Nemesis first 20 pages

Nemesis by RS Perry first 20 pages.


In the back seat of the blue Bronco, Pedro remained still as Najma continued driving south, toward Odessa. She scrutinized the infrequent ranch houses along the way until she spotted one far off the highway. A small address sign atop a dented mailbox jiggled precariously beside the dirt entry road. It had been many years since the road had been graded. The barbed wire fences needed repair. The fields were overgrown and full of weeds.

Najma cruised past the long drive. She saw no one on the main road or in the fields ahead. She did a U-turn, searched her review mirror, and observing no cars behind her, she turned up the rutted driveway toward the ranch house.

On the front porch, a small wiry man sat on a chair holding a white mug. As she got closer, Najma could see his deep facial creases in the shadow made by the bill of the frayed blue cap. A sun-bleached “Ford” embroidered on the cap attested to the owner’s preference in tractors. Sweat stains bled outward from the hatband onto the hat’s bill and migrated up its front, meeting the Ford label.

He didn’t rise as she walked toward him.
‘Good morning, missy.’
Najma judged him to be close to eighty. But the difficult life of a rancher

exposed to years of sun, dirt, and hard labor made it difficult to tell. In fact, the old man had turned seventy a week ago. Having had a cancerous lung removed, he knew his working days were behind him. Without a puff on his pipe3⁄4a pipe that now protruded unused from the pocket of his plaid shirt3⁄4the old man got little enjoyment from his mug of coffee.

A sturdy woman with frizzy white hair bustled out the screen door and nodded at Najma. Mrs. Adams surveyed the younger woman and at first did not like what she saw. Then Martha Adams relaxed a little. The visitor’s green baseball cap3⁄4a shock of black hair protruding from the back3⁄4spelled “friendly,” in rancher speak.

‘What can we help you with?’ she bellowed, accustomed as she was to addressing Harry, her husband of fifty-one years. Like most ranchers, years of working

with noisy equipment had caused his hearing to deteriorate. Their ranch, too, had been deteriorating for the last few years. It had been a good life, a hard one, and they had lost a son to it when he was crushed under a tractor. Still, they carried on. They owned the land and the house and went through their daily routines.

‘My boy is sick in the back seat,’ said Najma. ‘I’m taking him to a hospital at Moses Lake, but my car’s motor is starting to clank and misfire.’

‘Sounded fine when you drove in,’ said Harry.

‘It does that. Sounds fine one minute and then almost quits the next. Can I use your phone to call a mechanic, or do you know any close around?’

‘Thought all you young folks had those new-fangled phones you carried in your pocket,’ said Harry.

‘Not me,’ said Najma. ‘I don’t like them.’

‘Harry, you up to driving the lady and her son? Can’t sit there all day a doing nothing,’ said Martha. ‘I might join you ifen you do. I could do some shopping in that new Moses Lake Walmart.’

‘Car could use a bit of a run, I suppose. You okay with that, missy?’
‘I’m much obliged to you.’
‘Don’t just sit there,’ said Martha. ‘Go and get the car and I’ll get the lady a

mug of coffee. I’ll get my hat and purse and we’ll have an outing while we help her and her son.’

Najma would have better understood their willingness to help if she had known they had lost their only son years back. Harry pushed himself up and stretched.

‘Get moving, old man. Her boy needs to get to a doctor.’
Harry went down the two steps and headed around the back of the house. ‘Come on in. It’s warmer inside. My name’s Martha. What’s yours?’
‘Najma Peters.’ Najma easily made up an American name. Her real last name,

Hussein, would cause too many questions. Not that it would matter in the next few minutes.

‘I never heard anyone called Najima before. How’d you get it?
‘My mother told me she saw it written somewhere and liked it.’
Najma didn’t bother to correct the pronunciation. ‘You live here alone?’ ‘Just two of us. It’s all we got: this place, memories, and each other.’

Harry opened a side door to a shed. He shuffled over to a hanging door. It swayed in and out with the light winter’s breeze. He took a deep breath and leaned on the handle attached to the ageded wood door. Through years of sun and weather, the door had worn and split. It creaked, making small resistant groans as the metal rollers turned reluctantly in the corroded metal track.

He slid the barn door along and stepped to a thirty-year-old beige Buick Estate station wagon. The keys were inside. He knew it would start right up, as he kept the vehicle in meticulous running condition. Hearing a slight pop in the distance, he shook his head.

It disturbed him that he couldn’t hear much and consequently imagined hearing all sorts of noises. Some were real and some weren’t, so he paid no attention to any of them. There was something to be said for not hearing all the clanging and banging noises, not to mention the racket from crying babies and over-talkative town folk.

He pulled the car up below the front steps and tooted. Then he remembered he needed to get his driver’s license. He got out, leaving the car idling with the heat on high.

Najma stood in the kitchen, drinking coffee from a white mug. Martha liked the white ones, so she could tell that they were spotlessly clean before hanging them on a hook under the cupboard.

‘Getting my driver’s license. Then we’s ready to drive,’ said Harry. Then he frowned. The woman, whose name he didn’t even know, was holding a pistol pointed at him.

‘You won’t need a license where you’re going,’ said Najma. ‘Get over here into the kitchen.’

Harry was dumbfounded but not afraid. Years ago, he would have taken that puny pea shooter away from the woman. He had survived Korea, so no little gal was going to cause him trouble.

He walked around the kitchen counter and his heart sank. ‘Marty,’ was all he said. Martha lay on the floor with a red hole in the middle of her forehead. His knees weakened and he dropped to the floor beside her with a sob. Najma fired the pistol at his head. His mind went blank.

The small subsonic twenty-two short bullet had sufficient velocity to penetrate his skull. It entered his brain, tearing through his cerebrum, dendrites, and neurons until it encountered the inside edge of the skull. Lacking enough force to punch through his skull a second time, the bullet ricocheted, tunneling back to the other side, boring through over and over until, its force expended, it came to rest.

The small caliber was her favorite for many reasons. It was not as noisy as larger calibers and, for close up work, it had enough velocity to penetrate the skull and enter the brain, but not enough force to escape through the other side; the small slug’s velocity allowed it to bang around inside before brain tissue stilled its momentum.

Harry slumped lifeless beside his wife.

Najma regretted not having the time to play this out. She held tight the image of the old lady’s eyes before she shot her. She would have liked to take the time to tease her and watch the fear build. This day, Martha’s brief moment of panic would have to be enough.

Najma wasn’t worried about a surprise interruption. From the looks of the place, the two old people had no friends or much life left. She reasoned she had done them a good turn. That thought made her frown. She preferred causing pain and watching her victims’ eyes as the realization grew: there was no hope, no escape.

Time was short; she had pursuers. Her higher mission was to get Pedro to their final destination, not to toy with two withered relics.

Soliloquy December 22, 2000

Jim felt a warm glow. He was facing backward in the Globe Master III, racing northward from Colombia toward Fort Lewis, Washington. His feet were up, his head was back, and he wore a headset connected to the extensive comms on the Biological Warfare Center’s long-distance response plane. Without success, he had dialed out of range. Heather had probably forgotten to charge the batteries. Strange as it might seem, thinking about her foibles made him happy.

Heather was as smart as she was capable. She also had several personality quirks, which he unequivocally liked: stringing three questions together; routinely forgetting to charge her phone; picking up anything that crawled; and possessing an

undying love of pangolins, cats, bats, dogs, llamas and, her favorite: Sharifa, a pregnant dromedary camel.

They would arrive at Fort Lewis in less than six hours. He called Master Sergeant First Class Williston who assured him his Piper Seneca was fueled, the oil, and tires checked. Jim intended to exit the Globe Master, do a quick inspection of his tan, red, and white twin-engine plane, and make the sixty-five-minute flight up and over the Cascades to his home airport in Winthrop, Washington.

He tried Heather one more time. No answer. Not able to reach her, he called flight control, received a weather report, and filed an instrument flight plan to Winthrop. When he neared the ranch and started to descend the east side of the mountains, Seattle radio would not receive his transponder signal. Luckily, the weather was good, and using visual flight rules would be more than sufficient. At some point, while he still had radio contact, he would cancel the IFR flight plan.

He took his headset off and set it on the side table next to his recliner. For the first time since their flight to Ecuador, he relaxed, stretching out in the lounge chair with his feet up. The physical comfort of the lounger was in stark contrast to the rough sleeping he had become used to in his life. While his body relaxed, inside, Jim was weary from the extended mission. The weariness abated by thoughts of the upcoming Christmas holidays with Heather and Pedro. Thoughts of warm fires, good food, and sound sleeping danced inside his head. It would be good to be home.

The last several weeks in Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil had been hectic. Tracking the source of a smallpox virus, uncovering an insidious military plot to kill thousands of FARC rebels, and rescuing young Shuar girls from a group of brutal miners in the Amazon had kept Jim and his team busy. Tshui’s smile and round face grew large in his mind’s eye. She had immediately become his favorite as he had become hers.

Jim was more than ready to go home to Heather and his adopted son Pedro. He used to think that home meant only to the ranch and to Heather. But now, they had been accumulating people—Lola, a short Mexican woman, rescued along with Pedro from the cartel. And there was Old Man Shuskin, a vagrant who once haunted the mountain wilderness during the summer.

Jim sighed happily. He would be able to keep his promise to Heather and

Pedro to be home for the holidays. He had come close to not keeping that promise. Christmas was only three days away. There were times during the last couple of weeks when he had wondered whether he would be able to keep his word. But making it is making it.

A short mission in the Amazon to rescue the Ecuadoran president’s daughter had turned into one mission after another. The daughter, Angélica, had gone missing. Three days later, a ransom note had been delivered to her father in Quito. Jim’s mission to rescue her had been arranged with extensive backup. It turned out, however, that she hadn’t needed to be rescued. Her captors and their leader, Jago, had recruited her to the cause as well as to his bed. Angélica Noboa Perez’s kidnapping had lasted all of three minutes before her attraction for the rebel leader had taken hold of her body and mind.

The straightforward mission had then degraded into a series of complications. Once started, Jim’s thoughts cascaded through a series of memories: gold mines, swamps and alligators, VX gas, the Colombian army, and the FARC rebel band that had become unlikely allies; Jago, Lobo, Cherry, and Chico. The team had also suffered the loss of two of the young FARC rebels as well as of their long-term friend, Gaston, whose luck had run out in a jungle firefight with Ecuadoran soldiers.

Jim closed his eyes and settled into the chair. The plane’s engines hummed steadily in the background. There was no turbulence. Drifting off to sleep, he thought of Maria Dakine’s interest in the Shuar head shrinking process, and of two bright youngsters, Tshui and Pedro who had become part of his life.

Twisp, Washington – 6 months earlier

Najma opened her eyes to the sound of a helicopter’s blades slowing. She blinked, trying to clear her vision. Only inches away, the face of her nemesis, Colonel Johnson. She reached over wanting to check his pulse. Raising her arm, the pain in her gut and shoulder made her feel faint, and she started to perspire. She closed her eyes trying to force the pain away. Had she killed the colonel?

She willed herself to check again. She had to be certain. Lifting her arm against the pain the sound of someone walking outside the hangar stopped her. She forced

her mind to clear. Her knife lay at her feet in pooled blood. Her clothes and hair were still wet blood. Their blood ran together on the smooth concrete surface. Moaning, she reached to retrieve it. The one thing she knew for certain, whoever was outside was her enemy. Bearing the pain, she forced herself to stand and survey the hangar. There was nowhere to hide.

The partially wrecked Enstrom was between her and the hangar door. Najma hobbled to Jim’s Enstrom thinking her only chance would be to ambush someone entering. Lazaro’s body was still stretched out on the floor. He meant nothing to her. She turned her head back toward Colonel Johnson and managed a small smile as she saw a large pool of blood expanding near him. Dead. She had killed him. If I could only remember how. What happened? Then a small emotion seeped through the pain. Is this what I wanted? To kill him yes, but do I want him dead?

The thoughts swirling through her brain nearly caused her to fall. She wanted to go back to him. To lay beside him. Feeling the hard floor beside him. Footsteps brought her back to reality.

She leaned against the white chopper listening. Whoever was outside was moving purposely at the back of the hangar. A small panel below her hand was ajar. The downward tilt of the helicopter kept the small panel closed. She opened it and peered into the darkness. It was eighteen inches square extending through to the other side of the Enstrom. Too small for most humans.

Najma closed her eyes against the pain as she squeezed herself inside the helicopter’s luggage compartment. The space was so small she could barely pull herself forward. Her fingertips using rivets, she pulled herself forward into the darkness. The effort left her exhausted and feint. If anyone looked in the compartment, she would be unable to defend herself. With her feet inside, the light-weight cover pulled by gravity drifted closed. The square metal enclosure pressed against her. She was stuffed so tightly inside that a small sliver of light passing through the door hinge didn’t penetrate past her hips. She closed her eyes against the pain. Then opened them to the black void. Footsteps entered the hangar.

A male voice said, ‘Shit. Jeff in here, now.’ She heard running. ‘He’s still breathing.’ He’s not dead. Through her pain, in the darkness, Najma smiled.

General Crystal pressed his eyes closed. ‘Status?’

‘Bad, sir.’

The general knew he couldn’t do anything for Jim. He gripped the helicopter’s door gun and scanned the area, searching for a target. The only movement was Jeff running toward the hangar.

‘Careful everyone,’ said Neilly. ‘There’s blood from someone else next to Jim.’

Mac scanned the inside of the hangar. He looked inside the Enstrom. ‘Blood trail from Jim goes out under the helicopters tail. We’re clear in here.’

They weren’t clear. Najma was no danger stuffed in the narrow luggage compartment. The blood trail’s from Jim coming into the hangar, not someone exiting. Forensics would later determine that he was correct. Najma was bleeding internally from the two small twenty-five calibre bullets. Her should wound bleed only enough that it was absorbed into her clothes.

‘Three hangars north, two locals are hunkered down in a hangar,’ said Gaston. ‘No sign of anyone else.’ He stood at the back of the hangar and searched the brush and then scanned the hillsides looking for Najma or any remaining cartel.

The black Suburban skidded to a stop near Techie Tom Bryant. Glenda, Marylin, Gaston, and Joe jumped out. Joe covered Gaston as they ran to Tom.

‘There’s a body behind the Colonel’s hangar. It’s Major McGuire.’

Glenda bolted toward the rear of Jim’s hangar. Marilyn ran behind her turning, scanning, attempting to protect Glenda from an ambushed.

The Medivac helicopter thundered overhead and set down not far from Techie Tom and the jet.

Glenda rose skidded to a stop and dropped on her knees next to Brush. Marylyn scanned the area while JP moved down the hangar line, searching for cartel members.

‘Brush is seriously wounded,’ said Glenda.

Will closed his eyes for a again. Both of his two special agents were injured and possibly dying at the hands of Najma. His BWC could never replace them. That was his rational side. He was a tough battle-worn commander, who was used to subduing his emotions. There were several people he had been fond of throughout his career including Bertrand and Martin at CIA. They were getting to be friends as they worked together. He had never had a woman in his life. He had entertained the thought of

Sheilla once. His inexperience kept him from pursuing her. The same inexperience with women prevented him from realizing that Sheilla liked and respected him as her boss and a friend, but she would never love him as a companion.

He had two important friends, met long ago in Vietnam. They had survived that war as twenty-year old’s together. Will was their senior both in age and rank. Nevertheless, they had bonded, as only those who have survived battles together can bond. Through the years that bond had increased their mutual respect. While the general outranked the colonel, who outranked Major McGuire, there was never a doubt in their minds that they were all anything but equal. As tough as he was, he knew he would never be able to replace them in his life. The thought scared him.

The airport was secure. He decided it was no longer necessary to stay on the door gun. He jumped out and jogged toward Jim’s hangar.

After giving him a shot of morphine, Jeff left Techie Tom. He was wounded, but he would be okay while he checked on the others. He ran toward the wrecked Enstrom, slowed to a jog as new neared, calling Glenda he asked her about Major McGuire’s status.

‘He looks bad. But the dumb Canuck is talking to me.’
Jeff ducked under the Enstrom’s tail and rushed over to Jim.
‘A lot of blood.’
‘It looks like from two people,’ said Neilly.
Jeff tore open a packed medical kit. She cut off Jim’s sleeve and managed to

insert an IV.
‘Mac. I need you to hold the bag. He needs fluids before he goes into

hemorrhagic shock.’
‘Mac. Look for Najma. I’ll stay with the colonel,’ said Will.
Jeff lifted Jim’s shirt and inspected the wound in his side. ‘There’s an exit hole

on the back. He’s lost a lot of blood and I have no way of knowing what his internal damage is. The scalp wound is ugly looking. Quite a gash.’ She pulled the wound together with her fingers, securing it with a butterfly bandage.’

Two medics slide a stretcher under the Enstrom’s tail and rushed over.

‘Let’s get him on the chopper, get him oxygen and see what his blood pressure is. Pulse is thirty-two. He needs a hospital now,’ said Jeff.

‘You want him to go to the west side?’ asked one medic as they maneuvered Jim onto the stretcher.

‘Omak is closest. He’s just barely alive. Get him there and see if Fort Lewis can get one of the best trauma docs to the hospital. Load Tom too. I’ll take a look at the McGuire while you’re getting them loaded. We need to hustle.’

He turned toward General Crystal. ‘You want to take over for me, sir.’
‘I haven’t practiced for a long time,’ said the general.
‘Do your best, sir. Mac, Joe, get a stretcher for McGuire. I want to be in the air

in two minutes,’ said Jeff.
She ducked under the helicopter’s mangled tail, rushing around the hangar to

Glenda and Brush. She inspected him. Mac, hustle up, get him on the vac with the other two.

‘Who’s the two?’ asked Brush hoping it was not Jim or the general. ‘The colonel and Techie. Jim needs help asap.’
‘Don’t worry about me. Just get Jim where he needs to go.’
‘Shut up you dumb Canuck. Let the lady call the shots.’

Brush smiled slightly, mumbling, ‘I love you too, honey,’ before lossing consciousness.

‘He’ll make it,’ said Jeff more assertively than she felt. The major’s pulse was steady near sixty. He would probably survive. It was the colonel that worried her.

Najma remained still. It took all her will power. The pains amplified in her body as she lay pressed in her inside the metal compartment. If she passed out, her foot might push the compartment door would open. If she moved the light-weight metal would make a noise, giving her away. They would have her and it would be back to Guantanamo and this time with no chance of escape. Guillermo would send someone to terminate her. She had to stay the course. Remain silent and still.

The voices disappeared. The medivac chopper lifted off simultaneously with the Blackhawk. Najma tried to shift her body against the pain. Instead, she passed out. Her foot relaxed pushing the compartment door open to an empty hangar.

She regained consciousness to searing pain and the compartment’s blackness. There were no sounds. She gritted her teeth, pushing herself out of the compartment. She fell to the floor and passed out again.

General Crystal jumped into the medivac helicopter next to Jim. He checked

his vital signs. Heart rate thirty-nine. A bit better. Blood pressure forty-nine over thirty. Not good, he thought. There was nothing else he could do.

He sighed and decided he had to call Heather. Waiting wouldn’t help. She needed to know.

‘Heather. We’re flying to the hospital in Omak.’
Heather held her breath. At least he had not said Jim was dead.
‘How bad is he?’
‘It’s serious, Heather.’
‘I’ll send the medivac for you as soon as we arrive.’
‘Shoot. Damn it.’
‘We’re waiting for the vet for Rosie O Twisp. Too many shootings.’
‘It’s worse. Brush is also seriously wounded.’
‘Don’t tell me. Najma got away. Can I talk to Jim.’
‘He’s unconscious, but still breathing. Try not to worry, we’ll get him to the

ER. We have one of the army’s best docs from the Madigan Hospital’s trauma center on his way to Omak.’

‘Oh, God. No.’

Teckie Tom managed to get himself to the medivac but could not get in. The two medics, followed by Glenda, Mac, and Jeff were doing a fast walk to the chopper with the unconscious Brush. Mac ran ahead and helped Techie in. Loaded, the medivac rose to a hover before dipping its nose.

The general said into his headset, ‘Redline this bird.’ He didn’t need to add ‘or else.’ The pilots knew his connection to the injured passengers. They pulled in maximum power and did exactly as the general ordered.

The two medics shifted between Teckie, Jim, and Brush. Glenda sat next to Brush, holding his hand. The general monitored Jim and made sure that the Mid- Valley Hospital, where he had recovered a year ago, had their ER teams standing by. The staff had fond memories of their famous army patient and prepared for the incoming patients. Their emergency room was not staffed for three emergencies. The head nurse located an additional experienced doctor and nurse, and ordered them to

the emergency room.
‘Three minutes out. They’ve cleared the parking lot near the emergency

entrance for us to land,’ said the pilot. ‘Sheilla, our army docs status?

‘Forty minutes away, sir.’

‘I want search teams on the ground pronto. Forensics, FBI, whatever or whoever else you need. I want to find that lady. She’s close. She doesn’t get away this time.’

‘On it, general. I sent the Blackhawk to remove the prisoners. Mac is at the airport and guarding the jet. Carter is flying to the airport with his team. The FBI and forensics are on their way. I’ve asked for sat coverage. The local cops are setting up roadblocks. We’ll find her.’

The general sat, with a stethoscope connected to Jim’s weakening heartbeat. A medic attached ECG leads. Will sat thinking about the day. They had lost Sergeant Mason. Jim and Brush wounded and Jim might not make it. Even Pedro’s dog, Rosie, shot. Jim lost his little chopper. I lost my bird. How much damage can one woman do? And she’s still on the loose. Jesus. What a day.

Najma’s eyes opened. Violent shivering forced her into consciousness. She lay

on the concrete floor below the Enstrom. The floor was cool in the late summer. The induced hypothermia saved her life. Her mind started to register what had happened. And what had not: she had not been captured.

She turned her head to where she and Colonel Johnson had lain. He was gone. Why am I still here? Her mind churned that thought. She tried to focus, Listening for voices. There was only silence. Why?

The medivac pilot brought his helicopter in fast. No delay. The orders from the

general rang in his ears. No hovering or turning. The emergency staff stepped back, thinking the pilot was going fly into them. A perfectly coordinated running landing that stopped short of sliding as the skids kissed the asphalt.

‘General, I’ve patched the incoming doc into your comm. He wants to speak to the emergency doctors.’

General Crystal pulled his earpiece out and offered it to the lead doctor. The doctor ignored him. A booming voice stopped everyone short.

The doctor smiled recalling his past patient while he continued to bark orders at his staff. Glenda stepped in, hooking her mic and earpiece up for Dr. Green as he held his gloved hands in the air.

‘General, you need your comm. I can spare mine for the doctor,’ said Glenda, who abruptly turned to Brush.

Dr. Green said, ‘Fluids heated and warmed oxygen. Stat.’
A voice entered his earpiece. ‘Stop.’
‘Who is this?’
‘I’m an army doctor. I’ll direct you. Reverse the warming. I want you to induce

‘That will kill him.’

A louder voice commanded, ‘Do as he says, doctor.’
‘He’s your man,’ said Dr. Green. ‘Reverse that. No warming.’
The voice in Dr. Green’s ear continued while they worked on the patient. The general watched as Dr. Green reduced the IV fluid flow.
‘General, this is Major Samuelson. I presume you monitored. What is the

status of the other patients?’
The general moved to the bed where Brush was being worked on. He relayed

what he saw from the ECG monitor. ‘He appears stable.’

‘The third patient?’

The general didn’t bother to say what Teckies vitals were as he pulled a dividing curtain aside. Teckie Tom was talking to the staff as they worked on him. ‘The third patient is fine and talkative.’

‘My ETA is less than five minutes.’
‘Explain why you wanted to keep Colonel Johnson hypothermic?’
‘Battlefield experience. Hemorrhagic shock during the golden hour is normally

treated by fluids and warming core temperature. I’ve lost dozens of patients with that protocol. I researched it. We changed our battlefield treatment. I’ve written this up.’


‘Induced hypothermia protects tissue and organs in bleeding polytrauma patients and increases intact neurological survival. Reversing has to proceed slowly. It’s a double-edged sword. Too much or too little can kill. The treatment has to be nuanced and combined with reduced fluids. We’ve landed. In short, first repair vascular injuries, maintain hypothermia, then slowly restore temp, and replace fluids. In that order.’

The door burst open and a tall black man walked in wearing camo fatigues. ‘Where do I scrub?’

Chapter 1

Najma quickly accepted that the airfield was temporarily abandoned. She knew it would not stay that way long. The time was now. Accept her pain. Escape while she could.

The odds were not in her favor. There would be many looking looking for her. They would have air, satellite, infrared, and perhaps dogs. There was no hiding here. She had to get away and not leave a trail. Even with all her skills, perception, and understanding, she would still need a large dose of luck.

She moved under the Enstrom tail hugging the wall. The cartel men remained where they had died. A jet was parked fifty meters in front. There was movement in the cockpit. For a moment, she wondered how far she could get hijacking the plane. The idea evaporated as a man carrying an MP-7 moved into the doorway. From his manner, it was clear he was part of the Special Forces unit. She was no match for someone with special skills in her condition,.

Her vision started to blur. She felt faint. Suppressed nausea. The man disappeared for the plane’s door. She willed herself to move around the corner and down the side of the hanger. Bubbling through the pain, breaking the surface of her swirling brain a thought slipped out. The colonel was not dead. She would not die. There would be a return engagement. This time on her terms.

As she stumbled toward the rear of the hangar visions of holding him captive kept her from fainting. Thoughts of teasing him, feeling him inside her, and watching his pain grow gave her the strength to move. Move where?

At the back of the hangar, she looked in all directions. The ditch where she had shot the colonel’s partner. The other side of the ditch. The road. She knew from experience that the road led to Winthrop to the north and Highway 20 to the south. She looked up the hill. It was dry. Only weeds grew. No trees. The primary weed was Russian Knapweed, called Barnaby Thistle by the locals. It grew well in the dry soils. Pioneers imported the thistle to feed their cattle, but the cows wouldn’t eat it. A hardy plant was a hardy plant, the thistle crowded out the edible plants. Ignorance and stupidity.

There were no cars on the road. Three hang gliders circled in warm updrafts on a distant hill. Flying away like a bird would prevent dogs from tracking her. She could soar miles away. But they were too far away, and there would be too many people for her to handle.

Far down the road, a glint. Sunlight reflecting on chrome. She evaluated for a second. Law enforcement. Army, or civilian? She had no choice. Luck would win this gamble. She moved through the ditch to the road and lay down in the middle of the pavement. She reached to her ankle and found the small twenty-two pistol. For a moment, panic consumed her. She felt for her double-edged knife. She found it in her back pocket in its black leather sheath.

She relaxed. It felt better to be lying down. The moment of truth awaited. It was a blue pickup truck. It slowed, then pulled up next to her. A large man jumped out and came to her side.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Better than I was,’ she replied as she pointed the small twenty-two at the man’s face.

‘Be a gentleman. Help me up. No funny ideas or they will be your last.’

Murray reached down and took her outstretched hand. He evaluated if he could move out of the way fast enough. The woman grimaced.

‘Get me in your truck.’
‘I’ve watched a lot of movies. Best time to put up a fight is right away in the

beginning. The further I go with you, the worse off I’ll be. I’d rather take my chances here where we stand.’

‘Look, mister. I’m not going to hurt you or shoot you unless you make me. There are some bad people on the loose here and one of them shot me. I don’t know you and don’t trust you. Until I do, you do as I say.’

Murray re-thought and decided to take his chances with her.
‘Where are you shot?’
Do a U-turn. I want to go to Wolf Canyon Ranch. You know where that is?’ The man laughed. ‘It’s like a second home. I do vet work there all the time.’ ‘I was taking the short way to the ranch. Over Balky Hill Road. You want to

go the long way around. It’s fine by me.’
‘Okay, smart guy. Quickest way.’
If she wanted to go to the ranch. She can’t be all that bad, he thought.

‘You know Jim?’
‘I work with the colonel,’ she lied.
‘Quit ass-poking along.’
‘Where are you from?’ Murray laughed at the ass-poking instead of poke-

assing phrase.
He stepped on the gas pedal while winding up the long hill. His old pickup

didn’t like it any better than the mules did in the pioneer days.
‘Drive. I don’t want to talk.’ Najma struggled to remain conscious. It took all

her will power.
They descended the hill toward the lower ranch house and Beaver Creek. ‘Sheriff from Omak is down there. Big goings-on at the ranch to bring him all

the way over. Jim’s dog is shot. Can you tell me what happened up there?’
‘I will. First, I need to tell you that I work undercover for the general and the

colonel,’ she smoothly lied again. ‘There was an attack on the ranch lead by a Mexican cartel.’

‘What do they have to do with anything in these parts?

‘You really don’t know? Obviously not. I have to make this quick, so you’ll understand what I am going to ask you to do.’

Murray started to get nervous again. Ask me what?

‘That sheriff down there is on the cartel’s payroll. He won’t say anything about me when we drive by, but those military guys might. I can’t be seen. I need to protect my cover. I’m going to get down. You drive by and wave. Keep going don’t stop. Don’t go slow. If they try to stop you, yell emergency at the ranch and keep going.’

‘This isn’t making any sense.’
‘I can’t afford to fuck around here. Does this gun pointed at you make sense?’ ‘I’ll take my chances like I said before. I’m stopping. You shoot me if you have

Najma would like to do just as he said. Instead, she said, ‘You’re one of the

good guys. Not everyone down there is. I have to find out who, so they don’t kill Heather, Pedro, or anyone else on our side. You want to be responsible for that? And for telling Jim why you let Heather and Pedro get killed? Because that’s what these guys were sent here to do, and they’ll find a way to do it unless we stop them.’

Murray drove fast. His old truck rattled down the dirt road, shaking every nerve in Najma’s body.

‘You need a new truck, bud fuck.’

He waved at the sheriff, and pointed frantically up toward the ranch, and mouthed emergency. The sheriff tried to wave him to a stop. He didn’t stop. The sheriff would have chased him down, but he was here to block traffic, not stop the local vet from driving up to the ranch.

Over the bridge and at Beaver Creek road junction, Najma said, ‘Thanks. You did the right thing.’

‘Turn left.’
‘What. You said we were going to the ranch.’
‘We will, Mr. Vet. What’s your name?’
‘Murray,’ he said, listlessly. His mind was on Rosie. A dog that for whatever

reason he had grown to like through the years.
Murray’s cell phone rang. Najma needed him. She wanted him to trust her. ‘Answer it, please don’t mention me.’ She lowered the gun.
‘Thanks for calling, Heather. He’ll be okay. He’s a tough guy. Wish him well

for me, will you.’
‘Who’s going to be okay?’

She said Jim was in the emergency room in Omak. A chopper was going to take her and Rosie to the hospital. I don’t need to go up.’

Najma tried not to smile as she said, ‘Shit. I told you. Just what I’ve been trying to get into your head. Now they got Jim. Bad people. I’m glad for Pedro that his dog will get attended to. How bad is Jim?

‘Not good, I think.’

‘I want to contact him, but I can’t break my cover. God, I hope he is okay. You ever operate on a person?’

‘Jesus. You can’t ask me to do that. I’ll take you to the hospital with your boss in Omak. They’ll fix you up.’

‘Look, you. For the last time. I’m undercover and need to stay that way.’

Beaver Creek ran alongside the road on the left. A steep drive on the right side appeared.

A road went up the hill on their right. ‘Where does that go?’
‘A mobile home that Jim bought.’ ‘Empty?’

‘Maybe the Twisp chief of police lives there. Jim rents it to him. We can go check if you want.’

Najma shook her head as he passed the road.
Another driveway went up the hill. ‘What’s up that one?’ asked Najma. ‘Abandoned house. Used to belong to the Baptist preacher. Belongs to the

county now.’ ‘Drive up.’

‘Yes, mam. You sure a bossy one for such a little thing.’
Najma looked at the vet’s hands. He was a big man with big hands. ‘You sure you can perform delicate surgery with those hands?’
‘I do okay on animals.’
Najma opened the door. Mice droppings littered every surface. ‘Looks like hantavirus heaven,’ said Murray.
‘Open up your vet kit. Give me a surgical mask. I might die from you

operating on me. I accept that. I don’t plan to die from a mouse virus.’

‘I told you. I’m not operating on you.’
‘One step at a time. Open your bag. Wipe the table down with alcohol.’ Najma walked close to Murray. ‘I know you don’t want to. I have a job to do,

but not with these bullets in me. I need your help. Do the best you can. I trust you.’ With dark eyes and hair, she looked up at his six feet three-inch height, using her most beseeching look. He was eleven inches taller than she and twice her weight.

‘You were never going to shoot me. Were you?’
‘I sort of doubt I was. Please, though, help me. Help Jim. Help the general.’ Murray looked big and rough around the edges, but he was a kind gentle man.

Najma had pegged him correctly. If he thought he could help Jim he would and right now, this confusing lady needed help.

Murray’s face showed he had acquiesced. ‘I need to get some things from my rig.’