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Mark felt pretty naked without his favorite sidearm, especially when everyone else he'd met was sporting fully automatics. He was seriously underdressed for the occasion.
"Sonny is making a few calls," the woman at his side told him. "If you check out, we can use you, Alexander. If not well, let us say you need not worry about future employment," she added with a catlike smile.
His cover was solid thanks to Corbett Lazlo, Mark's mentor and employer. He understood why the woman didn't trust him. Hell, she had excellent reasons, better ones than she knew.
He had wormed his way into this nest of snakes with a few phone calls and by dropping the names of a couple of very recently deceased criminals who were probably well known to her and thought to still be alive. Identity theft in its highest form worked wonders, or so he hoped.
"Come along, darling. You might as well meet the rest of the merry band while we wait," the woman said, ushering him up the steps ahead of her. She wore unrelieved black. Probably matched the loaded accessory she carried in her pocket with her finger on its trigger.
This infiltration seemed the best method of discovering the whereabouts of the man who had murdered Mark's father sixteen years ago, an assassin called Trip. Mark's job, as well as his lifelong ambition, was to capture Trip and determine who had hired him. The killer's trailan exhaustive list of murders stretching over almost two decades using the same MO had led Mark to this woman's address.
Something about Deborah Martine seemed familiar to Mark. Not so much her looks as her mannerisms, the way she moved, a fleeting expression. Something. Martine was not her real name, he was sure. But none of that mattered at the moment. This fortyish, unnatural blonde with bedroom eyes, a commanding attitude and an evil sense of humor, was his ticket in. Sooner or later, she would lead him to Trip.
She could use more hands and another gun, she had told him when he introduced himself earlier that afternoon.Apparently she was also looking for someone adept at bypassing the newer security systems on the market. He couldn't believe his luck there. He assured her he'd been sent by a trusted mutual acquaintance. The woman was no fool. She had verified his identity. No problem. Lazlo had expected he would be checked out and had prepared for it.
At the top of the stairs, she reached past him, opened a door and entered, standing aside for him to follow. Mark glanced around the dimly lit room. They were in an office in the upstairs of a run-down warehouse south of Paris near the Seine. He could smell the river, feel its dampness, even inside the building. Two men were seated on the dusty chairs and a woman stood against the wall in the shadows.
She looked up as he approached the table. The dim glow of the lamp illuminated her face. Mark's heart nearly stopped. There was not merely something familiar about this woman. He knew her! Worse than that, she knew him. One word from her about their former connection and he'd be dead in the water. Literally. His body adding to the river's pollution.
He saw the flicker of apprehension in her eyes. And a question. Should she take him out? She was asking herself. She was armed and it wasn't apparent that he was. But for some reason, she didn't act.
He suddenly realized she was as vulnerable as he was. If she killed him, she would have to explain why. And if she declared who he was, the others would suspect her, too. Takes one to know one, he thought with an inner grimace.
Had she turned? Her looks had changed radically. Maybe her allegiance had, too. Or had she been a subversive even when he had known her during their training op in the States? She could be working undercover, of course. God, but he wanted to believe that. He had a soft spot for her, but he couldn't let that distort his reasoning or affect his decisions.
He could kill her, right now during her hesitation. He still had his knife, which he could bury in her throat before anyone blinked. But then he would have to deal with the fallout. If he used the hidden blade, he would be weaponless except for hands-on. That would be patently ineffective against bullets.
Even in the unlikely event that he managed to kill everyone in the room and survive, his ultimate goal would be impossible. Deborah Martine was his only lead to John Trip, the assassin he had spent over half his life tracking, the man he meant to destroy no matter the cost. He might never get this close again. No, he couldn't compromise that goal as long as there was the slightest chance to see it met.
And he had to acknowledge that the woman feigning nonchalance in the shadows might possibly be here for a legitimate reason, just as he was, and didn't really deserve to die.
He had a feeling that fate had another of those unfunny life-altering jokes in store for him, like the sudden gut-twisting attraction that had driven him crazy when he had known her before. She had damn near caused him to lose control and break his steadfast rule concerning personal involvement. Even so, he had little choice now but to let fate rule in this instance. He would have to allow Renee Leblanc to live and see what happened.
Renee leaned against the rat-infested wall, one booted foot propped on an old crate. In her right hand, she held an unlit French cigarette. Her left rested on the unsnapped holster of her nine millimeter.
The man who entered the weak circle of light thrown by the antique gas lantern registered a barely discernible flicker of surprise, just as she suppressed one of her own. My God. It was Mark! What the hell was he doing here? Her heart rate doubled and her breath caught in her throat. Instant recognition promised instant death if he blew her cover.
Her fingers slid around the grip of her H&K pistol, its coolness and texture her only comfort.
"This is Mark Alexander, everyone," Deborah Martine announced as she took a seat at the head of the scarred table.
He was actually using the name she had known him by. Not a good sign that he was undercover. But then, she was using hers, too, though it was necessary in her case.
Deborah inclined her head at Renee. "Meet Renee, our explosives expert."
Deborah's lazy gaze swept on to the slender, shifty-eyed thug on her right. "Piers, provisions." Then to the beefy Neanderthal at the far end of the table. "Etienne, muscle." She offered a secret smile before turning her attention to the rest of the group. "Mark will handle the security systems for us." Her left eyebrow rose as she addressed him. "That is, if your credentials are in order."
Renee's eyes again locked on the newcomer. Her first instinct had been to shoot him where he stood before he could say a word. Protect the mission was a mantra she lived by. Self-preservation was an even stronger motive. She figured he probably entertained similar thoughts of eliminating her as a threat, but had no weapon.
Either he had flipped at some time during the past two years, or he was working an op for SIS, the old MI-6. Problem was, she knew nothing about an ongoing operation in Paris involving the Brits. However, given the dearth of official information exchanged by intel agencies who worked for the same government, it was reasonable that she'd be in the dark about a foreign one. Why would the Brits inform the U.S. when infiltrating a terrorist cell in France?
Since Alexander hadn't yet opened his mouth, she would give him the benefit of the doubt. If he revealed who she was, he would expose himself.
Same with her. She raised a brow and offered him the ghost of a smile. He returned it, just a small quirk of his lips. Nice lips they were, too. She remembered them well. Their texture. Their taste. Their hunger that had fueled her own. A spike of warmth shot through her. Make that heat.
One kiss, mind-blowing as it had been, did not provide a basis for putting her life in the man's hands. That killer body of his could be just that, the body of a killer. The memory of how her wayward mind had wandered directly to him the morning after that kiss, as she hovered between sleep and wakefulness, disturbed her even now. She had clearly visualized him, standing in the shower, soaping himself, his head thrown back, exposing his strong, corded neck as if he invited her to put her mouth there and feel his quickening pulse. Her own body had hummed.
Renee shook her head. The vision firmly engraved on her mind might have been buried, but hadn't lost its clarity.
Renee straightened and pushed off the wall, taking a seat on one of the overturned boxes that served as extra chairs. "Where are the others?" she asked, ignoring Alexander as best she could.
"Checking the perimeter. Sonny and Beguin will be up in a few moments. Tonight's the night we get down to business," Deborah announced.
Finally. Renee kept her expression bland. She knew the job, in general anyway, and hoped to find out where the strike would occur so she could get people in place to prevent it. This was yet another planning session. Deborah seemed to get off on having rendezvous in secret locations, the seedier the better.
Sonny's last job had been an attempt to abduct a U.S. senator's son. It had been foiled by the Secret Service and Renee's team, COMPASS, one of the civilian special ops teams formed under Homeland Security. The giant, more commonly known as Sonnegut, had escaped capture and fled here to France, doing a bang-up job of covering his tracks.
But Renee had located him.
Her stated mission was to identify Sonnegut's affiliation, find out who was behind the kidnapping attempt and determine what they had been after. Indications were that the motive had been political. So far, she had tailed him until she could befriend one of his cohorts and work her way into this little gang.
It was a start. Deborah Martine was Sonnegut's lover. Renee had begun to suspect she might also be the person in charge. The question was whether or not she reported to someone else, higher up. Unfortunately Renee thought she might have to abandon her primary mission in order to throw a monkey wrench into the strike the cell was planning. But first she needed to discover how the group was financed, and, most important, the target and timing of their strike.
Renee had struck up an association with Martine, gaining her trust in the guise of a French-Canadian expatriate whose father owned a demolitions business based in Calgary and who had taught his only child everything he knew about explosives, hoping she would carry on.
Her cover contained a great deal of truth, but there were no records available to prove or disprove it. She had told Deborah at the outset that her father had disowned her and she had intentionally "erased" herself. Martine had professed to admire her precautions and apparently accepted her story.
Demolition was a handy skill in the underworld, much in demand. Credentials weren't required. The proof was in the execution, so to speak.
Renee glanced again at Mark and saw that he was assessing her, no doubt wondering if she had switched loyalties. Neither of them had any option but to play this out, at least until they could talk in private.And even then, would either dare admit why they were really here? As far as he knew, she could be exactly what she appeared to be.And so could he.
Every tenet of her training demanded that she erase any threat to her mission. So would his. They had trained together in the life-or-death black ops field, after all.
Two years ago, the FBI had hosted an international working seminar on nontraditional methods of dealing with terrorists. Fifty elite agents from as many organizations had attended. No operative had been identified other than by name, no countries or organizations revealed.