Cindy Gerard With No Remorse
Luke Colter’s number one rule of self-preservation: Don’t ignore the itch.
The last time he’d blown off the warning, he’d ended up gut-shot and on life support in a San Salvador hospital. So when he felt that first tickle of unease skitter along the back of his neck, he shot straight to attention.
Nothing looked out of sync inside the gently rocking train as it ate up the miles across the Peruvian Andes in the middle of the quiet June night. Still, his heart had kicked up like that of a marathon runner on his last leg, so he methodically scanned for signs of trouble from his seat in the middle of the dimly lit passenger car.
Everything looked status quo, a bunch of tired people making the best of the overnight ride on the hard, narrow seats. Everything smelled status quo, too: the damp wool of the Quechua farmers’ ponchos, stale tobacco smoke, the faint aroma of llama dung on the bottom of someone’s shoe, and the moldy, musty scent that always seemed to permeate enclosed spaces in the Andes.
Had he misread the sensation? At this elevation, the air was so thin that even the locals chewed coca leaves to keep light-headedness and a slew of other altitude sickness issues at bay. And God knew, at three a.m., after two weeks of lugging his medical kit through the mountains from one Quechua village to another, he could be a little off his game.
Face it, Colter. You’ve been off your game since El Salvador.
His hand moved involuntarily to his side. Close to a year later, he still felt the occasional twinge of pain. But it wasn’t the pain that bothered him. More and more lately, he woke up in the night drenched in sweat, reliving the shooting yet again.
Enough, already. He was so not going there tonight, because too easily and way too often he let himself get dragged into that sucking pit of quicksand. A sure way to get killed in his line of work was to think about dying. About almost dying. About being so scared you were gonna die that you made promises you knew you could never keep. Promises to God. Promises to the devil.
Promises to your mom.
At what point is enough, enough, Luke?
He scrubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw and glanced around the train again. The half-full car held a few mestizos, a few misfits like himself, but most on board were Quechua, the indigenous people of Peru. And most of them were asleep, including the teenage boy curled up on the bench seat across the aisle.
The kid, who’d boarded the train several stops back, was out cold, using his backpack for a pillow and his poncho as a blanket. Mildly curious, because he was as bored as he as weary, Luke had been trying to figure the kid out. Nothing about him quite fit in a neat little package. Number one, even though a quick glimpse of the little he could see of the boy’s face told Luke he clearly had Latino blood running through his veins, he was not mestizo. Couldn’t be Quechua, either. He was too tall, too slim, and although his striped wool poncho looked like local goods, the cut and fit of his faded jeans screamed money and American made. Number two, he seemed a little young to be traveling alone in South America, especially this time of night. And number three, the way he wore his navy blue watch cap, so low over his brow that it met the ridiculously huge aviators parked over his eyes—in the dark, no less—smacked of hiding out, like maybe he was trying to conceal his identity.
Or maybe it was just the latest fashion statement of some rich man’s kid who was on a great, indulgent adventure and one day he’d be hitting on girls at the tennis club, retelling tales of his travels through the wildness of Peru. Whatever. Luke was beyond trying to figure the logic of a teenager’s mind, and didn’t care enough to ask.
God, he was tired. Dog dead tired. He could use another week off, but tomorrow it was back to Buenos Aires. Back to the trenches. He swallowed the acid taste of dread.
Suck it up, nancy boy. It’s not like you’ve got a lot of options.
The military and then Black Ops, Inc. had been his life for years. The life he’d always wanted. Yet since San Salvador . . . well. Since San Salvador, his backbone seemed to have gone the way of the dodo bird.
Was his mother right? Had he given enough? Had he had enough? Was that what this erosion of his nerve was trying to tell him?
Bleary-eyed, he stared at the large dust- and fingerprint-smeared windows and pushed back the memory of his mother’s heart-wrenching tears.
Outside, the night scrolled by, star-studded and black. Iron wheels on iron rails rumbled and clacked in a rhythmic static of endless white noise. In front of him, someone snored. Other than that, it was all quiet on the western front.
So . . . back to the itch. False alarm? Short circuit? Too many celebratory pisco sours at the medical team’s farewell party last night? Or was he merely feeling the tension as he headed back into bad-guy-and-bullet-look-out mode after his annual two-week leave from Black Ops, Inc.?
He could use some more time to get his shit back together. Time where his biggest fear wasn’t of dying, but of causing a five-year-old Quechua girl to cry when she saw the needle and syringe containing the vaccine that could save her life.
On a huge yawn, he settled his stained, brown leather fedora lower over his forehead, determined to catch a few z’s before the train hit Cuzco. That’s where he’d catch his flight back to Buenos Aires and return to life
in the kill zone. Crossing his arms over his chest and his battered boots at his ankles, he slumped further down on the hard bench seat and closed his eyes.
He was almost asleep when he felt the itch again.
His eyes snapped open.
Luke Colter’s second rule of self-preservation: Don’t second-guess rule number one.
A split second later, the interior lights blared on like strobes. The brakes engaged, metal screamed against metal, and one hundred fifty tons of iron on steroids waged immediate and full-scale war against the law of inertia.
The car erupted in a cacophony of startled shrieks and yelps as shocked passengers jerked awake, battling a g-force determined to wrench them out of their seats, and damn near tossed Luke off his own perch. He caught himself before he went airborne. The boy across the aisle wasn’t as lucky. He rolled off the bench, slammed against the seat in front of him, and dropped with a thud to the floor.
Luke was about to lean across the aisle to help him up and check for broken bones, when the train ground to a screeching stop.
The screams rose even higher at the front of the car. When Luke glanced up he saw the reason why. Two rifle-wielding banditos had burst inside.
“Manos arribas. Ahora!” Hands in the air. Now!
The gunman’s Spanish was lost on the Quechuas, but he got his point across by aiming a state-of-the-art assault rifle toward the ceiling and firing off several rounds.
“Well, hell.” Luke’s disbelief was outdistanced only by his disgust with these assholes, who were probably going to make him do something he didn’t want to do. And disgust with himself because Mr. Cool-Under-Fire Colter was feeling a little too much like diving out an open window and letting someone else play hero.
At what point is enough, enough?
When there was world peace, he thought sourly. When guns didn’t kill people, and he and Osama Bin Laden sat around a camp fire holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”
Shit. He’d morphed into Miss Frickin’ America.
Get a fucking grip!
Pissed at himself for even thinking about bailing, pissed that his ears were going to be ringing for a week from the close-quarters rifle fire, and royally pissed that he was probably going to have to deal with these yahoos, he reached for the SIG Sauer P238 he always carried on his hip . . . and swore when he came up empty.
Luke Colter’s third rule of self-preservation: Never, ever go anywhere without a gun.
Helluva time to break rule number three.
“Stay down,” he ordered in a strained whisper when he saw that the kid had levered himself up off the floor.
“What . . . what’s happening?” the frightened boy whispered back in English as he gripped the seat in front of him and peeked up over it.
“Nothin’ good.” Never taking his eyes off the action in the front of the car, Luke reached across the aisle,
planted his hand on top of the kid’s wool cap, and pushed him back down. “Stay the hell down.”
Keeping his own profile low, Luke locked on to the gunmen as they systematically worked their way down the aisle demanding cash and jewelry. Slowly, so he wouldn’t draw their attention, he unsnapped the sheath of the Leatherman multi-tool attached to his belt. His frickin’ hand was shaking as he worked his way past the pliers, screwdriver, scissors, and bottle opener, finally locating the three-inch blade folded inside the housing.
Okay, fine. Adrenaline had kicked in, accounting for his unsteady hand. It didn’t mean he couldn’t get on top of this. Didn’t mean he’d totally lost his nerve.
It did mean he had to get his act together. They had two damn big guns, he had a three-inch knife made to cut leather and rope. And since bullets trumped blades any day of the week, he had to figure out some kind of force equalizer.
He shot a scowl skyward, getting madder by the minute. Really? Was it really too much to ask? A lousy two-week vacation? No bullets? No bad guys? Nobody’s life on the line? Especially mine?
Muttering under his breath, he slouched deeper into the seat and prepared to roll into combat mode just in case these guys got too frisky.
He hoped to hell they didn’t.
Yeah, he’d turned into that man. Once upon a time, he’d have relished the thought of putting the hurt on these two cretins. Now he was looking for escape routes.
At what point is enough, enough?
Get out of my head, Mom!
The memory of her standing by his hospital bed in San Salvador, tears tracking down her cheeks as she took in all the tubes and machines keeping him alive, made his gut ache.
“You almost died this time, Luke. What do you have left to prove, son? And for God’s sake, who are you trying to prove it to?”
Same person he’d always tried to prove himself to: his dad, who had never forgiven him for walking away from the family ranch. Old story. Old news.
He’d hated seeing his mom that way. Hated knowing that his parents had dipped into their meager rainy-day fund for the airfare to get to him, knowing even before he’d offered that his dad would be too proud to let Luke reimburse them. But he hated even worse that they’d had to see the horrors of his world.
You almost died this time.
Yeah, so what? Between his SEAL days, his stint with Task Force Mercy, and his current position with the Black Ops, Inc. team, he’d almost died a dozen times. So why had he let El Salvador get to him, turn him into someone he wasn’t proud to be?
Who the hell knew? The only thing he did know was that there was a good chance he was going to die tonight if he didn’t pull his head out of his ass and do what he was trained to do.
He slid the stainless steel housing of the Leatherman up into his sleeve and palmed the blade. Then he sized up the Bad-Ass twins and his odds of taking them out.
They were short and heavily muscled—possibly Peruvians, definitely Latino—and they knew exactly what they were doing as they worked the aisles with the precision of a well-oiled machine. Something about that precision rang alarm bells from here to Lima.
In the first place, this wasn’t one of those jazzed-up sightseeing trains that hauled cash-laden touristas back and forth from Arequipa to Machu Picchu. This was a bare-bones transport train carrying mostly locals who barely scratched out a living raising potatoes and beans. They probably didn’t have any cash, so why target this particular train? And who the hell robbed a train in the middle of the night when it was likely to be half empty?
Something else bothered him. While they dressed like run-of-the-mill thugs, both carried state-of-the-art HK416s dressed up with laser target designators and high-tech holograph scopes. The automatic rifles were souped-up versions of the U.S. military’s M-4, tricked out like Cadillacs on a showroom floor. Big, big bucks. No low-rent bandito had access to that kind of firepower.
So if they weren’t locals, then who the hell were they? He immediately ruled out the possibility of them being terrorists. The government had pretty much gotten El Sendero Luminoso—the Shining Path—under control in this area. Besides, there wasn’t a damn thing of value in these mountains, tactical or otherwise. To top it off, they were speaking Spanish. The prevalent language here was Quechua or Aymara; most of the passengers wouldn’t even understand Spanish, which
the bad boys would have known if they were from around here.
Something was way off-kilter . . . not the least of which was the fact that they seemed to be more intent on searching the faces of the passengers than they were on robbing them. As they drew closer, Luke grew more and more certain that a search, not a robbery, was their main objective. When the kid popped his head up above the seat again and they spotted him, it got real clear, real fast, who was the object of their search.
Bad-ass number one nudged his partner in crime, pulled a photograph out of his pocket, consulted with the other man over it, and pointed in the boy’s direction. Then both gunmen headed straight down the aisle toward him.
“I told you to stay down,” Luke growled, sinking lower in the seat to avoid drawing their attention. “Wanna tell me why those nasty boys are looking for you?”
“Me?” Shock colored the boy’s pinched voice. “They aren’t looking for me. Why would men like that be looking for me?”
The two assholes were closing fast—until one of the passengers panicked. A older Quechua man wearing a bowler hat and sandals made from rubber tires jumped up out of his seat and started running down the aisle. The lead gunman instantly shot him in the back. No hesitation. No mercy. No remorse.
The railroad car erupted in more horrified screams and wails, which the shooter silenced with another blast of his rifle into the ceiling.
Now Luke was royally pissed. There had been no reason to shoot anyone. Yet a man lay dead or dying, shot without provocation.
At what point is enough, enough? When the world was free of scum like this.
A sudden calm washed over him, the combat calm that took him to the place he always went when he knew there was no other option, and where fear didn’t factor in. A place where muscle memory and gut instinct ruled, to get him through the fight.
He glared at the shooter with hard, cool eyes. When the sonofabitch with the quick trigger finger shot that unarmed man, he’d sealed his own fate.