Night Shadow Night Shadow Cherry Adair 1 Night Shadow NIGHT SHADOW To my friend Karla Baehr, who loves to read, but has no desire to write. Not only do you make me laugh, you’re also the most organized woman in the galaxy, and I love you for it. Thank you for all that you do to keep me sane (- ish). 2 Night Shadow NIGHT SHADOW One Moscow 55 45 08 37 36 56 02 10 08 1800 hours Blinking snowflakes off her lashes, T-FLAC operative Alexis Stone shot a quick glance down at the toes of her brand new, size eight combat boots as she teetered on the edge of the snow-encrusted roof. The excruciating headache that had plagued her for the last several minutes intensified. A headache was going to be the least of her damned problems if she didn’t move. Jump. Get it over with. Quick and painless. What the . . . ? Jump across, she told herself. Not down. Across. Between the buildings. A relatively easy jump, yet she hesitated. Terminal velocity wouldn’t be in effect in such a short drop. She’d only fall about a hundred and fifty feet, not the four hundred necessary to pick up the hundred and thirty-five miles an hour to achieve terminal speed. What was she thinking? Mouth dry, heart pounding, Lexi shook her head to clear it. Mathematically, a falling object— her—increased its velocity by thirty-two feet per second as it fel . Acceleration to gravity— Over. Not down. She’d be on the ground in less than two seconds— Over. Not down. Jump. Do it now. Hallucinations? Crap. She blinked white out of her eyes, her breath coming hot and fast. The training simulations hadn’t aptly portrayed what it felt like to be out in the field under hostile conditions. Not the cold, not the pressure, not the frantic tattoo of her heart. Not the irrational thoughts clouding her mind. One word summed up the experience. Terrifying. Focus. Fortunately, she was a pragmatic woman. Flights of fancy weren’t in her DNA. Or hadn’t been before tonight. She’d trained with the best of the best. Now she just had to put it into action. She could do this. Do not imagine being shot in the back. Do not picture falling. Do not look down. Her mouth was too dry to even attempt swallowing. She started counting, silently, to slow the rushing thud of her pulse which made it hard to hear and intensified the headache. Her gaze climbed upward incremental y until she focused on the hotel across the alley. Only eight feet separated the two buildings. 3 Night Shadow Fifteen stories to the snowy ground below. She’d never been afraid of heights before. Lights popped on in some of the dark windows as dusk fell like an unwelcome blanket over Moscow. They’d fol owed her. She knew they had. Jump! her brain screamed. Despite the bone-chilling cold, sweat beaded her face. Her entire body was damp and clammy beneath her black civilian clothing. The familiar weight of the Glock, all seven ounces of firepower, felt as heavy as a boulder in her numb fingers. Running footsteps, crossing the roof behind her, sounded like a freaking herd of crazed wildebeests charging. Her galloping heart jumped into her throat. Too late. Her hesitation was going to cost her. She glanced down at the shadowy drop just beyond the tips of her boots, then back at the dark footprints just behind her. Easy to fol ow her trail when her steps were clear in the snow blanketing the rooftop. She’d had a five-minute, eleven-second head start. They’d caught up. The men She’d had a five-minute, eleven-second head start. They’d caught up. The men fol owing her had scaled that blasted metal fire escape in record time. And probably without being terrified the thing would pul away from the crumbling brick wall as they scrabbled for purchase. The high-pitched whine-pi i ng and yel ow sparks of a bul et ricocheting off metal just a few feet away made her flinch. Close. Too close. Do it, Lexi. Just freaking jump. No. Return fire. Then jump. Cautiously, but as fast as she could manage, she walked backward in her own footprints. As soon as she felt the heated metal of a four-foot-wide exhaust flue against her back, she spun and dropped into a crouch behind the only cover for a hundred feet of flat white rooftop. A dozen indistinguishable exhaust fans dotted the roof, belching unsynchronized clouds of foul-smel ing steam. The steam and stink col ided with the rapidly falling snow, making visibility nearly nonexistent in the pseudo fog the mix created. If she couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see her. She hoped. Crouching to below their eye level, Lexi squeezed off a half dozen textbook- perfect shots. Night was falling as fast as the snow now, and the spare il umination was a thick, barely transparent charcoal. She knew exactly how to get to where she needed to be. Like a lodestone, she had ID’d the black shutters against the whitewashed walls of the safe house seven buildings southeast. Five men had chased her all the way from Belorussky Railway Station on Tverskaya Zastava Ploshchad, through the alleys and up onto this rooftop half a dozen blocks away. Pi ingpi ngpiing. They weren’t messing around. Sparks shot out like fireworks as a hail of bul ets struck metal. The men were firing blind. A waste of ammunition, but pretty much a guarantee that one of the stray bul ets would hit their target. Her. Six. There’d been six of them, she corrected, seeing them come out of nowhere in her mind’s eye. A mathematical mistake could very wel bite her in the ass. One guy was way ahead of the pack, moving fast and low, closing the gap between them. 4 Night Shadow Shifting her trigger finger off the frame of the Glock, Lexi squeezed off a shot. The impact of the bullet hitting him square in the chest knocked the guy off his feet. With a brief look of annoyance he went down soundlessly. Went down . . . and dissipated into nothingness before his body hit the ground. Ducking out of sight, back flat against the warmth of the pipe, Lexi sucked in a startled breath. Shit. My first kill shot. A wizard? Her heart beat hard enough to block out the sound of running footsteps. She felt the vibration through the soles of her boots and took a chance, angling her head so she could see them coming. And there they were. Thirty yards and closing. Five men, dressed in black, their shadowy forms barely visible. Narrow-eyed, she watched a second guy break from the pack, coming at her flat- out, long legs closing the gap between them. Weapon raised, he stopped, head shifting as he searched the rooftop for her. Two other men joined him, snow veiling them where they stood, warm breath thick in the air around their heads. “Did she jump across?” the middle guy asked the other two in his native Russian, glaring down at the gap between the buildings. Lexi fol owed their gazes. Her footprints teetered right on the edge. Visibility was iffy, and unless they looked closely, they wouldn’t notice the faint blurring of her double steps. She hoped. She held her breath as two more men caught up, the murmur of the voices blending. One man indicated they separate, and they spread out on the roof. Her pulse shot into overdrive, and her mouth went dry as a metronome ticked off the seconds in her head. They’d find her in moments. And there was no wondering what they’d do to her if they got their hands on her. She freaking knew. She’d seen too much. And she was as good as dead unless she could make that jump. As much as she wanted to plot things out to the last variable, as much as she wanted to calculate the exact trajectory necessary to leap the gap and how she should fall on the other side, Lexi literally took a running leap of faith. The run, fol owed by an ungraceful jump had her body suspended over nothing but air for what felt like an eternity. Rapid fire, fol owed by shouts, accompanied her leap across the abyss. Too pumped up on terror and adrenaline to feel any pain, she landed hard on the other, slightly lower, roof, and stumbled into a low run. Go. Go. Go. Her breath led the way as she found the extra speed necessary to leap between the next two buildings, a jump of at least twelve feet this time. One foot skidded out from under her as she landed in wet snow on the other side. Sheer wil power pulled her upright and she kept running. Go. Go. Go. Chunks of cement exploded inches from her feet, sending bits of it stinging into her skin through her pants. She spun, returning fire. She knew she wasn’t going to hit anyone; her aim was too wild, and she couldn’t see a damn thing now that it was fully dark. Numb with cold, the 5 Night Shadow snow was a soft menace as it landed soundlessly on any exposed skin. A stark black-and-white movie with her frantic heartbeats and sawing breath as theme music. The whine and the hot slice of a bullet as it cut through her coat and into her shoulder made her curse under her breath. It would probably hurt like hel later. Wel , no probably about it, but right now she didn’t feel a thing. Lexi ducked behind the dubious protection of a smal cement maintenance shed in the middle of the rooftop. Hat down, col ar up, just her eyes visible, she scanned the area. The cold, and the vicious vise of the headache, made her eyes water and burn, forcing her to waste precious seconds blinking things back into focus.