Bianca’s heart shot into her throat. Her stomach went into free fall right along with the Jeep. She grabbed on to a wall-hung seat belt to stop herself from being sucked out, clung for dear life and screamed like a steam whistle.
Not all the souped-up DNA in the world was enough to enable her to survive an eighteen-story fall, she feared.
The headlong plunge was interrupted by a violent jerk. She bounced into the wall before falling back against the seat behind her. The Jeep’s death drop slowed then stopped abruptly as its back end seemed to get hung up on something. Amid metallic groaning and ripping sounds the Jeep swung through the air in a slow, terrifying arc. Whatever was happening, she knew with a bone-deep certainty that she had no more than fractions of a second in which to act.
Using the wall beside her for a foothold, nails digging into the carpet, she surged toward where the cargo door opened to the night.
A quick look around as she reached the edge confirmed the danger: the river waiting far below was shiny black, already collecting wisps of fog that would be thick soon, outlined by the lights along the banks. The Jeep’s headlights speared down into the darkness, illuminating the trajectory of its swing only to peter out long before reaching the surface of the water. Closer at hand, she saw that the rear bumper was caught in a tangle of still-twinkling Christmas lights. Suspended nose-down in empty space, the Jeep swayed precariously as the bumper slowly ripped away.
Glancing up revealed that she was some twenty-five feet below the bottom of the bridge. Everywhere in her immediate vicinity she saw nothing but air. The resulting butterfly stampede in her stomach underlined exactly how much trouble she was in.
“Jump!” Colin roared. Bianca spotted him hanging by both hands from one of the under-bridge girders and was conscious of a glad little tingle because he wasn’t dead. She—
Just like that, with no more warning than a shriek of rending metal, the bumper gave way. The Jeep fell. Galvanized by fear, she launched herself skyward and barely managed to grab on to a single twisted strand of the net of cords that still held the now-detached bumper. Swinging wildly through space as the Jeep nose-dived into the river, she watched the splashdown and shuddered.
If she’d still been in that car, she would have died.
Which wasn’t to say she was safe where she was.
Sniper. A burst of adrenaline raced like speed through her veins as every instinct she possessed screamed the warning. The team behind the Boston brakes had to be close by to have reacted so swiftly to Doc’s opening of the doors. They would have seen the Jeep go over. They might have seen her jump out. They could be targeting her even now.
Doing the Tarzan thing with the Christmas lights as she was, she was a sitting duck. She did an instantaneous, horrified reconnoiter: no telltale red dot on her person gave warning of an incoming round; the bridge was the only viable vantage point for a gunman. She looked up—
Snap. Snap. Snap.
She dropped about five feet and almost lost her grip. Her heart hammered. Her breath caught. The wire cut into her palms. Her feet dangled in thin air. Hanging on desperately, she swung in a slow circle as the weight of the bumper plus her body generated unwanted momentum. Instinctively she glanced down: the drop was dizzying, terrifying. Forcing herself to look away, she very gingerly tried pulling herself up hand over hand, which was difficult because her palms were sweaty with fear and the plastic-coated wire was thin and slippery. To add to the problem, she had to maneuver around the tangled-up bumper before bringing her legs and feet into play. Attempting anything too athletic or too vigorous was out of the question: she was afraid the wire might break.
So she hung and swung and inched carefully upward, while at the same time looking to the bridge in an attempt to identify what had caused the snapping sounds and her subsequent sudden drop. She saw Colin executing an athletic maneuver of his own that, if successful, would put him on top of the beam that had saved him. And she saw—
Her heart skipped a beat.
Forget worrying about a sniper. The Christmas lights that were her lifeline were pulling away from their moorings on the suspension cables. Whatever had secured them was never meant to withstand the weight of a human being and a bumper dangling from them, much less a car crashing through them. Even as she oscillated like a pendulum some three stories beneath the bridge, the trusses anchoring the strands cradling the bumper—and the one to which she clung—were giving up the ghost one by one.
She dropped another foot, swung wildly. Dislodged, the bumper fell, just missing her as it hurtled down into the darkness below.
A section of lights, including the strand she was clinging to, went dark.
Afraid every second that the remaining moorings would rip away, Bianca threw caution to the wind and swarmed up the wires like a monkey on a vine.
Not to the surface, not to the roadway from whence the Jeep had fallen and where the CIA kill team might very well be lying in wait. She reached the bridge’s underside, the web of I-beams and girders that underlay the concrete, used her body weight to whip up enough momentum to allow her to swing toward them and leaped onto a steel beam. Landing on her hands and the balls of her feet, she grabbed on to the cold metal edges of the beam and went to her knees. Gusts of winds buffeted her, whistling softly as they curled back on themselves against the bottom of the bridge then hurtled down. She braced herself against their force. The slippery perch was no more than a foot wide. There was nothing nearby with which to steady herself. A fall would mean certain death.
So don’t fall.
Movement in the shadows made her heart lurch as she caught it out of the corner of her eye. It was, thank God, only Colin. Having managed to pull himself up onto the beam he’d been hanging from, he was bent nearly double as he crept cautiously along it. He acknowledged her with a raised hand, but didn’t call out to her. He, too, must be thinking that the hunters couldn’t be far away.
She stayed where she was for a moment, getting her balance, pulling herself together. Her heart thumped. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She was short of breath, shaken, bruised—but she was alive, which was the important part. Taking a deep, controlled breath and then another, she consciously worked to slow her heart rate and pulse, regulate her breathing.
Go. Go. Go.
Thank God that her shoes were designed to be versatile! Twisting the heels to one side, she pulled them off and stuck the spikes in her belt, leaving herself in a pair of rubber-soled flats that she was profoundly thankful for, given that the beam was slimy with moss and dew and God only knew what else. She got her feet squarely beneath her. Then, bent over so that she could hold on to the rough metal edges with both hands, she scuttled along the beam like a hunchbacked spider.
“You all right?” Colin reached the junction of their beams a moment before she did. A large, dark shape in the gloom, he waited for her to catch up to him.
“Yes,” she replied. “You?”
He nodded and moved off in rough approximation of an offensive lineman’s four-point stance. She followed in spider mode until they reached the bridge’s front apron, where, still concealed from view by the concrete drop, they were able to straighten to their full heights. Using the support beams embedded in the bridge’s floor as a makeshift handrail, they cautiously sidestepped toward solid ground.
Neither of them had to say what they both knew: they didn’t have much time in which to make a getaway. The kill team would be coming after them hard.
The knowledge made her breathing quicken.
Vibrations and traffic sounds from the bridge confirmed that it continued in use, but shouts overhead told Bianca that at least some of the cars above them had stopped, that the Jeep’s plunge into the water had been seen, that people were leaning over the side at that moment, looking down into the river. Were their would-be murderers among them? There wasn’t any way to know. She had no doubt that help had been summoned, that police were on the way. Police boats would be coming, too, as would, almost certainly, a boat containing members of the CIA kill team.
The good news was that, unless a Black Hawk suddenly swooped down out of nowhere, or members of the kill team rappelled over the side of the bridge, which wasn’t likely given the number of potential witnesses, they were relatively safe for the moment. With only minimal illumination from the Christmas lights and the distant waterfront reaching the grid of beams, they were hidden by darkness and sheltered beneath the bridge. Absent the Black Hawk, a sniper’s only possible shot was from the river, would have to be made with the aid of night-vision equipment and be angled almost straight up. The shooter would need a boat or a Jet Ski or something similar to reach any viable spot to launch an attack. Since she was almost 100 percent sure that the Jeep’s detour over the side had been precipitated by Doc’s opening of the doors and not planned in advance, a sniper in a boat would not already be in place.
Looking down—mistake; it made her dizzy, so that one glance was all she allowed herself—she saw the Georgia Queen riverboat, appearing not much larger than a matchbox car from that height, identifiable by its lights and distinctive shape as it steamed across the river; a barge with its accompanying tugboat coming upriver from the bay; docked pleasure craft and fishing boats and all manner of water-going vessels along the banks; lots of lights and activity, but no apparent immediate threat.
In a perfect world, the kill team would not have seen her leap from the Jeep. They would presume that she had plunged with it into the river and died.
If anyone lived in a perfect world, it certainly wasn’t her.