With a growing sense of urgency, Heather Carter searched for the source of trouble among the hundred and fifty first and second grade students playing in the warm California sunlight. Everywhere she looked she saw only normal activity -- the joy and restless energy of children.
And yet, to her inborn special perceptions, the earth vibrated with a sense of menace. The slight breeze hushed as if holding its breath. In the park beyond the chain link fencing, a flock of crows suddenly took flight, voicing their warning calls as they soared above the eucalyptus and pepper trees.
Few cars used North Street in the morning, so the midnight-blue van with tinted windows cruising slowly toward the school caught Heather's attention.
Probably a parent bringing a child late, was her first thought. But some internal warning shouted danger.
Instead of pulling into the parking lot, the van stopped in the red zone parallel to the playground. A window on the passenger side slid down and a young Hispanic man with a shaved head pointed a handgun toward the children on the swings. At the same time, the driver stepped outside the van and aimed across the metal roof.
All sound died.
"Emergency lock-in," Heather shouted, motioning for children near the buildings to run for the nearest door.
Someone yelled, "Vipers!"
Children screamed and scattered. Some dashed into classrooms. Others ran to the bathrooms or down the open hallways between classroom wings. Heather watched in numbed horror as one boy tripped and two more fell over him. They jumped up and scrambled to safety. A few children raced to Heather sobbing in terror.
She clutched them tightly for a brief moment, then said, "Quick, get down."
Boys and girls farther from the buildings threw themselves flat, face down on the grass or blacktop. Abandoned balls rolled across the Four Square and Handball courts.
One lone girl stood, a bewildered expression on her face, her blonde hair a bright target.
Heather shouted, "Brianna, get down!" Terrified for the new student, she raced to protect the child. With a quick motion, she pushed the six-year-old face down on the grass, breaking her fall at the last second. "Stay flat, honey," she urged, scanning the area to make sure everyone else was prone on the ground.
Without warning, a hard blow shoved her into the sparse grass. Her knees scraped across patches of bare dirt and stones.
Had she been shot? Breathing in quick, shallow gasps, she waited for the surge of pain. Instead, a slim form pressed against her side and a heavy weight lay across her back. Who? What? Cautiously she raised her face to look.
"Keep your fool head down," a deep male voice commanded. The weight on her back became a warm, muscular arm.
"Daddy?" Brianna whimpered softly.
"Shh, kitten, I'm here."
Tense quiet rippled across the playground. Three bold crows flew down to search for something edible. Sparrows called through the dry, hot air. Muffled sobs trembled in the heat.
Heather's pulse pounded in her throat. She turned her face, a few scant inches above the grass, to stare at the two gunmen who menaced the children.
One raised his gun, and fired a volley of shots into the air. The rattlesnake tattoo on his arm writhed in lifelike intimidation.
The van's side door rumbled open. Two more young men wearing white muscle shirts and black pants jumped out. They swaggered into a loose line, handguns pointed toward the children. One, holding his weapon with two hands, aimed at three boys on the tetherball court. The other whistled a gang signal as he targeted a girl and boy huddled in dirt grooves under the swings.
The man at her left spoke to a 911 operator in low, urgent tones. But Heather knew she had to do something now, and broke her own vow to hide her special gifts.
Whispering a chant, she sent tendrils of energy fanning out across the nearby park and found a curl of breeze. In a low voice, she called, "From the soil, from the sand, from the windswept sky," coaxing the energy away from a small updraft, and toward the heat and sand under the swings. It cheerfully picked up speed and swirled between the children on the ground as it gathered a column of brown dust and grit.
With the leashed power in her control, Heather slid her right hand along the ground, stretched her fingers toward the gunmen, and released the wind. It raced around them, plucked at their hair, tugged their clothes, and blasted sand at their faces.
"Freakin' wind," one Viper growled.
The terrorists shielded their eyes against the stinging grit, but held their weapons steady, still targeting the children.
A sickening wave of fear rolled over Heather. She wanted to close her eyes and wait for someone braver, stronger, to help her. No. She ignored her growing panic, and gathered another handful of wind. Drawing power from the earth, she visualized a spear of wind grasped in her right hand, whispered an incantation, and hurled it at the men.
They cursed at the new assault, then fired shots into the air shouting, "Vipers de San Lozano."
Sobs and muffled screams rose from the children on the ground.
"Where are the police?" Heather asked through trembling lips.
"Probably on silent running." Strong fingers clasped her left shoulder.
She looked across Brianna's blonde head into clear, winter-gray eyes set in a tanned, harsh face. A jagged scar slashed in a curve from the corner of his right eye up into coal-black hair. He had the aura of a man who'd looked into the depths of hell and survived, stronger than ever.
Heather licked her dry lips. "Who are you?"
"I'm Quinn Archer, Brianna's dad." He glanced at the precious little girl sheltered between them. "I can't thank you enough for coming to her rescue."
"What else could I do?" Tenderly, she smoothed Brianna's hair. "I'm her teacher, Heather Carter."
Quinn quickly scanned Ms. Carter's face. Wavy blonde hair framed delicate facial bones, a stubborn chin, and eyes as blue as a high mountain lake. Fear shadowed their depths, but that hadn't stopped her from racing to save Brie.
More shots filled the air. Children screamed.
Brie cringed against him, and he tightened his hold.
"Daddy, you're squishing me."
"Just a little squeeze, kitten. Keep down flat."
Quinn tucked his daughter closer. With a silent curse he looked for a way to protect her.
"Daddy, where's your gun?"
"Hidden under the seat in the Cherokee."
"You carry a gun?" Mrs. Carter asked suspiciously.
"Lady, this is the wrong time to go into long explanations. Sure as hell never thought I'd need one at school."
Brie put her lips to his ear and whispered, "I'm scared."
"Smart girl." He kissed her forehead to reassure her and savored her clean, little girl scent.
Her small hand slipped trustingly into his scarred one. "My daddy carries a gun so the bad men won't catch him."
"Ex-ATF," he said.
"That explains it," Mrs. Carter said. "You made dangerous enemies."
A delicate fragrance wafted from the slim woman who'd saved his daughter, made more poignant by the sharp scent of fear mingled with the sweetness.
He squeezed her shoulder. "Hang in there. Help's coming."
Two of the bastards fired more rounds into the air. The muscles in her shoulder tensed. At her instinctive reaction to danger, Quinn's gut tightened. He wanted to sweep up both his daughter and Mrs. Carter, and carry them to safety.
Heather shivered, cold in spite of the hot sun's rays on her head and back. The strong male hand on her shoulder offered support, but she had to get past her own terror, block out the children's cries, and find another updraft, another fistful of wind to send against the gang-bangers.
Her mouth was dry. Her cheek itched where it pressed into grass. She could smell her own fear.
"Teacher, I'm scared." The shivering six-year-old boy sprawled just ahead of her turned his tear-stained face toward her. "I wanna throw up."
"I'm scared too, Timmy, but we have to stay flat." She squeezed his ankle to comfort him.
Archer's strong fingers pressed her shoulder. "Tim, let's pretend we're soldiers. Right now we're pinned down in the line of fire. Follow orders and stay flat. Our buddies will rescue us. Okay?"
"Okay." His childish treble wavered, and he slid one grimy thumb into his mouth.
To encourage him, Heather added, "The police'll be here in just a little bit."
As if to confirm her words, she heard the throb of helicopter engines and the burst of sirens coming closer.
A ragged cheer went up from the children. Someone called, "The cops're coming. Can I get up?"
"Children, don't move." Her voice rasped with the effort to make everyone hear. "Stay quiet until the police say it's all clear."
Shouting defiantly, the Viper with the shaved head fired toward the approaching helicopter. Untouched, it swerved out of range, swooped around, and came in from the opposite direction. Moments later two more helicopters, TV logos on the sides, circled higher above.
Not again. Not like New York, she thought bleakly.
As the police craft drew closer, she saw Timmy cover his ears against the roar of its rotor blades. Beside her, Brianna whimpered, as the powerful downdraft blew dirt and bits of grass against Heather's body. This was her chance.
Whispering a chant, she snatched a whirlpool of air stirred by the rotating blades, careful not to interfere with the craft's flight, and sent a gale screaming against the four gunmen.
"My eyes. Can't see," one cried. He swept his weapon around, blindly seeking a target.
"Hey, man, don't point that at me."
"What the hell's going down?" The third gang member looked around frantically. "Where'd that shittin' wind come from?"
Heather peered more closely at him. She'd seen him before, but when?
"Christ," the driver shouted. "You guys haul ass! Let's get the shit out of here." "You got it."
The four made a mad scramble for the van. Doors slammed. The powerful engine roared to life just as a police cruiser swung around the corner and blocked the van. The gang-bangers tried to back up, but another black and white unit swung in behind. More police parked on the narrow street. Sirens cut off. Car doors opened and a small army of officers, crouched behind the slim protection, leveled their handguns and assault rifles at the van.
A voice boomed over a loudspeaker, "Police. Throw down your weapons and come out with hands up."
The men in the van were silent.
Heather glanced up and saw more media helicopters had joined the circle in the warm blue sky. It was starting again.
"You're surrounded," the amplified voice continued. "Come out one at a time."
The van doors opened. One by one, handguns landed on the ground. The driver stepped into view.
Two children started to get up.
"No," Heather said sharply, rising to her knees to reach them. "Jenny, Lucita -- don't move!"
As she watched them huddle closer to the grass, Archer pulled her down, his powerful hand pressing her to the ground. "You too, Ms. Carter."
For a moment, she let herself feel the protection offered in his touch. Then she wiped the stinging sweat from her eyes, and ignored the brief flash of attraction.
Would this nightmare never end?
• • •
In a few minutes the police had secured the gang members. The danger was over and the children, by habit, went to their assigned lines. They chattered nervously about the gunmen and the funny wind. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
After a quick check to see if anyone had been injured, Heather joined her students, patting and soothing the frightened children. Her throat ached with unshed tears of fear and relief, and her muscles trembled with exhaustion. The coiling residue of the wind spell sapped her energy. She hadn't been prepared, but she couldn't give in to her fatigue. At least not yet.
She took a deep breath and pasted a reassuring expression on her face. The boys and girls in her care came first.
A crowd had gathered behind police lines outside the fence. People shouted their child's name. Children cried. Police officers and School Security roamed the halls and playground.
"Teacher," Brianna slipped her arms around Heather's waist. "I was awfully scared, but Daddy was there, and the wind came up like magic in a fairy tale and blew sand at the bad men."
"You were brave." Heather hugged the six-year-old then offered her hand to the child's father. "Words aren't enough, but thank you for your help."
He pulled Brianna close to his side and frowned at Heather.
"Are you okay? Want me to call your husband? You should have the Paramedics check you out."
Her stomach twisted. She didn't want to deal with the question, but under the circumstances he did deserve an answer. "I'm all right." She looked away, hearing the hesitation in her own voice. "My...Matthew died three years ago."
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a video camera pointed in her direction. More reporters? Pretending to smooth her hair fluttering in the warm breeze, she took a quick look. She'd been right. News reporters were filming her and the students.
Forcing herself to act calm, she turned to walk with her students to the classroom.
Quinn's concern for the fragile looking woman changed to cynicism. He'd noted small signs of deception -- glancing to the side without turning her head, playing with her hair, nervous motions with her fingers. Damn, he'd learned the hard way not to trust a woman who had secrets. And he sure as hell wouldn't let associating with one endanger Brianna.
As Mrs. Carter turned to go with her students, he called, "Wait. Who the hell were those bastards?"
He moved ahead to block her. "I won't have my daughter in a school where she's in danger!"
The small amount of color left in her face drained away, and she looked dismayed by the confrontation. He stifled a flicker of compassion, reminding himself of Brie's safety.
She drew in a deep breath, obviously forcing herself to face him once more. "They're the Vipers, part of the San Lozano gang." With shaking fingers she smoothed back some strands that had escaped the hair clip, then studied him. "We've never had this happen here."
"Never doesn't mean shit when my daughter's life is threatened. Who's going to guarantee it won't happen again? We were damned lucky that wind blew up when it did, or we'd still be pinned down."
He watched in grudging admiration as her anger rose at his harsh tone.
Her eyes flashed. "For that matter, Mr. Archer, how did you get here? This is a locked campus and you need permission from the office to be on the grounds."
Fixing his gaze on her, he slowly scanned her. Beginning at the top of her head, his look lingered on her breasts, then swept down past her flared skirt, to the tips of her flat, white shoes.
Her expression reminded him of a sparrow about to be impaled by an angry eagle.
Drawing a slip of white paper from his shirt pocket, he presented it to her. "Here's Brianna's Permission to Leave the Campus." His voice was cold. "She had a dental appointment which we have now obviously missed."
He pointed a thumb over his shoulder toward the police. "If nothing like this has happened, how did the kids know what to do?"
She twisted her hands in the folds of her skirt obviously to hide their shaking. "Surely you plan ahead, Mr. Archer. We do too. Just like fire and earthquake drills, we practice for other emergencies. Read the newspapers. Children are in danger these days, no matter where they are. Our first duty at school is to protect them."
Even as he admired her courage in standing up to him, he loomed over her, "I know what I saw. I sure as hell didn't like it."
Clasping his daughter's hand, he said, "Come on, Brianna. We have to go."
• • •
After giving his report, as a witness, to an officer, Quinn showed his I.D. at the reunion gate and led Brianna past the other parents waiting to take their children home.
She held tight to his hand as they crossed the sun-drenched parking lot. "That was scary, Daddy, but Mrs. Carter pertected me."
He noticed her two steps to his one and slowed down.
"Protected, not pertected." Quinn crouched down in front of her and stroked her cheek.
"Yeah, protected me. I like her, Daddy. It's fun in her class. We're not gonna move again, are we? I just made some friends here, and Arleena invited me to her birthday party."
Quinn gently tapped her freckled nose. "After what happened today, aren't you afraid to stay here?"
"No. I was scared when the mean ol' Vipers came, but I like this school." Brianna's cornflower blue eyes sparkled with excitement. "We do lots of fun things. My wind chime pieces are drying, and Mrs. Carter says we're going on the train into Los Angeles to Olvera Street next week." She pulled a paper out of her pocket. "This is my permission slip for the trip."
Quinn smoothed Brianna's hair, studying her precious face. "No, we're not going to move. Your Aunt Karen takes good care of you when I'm at work." He hugged her. "You're my little girl. I want you to be happy and safe."
Brianna leaned against him and whispered, "I love your daddy smell. It makes me feel safe and all warm and fuzzy."
"Kitten," he murmured, his heart bursting with emotion.
She nuzzled his shoulder. "I am happy. I love Aunt Karen and Uncle Dan, and Mike and Patty."
Straightening in the circle of his arms, she held his face between her small hands. "I love you best of all, and you're with me now." She sighed. "I missed you when you had to go away. I cried every night for you."
"I'm sorry you were so sad, Brie." Tenderly, he raised his left hand and stroked her sun-warmed hair. During all the dark days and nights he was chained in the drug lord Feo's hell, he'd clung to memories of Brianna. Through the beatings and torture, images of his little girl had kept him going, given him hope. Now he held her in his arms, tucked her into bed at night.
"I thought about you all the time, kitten."
"I'm glad you didn't forget me, Daddy." She tugged his hand to her lips and kissed the scarred part of his little finger where the rest was missing. The touch of her innocent lips on the symbol of what one man's evil had done to him staggered Quinn.
"Mommy said you were never coming back, and I should forget you. She told me to call Mr. Brown, Daddy. I said 'He's not my daddy. My real daddy is coming home.' " Then she got mad and I had to go to bed, and it wasn't even dark."
Quinn's stomach knotted in fury. Shelly had told their daughter and anyone who'd listen that he'd never come back because he loved fighting in other countries too much. Hell, she'd been the one who'd betrayed him to Señor Feo.
Brianna ducked her head, and whispered, "I didn't mean to make her mad. Maybe that's why Mommy ran away from me and went away to heaven."
Gently, Quinn raised his little girl's chin. "Kitten, it wasn't your fault. Your mommy had a car accident." Acutely aware of how close he'd come to never seeing his child again when he was at Feo's mercy, Quinn's hands tightened on her waist.
"Daddy, you're squeezing me again." Brianna snuggled closer. "I like it."
"Yeah," he said in a lighter tone. "Same here, squirt."
Quinn released her and stood. "Come on, Brie. Dr. West is waiting to check that pretty smile. Maybe he can work us into his schedule." He knew some might question why they were going ahead with the planned visit after the earlier traumatic events, but he wanted to get Brianna back to the reassurance of a normal routine as soon as possible. Afterwards, they'd go to lunch and take time to be together.
By habit, Quinn scanned the parking lot carefully before heading to the Cherokee. Some police officers talked with witnesses and took their statements, while others looped yellow tape around the crime scene.
Brianna waved at a female officer standing nearby. "That lady's pretty. My teacher's pretty, too. Her smile makes me feel all good inside."
Quinn buckled Brie into the Cherokee, then tapped her nose. "Your smile makes me feel special."
"Uncle Hawk's smile makes me feel good, too." She settled more comfortably into the back seat. "He looks so sad and fierce most of the time. Mommy didn't like him, but I do."
Quinn drove out of the parking lot into the traffic going south on Bloomfield Street. "Hawk's my best friend. You can trust him. If he comes for you without me..."
"I remember. If Uncle Hawk ever says 'Let's see the man on the white horse,' that means I should go with him and do what he says."
"That's our secret, kitten."
"A good secret, not a bad one."
He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her emphatic nod. "Yes, honey, it's a good secret."
"Mommy and Mr. Brown had bad secrets. They didn't know I heard them."
Quinn considered what his little girl had said, filled with the usual helpless anger. Only four then, she'd seen and heard things no child should've had to know.
Secrets. Had his wife been the one who told a business rival about the preliminary research for his new energy system?
Shelly and her lover were dead, but Quinn still had the unsettling awareness of unfinished business, of danger. That train of thought brought him back to events at school, and the heart-stopping moment he'd seen Brianna in peril -- too far for him to reach in time. Even as he'd sprinted toward his daughter, the blonde woman had been there ahead of him.
Mrs. Carter. Heather. A soft name for a gutsy lady. Now that he'd recovered from the gut-wrenching fear for his little girl, he regretted his harsh words.
Images of Heather's blue eyes framed by thick lashes lingered in his mind. At first they'd been shadowed by fear, then soft with tenderness as she'd hugged Brianna and soothed the other children. Later they'd blazed with indignation as she stood up to him.
He spun the wheel and drove into the dentist's parking lot, still captured by thoughts of the woman he'd met today. A man could rest in the warm depths of her gaze, could drift in her gentle fragrance.
Pull yourself together, Archer, he ordered. She's a woman with secrets. Shelly's betrayal cured you of getting serious about any woman.
Especially one with something to hide.
Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Clark