Blood Victory

Page 54

“Nothing like a Vietnam reference to inspire confidence during a combat situation,” Noah says. “So we can’t dose her again?”

“Moot point,” Cole answers. “Remote dosing’s a one-shot deal. There’s only so many nanobots I’m willing to inject into her blood at one time. Bailey, next order of business. Boot Stephen and Philip from the system. Pull their feeds, block their access. I don’t care what it takes. Throw them out and keep them out.”

Scott says, “And if they ask why?”

“Tell them we’ve had a massive security breach and it’s for the protection of everyone.”

“And if they say it wasn’t them?” Scott asks.

“I’m not saying it’s them. Yet. Right now we’re doing this to keep their hands clean. That’s the official story.”

Scott nods.

Bailey says, “Can I at least have a Nutella break?”

“Charley and Luke are forty-five minutes from Amarillo. Pull Stephen and Philip out of our network right now. When this is over, I’ll provide you with a bathtub full of Nutella at the posh resort of your choice. Got it?”

“The bathtub part sounds a little dangerous, but the resort part I’m—”

“Bailey, now!”

“You know, you really yell a lot for a guy who always wears shiny shoes.”

Noah clears his throat and steps toward Bailey. “Bailey, good job. You are a bright light in the darkest corners of cyberspace.” He pats Bailey on the crown of his head. “You are to be commended for your good work, young sir.”

Grinning, Bailey sinks into his chair.

Noah turns to Cole with a cocked eyebrow, as if to suggest people skills aren’t that hard if Cole would just try. If that’s what Noah thinks, he should try working with Bailey year-round.

“Thank you, Dr. Turlington,” Bailey says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

“Yeah, I know, Dad’s so mean and never understands.” Cole gestures for Noah and Scott to follow him into the hallway.

Once they’re out of Bailey’s lair, Cole says, “We’re not staying here.”

“You want to evacuate Kansas Command?” Scott asks.

“No. The three of us are not staying here. We’re going to Amarillo. In my helicopter. But first . . .”

Cole looks to Noah, who’s trying to hide his excitement and failing, then to his security director. “Arm him,” Cole tells Scott.

Both men stare at him silently, expressionlessly. They all know a line is being crossed here, and no one’s quite sure what comes after, but neither of them seems eager to hold that line in place. Not even his security director.

A few minutes later, Noah’s emerging from the guest bedroom having donned his windbreaker. It hides the gun holster at the small of his back. The guards flanking him aren’t sure of whether to treat him as a prisoner or an asset, and their confusion is evident in their jittery poses.

Cole can’t blame them. It’s all happening pretty fast.

By the time Cole, Noah, and Scott step out onto the front porch, he can hear the familiar chop of his helicopter’s rotary blades starting up inside the pen behind the hangar.

What he’s not prepared for are the three people waiting for them on the front porch. Shannon Tran, Tim Zadan, and Paul Hynman have all left their stations. They’re standing off to the side of the front door. Because they’re not exactly blocking Cole’s path, their poses don’t seem hostile. But still, after recent events, it’s impossible not to assume this is part of some conspiracy or plot to thwart what remains of this operation.

Shannon steps forward, and he notices she seems on the verge of tears. “Please,” she says, “please just make sure she gets through this OK.”

The concern in her voice seems to resonate in Tim’s and Paul’s facial expressions. Cole’s so startled by this display that at first he can’t come up with a response. Given how much they know, it’s amazing how quickly these three people seem to vanish from his thoughts the minute he looks in another direction. Given what they have access to, they’re under as much surveillance as Charlotte. But maybe it’s not just fear of professional repercussions that ensures their secrecy. It’s what he’s seeing right now.

They care about Charlotte Rowe and believe in what she does. Deeply.

Cole opens his mouth to give the most appropriate and simplest response he can think of. I will. Then he thinks better of it.

“We will,” he says.

Shannon bows her head and takes a step back. She looks exhausted. Maybe it’s the last few weeks catching up with her, or maybe this small, simple act required all the bravery she has.

Then he and Noah and Scott are hurrying toward the helicopter pen behind the hangar, into the blast of wind from its spinning rotary blades and toward the very real fact that he just made a sincere promise he might not be able to keep.


Amarillo, Texas

Marjorie’s wondering if she should have put a third Pyrex dish of Frito casserole into the oven—her boys always arrive hungry—when she hears a familiar, comforting rumble drifting toward her across the fields outside. She wipes her hands on her apron, picks up the shotgun from where she’s rested it against the wall next to the oven, and moves to the sink and the window above it.

She’s turned only a few of the lights on inside the house in case someone does coming looking for those shitass kids, but she doubts any of her boys will take that as a sign of trouble. And her hopes are confirmed when she sees the twin headlights of a large truck mount the gentle crest in the road leading toward the barn. The truck continues on its practiced path, around the barn’s northern side before it parks in back, hidden from the county road and just up from the slope to the wooded creek bed. The landscape’s got some low and gentle folds, but save for the little ravine cut by the creek, it’s mostly flat prairie, surrounded by lots of arid property nobody would want for anything besides privacy and space.

There’s a skip in her step as she leaves the house. The boys purchase used trucks each year so they can be easily disposed of after the planting’s through, so there’s no telling who made it first just from the sight of what they’re driving. That means she’s always pleasantly surprised by the first arrival. There’s usually no rhyme or reason to it from year to year, no pattern that might illuminate the character, or at least driving skills, of her boys. Some years it’s Cyrus, others it’s Wally, then Jonah for a stretch.

But when the cargo area door of this particular truck rises with a familiar rumble, the surprise comes when the man inside doesn’t jump to the dirt and throw his arms around her. Instead, Jonah Polk turns his back to her and sinks to a seat atop some plastic crates she knows are housing whatever gifts he’s brought her. Besides the seedling.


Her handsomest boy looks crestfallen, staring into space. For a second, she thinks he might not have snagged a seedling at all. Which means his heads-up call would have been all lies. Then she sees the divider door is open and there’s a pair of slender bare feet strapped to the gurney in back. They’re still.

She scans his Wrangler jeans and red-and-black plaid shirt for signs of a struggle but doesn’t see any. He’s got a haircut now that reminds her of bankers; a neatly combed side part that seems to be well in place.

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