Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (9 page)

For now, she’d settle for talking to them. Letting them know they weren’t alone.

Selena checked the hall, ducked into it long enough to reach the hostage room entrance and hesitated there the mere instant it took to confirm the hostages were still alone.

She entered the room with a finger already to her lips, a plea for silence.

They froze, expecting any arrival to be Kemeni—and then Allori jumped to his feet, his astonishment turning instantly to concern. “Selena!”

He’d kept his voice to a whisper, but it acted as a release for the others; their voices tumbled over one another, low exclamations of surprise and pleas for help that accumulated to significance. Selena glared a warning, putting a demanding hand out to hush them, ready to run right out on them if she had to.

“Silence!” bellowed the guard in Berzhaani, and even the students understood the intent of it.

Allori, bless his heart, stood where he could look into the ballroom, and he gave Selena the slightest shake of his head. No, the guard wasn’t actually coming this way. Not yet. She kept her hand raised, her expression full of warning, and then when they stood, silent and hesitating on her next move, she pointed at the college student with the steadiest demeanor and directed him with a gesture:
watch the guard through the door.

He wasn’t the most mature of them; he even looked to be the youngest, still short and slight, his need to shave still questionable and his chin too weak ever to truly firm up. But though he might have paled a little, he didn’t hesitate. He put himself in line of sight of the guard and sat in the closest chair, and then he gave her the same slight nod Allori had given the moment before.

Selena nodded back, and then she gestured the others closer, a finger still on her lips.

The bold young man from the lobby was the first to speak up, though he remembered to keep it low. His girlfriend stood close beside him, a tentative hand at his arm. “I saw you in the lobby.”

“And I saw you.” Selena looked them over, found none of them injured, all of them scared. “Have they allowed you to talk?”

Razidae said, “Yes. At about this level. We should be all right unless something alerts them.”

Allori got right to the point. “What’s your situation? What can you tell us?”

“They know I’m in the building.” Selena gave her sore face a rueful touch. “Tafiq and I…well, it’s personal now, Dante. I don’t honestly know how much longer I can evade them. But I’ll do what I can, while I can. I’m in touch with Cole.”

Who’s Cole?
The question stood loud on everyone’s face except Allori’s—and Razidae’s, who knew it didn’t matter, so long as Cole represented help. “I’ve briefed him on the situation on the inside. He’ll keep an eye on our best interests. The important thing—the reason I risked exposing myself here—is that you should all know you’re not alone. I’m here, and I’m working to get you out. Berzhaan and the States are working on getting you out.” Probably not together, not to judge by Selena’s own initial reception here in Berzhaan. “Be patient.”

“What about that man they took?” The girlfriend, so close to Selena, looked her straight in the eye. “He was important, wasn’t he? What happened to him?”

“Amar bin Kuwaji,” Razidae said softly. “Yes, he’s my deputy prime minister.
Was
my deputy, I should think.”

Selena met his gaze and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“They used him to prove their intent?” Allori asked, immune to the little gasps of dismay around them. He didn’t wait for Selena’s confirmation before giving a little nod. “Yes, they would have. Eventually, another of us will be used the same.”

“Not if I can help it.” But Selena felt with keen guilt her inability to save bin Kuwaji, and her words reflected more determination than expectation.

The petite events coordinator caught her gaze. “You came through the hall. Do you know about—”

Selena nodded sharply, cutting her off. “It was the best choice. They know about the other, as you’ve probably guessed.” The students didn’t, to judge by their expressions. Imagine that, the Kemenis had been discreet as they’d blocked the wall. She came down on her next words hard. “And you should all
wait here until I say otherwise.
” After that she looked deliberately from one student to another, waiting for acknowledgment by each. The two businesswomen were quick to comply.

Razidae took longer. Long enough that she said, “Please, sir. Trust me. You know as well as I the mood of these people. They’re desperate—and they’re being guided by Jonas White.”

“I’ve heard of him.” Razidae ran a finger across his thick mustache. “If I’d known he was anywhere near Berzhaan—”

“None of us knew. And I’m still not sure what he’s up to. But if he’s behind this, he’s put the Kemenis into a desperate situation—a last stand. Provoking them is the last thing any of us can afford. If things go badly, they have nothing to lose.”

Allori glanced toward the ballroom. “I must agree, Mr. Prime Minister. If we act—
when
we act—it must be a coordinated effort. Selena is the only one of us in a position to represent our best interests to the outside world. We need to do everything we can to preserve her ability to do so.”

Razidae grunted, eyeing Selena. “Then you shouldn’t have come here.”

“I had to.” She shrugged. “Tell me you weren’t already plotting the best way to slip some of you out. It would have tipped the Kemenis into action—I had to let you know I was here.”

A sturdy girl with skin the color of a sleek brown seal and scarf-hidden hair pushed her way toward Selena. Scared, like all of them. But still thinking. “And who
are
you?”

Selena regarded her in return, and offered up a slow smile. “I’m a Kemeni collector,” she said. “And I’m in the right place at the right time.”

At that she got a few tentative smiles. Good. She’d done what she’d come for.

 

 

 

“This has to be off the record.” Cole held the cell phone tightly, too tightly, and paced the length of the apartment. The flicker of the television provided the only light, inconsistent and often disconcerting.

Tory Patton laughed, light amusement that came short enough to reflect the nature of her current story. “That’s what they all say.”

But then, she didn’t know much of Cole. None of the Athena alumnae did; he was too often gone, too often buried in secrecy. Tory had no reason to leap to compliance at a phone call from Cole. Not as UBC’s star reporter, and not as the graduate of a school that taught its students to think for themselves.

“Listen.” He stopped, cleared his throat to remove the growl and tried again. “Listen. I didn’t dig up your private number on a whim. I need help, but it’s got to be off the record.”

“So that’s two favors just to start.” She wasn’t making it easy.

Then again, he hadn’t expected her to. He hadn’t yet invoked Selena’s name, and he wouldn’t do it until he knew for certain he wouldn’t compromise her. Tory had to suspect this call was about Selena, but she wouldn’t take it for granted. For all she knew, Cole was at work a single border away, and not calling from D.C. at all. “Do it,” he said. “Hear me out. You’ve got nothing to lose. Not even air time—they’ve gone to commercial.” Silence hesitated between them, and he knew he was doing this wrong. Desperately, he added,
“Please.”

Another moment of expensive international silence. “I’ve got another fifteen minutes before my next spot,” she said, and he could hear her stretch, completely at ease with her situation at the edge of hostilities. “You can have a couple of them. Off the record.”

He didn’t bother with introductory details. She knew them; she was
reporting
them. “Selena’s in there.”

This time the silence turned electric. He wished the camera was still on her, that he could read her reactions across the miles. Finally she swore, so softly he barely heard. “I was afraid of that. I wasn’t able to reach her at the embassy, and now they’ve closed up shop. No one’s been willing to confirm, though—they figure the Kemenis can watch the news as well as anyone, and they don’t know if everyone in the building was rounded up. You know for certain?”

“I’ve talked to her. We were on the phone when they killed bin Kuwaji.”

“That’s pretty certain.”

“Unfortunately, we were cut off. I’m waiting for her call. I damn well wish it’d come by now.”

“I hear you there,” she said. “She have any intel?”

“Some. Going for more. I’ve passed it along, and I’ve been patted on the head and told to wait like a good little husband. No one’s talking to me—not even my own people. I have no idea if the agencies are sharing, or who’s planning to take action…or if they’re keeping her welfare in mind at all. Here’s the thing, Tory—I want someone in on this who
will
keep her in mind.”

“I hear you there, too. But I’m still waiting to hear why you called me.”

Cole couldn’t help it; he snorted. “Because I know you can help. You know it, too. You think Selena hasn’t told me about the Cassandras? I know she wasn’t one of them, but she was still Athena, and you’re wasting time by making me spell it out. You’ve got connections, and Selena needs them. You’ve got someone by President Monihan’s side, for God’s sake.”

“Yes,” Tory mused. “I guess we do. And I’m sorry. I did want you to spell it out. I’m not in the habit of taking anything for granted. And of course I’ll do everything I can to help. In fact…”

After another moment’s silence, Cole couldn’t stand it anymore. All his cool under fire, gone. All his seat-of-the-pants success, useless. This one wasn’t up to him.

At least, not alone.

So he broke the silence with his impatience.
“What?”

“Mmm,” she said. “Not on this phone. We’ve said enough, I think. Can you get out here?”

“Yes,” he said instantly. He had no idea how, but he had enough of his own favors to call in—he wouldn’t wait for a commercial flight. “I’m at liberty.” Not strictly true, but he didn’t much care. “I’ll be there.”

A twelve-hour flight he had yet to snag. But he repeated himself. “I’ll be there. I’ll call you.”

But he didn’t know whether he’d be there in time. If Berzhaan grew impatient, if the Kemenis lost their temper, if Jonas White meddled once too often…

Hold on, Selena. Just hold on.

Chapter 10
 

S
elena hesitated in the servants’ corridor, crouching behind the black curtain, hammer and ice pick in hand. Listening.

Hard to hear anything over her stomach growling. Not that she trusted its hunger; for all she knew it would turn on her as soon as she fed it.

Still. She needed food to stay on top of her game, so food it was. And she’d spent enough time with the hostages that those Kemenis she’d diverted from their ballroom ease were probably trickling back down to this floor. They’d be mad, no doubt about it.

Tafiq would know just who had set up the rifle. He just wouldn’t know why.

He’d want to know why.

He’d have his people scour the capitol, hunting for signs of her presence, signs of that from which she’d diverted them. He wouldn’t find anything—but only because she hadn’t actually put any of her half-formed plans into play. She needed to talk to Cole first.

She needed rest.

She peeked out into the supply closet. No sound of searching. Did he realize he’d already lost several men to her? She’d be surprised if they were that well organized—a place for every terrorist and every terrorist in his place.

God, woman. You really do need sleep.
How long ago had this day started, anyway?

She edged up to the door. Heard nothing.

Last week. This day started last week sometime. Last year, maybe.
And if she let herself slow down now, she’d lose her edge. She couldn’t allow herself to slow until she was ready to crash. Nice, safe laundry room. A few hours. That’s all, just a few hours.

Selena slowly turned the latch, nudged the door open. Only silence. She opened the door another inch, just enough to peer out, not really enough to see anything, her hand still resting loosely on the latch—

The door jerked forward, out of her grasp. Without its support Selena fell, and she turned it into a roll, the hall a blur of olive and khaki all around her. Shouts erupted; hands landed on her, pinching and pulling and grabbing—

But not shooting.

Alive. They want me alive for now.

She wouldn’t make it easy for them. She squirmed, striking out with her feet, lashing out with both the hammer and the ice pick; the aggressive shouts changed to pain and alarm. Still they came at her. She found her way to her knees. Someone snatched her hair; she lost the ice pick in his arm. She surged to her feet, now thinking only about staying alive and escape and the exit beyond the blood-smeared kitchen floor. Escaped, she wouldn’t do the hostages any more good…

Can’t do them any good in Tafiq’s hands, either.

She went for it. She wielded the hammer like an old war ax and kept them at bay—were there only three of them?—and when she spotted an opening she went for it, pure fullback style.

And then suddenly she slammed into the wall. The hammer fell to the floor from her numbed arm and she looked up, bewildered and somewhat betrayed, to discover a fourth man holding his Abakan by the muzzle. He’d not been allowed to shoot her but he’d found a way to use the rifle on her nonetheless, and now suddenly her arm began to hurt, a deep, hot throb that told her just how hard he’d hit her.

Another figure stepped into the suddenly quiet tableau, a stained hallway full of panting combatants and their wounded prey, finally brought to stand.
Great. Just what I need.
Tafiq Ashurbeyli, only moderately more ruffled than the last time she’d seen him. Still fully in command of the situation. Of himself.

And now of her.

 

 

 

Ashurbeyli spoke into a quiet punctuated only by the heavy breathing of his men and Selena’s own gasps, as much in pain as for air. “You should have run when you had the chance.”

“Probably,” she said. She didn’t shrug, because it would have meant moving her arm. At least it was the right arm…at least she was left-handed. “Gave you a chance to find a decent use for those silly Abakans. Damn, you didn’t have to hit me that hard!”

Ashurbeyli looked around at his battered men, at the blood splattering the walls from one of her particularly good hammer blows. Someone lay on the floor behind him, moaning in pain. “I think we did. Yes, you should have run. But I consider it our good luck that you didn’t.”

“More than
luck
that you were waiting for me here.” She tested her ability to make a fist, found it distinctly wanting. Otherwise she remained still. Nonthreatening. Giving them no reason to hit her again.

Though she was excruciatingly aware that they weren’t likely to need a reason.

Ashurbeyli merely smiled. Handsome…
beyond
handsome, with the sheer charisma of his presence. But predatory, oh, yes. And far too knowing. “Perhaps it was.” He gestured at his men with paired fingers, and two of them stepped forward, hovering in overeager readiness as Ashurbeyli stepped in and gestured that she should raise her arms and submit to a search.

Resigned, she did just that. More or less, since her right arm had no intention of functioning just yet. The novelty of being searched by men had worn off long ago, and she barely paid attention other than to note Ashurbeyli was just as thorough as he needed to be, hands following her every curve—but he didn’t linger, didn’t take advantage. He retrieved the paring knife from her belt and the pens and Buck knife from their most recent cache in her back pocket, handing them off to a third Kemeni who stepped forward just at the right moment.

They worship him.

That would make it harder. Foot soldiers who
believed…
foot soldiers who were dedicated to both their leader and their cause.

She wouldn’t waste her time exploring potential rifts between them. She’d give him the respect they felt he deserved, and now and then they might just see her as a person instead of a blank-faced Enemy Barbie.

It wouldn’t be hard. He was a man who commanded respect.

He stepped back, having discovered everything worth taking, his hand hesitating only once—on the lower curve of her left breast, where the tiny blood dot from the ice pick interrupted the olive-green of her borrowed shirt. He met her gaze long enough so she knew they’d talk about it later, and then stepped back. “Take her to the ballroom. Don’t harm her further unless she gives you reason—but I don’t think you’ll do that, will you?”

This time Selena did shrug. It was a painful facade of movement, hiding her fear and awareness. She’d be blind in the ballroom, unable to call Cole, unable to feed him information…unable to keep the hostages out of the line of friendly fire.

And mostly unable to hear the reassurance of his voice, the voice of a man who spent his time successfully doing exactly what Selena had just failed to accomplish. Seat of the pants. Casual, confident, ops-on-the-fly. What she wouldn’t give to hear that voice right this moment, breaking up this little party and turning it into his own.

Damn. I’m in trouble.
But she wasn’t quite ready to admit—even to herself—that she was scared. So she shrugged again. “I’ll be good,” she said. “This time.”

Ashurbeyli shook his head, a sharp, short motion. “It’s too late to think beyond that,” he said. “Your fate, I’m afraid, is thoroughly sealed.”

She glared back at him, glad for the arrogance that had sparked her back into anger. “That makes two of us, buddy.”

He might have hit her. One step and he could have smacked her head back against the wall. For a moment, she thought he would. And then, oddly, he inclined his head ever so slightly in her direction and then strode away.

 

 

 

She had to admit, they could have been nastier about that walk to the ballroom. Perfect opportunity to snatch her arm and yank her around, and she didn’t think she’d stay on her feet if that happened. But one of them aimed his rifle at her midsection in a most casual manner while the other, the bigger of the two, clamped a hand at the back of her neck and guided her to the long hallway that paralleled her recently abandoned false corridor.

She tried to shake the impression he could pick her up like a puppy and snap her neck. She tried to forget him altogether. If it had only been the two of them, she’d have found the right moment to make a break for it. The closer they came to the lobby, the better her chances of diving out that door to freedom, even if it meant rolling right down all those stairs.

But it wasn’t just the two of them. The entire ballroom contingent followed, and only two of them broke away to continue whatever guard duty they’d been about before she distracted them. And handcuffs…there were handcuffs, of course.

So Selena walked unresisting, arm throbbing, taking in the details of the men and their reactions to one another and to her, and all the time wondering how they’d been so ready for her.

You took too long with the hostages, that’s how.

Maybe. They’d had time to disarm her little distraction, to search the area and realize it was nothing more than a distraction. They’d had time to trickle back to the ballroom, or to rush to all the potential exits on this floor and make sure no one was on the way out—or in. But to be waiting for her in silent ambush, at just the right spot? It’s not as if she’d left muddy tracks to follow or even a handy little blood trail.

They took her to the main ballroom entrance just off the lobby, offering her a tantalizing glimpse of freedom—the ornate capitol doors with their hidden armor and the bright-as-day grounds, halogen lights shining through the tall, narrow windows fronting the lobby. An unexpected inner voice full of primordial fear shrieked
run! runrunrun!
She stiffened enough to draw her escorts’ attention…and she didn’t run.

At the moment, she was still alive. Still had the opportunity to work the situation. The chance to do some good.

Running would end all that. Ashurbeyli might want her alive, but the Kemenis would never let her near those armor-core doors.

They pushed her into the ballroom and shoved her in a posh padded chair in the haphazard group of chairs and tables that had been shoved aside to make way for pallets and blankets. On the way she got a glimpse through the open door to the next function room, and she caught the shocked reaction of one of the students.
Don’t give me away!
she thought fiercely, although it hardly mattered now if the Kemenis knew she’d spoken to them.

Just instinct.

They left her to her own company and took up already established positions around the room. She didn’t mistake their casual ease to mean they’d stopped paying attention to her. A quick count tallied one rifle and three automatics pointing in her general direction. She sighed, slumped in the chair with every appearance of resignation and tried to consider her options. Not that she had any. And not that she could think in the first place, given the throb of her arm and her general disgust with the situation. She flexed the arm, testing…pushing.

It bent. Barely, but fingers, hand and arm all moved at her command. Not broken, then. Not terribly useful, but no jaggedy edged bones messing with nerve and blood vessel. She wouldn’t bleed to death internally without even knowing it. She’d just hurt a lot. Even through the layers of her turtleneck and borrowed shirt, her hand hovering over her biceps could feel the heat of the swelling.

Her stomach growled.

Knowing Berzhaani would never serve her better. “Hey,” she said. “You fellows have anything to eat?”

They froze in group disbelief that she’d asked.

“Look,” she said, “Tafiq might well decide to starve me, but then again maybe not. He might actually want to talk to me, in which case it would be good if I wasn’t too faint from hunger to speak respectfully to him.”

She didn’t think they’d go for it. She thought she might as well put her head down on the closest table and catch some sleep while she could. She looked across the long, narrow room with a gaze so tired as to be entirely neutral. Most of them had camped out on the padded carpet of the raised section spanning the front of the room. A long table snugged up against the back wall, shoved there and now covered with supplies, including a stack of black hand-held controls of some sort and a pile of sturdy travel cases meant for electronics jarringly adjacent to prayer rugs. The cases left her puzzled, but the rest of it only reinforced her first impression—that they’d come prepared for the long haul.

At least, they’d come prepared with supplies. Looking at the faces of the men sprawled in chairs and on the floor, Selena wasn’t sure they’d also come prepared for the emotional drain of holding the entire building hostage. Only eight hours in, and already she saw signs of strain and tension. How would they feel after a few sessions of Salat in this far-from-holy place—or worse yet, a few
missed
sessions? And sooner or later they’d realize the futility of this takeover. They’d get tired and careless and they’d leave an opening for the forces hovering outside in wait for just such a moment.

Not what she’d normally expect of any crew run by Ashurbeyli—except that the Kemenis had been at the end of their collective rope before this had even started, their funding cut, their people hounded.

And where was Jonas White? Off rifling government offices? It wouldn’t surprise her. Ashurbeyli defied the Berzhaani government openly and brazenly, taking what he wanted, while Jonas White hid behind false names and front men and slunk around gathering secrets to use against anyone he could.

She looked over at the men; they looked back at her. Oh, well. She sighed, put her head down on the table and prepared to go hungry. But one of the men cleared his throat and said, “There’s that batch of bad MREs. They’re not halal.”

Another snorted. “Filth for filth.”

Oh, yeah,
Selena thought.
Bring on the filth.

 

 

 

And the filth was good. The filth went down quite well. Selena made a series of reality checks, but at this point her stomach didn’t seem inclined to object. Just a bad day after all? She patted her tummy low between her hip bones, once again tugged through the series of conflicting emotions that came with the thought of pregnancy. All the overwhelming
not nows,
somehow balanced by that tiny little hope that it might be true.

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