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En route to the National Security Administration Fort Meade, Maryland
A dark, sharp wind threw autumn leaves against Allison Gracelyn's windshield as she put through her call to Morgan Rush, who was already at NSA for the emergency meeting. After the open and cloudless big sky of the Arizona desert, the frosty Maryland night grounded her in realityher world was a lowering, stormy place; her safety zone as narrow as a grave; the situation as out-of-control as a nightmare.
No. I'm in control. I have a plan, she told herself. I'm on my game. I can make this happen.
She unrolled the window of her sleek black Infiniti and held out her NSA badge toward the security guard, who stepped from his kiosk to take it. The chill bit into Allison's ungloved hand. Beyond the kiosk, hidden by the night, the Men in Black patrolled the perimeter of the vast complex of the National Security Administration. The MIB were the crack security forces of "Crypto City"suited up in black riot gear, armed with submachine guns and God knew what else. Not one of them would hesitate to open fire if given the order.
She knew at least one person who would gladly give the word. Her volatile new boss, Bill McDonough, was furious with her for having taken the day off with no explanation beyond the vague and unenlightening "personal business." NSA was sitting on top of a time bombliterallyand the terrorist threat level had shot from orange to bright red around the same time that Allison's return flight to Washington took off from the airport in Phoenix.
Coincidence? She didn't know yet. She didn't know what her enemy was capable of. Lucy Karmon, a fellow Athenaalum who'd been helping Allison with her "personal business," had described Echo's maniacal rage when Lucy had completed her mission to steal a spider necklace that contained a flash drive with the kind of information that could destroy the world as they knew it. "Wacko beyond bonkers. Way beyond. I've never seen anything like it."
That same black-and-gold necklace had dangled from Allison's neck on her return flight to the East Coast, hidden from view beneath a black turtleneck sweater. Allison had complemented the sweater with black wool pleated trousers and low-heeled boots, which was good, because she hadn't had any time to change her clothes after she landed, and they would work well in an NSA meeting about preventing hundreds of thousands if not millions of deaths.
Allison had flown to Phoenix yesterday specifically to retrieve the necklace from Echo's half sister, Lilith, to whom it had been bequeathed when Athena Academy's greatest enemy, Arachne, committed suicide. Arachne had left behind three genetically enhanced daughters and three flash drives that held the keys to the empire of evil she'd created before her death. Lilith wanted no part of the evil that came with her inheritance, while Echo had murdered men, women and chil-drenand would have murdered Lilithto steal Lilith's share as well as her own.
Still, a nuclear attack just didn't seem like Echo's style.
"Rush," Morgan said, the deep timbre of his voice caressing Allison's earlobe, the low, male rumble as pleasurable as running her cold hand along the warmed leather seat of her car.
"Yeah, hi, Morgan," Allison replied, adjusting her earpiece, keeping her voice neutral. Even during a national security crisis, Morgan threw her off. She had a feeling McDonough had assigned Morgan to her task forceProject Ozoneto keep an eye on her. Surely McDonough had no idea what working in close quarters with Morgan did to her insides. Or maybe he did.
"Meeting's set up in Conference Room A," Morgan said. "I ordered you a latte with soy milk and two sugars."
He remembered her beverage of choice. Any other time, she might have smiled.
"Thanks. I'm on site." Which he might already know, if he was keeping tabs on her. "I'll be up in five minutes."
"Hold on," he said. "I'm getting a red e-mail."
"Okay." Her adrenaline spiked. Red meant extremely urgent.
As she waited, she glanced at the time on her dash.
It was 7:35 p.m. McDonough had called the meeting for eight. She'd been on the go for nearly twenty-four hours, but she could make another twelve or so before she started getting sloppy.
"We got some more," Morgan continued. He was obviously referring to the team's successful cracking of chunks of the heavily encrypted chatter between the unstable Middle Eastern nation of Berzhaan and the despotic nation of Kestonia. "Big stuff. You called it right." His voice betrayed his anxiety.
Damn it, she thought. She didn't want to be right about a probable nuclear attack somewhere on the Eastern seaboard in less than a month.
"Brief me first, my office," she told him. She wanted to walk into that meeting fully informed.
"Will do. Something else is incoming," he announced.
"I'm holding," she said. She took her badge back from the guard, who waved her on to proceed. The white Jersey gate raised and Allison rolled onto the grounds of the most heavily guarded, mysterious facility in the alphabet soup of national and international intelligence agencies.
Allison heard the gentle ping signaling an incoming text message on her handheld.
SSJ: STAY OUT. U R COMPROMISED. CALL ASAP.
An icy chill washed up her spine. SSJ was Selena Shaw Jones, CIA, an Athena alum she'd sent to watch for intel at the headquarters of Oracle, the supersecret spy organization of which they were both members.
Selena's choice of words was telling. Employees stayed away. Spies stayed out.
"Okay, here it is," Morgan began.
"Morgan, save it. I'll be there soon." She disconnected. A microsecond later, her cell phone flared to white noise. She had reached the perimeter of the NSA's new and improved jamming field. She glanced at the handheld. Selena's message had disappeared. Nothing else electronic would work, not her laptop, nor her PDA, nothing.
"Damn it," she whispered, ticking her glance toward the central building, which rose into the night like a twinkling Rubik's Cube. Compromised how? By whom?
Echo, she thought. She's made her next move.
Allison pulled her car over to the turnout. Her face prickled as she kept her speed slow and easy, hanging a U back to the gate. No one else was leaving, and she knew her Infiniti was a conspicuous ebony dot on several dozen surveillance cameras as she unrolled her window and stuck out her badge for the same guard who'd waved her through. She remained silent; she was a top-level NSA agent, and there was no need to explain her comings and goings unless requested.
The guard's phonea secured landlinerang as he took her badge. Her heart stuttered, her mind raced. Was it an order to detain her?
As he reached for the handset, she forced herself to look unconcerned. He swiped her badge and handed it back to her as he put the receiver to his ear. She left her window unrolled, on the chance that she might be able to eavesdrop. But he closed the door of the kiosk, sealing himself inside.
The Jersey gate had not yet raised.
Her gaze ticked toward the shadows, where the Men in Black patrolled. If she tried to bolt the gate, they just might shoot her.
Through the window, the guard's eyebrows raised; his forehead wrinkled as he looked at her through the window. She did not react, merely gazed placidly back at him, although her heart was trip-hammering against her ribs.
Then the barrier went up, signaling permission to leave. Her hands shook on the wheel as she drove through. She took slow deep breaths and kept her face slack and expressionless, picking up a little speed as she neared the NSA-only on-ramp onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, because anyone would speed up a little. It would look odd if she didn't. She fought the urge to floor it. She wasn't safe yet. She could still be summoned back. Shot at if she didn't comply.
She eased onto the on-ramp. Traffic was relatively heavy, and fat raindrops spattered on her windshield. She moved into "dry cleaning" modeevasive maneuvers designed to reveal a tail, putting space around her carin case she had to gun it and get the hell out of there.
With one eye on the traffic, she reached across to the passenger seat, where her leather briefcase lay facing her. She flipped it open and slid out her laptop. Using top-secret NSA data gleaned via the Oracle system, Allison had shielded her cell phone and wireless connections from eavesdropping with state-of-the-art sophistication; she should theoretically be immune to invasion, even this close to Crypto City. She popped the lid and punched in a macro, taking her eyes off the road long enough to scan the monitor windows showing a dozen views of Storage Unit #217 at Old Alexandria Self-Storage, just two short blocks from the new Oracle headquarters. The storage unit door was still bolted; her paint cans and tarps were undisturbed. Illuminated by a tiny light she had installed inside the otherwise empty paint can, the gleaming golden spider necklace still lay inside.
I'll kill you before I let you have it, she silently promised Echo. It was a promise she fully intended to keepeven if the Eastern seaboard blew up before the month was over.
After Allison assured herself that the spider necklace was still secure, she kept her eye on the flow of traffic as she speed-dialed Selena Shaw Jones.
"Blackmail," Selena said by way of greeting. "I texted because I went straight to voice when I called."
Allison was mildly shocked. She hadn't even heard Selena's incoming phone call. Morgan's voice had captured her full attention.
"Go on," she told Selena.
"Oracle snagged an e-mail 'you' sent to an FBI agent named Phil Matsumoto. Looks like Special Agent Phil's in bed with Monya Kishinev."
"I don't know either name," Allison said.
"Kishinev's Russian mafia," Selena filled in. "The message was sent to Matsumoto's private home desktop, which is well-protected, but the sender cut through all the firewalls like a laser. If Matsumoto doesn't wire seventy-five thousand dollars into your offshore account in the Cayman Islands, you're turning him in."
"The Caymans? That's so last year," Allison quipped, but she was shaken. Of course she hadn't sent the e-mail. It was a setup, and she wondered if this Matsumoto guy would buy it. If he was stupid enough to jump in bed with a criminal, he probably would. Or maybe he was smarter than that; maybe he was an undercover good guy working Kishinev, flipping him to the Jedi side of the Force. Maybe now Matsumoto would reconfigure his targeting system to probe the wrongdoings of a dirty NSA agent initials AG.
"How does it look?" she asked Selena, as a flash of lightning blazed across the sky.
"Anything but clumsy," Selena replied frankly. "It's a totally professional job. If I didn't know you, I'd believe you sent it."
Allison grimaced. "Except I'd never be this obvious."
"Agreed," Selena said. "But that wouldn't stop them from shipping you off to Leavenworth. Another one just popped in. Hmm, it's to a CIA manager. James Wrobleski. Hold on, I'm reading up on him. Gotta love Oracle. It snags more intel than I can get at CIA."
Allison didn't say anything in reply. She did love Oracle. She had designed it, built it, nurtured it. But she couldn't let Selena know that. Because right now, Selena didn't need to know that. No one did besides the head of Oraclecode name Delphi.
Aka, Allison Gracelyn.
She flipped on her windshield wipers and watched the traffic. Two lanes over to the left, a grubby white panel van passed a BMW on the right, and cut back in front of it. The Beemer honked his horn and flashed his brights.
"Here we go," Selena said. "Six months ago, three CIA agents and four Italian SISMI intelligence officials 'allegedly' kidnapped an Italian cleric in Rome. Our governments are denying it. Wrobleski is the CIA manager of the three agents and I'm willing to bet this is something very off the books that he has somehow managed to contain, workwise. I sure never heard about it. Your silence is worth eighty grand."
A produce truck rumbled up abreast Allison's passenger side, cutting off her view of the other right lanes. She dropped back and got behind it. In the next lane over, the white van was driving slowly about twenty feet ahead of her, and the trailing BMW was still angrily flashing his brights, insisting it yield so he could pick up speed.
"So do you know where this smear campaign is coming from?" Selena asked.
Allison remained silent. It had to be Echo, but Selena had no need to know that, not yet. The less Selena knew, the safer she would be. The safer she was, the easier to send her on a mission if need be; and Selena was one of the best field agents in Oracle. She had singlehandedly defended the American embassy in Berzhaan from a terrorist takeover.
But would that be fair, to make someone fly blind straight into harm's way?
This is not a fair game to start with. No one in Oracle is blind, she reminded herself. They agreed to work for the organization with their eyes wide-open. They knew some of it was going to be black bag ops. They knew they could die.