"He should be out by now,” Latisha grumbled as she looked up from her rifle’s scope, adjusting the night vision before returning to squint at the coffee shop. “If he stays too long, she’s going to spook and run.”
“My princess of paranoia is already running,” Bill said, the faint accent he cultivated to give himself more class at odds with the old van, and Jen, almost unseen in the back doing her drug calculations, nodded in agreement. Her long blond hair was almost white where the glow of the tablet caught it, and her face even paler.
“It’s like a fortress in there,” Jen said, the young psychologist and low-level anchor still in the dress suit she’d been wearing when he’d sent her in to evaluate Peri’s state of mind and get a weight estimate. “The glass is bullet resistant. The doors are reinforced. There might be a way in through the upper apartment. It must have cost a fortune. What is she so scared of?”
“Herself.” Bill fiddled with his ring, the heavy metal sporting a raised Opti logo. Jen thought about that for a moment, then went back to her calculations. Realizing the ring had turned into a nervous tic, Bill laced his hands and looked across the dark, slushy street. Three blocks over, the street zoned to service the surrounding business area was alive with jazz and late dining, but here it was still. Peri would use the front door. She was too intuitive to not know they might be there, too proud to not face them head-on.
A hum pulled his attention up, the streetlight catching a glint of shiny plastic. Bill reached for the radio. “I said all drones on the ground. Minimal presence. Minimal!”
“It’s not ours,” an anonymous voice came back, and Bill frowned at the carrier logo.
“She doesn’t know that,” he growled. “It’s after sunset. Bring it down.”
“For Christ’s sake, Bill. I’m not done yet,” Jen com- plained, and Latisha grinned, gum snapping as the blond woman hustled to finish her calculations. Bill leaned for- ward, watching the black silhouette against the lighter darkness, satisfied when an almost subliminal pulse flick- ered over the van’s electronics and the drone dropped like a rock. From the back, Jen sighed, her motions slow as she restarted her tablet and began her calculations again, the tactical EMP flick having taken out her glass-based technology as well.
A high-Q drone wouldn’t have gone down, and satisfied it was a carrier—illegal on the streets after dark—and not local security disguised as one, Bill settled back into the seat. His three-piece suit kept him from feeling the cold coming in Latisha’s open window, but he leaned to turn the van’s heat warmer when Jen pulled her light jacket tighter about herself. Her silk blouse was untucked, and a thin strip had been ripped from the bottom, now fixed and fluttering from one of the nearby trees to give Latisha an indication of the wind.
Sending a drafter to down another drafter was chancy, but this, too, was an evaluation. Latisha would dart Peri when Bill had the proof to back up what he already knew: Peri was the more effective agent despite Michael’s considerable drive and skill. The antidrafting portion of the drug would take effect immediately, but the sedative needed time to work. Michael would keep her occupied until it did.
Uncomfortable, Bill shifted his bulk. The seat was too small for him and his lip curled at the ugly vinyl. He’d be concerned if he wasn’t already confident of the outcome. Peri was a bitch and difficult to work with, but Michael still had his own agenda, not yet tempered or tamed. Even with the safeguards that Opti’s chemists had built into their latest miracle—currently sitting in Jen’s med pack—he didn’t trust Michael with it. Bill knew how to manipulate Peri—hell, he’d given her most of her hangups and coping techniques. Michael . . . not so much.
“Thank you,” Jen said, having noticed the new warmth, and Latisha frowned, anxious for her ammo. It was late, and the cold wind funneled between the buildings kept the dog walker’s head down and his pace fast. The coffee shop was empty but for Peri and Ron. A thrill spilled through him. Waiting was the second-best part. Seeing Peri’s face when she realized she was in his stable again would be the first. No one left him. Ever. She’d thank him someday.
“Ron is out,” Latisha said softly, her low voice filling the van. Her rifle was cradled in her thin hands, scarred thumb caressing it through the holes in her gloves. “Jen, I need those darts.”
“Hang on,” she said tersely. “I’m guessing at how much adrenaline will dilute it, and it ’s not exact. I’ll make up a half-dose dart to follow it with in case the first isn’t enough, all right?”
“Holy shit,” Latisha swore, jerking Bill’s attention up. “Look at the size of that coffee.”
Vinyl creaked as Bill leaned forward, his eyebrows rising when he spotted the dark shadow picking his way down the walk to where Michael waited. It was a venti, and if the man couldn’t hold his bladder the next half hour, Bill would shoot Ron himself.
Jen pushed forward between him and Latisha, her light perfume spilling over him. “Are you kidding?” she whispered, her shirt hanging open. “He can’t possibly handle all that.”
“Can’t blame a person for trying,” Latisha said, smiling wickedly as her gaze rose from behind Jen’s shirt.
Bill’s breath hesitated as his thoughts realigned and the question of why the onetime Olympic sharpshooter would never agree to drinks with him was answered. Then he smiled back. It was hard to find fault with someone who liked the same things he did.
His expression slowly relaxed when he realized Ron was coming their way. Fingers made thick from hand-to-hand, he reached for the radio. “Michael? Talk to me.”
The circuit popped open. “The useless son of a bitch used his phone to pay for it,” Michael said, his anger obvious. “You take him. He’s yours. I’m doing this alone.”
“He used his phone?” Jen exclaimed, and Latisha leaned to open the side door as Ron approached. “You can’t muddle p-cash.”
“Maybe if you wouldn’t keep insulting my best anchors, you’d have a good one!” Bill barked, then caught his temper. Rubbing his forehead, Bill searched for strength. Drafters were prima donnas. They tended to shut down if you yelled at them.
Cold air shifted his short hair as Ron lurched in, the electronics-laden van barely rocking. “You used p-cash?” Jen demanded, and the man hesitated, eyes wide in alarm.
“It’s fifteen dollars a cup! No one told me to carry that much cash.”
Bill’s shoulders tensed. Ron was Michael’s third anchor in two months. He’d known he wouldn’t last long since Michael preferred his anchors curvaceous and willing to extend their working relationship to the bedroom, but he’d been hoping to get at least one task out of him.
“This is intolerable,” Michael said coldly over the radio, unaware or, more likely, not caring that Ron might hear. “I’m beginning to wonder if you secretly want her to escape, Bill.”
Peeved, Bill thumbed the connection closed. Everyone on-site was at least a low-level anchor. Calling it off wasn’t an option. Helen was getting impatient for a live trial.
Aghast, Jen smacked Ron’s shoulder. “You idiot.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ron cajoled, his ears reddening as he hunched, his head inches from the ceiling. “She’s running. She may look like she’s closing up for the night, but there’s a cat carrier behind the counter and the printer is unplugged.” Knowing he’d made a mistake, he extended the huge coffee to Bill. “It’s really good.”
Latisha chuckled. “For fifteen dollars, it had better have my aunt’s special water in it.”
“And it’s possibly drugged,” Bill said sourly. “Ron, you just bought yourself a permanent desk. Peri won’t look up the number, but the authorities investigating her abduction will.”
“But,” the man fumbled, face darkening in the dim van. His expression abruptly shifted when he figured it out. “Ah, shit.” Falling back into the long bench seat, he stared at the silent equipment, disgusted. “I could go back in and dart her while her back is turned,” he said, knowing this was the last time he’d ever see the field.
Latisha chuckled, thanking Jen when she handed her the darts. Bill was tempted to let the idiot do just that. “What a capital idea,” he said as he watched Peri at the register. She looked smaller than he recalled. &ld quo;You don’t think she has a handgun? She can shoot first, ask questions, and draft later to fix a mistake.”
Ron shrank down, embarrassed.
“You’re right that she’s coming out,” Bill added, his tone distracted. “If our own beloved Allen Swift was there this afternoon, she knows her anonymity is blown and is running.”
Jen threw her long-empty cup into the trash, clearly wishing she could chance Ron’s abandoned venti. “It was Swift. How do you think I found her? She’s sitting on a medical dump to hide the tracker you gave her.”
A real smile lifted through him as he recalled Peri’s bull- headed bravery when she chose to be chemically tagged for the chance to blow Opti all to hell, but it soured fast. Seeing her emptying the trash and washing other men’s dishes didn’t give him the satisfaction he’d been hoping for. As much as a pain in the ass as she was, she was better than this. It’d feel good to have her back. Anchors were expend- able, but he did try to make lasting relationships with his drafters. Usually.
Peeved, he thumbed the circuit open. “Michael. Your call.”
“I can down her alone” came back immediately.
Bill seriously doubted it, and he wondered who would draft first: Michael, who drafted only as a last resort due to a mistrust of the anchor who would bring his memory back, or Peri, who had none and would suffer permanent memory loss. “Okay, we’re a go,” he said, and he could almost feel the tension rise as small pockets of his people readied themselves for 125 pounds of unforgiving quick fists possibly coming their way.
Latisha was humming a creepy southern lullaby to her rifle as Peri turned the “Open” sign around and pulled the shade on the thick glass door. Her humming ceased. “Cat carrier is on the counter,” she said softly, her words jerking through Bill. “Big purse next to it. Here we go.”
“Ready, Jen?” Bill asked, and the woman muttered she was, restraining harness jingling as she checked it. Bill leaned forward. He wanted to get out so he could see better, but contented himself with a pair of night goggles, adjust- ing the contrast until they could handle the overhead light bathing everything in a goggle gray-green. She’d fight until she downed Michael or was bested, and if that happened, she’d draft and run. If Latisha missed, they’d have to track her down like a rabbit.
“What if she goes out the back?” Ron asked.
Bill’s nose wrinkled at the stink of the man’s sweat. “She has too much pride to retreat,” he said as Peri turned off the lights before picking up her purse and cat carrier and heading for the door. His anticipation quickened. The best prey were those who were hunters, and Peri was a savage when cornered.
Latisha steadied her rifle, tracking Peri, though she wouldn’t shoot until Bill told her. Bill held his breath as the faint tinkling of the door chimes sounded. Large purse over her shoulder, Peri set the cat carrier down on the piled snow to lock the door.
“I love this part,” Jen whispered as Peri bent to pick the carrier back up, and a flash of desire, misplaced but potent, snarled like knots through Bill. He’d been a field agent once—that’s how he knew Peri wanted to come back. She couldn’t stay away any more than he could.
“There’s my girl,” Latisha said, then jerked her finger away when Peri abruptly threw the cat carrier into the shadows, grunting in the effort.
“Son of a bitch!” Michael shouted, falling into the manicured bushes with the carrier on his chest. The sound of breaking dishes came loud through Michael’s live mic, a sliding crash as he shoved the heavy, dish-laden carrier off him and got up.
Bill’s breath came fast and held. His grip on the goggles tightened when Peri jumped at Michael, her slim fingers reaching for her boot knife even as she landed on him, pinning him to the icy walk. “Where is he? Right now!” she shouted, so loud that he could hear it before Michael’s open mic could bring it to him.
“Son of a—”
She flicked the knife, nicking the skin under his eye and then shifting it to his throat to keep him unmoving. Bill smiled, proud of her when her expression changed in recognition.“You’re Michael,” she said, the words out of synch with her lips. “Who’s with you? Bill?”
Pressed into Bill’s back, Jen made a soft noise of disap- pointment. “I would’ve thought he’d have lasted at least a punch or two.”
Bill lowered the goggles. “Michael knows her idiosyn- crasy about only killing people who kill her first. It will get interesting now.”
Michael was laughing, thinking her self-imposed rule a weakness. The derision would only make Peri that much more determined. “Peri Reed,” he mocked. “You cut your hair.”
“There she goes!” Jen exclaimed as Peri lurched off Michael to flee, and Bill put a hand on Latisha’s arm to stop her.
“Wait,” he whispered as Michael scrambled after her. Still on the ground, he caught Peri’s ankle and gave a yank. Peri turned even as she fell, her first kick missing. Michael still had her foot, though, and she used it to drag herself closer before he could break it, nailing him right in the chest with a boot heel.
Swearing, Michael let go. His foot flashed out, knocking her Glock into the road, where it skittered into the far gutter. Angry, he was on her in half a second, flinging her knife away and pinning her to the sidewalk. “Little soldier girl, playing army,” the man said.
Bill’s lips turned down in disappointment, but with a curious flip of vertigo, the world flashed blue and he was back a second in time, watching Peri roll away instead of reach for her knife. An instant of red coated his vision, and time meshed.
“Did you see that?” Jen exclaimed, her perfume strong as she leaned between them for a better look. “She hop-skipped to keep her knife!”
“Don’t shoot her!” Bill exclaimed when Latisha readied her rifle. Eyes glued to the pair, he watched Peri score on Michael before the man backed off, reassessing the threat and the bloody line she’d scratched into him in warning. Peri was darting glances into the night, looking for them, knowing Michael wouldn’t be here alone.
“I thought you said whoever resorted to drafting first was the poorer agent,” Jen said, and he waved his hand impatiently for her to shut up so he could hear them.
“That hop-skip was tactical, not escape based.”
Peri and Michael were circling, making Bill breathless. Watching her work had always been a pleasure. “You walk away. I walk away,” Peri said, voice small through Michael’s mic. “No one dies.”
Michael was grinning, an almost childlike anticipation on him as he misjudged his own worth. He wouldn’t understand until he was choking on his own blood, laughing probably, at the rare occurrence of being wrong, his ego greater than his true capabilities. But as Michael was truly gifted, he could be excused. Bill never should have brought him into the program, but drafters were so rare, even a psychotic one was useful.
“Right,” Michael said, giving away his intention a fateful second before attacking.
She was ready, blocking his front kick with her palm, blocking his straight punch with her scarf, then using it to tangle his next spin kick and yank him off balance. Pride warmed Bill. She was keeping her distance as she looked for another way out. She didn’t like to kill, avoided it when she could, called it a failure when she was forced to.
Still tangled, she gave him a shove and he fell on the ice, not rolling fast enough to entirely evade her jab to his thorax. It caught him on his cheek, and she spun to her feet before he could get a grip on her.
Michael had stopped laughing. His expression was ugly as he rose and felt his bruised face. Disappointment filled Bill, and he watched now only to see how she would bring him down. “Offer is still open,” Peri said even as she looked into the sharp black-and-white of a snowy night for the best way out.
“Michael, get back so we can dart her,” Bill said into the radio, not surprised when the man launched himself at her in a silent rage.
Like the artist she was, Peri pivoted, smacking the back of his knee in passing. Michael’s leg crumpled, and she caught his arm, jumping two seconds back when he got a grip on her.
Bill watched in a blue-sheened world as again she kicked his knee, this time shoving him into the lamppost. Time caught up, flashed red, and Michael hit the post with a dull thwap.
Stunned, Michael reeled, trying to stay upright. “You little bitch!” he shouted, and she straight-kicked him back to hit it again.
“Oooh, twice in a row,” Jen said in admiration.
Latisha watched, her finger far from the trigger. “Did she do what I think she did?”
Bill nodded.“The hop-skips?” he asked. “Yes. They both know they’re happening until after they’re done, and then they forget.”
“How can she not know?” Latisha asked in awe. “It’s beautiful!”
“It is, isn’t it.” He was watching through the goggles, slightly queasy at the tiny shifts in time. “It’s hard to notice little jumps in the heat of it all.”
And yet she kept doing it, making Michael more and more incensed as she chipped away at him. Bill knew he should stop it, but he didn’t, wondering whether Peri was enjoying the chance to use her skills as much as he was enjoying watching her work. He jerked, thinking it might be the end when she got a foot between his and she yanked him down. He’d seen that look in her before, and he could hardly breathe as they fell together, Peri following him into the street.
Michael was after her dropped knife, but she reached it first, eyes alight as she threw it at him even as she rose. Michael didn’t even notice it lodging in his leg, and motions graceful, she jumped at him, her foot landing squarely atop the hilt, jamming it deeper.
That he felt, and she fell to the salt-wet pavement as Michael gasped. Jen cried out a warning when he kicked at her like a playground bully. She rolled, jumping back half a second to roll sooner so he’d miss. In a silent rage, he followed her, but she’d found the broken dishes, and she raked a shard across his face when he got too close.
“My God. She’s cutting him to shreds!” Jen said.
It was over. “I’m calling it,” Bill said tightly, his pride in Peri eclipsed at the embarrassment that he had ever thought Michael might have had a chance. He was good, but Peri was the queen of last chances.
“You want me to dart her?” Latisha said, eyes wide. “He’s out of control.”
Grim, Bill shook his head. “Shoot him first.”
Jen scrambled for the back to make another dart for Peri, but Bill knew there was no time, and the half-dose dart Latisha had wouldn’t be enough even in the best of situations.
Motion fast, Latisha sighted down the scope. “This isn’t going to drop him.” Three heartbeats later, the puff of air shocked through Bill. Michael bellowed, furious as he pulled the dart out. Peri’s head came up. She was going to run. She had to.
Bill thumbed the radio on. “All backup,” he said calmly. “Bring her in.”
“You son of a bitch!” Michael exclaimed, and Peri leapt for the darkness. Four men were tight behind her. “She’s mine. Mine!” Michael shouted. He was beginning to stagger, but he swung at the man trying to drag him away, and they both sprawled into the slushy gutter.
It was three to Peri’s one now, and as Latisha looked for an opening, Peri sent the most eager back with a front kick, spinning to hit the second with a crescent kick. He stum- bled, going down, but the first had recovered and grabbed her about the waist from behind.
“That was dumb,” Latisha said as Peri broke her attacker’s nose with her head, then probably a rib when she threw him over her shoulder to hit the curb. Red splattered fan- tastically across the snow.
“Get Michael down!” Bill shouted into the radio when the idiot staggered up and pulled a man off Peri. Recovered, she did a fast palm strike, hitting Michael’s nose. Disgusted, Bill threw the radio at the dash as Michael fell back in the shrubbery, blind from the tears and blood. “Shoot her, too,” he demanded as he reached for the door and got out. “I want her down. Now!”
Irate, Bill jogged to the street, Ron tight behind him. If Michael got ahold of her, he’d kill her. Bill’s thick hand smacked into his hip holster, and he pulled his weapon. “Peri Reed! Stand down!”
Peri spun. Behind her, the man she just kicked fell to into the snowbank, clutching his ribs. She poised, her thoughts almost visibly tumbling through her: recognition, hatred.
“It’s time to come home,” he said softly, and then guilt joined her expression.
The hesitation was her undoing. With an audible thump, the second, half-dose antidrafting/sedative dart thunked into her arm, right through her coat.
Peri frantically pulled it out, but the damage had been done. “No,” she groaned, no longer able to draft her way out of the mistake. Ron stupidly rushed her.
“Wait!” Bill called, one hand outstretched, the other raising his Glock. It felt small in his hands, and he hoped the sight of it might slow her down enough to listen. He’d bought a half hour of police ignorance, but a gunshot would negate that.
Slow from the drugs, Peri spun, slamming her foot into Ron’s face. A dull crack of his neck breaking made Bill wince, and then Ron fell, dead before he hit the ground. “I don’t want to come back,” Peri rasped as she staggered. “That’s your warning, Bill. Understand?”
But she’d seen his Glock and the drug had done its job, and he shook his head. “Don’t make me shoot you, kiddo. You can’t draft your way out of this. Not for another hour at least. Besides, I have something you want.”
“You son of a bitch,” Michael slurred as he tried to claw his way upright using the lamppost. “You promised it to me!” he exclaimed, slipping back down to the slush and filth.
“You want to remember, yes?” Bill said, motioning for the tightening circle of agents to back off before they spooked her. She was like a wild horse, untamed and ready to run. “Be your own anchor? No one telling you what’s real and not?” he added, hiding a zing of excitement when her gaze slid to Michael, still rambling in a dangerous, drug-induced tirade as he lashed out at anyone coming near. “I can give you that now,” he said gesturing at the van. “Let’s talk.”
Peri’s eyes shifted from him to Michael, weighing the man’s drugged rage against Bill’s confident, welcoming smile. Slowly she rose to her full height, trying to hide the sedation, such as it was. “No cuffs.”
“No cuffs,” he agreed, knowing her quick agreement was only half due to wanting the increased privacy and time to metabolize the drug to make escape easier. He was her handler; she was fighting ten years of conditioning. She might not trust him, but she’d listen if she thought she had a way out. She didn’t. Her need to remember had chained her. All that was left was her realizing he was making her a god.
“Good girl.” Bill’s grip tightened on the Glock. “After you.” He lifted his head. “Back off!” he shouted. “I want everyone to stand down! And clean up this site. We are to be gone in forty seconds!”
“I’m not your girl, Bill,” she whispered breathily. Her pace to the van was slow to hide the effects of the sedative. The six men bracketing her followed at a respectful distance. She was free to kill and maim, and they had to hold without damaging her. Such was the rarity of her skill. Such was the pearl of his Peri.
“I’m going to make you perfect, whether you want it or not,” he whispered as he holstered his Glock, anticipation pooling in him.
One of his cars was pulling up, a second one behind it. Sirens sounded, faint in the distance. Even without gun- play, his window had been compromised. “Get him out of here,” he said, gesturing at Michael. Only now did two men approach, efficiently bundling him into the first car. There was a bellow of anger, and Bill smiled, thinking Peri’s knife had just come out.
Her rifle uncocked and hanging over an arm, Latisha ambled forward. Peri’s wet scarf was over her arm, and a smile quirked her lips as she watched Peri be escorted to the van. “Did that go well or not? I can’t tell.”
“One dead? Yes. It went well,” he said as Ron was zipped into a bag.
“Mr. Heddles? What do you want to do with the cat?”
“Cat?” Bill turned to the agent holding Peri’s zipped purse. There was a wildly moving shape inside. Carnac, he thought, eyebrows rising. “Let it out of the bag,” he said, tak- ing the tattered, slush-soaked journal the man had tucked under his arm. It was one of Peri’s. She’d want it back, and having it on his person might keep her from running a few precious seconds more.
Bill strode to the van, leaving others to collect Peri’s Glock and broken dishes. He was heady with the antici- pation of working with her again. Even better, Helen would be pleased, and with that, she’d get off his back and let him work.