Four years ago off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii
Hunter Wesley Thornton-Payne III didn’t believe in premonitions of doom, but now might be an optimum time to reevaluate those beliefs. That last bone-jarring shudder of the thirty-year-old fishing trawler beneath him qualified as a preemptive warning.
Salt water sprayed across the deck from each side of the wheelhouse where he stood. Wearing a wetsuit didn’t mean he wanted to be blasted with water every thirty seconds. For the past forty-five minutes this floating hazard had plowed south through the Pacific Ocean toward tonight’s black-ops objective.
Failure would trigger hideous deaths for unsuspecting CIA agents over the next twenty-four hours.
A simple mission… on paper.
Scaling a sheer rock cliff rising two thousand feet out of windswept waves, and on a moonless night, might give him pause if not for his partner Eliot Sawyer. Having him on this mission should quiet any concerns.
But a dark shadow continued to hover over Hunter’s psyche, a sixth sense he trusted almost as much as he trusted Eliot.
A ferocious wave broke across the starboard side, the tip of its watery tail lashing his face with cool spray. The faded teakwood deck quaked beneath his feet.
“This piece of shit better hold together long enough to get us into position.” Hunter wiped water from his eyes again. “You can bet that sack-a-shit Retter is riding around out here in something that can do more than ten knots. I should be hauling hisass up that cliff since this was his idea.”
Eliot laughed. The bastard laughed more than any other human Hunter had ever known. Even in college, humor had balanced out his mammoth size. “Thought you agreed this was the only way to slip inside Brugmann’s compound.”
Hunter hitched a shoulder in a don’t-remind-me response. He’d come to the same conclusion as Retter—BAD’s top gun and the lead on this operation—that approaching from the north under the guise of a decrepit fishing boat offered the optimum insertion point. Ehrlich Brugmann’s private residence perched on a cliff above a vertical wall of volcanic rock overlooking the northern coast of Kauai.
Brugmann had traveled alone to Hawaii this trip. Had he thought the United States wouldn’t notice him selling out the CIA and national security if he didn’t do it in DC at his primary residence?
Hunter suffered another whiff of fishy stench permeating the wood. He stared out over the starboard side at the last shred of light as the sun sank closer to the ocean. Twilight silhouetted a pair of fifty-footers bucking waves a mile off.
Two more boats held together with hope and slime.
Retter’s doing as well.
Boats were okay in Hunter’s book—the sleek half-million-dollar ocean racers he’d once piloted to trophy finishes.
But he hated the kind that tended to sink without notice.
Aging joints creaked in complaint when the deck pitched again. Hunter’s grumble ended in a vicious curse.
“Good night for a swim, eh?” Even Eliot had to grab a handhold or bust his silly ass. Pale lights mounted to the wheelhouse cast a sallow glow over his wide body outfitted in an identical black wetsuit, and lit his crooked-tooth grin.
The same grin Hunter had run up against the night he bumped into Eliot while breaking into the dean’s office at Harvard. Eliot had already disarmed the alarms when Hunter appeared beside him. Surprisingly, he and Eliot had broken in for the same reason—to correct the grades of a female student who had spurned the advances of a tenured professor and stood to lose her scholarship. Eliot had laughed in the dark and told Hunter to cover their butts, which he did. And was still doing.
Nothing bothered Eliot.
Not even the time the yacht they’d been on had stopped floating in the middle of the night. An explosion in the engine room had been at fault, but the reason really didn’t matter when you had to tread water for the next nine hours.
“Not worried about tonight, are ya?” Eliot pushed and prodded until he got what he wanted, a part of his personality that could be annoying as hell at times.
“Worried? Be serious.” Hunter ran over the mission again in his mind. His brain assured him everything was a go. His gut argued but failed to produce concrete evidence of a problem. Didn’t matter either way. He and Eliot were going in. They thought as one mind and had faced missions more dangerous than this one. With an unmatched ability to breach any security and expert climbing skills, Eliot was the perfect partner.
But the deciding factor had come down to a matter of trust.
Hunter trusted no one, or at least he hadn’t until Eliot took him rock climbing back in college. By the end of that first day, Hunter’s life had been in Eliot’s hands more times than he’d wanted to count. After that, he knew without question that Eliot had his back in any situation.
And he had Eliot’s.
Of course, Eliot’s heart was his greatest weakness.
“What about the CIA?” Eliot was back on track with the mission. “If they find out you’ve been here or seen their list of agents—”
“They won’t. We’re in. We’re out. No one’ll know. He’s got two rent-a-guards. Stop worrying like an old woman. I got this,” Hunter added, using their “end of discussion” phrase. With no choice but to insert, he wanted Eliot thinking only about breaching that security system. He gripped the vertical aluminum rail bolted to the wheelhouse and changed the subject. “Speaking of women, you still seeing that professor?”
“I am.” Eliot’s grin curved up, widened. Beamed.
Ah, hell. That silly look can’t mean what I think.
“Was going to tell you this later, but…”
No, Eliot, we had a deal. What happened to the “no ties, no commitments, no baggage” rule they’d shaken hands on in college?
“I never could keep a secret from ya for long. Cynthia and I got married.” Eliot shrugged. “I would have included ya in the wedding, but we did a quick trip to Vegas.”
Married. Of all the stupid things to do. Hunter licked saltwater from his dry lips. Open mouth and say something, dammit. This is my best friend.
“Congratulations. I guess?” Hunter scratched his chin. One thing was for sure, he’d never complicate his life that way. Not for a woman. They all came with agendas. Like his mother, for one. “Wasn’t a shotgun two-step to the altar, right?”
“No way. I’m crazy about Cynthia.”
“What about what we do for BAD?” Hunter had joined the Bureau of American Defense after leaving the CIA. BAD operated as a covert agency that protected national security. They had no boundaries, no red tape, and no support if they got in trouble since their secret existence wouldn’t be acknowledged. “Cynthia’s another person an enemy could use against you if they found out about her.”
Eliot stopped smiling and swallowed so hard his Adam’s apple pulsed. “My family’s never met her, doesn’t know she exists. You’re the only one who knows about her and I trust you with my life, so she’s safe.”
What could he say to that? Hunter felt the weight of Eliot’s confidence press down on his shoulders, but Eliot was right. Hunter would protect his friend—and any other BAD agent—with his life. “Have you told her what you do?”
“I told her I do investigative work for INTERPOL and that she can’t say anything about my job without putting us both in danger. She’s solid as a rock.”
“And what about the risks we take?” With anyone else Hunter would have let it go and wished the poor sucker good luck. But he’d been friends with Eliot too long to give him the patent superficial garbage Hunter’s family considered the foundation of all relationships. Showing a sincere interest in someone’s personal life was paramount to asking how much a luxury car cost. Wasn’t done in his family.
Eliot swayed with the rocking boat, moved his feet for balance, and wiped water that dribbled from his buzz-cut head off his face. “She thinks I’m teamed up with a guy named Leroy, which would be you. I told her you handle all the dangerous work. I’m just the on-site geek.”
Like any good lie, that had a trace of truth. Eliot really had contracted to INTERPOL after a stint with the CIA, where he’d been trained along with Hunter. They were both proficient in electronic invasion, but in spite of looking like the bigger physical threat Eliot’s natural gift was cracking a safe or violating security systems, which left Hunter to neutralize opposition. Not a problem.
Hunter didn’t mind getting his hands dirty on an op.
But he had no patience for bullshit, which had gotten him in deep trouble with the CIA on one particular job.
If the director of BAD hadn’t intervened, Hunter would have disappeared like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.
The CIA had allowed him to walk away—alive—as long as he stayed clear of any agency operations. They’d never know he was at the Brugmann compound tonight… unless something went wrong.
The FBI thought their people were coordinating with a covert CIA team. No one knew BAD existed, except the U.S. executive branch, and no one there would admit such. Plus the CIA wouldn’t confess to having a team on U.S. soil, which made it easy to step in when an order came through secure channels.
He just had to insert, confirm the list of names, and exit.
“I didn’t forget our deal in college.” Eliot had spoken so softly Hunter almost didn’t catch it over the rumble of diesel engines beneath his feet. “But I can’t live my life without Cynthia and she deserves the respect of marriage.”
The time to offer unwanted advice had passed, but Hunter believed his friend would regret the move down the line. This business punished anyone foolish enough to let emotions play into decision-making. He’d just have to do what he’d always done and cover Eliot’s back by researching Cynthia more deeply than Hunter’s initial scan to ensure she wasn’t a threat.
But he couldn’t prevent her from breaking the fool’s heart.
“Say what’s on your mind,” Eliot said. “Go ahead. Get it off your chest so we can celebrate later and get drunk.”
Hunter wanted to be pissed off at Eliot, an easy feat with anyone else but this clown. “Just think it’s an unnecessary risk. I mean, what’re you going to do if she gets pregnant?”
The trawler engine’s sound changed abruptly, going from loud rumbling to silence when the captain cut back on power.
That was the sign for Hunter and Eliot to get humping.
They had two minutes before the props rotated again.
Hunter pulled his diving hood into place, checked his gear, then sat on the rail next to Eliot and rolled backward into cool water. He popped up in the inky liquid and paddled to the stern, where BAD’s latest propulsion water sled floated.
Everything they needed was strapped in a watertight bag between two control arms. Hunter grabbed one arm and Eliot grabbed the other, both paddling away from the trawler while Eliot flipped on the power switch.
A tiny vibration in the handles indicated the electric turbo spun quietly within a cage.
The trawler engines rumbled to life and the boat moved off.
Unable to see Eliot’s face, Hunter called, “Ready.”
Eliot took a second to answer. “Cynthia is pregnant. I want you to be the godfather.” He rolled on the accelerator before another word could be spoken.
Shit. Just like Hunter had suspected.
Another woman with an agenda.
He’d deal with this over beers later.
After thirty-eight minutes that passed with the speed of a stiletto slicing butter, Eliot anchored the water sled close to the access spot. Currents surged, yanking Hunter back and forth, trying to draw him down into the undertow first, then bash him against jagged outcroppings of rock carved from weather and sea. He’d reconned the face of the cliff yesterday with a high-powered scope during a whale-watching cruise chartered for him and six agents.
The only dicey part would come when the wall angled out at a forty-five-degree slant two-thirds of the way up.
Once they cleared that area, the rest of the climb would come down to memory of the mapped-out route, skill, and patience.
They’d executed these maneuvers many times in low-light conditions, and night-vision monoculars with infrared illuminators would pick up every detail.
He climbed at a steady pace to reach the access point in the allotted time but slowly enough to avoid mistakes.
At the top of the cliff, he reached up until he found a handhold on the steel structure supporting the massive observation deck that shot out four feet over the cliff’s edge. He silently thanked the architect of Brugmann’s home for including a deck and pool in the design. Climbing up into the framework, he unclipped from the rope connecting him to Eliot.
Spider-climbing sideways, Hunter reached the corner of the deck and huddled in a pocket of space to scan for threats while Eliot tied off the rope. He slipped on gloves that were like a second skin, then pressed a button to illuminate his watch face for a brief glance. Six minutes to eight. Better time than he’d thought. Enough to reach the house before one of the two guards on duty made his hourly perimeter walk.
But when he pushed away from the deck to recon the open ground they’d have to cover, something was not right.
A heavily armed guard in black fatigues stood between the rear wall of glass defining the two-story Mediterranean-style house and the patio. He paced back and forth.
Something had changed since last night’s intel.
A permanent guard on this side meant additional—unanticipated—security. Why so heavily armed?
Hunter turned back to Eliot and used hand signals to tell him the security had increased. Eliot would normally have signaled “What the hell?” right back, then grinned.
This time he hesitated, no doubt thinking of his new family.
No room for baggage in this business.
As if catching the direction of Hunter’s thoughts, Eliot gave the “Let’s go” signal.
Hunter moved out. They had four minutes to make the door on the pool cabana attached to the main structure before encountering the guard that should be circling the compound.
Plans always played out better on paper.
Hunter had just reached the corner of the cabana with Eliot tucked in close when heavy footsteps from the front of the house thudded toward them.
Damn guard was early.
The guy covering the rear of the house had reached the end of his pacing route at the opposite side and turned back in the direction of the cabana.
Either way Hunter went meant exposure to a threat.
He was supposed to insert and exit without alerting any security, a stealth op just to confirm documents were in the safe so the FBI could bust Brugmann, a CIA field coordinator, before he sold agency assets.
No noise, no sign of breach, and no blood.
Two out of three was better than dying.
Hunter put his hand up for Eliot to stay put.
When the approaching guard stepped within two feet of their narrow hiding spot Hunter came out of the black shadows, slamming a chop at the base of the guard’s neck that didn’t kill him but took him out of play. He lowered the limp body between a wall of thick evergreen bushes and the house. Eliot gagged and secured the guard.
If the other guards performed an hourly voice check this would go to shit in a matter of minutes. If not, he and Eliot could still get in and out without notice.
No choice. Not unless he wanted six deaths on his hands.
When the rear sentry turned his back, Hunter entered the cabana with Eliot. Once inside, he passed the bar and service area, then went on through the showers, which reeked of chlorine. An interior door opened to a black-and-white-tiled hallway, which led to an out-of-the-way servants’ stairwell to the second floor.
At least that intel hadn’t changed.
Brugmann’s only nighttime staff, a housekeeper, had been called away with an FBI-induced emergency.
Hunter moved up the steps without making a sound on the thick Berber carpet. A walkway exposed on both sides and crossing over the living room area bridged the spot where he stood and the door to Brugmann’s bedroom, where the safe was housed.
Lowering to his stomach, Hunter snaked his way across the bridge with Eliot right behind him. Few spotlights above were on, but shadows cast through the carved wood railing showed clearly on the white and sand-colored yellow living room below.
When he reached the far side, Hunter pushed up to his feet in a tight corner next to the door. The bedroom doorknob opened on a whisper. The home had been in Mrs. Brugmann’s family for a hundred and twenty-seven years. She hadn’t accompanied her husband on this trip and Brugmann had no history of seeing other women. The bedroom should be empty.
On the other hand, Brugmann wasn’t supposed to have additional guards tonight either.
Eliot slithered past Hunter, into the thankfully empty bedroom with open windows welcoming the salty breeze. Voices downstairs approached the living room from the foyer.
Hunter paused. Brugmann had a guest.
The buyer for the list of CIA operatives and reason for additional guards?
This was about as much fun as a surprise birthday party, which Hunter ranked alongside boats that sank. He and Eliot had less time than expected.
He waited until the voices drifted into another room before entering the bedroom and pushing the door almost closed. Eliot had located the safe hidden behind a wall of mirrors. Documents in his gloved hand, he read quickly, then gave a thumbs-up.
Hunter released a tight breath. Onething had worked according to plan.
Eliot shuffled papers, pausing to read, then shook his head. He signaled he’d found something unexpected and turned his thumb down in a “bad news” sign.
What? Was it written in Egyptian or something?
Hunter leaned down to view the page under the light of the safe. The first document listed seven CIA agents, their posts, photographs of five men and two women, plus the codes needed to approach them as a friendly. Eliot snapped shots of all documents in case the FBI didn’t contain them, but they now had evidence to convict Brugmann of treason. The minute Hunter vacated the premises he’d send Retter a signal to contact the FBI agents waiting a mile away to bust this prick.
When he reviewed the second document, Hunter realized the problem. Eliot had found a map indicating detonation points beneath a hospital to be bombed the day after tomorrow in England.
England’s prime minister had just been admitted for brain surgery, to take place in that hospital on thatday. One of the finest specialists in the world, Peter Wentworth, was traveling from the U.S. to perform the surgery with a full contingent of security.
The Wentworth dynasty ranked among the top ten wealthiest families in the world.
Nothing in the document indicated who was behind the bombing or specifics on the target—the politically embattled prime minister or Peter Wentworth, who supported the prime minister’s unpopular economic views.
Eliot returned all documents to the safe but did not relock the safe or reset the security alarms he’d bypassed since the FBI would be alerted within two minutes of their exit.
Of course, the way Hunter’s luck was running tonight, he wouldn’t be surprised to meet Brugmann at the door to the bedroom. But when he checked the hallway was clear. Melting to the floor, he made efficient moves. A door across the foyer from the living room below opened. Brugmann’s bald head and round body popped into view. He waddled to the living room with his guest right behind.
Hunter mentally catalogued the guest’s robust physical build, straight black hair to his collar, clean-shaven face… and a scar running along his right cheek and jaw. He wore his off-the-rack dark-gray business suit casually with the collar of his blue shirt unbuttoned.
Nothing distinctive about the clothing or his mannerisms.
No time for more surveillance. Hunter continued inching his way across the walkway bridge to the exit steps with Eliot on his heels. At the other side, he raced silently down the stairs to the cabana entrance, checked the outside guard, then made it to the corner of the building without incident.
The guard he’d put down hadn’t moved an inch. Still out.
“Jocko!” the guard at the rear of the house shouted.
Hunter froze and stuck his neck past Eliot’s imitation of a statue to check the rear guard, who had stopped and faced away from the cabana. There was something familiar in the guard’s posture. He cupped his earpiece, listening for a reply that wouldn’t come if Jocko was the unconscious man behind Eliot.
Hunter signaled Eliot to keep moving forward slowly, but he stopped again quickly. A third guard appeared between them and the corner of the deck.
The guard blocked their exit point to where the climbing gear waited. He and Eliot would lose a firefight of two 9mms against an arsenal of HK rifles. Lights flooded the pool area and decking. Hunter sucked back deep in the shadows.
The guard near the house shouted, “Where’s Jocko, Smitty?”
“Looking for him myself.” Smitty stood near the edge of the cliff. His flashlight beamed on. He started sweeping the area, walking toward Hunter and Eliot.
Hunter recognized the voice of the guard at the rear of the house as belonging to Filet Bailey. Filet Bailey and Smitty were mercenaries out of the UK who took short-term work for high pay. They specialized in leaving no evidence.
Where were Brugmann’s regular clean-cut security guards?
These mercs killed for relaxation.
“See anything on the lower level?” Filet Bailey called out.
Smitty swung his flashlight in a circle, washing the last bit of shadow away from where Hunter and Eliot hid.
Son of a bitch. Hunter signaled his intent to Eliot, then raced ahead and shot out of the darkness toward the guard’s left side. He silently sandwiched the guy’s head between his hands, wrenching hard as he brought him to the ground.
Smitty’s neck snapped with a dull crunch.
“Smitty?” Filet Bailey called out, paused, listened, then yelled into his transmitter, ordering men to the rear.
Hunter waved Eliot ahead of him under the deck, then hunched down, working his way back to where they’d tied off the rope to the steel crossbeams. Eliot hooked up his climbing gear and dropped over the edge.
Hard voices shouted overhead. Boots hammered the decking.
Hunter calmly lashed his climbing gear into place, then hit a series of clicks on his radio to alert Retter he could authorize the FBI to raid the compound.
Like right fucking now would be a good time.
Filet Bailey shouted orders. Lights flashed between the wood slats overhead, glancing off Hunter.
Hunter gave Eliot a fifteen-second lead. The original plan had been for Eliot to quickly rappel down the face, followed by Hunter using the same rope.
That plan hadn’t involved additional security or shooting.
Now they couldn’t risk someone cutting the rope before they both made it down, which meant Eliot dropping a hundred feet to find a new anchor point for their rope.
Bullets burst from the side of the deck where Hunter had dropped Smitty. The guards had found their exit path.
Unclipping a smoke bomb from his belt, he pulled the pin, counted several beats, then lobbed it into a trough in the ground that fed the rolling grenade to the corner of the deck.
“Go.” Eliot’s sharp whisper came through Hunter’s earpiece.
Hunter dropped past the edge. Smoke boiled over the cliff. Eliot had fed enough slack for Hunter to rappel below where Eliot hung anchored from an SLCD—spring-loaded camming device.
Bullets pinged wildly, but the guards hadn’t figured out how to flood the cliff with light yet. Hunter ripped off a round, silencing the shots above for a moment. He stowed the weapon, freeing his hands for ten seconds. Snagging the rope that trailed from Eliot, Hunter hooked the free rope into his second locking karabiner so they could leapfrog going down.
Hunter dropped two hundred feet like a lead weight into the black abyss waiting to swallow him.
The eerie silence above disturbed him more than rounds of live fire. Eliot hugged the wall, waiting for the signal to drop just past Hunter and hook to his trailing rope.
What was going on at the Brugmann compound? Hunter doubted the FBI had arrived or contained the site that quickly and without more shots.
Too quiet, and Eliot was stuck exposed.
Hunter stopped just above the section of rock wall that slanted in. He had to get Eliot out of firing range. Running his fingers over the face, he found a deep cut in the rock from memory. He shoved an SLCD into the opening, then pulled up twenty feet of trailing rope to tie an anchor sling. He fed slack out the top of his karabiner so Eliot could rappel while Hunter gave cover.
He ordered, “Go,” into his transmitter.
Once Eliot reached Hunter they’d use a series of anchors Eliot had placed on the way up to now climb below the inclined face of the wall, which would protect them both from enemy fire.
Eliot started dropping fast.
Lights in the compound blazed high above him, but still no sounds filtered down. And no one looked over the edge.
A red laser light bounced on the wall above Eliot… on the SLCD anchor where the rope was tied off. One bullet sang out, then a second one hit the anchor… snapping the rope.
Hunter lunged for the wall to brace himself for the sudden yank of Eliot’s weight.
If Eliot had locked his karabiner or had a knot to stop the rope from sliding out.
Rope whistled past Hunter’s ear. Eliot bounced against the cliff face next to him with a sickening thud.
Bone cracked. Eliot screamed.
Bile ran up Hunter’s throat.
The rope jerked taut with Eliot’s dead weight. Hunter gritted against the pain wrenching his muscles. He gasped for air.
Another bullet ripped loose, the report echoing in the silence.
The rope wrenched and Eliot howled in agony. “I’m hit.”
Hunter’s blood turned into ice.
He twisted to look down.
Eliot’s life depended on Hunter keeping his head and holding tight to this anchor. Even shot, Eliot was stronger than most men in their best condition.
Hunter would get him off this rock.
Men shouted above. Maybe the FBI, but no one could help him and Eliot hanging off this rock face.
“Swing. Your… self,” Hunter shouted. If Eliot could swing a couple times and find an anchor, something to grab…
Doubt bombarded him. He’d reconned the wall himself and remembered no easy place to grab on to the slick surface. Eliot hung below the last anchor they’d set earlier beneath the inclined wall. Fuck it. Hunter would untie from the anchor and… shit, he might not be able to hold Eliot’s weight. Think! If Eliot swung in, he could—
“No,” came through Hunter’s headset, thin with suffering.
“Swing yourself. Now, godammit!”
No answer. Hunter took a shuddering breath. Adrenaline flooded his body, willing him the strength to hold on as long as it took.
“Shoulder’s… blown.” Eliot’s strained voice broke through Hunter’s earpiece. “Leg… broken.”
Good God. Hunter started calculating how to lower him down. Eliot had no rope.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!
“Swing in, man. Do it,” Hunter pleaded. He might have been wrong. There could be one spot Eliot could grab with his good arm.
Eliot groaned. “Watch over… my family.”
“Don’t start that shit!” Hunter clung to the rope, his heart thundering with the first panic he’d ever experienced. He had no idea how he was going to get them both down, but he’d do it or die trying. “Swing, you bastard.”
Eliot wheezed hard, then begged, “Let me… go down.”
“Working on it. Just—”
“No.” The next words choked from Eliot, sounding too liquid to be good. “I got this.”
What the hell is he talking about? Hunter twisted around to look down.
Eliot hung backward, his body dangling. He moved as if every effort cost him greatly. His undamaged arm lifted something up from his belt—
All at once, Hunter processed what Eliot intended to do. Blood roared through his ears. “No! Just hold on.”
Voices shouted through bullhorns up at Brugmann’s house.
Hunter ignored everything but the horror that threatened to suck his heart from his chest. “Don’t. You. Do. It.”
“Can’t both get down, bro.” Eliot coughed. He yelped with pain. “Can’t show your face. No time… left.”
“Don’t fucking care.” Fear spun through Hunter’s brain in a death roll. Everything slowed with sickening clarity. His throat tightened until he couldn’t breathe.
“Love you both.” Eliot lifted his hand, the knife visible.
Oh, God, no!
One quick slash. The blade cut clean through.
Hunter lunged, arms reaching into thin air.
Eliot plummeted out of reach, shrinking away.
Waves crashed over jagged boulders below.
His wide body stopped suddenly as though someone had pulled the plug on time.
“Nooo…” Hunter’s scream thrashed the air. Free of weight, the rope bounced up, dangling in the wind.
Hunter stared, locked in disbelief.
Eliot hadn’t just died, not that easily. Not full-of-life Eliot… gone. Not the one person Hunter believed invincible.
Pain slashed deep with each breath and ripped his soul into scattered parts that had no idea how to come back together.
Bullets chattered over the rock face, a dull staccato playing backup to the macabre image of Eliot smashed against the rocks. Waves crashed in the eerie silence. The wind howled painfully in Eliot’s absence.
Hunter fought for a breath from his paralyzed lungs.
A tiny red dot entered his field of view.
The laser beam danced on his arm, stealing his attention. He watched the deadly dot move down the side of his body.
Do it. Kill me now.
The dot moved on. A bullet ripped loose, striking muscle and bone in his foot. Burning pain forced him back into the world of the living.
The world where he’d find the sniper and make him pay.
The world where Hunter had to save the people Eliot had just died to protect.
He flipped his weapon out and fired mercilessly in the direction of the last shots. When he stopped, a laugh drifted to him on the breeze.
You will die, and not quickly.
Had to go. One numb movement after the next, Hunter lowered himself until he reached the water sled. He cut the anchor line and motored the propulsion craft through turbulent waves and located Eliot pinned on a jagged rock outcropping.
If there was a God, his friend had died immediately.
He removed an inflatable vest from the watertight bag, then dragged his friend’s lifeless body down to the water. He held Eliot in his arms, hugging him. The ocean buffeted them.
Why hadn’t he done this when Eliot was alive?
Hunter struggled for one painful breath after another until he had a grip again. He put the vest on Eliot and inflated it.
He kept waiting for Eliot to say something funny about how bad their luck sucked tonight and how good the beer would taste, but the silent face would never split with a goofy smile again.
Hunter laid his palm against Eliot’s cold cheek. “You shouldn’t have done it, bro. Who’s going to show up at my apartment at midnight on Christmas Eve to drink beer? Or tell me when I’m being the biggest asshole on the planet? Or…” Hunter swallowed. “Teach your kid to ride a bike? Goddammit, Eliot. You weren’t supposed to get hurt.”
Why didn’t the bullet hit me?
No one would have missed him if he’d died tonight. His brother would have mourned for a while, then life would have gone on.
But there’d never be another Eliot.
Hunter secured Eliot’s body to the sled. When he thought he could speak without his voice breaking, he used the radio on the water sled to contact Retter. The last thing he could do was let anyone at BAD hear or see what Eliot meant to him.
Retter would sideline an agent he thought might turn rogue. Hunter wouldn’t allow anyone to sideline him right now.
Not even BAD.
“They get everything?” Hunter asked when he radioed Retter.
“Got the list. Target and five security were down when they arrived.”
“I only terminated one.”
“The rest taken down by knife or by hand.”
“What about the guy with the target?” Hunter would give Retter details on the guest with Brugmann once he debriefed.
“Nobody found with the target. Three of the security unidentified.”
“They were mercs.” What had happened to Brugmann’s guest? Was the scar-faced guy the sniper? He turned the water sled toward the open sea. “I’m on the way in.”
“What about Eliot?”
“Terminated.” Hunter’s chest clenched at the cold reference, but he had to start selling that image now.
Retter didn’t speak for a couple seconds. “Need to pick you up quick and get you secured.”
Like hell. “Why?”
“The safe had a camera at the back. Recorded your face.”
Was there no end to this fucked-up op? He engaged the water sled’s motor, steadying Eliot’s body with his free hand. Hunter wasn’t going to ground, not even to hide from the CIA.
Nothing would stop him from finding that sniper.
© 2010 Sherrilyn Kenyon and Dianna Love Snell
Tough-as-nails Bureau of American Defense agent Hunter Thornton-Payne is no stranger to uncomfortable top-secret missions, but tonight takes the cake. He just needs to stick out a stuffy charity fund-raiser long enough to find the ruthless assassin he’s hunted for four years. It’s a rogue operation, but Hunter’s got nothing to lose—until a beautiful brunette unexpectedly pulls him into her own dangerous agenda. Abbie Blanton will do anything to cure her mother’s mysterious illness. When a high-profile heiress is murdered as Abbie tries to blackmail her for clues, Abbie realizes she’s stumbled into an unforgiving conspiracy—and she’s the next target. Soon, she and Hunter discover an alarming connection and begin a treacherous battle against an evil enterprise that someone will go to terrifying lengths to keep hidden.