shown no signs of humanity or compassion. We could have gotten him back faster, Katie thought miserably. Samuel's dirty-pale skin showed so much bruising it looked as if he'd been tie-dyed, and that was only a hint of what had been done to him. We should have had him yesterday. Katie knew that logically they'd pushed the investigation as fast and as far as it was possible to do, but at moments like this, looking at the human wreckage left behind when law and chaos crashed, she never felt that it was enough.
The paramedics, who'd had to wait for the all-clear signal, suddenly dashed in. One peeled off toward her, but she waved him toward Samuel. Nothing they could do for bruises, and if that hot, glassy feeling in her side was a cracked rib, well, it wasn't going anywhere.
"Katie," said SAC Evangelista. He holstered his weapon as he approached and wiped sweat from his foreheadit was a hot day, and the vests and FBI jackets weren't exactly summer-weight. He crouched down beside her, examining her with clinical thorough- ness. He was middle-aged, on the heavy side of fit, with a bullet-bald head and big brown eyes that could look warm and sympathetic when he chose. It wasn't necessary with her.
"You trying to give me a heart attack?"
"Sorry, sir, but I didn't see any alternative."
He waved that away.
"Not how I would have handled it, but you got the right result. Understand, the only reason we're having this conversation now, and I'm not going to be writing the condolence letter to your folks tonight, is that you were lucky. The government has invested a hell of a lot in your training, Agent Rush. Letting some Russian mob moron shoot you ain't exactly the return on investment they're looking for."
"Live and fight another day," she said.
"I know, Craig.
Thanks. Believe me, I won't make a habit out of it."
"Good. Now, you go to the hospital, get checked out. Once you're green lighted, you can come back to the office and start paperwork." He hesitated, then looked away.
"You saved that kid's life, Katie. One hell of a good day."
From Evangelista, that was effusive praise. He put his heavy, warm hand on her shoulder for one very short second before rising and striding off to oversee the mop-up.
This time, when the paramedics moved toward her, she didn't object. She was starting to ache now, and tremble with reaction. Being poked and prodded would give her time to get herself together again.
Katie was watching two equally heartwarming events Samuel Kaltoff's weeping parents embracing him, and the sole surviving kidnapper getting handcuffed to a gurneywhen her cell phone rang. She grabbed it from her jacket pocket before the paramedics took it away from her.
"Hey, could you wait a second while I answer this?"
The paramedic undressing her shook his head and tugged open theVelcro straps of the vest. The sudden rush of air on her sweat-soaked skin was like being doused in cool water. He pulled the heavy armor over her head and set it aside. Katie ignored him as he lifted up the damp fabric of her shirt and probed the bruising beneath.
She flipped open the cell phone.
"Rush," she said, a simple declaration of name as well as an instruction. She expected it would be a call from the field office asking for details, but instead she glanced at the number and saw that it was from out of state.
"Katie?" A young girl's voice. It sounded high and uneven.
"Katie, it's Jazz. I need help. We need help!"
Jazz? Katie's mind froze for a second, then smoothly shifted gears. Jazz was Kayla Ryan's daughter. The voice had sounded unlike her, but now Katie recog- nized that it was probably due to stress.
"Yes, I'm here.
What's wrong, honey?"
As far as Katie knew, Jazz was at the safest place on earthat the Athena Academy, a secluded campus just outside of Glendale, Arizona.
"Jazz, is your mother all right?"
There was a brief sound of shuffling, and then Kayla's no-nonsense voice said, "I'm right here. We've got a situation here, and I don't think the local resources are enough to handle it. We need you, Katie." Kayla was a cop, a good one, besides being a fellow Athena gradu- ate and friend. Not a close friend, exactlyKatie didn't seem to attract many of thosebut more of a sister. Athena alumni were all sisters. It was an implicit re- sponsibility they all took very seriously. They'd suffered losses these past few years that had hurt them all. At least Jazz was safe. That was something.
"I'll let Jazz tell you."
Another handoff, and Jazz's higher voice came back on the line.
"It's Teal and LenaTeal Arnett and Lena Poole. They're at the Academy with me. They're my friends. They were taken."
"Taken," Katie repeated. Her fingers tightened on the phone, and she forced them to relax. She'd seen the tragic aftermath of too many stories that began just this way, but none of them had involved girls from the Athena Academyher own very extended family. If all of the Athena Force women were sisters, then all the girls at the Academy were nieces.
"How did it happen?"
The very slight hesitation before Jazz answered raised a red flag in Katie's mind. Need to get her away from her mother and get the full story, she thought.
Even though Kayla was a cop, and Athena Force, that didn't mean mothers and daughters should or could share everything. Daughters had secrets, and in cases like this, secrets cost lives.
"We were going to the movies," Jazz said.
"Off the school grounds, in town. But they were waiting for us, I don't know how. It was a coordinated attack. Teal and Lena gave me time to get away, they told me to run. I didn't want to leave them, I swear I didn't!"
"I know you didn't. Jazz, tell me what you saw. Exactly what you saw."
Jazz took a deep breath.
"We were walking on the sidewalk, talking, and a van pulled up to the curb ahead of us. It was a blue cargo van, and the license plates were muddy. I couldn't see any letters or numbers. There was dark tinting on the windows. I think it was a Ford van, probably about eight years old. Oh, and there was a fresh scratch on the passenger side, like somebody had keyed it in a parking lot."
Katie raised a commanding finger to the paramedic to back off when he tried to speak to her. He did, finally taking the look in her eyes seriously.
"The side door slid open, and two men jumped out. They were both tall, but one was bigger than the other oneI think they were about six feet and six feet four inches."
"What did they look like?"
"I couldn't tell," Jazz said unhappily.
"They were wearing these mesh masks and bodysuits. I guess that was to keep from leaving trace evidence. They didn't say anything at all, and they were really fast and strong. Lena almost got away, but they caught her."
Sometime during Jazz's recital, Katie had closed her eyes, painting the picture in her mind. A cloudless Arizona day, clear and sunny. The van pulling to a smooth stop at the curb so as not to alarm the girls into flight. A blitz attack, scientifically calculated. Two ab- ductors, plus a third to drive the van. They'd cut their losses once they'd realized they'd lost the initiative and Jazz was beyond their control. More impulsive pred- ators would have gone after her, allowed Teal and Lena space to act. Instead, these men had disengaged to minimize their exposure.
Dangerously competent. And the fact that they'd suc- ceeded at all meant that they'd known what they'd be dealing with.
"Tell me about the girls," she said.
"Teal and Lena."
"Teal's the oldest, she's seventeen. She's really fast the fastest runner in the school. She looks a little bit like you in the face, and she's tall, tooshe has lighter hair, and her eyes are more green." Jazz took a breath.
"Lena's fifteen. You can't miss her. She's got purple streaks in her hair, it's cut all different lengths, you know? She was wearing a purple skirt and a hot-pink top." Jazz's voice wavered.
"They're my friends, Katie. Really my friends. I should have stayed with them. I let them down."
Jazz was small, but she was a dynamo, like her mother. Self-possessed. A fiercer friend Katie couldn't imagine. Jazz was someone who wouldn't take failure easily in a situation like this. Athena Academy instilled that quality in those who hadn't come in the doors gifted with it, but in Jazz tenacity was a purely natural talent.
"Jazz, it's going to be all right. We're going to find them. Now, put your mom on the line, will you?"
Jazz did. Katie dropped the warm-and-fuzzy from her voice.
"I'm heading for the airport now," she said and slid off of the tail end of the ambulance.
"I'll take a cab to the crime scene. What are the cross streets?"
Kayla gave them to her, relief evident in her voice.
Thanks for agreeing to help. I know you're the best at this, Katie, and I have the feeling we need to find these girls quickly. This wasn't random. No way was it random."
Kayla was being careful, not saying things that they were both thinking.
"Did they have enhancements?", Katie asked. She would have asked straight out, psychic abilities, but Kayla knew what she meant, knew exactly what made many of the girls fostered by the Athena Academy special. She and Kayla were included in that number, most definitely, although Katie herself had tried her best to downplay it throughout her career.
Kayla confirmed her worst fears. "Yes. Defi- nitelyenhanced abilities."
"What about Teal and Lena's parents? Has somebody talked to them?"
"We're handling notifications through the school. I've already talked to Ms. Evans." Christine Evans, the principal of the Athena Academyas tough as they came, even by Katie's admittedly high standards. So tough, cops and FBI agents still automatically called her Ms. Evans years after graduation.
"I'll book you a seat on the first available flight. I'll wait for you at the scene."
"Soon as I can," Katie promised, and was about to hang up when she hesitated.
"Kayla? Is Jazz okay? Physically?"
"As far as I can tell." Her friend's voice was tight.
"I want to take her to the hospital. Just to be sure."
It was what Katie would have advised, but she was glad she didn't have to. Kayla had enough on her mind.
"Do that. I'm on my way," she promised and flipped the phone closed.