Wired Ghost – Toby Neal

LOOKİNG for a runaway teen living with meth cookers, especially during a massive volcanic eruption, was probably not a good idea. But it was too late now. They were committed. Sophie Smithson grabbed the sissy strap to stabilize herself as the Security Solutions SUV, driven by her partner, Jake Dunn, bumped across a black rock plain on the Big Island. Their client, Ki Ayabe, an import business owner, had hired Security Solutions to locate and retrieve his seventeen-year-old daughter Lia, who’d supposedly run off with a meth cooker named Finn O’Brien “to shame and anger me,” Ayabe had declared. Sophie hadn’t liked the pompous, sharp-tempered Japanese man, but his tale of an out-of-control teen being taken advantage of by an older drug dealer was compelling. “Weird set of directions,” Jake frowned, peering through the windshield to scan the empty black plain, made mysterious by a heavy mist of volcanic emissions. “Not much out here.” Sophie tapped the navigation app on her phone. “There are no road signs to the kipuka where the meth lab is located. Natural formations and GPS coordinates were the best our informant could do. Thankfully, there’s a track we can follow.” Kipukas, small, raised “islands” of old growth trees, bushes, and wildlife, surrounded by fields of raw, new lava, were a phenomenon unique to the Big Island. Jake flexed his large hands on the wheel. “We’ve got a big chuckhole ahead.

” The white Ford Escape wasn’t really built for the terrain of their current route, and Sophie clung to the dash, as well as the strap, as the vehicle bucked through the stony rut. She glanced at Jake. “You sure you aren’t missing your easy California life installing alarm systems?” “You know I hated that,” Jake grinned, a flash of white teeth. “Thanks for getting me back on the Security Solutions payroll. It was a relief to let Felicia buy me out of the business.” Jake had recently gone through a breakup with his girlfriend/business partner, and relocated to Oahu to be with Sophie. They were taking it slow, just beginning to date again, and this was their first job together in more than two years. “The case looked interesting. A chance to get away from Oahu with my boyfriend.” They hit a particularly deep hole, and Sophie yelped as her head banged the door frame, swearing in Thai.

“Daughter of a rabid jackal!” “Sorry.” Jake wrestled the wheel, slowing them further. “This is a bit rugged, but it’s an adventure. And the end of your month with Momi is always a good time to be distracted.” “Exactly what I was thinking.” Sophie stabilized herself with a hand on the dash. “Ginger and Anubis love all the socialization they’ll get with other dogs at the boarding kennel while we’re gone. And I always try to fill my schedule when I have to send Momi back to Kaua`i.” Sophie’s two-year-old daughter was currently with her biological father, Alika Wolcott, and nanny, Armita, in their unusual custody arrangement of one month on, one month off. While always a hard adjustment for Sophie when Momi and Armita left, the situation gave her time to work active cases in the field.

When her daughter and Armita were with her, Sophie did administrative tasks in the office. Her child seemed to take the changes of venue in stride, with the consistency of care that Armita maintained by accompanying Momi back and forth between homes. Jake slowed the SUV further and crawled the vehicle over a mound of rock. “I don’t like the seismic reports we’ve been seeing the last few days for Kilauea Volcano.” “There have been a lot of micro-earthquakes reported lately. But the eruption at Kilauea has been steady since the 1980’s. There is no reason to assume there’s going to be any new lava flows in this area,” Sophie said. “The main danger we have to watch out for is the emissions. The gases can be quite toxic, but they’re only present around the areas with fresh activity. According to my source, this kipuka is where the meth lab is hidden.

I had to call in a favor to get this intel, but hopefully it’s here, and saves us a lot of time.” “Still. It’s too bad the wind is coming from the south and pushing in all this vog,” Jake said. “Visibility is so much better when it’s blowing out to sea.” The vog blanketed the plain in a soft, gray shroud. The sun glared acid yellow through the particulate gases and hurt Sophie’s eyes, adding to a spooky feeling as they moved through the rough terrain. She slid on a pair of mirrored sunglasses as they reached a flat area marked by several rusted out vehicles. “I think this is the end of the road,” Sophie said. Jake already had his hand on his weapon as he guided the SUV into a turn. “I’m positioning us for a quick getaway.

” “Good idea.” Sophie jumped out of the Ford and covered them visually with her Glock, as Jake maneuvered the vehicle into position pointed back the way they’d come. She saw no one, but that didn’t mean they weren’t being watched. Jake checked his weapon, ejecting the magazine and then ramming it back into the grip. Sophie had gotten used to her Glock 19 police issue pistol during her FBI years. They both wore body armor under camo fatigues done in a gray, brownish-black and slate blue pattern that Sophie hoped would help blend with the surroundings. Sophie headed for a rough path visible between the junked cars and checked her GPS again. “This track is heading in the direction of the coordinates. We’re on the right path.” They moved out, Sophie in front, Jake at her back.

“What’s the plan? Arrive, guns blazing, grab the girl, and haul her back to her father, tucked under my arm?” Jake asked. “Like I told you back at the office, I don’t really know. You’re the extraction specialist.” Sophie slanted a glance over her shoulder at Jake. “I still remember that from your business card when I first met you.” “And I remember being sandbagged by how gorgeous you were in that skimpy red top when you first met me at your door,” Jake said. “That was my sleep outfit. I wasn’t expecting you.” “All the more unforgettable.” Sophie smiled, but kept scanning the barren lava for hostiles.

Yes, she and Jake were reconnecting and taking it slow, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have a history—an intense one that had been blossoming until Momi’s kidnapping as a newborn, when the circumstances around that devastating event had torn them apart. Sophie continued to watch carefully as they trekked through the vog along the stony, uneven trail worn onto the raw lava surface. “All we really know about the case is that Lia is supposed to be with this guy Finn O’Brien. He’s an undocumented Irishman who supposedly came to the Big Island on vacation, and outstayed his visa. The man found a way to make an illegal living out here, and has gathered a close team of scoundrels and rogues to help him with that.” “Scoundrels and rogues?” “If the adjective fits . ” “I think we should be prepared for resistance, beginning with our target. Lia’s a minor, but she’s not likely to want to come back to daddy because, although Ayabe won’t admit it, she basically ran away. O’Brien’s a meth cooker and dealer with a record and not much to lose. Let’s recon their camp first, then pull back and figure out a plan.

We might need reinforcements.” “Just what I was going to suggest.” Sophie flashed her smile at him. The last wisps of her depression, easily activated when her daughter was gone, had been dispelled by the upcoming action. “Would you mind if I moved out in front?” Jake raised his brows, steel-gray eyes serious. “Not at all. I was wondering how long you’d be able to hang back,” Sophie said. “I wasn’t joking when I said I relied on your Special Ops background in situations like this.” “Thanks.” He kissed her as he passed by, a quick touch on the lips that lit her nerve endings.

Yes, she had a boyfriend in Jake—but the jury was still out on whether they would make it. So much had happened between them, and others. like Connor. Now the de facto leader of a clandestine spy organization with its roots in guarding Thailand’s royal family, her former lover known as the Ghost continued to practice his unique brand of cyber justice, and through that organization he now commanded an army of ninjas. He wanted her to help him with his “mission,” and though Sophie had dabbled in equalizing the scales of justice, she wasn’t ready to commit to anything more. Maybe this time with Jake would show her a new direction—and meanwhile, his rear view wasn’t hard to look at. She suppressed a grin. They reached a fork in the trail. Jake stopped. “You’ve got the GPS.

Which way do we go?” CHAPTER TWO Jake SOPHİE REMOVED her phone from her pocket while Jake scanned the spooky, vog-shrouded plain. “I don’t like this,” he said. “I don’t, either.” She frowned down at the device, and when she did, the gunshot scar bisecting her cheekbone pulled up like the cord on a window shade. “We’re within a half mile. Take the left fork.” Sometimes he forgot how close Sophie’d come to death that time, but the scar would always be there to remind him. The terrible experience of carrying her unconscious, blood-soaked body out of a grave-like pit, as he tried to keep her alive, would always be etched on his memory. Along with their camo fatigues, they carried small backpacks that, instead of snacks, contained extra weapons, ammo, supplies for a quick shelter, and even a dose of sleepy drugs to hit the target with if Lia Ayabe proved too belligerent. But Jake hated going into a potential conflict situation with so little information.

All they really knew was that the girl was underage, that she was shacked up with a dangerous meth cooker and his crew, and that the drug gang was holed up in an extremely remote and volatile lava area. Not good. “Let’s go off comm,” Jake said. “No more talking. We don’t know how far out they might have countermeasures.” They didn’t need the GPS anymore now that he’d gotten a look at the distance, and taken the trail leading to the coordinates. Sophie nodded and fell in behind him. Her trust in his leadership warmed him. Jake palmed his weapon and kept his eyes moving and ears tuned, walking light on the balls of his feet to minimize the crunch of the gravel—and still, he almost hit the tripwire. He stopped so suddenly, leaning over, that Sophie collided with his back.

Jake held up a fist. Sophie moved back and out of the way as Jake bent carefully, taking a penlight out of his pocket and lighting up the thin wire strung across the path. Sophie sucked in a breath and went very still. The only thing that had clued him in to the line was the slightly different shade of a rock on the side of the trail to which an IED had been attached. Jake followed the wire from the rock to the other side of the trail. A grenade’s pin had been connected to the line. Tripping on the wire would have pulled the pin, and the grenade would’ve gone off—a simple but effective trap for the unwary. Jake disconnected the pin and picked up the grenade. He tucked it into his leg pouch, turning to Sophie with a wink and a smile, hoping to reassure her. “Might be able to use this later.

” Sophie nodded, but her eyes were wide and her tawny skin had paled. Jake kept his pen light on and they walked slower—but he saw nothing further as they approached the kipuka. Untouched, old growth giant koa and ohia trees forming a uniquely Hawaiian forest rose out of the barren lava like a fantasy scene set on a knoll, wreathed in drifting skeins of vog and mist. Formed by lava flowing around a raised hill or ridge, kipukas were relics of a previous time. As they approached, the air sweetened with the twittering song of endangered, seldom seen endemic birds that lived in these isolated, high elevation remnant forests, drinking the nectar of flowers and feasting on bugs that lived only in the bark of rare trees. Jake crouched to inspect the ground as the trail disappeared into bushy growth at the base of the kipuka’s slight elevation. He flashed the high intensity penlight around, and spotted another nearly invisible trip line, tied between two large hapu`u tree ferns. “Be careful, Jake.” Sophie touched his back, her voice husky. They hadn’t made love since reconnecting a couple of weeks ago; they still had a lot of talks to have, a lot of ground to cover, a lot of mistakes to forgive; and most of those were Jake’s.

But even in this moment of danger, her touch affected him more than he wanted it to. Jake gritted his teeth and focused on the task at hand. He traced the fishing line to another grenade, and this time he detected a wireless camera node on another tree, pointed in their direction. He cursed under his breath, and gestured Sophie out of the way. He moved up on the surveillance device from the side, knocking it off the fern tree. He crunched it under a boot, and then pushed at the tree and dug at its roots with a heel, kicking it askew and disturbing the earth at the base. “Hopefully no one’s monitoring the camera closely and it’s just set to a motion sensor alarm. I’m trying to make it look like a pig knocked the camera off the tree and destroyed it—worth a shot that they didn’t see us.” Sophie helped in scuffing up the ground as if one of the many wild boar in the area had gone after the tree’s roots. “Let’s get off this trail and see if we’ve been made.

” Jake gestured for Sophie to follow him, glad that they had chosen clothing that would meld with the forest floor, foliage, and the dark shades of the lava. They moved away from the path into the brush and bushes as quietly as they could, and finally Jake tugged Sophie down beside him in the shadow of a large ohia tree. “We need to work our way closer to the camp. See if we can move in and grab our target, or at least verify her location and come back with a better strike team.” Sophie nodded. “That’s the plan.” Jake led them forward slowly through virgin forest, paralleling the path the meth cookers had made. Hearing the crunching of leaves underfoot and the sound of voices, Jake stopped Sophie with a hand on her arm, and they hunkered down behind a fallen tree. Jake peeked up long enough to spot two men coming along the trail. “That damn camera,” one of them grumbled.

“Stupid thing is always making the alarm go off.” He was wearing a red ball cap, a bright target in the dim jungle. “Probably just another wild pig or a battery that needs changing,” the other man agreed. He wore a Primo Beer hoodie over drop-waisted jeans like an urban gangsta dropped into the Hawaii wilderness. These guys weren’t pros, but the weapons they packed were plenty deadly: Red Cap carried an AK, loosely hanging by a chest strap, and Primo Beer carried a couple of Desert Eagle chrome magnums, one in his hand and the other tucked into his belt. Jake and Sophie held absolutely still as the men passed them, loud and oblivious. “Now’s a good time to get some distance toward the camp,” Jake whispered. He grabbed Sophie’s hand, guiding her up onto the well-maintained trail. They broke into a run, both holding their weapons at the ready, and soon reached a fence topped with razor wire, and a locked gate. “We’re at ground zero,” Jake whispered.

He led Sophie into the shelter of a large, fallen log off to the side of the path. “Let’s move in closer and see what we can see.”

.

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