Disclosure, p.7
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       Disclosure, p.7

           Nancy Holder
 
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  He was engrossed, intrigued and highly skeptical as he kept reading.

  And that was probably the reason he didn’t hear the crepe-soled shoes creeping up behind him and didn’t feel the butt of the Skorpion as it crashed down on his skull.

  An unnamed island in Micronesia

  “We’re approaching the target,” the accented South African voice said into Echo’s earpiece, which was fashioned to look like a six-carat canary diamond post. The man who had created it for Echo was dead now. She was neither glad nor sorry about his death. Emotions were a distraction and she was a very focused individual.

  Except, of course, for her pesky temper.

  Stilettos clacking on the metal catwalk, Echo glided to the state-of-the-art overhead plasma screen and pressed it on. It hung within easy reach; she was six feet tall. Below her in the black maw of the half-built lab, a welder’s torch arced like a distress flare. A saw whined like a torture victim.

  The angular, light-brown face of Max Zabuto filled the screen. Max was the leader of the LeClaire extraction team. Knees, shoulders and Uzi barrels crowded the picture, and she knew he was packed inside the panel truck with his team.

  “There will be no witnesses to deal with, correct?” Echo queried. There had been a witness during the San Francisco extraction. Briefly. There wasn’t one now.

  He raised his chin as if he were affronted that she would dare ask. Then and there she decided that after the mission, he would be eliminated. As attractive as he might be, a man who thought for himself was not a useful man.

  And as for Max’s other premier talent…there were other attractive men who pleased her just as much in bed. One was there now, in fact, waiting for her.

  “I have confirmed it,” he said. “No witnesses. Her parents are in Bisbee running some errands and the neighbor’s on a trip.”

  “Good,” she stroked him. “Go silent until you’ve completed the extraction. No more communication.”

  “Roger that,” he replied. “Going silent.”

  The screen went blank.

  Poison, she thought. Slow and painful, because of the combative way he had raised his chin. He would know he was dying and he might even realize why.

  Then she pressed another button on the screen, and the holding cell for Max’s target gleamed into view. It was made of a Kevlar-titanium-Mylar alloy, a state-of-the-art building material that was heat-resistant and unbreakable. Its inventor had not realized that Echo’s mother, Arachne, had stolen his proprietary secret the moment he e-mailed the specs to the U.S. Patent Office, in the pathetic and useless attempt to protect his amazing discovery.

  With a few simple keystrokes, Mummy had framed him for the murder of a young college student. A job well done, and Echo knew there were many more examples of her mother’s brilliance she was not yet privy to. All would be revealed once she had the third packet of Arachne’s vast network of information—Lilith’s share. That poor, misguided idiot had placed her trust in the wrong people—Allison Gracelyn and her little supersquad of spygirls. Echo was ninety-nine percent certain that Allison was this “Delphi” who was proving to be a constant source of irritation. So Echo had devised a two-pronged plan: part one, ruin Allison’s life as thoroughly as possible and part two, kill her.

  The plan was going very well.

  And so was the Big Plan, which was also two-pronged—find and acquire all the missing egg babies Jeremy Loschetter had not told Team Allison about and finish reweaving her mother’s web, so Team Echo could get back to the lovely work of ruling the world.

  She cocked her head. “Not exactly ruling it,” she said to the lovely but empty cell. “Controlling it.”

  A far better term. She really didn’t care who ruled it. There wasn’t a lot she actually cared about. Like the cell, her heart was very lovely, but quite empty. Things like caring—loving, hoping, emotions—were like weather, fleeting and unpredictable. A sign of weakness. One had to stay focused.

  Echo was focused. She needed, wanted, the egg babies. But she had to have that necklace.

  She balled her fists so tightly she nearly drew blood. Not in hatred, for hatred was an emotion, and so was rage. For a moment, all she saw was the color red. It swam before her like a sea of blood. Then it faded to gray, and then it disappeared altogether.

  “Champagne,” she said, unfurling her fists. “To celebrate.”

  She blew a kiss at the image of the empty cell and turned off the monitor. Her heels clacked busily on the catwalk as she left the lab. She did a little tango step, listening to their rhythm.

  Clack, clack-clack-clack, clack-clack.

  Kill Allison Gracelyn. Kill Allison Gracelyn.

  Then she went into the Spider Room, where she kept her two beautiful necklaces, and sat with her mother for a while.

  Echo was in bed with her exhausted lover when her earring vibrated again. She got up and glided naked into her bathroom, slipping on a black silk bathrobe.

  “Yes.”

  “Target acquired.” It was Max.

  “Ah!” she cried happily, as she pressed the view screen beside her makeup mirror. The interior of the panel truck filled the screen. Still wearing his black flame-retardant catsuit, Max reached down and lifted up the head of a pale, dark-haired girl. She was unconscious. And very pretty.

  Sleeping beauty.

  “Report,” she ordered him. “Problems? Casualties?”

  Max hesitated. “One casualty. Johnson.”

  “How?”

  “He moved in before she was fully sedated,” Max answered, glancing warily down at the girl. “She fried him.”

  “You observed her in action,” Echo said, pleased. “She really is a firestarter.”

  “Yes.” Max swallowed hard. “It was…unbelievable.”

  “This is very good. The casualty, of course, is unfortunate. Johnson was a good man.” She had no idea who he was. Johnson was such a common name. Anybody with any style would have changed it. “Contact me again when you leave the country.”

  “Yes, madam,” Max said.

  His image disappeared, to be replaced by a field of black. Echo glided back into her cavernous Louis XIV-style bedroom and picked up the bottle of champagne in the silver bucket. They’d killed it. She rang for another.

  “Ian,” she sang out, jostling her bedmate. “Wake up.”

  Her exquisite English eye candy opened one bleary eye. Tousled blond curls, golden pecs. Enormous penis. Not a brain in his head.

  He groaned. “Again, luv?”

  Groaned!

  “Yes.” She threw off her black robe. “Again. And again.”

  He did his best to accommodate her, which was delightful. She loved riding her men, loved being on top, loved to see them give into the pleasure and in that vulnerable moment, put themselves completely in her power.

  As she slid up and down, gazing at his face with his closed eyes, listening to his labored breathing, she decided that Ian would die by strangulation. With piano wire.

  Echo was one for the classics. No one groaned when Echo told them what to do.

  And no one ever called her luv.

  Chapter 7

  “O kay, mi amor, you’re all set,” Hector Gonsalvo informed Allison, as he stepped back from Carla’s kitchen table to admire his handiwork. Casino Royale was on Carla’s TV and it seemed fitting somehow, since Carla had just helped a superspy out of a jam.

  Hector wore a grinning skull do-rag and a T-shirt that read Heaven Don’t Want Me And Hell Didn’t Even Answer The Phone. After a liberal dose of whiskey—a glass for Allison, a glass for Carla and a glass for himself—he had straightened out Allison’s broken nose and laid a bandage over the bridge. He was more concerned about the big bump on her forehead, and the fact that she was dizzy.

  Carla had called him to come over to help, and it sounded like she had interrupted a robbery or something equally illegal. Half an hour later, he had blasted right over on a pimped-out Harley-Davidson, very flashy, roaring and blaring just in
case no one noticed his midnight arrival.

  Once Allison’s nose was shoved back into place, the three ambled out to examine the car she wanted to ditch. They stood under umbrellas, which did little to protect them.

  Carla examined Allison’s car the way some men stare at naked women. She whistled under her breath and lit a cigarette. Then she took a step back, cocking her head at the dented front end and chewing the inside of her cheek.

  “No deaths, right?” Carla fished a piece of tobacco out of her mouth and rolled it away into nothingness between her thumb and forefinger. “Your old man, he make that dent when you ran him over, something like that?”

  “No, but you should make sure you get rid of every single identifying number on it, or else you should just help me set it on fire,” Allison told her. Which didn’t sound like a bad idea.

  “No way I’m torching a beauty like her,” Carla insisted, shaking her head. “You’re sure you didn’t kill anybody with it? Because I’m not about to become an accessory to murder.”

  “Obstruction of justice,” Hector corrected her.

  “Whatever.”

  “I swear to you,” Allison said seriously. “But people will be looking for it. You’ll have to be thorough.”

  “Don’t you worry,” Hector said, sliding his arm around Carla. Their umbrellas knocked together. “I’ll help Carla if she’ll let me ride in it. Carla lets me ride, don’t you, baby?” He nuzzled her cheek with his stubbly chin.

  Carla snorted, slammed into him with her hip and pulled a fresh cigarette out of a box pack in the front flap of her jean jacket.

  “Hector is a sex addict,” she said to Allison. “He has admitted his powerlessness over his need to get laid.”

  The two burst into raucous laughter. Allison’s head hurt. She felt as if she were about to melt into a puddle, she was so tired.

  “What’s the payback?” Carla asked her. “I can give you all the paperwork, legit if you want, on one of my cars.” She jerked her head at the rusting hulks behind the chain link fence.

  “Which one will last the longest?” Allison asked.

  “Me, baby,” Hector said, snorting. Carla rammed him again.

  “I got a blue Corolla back there. She looks like hell but she’ll run good on the open road.”

  Allison craned her neck. Then she nodded and held her hand out. The two women shook.

  “Hector will drive your Infiniti into my garage. You can sack out on the couch.”

  Allison took a deep breath and slid the key off her key ring. “I can’t stay. I have to hit the road.”

  “And get a DUI,” Carla said. “Girl, you’ve had some booze and you’re a mess. Get some sleep. I’ll make you some breakfast in a few hours.”

  “She cooks like an angel,” Hector said, putting his arms around her. He grinned at Allison with his very few teeth. “Serious, though, amiga, you need to lie down for a little while. You’re in no shape to drive. Take it from a pro.”

  He and Carla laughed as if at some private joke.

  “Listen, honey, we know all about injustice, Hector and me. Hiding out from the man. You’re safe here,” Carla promised her.

  Allison didn’t know about that. She didn’t know if Hector and Carla would decide to call the police in the hope that there was a reward for her capture. Or maybe they would murder her for her laptop and her credit cards.

  Or maybe, Carla would take Hector to bed with her in her bedroom, and tiptoe out in the middle of the night to drape an extra blanket on Allison. Allison had been dozing between sending rafts of e-mail.

  FROM: Delphi@oracle.org

  TO: AGracelyn@virginia.rr.com

  BCC: Samantha St. John

  Kim Valenti

  Selena Shaw Jones

  Diana Lockworth

  Lynnette White

  Katie Rush

  Lindsey Novak

  Chesca Thorne

  Jessica Whittaker

  Dawn O’Shaughnessy

  Sasha Bracciali

  ALERT: Echo is stealing egg babies. See attached.

  Other attempts likely. Report readiness asap.

  FROM: AGracelyn@virginia.rr.com

  TO: C_Evans@Athena.edu

  cc: KaylaRyan@YoungtownPD.org

  Christine & Kayla,

  Intel reports indicate that attempts to kidnap AthenaAcademy students identified as superegg babies will resume. Please discuss security procedures and get back to me asap. Thank you.

  AG

  Allison didn’t work from her Oracle account and she didn’t sign her message as Delphi. It made perfect sense that Allison, an NSA agent who had taken her dead mother’s position on the AthenaAcademy board, would have her finger on the pulse of the heartbeat of Athena.

  Next she checked to make sure her agents knew the new safe house phone number and ID code word. Selena had called Katie to verify the new procedure. All was well.

  Allison knew she couldn’t constantly monitor her people. She needed to trust them or she wouldn’t last another forty-eight hours. Someone in her position couldn’t micromanage. But every part of her wanted to. She wanted to remind them all to stay off the radar as best they could. She wanted to remind them to survive. That was when she knew she had to get some rest. She was losing it.

  So she tried to let it go, tried to believe that even when she was off-duty, her people continued the mission. These women had dedicated their lives to the greater good that Oracle represented. She was not in this alone.

  So why did she feel so alone?

  Maybe I have a force field, too, she thought, noting that Oracle had added a half-dozen more articles about quantum physics to her folder about Echo’s ability to deflect weapons. Mine keeps me “safe” from other people. Drifting, not quite asleep but too exhausted to stay conscious, she twisted and turned in the night, groaning; she dreamed of running from monsters and giant spiders and Marion Gracelyn, her face torn away, holding out her arms.

  “It’s so nice to be dead,” she whispered to Allison. “The dead can rest.”

  In the morning, Allison woke up as bone-weary as if she hadn’t slept at all. Hector checked her nose and promised her he’d done a good job.

  “It might have a little twist to it is all, ese,” he added. “Give you an edge.”

  “Where, in a boxing ring?” Carla snorted.

  Carla clucked at Allison and told her she was a bad sleeper, but maybe Allison had cause, if she needed to get rid of a dented car. Listening to the news on a small TV in the kitchen, Carla made hashed browns, scrambled eggs and bacon. There was no mention of a runaway NSA agent or a hit-and-run on any of the several channels she watched. Nor of the fact that NSA was working day and night to decrypt SIGINT—signal intelligence—about an imminent nuclear attack. Allison watched Carla in the kitchen, whistling to herself and smoking a cigarette, smiling when Hector nuzzled the back of her neck. Ignorance was bliss indeed.

  Allison ate as much as she could hold down. Carla loaded up her plate again and asked her if she’d thought about checking into a battered women’s shelter.

  “Or you could stay here,” she suggested, so offhandedly that Allison realized she had thought about it long and hard before she made the offer.

  “Thanks, but I have to go,” Allison said. “I’m grateful to you.”

  Carla flicked her cigarette ashes in a metal tray shaped like a marijuana leaf. “I’m kind of worried about you being out there alone,” she ventured. “You seem awfully fragile.”

  “I’m not,” Allison promised. Maybe it would make her feel better if she knew that Allison had sustained far worse injuries than a broken nose.

  Or maybe not.

  She took a brief nap at Carla’s urging. She was going to wait for the morning commute rush hour traffic to subside, and then she was going to get out of the area. The prospect was not inviting, but it was what had to be done.

  Morgan saw stars and heard fuzz as his assailant crashed his weapon over Morgan’s head. Then his finely honed r
eflexes took over and saved his life.

  He wrapped his hands around the edge of Allison’s bureau as he crumpled forward, fought for consciousness and kicked his feet up and back, connecting with the attacker’s face. As the man was thrust off balance, Morgan pushed away from the bureau and crashed on top of the man, his back to the man’s chest, flattening the son of a bitch against the floor.

  Should have grabbed that big-ass vase, Morgan thought.

  The attacker fought back, savagely. Morgan was woozy and wobbly, but he batted and kicked for all he was worth, aware that he was smacking the floor more than fifty percent of the time, but now and then he pounded flesh. He worried about the guy grabbing his tie.

  His attacker’s gun went off. It was equipped with a silencer that didn’t do much good; it wasn’t like the movies. A sizzle of heat zipped along Morgan’s right arm. Penetration? If yes, then it should have caused worse damage. He was only grazed, then. Good. The arm should still work.

  Thoughts flashed through Morgan’s brain faster than a speeding bullet: from years of missions and of learning by others’ fatal mistakes. He straightened the arm and rocked himself to the right; luck was his and he pushed down hard on the guy’s wrist, forcing it to the floor. He doubled up his left fist for power and jutted back his elbow. He heard bones crack. He did it again. Again. Again.

  The attacker’s gun hand went limp. Morgan wrenched the gun away from him and whirled around on his knees, straddling the assailant’s chest. Moonlight shone through the window; the man’s face was a pulpy mess. His dark blond soul patch was matted with blood.

  “Who? Why?” Morgan demanded.

  “Sent…” The man coughed and gurgled. He had a French accent, and Morgan thought he might be drowning in his own blood.

  “Who? Why?” Morgan said again, lifting the guy’s head up. Blood trickled out of his mouth and ran down his chest. The man coughed and gagged harder. Morgan pressed the shiny blue steel Skorpion against the man’s temple as he rolled him onto his side.

 
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