Disclosure, p.10
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       Disclosure, p.10
 

           Nancy Holder
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“She’s on her way,” Selena told her. “Try to get some rest.”

  As soon as they hung up, her phone rang again. The caller ID was restricted. She let it go to voice, and then she listened.

  “Allison? Morgan. McDonough’s dirty. He showed me a fake recording that compromises you and he’s probably sent other trackers after you. I know you’re in trouble. Call me.”

  Her heart stuttered at the sound of his voice. Not very many minutes ago, she had been afraid that he was dead.

  Compromised. Other trackers. Do you want to help me or to trap me?

  Why was she surprised that there might be more to Morgan than met the eye? Maybe the two of them had more in common than she had realized. Maybe that explained the way she was drawn to him. She had assumed it was the job they did, the values they held.

  But maybe it went much deeper than that. Maybe he was…like her. Working deep, and dark, for the greater good, yes, but deep inside, accepting that she was a protector, a warrior. She was set apart, and would be, for her entire life.

  Could Morgan be a warrior, too?

  She thought it through. She had always noticed his sinewy physicality and figured him for a fitness buff. But maybe he needed to stay in shape to dog his quarry, fight off assailants. She’d been impressed by the way he seemed to absorb double meanings and nuances that other cryptanalysts let slide. He thought like an operative. Like a spy.

  He was circumspect about his downtime. Whenever he came back from a vacation, he rarely said two words about where he’d been or what he’d seen. She’d always figured it was because he’d taken some woman along; Morgan might have flaws when it came to relationships with the opposite sex—as in, he didn’t have relationships, he had sex—but he was not the kind to kiss and tell.

  Besides, despite the fact that she was five years older than he was, she liked to flatter herself that maybe she was on his list of potential conquests. She had caught him sizing her up the way men do when they’re on the prowl. He would have enough sense—and class—not to brag about his adventures with one woman when he was working out his strategy to land another.

  Is McDonough sending him after me, or is it someone else? Is it someone who has lied to him, the way my husky friend got lied to? An adversary who has shown him proof that I’m a remorseless blackmailer who needs to be stopped? Or someone even worse?

  Or did he volunteer for the mission, because he and I both know I’ve held back? A guy like Morgan doesn’t like being on the outside looking in. He would make no apologies for digging through someone’s trash or picking their lock. Hell, we do the electronic equivalent of that where-and whenever we can.

  What can I tell you, Morgan Rush? What should I tell you?

  She carried the phone to the bed and curled it under her chin. She played his message again. She listened to his voice, deep and rumbling, full of insistence and maybe some concern. Or was that just something she wanted to hear?

  “Allison? Morgan.”

  He had her attention. She played the message again. And again.

  But she didn’t call him.

  Chapter 9

  Athena Academy, Arizona

  “A llison, you’d better wake up now,” Diana said.

  Allison jerked awake and looked into the face of the hazel-eyed strawberry-blonde, who was no longer strapped into the pilot’s seat in the cockpit. Allison didn’t think they were airborne anymore.

  “I wasn’t asleep,” Allison insisted, yawning and blinking her eyes. Her ribs hurt.

  “You needed it. You need about a year of sleep.”

  “It’s overrated. So I hear,” Allison shot back.

  “Trust me, it’s not.” Diana smiled. “I would almost rather get a good night’s sleep than have sex. Almost.”

  “Well, sex is not overrated, as I dimly recall,” Allison said, her thoughts straying to Morgan.

  Stretching, she turned her head and glanced out the window of the little Learjet. They were sitting on a private airstrip just outside of AthenaAcademy—a little something that had been put in as a courtesy to visiting dignitaries who wanted to avoid commercial flight or the commute from the Air Force base.

  They deplaned. Allison felt like a sack of cement. Her mouth tasted like one, too.

  An unmarked sedan idled at the edge of the tarmac. Another Athena alum, Kayla Ryan, was at the wheel, and as Allison and Diana approached, she exited the vehicle and opened her arms as if to hug Allison. Allison held up her hands.

  “Sore ribs,” she said.

  “What happened?” Kayla asked.

  “I’ll catch you up when we meet with Christine.” It would be a heavily edited version. Every version Allison told was edited, even to other Oracle agents.

  Neither Allison nor Diana had any gear to stow in the trunk. Diana rode shotgun up front and Allison took the back. Allison had impressed on both of them that they needed to move rapidly and without calling any attention to themselves. As they sped away, she spared a fleeting thought for the post office drop. The necklace wouldn’t be there yet. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. It was killing her to have the necklace out of her control, wending its way through the U.S. Postal Service. She couldn’t second-guess the wisdom of sending it through the mail. It was done.

  Dusk had sent the desert sun behind the TankMountains, causing them to shimmer like mirages. Cracking the window, Allison closed her eyes briefly, savoring the mingled scents of cooling dust, white sage and creosote, through her cotton-stuffed nose. Smelling the bouquet of home was the best medicine on earth.

  A hawk wheeled across the sky-wide washes of purple. An owl hooted. Her thoughts strayed as they often did to the nuclear crisis Project Ozone was struggling to defuse. How she wished she could call in and see how it was going. She’d check in with Kim as soon as she could.

  Allison dozed off again in the backseat. She woke to see Principal Christine Evans waiting for their car beneath the flagpole at the entrance to the campus of AthenaAcademy. Allison’s mother, Marion Gracelyn, had handpicked Christine to be the principal of the school, and she had been an excellent choice.

  The years had been kind to the gray-haired former Army officer, and Allison’s throat tightened at the sight of the woman who had known her own mother so well. Christine still moved with the disciplined grace of a military woman. An accident had rendered her blind in one eye—the military’s loss and AthenaAcademy’s gain.

  “Allison, my God,” Christine said, giving her a once-over.

  “Little scuffle, a couple of injuries,” Allison replied. “When we debrief, I’ll elaborate.”

  “You’ll go to the infirmary first,” Christine overruled her. “Come with me.”

  Christine walked her there as if Allison were a new student again, awed by all she saw, and a little lost.

  Dr. Singh had joined the Athena staff a few months earlier. She examined the job the doctor in Kentucky had done and pronounced it good.

  Allison, Christine, Diana and Kayla walked out of the main building toward Christine’s bungalow where, Christine explained, they would eat dinner in private. The Academy students, including Kayla’s daughter Jazz, were in the mess hall for spaghetti dinner. Day was done, gone the sun; Allison felt a stillness, a peacefulness.

  A calm before the storm?

  “Hey, Allison,” Lucy Karmon said, joining them in Christine’s comfortable residence. The scrappy redhead brought high energy with her as she picked up a dish of spaghetti and dug in. “All secured,” she told Christine.

  “Lucy,” Allison greeted her. Lucy was the one who had brought Echo’s half sister Lilith from India to AthenaAcademy to give Allison the spider necklace. “Long time no see.”

  Lucy didn’t smile, didn’t meet Allison’s eyes. Allison knew she was furious with herself for not taking Echo down. No one blamed her. She and Lilith had gotten the prize—the necklace—and that was huge. But she knew Lucy didn’t see it that way.

  Allison forced herself to eat a generous meal, knowing she was burnin
g calories at a prodigious rate. As they ate, she brought Christine and Kayla up to speed, omitting significant portions of information such as the fact that she was Delphi; there was an impending possibility of a nuclear attack; and that Jeremy Loschetter was locked up in a safe house in the Arizona desert. Mostly she discussed the FBI results of investigation about the kidnappings of children conceived in vitro at the Women’s Fertility Clinic in Zuni.

  “One of them was especially troubling,” Allison said. “A girl named Natalia LeClaire was abducted not far from here. Her parents were in Tucson and she was alone when she was taken. The feebs suspect the parents had a hand in the kidnapping. They were very reluctant to cooperate and the Special Agent in Charge found a fireproof cell in their basement. It had a bed, a toilet and a sink.”

  She looked at each woman in turn. “There were burn marks on the cinderblock walls, and the sheets on the bed were clean, but looked like they’d been singed.”

  “Oh, my God,” Kayla breathed. “An egg baby who can set things on fire? That’s just too…science fiction.”

  “As opposed to someone whose skin is toxic?” Lucy asked her dryly, referring to Lilith. “Or a psychic?”

  “Point taken,” Kayla replied, blowing her bangs off her forehead. “So…what do you think? Was the mother a willing surrogate? Or do you think that couple got tricked into raising a little girl who could set them on fire? So when someone offered to take her off their hands, they agreed to disappear for a while to make it easier?”

  It was clear to Allison that Kayla was having trouble wrapping her head around either scenario. The police officer came from a close-knit Navajo family, where children were loved and wanted. Kayla had given up a lot when she had discovered she was pregnant in her senior year at AthenaAcademy. But she had also gained a tremendous amount—a fantastic daughter to love and cherish.

  “Does this involve the same parties as before?” Christine asked. She took a sip of the red wine she had served with the spaghetti.

  “And does it have something to do with Lilith’s necklace?” Lucy cut in.

  Wishing her meeting with Lilith had been done less publicly, Allison nodded. “I can’t say more than that,” she told Christine apologetically.

  Christine considered. “AthenaAcademy has remained free of influence peddlers,” she said. “I argued with your mother about making this a high school. I thought we should open a college. But she was right. There would have been more governmental oversight, interference and a lot of jostling to compromise our independence,” she elaborated. “So many things have happened—your mother murdered, the egg superbabies among us…I come from a military background, and it’s ingrained in me that might helps right.”

  She frowned at Allison. “It’s hard for me not to ask for a thousand troops with heavy artillery to surround this place and protect my girls.”

  “Me, too,” Diana said. “I’m Army. But I’m Athena first. And we have to do it ourselves.”

  “So maybe we should seed the outlying desert areas with land mines,” Lucy put in. Allison could see that she was only half joking. Lucy was a demolitions expert, and hotheaded to boot.

  “We can’t go to your boyfriend. Or your grandfather, either,” Allison reminded Diana. Diana was dating Gabe Monihan, the president of the United States. And her grandfather, Joseph Lockworth, was once the director of CIA. Now retired, he was still called in occasionally to consult. Allison wondered who at CIA had seen the faked e-mails of her blackmail attempts. And if anything else had filtered up via Echelon, the international global surveillance system created by NSA—but not as powerful as Allison’s own Oracle.

  “I concur,” Diana said.

  “Agreed.” Christine raised her wineglass. “To Athena.”

  The women clinked their glasses, the tinkle of glass a bright moment in a dark night.

  About half an hour later, the meeting concluded. Allison said good-night to Christine and to Diana, who was staying in guest quarters. Kayla said she was going to check in on Jazz, who lived on campus.

  Allison had a bungalow of her own, down near the stables. Gordita was no longer there, but Allison smiled faintly at the commingled odors of hay and horse dung. She wished she could go for a soothing ride. But her nose and ribs were too sore, and she had urgent business.

  Oracle business.

  Lucy came in and sat down. She raked her fingers through her red hair and stood back up, pacing.

  “We almost had her, Allison. We almost had Echo. We let her go.”

  “Lilith got the necklace,” Allison reminded her. “That was your objective.”

  Lucy huffed and shook her head. “We blew it.”

  “There’s no way you could have fought against the force field she threw around herself,” Allison persisted. “I don’t know how we’re going to penetrate it.” She felt the eyes of the woman on her. “I don’t know yet,” she added. “But we will.”

  “Yeah,” Lucy said glumly. “And when we do…” She clenched her teeth. “Lilith told me what Echo did to those people in India. There is nothing inside her to stop her from doing horrible things. No conscience, no moral compass. If she wants it, she’ll take it.”

  And she wants me dead, Allison thought. She wants the necklace.

  As soon as she closed and locked the door behind Lucy, she powered on her desktop. Far more powerful than her laptop, it was loaded with custom applications that would allow her to tie directly into Oracle. She got to work, taking the reins so Selena could leave the Oracle town house and show up for work at Langley. If Selena stayed out much longer, there would be questions.

  Once she was in, Allison sent Selena a dismissal e-mail through the system. Selena received it, replied and went home to her husband. Maybe they’d get lucky tonight and make a baby.

  And I will keep that baby safe, Allison vowed.

  Oracle kicked out the coverage about Allison’s town house. It also revealed the ME’s report on the as-yet unidentified man whose body had been found inside her house. He had not died in the fire. He had been beaten to death.

  So there had been two people inside Allison’s town house. Why? How? She reran the scenario in the alley. One guy put into play with a seemingly legitimate order to pick her up for questioning, the other a double agent intent on murdering them both?

  Morgan and an accomplice? Maybe even McDonough? Had Morgan killed an attacker? Was Morgan even there?

  Too many questions, and not enough time. So she’d skip ahead to the answers…if she could.

  At Zorba’s place, Morgan showered and asked to borrow Zorba’s blow-dryer. That rated a raised eyebrow but Morgan made no explanation. While Zorba was opening up a second bottle of ouzo, Morgan blow-dried the flash drive he’d used at Allison’s just before the town house went up. Since his own clothes were filthy, he accepted one of Zorba’s long-sleeved dark gray sweaters, a pair of jeans that were a little baggy on him, and a pea coat for later. Zorba’s feet were smaller than his, so he was stuck with his caked, bloody shoes.

  Then Morgan had helped Zorba kill that second bottle of ouzo and didn’t squawk when they moved on to retsina. He didn’t drink all the alcohol Zorba poured for him, but he kept things realistic.

  He bided his time until Zorba staggered into his bedroom and started snoring. Then Morgan powered up the desktop in Zorba’s small office, inserted the flash drive with Allison’s last two e-mails and popped open the contents. Micronesia…and nothing else.

  He dove into NSA and passworded himself through layer after layer of security.

  Still, all he got was Micronesia. And he never got anywhere near the other e-mail. Allison’s firewalls had firewalls.

  He ejected the memory stick and slid it into the front pocket of his borrowed jeans. Next, via Echelon, he traced the cell phone number for Athena Construction to a section of the Arizona desert. He pulled up navsat—the images from the navigation satellites traveling in space—and wrote down the latitude and longitude coordinates. It was deep in the des
ert—hotter than hell even on winter days—and hard to get to.

  He hacked into the NSA phone logs for his section and noted that McDonough had made a call from his office well after midnight. Long hours for Mr. Taxicab. Morgan captured the number and started running it. Then he captured Kim Valenti’s personal cell phone number off her personnel file records.

  McDonough had called someone named Wrobleski. CIA. Morgan started wading as deeply as he could into Wrobleski’s business without triggering an alert. Huh. A lot of deletions, a lot of No Access Permitted. That was unsurprising, given that Wrobleski was a spook.

  Then he gave Valenti a jingle.

  “Hmm, yeah,” she murmured, then snapped awake. “Hello?”

  “It’s Morgan Rush,” he said. “I want to tell you a few things. Are you awake?”

  “Yes.” She was instantly alert. “Go ahead.”

  “You know I’m looking for Allison. I was in her town house. A guy showed up with a contract on her. He’s the body. I don’t know if he was connected with the explosion but I don’t think so.”

  “Explosion? We thought it was a fire.”

  “The explosion caused the fire. Whatever she’s involved in, she needs help.”

  “And do you want to help her?” she asked suspiciously.

  “Yes. I do.”

  He heard her moving around and wondered if she’d started taping him. Or if she was trying to trace him. If she could manage it, she was in for a surprise.

  He had taken Zorba’s van, and he was idling inside Valenti’s parking garage. The security attendant had dozed off…after Morgan had shot him in the neck with a little tranquilizer dart.

  “Help her how?” Valenti asked.

  He blinked. Finding her had somehow mutated into leading her out of the snake pit she was in. Things were catching up with Allison Gracelyn. Bad things and bad people. Maybe it was deserved.

  You don’t think that.

  He did. He was worried about her, but he still didn’t trust her.

  “You do a lot of things for McDonough. Like monitor Allison’s activities at work,” Valenti said. “But you’re a mathematician. Not a bounty hunter. So why did he send you after her?”

 
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