Read an Excerpt
Colombia, South America—Six Years Ago
Michelle Alger swung her leg over the back of the four-wheel ATV and rested her hands on Ignacio Ramirez’s hips.
“I’m so glad you reconsidered,” she yelled over the thrum of the loud engine. “I can’t wait to see this amazing paradise your family owns.” She shifted back to the edge of the black pleather cushion. With her legs straddling his and the vibrations coursing through the seat, she couldn’t escape the uncomfortable sexual intimacy the off-road vehicle forced on her.
Knowing Nacio’s over-inflated ego, he probably interpreted her loose grip and spread thighs clenching him as her capitulation to his constant offers to a night full of sex. Yeah, right.
“Your uncle won’t even know we’re traipsing on his land,” Michelle promised, trying not to squirm.
“You know he held out as long as he had because he basked in your begging, right?” Maria asked from the back of another red ATV, her heavy Spanish accent making it almost impossible to understand. “He laid it on thick with his adventures of growing up in the wild rainforest just to prolong your shameless pleading.”
Nacio twisted and smiled. “Maybe. But wait until you see it for yourself. The samples out there are spectacular. We’ll ace this final.”
Luis, the fourth member of their environmental lab group, patted Maria’s hand around his waist then pointed at Nacio. “You lead the way.”
Nacio winked at Michelle and said in a low, sexy voice, “Better hold on tight.”
Michelle rolled her eyes and pushed him in the shoulder. “How many times do I have to tell you man-whores are not my type?”
Nacio’s throaty laugh did nothing for her.
He revved the engine and popped the ATV into gear. The four-wheeler jumped forward, causing her to wrap her arms around him tightly. Showoff.
As Nacio headed for a well-used dirt trail, Michelle turned to make sure the small, beat-up trailer hitched to the back rolled along with them. All of the equipment their group needed as well as their tents and provisions to camp for a few days rested on one unstable latch. Whoever had used the trailer before them must have gotten into an accident, because the whole mechanism was seriously bent.
Michelle sighed. What did she expect? The Universidad del sur Colombia wasn’t a rich school by any standards. She was lucky they supplied the off-road vehicles at all, let alone the trailers and equipment countless students used to study the Amazon rainforest over the years.
Luis quickly dropped in line behind them and within moments they were swallowed by the vegetation. Despite being in close quarters to her womanizing group member, Michelle’s stomach danced in anticipation of the discoveries that lay ahead. She counted her blessings every day at the opportunity of being an exchange student from the University of California for a semester. To study the ecosystem of the Amazon directly was a dream come true.
Her fellow budding ecologists loved hanging around her because it gave them the opportunity to practice their English and learn the latest slang. Most days Michelle could figure out what they were saying—or trying to say—but sometimes wading through the thick accents and wrong word choices made her head ache.
The deeper they trekked into the forest, the stiffer Nacio’s posture became. Where the heck were they? She couldn’t really judge the distance with the crawling pace and winding “trail.”
She glanced at her watch. 4:13 p.m. Five hours. Five looooooonnnnnng hours on the back of a four-wheeler made her butt numb and the feeling in her toes a forgotten memory.
She tapped Nacio’s rigid shoulder. “I need a break.”
He shot a glance at the surrounding area, his movement almost jerky with its tension. Finally, he called over the droning engine, “We’re almost at the bridge.”
Bridge? “What bridge?”
Her long-sleeved shirt clung to her skin. Sweat from the dense humidity ran down her body in rivulets. She uncapped the canteen strapped across her body and took a swig. Early on in the journey she had learned to keep the swallows short. With so many ruts and twists, anything longer just spilled down her front.
Birds cawed and flapped away at their appearance. The magnificent colors of a parrot’s wings in flight never ceased to amaze her. Of course they weren’t the only birds she saw, but they were the ones she searched for the most.
They rounded another bend and the oppressive darkness of the full tree canopy fell away. Nacio stopped the ATV and Michelle blinked at the sight before her. Or rather the lack of scenery before her. A cliff. They were stopping at a cliff?
She scanned the area. The small opening was only big enough for their vehicles to pull to the side before the trail disappeared into the tree line again. Instead of a beautiful sunset in the late December sky, thick clouds threatened rain.
“We stopping for a break?” Michelle asked as Nacio hopped to the ground.
Luis and Maria pulled up beside them.
“Nah,” Nacio replied, his mouth grim and an edge of strain tinging his voice. “We’re here.”
Michelle’s stomach plunged. She swung her leg over the ATV and stepped down. Her legs almost gave out and the muscles in her thighs quivered. Great. She could imagine the jokes from the others about how straddling Nacio made her walk funny.
Pebbles and rocks scrunched under her boots as she paced to get the blood flowing.
“Oh, how pretty!” Maria exclaimed, scrabbling off the bike and scurrying to the edge. “Look!” She pointed at something below.
Michelle cautiously moved forward and craned her neck. She whirled on Nacio. “Is this a joke?”
Steps had been cut into the rock face leading down to a platform where a wood-and-rope bridge spanned the space between two rock cliffs. The bridge swayed in the strengthening wind brought on by the incoming storm and had to be a hundred feet in the air. The riverbed sped below, its whitecaps frothing against the boulders protruding from its depths.
“You expect us to carry all of our equipment and gear over that?”
“Si,” Nacio barked, pausing his perusal of the landscape around him. He yanked off one of the straps holding their gear on the trailer.
Okay. Maybe the guy acted like a jerk when he was overtired. “How do you know it’s safe? That wood looks old.”
“Don’t be such a wuss,” Luis quipped, grinning at his obvious attempt at slang. “There’s webbing taller than you on both sides.”
“It’s safe,” Nacio grunted. “Now get up here and grab your stuff. We need to clear out and set up camp.”
Michelle’s heart relocated into her stomach. Warning. Warning, her instincts yelled. Not a good idea. Did she have an alternative? If she attempted to hike back by herself, she’d be lost in a half hour. She glanced again at the ominous bridge of death, then at the thick vegetation crowding the tree line. Death by tumbling off a bridge or death by wild beasts if she tried to hike back by herself? Rats on rye toast. She lagged behind Luis and Maria and grabbed as much of the gear as she could carry.
Michelle grunted, her sore muscles protesting the load. Dang. She should have been hitting the gym instead of the cantina. Not only would her large hips have thanked her, but the extra stamina she could’ve gained would’ve come in handy. She readjusted her backpack. What the heck did she pack in it? Her entire wardrobe?
Nacio scanned the area again. The deep crease marring his forehead and the set line of his mouth did nothing to help her nerves. She glanced around too. Had he seen something?
Leaves swayed and rustled in the wind and the clouds deepened to a charcoal pitch. An eerie silence hung in the air. A shot of fear stole down her spine. Were the birds and such quiet because of their group or was something else here watching them? Did it wait in the shadows like a hunter?
She swallowed and tore her eyes away from the forest, forcing an inner chuckle at her jumpiness. That’s it. No more late-night suspense fests for you.
Nacio tromped to the wooden post marking the beginning of the steps and turned. “I’ll go first. Once I’m across, then someone else can go and so on. Si?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just started down the steps.
Michelle hefted a pair of duffels and got in line behind Luis and Maria. The bridge swayed and dipped as each walked across but no one seemed to have any trouble crossing.
Her heart thundered.
She inhaled. “Don’t look down,” she whispered, then exhaled. “It’s an experience you can tell your friends about when you get home.”
Descending the last step that led right onto the bridge, she tried one more time to bolster her nerves. “You can do this, Michelle. Everyone else crossed with no problem.” She tread forward carefully. The wooden planks were nailed closely together, barely leaving any light to shine through. That was a good thing, right?
She continued to advance. The bridge moved and shifted as she walked but the high webbing on each side helped her confidence. Thick ropes were woven through the holes and made it seem as if it were stable. Please, God, don’t let that be an illusion.
Wind whipped over her, causing the bridge to sway with it. Bugger. This was so not cool. She picked up her pace. Not exactly to a run but not a leisurely stroll either.
The wood creaked beneath her feet. She glanced down and froze. Oh God. She was directly in the center.
A hundred feet up.
Rushing water below.
Gusts of air pushing against her.
Her heart lodged in her throat.
“Come on, Michelle,” Maria yelled. “You’re almost across.”
She yanked her eyes off the rocks below and looked toward her classmates. Maria clapped and gave her a thumbs-up while Luis stood with his arms crossed behind her. Nacio . . . Wait, why was he running up the hill?
“Hey!” Michelle called, moving forward again. “Nacio, where are you going?”
Maria screamed and pointed at something behind her.
The bridge shook violently and the wooden planks protested.
Michelle whirled and her mouth went dry. Two men carrying big guns ran right for her. They were shouting something, but the blood thundering in her ears prevented her from understanding a word they said.
She dropped the duffels and ran, leaping forward off the bridge. Hard stone splintered her fingernails as she scrabbled up the thin steps cut into the cliff-face. Heavy footsteps pounded too closely behind her, making her desperate to reach the top. Her foot slipped, probably from the blood dripping from her fingers, but she managed to clear the last step.
Umpfh. A heavy weight tackled her from behind, smashing her face into the ground. Before she could ascertain if she was all right, someone yanked her up by her backpack and pressed the end of a gun against her temple.
Her eyes frantically searched the area but she could only see Luis on his knees with a pistol to his head.
“Va por ahi!” someone in the woods shouted.
Michelle quickly translated: There she goes.
Oh God. Please let that be Maria escaping.
The staccato beat of machine gunfire answered her question. Michelle screamed, “NO!”
The gun lifted from her temple and slammed against her head. Her last thought before the world went dark was, Where did Nacio go?
“Malone, you’ve got a visitor.”
Captain Jeremy Malone glanced up from the map of the Amazon jungle he’d been studying in his tent. As a commanding officer in the Green Berets, he normally wouldn’t be addressed so informally, but he and Captain Stacey Jackson maintained the same rank. Despite being saddled with a feminine first name, Jacks was as masculine and well-rounded as a soldier could get . . . and extremely popular with the ladies.
“Jacks, I thought you were still out reconning,” Malone answered, his voice sounding like a chainsaw compared to Jack’s smooth intonation.
“I was,” the soldier replied, pulling a soaking wet, pathetic excuse for a man from behind him, “when our new friend, here, caught up with me.”
Malone lasered in on the man’s face. Dirt, now mud, covered the asset’s skin and his torn clothes were beyond saving. Time to find out what he was doing here. “Jose, que estas haciendo aqui?”
Jose swallowed and answered in broken English, “News, señor.”
Malone tamped down his impatience. He already figured that much out himself. He raised an eyebrow and waited.
“Osvaldos take American girl.”
Malone stiffened. “Where the hell did the cartel get an American girl?”
“She crossed their border.” Jose wrung his hands, his wide eyes bouncing between Malone and Jacks.
The sinister edge pouring into Jacks’s expression had the informant stepping back.
“Start from the beginning,” Malone’s teammate and best friend barked.
Jose swallowed. “I only heard this morning. I wo-working in field.”
“Wait. Are you telling me she’s been there for days?” Malone asked, his stomach knotting.
“Si, señor. Two.” Jose held up two grubby fingers as if to make his point.
“Son of a bitch,” Jacks exploded. “That sadistic bastard Ramon could have done anything to her by now, including selling her to his twisted brother for the sex-slave trade.”
The knot constricted. Malone ignored his friend’s too-true tirade and concentrated on Jose. “What else? What have you heard about her?”
“The men, they talk. She bonita . . . pretty. Young. American. Had a—a mochila?”
“Backpack,” Malone answered automatically, stroking his chin.
Jacks paused his pacing and barked, “Like how young?”
“School girl?” Jacks lowered his palm to indicate a girl between the ages of seven to ten. “Or full grown?” He raised his hand to shoulder height.
Jose cupped his hands and held them in front to indicate full breasts. “Full grown, señor.” His face reddened. “The men”—he cleared his throat—“they, ah, describe what they do if they have chance.”
Malone’s stomach twisted. Christ. “Where was she captured?”
Jose dropped his arms. “By bridge, señor.”
“Gracias, Jose.” Malone turned to his friend. “Jacks, tell Jersey to escort Jose out of camp after he compensates the man, then meet me across the way.”
“Sure.” Jacks grabbed Jose’s arm.
“Wait.” Jose fought to stay. “My family. You promise safety.”
Jacks paused and Malone answered, “Do exactly what I told you when we first met and your family will not be harmed in the raid.”
“Thank you, señor,” the asset gushed, wringing his hands.
“Keep your end of the bargain, Jose,” Malone warned, holding the smaller man’s gaze. “Not a word about our existence here or the impending strike and you will be further compensated for your aid.”
“Si. Si. I not say anything.”
Jacks pulled the man into the rain.
Malone followed, then shuffled inside the second tent. Reginald “Fast Fingers” Davis sat behind his latest group of toys. Monitors were placed on top of thick, black plastic cases large enough to carry a shitload of ordnance—which they did. His M4 Carbine rifle rested against his leg as he leaned back in his makeshift chair with his feet propped up on another set of cases.
“I need your skills,” Malone announced.
Fast Fingers jerked his head up and dropped his legs to the floor, starting to rise.
“At ease and speak freely,” Malone instructed, cutting through the formalities they didn’t have time to honor.
Reginald resettled and asked, “What’s up?” The scars of bad teenage acne still pitted the man’s face, but in a way were a blessing. If the guy hadn’t been riddled with the confidence-smashing pimples he wouldn’t have spent so much time at home learning his way around a keyboard. And those skills were definitely well-honed.
Jacks ducked inside and shook his head. Rain drops flew off in every direction.
“Watch the equipment, ya mangy mutt,” Fast Fingers grumbled, hugging the keyboard against him.
“We’ve got an unexpected development,” Malone stated grimly. “The Osvaldo cartel has branched out into kidnapping.”
“Overachieving bastards, aren’t they?” Fast Fingers quipped. “Drugs and guns no longer enough to keep them busy?”
“Apparently not.” Malone shifted forward. “Before we have the final briefing with the SEALs, DEA, ATF, and that other group with no name to solidify the plans for the raid, I need to know as much as possible about the girl they took. I don’t want FUBAR stamped on our mission tonight.”
“But Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition is our specialty.” Fast Fingers laughed, then started clicking on his keyboard. “Tell me what you got.”
Malone relayed Jose’s information in less than ten seconds.
“That’s it?” Fast Fingers paused, looking up at him.
“Yeah. You’ve got one hour, fifty-five minutes to find out everything you can about her before we deploy. This may be a game changer.”
“Damn right it is,” Jacks exclaimed. “We can’t leave her with those bastards.”
“If she’s still there,” Malone replied gravely.
Jacks swore colorfully.
“Find me when you have something to report,” Malone instructed, pulling his friend out of the tent.
One hour, forty minutes later a throat cleared just beyond the flaps of Malone’s tent.
“Enter,” Malone ordered.
Fast Fingers ducked inside and started to assume the attention position but Malone waved him forward. “At ease. Bring me what you’ve found.”
Reginald loped forward and slapped a thin manila folder on the table in Malone’s tent.
“Permission to speak candidly?”
“Granted.” Malone leaned forward on the makeshift table and turned the folder toward him.
“I believe I’ve figured out who they have. I don’t have any evidence. In fact, everything’s completely circumstantial.”
“I understand what you’re saying and take full responsibility. Proceed.”
Reginald’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Meet Michelle Alger.”
Malone opened the folder and his stomach flipped. An eight-by-ten color headshot of a smiling, happy-go-lucky young woman with twinkling bronze eyes peered up at him. Shoulder-length wavy hair, reminding him of warm chestnuts, framed a pretty face with just enough meat to tell Malone she wasn’t one of those anorexic women obsessed with dieting. A definite plus in the woman’s favor.
“Born in July.”
Fast Fingers’ report yanked Malone back to reality and shamed him for imagining what the rest of her body would look like.
“She’s nineteen years old and a sophomore here as an exchange student from the University of California.”
Malone thumbed past the headshot to a single sheet of paper reducing Michelle’s life down to the basic facts. Social Security number, California dorm address, parents’ names and home address, and even the fact that she had a butterfly tattoo on her left hip.
Fast Fingers was scary good.
“Excellent work, as usual.” Malone snapped the file shut.
“I didn’t have enough time to find out her dress size—”
“No problem.” Malone cut him off, not wanting to revive the mental image of ample breasts—fueled by Jose’s visual—and spectacular ass—supplied by his imagination—in his head. “I’ve figured out which size jumpsuit to pack based on the photo.”
Reginald grinned. “She’s suh-weet. Jacks is going to flip when he sees her.”
Malone gripped the folder against an unexpected wave of anger. Mine. He blinked. Had that possessive word just run through his head? What the hell was wrong with him?
He peered at Reginald. A smarmy grin stretched across the man’s face.
Hell no. “Jacks and every other man in my unit is going to keep their damn hands to themselves,” Malone snapped, causing Reginald to do a double take.
“If you say so, sir.”
Damn. The formal “sir” let Malone know he’d gone too far in his outburst. Unable to take it back now, he glanced at his watch. “Let’s go. Briefing by the joint operations commander is in two minutes.”
In typical rainforest fashion, the rain that had pounded them earlier stopped, with only a few clouds lingering behind. Malone adjusted his Kevlar helmet and flipped his Night Vision Goggles down. The world was now painted in shades of green and black. “Talk to me, Jersey.”
Jersey’s mouth hardened and a flash of irritation flared in his eyes.
Not the time to find out what that shit’s about. Malone stared his subordinate down.
Jersey jerked a bulky device up to his eyes and answered coldly, “I’ve got thermal readings in that building over there.”
“You mean the one that’s supposed to be abandoned?” Jacks asked sarcastically. “How would we ever guess that’s the place? Bad guys really need to update their manuals. This is right out of the ‘How to Be Cliché’ section.”
Malone ignored the other captain and studied the non-descript wooden structure. Nothing about the building stood out among the rest other than the weary, deserted appearance. He glanced at his watch. “Jacks, time to roll out. Take the rest of the team and complete our end of the mission. Jersey and I are going to retrieve Michelle.”
“I know the General assigned this to you, but I’m going to ask one last time.” Jacks clapped him on the shoulder. “You sure you don’t want to take out the communications equipment while I grab the civilian? I mean, it’s no secret, the ladies love me.” He winked.
“No,” Malone snapped. “I’ve got it covered.”
Jacks grinned. “Right. You sure are getting desperate if you’re resorting to Colombian kidnap victims for dates. I can help coach you—”
Jacks snickered along with the others in hearing range. After giving Malone a two-fingered salute, Jacks signaled to the rest of the unit to head west.
Malone and Jersey entered the building and proceeded to check each room. No cartel members lingered and there was nothing worth noting on the first floor. The place definitely hadn’t been used for a while except as a hangout for members who sampled their own product.
Malone led them silently up the stairs, pausing when he reached the top, and peered around the corner. He held up his index finger, telling Jersey there was one hostile in the hallway. Jersey tapped Malone on the back, indicating he got the message and was ready to go. Malone cleared the step, aiming his gun at the man’s chest. He didn’t hesitate to shoot the man guarding the door with his suppressed handgun before the asshole could raise his machine gun. “Hallway clear,” he whispered into his mic and proceeded down the corridor. When he reached the door the dead man had been guarding he crouched, waiting with his gun at the ready. At a tap on his shoulder he reached out and tested the door handle.
Jersey maneuvered around him, pulling a rolled, prewired strip of C4 from his side pants pocket. He ripped the adhesive paper off the back and slapped the long strip against the side with the hinges. He fit the blast cap on the device and unwound the wires. They hauled ass around the corner and Jersey set off the fuse.
After the concussive boom, Malone opened his eyes and tore back up to the room. Jersey pushed the broken door out of the way and Malone ran inside.
For as long as he lived he knew he’d never forget the sight greeting his eyes. Gone was the innocent, smiling, cherubic face. In its place was a broken, bloodied, naked mess handcuffed to an iron bedframe. The goddamned bastards had worked her over good.
The woman moaned and shifted her head to stare at him through blackened, swollen slits.
He swiped his NVGs up and knelt by the paper-thin mattress. “Are you Michelle Alger?” he asked gently.
She swallowed hard and nodded, wincing at the action as tears leaked down her temples.
Jersey moved to the end of the bed and pulled out a disposable camera.
“The pictures are going to be stamped classified and are only to document the condition the Osvaldo cartel left you in. They will not be released to the public,” Malone explained when he saw Michelle wince. “I need you to state your Social Security number.” He hated prolonging her rescue but Special Ops had been fooled before. Now, no one did anything unless their victim’s identity was confirmed.
He had committed every meager detail in her file to his memory and when she haltingly repeated the same nine digits, he grinned. “Excellent job.” He reached into his vest pocket and grabbed his lock-picks. “Can you tell me the city you were born in?”
She waited until he finished unlocking her hands and met her eyes before answering, “Laurel, Delaware.”
Gunfire and explosions filled the air around them.
Michelle jolted and her pathetic scream sounded more like a gargled whisper.
The raid had started in earnest. He met her inquiring gaze with a quip. “Guess the cartel decided not to go gently into the good night.”
He prayed the rest of the units were able to fulfill their objectives so he could get Michelle out safely.
After picking the locks on the two bracelets cutting into her ankles, forcing her legs to stay spread, he had nothing else left that could put off the next part. “I’m just going to move your hip.” Figuring she had been humiliated enough, he gripped her side as gently as possible with his gloved hand and lifted. A rainbow butterfly lay underneath a coating of dried blood.
Malone nodded to Jersey, who pulled a jumpsuit out of a small bag attached to his belt.
“Your . . . name?”
Malone almost missed the scratchy, whispered question, her voice was so faint. He paused and connected with her eyes again. “Captain Jeremy Malone, ma’am.”
Michelle nodded and her mouth twitched. His heart broke at seeing her attempt to smile under all the swelling and bruising. “Cappy for short.”
He couldn’t stop the wide grin. “I like it, but don’t try to talk too much.” Malone patted her arm. “Save your energy so we can get you out of here and stateside just in time for Christmas.”
Jersey jerked the jumpsuit forward and Malone pointed to it. “I’m going to help you put this on, okay?”
Her eyes didn’t stray from their locked position on his as she nodded.
It took both Malone and Jersey too much time to wrestle the one-piece outfit over her maimed body, not that it was her fault. Every inch of her was covered with bruising or worse. Malone figured her whimpers were probably substitutes for the screams she so rightly deserved to cry. His admiration of her grew. She out-warriored most men who had years of training. If he guessed right, she had at least two broken ribs and countless fractures throughout her body. And he hadn’t even tried to quantify the burns and open lacerations now seeping into the olive covering.
He opened a small duffel latched to his side and grabbed a pair of hard-bottom slippers, sliding them on her feet. Gripping the strap of his M4 Carbine, he maneuvered the weapon so it rested against his back. He picked Michelle up as gently as he could and cradled her against his bulky vest.
“Call the others,” Malone ordered to Jersey. “Tell them we’re coming out.”
Jersey cracked his neck from the left to the right, then jammed the phone to his ear and snapped, “We’re good to go.” He paused, then hung up. “They’ll meet us outside.”
Malone jerked his head in acknowledgement and followed the sergeant out the door. He hated how they had to retrace their steps instead of exiting out of an alternate location. Using the same exit made it too easy for the cartel to set up an ambush and put a bullet in his ass. But there wasn’t enough time to scout another route and Michelle’s condition prevented them from executing anything more aggressive.
Jersey shouldered his weapon and quartered the area as they progressed, his posture and steps more aggressive then warranted. What the hell is going through the sergeant’s mind?
Once they cleared the building, Malone ran for the trees. Jacks materialized from the foliage like a ghost and stopped dead. His eyes scanned Michelle’s battered face and he started cussing.
“Save it,” Malone barked. “Get us the hell to the chopper before you blow a gasket.”
They blazed a trail toward the coordinates where the Black Hawk was supposed to meet them.
Gunfire, grenades, and screams filled the air as they trekked to the rendezvous. Luckily, they didn’t encounter anyone en route, but Malone didn’t trust the peace would last long. He took a knee with the rest of his unit in the foliage and adjusted his grip.
“Hang on a little longer,” he whispered, getting caught up in Michelle’s squinted stare. He fought the urge to hug her against him, wanting to force his health and strength into her just so he wouldn’t feel like such a bastard for enjoying the intimacy of his hold. “Your taxi’s on its way,” he added gruffly.
The rest of his team aimed little infrared devices at the sky, signaling to the chopper their position. Within minutes, the sound of the Black Hawk thundered overhead, then landed.
Damn. No doubt, every piece of shit cartel member heard that racket and was now racing to their spot.
Jacks slapped three unit members on their shoulders and hauled ass to the other side of the bird while Jersey and the rest of the team spread out, surrounding the chopper. Malone climbed inside. He exchanged a quick glance with the medic, conveying just how bad Michelle was before he set her on the latched-down gurney.
Smoothing a hand over her hair, he yelled over the whirling blades, “This is the end of the line for me.”
Her body jolted and she clutched his vest, shaking her head back and forth weakly. “No,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry, you’re in excellent hands. They’ll get you patched up and to a hospital in no time.” He tried to clamp down on his racing pulse that had nothing to do with the firefight outside. “I’m sure some government official will be in to check on you and help figure out what comes next.”
Machine-gun reports raged closer and he caught a glimpse of his men running, returning fire to keep the perimeter secure.
She clung to his uniform. “Cappy, don’t leave me.”
Ah God. If that just didn’t rip his heart out.
“Sir, I need to get her hooked up to an IV,” the medic stated urgently.
“And I gotta go, now,” the pilot yelled. “Either strap in or jump off, Captain.”
Shit. This sucked. He peeled her fingers off, reaching into his vest pocket at the same time and pulled out a small piece of paper and pen. After scribbling his name and phone number, he clasped her hands together and slid the paper between her palms. Leaning forward, he whispered into her ear, “If you ever get into trouble again, contact me. I promise I’ll come running, no questions asked.” He brushed a light kiss below her lobe and sat up. In a full voice, he said, “Hang in there, Michelle. You’re a survivor. Don’t let his hold you back.”
He made it as far as the edge of the chopper before he couldn’t stop himself from turning and searing her battered image into his brain. That son of a bitch Ramon was going to pay for this.
He hopped to the ground and the medic wasted no time slamming the side door shut as the pilot lifted off.
“We finally ready to enter the fight, sir?” Jersey asked, turning his NVG-hidden eyes toward Malone while fiddling with the flap on his vest pocket.
Malone unlocked his clenched jaw. “Yeah. Let’s finish this.”
Ridge Creek, North Carolina—Present Day
Cappy dropped his chin to his chest and shook his head. Unbelievable.
He peered at the computer screen again, praying he’d see something different, but of course nothing had changed. The large photo remained stubbornly fixed on the social media site. Goddamn it. Didn’t Jillian realize anyone could see this on the Internet?
Cappy slumped against the headboard and adjusted the laptop resting across his thighs. Unable to sleep, he had decided to check in on his three younger sisters. Jennifer, the oldest of the three, didn’t have any new updates. Julie only gave a quick mention about her two kids adjusting to the new school year. But Jillian, the youngest sibling with a ten year age gap from him, posted a picture of her raising a wineglass while trying to smack a kiss on some guy’s cheek. Cappy could practically smell the vast quantity of alcohol she must have consumed to have that wonky-eyed, red-cheeked expression. Christ. Not helping one bit was the caption, “Having a blast in Cancun!” telling the sickos of the world where to find her.
He counted down from ten in his head. At twenty-eight, Jillian should know better. For the millionth time, he wished he could pick up the phone and rip into his flighty sister. But he couldn’t. Not because it would be O’dark-thirty in Mexico but because a dead man shouldn’t be able to dial a phone.
He signed off and snapped the lid shut. He couldn’t take any more family time. Lord knew what he’d see if he continued to run down his list.
Grabbing his usual uniform of T-shirt and cargo pants out of his duffel, he quickly donned the clothing. The other double bed filling the space appeared suspiciously unused. He growl-sighed and finished lacing his combat boots. Next stop, coffee machine.
Outside of the guest bedroom, thick plastic sheeting covered the floor-to-ceiling living room windows and rapped against the surface. On top of that, the forest wind howled and whistled through the myriad of bullet holes marring the once-beautiful glass, invading what should have been a quiet Saturday morning.
He rounded the corner of a cathedral-height stone fireplace acting like a partition between the living and dining rooms and stopped abruptly. “You’ve been at it all night again, haven’t you?”
Ted Byrnes’s head snapped up and he stared at Cappy a second too long without comprehension in his blurry eyes. The thin man’s hair stood up on the back of his head and his shirt was buttoned wrong.
Cappy sighed at his temporary roommate. “You can’t keep this pace up.”
“Can’t help it.” The computer genius, and now unofficial member of Delta Squad, slumped on a dining chair, one of the few left after a sniper tried to kill them all ten days ago. “I’ve got too many projects going and not enough time to put all the fires out.”
Too true. Right now, everything was in flux, to put it mildly. Using his old military jargon, he’d describe it more like tits up, FUBAR, and SNAFU.
He needed coffee. Six a.m. was too early for all the bullshit to start grinding away at his gut and not be properly caffeinated.
“Senator Harris is worried about Uncle Victor sitting in a public prison instead of one of our holding cells. With him knowing every skeleton and dead body in SweetBriar Group’s closet, he could talk to the press and reveal the hidden side of SBG.”
Cappy snorted. “I wouldn’t put it past the bastard. Especially when he was the one responsible for putting most of those skeletons in our closet, but he can’t be moved. Too much coverage of his arrest, bail denial, and transfer to the Kansas penitentiary.”
Victor Dalmingo had been the CEO and public face of SweetBriar Group, an environmental company that was really a front for the biggest privately funded mercenary-style agency in existence, before Delta Squad joined forces with Kansas U.S. Senator Bob Harris to take him down. The pompous ass even coined the company motto “Black Ops Without the Red Tape.” The fact the U.S. government was SBG’s biggest client should have the Senator worried. The man had to keep it and all the operatives like Delta Squad out of the public’s awareness.
Ted blinked and Cappy’s irritation lessened a notch. He had a soft spot for the twenty-seven-year-old. The guy had made a very hard choice a few weeks ago; saving the lives of Delta Squad over a family bond could’ve very easily gone the other direction. Thank God the kid chose them. Ted may be socially awkward, but the genius was an asset Cappy would utilize to the fullest to keep his squad safe.
“We any closer to identifying Victor’s personal assassin squad?” Cappy drummed his fingers while the brewing coffee hissed and steamed. It had been rumored for years that the CEO had a personal squad who answered only to him.
“Not yet. Obviously the ones we killed were part of that group and no longer an issue,” Ted answered with a sigh, peering around at the bullet holes dotting the walls and furniture. “I know it’s important, and I have it on my ‘to-do’ list, but it’s not the highest priority.”
The single-serve Keurig machine finally snapped off. Cappy grabbed his tall thermos, and screwed the cap on. Even after he transitioned from the Green Berets to SBG, he never bothered developing a taste for things like sugar and cream. Too many years in the field without the luxuries had him set in his ways.
“What are you working on now?”
Ted ran his fingers through his hair, leaving tracks behind.
How long had it been since the genius took a shower? Cappy took a large, fortifying swallow. He’d remedy that in a minute.
“The Senator wants every SBG facility cleared out by week’s end in case the shit hits the fan.” Ted pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. Senator Bob Harris had taken control of the clandestine side of SBG when Victor was arrested, while the Board of Directors maintained the public face. “We can’t go to any of our backup sites because Victor set those up. So I’m frantically trying to find suitable places all across the country, buying out the owners using all new fake identities I’ve had to create, and setting up the logistics of the move.”
“Where’s the rest of the IT staff? You weren’t the only one working for SBG. Why aren’t they helping?”
“They are. Since I’m one of the few IT technicians with a level-five clearance and the only one Bob trusts at the moment, it all falls on me.”
“Gotcha.” Cappy prayed the brew would kick in soon. “Not to add to your plate, but you’ve got a handle on the blackmail Victor used against the Senator, right?”
“Yeah. I copied everything off the ghost drives I found on SBG’s servers onto my own. Which not only included the Senator, but everyone else Victor kept under his thumb. I then destroyed the ghost drives and closed the ability to set up another one.”
Cappy understood only a part of that answer. “Good. I don’t trust Victor to stay quiet in prison.”
“No one does.” Ted rubbed his eyes again. “With all the squads officially ordered to go to ground it’s a good thing Grady’s allowing us to stay—”
“Seriously?” Talon’s angry disbelief had Cappy jerking his head toward the fireplace, where his operative emerged from the shadows. “We’re staying? I thought the sale of the house behind here was expedited?”
Cappy swallowed another mouthful of caffeine. His subordinate was difficult to get along with on the best of days, but now that he nursed a broken heart, his moods were evolving to downright vile.
“It is,” Cappy answered. “We should have the deed in the next few days, but you know we’ve still got the demolition inside to reconfigure the layout and to set up the perimeter security around these two homes.”
Wonderful. The object of Talon’s jealousy popped out on the other side of the partition. Except for the eyes—Casper Grady’s were crystal blue and Talon’s were emerald green—the two were similar: blond hair, muscular physiques, and both in love with Wraith, the squad’s reinstated sniper. At least Cappy hoped Wraith would convert her “definite possibility” to rejoin the squad answer into a “yes.” Not only would he regain the best sniper in SBG’s history, he’d inherit Grady’s former Marine skills too, because the civilian made it clear he wouldn’t allow Wraith to go into danger without being there to watch her back.
“What’s going on? Why’s everyone up so early?” Grady asked in his deep Carolina drawl while strolling to the Keurig, forcing Cappy to the side.
“Ted never went to bed,” Cappy answered. “I’m a light sleeper. Couldn’t rest with the plastic banging against the glass—”
“Sorry about that.” Grady grimaced. “Replacements have been ordered.”
“Not a complaint.” Cappy waved a hand.
Talon marched toward the coffee machine—the one Grady currently blocked—and paused, slapping his hands on his hips. “You going to move today or what?”
Grady casually scratched the open area at the base of his throat where a silver chain with a three-headed spiraling dragon pendant now rested against his skin. Talon’s eyes narrowed and his fingers whitened. The team’s symbol, the one they all wore proudly, had been given to Grady by Wraith when she publically declared her love for him.
Tipping his full mug in Talon’s direction, Grady leisurely stepped to the side, smirking at Talon’s death stare and taking a noisy slurp.
Cappy inwardly sighed. Those two had already wailed on each other like two schoolboys in the backyard. The bruises from that fight had only just faded, they didn’t need to add a fresh set. Regardless of who provoked whom, Cappy’s sympathy went out to Talon. It couldn’t be easy living with the man who captured the heart of the woman you’re in love with.
“Uh, Cappy,” Ted said, trepidation dripping in his voice, “you better come look at this.”
Christ. What now? His cell phone rang.
“Don’t answer that,” Ted yelled. “You need to see this first.”
“What’s going on?” Wraith asked, tightening her sable hair into a ponytail as she rounded the partition, wearing a Gradwick Adventure Center polo, matching Grady’s.
Cappy would bet his left nut her going into work today was all Grady’s doing to keep her away from Talon. Those three needed to get a handle on this before Cappy was forced to intervene.
The room filled up with almost the whole gang. The only two missing were Magician and Romeo—what a pair. He’d assigned those two to tie up loose ends in the mid-west and return at the end of the week.
The phone in Cappy’s hand rang again and Senator Harris’s name flashed across the display.
“I’m serious,” Ted said. “If that’s the Senator, you should look at this first.”
Son of a bitch. He strode around the kitchen island and stationed himself just to the left of Ted’s chair. The rest of the group piled in around him.
YouTube filled one of the monitor screens with a frozen video in the center. The title “Playboy’s Last Fling” dominated the space below the video screen.
Cappy’s stomach tightened.
“I took a break and trolled the Internet.” Ted pointed. “This video on YouTube already has ten thousand hits and after skipping through it, I pulled this off the nine-one-one database.” Ted highlighted another file and an audio equalizer popped up on the other monitor. Green lines jumped on a black background as voices began to speak.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” a female operator asked.
“Um,” a frazzled male voice said twice. “I need to report a murder.”
“A murder, sir?”
A throat cleared. “Yes.”
“What’s your address, sir?”
“Blakely Hotel. Down-downtown Indianapolis.”
“Did you witness the murder, sir?”
The man swallowed loudly. “Ah, no.”
“How do you know it’s a murder, sir?”
“I’m, ah, the night manager. One of my room service attendants entered the suite this morning to deliver a breakfast order Mr. Colin Harris prearranged and discovered him dead in his bed.” Audible swallow. “The blood . . .”
Ted stopped the tape. “The rest is just the operator keeping him on the line until the police arrived.”
Ted clicked the “Play” icon on the video.
A shaky image from some type of handheld camera showed the Senator’s son, Colin, strolling along the sidewalk in front of the hotel. The cameraman must have been positioned at least four floors up based on the angle and lack of close zoom. The woman Colin escorted weaved and bobbed, obviously drunk. Her long-sleeved, mid-length black dress showcased a pair of generous hips, making Cappy straighten and take notice. A pair of heels dangled from her right hand and she barely missed smacking the doorman in the head with them. She giggled and petted the uniformed man before Colin pulled her inside. The video faded to black then reappeared with a blurry image of a darkened hotel suite.
The cameraman was now level with the room.
Cappy’s phone rang again. This time he needed no encouragement to ignore it.
Lights flashed on and the camera’s autofocus sharpened to catch the couple laughing in the foyer as Colin closed and locked the door. The cameraman zoomed in and Cappy’s pulse began to race. He must have made a sound because Ted whipped around to cast a quizzical expression at him. He ignored it and narrowed his eyes on the screen.
The woman straightened and tossed her shoes and purse on top of an ottoman near the door. She turned and the cameraman got a clear shot of her face. Cappy’s heart froze. Son of a bitch. The face of both his nightmares and dreams now stared at him. Michelle Alger of Laurel, Delaware with a rainbow butterfly tattoo on her left hip.
She tottered farther into the living room area just as Colin pulled a bottle of champagne out of a silver ice bucket and held it up. Michelle clapped a hand across her mouth and laughed, bending at the waist. Cappy gripped his coffee mug. The oily SOB peered right down the front of her modest dress. Colin popped the cork and Cappy imagined hearing the startled shriek accompanying Michelle’s laughter. Colin poured two glasses and Michelle grabbed one overflowing with bubbles.
She went to wipe her hand but Colin quickly grabbed it and licked the sparkling wine off her fingers.
“This guy’s smooth,” Grady murmured. “That was definitely a practiced move.”
Cappy had no words suitable so he kept his mouth shut. He had no right to feel the volcano brewing inside him but it built just the same. He wasn’t on a mission to rescue her anymore. She was a grown woman. It wasn’t his job to save her from making stupid choices like the one he witnessed in front of him now.
Michelle had barely taken a sip when Colin pulled her glass away and placed it on an end table. He dropped onto the couch and held his arms up. She hesitated, biting her lower lip, then laughed when he grabbed her and pulled her on top of him. The fabric of her skirt was loose enough, allowing her to straddle him. He wasted no time plunging his tongue into her mouth and running his hands all over her.
Cappy had to consciously work at loosening his fingers before he dented the stainless steel thermos. Her posture appeared stiff and awkward but Colin didn’t seem to care as he practically mauled her for God knew how long.
Finally, when Cappy didn’t think he could take any more, Colin rolled forward, helping Michelle stand unsteadily, then heaved himself up. He grabbed the champagne bottle and ushered her toward a doorway.
Lights went on in the next room.
The bedroom, of course, because those Fate bitches hated him. Cappy swallowed and told himself he had to watch no matter what happened next.
Michelle took the bottle from Colin, weaved to the windows, placed it on a table, then pulled the curtains shut. Thank God.
The cameraman continued to film even though nothing could be seen through the heavy curtains. Four long, ulcer-producing minutes later, Michelle appeared. She ran from the bedroom, and with jerky, frantic movements, she resituated her dress. Pausing, she glanced back into the bedroom, then dashed for the foyer and promptly threw up in the corner. Shaking, she brushed a hand through her medium-length hair and wiped her eyes. Without another look, she grabbed her shoes and purse and raced out the door.
The cameraman swung the handheld to film the hotel’s front door and within a minute, Michelle appeared, running up the street.
The video ended.
Michelle Holman cradled her pounding head and groaned. Closing her eyes against the bright sun piercing the fast food joint’s windows, she rested her elbows on the Formica table.
The extra-large coffee was not doing the trick.
She was already seriously late for work and bet Senior Park Ranger Rick Spitz—aka Major Prick—was probably foaming at the mouth. Tough darts. No way could she motivate her hungover body to move any faster than a snail this morning.
Another brief snatch of last night’s disaster assaulted her brain. This time shutting the hotel curtains after denying Colin’s offer to pour another glass of champagne. She groaned again softly and dug the heels of her palms into the grit weighting her eyes. She had barely slept last night due to the vertigo, roiling stomach, and constant images. Why had she allowed her coworker to talk her into breaking her stay-away-from-guys rule? Had she honestly thought last night would end differently than the other few times she’d attempted to start a relationship or even a one-night stand? If her aversion to performing most things sexual didn’t kill the mood, the scars on her body usually did the trick.
Whoosh. Her stomach lurched at the overpowering scent of hash browns now sizzling in a vat of grease. What the heck was I thinking getting out of bed? I should’ve just called in sick. It was the truth, after all. Wine flu is totally a legitimate illness.
She swiped her hands on her uniform pants and grimaced. They were getting a little too snug for comfort. Damn genetics. All the women in her family sported wide hips and “healthy” thighs. Her coworkers swore she looked great but all she felt like was a pear. Her breasts were average but her butt and legs definitely had substance. When she could handle food again, maybe she’d try the soup diet next. This all-meat diet to increase protein and restrict carbohydrates did nothing but add weight.
The chorus from “Hero” suddenly blared from the cell phone resting on the table between her elbows. Having the theme song from Spiderman was corny and her coworkers made fun of her for it but she couldn’t help it. Every time she heard it, a pair of rich, coffee-hued irises invaded her mind, reminding her there truly were saviors in the world.
She swiped the phone awake. “Hello.” Dang, her voice sounded too groggy. She cleared her throat and missed the first part of what the caller said.
“. . . uben. We need to meet.”
Her spine stiffened at the terse tone.
“Agent Rueben?” she asked, relieved she no longer sounded like she housed a frog. “I’m surprised to hear from you. Is it the end of the quarter already?”
Silence for two thunderous beats then he said on a sigh, “Are you really surprised? I would think after the night you had this call would be expected.”
WTH? “Last night? I admit I got really drunk but I didn’t think that warranted a call from the U.S. Marshals’ office. Was I supposed to clear my drinking schedule with you first?” Why was she baiting the man?
“Michelle,” her case officer snapped. “I really need you to come in.”
Her pulse shot up, and she had to grip the phone tighter in her trembling hands. “What’s going on?”
“Look,” he whispered. She instantly pictured him hunched at his desk with his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “We know what happened. It’s all over the news for God’s sake.”
“What’s all over the news?” she asked tightly.
“When can you get here? It’s not safe for you right now.”
Oh God. “Not safe?” she repeated weakly. Blackness crept over the edge of her vision and she blinked to focus her eyes.
“Where are you?”
Something about his tone cleared a few of the cobwebs in her fuzzy brain. Maybe it was the intensity or the fact that he wanted her so dang bad that set her alarm bells ringing.
“Michelle? You there? Agent Colson tried your apartment but you didn’t answer. He’s on his way to the state park.”
Michelle tuned out. Not safe? Her breaths sawed in and out. What did that mean? How could her day get worse after last night? Wait. Last night. Didn’t Rueben say something was all over the news?
She hung up and tapped open her browser app. It took two tries and a lot of swearing at her shaking fingers before she successfully typed in “Indianapolis news.” Thousands of hits returned but she only had to glance at the first page.
Holy Mother Mary and Joseph.
She dropped the phone onto the table and tried to absorb the headlines. “Senator’s Son Found Dead In Hotel,” “Police Called to Blakely Hotel,” “Grisly Murder at Blakely.”
Her stomach threatened to vacate the little bit of coffee she had sipped. She scrolled the page down and paused when a YouTube video proclaiming, “Playboy’s Last Fling,” caught her eye. She pressed Play.
When the video ended, she bent over the bench seat and lost the battle on keeping the coffee down. What the heck happened? Her breathing raced so hard she choked on the dry heaves racking her body.
A child squealed, “Gross!” while a mother barked at the girl to be quiet and keep moving.
Oh my God. She swallowed hard to control herself and sat up, pressing a hunk of napkins against her mouth. Rueben. He must think she did this. Crimony. She had to go. She absolutely could not be handcuffed. Sweat trailed along her hair as images from Colom—
No. Get moving. It wouldn’t take a U.S. Marshal from Witness Protection very long to retrace a path between her apartment and work and realize she probably stopped here on the way.
Regretting she couldn’t take the time to clean up the mess, she exited through the side door and quickstepped to her old Ford Focus. Where should she go? She gripped the steering wheel and searched her brain for an answer. Bank. She needed to get as much cash as she could before they froze her accounts. Assuming that’s what the authorities did to suspected murderers. She blinked against the black spots dotting her vision again and pulled out onto the road.
“Keep it together,” she muttered to the steering wheel. “You survived worse than this.” Her stomach threatened to spill for a second time. Maybe not the best time to go down memory lane.
The blue-and-yellow sign of her bank loomed into view. Thank God. She parked on the side away from the street and ran. When she was in view of the windows, she forced herself to walk. If she continued to act erratically, the bank was going to call the cops. Not the best goal. Authorities meant handcuffs and being chained inside small rooms while they tried to force her to talk, to admit she did it, then getting locked up in a tiny cell where she could be at anyone’s mercy. Never again. She’d do something drastic before she’d allow that to happen. Yeah, avoiding all authorities was the only plan she had at the moment.
Cappy forced his lungs to breathe slowly against the onslaught of memories. Memories he never permitted to rise to the surface; remembrances that should just remain inside the black box deep in his brain. Bad enough he couldn’t stuff the guilt deep enough; instead, it hung on his heart like a constant companion for the last six years. His last mission as a Green Beret. The last time he got to talk to his best friend, Jacks, before a bomb blew him and the rest of the unit apart. The same bomb that tried to take Cappy’s life but he somehow managed to survive and escape the jungle with the help of the mysterious “other group with no name”— SBG he’d come to learn later.
The only mission in his life where he had been so completely consumed by the victim that he abandoned his training . . . and led his unit to their deaths. Dammit. Now was not the time to lose it. He forced the visual and audio-enabled explosion to the back of his mind and concentrated on controlling his rapid heartbeat. What the hell had happened to Michelle after the chopper took off? Murderer? Never in a million years would he have guessed that’s who she’d become. Even if she did take a life, he’d think it would be someone from the cartel. Vengeance and revenge he could understand. But the Senator’s son? What the hell was he missing?
Wraith stood by Grady’s side, studying Cappy. A small frown marred her face as she tilted her head. Cappy ignored the unease of her keen eyes seeing too much. If the Senator was calling him, they were about to get involved. Time to start lining his people up instead of mooning like an adolescent.
“Ted,” Cappy snapped, “Romeo and Magician are just a few hours away from Indianapolis. Book them on the quickest flight there. I want them in the middle of whatever alphabet agency is leading the investigation.”
“Probably FBI,” Ted replied, already pounding on his keyboard, “since this involves a senator.”
“Perfect. Their aliases still active?” Cappy asked just as his phone rang again.
“Jesus,” Talon griped, fiddling with a blade from his vast collection of knives. “Just answer the damn thing. He’s not going to give up.”
Cappy placed the phone on speaker.
“WHAT THE HELL, CAPPY!”
Cappy grimaced while Talon smirked.
“I’ve been calling all morning,” the Senator continued his tirade, but on a more human level. Before Cappy could reply, the man barreled on. “I want you to get your team to Indianapolis ASAP. I’m calling in my favor. I helped you, now you help me.”
Cappy opened his mouth, but again the politician cut him off before he could speak.
“I know you’ve seen the video by now. Find this woman. I want my son’s killer brought directly to me. You understand. TO ME first. I’m booked in the Cerise, across the street from the Blakely. I’m about to board my flight, so I should be in Indianapolis by twelve thirty. I expect updates on your search. Whatever you need is yours.”
Cappy waited a second. When it seemed safe for him to talk, he said, “Already working on it.”
“Senator? This is Ted. Is the FBI in charge?”
“I’ve made enough waves. Everyone has their hands in the investigation, including the FBI,” Senator Harris replied abruptly. “Why?”
“I need you to tell the Special Agent in Charge you’ve requested Agents Raymond Stiles and Sonya White be assigned to the case,” Ted answered. “It’ll help Romeo and Magician slip into the mix without too many eyebrows being raised.”
“Done. What else?”
Cappy lifted the phone. “That’s all for now. I’ll call you tonight.” He disconnected and started lining his team where he needed them. “Wraith, I know you and Grady are still discussing my offer to rejoin the team and have a manager trainee you’ve just hired, but I could really use your help.”
Wraith peered at Grady, who inhaled, then nodded.
“Sure, Cappy,” Wraith answered. “Tell us what we can do.”
Jim Fields raised a trembling hand to his mouth and continued to stare at the computer screen. His wife, Patricia, clutched his arm and gasped when a close-up shot of his baby girl loomed large on the monitor.
For six long, terrible years they had waited and hoped for a glimpse of their daughter, but not like this.
The phone rang, but he ignored it.
On the screen, Michelle allowed the young playboy to lead her into the bedroom.
Jim closed his eyes. When had his little girl grown up? An image of Michelle in pigtails on the back of a tricycle filled his mind. That little face stared up at him with two missing front teeth in her huge grin as the sun poured over her head.
He peered at the screen, but the hotel curtains were now pulled shut, thank God.
He both cursed and thanked his addiction to YouTube. The crazy videos people posted were too fascinating to pass up. As part of his morning routine, he grabbed a cup of coffee and scrolled through the latest postings each morning.
Patricia cried softly beside him and he mentally cursed again. Maybe he shouldn’t have pulled her into the room. He hadn’t thought past the dumbfounded blow the second he recognized the woman in the video.
A flurry of movement on the screen cut through his second-guessing. Michelle ran out of the bedroom. Jim clenched his hand on his mouth at the sheer panic and terror on her face as she gathered her shoes and purse, then tore out of the room.
“Oh, Jim,” Patricia exclaimed as the video ended. “What happened? What do we do?”
He glanced at her tear-streaked face. “Let me see if there’s anything in the news.” He opened a new browser window and typed “Playboy’s Last Fling” in the search bar. Thousands of hits returned, a lot wanting to direct him back to the YouTube video they just watched, but the others made him sit up in alarm.
“What the hell?” He squinted at the headers as Patricia cried out.
Headlines such as “Senator’s Son Found Dead In Hotel,” “Police Called to Blakely Hotel,” filled the page. He clicked on “Grisly Murder at Blakely” and got as far as the first paragraph before he snatched up the handset on the edge of his desk.
Holding the cordless phone, he opened another browser and pulled up the Blakely Hotel. He scrolled until he found their phone number and dialed. The phone rang at least ten times before a harried male voice answered, “Blakely Hotel Indianapolis, how can I direct your call?”
“I want to make a reservation.”
A half-second beat, then, “Uh, arriving when, sir?”
“Tonight and staying indefinitely.”
Patricia covered her mouth, her eyes wide with confusion and tears.
Jim rushed through making the reservations, then hung up and stared at the frozen screen.
“Don’t we have to clear leaving town with the U.S. Marshals first?” Pat asked tremulously. “I don’t think we’re allowed to just go.”
“I don’t care if this breaks some damn contract we signed. I’m going. It’s been six years since the cartel attacked us.” Regret ate at his conscience. He should have fought harder to be placed wherever Michelle had been stashed. At the time, the U.S. Marshals had insisted Michelle’s safety would be compromised if they joined her since she was already ensconced in a new life and persona. It sounded plausible, and Jim had allowed himself to be talked into their current location, but no more. He needed to help his baby girl.
Pat searched the monitor, her eyes drying and her spine straightening. “There’s no way she would have done this.” She jabbed a finger at the screen.
“I agree.” Jim dropped the handset back into its cradle. “Something’s not right.”
Victor Dalmingo sat in the middle of the cot and leaned against the cement wall in his cell. With so many coats of cheery gray paint, the surface was extremely smooth and not too cold against his spine. He crossed one orange-clad ankle over the other and unfastened the top button on his jumpsuit.
Metal scraped as cell doors clanged open or shut and prisoners shouted epithets at the guards roaming the corridors.
He had yet to get used to the cacophony of endless noise these animals made daily. The only bright spot he found in this hellhole was how easily he bought the warden. For twenty-five grand, Victor no longer had to worry about a roommate, and for an extra five, the man furnished him a lifeline.
Victor reached inside his jumpsuit and pulled out a small black cell phone from a hidden pocket he formed out of duct tape near his heart. The thing was an ancient model but he babied it like it was the latest prototype. Glancing through the bars, he confirmed no one gave a rat’s ass what he did in here. He couldn’t change his door remaining wide open, but so far the inmates left him alone. Probably had something to do with him breaking the arm of a particularly large bully on his first day. Victor might be forty-three years old and out of the field for the last five years, but he had kept his body and skills honed by sparring with his chosen team of assassins whenever he could.
He flipped the phone open and tapped in a series of numbers.
After a single ring, “Hello,” greeted his ear.
“I’ve seen the footage of last night’s escapade. Any problems?”
“No,” Griffin answered bluntly. “Everything happened as anticipated.”
“Did anyone see you at the club with Colin?”
“I’m sure plenty of people did,” his operative replied in a bored tone, “but no one’ll remember me or link us together. I made sure my interaction was brief and the guy was toasted by the time we talked.”
“Excellent, as usual.”
A squeaky shoe sounded just outside.
“Hold on.” He lowered the phone and jammed it beside his thigh just as two guards strolled into view. An odd pairing, with one towering over the other by at least a foot. Keys jangled from loops on their self-important stuffed belts and long, metal flashlights banged against their legs. The one closest—and the shortest—lazily scanned Victor’s cell and raked his eyes up and down Victor’s sprawled body. Victor raised a leg to rest his foot on the thin mattress and dangled his wrist off his kneecap. With his posture screaming nothing to see here, he dipped his chin at the guard.
“You talking to someone, fish?” the guy belligerently asked.
Great. A guard with a Napoleon complex itching to prove his manliness. He did not have patience for this shit. Nor did he want to broadcast this to a member of his personal assassin squad.
“No,” he answered, hoping the guy would just get over himself and move on.
Napoleon sauntered into his cell, his left thumb hooked on his belt while his other hand gripped the flashlight.
Dammit. Victor inched his right hand over his thigh, never breaking eye contact with the asshole, and worked until his fingers pushed the phone closed.
“You think you’re hot shit taking out Monwell?”
Manuel, dipshit, Victor mentally corrected, but didn’t feel like getting into a pissing match over the guy’s name. He just held the guard’s gaze instead.
Napoleon slowly slid his flashlight out of the leather loop, gripping it by the bulb end, then popped the tip under Victor’s chin. The metal bit into the underside as Napoleon exerted enough pressure to force his head to lift. Asshole.
“You that big-shot CEO thrown in here for murdering his bosses so he can run the company?”
Victor forced his fingers to stay relaxed. If the prick lifted the end any higher he was going to take the man out.
“Buncha tree-hugging dirt worshipers, right?” Napoleon Complex continued. “You’re in the right place if you’re in love with wood.”
The guard slid his beady eyes over Victor’s physique, lingering on his crotch.
Victor’s hand shot up and wrenched the flashlight to the side, narrowing his gaze on Gay Napoleon’s face.
“Never in a million years, asshole,” Victor answered softly, with enough menace to solidify his point.
“What did you—”
Static crackled on both guards’ radios, drowning out the man’s red-faced rant. A tinny voice intoned over the speaker, “Lockdown commencing. Report to cellblock D immediately.”
“Come on, Bill,” the second guard called from the cell entry. “You can finish this later.”
Gay Napoleon/Bill stared at Victor, his narrowed hazel eyes promising they would definitely be “talking” later.
Victor smirked, accepting the threat with a nod and lifting his eyebrow, putting a whole lot of I-will-wipe-the-floor-with-you in his expression. Spots broke out on Gay Napoleon’s cheeks as he yanked his flashlight free.
“We gotta go,” Guard Two said again.
The little man slammed his flashlight back into its loop and strutted backward out of Victor’s cell, never losing eye contact until he reached the corridor.
Thirty seconds after they left, the door to his cell clanged shut.
Victor sighed and hit Redial.
“Everything good?” Griffin asked, his tone still bored.
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Did you retrieve the backup flash drive?”
“Yep. Got it in my hand now.”
An image of the assassin’s cutting-edge prosthetic arm popped into Victor’s head. The thing was state-of-the-art and cost a fortune, but it still creeped him out.
“Good. Continue hammering at the Senator until you destroy him.”
“That mean I have a green light for the second phase?”
“Yellow. Use your discretion as to how, but don’t act until I tell you when. As for the files on the flash drive, wait on my signal to release them. I’m timing it so I can destroy the Senator and get out of here at once. Only after that happens can you eliminate Cappy.”
Cappy paced in front of the fireplace partition.
“What’s got your panties in a bunch?” Talon asked, pulling knife upon knife from a plethora of hidden places on his person and laying them on the other half of the dining room table. He then picked up his cleaning cloth and began wiping them down.
Cappy froze his fidgeting. Damn. Acting like a caged tiger only tipped everyone off that he had something more at stake than doing the Senator’s bidding. “Ted, pack all your essentials.”
The genius blinked, surprised. “Really?” A little too much excitement filled that one word for Cappy’s taste. “You want me in the field with you?”
“No.” Cappy grimaced and hoped it didn’t show too bad. “Yes.”
Talon paused and raised an eyebrow.
Natch. “I mean, you’re coming with us, but, you’ll have to operate within established boundaries. You’re not protected here without us and I don’t trust your uncle not to send an uninvited guest once he finds out we’re not here.”
Talon snorted and resumed playing with his knives.