Heartbreaker by Linda Howard

  But dying was out of his control too. If he’d been given a choice, he might have stayed down in the darkness because whenever he surfaced, the pain was an ugly motherfucker that slapped him around and made it look easy. He’d have kicked the bastard’s ass if he could have, but it won every battle. At other times the pain was more distant, as if a layer of wool protected him from it, but it was always there. Eventually, and laboriously, he decided the layer of wool was really drugs . . . maybe.

  His only weapon against the pain was stubbornness. He didn’t like losing. He fucking hated losing. A vestige of will, of sheer bullheaded stubbornness, made him focus on the pain; it was his target, his adversary, and he kept coming back for more. It might knock him down, but by God, it couldn’t keep him down. Even when he felt like doing nothing more than howling in agony—­if he’d been able to howl—­he fought for awareness, for each increment of improvement.

  On a very basic level, fighting was what he knew, what he was, so he fought everything. He didn’t fight just for awareness; he fought the tube down his throat that kept him from talking, the needles in his arms that kept him—­in his own mind, at least—­from moving. They—­the nameless they—­promptly strapped him down so he couldn’t move a muscle, not even his head.

  Rage joined the pain. He was so damn mad he thought he might explode, and what made it even worse was that he had no way of expressing his absolute fury at being so helpless, while every inch of his body and all of his instincts were abused.

  Then, exhausted, he would sleep—­or sink into unconsciousness again. Maybe they were one and the same. He sure as hell couldn’t tell the difference.

  One day he opened his eyes and focused—­actually focused—­on the middle-­aged woman who was standing beside him fiddling with the lines coming from multiple plastic bags hung on a metal tree. For the first time he thought, “Hospital,” which meant his torturers were actually taking care of him, but that didn’t help his feelings. He put all of his animosity into the glare he leveled at her.

  “Well, hello,” she said, smiling. “How are you today?”

  If he’d been able to talk he’d have told her exactly how he was, and his language wouldn’t have been pretty.

  She seemed to know exactly what he was thinking because her smile widened as she patted his shoulder. “The tube will come out pretty soon, then you can tell us all about it.”

  He tried to tell her all about it right then and managed only some faint grunting noises, then he humiliated himself by promptly going back to sleep.

  When he woke again, he knew immediately where he was . . . kind of. Moving nothing but his eyes—­because he fucking couldn’t move anyfuckingthing else—­he took stock of his surroundings. His vision was blurry, but he was trained to observe and analyze and after an indistinct length of time, he fuzzily came to the conclusion that though he was in a hospital bed with raised rails on each side, and he was obviously in some sort of facility, he definitely wasn’t in a hospital. The room, for one thing—­it was painted blue, there were curtains over the windows, and it had a regular door with a regular doorknob instead of the massive doors found in hospital rooms. It seemed to be an ordinary bedroom that had had a ton of medical equipment shoved into it and positioned however it would fit into the room.

  Then there were the nurses—­damn their sadistic hides—­who tended him. They sometimes wore colorful uniforms, but sometimes not; the middle-­aged woman who had been there the last time he woke up was always dressed in jeans and sneakers and a sweater, as if she’d just come in from a farm somewhere. Sometimes when his door was opened, he’d catch a glimpse of someone armed standing just outside, and it was never anyone he recognized.

  All of his thoughts were blurred, his memories even worse. He had a very fuzzy memory of Axel MacNamara being there a ­couple of times when he’d awakened, asking insistent questions—­not that MacNamara ever asked any other kind—­but the best Morgan had been able to do was blink his eyes a few times and he wasn’t sure what the hell he was blinking his eyes for, so eventually MacNamara went away.

  But even as he fought through the fog of sedation and trauma, anger still burned deep and bright inside him. When he could think, he remembered what had happened, though the ambush kept getting mixed up with the aftermath and sometimes he’d have shot the nurses if he’d had a weapon in his hand. He couldn’t formulate all the ramifications of his ambush, but he knew they had to be bad, and no matter how unfocused and helpless he was, he was still damned and determined to find out who had done this and what their goal was. A more naive and protected person might think the goal had simply been to kill him, but Morgan had stopped being naive somewhere around the age of three, and “protected” wasn’t in his job description. Killing him had to have been part of a larger plan—­the question was what plan, and who was behind it?

  He could think that, but he couldn’t communicate well enough to transmit. His helplessness was so galling he’d have wrecked the place if he’d been capable of moving, but the way he was strapped down, he couldn’t even press the call button for the nurse—­if he’d wanted to call, which he didn’t, because whenever they showed up they did stuff he didn’t like.

  One day, though, when he woke up he felt as if he’d turned a corner. He didn’t know which corner, but with it came a sense that his body had decided to live. The medical staff must have come to the same conclusion about his physical state of being. An hour or so later a doctor—­he guessed the guy was a doctor, though hell, maybe he was someone they dragged in off the streets because he was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt—­came in and cheerfully said, “Let’s get that tube out of your throat, get you talking and drinking and eating. You ready? Cough, that’ll make it easier.”

  One second Morgan was looking forward to having the tube out of his throat, and the next his body was in total rebellion against what was happening to it. Bullshit! The only thing that could have made it easier was if he’d been unconscious. It felt as if his lungs were being dragged out with the tube, and his chest was being hacked in two. His vision blurred and darkened, his body arched involuntarily, and if he’d been able to, he’d have done damage to the son of a bitch, because if that was “easy,” then “hard” would have killed most ­people.

  Then the tube was out and he was breathing on his own, shaking like a leaf in reaction and soaking wet with sweat, but at least he could talk—­sort of. In theory, anyway. His throat felt as if it had been scrubbed with sandpaper, and his mouth wasn’t in any better shape. It took him three tries to get out one raspy, almost inaudible word:


  “Sure thing.” A smiling woman with salt-­and-­pepper hair poured some water into a cup and held the drinking straw to his mouth, and he managed to get some water down his raw throat. He could practically feel the membranes of his mouth absorbing the moisture, and he greedily sucked down two more swallows before she moved the cup away.

  He gathered his strength for more words. “No more . . . dope.” He needed his head clear. He wasn’t sure exactly why, but instinct was driving him hard.

  “Don’t go too macho on us,” she replied, still smiling. “Pain puts stress on your body and stress will slow down the healing. Let’s reassess every day, okay?”

  Meaning they were going to give him more dope whether he wanted it or not. He was fairly sure in a regular hospital his wishes couldn’t be ignored, but this was obviously not a regular hospital. They were going to do whatever they thought needed doing, and he could just live with it. The pun wasn’t lost on him. But then everything else was because, damn it, he went to sleep again.

  The next time we woke up, Axel MacNamara was there.

  The visit must have been timed to coincide with the downswing of effectiveness of whatever drugs they were giving him, because Morgan felt at least halfway alert. Yeah, MacNamara thought of things like that. The bastard planned everything, probab
ly down to how long he chewed each bite of food.

  Morgan wouldn’t have said he was clear headed, just that the mental fog wasn’t as thick. He was clear enough to be aware of a vague sense of fear, one he couldn’t analyze—­hell, he could barely identify it. He’d trained himself to ignore fear’s existence, settling instead on “alarm” as his fight-­or-­flight trigger. But now he was afraid, though he couldn’t have said of what. Maybe it was that this fogginess, this sense of disconnect from everything except pain, would become permanent. Maybe the damage was too great to heal completely. Maybe this was his new reality. But—­no. He could sense his own improvement, though from “near death” to “really shitty” wasn’t that long a road.

  To hide his unease, he said, “Hey,” to MacNamara, then scowled because the word sounded mushy, his voice thin and weak. He shifted himself around, intending to reach for the foam cup sitting on the rolling table beside him, only to discover that he was still strapped down—­and that pain meds on the decline also meant he had to deal with his shot-­up and patched-­together body that protested every movement. Both the pain and his helplessness pissed him off.

  “Get these . . damn straps . . . off me,” he rasped, anger lending some strength to his voice.

  Axel didn’t budge. “You gonna try to rip the IV lines out again?”

  The idea was tempting, but he knew if he did, the straps would come back. He wanted to be in control of his body.

  “No,” he said grudgingly.

  MacNamara deftly released him, then pressed the button that raised the head of the bed. Morgan got dizzy for a minute, but he took deep breaths and willed himself not to show any sissy-­assed weakness such as passing out. He’d never live that down.

  “You up to answering questions?” MacNamara asked in that abrupt way of his, no time wasted in pleasantries or even asking how Morgan was feeling.

  Morgan kind of half-­glared from bleary eyes, mainly because his default mood was that deep and festering rage. “Ask,” he said, reaching again—­this time with results—­for the foam cup, which he sincerely hoped held some water. The movement was just short of agonizing; his chest felt as if someone were hacking at it with a cleaver. He ground his teeth together and kept stretching his arm out, partly because he was damned if he’d give in to the pain and partly because he really wanted that water.

  Anyone else would have gotten the cup for him, but not MacNamara. Right now, Morgan appreciated the lack of sympathy; he wanted to do it himself. He closed his shaking hand around the cup and lifted it. There were a ­couple of inches of water in the cup and he sucked it dry, then fumbled the cup back onto the table. He sank back against the pillow, as exhausted as if he’d just finished a twenty-­mile run.

  “Do you remember what happened?”

  “Yeah.” Maybe he was mentally fuzzy, but he wasn’t amnesiac.

  MacNamara pulled a chair around and dropped into it. He was lean to the point of spareness, just a little above average height, but no one would ever mistake his lack of size as a lack of power. He was intense and ruthless, just the kind of guy the GO-­Teams needed to watch their backs.

  “Do you know who shot you?”

  “No.” Morgan drew a breath. “Do you?”

  “He was Russian mob.”

  Morgan blinked, flummoxed as much as he was capable of being flummoxed. Russian? Mob? What the hell? He didn’t have anything to do with the Russian mob. “No shit?”

  “No shit.”

  “I don’t know . . . anyone in the Russian mob.” He’d started to say he didn’t know any Russians, but remembered that he did in fact know a number of Russians—­none of them in the mob, though. “What’s his name?”

  “Albert Rykov. Was. He’s dead.”

  Good, Morgan thought. He didn’t have a lot of forgiveness for ­people who shot him . . . none, in fact. “I’ve never heard of him.” A sluggish thought occurred: “Maybe he was after someone else?”

  “No.” Axel’s tone was flat, certain. He wasn’t entertaining any doubt whatsoever.

  “Why would the Russian mob target me?” That didn’t make any sense at all. He scrubbed his hand over his face, felt the rasp of whiskers even though he had a vague memory of one of the nurses shaving him at one time or another . . . maybe. Then he stared in shock at his own hand, at how thin and almost translucent it was, not like his hand at all though he knew it was because it was attached to the end of his arm . . . which also looked freakishly thin. For a minute he fought a sense of disconnection, fought to bring his thoughts back on track. What had they been talking about? Right—­the Russians.

  “They didn’t. Rykov was attached to the mob, but this looks like an independent hit. Someone outside hired it done.”

  In that case, the possibilities were legion because he still couldn’t think why anyone would want him dead, which theoretically left the world’s entire population in play.

  “Walk me through everything that happened after you reached stateside,” Axel said, leaning back and crossing his arms.

  “I debriefed”—­he figured that was already known, given that Axel would have all the paperwork—­“grabbed a bite to eat at a MacDonald’s, went home, took a shower, and went to sleep. Slept a full twenty-­four. Then I worked on my gear, took a run in the dark, came home, went back to sleep.” The simple statements were punctuated by pauses to catch his breath.

  “Anything happen at the MacDonald’s? Or during your run? Who did you talk to?”

  “No, no, and no one, other than the cashier who handed my order out the drive-­through window.”

  “Did you recognize the cashier?”

  “No. It was some kid.”

  “Did you see anything inside the restaurant?”

  “No.” He was sure of that because he remembered being a little uneasy by his restricted line of sight. After a mission, it always took a while to decompress and ease out of combat mode.

  “Then what?”

  Morgan blew out a breath, tried to whip up his rapidly flagging energy—­not that he’d had much to begin with. He was so weak he didn’t recognize his own body, which made him feel even more disconnected than maybe was accounted for by the drugs. “When I woke up, I wanted to go fishing. I called Kodak but he was otherwise occupied, so I went alone.”

  Axel nodded. Morgan figured he already knew that, just as he’d known about the debriefing. “Did you talk to anyone?”

  “Congresswoman Kingsley and her husband. They were on the river.”

  “Anyone with them?”

  “No, they were by themselves.”

  “Anyone else?”

  “Not to talk to.” A memory niggled at him. “Brawley—­the marina manager—­said hello.”

  Axel was a master at reading nuances of expression. “And . . . ?”

  Until he heard the “and,” Morgan hadn’t been aware there was an “and.” He took a deep breath, cut it short when the pain in his chest cut into him. “Could be coincidence, but he made a call after talking to me.”

  “How soon after?”


  “Cell phone?” If Brawley had used a cell, Axel could use the time and the cell towers to get a bead on the possible call recipients.

  “No.” Very clearly, Morgan saw in his mind the old-­fashioned corded phone Brawley had used. “Corded land line.”

  “Shit.” Frustration was clear in the word. Getting the info wasn’t impossible, but it would require a warrant. Technology would let them bypass that little detail if the call had been made on a cell.

  But, regardless of the phone call, Morgan couldn’t think of any way Brawley would know where he lived or, more importantly, why he would need to set up a hit.

  The effort to sit up and answer questions was wearing on him hard. He didn’t have much more juice left in him. “No reason,” he muttered, letting h
is head drop back. His eyes closed automatically, and he fought them open again.

  “What?” Axel demanded.

  Morgan focused, laboriously reconstructed his thoughts. “No reason for Brawley,” he finally said, or thought he said. Maybe his mouth wasn’t working. His eyes closed again. But he didn’t care because darkness was rising up and swallowing him whole, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

  THE NEXT TIME he saw Axel, Morgan was actually sitting up under his own power. It was almost three weeks since he’d been shot; he knew because he’d asked. Sitting up wasn’t all he could do. Twice a day for the last ­couple of days he’d taken a few steps across the small room, bracketed on each side by nurses so he didn’t face-­plant. He was eating halfway-­solid food now, and he’d never before in his life been so grateful for mashed potatoes, or oatmeal. He didn’t even like oatmeal. Tomorrow, they’d told him, he could have eggs. He’d requested steak with those eggs, and they’d laughed at him. Hands down they were the meanest nurses he’d ever been around.

  Even more disturbing, he was beginning to love them.

  He didn’t know how long it had been since Axel had been there, but he figured it was about a week. The only surprising thing was that Axel hadn’t been there every day to badger more details out of him.

  Sometimes Axel’s persistent nitpicking was a pain in the ass, but now Morgan would have welcomed it because he wanted to get the bastard or bastards who had set up the ambush. It was typical of Axel that he’d chosen that time to stay away.

  “About time,” Morgan said by way of greeting.

  “I’ve been busy, running down details and setting things up.”

  “What things? What details?”

  “That’s what I’m here to tell you,” Axel snapped as he dropped into the visitor’s chair.

  Being snapped at was good; if Axel had tried to be kind—­with emphasis on the word “tried,” because he’d never really succeed—­Morgan would have suspected he wasn’t recovering as well as a few steps and mashed potatoes would indicate.

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