Under the Wire: Bad Boys Undercover, page 1
To the readers who asked for more books in the
Bad Boys Undercover series—this one’s for you!
About the Author
By HelenKay Dimon
About the Publisher
CARA LAYNE woke on a scream. The noise rumbled to life inside her chest but choked off as her eyes snapped open. Her muscles jerked. Without thinking, she grabbed for the inside stuffing of her narrow down sleeping bag, digging her fingernails deep into the slippery material. Bunching it in closed fists, she pulled the bag even tighter around her and tried to cocoon her body for protection. From what, she didn’t know.
The weather had turned without warning. The wind built to a sick wail then faded, only to roar back to life again. It echoed around her like a child’s cry as it whipped through the campsite. To block the screeching, she pulled the bag up and against her ears.
She could still see that black night surrounded the tent. The chilling cold signaled early morning, but nowhere near dawn. She tried to focus, to figure out what was happening.
Her tent mate shifted and kicked beside her. A zipper screeched. The material of his bag rustled and he said something she couldn’t quite hear over the crescendo of sounds muffled through her clogged ears. The ground shook and the air almost vibrated.
Nothing made sense. They’d ventured out on an overnight trip to collect samples. The usual work and not dangerous. They’d set down outside of avalanche and flood zones. This was the right season. The right place. Yet, dread hovered all around her. The sleepy haze dragging her down refused to lift. She tried to shake off the clouding in her brain and focus on the clicking sound. A steady tapping.
What the hell was that?
Then it hit her . . . her teeth. Chattering.
The tent shook as a new blast of air caught the canopy, the material flapping above her head. She pulled her body tighter into a ball. Fear rocketed through her as the nylon that promised to stay sturdy even during the most punishing high mountain expedition ripped around her.
The howling sound finally registered. Not weather. Not animal. Human.
She lifted her head only high enough to see a dark figure pulling at the material above her. At first she thought her tent mate held their failing shelter together with his bare hands . . . then the blade flashed. She screamed, but the sound disappeared into the cacophony of banging and shredding.
The pain came next. Blinding pressure drilled against the sides of her head. She felt as if her skull had compressed. Had started to collapse and shatter. Stray thoughts bombarded her brain. Paranoia drowned out common sense as the top of her tent split open and more cold air poured inside.
She struggled to get to her knees then slipped and fell flat on her stomach again. Her skin flashed from cold to hot. Footsteps thundered around her. The crashing of equipment. Yelling. Still, her head pounded. Not with a headache or migraine. This pushing made her eyes ache as wave after wave of dizziness crashed over her.
Someone or something tugged hard at the seam of her sleeping bag. She grabbed, tried to hold on but her fingers slipped in the slick material. The tugging became dragging as the down slid over rocks and her hip thumped against the unforgiving ground.
She fought to force out a scream but no sound came. The bag trapped her, making it impossible to move more than a few inches. Vulnerability sent her racing headfirst into panic. Her teeth ground together as she struggled to move, to fight back, and despite the screaming in her head, a strange lethargy she couldn’t kick weighed her muscles down. It hurt to lift her arm. Her thigh rolled up underneath her as she was dragged along, crushed against her stomach and stealing her breath.
She couldn’t suffer through one more minute. Losing the physical battle, she looked for mental escape and tucked her head as her mind floated away. Music filled her scattered thoughts. A familiar melody her father used to play. One she struggled to remember whenever she needed comfort. The humming swam through her mind, mixed with the pain.
She heard a crack and felt a hard thwap like a punch to the back of her head. Then the world around her blinked into a tunnel of darkness.
Two days later
REID ARMSTRONG knew the silence wouldn’t last.
They’d been on the road for thirty-six straight hours with little sleep. Gone from town to town before hitting the open and now had been hiking for what felt like forever through brush and tramping over grass grown wild and tangling around his knees. Across fields and around protruding boulders.
Thirty minutes earlier they’d left the rocky trail and started free climbing, working their way toward Otorten Mountain with nothing but the march of their sturdy boots slamming against the ground now and then as background noise. Tree-lined hills and snowcapped mountains filled the distance. The scenery in this untamed and mostly unoccupied part of Russia qualified as impressive. Not that Reid cared or even noticed. Not with the anxiety pounding through him.
The original plan for his mandatory vacation time from the office had been to grab his best friend, jump on motorcycles, and ride across the U.S. Refuse to answer their phones, and turn off the GPS that could track them down anywhere. Get away. Clear their heads. Leave work and death and danger behind for a few days.
All of those informal vacation ideas went sideways when Cara failed to check in. Hell, she refused to check in with him sixteen months ago and every day since, but she usually checked in with her brother. Not this time. Not on this expedition, which resulted in a call to Reid and an alternate trip here. No sleep as they headed to a region he had no interest in visiting.
Parker Scott swung his long knife in an arc, cutting a path through the mass of overgrown grass and weeds. He stopped and rubbed his arm over the hint of sweat on his forehead, seemingly unaffected by daytime temperatures that didn’t even reach fifty degrees.
“Tell me one more time,” he said. “What exactly are we doing here?”
“Yeah, you already gave me that much.” Parker exhaled in a sound clearly meant to telegraph a cut-the-shit message. “I mean in the Ural Mountains.” He glanced around. “Basically, why am I not on a motorcycle right now?”
Looked like the time for talk finally had arrived. Reid was impressed Parker stayed quiet this long. That he went along with every change to their itinerary from the switch to a private plane to hiding in the back of a truck as it bumped over rough terrain and finally to crawling on their stomachs around a border checkpoint. Parker being Parker, he didn’t complain about any of it.
As two of the U.S. members of the Alliance—a top secret, off-the-books joint task force made up of former CIA and MI6 officers—Reid and Parker hung out together, though neither man was inclined to talk or even think about their lethal pasts. They supported two different teams within the Alliance, but the shit show of cases they’d had over the last few months had t
So did the stark reality of recently losing one of their own. A man who’d dedicated his life to serving in British intelligence in different capacities. On his final assignment, just weeks before, he’d been shot by a team member in an attempt to prevent a larger nightmare airport bombing. The speeches from the memorial service still rang in Reid’s brain.
But death was still death, and this one touched every member of the Alliance in a profound way. Being the leader he was, Harlan Ross had bargained his own life, and they were all reeling from the sacrifice he’d made.
That was the reason for their mandatory time off. Those in charge insisted on a break while the group reorganized. Everyone had to head out and grab some normal air, air not poisoned by danger for a change. Reid thought the idea sounded good in theory but in reality amounted to a load of bullshit. It was not as if the people they hunted ever took a break.
Still, being out on a mandatory good time allowed him to sneak away on a side trip and take Parker with him. Now they just had to make sure this exercise stayed danger-free. Not exactly their specialty.
Reid continued to scan the area, looking for the clearing he knew they should soon see. They were coming up on the coordinates. The ones that matched Cara’s last-known location.
The closer they got, the more something interfered with the signal to his watch. The red dot indicating her location flickered in and out. That made him twitchy. He’d spent most of his time in the field depending on his instincts and his men rather than any so-called technical expertise for exactly this reason. Technology failed.
He squinted as the light bounced off something in the distance along the line of trees. Tried to keep the conversation mundane even as his mind constantly assessed and reassessed. “We have some time off. It was just as easy to catch a flight from DC to here as to head out West on the bikes.”
Parker still hadn’t moved. “You’re saying you replaced Montana with Russia just because?”
Admittedly, that had been a big left turn from the motorcycle plans. A turn Parker hadn’t questioned except to say “Huh?” as they caught a series of under-the-radar flights, made secret payments, and illegally purchased weapons.
Reid admired his friend’s restraint, but now it appeared to have ended. “Sure.”
Parker held up the older model Bizon, a lightweight submachine gun that had been modified and improved over the years. Not that they had one of the newer versions. “Don’t be a dumbass.”
“We’re here without the required visas but with guns that may or may not work.”
Suddenly Parker was a detail man. Reid didn’t love that change. “Technicalities.”
Parker frowned. “Are you familiar with the concept of ‘international incident’?”
Since they likely stood within inches of causing one, Reid was all too clear on the potential problem. Not that he would let that slow down this extraction—or whatever it was—one bit. “It won’t come to that.”
“What about the part where we snuck into the country and could be convicted as spies if we’re caught?”
Okay, that was probably enough talking about the details. Reid shrugged. “Then don’t get caught.”
Parker swore under his breath as he lowered his weapon to his side. “That’s my general life plan, yeah.”
Reid gestured for them to get moving again and was half stunned when Parker complied without argument. “Then we’re good.”
Parker snorted. “Define ‘good’ for me.”
Reid shifted, tried to get a better view over the crest of the small hill in front of him. She should be right there. Her, her team. He hoped whatever messed with his signal also interfered with hers and she’d be standing there, pissed off and swearing at the sight of him. Right now he’d take a negative response. Hell, any response.
First, he had to clue Parker in so he understood the importance of this rescue. The guy had little ego, but Reid tried to appeal to it anyway. “It’s an adventure. I thought you’d like the challenge.”
Fair question, but Reid had an answer. “You appreciate the unknown. What with your whole Yeti, aliens, we’re-not-alone thing.”
He didn’t understand that side of Parker. It all sounded like crazy bullshit to him, but Parker believed something roamed around out there with them. Might as well use that.
“Okay,” Parker said as he stopped again. This time he turned and glared at Reid. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here, but Yetis live in places like Nepal, not here.”
Yeah, because that was his point. “And then there’s the part where they’re mythological.”
“And for your information, out here we’d be talking about an Almas.” Parker nodded. “Walk on two feet. Covered with reddish-brown hair.”
“If you say so. I don’t even know what that—they?—is, but do not tell me.” Cutting the conversation off struck Reid as the easiest way to keep them mentally on track.
Parker was the youngest member of the Alliance and possibly the most lethal. No one knew why or how he got out of the Army early. But no one doubted his sniper abilities or dead-clear loyalty to the team. Reid recognized a fellow survivor when he saw one.
They started moving again. Less causal this time. More focused. Without issuing a warning, they both snapped to attention. They stepped with more care. Weapons came up, the obvious ones plus the knife Reid had slipped up under the wristband of his thin jacket.
Tension spun around them. Reid could feel it with every intake of breath.
“You actually believe humans are the only humanlike creatures walking the earth?” Parker snorted again. “Come on.”
For once Reid welcomed this familiar nonsense conversation. “Do you ever listen to yourself when you slip into conspiracy mode?”
“I try not to.”
“That’s probably smart.” Reid instinctively crouched as they started up the hill. No need to make himself a bigger target than he already was.
“I get it. You’re a skeptic. It’s naïve, but whatever,” Parker said as his voice dropped to a whisper. “So, we’re clearly not tracking Yetis or anything else that might prove interesting. Care to tell me what we are hunting?”
Despite the angle of the climb and the provisions, though limited, they carried in their packs, they moved up the slope without making a sound. “Humans.”
Parker glanced over, but only for a second before his attention returned to the open space in front of them. “That answer should probably scare me more than it does.”
“Which is why I brought you along instead of one of the others. You don’t spook easily.” Parker didn’t shake. Reid liked that about him.
“You brought me because we live in apartments next to each other and you were afraid I’d just follow you when you left unannounced.”
That part Reid didn’t love. Parker skulked around. Could conduct surveillance and list every activity, down to the number of steps a target took to get to the bathroom, all without the target ever knowing he’d been watched. Reid knew because Parker had practiced more than once on him.
“You’re a creepy little fucker sometimes.” But effective. Reid had to admit that.
“Not the first time that’s been said.” Parker held up a fist. Whatever grabbed his attention had him spinning to the right and scanning the horizon. After a few seconds of stillness, he nodded and they began moving again. “So, narrow it down for me. Which humans?”
As they got closer to the crest of the hill, they lowered their bodies even closer to the hard ground. When Reid dropped to his stomach, crawling along using his knees and elbows to move forward, Parker followed.
Reid’s gaze whipped around behind him, seeing nothing but a grassy field with jagged rocks piled here and sticking up out of the ground there. “A science expedition.”
Parker frowned but kept crawling. “Interesting, but I need more information.”
Not that Reid wanted to dump a lot of intel right now. He didn’t really have much to provide, since the expedition appeared to be on some sort of security lockdown. He only knew as much as he did because of some unauthorized data searches. The kind he knew he’d be called in to explain later.
But now he had a bigger problem. “It’s gone missing.”
“Yeah.” But Reid only cared about her. He’d worry about the rest of Cara’s team later, after he made sure she was safe.
“I thought we were supposed to be taking time off. Forced fun and happy times and all that.” Parker shimmied to the top of the hill. He put his gun aside only long enough to reach for his binoculars.
“Such bureaucratic bullshit. As if losing one of our own makes us want to take naps.” The mix of fury and loss had the opposite effect on Reid. “I’d rather shoot things.”
“And that’s why I like you.” Parker’s head moved from side to side as he scanned the area. “Now, about these scientists.”
The area in front of them remained dead quiet. Just more grass and rocks. Except for a flash of color off to the right side closest to the wall of trees, and a piece of something . . . material, maybe, blowing across the field every time the wind kicked up a bit.
“Stop.” Reid grabbed the binoculars and took a long look at the area. Debris, and a lot of it. Some blended into with the deep colors of the land. Blue, but he also picked up on something orange and pointed it out to Parker. “What’s that?”
“You mean what was it.” Parker squinted. “No clue.”
“Let’s go in.” Reid was already up in a squat and balancing his weight on the balls of his feet. “Keep your guard up until we know what we’re dealing with.”
Anxiety ratcheted up inside Reid but he fought it off and moved. His heartbeat pounded in his ears as he jogged down the hill to the small valley below. An impressive mountain, complete with jutting sharp rocks and an unwelcoming gray façade, loomed at the far end of the valley. Towering trees closed off the ready access to one side.
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