Maybe that was because all Morgan’s ops were sharply defined by two requirements from which he never deviated: a definition of the purpose of the mission, and an exit strategy. At every point, if a wrench got thrown into their goal or their way out, Morgan called a halt. He either shut down the mission or called time out while he redesigned the series of steps most likely to get the job done and send his people home alive and intact.
He didn’t know if that was how Allison worked. Her mission was still a mystery to him, her end game unknown. And as for her people coming back alive, he had seen firsthand how intensely loyal they were to her. He could imagine someone taking a bullet for her, out of a deep and abiding sense that her survival was more important than their own.
So they have to know she’s Delphi, even if they don’t admit it.
Six hours became nine.
It wasn’t unheard of for one of his people to disobey an order to wake him up when he or she thought Morgan needed more rest. But the bottom line was that when they risked his wrath for disobeying orders, it was not so much out of personal concern for him, but so that their CO wouldn’t be fatigued and therefore, jeopardize the mission. But since he didn’t know what the mission was, he had no way to support it beyond supporting Allison.
Or was it something else? Something deeper?
The colors of the awakening desert glowed down on Morgan’s face like a soft blanket, and he yawned. He turned around to go back in through the kitchen when Allison appeared in the doorway. She was wearing her cammies and a maroon T-shirt with the NSA logo in a circle on a breast pocket. Her hair was wet.
“Good morning,” she said. She didn’t chastise him for letting her sleep, and she had taken a shower.
He unhung the Uzi from around his neck and handed it over. Their fingers brushed. His gaze dipped from her face to her chest. He couldn’t help it; he was a man. She was an uncanny combination of athleticism and soft beauty, and he wanted to take all her clothes off then and there, ease her down on the soft wool carpet and lose himself inside her.
But he made no move to act on his urges. He brushed past her without saying a word.
He went into the bathroom, still steamy from her shower. He smelled spicy soap and shampoo. Stripping quickly, he turned on the water and stepped into the tub, sliding the glass door shut. The water was hot, and he adjusted the shower head, hard. A sigh of pleasure escaped him as his tired muscles uncoiled.
He soaped and washed his hair. Grabbing a fresh towel, he dried off and wrapped it around his waist. Then he padded down the hall to the room she had assigned him.
He cocked his head and slowly smiled as he observed the rumpled condition of his bed. Allison had slept in here, not in her own room. He doubted she had been waiting for him—she was a professional soldier, and she wouldn’t have wanted him to compromise their safety—but maybe what she was saying was, “If I could, I would.” He didn’t know, but it was mind-bendingly sexy.
Even sexier was the scent of her on his sheets as he took the towel from around his waist and hung it on the doorknob. He laid his clothes on top of a bureau and slipped between the sheets, which still retained traces of her body heat.
He was hard by the time he had pulled the bedclothes back up underneath his armpits and turned on his side to face the door.
When this was over, he was finishing what she’d started….
But not now. Now, he had to force himself to stand down; to relax and go to sleep. A tall order, but Morgan was exhausted; and after a while, after he was used to the smell of her and an almost atavistic reaction to the idea that he was lying exactly where she had lain, he closed his eyes and drifted.
An unnamed island in Micronesia
Since the acquisition of her most recent set of egg babies, Echo had discovered something very important: She wasn’t cut out for motherhood. Children disgusted her. They were messy, noisy, demanding and unpredictable; and as for reasoning with them…better to collect their eggs and be done with it. Some of them might make useful additions to Team Echo, but she was highly doubtful. One thing she was sure of: She would render any girl she auctioned off infertile before she handed her over to the highest bidder.
“Try again, Cailey,” Echo said between her teeth, as the little girl with caramel-colored hair and huge blue eyes burst into fresh tears. Echo had no idea why she hadn’t simply shriveled up from dehydration. All the girl did was cry.
“I want my mommy!” Cailey shrieked, pulling at her restraints. She’d been strapped into a dentist chair only as a last resort. Her little fingernails and toenails were painted with sparkly pink polish. She was wearing a thin blue hospital gown and the halo of an EEG machine encircled her head. Eric Pace and Jeremy Loschetter huddled together on the other side of a thick panel of glass, poring over Cailey’s readouts.
“I want to go home!” Cailey screamed. She threw back her head. “Mommymommymommymommy!”
God, this is tedious.
“You did such a good job helping us rescue Dr. Loschetter,” Echo cooed. The girl had the most amazing eyesight. She had actually detected indentations in the ground, indicating the tunnel. The twins had confirmed it, of course, reading the minds of the little spygirls hidden inside.
“There was shooting! I hate you!”
Echo took a deep breath, sliding her glance toward Natalia, who had crossed her arms over her chest and stood hunched and frightened.
Echo turned around and raised a brow at Jeremy Loschetter. “Well?” she mouthed.
His goatee looked so idiotic. It was difficult to take him seriously, except for the fact that she knew he was one of the most brilliant scientists alive.
“Her corneas seem to be made of a different sort of material,” he informed her through a microphone. “Organic, but the structures…I suggest we consider taking a sample.”
“Of her eye?” Natalia asked in a high-pitched voice.
“Of course not, Nat. They need to collect some of her tears. She has rather a lot of them to spare,” Echo said, as she forced herself to move forward and stroke Cailey’s arm. The little girl thrashed and cried as if a snake had bitten her. Perhaps she had some kind of sensitivity to touch.
Or perhaps she simply didn’t like Echo.
The feeling is mutual, you little bitch.
Natalia shifted uncomfortably beside Echo. Echo turned to her, pulling a sad face. “Nat, this is upsetting you.” She forced herself to trail her fingernails beneath Natalia’s chin and smile kindly at her, even though she would really like to dig those nails straight through her jaw and yank out her tongue. “We’re only doing this because something seems to be wrong with her. You saw that seizure.”
A seizure Loschetter had accidentally caused by anesthetizing Cailey’s eyes with something she was allergic to, idiot.
The firestarter sighed heavily and nodded. It was such bad timing that Natalia had been out on a walk with Echo, heard the little girl’s cries and would not be placated until she was allowed to see what was going on.
The little girl—Cailey—jerked her gaze to Natalia and fought against the restraints around her delicate wrists.
“Help me!” Cailey shrieked. “These are bad people! Get my mommy! Get her now! I want Clown Bear! I want Mommy!”
“It’s going to be okay,” Natalia told her, taking Cailey’s hand and stroking her forehead. “My name is Nat, and I live here. Echo is our friend. The bad people are out there. They want to study us…” She trailed off, staring at the halo around Cailey’s head. Echo followed her train of thought to its logical conclusion: Cailey was being studied.
“Studied by people who want to harm you,” Echo said quickly. “But we’re Arachne. We’re the good guys. Cailey, dear, we only want to know why you started shaking. We want to see if something is wrong with you.”
“Call my mommy,” Cailey begged. “Tell her where I am. She’ll come and get me. Oh, please, lady, please, please, please! I helped you get the doctor! Please let me go home!”
Natalia whimpered. Echo smelled smoke. Now she was getting more upset. As her face began to redden, she let go of Cailey’s hand and turned to Echo.
“I need to get out of here,” she said urgently.
“Of course, darling,” Echo replied, lacing her fingers through Natalia’s and turning her back to Cailey.
“Stop them!” Cailey screamed at Natalia. “They’re hurting me! Get my mommy!”
“Oh God,” Natalia whispered. “Oh, Echo…”
“She’ll understand one day,” Echo whispered, giving her hand a squeeze. With any luck, she might break Natalia’s fingers. “And she’ll thank us.”
Natalia nodded and allowed herself to be led out of the room, slinking past Loschetter and Pace. Both of them looked at Natalia like vultures swooping down on a dead zebra, then surreptitiously at Echo. They hadn’t missed a beat setting up shop and getting to work. Echo applauded their dedication, and she would do all she could to support it. In fact, she had some tranquilizers in the pocket of the wonderful taupe linen jacket she was wearing, which she planned to put into Natalia’s lunch. She had gotten the girl to begin eating again. It turned out that she was fond of sweet and sour chicken.
Once Natalia was unconscious, they’d run a few preliminary tests in advance of beginning the drug therapy that would allow them to harvest her eggs. Echo already had three advance orders for firestarters—one from Vlados Zelasco; one from the Circle of Justice; and one from a Chinese billionaire who preferred to be known as “Goldeneye.”
Echo felt chills at the thought of how much money she would make—and how very deeply in her personal debt the three would find themselves. And of course, Natalia would have no idea any of it had been done.
As if in response, Natalia’s flesh sizzled. A mousy little lab tech—some local woman Loschetter had hired—gave her wide berth as she dashed toward Cailey’s examining room.
“Hurry,” Natalia whispered urgently to Echo, as more smoke rose off her skin. “It’s going to happen soon.”
Yes, Echo thought. It is.
The Gracelyn hideaway, Arizona
A week became two.
Courtesy of the many Oracle agents in the field, Lynnette hauled powerful computer desktops and dupes of proprietary software and applications to Allison for configuring a desktop system to augment her Oracle laptop, so that she could work side by side on several tasks at once. Lynnette lent remote assistance at Oracle West, and Selena and Kim worked from Oracle HQ.
Faced with the need for more manpower, she brought Morgan in deeper. She explained Echo’s shielding system to him, and he continued searching for an offensive weapon against it. They worked on strategy and tactics for any number of direct assaults on Echo, should they ever locate her. They had three objectives: to contain Echo herself; to rescue the egg babies; and to locate and take possession of “two” items of interest.
“Those two items have to be those necklaces,” Morgan said. Allison did not reply, irritating him, she knew. She kept her own spider pendant around her neck, never showing it to him. What she could and couldn’t tell him was becoming too complicated, and they both knew that.
She let him see some of the items Oracle brought to her attention. He was amazed by the sheer scope and power of the intelligence-gathering system, and incredulous that Oracle’s creator had penetrated the firewalls of so many agencies.
“Delphi is a beautiful genius,” he declared. She did not respond.
For Morgan’s part, his analytical skills were uncanny, his ability to focus impressive. He gave a hundred and ten percent day after day, for a week, and then two.
“Valenti says Ozone’s looking at New Year’s Eve as the event horizon,” he told her, absently stretching as he sat at the desk. “There’s a tremendous amount of encrypted chatter coming out of Berzhaan. And by the way, we’ve been fired and the CIA’s looking for us. Probably a hell of a lot of other people are looking for us, too.”
Allison wondered if they could be considered to be living together. They ate most of their meals together. They jogged in the cold winter mornings and worked together. Clothes Lynnette ordered off the Internet for him hung in the closet. But in the final analysis, they were not together. They were separated by secrets and suspicions. She sent him out of the house when she needed to conduct top-secret business, or take calls with her voice modulator strapped to her phone. Maybe it was a waste of time. She didn’t know. She just planted one foot in front of the other, and stayed on course as best she could.
The nights were hard. They were awkward. She could feel his lust, and her own, as they went to their separate rooms. Never again did she sleep in his bed, and she was sorry she’d done it. If she could have foreseen that they’d be working together this long, she wouldn’t have.
On the first morning of the third week, Morgan came out onto the back porch of the house, as she went through her martial arts forms, staying in shape, preparing, honing. She was waiting for Lynnette to arrive with their mail.
“McDonough’s body has been found floating in the Potomac,” he announced, waving a printout. “They’re blaming the explosion of your town house on him. They’ve found a diary that proves he was obsessed with you.”
“Manufactured by his handlers, no doubt,” she said, remembering that he had mentioned an ex-wife a few times, and his daughter, Alyssa, in college. “Did it implicate you?”
“It wasn’t in the file,” he said. “Also, Elle Petrenko checked in. She’s dogging Monya Kishinev. I wonder if Wrobleski’s floating facedown somewhere.”
She wondered if Wrobleski had family, too. She smoothed back her hair from her sweaty forehead. There was so much to keep track of.
“I think I may have something that will work on Echo,” he continued. A soft ping came from inside the house. Oracle. “Back to work.”
“Thanks,” she told his back as he went inside.
Lynnette arrived about forty-five minutes later in a nondescript blue sedan. She changed cars frequently in case she was being watched. Unfortunately there weren’t many routes to the Gracelyn hideaway, but she dry cleaned as best she could.
“FBI came with a warrant to search the academy again,” she announced, as the two women greeted each other. “They didn’t find a thing.”
Allison sighed. “Thanks. Please tell Christine how sorry I am to put her in this position.”
“I did, and she knows. And your movie rentals came.” She handed Allison two familiar-looking small red envelopes. “And…this.”
She held out a letter addressed to Allison Gracelyn care of the AthenaSchool for Girls. That wasn’t accurate; it was called AthenaAcademy.
“Thanks, Lynnette,” Allison said. “Stay for dinner.”
They walked into the house, and Lynnette headed for the bathroom, giving Morgan a nod as she did so. He nodded back.
“Oh, good, our movies,” he said, looking at Allison.
She snorted. “Your movies.”
He touched his chest as if she had wounded him. “Charlie’s Angels is a classic.”
“Uh-huh.” She walked over to him and laid the movie envelopes at his elbow. Then she sliced open the letter with her forefinger.
Dear Ms. Gracelyn:
It has come to my attention that you are seeking information regarding the murder of your mother. I have information regarding Jackie Cavanaugh. E-mail me at AGfriend@xmail.com and I will contact you.
She sighed, feigning a nonchalance she did not feel, and showed the letter to Morgan. “Xmail, blackmail. Someone’s trying to flush me out.”
He looked at her hard. Licked his lips. For a moment she thought he was going to hug her, or at least squeeze her hand. Tingles played at the small of her back and coiled in her lower abdomen, and she tried to swallow the flare of anticipation that jittered through her
“You could send that to Alex Forsythe,” he suggested. Alex was a criminologist with the FBI.
“Good idea. I’ll ask Lynnette to do that,” Allison said, moving away from him.
Lynnette came out of the bathroom. She took one look at Allison.
“Go for a walk?” Lynnette asked casually.
I wanted him to comfort me, Allison thought. He’s taken up residence in my life, and he’s beginning to mean something more than…whatever it is we are. When I’m upset, I turn to him. I’ve never turned to anyone before. It was me against the world.
But he’s in my world now.
She took a pair of binoculars off the table and joined Lynnette outside. They walked in silence to the rim of the vast canyon below, training binoculars on the washes and gullies for anything suspicious. Lynnette, perhaps sensing the direction of Allison’s thoughts, turned to face her friend.
“Allison,” she began, “I need to tell you two things. The first is that I get a good vibe off Morgan. The second is that if you tell me to take him out, I will, without a moment’s hesitation.”
Allison nodded. “So will I,” she replied.
The two women regarded each other. Neither smiled.
The landscape was so beautiful, the sky so vast and clear. It was picture-perfect. A hawk wheeled against the sun, searching for prey.
Echo’s lair, Micronesia
It was astonishing how much one could accomplish in three weeks. Even better, what one could do in a month.
It was the middle of the night, and Echo swept along the catwalk of her completed laboratory with a bottle of champagne in one hand and her shoes slung over her shoulder. There was still a little bit of blood under her toenails, but she’d have her pedicurist deal with it in the morning.
Glass-walled examination rooms shone beneath arc lights. Banks of computers chittered and, well, computed. It was fantastic.
She flicked on a few screens and studied her “nursery.” Little Cailey was shrinking away into nothing. Well, she’d helped with the Loschetter rescue mission; maybe she was used up.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes