INVISIBLE WOUNDS (EBOOK)
INVISIBLE WOUNDS (EBOOK)
A Hidden Valor Military Veteran/K-9 Suspense Series Prequel Novella
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She thought the war was over. It's not...
Former US Army Special Agent Kate Holland once spent eleven horrific hours as a POW in Afghanistan. Hours she doesn't quite remember. Now medically retired, Kate's investigator's badge has long since rusted—along with her confidence and courage.
Kate's crawled back to her childhood home in Braxton, Arkansas, and she's finally ready to admit defeat. It's time to put her affairs in order. But when a fellow vet loses his own private battle, Kate must put his last wish ahead of hers. As she executes it, she's drawn into yet another war. This one's stateside.
This isn't the first time Kate's had to put her life on the line for another. But even if she succeeds, how will she ever find the strength to defeat her raging demons and self-doubt...and truly live?
Written by a former US Navy Lt., Invisible Wounds is a prequel novella to the Hidden Valor military veteran/K-9 suspense series & features Ruger—Kate's 3 yr old German Shepherd & self-appointed therapy dog.
Please Note: Graphic crime scenes abound throughout the Hidden Valor books. This series also contains a raw & honest portrayal of PTSD. The series prequel also touches on the theme of suicide. If you like strong, female protagonists and seriously gritty, complex suspense that twists and turns all the way to The End, you'll love Candace Irving's Hidden Valor series.
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"Woo pig soooie!"
US Army Special Agent Kate Holland spun around as that distinctive Arkansas Razorback call tumbled across the Craig Joint Theatre Hospital parking lot, nine years and more than seven thousand miles from where she'd last heard it. As for the jaunty grin of the black Air Force K-9 handler who'd bellowed it—the one currently rounding the grille of a seriously bruised, sand-colored Humvee—she'd run into him at the dining facility across Bagram Airbase a month earlier.
It had been too long.
Kate's mood lightened further as she caught sight of the fawn-colored Malinois clipping alongside his handler's camouflaged trousers. She headed toward the pair, coming to a halt in the dense gravel behind a tan pickup with a freshly oiled Gatling gun mounted in the truck bed. "Hey, Ty. How's it going?"
The six-foot, generously muscled tech sergeant popped a crisp salute in deference to the chief warrant officer bars attached to her own camouflaged utilities, along with a jauntier smile. The shorter, furrier master sergeant at his boots thumped out his own greeting via his bushy tail. "Mornin', Kato. It's been good. We've missed you, though."
"Ditto." Kate returned Ty's salute, then glanced down at the pup she'd fallen in love with years earlier when she'd been helping out at the Military Working Dog Center in the States while waiting for a torn shoulder to heal. "May I?"
The moment Ty nodded out his okay that she touch his partner, she knelt down to ruffle those jet black ears that contrasted so beautifully with the rest of the Malinois' lighter face and body.
"And a special hello to you, Master Sergeant Volt. Has Tech Sergeant West been slipping you your daily carrot ration as ordered?"
"When I can get 'em." Ty hunkered down beside her, his chuckle warming the early morning air as the dog moved in to nuzzle his beloved handler's palm. "Believe it or not, this weirdo's moved on to craving cabbage leaves—raw."
Kate laughed as the dog returned his enthusiasm to her. "Volt's not weird; he's amazing." She leaned in to plant a kiss on the tip of his rubbery nose. "And gorgeous. You get more handsome every time I see you, don't you, big guy?"
The Malinois rewarded her loyalty with a swift lick to her chin.
"Grayer, too. Check out that patch that's invading the left side of his muzzle. It's the size of Texas now. Guy's looking old."
"No way. Volt looks distinguished—unlike a certain human I know."
That earned her a snort.
Human, not K-9.
Kate caught those soulful dark brown eyes as they worked their heart-tugging magic, and nodded sagely. "I know, Master Sergeant; I know. This guy's insulting you—which, legally, he can't do, since you out rank him." After all, K-9s had one stripe over their handlers for that reason. To keep the pecking order clear. Kate bit down to keep her expression solemn at the timely nose bump she received. "I agree, Master Sergeant. Emotional abuse is shocking." She stroked her fingers beneath the dog's muzzle as she leaned closer. "You do know I'm an investigator with CID now, right? I can take care of this—and him. I've got a medical convoy slotted into my morning. But I can swing by your quarters when I return to base and open a formal investigation; take you into protective custody and put your snarky handler on report."
Instead of chuckling, Ty frowned as she gave those irresistible ears one last ruffle and stood. "You're headed outside the wire now? Damn. I was hoping we could swing by the DFAC together; catch up over omelets and a couple of cups of joe."
"Oh, I'd love that, Ty. But I'm already tardy. Max called. He performed an emergency C-section on a local warlord's youngest wife a few weeks ago and he wants to check up on her. And since he'll need a woman to be present for the exam—"
"Why not make it a motivated Army investigator trained to elicit information about the warlord's husband?"
Kate laughed. "Naturally."
Not to mention, the additional face time with said warlord, who was also in possession of an intriguing familial backchannel to the Taliban network, was absolutely worth the effort it would take to drive to his compound. Especially since that C-section had ushered said warlord's firstborn son into the world…following seven daughters. The man was bound to be in a magnanimous mood.
Ty and Volt turned with her, flanking her left as they made their way through the smattering of combat-rigged pickups, up-armored Humvees and more massive MRAPs that dotted the hospital's lot as she headed toward the entrance.
Ty reached down to stroke the pup's head. "So, how is the major doing these days? Everything going well inside the hospital…and elsewhere?"
The thread of studied nonchalance gave her pause. Most wouldn't have noticed it. But she and Ty had been friends for fourteen years now, ever since seventh grade social studies when their fathers had been stationed at NATO in Brussels—despite the fact that the Army, the Air Force and her own backstabbing father had done their best to kill that friendship since.
Kate laid her hand on the sleeve of Ty's camouflaged pullover, staying handler and dog before they reached the double doors to the hospital and the trio of Army medics loitering outside and just shy of them. "Did Max say something to you?"
If so, what? Because the doc had been on edge.
"Not exactly." Ty glanced at the medics, increasing her unease as he lowered the rumble in his voice to a confidential thrum. "A couple of days ago, Volt and I were taking an ugly early jog around the inner perimeter. We were closing in on the airstrip when I spotted Major Brennan huddled with a soldier. Couldn't hear what they were saying, much less read the guy's nametape, but their body language came across loud and clear. The soldier was pushing the doc about something, and whatever it was, the major did not look happy. And when Volt and I got closer? The soldier did an about-face and double timed off in the opposite direction. I was gonna send a shout out to the doc, waylay him and make sure all was okay, but I got a call from my captain just then. Volt and I had to turn around to get ready for an impromptu mission."
Ty reached up to run his fingertips along the dark, closely shaven curls at the base of his navy blue beret. "Has he mentioned anything to you?"
"Not a word." But something was definitely bothering Max.
She couldn't put her finger on the cause, but the man's normally easy-going physician's nerves and patience had been stretched almost to breaking for nearly a week. And last night—when she'd pushed it and him during their movie get-together—he'd been irritatingly close-mouthed as to why. Hence her surprise when he'd woken her this morning with his request that she accompany him outside the wire.
Max had to know she'd be actively searching for a private moment to take another run at that lock on his lips.
Or was that the real reason for the invite? Whatever was bothering the doc…was he reluctant to address it inside the wire?
The possibility deepened her frown.
She blinked, shaking off the suspicion as she glanced down at the K-9 patiently sitting at their boots. "Sorry. Didn't mean to drift. Just…thinking."
"Shit. It's your dad, isn't it? It's coming up on three months since—"
She shook her head again, this time firmly. "That's not it." Jack Holland was the one person she avoided contemplating at all cost, no matter the looming date. Hell, any memory or anniversary that involved her father had been long since banished from her brain—and for good reason.
She hadn't spoken to the jerk in nearly nine years. Not since the morning she'd left for basic training at eighteen. Granted, she'd always assumed they'd reconnect someday. That she'd have a shot at finding out why her own father had been so bent on smacking her down her entire life. But any chance of that had been killed along with Deputy Holland the moment he'd been struck by a passing vehicle during a midnight traffic stop. Not that she'd dared to admit to that insidious hope to anyone—including Max.
But something must've shown in her face now with Ty. It caused her old friend's voice to return to that low rumble and take on a sympathetic note. "That's actually the main reason I was hoping we could grab a bite. I'd planned on calling you later today. I spoke to my pop last night. Turns out he knows the State Police investigator working your dad's hit and run."
Now that wasn't surprising, was it?
During her freshman year of high school, her newly widowed father had bailed on his own career with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division and dragged her from Brussels to his childhood digs in Arkansas so he could write speeding tickets for the Braxton PD. A year later, Ty's father had retired and moved his still living wife and son home as well. Efrem had opted to sign his MP and K-9 handler skills over to the Arkansas State Police. But since her dad had been nursing that inexplicable ire for his old buddy, neither man had said a word. If she and Ty hadn't run into each other at a party in Searcy their senior year, they'd have never known they'd been living an hour apart.
Evidently her father's lingering spite hadn't prevented Efrem West from looking into his former friend's death nearly a decade later.
What had Efrem discovered? Something more than the perfunctory information that her father's boss had imparted during the call she'd been too hung over to duck the morning after she'd received that pithy Red Cross death notification?
Whatever Efrem had learned, it had motivated yet another call into a war zone.
Kate reached down to stroke Volt's head, channeling the boost from the loving nuzzle she received into her nod. "Okay. Let's do dinner at the DFAC this evening. I'll text you the time when I've got a better ETA."
"Sounds good. I—" She caught the low hum of Ty's phone as it vibrated on his utility belt.
"Just a sec." Retrieving the device, Ty clicked into his call and listened for a few moments. And then, "Yes, sir. On my way." He hung up with a frown.
"Looks like your omelet and Volt's cabbage are a wash, too."
"Yeah. No rest for the wicked, eh?" That wide, infectious grin slipped in along with a wink. "See you at dinner, Kato."
She nodded as she bent down to give those fuzzy ears one last tweak, then made a beeline for the entrance to the hospital as Ty and Volt jogged off in the opposite direction. By the time Kate had pushed through the tan door, she'd shoved all thoughts of her dad to the back of her mind and dragged the mystery of Max to the fore.
It was time to get this convoy on the road.
If she had to blow an entire day faking "subservient female" for some warlord who'd spent the past decade hedging his bets and full-on coalition support with those bastard cousins of his, so be it. By tonight, she'd have an inkling as to the strength and identity of those familial Taliban bonds—and she'd know what was bothering Max.
* * *
Despite the jarring rumble that filled the sweltering Humvee, Kate felt the thump at the right edge of the ceramic chest plate to her tactical vest. She glanced across the vacant gunner's slot and caught Max's sky-blue, Irish stare.
Those sandy brows rose. "Everything okay?"
She tipped her helmet firmly. "It's all good, doc."
Sure, it was a lie. But why worry the man?
Granted, like her, Max Brennan was on edge. He had been since they'd wedged themselves into the rear seat of this up-armored Humvee at Bagram over an hour ago. But the doc was still so preoccupied with whatever had been eating at him for the better part of a week that he hadn't even sensed it.
Sergeant Gault did.
As did the corporal in the driver's seat in front of Kate.
Shawna Babin's helmet and sunglasses were all but fused to the ballistic glass of the Humvee's windshield, relentlessly scrutinizing every inch of the tan, mud-brick buildings crowding the sides of the road ahead. Meanwhile, Kate and Sergeant Gault were using the smaller ballistic squares at their outer shoulders to scan the Humvee's left and right flanks for threats. Just as the four regular soldiers—plus the additional one in the elevated gunner's position—were doing in the lead vehicle roughly a hundred meters ahead of them, as well as the Humvee that brought up the rear.
Save for Max, everyone in this stunted convoy felt it. Them.
Those goddamned watching eyes.
Imagined or not, the weight of the distrust and outright hate within seared through the skin of their collective necks. The accompanying tension had long since invaded Kate's gut as well, causing it to knot up as the Humvee's tires chewed over the tawny, dusty rocks that served as the village's main road, kicking up a dingy and dangerously obscuring veil in their wake.
Lord, she hated cutting through populated areas, "friendly" or not.
The reduced, spine-prickling speed might be necessary for pedestrian safety, but it allowed for too many additional seconds during which an enemy sniper tucked in any one of a hundred covered positions within the surrounding buildings could take aim. With the current spike in coalition deaths due to those snipers, as well as roadside bombs and buried IEDs, they had cause to worry about every added second.
Hell, even Max could feel them ticking out now.
She spotted the fresh thread of tension tugging through that Irish blue as the doc glanced down at his orange-faced, Doxa dive watch, then up to mask it with one of those reassuring, the patient is fine smiles. "We should be hitting the outskirts of the village soon. Ahmed's compound's another fifteen minutes away, twenty tops."
Kate nodded as she returned her scrutiny to the square of ballistic glass embedded in the rear passenger door at her left. The hairs on the back of her neck relaxed a bit as she noted the trio of toddlers being herded up and around the corner of the street. The calm hands and sedate pace of those bookending, women-erasing sacks of Taliban blue suggested that the road ahead of all those locals was clear of hidden snipers—and IEDs.
Appearances could be deceiving, though.
It wouldn't be the first time a fine, upstanding Islamist had used women and children to further his hate, would it?
She swung back to Max.
"Relax. That's an order, Chief."
She shot him a scowl, then shifted her focus, actively scanning again.
Hell, maybe Max was right.
The convoy had passed the toddlers and pair of herding, shuttlecock burqas. A fifteen-yard stretch of mud-brick remained. The crumbling base of the innermost structure on the far right had overtaken the edge of the road. But beyond that? There appeared to be nothing for miles save a cleared, if rutted path that cut through this part of the Parwan valley's low-lying patches of light brown and green interspersed with contrasting smudges of dark purple from copses of blooming Judas trees.
But, again, appearances could be deceiving.
Especially in this country.
They cleared the final, crumbling building. The Humvee a hundred yards to their rear would be doing so shortly.
Kate shifted her focus ahead, to where the road devolved into that narrowing ribbon of ruts. Not a single stone, much less speck of dust appeared out of place.
Nor had the lead or rear vehicles reported anything amiss.
So why couldn't she shake this ominous feeling?
Sergeant Gault had. He and Babin had resumed their banter back and forth over the comm link, though their eyes scoured the surrounding Judas trees and scrub.
Max reached across the empty gunner's slot between their seats, connecting with her upper right arm. The doc tipped his helmet toward the seasoned sergeant riding shotgun up front, grinning as Gault began teasing Babin about her improved chauffeuring skills.
The sergeant's internal alert had definitely ratcheted down.
Kate's refused to budge.
Then again, she'd been doing this twice as long as Gault. Nearly nine years now. She couldn't seem to relax anywhere anymore. Not even when she was inside the wire. Hell, not even when she was firmly within the bosom of the States and supposedly safe. Maybe she'd been at this for too long.
How else could she explain the knot twisting up her gut?
It tightened to the point of pain. Her skin had turned hot and stinging, too. As if an entire colony of fire ants crawled beneath.
What the hell was—
The rest sheared off as her entire world exploded upward. A split second later, her brain and stomach flipped along with those patches of brown and green outside the ballistic windows as they morphed into a disorienting, cloudless spring blue before plunging back down. It took a moment to comprehend why.
They'd been hit.
She opened her mouth to shout for Max and the others to brace. But even as the warning flew, the Humvee slammed onto its roof—and the world went black.
* * *
Agony blistered in first.
Nausea and confusion followed.
For a moment Kate could've sworn she was at Fort Bragg, taking another dizzying turn through the rollover trainer. Why else did she feel belted in—yet tossed upside down with her entire torso, head and all four limbs battling the pull of gravity?
But that didn't make sense.
And that agony? It was everywhere. The right side of her face pulsed with it, along with her battered brain, shoulders and ribs. The rest of her body wasn't far behind. It hurt to think. To breathe. Hell, to exist. From the odd deadening at her left, the thick muffling on her right, she'd blown out her eardrums, too.
Kate forced her eyes open. As she tried to focus, something warm and viscous dripped in, adding to the fog of confusion. Blood?
What the devil had happened?
Those terrifying seconds of being shot upward cut in. The inversion of ground, sky and then ground again. Their Humvee must've activated a pressure plate as it rolled over a massive IED. Six tons of deceptively protective, up-armored steel and surrounding battle and medical gear had been blown into the air and flipped before crashing down like a giant tortoise on its shattered shell. Their enticing underbelly was now mutilated and exposed…and begging for more.
Sweet Jesus. Max.
She forced her throat to work. "Doc?" It came out more a croak that she couldn't quite hear.
Worse, an odd, deadened silence greeted it. That was it. No shouts from Babin or Gault that they were awake and working to free themselves, let alone rescuing bellows and closing bootfalls from the five soldiers who'd been in the lead Humvee—or the quintet of armed camouflage racked into the vehicle that had brought up the rear. Had the Humvee driving point been forced to speed through the kill zone, with the rear vehicle performing a preemptive one-eighty before they regrouped and moved in to provide first aid and security until reinforcements arrived?
Or had a deadly daisy chain of IEDs and/or hidden jihadists armed with shoulder-fired munitions already managed to decimate their entire, stunted convoy?
The latter possibility seared Kate to her soul as she attempted to blink though the blood dripping into her eyes. It oozed down her inverted forehead, sliding beneath the lip of her helmet to soak into her hair. And her shoulder? That hurt worse than when she'd blown it out during a terror takedown when she'd been an MP.
Unable to lift her right hand, the fingers of her left shook as she raised them, searching for clues as to the cause.
A curse ripped free as she encountered a hefty shard of steel. The leading edge had pierced her ravaged right shoulder, fracturing her collarbone before impaling her scapula and embedding itself in the back of the seat. Her right cheek had been ripped open as well. She could touch her teeth and swollen tongue with her fingers through the gaping hole that should have been covered with flesh.
That explained the rasping croak that had come out of her mouth, along with the blood that coated her tongue and the right side of her face. But not the intermittent splash hitting the underside of her jaw.
Max? Oh, God.
She swiped her eyes with her left sleeve. As her vision adjusted to the shadows, she realized that with the vehicle upended and strangely tilted—and her corner now at the bottom—everyone was higher than her, including Max. She could make out his body dangling above. Camouflaged fabric and his left thigh muscle had been split open, all the way to that horrific winking of bone. But Max was alive. The steady bubbling up of the blood that seeped over the edge of his nose revealed that. He appeared unconscious though.
Like her, most likely concussed.
"Max?" Again, it came out more of a croak, with most of the surrounding air rushing out of her mangled cheek.
That strange, thicken silence pulsed in after. And then…sobbing?
No, not sobbing. Screaming. A string of muffled curses followed. Flat-out terror infused them. The cause seared in with Kate's next breath. She could see it now, too.
The front of the Humvee had caught fire.
Kate saw the right end of Babin's chin strap as it broke free, that blond, dangling head and shoulders flailing frantically as the helmet fell away. A split second later, the angry rush of red licked around the corporal's entire body, enveloping it…and those soul-flaying screams. The grisly mix of grilled meat and acrid sulfur tainted the air as Babin's uniform and flesh charred down to pitch black, just before the flames spread along the Humvee's dash to consume the muscular arm of the sergeant dangling beside her. Even if Kate hadn't spotted the twist of steel that had nearly severed Gault's neck, she'd have known he was already dead from the damning silence that skirted the muffled blaze.
She had to get Max out. That blistering of red was bent on devouring everything it could find. With the Humvee belly up and the leading wheels jutting another forty-five degrees upward and tilted due to the slanted rear hatch and gunner's turret, and whatever else they'd landed on, they still had a decent layer of breathable air down here.
The reprieve would last minutes though—if they were lucky.
Kate embraced the adrenaline that crashed into her veins, using it to push through the agony. Ice cold determination locked in as well. She wrapped her left hand around the jagged shard of metal that had her pinned to her seat, ignoring the nausea that threatened as she worked it side to side before wrenching it free.
She grabbed the webbing of her safety harness. The buckle was jammed.
With access to her primary combat blade blocked by a larger twist of Army steel, she reached for the Cold Steel Safe Maker on her war belt, only to stiffen as she caught a blur of motion from outside the wreckage.
She and Max had company.
That wasn't some innocent, bearded bystander, either. Not with those distinctive white-leather high-tops trimmed with green and yellow sticking out beneath the hem of a frayed shalwar kameez. At the very least, that AK-47-toting bastard had helped to rig the IED that had blown their Humvee to hell and back. And now?
The blight on manhood was moving in to mop up survivors.
Kate abandoned the Cold Steel dagger to its sheath, biting down against the grinding in her collarbone as her left hand crossed her torso to ease her SIG Sauer P228 from its holster at her right thigh instead. Fortunately, the concussive force of the blast had ruptured more than her eardrums. Every inch of ballistic glass in the Humvee had been blown out as well. With blood still oozing down into her right eye, plus the fracture that had her unable to use her dominant hand, she'd take every advantage she could get.
The morning breeze swirled the surreal scent of spring greenery into the multilayered stench of burnt flesh as she used her left hand to carefully level the 9mm's sights on that yawning window.
And then, she waited.
Nine precious seconds passed before those Haqqani High-Tops halted. Dingy fabric fluttered as the Taliban bastard within began to hunker down. Kate held fast to patience as a dark tattered vest came into view, followed by a ragged beard. By the time that satisfied smirk and smudged nose arrived, her backup trigger finger had begun to itch.
Still, she forced herself to wait.
The moment those black eyes slipped into view, she zeroed in on the smear of sweat that glistened in between and fired.
A hole smaller and less ragged than the one in her cheek punched through the bastard's surprise as his entire body slammed onto the dirt. There was no time or reason to celebrate.
Where there was one pair of approaching, Haqqani High-Tops, there would be others. And those flames? They were eating lower. Their muffled rumble, louder. The paint on the surrounding metal, even the tainted air, had begun to bubble up and sizzle.
And the smoke? It had billowed down to inverted-neck level.
Max would be suffocating in seconds, and then she would—if the blinding pain in her ribs that came from the coughing didn't cause her to pass out first.
Kate shoved her SIG into its holster and hooked her blood-slicked fingers through the T hilt of the Safe Maker. Pulling the dagger free, she used a honed edge to slash her restraint. Agony blistered in as she crashed onto the Humvee's overhead. She pushed through and reached back up to sever Max's restraint, only to curse through another wave as his body-armored chest slammed onto hers.
Determination seared in as she pulled herself from beneath the doc's deadened weight, then turned to hook her good arm beneath his. The ground appeared to drop away several feet beyond Max's side, so she'd have to move the Taliban's body. Using the inverted lip of the turret hatch for leverage, she dragged Max to her door. She settled the doc's helmeted head beside the bent barrel of her useless M4. She didn't have time to search for another, let alone Max's medical bag. But her first aid kit was still attached to her war belt—and the bastard she'd taken out had been armed.
Adrenaline surged, jockeying with staccato bursts of agony as Kate kicked her boots through the open window until she'd knocked the Taliban's lifeless weight far enough back for the door to open. She reached for the handle, instinctively pushing down, until she remembered that the mechanics of the lever had been inverted along with the door. A determined, if moan-worthy yank followed.
Kate crawled out first. Using the Taliban's corpse as cover, she scanned the top of the ravine where the Humvee had landed as best she could for the bastard's friends—and hers.
There was no one.
She turned back for Max. The raw ends of her collarbone ground into each other anew, causing a flood of involuntary tears to mix with the blood dripping down her face as she wrestled the doc out onto the dirt.
Flames licked at the soles of his boots as they cleared the Humvee.
Kate paused to retrieve the Taliban's AK-47 and shoulder it, her heart aching more than her brain, face and torso put together as the flames engulfed the wreckage beside them—along with the remains of the soldiers trapped within.
There was no time to mourn.
She wiped the blood and grief from her eyes, then took stock of her surroundings. No other Taliban or locals appeared to be nearby. She couldn't locate the other vehicles from their convoy either, let alone an approaching, quick reaction force. But out here, she realized her distance vision was completely shot. The other Humvees could have been blown to shit and on fire, too. She'd never know unless she started walking and tripped over them. All she knew for certain was that she and the doc were smack in the middle of the kill zone—and she had but three knives, her 9mm and his, and the AK-47 she'd culled from the corpse to defend Max with.
She needed to get the doc to cover, then locate and assist the others.
But that cover? There wasn't much to choose from.
A fuzzy trio of those blooming Judas trees appeared to be clustered roughly twenty feet on her right, down along the ridge of the ravine. The trunks looked too spindly to conceal the doc effectively. But at least he wouldn't be lying next to a column of billowing smoke and flames. Glancing down into the ravine, she spotted a blurry boulder and several smaller ones that had probably been lodged there during one of the region's flash floods.
Kate caught the distant vibration of a vehicle beneath her boots and made her decision. The boulders. At least until she could see the vehicle—and who was driving.
She slipped her good arm beneath Max's, unable to stifle the string of cursing and grunts that escaped with each fresh crunch to her collarbone as she half carried, half slid the man she'd been lucky enough to call best friend down into the ravine to hide him. Fortunately, the doc was shorter and scrawnier than she was. She managed to maintain her grip long enough to get the entirety of his body into the crevice and behind the rocks—only to bite down on a deeper curse.
She'd jostled the gash in Max's leg too much. Fresh blood was soaking into the camouflaged fabric of his trousers.
Popping the latch on her helmet, she yanked it off and wedged it beneath his knee to keep the thigh elevated while she applied pressure.
She flicked her gaze between the doc's deadliest wound and the dive watch strapped to his wrist for several crucial minutes, praying a clot would form. But as she eased her grip to check, blood began to seep again, then gurgle up. Within seconds, it took on the dark and dangerous spurt that came from an arterial nick.
Pain blistered in as she reached across her chest to tear into the right shoulder pocket of her shirt and wrench the pre-staged combat tourniquet from within. Tearing the black, velcroed strap wide, she lassoed the resulting loop over the doc's left boot. Knocking her helmet out of the way, she dragged the loop up over his knee and the spurting wound.
A quick tightening of the strap, and she began torquing down on the attached windlass.
Relief seared in as the flow slowed to a gurgle, then a trickle, before ceasing altogether.
At least one of her nonstop prayers had been answered, and not a moment too soon. The vibration from the vehicle she'd felt up on the ridge of the ravine had morphed into footfalls, and these were not distant. Worse, they were moving in from the opposite side of the boulders. Kate reached for the SIG Sauer at her right thigh.
It was too late.
Before the 9mm could clear its holster, a dark form swung around the rocks off her left. A split second later, something hard cracked into the back of her skull.
Once again, her world went black.
Wow! This series is fantastic! The characters are so complete and complex. Written with an understanding of PTSD
Somethings we all have in common.