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Someone's following me.
Selena's heart rate skyrocketed higher than expected, surprising her with reactions left over from months ago. Reactions that came from two intense days inside the Berzhaan capitol during which she outwitted, outran and outlived the terrorists who'd taken everyone else in the building hostage. Now that familiar tension zinged through her body — a body she somehow kept walking at a normal pace. Outwardly oblivious, inwardly on high alert.
Except this was the modest little Virginia town closest to the CIA training facility called the Farm, and if the description sleepy didn't quite do it justice, bustling went too far. On a crisp early fall evening, headed from the family-owned pharmacy along the main street to the sports shop, Selena was in no danger from terrorists. Down the sidewalk, a teenage girl walked her dog. Across the street, a middle-aged couple shared an ice-cream cone. A man in running shorts headed down the sidewalk away from Selena; a woman in more sensible sweats jogged in place, waiting out one of the town's few signal lights. Vehicle traffic was sporadic, heavily populated with the practical rather than the luxurious.
And still, someone followed her.
Selena Shaw Jones didn't waste time doubting herself. Never did. Doubt hadn't gotten her out of Berzhaan alive. She'd done that on her own, using her wits and her grit... and trusting her instincts. So now, without changing her stride, she headed past the big brick structure of the sporting goods store, ducking down the alley beside it. Choke point. Anyone following her would stand out clearly if he so much as hesitated at the intersection, while the alley itself was dark enough to hide Selena from a casual glance.
Except she quickly realized she could go one better. The old brick building's deeply inset windows, half a story above her, offered plenty of ledge for a woman quick and nimble. The darkened panes meant an unoccupied room and no one likely to notice her or give her away. Up she went, scraping knuckles and ignoring the stinging pain as she caught her balance, crouching with her back to the brick and her eyes on the alley entrance. Her left hand crept beneath her black leather duster to her back pocket and pulled out the knife clipped there, thumbing the short tanto blade open. A blade meant for close work, with wicked angles of hard steel.
And yeah. Here they came. One at first, hesitating on the decision to enter the dark area. And then a second, meeting up with quick whispers and a few restrained gestures. One male, one female, features deliberately obscured by deep jacket hoods.
Selena wiped a trembling hand along the thigh of her navy cargo pants. Tailored enough for casual chic, they nonetheless had the flexible pocket capacity she wanted. She'd become quite fond of the style since it had served her so well in Berzhaan, holding a plethora of small improvised weapons for her private guerrilla war against the Kemeni rebels. She wasn't so fond of the trembling. Not fear, that trembling. Just awareness. Readiness. A need to act.
Come a little closer.
And oh, they did. They tried to cover it, as the man playfully backed the woman into the darkness, nuzzling at her ear and murmuring something to make her laugh. But Selena saw the surreptitious glances, even from within their hoods. They were looking for her. They wondered if she was hidden in some dark corner or if she'd found a hidden exit. She pushed her back against the brick, waiting...
Until finally they'd gone beyond her.
She leaped down from the windowsill, cat-light, and covered the ground between them in a mere pounce. Just enough time to put the knife up to the side of the man's hood-covered neck before shoving him, hard, against both the woman and the wall. The woman's eyes widened; the man froze at the sharp touch of metal as it pierced his jacket through to his skin. Impulses left over from Berzhaan surged through Selena, urging her to be swift and final. A quick stab into the man's neck and a forward slash of her arm — messy but effective — and she'd get the woman with the end of her swing.
Get real, Selena. This wasn't Berzhaan. These two weren't good enough to pose an immediate life or death threat.
And then she recognized the woman — saw enough of her to know those rounded features, that stubby nose. Shock made her step back, but not without shoving the man aside and off balance. By then she'd recognized him, too.
Students. From the Farm, where she'd been teaching these past months.
But they shouldn't be here — not trailing her. She'd played rabbit for them before, but never unknowingly. "What the hell — "
She didn't have time to finish, not with the woman's eyes going even wider as a pair of hands clamped down on her arms. No more thinking, then, just reaction. Pure adrenaline hit. She yanked herself forward, sliding those hands down to her wrists, and then she whirled, her captured arms twirling over her head in a fast, deadly dance. They faced each other only for an instant, his now-crossed hands still on her wrists, and then she jerked back with her right hand to throw him off balance, jammed her right leg in behind his and shoved him backward. He fell over her leg — so simple, so effective — and she levered him around his own arm. He twisted to fall facedown in the gritty soil and even then she didn't stop, shoving the arm up high and landing on his back just as the joint cracked. By then her knees were on her attacker's spine and the knife at the base of his skull.
She knew better than most how little it took to kill a man that way.
"No!" The woman leaped forward as if to grab Selena's arm and thought better of it, hovering without touching.
"He's with us! He's the trailing eye!"
Selena's fierce intent abruptly faded away into nothing more than a pounding heart. Of course they'd had another "eye" on the team. Why he'd been so foolish as to come up on her from behind, bodily yanking her out of a confrontation that had nearly been resolved without him, she couldn't imagine. Now he moaned in pain, afraid to move. She stabbed her blade into the ground in pure disgust. "Goddammit, what were you thinking? What were any of you thinking, following me on my personal time?" She yanked the knife free and folded it, standing away from the man so the other two could check on him. Dislocated shoulder, for sure. She still hadn't gotten a good look at him — didn't even know which student she'd disabled.
But as pure reaction faded, thoughtfulness returned. Enough thoughtfulness to know there'd be an aftermath to this moment. The injured man would lose his place in the class. Conversations would be had, explanations demanded. She swore again, more softly this time. And finished the question she'd once started. "What the hell are you doing out here? Didn't anyone apply a sanity check to this little stunt? What did you think would happen if you followed me without bringing me in on the exercise?" She looked down at the injured man. The other two had carefully moved his arm so they could roll him over, and she recognized him well enough. Not a great student, but not a bad one. Not generally this stupid. She reached into the deep pocket of her leather duster — a little worse for wear, this duster, but repaired well enough after the previous spring — and fumbled for her phone.
The woman looked at her, eyes big all over again, and then going suddenly narrow. "You were supposed to know. We thought you knew."
A noise from the sidewalk — someone had finally noticed the ruckus. Selena snapped her head around to face the new arrival, ready to drive him off with a few snappy orders and the badge jammed into her pocket.
Instead she found Steven Dobry. The burly Farm instructor and CIA technical ops expert was older than Selena, his features and bearing an unremarkable and perfect canvas for demonstrating his disguise strategies to the students. He didn't do a very good job of hiding his own desire to be in the field, or his skepticism that Selena — younger, female and formerly FBI — had ever belonged there. Dobry said, "I've already called for help."
"Suddenly," Selena said, "this all makes a certain twisted sense."
"Nothing about this makes sense." Dobry waved at the scene before them. "What the hell is this all about?"
Selena shook her head. "No. Nice try, but no." She released the phone and let her hand settle in her pocket. There, he wouldn't see that she had it clenched. But on the outside she'd found her cool, the guise of the experienced FBI legate and specialist in international counterterrorism. She'd attended embassy balls and palace dinners; she'd negotiated with heads of state and walked through terrorist territory in more countries than Dobry could even imagine. "That's your question to answer. You knew they couldn't tail me undetected."
"Did I?" He raised an eyebrow at her, visible enough in the faint fan of light from the closest streetlamp.
Fury swept through her, along with the sudden understanding. "You thought they could do it. You figure I'm full of crap, and you were going to prove it. This wasn't a training exercise...it was an exercise in embarrassment. My embarrassment." She narrowed her eyes at him, her fist still clenched inside her pocket and her voice deceptively casual. "And how's that working out for you?"
The woman looked over at Dobry, anger rising on her face. "You used us. You set us up!"
Dobry sent a cold look Selena's way. "It's a shame you overreacted so badly. This should have been a perfectly safe exercise."
"It could have been," she agreed. "If you'd let me in on it. Not to mention it would have been infinitely more challenging — I could have led them on quite a chase before I dumped them. But instead you sent them out cold and green. I'll bet you didn't even warn them not to take me on."
"He was no threat to you!"
The woman stood up, now freely glaring. "And how was she supposed to know that? She didn't even know it was us."
Selena heard sirens in the background, still faint and far away. "You knew my background, whether you believed it or not. You lied to your trainees. You left me out of the loop. Me? I'm just a CIA officer on my private time who reacted exactly as I should have. I know who I'd rather be when it comes to facing the DDA over this."
"Damned cold bitch, aren't you?" His sullen anger told her she'd scored a point.
"No," Selena told him. "I'm smoking hot. Too bad you're only now beginning to figure it out."
The DDA — Deputy Director of Administration, the ultimate boss of the Farm — didn't actually put in an appearance for the chewing-out phase. The Director of Training and Education handled the job just fine on his own. Equally scathing on both their counts, troweling the blame thick. Selena thought she imagined frustration when he looked at Dobry and concern when he looked at her.
On the other hand it could have just been a twitch. But unlike Dobry, the DDA knew her background. He knew the CIA had offered her a spot high in the counter-terrorist hierarchy, but that as she had healed physically from those several intense days in Berzhaan, as she had debriefed and reported and followed through on the incident, the need for an extended period of lower stress had made itself clear as well.
Selena hated it. She saw it as weakness.Yes, she'd spent two days fighting for her life — and yes, during that time just about everyone she'd seen had been trying to hurt or kill her. She'd saved the lives of the prime minister and most of the hostages. Outgunned and outmanned, even on the brink of what seemed like certain death, she'd managed to convey information to lurking rescue forces. She'd won, dammit.
These days, she felt like maybe they'd won, too. Instead of surging forth into her new life, she'd ended up here, instructing. De-stressing. There'd been that one clandestine meeting with Oracle shortly after her return from Berzhaan, but she wasn't of any great use to that supersecret fledgling intelligence agency as long as she was here. Recovering.
Not that the teaching position was a bad thing in and of itself. She was good at it; she enjoyed it. She just wanted more.
She wasn't likely to get it as long as she was doing things like turning clueless newbies into broken bits of student. At least the injured trainee would be allowed back for the next session. Small consolation, but one that Selena held on to.