Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (2 page)

A stutter of automatic weapons fire sounded from down the street.
More than just this one house at stake.
And from within, a woman screamed, a full-bodied shriek of fear and denial.
No more time. Start with this house, worry about the rest later.
She moved swiftly to the front corner of the house, confirmed that no one waited out front and made it to the doorway itself. A quick peek-retreat revealed the main room of the house to be abandoned. From within the room beyond, a man shouted harsh demands for cooperation and the sharp slap of hand against flesh struck Selena’s ears.
Bastard.
Of course he was going to rape her.
Of course.
And in this society where the conservative chador was no longer required by law but still often used by custom, rural women still paid every price for rape above and beyond the violation of the act itself.

Selena did another peek-and-duck, still saw nothing, and eased into the house with silence as her shield, her coat whispering around her in swirling folds of leather. A quick glance through the doorway beyond showed her a tiny bedroom, one man in Kemeni green and tan colors pressing a diminutive woman into the corner while his loosely gripped Abakan Russian assault rifle—
Abakan…strange choice
—pointed at the floor, his avid gaze riveted on the bed. There a second man crouched over a wildly flailing woman, struggling to shove aside the copious material of her modest chador robes. As Selena retreated, taking a deep breath, her gun held two-handed and ready, another resounding slap marked the man’s impatience.

Selena surged around the door frame and shot him in the ass.

He cried out in shock and tumbled to the floor. The woman scrambled back against the wall at the head of the bed, frantically rearranging her clothing, and the second man, caught in flat-footed surprise, started to raise his badly positioned Abakan rifle. The woman he’d squashed into the corner let out a deliberate, ear-piercing shriek, her only remaining weapon.

It bought Selena an instant, and an instant was all she needed to drill the man twice, her finger steady on the long pull of the double-action trigger. Once in the knee, once in the right biceps, and then the woman in the corner gave a fierce cry of triumph and leaped for the rifle. Selena caught a glimpse of the look in her eye and instantly targeted the woman even as she shouted a warning—and reassurance. “Leave the rifle—I am your friend!”

The woman hesitated long enough to realize she was in Selena’s sights, but as she straightened with the Abakan carefully held by the stock alone, she leaned sideways to spit on the floor. “My
friend,
” she said. Unlike the other woman, she did not wear a chador, only a colorful punjabi and matching
hijab
scarf. Her thick, woven shawl lay crumpled on the floor in the corner. “
American.
If you had not been supplying the Kemenis, they would not now be in a position to act—or desperate enough to send out men like
this.
” She kicked the man in his bloody knee, eliciting a scream. She didn’t wait for Selena’s reply, but went to the woman on the bed, leaning the rifle against the headboard with a frightening familiarity.

Selena lowered her gun but didn’t holster it, not with the stutter of gunfire echoing in her memory. These two pathetic so-called freedom fighters weren’t the only problem this village had. Moving swiftly and not at all gently, she patted them down for weapons, glad for her gloves. Rank sweat and bad beer and gun oil stung her nose. Stepping back from them with a new collection of knives and two more handguns, she piled the stash on the foot of the bed. “Do you have rope? Can you tie them until an army unit arrives?”

The woman looked as though she wanted to spit again. “What makes you think Razidae’s army cares? What makes you think they will come?” She caressed the cheek of the other woman, a soothing gesture.

Selena reached into a pocket for the familiar feel of her cell phone. “Because I’m going to call them.”

She’d have preferred to call in American troops, but she’d already gotten a glimpse of the reception they’d endure. So she made the call, a short, concise conversation with the American Embassy, informing them of the situation. “Let Razidae’s people know,” she told the embassy warden’s assistant. “And keep me out of it—it’s the last thing any of us needs. I’ll be gone by the time they get here.”

“They’re on alert,” the man told her. “They won’t take long.”

“Neither will I,” Selena assured him.

But she didn’t leave immediately. She selected one of the knives from the bed, the one with the dullest gleam of an edge when she held it up to the light from the room’s single small, high window. The one that would hurt the most—and the one her chosen victim, the man still scrabbling around on the floor trying to find a way to clamp both hands to his bleeding buttock at once and not leave himself entirely vulnerable from the front, had been prepared to use on these women.

She crouched before him, the Beretta held in a deceptively casual grip in the hand that rested on her knee, and gave the knife a speculative look before she turned her gaze on the man.

“Woman,”
he said. “
American.
You are nothing to me. Your people betrayed us.”

Kemeni, all right, even if his tan and green clothing hadn’t given him away. Kemeni, and convinced that the recently deceased Frank Black had been working with the States when he’d supplied the rebels with arms. Instead, Black had done so at the behest of Jonas White, a man who liked to play whole countries as if they were game pieces, and whose name popped up in connection with far too many successful black market ventures.

“My people were never behind you,” Selena told him. “And fortunately for my ego, you’re nothing to me, either.”
Except a source of information.
“Are you just out to curdle some cheese here, or is there some purpose behind this attack?”

“Our business is not for your ears.”

“Shouldn’t have shot you in the ass,” Selena muttered. “I scrambled your brains.” She gave a meaningful heft of the knife, eyeing various parts of his body in the most obvious way. And then she slid her eyes over to the woman who comforted her sister.

The man took note. His expression grew more stubborn.

“Well, maybe you aren’t Kemeni after all,” she said.

“The Kemenis have honor and purpose—of a sort, anyway. But these women have more honor than you.”

The man’s face darkened; his lips worked. “I spit on your—”

Selena prodded him with the knife in the vicinity of his bloody butt cheek. “Don’t,” she warned him. Then she held the knife out to the woman in the punjabi. When the woman hesitated, Selena gestured with the knife, affirming her intent.

The woman’s fingers wrapped around the hilt to grow white at the knuckles, a grim determination taking over her expression. “No one need know how he died,” she said softly. “They need not know it was I.”

“Might as well pin it on me,” Selena told her. “Although if he answers my questions, perhaps you could settle for scarring him in some way that he would never admit came from a woman’s hand.”

The woman only smiled.

“You cannot expect me to take this seriously!” the wounded man shouted.

Selena had to give him credit. For a man bleeding badly from his tush, his bleeding partner offering nothing but the sullen silence of someone who hopes not to be noticed, he had courage.

Or perhaps he simply truly didn’t understand his situation.

Selena gave him a beatific smile. “I expect you to take it very seriously.” She used her gun to tick off points on the fingers of her other hand. “Point—I speak seriously kickin’ Berzhaani. Point—I’m very good from this end of a gun. Point—Did you see me sweat when I took you boys down? Now take a moment to think. Think hard. What sort of American woman are you likely to find here in the heart of Berzhaan with all these things in her favor?”

Someone to take seriously, that’s who.

He didn’t want to think about it. He wanted to hold on to his self-righteous rage and scorn, glaring at her from deep-set eyes just made for the expression.

“Did the Kemenis send you?” she asked.

He didn’t answer directly—but he looked away. It was enough.

“I gather they didn’t send you to behave like this in particular.” She tapped the muzzle of the Beretta thoughtfully against her knee. The motion kept his attention on the weapon—helped him to realize that this was no lady’s pistol, but a gun of sturdy heft that fit comfortably in her equally sturdy hands. That she wielded it without a second thought. “But here you are, causing trouble in an otherwise unremarkable location. The shrine is fascinating, but not a political touchstone.” And the Kemenis, suddenly bereft of their American benefactor, were desperate. Desperate enough to make a real move on the country’s power base? Her eyes narrowed; for the first time she let a glimpse of her anger show through. “But this
is
close enough to Suwan to cause alarm…close enough to draw off troops in response.”
And I’ve just initiated that by calling in.
And now the capital would be more vulnerable to terrorist action.

Again he looked away, trying to hide the subtle retreat with an uncomfortable shift to relieve pressure on his wound.

“You’re a sacrifice,” Selena said. “Contributing to a larger goal….”

Suwan…the embassy…the capitol. One or all of them, the real targets.

He glared again, and the curl returned to his lip as he opened his mouth to say something crude.

She smacked her pistol against his shin, a casual but precise blow that struck the crucial nerves there, numbing his leg with excruciating pain and with very little effort on her part. He made a wordless noise of surprise and gaped as his eyes watered, mouth quickly pursing for more imprecations.

“Don’t,” she said sharply. “Just…don’t.” She exchanged a glance with the woman who now held the knife, saw the uncertainty rising there and straightened.

“I’m not sure,” she said to the woman, “but it might well be that his humiliation is complete without any extra scarring, especially if he were cast out at your doorstep in a pretty bundle for the National troops. It’s entirely up to you, of course. I’m afraid I have to leave now.”

The woman in the chador leaned toward the other, murmuring something worried.

“A boy,” said the first woman. “Did you see—?”

Selena nodded. “I sent him up to the shrine to hide, with the promise I would take all blame for it. I’m sure he’s waiting for you there.”

“Thank you,” said the woman in the chador, sitting for that moment like a queen on her throne instead of a nearly violated woman on her thoroughly rumpled bed. But she could not hide a quivering twitch of her mouth or the tears of relief welling in her eyes.

Selena thought it was her cue to leave. That and the distant sound of helicopter blades thumping the air. She emerged from the house with caution, the automatic gunfire still clear in her memory—but either no one else had intended to come to this far end of the town, or the arriving troops had caught their attention. She made it to her Russian Moskvich sedan without incident, folding herself into the driver’s seat with the Beretta in easy reach. She hoped to swing around the village and make it into Suwan without any trouble—but if trouble came along, she’d be ready for it.

She had to reach the embassy. She had to warn the ambassador…and she had to warn Berzhaan.

The Kemenis were rising.

Chapter 2
 

C
olin Jones slung his duffel through the door of the modest D.C. condo he shared with Selena. Modest by choice and lifestyle as opposed to financial restrictions, even here in this area of off-the-chart living expenses. But…

Maybe that would change soon, if Selena became pregnant as they hoped. Maybe their silk plants and collection of sleek sight hound statuary would make way for the real things. Green, growing things. Warm loyalty and four-legged companionship to round out a home that also held the laughter of a family.

Not that it would be easy. He and Lena had already experienced enough rocky moments to be realistic about what lay ahead and even then she hadn’t known half the things he’d kept from her in recent months. Things he wouldn’t tell her, things he
couldn’t
tell her. Decisions she’d never understand…some decisions he didn’t like to think about. But she hadn’t known those things, and she’d recommitted to the marriage, recommitting to each other…and immersing themselves in a few brief weeks of passion-filled nights before duty called and Cole had gone off on a long-term assignment, hoping Selena would soon find a posting nearby.

But as he took his first step into the condo, he knew Lena wasn’t here.
Damn.
He’d all but felt her arms around him, her hands sneaking beneath his waistband to tug up his shirt and—

Nothing but frustration at the end of
those
thoughts.

The silence of the apartment surrounded him. The stuffy air, scented with undisturbed spice candles. The faint layer of dust settled over the empty table next to the door where their mail tended to pile up when they were home. A glance into their small living room showed no sign of legal briefs, no sign of Lena’s latest fiction favorites. Just the cream and maroon tones of the rug, curtains and furniture—a color scheme that had been a compromise between her desire for cool and clean decor and his own need for bold.

The kitchen…not a crumb on the counter. The bedroom…neatly tidied, not so much as a stray sock or one of those hair scrunchies Lena tended to lose track of—and though Cole was much more casual about such things than she, Lena had never obsessed about tidiness, either. Not when she was relaxed and happy. A glance back at the living room revealed the very same quilt square on the wall as had been there two months earlier.

Left not long after I did, did you?
For she had an entire collection, and rather than spread them out over the austere walls she rotated them on a monthly basis—while the rest of the walls remained uncluttered, a testament to their struggle to merge their styles. The casual, assertive operative who approached life in the fast and loose lane, and the FBI legate with a lawyer’s precise, compartmentalized brain.

Not for the first time, he wished he could see her in action—in
real
action—to get a glimpse of that side of her. The side that would expose the ferocity of her will and her ability to take whatever the situation pitched at her.

It had to be there. Somewhere. It had to be, or she wouldn’t still be alive.

He tore himself away from his thoughts to realize he’d left the door open. Cole nudged the duffel aside so he could close himself in. And with Lena out
there
somewhere, putting this door between them definitely left him closed in.

It’s not like this has never happened before.
Time to find the note, the one they always left each other. Time to disabuse the uneasiness growing somewhere in the pit of his stomach, spreading to become tension between his shoulder blades. Lena’s notes always gave him ease, made his inward tension relax to match his outward appearance.

He knew the things people said of him; he cultivated those things. He sowed the seeds for his own reputation as the laid-back charmer who took each mission on the fly, improvising his way to last-moment success. Even Lena bought into it, not truly realizing how important she was to him, in how many ways…all the little things, like her notes. They were the one place she cast aside her lawyer persona for pure silliness—catching him up on the gossip around their condo, informing him how much their silk plants had grown since he was last home, drawing him stick figure versions of her latest adventures in D.C. living. And of course…the challenge of finding the always-hidden note in the first place.

Except…there it was, right out on the kitchen counter, one corner tucked beneath the gleaming white toaster. A sheet torn carefully from a five-by-eight pad of lined yellow paper, inscribed with a few sentences in her neatest hand.

 

Cole—had an unexpected call to Berzhaan. Things are pretty tense there. I’ll let you know more as I can—check your e-mail.

No stick figure. No silliness. Only a sweeping
S. Something’s wrong.

But she couldn’t possibly know—

Very wrong.

 

Selena blew past the clean, modern outer ring of Suwan, where the post-Soviet restoration efforts prevailed. Approaching the center of the city, she maneuvered through the now-familiar streets into ancient Berzhaan, an area full of impressive stone architecture, and of old fortress walls that came from nowhere and disappeared into nothingness, no longer anything but pieces of their former glory. The streets turned cobbled, the alleys narrowed, and the thick feel of history hung in the air. Here, some of the oldest buildings had given way to Soviet manpower, leaving in their wake impressive new buildings of state. The capitol building was one such; the American embassy a much smaller version of the same, several blocks away.

She drove the Moskvich around the back of the embassy, returning it to the motor pool with a haste that drew the curiosity of the young Berzhaani who took the keys, and entered the embassy through a back door for which few had the special high-security key card. A glance at her watch confirmed her tardiness for her two o’clock appointment with the ambassador and the prime minister. She kicked her pace into a jog, soundless over the luxuriously thick carpeting, and went straight to the ambassador’s office in spite of her appearance, pulling off her head scarf along the way. The details of the embassy—trappings both American and Berzhaani—flashed past in a familiar blur, barely noticed.

Had anything been changed,
that
she would have noticed.

She pulled up short outside the open door of the ambassador’s outer office. Bonita Chavez looked up from her desk with disapproval deepening the lines of features that had been generous before middle-age and now seemed entrenched in making themselves even more obvious. She glanced at the classy silver and oak clock on the wall. “You’re late.”

Stern or not, Bonita didn’t worry Selena; along with her duties as the ambassador’s civil service admin, she seemed to have taken on mother-hen duties. Beneath her current frown lived worry, not anger, and Selena already harbored affection for her.

“I ran into a little trouble.” Selena stepped into the office. “Can I go in?”

“He’s waiting for you. You can rest assured he knows you’ve arrived.” Bonita’s gaze raked her up and down, looking for telltales of Selena’s “little trouble.”

“All one piece,” Selena told her, opening her coat wide for quick inspection and, as she’d intended, causing Bonita to bite her far-too-crimson lipstick against a smile. Selena forced herself to walk across a carpet of stunning workmanship—she always had to force herself to walk on the beauty of Sekha-made carpets—and rapped her knuckles against the dark, heavy wood door of the ambassador’s inner office before pushing it open.

Ambassador Allori looked up from his computer monitor. “Do I guess correctly that you had something to do with that call that came through the embassy, requesting troops at Oguzka?”

“The Kemenis—”

“Yes, yes.” He cut her off, frowned at his monitor and tapped a key in response, and simultaneously swept a stiff sheet of paper off his desk to hold out to her.

“You’ll find this of interest, I think, though you hardly have time to read it. You don’t have time to change, either—I doubt Mr. Razidae will be disposed to notice. But you’ll want to wash your face. It’s got someone’s blood on it. Not yours, I presume.”

Bonita!
She’d seen it, surely. She’d let Selena go on in without alerting her to clean up, and with an admirable lack of telltale expression at that.

On the other hand, perhaps it was done as a favor. Allori could hardly refute the evidence that her delay had been for significant reasons.

“No, sir.” She took the paper, recognizing the letterhead of the embassy warden. “Not the least bit mine.”

He gave her a moment to glance at the text, which bore the header Surge in Kemeni Rebel Activity:

 

The Department of State advises American citizens in Berzhaan to take prudent steps to ensure their personal safety in the coming days. Remain vigilantly aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations….

 

Selena could not help a soft snort.
Too late. Already been there, done that.

If Allori heard, he gave no sign of it. No doubt he, too, knew the value of keeping American personnel at an official distance from such…
demonstrations.
“I’m glad you’re back,” he said, which was as close as he’d get to referring to the Oguzka activity. “Now…we leave in less than fifteen minutes. Can you be back here in ten?”

Selena returned the warden notice to his desk and murmured, “See you in eight, Mr. Ambassador.” She turned on her heel, using her long legs to full advantage and mounting the back stairwell in twos and threes rather than waiting for the elevator to the third floor embassy staff housing. Selena’s chosen apartment, tucked in a back corner, caught sun through two windows and offered an amazing view of the Caspian Sea. Probably a mistake, given the way it reminded her of Cole’s eyes.

Sometimes the lake shone an impossible blue, and sometimes the undercurrents turned it a murkier blue-green, but she didn’t take time to check today’s color. For that matter, she didn’t even take the time to remove her coat. She eyed the bathroom mirror, removing the faint smear of blood to which Allori had referred. She removed her knives, knowing she’d have to face a metal detector at the capitol, and then dumped a few extra clips for her Beretta into her coat pocket. The gun and clips would be left at the capitol building’s sign-in desk, but given what she’d already encountered today, she didn’t intend to go out on the street unprepared.

As for the rest of it…she brushed a damp washcloth futilely over a smudge of…something…on her khakis, and ran it over her leather and nylon mesh hiking boots to remove the dust of the day. She applied a quick, light coat of foundation and a subtle smudge of kohl around the outer edges of slightly tilted eyes, knowing it would echo the look to which the prime minister was accustomed. She tackled her hair, pulling a brush through the tangles the wind had left beneath the scarf, giving herself a critical stare.
Time for a cut.
If she let it grow too far below her shoulders, the strong, lean bones of her face seemed stronger, leaner…she preferred to keep it short enough to square up her jaw and soften a strong chin with its hint of a cleft.

Three minutes remaining and she counted herself ready to go, except for a quick glance at her automatically downloaded e-mail as she closed her laptop up, her briefcase already to hand.

She wished she hadn’t.

E-mail from Cole.

Finally.

She knew she’d stopped breathing. Forced herself to begin again. There was no way to look at the message now. No way to look at it until she was through with work for the day.

The next one down in the list was another matter.
Delphi.

Delphi was Selena’s contact at Oracle, and Oracle…

Oracle was a name Selena never said out loud. The elite intelligence-gathering organization predated Homeland Security, and now quietly provided backup. Oracle crossed agency lines to garner intel, a cross-check system designed to prevent terrorist disasters…and then they acted on it when no one else could or would. Selena suspected her invitation to join Oracle’s clandestine efforts was another legacy of her days at the Athena Academy. The organization, its methods and goals…it tasted strongly of Athena.

Alerted by the subject header—
Kemeni
—as much as the sender, Selena accepted that she’d be late to the ambassador’s office and opened the e-mail. Even so, she had time for no more than a glance.

A glance was all it took.

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