Edge of Dawn (Chapter Four)
Even without a gate or guards, to Mira, the house seemed more a prison than a place someone would call home – even an odd duck like Ackmeyer.
The germophobe scientist didn't want her coming inside the house and potentially contaminating anything but had stipulated he'd meet her in the garage below and proceed directly into the car to depart. She dutifully rolled up the long driveway to the underground parking garage as she'd been instructed and braked at the electronic access panel in front of the closed door of the bay on the right.
Mira slid the driver's-side window down, thankful for the incoming gust of fresh morning air. The sedan's interior still held a strong disinfectant scent, lingering from the top-to-bottom sterilization Ackmeyer had insisted upon before he'd agree to set foot in the vehicle. Fomites, he'd explained, as if the word struck cold terror into him. What would he do if she decided to lick the side of his face as soon as she got close to him? Probably collapse in a fit of apoplectic shock. It would certainly make the drive pass a little quicker if her cargo spent the duration of it in a dead faint.
Smiling at the idea, Mira drew in and savored a couple of long breaths of the crisp country air. That small taste of freedom would have to last her for the next five days of torment. Pressing the arrival button on the garage access panel, she leaned forward and recited the temporary entrance password Ackmeyer had given her when she spoke with him earlier that morning to arrange his pickup. "Annus Mirabilis."
Had Ackmeyer chosen the Latin password for its obvious play on her name, or for some other reason? She'd almost asked him when he gave it to her but decided to wait, figuring she'd have plenty of time to ask him on the drive. God knew she'd need some decent conversation starters for the many hours they were about to spend together on the road to D.C.
The garage door wasn't moving.
Mira put her head out the window and tried the password again.
"Oh, come on," she muttered, scowling at the unresponding bay door. For all his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, he hadn't noticed that his home security system was out of service?
She gave it another shot, and when the garage door still didn't budge, she squinted through the windshield at the house above. Ackmeyer had specifically instructed her to wait for him in the garage, forbidding her or anyone else from entering his house under any circumstances. He didn't say she couldn't walk up onto the yard to tell him she'd arrived.
Mira got out of the car and hoofed it up the knoll and around to the front of the house. "Mr. Ackmeyer?" she called, walking up to one of the shaded windows to try to peer inside through the steel slats. "Jeremy, are you in there?"
Her nape tingled with a warrior's instinct that something wasn't right here. Then again, when she'd spoken with Ackmeyer a few hours ago to arrange the trip, he hadn't exactly sounded eager to make the journey in the first place. He didn't conduct his work for awards or accolades, he'd insisted, something Mira respected him for in spite of his personal quirks. He was being forced to attend the gala in D.C., out of obligation to his socially and politically motivated family and due to pressure from Reginald Crowe himself.
Not her place to care about any of that, though. She had a duty to fulfill here, and that meant delivering Jeremy Ackmeyer to the summit celebration safe and sound, as expected.
But something wasn't right here.
Not right at all.
The thing that struck her most was the quiet of the place. Total, unnatural quiet.
And then, a crash.
It sounded from somewhere inside the house.
Was the place being robbed in broad daylight?
Mira felt her blade in her hand before she even realized she'd drawn it from its hidden sheath at her back. Her battle senses clashed with the need to know that Ackmeyer was all right inside. "Jeremy? If you're in there, you need to let me see you."
A loud, heavy thump answered. Then a thundering rush of boots on a stairwell. How many, she couldn't be sure. There were hushed voices, followed by a pained and muffled shout, cut off too abruptly for Mira's peace of mind.
She flexed her fingers around the hilt of her dagger as she crept along the perimeter of the house, gauging the situation to determine her best course of action as one person against an unknown number inside.
Mira was good with her knives and hand-to-hand combat, but now she wished like hell she had ignored Ackmeyer's stated abhorrence of weapons and violence of any kind. She'd kept her daggers concealed on her person, but to avoid upsetting him, she'd hidden her gun in the glove compartment of the car. Damn it. She sped back down the knoll and yanked open the passenger-side door of the idling vehicle.
No sooner had she torn the big 9-mm out of its holster and thrown the safety than the left bay of the garage lifted and an unmarked black delivery van barreled out and past her like a bullet.
The van narrowly missed her, tires screaming on the pavement, smoke curling up in its wake as it roared up the drive. Mira rolled into a crouch and opened fire on the retreating vehicle.
She shot out one of its rear tires, continuing to blast rounds at the van as it swerved crazily, slowed by the damage. She fired until she had exhausted the magazine, then dived into the open passenger door of her car and leapt across the seats to the driver's side. Shifting hard into reverse, she stomped on the gas and swung around into a forward-facing spin.
Eyes on the limping van ahead of her, she slammed the car into drive and ground the pedal to the floor. Rather than ram it from behind and risk disabling her own vehicle, Mira roared up alongside the van and used her car to corral her quarry, steering it away from the paved driveway and onto the rough yard where it would be more difficult for the blown tire to roll. Given little choice, the van began to slow. It struggled on the uneven terrain, angling off to the right with Mira riding its side perpendicularly, holding fast to her course.
She waited to be met with a hail of gunfire from the van's occupants, but the driver, a young female with long black hair, and the hard-eyed blond man riding shotgun seemed more interested in evading Mira than shooting her dead. But the man was agitated, flailing his hands across the seat and shouting orders at the driver. She kept her cool, maneuvering as though she thought she might steer out of Mira's trap eventually, but her partner had no such patience. He lunged for the wheel, crawling over the driver and shoving her aside to take the seat himself.
He swerved crazily, then jerked hard to the left to scrape the side of the van into Mira's sedan. She dug deeper, foot to the floor on the gas, arms shaking with the effort to hold the wheel steady against the opposing force of the van. When the driver suddenly hit his brakes, Mira realized her mistake. Too late to stop her forward momentum, she ended up in front of the van.
Not even a second later, he rammed her from behind.
The hit was off center, smashing the rear right side of her car. Her body flew sideways with the impact, slamming her shoulder and head into the driver's-side door and window. Light exploded inside her skull. She smelled blood, felt warm, wet heat spread over her scalp and down the left side of her face.
Her vision was fading, filling fast with a thick black fog as the sedan lurched into a vicious spin. Everything slowed . . . then stopped.
Voices coming closer now.
She didn't know how many. Couldn't reconcile where they'd come from, until she lifted her head and glimpsed the black van. All of her senses were blanketed in a heavy gauze, sight and sound a confusion of input that her brain struggled to process. She tried to move, but her limbs refused the weak command.
"Come on, Brady. We don't have time for this." A man's voice, clipped and anxious on his approach. "We gotta roll now!"
"You heard Bowman's orders on this job." The reply was female. "No casualties, Vince. Secure the target and get out. That was the plan."
"And we've got Ackmeyer, so mission accomplished. Now let's get the fuck outta here."
"I'm not going anywhere until I make sure she's okay." A long-legged gait rushed toward Mira's slump in the car. The driver's-side door groaned open. "Jesus. Oh, shit . . . go get Doc. I need him out here on the double."
"You better pray like hell she's not." A terse answer. "Go get Doc, right now."
Through the thick fog swamping Mira's senses, she felt the air stir as the man crept closer. Heard his sudden indrawn breath as he leaned over his comrade to get a better look. "Holy hell. This bitch is one of the Ord – "
"I know who she is," snapped the woman. "Go back to the van and get Doc. And have Chaz get busy switching out that wasted tire. I'm calling the base. Someone's got to tell the boss we just fucked this thing up big-time."
She didn't seem to notice the tiny flex of Mira's fingers. Didn't real-ize that the twitch of muscle response bumped Mira's hand against the hilt of the dagger lying on the floor next to the front seat where she sat slouched.
Mira focused on the cold metal hilt of her blade as the man ran off to carry out his instructions, and the woman turned away to contact the one who led them.
"They should be here by now." Bowman's voice was more snarl than words as he stalked through his stronghold nearly three hours after the call came in from the botched field op.
The petite young woman in charge of communications for the rebel base camp located south of Boston hurried to keep pace with him in the bunker's gloomy corridors. She hooked a lock of her short indigo-dyed hair behind an ear bearing a dozen tiny metal loops. "I've been trying to reach them for a situation update, but so far no response."
"When's the last time you tried, Nina?"
"Five minutes ago."
Bowman's answering curse echoed off the dank, block-granite walls. He rubbed a hand over his jaw and the trim goatee that darkened his chin. "Try them again. Do it now."
"Yes, sir." She already had her comm device activated, speaking the command that would connect her to the team en route. It took only seconds before she gave him a grave shake of her head, big brown eyes serious with concern. "Still nothing."
"Son of a bitch." Something was wrong. Something worse than the obvious complication that took place at Ackmeyer's house a few hours ago.
Bowman wasn't about to sit around with his dick in hand, wondering and waiting. He'd hated the taste of that inactivity from the moment he gave the okay on this job. Now it burned like acid in the back of his throat.
Combat boots striking hollowly on the concrete floor of the abandoned military fort, he rounded a corner to head deeper into the bunker, toward a hand-hewn tunnel leading underground to the gun battery that served as the rebel base's small fleet garage.
"I'm sure they'll be here any minute," Nina said, jogging to stay alongside him. "I'm sure they've got everything under control now."
Bowman grunted, kept walking. If only it were that simple to just sit back and wait it out, knowing how badly things had gone off the rails out there.
"What are you going to do? You can't mean to go after them . . ."
He didn't answer, didn't slow down.
Damn it, he never should have put this job into play. He'd had a bad feeling about it to start with, but after waiting months for the opportunity to make his move on Ackmeyer, he hadn't been willing to risk losing that chance simply because it was a daytime grab to be conducted under less-than-perfect conditions.
Less than perfect seemed the understatement of the century as he stormed down the long corridor with Nina racing behind him, making another frantic attempt to reach Brady, Doc, and the others.
How long had they been developing their plan to get close to Ackmeyer? Nearly a quarter of a year of meticulous espionage, of putting out the right feelers to the right people, of waiting for the perfect moment to strike. It might have taken months more to get the necessary pieces in place. Too long, and hesitation could prove catastrophic, if Ackmeyer was permitted to continue his work. All the worse, should he decide to profit from the formidable fruits of his labor.
That was the argument that persuaded Bowman to green-light the mission this morning, despite its numerous risks. Last-minute intel had arrived from one of the rebels' Boston contacts. Ackmeyer would be making a rare public appearance in a few days, as part of the peace summit gala. And as the celebrated guest of none other than Reginald Crowe.
There could be no more waiting, no more guessing. Ackmeyer could not be permitted to arrive on that stage.
The consensus among Bowman and his rebel crew had been immediate, and the plot to grab the reclusive scientist was put into motion. He'd trusted in the team sent to carry it out. They were capable and skilled, proven in the field time and again. He'd been counting on them and never doubted they'd succeed, with or without him leading the charge.
They would have succeeded, he was certain, if not for an unexpected obstacle.
After taking great care to avoid such a problem, he had now stepped into direct conflict with the Order. He only hoped his crew – hell, the rest of the world in general – didn't end up paying for his mistake.
Bowman picked up his pace as he neared the mouth of the tunnel leading to the nearby battery. No sooner had he reached the yawning maw when he heard a distant commotion of voices spilling toward him through the darkness.
"Is that them?" Nina asked, worry creasing her forehead.
A woman's scream tore loose in that next second. Then a man's sharp, angry shout.
Bowman spared Nina only a fleeting glance before taking off like a bullet onto the lightless path ahead. Chaos was erupting – more shouting and commotion. A metallic clatter, punctuated by the sudden olfactory punch of spilled blood.
He emerged from the tunnel just in time to see Doc on the floor near the van with a fresh stab wound from the dagger lodged in his abdomen. Vince slumped next to a bound and unconscious Jeremy Ackmeyer in the open side-panel door of the vehicle. The rebel's left arm was wrapped in a makeshift tourniquet from what appeared to be an injury that had been tended to en route. He had bruises on his face, clothing shredded in several places. Meanwhile, Brady and Chaz tried unsuccessfully to subdue the hooded, partially restrained female who fought like a demon.
No, Bowman mentally corrected in the second he watched her, she fought like a warrior.
The warrior he knew her to be.
In that fraction of time, between the moment he was simply the leader of these renegade soldiers and the one that held him motionless in awe and respect for a woman he had betrayed so long ago, Bowman didn't think to look in Vince's direction.
Not until it was too late.
Face twisted with rage, Vince launched himself into the fray. He had something in his hand – one of Doc's pressure injectors. He hit her with it, tearing off her black hood and shoving the dosing gun up against her neck. He pulled the trigger and she went down like a rock, limbs crumbling uselessly beneath her.
Bowman's roar shook the entire fortress.
One minute he was standing at the open mouth of the tunnel, the next he was holding Vince suspended by the throat, his fingers all but crushing the man's larynx as he bore down on him in total, murderous fury.
"What have you done!" he snarled.
Eyes wide, nearly popping out of his skull, Vince sputtered and squeaked, tried to form words. "S-something had . . . had to do . . . something. Attacked us in the van . . . might've killed Doc just now . . ."
Bowman pressed harder, the heat of his anger bathing Vince's face in a rising amber glow. The blood spilled would have been enough to set him off, but it was pure rage that put the sharp ache in his gums. He peeled his lips back from his teeth as his fangs erupted into deadly points.
Vince's eyes went wider, fear filling his entire expression. Bowman could feel the sharp tang of that fear in the rapid pound of the human's heartbeat against his fingertips. He could hear it in Vince's thoughts, taste it through the touch that allowed Bowman to burrow into the human's mind and divine the truth of his intentions.
The sheer panic that had provoked Vince to attack the woman deepened to dick-withering fright as he stared up at Bowman and struggled to pull air into his lungs. "P-please . . ." Vince gasped. "Don't . . . don't kill me."
"She's okay." Brady's voice carried across the room now, level and cautious. "It was a tranq gun, that's all. Once she wakes up, she's going to be fine."
Bowman kept his eyes trained on Vince. "You don't touch her. Never again. If you do, you die. We clear?"
The rebel soldier gave a weak nod. "Please . . . let me go . . ."
Bowman dropped him, left him where he fell. He swung around and sank into a crouch beside the female warrior who lay on the floor nearby. She wasn't completely out yet. Her eyes rolled behind her lids, opening in drowsy intervals as she fought against the sedative Vince had pumped into her veins. She murmured incoherently, her voice so quiet, going weaker with every second.
He noticed dried blood in her blond hair, crusted at her left temple where a small red birthmark rode along her hairline. The sight of that tiny teardrop and crescent moon, coupled with the lily-sweet scent of her spilled blood, tightened the knot of regret that had settled like a rock in his gut from the moment of his team's call from the field.
That she'd been harmed during this operation – injured even before the tranq gun that was leaving a dark bruise on the delicate skin of her neck – made his veins turn cold with self-directed fury.
The urge to touch her was nearly overwhelming.
He wanted to offer her comfort, hold her close, assure her that she was safe.
But he couldn't do those things.
He didn't have that right.
He was no longer that man. To this band of human rebels, he was, and had been for the past eight years, simply Bowman. He was their leader, who also happened to have been born Breed, not Homo sapiens like the rest of them.
But the injured and bleeding young woman lying before him now had known him from a much different time, in a different place. When he'd been a different person, born with a name none of his rebel followers would recognize.
"Kellan . . . ?"
Her voice was hardly a whisper, barely audible, even to him. He felt her hand brush his, feather-light, questioning. Against his own will, he glanced down into her face. Her eyes were not even half open, heavy-lidded and unfocused. She drifted off in that next moment, her fingers falling away limply, head lolling to the side in a heavy, drug-induced slumber.
He briefly closed his eyes, expelling the past and reaching for the only thing he had left.
"Show's over, people. Now look alive. We still have work to do."