“Don’t trust him,” Morgan said. “Ever. He doctored up some surveillance footage to make her look bad. Maybe he figured I needed a nudge to go after her.”
“But you didn’t, did you? Need a nudge?” Her tone was sharp. “You were just itching for an excuse.”
“She’s got a lot of secrets.”
“I think you have some too, Morgan. Care to share? Like, did McDonough set the explosion?”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I didn’t ask him. Speaking of the office, what’s the status of our project? I wasn’t at the meeting,” he reminded her unnecessarily.
“We got chatter about a radius,” she told him. She meant the range of a potential nuclear detonation. How many people would be incinerated, how many would die horrible, lingering deaths from radiation sickness if they weren’t treated. “Not looking good.”
He gritted his teeth. It was killing him not to be there.
“McDonough is watching you, too. He heard you telling me about Allison’s ‘pregnancy.’ Not your finest hour,” he observed. “You need to attend a lying workshop.”
“Have you been spying on me, too?”
“No. McDonough did that all by himself. I just spy on Allison.”
“A one-woman snitch. What a relief.”
“So you’d better be damn careful at work,” he continued.
“I always am, Morgan.”
He waited, hoping she would elaborate. The silence lengthened between them.
“She needs friends,” he tried, but that was stupid. Allison had lots of friends, and both he and Valenti knew he wasn’t one of them. “Strike that. Tell her I called you and I want her to talk to me.”
“I will,” she said.
Then he got out of the van and dropped down at the rear of Valenti’s nice white Lexus, jerking and creaking like an old man because he was so bashed up. He pressed one of Allison’s button cams on the undercarriage of the Lexus, then added one of his mini-mics. He had heard that some guys kept condoms in their back pockets. It must be nice to live like that. Not that he was whining.
It was 5:07 in the morning. He was pushing it. People would be getting up for work soon and he didn’t want any of them to run into him in their haste to get to the nearest Starbucks.
He took the elevator straight to Valenti’s floor, the sixth. The elevator opened out on a mirror beneath a large vase of silk flowers. He looked tired and beat-up, with dark black circles underneath his dark blue eyes and a few scattered cuts in the hairline of his salt-and-pepper hair. He moved silently along the floral carpet, placing cameras and mics in inconspicuous spots along the way, like bread crumbs, violating civil rights the way some people eat popcorn. It bothered him, but it didn’t stop him.
Looping his earpiece in place, he got back into Zorba’s van and drove quietly to the security gate, which rolled open for him. The guard was starting to come to. He was going to have a headache.
Wind rustled the bushes as Morgan drove onto the street. He glanced at the clock in the dash. Five forty-five. From Zorba’s stash of goodies in the hidden compartment beneath the van’s floor, he got out a parabolic microphone and an LL—a wand-shaped laser. The microphone would probably pick up Valenti’s voice but the laser was a snoop’s dream come true, albeit with limitations—it had to hit a window and she had to be standing near it. She lived on the sixth floor, and her kitchen was the tenth window across. She had mentioned in casual conversation at work that she was a big believer in breakfast, which she cooked every morning.
A minute later, he heard the ringing of a phone line, outbound; Kim was making a call. Excellent. He loved this woman.
The connection was made.
“Gordita,” Valenti said.
“Check.” Even better, he could hear the other speaker. Damned if it wasn’t Katie again! That stubborn little brat! “You’re early. Everything is nominal. Loschetter is still PMSing or whatever.”
“This isn’t your check-in, although I’m glad everything’s quiet. Your brother called me on my cell about twenty minutes ago. He said the body in the town house was a hit man sent after her. Also, that McDonough made some fake tape to convince Morgan to go after her.”
Katie grunted. “My brother?”
“Katie, please tell me. Does Morgan have some kind of private life like we do? He’s been spying on Allison at work, but it’s weird that he would be sent out into the field like an operative.”
“Spying? On Allison? That jerk,” Katie said. “Who for?”
“Allison’s boss. And I got the feeling he thought her boss might have engineered the town house explosion. It was a bomb, Katie, not just a fire.”
“I thought so,” Katie said. “I’ve been replaying the footage from Shannon’s station and the debris field is indicative of that. About Morgan? I’ve wondered. After all, I’ve got a lot going on that I don’t tell him about.”
And what would that be? Morgan wondered, holding his breath. Spill, Katie. Tell me.
“I think I need to tell you we’ve been seeing e-mails that falsely incriminate her in a number of extortion schemes,” Valenti said. “We think that’s why people are coming after her.”
“Who’s sending them? Echo?” Katie asked.
Echo again. Who the hell is Echo? Does this have anything to do with those Spider files?
“Probably,” Valenti confirmed. “But I can’t even trace them back. They’re spoofed but good, and they’re stirring up trouble. So if your brother is hoping to catch her, he might have to take a number and stand in line.”
“Morgan doesn’t want to ‘catch’ her,” Katie insisted. A beat. “Does he?”
“Yes. He’s tacked on the incentive of offering to help her, but I’m not sure how he can.”
He was mildly affronted, but Valenti had a point. Allison didn’t appear to need a knight in shining armor, not that his armor was all that shiny. Maybe an extra pair of fists in a street fight, or a rocket launcher…
Zorba has a rocket launcher in here, he thought. Also, grenades, a few Uzis and body armor. If Homeland Security stopped Morgan, he would have some tap-dancing to do.
“Morgan’s actually a good guy,” Katie said. “Even if he’s all screwed up about women because of our mom.”
“Well, we both know that the worst of the bad guys think they’re the good guys,” Valenti said back. “You’re saying you trust him?”
“Yes. I do,” Katie said.
Morgan smiled grimly. Thank you, sis.
“She’s heading out your way,” Valenti said. “Meanwhile, you’ll get a check-in call at the usual time.”
“Roger that,” Katie replied.
The women disconnected.
Morgan drove, parsing what he’d heard. Check-in calls and extortion schemes. Was it possible Allison and Kim Valenti were playing his sister? Were they running some kind of op together and duping her into helping them?
Your sister’s FBI, he reminded himself. It would be pretty hard for anyone to fake her out.
But not impossible.
Valenti had said that Allison was on her way. Maybe he could catch up with her.
He set the GPS for the middle of the stinkin’ desert and opened the window so the cold air would keep him awake. Once he was out of town, he’d load up on coffee and fuel.
He had a long drive ahead of him.
Allison woke up in her bed at AthenaAcademy at nearly 10:00 a.m., groaning when she saw that she’d missed a call. She cursed herself for sleeping through it, and gave her message a listen.
It was Kim, telling her about Morgan’s call, and also telling her she had called Delphi. Allison called the Delphi-dedicated line in Oracle HQ and listened to that message, too, which was a rehash of what Kim had told Allison.
Allison wasn’t too surprised about the hit man. But she was very worried about the disarming of her town house’s state-of-the-art alarm system—the first line of defense. As far as she coul
She tried to call Kim back, but she went straight to voice mail on Kim’s cell. She left a request for Kim to call her back.
A student brought her breakfast. Allison had a complete wardrobe in her quarters; she greeted the girl dressed in baggy olive pants and a black spaghetti-strap T-shirt—definitely not her usual tailored, professional look when she came to visit AthenaAcademy. But she had left the war room. She was in the field, preparing for battle. She could almost feel Echo doing the same. Allison wondered how it would come down—would they be two generals deploying their forces, or two lone warriors battling in hand-to-hand combat?
Scrolling through Oracle’s busy night via her desktop, Allison had just tucked into her Denver omelet when Diana arrived. Allison took another bite, wiped her lips with her napkin and pushed back from the desk.
“Can you get me a vehicle so I can drive to the safe house?” Allison requested.
Diana hesitated. “Waiting until dark would be better.”
“That’s a whole day away,” Allison argued.
“You could use a day,” Diana countered. “We should get the necklace first, then go to the safe house. Less travel that way. Fewer chances to spot you.”
Allison huffed. Diana was using Allison’s own argument about laying low against her. The other piece of logic was that her desktop was Oracle West, and she could probably do more good monitoring it than she could checking up on Loschetter in person. Either she trusted her agents to guard him or she didn’t. She admitted—privately—that it wasn’t a matter of trust. It was a matter of…being a control freak.
Diana reached into her pocket and held up a post office box key. The agents of Oracle had sets of keys for over a hundred drop points located all over the world.
“I’ll run into town and check for it after the post office boxes are stuffed,” Diana promised.
“It’s too soon for it to arrive,” Allison said, running her hands through her hair, then dropping them to her lap. “Some of my alleged blackmail victims are trying to check in with me. Wrobleski’s taken some personal time and Oracle kicked out his round-trip reservation to the Cayman Islands on a commercial flight. I’m embarrassed that ‘I’m’ dealing with someone so obvious.”
“The stupider, the more likely he is to get caught,” Diana said. “And if that happens, he might try to give you up in return for immunity.”
“I thought about that, too,” Allison said. “I’m wondering if that’s ‘my’ plan. Kim said Morgan Rush wants to help me. Do you think he’s referring to any of this? How can he help me? He’s got to be working for someone.”
“NSA?” Diana asked.
“No. Someone more…active,” Allison argued. “NSA collects communications intelligence. We don’t blow up town houses.”
“McDonough’s off the books. There could be other people off the books at NSA,” Diana ventured.
“Okay, I’ll give you that point. Meanwhile, someone is trying to blow up the East Coast and I’m not getting much. That tells me that the FBI and the NSA are dealing with it face-to-face.” She slid a glance at Diana. “Army Intel has joined the party.”
“And we’re good,” Diana said. “I’ll feed you anything that comes my way if it doesn’t kick out on Oracle first.” She cocked her head. “We can still hope Echo’s blowing smoke with some fake terrorist scheme, just to keep us looking in the wrong place.”
“Been there, thought that,” Allison said. “That’s a dangerous assumption.”
“I know. It’s only an assumption.” She pointed to Allison’s bed. “Rest while you can. When it hits, it’s going to hit big.”
“Don’t I know it,” Allison whispered, clenching her jaw. A muscle jumped in her cheek.
Diana narrowed her eyes. “I’ve never seen you this stressed out. You don’t have to carry the load all by yourself. We’re a team, Allison. Use us.”
“I am. I will,” Allison told her. “We’re headed for the showdown, Diana. I can feel it.”
“Bring it on,” Diana said. “Echo has a lot to answer for.”
“Damn straight,” Allison replied. “But it’s not about payback. We have to stop her once and for all. And we will.”
“Damn straight,” Diana replied. “We’re Athena.”
Then she turned around and shut the door behind herself. Allison scooted back to her computer.
“Get some rest,” Diana said through the door. “And, if you talk to Delphi, tell her we’re ready to rock and roll.”
Echo’s new laboratory
An unnamed island in Micronesia
“Mom?” the young firestarter murmured as she awakened. They’d kept her sedated on the flight out of Arizona to Los Angeles; then on to Japan, then on to the atoll in Micronesia.
Her dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, Natalia LeClaire sat up very slowly on the concrete floor, one hand pressed against her forehead. Her hand dropped to her side as she gazed up and around at her patented prison.
Clad in an exquisite black Stella McCartney evening gown, with Harry Winston jeweled cuffs on either wrist, Echo stood well out of sight—and out of range—on her observation catwalk, angled forty-five degrees above the enclosed bunker. A plasma screen magnified every pore of Natalia LeClaire’s skin. Microphones picked up each syllable and unsteady breath as the girl walked to the clear front panel and tapped it.
“Hello? Hello, someone?” she called. “Is anyone here?”
Watching, Echo smiled and remained silent. Shivers of anticipation skittered up and down her spine. She was hoping for a demonstration from her little torch.
“I’m sorry,” Natalia whispered. She began to cry. “I didn’t mean to hurt the man. I’m so sorry!”
Echo cocked her head and watched as Natalia’s muzziness morphed into anxiety, then hit the turbo into full-on panic as she screamed, “I didn’t mean to do it!”
Natalia slammed her right fist against the clear barrier, then her left, then both. Sweat beaded her forehead. Her face turned red; then a flush blossomed across her collarbone and zoomed up her neck. And then, incredibly, she began to smoke.
Flames erupted all around the girl, shooting to the roof and walls. With the first gout of flame, all her clothes burned off. But her dark hair, thick lashes and lovely skin remained untouched as the fire rose higher, shot farther, burned hotter.
“Where’s my mom!” Natalia LeClaire screamed. “Help!”
“O, brave new world,” Echo cooed, as she gazed into the monitor at the girl. Imagine. A human torch. Truly Mummy had consorted with geniuses—men of vision, men who could make dreams come true.
Men Echo needed.
She touched the two upper quadrants of the screen. Images clicked on in the cells of two other recent arrivals, who were still unconscious. Little Cailey, who was five and had uncannily good eyesight, and Willa the eighteen-year-old superhacker, had also been sedated during their extractions. Then the sleeping beauties had been flown in separate private jets to a nearby atoll, and from there, ferried to her private dock by minisub, then driven in separate armored cars through the security checkpoints to the tunnel. And now they lay sleeping like sweet cherubs, in her brilliant new lab. She had the full set now—thirteen lovely egg babies Jeremy Loschetter had kept out of his records. Arachne had listed six of them on Kwan-Sook’s memory stick, and seven of them on Echo’s.
She was willing to bet there were some more names on Lilith’s flash drive. And that Eric Pace, the disgraced former Army Chief of Staff and collector of information on very special children, had even more. He also had a great wealth of knowledge and expertise on the subject, and from reading the Department of Defense’s classified files on him, and putting it together with what she had, she knew he had withheld a lot. She wanted everything he had. That was why she was going to break him out of jail.
Both Cailey and Willa had actual beds. Each of them was being guarded by one of Echo’s favorite sort of expendable security—big, beefy men who weren’t smart enough to be devious. They followed orders to the letter because they were afraid of pain—and of her. Simple equation, simple men.
Easy come, easy go.
There were no guards in Natalia’s cell, of course. But there were two out in the passageway that led to her bunker. Echo clicked on the remote camera, and studied them in the lower right quadrant of her monitor. Both were tall and bulked up from steroids. One was bald; one wore a very outdated ponytail. They wore Kevlar vests and held Uzis across their chests, and they looked frightened. Obviously they had heard about the operative Natalia had burned to death soon after her capture.
The immolation had obviously traumatized Natalia. This could only be good. She would need someone who understood what she was going through.
Echo was very good at understanding—or pretending to. She didn’t give a damn personally about Natalia, or any of the other egg girls. She did give a damn about what they could do…for her.
After all, she was her mother’s daughter.
She blew a kiss at Natalia, who was blazing away in a fetal position, crackling and weeping.
Then she went in and checked on “Silk” and “Shadow,” also known as Mary and Elizabeth, the two little Goths she had located some months before in London. They were twins, and they loved her very much. Their parents were afraid of them—just like Natalia’s were of her—and they had thrown them onto the street. But Echo’s people had successfully located them, and Echo, of course, had welcomed them with open arms.
They lived in their own part of the laboratory, decorated with their manga and their anime and posters of vampires. They had asked her if any of the egg babies were vampires. They’d been very disappointed to hear that she hadn’t found any.
“Hello, darlings,” she said, as she breezed into their room. “Penny for my thoughts.”
The pasty-faced teens with black-and-blue hair smiled at her and took each other’s hands. Their fingernails were painted black, and they were wearing long-sleeved red and black blouses. They could only read minds when they were touching each other. Echo thought that was charming. She held that thought on purpose, of course, because she wanted them to read her highly complimentary opinions and then do whatever she asked them to. Echo limited her visits precisely because she didn’t want to slip and think something that might disturb her little girls.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes