Preface: This is Chapter 1 in a full-length action novel. If you are inclined to read on, please feel free to email me at the address at the bottom of the home screen.
Hands bound behind her back to a merciless metal chair, Emma could do little to stop the Russian fist headed toward her jaw. Sure, she could spot the incoming assault from a mile away – the large man made no effort to hide it – but that didn’t make the splintering pain across her face any easier. Emma allowed herself to cry out – just a little – with pain.
“You’re a pretty one,” her captor told her in rough, broken English. “I’m going to enjoy making you…” he struggled to find the right word, “not so pretty.”
Emma’s scoff turned into a cough. Of all the people in her life, she was the least worthy of the title he had given her. Not that he would ever know that. Working for the CIA, Emma made every effort imaginable to keep her field operations and home life on separate sides of the world, literally. The exception, of course, being her husband.
Another fist, this time from the right, landed with enormous force on her temple. Emma’s head ricocheted, chin bouncing from shoulder to shoulder for a moment as she let the wave of dizziness wash over her. Focus, Emma!
“You could stay pretty.” Bargaining. She knew it’d come eventually. “Tell me how you knew about the girl, and I’ll make sure everything I do to you is not so see-able.” Visible, Emma wanted to correct him. Not that it made a difference. Her partner – in the field and in life – would never allow what this man threatened. Ben was sweet like that. “Simple,” the muscular Russian stood straight, watching her.
Emma felt her mind slipping, thinking about what was entirely outside of her control. Once Ben came, she would follow his lead. Until then, she had to keep herself conscious. More to keep her mind alert than to prevent the fresh rain of fists, Emma started mentally naming where the punches would land before she felt them.
Cheek. “Tell –” Ribs. “Me –” Foot. “Who –” Gut. “You –” Chin. “Are!”
Who she was? Memories washed over her. That was a long story.
Emma was the middle child. Her older brother Aaron was strong, a leader and a handsome teacher at his martial arts school. Their younger sister Lisa was simply charming – a teenager now – and had an easy smile, putting her as the apple in everyone’s eye. Her sister had her charms; her bother – his charisma.
Emma, well, Emma was useful.
It turned out that, once she understood it intellectually, she was good at seeing a strike, reacting, and falling, leading her to volunteer for demonstrations in his classes. Emma knew most every type of assault her brother would throw before he completed his move. Not exactly a useful skill before she joined the CIA, but even in the heat of the moment, she couldn’t help but notice nuances in everything and what made that event different from last time.
Similarly, Emma sang duets with her sister, harmonizing from literally just outside the spotlight. It was fine, or at least that was what she told herself. To be useful was more important than to be given credit. Make others look good, her mom had always said. Her own pride was useful to no one. Right?
Fingers laced through Emma’s hair, grabbing her scalp and bringing her back to the cold, damp and dark room. She had slipped – lost her focus. Emma knew she should be more disciplined, but instead found herself giggling.
“What?” The Russian was suddenly close to her face, completely controlling her head with his untrimmed nails digging into her skull. “What’s so funny, little girl?” His breath smelled like chewing tobacco.
Emma’s giggle morphed itself into an open laugh of its own accord. “My husband’s going to kill you.” The words escaped her unbidden.
A new voice entered the scene. “Did you have to tell him ahead of time?” Surprise, but not displeasure, rang though Emma at the sound of her husband’s words. Ben was here! In her delirium, she must have missed his entrance. Then again, that was kind of Ben’s goal.
Emma let her weight fall to her right, supported only by the chair, which had been bolted to the cement for this kind of interrogation. As she did, Ben stepped into the light, extraordinarily as good-looking as ever. Her imagination played a fanfare at the sight.
“You –” Emma’s captor got the one word of recognition out before Ben’s elbow slammed into the Russian’s teeth.
Emma smiled, admiring her husband as he fought this unrefined man. Ben had to have a gun, but still used his hands to eliminate this target. It was a small, unpadded room, and a gunshot would damage both their ears. Emma needed her hearing. Ben was smart like that – and so incredibly attractive to her in that moment. He snaked his arm around the Russian’s neck, elbow down like he had trained her. Good.
The Russian’s massive muscle served him well, though, and he clawed at Ben’s arm, loosening his grip. Quick as a whip, Ben went with it, sliding his hand down the Russian’s jaw and pushing at the last moment, snapping the man’s neck. In no time at all, Emma’s interrogator was little more than meat and laundry on the concrete at her feet.
“Emma?” Ben rushed to her once he was convinced their opponent had been eliminated.
“That’s me!” she smiled at him, tasting her own blood as he cradled her face with his hands.
Seemingly convinced she was fine, Ben smiled as he stepped out of her line of sight. She felt him working on her bonds as he spoke. “See, this is why you stay in the van, and I’m the field agent.” Technically they were both field agents.
“Maybe I like bondage,” she said over her shoulder. The Russian must have knocked her filters loose during his assault, but Emma had to admit she liked it. Like being drunk, but completely safe, since Ben was here.
“But I don’t like seeing you hurt.” That was how he showed his affection: gentle yet protective. The chains that had been keeping Emma rooted to the chair slipped away and Ben put one hand on her shoulder as he came back into her line of sight. “You can contact your adrenaline now.” It was a phrase back from their training. Adrenaline was a funny thing, inducing some to panic and others to violence, so the CIA had taught them to stifle and access it only when needed. Now, after years of training and even longer in the field, the phrase summoned little more than a Pavlovian response.
In that instant, Emma’s eyes – and arteries – opened wide. It was like a drug, putting all her senses on high alert. Suddenly Emma was aware of every drip, every breath, and every movement. Glancing at her husband, she knew she didn’t have to tell him she was ready.
With a simple nod, Ben grabbed her hand and they were off, hurdling down the hall. Emma didn’t recognize any of the terrain, but she trusted Ben would know what he was doing. It was a compound of some sort. Fluorescent lights made the halls feel as cold as the Ukrainian winter outside. Outside! The thought triggered a recognition in her – she hadn’t seen any windows yet. Were they underground?
Heart racing as quickly as their feet pounded the polished concrete halls, Emma knew the routine: the rescuer focused on the route out to safety, the rescued on possible hindrances.
“Ahead,” Emma breathed. Immediately Ben pulled her to the wall, eyes still forward as she listened more closely. “Four – no, three. They know.” The sounds in their way were hurried, not a lazy foot patrol’s pace.
The hall only led one direction: around a bend. Quietly, Emma followed Ben to the corner, ready. Seconds ticked as they waited for their prey to come to them. When Ben half knelt, hands interlaced and face up on this thigh, Emma knew exactly what he was thinking. In response, she took five steps back, parallel to the wall and almost at a door. Emma tried to use the time to steady her breathing, but the instant the guards came into view, everything feral took over.
She ran straight at Ben, up and onto his knee, stepping onto his waiting hands. As soon as her weight was on him, he shifted, shoving her up and past him. The three guards didn’t even have a chance to spot them before Emma was sailing over the first, readying a kick into the farthest man’s throat. He slammed into the wall, giving her a solid rebound – enough to redirect her momentum at the third. Still airborne, Emma stretched her hand out and around her new target’s neck, bending him over backward as gravity pulled them both down. It only took pulling her elbow back to her side to snap his neck.
Low to the ground now, Emma dropped her victim as she watched her husband light up the first target, striking at a measured six times per second. Like a Russian dancer, she slid forward, keeping her weight low. Swinging her leg out after the second step, she clashed with the last target’s leg. He couldn’t stand against them both. Emma finished her sweep full-circle in time to see him land awkwardly on his back, spine snapping against his fellow’s heavy shoe.
Emma only paused to steal a handgun from a patrolman, promptly following her husband up the ramped corridor. “Are we underground?” she asked, voicing an earlier conclusion. Ben would know. Together they bolted upward, putting Emma more out of breath than she thought she should be.
Ben nodded at her question. “About sixteen miles outside of Lviv.” They were still in the Ukraine, then. Had her captors been speaking Ukrainian, and not Russian? She didn’t know which side of the conflict she was being rescued from. Ben was the linguist, not her. The closest she got was computer languages, if one didn’t include their shared American Sign Language. That was mandatory for all pairings within the CIA – like the Navajo speakers of old, they were required to share an obscure language.
As they kept moving, Emma took advantage of the respite to check the magazine of the gun. One in the chamber, nine more in the magazine. Good to know.
After ascending two more stories, Ben finally slowed at a double door. Knowing her task, Emma listened through the door for more threats. Nothing. “Did you bring a car?” she asked. The van they had been in had become compromised, so the last thing Emma had done before ending up in that cold chair was fry the van and all its equipment. They’d have to rely on memory instead of hard data she had already collected, but it was better than letting the information and technology fall into enemy hands. The cars within the compound would likely have trackers. If Ben had brought a car, it was likely stolen.
“No.” His response was breathed. Instead, he was focused entirely on the task immediately before them. “They had two gunmen on the roof on my way in. South, and west.” He pointed with two fingers forward and left, then forward and right to let her know where the compass directions fell, as she had woken up in the compound. Being on his right, they both knew that meant Emma would take the western gunman.
“Ready,” Emma nodded, nearly tasting the adrenaline. Out of habit, she thumbed the safety on her newly-acquired gun, making sure it was off. It was.
Ben shouldered the door, making way for Emma to find her target first. A blast of icy Ukrainian winter greeted her rush, causing her to squint as she scanned the rooftops. A gunshot found them first, causing Emma to crouch reflexively, making herself a small target as she searched for its source. There. She squeezed the trigger twice, but at this distance, her handgun did little more than announce herself in response. 8 rounds left. Her target ducked out of sight, allowing them a brief moment to move.
The handgun in Ben’s hands had proven to be more useful, and his double shot was promptly followed by a black mass falling from the rooftop. They didn’t divert to check his pulse, instead keeping together as they darted forward, toward the fleet of parked cars. Only the fence stood between them and the tundra that represented freedom. Dry shards of air prickled Emma’s throat as she gasped, keeping herself as oxygenated as possible at this elevation. Never mind. It was Ben’s job to get them to safety, she reminded herself. Her job was to keep the path he chose clear.
Emma spied the roof where her target was still hiding. The tops were decorated with heating units, crazily reminding her of ramparts on a castle. Concentrate! Had he moved? She could fire again, perhaps drawing him out into moving to a different location, but she didn’t want to waste her limited ammo. Either way, the guard had likely called their location in and more would be coming soon.
Heating units. In this region, her understanding was that most industrial-sized units were based on pressurizing air to heat before releasing it into the indoor atmosphere. Deciding it was worth one bullet to find out if these qualified, she fired at the unit closest to where she had last seen her target. 7. Steam burst like a geyser from the unit, but the movement she detected in response was two ramparts down, closer to her. It was little more than a barrel of a rifle in the corner of her eye, but Emma’s adrenaline-fueled reflexes spun her in place, stopping only long enough to fire two more rounds before ducking adjacent to the car Ben had chosen to hide behind. 5. Glass of a side window shattered overhead, shot coming from somewhere closer to the fence than the compound. But the heater she had fired at was matching the first, spewing steam into the dry winter. Behind the jet of hot air was the familiar black mass of a sniper. He wasn’t reacting to the temperature difference, but their position was compromised anyway, so Emma fired twice again. 3. He didn’t move.
“Come on.” The passenger door opened beside her, and Emma turned to see Ben leaning over from the driver’s seat. Confusion at his exit strategy flooded her, quickly followed by trust. He wasn’t an idiot, and she would follow his lead. She clambered in, yanking the door shut behind her. “Tower to the south,” he informed her.
The car jolted in to motion, spinning around at Ben’s command, and facing the double doors they had just exited. The sudden posture gave Emma a clean shot at the tower. 3 shots left. Not enough for cover fire. Feeling the car jolt again as Ben dropped it into reverse, Emma followed the fence to the wooden watchtower. Two men. She’d have to be a better shot than Ben to take them both out with only three rounds. Not to mention firing from a moving platform presented its own difficulties. And the distance. Still, Emma trained her gun that direction, looking for a target that could get them out of this alive.
The tower had been assembled with wooden planks underneath and fencing on top. That was it! Without taking more time to analyze it, Emma fired twice at the support closest to them. 1. It cracked, and several planks abandoned their positions. The whole platform shifted, buying Ben the time the needed to execute the next phase of his plan.
The car slammed into and through the electric fence trunk first, forming a Faraday cage around them. Emma lifted her elbows off the door just in time, bouncing as they made their way over the barrier. Ben wasn’t slowing down, instead dragging the fence several dozen yards before whipping the car back around and getting them across the open field and into the surrounding forest. There, they abandoned the vehicle and went a perpendicular direction on foot. Following him as she ran, Emma couldn’t help the thought that she didn’t deserve someone as wonderful and capable as Ben.