Ethan Decker was a specialized hunter for a CIA Shadow Organization, working deep undercover to track down and capture ruthless international mercenaries and fugitives. Then a daring mission takes a lethal turn, leaving innocents dead in its wake, and Ethan’s wife a prime target of a ruthless assassin. To save her, and because he can no longer justify his actions, Ethan exiles himself to a remote desert in New Mexico, a prisoner of his own guilt and grief.
Then one searing day, a former member of Decker’s covert team arrives at his door, shepherding two children. She entrusts them to his protection and leaves without explanation.
Suddenly, the race is on: to reach his ex-wife before the deadly assassin finds her, and to unlock the mystery behind the two children—who have become pawns in a dark conspiracy so evil that even this former spy cannot imagine the peril that lies directly in his path.
ETHAN DECKER WELCOMED THE PAIN.
It rolled through him like waves of heat rippling across the desert floor. With eyes closed and head propped against the door behind him, he sat on the trailer’s flimsy aluminum steps and waited for the desolate landscape to stop spinning. Given time, the desert would succeed where his enemies had failed. It would kill him.
But not, unfortunately, today.
Last night had been a mistake, an attempt to blot out the date and its memories with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. It hadn’t worked. The throbbing within his skull had become a dark angel crouched upon his shoulder, prodding and laughing, reminding him he was still alive.
The heat pressed in, and he longed for the feel of a crisp ocean breeze against his face, or the pungent scent of pines in the mountain air. Instead, beneath the tattered green-and-white awning that stretched from the tin can he called home, he felt the dry, hot hand of the New Mexico desert. If the pain had become his angel, then the desert heat had become his unwelcome lover, wrapping herself around him with tight, searing arms.
And he deserved no better. Three years ago yesterday, his five-year-old son had died. Murdered. And nothing, not the Jack Daniel’s, nor the desert could change Ethan’s role in that senseless death.
He opened his eyes and squinted at the sun. It sat hours above the western horizon, a flat white disk piercing a dusty sky. With shaky hands he lifted a cup of lukewarm coffee to his lips and forced the bitter liquid down his throat. He should eat something, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to go back inside the stifling trailer. Just the thought brought a fresh wave of nausea. He’d get something later, before heading out into the desert.
Or maybe he wouldn’t go tonight. How hard could it be, just this once? He’d stretch out on the desert floor, beneath a million pinpricks of heavenly light and sleep.
Ethan shuddered and downed more coffee.
He wasn’t fooling himself. He couldn’t escape into sleep, any more than he could hide in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Sleep brought the faces. They haunted his dreams with painful accusations in their small, frightened eyes. Children’s eyes. They stared at him, asking their unanswerable questions, condemning him without speaking a word. No, he couldn’t stay here tonight and sleep like normal men. He’d given up that right with Nicky’s death.
As usual, he’d seek oblivion through the ritual that had ruled his nights for the past three years. From sunset until dawn he’d perform the moving meditation of tai chi. The practice promised balance where none existed and peace where none reigned.
So far he’d found neither. The intense regimen brought only fatigue, a physical exhaustion so complete he’d fall into a heavy, dreamless slumber.
In the distance, a ribbon of dust rose from the direction of the road, drawing his thoughts from the nightmare of his life. He was about to have company. The approaching vehicle was still three or four miles away, but Ethan had no doubt about its destination. The poor excuse for a road led one place. Here.
The question of who would seek him out only vaguely interested him. None of the locals would come looking for him. He rarely went into town except to get supplies, and then he kept to himself. But there were hours last night he couldn’t account for, time when the Jack Daniel’s had ruled his actions.
He tried remembering what he’d done, or if he’d spoken to anyone. He’d gotten into town about nine and ordered something to eat, washing down the food with a couple or three beers. Then it had been straight Jack, and his memory blurred. The next thing he knew, he’d awakened in his own bed with the full force of the New Mexico sun beating on his face.
The dust cloud grew as the vehicle got closer.
If someone had gone to the effort of driving out here, it meant trouble. He thought of the Glock, buried under three years of pictures and regrets within an old metal box beneath his bed. In a few minutes it would be too late, but he made no move to retrieve the weapon. If the Agency had finally found him, then so be it.
He’d been dead for a long time anyway.
THEY WOULDN’T kill him right away.
The thought struck him with icy certainty as he watched the approaching helicopter through sheets of rain. Not while they still needed him. But it was just a matter of time. Then they’d make it look like an accident. He’d be on the mainland conducting Haven business, and his car would miss a turn and hurtle over a cliff. Or his heart would give out due to some rare and untraceable drug delivered via a hypodermic in the middle of the night. Possibly he’d be working in the lab and discover a tear in his bio-containment suit.
However they chose to end his life, no one would ask any questions or investigate the death of the once prominent Dr. Paul Turner. He’d disappeared from the scientific community nearly fifteen years ago, and as far as any of his peers knew, he’d been dead ever since.
Paul shivered and steered himself away from such morbid thoughts. He needed to concentrate on the next couple of hours and the upcoming meeting. Then, if he was smart and very careful, maybe he could come out of this alive.
Meanwhile, the rain and wind battered the aircraft as it hovered over the landing pad. The pilot fought for control, but the storm seemed determined to keep the helicopter from landing. A crash would solve his problem, Paul thought with a grim smile. Unfortunately, he had no doubt the vehicle would set down safely. The man on board, Avery Cox, wouldn’t be stopped by anything as minor as inclement weather.
For the past ten years, as director and lead scientist at the Haven, Paul had answered to Cox. The facility, located on a remote, private island at the northern edge of Puget Sound, was home to a staff of doctors, nurses, teachers, and a variety of very special children. It included dormitories, classrooms, laboratories, a hospital, and the finest equipment and scientific minds money could buy.
Except for his yearly trips to Langley to deliver his annual report, Paul had very little contact with Cox. Generally, he left Paul alone to run things, while supplying everything he needed: money, equipment, and the most important thing of all, anonymity. In return, Cox expected Paul to deliver results, which he’d done, consistently and without fail since taking over the Haven Project.
Paul had done the unforgivable, committed the one act Cox wouldn’t overlook. He’d lost two of the island’s children.
If he’d been given time, a couple of days, a week at the most, he would have set things right without anyone knowing the difference. His people would have found the runaways, and things would have returned to normal. Unfortunately, it was too late for that. Someone had made a call, and it had taken Cox fewer than eight hours to arrive.
As Paul watched the helicopter descend, whipping the wet air into a frenzy, he realized anyone could have made that call. Cox had eyes and ears everywhere.
For a moment, Paul considered running.
It wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed his mind. He had more than enough money stashed in offshore banks. If he could get off the island and disappear into one of the backwater countries of Central or South America, he could live like a king for the rest of his life. Except it was a fool’s dream. There was no place to hide, nowhere on earth where the Agency couldn’t find him.
Finally, the helicopter set down, and Paul hurried forward to greet the two passengers. “Mr. Cox.” Paul shifted his umbrella to shield the other man. “This is an unexpected surprise.”
Paul stammered something unintelligible, but Cox and his companion had already started toward the shelter of the Haven’s main building. Disgusted with himself, Paul scrambled to keep up.
Inside, he forced a smile and tried to regain his composure. “You know we’re always happy to show you our facility.”
“The Agency’s facility, Dr. Turner.” Cox removed his damp overcoat, shaking the moisture from its surface, and scrutinized the utilitarian lobby. “I suggest you remember that.”
Embarrassed by the reprimand, Paul caught the amusement on the second man’s face. A rush of loathing tightened his stomach, and he quickly looked away. “There’s never been any doubt of that, Mr. Cox.”
Cox arched a skeptical eyebrow and gestured to the man on his right. “You remember Morrow.”
Paul nodded. “Of course.”
Morrow wasn’t someone you forgot. He was physically intimidating — even if the reason wasn’t immediately apparent. At first glance, he appeared average enough at just under six feet, with medium brown hair and nondescript eyes. He was neither handsome nor homely, with the kind of face one might easily ignore on another man. But something about him, something in the way he held himself, like a cobra bracing for a strike, made you look twice. Then it took but a cursory second glance at those deceptively plain, brown eyes to realize that behind them lived a killer.
Despite Morrow’s deadly presence, however, it was Cox who truly frightened Paul. Cox, with his receding hairline and steel-framed glasses. Cox, who stood barely five and a half feet tall and wore expensive, ill-fitting suits. Cox, who would give the final order that would end Paul’s life
“I know you’re concerned about the missing children,” Paul said. “But I assure you we’re doing everything possible to locate them.”
“It’s a little late for your assurances,” Cox said. “Now, where can we talk?”
The rebuke churned Paul’s fear, and he again resisted the urge to make a run for it. He wouldn’t get ten feet before a bullet exploded into his back. “I’ve prepared a conference room where we won’t be disturbed.”
“Then, let’s get to it.”
Paul led the way to the facility’s main conference room. When they entered, Morrow took control of the computer, while Cox moved to the counter where the kitchen staff had set up coffee and sandwiches.
As he helped himself to a cup, he asked, “Why these two particular children, Dr. Turner?”
Surprised, Paul had no answer. “I’m not sure.” The question hadn’t occurred to him, but he realized it should have. “Danny’s one of our older boys and a bit rebellious, perhaps. But—”
“What about the girl?” Cox moved to the table and took the chair at the head.
Paul considered the coffee but decided against it. He was already too jumpy. Following Cox’s lead, he sat across from Morrow, who seemed entirely focused on the computer. Paul turned back to Cox. “I don’t know why Callie went with him.”
“Did they know each other?” Cox sipped at his coffee, but his eyes never left Paul. “Were they friends?”
“All the children know each other.” Paul glanced at Morrow uneasily. He seemed totally immersed in his task, tapping at the keyboard and sending commands scrolling across the wall screen.
“But do these two understand who they are?” Cox asked, reclaiming Paul’s attention. “Or their relationship?”
“No, absolutely not.” But if they did, that would explain a lot. “That would be disastrous.”
“Then, I repeat.” Cox’s voice was patient but firm. “Why did these two particular children run?”
Paul spread his hands, palms up. “Coincidence?”
“Don’t insult me, Dr. Turner.”
Morrow’s tapping ceased as an image leapt onto the screen.
“I believe you know this woman,” Cox said, his gaze never leaving Paul.
Unsettled by the sudden shift in subject, Paul didn’t recognize her at first. Once he did, he barely suppressed his surprise. “That’s Anna Kent.”
But the woman on the screen looked nothing like the quiet woman he knew. Instead of her usual demure suits and hair carefully twisted into a neat chignon, she wore a black leather jacket and jeans that hugged long, lean legs. The camera had caught her looking over her shoulder, her straight, black hair whipping around her head. There was a wildness about her and a hardness not unlike the man asking the question. “She’s one of our teachers.”
“Where is she?” Cox asked.
Dazed, Paul considered lying, then caught himself. If Cox was inquiring about the whereabouts of Anna Kent, it was because he already knew she was missing. “I don’t know.”
Cox frowned, but Paul knew he’d made the right choice by telling the truth. He didn’t understand all the moves in Cox’s game, but if Cox caught Paul lying, it would be all over.
“Ms. Kent lives in the staff quarters here on the island,” Paul hurried to explain. “But when the children turned up missing this morning, and we assembled the entire staff, she wasn’t among them. It’s her day off, and we assumed she’d gone to the mainland.”
“And it didn’t occur to you she might have had something to do with the kids’ disappearance?” Morrow said.
“It crossed my mind,” Paul admitted, trying and failing to keep the fear from his voice. “Only I decided it was unlikely.”
Morrow laughed abruptly.
Paul glanced from Morrow to Cox and back. “Ms. Kent came highly recommended. Her credentials are impeccable, and . . .” He forced himself to look directly at Morrow. “Your office placed her here.”
Morrow’s eyes chilled. “What are you suggesting, Doctor?”
Paul flinched as if struck. “I was just—”
“Enough,” Cox said. “Arguing among ourselves will accomplish nothing.” He glared at Paul, and then turned back to Morrow. “Go on, tell Dr. Turner the rest.”
Morrow’s nod of acquiescence was barely visible, but he turned back to the wall screen, tapped a few more keys, and a list of vital statistics appeared next to Anna Kent’s picture. “Her real name is Anna Kelsey.”
Paul scanned the text, words leaping out at him, pricking his spine with sharp needles of terror. Words like mercenary and terrorist, espionage and kidnapping.
“As you can see,” Morrow added with a bit of amusement in his usually dull voice, “she’s no schoolteacher.”
ETHAN TRIED to see beyond the tinted windows as the white, late-model Ford drove into the yard and stopped, raising a cloud of sand and reflected light. In most places, the vehicle would have been nondescript. But here in the New Mexico wasteland, it stood out like a lone desert lily among the spindly creosote. If he wanted to blend in, the driver would have done better to find himself a rusted-out pickup.
Again, the Glock flickered across Ethan’s thoughts. He should make them pay to take him. After all, the Agency had created him, bought and paid for him since the time he’d been old enough to hold a gun. He could at least give them their money’s worth.
Who was he kidding?
He had no one but himself to blame for the things he’d done, the man he’d become.
The car door opened and the driver stepped out, surprising him in a way he no longer thought possible. She was a tall woman, tightly built, with features hinting at blended Asian and European ancestry. Ethan had always thought she’d inherited the best of both races, with straight, even features, thick dark hair, and skin the color of cream. Where she’d gotten the hardness, the angry edge most men lacked, he couldn’t say.
They’d never been friends, but they’d been colleagues once and soldiers together in an unnamed war. Now he understood how the Agency had found him. Only six people knew about this place, his team’s last-ditch rendezvous spot if all else failed, and Anna was one of the six. Only he’d thought she was dead along with the others.
“So, it’s true.” She closed the door and walked toward him, stopping a few feet away. “You’re alive.”
Ethan tightened his hold on the cup. “Disappointed?”
“The rest are gone.” She leveled cold eyes on him. “Lee, Mike, Jenkins, even T.J.”
“What about you? You’re still breathing.” He had to wonder about that, how she’d escaped the Spaniard’s wrath. Although, he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. Survival had been Anna’s special skill, a talent he’d once used without conscience. But Ramirez had found the rest of them, one by one, and made them pay. Even Ethan. Especially Ethan. “Someone might question how you managed to stay alive.”
She ignored the implied question and said, “You look like hell. I’d heard you’d given up, but I didn’t believe it.”
“Now you do.” He frowned and dumped the last of his coffee into the sand. “So let’s cut the bullshit, shall we? Do what you’ve come for and be done with it.”
“You think I’m here to kill you.” She cocked her head and smiled slightly. “Under different circumstances, the idea holds some appeal. But that’s not why I’m here. Not this time.”
He didn’t believe her. Anna thrived on the hunt, and at one time he’d been the best. She would have wholeheartedly embraced the task of bringing him down, if for no other reason than to prove she could. But he wasn’t playing by the rules, and it would eat at her.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought you’d stop by for a chat.” Surprisingly, he felt no fear, and even the guilt had fled. He felt only relief that it might finally end.
“I need your help,” she said.
He must have missed something. “You want to run that by me one more time?”
“You heard me. I need your help.”
He didn’t respond right away, then he laughed, the irony of it too much. “Sorry, but you asking me for help, it’s a bit funny.”
“This is important.”
“It’s always important.” An edge of anger touched his voice. “Isn’t that what we told ourselves, Anna? How we justified the things we did, the people we killed?”
She flinched. “That was an accident. We didn’t know Ramirez had a kid in his cabin. How could we? We didn’t even know she existed.”
“No?” It was a question Ethan had turned over in his mind a million times in the last three years. Had it been an accident? Or had he and his team unknowingly accomplished what they’d been sent for? “Maybe you’re right. Then again . . .” He let his voice trail off. Accident or not, the end result was the same, and he couldn’t hide from the responsibility of it.
“Look, Decker, I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Then you best be moving on.” Ethan pushed himself to his feet, swaying a bit as the pain in his head reasserted itself. “You had it right to begin with. I’m finished. I’m no good to you or anyone else. Go find yourself another gun.”
“I don’t need a gun. I just want you to—”
The back car door opened, cutting her off, and a boy of about twelve stepped out. Behind him a small blonde girl edged out as well, clinging to his arm.
“Callie needs a drink of water,” the boy said to Anna.
“Get back in the car,” she said without looking at him.
“Not until you get Callie some water.”
Before Anna could respond, the girl said, “Please, Anna, I’m not feeling very well.”
Anna turned to the girl, a softness creeping across her features that Ethan had never seen before. Then the momentary gentleness vanished as she swung back to face him.
“They need your help.”
“WE’RE HERE to help, Dr. Turner.” Cox’s voice was warm, solicitous. “Those children are the heart of this project, and they must be brought home safely and quickly.”
Paul wasn’t fooled. Cox didn’t care about the children. It was the project and its outcome that interested him. But Paul had found his way out, his scapegoat.
“Are you telling me this woman,” Paul inserted just a trace of indignation in his voice, “this professional killer, kidnapped two of my children?”
“Your children?” Morrow mocked.
Paul bristled. “I think of all the children here as mine.”
“Yes,” Cox replied. “I’m sure you do. And yes, we believe Anna took the children. The real issue is why, or more specifically, for whom?” He nodded to Morrow, who worked the keyboard until another image replaced Anna’s on the screen. This time it was a tall man with dark blond hair, strong features, and blue eyes that seemed to leap off the screen. “Do you know this man?”
“Are you sure?” Morrow asked.
“I’m sure.” Paul shot Morrow an irritated glance. “Who is he?”
Without answering, Morrow tapped the keys and another image materialized next to the first. “What about him?”
The second man had classic Latin features: dark eyes, hair, and skin. He stared down from the screen with an intensity and quality of danger not even the grainy computer image could hide. Paul thanked the powers-that-be it was only a picture.
“I’ve never seen either of them. Who are they?”
“The first is Ethan Decker,” Cox said. “The Latino is Marco Ramirez.” He paused, as if gauging Paul’s reaction. “We believe Ms. Kelsey is working with one or both of them.”
“For what purpose?”
“Come now, Dr. Turner,” Cox said. “The children here are not without value. Certainly you understand there are people, governments even, who would pay dearly to possess them.”
Of course Paul knew that, but he was playing for his life and needed to act the part of the outraged father. “And you believe these men,” Paul motioned toward the screen, “plan to sell Danny and Callie? Why that’s . . . inhumane.”
Cox eyed Paul with amusement. “So it is.”
“But do they have the connections to arrange such a sale?” Paul asked, ignoring Cox’s obvious sarcasm.
“Decker was an Agency officer with international contacts,” Morrow answered. “His specialty was search and retrieval. He’s good at finding . . . things.”
Though Morrow hadn’t said the word, Paul understood what he’d meant. Ethan Decker hunted other men.
“And,” Morrow added, “Decker and his team got in and out of places conventional service personnel couldn’t reach.”
Committing acts of horror those same conventional soldiers would not, Paul thought but dared not say. “It sounds like you admire him.”
Morrow shrugged. “He was good at his job.”
“He was an exceptional officer,” Cox said. “With a high mission success rate. And, yes, he had the contacts to arrange a sale.”
Paul realized they’d been speaking of Decker in the past tense. “I take it he’s no longer in the government’s employ.”
“He dropped out of the intelligence community several years ago,” Cox said. “After a particularly nasty business which resulted in a failed mission and the death of an innocent bystander. A child.”
“I doubt God had anything to do with it.” Cox took his time folding his hands on top of the table. “More likely, Decker simply became overzealous in his determination to carry out his mission.”
Paul shuddered at the thought of two of his most valuable children in the hands of a man like this Decker, a man who specialized in hunting other men. “And the other?” he asked, knowing the information about the Latino would be worse. “This Marco Ramirez?”
“Now that’s a man I can admire.” Morrow’s smile sent another sliver of unease down Paul’s spine. “Ramirez’s talents run along a different vein than Decker’s. In fact, you might say Ramirez’s skills make Decker look like an altar boy.”
Paul didn’t want to know more, but he had no choice. He needed to know the kind of men he was dealing with if he had any chance of surviving. “What skill is that, Mr. Morrow?”
“He’s a shooter. There are maybe five, six men in the world who can handle a rifle like he can. And now that he’s no longer on the government payroll, he works for the highest bidder.”
“What exactly does that mean?
What does he do?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Morrow grinned. “He’s an assassin.”
ETHAN KNEW Anna Kelsey was capable of assassination, all of them had been. What he found hard to accept was her traveling with two children. Or asking for help.
“What’s going on here, Anna?”
She stepped to the girl’s side and placed a hand on her thin shoulder. “This is Callie and her brother Danny.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“What’s bothering you, Decker?” She crossed her arms and eyed him with equal parts annoyance and curiosity. “That I’m alive? Or that I invaded your self-imposed exile?”
“They need your help.”
“Cut the crap.” He’d worked with Anna for too long to be fooled. She wasn’t exactly the maternal type. Nor was she into humane gestures. Anna Kelsey cared about one thing: her own skin. “We both know you’re not here for some altruistic reason.”
“You think you know me so well.” Her eyes sparked with anger. “Did it ever occur to you there are some lines even I won’t cross?”
“You forget who you’re talking to.”
“Seems you’re the one who’s forgotten who and what he is.”
If only that were true . “Did the Agency send you?”
“They know nothing about this.”
He studied her, trying to gauge the truth of her words. It was impossible. Anna lied as easily as most people breathed.
“Look,” she said. “I just need to leave the kids here for a couple of days, three at the most. There’s something I need to take care of, then I’ll be back for them.” She hesitated, as if deciding how much to say. “I need you to protect them for me.”
“From who?” The question escaped before he could stop it, before he could remind himself it wasn’t his concern.
“I’ll tell you.” Her voice held a sudden note of fatigue. “Just . . . would you get Callie a glass of water first?”
Ethan looked at the girl, then at the boy standing at her side. They were as unalike as any two kids he’d ever seen. Anna had said they were brother and sister, but Ethan didn’t see it. The boy, Danny, was dark complected with hair and eyes to match, while Callie was blonde and blue-eyed with an angel’s face. She stared at Ethan with open, sweet curiosity, while the boy oozed hostility.
“We’re hungry, too,” he said, daring Ethan to refuse.
“Please, Decker,” Anna said. “We’ve been on the road for nearly forty-eight hours. Let us catch our breath, then I’ll explain everything.”
Ethan didn’t believe her. Anna would tell him exactly what she thought he needed to know — just enough to get him to go along with the game. What she didn’t realize was that she couldn’t change his mind; he wanted no part of her or these kids. He was out of it. Finished.
But he couldn’t refuse a glass of water to a little girl or her angry big brother. Not even he had sunk that low. “Okay, I’ll get your water, but afterward, you’re on your own.”
Anna nodded and urged the girl toward an old lawn chair beneath the awning. “Come on, Callie, you need to get out of the sun.”
Feeling dismissed, Ethan went inside.
It took a few minutes of rummaging through cabinets to come up with a couple of clean glasses. As for food, he didn’t have much. He found a box of crackers and a half-empty jar of peanut butter. It would have to do.
He’d just started filling the glasses with water when an engine kicked over outside. For half a second he froze, caught by his own gullibility. By the time he made it through the door, Anna was gone, the white Ford leaving a whirlwind of dust and the kids in its wake.
“Damn it!” Ethan gritted his teeth, feeling like a fool. He’d known better than to trust that lying—
The boy claimed the glass of water. “She said to tell you she’d be back.”
“I don’t believe her, either.” The kid shrugged, not looking any happier about the situation than Ethan, and returned to his sister’s side. “Looks like you’re stuck with us.”
“Like hell.” Ethan hurried back inside.
He found his keys beneath the rumpled sheets where he’d dropped them the night before. As he passed back through the narrow kitchen, he grabbed the box of crackers. Outside, he tossed the package to the boy. “Come on, we’re going after her.”
“Callie’s too sick.”
“I don’t care. You’re going with me.”
“You want her to heave all over your truck?” The boy let out a snort of disgust and nodded toward Ethan’s pickup. “Not that it would make much difference in that heap.”
The kid needed a lesson in manners, but Ethan didn’t have time to argue with him. Besides, the girl did look pitiful. “What’s wrong with her?”
The boy gave his sister a couple of crackers and looked like he’d refuse to answer. Then he said, “She gets carsick, okay?”
Just his luck, stuck with a couple of kids and one of them got carsick. Ethan couldn’t wait to get his hands on Anna. “Okay, stay here. I’ll be back.” As he climbed into his truck, he added, “Don’t touch anything.”
“Don’t worry.” The kid glanced around the shabby yard. “I wouldn’t want to catch something.”
“Smart-ass,” Ethan muttered, threw the truck in gear, and headed after the Ford.
A part of him knew he’d never catch her. Anna’s car had looked relatively new, while his truck had been on its last leg for some time. He’d managed to keep the vehicle running, but driving at breakneck speed in the desert heat wasn’t the best way to prolong its life.
At this point, he didn’t care.
Anna had dropped those kids in his lap, and he wasn’t about to let her get away with it. Hell, he could hardly take care of himself. He certainly couldn’t be responsible for someone else. Not anymore. The last time a child’s life had been in his hands, he’d blown it.
He kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor, swerving to avoid the potholes dotting the ragged road. He seemed to find more than he missed, and with each jarring hit, his head pounded in protest. It didn’t slow him, and he managed to make the two-lane blacktop that passed for a highway in record time.
Skidding to a halt on the shoulder of the road, he searched for the white Ford.
“Shit.” He slammed his fist against the steering wheel.
What the hell had he expected? That she’d be waiting for him, giving him a chance to catch up to her? Not Anna. The woman was a pro and knew exactly what she was doing.
He pulled out onto the highway, turning east and away from town. Anna wouldn’t head for a speck-in-the-desert place like Draco. She’d want the nearest big city where she could blend in and disappear. Again, he jammed the gas pedal to the floor, despite the ominous clanking from the already overheated engine.
As usual, the highway was mostly deserted. He saw only one other car, which passed him going in the opposite direction. It seemed odd. A dark import. Expensive. The likes of which one seldom saw way out here. It teased his thoughts, as did the image of the driver, flashing across his vision as he passed. Then ahead, the glint of sun on metal chased all other considerations from his mind.
He lifted his foot from the accelerator. Even before he made out the shape of her vehicle on the wrong side of the road, or noticed the odd angle of the car with its flat, left front tire in the ditch and the driver’s door wide open, he knew something was wrong. Stopping several yards behind the car, he sat motionless, wishing now he’d taken time to dig out the Glock.
Everything was too quiet.
Cautiously, he climbed out of the truck, using the door as a shield, and scanned the surrounding area. Because of the car’s angle, he could see into the empty front seat, but what hid behind those tinted rear windows was anyone’s guess. With no other vehicles around, however, the chances of someone hiding in the backseat were pretty slim. Dismissing the car for now, he searched the desert for any signs of life or activity. It, too, seemed preternaturally still.
Then he spotted the body.
About a hundred yards from the car, beneath a prickly yucca, it lay long and slender, with a fall of dark hair. Ethan went cold. Once more he checked out the surroundings and saw nothing — no lurking madman, no other vehicles, and nowhere for a killer to hide in the flat, nearly featureless desert.
Whatever had happened here, it was over.
He kept up his guard as he made his way to Anna’s side. Her body lay face down, a single gunshot wound in the back of the head, a .38 automatic caught in her lifeless grip. She’d been killed execution style.
Ethan dropped down beside her. “Damn it, Anna.” It surprised him how much it hurt to see her like this. It was one more death on his conscience, another life he’d been unable to save.
Picking up her gun, he checked the clip. Empty. As he’d expected. As was a second clip, dropped to the sand when she’d loaded her spare. Also near the body was her leather pouch, looking enough like a woman’s handbag to pass but filled with the tools of Anna’s trade. He searched it and found nothing unexpected: several sets of false ID, cash, a cell phone, and a third empty clip.
She’d obviously held off her attacker until she’d run out of ammunition. Then she’d had nowhere to run, no place to hide, nothing left to do but accept her fate.
“Why couldn’t you have just stayed underground?”
She alone of his team had escaped the Spaniard’s wrath. Why had she surfaced now? And why show up on his doorstep with two kids? What had she said? Something about a line she wouldn’t cross?
Standing, he ran a shaky hand through his sweat-dampened hair. He couldn’t afford to be questioned by the authorities, but he couldn’t just leave her body out here, either. She’d been a member of his team, and he owed her. Then he realized he was avoiding the most pressing question of all.
Who had killed her?
Who could have gotten the better of a woman like Anna Kelsey, a professional who’d managed for years to evade one of the deadliest assassins in the world?
The answer sent a shard of ice through his veins.
Kneeling again, he carefully turned over Anna’s body. Without looking into her lifeless eyes, he opened her mouth, feeling for what he already knew he’d find. Beneath her tongue was an antique Spanish coin.
Despite the desert heat, the chill settled into his bones.
He’d hoped he was wrong, but there was no mistake. The coin was the Spaniard’s signature. Marco Ramirez had killed Anna.
Without warning, the old nightmare rose up to blind him in the full light of day. He saw the faces of children, watching him with accusing eyes. No, not accusing. It would be so much easier if they did blame him. But all he ever saw in those small questioning faces was fear.
Ethan struggled to calm his chaotic thoughts.
It was no coincidence that Ramirez had found Anna here after all this time. He hadn’t known Ethan’s location any more than anyone else. Only Ethan’s team had known about the desert canyon. So he must have followed Anna.
And what about those kids?
Anna had said they needed his help. Could Ramirez even now be . . . The memory of an expensive import flashed across his thoughts.
He grabbed Anna’s weapon and bag, surged to his feet and sprinted toward the truck, leaving her body to the desert. The Spaniard had no qualms about crossing forbidden lines. To him, one life was like any other — dead or alive.
For the first time in years Ethan prayed. He had to reach those kids before Ramirez got to them.