Firewall

Firewall x 190

Book Three of the Magic Born

She was the only Magic Born to ever escape the Rangers. Now there’s a ten-million-dollar bounty for her return.

Trancehacker Tuyet Caron could have left New Corinth for good, but instead uses her magic and risks her life on a daily basis to help the Magic Born. She’s been careful to avoid capture, but a careless glance at a video camera brings her face to face with the Ranger who let her go.

Captain Dale Hayes let Tuyet walk away once, but he won’t make that mistake again. When faced with the ultimate choice, however, he chooses her with barely a thought. But that also means siding with the Magic Born and becoming a fugitive in the eyes of the law.

Tuyet and Dale plan to flee, but are caught in a deadly riot that kills innocent people. Outraged, the pair vows to bring an end to the Magic Laws, regardless of what that means for their own safety.

Chapter One:

2067

An image of Tuyet Caron rendered by a highly skilled digital artist stared at Hayes from the screen of his tablet. An excellent likeness, it was meant to fill the void left by all of the destroyed photos of her. He’d spent the last few days reconstructing her records as best he could, or at least details of their missions together. The parts he was willing to share, at any rate.

The image was an excellent likeness in the manner of a badge photo or mug shot, but it showed nothing of the real woman. The shy hesitation in her smile, the way amusement made soft glints of gold and amber light up her deep brown eyes.

Colonel Talbot’s voice broke through his reverie. “Caron remains the only Magic Born to escape from the Rangers.”

“Yes, sir.” Hayes tore his eyes from the image and looked up at the older man. “You don’t have to tell me.”

Years of practice helped Hayes maintain an impassive mask. He should have been a major by now, or at least still leading his own Ranger squad. Instead, he was stuck at captain, behind a desk in Virginia where he spent his days staring at useless information on a screen.

Though his career was hardly the only thing he’d lost.

“What I don’t understand is why you brought me in to rehash ancient history.” Describing Tuyet to the digital artist had been bad enough. Recreating mission reports had unlocked a cascade of memories he would have preferred to keep buried. “She’s in the wind, Colonel. Paris, most likely.” She’d loved Paris, said she felt freer there than she ever had. “Maybe Tokyo or Shanghai by now.” Both cities had energized her, not only with their casual acceptance of all magic but with their burgeoning communities centered around magic tech.

Hayes quashed his thoughts, not liking where they were headed. He didn’t need to know where she was now, what her life was like. Didn’t need all these memories crashing through his head—the clear, rolling sound of her laughter, the glow of her skin after a hard bout of sparring, the sight of her standing under a Paris street lamp in a soft whirl of snow, hands out to catch the flakes.

It was far easier to hang on to the anger at her desertion. Absently, he rubbed his upper left arm. A scar was stitched into his skin thanks to her, right underneath the unit insignia on his uniform.

The colonel narrowed his eyes. “Anybody with a lick of sense would keep that attitude in check, Captain.” He emphasized the rank to rub it in. “You do as you’re told, when you’re told to do it, and if I deign to tell you why, you say ‘Thank you, sir,’ and shut the hell up.”

Hayes flashed a quick grin. “You and I both know I don’t have any sense.” He paused for a beat. “Sir.”

Talbot smacked the desk. “God damn it, kid. You really think you’ve got nothing to lose, don’t you?”

“I suppose I could be stationed at the South Pole.” Hayes returned his tablet to the briefcase at his feet. “Demoted, instead of just stalled out at captain.”

“Shoveling shit somewhere in the Congo instead of pretending to analyze intelligence in Virginia.”

Hayes absently plucked lint from his uniform trousers. “Maybe I do have something to lose, sir.”

“What I don’t get is why you’re still here,” Talbot said. “Your warrant officer, what was her name?”

“Gibson,” Hayes supplied. There was no way Talbot didn’t know that and every other detail of his team that was still available.

“She’s pulling down six figures a year in private security now. You find a company that’s not too particular, you might do the same. But here you are, still hanging on. Why is that, Hayes? You some kind of glutton for punishment?”

It was a good question but Hayes didn’t have an answer. Not one he cared to share with Talbot. “Sir, what can I do for you?”

“What did they used to call you? Hayseed?” Talbot laughed, the sound unkind but oddly free of malice as well. “Shit, boy, could you even read when you enlisted?” He laughed again.

Hayes let it roll off his back like everything else. “I could even spell, sir. Easy words, anyway.”

“You came from nothing and turned yourself into one of the best Rangers this program has ever seen. Ranger Team Six had the best record in the program’s history, right up until the incident with Osman and then Caron’s escape a few months later.

“She ruined your career, Hayes.” Talbot’s voice changed, all the fake humor drained out and replaced with something Hayes couldn’t yet identify. “What do you think of that?”

Hayes raised his eyes and regarded the older man for a long moment. “You really want me to talk about my feelings, sir?”

“God, no.” He swiveled his desk monitor around to face Hayes. “I want you to tell me what you think of this.” He tapped a few icons on the desk touch screen.

A video began to play CCTV footage of a protest, but not overseas. From the signage and other telltale markers, Hayes knew this was an American city. Which could only mean one city.

“New Corinth,” Talbot confirmed. “Three weeks ago.”

Hayes clenched his hands into fists before he could stop himself from showing any emotion. It wasn’t his job to analyze information from inside the U.S., but no one with any level of access could turn off their curiosity about what was happening in New Corinth. The media portrayal of the local law that had turned the city’s zone into a virtual concentration camp was vastly different from the truth that filtered its way out through other sources. The corporate-controlled media outlets would never show footage like this, for instance. Hundreds of people marched in front of the New Corinth city hall. Many carried placards with slogans like Open the Zone, Free the Magic Born, and We Want Our Children Back. There was no sound, but Hayes could tell people were yelling, chanting, perhaps even singing. A heavy police presence ringed the protesters.

Hayes realized he’d hunched forward in his chair, peering intently at the video. “Want to give me a hint about what I’m supposed to find? Because this looks like every Friday in New Corinth.” The idea of regular protests on American soil was still something he couldn’t get used to. It harkened back to a time when fear ran out of control and left blood staining the country from coast to coast. The Magic Revelation and subsequent terrorism, both against witches and by witches, had been long before his time but he knew the history as well as any Ranger.

“This protest is just another Friday in New Corinth. Hundreds of people marching, every cop in the city babysitting. What’s got me curious is this.” Talbot changed the video with a few touches.

The image was a wide crowd shot from a moving vehicle. Faces passed by quickly, mostly female. Hayes took in as much as he could but found nothing of interest. “What am I looking for?”

“A camera crew from the local TMG affiliate was shooting B-roll for some story or other and didn’t make it out of the neighborhood in time to miss the start of a protest. They got some footage but of course it never aired. An eagle eye with an interest in the ten-million-dollar reward for her caught this.” Talbot zoomed in on one face in the sea of people. It was a woman, caught looking in the camera’s direction as she entered a side street, away from the protest. Vaguely Asian features, honey-gold skin, hazel eyes—Hayes knew that glamour as well as he knew the true face underneath.

“Tina Jones.”

He didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until the colonel replied, “Tuyet Caron.”

All the breath left Hayes in a rush, as if he’d been punched in the gut. He clenched his fists tighter. A jumble of emotions came at him at once, some good, some bad, all confusing. He shut his eyes against both the image and the onslaught it caused.

“Sir.”

“At the same time a protest is underway, a fugitive witch is skulking around the city, unimpeded by cops that are busy elsewhere. That looks like something to me, son. Possibly something big.” He paused. Hayes could feel the colonel’s eyes on him and did his best to keep his expression neutral.

“Local authorities wouldn’t be able to handle someone at her level. She’s too dangerous for them.” Talbot spoke in a low, measured voice. “I can’t send a team.” Ranger units were not authorized to operate inside the United States. “I could notify the FBI, but I doubt they could handle her either. Same with the DMS.” Talbot’s disdain for the Department of Magic Security was well-known.

Hayes knew what the colonel was doing. He followed the manipulation as surely and easily as if it were mapped out on his tablet screen.

Talbot sat back in his chair and gazed out the window. “It took a long time for what happened to blow over. Be thought of as part of the past, instead of an ongoing emergency.” The view overlooked the central quad of the campus that held the defense think tank that provided cover for the program. It was lunchtime on a sunny day. The picnic tables and green area around the fountain would soon be full of people.

Hayes waited for the colonel to speak again.

“If she were to come up on the radar again, it would bring all that back up,” Talbot said. “God forbid that happens and then we lose her again. Congressional investigators would know more about my prostate than I do.”

Any other time Hayes would have found that funny. All he could think about was the sight of Tuyet running away from him. They’d both made choices that night. Every day he lived with the consequences. All he’d ever wanted from the day he first heard of the Rangers was to not only be one, but be the best. He’d made it too, only to have his career and reputation ruined by Tuyet.

Talbot continued. “Best thing we could do is delete this video and forget we ever had this conversation. The second best thing, anyway.” He tilted his head slightly. “After bringing her in, served up on a platter to face charges.”

Dereliction of duty, absence without leave, unauthorized transit of a Magic Born, desertion—Hayes couldn’t remember all of the charges leveled against her after she fled. They’d stopped short of treason because there was no proof she’d taken any magic tech with her, and no proof so far that she’d used her abilities in any manner against the government. Depending on what she was doing in New Corinth, that could change. If she was charged with treason and convicted, she would get the death penalty.

“You knew her better than anyone else,” Talbot said. “You and Osman, and we can’t talk to him. So you tell me, Captain Hayes. Is Tuyet Caron a potential terrorist?”

“No, sir.” Hayes shook out his fists and took a deep breath. “I don’t know what she’s doing, but she’s no terrorist.” The idea was ludicrous. But what the hell was she doing in New Corinth, of all places? She should have been overseas somewhere, in a country where she didn’t have to hide being a witch. Where she could be herself. He’d imagined her living a quiet, safe life. Happy. Free.

“It’s been three years,” said Talbot. “You’ve changed in that time. How can you be sure she hasn’t?”

“Sir.” Hayes stopped, unsure how to proceed. It was one thing for Talbot to say that Hayes had known her better than anyone else. It was quite another to offer private details. He might not have much of a career left, but he wanted to hang on to what he did have.

“I’m taking you out from behind that desk and sending you on special assignment.”

“Sir!” His stomach plummeted and his mouth went dry.

“She escaped on your watch, Captain. It’s only right that you be the one to bring her in.” Talbot stood and Hayes immediately followed suit. His eyes were drawn to the epaulets that held silver birds instead of general’s stars.

A lot of careers had been ended or stalled four years ago, including the colonel’s.

Talbot said, “You’re going to bring her in and close the book on this, Hayes. That woman ruined lives, careers. Spat on everything this program gave her. It’s time she paid the price for that.” All trace of manipulation was gone, and along with it all pretense of Talbot playing Uncle Hardass. Nothing but cold fury was left in the man. “You bring her in, I’ll see to it you get out from behind that desk.”

Hayes swallowed a lump in his throat as a sensation like cat claws prickled up his spine. “From a desk to where, sir?” There was only one prize that would make it worth going after Tuyet Caron. He wanted to hear the colonel spell it out.

“Back in the field, Hayes. Leading your own Ranger team again.” Talbot grinned, his teeth and cheekbones giving his face a skull-like cast. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, boy?”

Boy. Stupid old fuck. Briefly Hayes considered telling the colonel to go play with himself in a dark corner, then emailing his resignation on the way out the door. Instead he banked his disdain.

“If I can’t bring her in, sir? What then?” Hayes expected to hear about being sent to consult with the FBI, maybe a DMS tactical unit.

“Then I suggest you disappear back to that shithole you came from, Hayseed, because if you let that witch get away again I will consider that a declaration of where your loyalties lie. Is that clear?”

The threat could hardly have been more explicit. “Yes, sir.” Hayes had been lucky to escape charges three years ago. That luck wouldn’t hold if he didn’t bring Tuyet in now.

Talbot stared for a long, uncomfortable moment. “Get your ass to New Corinth. Find out what Caron’s doing, put a stop to it, and get her back here. I want to see her stand trial.”

Hayes licked his lips, trying to figure out the most politic way to phrase what he wanted to ask. “Sir, the law against Ranger teams operating inside the U.S.—”

“I’m not sending a team, Hayes. I’m sending an intelligence analyst familiar with magic and witches to learn more about the situation in a city beset by strife due to both those things. That’s all anyone else needs to know, should you encounter local police or DMS. Now do I need to draw you a map to your ass while we’re at it or are you ready to get to work?”

Hayes suppressed a sigh and lied. “I’m ready to get to work, sir.”

“Good.” Talbot nodded. “Get the hell out.” He waved at the door. “I’m late for lunch.”

Hayes fled as fast as his dignity would allow. He took refuge in a stall in the nearest men’s room. Few areas in the facility were free of surveillance. This was guaranteed to be one of them. He slumped against the door and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

Hayes had ultimately been cleared of wrongdoing three years ago, but suspicion lingered. He still caught the occasional whispers when people didn’t think he could hear.

Did he let her get away?

Was he really stupid enough to sleep with a witch on his team?

Worse, I heard he had feelings for her.

There had been no proof of anything—not of a relationship between them, or whether or not he’d helped her escape. His warrant officer and second-in-command Yolanda Gibson had backed him all the way. Her exemplary record and force of personality had helped shield Hayes from all of the mud thrown at him by Scott Channing. By then Hayes had finally been able to get Channing thrown off his team and demoted. It also helped that Channing quickly spiraled into trouble, the rage he carried like a totem landing him into one fight after another until he’d been busted out of the service.

Hayes had refused to resign and slink away in shame, so they’d kept an eye on him by assigning him a desk job as an analyst. Technically he still had a security clearance, though not as high as before, but the information that came across his desk might as well have been collected via overseas newswires. His new colleagues had finally accepted his presence and spoke to him more or less cordially, but he had no real friends. The stink of failure scared people away, along with all of the rumors and innuendo and a lack of confidence in him and his abilities.

The only friend he had left, the only person he could be honest with, was unable to respond.

Hayes pounded his fist on the flimsy door. His head was too full of muck to make sense of things. Talking it out with Halif would be the only help for it.

He stopped at a drive-through on the way to the long-term care facility. The greasy tang of charred burger and paprika fries served to mask the institutional smell of the place. Staffers greeted him with nods and smiles, long used to his visits. Halif Osman, the other witch who’d been on his team, occupied a tiny room of his own, his once-muscular form now scrawny in the narrow bed. Hayes glanced at the monitors as he entered. There was no change. There never was. Halif was alive, if one could call it that, with low levels of brain activity. No one could explain his condition or had any idea how to help him recover.

“Man, you look like shit,” Hayes said, his customary greeting. He retrieved the folding chair the staff left for him and settled down to eat, talking around mouthfuls of food.

First he recounted the meeting with Colonel Talbot. As he went over it, little details he’d been too distracted to notice at the time jumped out at him. “All that crap about how it was best to keep this quiet unless she could be brought in. I don’t think this is just being kept quiet, I think he’s hiding it. So how’d he get the video? Who all would know that glamour? I guess putting me back in the field is cheaper than paying out that reward money, but I still don’t trust this.”

Hayes brushed salt and paprika from his hands then took a long drink from his milkshake. “What the hell is she doing in New Corinth, anyway? She’s supposed to be in some little village in the south of France. Working as the town mage. Casting prosperity spells for the local wineries, divination for engaged couples. Nice, quiet, respectable stuff, you know.”

He laughed, imagining the look on her face at such a suggestion. “Okay, okay. So, running the tables in a Shanghai casino would be more like her. Busting cheaters trying to use magic to win. Beating somebody up every once in a while, just to keep from getting rusty.” An image of her in the slinky gold dress she wore during the Hong Kong job flashed in his mind.  Quiet and safe wasn’t for her. Tuyet Caron was meant for excitement, glamour, danger.

The troubled city of New Corinth held only danger.

“Why New Corinth? Just passing through, maybe? It’s just a matter of time before that place lights itself on fire. Anybody sane should be as far away from there as possible.”

He was silent for several minutes. Soft beeping from the machinery took the place of any replies from Halif.

“It makes sense though. I mean, if she was crazy enough to stay stateside, it would totally make sense that she’d wind up right in the middle of that shit storm. Talbot wants to believe she’s a terrorist.” He sucked down milkshake until it gave him an ice cream headache. “She’s definitely up to something, but she’s no terrorist.”

Hayes stood and walked to the small window, the pane of glass so gray it barely let in any light. “I’m going to have to do what I should have done three years ago. The hell of it is, I still don’t know what that is. Arrest her? Run with her?” A chuckle slipped out. “Stand there and gape at her, like the first time I met her? Remember that? God, that was embarrassing. This stunning woman gets the drop on me, you’re laughing your ass off in my earpiece. Then I wind up on my back with her high heel in my throat, and even then all I can do is look up her dress. Man, I deserved being called Hayseed that day. Shit.” It was one of many things he’d left out of his reconstruction of Tuyet’s service record.

Hayes gathered the debris of his lunch and tossed it in a garbage can. “What the hell is she still doing with that glamour? She should have destroyed it. Not even taken it with her.” Dan and Tina Jones had been their most successful cover identities. They’d passed for a married couple all over the globe, on one dangerous assignment after another.

“There was something I never told you.” He faced his comatose friend. “She asked me to go with her. The night she left and I caught her, she asked me to run with her.” He closed his eyes against the painful memory. “I couldn’t do it. It would have meant turning my back on everything I believed in. Everything I’d worked for. The service that gave me everything I had and made me who I am. I couldn’t turn my back on those things, Halif. I just couldn’t.”

He ran a hand through his hair. He wore it longer now. Still within regulations, but longer than the close crop he used to keep it in. Was that some kind of subconscious thing? Another thing to set him apart? He’d always wanted to stand out, be the best. But standing apart—that was a different thing altogether in his mind.

“Of course, then she shot me and stole my bike.” He tried to laugh at the memory but couldn’t quite make it. “I still don’t know if I made the right decision. It just felt like the only decision I could make.”

He shook his head. Too much introspection was making him maudlin. He had work to do, whether he wanted to do it or not. First he would collect all the information on New Corinth he could get his hands on, then make travel arrangements. Book a hotel. Figure out a plan to find her. Not worry yet about what he would do when he did.

Because if she was there, he would find her. They had unfinished business and he aimed to settle things between them, one way or another.

For once, talking things out with Halif had not helped. Hayes still had no answers, only questions and a deluge of memories.

The Rangers had a saying for when they received orders to dangerous parts of the world, the places no one wanted to go because all sides would be shooting at them, the weather would be awful and the food worse, and there was no telling how long the job would take or how bad it would get before they could call it done and get the hell out. Hayes smiled as he said it to his former teammate. “Wish me luck, ’cause I’m headed for the suck.”

 

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Text Copyright © 2014 by Sonya Clark

Cover Art Copyright © 2014 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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