Last Chance Series, Book 2
HQN, Pocito Press
In e-book (2012) and audio (2014)
Original paperback, 2005
Two men burned to possess her…
But only one would win the deadly game…
Samantha Waters was no hot shot, just damn good at her job. And as the best bomb specialist around, she was the logical choice for the elite crime-fighting squad, Last Chance, Inc. But Sam’s sexy self-confidence put a crucial member of the team on edge—seasoned CIA black ops specialist Payton Reynolds.
Sam’s passion for risk drove Payton up a wall. The last thing he needed was someone to keep out of trouble. But soon, as they work side-by-side to decipher the bomber’s next moves, the sparks between them begin to fly. Now the two of them must fight to keep their feelings in check—as they’re drawn toward a final, explosive confrontation with a madman...
"Make sure you will not be interrupted (A.K.A. take the phone off the hook) and get comfortable. Then let Dee Davis take you on one heck of a ride!"
~ Huntress Reviews, 5 stars
“The dangerous and precise work of a bomb specialist is the linchpin of this tremendously gripping thriller. With the Last Chance task force, Davis has developed the perfect vehicle for delivering a wide array of truly riveting and unforgettable stories."
~ Romantic Times, 4 ½ stars, Top Pick
"Ms. Davis’ talent for spot on detail, intricate plotting, and suburb characterization proves she is the best of the best writing romantic suspense!”
~ Reader to Reader
One more jilted lover pissed off at being dumped. At least that’s the way it seemed to be playing out. Unfortunately the jiltee knew his way around bombs, and the jilter was a preschool teacher.
Which meant a hell of a problem. And to make matters worse, Frank Ingram, the rejected suitor, had swallowed a bullet less than an hour ago. A neighbor had found the body and the note. Which was about the only break they’d caught so far.
The device, located in a second floor classroom of the First Baptist Preschool, was attached to a motion detector. Too much vibration and it was all over. Which of course meant there could be no evacuation. And very little access to the bomb.
The only reason the thing hadn’t already detonated involved the fact that the classroom where it had been placed wasn’t currently being used. A small quantity of mold had been found beneath an air-conditioning unit, and until the sample could be tested, the children had been removed from the room.
Which left Samantha Waters with two scenarios. Either the bomber hadn’t been aware of the mold, or he wasn’t really interested in killing anyone. Considering the alleged lethal nature of the device, and the fact that the room was normally occupied by the woman he’d wanted dead, Sam was opting for the former. And thanking her lucky stars. If not for the mold, she’d be picking among the body parts of toddlers instead of trying to figure out how to evacuate them.
The thought sent a bolt of anger coursing through her. She’d seen the aftermath of a day care blown to hell. It still haunted her dreams. And she’d be damned before she’d let the same thing happen here.
There were three other classrooms in use on the second floor. One across from the room with the bomb and two down the hall. The staircase was at the opposite end of the building, which meant there was no way to use it.
The intended victim and her class had been working in a different room today, a twist of fate that probably saved her life, since the Cherokee County Fire Department had successfully evacuated everyone on that level. So Maggie Carmichael and the three year olds of Waleska were safe for the moment. But that left the rest of the children. And Sam didn’t like their odds.
Normally she wouldn’t have been involved with a local situation, but she’d been returning from another case when she’d heard the radio dispatch. And quite frankly, she wasn’t a sit-on-the-sidelines kind of girl.
“We’ve evacuated everyone we can, and deployed the robot.” The county bomb tech slid to a halt beside Sam, the fine glisten of sweat across his forehead a reflection of the slight tremor in his voice. Not that Sam blamed the man. He couldn’t be more than about twenty, the fine stubble of his beard indication that he probably hadn’t been shaving all that long.
Most men volunteered for the bomb squad out of some sort of misguided testosterone cowboy need to physically stand down the enemy. Unfortunately, the rush was the kind that induced incontinence, and more often than not the bad guys won the day, the carnage in places like the World Trade Center and the Murrah building silent testimony to the fact.
“There’s a problem though.” The kid was saying, and Sam forced her attention to the scene at hand. “In order to get the robot up there, it’ll have to climb the stairs, and what with the age of the building and all, there’s a good chance the clatter will set that sucker off before Max there has a chance to make it halfway.”
Max was a TR2000 robot. The ten wheeled apparatus weighed less than forty five pounds and was designed to operate in tight spaces. Unfortunately it wasn’t known for its athletic grace. She sighed, eyeing the school building. It was an unusually warm spring day and all the windows were open -- including the ones leading into the room with the bomb.
She lowered her binoculars, a rush of adrenaline ratcheting up her heart rate. Maybe there was a chance. “I think I’ve got an idea.” She smiled at the young tech, and moved past him towards the cluster of emergency personnel standing in the parking lot of the building.
“Captain McBane,” she called, waving at the fire chief, the ranking officer at the scene and therefore technically in charge. He turned with a frown, his expression clearly stating what he thought of women on the job, especially tiny little women who soaking wet weighed less than the bomb.
She’d heard it all before, and didn’t really give a damn, except that it sometimes made getting her way a bit more difficult. She forced a smile and approached the little group. “I think I know a way we can get at the bomb.”
Two other firemen, both pushing fifty, turned to face her, shooting sideways glances at their captain, waiting to follow his lead.
“Well now.” He drawled, stopping just short no doubt of adding little lady. “I’m open to hearing anything you’ve got.”
He probably wasn’t, but just at the moment Sam didn’t care. “What I want you to do is move the fire engine closer to the building.”
“Sure thing, and then we can all stand back and enjoy the show. There’ll be body parts spread over three counties,” McBane said.
One of the firemen contained a snicker, and the other spat, refusing to look her in the eye.
She bit back her frustration. “The playground’s covered with recycled rubber, it’s meant to absorb a fall. In fact it’ll absorb most anything. Even the movement of the truck. And it’s practically under the damn window. If you approach it slowly from the south,” she pointed at the open field that flanked the playground, “the bomb won’t detonate.”
McBane’s posture was still combative, but there was a flicker of respect in his eyes.
“If we load Max onto the extension arm,” she continued, pressing the advantage, “I think we can lift it close enough for me to maneuver the robot into position for an X-ray. Once we have that, I can use the disrupter to shoot out the motion detector and our bomb won’t be able to spray anything anywhere.”
Silence followed as the three men digested the information. She waited, knowing already they’d have to capitulate. If they didn’t follow the advice of an ATF EEO and things went south, there’d be hell to pay. And if she fucked things up, then they had an out. It was a win/win situation, but that didn’t mean it had to sit easy.
“I guess it’s worth a try.” McBane’s words were accompanied by a sigh meant to insult, but Sam was already halfway across the parking lot, motioning for the young tech to follow.
“What’s your name?” she asked the kid.
“Well, Jason, you’ve been drafted to help me. Got a bomb suit?”
He nodded, his eyes widening as the meaning of her words sank in. “We’re going in there?”
She laughed and shook her head, stopping at the back of her open Chevy Suburban. Her suit was state of the art. A Med-Eng EOD 7-B, it weighed in at around sixty pounds. Over half her body weight. “We’re sending Max up there.” She pointed at the fire truck, already moving into place. “But it never hurts to cover your ass, you know?”
Jason nodded, his expression solemn. “You been doing this long?”
A solid question considering he was about to trust her with his life. She stepped into the pants, adjusting the grounder straps. “Most my professional life. Started out in a department a lot like yours.”
“How long you been with the ATF?” He reached down for the ballistic inserts, automatically tucking them into place for her.
“Couple of years.” Her voice was muffled as he helped her with the helmet.
She nodded, standing patiently while he tested her air lines. An Explosives Enforcement Officer was a coveted position. There weren’t many and it was an earned position. Sam had been selected young, but then she’d had more experience than most.
The word stood on its own, and with a thumbs up, she headed over to the fire truck, indicating that he should follow as soon as he was suited up. The fire truck was in place now, Max precariously balanced on the extension arm of the vehicle.
She slid into place beside a similarly clad fireman, and checked Max’s operating panel. The signal was clear, the digital picture showing them the side of the school building. “Let’s do it.”
The fireman nodded, and headed for the cab of the truck, ready to hoist the arm. Jason arrived and with a last pat for Max, Sam signaled the lift. The arm rose slowly, inching over as it went upward, the robot finally swinging into place near the open window.
It took a moment for her to acclimate herself to the video, but once she had her bearings she realized the camera lens was showing her the room’s door, and across the way she could see the other classroom. And the children inside. They were huddled near the far wall, eyes wide, motion held to a minimum -- as much as anyone could keep a four year old still.
Sam sent a silent curse down to Frank Ingram and lowered the camera to search the room. Fortunately, Frank was into hiding things in plain sight, and she found the bomb almost immediately. As improvised explosive devices went, this one was pretty straight forward -- two pipes with end caps, covered in construction paper, and duct-taped together. There was also a battery, various wires, a wristwatch and a blinking green light.
The motion detector.
“Whatcha got?” Jason had arrived, suitably decked out in his bomb suit.
“Pipe bomb.” She gestured to the screen. “Question now is how sensitive the trigger is.”
“Hell of a question.” The fireman was back.
She ignored him in favor of the little screen, her mind running through alternatives, each of them carrying significant risk. There was no way to remove the device. And no way to evacuate the kids. Which left her with one shot.
Disrupt the bomb. Sever the motion detector and the device would be rendered safe. It was a gamble. But at the moment it was the only one she had. “I’m going to shoot it with the disrupter.” She reached down for Max’s controls, adjusting the PAN-disrupter, a machine capable of firing a variety of projectiles at variable speeds, the idea being to hit the bomb with enough speed and force to knock out the motion detector without triggering an explosion.
The primary question still being how sensitive the sucker was.
A cry filtered through the open window, and Sam shifted the camera, eyes back on the monitor. A small child dashed to the door of the room across the way, obviously intent on making an escape. Sam held her breath, eyes glued to the screen. The preschooler began to step into the hallway, but before he could make the move, his teacher appeared, snagging him by the shirt, and jerking him back into the classroom.
Sam counted to ten and then sucked in a breath. At least she had an answer. Reaching down for the controls, she adjusted the speed of the water cartridge.
“You sure as hell better know what you’re doing.” The fireman was standing too close, and Sam glowered up at him. The man shrugged and backed away, leaving her to the machinery. Slowly she began to raise the disrupter, trying to line it up with the bomb.
A grating noise, followed by a pop, sent her heart racing.
“Something’s wrong with Max.” Jason’s whisper held a note of fear. A healthy emotion for someone in their line of work. “The arm’s not extending.”
Sam swallowed a curse, and made some adjustments on the controls.
“I’m going to have to do it manually.” Sam stood up, meeting the eyes of the older fireman. His expression held no trace of mockery now. He simply nodded, accepting that it was their only alternative, then stepped forward to pull Sam’s visor into place.
“I’ll lower the basket.” He started toward the truck, but Sam reached out to grab his shoulder, motioning for him to move slowly.
He nodded, and headed for the cab. In a matter of minutes, the extension arm was brought back to the bed of the truck, and Sam clamored aboard, freeing the disrupter from the robot. She heard the truck’s arm shift into gear as she began her ascent, but her attention was focused solely on the window, the disrupter armed and ready.
Once she was in place, she visualized the shot, and then using the laser sight, centered on the motion detector’s blinking light.
One, Mississippi… She sucked in a breath and steadied herself.
Two Mississippi… She positioned the laser.
Three Mississippi… She shot.
Seconds turned to hours as she waited for success or failure. And then she noticed the quiet. Absolute complete silence.
The bomb was disarmed. The motion detector halfway across the room.
Cheers erupted below and Sam felt her knees begin to shake, the pressure finding physical release at last. Leaning over the edge of the basket she gave a thumbs up, and watched as the firemen headed into the building, first to evacuate the children and then to dispose of the remains of the bomb.
Her job was done.
She sank down and pushed back the visor, grateful when she felt the basket sway as it was retracted. In just a few minutes she was down and with Jason’s help removing her suit.
“That was really something,” he said, his face red with excitement. “Really something.”
She smiled, and searched for something meaningful to say, but was saved from the exercise by the ring of her cell. Reaching into the Suburban, she grabbed the phone and flipped it open.
“Hey, Sam.” Raymond Seaver’s voice held a hint of laughter and rebuke. “I thought you were on your way back to Atlanta.”
“Sort of got side-tracked.” She frowned into the phone.
“So I hear.”
News traveled fast, but there was no way Seaver had called just to talk about her latest escapade. Her boss was too focused for that. “What’s up?”
“Got a call from a guy named Cullen Pulaski.” There was a pause as Seaver waited for the information to sink in.
“The industrialist?” Sam shivered in anticipation. Something big was coming down.
“Yeah. There’s been a bombing in San Antonio. Senator Ruckland and two of his colleagues were killed.” Again he paused for impact.
“So?” She urged, trying to contain her impatience.
“So,” Seaver drawled, “there’s some kind of task force. Last Chance something or other. Best of the best sort of thing. And Pulaski wants you.”
Sweat dripped down Payton Reynolds neck, pooling at the small of his back, his shirt sticking to him like second skin. The hovel he was currently calling home was really nothing more than a lean-to amidst the squalor of the Peruvian mountain jungle. The loam floor a pungent reminder that the usual occupants of the structure were sheep.
Still it was better than sitting out in the pouring rain. A little better. He swiped at a mosquito and pulled the lantern closer to the map he was studying. According to his calculations, he was about a quarter mile from his objective.
Aimil Cortez was wanted in six countries, the combined price on his head enough to make someone a very wealthy man. Unfortunately, not Payton. His mission was to take the man out and then disappear as quietly as he’d come. By the time Cortez’s body was discovered, Payton would be long gone. And the world would be a safer place. Or at least a little less repulsive.
He checked his rifle, a .50-caliber high-powered Beretta, designed to hit just about anything, but particularly useful when hunting slime. Once assured that everything was ready, Payton adjusted his pack and stepped out into the humid night air. The rain had abated slightly, turning to a fine mist, the kind one found in a sweat lodge or a sauna. Except that there was no escape when it became too cloying.
Between the moisture and the vegetation, movement was limited, but Payton had already cleared a pathway, using his machete, earlier in the day. Not that anyone would have been able to tell. He moved now with the stealth of years of training, his mind completely centered on the task at hand.
He’d been hunting Cortez for almost three months now, the man fading into the jungle like a fucking ghost. But perseverance always paid off, and now Payton was about to close the deal. It had been a while since he’d killed on orders, but the drug war was fought on amoral ground. And just at the moment the dark forces were winning the day. Governments like the United States more interested in fighting enemies it could see -- and use as a sound bite. Which left the dirty work to operatives like Payton.
He pushed through the last of the overgrowth, stepping into a clearing. Even without the rain it would have been a moonless night, but with the clouds and precipitation, it was almost pitch black. Just the way Payton wanted it.
He stopped, crouching behind a stand of feather grass and pulled out his night vision binoculars, scanning the buildings directly ahead, an acting gatehouse of sorts. If things were running true to form, the watchmen were in the back drinking and playing cards.
Out in the middle of the jungle there really wasn’t all that much to guard against, and Payton had spent the last couple of days watching for patterns. All he had to do was wait for the man on rounds to head into the bunkhouse then make for the fallen tree about fifty yards away.
As if on cue, the man arrived at the door, calling out to his compadres as he holstered his machine gun. Clutching his rifle, Payton ran toward the tree, crouched low to avoid detection. He waited one beat and then another, and when everything remained quiet, pulled up into the tree, climbing along the fallen trunk like a spider.
With the added height, it didn’t take much to vault over the stone enclosure, and with hardly any noise at all, he landed in the soft dirt of the Peruvian compound. Lights glowed to his right -- marking the bunkhouse. And more, twinkling to his left, indicated the location of the house guards. All he had to do was make a bee-line between the two -- toward the darkened windows of the bougainvillea laden hacienda.
It took about two minutes, which meant Payton had about five more before the guard reemerged to continue his rounds. Staying low and sticking to the shadows, he crossed the courtyard and slid into the deeper gloom cast by the U-shaped building’s walls.
Sliding a climber’s rope from his pocket, he tossed it once, satisfied when it lodged around a balcony railing just above his head. In seconds, he was up and over the railing, dropping down onto the cement floor almost soundlessly. After double checking to make certain that the room behind him was empty, he turned his sights on the wing across the courtyard.
Cortez’s room was almost directly opposite. Light spilled from the open window, the gauzy curtains lifting languidly in the water-saturated breeze. Payton waited, counting the seconds, and then released a breath as Cortez appeared through the window, crossing back and forth as he made preparations for bed.
It only took a moment to sight the gun and then Payton waited for the moving figure to hit center at the open window. One pass, two, and then a third, before the man stopped to stare out into the night. With a quiet hiss, the bullet was instantly on its way, the only sign it had hit target a brief fluttering of the curtains as it passed, and a muffled thud as the body fell.
Holstering the rifle, Payton shimmied back to the ground, and moved swiftly back across the courtyard toward the fence, his mind centered now on escape. A cry from inside the house signaled his luck was almost out, and he broke into a run. Lights flashed on behind him, spilling out across the manicured lawn that stretched between the compound and its enclosure.
Dodging between bushes, he hit the fence running and was up and over in a matter of seconds, landing hard on the other side. Voices were filling the night now, trying to make order out of chaos.
Payton rounded the corner, heading back for the sanctuary of the jungle, the rain falling in earnest again, muffling the sound of his movements. He was just passing the feather grass when someone hit him hard in the small of the back. Reacting from instinct, he rolled and managed to move clear of the man, reaching for the knife in his boot, but before he could pull it free, Cortez’s man hit him again.
Payton stumbled back a step, and then cut forward, surprising his assailant and connecting with the man’s chin. Following up with a fist to the stomach, Payton succeeded in bringing the South American to his knees, and then, taking advantage of the opening, he grabbed the knife, moving in for the kill. But it seemed the guard had friends, and they were closing in, weapons at the ready.
Payton scanned the crowd, weighing his options, refusing to accept the fact that he was out-gunned. Using the fallen man as a shield, he began to edge back toward the jungle. If he could just make his way there, he might have a chance.
Unfortunately the men with guns didn’t think much of their compadre. A pock-marked man with a gold tooth and braided hair lifted his rifle, the intent clear. Payton pushed his hostage forward, side stepping the body as the bullet ripped through the startled guard. The man fell, clutching his chest, his surprise almost comical. Except that Gold Tooth was now aiming at Payton.
Accepting defeat, or at least living with it for the moment, Payton dropped the knife, holding his hands out, palms downward, in what he hoped looked like a gesture of supplication. Not that he’d ever give up without a fight.
With a smile for the assembled South Americans, he fingered the grenade hidden in his hand. It was more than enough to blow the whole lot of them to kingdom come and back. The only downside being that he’d be a casualty as well. Still, he figured it was better than letting them take him prisoner. And it wasn’t as if he had anything else particularly important to do. Still grinning, he shrugged, and was just going to throw the thing, when a shot from above took out Gold Tooth.
The others spun to look for the unseen enemy, shooting blindly into the night. Payton took the opportunity and shot off toward the jungle, but not before one of Cortez’s men grabbed him by the foot.
The sound of rotors broke the night, the tall grass bending perpendicular in the manufactured breeze. The chopper appeared suddenly out of the mist like some sort of fiery bird from hell, the tell-tale tracers from gun fire spitting out of its yawning black maw.
Payton shook off the man and stumbled to his feet, already reaching for the rope ladder dropping from the side of the bird. A bullet whizzed by his ear, and then another, adrenaline surging as he sprinted forward, his hand closing on a white nylon rung.
The gunfire, combined with the chopper blades, was deafening, and the vibrations coming off the rotors almost shook him off the ladder. But he held his ground as the big bird pulled up into the sky, and when he was certain they were clear, he lobbed the grenade at Cortez’s men -- a parting gift they’d never forget -- or remember.
He climbed the remaining few rungs of the ladder and accepted the offered hand into the chopper, flopping aboard like the striped bass he’d caught once as a kid. Wherever he was going it was a damn sight better than where he’d just been.
He sat up, wiped some blood from the corner of his mouth and turned to face his rescuer, his words of thanks dying at the sight of Cullen Pulaski sitting in the jump seat.
He might have been rescued from the devil, but he was still in hell.
Excerpt from ENIGMA by Dee Davis, Copyright ©2005 by Dee Davis. All rights reserved. Reprint only with permission from author. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.