Final Hour #3
May 26, 2020
Until the End
He’s strong. Fierce. Relentless.
And he may be her only chance of surviving the night.
Gray Box operative Castle Kinkade always gets the job done, no matter how tough the assignment. But when he agrees to protect white-hat hacker Kit Westcott, Castle’s loyalty is tested like never before. Trapped in the closest of quarters, protective instincts flaring, he can feel the ice surrounding his heart melt…and he knows he’d do anything to keep Kit safe.
Even defy the rules that shaped his life.
Castle is the last person Kit should confide in, let alone be attracted to, but he’s the only ally she has left. Under threat of imminent attack―and a chilling conspiracy that hits too close to home―Castle and Kit are forced to put their hearts and lives on the line…and stop at nothing to face the greatest danger the world has ever known.
Tuesday, February 26, 2:26 a.m. EST
Did you find out why they changed security protocol?” Jess asked, driving the armored truck along the dark, deserted road stretching before her like a giant black hole.
“Nope.” Roger stared out the passenger window. “I don’t care either.”
She tried ignoring the dread that always bubbled in her gut on Route 15. This road was the worst part of their quarterly drive making deliveries from Nexcellogen to Fort Detrick.
Her gaze flicked to the rearview mirror. All clear. She half expected to find the boogeyman chasing up behind them. So ridiculous. Nothing was different about this run—except the sidearms she and Roger both carried. A new security requirement that substantiated the unnerving rumors among the drivers about the nature of their cargo.
Roger tapped his fingers against the gun on his hip like he was itching to shoot something. “Be grateful Nexcellogen didn’t replace us with retired cops. And the hazardous duty pay they’re giving us means more money for our kids’ college funds.”
Jessica wasn’t turning her nose up at an extra thousand per delivery, but it didn’t whitewash the fact they now had to carry lethal weapons and hadn’t been told why.
“I heard Fort Detrick handles the biological defense program,” Jessica said. “There’ve been whispers we’re transporting engineered toxins.” The kind of whispers that fueled her nightmares and painted her and Roger as Satan’s little helpers.
“It’s none of our business.” Roger raised his palms. “We’re paid not to ask—”
Pop! Pop! The truck jerked and swerved. That was damn loud. It sounded like exploding balloons or gunshots, followed by a whiffling noise. She slowed down and tightened her grip on the wheel.
“What the hell?” Roger asked. “Did we blow a tire?”
“More than one. But how on earth—”
Her head snapped around at the growl of a roaring engine. Blinding light cleaved the darkness on her left—and on the right!—from both sides of the crossroads. Headlights bore down on them.
Oh God! She threw her arm up, shielding her eyes from the onrushing light.
It happened fast. Too fast.
Two vehicles bigger than theirs, traveling at twice their speed, T-boned them on either side. The thunderous crunch of metal smashing into metal swallowed her scream.
Her head whipped back, slamming on the headrest and then forward into the airbag. The grinding force of the crash jarred every bone in her body.
Everything inside her hurt like a son of a bitch.
The airbag deflated. Her vision was fuzzed, dizziness eating away at her brain.
Roger stirred. “Jess, you okay?”
She wiped the moisture leaking from her nose. Blood streaked her hand. “Yeah. You?”
The semis that had pinned them wheeled into reverse, pulling back from the armored truck in an agonized squeal of metal. Headlights flicked on in front of them from a third vehicle.
She squinted at the light, letting her eyes adjust. Two men appeared in the road, dressed in black, wearing ski masks and carrying guns.
Roger drew his weapon and aimed it at the windshield.
“Don’t shoot,” Jessica said. “They can’t get in.” The glass was bulletproof. Doors, shell, and cabin were reinforced. There were no external door locks. The onboard sensor had detected the accident on impact. Police and hopefully an ambulance were already dispatched. “We have to sit tight. The cops are on the way.”
“Bullshit! Nexcellogen gave us guns to protect ourselves!”
The taller of the two men made a throwing gesture, bringing his hand from his shoulder straight out toward them.
A spear-shaped instrument resembling a harpoon shot into the windshield, puncturing the glass. Long prongs ejected like steel fingers, hooking onto the inside of the windshield.
Bulletproof but not spike-proof. That’s not good.
“Christ! What do we do?” Roger yelled, the 9mm shaking in his hand.
Saying a quick prayer, Jessica fumbled for her cell phone. They needed help. Right now! But the cops were already on the way, so who to call?
“They’re going to get in!” Roger waved his gun wildly at the figures on the other side of the windshield. “Jess, we’ve got to do something.”
The engine of the vehicle in front of them revved. The safety glass splintered into a mass of spiderweb cracks around the steel prongs.
Jessica’s heart lurched. Panic swelled. She dialed 911, her fingers moving on instinct.
The windshield began to buckle, the safety film still holding together.
“Oh, fuck!” Roger opened fire.
Bullets ricocheted around the cabin. Searing heat bit into Jessica’s side, tearing through her belly while her ears rang from the percussion of the shots. She dropped the phone and gripped her stomach. Hot blood seeped through her fingers. “I’m…I’m hit.”
The windshield popped out of the frame. Something whizzed into the cabin and clattered to the footwell. A deafening bang and a startling flash battered the confined space.
The world turned stark white. A great roaring silence filled her ears. She grabbed her head, disoriented, her senses swimming, just as someone dragged her out of the truck cabin and onto the cold pavement.
Pain exploded in her side and nausea climbed up her throat.
The man pressed something to her wound and patted her cheek with a gloved hand. “I’m sorry.” Not a man. A woman’s voice rose over the fading high-pitched hum in Jessica’s ears.
The back doors of their armored vehicle were hoisted open. Two people climbed inside.
Jessica shifted her head, looking underneath the truck. Roger was facedown on the ground, his wrists cuffed behind his back. Another individual stood near him.
“You weren’t supposed to have guns, Jessica,” the woman said.
They knew her name. How?
The woman took Jessica’s weapon and tossed it. “No one was supposed to die.”
Die! “I c-can’t die.” She was only forty. Too young to die.
“Yankee?” the woman called to the tall, broad-shouldered man stepping out of the truck, a metal container in his hands. “Did we get it?”
“Smallpox, anthrax, and Z-1984,” Yankee said. “How bad is she?”
“The bullet punctured her liver. The blood is black.”
“Sierra, leave her,” Yankee said and turned. “Whiskey, Victor, blow the trucks.”
“The pain will end soon,” Sierra said. Then she was gone from sight.
That thought wasn’t reassuring. Pain was good. It meant Jess was still alive. Where were the cops and ambulance?
Explosions rocked the night. Twin fireballs burst from the Mack trucks, painting the darkness red and orange. Heat licked her face but failed to warm her body.
She was so cold. Bile flooded her mouth. A growing numbness crept up her side as fear choked her, twisting her heart.
Still no sirens. Hope fled. The bloodcurdling realization sank in that she was going to die on this godforsaken road…all because someone wanted to steal the deadliest biotech ever created.
Friday, October 4, 6:10 p.m. EDT
Katherine “Kit” Westcott slowed from her power walk down busy First Street, cursing the human parasite who was the bane of her existence. A brisk stroll from the loft while stewing over Jasper Ives had her heart literally seizing.
Kit passed the Mediterranean Grill that was pumping Greek music from the outdoor speakers. She stopped at the narrow entrance to the passageway running between the restaurant and the Lair, the building she leased in the edgy NoMa—north of Massachusetts Avenue—area for her hacker group, the Outliers.
Wheezing, she rested against the brick wall and fished her meds out from her messenger bag. Tan bottles rattled in the Ziploc bag. Kit fumbled over them, searching for the Nitrostat.
Damn. She must’ve forgotten it at home. Kit grabbed the next best thing, propranolol. Only a few tablets were left. All her newly refilled bottles were sitting on her bathroom counter.
She drew in deep breaths for a count of four. Slow and steady. Held for four. Exhaled the same. The square breathing technique had saved her more than once.
Stupid, weak heart.
A chilly breeze whipped up the hem of her flimsy sundress. She zipped her layered hoodie and vegan leather jacket, regretting her flirty ensemble.
The wheezing eased and her chest lightened. Kit shoved her meds in her bag.
Her gaze locked on the hulking silver SUV parked in front of her building. It belonged to Bravo, the shady client Jasper had found for the Outliers’ most recent contract. Anyone using an obvious alias and willing to pay two million for only two days of work was trouble in all caps.
She was an idiot for bringing Jasper around the Outliers. Her stupidity made her want to gag. This was her team, her family he was dragging into black-hat territory and putting at risk.
Jasper was the water that seeped into the fine cracks of a rock, froze, and expanded, shattering it to pieces. An ice wedge.
Kit turned down the passageway and headed for the back door where she could slip in and avoid a run-in with Bravo. The creepy guy gave her a distinct Danger, Will Robinson vibe.
She tapped the code into the digital lock, entered through the alley-side door, and climbed the long flight of stairs. Kit was itching to see Marty, Tim, Jeff, and Lincoln. The guys had been working around the clock and hadn’t had time to come home to the cushy five-bedroom loft they all shared, courtesy of her trust fund. At the top of the landing, she opened the door.
“Shut up and sit down!” The harsh male voice came from down the hall.
Kit caught the steel door before it slammed closed and let it ease shut with a slight click.
The double doors of the work center at the opposite end of the hall were ajar.
Through the gap, she saw Jasper standing beside his computer station, and she caught Bravo’s side profile. He had the lean, strong body of an athlete. Alabaster skin, cropped reddish-brown hair, glasses. Bravo wore jeans and a black bomber jacket.
“Why should we do anything else you say?” Jasper asked. “We’re all as good as dead.”
A chill raced down her spine and she stilled. What was happening?
Bravo shifted, putting his back to the corridor and Kit, and held up a gun with an attached silencer to Jasper’s forehead. A sheen of sweat glistened on Jasper’s stricken face.
Holy hell. Something awful was going down. She knew those bastards were no good, but she didn’t want to be right. Not like this.
Where were the others? Were they in the room? Hurt? Alive?
Kit considered sneaking back out, but she needed to know if the Outliers were still alive. She crept down the hall toward the work center on the balls of her feet, keeping the chunky heels of her boots from clattering against the tile. She peeked inside the room through the gap between the double doors.
Jeff, Marty, Lincoln, and Tim sat at their computers, trembling. Two other men had weapons trained on them.
Jasper looked her way. His frantic eyes locked on hers for only a split second and her heart squeezed. Then just as quickly, his gaze lowered.
Before Bravo had a chance to turn, Jasper kicked his chair and pressed his forehead against the silencer. “Shoot me, damn it, and get it over with.”
Blinding panic froze her muscles. It felt like an eternity before she risked taking a breath.
“There are worse things than a quick, painless death,” Bravo said, too distracted by Jasper’s outburst to notice her. “Sit.”
Jasper’s gaze darted to her for a nanosecond, then fastened back on the terrifying man with the gun before he lowered his head and did as he was told. “I wish I’d listened to Kit. Wish I could tell her I was sorry, to take the Sentry and make it right.”
“What’s the Sentry?” Bravo asked.
“I’ll tell you when I see you in hell,” Jasper said. “The bottom line is Kit was right.”
“Speaking of the lovely Kit, I’d hoped she’d join us. Where is she?”
Tension rocketed through Kit’s chest.
“Why?” Jasper sucked in a shuddering breath. “Why do you want Kit?”
“She’s a loose end,” Bravo said. “Tell me where Kit is, or I put a bullet in your groin.”
Two minutes ago, Kit wanted to be rid of Jasper so badly, she’d tasted the hatred. And the animosity was mutual. Now Jasper had to choose between giving her up or suffering a painful death.
No contest. She was screwed.
“Quick and painless. Or slow and agonizing. The way you die is your choice, Jasper.”
“Kit wanted to stay as far away from you guys as possible.” Jasper’s voice was shaky but had never sounded stronger. “I’m glad she doesn’t know what Tim and Lincoln did.”
Bravo pointed the gun at Jasper’s crotch. “Where is she?”
“At the loft,” Jasper said, “waiting for us to finish this job.”
She stifled a sob of regret for not giving Jasper more credit. Maybe this nightmare could’ve been avoided if she’d been able to talk the team out of working for these evil SOBs.
“Charlie, go to their apartment,” Bravo said. “Take care of her and make sure none of these whiz kids left any traces leading back to us. We’ll clean up here.”
The tall one with dark hair nodded, his back still turned to her. “On it.” He disappeared from her sight. The click of the front door shutting followed.
“She was always smarter than me,” Jasper said. “Told me you guys were a disaster waiting to happen, but I never would’ve guessed you were terrorists.”
What had the Outliers been working on? What were these men so desperate to cover up that they’d kill a bunch of hackers rather than pay for silence?
“This is your last warning.” Bravo pressed the muzzle of the silenced gun to Jasper’s temple. “Be quiet and finish the code for the scheduled broadcast of the video.”
“You’re going to kill people,” Jasper said, “with some Z-1984 shit—”
A pop split the air of the compact space like a thunderclap. Blood sprayed from the opposite side of Jasper’s head.
Kit slapped a palm over her mouth to kill the scream that nearly burst from her dry throat.
“No!” one of the guys gasped.
Jasper collapsed on his keyboard, his eyes cold and lifeless. Blood trickled down the side of his ghost-white face.
Bravo snagged Jasper’s collar and tossed his limp body out of the chair.
Her stomach convulsed. She wanted to vomit but locked her lips, straining to stay quiet.
“Delta, get him up,” Bravo said, gesturing to Tim.
A bearded man yanked hard on the back of Tim’s Trekkie For Life T-shirt, forcing one of Kit’s best friends up onto his feet. Tim’s eyes were wide with terror.
Delta shoved Tim toward Jasper’s workstation.
In twenty feet and ten seconds, she and the hallway would be in their direct eyeline.
Dread uncoiled in Kit’s chest. She scrambled backward and groped behind her for the door handle to the mainframe room.
Her fingers found the cool steel lever. She depressed the handle, ducking into the freezing room that was kept cold to protect the hardware, and let the door hang open.
She wasn’t a hide-and-cower kind of gal. Yet here she was, pressed against the wall, wishing it would envelop her. The horror of what was unfolding washed over her.
Tim, Jeff, Marty, Lincoln…were all going to die. Her best friends. Her family.
Her insides roiled. She had to get out of there without being seen.
“Finish the program,” Bravo said, his tone icy, detached.
“But the keyboard…” Tim said. “It’s covered in blood and…”
“Brain matter, bits of skull,” Bravo said. “Unless you want yours added to it, I suggest you finish what Jasper started.”
The click-clack of fingers flying across a keyboard cut through the low hum of the surrounding machinery.
She shivered down to the bone. The loft was a three-minute drive. Charlie would search the apartment and tell Bravo she wasn’t there. Bravo would look for her everywhere.
Oh God. God.
What was she going to do? How could she save the others? How could she save herself?
She stared at the wall of backup hard drives linked to the workstations in the Lair. Her gaze drifted over the rows of blinking lights, up the thin handles of the drives, locking on the name of the system at the top: Sentry.
Jasper’s words rang in her head. Take the Sentry. Make it right.
He was misguided and power hungry, but he was clever enough to feed her a message: grab the backup hard drives and find a way to make these bastards pay.
She scanned the serial numbers of the hard drives. Each one corresponded to dates and individual workstations. The archive was vast, cataloging everything they’d worked on over the past six years. If those killers were going to cover their tracks, they’d destroy the backups as well. The Outliers’ life’s work would be eradicated.
Taking precious minutes to pull all the hard drives was suicide. Besides, there was no way for her to carry them all. But she didn’t know who had worked on what for Bravo’s deranged crew or which workstation harbored the data mother lode.
Whatever horror-gram video they wanted scheduled for broadcast was on Jasper’s computer.
Kit found the hard drive linked to Jasper’s station. It was a real-time mirror backup. If Tim wasn’t done loading the encrypted video, it wouldn’t save, and pulling it would send a pop-up alert. She needed to take Jasper’s hard drive last.
Whatever those terrorists wanted, the work had been divided between five hackers and multiple workstations. Think. Come on. Think.
Lincoln was brilliant, kind, a gentle spirit. A natural who found answers for the most complicated problems. Anything significant would have been given to him to execute.
She found Lincoln’s row.
Flipping the switch, she powered his current drive down and pulled it from the mainframe. Her gaze bounced to the doorway. It was a toss-up between Marty, Tim, and Jeff.
I’m glad she doesn’t know what Tim and Lincoln did, Jasper had said.
Another clue. She chose Tim’s drive and stuffed both in her bag.
The pop of gunfire pierced the drone from the air conditioner, echoing in the pit of her stomach. The gun had a silencer, but the sound was sharp, louder than expected.
She ached to do something, anything to protect the last people in the world she loved. But there wasn’t a damn thing she could do. Not against three men with guns.
Take the drives and get out. She hustled to Jasper’s backups and found the hard drive she needed and shoved it in her satchel.
Another gunshot snapped in the air. They were executing everyone. The familiar ache of loss cut so deep that her soul bled. But there was no time to grieve. She had to move.
Kit peeked around the threshold and glimpsed Tim and Marty. Both dead.
Instead of having qualms about guns, she wished she had an Uzi in her bag.
Bravo and the other man moved out of her sight.
She slipped into the hall, glancing over her shoulder, and hurried toward the exit. Blood pounded in her ears as she zipped past the break room. The door was almost within reach.
Looking back again, she was nearly breathless with dread. Her stomach was a block of ice, but she kept going.
At the door, she pressed the bar handle down gradually, her hands, arms, entire body quaking with the effort. Desperation made her ache to burst across the threshold, but she had to be careful not to make any noise. With a soft click, she cracked the door open and glanced back.
No one was coming.
She ducked into the stairwell. As she let the door close gently, there was the distinct clap of two more gunshots. Something inside her shattered.
They were all dead. Massacred.
Tears hazed her vision, but she beat down the raging sorrow.
She ran to the stairs. Keeping her heels from touching the steps, she descended in silence. She pushed herself to hurry, faster and faster, trying not send her pulse soaring into triple time.
Her legs shook, knees turning to water as if they might buckle.
Kit risked a glance at the door behind her and lost her footing. Her ankle twisted, throwing off her balance.
In a whoosh, she slid down the steps. Her grip on the handrail was gone.
Pain blasted in her tailbone and head in the startling descent. She bit her lip, silencing the scream tearing up her chest as flesh and bone crashed against galvanized steel.
She snagged the railing and jerked to a halt near the bottom floor.
Oh God, had they heard? The noise had been earsplitting. Her gaze shot up to the door.
Terror held her captive, paralyzing her.
Move. You have to move!
Struggling to control her breathing, she used the railing to hoist herself up. Agony pounded everywhere. She stumbled down the last two steps and out the door.
Kit’s chest tightened, like a fist had seized her heart. Breath was snatched from her lungs. She staggered through the side alley and dug in her satchel for her meds.
Peeling open the Ziploc, she fumbled for her propranolol. White light dappled her eyesight, and she grew dizzy. She leaned against the overflowing dumpster behind the Grill.
She popped open the tan bottle and shook a pill into her palm. Crushing pain flared in her chest and her legs locked. She fell into the ripe pile of bagged garbage tucked in the corner pocket between the side of the dumpster and back of the restaurant. Throwing the small white pill under her tongue, she rested against the rancid mound of rubbish and battled for air.
On the other side of the dumpster, a door squeaked open. Metal slammed against brick. Footsteps pounded into the alley and down toward First Street.
The razor-like shards spearing her breastbone lightened. The tightness eased as the medication started to take effect, dilating her coronary arteries.
Heavy footsteps echoed again, coming back toward the alley.
She rolled onto her side and hauled bags of trash on top of herself. The footfalls drew closer. She curled into a ball, the smallest fetal position.
The footfalls stopped near the dumpster. She squeezed her lips together until her jaw hurt, channeling every shred of willpower not to move. Only taking the shallowest breaths, she was petrified to disturb the bags concealing her.
The man stepped around the dumpster, shoes striking the pavement with a dull clunk.
Foul air pressed in. Cool, gelatinous liquid trickled over her leg, tickling and taunting. But she stayed still as stone.
He kicked the dumpster. The ting of metal vibrated through her. Then the scuffle of shoes moved away. Footsteps thudded down the narrow alley. Quick. Heavy. The sound grew fainter.
Kit waited, listening for nearby movement. Each terrifying second ticked through her. Finally, she knocked the reeking bags off her and palmed her way up the wall.
Her rib cage loosened, her sternum relaxing with anxious breaths.
Three blocks to the NoMa–Gallaudet U Metro station, but they might look for her there. She’d have to push seven blocks to Union Station. The massive transportation center housed DC’s busiest Metro station, hubs for commuter rail lines, Amtrak, and Greyhound, and bristled round-the-clock with a sea of traffic. There, she could disappear.
Kit pushed off the wall and hurried down the alley. Her throat clogged with grief, pain, and a rage the likes of which she’d never known.
No matter what, she’d get justice for the Outliers. Some way, somehow, she’d stop whatever Bravo had in the works and see his crew behind bars or dead.
So help her God, even if she had to die trying.