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Washington, D.C. Now
The second time Shannon Connor talked with Vincent Drago, the freelance information specialist wrapped a hand around her neck, slammed her against a wall hard enough to drive the air from her lungs, put a gun to her head and told her, "I'm going to blow your head off for setting me up."
The first time she'd talked with him had been over the phone and she'd used an alias. Maybe if she hadn't started everything with a lie, things might have gone more smoothly.
"Wait," Shannon croaked desperately. Wait? He's pointing a gun at your head, looking like he's going to use it, and the best you can come up with is wait? She really couldn't believe herself. Maybe something was wrong with her survival instinct.
Other reportersand friendsor what passed as friends, acquaintances reallyhad sometimes suspected she had a death wish.
Shannon didn't think that was true. She wanted to live. She glanced around the small room in the back of the bar where Drago had arranged to meet her. Actually, he'd arranged to meet her up front. He'd just yanked her into the back room at the first opportunity.
Then he'd slammed her up against the wall and put the gun to her head. If she'd known he was going to do that, she wouldn't have shown up.
Judging from the low-life clientele the bar catered to and the fact that they were in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood only a few blocks from the Watergate Hotel, Shannon doubted that help would be forthcoming even if she could yell.
"Do you know how much trouble I'm in because of you?" Drago demanded.
"No," Shannon croaked around the vise grip of the man's big hand. "How much?" She'd been trained for years to ask open-endedquestions. It was only the politicians that had to be restrained from climbing up on their soapboxes.
Vincent Drago wasn't a politician. He was a private investigator, only he called it "freelance information specialist."
From what Shannon had found out about the man, he had a shady career. Some of Shannon's police contacts had claimed the man sometimes worked for the government on hush-hush jobs. Others claimed that he was a semilegal blackmailer.
One of the people Shannon had talked to had told her that Drago had gone after a blackmailer preying on a presidential hopeful. When he'd gotten the evidence of the candidate's philandering with a young intern, Drago had put himself on the candidate's payroll.
Shannon knew that because she'd broken the story about the intern when the girl had come to her after the affair ended. The intern had come forward so she could claim her fifteen minutes of fame. Everybody wanted that.
Drago was six feet six inches tall and looked like a human bulldozer. The carroty orange hair offered a warning about the dark temper that he possessed. His goatee was a darker red and kept neatly trimmed. He wore good suits and had expensive tastes. He could afford them because he did business with Fortune 500 companies.
According to the information Shannon had gotten, Drago was one of the best computer hackers working the private investigation scene. The man was supposedly an artist when it came to easing through firewalls and cracking encryptions. He was supposed to be more deadly with a computer than he was with a weapon.
Shannon was pretty sure she wouldn't have felt as threatened if Drago had been holding a computer keyboard to her head. Of course, he could have bashed her brains out with it.
She held on to Drago's wrist with both of her hands and tried to reel in her imagination. Thinking about the different ways he could kill her wasn't going to help.
"Somebody found out about me," Drago snarled. Angry red spots mottled his pale face.
"You advertise in the Yellow Pages," Shannon pointed out.
"People are supposed to find out about you."
"Somebody got into my computer." Drago looked apoplectic.
"My computer! Nobody gets into my computer."
"You get into other people's computers. I've heard that's dangerous. That's why I came to you."
"I'm invisible on the Internet," Drago roared. He stuck his big face within an inch of Shannon's. "I'm a frigging stealth ninja."
Shannon couldn't help thinking that stealth ninja was pretty redundant. When a ninja killed someone, they weren't supposed to be seen. That was part of what made them a ninja. "Who are you working for?" Drago slammed her against the wall again.
The back of Shannon's head struck the wall. Black spots danced in her vision. She tried to remember the last time she'd had her life on the line and thought it was during her coverage of the apartment fires that had broken out downtown. Nine people had died in that blaze. She'd very nearly been one of them.
But it hadn't seemed as scary then. She'd been with Todd, her cameraman, and he'd been rolling live footage. Every time the camera was on her, she was fearless.
Unfortunately neither Todd nor a camera were currently present.
Shannon held on to Drago's thick wrist in quiet desperation. Even standing on tiptoes, she could barely draw a breath of air.
"I'm not working for anyone," Shannon said.
"You work for American Broadcasting Systems."
"I told you that. I also told you this wasn't a story I was covering for the news station." That was true. Oddly enough, throughout her years as a reporter Shannon had discovered people believed lies more than truths. They just seemed to want to.
"Are you working for the government?" Drago asked.
"Because the Web sites I tracked the black ICE back to felt like federal government sniffers to me."
That was surprising. Shannon didn't know why the federal government would have been feeding her the information she'd been getting lately. Or before, for that matter.
"I don't work for the government," Shannon insisted. "I don't even know what black ICE is."
"Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics."
"How much do you think someone like me would know about stuff like that?" Shannon pulled her best frightened blonde look. Considering she was suspended and nearly choking to death, she figured she was inspired.
Her mind raced. She knew a physical confrontation with Drago was going to end badly. She was a foot shorter than he was and weighed about half of what he did. The room contained crates and cases of liquor. The single low-wattage bulb in the ceiling barely chased the night out of the room.
There was no help there, and nothing within reach that she could use as a club.
"I've seen you on television," Drago said. "I've seen you lie and wheedle your way into stories that other reporters couldn't get."
Despite being strung up against the wall, Shannon took momentary pride in her accomplishments. Getting recognized for something she'd done felt good. It always had.
"I knew I shouldn't have trusted you," Drago went on. He smiled, but there was no humor or warmth in the effort. "From the start I figured you were out to cross me up. But I bought into that blond hair and doe-brown eyes." He leaned down, a long way down, and sniffed her hair.
Shannon cringed and couldn't help closing her eyes. She hated being manhandled. It had never happened before, but she'd talked to rape and domestic-abuse victims enough to know that she was feeling the same thing they'd gone through. She resisted the urge to scream only because she thought if she did, he might kill her outright to shut her up.
"You sold me, baby," Drago whispered into her ear. "Hook, line and sinker. You had me with that teary-eyed look"
Shannon didn't use that one often anymore, but she knew it almost guaranteed instant game, set and match when she did. She just didn't like appearing weak.
"And the way you told me you needed help to find a cyberstalker."
Well, that was almost true.
"Who did you find?" Shannon had to struggle to keep from hiccupping in fear. The need to know what Drago had discovered almost leeched away the power her fear had over her.
"Have I told you this is a really bad part of the city?" Rafe Santorini lay back in the uncomfortable seat of the Ford Taurus he'd picked up to use for the night's surveillance.At six feet two inches tall, he couldn't quite get comfortable in the seat. His bad knee still ached and the gun on his right side kept digging into his hip.
"Yes," Allison Gracelyn replied. "Several times."
"Maybe I just haven't gotten through to you how bad this section is."
"I'm looking at it now."
That caught Rafe's attention. Challenged, he stared around the neighborhood. Since Allison was somewhere at her desk, currentlyor so she saidin Fort Meade, Maryland, he knew she had to have some means of electronic surveillance.
Unless she was using satellite coverage. Knowing Allison as he did, Rafe wouldn't have put it past her, but he knew she was wanting to keep this op on the down-low. Whatever business he'd bought into, it was personal to her.
Allison was one of the best ELINT and SIGNIT people he'd ever worked with. Electronic Intelligence and Signals Intelligence were two huge fields in espionage. Usually a person didn't overlap in the job. Allison did.
"Tired of playing Where's Waldo?" Allison asked.
Rafe knew she'd caught him looking. "If I didn't have to watch the bar so closely, I'd find it."
"There's a drugstore on the northwest corner," Allison said.
Rafe squinted against the darkness and didn't look right at the drugstore. Peripheral vision was stronger and clearer at night than direct line of sight. He spotted the familiar rectangular bulk of the camera bolted to the second-floor corner of the building.
"Are you getting my good side?" Rafe asked.
"No. You're sitting on it."
Despite the long hours spent following his target around for the last few days, Rafe had to laugh. He'd met Allison in the flesh twice, but he'd worked with her a couple dozen times over the last five years. He'd been a field agent with the National Security Agency. Allison was tech supporton steroids. There didn't seem to be any computer system she couldn't hack or information packet she couldn't sniff out. She wasn't known for her humor, buton occasionhe'd seen it.
Rafe turned his attention back to the seedy bar and rolled his watch over to have a look. It was 11:28 p.m. His target had gone inside
"Seventeen minutes ago," Allison said. Her voice was quiet and controlled coming through the earwig he wore in his left ear.
It was creepy how she did that, but Allison was a queen at multitasking. Agents Rafe had talked to had been blown away by how she could enhance an op and build in rabbit holes when things went south.
"Seventeen minutes is a long time," Rafe said.
"If you're holding your breath, maybe."
"Vincent Drago isn't a nice guy."
"I know. That's why I asked you to look into this when I found out he was involved."
Maybe it would help if you would tell me a little more about what's going on, Rafe thought. But he knew she wouldn't. Agents learned to be careful with the knowledge they had. Information was currency of the realm for a spy, and they never spent it casually, even at home.
In the handful of years that Rafe had worked with Allison, three of them spent before he'd ever gotten a face-to-face with her, she'd never asked for anything. She didn't seem like the type. Her phone call to the rental house in Jacksonville, North Carolina where he'd been recuperating for the past eight months, had been totally unexpected.
The fact that she was so grudging with the information had hooked him further. He'd known better, but he'd trusted Allison.
And you needed to get out of there, he reminded himself. Don't forget that. That oceanside rental was becoming as much a prison as the other place.
For a moment Rafe didn't see the seedy bar. He saw that small underground prison outside Kaesong, North Korea, where he'd been kept for five months. Cinder-block walls had threatened to crush him physically and spiritually every day. The long hours of torture and questions had rolled into one another until they'd become one long, unending nightmare.
The only reason he hadn't told his inquisitors what they'd wanted to know was because he hadn't known. He was certain they'd known that, too.
For a moment fear touched him intimately. It was strange how he'd accepted his death after the first few days of imprisonment yet had been more filled with fear after he'd returned home. Well, not home exactly. After being released from Walter Reed Hospital, he'd tried to go home and ended up renting that summer home in Jacksonville.
He'd gone armed every day. Even though he'd tried to sit in the sun and find that piece of himself that hadn't been shattered by his experiences, he hadn't been able to. He'd been more at home in the night and in the bars.
Come back, he told himself. You're not there anymore. You're here. You're helping a friend. Stick with the program.
The gnawing pain in his right knee helped him focus. He absently reached down and massaged it. Kneading the flesh was hard to do through the orthopedic brace he wore.
"Are you doing okay?" Allison asked.
Rafe was embarrassed and irritated at the same time. She'd caught him. He didn't like dealing with weakness or infirmity. The injuries he'd sustained had kept him out of active duty.
"I'm fine," he said.
"Are you still taking your meds?"
Rafe blew out his breath slowly, aware that she'd be able to pick up the sound over the earwig if he didn't keep it quiet.
"Yes," he lied.
A buzzer rang in his ear.
"Wrong answer," Allison said. "I checked with Medical. You haven't refilled your pain pills. If you were using them the way you should have been, you'd have run out forty-one days ago."
Despite his irritation, Rafe had to grin. Only Allison would know so much. Or would even think she needed to know so much, he amended.
"The pills weren't working very well," Rafe said. But that was a lie. The pills had been working entirely too well. He'd only noticed that problem when he'd started using alcohol with them. When he'd caught himself doing that, he'd poured the pills down the drain and hadn't touched so much as another beer. He'd seen what liquor and pills could do to people.
"Maybe you need something different," Allison suggested. Maybe I need to work again, Rafe thought angrily. Then he realized that Allison's favor had been a chance to do exactly that. He relaxed a little when he figured out that she wasn't passing judgment on him. She knew exactly what she was doing. More than that, she'd figured him out, too.
"Why are you smiling?" Allison asked.
"Man, that camera is good if you can see that well in the dark."
"I'm running a vision-enhancement-package upgrade on it that I designed. The software takes the available picture, repixelates it based on available light and light sources and reinterprets images."
"Very techie," she agreed. "The hardest part was collapsing the size of the program so it would run in real time. By the way, you evaded the question."
"Have I told you how much I appreciate you letting me do this?"
"You're doing me the favor."
"Seriously, I think it's the other way around."
"Even if it turns out to be a glorified babysitting job?"
"If you'd thought it was going to be a glorified babysitting job, you wouldn't have asked me to look into this."
Allison sighed. "You're right. So stay sharp out there."
"I think I'm going to recon the bar." Rafe checked the pistol in its holster. When he thumbed the restraint aside, the weapon came free effortlessly. He opened the door and got out. The leg ached, but it moved easily and held his weight just fine. That was encouraging. Of course, that was with the leg braceand the NSA wouldn't have cleared him for fieldwork while wearing it.
"Getting antsy?" Allison asked.
"It's been twenty-three minutes. Aren't you?"
"Twenty-two minutes. And, yes, I am."
Rafe pulled at the black beanie that covered his dark hair. Gold-lensed wraparound sunglasses covered his eyes. He'd left the semibeard he'd been growing the last few weeks. He wore jeans, boots and a loose gray chambray shirt over a Toby Keith concert T-shirt. Totally suburban ghetto rat. He blended into the neighborhood.
He tucked an expandable Asp baton into the holster on the left side of his belt. Closed, the baton was only seven inches long. Under his shirt it wasn't noticeable.
"Be careful in there," Allison cautioned.
Rafe smiled again as he crossed the street. "You've got my six. How much trouble can I be in?"
"The scary part is, I don't know."
Rafe thought about that. I don't know wasn't something often heard from Allison Gracelyn.