Fugitive Heroes: Topaz Unit #1
October 26, 2021
Rogue Christmas Operation
He’ll sacrifice his safety for a woman who could completely upend his Christmas.
After Gage Graham saves her from drowning, Hope Fischer revives, determined to learn the truth about her sister’s death. All she has to do is infiltrate a mysterious closed Virginia town and discover why the attractive—but secretive—Gage feels compelled to help her. Can she trust him? Will he risk being discovered by his former employer, the CIA, for a woman he just met? Neither will matter if a killer succeeds.
Her rental car slid across the ice and swerved. Hope gripped the steering wheel tighter, regaining control.
The night was pitch-black. Storm clouds that threatened to unleash more freezing rain blocked out the moon. To her right, beyond the darkness, was a steep slope that led straight to Goode Mountain Lake. No streetlamps or guardrails were along the side of this godforsaken road—the only road—that led in and out of the insulated town of Benediction, Virginia. There were only the bright lights from the SUV behind her.
High beams blared into her sedan. She glanced up at the rearview mirror. The light reflected was blinding.
Raising a palm to shield her eyes, she squinted against the harsh glare, but her car swerved once again. Hope put both hands back on the wheel as her heart drummed faster.
The dark two-lane road was slicker than she’d anticipated tonight from the rain earlier and the dropping temperature. She needed to slow down, but the driver behind her picked up speed, riding her bumper.
Misgivings stirred in her gut, crawling through her like worms beneath her skin, but she ignored them. She had to do this. For her sister, Faith. For her own peace of mind. She had to keep going until she made it inside Benediction, got answers about Faith’s death.
No matter the cost.
Steeling her nerves, Hope tapped the accelerator. Just enough to get some distance between her and the SUV.
Nothing was going to stop her.
Raindrops hit the windshield and pounded the roof in a frenetic beat, ratcheting up her tension. She winced as she turned on the wipers. The downpour only obscured her visibility and made the road even more treacherous.
Wiper blades whisked aside the rain from the windshield, giving her a spotty view.
Headlights from an oncoming vehicle ahead pierced the darkness. A car had left Benediction. In the distance, she barely made out the lights from the lampposts marking the electric security fence surrounding the restricted town.
She checked the rearview mirror.
The SUV roared up behind her, too close on her tail. She touched the brakes to back him off, but the vehicle tapped her bumper.
She jolted forward in the seat, holding tight onto the steering wheel. Heart racing, she accelerated. A little farther and she’d make it.
The rain picked up, the torrent battering the car. Anything past sixty feet was erased by the deluge. Headlights from the vehicle that had left Benediction were no longer visible.
The SUV rammed her again. The steering wheel jerked in her hand as the back end of her car fishtailed. She forced herself not to struggle against it. Steering in the opposite direction would only make things worse.
Hope flicked a glance at the hazard button on her dash. She could hit it, slow down, stop the car and turn back to Goode, the neighboring town. Turn away from Benediction. Give up her search for the truth.
She’d been warned. That’s what everyone wanted. For her to leave it all alone. To go back to California and bury her head in the sand.
But then a murderer would go free.
She had failed her sister once. Not again. She swallowed past the ball of anxiety in her throat. You can do this.
The SUV zoomed up alongside her, sending a new wave of fear crashing through her. What was he doing?
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the SUV swerved sharply. The front end slammed into her side of the car, propelling it into a wild slide toward the edge.
Hope panicked, hitting the brakes. The wheels locked. Her vehicle lost traction and went into a skid. Everything was happening so fast. Too fast.
Spinning out of control, her car missed a large tree and slid over the edge of the slope. A high-pitched cry escaped her lips. Dirt and rocks spit up. She tried to straighten the steering wheel and pumped the brakes. Her car fishtailed, clipped a tree and went airborne.
The sedan flipped. Rolled end over end down the gradient. Metal crunched and groaned around her.
Hope’s seat belt jerked hard across her body, cutting off her oxygen for a second.
The airbag deployed like a hot fist, knocking her head back against the seat. Dust and chemicals saturated the air.
Her lungs seized as a scream lodged in her throat.
The car slammed to a stop with the impact of crashing into a brick wall. Her skull smashed into something hard.
A riot of pain flared…everywhere. In her head, chest, bones—even her teeth hurt.
Her vision blurred. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t see past the airbag, which was the size of a large beach ball in her face.
Hope pushed on the light fabric, and the airbag deflated. Coughing, she wiped at the wetness coming from her nose with the back of her hand. Blood. Her nose was bleeding.
She switched on the interior light and pushed the deflated airbag out of her way.
The headlights were still on.
The car was in the lake. Beneath the water, or at least half of it. The weight of the engine pitched the front end forward, so that the car was almost pointing straight down. She looked back at the rear window. Rain and darkness.
Water was starting to seep inside the vehicle. The foot well was filling up as water rushed in. Faster and faster.
Hope pressed the button to release the seat belt. But nothing happened. It was stuck, jammed tight. She yanked on the belt, trying again, tugging and pushing. Praying.
Oh, God. She was trapped.
Icy water rose past her hips to her waist. Shockingly cold. Her toes were already growing numb, and she was shivering. She had to get out. Now!
Her purse floated up on the passenger’s side. If she reached it, got to the Swiss Army knife inside, she could cut herself free.
She extended her hand in the water. Her bag was inches from her fingertips. She stretched out as much as she could, straining her arm muscles. A pang wrenched through her chest, her eyes tearing at the intense pain, but she didn’t stop. She kept reaching for her purse. Almost had it. The bag was so close—she needed to stretch a hair farther, but the seat belt had her pinned.
The car shifted, still moving. Down and down it sank. The car tipped to the side, and water carried her purse away, out of reach.
No, no, no. It’s not supposed to happen like this.
Pressure built in her ears, making her head pound. The headlights flickered and died. Then the interior light blinked off. Everything went black.
I’m going to die. In this cold, dark lake without ever learning the truth.
This was a mistake.
She screamed, venting her grief and rage, until her lungs were empty.
Faith. You deserve justice.
Even if the seat belt was useless, Hope had to try. She got back to work on getting the hell out of there. With her last breath she’d fight to get free.
Tugging harder, she pushed on the seat-belt release again as a surge of water wrapped its icy arms around her chest.
“What in the hell?” Gage Graham said aloud to himself, slowing down his truck.
An SUV had just run a car off the road right in front of him, wheeled a U-turn, and the driver was hightailing it from the scene.
In his thirty years, he’d seen a lot of insane stuff, most of it horrible, but nothing quite so bizarre.
Gage tried to make out the license plate number of the SUV, but it was impossible in the dark with the raging storm.
It burned him to the bone to let such a vicious piece of work get away, but he didn’t have much choice. The driver of the sedan might be hurt or worse.
He pulled to the opposite side of the road and stopped at an angle with his headlights pointed in the area where the car had gone over the side. Switching on his high beams, the lights illuminated the area well enough for him to get a decent look at the situation.
The car had gone into Goode Mountain Lake. A fifteen-thousand-acre reservoir. The whole front end was submerged, and the rest was quickly sinking. It’d only take minutes, maybe five, tops, for the entire car to fill up with water. By his count, more than sixty seconds had already lapsed since the car went off the road.
Calling 911 was pointless. Goode was twenty-five miles away, and first responders wouldn’t make it in time.
As for the residents of Benediction, they didn’t respond to anything outside its gates. One of the many iron-clad rules. Most of the road was considered no-man’s land. Luckily for the driver of the car in the lake, he wasn’t a typical inhabitant and believed if a rule couldn’t be broken, there was usually a way to bend it.
Gage pulled his Sig Sauer P220 from the ankle holster and stowed it in the glove box. After switching on his hazard lights, he jumped out of the car.
Icy-cold rain pelted down on him like tiny daggers, soaking most of his clothes. He only had on a down puffer vest over his turtleneck, since he hadn’t planned on being exposed to the elements. The weather had turned from bad to nasty with the inbound winter storm that was going to drop an estimated foot of snow tomorrow. The temperature had already dipped into the thirties, but it wasn’t below freezing yet.
He hustled around to the back and popped open the door to the under-bed storage compartment. Fished out a flare from his emergency roadside kit.
The last thing he needed was a passerby sideswiping his truck, exacerbating the situation, because they didn’t see his hazard lights until it was too late.
Gusts of wet wind lashed his face and stung his eyes, but he’d been through much worse. This paled in comparison to what he’d endured in the CIA. Besides, he’d take cold rain over sand in his eyes any day.
With the flare lit, he tossed it a few feet away in the direction of oncoming traffic. He grabbed the flashlight—a floating, waterproof one that was impact resistant and could be used as a weapon in a pinch. He slammed the trunk closed and took off for the embankment.
A patch of ice had him slipping on the road but didn’t take him down thanks to the traction on the soles of his thermo tactical boots. He made his way along the slope. Moved quickly but carefully over the slick grass.
There wasn’t a second to lose. The smashed-in trunk of the sedan slipped underwater.
He dived into the lake.
Although he’d braced himself for the cold, the brutal chill of the water was startling. A jolt of pain ripped through his whole body, but he didn’t stop swimming.
Diving deeper, he swam to the driver’s door and shone his flashlight inside.
A woman was trapped behind the steering wheel. She gasped for her last breath of air as the water inside the car overtook her completely, and then she was under.
She moved her head, her dark hair flowing in the water, and looked at him. Terrified, pretty and about to drown if he didn’t get her out. She pointed to her seat belt and yanked at it.
The belt was stuck.
Gage tried the door handle. Locked. He tapped the window, gesturing for her to unlock it.
She glanced down and hit the button. The lock disengaged, and he pulled on the handle as she pushed. But it didn’t budge.
Doors didn’t jam when submerged, but they became very heavy due to the pressure exerted by the water pushing it toward the car. It’d be nearly impossible to open until the car completely filled with water. Then the pressure would be in equilibrium, but she didn’t have that kind of time to wait.
Gage slammed the hard case of the flashlight against the window. He swung again, and the glass held. Blunt force wouldn’t work.
Too bad she hadn’t rolled down the window before the car had lost power. The windshield was a spiderweb of cracks. From the inside of the car, it could be kicked out. Trying to do the reverse, from the outside in, wouldn’t work.
He was almost out of air. His lungs strained for oxygen.
Gage pointed to his chest and then up.
She pressed her palms to the glass. Her eyes were wide with panic as she shook her head. For him not to go? That she couldn’t hold her breath for a minute longer?
Either way, it’d serve no one if they both drowned. Still, something in his chest squeezed at what he had to do next.
He had to leave her.
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