Carlos motioned for Lee to follow him when he closed the door on a dark blue Suburban and stepped away. The vehicle was parked just off a private driveway in Peachtree City and hidden from the road by a copse of trees. With an unconscious driver.
His feet and hands were bound with flex cuffs, which would hold him until Carlos had time for a full interrogation. The driver had a DEA badge on him, but the credentials were phony.
Carlos couldn’t pull the thug’s real name to mind, but he’d seen that face and cauliflower ear before. The driver had been part of an electronics bust last year. Hired muscle who offered bargains.
Discount muscle was like eating cheap sushi. A risk to your health.
Sticks snapped. Carlos cut his eyes at Lee who grimaced at the noise. Rookies were a risk, too, but Joe wouldn’t send someone wet behind his ears. And Lee had ancient eyes in a young man’s face. Hard eyes, but he must have come off the streets and lacked experience in wooded terrain.
Waving a hand, Carlos dismissed the misstep and moved ahead, sorting through his options.
Someone had clearly beaten them to the informant â€“ the infamous Mirage. Who? And was the driver’s partner here to grab the informant…or meet with him? At least two had to be involved. The guy in the car was likely a lookout, a poor one, so the partner could be at the house by now.
Carlos moved quickly through the woods, parallel to the driveway. Light faded faster with each step, tossing shadows through the sparse woods.
Who had beaten him here?
He paused at a curve in the driveway where an open area–the front yard–appeared in the next twenty feet.
He turned to Lee. The young guy’s sharp hazel eyes burned with determination. Not quite eye level with Carlos or as heavy-built, Lee stood just over six feet tall, trim muscular body dressed for the task in camo pants and long sleeved dark green shirt.
In spite of all that, this kid was too clean cut for Carlos’s taste. What were Joe and his co-director Tee thinking these days?
Joe had given Lee strict marching orders about following anything Carlos said, without question. To that, Carlos had added one simple order–if things went bad, he wanted Lee to back off and contact Joe.
Do not, under any circumstances, play hero.
Voices approached from the open area just beyond them, too soft for Carlos to make out what the two people said.
He signaled with his hand for Lee to stop and back him up, but stay out of sight. Lee palmed his weapon and nodded. Carlos pulled his own 9 mm from the small of his back, and silently edged forward toward the pair talking.
â€œI d-don’t know what you’re talking about.â€ Gabrielle tried to chuckle, but the sound skidded close to hysterical.
Special Agent Morton wasn’t smiling. â€œYou’re the one who sends information on Durand signed â€˜Mirage.’ We’d like to talk to you.â€
â€œI really don’t–â€
â€œMiss Parker. Right now you’re considered an ally of the United States,but if you refuse to help your status might change to being considered an accomplice to the Anguis crimes. We’ve obviously tracked you as the Mirage to this point electronically.â€ He stopped speaking, wisely allowing time for that little warning to settle in.
Accomplice? She swallowed, panic quivering just under the surface of her practiced calm. At least he was with US authorities, not Durand, but leaving here with him would not end well. â€œC’est des conneries!â€
â€œWhat’d you say?â€ His thick eyebrows bunched in confusion.
She clutched the shoulder strap of her bag in a tight fist. â€œThis is bullshit. I have done nothing wrong.â€ After years of shielding her identity from the Anguis, she’d lose her anonymity the minute the DEA processed her. Roberto’s attempts on her life would pale compared to what she believed Durand would do. â€œCan we just talk here?â€
He shook his head.
â€œDo I need an attorney present?â€ Not that she had one, but she could buy time hunting one.
â€œNo. We want to keep this as quiet as you do and protect your anonymity.â€
Who could argue with that? She looked past him. â€œWhere’s your car?â€
â€œAt the entrance to your driveway. Saw the warning. Figured I might risk a flat tire by coming down the drive.â€
â€œIs the house really surrounded by agents or police?â€
â€œNo, but I do have back up.â€ The gruesome smile appeared again. Why did he even try?
She reached around and pulled the door closed. â€œI don’t know what you are talking about, but I’ll cooperate. I’ll follow in my car.â€
Special Agent Morton shook his head again. â€œWe ride in mine. I’ll have you driven home.â€ He moved an arm to point toward the driveway as if the way to the car wasn’t obvious. When he did, his jacket shifted open, exposing a shoulder holster with a gun.
If she made too big of a fuss he could just arrest her.
She fumbled with the key, finally locking the dead bolt after two tries. As they said here in the states, just go with the flow for now.
He waited as she walked down the steps ahead of him. Each pace away from the house hurt. This had been the best place she’d lived. She couldn’t come back here. Harry’s rental house was one of the original homesteads in this planned community with a paved drive a quarter mile long and hidden by trees on both sides. She trudged through a fresh layer of leaves covering the front yard she’d raked just yesterday.
Striding alongside her, the DEA agent flipped his phone open, punched a key and waited.
â€œWhy do you think I’m some Mirage person?â€ she asked. Where had she screwed up and who else might have caught her mistake? When he didn’t respond, she looked over her shoulder. He’d slowed, but extended those long legs twice then stopped next to her so she stayed put.
He punched buttons on his phone again and since he used it like a two-way radio she could hear the ringing at the other end. No answer.
The flash of suspicion he turned on her now twisted his ugly features to truly evil.
Chill bumps spiked along her skin.
Carlos waited silently as the two men walked side by side toward the driveway. The tall one could have played Lurch on The Addams Family. The smaller guy was maybe a couple inches over five feet tall. He wore a khaki trench coat and carried a laptop shoulder case plus a backpack.
And little guy’s voice had been high when he said, â€œWhy do you think I’m this Mirage person?â€
Damn. Could he be the informant everyone in the intelligence world was searching for?
Carlos slowed his breathing, completely silent so he could hear the conversation. Lee had become perfectly still.
The mismatched pair paused ten feet from where Carlos stood without moving a muscle. Lurch had punched his cell phone and waited. When no one answered, something registered behind that flat forehead that flipped his pissed-off switch.
Two things hit Carlos at the moment Lurch snarled, â€œWho did you alert that I was here?â€ at the little guy.
Lurch was Baby Face Jones, a master electronics felon who contracted out for special side jobs, such as kidnapping and torture, when the coffers ran low.
And the little guy–the possible informant–was a woman.
Her face turned a pasty white. She mumbled, â€œNo one.â€
She sure wasn’t what Carlos had imagined.
Baby Face grabbed her by the arm. â€œCome on.â€ He lifted his phone with the other hand to key it with his thumb.
Now for the train wreck part of this operation since Carlos couldn’t risk that Baby Face would bring in more men.
â€œStop right there.â€ Carlos stepped from the brush, his weapon pointed at the pair.
Baby Face’s head whipped to Carlos. He released the woman and his phone in one movement and drew a weapon, finger on trigger. Firing.
Carlos shot first, catching Baby Face in the shoulder, the only option he had to knock the incoming bullet wide and not kill Baby Face or hit the woman. But the bullet passed close enough for Carlos to feel heat brush his ear.
The woman screamed, eyes startled in horror at Baby Face who hit the ground, howling.
Lee jumped into view.
Carlos spun to Lee. â€œI hit his shoulder. Stop the bleeding and–â€
Carlos whipped back around to see her legs chewing up ground toward the far end of the one-level brick house. â€œSon of a bitch.â€ He ran after her.
She was quicker than he’d have guessed. She raced around the corner, disappearing.
When he made it to the backyard, she’d already reached a long dock and flew down the wooden walkway, skidding to a stop before the bench at the end. She tossed her computer bag and backpack into a small runabout and jumped in. He could see her now, but in another fifteen minutes the twilight would fade into night.
Without slowing a step, Carlos shoved his weapon inside the waistband at the small of his back, freeing his hands since she hadn’t appeared to be armed. He reached the spot where the boat had been tied just as the outboard she was yanking on caught with a low growl. She shoved off and stood, heading for the steering wheel while the boat floated in neutral.
When his foot hit the last section of dock closest to her he used that step as a springboard, going airborne. He cleared the six feet of space to the boat, catching a handful of her on the fly, knocking her overboard with him.
She screeched, â€œNo!â€ as they hit the cold water on the other side of the boat.
Carlos surfaced with a hand still clutching her jacket.
She twisted around, coughing, then fought and kicked loose, catching him in the ribs with her shoe. He grunted, lunged and snagged her again as she sank. He yanked her around until he had her back to his front, but she was sinking both of them.
â€œStop it,â€ he ordered.
She kept flailing her arms and gasping for air. â€œHelp!â€
He locked one arm around her middle to free his other arm. The boat was closer than the shore by now, but neither would be an option until she stopped fighting him. â€œCalm down or we’ll drown.â€
She was gulping for air and squeezing out terror-filled shrieks that died in a mouthful of water. â€œI…can’t…swim.â€
Oh, hell. â€œI can…if you don’t fight me.â€ He was kicking his legs so hard to keep them afloat his muscles burned.
She stopped moving, all except the deep wheezing breaths.
Carlos glanced around, hoping Lee could deal with Baby Face and watch both their backs at the same time. The informant shook so hard against him, he expected hysterics any moment. He didn’t know what her story was…yet, but he had to keep her alive long enough to find out.
â€œTake it easy,â€ he said this time in a calmer voice. â€œI’ll get you to the boat.â€
â€œWho…â€ She breathed hard a couple times. â€œAre…you?â€
â€œDo what I say and you won’t get hurt.â€
She stiffened at that then seemed to realize she’d slowed their progress and relaxed some.
He pulled her along as he swam until they reached the boat. She leaped to grab the side as if this runabout were the only life raft in a raging sea.
He’d heard this was a shallow lake. How deep could it be here? Six feet?
But if she thought the water was a deep lagoon he wasn’t telling her any different.
Carlos put his hands around her waist and moved his lips close to her ear before lifting her. â€œWhen I get you in this boat, do not make any sudden moves. Don’t try to run away or put the boat in gear or I’ll throw you back overboard. Do you understand?â€
She nodded. Her knuckles were turning bone white from her death grip on the boat rail.
Threatening to put her back in the water wouldn’t help calm her down, but it might prevent her from doing something really stupid like trying to use the oar on him.
He kept his voice calm. â€œWhen I give you a push, roll into the boat.â€
Another silent nod.
He lifted her and she lunged into the boat, legs kicking to the point he had to duck or lose his head. As soon as more of her was in than out, he hoisted himself up and over the side.
She huddled in a ball at the back. Cap gone, her hair hung in wet
â€œCome up here where I can see you.â€ He motioned toward the passenger seat with his hand.
She raised belligerent eyes wild with fear.
Carlos shoved a handful of soaked hair off his face. She was still freaked out. He’d have to go get her. He never let anyone sit behind him, definitely not a felon.
He moved to reach for her, but she held up a hand to stop him, the action almost regal and elegant in spite of the soaked trench coat and sneakers. She pushed up and teetered her way to sit in the plastic passenger seat, her wide eyes never leaving him.
Fair enough. He wasn’t taking his eyes off her either. He sat on the top edge of the driver’s seat and shifted the outboard motor into forward, cruising back to the dock. Cold air seeped through his wet clothes. He glanced at her huddled form shivering against the chill and thought about the blanket in the trunk of his car. She should be okay until then.
When they reached the wooden planks, he cut the outboard motor, tied up the boat and jumped out, offering her a hand.
That she refused.
She grabbed her backpack and computer bag then climbed out, careful not to get too close to him.
â€œLet’s go.â€ He waited for her to move forward.
â€œWhat will you do with me?â€ She had a lush French voice, laced with a sophistication that carried a soft British accent. But those exotic blue eyes and high cheekbones were decidedly French.
â€œHaven’t decided that yet.â€
â€œYou murdered a–â€
â€œHe’s not dead,â€ he said before she could accuse him of murdering Baby Face. â€œTakes a lot more to kill him than a bullet in the shoulder.â€ Carlos pointed the way he wanted her to go and she finally started moving.
She trembled with each step.
Carlos had to clamp down on the urge to comfort her. She’d been leaving with Baby Face Jones, a known electronic’s felon who made his living by online pirating and financial scams.
Had Baby Face come to kidnap her or was she cutting a deal with him?
She’d appeared to be leaving voluntarily.
Baby Face was a genius when it came to electronics, but Carlos doubted even Baby Face could have found the informant without aid from someone with deep pockets. Someone who could give him access to mega-computers equal to The Monster, BAD’s computer supersystem Joe swore was unmatched anywhere else in the intelligence field. Just one of many questions Baby Face was going to answer once Carlos and Lee took him into headquarters.
Was this woman really the infamous Mirage?
Had the entire intelligence world been overlooking something obvious Baby Face stumbled on?
Hard to accept that possibility, which meant he’d had help.
When Carlos rounded the house, Lee was nowhere to be found. What the hell was he doing?
Carlos directed the woman to keep moving a step ahead of him toward where Baby Face lay on the ground. There was no sign of Lee or anything stuffed on Baby Face’s shoulder to stop the blood flow.
She reached Baby Face first and backed up, whispering, â€œMon Dieu.â€
Carlos stepped up ahead of her. Baby Face bled profusely from a sliced throat.
Something had gone very bad.
She inched away, making noises that normally preceded gut puking.
He didn’t have time for her to be sick. In fact, Carlos would bet they were lucky to even be alive and that Lee had not fared as well. Whoever grabbed Lee might not have realized Carlos had been around the backside of the house chasing this woman into the lake.
The thought of Lee dead sucked, but if Carlos stopped to think about the waste of a young life, two more would be snuffed out next.
He grabbed the front of his captive’s wet jacket, spinning her terror-rimmed eyes to his then spoke low. â€œListen up. We’ve got to go. Whoever killed him might come back.â€
Shock blanched her face even whiter before her eyes sharpened to two angry slits. â€œYou mean your buddy didn’t do this?â€
â€œNo, he’s probably dead, too.â€
That stunned her. â€œWho would kill both of them?â€
â€œWe can talk or try to get out of here alive.â€ When that registered on her face, he asked, â€œYou got keys to that Jeep?â€
â€œI’m not helping you.â€ She whispered the words, underlining you at the end with a slur.
â€œOh, yes, you are unless you want to end up with your throat slit…or worse.â€
That struck a nerve. She shook like a wet dog and took another step back. White showed all around the iris of her eyes, the perfect picture of a terrified woman.
If tears followed, hysterics wouldn’t be far behind.
Meirde! He had no time for that or to calm her down. Carlos grabbed the lapels of her coat, pulling her so close he could see tears hanging on her silky eyelashes. â€œYou can either hand over the keys or I’ll strip search you right here.â€ He hated to use that threat, but it did the trick.
She didn’t cry.
The mean look she gave him would force a rabid dog to back down.