Under fire, p.1

Under Fire, page 1


Under Fire

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Under Fire

  eBooks are not transferable.

  They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.

  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

  Samhain Publishing, Ltd.

  577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520

  Macon GA 31201

  Under Fire

  Copyright © 2008 by Beth Cornelison

  ISBN: 1-60504-054-1

  Edited by Bethany Morgan

  Cover by Natalie Winters

  All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  First Samhain Publishing, Ltd. electronic publication: June 2008


  Under Fire

  Beth Cornelison


  To Paul and Jeffery, with all my love.

  And to Lucienne, who challenged me to write this book. Thanks for all you do!

  This book took a great deal of research for me, and the following people were generous with their time and knowledge to help answer questions and keep me on track. Any mistakes in the book are solely mine.

  Thank you to:

  Valerie Robertson for her chemistry help;

  Dale Kuehl for his help in my nanotechnology research;

  Bruce Nelson and Phil Brollier for answering my questions about smokejumping;

  GayleAnn Redfield for her help with non-Western medicine; and

  Dozens of other people whose brains I picked here and there—too many to remember them all!

  Chapter One

  August 25

  Jackson McKay woke with a jolt.

  He sensed the intruders in his bedroom seconds before a sweaty palm was slapped over his mouth. Adrenaline instantly hummed through him, jump-starting his senses.

  Twisting away, he fought the hands grabbing him and the sheet wrapping around his legs. Fought until his right arm was wrenched awkwardly behind his back.

  He grunted as something hard, probably his assailant’s knee, jabbed him between the shoulder blades. The knee pinned him face down on the mattress. In the dark of his bedroom, he saw only black figures moving around his bed. Four of them, counting the ape on his back. Not good odds, even if he were trained in martial arts—which he wasn’t—or had a weapon—which he didn’t.

  “Get off of me, you sonofabitch!” Jackson growled.

  In answer, the cold kiss of a gun muzzle jammed against his ear. “Don’t. Move.”

  The dark tone of the command said these were no ordinary burglars. An icy chill washed through him. Emily! God, don’t let them hurt Emily!

  “What’s this about? What do you want?” Jackson struggled to clear his mind, to devise a plan of defense.

  “Get up, Doctor. Nice and slow. No sudden moves, or I’ll blow a hole in your over-educated brain.” The voice was male. Grim. Deep. Unrepentant.

  Jackson sat up, his arm still bent at a painful angle behind him. His bed creaked in the thick silence.

  “I have nothing of value in the house. Everything of worth is in the lock box at the bank.”

  His captor scoffed. “This isn’t about money. At least not yours.”

  The intruder jerked Jackson’s other arm behind him as well, and pain streaked through his bad shoulder. He heard the screech of tape ripping from the roll, his only warning before his wrists were bound. Adhesive pulled the hairs on his arms, and the fibrous tape cut into his flesh.

  “If not money, then what do you want?”

  The too-sweet scent of roses tinged the air. Grew stronger. Jackson stifled the urge to vomit. The smell of roses reminded him of death. Janine’s funeral. The memories still so raw, so fresh. He funneled his grief into anger, used the spike in his blood pressure to sharpen his mind, his best tool.

  Surely the break-in had triggered his security system’s silent alarm, alerted the police department. If he could stall, keep the goons away from Emily’s room until the cops arrived…

  “This will only hurt for a minute,” a female said, the source of the rose scent.

  When the woman seized his arm, he twisted and shrugged away. For his efforts, he earned a thwack across the jaw from the butt of the first man’s gun. His ears rang, and pain exploded through his head.

  He suppressed the impulse to rage at the intruders, tackle them and swing wildly, releasing pent-up fury for his wife’s violent death. But a ruckus would wake Emily, his eight-year-old daughter. She’d leave her room to explore the source of the noise, end up in the thick of things…

  God, he’d die if anything happened to his little girl.

  Stay in bed, Emily! Stay quiet!

  With his focus on the pain reverberating in his skull, he almost missed the prick in his arm. The sting in his bicep. “What the hell? What’d you just give me?”

  “A sedative. You’ll sleep soon. It will go much easier on you this way,” the woman said.

  “What will go easier? What are you bastards after?” But deep in his gut, Jackson knew. Somehow his research had been compromised.

  The overhead light snapped on, and Jackson blinked in the sudden glare.

  “Search the room. Keys, files, anything that might prove useful,” the man with the gun at Jackson’s head ordered.

  Jackson took the opportunity to assess his opponents. Three men in their thirties. No, four counting the one at the door. Sizes ranging from large to larger. Neat appearances. All fit. No weak link he could discern.

  And the woman. A little older. Maybe fifty-five. Not especially attractive, but well groomed. Young urban professionals gone bad.

  Already Jackson’s vision was beginning to swim. The drug they’d injected him with was fast acting. Powerful.

  “What about the kid, Rick? Should I get her now?”

  Jackson tensed. Hell, they knew about Emily! He battled the fuzzy feeling that muddied his brain. He had to protect Emily. Somehow. “She’s…not here. She’s at a friend’s house. Slumber party.”

  Rick, who seemed to be in charge of the group, narrowed a skeptical gaze on him then raised it to the woman.

  “It’s a school night,” she said.

  Rick flashed Jackson a smug grin. “Nice try, Doctor.” He flicked his hand over his shoulder. “Search the other rooms. The girl is here somewhere. We’ll take her with us, too.”

  “No! Don’t touch her!” When Jackson surged to his feet, the floor rocked and his legs buckled. Rick and the woman each grabbed one of his arms, restraining him.

  Gray circles skirted the edges of his vision. He fought the darkness that tried to claim him, the numbing lethargy that stole through his veins. He had to protect his daughter. Had to…

  “Emily!” he shouted, but his voice was no more than a rasp.

  He strained…to focus…stay awake…

  Emily…protect…have to…

  A black void sucked him down. Down. Down.

  Dad had been asleep for a really long time. Why didn’t he wake up and save them from these bad guys?

  They’d ridden in this dirty van for hours. Emily, curled on the floor in back, snuggled closer to her father. She inhaled the faint scent of laundry detergent that clung to his sleep shirt, a faded Yale T-shirt. The one Mom had tried to throw away many times, but Dad had pulled back out of the trash.

  Needing a happy thought to focus on, Emily closed her eyes and remembered Mom shaking her head at Dad and laughing.

  Fine, keep the scruffy
old thing. Maybe I’ll bury you in that shirt when you’re ninety!

  But Dad had buried Mom instead. In the pink church dress Mom said was her favorite.

  A knot of tears swelled in Emily’s throat.

  Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Crying got on the nerves of the guy in charge and made him yell.

  She cut her gaze toward the front passenger seat where the mean guy, Rick, was sleeping. He reminded her of her third grade gym teacher Mr. Hurley. Not just because of the way he yelled when she did stuff that irritated him, but because of his buzzcut hair and flat nose. And he was big like the football players Dad watched on TV every weekend. Wide shoulders and muscles in his chest and arms. He’d carried Dad to the van by himself.

  At first, she’d thought Dad was dead, and she’d screamed. If Dad died, she’d be all alone in the world.

  She felt really alone right now. In this dark van. Her dad not moving. She was hours and hours from home. Scared to death. And she had to pee. Bad.

  She tried to not think about having to pee, but the bumpy road they were on made the feeling worse. If only Dad would wake up, she’d feel so much better. Please, Dad. We’re supposed to be a team, remember? I need you now.

  A woman—Cara, she thought her name was—sat in the back with them. She’d fussed at Rick when he yelled at her for crying. She’s just a kid, Rick! Give her a break!

  Maybe Cara would help her. Mustering her courage, Emily sat up and leaned toward the woman across from her. “Excuse me.”

  Cara didn’t answer.

  Her chest tightening with dread, Emily raised her voice a little more. “Ma’am?”

  The woman lifted her head and rubbed her eyes.

  “Excuse me? I…I need to go to the b-bathroom.”


  Emily hoped the woman wouldn’t get mad at her for waking her. A fat tear plopped on Emily’s cheek, and she swiped at it. Don’t cry!

  “I have to pee.” Her voice only wobbled a little. Maybe over the rumble of the van’s engine the woman hadn’t heard the crack in her voice.

  Cara nodded. “Okay, hon. I sorta need a break too.”

  She didn’t sound mad. For that much, Emily was thankful.

  “Kenny,” Cara called to the driver. “We need a pit stop. Are we anywhere near a gas station or something?”

  “Are you kidding? Nearest town is at least thirty miles. We’ll be at the cabin in another hour. Just hold it.”

  Cara turned to Emily. “Can you hold it?”

  Emily gritted her teeth, swallowing the ache in her throat so she could speak. “I’ve been holding it. I don’t think—” They hit a big pothole, and Emily whimpered. “No.”

  The woman turned toward the front seat. “She can’t hold it. And I don’t want to if I don’t have to. Pull over someplace, and we’ll go in the woods.”

  In the woods?

  Emily looked out the side window, but all she saw was black. Pitch black. She wasn’t scared of the dark, but…woods were filled with all kinds of creepy crawly things and animals with big teeth, weren’t they?

  If only Dad were awake and could go with her…

  “Why the hell are you stopping?” Rick rubbed a hand over his face. His voice was even rougher as he woke from his nap.

  “Cara and the kid gotta piss.” Kenny cut the engine and stretched his arms over his head.

  Rick muttered something that sounded like a bad word under his breath and turned to glare at her. Emily wished she could disappear. Shrink to nothing. Rick had dark, deep-set eyes that made his stares especially scary.

  “Hurry up, Cara. Take a gun with you. If she tries to run, shoot her.”

  Cara grunted. “Like she’d try to escape in the totally dark woods. Give me a break. Where’s the flashlight?”

  Kenny came around and opened the back of the van, and Emily scooted out behind Cara.

  The temperature was a lot colder wherever they were than it had been at home in Missoula. As curvy as the roads had been lately, she guessed they were in the mountains. Emily shivered, as much from the fear as from the chill.

  She had no idea why these people would kidnap her and her dad. She’d heard Kenny say something about chemicals and bomb components when they were talking about her dad. But that was crazy. Dad didn’t have anything to do with making bombs. He did special medical research at a company called Hemmer.

  Two other men had been following them in another van, and it pulled to a stop behind them. “What’s the deal?” the driver called. “Why are we stopping?”

  Kenny walked back to the second van to talk to the driver.

  Cara switched on the flashlight and shined it into the thick trees. “Come on. Pick one.”

  Emily hesitated. The beam of light created a small tunnel into the dark forest. Her stomach shifted and twisted like the shadows did in the woods. “In there?”

  “Unless you want to do it in front of these guys?” Cara hitched her finger toward the van where Rick climbed out of the front seat with an impatient huff. He lit a cigarette, and the tip glowed red in the black night like an evil eye.

  Batting some low limbs out of the way, Cara headed into the forest, and Emily could either follow or be left alone with Rick and the darkness. Dry limbs snapped under her tennis shoes and prickly vines grabbed at her nightgown and scratched her ankles and arms. Emily let a silent tear trickle down her face then sniffed loudly.

  “So how old are you, kid?”


  “You have a name?”

  “Emily Michelle McKay.”

  “Emily, huh?” The crunch of Cara’s steps stopped. “That’s probably far enough.” Cara shut off the flashlight, and Emily tensed.

  She sensed more than saw the bugs crawling around her, buzzing near her head, and she imagined glowing yellow eyes, staring through the limbs. “How are we s’posed to do it out here?”

  Cara chuckled. “Haven’t you ever been camping?”

  “Well…no. My dad doesn’t like camping. We usually stay in a hotel.”

  “Well, there’s no Holiday Inn around here. Just squat somewhere and go.” Cara sounded irritated now, and Emily’s chest tightened a little more. She didn’t want Cara mad at her too.

  Wadding her nightgown up around her waist, Emily did the best she could, considering she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her.

  “Done?” Cara asked.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Polite little thing, even if you are pampered.”

  Pampered? Somehow Emily didn’t think that was a compliment. The comment stung. To her, pampered meant you had everything you wanted. There was plenty she didn’t have. Like pierced ears. Her dad wouldn’t let her do that until she was fifteen.

  And she didn’t have her mom. Another bubble of grief expanded in her throat.

  She followed close behind Cara, picking her way through the branches and thorny weeds, missing her bed, her house. Wishing Dad would wake up and tell her everything would be all right. As they approached the van, she saw the red glow of Rick’s cigarette again, and she held back her tears as best she could.

  “Can we go now?” Rick sounded really grumpy, and Emily scrunched even closer to Cara.

  The dim orange light from his cigarette made his face look like pictures Emily had seen of the devil. He tossed his cigarette butt on the ground and climbed into the van, slamming the door behind him. Emily watched the embers flicker and smolder. A cool breeze cut through her gown and made the discarded cigarette burn brighter.

  “Let’s go, kid,” Kenny called from the back of the van.

  She turned from the hypnotic red glow and crawled into the back, scurrying up by her dad again. He was still asleep, still silent, but just having him close made her feel a little better, a little safer. Emily stared out the window as the van lumbered up the rutted road. She couldn’t even see any stars to wish on because of the thick branches.

  But a flicker caught her eye as they eased down the road. She squinted at the yellow l
ight that danced and grew brighter at the edge of the road. A flame. The leaves on the side of the road were on fire.


  August 26


  Climbing out of the thick, groggy haze took more effort than it was worth. His head hurt like hell. His shoulder throbbed. And something bit into his wrists, making them sting like fire. Jackson tried to crawl back inside the foggy oblivion. Away from the pain.

  But something beckoned him. A need stronger than his desire to escape the pain.

  He tried to move but couldn’t. A groan rumbled from his dry throat. Beside him he heard a soft gasp, felt small, cool fingers on his cheek. Janine?

  He tried to speak her name but could only mumble.

  Then he remembered. It crashed down on him like it always did when he first woke.

  Janine was dead. Murdered. Killed in the line of duty.

  A fresh, razor-like anguish raked through him. The grief he couldn’t show. He had to be strong for Emily. He pushed the anguish down, internalized it. His daughter needed him. His daughter…

  With a sharp intake of breath, Jackson clawed his way up from the darkness. Emily!

  “Dad?” a sweet, familiar voice whispered.

  He pried his eyes open and squinted through the red veil of pain. “Em’ly.”

  She moved closer, tucking her head under his chin. “Dad.”

  Tears rattled in her voice, and his heart wrenched. She was alive. She was there with him. Thank you, God.

  He tried again to move his arm, wanting to stroke her hair and wipe her cheeks. To soothe her. Again he met resistance and realized his arms were bound. A vague memory of ripping tape and his arms being brutally twisted behind him teased his murky mind.

  “You…okay?” he asked Emily, his voice grating. His throat felt like sandpaper.

  She shook her head, her face buried in his neck.

  Moving his mouth made lightning pain flash behind his eyes. In deference to his daughter’s presence, he bit his tongue to keep from screaming the obscenity that came to mind. “Are…you hurt?”

  Another head shake. “I’m scared,” she whispered.

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