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Freeing herself from under the bodies would not be easy. It would take all the strength Rachel had. The blood made it harder. She closed her eyes and pictured a different time and place. The tangle of lifeless arms and legs, the weight of leaking torsos and heads, became friends playing a childhood game of stacks-on. Move, she thought. Get out of here. She slipped, and shifted, and slid. Got nowhere.
It’s useless. I’m trapped.
She could smell the death around her. Could taste the coppery blood, like an old penny in her mouth. Hear the silence. She couldn’t move her arms enough to be useful – they were pinned beneath hundreds of pounds of dead weight. She squirmed and wriggled. The blood was tacky and thick. Gallons of it. Multiple gunshot wounds. High-powered assault rifles. New weapons, nothing like the ones the militia used. The cacophony still rang in her ears; the screams echoed. Otherwise, it was silent. She moved fast and shuffled on her back, but she was getting nowhere on the slick ground, and a body above her shifted, blood pooling onto her face, forcing her to cough and gag and start to hyperventilate.
You’ll die like this.
Rachel Muertos kept her head tilted to the side and closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Something else. Anything else. Somewhere happy. Another time. She pictured her mother, a career librarian in San Francisco elementary schools, and it worked better than the image of the playground. Her mother had been through hell to get into America, and she’d survived. She’d thrived. Thinking of her mother’s smiling face took her away from the reality around her as she lay still. Her breathing relaxed. Her senses settled. The screaming, black silence gave way to actuality. First came noises. She heard dripping, and the wind that blew through the long-ago bombed-out warehouse. The dripping sound was blood. Rachel fought to stay composed. She pictured her mother’s face, that familiar smile, and thought back to being in bed as a child in Los Angeles when they’d first arrived in the United States. It was a few months before they’d moved north and settled and she’d started preschool and she could remember her mother reading her books in English. It was like they were both still there, in that moment long ago. The memory calmed her. She felt hope.
Move, bit by bit.
Rachel started to roll her shoulders; her arms were pinned to her sides. She tried her feet; her heels moved up and down like paddles. She shifted and slipped and tried to move, just a little, away from the blood that now drizzled onto her neck. In her mind’s eye it was like trying to get out from beneath an avalanche of bookshelves, all that mass, all those words not spoken, her mother cheering her on. The reality seemed made-up, unreal, but she knew what happened. She’d seen it. Heard it. Real-time. Hyper real, really, because when the killing had started, everything had amplified.
Stop. Rest. Relax. Try again.
She managed to move just enough to keep her face clear, and then stopped moving to regain her strength. The heat kept the blood slick and viscous, even now, almost two hours after the event. Drip-drip- drip. The heady funk of body fluids created a humid environment. Rachel breathed through her mouth to avoid the smell. She heard a noise. A bird, perhaps, or a person. Far off. Like shuffling. Rachel made a noise. Not a call for help, but a faint hello. She felt it was safe now. To make noise. To create movement. To try to emerge from the tangle of death that had kept her alive. To find safety. But her fright and initial reaction, which was to play dead as the bodies piled around and then upon her, was proving her downfall. The strength had gone out of her. All that mass. Her arms and legs tingled. The weight pressing on her body meant her chest could only rise and fall in small, rapid motions. She knew that if she breathed out fully, her lungs would not have the power to inflate again. She was hot and tired and getting more and more light-headed.
You have to keep trying. You have to save yourself.
It took her ten minutes of wriggling and paddling and shifting to realise that she couldn’t get out. Not on her own. She didn’t have the strength. She’d spent too long in the one spot, with five, or six, or more, bodies piled on her. Then her breath started to quicken as she thought that maybe she’d been shot and couldn’t feel the pain of the wound for the numbness of the weight upon her and the time elapsed. Maybe her spine was compromised. She started to scream but knew it was useless because she could barely let any sound out. No-one had heard the gunshots and carnage and thought to investigate it. No-one would hear her scream and investigate it. But it was all she could do, and she had to do something. She screamed. The sound was pitiful. Her lungs could inflate maybe halfway, and she could only expel half that. The sound was of a small child, and she again pictured herself sitting up reading with her mother not long after they’d arrived in the United States to make a new life.
Your mother went through hell. Get out of this, for her.
She yelled. A little louder this time. Stopped. Kept still. Movement. A noise. Hope. Or a threat.
Then, one of the bodies shifted. Slid right off. Thumped as it landed. And then another. The release of pressure was like being born again. She could breathe, and see, and hear, and move. Another body fell to the concrete floor. And another.
And then a face, above her. One of the other Americans. He’d come back, to help her. He shifted the bodies and helped her up to a seated position, and looked her in the eyes as he spoke.
‘Find Jed Walker.’
Seven thousand miles away, Jed Walker took his first unaided steps in four days. The nurse was close by, as was the physiotherapist, and he waved them away and gave a thumbs up. This was nothing. A nick. A ricochet of a pistol round. Through the quad. Along it, actually, a groove half an inch wide and three inches long. Surface muscle damage, some skin grafted from his hip to make the cosmetic repair. Plenty of physiotherapy to regain full functionality. Walker was prepared for that. He’d been shot before, twice in fact, and he’d got through both those rehabs just fine. This was nothing on those instances. Besides, being shot wasn’t the worst that had happened to him. He stopped and turned and headed back down the corridor of UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco and he knew that even with the full weight on his leg he’d be fine to go home soon. He’d be slowed down for a while, sure, but as long as the stitches held and the wound healed, he’d be up to speed in no time. He wouldn’t be anywhere near full capacity for a few weeks, then he might have a slight limp for a couple of months after that while his muscles adjusted to their new arrangement, but he’d be fine.
Which is okay, Walker figured. So long as nothing urgent comes up.
Rachel Muertos woke to the beep of intensive-care equipment.
‘Good morning,’ a voice said. ‘Do you remember your name? Where you are?’
She saw that the speaker was a man in military uniform. ACUs, to be precise – the US Army Combat Uniform, all patterned and baggy and ready to see action. He was a veteran from the campaign in Afghanistan, because he was wearing a legacy camouflage pattern that had since been replaced. Officer’s rank sewn on his bib, but she didn’t know what it meant. Army Surgeon’s patch attached above his name plate and on his left sleeve pocket flap. She knew that symbol. He stood next to her bed. Close. Her eyes lingered over the medical patch, which depicted a modified caduceus, with snakes entwining a winged sword rather than the conventional staff. The sum of it all was a relief to see, and she smiled inwardly at the recognition. Being here meant she was no longer in Syria. But where?
‘What do you remember?’ he asked.
‘Your medical patch,’ Muertos said. ‘It’s wrong.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not your fault; it’s the Army’s mistake, from way back. In the US Army context, the staff is replaced by a sword. But the caduceus symbol is the wrong symbol: it has nothing to do with medicine. The Rod of Asclepius, that’s what should have been used. That has a single snake, rather than the two-snake caduceus design; it has ancient associations with trade, trickery, and eloquence.’
The army doctor was quiet, watching Muertos. Beyond the surgeon and his pen light that was following her eyes, she could see the wall of a building. Not a field hospital. There was airconditioning. The bleep of medical equipment. Overhead lighting. A sterile smell.
‘Your name?’ As he spoke he pocketed his pen light and then made notes on her medical chart. ‘Can you tell me your name?’
‘Rachel,’ she replied. ‘My name is Rachel Maria Muertos.’
‘Do you know where you are, Rachel?’
‘You’ve been told.’
‘We had this same chat yesterday,’ he replied, taking a step closer, again shining the light in her eyes, then moved back. ‘I told you where you were. Do you remember that? Do you recall what I told you?’
Rachel paused, then shook her head. Then went still. She became aware of another presence in the room. Another man. A big man. In the far corner. In shadows. Dressed in a suit. Official.
Rachel asked the surgeon, ‘Where am I?’
The doctor moved away and turned towards the other man. ‘She’s not ready for questioning. She needs more time. Her memory, it’s coming and going, but she’s not ready.’
The suited man stepped from the shadows. Rachel could just make him out. Unfamiliar. Beyond big. He was huge. Broad shoulders. When he got closer, she looked away. There was something about him. He was aged about forty, his head shiny under the lights. Strong jaw. A nose that had been broken more than once. Wide-set dark eyes. A brute.
‘Two minutes,’ he said to the doctor, who shrugged and moved back to give him room. The suited man’s voice was deep, gruff. American, but unspecific. Maybe west coast. But he had no tan, and there was nothing relaxed about him, which were things Muertos associated with her adopted home state of California. This guy looked like he had a high degree of Neanderthal in his DNA make-up. He was easily as wide and tall as a door. No fat. All muscle. His suit bulged at the biceps. He didn’t wear a tie, because there was no clothing brand in the world that made a dress shirt to button up around a neck that size, let alone a tie long enough to wrap around it. A chill ran through Muertos as she felt the man staring at her.
‘Rachel, I’m with Homeland Security,’ he said. ‘We spoke yesterday, you and I.’
‘We . . . did?’ She looked up at him, and forced herself not to look away. She searched his face, and though she saw nothing familiar she now knew why there was something odd about him. He wasn’t just bald, he was completely bald – no eyebrows, no eyelashes, no shadow of a beard. Just dark eyes set in a big face. The eyes were calculating. Fixed on her, like a predator.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘What do you remember?’
‘Where am I?’
‘You’re at Ramstein, Germany. Military hospital. You were told that yesterday. What do you remember about how you got here?’
‘How’d I get here?’
He paused, his eyes searching her face, then said, ‘You remembered all that crap about the US Army medical patch, and you don’t remember what brought you here?’
‘What? No. No, I don’t. How’d I get here? Please, tell me.’
He looked around the room like he was frustrated. She could see a pulse ticking away at a thick vein in his temple.
‘You showed up in hospital in Damascus, Syria, two days ago,’ he said. He looked at her. His eyes, set back below a big bony brow, searched her own for any sort of telling sign. ‘When you were brought in, you were covered in blood.’
‘Yes. A doctor from Médecins Sans Frontières thought to run checks on it. It was the blood of at least six separate people.’
‘I . . .’
‘Whose blood was it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you remember about Syria?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Don’t play with me.’
‘I don’t remember. What did I say yesterday?’
He watched her in silence. Five seconds. Ten. Then he said, ‘That doctor from MSF said that you were talking, in some kind of a delirious state, from the time you were brought in to when he had to sedate you. You were saying the same thing, over and over.’
‘What was I saying?’
‘You can’t remember?’
‘Could I remember it yesterday?’
The man watched her, as though her question were a test. The vein ticked away, the pulse escalated, as if Muertos’s lack of memory was stressful.
He eventually said, ‘You were in severe shock, but you’re otherwise unharmed. Delirious, they said. But I need you to think, Rachel. Do you remember anything of what happened in Damascus? Anything at all?’
‘Why was I in Damascus? How did I get there?’ She looked across to the doctor. ‘How – how did I get here?’
‘Look at me,’ the Homeland agent said. ‘Rachel, look at me. That’s it. Now, think. Do you remember anything that can help us?’
Rachel Muertos was silent.
‘Find Jed Walker,’ he said. ‘Over and over. That’s what you were saying. Find Jed Walker.’
Rachel’s eyes were blank. ‘Find . . . Jed Walker?’
The Homeland agent nodded and leaned closer. Then, in a tone that suggested she should summon an answer, asked, ‘Who is Jed Walker?’
‘I . . . I don’t . . .’ Muertos started to breathe fast, and the heart- rate monitor spiked. ‘I don’t . . . where . . . How am I . . . Who . . .’
‘Agent Krycek, she’s not ready,’ the doctor said, moving back into the light and taking Muertos’s wrist in his hand. Her heart rate started to calm. ‘She needs more time.’
Agent Krycek stared at the army doctor.
The doctor looked down to Muertos. ‘Rachel, we’ll give you more time. You need rest.’
Rachel was silent. She watched the Homeland agent, Krycek, as he stared at the doctor. The doctor was unflinching amid the weird, close to volatile, tension.
Krycek’s face turned to Muertos and he gave her a look that could have been read as wary. Certainly serious. Curious. Suspicious.
‘I’ll be back, same time tomorrow morning,’ he said to her. ‘We’ll talk more then. You will remember.’
Jed Walker left hospital a day after Rachel Muertos, but he didn’t know it and he wouldn’t know her name for another five minutes.
The woman standing in front of him he did know. As well as you could know a person. And then some.
‘Hello there,’ Eve said to Walker, and wrapped her arms around him. He was 230 pounds and six-three, and Eve’s hands barely touched around his back as he leaned his chin on her head. He was in his hospital gown, standing next to his bed. She wore a yellow dress that showed off her tanned arms and legs. Her chestnut hair was back in a ponytail and smelled of the ocean. Her eyes were lined with black ink and framed by long eyelashes. Walker was lost in the moment. ‘Husband.’
Walker said, ‘You haven’t called me that in . . .’
‘Probably since we separated.’ Eve let go and looked up at him. ‘How’d we ever let that happen?’
‘I’m pretty sure I let it happen, and you forced it to happen.’
The smile was still on her face. ‘I can’t even remember why now. Can you?’
‘Something to do with you not being able to share me with all my work out there, you know, saving the world and all.’ Walker stripped off his gown and pulled on his black cotton shirt, buttoned it up.
‘Oh, that’s what you used to do . . .’ Eve stood on tiptoe and kissed his lips.
‘Used to do. I like that. Past tense.’ Walker sat on the edge of the bed and started with his jeans. ‘So, why is it that you’re so enamoured with me again?’
‘Enamoured? No. Relieved.’
‘Same-same.’ He leaned back on the bed as Eve helped him with his jeans and socks and boots.
‘You didn’t have your meds?’ Eve asked, motioning to the plastic cup of pills by the bed.
‘Don’t you read the news? Opiates like that are a gateway drug to addiction. Next thing you know I’m vicodined up to my eyeballs, and when that loses its charm I’ll be chasing some Blue Sky. Uh-uh. Too many of my old buddies in the Air Force got hooked on prescription meds.’
‘Too many of them died, too. Before they got the chance to see the inside of a hospital.’
‘So, what’s that mean? I should take my meds because I’m the lucky one?’
‘I’m saying the medical staff know what they’re doing, Jed.’
‘I’d rather feel what my leg can do. It’s fine.’
Eve was quiet as he pulled his boots on, then said, ‘You nearly
died on me.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘If I’m going to go,’ Walker said, standing up and pulling on the jacket Eve had brought him; like the rest of his new outfit, it fit like it was tailored for him. It suited the airconditioned environment of the hospital, not needed outside if the bright shiny morning out his window and Eve’s dress were anything to go by. ‘That’s how I want to go. On you. Or you on me. That’s probably better for you, right? Don’t want to be squashed.’
‘Can you stop joking around?’ Eve pushed him playfully in the chest. ‘You’re a 39-year-old man, and I’m being serious. And by serious I mean this is the last time I’m picking you up from hospital. Ever.’
‘Okay, sure, play the age card.’ Walker pulled her in close. ‘But aren’t you older than me?’
‘I should get the doctor,’ Eve said, smiling. ‘I think you’re having memory problems.’
‘Six months older? Seven?’
‘Respect your elders, that’s all I’ll say.’ She kissed him again. ‘I’ve had worse injuries,’ he said, his arms around her. ‘And been
in far worse situations.’
‘Ten tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; yes, the whole ward has heard your stories.’ Eve shifted her arms up around his neck. ‘But those wars were not like this. This was different.’
‘I’ve been shot before.’
‘Twice, yes; all the pretty nurses here have heard your boasting.’
‘It’d take more than a bullet or three to stop me.’
‘You nearly bled to death, you big oaf, you know that?’
‘You underestimate my liver. And blood stores. And passion.’
‘Passion to live?’
‘Not to die. Same-same.’
‘Jed . . .’
‘Baby steps.’ He squeezed her tighter. ‘Besides, not wanting to die? That right there is a state of mind that’s kept me alive all this time.’
‘You sure picked a funny occupation with that kind of outlook
‘Most of the people I served with didn’t want to die young.’
‘There’s some bat-shit crazy people in the military, just like any-
He let her go and they headed out of the room, Eve leading the way and reaching back to hold Walker’s hand. As they stood in the large open reception area of the fourth floor, Walker paused and looked back. The unmade bed. The EKG machine on its stand. The small table covered in newspapers and the pen he’d used for the crossword and Sudoku. The window with the impossibly blue sky beckoning beyond.
‘You look like you’re going to miss this place,’ Eve said.
Walker looked to her and smiled. ‘One last look, since I won’t see the inside of an emergency or recovery room until I’m about ninety, right?’
Eve looked at him sideways. ‘Your father’s still out there, so I know you’re just saying what I want to hear right now.’ She took a step in to him and placed a finger over his mouth when he was about to speak. ‘No, let me finish. Maybe you have in your mind some kind of plan to not run out there and find your father. Okay. That’s great. Or maybe it’s just the painkillers, or lack of, doing the thinking for you. But Jed, look, I get it, and you know that. I was an Army brat; I know duty and honour and service better than any of the girls you ever met way back when, and I still get it. And I understand that you can never turn your back on that. But you need time off from it all, okay? Time away. It’ll be good for you. Your father and whatever he was a part of be damned, right? Right?’
‘Right.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘You’re right. But now is beyond being just good for me. It’s good for us.’
‘Long time coming, some might say.’ Eve smiled up at him and squeezed him tight. ‘Some might even say it’s a lifetime too long.’
Walker knew that Eve was referring to his military service, and beyond. About something he’d said to her, way back when, on their engagement shortly after he’d graduated from the Air Force Academy: My work won’t pull me away forever. But it had. The war on terror led to his transition from the Air Force to near-on a decade in the CIA’s pointy end of things. Then there was that last year of federal employment, of not quite being able to let things go, in the form of a short stint at the State Department, trying to unravel what his father had started. But try as he might, pretend as he did, he could never fully turn his back and shirk all responsibility. He didn’t have a choice in the matter – he’d been dragged along, by his father, and he couldn’t let it go until he had answers that were well overdue. But in that moment, right then, where he was holding onto Eve, all else seemed superfluous to a life with her. He no longer felt the need to put his own life on the line to save people he didn’t know. Not now. Not when he had this. He’d be mad otherwise. But . . .
‘That’s all behind me,’ Walker said, looking around the ward from where they stood in the negative space between the nurses’ station and the lift lobby. It was a constant hum of activity, the medical staff talking and trading information and passing tablet computers and old-school files and clipboards to various hospital staff, assigning activities and chores with professional aplomb. Near the lifts was a seating area with vending machines and old magazines in a rack, next to the three sets of stainless-steel lift doors, and the fire stairs. ‘So, where to from here?’
‘I got us a hotel downtown with views over the Bay. Figured we can live off room service and binge watch some TV for a week or so. You wait here, invalid. I’ll bring the car to the pick-up area, call you when I’m there.’
‘I can walk fine.’
‘Do as I say,’ Eve said, passing him his cell phone. ‘You’re going to do as I say, all week, Mr Walker, you got that? It’s time someone looked after you for a change.’
Walker smiled. ‘Sounds too good to be true.’
Eve headed for the lift and pressed the call button, then looked over her shoulder and gave him a look. That look. He’d seen it a thousand times, and it never failed. It was a sense of I get you, and don’t you ever believe otherwise.
Walker was silent. He’d known Eve since high school, and they’d been the best of friends before anything or anyone else important had entered his life. And that seemed to hold true now, in this truce of sorts. Reconciliation. But he felt, in his gut, that it was illusory. He watched her wave a brief goodbye. He worried that he was still unable to commit to anything like the normal life and mutual love and respect that she deserved. Not while his father was out there, with Zodiac. It nagged and clawed at him.
The lift pinged. Out of the opening doors came a woman, and she brushed past Eve and scanned the room. Eve went into the lift and waved at him and the doors closed again.
The woman looked around the recovery ward and then started towards the nurses’ station, but then stopped – she did a double-take, looking to her left, eyeing up Walker. Her eyes locked on his face and she headed straight for him. She was about the same height and size as Eve, about the same age, her hair jet black and cut at her shoulders. Her skin was a dark tan and her features and her body shape broadcast that she had Central or South American roots in her family.
‘Jed Walker,’ she said, stopping close into his personal space. There was a panic in her eyes, urgency in her demeanour. ‘My name’s Rachel Muertos. You need to listen to me, and follow what I say. I’m here to get you out of here. Your life’s in danger and time’s ticking, so listen hard.’
‘Excuse me?’ Walker said. He looked from the woman who introduced herself as Rachel Muertos and glanced around the ward. The scene, which he’d seen plenty of times, was purely normal. The lift pinged again. An orderly wheeled in a guy Walker knew from rehab.
‘We don’t have much time,’ Muertos said, glancing over her shoulder. ‘There are people coming here to kill you.’
‘Jed Walker is right there in Reacher’s rear-view mirror.’ Lee Child.
In war-torn Syria, a massacre survivor is pulled from beneath a pile of bodies. She is given one instruction: 'Find Jed Walker.'
Walker is ex-CIA - a man who thought he was long out of the game. Discovering a terror outfit is running people-smuggling from the Middle East and into the United States, he is drawn back in to fight their evil trade. At first Walker thinks these human traffickers are driven purely by profit and greed. But it is much worse than that - and it has ties to the highest levels of power.
As the body count rises, and deadly enemies stalk from the shadows, Walker uncovers the shocking truth behind an operation intended to bring America to its knees. As he attempts to make things right, Jed Walker will learn the true cost of life - and pay a devastating price.
'A terse, tense brand of hard-boiled action suspense . . . addictive.' THE AGE
DARK HEART is book four in the Jed Walker series. (Note: you can read them in any order)