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They were going to kill her this time.
The first shot blew a hole the size of her thumb through the driver's side window. Rachael Armitage cut the steering wheel hard to the right. The Mustang slid sideways on the rain-slicked road, but she steered into the skid. The instant the tires gripped, she hit the gas.
There was at least one vehicle behind her. Maybe two. The men inside were probably armed to the hilt. The driver was good; he knew when to get close and when to back off. But she was better. She only hoped she had the horsepower to prove it.
Never taking her eyes from the rearview mirror, she negotiated a sharp curve. The car fishtailed, but she held it steady and maintained control. The headlights behind her disappeared. When the road straightened, Rachael floored the accelerator. But she knew they weren't going to give up.
Grabbing her purse, she emptied it onto the seat next to her. For an instant she debated whether to reach for the cell phone or the Beretta .380, but she reached for the phone.
Headlights flashed in her rearview mirror as she flipped open the cell. Cursing, she hit the speed dial with her thumb. The vehicle was gaining on her with astounding speed. Coming too fast. Getting too close. One ring. Two.
"Come on," she snapped.
The vehicle bumped her from behind just as a voice answered. "ID and code, please."
"This is Alpha two-four-six. Code red." Rachael glanced to her left to see a big chrome bumper inches from her window. "Damn."
"What's your twenty, Alpha?"
Knowing the vehicle was going to ram her, Rachael stomped the brake. But she wasn't fast enough. The big SUV swerved, its front quarter panel slamming into the Mustang hard enough to knock the phone from her hand. The car veered sideways. The tires screamed as they lost purchase.
She skillfully steered into the skid, but her heart was hammering by the time she regained control. Adrenaline burned hot in her gut. Too damn close, she thought. These guys were good. Professional killers more than likely. They had heavier, faster vehicles. Bigger guns. But then she didn't expect any less from the man whose only mission in life was to see her dead.
She should have heeded Cutter's advice and taken the Lear. But then Rachael had never been good at taking advice.
Ahead, she could see the yellow glow of Chicago's north suburbs above the tree line. She wasn't familiar with this particular road. Didn't know where to find refuge. Where the hell was a cop when you needed one?
The second shot shattered the windshield. The safety glass held, but shards pelted her like sleet. Large-caliber projectile. High velocity. If they shot through the engine she would be dead in the water.
Wind roared through the hole in the windshield. Cold night air surrounded her with icy fingers. But it wasn't the cold that had her hands shaking on the wheel. A glance at the speedometer told her she was nearing one hundred miles per hour. A dangerous speed even in the best conditions. Downright reckless on wet pavement on a curvy back road in the dead of night.
But then Rachael had always been good at reckless. Every nerve in her body jumped when two sets of headlights loomed behind her. She pressed the accelerator to the floor, but the Mustang's V-8 engine had already given its all. The second vehicle came up beside her. A large SUV.
The fender slammed into the driver's side door. Steel screeched and groaned as the vehicles locked. Rachael hit the brake, but it was too late. The Mus-tang careened into the guardrail. Sparks shot high into the air as steel ground against steel. She tried desperately to ease the car back on the road, but the SUV was too heavy. She was going too fast.
In a last-ditch effort to keep the car from going through the guardrail and down the embankment, she jerked the wheel hard to the left. The SUV was ready and slammed into her again. The impact sent the Mustang into a skid. Rachael was thrown violently to the right. The car bounced off the guardrail and went into a wild spin.
She fought the steering wheel for control, but it was a losing battle. She caught a glimpse of headlights. Of trees against the night sky. The lights of Chicago through the white capillaries of the shattered windshield. Vaguely, she was aware of her cell phone and weapon sliding to the floor.
The car spun as if in slow motion. She was thrown against her safety belt when the car hit the guardrail on the opposite side of the road. The splintering of wood sounded like a gunshot. The airbag deployed. Then she was tumbling end over end.
Rachael tried to protect her face and head, but the journey down the embankment was stunningly violent. Even with the airbag in place, her cheek slammed into the steering wheel hard enough to daze her. Glass broke when her temple hit the driver's side window. The car somersaulted like a carnival ride run amok.
After everything she'd been through—every crazy risk she'd taken—she couldn't believe her life would end this way. On some back road in the dead of night at the hands of some faceless, nameless goons she'd never even met. She'd always imagined herself going down in a blaze of glory—and taking at least one of them with her.
She thought of Michael, of all the times in the last two years when she'd wanted nothing more than to lay her head down and join him. She wondered if this was that moment. If the nine lives she'd always fancied herself as having had finally run out. The prospect was not as comforting as she'd imagined.
As suddenly as the car had careened out of control, everything went still. Rachael found herself hanging upside down, suspended by her safety belt. The first thought that registered was that she was alive. She'd had the breath knocked out of her; she could hear herself gasping, trying to get oxygen into her lungs. Her elation was short-lived when the tinny thunk of a bullet penetrating steel sounded a foot away from her head. She couldn't believe they were still shooting at her. Time to go.
Mentally, she did a quick physical assessment. A dull throb racked her left shoulder. She was pretty sure the warmth on the left side of her face was blood. But Rachael didn't have time to hurt. She knew the men in the SUV weren't finished. If she wanted to live, she was going to have to drag herself out of the car and make a run for it.
A groan escaped her as she reached for the release on the safety belt. Pain shot from shoulder to elbow, but she didn't let it stop her. Survival took precedence over pain. Mind over matter. She would deal with injuries later.
The belt mechanism clicked open. Gravity slammed her into the steering wheel. Grinding her teeth, she fumbled blindly in the darkness for her cell or weapon. She located the cell on what was left of the dashboard, the Beretta next to the crushed dome light. Shoving both items into the waistband of her jeans, Rachael heaved herself toward the passenger side window.
Tiny shards of glass cut her as she clawed through the small opening. Two more shots rang out as she crawled from the car. The Mustang had landed roof down. Steam hissed from the undercarriage and spewed into the cold night air. A small fire flickered beneath the hood. The car was useless; she was going to have to hoof it.
She scrambled to her feet. An instant of dizziness, then the horizon leveled. Around her, the night showed no signs of the violence that had exploded just seconds earlier. The only sound came from the slow spin of a single wheel and the hiss of steam. A chorus of crickets. The distant bark of a dog.
Voices cut through the silence. Rachael glanced toward the road above her. A fresh surge of adrenaline burned through her when she spotted four men. Illuminated by headlights, they were making their way down the ravine. At least two of them were armed with pistols. The other two carried rifles. In the back of her mind she wondered if they had night-vision equipment.
Persistent sons of bitches, she thought, and launched herself into a lumbering run for the tree line a dozen yards away. Her knee protested, but she didn't slow down.
Shouts rose behind her as she entered the line of trees. They'd reached the car and discovered her missing. If the situation hadn't been so dire, she might have enjoyed the moment. There was nothing she loved more than besting some piece of scum. But she wasn't out of the woods yet.
Pulling the cell phone from her waistband, she hit the speed dial to the MIDNIGHT Agency's crisis line. The coordinator answered on the first ring. Rachael was breathless when she recited her ID, code and GPS coordinates. The voice told her a chopper team was on the way with an ETA of twenty-five minutes. In that instant, twenty-five minutes seemed like a lifetime. Rachael knew all too well how much could happen in twenty-five minutes.
Shoving the cell phone into her waistband, she prayed she lived long enough to reach the pickup point.