“Ouch! I don’t know why. It’s just a job,” he rasped.
“You weren’t after me,” Morgan guessed.
The man shook his head. “Target was Allison Gracelyn. This is her house,” he added, perhaps in the unlikely event that Morgan didn’t know that. “Was she yours as well?”
“Yes,” Morgan replied.
“Merde. Competition!” He sounded almost jolly as he blinked blood out of his hazel eyes. “Did you get her?”
“Not yet. How did they hire you?”
“The usual. A call. An offer.” He almost laughed, but it came out as more of a sob, his face contracted as if he were in terrible pain. “I thought it was too easy to get in here.”
Morgan could read the worry lines on his face. The man was pondering the possibility that Morgan had been sent to kill him, too.
“How much were you getting?” the man asked.
“Twenty-five. Euros,” Morgan said. He knew that was the going rate for highly placed government workers.
“For one or…two?”
“One,” Morgan replied. Then, just as the man visibly relaxed, he added, “There was an extra ten for taking you out, but only if you had already made an attempt and failed.”
The man groaned. “Ten? For me? Only ten? Putain de merde, they’ve lost faith in me.” He swore some more in French; then he coughed hard, spitting a tooth onto the floor. “I make you the deal, mon vieux. Let me go, I let you have her. And I pay you full price, including the bump for me.”
Morgan didn’t let him up. “What guarantee do I have that you won’t come after her again?”
“Monsieur, I’m injured. I’m going to need a lot of surgery at this rate,” the man said, still full of good humor. “It was just a job to me. I sign off, I walk away. You can have her. If you kill me, you’ll have the mess to worry about,” he added hopefully.
“You can’t just walk away. You have a reputation to maintain.”
The man groaned softly under his breath, moving restlessly. “Pfft, I’ve been thinking of a career change anyway. Maybe I’ll go back to university. My parents always wanted me to become a physician. You appreciate the irony, non? The code of medicine is ‘First do no harm.’” He laughed, which set him off to coughing again.
“If you quit, your bosses will need another house painter on the payroll.” Morgan deliberately used the Mafia term for “hit man” to see if he could shake anything loose.
“Are you looking for an introduction?” the man asked.
Morgan remained silent.
“Eh bien, I have no boss,” the man scoffed. “I am a, how do you say, independent contractor. But first, please, mon ami, release me so I can sit up. I feel…rather terrible.” Incredibly he chuckled. “This is all so absurd. I didn’t want this job. Since the 9/11, I hate flying to the States.”
“I want your name,” Morgan said, forcing the guy to stay prone.
“I’m called Rousseau, like the philosopher. You know, the Frenchman who thought we would be better people if we were allowed to remain uncivilized.”
Right now I’d take a lot of satisfaction in being uncivilized, Morgan thought. This man—Rousseau—had broken into Allison’s house to kill her. Morgan wrestled with his desire to do the same to him with all the ferocity of a man fighting off a tiger. But this was Allison’s home, and trace evidence might link her to the killing. It looked as if she had enough to deal with.
And Morgan was not a killer. An assassin, maybe, if he had to be.
“Who hired you? Don’t be stupid. Just tell me,” he ordered Rousseau.
“Then I would be stupid.” He grunted when Morgan put the gun against his temple. “Ah, bon, he is Greek. I call him Achilles. Please, be discreet.” He coughed up more blood. Maybe he’d die on his own. “After you leave—”
“We’re both leaving together,” Morgan said, sitting back on his haunches and dragging the man up to a sitting position.
Morgan’s cell phone went off. He wondered if Rousseau was thinking what he was thinking: that accomplished hit men didn’t do moronic things like leave their ringers on. Maybe Rousseau had just silently taken back his promise to first do no harm because he assumed he was dealing with an amateur.
Maybe Morgan was going to have to kill Rousseau after all.
He took off his tie, finally, and stuffed it in his pocket. “Let’s go,” he said, roughly dragging the bleeding man to his feet. There was a lot of blood all over everything; it probably wouldn’t add much to the cleanup if he popped the guy right now. But that was just his anger talking. It made more sense to keep Rousseau alive and trace back the contract on Allison as far as it would go.
He slung Rousseau’s arm over his shoulders and half-carried him out of Allison’s bedroom. They were trailing blood. He decided it was time to call in some help, get one of his guys in here to clean up, get another one to spirit him and Rousseau away. By the way the guy was gurgling and wheezing, Morgan considered requesting a body bag.
“Stay,” he told Rousseau, laying him down on the floor of her living room, near her desktop, and placing a foot on his neck. Rousseau managed a chuckle at Morgan’s sarcasm.
Morgan checked his phone. The caller had been McDonough. He made a mental note to punch his lights out, but he didn’t call McDonough back. Instead, he tied Rousseau’s hands behind his back with the coaxial cable from Allison’s cable box and located the monitoring handheld for the button cams in the same drawer he had found the matte metal case. He pressed a button cam on the frame of her desktop monitor. Then he placed one on the AthenaAcademy magnet frame on her refrigerator. He added two more in her bedroom and the bathroom.
He had three left. He slid the case in the back of his black suit trousers as he demon-dialed Liam Gruebel, the head of his mop-up crew, and gave him Allison’s address. Then he called Zorba Vares, his wheelman, and did the same.
Then, because his sixth sense was tingling again, he returned to the man he had cuffed and left to bleed on Allison’s high-end hardwood floor, sliding the monitor into his raincoat as he slipped it back on.
Rousseau’s eyes were wide-open, but the light had left them. Morgan knew men could die like that, quietly, while you were busy doing something else. One guy could be shot six times and walk away. Another, you hit him wrong once, and he died, while you were talking on the phone.
Adieu, Rousseau. You’ll never have to fly to the States again.
With a heavy sigh, he moved away from the body and packed his lock picks and his burglar alarm code descrambler into his leather satchel.
He was about to add a handful of unused mini-mics when Allison’s desktop pinged, signaling incoming e-mail. He looked at the screen and saw no indication of an arrival in her in-box. It was something secure then, delivered behind firewalls she had erected specifically to receive sensitive material.
He almost laughed at the timing—he had had all the time in the world for something juicy to show up before he’d been attacked, but now he was knee-deep in a crime scene complete with a corpse. Didn’t matter. Allison’s town house and especially her computer were ground zero until he found Allison herself. Since he was first and foremost NSA, the most likely receptacle for the clues that would help him track her down were her e-mails.
Morgan reached into the leather satchel and pulled out fresh latex gloves. Rather than plant his blood-soaked trousers in her nicely upholstered desk chair, he leaned over the keyboard, grimacing at the droplets of blood and sweat that spattered on the polished cherrywood.
His gloved fingertips clicked on the keys as he ground through her security, attempting to trace the message, finding himself blocked at every attempt. He attacked layers of protection, moved to different routers, used alias ISPs. Nothing worked.
“Huh,” he said aloud, slipping a fresh flash drive out of his pocket and sweeping everything new onto it—cookies, caches, anything.
His cell phone rang again. It was McDonough again. This time Morgan took it. They needed to have a li
“So, is she pregnant?” McDonough said without preamble.
Morgan wasn’t surprised that McDonough had bugged the conference room and listened in on his interrogation of Valenti. Or that he’d digitally assembled his surveillance “recording” of Allison from bits and pieces of other surveillance events. He was that kind of spook.
The tip-off was the change in contrast. It had altered at least twice during her five-second conversation, too quickly and too intensely for it to be natural. Although it was a pretty good job, Morgan was used to the best; he had simply been too preoccupied to notice it when he’d watched it in her office.
Because it was Allison. Because I’ve let her get under my skin.
Morgan had no idea why McDonough was setting up Allison. He wondered if McDonough was the one working for the guys who wanted to blow up the East Coast.
“Pregnant? Don’t know yet,” Morgan replied, evenly, calmly, as if he didn’t suspect a thing. “My money’s on negative.”
“Damn it,” McDonough groused. “You know, don’t you. The video was such a damn mess. I didn’t have enough time.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Morgan said. “I just figured you thought I was an idiot who’d buy anything.”
“I had to make sure you’d listen to me. In case you believed Valenti’s bullshit.”
Morgan felt a disconcerting chill on Valenti’s behalf. Despite the fact that she had probably lied to his face, he hoped she was all right. Allison’s associates were like cats; they usually landed on their feet. Just like the queen tigress.
“Did Valenti change her story after you confronted her?” Morgan asked.
“Don’t be stupid. Why would I confront her? If she wants to hang herself, I’ll let her take all the rope she needs. Maybe you should give her a call, check in with her, get some more perjurious statements for my miles-thick dossier on her.”
“Have you sent out backup on me?” Morgan asked. Such as a hit man code named Rousseau? “I should know, so I don’t pop him.”
“You just do your job,” McDonough said, “and I’ll do mine. You see anybody you think you should know, just say ‘Marco.’ They’ll say ‘Polo.’ Speaking of your job, have you got anything on her whereabouts? Whereabouts are you?”
Then Morgan’s sixth sense did not just tingle. It gave him a jolt. The burglar alarm system of hers had just been too easy to disarm. And it seemed awfully early for McDonough to be checking in with him. Maybe McDonough wanted Morgan as gone as Allison was.
This is wrong. I’m in trouble.
He dropped the phone and the flash drive into his satchel.
Don’t use the front door. Getoutgetoutgetout.
He grabbed the satchel and raced for her bedroom.
“Rush?” McDonough’s voice chattered from inside the satchel. “What’s happening?”
In the bedroom, he grabbed the big enamel vase and hefted it at Allison’s bedroom window as hard as he could. The gods loved him; it cracked diagonally, giving him a weak spot to target. Ducking his head, he flung himself at it. Pieces gave way as he crashed through.
He was plummeting gravity-ward through the beating rain when the town house blew. Bricks and wood, metal and glass shot sky-high. Fireballs singed his feet and legs, melting the soles of his shoes. A volcanic roar split the air around him, pummeling him as he collapsed onto icy brown grass in a fetal position around his satchel. Heaving, he kept his head pressed against his knees. He waited one, two, three; and more explosions rattled his eardrums and his teeth.
He couldn’t hear a thing, but he knew there would be screams and sirens any second now. And cameras. And helicopters.
Semifunctional, he felt in the satchel. His cell phone was still there. Maybe McDonough was still bellowing. He couldn’t tell. He disconnected anyway. He felt through the rest of his stuff for the Skorpion and the memory stick.
They were not there.
Shit. They must have fallen out.
Flames lit up the sky and he grabbed at a shape. It was a rock. Another. It was a pebble. A third. The third one was the drive. He’d settle for that.
He threw it in the satchel and scrabbled to his feet. Then he wrapped his arms around the satchel like a running back with the pigskin, tucked in his head and ran like hell.
T ired and hurting, Allison stopped at a walk-in health clinic in eastern Kentucky. The eager young intern there gave her a shot that numbed her entire head before he stuffed some fresh wadding up her nose. Next he considered wrapping her ribs below her breasts, which probably meant she’d whacked some cartilage, but she talked him out of it. He wrote her a scrip for some heavy-duty painkillers and told her to go home and rest. And then he asked her for her phone number.
She deep-sixed the prescription and bought some more maximum-strength painkillers at a local strip mall, as well as six more prepaid phones. She had them all activated via one of her many dummy registration IDs created expressly for that purpose. She checked in with the safe house and verified that no one had phoned Athena Construction without first saying “Gordita.”
Athens Police Lieutenant Kayla Ryan had put local law enforcement on notice, and Christine Evans was grateful for the beefed-up security provided by Athena alums Lucy Karmon and Diana Lockworth. AthenaAcademy was in lockdown mode and the young Athena students were badgering Christine to let them patrol the perimeter.
Selena had sent the paint can.
Sam and Elle had not located the missing laptop in India.
Allison checked into a flea-bitten motel and studied the information Selena had sent her about the ongoing kidnappings. There had been three more. The FBI had also noticed that all of them had been conceived at the fertility clinic in Zuni. The feebs were asking good questions and connecting useful dots. Of course they had no idea that their firewalls had been blasted through by the power of Oracle, or they might not have been so forthcoming with the details of their investigation. Generally, the FBI was very good at keeping information off the grid, preferring phone conversations on secured lines and face-to-face discussions. Allison assumed such was the case now as well, and that she didn’t have the big picture. However, she was pretty good at dot-connecting herself.
She forced everything from her mind and willed herself to sleep, but it wasn’t good sleep. It was erratic and chaotic—she dreamed of taloned spiders crawling all over her face, slicing it apart; then her mother’s face, then Morgan’s face. When she woke up, she was crying.
I can’t lose it, she thought. This is only the beginning. Things are going to get much worse, but we’ll win in the end. We always have before.
We have to now.
Regretting her decision to throw out the heavy-duty pain prescription, she took some more ibuprofen and turned on the TV, waiting for it to take effect before she got back on the road. Channel surfing past the local news, she stopped clicking the gummy remote when a familiar face popped up on the screen.
It was the TV reporter, Shannon Connor. Allison smiled faintly at this small gift from the gods—a reminder that she, too, had sisters. She and Shannon had recently patched things up after years of enmity. Shannon had been unjustly expelled from AthenaAcademy and had incorrectly believed Allison to be responsible. For years, Shannon had dug up every speck of dirt she could find on Athena Academy—until she took on Echo’s deformed half sister, one of Arachne’s three children, Kwan-Sook, and proved herself to be resourceful, courageous and persistent—an Athenian through and through.
Shannon’s forehead was wrinkled, her eyes shiny with tears. Either Shannon was “presenting” a tragic news story or she was genuinely upset. Intrigued, Allison turned up the sound.
“This is Shannon Connor for the ABS network,” the blond, brown-eyed newscaster said. “We are…we are live at the scene of a horrific fire in Old Alexandria, Virginia.” She could barely speak.
Oh my God. That’s my town house.
The twin Dutch maples that shaded the walkway were charred skeletons. The path itself was covered with ash, and the brick structure was a gutted ruin. Firefighters were still spraying water on the smoking hulk from enormous hoses. The camera panned upward to show a helicopter dumping liquid on remnants of the slate, gabled roof.
“ABS has verified that this was the home of Allison Gracelyn, a highly placed government employee, and the sister of U.S. Attorney General David Gracelyn.” Shannon’s heavily glossed lips pulled down in a moue of sincere distress. In the old days, Shannon would not have missed the opportunity to mention Allison’s mother’s murder. Now that she and Allison had buried the hatchet, she never spoke of it on the air, despite being pressured by her producer to do it because it was “sexy.”
Allison’s personal cell went off, and she muted the TV. It was her brother.
“Oh my God, Allison, are you all right?” He was nearly shouting with fear. She could feel it through the phone.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m okay. I’m not even in Virginia. Hold on.” She turned the sound up again.
“Fire Chief Bruce Radcliffe will be issuing a statement in just a moment,” Shannon continued. She pressed her finger against her ear. Her face went white, and she swallowed hard. The camera pushed in, just a little, intruding on what was clearly a difficult personal moment. Shannon lifted her chin, fighting for control.
“I have just received confirmation that a body has been retrieved.”
“Oh my God,” Allison said. She went numb as she leaned forward toward the set, as if she could physically pull more information out of Shannon. Who was in my town house? Don’t let it be one of the Athenas. Don’t let it be an Oracle agent.
“Allison?” David said. “What’s going on?”
Shannon bobbed her head slightly, listening to her earpiece, then shut her eyes tightly and looked back into the camera.
“Sources investigating the blaze tell us that the body is definitely that of a man, and his identity is being withheld pending notification of his family. No other bodies have been located at this time.”
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes