I paused for a moment, trying to lean casually against the stone-tiled column, watching the holiday crowd as carefully as I could without being obvious. Clueless, they streamed by me intent on their shopping, flavored coffees, and apparently endless streams of text messages.

I made it another six feet and managed to sit at one of the mall food court tables. I pulled a leftover soda cup in front of me so it’d look like I had a reason to sit here. Any reason other than finding a quiet place to bleed to death. As painful as it was, I kept my purse strap pulled as tight against me as possible, keeping what pressure I could on it. The blood was invisible on my black wool coat, but it wouldn’t be for long if I didn’t keep the pressure on the bullet wound. I didn’t need it to soak through the coat; this wouldn’t get any easier if I started to leave a blood trail.

Everything had gone wrong, but I’d left at least one of them dead for sure — probably two.

Somebody must have forgotten I’d been a field agent for years before climbing the ladder. I’d been a damn good one. I’d left eight perps dead in my career, and now it looked like I might have added two federal agents.

If they really were FBI, they’d been dirty. They had to have been. Agents don’t usually carry armor piercing ammo, and they don’t start shooting without identifying themselves.

Certainly not at a deputy director of the FBI.

I fumbled out the cheap pay-by-the-minute smartphone I’d managed to buy at the kiosk. I didn’t think the guy had really bought my story about a computer crash at my bank, but two hundred dollars in cash had gotten me an anonymous phone and three hours of time. He’d probably report it up his chain, and I didn’t blame him. He could sense something was off, and I doubted an obviously recent immigrant from the Middle East wanted to get caught up in anything suspicious.

Let him call; it didn’t matter. The three hours of talk time I’d purchased were probably too much. I doubted I was going to live to use even half of it.

I fumbled with my purse, pulling out a scrap of a business card, then punched the number into the phone.

“K2 Executive Services.” A curt clipped woman’s voice.

I kept my voice as calm and level as possible. “I need help. I’m hurt and…”

A click sounded as the phone cut off. Bitch. I slumped and closed my eyes. Damn it. I couldn’t even think of where to go next. This was probably it. I was going to bleed out in front of a goddamn Panda Wok in a mall food court.

My phone buzzed in my hand; a text from an unknown number. All it had was an internet link.

Nothing to lose; I went ahead and pressed it, and the phone promptly replied with “downloading app.” A long few seconds later, an icon appeared on the phone. An icon of a stylized “K2.”

I pressed it, and the phone dialed.

“K2 Executive Services.” The voice sounded muffled and odd, like the speaker was under water. A scrambler code of some kind. “Please hold your phone at arm’s length and look into the screen.”

I followed the instructions and watched the screen pulse as the phone took my picture. It flashed the image on the screen for a moment. Not particularly flattering. My complexion was pretty gray, but then that was probably shock and blood loss. Almost instantly, the woman on the other end spoke again. “Name, please.”

“Maria Hawthorne.”

There was a slight pause. I got the distinct and uncomfortable impression she was checking my credit score. “Your operational status?”

“Unarmed, seriously injured.”

“What is the nature of your injury?”

“Shot in the upper right chest, three hours ago, I’m losing blood, and it’s getting hard to breathe…”

“Please hold.”

The damn thing actually began playing “hold” music. “The Girl from Ipanema” of all damn things. I stared at the phone in disbelief for a moment.

Then the voice came back. “Thank you for waiting. We have no standard assets in the area; I had to negotiate a subcontract with an independent contractor. Move to the south entrance of the mall and wait near the women’s restroom. The contractor will probably take thirty minutes to get there.”

“I’m not sure I’ll be conscious in thirty minutes.”

“The contractor will arrange for discreet medical aid if you are still alive when they arrive at your location.”

The line clicked with grim finality.

I pushed myself off the table and began to walk as carefully as I could. Trying to look casual, look like another busy holiday shopper. The south entrance was over a quarter mile away through the mall.

As I turned out of the food court, I glanced back and saw a crimson smear of my blood on the orange chair. A frazzled woman in a bright red coat with a ridiculous number of plastic store bags plopped into the chair without looking at it, just glad to be able to get off her feet.

Clothing stores, shoe stores, and restaurants crawled by as I worked my way along the edge of the crowds.

It took nearly twenty minutes, and I almost made it.

I could see the sign for the restroom and was almost shaking with relief when I felt a hand grip my right elbow tightly. A couple herded four kids in bulky, bright coats past me, using promises of hot chocolate to keep them in line.

“Keep moving, Director Hawthorne.” There was an ever-so-slight accent. Eastern Europe, maybe. Maybe Russian.

I looked over at him. Very nice black suit, black wool overcoat; even if I ignored the accent, he didn’t feel like FBI. He let me see he was holding a subcompact automatic on me from inside his coat. It took me a moment, but then I remembered seeing him during the ambush outside my apartment. “It’s Deputy Director.”

“Very well. Deputy Director. Please keep moving. I’d rather not do this here in front of all these children, but I will if you force me to.” He fell silent as we passed a teenage girl, pipe-cleaner skinny in a dark coat with a bright purple backpack, hair tucked up under a light purple crew cap, obliviously texting away on her phone.

“You guys caught up faster than I thought you would.”

“Facial recognition programs in the security software for the bridge cameras. We emplaced it in this area months ago for another operation. It was blind luck that it was still in place, and I just happened to be moving in this direction. I found your vehicle in the parking lot.”

I watched another family struggle past. The two kids were just out of toddler stage and had clearly reached breaking point. Even if I were in better shape and armed, there were way too many innocent bystanders around. “Lucky me.”

He shrugged eloquently. “Those are the breaks.”

He seemed awful polite for a contract killer.

I was just too weak even to begin to fight. He guided me into the utility hallway opposite the bathroom, and we walked down it until we reached a corner. I was out of time. He pushed me around the corner and brought his gun out.

A sound like a dull, heavy bell rang through the tile-lined corridor. He took a single staggering step forward then collapsed in a heap.

The girl in the light purple crew cap stood behind him, holding an almost comically large crescent wrench, poised for another swing. Face expressionless, she looked at me, then down at him, easily balancing the wrench across her skinny shoulder. Crouching, she checked his breathing and pupil dilation mechanically, then picked up the gun. She cleared it with casual proficiency, tucking it and her wrench into her backpack. Almost as an afterthought, she pulled his wallet from his coat and stuck it in a silvery envelope.

A moment later, she pulled the battery from his cell phone and dropped it into a trash can; then the phone joined his wallet in the envelope.

She stood and held her hand out with a stony expression. “Come with me if you want to live.”

I just stared at her until she smirked, eyes glittering. “Fuck, I’ve always wanted to say that. Let’s see the wound. Anterior right chest, right?”

“Yeah.” I hated that I could hear the weakness in my voice. I managed to pull my coat off and fumbled my shirt and the top strap of my not-so-bulletproof vest open.

She reached into her backpack and pulled out a Kotex pad package, tearing it open and pressing the pad against the bullet hole. “Hold this.”

I held it in position while she put another pad on top of it and then pulled out duct tape and taped them down tightly. “This will have to do for now. We don’t have much time. I heard what he said; they probably have others on the way, and they’ll be sweeping the mall any minute. My K2 contact says she already has someone taking those cameras off-line.” She gestured to a Bluetooth earpiece almost hidden under her cap.

She pulled a large, flowered wool shawl out of her backpack along with a truly awful women’s hat that I would never have chosen to wear and handed them to me. “Let’s change your profile a bit. Make sure you cover up the bloody shirt.”

Out of the backpack, she pulled out a couple of those large “eco-friendly” cloth shopping bags; both our coats and her backpack and crew cap were stuffed quickly into them. She finally handed me a pair of thick-framed glasses before shrugging on a red fleece jacket and taking my arm. “Keep your face down and try to look like a grandma.”

That wasn’t exactly hard given the circumstances; it was easier to walk slightly hunched over. She chatted loudly and excitedly all the way out to the parking lot. Something about being late to pick me up because she’d seen a small black and white cat in her school parking lot that might be hurt and looked all over for it. All the while, I could see her hyper-alert eyes surreptitiously scanning every shadow. I studied her as we walked. Something about her was weirdly familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Out in the parking lot, she led me to a dull black battered sports car in a wheelchair spot. It even had a “Disabled Parking” tag hanging from the mirror. I painfully maneuvered into the passenger seat and paused, drawing in a ragged breath of what felt like broken glass. She promptly reached over and began to snap me into a harness more suited for a fighter jet than a car.

She yanked a strap up between my legs and snapped it in with a slight smile and a soft chuckle. “Easy there, just getting you strapped in.”

I waited until she’d buckled herself in. “This is a Q car, isn’t it?”

The old term for a tactical vehicle disguised as a harmless civilian car didn’t trip her up at all.

She gave a single nod and cranked the key. The powerplant rumbled awake with an evil, low growl. “Looks are deceiving. Top of the line engine, top of the line everything. My Billy here is a fucking beast.”

She touched the dash softely with a sad look, then glanced over at me. “If anything goes down, get below the door frame. I have high thermal blast blanket and some light ceramic armor plate in the doors, panels, firewall, floors, and seat backs. Not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

Despite her obvious fascination with the power of the car, she pulled out into the holiday traffic smoothly, slipping away from the mall quietly.

“You’ll need to ditch the car as soon as you can…”

“Don’t sweat it; it’ll be tucked away once I get you to the safe house, and the plates are fakes. It will look completely different the next time I take it out. Needles would be fucking pissed if I had to crush it. We’ve done a lot of work on this.”

She shook her head irritably. “It’s the time, not the money.”

I felt a rush of relief. Needles. That was a name I recognized. Michael knew… had known him. He was associated with K2 somehow. Something about a salvage yard with a convenient car crusher.

“You work for Needles? Thank God.”

“Yeah… He’s not here right now. K2 called me in.” She smoothly slipped the car down road after road, carefully checking for any surveillance. “You could have trackers…”

Damn, it was good to be working with an experienced professional. I was impressed as hell at how she pulled off that teenager vibe. “I found stick-on RFID trackers in the slide and grip of my service gun, so I had to ditch it. I bought new clothes and changed into them a few hours ago. New underwear, purse. Everything. Only thing left is the vest, and that just came out of the armory. It wasn’t assigned to me; I pulled it off the shelf myself, and I never took it off. Unless they tagged every vest at the FBI, there’s no chance it’s hot.”

She glanced at me. “Shoes?”

“Those too. Dropped everything in a dumpster in an alley.”

“You better be clean. If this blows back on anyone, Needles will absolutely lose his fucking mind. You don’t want that. Nobody wants that. That man has serious fucking anger issues.”

She sure as hell sounded like she meant it, but she almost sounded proud of it at the same time.

“No chance.”

“In the glove box, there’s a bottle of Naprosyn. You better take a couple.” She reached behind my seat and pulled out a bottle, shoving it into my hand. “You need some pretty solid swallows of this.”

I looked at it. A pretty fancy whiskey bottle. Cask Strength. “Seriously?”

“I’m pretty fucking sure open container laws are the least of your problems right now. That should be some pretty good stuff. You wanna get some in you because they think you might have a collapsed lung and when we get where we’re going… let’s just say it’s gonna hurt like fuck. You wanna take the edge off it.”

It was pretty damn smooth. Drinking was tough, though. I just couldn’t seem to get enough air.

The houses were starting to get fancier and farther apart as we drove. She glanced over at me. “Any good?”

“If I live through this, I’ll hunt some of this down.”

Her grin flashed in the light from the dash. “I knew it. That’s why he kept it on the top shelf. Hundred dollar a bottle shit up there.”

“Needles?” I shifted and regretted it instantly, wincing in pain.

“No, Eric, Tiffany’s husband.”


She suddenly fell silent, then sighed. “If you get rolled up, keep them out of it. They’re not supposed to be part of this; I just don’t have any other choices right now.”

“I don’t want to drag any innocent bystanders into this either.” I had to pull air in with each breath.

“With that hole in your chest, we have to. But then we get out and get fucking gone.” She turned down a genteel road lined with massive brick McMansions. “We’re almost there.”

“Pretty upscale for a safe house. I was picturing seedy motel rooms or the backroom of some bar.”

She pulled into a long drive, reaching up and pressing a button on a remote to open one door of the three-car garage. “This isn’t the safe house; we’re just here to get you patched up. She makes me park inside when I visit so I don’t bring down her property values.”

Before I could ask, she was out of the car and helping me get out. She took me into the main house, into an enormous kitchen, all dark wood and gold-flecked stone counters. Pointing to a center island the size of an aircraft carrier, she gestured for me to get up on it, then handed me the bottle of whiskey again. “I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”

She slipped up a broad set of marble stairs just outside the kitchen.

I pulled off the shawl and folded it as best I could, trying to keep blood off the countertop. Probably due to whiskey and blood loss, it took me a moment to notice an intense discussion in hushed tones drifting down the stairs she had gone up. After a long few minutes, my rescuer came back down the stairs, leading a pretty, heavily pregnant woman in a silk nightgown and robe.

There was enough resemblance to explain why she was helping. They were obviously related.

The pregnant woman glanced at the operative, then looked over at me with pursed lips, narrowing her eyes. “Get your vest and shirt off so I can see what we’re dealing with here.”

She started pulling a bunch of things out of drawers: hand towels, Glad Wrap. “Get some sheets and a stack of towels out of the linen closet, and go get my emergency bag out of the Lexus.” She looked at me. “I’ll be right back. Don’t fall off.”

I managed to strip down, dropping the bloody vest to the floor with the shawl and shirt, then settled back onto the broad kitchen island.

That’s when I knew I was dying. Black rimmed my vision as an invisible boulder crushed my chest. I tried to sit up but couldn’t get enough air, enough strength, to push up. Clammy sweat was running off of me, and my heart felt like it was spinning out of control. Panicking, I weakly tried to push myself off the island.

Suddenly I was sitting upright, the pregnant woman gripping my hair with surprising strength.

“That settles that.”

The operative was staring at us from the door to the garage. “What the hell, she’s fucking… gray.”

“My fault. I should have told her not to lie down.” The woman shook her head. “God, I hate this not-drinking-coffee stuff. I’m still waking up. Give me the stethoscope out of the bag.” She examined the dressing for a second. “That’s good work, Delaney. Kind of full circle. Nurses in World War One used wound dressings as disposable sanitary pads.”

At least I had the operative’s name. Delaney. Delaney nodded, and I could see her repeating the doctor’s words back to herself under her breath. I got the impression she was scribing that into her memory.

Tiffany listened to my breathing. “There’s no sound on the right. Sucking chest wound…pneumothorax — that’s a collapsed lung. No other wounds…no exit wound?” She looked down at the vest. “If it went through that vest…”

I patted her arm weakly. “Ricochet off a stone wall.”

She looked over at Delaney. “I need two Vicodin out of the bottle on the left.” She handed me the whiskey with the pills. “Take these; this is going to hurt.”

Pulling a sheet over the island, she laid out a water bottle, a package of plastic tubing, the Glad Wrap and several strips of duct tape. I had no idea what was about to happen, but her self-assurance was comforting. She sterilized the tubing with something from a very medical-looking bottle, then folded and snipped holes into the first six or seven inches of it. While she prepped, the operative made sure I stayed upright on the table. She glanced over at the woman, then took the whiskey out of my hand and took a tiny sip.

“Wow, that is the good stuff.”

The woman spun and snatched the whiskey out of her hand. “Give me that.”

I felt a moment of sudden horror as I realized what her reaction meant. “She’s not old enough to drink, is she?”

“Hell, Delaney’s not old enough to legally drive by herself.”

She glared at the suddenly grinning girl who gave a careless shrug. “I’ve had a license for over a year. It’s just not in my real name.”

“Shit.” I reached my hand out. “I’ll take more of that whiskey.”

“Hold on.” She glanced up at the clock and handed me three more pills. “It’s been five minutes, so you’re going to keep it down. Azithromycin and ciprofloxacin. I don’t need to do all this work and have you die of infection.” She shook her head. “Save me a drink or two of that if you can.”