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Authors: Marliss Melton

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The Protector (5 page)

BOOK: The Protector
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Studying her savior from the back seat, she wondered if she should thank him now or later. He sat rigidly at the wheel, his jaw still jumping. Every now and then, his vigilant gaze trekked toward the rearview mirror to skewer her, making her pulse leap.

 

Ike Calhoun. Up to about a year ago, her father used to speak of the Navy SEAL by that name regularly and with affection. He’d even emailed her digital photos of a smiling, bearded warrior with commentaries like “The son I never had” or “You’d like this one,
Eryn
.”

 

She had liked the looks of him. But the clean-shaven, grimfaced man at the wheel scarcely resembled the Ike Calhoun her father knew. If not for the green-as-grass eyes or the familiar angles of his nose and cheekbones, she’d have thought him a different man.

 

A memory worked its way loose. Something had happened to disappoint her father. There’d been a wartime tragedy, a toll of casualties. Her father had been vague on the details since they revolved around Special Ops, but one thing had come across very clearly: He had opposed Ike’s decision to quit the military.

 

As
Eryn
watched, Ike tugged off his gloves and set them aside, revealing hands that had been exposed to the elements. Long, powerful-looking fingers lightly and expertly gripped the steering wheel.
 

 

Why had her father sent him, of all people? And where was he taking her? The questions vied for articulation, but her tongue felt suddenly immobile. Her thoughts were growing foggier by the moment. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that pill.

 

She assured herself that wherever they were headed, it was bound to be safer than the FBI’s so-called safe house. She was in good hands now. Her father, who’d probably been fed-up with the FBI’s insistence on no communication, had intervened again on her behalf.

 

Tipping her head against the headrest,
Eryn
let her weighty eyelids close. Her body relaxed into the cloth seat as she heaved a great sigh of relief. Winston’s hot breath fanned her cheek.
I could be dead read right now, but I’m not.
She could feel her heart beating slowly and steadily in her chest, proof that she was still alive.
 

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

“Who the hell are we looking at?” SSA
Caine
demanded, as he, Jackson, and
Ringo
hovered over a screenshot of the man who’d taken their client.

 

Unable to find their client’s body in the rubble, they had hastened to the Mobile Command Center to review their surveillance tapes. It was then that they realized camera three by the back door had been sabotaged, having failed to capture
Eryn’s
panicked departure, which camera four had picked up—only they hadn’t seen that, having been riveted to cameras two and three showing the UPS man on their front stoop.
 

 

No one had been more dismayed than Jackson to see the suspicious neighbor drawing
Eryn
into his condominium.

 

Of course, she was no longer there. No one was. A quick search of the building and several well-placed phone calls revealed that Sergeant Hal Houston was drilling with the National Guard that weekend, which made the identity of the man occupying his condo a complete unknown.

 

All the agents could make out under the bill of the man’s cap was a straight nose, tightly-held lips, and a firm jaw. He was thirtyish, Caucasian, physically fit, and he’d left no fingerprints.

 

Hence the gloves, Jackson thought, berating
himself
even more severely than his supervisor had.

 

“He doesn’t look like a terrorist,”
Ringo
mused. One of the lenses of the agent’s glasses was cracked. He had a nasty contusion on his right shoulder. But he’d refused to let the ambulance take him to the hospital.
 

 

“Because he’s not,” Jackson murmured, and both his colleagues frowned at him.
   

 

“Are you guessing again, Maddox?”
Caine
needled.
 

 

“With all due respect, sir, I can tell you who he is,” Jackson insisted. “I’ve seen his kind before.”
 

 

Caine
folded his arms over his chest. “Okay, Rookie,” he said with measured patience. “Tell us. Who is he?”

 

“A professional soldier, sir, sent by McClellan to get his daughter back.”
He was sure of it.

 

Caine’s
upper lip curled, but he didn’t look as incredulous as Jackson thought he’d be. “What about the explosion? Was that McClellan’s doing, too?”
    

 

“No, sir.
That was the work of the terrorist.”

 

“And this guy just happened to be waiting out back when the bomb went off.”
 

 

Jackson had to admit the timing was remarkable, but McClellan had been badgering their field office about his daughter for days. He’d overheard Director Bloomberg telling
Caine
that McClellan was becoming a real pain in the ass. The Commander had wanted his daughter released to his personal representatives, while Bloomberg maintained that
Eryn
wanted to remain with the FBI. The bottom line was that McClellan now had what he wanted. At least Jackson hoped that was the case.
 

 

“Hold onto that theory, Rookie,”
Caine
advised, causing
Ringo
to divide a puzzled glance between them. “Right now, we still have to eliminate the UPS man as the suspect. Either he martyred himself for Allah, or he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ringo
, I’m volunteering you to get in touch with UPS. Find out everything you can about the driver. We’ll want the original packing slip for the box and a copy of their surveillance tape.”

 

“Yes, sir.”
Ringo
darted out of the sound room.

 

As the biometric lock on the door to the MCC clicked shut,
Caine
applied himself to transferring their image of the soldier over to their facial recognition program. The software took measurements and compared them to tens of thousands of archived images.
Caine
sent Jackson an indecipherable glance as the computer went to work. It finally chimed, reporting 668 possible matches for the image.

 

“Shit,”
Caine
muttered.

 

Jackson hid a private smile. He wondered if
Caine
had any clue what kind of special operator McClellan would have picked for the job. Not only had the man arrived in the nick of time, but he’d sabotaged camera three without any of them realizing till it was too late.
  

 

“Sir,” he said, recalling his incredulity when the bomb had detonated. “How did the terrorists find the safe house? You must have been followed when you went to collect our client’s dog.”

 

“Don’t be stupid, Jackson. Nobody followed me. We leaked the address of the safe house to the Brotherhood.”
 

 

For ten seconds, Jackson couldn’t speak. “But...why?” he finally managed.

 

Caine
shot him an impatient glance. “Oh, come on, Rookie. You know how the game goes: No bait, no fish. Don’t look so horrified,” he added. “You, of all people, should appreciate what’ll happen if we don’t make an example out of these bastards. This is the New Face of Terror that the CIA’s been warning us about:
 
Strike at the U.S. military by targeting their families back in the States. We’re the FBI, Maddox. It’s our job to see the bigger picture.”

 

“But, sir,” Jackson sputtered, “she could have been killed!”
 

 

“She isn’t dead, is she?”
    

 

Jackson sat back, stunned and disillusioned.

 

“Look at it this way,” his supervisor added more quietly. “We needed evidence. Now we have a body, the remnants of a bomb, and soon a packing slip. We are going to find these bastards, Maddox. And we are going to make such an example out of them that this new trend in terror will be snuffed out forever. Now, are you with me? Or don’t you have the balls for it?”

 

“I’m with you.” Jackson had squelched the devastation wrought by extremists in Iraq.

 

Odd, but what had happened today at a location that was supposed to be a closely guarded secret had the same smell and feel as that hot, unpredictable warzone.

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

Ike pushed out of the SUV into the smell of country air and horse manure. He’d tried calling Cougar while driving; only the winding road that took them far from the D.C. Beltway made cellular reception intermittent. Plus, the throw-away phone he’d bought for the mission was a cheap piece of crap that only worked when he tilted his head thirty degrees to the south.
 

 

Ike had made up his mind. Cougar, who’d been AWOL from the get-go, could damn well take over from here.

 

Glancing back at the Durango, he assured himself that Stanley’s daughter still slept. That pill she’d gulped down earlier had knocked her out, saving him the stress of listening to her nervous prattle. If the fates were kind, he could hand her off to Cougar without having to dredge up another word.
 

 

Nothing personal, but she was just the kind of woman who made feeling nothing, being nothing difficult. The less time he spent with her, the better.
  

 

“Come on,” he muttered, willing Cougar to answer. He had gotten Ike into this mess, and now he was nowhere to be found.

 

After ten persistent minutes, Ike finally made contact.

 

“Where the hell are you?” he growled with relief. “I’ve got the package. Tell me where to rendezvous and I’ll hand it off.”
  

 

“Change of plans, LT.”
     

 

Ike scowled at the cryptic message. “What do you mean?”

 

“I can’t leave Carrie right now.”

 

Cougar’s older wife—and the source for his nickname—had health issues. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer when Cougar joined Ike’s team.
 

 

“Can’t leave her,” Ike repeated. What did that mean?
  

 

“I’ve got hospice people all over the place. I can’t keep the package here.”

 

Hospice people.
Oh, Christ, then Cougar’s wife was...dying. “Damn.” Ike felt like the ground had just shifted. “I’m sorry, man.”
  

 

“Yeah, me too.”
 

 

At a loss for what more to say, he listened to Cougar’s labored breathing. The kid was holding it together, one breath at a time.
   

 

“What do you want me to do?” he finally asked. They still had a mutual problem to deal with.
 

 

“Pops said you can keep the package.”
 

 

“No.” Ike’s refusal was immediate and visceral.

 

“Once the excitement dies down, he’ll give you a call.”

 

He felt a distinctive throbbing in his temples. “Negative. My place isn’t right for her. There has to be another way,” he insisted, abandoning their code-speak.
 

 

“Well, there isn’t any other way!” Cougar exploded without warning into rage. “Carrie’s
gonna
die and there’s nothing anyone can fucking do about it!”

 

“I wasn’t saying—”

 

“I know what you were saying.
Why don’t you think about someone other than your fucking self, you selfish bastard?”

 

Pain whipped through Ike. Cougar wasn’t just talking about their current situation. He was making reference to the incident at
Yaqubai
. He closed his eyes and brought up a hand to squeeze the back of his neck. “I can’t take her to my place,” he reiterated.
 

BOOK: The Protector
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