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The collision occurred just as Callan was reaching the driver’s side to take control of the car, and it threw him violently against the side of the steering wheel, fracturing one of his ribs. While the air bags had inflated instantly, Callan had been unbelted, and in such an awkward position they had been unable to prevent injury.

He shook off the severe pain, put the car in park, and stumbled out of the door as the air bags began deflating automatically. He spotted the girl running out of sight through a brightly lighted gas station on the opposite corner, noting with satisfaction that her daredevil stunt had not left her unscathed. A jagged hole had been torn in her pants and grass-stain and blood now decorated her exposed thigh.

Callan went after her as fast as he could given the pain in his ribcage, ignoring the startled shout of, “Hey, where are you going?” from the owner of the Honda.

He made it to the gas station and scanned the area in all directions, searching frantically for his multimillion dollar ticket to retirement. He entered the station’s large food mart and stormed into the women’s room, yanking open the stall, but it was empty. He raced back outside, his eyes darting in all directions.

And he spotted her!

The bitch had circled back to her car.

Smart. Despite a massive cave-in on the passenger side, the car was probably still drivable, and he had left the keys in the ignition. The driver of the Honda was yelling something at her, but she ignored him, gunning the engine and taking off in the direction the car was pointed. Bits of glass from the door’s shattered window rained onto the pavement as she hastily drove off.

Callan scanned the gas station. A Mercedes with a powerful engine was just pulling up to a pump. Perfect! The driver was a plump man with a short beard, and when he exited the car to fill the tank, Callan emerged from behind the car with a gun pointed at his gut. “The keys!” he demanded. “Now!”

The man was stunned but managed to hold out his hand helplessly.

Callan snatched the keys and seconds later was tearing onto the street after Kira. She had a considerable head start, but her severely damaged car was easy to identify from a distance, even at night, and the car he was now in had more than enough horsepower to catch her.

As he cut the distance between them, she shot onto the onramp to highway 52, heading east. The Lexus was like a wounded animal and he caught up to her struggling vehicle only minutes after she had entered the highway. She was in the far left lane. He brought his car parallel to hers, one lane over, close enough that they could see each other’s dark silhouette by the glow of their dashboard lights, and gestured her over menacingly with his gun.

She ignored him.

Callan wasn’t sure what to do next. Shooting a tire or trying to force her off the road could cause her to lose control of the car, and he couldn’t have that. He needed to deliver her alive and well, and he could tell from her determined face, unconcerned by his presence beside her, that she knew full well the advantage this gave her.

As they approached the eastbound bridge that crossed Tecolade Canyon, the girl slammed on her breaks and skidded noisily, her squealing tires leaving a trail of rubber behind her. As her speed plummeted below thirty, she veered sharply to the left, leaving the highway and entering a twenty-yard wide strip of grass that separated the eastbound and westbound lanes of the 52. The car bouncing jarringly, its shocks no match for the unpaved terrain. She came to a stop just ten yards short of a concrete barrier that had been erected in the median to prevent cars from inadvertently plummeting into the canyon, and then calmly completed her turn. With her car now pointing to the west, she picked up speed and carefully entered the westbound lanes of the 52.

Callan slammed on his brakes to follow, but was too late. Her timing had been perfect. As she had no doubt planned, in the few seconds it had taken him to react, he had continued onto the eastbound bridge over Tecolade Canyon. The westbound bridge was only twenty yards away, but instead of a grassy median separating them, there was now nothing but air, leaving him no way to mimic her maneuver short of flying.

He screeched to a halt in the middle of an active lane and several cars behind him were just able to swerve in time to avoid hitting him. Additional cars shot past him, leaning on their horns angrily. He briefly considered backing up against the oncoming traffic, but realized it would be suicide.

Furious, he picked up speed and continued to cross the long bridge, stopping the Mercedes on the shoulder when he had done so. He exited the car and surveyed the westbound lanes. As he expected, the girl’s battered Lexus was nowhere in sight.

He slammed both hands against the top of the car in rage. “Shit!” he thundered angrily.

As he stood there, fuming, he could just make out three helicopters in the distance, their powerful searchlights probing the darkness in an ever-widening pattern whose epicenter was over the exact part of town at which the hand-off was supposed to have taken place. They were looking for Kira Miller. Somehow he was sure of it.

But he was beginning to doubt they would catch her.

Who in the hell was she! he thought in frustration.

And what could she possibly have done to warrant this kind of attention?




Ten Months Later

David Desh stopped at the gatehouse and lowered the window of his green Chevrolet Suburban as a uniformed guard approached him. “David Desh to see Colonel Jim Connelly,” he said, handing the guard his driver’s license.

The guard consulted his clipboard for several long seconds, examined the license, and then handed it back. “Go right in, sir, he’s expecting you. Welcome to Fort Bragg. Do you need directions?”

Desh smiled wistfully and shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve been here before.” He rolled past the guard station, halfway expecting to be saluted as he passed.

The leaves of several of the trees peppered throughout the sprawling North Carolina base had transformed into a pageant of striking colors in the cool autumn air. It was the most picturesque season to return to Fort Bragg, home of a number of military units, among them USASOC; the US Army Special Operations Command. It was also home to the unit in which Desh had served; Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, tasked with counterterrorist operations outside the United States.

As Desh passed many familiar buildings and landmarks, including a three-story climbing wall, eighty-foot rappel tower, and Olympic-sized training pool, he fought to suppress a number of conflicting emotions that welled up inside him. This was his first time back to Bragg since he had left the military and his return was bittersweet.

He arrived at his destination and parked. A few minutes later he entered Jim Connelly’s office, shook hands firmly with the uniformed man behind the desk, and took a seat facing the colonel, lowering his briefcase to the floor beside him as he did so. Desh had been in this office many times before, but never as a civilian. Books on military history and strategy were organized in perfect precision on a bookshelf. The colonel was an accomplished fencer, and a large, framed photograph of two fencers locked in battle, shot in vibrant clarity by a professional photographer, was centered behind his desk.