Wade “Brick” Rocha edged around the tractor. “I’m going in after him, boss. I’ll follow the cable, dig through, and—”
Reason filtered through the rage. He needed to level out, stay in command.
“Hold steady. Not yet. I don’t need two of the team missing.” He refused to believe Franco was dead. Only his voice was gone. Just the radio connection fading. “Let’s check in with the cleanup crew, maybe nab one of the search dogs again to confirm the exact location, since things have shifted.”
Scrubbing along his jaw, he scanned the crews returning to business as if nothing had happened. Training kicked into overdrive at times like these. The cold-sweat stage would set in later, once there wasn’t anything to do but sit and think about how very wrong the day could have gone.
How badly it could still go, as they all hung out together in an active seismic zone.
Guards formed a circle around the perimeter. American soldiers armed with M4 carbines stood alongside multinational troops carrying Uzis, all on the watch for looters targeting more than just store goods. Food and clean water were at a premium, which made them a target, since they had both, thanks to the air force’s RED HORSE unit: Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers. Whether in a war zone or natural disaster, they responded within twenty-four hours with food and water-purification units filling up water trailers called water buffalos.
Liam scanned the outskirts. Everyone from starving survivors to rapists trolling for a defenseless victim.
His M9 pistol stayed strapped to his hip, loaded. Ready.
For now, he had to find Hugh. He steadied his voice and tried again. “Franco, check in.”
“Roger… here…” the familiar voice cut through the chatter, sporadic, but alive.
“Am okay…” Franco continued, the connection crummy with broken interference. “We’re shaken… No exit. Would appreciate… dig us… soon.”
“We’re on it. Not leaving until you’re clear,” Liam promised without hesitation.
Franco was alive, and if anybody could scrap his way through, he could. The guy was the most fearless, the most tenacious on the team.
All the same, Liam intended to bring as much help to the table as he could wrangle out of the already-overtasked people scurrying around the buckled piles of concrete and rebar. He scanned the construction crews—a mix from around the world—for a spare soul to help out.
And came up empty.
He scrubbed a gloved hand over his face. God, his people were maxed already, working alongside a rescue task force from Virginia for the past eighteen hours without sleep. He was running on the fumes left over from his catnap during the cargo plane ride over.
More C-17s dotted the sky, a trio landing one after the other in the distance with more supplies and personnel. Much-needed help. Except it would be hours before they were in place here.
But the helicopter hovering closer? The supplies and personnel that chopper contained would be available in minutes. His headset buzzed with news of a relief dog handler being sent from the Virginia USAR—Urban Search and Rescue—team.
He zeroed in on the cable lowering from the craft. A wiry figure dangled from the end—appeared to be a female in rescue gear with a dog strapped to her chest.
The helicopter was sending in a fresh search pair. A gold mine for a depleted team stretched to the max after over eighteen hours without sleep. These two were also closer than whatever troops or supplies might be loaded in the C-17 still circling in the sky.
He clapped Rocha on the shoulder. “I’ll be right back. Keep talking to Franco.”
Sure-footed, he jogged across the jagged debris toward the chopper, eyes homed in on the duo spinning on the end of the descending cable.
He was a scavenger from way back, and intended to be first in line to claim her.
Holding her breath, Amelia squeezed her eyes closed and lips shut tight as the dust settled from the aftershock. Dots sparked on the back of her eyelids. She grew light-headed from lack of oxygen. But if she gasped too soon, she would choke on pure grit.
She cupped the back of Joshua’s head for protection. Precious little to offer, but the best she could offer. The top of her hand stung from something. Better her hand than his vulnerable skull. She was certain she felt him move, heard his tiny whimpers. Helplessness threatened to overwhelm her. How much more of this could she bear?
Consciousness faded. Her lungs screamed for air. Peeking carefully, she exhaled hard. Dust puffed ahead of her.
The thin light lancing through the dark reminded her she didn’t have to endure this alone. She had help.
Or did she?
Panic pierced her. “Are you here? Are you okay?” God, she didn’t even know his name. “Answer me, please. Let me know you’re alive.”
The slim glow didn’t move. Her savior stared back at her with piercing green intensity. A death stare? She stifled a scream.
She whimpered with relief.
“Hang tough,” he said slowly, shifting to pull a rock from under his side. “The worst is past. You okay?”
He was alive. They were all still alive. But for how long? She’d assumed because help had made it through, rescue had arrived. She hadn’t prepared herself for another earthquake. Hours of more waiting. The possibility they wouldn’t get out at all.Concentrating on the positive seemed tougher and tougher. Hysteria frothed inside her all over again. She fought the urge to laugh like a lunatic. To sing a flipping chorus of “Tomorrow,” like Little Orphan Annie.
She gritted her teeth. Do not freak out. She wasn’t alone. The people above knew she was here alive.
“Hey,” her rescuer said, louder this time. “Are you okay? Need you to answer me.”
“I’m all right. Just a little dustier.” She pushed the words up and out, even though each one felt like broken glass scraping up her raw throat. She studied the hulking figure behind the light. She clung to the only visible sign of life, of hope, in this hellish tomb. “Did you hear Joshua cry during the aftershock? He’s okay, and now you have to know.”
He pressed two fingers to her wrist. Taking her pulse, no doubt.
“Amelia,” he said with unbelievable calm, his fingers warm and steady against her skin, “we’re going to get you both out of here.”
She noticed he didn’t agree to having heard her nephew. Her lawyerly ear that helped her ferret out nuances in witness testimony was a curse right now. “How much longer do you have on that battery?”
“Long enough. Keep the faith. My guys are close.”
“How can you be sure?” She hated the hysteria creeping into her voice.
“I know,” he answered simply. “It’s what we do. I understand how we think.”
She laughed hoarsely. “So they’re all as crazy as you are…? I don’t even know what to call you.”
“My name is Hugh.” His large competent hands slid from her wrist to her IV, jiggling the needle, applying a new strip of tape.
The enormity of what he was doing for her and for Joshua flooded through her.
“Hugh…” She tested the lone syllable and accustomed herself to putting a name with the fuzzy blur who was risking his life to save hers. “Hugh, what makes you do something like this for a living? I can’t imagine anybody willingly coming down here.”
“What can I say?” He settled onto his side, stowing his gear. “I was the kid who climbed trees to rescue stranded cats.”
“No kidding?” She grasped at the piece of normalcy.
“When I was seven, the neighbor’s Siamese got stuck in a big old oak. The family called the fire department, but it was going to take a while for them to get there because of a three-alarm blaze on the other side of town.”
His smooth-as-bourbon bass voice filled the cave with an intoxicating calm. “The neighbor girl was bawling her eyes out. So I figured, why wait? I’d climbed that tree a hundred times.”
His story wrapped around her, sinking into her pores and transporting her to the world beyond this murky gray hell, a world with leafy green trees and fuzzy kittens.
“I’ll bet the neighbor girl was glad to have her pet back.”
“Oh, I didn’t save her Siamese. The cat climbed down on its own.” He chuckled softly. “I got stuck when my jacket snagged a branch and the fire department had to rescue me.”
She laughed with him—how could she not?—until her eyes stung with tears and she choked on the thick air. “You’re making that up to distract me.”
“Not a chance. I was scared to death up there. Cried like a baby, when I got to solid ground again.” A half smile dug a crease into the dirt on his rugged face. “The little kid had her cat back and looked at the firefighter like he was a god.”
“Ahhh,” she smiled, realizing. “You had a crush on the neighbor girl.”
He didn’t answer right away, the dull throb of distant engines filled the void.
“Yeah.” His voice went flat, the smooth bourbon tones turning gravelly.
The leafy world in her mind faded, landing her back in the drab fissure. She rubbed circles over Joshua’s head to soothe the child and keep the circulation going in her increasingly numbing hand. Closing her eyes, she struggled to will herself back to the brief escape from this place.
The sound of jackhammers intensified along with the growl of trucks and maybe even the occasional voice. But her mind could be playing tricks on her. The only thing she knew for sure, her only reality, was this man in front of her. “I hate feeling helpless, dependent.”
“Hey… Hey,” he repeated forcefully. “You’re anything but helpless, and there’s nothing wrong with needing me. It’s my job. You’ve stayed calm. Believe me, from where I’m sitting, that’s huge. A whacked-out victim is a danger to herself, to me, and to everyone around us. You’re doing good, Amelia.”
She forced dank air in through her nose, out through her mouth, rubbing Joshua’s back in time with each breath. “What’s your last name? You never told me.”
“Franco. My name’s Hugh Franco.”
“And you’re a PJ…” She traced the insignia on his uniform sleeve.
Yeah, she could sink into the comfort of questioning him, like a lawyer finding out as much as possible about the man sent down here to rescue her. The more she knew, the more she controlled her world. Or so she hoped. “Where are you from, Hugh Franco?”
“I’m stationed in Florida.” He shifted beside her, extending a leg. To get more comfortable?
“I’m from Alabama. I was looking forward to helping my brother, Aiden, then hanging out at the beach here with his wife and their son.”
Debris showered on her head. She stifled a scream.
She bit her lip until she tasted blood. Once the dust settled, she scrunched her nose. “Sorry. I should be used to it by now, huh? People call me a bulldog in the courtroom, but inside, I’m a total wimp. I can’t stand mice or snakes. I cover my eyes during scary movies or gory scenes. I don’t feel brave at all.”
Especially not in comparison to him. She studied his big muscled body, the way he seemed so relaxed and prepped for action all at once. He listened to her, checked her pulse, all while periodically pressing a couple of fingers to his helmet in a way she’d realized meant he was listening in on his headset. He managed a million tasks at once while she wrestled with just lying around waiting to be rescued.
She swallowed hard, scared as hell and unable to stop herself from asking for even more from this seemingly invulnerable man. “Do you think you could hold my hand?”
“Yes, ma’am, I sure can.” His broad palm slid against her, callused fingers wrapping around her.