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Jake Harrington whistled low under his breath as he stepped into the cavernous black space lit mostly by the glow of the many computer monitors lining the football field–size floor. There were caves, and then there were caves.
"Welcome to H.O.T. Watch Ops, Major Harrington," a familiar voice said from nearby.
Jake looked up sharply. Brady Hathaway. A hell of a soldier. Hell of a man. They shook hands and clapped each other on the shoulders.
"How've you been, Howdy?" Hathaway asked warmly.
Jake let a rare hint of a smile light his eyes for his former comrade-in-arms. "I'm good. You're looking…tan."
"It's a real hardship tour living on a gorgeous Caribbean island like this, but someone's gotta do it. What've you been up to? Still too strong and silent to succumb to a woman?"
Jake threw him a withering look. In his line of work a social life was impossible, let alone a love life. It wasn't that he didn't crave being a normal guy from time to time. He'd love to meet a woman and pursue a real relationship. But it just wasn't possible.
Hathaway laughed. "It's good to see you haven't changed a bit, Mr. Grinch."
Jake was used to being accused of having no sense of humor. Hell, they usually accused him of having no personality. Thing was, he couldn't imagine running around being Mr. Chatty Cheerful while he killed people for a living. It seemed… disrespectful.
Besides, his work required him to exercise reserves of discipline that most people couldn't even fathom. It wasn't uncommon for him to lie still in the same place for three days at a time. And by still, he meant not a twitch. Not to scratch his nose, not to eat, not to stretch out a cramp. He barely blinked in such hides. Over the years, that capacity for utter physical stillness had translated into a capacity for utter emotional stillness, as well.
His life was a glassy smooth lake. Unruffled. Serene. Yeah, and bland, boring and lonely. But a guy had to take the bad with the good.
Hathaway led him into the middle of the cave through rows of computer terminals and analysts. It looked like a NASA control room. Hathaway stopped in front of a man working at three flat-screen monitors each the size of his television at home and said, "Jake, this is Carter Baigneaux. His handle's Boudreaux or just Boo. Carter, this is Jake Harrington, the sniper I told you about. Field handle Howdy."
The man at the console nodded at Jake and pulled several thick manila folders that looked stuffed with mostly photographs out of a file drawer at his knee.
Hathaway continued, "Carter's a Special Forces man, himself. He spotted what we're about to show you."
Jake frowned. Then why did they need him to look at whatever it was?
Hathaway picked up a slim red folder. "Take a look at this."
Jake opened the file and picked up the top photograph inside. It was a grainy close-up of a man. A man he knew all too well. But why he'd been brought all the way out to this supersecret island to look at a picture of a dead man mystified him. He thumbed through the rest of the pictures, all of them surveillance photos of the same individual.
He glanced up at Hathaway, frowning. "That's Eduardo Ferrare, a drug lord my teammates and I tracked down and killed about five years back. Where'd you get these? I thought I'd seen every photo in existence of the guy, but I don't remember these shots."
Hathaway and Baigneaux exchanged significant looks with each other, and the atmosphere around the two men abruptly crackled with tension.
"What's going on?" Jake bit out, dropping the file onto Carter's desk.
Hathaway said heavily, "I'd better start at the beginning." He gestured at a pair of empty chairs beside Carter, and Jake sank into one. He stretched out his legs to ease a sharp pain in his bum knee and crossed his arms. Once comfortable, he settled into his usual statuelike stillness.
Hathaway gestured around him. "This facility was built to allow us to do high-grade surveillance and monitoring of the Caribbean, and Central and South America. From here, we can see a gnat on a goat anywhere in this part of the world."
Carter grinned and corrected, "We can see the gnat's naughty bits."
Jake sent a mild but quelling glance over at the Cajun. The guy subsided, muttering good-naturedly about seeing what Hathaway meant when he said Harrington was no fun.
Hathaway continued. "Carter picked up some interesting traffic patterns around a house in St. George, Gavarone, a few months ago. He ID'd several known drug dealers going in and out of the place. Not street punks, mind you. Players."
Jake nodded. Men like Eduardo Ferrare had been before Charlie Squad blew him up and burned his body almost past recognition.
"Carter started a photo dossier and inventoried all the visitors to the place over a two month period. He got images of about twenty targets from a high-resolution satellite camera, and commenced identifying them. Boo, here, happens to have developed some of the top face recognition software in the business. It was all going along swimmingly until he ran into one guy. When the face-recognition program popped up the ID, we knew there had to be an error."
When Hathaway quit talking and showed no inclination to continue, Jake sighed and reluctantly took the bait. "And you knew it was an error because?"
"Because the guy in the picture is dead."
A low-level hum of disquiet started in his gut. He had an inkling where this was going, and it was impossible. When Charlie Squad killed someone, the target didn't get back up. Ever. They confirmed all of their kills.
Jake leaned forward. "Are you telling me you think Ferrare is still alive?"
"You tell me. You just ID'd the guy off a picture taken three weeks ago."
It took every ounce of his self-discipline not to leap up out of his chair. No way was Eduardo Ferrare still alive! Fury jostled with dismay in his gut, but disbelief ultimately beat them both out.
"We pulled up the dossier on Ferrare," Hathaway continued, "and saw that Charlie Squad ran a surveillance and infiltration mission on him a while back. Since you were the team's sniper and most likely to have studied the photos in the greatest detail, we wanted to show you Carter's pictures to see what you made of them." He picked up the file and held it out to Jake again. "Take another look. Tell me if you can say that this isn't Eduardo Ferrare."
Frowning, Jake took the folder. He flipped it open. Studied the first picture intently. It showed a white stucco portico with a black Mercedes parked in front of it. The car sat low and heavy. Armored, he noted absently. A big guy stood in front of it, his back to the vehicle, in a classic bodyguard pose. Behind the vehicle was a similar guy. Beside the rear passenger door stood three men in a cluster. Two had their backs to the camera, but the third one's face was clearly visible from this angle.
A face he knew as well as his own. A face he'd studied for hundreds of hours, both in pictures and through the sights of his sniper rifle. From every conceivable angle, displaying every conceivable expression.
He breathed, "Sonofa—"
Hathaway said dryly, "I gather you stand by your initial identification, then?"
Jake looked up, grim. "Yeah. That's Eduardo Ferrare. But—" He broke off. It took a hell of a lot to shock him, but he was nigh unto speechless right now.
Hathaway finished for him. "—but Ferrare definitely died in Gavarone five years ago." He and his teammates had been in the tiny South American country monitoring the lead-up to a civil war there and had crossed paths with the drug lord then. They almost hadn't made it out alive.
"I watched the guy's house blow up around him. Hell, he died in Joe Rodriguez's arms. We had the guy's body. The clothes, the jewelry, the dental records… We had a positive ID. Eduardo Ferrare is dead."
Hathaway spoke quietly. "Then who in the hell is the man in that picture?"
Jake stared down at the damning photograph. For all the world, he'd swear that was Eduardo Ferrare…if he didn't know better. "Have you got any pics of the guy's right hand?"
Carter frowned. "Why?"
"He had a pinkie ring he always wore. Unusual kite-shaped diamond. Big rock. Flashy. Except…"
While Carter fished through the stack of pictures, Hathaway asked quietly, "Except what?"
"We got the ring, too. He was wearing it when he died. Our forensics guys matched it to the insurance spectrographs of the stone. It was Ferrare's ring we took off the corpse."
Carter pulled out a picture. "This picture has a good view of his right hand. I can digitally enhance it and see if there's a ring."
Jake watched as the guy turned to his computer and called up a digital file of the picture in question. Carter highlighted a small section of the photograph, the bit that included a fuzzy image of the Ferrare look-alike's hands, and typed in a rapid set of commands.
Carter pulled a microphone down from the side of his head, where he'd folded it back along his narrow headset. "Anyone running a red-priority operation on Big Bertha?" Carter's question resonated over a loudspeaker throughout the cave. Several seconds of silence greeted the announcement.
"Big Bertha?" Jake echoed.
Hathaway murmured, "Our supercomputer array."
"No cleanups in progress on Aisle Four," Jake muttered.
Hathaway grinned, then said, "Have at it, Boo."
Carter typed in a final set of commands. His computer screen went black, replaced by a slowly spinning hourglass.
In a rare fit of something unidentifiable, Jake asked, "How long is this going to take? " Was this actually impatience? He filed the novel sensation as interesting and released a long, slow breath. Calm suffused him. Better.
Carter answered, "Should be no more than a minute or so. I only asked Bertha to enhance a tiny piece of the picture."
Sometimes he felt like a dinosaur, working with his single-shot, manual-loading, Barrett fifty-caliber sniper rifle. The technology had been around for about fifty years now. Oh, sure, his telescopic sights were the latest and greatest technology to be had. He routinely made positive ID's on targets at a range of two miles, and killed them with impunity from well over a mile.
But the things this roomful of computers could do were frankly mind-boggling. Like the picture slowly forming on the screen before him. It had been taken from one-hundred eighty miles above the earth's surface. In a few seconds, he'd be able to see if the guy in the picture was wearing a ring… and if so, what kind.
"Here it comes," Carter murmured.
Pixels started to fill the screen rapidly. A Mercedes hood ornament came into view, and the torso of a man behind it. A forearm, and then a hand, began to take shape.
Jake leaned forward. Was that a ring forming? Surely not. And surely not a kite-shaped diamond that winked like a star when light hit it just right.
A bright spot of white appeared at the edge of the man's hand. A vague stripe crossed his pinkie finger.
But no matter how much he wished it not to be so, Jake knew the ring taking shape on the man's hand. The image finished loading, and the three men stared at the kite-shaped diamond sparkling back at them.
Hathaway commented from behind him, "Looks like we've got us a match, boys."
Jake frowned. "Is there any way we can find out if the ring's still in government custody?"
Baigneaux commented, "I can run that down…but jewelry can be duplicated."
Jake frowned. "For that matter, a face can be duplicated. But why would somebody go to all that trouble? Why would someone assume the identity of a man that multiple governments and any number of criminals would kill on sight?"
Hathaway shrugged. Then he asked Jake, "Computer matches and verification protocols aside, what's your gut telling you? Is that Ferrare?"
Jake took a deep breath. "It's not possible, and I don't know how it happened, but yeah. That's him."
"How sure are you?"
He looked Hathaway straight in the eye. "Dead sure."
Over the next week, Jake helped the H.O.T. Watch analysts subject the surveillance photos of Eduardo Ferrare to every verification test they could come up with. And the guy in the pictures passed every last one. With flying colors. The man in Gavarone was Eduardo Ferrare. How he'd survived the violent explosion that destroyed his house and charred his body to a crisp was a complete mystery. A phone call to his daughters verified that he wasn't a known twin—in fact, he had no living siblings to their knowledge. Both women also denied having heard from their father in the past five years. Given that he'd tried to kill them both and there was no love lost between parent and offspring, Jake was inclined to believe them.
Jake simply couldn't believe that Ferrare wasn't dead. Which meant this man had to be an exact double for the original. Or…the exact double had died in Joe Rodriguez's arms. Had they been outsmarted by the crime lord five years ago? If that was the case, what had the bastard been up to for all this time? Jake knew the man well enough to be certain it hadn't been anything good. Furthermore, if Ferrare was resurfacing now, it was for one reason and one reason only: some plan of the man's was about to come to fruition. The thought was chilling.
Jake had just finished working out and showering in the H.O.T. Watch facility's surprisingly well-equipped gym when his cell phone vibrated insistently. "Harrington here," he murmured.
"Jake. Brady. Can you come down to the conference room overlooking the Bat Cave?"
"On my way." He pocketed the phone and made his way down the stone tunnels left by the magma that had carved this place.
When he got to the conference room, all the senior management of the H.O.T. Watch was there. Brady Hathaway, his civilian counterpart, Jennifer Blackfoot, John Hollister, who commanded the Special Forces team attached to this unit, Carter Baigneaux, and a few other men he didn't recognize. They all had the hard, intelligent gazes of Special Forces operators, though.
He took the only free seat, halfway down the table. A closed brown folder—the kind mission assignments came in—lay on the table before him. But with his usual discipline, he didn't touch it. All in good time. But despite his exterior control, his gut twisted with anticipation. Was he finally going to get to finish the job his team had started over seven years ago?
Hathaway started without ceremony. "The Pentagon confirms our preliminary identification of Eduardo Fer rare."