Countdown to Zero Hour (4 page)

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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“Any news on the dietary restrictions?” she asked. “Allergies?” It was a fucked-up situation, but she had a job to do.

“I asked around but no one came back with a problem. I’ll find out more when we get there.”

“Anything you won’t eat?” From the way he talked about food, it seemed Art was up for all possibilities. The kind of guy who could be inspirational to cook for.

He clicked his tongue, thinking. “Eyeballs.”

“There’s a story.” She’d have guessed broccoli or curry.

“Making peace with someone,” he explained, voice distant in memory. “They honored us with goat eyeballs.”

If she could just see his face, she’d know how those experiences affected him. The same guy who’d lived that was now basically her captor. He’d offered her a deal with no out. It must’ve come down from Rolan, but she wouldn’t let Art off the hook for “just taking orders.”

“I’m going to bet,” she said, “that where we’re headed, you won’t rate high enough for eyeballs anyway.”

“You got that right,” he confirmed with a slow nod. “Just grilled cheese for me.”

“We’ll see.” The conversation could’ve slid forward. Volleys of question and answer had arced easily between them. He’d obviously had a lot of diverse experiences and wanted to hear from her, as well. But he didn’t press, and she kept any curiosity to herself.

She was a chef, cooking food for pay. They could be friendly, but she drew the line on any further connection. What was the point of getting to know this man if he had her cornered? She dug her protective moat deeper. Art was business, same as Rolan and anyone else she met wherever they were headed.

But cutting herself off left her hungry. There were hidden tastes of Art to discover.

No
, she convinced herself.
No. He’s dangerous. Everything is dangerous. Cook. Survive. Get home.

The SUV accelerated up an on-ramp to a wide highway. She tried to see the signs, but they went by too quickly.

Art turned to look at her, dark resignation on his face. “Sorry about this, Chef.”

After he faced forward again, a sheet of glass rose up from behind the front seats. It was as black as the windows around her.

Sunlight was sliced thinner and thinner by the glass until any natural glow was gone. Inside the SUV, rows of inset lights turned on, illuminating the spacious interior but revealing no details of the outside. Even Art in the driver’s seat was invisible.

Her phone was long gone. Now her isolation was complete. They’d already strayed too far from familiar territory for her to try to puzzle out what turns on the highway might mean. It was impossible to determine what direction they headed.

All she knew was that as a last resort, her cooking knives were in their roll in her duffel bag.

* * *

She’d lost track of time, and her attention shifted between trying not to be bored or carsick or angry or terrified. The ingredients in the cooler and grocery bags were listed again and again in her mind, and Hayley created as many combinations between them as possible. Brief conversations with Art had squawked, mechanical, through an intercom in the wall. He’d given her meaningless time updates or instructions on how to use the TV/DVD player between the seats.

Her only options to watch were pirated copies of a porno and two bad action movies from the ‘90s. Time passed while a shirtless dude ran through industrial hallways on the TV and kicked other men in their heads. At one point the sound of gunfire overwhelmed, as if all the barrels were pointed at her. She punched the pause button and leaned into the intercom, hoping for a sliver of contact and a crumb of humanity.

“Is this you in the movie?” she asked Art.

He laughed through the speaker. “Is that the one where the guy has a nano-computer behind his ear and it’s got the antidote to the virus, but the bad guys want to infect the world?”

“I bet you’ve seen it a hundred times.”

“Rolan digs it for some reason.” There was a break in the intercom, then, “But no, that’s not me. I don’t wax my chest, and he pays no attention to the twenty-one-foot rule.”

“Educate me,” she said.

“If you have a gun in a holster, and there’s a bad guy with a knife in his hand, and he’s within twenty-one feet, he’ll get you before you get him.” His voice came out robotic through the speaker, like getting instructions from a machine, telling her to leave her compassion behind.

“Good to know.” She turned the TV off, not wanting to see the sensational violence.

“Trade me.” The warmth increased in his voice. “Give me a handful of knowledge back.”

“When you’re cooking beans from scratch,” she instructed, “don’t salt them until they’re just tender. If you do it too early, the skins will toughen.”

“Got it. I’ve never made beans from scratch. Always just opened a can.”

“Fresh beans are a good thing.” Though she doubted she’d be able to capture the pure joy of cooking wherever she was headed.

Art’s voice informed her, “Another couple of hours.”

“Bathroom?”

A pause, then the intercom crackled. “Twenty minutes, okay?”

“Thanks.”

After a span of time that might’ve been the twenty minutes or two hours, the SUV came to a stop. Art opened the side door, and bright yellow sunlight erased her vision. She got out and stood for a moment, letting her eyes adjust. Blinking the world into shapes, she expected to see landscape, hills or trees or mountains. Instead, the only thing in front of her was a drab cinder block building with a single door marked for a women’s bathroom. The SUV was parked at an angle to block the rest of the view. It could’ve been part of a gas station or a rest stop.

She hadn’t realized how strong the air-conditioning in the car had been until she was out in the desert heat. It felt like all the moisture from her body was sucked away into the thirsty atmosphere. She tossed her jacket and knit cap back into the black abyss of the SUV and headed past Art into the restroom.

She took care of her needs in the somewhat grungy bathroom, splashed water on her tired face and came back out to see Art leaning on the car. It had been a long time since she’d been on a road trip with a boyfriend, maybe Yosemite when she was in her early twenties, but this didn’t carry the same positive excitement. Art was casual, but always ready. For a while, before the deal, she might’ve thought of him as a friend. And there had been other potentials to explore. Now, he was...? Driver. Captor. Muscle. Protector?

She returned to the car, bringing her next to him as he waited by the door. He didn’t back off. She paused. The nearer she stood to him, the more her skin prickled with awareness.

He held most of the power. She clutched at what little she had, saying, “This is closer than twenty-one feet.”

The desert-bright sun made him squint, and he slowly scanned over the space between them. “You armed?”

They both knew she didn’t have a weapon. But she rallied as much danger as possible. “I might be.” She might be able to take that one step closer to him. To feel how hard he would be against her. To feel how his active body could feed hers.

“Doesn’t matter.” He shook his head with a darkness that persisted even in the day. “I’ve got no defense if you’re coming at me.”

The moment drew out, tension between them buzzing hotter than the desert breeze. Attraction drew her toward him, but she didn’t move. Since first meeting Art, the possibility of the two of them crashing together had seemed almost inevitable. But this job had derailed the momentum. She was left yearning for what might’ve been. And bitter that something that had shone so new and appealing in the midst of her struggles had turned into the impossible.

She got into the car without another word. Art closed the door. They were quickly on the move again, leaving behind an unknown stop and headed to an unknown destination. After a few curves in the road, then a rough patch that had the SUV rumbling on uneven dirt, the glass divider came down behind Art.

Again sunlight flooded her vision. Her eyes regulated to the harsh yellows and oranges of the bleak landscape outside the windshield just as the SUV drove through a gate in a beige cinder block wall. There was no way to tell where they were. California? Arizona? Mexico? It might’ve been Mars. Past a wide yard of dirt and rocks was a large house, looking at once brand-new and also like it had bubbled up from the hard ground. The exterior was brown and tan, like it was made of the same dry dirt and stone that surrounded them.

The driveway circled in front of the house, giving her glimpses of the three-story McMansion, complete with vaulted windows and a grand front entrance. And the men. Every exterior corner of the house had a man in dark clothes and sunglasses. Each guard held a gun. Some weapons were larger than others, but all shone like poisonous insects. She knew it would be hot outside but pulled on her jacket for extra armor.

The car came to a stop, and Art killed the engine. Her ears rang in the silence. The black box in the SUV that had been her mobile prison now felt like the most secure place to stay.

She came forward behind Art’s seat. He didn’t seem ready to get out of the car either.

“This isn’t safe,” she pleaded.

He turned to her, face dead serious. “No. It isn’t. The safest place is with me.” In a blur he spun away, getting out of the car. A second later, he’d opened her door.

The dry desert felt like a quick place to die. Art stood by the door with his grim expression. But his eyes still had light in them for her. Was he safe? Could she trust him? Beyond him was the house. There was nowhere to hide. Gathering herself with a breath, she stepped out of the SUV and into the harsh sunlight. The car door slammed behind her.

Art was right there with her. She’d seen his capabilities. The other men at this compound had guns, though. That might not make a difference to Art. It shouldn’t matter to her, either. She strode to the back of the SUV for her bag. All these men were obviously trained fighters, but none of them were able to cook the way she did.

Art was close, and whispered, “You’ve got this, Master Chef.”

A different heat moved through her. Art’s reassurance carried more meaning than she’d expected, or wanted. Somehow this man of violence had the keen insight to understand her. And that made him a different kind of dangerous than whatever peril she was about to step into. He opened the trunk, and she pulled out her duffel, complete with her freshly sharpened knives.

“Yes.” The bravado was for show. “I do.”

Men with guns stared at her. Past them, somewhere inside, were Rolan and the other heavy hitters she needed to impress with her food. Art was behind her. Friend or foe, she didn’t know, but he was her closest contact. Her ability to survive whatever danger the week would bring was inevitably tied to him. There were a lot of days and meals to get through before she’d be back in the SUV for the ride home to safety.

She hardened herself and walked toward the house.

Chapter Four

The compound was a tactical nightmare. Easily defensible, with clear firing lanes from the house and almost no cover between the exterior wall and the bad guys. And at the center of it all, Hayley.

Art had recognized the small tremors of doubt in her and wondered how she’d get herself from the SUV to the house. His words of encouragement appeared to help. He’d watched her rally and sharpen herself enough to talk tough. He’d seen that happen elsewhere, from basic training to the wild hills of Afghanistan to knife fights in a crooked dry cleaners. She wouldn’t let herself be overwhelmed. Her blue eyes remained bright and sharp. She tilted her chin up and walked toward the house. The desert heat seemed to bounce off Hailey like she was knife steel.

The woman was strong, determined. Somewhat surly and definitely sexy.

If everything went well, she could handle this gig.

But Art knew things weren’t going to go well. She wasn’t in on the plan. Rolan and the others had no idea. They were all sitting on a ton of C4, and Art was the trigger.

She was already a couple of steps toward the house when he slung his own duffel over his shoulder, then hefted her cooler and caught up. He’d learned scant details about the house while it was being planned and built, but this was his first chance to map the layout. The large propane tank peeked around the back of the house, on the southeast corner. The car gate was on the west wall; doors big enough for one man at a time were on the north and south walls.

He climbed the three steps to the wide front porch and glanced about for any high ground to attack from. The nearest hills were crowded toward the horizon. No sniper, not even his teammate “Bolt Action” Mary, could make the shot. The only way to get long-range fire support over the wall would be from a helo, but getting one close enough without alerting anyone before the ground team was in place would be next to impossible.

A guard Art didn’t recognize stepped in front of the main entrance. He eyed Hayley’s duffel and tipped his chin up as if it was too difficult to collect words into a sentence. She got his meaning, dropped her bag and unzipped it.

Keeping one hand on his submachine gun, the guard checked over her belongings. The gun was well used, brassed in areas, but maintained nicely. The man was a shooter. Right-handed. Patient. Art added him to the list of combatants.

When the guard pulled out Hayley’s knife roll, she tensed a bit, protective, and put her hand on it. “Wait.”

The guard stared at her, not liking being told what to do.

Art explained in Russian, “Tools of the trade.”

With deliberate cool, Hayley unclipped the roll and expanded it. The blades flashed in the bright sun. The guard grudgingly nodded and motioned for her to roll it back up.

Art didn’t wait for any formalities and placed the cooler down and opened it. The first blast of cool air refreshed him and brought faint aromas of the food inside. Hayley’s food. Some of the vegetables were intact, but there were a lot of plastic containers of partially prepared ingredients. He saw her work, perfect cubes or long slices. She was as trained and practiced as the professional killer who blocked the door.

He’d given the guard enough time to check over the food, so Art slammed the lid shut and lifted the cooler. The shooter didn’t move aside for a moment, and Art stared at him. If the hard-ass wanted trouble, Art could give it. He could pin the man’s shooting hand to his body with a shove of the cooler. From there, knuckles and an elbow would make him bleed.

The standoff ended when the guard rolled his eyes with that bored, in-control attitude. He stepped out of their way, muttering in a thick Russian accent, “Second floor.”

Art balanced the cooler in one hand and swung open the wide front door. Both he and Hayley fit side by side in the opening. Good. This entrance wouldn’t be a choke point during the assault. But the firing lanes in the open foyer would be hell. Huge blind spot behind the door. Second-floor balcony could rain lead before the door breachers could get a shot off.

Hayley glanced about the room, then tipped her head back to the front entrance. “That guy was hard-core mad-dogging you. Thought you all worked together.”

He replied under his breath as they walked up one of the two curving stairways to the second floor. “I’m not full-blooded Russian. Never be part of the inner circle.” Which shouldn’t hurt his operation. He was close enough now. The Russians didn’t trust him completely, not even Rolan, but they needed him. None of them spoke Spanish or had a handle on the Latino culture that surrounded them in the Southwest and West Coast. As long as they didn’t suspect he was part of Automatik, every damn guard in the compound could try to stare him down until sunset. But that didn’t mean he’d avoid giving someone a beating if a fool thought he was harder than Art.

“You’re on the outside like me.” But instead of the common ground bonding them, Hayley looked at him with wary caution.

They hit the second floor and started down a door-lined hallway toward Gogol, one of the nicer goons from Rolan’s nightclub. His thick, wavy hair reached to just below his jawline, reminding Art of a European soccer player. And he almost always wore a tracksuit, same as today. The guard waved them forward, smiling like everyone was arriving for a ski trip.

Art murmured for Hayley. “No one here’s on stable ground. From the top down. So you have to watch every step.”

She slowed, and he kept pace with her. The hallway was a kill zone. A shooter with cover could easily pick off anyone trying to get from one end to the other. This area was to be avoided. All the doors must be the living quarters. He’d have to seek out alternate routes around the slaughterhouse.

Gogol motioned them toward him with increasing enthusiasm, speaking in Russian. “Today, Artem.”

Hayley glared at Art out of the side of her eye. “Artem?”

So she had at least a basic understanding of the language. “But you call me Art.”

They reached Gogol, and he swung a door open. Inside was a basic room: bed, side table, dresser. No window.

“This is you,” Gogol instructed in Russian, nodding his head for Art.

Art put the cooler down in the hall and sidled past the man. The room smelled like paint and drywall. He tossed his duffel on the narrow bed. The wood creaked and settled. No one had even sat on it yet.

“And for you.” Gogol stumbled over broken English, pointing Hayley one door farther. When she turned to look, the Russian gave her a quick glance up and down, then waggled his eyebrows for Art.

As far as Art knew, Hayley was the only woman on the compound. Even typical schoolyard bullshit like Gogol’s display had to be killed quickly so Hayley wasn’t always surrounded by mouth breathers. Art hit Gogol with the deadeye until the other man’s smile faded. Shaking his head, Art made a quick motion across his own crotch, indicating there was to be no business below the belt.

Gogol put more professionalism in his posture when Art stepped back into the hallway. Hayley had missed the whole exchange. She stood, looking at her door. It was the last room on the hall. Art was glad he’d be next door and could keep an eye on her safety. Knowing she’d be just a wall away was another kind of thrill. Private, the kind that made his blood run a little faster. Even though she was hands-off.

She was also checking out the proximity of their rooms. “Tell him,” she said to Art, “that I want a room closer to the kitchen.”

How could he explain all the reasons she needed to be as near to him as possible? Anything he said now would seem like a come-on. Which was a possibility he would’ve entertained with Hayley in entirely different circumstances. But it didn’t mean he couldn’t use the real spice of attraction he was feeling in the role he had to play with the Russians. “I’m your best translator here. Might want to stick with me.”

She really was the master chef, keeping her jaw set against any arguments. “I’m not here to talk. I’m here to cook.”

Goddamn, he wanted an empty after-hours restaurant and a table full of beer bottles to share with Hayley. She could talk tough, they’d share war stories, break glass and be invisible to the rest of the world.

All eyes were on them in the compound, though. And there was no chance of peace. He translated her request to Gogol.

The man screwed up his face and scratched at his temple. “There’s only the room they built for the maid,” he mused in Russian.

A maid? Art added another noncombatant to the list. So far it had just been Hayley.

Gogol continued. “But she just comes every other day and doesn’t sleep here.”

Art recalculated. He’d have to plan the assault for one of the days she wasn’t there. Too bad it wouldn’t be that easy to get Hayley out of the line of fire, as well.

He told her about the maid’s room.

She nodded. “That’s what I need.”

“Any way to change the master chef’s mind?” He already knew the answer.

It was in the hardened steel of her eyes. “No chance.”

He lifted the cooler again and told Gogol to lead the way to the maid’s room. The three of them walked out of the hallway and into a set of wide-open rooms, like lounges, one with a pool table. On the other side of these rooms was another hallway, this one with only two doors across from each other. Conference rooms, Art remembered from the initial plans for the layout. He’d need to get inside for the best recon, but one should have a window, the other completely closed off except a single door.

Gogol turned to one side of the large, central rooms where a stairwell led down, then muttered to himself, changed his mind and walked back into the hallway with the guards’ rooms.

One door looked like all the others, but it opened to reveal another stairwell turning down. Satisfied with his navigation, Gogol stepped down and encouraged Art and Hayley to follow.

Art kept bumping his knuckles along the narrow walls while he carried the cooler in the jagged descent. Another killing zone. Definitely to be avoided unless the team had the high ground.

But there was no immediate danger down there yet. Just Gogol, still smiling, though less sure. He stepped from the stairway landing and opened a simple door next to a laundry area in a service hallway.

Hayley didn’t hesitate, walking into the room and placing her duffel at the foot of the small bed.

There was one high window and no lamp on the side table.

Art asked, doubtful, “This’ll work for your quarters?” He revised himself. “Room?”

She peered at him, almost through him. “It’s perfect. Soldier.” There was a hint of victory in her quick smile, like she gained some leverage on him.

He was compelled to correct her. “Marine.” Though he wasn’t about to give her his entire service record. And while the Russians knew of his time in the military, none of them were aware of the specifics of his special forces experience with recon.

Her victory didn’t waver. In fact, he’d given her more than she’d discovered on her own. He’d have to be very careful that she didn’t have him spilling all his secrets into her pretty little ears.

And he couldn’t take his eyes off her hands as she unzipped her duffel and pulled out her knife roll. Her skilled fingers were the perfect extensions of her direct confidence.

“Kitchen,” she commanded and brushed past him, out of the room and back into the house.

Out one side of the narrow hallway with the maid’s room, the floor plan of the house opened up. Couches and low tables, all brand-new, waited for men to lounge and drink, play cards and oil their guns. Tall windows were bright with desert sunlight. Past the dirt yard outside, though, the only view was the cinder block wall surrounding the compound. Parked on the northeast edge of the house was a large water truck, probably six thousand gallons.

The house windows would be easy to breach for the team, if they could get close enough.

It could be a night assault. They’d kill the generators as step one or two. Art searched for security lights but didn’t see anything on battery power. There might be multiple generator backups. He needed to lock down all these variables before he could send in the shooters. Otherwise, the targets would escape and Automatik team members would die. Hayley would die.

There were already a handful of guards hanging out in the north living room. They eyed him and Hayley suspiciously. Four pillars broke up the open space, and they weren’t large enough for one person to take cover, let alone two. He adjusted his grip on the cooler, imagining instead an M4 distributing bullets in choppy bursts. He felt how the lead would fly back in a deadly maze from the bad guys.

“No. This way,” Gogol directed in Russian, waving his arm to the hallway with the laundry and maid’s room. He said in English, “Kitchen.”

Hayley didn’t hesitate, turning back and walking off. Art took another sweep of the rooms, noting the broad French doors all the way at the other end, before following. He held back from warning Hayley she was moving too fast, not checking her blind spots.

He dismissed Gogol in Russian, “I’ve got it from here.”

The other guard nodded, but also gave him a wink and repeated Art’s crotch-blocking gesture back to him. Gogol didn’t wait for a response and ambled off into one of the large living rooms.

Hayley disappeared into the hallway to the kitchen. He hurried to catch up. To keep her safe. That was why he worked with Automatik: to protect innocents. But an extra burn of motivation flashed through his muscles as he strode faster toward her.
Hands-off
. The gesture had been clear. But he didn’t want to follow his own rules.

* * *

The house was a jumble, built, no doubt, by a man with a lot of money and short time. There was no corner of comfort, and any sense of flow was destroyed by choppy hallways and walls that seemed to cover secrets. And it was filled with gun-carrying men.

But the bedroom had suited Hayley fine. It had a lock on the door.

And the one room she really cared about was straight ahead of her. The kitchen.

From the laundry and maid’s room hallway, she reached the side entrance of the expansive kitchen. The details were there: miles of granite, carved corbels, “antiqued” cabinets, a massive island with a deep sink. But it was slapped together. Sloppy paint edges. The drawer hardware didn’t line up, top to bottom. Someone had rushed every step of this house, like the quality was inconsequential, as long as it held up for just one week. Whatever this meeting was, it didn’t happen often enough to warrant a real, permanent house.

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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