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Ava Carter lay motionless atop the gravel and tar flat roof squinting through the Nightforce scope of the Remington 700 rifle. She'd been in position for nearly four hours; under a "weapons tight" command for two. If all went according to plan, the subject would be on his wayin one piecein less than fifteen minutes.
The rheumy late February sun labored to pierce the light cloud cover, and there was small blessing in that. Temperatures still hovered in the high sixties. And even without direct sunlight she could feel a thin trickle of perspiration snaking down her back beneath the LBV vest.
The breeze kissing her cheek seemed to have gotten a little stronger. "Check the wind meter again."
Her spotter, Steve Banes, held up the pocket calibrator. "Six point two four miles per hour."
Ava adjusted the dope of her rifle slightly. Steve picked up his high-powered binoculars again and spoke into the Motorola radio. "Side three, opening three. No movement."
She reached for her own set of binoculars. Through them she could clearly see the black RV that served as the SWAT command center parked a hundred yards from the civic center. She could make out the figure of a man through one of the windows, hunched over a computer.
Her gaze passed over the RV to scan the area. She and Steve were positioned on top of a building across the road about eight hundred yards from the civic center. The building they were observing was circular, with an oddly pitched roof that was supposed to enhance the acoustics inside. Beneath the overhang were narrow windows encircling the building.
The inner perimeter seemed secure. The interested public was still inside listening to Antonio de laReyes. But it was his detractors that were cause for concern.
From this angle she could only see a corner of the group of protesters and media vans secured behind the outer perimeter in front of the civic center. There were still a few signs waving, but a majority of the picketers had wisely decided to save their strength for when de la Reyes made his exit.
Hopefully once they figured out he wasn't coming out the front, de la Reyes would be on his way to the airport. Out of Metro City. Out of California and back to his small South American country of San Baltes.
It wasn't his politics Ava objected to, though his eloquent arguments for opening the borders of America didn't resonate for her. It was the target he presented. In the last week alone, as he'd traveled the country, he'd received almost a dozen death threats. Pretty unpopular for a visiting dignitary. She'd heard there was a small rebel contingent in his own country that was just as anxious to see him dead.
She was only anxious to see him gone.
"What's he even doing here?" grumbled Banes. He was a large man, heavily muscled. His shaved head was the color of her morning double mocha latte and glistened with sweat.
"He has relatives here, I think I heard. His mother lived in Metro City until the seventies."
Banes's droopy dark mustache twitched in what might have been a smirk. "Like you'd remember anything about the seventies."
"Just enough to know seventy-seven was a very good year." Ava continued to scan the area. They'd had this conversation often enough in the past that she could participate without thinking. Banes had a good fifteen years on her, and he liked to rib her about his experience. He'd been on SWAT ten years longer than she had. He was a damn good marksman, ranking second in the Metro City PD, fourth in the state.
Ava ranked first in both.
"Have you ever been inside?"
She nodded. "Took my son to a concert there once. It's pretty nice. All the seats have a good view of the stage." It must have been about three years ago, when Alex was twelve, before he became afflicted with that weird teenage parental anathema. At fifteen he could barely be convinced to be seen with her at the mall.
The radio crackled. "De la Reyes has left the stage. Subject will be exiting from side three, opening one in the next two minutes."
Ava kept the binoculars raised. De la Reyes's white limo approached slowly and rolled to a stop by the curb. It would have been checked thoroughly before being allowed through the inner perimeter. Security inside the building would be directing the public out the front. Officers would keep the people from circling around to the back entrance. Everything was working according to plan.
She was about to lower the binoculars when something caught her eye. A glint in one of the civic center's upper windows. In the next instant it had disappeared. "Do you see anything up there?"
Banes trained his binoculars in the area she was pointing to. "Nope."
"Must have been the sun," she muttered. But there was very little sunlight today. Which made it more likely she'd seen a reflection of some sort. But of what?
"Wait." She and Banes spoke simultaneously. She went on. "You see it, too, right? What is that?"
Both of them stared for long moments through their binoculars. A chill broke out over Ava's skin as comprehension slammed into her. "It's a scope."
Banes grabbed the radio. "We've got a reflection in side three, window seven. Looks like it could be from a rifle scope."
"Cold Shot in position?" came the answer.
"Weapons tight. We'll send someone inside to check it out."
Ava set down the binoculars and peered through the Night-force scope of her Remington. She made the minute adjustments necessary to focus on the window in question. "I see the barrel," she reported quietly. A familiar deadly calm settled over her. "Can you get another angle and make it out?"
Steve belly-crawled several yards away and took another look through the binoculars. As an answer, he spoke through the radio. "We've got a weapon sighted and verified. Side three, window seven."
The radio crackled. "Keep target inside. We've got a sighting."
She heard the voice as if from a distance. Ava's entire system had slowed. Breathing. Nerves. Heart rate. Everything was focused on the individual on the other end of that rifle across the road. The best shot would be to shoot perpendicular from the window. But she didn't have time to change position. Shooting at an angle meant firing two shots. The first to break the glass and the second to hit the target.
"What the hell?" muttered Banes as the back door entrance opened. Ava recognized de la Reyes surrounded by his private contingent of security and three tactical officers hurrying toward the steps.
"Weapons loose. Engage, engage."
She was dimly aware of the group surrounding de la Reyes halting. Retreating toward the civic center. Her finger squeezed the trigger and fired twice in quick succession through the target window. Nearly simultaneously an answering shot sounded and one of the bodies on the steps crumpled.
Ava gave her watch a surreptitious look and sighed mentally. If this was going to drag on much longer she'd need to excuse herself and text Alex. He'd be getting out of basketball practice soon and might need to catch a different ride home.
The debriefing was going more slowly than usual. But then nothing about this incident had proven normal yet.
The door to the conference room opened and Chief of Police Carl Sanders entered, flanked by his deputy chief, Robert Grey. They were followed by Antonio de la Reyes and a few men she remembered from his security contingent.
There was a scraping of chairs as a few of the SWAT officers made room at the long table. Ava sat still as the newcomers stared her way, feeling like an insect on a pin.
"There she is, gentlemen. The officer of the hour."
There was little doubt about whom Sanders was referring to. Ava was the only woman in the room. Without looking away from her, de la Reyes circled the table to come to a halt before her.
"Ms. Carter," he said in melodic fluent English. "I am in your debt."
Since he'd taken her hand and looked to be in no hurry to free it, Ava rose, ill at ease. "I'm glad it worked out."
He looked more like a movie star than a politician. He was no taller than she, about five nine, with glossy dark hair and soulful brown eyes. But she recognized the tailor-fitted suit he wore and the designer shoes. His country's impoverishment didn't extend to this man.
"It worked out, as you say, for all but your fellow officer." Finally de la Reyes released her hand and glanced back at Sanders. "But I am told the man is well."
Sanders nodded, his craggy face grim. "Sergeant Talbot was saved by his vest. He'll be sore for a few days, but he's already been released from the hospital."
There was a collective murmur of relief from the room's occupants.
De la Reyes went to sit in a nearby free chair and Ava sank into her own with a sense of reprieve. She'd never learned to enjoy the spotlight.
Sanders pulled out a chair. "The would-be assassin has been identified."
"His name is Pedro Cabrerra." Ava recognized the man passing out sheets as head of the American company providing de la Reyes security while in the country. He was the sort of man who left an impression.
A shade under six feet, he had a commanding presence, even in a roomful of cops. His streaked blond hair bordered on shaggy, his pale green gaze hawklike. His face was tanned as a surfer's and his body looked broad and rock hewn beneath his suit. Unlike de la Reyes, whose expensive clothes gilded his sophisticated appearance, this man's suit only served to highlight what he was beneath it. A warrior. No amount of gloss or polish could ever mask his rough edges.
"I am sorry." De la Reyes lifted a hand to indicate the man passing out Cabrerra's likeness. "Cael McCabe. He owns the security company I hired shortly before I came to the States."
McCabe was the only one to remain standing. And he didn't so much pace the room as prowl. "Cabrerra was a trusted member of Senor de la Reyes's private security detail who traveled with him from San Baltes."
"He is was," de la Reyes corrected himself, "my first cousin. Our fathers are brothers."
Ava saw the grief in the man's eyes and felt a moment of sympathy. Bad enough for complete strangers to want you dead. But when your own family went gunning for you that transcended politics. It didn't get any more personal.
"Cabrerra was part of the security contingent to go through the civic center prior to Antonio's appearance there."
"But how the hell did he smuggle in a weapon?" Chief Sanders demanded. "Rifle, scope, tripod he didn't carry all that equipment in when he was helping with the security sweep."
"He probably went in the night before," McCabe responded. There was the slightest hint of Georgia in his voice. He might have lost the drawl, but the rounded vowels gave him away. "The windows aren't wired to the alarm system. No reason to be. They're too narrow for a person to enter through. He must have rappelled up the side of the building with the equipment in a bag over his shoulder. We found a window with the lock drilled out. All he had to do then was open the window, drop the bag inside and close it again. He just had to make sure he was first in the building the next morning so he could choose the section he was going to 'secure.' Stash the equipment until he needed it."
"Those windows all open onto hallways that circle the top of the building," SWAT commander Harv Mendel observed.
McCabe nodded. "He probably locked the doors leading to the seating. Hard to blend in if he'd tried to take out Antonio during his speech. But leaving the building he could have arrived on-scene moments later and no one would have suspected him. Better yet, everyone would have figured it was one of the nut jobs that have been issuing threats. Not one of his own countrymen."
The mood in the room went grim. "No offense, Senor de la Reyes " The chief stumbled a bit over the pronunciation. "But he had five days and as many cities to act before you stopped in Metro City. What was he waiting for?"
"This I do not know."
"I can guess." McCabe shoved his hands in the pockets of his dark suit jacket, the motion pulling the fabric tight across his shoulders. "He figured this was his best chance to get away with it. He counted on a smaller police force. Less experienced security." He sent a slight smile at Ava. "He figured wrong."
The effect of that smile sent a frisson clear down her spine. Nerve endings quivered in response. Long-dormant hormones stirred. Ava straightened in her chair and stared back at McCabe, fighting for an impassive expression. There wasn't a man alive who could affect her with just a look. Few who could affect her at all. A man that potent wasn't just one to be wary of.
He was downright lethal.
She half turned, her posture wary. Cael quickened his stride to catch up with her and wondered, not for the first time, what it was about the woman that drew this visceral immediate response. She was attractive, with hair and eyes so dark she could pass for a countrywoman of de la Reyes, if it weren't for her pale skin. But he didn't react to every attractive female he saw, especially on a job.
"What is it, McCabe?"
One corner of his mouth kicked up at the impatience in her tone. Her voice was a low alto, slightly raspy. Every time he heard it he thought of sex. Hot and sweaty and exhausting.
"If you've got a few minutes, I'd like to buy you a drink." He was close enough to see the mask slide over her expression, and found himself intrigued yet again. Maybe she was used to men hitting on her and had developed an instant defense. He wasn't hitting on her, but he'd be lying if he said the thought hadn't occurred to him.
"Sorry. I need to get home." There was no trace of regret in her voice. She pushed open the door of the Metro City Police Headquarters and jogged down the steps.
"I'll walk you to your car, then." And it satisfied something inside him to intercept her sidewise glance, half irritated and half questioning. But she made no effort at conversation, clearly leaving that up to him.
He shoved his hands in his suit pockets and fleetingly wondered how long it would be before he could change into something that didn't feel like a straitjacket. "So. Good shooting today. Were you lucky or are you that good?"
"I'm that good," she said without a hint of modesty. And because it was no more than he'd heard, he nodded.