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Timothy Severs was wired.
The shock sent his heart into overdrive, pumping blood until it sizzled and snapped in his veins. A high-pitched hum set his teeth grinding, his muscles twitching.
A split second later, euphoria hit. And with it, the rush of confidence, the heightened senses, the understanding he could live forever.
Ironic really, considering his plans for the day.
Using his finger, he rubbed the excess white powder over his gums, then clicked his tongue against the numbness.
He could have done the line in his apartment before coming to work that morning. But the prospect of snorting coke under Big Brother's eye added a sharp, seductive edge to his buzz.
Unhurried, he flipped the latch open and stepped out of the bathroom stall. A quick glance told him he was alone.
With a laugh, he leaned over the sink and adjusted his tie in front of the beveled mirror. He was not an attractive man, with glazed, bulging eyes of watery blue and a receding hairline. Small, red splotches appeared on his pale, slightly pitted skin, betraying his drug habit, which he tried to hide beneath a thin layer of makeup.
He washed his hands, ignoring the slight tremor in his fingers when he grabbed a nearby paper towel. Well, his reputation was about to change.
The only child of David Severs, a prominent Supreme Court Justice, Timothy had been expected to continue the tradition of law in his family. But a drug bust and the accidental overdose of an underage girlthe daughter of a senatorin his dorm room, created a scandal that even his family's connections couldn't cover up.
But with his father's help, Timothy eventually secured an assignment as junioraide to an obscure British attaché. He should be grateful, his father lectured. After all, Timothy had thrown away a promising future. And for what? His father demanded. Sex? Drugs?
Nothing wrong with either, Timothy mused. After a final check in the mirror, more for vanity than necessity, he opened the restroom door and stepped into the hallway.
Timothy jumped, slightly startled by the hand on his shoulder. He turned, noting the marine's uniform more than the man wearing it. With short cropped hair and flat, heavy-boned features, the soldier stood a good six inches over Timothy's five-nine frame.
"Yes?" Timothy demanded, taking a deliberate moment to scan the battle-scarred lines and leathery skin before dismissing the man to look at the name badge on the soldier's chest. "Cooper."
The soldier's eyebrow rose. "I was instructed to tell you that your new chair has arrived," Cooper said quietly, but a sickle-shaped scar on his cheek flexed with the tightening of his jaw.
The chair. Excitement caught in Timothy's chest, but he managed to keep his features schooled. "Good," he replied, his tone arrogant. With a dismissive wave, he continued down the hallway to his office.
The other staff called him the Fish behind his back. He heard their smirks, saw the women's features before they could hide their repulsion.
Even the British Ambassador, Sir Christopher Beck, couldn't always conceal his distaste.
Only one person ever understood him, appreciated his talents. And sadly, that one person would never witness his moment of triumph.
When Timothy reached his office, he closed the door and carefully turned the lock. The room wasn't the smallest in the British Embassy, but it certainly was the ugliest. No family pictures hung on the wall or sat on his desk. No plantsartificial or living cluttered the corners.
He required nothing more than a small metal desk with a computer to do his job. And now behind it, the high-back, leather swivel chair.
For a moment he ran his fingers over the seat, enjoying the cool smoothness, recognizing the top quality of the grain. He let out a small laugh and flung himself into the chair, sending it spinning.
Finally, dizziness forced him to stop. He folded his arms on the desk and leaned forward until the room tilted back into place.
Smugness swelled inside him, riding high on the back of the cocaine. He jerked his desk drawer open and grabbed a pair of scissors. He stood and with shallow slashes, he hacked at the leather until it shredded beneath the blades.
"Come to daddy," he gasped, out of breath from the exertion. Murky drops of sweat and makeup rolled down his face. He wiped away the trickle from his cheek, ignoring the tan smear against his suit sleeve.
Underneath the shredded leather lay a slim, flat clay brick of C-4 wrapped in wax paper. With shaky hands, he picked it up, enjoying the weight of its power. He opened his briefcase and placed the plastic explosive inside. From a nearby drawer, he pulled out the electronic detonator.
Delta had ordered him to use a timer, but the power behind being the human detonator was too seductive to resist. Practically giddy, he inserted the detonator into the clay and punched the code into his cell phone.
Delta had assured Timothy that his identity would be protected. But Timothy understood that if Delta's plans went awry, Timothy would be the fall guy.
A glance at his watch told him he had less than an hour before his meeting with Ambassador Beck.
Plenty of time. He set his phone down on the desk and pulled a small foil-wrapped package from his pocket, along with a razor and straw. He shook the packet out and used the razor to create a long, perfect white rail of powder.
Slowly, he guided one end of the straw to his nose and leaned toward the cocaine. "Here's to a very promising future, Dad," he murmured, his lips tightening with derision. He pressed his finger against his free nostril and inhaled.
Two weeks later
The storm struck downtown Baltimore with icy contempt. Slapping and spitting, the gusts of sleet battered the red brick buildings trimmed with Christmas cheer. White lights, wreaths and ruby-red bows were left tattered on the near deserted streets.
From a darkened doorway, the man called Beck watched a pseudo-Santa scurry from his coin bucket into a nearby diner.
Smart chap, he thought with derision. Smarter than me.
The frigid air burned like acid in Beck's nostrils. Bits of ice pelted his face, each with the snap and sting of a whip. But the storm couldn't match the rage inside the man. A rage that, if freed, would have set the snow and sky on fire.
But for now, it blazed inside until his eyes burned a blue inferno, and the heat hardened his heart into a heavy stone.
As if to taunt him, church bells tolledtheir clang muffled, but their warning clear. Saturday evening services had ended.
Beck stepped back farther into the doorway, letting his black jeans and leather jacket blend with the inky shadows.
He was English aristocracy by birth. A fact that meant little in the modern worldmuch less in his world. Still, lineage reinforced the long, lean lines of his body, the hard set of his broad shoulders.
As an added precaution, he pulled a dark ski cap from his pocket and slipped it over his head. His light brown hair had enough blond threaded through to draw more than a casual glance.
But it was the nobility of his features that made most glances become outright stares. The pale, blue eyes set deep beneath a broad forehead. The high, prominent cheek bones cut lean into the square jaw that only hinted of a cleft chin. A hard mouth that over the years tended to smirk with the disdain of his ancestors, rather than soften in humoror compassion.
Beck was born with the proverbial silver spoon. One that corroded long before he'd ever become a man.
Up the street the church bells ceased clanging, leaving in their wake the hum of conversation.
Most people, the smart ones in his opinion, stayed indoors. Othersthe more devout, maybebraved the elements in huddled groups of two and three, searching for their cars through knee-high drifts.
As people drew closer the hum morphed into a spattering of laughter and a few verses of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" from those caught up in the spirit of the season.
Beck made note of some nearby pedestriansa handful with their heads down, their arms hugging their coats closemaking their way past the bookstore across the street.
The bookstore he'd been observing for the last hour.
Owner, Regina Menlow. Single. American. Age, twenty-eight. Graduated Princeton.
Not exactly a second-class education, he thought with derision. Although, from her file, Regina Menlow used a trust fund left by her deceased parents for most of the tuition and then worked her way through college for the balance.
She had lived off campus, kept to herself. No friends.
Only one estranged aunt for family. Aida Pullman.
An image flashed through Beck's mind. The only photograph from Miss Menlow's filea driver's license picture.
Her brown hair had been tied back into a long, glossy tail that lay over one shoulder. Shorter hair fringed her heart-shaped face, framed big green eyes that flashed impatience just as the camera clicked. The same impatience that showed in the generous slant of her mouth, the inevitable lift of one delicate brow.
It was safe to assume that Miss Menlow had a temper.
But was she capable of treason?
Beck caught a faint flicker of light in the bookstore's display window. A silent warning pricked at the back of his neck. He straightened from the doorway, his stance turning predatory.
The sounds of the evening faded into a fuzzy void. His ears strained to hear a cry of fear or pain, while his eyes narrowed on the lighted glass and beyond.
The dim glow flashed, bursting into a frenzy of orange hues that spread from the front door to the front display window.
Suddenly, a mana silhouette reallyslipped from the side alley by the store.
Rage worked its way up the back of Beck's throat, forcing him to take short, frigid breaths through his mouth. He palmed his pistol, thought about shooting the man, only to disregard the idea because of the people still on the street.
The shadows shifted back and forth until the fire outlined the intruder's featurescaught the slide of the man's hand, the bulge of the book shoved under his overcoat.
"Come on," Beck urged, his words clipped. Shifting toward the doorway steps, he willed Regina Menlow to appear in her doorway. "Get the hell out of there, damn it."
Inside the store, the flames shimmered, growing in height behind the door's window. In his mind, Beck visualized the blaze greedily consuming the dry kindling of books and wooden shelves.
Seconds sped by. The intruder slipped around a nearby corner, kicking over Santa's bucket in his haste. The coins scattered, making little sound on the snow-covered sidewalk.
Beck willed himself to follow the man, then cursed himself when his legs wouldn't obey.
Swearing again, he hit the wall with the side of his fist. After taking one last glance at the corner, he pulled his cap from his head, ripped a hole in the top and created a tube.
He raced across the street, yanking the tube over his face while he ran, until the material covered his mouth and nose.
The heat blasted him before he hit the sidewalk. He didn't waste time on Menlow's door, the glass having already turned black with smoke. Instead, he heaved the coin bucket through the display window. Alarms punched the night, but he barely registered the noise. He jumped over the broken glass, shoved books and shelves to the side and slid to the floor.
Quickly, he pictured the blueprint of the store in his mind. If she was as smart as her file claimed, she'd be in the loft upstairs or the office in the back.
Beck glanced up. Flames licked the ceiling, then spread in a bloom of crimson and orangethe loft above already engulfed. If she was upstairs, she was already dead.
He started toward the office.
Smoke and heat choked the air. Fire fed off the books, turning the shelves into blazing walls of hell. Cinders stung his eyes, pierced the cloth until the heavy weight of ash coated his throat and lungs.