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Lucy Karmon, still clutching the remote detonator, stared through the special fiber-optic scope at the burning meth lab below her. Pieces of the structure mushroomed into a spectacular cinder cloud, two hundred feet of it, masking the night sky.
On the ground, the rebels responsible for supplying Puerto Isla with everything from black tar heroin to Jamaican sinsemilla ran for their lives. Some men, their clothes aflame, dove into a stream at the bottom of a ravine.
Mesmerized, she watched the symphony of destruction opening up before her. This is where she thrived, in the middle of uproar, mayhem, a world on the brink; a world she created and controlled. It touched a chord within her, an odd inner peace, a place that she desperately craved. Her mind settled into the calm and grew still. She observed the fallout, the wind shift, the added perk that she'd taken out the van and old Pontiac Bonneville parked near the building. Mission accomplished. Target annihilated. But what could she have done better? Less fallout, perhaps. That equaled less C-4. Maybe she should have used Danubit or Semtex explosive. But she'd been correct in avoiding TNT. Too volatile and subject to the high humidity on the island.
She always questioned her work. Dissect, assess, moderate and estimate: DAME. She had perfected DAME at the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women, a highly specialized college prep school for young women. Lucy could still hear Mrs. Warren, her junior year demolitions instructor, saying, "Strive for excellence. Anyone can destroy with explosives, but can you raze the target without loss of life? Can you tear down the ant hill without harming the ants?Refinement of the art, ladies, that is the key. DAME will help you not only in demolitions but in any aspect of your life. Remember the old dame well and she will always come through for you." Mrs. Warren's voice would always be a ghost in Lucy's head, one of many.
A real voice piped into her ear. "Viper to Chaos, copy?"
"Copy, Viper," Lucy whispered into the bone mic resting against her chin.
"Nice job, Chaos. It's Fourth of July up here." Tommy Jefferson, aka Viper, spoke over the sound of chopper blades. An ex-test pilot, he could fly anything with wings. He also owned a locksmith and security business, priding himself on being the world's best safecracker. He chewed gum at the moment, his words clipped off by each chomp. "Ready for pickup in two, over."
"Roger that." She heard the Mojave helicopter pass overhead as she stuffed the detonator into a pocket of her ghillie suit and began running toward a grove of coffee bushes. "Madonna, you copy?" she asked, watching a rabbit she'd flushed dart out in front of her, turn and run off into the night.
"Copy, Chaos. Roger that. By the way, kick-ass job. Wish I had a burger to grill." Betsy LaFave's thick Georgia accent came through loud and clear.
Betsy, a top-notch sniper and black belt, had taken up a position on a higher elevation of the mountain. Lucy wouldn't want anyone else covering her back. Like her, Betsy was ex-army, special ops. They had both left at the same time for different reasons, Lucy's much more tragic.
Lucy ran as she spoke, her voice breathy as she called the last person in the team. "Chaos to Dragon, copy?"
"Copy, Chaos." Cao Sun Tzu, the fourth member of the team, answered her, his Chinese inflection sometimes hard to follow. He was a defector from the People's Republic's Central Security Regiment Unit. There wasn't a computer Cao couldn't mine, or a code he couldn't scramble. That he was a master of disguise and dabbled in inventing new electronic devices didn't hurt, either. "That burger might get a little burned, over."
"Not for me," Betsy said. "I like my meat well done, over."
"Give me a big steak, baked potato and a Corona Light the size of a Jeep, over," Lucy said, feeling the tension that always built in her gut with each assignment, still there, still writhing, even though all team members were present, breathing and accounted for. Now to leave the island with no casualties.
"See you guys on the flip side, over and out." Lucy stuffed the detonator into her backpack, along with twenty-five feet of detonating cord, four fuses and six two-inch hand grenades she'd made out of plumbing pipe. Traveling light on this mission, she thought, grinning.
She zipped up the backpack, threw it over her shoulder and drew her Colt .45 from the shoulder holster. She ran along the edge of the coffee plantation, toward an open field, her eyes constantly scanning for uninvited drug dealers.
Her backup weapon, a .45 Colt Commander, rested securely on the right side of her left combat boot in an ankle holster. One of her mottos: never go on a mission without at least one Colt. If the first one didn't stop the enemy, the second one would.
She reached the clearing just as Tommy lowered the chopper. Blade turbulence hit her full force, tearing at her ghillie suit, whipping her bright red hair from the tight knot at the back of her head, thrusting against the skin on her face and making it feel as if it would rip from her skull at any moment.
Like well-oiled machine cogs, all three team members emerged into the clearing at the same time. They had worked as a team for two years and it showed. She crouched-ran beneath the whirling blades. Cao reached the chopper first. Betsy, point manin this case womancovered them with a Sokolovsky .45 automatic, while holding the case for Sugar, her .308-caliber Remington 700 bolt-action rifle. Custom-built. It shot five match-grade 168-grain boattail hollow-point bullets. Betsy had let Lucy shoot Sugar once. Only once, after much coercing and a gift certificate to Starbucks. No one touched Sugar but Betsy.
When Lucy and Cao were on board, Betsy left her spot and Lucy covered her as she ran for the chopper. In one smooth movement, Lucy grabbed Betsy's hand and helped her up into the cargo hold. At five foot eleven, Lucy was almost a head taller than Betsy and outweighed her by thirty pounds. She kept her body lean and prided herself on lifting as much as most men her size.
"Goodies on board," Lucy said, the loud throbbing of the blades forcing her to speak over the mic to Tommy, though she could see the cockpit and the back of his blond head from where she sat.
"Roger that. Rock and roll."
Lucy felt the vibration of the motor deep within her chest as Tommy throttled up and the chopper lifted off. She shoved the Colt inside the holster, set down the backpack, then plopped down and pressed her back against the wall of the cargo hold. The adrenaline rush slowly left her, her heart slowing, the familiar pulsing of the chopper like a soothing glass of wine.
Relax. Breathe. Another mission down. One they could be proud of, and one they'd be very well paid for by Puerto Isla's new democratic government. The new president was intent upon cleaning up the drug trade on the island. The team had been more than happy to oblige. That's what they did. International mercenaries for hire.
Betsy moved past Lucy, clutching Sugar's rifle case. Camouflage paint covered Betsy's bronze skin and short bleached hair, but her beautiful Halle Berry face was still evident. Lucy wished she had such great skin and near perfect features. She had fair skin, freckles and brown eyes, gifts from her father. Chromosomes could be so cruel.
Betsy saw Cao watching her. She ignored him, plopped down next to Lucy and dropped the rifle case next to her leg with an impulsive thump. Betsy seemed to realize she had set the case down too forcefully so she ran her hands over its aluminum exterior as if to make sure it was okay.
Lucy pushed the strands of hair out of her face and saw Cao's expression fall. She suspected Cao had a crush on Betsy. It seemed her instincts were on target. He was well above average in the male department, with his round face, dark intelligent eyes and straight black hair worn in a ponytail. Why didn't he make a move? At least if Betsy wasn't interested, he could stop with the calf eyes and the underlying tension that stirred between them. The romantic in Lucy decided to help them along.
"So, what've you guys got planned for R and R?" she asked.
Betsy spoke first. "Heading for Baton Rouge. My grand-mama's sick. You going home?"
Lucy wished she could go home to her dude ranch in Montana to unwind. She grimaced as she said, "Ethiopia for me."
Cao looked at Betsy, his mood changing, the stern mask softening, his caring side revealed in his eyes. "Sorry about your grandmother."
"She's been sick a while." The pain of impending loss flashed across Betsy's face; then as if the emotion were too raw, she turned to Lucy, which caused a crestfallen look in Cao's eyes. "Your mom in Ethiopia now?" Betsy asked.
"Yeah, she's kinda settled in there at a clinic. Been there for over a year and half now. A long time for her," Lucy said, thinking of her mother. Dr. Abby Karmon contracted work for the World Health Organization.
"Is she going to stay there a while?"
Lucy shrugged. "I don't know. When wanderlust strikes her, she'll move again."
"What about your father?" Cao asked, shifting so his elbows were on his knees, chin resting on his hands. "Is he back from China?"
At the thought of her father, Lucy narrowed her brows in a frown. Roy Karmon, an engineering specialist, built bridges, tunnels and dams. He had been hired to work on the engineering miracle of the twentieth century, the Yangtze River Three Gorges Dam project in China. "That's why I'm going to Ethiopia. Mom says he's coming for a visit."
Lucy hadn't spoken to her father in a year. And she wasn't looking forward to this visit. She could have invented an excuse not to go this time, but she had heard the pleading in her mother's voice and she couldn't disappoint her.
"Your mom cool with that whole long-distance relationship thing?" Betsy's eyes squinted slightly as if she were baffled.
"It's always boggled my mind, but it seems to work for them."
Betsy grinned. "Conjugal visits twice a year isn't for me. If I'm going to marry a man, his ass better be in my bed at night keeping my feet warm."
"I'm with you on that." Lucy thought of her parents' unconventional relationship. It wasn't for everyone. She'd decided long ago it wasn't for her, either. If and when the right guy came along, she wanted more than the casual connection that had kept her parents'marriage together for the past thirty-two years. She had suspicions that her mother's wanderlust was a coping mechanism for the loss of her husband's presence, but Lucy had never questioned her for fear it might bring up resentment and emotions best left buried. "But there is a highlight to the trip. Val will be there. She's stopping by on her way to the States."
"Y'all have been friends forever, haven't you?" Betsy asked.
"We have," Lucy said proudly.
They'd been friends forever, or so it felt like. Their friendship had begun as pen pals. Val had already been attending the Athena Academy. Her glowing descriptions of the school and the challenges it posed in her letters had intrigued Lucy. There had been restlessness in her, even at fourteen, that she could hardly control. "Rebel Lucy" is what her mother had called her when her tutors complained about her lack of attention. Lucy just hadn't felt challenged. Monotony was her enemy. She had always found her father's work more than interesting and she had invented her own engineering designs just to keep from dying of boredom.
By age eleven, she could design and place explosive charges to bring down either a whole structure or simply a wall within that structure. It hadn't seemed to impress her father, though.
In several letters, Val had suggested Lucy write to Christine Evans, the principal at the Athena Academy, and apply. Lucy thought getting accepted into the academy might please her father since nothing else ever had, so she took Val's advice.
She had described her fledgling engineering designs and the knowledge she had gained from her father. She had been a ninth grader at the time. Most students entered the Academy in the seventh grade, like Val, so Lucy figured getting into the school had been a long shot. But to her surprise, she had received an acceptance letter.
She considered her years at AA the most important of her life. The Academy had taught her wilderness survival, martial arts, how to focus her physical and intellectual energies and find what she excelled at: demolitions. Somewhere along the way they also taught Lucy self-worth, confidence, and to achieve new heights to please herselfnot her father. She didn't know where she would be at this moment if the Academy had not been a driving force in those critical teen years. At the Athena Academy, she had become a part of something remarkable, made lifelong ties that could never be broken. Such as Val, fellow alumna and Lucy's dearest friend, a sister in every way but blood.
"Where'd you say she worked again?"
"The U.S. Consulate in Egypt." Lucy couldn't tell anyone about Val's real job, as a CIA operative. The consulate was her cover. Some Athena grads did internships for the FBI, CIA and NSA, and went to work for those agencies. Lucy had interned with the army's special ops demolition division. Thoughts of her short stay in the army made her quickly change the subject. "So, Cao, what will you do?"
"Training." He glanced longingly toward Betsy as if he wanted to ask her to go with him.
"For what?" Betsy asked.
Betsy cut her eyes at him. "Sounds like torture."
"It's a challenge." He looked over at her from beneath his long dark lashes. "But too much for some."
Betsy stiffened. "You saying I can't keep up with you?"
Cao smiled placidly, but the smug look in his eyes was unmistakable.
"You're on, Jocko. When and where?"
"Sun River, Oregon." He held up a finger. "One month."
"I'll be there."
Cao's smile widened. "I'll be the one at the finish line."
"I'll be the one already there, waving at you."
Lucy glanced at Betsy and wondered if she knew she'd just been manipulated into spending time with Cao. He was good, but Cupid had his work cut out with these guys. She tried once again to give him a helping hand. "Hey, you two, we never do anything just for fun. Let's meet in New York in a couple of weeks and do the town. All of us. Sound like fun?"
Tommy spoke up. "Wait a minute, no one asked me what I was doing. Am I invited to this party?"
"Absolutely," Lucy said, almost forgetting Tommy had been listening to the conversation through the mics.
"I'm in," Betsy said. She pointed at Cao. "But I doubt Jack LaLanne there can make it. He's got to train."
Cao straightened at the challenge, his dark eyes glowing. "All work and no play makes Jack a dullard. I accept."
The gauntlet had been thrown and picked up. By the toxic gleam in both their eyes, Lucy wondered if she should have suggested a less populated place, like Area 51.
Thoughts of seeing her father again made her wish she were heading to Area 51, the Mojave Desert, New Zealand, even the South Pole. Anywhere in the world but the same room with Roy Karmon. There wasn't a room, a house, a castle or a country big enough for the both of them. Talk about pyrotechnics. At least her mother would be there to run interference and put out the blaze. Hopefully.