In the nanoseconds of pulling the trigger, time slowed for Charlie. He took his time to carefully aim to injure and not kill. Ambulances would be on scene soon enough. He’d take the crap due him for all the stupid reckless impulses tonight, if only these three would spill on their boss.
Charlie kept his eyes on the prone bodies writhing on the wet, dirty pavement and stepped to them one by one, sending their guns skittering across the concrete with a kick. The first two moaned.
The last guy, hit high on the right shoulder, still had some fight left. He watched Charlie come closer through slit eyelids and lifted his gun. Charlie barely had enough time to duck when the man fired. The bullet tore through the suit jacket, burned through the skin of his arm and smacked into the brick wall. Two steps brought him close enough to kick the hand with the gun. Charlie heard the weapon clatter into another shadow of the alley and knelt to the man’s side.
By now, more vehicles joined Charlie’s. As they emptied of other FBI personnel, it appeared to them as if Charlie knelt to keep the man from losing more blood. But the pressure Charlie applied was not to staunch blood flow. His thumb found the hole from his bullet and shoved inside it to incite broken nerve endings.
“What were you looking for?”
The man screamed in Spanish.
Marshall’s labored breathing preceded his appearance at Charlie’s side precluding a deeper interrogation.
“You OK, Hardy?”
“Just a scratch.”
“He say anything to you?”
“Not yet, but he’s still alive.” Charlie stood, not taking his eyes off the man on the ground. He handed Marshall his own weapon still warm, still loaded.
“Go get the medics to check you out, and remember any pain meds means it takes longer to fill out the paperwork.”
Charlie grunted a response, not yet up for humor. He watched Marshall take his place beside the fallen man and turned toward the alley’s opening where the headlights of his car washed the bricks in bright light. Something prickled the back of his mind.
She watched him come closer and held her breath even though it almost killed her to do it. Her heart hammered so loudly in her ears she almost heard nothing else, and so fast it made her dizzy. She watched him come closer and couldn’t move. She felt like the proverbial deer, saw blackness frame him as she deprived her body of oxygen. She was in the darkness. He shouldn’t be able to see her. She was quieter than a mouse. He shouldn’t be able to hear her.
But between one blink and the next, the golden man she’d seen earlier appeared again. He whispered in the ear of the man in the dark suit. The brown-haired man stepped closer to the dumpster she’d pressed against. She saw it in his eyes the moment he found her and her fear hit a peak she hadn’t known existed. She drew a deep ragged breath that stung and ran for all she was worth.
She ran into the light at the end of the alley. She ran into headlights from other vehicles, the blinking ones from the emergency vehicles and the cone beneath the streetlight. She ran as fast as she could. It wasn’t fast enough. Her legs wobbled. She stumbled every other step. She fought to put distance between herself, the alley and all it held.
Just when the darkness of another alley threatened to wrap her in safety, she felt strong arms surround her. She hadn’t heard him calling her. She hadn’t heard him yell that he could help her. Her heart pounded too loudly. Her breath came too ragged. She barely heard him even now that his mouth was so close to her ear.
She fought him. She kicked and scratched. She fought the tears of anger and fear that threatened to blind her. She elbowed him hard in the gut. Despite taut muscles, she managed to knock the wind from him and felt his grip loosen. She slid away, slammed her knee into the family jewels. When he bent from the pain, she jammed her elbow between his shoulder blades.
He landed hard on the sidewalk with a thump and a groan.
“Wait! Damn it!”
Fighting the girl on top of almost forty hours without sleep, shooting three people and being shot himself had not weakened Charlie. It seemed he had an endless supply of adrenaline. He’d feel it all later. Anger jostled his senses into keen awareness. Awareness kept him from surrendering to his anger and slamming the girl into submission. Instead, he used his most soothing voice. “I can help. You need medical attention.”
Something in his voice, something he said made her stop and turn to face him. She stood shaking, cold, her hair plastered to her body.
“You can’t help me.” Her ragged voice reminded him of the desert and how one sounded after being without water for a long time.
Charlie pulled himself to his feet. “I can take you to a hospital.” He gestured to her bare and bloody feet.
She looked down as if noticing herself for the first time. She wore a man’s black button-down shirt that looked incongruous with the cargo pants she held with one hand tight around her waist. Both shirt and pants were torn. Beneath the tears, her skin was mottled with dirt and bruises. Her hands and feet bled, drops mixing with the fine layer of rain on the sidewalk.
“I think…” Her face screwed up as if she found it difficult to focus, to form the words she needed. “I think I do need something.”
Charlie stepped forward, holding out his hand, silently begging her not to run again. “I can get it, whatever it is you need.”
“A hospital filled with doctors and nurses and people.” Her eyes glazed over as if she envisioned Eden. She waved her free hand in Charlie’s direction. “I need them to take it out. I need…” She stopped herself from saying more. She looked at the hand Charlie offered.
Charlie watched silently as she mulled over his offer. He saw her eyes rake him over and her head tilt the tiniest bit as if she listened to something he couldn’t hear. He saw the decision in her face before she took a step closer. She did not touch him, did not take his extended hand.
She simply waited, resting her weight on the balls of her feet and looking as if she would run at the slightest provocation. She held his eyes with hers, but even then, he saw her tremble. It had to be the cold. This very minute she looked fearless, as if she could put him to the ground in seconds…with her one free hand and disappear into the shadows.
Charlie slid his coat off, wincing as the muscles in his arm protested, pulled at the open bullet slice. She flinched when he draped the coat over her shoulders but followed him.
She stopped him before he could flag down a medic. “No.”
“They can take you to the hospital.”
“You said you would take me.”
He had to go there anyway. These guys would be dealing with the men he’d shot. He shrugged, winced when it hurt and pointed to his car with the door still open, engine still running and lights still pinned on the brick wall like a projector with no picture. Sprinkles turned into actual drops of rain.
“Marshall!” he called. When the man turned, Charlie said, “I’m taking her to County.”
Agent Jake Marshall nodded, his black hair reflecting the street light. “Call your partner.”
“Soon as I get the chance.”
Charlie motioned toward the Buick. The girl crawled through the still open door past the steering wheel and into the passenger seat. She pulled her knees up to her chest and pressed her cheek against them, watching as Charlie climbed into the driver’s seat. She rested on hand on the door latch as if at any moment she would open it and jump out. Charlie briefly entertained the notion of strapping her into the seat belt…briefly. He decided he liked his face scratch-free. He buckled himself in with deliberate motions, hoping she would get the hint.
She never took her eyes from him and looked as though she wasn’t just sitting but crouching, waiting for the moment he turned on her. Her eyes wide, face pale and drawn beneath a layer of mud, she wasn’t very tall, and without meat on her bones, she resembled nothing more than a child. Charlie wondered how old she was. He kept one eye on her as he drove, trying to see past the mask of dirt.
Her feet were bare and caked with mud and blood. For a moment, he wondered how he would get all the filth out of the upholstery and his coat. Next, he wondered how long she’d been in this condition. The unpleasant scent radiating from her competed with the dying scent of the hoagie on the dash. Charlie let the windows down a bit to let in clean air and a few drops of fresh rain. According to the weather on the radio earlier, the storm wasn’t due for a couple of hours. The dreariness of the night was just foreplay to a real thunderstorm at daybreak.
Charlie caught the sandwich as it slid along the dash in the middle of a turn. He handed it to the girl perched on his passenger seat. She looked at it as if it were a weapon for a long moment before taking it. She reverently unwrapped the foil. Instead of wolfing it down as Charlie fully expected, she picked bites from it with her fingers, savoring each one as if were a rare delicacy. After four or five, she re-wrapped it and put it down on the seat between them. Once again, she rested her head on her knees and pinned him with light blue eyes.
He has kind eyes, she thought. She searched him for any sign of threat or danger. She searched her instincts as well, relying on them more than mere sight. She thought his brown hair too short, too military, saved only by an inch or two of extra length. His face was intense, focused, but she caught something else in his deep amber eyes, something she couldn’t quite name…kindness, humor, love of life?
Blood coated his arm. Without thinking, she reached over and gently moved torn cloth to see the wound beneath.
Charlie sucked in a breath as she examined his arm. It really was just a scratch. But why the hell was she examining him? And why the hell was he letting her?
By now, the drizzle had turned into a chilly rain. Big drops covered the windshield. The wipers beat steadily, the sleeping heartbeat of the city.
“You’ll need stitches.”
Charlie glanced at her, then turned his attention back to the road.
“Are you a doctor?”
She stared at his profile, listened to the thumping of the wipers. After a long moment of silence…. “No, I am not a doctor.”
“What is your name?” This time the silence was longer. Charlie glanced over. The girl’s eyes were closed, her hand limp on the seat between them.