Betrayal on the Border
By Jill Elizabeth Nelson
Former army communications specialist Maddie Jerrard may not remember the details of the deadly mission on the Texas-Mexico border, but she knows one thing. She's not responsible for the massive ambush that left only her and investigative journalist Chris Mason alive. Yet with suspicion—and danger—targeting Maddie and Chris, and a killer on their trail, partnering up is the only solution. But as Maddie and Chris get closer to uncovering the truth, they'll have to trust each other to make it through alive.
Excerpt of chapter one:
Not everyone would recognize the remnants from the construction of a pipe bomb. To the untrained eye, the dab of C-4 could be mistaken for putty and the bits of wire and lengths of sawed-off pipe merely scraps from a handyman project. But then, not many apartment-maintenance workers were ex-army rangers with Maddie's skill set—or a history that meant she must keep her head down and her eyes peeled.
Those who hunted her were relentless and ruthless, and she was damaged prey. She needed to see them coming before they got to her.
Not that she ever knew exactly what hired assassin would be after her. She could bump into one on the street and not know it until he tried to take her out. Everyone was a suspect. If only she could figure out why she was marked for death. Had she seen something the night of the attack a year ago on the Rio Grande? If so, her head injury had erased it from her memory.
Was she the target of the bomb these Morningside tenants had been making? If the three attempts on her life within the past year were any clue, she'd be an idiot to think otherwise. Where was the bomb planted? Her caretaker's apartment on the premises? Maddie's mouth went dry. There could be collateral damage. Dozens of people—including children—lived in this building, and a bomb didn't care who it destroyed.
Dear God, please don't let innocent families be hurt because of me.
Fighting for a full breath, she looked down at the work order in her hand. No, she hadn't made a mistake. The order listed this apartment and stated that the tenants had given permission for the maintenance person to enter in their absence in order to replace a torn window screen. But she'd checked the screens—they were whole. Why would the tenants give permission for her to enter the premises on a trumped-up excuse and then leave their bomb-making scraps lying around in plain view?
Unless this was a trap.
The air in Maddie's lungs went arctic. Maybe the bomb was planted in this very unit. The timer could click down to zero at any second.
Her feet cried Run—seek safety somewhere…anywhere! But flight wouldn't help the other people who could be blown to smithereens.
Sweat trickled down her scalp, despite the coolness blowing from the wall-mounted air conditioner. The scar above her right ear itched, but she ignored the sensation as she yanked her two-way radio from her belt and began to search the premises with her eyes. There wasn't much space to cover in this studio apartment. A kitchenette. A living-room area with an easy chair and matching ottoman, a television the tenants had left blaring, and a couch that had been slept on, if the rumpled bedding was any indication. A hide-a-bed pulled out from the wall filled the rest of the space. That, too, hosted a nest of wadded bedding.
"Bill, do you have a copy?" Maddie spoke into the radio.
She took her thumb off the button and listened for a response. Silence answered. Great! The apartment manager had chosen this critical moment to be absent from his office.
Maddie gingerly cracked the oven door open and peered inside. No bomb. She checked the refrigerator. A half-gallon carton of milk, a partially eaten brick of cheese and an overripe peach, but no bomb. She opened the cupboards with one hand while using the other to keep calling for Bill every few seconds. Still no answer. Her throat tensed as if invisible fingers had tightened around her windpipe. A little voice in her head screamed she was running out of time.
The tenants in this unit had opted not to hook up a land-line phone, and company regulations dictated that employees not carry cell phones. Bad policy in this instance. Maybe she should run to the office herself and phone for the bomb squad. But the bomb could go off in her absence and kill any of the neighbors above, below or on either side. If she found the apparatus, she could defuse it as well as—or better than—the police experts.
She went to the clothes closet and pulled back the sliding door. Phew! The scent of onions rolled out. One of the owners of the stack of luggage that filled most of the space must have a love affair with the vegetable she most despised. Maddie let out a heavy sigh. She'd have to search each bag, and she'd be surprised if she didn't find a different name on every airline tag. Crooks who wanted to fly under the system's radar sometimes generated pocket money by walking off with pieces from baggage carousels and pawning or selling the contents.
From the hallway came the sound of male voices. They drew nearer…nearer…and then stopped on the other side of the apartment entrance. Maddie froze. The tenants were returning? Then the bomb wasn't here. Her shoulders slumped, but then her gut tensed. It was too late to slip away unseen. She could hide in the closet with the onion odor, but to what purpose? If the tenants were in for the evening, she'd be found eventually. There was no way to exit this third-floor unit except through the front door.
Well, then, that's how she'd leave. If she could bluff her way out, fine. If not. Tingles traveled down her extremities. Her muscles gathered. Combat instincts reared their ugly heads. Instincts she wished to forget. Instincts she might need. Again.
Maddie clipped the radio onto her belt and shoved the closet door shut as a click sounded in the entrance lock. A pair of men stepped inside, closed the door and then halted at the sight of her. Above a tall, whipcord body, a dark face with reddened eyes glared at her, lips peeled back from white teeth. Behind him, a short, pale man with doughy cheeks gaped in an astonished O.
She forced a smile and held out her work order. "I was sent to repair your screen, but I can't find any damage."
Lanky Man's face grew darker as a spark of recognition lit his ink-black eyes. She didn't know him, but he knew her. How? His hand slid beneath the front of his suit jacket as Dough Man leaped toward the table.
With a feral growl, Maddie dropped the workorder slip and swept her leg toward Lanky Man—her immediate threat. Her heel hooked the back of his knee. Crack! A handgun discharged while her assailant toppled backward. The bullet pinged against metal—likely a piece of the sprinkler system.
Cursing, threat number two rushed toward her, length of pipe raised. She chopped the rigid edge of her left hand into the soft bend of his elbow. The pipe fell from the arm she had numbed, and her right-handed chop connected with his Adam's apple. The man went down, gagging and clutching his throat.
She whirled toward threat number one, who was climbing to his feet and bringing his Beretta to bear. Her radio squawked as her leg swept up, higher this time, and the heel of her work boot struck the smaller bone near the gunman's wrist. The bone broke with an audible snap, and the gun rocketed into the far wall. Roaring and cradling his disabled hand, Lanky Man charged her, shoulder in ramming position.
Maddie danced aside, but the calf of her leg met the ottoman. She lost the fight for balance and tumbled backward onto the soft body of the Dough Man. Air gushed from his chest, and the struggle to breathe through his damaged windpipe faded into limpness beneath her. Her radio squawked again with Bill's voice calling for her.
Now he wanted to talk? Sorry, pal, I'm a little busy!
The toe of a hard shoe hammered Maddie's side. Pain splintered through her, and a scream rent her throat even as she rolled away from the next kick. From a catlike crouch, she caught the foot intended for her face and sprang upward while twisting her assailant's ankle into an unnatural position. Lanky Man howled as his other foot left the floor. Airborne, he flipped and dropped, face-first, onto the unforgiving floor. Stunned and groaning, he lay still.
Maddie scooped up the gun and held it on her attackers, then pulled her radio from her belt.
"Bill, do you have a copy?"
"Maddie, where are you?" Static. "I've been trying to raise you to let you know the wrong apartment number was entered on the work order. The damaged screen is in Apartment 312, not 315."
"Copy that, Bill, but there's been an incident in Apartment 315. Call the police and the paramedics. And tell them to send the bomb squad. We need to evac this building."
Heartbeats of radio silence were punctuated by another moan from the floor. The lean one stirred.
"Are you serious?" Bill's voice came over the air in a tight squeak.
"Do it now." A grim smile lifted her lips. About time she had the opportunity to order the paper-pusher around.
Lanky Man eased to a sitting position, glaring at her above a bloodied nose. The pale one lay inert. His throat was swollen, but his chest moved up and down. She had refrained from striking with deadly force. There was a time when that wouldn't have been the case.
A time when she didn't live like a hunted creature, scurrying from burrow to burrow. Thanks to these two scum of the earth, it was time to run again. But first—
"Where's the bomb?" She extended the gun toward her conscious assailant.
He curled a swollen lip.
"You can tell me, or you can tell the cops. Or maybe the FBI. Someone like you is probably on their list."
The alarm began to blare in the hallway, summoning the residents to evacuate, but Lanky Man's gaze darted toward the television set. Maddie followed his stare, and her jaw dropped. The camera zoomed in on the flaming wreckage of a midsize sedan sitting at the end of a row of vehicles in a large lot. Maddie strained her ears to hear the commentator above the scream of the alarm.
"Thirty minutes ago, a bomb exploded in a car outside San Antonio's Embassy Suites Airport Hotel." The female news anchor spoke with a practiced air of concern.
Maddie's heart rate stalled and then raced. Unless these zeros had made two bombs, she wasn't the target. That meant a pair of vital things—the innocent residents at Morningside were likely safe, but someone else had already died. Who?
"The Chevrolet Impala was rented yesterday by this man," the newscaster went on.
The report cut to a grainy security-camera shot of a tall, broad-shouldered figure dressed in a sport shirt and slacks, standing at the Enterprise rental counter of the San Antonio International Airport. The face was blurred, but Maddie's grip loosened around the butt of the Beretta.
No! She couldn't be seeing right.
Then a professional head shot of the same dynamic, thirtysomething man filled the 42-inch screen. Larger than life, he grinned at her with perfect teeth. An aquiline nose, tanned complexion and artfully tousled brown hair shouted class and hinted at arrogance. The glint in his eyes and the square of his chin spoke equal parts daring and determination.
A squeak left Maddie's throat. Lanky Man made a sudden movement, but she leaped back and cocked the gun. He raised his hands in surrender and went still as the newscaster continued speaking words that hammered in Maddie's brain.
"Christopher David Mason, an Emmy Award-winning reporter for World News, is presumed dead in the blast. The authorities have not yet been able to approach the vehicle to recover the remains. Mason is best known for his award-winning coverage of the massacre along the Rio Grande that occurred one year ago last month. The tragedy claimed the lives of all but himself and one member of an international team of military and law enforcement personnel. The team was scheduled the next day to mount an assault on the main stronghold of the Ortiz drug cartel near Nuevo Laredo, Mexico."
As the woman eulogized, the vivid blue of Chris's eyes gripped Maddie, ensnared her. She tumbled into them, helpless. He'd always had that affect on her. To her shame. Guilt twisted her gut. How could she be attracted to a traitor! Someone on the ground with them that night on the Rio had to have betrayed their location to the cartel forces they were supposed to take out the next morning. She knew she didn't betray her team, so it had to have been Chris. He belonged behind bars. Suffering. Anywhere but in the grave like the others.
"The Ortiz Cartel claimed responsibility for the Rio Grande Massacre," the newscaster continued. "Today's fresh tragedy begs the question—have they struck again? And, if so, why? We hope to have more information for our viewers on the late news."
The program switched to the weather. Hot. Sunny. No rain in sight. Nothing unusual in that forecast for mid-June in Texas, but her world had just turned inside out one more time.
An hour later, the bomb squad had searched the building and declared all clear. The tenants were released to return to their dwellings, while the tight-lipped suspects were hustled off to jail. Maddie strode toward her first-floor corner apartment.
The cops had been tickled to gain custody of the bombers so quickly after the explosion in the hotel parking lot. It was easy to secure their promise to keep Maddie's involvement in the arrest confidential. Her reprieve from further scrutiny would be temporary, however. The police had taken her fingerprints for elimination on the gun. When they ran the prints, hopefully not too soon, they'd sit up and take notice that Madison Jameson was really Madeleine Jerrard, former communications specialist with the army ranger unit slaughtered in the Rio Grande Massacre. The link to the freshly murdered Chris Mason would be obvious, and they'd look to bring her in for further questioning, but they wouldn't find her. Neither would those who wanted her dead.
Maddie reached her apartment, glanced up and down the empty hallway, then slipped inside and shut the door. Normally, this would be the moment in her day when she would strip the band from her ponytail, shake her thick, dusty-blond hair loose around her shoulders and head to the bathroom for a good, long soak in a tub of scented water. Not this evening.
Her head injuries had stolen critical memories of that night along the Rio Grande, but the cartel—or more likely an official in their pocket on this side of the river—thought she'd seen something that would expose them. She'd been on the run since their first attempt on her life barely a week after her release from the military hospital.
Too bad her faceless mortal enemy didn't know she couldn't remember whatever it was that might incriminate him. He might not be so set on doing her in then. Of course, a traitor to his country had motive to be hyper-paranoid. He'd probably sign her death warrant regardless, on the off chance that she might remember.
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