Only to have the blow deflected and her hand grabbed right out of the air.
Bianca froze. Her instant reaction: Crap, he’s fast.
The only outward indication of surprise she gave was the slight widening of her eyes.
She and Colin stared at each other over their locked hands. Antagonism sparked between them. His hand was warm, slightly rough and way bigger than hers. It utterly engulfed her palm and slender fingers. His grip was steely. Any impartial observer would be justified in thinking that he could crush her hand at will.
She had no doubt whatsoever about her ability to break his grip.
The question was, was it smart to go full-on supersoldier on him now?
Her foot, of necessity, stayed on the brake. In a pitched battle, it would certainly shift. The cramped interior of the Jeep was less than ideal for the kind of down and dirty fight she would have to wage to defeat him. They were surrounded by other vehicles, complete with drivers and passengers, and pedestrians, also known as witnesses with cell phones and 911 at their fingertips. And if there really was a CIA kill team in the vicinity, stopping traffic in the middle of a busy intersection for the length of the epic battle that would be forthcoming if she persevered was probably a really good way to draw their attention.
The thing to do was back down. For the time being.
“Close but no cigar.” He tightened his grip on her hand with the goal, she surmised, of letting her feel his superior strength. She managed not to smirk at him. “Think I can’t read your tells by this time?”
That took care of her impulse to smirk. Tells? She’d given him a tell?
“You’re good.” She said it grudgingly, like she was chagrined over being bested. Which, indeed, she was, temporary as the setback might be. The burning question she was left with was, what was the tell?
“You’re right,” he said.
His window went down again.
“You really going to try that twice?” he asked with disgust, and released her hand. The window went back up.
The thing was, the hand he hadn’t been holding was flattened against her stomach. The hand he had been holding—well, he’d been holding it.
She frowned at the window.
Swish, swish. Swish, swish.
The windshield wipers activated, swiping frantically across the dry-as-dust windshield.
She blinked at them. Then she tried to turn them off.
The monitor in the center of the dashboard, the one that displayed the outside temperature and a number of other bits of un-vital information, flickered, then went black.
The radio came on, blaring the R&B-flavored Latin pop of Camila Cabello’s “Havana.”
His eyes narrowed at her. “What the hell are you doing?”
She punched the radio button, trying to turn it off. Nada.
“I’m not doing anything. The radio, the windshield wipers, came on by themselves. I can’t turn them off.” She had to raise her voice to be heard over the sexy wail of the song. She was still trying, punching the radio button, twisting the windshield wiper control, frowning at the dark monitor, achieving nothing.
He stabbed at the radio’s control button with an impatient forefinger. His try wasn’t any more successful than hers. “Forget it, whatever you’re up to. It’s not going to wor—”
He broke off as the Jeep jumped forward, surging past the car waiting in the lane beside it. There it stopped, for just about long enough for him to turn his head and look at her. It then began to slowly roll toward the red light and the busy intersection with complete disregard for the rush of cross-street traffic zooming out in front of them.
“Damn it to hell, Bianca!”
“It’s not me!”
Pulse leaping, eyes on the explosion of cars in their path, Bianca ground the foot she already had smashed down on the brakes practically through the floor.
“The brakes aren’t working!”
Bracing a hand against the dashboard, his eyes on the speeding cars in front of them, too, Colin yelped, “For God’s sake, knock it off!”
“It’s not me! I can’t!” She demonstrated by lifting her foot and jamming it back down on the brake as hard as she could. Several times. They were yards away from disaster. “I swear it’s not me!”
“Then what the hell is it?” He lunged into her space to punch the keyless ignition button in an attempt to shut down the engine. Still nada. He repeatedly jammed the heel of his hand against the small black rectangle. “Damned thing won’t turn off.”
She scrabbled at the door handle, pushed at the door, ready to roll out onto the pavement to escape. The door wouldn’t open. She jabbed at the lock, then pulled at it. It stayed locked. Her mouth went dry. Her stomach cramped. “The lock’s stuck!”
“Try the key.” Eyes glued to the jet stream of vehicles now only feet in front of them, Colin grabbed the gearshift, yanked it down into Neutral. Nothing.
“I am.” She’d already scooped the key out of the console and was pressing her thumb down frantically on each of the tiny buttons in hopes of turning the car off, unlocking the door, something. At the same time she jerked the steering wheel to the left in an attempt to turn the Jeep into the flow of traffic and thus avoid being T-boned. “Nothing’s working.”
She practically stood on the brake as a bus-sized RV rattled past, way too close for comfort.
The Jeep kept moving. The radio mourned Ha-va-a-na. The wipers went swish, swish.
A terrible suspicion reared its ugly head. Her stomach turned inside out. If she was right, the CIA kill team was there for real.
“Steer away from the cars!” Colin’s voice was harsh.
“Ya think?” Still frantically pumping the brakes, she spun the wheel in the opposite direction as the prospect of imminent death in a car crash made her heart jackhammer. Meanwhile he was cursing a blue streak as he tried to open his door without success. Suspicion jelled into certainty, and she faced the horrible truth. “It’s Boston brakes. It’s got to be.”
The words squeaked out of her fear-tightened throat.
“What?” He threw the question at her as they worked in a tightly controlled frenzy to find some way to stop the car, open the doors, something.
“Boston brakes!” She shrieked it at him this time. The words bounced off the hard surfaces of the metal eggshell in which they were trapped.
“Shit!” That was Colin’s explosive acknowledgment of her conclusion, uttered as he tried, and failed, to force his door open. Their eyes met in a split second of mutual comprehension. This time she was glad they were on the same page of the operative handbook. She didn’t have to explain what she meant by Boston brakes: he knew as well as she did that the CIA had the ability to remotely seize control of a vehicle, a capability that (like so much else) they consistently denied. It was a form of cyberattack, a super-hacking, if you would, that was supposed to be impossible and was way beyond top secret and had been used in a number of intelligence-service-organized assassinations disguised as accidents. As common as they were, car crashes offered the Agency the ultimate in deniability. Unless they could find a way to prevent it, this would be just one more regrettable fatal accident.
His tone held a degree of grim satisfaction as he added, “Believe me about the CIA kill team now?”
“Are you really choosing this moment to say I told you so?” Bianca gripped the steering wheel so hard her fingers hurt. Dread made her chest feel tight as she realized how helpless she actually was. Then a thought occurred, and she shot an accusing look at him. “You! You can stop this! They must not realize you’re in the car with me! You need to let them know now.” She scrabbled in the console for the phone.
“What? You think I can just— Hang on.” Colin gave a vicious yank to the wheel that did no good whatsoever. As the wheel was torn from her one-handed grip on it, Bianca snapped a look at the tsunami of oncoming vehicles, forgot the phone and went rigid, instinctively steeling for a collision as the Jeep plowed straight ahead into oncoming traffic.
Brakes screamed. Headlights skewered them. Cars swerved, drove off the road, rear-ended each other. The din of shrieking horns was loud enough to drown out even the blaring radio. A horn blasted a strident warning as a UPS truck barreling through the intersection apparently only spotted them at the last minute. Slamming on its brakes, the truck skidded sideways, tires squealing, in a desperate attempt to avoid running them down.
“Ah!” Wide-eyed with fear, Bianca grabbed the wheel, turned it (nothing) and pressed back against the seat as tightly as she could as the truck hurtled toward them.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Colin yelled.
Bianca cringed as the huge brown blur spun past with inches to spare then jumped the curb on the opposite side of the intersection and smashed into a storefront. The impact sent glass flying everywhere. It sounded like a bomb going off.
“Oh no! Oh my God!” Her thoughts flew to the patrons inside the store as smoke started to billow from the truck.
Brakes squealed as approaching cars stopped. Drivers leaped out, presumably to help. Witnesses on the sidewalk, having scattered, started running back. Shoppers spilled out of the surrounding stores. A dazed-looking woman staggered out of the shop the truck had hit. The acrid smell of smoke was strong, making Bianca fear an imminent fire.
She remembered the phone in the console, grabbed it, thrust it at Colin. “Call them off.”
“You think there’s some kind of 1-800-Spooks-R-Us number? I can’t just call them off. I’m not with them. Remember them shooting at me in Moscow?”
“They were shooting at me. You just got in the way. And you said—”
“Boss! Boss, can you hear me?” Doc: she’d forgotten Doc. He was still on speakerphone, his voice a tinny thread amid the uproar. From his tone, this wasn’t the first time he’d called out to her. She only heard him now because the phone was in her hand.
“Yes. Yes. I can hear you.” Ridiculous as it was, the phone felt like a lifeline. Chaos replaced the steady stream of traffic around them as vehicles slammed to a stop, changed lanes, swerved to avoid each other. The Jeep continued to roll, cutting through the barrage of opposing traffic like it wasn’t even there.
“I need the VIN number.” Doc’s voice was high-pitched with urgency.
“The VIN number! You got Boston brakes, right? I need the VIN number to get the Jeep’s IP address to maybe turn it off.”
Doc had clearly heard everything. She wasn’t about to waste time trying to remember exactly what “everything” entailed, or in peppering him with questions. She’d seen him work too many hacking-related miracles.
“Okay.” Her hand tightened on the phone as she tried to think. The VIN number was stamped on the dashboard—in a spot that could only be seen from outside the car. It was—
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Colin roared. He was running his fingers along the junction of the roof and his door frame, clearly hoping to find a weak spot.
“Doc.” She threw the answer at him as an aside as she frantically reviewed all the places the VIN number could be found. On the engine—
At Colin’s hoarse cry her head snapped toward him.
“Oh!” Bianca was thrown sideways. Her head bumped hard against the window beside her. Seeing stars from the impact, she blinked at a yellow MINI Cooper skidding by. Two screaming women in the front seat looked back at her with terror in their faces as the little car, having just rammed into the Jeep’s front passenger-side fender, flew past.
The Jeep corrected course with a jerk and kept going.
“You okay?” Colin’s voice was harsh. His arm was in front of her now, stretched out at shoulder level, hard with muscle beneath his expensive jacket as it pinned her to the seat. He’d thrust it out to protect her, she realized, and grimaced at all that the gesture implied. There was no time at the moment to process her feelings, but she wasn’t used to being protected.
“Yes. Don’t hang up.” She shoved Colin’s arm out of the way and pushed the phone into his hand at the same time as she released her seat belt and jackknifed across his legs to yank the glove compartment open. She’d remembered—
“Boss, the VIN number,” Doc shrieked.
“One minute,” she responded, yelling to make sure he heard. She’d remembered the one obvious, accessible place to find the VIN number. The glove compartment light came on; she could see a corner of the rectangular slip of paper that was the registration down under the owner’s manual. Grabbing it, she pulled it free and, still bent across Colin’s legs to take advantage of the light, snatched the phone out of his hand and read the VIN number off the registration.
“Got it,” Doc crowed. “Game on, you mothers!”
Bianca guessed the target of that last was whoever was Boston braking the Jeep.
Primed to face the next horror, she snapped upright to find that the barrage of cars careening past them had vanished. A glance in her rearview mirror told her why: the light had changed. The cross traffic had stopped. The Jeep continued to roll, but now they were through the gauntlet, disgorged into a connecting street with relatively few vehicles, all of which were going their way. The Jeep was just one more unremarkable blip in the traffic.
They were alive, and basically unharmed.
“Oh my God. We survived.” She felt light-headed with relief—or maybe from the blow to her head. It was hard to tell. Taking a much-needed deep breath, she glanced around, her eyes raking the activity sliding past outside the windows. A service station on one side, a 7-Eleven on the other—
In all the excitement her foot had slipped from the brake. She slammed it back down, once more grinding the pedal into the floor.
The Jeep didn’t stop. It didn’t slow.
Her pulse raced anew as she faced the hideous truth. The CIA kill team was still out there, still operative, still controlling the Jeep. They could be anywhere. In the white van pulling away from the 7-Eleven. In the black SUV two cars up. In the Domino’s Pizza delivery car behind them.
Or maybe they were working remotely. Maybe they were using satellites. Or drones. It wouldn’t be the first time. Bianca caught herself peering up through the swishing wipers at the night sky. Other than a whole lot of darkness, there was nothing to see. Not even the moon, or any stars.
“They’re not finished with us,” she said. Her mouth tasted sour with fear. The Jeep rolled past a strip mall, closed office buildings, a used-car lot. Multiple sirens screamed in the distance as, presumably, emergency responders headed for the mess they’d left behind. On the radio, “Havana” had been swapped out for somebody singing about thunder. Imagine Dragons—with the tiny part of her brain that wasn’t wholly occupied with fighting off terror, she recognized the song.
“Probably not,” Colin agreed. The very evenness of his voice told her how on edge he still was. “Put your seat belt on.”
Then, releasing his, twisting around in his seat so that he was once again encroaching head and shoulders into her space, he lifted one long, powerful-looking leg and slammed his foot into his window with what looked like all his might.
The glass didn’t break. It didn’t even shiver.
“Bulletproof glass,” she told him.
“Of course it is. Fuck.”
Her insides twisted as she played connect-the-dots with what was happening. Maybe getting them killed in a car crash at that intersection hadn’t been the endgame here. Maybe—
“We’re being taken somewhere,” she said.