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They called them ghost towns for a reason.
Black Hills Search and Rescue Specialist Deke Cunningham wasn't afraid of anything. Not anymore. But the late afternoon shadows spooked him. They moved with him, reaching out like gnarled fingers across the empty, dusty main street of Cleancutt, Wyoming. He tried to shake off the feeling, but it wouldn't shake. Probably because today he wasn't working a routine assignment to rescue a deserving but nameless innocent.
Today he was searching for his ex-wife.
He glanced at the GPS locator built into his phone, then at the two-story building with the letters H E L barely readable above the door. The O and the T had long since faded.
This was it. The location where BHSAR computer expert Aaron Gold had finally managed to triangulate Mindy's last cell phone transmission.
Mindy. She didn't deserve this. She hadn't deserved anything she'd gotten for loving him.
And he'd never deserved her.
Deke approached the two-story building, doing his damnedest not to swipe his palm across the nape of his neck, where prickles of awareness tingled. He was being watched.
No surprise there.
He even knew who was watching him. The same person who'd kidnapped his ex-wife. Well—who'd ordered her kidnapped, anyhow.
Novus Ordo. The infamous international terrorist who'd already targeted another member of the BHSAR team, Matt Parker.
We 've got your wife, the obviously disguised voice on the cell phone had said.
Alarm bells had clanged in his head and his gut had clenched with worry. Still, he'd had to smile a little. Whoever the kidnapper was, he had no idea what he'd gotten hold of when he'd grabbedMindy Cunningham.
"Ex-wife," he'd muttered, working to sound bored and uninterested. "And be my guest. You can have her."
"This is no joke, Cunningham. We've got her and we'll kill her if you don't do what we say."
"The only thing I think you've got is her cell phone and a death wish."
The kidnapper had taken the bait. He'd put Mindy on the phone.
Deke Cunningham, don't pay them one red cent! It's a trap—
Tough words. Exactly what he'd expected from her. But beneath her brave words he heard fear—a soul-deep terror he'd never heard in her voice before. And that, more than anything the kidnapper said, scared him to death.
Something was wrong with her. Something beyond being kidnapped. While that alone would be enough to terrify any woman, his Mindy was made of stronger stuff.
In the twenty years since he'd first spotted her hanging by her heels from the top rung of the elementary school jungle gym, he'd never seen anything she couldn't handle.
Her tight, strained voice, cut by static, still echoed in his head as he paused at the bottom of the dilapidated wooden steps of the only hotel in Cleancutt, Wyoming.
He'd heard about the ghost towns of Wyoming all his life. Eighty years ago, Cleancutt and other coalmining camps had been booming towns. But by the 1950s, underground coal mining had given way to strip-mining, so today Cleancutt was a ghost, a dying piece of history located near the city of Casper.
A vibration started in his breast pocket. Damn it. His phone.
As he retrieved it, he glanced around him, in case he could catch someone watching him, waiting for him to answer. But the display read Irina Castle, his boss, not Mindy. He pressed the talk button without saying anything.
"Deke, where are you?" Irina asked.
"I'm busy," he said quietly.
"You did it, didn't you? You went after Mindy alone. I told you to wait until I could arrange a meeting with Aaron Schiff."
"Irina, do not get the FBI involved in this. It's too dangerous for Mindy. I'll handle it. Besides, you know the drill. They threatened to hurt her if I brought backup."
"And you know the drill. My specialists never take unnecessary risks."
"This one was necessary."
Irina blew out a sigh of frustration. "You told Aaron not to tell me where you are." Her voice was accusatory.
"It's for your own good, and Mindy's. You can't know. It's too dangerous for you. Besides, there's nobody alive who's better trained to run a covert rescue mission than me." He'd meant the comment to be reassuring, but it hung in the sudden silence between them.
Irina's husband, Rook Castle, had been the best until he'd been assassinated by Novus Ordo two years ago.
"Aaron and Rafe have my projected timeline," he continued. "They know what to do. You've got to trust me, Irina."
"I don't like it."
"You think I do? I should have known what was going to happen as soon as Matt told me he'd been followed back here from Mahjidastan. I should have anticipated that Novus would go after Mindy."
Novus Ordo was desperate to find out why Irina had suddenly called Matt Parker back from assignment in Mahjidastan and announced to her employees that she was ending her two-year-long search for her husband—or his body.
"It's not your fault, Deke."
"The hell it's not. I should have taken care of her, put her in protective custody." He shook off the feeling of failure. He'd let Mindy get captured. Now he had to rescue her.
"Don't worry, Irina. I know more about Novus than anyone alive. You listen to Rafe and Aaron and Brock. They each have their instructions. Their primary mission is to keep you safe." He paused. "And Irina, don't leave the ranch without one of them with you. Make sure all three of them know where you're going and who you're going with."
Irina sighed in frustration. "You sound like you don't trust your own team."
"My helicopter was sabotaged. I don't trust anybody but you and me."
"You mentioned your timeline. What is it?"
"I plan to be out of there with Mindy in less than twenty-four hours."
"What's your drop-dead time?"
"Seventy-two." He had his timeline. He wished he knew what Novus's was.
"Be careful, Deke."
He hung up and started to pocket his phone, then hesitated, looking at the display.
Two days ago, the BHSAR recovery team, along with the FBI, had found the body of the man who had tried to get his hands on Matt Parker.
Papers and a prepaid cell phone found on the dead man proved his involvement in terrorist activities, with ties to Novus Ordo. It was bad enough that it took only a couple of hours for Novus to find out that Irina had recalled Matt. What made it so much worse was the ruined helicopter rotor on the floor of Deke's hangar that proved his bird had been sabotaged. The grounded helicopter had caused Deke to miss a critical rendezvous point and had almost cost Matt Parker and Aimee Vick their lives.
There was only one explanation for those security breaches.
Both the sabotage and Novus's intel had to have been engineered by someone who had unrestricted access to Castle Ranch. They had a traitor in BHSAR. Someone who was working for Novus.
Deke had put his most trusted specialists to guarding Irina. He just wished he could trust them without reservation.
But there was only one man in the world, other than himself, whom he could trust with Irina's life.
Trying to ignore the fact that his fingers were shaking, Deke dialed a number he'd thought he'd never call.
Irina's innocent action had negated everything Rook Castle had done to keep her safe.
Deke listened to the electronic message, hoping he was doing the right thing. He spoke quickly, quietly, then hung up.
It was done. Two years ago he'd made a promise to his best friend, Rook Castle. Today he'd broken it. But he'd had no choice. It was time to raise the dead.
Deke carefully climbed the crumbling steps and put his shoulder against the weathered front door of the abandoned hotel. He stopped dead in his tracks when it creaked loudly. Clutching his weapon in both hands, he listened.
Nothing. Not a scurrying rat or the buzz of a disturbed insect.
He'd expected Novus to come after him. He'd hoped the terrorist wouldn't be savvy enough to go after his ex-wife. Hell, they'd been divorced over two years.
It disturbed him that Novus knew that much about him. Mindy was his weakness.
His only weakness.
The air force had done what nothing else ever had—it had made a man out of him. He could fly a helicopter. He could shoot a housefly off a general's lapel at two hundred yards—hell, he could take that shot while flying a bird.
Being a Special Forces Op had taught him there was nothing he couldn't face and conquer.
But with one disappointed look, and the sparkle of a tear, Mindy could reduce him to his pathetic, arrogant high-school self, trying to bully his way through school and drink his way through life.
He stood outside the hotel's door and wondered what kind of traps Novus had set for him. He'd have preferred a face-to-face confrontation, but he already knew the publicity-shy Novus wouldn't do that.
There was a reason the terrorist wore a surgical mask in every known photo. An excellent reason. And only a few people knew what that reason was.
Yeah, he was walking into a trap. But Novus had baited it with the only lure he couldn't resist.
All those thoughts swirled through his mind in the two seconds it took for him to flex his fingers, retighten them around the grip of his Sig Sauer, and take a deep breath.
He nudged the door another inch and slipped through.
The hotel lobby could have been lifted out of one of the Western movies his old man had watched when he wasn't passed out from cheap vodka.
When Deke stepped inside, eyeing the ornate desk and curved staircase, glass crunched under his boot. Shattered prisms from a broken chandelier.
Then something moved at the edge of his vision.
Startled, he swung around. His finger tightened on the trigger.
A raccoon. It scurried across the room, claws clicking on the worn hardwood floor like faraway machine-gun fire.
Deke's breath whooshed out and his trigger finger relaxed. He took another step, eyeing the dark room beyond the arched doorway. He figured it was the dining room.
What was the raccoon running from? He crossed the lobby and angled around the arch so his back stayed to the wall.
Heavy curtains revealed only slivers of the late afternoon sun. The smell of mildew and rotting wood tickled his nostrils. He held his breath, resisting the urge to sneeze as he moved silently across to the shrouded windows and reached up to push the drapes apart. Too late, he saw the flash and heard the report.
Something stung the curve of his cheek. He whirled, ready to shoot, but whirling turned out not to be such a good idea.
Things got real hazy real fast. A fuzzy shadow loomed in front of him. He aimed, but as hard as he tried, he couldn't make his fingers hold on to the gun, and he couldn't make his legs hold him up.
As the room tilted sideways, the haze before his eyes turned to black.
Damn, he hated the waiting. He liked to be the one making the phone calls. When he had to wait to be called, he couldn't control who might be listening. He paced back and forth in front of the big picture window, with its panoramic view of the Black Hills, until he couldn't stand it any longer. He yanked the blinds shut. He despised those desolate looming mountains. He'd seen enough of them to last him the rest of his life and beyond.
The prepaid cell phone hidden in his shaving kit rang.
"Everything's in place here."
"No change here."
"There better be a change soon."
"I'm working on it. Do you have any idea of the level of security around this place? It's tripled since—"
"Do you have any idea of the time constraints we're facing?"
"I think I'm close—"
"You think? You'd better know! We 've only got one chance. I'm guessing you remember what'll happen if you fail me."
"Why all the mind games? It'd be a hell of a lot easier to just go in and get it over with."
"Are you questioning my methods? Because you're not indispensable. Nobody is."
Something soft rocked against his side, rousing him. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton and his stomach clenched. Beneath the nauseating smell of mildew and rotten wood, he noticed a sweet, familiar scent.
He tried to push through the drowsiness, but whoever had filled his mouth with cotton had put lead weights on his eyelids. He wanted to turn over, but he was too tired.
The unmistakable supple firmness of a female body rocked against him again. "Eee!"
"Mindy, sugar," Deke mumbled. "Move over."
Whoa. A sharp blade of reality sliced through his mental fog. That wasn't right—on so many levels. For one thing, his tongue wasn't working, so all he'd managed to do was grunt unintelligibly.
"Eee, ake uk," she retorted.
What was she saying? Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe he was.
"Okay," he whispered, smiling drowsily to himself. "You know what happens when you don't move over." Anticipating her giggles and kisses, he turned—or tried to.
He couldn't move.
He wasn't in bed. He sure wasn't in bed with Mindy. That hadn't happened in a long, long time.
So where the hell was he?
More shards of reality ripped through his brain. The flash of gunpowder. The biting sting in his cheek.
He forced his eyes open. It was dark. Totally dark.
Danger! His heart rate skyrocketed and his Special Forces training kicked in.
Judging by the way his head wobbled like a bobble-head doll, he figured he'd been drugged. He clenched his jaw and worked to gather his thoughts.
The gunpowder. The sting. He'd been shot with a tranquilizer gun. Ah, hell.
He bit down on his tongue, using the pain to clear his brain. Giving in to drugs—or fatigue, or torture—in combat rescue missions could be fatal. Not only to the rescuer, but also to the innocents depending on him for their safety, their protection, their very lives.
Before he could help anyone else, he had to assess his own condition. He needed to take inventory.