Authors: P. M. Kavanaugh
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal
At last, empty and quiet inside, she calculated her arrival at the nearest safehouse. Midnight. She had to contact Gianni and warn him about U.N.I.T.’s double-cross. She owed him that much. At least that much.
“Lights on,” Anika called out. “Set temperature at twenty-two Celsius.”
The safehouse computer brightened the small rectangular room that bore no resemblance to its former life as a storage cellar for fruits and vegetables. U.N.I.T. had converted the space to a blast-proof bunker with the latest computer and surveillance equipment while leaving the farmhouse on the property in disrepair.
She sat in front of the computer monitor, then swiveled the chair next to hers and hoisted her left leg onto its seat. The throbbing eased about 20 percent.
At her instruction, the computer activated the surveillance cameras. An infrared 360-degree view of the grounds appeared on the overhead screens. The north monitor showed an owl alighting on a tree branch. Other than that, no movement disturbed the night.
She directed the computer to open Gianni’s private channel. “Are you there?” She waited a heartbeat, then another. No response. “Repeat every ten seconds.”
She stood and slipped off her jacket now that the room had warmed. God, what she wouldn’t give for a steaming hot shower. The mirror over the sink showed fresh scratch marks along her right cheek and a few stray twigs in her cap. A corner of facial tape had peeled away from her left temple.
She placed her hands under the tap. “Water on.” The wet warmth seeped into her fingers, her palms and the backs of her hands. “Hotter.”
After a few minutes, she took a hit of pain blocker, grabbed protein clusters and water from the cold cell, and returned to the computer. She instructed it to open a direct channel to Second.
She had to assume the worst-case scenario. That the tracking chip inside of her was still active, that Second knew she had survived the mission and the truck explosion. If she didn’t follow post-mission protocol and report in, an entire posse of authorities would be set on her. It was safer if she made contact and tried to control the fallout. When the channel went live, she switched to manual communication.
“I’m alive,” she typed. “Awaiting retrieval at Red Robin.”
She forced herself to take a few bites of the cluster and drink some water as she waited for a reply. Thirty-four seconds passed.
“What happened at Midway? Why didn’t you return with the team?” The words shot across the screen like rapid bursts of laser fire.
Anika placed her hands on the keyboard. The truth wouldn’t help her. And it could hurt Gianni even more than she already had. She stalled for time.
“Will explain upon return,” she tapped out. “What is retrieval team ETA?”
It would help if Second believed she was hurt. Easier to retrieve. “Broke ankle during solo,” she wrote. “Will need assist during transport.”
She instructed the computer to switch back to the original channel. Still no response from Gianni. She blew out a sigh, trying to dispel the anxiety that paced behind her like a hungry jackal.
She guessed the retrieval team would be here in less than two hours. Not much time. If she didn’t warn Gianni soon, it might be too late. If it wasn’t already.
She slammed the door on anxiety and took inventory. She needed to fix her camo, put on dry socks, refuel, rehydrate. She stared longingly at the large rectangular groove in the wall behind her. She wished she could stretch out on the bed tucked in there. Just for a minute or two. She imagined sinking down into it, letting her limbs, torso, and head grow heavy.
She shook her head.
Get up. This can’t happen.
She stood and walked back to the mirror. The sudden jolt in her leg was as effective as a hit of caffeine. She pulled out more facial tape and applied it to her temple. Worry shadowed her eyes and etched lines between her brows.
Why aren’t you responding? Have you been captured?
She left the wig and cap on the counter for now. Was Second really sending a retrieval team for her, or a kill team? Would she recognize the difference?
She fingered the packaging of the WideAwake strip. It would be so easy to press one on and let its chemicals flood her system with energy. But it might amp her up and she needed a steady aim to neutralize her tracking chip.
With regret, she closed the med kit, walked over to the panel next to the hidden bed and inserted her thumb into the small indent at the top. The panel slid open and she removed the laser.
She thought about the secret freely shared with rookie recruits by senior operatives — that a laser hit to the back of the neck would shut down a tracking chip for up to twenty, sometimes twenty-five hours. Of course, before she could enjoy the hours of freedom, she would first have to live through thirty minutes of scary full body numbness.
Most recruits tried it at least once. It was like a rite of passage. The aim had to be exact. Too high on the neck could cause brain damage. Too low, temporary paralysis. Hard to enjoy freedom if you weren’t conscious or had to spend it immobilized.
Anika set the laser to voice control, placed the knapsack on the counter, and arranged the weapon handle in its fold until the barrel rested at the precise angle she wanted. Turning, she knelt on the ground. After two steadying breaths, she opened her mouth to give the command to fire.
The computer monitor flickered and letters blinked on screen.
. She jumped to her feet, then grimaced at the stab of pain in her thigh.
She collapsed into the chair. Read the message.
She typed back, “Acticstte vidisl.” Read it, cursed, shook out her fingers and tried again. “Activate visual.”
“Can’t,” came the written reply. “I’m at a remote site. Are you safe?”
“For now. But … ” Her fingers paused, hovering over the keys. She wanted to warn him, wanted to finish the sentence.
But you’re not.
Without visual, though, she couldn’t be sure Gianni was on the other end. She started typing again. “Remember the place we talked about in detention?”
The screen stayed silent. Seconds passed.
Then, “Of course.”
The words seemed to pulse on the screen, like a heartbeat caught in a lie.
Anika imagined the furor taking place at the other end, the mad rush to locate the surveillance disc from her night in detention, the terse command to unscramble it.
“Let’s meet there,” she wrote.
Still trying to review the disc, aren’t you?
Even though it wouldn’t provide the answer. She and Gianni hadn’t spoken of a place.
She had set the trap and Second had walked into it.
She flicked a glance at the surveillance monitor. Her eyes zeroed in on the two figures prowling through the trees. Their gear was all too familiar: night vision patches, body padding, lasers. Definitely U.N.I.T.
They had gotten here fast.
“Computer, close channel,” she typed.
Only two. Kill team.
Fear sliced down her back.
Reason warred with panic.
Maybe a partial team had been split off from a nearby mission. Maybe that explained the pair.
The figures conferred with each other, then separated, as if they didn’t know her location.
Was her tracking chip deactivated? Had Gianni managed to … ?
One operative stealth-walked toward the farmhouse, while the other approached the storage cellar.
She hit the switch that released the bed. It glided out from inside the wall. She grabbed the laser and set it to manual. Maximum stun.
“Computer, lights at twenty percent.” The room dimmed. “On my voice command, bring lights to full power.”
She slid on her belly under the bed. Waited through five fast breaths. Her ears strained to hear something, anything. Eight, nine, ten. Still nothing. Eleven. A whiff of fresh air snuck into the room.
She visualized the operative descending the stairs, his back against the wall, eyes searching through the patches, laser extended.
“Lights,” she shouted.
The room flooded and a cry of surprised pain ripped through the air.
From under the bed, she saw knees bend, imagined a hand pulling off the now blinding vision patches. She fired the laser, heard the return buzz that rained sparks around the bed. Her second blast hit home. The operative pitched forward and tumbled to the bottom of the stairs.
She scrambled out and rechecked the monitors. No sign of the second one. She dragged the inert body on top of the bed. A press of the switch sent the bed, with the operative still on it, back inside the wall. She grabbed her things and hurried up the stairs, retrieving the vision patches on the way up.
At the top, she stopped to look out. Even with the patches, she couldn’t locate the other operative. She judged the distance to the nearest stand of trees, blocked out everything except the trunk closest to her and sprinted straight for it.
When she reached the tree, she sagged against the trunk, sweat running down her face and neck. She bit the sleeve of her jacket to keep from crying out at the pain that coursed up her leg and into her groin.
The second operative appeared at the door of the farmhouse and started toward the cellar.
Soon he would see the damage from the laser fire. She pulled the cap and wig from the knapsack. Arranged them along with the jacket on a nearby bush. Then crawled fifteen meters away into the protective shadows of some trees.
The operative bounded back into view and adjusted his vision patches.
Over here. Come on, just a little farther.
He turned away from her and moved off.
Not that way.
She ground her teeth together.
The owl she had spotted earlier in the monitor flew overhead and landed in a tree near the camouflaged bush. She sighted a limb just above the large bird and fired. The startled animal flew off, screeching in protest.
The man turned back and ran toward the stand of trees.
The bush. Look down at the …
He dove into a shoulder roll somersault, coming to a dead stop on his knees. Without warning, he fired straight at the bush. Her jacket, cap and wig flared and disintegrated.
She readied her aim and discharged. He fell face down. She limped over to him, stripped off his jacket and pulled out the vehicle locator from the inner pocket. Her transport out of here waited 200 meters to the north. She dragged the operative back to the safehouse, pushed him inside, closed the entrance, and jammed the door with a quick laser blast to the exterior panel.
The locator’s coordinates directed her to a small clearing where two jetbikes stood. She’d been hoping for more comfortable transport, but a bike was faster than walking or hitching. And it would be easier to ditch once she got to Miami. She had just finished strapping her knapsack onto the seat when she heard the command from behind.
“Stop. Drop the laser.” The voice was young, female. The words sounded like an order, but not a threat.
A blast sizzled past her left ear. “Now.” The voice grew stronger.
She lowered the laser to the ground.
“Hands on your head. Turn around.”
Anika obeyed. She had to lower her chin and drop her eyes to look directly at the woman. Girl, really. While her leather jacket and protective padding added bulk to her frame, she was slight, fragile-looking. Her night patches made it harder to judge her age, but she appeared no more than sixteen years old.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
Why didn’t you order me to kick my weapon away and kneel or lie face down?
A trainee maybe. Left behind to guard the transport.
“I said, where are they?” The girl’s voice cracked on the final word. She took a step toward Anika.
. The laser in her hand trembled.
“Back there.” Anika jerked her head in the direction she had come.
“Are they dead? Did you … kill them?”
“Stunned them. With that.” Anika glanced down at the laser. Her fingers itched to snatch it back up.
“Oh, thank the Lord.” The girl heaved a sigh and lowered her weapon.
Anika’s eyes widened.
What the hell?
“I didn’t think you would kill them.”
“What do you mean?” Anika asked.
“Is it true you escaped a solo? That you’re running away?”
Anika hesitated a fraction before nodding. Could she grab her laser and fire in time?
The girl took another step forward. She removed her patches to reveal doe-like eyes. “Take me with you.”
Anika kept her eyes trained on the laser in the girl’s hand. Unstable operatives were the scariest of all.
“I heard Grey and Wilson talking about you,” the girl continued. “I never thought it was possible to survive a solo. Even they were impressed.” She tracked Anika’s gaze. “Oh.” She tucked the weapon into her waistband. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to shoot. You can pick up your laser. My name’s Kacie.”
Anika didn’t move. “What U.N.I.T. are you from?”
“Eight-twenty-eight. In Madison. We were out on basic surveillance training when Wilson got the call to divert here.”
So that was how Second had gotten a team here so fast. Decided to sacrifice size for speed.
“Will you take me with you? Please?”
Anika stalled for time as she bent down, ever so slowly, to pick up her weapon. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? Because U.N.I.T. sucks.” Kacie spit out the last word.
Anika’s hand closed around the laser. “Get down. On your knees.”
“If you don’t take me with you, I’ll shoot myself. Full strength.” Kacie folded her arms across her chest. “I mean it.” Her mouth twisted into a mutinous scowl.
“Then I’ll have to stun you first.” Anika wondered how Kacie had made it through U.N.I.T.’s screening system. “Just like Grey and Wilson. You’ll all regain consciousness at the same time.” She didn’t mention that Grey and Wilson would regain theirs in a room sealed tight from the outside.