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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Twelve)

Caroline slowly regained consciousness, at first aware only of being jounced uncomfortably. Her head hurt with a deep throbbing that dulled her senses, but gradually she became aware of pain in her shoulder and arms, too. Then she began to realize that she could hear voices, that there was someone else near her, but for a blank, frightening moment she didn't know who or where she was.

Then she recognized one of the voices, and awareness swept through her. She remembered everything. Cal. It was his voice she recognized, and just as she realized that, she also realized that she was in a vehicle of some sort, perhaps a van, and she was tied. Gagged, too, damn it.

Slowly she opened her eyes, quickly closing them again in pain when a bright light flashed quickly through the windows. She heard a rushing sound and realized some other vehicle had passed them on the road, nothing more. She tried again, this time opening her lids only a slit so she could accustom herself to the discomfort. This must be what a hangover felt like, and she hadn't even indulged. All the misery without any of the fun.

Someone was lying beside her.

This time she closed her eyes in panic, startled by the realization that there was a man right next to her. She was acutely aware of her helplessness. Oh, God, were they going to rape her?

But the man wasn't moving. Cautiously she opened her eyes one more tune and found herself staring straight into Joe Mackenzie's pale, furious eyes.

Even if she hadn't been gagged, she couldn't have said a word, she was so astonished. How had he gotten there? She had a good idea how she had come to be in such a predicament, because she had foolishly rushed into the office to confront Cal without making certain he was alone. But how had Joe gotten involved? Then fear swelled in her chest, because he was in danger, too.

"I say we forget about it and get out of the country," Cal was saying feverishly. "It's over. I can't take it any further. They're going to check the entire system, and they'll find everything."

"I told the others you didn't have the nerve for this," someone else replied dismissively. Caroline tore her gaze from Joe's and craned her neck so she could see up front. Another man was sitting beside Cal, who was driving. She didn't recognize him, but at the same time he looked vaguely familiar.

"Nothing was said about murder," Cal replied furiously.

"And I suppose if that pilot had died when his plane was shot down, you wouldn't have been responsible for mat?"

"That was different." Despite his words, Cal's tone was uneasy.

"Yeah, sure."

"That was… chance. But this is cold-blooded murder. I can't do it"

"No one's asking you to do it," the other man said impatiently. "You don't have the nerve for it. We'll take care of it. Don't worry, you won't even see it happen."

If her hands hadn't been tied behind her back, Caroline would have lunged for the man, she was so angry. He was talking about killing them as casually as he would talk about doing the laundry! Joe silently nudged her ankle with his boot; actually, it was more of a kick, and her ankle was already sore. She turned her glare on him, and he gave a tiny, warning shake of his head. She kicked him in return, and he blinked at the pain.

They were in a van, one which was evidently used for hauling cargo rather than people, for there was no carpeting on the floor, only bare metal. The vehicle swayed with every turn, curve and bump, adding to the discomfort of her position. She was lying on her sore shoulder anyway, and having her hands tied behind her made it worse.

She tried to discern what they had used to bind her; it felt like nylon cord, while it was probably her own scarf they had tied around her mouth, adding insult to injury. Her keys were still in her pocket. If she could get them out, and if she and Joe turned so their backs were to each other, and if they had enough time, she might be able to use the edge of a key to saw through the nylon. The keys weren't sharp, but they were rough. Joe's pockets had probably been searched for a knife, a common item for men to carry, but women weren't expected to carry anything in their pockets, and evidently Cal and his cohort had totally overlooked hers.

"There's no point in killing them," Cal was saying raggedly. "It's over. We barely got out of there before the security police started swarming all over the place. By now they know I left the base, and they have a record of the van's license plate. When Caroline and the colonel are both reported missing but neither of them is recorded as leaving the base, they'll put two and two together so fast there'll be an APB out for the van within another hour, at most. Right now we're looking at life, but if we kill them, we'll get the death penalty."

To Caroline that sounded like a very convincing argument, but the other man didn't seem impressed. He didn't even bother to respond.

Sometimes she wished she weren't so darn logical. She couldn't turn off her thought processes even when they were telling her something she would rather not know. If the other man disregarded Cal's argument, then it must be because he had some reason to believe he himself wouldn't be tied in to the sabotage. As Cal had pointed out, his own involvement was known, but this other guy must think himself safe… except Cal knew about him and could tie him to everything. Therefore, the man felt safe only if he knew that Cal wasn't going to be alive to make the connection.

Furiously she began rubbing her face against the floor of the van, trying to scrape the gag away from her mouth, pushing against it with her tongue at the same time. Joe glared another warning at her, but she ignored him. Her frantic movements attracted the attention of the man in the passenger seat up front, and he turned around.

His voice was genial. "Welcome back, Ms. Evans. I hope your headache isn't too bad."

Joe had closed his eyes again and was still lying motionless. Caroline made an angry noise, muffled by the scarf, and continued her struggles. She kicked her bound feet and twisted her torso, all the while fighting the gag.

"You might as well stop wasting your time," the man said in a mild, faintly bored tone. "You can't get free, and all you're doing is pulling the cord tighter."

She wasn't concerned about the cord. Her two aims were to get the gag off and somehow dislodge the keys from her pocket. Not an impossible task, since her pants were loose, flimsy cotton, but not an easy one, either, because the pockets were deep. She mumbled a few unintelligible curses at him and continued with her struggle.

She had managed to push the scarf out of her mouth, and on an impulse she scooted over next to Joe and pushed her face hard against his shoulder, using the contact and the friction between his shirt and the scarf to roll the gag downward. Joe didn't move, and his eyes remained closed. She worked her jaw until the gag slipped down to hang around her neck. The man in the front seat was frowning at her, starting to get up on his knees and twist around.

"You dirtbag, you've killed him!" she croaked, forcing as much rage as possible into her voice, even though her tongue and jaw didn't want to work.

The van swayed alarmingly as Cal jerked on the wheel, his head swiveling around to stare into the back. The other man fought for his balance. "Keep your eyes on the road!" he barked at Cal.

"You said he was just unconscious!"

"He isn't dead, damn it. I hit him harder than I did her because I didn't want any trouble with the big bruiser if he woke up before we could get them out of there and tied up."

Caroline yelled, "Cal, he's going to kill you, too! Why else wouldn't he be worried about a murder charge unless he's going to try to blame the whole thing on you?"

The man lunged at her from over the seat, reaching back to grab her around the throat. Quick as a cat she turned her head and sank her teeth into his arm. He howled and tried to jerk back, but she hung on like a limpet, working her jaws to inflict as much damage as possible.

The van was swerving all over the road. Cal was using his right arm to grab at the other man while still driving. Both men were yelling and cursing. Suddenly the other man used his right fist to club her on the side of the head and she saw stars, her jaws going slack as she helplessly sank back. She didn't lose consciousness, but the blow definitely addled her.

They were fighting in the front seat, and the van rose dangerously on two wheels; then Cal jammed on the brakes and it slewed violently to one side, sliding off the pavement. She felt the distinct difference between pavement and dirt; then the van tipped a little to the right as it came to rest, probably in a shallow ditch. The movement threw her against Joe, and she felt his muscles tense as he took her weight, but he didn't so much as even grunt. Instead, there was an almost soundless, barely intelligible whisper against her ear. "There's a knife in my right boot."

Well, of course there was. Didn't all colonels carry knives in their shoes? Furious because he managed to be armed when she couldn't even get her keys out of her pocket, she thought about biting him, too. Instead, she hurled herself toward the rear of the van, collecting even more bruises in the process. Cal and the other man were still grappling, and she caught a glimpse of something metallic gleaming in the other man's hand. Instinctively she recognized it as a pistol.

Cal somehow got his door open and leapt out, probably figuring he didn't have very good odds in such close quarters with a pistol. The other man was swearing viciously, steadily, as he shoved open his own door and went in pursuit.

Caroline rolled around so her back was to Joe's feet, searching by feel for his right boot, struggling to push his pants leg up so she could reach the knife. They wouldn't have long, probably less than a minute. Her scrabbling fingers, numbed from the tightness of the nylon cord, finally grasped the knife handle and drew it out.

Joe was already rolling, presenting his bound hands to her. It wasn't easy to position the knife between their backs, unable to see if she was slicing into flesh or nylon, but she figured Joe would let her know when she got to skin. The knife must have been sharp; within five seconds she felt the cord give and he was rolling away from her again and sitting up. The blade was removed from her numb hands. She twisted her head to see him bending forward to quickly slice the cord around his feet; then he whirled toward her. She felt a swift tug at her hands and they came free. Before she could even bring her arms around he had jackknifed to a sitting position and freed her feet. Only then did he remove his own loosened gag, tugging it down so it hung around his neck just the way the scarf hung around hers.

A shot boomed from in front of them.

"Stay back here," Joe ordered as he lithely swung into the front and folded himself behind the steering wheel. The engine was still running; he slammed the van into gear and stepped on the gas pedal. The wheels spun uselessly, and he cursed himself even as he let up on the gas and put the transmission in reverse, this time easing down on the gas. He was used to his truck, but the van didn't have that kind of traction. The tires clawed for purchase on the loose, shifting dirt, finally caught and reversed out of the rut he'd dug with the first effort.

In the beam of the headlights he could see the second man running back toward the van. There wasn't any sign of Cal.

Caroline's head popped up beside him as he shifted into first, and simultaneously the man stopped and lifted the pistol. Joe put his hand on Caroline's head and shoved her sideways as he ducked himself, just as the pistol boomed again and the windshield shattered, spraying shards of glass all over the interior of the van. He kept his foot on the gas pedal and his head down as the van leapt out of the slight depression and skidded when the tires touched asphalt, slewing sideways again. He fought to keep the vehicle upright.

More shots, one following immediately after the other. He could feel the impact of the heavy slugs on the van. One headlight went out. Briefly he saw the man pinned in the remaining headlight; then the guy jumped sideways to safety as the van roared past

"Caroline!" he shouted, needing to know if she was okay, but he had his hands full battling the van, the wind full in his face and blinding him now that the windshield was gone, and he couldn't turn to see.

"What?" she shouted in reply.

"Stay down, he might shoot-"

Before he could complete the sentence, bullets ripped into the rear of the van, shattering those windows, too. His blood went cold.

"Caroline!"

"What?" she roared, plainly aggravated, and he could have laughed with relief. If Caroline was in a bad mood, she was all right.

The relief didn't last half a minute. A quick glance at the gauges showed the engine's temperature was quickly climbing; one of the shots must have hit the radiator. They were out in the desert somewhere, without a sign of a town, community or even a lone dwelling. The only light was from the stars and their one headlight. They wouldn't be able to get far before the engine locked up, but he intended to put every foot of distance that he could between them and the man with the gun.

The temperature gauge redlined. He kept his foot on the gas pedal.

The engine locked with a harsh, grinding sound. Caroline shot up beside him as they rolled to a stop. "What's going on?"

"Some of those shots hit the radiator. The motor's gone. Come on, out of the van."

She obeyed, pushing the sliding side door open and staggering out into the cool desert night. "Over here," Joe ordered, and she made her way painfully around the van.

"Now what?"

"Now we walk. I hope you're wearing good shoes."

She shrugged. She was wearing loafers, not as good as boots, but better than sandals. She hadn't dressed with an odyssey like this in mind, but what did it matter? She had to walk, even if she'd been barefoot.

"In which direction?"

"Back the way we came."

"He's back there."

"Yeah, but we don't know where we are, or how far it is to even a gas station going in the direction we were heading. At least we know that if we go back the way we came, we're going at least roughly toward the base."

Logical. But… "If we're going back the way we came, why didn't you drive in that direction to begin with?"

"Because then he'd know what direction we were going in," he explained. "He'll find the van, but he won't know if we continued on ahead or doubled back."

"But obviously we're going to have to pass by him at some point."

"Very possible, but not a dead certainty. He may decide to run rather than try to catch us. Since we don't know, we have to assume he's after us."

She trudged silently beside him as he walked out into the desert. They didn't dare risk walking on the road, so that meant they had to parallel it, far enough from the roadside that they couldn't easily be spotted, but close enough that they wouldn't lose sight of the pavement. She ached in so many places that it didn't seem worth the effort to worry about any of them. They had to walk, so she walked. It was as simple as that.

"Are you wearing a watch?" she asked. "What time is it? It isn't dawn yet, so they couldn't have taken us far."

Joe tilted his wrist to read the luminous dial. "It's four-thirty, so it'll be dawn soon. If they just threw us in the van and left immediately, before the security police could close the base, we're talking at least an hour of driving time. We could be anywhere from thirty to sixty miles away from base."

Walking sixty miles was a daunting thought, but not nearly as daunting as facing that man again. "There are others," she said aloud. "Maybe close by. They could have been taking us to turn over to them. It'll be dawn soon, but we don't dare try to flag anyone down, because we don't know who the others are or what they look like."

"You got it," he said grimly.

"So we have to walk every foot of that blasted sixty miles."

"Unless we see a state trooper. At least when the sun comes up I'll have some idea where we are."

Too far away from anything to suit her. She stopped talking, partly because sound carried so far in the desert and she didn't want to alert anyone to their presence, but mostly because it was taking all her effort just to walk. She had been awake all night-except for when she'd been unconscious, but she was fairly certain that didn't qualify as rest-and she was exhausted. Her head pounded. She supposed Joe's head hurt, too, but he'd only been hit once. First she had tumbled out her window, then she'd been hit on the head, probably with the pistol, then with that guy's fist, and finally she had hit her head against the side of the van when Joe had shoved her. The wonder was that she had any sense left at all. She ached in every muscle of her body, and a good many of the bruises adorning her had come at Joe's hands. She was glad she'd kicked him back and only wished she had gone ahead and bitten him, too. She hoped he had the granddaddy of all headaches.

Twice he drew her down when a noise alerted him. She never did see anything, but he had superior eyesight, so she let him do the work while she seized the opportunity to rest. When he decided it was safe to continue on he would urge her to her feet with an implacable hand under her elbow, and she would walk some more.

Dawn began to turn the sky pearly to their left, giving them the basic information that they had been carried north into the desert and were now headed south, back toward the base. She supposed it was good information to have, in case they had to lose contact with the road.

"We can't go on much longer," Joe murmured in her ear. "Anyone passing will be able to see us from the road, and it'll get too hot to walk, anyway. We need to find shelter for the day."

She didn't like the sound of that. It was safer to stay hidden and sleep during the day, walking only at night, but it was sure going to take them a long time to get to the base. If she hadn't been so tired she could have argued, but she was beginning to feel incapable of going another foot, and she suddenly realized just how much the night's events had taken out of her. They simply had to rest.

He veered sharply away from the road, deeper into the desert. The light slowly changed to gray, letting them see details but not yet color. A huge rocky outcropping loomed in the distance, and she stared at it in dismay. That was almost surely where he was going, and she wasn't certain she could make it. She ground her teeth to keep from protesting. She either made it or she took a nap in the sun, which would soon be broiling. She was also thirsty, but they had no water, so there wasn't any point in bringing it up. He had to be thirsty, too.

When they finally reached the rocks she leaned thankfully against one huge boulder. "Now what?" she gasped.

"Stay here."

He was already gone, vanished into the rocks. She mumbled, "Sure," and sank down to the ground. Her temples were throbbing. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the stone behind her.

It felt as if she had no sooner closed her eyes than he was saying. "Come on," as he ruthlessly hauled her to her feet. He pulled her higher up into the rocks and shade enveloped her. Until then, she hadn't realized how quickly the desert had heated. He'd found a niche in the rock deep enough to provide protection for both of them, and he deposited her in the crude shelter.

"I've already checked for snakes," he said as he put a stick in her hand. "But if any show up, knock them away with this. I'm going to wipe out our tracks and find something to drink."

Automatically she closed her fingers around the stick. She knew she should be uneasy at the thought of snakes, not to mention watchful, but she had more important things to do right then, like sleep. She turned over onto her right side, because it hurt the least, and immediately dozed.

Joe stared down at her, his jaw muscles flexing. The left side of her face was bruised and scraped, and so was her left arm. He could plainly see a lump on her temple. She was chalk white with exhaustion and pain, her clothes dirty and sporting a few small tears. The contrast between her normally pristine appearance and now, when she lay bedraggled at his feet, sleeping in the dirt, utterly enraged him. Cal Gilchrist was probably dead, but he wanted the other one dead, too, for what they had put her through. He himself hadn't done a very spectacular job of keeping her safe, and he included himself in his rage.

She looked so small and helpless, curled on her side like that, though he knew she wasn't exactly helpless. He remembered her furious struggle to free her mouth from the gag so she could yell her suspicions at Gilchrist; she had caused the fight between the two men, thereby engineering their own escape. It was up to him now to make certain nothing else happened to her.

His own fatigue pulled at him as he backtracked for quite a distance, then obliterated all sign of their passing on his return to the outcropping. He ignored the weariness of his muscles. They needed water; not desperately, not yet, but they would stay much stronger if they had adequate liquids. Before he let her get dehydrated he would take the chance of flagging down a car, but it hadn't come to that yet, and he didn't want to take unnecessary chances. With an expert eye he noted the stunted plant life dotting the desert floor, studying the growth pattern and picking out the plants that looked slightly more succulent than others growing nearby and indicating more moisture underground. They would be all right.

He climbed back to the niche in the rocks. Caroline hadn't moved; she was breathing with the slow, heavy rhythm of deep sleep. Suddenly it seemed like a lifetime since he had held her, felt her nestling trustingly in his arms, and one moment longer was too long. He lay down beside her and eased her into his arms, cradling her head on his shoulder. She sighed, her soft breath brushing his skin.

Damn her, why hadn't she called him, told him of her suspicions about Gilchrist? It had been obvious that she wasn't surprised to find the man in the work area, had in fact gone there specifically to find him. She had barged straight into danger rather than picking up the telephone and calling him, or even Hodge. All of this could have been prevented if she'd just made that call instead of trying to do things herself.

That would be the first thing he got straightened out between them when she woke up. Why the hell hadn't she trusted him? If he had to tie her to the bed every time she was out of his sight to keep her from rushing headlong into dangerous situations, he would do it He remembered the black terror he'd felt, seeing her dart into the office to confront the saboteur, and he wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled.

Instead he held her tighter, smoothing her pale hair back from her face. He could feel her heart beating against his, and right now that was all he required. He slept as easily as she had, simply closing his eyes and letting weariness sweep over him in a tide.

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