Kate stood in the deep shadows and silently watched Mitch and Ace walk out of sight. She had to grit her teeth and force herself not to go after them, even more so when Mitch tripped and would have fallen if not for Ace. Turning away before she did something stupid, she made her way through the forest until she was far enough beyond where the men had last been seen before angling back toward the trail.
It hadn’t taken long to halt the progress of the two guys still trying to climb up the ridge. A pile of large, loose stones, a strong branch and a little fulcrum action had sent them frantically scrambling to avoid the sharp projectiles. She smiled at the howls and curses, grinned in the silent aftermath, then eased out from behind a boulder and cautiously peered over the edge of the trail. Dusty plumes followed the rocky debris hurling down the mountain in a bone-breaking landslide. She took a minute to study the area for the sniper, but after seeing no one, slipped back into the forest and headed after Mitch. By the time the men regrouped, she would be long gone.
Walking fast, her mind on Mitch, worried that he was in worse shape than he’d let on, she stumbled on a root and fell to her knees with a grunt. Cursing under her breath, thankful her fall was cushioned by the pine needles, she was just getting to her feet when the low drone of a male voice wafted toward her. She couldn’t understand the words, but knew if one man was speaking, there had to be another listening. Crawling behind the closest tree, she shrugged off her pack, jerked the rifle off her shoulder and sighted down the barrel, eyes narrowed as she looked through the scope. Slowly scanning, taking her time, Kate was rewarded by a slight movement in the underbrush about sixty yards to her left.
Was this the sniper? She knew the other two were still below, city boys lost in an unfamiliar environment being chased by rocks, but if the sniper had made it up the mountain so quickly, he obviously had more experience. Her mouth went dry at her next thought. Or were there more men that the three she'd initially spotted?
The sound of a twig snapping to her right dropped Kate to her belly behind an enormous fallen log, half-rotted and covered with moss and lichen. She breathed easy through her mouth, not moving a muscle as she listened to the forest, searching for what didn’t belong. Several minutes ticked by, then faintly, above and behind her, the soft snick of a pebble glancing off other small stones sent a chill down her spine. Behind her? Mitch and Ace were back that way. Her heart began to pound, but she forced herself to stay still, all her senses focused on the sounds around her before she slowly turned to look over her shoulder.
Another man, several yards away, muttered a few words into a headset, his voice so low she wouldn’t have known he was speaking if she hadn’t seen the slight movement of his lips before he turned his back and stealthily began making his way north, eyes on the ground, tracking, searching. Kate remained motionless and watched him stop, crouch down and shuffle a handful of pine needles between his fingers like he was reading a coded message. Then he straightened, tipped his head back and inhaled deep like Ace would, scenting his prey, reading the air. Her stomach clenched. He could find Mitch. All he had to do was follow the signs, and the rich, coppery scent of fresh blood.
She had a perfect shot at the guy, could take him out in a heartbeat. She was skilled and proficient, more than capable, but to shoot someone in the back, in cold blood? Murder wasn’t really something she wanted on her resume.
Change of plan then. She needed to get to Mitch. In the shape he’d been in, this guy could knock him over with a feather. Or shoot first, who cares about later. Move, you bastard. She couldn’t go until he did and with all his sniffing and pine needle reading, she was getting tired of waiting for him to get on with it.
But then he did the most unexpected thing, catching her so off guard, she froze like a deer in headlights in what felt like the longest moment of her life. He abruptly turned, the smile on his face thin and cruel as he raised his rifle and aimed it right at her. With no time to think, Kate rolled to her back and fired, the recoil slamming the rifle butt into the ground at her hip. The man returned fire, but as his shots rang out, sending splinters of rotten wood and chunks of wet moss into the air, she was already scrambling around the log. After a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure the other guy hadn’t seen her yet, she adjusted her rifle and risked a look up the slope, prepared now to shoot, the hell with her resume, but the man had disappeared, vanished like smoke into thin air.
Frowning, her eyes flew around the area, searching for anything that would reveal his whereabouts. With two men this close, she had to get away, now. Fear tightened her stomach but she ignored it, her mind racing as she weighed the risks and the danger. She took a couple of strong, even breaths, tensed her muscles and prepared to make a run for it.
Her heart jammed in her throat when she rolled away from the log to stand up and saw a man less than three feet away, grinning down at her, rifle casually pointed at her chest.
“Pretty good with that rifle.” He nodded, all chatty, like neighbors over the fence. “And that shooting from the hip thing? Like a Lara Croft movie.” He laughed, showing that what little teeth he had were stained dark brown, no doubt from the tobacco stuffed into the side of his cheek. His beady eyes darted from her face, to her hands still gripping her rifle, to her chest, though the draw there might not have been her breasts, but the sight of Mitch’s blood smeared all over her jacket and shirt. He talked with a strange southern drawl and looked like a ferret, skinny and sly.
She had to get on her feet. Not only was she at a disadvantage on the ground, but her pistol was at her back, knife in the sheath at her side. Dressed for hiking, her thick shirt and jacket were blocking access to her weapons. She kept her eyes on him and slowly began to rise.
He let her sit up, but when she made to stand, he scowled and bent to snatch the rifle out of her hands. “You just sit right there, girl. No quick-like moves.”
“Can I just sit on the log? I’m tired and cold. I’ll stand up, but then sit right back down again, okay?” She smiled like a Barbie doll, head tilt and all.
After giving it way more thought than the simple yes or no required, he finally jerked his chin once and she wasted no time standing. She turned, as if inspecting the log for a place to sit, though in truth was studying the area, looking for the other man, because this guy wasn’t the true threat. She’d fucked up. At least four guys, not the three she’d figured. Looked like she might have to pay for that mistake.
She picked a spot near one end of the log and sat. “So,” she said, unbuttoning her jacket, “what happened to the other guy?”
Ferret smiled wide. Kate had reached a total count of seven teeth when she felt the hard press of a muzzle at the base of her skull. Taking a slow, deep breath, she said calmly, though her heart had nearly reached critical mass, “Ah, there you are.” Silence for a minute, then Ferret started to laugh, shaking his head as he walked closer.
“Shut the fuck up,” growled a cold, mean voice at her back. It was him all right, the boss who meant business. He jabbed the pistol in her nape hard enough to make her head snap forward. Now or never, she thought, kicking a leg out and nailing Ferret so hard in the balls with her steel-toed boot, his eyes nearly popped out of his head as he collapsed, moaning and writhing to the forest floor. Before he hit the ground, she had already twisted over the log and hammered a solid fist into the boss guy’s throat, reaching out to grab his wrist with her other hand. His head snapped back as he choked for breath, but he still managed to keep his grip on the pistol, livid eyes locked on her face as they grappled. She plowed a fist into his belly then hopped back to avoid his reach.
So many ways to play the next few minutes, Kate’s mind boggled at the choices. Ferret was out for the count, crying and sniveling, his knees drawn up tight to his chest, hands in his crotch as he blubbered. But this one, rubbing his throat, gun unwavering from a spot right between her eyes, he was a different. Lean and wiry, he stood a few inches taller than her, bald head glistening with sweat, an obvious family connection to Ferret with his thin lips and long, sharp nose. She could see in his dark rattlesnake eyes this wasn’t going to end well for somebody.
“Why’d you shoot Mitch?” she asked, stalling for time. Knife or pistol, pistol or knife. “He’s the one who tracked me, has the contract. What are you doing? Poaching? That won’t sit well once word gets out.”
“He was in the way and word ain’t getting out.” Poor guy, his voice sounded funny, like he’d just been throat punched.
“Oh, come on.” She couldn’t stop the burst of laughter. “You thought taking down a man like Mitch Cartwright was a good idea?” She snorted. “Even if you did manage to do the impossible, somebody will get word to his brother.” Kate shrugged, letting her jacket slide off one shoulder. “Your funeral.”
“But I did the manage the impossible,” the guy sneered. “Not here now, is he? I got him, saw him drop.” He stepped close and hissed in her face, “Like I said, word ain’t getting out.”
Finally, close enough. She leaned in, eyes locked with his as she edged a hand to the small of her back. When her arm was suddenly wrenched up between her shoulder blades, forcing her up onto her toes, the pain was so unexpected and excruciating she couldn’t register what was happening at first. Her gun was yanked out of her waistband and Ferret’s tobacco breath slid hot into her ear, oily and rancid. “You gonna be sorry for that kick, bitch.” He yanked hard on her arm. She was powerless to stop the shriek as pain tore through her shoulder. Panting through the agony, she was vaguely pleased that her voice wasn’t as impaired as the rest of her. “You guys don’t seem to understand the concept of bounty hunting. You’re supposed to catch the runner, then return them for compensation. Torture and murder aren’t usually on the table this early in the game.”
Boss stepped close, pushing his chest into her, forcing her back against Ferret, pinning her between their bodies. Her arm throbbed with the unbearable pressure and her calves were screaming. En pointe in hiking boots wasn’t exactly the prescribed ballet movement. She let herself fall hard into Ferret’s chest, biting her lip against the pain as it tore through her, but it was worth the agony when he stumbled, lost his grip and fell. Her arm flopped like a piece of dead meat, razor-sharp pain ripping from her neck to her finger tips as muscle and tendon uncoiled. Right arm numb and worthless, she stretched across her belly with her left hand, jerked the knife out of its sheath and without a second’s pause, stabbed it into the boss guy’s shoulder. The blade was sharp, her aim true and it went deep. Her grip tight on the hilt, she jammed it in harder and twisted. He roared, shoved her back and raised the butt of the pistol to strike her, his face contorted with rage. “You’re fucking dead.”
Shifting her feet, she prepared to strike again when he came closer, but Ferret, like the fucking Energizer Bunny, was back on his feet and had moved in behind her, pinning her arms in a forceful embrace. Going limp, she let her weight throw him off balance again, this time they fell back onto the log and she used his tight grip as a brace, pulling her feet up to her chest then kicking out, making solid contact with Boss man’s stomach. As he staggered back, she stabbed her knife into Ferret’s thigh. He surged up so fast, she tumbled off his body and landed on hands and knees, jarring her injured shoulder as she fell. Bellowing, Ferret slumped back onto the log, hands clutched around his thigh as blood welled like little fountains between his fingers.
Before Kate could get to her feet, Boss kicked her in the side, the blow rolling her five feet down the slope. Sucking in a shaky breath as her ribs burst into flame, she dodged the second kick, but he caught her in the injured shoulder with the third and she did a face plant, her breath wheezing from the pain, the arid scent of old pine filling her nose.
He ground his boot heel into her wrist until she released the knife, then bent down and grabbed a handful of hair, yanking her head back to expose her throat. “Time we had us some fun, little girl.” Kate felt the blade dig into the skin just below her chin when she swallowed.