Ruthless Game – Christine Feehan

The lone coyote trotted across the desert on the outskirts of the city. Bold, he nosed close to the trash scattered along the edges of the sand. The night air was cool, but the sand was still warm from the hot day’s sun. He padded along, nose to the ground, sniffing around the back of a long structure until he came to an alleyway. Someone coughed, and a bottle smashed against the side of the building. The coyote whirled and ran. He’d been shot at many times coming in too close to these particular buildings, but the food was unusually plentiful. Still, he didn’t want to take a chance, not when there were so many men walking around so late at night. The coyote reluctantly slunk away from the banquet, edged out to a pile of boulders, and hunched down, waiting for things to settle a little more before he made another try. In the distant desert, he heard a muffled sound, like the beating of large wings, and he turned his head toward the sky, cowering closer to the rock. The helicopter came in fast and low, running without lights and in eerie silence. Ropes dropped from the open doors, and five men descended fast and, in one smooth, coordinated motion, began sprinting across the desert with unprecedented speed. Seconds later the helicopter was gone, and the coyote surged to his feet, ready to run as the men, nothing more than shadows, raced toward him. There was no sound, not even the thud of boots on sand. The wind carried their scents, and as they approached, their bodies were more defined, appearing as a single dark entity with ten glowing eyes.

The coyote took a few steps one way and then, as the men split apart, running no more than two feet from one another in perfect unison, he stepped in the other direction, whirled, tail down, and then stopped, confused. The men rushed by like the wind, not so much as hesitating, yet those strange eyes flashed over the animal as he cowered, obviously seeing him, although he was in the darker shadow of the rocks. Javier, you’re on. Just take a look. Hear what I’m saying? A look. No one dies yet. Mack McKinley, leader of GhostWalker Team Three, sent his first man into the hot zone. The unique GhostWalker unit he led had no need of radios. They were all telepathic. I’m hurt, boss.

Laughter spilled into Mack’s mind. Why would you ever think someone might die? Mack sent Javier Enderman a stern warning look. Javier could see easily in the darkness, even when he chose not to. He looked like a kid with his dark black eyes and innocent, boyish face—one of his greatest assets. Everyone always underestimated him, if they ever actually saw him. Urban warfare was a unique art. Every citizen in a hot zone could potentially be innocent—or an enemy. It took special men and women with nerves of steel to be able to function in such a high-stress situation. His GhostWalker unit was comprised of such individuals, all highly trained and with very special, unique psychic gifts. Mack and the others dropped to their bellies, disappearing into the sand just feet from the first building at the edge of the city.

Javier jogged with absolute confidence right up to the structure and into the alley. As he got closer to the buildings, his solid form simply disappeared, blending completely with his surroundings. I think our informant is on to something. We’ve got a major force here, Mack, Javier reported. Guns on the roof, stairways, tucked in the alleys. I see several at the windows in the building across the street. Big op here. Can you find a way to blend in without having to kill anyone? We aren’t supposed to be here. Get in, get out with the package, and no one the wiser. Javier sighed heavily.

You know, boss, you’re maligning my character. Of course I can find a way to blend. No faith. Mack’s gut tightened. Javier was an accomplished assassin despite his youthful, innocent appearance. He was highly skilled with explosives and a maniac when it came to computers. Highly intelligent, he followed one person, and that was Mack. Javier could usually find a group of teens and simply join them, but the kids in this part of the city were most likely paid to report strangers. He refrained from telling Javier to be careful, knowing the man wouldn’t appreciate his caution, but they’d been raised on the streets together. Javier was more than a teammate—he was family, and Mack looked after family.

These men had followed him into hell, and Mack felt responsible for them. They had all thought psychic enhancement was an exciting program, one that would allow them the best ability to save lives and serve their country—and maybe it would have been, had it not been run by a madman who had not only enhanced their psychic abilities but had also changed their DNA, adding the animal enhancements he thought would make them all supersoldiers. There was Gideon Carpenter, a man who would be their savior in any crisis. He had eyes like a hawk, could shoot the wings off a fly with hands as steady as a rock. He would protect them from great distances, and so far, Mack had never known him to miss. Before he could get into position, they would need to have information and the rooftop of his choice cleared. Ethan Myers lay on his belly, eyes locked on the structures ahead, his body streamlined for climbing. The man could go up a building like a spider, clear the rooftop, and be gone before anyone ever knew he’d been there. He waited, coiled to react, as steady as they came. Mack glanced to the man on his right.

Kane Cannon was the fifth man making up their team of rescuers. Kane had always been with him, from the streets of Chicago, college, every type of Special Forces training available to them as well as the GhostWalker experiments and additional field training. Kane always guarded his back, and he knew exactly what Mack was thinking. He shifted his weight subtly, telling Mack he was ready. He was invaluable, a man who literally could see through walls and into buildings. He could lay out the position of the enemy in seconds. Our informant should be in the third apartment, bottom floor, corner building, Mack sent telepathically to his team. You’re up, Kane. Make certain she’s alone. Sergeant Major is sure the information could not have been obtained by anyone other than a GhostWalker.

This is an unknown and could be a trap. Kane shoved upward with his hands, and his feet went smoothly under him in a practiced move. He ran low, muscles warm and fluid, sending him across the open feet of desert to the entrance of the alley Javier had gone through. Smells assailed him: urine and alcohol mixed with cooked meat. He slipped inside the dark shadow of the alley and instantly became part of it. He moved, shrouded in silence, knife in hand, as he approached the street. The scent of death was strong. Dim light spilled a foot into the alley from the street. He crouched low and carefully searched out the darker shadows. A body lay crumpled against the base of the building, in the darkest spot.

Kane crouched beside him. An automatic weapon was still in his hand, and the body was warm. His neck was broken. Javier had encountered an enemy and quietly disposed of him. There was no communication device, which meant either he wasn’t part of a guard detail or Javier had taken the device. Sighing, Kane rose and stepped to the very edge of the alley where he could scan the buildings across the street. Seeing through a building always took a toll. Javier had to be in position to cover him. He waited, counting the seconds. Men with guns seemed to be in every doorway, patrolled the rooftops and along the long balcony of the second story.

They were out in force, and few people dared to take to the streets. He spotted some teens throwing knives and trying to look tough at the end of the street, closest to the desert. Javier was distinctive. He swaggered with his cool confidence, showing them all how it was done and giving advice. It seemed impossible that he could insert himself into a group on the lookout for strangers, but Javier always managed—and out in the open. You’re a go, bro, Javier’s calm voice stated. Kane didn’t hesitate. He’d learned to rely on his team members in any dangerous situation. He allowed his gaze to sweep through the buildings, searching out their package as well as their informant’s apartment. X-ray vision was really all about sound.

Ultrawide radio waves passed through walls to capture images, allowing Kane to “see” behind the walls of a building. Kane could generate those waves, but it took energy—lots of energy and focus. He spotted two potential hostages, both female, in the second-story apartment directly across from them. They appeared to be tied to chairs, ten feet into the room, back to back. The package is on the second floor, third apartment from the left. Two females, just as our informant said. One is slumped over, possibly unconscious. The smaller one is alert. A guard sat in front of a television set just to their left, and beyond the door, and out in the hallway, a second one sat playing with a handheld game. He relayed the information to all the team members, drawing a precise map for them in his head.

I can’t see the placement of the guards on the roof, Ethan. They’re beyond my range of vision. No matter. That was Ethan, short and to the point. Kane swept the small apartment on the ground floor for their informant. They needed to make certain she was legitimate and this was no elaborate trap to capture or kill members of the elusive GhostWalker team. He took a couple of deep breaths and squeezed his eyes closed tight, conscious of the tremors running through his body. Using psychic energy always took a toll, but emitting sound waves and reading them was particularly difficult. He sent the pressure waves directly toward the small apartment. It had taken months of practice to read the various impressions caused by the distances the sound waves had to travel.

Like a ripple effect, the sound traveled in repeating patterns, allowing the sensors Dr. Whitney had built into his body to detect reflected waves. Kane could see a lone woman in the apartment. Short, wearing jeans and a loose top, she moved with controlled speed, shoving things into a small pack. She’s getting ready to run. Something about the way the woman moved was familiar to him. His heart began to pound. His pulse thundered in his ears. She didn’t look pregnant. She’d suspected she was carrying his child before the escape.

It had been imperative to get her out before Whitney realized he’d succeeded in his goal. He heard the collective gasp from his team as they felt the shock of recognition slam into him. Everyone went completely still. He could taste excitement in his mouth. He could taste—her. Once she got into the wind … she’d be gone like the ghost she was. But the baby … Mack broke the tension. Kane? Talk to me. It’s Rose. My Rose.

She’s the informer, Mack, and she’s getting ready to run. If she gets away from me again, I’ll never find her. Kane didn’t take his eyes from the figure moving around the house. Her movements were slow and controlled, with no wasted motion, very efficient. She knows we’re here, Mack. I can’t let her get away again. We’re here to recover the hostages, Mack reminded. Take a breath, Kane. We won’t lose her. Gideon’s going in.

She won’t recognize him as a GhostWalker. She’ll know we’re out here, but she won’t suspect him. GhostWalkers recognized one another. Their energy was different, but Gideon was an exception. He’ll go in and get our information and plant a little bug. I’m on it, Kane. She won’t get away from us, Gideon assured. I’m telling you, she already knows. Kane couldn’t look away from that small apartment. His world had suddenly narrowed to the woman who had eluded him for months.

He’d searched everywhere for her, called in every favor, and she’d been impossible to find. And now … He was on a mission, and his team counted on him for his full focus. He swore under his breath as she slid into a harness that fit snugly under her shoulder and strapped a knife to her thigh and shoved another into her boot. She was readying herself for a fight. She stuck something in her hair and added more weapons to her belt. He was particularly impressed with the way she moved, the efficiency. He remembered her as a fragile creature he needed to protect. Rose was built small, like a little pixie. It was strange to see how she handled weapons with such smooth familiarity. He had to be careful of underestimating her.

She was a GhostWalker—the same as he was. That meant enhanced psychic ability. She’d grown up with military training. She was probably every bit as lethal as he was or—he conceded—more. I have to be the one, Mack. She knows me. I helped her escape Whitney’s breeding program. Even thinking about the vile place enraged him. Thinking about what he was forced to do to Rose sickened him. She’s my responsibility, Mack.

I have to do this. Mack swore under his breath, but each of them, as connected telepathically as they were, heard it. We’re on a fucking mission here, Kane. Don’t blow this. Ethan moved as if he’d been a racehorse waiting at the starting gate, flowing across the expanse of sand, all fluid muscle, sprinting in silence for the alley. Give me a minute to get into position to cover you. Kane stepped back to give Ethan room to move past him. Ethan flashed him a grin and moved out into the street, a blurring shadow sliding away from the lights. One guard turned his head toward Ethan, and Kane switched his knife to a throwing position, but the guard turned away, obviously not able to track the shadow as it went up the side of the building across from the alley. Ethan was nearly impossible to see without night vision, blending into the side of the building, clinging like a spider as he went up the impossible angle without climbing gear.

Kane held his breath, quartering the area carefully for anyone who might spot Ethan, knowing Javier was doing the same. It seemed a lifetime waiting for confirmation that he’d made it. Kane could hear his own heart beating in his ears. Somewhere a dog barked. Someone coughed, and another man cursed. Laughter broke out. All the while he exercised tremendous discipline to keep from looking at the apartment where the woman he’d been searching for, for months, was getting ready to run. One man on the roof. He’s got a bottle of tequila and an automatic. Great combo.

Ethan’s disgust was obvious. More time ticked by. Rose would be packed by now. She would travel light. Just the bare necessities. Kane tasted bitterness in his mouth, but his eyes continued a sweep up and down the buildings and along the street. His first order of business was to protect Ethan. All clear. Ethan’s voice was calm. Launch “the Eagle.

” Gideon sprinted across the sand to the edge of the building and then into the alley. He clapped Kane on the shoulder, pausing to take stock of the dark streets. Figures moved in doorways, and two men stopped briefly to talk in low voices as they patrolled. A couple of women sat on a porch, silently watching, and down at the end of the street, five teenage boys laughed and prodded one another as they practiced throwing knives. Gideon put on blurring speed and crossed the empty street to the side of the building. He didn’t have Ethan’s advantage, climbing easily with only his hands and toes, but Ethan had left behind a stairway made of throwing stars. Gideon moved up fast in the dark, his sniper rifle snug against his back as he raced up the side of the building. They all could breathe a sigh of relief once Gideon was in place. The man just didn’t miss. They all called him the Eagle for a reason.

Gideon would cover the streets and windows, as Ethan and Mack would enter the building and bring out the prisoners. Kane would cover them from inside, and Javier would be on the street. They were all fast and lethal when need be, but in a situation such as this one, it was very difficult to distinguish between residents and those cooperating with the enemy, unless they blatantly carried a weapon. You’re a go, Ethan said. We’ve got you covered. Everything in Kane settled. He turned his attention once more to Rose’s apartment, sweeping it carefully, bouncing sound waves through the building to see inside. She stood by the front door, and there was a weapon in her hand. He took a deep breath to steady himself while his body reacted to the sensors processing the images before retreating from the alley to jog around the buildings to come up on her building from the same side of the street. Mack joined him, easily keeping the fast pace.

We’ll need you on this one, Kane. Kane shot Mack a quick look of impatience. I’ve never let you down. Give me a few minutes to get her ready to leave with us. Mack nodded and crouched in the shadow of the building. Gideon? You in position? Kane is going in. She’s armed. Don’t you shoot her! Mack, you son of a bitch. Nobody better shoot her. There was warning in Kane’s voice.

He was a dangerous, explosive man, capable of swift retribution. They had grown up with him. They knew him. His tone said it all. He expected them to back off and allow him to handle Rose—even if she tried to kill him, which he figured was entirely probable.

.

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