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Dr Celia Cole-Thomas pulled back the curtain in the cubicle where she'd dressed the sutured forefinger of an elderly man. She immediately heard screams for help in English and Spanish coming from the E.R. waiting room. Her heart rate quickened when she saw two young men in blood-soaked clothing struggling under the weight of a limp body.
"Bring him over here!" She shouted to be heard above the yelling and crying. She motioned to an empty cubicle. "Dr. Jones, help me out here," she said to the pediatrician who'd rushed over when he'd heard the commotion. Putting on a pair of latex gloves, she grabbed her stethoscope from the pocket of her lab coat, placing it against the chest of a boy whose breathing was becoming shallower with each passing second. "GSW to the chest, and he's bleeding out fast. Call the O.R.…"
Whatever else she was going to say was drowned out by the sound of gunfire. There was one shot, then another—the rapid fire exploding like cannons shot through the emergency room of Miami's busiest municipal hospital. At that moment Celia realized the E.R. was under siege. The curtain of the makeshift room was ripped open and she stared into the barrel of a large-caliber handgun. The young boy, gripping the semiautomatic with two hands to steady it, winked at her and her gaze went to the distinctive tattoo on the back of his left hand.
"Step off, doc," he ordered through the white bandanna covering the lower portion of his face.
It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. The first bullet hit the chest of her patient, the impact causing his body to jerk several inches off the gurney. The second knocked Dr. Yale Trevor-Jones backward. He collapsed on the floor like a rag doll before Celia felt the impact of another bullet slamming into her midsection. The fire in her side spread throughout her body. She placed her right hand against her ribs as blood— warm and acrid-smelling—spilled through her splayed fingers. The shooting and screaming continued as she lay sprawled on the tiled floor, shutting out the sights and sounds of carnage tearing through the E.R. In less than a minute, four people had been injured and six lay mortally wounded.
Celia sat up, her heart racing uncontrollably. Placing a hand over her mouth, she cut off the screams caught in the back of her throat. Rocking back and forth, she cried without making a sound. The nightmare had returned. It'd been almost a year and yet she could not stop reliving the horror of the night that so many innocent people had lost their lives.
Physically she'd recovered from being shot at close range, the bullet having passed through her body and ending up in the wall behind her. But, Celia knew she would never forget the sound of her own voice, when hours later, she'd asked the recovery nurse what had happened and knew by the woman's expression that many people had died. She didn't learn the names of the victims until she'd been taken to a private room and her family members had begun arriving en masse. It was her brother Diego who'd finally told her that Dr. Yale Trevor-Jones and Dr. Colton Riley had died that night. Rival gangs had turned Miami Hospital's E.R. into a killing field. Her patient and three other gang members had also died.
Pulling her knees to her chest, Celia rested her forehead on her knees and waited for her heartbeat to return to normal. She'd taken a medical leave of absence in addition to grief counseling to cope with the death of the man she'd planned to marry—Yale Trevor-Jones— but she still was unable to exorcise the horror caused by Miami's gang fighting over a very lucrative drug operation.
Images of the days and nights she'd shared with Yale flooded her mind. When she'd met him for the first time she realized immediately that he was different from any of the men in her past. They'd shared the same passion for medicine, the same zeal for helping those without resources in underserved communities. Yale could have joined the family practice begun by his grandfather, treating the children of an affluent Connecticut suburb, but instead he had chosen to work in a city hospital.
What had made the loss so devastating for Celia was that she and Yale had planned to open a free clinic in a low-income Miami neighborhood. They'd purchased an abandoned building and had planned to meet with a contractor to renovate the space to include waiting and examining rooms and a place where children could play while waiting to be seen. Yale's specialty was pediatrics and hers was internal medicine. Their future plans also included adding a pediatric dentist and an ob-gyn.
She slowly looked up when she heard the telephone ring shattering the silence in the large bedroom. Celia knew she had to get away from Miami, even if only for a month or two. Waking up to tropical temperatures, palm trees, the ocean views, the sounds of Spanish interspersed with English and luxury yachts moored along the Intracoastal was a constant reminder of the days and nights she'd lain in Yale's arms while they'd planned their future.
She reached for the cordless phone without bothering to look at the display. "Hello."
"¿Cómo estás, Cee Cee?"
A hint of a smile parted her lips when she heard her older brother Diego's greeting. There was no doubt he was in a good mood. Employees of ColeDiz International, Ltd. were thrilled now that its CEO, Diego Cole-Thomas, had married and become a father. He now greeted them with smiles and effusive handshakes. Before he'd met Vivienne Neal, most people, including family members, found Diego Cole-Thomas cold and intimidating.
"Good morning, Diego."
"Have you looked at the clock, Celia?"
Sitting upright, Celia took a quick glance at the clock on the bedside table. She groaned inwardly. It was after three in the afternoon. "I suppose I should've said good afternoon."
"Are you still in bed?"
Her brother's voice had changed, layered with concern that put her on the defensive. "I didn't know I needed your permission as to when I should and should not go to bed." Her retort was followed by a long silence, and Celia knew Diego was struggling to control his temper.
"You don't need my permission to do anything, Celia. It's just that I'm concerned about you spending so much time by yourself."
Tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them back. "I'm sorry I snapped at you, Diego," she said before exhaling an audible breath. "I feel better when I'm alone because I don't have to pretend all is well when it isn't. Most times I'm okay, but it's when I dream about what happened that I find myself getting depressed."
"Are you depressed now?"
She smiled. "I'm fighting it."
"May I make a suggestion without you biting my head off?"
"Yes. And even if I disagree with you I promise not to bite your head off."
"I spoke to Nick earlier this morning, and he wants you to stay at the horse farm until you're called to testify."
Celia rolled her eyes upward. "Nick knows how I feel about horses. I don't like them and they don't like me."
"It's not about horses, Cee Cee. It's about a change of scenery."
She smiled again. "You must be clairvoyant, big brother, because I was just thinking about leaving Miami for a few months to get my head together."
"Where are you going?"
"No, Celia. If you go there you'll be more isolated than in that mausoleum of a house you wander around in."
"Will it make you feel better if I take a lover for the summer to keep me company?"
"That's not funny, Celia."
"Make up your mind, Diego," she countered. "I know you've been talking to everyone because you believe I'm either crazy or going crazy. I'm neither. What I am is mourning the loss of the man I loved, the man who was to become my husband and the father of my children. He was murdered right in front of my eyes, and my only consolation was that I didn't watch him die. I am going away, and hopefully when I come back I'll be able to start over."
There was another brief silence. "Will I see you before you leave?"
"Of course," Celia said.
She would stay in Florida long enough to see her brother, sister-in-law and nephew, and to spend time with her parents and grandparents before driving up to North Carolina. Perhaps on her return trip she would stop at her younger brother's horse farm in western Virginia.
Two minutes later, she ended the call, swung her legs over the side of the bed and walked to the en suite bathroom. She'd committed to leaving Miami, and hopefully upon her return she would be able to get her life back on track.
FBI Academy—Quantico, Virginia
Gavin Faulkner reached up in an attempt to loosen the tie under his shirt collar. He stopped and then remembered why he'd worn it. Earlier that morning, he'd gotten a call from his supervisor that he was to meet him at 0900 hours. Bradley MacArthur ended the terse message with a direct order that he wear a suit and tie.
As a special agent working undercover, there were few occasions when he had to wear what he'd referred to as an authorized noose. He much preferred jeans, boots, tees and a pullover sweater. The temperature had to drop several degrees before he deigned to wear a coat or jacket.
"Agent Faulkner, you may go in now."
Gavin, rising to his feet, stared at the dour-faced woman guarding her boss's door like a rottweiler about to pounce on an unsuspecting intruder. "Thank you, Ms. Rossen." He gave her his best toothpaste-ad grin. He knew he'd shocked her because she stared silently at him, her mouth agape.
Ms. Claire Rossen didn't like him, and the feeling was mutual. The first time he'd been summoned to meet directly with Mac, she'd neglected to inform her boss that the newly appointed undercover special agent had arrived on time when she directed Gavin into his supervisor's office twenty minutes later.
He'd endured the tongue-lashing about the importance of punctuality, and then calmly asked Mac why he wanted to see him. The question had quickly diffused the career agent's harangue, and within seconds the two men regarded each other with respect. He smiled at Ms. Rossen as he stepped into the sun-filled office. Much to his surprise, she returned his smile.
"Good luck, Gavin."
It was the first time Claire had addressed him by his first name. His smile was still in place when he recognized the men sitting at a conference table in a corner of the large office. "Good morning, gentlemen," Gavin said, greeting and shaking hands with associate directors of the FBI, DEA, ATF and the U.S. Marshals Service. A shudder of excitement rushed through his body when he realized he was to become a participant in a joint Department of Justice operation.
Bradley gestured to an empty chair. "Please sit there, Agent Faulkner." Gavin sat. It was the only place at the table with a file folder. "Before you examine the contents of the folder in front of you, I want you to know that your name was at the top of the list for this operation."
Thick, black, silky eyebrows lifted a fraction when Gavin met the resolute stares of the men looking back at him. "Am I correct to assume that I was the only name on the list?" The ATF and DEA officials exchanged barely perceptible smiles.
"Yes," the assistant Bureau director acknowledged. "Raymond Prentice, aka Ray Peterson, and sometimes known as Roy Perkins has just earned the number-one spot on the Bureau's Most Wanted List."
A lump formed in Gavin's throat, and he closed his eyes for several seconds. His expression was unreadable when he finally opened them. "What happened?"
Bradley laced his fingers together atop the table. "We got word from the inside that his cover was compromised following the kidnapping of the owner of a gun shop near Waynesville, North Carolina."
"What happened?" Gavin repeated, glaring at his supervisor.
"The plan was to leave no witnesses, but Ray wounded the store owner, who was able to give the police a description of his kidnappers. Ray managed to slip away from the group, and is hiding out in the mountains near the Tennessee border. Right now he doesn't trust anyone and that includes his government. Gavin, we need you to bring him in."
"What if he doesn't want to come in?"
"It will be up to you to convince him to come in," said the nattily dressed ATF supervisor.
"Who's his contact on the inside?" Gavin said anxiously, asking yet another question.
The head of DEA field offices cleared his throat. "She's the girlfriend of one of the men responsible for getting guns across the border to Mexican drug traffickers. She said there's a contract out on Ray to bring him in dead or alive."
"How do you gentlemen want him? Dead or alive?"
The ATF director angled his head. "We'd like to bring him alive, but without compromising the most important DoJ joint task force operation we've put together in years. We've got direct orders from the Oval Office to stop the flow of drugs and killings along the U.S.Mexican border."
Gavin clenched his teeth and a muscle twitched noticeably in his lean jaw. "What you're telling me is that you're willing to offer up Raymond Prentice as a sacrificial lamb in order to save your mission."
A bright red flush crept up Bradley MacArthur's face to the hairline of the mane of shockingly white hair, which had begun turning gray in his early twenties.
"Special Agent Faulkner, I shouldn't have to remind you of the oath each and every one of us took when we joined the Justice Department. If need be, I'd sacrifice my first born if it meant stopping the flow of drugs and putting those responsible for murder and trafficking behind bars for the rest of their natural lives."
Gavin nodded. "I suppose that answers my question. When do I start and where am I going?" His voice was even, shaded in neutral tones that belied the inner torment of assuming the responsibility of rescuing or killing his own brother—Raymond Prentice.
Bradley unlaced his fingers as he stared at his agent. "We know this is not going to be easy for you. But the fact is you're the best man for this mission. You'll only have twenty-four hours to familiarize yourself with the operation before you head out to North Carolina."
Resting a hand on the file folder stamped OPERATION: Top Gun, Gavin gave each man a long, penetrating look. "This is going to be my last field assignment."
"What is it you want?" asked the ATF supervisor.