Usually, it was silence that was dreaded, but throughout the past six years it had become the noise he'd learned to hate. Because trapped within the sounds that combined to comprise it, he always found a piece of her. When he least expected it, he would hear her laughter, or an intimation of her voice, or something as simple as a soft exhale that was evocative of her. He would hear something that would remind him again of what he'd lost, and with it would come the familiar confusion that would submerge him in wondering why it was no longer his.
The early summer evening was no different. The crowd in the coffee shop had thinned, the patrons who filed in steadily at the five o'clock hour dispersing gradually before the small hand on the clock made a shift downward toward the number six. Only a handful of tables remained occupied, most with newspapers spread open across them, and only one with a one-sided conversation flowing non-stop across the granite top from one self-engrossed occupant to the preoccupied one across from her.
The dialogue had long ago faded into rambling for the drawn-face man who faked attentiveness. He nodded when he hoped it was appropriate to do so and cast absent smiles when laughter made its way across the table toward him. But if anyone took the time to look into his eyes, they would see the distance that filled them and separated him from the present.
His gaze shifted sporadically across the room, always returning to the corner table and the brunette who filled one of the four chairs. Her hair fell in a straight, layered pattern to just beneath her shoulders, the ends wispy. She hadn't turned in his direction or given him a full view of her face, but his imagination had already concluded that if she did, dark, expressive eyes would greet him. They were the eyes that haunted his dreams—when he was lucky enough to get a decent night's sleep—and the eyes that had kept him searching remotely familiar faces with both hope and determination for over seventy-two months.
The brunette threw her head back, breaking into laughter. The resonance caused his anticipation to instantly fade, and his hope once again slunk off as she leaned in and dropped a kiss on her companion's lips. She jumped to her feet, glancing behind her and offering a friendly but disconnected smile to the eyes that had been analyzing her so cautiously. And as he finally caught full sight of her, expectedness once again kicked him back into reality. As always happened when he latched onto some unsuspecting woman who held even the faintest resemblance to what he needed to find, he was left only with disappointment. Whether it was tailing someone through a grocery store, or an airport, or down the street, he'd yet to be able to participate in the reunion he dreamed about. Time had begun to whittle away at his hope, just like it had done to everyone else who'd ever cared about her, and acceptance had begun to chase him just as ruthlessly as her memory continued to. And he knew, just like everyone else continued to tell him, that the time had long ago passed when he needed to believe the unbelievable and force himself to let go.
"We just passed the thirty minute mark on this date and you haven't started paying attention to me yet. So, what? Think it could happen soon, or should we just go ahead and chalk today up to a loss and try again tomorrow?"
Rick Hunter pulled his narrowed-eye stare away from the brunette in the back corner of the room, only skimming over the other occupied tables before focusing on the impatient face across from him. He resituated in the iron frame chair, nodding faintly and acknowledging that he'd once again been busted daydreaming. Taking hold of the lidded, Styrofoam cup, he pulled it across the tabletop toward him. Anyone else would be offended, and any other woman would throw her coffee in his face. But his fiancé was different. Not completely understanding, but tolerant. And while she might not be able to hide her disappointment, she rarely held it against him, either. What would be the point, anyway, when it filled almost as much of their time together as his preoccupation did?
"Sorry," Hunter responded. He shrugged a shoulder, directing his cup through a spin on the tabletop. "You were talking about caterers, and I told you it doesn't matter to me. Finger sandwiches, a full buffet… Do what you want."
"Do what I want." She sighed through a roll of her eyes. "You know, you are the one who proposed to me. The least you could do now that I've agreed to marry you is act a little excited."
"I'm excited," he countered. "And I'm listening."
"Now. But only because I guilted you into it."
She slinked back in her chair, crossing and then re-crossing her legs as she began to tap out an irritated melody against the tabletop with her fingernails. Sitting across from him, obviously annoyed, he couldn't remember her ever looking more beautiful. With her shoulder-length, blonde hair, big, hazel-colored eyes and lips twisted into a frown, she looked younger than she was but every bit as feisty and full of life.
"I get it, you know," she continued, tearing Hunter away from what had become characteristic brooding. "Out of everyone, you know I get it." Her gaze shifted to the tabletop as he slid his hands halfway across it, but she didn't reach for him, only cocked a brow and continued to stare. "So, I need you to understand something, too. Okay?" Her gaze rose, her eyes darkened by determination. "No matter what's in the past, it isn't going to make me give up my future. Maybe you can't let go yet; maybe you'll never be able to. But everyone else already has. What happened was awful. Jesus, we both know that. But I won't spend the rest of my life dwelling on it or living with it. Because it's…" She sighed, shaking her head. "For God's sake, it's too damned depressing."
Hunter scrubbed his chin with his fingertips. It was the same speech he'd heard a thousand different times and from a thousand different people over the past six years—to let go, move on, turn his back on the past and stop spinning his damned wheels. And he knew it was what he needed to do. He knew it was what he should do, or at least that was what his common sense kept telling him. But it was the tightness in his gut—the uneasiness that had maintained a stranglehold on his intuition—that wouldn't let him do it. Because just when he thought he was beginning to—that he finally could—let go, the dreams would start again.
Dreams about her.
Damn it, why couldn't anyone else see that it wasn't him who couldn't let go? It was her.
"You're wrong. I'm not—"
"Yes, you are," she interrupted. "You live with it, dwell on it—eat, sleep and breathe it. It's who you've become."
Hunter grunted in response. Okay. Maybe she had a point. He might have a tendency to tip the scale more toward irrationality than rationality. But it was how life had taught him to act. On a daily basis, his job alone gave him a front row seat to the perversion that lived in far more minds than it should, and there was no way he could ever explain to anyone else the perversion his own thoughts were capable of bringing to life. He knew what the monsters were capable of, and he knew that most of them were roaming freely disguised as normal people. They pounced without warning, when it was least expected, and sometimes—too many damned times—their attacks created more destruction than anyone had the energy to clean up.
He knew it. How couldn't he?
After all, he'd spent the better part of his career as part of the fucking clean-up crew.
His gaze lifted to find the hazel-colored eyes still staring. She wanted him to promise that he could turn his back on the past once and for all and follow her into the future—what he'd told her he wanted to be their future. But as much as he wanted it, as much as he wanted her, the past was still where he always ended up. Dwelling. Stagnant. Searching for answers to the same, unanswerable questions.
He nodded. "So. The caterer—"
She interrupted him with a sigh. "She was important to you, I know that. And I also know she chose to take the risks that she took. No one forced her."
He shook his head. No, no one had forced her. But damn it, he wished he'd been strong enough to stop her.
"It happened," she continued, "and it happened to her. It wasn't fair, it still isn't, and neither one of us can change that. But you know what?" She shrugged a shoulder, leaning into the table and lessening the distance between them. "In spite of the horrible things that happened, the world can still be a pretty okay place. It can even be kind of wonderful." She flashed a smile, sweet and sincere, reminding him of the qualities that had made him fall in love with her to begin with. "And you know what else? It wouldn't kill you to try and pretend the world is an okay place once in a while. I mean, just every now and then give yourself a break from the doom and gloom. Let it go. I know you don't believe it, but you do deserve to enjoy your life, too."
Hunter grumbled ambiguously, not agreeing or disagreeing with her. Although the weakening of her smile made it clear that she believed he was disagreeing with her. "You ready to go?" he asked, pushing back from the table. He nodded and climbed to his feet just a second after she did. Remaining a step behind her, he watched as she pushed through the door and merged with the congestion that filled the sidewalk. She walked with a light gait, one that exuded excitement, and he wished he could steal at least an ounce of her optimism for himself. He wished he could believe it, too—that he did deserve better, maybe he even deserved a little excitement of his own. Something more than the damned ghost that haunted his past and was keeping a firm grip on his present.
But he didn't believe it; he couldn't let himself.
At least not until his own, personal ghost made it clear it was what she believed, too.
PART I, 1990
It had rained most of the day, just a light, annoying mist.
Randomly, lightening flashed and thunder rolled, threatening that the sky would open up and clouds would burst, unleashing hell on earth. But so far, the threats had remained idle, intangible reminders only of Mother Nature's strength.
Hunter sat slumped in the straight-back chair, his attention stuck on the window across the room and the drops of water rolling down the outside of the glass. It was dark and gloomy outside, matching his mood, McCall had accused more than once. But he couldn't shake it—the nervousness in his stomach. He felt off, not himself. And he couldn't let go of his bad mood any more than McCall seemed able to tolerate it.
"Keep in mind, you don't have to accept this assignment." It was the fifth time Captain Devane had repeated the same sentiment. Each time he said it more firmly, with more conviction, and seemed even more disappointed when neither McCall nor Hunter took him up on his offer.
They sat side-by-side in front the captain's desk, studying the thick case file that had been hand-delivered. Every word written disgusted Hunter as much as angered him, and the more he read, the more his gut seemed to burn.
"The FBI and DEA plan to work this hard, and they need help—volunteers," Charlie continued. "But if it's not for you, that's okay. It'll also be the end of it, the last you'll hear about it. No one'll force you to do anything."
Hunter pulled his gaze from the file, glancing at a somber McCall beside him. She'd been quiet since they'd delved into the file, barely uttering a sound, never letting her attention stray. And he knew her well enough to know that her sullenness meant only one thing—the case was theirs, no matter how many times Charlie told them it didn't have to be.
"Drugs, prostitution, pornography, kidnapping, murder…" McCall exhaled loudly. "This guy's a real piece of work. One hell of a Boy Scout."
"This guy's a professional," Charlie corrected, the forcefulness of his voice causing both detectives to look up. "John Diego Velasquez is ruthless. He's been on the FBI's Most Wanted list for over twenty years, and his father was on it before him. The Velasquez family has run Colombia for years, not to mention parts of Brazil, Mexico, and the good old US of A. They're the biggest supplier of cocaine and opium known to the DEA, and Velasquez likes being on top. He's proven by leaving stacks of dead bodies wherever he goes that he'll do whatever it takes to keep his power."
"And the girls?" McCall asked. "What about them?"
"To start out, they're just mules," Charlie answered simply, through a shake of his head. "They carry the drugs from Colombia, are promised a green card when they get to America. But they end up getting turned out instead. Velasquez puts them to work, prostitutes them."
"So, after all these years, what makes the DEA think they're gonna be able to bring Velasquez down?" Hunter asked stiffly, slamming the folder closed and chucking it onto the edge of the captain's desk.
"They've had a man on the inside for a while," Charlie answered, rounding the side of his desk and taking a seat behind it. "Jordan Trask infiltrated right around eighteen months ago. From what I've heard, he's good at what he does; smart. And he's been able to build some solid connections inside Velasquez's world. At the beginning of the week, he was able to get word to his commander that Velasquez is scheduled to make an appearance in LA next month. It'll be the first time in around five years that he's stepped foot on American soil, as far as anyone knows."
"So, why now?" Hunter pressed. "What's so big that he's willing to risk his freedom?"
"That's the million dollar question," Charlie responded, jutting out his thumb in Hunter's direction. "What could be so big?"
McCall's brows creased, wrinkles marking her forehead. "Why us?" she asked. "Why does the DEA want our help? Wouldn't it make more sense to take people out of Narcotics?"
"They're asking for volunteers from Narcotics," Charlie answered, nodding, "and from Burglary, Vice—hell, every division. Velasquez won't travel light. He has an army of guerillas, and more than likely most of them will be with him. The DEA need the extra manpower. They've asked every precinct in the city to pool together as many volunteers as possible."
McCall shook her head. "We could lose a lot of people."
"Like I said, it's strictly volunteer," Charlie repeated. "You don't feel comfortable with it, say so. I'd never push you to take on this kind of assignment. Because you're right, McCall, we could lose a lot of people. All we can hope is Velasquez loses more and we get our hands on the scumbag before it's over."
"So, what exactly is the DEA asking?" Hunter posed, scooting to the edge of the chair and hunching forward, his elbows digging into the tops of his thighs. "None of us are trained for what they need. It'll be out-and-out combat. That's a lot different than what the cops around here are used to."
Charlie shook his head. "I don't have specifics, it's all being kept top secret. All I know is that some guy, uh…" He grabbed a second folder, his gaze following the tip of his finger down the length of the top page. "Gideon Stanton, he's spearheading the whole thing. He's FBI, working alongside the DEA. So, if you want the assignment, you'll report to him Monday morning, and I won't see you again until this thing is over. You'll go through special training, briefings on Velasquez, the whole nine yards. You'll be prepared before Velasquez steps foot in Los Angeles."
"And if we say, no?" McCall asked, although the conviction in her voice made it obvious that saying 'no' was the last thing on her mind. Velasquez was just the kind of lowlife she would love to get her hands on, Hunter knew—a pusher and user and exploiter that didn't care who his victims were. But she did care. Sometimes too much, Hunter sometimes worried.
"If you say no…" Charlie hesitated, his narrow-eyed stare drifting back and forth between the detectives, making it clear that 'no' was exactly the answer he hoped to hear from them. "Then you walk out of here, go back to your desks, and the three of us pretend this conversation never happened."
McCall turned toward Hunter, confronting him with a look of determination. The look that let him know, without a doubt, her mind was set. "I want to do it."
"It'll be dangerous," Hunter said, stating the obvious and not feeling nearly as assured as his partner seemed to.
She agreed with a nod. "This guy needs to be stopped. His whole family needs to be stopped. He poisons people with his drugs, and that's the best of what he does. What about all of the people he murders, that he sells and exploits? He's gotten away with it for too long, don't you think?"
"I think a lot of other people have tried to stop him and haven't been able to," Hunter grumbled, his jaw clenched. It was the type of war McCall and he had heard stories about throughout their careers, but not the type either had ever fought in. A hardcore criminal like John Diego Velasquez was out of their league, and Hunter wasn't too proud to admit it. Their list of success stories—in the form of solved cases—was small time compared to the brutal offenders the FBI and DEA regularly went up against. And even with the promise of special training to back the DEA's offer, Hunter couldn't help but feel it wouldn't be enough to prepare the raw city cops for the viciousness they would come face-to-face with once Velasquez stepped foot on American soil again.
"Don't do it if you're not comfortable with it," McCall said, the resolve darkening her eyes letting him know, undeniably, that she wasn't basing her decision on going in as partners. She'd made up her own mind, and she expected Hunter to do the same. "But I have to do it. I need to do something, you know? Stopping creeps like Velasquez is why I became a cop. I know the assignment is dangerous, and I'm willing to take the risk. But I don't want you to take it if you're not sure."
Hunter slumped in his chair, his stare stern, dissecting McCall's gritty expression. He didn't want the assignment, damn it, and he didn't want her to want it, either. What he did want was for both of them to walk out of Charlie's office and go back to their desks—and their comparatively simple caseload—and forget about the whole thing like Charlie promised they could do. But he knew if McCall was going to do it, so was he. Because the truth was, it would be more dangerous than either of them could imagine, and he wasn't about to let McCall charge into John Diego Velasquez's world if he wasn't following behind her, watching her back.
"You need to do this?" he asked, hoping that the past few seconds had managed to make her mind do a complete one-eighty. But when she answered only with the damned deep-seated stare that the past had taught him meant a win for her and trouble for him, he conceded without wasting any energy on fighting. "All right. Then let's do it."
"You're sure? Because you don't—"
"We're partners," he said. "Yeah, I do."
McCall hesitated, before agreeing with an understanding nod. Slowly, she pulled her stare from Hunter's, confronting Charlie. "Tell Gideon Stanton we'll be there Monday morning."
The ice cubes crackled, caught in the flow of liquid. Once the glasses were filled, the ice began to float, twirling and twisting. Struggling to stay above the surface rather than trapped beneath it.
Hunter sat the plastic pitcher on the countertop. Glancing over his shoulder and through the unlit living room, he sneaked a peek outside the door at the lone occupant on the porch. Dee Dee was nestled into a lawn chair, an orange and brown-striped afghan draped around her shoulders. Her dark hair rustled in the night breeze, whipping around her face and shoulders. The uneducated would assume she was lost in the thought, entranced by the rolling waves, but Hunter knew, in reality, she was distanced from them far more than just the beach's length. Her thoughts were in sync with his—reworking and replaying the training they'd endured the past four weeks. The month had been an exhausting one, with extra hours being demanded. And with D-Day less than forty-eight hours away, tension had started to mount among the fifty-plus cops that had accepted the DEA's cryptic invitation to, temporarily, become one of their own.
Turning back to the cabinet, Hunter pulled open the corner drawer. Inside, unpaid bills and unopened junk mail lay in a messy heap, and he dug through the top quarter of the stack before locating two identical envelopes with upper case, black lettering typed on their fronts.
R. HUNTER. D. McCALL.
He stole another secretive glance at Dee Dee, before opening one envelope and removing the airline ticket inside—first class seats with as much champagne as they could drink throughout their flight to Miami. It had taken a couple months of skimping, but he'd finally been able to afford the tickets, a two-bedroom suite at a four-star hotel on the beach and four days away from California, the damned DEA and any and all things stressful. It was exactly the treat they both deserved after the extra hours they'd invested in the Velasquez operation, and he could almost hear Dee Dee's surprised laughter when they settled into their seats in first class and the attendant handed her the first glass of champagne. He could also imagine the look of delight in her eyes once she realized the lengths he'd gone to to plan their private getaway. Admittedly, Hunter wasn't brave enough to place any bets on whether or not the trip would end the way he wanted, so he'd settled for hoping. But the ending didn't really matter, he'd already decided. What he was looking most forward to was time alone with Dee Dee.
He ran his finger across the ticket, smiling. He'd spent what felt like a lifetime mulling over the idea and working up his nerve to make the arrangements, and he'd put even more time into planning how he would tell her. Once they were finally free and clear of their obligations to the DEA, he would take her to her favorite restaurant for dinner. They would be dressed to the hilt and dine over candlelight, and he would call ahead and have a bottle of her favorite red wine waiting at the table for them. And once the wine had pushed them past the mark of relaxation, he would finally recite the speech that he'd rewritten and rehearsed a hundred different times. He would tell her how he felt—how he'd continued to feel since their unplanned and, in Hunter's opinion, unforgettable night together over a year earlier. And then he would pray that she felt the same way. He hoped, like him, that she was ready to take their relationship beyond friendship, and his intuition was telling him that she was.
And he hoped to hell that this one time his damned intuition wasn't playing him for a fool.
His thoughts screeched to a stop as Dee Dee leaned inside the doorway and draped him with a comfortable smile. "You know, Hunter, a girl could die of thirst out here," she teased. "Think you'll be bringing that tea out tonight?"
He returned her smile and grabbed the glasses off the countertop, hurrying through the living room and joining her on the porch. By the time he walked out of the house, she was settled back in the chair, the afghan once again hugging her shoulders. He handed her a glass before taking a seat in the weathered chair beside hers, and then followed her silent lead and focused on the choppy water across the beach.
Dee Dee shot a quick, sideways glance at him, her stare returning to the water before he looked over at her. "You're still sure about this?" she asked, her voice soft, the breeze swirling around them threatening to steal it altogether.
"Are you?" he asked, her firm nod his answer. It was the answer he still didn't want, the answer he would be willing to trade almost anything to replace with an even more fixed no.
She sighed, cupping the glass between her hands. "I can't explain it, but this is something I need to do. It's like the more we learned about Velasquez, the more sure I felt. I need to be a part of the team that finally stops him." She exhaled loudly, with finality. "When I think about the things he's done, you know, all the people he's hurt…the girls who've gotten lost because of him…" She shook her head, her shoulders slumping.
"Even if we catch Velasquez, someone else will take over for him, you know. Someone else will ship drugs around the world, murder people, and sell kids on the street. Nothing will really change."
"But at least we'll have stopped him," she returned, convicted. "And that'll count for something. Right?"
He nodded, although he didn't feel nearly as certain as Dee Dee seemed to. "Maybe it will. But there's also a possibility we won't walk out of that warehouse tomorrow."
She turned toward him, her eyes darkened by the understanding that she'd already made peace with that conclusion. "It's a possibility, but I don't think it'll happen." She smiled faintly, assuredly. "We're gonna walk out, and we're gonna do it together."
"Okay," he said, maintaining her lie with a hesitant nod. "So, we'll walk out together."
Her smile broadened fleetingly, with gratitude, and she let a moment of silence slip between them before whispering, "You're the best friend I've ever had, you know."
"Don't," he disagreed, needing to stop her sentiment. Because if he didn't, there was a good chance she would push him to the point of changing his mind. And he already understood that his mind would be the only one that changed. "Sounds like you're trying to say goodbye, and if we're going to walk out of that warehouse together, there's no reason to say goodbye."
"Yeah, I know. I just needed to say it, I guess. It's something I wanted you to know. And not just now, but for a long time."
He hesitated, his jaw pulsating. "Okay. So, maybe I want you to know the same thing." Backing his admission with a nod, he slid his hand through the darkness in search of hers. And once their fingers were locked and they had settled into silence again, he stole a last glance at her.
The night was cooler than normal. The sky was dotted with stars and the moon was full. Its rays were bright, raining down on the city, giving clarity to what was typically shadowed by darkness.
The warehouse was isolated, situated at the end of a narrow alleyway. It was big, ominous, with blackened windows and steel doors. Hunter and McCall had taken refuge in their mandated hiding spot—behind a grouping of trash receptacles. They looked down on the alleyway from a five-foot incline, watching even though they weren't sure what they were looking for. They'd remained in virtual silence throughout the late afternoon and evening hours, both intent on catching any new movements, anything suspicious. Their particular orders were burned into their brains—locate and remove the DEA's inside man, Jordan Trask, from the scene as quickly as possible. If Velasquez or any of his men even suspected that Trask was the informant, they would gun for him first. And the DEA needed the eight-year veteran alive and able to complete his assignment by becoming the star-witness at the trial everyone felt cautiously confident would happen and would finally end John Diego Velasquez's brutal reign.
Slumping against the middle receptacle in the row of three, Dee Dee tugged at the stiff bulletproof vest that was cinched around her torso and half-hidden beneath the black windbreaker. She squinted, giving the peeping Man in the Moon a passing glance only, before turning her attention on a rigid Hunter beside her. His jaw was clenched and expression tensed, making it clear that his nerves were another five minutes away from abandoning him completely. And in a way, knowing that made her jealous, because hers had turned tail and run four weeks earlier. "Maybe Trask was wrong," she whispered. "Maybe Velasquez isn't going to show."
"Trask hasn't gotten word to anyone that plans have changed," Hunter grumbled. "Velasquez will be here. Just taking his time, is all."
"They thought he would be here before dark. It's been dark for, what, a couple of hours already?" She huffed a breath. "It's going to be harder to tell who's who in the dark, you know? It'll make everything…tougher." Sliding out of her spot, she settled in shoulder-to-shoulder with Hunter. "I don't like this. Something doesn't feel right."
"Relax. Since when have you been a stickler for punctuality, McCall? You're the one who's usually late."
"Yeah, well. What about Stanton? We haven't heard anything from him since we got into position."
Special Agent Gideon Stanton was in charge of the task force, but he'd chosen to work more from behind the scenes instead of alongside his recruits and agents. He overloaded them with memos and files and diagrams, but rarely bothered to make any personal appearances at briefings or training sessions. And Hunter and she weren't the only task force members that had spent the better part of the month feeling all but abandoned by the man they were supposed to look to for leadership.
Hunter grunted under his breath. "Guess we need to hope he's better with action than conversation."
"Yeah. Guess so."
No sooner had their halfhearted wish been made when the voice blared through Hunter's handheld radio: "Change of plans," Gideon Stanton barked, static backing his voice. "Unit B goes in on the south side, Unit F takes the west side. Unit C, hang back—no moving out of position unless the command is given. You've just become backup. Hunter and McCall, hope you're still awake out there. Your orders haven't changed. Find Trask and get him out, that's all you have to worry about. But you'll be on your own. I can't send any backup as originally planned. So you need help, you'll have to signal for it." Static screamed over the speaker, before Stanton signed off. "Hang tough, people. Our guest of honor should be arriving any minute."
"What the hell is he doing?" Dee Dee hissed, spinning toward Hunter. "He's changing things now? All the drills we practiced, the—" She groaned, shaking her head. "Right before Velasquez is supposed to show up the son of a bitch decides to change everything? What's this guy doing—trying to get us all killed?"
"I don't know what he's doing," Hunter grumbled in return, his stare narrowed on the warehouse less than five hundred feet in the distance. "Let's not worry about that now, huh? Our assignment hasn't changed, which means we know what we need to do. Right? And that is, we go in, we find Trask, and we get the hell back out. Just that simple."
"Simple, right," she said with a soft, disbelieving laugh. "Except now we don't have backup. We're on our own, you do realize that, right?"
"I realize it," he answered tightly, "and I'm not worried. We can handle it."
Dee Dee wondered whose nerves Hunter was trying to calm with his forced optimism—hers or his own? Because truth be told, he hadn't made a dent in hers. She'd reached the precarious point where panicking felt more like an actuality than possibility, and if either gave into the hysteria they wouldn't be any good to the DEA, or Jordan Trask, or each other. Which meant they had to stay calm—sharp and focused. No matter what kind of crap Gideon Stanton pushed on them. Because once Velasquez showed up and Stanton gave the signal to move in, Hunter and she would have to get into the warehouse fast and back out even faster.
"Just relax," Hunter added. "We know what to do."
"Relax…" she repeated, Hunter's command mingled with a heavy exhale. "You want to tell me how I'm supposed to do that? We're just about to come face-to-face with one of the most notorious criminals in the world, and now the guy who's supposed to keep us all together just changed every setup we've had in place since our training started. We don't know how many men are in the warehouse, or how many Velasquez is bringing with him, and now we don't even know where in the hell the good guys are going to be. And you want me to relax?" She chuckled lightly, frowning. "Fat chance."
"Hey. You're the one that pushed for this assignment, remember?"
She cringed visibly, through a roll of her eyes. "Don't remind me."
"Come on, Dee Dee," he said, casting a sideways glance at her. "It'll be over before you know it."
She groaned softly, with a shake of her head. "Do me a favor? Don't try to make a living as an inspirational speaker. Hard to believe, I know, but It'll be over before you know it doesn't exactly make me feel better. It's a little too vague for my taste." Her frown deepened, wrinkles spraying across her forehead. "And why'd you call me Dee Dee? You only call me Dee Dee when you're serious about something. So, do me a favor, huh, and stick with McCall for the rest of the night? It'll make me feel better."
Hunter shook his head, scowling. "No matter what kind of crap Stanton is trying to pull, we're ready for this."
"I hope you're right." She relaxed slightly, cautiously, and loosened the death grip she had maintained on her revolver since nestling in among the trash-filled dumpsters. "Look, uh. You know, on the off chance you're not right…I, uh. I need to ask you something." She hesitated, nervously licking her lips. "Just hear me out, all right? Don't act like this doesn't matter, because…I mean. I need to tell you this before we go inside."
Hunter gritted his teeth, his jaw clenching and veins in his neck popping.
"Rick, just listen," Dee Dee pressed, ignoring his obvious discomfort. "I, uh. The thing is, I have a…a will. It seemed the smart thing to do after Steve was killed, you know?" She took in a breath, holding onto the air for a dragging minute before releasing it in one, hard exhale. "It's in my safety deposit box. It's not like I have much, just a little in savings, but it'd help out with, uh. You know…expenses. I mean, if—"
"I know," he broke in, not making eye contact.
She sighed, her shoulders slumping. "The deed to my house is in the box, too, and all the other documents anyone would need. It's all there. And, uh, and…you're named on everything. I'd just. I'd rather you took care of it. My parents, it'd be too tough for them."
It was the first time they had ever discussed details with each other—the details. Details that only needed to be known if the other was gone. Details that, together, they both put more energy into hiding from rather than confronting. But on her own, Dee Dee did think about them, Steve had forced her to. And she needed Hunter to understand that she was prepared, even though she knew that having to see the details through would be tougher on him than anyone else. "It's a lot to ask," she continued. "But I need to know you'll take care of it for me—just in case. It makes sense to think about, you know? Especially considering what we're about to do."
"You called me Rick. You told me not to call you Dee Dee, so why'd you call me Rick?"
She chuckled softly, grateful that he was able to momentarily lift her mood and ease her nerves.
"Nothing's going to happen," he said.
"I'm not saying it is. I'm just saying it's smart to be prepared."
He nodded, the slight gesture screaming out his reluctance. "It's smart. And I'll take care of it."
She smiled fleetingly, with the semblance of relief. But the feeling disappeared before she could fully grab hold of it, as the main door to the warehouse was slid open a fraction and then closed again just as quickly. Dee Dee caught a glance from Hunter, one that overwhelmed her with a sense of intensity that she'd never before felt or witnessed in him. And the stiff nod of his head that followed confirmed it was the signal they'd been waiting for—the time for second-guessing decisions had past.
"The last thing we need is to get separated, so stay close," Hunter mandated. "It's the same plan as always. We get in, we get out."
"I wasn't planning to stick around and make conversation," she deadpanned. Her whisper had barely fallen between them before a sleek, black limousine came into view. It traveled slowly down the alley, almost too slowly, looking out of place in the dingy surroundings. Halfway down, it came to a stop, idling as the garage door leading into the warehouse was opened fully.
"Looks like this is it," Hunter said. "Keep your eyes open."
Dee Dee nodded, her nerves too unpredictable to allow her to speak. She rose onto her haunches, breathlessly awaiting the signal to move in. It was given faster than anticipated, prompting a barrage of black-coated cops and DEA agents into motion. They began a silent advance, Hunter and Dee Dee leaving the safety of their hiding place and joining in. A few steps before entering the warehouse, they heard the warning shout from Gideon Stanton, followed by gun blasts, and trading encouraging glances, they entered the building. Mayhem had already overtaken the massive space, and their focuses turned to dodging bullets, finding temporary shelter and searching out Jordan Trask.
"To your right, McCall!"
She heard Hunter's scream, his frenzied voice almost drowned out by the gunfire and shouts echoing dizzyingly off the metal walls. Turning in the direction he commanded, she saw Trask huddled behind a row of oil barrels, taking sporadic shots into the chaos inside the building.
"Hunter and McCall, LAPD.!" Dee Dee barked, Hunter and she sliding up to the DEA agent. "Move, Trask! We're getting you out of here!"
It all seemed simple, too simple, the thought came to her fleetingly. She grabbed Trask's arm and tugged him toward her, as a bullet whizzed past her head. Cowering behind a metal drum as another bullet, and then another, whistled by her, she didn't have time to get off her own shot before Hunter's lanky frame pummeled against hers and sent her sprawling onto the concrete floor. The unexpected force sent her gun flying out of her hand, and she watched helplessly as it spun out of reach. But her attention was quickly diverted as Hunter began to moan and curse, and as he rolled off her and onto his back, she saw the fresh patch of blood discoloring his pant leg.
"Get the hell out of here, Trask!" she screamed, climbing onto her knees and pressing her hands against Hunter's blood-soaked leg.
"Where am I heading?" Trask shouted, ducking and dodging bullets.
"Left outside the door!" Dee Dee yelled. "There's a black van parked about two hundred yards down the alley! DEA agents are inside waiting for you! Identify yourself first, or they'll blow your head off! Orders are to shoot first and ask questions later!"
"Go with him, McCall!" Hunter commanded, struggling to sit up. "Get him out of here!"
"Damn it! We're walking out together!" she argued, leaning over a flushed-face Hunter. The gun blast erupted behind her, and she instinctively fell against her partner. The shot caused Hunter to jerk violently, before falling back onto the floor with his partially opened eyes dazed and clouded. "Hunter!" She slammed her hands down against his chest, needing to determine whether or not his vest had done its job of protecting him. But before she could make her diagnosis, another blast exploded behind her, and she watched Jordan Trask crumple to the ground, blood instantly seeping through and staining his pale blue t-shirt. Spinning around, she tried to pry the gun out of Hunter's rigid hand, but instead found herself face-to-face with the barrel of a semi-automatic pistol. She tore her frantic stare away from the gun, raising it to the emotionless face of the man who possessed it. Watching, wide-eyed, as he raised it above her head and then swiftly lowered it, with brutal force.