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Mallaruza Central West Africa
“Morning,” Kess Goodall said absently as she and Simon Blackthorne passed in an upstairs hallway of the city offices of Mallaruza’s state capitol building. Tear and sweat tracks painted pale lines through the dirt on her sunburned cheeks, and her gray eyes were shadowed. Something was up. She made no effort to hide it; in fact Simon observed that despite the greeting, she was barely aware of those she passed, and probably wasn’t even seeing individuals as she speed walked by.
Intrigued, he turned to watch her retreat.
She was publicist for Abioyne Bongani, Simon’s old college friend and current president of Mallaruza. Goodall had held up well in the past two months, considering that she’d been banished to this tiny country in midwestern Africa. No one wanted to hire her back in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was from. The PR community there had closed ranks on her. Instead of looking for a job anywhere else in the United States, she’d opted for a time-out here in Africa.
She hadn’t chosen easy, that was for sure.
Escalating skirmishes on the border between Mal- laruza and Huren, an outbreak of some deadly virus, and the upcoming elections were all keeping her out of trouble and on her toes.
As far as Simon could tell, she’d done a pretty decent job of promoting the good Abi was doing for his country. Since Abi was becoming suspiciously more saintlike as the day of his reelection approached, her duties were of the cheerleader variety—exactly what the untidy, yet vivacious, Ms. Goodall excelled at.
She wasn’t going to hinder Simon’s investigation in any way. Intel divulged that she’d been fired from the PR company she’d worked for. Being phenomenal at her job had saved her cute ass every time she’d pulled some insanely over-the-top stunt. Like attacking one of the other members of the staff, or throwing a vase full of flowers at a client.
She was impulsive, volatile, and unpredictable.
Simon had a wary respect for unpredictable.
His work as a T-FLAC/psi operative made unpredictable the norm. But an unpredictable civilian, right in the middle of what had the potential to be an extremely volatile conflict between two small countries, was not good.
His job here was simple. As president, Abi Bongani had called him in because he suspected another wizard might be manipulating the skirmishes on his border with Huren. The Hureni were a violent people, but they usually kept their fighting internal. Recently they’d started sending sorties deeper into Mallaruza.
Pillage, murder, rape, and general mischief. The Hureni were full-service bad neighbors, and bad for Abi’s campaign.
As a friend, Abi didn’t want Simon doing any more than tracking down the wizard responsible. He had his own ways of finding out why.
Simon was happy to have an all-expenses-paid vacation in Africa. The ocean was nearby and he was between ops. Why not? It had been years since he and Abi had tossed back a few beers and caught up on college memories.
Hmm. There’d been a redhead then, too. Or had it been a blonde? Since Goodall was reportedly a magnet for trouble, and wanting to know what the tears meant, he decided to follow her, undetected, into Abi’s office. Loose cannons tended to go off in the worst possible situations.
The wide hall was filled with people rushing about. Simon strolled into a nearby public rest- room, letting the door swing shut behind him. He checked the stalls, making sure the men’s room was deserted.
He shimmered, invisible, back into Abi’s opulent office to hear what she had to say. Of course Abi, being a half-wizard, sensed that he was there. He lifted his head and frowned in Simon’s general direction before he waved Goodall to one of the chairs in front of his desk.
“How was the trip?” Abi asked, his deep voice holding only a hint of Africa beneath his American high school and college English. He was an intelligent guy, with a capacity to do good like few people Simon knew.
He and Abi had lost touch over the years, but Simon knew his old friend was an idealist, a champion of lost causes, and had a competitive streak a mile wide. Simon had been intrigued to get the call asking for his help.
Crossing his arms Simon took up position near a zebrawood bookcase holding leather-bound, foiled, first editions. None read. Just for show. But a classy show.
He considered himself a good study when it came to women. The bedraggled, baseball-cap-wearing redhead, walking to some internal tragedy, would not normally have garnered his attention. He liked women a great deal, but he had an aversion, a strong aversion, to sloppy and ill-kempt. When he had time to indulge himself, he usually went for sophisticated, well-educated, well-groomed, brunettes.
Goodall was a bit too straight up and down for his taste. And her red hair wasn’t just red. What he could see of it was wild, grab-your-attention, screaming orange. The color matched the bright orange hiking boots on her small feet. Subtle, she wasn’t.
What she was was hot.
No matter what the hell his eyes conveyed, the message got tangled en route to his brain. Oval face, tender mouth, big eyes, freckles, and long lashes. The small, messy package that was Katie Goodall was sexy as hell, no matter how disheveled.
The president remained standing until his publicist sat in one of two fussy high-backed chairs in front of his mile-wide desk. Abi was an okay- looking guy. Not quite as tall as Simon’s six three, and a little paunchy, but attractive enough to get his fair share of the ladies back when they’d attended MIT together. The conservative light gray custom-made suit and white shirt complemented his dark skin.
The somber, businesslike attire was a good choice for his position, but not Abi’s usual taste, which ran to garish, flamboyant colors, and in the case of his office: baroque and ostentatious.
Goodall fell more than sat in the chair. Her cheerful bravado had apparently left her at the door. Beneath the dirt and the smell of clean perspiration was the scent of warm woman. For some inexplicable reason, and stunning him to the core, Simon felt his body tighten. For her? His senses became sharper as he looked beyond the too-baggy khaki pants, the filthy, once-white T-shirt, the baseball cap, and the orange hiking boots.
Now that she was somewhat sedentary— somewhat being the operative word since the woman moved even when she was seated—Simon reevaluated his first impression.
She whipped off the khaki cap and pulled out the elasticized blue fabric tying her hair back. “We were too late,” she said morosely, running her fingers through curly, dust-dulled hair and dislodging a shower of sand and debris.
Abi’s brow folded into a frown at her words. Like Goodall, he was oblivious to the bits of grass and twigs littering his carpet. He rubbed a broad-palmed hand across his mouth, his black eyes shadowed. “Terrible. How many dead?”
“Five entire villages, all the way upriver.” She scooted forward to perch on the edge of the deep seat. “Mr. President, I know you’re doing everything you can to help. But I really think we need to ask the World Health Organization to step in. Whatever this virus or disease is, Konrad—Dr. Straus—none of the doctors can keep up with it. Thousands of your people are dying every day while they try to figure out how the disease is transmitted. We have to find someone who can get an immediate treatment. And we have to do it now.”