Blinding bright white light, painfully so, surrounded by darkness. She struggled to keep her eyes open, even the tiny slivers they were. Pain everywhere in her body. Her head felt as though it was actually split open. Noise, explosions, muffled shouts, she felt the sensation of moving, of falling. She grabbed onto something, an arm, a person. He came into her line of sight, momentarily blocking out that intense light. A man, his face leaned in close, the white light a distant halo around him.
He was saying something, quiet garbled words. Why couldn’t she hear or understand him? He had kind eyes, hazel-green, a helmet on his head like a soldier or SWAT would wear. His squared-off face was framed in a trimmed, dark beard with a mustache over lips that were still talking to her, words she still couldn’t hear and didn’t understand. He was handsome in a rugged, dangerous way. She was past the point of caring if he meant her harm. Darkness overtook her, and all the noise quieted. Bliss.
“I’m Jackson; I’m here to keep you safe. Stay with me,” he yelled above the gunfire, his face in hers as he cradled her in his arms. He easily lifted her petite frame from the floor. Her eyes had re-closed.
“You got her Jax?” Came through his comms.
“Roger that, Coop,” he replied, his eyes shifting across the room to where Cooper laid down cover fire.
“Exfil in five, four, three, two, one,” Coop counted down, and then a concussion reverberated through the room while the bright flash stunned the Tangos.
Jackson bolted to the door, past Cooper and cleared it without incident. He held her tightly to his chest, dead weight in his arms.
“Watch her head,” Doc’s voice came through his comms.
“You want to come take her?” Jackson demanded.
“Just keep the head up and as still as possible. She’s got one hell of a concussion,” Doc’s worried voice spoke as Jackson mounted the stairs, the first flight of the eight he’d run up with her one-hundred-twenty pounds of toned muscle and feminine curves clutched in his grasp.
“I’ve got her,” Jackson repeated with annoyance. This wasn’t his first go-around with a concussion. He didn’t need to be reminded.
He heard the pounding of Razor’s boots a flight up and Doc’s and Coop’s a flight down in concert with his own, interrupted with the intermittent gunfire echoing up through the stairwell. These assholes were tenacious. They really wanted her.
His chest was tight as he pushed himself harder. The strain and fatigue cramped his leg muscles and the heaviness of his breathing burned his chest by the time he reached the roof access door. Doc passed him on the stairs and stood, holding the door open for him.
The gust kicked up by the rotor blades of the Lakota UH-72A ahead, battered his face and sent her long black locks wildly whipping through the air. The whirl was loud in his already deafened ears, drowning out all other sounds. Razor stood near the chopper, his M4 CQBR at the ready. The setting sun was an orange blaze behind his solid form.
Jackson hurried over and slid in, seating himself way to the back of the bird on the floor, still cradling her in his arms. Doc crowded in beside him, immediately assessing her condition. Coop brought up the rear with both him and Razor jumping in. The pilot pulled it off the roof before the doors were even secure. The craft banked sharply to the left, clearing the roof and then it dropped below the roofline of the hospital, gaining speed.
Thirty minutes before
“On target in five minutes,” their pilot’s voice came through their comms.
Anthony ‘Razor’ Garcia turned off his pregame music, a playlist of the Stones, Doors, and Cream. John ‘Coop’ Cooper’s eyes snapped open from the purposeful focused state he had been in. He never called it meditating. Alexander ‘Doc’ Williams closed his medical kit, having spent the last twenty minutes reviewing his supplies, and Ethan ‘Jax’ Jackson turned off his country music playlist that he always listened to before going into a shitstorm.
The four men did one more check of their equipment. “Holden and his team are barricaded in the imaging lab suite, first floor, southwest corner, unknown number of Tangos. They knocked out the surveillance cameras,” Coop reported. He ran his fingers through his short-cropped blond hair before securing his helmet.
“They’re taking heavy fire, multiple casualties,” Doc added. He checked over his mags of ammo and grenades to be sure he was properly geared up.
“Let’s make this a quick in and out, exfil within twenty minutes of insertion, with the target,” Coop ordered.
“Roger that, your standard dustoff,” Garcia’s baritone voice acknowledged. He was fully geared up from head to toe. The black of the fatigues matching his deep-set eyes.
“Holden reports she is completely incapacitated,” Doc said, his steely gaze penetrating Jackson’s eyes. “She’s yours to get out.”
Jackson nodded, as was usually the case. He checked his weapons a second time. Rifle loaded and secure, Sig 320 9mm at his side, multiple mags of ammo secured everywhere there was space available.
The four black figures jumped from the chopper before its skids set down on the roof of the eight-story structure. They breached the rooftop access door and burst into the stairwell, weapons held at the ready. Heavy black boots thundered down the stairs, clearing each flight with the man in the front briefly covering the door to each floor until his teammates passed, and then falling into the rear of the group. Down to floor one where two armed Tangos stood down the hallway that was outside the stairwell door. They were in front of the closed double doors leading to the imaging suite. Jax and Razor took them out, a double-tap to each man’s forehead as they burst into the hallway.
They took out a half a dozen more in the area, working their way to the MRI room where Holden had fortified his position. Cooper spoke to him through the comms, so he knew friendlies were coming in. His position was being assaulted from the other side as well.
“I don’t suppose the MRI was completed and we know the extent of her head trauma,” Doc’s voice questioned.
“That’s a negative,” Holden replied. “The bastards hit us before there was a chance.”
“Breach, breach, breach,” Coop yelled. A blast sounded in concurrence with the bright flash of blinding white light. There were three Tangos inside, dug in, in well-shielded positions.
Three hours before
The convoy of a dozen red and white vehicles with sirens screaming and lights lit streamed out of the many parking lots of the Events Center converging on the interstate. Four different hospitals were the destinations. Three flight-for-life choppers had already left the scene with the more critically wounded. There were at least a dozen fatalities. This was the worst terrorist attack this city had seen. This kind of thing just didn’t happen here. It wasn’t New York, Chicago, or L.A. This was Dubuque, Iowa, for God’s sake!
It was a beautiful Events Center. The magnificent glass and limestone structure sat poised on the Mississippi River boasting over eighty-six thousand square feet of meeting space and over thirty-thousand square feet of exhibit halls. Well, it once had been a beautiful structure. About half of it was now a tangled, bombed-out mess.
Bryce Holden was on-site overseeing logistics for the event due to the number of high-ranking officials and foreign dignitaries that attended the event. The only win he could claim was that none of his charges had been killed, only unlucky civilians. He rode in the ambulance with whom he considered his only living witness. If he was correct, she had been with the brains controlling the shots of the attack all day in one of the small conference rooms in a secondary building not in use by the event.
The ambulances broke off into different directions, heading for the various hospitals and regional medical centers. The attackers came in fast and hard, four vehicles, an all-out assault on the three ambulances heading south. Holden had had the forethought to have an armored Humvee escort fall in with the convoy. It was a few vehicles back. At the first wave of the attack, the armored Humvee came in close to defend.
One of the other ambulances was hit before the attackers set their sights on his. The driver of his ambulance was hit, an instantly fatal headshot. The vehicle careened off the road, running out of speed in a field. When the back door was opened by the attackers, Holden was ready. He straddled the unconscious woman strapped to the stretcher. He popped two of them. The backup arrived before the next wave assaulted the opened ambulance. Holden pressed a bandage to his shoulder where the bloodstain instantly spread, looked like just a flesh wound.
The attendant riding in the back with them tried to fuss over his shoulder. Holden waved him off. One of the men from the Humvee lifted his witness from the stretcher and ran with her back to the Humvee with Holden and the EMT on his heels. Once inside it sped off towards the hospital. Holden knew his witness needed protection, and he knew of only one unit capable of securing her. He placed a desperate call for help to an old friend.
Jackson braced himself and held onto the woman as the chopper banked hard. Doc hovered over her, swaying with the movement. He was used to administering to his patients in all conditions. He was examining a gash on her forehead near her hairline on the right side that had been bandaged but had split back open and was bleeding. He stripped the original bandage off and swiped an alcohol pad over her face, clearing the blood. He applied a clotting cream to it and then applied three steri-strip skin adhesive butterfly bandages.
He had pushed her hair back from her face. The loose curls were a beautiful mane, falling over Jackson’s arm. Jackson couldn’t help but let his gaze wander over her features. She had a perfect, unblemished complexion. It was a good thing the gash was near her hairline. It would be a shame for the scar to mar her flawless face. She had high cheekbones and full lips on a heart-shaped face framed by all that thick, dark hair.
Jackson picked up another alcohol wipe and ran it over her chin and neck, removing the dried blood-splatter. The front of her dress had large blood patterns, arterial spray by the look of it. The skirt was dark blue, as was the sides and back of the dress, but across the bodice, it was a color block pattern with white and aqua blue, tank style with the neckline at her collarbone. Not sexy by any means, but very flattering. Her shoulders and arms were tanned, sexy, sculpted muscle in a feminine way. He wished he could see her walk towards him in this dress, without the blood. He bet she would be quite a sight.
“That’s good, keep that head up just where it is,” Doc said. He was palpitating the large purple bruise on the cheekbone and the temple to the right side of her face. “I don’t feel any breaks or soft spots. She’s not responding to the pain stimuli either, and the way I’m pressing on this it has to hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.”
That wasn’t good. Doc grabbed the front of her dress, pressed quite hard and shook her, trying to get her to respond. Nothing. Another bad sign. “Garcia get in here and do the fingerprint scans,” he called to the still figure who sat across the belly of the chopper. He had the device in hand, waiting.
“Medical records from the hospital and mission feed will be queued up when we board the plane,” Coop advised.
Doc flashed the penlight into each of her eyes. Her pupils were fixed and dilated. Her breathing was shallow, her pulse weak. More bad signs. Jackson watched him. He knew Doc well enough to know that Doc was worried by the thin line his lips were drawn into.
“Coming up on deck in four,” the pilot’s voice came through their comms. “You will be cleared for departure as soon as you’ve boarded.”
“Roger that,” Coop replied.
The chopper sat down right next to the Lear Jet. The men moved swiftly transferring themselves, their gear, and her onto the aircraft. Jackson once again carried her. He passed the control center equipment in the front where Cooper and Garcia had positioned themselves upon entry and he sat her in the passenger chair towards the rear of the fuselage that Doc had reclined for her. He secured her lap belt as Doc began to fasten the restraints over her legs per established protocols. Jackson was just gently taking hold of her bruised wrists to restrain them when she regained consciousness.
Disorientation, subdued lighting, and the sensation of moving. There was a man over her. She felt hands on her ankles. Panic set in. No! No! Don’t! She screamed out and inhuman sound, the wail searing her parched throat. “No! God-damn-it! No!” Her voice finally freed the words from inside of her head.
She fought, tearing her hand free from the man’s grasp. She kicked her legs free from the hold around her ankles. She tried to arch up, but her waist was weighed down. Her head pounded, an intense pain jolting her head with every movement she made. She felt her hands get captured, and they were restrained over her head. She couldn’t pull them free. She kept kicking with all her strength until her legs too were pinned in place.
“No!” She repeated several times, now crying hysterically. Her chest hurt, each breath burning.
A man leaned over her. “Easy, it’s okay. We’re not going to hurt you,” he said soothingly.
She felt movement and heard engines rev.
“I’m good, go!” He yelled to someone over his shoulder. And then his hazel-green eyes returned to her. They looked familiar. “Don’t fight. You’re safe. I’m Jackson. I’m here to protect you,” he said.
She felt the telltale bump of takeoff and was with it just enough to realize that what she saw around her was the cabin of a small airplane. She felt pressure in her ears and instinctively yawned to clear them.
Doc tapped Jackson on his shoulder. Turning to look, he saw why. Doc was pointing out bruising on her inner thighs. With all her kicking, her dress had bunched up to her hips. Fuck! No wonder she fought with everything she had left in her.
Jackson turned back to her. Her eyes were already fluttering closed. Her body had gone slack. She was no longer struggling to free herself. Doc pulled her dress back into place, secured her ankles with the restraining straps and covered her with a blanket. Then he rubbed a hand over his aching chin, over the bruise that was already forming from the solid kick she had landed there.
“Hey, stay with me,” Jackson called to her. He moved her hands back down along her sides. He reached over her body, secured her bruised left in the wrist restraint. When he glanced back at her eyes, they were open, and she was crying, her chest heaved with each breath. “It’s okay,” he told her. “You’re safe.”
She pulled against the restraints. “Please don’t,” she pled.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated, his head leaning in closer. He held her right hand up against her own chest with his much bigger hand.
“Don’t tie everything down, please don’t. Please leave my hand free.” Her voice was raspy and soft, pleading, as tears ran down her cheeks.
He rubbed his thumb over her palm. His eyes stared deeply into hers. They still didn’t know if she was a friendly or not. He really should restrain her all the way. “Are you calm now? Can I leave this hand free and you won’t take a swing at me or anything?”
“I won’t.” She stared at him so pathetically that he relented. He nodded. “I’m so dizzy. Can you let me sit up a little more?”
“Trust me, that would make it worse. You have a hell of a concussion. You’re going to feel like shit for a while.” She looked cold. He pulled the blanket up higher over her chest.
She tugged her hand free of his grasp and ran it over her eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. Then she slid her hand back down her face, clutched the edge of the blanket and her eyes drifted shut. Her body completely went limp.
Jackson and Doc stepped to the others as monitors came to life with images.
“She’s got bruising on her inner thighs,” Doc reported.
“Did you get the chance to do any more of an exam?” Coop asked Doc.
“No, but her panties are still in place. I can’t be sure.”
“She’s out. Do you want to do a quick exam?” Coop asked, his eyes fixed on her.
“No, if she comes to, while I’m doing the exam we’ll lose her cooperation,” Doc said.
“I’m not so sure that will matter,” Garcia interrupted, drawing their attention to the monitor. He restarted the mission feed he had just watched.
It showed the interior of a room, a standard conference room. She sat in a chair along a wall. A man approached her, his back to the camera. As he reached her, he turned to the side. She rose, reached into his coat, pulled out his gun, shot him twice in the chest at point-blank range. A second man moved in from the left, she shot him once before turning the gun on a third man who entered the frame moving in fast from the right. She fired three times at him before he went down. The second man came up behind her and took her to the ground with a solid tackle. He violently slammed her head repeatedly against the floor with what looked to be a tremendous force. And then a flash-bang went off and the Tac-Team swarmed in.
“Well, fuck me dead!” Doc voiced for them all.
Jackson peered back at her, still unconscious in the chair. He probably should go secure her free hand. “Did you reestablish communication with Holden?” He asked Cooper.
“Negative,” Cooper paused as he fiddled with the knobs on the equipment. “But let me replay his two messages.”
He replayed the first call to have them come in and take custody of her.
“Coop, I’ve got a witness I need secured. The bastards hit the ambulance. I’m not sure if they were trying to take her or kill her, but they came in fast and hard. They’re pros. Twelve ambulances pulled away with injured, somehow, they knew which one she was in. We’re in-route, requesting exfil at Northwest Regional Hospital.”
“Roger that, Holden. My team is on its way, ETA one hour.”
Cooper queued up another feed. “We’re being hit, damn-it, the hospital is under siege. How far out is your team Coop? We’re holed up in the imaging suite, I’ve got casualties!” The sound of gunfire was heard throughout the communication. “She needs exfil at all costs!”
“He called her a witness from the start,” Jackson pointed out.
“I’m not certain if he knew for sure.” Cooper would err on the side of caution. “We treat her as a suspect till we know.” He turned to Garcia. “You got an ID on her prints yet?”
“Affirmative,” he brought up info on several monitors. “Angela Matthews, age twenty-eight, single, no arrest record, an employee at the Event Center, an events manager, whatever that is. Her prints are on file from a previous job at a bank, a personal banker. Give me an hour, I’ll have a full dossier on her.”
Coop nodded. “Run her to ground. I want to know everything there is to know.”
Garcia’s lips curved into that devious smile he got when he was allowed to invade someone’s life. His fingers flew over the keyboard. This was the kind of shit that got him off, fueled his wet dreams, his teammates were sure. If he wasn’t such a good Operator, he would be holed up in the geek-room playing on computers all day.
Jackson pitied anyone who Garcia investigated. There wasn’t a secret they could have that he wouldn’t uncover. He glanced back at the dark-haired angel unconscious in the chair, her one free hand still clutching the blanket to her chest. She didn’t look peaceful, by any means.
Cooper switched one of the monitors over to a live news feed covering the bombing of the Events Center. Oh boy, team coverage, the kind of news event that network television lived for. Hours upon hours of reporting would take place from the area designated for camera crews. So-called experts would give their opinions and suppositions from comfortable studios.
What would have remained at ground zero, with all the agencies on-site, would be an alphabetic cluster-fuck of epic proportions. NSA, CIA, FBI, ATF would all be conducting their own investigations. Homeland would try to coordinate. Someone way above his paygrade would have to designate one entity over another in charge. Cooper was glad his unit would have no part in any of it.
After Jackson changed into civvies, comfortable jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt, he stowed his assault gear and then he sat in the seat beside her. She came to again, coming awake startled and disoriented, her eyes flashing around fearfully.
“It’s okay, you're safe,” he said, leaning into her line of vision. “I’m Jackson. I’m here to protect you,” he told her again, patiently, knowing short-term memory loss was a given with a bad concussion.
“Where am I?” She asked staring into his familiar green-hazel eyes. Her head pounded, the worse pain she had ever felt.
“You're safe.” He took hold of her free hand. “They’re not going to get anywhere near you.”
“Thank you,” she moaned softly. “My head hurts, really bad,” she said, her big brown eyes begging his to make it better. She didn’t notice that her other limbs were tied down.
“I know. You have a concussion. It’s going to hurt like hell for a while.”
“Can’t I have some Tylenol or something?”
“No.” He shook his head, his lips forming a small and sympathetic expression surrounded by a nicely trimmed mustache and beard. “No medications with a concussion for the first twenty-four hours. We don’t want to mask any symptoms.”
She breathed out heavily and stared at their joined hands. “May I have some water, please, I am so thirsty.” Her voice was raspy.
He was stunned by her gentle manner, her polite pleading. She seemed so fragile. She didn’t seem like the same woman he saw take that Tango’s gun and shoot the three of them or had fought for her life against Doc and him. He summoned Doc to them, asking about the water.
“How’s your stomach, you nauseous at all?” Doc asked her.
“A little, I’m more dizzy than anything. Can you help me sit up?” She tried to sit and realized she was tied down. She began to pull at the restraints with as much strength as she could muster, a panicked expression cutting across her face, fear overtaking her.
“Shh, it’s okay,” Doc said. “You're restrained for your own safety and ours.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
Doc rubbed his bruised chin. “You’ve got a hell of a kick, honey.”
“I did that?” She asked horrified. “I am so sorry.” She sounded sincere.
Doc was glad she could see his chin and understand what he was saying. With the way her head had been repeatedly slammed against the floor she shouldn’t even be conscious.
With Doc’s blessing, Jackson helped her to take a drink of water. She clutched an airsick bag in her free hand, ready, but didn’t need it. As the cool liquid ran down her throat, a chill gripped her. She pulled the blanket more tightly around herself, pulling it from her feet.
“Where are my shoes?”
Jackson chuckled, looking at her toes, just noticing her toenails were painted a glittery dark blue. “I don’t know. They must have gotten lost somewhere along the way.”
“They were Kate Spades,” she moaned.
“I’m sure she will understand that you lost her shoes given the situation you were in.”
“No, not a person, a designer. They were three hundred dollars! I saved forever to buy them.”
He laughed at her, concerned with her shoes when she had nearly died. Then he noticed she shivered, or was she trembling? “Are you still cold?”
She nodded, fighting to keep her eyes open. He covered her with another blanket and got a pair of his own socks from his bag. He slid his large socks onto her tiny feet, his lips forming a smile at the sight. His mind went where it shouldn’t, her toes, his mouth, his tongue swirling around those pretty glittery, dark blue toe nails.
He retook the seat beside her and held her hand. He noticed her fingernails painted with a skin-tone pink on the bottom, a strip of white at the tips. He couldn’t recall what it was called when they painted it that way, but it looked very feminine and drew his eyes. He also couldn’t help the arousal he felt from fingering the soft skin, of her hand, of her cheek. He knew he had to step away from her. His thoughts were not where they should be regarding her. Shit! He was thinking like a horny sixteen-year-old.
Doc and Cooper took an incoming call from their boss, Samuel Shepherd. A secondary team had arrived moments after their departure from the hospital. They had finished the job eliminating the threat. Shepherd relayed the quick statement obtained from Bryce Holden before Holden was wheeled into surgery. Cooper learned that Holden did indeed consider her a witness.
It wasn’t long after that she lost consciousness again. Doc was concerned that she was dehydrated. If she had been a hostage all day, as Holden had thought, she probably hadn’t drunk much if anything all day. She had only swallowed a few ounces before passing out.
It would be several hours until they were at the silo. He’d wait till then to assess the need for an IV. He was also hoping that in a few hours she would regain consciousness and maintain it for more than a few minutes. She didn’t like to be restrained, that was clear, and he preferred to treat the cooperative. IV needles and tubes didn’t do any good if the patient pulled them out. Time would tell if she would be cooperative or not.
Doc relieved Jackson in the seat next to her so Jackson could step away and get solid sleep, unaware it was what Jackson needed. Jackson knew his focus on her was way out of line. There was something about her that drew his attention in a way it should not. He tried to recall how long it had been since he’d had sex with a woman. They had been on back-to-back-to-back missions for over a month. Obviously, it had been too long.
Cooper sacked out in another reclined chair falling into REM sleep almost immediately. Doc would doze, but he never slept soundly when he had a patient. They had been up for twenty hours already, coming off a previous Op when the call from Holden came in.
Doc glanced at Garcia who still clicked away at the keyboard with energy. Then he glanced back at the woman. Poor thing, she had no idea how invasive Garcia would be. Everything about her life would soon be laid out before the four of them. He retrieved a couple of ice packs from his bag and placed one on her eye, the other on the laceration at her hairline.
Doc’s mind wandered to the bruises on her inner thighs. Those only meant one thing, attempted or completed was the question. Treating rape victims was nothing new, he’d seen some horrendous injuries, another reason for hoping she would be cooperative. He reclined his chair and closed his eyes hoping to get at least a short nap.