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NATE PRATCHETT stared down into hell, watching the underground lab burn. They'd found Tam. They'd either killed or taken her, and both options made him sick to his stomach. If they'd found Tam, he had to assume they'd found them all. As he was standing here, they might be at Kate and Vince's, at his place where Cade was going over recordings from the bugs placed in the office Omicron used as a front in downtown L.A. All his friends might be dead.
He stepped back as the heat intensified, and that was lucky because something down in the lab exploded, rocking the building around him. He had to get out of here, now, before the whole place came down.
The complex itself had been an incredible find, but there had always been inherent danger. Built by Colom-bian drug dealers, it had been an underground labyrinth of rooms and escape routes. He'd turned it into a lab for Tam, who'd been a virtual prisoner there during the past two years as she'd worked on the antidote for the deadly gas created by Omicron. Now it was ashes and the end of hope.
There was only one chance that she wasn't dead or captured, but he hesitated. If she wasn't there, No, he had to go. Had to know. If she had made it out, she was probably hurt.
That thought spurred him into a run. He was halfway down the block before it occurred to him that he was heading straight for the Plan B building, and that Omicron might be watching him.
It wasn't like him to be so careless, but shit, Tam. He darted into an abandoned building nearby and pressed himself against a wall while his eyes grew ac-customed to the dark. It was one of the many ram-shackle buildings in the projects of East Los Angeles that had once housed the poor. Even they'd moved on, except for those too whacked-out on drugs or alcohol, or who thought they could still make a buck. Mostly rats lived there. Rats and packs of dogs.
He could see nowshapes at least. There were almost no working street lights here. The city had stopped replacing them. Which made it an excellent hiding space, but damned hard to negotiate without a flashlight.
One thing in his favor, and hopefully Tam's, was that they'd gone over this route over and over again. He'd wanted her to be able to find her way in the pitch-black night. He'd wanted her safe.
IN DARKNESS SO BLACK IT FELT like blindness, Tamara Chen touched her eyes to see if they were open. The gun in her other hand shook from her trembling, making her feel useless and petrified.
She'd just killed a man.
He'd been alive one second and dead the next, and it didn't seem to matter that he'd tried to kill her. She'd pulled the trigger. The recoil had knocked her against the wall of the lab and hurt her wrist, but even so she'd shot him in the head. A fluke, an accident. One that had saved her life.nothing against the frigid January air. She'd left her coat. Her cell phone had been destroyed, along with her clothes, her pictures, her journals. Everything she had was now gone except the clothes she wore and the flash drive that hung on a long chain around her neck.
The last five years of her life were stored in it, and she could go to any computer, plug it in the USB port and there it would be. Formulas, notes, test results. Failures.
The last two weeks in the lab had been a new kind of hell for her. Nothing she'd experienced before, whether in school or at work, had prepared her for a failure of such magnitude. What in hell had made her think she could save the day? She was a biochemist. A good one. But she'd fallen so short of the mark on this one
A sound, the crack of a branch? A backfire in the distance? She lifted the gun again, still shaking as badly as when she'd first planted herself in the corner.
They'd found her. Omicron had found her. They were clever bastards, but she'd been so careful. She never made phone calls, except with the clean cell phones Nate gave her. She hid in the basement lab, having her groceries and supplies brought to her rather than risk a trip to the market.
Nothing in her life, ever since she'd returned to the States from Kosovo, had been normal. Even her Internet connection, which she used only when absolutely nec-essary, had been routed through so many blind alleys and foreign ports that it would take a genius monthsif everto pinpoint her location.
So what had gone wrong? Had they found Nate? Followed him?
The thought filled her with a whole new level of terror. If Nate had been captured, if he was dead, then she might as well give it up. There would be no winning if Nate was out of the picture. Since day one, he'd been the leader.
The first time she'd met him she'd been in Serbia, in a cramped lab, working on the development of a new chemical compound.
That seemingly dream job had come to her out of the blue. She'd just finished her final doctoral thesis and had scored a plum position working for her chemistry profes-sor, Dr. Brennan. But Brennan had introduced her to a man claiming to be working on a secret government project. He'd offered her two hundred thousand dollars for two years of work, if she was willing to relocate to Kosovo. She wasn't told what the project was, only her part.
While she'd known several of the other scientists who'd been approached, mostly chemists like herself, she'd had to sign a non-fraternization contract, as well as a nondisclosure agreement. One slip of the tongue, and there would be no payoff. She'd gotten a weekly per diem that took care of her necessities, and they'd provided housing, but the big money was all due upon completion. She used to spend hours at night, planning how she'd spend her two hundred grand.
How jumping on that incredible opportunity had led her to being hunted down by a rogue CIA unit was still beyond her comprehension. Those men from Omicron had destroyed the lab, trashed her personal belongings and tried to kidnapif not killher. Her. Tamara Chen. Who'd been a science nerd since grade school. Who used to look forward to music night with her Mom and Dad. Who'd gone out on her first date at eighteen. Who'd never been in love.
She froze as another crack sounded. This time it wasn't far away, and this time it was followed by foot-steps coming closer, walking through the condemned building toward her.
Somehow she managed to get to her feet, then she pointed the gun in front of herself. She had no idea if she was aiming at a wall or a torn-up couch, but she had to do something. She didn't want to die, not at twenty-eight. It was the most terrified she'd ever been, and in the last few years, she'd been shaken a lot.
She'd anxiously brooded about this moment, what it would be like to come face to face with the shadowy men of Omicron determined to kill her and her friends because of their discovery of Omicron's deadly plans while they were stationed in Kosovo. It sucked.
NATE MOVED MORE CAREFULLY, uncomfortably aware that if Omicron was watching, they'd be using infrared. The only way to get where he needed to go was to use the buildings themselves as cover.
One room at a time, one wall at a time, he made his way block by block. He was getting closer, and his heart beat hard and heavy in his chest, dreading what he would find.
He finally reached the building, the one they'd chosen as a fail-safe. She was behind that wall or she wasn't, and he'd have to deal with it. That's all. He could do this.
One step, then another. The darkness here was total and there was no choice but to reach into his back pocket and take out his penlight. He looked away, turned on the thing, then followed the beam of light around the corner.
It was Tam. Bloody, shaking so hard her weapon was all over the map and filthy, but it was Tam and she was alive.
"Stop or I'll shoot," she said, her voice quavering, her eyes shut tight against the light.
"It's me," Nate said, and he had to repeat it because his voice broke. "Tam, it's me."
She stilled for a moment, then opened her eyes. "Nate?"
She sounded like a child.A frightened, desperate child. He holstered his gun and crossed the distance between them. Gently pushing aside her weapon, he took her in his arms. "It's okay," he said, his words muffled on her hair. "I'm here."
She dropped her gun on the floor and clutched his back. He felt her sob before he heard it, her whole chest heaving against him.
"Shh," he said, rocking her. "Are you hurt?"
She shook her head. "Can you walk?"
A nod. "Okay, baby, let's take it slowly. I want to make sure there's no one out there."
She sniffed, then drew her head back. "I killed him," she said.
"That was good. You did great."
"He pointed his gun at me, but I shot first. There was no time."
"You did the right thing," he said. She was freaked, and he got that. Ordinary people freaked about death. About killing. They weren't trained for anything else.
"He was a bad guy, so don't sweat it. Right now, we have to get out of here. They could come back."
She hung on to him as he bent for her gun. He could through what was left of the building. It took a lot longer to get back to his truck than it had to get to her. They kept the light out for most of the journey, and toward the end she had slowed to a crawl, but finally they were in the truck and on their way.
He'd decided where to take her as they'd walked through buildings, so he knew to get on the freeway toward the San Fernando Valley. She sat close, resting her head on his shoulder.
He would have put his arm around her if he hadn't been so worried about the rest of the team. Although it hurt him to bother her, he had her shift so he could get his cell, a new one that couldn't be traced, and dialed Kate and Vince. "Hello?" Kate murmured sleepily.
He had no idea what time it was, just that it was late.
"Tam's been compromised," he said.
There was silence on the phone and when Kate said, "Where do you want us?" she didn't sound in the least bit sleepy now.
"Meet up with Seth and Boone. We'll follow." Kate hung up, but Nate knew two things. One, that she and Vince were alive, and two, that they would be out of their rented house in an hour, on their way to Nevada.
He dialed Cade's phone. Being the soldier he was, he knew the drill, too. Only he'd have to pack Nate's stuff as well as his own, and since Nate had the truck, he'd have to find some other transportation.
As Nate drove onto the 101 Freeway, he dialed his sister's cell. As he'd expected, Boone and Seth were out on recon, but Christie assured him that no one had been snooping around. She promised to be vigilant and dis-cuss the situation with the guys as soon as they returned. Harper, a doctor who'd also been in Kosovo and joined their cause, was out pulling double duty on her wait-ressing job.