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"Don't make a sound."
K-9 trainer Kaitlin Mathers felt the cold nozzle of the gun sticking into her rib cage, shock and fear pouring through her system like a hot, blowing wind. The man holding her had a raspy voice and wore silky black coveralls and a black ski mask, even though it was June in Southwest Texas. She could feel his sweat breaking through the lightweight material of his clothes, could smell a musky scent that probably came from the heat and high adrenaline. When she tried to squirm away, something cold and metal pressed against her backbone. A zipper, maybe? Determined to keep it together, Kaitlin didn't move or try to speak. She had to stay calm so she wouldn't be killed. So she could get away.
Across the K-9 training yard, Warrior barked and snarled from his vantage point inside his mesh kennel porch. Thankfully, she hadn't put the young trainee inside for the night yet. Someone would hear the barking and come around the corner, wouldn't they? Please, Lord, give me courage, she prayed, memories of her mother's death playing through her head.
That's what you get for working late all by yourself. You 're more like your mother than you realized. But it had never occurred to Kaitlin that someone would be hiding in the bushes right outside the doors of the Sagebrush K-9 Training Facility. Especially since the building and training yard were located inside a locked fence directly behind the Sagebrush Police Department.
The man holding her must have known the risks, but he'd somehow managed to get through that gate. He hurriedly shoved her toward a waiting van, the same dark van she'd only minutes before noticed parked underneath an old oak near the back parking lot.
"I need you to come with me," he said, his whisper like a knife slicing through her nerve endings.
"Why?" She had a right to ask.
"I'll explain that later, sweetheart."
Kaitlin looked at the van, then tried to look back at her attacker. She caught a glimpse of strange, black eyes, another shock wave jolting through her system. Before she could see anything else, he jerked her back around and pushed the gun hard against her side. "Let's go."
Kaitlin didn't think about being silent anymore. If she got in that van, the chances were very good that she'd be dead by nightfall. Just like Mom. But unlike her too-trusting mother, Kaitlin didn't intend to become a victim. She screamed and started fighting for her life.
K-9 captain Slade McNeal was halfway to his vehicle when he heard barking. Excited barking. Whirling toward the kennels, he wondered which dog had been left inside them.
He'd just watched trainer Kaitlin Mathers putting the newbie, a strong Belgian Malinois that reminded him of his own missing German shepherd, Rio, through his paces. They'd spoken briefly, and he'd gone back to his office.
But where was Kaitlin now? It wasn't like her to leave a dog unattended, even kenneled. Warrior was sure upset about something.
The dog kept on barking, the sounds growing more urgent. Something was up. Slade hurried toward the building, his weapon drawn. He passed the kennels but didn't see anyone. Since Warrior would have a close bond with Kaitlin, it made sense that the dog was trying to warn her about something. Or alert someone else.
"Good job," Slade said when he passed the pacing, snarling animal. He didn't try to stop Warrior's barking.
Then he heard a scream, followed by grunts and shouts.
Slade stood at the corner of the building, then pivoted around the side, his weapon still drawn. About twenty yards away, a man in a dark mask had Kaitlin by the arm, trying to drag her across the asphalt toward an open black van. And he had a gun pointed at her head.
Slade's heart rushed ahead, pumping adrenaline right along with realization. He recognized this man. The Ski Mask Man, they'd labeled him around headquarters. Slade had been gunning for this guy for five long months. This criminal had some nerve, trying to kidnap a trainer right out of the training yard.
A multitude of angry memories raced through Slade's head, followed by the taste of victory. Could this case finally get a break? He glanced back at Warrior, then turned his attention back to the scene in front of him. He'd never make it to the locked cage to let the dog out, and he didn't have time to dig for his keys or call for backup. He could shoot the lock, but what if he hit the dog?
He'd have to do this on his own. "Drop the weapon!" Slade shouted. "Now!"
Kaitlin gulped a breath of relief. Slade was here. She kept telling herself that over and over. She also kept telling herself that she could handle this because she'd been trained as a police officer. She might be a little rusty since becoming a full-time trainer, but she'd find a way out of this. Somehow. She wouldn't end up like her mother.
Surprised at Slade's command, the man holding her pivoted toward Slade, his gun still aimed at Kaitlin. She pulled away, but he held her tight against him, his low whisper a warning. "Do you want to live?"
She did want to live, but Kaitlin wasn't going without a fight. She'd rather take her chances right here in the training yard with Slade McNeal than go anywhere with this man. Captain McNeal knew his job, and he was good at that job. He'd get them both out of this, and she'd find a way to help him.
Slade advanced a few steps. "Drop the weapon and let her go."
The man tightened his hold, but Kaitlin could feel the apprehension and indecision in his actions. Did he know the captain? She used the brief distraction to dig in her heels, kicking and hitting and screaming. Taking a chance, she elbowed the man in his side, then wrapped her leg behind his to trip him, causing him to lose the grip on his weapon. The gun slipped out of his grasp and hit the hot pavement. He cursed and grabbed Kaitlin again, holding her like a shield in front of him, his strong grip twisting her shoulders back so hard she cried out in pain.
"I'm taking her with me," the man shouted.
Behind Slade, Warrior was going wild against the confines of his big wire-front cage, his barks frantic and snarling. Kaitlin watched, afraid for Slade. The K-9 captain held his gun on her attacker and kept advancing, inch by inch.
"Let her go," Slade shouted again over the barking dog, his finger on the trigger of his Glock 22 service revolver. "Don't make me shoot you!"
The man stopped tugging and glared at Slade. Holding Kaitlin with one hand, he tried to reach down and scoop up his gun with the other. He seemed to know Slade wouldn't take the shot with her shielding him.
Kaitlin glanced at Slade, then using all of her strength, kicked the weapon out of her abductor's reach and, with a grunt, yanked herself away. She fell, the concrete scraping through her khaki pants to tear at her knee. But she scrambled to her feet and did a quick run toward some shrubbery near the building. That left the culprit in full view and diving for his gun. Slade could take the shot and kill the man right where he stood. Kaitlin went on her knees behind the shrubbery, watching as Slade pulled off a round, hitting near where the gun lay, causing the perp to jump and roll.
"Don't move," Slade shouted as he starting walking. "I will hit the mark next time."
Kaitlin held her breath, praying Slade wouldn't get shot. She should have picked up the gun. But the attacker took his own chances. He grabbed for his weapon, then pivoted and rolled into a ragged hunched-over zigzag toward the van, firing behind himself as he ran.
Helpless, Kaitlin watched from the bushes, her heart caught in her throat. But while she watched, she tried to memorize everything she could about her attacker.
She held a hand to her mouth, watching as Slade dived to the ground to avoid being hit, but got off a couple of rounds before the man returned fire. One of Slade's shots hit the side of the van, but missed the moving target. The suspect did a nosedive into the open vehicle and the van spun around in Reverse and took off. Two of them. He'd had a getaway driver.
Slade took one more shot, but the van swerved and skidded out onto the side street, then the driver gunned it and disappeared into the burnt dusk. Slade squinted into the sunset, trying to see the tag numbers. All he saw was a temporary tag with smeared letters and numbers. He couldn't get a read on it.
Nothing to do there. He got on the radio and alerted the switchboard operator. "McNeal, K-9 Unit 601, 207-A averted, back parking lot behind the training yard. Suspect got away. All clear."
Holstering his weapon, he hurried to where Kaitlin still sat pressing her entire body in between the prickly shrubbery and the building bricks, her eyes bright with fear and relief. This whole event had lasted a couple of minutes, but it sure felt like a lifetime.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked, placing a hand on one of her arms. With a gentle tug, he pulled her out of the shrubbery.
She jerked away, then looked up at him. "Slade?"
"Yeah, it's me. They're gone. You're safe now."
She nodded and then plowed into his arms and held on for dear life. "Thank you." Her voice was shaky but getting stronger with each inhale of breath. "Thank you."
Slade allowed her to hug him close, his fingers hovering in the air before he put his arms around her shoulders and patted her on the back. "You're all right now. It's over."
The woman in his arms clung to him for a while longer.
Slade didn't try to pry her away. Her whole body seemed to tremble against him. His own heart echoed that trembling, but maybe for an entirely different reason. It had been a long time since he'd held a woman so close. But it hadn't been so long that he could get past the image of his wife walking out the door and getting in that car.
He wanted to hold Kaitlin and comfort her, but bitter memories tinged with regret pulled him back.
Besides, he knew if anyone saw this, they'd both have some explaining to do. And with a K-9 dog barking and shots fired in the back of police headquarters, the entire department would be rushing around the building any moment now.
He backed up, took her by her arms and set her a few inches away. "Kaitlin, listen to me. You're okay. I need to ask you a few questions."
Her shock changed to embarrassment, her face blushing pink against the pale white of her skin. Shimmying out from under his grip, she bobbed her head. "Before I give a statement, I have to check on Warrior."
Slade stopped her from bolting by standing between her and the fussy dog. "Warrior will be fine for a few more minutes. Listen to me, okay?"
She exhaled, called a command to the animal, then glanced back at Slade. "You need a description?"
"Yes, but first what happened?" He scanned the perimeter of the practice yard and the parking lot. Nobody. But he heard doors opening in the distance and voices echoing out over the headquarters' parking lot. Maybe someone else had seen something.
Kaitlin glanced toward the sound of running feet. "I heard Warrior barking. He alerted me."
"I heard him, too," Slade said as he grasped her wrist. "Let's move toward the kennels so we don't get shot by one of our own."
She let him guide her until they were a few feet from Warrior's kennel. Then she pulled away and ran to the dog, her key ring jingling as she quickly opened the mesh-wire door.
Warrior bounded out, his frustrated whimpers echoing over the yard. The dog paced toward where Kaitlin had been snatched, then glanced up at his trainer.
The order wasn't as commanding as in the practice yard, but the dog did as Kaitlin said.
Slade saw two uniformed officers push around the building, guns drawn. He held up his hands. "Hey, over here. We had an intruder but it's okay now."
As the officers gathered around, Slade explained what had gone down. "I exited my office and heard a K-9 officer barking. Someone tried to abduct Miss Mathers. He held a gun to her head, but she managed to get away. I pursued the attacker and called for him to halt. He refused and fired back. We both shot off a few rounds, but he managed to make it to the getaway car. Black, late-model van, old with a dent in the front passenger-side door. Temporary tag, smudged and unreadable. Vehicle headed west on Trapper Street. I got off a shot that hit the right back side of the van."
"We'll put out a BOLO."
Slade nodded on that.
"Get a good look at the attacker?" one of the officers asked.
Kaitlin spoke up. "He was wearing a dark mask like a ski mask. His eyes looked so black, an eerie black. He must have been wearing special contacts because even the whites of his eyes looked dark."
Slade saw the shudder moving down her body. And felt the hair on his neck rising. This wasn't the first time he'd had a run-in with a man fitting that description. Last month, he'd glimpsed a masked gunman with blacked-out eyes fleeing Melody Zachary's hotel suite after a tense standoff that left K-9 detective Parker Adams with a gunshot wound. However, he didn't let on in front of Kaitlin that this suspect had to be the hooded man who'd been wreaking havoc on his entire department. The body count kept rising due to the heavy-handed work of a local crime syndicate run by a mastermind known as The Boss. And now someone within this criminal's organization had made a bold attempt right here on police grounds. Five months ago, his K-9 partner Rio had been stolen and now this. Someone was deliberately taunting him.
He wanted this case over and done with before someone else got killed.
Turning to the officer, he said, "That's an apt description. He was average height, maybe a hundred and seventy pounds, medium build. He wore black coveralls." Slade stopped, a shiver of familiarity moving down his spine. He shook it off, figuring things had happened so fast he still had a lot of images running through his head. Especially the one of Kaitlin being held a gunpoint.
"There was a wide silver zipper down the front," she added, her voice becoming stronger. "He had a raspy voice. He kept telling me I had to go with him."
Kaitlin kept her hand on Warrior and petted the dog over and over. She was scared but was clearly putting on a brave front. Slade's heart still thumped against his chest. The image of that masked man holding her at gunpoint would stay with him for a long time.
After the officers took their statements and along with the crime scene unit, covered every inch of the area where the van had been idling, Slade finally told the others he needed to get Kaitlin home.
"I can drive myself," she insisted tersely, her pupils settling into a stubborn dark green. "Warrior always goes home with me. I'll be fine."
"I'm taking you home," Slade said in his best captain voice. "So don't argue with me."
She stared him down, then shrugged. "Then let's get out of here."