A man. Someone who got past my state-of-the-art laser alarm system, a duplicate of the one I used in the self-storage unit and the one I installed at Oracle HQ. Was it someone Echo sent? Was it Echo herself? Oracle has multiple backups, but—
“Damn it, Alli, talk to me,” David demanded.
Her other line went off. It was her father.
“David, Dad’s on the other line.” She put her brother on hold. “Dad, I’m fine,” she said, connecting with her father. “I’m nowhere near my house.”
She watched the screen. There was a cutaway to the interior of her kitchen. Her kitchen towels and drapes were gone. Flames had chewed through the wall. Then there was a close up of her refrigerator where, remarkably, the photo of Gordita wasn’t even smudged. A chill shot down Allison’s spine as the camera moved in on the picture of the horse, and held, almost as if the camera operator were trying to make some kind of point.
Was Echo sending a message via someone on the scene, taunting Allison that she had cracked her code as well as her security system? Had Echo already broken into the self-storage facility and taken the necklace, leaving a fake for the unsuspecting Selena to retrieve?
If she had what she wanted then she’d leave us alone, right? Allison thought. She would have all three flash drives, and we would have nothing. So there would be no reason to go after us. Maybe she’s trying to throw us off, make us assume she has it…make us scramble to check on it. So she can see where we go.
Maybe she watched Selena move it.
Or maybe Allison was pushed to the brink and saw signs and portents in everything. If she opened the motel-provided bag of Lipton’s to read the tea leaves, would she see a spider?
“Sweetheart,” her father said hoarsely. “The first thing I thought of was your mother.” His usually robust voice was whispery.
“I’m here, Daddy,” she replied. And it’s because of Mom that I’m doing this. I’m carrying on her legacy.
“Where?” he asked.
“I’m on company business,” she told him. It was only half a lie. “Something big.”
“I wish you were here.” He sounded old, fragile. It hurt her heart.
Her other line beeped. David had disconnected and redialed.
Allison’s head pounded. She wearily closed her eyes and reminded herself that her men were concerned about her because they loved her. But right now, she needed a moment to collect her thoughts.
“I’ll come as soon as I can,” she promised her father. “I’ll be careful. This was just a freak accident.” She would say anything she could to ease her father’s terror. “Dad,” she said gently, “David is on the other line.”
“Allison,” her father began. His tone of voice told her that he wasn’t buying her “freak accident” scenario. He exhaled. “Talk to your brother.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know what they find.” She reconnected with her brother.
“What the hell is happening?” he thundered. “I’m watching Shannon Connor on ABS. The fire chief is saying possible arson.”
Damn you, Echo. Allison wearily closed her eyes. Her nemesis was pushing all the right buttons, flushing Allison out, making her vulnerable. If indeed it was Echo. Maybe she was simply pulling the strings so someone else—Wrobleski, Matsumoto—would do it for her.
“I’m launching an investigation,” he declared. “I’ll get some people to look into it—”
“David, no. Back off.”
He was silent for a moment. “Tell me why.”
“Just don’t. You’re the U.S. Attorney General. It’ll look like nepotism. Like you’re using taxpayer money for personal reasons.” And I don’t want anyone investigating Delphi.
“Don’t be coy,” he said angrily. “I know you work off the books. I don’t know who you work for, or what you do. But I know you’re like Mom. I know you fling yourself wherever there’s a problem. You have this superhero complex. She was murdered, Allison. And someone set your house on fire. Who was it?”
He was fishing. He didn’t know anything. She knew if their situations were reversed, she would be just as pushy and insistent. But that didn’t matter. Right now, family didn’t matter. No one mattered. The mission was the priority.
“I can’t discuss this with you right now.” She forced the emotion out of her voice. “I need to find out who was in my town house. It may have been a friend. I need to call my insurance company. I have neighbors I care about. I want to make sure they’re all right. I—”
Her own words hit her full force.
It may have been a friend.
Her stomach contracted as if she’d been gut-punched. She sucked in her breath and blinked rapidly, afraid to let herself think. Because if she did, a name would form in her mind.
The good ones are either married, gay, or spying on you.
“Ally-cat?” her brother said, using his very oldest nickname for her. He hadn’t called her that in a long, long time.
She went blank. She swallowed hard, staring at the TV screen while her heartbeat roared in her ears. “I’ll call you later.”
She watched them wheel a body bag out on a gurney. A black lump on a steel bed, grim-faced EMTs, and Shannon Connor, trying to do her job.
“Do not hang up on me! Let me in, goddamn it! Talk to me!” David pleaded.
She hung up. There was a text crawl along the bottom of the screen: Man’s Body Discovered In Town House Fire Details At Eleven.
She punched in Shannon’s private number, shaking hard. It went straight to voice. She moved on to Selena. Acid churned in her stomach. Fresh pain bloomed behind her eyes.
“Allison,” Selena said. “I’ve been trying to call you. Your phone’s been busy. Do you know about your town house?”
“There’s a body. Is it…can it be Morgan?” Allison blurted without preamble. She wasn’t Delphi the superhero at that moment. She wasn’t even calm, cool, collected Allison Gracelyn, Oracle field agent, checking in with the home office.
I didn’t know I felt this way about him. She couldn’t take her eyes off the screen. Off the body bag as it was wheeled into a waiting ambulance. Beyond the yellow caution tape and the lines of police officers, the faces of curious onlookers strained to see what was going on. She saw no one familiar.
She suddenly felt horribly alone.
“Are you saying that you think Morgan might have come looking for you himself?” Selena asked slowly.
“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “It’s a possibility.”
“Well, we know he’s been monitoring you for McDonough. When you went MIA, he might have come after you. But Katie said—”
“Selena,” she gritted. White noise followed. She knew Selena was putting the pieces together. She felt exposed and raw. And terrified.
“Allison, I’ll check. Right now.”
“Thank you.” Allison massaged her aching temple. “Don’t let him know anything. Throw him off. Have Katie call, pretending to be worried about me.” Allison had the presence of mind to think at least one jump ahead. But she needed to see the whole game board. She couldn’t let her judgment be clouded like this.
But she couldn’t see past that body bag. Or the crawl at the bottom of her TV screen.
“We’ll do it right,” Selena promised.
“Do it fast,” Allison said.
“Allison, you and Morgan…” Selena left the rest unsaid.
“No,” Allison said. He doesn’t work that way. I don’t think he’s even wired that way. I know what the loss of your mother can do to you.
“Hang on. We’ll let you know asap.”
Wiry and freckled, Zorba drove Morgan to his place in his black panel van, brimming with weaponry and spy craft goodies. Liam called it the Opsmobile. Zorba owned a historic carriage house made of brick and trailing with ivy. It was loaded with white plaster statues of naked Greek goddesses and a poster from the movie Zorba the Greek.
Stationing Morgan on a pile of towels atop an oak bar stool at his well-stocked we
As soon as he could hear again, he called Liam and canceled the cleanup assignment at Allison’s former place of residence.
“So, we’re on a new mission,” Zorba ventured, squinting into Morgan’s left eye. “Your pupil’s normal,” he informed him.
“Yeah,” Morgan said. “New. I’m still getting the big picture.”
Zorba snorted as he checked Morgan’s right pupil. “Did the big picture include a free ride to MountOlympus?”
“That tiny detail got omitted,” Morgan answered dryly. “Someone’s ass is mine for that one.”
Zorba nodded slightly and straightened. “You got anything for me yet?”
Zorba nodded placidly.
That Morgan was withholding information was not unusual in their line of work. Data usually got doled out piecemeal as the team was assembled and their assignment was defined. Morgan’s public professional life was intelligence—how much of it was useful, and what would just confuse and distract. In his private professional life running black bag ops, he always told Zorba—and everyone else—what they needed to know when they needed to know it. His lead, his call; they didn’t like it that way, they didn’t have to sign on. So far, no one had ever walked off a Rush-run op.
Morgan’s cell phone rang. He was amazed that it still worked.
He expected McDonough, and he wasn’t sure which way he was going to play that card. Should he go silent? McDonough would eventually learn that he hadn’t died in the explosion, but should Morgan be the one to tell him?
He didn’t have to decide just yet. Caller ID revealed his little sister, Katie’s number.
Zorba gave him a Should I stay? look. Morgan gave his head a quick shake—his brain seemed to slosh inside his skull—indicating that it was nothing for the Greek to be concerned about. Nodding, Zorba drifted away down the hall, ostensibly to give Morgan some privacy.
Morgan raised the left side of his mouth in a half smile as he connected. He was going to enjoy this.
“Athena Construction,” he said calmly.
There was dead silence. “What?”
The silence lengthened. He was the soul of patience, having learned long ago that if you waited long enough, people who might otherwise keep their secrets told them to you, just to end the tension. Unfortunately Katie was a lot like him, in that respect. But she could rarely withstand his taunting at any level. He hoped she hadn’t changed. He’d been too busy to notice if she had.
“Are you still there?” Katie said irritably.
“I am. What is Athena Construction? I heard your voice. When I called Athena Construction a few hours ago.”
“Not a clue, Morgan. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She sounded as if she didn’t care if he believed her or not. Scrappy, that kid.
He tried another tack. “Tell Allison to come in. Now,” he said. “Convince her, Katie.”
“Oh my God, have you talked to her?” Katie cried. “That’s why I called. She’s not at work and she’s not answering her phone. You do know her town house burned down, right?”
“Yes,” he said. “I know her house…burned down. But I don’t know where she is. I called her cell and left a message but she didn’t call me back. She was supposed to come to a meeting at work but she didn’t show up.”
“Oh?” Katie said. “And then her house burns—”
He decided to go for it. “So after she didn’t show, I went looking for her, and I found a cell phone in an alley. It looked like there had been a fight. I called the number, and I heard your voice.”
“A fight? Allison was in a fight?” she echoed.
“Your voice. Katie, I’m your brother. Don’t BS me.”
“What alley? What kind of fight?”
He took a breath. “If you hear from her, tell her to get in touch with me. She’s in danger.”
“What kind of danger?” Her voice shook. She was good. “Morgan, what’s going on?”
“I need to speak to her,” he persisted, “asap.”
“Morgan…” She sounded as if she wanted to tell him something. He waited. She remained silent. Morgan wondered at her discipline, her sense of loyalty to Allison. He admired both Katie and Allison more than he could say, and he wished he could make either one of them listen to him.
“Tell her not to trust her boss,” he said, unsure of the wisdom of going there. He thought about warning Kim Valenti through his sister, but the problem was, he was still after Allison. If he warned off all her friends and associates, he would have no leads. Valenti was a big girl, and he was a bloodhound, not a rescue dog.
He gingerly shifted his weight on the wooden bar stool, wincing at the discomfort it caused him.
“Tell her I have to talk to her,” he told his sister.
Zorba reappeared with a plate of feta cheese and pita bread and a bowl of olives. He set the Greek food down within Morgan’s reach, then crossed around to the wet bar and snagged two dark blue glasses and a bottle of ouzo. He set the glasses and the ouzo down, not leaving, which irritated the hell out of Morgan. It wasn’t like Zorba to loiter when he was on the phone.
“I’ll tell her,” Katie said, “if I can find her.”
“I’ll do the same,” Morgan said, flaring with frustration as Katie hung up.
He picked up a piece of feta. Zorba still had his back to him. He was pouring the ouzo…and studying Morgan’s reflection in the mirror with narrowed eyes. Zorba’s expression was cold and appraising.
A frisson rocketed up Morgan’s backbone. It was not the kind of expression he would have expected from someone on his team.
When Zorba realized Morgan was looking at him, he relaxed his face and set down the bottle of ouzo.
A Greek code-named Achilles hired Rousseau to kill Allison Gracelyn. Zorba is Greek, and we’re both fully connected in the bad-guy network. I would never even bother with such a flimsy link, if I hadn’t seen what I just saw in the mirror.
“What is it this time? Do we have to go back to Managua? I hope not, because my eyebrows still haven’t grown back.” As Zorba turned around, he pointed to his face with the glass in his right fist, where, sure enough, sections of his thick black eyebrows were still missing. It gave him a mangy look.
Morgan had known Zorba for five years…and three months ago, Zorba had driven a Jeep through a flaming brick wall to save Morgan from having his eyes blown out by a very pissed-off narco-baron. Zorba could easily have not shown up. He had definitely and deliberately put himself in harm’s way to save Morgan.
But Morgan found it telling that Zorba was bringing it up just now—as if to remind Morgan that he was a loyal friend. Why would Morgan need reminding?
In the black bag world, three months could be a lifetime. A man could be bought overnight—with a big enough bribe or a great enough threat. That was why guys like Zorba and Morgan didn’t have wives and babies—or even serious girlfriends—for their enemies to dangle by their ankles over balconies seventy stories up. You might do anything to keep them from letting go…including flip your loyalties and kill the man you once risked your life to save.
What about gals like Allison? What would it take for her to go rogue?
This is a rotten business, Morgan thought, tipping his head back and allowing the liquor to burn a trail down the back of his throat. It makes you stop trusting everybody. Including your wheelman. And your own sister.
“I don’t know what it is yet,” Morgan told him. “Or where it is. Just that it is.”
“I hope it’s not Managua,” Zorba said again. He handed Morgan another glass and kept one for himself. “Drink up, my friend. It’s not every day you dodge a bullet.”
They toasted, threw back their ouzo and slammed their glasses onto the oaken counter of the wet bar.
Morgan thought about the Skorpion that was missing from his satchel. And his equally sexy Medusa revolver, which was not.
“Morgan’s okay,” Selena told Allison.
Allison closed her eyes. “Thanks.”
“He told his sister that you’re in danger, and that your boss is dirty.”
“Oh God, have ‘I’ blackmailed McDonough?” Allison groaned.
“He didn’t say. I think he’s withholding so you’ll call him. He wants to talk to you. Directly.”
“No,” she said, ignoring the dusting of tingles over her collarbone and shoulders at the thought.
“Katie got the impression that he’s actively searching for you. Did you find any evidence of that?” Selena asked.
“Well, I don’t have a town house anymore.” She couldn’t imagine that he had anything to do with it, but she needed to consider all the possibilities.
“He told Katie to tell you that he wants to help you.”
She put that aside for the moment. “Did you contact Diana?” Diana Lockworth was at the safe house, which was near the Army base where she was stationed.
“Yes. She’s fueled up a Bombardier Learjet 40 and she wants to know what destination to put on her flight plan.”
That was a figure of speech, Allison knew. There was no way Diana would announce to the world where Allison was hunkered down. The choice of a civilian aircraft was a good one. It would keep their mission further off the radar.
“Hold on,” she said. She glanced at the motel’s address on the receipt for the room. “I’ll give you half on the phone and e-mail you the other half as soon as we disconnect.” It was an old trick, one some people used to give out their social security numbers, passwords and other sensitive information. It was a very broad stroke that wouldn’t fool anyone who was paying attention, but something was better than nothing.
Disclosure by Nancy Holder / Romance & Love / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes