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Katrina Kim stepped out into the cavernous H.O.T. Watch headquarters, gazing around in shock as much at the banks of computers and analysts as at the domed enormity of the cave enclosing it all in perpetual night. And she'd thought the mini-submarine ride to get to the inside of this hollowed-out volcano had been wild. This place was incredible.
"Ahh, there you are, Captain Kim." An attractive woman wearing khaki shorts and a dark polo shirt strode toward her, holding out her hand. "I'm Jennifer Blackfoot."
Katrina studied the offered hand impassively. A grab and twist at the base of the thumb would put the woman down on the ground. Or, there was the pressure point in the wrist, which would bring a grown man in a full battle rage to a screeching halt. Or there was always the tried-and-true bend-and-snap to break fingers and generally maim the sensitive instrument that was the human hand.
Gently, she clasped the woman's proffered hand. "Please.
Call me Kat." Standard protocol to ask civilians to use her first name. It put them at ease around Special Forces operatives like her.
Kat was one of the founding members of the Medusas, the first all-female Special Forces team the U.S. military had fielded a couple of years earlier. The Medusas had long since earned their battle stripes and were well respected within the Special Forces community. At the moment, the Medusas were in North Carolina on call, waiting for a crisis to blow up somewhere that required their particular brand of attention. In another month, all the Medusas were scheduled to stand down and go into a training cycle. In the meantime, she'd been sent to this classified facility in the Caribbean on a specialassignment.
She didn't know anything about the mission. She'd been awakened by a phone call early this morning, telling her to be at the airfield in an hour in civilian clothes with warm-weather gear for immediate deployment. And here she was, none the wiser as to what would be expected of her, knowing only that it would be extremely high risk. Otherwise, they wouldn't have called her.
God, she loved this job.
Suppressing an actual smile of enjoyment at the low-level hum of adrenaline coursing through her veins, she glanced over at the civilian woman walking beside her and asked, "When will I receive my mission briefing?"
Her guide looked over, surprised. "General Wittenauer didn't fill you in?"
The woman laughed. "Don't 'ma'am' me. I'm just a civilian. My friends call me Jennifer or Jenn."
Kat pursed her lips. She rarely stuck around anywhere long enough to make actual friends. "The way I hear it, you run this outfit."
Jennifer shrugged. "I run the civilian side of the house.
Commander Hathaway runs the military side. Frankly, being in charge around here mostly consists of sprinting like crazy to stay at the front of the stampede."
Kat nodded knowingly. Although they all tried to impose as much order as possible on their world, Special Ops was often a chaotic enterprise.
Jennifer ushered her through a thick, steel door and into a low, long corridor hewn out of rough rock. "You'll be working with Jeff Steiger. His handle's Maverick. He'll bring you up to speed on his little project."
A little project, huh? An odd choice of words for a Special Ops mission.
Jennifer pulled out a cell phone and made a call. "This is Raven. Where's Maverick?" A short pause. "Thanks."
Raven? A good handle for the woman. She had long, black hair that formed a shimmering, silken fall almost to her hips.
"Captain Steiger is in the gym."
"There's a gym down here?" Kat asked, surprised.
"We've got it all. Cafeteria, sleeping quarters, long-term food supplies there's even a small infirmary."
Impressive. She followed Jennifer-Raven through a labyrinth of hallways to yet another anonymous door. If this place were ever invaded, she wished the intruders luck finding anything. Nothing was marked in this maze, and every hall, every door, looked exactly the same.
As they stepped into a well-outfitted gym, her companion announced, "Ladies' locker room is behind the weight machines. You'll probably find Maverick on the fighting mats pummeling some poor sod. I saw on the training schedule that he and his Ops team were going to be practicing unarmed combat this afternoon."
"Is he good?" Kat murmured.
"He's unofficial champ of the entire bunker. And we've got upwards of sixty operators attached to this outfit."
Interesting. It had been a long time since anyone had given her a real challenge in unarmed combat. Oh, she faked having to struggle against most guys, but she usually held back. It was for the best that way.
Jennifer made her farewells, and Kat looked around. It smelled like every other gym in creation, of sweat and disinfectant, burnt rubber and iron. Weights clanked on the far side of a currently empty basketball court, and off to her right, a group of men made the distinctive shouted grunts of martial artists in training. Hidoshi-san, the man who'd adopted her and had been father, teacher and sensei to her from infancy, had called the shouts kiais, but each martial school had its own name for them.
She strolled across the hardwood basketball floor, observing a half-dozen pairs of men wrestling around on the mat, practicing ground-fighting techniques. It looked like a Brazilian jiujitsu variant they were doing, with some of the usual rules suspended to modify it for urban combat.
BJJ was a twentieth-century variant on a much older form of judo. Mentally she turned her nose up at it. Her training had been in the original, classical traditions from one of the great modern masters: judothe way of grappling, karate-dothe way of the open hand, kendothe way of the sword, iai-dothe way of the fast sword, even aikidothe way of harmony.
The men's movements looked jerky and forced as they moved through joint locking and choking exercises. However, in a real fight, it wasn't about beauty. It was all about putting the other guy down before he put you down.
She set down her gear bags and rifle case to watch. The men finished the sequence and climbed to their feet, breathing hard. They began to spar in a standing position, trading kicks and punches.
One of the men, a good-looking guy with blond-streaked hair and a surfer's tan, glanced over at her, then did a double take. His partner took the opportunity to clock him with a fast kick to the side of the head. Surfer guy went down like a ton of bricks.
She bit back a smile at his expense. That had to have hurt. He rolled onto his back and executed a nifty back-arch and flip that landed him on his feet. Showboating for her, no doubt. The move took stomach strength and looked good in the movies, but was impractical in most actual fights. Any half-decent ground fighter would never give you a chance to get back to your feet at all, let alone in so flashy a fashion.
She studied surfer guy as he swaggered over to her. Strong. Lean. Fit. Lacking in flexibility if she had to guess. And in subtlety, for that matter. The grinning leer in his gaze was beyond obvious. According to her Eastern upbringing, it bordered on insulting. In the West, it was a mild flirtation. She sighed. Yet again, her two worlds collided. She had to admit, though, he was cute. No, strike cute. He was hot.
"Hey, baby. Y'all new in town?" he drawled with a hint of New Orleans in his voice.
"You're not talking to me, are you?" she replied smoothly. "Because I don't recall giving you permission to call me that."
"Whatchya gonna do about it baby?" Were it not for the utterly charming grin and devastating dimples that accompanied the comment, she'd have flattened him on the spot. As it was, she stepped forward politely and held out her hand.
"My name's Katrina Kim"
He smiled triumphantly over his shoulder at the other men, who'd all stopped sparring to stare at her. Still grinning confidently, he took her hand.
In a flash, she spun and yanked, twisting the guy's entire arm and flipping him neatly over her hip. He slammed heavily to the floor. Before his bulk had hardly finished smacking the mat face-first, she pounced, kneeling on his neck with her knee and yanking his arm up and back uncomfortably behind him.
"and don't call me baby," she finished coolly. Inside, she churned. She hated being forced into having to reveal a glimpse of her martial arts skills. Hidoshi had always considered it a grave failure of Shin, the Mind, to be forced into using violence. But sometimes a girl had to do what a girl had to do.
The other men gaped, equal parts stunned and appalled.
Without letting the man on the floor go, she asked them pleasantly, "Is one of you Captain Steiger? I was told I might find him here."
The guy beneath her lurched, and she gave a sharp jerk on his arm, effectively and completely subduing him. Grins were beginning to spread across the other men's faces.
One of the men answered gravely, "You're standing on him, ma'am."
A thoroughly unladylike curse shot through her head. Great. She'd just taken down and humiliated the man she was supposed to work for on this mission. Why was it the Medusas always seemed to get off to a rocky start with the men they worked with? She sighed. At least she and the good captain had established that she didn't like being called baby. It was probably handy to have gotten that out of the way, at any rate.
Lying facedown on the floor, Jeff Steiger tried wiggling something smallhe started with his pinkie finger. Mistake. Pain shot down his arm and exploded in his shoulder. Man. So much for impressing the hot chick in the gym. She was a little thing, not particularly heavy kneeling on his neck, but damned if she didn't have him tied up practically in a pretzel.
Thankfully, she released his arm and let him up without him actually having to cry uncle. He climbed painfully to his feet, eyeing the young woman warily.
As if it wasn't bad enough that she'd taken him down, she was also a drop-dead eyeful. Exotic, definitely part Asian. Maybe Korean. Her features were refined. Delicate even. But that grip on his hand had been pure steel, and the strength behind it that had put him on the ground had been shocking.
He smiled at her ruefully. "How 'bout we start over? My name's Jeff Steiger. But you can call me Maverick if you like." Putting on his best Sunday church manners, he added, "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
She nodded briefly.
"You said you were looking for me?"
She frowned, and even that was a delicate thing, her finely drawn eyebrows arching together over an elegant nose. Her eyes were a clear, sweet tea brown.
"General Wittenauer sent me to work with you."
Wittenauer? The Old Man himself? He was the commander-in-chief of the entire Joint Special Operations Command. Jeff had sent a request up channels for a Special Forces operator who was unusually agile and had expertise in electronics. Why in the hell had the general sent down this girl instead?
Jeff cursed under his breath. It could only mean one thing. Wittenauer thought his theory on the robberies was a load of bull. He hadn't even taken Jeff's report seriously enough to send him a real operator, let alone the one he needed.
He realized the girl was staring at him expectantly. He mumbled, "Uh, sorry. Did the general send me a message or something?"
"No. Just me."
What the hell? "If you'll pardon my bluntness, who are you?"
She lifted an eyebrow at that. "Captain Katrina Kim. U.S. Army. Joint Special Operations Command, Medusa Project. Sniper, linguist, electronics and black ops specialist."
He stared. He didn't even know where to begin reacting to that mouthful. Her? A sniper? No way. Black Ops? Get out. Finally, he sputtered, "What the hell is the Medusa Project? Never heard of it."
She pursed her mouth into a Kewpie-doll pout and said mildly, "You must not have a high enough security clearance to have heard of it."
"Are you dissing my security clearances?" Indignation started low in his gut. "I'll have you know the name of my security clearance is classified, lady."
Somehow, even with her face completely devoid of expression and her body utterly still, she managed to convey complete disdain for him and his clearance.
"What the hell kind of clearances do you have?" he challenged.
She shrugged. "I'm allowed to carry firearms in the presence of the president of the United States."
Jeez. He was familiar with such a clearance, and they didn't come much higher than that. "And have you ever been armed in the presence of the president?"
She answered evenly. "Several times. He awarded me my first combat medal."
Who in the hell was this lady?
"Perhaps we can go somewhere more private to talk?" she suggested.
He glanced over his shoulder at their avid audience. "My guys are okay. They're all operators, complete with fancy security clearances. They won't tell tales."
One of them piped up drolly. "But we're bloody well telling everyone in the bunker that an itty bitty thing in a skirt tossed your happy butt on the floor."
Jeff scowled. Damn. There went his reputation. To the itty bitty thing in a skirt in question, he said, "Let me clean up. And then we can go to my office and talk."
She was waiting for him when he emerged from the locker room five minutes later. He'd intended to take a long, hot shower and make her wait, but inexplicable curiosity, eagerness even, to learn more about her had turned his shower into a hasty affair lasting barely two minutes.
"May I take your bags for you?" he offered, startled at how bulky and heavy they looked now that he paid attention to them. She didn't seem fazed by them, though.
"No, thank you. The Medusas make a policy of hauling their own gear."
They stepped out into the hallway and he turned toward his temporary digs in an underground warehouse space that he'd appropriated a few weeks back.
"What exactly are the Medusas?" he asked as they walked.
"'Who are they?' is the appropriate question."
Not real chatty, this self-contained woman. When she didn't continue, he said, "Okay, then. Who are they?"
"Special Forces team. All-female."
"Allwhat?" Female? No. Freaking. Way. There was no way women could do the job he and his buddies did. None. Not possible.
She didn't bother to reply. Apparently, she figured he'd heard her correctly the first time.
She might not let him carry her bags for her, but he did open the door for her when they arrived at his office. She nodded her thanks as she stepped inside. The true black of underground shrouded the room, and she paused in the thin shaft of light spilling weakly into the space from behind them. He reached out and flipped the wall switch beside the door. Halogen lights flashed on overhead, illuminating the cavernous space.