Daria Hill’s eyes flew open as her bedroom door heaved and burst open. She bolted upright, a scream dying in her throat as she recognized the dark soldier in her doorway.
“Mercury?” Thank God it was him, and not the rebels making good on their threat to drive out Canadian nationals who remained in the embassy. “What—?”
“Get down! Get down!” Mercury turned and unleashed a thunderous round of bullets from his HK-MP5 down the hallway.
Daria scrambled from beneath her duvet and darted to the bulletproof closet beside the dresser, her embassy-designated place of security while she was a guest. Gunfire blasted on the other side of the wall before a horrible cracking explosion rumbled over the ground beneath her. She gripped the doorjamb as her heart smashed against her chest.
What the hell was—
Mercury ripped open the closet door. “Move! Move! Move!” He leaned down and yanked her out of the closet with one hand.
She had a single moment to inhale his familiar scent, feel the brief sense of security his presence always brought before he kicked through the locked patio doors.
“Go! Go!” He pushed her into the inky black night. Pandemonium raged everywhere. Terrified embassy staff pushed and screamed as multiple rounds of gunfire blasted into the night. Bodies went down in screams of pain while other horrified people tripped and stumbled over the writhing and sometimes still forms, unable to stop in the panic stampede.
Daria froze, transfixed, her mind overloaded with the rush of bleak stimuli until gunshots blasted just behind her.
“Go!” Mercury ordered his big hand suddenly around her bare upper arm, the impact snapping her mind into emergency evacuation mode. She jolted forward as a deafening boom and hurricane force threw her against the patio flagstones. Her view of the yard twisted into a horrific kaleidoscope of bloody colors as pain ripped down her legs and something hard and heavy surrounded her body and anchored her to the ground.
Mercury. The edges of his equipment and body gear dug into her back and sides as he rolled them both to stand. She shook her head trying to right the world as he pulled her around his back.
“Stay behind me. Right behind me!”
Disoriented, she took off behind him, staying at his booted heels, her right hand within reach of his shoulder, her left clutched into the hem of her nightgown, her bare feet pounding across the wide expanse of the manicured lawn…
Northern Ontario, Canada
“Goddammit, Meghan, you stubborn redhead! Don’t you dare let go!”
Meghan Christopher grit her teeth and glanced down at the jagged rocks that lined the cliff she dangled over. She concentrated on keeping her body straight for the inevitable drop to the cold river water below. This was such a bad idea—one of her worst—but she looked up and stared into Rusty Cundieff’s hard green eyes. He couldn’t hold onto her much longer, he was almost half way over the edge.
“I can make it, Rusty. I’ll go down straight to the water.” Rusty was strong—special-operations-soldier strong—but…
“Fuck. Don’t you—” His calloused hand locked more firmly around her wrist. “Meghan.” He growled that warning tone she was so familiar with.
She inhaled and made a fist with the hand he had locked on her, then immediately twisted her wrist the way he had taught her to force a captor to release a hold. His eyes speared into hers before she dropped like an arrow to the water below. She kept her arms iron straight against her thighs as she shot toward the water.
He was gonna be so pissed.
It was her last thought before she plunged, vintage hiking boots first, into the freezing water. Volumes of fluid jetted through her thick red-brown hair and shocked her warm scalp with its sudden cold temperature. Rusty’s angry outburst was cut off when water roared past her ears as she torpedoed toward the river pool floor . . .
“Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” George Orwell
Sudden intense heat followed the ear-shattering blasts and it didn’t matter how deeply Benjamin “Dragon” Dracovic slept, the black nightmare of combat always broke through his slumber and drenched his body in cold sweat.
Operation Snowflake. Darfur.
His unconscious mind relentlessly stumbled over the blurred details of that apocalyptic day. The child soldiers eyes that came at him with stark intensity, bleak and without hope, but full of blind determination. That child understood kill or be killed, and with his thin body barely able to hold the weight of the M4 let alone aim the weapon, he haphazardly launched the attached grenade with fatal results.
On impact, Jack’s body became ground zero and Benjamin’s nightmare burst into vivid and painful detail, the taste of Jack’s blood in his mouth, the blowback splatters of Jack’s skin on his face, and the bone fragments and body parts forever scattered in the jungle. It all crystallized in Benjamin’s nightmares in slow motion, HD, every split second a clear moment in time that flowed through his senses and washed over him like a boiling tsunami.
That day, Chimera Team, his team, a secret strike force of hand-picked elite soldiers from the military’s JTF2 special operations, had humped for hours through the tangled African jungle. They had been doing so for weeks, functioning on minimal sleep, lying in wait for their target, poised to strike at first sight. They stayed on point for hours, maintained sharp focus with senses heightened in uncomfortable vantage points up trees and in swamps. They waited, then humped, then waited some more.
Benjamin had been on point. Jack was at his back. Nothing unusual there, except the cold feeling in Benjamin’s gut. Something had been off long before he stopped and stared through the thick ferns and leaves. The team waited behind him, and would stay there in position forever if he didn’t move. They trusted his judgment and relied on his instincts. They were a team and functioned as a unit.
Benjamin stared through the brush in fixed concentration until a slight movement shifted behind a patch of leaves. He narrowed his focus, centered on the leaves and studied the outlines until the shadow slowly moved to reveal a scrawny but resolute kid, no more than ten years old. His small fingers gripped an M4, their eyes collided, and for an impossibly long moment, Benjamin’s mind stumbled over the fact that he was staring at a ten-year-old kid, armed and about to—
Stand down! Stand down! His mind screamed in contradiction to his hollered warning, “Contact! Grenade!” And in the blink of an eye, Jack’s body was ripped apart beside him. There was nothing left when Benjamin dragged himself to where Jack lay in pieces. Benjamin gripped what was left of Jack’s arm and looked into his friend’s fading eyes.
Promise me, Ben. Promise me you’ll take care of Katie…