Authors: Cate Noble
Earlier, Rocco had talked briefly to Adele. While she had no clue what was really going on, Adele had made it clear she felt the government and Rocco both owed her for the many inconveniences she was being forced to endure.
God love his sister, because there were times when Rocco found it damn difficult. Compared to Maddy’s circumstances, Adele was living at the Taj Mahal, in a house far nicer than her trailer, with all her meals brought in, even cigarettes and booze.
He hoped that with Tran’s modus operandi exposed and Adele hidden beyond his reach, Maddy’s value as a hostage would increase substantially. As their sole point of leverage, they needed Maddy alive and well.
But only if there was someone to bargain with.
Once Tran learned Rocco had been detained, was in lockdown and unable to deliver Rufin, Maddy’s value would plummet with Tran’s impatience.
Killing her would give Tran a quick, angry fix. But he wouldn’t stop there. Tran wouldn’t accept being thwarted. He’d still want Rufin. He’d still want to get back at Rocco. Which meant Tran would go further. Dig deeper into Rocco’s past.
Rocco refused to let himself think about his remaining vulnerability.
He prayed that Travis was correct, that it was unlikely Minh Tran could connect the dots. As far as the outside world was concerned, Rocco hadn’t had contact with Gena in nearly four years. Four years that included her marriage to Harry Gambrel.
Four years of vanquished dreams.
Outside, in the hallway, Rocco heard voices. More than one, but the thick door made their words indistinguishable. It was always possible that they were coming to set him free, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He’d kick their asses first, ask questions second.
Rocco moved behind the door, knowing they’d open it cautiously. If he were too close, they’d slam it shut. He’d wait until the door was open a good six to eight inches, then yank it backward and block it from being closed.
The lock snapped. As soon as the door swung wide enough, Rocco grabbed for the man’s wrist.
“Down, boy.” It was Dante Johnson.
“Dante!” Rocco shoved the door all the way open. Max Duncan was there, too, hovering in the hall behind Things 1 and 2. Disapproval shimmered like a heat wave between the two watchers.
“Travis sent us,” Dante began.
“Where the hell is he?” Rocco snapped. “And who did he send to rescue Maddy?”
“Maddy Kohlmeyer?” The tone of Dante’s voice confirmed he knew little or nothing. “I believe Travis was meeting with Artel Quaid in hopes of learning more about the situation.”
Rocco picked up on the code and tried to quell his irritation. “Artel Quaid” was a fictional name signifying caution. Dante’s use of that same name months ago had helped Rocco locate him in an overseas jail.
Thing 1 shifted closer and tapped Dante’s shoulder. “Where is Franks meeting this Quaid fellow?”
Dante turned, as if seeing the watcher for the first time. “What was your name again?”
The watcher sneered. “Just answer the question. It’s important that we find Travis Franks.”
“I bet it is.” Dante nodded at Max, who drew his gun at the same time Dante did. “Get ’em up boys. Hands clasped behind the neck.”
Dante passed a Glock nine millimeter to Rocco, who immediately chambered a round.
“Hey, we’re on the same team,” Thing 2 began.
“Right.” Rocco stepped out into the hall. “Where was all your team spirit when I wanted out?”
“Better get inside before you piss him off,” Dante said.
Outfoxed and outnumbered, the watchers exchanged glances, then stepped into the room. Max shut the door and locked it.
“God, I’m glad to see you two,” Rocco said. “Thanks for springing me.”
“We owed you.” Dante and Max nearly spoke in unison. “But how the hell did you end up here, with those two?” Dante went on.
Rocco pointed to the ceiling, reminding them that the building was wired. “We’ll talk outside.”
Rocco’s rucksack, gun, and wallet were right where he’d left them in a metal bin outside the door. His belongings appeared undisturbed, but he’d check them more closely later.
“So what the hell is going on?” Dante asked once the three of them were inside the black Chevy SUV. Dante drove with Max riding shotgun. “And where is Travis?”
“I was going to ask you that same thing.” Rocco squinted against the bright sun. “You told those guys that Travis sent you. Are you saying he didn’t?”
“He did, but not directly.” Dante caught Rocco’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Travis told Cat where you were being held.”
Rocco sat forward. Catalina Dion was Dante’s fi-ancée. Though not an Agency employee, she’d worked with them years ago as a contract agent. She’d been one of the best, and Rocco considered her an unofficial member of their team. So did Travis.
“He knew damn well Cat would tell you,” Rocco said. “Tell her I owe her one. Did Travis give Cat any updates on Maddy’s situation?”
“I heard her BMW was found in the bay. Empty,” Dante said. “Is there more?”
“A lot more. I got an e-mail yesterday evening with a picture of Maddy. Minh Tran has her, most likely overseas. He wants me and Dr. Rufin in exchange.”
“Shit!” Dante said. “And you called Travis, right?”
“Actually, Travis showed up at my town house after Tran made an attempt to abduct my sister and her son. Travis heard me playing back a recorded phone conversation.” Rocco went on to explain Minh Tran’s demands.
“Did Travis move your sister and nephew to a secure location?” Max asked.
“Guess that explains why Travis asked Cat to also check on Gena Armstrong,” Dante said. “Good thing, too. The women’s shelter Gena volunteers at in South Texas was firebombed last night.”
Rocco felt as if he’d been hit by a cannon. “Was Gena hurt?”
“I understand she escaped without major injuries. But there was at least one fatality. Sounds like Tran was trying to get to anyone connected to you,” Dante said.
“What time did this happen?” Had the bombing been intended as a message to underscore Tran’s threat?
“I don’t have that level of detail. Cat’s trying to run down particulars as we speak,” Dante replied.
“I want Gena put in protective custody!” Rocco said. “Does Travis know about this?”
“When Cat told him about the explosion, he said to get you to South Texas, fast. He also advised her to keep this out of the normal channels. Obviously, Travis is still concerned about an internal leak,” Dante said.
The reason Travis had enlisted Catalina to check on Gena, as opposed to using someone inside the Agency, became plain. The Agency had a deeply burrowed mole.
It dawned on Rocco that they were headed for the airport, albeit slowly. Morning rush hour was in full swing.
“Damn it! I need to talk with Travis,” Rocco said. “He knows I’ll do anything to protect Gena. But I can’t just abandon Maddy!”
“Look, man, there’s something else you need to know,” Dante said. “Travis and Maddy started dating a few months ago. Finding Maddy is important to him, too.”
“Maddy and Travis?” The news was and wasn’t surprising. Rocco knew Maddy had been dating someone. But Travis? “How long have you known about this?”
Dante shrugged. “I didn’t until Cat told me this morning. Guess women are more in tune with that stuff. Cat thought Maddy and Travis were purposely keeping a low profile since his divorce was just finalized.”
Jesus. Was that why Travis had distanced himself these last few weeks, keeping contact with Rocco to strictly work issues? Now Rocco felt even more guilty. How many times had Travis and Dante tried to point out the secret torch Rocco carried for Gena—even while he’d dated Maddy?
“It’s like you compare all women to the Ghost of Gena Past,” Travis had once said. “Who the hell wants to compete with that?”
“I feel like an idiot for not picking up on it sooner,” Rocco said.
“Bottom line: you’ve got to trust Travis on this one,” Dante said.
“Tell me more about what happened in Texas. Did you say Gena was at a women’s shelter?” Had her problem resurfaced?
“My intel’s sketchy, but Cat’s gathering a full dossier for you. Gena worked for the company that was building a new facility for the shelter. In fact, it was still under construction. There’d been some recent vandalism. Nothing serious. Until last night. Gena and one other volunteer were there working when it happened. Local law enforcement seems to believe either the husband of the other woman is behind the attack, or whoever has been behind the previous vandalism decided to take it to the next level.”
“In light of the timing and what’s happening to people around me, I think we can rule both of those out,” Rocco said.
“I agree.” Max had been quiet up till now. “For what it’s worth, my Spidey senses are telling me Gena’s in serious danger.”
Rocco focused on Max. “What else do you know?”
Thanks to mind-control experiments conducted by the late Dr. Viktor Zadovsky, a protégé of Dr. Rufin’s, Max had developed some highly unusual telepathic abilities. Abilities Rocco had thought only applied to a link between Max and the missing man they believed was SAS Agent Logan Treyhorn. Better known as Taz.
Except now that Rocco thought about it, he recalled that Dante had had some clairvoyant experiences when he’d first returned as well.
“I sense someone watching her, but from a distance. Like they’re waiting.” Max rubbed his forehead as if in pain. “Sorry it’s not more specific. My, uh, channels are scrambled today.”
“He had a seizure last night,” Dante said. “After making contact with Taz.”
“Wow. Guess that confirms Taz is alive though,” Rocco said.
Taz had fallen into a deep ravine in Colorado after fighting with Max. His remains had not been found. That Taz’s body held data chips implanted by Dr. Rufin was one of the reasons the Agency sought him. That Taz was considered a friend by Max added another layer of complexity.
“I’ll go see Gena,” Rocco said. “And explain the danger she’s in and get her to a safe house.”
“We’re going with you,” Dante said. “We’ve got a jet on standby that can fly us to Texas in about three hours. We can be back by nightfall. Then—”
Dante’s words were cut off as his phone rang. Within seconds Max’s was ringing, too.
Max checked the display. “It’s headquarters. Damn. You think they already know about Rocco’s escape?”
“Play dumb,” Dante advised.
“Duncan.” Max grew silent, listening. “When did this happen? Send a copy of the video to my cell phone.”
Max disconnected and turned to Dante. “A gas station in Kentucky was robbed during the night. The female clerk is missing. The suspect’s photo matches the one police have on file for Taz.”
Taz had been sought in connection with an earlier assault following his escape from a hospital in San Diego.
Max’s phone buzzed, indicating an e-mail. He opened it. “It’s him.” Max held his phone up.
Even Rocco recognized the man staring directly into the security camera. “Damn. Now what?”
“I’ve got to get to him before the police do,” Max said. “If he’s unstable, I’m the only one he’ll listen to.”
“Change of plans,” Dante said to Rocco. “Max and I need to go to Kentucky. Who do you trust that we can tap for backup in Texas?”
Rocco shook his head. “Outside of this car? No one. If I can get to Texas in three hours, I can grab Gena and fly straight back here. She can stay with Adele and Billy until we get this straightened out.”
“We both know it won’t be that easy. From what I understand, Gena’s refused to leave the burn victim’s bedside,” Dante said. “Let’s face it, the truth will shock her.”
“Especially coming from me,” Rocco said. “But if I have to, I’ll drag her to a secure environment in handcuffs.”
Sugar Springs, TX
October 4, 11:00 A.M.
Gena huddled on the bench inside the tiny alcove that doubled as a waiting room for the makeshift intensive care unit of Sugar Springs Hospital.
Serving a population of less than five thousand, the small community facility saw its fair share of fevered infants, broken limbs, and bar stabbings. But it wasn’t really equipped for major trauma.
Normally, patients with life-threatening injuries were stabilized, then transported to the larger hospital in McAllen or even Corpus Christi.
But last night, to paraphrase one of the ER doctors, had been a statewide hell night. And everything was bigger in Texas.
There had been a train wreck two counties over. A building at a major manufacturing plant in Brownsville had collapsed during shift change. Add to that a catastrophic traffic accident that closed Interstate 37 north of there.
By the time the fire in Sugar Springs happened, the trauma units in every major hospital across southeast Texas were overwhelmed. Forget air ambulances. The ER here had been told to do the best it could with what it had.
That Lupe was still alive was a miracle. Gena had overheard the paramedics talking. No one had expected Lupe to survive the trip to the hospital. Because no air transport had been available, Lupe had been admitted here and put in a medical coma.
They’d kept her alive, but as time passed and the extent of her injuries was catalogued in whispers, it became obvious that Lupe was beyond medical hope. Her left leg had been amputated just above the knee and her left arm close to the shoulder.
Yet somehow Lupe’s heart kept beating. And her lungs kept working. Eventually she stabilized just long enough for the usual questions to start popping up and spawning problems.
The truth was damning: Lupe wasn’t in the country legally.
She had no medical insurance. Though no one would admit it, Lupe became a proverbial hot potato. None of the hospitals wanted the expense or the liability, especially when her prognosis was so grim.
“I’ll cover her expenses,” Gena had argued with the admissions clerk.
“It’s not that simple,” the woman had responded.
But in Gena’s mind, it
just that simple: Lupe needed advanced life support. Gena could pay for it, or guarantee it, with the estate settlement. For the first time Ephraim’s money didn’t feel like a burden.