Pressed against the brick pillar of the gas station, Papa Rose peered into the streaming rain and raised his Glock, aiming it beyond the traffic jam of abandoned cars. The hair on the back of his neck brushed his collar. God, he hated Urban warfare. “So many fucking places to hide.”
“Amen brother.” Legs bent, Falcon crept to the other island. The Sig-Sauer became a lethal extension of his black hands and low storm clouds camouflaged his whip-cord body until his position was identified only by his yellow bandanna.
Damn. Did they teach that spooky shit in Special Ops?
“What do I do?” Brainiac’s high pitched voice whispered through the earpiece. “You want me to take point?”
“Fuck no!” Taking his eyes off the street, Papa glanced at the cab of the tanker. “You drink salt water lately?” The windows remained clear of little Toby, but the preteen Jillie should be standing right next to the squid.
Falcon darted for the forward pillar. “Where’s the munchkin?”
Heart hammering against his ribs, he followed Falcon’s lead. Rain bounced off the concrete pad and ran in dark rivulets toward the street. Discarded paper and dead leaves swirled in the gutter. “I put him in the cab.”
To keep him safe from the storm.
And now the toddler would be unprotected.
“Please!” The woman called out again. “Someone help me.”
Falcon’s eyes narrowed. “Brainiac, you and Jillie fall back to the generator room.”
Jillie’s indecipherable voice drifted through the com, then hinges squeaked.
“We’re in.” Brainiac whispered. “I can see the cab door from my position.”
“Please, it’s my mom! Someone? Anyone?”
Mom. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He reset the age of the voice, dropping it to early teens. Probably not much older than Jillie. The perfect bait.
Falcon hunkered down and raced for the side of a blue SUV.
Holding his breath, Papa Rose darted toward a red Ford pick-up. Wind drove the downpour into his bald scalp and quickly saturated his shirt. The cold needled his ears.
“You do know it’s probably a trap.” Brainiac rasped. His breathing swallowed. “Probably how they lured all these people here.”
Was this the kid’s first time in combat? Surely life aboard a submarine couldn’t be that protected. Of course it was. The squid probably earned a purple heart from a sliver he got while moping the deck.
“Get ahold of your breathing, B, or you’re going to hyperventilate.” Falcon rolled his eyes before slipping between the hood of the SUV and the trunk of a sedan.
“I should be out there. Fighting.”
What kind of idiot wanted combat? Papa Rose scooted between the bumpers of two trucks. The license plate snagged his jeans. Fabric ripped. Damn, did they have to park them so close?
“Stowe your periscope, B.” He stepped into the path between the rows of vehicles.
Falcon crouched by the driver’s side door two cars ahead. The ex-Green Beret glanced over his shoulder and mouthed Papa Rose’s last statement.
He shrugged. It sound properly Navy-ish. Besides, what did the Navy really do besides paddle their boats? “We’re here to protect you. Your mission is to delay the blossoming of the mushroom clouds.”
“Stay put.” Falcon darted another two cars up then stopped. “No matter what happens to us, you are to maintain your position until it is all clear to proceed. Understand?”
“Aye, Sir,” Brainiac sighed.
He moved forward, keeping two vehicles between his position and Falcon’s. Rain plastered his shirt to his back and trickled down his spine to saturate his underwear. If this was a trick, he’d shoot the bad guys twice for picking a fight in a damn cloud-burst.
“Hello?” A roll of thunder swallowed the girl’s call.
Rain drummed on metal. Fucking storm. How were they supposed to get a fix on the girl?
Falcon set one knee on the ground and turned his head from side to side. After a brief pause at four o’clock, he pointed in the same direction.
What the hell? Did the military implant radar in his head when he got the special hat? Shielding his gun from the elements, he waited.
“Is anyone there?” A rock bounced off the car between them.
Then he heard it. Squishy footfalls heading this way. Damn but he hated it when Falcon was right. Drawing up tight in the wheel well, he waited. Lines of rain. Light fractals intermittently shattering the gloom. Water snaking down his cheeks. Time counted down to the encounter.
“Please. Please.” The mantra followed the beat of steps. Closer now. So close.
Falcon tucked his gun against the small of his back.
Papa Rose traced the curve of the trigger guard. The kid wouldn’t be the threat. If there was one, it would be farther out, watching, waiting. The kid would probably be disposable. It was a hell of a world.
God, please let him off it soon.
Falcon launched off the pavement and collided with a cherry red form.
“Ahh!” she shrieked
Twisting in midair, he landed on his back with the girl on his stomach.
Her legs flailed. Soggy, black-bottom socks kicked, slouched down one pink heel. The wind must have been knocked from her as she didn’t say a word.
Christ Jesus! Twice in one day, they’ve attacked children. Papa Rose closed the distance between them, aiming at the ground.
“Shh.” Falcon cupped his hand over the girl’s mouth. “I’ve got you. It’s alright. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
Brown eyes stared up at him. Black ropes of hair rolled off her shoulders. Tiny brown hands tugged at the arms constricting her. Geez, what was she ten, eleven?
“You’re okay.” He kept his Glock out of her range of sight. “We’re soldiers.”
Her body went limp. Heels rested on the ground. Her elbows dropped to her stomach, and her eyes closed.
The magic words. How long until the assholes figured it out and the word conjured fear instead?
In the valley between cars, Falcon sat up, taking the girl with him. “I’m gonna take my hand off your mouth, but you can’t scream, okay?”
Her hands released his arm to drop in her lap. Rain coursed down her red slicker before sliding off her indigo jeans. She turned her face up to look at Falcon.
Poor thing. No doubt, she’s scared witless. He touched her chin, drawing her attention. “No screaming. Got it?”
A moment later, Falcon’s hand hovered inches from her mouth.
No screaming. They were off to a good start. Papa Rose inched closer. “What’s your name?”
Falcon rolled his eyes.
Yeah, the guy might be drilled in interrogation techniques, but Papa Rose had experience talking to kids. And scaring the pants off them was hardly the way to get them to talk. “Name?”
The girl slid her slicker over her knees until she was a red ball. “O–Olivia.”
“Hello, Olivia. I’m Papa Rose. That ugly guy behind you is Falcon.” He quickly positioned the gun behind his knees. “Isn’t Falcon a stupid name?”
She covered her mouth with her hand and nodded.
“At least, I’m not named after a flower,” Falcon growled. “Doesn’t he look more like a weed than a rose?”
Olivia’s eyes scrunched up as she giggled.
Papa Rose smiled. Now that he’d gotten all friendly… “Are you supposed to be meeting someone here?”
She nodded and wrapped her arms around her shins. “Our neighbors. Mama was too slow so they went ahead to get us a place with someone leaving.”
He blinked away the rain. A slow Mama might have saved their lives. If it was true. A big if. “Is your mother sick? Is that why you need help?”
Her pointed chin rose a notch. “She’s getting better. She didn’t get the Redaction the first time around, so it’s just making up for it now.”
Hell, someone hadn’t gotten the Redaction. What were the odds? He shook off the thoughts. Now was not the time. He’d pencil it in next to never. Right now, he needed to find out what kind of threat she and her ‘mother’ posed. “Anyone else traveling with you and your mother?”
Falcon set his hands on his thighs, not touching her but close enough to grab her if need be. “A little brother or sister, perhaps?”
She scrubbed her nose with the palm of her hand. “They died. Yesterday. I tried to take care of ’em, cuz Mama was feeling bad but…”
He glanced at Falcon.
The ex-Green Beret nodded.
So they both bought the story. Let’s hope they were correct. But just in case… Papa Rose pushed to his feet and held his hand out to her. “Let’s go find your momma.”
He hoped Brainiac at least got the message to stay put.
“‘Kay.” Olivia slid her hand into his.
His fingers closed around the small bones. Why did God make children so fragile?
Falcon waited for them to thread through the first car before following. “How far away is your mother?”
She shoved her hair over her shoulder. The locks slapped her slicker. “Not far.”
Given the way kids told distances, that could be miles or a block. Either way, Papa Rose would find out all too soon. The world darkened as she steered them toward the shadows of the building. Too bad, he wasn’t the kind to leave people behind. Maybe, this would earn him a little forgiveness.
Maybe the girl’s mother will take Toby and Jillie and he could die like he planned. She led them across the intersection. Rats peeked at them from under piles of garbage, she turned into the alley. Bags of garbage overflowed large metal bins. Water fell in waterfalls from the eaves. Bare legs stuck out from a recessed doorway.
Hot damn. Close really was close.
Olivia tugged out of his hold and sprinted to the legs. “Mom, I brought help. They’re soldiers.”
Her mother’s hand slid off her lap and landed palm up in a puddle.
“Mom!” Olivia screamed and shook her mother. The other arm flopped to the ground.
Oh, God. Papa Rose’s stomach turned into a fist in his gut. Slack features, partially closed lids.
“Hey, Olivia.” He tugged on a lock of the girl’s black hair.
Rain streaked her tan skin when she turned her face to his. “She’s going to be okay, right? She’s just tired.”
Mom may look like she was sleeping, but this rest was eternal. “Why don’t we let Falcon here, check her out, okay?”
Olivia threw herself at his knees. Sobs wracked her body.
Papa Rose stumbled back a step before catching himself. She hung on.
Kneeling next to the mother, Falcon set his middle finger against her neck. After a bit, he shook his head.
Fuck. Instead of getting rid of the children, he’d just acquired one more. Shaking off his anger, Papa Rose slid his hands under her arm pits and lifted her up.
She hiccoughed. Her button nose blew snot bubbles.
Papa Rose tucked her close. Hot tears warmed his neck and thin arm strangled his shoulders. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get out of the rain.”