Desert Fire

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Three

Payton

Time stands still as Cadmar spins out of the way. But he isn’t fast enough. The bullet grazes his right shoulder, making him grunt and his eyes bug out while he storms toward us. We stare in shock, none of us able to move.

“Get in the bedroom,” he commands, herding us into Conner’s and my room before going straight to the bed. “Conner, give me a hand.”

Conner rushes over, helping Cadmar lift the entire bed frame, mattress and all. While they struggle to adjust it to cover the window, three agents dressed in black uniforms move through the backyard with guns held low.

“How did they find us so quickly?” Kay asks with her brow knit together, holding her gun down in front of her pajama-clad hips.

“I don’t know,” Cadmar growls, coming over to us. Blood drips down his arm and hand, but he ignores it. The metallic scent stings my nose, so I breathe through my mouth to avoid gagging. I keep myself from asking if he’s okay, because now isn’t the time to tend wounds. “They’re wearing uniforms, as you saw. They want this to look like an official arrest, but they are not here to detain. They will kill us if they get the chance. You all get that, right?” We nod, including Conner, which makes my stomach knot with guilt. He shouldn’t be here. “Good,” he nods, gazing out the door once more.

“Cadmar,” I whisper, but he jerks his head around as if I shouted at him. “What’s the plan?”

“This is a shitty setting, but we can do this,” he assures, face smooth, calm. “I’ll look out first, get a gauge of things. Kay, I’m going to go across the hall to the bathroom after I get a sense of what’s going on; I want you behind me.” He pauses, looking at the rest of us while someone pounds on the front door.

It’s silent for a couple seconds before the sounds of the front door splintering off its hinges and the glass of the back door shattering to the floor bring chaos with them. We’ll be okay…we can handle this. I take a deep breath, squeezing the grip of my Glock, before Cadmar’s gaze snaps to me.

“I’ll signal for you,” he tells me before glancing at Conner. “Conner, if you get a shot, take it. My daughters know not to hesitate, you can’t either.” Conner nods with his jaw tight, holding his gun with more confidence than before, which makes me proud and nauseous at the same time. He shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t have to worry about getting this kind of blood on his hands. Then Cadmar jabs a finger at Reiley with a glare, pulling me from my worry. “You stay put, no matter what. Do not argue with me.”

She glares daggers at him, but he turns away from us again while we listen to boots thudding lightly through the house. They’ll reach us any moment now. Cadmar stands inside the doorway, leaning against the wall listening, waiting for one of them to move down the hall. Light footfalls move toward us. Cadmar stiffens before peaking around the doorway again. He yanks backward, cursing under his breath.

A round of muffled shots pierce the doorframe, splintering the wood, shards of it flying. Cadmar closes his eyes, takes a deep breath before swinging out into the open and firing three silenced rounds. He pulls back behind the doorframe when yelling sounds in the hall, coupled with loud thuds from injured agents falling against the walls and floor.

Cadmar holds three fingers up to Kay. “Stay behind me,” he tells her before glancing at me. “Cover us.”

He hurries into the hallway, firing four shots. Kay rushes after him, shooting a few rounds, as well. Loud grunts sound from the agents, accompanied by barked commands, while more shots are fired at Kay and Cadmar. I glance in the hallway, shooting at one of the guys about to fire at them again, getting him in the shoulder right as they make it into the bathroom, barely unscathed. I jerk back and Conner grips my shoulder, spinning me to face him. His wide eyes shift back and forth, his fingers digging into my skin, but we don’t have time for hesitation.

“Conner, it’s going to be okay,” I whisper on a

plea.

He jerks his head back and forth, but I brush his

hand off. “Please be careful,” he chokes out.

I nod once before glancing at Reiley, who stands behind Conner with her arms crossed and a glare in place. She may be pissed, but she’ll be alive, period. I crouch down, looking at Cadmar and Kay across the hall. He motions with a hand, telling me he’s going out and Kay and I will flank him. We’re going to charge them. No hesitation, even with the knot tightening in my throat. He glances around one last time, more bullets piercing the wall by the bathroom when he pulls back. Looking at me, he holds up four fingers, then motions two are on either side. He says something to Kay before turning back to me, giving the go-ahead.

I take a deep breath when he swings out, Kay going high behind his left shoulder, while I squat down on his right side. They fire their guns while I hone in on my target to the right. Aiming for his shoulder, I take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger. My shot may be muffled, but this miniature cannon bucks in my hand right before the bullet embeds in the man’s shoulder, probably shattering it. He’s thrown toward the kitchen, slamming against the wall. His gun clatters to the wood floor and blood smears down the beige paint as he sinks to the ground.

Both Kay and Cadmar’s targets are on the floor as well, putting the body count at six now. Cadmar forges ahead, Kay and I cautiously following him. While we walk over the groaning, injured men, Cadmar kicks their weapons down the hall behind us. We’re almost to the opening when the last agent swings around on the left side, his gun pointed right at Kay. Before she can fire, Cadmar lunges forward, grabbing the guy’s wrists and twisting them. The agent’s gun falls to the floor; then Cadmar punches him in the throat before pulling him forward, smashing his knee into the agent’s face.

While his fists slam into the agent’s face with a sick cracking sound, Kay and I walk over the bodies, inspecting the kitchen and living room. The agents have black SWAT uniforms on, but they aren’t police uniforms. The only patch on them is a small golden shield with a capital “E” in the center of it on their breast pockets. These are the Elites’ boys for sure, which is surprising because of how easily we took care of them. I breathe through my mouth some more in order to ignore the revolting metallic scent of the blood splattered on the walls and floor. The sight still makes my stomach roll and heave, but I keep the queasiness at bay.

We move to the entryway, Cadmar still taking his anger out on the poor battered agent, when two hulking frames stride through the front door, taking up the entire entryway. Their bulging muscles and thick arms strain against the black suits they’re wearing. Both of their heads are shaved and their teeth are bared in contorted smiles. The other SWAT uniformed agents were the disposable ones, the child’s game; these are the real agents. Kay and I stare with our mouths hanging open at the guns pointed at us by the towering men. We break Cadmar’s number one rule; we hesitate.

The one on the right charges Kay. Before she’s able to shoot, or do anything, he knocks the gun from her hand with one blurred movement. I’m forced to look away since the other agent is already in front of me, trying to grab the gun from my hand. I pull back to block his advance, but my efforts are irrelevant because I’m shoved out of the way, stumbling backward. I land on my ass with an umph while Conner decks my assailant. He barely falters before it’s a blur of fists, accompanied by the sound of flesh meeting flesh, bones crunching. I want to stop it or help, but I’m distracted by Cadmar wrapping a hand around the back of the other agent’s thick, tattooed neck, who was almost to the door with an unconscious Kay slung over his shoulder.

My heart pounds in my chest, panic freezing me to the spot. Cadmar yanks him back by his neck then elbows him in the face. The agent only grunts, wiping blood from his mouth before sneering at Cadmar, who appears to be suppressing his strength so he doesn’t hurt Kay, because I know he could easily take this guy out. The agent releases her, letting her flop to the floor with this awful thud. Cadmar engages the agent full- force while I scramble toward Kay’s crumpled form.

Rolling her over, I pull her into my arms and drag her away from the commotion, ignoring my screaming shoulder. Even though it’s healing, the stitches stretching from the effort of pulling her makes me want to vomit. She comes to right when I get to the archway, gasping awake, her limbs flailing against me as if she thinks the agent still has her. She shoves away from me, scooting against the wall behind her with wide eyes.

I hold my hands out. “It’s okay,” I tell her while her head jerks around looking from Conner to Cadmar still wrestling around, banging into the walls and small bit of furniture.

She wipes away the blood dripping from her nose, staying silent while she takes long, deep breaths. With her conscious and okay, my gaze returns to the brawling Neanderthals. Cadmar has his agent pinned to the wall by the throat and is just demolishing the guys face with his fist. I’m not surprised he’s winning, even though he’s about the same size as the agent; this is Cadmar we’re talking about. He might actually kill him, which makes me want to retch all over again.

I’m about to tell him to stop, but my gaze lands on Conner, who isn’t quite losing his fight, but he also isn’t winning. His face is bruised and bloodied, but so is the agent’s and they keep swinging at each other. Is this what it’s like when Conner’s in one of his fights? I scramble to my feet, not willing to watch him get beaten any longer. Looking around the floor, I find my gun discarded only a few feet away. I snatch it up and swing around to point it at the agent, who’s about to hit Conner again.

“Stop!” I shout, pointing the gun right at his head with steady hands.

He and Conner instantly drop their arms, both staring at me like I’m some pariah, while breathing in quick gasps. Cadmar spins around at the sound of my voice, the agent he mutilated slumping to the floor. The agent by Conner smirks at me, actually smirks, as if he thinks I won’t do it, that I won’t shoot him if he keeps going. He has no idea. I’ve killed to protect Conner before; I will do it again. But then, Cadmar advances on him, also with a gun pointed at his head, coming to a stop when the barrel touches the agent’s temple.

“She may not, but I will,” Cadmar snarls, making the agent’s smirk disappear. His jaw tightens and his eyebrow does this weird twitching thing. I keep my gun up, just in case, while glancing between Conner, Cadmar, and the agent. “Knees,” Cadmar growls, but the agent’s leer returns.

Oh, God. If I were him, I would listen; Cadmar has a dangerous air about him, which seems far more terrifying than I’ve ever experienced with him before. With the awful sneer still in place, the agent slowly lowers to his knees.

“How did you find us?” Cadmar grounds out. The agent scoffs and Cadmar shoves the gun into his temple, making his head tilt to the side. “You don’t want to tell us? I will get the answers; it just might get a little messy.”

My stomach rolls, palms sweating instantly at the thought of watching him torture this guy. From the gray pallor Conner turns, I’m sure he doesn’t want to witness that either. Before I can protest, the agent snorts. “You don’t think I can hold up under torture?” His tone is flat, emotionless, making me believe he probably could. He bares his teeth at Cadmar. “We’ve all been through the training.”

Cadmar considers him for a second with his lips pressed together. “Hmm, you’re probably right,” he says in a bored tone, of all things, before his gaze moves to me, making me squirm under the amused look in his eyes. “Get the Pentothal,” he demands and the agent’s eyes widen in disbelief. “And get enough tranqs for the rest of them. Have Kadence and Conner help restrain them.”

I stare at him, hesitating, yet again. The Pentothal is a concentrated truth serum we created. It will get us our answers without actually having to hurt the agent. I want the answers, but it’s dangerous to stay here any longer. “Do we have time for that?” I ask. “What if more are on the way?”

“They probably are,” Cadmar shrugs then eyes the agent, “but we need answers.”

Then Kay is at my side, pulling on my arm. “Come on,” she says in a serene tone. How can she be calm after almost being dragged away? “If we move quickly, we can get out of here before they come.”

Conner comes to my side, gripping my hand as they lead me to the hall. Weird how they’re the ones who are hurt, yet they seem to be comforting me. Am I broken? We round the corner to find Reiley, with wide eyes and skin an ashen pallor, staring at the bleeding out agents.

“Get back in the room, Reiley,” I snarl.

She doesn’t need to see this, at least not until we leave. She shouldn’t have to at all, but she won’t listen if I insist she walk down the hall with her eyes closed. The blood is splattered everywhere and pooling on the lightwood floors, as some of the agents groan in pain. All of it, especially the tinny scent in the air, makes my head spin; bile claws up my throat. She glowers at me, but about-faces for the bedroom. She can fume all she wants; she has no idea how much the sight of this stuff can change her.

Once in the room, I retrieve my case from the floor, where I left it in my haste when the agents showed up, and put it on the dresser to open it. Conner stands over my shoulder, watching with his fingers curling and uncurling at his sides. They have to be hurting from his idiotic fighting. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask if he’s okay, but I don’t. I can’t stop to think about anything right now, unless I want to experience a serious breakdown. My hands tremble once I have the smaller case of poisons and serums open, sorting through the vials. They quiver so badly, the vials rattle together and I’m unable to read the labels.

Then Conner’s big hands are there, enveloping mine, holding them together. I study his busted, bloody knuckles for a second, my heart pounding in my chest, before I glance at his battered face. I crack. My entire body trembles. I can’t handle this shit anymore. I can’t deal with this part of the killing, the bloody, ugly part of it. I hate killing in general, but this especially has worn me down. I don’t know how to handle it anymore. But I have to. I have to pull it together. But how?

“Pentothal, yeah?” Conner asks, his voice rough while a bloody eyebrow hitches up.

I nod, my bottom lip trembling. Before looking through the vials, he pulls out multiple syringes, handing them to Kadence, who’s completely calm. Why can’t I get there? At least she had a second to wipe the blood off her face, so she doesn’t look nearly as bad as Conner, but she has to be itching to get out of her pajamas.

Conner pulls out two vials, having found both the Pentothal and tranquilizer, then hands one to Kay. “Take that to Cadmar.”

She nods, giving him back all but one of the syringes before rushing from the room. While he fills the other needles with tranquilizer, I take multiple deep breaths, trying to gain some semblance of control. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Get it together, Payton! While doing this, Reiley sulks off to the side with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Reiley,” I address her, making her scowling gaze snap to mine. “Go get yours and Kay’s stuff together. We’ll need to leave the second Cadmar’s done.”

She sighs with an eye roll, but leaves without arguing. She’s pissed, sure, but I hope she’ll understand one day how much she does not need to prove anything by being in the middle of the action. When I turn to Conner, he’s done filling the syringes and they’re now sitting on the dresser. He pulls me to face him, hooking a finger under my chin, lifting it until our eyes meet. The dark bruises blooming on his face make my face hurt, but again, he’s concerned about me.

His green eyes shift back and forth, fury raging under the concern. He must be pissed I got him involved in a situation like this. “You’re okay,” he breathes, trailing his finger over my cheek. I’m not sure if he’s trying to reassure himself or me.

I don’t feel okay. I’m alive and unharmed, but I’m certain I’m going freaking insane. I reach up, too, inspecting the cut above his eyebrow, his bruised jaw, and bleeding nose. He’s a mess and I hate it. And myself. “You shouldn’t have done that,” I tell him, my voice coming out smaller than I’ve ever heard it.

His hand instantly drops, eyes flashing with anger. “Don’t, Payton,” he says through grit teeth.

I drop my hand, too. “I’m serious, Conner,” I argue, fisting my hands at my sides. “You don’t need to come to my rescue. You could have been killed.”

“I am not arguing this with you,” he growls, jabbing a finger at me, causing me to jerk back slightly.

I want to argue; I want to keep going. Something inside me is bursting with anger simply from seeing him brawl with that agent. Kay comes in the room with a handful of zip ties before I’m able to say anything else.

“We need to get this done,” she tells us. “Cadmar is almost finished.”

That was fast work. I’m just glad I didn’t have to be a part of it. Conner grabs the syringes, leaving the room without another word, which sucks. I don’t want to fight with him, but he’s hurt. He’s in the middle of this and I can’t do anything to change that. I grab Kay’s wrist before she’s able to leave the room behind him.

“Did he get anything out of him?” I ask, my patience running thin.

Her lips become a thin line before she sighs. “Not very much. They have a contact who somehow found out where we were and notified them. He wasn’t given any small details, which is standard in a situation such as this. All he was told was to get the girls out alive and take Cadmar out in the process.”

The ’get the girls out alive’ part is confusing; I thought they wanted us dead or at least me dead. The fear in her eyes when she said that part makes me reach out, touching her arm to comfort her. “It’s okay,” I tell her, wanting to protect her any way I can, even though she’s the strongest of us all. Seriously, I wish I were more like her. She’s almost been on the same amount of assignments as I have, but she’s never whined, never rebelled, never threw any tantrums, not once. What the hell is wrong with me? Okay, now is not the time to go there again. “They didn’t get you, and they’ll never be able to get rid of Cadmar. He’ll always be here to protect us.”

She gives me a tight nod, squeezing my arm in return before leaving the room. I follow her out to the hall while Conner and Cadmar drag the last of the unconscious agents across it to lean them against the wall. What did he do with the one he interrogated? Gory splatters and smears of blood remain on the walls and floors, making this scene a million times worse. Bile claws up my throat yet again, but I fight it down for the fiftieth time. This day is awesome.

Cadmar’s gaze snaps to us, his lips turned down. Dropping the agent in his arms, he comes toward me, holding his hand out for the zip ties. “I’ll finish this up,” he clips out. I hand them to him without arguing, unsure of my ability to restrain them without losing it again. “You need to get your shit together and get out to the cars.”

He gives Conner a pointed look and he nods in return before walking to me. Conner grabs my arm, basically dragging me to our room without a word. Kay is already to hers and Reiley’s room where the sound of Reiley crashing and slamming around pours out. Once in our room, his fingers continue digging into my arm, which has my hackles rising. I don’t need to be handled and carted around; I’m pretty sure I’ve known how to walk by myself for a while now. He lets go of my arm and starts shoving stuff into my pink bowler.

We gather everything in this awful silence, which I absolutely loathe. We shouldn’t be angry at each other, not at a time like this, but it can’t be fixed until we’re out of the imminent danger. While he goes to the bathroom to get our toiletries and get cleaned up, I make sure my case is put back together then meet him in the hall. I’m glad he no longer has blood on his face or knuckles, but the bruises blooming around his eyes make my stomach churn with fury.

His jaw ticks while he leads the way down the hall in complete silence with both our bags in hand. This tension sucks, but I’m not sure I could talk even if I wanted to. The horrible scene of the unconscious agents leaning against the wall, mixed with the scents of blood and sweat, has my already sour stomach turning even sourer. There’s no way to avoid it, though.

Cadmar comes in the kitchen from his bedroom with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He changed into a clean, black t-shirt, dark jeans, and black boots, the blood from his bullet wound now gone with a patch of gauze slapped over it. The urge to ask him if he’s okay or ask what else the agent told him consumes me, but I keep my lips clamped shut. Now’s not the time for questions, and from the looks of the anger plastered on his face, I’m certain he wouldn’t give any answers freely.

“You ready?” he asks and I can only nod. “Let’s go then. The girls are already in the Jeep.”

We follow him to the garage, seeing Kay in the front seat of the Jeep and Reiley pouting in the back. “Should we ride together?” I ask while he puts his duffle in the back.

His gaze meets mine and he considers me for a second with cold, impenetrable detachment. The loss of our light mood from this morning makes me physically ache. We were laughing and joking…and now we’re on the run. Again.

He finally sighs, his shoulders slumping. “I’d rather we stuck together, but if they get on our trail, it would be smarter to have two cars, so at least one of us can get away.”

We can handle ourselves, as we obviously proved, but I would hate for us to have to split up if we’re being followed. We still don’t have cell phones, so we would never be able to find out if something happened. But he’s right; it’s the smarter thing to do and the girls will be safe with him. “Okay. We’ll follow you out and hope nothing happens.”

“Good,” he grunts. “Head for the base if we get split up. We’ll meet back up there.”

I give him a confused look, but don’t argue. He knows what he’s doing and I have no clue. After agreeing, Conner and I put our stuff in his WRX while Cadmar gets in the Jeep. Then we get in the car, Conner in the driver’s seat. We stay in our awkward, tense silence while Cadmar pulls out of the garage and we follow. Now would probably be the best time to hash out all the crap, especially because I still need to tell him about my conversation with Cadmar. I remain silent, though, because he’s white-knuckling the steering wheel and his jaw ticks with a steady rhythm; he’s clearly not in the mood to talk.

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