A Novel of the Kyndred
As a psychic, Samuel Taske can see the future, but he never predicted that he'd fall for San Francisco paramedic Charlotte Marena, the woman he's been charged with protecting. GenHance-the biotech company willing to do anything to acquire superhuman DNA-is after them. And when Samuel discovers that his Takyn powers have abandoned him, Charlie and her secret nighttime telepathic ability are their only hope for survival...
June 1, 2010
“She says I don’t understand women. Right before she gets up and walks out of the restaurant,” Vincent O’Hara said as he reached out the driver’s window to empty the last inch of cold coffee from his thermal mug. “Just like that. So I get to spend our first date sitting there by myself and eating seventy bucks’ worth of lobster and prime rib.”
“You don’t understand women.” Charlotte Marena yawned as she flipped through the completed incident reports on her clipboard and signed the bottom of each. “Why didn’t you ask for a take-home box and go after her?”
“I was hungry.” Vince scowled at the sound of her chuckle. “Well, I was, Charlie. Besides, if I’d gone after her, she’d have made a federal case out of whatever I did and starved me for a couple more hours.”
“I warned you about dating a Botoxed bulimic,” Charlie told him.
“She’s not like that.” Her partner sounded less certain now. “You’re not always right about them.”
She thought for a moment. “Let’s see, the last one was separated, not single. The one before that had just gotten out of rehab, and the one before her was already pregnant. So, yes, I am always right about them.”
“Yeah, yeah. So how could you tell this time?”
Informing her partner exactly how she knew his new flame was a botulism and binge junkie wasn’t an option. “First two things I noticed about her.” She pointed to the center of her forehead. “Needle marks.” She brought her finger down and touched her lips. “Perpetual Listerine breath.”
Vince grunted. “You could have mentioned it after I slept with her. Which also didn’t happen.” He checked his watch before he moved into the turn lane. “Time to pack it in. By the way, I did stop by her place on the way home to make sure she was okay. She wouldn’t answer the door or her phone.”
“Probably too busy gorging on whatever she planned to puke up.” She covered a yawn with her hand. “You should date someone on the job. We’re too tired to be neurotic.”
He scoffed. “You keep turning me down.”
“I’m waiting for Taylor Lautner to be legal.” She reached for the radio mike on the console. “Dispatch, this is Echo one-M-seven.” After the dispatcher at EMSC responded by repeating their rig’s call sign, she added, “Ten ninety-eight to switch Adam, en route SFGH.”
After a short pause the dispatcher replied with, “Echo one-M-seven, advise your twenty.”
Surprised, Charlie glanced at the GPS. “Dispatch, we’re about two miles southwest of Doyle Drive bayside.”
The call came back at once. “Echo one-M-seven, respond code one to GGB viaduct, report of multivehicle collision with injuries, eleven eighty-one, CHP on scene.”
GGB. Charlie’s blood ran cold.
“Ah, great.” Vince groaned as he rolled the steering wheel to make a U-turn and head toward the enormous, orange-red suspension bridge that could be seen from virtually any spot in the city. “Fucking East Bay commuters couldn’t wait another fifteen minutes to get to work.”
“Ten-four, Dispatch.” Charlotte flipped on the lights to avoid looking at the bridge. “Echo one-M-seven en route, ETA two minutes.” She couldn’t let her phobia get the better of her, so she retrieved a war story for her partner. “Be grateful. Last time Tom and I took an eleven eighty-one, we had to evac a pregnant woman with a fractured tibia from a bad fall. I had to push her gurney all the way from the end of the pier.”
“Big deal,” Vince said. “I could jog that in my sleep with two gurneys.”
“She weighed four hundred pounds, screamed for her mama the entire time, and nearly ripped the restraints off,” Charlie told him. “Oh, did I mention she was in hard labor, and the baby crowned by the time I got her streetside for the chopper?”
“You get all the best calls, Marena.” Vince yelped as she punched his shoulder. “You do.”
As Vince sped toward the Golden Gate Bridge, Charlie removed their handhelds from the console charger and clipped them to their belts. After their last call, she’d stowed their carry-ins in the back to swap out at shift change, and they were both running low on dressings. Fortunately she and Vince were both religious about checking and restocking their supply bins before shift start. “I’ll grab some more packing; anything else you need for your bag?”
“I used my last collar on that HNR.” Her partner swerved around a slow-moving semi and blew through a red light. “Traffic had better be on point. I don’t feel like dodging rubberneckers or lane hoppers.”
Providing quality EMS care to the citizens of any busy, overcrowded metropolitan city always presented major challenges, but since Governor Schwarzenegger had signed Assembly Bill 2917, the county’s emergency medical services authority had been required to overhaul most of their existing licensing and response systems. The bill, which had been enacted to assure that all paramedics and EMTs were properly certified, licensed, and subject to criminal background checks, had put nearly half of the city’s private ambulance services on probation for failure to comply with the new law. Many EMTs who had been concealing unsavory pasts had been fired, but others who felt outraged at the prospect of being fingerprinted and otherwise treated like criminals had simply quit, resulting in a severe shortage of qualified techs.
The fire department, the primary provider of the city’s 911 medical services for the past fourteen years, had already been wrestling with call-management and response-time problems in every district. Unfortunately the state’s response to its economic troubles was to institute a hiring freeze at the same time, which resulted in Charlie and her coworkers pulling mandatory double shifts every week. They were also coping with the department’s new “dynamic deployment” policy, which required ambulances to be stationed at different grid points around the city versus waiting at their district stations for calls. It had improved their initial response time, but if a second incident call came in for the same area while they were responding to the first, then other rigs had to be diverted from their assigned points, which created instant gaps in the deployment grid.
It didn’t help that one-third of the calls the department received every year were for nonemergency situations. Most of those callers turned out to simply need a ride to the hospital, and thought the fire department should provide free taxi service. Some days Charlie felt more like a bus driver than a medic.
The windshield turned white as the dense fog rolling in from the bay swamped them, erasing the bridge entrance road and making the two bridge towers appear as if they were nothing more than a couple of bright red clips sticking out of an old lady giant’s fluffy white hair.
Vince flipped on the fog lamps before he peered ahead. “You see the HP?”
Charlie spotted the muted red and blue lights flashing through the fog. “Looks like he’s up by the pylon.” She ignored the tightening in her chest and picked up the mike. “Echo one-M-seven, dispatch, please advise traffic response to eleven eighty-one GGB city-side.”
“Echo one-M-seven, Marin County Sheriff currently diverting southbound at tollbooth,” the dispatcher told her. “CHP backup en route, ETA four minutes.”
Marin County had shut down the tollbooths, which would keep commuters coming from the opposite direction toward San Francisco off the bridge, but the accident was located on the south end, where there were no tollbooths, and Highway Patrol was two minutes behind them. While northbound traffic was lighter in the mornings, rush hour still attracted thousands of drivers. Low visibility due to the fog added another dangerous obstacle, one that had the potential to turn a simple fender bender into a massive pileup.
“What the hell is that trooper doing, just sitting up there instead of setting up the barricades?” Vince grumbled. “How much you want to bet he’s some rookie tossing his last coffee and doughnut over the railing?”
“I don’t bet against the Highway Patrol,” she told him as she gnawed at one side of her bottom lip before she called in again. “Dispatch, Echo one-M-seven, ten forty officer on scene?” They didn’t usually radio the patrolmen directly, but the northbound lanes needed to be blocked off now.
“Echo one-M-seven, OS is code six, not responding.”
“Told you,” her partner said. “He’s puking his guts out.”
“Or he’s performing CPR.” Charlie frowned. Even the greenest rookies knew to carry their handhelds with them when they left their vehicles. Something wasn’t right.
“What else would keep him so busy that he couldn’t respond to dispatch?” Vince demanded.
Charlie knew. “Jumper.”
The Golden Gate Bridge held one grisly honor, in that it was the most popular place in the world to commit suicide. Roughly twice a month someone leapt from the deck and dropped two hundred and forty-five feet to the water below, where they almost always died on impact. Those few who survived hitting the water’s surface, which at the height and speed of the jump was equal to crashing into a concrete wall at seventy-five mph, would then either drown or succumb to hypothermia.
A few years back Charlie had been disgusted to learn that a documentary maker had been given permission by the bridge authority to film the bridge as a monument, only to use the permit to secretly capture footage of twenty-three of the twenty-four suicides that had occurred that year.
Vince, one of the few people aware that Charlie actively avoided the bridge—no one knew why—was giving her the quick glances of a man trying to drive too fast and see whether his partner was going to lose it at the same time.
“I’ll call for another rig,” he said, reaching for the mike.
“No.” She put her hand on his to stop him. “Odds were that it would happen sometime.”
“Charlie, we gotta go on the bridge, and you’ve got fucking bridge-a-phobia,” he said. “You sure?”
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” No, she wasn’t, but as much as she wanted to dump the call on someone else, she couldn’t dodge her responsibility. Nor could she ask Vince to drop her off at the next corner and let him handle it alone. She would do her job, no matter how many ghosts were waiting for her at the scene.
“You’ve never told the powers that be about this thing of yours, have you?” Vince asked.
“Not something you put on the résumé, partner.” She rubbed her eyes. “You know, I won’t even drive across the goddamn thing. I always take the ferry.”
“Good day to get over this shit, then,” Vince said, giving her shoulder a gentle cuff. “Ferry’s too fucking slow.”
To keep from screaming, Charlie focused on the call and what possibly could have gone wrong. Highway Patrol responded to jumper calls, and often talked down the suicidal before they took the fatal leap. If the officer on scene was actively engaging the jumper, he might have temporarily turned down his radio to keep from spooking them.
But as they approached the S1 pylon, Charlie didn’t spot anyone on the walkway or the deck railing. In fact, she could see the black Highway Patrol car with its distinctive white door and golden star emblem, and the trooper still sitting in it. He’d parked it in front of a blue compact, a silver SUV, and what appeared to be a long black limousine. From the damage to both vehicles Charlie could see that the SUV had rear-ended the compact, crushing the trunk as well as crumpling its own hood. The limo sat facing the compact as if the driver had been driving in the opposite direction and had swerved over and stopped to render assistance.
Or the rich asshole told his driver to make a U-turn on the bridge and caused the accident, Charlie thought. That would be more logical.
She needed to learn what she could before the sun rose, so she closed her eyes and listened. The blare of the rig’s sirens and her own fluttering heartbeat dwindled away and a different sound filled her thoughts.
The thought stream came roaring through her. Can’t give in can’t let her be shot he won’t die she will the pain I can’t stand it damn it let me think.
The agony he was feeling came along with his thoughts, and racked her with such intense pain that she almost doubled over. She managed to shut off the stream and looked at the CHP vehicle, but she couldn’t tell whether the thoughts were coming from the trooper.
As Vince drove up behind the trooper’s car, Charlie’s eyes went into snapshot mode, taking in the scene with brief, intense glances. Car doors left hanging open. The flash of an orange taillight. Two bodies sprawled in the middle lane. A third lay half in, half out of the compact’s driver-side door. She focused on the most important elements at the scene—the victims—and began to assess. Bloodied clothes, slack faces, awkward positions. None of them moved.
Death. Once more, the bridge was covered in it.
“Shit.” Vince reversed, turning the rig so that they faced oncoming traffic, and switched on their front and side flashers. “You ready for this?”
She nodded. “Go.”
Charlie jumped out, running behind to yank open the doors and grab their carry-ins. She paused only long enough to stuff two handfuls of bandages into a side pocket before she trotted around and tossed Vince’s bag to him. Her partner ran to the two victims in the road while she went to the officer.
“Officer, why are you . . .” She stopped as she saw the telltale spiderweb of cracks around the small hole in the patrolman’s front windshield, and the corresponding hole in the officer’s forehead. She reached in to check for a pulse that no longer beat before she grabbed her handheld. “Dispatch, Echo one-M-seven, EMP Charlie Marena, ten ninety-seven S-one pylon, ten one-oh-eight, officer down, GSW to the head, request immediate assistance—”
Something cracked sharply, then whined in her ear as her radio unit exploded in her hand. At the same time a man’s voice shouted, “Get down.”
Charlie wrenched open the trooper’s door and crouched behind it, looking out at Vince, who was trying to shield the victims with his own body.
Another disjointed thought stream began jabbering inside her head: Golden giant midnight girl all here now master I see I can do this I can take them bring them have my reward live forever yes live forever at his side his forever always eternity yes I can do this forever and ever and ever.
“Charlie.” Vince grabbed both bodies by the collars of their clothes and began dragging them toward her. “Shooter.”
Staying crouched over as far as she could, she met her partner halfway and seized one of the bodies under the arms.
“The cop?” Vince demanded.
“Dead.” She saw her patient’s chest move and the blood oozing from the head wound of Vince’s vic. “But these two aren’t. Let’s move it.”
They managed to drag the two victims behind the patrolman’s unit and grab Charlie’s bag before another shot rang out. This time it shattered the back window of the limo.
As they went to work on the victims, Vince popped his head up to look around. “Did you see where he is?”
There were no other vehicles at the scene, and hardly anyplace on the bridge where a gunman could hide. But the morning fog had effectively blanketed the bridge deck all the way past the south tower, so for all Charlie knew he could be standing out in the open on one of the walkways, or even atop the safety railing.
As the gunman fired again, she grabbed Vince’s shoulder and jerked him down. “Careful.”
“Always...right.” Her partner swayed and then slumped over, blood streaking down his face from a long, deep gash in his scalp.
She eased him down and straddled him, working quickly to probe and then dress the wound as she tried to rouse him. “O’Hara? Come on, partner. No sleeping on the job.”
His eyelids fluttered, and he groaned. “Fucker...caught me.” He squinted at her. “How….bad?”
She checked his pupils with her penlight, and felt a surge of relief when they reacted normally. “I think you’re going to be parting your hair differently from now on.”
“Charlotte, are you hurt?”
Hearing her name being called out by the man from the limo made Charlie frown. “We’re fine.” He must have heard her using her radio and assumed Charlie was short for Charlotte. “Stay where you are. Are you injured?”
“No. My driver was shot in the chest,” he called back. “He’s lost a great deal of blood.”
The driver had to be the one whose thoughts and pain she’d picked up. Or this driver might not exist and Limo Guy was the shooter, trying to lure her out in the open. Until she got closer to them she wouldn’t know. “Sir, do you know where the gunman is?”
“South tower,” he answered. “Left side.”
Charlie glanced over the edge of the vehicle at the tower, but at first saw only fog and shadows. Then the first rays of the sun pierced the fog, and a tiny glint of light flashed from the base of the tower. A second later another window blew out on the limo.
Charlie’s relief was short-lived. Limo Guy wasn’t trying to make her victim number seven, but the man by the south tower would, and to be able to do this much damage from that distance meant he had the skills and accuracy of a highly trained sniper. Hearing the wail of approaching sirens didn’t improve the situation; if the gunman had enough ammunition, he could shoot anyone who set foot on the bridge.
Somehow Charlie had to warn the cops.
Quickly she searched through the clothing of the two victims to look for a mobile phone, but found nothing. “Sir,” she called out toward the limo. “Do you have a phone with you?”
“There are two in the car,” he said, “but I can’t leave James.”
“That’s okay. Stay right there with him.” She slung the strap of her carry-in over her neck and cinched it so that it pressed against her chest. She lowered herself to the ground on her forearms and knees, letting the fog waft over her before she began crawling toward the limo.
It seemed to take forever, and the roughness of the asphalt scraped through her sleeves and trousers. Charlie held her breath as she moved across each open gap, praying silently that the fog was concealing her movements as much as she hoped. By the time she reached the shiny front bumper of the big car she was shaking all over.
As soon as there was enough limo between her and the sniper, Charlie yanked the strap over her head and rose in a half-crouched position, moving quickly to the two men taking cover behind the rear wheel well of the limo. One was a slim, dark-haired man wearing a chauffeur’s uniform with blood blooming on the right side of his jacket; the other man was a golden-haired, bearded hulk in a black trench coat. The hulk had the chauffeur cradled against his arm, and held a folded, red-splotched white silk scarf pressed against the wound in his chest.
He looked up at her with narrow black eyes that were all wrong for his Nordic golden hair and gorgeous mocha skin.
Something like déjà vu came over her. Charlie would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that she had never seen the man before this moment. He was too big, too odd, too unforgettable, and yet....she knew him.
The jolt of familiarity had to be some kind of fluke, she thought, shrugging it off. She’d seen someone like him once; that was all.
“He can barely breathe,” the man told her.
She glanced at the blue tinge around the driver’s lips and the distended veins in his neck, and her focus abruptly shifted back to her job.
“Were you shot?” she asked him as she tore open the chauffeur’s jacket and used her stethoscope to check his heart and lung sounds.
“I’m fine,” he said. “What’s wrong with James?”
“His lung has collapsed.” She reached into her case and pulled out her pneumothorax pack. “I have to bleed out the air trapped in his chest or his heart will fail. What’s your name?”
“I’m Samuel, and you are Charlotte.” He said her name precisely, and with a certain amount of satisfaction.
“Actually, I go by Charlie.” She smiled to remove the sting. “Now, let’s put James here down on his back.”
Once they had carefully lowered the driver onto the ground, Charlie pulled his clothing out of the way and took out the scalpel from the pack.
Samuel frowned. “You’re not thinking of operating on him. Not here.”
“No, I’m simply going to make a small incision so I can put in a tube to remove the air.” As she lined up what she needed on the driver’s chest, she saw Samuel’s expression. “I know this sounds scary, but I’ve done it a hundred times and I haven’t lost anyone yet. So don’t freak out on me, okay?”
“Here we go.” She made the incision, cutting through the skin and the underlying tissue, and then fed the decompression catheter into his body just above the cephalad border of the rib to avoid the intercostal vessels. Within a few seconds the driver’s breathing became less labored, and his lips began to turn pink.
“That’s more like it.” She taped the catheter in place and checked his breathing sounds again before she turned her attention to the blood-soaked scarf. “Sam, I need you to move your hand now. When James was shot, did you see any blood spurting from his gunshot wound? Like a little geyser or fountain?”
“It was more of a small stream. A pulsing stream.” As she reached for the edge of the scarf, he reluctantly took his hand away. “Is it his heart?”
She carefully lifted the side of the makeshift bandage and inspected the wound, noting the position of the small, neat hole and the seepage from it. “Doesn’t look that way. I think the bullet might have just nicked the lung. We’ll know better when we get him to the hospital.” She began dressing the chest wound. “Where exactly are the phones in the car?”
“One is in the front console by the driver’s seat,” he said, nodding in that direction, “and the other is on the right side of the rear-facing seats in the back.”
Neither would be easy to reach unless she opened the limo’s doors and crawled inside. “Dispatch doesn’t know about the sniper. I have to call this in before backup arrives.” She cringed as a shot pinged off the roof of the limo. “Son of a bitch. How much ammo has he got?”
“The backseats are in his direct line of fire,” Samuel told her as he moved to the other side of James’s still form. “I’ll retrieve the phone from the front.”
He was already moving toward the driver’s door before she could argue with him. “Keep your head down,” she called after him.
The sniper fired three more times before Samuel returned with the cordless receiver. As glass shattered over their heads, he ducked, lost his balance, and nearly fell over.
“Whoa.” Charlie grabbed his sleeve and righted him. “I thought you said you weren’t hurt.”
“I’m only a bit awkward.” He leaned on his left side and rubbed his hand over his thigh. “Normally I use a cane to walk.”
She saw the cane in question several feet away by the deck railing. The gold handle had been cast in the shape of a lion’s head. “You’ll have to do without it for now.” She put the receiver on speaker and dialed the emergency number for dispatch, which the shift supervisor answered immediately. “This is Echo one-M-seven, EMP Marena. We have five GSW casualties on the bridge with an active sniper at the base of the south tower, left side.” She rapidly related the details of the wounded before she added, “My partner has been shot and I’m taking cover with two of the vics.”
“Stand by.” The supervisor repeated the details she’d given him over the police emergency band before issuing terse orders to reroute other rigs to the scene. Finally he said, “Echo, we can’t get to you until SWAT responds and secures the scene. Keep this line open and use your MCI protocols.”
“Acknowledged, dispatch.” Another window blew out over their heads, pelting them with broken glass. “You want to tell SWAT to move their asses, please?”
“They’re on the way,” the supervisor promised. “Hang in, Echo.”
“What are MCI protocols?” Samuel asked as she started an IV on the driver.
She tore off a strip of tape and rolled it over the gauze she’d placed over the needle. “It’s how we respond to a mass casualty incident.”
“You consider this a mass casualty situation?”
“Any incident that has more patients than the on-scene responders can treat or transport is an MCI,” she told him. “The protocol we use is called START, for simple triage and rapid treatment, which includes tagging everyone.” She pulled her tags out of her bag. “James here gets a red tag, which means he’s salvable but he needs immediate treatment.” She taped the oversize tag onto the driver’s sleeve and then clipped another onto Samuel’s lapel. “You’re walking wounded, so you get one of these.”
He glanced down at the green tag. “I’m not wounded.”
“We don’t have a tag for ‘nothing happened to this guy,’ so it’s the next-best thing.” She shoved the rest of the tags in her pocket, where she could easily reach them, and slung her carry-in strap over her neck. “I have to get back and tag the others. You keep your head down, and yell for me if James starts having trouble again.”
One of his huge hands clamped around her wrist. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Samuel Taske was not accustomed to trying to restrain a woman with physical force. Aside from his size and strength, both of which bordered on superhuman, he had been taught virtually from birth to treat all females with gentleness and respect.
He didn’t consider it a hardship in the slightest. He adored everything about women: their scents and smiles, their instincts and intelligence. He often watched them with the wistful longing of a man who had already accepted that he would live out his life alone, thanks to the additional psychic gift that allowed him to see individual time lines as they stretched out far into the future. He had used it to examine his own future, which followed a solitary path that would never be crossed or entwined with that of a wife or children.
That he was prepared to break Charlotte Marena’s wrist to keep her from leaving him had nothing to do with his feelings about women. He had come to this place, to this bridge, solely for the purpose of keeping her alive. If he had to put her in a cast to do so, he would.
“Sam, I have to do this,” she was saying in a careful, gentle tone she probably used with people suffering some sort of mental crisis. “I need to check on the other patients and make sure they’re doing okay. It’s my job.”
“You can’t do anything for them if you’re dead, Charlotte.” He didn’t release her. “The police will be here soon. I can hear the sirens.”
“They might have a hostage negotiator try to talk him down first,” she said. “That kind of thing usually takes time.”
“Then I’ll have to entertain you with stories from my last trip overseas.” He had to stop staring at her big dark eyes; he felt as if he were about to tumble into them. “Have you ever been to Paris? Very old and stately. Amazing cuisine. Dreadful waiters.”
“Can’t say I have.” Instead of lightening, her expression turned grim. “Much as I’d love to hear all about your jaunts around the globe—”
The high-pitched shout came from the tower beyond, and Charlotte’s eyes narrowed.
“I know you hear me, pendejo.” A short laugh followed the shout, and then, “Hey, hermana, ese tipo tiene mucha lana, eh? Maybe after, he give you a big reward, eh?”
Samuel frowned. “I don’t speak much Spanish.”
“I do. He says you have a lot of money,” Charlotte said, her mouth tight. “You know this jackass?”
“Not at all.” Half the truth was better than none. “Do you think you can persuade him to cease fire?”
Charlotte rubbed her eyes and sighed before she called out, “Señor, deje lo que estás haciendo y escúchame.”
From that point Charlotte spoke too rapidly for Taske to follow, but he took advantage of her focus on the sniper to remove one glove and ease his hand inside his coat. Dragging James out of the car had torn some of the stitches in his side, but thanks to his body heat the blood-soaked linen of his shirt had partially dried and was beginning to stanch the old wound. He’d thought he might have to use it as an excuse to keep Charlotte with him, but now that she had engaged the sniper, there was no need to mention it.
Not that he wished to. Charlotte would want to know how he had sustained the injury, and he couldn’t tell her the truth. She would never believe that he had been attacked by werewolves and wild animals, all of whom had been under the mind control of Lilah Devereaux, a powerful Kyndred friend whom Taske believed also held the key to a cure for his own condition. He’d stalked Lilah, hiring detectives to hunt her down for him, but his foolish actions had nearly gotten them both killed. In the end Lilah had forgiven him, but Taske had yet to overcome his own shame.
The mellow contralto of Charlotte’s voice felt soothing to his ears, and he allowed himself to rest against the side of the car and watch her. For the first time since his ability had manifested it had been maddeningly short on details; unlike the other people he had rescued over the years, this woman’s time line had been shrouded in darkness. He’d been unable to discern who she was, where she lived and worked, her surname, or any clue of what her destiny was, although he sensed it to be of critical importance to humanity. In the end he had been forced to act on the only thing he did know: that unless he saved her, a woman named Charlotte would be murdered on the Golden Gate Bridge by a suicidal man.
Until she had crawled out of the fog, Taske hadn’t even known exactly what Charlotte would look like, another first for him. For some reason he had expected her to be a dark, petite angel with a beguiling smile, not a fierce-eyed Amazon with as many muscles as she had curves. No doubt her statuesque proportions had drawn some criticism from those who kissed the bony, wasted feet of current fashion, but she made him think of the glory of forgotten eras, when towering warrior queens had been worshiped as goddesses.
Acolytes of Apollo would have made her their high priestess; sunlight had scattered golden streaks through her dark brown hair and kissed her brown eyes with amber flecks. Her tanned skin had a delicious bloom to it, like the rose flush of a ripe peach. He had never met a woman who looked more vital and alive than Charlotte Marena, which made his mission all the more imperative. Something inside her made her glow like a beacon of hope; her mysterious destiny must be directly linked to hundreds if not thousands of other lives.
After she repeated the same question three times, Charlotte fell silent and listened. After a minute and no response from the gunman she shook her head and glanced at Taske. “This guy isn’t a Chicano—a Mexican-American,” she tacked on as an explanation of the term. “I can’t place his accent, either. He’s trying to talk like a street thug but he’s using formal Spanish. He’s also slurring his words.”
“How is that significant?”
“It could be caused by drug use or psychosis.” She hesitated before she said, “Sometimes these guys go off because they’re sick. Whitman, the guy who shot all those people from that tower in Texas back in the sixties, had an aggressive brain tumor.”
Taske heard equal parts of frustration and regret in her voice, and saw the way she kept glancing toward the east. “You can’t negotiate with a diseased mind, Charlotte.”
“I know. Neither can the cops.” She picked up the phone. “Dispatch, Echo one-M-seven, come back.”
“Go ahead, Echo.”
“Please advise SFPD and CHP—”
The high-pitched voice from the tower interrupted her as the sniper shouted at them.
“Stand by, dispatch.” She listened, frowning.
“What is he saying?” Taske prompted.
“I don’t know. Something about white willows.” She turned her head. “‘The time has come for us to go, by day or by night, down into the mysteries of death. I make my tribute,’ or maybe ‘my offering….’”
A shout came from the tower. “¡La Raza Cósmica!”
Her expression grew alarmed. “Oh, God, he’s going to jump.” She shot to her feet. “Señor, por favor, escúchame ahora—”
Charlotte stood too far away for him to pull down, and Taske forgot about the burning, twisting snake wrapped around his own spine as he shot up and staggered forward to shield her with his body. He had his arms around her when she cried out, but not because she had been shot.
A man’s limp body fell from the tower. At first Taske couldn’t make sense of it, until he saw the blood streaking the slack face. An instant later the body slammed into the walkway railing before it flipped and disappeared over the side.
It seemed that the gunman had taken one final life—his own.
Charlotte closed her eyes and turned her face against his chest. She didn’t speak, but her whole body shook violently.
He stroked her back as he stared at the now-empty tower. Although the pain searing his back and side had yet to abate, he felt a sense of overwhelming relief along with a terrible pity.
“I need to check the others,” Charlotte said as she stepped away from him, her voice still raw with emotion. “Can you give me a hand and get the gurney from my rig?”
He wanted to do nothing more than slide to the ground and stay wherever he landed, but he nodded and limped over with her to where her partner and the other victims lay. Every step sent a new jolt of misery along his spine and tore at the edges of the wound in his side. As she pulled her tags from her jacket he hobbled past her to open the back doors of the ambulance. He had to pause for a moment to catch his breath before he unbuckled the strap holding the gurney in place. Pulling it out of the back of the rig almost caused him to fall atop it, and he braced his hands against the side rail as he fought back the pain.
She has enough to deal with now, Taske thought, staring down at his whitened knuckles. I can wait until more help arrives.
Years of stringent self-discipline allowed him to move through the pain until it subsided enough for him to breathe again. With some difficulty he reached down to lock in place the wheels on the extending frame.
Charlotte appeared on the other side of the gurney. If anything, she looked even paler than before. “Sam.”
“Where do you—” He stopped as he saw the man behind her, and the rifle he held pointed at the back of her head. He was the same man who had been shooting from the tower. Taske was so shocked to see him he said exactly what he thought. “You threw someone else off the bridge.”
“Shut up.” The man jerked his chin at the open back of the ambulance. “Inside.”
Before Taske could reply Charlotte said, “Do what he says.”
He pushed the gurney inside and used the open door to hoist himself into the back of the rig. The effort sent him to his knees, but he recovered quickly.
Charlotte followed, turning around at once to face the gunman. “Please stop this. Leave us here; we won’t try to stop you. You can still get away.”
“No one escapes the master.” The gunman’s lips parted, showing beautiful white teeth that had been filed down to sharp points in a shark’s grin. He slammed the doors shut.
Charlotte grabbed the inside handle, jerking on it. “He’s jammed it,” she said to Taske as she spun around, scanning the interior. She went still as the door to the front cab opened and closed and the engine started. “No, he can’t— Damn it.” She pushed past Taske and went to the sliding window, pounding on it with one fist. “Hey, listen to me. You can’t do this; those people out there are in—”
Something hissed, and she coughed and fell back against Taske.
He looked down at her chest, expecting to see blood and a bullet wound, not smoke pouring from a small metal canister in her lap. He held his breath and bent over, trying to grab it, but it rolled off her leg and disappeared under the gurney.
Taske’s eyes burned as he dragged Charlotte to the back of the rig, where he heaved himself against the doors. Metal dented and groaned, but they remained locked. He slammed his shoulder into them until white fire enveloped his spine, felling him as it forced out the breath he was holding.
Taske coughed uncontrollably, but somehow managed to hold on to Charlotte’s limp form. He dragged her close, trying to focus his bleary gaze on her still features. Even if the gunman didn’t kill them both, Samuel knew from the warm wetness he now felt seeping from his side how unlikely it was that he would ever see her face again.
His last thought was of how utterly he had failed her. I wish I had been stronger, Charlotte. Then I might have saved both of us....
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