“There’s a paint can in the library where you are now. It’s a duplicate of one in the facility. Both are labeled with the color of my eyes. Take the one from the library to the storage facility and exchange it for the one you find there. When you get to the facility, disarm the alarm system. The protocol will also initiate a prerecorded visual feed of the storage unit for the caretaker and anyone else who’s watching. It will mask your entry, the swap and your exit.”
“Understood.” Everything Allison had described was SOP for covert ops, so no surprises yet for Selena.
“Once you retrieve the can, don’t open it. Repeat, do not open. Box it up and ship it to Drop Point Alpha.”
Allison was referring to their post office box in Athens. As bizarre as it sounded, the more out in the open they were about receiving their supplies, the less likely the bad guys would be able to locate and intercept them.
“Drop Point Alpha, Roger that. Is the can wired to explode?”
“Not by me,” Allison said. “But I don’t know if the contents are wired. Use extreme caution. Don’t hold onto it, Selena. Get rid of it asap.”
“Roger that,” Selena said.
“Call my cell phone when you’ve done it.”
“Will do,” Selena replied. “Are you hurt? Do you want me to meet you somewhere?”
“No,” Allison said firmly. “Do exactly what I just told you. Do it like the world will explode if you don’t do it.”
“Are you coming in?” Selena asked her.
“No. I’m going deep. I’m going to have to ask more of you to put Oracle first. Anyone who can make special arrangements to free up their time should do it. Spread the word.”
Selena was quiet for a moment. “Understood.”
“I’ll be in touch.” Delphi disconnected and raced through the dark, sharp wind.
T he rain was almost hail, ricocheting off Morgan’s windshield as he left NSA headquarters in his black Lexus. His tie unloosened, his suit jacket laying over his briefcase, he merged onto the
, planning to drive straight to Allison’s town house. There was something about that recording McDonough had showed him that bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
Shortly after he entered the flow of traffic, he intercepted a Maryland State Police dispatch call: hit-and-run and a possibly connected B&E concerning a parts store across an alley from a strip mall bar called Jade’s. Dark sedan, possibly a Lexus or Camry, Virginia plates, numbers not caught. Suspect may be female with brown hair.
He narrowed his eyes as he glided through the traffic like a shark. Could that have been Allison?
The only thing Morgan had to go on was the proximity of the incident to FortMeade. That and the sixth sense he sometimes had about these things. Still, he wavered as he pulled up the GPS coordinates for Jade’s Bar on his handheld. What if it had nothing to do with her? What if she was at her town house right now, throwing a few fake passports in a bag and shredding incriminating evidence?
Sometimes he used a team when he was on a mission, and he thought now about making a few calls. He could go to the Jade location and someone else could go to Allison’s home. Another someone else could ask some questions at AthenaAcademy in Arizona. And a fourth teammate could scare the crap out of Valenti until she gave up her friend.
His people were good at coordinating their efforts, but he was moving awfully fast. He’d have to bring them up to speed and he wasn’t sure he could spare the time. For the moment he had the element of surprise on his side. If Allison was looking over her shoulder, she would never dream of seeing him in her rearview mirror. As far as she knew, he was a codebreaker and nothing more. If one of his guys inadvertently tipped Allison off—if, say, she spotted a tail—and he lost her as a result, she would be a whole lot more difficult to find.
But he would find her. It just might take more time.
Better to travel light for the moment. It was just Morgan versus Allison, and he knew who was going to win.
Or am I simply giving her a chance to come out of this intact? A chance to tell me what’s going on before I drag her in by her hair? he wondered. He wasn’t sure he had the luxury of extending kindness or mercy. He had no doubt McDonough had a list of trackers he could and would call if Morgan didn’t bring her back.
He took the off-ramp, racing to beat the cops to Jade’s. Since no one had been hurt, the Troopers might take a little time getting there. Good news for Morgan. That would keep the crime scene fresh.
There it was, the bar, seedy and run-down, and an older man in a ball cap stood hunched out in front, waving at him from beneath an umbrella.
Morgan pulled up. The man jogged into the lot as Morgan rolled down his window.
“Did you call in a hit-and-run?”
The man nodded. “I’m Andy Nelson. I own the bar. Are you a detective?”
“Yeah. Can you tell me what happened?”
“This woman in a black car ran into Hunter’s truck.” He pointed to the truck, which featured a good-size dent dead-center above the wheel. The tire looked to be losing air. “Happened about fifteen minutes ago.”
“What did she look like?” Morgan asked him, because if she was a blond or a redhead, he was history.
“Well, before I go into that, I gotta tell you something else,” Nelson said conspiratorially, glancing over his shoulder, in the direction of the bar entrance. “I was, you know, walking the perimeter while I was waiting for you, and I found some blood in the alley behind the parts store.”
“I see,” Morgan replied, cool and collected, even though his heartbeat picked up and he was sure his eyes had widened. “And do you believe that is connected with the hit-and-run?
“Maybe,” the man replied. “Listen, I ain’t told anyone in the bar about the blood. I gave Hunter—it’s his truck—a shot of tequila on the house. He’s mad enough to kill somebody. It’s all he got in the divorce settlement. Bitch took his house. Let me show you the blood first. It’s back there.” He surreptitiously jerked his head. It was clear that he was thrilled to be of service; he was splashing around in drama and he liked it that way.
“All right,” Morgan suggested, rolling the window back up and easing away. There was no way he was going to invite Andy Nelson to hop in out of the rain. One glance at the lack of police computer and comm system, and Morgan’s jig would be up.
Morgan drove past the bar and slowed at the alley. A row of large upside-down U-shaped buildings made of corrugated aluminum faced the back entrance of the bar. He slowed, glancing in the rearview window at Nelson, who gave his head a shake and gestured for Morgan to keep going.
The rain pummeled his windshield as he complied, rolling slowly to the other side of the aluminum buildings and stopped the car. They were faced by low brick buildings and beyond them, towering evergreen trees whipping in the storm.
Morgan stashed a few manila envelopes containing some routine NSA business under the spotless passenger seat and glanced around for other evidence of his true identity. Then, as Nelson caught up with him, he grabbed his broad-beam flashlight from his glove compartment, and his umbrella, and got out of his car.
“Can you walk me through the evening?” Morgan asked, pressing the umbrella open.
“Well, this guy came through the bar like he was looking for someone. He left the front door open and it was pissing off my regulars. Bobby’s girlfriend was in the back talking to some lady, and she went out of the bar in a hurry. The lady, I mean. Lee remembers a black car in the alley because the lady asked her if she was blocking her.”
Morgan’s sixth sense tingled again. “Lady?”
“Yeah, I guess she was pretty. I didn’t see her. Bobby and Lee took off for the movies. If you want to interview them later, you can call the bar. I have a business card.” He had been holding it the entire time he’d been talking, waiting to hand it over to the law, prove
“Thanks,” Morgan said, placing it in his coat pocket.
“I was going out to look at the Dumpster. Bobby came to tell me the trash guys didn’t empty it again. I swear, I’m going to sue the management company, they raise the rent and then what, they stop collecting my trash?” He shook his head importantly, a businessman weighed down by the ineptitude of others.
“I hear you,” Morgan said, clicking his teeth sympathetically.
“And I saw the door to Fred’s Parts Supply was open. So I went in to check. There’s mud tracked in and the back door was open. Fred’s coming by to see if anything was taken.” He shrugged. “I didn’t realize you guys would come this fast, or I would have waited to call until Fred got here.”
“That’s okay, Mr. Nelson. You did the right thing. Do you have Bobby and Lee’s home phone number?”
Nelson shook his head. “They’re in the middle of moving in together. He hasn’t updated his W-2 paperwork. I gotta get on him about that. Lee has a cell but I don’t know it.”
“Okay.” He looked at the open door halfway down the alley. “Did you go through the parts supply store when you walked the perimeter?” Thereby contaminating a possible crime scene?
“Yep. That’s Fred’s store. Let me show you the blood. I almost didn’t see it.”
Pulling a flashlight from his pocket, Nelson led the way down the alley, past the open door. There, beside the jamb, dark spatters rode the accordion folds of aluminum. Morgan was curious why the man thought they were blood; as Nelson shone his common flashlight over them, they washed to dark gray in the yellow light.
Morgan got closer and aimed his stronger light at the spatters. Sure enough, he saw a red tint. In the strange ways of the universe, an overhang had protected the evidence from the rain. Which meant that there may have been a trail the rain had erased. He ran his flashlight over the aluminum folds, then down onto the blacktop, washed clean by the pounding rain.
“Okay, thanks. This is very useful. It would be better if I worked alone here,” Morgan said. “I’ll come down and talk to the hit-and-run victim in a few minutes.”
Nelson nodded knowingly. “Collect the evidence, secure the scene. Sure thing. It was just Hunter’s truck. He wasn’t hit. He’ll sit tight for a few more minutes.” He winked at Morgan. Actually winked. “Especially if I give him a few more shots of tequila.”
“Good plan,” Morgan assured him.
“Glad to help,” Nelson said. Then he jogged up to the open door, and hesitated. “If I go in there, I’ll contaminate the crime scene,” he ventured. Then he winced. “I probably already did, huh.”
“It’s no problem,” Morgan lied. “But it might be better to go around the way we came.”
“Gotcha.” The man smiled. “I watch CSI.”
Morgan smiled back. “So do I.”
“I’ll keep Hunter from getting too drunk to talk.”
Nelson jogged back into the alley. Once Morgan was sure Nelson was gone, he returned to his car. He grabbed a pair of latex gloves out of a kit in the trunk, put them on and walked back toward the blood. The guttering streetlight was more annoying than helpful, but he’d take what he could get. He hugged the row of metal buildings on his left, sweeping with his flashlight as he went.
He looked at the spatter pattern, trying to imagine where it’d come from. Facial injury? Person had to be about half a foot shorter than he was. Maybe Allison’s height. She came up to his shoulder. Perfect for kissing.
He didn’t like thinking that way right now.
She’s here…why? She gets attacked. She hits a guy’s car making her escape…
Or she was never here in the first place.
He took one of his tissues, wiped it across the blood spatter on the wall and dropped it into a paper evidence envelope in his pocket.
He made his way back to the open door and aimed his beam into it, noting several sets of dirty shoeprints, one set significantly smaller than the others, exiting this way. He was guessing heeled boots. Allison had boots.
Could still be someone in there, hiding in the shadows, armed with an Uzi or a rocket launcher. He put it on his list of things to keep track of and started to head back to the car.
The rain was hitting the blacktop unevenly, indicating an object on the ground. He arced his beam downward again, and saw a portable phone. Some kind of animal print—leopard, maybe. He squatted down, grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket.
In the distance, the thin wail of a siren prodded him to hurry. Swearing softly, he glanced up. Maybe he should go up on the roof…
The siren was getting louder. Morgan was a little surprised, and wondered if Andy had told another member of the Maryland State Police that he’d found some blood. Why else rush on a rainy night to a vehicular hit-and-run with no injuries?
Betting against the likelihood that the State Troopers would be searching for advanced bugging equipment, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a small plastic container of microphones no larger than fleas, which were adhesed on strips that looked like tiny bandages. He picked up the tiny pipette included in the package, squeezed out the air and tapped one of the microphones with the tip, creating suction. Then he placed it on the interior section of the doorjamb, two inches lower than his own mouth, and tapped it onto the surface. Morgan was six foot two.
He dashed back to his car and fished a small black metal box out of his trunk. Nonstandard issue for cryptanalysts, highly standard issue for black ops. Morgan wished he had some sexier stuff on hand. He hadn’t restocked his car after his last assignment—Fairfax—because he’d intercepted comint—communications from intelligence—that NSA was going to recommence random searches of employee vehicles. One of Project Ozone’s tasks included beta-testing encryption protocols for mini-mics, so he could explain why he had them.
He flicked the box open, felt around for his earphones and looped one around his ear. It was set to the frequency of the tiny microphone on the jamb.
He hurried back to the button mic.
“Test, test,” he said. He heard himself in his earphone. He also heard the siren—in stereo—distinct from his voice and the rain. He had good reception, and he was about to have company unless he got the hell out of there.
Back to the car, then, he put his flashlight in the glove compartment and calmly drove away. He went through the intersection and looped back around to get back onto the parkway. Sure enough, a Maryland State Troopers vehicle was just taking his original off-ramp.
Still wearing his gloves, he pulled the animal-print cell phone he had collected out of his pocket and hit the code to redial the last number that had been called.
“Athena Construction,” came a voice. His sister’s voice.
He drove on autopilot for a few seconds, dumbfounded. Athena. As in AthenaAcademy?
Katie said nothing more; she was obviously waiting for a reply. That raised the likelihood that there was some kind of coded response—which Morgan didn’t know.
He listened to the white air. They were still connected.
She was his sister, for God’s sake. If he ID’ed himself—
Everything in him told him to shut down the call. He shouldn’t tip his hand. Frown lines creased his forehead as he clicked the phone closed, put it back in his pocket and drove straight to Allison’s town house.
Allison kept to surface streets as she tried to staunch the flow of blood from her nose. She was certain that it was broken. Her head was pounding and her vision was blurring. She was worried about a concussion.
As soon as she had verified that there was no one following her, she pulled over to a weed-choked shoulder, staggered out and threw up.
Her mind bounded ahead, clearing a path to her goal. She would have to dump her car. She would have to get to Arizona. She would have to stay alive.
Slinging herself into the passenger seat, she dug in her briefcase for some ibuprofen and a bottle of water. She rinsed out h
She breathed deeply, aware that seconds mattered right now. Nanoseconds. But she had to take the time.
Once she was more composed, she grabbed one of the prepaids, slapped on her distorter and called the Loschetter safe house again.
“Athena Construction,” Katie Rush said.
“I’m interested in buying a house,” Delphi answered, using her voice distorter. “Status.”
“Delphi. Did you call before without speaking?” Katie asked.
Allison blinked. Alarms went off like hand grenades. “No. When?”
“I logged it. About ten minutes ago. Nine minutes and forty-eight seconds, actually.”
“Hang on,” Delphi told Katie.
Despite the fact that several Oracle agents had the safe house phone number, Allison had a feeling that things had just escalated from worse to worst. With her free hand, she opened up her briefcase. She had put six prepaids in there. There were four. The one she was on made five.
She shut her eyes at her terrible blunder. She must have left the one she had used in the alley. Who had found it? Her mind ranged over the possibilities, from CIA to assassins unknown to Echo. A good spy would be able to trace the call with satellite equipment. She’d done it herself in the past.
“Pack up. Be ready to leave on my signal,” Delphi ordered her subordinate. “Your location may be compromised.”
There was a beat. “Roger wilco, Delphi.”
“Switch to the alternate phone number. I’ll send a memo. I’m going to check in with you every hour on the hour starting now,” Delphi continued, checking her dashboard clock. “It’s 6:57 p.m. where you are, correct?”
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes