“You’re dressed up for a party,” Mary said.
“It doesn’t take a psychic to figure that out,” Echo said, amused, as she twirled in a circle.
“You’ve found more kids like us,” Elizabeth offered. “They didn’t want to come.”
“They’ve been so traumatized by their terrible parents,” Echo said sadly. She leaned forward and kissed each of them on the forehead. “We’ll have to be very patient with them.”
She turned away.
She was going upstairs for a little housewarming party, to thank all the local politicians who had paved the way for the construction of her beautiful new home, high atop a dormant volcano. They didn’t know about the underground laboratory inside the dormant volcano, of course. Or the fact that she’d just sent a team to break Eric Pace out of jail.
Natalia would be good for jailbreaks.
And speaking of jailbreaks…
“We’re going to America,” Mary said, her eyes widening with excitement. “We’re going to free one of your scientists.”
“His name is Jeremy,” Elizabeth put in. “We’re going to ride in a special airplane that’s difficult to see. It’s a spy airplane!”
“Very good.” Echo clapped her hands together. “It will be such fun.” She blew kisses at them and left their room. She walked into the dampening field, sagging from the effort of controlling her thinking while in the presence of the twins.
Clack clack clack, stilettos on the catwalk.
“Jeremy,” she sang, “get ready. We’re coming to get you.”
Clack clack clack. Stilettos straight through Ian’s balls.
At the last moment, she had decided against the piano wire. She liked being unpredictable that way.
Athena Academy, Arizona
D ay Two since Allison had driven away from NSA.
Now Allison drove “alone” into Athens in the pickup truck Kayla had lent her. Her backup team was strategically positioned up and down Olympus, the main drag. Although Diana Lockworth’s older sister, Josie, wasn’t specifically Oracle, she was an Athenian, and she had arrived in town to help. Now she and Diana were parked across the street. To add a sense of normalcy, Kayla Ryan was on patrol in a marked police car.
Allison wore a black wig and sunglasses, a long black skirt, a concho belt, a white blouse, black cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat. She parked in front of the satellite post office and picked up her department store shopping bag. She took a moment to signal her backup—adjusting her sunglasses—then walked straight into the building and headed for the grid of burnished post office boxes, some the width of three magazines, others large enough to contain suitcases. There were about a hundred of them, and Oracle’s was one of the largest. As calmly as she could, she inserted the key and opened the door.
Selena had sent the can in a plain box and addressed it to Christine Evans. Allison calmly put it into her innocuous shopping bag.
She went back outside, adjusted her sunglasses again and got back in her car. She hadn’t dared to open the package inside the post office, and she had decided to take it out of town before she did.
She had also followed Diana’s advice to make use of the team. First, she sent Kayla on a grocery store run to buy some wine and steaks. Then, she activated Lynnette White and her boyfriend “Patrick Torrell,” formerly FBI Special Agent Nick Barnes whose cover had been blown. Nick was in the Witness Protection Program, and the two were living in Arizona. So she asked them to join the team that was, for the moment, based at AthenaAcademy. Lynn’s supposed father, Jonas White, had used her to steal valuable art objects, and Nick had been the AIC on the case against Jonas, going undercover as his bodyguard. Among Lynne’s special enhancements was superhacking, so Allison put her in charge of monitoring Oracle West while she, Allison, went to the mountains.
Remembering the night before when Allison had forced herself to calmly drive away from NSA HQ, she glided out of town, down the suburban streets headed for the 10, to her family’s getaway, an aerie retreat up in the mountains an hour north of Athena Academy. She would get there first, and open the can alone. If anything went wrong, it would happen well before her father and brother arrived. Then, if she was still alive, they were going to have dinner together.
She had presented the get-together to her family as her way of assuring them that she was all right. That was partially true, but the primary reason for that dinner was that she wanted to see them before things got crazy—to tie up loose ends and to say goodbye.
Just in case.
Her throat tightened. She couldn’t let them know that. They loved her; of course they’d try to stop her from putting herself in harm’s way. But she had never gotten to say goodbye to her mother. She wasn’t about to make any Gracelyn endure that again.
Soon she was out on the open road, beyond the metro area and headed up into the rugged and beautiful WhiteTankMountains. The hard granite range, rising from the desert floor to over four thousand feet, was crosshatched with ridges and canyons, caused by infrequent heavy rains. Flash floods carved out deep depressions—tanks—that filled with water. Scatters of creosote bushes and agaves dotted the landscape, and saguaro cacti raised their arms toward the winter sun.
The bag was on the passenger seat. She was itching to open it and confirm that the necklace was inside. It was, or it wasn’t. She had to stay patient. In control. Move ahead according to plan.
Her thoughts shifted to Morgan. Kim said he hadn’t surfaced at NSA, and McDonough was treating Kim like his new best friend. There was progress regarding Project Ozone. Kim’s team had translated messages indicating that the terrorist cell planning the attack was called the Circle of Justice, and they were waiting for the signal to move into place. There was also a code phrase that would abort the mission, and McDonough had put several team members including Kim on that task. But without Allison and Morgan, the team was shorthanded, and everyone was working around the clock. Tempers were growing short and people were asking pointed questions about the whereabouts of Gracelyn and Rush.
If we could access Arachne’s web, we might be able to find the code words to abort, Allison thought, as she pulled up to the beautiful old stone cabin hanging over the side of a mesa. Nestled among pines and winter wildflowers, the old aerie was a reminder of happier days, when Marion Gracelyn was alive and her busy family would meet here for a few days to unwind and enjoy each other.
She stopped the truck, turned off the engine and closed her eyes. Her ribs hurt. She didn’t want to die.
I am the center of the storm.
Then she picked up the sack and climbed down, shutting the door.
Kicking up dust, she moved past a large cluster of prickly pears and squatted down. She took the box out of the bag and pulled the box cutter she had brought out of her pocket. She sliced right through and opened it quickly. There was the paint can that looked exactly like her paint can. Her eye color: chocolate-brown. There was even the silly little cartoon horse head she had lightly drawn on the rim—an unexpected touch of whimsy from serious Allison Gracelyn. Of course, any attentive operative could have forged that, too.
She took a breath and used the other end of the box cutter to pry up the can lid.
The slanting rays of the afternoon sun burnished the gold spider as she lifted it by the chain. She gazed at it for a moment, then turned it over and flicked open the section in the thorax that cradled the flash drive.
It was there.
She pulled it out and closed her fist around it tightly. She thought she would heave a sigh of relief, and that the tension in her shoulders and neck would ease. But nothing remotely like that happened. She was as keyed-up as ever. Registering mild disappointment, she replaced the drive inside the necklace, and fastened the chain around her neck.
Then she got to her feet, retrieved the groceries from the truck, and let herself in through the back door, passing through the airy washed-wood-and-l
“We’re in business,” she said. Then she called Selena and told her the same thing.
She brought in her overnight bag, leaving her duffel bag with her body armor, satellite phone and weapons in the truck. No need to bring the war to her family.
She opened the bottle of simple red table wine Kayla had purchased for her, rinsed the dust out of a wine goblet and poured herself a glass. She sipped it as she began dinner preparations, her chief tasks being to mix a marinade for the steak and make a salad.
After the steaks were soaking, she called Lynnette on a secure cell.
“I’m here,” she said. “Anything?”
“Not yet,” Lynnette replied.
The two hung up. Allison carried her wine to the back window and stared out at the breathtaking view. After a few minutes, she realized she was bracing for something, anything, that required her immediate attention. Silence crept over her like a lightweight bedspread, and she realized with a start that Delphi had some downtime.
The steaks were soaking; so could she. She undressed as she walked toward the bathroom, boots first, then skirt, blouse and bra. She wasn’t wearing any underwear.
In no time, the whirlpool bath in the large bathroom was churning scented bubbles. She set her cell phone on the small stone table beside the tub, her one concession to her duty. After taking off her wig and pinning up her dark hair, Allison eased herself into the hot, frothy water. She had brought her wineglass with her. It occurred to her that she might have brought a magazine in with her, or even a book. The idea of having enough time to read a novel for pleasure boggled her mind. Maybe someday, after the world was finally, completely safe.
She smiled wryly to herself and sank up to her chin in bubbles, sipped wine, and luxuriated.
Morgan finished eating his greasy cheeseburger—pure heaven—and took a deliberately noisy slurp of diet soda. In their younger days, Katie had insisted that Morgan invented the “pig” in “pig out.” He put the drink cup on the nightstand of his motel room, next to his most excellent Medusa, a K-frame revolver that, due to its unique spring system, could hold and shoot different calibers in the same chambers. Morgan had fired .380 auto rounds, .38 Colts, .38 Specials, 9 mms, and .357 Magnums all from this one gun. It came in very handy when ammo stores of one caliber dwindled. The handle had been etched for him by his Pentjak Silat guru. Pentjak Silat was Morgan’s martial art, a savage tradition involving knives and backup moves for backup moves, designed for fatality and not for style. In Morgan’s world, there was no such thing as cheating in a fight. There was surviving, and dying.
He scratched his chest and took a deep breath. His room smelled like bubble-gum—cheap deodorizer—but he had smelled much worse scents. Yawning, he stretched his hand behind his head. Then he picked up his cell phone and dialed Allison.
“Yes,” she said tensely.
His brow went up. “I didn’t expect you to answer. I had a prepared message all ready.”
There was a pause. “What was it?”
“‘Allison, this is Morgan. How are you?’”
“I’m fine.” Another pause. “How are you?”
“Great. I just had a cheeseburger and now I’m going to work on the fries. Suicide by saturated fat.” Was that a chuckle?
“We’re having steak.”
We. He didn’t think he should ask who that was. It might remind her that they were actually having a pleasant conversation.
“I heard you haven’t been showing up at work,” she continued.
“How’s Kim doing?”
“Have you heard about the Circle of Justice?”
“Of course. I’m not in the office, but I’m on the job.” He was also listening to Kim Valenti’s phone conversations and monitoring her car, but he decided not to mention that.
Another pause. “What job would that be?”
“I want to help you, Allison.”
She hung up. He sighed, frustrated. Then he got up, brushed his teeth and stripped down for bed.
His phone rang. He grabbed it eagerly.
“She’s not pregnant,” Juliet informed him. “But I am.”
He smiled. “That’s great. Congratulations.”
“So we’re getting married.”
“That’s really great.”
“So maybe I will invite you.”
“I’ll bring a date,” he said.
“Don’t get her pregnant.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
He dozed off.
And he did dream of it. In his dreams, he wrapped his legs around Allison and took her, hard; then they shot bad guys; and then she died.
He bolted awake covered in sweat.
“You look tired,” Allison’s father said, after their delightful meal. She was drying the dishes and he was putting them away. David was artfully arranging some cheese and fruit on a platter, his contribution to their dinner. He’d also brought a very nice bottle of Port.
“It’s the bruising caused by her broken nose,” David said meaningfully. “Which she broke slipping on the icy walkway to her town house. Before it burned down.” He violently plucked red grapes off their stems.
This wasn’t going quite the way Allison had hoped. She picked up her glass of Port and carried it into the living room, sitting down on one of the leather couches. She had another headache. She felt foolish for the way she’d talked to Morgan. What had gotten into her?
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to push,” David said softly, holding out his fruit and cheese plate. It was beautiful. She took a grape as a peace offering. He set the plate down on the coffee table in front of her and plopped down beside her on the couch. “It’s just…I’ve lost our mother. I don’t want to lose you, too.” He sighed. “I have to check in with my office. The work of the Attorney General is never done.”
He walked off in the direction of his room. Allison watched him go, then returned to the kitchen, where her father was pretending to dry the same dish he’d been drying when she left the kitchen.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
She wondered if he’d heard the whole thing. “Yeah.”
“Then why isn’t my broken-nosed little girl smiling?”
She took a moment. This subject was hard for her to discuss. There was no part of her that wanted to cause her father distress. But in case this was the last time she saw him, she had to put this on the table.
“I want to talk about Mom,” she began.
He raised a brow and paused. Then he put down the plate and leaned against the counter, cocking his head and gazing at her.
“Something got your nose out of joint?”
She actually smiled. One of the many things she loved about her father was his quirky sense of humor. It had seen him through dark days. Add that to his idealism, and he would be okay if she died in the line of duty—if he knew why. She would have to try to make it possible for him to know. Ask one of her Oracle agents to serve as a witness to the truth, if it came to that.
Her smile faded and she took a breath.
“It’s about Eldon Waterton.” He was the senator who had been tried and convicted of Marion Gracelyn’s murder. “Dad, I don’t think he acted alone. I think there was at least one other person involved.”
He was quiet for a moment. She chewed the inside of her lip and ran a finger along a trio of waters droplets on the marble countertop. “Do you have proof?”
“Nothing conclusive. But I’ve been doing some digging. Winter found out a lot of things, but I think there’s more.”
He was silent for a time, his expression impossible to read.
Then his features softened, and he cocked his head as he looked at her, almost as if he were apologizing to her.
“Sweetheart, the jury was satisfied. We got a verdict.”
“If you can’t find something solid, you have to let it go, promise me?” His gaze was very kind. “Let her go.”
“Let her go,” he repeated. Then he pulled Allison into his arms. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done. Letting you go, letting you grow up, was the second hardest.”
“But you did. Thank you.” She nodded, and he smiled.
“It comes with the job, if it’s done right.” He folded up the dish towel and looped it around the rack on the pantry door. “Hey, let’s get your brother out here and break out the cards. I’m feeling lucky.”
Allison’s father was lucky. An hour after they had begun to play, he’d cleaned out both his children. The men both got a little drunk, but Allison stayed alert. She kissed them both good-night, and rehashed the evening as she crawled into bed. She’d done well. She’d come clean and said goodbye.
If this was the last time they saw each other, it would be a good end.
After his second vivid dream of having sex with Allison, Morgan jerked awake to hip-hop on the motel alarm clock and groaned. He showered, brushed his teeth and went on down the road to the all night mini-mart, since his motel didn’t crack open the doughnuts and coffee until 6:00 a.m., and it was only midnight. He could sleep after he died.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes