“There, there, dear Nat,” she said. “It’s going to be all right now, don’t you see?”
Natalia whispered something. Echo bent her head close to her ear.
“Thank you,” the girl said brokenly. “Oh, thank you.”
“You are very welcome. We at Arachne will do all we can to make your life splendid from now on.” She hesitated, then stroked Natalia’s hair. “But I must warn you, darling, that because we deprive the scientists of fine specimens like you, we are deeply hated. And they might try to come after you. We might be attacked.”
She sighed. “We recently freed a little girl named Cailey. She’s only five, and she doesn’t understand that we have saved her from a life of misery. She misses her parents…the ones who never kept her safe…”
“I’ll help you protect her,” Natalia promised fiercely. She pulled back and gazed into Echo’s eyes. “I’ll—I’ll hurt anyone who tries to hurt you, or anyone in Arachne.”
“Well, we certainly hope it doesn’t come to that,” Echo soothed. “We have some men coming to help us. A scientist of our own, and an Army general who could no longer stand by and watch girls like you kidnapped and studied like lab rats.” Her nose wrinkled. “Someday we’ll be free.”
“We…?” Natalia repeated slowly. Then her dark eyes got big as saucers. “Oh, my God, you’re one of us.”
“Indeed, love, I am,” Echo said nobly. “And there are people who have been after me for years. They hounded my mother, tormented her…” She swallowed her crocodile tears. “And now she is dead.”
Natalia inhaled sharply and covered her mouth with her right hand. Echo smiled in sad resignation. “So you can see why I have made it my life’s mission to find those like me and offer them sanctuary.”
“From now on, it’s mine, too,” Natalia swore.
“Oh, you’re so wonderful,” Echo stroked her. “But, Nat, you’re too young. You need to enjoy life. Leave these terrible matters to me.”
Natalia shook her head. “I’ll be part of Arachne until the day I die. I swear it.”
Echo chewed her lip, appraising Natalia, narrowing her eyes as if she needed to come to some sort of decision. “I’ve never told any of the others this,” she said. Then she shook her head. “Never mind.”
“What?” Natalia pressed. “You can tell me.”
Echo made a face. “You probably wouldn’t understand. All this is so new to you….”
Natalia lifted her chin and waited.
“Well, sometimes, if we get word where they are, we…we attack them first, before they can attack us,” Echo confessed. “Sometimes, we…we kill them.” Her voice dropped to a low, tense whisper. “Before they can kill any more of us.” She looked off into the distance, as if seeing images from the past too terrible to imagine.
“The ones we failed to protect…I’m haunted by them, Nat. Tied down in labs, screaming…one little girl, cut open from sternum to pelvis…”
Natalia looked positively green. Then she licked her lips and straightened her shoulders. “I’d be proud to fight against them.”
“Maybe someday, darling. But for now…have you ever had mango ice cream? It’s so delicious. I fancy a dish. How about you?”
“I haven’t eaten since I got here,” Natalia said. “I guess you know that.”
“I do, and I was getting a little worried, but I certainly didn’t want to add to your distress. I’ll go and dish some up myself.”
She turned to go. Natalia took a step toward her. Though she was facing away from the girl, Echo could sense the vibrations of her approach.
“My parents,” she said again.
Oh, for the love of God, drop it! Echo wanted to scream at her. Instead she turned around slowly.
“How could this happen to me, if my parents are so normal?” She looked confused, and agonized, and far less certain about what was going on than she had been even ten seconds before. Echo understood that; it had to do with redefining one’s entire reality.
“Well, here it is,” Echo said diffidently, as if the last thing on her mind was hurting this poor, sweet, innocent girl any further. “I assume you know about the facts of life.”
Natalia nodded impatiently.
“That will make this simpler, then,” Echo said. “A long time ago, some very wicked people surgically harvested eggs from women—some who knew that it was being done, and others, who had no idea—mixed them with sperm in the lab—that’s called in vitro fertilization—and created embryos.”
“Did they do that to my mother?” Natalia interrupted.
“Next, they…did things…to these embryos, and either transferred them into the uteruses of the women whose eggs they took, or into different women altogether. Sometimes without the birth mother’s knowledge, although in some cases, the women were paid to carry the baby to term. Such women are called ‘gestational surrogates.’”
Natalia’s mouth worked. Echo could have kicked herself. She was telling her way too much way too soon.
“My mother…?” she asked, agonized. “Whose sperm? Was it my father?”
“We could perform tests to determine that,” Echo said smoothly, “if we had DNA samples from all three of you. However—”
“Oh, my God! They’re not even my real parents?” Natalia wailed, horror-stricken. “They caged me like a freak! They told me if I didn’t behave they’d get rid of me!” She covered her mouth with both her hands. “That man I burned…”
“He wasn’t the first, was he,” Echo guessed. “There were a few…accidents, weren’t there? And they told you how dangerous you were. That they had to make your life a nightmare for your own good.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Natalia shrieked, bursting into flames again. And right on time, Echo’s defense system protected her, forming a shield that deflected Natalia’s fiery outburst back at her.
This could get tedious, she thought.
By the time Katie drove Morgan’s van over to AthenaAcademy, Christine had been alerted to incoming, wounded and otherwise, and alerted the infirmary. Allison was seriously considering diverting the entire company to her family hideaway, except that her group needed a chance to regain composure after the battle…and she needed to check in with Oracle West as soon as possible. Lynnette had called with very bad news while Allison was sitting across from Morgan in the van.
At the exact same time that Jeremy Loschetter had been grabbed, a second flank broke Eric Pace out of a private military prison near Bethesda. The attackers had superior firepower, and a significant number of the guard had laid down their weapons and joined the opposing side—obviously they’d been bought, and the operation had been planned for a long time. The general in charge of the brig had been put on administrative leave, his career essentially over.
It had to be Echo, she thought. I should have seen that one coming, made the obvious connection….
“We’ll get out of here as soon as possible,” Allison assured Christine, as she oversaw a few stitches in Chesca Thorne’s arm. The infirmary smelled of alcohol swabs, sweat and blood. It was a miracle that they had sustained no serious injuries, much less fatalities.
Lucy joined them. She had stayed behind to watch over the students, assisted by Kayla and additional police officers.
The three women observed Dr. Singh in action. “Does this have to do with the egg baby abductions?” Christine asked.
Allison nodded. “Very much so. A group of us had possession of Jeremy Loschetter, Christine.” Christine paled. “We lost him. I think the person who took him is the same person stealing egg babies.”
“‘Possession of Loschetter,’” Christine echoed. “It was off the books?”
“Way off,” Allison concurred. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want any of this to happen anywhere near AthenaAcademy.”
“I don’t see how it can be helped.” Christine looked at Allison full-on, her blind left eye not tracking, her right one red with tiredness. “I’m trying to decide if having you stay here would serve
“I have the same dilemma,” Allison said.
“As I do,” Lucy added. She raised her chin a notch. “My detail is AthenaAcademy. I’m not thinking past that.”
“Understood,” Allison said.
Kayla Ryan approached with Jazz in tow. Allison was startled to see what a mature young woman Jazz had become.
“I could talk to the tribal elders about having you stay on the res,” Kayla ventured.
“No, Kayla, but thanks,” Allison said. Kayla didn’t know the full extent of what was going on, and Allison wanted to keep her out of it. She wasn’t Oracle and she had enough to deal with as it was, maintaining the security of AthenaAcademy and the outlying town as well.
Katie and her brother appeared at the opposite end of the hall. A blanket had been slung over Morgan’s shoulders, concealing his handcuffs.
“Morgan?” Christine asked, startled. She looked from the Rush siblings to Allison and back again.
“Christine, I need a couple days to pull some things together, and then I’m getting my people out of here,” Allison finally decided. If Morgan pulled any crap—called in friends, say—she definitely didn’t want it happening here. “Three or four of us will stay behind to guard the school,” she added. “I’ll make myself useful and then I’ll probably move off, too. Lucy will stay as head of security. If that meets with your approval.” She took a breath. “Nothing in me wants to bring the battle to you, but I want to ensure the safety of AthenaAcademy as well.”
“Thank you, Allison,” Christine said. “I trust your judgment.”
“Same here,” Kayla added.
“We’ll wipe the floor with anybody who messes with us, right, Jazz?” Lucy asked. She smiled at Jazz. Jazz smiled back, a little tentatively, but it was there.
It was settled, then.
“Let’s debrief your brother,” Allison said to Katie. To Lucy, “I’ll give you any pertinent data later.”
“Got your back, always,” Lucy replied.
Together, Allison and Katie escorted Morgan to her bungalow, rapping once to give Lynnette warning, if she was still deep into the works of Oracle West.
“A moment, please,” Lynnette called out. “Okay.”
Allison opened the door and led the way in. Upon seeing Morgan in custody, Lynnette’s green-gold eyes flickered with interest. Lynnette was NSA like Morgan and Allison, but she wasn’t on Ozone. She had probably seen Morgan around, without parsing that she would ever see him out of the office.
“Do we need to speak in private first?” Allison asked her.
“No.” Lynnette scooted back from the desk. “I’ll check in with you later.”
“Thanks,” Allison said.
Lynnette walked past Morgan, eyeing him with frank curiosity, and left the room.
He sat down with the fluid grace of a martial artist, gazing around the room until his eyes rested on her once again.
“No pictures in here of Gordita,” he ventured.
“Stop trying to bait her,” Katie said angrily. “You have no idea who you’re messing with.”
“Oh, I do. I know exactly who I’m messing with.” He looked hard at Allison. “The right hand of Delphi.”
The room went dead silent.
“Katie, can you go get us something to eat?” Allison asked steadily.
Katie looked from her brother to Allison and back again. Then she strode out of the room and shut the door hard.
“What do you know about Delphi?” Allison asked him.
“Nothing, really. By the way, my cell phone went off about ten seconds ago,” he added. “It might be important.”
“I’m not uncuffing you yet.” She perched painfully on the edge of her desk, invading his personal space. It was an old interrogator’s trick, one he surely knew.
“You have a lot of knives in your duffel bag,” she said. “Very exotic, strangely shaped—”
“Pentjak Silat,” he said. “We use blades. I just got a second call.”
“Stand up,” she told him.
He did so, understanding dawning across his features. “Front right pocket,” he informed her.
“Don’t try anything. You know I’m injured but you should also know that sending Katie for food was our code to surround this bungalow. Lucy’s probably got a laser trained between your eyes by now.”
Then she slipped her hand into his pocket. The turgid heat of his sex gave her pause. He was turned on. She wondered if he knew that she was, too. Despite her anxiety—or maybe because of it. Maybe this was some kind of instinctual survival mechanism—mate and reproduce before you die.
She studied the veins in his powerful hands bound in front of his bulging jeans and imagined what it must be like to go to bed with a fellow warrior. She hadn’t had sex in…was it years?
“Could it be McDonough? Are you still working for him?” she asked him, as her fingers found the warm metal of his cell. It was still vibrating.
“Not since your house blew up.” He pulled a sad face. “A real shame, Allison. You had some nice things. Big vase.”
“One of my parents’ wedding presents.” She snaked the phone out of his pocket.
“Damn,” he said softly. “Well, it saved my life.”
Then it served its purpose, she thought and she was surprised at her rush of passion. In her mind’s eye, she saw the body bag wheeled out of her house again.
“Please, uncuff me,” he said. “Allison, I won’t jump you.”
Setting down his phone, she crossed back to his duffel bag and showed him one of his exotic razor-sharp knives. He nodded. She returned to face him, placing her hand over his to steady herself. She smelled sweat and coffee; she felt his heat. She was trembling from head to toe.
He stared into her eyes. He didn’t say a word.
She cut him free. He didn’t move. Neither did she. The hairs on his arms brushed her knuckles as he rubbed his wrists to work up his circulation.
She handed him the phone. He keyed into his voice mail and listened. She didn’t move away. She didn’t respect his privacy.
He looked ashen as he closed the phone and put it away.
“That was Davidson.” He was Morgan’s junior staffer on the Ozone team. “Circle of Justice just got orders to proceed to Step Two,” he said. A beat. “We have no idea what Step Two is.”
He looked so worried and thwarted that there and then she made her decision to bring him on board. Maybe she should have checked in with someone…but there really was no one to check in with. There was no board of directors or advisors. Allison was the beginning and the end of the discussion.
“Oracle,” she began. She moved away from him. She didn’t want her sexual interest in him to affect how she was going to do this. “It’s better than Echelon. It gathers intel from any agency you can name and it gives it to us.”
He raised a brow and whistled. “Who created it?”
“Delphi.” She kept the pride out of her voice.
“And you work for Delphi.”
“Yes,” she said without hesitating.
“Do you trust him? Delphi?”
“Yes.” She turned around and looked hard at him. “With my life. With the lives of Oracle’s operatives.”
“Are they all Athena alums?”
“I don’t think you need to know that, but if you’re asking about Katie, the answer is yes, she’s one of us.”
“I knew it. That little brat.” He smiled ruefully and shook his head. There were crease lines around his deep blue eyes, which were heavily lidded, very bedroom, very…distracting.
“What about your life?” she asked him.
His smile faded and he looked very serious. Dangerous.
“I’m in real deep, and it’s a lot of stuff no one wants to hear about, not even the people who send me out. It’s DOD—Department of Defense—and a lot of it is wet, and dirty.”
“You’ve had a lot going on. Does Delphi know you’re working on Ozone?”
“Yes,” she said. “I didn’t breach confidentiality, if that’s what you’re asking. I didn’t have to.”
His full, sensuous lips parted. “Holy shit, are you telling me Valenti is Delphi?”
“No, I’m not.” They were still playing cat and mouse. Maybe it was reflexive. Maybe they’d never be able to stop.
He cocked his head. “Did you know she told me you were pregnant?”
Flushing a little, Allison closed her eyes and shook her head. “We worked it out together. We figured with all that testosterone floating around, you guys wouldn’t be sure. She said you didn’t take it well.”
“I asked a friend to run a pregnancy test on the A-neg I swiped up in that alley.” He licked his lips. “Do you have any water?”
“Would you prefer a beer?” She crossed to the postage-stamp-size kitchen and opened the fridge. She grabbed two bottles of Dos Equis, two shot glasses and a nearly full bottle of tequila. She opened both of them while Morgan poured two shots of tequila and slid one over toward her.
She picked up her shot and her beer and held it up in a salute. They both threw back their shots and chased them with the Mexican beer. She let the liquor blaze down her throat and settle out her jangled nervous system.
“The call I got in your van was about Eric Pace. He just got busted out of prison,” she said. “He’s—”
“I know who he is,” he said, looking shaken. “Who did it? And why?”
“We think it’s the same person who snatched Loschetter.”
“Spider files,” he ventured.
“Spider files. Egg babies.”
Then she remembered the downloads he had mentioned.
“Do you have that e-mail off my home system?”
With her nonverbal permission, he walked over to his duffel bag and fished out the drive. He handed it to her; she sat down at her desktop and plugged it in.
“It’s spoofed six ways to Sunday. I assume it came from Delphi?” Morgan asked.
“Don’t know yet,” she said, although the answer was no.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes