Yesterday, I promised an excerpt from my upcoming Ellora’s Cave release. If you need another fix of the hottie on the cover, he’s right below! ~DD
“Either he’s the dumbest terrorist I’ve ever seen, or he wants to get caught.”
Casey McTaggert blinked at the burly Military Intelligence officer beside her and pushed her glasses back up her nose. She wasn’t accustomed to sitting thigh-to-thigh with a man—and definitely not one of such awesome proportions. She wasn’t sure whether she liked it or not, but the skittering nervousness that gripped her each time she addressed him was…interesting.
“Khalid’s not a terrorist, and he isn’t stupid,” she shouted over the roar of the turbine engine and the whomp-whomp of the helicopter’s blades.
Captain Sorensen snorted and turned his attention back to his small handheld satellite link-up. “I’ll take your word on the first,” he said, in his thick Texas accent, “but the bastard’s headin’ straight toward the southern wall. You’d think he’d zag at least once.”
Scooting as close as her harness allowed, Casey peered down at the small screen showing the infrared feed. Khalid Razeh’s pale-colored SUV traveled in the dark down a rugged, gravel road at a fast clip.
“Does he think he can outrun the border patrol’s Incident Response Team?”
She shrugged, unwilling to share at the moment what she thought about the Afghani national’s most recent activities.
The square-jawed soldier didn’t appear to want her opinion anyway and continued to scowl at the screen. “It’s like he’s telegraphin’ his destination—hasn’t veered off his course once. If he knows we’ve spotted him, I have to wonder whether he’s just tryin’ to draw us out.” He pounded his fist against his thigh. “Shit!”
Sorensen unsnapped his tactical radio mike from the shoulder strap of his web gear. “Oscar-three-one, this is tango-four-niner, over.”
“This is oscar-three-one.”
“Scramble the anti-artillery. We may be headin’ into an ambush.”
Casey tugged at his sleeve. “Captain, I really don’t think that’s something we have to worry about. I believe he intends to turn himself over to us.”
“He’s a wily fucker—pardon my French, ma’am. I’m not takin’ any chances with my team. And get that damn helmet back on!”
The helmet lay at her feet, just beyond her reach over her fat briefcase. She strained against her harness until her fingertips touched the fabric covering the hard shell and dragged the helmet up.
When he gave her another pointed look with his ice-chip blue eyes, she sighed and plopped the heavy helmet on her head, tucking her hair behind her ears to snap the chin strap closed.
Somehow, she didn’t think the desert camouflage quite matched her neat, navy blue suit.
The helicopter swung like a pendulum, buffeted by the heavy winds preceding a line of thunderstorms heading toward Texas’s Big Bend country.
Casey clasped her briefcase tight against her chest and swallowed against the urge to empty her stomach on her escort’s suede Army boots. “Khalid isn’t stupid,” she repeated under her breath.
“Well, ma’am, you should know.”
And she should. She’d been following this particular combatant’s career for the past eight years, exclusively.
“That’s why you’re here. God, help us.” He muttered the last under his breath and shook his head at the vagaries of his commanders who had placed a desk jockey in his care.
Casey wrinkled her nose in irritation but kept silent, just thankful to be here and a part of this momentous event.
“Here” was the newest model Dark Hawk helicopter, speeding toward the southern border wall. Wind shear continued to batter the helicopter as it swung right and dropped, taking her stomach with it. Casey was several hundred feet above her comfort zone. She hated flying. But she’d jumped at the chance her superiors gave her to finally get a close-up look at the man who’d fascinated her for all her professional career.
The past several weeks had been filled with excitement. When the photo taken by the spy-cam at a Parisian coffee shop frequented by Arab extremists had surfaced, giving a grainy but definable image of his face, she’d been shocked at how young he appeared.
Reviewing the snippets of data she’d gathered over the years, she’d calculated he had to have been an adolescent when he’d participated in the Kandahar Offensive. A child reared on a war front. But somehow he’d managed to educate himself. The communiqués he’d issued in Arabic indicated he wasn’t a radical Muslim Shi’ah bent on martyrdom—he was a Muslim who supported secular policies to strengthen coalitions in his part of the world.
A focal point now for dialogue rather than violence, his actions most recently indicated he was weary of war. God knew, decades of unrelenting violence had taken its toll on the entire world.
His tactics often put him in direct confrontation with the United Amer-Euro nations, but having immersed herself in the culture and history of the Middle East, she’d secretly come to admire him—a modern David with unshakeable principles fighting an equally zealous Goliath.
Or so the official dossier she’d compiled said. One of the reasons she’d come this far from her Washington bureau desk concerned a second, even more tantalizing revelation about Khalid’s shadowy past.
She pulled out the photograph one more time. Now in his late thirties, the strength of will that had enabled him to escape the expeditionary forces in the mountains of the Hindu Kush through a maze of networking tunnels for weeks on end wasn’t evident in the lean, almost ascetic face. He looked like an artist rather than a warrior.
Long, straight black hair brushed the tops of his shoulders. The features of his slender face were oversized—large brown eyes, lush lips, a nose with only a slight hook, and a strong, square chin with a cleft. He was beautiful. His Persian features could easily have graced any Byzantine icon. Why was he here? What monkey wrench was he preparing to pitch into the works? What greater plot had he hatched? With the upcoming peace talks, his presence so close to the U.S. border boded ill for the outcome. Had she misjudged his evolving role at the center of the peace movement?
If their sources were right, the man they watched approach the southern fence was indeed Khalid. Little was known about him, except that he’d been on Interpol’s Most Wanted List for ten years—a known operative from the Black Jihad Coalition, labeled a terrorist by most of the western alliance nations.
But as an analyst working deep inside the U.S. intelligence community, Casey was savvy enough to understand he was just like most of the operatives her agency employed. No less deadly. No less secretive or obscure. No more a terrorist.
Khalid was a master tactician, a soldier in a global war able to infiltrate and blend in with any environment. The question was why he’d blown his carefully guarded cover a week ago and allowed himself to be photographed, and then followed, by a surveillance team.
From the profile she’d compiled and maintained over the years, she knew he never made careless mistakes like that, so his action had to be deliberate.
Which was what made his second suspected identity that much more plausible. If he was indeed “The Tiger”, it was her job to ID him and bring him in from the cold.
The SUV had come to a halt near a lonely stretch of wall. The surveillance cameras trained on the vehicle as Khalid stepped out onto the dusty trail.
He strode to a point just below the wall, looking as though he gauged the height. Which was nuts. If he tried to climb it he’d be barbequed by the electric wire stretched across the uppermost level of the walkway at the top of the thick wall.
Then he walked back a hundred paces and stood, moonlight silvering his midnight hair.
If she had blinked, she would have missed the transformation as his body seemed to shiver and melt, and suddenly, a white tiger stood in his place.
Casey’s fingers dug into the captain’s arm as she realized what had happened—what Khalid really was and the true significance of his code name.
The tiger charged at the twenty-foot fence—its lithe, but powerful frame gathering speed until it leapt, clearing the height of the wall, not touching down on the top of the five-foot-wide walkway. He’d cleared the entire structure entirely!
“We have a breach! Shoot to kill!” Sorensen shouted into his mike.
“No!” Casey bit out. The need to capture and glean intelligence from Khalid’s mind had been her primary directive. Now a new imperative presented itself.
However, Sorensen ignored her, continuing to shout orders to the airborne team in their stealthy helicopters, dropping like vultures to the desert floor, soldiers spilling from their bellies as the din of gunfire and commands erupted in a cacophony of organized confusion.
At the center of the melee, the white tiger leapt to a rocky outcrop to shield its body from the gunfire.
A line of fast-moving Hummers with men standing in machine gun turrets burst over a rise. Just as the helicopter she traveled in touched the ground, an explosion ripped apart the aircraft to their right, sending a fireball into the air.
Sorensen reached across her to unlatch her harness. “Get to cover!” he shouted as he freed himself.
Casey fell out the door of the helicopter, still clutching her briefcase close. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest. Her movements seemed to slow as though she’d entered a bad dream where her body and feet were mired in quicksand.
An arm circled her waist—Sorensen’s, she saw—and he was still shouting. But she couldn’t hear him above the salvo of explosions ripping apart the ground around them.
“Get to the rocks,” he roared into a lull between blasts and shoved her forward.
With her precious briefcase still clutched to her chest, Casey landed on her knees, shredding her nylons. She picked herself up, half running, half crawling up the outcrop—away from the vehicles that were one by one exploding around them.
When she found a large boulder, she slid behind it and covered her ears, and then realized Sorensen hadn’t followed her. She peered over the rock and saw him lying several yards away, his hand outstretched on the dirt, his helmet nowhere to be seen.
She started for him, determined to bring him to safety—no matter he topped her weight by at least a hundred pounds, but something hard snaked around her waist.
With the incoming artillery from beyond the southern border slowing, she turned a wary glance behind her, only to see the object of her professional obsession holding her.
“Come with me,” Khalid said, strong British inflections apparent in his clipped tone.
The hard set of his jaw brooked no arguments, but she cast a wild glance toward the captain lying so still at the foot of the outcrop.
Khalid shook his head once and lifted a rifle, Army issue in appearance, from along his naked thigh—his message unmistakable.
Hoping she hadn’t misjudged the man who held her life in his hands, she let him lead her down the other side of an escarpment to an abandoned Hummer, its driver and crew nowhere in sight.
“Get in!” he said, as another large explosion had her ducking her head.
With her heart hammering at her chest, she scrambled into the driver’s side, sliding into the driver’s seat, which he indicated with the point of his weapon. She started up the vehicle as he climbed into the seat beside her and dumped her briefcase in the backseat.
Casey wiped her sweaty hands on her skirt and set the vehicle in motion, backing away from the chaos beyond the hill. “We can’t escape the artillery!” she shouted. “It’s aimed at you, not those guys!”
His stare was level, no trace of acknowledgement for what she said in his expression. She tried again. “You have a GPS chip—they’re honed on you. But you already know that—it’s why you were traveling so fast.”
His stoic expression gave no hint of his thoughts. “You will remove it. Now!”
Aghast, she glanced in the rearview mirror only to see another round churn the dirt in the road behind them. “We can’t stop! We’re still in range of their fire from the other side of the border.”
“You have something to cut with?”
“On my key chain—a mini-Swiss Army pocketknife.”
“Where?” he asked, eyeing her suit.
“I-In my briefcase.”
“Drive very fast!” He reached behind her, his arm close to her shoulder.
It finally penetrated her thoughts that he was entirely naked. Of course, she thought, how was a tiger supposed to bring a change of clothing?
The briefcase banged against the back of her seat as he pulled it over his knees. The latches sprang open with their familiar click and before she could remember to voice a protest, he was staring at the photo on top of her stack of files.
Casting him a wary glance, she pointed the vehicle down a rocky, dirt trail and kept silent, letting him figure out for himself what she was doing with a dossier of Khalid sightings and analysis in her case.
He paused only a moment and snorted and then unsnapped a pocket. Pulling out her wallet, he eyed her Universal ID card and tucked it back into the pocket. Next, he reached inside for her keys. “Pull over. You will cut out the tracking device.”
She blinked. “You trust me not to slit your throat?”
He held up the tiny two-inch blade and lifted one dark eyebrow.
With a sheepish shrug, she said, “So, it might take some sawing to do any damage.” She pulled to a halt and held her hand out for the knife. When he set it in the center of her palm, she twirled her finger. “You’ll have to turn around. The chip is behind you…embedded in the back of your neck.”
“How do you know this?” he asked, his dark eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“You think you’re so unique?” she said, holding his steady gaze while she battled her adrenaline-fed excitement. “Shifters like you have been turning up around the world.”
“You know so much. Do you know why I am this way?”
“No, I don’t. I also don’t know who’s responsible. But until you showed your fur back there, we thought only some of our guys were affected.”
“I am singled out?”
“Yes, but why?”
His jaw tightened. “You know so much—you tell me.”
Casey eyed him, every lean, muscled inch of his broad chest and shoulders, as she thought about her answer, what she would reveal about everything she knew. “Because they know who you really are. They figured out you’re really one of ours.”