Read High-Caliber Holiday Online
Authors: Susan Sleeman
CAUGHT IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Held hostage on a train, ex-lawyer Morgan Thorsby finds her powers of persuasion failing her for the first time. Former marine sniper Brady Owens is her only hopeâbut his split-second hesitation on the trigger leaves her wounded. Yet when an obsessed stalker threatens Morgan, Brady steps up. Protecting someone so tough and beautiful is hardly a chore, but Brady pulls back every time they get close. Morgan isn't ready for the connection forming between them, either, but she knows she needs his help. Can Brady capture the culprit in time for Christmas?
First Responders: Brave men and women alert and ready for danger and love.
A scream pierced the air. Shattering glass followed.
The kitchen. Morgan.
Adrenaline rekindled in his veins. His hand on his sidearm, he closed the distance to the kitchen in a few strides. He stepped inside, his boots grinding over broken glass. Morgan stood by the sink, physically unharmed, but her face was white.
“Someone was here. He leftâ” Her words were barely more than a whisper.
Brady looked around. He saw nothing odd other than the glass she'd dropped on the wood floor. “Left what?”
“Those.” She pointed at the countertop. “I didn't leave them there.”
Brady looked at the counter, then back at her ashen face. His pulse kicked into high gear, and he drew his weapon. It was a good thing he'd walked Morgan home. A very good thing.
Brady needed to check the other rooms for an intruder, but he also wanted to take a better look at the photograph lying under a long-stemmed red rose.
The downright creepy photo was an engagement announcement. A man sat next to Morgan, but some picture-editing program had left only a silhouette with the words
Your One True Love
superimposed on it. The caption below read, “You are mine. You will marry no one but me.”
is a bestselling author of inspirational and clean-read romantic suspense books and mysteries. Awards include RT Reviewers' Choice Best Book for
Thread of Suspicion
No Way Out
The Christmas Witness
were finalists for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence. She's had the pleasure of living in nine states and currently lives in Oregon. To learn more about Susan visit her website at
Books by Susan Sleeman
Love Inspired Suspense
Silent Night Standoff
The Justice Agency
No Way Out
Thread of Suspicion
Behind the Badge
The Christmas Witness
“Special Ops Christmas”
Visit the Author Profile page at
for more titles.
And my God will meet all your needs according to
the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
For the many law enforcement and military snipers
who perform such a necessary job to keep all of us safe. Thank you for your service even when people often don't understand and appreciate the job you do.
he gun couldn't be real. Could it?
Morgan Thorsby clutched her friend Lacy's arm and scooted back from the gun-wielding man charging onto the MAX light rail train. Brisk, chilling air rushed in behind him as she looked at the silvery gun glinting in the overhead light.
The weapon looked real. Very real.
The man took a step closer. Anger radiated from his body. His breathing was ragged as he made a quick survey of the space, skimming tortured eyes over the few passengers on board this late at night.
Please, God, don't let this be real
Morgan begged, her heart thumping in her chest. She fought to control her fear and studied the man's jittery behavior.
Could he be one of those shooters who'd been pushed beyond his breaking point until he'd decided to randomly kill people? She couldn't just sit here and wait to find out. Her life was in immediate danger and it was up to her to protect herself. She had to do something, but what?
Run. Hide. Fight.
The active shooter video she'd viewed at work rushed through her mind. The video taught them not to sit back passively but to run, hide or fight. She couldn't run. She couldn't hide. She could fight. But how? With what?
She searched the train looking for a weapon. Any weapon.
The man's distressed gaze landed on her with a finality that took her breath away.
“He's coming toward us.” Lacy grabbed Morgan's hand.
“Don't panic,” Morgan said and forced herself to look into the gunman's eyes. She saw no life in the depths. Desperation, panic, yes, but nothing to prove he was alive.
Oh no. No.
She knew this man. She'd seen him in the sea of men and women who'd brought a class-action lawsuit against her family's company, claiming Thorsby Mill had polluted the water and caused cancer in the residents. As the company's attorney at that time, she'd seen the plaintiffs' turmoil day in and day out during the trial.
Plaintiffs who'd threatened her life then and continued to send threatening letters after the mill had been cleared of any wrongdoing. The gunman was one of those people. And that meant he'd come for her. Her alone.
Her heart raced faster. Beating at an unstoppable gallop.
He continued moving, his ragged jeans whispering through the quiet. Step by step, he advanced on her, purpose in each thump of his dirty boots on the metal floor. Hatred spewed from his expression.
Morgan felt time stop. She was aware of Lacy's touch. Of the cold. The icy cold. Her palms starting to sweat. The bag holding a Christmas present for her mother slid from her fingers, the crystal vase falling to the floor. The sound of breaking glass caught his attention, distracting him for a moment. But it all seemed to be happening at the end of a tunnel. In a foggy haze. All except the gun. It was clear and sharp and she could reach out to touch it.
Lacy clutched Morgan's hand tighter, drawing her attention. Lacy didn't deserve to be a party to this. Morgan had to do everything she could to portray strength and confidence for her friend, to ease her fear. Morgan sat up straighter. Firmed her shoulders. Jutted out her jaw and waited for him to act.
Eyes riveted to her, he took the last few steps. He raised the gun. Slowly. Purposefully. He planted it on her temple. The cool steel bit into her skin, and she recoiled in fear.
“Don't back away, Morgan,” he said, his voice flat, as if he took hostages every day.
She could smell the sour stench of alcohol radiating from him. The blood drained from her head. She felt weak. Powerless.
“I've come for you. To pay you back. Just like I promised I would in my letter.” He glared down on her. “Your stinkin' mill has taken my entire family, and it's time for you to pay.”
Anything she said would make him angrier so she didn't speak at all, but waited for his finger to drift to the trigger.
Silence descended on them, coursing through the space, tight, pervasive, building into a frenzy. A pressure cooker ready to erupt.
An announcement carried into the silence, warning that the doors would soon close. His eyes grew wilder, his hold on reality a mere thread. Seconds ticked by, feeling like an hour. Panic threatened to swamp her.
A twisted, mean smile claimed his thin lips as the doors whooshed together, cocooning her inside the car with a killer. The train set off, the side-to-side motion rocking Morgan, but the gunman stood strong, his weapon never wavering.
With the gun at her head, she couldn't form a coherent thought except that she was going to die. She didn't know what he was waiting for, but he simply stood there. Watching. Maybe enjoying her terror. Wanting to make her suffer as his family suffered.
Focus. Now. Figure a way out of this.
The train slowed for the next stop, brakes squealing as they bit into the metal. Doors slid open. A rush of freezing air sliced into the train. There were no passengers waiting on the platform to board. The only other passenger on the train, a man in the back of the car, bolted out the door. Quick, staccato steps took him outside and into the cover of darkness.
The gunman didn't turn. Didn't see. Didn't notice.
Morgan could save Lacy the same way.
Morgan forced herself to make eye contact with him. “You're not upset with my friend. Just me. Can she please get off?”
He eyed Lacy for a moment. She cringed. He took a breath and gave the briefest of nods. “Go now. Before I change my mind.”
She stood slowly and looked back at Morgan, regret hanging in her eyes.
“Go,” Morgan said. “I'll be fine.”
“Ha!” he shouted, sending Lacy fleeing. “You'll be as fine as all of my family and friends your greedy family killed.”
Morgan ignored his words and kept watch on Lacy as she scurried through the falling snow into the dark shadows of the buildings. Good. She was safe. The car was now empty. If he fired his weapon, she'd be the only one injured.
The doors slid on the track, closing with a thump of finality.
“Now we're alone, and we can get down to business,” he said.
Business. Meaning her death.
Time slowed and she was aware of everything around her. The grating of the train as they took a curve. The pungent scent of his alcohol. The unmistakable cloying smell of fear in the air.
“Do you even know who I am?” he sneered.
Morgan wished she could say she knew his name, but the plaintiff list was long and she couldn't identify them all. She knew the truth was plastered on her face so she didn't speak a word.
“You don't know me, do you?” He shifted and pressed the gun deeper into her forehead. “I'm not surprised. Not after your coldhearted representation in the trial.”
He huffed out a laugh and ground the gun into her skin, his eyes fixed on hers. “Well, know this, Morgan Thorsby. I'm Craig Shaw and everyone will soon know my name. The minute we reach the last stop, I'm the man who's going to drag you off this train, haul you out to your precious mill and end your life.”
* * *
Brady Owens listened to the hum of tires as the First Response Squad raced toward MAX's final Yellow Line stop near Portland State University. A 911 call from the train operator who'd been listening into the hostage situation told them the shooter planned to disembark with his hostage at this stop.
“ETA two minutes,” team leader Jake Marsh announced from the driver's seat.
“Roger that,” Brady said, his pulse ratcheting up at the call to action.
His fellow FRS members sitting on bench seats in the rear of the truck responded with somber affirmatives. Negotiator Archer Reed bowed his head in prayer. He would carry the heaviest duty tonight, talking the gunman down, hopefully preventing the need for Brady's services as the team sniper. Paramedic Darcie Stevens would render aid to the traumatized woman and anyone injured in the incident. Jake would direct the action and bomb tech Cash Dixon would fill in wherever Jake asked. The only one missing from their six-person emergency response team was their other negotiator, Skyler, who was on her honeymoon.
Brady couldn't imagine any other people he'd want to take with him into the tense situation awaiting them. All team members except Darcie were sworn sheriff's deputies who fulfilled other job responsibilities when they weren't responding to an emergency. Though assigned to the county sheriff's department, they were dispatched to handle negotiations and major emergencies for the entire Portland metro area regardless of county lines.
“We're here.” Jake swung their mobile command center the size of a package delivery truck to the curb out of view of the MAX stop.
Even late at night, students would be milling about. The team would contain the shooter in the train and cordon off the area to protect innocent lives. Then Archer would use the train's PA system to communicate with the gunman.
That was the plan. But they had no time to run the scenario, and plans could go wrong.
Curling his .330 Winchester Magnum rifle closer, Brady mentally checked off his steps. Ammo first. Check. Already loaded in his rifle. If he had to shoot, it would be through glass, requiring special ammo to reduce deflection on glass penetration. Extra ammo was in his vest. Scope was fixed and calibrated. Binoculars and laser range finder snug in his pocket. He patted his vest pocket to confirm. He was ready. He could do this.
Jake cut the engine, then joined the team. He glanced at Darryl Collins, the computer tech assigned to their team, who sat behind a console. “We have eyes or ears on the train yet?”
“I'm still working with the MAX tech team to patch us through.”
“Well, get 'em. No way we're going in blind.” Jake eyed the team, his gaze sharp and focused. “The gunman is not getting off the train with Morgan Thorsby and she's getting out of this alive and well. You got that?”
“You have your assignments.” Jake clapped his hands. “Let's roll.”
Brady slung his rifle over his shoulder and headed into the night, toward the perfect location he'd chosen in a yard abutting an apartment complex. He jogged across the road and slipped through the gate. Resting his arm on a fence post topped with snow, he took a shooting stance. He'd like to get into a more natural position, but that wasn't an option. No problem. He'd made shots in every position imaginable as a Marine Scout Sniper. He sighted in the scope and adjusted for the wind.
“Falcon, in position,” he said into his microphone.
“Roger that, Falcon,” came Jake's response. “Stand by. Train ETA in one minute. Audio streaming.”
With more than one agency responding to the incident, they would use code names when communicating. The group had long ago voted on an animal name for each person. Brady was tagged Falcon, as the bird and he both moved fast. Cash got Termite since they were demolitions experts. Archer, Mockingbird for his soothing voice. And Jake? He had the best name of all. Papa Bear.
“Got eyes and ears, sir,” Darryl's voice came over Brady's earpiece.
“Then we're a go, Falcon,” Jake said. “TriMet has confirmed the doors will remain closed on this car and Mockingbird is patched through to the train. We'll give Termite time to escort passengers in the other cars to a secured spot, then Mockingbird will take over.”
“Roger that, Papa Bear,” Brady confirmed. “I'm ready.”
But was he ready? He wasn't sure. Not completely, anyway. Not after their last callout, when he'd hesitated to take the shot. He was good with taking extreme measures for hostage-taking criminals and drug dealers, but the prior callout involved a former marine. Brady had felt like he was taking out a family member. Couldn't be helped, though. The man had lost touch with reality. If Brady hadn't acted, the guy would have killed his wife and three sweet children.
Now Brady wasn't sure how he'd react when it came time to pull the trigger.
The train rolled in, the brakes squealing to a stop.
Focus, man. Focus.
He fine-tuned his scope and shut out everything around him. The biting wind. The falling snow. The flag flapping on the next building. The sound of Cash moving people out of the line of fire. All of it faded into the background, his eye fixed dead center on his scope.
The occupants of the car came into focus in the crosshairs. Morgan Thorsby was blonde, petite and wearing a trench coat tied over what looked like an expensive suit, but it was the gunman, Craig Shaw, who Brady was most interested in.
Brady adjusted his scope. Sighted on the T-zone of Craig's head.
“I have a target, but no shot. No shot.” Brady kept his eyes on the scope, but wouldn't shoot before an attempt was made to end this standoff without loss of life.
“Craig,” Archer's voice came over the train's speaker.
Craig's head shot up. “Who's that? How do you know me?”
Brady listened through his earpiece as Archer introduced himself and started the process of talking Craig into surrendering.
Craig seemed to listen, then suddenly pivoted and pounded on the door, the sound reverberating through the silent car. “Open it now or I'll kill Morgan right here!”
“Don't do anything rash, Craig,” Archer said over the train's speaker. “We've got all the time in the world to talk this through.”
“I don't want to talk,” Craig screamed. “I want out of this tin can, now!”
“I'm afraid I don't have the ability to open the doors, Craig.” Archer was a tough law enforcement officer. Sharp. Intense, but he also had a soothing way about him and his voice was unhurried and comforting.
“I don't care, man,” Craig fired back. “Get these doors open or I will shoot her. I swear I will. You've got five minutes. You hear me? Five minutes. If I'm still locked in here then, she dies.”