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Copyright © 2009-2016 by Anne Marie Becker. All Rights Reserved.

ACCEPTABLE RISK

(the Mindhunters series, Book 5)

(ISBN: 9780990314509)



Chapter One



A sea of bluebonnets along Interstate 35 reminded Catherine she was close to her final destination and eased some of the tension in her neck and shoulders. April in Texas was beautiful, and held the promise of the new start she was looking for—back where her life had gone off course years ago.

A few country love songs later, she was stiff again, her body and mind on full alert as she drove through a sketchy neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio. She pulled her Jeep Cherokee, along with the small trailer it towed, behind a strip mall that housed a clinic, an insurance office, a florist and a check-cashing and quickie loan establishment. Catherine had mapped out the location of Pecan Grove Community Health Clinic the moment she'd heard the news about Rachel’s new job, wanting to picture what her sister's life was like so far away from Chicago, where they’d lived for the past few years while Rachel attended medical school.

The dust-and-grass scent of fresh spring rain hung thick in the air as she picked her way across a cracked and puddle-strewn parking lot. A quick storm must have moved through earlier.

Inside, the receptionist greeted her from behind a tall counter. “May I help you?”

“I'm here to see Rachel. Dr. Montgomery. I'm her sister.”

Her smile bloomed. “Catherine? I’m Teresa.” She reached across the counter to shake Catherine’s hand. “Dr. Montgomery is expecting you. And you’ve got great timing,” the woman continued, dropping her voice. “The police just left.”

Catherine glanced around the waiting room, which held seats for about a dozen patients but was nearly empty now. An elderly couple sat in the corner reading magazines. “Police?”

“We had a threat. Someone called and demanded drugs. Prescription pill abuse is such a problem lately. The guy threatened to show up with a gun if we didn't have them ready when he stopped by.” Teresa scoffed. “As if we did to-go orders.”

“Tough neighborhood?” The graffiti, barred windows and plethora of potholes had certainly given her that impression.

“It has its moments, but usually the worst holds off until after dark. We try not to be here past six.”

“Try?” Catherine struggled to absorb a chill that radiated from the nape of her neck. It was nearly six now.

“Go on back. She's taking a couple minutes before her last appointment to fill out charts. I’ve been trying to get her to take a break, but she likes to keep on top of everything.” They'd learned a lot about diligence, adaptation and sacrifice in their upbringing. Do or die. “Maybe you’ll have better luck. Exam room one.”

Four exam rooms jutted off the short hallway just past the reception area. She found her sister hunched over a chart, her blond curls twisted into an efficient tangle at the back of her head, her hand moving at a furious pace.

“Handwriting legible yet?” Catherine asked from the doorway.

Rachel looked up and the furrow between her brows smoothed out as she grinned. “Only to me, probably.” She kicked the stool out of the way so she could embrace Catherine. “I'm so glad you're home.”

Home. Catherine's chest squeezed.

“I'm sorry I couldn't get away earlier to meet you at my place. Looks like you found me okay, though.” Rachel pulled away. “Now tell me everything. What's wrong? Why the sudden move from Chicago?”

Catherine had prepared herself for the questions, but now wasn't the time to delve into that twisted tale. She hadn’t told Rachel what had happened six weeks ago and she hoped she never had to share the experience. “Isn't it enough that I want to be near my little sister again?”

Rachel examined her further, a doctor looking for a diagnosis. Would she notice the dark smudges beneath Catherine’s eyes? She’d taken extra time that morning to cover them, not wanting to worry her sister. “I wish that’s all it was, but I thought you loved your job at SSAM.”

SSAM was the acronym for a private organization known as the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind, and pronounced Sam in honor of the founder’s daughter. For the past few years, as Rachel attended the University of Illinois at Chicago’s medical school, Catherine had worked as SSAM’s receptionist. It had been more than a job, however. She’d prided herself on being a support system for the incredible agents who apprehended the worst monsters society had to offer—serial killers and violent repeat offenders who’d evaded the justice system. Even operating from home base, she'd felt a part of something bigger than herself.

It had all been a lie. Even her name was a lie. She’d changed her last name from Montgomery to Montague before leaving for Chicago. It had been one more layer of insulation against someone discovering her past.

She looked away from Rachel's penetrating gaze. Though their features were similar—narrow nose, high cheekbones, elegant eyebrows and a bow-shaped mouth, Rachel's eyes were a mossy green while Catherine's contained more blue. Rachel’s hair was a pure blond, while Catherine's was touched with hints of red.

But inside lay the real differences. Where Rachel was filled with a burning desire to help people, Catherine was numb and empty. She’d had difficult choices to make, ones she couldn’t afford to regret, but she was tired of the lies. If only she could change what happened ten years ago…. Still, looking at a tired but glowing Rachel, every punch of acid rain that had eaten at Catherine's conscience was worth it. The payoff had been worth the sacrifice. She had to constantly remind herself of that.

“I do love SSAM, but it was time for a change.” Before they discovered she was a fraud and a liar.

The sound of raised voices from the lobby was followed by a crash and a stern command from Teresa, ordering someone to leave before she called the police. Catherine's entire body trembled with a fear born of her recent trauma, even after weeks of therapy, but seeing her sister moving toward the door to confront the intruder brought out her protective instincts.

Catherine grabbed Rachel’s arm. “Stay here.”

“I can't. This is my clinic. I'm responsible.”

“Let me check this out. You call the police.” Catherine gestured to the phone in the corner. “I’ll be careful. Besides, I’m trained to deal with unruly customers.”

Another, louder crash sounded through the thin wall. Rachel headed for the phone as Catherine closed the door behind her and tiptoed to the end of the hallway, where she could peek around the corner. Teresa stood like a sentinel behind the chest-high counter. The man across from her had dark, wiry hair going in every direction, as if it were trying to escape his scalp. Lines carved his face like a craggy rock, indicating a hard, unyielding life. In contrast, his eyes were wild, his pupils dilated.

“I just need something to get me through until my next appointment.” His voice was part plea, part I’ll-do-anything desperation.

An empty pencil cup rolled to a stop in the waiting room and various pens and pencils were strewn across the linoleum. That had to be the source of one of the crashes. Still in their seats, the elderly couple huddled together, warily eyeing the man. What had once been a vase of flowers now lay shattered behind Teresa's desk—the other crash. Water dripped down the cabinets. A thin smear of red on Teresa's arm suggested a rebounding shard of glass must have nicked her, illustrating the threat of violence behind this man’s demands.

Catherine’s hand rose to her neck, but there was no noose there this time. She forced herself to breathe. Adrenaline trumped anxiety. This isn’t like before. He’s just a strung-out man looking for a fix, not a serial killer intent on murder.

“I can leave a message for Dr. Montgomery, and if you’re due for a refill, she'll contact you, Lee.” Teresa's voice was shaky. Her fingers slipped beneath the edge of her desk. Was there an alarm button there? Either way, Rachel should have connected with the police by now. Survival was just a matter of distracting Lee until help could arrive.

Lee’s chin jutted out. “I saw the doctor's car in the parking lot. I'll wait. I'm not leaving until I get what I need.” He thumped the counter so hard with his fist that Catherine jumped. So did Teresa. Her hand popped back out, and she held both of them up as if he’d aimed a gun at her. Guilt was all over her face.

“Can I help?” Catherine stepped forward, ignoring the fissures of fear shooting through her. The fight-or-flight response was meant to protect the body. Her body definitely wanted to flee, but her mind was on her sister and these other innocent people.

Lee turned to her. “Who are you?”

“I'm Dr. Montgomery's sister.”

“You a doctor, too?”

“No, but I can see you need help.” Lee had the pinched, pale appearance of someone whose entire body was wincing, contracting in an attempt to smother the pain. “What hurts?”

She stepped closer until she was only a couple feet away. Teresa's eyes were wide with silent warning, but Catherine had faced down the worst evil she could imagine and survived. Lee was only a temporary nuisance—with the potential to be more, she realized as she rounded the edge of the tall counter and saw the gun tucked into the front of his waistband.

“My back, my joints, my everything.” Lee slapped a palm against his thigh as if punishing his body for its betrayal. “Your sister prescribed me something. It worked for a while. Now it’s gone.”

“Did you follow the directions on the label?” Rachel came out of the hall, looking a little short of breath, but her expression was calm and controlled, even compassionate. “If they're gone, Lee, you took too many, too fast.”

“I had to. The pain…” His face crumpled.

As her sister stepped forward, Catherine shifted to stop her, placing herself between the pair. Rachel came to an abrupt halt, looking at Catherine in confusion. Catherine gave a slight shake of her head.

Lee's eyes narrowed on her, as if he realized Catherine was an obstacle keeping him from what he wanted, from what he needed. His hand moved toward the gun.

Pounding fear and memories she'd thought she'd left behind in Chicago—the throbbing in her neck that felt like a noose tightening, the flush of heat in her cheeks, the sharp intake of breath—rose up. She ignored the riot of emotions and focused, as her therapist had taught her, on the subject at hand. She was at a violent man’s mercy once again, but this time, she had more than survival instincts in her toolbox.

She held her palms out as she took slow steps toward him. “Sounds like you’ve been through a lot. I can help. I’m good at getting people what they need.”

“I’ve told you what I need.” His words built to a shout, and he tried to look around Catherine to Rachel. “You’d better have those pills out here in thirty seconds or—” As he reached for the gun at his waist, Catherine shot forward.

She grabbed his hand before it could connect with the gun and quickly shifted behind him, twisting his arm behind his back. His joints cracked in protest, his bones brittle in her grip. But he was a danger and had to be dealt with, so she held on tight. “Down on the floor.” To encourage compliance, she nudged the back of his knee sharply with hers. She needed him horizontal before he formed a coherent thought and went to grab his gun with his other hand. At the moment, he was focused on the pain she was inducing. With a moan, he knelt.

“He's hurt!” Rachel rushed over now that Lee was subdued. “Stop!”

“Get his weapon.” The calm in her own voice surprised her, but it buoyed the confidence that had been sagging for the past six weeks.

Rachel froze. “I didn't see the gun.” She looked at Lee with shock and crouched to pull the weapon from his waistband.

Through the front window, she saw a couple of police cruisers screech to a halt. A moment later, two SAPD officers entered cautiously through the front door and quickly assessed the situation. Rachel held the gun out, letting it dangle from her fingers to appear nonthreatening. One cop rushed forward to take it as another took control of Lee. Catherine released her hold, rose to her feet and pressed a hand to her lurching stomach.

Rachel wrapped an arm around her. “Where'd you learn to do that?”

“Comes with the territory when you work for an agency like SSAM.” And when you'd been through a situation you shouldn't have survived and didn't care to repeat. She watched one of the officers escort a handcuffed Lee from the premises as the other removed a notepad and began questioning Teresa.

Rachel's gaze turned thoughtful. “I think we have a lot to talk about.”

More than you'll ever hear from me.



Max could see only a small slice of Texas from the back of the prisoner transport van. The high, narrow windows framed a rectangle of the sky, where the setting sun slanted rays through the clouds, creating an orange-pink haze. It would have been more beautiful if he weren’t spending his Friday night in the company of a potentially violent prisoner on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, but he had a duty to see Tony Moreno safely transferred to his new prison cell. Despite Max’s reservations about returning to his place of origin, he felt a pang of homesickness.

Nothing the company of a beautiful woman wouldn’t cure. Especially if they were sipping margaritas on the Riverwalk at his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant.

Catherine Montague was rumored to be visiting Texas during her personal leave from SSAM. Maybe he should get in touch with her for a bit of fun before he returned to Chicago. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about his coworker as a potential date, no matter how close they’d become over the years. Sure, there’d been that one kiss, that one lapse in judgment, but it wouldn’t—couldn’t—happen again. You’re just friends, his conscience reminded him. Really good friends, and he’d be an asshole to ruin that because of some testosterone-driven fantasies. But damn, those fantasies had been good.

His brow creased as they hit another pothole in the ravaged dirt road. “You sure this is the way?” Max had to speak through the bolted metal screen that kept the rear cabin separate and secure in order for the driver to hear him. There was no sign of their destination, a prison west of San Antonio.

“Just following the directions HQ gave me,” the driver said over his shoulder.

A second transport agent was seated beside Max, flipping through a magazine. Across from them, Tony was secured at the wrists, waist and ankles. The agent’s name was Steve-something. After a red-eye flight from Chicago to Dallas, a delay at the airport as some confusion with the transport company was straightened out and a long drive to San Antonio, Max was too exhausted to remember names.

Steve looked up. “Heavy rains flooded one of the roads, so we're taking a detour.”

Would have been nice to know.

With the hills and valleys, the recent spring downpours could easily have made a low-lying road impassable. Still, something felt off.

Max tried to relax. Beside him on the bench, Steve resumed his reading, clearly unworried. There should be no reason for the prickles of unease that crept across Max's scalp, but he'd been in the field—six years with SSAM, and several years with the SEALs before that—long enough to know not to ignore his innate warning system.

Max cast a suspicious glance at the prisoner they escorted. Beneath his brown skin, Tony looked decidedly yellow. His usually cocky attitude was gone, which made Max even more nervous. If a serial rapist and murderer like Tony was overcome with fear, something was definitely wrong. Or maybe it was the rough road and occasional skidding of the tires in mud that caused his pallor.

“What's up?” Max asked. He wished he could pull his pistol from the lockbox beneath the bench and lay it across his thigh. Tony would respect the hardware more than Max’s attempts to engage him in conversation.

“Don't know what you mean.” Tony’s chains jangled as he shifted his feet, clad in prison-issue shoes.

Max’s instincts were yelling at him. He and Tony had gotten to know each other over the past several weeks while Max's latest assignment with SSAM put him undercover as a prisoner in Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Playing bodyguard to an unrepentant convict had been Max's least favorite assignment to date, but an organized crime organization known as the Circle would have killed Tony to keep him quiet. Meanwhile, Tony’s knowledge of the Circle’s operations in Chicago was something Max’s boss Damian Manchester had desperately wanted to tap into. Tony had earned a prison transfer in exchange for valuable information.

Like a steady diet of greasy food, sticking close to Tony while awaiting this transfer had soured Max's stomach and hardened his insides. He'd be glad when this operation was over, but he'd do it again in a heartbeat to help Damian, who had a personal stake in the knowledge locked away in Tony's ugly head. The convict had worked for the Circle’s organized crime group and had admitted to kidnapping Damian’s daughter Samantha decades ago, though he denied murdering her.

Thankfully, Max would be free once Tony was installed in his new home at nineteen hundred hours. Max would fly back to Chicago tomorrow and move on with his life, infinitely less queasy. By next Friday, he’d be back to his usual routine, probably looking forward to a hot date and some no-strings sexual release.

Despite his seatbelt, a jolt of the van nearly threw him out of his seat as the rear wheel hit a pothole. Was the prison really off of an unpaved road?

Max checked his cell phone. No bars. The prickles on his scalp multiplied. “Is your radio working?” he asked the driver.

The driver glanced down. “Not at the moment.”

“Turn around. Go back to the main road and let’s check in with your office.”

He'd spent many rainy spring days in his youth tracking toads and chasing fireflies by the creek that ran through his parents' ranch, and he recognized the scent of incoming rain. It wasn’t just twilight darkening the clouds to purple-gray—they were in for another storm. He'd enjoy the lightning display from his hotel room once they dropped Tony off. Then he'd catch the first flight back tomorrow before his parents realized he was within state lines and hunted him down to try to force him into accepting the life that he'd inherited but never wanted—a prison of a different sort.

“Can't,” the driver replied. “I have my orders.” The private company was in charge of this transfer. Max was merely a nuisance they tolerated because Damian had pulled some strings to allow Max to travel with them.

Beside him, Steve flipped a page, but Max sensed he was alert and listening.

Max turned back to Tony. “Piss anyone off lately?”

Tony couldn't hold Max's hard stare and looked away. “Other than the Circle? What I've done for your boss is enough to get my throat slit a hundred times over.” Which is why Tony was counting on this transfer. He’d already caught the attention of his previous employers. His narcissism had led him to sign lucrative contracts for a tell-all book and movie deal. Not that the Son of Sam law would probably allow him to touch any money made off his victims, but he’d found a way to funnel it elsewhere. “I’ve done everything Manchester asked.”

“Everything but lead us to the man in charge of the Circle.”

Tony scoffed. “If I knew anything that could do that, I'd be dead for sure.” The head of the crime ring, the man who’d paid Tony to kidnap Sam all those years ago, was known to them only as the Boss. Despite weeks of interviews, Tony hadn’t been able to provide any details that would lead them to the mystery monster.

“Aw, but think of the hero you'll be when we take down the Circle because of your cooperation.” Not that he'd done it without the expectation of profit. Fame and a change of venue were Tony's goals. “It’d make a great ending for your book.”

The van hit a bump that, had he not been wearing his seatbelt, would have dumped Max on his ass on the floor. Across from him, Tony squirmed in his restraints, but he remained locked securely in place. Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead. With this detour and his increasing unease, Max's temper, usually hidden behind a Texas good-ole-boy laid-back façade, was dangerously close to the surface.

But before he could press Tony harder, a sudden pop pop pop was followed by a boom that rang in Max’s ears. The vehicle shook, and then suddenly listed and swerved.

Max's vision narrowed as though he’d been given a shot of adrenaline to the heart. His muscles bunched in response to the attack, his fingers closing as if they gripped his pistol.

Across from him, Tony had turned greenish-white and his eyes were wide with alarm. If someone was coming for him, he hadn't expected it. Or, if he'd expected it, it wasn't a welcome rescue. Which meant the attack was most likely the Circle’s doing. Nobody else cared enough or had the resources to follow them a thousand miles across the country to take out a hardened criminal who'd been in and out of the prison system since he was eighteen, had been permanently locked away for a year now and would never take another breath as a free man. Tony had already spilled the beans in every way that mattered to SSAM. Either the Circle was cleaning house, acting on revenge, or Tony had more to reveal.

“Got some sins to confess before they run us off the road and kill us all?” Max yelled over the sound of gunfire. He looked to Steve. “Keys for the lockbox?” He wanted his weapon. Now.

The van shot to the right, nearly tipping as the wheels sought purchase.

“Hang on,” the driver shouted from the front. “Shooter twenty yards to the northwest, in the bushes. Shit! Incoming!”

Through the barred opening, Max saw the driver's tight jaw, his white knuckles on the wheel as he tried to correct the vehicle's trajectory. The sound of another explosion came a second later. The van lunged and flipped onto its side. Held in midair above Tony by his seatbelt, Max gasped for the air that had been squeezed from his lungs. Below him, Tony moaned. His skull had cracked against the side of the van that was now the floor. Blood drizzled down the side of the man’s face from a wound at his temple.

Tony’s eyes shot open, then glazed with fear. “Don't let them get me.”

“I won't.” Max may have failed himself, but he hadn't failed a mission yet. And he'd never left a man behind, no matter how evil that man might be. He was responsible for getting Tony to the prison. His SEAL training kicked in and his focus sharpened.

“You loaded?” His question was for Steve, who, like Max, hung from what was now the ceiling. He looked a bit green too.

The agent nodded. “In the lockbox, but my seatbelt's jammed. Can't get loose.” His fingers fumbled with the buckle.

Max was already bracing his feet on Tony's bench. He reached for Steve’s belt. The stuttered, pulsing, bullet-meets-metal sound of submachine gunfire echoed as he grabbed the key and retrieved their weapons, including his rebar knife. He holstered his pistol at his shoulder and cut Steve free before handing him a pistol and a spare radio from the lockbox. He hadn’t heard a word from the driver since the crash, but the flickering orange light and dark shadows that stretched across the van walls indicated something in front was on fire. There’d be no way to get to the man from the separate, secure back compartment, anyway. They’d have to get out through the back doors, which were now horizontal, and go around the side to pry open the cabin’s door—all while evading their attackers.

Smoke seeped in from the front cabin and began to fill the compartment. Using the bottom edge of his shirt, Max wiped the sweat from his brow and placed the moistened cloth over his mouth.

“I'm stuck!” Tony's panic brought Max crouching at his side. Blood now flowed freely from the wound on Tony’s head.

“We’re not unlocking him.” Steve eyed Tony warily as he used the radio to call for help with one hand, aiming his pistol at their prisoner with the other.

“Just the leg shackles so he can get out,” Max said. “We'll leave his hands cuffed.”

Another explosion rocked the van, tossing Max against the side like a sack of rice. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly as malleable, and his right shoulder met resistance in the form of the bench where Tony was secured. Max groaned as the familiar pop and pain of tendons stretching in unnatural ways signaled he'd dislocated his shoulder. Fuck. It wasn't the first time he'd had to function in a crisis while injured, but he hadn’t been prepared for this.

You’re slipping in your old age, Gypsy. He could hear his SEAL team commander’s voice in his head, using the nickname Max had earned in the military, and it got him moving again. Besides, he was only thirty and deserved to see thirty-one. He damn sure wasn’t going to die because someone wanted Tony Moreno out of the picture.

Max's ears still rang from the explosion and he gritted his teeth against a wave of nausea. His dominant arm hung, useless, at his side. His position, farthest from the doors, made him even more ineffective. “The doors,” he shouted to Steve. “Get out fast, but be alert. They'll be waiting.”

Not that the outside risks mattered. If his calculations were correct, the entire van could blow sky-high any second now. Fresh air and freedom first, and then Max could focus on the Circle thugs waiting to kill them. The Circle wouldn’t leave behind any witnesses.

Steve unlatched the handle, but the doors refused to give. He threw his weight against the seam of the doors, rocking the van. Fighting to clear his watery vision, Max finished unlocking Tony's shackles and pulled him upright. Joining Steve, he used his uninjured shoulder to add his weight against the middle. They were all coughing steadily now. If they couldn't open the jammed door soon, they'd die.

As if reading his thoughts, Tony moaned again. “I can't die.”

“Grow a pair, Tony. Better yet, help out.” The words cost Max precious oxygen and he coughed again. But Tony’s whining also pissed him off, working him into an angry frenzy he could channel toward something productive. And Tony was a decent-sized guy who worked out in the prison gym. He maneuvered so the three of them were squeezed close by the door. Max took hold of the handle. “On three, we all throw our weight against it. One, two, three.”

Max threw his good shoulder into the door. The bottom half crashed open and he went rolling over it, grunting as his injured shoulder hit the ground. The storm had begun, releasing cold raindrops that had already soaked the dirt road. Mud sucked at him as he continued to roll, ignoring the pain while instinctively making himself a moving target and hoping to get to the side of the road where there might be cover.

From the back of the van, Steve rushed out with his pistol drawn. The smoke, finding release, billowed upward and got lost in the long shadows of nightfall. More gunfire from their unseen enemy pushed Max to lean on his left arm in an attempt to push himself to a standing position. He had to get to the van to help Tony and the driver. But before Max could stand, Tony stumbled out of the van and scurried around the edge, using the vehicle as a shield as he headed toward a ditch along the side of the road. His hands were still cuffed, but his feet were free.

Blinking through the mixture of smoke and rain that stung his eyes, Max tracked the fugitive and crawled toward the ditch. The smell, the noise, the chaos were similar to so many missions before, but this was Texas, and he'd be damned if he'd survived Afghanistan to die twenty miles from the ranch where he grew up.

Then a third explosion knocked him flat against the dirt. Wanting a piece of the action, Mother Nature released a crack of thunder and a torrent of Texas-sized raindrops. Max rolled the rest of the way into the three-foot-deep ravine, which already held several inches of water, and tried to focus past the brain-numbing pain shooting from his shoulder. His shooting arm. Dislocated. And with no way to knock it back into place.

“Tony?” In Max’s bid for safety, he’d lost sight of their prisoner. Despite the rain, flames now engulfed the van, casting the now-dark road in a golden light. At least the gunfire had stopped, but he could no longer see Steve, Tony or their ambushers, and there was no sign of the driver, either. Fuck him if he'd be a sitting duck, though.

With his good hand, he aimed his pistol. Pressing his body flat against the slope of the ditch, he was able to peer over the edge. He'd trained extensively for shooting weak-handed, but there was always the possibility of a stovepipe jam, leaving him defenseless in a shootout. He also had the low ground in this battle. In fact, the ditch was rapidly collecting runoff and had become a foot-deep roaring creek as the clouds continued to dump on him.

He blinked water from his eyelashes and made out the form of a body splayed on the dirt road. Steve. A breath of relief whooshed forth as the man shifted, his hand moving to grip his thigh.

Visually sweeping the area, Max didn't make out any other bodies—living or dead—and the shooting had stopped. The quiet was unnerving, giving away nothing as to his enemy's location.

“Where's Tony?” he shouted.

Steve pointed to the northeast, past the ditch, toward a thick stand of oaks several yards away, illuminated by the fire from the van. There was only darkness beyond. Night had fallen quickly.

Steve’s face contorted with pain. “Two guys took off after him. Didn't get a clear look at their faces, but they were carrying some major hardware.”

Max left the cover of the ditch and performed a one-armed crawl to get to Steve’s side. “How bad is it?”

“Bad.” Blood soaked Steve’s thigh and ran into the mud beneath him.

Max tore a strip from his cargo pants to make a tourniquet, and then ran at a crouch to check on the driver. The cab was still engulfed in flames. He couldn’t get close.

Max returned to Steve’s side. “Where’s the radio?”

Steve pointed toward the rear of the van, where the radio had been dropped in the mud. Max ran for the device, praying it would work though it had been soaked. Returning to Steve, he shoved the radio into the man's hands. As Steve reported their situation, Max took off running toward the stand of oaks and the hills beyond, biting back a wince as every step on the uneven terrain or slip in the mud jostled his gimpy shoulder or torqued his knee, aggravating another old injury. He could fight through the pain, but with total darkness encroaching, the odds were stacked against him.

Tony Moreno—rapist, killer, ex-Circle minion and all around bad guy—was now a fugitive.








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