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Temporary command center, 8:50 a.m.
Maggie's Coffee House was closed for business. Across the street, the building that housed the Colby Agency was locked down tight supposedly due to a gas leak.
No one got in. No one got out.
Penny Alexander stared beyond the white lettering on the plate-glass window before her. At this time of the morning, those descending upon the Magnificent Mile and the surrounding streets generally hit Maggie's for a blast of caffeine.
Today the popular café continued as a temporary command center while the Colby Agency remained in the relentless grip of silent peril. Much needed assistance from the local authorities could not be summoned. As far as the world was concerned, the building had been closed as a safety precaution. The ruthless terrorists inside had made the rules and not one could be broken if the head of the prestigious Colby Agency was to survive.
Penny had reflected many times on how her long-awaited first day at the Colby Agency would commence. Not once since being interviewed had she considered that the day would begin like this.
An internal crisis involving basic survival.
The current situation could be called nothing else. Penny wondered if this was the beginning of the end for the Colby Agency. Just her luck.
"Steele is ready."
Penny shifted her focus from the building across the street to the man who had spoken, Ian Michaels. Tall, dark, attractive and incredibly still. Every move, every word was precise and calculated for an exact result. He had called scarcely two weeks ago to inform her that she had been selected for the position at which she had only dared to hope having a shot. She had been perfectly happy and completely willing to wait out the necessary time for the final background search required to obtain security clearance.
But Ian had called a few hours ago with a shocking request. The Colby Agency needed her. Now.
"Excellent." Penny nodded, forcing back the frustrating lump of uncertainty in her throat. She could do this. "I'm ready."
Ian considered her a moment longer before turning and leading the way to where the rest of the team pored over the building's complicated floor plan.
Most of the beleaguered agency staff had been sent home, only those absolutely essential to the effort about to launch had remained at the temporary command center. Ian, of course. Simon Ruhl, Ian's equal at the agency. Jim Colby, Victoria's son. And the mysterious Lucas Camp, Victoria's husband. The others were from Jim's team of Equalizers, a fellow called Rocky, Leland Rockford, and Ben Steele…the man who would be Penny's partner for this undertaking.
Steele had shaken her hand once, but otherwise he'd paid little attention to her, period. Penny wasn't sure if he just didn't like the fact that she was a woman or if he didn't like partners in general. Ian Michaels had briefed her on Steele's background, but no insight to him on a personal level had been provided. Whether he currently or had in the past worked with a partner was not disclosed.
Whatever the case, she was his partner today.
"Two hours," Steele was saying, "if we're lucky. And that's if we don't run into any serious complications. We can make the fourth floor in that time frame if all goes well."
"Unacceptable." Jim Colby shook his head and planted his hands on his hips. He, too, was tall and heavily muscled. Blondish-brown hair with piercing blue eyes. "I need you in there within the hour one way or another. Every minute that slips by could be the one…" His jaw clamped shut on the rest of the words, but there was no way to miss the pain in his eyes.
His mother's fate lay in their hands.
"Taking it slow is the only way to ensure we're not detected," Steele reminded his boss. His tone was firm yet understanding. "One wrong move—one misstep—and Victoria dies. We can't take any risks. Not one. Slow and methodical, that's how we'll make this turn out the way we all want."
Penny considered the man who would be her partner. Not as tall as Jim or Ian, around six feet maybe. Dark hair, close cropped, almost military style. And dark brown eyes that were every bit as watchful as Ian's.
"Jim." Lucas Camp stepped forward, shouldering his way between his stepson and Steele. "Ben is right. We do this slow and easy. No unnecessary risks." His tone left no room for negotiation.
Ian and Simon exchanged a glance but held their tongues. Penny had a feeling that a number of lines had been drawn in the sand well before her arrival on the scene. The Colby Agency and the Equalizers were working together to achieve this goal. The tension was thick enough to squeeze the air right out of the room.
"We've got movement!"
The warning came from Ted Tallant, another Colby investigator who'd insisted on staying on the scene. He'd been keeping watch over the front of the building across the street. His curly, blond hair was a little longish, and reminded Penny of the surfer dudes who hung out along the sandy beaches of Malibu. His gold eyes were friendly and he seemed to always be smiling. Colby investigator KendraTodd maintained surveillance from a position on the backside of the building. Penny hadn't met Kendra but she'd heard her voice a number of times over the communications link.
Both Kendra and Ted had refused to leave after being released by their captors and having their minor injuries treated. Numerous others had wanted to stay, but their injuries and state of exhaustion had dictated otherwise. Besides, Penny presumed that if this thing dragged on much past noon, it was very likely that relief would be required. Those working now might have to stand down so that others more rested could take over.
Not to mention that keeping the whole operation below the official radar of the police and city maintenance grew less and less feasible as the minutes ticked off. The wrong kind of attention could blow the operation.
Penny followed the rest of the crew to the window where Tallant offered his binoculars to his superior, Ian. "The man entering the building," Tallant explained as he pointed toward the figure stepping through the front entrance, "is Leonard Thorp."
Thorp had shown up around eight, as Penny recalled. About the same time she had arrived. Then he'd left for half an hour or so. That he carried a large box as he entered now was disturbing. The possibilities of what could be inside that single box presented additional concerns.
Ian peered through the binoculars, evidently wanting to confirm Tallant's conclusion with a close-up. "The mock trial will likely get underway now," Ian said. "The box Thorp is carrying is marked as Sensitive Case Files." He lowered the binoculars and shifted his attention to those gathered around him. "Moving forward cannot wait. We don't have another moment to waste."
A chill raced up Penny's spine. The tension in the room rocketed to a new level.
The men started talking at once. Penny watched as the sedan that had dropped off Thorp drove away. Ian had explained that Thorp's stepdaughter had been murdered last year by drug and prostitution ringleader Reginald Clark, also known as The Prince. Thorp had spent months putting together a revenge strategy after the pathetic case against The Prince had fallen apart in court. His revenge included the former Cook County district attorney, Timothy Gordon, and a pivotal juror, Victoria Colby-Camp.
According to the man who'd led the siege of the Colby Agency, Gordon was getting a second chance to do the right thing. As was Victoria. The Prince would be executed when found guilty…within the next twenty-three hours. Anyone who got in the way, made a wrong move, etcetera, would be terminated as well.
The Colby Agency had been forced by the terrorists who'd taken the staff hostage to deliver Gordon. No contact with the authorities had been permitted. If their effort had failed or if they'd chosen to contact the authorities, everyone inside would have been murdered. A no-win situation.
The Colby Agency had broken a number of laws. So far, murder wasn't one of them. But unless Steele and Penny could get inside and neutralize the situation first, at least one man would die. The agency would be an accessory to homicide.
The likelihood that this so-called Prince deserved to die was not the issue. This mock trial was a witch hunt pure and simple. Thorp and his minions had to be stopped before yet another line was crossed. One the Colby Agency might never be able to overcome.
"Let's gear up," Steele said to Penny.
Penny grabbed her duffel and headed to the ladies' room. A black spandex bodysuit would allow for unimpeded movement as well as camouflage in the darkness. Although it was daylight outside, inside the inner structure of the building it would be dark. Damned dark.
Drawing in a big, deep breath, she shook off that last thought and clipped into place the wireless earpiece that would provide the necessary communications with the command center here in the coffeehouse. Gloves, and rubber-soled shoes designed for whisper-quiet steps and incredibly firm grip came on next.
After tucking her fiery red hair into a black skullcap, she grabbed the night-vision goggles and draped them around her neck. They were light, small, but immensely powerful. The technology had come a long way in recent years. Not that she'd had occasion to use such technology in the past. Not really. As a forensics technician she'd used many other types of goggles, but never ones for scouting out prey in the dark.
Despite her determination, a shiver raced over her skin once more. She would not let foolish worries get to her. The next few hours were far too crucial.
She pulled a lightweight but roomy backpack from the duffel of supplies. Inside the backpack were climbing tools and aids. A serious flashlight and a small first-aid kit, along with water packets and a couple of energy bars. Whoever had put together their gear had thought of everything.
Including a weapon and another type of head-wear. Looked like a ski mask but was made from the same stretchy material as the suit she wore. She told herself that dying this first day as a Colby Agency investigator was not going to happen. Allowing that kind of negativity would only work against her determination.
Wasn't going to happen.
She stepped out of the restroom and shrugged on her backpack. Her new partner, who'd exited the men's room, glanced her way. She summoned her waning courage and confirmed, "Ready."
As she came up beside Steele, who was dressed similarly, the bodysuit clinging to lean, well-honed muscle, Ian gave one last block of instruction.
"We cannot hear anything inside. We have no visuals. All communications, including the security monitors, have been disabled as far as what we can attempt to access from here. That does not mean that those monitors are inoperable to those inside. So beware. However," he countered, "what we can detect is movement." He sent a nod toward Lucas.
"Thankfully one of Lucas's contacts provided a thermal-imaging scanner that allows us to determine the whereabouts of all those inside the building."
Simon directed their attention to the building's blueprints, which had been downloaded into the thermal-imaging system. "Fortunately there was no one else inside the building at the time of the takeover, so the only warm bodies are on the fourth floor." His gaze locked with Penny's. "Our floor. We have Victoria, Clark, Gordon and seven members of the enemy's team. Eight, now that Thorp has entered the mix. They show up as hot spots, red dots, if you will."
"If anyone leaves the fourth floor—" Lucas picked up from there "—we can alert you as to their movements. But that's our limit. There is nothing we can do to help you if you run into trouble. We can't rush in—that's not an option. Bottom line, once you get inside, you're on your own."
Penny moistened her lips and ordered her respiration to remain steady. Ian Michaels had briefed her on the potential risk. This was nothing new.
"The ability to warn us if the enemy is headed our way is better than nothing," Steele allowed, acknowledging Lucas's firm warning. "At least if we know they've detected our presence, we can brace for trouble or run the other way."