“You’ll be called hourly. Always by an Oracle agent. Do not identify yourself as Athena Construction. The agent calling you will identify herself first with a new code word.” She thought a moment. “The code word will be ‘Gordita.’ Respond only to ‘Gordita.’ Do you understand?” That was the nickname of her horse back at AthenaAcademy. The same code word she had told Selena to use.
“Next call will be eight your time, and then nine. Around the clock. On the other phone.”
“Concentrate on Loschetter. Maybe he’s figured out a way to contact his masters.”
“No way. Not on my watch,” Katie insisted.
“We might have underestimated him,” Delphi cautioned her. “We don’t get extra points because we’re the good guys. Never assume we have an edge. Things are moving fast. Stay on him.”
“I will.” She liked Katie. The twenty-six-year-old was mature, frosty and aggressive—like her older brother.
“I’ll get those reinforcements to you,” Delphi continued. “If you have to abandon the safe house before they get there, I’ll contact them with the new location on my end.” They had another safe house set up, but she didn’t want to transport Loschetter if she didn’t have to. Let the fox out of the foxhole, he might figure a way to run—or someone might swoop down in a Black Hawk helicopter and spirit him away.
“You just say the word,” Katie assured her.
“Stay alert but don’t do anything you don’t have to do,” Delphi cautioned her, even though Katie was one of the most level-headed young women Allison had ever met.
“You can trust me, Delphi,” the young woman promised her.
A wave of vertigo swept through Allison. The hand holding the cell phone shook. She needed to get medical attention, or she would never make it to her destination. It would be so much simpler if she could hop another plane at Dulles. She wished she could keep her car. Her Infiniti was a powerful weapon in itself: a movable wifi, fully loaded with a GPS and a built-in computer that would give her the locations of the closest food, gas, lodging and feeder airports.
“Delphi, are you still there?” Katie asked her.
She was spacing. “Yes. If you get another silent call, or any call that doesn’t follow the new protocol, call AG or SSJ immediately. If you can’t reach them, call me. But only in extreme emergency.”
“Roger that,” Katie said.
She took a breath. “Katie, your brother may personally contact you. I tasked Allison for something very urgent and she’s going off the grid. Her employer is distressed.” That would be NSA, and Katie would know it.
Katie hesitated. “Is something going on between him and her?”
Allison’s face tingled. “Could you be more specific?”
“I mean, on a personal level. You know it bothers him that I’m doing things with her that I don’t talk about. But I think it’s more than that. He hasn’t been dating much lately.” She laughed humorlessly. “If you can call what Morgan does ‘dating.’ And he’s mentioned her a few times. Little questions, like is she seeing anyone?”
“They work together,” Allison said tersely. She knew about Morgan and his “dating.” And despite her having fallen in love a little with a passionate man with bone-deep convictions about protecting innocents and bagging the bad guys, she doubted Morgan Rush had fallen in love with her at all. “What else has he been asking?”
“Well, he’s pushed, actually, asked me if I knew very much about her. I said of course I did. We both went to AthenaAcademy. He asks me about the Spider files, Arachne, those things. I haven’t given him anything. But maybe if he knew that she was working undercover, he’d—”
“Agent Rush, he is not to know. You swore an oath that you would serve Oracle first and foremost. Are you still committed to that oath?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “I am, Delphi.”
Allison softened a little. “I know he’s your brother, Katie.”
“Everyone in Oracle is my family, too,” Katie responded. “We’re sisters.”
Another wave of protective emotion rushed through Allison, and it alarmed her as much as the first one. She couldn’t go soft. That was altogether inappropriate behavior for Delphi.
“So we understand each other,” she said, forcing her tone to sound as hard as nails.
“We do,” Katie concurred. “I’ll wait for the next call. Meanwhile, we’ll pack.”
“Good. One hour.”
A s she glided through the pouring rain, Allison debated the wisdom of continuing to use the same prepaid phone. The public might not realize that calls from such cell phones could be traced, but she worked for NSA and she knew better. She gazed up through the rain and the trees to the twinkling night sky, where the satellites sniffed out signals like bloodhounds and alerted their masters when they were on the scent. She got out her personal phone, went online and ordered six dozen prepaids from a wholesale source. She had them shipped to the drop point in Arizona.
It was eleven at night Eastern standard time, and she wanted to drop.
She sent text messages to three more Oracle agents to get to the safe house asap—Jessica Whittaker, Chesca Thorne and Sasha Bracciali, who had recently joined the ranks of Oracle.
Then she got out another phone, clamped on the distorter and dialed Sam St. John in India.
“Yes,” Sam said.
“Delphi. Have you found the laptop?”
“Negative,” Sam replied. “No one has seen it. But they’ve been very busy here.” There was an edge to her voice. “They’re burying their dead. It was a massacre, Delphi. Echo mowed down simple villagers. Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns. And children.” Sam’s voice was so brittle Allison thought it might shatter. “Thank God Elle packed some vodka.”
Allison’s own fury silenced her for a moment as she gripped the wheel with white knuckles. “More egg babies have been taken,” she continued. “One’s only five years old. We know of at least seven, but those are only the ones that have been reported. There may be more. We didn’t know about any of them. If there’s a list on that laptop, we can warn them while we move in to guard them.”
“Damn it,” Sam muttered. “Is it Echo?”
“We assume so.”
“What’s she up to?”
“Unknown as yet,” Delphi told her. “Maybe she’s looking for one child in particular. Or maybe she’s going to sell all of them to the highest bidder.”
“Not going to happen,” Sam insisted.
“Did you contact Lilith?” The beautiful daughter of Arachne had already taken a flight back to India with Tarak, her fiancé.
“Yes, she checked in. She described where the laptop should be. It wasn’t there.”
“Find it,” Delphi urged. “When you do, notify me asap. If you can’t get me, go to Allison or Selena.”
“Roger that,” Sam assured her.
They hung up.
With a groan, Allison rested her aching head on the steering wheel. Then she drove on, gliding deeper into the woods, where the streets were potholed and dark; the small houses and occasional businesses—liquor stores, pawn shops—ramshackle and stressed.
After half an hour of searching, she saw some half-rusted old cars inside a chain link fence. A hand-painted canvas sign that said Carlas Cash Or Tradein We Support Our Troops drooped across the fence, beneath a limp string of faded American-flag motif outdoor lights.
A small brick building sat beside the lot. The blue haze of a TV was on, and the red tip of a cigarette betrayed the viewer.
Allison took a deep breath and pulled down the illuminated makeup mirror on the sun visor. She had successfully cleaned off her face, but her nose was terribly swollen. Maybe she could work that to her advantage.
She took a nail file out of her purse and set to work prying off her parking sticker and her dashboard
As a final precaution, she counted and recounted the prepaids, and checked the charge on the laptop. Then she pulled on her coat, her hat and her gloves, and retrieved her umbrella.
Next she popped the trunk. Shielding her briefcase as best she could from the downpour, she swayed as she walked to the back of the car. Her Glock was there, and a small box of ammo. Also, her karate bag and gear. She put the Glock and the ammo inside her karate bag, zipped it back up and slung it over her shoulder.
She walked past the window with the blue haze and the cigarette glow. Saw the glow shift and point in her direction.
She walked up the weed-choked pathway to the peeling front door. A motion detector light went on, revealing a sign that said Office Closed.
She made her knock sound tentative; after a few seconds, the door opened a crack, held in place by a chain. Allison smelled not cigarette smoke, but marijuana.
“Are you a process server?” The woman had a whiskey voice.
“No. I—a friend of mine told me about you.”
She saw a rheumy eyeball, which widened as it took in her face.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“My…husband,” Allison choked out, trying to sound desperate and frightened. “I just need some…I want to sell you my car. I need to get out of town.”
The eye disappeared. “Not interested,” the woman said. The door began to click shut.
“My Infiniti,” Allison added.
The door opened again.
Morgan had never been invited to Allison’s home. He hadn’t been invited now. It didn’t take much to disable the commercial alarm system and break in, which surprised him, and made him edgy. He wondered if he was on a more customized surveillance system right now, and if she was watching him herself.
“Come in, Allison,” he said aloud. “McDonough can be dealt with. Let’s hit reset.”
There was no answer.
Still dressed in his business suit, he moved stealthily through her house, examining it as he went. He had snuck through embassies and palaces, armories and laboratories, and he had developed an eye for telling detail. Allison’s town house was graceful and understated. The antiques, hardwood floors and creamy drapes and upholstering said East Coast, but there was a spacious, airy feel to the rooms that reminded him of the Southwest. He knew she was from Arizona. Her father had recently retired from the Arizona Supreme Court. And there was a lot of warmth here, too, from the plethora of family photos hung on all the walls, including a shot of a horse in a magnetized AthenaAcademy frame on her refrigerator. He plucked the picture off the fridge and admired it, turning it over.
“Gordita,” he read. He smiled faintly. That meant “Little Chubby One” in Spanish. Odd name for such a beautiful horse.
He placed a mic on the frame.
About fifteen minutes later, he was in her bedroom, his leather satchel of spygear and flash drives at his feet, pawing through her underwear, searching for the elusive clue that would tell him where she kept the good stuff. He’d downloaded everything off her desktop system. For what it was worth, there were no phone numbers for high-risk obstetricians on her computer or in her hard copy address book—which was one of the items on top of the tidy little stack he was going to take with him.
He whistled low in his throat. He had had no idea that beneath her classy executive suits, Allison Gracelyn wore silky push-up bras and thongs. And he was enough of an animal that thoughts of her in these sexy under-things—she wore thigh-high stockings, oh man, who knew?—were making him hard.
“Ice Queen, my ass,” he muttered. A band of black satin gleamed in the moonlight from her bedroom window. “She must have a gold card at Victoria’s Secret.”
Exhaling, he yanked the drawer out and felt along the runners. Above. Below.
While he searched, he listened to the chatter of the State Troopers at the Jade’s alleyway crime scene through his earpiece. They were more interested in the vehicular hit-and-run. That made sense. Troopers were practical people, and blood spatters were more esoteric than dented trucks.
There had been no one inside the parts store; nothing had been taken; and from their conversation, they had already walked over the assorted muddy footprints and didn’t seem interested in lifting them anyway. Nothing was missing. Time for the gang to head back to the doughnut shop.
Morgan had already done a cursory and illegal search on the unlisted number the prepaid had called—the one for Athena Construction. It, too, was a prepaid cell phone. No sales or activation records for either phone were immediately available, but he had the means to do a more in-depth search. He figured that for a dead end, with phony IDs and useless landline numbers in the blanks on the registration papers. But the area code for Athena Construction was the same as that of Athens, Arizona, the closest town to the AthenaAcademy.
So either Allison had been in that alley; someone had lifted a prepaid phone off her and then lost it in that alley; or someone really had dealings with “Athena Construction”—no business by that name being listed in the Athens phone directory—and someone who sounded very much like his sister worked there. It was possible he had been mistaken about her voice. He hadn’t talked to Katie much lately.
However, he had never been a fan of coincidences. Which slammed shut doors number two and three.
His cell phone rang. He looked at the number. It was Juliet, who worked in a crime lab twenty minutes away. Morgan had contacted Bobby Guardino, an Alexandria-based P.I. who occasionally worked for him, and had him courier over a section of the shredded bloody tissue Morgan had collected at the scene. Juliet agreed to check it out for him stat—and off the books. Juliet was part of his network. She and he used to date.
Okay, used to have sex. Good sex.
“Hi, Juliet,” he said.
“It’s AB neg,” she replied. “Rarest type there is.”
He knew Allison was AB neg. He’d already checked. One percent of the U.S. population had AB negative blood.
“Can you get a pregnancy reading off it, too?”
“Oh God, Morgan,” she said in disgust.
“It’s business,” he said.
She knew that he had an extracurricular life in service to the nation because she did, too, now, thanks to him. He hadn’t meant to use sex to recruit her for covert activity and in retrospect, he wouldn’t have slept with her if he’d known they were going to be working together. It was difficult to regret something that had felt so good, but their relationship had degraded about as fast as your average corpse left out in the noonday sun. Definitely his fault—it always was—but he was genuinely sorry about it.
“All right,” she muttered. “But I’m violating someone’s civil rights all to hell and I could get fired, so it had better be vital to national security, or I’m kicking your ass.”
He almost smiled.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I do appreciate it.”
“Whatever, Morgan. By the way, I’m dating a doctor now. We really date. He’s a good guy.”
And I’m not, Morgan translated. I don’t have time to be a good guy.
“I’m glad,” he said, and he meant it. “Invite me to the wedding.”
She snorted. “As if.”
“Call me when you get results, okay?” He repeated his cell phone number.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I still have your number, Morgan,” she said. “I’ll call you. And I really will.”
He knew what she was saying: He hadn’t c
“Thank you, Juliet,” he said.
“Later,” she said, and disconnected.
He started gathering up Allison’s unmentionables, replacing them in the drawer, trying to quell the images of her that rose in his mind. His conversation with Juliet reminded him that he was a dog and that while Allison was his professional target, her very silky—sheesh, transparent—intimate apparel demanded his respect.
He thought again about the recording that slime bucket McDonough had shown him. Why would Allison Gracelyn need time to get some money? Why would she be getting scary phone calls at the office? It just didn’t work or make sense to him.
He was mulling it over, seeing it in his mind, remembering the timbre of her voice. And something occurred to him; it was the answer to what had bothered him about the video feed, which had finally hit the little bell in the pinball game that was his mind.
At the exact same time, he opened the next drawer down, which was filled with athletic socks rolled into neat little balls. He pushed them aside like bubbles in a fish tank, and a fillip of excitement jittered through him as he picked up a matte-gray container and flicked it with his thumbnail. It opened like a hydraulic clamshell, revealing the sweet pearls inside: button cams just like the one on her picture frame in her office. Nice. Useful.
He grunted aloud at his good fortune, shut the clamshell and set it on top of the dresser beside an elegant enameled vase filled with white roses that were starting to wilt.
“Let’s see what else you’ve got,” he muttered aloud.
Beneath a pair of bike shorts, he found a printout of an article. Force Fields and Electromagnetic Shields in Nature.
“Huh?” he said aloud, skimming it. Anecdotes in Science Fiction…Particle Accelerators…Quantum Physics…Insects That Can Concentrate Electrons to Create Actual Force Fields…
“Is she on some special woowoo task force to create the ultimate defensive weapon?” he muttered, flipping over the page. “Or has she finally cracked under pressure?”
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes