Susan Monroe looked through the bulletproof window in front of her at the brightly lit concrete bunker on the other side. Empty. She announced crisply into her headset. “Test range is clear.”
A few more items and the checklist was complete. Her team was ready for a live fire test of the first production-model RITA rifle. She exhaled a long, slow breath, but it didn’t relieve her jitters. Her job, and a lot of other people’s jobs, rode on the next hour’s worth of work.
Today, the rifle known as RITA, after its Roving Instant Target Acquisition system, would face its most critical test. A professional sniper would put Fasco’s prototype production model through its paces.
Personally, she hated guns. And this one was far too Robo-Cop for her comfort. Once pointed at a human target, it would lock on and fire at it until the target fell down or blew up. Literally.
If the sniper gave his approval, her company would spend the next couple of years turning out dozens of the computerized weapons at a tidy profit. But if the sniper decided it didn’t perform up to Uncle Sam’s specifications, Fasco risked losing the contract. There would be massive red ink and layoffs at best, and at worst Fasco would go out of business altogether. No pressure there.
The range supervisor’s voice sounded in her ear. “Send them in, Dr. Monroe.”
She picked up the telephone on her desk and pushed the button for the vestibule just outside the firing range. Fasco’s CEO picked up the call.
“We’re ready to begin,” she told her boss much more calmly than she felt.
A red light went on above the door in the firing range’s far wall. The thick steel portal swung open. Several men stepped into the room. She recognized them as senior Fasco executives. All sucking up hard to the sniper, no doubt. Not that she blamed them.
And then she caught sight of the shooter. He was tall. A bit paunchy. Light-brown hair. Prominent cheekbones in an otherwise smooth, round face. Kinda creepy looking. So bland her gaze just seemed to slide off him. He looked too soft to be holding the sixty-pound RITA rifle and, in fact, he rested it on its butt quickly after he stepped into the room.
She announced over the loudspeaker into the bunker, “We’re ready whenever you are, Mr. Ford.”
The shooter glanced up at her window and nodded.
And the world stood still.
Ohmigod. Those eyes!
She would never forget them as long as she lived. Glittering gold on blue over the barrel of his rifle. Just before he shot her in the knee and blew it to smithereens. She’d fallen out of her seat from the tearing force of the impact, which was the only reason his second shot just grazed her neck and didn’t kill her.
Except this face wasn’t right. Not angular or narrow enough for the man who’d shot her. And the hair wasn’t black. This man’s skin was too pale, not the nut brown of Ramon Ruala, the assassin who’d nearly killed her.
But those eyes…
How many men could possibly have the same strange eye coloring, a ring of gold overlaid on icy, sky blue. The color was striking, fire and ice clashing in discord. Surely no two men could have exactly that same flat, deadly expression of penetrating malevolence that chilled her blood. It had to be the same guy.
But no way was it was the same guy.
She watched in frozen horror as the man hefted the rifle. Another glance up at her. She pushed her safety glasses higher on her nose as if they would protect her identity from the killer in the room below.
Dear God, let him not yank that rifle around and point it at her. The bullet-resistant glass before her was no match for the lethal power of the rifle in his hands. Her knees shook and her gut turned to water. The same visceral terror of that night ten years ago roared through her. Every nerve in her body screamed for her to run, right this second.
But somehow she managed to stay planted in her chair. She’d lost her mind. This was insane. Anybody could look at this poor man and see he wasn’t the one who shot her a decade ago. This was some post-traumatic stress reaction that the guy’s weird eye color had triggered. A flashback. Get a grip, girlfriend.
She stared at her computer monitor until it came back into focus and then broadcast into the bunker, “Let’s start out with a few simple prone shots at a still target so you can get a feel for the weapon.”
The shooter nodded and lay down on a padded rubber mat to her left. Methodically, he set up a tripod stand, attached the barrel to the stand and lay down at a slight angle away from the weapon. He shifted to align himself with the weapon at exactly the right angle for every muscle in his body to relax when he fired.
His eye went down to the sight and his right hand came up along the trigger housing. His middle three fingers were folded down with only his thumb and pinkie finger extended. He rocked the two fingers back and forth rapidly against the side of the gun as he acquired the target downrange.
Lights exploded inside her head, sending shooting pain through her skull. She remembered like it was yesterday the way the sniper who’d shot her had done the exact same thing with his right hand mere seconds before he shot her.
She about leaped out of her chair as the RITA rifle fired in the enclosed concrete bunker below. Even through heavy layers of glass, the sound was painfully loud. There! He did that thing with his fingers again! He rocked his pinkie and thumb against the side of the rifle as he set up the next shot.
“Martin, come take a look at this,” she said to the other computer scientist in the control room.
The former Marine Recon soldier loomed over her a second later. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Watch this guy’s right hand when he sets up a shot.”
She and Martin watched intently. The sniper did the finger-rocking thing again. “There. That!” she murmured tersely. “Is there any technical reason for a shooter to do something like that?”
“Nah. Nervous tic.”
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” she inquired.
Martin frowned. “It’s kinda weird, actually. You don’t want to jar the rifle once you’ve acquired your target. The whole idea is to go perfectly still a couple seconds before you take the shot. A shooter tapping his weapon like that could jeopardize the shot if he weren’t careful. Of course this dude’s pegging the middle of the ten circle every time.”
“Next sequence,” a low, gravelly voice growled in her ear.
She jumped and looked down at the government sniper. He was staring up at her impatiently through the window.
“Uh, of course. Let’s start by adding wind into the calculations. We’ll program a steady-state wind first, followed by random gusts,” she replied. She hit the command sequence on her keyboard to start the wind machine in the shooting range, and sat back while it ran.
The voice wasn’t right. The man who’d ordered her death had a higher-pitched voice than that. Of course, vocal cords could be altered surgically and the sound of a voice changed. For that matter, an entire face could be changed surgically.
But those cursed eyes…
She couldn’t take a chance. If it was the same guy and she didn’t tell anyone of her suspicions, no telling how many people could get hurt or killed at his hands. But if it wasn’t the same man—well then, she only risked pissing this guy off enough to flunk the RITA rifle and shut down her company. Lovely.
She agonized through the rain and smoke simulations, and still hadn’t decided what to do when she set up the last and most difficult firing sequence. Moving targets. The RITA rifle’s crowning glory was a computer brain that, once locked onto a target, tracked its movements and compensated for changes in firing conditions independent of any human inputs. The sniper started picking off moving targets like candy.
What were the odds of Ruala showing up like this where she worked? Surely it was pure chance. A violent criminal, whom she could put in jail permanently with her testimony? Who’d supposedly searched for her for years after their last encounter with the intent to silence her for good?
She simply didn’t believe in coincidences this huge.
How on earth had he ended up working for the federal government?
If he recognized her today, he would no doubt report her to his boss. Word on the street had it that Ruala’s longtime boss, crime lord Eduardo Ferrare, had personally ordered her killed. Fortunately, Ferrare’s nemesis, the Blackjacks—a highly classified, irregular special forces team, had whisked her away to a new life before Ruala or Ferrare could catch up with her.
The Blackjacks. The very name sent a lingering shiver of excitement and agony through her.
She’d been working on a surveillance mission with the six-man squad when she lost her heart and nearly lost her life all those years ago. Surely her brother, Tex, a Blackjack himself, would have told her if Ruala had picked up her trail again. Obviously, the team didn’t know. No way would they have allowed the sniper to get this close to her.
The sniper’s raspy voice caught her attention. “Give me randomly moving targets.”
She typed in the command sequence, her throat too tight to speak a response aloud. She had to call the Blackjacks. But the idea of inviting him back into her life positively set her teeth on edge. Mac Conlon. The one man she’d sworn to never, ever, not in a million years, lay eyes on again.
He was the Blackjacks’s ordinance and demolitions expert. An integral part of the team, and part of the package if the Blackjacks came back into her life. Lord, she didn’t want to make the call. But she had no choice.
She lurched as “Mr. Ford” abruptly jumped to his feet. He moved as lightly as a cat. She had to get out of here before he got another good look at her!
She snatched up her cane. She didn’t always need it to walk, but spasms of remembered pain were shooting through her knee right now, and the limb could collapse at any moment. Impatiently, she punched a code on the number pad beside the door to get out of the lab. The steel panel slid open. She stumbled forward and it shut behind her, locking her in a tiny, stainless-steel vestibule. A quick pass of her ID card through a magnetic card reader opened the outer door. Relieved to be out of that claustrophobic box, she moved out into the hallway.
The first order of business was to lay her hands on a copy of the video of Mr. Ford to show the Blackjacks. She made her way as fast as her artificial knee would go to the security office near the front of the Fasco building. A huge shape loomed directly in front of her. Her heart slammed into her throat before she recognized the giant as Shane Wilkins, head of Fasco’s security. Apparently on his way out. She lurched and had to plant her cane quickly to regain her balance.
“You okay, Dr. Monroe?” he asked, reaching out to steady her elbow.
“Not really. Got a minute?” she asked with quiet urgency.
He looked sharply at her, then stepped back for her to move fully inside and closed the office door behind them both. “What’s up?” he asked.
She eyed the gray-haired man warily. He knew all about Ramon Ruala. When she applied for work at Fasco soon after the shooting, it had been conceivable that Ruala would come looking for her to finish her off. Wilkins had been alerted to keep an eye out for the guy. But as time had passed, the threat had diminished to nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
She glanced over at the bank of television monitors on the wall. “Did you watch the test firing of the RITA rifle just now?”
He nodded. “Looked like it went great.”
“Did you notice anything unusual about the sniper?” she asked him cautiously.
“Good shooter. But then, a monkey would look good firing the RITA. Hell of a weapon.”
“That’s not what I meant. Did he…remind you of anybody?”
Shane frowned. “The guy in those marshmallow commercials who turns into one as he eats more and more of them?”
She grinned reluctantly. “Did you get a good look at his eyes?”
“Not on the monitor. He would have to look right up at one of the cameras and then I’d have to zoom in to get a good look at them.”
“They’re blue. With a gold ring in the middle.”
The security man frowned. And then comprehension broke across his face. “Like that fella that shot you?”
“Exactly like that fella,” she answered tensely.
She took a deep breath and announced, “I think Mr. Ford is Ramon Ruala.”
“That’s crazy,” Wilkins blurted. “They don’t look anything alike.”
“I’m telling you, they’re the same person.”
Wilkins spun in his chair and typed on his computer. The monitor in front of him flickered, and video of the sniper walking into the building began to play. The security chief deftly followed Ruala’s movements from the moment he entered the plant, jumping from camera to camera. And then footage of Ruala in the bunker came on the screen.
She leaned forward over Wilkins’s shoulder and stabbed the monitor with her finger. “There. Watch what he does with his right hand.”
Wilkins zoomed in the picture, and Ruala’s distinctive finger-rocking came into focus.
“That’s exactly what Ruala did right before he shot me,” she declared.
Wilkins looked up at her. “You realize that if you’re wrong about this, you could cost Fasco its contract for the RITA.”
She nodded solemnly. Wilkins wasn’t jumping out of his seat volunteering to go arrest Ford, and she couldn’t blame him. They were talking about Fasco’s survival, here. Over a hundred people’s jobs. But they were also talking about her life.
Finally she broke the uncomfortable silence between them and said slowly, “I know some government agents who could tell us for sure if Ford is Ruala. I can make the inquiry unofficially. Quietly. But I would need a copy of the video footage you’ve got of Ford to show them.”
“Done,” Wilkins answered in relief. He turned to his keyboard and began to type.
Two minutes later he handed her a thumb drive. She nodded her thanks to him and pushed to her feet using her cane. Her knee was killing her, but there was no earthly reason why it should be hurting like this.
“You be careful,” Wilkins advised her. “If this guy is who you think he is, he’s a dangerous sonaofa—” He broke off. “Well, you know that already, don’t you?”
She managed to force the corners of her mouth up into a parody of a smile. “Yeah. I got that memo when he shot me.”
Truth be told, she dreaded facing Mac Conlon almost more than Ramon Ruala.
She stepped out of the security office, intent on getting to her car and thinking what in the world she was going to say to Mac if she saw him again. A group of men stepped out of a side hall directly in front of her and she looked up, startled. And stopped cold. Standing no more than five feet from her was the sniper. With several Fasco executives in tow.
His gaze went down to the thumb drive in her hand, then up to the placard beside the door she’d just stepped out of. And then to her face. Something flickered in that blue-gold gaze.
Terror washed over her like an icy bath. All she could do was stand there and stare back at him. Fear congealed in her throat into a sticky lump as Fasco’s CEO stepped forward and gestured to her.
“This is Dr. Monroe, one of our defense systems analysts. She programmed the test firing sequence you went through today and ran it from the control booth.”
The sniper nodded. “Nicely done.” He held out a hand to her.
She stared down at it stupidly. She was supposed to shake hands with a man who’d tried to kill her? Fasco’s CEO cleared his throat beside her. She shifted the thumb drive to her left hand with the cane and shook his hand awkwardly. His palm was hard. Painfully strong. Not at all in keeping with the rest of the man. She ought to say something. Congratulate him on how well he’d handled the RITA rifle. Any inane comment would do. But no matter how hard she tried, words wouldn’t pass that glob of terror lodged in her throat.
Ruala disengaged his hand from hers. With a last glance down at her bum leg, he stepped around her and allowed the CEO to herd him away from the geeky computer programmer with no social graces.
And then her knees started to shake like jelly. Right there in the middle of the hallway. Trembling until they were in real danger of collapsing. The walls began to close in, suffocating her. She had to get out of here. An urge to run away from the man behind her became so overpowering it was all she could do to walk to the front exit without breaking into a run.
Thankfully, she had a spare car key on the ring of keys in her pocket that went to her computer, desk and filing cabinets at Fasco. Clutching the thumb drive convulsively, she paused impatiently for a retinal scan on the way out of the building. One last swipe of her magnetic ID card and she was logged out.
She all but ran outside, which was a trick with her knee threatening to lock up with every jarring step she took. The titanium and plastic joint was primarily designed with walking in mind. Light-headed with fear, she stumbled off the curb but righted herself awkwardly and lurched toward her car. Sweat beaded between her shoulder blades and rolled down her back maddeningly. Her neck tingled as if Ruala was staring right at it, choosing his shot behind her. Toying with her. Enjoying her terror. Doggedly, she headed for her car. Please don’t let him kill me. Please don’t let him kill me….
Almost there. Her light-headedness turned to outright dizziness. Breathe, you idiot. Passing out now would be incredibly stupid.
A male voice called out her name behind her.
Oh God. Not now. She looked over her shoulder and waved a hello at the biggest flirt in the whole company. He insisted on massaging her shoulders or, worse, hugging her every time he saw her, no matter how inappropriate it was. Please, not today! She just wanted to get in her car and get as far away from here as she could.
The flirt started to walk toward her. She called out something about being late for an appointment and, fumbling frantically, jammed her car key at the door lock. She missed the first time, her hands were shaking so bad. Finally a click and the door swung open. She banged her shin in her haste, but slid behind the wheel before Romeo could come over and put a half nelson on her. She locked her door for good measure.
It took three tries to get her key in the ignition, but finally, the engine turned over. Slowly, now. Carefully. It would do no good to kill herself in the process of running away from Ruala. She guided her car out of the parking lot and onto the main road. Profoundly relieved, she pointed her car toward home.
As the Fasco building grew small in her rearview mirror, she fished around in her purse and found her cell phone. Alternating looking at the road and her phone, she punched out a long series of numbers she’d memorized years ago in case of an emergency.
“Go ahead,” said an anonymous male voice at the other end of the line.
“Is Colonel Foley available?” she asked.
“He’s in a meeting. Could be there for some time. If it’s an emergency, I can get a message to him, though.”
In his world, her dilemma probably didn’t constitute a crisis. Besides, the idea was to check the sniper’s identity without rocking the boat too hard. “When he gets a moment, could you ask him to call Tex Monroe’s sister, Susan? Tell him I may have a problem and could use his help.”
* * *
Susan jerked awake, her heart pounding like a row of Indian war drums. Silence lay heavily around her, as stifling as a thick wool blanket. She was just wired because Colonel Foley hadn’t called back yet. Come on. Call! Her bedside clock said it was 2:00 a.m. The colonel certainly wouldn’t contact her before tomorrow morning. She might as well just try to go back to sleep. Yeah, right.
Shadows wrapped around the room, clothing it in menace. She made out vague outlines of furniture, but the heavy blinds on her windows did their job well.
A scraping noise sounded. Not the slightest bit like a house squeak. It was more like…like a chair dragging across the floor. Downstairs.
Oh. My. God.
Somebody was down there. Certainty exploded across her brain. It had to be Ramon Ruala.
Her heart beat triple-time, racing like a jackrabbit running for its life. She looked around in the dark for a weapon. Nothing heavy and club-like in sight. Her cane was too light and whippy to do the job. What was she thinking? She couldn’t attack a killer with a stick! She’d hide under her bed. Like that wasn’t an obvious place for Ruala to check.
Call the police. She picked up the telephone on the nightstand beside her bed.
Total silence. As in no dial tone.
Either it was the most ill-timed phone outage in history, or the intruder had cut the line. And she was alone in the middle of five thousand acres of isolated ranch. Terror roared through her, leaving her shaking uncontrollably. She should’ve listened to everyone who’d told her she was crazy to live way out here by herself.
Her cell phone. It was in her purse. On the counter in her bathroom. She threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, reaching for the ever-present cane by the nightstand and pushing herself upright. She paused, giving her bad knee a moment to adjust to bearing her weight. More than once she’d taken a spill by bounding thoughtlessly out of bed. She would think after a decade of living with her injury she would remember it at some level of long-term memory. But her subconscious denial persisted.
She limped gingerly across her bedroom to the bathroom, easing around the spot in the floor that squeaked. She fished the cell phone out of her purse and punched out 911. An operator asked efficiently for the nature of the emergency and the address.
Susan whispered frantically, “My name’s Susan Monroe. I live on the Flying M Ranch on County Line Road. There’s an intruder in my house. Send the police!”
A brief pause, then, “They’re on their way, ma’am. It’ll take about fifteen minutes for them to get there. Do you have a bathroom with locks on its doors?”
“Yes. I’m there,” Susan replied under her breath.
“Lock yourself in and sit tight.”
“Got it,” she replied. By the glow of the night-light by her sink, she caught a glimpse in the big mirror of the thick, ugly scar that trailed from the side of her neck down across her chest toward her heart. She still shuddered at how close she’d come to dying from that wound. The doctors said if the bullet had gone millimeters in either direction…
She felt that close to death again right now. If Ruala killed her tonight, what she knew about his new identity would die with her. She had to get in touch with someone before he found her! She dialed the Blackjacks headquarters for the second time that day.
“Go ahead,” a male voice said in her ear.
She whispered frantically, “My name’s Susan Monroe. I need to talk with Colonel Foley right away. And it’s an emergency.”
“One moment, ma’am. I’ll patch you through to him.”
There was a squeak down the hall and she leaped to the second bathroom door that led out into the hallway. Her knee protested, sending a streak of white-hot fury up her thigh. Frantically she verified the lock was in place. And froze.
From directly on the other side of the door she heard a low rumble of Spanish. She lurched when a second male voice answered the first. Dear God. There were two men! Ruala had help. She plastered herself against the wall beside the door, too petrified to move a muscle.
A quiet slide of footsteps on carpet signaled that the men had moved on down the hallway. A distinctive creak sounded. The bedroom door at the far end of the hall. She’d bet they were going to do a room-by-room search of this floor, starting at the far end and working their way back toward the stairs. They would discover the locked bathroom door in a few minutes, and then they’d find her.
Ruala wouldn’t hesitate to kick down the door or shoot it out to get to her. The 911 operator’s advice to lock herself in might work with a regular robber but not with him.
She had to get out of here.
The spacious bathroom’s walls closed in on her until it was no more than a tiny, airless cage. Its second-story window was too far above the ground for her to jump. It was out into the hallway and down the stairs, or else wait to be discovered and murdered. Gee, like that was a hard choice.
She heard voices in the background at the other end of the phone. A second male voice came on the line. He sounded like he’d just woken up. “This is Tom Foley. What’s the problem, Susan?”
She whispered frantically, “Someone’s in my house. Ramon Ruala has a new identity. He’s going by the name David Ford and came to Fasco to test fire a rifle. I think he recognized me.”
Another door squeaked open. That was right next door! She had to get going. “Sorry, got to go. He’s in the next room,” she whispered.
The colonel barked, “Get out of there. Run away. Hide if you can’t run. Don’t worry about getting lost. We can track down your cell phone signal. Keep the line open…”
Those were the last words she heard as she stuffed the cell phone, still connected to Blackjack Ops, in the shirt pocket of her cotton pajamas. She pressed her ear to the door and didn’t hear anything but blood rushing in her ears.
She took a deep breath, cracked open the door and peeked out into the dark hallway. It was still and silent. She could do this. Just a few steps to the stairs and then down and outside. Away from the house. Away from Ruala. To the welcome darkness of the night. Her shoulder blades tickled as imaginary bullets slammed into them, exploding her lungs and tearing out her heart.
Her heart beat so hard it hurt. Something bumped next door, and she bolted out into the hallway. In her panic she forgot her cane. But it wasn’t as if she was going back for the stupid thing.
She dared not run for it. Her leg collapsed every time she tried that. She hop-skipped as quickly and quietly as she could away from Ruala and toward the front stairs.
She almost made it. But then the fringe on the hall rug caught her right big toe. She pitched forward awkwardly. Her left leg swung out in front of her to stop the fall, but her bad knee jammed. Instead of cushioning her stumble, the stiff leg became a pivot point. She spun half-around on it and then fell backward, her arms flailing. Into space.
Oh God. The stairs.