Baby Heal the Pain – Sneak Peek 1

Part 1: The Grand Plaza Job

Chapter 1


I stepped up to the crime scene wearing my new navy blue cocktail dress and my favorite black Louboutin heels. My outfit wasn’t so out of place in the hotel itself, Chicago’s four-star Grand Plaza, but I did catch a skeptical look from the uniformed cop who blocked the entrance to the fourth floor room where a dead body had been discovered. Chad Waters, my old med school friend-with-benefits, who was supposed to have been my date for the night, waved to me from inside the room.

“She’s with me,” Chad, who was a Chicago medical examiner, told the cop.

I held up my large purse that doubled as my medical bag as further proof that I belonged there.

“Sure thing, Dr. Waters,” the cop said.

He handed me a pair of plastic shoe covers and I slipped them over my 4-inch heels. I pulled out a fresh pair of Nitrile gloves from my bag and snapped them on, then crossed the threshold into room 419.

As I approached Chad, the assistant who had stood beside him stepped away and joined another assistant on the other side of the room, where the lifeless body lay.

Chad peered at me over his reading glasses and smiled. How could he need readers already, given that he was only five years older than I? Doing the math, that put him at 40. Yes, old enough age-related hyperopia, and I was right behind him.

As the team doctor for the best unit at the off-the-books spy agency Headquarters for the Elimination of Advanced Threats, known as HEAT to the few who were aware of its existence, I was surrounded by youth. Most of my colleagues were under thirty, extremely fit, and lethally proficient at hand-to-hand combat. I kept with my own rigorous workout schedule, as required by the job, but I was by far the oddest woman out on my team, by virtue of both age and skill set.

“You look amazing,” Chad said quietly. He winked. “Hot date?”

“It was going to be.” I glanced at the body on the other side of the room. “Now it’s more of an unusual one. Which brings me to the question of the night…”

“Why you’re here,” Chad finished for me.

“Doesn’t look like my field surgery skills will do much good for this poor guy,” I said. “And you hardly need my help to do your job.”

“You’re here because you’re one of my oldest friends.” He pulled a small plastic baggie out of his pants pocket. Inside the bag was a business card. “I know better than to ask questions about your time as an army surgeon and whether you’re still involved in anything…” he shrugged, “let’s say inconspicuous. I assume you don’t want my homicide detectives asking any uncomfortable questions, either. We found this clutched in our vic’s left hand.”

I slowly took the baggie from him and flipped it over to read the front of the card. It was mine, complete with my fake concierge physician’s practice contact information. I couldn’t deny Chad’s implied suspicions. He was too good a friend for that. But I couldn’t confirm any part of them, either. When you’re part of an off-the-books spy agency tracking down international drug smugglers, weapons dealers, and enemy espionage operatives on a daily basis, you can’t exactly talk about your real job. Whenever I could, I stuck to the kernel of truth in my story: that I was still a practicing doctor.

“I had a whole stack of these at the conference,” I said about the business card. The medical conference was the reason I’d been in town. Although, not the only reason. “I must have passed out dozens of business cards over the past two days.”

Chad nodded. “Of course. But we ran the dead kid’s ID. He not a doctor or a medic or anything close to that.”

My stomach knotted and I winced. “Who is he?”

“Patrick O’Dell. He’s an active-duty soldier, stationed at Fort Meade.”

The knot turned into a lead ball in my gut. Fort Meade in Maryland was right next door to an NSA facility. Given what I did for a living, the odds that it was a coincidence that a dead soldier clutching my business card had worked in the vicinity of an intel agency were pretty much nil.

“I wanted you to get that out of here before I call this in as a homicide,” Chad said. “Which I have to do in about the next two minutes if I want to keep my job.”

I looked at the soldier again. Gunshot wound to the right side of his head. Blood and tissue splatter consistent with a close-range shot. Pistol a couple of inches away from his outstretched right hand.

“Staged to look like a suicide?” That lead ball turned to molten lava and forced its way into my esophagus. I swallowed down the bile and my fear. “How can you tell?”

“For starters, he’s a lefty,” Chad said. “Which led us to take a closer look at the wound. The barrel didn’t make contact…”

He continued talking, but his voice faded as I stared at the young man, trying to place him, trying to remember when or even if I’d ever seen him.

“Can I look at the body?” I interrupted.

Chad furrowed his brow. “What? Look, Samantha, I’ve gone as far out on a limb as I can, and I have to call this in pronto.”

I nodded. “Do it. I’ll just take a minute and I won’t touch anything. I’ll be out of here long before the detectives arrive.”

He pressed his lips together and sighed. “Anything for you. But one minute, not a second more.” He motioned to his two assistants, who receded to the far wall to compare notes.

I walked carefully toward the body, taking note of every inch of the room as I did so. TJ, my boss at HEAT, would want a full accounting of everything I could remember. He and the rest of my team were staying at a HEAT facility a few miles outside Chicago, preparing for a mission against the Carbonados Group, a counter-intelligence agency that was—along with many other criminal pursuits—extorting some high-level government officials. The extortion operation had its base somewhere nearby, although we hadn’t yet pinpointed the location. It had seemed like fate when I’d received an invitation to sit on the panel at the medical conference in the city. Another coincidence and, now I was realizing, also unlikely to be serendipity.

The soldier wore nice jeans and Doc Martins shoes, but he was shirtless. A white tee shirt and button-down white and blue striped shirt were laid out on the neatly made bed like he was preparing for an evening out. His army-issue duffle bag was unzipped, but the contents were folded and stacked inside it. In other words, nothing was out of the ordinary except the dead body and the gun used to kill him.

I stood by the soldier’s feet, well out of the way of the blood and tissue evidence, and pondered his face. He wasn’t familiar, but that didn’t mean we’d never crossed paths. I scanned his throat, arms, torso, looking for signs of struggle. Chad would do a thorough exam back at the morgue, but I wanted to know for myself. There were no defensive wounds, no indicators that he’d fought his assailant, so it had been either an ambush or a surprise attack by someone he knew.

I took a step back from the body, ready to turn away and make my exit from Chad’s crime scene, when a cluster of scars on the soldier’s rib cage caught my eye. I crouched down beside him. One of the M.E. assistants took a step toward me, but stopped when I was careful not to touch the body. I pulled out my phone and glanced at Chad. He frowned, but nodded. I snapped a picture of the scars, a ragged row of half-moon shaped pockmarks, souvenirs from an improvised explosive device, or IED. I knew because I’d seen such marks too often. Under the pockmarks, there were a series of straight lines. Healed incisions. I knew that because I’d made such cuts too many times when I was deployed in SWA, southwest Asia, to treat battlefield wounds.

I stood and pulled off my gloves with shaking hands. I nodded to Chad, who said he’d call me in the morning, and dropped my gloves and booties into the plastic bag beside the uniformed cop at the door. When I rounded the corner of the corridor and left the sight of the cop guarding the hotel room, I hit a button on my phone. I continued past the elevators and slipped into the stairwell.

The number I’d dialed rang only once before TJ answered. “Bond, I thought you were off the clock.”

I leaned out over the iron railings and glanced above and below me in the stairwell to ensure I was alone, then launched the bat signal. “I have a Code Scorpio.”

“Shit! Are you in imminent danger?”

“I…I don’t think so.” My fingers and toes were going numb. Shock was setting in. I took a few steadying breaths and shook out my limbs, staving off panic. “But something’s wrong.”

“Only Jensen and I are here at HQ,” TJ said, referring to our IT guru Jason Jensen. “He has your phone pinging at the Grand Plaza hotel.”

“That’s right. I’m in a stairwell. I haven’t seen anyone suspicious, but I can’t be sure no one is here.”

I listened while TJ barked a series of orders at Jensen, then returned his attention to me. “Samantha, listen very carefully.” TJ using my first name was a sign he was very, very worried.

I repeated my series of deep breaths because TJ worrying was enough to send my parasympathetic nervous system back into panic mode, which could result in a fight, flight, or freeze response. Because I wasn’t a field operative, I’d been trained to flee, but I’d strode into this hotel without a backup team, an escape plan, or even an inkling that I could be walking into a trap.

“Fuck me,” I muttered. “I screwed up.”

“We’ll worry about that later,” TJ said. “Right now, I want you to proceed to the lobby of the hotel. Can you do that safely?”

“I think so.” I stood and continued down the stairs, more relieved than I would have thought possible that I didn’t hear anyone’s footsteps or breathing except my own echoing off the walls.

“In the lobby, choose an out-of-the-way corner where you can see everyone in the area, preferably without being seen.”

“Okay.” I exited through the door that led to the lobby, passed the bank of elevators, and arrived in the busy lobby near the check-in desk. “I see a gold upholstered bench in the front corner, to the right of the revolving-door entrance. I’ll wait for the team there.”

“Yes, wait there, but about the team.”

I tried to ignore the tension in TJ’s voice. I picked up my pace and slid onto the bench just as the first cop car with its blaring siren pulled up to the curb outside.

“Cops?” TJ said. “What’s going on?”

“You first,” I said. “The team.”

I heard him exhale. ““Tactical crew doesn’t arrive in Chicago for a couple more days, and the others are doing recon on two potential Carbonados sites. The fastest I can round up and deploy a backup extraction team is close to an hour.”

I shook my head. Between potential bad guys and overzealous cops, it would be a toss-up who would find me first and what kind of shitshow would ensue. “That’s not going to work.”

“I know,” TJ said. “That’s why I have Jensen contacting an old army buddy of mine. He lives about ten minutes from where you are. He did covert ops. He’ll get you out of there.”

I blew out a long breath. I could probably last ten minutes.

“Your turn,” TJ said. “What’s up with the cops?”

“On their way to a homicide on the fourth floor,” I answered.

“You involved?”

Most people would be offended by that question, but in our line of work, it was totally fair.

“No, but I just came from there. The medical examiner is a friend of mine. He got called out to a suicide and found one of my fake business cards on the vic.”

“But it’s not a suicide.”

“No,” I said. “I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I’d surmise a murder victim clutching my business card wasn’t a coincidence.”

“Sounds like Carbonados could be involved,” he said, putting words to the fear that had been coalescing around me since I’d seen the soldier’s scars.

“Do you think this is a shot across the bow to tell us they know who we are and that we’re close to their Midwest operation?” I asked.

“That’s worst-case, so the one we have to assume. Who was the victim?”

“A soldier stationed out of Fort Meade,” I answered, feeling calmed by TJ’s questions, which gave me a task to do to take my mind off the fact that I was alone and possibly in enemy territory. “Name of Patrick O’Dell.”

“Someone you knew?” he asked.

“I didn’t know him, but I’m pretty sure we met,” I answered. “I’m pretty sure I’d recognize my own handiwork on any of the soldiers I patched up while I was deployed. TJ, that dead kid was one of mine.”

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