Fatal Truth: Shadow Force International (38 page)

Zebulon Riceman entered the waiting room. His face was drawn, lips tight. “Any word?”

Trace shook his head. “Not since the last time you asked ten minutes ago.”

“Don’t get snippy with me, boy. I saved your goddamn, measly life back there.”

He knew how to pack a wound, that was for sure. “Thank you.”

Zeb nodded. “That’s more like it.” His countenance shifted. “She’ll be all right. She’s a fighter.”

Was he trying to convince Trace or himself?

Trace picked at his nails, raked his hands through his hair, jumped up from the chair. “I need some air.”

Out in the hallway, Zeb caught up to him. The two walked down the hall in strained silence. Zeb wanted to tell him something, but Trace wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.

In an alcove off the hallway, Trace stopped at a bank of vending machines. “What does ON16 stand for?” he asked the aging man.

“Well, you’re too young to remember the Iran-Contra scandal back in the eighties, but look it up. You could learn a thing or two.”

“Oliver North.” Trace pretended to scan the contents of the vending machine in front of him. “Did you help him sell the weapons to Iran or were you on the other side diverting funds to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua?”

“Neither.” Zeb stuck a dollar bill in the pop machine, followed it with a second. “I may have played a part in outing him, though. You didn’t hear that from me, by the way, and if you ever tell Savanna who I really am, I’ll kill you.”

“And the number 16?”

Trace could see Zeb’s reflection in the glass. His face morphed into something akin to happiness. “Sixteen days in Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world. First and only time I ever fell in love. Nearly killed me.”

The tension in Trace’s body wouldn’t relent, but for a moment, he could focus on Zeb. “What happened?”

“She was a double agent. I knew it, but it didn’t matter. I loved her, tried to get her to run off with me. Change our identities, live on some remote island, have a few kids. The whole happily-ever-after thing. She turned me down and when she couldn’t get the information she wanted out of me for her superiors, she poisoned me.”

Jesus. “Love sucks.”

Zeb waved him off. “She didn’t give me enough to kill me and she knew it. But it definitely put a damper on my love life after that. I never got over her.”

A short gal with long, dark hair and a couple of dollar bills in hand interrupted them. They parted so she could snag a bag of pretzels. After she left, Trace asked the question that had been bugging him. “Linc Norman knew you. Did you ever work for him?”

“Look, kid. I know all about Command & Control, but I never got mixed up with that group. I may have run in the same circles as some National Intelligence officers and rubbed elbows with a few presidents, but I steered clear of Norman. He was too much of a pretty boy. I didn’t trust him.”

“That’s how you knew Parker.”

“Parker’s work garnered attention she didn’t want, but you don’t say no to the president, right? She needed some input from someone who’d been in a tight squeeze before. Norman didn’t tell her at first what he was using you for; she figured it out the hard way. Then he told her she had to take out her fellow scientists to keep the project under the radar. She wouldn’t do it. So he used her family as leverage to try to blackmail her. She still refused. One thing about those Jeffries girls, they don’t take kindly to threats.

“When things fell apart, Parker needed a way out. There was only one I could find if she wanted to keep Savanna and her parents alive.”


Zeb touched the tip of his nose with a finger. “You got it.”

“You broke me out of Witcher.”

“Nah, that was all Beatrice and Emit. I just gave ’em some ideas on what to do with you after you came around. You needed a public platform to redeem yourself. Parker needed one to out the president. Savanna could do both, but she needed protection. You were the answer.”

“I may end up back in Witcher before this is all over.”

“Your original arrest and conviction will all be reviewed, and trust me, the case will be thrown out.”

Friends in high places. Or maybe enemies who didn’t want you to take them down like you had Oliver North. “I have the feeling I owe you for more than packing my wound with Quick Clot.”

“That you do, boy, and don’t forget it. But I’ll tell you what. You take care of my favorite two Jeffries girls and I’ll go easy on you.”

“I lied to Savanna. Didn’t tell her who I was. She’s pretty pissed at me.”

“Then get down and grovel. That girl couldn’t hold a grudge if you paid her to. She’ll forgive you in time. And from the way you look right now, I’d say she’s your number 16, so don’t blow it. Let her know you love her and do whatever you have to in order to make her happy. Life’s short.”

Zeb walked to the doorway, where he stopped and turned back to Trace. “One more thing,” he said. “Take a page from Ollie’s playbook. When you get called in front of Congress and the nation, which you will, take responsibility for the shit you did, but don’t take personal responsibility for carrying out direct orders. You were a decorated SEAL who deserves to have his medals returned and his status reinstated. You haven’t, in your ten years of uniformed service to the United States of America and your commander-in-chief, ever violated an order, have you?”

“Just one, sir.”

“And that’s the one that landed your ass in Witcher.”

Trace nodded.

“You refused to kill someone at the president’s direct request, if I heard that taped interview of Savanna’s correctly.”

Did it matter? He didn’t want his medals back or his status reinstated. Not following that order hadn’t kept the woman or her baby alive. They’d been killed anyway.

Cal Reese suddenly appeared, peeking his head around the opening. “Surgeon is out and wants to talk to you.”

Trace bolted, blowing past Zeb and Cal and hightailing it back to the waiting area. The surgeon had changed into fresh scrubs, but his lips were tacked down in a frown, his eyes shuttered.

Trace pulled up short.

She’s not going to make it.

“Hospital policy is that I speak to the next of kin. In this case, I’ve learned the patient’s sister is being detained and questioned by police and her parents have not been reached.”

She’s already dead
. Trace staggered back, his legs colliding with a chair. Good thing it was there. He collapsed into it.

The doctor folded his arms over his chest. “I’m told you and Ms. Jeffries are…involved, so while this breaks protocol, I’m going to give you an update on her status. I’ve…” He cleared his throat. “I’ve seen the news footage.”

Trace covered his eyes with a hand.
She’s gone. Oh, God, she’s gone.

“The wound in her arm should heal without issue. The stomach injury will take some time. The bullet passed through and damaged several areas in her small intestine. We sutured the wounds and are giving her high doses of antibiotics to tackle infection.

“We had to give her a blood transfusion, but because of the clotting powder and her sister’s quick actions with the IV fluids, her shock was mild. She appears to have a mild concussion, so we’ll need to watch her closely for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. She suffered mild frostbite on her toes and fingers. There should be no lasting nerve damage, however.”

Frostbite? Concussion? Wait. Trace dropped his hand. “She’s alive?”

The doctor cocked his head. “She’s in serious condition, and it could be touch and go for the next few days, depending on if she has any infection or problems with the concussion, but she is alive, Lt. Hunter.”

Relief and hope mixed in his system. He bolted out of the chair. “Can I see her?”

The doctor looked uncomfortable. “Again, that’s usually reserved for family.”

Beatrice stepped forward and squeezed Trace’s arm. “But in this case, you’ll make an exception, right Dr. Azram?”

The man hesitated briefly, then nodded. “Follow me.”

Zeb, in the hallway, had heard the news and slapped Trace on the back as he passed by. “Tell her hi from me when she comes around.”

Trace stayed on the doctor’s heels through a set of double doors, around a nurses’ station, and down another long corridor. The sun was up and blasting through the window at the end of the hall. Each room was marked ICU with a number. Savanna had been placed in room 4.

Monitors beeped. A nurse was fiddling with a tube running into the pale skin on Savanna’s left arm. Her hair had been scraped back from her face, her lips no longer blue but as pale as the rest of her skin. Her eyes fluttered under her closed lids. Her chest barely made the sheet rise and fall on each intake of breath.

She’s alive.

Trace’s knees felt weak.

“We’re all good here,” the nurse said. She looked at Trace. “Can I get you some coffee? You look like you’ve had a hard night.”

He almost laughed from the overload of stress. “I’m good.”

She nodded. “We’re monitoring everything, but if you sense any distress in her, you press the call button, okay?”

Her shoes whispered as she left. The doctor simply nodded and followed her out.

Trace dragged a chair next to the side of the bed but then just stood, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest. He had to touch her, and so he did, laying his fingers softly against her cool cheek, running them down her neck, tracing the veins on the back of her hands.

“I’m sorry I withheld the truth from you, Savanna. It was wrong and I deserve a harsh kick in the ass. But that means you’re going to have to get out of this hospital bed and give it to me, okay?”

Convinced she was indeed alive, he sat in the chair and kept an eye on the sheet, willing her heart to keep beating. “Breathe,” he softly reminded her. “Just breathe.”

Six hours later

through hazy dreams of her sister and a shadowy figure, a man that she wanted to talk to but he stayed just out of her reach, annoying her. A buoyant sensation filled her limbs, her left arm itching. It felt as though she were levitating right off the bed. If she could just get the lump on her arm off so she could scratch that itch, she’d feel spectacular.

Beep, beep, beep
. An alarm sounded from somewhere far off, making the dreams disappear. A man’s voice shouted and there were other sounds, too. The rasp of a door opening. The rhythmic warble of another alarm.

Someone was futzing with her arm. She tried to jerk it away.

“Hold still, Savanna. You’ve pulled out your IV.”

. His voice made her open her eyes. Or at least try to. Her eyelids were so heavy, she could barely crack her eyes open.

“Hey there,” he said, bending over her.

He was so beautiful, light from the window illuminating one side of his face. His jaw sported a few days’ worth of beard and his eyes were bloodshot. He smiled and Savanna saw relief in his face.

She opened her mouth to respond, but a jerky burst of memories from the night before flooded her brain. Even through the drugs in her system, she felt a flash of anger, rage, fear.

Her tongue stuck to the top of her mouth, her lips were parched. “Trace,” she finally forced out, voice raspy.

A nurse hustled to the other side of the bed. “Good to see you’re awake, Savanna, but you need to leave your IV in, sweetie.”

As the nurse went to work fixing the damage Savanna had done, Trace peppered her with questions. “How do you feel? Are you in pain? They can up your pain meds. Do you remember what happened? Do you want some ice chips? Water?”

The poke of the fresh IV stung, her left shoulder ached, and her stomach felt like it was swaddled so tight, she couldn’t move. Looking at Trace’s smiling face, however, none of that mattered. “I’m good,” she croaked.

“I, uh…” He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath, holding it, for a second and a feeling of dread filled her. What had happened?

“Is it Parker?” she half whispered, her throat closing up. “Is she okay?”

He flipped his eyes open. “Parker’s fine. She’s meeting with some lawyers and telling the attorney general her story. Everything, Savanna. Between what you did and the evidence we have on Linc Norman, he’s going to be impeached. The AG will probably bring criminal charges against him as well.”

The nurse secured the IV with a fat piece of tape. “Just once I’d like to vote for someone who wasn’t a criminal,” she said. “Now, relax. You’ve got your heart monitor going crazy.”

She left the room and Trace took Savanna’s hand in his. “Slow, deep breaths,” he reminded her, wrapping his hand around hers. Heat enveloped her cool fingers and the familiar feel of his calluses sent a shiver through her.

His shirt was lumpy on the right side over what looked like padding. “What happened to you?”

He squeezed her hand and relayed the story in a measly five sentences, leaving out some juicy bits, she was sure.

“We’re both still alive,” she said, feeling sleepy again. “We survived.”

“What you did was brave and very, very stupid.” He sank into the chair next to the bed without releasing her hand. “Norman was mixing his own drug cocktails based on Parker’s experiments. He could have killed you even without the gun.”

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