Knox Marshall heard the crack of a dry twig behind him and froze. In the next moment, a hard voice ordered, “I’ve got you covered, scumbag. Hands in the air. Turn around slowly.”
Knox weighed his choices. If he ran, he could end up dead. Opting to cooperate for the moment, he turned to find himself staring at a guy with long greasy hair wearing camy pants and a dirty green tee shirt. He was holding an automatic rifle like he knew how to use it.
Shit. Knox had been pretty sure he’d stumbled onto something illegal when his wolf’s nose had picked up a strange odor in the Garrett County wood. He should have called for backup and waited for reinforcements.
“Toss that phone over here, boy,” the guy said. Reed thin with a weasel face and tattoos all over his arms, he looked to be in his late twenties, about Knox’s age. Too bad the aroma coming downwind had masked the guy’s ripe scent.
Knox lowered one arm enough to toss the phone and watch it being ground under the heel of a work boot.
“You want to see the camp?”
“Turn around and walk the way you were goin’. I’ll be right behind you.”
Knox did as he was told, silently cursing as he looked for a way to escape this snare that he’d sprung on himself. He couldn’t have done it better if he’d stepped into the iron jaws of an animal trap. He’d come out here to Western Maryland to enjoy some werewolf alone time, living off the land for a few days. Then he’d caught a whiff of something contaminating the woods.
He’d headed back to his car, changed to human form and grabbed his cell phone, thinking he’d get some picture to take back to Decorah Security before it got dark—if there was anything to see. He’d never gotten a chance to take any photos.
Before he could figure out how to escape, he and the guy with the rifle were twenty yards from an old building that looked like it could have been a stable—and smelled like a high school chem lab.
“Hey, Lane,” the guy called out. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
Another scruffy looking man, fifteen or twenty years older than the first guy, stepped into the clearing in front of the building. He was potbellied and totally bald with a tattoo of a death’s-head showing at the neck of his dirty work shirt. Nice.
Instead of a rifle, he was holding a semiautomatic handgun.
He eyed his friend and the captive. “You go out to take a crap in the woods and come back with this?”
“Yeah. Lucky for us.” He waited a beat before adding, “The professor’s not here. What’re we gonna do with him?” the one with the rifle asked.
“We don’t need the professor to tell us what to do.”
The bald guy tipped his head to the side, studying Knox.
Someone from inside the building called out, “We could skin him.”
“Don’t be hasty,” the one named Lane drawled. “Let me think on it.”
Another armed man emerged from the interior darkness, and the two whispered to each other. He looked more civilized than the rest of these bozos, and he obviously didn’t want to call attention to himself by stepping into the open. But Knox burned the guy’s face into his memory.
Finally Lane spoke up. “Put him in the shed out back.” He gestured with his gun and spoke to Knox. “To the right.”
Knowing the alternative was a bullet in the back, Knox moved in the direction the spokesman had indicated, toward a small corrugated metal building.
“Pat him down, Kyle.”
“Hands against the wall. Legs spread,” the guy who’d brought Knox in said.
He did as requested, feeling a half-assed pat down—which unearthed the semi tucked into the waistband of his jeans under his shirt.
“This your fishing pole?” The man laughed and kept searching. “No wallet.”
“Take off your belt and your shoes, and toss them on the ground.”
He complied, wondering if Kyle was regretting smashing his phone. If he’d left it intact, they could have found out who Knox was.
A hand reached around him and opened the door to the little building. Another shoved him roughly inside, where he stumbled against the far wall as he heard a bolt slide home.
He was in darkness, broken by a little light shining in from cracks along the top of the wall.
Outside, his captors were talking like he couldn’t hear them. Or maybe they thought it didn’t matter.
“You sure there’s nothin’ in there he can use to get out?”
“You think he figured out what we’re doin’ and came to steal our shit?”
“He had a piece.”
“He could be a cop.”
“Don’t look like a cop. His hair’s too long.”
“Could be an undercover narc.”
“We gotta get rid of him.”
“I didn’t sign up for murder.”
“You got a better idea?”
“Maybe. You watch that program Homeland?”
“What about it?”
Before Knox could hear the answer, the voices drifted off, leaving him in the dark and wondering how he was going to get out before they pulled whatever trick they had in mind.
He walked a grid across the dirt floor, searching for anything useful. Nothing but scraps of wood and metal. Crumpled papers. An old orange half. A metal table that was bolted to the wall on his left. He climbed up on the horizontal surface, which was high enough for him to press his hands against the ceiling. It was solid. No chance of popping the roof off.
Down on the ground again, he turned in a circle, inspecting the interior of the building as best he could, knowing his options were limited. There was no chance of hiding behind the door and attacking the first guy who came in. The door opened outward.
Perhaps his best bet was digging a hole in the dirt floor at the edge of a wall.
A wolf might be able to use his sharp claws to do it. But he couldn’t chance guys with guns finding an animal inside instead of a man.
He slid his feet along the floor, exploring in the dark, this time evaluating the usefulness of everything he encountered. When he found an eighteen-inch-long piece of metal stripping, he picked it up and crossed to the table again, where he slipped underneath and used the strip to start scraping at the bottom edge of the wall. The metal bit into the packed surface, and soon he could see a chink of daylight showing from outside. Still, it was going to take a while to make a hole big enough for him to wiggle through.
On the other hand, he didn’t have anything better to do while he waited for his captors to spring whatever nasty surprise they were planning.
He worked steadily, seeing the exterior light fading, piling up dirt under the table, and listening for sounds from outside.
As he dug, he cursed the impulse that had gotten him into this mess. He was the new guy at Decorah. He’d only been there a few months—since his cousin Cole had come to him with a proposal to join the company. He’d accepted, then probably been too anxious to prove his worth. Some of the Decorah agents were former cops. Others had degrees in criminal justice. Knox hadn’t seen the point of a werewolf going to college. But he’d been drifting through a series of dead-end jobs when Cole had talked to him about Decorah. He’d liked the idea of an agency that valued his shape-shifter talents. Still, his on-the-job training had made him the junior guy on a bunch of two- and three-man teams. He’d wanted to prove he could handle a solo assignment, and what looked like an illegal drug operation out in the middle of nowhere had offered the perfect opportunity. Too bad he’d blown his chance for glory. Big time.
But thinking about Decorah brought up Jonah Ranger. Soon after Knox had joined the organization, Jonah had been involved in a spectacular rescue. His now wife, Alice, had called out to him telepathically when she’d been held by a psychotic killer a few months ago. Somehow Jonah had heard her and found his way to her prison.
Could that work for him? And how was he going to like admitting that he’d done something dumb?
The hell with dumb. Saving his butt was more important than saving his pride.
Trying not to hope too much, he began broadcasting a distress message as he scraped away at the escape hole.
This is Knox Marshall. I got myself into some trouble out in Garrett County. I was sneaking up on some kind of drug lab, and one of the bastards caught me.
He stopped, trying to think about how to give his location. He finally settled on, My car’s in a wilderness parking area near Polk Town. I’m northwest of there. You’ll catch the odor of drugs. Help appreciated if you can hear this.
He waited for a few moments with his heart pounding. Jonah and Alice had talked back and forth to each other—mind to mind. But no return message came back to Knox.
He might have given up if he hadn’t been in a boatload of trouble. Feeling like a fool, he repeated the mental SOS. Nobody was going to hear him. But what could he lose by trying while he kept digging?
It was getting on toward evening and Jonah Ranger was in the Decorah Security office catching up on the paperwork he hated when he felt a buzzing in his mind. Not a very accurate description, yet he knew he was picking up some kind of psychic broadcast—like when he’d first heard his future wife on the radio. Well, not quite.
Alice’s voice had reached him through static. Now he wasn’t even getting words. But he thought he was hearing a distress call.
His first thought was of her. Quickly he dialed her cell and was relieved to hear her voice.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Fine. Is something wrong?” she asked, tension creeping into her voice.
“No. I picked up some kind of vague message that I can’t decipher. I was afraid it might be you.”
“No. I’m fine,” she said again.
“Okay. Good. I’ll see if I can figure it out.”
He clicked off, got up from his desk, and went down the hall to one of the private rooms where Decorah staffers could relax or sleep if they couldn’t get home between shifts.
In the dark, he lay down and closed his eyes, trying to focus on the message.
Who’s there? he called out in his mind.
Nobody answered directly, but he thought he was hearing the initial message repeated. He tried several more times to make contact with the sender, but it was no good. The only thing he knew for sure was that someone was in trouble.
He clenched his fists, trying to figure out who was calling out for help. Someone he knew? A stranger who was making a desperate attempt at contact—the way Alice had?
But it was no good. He simply couldn’t get any more information. With a sigh, he heaved himself to a sitting position and leaned over with his elbows on his knees and his hands clenched into fists under his chin, struggling to ground himself. When he felt as though he knew what to say, he headed for Frank Decorah’s office. Frank had established the Decorah office several years ago. A veteran of the second Iraq War, he’d lost a leg in combat, but you’d never know it to watch him walk—or run. And he made a point of remaining active on important agency cases.
As far as anyone knew, he wasn’t married, but the members of the Decorah Security Agency functioned as his family. If there was a chance one of his agents was in trouble, he’d want to know immediately.
Using the piece of metal, Knox had made a hole about eight inches across and about six inches deep when he heard footsteps outside.
Quickly he crawled out from under the table and faced the door as he brushed off his clothing. The barrier stayed closed and he shifted to the right when he realized the men were clustered at the side of the building.
“Is it gonna work?” one of his captors asked. “I thought you had to eat the stuff.”
“This is a new delivery system.”
“And it does the same thing?”
“Then what’s the point?”
“We get some information.”
As he tried to process the conversation, he heard scuffling sounds, then something clunked against the exterior of the building. Footfalls moving upward told him that someone must be climbing a ladder against the side of the building.
He looked up to see what looked like the end of a flat-blade screwdriver slip under one of the small ceiling chinks where light came in. Whoever was up there worked at the small opening, pulling the metal up. When the guy had made a small flap, he paused for a moment.
The next thing Knox saw was a hose snaking into the opening.
What the hell?
“It’s in,” the guy on the roof called.
Damn. These guys were making drugs. At least he’d assumed it was drugs. It suddenly leaped into his mind that they could be terrorists making poison gas.
He struggled for calm, pushing away the notion of poison gas. From what he’d heard, it had seemed more likely some drug that they thought had commercial value on the street. And they were going to test the crap on him? If it was a street drug, he had no idea what it would do to a normal man. But a werewolf’s system was different. He couldn’t even drink coffee without feeling sick. And this stuff would likely be ten times worse than it would be for a normal man.
They were talking again.
“You think it will make him—you know—see things?”
“Or horny—like it did Phil.”
That brought a round of laughter.
“Let’s find out.”
He heard a small engine start up. A few seconds later it was followed by the hiss of gas rushing into the interior. His heart began to race.
He dived for the hole he’d made in the side of the floor, thinking he had a source of fresh air they didn’t know about. But he never got that far.
A thunderclap went off inside his head, wiping away coherent thought. He sank to the dirt floor, his body jerking, as daggers of pain knifed into his skull.
Poison. Not a street drug. Poison.