Duck and Run
There were better ways to end the week, Christine Eagen was sure of it. She slouched in the leather bucket seat of her SUV, eyes locked on the champagne-colored Camry parked nose-out in the driveway, ignoring the seedy Oklahoma City neighborhood surrounding her. Cars leaned drunkenly on jacks, missing tires and more, sitting next to dilapidated refrigerators amid a scattering of dirty Big Wheels and Easy Bake Ovens.
Above it all, dark clouds growled beneath a marshmallow-like cumulous swell that soared into the heavens.
Chris had lived in Oklahoma long enough to know what could be developing in those towering clouds. A tornado. Gusting wind brought the scent and taste of rain colored by the burn of ozone through the open window...a sure sign of coming lightning and maybe more.
It was early May, and the dangerous combination of cloud formations was not a good omen. Especially at ten o’clock in the morning, with high humidity and a temperature already close to the eighties.
But it wasn’t the weather that was making her cranky.
She thumped the steering wheel in protest. This should have been an easy job. The Camry was perfectly positioned for a quick take, and no-one in this ‘hood, with the exception of the owner, would ever look twice if she drove it away. If not for James' hangover, they could’ve had the car out of there within minutes. But no, her partner in crime couldn’t be bothered with work today, even though they’d powered down the same amount of beer the night before at O’Malley’s.
She shook her head, mentally banishing the last vestiges of her own headache and focused back on the job at hand and her obsession with this one particular car.
She could be in that car and headed down the road in about a minute flat, but there was no way she was leaving the truck in this area. She’d get a royal butt-chewing from her boss, Rod, if one of his trucks turned up on a hot sheet. Pissing Rod off was a dangerous occupation. More dangerous than her days as a Ranger, that much was certain.
Chris thrummed her fingers on the steering wheel and contemplated the Camry, ignoring the bead of sweat that crept down her cheek.
“Ah, to hell with it.” There was no way she was letting this one go. She rolled up the window, snagged the remote control to the yard’s garage from the visor, and pushed open the door of the Explorer. Thumbing the electronic lock, she walked purposefully down the street, like she had every right in being there. Pulling the picks out two strides from the car, she bent over the door, body shielding her actions from the house. She had to do this fast, right, and with the least amount of bloodshed.
With a few deft twists of her wrists, she was inside in under a minute. She settled into the leather seat and closed the door softly, then hunched down below the headrest and leaned forward, picks in the ignition.
The Camry started with an almost-soundless purr.
Damn, but she loved people who took care of their cars. No coughing roar to announce her presence, no backfiring, none of those things that would make her a target in a shooting gallery.
She pulled out of the driveway smoothly, a surge of adrenaline shooting through her, just like it always did. There was nothing better than this, not even slapping the cuffs on an obnoxious SOB who deserved it.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the sign for the interstate flashed past, and veered up the onramp.
She’d made it, one more time.
Reaching down, she fiddled with the radio dial, tuning out the obnoxious “alternative” music and dialing in the classic country station, and settled in for the ten-minute drive to the yard.
Traffic was light, as one would expect on a sultry Sunday morning. The freeway crept up toward the interchange, lifting drivers twenty-five feet above hard-packed earth below.
Chris sang along with Merle Haggard and eyed the storm clouds looming ominously overhead. She might have just enough time to get back to her truck before the leading edge of the front hit. With any kind of luck she could have it garaged before any serious weather, namely hail, struck.
The first impact shocked her, sending shudders through the steering wheel and the frame of the car. The second sent her careening helplessly into the guardrail. She shot a lightning-quick glance to her right, taking in the big navy blue Lincoln that paced her, filing away the tinted windows that obscured the driver.
Danger! Her subconscious screamed at her, while her rational mind tried to pawn it off as a driver who’d had one too many mimosas with brunch.
Whoever the driver was, there was no way in hell she was sticking around to find out. She fought against the steering wheel, pulling it hard to the left, and gunned the accelerator, sliding in front of the sedan.
The screech of tearing metal shivered down her spine, as harsh as fingernails on a chalkboard. She took the Interstate 40 off ramp at eighty, almost airborne as she hit the soft corner clearly marked forty-five miles per hour.
Executing the merge seamlessly, she glanced in the rearview mirror, not terribly surprised to see the chromed grill of the behemoth filling it.
Damn. She knew picking up this skip was too easy, and now she had more than one problem. She could make the yard safely. Her years as a Texas Ranger had taught her a thing or two about defensive and offensive driving, but it was the damage to the car that worried her the most. Rod would have an awe-inspiring conniption over the trashed car.
She wove in and out of traffic, staying just ahead of the Lincoln until she was almost abreast of her exit. Shooting across all four lanes, she took the off ramp at sixty and barreled through the yield sign at the bottom of the hill.
Where was a cop when you needed one?
The chain-link fence of the yard, topped with wicked strands of barbed wire, loomed just ahead. Slamming on the brakes, she fishtailed into the parking lot, spitting up gravel, and hit the remote.
She slid under the rising metal with inches to spare, and then punched the remote again, breathing a sigh of relief as the door began its downward descent, settling into its steel-reinforced tracks with an authoritative thump, shielding her from her pursuers.
Chris thanked God that Rod was paranoid enough to spare no expense when it came to safeguarding his repossessions. It had saved her bacon, once again. There was no way anyone was getting into the garage unless they knew the combination to the cipher-locked side door or had a remote.
She sat in the Camry for a few long moments, letting the shakes overtake her. Sweat soaked her tee shirt and pearled on her forehead, sliding down her face. She pulled off her Oklahoma State ball cap, running trembling fingers through soaked bangs. She loved the adrenaline rush of the chase, but the aftermath always got to her.
Blowing out a breath, she pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed the dispatcher’s office. Karla, their seen-it-all and done-it-twice dispatcher, needed to know about her close call and the idiots who’d tailed her. You just never knew when a skip might get pushy, or even worse, violent.
Once again, Rod’s faith, or lack of it, in his fellow man had served them well. The dispatcher’s office was locked, protected by bulletproof glass. Just like the garage, the only way in was if someone let you in, or you knew the combination to the cipher lock.
The phone rang, and then rang again, with no answer.
Concerned, Chris opened the Camry’s door and stood on shaky legs. She walked to the “people door” and looked out the mesh-reinforced glass.
The Lincoln sat in front of the garage’s bay door, blocking her exit. Two exceedingly tough-looking men lounged against the hood, looking right at her, even though she knew they couldn’t see her through the smoked glass. Another sauntered toward the dispatcher’s office, making no pains at hurrying.
Warning bells chimed in her head. These guys didn’t act like normal skips. They were entirely too assured, too confident. What the hell was going on?
She was settling in to watch them, to figure out her options, when the unmistakable snick of the trunk popping open yanked her attention from the door.
The champagne-colored lid of the trunk swung up slowly, as if propelled by an unseen, ghostly hand.
Nick McClain hit the emergency release in the trunk of the Camry and held his breath. He didn’t know where in the hell he was, but knew it wasn’t where he needed to be. The way his luck had been running, he was probably right back in Tulsa, the victim of some vicious time-space warp.
To make a bad situation even worse, the demolition-derby pounding his body had taken in the last ten minutes had only compounded the beating he’d sustained less than an hour ago.
His whole body felt like one big bruise, although it looked worse than it actually was. He’d made sure his cries of pain had convinced his attackers of their skill in roughing up weenies.
Going into this assignment with guns blazing would have compromised everything they’d worked so hard for, but it would have been preferable to getting the shit beaten out of him.
And right now he was in a situation he liked even less, because he wasn’t in control. At least not yet.
He lifted his head cautiously and found himself staring into the biggest pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen. Definitely not the bruisers he’d expected, and almost wanted, in a perverse way, to see.
He allowed himself to wonder who she was, then immediately dismissed the thought.
Who she was didn’t matter, not in the big picture.
The men he was after didn’t use women, or at least they hadn’t in the past. Regardless of who she was, he knew what she was, without even thinking twice.
A problem. A complication he didn’t need on this job.
So how could he turn her to his advantage? Coming out of this situation in one piece had been looking pretty dicey up until this point. He was so deep undercover he didn’t even have backup. With that thought, he slid into character.
Sitting up with an exaggerated groan, Nick accepted the hand, strong-fingered and callused, that reached in to help him out of the trunk. A surge of something, hot and primal and dark, surged between him and his rescuer, and then her hand was gone. He heard the slither of metal on metal, but focused on getting his feet planted solidly on terra firma before he raised his eyes.
Damn, he missed his solid, anti-slip crepe-soled shoes. But in keeping with his cover, he’d been forced to wear freakin' tasseled loafers. He decided to blame the spark of electricity on the weather and his ride in the trunk, rather than the woman standing in front of him.
The owner of the big baby blues was tiny, but with the leanness of an athlete. An athlete that filled out her faded jeans and white tee shirt nicely. Quite nicely.
She held a tire iron in one hand, feet spread wide and solid as she looked at him contemplatively. In that moment, he knew he had to be losing it, because he’d never seen a woman look sexier, even if she was threatening him with bodily harm.
Long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, bangs splayed up almost ridiculously, held in the vertical position by the sweat that soaked her brow. A sweaty red horizontal line bisected her forehead, and for a moment he wondered what had put it there, and then realized it was probably from a ball cap. For some perverse reason, that amused him greatly. He fought to keep a grin from surfacing.
When she spoke, he almost lost his inner war. Her no-shit tone gave him no reason to doubt that, despite size, she could do whatever she wanted to with that tire iron.
“And who in the hell might you be?”
Maybe it was time to reconsider the ground rules.