Bai Tide by Erika Mitchell (Champagne Books)
Please do not copy and/or distribute excerpt without permission from author.
I hadn’t dressed for a foot pursuit across the beach and was losing ground fast. My shiny black dress shoes burrowed into the dry sand with every step, and my tuxedo jacket flapped open as I pumped my arms and tried to gain on the man I’d chased away from the Hotel Coronado a minute ago. The San Diego evening was cooler than you’d expect. Brisk gusts of wind bounced off the sea at sporadic intervals beneath a full moon blazing out of a cloudless, star-spattered sky.
Rolling breakers hurled salty spray into my face as I tore off the jacket and dropped it behind me. My quarry raced ahead, undeterred by the crappy footing. Under five and a half feet tall, with a body fat percentage that had to be in the low teens, he wore a baggy, black ensemble, complete with a matching ski mask, bulky infrared goggles, and combat boots that kicked up little spits of sand with each stride.
Whoever he was, his speed was impressive. He widened the gap between us by almost two paces for each one I took. Something in the way he ran made me think he knew where he was going. Unless he planned on running south all the way to Mexico, the most likely place was the parking lot of a condo complex a quarter mile ahead. I had to assume he’d prepared a contingency plan in that parking lot somewhere. Guns, explosives, sharp rocks, something painful of that nature. If I didn’t catch up with him before he reached his defense cache, I had the feeling I wouldn’t like the welcome.
“Enough of this crap.” I stopped just long enough to pry off my shoes. A daily barefoot run on the beach routine has some advantages, not the least of which is being able to keep up with Splinter Cell rejects during nighttime sand chases.
I put on a burst of speed and kept my eyes on the troublemaker who’d ruined what had been, up until ten minutes ago, a tedious evening of guarding teenage girls at a school-sanctioned Welcome Formal. Of course, when the girls you’re getting paid to protect are the daughters of the wealthiest and most influential people in America, you can’t afford to stop paying attention for even a minute lest you miss something. Something like an intruder dressed in black trying to break in through a window along an unused service corridor. Maybe it sounds weird, but I was actually pretty grateful to get out of there and put my training to use. If not for the man in black, my post at the school would have risked being the most boring assignment of all time. I didn’t sign up to be a case officer for the
CIA so I could listen to girls whine about corsages and hair spray.
Without dress shoes slowing me down, my long legs ate up the gap between me and the troublemaker in short order. By the time I could hear his labored breathing and the staccato, panicked sounds he made as he ran, I knew I had him. All I had to do was tackle, disarm, and subdue him, and I’d be free to find out what the heck he was doing trying to sneak into a high school formal. He wasn’t at that dance to make friends, and it was my job to figure out who he’d targeted and why.
The darkest, farthest corner of the ill-lit public parking lot materialized in the darkness ahead. It was empty but for five cars scattered throughout the spaces. I didn’t have time to note their makes and models because my quarry stopped up short, clutching his side as though he had a stitch.
In retrospect, I should have realized it was a trap. If I’d known who I dealt with at the time, I would have handled it differently. Maybe I would have kept my distance. Maybe I would have run away screaming, as fast as possible. What I definitely would not have done is try to tackle him.
Which, of course, is exactly what I did.
He played me, and as I went flying over his head only to land hard on my back at his feet, I realized he’d let my assumptions about him get the best of me. The air was knocked out of my lungs, but I tried to scramble back up anyway to dodge the heel of his boot stomping down toward my abdomen.
I grasped his toes and heel, wrenching his foot to the side with a quick jerk designed to disrupt his balance and send him to his knees. The rest of his body was already in motion, however, and he leapt up into a neat backward roll that not only jerked his foot from my hand but also kicked a bunch of sand into my eyes.
I rolled away and scrambled to my feet, my eyes burning with sand and tears as I tried to assess exactly what kind of hornet’s nest I’d managed to kick. He stood about five feet away in a textbook Hapkido ready stance, body turned away from me to present a smaller target area, hands up and open at chest level, his weight balanced evenly on both legs, knees slightly bent. The infrared goggles were flat black in the moonlight, lending an eerie, affectless quality to the rest of his covered face. His breathing was fast but not ragged, his hands steady.
He should have run away while I was down, I thought as I raised my fists to my face and assumed a ready stance of my own. By letting me face off against him, he ran the risk of letting me learn something about him. If he’d run while he had the chance, I would have next to nothing. I filed his arrogance away as a potential weakness and tried a diplomatic tack.
“Nice night for a run, huh?” My heart rate was up, making it a little hard to talk.
No answer from the pain in the ass who had likely lost me the deposit on my tux.
“Look, I don’t know what you were doing at the Coronado tonight, but I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.” Lying through my teeth is an integral part of being a counterintelligence officer. Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at it. I doubt the Agency would’ve sent me out into the field if I weren’t. “Can we talk about this?”
He sidestepped to his right. I matched his movement, studying the way he moved in the hopes of picking up on some vulnerability. A bad knee, sloppy form, anything I could use to take him down fast. He had none, as far as I could tell. He just kept sidestepping, and I just kept circling, waiting for him to make the first move. When we’d rotated enough that I faced the ocean with the parking lot at my back, I started getting that prickly, uncomfortable feeling I get when someone is sneaking up on me. I couldn’t risk checking, though. Not unless I wanted him to jump onto my back and ride me like a monkey into the sea. He was up to something, that much was certain, and only a fool would sit around waiting for him to show me what it was.
I kept him within arm’s reach while I studied him as an opponent. The advantage in hand-to-hand combat usually goes to the taller person, up to a point. Longer arms and legs mean you can reach them, but they can’t quite reach you, so a solid strategy is usually to deliver as many kicks and punches as you can until your opponent is weak and injured enough to take down without a fuss.
That is, unless the shorter person manages to get you on the ground. Grappling is an entirely different set of rules and, to be honest, not my strongest suit. Long limbs can help with leverage in grappling, but technique will far and away overcome any disadvantages nature might have given you. If the man in black brought me down and kept me there, I might be in real trouble.
I brought my right leg back for a sidekick aimed at his left knee at the exact moment he rocketed forward and drove his shoulder into my ribs, knocking me backward onto the sand with him on top. I had enough time to register the taste of blood in my mouth before he rolled off me and held my right arm straight out, clenched between his legs in an armbar intended to break it. Before he could finish getting into position, I grabbed my right hand with my left and yanked until my arm bent, then used my left hand to break his grip.
Bringing my right arm back under me, I curled onto my side and reached out to clamp onto his leg with my left hand. He shifted too fast for me to get a grip on anything but the thick fabric of his pants, and that only for a half second before he tucked his arms and squirmed away from me.
I got back up, spat blood out of my mouth, and threw a haymaker to the side of his face. He dodged the blow with a forward shoulder roll and came up reaching into one of the roomy cargo pockets along the side of his leg. From it, he withdrew something black and small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.
I reached for the .22 caliber Colt 1911 A1 pistol I keep at my ankle. I’d rather have a dead suspect than be dead myself. Before I could draw it, he whirled away from me and ducked. I heard a quiet click then a wall of furious sound. Heat smashed into my back, laying me out cold on the sand.
Regaining consciousness in the sand sucks. The first thing you do when you wake up is open your eyes, right? I think you can fill in the blanks for what happened when I woke up face down after getting blown up.
Even without the sand in my eyes, it would have been difficult to see, but I looked around for the troublemaker anyway. No sign of him. Smoke streamed skyward into an acrid pall that huddled over the beach like a shroud. Behind me, flames flickered and licked at the twisted black lump of what I could only assume used to be a car. The world was quiet, but the silence had that ear-stuffed-full-of cotton quality I owed to the concussive blast from the bomb that had gone off behind me.
The burning car stank, as did the bits and pieces of shrapnel smoking in the sand around me. It was hard not to choke on the competing scents of burning rubber, metal, and gasoline, all of it made worse by the faint tang of ocean and seaweed.
I coughed and stood up, wincing as the skin on my back moved and stretched. My attempts to investigate the extent of the damage were cut short by the fact extending my arms made me yelp like a kicked puppy. My back felt sunburned, like I’d sunbathed all week using Crisco instead of sunblock. I eased my arms back and forth to test for other injuries, grimacing when my burnt flesh complained. My white dress shirt was smudged yet intact in the front, but I could only guess at what a ruin had been made of it in the back.
All things considered, I’d just gotten my ass kicked. It pissed me off. I hold a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and picked up Muay Thai and Krav Maga after joining the Agency. On paper, I should have dominated that guy and been walking him back to the Coronado by now. Instead, I was blinking sand out of my eyes and trying to figure out what in the world just happened. Given that not only had he played me for a fool, bested me in sparring, blown me up, and gotten away clean, my ego felt even worse than my back.
I muttered invectives as I scanned my surroundings. So far as I could tell, I was alone, which meant the bomb hadn’t gone off too long ago or the authorities would have arrived already. That was something I’d rather not be a part of if I could help it. I retreated back up the beach toward the Coronado just before a police car with its lights on screeched into the parking lot behind me.
Before the dune I’d just climbed obscured the view entirely, I glanced back to the parking lot one last time. Three cars left in the lot, not counting the police car. I wished I’d had a chance to make note of the makes and models of the cars in the lot before the explosion. One of the cars had been detonated, but the missing car was the mystery man’s getaway vehicle. That would have been helpful information to have, especially as I picked up my iPhone and called the one person in San Diego who knew I was on loan from the CIA.
“This is Agnes,” she said after picking up on the second ring.
Agnes Schelling was the no-nonsense headmistress of the school where I was stationed. A steadfast bulwark of a woman, she was more masculine than some men I knew and about as personable as a constipated bulldog. Kind of resembled one too. Her voice sounded faint and tinny thanks to the beating my eardrums had taken.
“It’s Alan Broccoli.” A name like Alan Broccoli is what happens when you let juvenile case officers pick their own aliases for low-priority missions. My official cover identity is Bai Hsu, a name assigned to me by the CIA. When you swear your oaths to God and country, the CIA does away with the name your parents gave you and gives you a new one. Every once in a while, you’ll get an alias for a mission, but for the most part you’re stuck with whatever moniker the CIA sees fit to give you. “He’s gone. Blew up a car to cover his escape.” I coughed as a gust of wind blew caustic smoke my way.
Agnes spat a word her students weren’t allowed to say. “What do you suggest we do? Are you injured?”
“I’m fine. Police are here and I’m en route back to the hotel.” I stopped next to my discarded dress shoes and used my toe to pick them up so I wouldn’t have to bend down to reach them. “If I had to guess, I’d say he was working alone. I don’t think there’s any need to shut everything down. Maybe just increase security at exits and have bomb checkers and security inspect the buses thoroughly before they leave.”
“Very well.” She hung up without saying goodbye. I hate it when people do that.
I pocketed my phone and stopped next to my tuxedo jacket, eyeing it with despair. On the one hand, I didn’t want to leave it behind. On the other hand, the idea of stretching my back to reach for it sounded only slightly less unappealing than poking myself in the eye with a bamboo skewer. In the end, I squatted down and did an awkward swipe that netted me the lapel and a gasp of pain for my trouble. Standing prompted another gasp and not a little profanity, but at least I’d get the deposit back on one of the clothing items I’d rented for the night.
I folded the jacket over one arm and picked up the pace again when I saw that the single police car in the lot had been joined by two more. It seemed explosions didn’t go unnoticed in San Diego. Good to know. I didn’t feel like answering their questions and blowing my cover, so I made sure to stick to the shadows at the head of the beach, out of range of their lights.
When I joined the CIA six years ago, I thought I’d be stationed overseas, chatting up diplomats at swanky parties and trawling for agents in seedy clubs. I never would’ve guessed I’d wind up shoeless with a medium rare back. Then again, between the smoke smudges on my face and the destroyed tuxedo, I supposed I bore a passing resemblance to James Bond after a chase scene.
Assuming, of course, that James Bond was tall and Chinese.
Except I didn’t think James Bond would have had his ass handed to him by a Smurf, the only evidence of whom was a set of boot prints the high tide was smoothing into sad, soggy, little valleys.
By the time I reached the Coronado, the high-pitched ringing in my ears was starting to drive me nuts. My back hurt and my body would boast an astonishing array of bruises the next day, but I was otherwise fine. Chagrined and more than a little worried, but fine.
If I were just a security guard, I could consider my job well done having chased off the intruder. As an undercover counterintelligence operative, however, it was a matter of no little concern that I hadn’t caught and questioned the man who’d blown up a car to get away clean. I’d need to phone headquarters about this one and do a little digging, to say nothing of the inevitably unpleasant conversation I would have to have with Agnes about why I’d failed.
All that and a volleyball tournament next Friday. It was shaping up to be a busy week.
Pick up a copy of Bai Tide from any digital retailer to find out what happens next!