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By Lucy Monroe
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Lucy Monroe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRoman Chernichenko pushed open the heavy wooden door without knocking. It swung forward without a sound, revealing an office that would better suit a U.S. senator than the director of a highly classified black-ops unit like the Atrati. Walls covered in floor-to-ceiling bookcases surrounded an imposing, oversized desk and two pairs of armchairs facing it. The dark wood and rich upholstery screamed quality and power, and yet the man behind the desk was not a politician.
Not one elected by the American people anyway. Richard Corbin, retired Air Force Lieutenant General, had left the military despite all signs he would achieve General Air Force Chief of Staff one day in the not too distant future. He'd taken a job that would never get him on the cover of U.S. News & World Report, but offered him as much power as any elected official and more than most.
He was also Roman's boss. Well, technically, his boss's boss, but being the team lead for the Atrati's most effective unit, Roman often took his orders directly from Corbin.
"Thank you for joining us, Chernichenko."
Roman inclined his head, taking in the other occupants of the room besides Corbin. Two men sat in the chairs facing the desk, having left two empty chairs between them. Colleagues perhaps, but not friends.
Though he did not recognize them and they both wore suits, there was no doubt they were military. Their haircuts and posture gave them away. Both men flicked him a glance, but the one on the right returned his attention to Corbin almost immediately. The one on the left sized Roman up with an experienced eye.
"Gentlemen," he said, looking at the one on the left as he sat down.
No one spoke for several seconds, but Roman felt no need to break the silence. He settled back into his chair, prepared to wait.
The man on his right fidgeted; the one on his left looked forward, but remained still and silent, and Roman's boss ignored them all as he did something on his computer. After a few clicks and some quick typing, he nodded to himself and finally focused his attention back on the men facing him across his desk.
His gaze zeroed in on Roman. "We've got a situation."
"We generally do-" Roman paused for a beat of silence-"When you call me."
Corbin's head jerked in a short nod of acknowledgment.
"So, this is your guy?" the officer on his left asked.
The man on his right made a disparaging sound. "I still don't see why we can't handle it in-house. From what I understand, this man used to work for us. His training can't be any more specialized than our men's."
So, they were Army. Interesting.
Roman turned and gave the man a cool look. "Wrong."
"Watch your tone, soldier." The Army brass glared with enough heat to singe.
Roman merely lifted his eyebrow.
"What the hell do you mean I'm wrong?" the other man pugnaciously demanded when Roman didn't bother to reply. "What was I wrong about?"
"Explain yourself," the older man demanded in a tone that said he'd have Roman's balls if he didn't like the answer.
Roman wasn't nervous. It would take more than a riled-up officer who had the look of a man who had never served in action to worry him. "If you could handle it internally, you would have. I never worked for you. I served my country and I still do. And my training goes well beyond what I went through to become a Ranger."
"He's right, at least about us handling this thing with our own ops," the man on Roman's left said.
Roman turned to face him. "You're Army too?"
"No one's supposed to know," the other man furiously inserted.
"I'm not no one," Roman said, without looking at the other man.
The one he was facing was more interesting. He had the haunted edges that indicated he'd seen action, probably more than he wanted to. War did that.
"According to Corbin, you're the only one who can fix this mess."
"Alone?" Roman jerked around to face his boss. Even an assassination required a team of operatives.
"With a truncated team."
So, it was an assassination. Roman didn't like it, but then if he did, that would say something about him he wouldn't be happy knowing. It was bad enough that he had no qualms about doing his job. He shouldn't enjoy it ... and he didn't. Still, his family would never understand the man he had become.
"What's the job?" he asked.
"There's an information leak in our operations in southern Africa. All indications point to the courier being a medical relief worker with Sympa-Med."
The name of the relief agency rang a bell, but Roman couldn't remember why. It would come to him.
"Hell, for all we know, she's the one gathering the intel as well," the Army brass on his right inserted.
"That's highly unlikely," disagreed his fellow officer. "In fact, despite the circumstantial evidence indicating she's the mule, I don't think the relief worker is our spy. She doesn't fit the profile."
"A good spy never does." Roman knew that too well.
"She's a medical relief worker, for shit's sake. She's your typical girl-next-door out to make the world a better place. Tanya Ruston-"
Roman put his hand out and barked, "Let me see the file."
"Wait a minute, we haven't agreed to turn the situation over to your team."
Roman ignored the other man and waited for his boss to hand him the gray folder on his desk, which he did. Roman flipped it open and started reading. They were right. There was definitely an information leak, but what in hell did it have to do with Tanya Ruston? Turning a couple of pages, he found out. All the evidence was circumstantial, but it was also damning. Her movements were linked too closely with the dissemination of the intel for it to be coincidence.
"What about other relief workers on her team?"
"She's the only one who made every single circuit. Dr. Andikan sometimes stays in main compound and the other members of the team fluctuate."
"But Tanya goes every time?" he asked, even as he confirmed it for himself with a list of her assignments from the file.
As he continued flipping through the file, Roman had no problem seeing why Army intelligence needed to pass the job off to someone else. Whoever had compiled the information had done such a piss-poor job that they hadn't even discovered Tanya's link to him, or the fact that her brother was married to a former Goddard Project agent.
He could understand the lack of info on his sister, Elle's, former employers. Even his boss had never heard of the Goddard Project, the black-ops agency responsible for protecting America's proprietary and potentially dangerous technology. However, Roman considered the cursory mention of his sister as wife to Tanya's brother sloppy investigating. Elle's past as a security specialist and current role as chief of security at ETRD wasn't something that should be dismissed in a report like this.
Well, shit. It wasn't exactly fubar, but it wasn't real far from it either.
"Who the hell did you have assigned to this case, a junior gofer?"
"That's none of your business," the brass on his right said.
The man on his left sighed. "You're not far off the mark. Nepotism isn't reserved for politicians; you find it in the Army too."
"And it led to giving a highly sensitive investigation to an idiot?" Roman asked with exasperation.
"You can't possibly draw that conclusion, just from reading the file."
"On the contrary, my agents are trained to see things most miss," Corbin said, entering the conversation for the first time since his announcement they had a situation. He gave Roman a penetrating look. "Do you know her?"
The question proved it wasn't only Corbin's agents that noticed everything and knew how to interpret it all.
"I met her once. At my sister's wedding," he said, only giving part of the story. He lived his life on a need to know basis and his boss didn't need to know everything.
Army guy on the right cursed.
"Is this going to be a problem?" Corbin asked.
"No, sir." Roman couldn't put personal considerations ahead of his duty.
Especially when it came to treason. He'd made that mistake one time. Once was enough to cause devastation he would never forget. He had lost three good men, one the best friend he'd ever had, when he'd allowed sentiment to influence the performance of duty. When it came to serving his country, he would never again let private thoughts or feelings get in the way.
"You're kidding, right? You expect me to believe you won't have any problem taking out someone you know?" the increasingly annoying officer on his right disparaged.
"The easiest way to kill a target without making it look like a hit is to get close to him, or her. A passing acquaintance with Tanya Ruston will only make my job easier." Roman met his boss's gaze. "It will also make it easier to verify Tanya's guilt."
"The investigation is done. You are being brought in to remove the threat."
Roman gave the Army brass on his right the full weight of his disgusted glare. "You want a kill without even knowing who she's working for?"
"Sometimes, you have to settle for disrupting the pipeline."
"Bullshit. Your initial investigation was so sloppy, it might have been done by a kid without access to Google even."
"It isn't your job to pass judgment on our efforts."
"You don't define my job."
"I do," Corbin said firmly.
Roman inclined his head.
"Time is of the essence. The threat must be neutralized before a specialized JCAT program ends up in the wrong hands."
JCAT was a highly effective, expensive to develop, classified software used to train groups of soldiers in hard-to-recreate real-time battle scenarios. As far as Roman knew, only Nigeria had access to JCAT in Africa. He could think of several politico-military leaders who could cause even more mayhem than they did now with access to that kind of training.
"What the hell are our JCAT programs doing in Africa?" he demanded of no one in particular.
"Officially, this one isn't," the annoying officer admitted.
That went without saying. "Well?"
"Some stateside colonel"-the man on his left gave the one on his right a disgusted frown-"got the bright idea to offer a single seminar of training on this particular JCAT in exchange for first rights to a new naiobium mine."
Roman could understand the temptation to do something that stupid, but not giving in to it. Naiobium was used as a superconductor and had several weapon, anti-weapon and armor uses, but was in short supply worldwide. Still, only an idiot would offer such sensitive military software in exchange for the rights to a new mine. And he guessed he was looking at the idiot responsible on his right.
"So, you want me to kill Tanya Ruston to cover your own stupidity?" Roman asked, his disgust ratcheting up a notch.
"You do your job, soldier, and I'll do mine."
Roman turned to the other man. "You're sure the JCAT is in jeopardy?"
"Chatter about its sale has been picked up. You don't want to know which terrorist groups are celebrating right now."
They were definitely approaching fubar on this one. "And you're sure the Tanya Ruston connection applies?"
Colonel Idiot made a sound of disagreement, but his colleague just glared. "We aren't sure of the relief worker's involvement. Our best guess is that the information leak linked to her movements is also responsible for the chatter on the JCAT."
"Tanya Ruston has to be neutralized before that software ends up on the open market."
"You don't even know she has the software," the other man exploded.
"We can't take any chances."
Roman didn't say anything. This was one messed-up situation.
Corbin said, "You and your team are going in as personal guard for a State Department bean counter doing an audit of the mines near Sympa-Med's base camp in Zimbabwe. You'll be staying there with the auditor, Bennet Vincent. The camp is not near Internet access, but Ms. Ruston has her own satellite phone. Per our routine post 9/11, we've been monitoring her calls."
"If she's using it to make contact with her buyers or anyone besides her family, we haven't seen the evidence."
"We can't dismiss the possibility though."
Roman refused to give Colonel Idiot the courtesy of responding to him. The man was really getting on his nerves. "What about her Internet use when she gets access?"
"Nothing to raise red flags with our government or that of Zimbabwe."
"So, you are basing her guilt entirely on the fact she's been in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
"Repeatedly," the man on his left said grudgingly.
Roman rifled through the file again until he came to the financial reports. "There's no indication she's been taking payment for espionage."
"She probably has an account in the Caymans. Only a fool would take payment to her personal checking account."
That was the first thing Colonel Idiot had said that Roman agreed with, but he still didn't like the guy. And he had no intention of sticking around to get to know the Army brass any better. He stood up. "I've got a team to prepare."
"Wait, this meeting isn't over," Colonel Idiot spluttered.
Roman looked at Corbin with a raised eyebrow.
His boss shook his head. "I have nothing else."
He'd given Roman his assignment: neutralize the threat. Roman knew what that meant and he wasn't about to stick around gossiping about it like a bunch of teenage girls.
"Well, I do." Colonel Idiot jumped up from his chair, turning to face Roman full on for the first time. "It's my people doing the training over there and I've got some ideas on how to handle this mission."
Roman flicked a glance to the man on his left. His expression was blank, but it wasn't too hard to believe he wasn't any more impressed with Colonel Idiot's posturing than Roman was. "What's your pony in this race?" Roman asked him.
"I consulted on the JCAT, the voice of experience from real battle." He grimaced. "It's a powerful training tool. We'd be royally screwed right up the ass if it landed in certain hands."
Roman nodded. That he understood. Oh, he understood Colonel Idiot too. C.Y.A. was a strong motivator, but it didn't inspire any sort of respect in Roman.
Accordingly, he made no effort to mask his contempt when he replied to the colonel's remarks. "Those ideas would be welcome if your people were doing the mission. They're not. I am and I'm not interested. If your command is responsible for the training going on, then they're also responsible for the compromised intelligence."
"That's not the way it is," the other man spluttered.
But Roman wasn't listening as he headed for the door. The brass never thought they were responsible, but nine times out of ten they were. Roman knew it, being team lead himself. It didn't matter how many bars or stars you wore on your uniform. The fact was, when men or situations under your authority got compromised, you held ultimate responsibility.
And he had no respect for a man who didn't see that.
* * *
The buzz of excited chatter outside the medic hut pulled Tanya Ruston's attention from the inventory report she'd been working on in the small office off the main exam room.
"What's going on?" she asked the Tutsi woman sitting at the other desk.
Dr. Fleur Andikan looked up from her own patient reports. "Good question. The man from your country's government is not supposed to arrive for another two days." The sound of jeeps approaching in the distance came in faintly through the open window.
"Surprising the mine owners with an early visit might be his way of attempting to get a truer read of what is going on in the mine."
"Do you believe the man really cares if human rights violations are happening?" Fleur's tone implied she didn't.
Of course, Fleur had more reason than most to doubt the genuine concern of any government official. She'd been an innocent teenage girl during the Tutsi massacres in Rwanda, surviving only through blind luck and ingenuity. She had not come out of it unscathed, though. Her years living with distant family in Nigeria, attending university and medical school, had not undone the trauma of her final months in Rwanda.
No matter how much Fleur wanted others to believe she was untouched by her past and untouchable by the present, Tanya saw the haunted darkness in the doctor's eyes.
Excerpted from Close Quarters by Lucy Monroe Copyright © 2010 by Lucy Monroe. Excerpted by permission.
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