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Sela Andrews was five minutes away from walking into an ambush. Slumped down in his Jeep on the street outside her apartment, Zach Bachman watched the setup unfold.
The small split-screen monitor on his watch showed Sela approaching the elevator on the floor five stories above.
That wasn't the problem, except for how clueless she appeared to be to the danger around her. The other shot centered on the building's underground garage. There, in stall seventeen, not far from where Zach sat, a man fiddled with something under the hood of her car.
And not just any man. A guy dressed in black, his gaze skipping around the garage as if looking for witnesses. He'd even taken the time to disable the security camera. He just didn't know he'd missed oneZach's.
Thanks to this development, Zach knew he had to break his word. When he'd convinced Adam Wright, his fellow Recovery Project agent, to tap into the cameras in Sela's building, Zach promised to watch but not get involved. That wasn't possible now. He pressed the green button on the bottom of his watch and sent Adam an emergency pulse. Just in case.
That left Sela. Going through the garage door was the faster route to cutting her off, but also the most likely to give away his position and get shot. Not his favorite activity, certainly not at this painfully early time of day. No, he had to do this the long and hard way.
Out of the car, he hit the building's lobby at a run, stopping only to use the master key Adam had made for just this type of problem. Zach's sneakers squeaked against the tile floor as he crossed in front of the elevator bank. He knew the schematics without thinking and headed for the emergency stairwell in the back corner.
As he raced down the stairs two at a time to the underground garage, his palm slid against the metal railing. The stale hot air of the enclosed space filled his lungs, but he didn't stop. As they passed, he ignored the man stumbling up the stairs from what looked like a hard night of drinking. None of that mattered because Zach had to get there before she did.
He hit the landing, stopping only when momentum slammed his shoulder against the stairwell door. His breathing stayed steady and strong, a testament to his former military career and good conditioning.
He pressed his hand against the door and waited for the ding of the elevator bell to signal Sela's entry into the garage.
Only silence greeted him.
The door creaked as he pulled it open and peered into the dark garage through the tiny slit. Nothing. Too much nothing. Everything was quiet.
No squealing tires. No engines running. At just after four in the morning on a summer weekend, no one else was in the garage. Not even a security guard. That might be usual for some parts of the country, but not for a city. This area of D.C. buzzed with some level of activity most of the time, but not this morning.
The emergency cones set up at the garage's entrance likely played a role in that. Looked like this guy had thought of everything to give him the precious time needed to get to Sela. The real concern centered on the guy knowing Sela would be on the move in the early-morning hours on a Sunday. Zach had watched her for weeks and hadn't anticipated her going out now. But this guy knew.
Not wanting to be too many steps behind, Zach slipped into the garage, keeping his back flat against the concrete wall. With one hand he caught the door before it slammed shut behind him. With the other he reached for the gun tucked into the holder on his hip.
Then he saw it. Behind a row of cars, something flashed. Possibly nothing, but just as likely a reflection of the attacker from all the metal overhead. It gave Zach a place to focus.
He slid down against the wall, debating whether to make his move and take the attacker out before he touched Sela or hold his position. The elevator bell ruined any chance of an offensive strike. He had no choice. The most dangerous option won out.
With a harsh hiss of profanity, he slunk back into the shadows. His insides screamed to grab Sela to safety, but his head knew the right answer. Bide his time.
Thiswhatever was happening right nowcould be the key to finding the information he needed on Trevor Walters, Sela's boss, and the Recovery Project's nemesis.
Zach couldn't stop now, not when he was this close to his goal. He'd made a personal vow to find the evidence needed to catch Trevor once and for all, and Zach meant to keep it.
Sela stepped into the garage. Folders and paperwork weighed down her arms. Her sandy-blond hair fell loose in gentle curls around her shoulders. She hummed an off-key tune, seemingly oblivious to the choking gas fumes in the enclosed space.
Zach shook his head at her behavior. For a smart woman she acted pretty dumb. With her arms full, she couldn't defend herself. Now he had to handle the job.
Moving in double time, she put a slim file between her teeth and wrestled her car keys out of the pocket of her black blazer. While juggling books and papers in one arm, she aimed the door opener at her car. The high-pitched chirp of the alarm echoed through the abandoned garage.
Zach shifted, trying to figure out the current location of the owner of the mysterious glint of light. When he glanced back at Sela, he realized the worst had happened. Her attacker had managed to sneak up on her, his cover protected thanks to her awful pseudosinging and the bulky back end of her SUV.
When she reached for the door handle, balancing her load on an upraised thigh, her stalker sprang into action. A metal object swooped down in an arc before connecting with her head. Zach jumped at the resounding whack as he watched her crumple to the cement. Papers fell in a swoosh and scattered. Her keys jangled, then skidded to a halt under her SUV. She didn't have warning or time to scream.
The only sound came from the attacker a second later. "Got her," he said into his cell phone, not bothering to lower his voice.
Zach muttered a harsh oath under his breath but forced his legs to remain still. His hands clenched and unclenched as he watched the attacker stuff Sela's un-moving body into a rusty pickup truck parked a few spots away from hers. Slipping the small camera out of his pocket, he took the attacker's photo. Got a shot of the truck, too. When the vehicle roared to life and started moving, Zach flipped into fast-forward. He hesitated only until the guy pulled away and out of sight, then Zach ran out of the garage entrance and up the ramp into the warm, dark morning.
In a silent crouch, he headed for the Jeep. It took less than a minute to get there and slide inside. The ignition turned over with little more than a soft purr. Leaving the lights off, he followed the truck at a safe distance, hanging back behind the few other cars on the road.
Keeping his gaze on the license plate in front of him, Zach hit the button on his watch to patch him into Recovery Project headquarters. Adam picked up on the first ring. He was the tech guy in their group. He had a series of cameras set up throughout the city and could track anything or anyone who was moving.
Before Adam could say a word, Zach jumped in. "I'm sending you a photo."
"That's nice of you. Thanks for dragging me out of bed, by the way."
"I need an ID."
"Got it." The amusement left Adam's voice this time.
"This looks bad."
"Also need you to do your satellite magic and follow a car for me in case I lose it. Track me and then look for the truck a short distance in front of me."
"It's not as easy as you make it sound, but I'll figure it out."
"And I can't explain now, so don't ask." Zach hung up without any other discussion, knowing Adam would make it all work.
The rest, like saving the girl, was up to Zach.
Sela's head throbbed. The muscles in her upper arms burned in agony. Her right cheek felt raw and puffy. Every part of her body, except maybe her nose, hurt like never before.
She tried to sit up but flopped back down when the world spun violently around her. Her hands weren't bound, but the blinding soreness coursing through her body made even small movements difficult.
She remembered bits and pieces of the last few minutes. She'd gathered up her work and ran out of her apartment without doing her usual check. The rush to talk to her boss made her less than careful. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem. She lived in Foggy Bottom, a nice part of Washington, D.C., home to a university, the infamous Watergate and Kennedy Center and rows of impressive brownstones.
But she had known someone was watching her. Could feel the eyes focus on her every time she stepped out her door, which was why she was headed to the office before dawn, before the city burst to life. Her nerves had buzzed until all she heard was a chaotic melody in her head. She remembered the garage and a crack against her skull. She bounced around a vehicle until her kidnapper treated her to another fist to the side of the head.
She'd experienced more violence in the past hour or maybe minutes, she wasn't even sure how much time has passedthan in her entire life up until that point. The good news, what little she could find, came from her ability to breathe. Whoever hit her hadn't killed her. The only question was how long her good fortune would hold out.
"Mornin', sunshine." The feral voice shocked her into opening her sore eyes.
The brightness sent a new bolt of pain ricocheting around the inside of her brain. The harsh glow from the overhead light screamed through the room and forced her out of her slumber. She saw her attacker face-to-face and immediately missed the false safety of darkness.
A squeal raced to her lips, but she swallowed it back down. Greasy brown hair, narrow yellow-brown eyes and a dirt-stained blue jean jacket. The burly vermin balanced in front of her on his haunches, his stale breath hissing against the bruised skin on her face.
He was her nightmare.
Heck, he was every woman's nightmare. "Wake up, sweetie pie. It's time for us to have some fun."
She ignored his grim words as her gaze darted around the room. She needed an escape or something big enough to knock him over.
"What's the matter? You not gonna talk?" His booming laugh filled the small space as he leaned in closer.
What he found so funny, she had no idea.
"I could make you talk. Scream for me, even." Instead of following through with his threat, he pushed against his thighs and stood.
Sela let out the shaky breath suspended in her chest. From what she could see, she was in a one-room cabin with two possible exitsa window above the kitchen sink that was caked with filth, and the front door off to her left. A very solid-looking wooden door and she had to go through a disgusting guy to get there.
A metal card table and two folding chairs sat in front of the kitchenette lining the wall to her far right. The path to the front door looked miles away, even though the room could not have been more than fifteen feet wide.
She tried a second time to heave her aching body to a sitting position when a brisk knock at the front door stopped her. Her captor whipped out a small gun from behind his back and aimed it in the direction of the sound. Before Sela could scream for help he grabbed her shoulder and lifted her off the sofa.
The jarring move sent a new wave of pain rattling through her battered body. She whimpered but her captor silenced any sound by locking his elbow around her neck and dragging her, half-choking, across the room.
With his back against the door and the muzzle of his gun pressed against her forehead, he called out. "Who is it?"
"Open up," came the muffled reply.
Sela struggled to identify the voice. From her attacker's frown, she assumed he couldn't place it, either.
Her attacker's grip eased enough for circulation to rush back to her neck. She debated whether or not she could land a swift kick in this guy's crotch. The idea of him falling to the ground in agony sure sounded good right about now.
"Johnnie? Let me in." The door muffled the other man's voice but his words were clear.
Her captor pressed the tip of the gun against the wooden door. "Who are you?"
"The boss sent me."
Boss? The contents of Sela's stomach spun and swished. The situation went from awful to unbelievable. She had to get out of there, and having two attackers wasn't going to make that easy.
"This is your final warning. Open up," the mystery guest yelled through the door.
When Johnnie unlocked the door, Sela felt the last of her hope shrivel.