Into the lair, p.22
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       Into the Lair, p.22

         Part #2 of Falcon Mercenary Group series by Maya Banks
 
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  prevent any bugs from invading the bandage.

  “You boys done?” Jonah asked dryly. “We’ve got a job to do here. I’d just as soon quit fucking around and get it done.”

  Braden nodded his agreement. He was tense and edgy. Ian worried that he might be close to shifting, but neither of them wanted to risk taking a sedative and not being a hundred percent when they went in for Katie.

  Her signal had led them deep into the Venezuelan jungle to a compound undetected by satellite. Mostly underground, what was above the terrain was hidden by heavy growth and lush foliage. Thank God for the tracking device or they would’ve never found her.

  If Esteban had hurt her there would be no mercy. Obtaining a cure was no longer a priority, at least not for Ian and Braden. Ian knew that Falcon was still keenly interested in Esteban because of Damiano. All Ian cared about at this point was extracting Katie. Alive. Esteban could live or die.

  Jonah looked toward Eli, a concession to the fact that he led this mission. Ian wasn’t in the mood for a pissing match or a contest to see whose dick was bigger. The merger wasn’t his idea. He didn’t give a shit who called the shots as long as Katie got out alive.

  “Let’s go,” Braden growled.

  “I’ll shift and find a ventilation system to get in. Give me a ten-minute head start so I can take down the security system,” Eli said.

  Tits stepped forward with a glance sideways at Mad Dog. “Our recon points at four possible entrance and exit points. Could be more.”

  “Katie’s signal was pinpointed in the heart of the compound,” Ian said. “We’re going to need those exits secured and the paths clear. I don’t want to rely on only one way out. I want a plan, and then I want plans B, C and fucking D. We can’t afford to fuck this up.”

  Eli nodded. “If I fail to override the security, then those entrances will need to be blown. We lose some of the element of surprise which means you have to get in and move fast. Shoot first, sort bodies later. Esteban has proven what a complete and utter coward he is. He won’t stick around to get caught in the crossfire.”

  “Okay, enough with the chitchat,” Braden said. “Let’s do this.”

  Eli took quick stock of his gear and then dissolved into the thick, humid air. Jonah checked his watch and began the countdown.

  “I want the secondary manning those exits as soon as we gain access,” Jonah said. “Two will remain outside to provide cover and to make sure no one crawls up our backsides.” He looked at Mad Dog and Tits. “You two set the place to blow. I want this to be an in-and-out job. Our objectives are Katie, information and Esteban. In that order.”

  He pinned Ian and Braden with his hard stare. “Don’t make this personal. Get in, get your girl, get the hell out. You’ll take the central entrance and hone in on Katie’s location. The other half of the secondary will be moving ahead of you to clear a path. You’ll have back-up in front and behind you.”

  He glanced down at his watch. “Let’s move. We have three minutes to go time. Take your positions and get ready to kick some ass.”

  ***

  Katie hunched down in the corner of the cold, sterile, glassed-in observation room, knees drawn up to her chest as she rocked back and forth in an effort to get warm.

  The thin hospital gown she wore offered little protection from the bone-aching chill. It was as though Esteban had stored her in the freezer.

  She laid her forehead on her arm and closed her eyes as she rocked harder. Her belly still cramped from the procedure performed just hours earlier. She’d been restrained on an exam table, her legs forced apart, and she’d lain there helpless as the first egg extraction had been performed.

  Esteban had been delighted to discover that she was at the perfect time in her cycle. The discovery of two mature eggs ready to be released during ovulation had been enough for him to go ahead with the procedure instead of putting her through a regimen of fertility drugs as he’d threatened. Why he hadn’t taken both at the same time, she didn’t know. An important piece of the puzzle was missing, but she couldn’t wrap her brain around what.

  She couldn’t feel more violated than if she’d been raped. This was worse. Much worse.

  She ignored the tapping on the glass wall. It would be Esteban. Asking once again how she was doing. As if it mattered.

  His voice filtered over the intercom system. “Prepare yourself, Katie. This next part…is not pleasant.”

  Her head came up, and she stared dully through the glass to see Esteban standing by the speaker, his hand on the button.

  “It will be over soon, though, and then you can rest,” he said in a soothing voice.

  What the hell could be worse than what she’d already been subjected to?

  A hissing sound, like an airlock being broken, sizzled over her ears. She yanked her gaze up in alarm to see a cloudy vapor seeping into the room from every vent. She scrambled up, panic beating at her mercilessly.

  The bastard was gassing her.

  She turned and began to pound at the glass. “No! You son of a bitch. You can’t do this!” she screamed. “This isn’t my choice. I don’t want this.”

  Esteban pressed his hand against the glass, mirroring hers. An expression of regret framed his face. He looked almost…sorry.

  Fire raced over her skin. She inhaled as she cried out in pain and then coughed and choked as the chemical entered her lungs. Oh God, she was on fire from the inside out. Burning.

  Her hands slapped and wiped frantically at her skin. She was melting. Her skin was going to slide right off her bones.

  Her eyes singed, and tears poured copiously down her cheeks. She fell, writhing, to the ground. Agony. She couldn’t take it.

  Razor blades scoured her flesh, marking her, but she didn’t bleed. She had no blood to give. It boiled in her veins. Burned like acid.

  She clawed frantically, trying to relieve the pressure, to give the poison somewhere to go, to escape. Her throat closed in. Her tongue swelled, and she tried in vain to draw a breath.

  She was going to die. She wanted to die.

  Numbly, she lay there, her entire body twitching as her nerve endings fired. The floor felt cool against her cheek and she rubbed, trying to infuse more of the blessed chill into her tormented body.

  Saliva pooled in her mouth, odd against her dry, cracked tongue. It leaked onto the floor as her eyes became fixed and unblinking, focused blindly on the opposite wall.

  Her hand. It wouldn’t quit moving. It jumped, her fingers extending and hopping. She curled them into a ball in an attempt to make it stop.

  Ants. She was covered in fire ants. They were eating her alive. A sob escaped her lips.

  “Let me die,” she whispered.

  Rain, sweet and refreshing, poured down on her. Water hit her with bruising force as it fell from the ceiling. She curled into a ball and held her hands over her face. After a moment it stopped and then quiet descended.

  She tried to move, but her body wouldn’t obey her commands. She was locked in the worst kind of hell. On the inside the pain still raced, surging through her veins like a brushfire. The bitter chill, made worse by the soaking she’d received, encased the outside of her body.

  But worse than the pain was the fear of what he’d turned her into.

  Chapter Forty

  Ian and Braden made fast tracks through the low-slung corridors that snaked toward the middle. Convoluted was apparently a favorite design of Esteban’s. This one mirrored the building in Switzerland almost exactly.

  Using the signal from Katie’s tracking device, they navigated the twists and turns. Halfway in, everything went dark. Braden slapped on night vision goggles with infrared sensors and continued forward, his gun up.

  A few seconds later, track lighting along the ceiling flickered and bathed the hallways with a dull glow.

  Ian stopped outside a closed doorway and held up a finger and pointed. Braden gripped his gun tighter and nodded for Ian to go in. According to the locator, Katie was in t
he next room.

  Ian slapped on the explosive, set the timer and then motioned for Braden to get down. Three seconds later, the door blew, and he and Ian rushed through the entry.

  Braden staggered back when brilliant white light accosted his vision. He put a hand up to ward it off before making a sweep of the room with his rifle. It was empty. Save for a cylindrical platform in the middle of the room. A red beam illuminated a tiny container resting on the surface.

  He and Ian exchanged glances. Where the fuck was Katie?

  Dread tightened his gut as he walked slowly toward the platform. He knew what he’d find before he ever got there.

  Almost invisible, sitting in what looked to be a Petri dish, was the thin, needle-like tracking device that Katie had worn.

  “Mother fuck!” Ian swore as he spun around.

  And then from the tiny holes that ringed the platform, smoke seeped upward, drifting higher and spreading out, faster and faster.

  “Get out of here!” Braden shouted as he bolted for the door.

  He was nearly there when rails slammed from the ceiling, barring his exit. He yanked around only to be enclosed by another set as they dropped like bricks, imprisoning him in a large square box.

  Ian fared no better.

  The two brothers stared at one another even as Braden felt every muscle go limp and unresisting. The room swam in his vision, and he felt himself fall. His head rolled to the side. His last conscious thought was of Katie and whether she’d died on the mountain after all.

  ***

  Braden opened his eyes and saw only a blurred blob of vague color and slight movement. He blinked and blinked again, each time clearing some of the film from his vision.

  He saw Katie, lying on the floor inside a glass enclosure, her eyes glassy and unfocused, fixed on some distant object. She was soaked, the thin gown she wore plastered to her body. She shivered uncontrollably, her body jerking as she clutched her arms to her chest.

  Relief surged, sweet and soothing. She was alive.

  Then rage followed, replacing the calm. It curdled in his veins, whispering and calling to the killer inside him. To the predator.

  “What did you do to her?” he demanded as he saw Esteban step to the glass to stare at Katie.

  Esteban turned, a smile on his face. He looked oddly calm, not at all the demented, frantic man they’d confronted in Switzerland.

  “Ah, you’re awake.”

  “What did you do to her?” he bit out again.

  Esteban glanced back at Katie, his expression almost regretful and as strange as it seemed, tender.

  “I regret the pain I caused her, but that’s over with now. She won’t feel the second egg extraction.”

  “What?” Braden shouted. He tried to strain forward and only then did he realize that he was restrained standing up, his ankles secured to an iron plate with metal cuffs and his arms banded on either side of his head.

  “Getting worked up won’t help you,” Esteban said calmly. “You can’t shift. I’ve injected enough paralytic that I rather doubt you’ll do much more than drool occasionally once it takes effect. It should be hitting you any time now.”

  Movement beside him alerted him, and he glanced over to see Ian similarly restrained. His eyes came open slowly, and he blinked as Braden had as he tried to bring his surroundings into focus.

  “Leave her alone,” Braden demanded. “You don’t need her.”

  “Oh, but I do,” Esteban said. “It’s you I don’t need. Your men have done a good job of gaining access to the compound and my security system, but the inner shell operates independently. It’s steel reinforced and completely closed off from the rest. As soon as the outer perimeter is compromised, the inner hull goes into lockdown. I delayed it long enough for you to arrive.”

  “I thought you didn’t need us,” Braden said. “Why the elaborate hoax? Why bother leading us here at all?”

  Esteban glanced back at Katie one more time and then he pressed a button and spoke rapidly in Spanish. Two men immediately walked into the containment room where Katie lay, both wearing biohazard suits.

  Oh God, Katie. What have they done to you, baby?

  He stared in agony as the two men carried her out of the glass enclosure. A few moments later they walked into the room where Esteban stood and laid her on the exam table. She lay there listlessly, her body shaking, her eyes unseeing.

  Esteban tended to her, his motions gentle. He touched her cheek at one point and carefully pried her wet hair from her face.

  And then he turned back to Braden. “It was actually something that Katie said on the plane. That I hadn’t factored you and Ian into the equation. She was right. I gave you no thought other than thinking you a nuisance. Your instability made you unacceptable for my needs—or so I thought. My scientists are intrigued by you, though. They’ll use you for research, and when you’ve served your purpose, you’ll be disposed of. My concentration, however, will be on Katie.”

  “You’ll never leave this place alive,” Ian broke in, his face tight with anger.

  Already, Braden could feel his limbs grow heavy. Lead traveled sluggishly through his veins. It was all he could do to lift his head.

  “You’re crazy,” Braden slurred. “Certifiable.”

  “I assure you, I’m completely sane.”

  He turned to one of the men in a lab coat. He rattled off an order in Spanish, and Braden was too disoriented to follow the different dialect. But the intent was clear. One of the men gripped Katie’s ankles and spread her legs.

  She whimpered and put a hand out to ward him off. Esteban cupped his hand to her face and whispered soothingly to her. She only became more agitated.

  When the other man took a metal speculum and started to move between her legs, Ian went crazy. Braden closed his eyes and did what he’d never done before. He called to the panther. A soft plea. Unfettered acceptance. He embraced his beast and surrendered to the shift.

  Chapter Forty-One

  Katie fought against the bile rising in her throat. Pain, so much pain. Every touch to her skin was like a branding iron, a hot coal pressed against her flesh.

  Her legs were spread, and she felt the cool metal brush against the inside of her knee. She arched off the table, unheeding of the soothing words whispered in her ear. His touch was wrong. It was evil.

  And then as they overpowered her, her head lolled to the side. A single tear slipped over her temple, wetting the surface of the table she lay on. Her gaze flickered, and she saw Ian and Braden, their faces contorted in rage.

  She continued to stare, sure she’d imagined them. Why weren’t they helping her?

  And then Braden disappeared. A huge black cat flew over the table, taking down the man who held her ankles. A scream split the air. Esteban tried to push himself away, but the cat rose with a low snarl. His scream of fear died in his throat when the panther lunged, his jaws closing around his neck.

  Blood, bright red and warm, splattered onto her chest. She rolled, trying to push herself upright. She collapsed on her side, too weak to do much more than lie there, staring down at the horror reflected in Esteban’s eyes.

  The cat let out a hiss and moved away from Esteban as he stalked the remaining man.

  She tugged at her slack and unresisting body, trying to force herself into motion. She rolled and went down on the floor in a puddle of Esteban’s blood. She raised her hands, staring in horror at the sticky, red stain on her palms.

  “Katie!” Ian cried.

  She looked up to see him straining sluggishly at his bonds, his face a wreath of torment. A gentle nudge at her side, soft and warm. She glanced down to see the panther rub his head over her arm. Then he raised his head and licked her cheek.

  She stared into his green eyes and found calm. Slowly she reached out to touch his head. He ducked and butted against her palm and then leaned further in to nudge against her cheek again.

  “Katie, get away from him,” Ian shouted hoarsely. “He’ll hurt you.”


  She leaned against the panther’s neck and buried her face in his soft fur. She closed her eyes and weakly held on. After a moment, she glanced back up at Ian. “Shift,” she said softly.

  His eyes flashed in helpless rage. “I can’t. I won’t hurt you, Katie. Get up. Get out of here.”

  Her hand trailed over the panther. Braden. “You won’t hurt me. He won’t let you. Don’t you see? He’s protecting me. I can’t free you, Ian. I’m not even sure I can get up. Trust in yourself. In what you are. Let the jaguar free.”

  Ian closed his eyes, his jaw ticking with strain. His fingers curled and clenched, his arms bulged and contorted. He let out an anguished cry, and then he seemingly stopped fighting.

  She watched in wonder as his body reshaped. His arms slipped from the cuffs as they became slim paws. He fell forward, hitting the floor as he tore his hind legs free of restraint. His big head reared and flexed, his jaw opening and then closing in a snap of teeth.

  He prowled to the fallen man, the last that Braden had taken down, and sniffed cautiously. Then he padded to where she sat. He tried to insert his heavy body between her and Esteban, steadily pushing her back with his strong shoulders. He leaned over Esteban and growled menacingly.

  A low hiss escaped from the panther when miraculously, Esteban stirred, his eyes fluttering open. They were glassy and nearly fixed in death. Blood seeped from his torn neck, and Katie couldn’t countenance how he was still breathing.

  He raised a shaking hand and let it flutter down over her arm. The panther hissed again, and the jaguar let out a menacing growl.

  A gun lay at his side, one he’d tried to raise to shoot Braden. Katie dove for it, mustering all her strength in a final bid to make sure the cats were safe. Her fingers closed around it, and she dragged it weakly into her grasp.

  But Esteban never made a move for it. He stared at her, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

  “I wanted to be free,” he whispered. “God…”

  “You should have never tried to play God,” she said bitterly.

  “Your God made me what I am,” he rasped as more blood frothed and foamed over his lips.

  She leaned down, her body trembling with pain and rage. And fear for what this man’s actions had wrought. “God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t make one man evil and another man good. He gives us choices. Control over our own destiny. And you chose wrong.”

  “You’re wrong,” Esteban whispered. “He made me imperfect. A mistake.”

  “No one’s perfect,” she snarled.

  Another stab of pain rolled over her body, and she closed her eyes against the urge to vomit.

  “But some are mistakes,” he said. “Freaks of nature. Like me…”

  He raised his hand again, his fingers twitching and pointing to the table across the room. “Take it,” he choked out. “The journal. Explains…everything…”

  The last whispered past his lips, a long hiss, the sound of finality. Blood burbled and spit over the edge of his mouth, and his eyes lost the spark of life.

  Then his body began to shake and tremble. She backed hastily away. The two cats placed themselves between her and Esteban, briefly obscuring her vision. They both hissed, and an eerie yowl sounded.

  She shoved at them so that she could see. She wanted to be certain he was dead.

  What she saw shocked the breath from her lungs. Lying on the floor where Esteban had lain just seconds before was a beautiful silver wolf. Blood smeared his fur and matted his jowls. The blue eyes were fixed in death.

  She wrapped her arms protectively around her chest and stared as tears filled her eyes. The entire world had gone mad. Nothing was as it should be.

  The gun lay useless in her lap, and she looked down, wondering how she could get herself and the cats out of the compound.

 
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