KILL ZONESPECIAL ABILITIES TEAM, BOOK 1
Special Abilities Team
“There is a murder and the husband is accused. The brother knows he’s innocent and convinces a psychologist that works for a secret military outfit to help him prove it. Kill Zone by Vicki Hinze combines romantic suspense, military technothrillers, and paranormal elements to great effect. I was honestly surprised how much I enjoyed the story and the memorable characters.”
The wife of a biological warfare expert, murdered. Her husband, accused of killing her. Her intelligence operative brother-in-law, the target of assassins determined to hide the truth. All battle a formidable enemy adept at infiltrating the highest levels with body doubles. What is the Secretary of Defense to do?
He has only one choice: To activate the S.A.T.—Special Abilities Team.
Commander Sally Drake’s Secret Assignment Security Specialists return with a new team of operatives—all armed with special abilities…
Dr. Morgan Cabot heads the S.A.T. team and is ordered to interdict Captain Jackson Stern, the brother-in-law of the victim and brother of the accused killer—or his body double—and to determine which he is before he leaves international waters. Morgan must positively identify him and determine how the team’s enemy and feared adversary, Thomas Kunz, connects to this homicide case. Who killed Laura Stern, and why? Is her husband guilty, or had he been framed? And has classified intelligence on biological warfare been compromised, national security been breached? Who and what is the ultimate target?
Morgan’s special abilities have made her an outsider most of her life. She’s accustomed to skeptics; being highly intuitive has wrecked her every personal relationship and many professional ones. She’s prepared to face the challenges on this case. But she is not prepared to face Captain Jackson Stern. He matters. His opinion of her matters, and, depending on her findings and how this case resolves, he has a lot to lose.
Murder. Power. Resolve. Facing steep challenges from her allies and enemies, Morgan expects their worst, including being targeted for assassination. But not until she interdicts the secretive captain does she realize that to find her answers and accomplish her mission, she must risk her life and her heart.
“Kill Zone combines romantic suspense, military technothrillers, and paranormal elements to great effect.” –Jeff Ayers, Author Magazine
“Back off, 248.”
Bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Morgan Cabot fixed her gaze on the Sunrise, a yacht twenty yards in front of her. Its running lights burned thin amber and spilled over the deck and onto the dark, choppy water. The beating sounds of the Apache’s props had to be carrying to the boat, and still the chopper wasn’t responding to Morgan’s orders to back off. She rode out a swell, adjusted her lip mic, and then softly whispered into it. “Home Base, 248 is not responding. Condition critical. Relay that back-off directive to 248 ASAP.”
What was that idiot pilot doing? Trying to get her killed? Knots formed in Morgan’s stomach and then cinched down. Providence Air Force Base was due north, about twenty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico’s Florida shore. Hopefully, the target would consider the chopper’s flight routine to the area and not associate it with anything else, but she wasn’t at all eager to bet her life on it, and she resented immensely the chopper pilot doing so.
Lucky breaks, or even semi-lucky breaks, on this entire mission seemed to be in short supply, but Morgan desperately needed that one. At least that one.
Her boss, Colonel Sally Drake, the S.A.S.S.—Secret Assignment Security Specialists—commander, was monitoring the operation from Home Base at Regret, the unit’s secret headquarters located several miles north of Providence out on an old abandoned bombing range. She’d handle this communication snafu between Morgan and the Apache, pronto. When something put her operatives in additional jeopardy, Colonel Drake took no flak and no prisoners.
“Roger, Guardian One,” Colonel Drake’s voice sounded.
At least she’d gotten Morgan’s transmission.
It was a reasonable deduction that the challenge was being caused by weather and not by their adversary or their target. A tropical storm system churning in the gulf was moving northeast toward shore, and it likely was playing havoc with their systems or communication devices. But that was a deduced supposition, not fact, and the uncertainty added more stress to an already intensely stressful situation. Has to be weather. Has to be … Megan treaded water, watched the yacht’s deck for signs of life, and admitted that any other possibility was too frightening to even consider.
“Home Base to 248.” Commander Drake’s barked baritone finally sounded through Morgan’s earpiece. “Drop back four clicks. Now.”
Two and a half miles. Morgan mentally converted the distance. That should do it. Bobbing in the water, she kicked, fighting the wave action. That had better do it. If it didn’t, odds ranked high the target would take Morgan down instead of her neutralizing him.
That dark thought set off a round of shivers in her that pierced her wet suit and speared icy chills straight into her bones. Ever since the initial briefing, she’d had a bad feeling about this mission. She’d fought it, but unfortunately nothing had happened between then and now to put her mind at ease, and that had her bitter as well as edgy at a time when she needed clarity and finely tuned, laser focus. A little confidence would be a welcome thing.
“On it, Home Base.” Jazie Craig, the second and youngest of the three women on Morgan’s team, responded from inside the Apache. Her voice was tight–so not like the affable Jazie–but considering what was at stake, only a fool wouldn’t be tense. And no fool would ever be assigned to any of Sally Drake’s S.A.S.S. teams, much less to the one tagged and activated for this mission. High priority classification. Threat to national security. Clear and present danger.
The stakes didn’t get much higher.
Seconds later, the muffled thumping of the props beating the wind grew distant and then finally faded.
Breathing easier now that the chopper wasn’t telegraphing their presence, Morgan looked back through the hazy moonlight to her own boat. Taylor Lee, the third and final member of her team, sat crouched at the bow watching the Sunrise through her NVG-equipped binoculars. Her slick silhouette showed her elbows-out, both hands gripping her equipment. No action yet.
Morgan took the brunt of a wave full in the face. The salt water burned her eyes, and they stung. She swiped at them, brushed her nose, and then adjusted the rifle sling strapped to her shoulder, keeping an eye out for Taylor’s signal—and for sharks.
Seeing Taylor was easy. Sharks? All but impossible, and it was prime feeding time for the eating machines. Conditions were less than desirable for sighting anything, especially from her vantage point. Worse, the gulf water was extremely rough; seas estimated at twelve to fourteen feet and whitecaps were breaking as far as the eye could see in the obscured moonlight. Staying stationary against the force of it took extreme effort, and it was a losing battle. Frankly, higher headquarters had recommended axing the mission in anything over six-foot seas, but they had made that recommendation knowing neither Colonel Drake nor her operatives would actually do it. The costs of abandoning this mission and not executing their orders were too high, and only unsuspecting innocents would pay them. Who could live with that?
Tiring, her muscles burning, Morgan did her best to stay in position near the yacht. Lightning streaked jagged bolts across the distant inky sky. The storm was definitely rolling in, and when one did, waterspouts typically rode heavy on the outer feeder bands. That could be problematic–though not nearly as much so as the fact that they were getting too close to the outer perimeter of the kill zone. They’d crossed her personal comfort threshold about a click ago. No one in her right mind wanted to be caught in a tornado over water under any circumstances, but while on this mission? And even those not in their right mind wanted no part of anything that could be construed as violating the kill zone. It’d bring out the worst of bureaucracy and political posturing and keep them all tangled in relentless red tape for the duration.
That possibility had Morgan extra nervous. Fighting the target was going to be bad enough. But fighting it and a merciless Mother Nature simultaneously? Not good; not good at all.
Finally Taylor whispered, “Move out, Guardian One. Go. Go. Go!”
Silently, Morgan sliced through the rolling waves, narrowing the distance between her and the target’s yacht. With a little luck, she would be out of the water and the team would complete the mission and be back on shore before Tropical Storm Lil blew in full-force.
Once the target was hit, it wouldn’t take long. If the target was hit …
Not allowing herself to focus on that possibility, Morgan whispered into her lip mic, “Verify coordinates. Exact positioning mandatory.”
Taylor Lee answered. “Twelve-point-two-two-one miles.”
Anything beyond twelve miles was legally considered international waters. “We’re cutting it pretty close, Home Base.” Morgan would have felt better with a little more of a pad. Even half a nautical mile would have helped remove the inevitable skepticism. Two-tenths of a mile was a sliver that left them wide open to criticism. Some flailing politician would definitely exploit it and take public exception, hoping to hike his poll rankings. And not necessarily a politician from the enemy’s side of the fence.
Politics was always an issue. It shouldn’t be, but it was. If Morgan ever doubted it, which she hadn’t, she would only need to look at the S.A.S.S. headquarters to prove it. A political spitting contest between Commander Drake and the Providence base commander was exactly how the S.A.S.S. ended up plunked into a shack in the middle of no man’s land when there was plenty of terrific office space for its headquarters available on base at Providence. That one Commander Drake clearly lost, but she did win the command, which is what had ticked off the base commander in the first place. He wanted the job; she got the job. Political.
“I know we’re close, but it can’t be helped,” Jazie responded.
Taylor agreed. “We’ve got what we’ve got, and that’s two-tenths.”
Morgan waited for Commander Drake to agree. Without that half-mile pad, team consensus just wasn’t good enough. Morgan wanted command support.
“It is what it is, Guardian One,” Drake said.
That was good enough. The commander didn’t like it any more than Morgan did, but she’d accepted it. Higher headquarters had deemed this a high-priority mission, and while that designation gave the commander and Morgan and her team extra latitude to be lax on some of the regulations, all bets were off on them breaching the kill zone.
Experience proved all bets were off, too, on any high-priority mission going down according to plan. Anything could happen. And on this specific high-priority mission, it was almost a certain bet something unanticipated would happen.
Morgan’s S.A.T.–Special Abilities Team–wasn’t performing a routine mission.
It wasn’t going up against an ordinary adversary.
And it wasn’t tasked with neutralizing an ordinary target.
“He’s topside,” Taylor Lee whispered. Tension elevated her tone a full octave. “Target is on deck. Repeat. Target is on deck.”
“Take him out, Guardian One,” the commander said, her voice hard, anxious, and urgent. “Do it now.”
That urgency, too, Morgan understood. The longer the delay, the greater the odds the target would pick up on the S.A.T. team being on site, and if he did, the odds were astronomically favorable that he’d successfully turn the mission into a bloodbath. He wasn’t a rookie. His instincts were professionally honed; he was an expert in neutralization missions. And Morgan and her team were functioning in a capacity that fell far outside their normal area of expertise. That was a huge disadvantage for them to absorb generally, but against a professional of his caliber, it translated specifically to deadly.
Unfortunately, tackling this mission had been officially deemed essential and critical. The honchos up the chain of command had determined that the S.A.T. team’s participation couldn’t be avoided. The mission, they felt, could not be accomplished without the team’s special abilities. Unfortunately, the president agreed.
Morgan understood that. She didn’t like it, but she understood it. Still, she was a psychologist, an intuitive one, a civilian subject-matter expert who acted as a consultant to the S.A.S.S. and Commander Sally Drake. Morgan was not a typical S.A.S.S. operative assigned to interventions or to terrorist-response missions. The same was true of her team members, Jazie and Taylor Lee, who also had special cognitive skills.
They were all three good at what they did. Really good—or Commander Drake wouldn’t tolerate them, much less welcome them as one of her units. But, while the team members had trained for hand-to-hand combat, it wasn’t among the skills at which they excelled or even ones they used frequently in their routine consults. Yet their special ability skills were what made activating them on this particular mission necessary, and the bean counters had projected their success by a reasonable margin, provided they acted alone and avoided hand-to-hand combat.
Morgan couldn’t take offense to the caveat; facts were facts, and she agreed with the bean counters. The bigger the team, the greater the odds the target would spot them before they could accomplish the mission and, if reduced to hand-to-hand combat, her team would be pretty well done.
Actually, with just three-to-one odds against this specific target, they were also apt to end up pretty well dead.
Fear shimmied up her spine and turned the taste in her mouth sour. She swallowed hard, shook the splashing water from her face. Holding back a salt-induced sneeze, she took aim and sighted the target through her scope. Don’t miss, Morgan. Whatever you do, don’t miss …
The live version of the photographed man she’d seen during the mission briefing stood on deck, half-facing her. The photos of him had been good—strong angular face, black hair, gray eyes, about six-two and put together like fantasy personified—but compared to the real thing the photos paled. Animated, the man was drop-dead gorgeous.
Definitely a shame. Morgan leveled him in her crosshairs.
The first guy she’d seen in a year that snagged her attention, and she had to shoot him. Didn’t it just figure?
She rolled with a wave, steadied her aim, and then fired.
He crumpled to the deck.
“He’s down,” Taylor Lee responded before Morgan could, relaying to the Apache and Home Base. “Target is down.”
Morgan released her tension, letting a shuddered breath escape through her teeth. Relief swelled and expanded inside her until the knots in her stomach loosened their clench. “Confirmed,” she reported. “The target is down.”
“Is everyone all right?” Colonel Drake asked.
Morgan looked back at Taylor Lee, sliding fully behind the steering wheel in the boat. She shot Morgan a thumbs-up, and Morgan relayed to Home Base. “We’re fine, Commander.”
Sally Drake had been as nervous as the rest of them about the S.A.T. team penetrating to pull an interception, but when orders to activate the S.A.T. had come down from Secretary of Defense Reynolds himself and he’d explained the urgency and stakes, she’d had no choice but to execute them. Neither had Morgan.
“Good,” Commander Drake said, clearly relieved, and then addressed Jazie in the Apache. “Position note, twelve-point-one miles,” she said, and then reeled off the GPS coordinates, making them a part of the official record.
“Zone compliance is verified. Move in, 248. Guardian Two, position and prepare to board the vessel.”
Morgan closed the gap between her and the Sunrise, then hauled herself out of the water and up the stern’s metal ladder, primed to fire on any opposition. Intel had reported the target as traveling solo. Word he’d left behind was that he’d been storing it for his brother, Bruce, while Bruce had been serving in Iraq. Now Bruce was back in Magnolia Beach, Florida. Time to return the boat. The story checked out, so far as it went, but mistakes happened in the shadowy intelligence realm, and Morgan wasn’t ready to assume the traveling-solo report was also accurate and land herself and her team on some killed-in-action statistics list.
The target lay face down, sprawled on the deck. His arms were extended, his face turned toward her. The tranquilizer was potent and should have taken effect within seconds after he had been hit, but drop-dead gorgeous was also drop-dead deadly. Extreme caution was not only warranted, but to ensure her team’s survival, it was required. Her finger on the trigger, Morgan hung back out of reach for a long moment and watched him intently for any signs of movement. Seeing none, she inched closer…
Lightning flashed. He sprang to his feet and lunged at her.
Adrenaline shoved through her veins. Her heart pounded in her ears. She feinted left, dropped and rolled, swung her gun up, and looked into his eyes. Ice-cold.
Riddled with rage. Instinctively, she recoiled, squeezed the trigger, and fired again.
Caught full in the chest, he flew backward off his feet. His head clipped the steering console, and he crashed hard, hitting the deck with a dull thud.
The impact shouldn’t have been significant enough to take him off his feet. Morgan glanced down; he must have slipped on the wet deck.
Regardless, this time, he was lights out and staying down.
Rattled, Morgan blew out a held breath, settled down enough to get her heart back into her chest where it belonged, and then transmitted her report. “Target was faking it, Home Base,” she said, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice. “But he’s down now.”
Taylor Lee hit the throttle and sped across the water in their boat, quickly closing the distance between her and the yacht. She tied off on the Sunrise and then climbed aboard and joined Morgan on deck. Confirming with a quick look that the man was down and out cold, Taylor grunted. “Missed him the first time, eh?”
“You think?” Morgan glared at her. He’d come close to knocking her on her backside, and while she was decent at defending herself, she wasn’t foolish enough to believe for a second she could take him one-on-one. He wasn’t using his training in his current job, but he’d had the same she’d had plus a lot more, and he had size, reach, weight, and strength on his side. He’d have pulverized her in seconds. Yet none of that bothered her as much as not getting the job done with her first shot.
She would have sworn she had caught the man in the neck. She’d have bet her life on it, in fact, and being wrong right now, when she already felt under-qualified for the mission and on shaky ground, played havoc with her confidence. Could she trust her judgment at identifying the target by intuition when she couldn’t trust that same intuition on a simple shot she had fired at the man?
Taylor squatted beside him and patted him down. “No weapons.”
“Means nothing.” He either hadn’t expected trouble or wanted to appear as though he hadn’t.
She looked over and up at Morgan. “You searched the vessel yet?”
“Not yet.” She had barely recovered from the near miss, and she wasn’t at all sure that if she tried to move now her legs would hold her. As far as she was concerned, the regular S.A.S.S. operatives could keep their jobs and the anxiety that came with them. Too intense. Morgan was quite happy with her tamer psych consults. Her team rarely worked directly with individual opponents; just offered profiles or insights usually. And exposure wasn’t nearly so dramatic or stressful when the subjects were on your side.
The clopping sounds of the Apache’s props grew louder. Stirred up, the balmy wind tugged at her eyelids and skin and, in short order, the aircraft hovered overhead. Morgan cupped her hand at her brow to shield her eyes, and glanced up. Jazie dropped a line from the chopper’s open door to the Sunrise’s deck and then took it down.
She landed lightly on the deck, motioned in a wide circle above her head for the Apache to give them some space, and then turned to Morgan. “I can’t believe it.” Her tone turned incredulous, and her eyes stretched wide. “You missed him with your first shot?”
“So it seems,” Morgan said through clenched teeth, definitely prickly. They’d give her a hard time about this for a solid month. Colonel Drake would probably have her at the range five days a week.
Sighing inside, Morgan spoke into her lip mic, “Give us half a click, 248.” She couldn’t yet release the chopper, but she did need to take precautionary measures to preserve any evidence onboard, should the target prove to belong to their adversary, Thomas Kunz.
Now that the target was down, she could breathe again, but it was no sin to admit that she’d been scared stiff. Seasoned operatives had quaked at going toe-to-toe with Kunz. He held the undisputed votes of the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the S.A.S.S. as public enemy number one. Anyone with sense had a healthy fear of the ruthless killer.
The chopper pulled away, cut a wide arc, and waited. Its sounds weakened to a dull roar in the night. The wind direction had shifted. Tropical Storm Lil was definitely on the move. Morgan watched the jagged lightning in the distance.
In the last half hour, the outermost feeder band had moved substantially closer; their timeline had shrunk by at least half.
“Yeah, she missed,” Taylor Lee piped in, refusing to let it go. Shooting Morgan a smarmy look, she added a singsong lilt to her voice. “I’m seeing lots and lots of time at the firing range in your immediate future.”
Morgan took the heat without comment, which wasn’t easy, and let go of the opportunity to remind Taylor Lee that she was already the better shot. That’s why she’d been in the water. “Just check the vessel.”
“Why?” Taylor placed her palm flat on the back of the target’s head. “Jazie’s taking her in. She should do it.”
Tucking her long blond hair inside her shirt, Jazie tugged her collar up and her black stocking cap down on her ears, ignoring Taylor and telling Morgan, “If you don’t mind, I would rather do it myself. If I’m taking her to port on my own, I want to know no one else is here.”
Fiery and outspoken, Taylor Lee slid Jazie a blistering glare that should have dropped her as cold as the target. “Jazie Craig. Are you saying you don’t trust me to search this vessel?”
They had to do this now? Morgan ground her teeth and prepared to pull rank to restore peace and get them back on point. Fortunately, Jazie read her mind and handled it on her own.
“Of course not.” Ever diplomatic, she effortlessly blew off Taylor’s heated question and toned down the tension with a smile. “I’m saying I’d rather bet my life on a check I’ve run myself than on one anyone else has run.”
Taylor would send the same message but still took exception, and turned to Morgan. “Are you going to let her talk to me like that? We’re a team here. What good is a team without trust? You’re our fearless leader—and my maid of honor. Defend me, Morgan.”
Good grief. This was the epitome of lousy timing. “We have trust, but Jazie also has a point. It’s her neck on the line.” Morgan held off completely speaking her mind and shrugged, electing instead to shift the topic and get back to business. “You have been pretty preoccupied since this latest engagement to …” Morgan blanked out. “What’s his name again?”
“Rick,” Taylor said from between her teeth, clearly agitated. “I’m marrying this one, okay? So knock off pretending you can’t remember his name.”
“Sorry,” Morgan said and meant it. But her forgetting the new guy’s name wasn’t a pretense or as horrific—even for a maid of honor—as it might seem. Actually, it was ridiculously easy to understand, and even Taylor would see that if it were happening to anyone else’s fiancé.
In the three years they had been a team, Taylor Lee had been engaged at least half a dozen times. She loved engagements, she just wasn’t so hot on actual marriage, and so she’d yet to make it to the altar.
Some would consider that odd, but when you have special skills, you also have special challenges. No one understood that truth like someone else with special skills and special challenges. So while the three of them had started out as professional associates, they also had become true friends. And in situations like Taylor’s frequent engagements, true friends bit their tongues and swallowed any skepticism or sarcasm they might ordinarily express. This was a matter of the heart, and no friend ever does anything but fully support a friend on matters of the heart—even when doing so comes at inopportune times and minds should be on other matters, like now, with the target sprawled on the deck.
Regarding Taylor’s fiancés, Morgan and Jazie had been the best kind of friends. They’d kept their mouths shut and had taken turns at being Taylor’s maid of honor. She switched men; they switched positions. No problem.
So far, Morgan admitted, the job had been pretty painless for them both. Taylor tired of fiancés pretty quickly, before the duties got too deep.
“Vessel’s secure,” Jazie said, emerging from the cabin.
“Great.” Morgan looked at Taylor Lee, whose hand was still on the target’s back. “You done yet?”
“Yeah.” She pulled away and stood up, then backed up a few steps.
Jazie looked over, silently asking whether she should wait or go next. “Go ahead.” Morgan nodded at the target, delaying her own examination as long as possible. The unbridled rage in his eyes when he’d lunged at her had been powerful, and she still felt the remnants of it sizzling on her skin. He’d intended to kill her, and if he had reached her before she’d shot him, he well might have. Knowing it still had her shaking inside. She needed to get grounded before scanning him to work past the fear. Otherwise, she would just be wasting her time.
Jazie didn’t say anything, but she’d picked up on Morgan’s struggle. “Go on, Jaz,” she repeated, eager to have it done without discussion. The sooner this mission was put to bed, the happier she’d be.
Silently, Jazie bent down, let her hand hover just above his spine, and then skimmed a sweep down his torso to his waist. She paused, and then reversed, brushing up his back to his head. Surprise flickered across her face, the corner of her mouth tilted up, and she glanced at Morgan. A knowing light burning in her eyes, she stood up and then backed away.
“What?” Taylor Lee asked her. “Why the grin? Did I miss something?”
“Wait.” Biting her lower lip to downplay her megawatt smile, Jazie gave Taylor Lee a negative nod and lifted her hand. “Go ahead, Morgan.”
Intuiting why Jazie was amused, Morgan pulled out her flashlight and stooped down beside the target. She clicked on the light for a millisecond—just long enough to see his neck. The telltale evidence presented itself: a droplet of blood.
“Oh, man.” That from Taylor Lee. “You didn’t miss—with the first shot, I mean.”
“No, I didn’t.” Somewhat relieved, Morgan shoved her flashlight back into place at her hip and then scraped her fingertips over his angular face.
Stubble. Lean flesh and bone. Toned, relaxed muscle … Nice. Far too nice … She backed off, dusted her palms, then tried again, reminding herself he wanted her dead and when he awakened he would want to kill her all over again. That should have provided all the influence necessary, but it didn’t, so she reminded herself who he could be: Thomas Kunz, the most feared terrorist on the planet—or one of his lethal body doubles.
That sobered her right up, put her mind solely back on business. Opening her mind, she cut her senses loose, giving them free rein. She sank deep, then deeper, beneath and beyond the physical, and then deeper still until she tumbled fully into the nebulous realm of pure sensation …
She let the feelings flow through her and then slowed down and carefully examined the area just inside his hairline, under his jaw, looking for thin ridges of scars that would signal he’d had plastic surgery. But she found none there, none at his ears or inside the tip of his nose, all of which confirmed her intuitive reaction to him.
“Unbelievable.” Obviously impressed, Taylor grunted from beside Jazie. “It honestly took two tranqs to knock him out?” Admiration tinged her tone, admiration and a little interest that was purely female and purely driven by sensation and chemistry. “The guy must have the stamina of a bull.”
Morgan blanched. If the woman cut loose with one of her diva purrs, Morgan might just tranq her.
Jazie tilted her head. A long blond curl escaped her hood and hung down over her shoulder. From around it, she studied his face. “I know you didn’t expect a lightweight—not after seeing his photos.”
“I’m engaged.” Taylor Lee snapped off a couple of photographs of him and the deck for the records, then clamped the camera back to a loop at her waist. “I wasn’t … noticing assets, only relevant specifics.”
“Right.” Taylor Lee was full of it. She always noticed assets. But being honest—if only with herself—Morgan had noticed, too. And she hadn’t expected a lightweight. Still, a two-tranq knockout was a rare thing, especially with a neck shot. She glanced at Taylor Lee. “Noticing or not, it did take two to drop him.” Positioning her fingertips at his throat, she checked his pulse and stilled. Strong and surprisingly steady, considering the dosage he had absorbed. An odd tingle started in her fingertips, coursed through her hand and up her arm to her chest. Certainty filled her. Breathless and distracted, she ran a quick second scan to double check, dragging only her index fingertip over his face and neck and then through his soft, thick hair.
The sensations were powerful, strong, almost … hypnotic.
Stunned by them, she drew in a sharp breath and rocked back on her haunches. “Whoa.” Hypnotic? Where had that come from? Who cared? She blew past it, not wanting any part of it. She’d never reacted personally to a patient in her practice or to a subject in her S.A.S.S. consults, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“Whoa, what?” Jaz asked.
Morgan didn’t dare answer. But with the risks, she had to confirm, and again tested her impressions. Blessing or curse, they didn’t change.
“Two scans?” Taylor asked, lifting both hands, palms up. “What is going on here? Is something wrong with you, Morgan?”
“The water was cold.” She grabbed the first plausible excuse that came into her head. If she admitted those hypnotic stirrings from a target might have interfered with her input and she’d had to scan twice to confirm her own findings, she would never know another moment’s peace. Taylor Lee and Jazie would see to it, and they well might report it to Colonel Drake, which would be a hundred times worse. As it was, it’d haunt her. She didn’t need insult added to injury from anyone else, and doubt was not a welcome thing in an S.A.T. team leader.
“We need to move,” she told them. “When he wakes up, we’re going to have two hundred pounds of Special Ops-trained, ticked-off man on our hands. I’d prefer it if, when that happens, we have plenty of backup around to deal with him.”
“So is he, or isn’t he?” Jazie propped her hands on her hips. “Inquiring minds want to know.”
“He’s the real Captain Jackson Stern.” Morgan nodded and looked from him up at Jazie. “If Thomas Kunz tried to substitute himself or someone else as a body double for Stern, he failed.”
“You’re sure?” Taylor Lee narrowed her eyes. They glistened dark against the smooth rubber cupping her head. “No doubt?”
“I’m positive,” Morgan said, as certain of it as she had been that she’d hit him with the first tranquilizer dart. She stood up.
“As positive as you can be without DNA backup,” Taylor Lee said.
Morgan nodded, giving her that one, and then swiveled her gaze to Jazie. “What did you get?”
“Not a peep.” She shrugged. “Sorry. But I’m not surprised,” she said, tilting her head. “The man is unconscious.”
No internal dialogue going on for Jazie to tap into and overhear. Logical. Disappointing and expected, but logical. “He is that.” Morgan nodded, shifting her focus to Taylor Lee.
“I didn’t see a thing.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Like Jazie said, right now he’s too drugged out to be seeing any mental images I can pick up. I’m afraid that puts all the weight on you. Wish it didn’t, but it does. ”
It did. Morgan would have liked confirmation from at least one of them, but she wasn’t going to get it. Disappointment shot through her, and she gave herself a full second to feel it and then moved on. “It was an outside shot,” she reminded them. “We go with what we’ve got.” Morgan nodded at Jazie. “Cut the Apache loose.”
“Just a second,” Taylor Lee said, a little apology in her tone. “Not that I’m doubting you, but we are just a tenth of a mile inside the zone,” Taylor reminded Morgan, shifting her weight foot to foot. “I’d feel a lot better about this if one of us could verify your findings before we lose the option to retreat and recover.”
“So would I.” Morgan agreed. If further examination proved Jackson Stern was a body double and he was in the U.S., then all kinds of problems would rain down on their heads, which is why the honchos had insisted the S.A.T. team interdict him and verify his identity using their special skills while he was still in international waters. “But that’s not happening, so we have no choice except to act on what we’ve got—”
“What you’ve got,” Taylor Lee corrected her.
“Exactly,” Morgan said, a bite seeping into her voice. “And what I’ve got is that he’s the real Jackson Stern.”
The only way to prove his identity beyond any doubt was for Dr. Joan Foster to test him with drug therapy, and being pregnant and in her last trimester, she couldn’t very well come out here into international waters to intercept the man and administer those tests. He had to be S.A.T. verified and then brought to her. And Morgan had to pray hard she was right about him, because if she was wrong … Oh, man, she couldn’t be wrong.
Jazie signaled, and the Apache peeled off and sped away. The night again grew empty of sound except for the waves crashing against the Sunrise’s hull and the dull rumble of wind and thunder rolling off in the distance.
“Just so we’re clear.” Taylor Lee frowned at Morgan. “It’s the risks of being wrong I’m doubting, Morgan, not your intuitive abilities.”
“I don’t know why you’re not doubting my abilities,” Morgan said. “I doubt them all the time.”
Jazie stepped around an anchor and chain. “Could it be because over three years they’ve been bulls-eye accurate about 80 percent of the time?”
“Eighty-seven percent,” Morgan corrected her, “but it’s which 13 percent of the time I’m wrong that keeps me doubtful all the time.” And scared to death, especially when the costs of being wrong carried consequences this stiff.
“So humble,” Taylor Lee said, and then stood up. “That’s just as well, I guess. With a big head, you’d be a pain.”
“Taylor Lee!” Jazie sighed. “No offense, but you really do need to learn some of things floating through your head are better off left floating and not said.”
“Why? Truth is truth, isn’t it?” Taylor Lee looked back at Morgan. “So okay. We’ll all feel better when Dr. Foster verifies Jackson Stern is really Jackson Stern. Fine. At this point, we can’t risk doing anything other than what we’re doing.”
“Now, I’ll agree with that,” Jazie chimed in. “Especially not when we’re up against Thomas Kunz and G.R.I.D.”
None of them were likely to forget this adversary. Kunz was the head of Group Resources for Individual Development, the biggest black-market intelligence broker of U.S. resources, assets, and personnel in the world, and both Thomas Kunz and his organization had committed atrocities so horrendous that no one in the intelligence community could forget them, much less the S.A.S.S. Special Abilities Team tasked with determining the truth.
S.A.S.S. units didn’t exist on paper, and the operatives assigned to them were buried in the Department of Defense’s Office of Personnel Management, like many covert or paramilitary operatives. The S.A.T.—Special Abilities Team, namely Morgan, Taylor Lee, and Jazie—were buried even deeper. They were civilian consultants and, while everyone in the chain of command had an occasional need for their subject-matter-expert services, not one person in that same chain of command wanted anyone else in or outside the chain to know it, or to even know the S.A.S.S.’s S.A.T. team existed. So Morgan and her team were assigned to Commander Sally Drake because, for reasons of national security, only a rare few knew the S.A.S.S. units existed either, and that was that. S.A.T. was official and buried deep, yet accessible to those in the highest circles with security clearances exceeding top secret.
Yet no matter how deeply they were buried, neither Morgan nor Taylor Lee nor Jazie had a single illusion about Thomas Kunz or G.R.I.D. He knew the S.A.T. existed. And with or without their special skills, he and his multinational, greedy G.R.I.D. henchmen were more than capable of killing every member of the team, or worse, of capturing them and keeping them alive to torture.
Kunz was a master at torture, and the sick, twisted jerk liked it.
Having viewed what was left of some of his victims still curdled Morgan’s blood.
Jazie moved beside them. “Well, let’s don’t linger at getting Captain Stern to Dr. Foster. If it took two shots to drop him, odds are good that he won’t stay out the full four hours and, like you said, Morgan, when he wakes up, he’s going to be one ticked-off puppy.”
Not exactly what Morgan had said, but close enough, and the sooner she got Stern delivered to Dr. Joan Foster, and the farther Morgan got away from him, the better she’d feel. Joan, however, wouldn’t exactly relish receiving the Kunz bait.
Once, Kunz had held Joan captive. After he’d killed her parents and grandparents, he’d abducted her husband and son and had threatened to kill them too unless Joan performed behavioral modifications and memory implants as well as other psychological warfare therapies on both Kunz’s body doubles and on key personnel in sensitive military and other intelligence-rich positions that Kunz held captive.
Nearly two years ago, an S.A.S.S. unit led by Captain Amanda West had rescued Joan, her husband, and their son. She had been working under Commander Drake ever since, trying to help bring Thomas Kunz and G.R.I.D. to justice. Joan was the first woman alive with the knowledge and expertise needed to successfully deprogram one of Kunz’s body doubles. For a long time, she alone could tell the difference between the body doubles and the originals. Now she had trained two other doctors, which helped Commander Drake sleep a little easier at night. But the sooner Joan verified that this man was the real Captain Jackson Stern, the better Morgan would feel about her decision to bring him in.
“Going live.” She warned Taylor Lee and Jazie she was opening up communications to Home Base again, then stepped back, tilted her lip mic into position, and turned it on, brushing her jaw with the backs of her fingers. “Home Base?”
“Go ahead, Guardian One,” Commander Drake said.
“No scarring or other visible signs of plastic surgery noted on the target.” By sight or feel, either of which could be inaccurate, they were operating in near blackout conditions. A flashlight-enhanced visual on more than his neck would have made Morgan more secure in her intuitive findings, but prolonged or frequent light was too dangerous; they could be spotted and destroy an opportunity to bring down those ashore who were purportedly waiting in the harbor for Stern’s arrival. One shot of light could be attributed to lightning. Any more than that was simply too risky. “I believe it’s him.”
“That’s enough for me,” the commander said, then delicately warned Morgan to take no unnecessary risks. “We’ve already got one corpse, and another individual who could be facing the needle. I don’t want any more complications.”
Facing the needle? Morgan frowned, confused. “But there is no death penalty.” At least there wasn’t in the military. The worst penalty that could be inflicted in this case was life in prison.
“If the victim was murdered off-base, then we’re out of it. The locals have jurisdiction, and they can, and probably will, put the death penalty on the table.”
“But we have possession—”
“For the moment, yes. We do,” Drake said. “The locals are cooperating until we know for fact where the actual murder occurred. Fortunately, we have a history of good relations, so we’re handling it as a joint investigation until a final determination is made,” she explained but stopped short of sounding convinced that the cooperation would continue indefinitely. “Get the target to the base for further processing. Transport is waiting,” she said, then added the coordinates.
“Yes, ma’am.” Morgan shoved the lip mic away from her face. “You heard her.” She grabbed Stern under the shoulders. “Catch his feet, Taylor Lee.”
Jazie took the Sunrise’s wheel, and Taylor and Morgan hauled Stern into their little boat then settled in with Stern prone, Morgan beside him, and Taylor Lee driving. Lightning sizzled, striking eerily close. The smell of it filling her nose, Morgan looked back to the wheel. “Be careful, Jaz.” Plenty of reinforcements waited for her, but if for some unforeseen reason Kunz’s assassins were there too, anything could happen. He didn’t tolerate anything but the best from his associates, and that wasn’t good news for anyone up against them.
Jazie smiled and nodded. “No problem.”
Praying she was right, Morgan gave the signal. Jazie and Taylor Lee took off in their respective boats, cutting across the rough waves in parallel directions.
“Quit worrying. She’ll be fine,” Taylor Lee said, speed plastering her skin and pulling at her eyes.
“Of course, she will.” Thomas Kunz’s assassins expected Stern to be on the Sunrise and arriving later at Magnolia Beach’s harbor, but Jazie would take the yacht to the bay, dock it, and then turn it over to a forensics team from Providence. They’d do their thing and a joint forces team would take the boat on to the harbor.
Jazie wouldn’t be with them. After docking the boat, she would meet the team at the Providence Air Force Base hospital, where Joan Foster would be waiting for Morgan and Taylor to arrive with Captain Jackson Stern. If, as expected, the G.R.I.D. assassins should be waiting for Stern at Magnolia Beach’s harbor, members of Task Force 248 would greet them, and they were just itching to do battle.
The guys on the task force had as many reasons as the S.A.S.S. to hate G.R.I.D. and Thomas Kunz, and their anger had been building up a head of steam for a long time. Morgan almost felt sorry for the assassins. Almost.
Thomas Kunz and G.R.I.D. had been responsible for the deaths of too many operatives and too many Americans for Morgan to feel genuine sympathy and not fear. Kunz was stunningly clever, a genius by anyone’s standards, and he’d proven it repeatedly in their clashes.
Capturing the would-be assassins would benefit the S.A.S.S. more than killing the lowlifes, but history had repeatedly proven that Thomas Kunz compartmentalized his G.R.I.D. operations and only he and his senior operations manager, Moss, aka Beefy, knew details beyond any individual’s operational segment. Not even Kunz’s second in command, Marcus Sandross, was privy to all phases of any operation. Unfortunately, neither Kunz nor Moss ever got within striking distance of anyone else to risk being intercepted, though S.A.S.S. once thought it had Kunz safely incarcerated in Leavenworth (it turned out to be one of his body doubles).
Two S.A.S.S. operatives had experienced close encounters.
Captain Amanda West had broken the operation’s manager’s nose once, and Katherine Kane had gut-wounded him in a G.R.I.D. compound cave in the Middle East. They had dubbed him Beefy and, unfortunately, he had survived the gut wound. Amanda had gone toe-to-toe with Kunz and barely lived.
At least these reports summarized prevailing belief. Kunz was as bad as or worse than Saddam Hussein with his dozen known body doubles. Who knew if any of the S.A.S.S. operatives had ever encountered the real Kunz? That is, besides Amanda, of course, who had originally discovered Kunz was using body doubles to infiltrate high-powered, sensitive government positions. She’d been abducted by Kunz and brought to one of his Middle Eastern compounds, where she ran into her own double in a mock apartment that matched her own home down to the minutest detail.
The shock of that discovery had rocked foreign governments, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, all the intelligence agencies in the world, and the psychologist in Morgan. Even now it roiled through her, and she cringed against it and all it implied.
Morgan knew Kunz was involved in this mission and in the case that had spurred it and prompted the honchos at higher headquarters to assign the S.A.T. to it. His involvement blanketed her bones with fear and set her flesh crawling, warning her that a horrific experience such as the one Amanda West had endured could happen again—this time, to her.
Morgan glanced down at Jackson Stern, bouncing against the deck with each wave and roll and pitch of the boat. Or was her intuition wrong? Was Stern really Stern and not a body double? Or had Kunz already successfully struck his first blow and won the battle in their ongoing war?
Either way, one thing still didn’t make sense, and it was significant. Why had Thomas Kunz gotten himself and G.R.I.D. involved in a domestic dispute that ended in homicide? No matter the angle, that just didn’t compute. Not to foreign or domestic intelligence agencies. Not to the honchos in D.C. Not to Commander Drake. And not to Morgan.
There had to be more to this than murder.
Knowing Kunz, much more. But what?
“Signal.” Taylor Lee pointed to a light on the shore.
“ETA?” Morgan shifted focus to the shoreline and guessed their estimated time of arrival to be in about three minutes.
“Three forty-five,” she said, honing the time.
Morgan shot a millisecond beam on the light and then double-checked the coordinates Commander Drake had given her on her wrist monitor. They matched; it was their ride. She pulled her lip mic into place. “Got you, Guardian Four,” Morgan said, acknowledging the waiting chopper’s signal. It would fly them to Providence. “ETA 3:45.”
“Roger that, Guardian One.”
Recognizing the voice as Captain Amanda West’s, Morgan stiffened. Another chill slithered up her backbone. Though others were involved, she headed the actual S.A.S.S. team assigned to bringing Kunz and G.R.I.D. down—the team Morgan previously had been brought in on multiple times as a consultant profiler. And the tense pitch in Amanda’s tone had Morgan’s intuition receiving rapid-fire warnings.
Amanda had good reason to fear Kunz, considering the man had held her captive for three months and subjected her to horrific torture. He had even buried her alive, and no doubt she couldn’t shake knowing the only reason she had escaped with her life was that he had wanted her to escape.
Amanda West knew the specifics on the S.A.T. team. She knew their experience, their credentials. She knew Morgan tested off the charts as an intuitive, that Taylor Lee was similarly classified as a psychic who saw things, and that Jazie Craig heard things few other humans could hear; often, mere thoughts, and yet Amanda still feared Kunz would succeed at whatever terrorist activity he was attempting to launch against them through Jackson Stern.
Amanda feared he would outwit them and win–and if he did, then thousands, if not millions, would die.
Unfortunately, Morgan feared the same.
And if he did win, then that opened three questions in her mind.
What would his success cost the U.S.?
How many people would forfeit their lives?
And when the attack was over, how many in the S.A.S.S. and in the S.A. T. would lie among the dead?
Readers’ Group Guide
1.Chapter One introduces some of the special talents of the S.A.T.. team. In addition to combat skills, the women have special abilities that they bring to play in their positions. Women especially have always been said to have more empathy, and ability to “pick up” on bodily cues from others. Have you ever known, or are you, someone like this? Have you ever had a “bad feeling” about someone or a situation that turned out to be an accurate perception? Trusted someone without knowing why?
2. Science has shown that there are indeed visual cues that a trained or naturally sensitive person can pick up in order to decide on trust, truth or fiction. What would be a visual cue that would indicate that a person is trustworthy or hiding something? Do you think these visual cues can be learned and manipulated to the person’s advantage?
3. The Special Abilities Team (S.A.T.) members skill largely comes from careful observation of behavior. The enemy, Thomas Kuntz, depends a great deal on substituting “doubles” or virtual clones of key people within the United States security systems. If you were to be “doubled,” what would be some of your unique mannerisms that would have to be duplicated in order to make the fake-you pass close observation? Do you have a special habit, dislike, or verbal expression that instantly identifies you to your friends? What about your family or spouse? Who do you think it would be hardest to fool – your mother, your best friend, your spouse? How about your family pet?
4.Sleep deprivation is lack of the proper amount of sleep needed to function at a normal level. If the women of the S.A.T. team lack sleep, or do not get the bare minimum of two hours sleep, they will suffer from a severe loss of their special psychic ability. Sleep deprivation has even been used as a tool for torture. If you have been losing sleep, how does it affect your performance at your job or at home? How do you think people with stressful and demanding professions such as soldiers, doctors, or firefighters cope? New mothers frequently report depression and inability to cope when learning to take care of a demanding infant that interrupts normal sleep patterns. What about politicians, who frequently spend hours in planes or meetings and then must make important decisions?
5.Jackson states that visiting a psychiatrist or counselor would be a job-killer for his brother, Bruce. Why would this be? Is this belief true or false in most jobs or only specialized ones? Would visiting a psychiatrist be perceived as a weakness in your job or family? If you need such help, would you get it, or hide the problem as best you could? Do you think real help is possible for personal problems from psychiatrists and psychologists? Would you rather depend on a chemical solution such as antidepressant, self-medicate with drugs or liquor, or meditations such as prayer?
6.Bruce and Jackson are brothers but seem to have a more parent-child relationship. Jackson protected and influenced his younger brother. This kind of relationship is often seen in a single-parent family, but not as much a family where both parents are present. Can this kind of relationship be beneficial to either child? Can it produce rivalry and discord, especially in a brother-to-brother relationship? How would such a relationship later affect either child–when they become adults? If such a relationship is noted without knowing the parents, what might be guessed about the home life of the children?
7.When Morgan’s family discovered her intuitive abilities they rebuffed and rejected her. This type reaction can occur with other talents discovered in children, such as unusual math or musical abilities. If you were Morgan’s parent, how would you advise her regarding the developing abilities she’s manifesting?
8.Much depends on DNA findings in the progress of the investigation of Bruce. Many criminal cases are decided upon DNA evidence. Old cases can be reversed and innocent prisoners freed. What do you think about this type of evidence? Is it “iron clad?” Can mistakes be made in taking evidence, or at the lab processing the DNA? Currently DNA is used as an iron-clad method of proving identity. Might this change with developments of new scientific methods? Would you be willing to accept the evidence of DNA as conclusive in a case involving you or your family?
9.While Jackson clearly loves his brother, Bruce, and his sister-in-law, Morgan suspects he might be a “commitment-phobe.” In their line of covert work, surely a close relationship with a mate would be impossible without total commitment of each partner. Considering that each partner elevates his/her personal safety risks simply by being associated, would you be able to hold up in such a marriage or relationship? What would be required? Would you be able to raise children and teach them moral values when your life is built on secrecy, danger and the ability to kill another human being with stealth and efficiency?
10. Dr. Joan Foster is about to have her baby. Do you think this pregnancy was wise? Dr. Joan admits it was unplanned. Will the child be an unwitting target for those opposed to Dr. Joan’s line of work and her allegiances? Should she tell her child about her line of work and why she does it? When would be the right time to tell a child this?
11. Morgan and Jackson form a romantic partnership. What kind of a working and family team will they make, considering that they know each other’s work and understand what is required? They both have intuitive abilities. Would this strengthen a romantic relationship or weaken it? Would you want your partner to know what you are thinking in a romantic situation?
“There is a murder and the husband is accused. The brother knows he’s innocent and convinces a psychologist that works for a secret military outfit to help him prove it. Kill Zone by Vicki Hinze combines romantic suspense, military technothrillers, and paranormal elements to great effect. I was honestly surprised how much I enjoyed the story and the memorable characters.” –Jeff Ayers, Author Magazine
”This story contains an engrossing situation that ratchets up the suspense. Unique characters try to capture an evil-to -the-core villain before he strikes again. Hinze ends this outing with a perfect setup for the next adventure.” –RT Book Reviews
“With a nod to Charlie’s Angels, but with an ESP spin, fans will enjoy the fast-paced and well-written KILL ZONE though the track of the story line is very obvious. The villain’s traits are purposely hyperbole, but that makes for the fun in the tale as Kunz is a solid foil to the heroic trio as super agents need super opponents. Filled with misinformation and disinformation by those allegedly on the side of SAT, readers will enjoy the first War Games with its paranormal battle front. Vicki Hinze is a brilliant suspense writer.” –The Mystery Gazette
“Sizzling Romp James Bond style Vicki has given us another rocket-paced military suspense in her War Games series. The first to introduce the concept of the diabolical Thomas Kunz–a terrorist and black marketeer bent on taking over the world by infiltrating the West’s intelligence agencies with double agents–was BODY DOUBLE, followed by DOUBLE DARE, DOUBLE VISION and now KILL ZONE. The difference with Kunz’ doubles is that they look and sound like the original agents but are actually opertives who have been mentally, physically and surgically altered to follow his orders and steal top-secret government information for him. This time Kuntz targets a special abilities team led by psychologist Morgan Cabot and her two associates, Taylor Lee and Jazie Craig, after they are assigned to solve the mysterious death of the wife of a U.S. biological warfare expert. This team of “intuitive” parapsychologists consults for Colonel Sally Drake who runs S.A.S.S.–Secret Assignment Security Specialists, a group of highly trained American operatives who work outside normal protocol to protect the United States, but the American public can never know of their existence. Using S.A.S.S. as her anchor, Vicki Hinze presents each book like an episode in a television series. Only her gift for creating superb characters carries our suspension of disbelief so we can enjoy these stories forged in what seems a bizarre concept of identity theft. Kill Zone entertains and dazzles.” –Bonnie Toews, At the Crossroads of Humanity
“WAR GAMES: KILL ZONE is a fast moving story that reacquaints readers with the adventures of the S.A.S.S. team that began in DOUBLE DARE, and continued in BODY DOUBLE and DOUBLE VISION . . . Kill Zone is an action packed suspense that keeps readers glued to the page.” –Livia Holton, TRRC
“GRID [terrorist black-market arms and intelligence brokers] has been using doubles to infiltrate positions of power in the government and steal sensitive information, and SAT [Special Abilities Team] is determined to stop the thefts. The paranormal Charlie’s Angels concept will get readers interested. . .” –Publishers Weekly
In 2015, author Vicki Hinze rewrote the original version of Kill Zone to make it a clean read novel. The Clean Read edition is published by Magnolia Leaf Press as Kill Zone, Special Abilities Team, Book 1.
First Publication Details:
MEDALLION PRESS/SUSPENSE, ISBN: 1934755613 9781934755617, JULY 2009