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JUNE 8, 2009, 6:30 A.M.
I could hear my heart pounding, even over the volume of the helicopter. Judging distance and memorizing images of our surroundings were skills I'd learned to use to my advantage during the past two and a half months of Tempest training. But today they had taken away my sight. And by "they," I mean Chief Marshall.
After an hour of their obvious diversions and turning the helicopter in circles to confuse us, I was seriously ready for a time jump … somewhere calm and on the ground.
"In about sixty seconds," Freeman barked over the noise of the helicopter, "I'll give you the coordinates of our location, the door will open, and both of you will be dangling by those ropes we've attached you to. Your chance of survival will increase greatly if you have an idea of what your feet might land on."
I fought the urge to rip off my blindfold and look down. Without seeing the journey we'd taken, I'd never be able to figure out where they were about to dump us. Agent Kendrick was already shaking beside me. I couldn't see her, but I felt her shoulder trembling as it pressed against mine.
"Calm down," I whispered into her ear. "Or it'll only get worse."
My heart slowed instantly as I used my own advice for Kendrick on myself. Never let anyone see you sweat. Never let them in your head … not Chief Marshall, not my partner or any of the Tempest trainees, and especially not the EOTs. This was one of the three most important lessons I'd learned in training. The other two:
Everything is a test.
Everyone is alone.
The sound of the helicopter door being wrenched open caused my stomach to drop. Calm … stay calm. Noise from the rotors and wind burst in, cold air smacking me in the face.
I barely heard Freeman shout the coordinates, and then I heard Kendrick yell into my ear, "The east side of the French Alps … rough surface … loose rocks … but people climb it."
I swallowed hard. "Great."
And they literally had turned us in circles since we'd left this morning, considering Tempest headquarters were at the base of the French Alps.
Ten seconds later, Kendrick and I were being pushed through the open door, each secured to our own rope as we swung back and forth in the wind.
"Jackson!" Kendrick shouted. "Take off your blindfold."
Oh … right. But that would require peeling my fingers from the rope. Instead of releasing a hand, I used my forearm to nudge the cloth from my eyes. The sun blinded me at first and then I looked down as the mountain swung in and out of focus. "Holy shit!"
Kendrick's long dark hair whipped in the wind as her eyes scanned the mountainside. She didn't look nearly as petrified as I felt. I had a feeling her genius mind was spinning too fast to let fear distract her. "There's a ledge … we're gonna have to jump a little … doesn't quite reach the end of the rope … but I don't know how long before they cut us off from above."
I glanced up at the helicopter, still hovering ten feet over us, Freeman ready to untie us and slam the door shut any second now. "Okay, ready when you are."
We quickly worked our way down the forty-foot ropes, but even Kendrick hesitated at the end, our feet dangling, trying to reach the small ledge, but coming up short by about five feet. We'd have to unhook the clips securing us to the ropes in order to land on the ledge.
Today's test, in terms of explaining the rules to the trainees, was the most simple we'd had so far—blindfolded journey where we'd be left alone with our partners, and all we had to do was find our way back to headquarters. It was a timed test, of course, but the rules were simple. The execution, however … not so simple.
"On the count of three," Kendrick said, her eyes meeting mine.
And for a second I had to wonder if this was a different test. Like maybe I was supposed to con her into going first. Or I'd release myself from the rope and she wouldn't, and then they'd pull her back up to safety and take off without me.
Only one way to find out.
"One, two," I said, gripping the release button on the clip between my fingers. "Three!"
The blur of Kendrick falling beside me obscured my vision, and the surface of the mountain appeared before I was ready for it. The side of my face smacked into a jagged rock, immediately followed by the warm trickle of blood dripping down my cheek. My feet found the flat surface and both Kendrick and I pressed our hips into the mountain, toes turned out.
"We've got pitons … in our bags, right?" I asked.
"Yeah," Kendrick said between breaths. "Jackson … you're bleeding."
As she reached for my forehead, I shrank away from her hand and quickly wiped the blood with the sleeve of my T-shirt. "It's fine. Forget it."
She pulled her hand back and looked at the large rock in front of us. "Can you reach in your bag and hand me a piton?"
"Don't you have your own?"
She held up the end of a rope, which I hadn't even noticed had been thrown from the helicopter. "They only gave us one rope. We're gonna have to share it."
The challenge in her eyes was too obvious to miss. "Then hand it to me and I'll tie it for both of us."
"On what? You've got nothing but loose rocks in front of you."
I remained silent as I handed her a piton and watched her pound it into the mountain. She tugged hard on the rope and then reached for my harness, clipping me to the rope before I could object.
"This should hold both of us," she said.
My fingers held tightly to the edge of a rock. "You first."
Kendrick shrugged and then started her descent. My eyes dropped to the ground again without permission and Kendrick's face dissolved. A flash of Holly's blond hair flying toward the ground materialized in front of me. Blood pumped in my ears and the air in my lungs seemed to vanish. Not this. Not now. Focus!
"Jackson?" Kendrick said from a few feet below me. "You okay?"
No. "I'm fine."
I turned around quickly and stared straight at the slab of rock in front of me, then started to climb down. Kendrick moved in silence below me for the next hour. The effort of securing pitons and retying the rope every twenty feet was exhausting and made conversation difficult.
The valleys below us were still distant green blobs when Kendrick finally spoke again. "I love how you're still trying to hide the fact that you're an acrophobe."
"So it seems," I said, looking down at her. I almost laughed when I saw her eyes roll.
"Anyway, I was just thinking … since I don't really have an issue with heights … it's good that we've been paired together."
"All right, you got me," I said, keeping my focus straight ahead. "I'm scared of falling off this mountain … and it's not like you weren't shaking up there in the helicopter."
"I wasn't worried about the height. I was afraid I wouldn't have the answer, wouldn't have a clue where we were. Being lost freaks me out."
Okay … so what? We're gonna get personal now? Talk about our hopes and dreams … great fears? Yeah, right.
* * *
Finally, after hours of climbing, we reached less vertical terrain. Agent Kendrick and I unhooked our rope and stuffed everything into our backpacks. When I looked around at our surroundings, I could hardly believe my eyes. "This is right near headquarters."
Kendrick nodded, smiling a little.
"Did you know where we'd end up when you picked our landing spot?" I couldn't help asking, and sounding slightly impressed, which I was.
"Yeah," she admitted. "But not right away. It was a good guess. And now maybe we can pass the test and record the fastest return time. I'd love to win a day off."
"Impressive," I said. "You're not just trying to live through this, but also attempting to win. Did you see anyone else?"
She swept the area with her eyes, then sighed. "We're either way ahead or way behind … Damn, this place is beautiful. This is where I want to go for my honeymoon. In one of those little villas right at the base of the Alps."
I nodded in the direction of the underground pathway. "Let's win Marshall's contest first and plan honeymoons later."
We raced toward the secret entrance and shifted the giant stacks of hay to the side. Both of us grinned, knowing we were most likely the first to come through. It would have been impossible to push the hay back after crawling into the hole.
"I already know what I'm going to do with my day off," Kendrick said. "Eat … and eat … pastries … lots of pastries."
My foot was already feeling around for the ladder, excitement and adrenaline rushing through my veins.
I lifted my eyes to look at my partner and nearly shouted as several figures, blurred by the sun's glare, appeared around us. Kendrick's shout was muffled instantly. A strange, almost metallic-smelling gas filled my nostrils, and then a foot made contact with the side of my head and my vision completely dissolved.
The thud of my head smacking the ground echoed through my ears and all I could think was—he found me.
After my months of obsessing over every ounce of data on this man, we'd finally get to face off again.
Copyright © 2012 by Julie Cross