“I don’t see anything, but it looks like you were right about Morgan Rush. His most recent message to McDonough is encrypted, but I’m running it through our code-crackers and your initials are part of the subject header.” Selena grunted with disapproval. “All the good ones are married, gay, or spying on you.”
Allison allowed herself a quick grim smile, appreciating the irony of such a statement from someone who was happily married and therefore, believed she had one of the good ones.
Another call came in. This one was Allison’s boss, Bill McDonough, and she let it go to messages.
“Oracle just gave me one more,” Selena declared. “No, wait, it’s about the Marion Gracelyn scholarship fund. Someone just gave it a big donation. Two million dollars. Anonymous.”
Allison grunted. “Wondering how much of that is my newly laundered blackmail money.”
“Not seeing anything else on you directly right now,” Selena told her.
“Then I’m listening to my new messages,” Allison said, punching in her voice mail code.
“Allison?” Morgan queried. “I’m in your office.” That was all. That was a hundred percent Morgan—a man of few words, someone who believed that actions mattered and talk was, well, talk. Which was ironic, given his choice of occupation. He was a damned good codebreaker, alert to the nuances in several foreign languages including Farsi, Mandarin, some Polynesian languages and dialects and Russian.
She went on to the one from McDonough. His voice came in loud and clear, and he had a little bit more to say. “Rush said you were on your way up. Guard gate shows you left. Where the hell are you?”
Allison exited her message system and checked back in with Selena. “Anything?”
“Still doing my search,” Selena said.
“Then I’m putting you on hold again. Beep me if you need me.”
Allison pressed redial to call McDonough back. He picked up immediately.
“Bill, I have an emergency,” Allison began.
“This is an emergency,” McDonough thundered. “This is the biggest goddamn emergency in the world. You are here in two minutes or you have no job and you never have a job again and I give you to CIA for debriefing until you die.”
“Sir, with respect—”
“Respect? You have no respect! No respect for your teammates or your project or your country. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“One minute, or I’m sending someone after you to haul your ass in here.”
“Yes, sir,” Allison said, disconnecting.
She pushed her foot down a little harder on the gas and went back to Selena. “My boss,” she said flatly. “Wondering why I haven’t shown up for our meeting. I guess that tells us I’m not blackmailing him.”
“No. So far Oracle has reported no evidence of Gracelyn-NSA corruption, you’ll be gratified to know.”
“Keep searching,” Allison told her. “Not that I’m hoping you’ll find any.”
She saw what Echo was doing—setting fires, wreaking havoc. Allison moved her tense shoulders, rubbing her forehead as a headache threatened. She was tired down to the marrow. Her day had already been very long and incredibly tense.
She had landed at Washington’s DullesInternationalAirport at one this afternoon, every cell of her body on extreme high-alert as she unclasped the spider necklace containing the precious flash drive and calmly placed it in one of the plastic bowls at the airport’s security checkpoint. Of course the guard who took the bowl had no idea what was in that necklace—the last third of Arachne’s vast web of off-the-books state secrets; corporate espionage capable of shutting down Wall Street; career-ending dirt on superstars; and life-ending intel on world leaders.
Echo already had the other two memory sticks; she needed this one to fully reweave her mother’s web. Echo would stop at nothing to get it; Allison half expected the airport guard to reveal himself as a plant, pull out an AK-47 and gun her down as she walked through the metal detector.
Once on board the jet, she put herself beside a window exit and monitored the other passengers for the duration of the flight. She skipped the champagne and went for the steak, storing up protein in her body, staying loose and easy so she could go from zero to sixty if she had to.
In the airport parking structure, she swept her Infiniti a dozen times for both bugs and bombs before she drove straight to Old Alexandria Self-Storage, two blocks away from the new Oracle headquarters, still located in Old Alexandria.
There she ran an hour-long soft recon on the storage facility, studying the security cameras, staring into the shadows. Popping some button cams when and where she could, making sure the wireless uplink to her laptop was solid. Once assured of that, she forwarded the feed to the Oracle mainframe.
She left the you-store-it to buy some supplies so her unit would pass cursory inspection—paint cans, a ladder, tarps. She did it alone; she told no one where she was and asked no one for help. She warred with herself about that decision as every step of the way she thought about the stupid little things that could happen: slipping on the newly washed floor in the paint store; getting hit by a car. But it was too late in the game to change her rules.
Returning with her purchases, she rented Unit #217 from the overly friendly, middle-aged man at the desk, surreptitiously adding more button cams under the ledge of the office counter as she filled out forms, paid cash and collected the keys.
She also installed a fully portable state-of-the-art laser security setup at #217, which she tied into the existing alarm system. It was identical to the system she had put in her town house in Old Alexandria, and at the new Oracle headquarters location.
Although Allison worked steadily, remaining focused, her nerves were screaming. She herself could task any number of satellites to track a target if she could lock onto it; she had to assume Echo had the same capability. Despite wiping down the necklace and the memory stick for homing devices, there was no way to be one hundred percent positive that even now, the flash drive wasn’t signaling Echo as to its location.
That was why Allison hadn’t hidden the spider necklace and its contents at the far more secure, brand-new Oracle headquarters. Keeping Oracle HQ off Echo’s radar was every bit as vital as retaining possession of the necklace. If Echo took out Oracle’s nerve center, she’d hamstring the organization. Allison knew Oracle was the only way to stop Echo; she had to keep the flash drive out of Echo’s hands, and she had to keep Oracle intact.
Two top priorities—three, if she counted Project Ozone—one woman juggling all of them.
She’d told Selena to go to the new town house location and watch for intel that revealed Echo’s next move. However, there were layers to Oracle’s intricate data mining programming that Allison had reserved for her own eyes only, and now she debated about the wisdom of that as well.
I’m spread way too thin, Allison thought grimly. And I’m playing a dangerous game with the lives of millions. Maybe it’s time to change strategies and get more of my own players on the board.
“Oh, no,” Selena muttered. “Damn.”
“Talk to me,” Allison ordered her.
“Abductions. Three girls. They were all conceived via the Women’s Fertility Clinic in Zuni,” Selena bit off.
“No,” Allison breathed, clenching her jaw. “No way.”
“I don’t recognize any of their names. Hang on, I’m pulling up Jeremy Loschetter’s file.” About half a minute went by. “Allison, he swore the full list was on that memory stick he hid in his shoe heel. But none of these names are on it.”
“He lied to us. Imagine that,” Allison said bitterly, feeling ill. She’d thought they were done with this, with the abductions of young women—with Loschetter, a loathsome human being.
“Oh, my God, Allison, I’m getting more pings. There have been seven domestic kidnappings that the FBI has gotten involved with in the last forty-eight hours. All girls. Their mothers were infertility patients at the clinic.
Ignoring her tumultuous inner state, Allison processed the new information. Echo had still been in India when the kidnappings began. Was that why she had been so focused on stealing Lilith’s necklace? Did it hold more information about the technology Loschetter had used to genetically enhance eggs that had been harvested at the Women’s Fertility Clinic and place them into gestational surrogates?
Allison had no idea what was on Lilith’s memory stick. She couldn’t read it. She knew that Lilith had downloaded some files onto a laptop back in India, and she figured Lilith’s mother, Arachne, had programmed in a one-time-use code that she, Allison, had yet to crack. Allison hadn’t tried very hard. For all she knew, activating the stick sent out a beacon. That might have been how Echo had found Lilith in the first place. Maybe when Arachne had created the three drives, one for each of her daughters, she meant for them to find each other and work together to restore her empire.
Acting as Delphi, Allison had sent the twins Elle Petrenko and Samantha St. John to India to retrieve the laptop, but so far they’d come up negative. That could mean Echo had it—which might be how she’d known which girls to abduct—or it could simply mean that the sisters hadn’t located it yet.
“Go on,” Allison said tersely. She could feel her anger rising, and she forced it back down. She was the AIC—Agent in Charge. She had to stay calm, strategize, and proceed.
“I’m reading the FD-302 on one who was taken in San Francisco. She’s only five years old. Her name is Cailey. She’s just a baby.” Selena was angry, too. Allison knew Selena and Cole were trying to start a family of their own, probably through adoption.
FD-302 was FBI jargon for documents that could be used in a court of law as possible testimony, and therefore, were released over the Internet. The bureau was well-known for using the Internet as little as possible. Agents’ workstation computers didn’t even access the net; they had to use specially protected computers in another part of the building. That might explain why the files hadn’t shown up in the Oracle system before; the feebs might have released them in a batch because another agency had requested them.
“I cut and pasted a list of the vics,” Selena said. “I’ll send your laptop a copy and CC Delphi. I’m calling Delphi now. I know she’s told us to refrain whenever possible—”
“She probably already knows this is happening,” Allison cut in. “I’d say if she doesn’t call you within half an hour, call her then.”
There was a pause. “Roger that…Allison,” Selena said. “But we have to move fast. If she can get back to me asap…” It was clear that she was struggling not to confront Allison about Delphi’s real identity. “I’ll keep on it.”
“Good. I’m going to make some calls. You stay at the town house. Make sure the mainframe is safe.”
“Oh, I will,” Selena said, grittily. “When I find who did this…”
“We will,” Allison promised her. “And they will know Athena justice.”
“They will,” Selena said feelingly.
AthenaAcademy for the Advancement of Women was the most elite, state-of-the-art prep school for women in the United States. The school was founded by Allison’s mother, Marion Gracelyn, to educate the cream of the female student crop not only in academic subjects but martial arts, spycraft and other Special Forces-style subjects. The ultimate goal was to groom women to penetrate the highest echelons of power and serve as a force for good in society. Marion’s foresight was paying off, and there was a special quality among the students and alumni—an Athena Force—that was changing—and saving—the world.
“Have you found anything on that force field that went up around Echo when Lucy attacked her?”
“Negative. Still working.” A beat. “There’s a lot going on.”
“I know,” Allison said. “But we’ll get it done, Selena. You can count on that.”
“Roger that,” Selena replied.
They hung up.
For a moment the bombshell fragmented Allison’s thoughts. More genetically enhanced babies. More mayhem. Faked extortion schemes. Echo’s legacy from her mother—a vibration field that deflects guns, knives, bodies and bullets. Too many things to keep track of. Not enough time. Not enough of anything.
Then piece by piece she pulled herself back together; in an almost Zen state, she rested her hands on the wheel. The windshield wipers droned. The rain spattered.
I’m the center of the storm, she reminded herself, using one of the oldest relaxation techniques she knew—which she had learned while a student at Athena Academy. Never tell yourself how powerful the problem is. Tell the problem how powerful you are.
Her heartbeat slowed. Then she rifled in her briefcase for one of the half-dozen prepaid handheld cell phones she routinely packed, along with the electronic device she used to distort her voice when “Delphi” made calls. This batch had been on sale at the local electronics store, probably because their cheetah skins were so last week.
She punched the number of the Oracle safe house where they were keeping Loschetter. Before the current crisis, Allison’s recruits had their own lives first, and then ran missions for Oracle. But some of them had made special arrangements so that they were free to guard Loschetter around the clock. The smarmy scientist had sold Teal Arnett, an egg baby and a current AthenaAcademy student, to Kestonian leader Vlados Zelasco at a nightmarish auction in Venice. Zelasco had spirited her to Kestonia where Athena alum Sasha Bracciali had rescued her. Another AthenaAcademy alum, Lindsey Novak, grabbed Loschetter. Now Loschetter belonged to Oracle, and they were keeping him incommunicado in a heavily fortified safe house in Arizona, not far from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.
Her cell phone connected, ringing once.
“Athena Construction,” a woman answered. Allison recognized the voice of Katie Rush, and the image of Katie’s older brother Morgan popped into her head. He was probably as furious and baffled by Allison’s actions as Bill McDonough. She could see him now, pacing the way he did, running his long fingers through his prematurely salt-and-pepper hair—he was only thirty-two—blinking his heavily lashed eyes of intense indigo, setting his hard, square jaw.
She had seen him agitated before, seen him fight to keep his temper when they decoded a gleeful e-mail sent from Berzhaan to a terrorist cell in Kestonia, announcing that some poor thirteen-year-old had earned a place in paradise by blowing himself up in a crowded open marketplace. Morgan had nearly wept at the loss of life, at the depth of despair and/or hatred that would prompt someone to do something like that. Instead he’d balled his fist and slammed it against the wall of the pit, startling half a dozen military brass who were there for a briefing.
Then and there, she fell a little bit in love with him, moving beyond her omnipresent lust for his magnificent body to a deeper connection. This is why we do the things we do, Morgan Rush and I. This is why our jobs are more important to us than our lives.
This is why I am Delphi. And this is why he can never know.
Her secrets would keep her alone for the rest of her life.
“I’m interested in building a house,” she said, knowing that her voice was being unrecognizably distorted by the device clamped over the mouthpiece.
“Delphi,” Katie said, and Allison detected the awe in her voice.
“How’s Loschetter?” Delphi asked. “Is there anything unusual about his demeanor?”
“Quiet, bored. He wants more DVDs,” Katie said with disgust. “He says his brain is atrophying. We can hope.”
“Katie, listen,” Delphi said. “In the last forty-eight hours, seven girls have been kidnapped. Girls conceived at the Women’s Fertility Clinic in Zuni.” She let that sink in. “They were not on Loschetter’s original list.”
“Oh, my God,” Katie murmured.
“Watch him. I’m going to send you some backup.” There were three Oracle agents guarding him at all times. “If someone’s stealing egg babies, it stands to reason they’ll want him. He knows more about genetica
“Roger that,” Katie said fiercely. “I’ll kill him before I let anyone take him.”
Delphi thought for a moment about the teenage suicide bomber in Berzhaan. Then she thought about Morgan Rush, Katie’s older brother. She could hardly imagine the grief and fury that would rage through him if anything happened to Katie.
“You…be careful,” Delphi blurted, and it was so out of character, so not what Delphi would say, that she hung up before Katie could remind her that she would rather die than fail at a mission. Delphi knew Katie would say it, because Katie had said it before. And Delphi had told her that she was proud of her commitment.
She set the phone on top of her briefcase and swallowed hard. She was getting too personally involved with her people.
Another image of Morgan came unbidden into her mind—in a pair of loose track shorts that revealed his muscular calves and thighs, and a damp, sleeveless T-shirt clinging to his pecs. He’d mocked her fumble during a recent tennis game on the agency courts. A second later, she’d power-slammed a tennis ball at him inches from his foot, a volley he couldn’t hope to return, and he had broken into full-bodied laughter, completely appreciative of how thoroughly she had just kicked his butt. She didn’t suppose he was laughing right now.
She blew out her breath and gave her head a shake. Morgan was off-limits, now and forever. The thought penetrated, despite all the other thoughts her busy brain was entertaining.
Allison began putting everything back in her briefcase—PDA, personal cell, laptop, distorter—then the produce truck switched lanes, revealing the white van again. The BMW took advantage of the hole in the traffic flow and shot back around the slow-moving vehicle. The van was definitely pacing her.
On your mark, Allison thought grimly.
Without signaling, with no warning, Allison cranked her steering wheel to the left and shot across two lanes of traffic, heading for the off-ramp. Horns blared. Brakes squealed all around her—and behind her—as the van barreled after her in hot pursuit.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes