“On your signal,” Sam whispered to Allison. Everyone was wearing earpieces; everyone heard her.
“We’re in position,” Elle reconfirmed.
Morgan gazed at Allison. She looked back at him.
“It’s showtime,” she said. “On my mark. Three, two—”
“What are you doing?” Echo shrieked at Eric Pace as she clattered along her catwalk. The general was dragging Mary the Goth by the hair, a SIG Sauer P-226 at the little clown’s temple. Backed up to a wall beside a computer station, the mousy lab tech—Tasi the Traitor herself—held Cailey in her arms.
Pace didn’t look at Echo. He kept his attention fixed on Tasi.
“I caught her at it,” he declared. “She’s the one who has been sending out the transmissions.”
“Put Cailey down, Tasi,” Echo said calmly. “The general won’t hesitate to shoot her to get to you.”
“No, no!” Cailey screamed. “Help!”
“No one will help any of you,” Echo shouted. “No one!”
Mary started screaming.
“One!” Allison shouted. “Go, go, go!”
Two of the SBS men pushed open the door and barreled down a dimly lit tunnel, Allison next, followed by Morgan and the rest. They were about twenty-five feet in when a tremendous explosion threw Allison against the side of the tunnel. Debris rained down. The lights went out. Alarms whooped and the sprinkler system blasted on.
Sam had blown the hatch.
“Report, report!” Allison yelled.
“We’re in! We’re in!” Sam reported. “Rappelling down now!”
“Grenades in!” Elle shouted.
In the distance, Allison heard more explosions, roars of gunfire, yelling; noise and shouting and alarms. She kept going.
Suddenly the tunnel blazed with light. Armed men in black appeared at the other end, weapons drawn. The two SBS men fired; the attackers returned it. Her two men went down, and Allison stood to be next.
“Get down, Allison,” Morgan yelled at her.
“Stay on target!” she shouted back, as she opened fire with the Metal Storm. It sliced through the first wave of hostiles like butter; blood flew as they went down, and more went down again. She kept firing, registering the lack of recoil.
Then the hostiles started yelling and she realized someone had come up behind the hostiles. They collapsed like dominoes and Allison stopped using her Metal Storm, saving it, letting the others take out the baddies with more conventional weapons.
Racing over the dead and dying, her group made it in, less the two SBS men. They fanned into what had to be the lab, firing, taking it; Sam was there with her men—one was missing—as more hostiles poured in from other tunnels and doorways. The water was rushing down; looking up, Allison saw General Eric Pace on a catwalk with a woman crumpled at his feet, and two girls—one dressed like a Goth; the other one had to be CaileyAnderson—running in the opposite direction.
Pace saw her, too, and darted after the girls. He grabbed Cailey and threw her in front of himself like a shield, smacking her against the temple. She staggered and wobbled.
Then Allison ticked her gaze to the left, and saw her.
Nothing was touching her, not bullets or rain or smoke, which had begun to billow throughout the enormous room. Echo stood in the center of her force field, staring at Allison as if she could kill her with a look.
There you are. I’m in your lair, and I’m going to get you and you and your dead mother are going to be so very, very sorry you tangled with Athenians, Allison thought fiercely.
Morgan raced up beside Allison.
“I’ll get Pace,” he said. “I’ll get his hostage. You go for Echo. Get some cover. Take her out.”
“Roger that,” she replied, and she wanted to say more. She wanted to say, Morgan, don’t die. I do love you. I do.
That chance was gone.
“Diana,” she yelled, “with me.”
“On it!” Diana shouted. She shouted out names. “Jessica, with us! SBS Team One, with us!”
Allison didn’t know how they found each other in the surging mass, but there was intention in the chaos. Enemy recognized enemy, death found victims. As her people streamed toward her, Allison watched Echo glide along the catwalk, unhurt, and traced her route with her gaze.
“Stairs! Find them!” Allison shouted.
To the sound of explosions, screaming and gunfire, Echo flew into her office and picked up her phone, pressing #23 for the hangar. “Get my plane ready!” she yelled—into dead air. She depressed the button, tried again. Communications system cut off, she thought, reaching for multiple lines, finally having the presence of mind to open a drawer in her black desk and grab her radio phone.
“Get my plane ready now!” she yelled.
“We’re under attack!” her man yelled back at her.
“Fight back!” she screamed at him.
“We surrender! Stop, don’t shoot!”
“Don’t do that, you idiot! I need you!” She hurtled the phone across the room, smacking a framed oil painting of several spiders crawling over a guava, shattering the glass. She whirled in a circle and grabbed her hair, shrieking. “You stupid moron! I’ll kill you!”
Calm down, she told herself, her chest heaving. Calm down now. Emotions are a waste of time. Think, Echo!
My necklaces. That’s what she’s after.
She pressed her hand into the handprint screen and raced into the Spider Room. The golden statue of her mother gleamed like a candle in the darkness.
“Mummy,” Echo said, running up the stairs. “She’s here. She’s going to die before your eyes.”
Echo grabbed the necklaces like scalps and yanked on the gold chains. Staring down at the tiny detonator on the necklace Arachne had given her, she smiled. Three taps, and it was all over.
She pressed her finger down. One, two…
“Stop,” the statue of Arachne told her.
Echo’s mouth dropped open.
“Did you…did…?” She was stunned.
“Yes, I’m here, darling,” the statue whispered, although its lips didn’t move, and its eyes didn’t blink. “Think a moment. What if she has the third necklace, and you blow her to bits?”
“She wouldn’t do that,” Echo replied. “She wouldn’t bring it with her onto my territory. She’s far too cagey.” She smiled. “I know you aren’t really speaking to me. I know I’m feeling a bit of stress. Crazy people don’t rule the world. Control it.”
Still, she took her hand off the detonator and tried to think about what to do next. First order of business was to shut the door. Shut out the war. Kaboom, kaboom, kaboom. Such a racket!
She clattered down the stairs and pushed a switch on the base of the globe. The door began to swing shut.
“Oh, damn it!” she said, clapping her hand to her forehead. She’d forgotten to finish typing the code to the Circle of Justice!
She hit the off switch and pushed through wave after wave of golden spiderweb as she headed for her outer office.
“Diana!” Allison shouted, as Diana crumpled on the stairs and slid facedown. Blood mushroomed in a pool beneath her torso.
There was no one left in Allison’s detail. Jessica had fallen back. The soldiers were engaged with pushing back the enemies.
I have to keep going. I can’t stop for anyone, not even Diana.
Deeply regretful, Allison turned and raced on, scanning for signs of Echo. She had no idea how many flights of concrete steps she’d gone up. The lights were out. Everything around her was shaking like an earthquake.
A bullet whizzed past her right shoulder and she jumped to the left, tumbling into a hallway buzzing and flickering with artificial light. She was taken back in time to the alley behind Jade’s Bar, when she had started her run. It had led her here.
She pushed herself to her feet and staggered, aware of a coldness spreading throughout her limbs.
I’ve been hit.
She looked down
Yikes. What the hell was that?
Listening to a hail of practically supersonic explosions, Echo leaped up from her chair and darted back into the Spider Room. She’d have to tell the Circle of Justice to blow up the NSA at a more convenient time. Just three letters away from Armageddon! It was so frustrating.
She stood behind her mother’s statue and unaccountably began to laugh. It was all so…much.
“I can feel her coming for me,” Echo told the statue. “It’s her. I know it is.” She gripped the necklaces and peeked around the golden figure. Her protective shield activated.
The supersonic explosions resumed—blamblamblamblamblam—and the outer door blasted away into metal toothpicks.
Allison Gracelyn stood in the doorway. The lower half of her face was covered with blood, and all of it was filthy. Best of all, she was alone.
What a lunatic.
Allison stared first at the intricate golden web, then at the statue.
“Come out, Echo,” she said. “It’s over.”
Echo covered her mouth to stifle her laughter.
Then blamblamblamblamblam her mother’s statue disintegrated, as if it had been made of sawdust. The shards ricocheted against Echo’s force field, pushing her backward. That had never happened before, ever; Echo threw back her head and screamed.
“You bitch!” she cried. “What did you do?”
“That’s going to be you next,” Allison said, walking into the room, taking aim. “Give me the flash drives.”
Echo hid her hand behind her back. “What makes you think I have them?”
Allison didn’t reply, just kept walking forward steadily. Echo started laughing again. It was so inappropriate.
“I think you should know that I have a detonator in my hand,” she informed Allison. “If you come any closer, I’ll blow up this place.”
“You wouldn’t,” Allison dared her. “Even your shield has its limits. I just saw…” She staggered sideways.
“Oh, good!” Echo cried, delighted. “You’re wounded.” She wrinkled her nose. “You’re probably dying.”
Allison Gracelyn, her nemesis, the one woman in the world who might have stopped her, drew herself up with all the nobility of the hopelessly heroic.
“We all die,” Allison said, opening fire.
“You might have warned me!” Echo shouted, as her shield wrapped her in its protective cocoon.
The Metal Storm pulsed as the room dimmed; blamblamblamblam as Allison felt all her muscles trembling violently. Blamblamblamblam as she stopped feeling anything…
Except the plosive force of a huge explosion, throwing her at Echo. And Echo, screaming, as Allison pushed through her shield and landed on top of her in a bone-crushing heap.
Not really seeing, but sensing where her enemy lay beneath her, Allison grabbed Echo’s wrist and yanked the necklaces out of her fist.
Echo laughed hysterically. “Ouch! Ow! It’s too late! They’re all dead!” she screamed.
Morgan, Allison thought.
And then she collapsed.
“Mayday, mayday,” someone shouted from far away, as Morgan balled himself around the little girl, and the laboratory tumbled down.
I’ll see you soon, baby, he thought, imagining that Allison was dead.
D elphi sat alone in the darkness with her phone. She had no voice distorter attached to it.
“Echo’s remains are secure,” Katie Rush reported.
“Very good,” Delphi said. “Diana and Josie gave me the status of the egg babies. We’ve returned the ones we could. The others will stay with Christine at AthenaAcademy.”
“Roger that,” Katie said. She paused. “How’s my brother?”
“Allison’s gone to check on him,” Delphi told her. “I’ll let you know as soon as she calls me.”
“Thank you,” Katie replied.
“You’re welcome,” Delphi responded.
It was nearly Valentine’s Day, and it was snowing heavily. Allison could feel the cold in her bones as she slowly climbed out of the cab. The cabbie fetched her crutches as she slung her laptop over her shoulder.
“You want me to get you some help?” he asked her, gesturing to the hospital entrance.
“No, thanks.” She handed him double the fare. “Thank you.”
Slowly she approached the hospital. Though feather-light, the laptop seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
The three flash drives in her pocket jostled together like grenades.
Mayday, mayday, mayday.
Wounded women coming for her; lifting her out of the debris. Choppers, Jessica over her, yelling at her to stay with them. All her women, some on stretchers. Elle, swearing in Russian. Sam’s arm in a sling, shouting at her to fight it, fight. Medics in the helicopter working on Diana. Dawn and Asher quarreling with the pilot: Guam is closer, get them to Guam for God’s sake, or Allison’s not going to make it…Rush’s heart has stopped again, where’s the defib? Is anyone religious? Does anyone need a priest?
Echo needed more than a priest. Who knew where a dark, crazy soul like hers would go? She was dead, bloodied and shredded; yet her eyes had been open and she had been smiling.
It was so hard to believe. Dead, just like anyone else on the planet.
But Arachne’s web of evil had survived.
Allison made her way into Morgan’s private room. He had remained unconscious, and they didn’t know if he would wake up. They told her that if it was any consolation, he had saved the life of the little girl huddled beneath him.
She sat down beside his bed, listening to the beeping machines, tracing his profile with her gaze. He was as gray as the sky.
She flipped open the laptop and booted it up. She knew that back in HQ, Selena was seeing what she was seeing. Out in Arizona, so was Lynnette.
Delphi One, Delphi Two and Delphi Three.
She put the first drive in USB port A. It was Lilith’s. Nothing happened. No icon appeared on the screen.
She added the second drive, Kwan-Sook’s. Still nothing.
The third. Echo’s.
A screen popped open. An enormous black spider filled her screen. Then it slowly melted into letters, numbers, letters, names, scrolling crazily. A rapid-fire list; she saw names—
Catching her breath, she yanked out the three drives and gripped them in her hand.
Her phone rang immediately.
“Delphi One?” Selena said. “What happened? Are you all right?”
“I aborted,” Allison told her. “I know we discussed it, but I really don’t know.”
There was a long pause.
So much tragedy, and sacrifice. Needless.
“Let me call Delphi Three,” Selena said finally.
“I—” Allison began, then gave her head a shake. She had been the one to suggest a triumvirate, three Delphis, three votes.
“Roger that, Delphi Two. I’ll wait for further instructions.” She closed her phone.
She watched the shadows of falling snowflakes as they washed over Morgan’s still features. The world outside was busy. The Circle of Justice had been quashed. The threat was over. The various intelligence agencies, at home and abroad, were rounding up the men and women “she” had blackmailed. Contracts to take her out were being canceled. She and Morgan had their jobs back.
A scenario got floated that she and Morgan had been tasked to another arm of Project Ozone, which they had successfully completed. They were given credit for terminating the threat posed by the Circ
Her broken body was mending.
But her heart? She stared at Morgan, almost hating him because she was so terrified that he was never going to wake up again.
“I can be with you now,” she whispered. “I’ve got help.” She heard the pleading in her voice, and she gave in to it.
“Please, Morgan, oh my God, please don’t die,” she whispered. She carefully slid her arms around him and rested her head on his chest. She heard his heart. “I’ve come such a long way to be with you.”
As she closed her eyes and listened to his heartbeat, she thought of the tragedies and sacrifices so many women had made, to make a world where she could love Morgan Rush. Athenians, Oracle agents, shining light into the darkness, pushing against the shadows. Daring everything, putting it all on the line.
Miraculously none of them had died in the explosion at Echo’s lab. Des’s troops had sustained nine casualties.
And Natalia. I failed her.
Natalia had died. Knocked out by Eric Pace and left alone in her fortified cell, she had been found too late. Allison’s chest squeezed painfully as she mourned her.
She rested against Morgan’s chest as the snow drifted down. No one outside Oracle knew about the flash drives. Arachne’s web was their web now. But it was a web of evil and terror. If they looked at it, what would that do to their souls?
If they didn’t, what would it do to the world?
Her phone rang and she moved to get it. It was probably Delphi Two, wishing to discuss what to do with the three drives. She shifted her weight to reach her phone.
And Morgan grunted.
“Stay,” he whispered.
“Morgan? Oh God, Morgan?” she said, lifting her head to stare up into his face. His eyes were still closed. The shadows of the snowflakes dusted his sunken cheeks, the cleft of his chin, his eyelids.
“Yeah,” he managed. “Stay, ’lison.”
The phone rang again.
“Love you,” he slurred.
“I love you, too, Morgan,” she said hoarsely.
She laid her head back against his chest and gave in to it, gave in to her love, her deep love. She was there now. She had gotten back what she had possessed so fleetingly on the beach. She had broken the code.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes