Authors: Allison Brennan
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller
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Nicole Rollins had always been a meticulous planner. She had contingencies for almost every possible scenario, which was why she’d been able to deceive the DEA for fifteen years. People were mostly predictable, and mostly fools.
Even though being arrested wasn’t in her master plan, she had a contingency, and the minute she was arraigned the clock started ticking. Her people knew what to do and when to do it. The time line, by necessity, had to be fluid, but when she was ready, she gave the signal and the countdown began. Nothing was left to chance, because she only had one shot at escaping and she had to get it right.
And if she got it wrong? She’d go out big and take as many of those motherfuckers with her as possible.
But she wasn’t going to get it wrong.
Today marked the end of her old life. Cliché, but true. Nicole sat patiently in the back of the federal prisoner transport van, her face blank. Bored. Defeated.
Boredom and defeat were the farthest things from her mind. Anticipation flowed hot through her veins.
Her feet were shackled and locked to a bolt on the floor. Her hands were cuffed in front of her and attached to a chain around her waist. She wore an orange jumpsuit—she despised orange, it made her skin appear sallow—and her blond hair was now cut short, without concern for style.
Nicole liked her new, short hair. After a trim, it would be fun and sassy. She needed a little fun in her life after being in jail for nearly three months. She’d have to dye it darker, maybe add a few highlights, enough of an appearance change to get by until she could hook up with a plastic surgeon she knew in Monterrey, Mexico. He was good; he’d be able to change the shape of her face and eyes so the feds would be hard-pressed to identify her.
Two armed guards sat with her in the back—one with his back to the front of the truck, the other directly across from her. Another guard drove, and a fourth was in the passenger seat. A steel-reinforced door with a bulletproof window separated the cab from the back. Closed-circuit cameras showed the rear compartment to the guards up front. They were being recorded, but there was no live camera feed. She didn’t care—within thirty minutes she’d be dead or gone. How it happened would be irrelevant.
Two federal SUVs escorted the van, front and back. This was the third time Nicole had been transported from the jail to the federal courthouse. The first two times were uneventful but necessary so her team could adjust last-minute details. Last Monday she went to the courthouse to give the assistant US attorney a juicy morsel to exploit. On Thursday it was to review documentation and sign the plea agreement. After the explosion at the DEA’s evidence locker ten days ago, the AUSA was more than happy to use Nicole as a source of information.
The angry, defeated look on Brad Donnelly’s face as he watched her in the courtroom that day had thrilled her to no end. She won, he lost.
He had far, far more to lose before she was done with him and the people he worked for.
Today the guards were taking her to the courthouse to spill her guts. She’d already agreed to the plea deal. She’d promised to tell everything she knew about Tobias, his operation, the drug and gun pipelines from Mexico into the US, how they laundered money. All in exchange for the federal prison of her choice.
She was a damn good actress—good enough to convince the AUSA and the judge that she was remorseful. Good enough to convince them she would talk.
Nicole was used to stakeouts and long periods of waiting; she remained calm. Very calm. An alert dream state.
Nicole smiled deep inside, so deep that her blue eyes remained blank and her mouth a thin, straight line. Her plan was nearly foolproof. She had contingencies on top of her contingencies, which was why the DEA had never known she was the most dangerous fox in their henhouse.
The transport van slowed as they approached a red light. The lead SUV had already driven through the intersection. The lead car had a sensor that turned red lights green so they wouldn’t even have to slow down. Except now the light was red. They stopped. They had no choice.
A school bus had entered the intersection.
Nicole couldn’t see the bus from the back of the van, but she knew it was there.
She didn’t smile. She didn’t react at all.
Her heart pounded in her chest, adrenaline surging in anticipation. And still, she remained motionless.
Nicole had taken the gamble when she planned her escape that the AUSA would follow standard protocols for a cooperating prisoner, but she also knew that there were some factors that she couldn’t control. Would her former partner Brad Donnelly convince the AUSA to change routes? Would Samantha Archer tell Brad about the transport in the first place? If Brad were in charge, he’d have brought the AUSA to the prison—but Sam always played according to the rules. She was predictable, and so far, Nicole had never been wrong about what her former boss would do.
She wasn’t wrong today, either.
It also helped that she’d stacked the deck, so to speak, by having someone on the inside to ensure that the transport didn’t deviate from protocol. And if they did deviate? She had another plan, though that would have resulted in a higher body count.
This time she didn’t need it.
The guard sitting directly in front of her spoke into his radio. “Report.”
The passenger said, “Traffic stop.”
The guard was suspicious. Too smart for his own good. He said, “It’s supposed to be green all the way.”
“The lead car is holding up across the intersection, we have the tail car, nothing out of the ordinary.”
The guard said, “Run it.”
“Can’t. Traffic—a school bus.”
Nicole smiled and closed her eyes.
The school bus full of children stopped in the middle of the intersection.
“Shit,” the driver said. He radioed immediately. “Alpha-One, we have a situation. Code Yellow.”
The lead SUV responded. “Back up, re-route parallel to the north.”
“Negative,” Alpha-Two responded. “No way to turn around without exiting the vehicle and directing traffic.”
Alpha-One said, “Code Red, be alert. Backup en route.”
The school bus didn’t move. Three masked men emerged with fully automatic weapons and opened fire on the front of the transport van.
The windshield was bulletproof, but enough pressure from high-caliber weapons and even bulletproof glass breaks.
In less than ten seconds both cops in the cab were dead.
It had been Nicole’s idea to use the school bus. No cop would return fire when the shooters were shielded by children.
The guards in the back of the transport van had their guns out—one aimed at Nicole, one aimed at the door. The smart guard who’d sensed a problem before the problem occurred reported through the open mike, “Two officers down! We’re under attack. Three shooters minimum, possible fourth in the bus, multiple hostages.”
There was no response.
“Alpha-One, this is Zeta-One. I repeat, officers down. Under attack. Hostages in bus. Confirm.”
“Alpha-Two! Are you there?”
One of the two masked men climbed up the front of the truck, through the broken glass, and extracted keys from one of the dead guards.
“You’ll never get away with this,” the smart guard told Nicole. “They’ll hunt you down like a rabid dog.”
She didn’t say a word, just stared at him.
He turned his gun on her. “I die, you die.”
“And then all those children die,” she whispered.
His face fell. She smiled. Just a small smile, but her excitement was growing and she couldn’t contain her glee.
Sirens roared from seemingly every direction, coming closer.
“Open the door,” Nicole said.
The armored van had to be unlocked from the outside, but opened from the inside. Her team could get in because they had the right tools, but it would take longer.
Time was critical.
“Officer, if you do not open the door in ten seconds, my people will start killing those children, one by one, until you do.”
“Don’t do it, Isaac,” the second guard said.
“Seven seconds. I’m not bluffing.”
The smart guard, Isaac, was torn. She saw it in his eyes. This was the type of dilemma they’d been trained for, even when the threat was rare. Did you let a prisoner go to save innocent lives? It was a fair trade, as far as Nicole was concerned. But in training, you never gave in to terrorists. In the textbooks, there were hard-and-fast rules. All criminals were terrorists. Do not negotiate. Wait for the hostage rescue team.
Isaac glanced out the front and saw a gunman emerge from the bus holding a child in front of him.
Children … that was a wild card. You could train for it, but until you were in a situation with the barrel of a gun at the back of a child’s head, you really didn’t know what you would do.
Isaac got up and turned the knob. The click told her it was open.
“Put the gun down and you’ll be spared,” she said.
“Don’t do it! They’ll kill us both!”
She looked Isaac in the eye. “I’m not lying.”
The door opened and Isaac put his gun down and his hands up.
The other guard didn’t. He didn’t get a shot off before a bullet pierced his skull.
One of the masked men quickly unlocked Nicole’s shackles. She picked up the gun that Isaac had dropped. “No one may believe it, Isaac, but sleep well because you will save those kids.”
“Will?” he said through clenched teeth.
“Time?” she asked one of her men.
“Eight fifty-four and thirty seconds. Thirty-one, thirty-two—”
Nicole cut him off and turned back to Isaac. “You have five minutes, twenty-ish seconds to get those kids off the bus before the bomb goes off. And if you are wondering, there really is a bomb. It
explode at nine a.m.”
* * *
Nicole sprinted alongside her rescuers. The police would be closing in fast, but they had an escape route already in place. A car idled in the alleyway off the main street and Nicole and two of her men jumped in. Those who’d stayed with the bus had their own escape route.
The driver glanced at Nicole. “You cut your hair.”
She touched Joseph’s face. How she’d missed him! “It’ll grow back.”
“I like it.”
She smiled as Joseph sped away. “Do we have Santiago locked down?”
“Tight. Dover is running the operation.”
“That means there can be no witnesses. We can’t risk exposing him right now.”
“He knows the drill. Everything is on schedule.”
She pulled a gun, watch, and cell phone from the glove compartment. They listened to the police band as Joseph traversed downtown San Antonio. It didn’t take long for Isaac the smart guard to alert authorities to the bomb threat.
It was no idle threat.
She glanced at her watch, her stomach tingling with anticipation. She stripped off the jumpsuit and pulled on the simple black dress that Joseph tossed her.
They were almost to Amistad Park when she heard the explosion in the distance.
Distractions always worked.
The explosion was the cue for the helicopter to land. It had been painted to look like a news chopper. She and Joseph got out of the car and ran across the soccer field to where the chopper had set down. The men in the back jumped into the front seats and drove off to dump the vehicle. Less than three minutes after the explosion, Nicole and Joseph were strapped into the helicopter and lifting off from the grass.