“My clothes are in a duffel in the truck,” Allison replied. She turned her attention to Morgan. “We’ll be riding in your van. But you won’t be driving it.”
He nodded. “Can I put my hands down?”
“Sure. After your sister cuffs you.” Allison held out a pair of plastic cuffs that she’d no doubt also lifted from his duffel bag.
“Allison, this is…” He exhaled. He’d like to say it was crazy, but he completely understood her caution. “Okay,” he said. “Want my hands behind or in front?”
“In front, where I can see them,” Allison said.
“Put ’em down,” Katie ordered him. As Morgan complied, Allison raised the Uzi and pointed it at him. He wondered if she would really use it on him. As Katie circled around and put the cuffs on, he gazed steadily at Allison. Despite the circumstances, he was very glad to see her.
“Heard anything from the office?” he asked her.
She moved to the left, keeping Katie out of her immediate kill range, and him in. “Have you?”
“Just from Valenti. I figure you’ve heard the same.”
That it’s bad. That we don’t know where they’re going to strike or when. That we don’t know who, why.
Katie threaded the strips of plastic around his wrists and pulled tight. The plastic cut into his skin but he didn’t complain. Big brother, little sister; complaining was probably what she wanted him to do, so he wouldn’t.
“He’s good and hog-tied,” Katie said, then glared up through her lashes at Morgan as if to warn him against saying a word.
Allison stood down, easing the Uzi back around her neck. Without a word, she walked past him with a soldier’s strut, acting as if it didn’t bother her in the least that he could practically see her naked. Maybe it didn’t. He liked that. It was sexy.
About ten minutes later, Allison returned to the van dressed in a black mesh long-sleeved top with multiple pockets, olive-green cammy pants and flipflops. She was braless because it hurt too much to put a bra on. The desert air was cold, not chilly, and she knew the outline of her nipples was visible. She didn’t have time to care. She had given in to vanity and pulled her hair up and away with a ponytail holder, but that was it.
Allison had just hung up from talking to her brother, David, who had many choice words for her regarding her safety, and was willing to hear very few about why she had taken off with no warning in the middle of the night.
She put the phone in the pocket of her pants, so it would be accessible, and nodded at Katie, whom she had chosen to drive the van. If it was booby-trapped, she figured Morgan might be slightly less likely to allow his own sister to be blown up.
“Okay, let’s go,” she said, climbing into the back. Morgan was propped up against the panel behind the driver’s seat, and Allison waited for Chesca to pull the door shut, then sat with her back to it. She kept the Uzi around her neck and showed Morgan her big, fat revolver.
“A .357 Mangle’em,” he said. “Deep penetration.”
“I’m beginning to think your sister’s right about you.”
“I chatter when I get nervous.”
“The key-lock safety is on,” she promised. “I figured if I accidentally shot you, I would never find out why you’re dogging me.”
Katie started the van and rolled away. Morgan closed his eyes wearily. Allison—an Allison he never knew before, kung-fu-fightin’ hand-grenade-launchin’ Allison—was safe. Katie was safe. If Allison did shoot him, he could die satisfied, if not exactly happy.
God, he was tired, down past his flesh and into his soul. And yet, if he let his mind wander back to the images of Allison silhouetted against the firefight, he woke right up.
Allison’s cell phone trilled. Morgan opened his eyes to see her large, dark brown eyes widen as she took the call. She listened in silence, and then she went white, disconnected and put the phone away. She didn’t say a word, but he knew she had just received some devastating news. He wondered if it had anything to do with the mission.
Which mission? he wondered. What’s she doing?
“You got some e-mail while I was in your town house,” he said, hoping to rattle her a little and shake loose what the call had been about. “I downloaded it.”
For a moment he thought she hadn’t heard him. Then she bobbed her head once. She looked tired, and hurt, and scared. And he had no doubt that if he tried to reach out and comfort her, she’d clock him over the head with her weapon.
So he sat facing her and didn’t say another word.
“Hurry,” she said loudly to Katie.
Echo’s island in Micronesia
“T arget acquired,” Schroeder informed Echo, his voice a soft purr in her beautiful diamond earring.
“Show me,” Echo said, moving to the view screen in her bathroom. This time there was no one in her bed except her adored Persian cat, Ming, speaking of merciless. Echo stood naked, her toes digging into the soft circular rug on the marble floor and cocked her head expectantly, anticipating a much more luxurious visual than men with Uzis crammed into a van. What she expected was more along the lines of a glossy ad for a travel magazine: Champagne, caviar and a sexy flight attendant bending over from the waist.
Yes, there it all was, in the interior of one of her private jets. And there he was. Eric Pace’s smiling, jowled face appeared on screen as Schroeder looped an earpiece behind Pace’s left ear. The disgraced military man looked older than the photos in her dossier, which included his mug shots upon his arrest. He had certainly gotten fatter since his incarceration. She understood that American prison food was high in carbs and low in nutrition. You are hereby sentenced to twenty years of macaroni and cheese.
“Greetings, General Pace,” Echo said.
“Madame Echo, I presume?” he said, touching the earpiece and smiling into the camera Schroeder or one of his lackeys was holding. Pace couldn’t see her. The visual was not two-way.
She liked her privacy.
“Yes, General Pace. I understand your rescue went remarkably well.”
He took a sip of champagne. “Well, there were a couple of hitches in the operation, but your people are good at what they do.”
Hitches? Schroeder had mentioned nothing like that.
“As are yours.” She understood that many tens of thousands of dollars had traded hands within the last week—guards paid to look the other way. Still, it always surprised her that people could throw away their lives so cheaply.
“How many girls have you been able to acquire?” he asked her.
“Thirteen.” She couldn’t keep the pride out of her voice. “The firestarter is my absolute favorite. I’m going to legally adopt her.” Of course she would do no such thing, but it sounded good.
He chuckled. “I’m looking forward to meeting them all. How’s the lab?”
“If you thought Lab 33 was a cutting-edge bastion of high technology and superhard science, you’ll find my lab shatteringly brilliant,” she crowed. “Everything is so shiny and new. I can’t wait to see Jeremy Loschetter’s reaction.”
The general raised a saggy eyebrow. He was disgustingly flabby. She’d like to carve the rolls of fat right off him. “Oh? So you’ve already broken him out?”
“An hour ago. I’m just full of happy surprises today. He’s on his way, just like you.”
“That is outstanding,” he said, beaming at her. “We can get right to work.”
“Yes. But for now, relax and make yourself comfortable. You’ve had quite an ordeal. We’ll see each other soon.”
The camera went off. After a full minute, Schroeder’s voice returned to her earring. “I’m piloting,” he said. “We had heavy casualties. Apparently not all the guards Pace thought he had bought came through.”
“I hope some of them died, then,” she said, feigning a moment of respectful silence for her cannon fodder. It would be bad for morale if her men knew that all she cared about was the cost of replacing them. When one was involved
“Yes, indeed,” Schroeder said offhandedly. “We gave ugly deaths where and when we could. ETA in twenty hours tops.”
“Good.” She smiled. Schroeder would pay for not filling her in immediately about the “hitches.” She wasn’t sure she should kill him but maybe she could give him a good healthy dose of food poisoning.
Since she was already up, she walked back into her room, buzzed a houseboy to start her bath and began the process of selecting an outfit for her morning meeting with Natalia LeClaire. Eventually she decided on a soft white silk blouse, a pair of raw silk capris and sandals—elegant but casual, decidedly not dragon lady. She would leave that to her dead half sister, Kwan-Sook.
She went into the Spider Room to show her mother.
In the forty-eight hours since her arrival, Natalia hadn’t eaten a thing, which meant that she hadn’t ingested the dosage of anxiety-reducing Xanax Echo’s physician had prescribed for her. Since it wasn’t water soluble, Echo couldn’t fool her into taking it with her bottled water, which was the only food or drink she’d had since she’d arrived.
So maybe it was time for some talk therapy.
She nodded to the guards in the hall, both of whom looked amazed that she was walking into Natalia’s cell supposedly unarmed. She didn’t advertise her special gifts to her employees. With a swipe of her palm and a retinal scan, the lock clicked on the meter-thick door and she pushed the door open.
“Hello, Nat,” she said, having read from the FBI FD-302 that her parents always referred to her as Natalia. They had been described as cold and detached, distinctly lacking in interest regarding their daughter’s abduction. They should have had the good sense to at least fake some interest….
Natalia had pushed herself up against the back corner of the cell, rather like an octopus denied a place to withdraw in an aquarium. Her head was on her knees and she was wearing the dark blue pajama bottoms, tank top and sandals Echo had set inside her door on her last visit. The dear thing kept burning up her clothes.
“Do you feel better today?” she asked Natalia, which was a question designed to throw her off. Echo had visited her only three hours ago.
“How—how long have I been here?” Natalia asked. Echo felt a bit of triumph.
“It’s been a while,” Echo said, crossing her ankles and lowering herself gracefully to the floor.
“Are my parents—do they know…” Natalia trailed off, almost as if she didn’t want to know.
“Nat.” Echo pushed out her creamy, sun bronzed lower lip. “Hasn’t anyone told you? I asked someone to break it to you gently.” She took a deep breath. “We’re an organization dedicated to the location and rescue of young people such as yourself. We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Echo wrinkled her forehead and caught her bottom lip between perfect white teeth. “We wouldn’t have intruded on your life in a thousand years if you’d been happy. Safe.” She let the words sink in.
Natalia laughed bitterly. “Right. And I’m so much happier in this cell. At least at home, I had my stuff.”
“You wouldn’t have for long, my dear pet,” Echo said. “We were monitoring your parents’ e-mails. I don’t know how to tell you this, but…your parents…” She looked down at her hands. “Well…”
“What? What happened to my parents?” Natalia demanded, her delicately shaped eyebrows shooting toward the ceiling. Echo could actually feel Natalia’s increased body heat wafting toward her.
My, Red Riding Hood, what warm vibrations you give off.
“Nothing happened to them, darling. They’re fine. Just fine.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
Echo feigned great sorrow. “Well, as I say, we were monitoring their e-mails, and they’d been in contact with a number of…scientific organizations, shall we say. They had come to the conclusion that they could no longer care for you properly, and they were trying to figure out the most suitable…arrangements for you. They were very careful to limit the nature of the experiments that would be conducted on you—they didn’t want you harmed—”
“What?” Natalia cried.
Echo went on. “You see, dear, quite frankly, your parents had a number of crushing debts after your father’s ‘accident’ when the house caught on fire eleven years ago. I imagine that was before they put you in the cell.”
Natalia’s face glowed crimson. Her eyes darted left, right. She began to breathe hard. “You mean my parents were going to sell me?”
“No, no, darling,” Echo said with a sincerity calculated to sound very false. “They knew they couldn’t provide a decent environment for you. Constantly drugged, buried in a basement cell while other girls your age went to school, had dates…” She shook her head. “They were growing desperate.”
“And so you bought me from them?” Smoke rose like a tendril of hair from the top of her head. Echo was dying to know why her hair didn’t burn away when she turned into a human torch. She supposed it was the same reason Lilith didn’t poison herself when she sucked on her thumb as a baby.
“No, as I said, we rescued you. We’ve rescued over a dozen special girls. We want to keep you free from government studies. If we can find a cure, that would be nice, but that’s not our aim here. We simply want you to be able to be yourself for the first time in your life. No one has ever made you safe, have they?”
Natalia turned her face to the wall. She had such a beautiful profile. A tear slid down her cheek and Echo fought off a smile. Tears were usually a way in.
The tear sizzled and became a wisp of steam.
“I killed a man when you came for me,” Natalia said. “I—I got scared.”
“His death was a tragedy, but no one blames you, dear. As members of ‘Arachne,’ we’re prepared to make sacrifices,” Echo assured. “We’re on a mission to keep all of you safe.”
More smoke rose off the girl’s skin as she gazed back at Echo. “My parents were going to sell me for medical experiments, and you…you…” She burst into tears. They evaporated on her cheeks.
“They were frightened, desperate. Did you know your mother was pregnant?”
Natalia made choked, terrified noises in the back of her throat as she scrabbled backward, as if Echo were some kind of actual monster that was physically threatening her. Teenage girls were so emotional. “Get away from me!” She threw back her head and screamed. “Oh, no. No! Get out of here! It’s going to happen!”
“Go ahead, Natalia. Burn,” Echo urged her, holding her hands below her chin and unfurling her fingers. “You won’t be able to hurt me.”
“No! I kill people!” Natalia leaped away from her, slamming into the cell wall. “I—I killed that man.” She sobbed hysterically. “I saw his face. He was…it melted and his skin peeled back. He was screaming. And his eyes…oh God, God! Get out of here!”
And then Natalia exploded into flame. Fire spouted from her like pinwheels and comets; it was spectacular. Any other person would have been incinerated in a matter of seconds—like Jones or Jackson, whatever his name was.
But not Echo. For at the precise instant that Natalia’s biologically heightened survival sense triggered her gift, Echo’s was activated as well. In her case, a pulse of energy created a protective field around her, effectively deflecting anything thrown at her, from bullets to firebombs to flames. It was a sci-fi geek’s dream come true—danger told her body, “Shields up!” and she was, to all extents and purposes, invincible. The tongues of fire lapped at her, then bent back at sharp angles toward Natalia herself.
Natalia, however, wasn’t seeing that. She was flailing in the center of a firestorm, shrieking unintelligibly, in an agony that she was immolating another human being. Echo let her carry on for at least a minute; then she cupped her hands around her mouth.
“Nat!” she be
Natalia blazed away, wild and out of control. Then abruptly, as if someone had thrown a switch, she fell to her knees, gasping and naked, and the fire immediately vanished. She didn’t have a mark on her. And neither did Echo.
“Nat,” Echo said. “Look at me.”
Natalia’s head jerked up. Her mouth dropped open and she stayed that way for at least ten seconds, frozen in disbelief.
Echo opened her arms. “You see, darling? You can’t hurt me.”
Natalia stared at her. Slowly she got to her feet, swaying, her mouth working but no sound coming out. Echo twirled in a circle, much as she had done when she’d shown off her party dress to the twins.
“I’m completely fine,” she said. She took a step toward Natalia. “I’m the one person in the world you can never hurt.”
“Oh.” Natalia’s reaction was almost comical. Echo had never seen anyone quite so unnerved—except her sister Lilith, perhaps, when she, Echo, had shown up in India to take her spider necklace.
The necklace that her sister and Allison Gracelyn’s stupid little spygirl had stolen from her at the airport.
I should like to see Natalia reduce both of them to cinders one day. Soon.
“Oh!” Natalia cried again, staggering toward Echo. “You’re all right. You’re…you’re…can I…?”
With a sob, she sank into Echo’s embrace. Echo didn’t flinch, but the truth was, she hated being touched, unless it was during sex. Her skin was crawling even now, as she wrapped her arms around the overwhelmed girl and rocked her gently.
“We can be friends, real friends,” she told Natalia, feeding the girl, who was clearly starved for affection. “You’ll never have to worry about losing your temper, or being upset, because you can’t hurt me. For the first time in your life, you can think about yourself.” Actually she doubted Natalia had ever stopped thinking about herself—monitoring herself and suppressing her emotions so that she wouldn’t start a fire.
The girl sobbed quietly against Echo’s chest and Echo held her, even though, frankly, she would rather have held a boa constrictor.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes