Echo clicked to another screen. Natalia LeClaire was asleep, too. Her drug therapy was progressing nicely. Once her eggs were harvested, they would be mixed with the sperm of several very wonderful donors.
She switched to two more bedrooms in the nursery. Ah, and there was Willa, the superhacker. Echo studied the sleeping mocha-skinned eighteen-year-old, given a lovely suite of rooms not far from Mary and Elizabeth, the psychic twins. Thus far, Willa had not been able to crack Oracle, which was Echo’s supreme ambition for her. She allowed Willa to “hang” with Mary and Elizabeth in hopes that they might read something in her subconscious mind that would help her consciously unlock the complex system created by Delphi. To Echo’s private amusement, Willa had taken to calling them by their Goth names, “Shadow” and “Silk.” Children. Who could explain them? Of course, even grown-ups gave themselves silly names.
Delphi has to be Allison Gracelyn, Echo thought. Everything always comes back to her. Wherever the hell she is…
Echo had created so many phony blackmail and extortion schemes starring Allison that even she had trouble keeping track of them. She was stunned that no one had located that bitch and garroted her. Wrobleski was the idiot who had tried to blow up her town house, although he had successfully managed to pin it on his lackey at NSA, McDonough. She knew Wrobleski was hiding in Amsterdam; she’d let him dangle for a while.
The only good thing about all this is that Allison has no idea where I am, either, Echo thought. If she did, she’d be here in a heartbeat, trying to break down the door like some villager with a pitchfork in a horror movie.
Something caught Echo’s eye as she gazed at Willa’s room. She couldn’t say exactly what. Then her innate defense system alerted her that someone was coming up behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder. It was Eric Pace. He was wearing his ridiculous military uniform. For the love of God, he’d been stripped of his rank when he’d been thrown into prison. Some men grew more pathetic with age.
She smiled down at the blood beneath her toenails. Some men never aged. Maybe they were the lucky ones.
“We got another burst,” he informed her by way of greeting. “Someone sent out an electronic message two minutes ago.”
Echo narrowed her eyes at him and tapped her fingernails against the champagne bottle. “That’s your area of expertise. Why come to me?”
His cheeks reddened. He had such an issue with strong women. “I want your permission to interrogate Willa Goldsmith.” His eyes moved from her to the screen filled with the image of the sleeping girl. “Until she talks.”
“Pfft.” Echo pointed at her. “Look at her. She’s asleep.”
“It could have been time-delayed, to be sent when she had an alibi,” he pointed out. Echo bristled. As if she wouldn’t know that.
“Fine,” she spat. “Interrogate her.”
His eyes flickered. “How far can I go?”
“Nothing permanent.” She took a dainty swig of champagne from the bottle. “We’d best sell her off if you think there’s a problem.”
“Thank you,” he said. He looked put out with her.
She knew she needed him on her side. “It’s the least I can do for you, dear Eric,” she cooed. “You’ve put everything on the line for me.”
“Yes. I have,” he replied. Then he turned on his heel and walked away, his well-polished shoes ringing on the catwalk.
Wait. Did she sense another presence in the area?
She cocked her head, feeling the vibrations in the air. It was part of her genetic gift, a survival skill that had paid off handsomely in the past. It was very, very hard to sneak up on Echo.
She whirled around, gliding along the catwalk, squinting into the darkness. The vibration felt…small. Suspiciously, she checked all the nursery rooms on her screen, number one—Cailey—through number thirteen—a girl named Greta Von Edel, whose special gift was superhuman marksmanship. She was also the best pool player Echo had ever met, her gifted brain calculating angles and trajectories with the precision of a sophisticated supercomputer.
She flicked back through all the images, studying each girl in turn. Had one of them figured out a way to reach the outside world? Had that one just snuck into the lab to eavesdrop on her then scurried back to bed?
She was about to turn off the screens and go back to bed herself—surely her room had been cleaned of all the blood by now—when she caught sight of Eric Pace and two armed guards entering Willa Goldsmith’s room.
Willa bolted upright and struggled, appeared to scream—Echo had the sound off—and the two guards aimed their Kalashnikovs at her. She didn’t seem to see them; she kept flailing in Pace’s grasp as he pushed a surgical mask against her face.
Her right arm rose straight up; her back arched; she went limp. She was very little for her age. Very fragile.
Pace glanced up in the camera as if at Echo. She chuckled and gave him a wave, even though he couldn’t see her.
“Nothing permanent,” she said.
The Gracelyn hideaway, Arizona
Day thirty since Loschetter and Pace had been snatched, and there had been no more abductions. Allison switched out some of her operatives so they wouldn’t wind up tired and hunted, as she and Morgan were. Others took extended leave, lied a lot, did whatever they could to make themselves available. Oracle captured at least six more blackmail schemes that Allison was purportedly running. Morgan was wanted by the CIA for questioning. No surprise there.
Now, on a night shortly before Christmas, Allison sat alone in the dark as the rain poured down outside the living room window. Morgan was asleep in his room. She had put her hair up in a messy bun; she wore an oversize T-shirt, no bra and a pair of sweats.
The face of Natalia LeClaire gazed back at her from the computer monitor. She was very pretty, with a classic oval face framed by dark, curly hair and a lush, bee-stung mouth. Her deep-set, velvet-brown eyes were wide and pleading; she looked at once both terrified and grief-stricken.
What would it be like, to grow up with people who kept you in a cage? To know that your own parents were afraid of you? Did they let her out for special occasions like Christmas? Had she ever had friends? Gone to a sleepover, or even a movie?
“I’ll find you,” Allison whispered, touching her hand to the screen. “And I’ll give you some of those things.”
The sad, silent face of Natalia LeClaire gazed back at her. Allison kept the window containing her image open and pulled up the list of abductees. Using a matching program she had created, Oracle had located another probable pair of egg babies—English twins born in a small village north of London. Their parents had reported them as runaways, but only after their school had investigated a lengthy absence.
Scotland Yard had become involved, and their thick dossier on the twins revealed that they were minor celebrities nicknamed Shadow and Silk, who had perfected a “mind reading scheme” whereby they bilked gullible locals at the village tavern out of money for beer and cigarettes. The detective who had investigated their case claimed that the twins were obviously faking the whole thing by means of tiny microphones and transceivers.
There was a photo of them standing together in front of a drab row house. They were very Goth, with white skin, black-ringed eyes and black lips. Their black hair was short. They were smirking at the camera. Allison wondered if they had been the two smaller figures holding hands above the tunnel when the safe house had been attacked.
The last picture she gazed at was that of little Cailey Anderson, just five. Her frantic parents had given the feebs dozens of pictures of her, as well as her handprints and footprints. And a copy of her birth certificate. Allison gazed at her sunny face and chubby cheeks, laughing and giggling. Her only unusual gift appeared to be that she had excellent eyesight.
The images on the monitor blurred. She was tired and she knew she should get some rest. But she couldn’t stop looking at the girls, couldn’t stop reading every scrap of informatio
Morgan was tightly wound, too. He continued to work on his plan to take on Echo when and if they found her. He was steady and relentless, but she heard him at night, pacing.
“I will find you,” she vowed to Natalia, in the dark, in the rain.
The back door opened. She grabbed her Glock and leaped into tripod stance, ready to fire off a shot; then Morgan appeared on the threshold. He was completely soaked from head to toe. His salt-and-pepper hair curled beneath his ears; his eyes caught moonlight, swirling silver in the blue. Rain clung to his sharp jaw and the hollows in his cheeks. Rain sluiced down his long neck and soaked into the black workout shirt stretched across his pecs and biceps. His black sweats molded his thighs and calves.
“Sorry, I thought you heard me say I was going for a jog,” he said.
“If I had, I would have told you we were expecting a storm,” she said, putting down her weapon. “I thought you were in bed.”
“Can’t sleep.” He looked at her. Really looked. A muscle in his cheek jumped, as if he was seeing her for the first time after they had been separated for years, by war and other tragedies.
He stood in front of the storm and all she could see were his blue eyes. The movement of his chest.
The atmosphere in the room shifted. Altered.
“I can’t stand this,” he said, his voice deep and gravelly.
“You’ve waited longer than this for the green light,” she replied.
His eyes blazed. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I know,” she said.
He came into the room. She didn’t move away.
She couldn’t stand it, either.
Who walked forward first? Was it a walk, or a run?
She smelled spicy soap and fresh rain as he put his arms around her. His wet clothes soaked her T-shirt and made her nipples taut. He caught her at the small of her back and tilted his pelvis so that she could feel his erection. The fabric of her sweatpants molded against her sex as she rocked against him.
He put his lips over hers, soft; the stubble on his chin and above his mouth a reminder of his masculinity as his tongue stole into her mouth. Her knees buckled. She clung to him, gripped his shoulders, answered him.
“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, Allison.”
He bent down and slung his arms beneath her legs; she parted them and let him pick her up. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he began to walk across the floor, carrying her out of the room as he kissed her over and over again. She gathered up the curls of his hair in her hands and gasped as she kissed him back. Moaned in anticipation.
And then Oracle pinged. It had incoming.
“Oh, no,” Allison whispered. “No. Not now.”
Then amazingly, they both chuckled sadly. Morgan carried her not to her bed, but to her work desk, and set her down.
“Don’t electrocute yourself,” he said, taking a step away from her.
She opened the new offering from her data mining system. It was a MySpace page, for someone named Tasi Arejab. Tasi used an image of a genie as her icon, and her section was headed, “Shoutout to my friends!”
“Hello, BFF Willa Goldsmith!” she had written.
Allison’s lips parted. “Best Friend Forever,” she said.
“Tasi is a Chamoru name, meaning ‘sea’ or ‘ocean,’” Morgan added. “Guamanian. Arejab is Marshallese for ‘lagoon side of the atoll.’”
She and Morgan both leaned forward as Allison scrolled down the page.
“WG likes catS Or dogS.”
There had been no effort to hide the origin of the message:
Morgan’s hand came down on Allison’s shoulder. She caught it. They held each other, staring at the screen, as if both were afraid to blink, equally afraid to believe that it had finally happened.
She dialed Selena back in Virginia.
“Get to the town house stat,” she said.
“On my way,” Selena replied.
Allison hung up and started making more calls—to Lynnette and Diana; to Elle and Sam out in the field. She put on her voice modulator and let Morgan see her do it. It was time.
After the last call, she set down the phone with shaking hands. Then she turned in her chair and gazed at Morgan.
“Last chance to bail,” she told him. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She was overloaded. Jubilant and terrified, exultant and determined. This was it. She knew it.
“No chance, Delphi,” he replied, bending over and kissing her.
Like a man who knew he was going to die.
Echo’s lair, Micronesia
“W onderful news,” Echo said to the little Goth twins, as she swept into their room. Their faces coated with their white clown makeup and black-ringed eyes and lips, they were lounged on Mary’s bed, busy at a video game console. They smiled at her and set the game aside. They didn’t hold hands, which was a tremendous relief. They wouldn’t be able to read her mind, and she was under a bit of strain as it was.
“What is it?” Mary asked.
“We were able to reunite Willa with her parents,” Echo lied, beaming at them. “She wanted me to tell you that she was sorry she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” She wrinkled her nose. “We had to keep it very hush-hush. I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth groaned. As she looked at Echo, her rapidly blinking eyes filled with tears. She turned her back and hung her head.
“She was so much fun,” Mary said, moving away from her twin. “I thought she rather liked it here.”
Elizabeth began to sob.
Oh my God, Echo thought. Do they know I’m selling her? She’s upstairs in my apartment right now, waiting for transport. Then she reminded herself not to think around them. They might suddenly hold hands, and then where would she be?
“Well, you must remember that her only gift was being especially good at computers,” Echo replied reasonably. “She could fit in quite easily with normal society.”
“She didn’t tell us,” Mary muttered. She glanced over at her weeping twin. “We didn’t read anything like that.”
“She didn’t know. I was afraid to give her hope, in case things didn’t work out.” Echo smiled sweetly, the picture of thoughtfulness.
“Oh,” Mary whispered.
Echo held out her arms. “My poor sad darlings. I didn’t realize you two had gotten so close with her.”
“How could we?” Elizabeth wept. “We never get to go anywhere, do anything! We haven’t any friends!”
“Oh, and perhaps you were hoping that she could become your friend?” Echo asked, feeling somewhat relieved that Elizabeth was carrying on because she was a petulant teenager, and not because she knew Willa Goldsmith was destined for Vlados’s castle—to make up for the loss of his other psychic egg baby, Teal Arnett.
“We’ve wised up,” Mary ventured. “We know we have to pass as normal, too.” She picked at the cuticle on her left thumb. It was bloody and ragged. “So perhaps we could go back to England?”
“Don’t you like it here?” Echo asked.
“I guess.” Mary shrugged. Elizabeth’s sobs grew heavier.
“Maybe we could have a little party with the other girls,” Echo decided. “Cakes and punch, that sort of thing. Or is that too childish for you?”
“We’d love it,” Mary said. She came up to Echo and kissed her cheek. “Thank you. We don’t mean to be ungrateful. It’s just, well, you know we had more freedom back home.”
“Unless the school authorities had caught up with you. Then you’d be in prison, wouldn’t you?” Echo asked, fighting not to wipe Mary’s kiss off her cheek. “There’d be a lot less freedom then, wouldn’t there be, Elizabeth?”
“I don’t want you to call me that anymore,” Elizabeth ground out. “I’m ‘Shadow’ and she’s ‘Silk.’”
“Oh, I see.” Echo was appalled that the girl would mention it. It was so…visceral. “We’ll have some fun together. A lovely party.”
It will be the last party I hold for you miserable…
Elizabeth rushed over to her sister and took her hand.
…beautiful, wonderful girls, Echo thought carefully, pushing warmth into every syllable.
They clung to each other and did not smile.
“I’ll have party dresses made for all of you,” Echo told them. “Here in…where we are, seamstresses are very skilled, and dirt cheap. Why, they’re practically slave labor!”
“How…nice,” Mary said.
Elizabeth burst into more tears.
The Gracelyn hideaway, Arizona
Allison and Morgan did not have sex the night of the SOS, and now that chance was gone. The hideaway had become Oracle HQ West as agents brought weapons and gear in preparation for shipping out to Micronesia. Using Diana’s remotely controlled surveillance craft, Predator, they pored over navsat photos of every square inch of the hundreds of atolls and islands that made up that section of the world.
Allison activated a core group—her first wave—and prepared a second and a third in case Team One went FUBAR. She would be in the first wave. So would Morgan.
The rest of Team One was Jessica Whittaker and Diana Lockworth, who were already in Arizona; and Selena Shaw Jones, Sam St. John, Elle Petrenko, plus Dawn O’Shaughnessy, who would be accompanied by her husband, British Special Air Forces Captain Des “Ash” Asher, from outbound. Scattered arrivals would be harder to detect as they swarmed to their rendezvous point.
“As soon as we have a location, Morgan and I are flying out, ahead of you,” she told Jessica and Diana, who stood in her living room. She had briefed each of the other agents by phone, and they were all a go.
“Copy that,” Jessica said. “You say the word, Allison, and I’ll swim to Micronesia if I have to.”
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes