Excerpt - Chapter One
Fight Fire With Fire
Amy J. Fetzer
D-1, Book 4
10 Years earlier
Somewhere in the
He wanted to break her. To let her skim the edge of madness.
He’d almost succeeded.
On the stone floor, Safia folded her body tightly, her legs beneath her. A turtle backing into its shell. She kept her head down, her grimy hands shielding her skull. Her Mao pajamas lay like a damp layer of filth over her skin and did nothing to protect her from the cold, wet stones. Or him.
Between his boots crunching lightly on the stone floor, she listened to his indrawn breath, the almost imperceptible brush of his clothing as his arm rose. She tightened down her muscles. The cane snapped, the lash licking across her back and wrapping under her ribs. Her teeth sank into her lip as ungodly pain burned in stripes over her spine.
Warm blood pooled in her mouth. swallowswalloswallow
The moan slid back down her throat, denying him victory.
He enjoyed her screams, but she offered no sound except her struggle for air.
Water dripped somewhere.
“I will have to think of something else then,” he said.
His accent scraped with a guttural sound. She could never put her finger on the region. It didn’t matter. She wanted to kill him. He probably knew it. His visits were less frequent and theirs was a twisted relationship. He talked. She never spoke. Never. Well, except to scream her freaking head off the first time he’d struck her. She wondered if his nose still hurt.
Her stomach coiled noisily, acid stewing on nothing. Food was a memory and she closed that mental door and kept in position. Waiting for another strike. Waiting till he dropped the lash made from strips of sugar cane. Layered, the cane could hold a man’s weight, yet woven in a tubular braid, its flexing tongue didn’t cut right away, swelling till it burst the skin. He enjoyed letting it slither in front of her vision. It wasn’t his only threat. He favored water boarding in the beginning, bringing her so close to her death she’d felt the last of her air trade with water. How many times had he visited?
Her captivity was meaningless stretches between sessions. Without a shred of light, she no longer counted the days, her brain occupied with trying to understand why she’d been captured. She was in the field, but spent most of her days in a flat, monitoring movement of the local police and relaying information to experienced officers. Then she’d received an assignment, just a carrier pigeon. It wasn’t unusual nor the first time. She’d been delivering a piece of art, a Chinese urn to an antiques shop in Hong Kong. An exchange for information. As far as she knew, that’s all it was, a jar. She remembered standing at the shop door, reaching for the latch and feeling someone move up behind her, then nothing. Not even collapsing.
She’d been tied up until recently; her wrists were still swollen with torn and blistered flesh. Her skin there was warm; infection was setting in. She peeked between her fingers and spied his boots, the toes polished, yet this time, the laces were wet. Dirt and a tiny bit of green clung on the rim of his heel. He’d been fastidious before, the boots unusually tidy when everything around here was filthy and medieval.
She didn’t know where here was exactly. She’d woken up in this cell. As far as she knew, she was the only prisoner. She never heard or saw anyone except him and one guard. Their faces were a mystery, always hooded, and when she’d tried to look, he struck her down. Yet she’d glimpsed mud brown material, small slits in the hood for eyes and mouth. He smelled vaguely of garlic. People who hid behind masks drew strength from anonymity. Her body was feeling every bit of his freedom.
He dropped the braided canes. She turned her head a fraction more to watch his retreat, but again, saw only his boots. He wouldn’t leave the whip. She could use it to hang herself and he wanted her alive, this man with no name. If he’d said it, she didn’t give a damn. Chung, was how she thought of him. Bluish light from the single lantern on the floor outside the door reflected in, and she imagined him taking the measured steps. Like small warnings. He would do as he’d done before. Step. Look back, then turn on his heels and two steps back into the cell to bend for the whip. He wasn’t aware of the tell, but he was aware of the threat. Daring her to react. If she did, he’d strike.
At the cell door, he stopped. Before he turned to face her, she inched her arm to see him more clearly. All that encompassed was a view of his legs, his gloved hand loose at his side. He was never without the tight-fitting black gloves. Big hands. If he was armed, she couldn’t see it. A single guard stood outside with the keys.
The tell came. He spun on his toes this time, then stepped. One, two….
She sprang from her crouch and grabbed the cane handle first, snapping it hard. The braided rope circled his neck, and she gripped both ends and yanked, dragging him till her back hit the wall. He struggled, but she held on, remembering each violation to her body. Chung grunted, clawing at her hands and the officer with the keys was stunned from his boredom and drew his club. He rushed her and she shoved her captive into his chest. Their heads hit with a solid thunk, but she held the whip ends, dragging him back and cutting off Chung’s air. But he was taller and bigger, and when he started to get his footing, she twisted, jammed her hip into his back, knocking him off balance. His polished boots slipped, his weight grinding her shoulder into the stone wall.
He squawked like seal with a sore throat, and she felt warm liquid on the floor at her feet. He stopped struggling. His hands fell away from her and flopped loosely at his sides. She held still to catch her breath and had to concentrate on her hands, unfurling her stiff fingers. A knuckle popped. He slid to the floor. Three fingers pressed below his ear got her nothing, and she jerked back, her head swimming. Her breath rushed, and she licked her lips, tried to swallow. The burn rising in the back of her throat made her slow her breathing. Her hands trembled as she covered her face. I killed him. Her memory bloomed with the last days, his threats; to remove her knee caps with a power drill, water boarding, and then he tried humiliation, leaving her naked for days, making her beg for the one bowl of maggot infested rice . . . and his touching her. He’d treated her as if he owned her soul. She hoped his was frying somewhere in hell.
She lowered her hands, then sank to her knees. She reached for the hood, afraid of what she’d find. She worked it up enough to see under it, and wasn’t surprised by the dark skin, yet his face was obviously swollen. She pulled it further up. Skin was distended around his eyes, nose, and lips, all of it surrounded with deep purple bruises. There was no telling what he really looked like. She touched his cheek and felt a hardness unlike bone. It shifted. Oh no they didn’t. Implants.
She turned her back on the body and crossed to the rookie. When they’d slammed, it shoved the guy back into the cell wall and knocked him out. But it also cracked the lantern. The phosphorous light was quickly dying and she searched him, taking the keys and night stick. He carried no other weapons. Not even a knife.
What kind of prison is this?
She found chewing gum in the rookie’s shirt pocket and shoved a stick in her mouth. Pineapple and it tasted like heaven. She stripped off his shoes, but they were too big and settled for the pants, rolling the cuffs. She synched the belt but was forced to knot it. Some fried foods were in her near future, and she was going to enjoy gaining weight.
She took the rookie’s shirt, and ripped off anything that would reflect, then knelt at the body, freeing the belt, yet in her torturer’s trouser back pocket, she found exactly five hundred dollars, American. It was the newness of the bills that puzzled her, too pristine to have been in circulation yet. The bills were bound with a money clip, silver plated metal with the outline of a griffin or dragon. She pocketed the cash and clip.
The lack of a weapon bothered her. He wasn’t the type to go around unarmed and she ground her hands down his hips and thighs, searching, then stopped, shoving up the pant leg to take the knife strapped to his upper calf. She felt a little better to be armed, but someone was going miss these two soon.
She stood, then instantly slapped her hand on the stone wall as her world tilted rudely. Her stomach joined in for the ride. She pushed gingerly back, knife in one hand, and she wrapped the belt around her palm, the buckle on the outside where it could do the most damage. She moved to the entrance.
No one came to investigate. Cautiously, she flattened to the stone wall. The only natural light was reflected farther down the corridor. She stepped out.
Sound had always come from the left. Never the right. Left led out. She hurried down the corridor. The floor was flooded a couple inches and she heard water rushing somewhere above her. Her bare feet barely made a sound on the uneven stone floor, and she kept moving, her hand on the wall for support. Everything swayed. Her muscles shook. If they caught her, they’d kill her. She had to get out of here and headed up, to the sound of water. Then she slowed in front of empty cells.
The prison might be old, but the cells were retrofitted with steel doors, but that’s where it ended. Inside were a few scraps of cloth wrapped around iron cuffs, slave shackles really. She hadn’t been the only guest, and passing the next cell, she realized the light came from gaps in the roof. Vines and ferns shielded the sun, water misting like crystal rain. She tried the door, thinking she could climb to the surface, but it was locked. She tried the guard’s keys and it surprised her that none of them worked. The guard had always opened her cell.
Don’t analyze, she thought, turning away. She hurried down the corridor, stopping at each junction to check her bearings. The light diminished, and she felt as if she was heading down hill. Confused, she stopped, her back to the wall, holding the knife with a white knuckled grip. She took a slow breath, listening. The sound of water had changed and she frowned. Its splashing, she realized, but hesitated, dissecting echoes from hollow reverberation bouncing in a passageway. She’d be in total darkness in a few steps. A scraping sound came from behind her, the scuffle of foot steps.
Without a choice, she walked into the darkness, blinking to let her eyes adjust, and then advanced, her shadow glinting off the wet floor. She smelled something different –like raw mushrooms-- and kept moving forward. It was several yards before her hands touched wood. Her fingers nimbly shaped a door, felt for the hinge and found a padlock. Shoving the knife in the belt, Safia tried the keys. What? Were they just for looks, she wondered when none of them worked. Dropping the keys, she held the nightstick like a bat and beat the metal. The sound vibrated like a clap, and the foot steps grew closer, faster. She slammed again, and the lock popped suddenly. A crazy surprised laugh escaped her and she worked it off and pulled, but the door was stuck, the wood damp and swollen. Footsteps crowded, closing the distance, voices calling now. She didn’t understand a word, but knew she’d less than a minute before they found her.
She unwound the belt from her fist, sliding it through one of the rings that held the lock. Gripping the leather, she pulled, her foot against the wall. They were coming closer, and she prayed they got lost as she stretched herself out, pulling, the belt bearing most of her weight. The door gave, the wood against stone fracturing with rot. Light blossomed beyond and she flinched, turning her face away for a second, then pulled harder, her freedom inches away. It gave a little more and she wedged herself between the opening, then fell back against the door.
Twisted trees and overgrown vegetation surrounded her, the sunlight splintered, shadowing the landscape. She stood on a hillside, behind her steep with rocks and thick vines, yet a worn path led away from the door. Frowning, she skimmed to her right, close to the wall of stones covered in moss. It looked like ruins, an old fortress or something. The crumbling formation jutted out, casting shadows, yet she could see the reflection of sunlight spilling somewhere beyond. She hoped it lead down and edged along till the forest thinned. Gripping the wall, she peered around the jagged rocks.
Two men stood on an outcropping of rocks drenched in sunlight. A few yards behind them, a narrow water fall poured from a small brook higher in the hill. Their backs faced her. She studied them, determined they were armed, but concealing it. They looked completely out of place, both in light shirts and dark trousers as if they’d stepped away from their office cubicles only moments before.
One man twisted a look over his shoulder, then turned fully. “Well done, Safia.”
It was her boss. The shock of it sent her back a couple steps and she hit something, then jerked around. The hooded man stood near, still concealed, then he reached under the hood’s hem and pulled a long strap of flesh colored leather from around his throat. She’d missed that, but that he could anticipate what she would do, didn’t.
“You almost killed me.”
“Almost wasn’t what I was aiming for.” She raised the knife a little higher and looked at her boss. “Somebody needs to start talking, or I’ll finish this.” She backed away, gripping the knife point down. Her warden held up his hands as if it would stop her. After what he did to her? She looked at her boss. “Why?”
“We had to be certain your integrity couldn’t be breeched,” he said calmly, moving nearer.
A test. Staged. What arrogant bastards. Her eyes narrowed to slits. “And beating me like a rug was necessary?”
“No.” He walked closer. “He went too far.” There was a tightness in his words, the only sign of his displeasure.
Safia back stepped from them both. “He did more than that,” she said in a low voice, her gaze pinning her shrouded tormentor.
Where did they find him? Was five hundred U.S. the going rate for torture-for-hire? Five hundred to enjoy inflicting pure misery on another human being? Because this one liked it. He’s an outside asset, she realized, and didn’t want to be near him. What she really wanted was his death to be real. She owed him, but she also understood she’d probably never learn his identity. It didn’t mean she wouldn’t try.
She kept her attention on the hooded man, committing everything to memory. “You said I lacked enough field experience,” she aimed at her boss.
“You have it now.” Her boss gestured to the black van several yards below on level ground, the single windowless door open and showing its luxurious interior. “Let’s get some food in you first.”
His tone was dismissive, as if this was just a rude interruption at a party. She wasn’t going to forget the past days anytime soon and looked at the reason. He didn’t move, brown eyes barely visible inside the dingy hood. His fingers flexed and she remembered them around her throat, holding her off the ground like a rag. In two steps, she was in his face, the knife sinking into his side as she drove her knee deep into his groin. He buckled with an oof and she gripped the hood hard enough to hear it tear and whispered, “Someday, I’ll repay that game. On my terms.”
“No. You won’t,” he gasped, and he was right. He’d have a different face. But she wouldn’t forget the voice, or the pain.
“That’s not wise!” her boss said somewhere behind her.
She twisted the knife as she pulled it out and shoved him off, stepping back. “But it felt good.” She turned away as the man tried to straighten and failed. “Is that face courtesy of US dollars?”
Her boss froze, nodding to the driver who moved to the van. “You saw his face?” He waved to her tormentor, and she didn’t have to look to know he was slipping back into the stone prison. He gave off the stench of his own urine.
“You know I did. That beast didn’t do a damn thing without your approval. Who is he?”
“Not if you want me to work for you again.”
He snorted disdainfully. “It’s above your pay grade.”
“Then give me a raise.” She walked past him. She’d have time to address that subject later. This was far from over. “How long was I in there?”
“Twelve days.” He picked his way downhill. “A record, I believe.”
How could he look unruffled and dignified when she smelled like rat droppings and could feel blood warming down her back? “You’re a parasite and I want to beat that living hell out on you . . . sir.”
“Good, keep that close.” He flicked a hand at the prison behind them. “Remember it often, nothing is as it seems.”
She stopped, but he kept going. “That includes you. I don’t trust you anymore. Your ethics are wretched and I’m debating continuing to work for you.”
The bastard stopped and looked back at her. Then he had the gall to smile. “Welcome to the inner ring.”
That caught her breath for a second.
“You were outstanding.”
“You couldn’t just trust me? Have a little faith?” Instead, they hurt her before the enemy could. Sounded like Munchausen’s syndrome and she wanted him to have a taste of it, but then he had the decency to help her in the van. He was also better trained and signed her paychecks. Half way in, she froze, her gaze landing on the woman sitting in the rear, looking pristine and regal.
Now she knew who’d really orchestrated this. “I’ll remember who did this to me,” she said with undisguised rancor.
The woman only tipped her head, her lips curving with approval.
Safia gripped the knife, her expression warning her not to push her further. Message sent, she thought, and was damned amused when both of her superiors kept their attention on the knife till she laid it across her lap. When someone let out a noisy breath, she settled in the plush bucket chair with a little satisfaction. But not nearly enough.
He produced a bottle of water sweating condensation. She broke it open and drank deeply, and as the van pulled away, she shifted to look out the rear window at her prison growing smaller by the moment.
The rush of water she’d heard was the narrow waterfall that fell into a small pool shaped by stones. On the whole, it was supposed to look natural. She didn’t get that feeling. Aside the citadel behind it, it was too beautiful, artfully over grown and perfectly concealed. She wondered what else had happened in a place like that.
“So . . . I’m guessing the Philippines, maybe? Not Okinawa, too many American eyes.” Her gaze sailed over the grounds, picking out plants and trees. It reminded her of a canyon in the monkey forest. “Indonesia?” Only her gaze shifted to her boss, waiting for confirmation.
She doubted he’d give her the truth anyway. How many places like this were located around the world? Who was using them? Was her phantom just waiting for his next victim? It made her sick. She’d no intention of letting her superior forget this perverse test of honor, and decided she’d watch her own back from now on.
When the van rolled onto even ground, she settled gingerly into the seat, feeling the scrape of wet fabric against the welts swelling on her spine. The woman was already on satellite communications, her world quickly changing. She took a long drink of water, a salute to herself.
Well, I guess it’s official then.
I’m a spy.
Two years later
4 miles from the Kosovo boarder
Riley recognized the shrill whine of an incoming missile and rushed toward the crumbling building. Each step was a struggle, Captain Wyatt’s weight bearing down on him. Then the missile hit, throwing them forward and obliterating half the street. Riley’s knees hit the ground, driving pain up his thighs. Debris struck him in the back, his burden threatening collapse. The enemy wasn’t done with them and a trail of bullets chased toward his heels as he pushed to his feet, dragging the wounded pilot along. Thirty feet, twenty… Riley fell behind the remains of a wall, the rest of the building destroyed by Russian missiles to keep the border uncrossable. It was working—but it’s where he needed to go.
He lifted Wyatt’s arm from around his neck, then leaned Sam against the wall before easing him to the ground. The morphine deadened the pain, but Riley worried the splint he’d made wouldn’t hold. The leg was already at an odd angle. Sam needed better medical care and soon. He was bleeding again.
Snaps of gunfire struck the ground, the wall, and Riley considered how to get his ass out of this one. The air moved slowly, thick with smoke and dust, covering the sun. No place was safe. Smart people fled to the countryside. The city was disserted except for scatters of rebel resistance trying to protect themselves from Serb soldiers bent on genocide. Oh yeah, that wee bit of UN cease-fire negotiations worked splendidly. He took his bearings, then surveyed his immediate surroundings for better cover.
He had maybe a half hour before the patrol caught up with them, and they had trucks. Time to eat crow and call in the cavalry, he decided, and reached for his radio. He found a smoldering jumble of wires and melted plastic. Bugger me. So. Fighting it is then. He checked his supplies, but he knew exactly how much ammunition he had left. Not enough to keep renegade Serb soldiers off his back for long.
Jagged cinder block shattered above his head in a spray of chalky rocks. A chunk hit Wyatt’s cheek as Riley pushed him further to the ground. He howled, and Riley let him, but held him down to keep him from thrashing. Bullets chunked away at his position, intermittent, taunting. Northeast, he thought, and hovering over Wyatt, he aimed. He didn’t get off a shot.
A line of bullets sliced across his position and he felt each hit vibrate the wall, chip near his boot. Jesus Mary. Two directions. It wouldn’t be long before the barrier was gone. He looked at Sam, thinking he’d made it worse for him, dragging him all this way. Now the fractured bone threatened to come through the torn skin. He couldn’t pull the tourniquet any tighter or risk Wyatt losing his leg. Riley glanced behind them. The border was less than four miles, and the closer he got to it, the better his chances of friendlies.
Then three successive shots hit the ground twenty yards to his right and made a chunk of rock dance. Immediately, a second shot knocked it over. Excellent shooting, he had to admit, and followed the trajectory, his gaze climbing. A three story building lay about forty yards south, the lower outer walls scarred by fire, the licking flames marked with soot and shattered windows. The upper floor windows were blown out, the interior a blackened skeleton.
That’s the target.
His searched each floor, moving right to see the south side. Gunshots peppered around him, keeping him pinned, but he peered just enough to focus his binoculars. From the top floor of the building just beyond it, he spotted a rifle barrel before it slid out of sight. A second later, a hand appeared, held up two fingers, then a fist, then pointed. Riley felt a chill at the familiar military signals.
The disembodied hand repeated the gesture. Wait two minutes, then go.
If this wasn’t a fine one, he thought, aware he risked a trap. But the sniper had several chances to kill them already, and didn’t. But there were other shooters out there.
A mortar round hit fifty yards away, the impact throwing cars, street benches and toppling a statue. “Shoulda worn the smart shirt, Donovan,” he muttered as he quickly knelt beside Wyatt, checking his wounds before he worked off his Kevlar vest and strapped it on the pilot. Then he hoisted him on his back. He prayed his legs were strong enough to make the distance. Testing the field, he raised his hand and nearly got it shot off.
Instantly, the sniper returned automatic fire to the north, covering him as he rushed out into the open, crossing the street like a hunchback, then moving alongside walls shattered by bombs. Sidestepping rubble challenged each step. The building loomed. The sniper laid down constant cover fire, and he glimpsed a shooter drop from a window, another from a balcony. Riley pushed on, the burden of Sam’s weight pounding his hips. Safety loomed in the shell of steel and concrete.
Bullets chewed the ground at his heels, and he felt a muscle pull in his thigh as he rounded the charred edge. He stumbled into the safety of darkness, Wyatt’s weight slamming him to his knees. He rolled Wyatt off his back, then crawled to his head, gripped his flight suit at the shoulders and dragged him from the opening. He returned to aim out the doorway blown wider by missiles. Smoke twisted on the air. The tat-tat of gun fire spun closer.
Where was the sniper?
His gaze ripped over the streets once more before he turned to Wyatt, taking him deeper into the remnants of a restaurant, a yawning hole in the ceiling exposing three floors above. At least it was defensible. He dragged the six foot tall man onto a fallen piece of dry wall, then inspected his wounds. Blood saturated his pant leg, and although the wood splint held, the fractured bones threatened to cut an artery.
Wyatt’s head lolled on his neck and his eyes opened. “Donovan.”
“You’re a brave man to do this.” Sam reached to offer his hand and flinched. Riley had tied his arm to his waist. His ribs were broken.
“I bet the C.O. has a different opinion.”
Wyatt tried to laugh, but only coughed. “I’ll put in a good word.” He breathed in short gasps.
“After you just crashed one of his jets? Begging your pardon, sir, but you’re on his shit list too.” It didn’t matter. A court-martial was in his future, he knew.
“Call me Sam, will you?”
“Certainly.” Riley grinned. “But commands going to call us both dead if we don’t get out of here.”
Riley offered him water, then made him comfortable in the rear of the building. He could see anything coming, and had solid wall at his back, but he knew time was ticking by before the patrol found them. Armed, he scoured for anything useful, stuffing it in the bag he’d stolen from the medics supply. He used the painkillers sparingly. Whatever was left in the kit had to do. He hoped it was enough.
Then he focused on Sam’s wounds. Resetting the fracture was going to hurt like hell and he broke open the morphine capsule and injected his thigh, then inspected the break. He felt the jagged crack of bone under his skin and formed a plan to reset it. They couldn’t travel another four miles with it tearing inside his body.
“You don’t have time for that.”
Instantly Riley scooped up the pistol and spun on his knees, aiming.
A figure stood near the blown out entrance. Shit. He hadn’t heard a thing.
Still as glass, the man’s head and shoulders were wrapped in dark scarves over a once green military jacket, now a dull gray like the weather. The only skin exposed was his eyes. Around his waist, a utility belt sagged, and the sniper rifle was slung on his shoulder, the weapon held across his body, ready to sight and fire. Yet he stood casually, without threat.
“If I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t have wasted bullets to see you two safe and alive.”
The sniper, Riley realized with a wee shock, was a woman.
She advanced with easy grace, stepping over piles of rubble to hop down at his level. Her rifle looked all too familiar.
“Yes, it’s American,” she said, noticing his attention. He lowered his weapon. She stood a couple feet away, staring down at Sam. “He doesn’t look good.” She unwound her head scarf and a braided rope of shiny dark hair spilled down one shoulder. She met his gaze. Beneath arched brows, whiskey colored eyes stared back at him.
“Sweet mother a’ Jaasus.” She was younger than him.
“I get that a lot.” She gestured at Sam. “What do you need to do?”
“Set his leg again and get a tighter splint on it.”
She nodded, yet her gaze bounced around the interior. “Let’s get busy. I don’t know how much time we have.”
Though the pop of gunfire was lazier now, Riley wasn’t ignoring the help, or the danger of staying put too long. He instructed, glad Sam was unconscious or he’d be screaming to the heavens. After unbuckling her utility belt, she got behind Sam, her legs and arms wrapping his torso and hips as Riley grasped his calf and ankle. On a count, he pulled. Even drugged, Sam arched with silent agony. Riley ripped the flight suit more and pushed the bone down, forcing it to align closely. Blood oozed from the gash. He met her gaze and nodded.
“It’s set. Well… better than it was.”
She eased from Sam and unclipped her canteen, offering it.
He cleaned his hands and the wound, then Riley worked against the cold. The needle poised over Sam’s flesh, he shook too much to stitch. “For the love of Mike.” He dropped the needle, sanding his hands, blowing on them. She quickly grasped them both, wrapping her scarf around them, then brought his fists to her lips. She breathed hotly against the fabric, and Riley felt the warmth sting his icy skin. She rubbed and breathed, her gaze flashing up. He felt struck, her soulful eyes hiding so much.
He nodded, unwound the scarf. “The rest of me is a bit chilly still.”
It took a second for that to sink in and she made a face. He chuckled, then said, “Get yourself on the other side, woman, and let’s make some quick work here.”
She snickered to herself, yet obeyed, holding Sam’s skin closed as he stitched. She still wore gloves and though she was dressed warmly, he noticed everything was cinched down, nothing to catch, and her rifle would collapse. It was weapon he’d seen in spec, a prototype of the MP5. Not in production, yet she had one. And if the bodies outside indicated, she knew how to use it. It was at her right, by her knee and a bullet chambered.
“You’re company.” CIA. Probably attached to NATO.
He had to give her credit, she didn’t look up or make even a single nuance. If she was and good, she wouldn’t give anything away.
“Tell me how an Irishman got to be in the Marines.”
Okay, he could go that direction. “I was a runner for the IRA and my older sister caught me. Dragged me home by my ear, she did.” His lips curved with the memory as he took another stitch. “My parents, fearing for my immortal soul, sent me to America to live with relatives.” He shrugged.
“So dodging bullets comes easy, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Then he went and chose a career in it. He glanced at Sam, knowing this would cost him what he held dear. His Marine enlistment. But he couldn’t let the one man who treated him like a friend instead of his superior die in the frigid Serbian forests.
“I saw the jet go down.”
His gaze briefly slid to hers.
“He was doing some amazing flying before the missile hit. I’ve been behind you for a day.”
“So you’re the reason the patrol didn’t catch up to us?”
Bless her, that blank expression didn’t change a fraction.
“Thank you for our lives.” He clipped the thread. “I’m Riley.” He held out his hand and she bit off her glove and shook it. Her skin was warm, her palm smooth and dry.
“Safia,” was all she offered with her disarming smile.
He wondered why someone so young was in the field alone. She helped him work the inflatable air cast over Sam’s upper thigh, then he wrapped him in rags and curtains he’d found to keep him warm. His fever would spike and he had to get him some antibiotics. He’d used his last just now.
The woman unwound from the floor, strapped her belt back on, then dug in her pack like a purse and blindly reloaded her magazines. He recognized C4 packs and some gadgets he didn’t. She was a little fire team all by herself, he thought, smiling. Armed, she went to each opening. He reached for his gun when she disappeared out a gap in the wall. He waited, chambering a bullet and aiming.
Tell me I can’t be that much of a sucker. Icy wind spun through the building. Seconds ticked by. She appeared and stopped short, then cocked her head. She smiled almost appreciatively, and he lowered his weapon. She moved to him with an elegance that defied her crude surroundings and the two pistols in her belt. Yet her exotic features and tanned skin puzzled him. Without head scarves, she looked completely out of place.
Then the radio hooked on her belt buzzed and she brought it to her ear, listening. The language sounded Albanian. She didn’t make contact, only listened, then said, “We need to go. I’ll help you to the border.”
Riley opened his mouth to say he didn’t need her to risk her life again.
“Don’t argue. The Serbian patrol after you have already murdered seventy women and children along their way. Brutally.” Her accented voice snapped with anger as she wrapped her scarves. “Those soldiers don’t care about life or freedom. They wanted him.” Her voice softened a notch. “To display for the press… preferably dead and bloodied.”
He agreed. The reports out of this region were an abomination to humanity, and while nobody was happy about not going after one of their own because of some negotiations going on, Riley just couldn’t live with it. But a one-man rescue wasn’t the smartest move he’d ever made.
Sam stirred, moaning, and Riley grabbed the preloaded syringe.
“No. No more drugs. We need him mobile. It’s now or never.” Waving him to hurry, she crossed to the opening, weapon at her shoulder. She aimed up the street and sighted, then suddenly said, “Get him up, now!” then vaulted over debris to get to him. “They found us!”
Riley tried. “Come on, cowboy, time to run.”
She helped him get two hundred pounds of man off the ground, and he shouldered Sam, then drew his weapon. Out the rear of their haven, she led them to the alley behind.
Sam focused on her, then gave him a sluggish smile. “Trust you to find the only woman within miles, Donovan.”
“It’s the accent.” Riley grinned and winked at Safia. “Gives them all sorts of wily thoughts.”
She rolled her eyes, a smile coasting her lips. “Everyone has an accent. We go that way.” She nodded left and advanced. “And stay in the alleys--”
A blast struck the building across the street, fiery debris rocketing into their hideout and knocking out remaining windows. The supports gone, the building listed as they hurried away. Another rocket finished it off and before the wave of smoke and fire reached them, Riley dragged Sam out of the path. Shielded by a building, dust and debris shot past them and he turned his face away.
“That’s mortar fire,” he said. “They’re trying to get a lock on this location.”
Her gaze jerked to his, suspicious.
“Now I’m clean, and the beacon is in the ejected seat fifty miles north.”
She eyed him a second, then turned away. “Then it’s thermal and someone’s close enough to give them coordinates.”
“Well shit,” Sam said.
“That’s what we’ll be if we stay.” She agilely stepped over rubbish, and they kept up, but it was costing Sam. His breathing was fast and hard through gritted teeth. Safia slowed in the alley littered with debris and ahead, she stopped briefly, her shoulders sagging before she continued. When he passed, he saw the pair of legs, thin and small, the rest covered in trash and broken windows. Aw hell. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen children discarded as collateral damage, but as he left the alley, the image haunted. Three blocks and two turns from the last hit, Riley stopped her.
“This isn’t working. We need a ride.” He moved up behind her, and Sam fell against the wall, exhausted and shaky. He looked a little gray.
“I don’t think a cab will come to this neighborhood.”
Riley passed her, pistol drawn, then edged the building. “There’s a truck about two blocks up.”
She shifted to see, then shook her head. “It’ll never run or it’d be gone.”
“So negative,” he chided, studying the terrain. “We don’t have another option. He can’t walk to the border, and we need to get the hell out of here.”
Riley took off, keeping low and reached the truck. Mortar rounds hit, each impact coming closer. They were hunting for them by destroying anything in their path. He didn’t get it. All for one pilot?
At the truck, Riley threw open the door, ducked under the steering column and pulled wires, striking them. The engine caught and sputtered, smoke billowing from the exhaust. He climbed behind the wheel and drove to them.
He jumped out to help Sam. “You drive.”
“I planned to,” she said climbing in and putting it in gear.
Sam in, she accelerated before he closed the door. Their speed increased and he leaned out the window, watching their back. “Faster woman.”
“It won’t go any faster!” Smoke was filling the cab.
He drew inside to add, “It better, because ugly has brothers.”
“Don’t they always,” she muttered, shifting gears.
He saw the truck cornering the street, the gun mount swinging into position. Oh, crap. Laws rockets. “Turn! Turn left! Now!” he shouted and she did, the truck fish tailing, throwing Sam against the cab. The mortar hit the cross road they’d just left.
“What do you have, a sixth sense?” she said and kept checking the mirrors, never letting her guard down.
“I saw the ignition flash before it launched.”
“Good.” She pointed in front of his face. “Now shoot them please.”
His eyes flared when a stripped down land rover barreled toward his side. The gunner behind a fifty caliber machine gun fired, a line of rounds chewing the ground and taking out the tire. “Riley, shoot!”
He leaned out the window and fired, unloading seven rounds in the tires, engine and driver. The driver fell back, hitting the gun barrel and tumbling out of the seat. The out of control rover clipped their ass, tearing off wood slats and knocking them side ways. The impact dumped the gunner and Riley experienced a sick feeling as they rolled over a bump.
Safia struggled with the wheel, turning hard and the truck tipped for a few feet, then slammed down. The tireless wheel screamed with sparks, riding on the rims.
“That was fun.”
Armored vehicles swarmed in behind the last, knocking the downed rover and barreling hard toward them. Christ. They’d get blown out of their seats any second.
“Come on, baby,” she coxed the smoking truck. “Just a little further.”
“There,” she said, nodding to the hills.
On a high slope, he saw flickering movement, the endless black sky growing lighter as a helicopter lifted over the mountains. It swept near and illuminated a line of trucks and tanks cresting the hill ahead of it. NATO forces. Ooh-rah
Behind them, the renegade patrol raced, the convoy grown in size, and he heard the scrap of tank turret. They were trapped between.
“Time to bail!” She hit the breaks, and he jumped out, helping Sam.
She grabbed the radio and shouted into it. He didn’t understand a syllable. A moment later, the gun ships launched duel rockets. The noise deafened as they whizzed past and impacted in the tank’s turret. Orange-red fire erupted, the explosion peeled open the metal, sending chunks fifty feet into the sky. It was close enough that he felt the heat from the flames.
Shouldering Sam, Riley hurried to the small clearing, the chopper rotors beating the air and smashing trees and grass as the pilot set it down swiftly. Two helmeted men ran toward them.
Then above and behind the chopper, two more gun ships rose over the hillside and swept forward. The cavalry’s here. The aircrafts laid down cover fire, and the Marines took Sam, helping him in the chopper.
He turned to her. “Come with us!”
She shook her head, the wind tearing her scarves free. “Still have to fight the good fight.” She didn’t smile, then grabbed him close. In his ear, she said clearly, “Ask yourself, why no rescue launch when he went down so close to the border?”
His muscles tightened and he scowled at her, their faces close.
“Your radio was enough to track you.” Then she brushed her mouth across his as she forced paper into his palm. “Watch your back, Irish.” She turned away.
“Safia!” But she was running into the fight.
A Marine grabbed his shoulder. “Sir, we got to go!” Riley threw himself in as rocket propelled grenades launched, fifty calibers ripped across the Serb fighters, cutting anything in half. The chopper lifted off. Below, the ground was alive with battle. Flames and smoke stirred.
He searched for Safia and prayed she was fast on her feet, yet even after someone handed him headphones, he still couldn’t turn away. The chopper climbed higher, and he pulled his legs inside. A medic hovered over Sam on a stretcher as the aircraft banked.
Riley fell back against the bulkhead and opened his hand.
It was a dollar bill, American. He spread it.
In black ink, one word defaced it. Fundraiser.
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