“I’m exiting my vehicle,” she informed Selena, then she grabbed up the spill of her phones and her laptop and crammed them into her briefcase, feeling for her hat and gloves in her pockets in case she didn’t get to come back. She got out, leaving her umbrella; too much to carry. Her Glock was unloaded and locked in the trunk, a precaution required for entry onto NSA property. She sidled around the side of the vehicle, her destination the trunk.
She looked from the headlights to the other side of the alley. Above the buildings, a stand of evergreens rocked in the increasing downpour. Lots of places to hide, if you were on the run…or if you were a sniper.
Parallel with her, the back door to the bar opened. Allison jerked away from her car and melted farther back into the shadows.
A twenty-something man in jeans, a knitted cap and a sweater emerged. Cursing, his head down, he jogged a large wheeled black plastic trash can toward the Dumpster.
Allison slipped into the opened door and found herself in a small hallway, facing another opened door that appeared to lead into a small, dingy kitchen. The braided odors of wet wool, hamburger grease and beer wafted toward her.
On her left, the hallway extended into the bar proper, and she heard someone shout, “Hey, shut that damn door! It’s frickin’ cold out there!”
“Allison, what’s your status?” Selena asked her.
Allison didn’t answer. Dripping, she took a few steps into the hall, and then a few more, jerking when the man with the trash can reentered the door behind her. He was with a young woman carrying a flowered umbrella. She was dressed in a puffy down jacket and skintight jeans.
“I’ll get my stuff,” he told her. “I have to tell Andy they didn’t empty the damn Dumpster again. I swear.”
“Hurry,” she pouted prettily, running a hand through her blond hair. “The movie starts in twenty minutes.”
Had the woman driven that car into the alley? If so, that was excellent news, because she was harmless. Allison turned and walked up to her.
“Did I block you?” she asked her in a friendly, relaxed manner.
“Yeah, but it’s no problem,” the woman said. “We’ll be backing out.” She smiled questioningly at Allison’s coat, then at Allison. “Get caught in the rain?”
“Yeah,” Allison said, arranging the coat over her shoulders. “I probably look like a drowned rat.”
“Kinda,” the woman replied, wrinkling her nose.
“Hey, dude, what is your problem?” the same protesting voice yelled above the noise. “Shut the damn door!”
“What’s going on?” Jeans asked Allison, craning her neck. “It’s not the cops again, is it? Man, Bobby gave one girl with a fake ID a beer, and—”
It might be that. Or “Dude” might be looking for her.
Allison pushed around the woman and flew back out the door like a shot. The light from the door spilled over the alley, against a metal door ten feet away cut into the large Quonset hut. She hurtled herself at it, grabbed the knob and jerked. It opened. She darted inside and shut it after herself, feeling for a locking mechanism, finding none, moving on into the darkness.
She smelled oil, dust and dirt; her hand brushed against something serrated that felt like a large saw. The building was some kind of storage facility for machinery parts. She crept forward carefully, trying to keep herself moving in a straight line. Most buildings had two doors, an entrance and an exit. If she could find the way out…
“Allison, where are you?” Selena said in her ear.
Allison disconnected her and put the earpiece in her coat pocket. There was nothing Selena could do for her right now except distract her.
She snaked her arms through the coat sleeves as she tiptoed on the balls of her boots through the darkness. Her ears were primed for footfalls, voices, but she heard only the rain and the occasional clink when she ran into something. Dark shadows formed from darker shadows, retinal artifacts of her heightened anxiety and nothing more. Half a dozen times, she grabbed at objects as her knees or elbows or her briefcase collided with them, shutting her eyes tight, holding her breath.
With a pang of regret over her Glock, she tried to remember if she had taken everything else of value out of her car, if she had collected all the prepaids when her briefcase had fallen onto the floor.
It seemed an eternity before the toes of her boots pressed against the opposite wall of the building. She felt with her hands for a door, moving methodically to the right; then a sliver of light drew a line across the tips of her shoes.
As she found the doorknob, an image of her mother flashed through her head. Allison had never meant to see the morgue photos, but she had by accident, and they’d been gruesome. Marion Hart Gracelyn had not died well. Fear rose inside her. She didn’t want to die like that.
Then Morgan’s face filled her mind, laughing exuberantly when she beat him at tennis. He rarely laughed. She doubted he would be laughing now.
She took a deep breath and turned the knob as soundlessly as she could. The door cracked open, the pressure making a soft puh that reminded her of a silencer. Rain sheeted down ping-ping-ping like spent cartridge casings.
Then she heard a noise behind her. Someone else had just entered the building. If they had a flashlight and a gun, she was in trouble.
She crossed the threshold. Stopped. Took stock, shivering beneath the downpour as she edged past the doorway, preparing to take out whoever walked through the door.
Then she realized she wasn’t alone in the alley.
A stuttering streetlight strobed the scene, allowing Allison to piece together her surroundings.
Drenched by the rain, a tall, husky man loomed at the right end of the alley. He was wearing a bulky coat over a suit. He looked straight at her…and then past her, toward the other end of the alley.
She slid her glance to the left.
Equally tall, the man there was heavier, and bald, and dressed in an overcoat as well.
Bareheaded in the downpour, they began walking toward her. Adrenaline raced through her veins. She stayed light, got ready.
A flashlight flared from the exit of the Quonset hut. The man carrying it was at least six-four and dark-skinned, and his eyes were hooded as he saw her and held up a wallet. He must be showing her his ID, but she couldn’t make it out in the dim light.
He said, “Allison Gracelyn, we’d like to speak to you.”
“You are?” she asked steadily, not at all surprised that they knew her name. FBI? CIA? NSA? Echo’s lackeys?
“CIA. We just have a few questions. Come with us, please.”
Her heart jackhammered. No way.
She gazed left and right as the two other men continued striding toward her, blocking her escape routes. She wondered if their heavy coats concealed weapons.
“We can talk here,” she said. Her skin sizzled with anxiety as her body prepared itself for flight or fight. “What would you like to know?”
“We just have a few questions,” he answered smoothly. “It’s nothing unusual.”
The bald man reached her first. His heavy hand clasped her shoulder.
“Please, Ms. Gracelyn, let’s go.”
She kept her bicep loose as she said to the man facing her, “Unless you’re FBI, and you have a warrant, you have no jurisdiction here.” She glared at the bald man. “And I can have you arrested for battery.”
“We only want to talk to you,” the dark-skinned man repeated.
The hand on her shoulder dug in then. Her mind raced through possible moves to take all three of them out as quickly and efficiently as possible. If they were field agents, they had some martial arts training. Given the shape they were in, she probably had more. But her karate master had warned her to never, ever underestimate her opponent.
Then the bald man surprised her. He circled behind her, and the hard pressure of a weapon indented her back.
“This is a Magnum .357,” he said. “You kno
“Christ, Wilcox.” It was the third man, the husky one, who had been silent until now. “What the hell are you doing?”
“She has to come in. She’s in some deep shit,” the bald gunman—Wilcox—informed him.
“Hey, I don’t know anything about that. Beck just said to pick her up,” the husky man argued. She could hear the anger in his tone. “This isn’t what we were told to do.”
She noticed that the dark-skinned man wasn’t talking. Was he in on it, then?
“It wasn’t what you two were told to do,” Wilcox declared. “I have orders to bring her in or shoot to kill.”
“From Beck? No way,” the dark-skinned man insisted, siding with the husky man. So he wasn’t in on it. “You must be doing this for someone else.”
She tried to remember whom she was supposed to be blackmailing at CIA. Wrobleski? She ran through the implications of dropping his name to see what happened.
The dark-skinned man reached inside his coat pocket.
“Raise your hands above your head,” Wilcox growled, “or I’ll bust your ass for obstructing justice.”
Infuriated but impotent, the man did as Wilcox ordered.
“Wilcox is going to kill me,” Allison said, as calmly as she could. “He used you to track me, and he can’t let you survive.”
“Shut up,” Wilcox said, grabbing her and pressing the barrel against the back of her skull.
“I’ve drawn my weapon,” the husky man announced.
“It’s not loaded,” Wilcox said derisively. “Check it.”
The millisecond of distraction was the best she was going to get. If she died, she died two seconds sooner, that was all. She rammed sideways into Wilcox with an elbow strike hard to his chest, then immediately whirled around with her right hand around the gun. With a grunt she pushed back hard on his wrist. At the same time, she executed a very high jump-front kick, her toes leveraging beneath Wilcox’s chin and snapping back his head.
Incredibly the weapon hadn’t discharged. As Wilcox tumbled backward, his head smacked the cement in the alley with a loud crunch.
Not completely to her surprise, the dark-skinned man charged her from behind. She executed a backhand chop into his face with the gun as he began to wrap his arms around her torso. Then she whipped back around to face him, pushing forward with a knife hand strike between his ribs as she kneed him hard enough to drop him. With a grunt, she slammed her foot against his windpipe. Three times in the last two seconds, she could have killed him. But she didn’t. He was only unconscious as his eyes rolled back in his head.
Aware that the husky man still presented a potential threat, she aimed the gun at him, left hand under the palm of her right as she distributed the weight of the weapon in a tripod formation. As he raised his hands over his head, she took a few steps away from both the supine men, in case they tried to sweep out an arm or a leg and take her down.
“Tell me who sent you,” she said.
“I swear, I don’t know what’s going on,” he insisted, staring down the barrel. “We were told to bring you in for questioning.”
“By running me off the road?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Her lips parted at his genuine confusion. She was in bigger trouble than she realized. “You aren’t driving a white van?”
Damn it. “Who is Beck?”
“Our boss, CIA. I have to tell you, we’re wired,” he added.
“I’m betting your buddy had you disconnected,” she observed. “So he could have a little more privacy when he killed you. Someone forced me here,” she continued.
“Not us,” he insisted.
“Then how did you know where to find me?”
“We were sent,” he replied. “That’s all I know.”
Then something swooped off the roof and drove her to the ground, slamming her facedown in a puddle. She heard a snap as excruciating pain roared through her head to the backs of her eyes, and she tasted blood.
It was a fourth man, landing so hard on her back that she expected her spine to crack in two. A haze of gray dotted with red swam in front of her eyes. She forced herself to stay conscious.
“Who the hell are you?” Husky shouted.
The .357. Allison realized she had landed on top of it. Then she heard footfalls as the husky man charged the jumper.
Her attacker’s weight shifted and she took immediate advantage, contracting her torso, quickly snaking her hand into the space and gripping the gun. She rocked, attempting to leverage herself onto her side so she could get a knee under herself and lift her body off the ground.
She heard a snick snick snick: Husky, still trying to make lemons out of lemonade with his unloaded gun. She wondered if he really was CIA. He didn’t seem smart enough.
The weight on top of her shifted again. She scooted out and got to her feet, to discover Husky using standard martial arts techniques against the jumper, a skinny Caucasian in a catsuit, who was employing a variant of Krav Maga, favored by Israel’s Special Forces.
Allison leaped to her feet, charging forward at the two grappling men, and brought the .357 down on top of the jumper’s head. He went slack and collapsed against the cement. His face was gaunt. By his cheekbones and haircut, she judged him to be Eastern European—possibly Kestonian.
Husky stared at her. She stared at him. Blood and rain gunneled down his face.
She showed him the gun, aiming straight at him. He looked scared as he panted and kept his hands where she could see them.
“Start over,” she said.
“Our manager is Jack Beck,” he replied. “Swear to God, I didn’t know it was a setup. I don’t think Jack does, either.” He stared at the gun through a curtain of rain. “But you’re right,” he said. “They should have heard this. They should be coming for us.” He grimaced. “Wilcox played us.”
“I think he’s working for someone in CIA,” she said. “I think you’ve got someone real dirty close to you.” She was willing to bet Wrobleski outranked Beck, probably was his superior, and he was doing bad deeds on company time, with company equipment, funds and personnel.
“Come in and talk to us about it,” he ventured.
She shook her head. “Another time, maybe. What does your vehicle look like?”
“Black Town Car,” he replied.
Then she spied her briefcase, her gut clenching as she realized she hadn’t closed it properly. The laptop was poking halfway out, and there was a cell phone lying in a puddle beside it.
He looked down at them, too.
“You tell them I’m clean. I’m being set up. When you wake up,” she said to Husky, as she executed a side spinkick and clocked him hard against the temple.
As she whirled around, she watched her own blood spatter the corrugated aluminum siding in the weirdly strobing overhead light. It was from her nose.
She dropped down to her haunches; threw the phone and the laptop back into the briefcase; and soaked up blood with the arm of her coat as she sprinted around the building into the next alley.
Her car was where she’d left it, and she saw no one else in the alley. Most importantly, no black Town Car. She unlocked the door of her Infiniti, fingers crossed that no one had pressed a bomb or tracking device to the undercarriage, slid in and gunned it.
Grabbing tissues from a box in the glove compartment, she mopped up her face, grimacing when she touched her nose. She was pretty sure it was broken. She was panting and shaking as she crashed back down from the extreme high of her adrenaline rush.
The white van was gone. It would have blocked her getaway from her end of the alley if it was still here. Maybe the wheelman figured the leaper was gone too long and abandoned him. Maybe Husky had lied and CIA decided to wait until she left the parking lot before they attempted another interception.
The better scenario had the white van freaked and gone, and the CIA arriving to se
A memory stick the CIA would love to possess themselves? Did Oracle really want them to know that?
I can’t trust anyone.
She grabbed the nearest phone out of her briefcase—cheetah print—and dialed Selena.
“Allison,” she said, “God, are you all right?”
“The van,” Allison replied. Her voice was ragged and muffled, as if she had a head cold. She pulled around the corner of the bar and straightened out, glancing in the rearview mirror to see if her luck was still holding.
“Nothing on the plates. Allison, you sound—”
Without warning, a red pickup truck backed out of a parking space in front of Jade’s Bar. Allison hit the brakes but it was too late. Metal squealed on metal as she hit the rear wheel well. Her air bag did not deploy, but she was jerked, hard. Pain shot from the center of her nose and radiated like electric wires all over her face.
“Damn it, damn!” she yelled.
She backed up and swerved around it, flooring it out of there. She looked in her rearview mirror, to see a man run out of the bar. He was joined by another man, taller, wearing a ball cap, racing toward her in the rain, waving his arms over his head.
“Allison?” Selena shouted.
Allison gritted her teeth and kept driving straight, noting no fishtailing, no swerving. That meant she was still in alignment. Despite the impact, her car was in better shape than she was.
“Selena, you need to do something for me,” she said. Then she hesitated. No one else in the world knew where that flash drive was. No one, except, perhaps Echo.
If I get picked up—or killed, God knows what will happen to that flash drive next.
“There’s a storage facility.” She grabbed more tissues and pressed them beneath her nose. It hurt like hell. “I’ve got it wired and you’ll need the code to get in. It’s on the mainframe, in a file labeled with the nickname of my favorite horse back at AthenaAcademy. You know that name. You’ll need it to decrypt a disarming protocol. Don’t try to go into the storage facility until you’re absolutely sure of that protocol.” Because you will die.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes