Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate

Chapter 1
 

B
erzhaan.

What a mess. Political unrest from within, political pressures from without, a country seething with unreleased social tension and unspoken dangers.

It was exactly what Selena Shaw Jones needed.
Distraction.

She stood on the crest of a rubble-strewn hill in Berzhaan and knew herself for a coward. She stood amidst the revered ruins of the Temple of Ashaga and knew she should have been at home, working things out with Cole. She shouldn’t have retreated like a wounded child, unable to face the truth. It wasn’t a reaction typical of her—of the controlled, perfectionist FBI Legal Attaché who traveled the world to develop counterterrorism programs in other countries and to create teamwork between those countries and the United States. Of a woman with extensive experience and training in dangerous situations, from fraught negotiations to firefights.

Emotionally, unexpectedly wounded.
And no idea how to deal with it. So Selena had indeed retreated, all the way across the ocean to the brand-new legate office in Berzhaan’s capital, Suwan. So brand-new that her support staff had not yet arrived, and she spent most of her time with the U.S. ambassador, strategizing ways to build trust with a wary Berzhaani prime minister—or with the prime minister himself, attending flashy government functions to establish her presence here.

The rest of the time she spent learning the lay of the land—figuratively and literally. It was one reason she’d come to this shrine of ruins. The other…she’d heard this was a peaceful place. A contemplative place. A place where even a distressed Special Agent might sort out her thoughts.

She looked back down the steep hill she’d just ascended, a challenging obstacle course of rocks both large enough to climb over and small enough to turn an ankle. Below, the village of Oguzka looked peaceful, unchanged by its proximity to the shrine. No tourist attractions, no shacks lining the road offering trinkets to rich Europeans and Americans. Just families, going about their lives.

As it should be.
One of Selena’s jobs was to keep things this way, wherever she went.

The house closest to the foot of the hill boasted a large backyard, unenclosed. A dormant garden covered nearly a third of it. Goats stood idly in a pen at the back, and the stone-walled house boasted a tidy, weed-free exterior.
Peaceful
. A little boy darted around the side of the house, young enough to stumble every third step and also young enough that he didn’t care. He played with a string of scrap material, letting it flutter in the wind.

Selena’s eyes burned, unexpected and startling, almost as unexpected as the sudden closing of her throat.

He was the reason she’d come.

He was also one of the reasons she’d run.

Family. Children. Plans and hopes and visions of a future with Cole that included cribs and baby mobiles and a thousand pictures of that first crawl, that first step, of a plump little mouth forming those first words…

Selena whirled away, taking a few abrupt steps toward the temple. She carefully wiped her eyes and retied her modest and respectful head scarf against the stiff winter breeze. She refocused on surroundings of ancient stone and ancient, eternal flame. Stone walls defined the courtyard, covered with moss and lichen, their once-square edges crumbled into softness. Built against those walls, low, dark religious cells waited for the return of the pilgrims who had once flocked here. Before her, a square shrine stood stolid against the years, precisely fenestrated to reveal the eternal flame within. This, the Temple of Ashaga just outside Berzhaan’s capital city of Suwan, held the muted awe of generations. A quiet place; a revered place.

Just what she’d wanted. Needed.

Then…why wasn’t it helping?

Because it definitely wasn’t helping.

Selena deliberately turned to matters more directly at hand.
Distraction.
Berzhaan had wedged itself between the tumultuous Middle East and acquisitive Russia, swapping between freedom and occupation too many times in the last century. The changes made for a country in turmoil, seething with unrest and jam-packed with diplomatic complications that filled Selena Shaw Jones’s hours and let her tumble into bed exhausted, knowing she was doing her best to keep terrorism away from the little boy down below as much as from those children in the States. If only Razidae would let her build the network between their countries that would allow the communication, intelligence gathering and local counterterrorist education that it was her job to establish….

A faint noise caught the edges of her attention. Was that—?

No. She was on edge, that was all. She’d had no way to know when Cole would return, and no intention of waiting him out in their oh-so-empty condo. She’d asked for this overseas assignment to get perspective on her life. And while she’d already earned Ambassador Dante Allori’s highly relieved respect with her ability to translate the most delicate political statements and to quietly, politely persist in her efforts to woo reluctant Prime Minister Omar Razidae, she still failed miserably in her own personal goals.

There he’d been. Her husband, kissing a beautiful woman right out in Constitution Park.

Big deal,
she’d told herself. He was a CIA field officer—Jason P. JOXLEITER in the CIA’s eyes, and his friends got a kick out of calling him Jox. He was a field officer down to the silly all-caps assigned surname, and that meant putting up a front—wherever he was, whomever he was with—to suit his cover.

Except he was supposed to be out of the country. And while he never told her details of an assignment, she always knew his location. Always overseas and never with the CIA’s Foreign Services Bureau that worked U.S. turf, and she always knew just where. Then if something went haywire in the world, she knew whether to worry. It was the one stable thing in their relationship, the one thing she could always count on.

Not this time.

And how many other times had he lied? How many times had he used CIA guile against her?

Another harsh sound scraped up from the small village at the bottom of the hill. Selena turned into the wind to look down upon the picturesque area, frowning at the gusty blast that obscured any additional noises from below. After a moment in which she saw nothing out of place, she turned back to the temple, walking slowly around the shrine. She put her hands up to one of the openings, feeling the mild heat through her finely stitched black leather gloves.

It wasn’t enough to warm her. The depth of her feelings frightened her, kept her from thinking clearly.

Ironically, if the sounds she’d heard had actually been gunshots, she would have felt perfectly able to deal with them—the Athena Academy had given her that much, and more: her cache of fluently spoken languages, her self-confidence, the background to excel at Harvard Law School and then as an FBI legate assigned to situations as tricky and demanding as Berzhaan’s. The accomplishments to be tapped as an Oracle agent. Selena knew how to handle herself in court, behind a translator’s smooth detachment and in the field.

What she couldn’t seem to do was stop the way her throat constricted into tight pain at the thought of that moment in the D.C. park.

A sudden report on the wind stopped her short; she looked up from the rock-strewn path to narrow her eyes at the village below. There was no mistaking it this time.
Weapons fire.
Automatic weapons. Behind the house nearest to Selena, the young boy darted out across the rocky, close-cropped land to crawl between the crooked slats of a goat pen a hundred yards behind the house. The four goats there parted to accept him as if used to his presence.

An abrupt burst of activity at the back of the stone-walled house followed—the quick flurry of what looked like a woman trying to exit until rough hands hauled her back in, her shriek of protest clearly audible as it rode the wind up the hill.

Trouble.
Not ordinary domestic trouble, no indeed. Kemeni rebels? And if it was, was this a calculated large-scale action, or a handful of overeager rebels causing trouble?

There was no telling. Turmoil gripped this country like a lover. Kemeni rebels—supposedly backed by the U.S., although Selena knew better—increasingly threatened Prime Minister Omar Razidae’s government. Russia had become keenly interested in this territory; they, too, were wrongly convinced that the U.S. treated with Razidae with one hand and fed arms and money to the Kemenis with the other. The Q’Rajn terrorists, convinced of the same, wanted the States out of Berzhaan altogether and had taken their fight to U.S. soil to face recent defeat at the hands of two of Selena’s Athena Academy classmates.

And then there was everyone else in the world, keeping an eye on Berzhaan’s undeveloped oil resources.

All the while, the people of Berzhaan struggled to survive, caught in the middle. And down the hill from Selena, a small boy cowered behind his unconcerned goats, probably not realizing they were truly no cover at all.

Selena did a quick weapons check. Sturdy Beretta Cougar .45 DAO in her pocket holster, several slim knives secreted at ankle, waist and right collarbone—where she could dip into her sweater from the neckline and acquire steel before any threatening agent even thought to consider whether she might be anything more than the sleek, tailored American she appeared to be. Then she headed down the hill, striding firmly in spite of the footing but not drawing attention to herself by running. As she moved, she pulled a hair band from an inner pocket of the coat and reached beneath the silk scarf to gather her long, layered hair at the nape of her neck. She drew her Beretta, holding it down at her side where the folds of the coat obscured it and she could easily keep it hidden if her concerns were for nothing.

She didn’t expect to keep it hidden.

As she neared the base of the hill and angled for the stone house, the boy darted out from behind the goats and ran into her path, babbling in his native language so quickly—with a young child’s creative use of words—as to challenge even her excellent Berzhaani language skills. She put a finger to her lips and then his, startling the child, and in that moment of silence she said, “Slower,
bibcha.

His eyes widened with surprise all over again; his gaze darted over her from head to toe, taking in her attire and her head scarf, her appearance—dark blue-green eyes, razor-cut chestnut bangs emerging from the scarf and all-American features—and trying to reconcile it all with her use of his own language. She crouched before him, her gun still lost in the black leather folds of her coat. “Tell me,” she said. “Why are you frightened?”

He touched the bright red leather piping on the front edge of the coat, following it briefly with his finger as if to confirm this was indeed something out of his ken—but his round, light tea-colored little face with its pointed chin looked about to crumple.

“There, now,” Selena said, fairly brusquely, fighting her natural inclination to soothe him—it would only release those tears, and then she’d learn nothing. “When a brave young man such as yourself runs to greet me, I must listen. What have you to say?”

The boy hovered on the edge of tears for another moment—and indeed, one slipped out to track its way down the baby fat of his cheek. But he pressed his lips together and then said, “Bad men are in the house. Don’t go in there! Auntie told me to run and hide, just like we practiced.”

“I saw you.” Selena couldn’t stop herself from wiping away that single tear where it had trickled out partway down his face. “You hid very well. Do you think you can do it again?”

“With Spotty and Eleny?”

She could only assume these were two of the goats.

“Farther,” she said. “In the temple, where the pilgrims used to sleep when they stayed there.”

He shook his head, flinching at the sound of breaking pottery from within the house. “I’m not allowed—”

“This once, you are,” she told him.

“Mama said—”

She put her finger to her lips again, and gave him a slow, reassuring smile. “I’ll tell her it was my fault.”

He returned a solemn, dark-eyed look, lower lip protruding slightly with the effort of his decision. Selena all but held her breath, waiting, knowing he might well be unable to trust her, as much as he’d been willing to warn her. The Beretta felt solid and familiar in her hand, and just as suddenly as if it could not possibly belong there while she spoke to this child.

Abruptly he bit his lip and nodded. “Will you hide, too?”

“Yes.” She stood; the wind tugged at her open coat. She wished she could pull off her sweater to give him—he wore only a thin wool jacket over his own baggy, loosely knit sweater—but to do so would reveal her knives and her gun, a revelation likely to break the tenuous connection between them. “But I’m going to hide somewhere else, somewhere I can get help for your people.”

This made no sense, of course. But she hoped he would grab for the reassurance without working through the logic. She didn’t give him much time to think about it, not as a muted cry reached her from the still-cracked back door. “Go now!” She pointed up the hill. “As fast as you can! Someone will come for you when it is safe.”

This time.
For this child truly to be safe, Selena would have to accomplish much more than this chance, unexpected interference with one besieged house.

After the briefest hesitation, the boy sprinted away, his barely coordinated limbs putting much effort into the action. So young…

Selena smoothed her scowl away and reached for focus. She was on the job now, albeit in a fashion never formally acknowledged. She eased up to the side of the house, up to the small window with open shutters on the outside and a film of curtains covering the glass from the inside. She winced as something else within the house broke, something wooden and splintering this time, followed by another cry of fear. The window showed her little…a gash of sunlight over the floor where the front door had been left open, a chair overturned against the wall, a bread plate smashed near the entrance to a back room. No one in sight.
Great.
She’d have to slink around and hope another window would reveal how many intruders had—

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