Exchange of Fire Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, Mexico

Wraith placed her eye next to the rifle’s scope. With her left hand, she activated her throat mic and whispered, “Cappy, two guards talking by the front entrance smoking cigarettes.”

Check,” a tinny male voice said in her earpiece. “Talon and Romeo are almost in position.”

Wraith lifted her head slightly and scanned the scene with her own eyes. From her vantage point on top of this shithole of a building, life in the Mexican village seemed to go on as usual. The sun beat down in the late afternoon sky while a couple of children played with a partially deflated soccer ball between rusted trucks parked on the dirt road. Poverty ran rampant throughout the area, but she didn’t feel sorry for the villagers. They knew what went on inside the squat cement building and turned a blind eye anyway. She didn’t see any of her teammates, but really didn’t expect to either.

Magician’s beacon shows her vitals are still registering,” Cappy announced from his position high enough in the mountains surrounding the town to see the entire scenario.

Wraith let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding as a series of clicks sounded in her ear. By the “applause” from Talon’s and Romeo’s throat mics, they seemed just as relieved as she was to hear their teammate was still alive.

The scent of fried onions, meat, and something doughy lingered in the air, making her empty stomach rumble. Pushing the discomfort aside, Wraith used her scope to scan the area. Men in sweat-stained T-shirts and jeans lounged on rickety chairs outside ramshackle structures up and down the street, their hats lazily tilted to shade them from the sun, but she wasn’t fooled. They were all lookouts—not that they were very good at it. Anyone with half a brain could deduce the men were more preoccupied with watching the road than relaxing in the sun. Giant eighties-era walkie-talkies clipped to their belts also didn’t help them blend in.

The two men on the rooftops were another matter. They made no secret about who they were as they toted their bulky rifle and shotgun while scanning the area. They were positioned at the opposite ends of the village (not a great distance when the town basically consisted of ten buildings) and were more vigilant.

At go time, it was her job to take them out first.

She resisted swiping away the lines of sweat rolling down her face and ultimately pooling between her breasts. Blech. Lying in a puddle of perspiration definitely sucked, but she had long ago seasoned herself to deal with it.

After the team had set up their encampment in the mountains two days ago, she had spent the first day with her spotting scope, studying the guards’ patterns and configuring how she’d remain hidden among them. Camouflaging her custom-made Remington M24E1/XM2010 sniper rifle hadn’t been difficult. Scaling the wall with the already constructed, fifteen-pound weapon while staying concealed proved more of a challenge. The only way she had managed it was to wake up at three thirty a.m. and climb the back wall while the rooftop rangos were gone and the few guards present were at their laziest—most likely lulled into a false sense of security by the repetition of nothing happening day in, day out. Surprise!

A rare breeze flitted over the tarp covering the construction supplies she now hid beneath. Taking advantage of the snapping plastic sound, she shifted her leg muscles to ease a cramp. Luckily the building’s edge sported a ledge, giving her rifle a place to rest while helping her to remain hidden. Wraith blinked and inhaled. The restless nap she had managed to catch since settling in this spot was beginning to wear off.

Heads up, people, we’ve got movement,” Cappy announced, his tinny voice tight in her earpiece. “Truck coming in from the east. Romeo, confirm if this is our delivery.”

Three clicks. Romeo’s silent way of acknowledging the order.

While Wraith waited for her teammate to respond, she swept her scope over the windows of the cement building again. They weren’t the cleanest panes of glass, but she could see enough to find the warehouse floor was still empty. If their intel was right, it wouldn’t remain that way for long. Another shipment of girls was due to arrive, and they had to be “processed.”

For six months they had been trying to take this ring down. Only after Magician allowed herself to be captured were they able to follow the movements from Ohio to this godforsaken place—Wraith and the rest of the team barely ate or slept, knowing Magician relied on them to get her out safely. Bile burned in the back of Wraith’s throat at the thought of what Magician went through, what she sacrificed so they could end this sex-slave ring for good. Just imagining these creeps stripping her teammate and friend to “inventory” her features for their sick catalog inflamed her.

Car coming in from the west,” Cappy announced. “Sanchez is in the car. Repeat. Sanchez is in the car.”

Wraith’s adrenaline spiked. One half of the ruling heads of the Osvaldo Cartel had finally arrived. Guess his brother decided to stay behind in Miami. Both were equally responsible for building the sex-slavery ring into a mini empire.

Delivery confirmed,” Romeo whispered. “It’s the same pair who took Magician.”

Wraith grinned. Those sons of bitches didn’t realize they were now on borrowed time.

Remember the mission is to capture Sanchez, Romeo,” Cappy warned, but Wraith could hear his smile. “Don’t take too long sending the abductors back to Hell.”

Two clicks—meaning yes. Wraith inwardly chuckled. Romeo got the message, but it would remain to be seen if he heeded it or worked off his rage on the men who dared touch his partner.

Talon, you have a location on Magician yet?” Cappy asked.

Silence.

Wraith followed the truck’s progress as it meandered up the street until it finally stopped with its back end lined up to the front door.

Talon,” Cappy barked. “Running out of time. Report.”

Sorry,” Talon’s gruff voice whispered. “Had to dispense a nosy guard.”

He hidden?”

Check,” Talon responded, affronted. “Magician’s being held in the basement. Hold on.”

Ten tense seconds later: “I’m back. Another guard down.”

A shiver stole down Wraith’s spine. Talon’s codename was born from his deadly skill with a knife. What that man could do with a blade was awesome, if not downright scary.

She’s locked in a cage with three other women, and I use that term loosely. Some of them appear to be as young as fourteen.”

Bastards,” Romeo cut in.

Yeah. I counted three cages, but only two are filled.”

A Mercedes-Benz parked in front of the truck. The car rocked heavily as the driver clambered to get out. He was a hulk of a man who was all fat, no muscle, and Sanchez’s nephew.

The doughboy’s beady eyes began sweeping the area, and Wraith stilled. When his gaze slid over her without a flicker, she almost laughed. Man, he sucked big-time in discovering potential nooks and threats for surveillance.

Sounds like the third cage is reserved for this shipment,” Cappy replied. “Heads up, Talon, on what’s happening outside. Sanchez’s nephew has parked in front of the delivery truck and is now talking to Sanchez through a rolled-down window in the back.”

Check.”

I’d estimate you have only minutes to take care of the guards and locate the best exit for the victims,” Cappy continued. “You have a chance to assess their condition yet?”

Talon audibly swallowed. Cold anger filled his voice as he replied, “First look: It’s bad. Some of these girls have been beaten to the point of broken bones.”

Ice shot through Wraith’s veins.

Magician?” Romeo asked, his voice a mixture of fear and fury.

One sec.”

Movement below caught Wraith’s attention. The delivery driver jumped down from the front cab of his truck and headed toward the back. Doughboy stopped his worthless surveillance long enough to open the back door of the Mercedes for his uncle to climb out.

Criminy, Sanchez was ugly. No amount of suave clothes could help him either—though he tried. Giorgio Armani should demand his suit back and give the bastard a full refund.

Two more guards down,” Talon calmly announced.

Magician?” Romeo asked again tightly.

Fuck,” Talon muttered. “She’s alive, but she’s been beaten. Cappy, be prepared with the duffel. All of the women have been kept naked and they’re dirty as hell.”

Check.”

Bastards, Wraith silently snarled. Damn them all to hell.

A door sliding up metal tracks cut into her visions of ripping Sanchez’s balls off. “Driver opening the back,”Wraith murmured.

That means it’s go time, people,” Cappy said, tension tingeing his voice. “Just like we planned. Meet you at the rally point.”

Wraith readjusted her scope. Both rooftop sentinels appeared more focused on the young girls climbing out of the truck than watching the area. Idiots. Made her job much easier. She exhaled and aimed for the farthest guard. As soon as he stepped back from the edge, she lined his head in her crosshairs and pulled the trigger. A soft cough emitted from her suppressed rifle seconds before the man jerked back and flopped to the roof. Before the other guard had a chance to react, she had him in her sights and took him out.

Thwump. His body dropped hard onto the concrete roof.

Two of the guards sitting nearby looked up.

Shit. The bastard’s foot hung over the edge.

The guards jerked to their feet and stepped into the street for a better view.

“Be advised. Clusterfuck warning,” Wraith announced. “Rooftop guard landed wrong. Two on the ground now alert. Kids still playing at opposite end of street out of their line of sight.”

Check,” Romeo answered. “I’ve got the guards.”

Thirty feet down, a shadow separated from the rest. It crept along the edge of the building and Romeo emerged into the sunlight right in front of the guards. One started to shout, but Romeo gripped him around the neck and twisted. He then raised his silenced Glock and shot the second guard in the chest. Romeo dragged the second man out of the street and dropped him in the shadows on top of the other.

By this time, the girls had been herded from the back of the truck into the warehouse. Sanchez stood inside along the perimeter with his finger tapping his chin while the delivery men followed the girls inside. Doughboy yelled at the driver and the delivery man yelled a derogatory comment back, causing his partner to laugh uproariously.

Two of the girls, who couldn’t be older than fourteen, cowered in the center, hugging each other. Another girl, about eighteen, sported a bruise on her cheek, while the fourth, about mid-twenties, stood tall in torn clothes.

Romeo slid back into the shadows and continued toward the front entrance.

An alarmed shout echoed off the buildings.

All the men pretending to have a siesta jumped to their feet. The kids playing soccer scrambled, disappearing into the closest alley, while their ball rolled unbidden down the street.

Romeo engaged the two guards at the front entrance while more raced his way. Wraith picked off as many as she could in between keeping her eye on Sanchez inside. Bullets from the guards’ pistols pinged off the cement around her, but she wasn’t worried. She was buried deep enough, and their aim wasn’t worth shit at their distance.

Doughboy, who had been preoccupied with something in the warehouse’s corner, wrestled to get his gun free from his quadruple-extra-large shirt covering the holster. The deliverymen raced outside, right into Romeo’s waiting arms. Her teammate seemed to be having a lot of fun working off his anger on the two men while using them to fend off the other guards.

The young girls were screaming while the older ones tried to form a barrier in front of them. Sanchez slinked toward them. Wraith calmed her heavy breathing and kept her scope on the bastard. The second she had a shot, she was taking it. Consequences be damned. Her superiors could kiss her ass. He could not be allowed to escape capture again.

She blocked out everything and focused on the weasel. The fighting in the street receded, and she could faintly hear a voice in her ear yelling for her to back down. Whatever. She tuned it all out, slowed her heart and regulated her breaths.

Sanchez appeared aware of the windows by the way he held his body, not allowing her a shot. Damn him. He crept closer to the girls. The oldest captive noticed him first and kicked out. Sanchez easily caught her foot and yanked it to him. The girl lost her balance and landed on the concrete, her head bobbing twice from the impact. One of the younger girls wrapped her arms around the eighteen- year-old while the other stood frozen with her screams continuously echoing off the walls. Sanchez grinned and moved forward.

Exposure! Wraith led him with the rifle and fired. Time slowed as the pffft sounded and the gun gently rocked back into her shoulder. Between one blink and the next her world went from mission to horror. She never factored in Doughboy. In his haste to get to his uncle, the stupid bastard knocked into the group of girls. They stumbled and pushed the screaming girl forward . . . straight into the path of her bullet. The bullet meant for a monster not an innocent, a victim.

Wraith would never forget the look of terror and confusion on the little girl’s face as her small body jerked back into Sanchez. Blood burst across her chest as she knocked the mastermind down.

Chaos ensued, but Wraith shut down. Not one thing happening below registered in her brain.

Chapter 2

Two Weeks Later—Puebla, Mexico

Wraith sat in the humid two-bedroom apartment her team dubbed Command Central, frozen by the vision complete with soundtrack of horrified screams quickly replacing the sound of the bullet ejecting from her rifle. The fourteen-year-old’s face morphed from terror to shock as she crumpled to the floor. Wraith flinched and jolted herself out of the nightmare. She dashed away the tracks of tears lining her cheeks and stroked the pendant hanging from the chain of her necklace. The interlocking spiral of the three dragon heads symbolized strength, courage, and wisdom. Everything she and her team believed in, which is why they all wore matching necklaces.

Feeling a modicum of calm, she watched a fly buzz between a tarnished lamp and the window. Bang. The fly smashed its body against the glass, then back to the lamp for another circuit. Bang. Bang. Stupid thing just didn’t learn it couldn’t escape by bashing its head against the pane.

“Buddy, you need a plan,” she said softly. “No one’s going to let you out unless you make it happen yourself.”

The front door opened, and Wraith tore her gaze away from the fly’s hopeless plight to catch Romeo’s eyes. He shut the door with a definitive click and reengaged the locks. She used one of the many subscription plea cards to mark her place in the magazine on her lap and rolled it up. Grasping her empty water bottle, she followed her teammate into the kitchen.

Romeo yanked his sweat-soaked shirt over his head and dropped it on the rung of the cheap chair. The broad expanse of his bare back stretched as he leaned his body into the wide open refrigerator and sighed.

Even though her teammate’s too-fine physique did nothing for her libido, she rested her hip against the sink and appreciated the view. “Since you’re in there, can you grab me another water?”

Romeo stayed put another few seconds before straightening with two bottles in his hands. “Damn, it’s humid out there. I can actually feel the moisture clogging my lungs each time I take a breath.”

“You’re such a weakling. It may be humid, but overall, this has to be the most pleasant climate known to man. I don’t think it’s even made it to seventy-five degrees yet.”

“True, but I survive best in the cold, baby. You know that.” He downed a whole bottle, then opened the one she had assumed was hers. “Cappy and Talon still out scouting?”

“Yeah. You’re the first back. Magician’s still resting in our room.”

The plastic crinkled under Romeo’s tightening hand. His pupils flashed, and a blip of fury crossed over his godlike face, then disappeared as if it never happened.

Wraith waited him out, watching him chug the second bottle and toss it in the trash with the other.

He drew in a deep breath and speared her with his light brown eyes. “And you? How’re you doing? Because I know you sure as hell ain’t sleeping.”

Wraith shrugged. “What do you want me to say? That little girl’s last moment still haunts me. The look on her face as my bullet took her life is something I’ll never forget.”

Romeo moved into her space and rubbed his hands on her upper arms. “No. I wouldn’t expect you to forget, but you have to forgive yourself, Wraith. We got Sanchez.”

No thanks to me. The compassion overtaking his features physically hurt her. He asked for the impossible. She could never forgive herself. That little girl had needed a savior, not the grim reaper. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. Damn it. She refused to break down; not when she was so close to her endgame. Wraith cleared her throat and blinked the tears into submission. “How was your venture out today?”

Romeo held her gaze a moment longer before he stepped back with a heavy sigh, dropping his arms. “It was successful.”

Wraith’s heart leapt.

“I wish you’d let me in.” Romeo swiped his fingers through his damp wavy brown hair. “Whatever you’re up to, I can help. Especially when it involves aging explosives.”

Wraith shook her head, her stomach tightening. “No. I know you’re our blow-shit-up expert, but you swore you wouldn’t ask any questions or interfere.”

Frustration filled his face. “Damn it, Wraith. What do you expect me to do? Hand you that large of a supply with a blank smile?”

“Yes. I’ve had training.” She crossed her arms. “I know what I’m doing. If I had the connections, I’d have done this myself.”

The muscle in Romeo’s jaw ticked.

Wraith stepped forward and poked him in his muscular chest. “Remember, you promised. I’m asking you to back off and keep your oath. Not a word to anyone—that includes the rest of the team. This whole conversation never happened. You were only out surveying the area where our intel states Sanchez’s brother, Carlos, is supposed to meet a new slave-supplier. Got it?”

His brown eyes searched hers.

She kept her face carefully blank.

“Urban myth, Wraith. You remember that.”

Not blank enough, I guess. Wraith lifted her chin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Romeo’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, yes you do. Just because no one’s successfully retired from SweetBriar Group in the last five years doesn’t mean you have to do something drastic. It’s an urban myth. You’ve got other choices.”

Wraith stayed silent. She had first met the other members of the team five years ago, after being recruited out of the FBI training program to work for SBG. The instant bond she had formed with the others helped get her through the rigorous training and sniper school with an environmental company that was really a front for a mercenary-style agency. With SBG’s freedom to maneuver around the red tape, the government became their biggest client. They even had the unofficial slogan of “Black Ops Without the Red Tape.” How pompous was that?

But urban myth or not, she didn’t trust SBG and wasn’t taking any chances.

He tapped a finger against his hip.

Don’t push. Please, don’t push.

Romeo’s fierce expression cleared and he opened his arms, enfolding her into a large hug. She closed her eyes and breathed in his familiar scent. Damn him for making this so hard. This man was closer than a brother to her, a part of a team who were as much an extension of her as her right arm. To be without even one of them was hard to imagine, but they shouldn’t have to live with her pain, her failure anymore. She no longer had faith in her abilities and refused to jeopardize their safety on the next mission.

He placed a light kiss on top of her head, then whispered, “Love you, Wraith. You’re family to me.”

She painfully swallowed a lump in her throat. Oh, God. Don’t lose it now. Stay strong!

Romeo stepped back, his expression all business, as if he hadn’t ripped her heart out and served it on a guilt platter.

“I’ve got the stuff you wanted stashed,” he announced abruptly. Then proceeded to describe in detail where to find everything and even refreshed her memory on how the explosives successfully worked. The entire time, she kept threatening her eyes and throat with violence if they didn’t stop clogging. Criminy, she was going to miss this man.

“Can you tell everyone I went out to clear my head and scout the area for the best shot?” Wraith rushed to say. She needed to get out of here before she changed her mind. “I’m taking my rifle with me and will already be in position when you guys show up.” She made it to the edge of the kitchen, then turned. “Go ahead and report whatever you see like normal tonight.”

“As you wish.”

She tightened her grip on the magazine and walked out.

***

Wraith picked up her spotting scope, needing to see more of the scene than her narrowed focus through the rifle would show. The sickly yellow bulbs in the warehouse before her weren’t worth the energy they sucked. Two men stood in the center of the empty room looking jaundiced under the light with a smattering of bodyguards poised loosely on either side.

“Carlos and the prospective supplier are still chatting,” Wraith reported into her throat mic. “One is texting while the other appears to be scrolling through his phone.”

Check,” Cappy responded into her earpiece. “Magician, any more intel on the supplier yet?”

Wraith’s heart constricted at the thought of her teammate locked securely in the van a few blocks away. Magician had yet to describe what she’d gone through, but her condition after the rescue . . . To say it wasn’t pretty would be a major understatement. But she refused to stay behind in Command Central.

Uh, Cappy,” Romeo’s tinny voice answered instead. “We’ve got a situation.”

Report,” Cappy commanded.

I’ve found IEDs spread throughout the foundations of all the surrounding buildings.”

Stable?”

Negative. Whoever rigged these had only adequate training, and the explosives they used are old.”

Detonator?” Cappy continued.

Cell phone.”

Fuck,” Talon summed up the mood.

Everyone, abort,” Cappy announced. “Switch to plan B. We’ll follow them when they leave and abduct them on safer ground. Move to your new positions.”

Check,” Wraith responded along with the others, then peered back through the scope. Steady, discreet movement on the ground confirmed the team’s retreat as ordered. She counted to two hundred in her head, then took a deep breath, choking on the sob lodged in her throat. It’s better this way. They’ll be able to pass SBG’s interrogation truthfully.

She blew the air out as tears slid down her cheeks and activated her throat mic. “Cappy, I’ve been made.”

Wraith, get out of there now!” her Commanding Officer shouted in her ear.

Wraith, no!” “Get out!” Romeo and Talon yelled at once.

She closed her eyes as the roar of the explosion deafened her eardrums and the concussion slammed her into the rooftop.