Bone cracked. Eliot screamed.
Bile ran up Hunter’s throat.
The rope jerked taut with Eliot’s dead weight. Hunter gritted against the pain wrenching his muscles. He gasped for air.
Another bullet ripped loose, the report echoing in the silence.
The rope wrenched and Eliot howled in agony. “I’m hit.”
Hunter’s blood turned into ice.
He twisted to look down.
Eliot’s life depended on Hunter keeping his head and holding tight to this anchor. Even shot, Eliot was stronger than most men in their best condition.
Hunter would get him off this rock.
Men shouted above. Maybe the FBI, but no one could help him and Eliot hanging off this rock face.
“Swing. Your… self,” Hunter shouted. If Eliot could swing a couple times and find an anchor, something to grab…
Doubt bombarded him. He’d reconned the wall himself and remembered no easy place to grab on to the slick surface. Eliot hung below the last anchor they’d set earlier beneath the inclined wall. Fuck it. Hunter would untie from the anchor and… shit, he might not be able to hold Eliot’s weight. Think! If Eliot swung in, he could-
“No,” came through Hunter’s headset, thin with suffering.
“Swing yourself. Now, godammit!”
No answer. Hunter took a shuddering breath. Adrenaline flooded his body, willing him the strength to hold on as long as it took.
“Shoulder’s… blown.” Eliot’s strained voice broke through Hunter’s earpiece. “Leg… broken.”
Good God. Hunter started calculating how to lower him down. Eliot had no rope.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!
“Swing in, man. Do it,” Hunter pleaded. He might have been wrong. There could be one spot Eliot could grab with his good arm.
Eliot groaned. “Watch over… my family.”
“Don’t start that shit!” Hunter clung to the rope, his heart thundering with the first panic he’d ever experienced. He had no idea how he was going to get them both down, but he’d do it or die trying. “Swing, you bastard.”
Eliot wheezed hard, then begged, “Let me… go down.”
“Working on it. Just-”
“No.” The next words choked from Eliot, sounding too liquid to be good. “I got this.”
What the hell is he talking about? Hunter twisted around to look down.
Eliot hung backward, his body dangling. He moved as if every effort cost him greatly. His undamaged arm lifted something up from his belt-
All at once, Hunter processed what Eliot intended to do. Blood roared through his ears. “No! Just hold on.”
Voices shouted through bullhorns up at Brugmann’s house.
Hunter ignored everything but the horror that threatened to suck his heart from his chest. “Don’t. You. Do. It.”
“Can’t both get down, bro.” Eliot coughed. He yelped with pain. “Can’t show your face. No time… left.”
“Don’t fucking care.” Fear spun through Hunter’s brain in a death roll. Everything slowed with sickening clarity. His throat tightened until he couldn’t breathe.
“Love you both.” Eliot lifted his hand, the knife visible.
Oh, God, no!
One quick slash. The blade cut clean through.
Hunter lunged, arms reaching into thin air.
Eliot plummeted out of reach, shrinking away.
Waves crashed over jagged boulders below.
His wide body stopped suddenly as though someone had pulled the plug on time.
“Nooo…” Hunter’s scream thrashed the air. Free of weight, the rope bounced up, dangling in the wind.
Hunter stared, locked in disbelief.
Eliot hadn’t just died, not that easily. Not full-of-life Eliot… gone. Not the one person Hunter believed invincible.
Pain slashed deep with each breath and ripped his soul into scattered parts that had no idea how to come back together.
Bullets chattered over the rock face, a dull staccato playing backup to the macabre image of Eliot smashed against the rocks. Waves crashed in the eerie silence. The wind howled painfully in Eliot’s absence.
Hunter fought for a breath from his paralyzed lungs.
A tiny red dot entered his field of view.
The laser beam danced on his arm, stealing his attention. He watched the deadly dot move down the side of his body.
Do it. Kill me now.
The dot moved on. A bullet ripped loose, striking muscle and bone in his foot. Burning pain forced him back into the world of the living.
The world where he’d find the sniper and make him pay.
The world where Hunter had to save the people Eliot had just died to protect.
He flipped his weapon out and fired mercilessly in the direction of the last shots. When he stopped, a laugh drifted to him on the breeze.
You will die, and not quickly.
Had to go. One numb movement after the next, Hunter lowered himself until he reached the water sled. He cut the anchor line and motored the propulsion craft through turbulent waves and located Eliot pinned on a jagged rock outcropping.
If there was a God, his friend had died immediately.
He removed an inflatable vest from the watertight bag, then dragged his friend’s lifeless body down to the water. He held Eliot in his arms, hugging him. The ocean buffeted them.
Why hadn’t he done this when Eliot was alive?
Hunter struggled for one painful breath after another until he had a grip again. He put the vest on Eliot and inflated it.
He kept waiting for Eliot to say something funny about how bad their luck sucked tonight and how good the beer would taste, but the silent face would never split with a goofy smile again.
Hunter laid his palm against Eliot’s cold cheek. “You shouldn’t have done it, bro. Who’s going to show up at my apartment at midnight on Christmas Eve to drink beer? Or tell me when I’m being the biggest asshole on the planet? Or…” Hunter swallowed. “Teach your kid to ride a bike? Goddammit, Eliot. You weren’t supposed to get hurt.”
Why didn’t the bullet hit me?
No one would have missed him if he’d died tonight. His brother would have mourned for a while, then life would have gone on.
But there’d never be another Eliot.
Hunter secured Eliot’s body to the sled. When he thought he could speak without his voice breaking, he used the radio on the water sled to contact Retter. The last thing he could do was let anyone at BAD hear or see what Eliot meant to him.
Retter would sideline an agent he thought might turn rogue. Hunter wouldn’t allow anyone to sideline him right now.
Not even BAD.
“They get everything?” Hunter asked when he radioed Retter.
“Got the list. Target and five security were down when they arrived.”
“I only terminated one.”
“The rest taken down by knife or by hand.”
“What about the guy with the target?” Hunter would give Retter details on the guest with Brugmann once he debriefed.
“Nobody found with the target. Three of the security unidentified.”
“They were mercs.” What had happened to Brugmann’s guest? Was the scar-faced guy the sniper? He turned the water sled toward the open sea. “I’m on the way in.”
“What about Eliot?”
“Terminated.” Hunter’s chest clenched at the cold reference, but he had to start selling that image now.
Retter didn’t speak for a couple seconds. “Need to pick you up quick and get you secured.”
Like hell. “Why?”
“The safe had a camera at the back. Recorded your face.”
Was there no end to this fucked-up op? He engaged the water sled’s motor, steadying Eliot’s body with his free hand. Hunter wasn’t going to ground, not even to hide from the CIA.
Nothing would stop him from finding that sniper.
Current day, Chicago, Illinois
You can’t afford to refuse my offer.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Abbie Blanton kept her eyes on the jerky downtown Chicago traffic ahead of her Ford Explorer, which was slugging along in the first sunny day of March. She refused to meet Stuart Trout’s eyes. How could he call exploiting her personal crisis for his own benefit an offer? She wasn’t actually surprised by that, any more than by his asking for a ride back to the office after lunch. The general manager of the WCXB television station did nothing without an ulterior motive.
She was ready for him this time with her own angle.
“If,” Stuey continued. “You want a raise and to work a flex schedule, you’ve got to give me something to hand the board.” His bulbous fish lips stayed in a perpetual pout, more like a largemouth bass than a mountain trout. No fresh outdoorsy scent to go with his looks, though. His aftershave smelled as sickeningly sweet as the French bathhouse-designer name on the bottle suggested.
“The board?” Abbie asked. “The only board member after blood is old man Vancleaver. I’m thinking the rest of our board would frown on using my investigative skills to do what boils down to snooping around like the paparazzi. Do you really think the citizens of Chicago care if one of our senators is having an affair?”
“When it’s with a state judge, yes.”
“She’s a fair judge and you know it. Vancleaver’s just PO’d because she ruled against him in a bullshit lawsuit. And because their politics differ.” Abbie’s knack for research and sniffing out corruption had launched her career investigating for news stories, but she was sorely tired of digging around in people’s dirty laundry. Her soul felt as soiled as the mud-crusted piles of snow shoved up against the street curbs. One day she’d…
“I’m doing you a favor, Abbie. I could have offered this to someone else if I didn’t want to help you.”
She had a favor in mind for more than his lame offer. Not yet. She’d test his threat. “This story sounds like something Brittany could use for her weekend entertainment spotlight. Why doesn’t Vancleaver want his granddaughter to get the scoop?”
“The senator’s affair isn’t with just some woman but a judge under consideration for a justice seat with the Illinois Supreme Court. Chicago’s citizens deserve to know about her and this senator before she’s voted into the highest judicial position in the state and he’s up for reelection.”
She shifted her gaze in time to see Stuey puff up with indignant righteousness. Over morals? Yeah, right. She knew the real Stuart, the predator who fed on interns while secretly dating a woman who could further his career. She swung the Explorer wide to pass a group of cars hugging each other’s bumpers at turtle speed and let him sit on his soapbox a minute.
She hadn’t hit Stu with what she really wanted-yet. First she had to decide if she’d go after the senator or not. Even if she did, WCXB would have to live with what she dug up, which might or might not point a finger at the senator and the judge.
Stuey sighed loudly. “I’ll even consider asking the board about funding the documentary you want to film on abandoned children.”
It took all her control not to react. He would make that offer now when she couldn’t capitalize on it. Not with her mother’s illness. She’d been trying to break into documentaries for several years in hopes of one day pursuing her true passion. Had Stuey been rattled by the recent layoffs? Did he need a ringer story to cement his position?
“Bring me a story with teeth if you want my help,” Stuey pressed. “I’ll get you on the air-”
“No. I work best when no one knows who I am and I have no interest in sitting in front of a camera.” That would mean wearing makeup, having her bushy head of curls tamed into something chic, and wearing real clothes. Not the sweater, jeans, and boots she wore today and every other day.
She might have to sell her soul one more time, but she refused to make this easy for her manipulative, underhanded, scheming boss. That pretty much described all the men she’d had the misfortune to know in her life.
Except, of course, her father. The one who adopted her.
“Abbie?” He barked her name tersely as an order.
“Heard you, Stu. I’m think-ing.”
“Do it while I’m still young.” The forty-six-year-old general manager for Chicago’s second leading news station wore his dull brown hair short and slicked forward, styled camera-ready. His squinty hazel eyes had never met hers during the lunch they’d just finished, but she felt the weight of them bearing down on her now.
Patience didn’t come as part of his job description.
“I don’t want to make a rash decision.” Her father would have laughed at that if he was still alive. Impulsive had been her middle name from childhood until she went out on the town six years ago looking for some action to pay back her cheating fiancé. She’d gotten drunk and woken up in a chain hotel in South Chicago next to some guy with long scraggly hair, a ratty beard, and a buff body the following morning. She never saw him again. She’d called him Samson and he hadn’t corrected her.
She’d curbed her impulsive ways that day.
But she had a stubborn streak that could kick Stuey’s overbearing attitude any day. He was right to some degree. She couldn’t afford much right now, like the luxury of pissing him off. Not when she desperately needed something he held within his power.
An engraved invitation to the Tuesday-night Wentworth fund-raiser for the Kore Women’s Center. She had to get inside and not be marked as media.
“Your cell phone’s buzzing.” Stuey’s pissy tone indicated how much he hated having his time imposed upon.
She dug her cell phone from the black-and-brown leather bag next to her feet. The caller ID said it was Hannah, the only one of her two sisters Abbie would take a call from.
Driving with one hand was not a problem since the traffic was getting worse. She answered, “I’m in a meeting.”
“Dr. Tatum needs to talk to you.”
“What about?” Abbie didn’t want to discuss their mother’s situation in front of Stuey, who had enough leverage on her as it was from when she’d asked to go on flextime. She’d added the raise thinking he’d give her the relaxed scheule before he’d turn loose more money.
“How should I know? I assumed it’s about Mom’s condition, but when I told him to tell me he said he really needed to talk to you.” Hannah’s tone spewed insult between each word.
Abbie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Tatum had shared information about her mother’s condition in confidence-with Abbie only-last night and made her swear not to tell Hannah or anyone else. Information that might shed some light on why their mother had become critically ill ten days ago.
She’d rather be at the hospital with her mother right now, but Tatum’s disclosure had dropped his best hope for helping her mother in Abbie’s lap, which had instigated today’s lunch with Stuey. “How are things today?” she asked Hannah.
“She’s incoherent, in and out of it.” Her sister’s voice wobbled a little, then toughened up. “Her blood pressure keeps fluctuating. Skin color isn’t good. Her liver’s… worse.”
“Crud.” Abbie hadn’t slept much in days for worrying about her mother, but hearing the fear in Hannah’s voice amplified her own stress. Hannah rarely let anyone think she didn’t have the world by the balls.
“Hold on,” Hannah said. “I need to move out of the way for the nurse.”
“Abbie?” Stuey repeated in a low but insistent voice.