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The sound came out of the black night, startling and deadly. He recognized it instantly. He'd heard that crack and the menacing whine that followed so many times in the past. Even before the car bucked into its fatal slide, he knew what the explosive vibrations beneath him signified. Someone had shot out a tire.
At three-thirty a.m. the freeway was clear of traffic, except for taillights disappearing around the bend up front and the twin pinpoints of light behind him. He'd been doing close to ninety. Cursing softly, he fought the wheel. He knew what the odds were.
It had been raining--the first heavy shower since late August. Washington had basked in an Indian summer for the past two months. Now the locked wheels of the Mercedes slid across the damp, oily lanes like a tank on skis.
The man at his side swore viciously in the darkness, just once, then sat tense and waiting. It seemed like a dream, or more likely a nightmare, played out in slow motion. The wheel seemed so light in his hands, yet he couldn't get a grasp on it.
He saw the guardrail coming at him and knew it was all over. How had they known? Someone must have tipped them off. Who? Damn it, who? At the very last moment he folded his arms around his head and closed his eyes.
He lay on a bed. A hospital bed. He tried to lift his head to look around, but soon discovered that the slightest movement had an interesting effect. Something like slamming into the heart of a raging volcano.
He had been in pain before. But never like this. Dear God, never like this. He squeezed his eyes shut and ground his teeth to stop from screaming while he waited for the murderous wave of agonyto cease.
Something pricked his arm. He barely felt it above the sickening sensation that threatened to overwhelm him. He heard a soft, feminine voice, but couldn't make out the words.
Gradually the pain started to subside. He made himself relax, knowing that soon he would drift into the blessed relief of sleep.
There was something bothering him. Something he had to know. He struggled to stay awake. To think. To remember. All he could remember were flames. Hot, burning, excruciating heat. The memory was so horrifying he shut down his mind and let the darkness take him.
He seemed to have tubes sticking into every spare inch of his body. He frowned at the bottle swinging hazily above his head. The frown didn't feel right. He lifted a hand to touch his forehead and found his fingers encased in thick, white bandages.
"I'm glad you're awake," a man's voice said. A voice he knew well. Remembering the agony of movement, he very carefully turned his head. He had to squint to see clearly. Again his face felt odd, tight, as if the skin didn't want to move.
The man seated on a chair leaned forward. His silver hair looked striking against his deep tan. Piercing blue eyes looked at him with concern, and something else--a kind of apprehension that made him go cold.
"Hello, Charles." At least, that's what he'd tried to say. The words came out in a horrible growl.
"Don't try to speak. Just listen, okay?" Charles Findley shifted his chair and lowered his voice. "I haven't got long, the doctor will be back at any minute. Do you remember what happened?"
Unwilling to test his endurance against the pain again, he moved his head slowly, first right and then left. Then he fixed his gaze on the first familiar sight he'd seen since the nightmare had begun.
Charles looked agitated as he passed a hand across his damp forehead. "You had an accident. Car wreck on the way to the airport. There was a fire, you--"
He heard the door open. A brisk voice said, "Your time is up Mr. Findley." The voice sounded irritated.
Charles gave him a quick nod that he knew was meant to be reassuring. For a moment the piercing blue gaze fastened on his face. He clearly read the warning in that look. "I'll be back," Charles promised, and hurried out the door.
"Well, it's good to see you alert at last, Mr. Winters." The doctor moved to the bottom of the bed and picked up the chart
Mr. Winters. That was a new one. Obviously one that Charles had dreamed up. Personally he would have been much more inventive. He wondered what Charles had come up with for his first name. Probably something equally as unimaginative.
The doctor went on talking, but he wasn't listening. He was remembering what it was that had eluded his so far. Car wreck, Charles had said. He remembered nothing about that except the flames. And one intense question that had burned into his brain as fiercely as the heat had burned into his flesh.
Someone had betrayed him. Who? It could have been only one of three people. He weighed the choices as carefully as his scrambled thoughts allowed. And he didn't like the answers he came up with. He didn't like them at all.