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Authors: Marliss Melton

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The Protector (29 page)

BOOK: The Protector
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“Here, why don’t you give me that?” He slid his pack off his shoulders. “You’re going to need your arms free.”

 

With a sigh and feeling guilty for adding to Ike’s burden, she watched him drop her purse on top of the assorted gear he’d collected for their exodus. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

 

“Don’t be,” he said, swinging the pack back onto his shoulders. “I’ve carried more.”

 

Winston’s frantic barks, merging with the scratching of his claws at the door, drew her attention back at the cabin behind them.
         

 

Ike deliberately caught her eye. “He’ll be alright. Promise,” he added, lifting a hand to stroke her cheek. “Come on, babe,” he urged. “You set the pace.”
 

 

As with their previous runs, she tackled the steep incline with all she had. But her legs felt like rubber as she stumbled over the moist, uneven earth. A near-sleepless night gave her very little energy to call upon. She tried telling herself this was just another training run; that they’d be back to the cabin for a leisurely breakfast. Only, she knew it wasn’t, and they wouldn’t. They were running headlong into reality.
      

 

She arrived at the tree line out of breath, more than glad to stop when Ike called, “Wait,” and veered suddenly off the path. He mounted a man-sized boulder.

 

Watching him, she listened to the wind rustle the tender leaves on the trees. Ike pulled binoculars from his pack and peered out over the valley. He went suddenly still, his back stiffening.

 

“What do you see?” she asked.

 

He put the binoculars away and leapt lightly down beside her. “We might have company coming,” he admitted, avoiding her gaze. As if on cue, his watch began to beep. He silenced it with a push of his thumb.

 

“The FBI?”
 

 

He gave a nod. “You trust me?”
 

 

“Yes.”
 

 

“We need to move fast. No talking, no slowing down. No questioning my orders. Clear enough?”

 

She swallowed hard. “Crystal.”
 

 

He sent her a tiny crooked smile that alleviated her fear. Chucking her under the chin, he spun her around and gave her a push. “Now run!” he said.

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

The Taurus barely made it up the gravel driveway. Slipping sideways on a hairpin turn, Jackson was relieved to arrive at the cabin, at last. It looked far less sinister in the daylight than it had in the dark. He parked beside Calhoun’s Dodge Durango and killed the overheated engine.

 

Calhoun was likely still here since his truck was here, Jackson reasoned, leaving his gun in the glove compartment. He wore a Kevlar vest under his dress shirt, just in case. But the ex-SEAL wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man; Jackson was counting on that.
 

 

As he opened the car door, he was hit by a torrent of barking. He approached the cabin cautiously, his hands by his sides where Calhoun could see them. Aside from the dog, the only sound was that of birds twittering, the wind blowing. The area struck him as deserted, unthreatening. He hoped he hadn’t come too late.

 

The planks on the porch groaned as he crossed them. He rapped firmly on the screen door. Winston scratched the inner door and whined.
 

 

“Isaac Calhoun! This is Special Agent Maddox. I’d like to talk to you.” Jackson’s booming voice sounded ridiculous in the peaceful quiet.

 

Getting no reply, he cracked the screen door and found the inner door unlocked. As he pushed it inward, Winston tried barreling past him, only Jackson caught him by his collar and muscled him back inside. He shut the door and looked around, noting details that had changed since the night before. A kitchen cabinet stood open. The smell of toast still hung in the air.

 

Despairing that he’d come too late, he pushed into the bathroom, where he opened the cellar door and peered into the darkness, making sure that
Eryn
wasn’t down there. Of course, she wasn’t. Nor was there any evidence suggesting she’d been forced to stay there for any length of time.

 

He went back upstairs, poked his head into the master bedroom. The unmade bed caught his eye. Twisted sheets and dented pillows suggested they had shared the bed, been intimate. Having pegged
Eryn
as the prim and proper type, it made him wonder if she’d known
Calhoun
 
prior
to this week. That sure would have made it easier for the former SEAL to coax her from the safe house, would have given him an edge.

 

Winston clawed at the exit, recapturing his attention. The dog’s desperation to get out made Jackson wonder if he knew where Ike and
Eryn
had gone. He hunted briefly for a leash. Finding nothing suitable, he gave up, deciding he would take his chances. “You know where they went, boy?” he asked, pulling the door open. “Show me.”
 

 

Winston bolted out of the screen door with Jackson right behind him. The dog disappeared around the cabin. It was all Jackson could do to keep him in sight as the Shepherd mix hightailed it up the well-worn path that led to Calhoun’s southern boundary and Skyline Drive. It was exactly the route the FBI had expected him to take, if and when he fled. An HRT squad lay in wait on Skyline Drive.
 

 

Torn between his commitment to duty and his lack of respect for his supervisor, Jackson considered whether to call his supervisor or blow him off. The Marine in him had him pulling out his phone as he ran.

 

“Well, Rookie?”
Caine
prompted when he picked up.

 

“Sir,” Jackson gasped for breath. “They’d already left the cabin by foot by the time I got here. I think they’re hiking up to Skyline Drive. I’m right behind them.”
 

 

“I know where they are, Maddox. I’ve been tracking their movements for the last half hour.”
 

 

What?
Jackson’s gaze went to the dog’s red collar.
Half hour?
But he and Winston had only been running for ten minutes, unless...unless the GPS device wasn’t even on the dog. Calhoun must have discovered it, in which case, he would use it as a decoy. Jackson felt a surge of relief.
 

 

“You can fall back, Rookie. Obviously your plan didn’t pan out. We’ll leave it to HRT to get our client back.”
 
Caine
severed the call abruptly, sparing Jackson from having to tell him the truth.

 

He dropped his phone back into his jacket pocket and kept right on running. One, he couldn’t leave Winston running off into the forest by himself. Two, he wanted to warn Calhoun about the HRT, convince him to surrender peacefully or face the consequences.

 

The path ahead of him forked abruptly. A steep climb to the left led to Calhoun’s southern boundary and an ambush. The path to the right led to an impassable gorge. With
Eryn
tagging along, Calhoun probably hadn’t gone that way. But Winston’s bushy tail said otherwise as it disappeared ahead of him. Jackson picked up his pace.

 

Here and there, the imprint of a sole corroborated the dog’s tracking ability. Plumbing the light brush ahead, Jackson sensed that he was closing in. The sound of rushing water swelled with every step.

 

He arrived abruptly at the gorge, which was far more impressive in real life than when viewed via satellite.
 

 

Winston eyed the sheer drop to the streambed and barked his frustration. A metallic humming sound snatched Jackson’s gaze to a sturdy steel wire that spanned the ravine.
So that’s how they got across.
Reaching up to touch it, he detected a subtle vibration. It hadn’t been long since they’d used it, either. But the bar, if there was one, had been taken down.
  

 

He could maybe use his belt to slide across, if he could get enough momentum, but then he’d have to leave the dog behind. “Calhoun!” he shouted, fairly certain the man was within range to overhear him. “You should surrender or face charges. We have your property surrounded.”

 

The warning echoed back at him, mocking his good intentions. He applied himself to calming Winston’s agitation. “It’s okay, boy. We’ll get her back.”

 

His ringing cell phone had him groping in his pocket.
“Maddox.”

 

It was
Caine
. “Get your ass down here, Rookie. Calhoun is moving down the north side of the mountain. We’ll intercept him at the bottom.”

 

Jackson consulted the compass on his watch.
“The north side, sir?
I’ve got him headed west.” North was where all the tumbling water was headed.

 

“Negative. I’ve got him on GPS, remember?”

 

Ah, decoy time.
Calhoun must have dropped the SIM card into the rapids while crossing to the other side. In an airtight container, it would flow downhill for hours, sending the FBI on a wild goose chase. Jackson found himself grinning.

 

“We’ll be looking for him from the air,”
Caine
added, shouting over the whopping of a helicopter’s rotors.

 

Oh, Jesus.
The air support team was getting underway.
  

 

Jackson took one last look at the other side of the ravine. Maybe Calhoun didn’t need his help. His odds were looking pretty good right now, and Jackson didn’t respect his supervisor enough to correct his assumptions.

 

Finding a granola bar tucked inside his jacket, he waved it under Winston’s nose and turned him around. “I got you, buddy,” he said, leading him by the collar.

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

Eryn
felt like her insides had been knotted together and then stapled, but she gritted her teeth and forced one foot in front of the other. After crossing the gorge, they had veered off the path and waded through a deep forest traveling down the shadowed side of the mountain.

 

It seemed a sacrilege to disturb the quiet. She tried moving on the soles of her feet like Ike, who scarcely made a sound as he stepped through last year’s fallen leaves. Beams of sunlight, slanting through the tree trunks, imbued the cool air with warmth as the sun rose steadily higher. She was soon perspiring in her BDUs.

 

Despite the warning shouted across the ravine half an hour earlier in a voice belonging to Jackson Maddox, they did not come across any more FBI agents.
Eryn’s
worries subsided, especially when Ike took her hand and kept her anchored next to him. The strength of his grip and the calm, self-assured way he moved through the forest eased her worries that they would be caught. He knew what he was doing.
 

 

Then, unexpectedly, he dropped to a crouch, startling her as he hauled her down beside him. With a warning, “
Shhh
,” he put his forefinger to his lips and searched the shadowy forest, listening intently.

 

Eryn
did the same. Over the creaking of branches, she heard a muted conversation and a stifled cough floating up from the area below. Ike hefted his rifle, and she gasped, but he only used it to peer through the scope. Lowering it again, he sent her a thought-filled look that stirred her uneasiness. He shook off his rucksack, opening the flap to take out his sturdy laptop.

 

Curious,
Eryn
watched him rouse it from hibernation and access a program. One by one, he opened image files. They all showed pictures of men in uniform, toting rifles, their faces concealed by helmets and
camo
paint, moving stealthily uphill.
 

 

It dawned on
Eryn
that those were the same men she could hear below them. Startled, she looked up at Ike, who appeared tense but not the least bit harried. “What do we do?” she whispered.

 

He shut the laptop, slipping it back into his rucksack. “I’m going to distract them. Need to leave you here for just a minute. When you hear an explosion, drop down and cover your head. Stay that way till I get back.”
 

 
BOOK: The Protector
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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