Authors: Debra Webb
“He knows where I am at all times.”
A new layer of difficulty fell over the operation. “You have a tracking device on you?” He had a feeling it wasn't nearly that simple.
“I have several.” She let go a heavy breath. “Im
planted. I have no idea the locations. I just know they're there.”
Riley knew the rest of the story. If one or more of the devices somehow stopped working or were removed and left at one location, the Master would recognize what they were doing.
Their options were limited to one: follow the order.
He just hoped like hell the man's minions hadn't followed them here and were watching every move they made. That maximized the need to get the heck out of here.
“How fast can you make contact?” There wasn't a single second to spare.
“I'll try now.” She looked around again. “But we can't stay here. He knows every inch of this city. We have to keep moving.”
Riley stood there feeling defeated for a moment. He couldn't give the location of the compound to the feds for fear someone would screw up and the Master would recognize they were there. He couldn't have the bomb deactivated or removed because there was no time to figure it out.
Once again his survival and that of the mission boiled down to one person.
And even she wasn't sure she could set in motion the chain of events that had to occur to maintain the validity of the operation.
There was one question he had to ask. “Why are
you willing to take this risk?” The decision to help him put her at great risk. The motivation to stay involved when the opportunity to walk away was right in front of her had to be immense.
“For the children.”
Until she gave him reason not to trust that statement, he had no choice but to go with it.
“Make the call.”
11:01 a.m.â46 hours, 59 minutes remaining
Tessa waited until Smith had parked the SUV in the cemetery before opening her cell phone.
So far he had gone along with her suggestion to distance himself from his colleagues. She hadn't selected this out-of-the-way derelict cemetery for no reason. The drive from the abandoned warehouse had used up valuable time. But this was her one and only chance to save the children. Her unknowing hero wouldn't be pleased with her plan, but she couldn't let him stand in the way.
Not even if it meant sacrificing his life.
A pang of regret tore through her. It was hard for her to determine if he was the bad guy she had assumed. She had gotten the impression his friends were law enforcement but she couldn't be certain. He'd said something like that.
If he was a cop, why didn't he just tell her?
If he was an informant, then most likely he had
done the same sort of bad things the Master and his soldiers had done. In that case, she had no sympathy for Smith or whoever he was.
Ultimately, her concern had to be for the children and the patients.
Her own life was on the line as well, and she didn't care. All that mattered was saving the children. The idea that she was so far away from Sophie twisted her heart. But it was the only way to save her. Tessa had been planning this operation for a while now. She just hadn't expected it to happen this wayâ¦or at this time.
She gently patted the bun of her hair to ensure the key was where she'd tucked it. With that confirmation, she was ready. One phone callâa pretend phone callâand she would make her move. But that pretend call was necessary to keep Smith distracted.
She climbed out of the SUV, the cold air made her shiver. Smith followed her into the center of the cemetery. The slushy snow dragged at her boots.
“This should be fine,” she said, acting as if the distance away from the SUV was necessary before making the call.
While she entered the numbers, Smith scanned the woods surrounding the ancient cemetery. He was keenly alert. She would have to stay sharp or he would see through her deception.
“This is Tessa,” she said as if the call had connected. She paused long enough to have had a re
sponse then said, “I'm ready to work with Renwick. Where can we meet?”
Smith watched her so closely. Fear had her heart pumping hard. Of course he was suspicious. She just needed to ensure he wasn't overly suspicious.
Next she gave her location, then waited again. “Yes, I'll stand by.” She looked at Smith then. “No, no, I'm alone.” A moment's pause. “Okay.” She pretended to end the call and closed the phone. “A contact is on his way here. I told him I was aloneâ”
“I heard that part.”
Definitely ill at ease and highly suspicious.
“Stay down in the SUV,” she suggested, “so he doesn't see you right away. Once we determine how many have been sent and how heavily armed they are, we can take it from there. You can use the gun in my bag.”
The last seemed to put him more at ease. She followed him to the SUV. As he dug through her bag for the gun he wouldn't find, she snatched up one of the rocks that lined the narrow road that circled the cemetery.
She banged it into the back of his head, tossed the rock and ran.
Afraid to look back to confirm he'd been rendered unconscious, she pushed forward with all her physical strength. The gun in her waistband shook. She put one hand on it to make sure it didn't bounce out.
She hit the woods, underbrush slapped at her legs.
Dodging the trees, she refused to slow down even as her lungs burned for more oxygen.
Then she saw it. Her salvation.
Sitting on an abandoned, overgrown old road was the green pickup truck. The vehicle was three decades old but it had run perfectly fine two weeks ago when she, Brooks and Howard had met a contact here.
The meeting had gone sour and the contact had been taken back to the questioning room. As Brooks and Howard had forced him into the SUV, she'd noticed the key to his truck on the ground. She'd picked it up and from that day forward she had planned her escape.
The driver's door opened with a creak. Only then did she dare to look back and see if Smith had followed her. No sign of him. Relief made her knees weak.
She jammed the key into the ignition and twisted it. The starter turned over but the engine didn't roar to life. “Oh, God.” She pumped the gas pedal and tried again. The reluctant engine tried to start, sputtering and groaning. “Please, please, start,” she murmured.
The engine coughed again then growled to life. She smiled. The movement so unexpected that she reached up and touched her lips. She was going to make it.
She pulled the gear shift into Drive.
Something slammed into the cab next to her door. The truck rocked with the impact.
Her gaze collided with furious gold eyes, and a scream trapped in her throat.
Smith jerked the truck door open.
She stomped the accelerator.
The truck lurched forward.
Smith hung on.
She tried to push him away but he had a death grip on the door and the steering wheel.
Tessa hit the brake hard. The door flopped, sandwiching Smith between it and the cab. He howled a curse.
He elbowed her hard enough to loosen her grip on the steering wheel. His hand reached past her and snagged the key, shutting down the engine.
She fumbled for the gun.
He threw his body atop hers. His hands found the weapon first. She bucked her body in an attempt to throw him off balance.
Too late. He jammed the weapon into her rib cage. “Stop fighting me.”
The words were a breathless snarl, but no less threatening.
“Get off me.” She shoved at his chest, somehow unafraid that he would actually shoot her. There was something about the way he looked at her that suggested he wouldn't hurt her.
He backed out of the cab, but kept the weapon trained on her. “Get out.”
Tessa scrambled out and righted her clothes. Her hair had fallen but she didn't care. Her breath came in jagged spurts. She'd failed. Now her one chance at saving the childrenâ¦at escaping
After months of planning, she had failed in a matter of minutes.
“What the hell were you doing?” he demanded as he shoved his fingers through his mussed hair.
She ignored him. Rather, she focused on pulling the pins from her hair. One. Two. Ouch. She grimaced. Three. Four. The counting did little to keep her mind off the idea that she was a failure.
She'd let the children down.
She threw down the pins and glared at the man holding the gun. “What do you think I was doing?” She didn't care that her hair was a mess or that he could shoot her any time now. She only cared that she had failed.
“Trying to escape?” he asked, fury making his words as sharp as knives. “Me? Or him?”
“Both,” she admitted, not caring what he thought. He had no idea what the Master was capable of. He didn't know anything.
He laughed but there was no humor in the sound. “I thought you were worried about the children. You said you didn't want them to pay for our making a wrong move.” He shook his head. “Oh, that was good, lady. The only person you care about is yourself.”
She rushed him.
The gun flew out of his hand.
They tumbled to the cold, wet ground.
She kicked at him. Banged her fists at his chest. Cried out with the pain that was ripping her apart inside. He didn't know! He didn't understand!
He rolled her onto her back and pinned her to the ground with his body. His hands were like iron manacles on her arms, holding them down.
“Have you lost your mind?”
She blew the hair out of her face so she could glare at him.
“I could have shot you.” He hissed a couple of expletives.
“Shoot me,” she dared. “I don't care anymore.”
He stared into her eyes, obviously seeing the truth in her statement. The anger in his eyes faded away and sympathy replaced it. That didn't make her feel any better. She didn't need his sympathy. She needed a new plan.
Letting go of her arms, he pushed himself upright, then offered his hand to pull her up.
She stared a long moment at his broad hand and the long fingers that seemed to be offering help. But what he offered was just for herâ¦for now. That wouldn't help the childrenâ¦wouldn't save Sophie.
Despite that cold, hard reality, she put her hand in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“Tell me what's going on with you.” His voice was softer now, kinder.
The Master could speak oh so gently and kindly as well. That didn't mean anything. “I knew this truck
was here.” No point in lying. “I planned to use it to set my plan in motion.”
She looked into his eyes, let him see the hurt and fear in her own. “To save the children. To escape a monster.”
He dusted the snow and leaves off his jeans. “How exactly did you plan to do that?”
“I was going to enact the evacuation.”
Lines of confusion formed across his brow.
“At the compound,” she explained, too weary to fight the inevitable any longer. “We have an evacuation plan if there was the threat of being invaded.”
“By the police?”
She shrugged. “By anyone.”
He nodded. “I guess he has plenty of enemies.”
“More than you can imagine.” She closed her eyes and blocked the ugly images. The Master was cruel and uncaring. He had no feelings for who he crossed or who he hurt. Collateral damage was of no concern to him.
“How would the evac plan help save the children?”
Smith asked, drawing her attention back to him.
“I know the route.” She summoned a deep, calming breath. “He would leave with Brooks.” She would be sent with Howardâ¦once he had taken the other steps that terrified her to even consider. “The children and the patients would be Howard's responsibility.”
Her throat tightened at the idea of what exactly his re
sponsibility was. “I would neutralize him and escape with the children.”
“What about the rest of the security personnel?”
“They would act as decoys, unknowing bait, for whoever was invading.”
“You assumed you could take Howard on your own,” Smith suggested.
She leveled a long, telling look at him. “I know I could take Howard as long as Brooks wasn't around.” Tessa considered that point for a moment. The scenario didn't add up. “How did they manage to take you?” She felt confident that at one time the two men had been the best. Otherwise the Master would never have assigned them as his deputies. But they had grown soft and lazy in their higher-level positions, particularly Howard. “You don't seem like the type of guy to be taken by two sloppy thugs.”
Smith blinked. To cover whatever flashed in his eyes. She'd caught just a hint of somethingâ¦challenge maybe. Then she understood. “You wanted to be captured. You let them take you.”
He wasn't one of themâ¦he was a cop or something, like he said. She'd sensed that possibility even before the meeting with his colleagues.
Before she could say as much, he said, “Let's just say that things worked out the way I wanted them to.”
Dear God. Finally someone had comeâ¦
Her gaze fell to the device around his neck. And in about forty-six hours he would be dead.
“Up to a point,” he added, touching the device she stared at.
“We have to contact Renwick,” she said. “It's the only way.” But there was a problemâ¦that she couldn't tell him about until she was sure she could fully trust him.
His gaze held hers. “What about your plan? Sounds like it could work.”
It could. Maybe. But that wouldn't keep him alive.
“We'll contact Renwick. And then we'll go back.”
“Noâ” he shook his head “âI'll go back. You'll set your plan in motion and we'll have backup in place to take care of Howard and Brooks.”
“While you die,” she reminded him.
“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.” He glanced back toward the cemetery. “Let's do what we have to for now.”
He started to turn away. “Smith?”
He turned back to her. “Why are you here? Really?”
“My name is Porter. Riley Porter. I'm here to stop the man you call the Master.”
She hurried to catch up with him as he strode through the woods. “Those men back thereâ” she matched her stride with his “âthey're with you?”
“You didn't give them the location of the compound, did you?” If he hadâ¦standing orders were to kill the children first. Without Tessa there would
be no one to stop that from happening. The Master understood what he would face from the authorities. His motto was to make it worth the sacrifice if the worst-case scenario occurred.
“No, I didn't.”
Smith-Porter didn't look at her as he said this. She prayed he wasn't manipulating her. “The children would be killed first, in the event of an unexpected invasion,” she told him, hoping he hadn't lied to her. She wouldn't be there to stop Howard. As worthless as he was, he would revel in destroying the innocent lives of those unable to defend themselves.
“There won't be an unexpected invasion,” he reiterated.
“I pray you're telling me the truth.” This hadn't turned out the way she'd hoped at all.
As they reached the cemetery once more, he turned back to her. “Trust me, Tessa. I explained that we couldn't divulge that information at this point. The location of the compound remains secret.”
The depth of his sincerity had relief washing over her. Still, she found it difficult to believe that the authorities would be this close, because they certainly hadn't ever been this close before, and not want to make a move.
As if he'd sensed her continued trepidation, he stopped again before they reached the SUV. “We're going to bring down his entire network, Tessa.” Those gold eyes searched hers. “We're going to rescue the children. That's why I came.”