Authors: Doranna Durgin
When she had her balance she stood over him and glared down. “You really shouldn’t have pithed me off.”
The young Kemeni’s groan came right on cue, but before she dealt with him, Selena yanked the rifle away from the dead terrorist and went to the double swinging doors, glancing out the small windows. She saw no one. Maybe she’d gotten lucky…but she wouldn’t count on it. She wouldn’t dawdle. She hauled the unresisting boy to the kitchen sink and shoved his head under cold running water. He quickly realized the benefit of it and stayed there on his own while she grabbed a kitchen towel and soaked it. When she pulled him away from the sink and aimed him at the cooler, she stuffed the towel into his hands and said, “Keep that over your eyes.”
He readily complied. Definitely one whipped terrorist. Not that Selena blamed him…she didn’t know if he’d taken corneal damage from the lye in the over cleaner, or even if he’d inhaled the fumes, soon to choke on the fluids of his damaged lungs. But while she’d offer him what ease she could, she couldn’t make herself be sorry. Not when she remembered the look in his eyes as he attacked her. Not when she had reason to wonder how many people he’d slaughtered in this one day alone.
Now he was out of that game.
She pulled the cooler door open with some caution—and a good thing, too, because Atif met her with a steadily aimed rifle. He quickly lowered it. “I was hoping that was you. You’ve been busy, I see.”
“Exercise keeps one young,” Selena told him. She prodded her captive into place beside the man already so carefully bound in plastic wrap, and proceeded to restrain his ankles and wrists—except she left his hands in front of him so he could hold the towel to his distinctly reddened face. Just for a moment she pulled it away; he looked at her through the slits of his swollen eyelids and she doubted he could actually see her. “If you cause trouble, any trouble at all, you lose the towel and I truss you up like a roast lamb. You got it?”
In testament to his misery, he only nodded.
When she returned to the kitchen, she checked the double doors again, found them still clear and dragged the dead terrorist’s bulk into the cooler, leaving him well to the side of Atif’s decently covered friends. He nodded firmly at that arrangement, and then again at her face. “Are you hurt?”
“Just my feelings.” Selena ran careful fingers over her cheek and the edge of her brow line, finding puffy, hot skin and a trickle of blood. The hefty one must have been wearing a ring. Jerk. “They made me feel downright unwelcome.”
Atif snorted. “And have you brought more weapons?”
“Let’s just see.” She pulled the bolt back on the first rifle, found it sticky, and took a much closer look. “We’re
lucky you didn’t pull the trigger on this one, kid. They didn’t give you much training on this thing, did they?” She wasn’t expecting an answer; she didn’t get one. She pulled the magazine out of place and handed it to Atif, then pulled the oval pin on the side of the stock to release the joint there and folded the stock back on itself. Storage and transport configuration—and in this case, a signal that the weapon wasn’t to be used, at least not until it was thoroughly cleaned. She set it aside to inspect the second weapon, which proved to be in much better shape. “There we go,” she murmured. Not much in the way of ammo, but she had an idea just how she’d use it.
Atif watched as she took a moment to remove the shirt from the dead terrorist, doffing her coat and pulling the shirt on over her turtleneck. “Lemon juice,” he advised as she pulled the shirt out to inspect the blood dot she herself had created. Amazingly small…all the bleeding had been internal.
“If they’re close enough to wonder about it, they’re already too close.” The olive-green shirt over her khaki cargo pants would merely allow her to draw less attention at a distance. They presented a color combination the terrorists were well trained to see as friendly—at least until they noticed her hair and the fact that she sported breasts. This particular shirt went a long way to hide those pesky giveaways, as ill-fitting as it was.
She would have cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, but the terrorists had already created plenty of their own blood trails and her own efforts barely added to them. So she left it alone, and rummaged in the cooler for things she’d seen here earlier. Butcher twine, very nice. Candle stubs and matches she’d find in the entrance to the service corridor.
“May I ask,” Atif said, clearly prepared to ask regardless, “your intent? You are just one woman. They are many men. You cannot defeat them all.”
Selena tucked away the twine in a thigh pocket, and yanked the ice pick free of the dead terrorist, squinching her face up in matter-of-fact distaste.
Stay strong, stomach of mine.
She cleaned the pick and threaded it between her belt and her hip. “You’re right. I can’t defeat them all. I’m not sure that’s my job.”
“Keep them off balance. Keep them distracted from the hostages. Make it personal to Ashurbeyli, so he loses perspective.”
Check. Been there, did that.
“Make them think I
important, so they’re caught off guard when the real rescue comes along.” And there’d better
a real rescue. She had to count on Cole…had to believe he’d see to it, whatever he had to do. Meanwhile…she looked around the room, from the dead Kemenis to the live ones. “Three down. And the rest to go.”
he condo closed in around Cole. It surrounded him with
with her belongings and her style and even her scent. And with UBC muted, it surrounded him with memories of her voice on the phone. He wasn’t used to the uncertainty he’d heard from her only hours earlier—uncertainty that underscored the problem between them.
He’d been on assignment; he’d come back. Somewhere in between, something had hit her hard.
He just needed the time to find out what. The chance.
He understood her request that they use the hardwired phone—it didn’t crackle with static, nor drop every other syllable in a whimsical verbal word game. They wouldn’t be overheard by those baby monitors—or by the various intelligence communities of the world. But if he only could leave—
What then, Jones?
Nothing, that’s what. He’d called his office; he’d been shuffled all the way up to the deputy director himself. He’d passed along what he knew, the tidbits Selena had given him, and he’d been admonished to do the same with any further information she gave him. But what had he learned? Nothing. What had he gathered by way of reassurance that the CIA would immediately share this information to best benefit Selena? Nothing. And if there was one thing Cole had learned in his years of covert operations, it was that the various intelligence agencies jealously guarded their information. They talked a good game, and on some levels the situation had improved immensely—his recent assignment had proven that much—but cooperation was a boon, not the norm.
Call the State Department.
Yeah, he could do that. And they’d play the same games with him, and he’d still have no assurance they wouldn’t lose Selena in the big picture.
He caught sight of Tory Patton, gesturing at the Berzhaan capitol building, her classically beautiful features tight with concern. The bottom of the screen held a scrolling tally of the damage and death tolls caused by the terrorist activity since it had kicked off in the village of Oguzka.
Go to the news station. Call UBC, spill everything he knew…dangle his inside source.
That would light a fire under the CIA, the State Department and even the FBI. It would bring the troops circling around, forcing them to share intel…forcing them to act.
And he’d give it about thirty seconds before the CIA came and lit a fire under
They’d haul him away for questioning, and he wouldn’t be here to answer that phone at all.
Everyone else had their eyes on the student hostages, knowing that along with a tragedy, it’d be a publicity nightmare if those kids were hurt. They had their eyes on Razidae and Allori, both men that the region—and their countries—couldn’t afford to lose. It was Cole’s job to keep his eyes on Selena. To make things happen in a way that included
best interests. For neither the U.S. nor Berzhaan might realize it right now, but she was their best chance of coming out of this mess with survivors. She just needed the right kind of backup….
Cole paced behind the couch, down the hallway to the bedroom where her scent tortured him, a precise turn on his heel to stalk back to the living room where her beloved quilt squares reminded him of her well-hidden sentimentality. Complex, that was Selena. And every bit of her had called to him on that evening they’d met four years earlier—some state function he didn’t even remember now, because all he could think of was the way she’d smiled at him and how he’d been so certain she’d had hidden fire under that cool, lean exterior.
He’d been right, too.
He realized he’d hesitated by the couch, that he ran his fingers along the cool leather. Not so long ago she’d stopped a similar pacing jag by pulling him right over the back of the couch and into her arms. He groaned at the thought, resting his forearms on the couch back and dropping his forehead between them.
Go ahead. Torture yourself.
Think about the way she’d been lurking under the comforter with her eyes closed and only a thin cotton camisole and sporty briefs covering freshly bathed skin. Think about the play of lean muscle covered with just enough padding to make her soft to the touch. Think about how she’d drawn him close and wrapped herself around him and whispered something about making babies he’d just barely had the remaining concentration to hear. Think about how she’d taken him so fast and hard that even now the memory dazed him.
Yeah, go ahead, do that. Get lost in it.
In how much you’re afraid of losing her.
Slowly, he pounded his head against the couch. Not hard enough to do damage…but hard enough to interrupt himself. To try to get his thoughts back on a track that would do him—and Selena—some good.
When he looked up, there was Tory Patton.
Don’t go to the news station.
Go to the
And go to her not as a reporter, but as a graduate of Athena Academy, and a former classmate of Selena’s. For the Athena graduates didn’t lose touch. They might go on to their individual achievements, but first and foremost, they were women of Athena.
And like Tory Patton, they had strings to pull. Influence to wield. And a noted track record for saving the day.
Selena crouched in the back stairwell, head tipped back. Thinking.
Unlike the posh main stairs in the front part of the building, this set was made of painted steel and concrete—and not recently painted steel at that. Tubular railings ubiquitous to stairwells everywhere, stained and worn texturized concrete…your standard ugliness.
Gunfire would echo magnificently.
She’d sacrifice the rifle, but it had little in the way of ammo—and like any soldier untrained in the use of this particular weapon, she found it unwieldy and a little counterintuitive. Not a combination she wanted to depend on in a tight spot. If things went right, she’d gain a few moments with the hostages—and maybe even an extra moment or two to cause inconvenience for the Kemenis.
That would be nice.
So yeah, she’d sacrifice the rifle.
But for now, she sat in the stairway, head tipped back, thinking. Making sure she had a clear idea of her purpose here. Given that she didn’t intend to leave the embassy—an excursion that would no doubt be more dangerous than staying here—and that she didn’t intend simply to hide in the basement, and that she’d already passed along what little she knew to Cole…then what could she hope to accomplish?
Free the hostages?
That, she knew, was thinking a little too positively. There were too many of them, too many Kemenis, and too few places to hide. The service corridor was a godsend, but the terrorists obviously already knew about it; she couldn’t lurk there in safety or stash the hostages there, either.
Reassure the hostages.
A definite possibility, especially if things went to plan here in the stairwell. She didn’t expect to draw anyone off their assigned post, but those who lingered in the ballroom…they were another story.
Nibble away at the edges of the terrorists.
Another possibility. She’d already managed a few small bites. As long as she remained only an irritant, she didn’t think Ashurbeyli would divert too much effort to finding her. Why should he? He still had the control; he still had the hostages.
Now there was the question. She didn’t think he’d have her killed outright, not at this point. No, he’d want to talk to her. Perhaps mistreat her. Make the point of his superiority, and salve the insults she’d already reaped on him—though she wasn’t sure if he’d figured out the three men were missing. With all the rotating shifts and various patrol sweeps they were doing, it might well take time.
It hit her in an entirely different fashion. Not the analytical lawyer’s approach to defining a problem, but the very personal, core reaction of a woman not ready to die. Not ready never to see the man she loved…or to learn if she’d be able to live the rest of her life with him. Or even to learn if her illness, her fatigue…if it had been more significant than a passing moment. Much more.
That fatigue washed over her again; she let it. A glance at her watch startled her and relieved her both. No wonder she was tired—she’d reached the far end of a long day in which she’d lost what little food she’d eaten. She’d started the day fighting terrorists, transformed herself back into her FBI legate persona, and now here she was facing terrorists again, disoriented by the lack of windows in the interior rooms and hallways in which she’d been spending time.
After this, she’d have to retreat to that laundry room and take more than a few moments’ pensive rest. She’d have to grab real sleep. A few hours, that’d be all…and then she’d take to the prowl again, hoping to find the building quieter. Maybe even finding a moment to call Cole—though after this she’d have to use her cell phone and chance being overheard. The phone lines were obviously not an option.
So. First step. Reassure the hostages. Second step…get something to eat. She’d need to check in with Atif in any event. Third step…a few hours’ sleep.
Selena set the rifle on full automatic and leaned it against the railing halfway up the steps she’d chosen. Not only would the noise echo impressively from here, but she might even get lucky with a stray bullet if anyone from the roof came charging down in response. Quickly now—no telling when one of the Kemeni guard pairs might come through, and once she started work she’d be unable to dash away without leaving bits and pieces behind—she tied the rifle in place with butcher twine. A nice five-pound bag of dried beans hung beside it, and she used a second piece of twine to tie it to the trigger, leaving just enough slack so there was no tension between the two.
And then she set up the candle stubs, carefully positioned to burn through the twine holding up the bag. If everything went right—no drafts, no shifting—when the twine burned through, the rifle would discharge at least a handful of rounds before recoil broke the twine holding it in place.
If nothing went right, she’d give them a reason to hunt for her without gaining anything in return. That would suck.
Selena double-checked the setup, nudged the candles into better alignment and pulled the matches from the thigh pocket of her cargo khakis. The match flared to life against the worn concrete step, and once she touched it to the second candlewick, she hesitated only long enough to see that the flame was a good height…and then she ran. Down, down, down—ice pick in one hand, hammer in the other, hoping she wouldn’t run into anyone but ready to leap if she did.
Sometimes luck ran her way.
She threw herself against the wall at the first-floor exit just as the rifle discharged. A long, painful burst of sound, far too distinct to be taken for anything but automatic rifle fire, far too loud to be missed.
Selena smiled, a wicked little smile that would have raised Cole’s eyebrows all the way to his hairline. Already she heard shouting, even through her ringing ears. But as she pivoted around, reaching for the door bar, she caught a glimpse of movement. She had time for nothing more than half a gasp as she flattened herself beside the hinges and then the door slammed open, whipping back at her so she turned her face and sucked in her breath, pressing the small of her back against the cold concrete wall, turning her feet sideways—all to make herself as thin as possible.
The door bar smacked into her hips, hard enough to bruise but not hard enough to break. She snatched it, just enough to make the door hesitate before starting to swing close.
No one else came through. And those who had clattered swiftly up the stairs, leaped over the landing and turned to continue upward.
Now she had time to curse. Silently but fervently, her pulse knocking around her body with frighteningly reckless speed. Too fast…not just adrenaline, but a tired body desperately trying to rise to the challenge. She knew herself…she knew she was pushing too hard.
No help for that.
She let the door close most of the way, caught it again and peeked out into the first floor, that back corner she’d come to know so well. Sound still came tinnily through her offended ears, but she didn’t hear anyone else—just the growing ruckus up the stairwell. Selena took a deep breath and a big chance, and she ran for it. Down the side hall to the little false-backed closet, down the dimly lit corridor to the room that held the hostages. Nothing much had changed, aside from the establishment of one corner as a bathroom area—blocked with chairs, draped with tablecloths and as far from the people as they could make it. That, and it seemed to her that there’d been something shoved up against the other side of the wall. Blocking the servants’ door?
She spied upon the table-filled ballroom beyond that, discovering that it held only one man. One disgruntled, impatient man who glared out the entrance closest to the main lobby—the closest set of stairs lay in that direction. With complete disregard for the history and the value of the building, he vented his anger by repeatedly stabbing an oversize survival knife into the wallpaper-covered plaster. Left behind and soooo unhappy.
Good. Because he wasn’t paying any attention at all to the hostages.
Selena backed off, slipping out into the private function room where she’d not so long ago clocked her first Kemeni conquest on the noggin and dragged him away. She didn’t want to startle them by appearing out of nowhere—distracted or not, the guard in the ballroom would hear such a reaction. He’d definitely hear it if she had to shove aside a table to get there. Then, too, the fewer people who knew about that passage, the better. Surely Prime Minister Razidae knew of it, as well as the events coordinator, but the others…if they learned of it, they might be tempted to try for doomed escape.
No, if they were going to escape, Selena wanted to be in on it. But she didn’t think escape was their best option, not just yet. Not until she’d picked off a few more terrorists; not until she’d heard more from Cole. If he could help her arrange a diversion from the outside…