Disclosure, p.3
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       Disclosure, p.3

           Nancy Holder
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  Chapter 3

  NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

  M cDonough proceeded with the top-level Project Ozone meeting in Conference Room A, but he dismissed Morgan from the urgent and critical sit-down, and ordered him to interrogate anyone who had ever met Allison, much less worked with her.

  Morgan was extremely pissed about missing the meeting, but when he got past the red haze of anger, he had to admit that it made sense. Morgan had been “observing” Allison for McDonough ever since McDonough had signed onto Ozone, three months ago. It was a distasteful arrangement that Morgan would have ordinarily refused, except that it gave him more latitude to sniff around Allison, access her records and get his request for a wiretap turned down.

  He fed McDonough enough tidbits to fulfill his job description, but he kept the good stuff for himself. Not that there was much. Spider files, incomplete. Someone named Arachne. Someone else named Delphi, or maybe it was a place. Those kidnappings of Athena students earlier this year. But never the full story. Allison kept the good stuff for herself as well, of that he was certain.

  Allison Gracelyn was doing something she didn’t want anyone to know about. Correction: didn’t want NSA to know about. In Morgan’s book, that was six kinds of wrong.

  Morgan deliberately set up shop for his interviews many conference rooms away from the Ozone meeting. He kept his black suit jacket on and his dark gray tie crisply knotted. The visiting brass didn’t need to know NSA had forgotten to microchip Agent Double-O Gracelyn or that she was on the lam.

  His black double shot went untouched. He had snagged a sandwich from the conference room but hadn’t stopped to take a bite. After a few interviews, the air smelled like mustard and roast beef, and Morgan chucked it in the trash can.

  Nobody had anything to tell him, and so far, an hour into interviewing, he had no feeling that anyone was omitting information in order to protect her. She wasn’t made of Teflon; she was just…boring. Again, wrong. Allison was not boring. She was a busy woman; yesterday’s personal leave day was one of many (but not beyond agency guidelines, and he’d kept track.) Not showing up in the midst of a high-alert was bad, but hanging a U and then going incommunicado was inexcusable.

  The clock was ticking, and he was getting more and more pissed off. Why the hell didn’t she at least call in? Who the hell did she think she was?

  He tapped his government-issue black pen on his legal pad and gazed up at his next interviewee, Kim Valenti, who came in and sat across the mahogany laminate conference table. Like him, she wore a simply, nicely tailored black suit—in her case, with a skirt. Like Allison and him, she was a cryptanalyst, and one of the best at the agency, which why she was with Ozone. She and Allison were good friends; on many occasions, when Morgan had been in Allison’s office, IM’s had come in through the internal NSA net from Windtalker2, which was Valenti’s handle.

  “She called you earlier today,” Morgan said to Kim Valenti. He knew that because he had downloaded and examined both women’s phone logs.

  “Yes, she did,” Valenti said after a beat, as if weighing how much to say to him. His bullshit-ometer ratcheted up two notches. What was she hiding?

  “What did you two talk about?”

  “It was personal business,” she replied, crossing her legs at the knee and settling back, as if she had all the time in the world, and no cares at all. She was cool, she was steady.

  Morgan knew her body language didn’t mean a thing. His colleagues at the NSA might think he was simply an extremely proficient codebreaker, but he’d run a few covert ops for his government strictly off-the-books. More than a few. He had done terrible things on behalf of the free world, risked his own life countless times, sent willing men to their deaths. No one suspected, of course. He made damn sure they didn’t. How did the saying go? The better the spy, the better the lie.

  “You know she’s missing.”

  “I know she’s not here,” Valenti countered.

  “I can hook you up to a polygraph,” he reminded her. “I can hand you over for interrogation. Your head will spin.”

  Valenti gazed at him steadily. “She had some personal business, just like I said.”

  Morgan balled his fists, tamping down his irritation with her screw-you attitude, because that wouldn’t get him anywhere. Allison’s comings and goings had been worrying the agency for years. That concern had mushroomed in the last twelve months. He himself had moved from concerned, to highly suspicious, and finally to wondering what game she was running on her own. For all her unflappable demeanor, she was a loose cannon, and he knew more than most that a weapon with the safety off could be used against you in a heartbeat.

  He had the scars to prove it.

  Inside and out.

  “Ms. Valenti, foreign nationals of unknown origin are plotting to blow up a significant target in your country in less than a month,” he said. “If that occurs, thousands of people will die. Until we resolve that, there is no such thing as personal business. We’re here to protect those people, and until they’re safe, we don’t belong to ourselves. So whatever, why ever, she’s wrong.”

  Her eyelids flickered. He watched her struggle with a sharp retort, and he wondered if he’d gone too far.

  “Standing down a little,” he informed her. “I actually do know we’re not living in Nazi Germany.”

  It worked. She moved her shoulders and tapped her fingers twice on the desk. “Okay. She’s pregnant.”

  Or maybe she had just been making him sweat a little, payback for trying to intimidate her. He did that. He intimidated and bullied. He threatened. He frightened. He used whatever weapon he had whenever he could. He was combative. He was driven. He did what he had to. And he had to find Allison.

  “Oh, for God’s sake!” Morgan thundered, slamming his fists down on the conference room table. Valenti didn’t bat an eyelash. “You can’t think I’d believe that.”

  But the truth was that the male part of him—the part that fantasized about Allison Gracelyn naked and in his bed, the part that drove him to cool down at the gym, take icy showers, pace sleeplessly in the middle of the night, that part—was shocked and angry. Almost as if Allison had betrayed him with another man—when he had no claim at all on her, of course.

  “You are lying to me. She’s a consummate professional,” Morgan flung at Windtalker2. “That’s not her style. That’s soap opera crap.”

  Valenti raised her chin. Her dark eyes flashed at him. “She’s pregnant, there’s a problem with the baby and she thinks she might be miscarrying.”

  For one more instant, he believed her, because he remembered how gently Allison broached the subject of his missing mother when he’d been assigned to Project Ozone and she had to get him a higher-level clearance.

  “You were twelve,” she observed. “That’s a rough time in life, even without something like that.”

  “No one can buy me by promising me information on my mother,” he had replied bluntly, raising the barriers around his heart. Of course he’d been asked that before. And would be asked again. But it was the first time Allison and he had discussed anything about his personal life other than his sister—whom Allison knew, of course, since Katie had gone to AthenaAcademy.

  Allison’s lips had parted slightly, and he saw for the first time how big her brown eyes were, and how beautiful, flecked with gold and heavily lashed. He was startled, and flustered. The men he worked with had an office pool going that the Ice Princess was a thirty-seven-year-old virgin. She’d never dated anyone. There were secretaries who refused to work for her, saying she was too demanding. Which earned her the title of Queen Bitch in the eyes of many. Sexism was still rampant in the workplace. He was probably more sensitized to it because he’d heard stories from Katie.

  Morgan read Allison differently. It wasn’t so much that she was cold or unreasonable; it was just that she didn’t give much back, and she needed her people to work as hard as she did.

  But that one time, discus
sing his mother, remembering that her own mother had been murdered, he had felt as if he’d seen a part of her she was in a habit of concealing. As if a mask had slipped. Maybe she had a guy who knew how to take that mask off. Maybe they were having a kid together, and that kid was in trouble.

  Allison as a mother. It had a certain…resonance.

  “Rush,” Bill McDonough said from the doorway. Sweaty and unpleasant, he had loosened his dark blue tie and he looked twenty years older than he had fifteen minutes ago. McDonough shot Kim Valenti a glare that might turn a lesser woman to stone and jerked his head toward the hallway.

  Morgan gave Valenti another look—a chance to change her story—but it was obvious she was done. He followed McDonough out, masking his distaste for Allison’s boss of three months—his boss’s boss. McDonough was crude around his female staffers, and he stole credit from his people for their decryptions and analyses.

  “How’d it go?” McDonough asked him.

  “It’s all bullshit,” Morgan replied. “You?”

  “Same here.” He made a face. “Here’s the sum total of what we know—someone’s got a nuclear device and wants to kill the Great Satan. You know, I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He slid a glance at Morgan. “Think it’s too late?”

  Before his mother had gone missing, Morgan had wanted to be a cowboy. He figured he still had time.

  “Nothing new?”

  “The terrorists are waiting for one of two messages. One is the code word to hit us. The other is to abort the mission. We don’t know what either code word is. I suggested this.” He said the most offensive version possible of “I’m having sex with your mother” in Farsi.

  “You think it’s coming out of Iran?” Morgan asked. “I was thinking of Berzhaan.”

  McDonough grunted. “I don’t think so. The Berzhaanis are too unorganized.”

  The two men walked down the hall past the open pit of monitors, phones and codebreakers working on Project Ozone. McDonough had on too much aftershave, and he was a smoker. He smelled like the inside of a taxicab.

  In the pit, there was a worried-looking general standing beside a harried-looking guy in a suit, both talking in low voices. Another trio, two men and a woman in a naval uniform, were paging through stacks of stapled printouts. The scene was noisy and appeared chaotic, but there was methodology in the madness, a through-line that the seasoned cryptanalysts of NSA knew how to find. A couple of crackerjack codebreakers gesticulated at a map of the Eastern seaboard with a dozen lights blinking—displaying potential targets for a nuclear attack.

  Allison’s office door was closed. McDonough pulled a swipe card from his pocket and ran it through the panel beside the door. The lock unclicked.

  “Her little escapade stinks like a dead hooker,” he said as he barreled in and flicked on the lights. “I was just in here, checking on things. This is what I saw.”

  He crossed to her desk and pointed at her computer screen. Morgan stared down at the screen—to see himself in profile, staring down at the screen. He turned and squinted, searching for the camera.

  “It’s a button cam on that picture frame—the one of her and her family when she got her black belt,” McDonough said.

  Morgan couldn’t detect the camera on the black lacquer frame, which didn’t surprise him. The photograph itself was very familiar to him, showing a teenage Allison dressed in an all-black martial arts uniform, belt included, beaming from the center of a loving family. Her mother had still been alive. Marion Gracelyn was murdered ten years ago, when Allison was twenty-seven. Morgan had studied the picture before, wishing he could see Allison smile that broadly in person, catch her in a carefree moment.

  Catch her, period.

  He wondered if McDonough’s spycam had captured even one of the hungry, lustful gazes he, Morgan, had thrown Allison’s way when he thought she wasn’t looking. He should have guessed her own boss would be conducting illegal surveillance of her at the office. He wondered if McDonough actually was NSA. He had the codebreaking creds, but on the other hand, CIA employed lots of multilingual codebreakers, too.

  “Watch what we’ve got. This was yesterday morning.” McDonough pulled a miniaturized remote control device out of his black suit trousers and clicked it. An image filled Allison’s screen—it was Allison at her desk, fingers racing across her keyboard as she frowned mildly at the monitor. She stopped typing and rested her hand on her chin. Clouds must have passed behind her window, dimming the light. Morgan could practically see the wheels of her brilliant mind analyzing strings of code as they blipped across her monitor.

  Then her outside line rang and she picked it up.

  “Yes,” Allison-on-the-screen said. Her face changed and she sat up straighter in the chair. The room darkened perceptibly as her eyes widened and her lips parted. She looked…frightened.

  “I’ll get the cash,” she said. “Give me time.” Then she hung up, pushed back her chair, turned off the lights and left her office.

  “Then she leaves,” McDonough said, as the footage continued, the room cast in an eerie night-vision luminescence. “That was yesterday morning, before she took today off for personal reasons…and has been MIA ever since.”

  Morgan thought a moment. “Any corroborating calls come in while she was gone?” He could comb back through the phone log himself to check.

  “Nothing on my camera. I listened to all her messages, in-house and her secured outside line. I’d say that woman has no life except she clearly does, maybe working for the same guys who are trying to blow up the United States in time for Thanksgiving.”

  Listening to her messages involved some protected speech issues, but Morgan stayed focused. He was intrigued by what he’d seen, but he knew there could be a logical explanation. He simply had no idea what it might be.

  McDonough glanced at him. “As far as I’m concerned, that bitch has made her move, and it’s time for the bat signal, Batman.”

  Morgan kept his face impassive, and McDonough laughed mirthlessly.

  “Yeah, I know about you. You’ve gone deep for the people of these United States. Risked everything. Almost gotten killed a couple of times. I know you want to do this. Go ahead and volunteer. I’ll back you up.”

  Morgan doubted McDonough would backup his own mother, but he wasn’t about to say no. He wanted to go after Allison so badly he could taste it.

  “If you don’t go get her, I’ll send someone else who doesn’t have a hard-on for her,” McDonough continued.

  Morgan nodded once, hopefully out of camera range.

  McDonough nodded back. “You have everything you need?”

  “I do.”

  “Then stop wasting time.” McDonough lifted up his hand, snapped his fingers and pointed at the door. Morgan bristled at the lapdog-style command, but kept his irritation to himself.

  Without another word, Morgan left Allison’s office.

  McDonough stuck his head into the hall. “Call me. Check in. I don’t want to have to send someone after you next.”

  Morgan kept walking.

  As he strode past the conference room, Valenti rose from her chair and joined him in the hall.

  “What are you going to do?” she asked, catching up.

  He turned his head. The door to Allison’s office was closed and McDonough was nowhere to be seen.

  “What makes you think I’m going to do anything?” he asked.

  She pursed her lips and raised her chin.

  “Just tell her to come in,” he said. “It’s not too late. McDonough will back off.”

  Her expression never wavered. Morgan gave his head an angry shake.

  “You’re wasting my time,” he said, and then he guessed that maybe that was the idea.

  He took off.

  Chapter 4

  A llison flew down the off-ramp, gutterballing it as close to the shoulder as possible, and hit the turbo through a very yellow light. It was red before she was halfway across the intersection. More horns blared and she
flicked her vision from the rearview mirror to the crimson taillights crowding her windshield. The grubby white van hadn’t shown yet, but in this day of cell phones and satellites, that didn’t mean a thing. For all she knew, her Infiniti had been painted by Echo herself, who was observing her nemesis via satellite as she flushed her out.

  There was a nondescript strip mall up ahead. Allison scanned for entrances and exits where she might dump the car if she needed to.

  A motorcyclist swerved around her and failed to maintain his speed. She braked hard, keeping her eyes on him in case he was trying to box her in. Her laptop and cell phones crashed to the floor on the passenger side. Sloppy. The motorcycle flipped her off and streaked away in the rain.

  Making a command decision, she turned off her lights and shot into the alley behind the strip mall. There were no overhead lights, and the alley was narrow, bordered by two one-story brick buildings on her right and a quartet of oversize aluminum Quonset huts on her left.

  She eased the car around an overflowing Dumpster, then glided around the far corner of the building. Leaning forward, she craned her neck and peered through the windshield.

  The van was crossing the intersection.

  She leaned down and grabbed up her personal phone, a more subdued black than the cheetah print prepaids. Punched in Selena’s number.

  “Yes, Allison,” she said.

  “I’m being pursued. White van.” She gave her the license plate number.

  “Checking. Is there anything I can do?”


  “Staying with you.” Selena’s voice was taut with anxiety, but she kept on task.

  The van pulled into the strip mall. It did not go into the alley, but advanced slowly down a straggly row of cars parked in the gravel lot, the majority of them clustered near Allison. A quick glance revealed that the building beside her was a bar.

  Allison backed up slowly, reluctantly shifting her attention from the white van to check the alley behind her via her side mirror, which she cranked to a sharp angle.

  Harsh white headlights blazed at the entrance of the alley. She froze. If she backed up any farther, the lights would brush her car. If the driver was working with the van, they’d have her.

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