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A burst of laughter came from behind her. Kate turned, keeping her fists ready, to confront the man who had just sent her sailing across the room.
"My, my, don't you look tough." The man was a full head taller than her, and all lean, wiry muscle. His ink-black hair was cropped just short of high and tight, making it impossible to grab in a fight—as she had already discovered. He regarded her with amused, dark brown eyes that missed no detail of their surroundings.
"Kate, I'm not training you to fight in a dojo. What I'm teaching you—well, trying anyway—is how to survive on the street. Pure down-and-dirty fighting, where no one is going to wait for you to assume the position. By the time you're ready, your attacker will have already incapacitated or killed you."
"That's what I have you for, remember?" She slowly stepped toward him, keeping her center of gravity balanced, waiting for him to pounce again.
"Well, let's assume for this exercise that I'm already fighting two—no, make that three other guys, and you're on your own." His white teeth flashed in a razor-thin grin, and Kate knew who would win in a three-on-one fight with the man standing in front of her—Jacob Marrs, her bodyguard and instructor. "Now, relax that horse stance of yours, and for god's sake, stand like you're walking down the street,not some extra in a kung fu movie."
Kate straightened up and dropped her arms to her sides, unclenching her fists. She walked toward Jake, maintaining eye contact the whole way, ignoring the spectacular view her floor-to-ceiling town house windows afforded of the Manhattan skyline to the west. Sweat dripped in to her gold-green eyes.
She walked to within a foot of him, but nothing happened. Turning on her heel, Kate strode back across the room, ready for a chokehold from behind, or a grab at her platinum-blond hair or any one of a dozen other possible attacks. Still nothing. Peeking at him out of the corner of her vision, Jake still stood there in loose pants and his sleeveless gi, hands on his hips, as if he were carved from stone.
With a sigh, Kate whirled around to ask whether they were sparring or posing, only to find her trainer already in motion. Arms blurring like striking cobras, he took one large step forward and grabbed her arm. Instinctively, she stepped back, using his momentum to yank him off balance. Grabbing the collar of his gi with her right hand, she pulled him farther down while her right foot swept his outstretched left foot out from under him. Jacob lurched forward, and Kate directed his fall to the ground, raising a fist to follow up with a blow to his temple—
But Jake wasn't lying still like a good foot-sweep victim. He lifted his legs and scissored them toward her head instead. He caught her between his muscular thighs and snapped her forward, flipping her to the ground. Before she could scramble away, he was atop her, pinning her shoulders to the mat and leaning back so that his weight almost crushed her abdomen, but not quite.
"Two lessons here. One, the most important thing I'm trying to instill in you is to always expect an attack, because the moment you don't, the moment you relax your guard, that's when your opponent will strike." Jake leaned forward, his face inches from hers. "Second, why in the hell aren't you trying harder to escape right now?"
Kate arched her back as high as she could, hoping to throw him off enough to free an arm, but his weight was too much. He simply relaxed and settled down, forcing her back down to the mat. He readjusted his leg for a better pin, and Kate managed to wrench her left arm free and immediately brought her elbow down toward his groin. Jacob blocked it with a low forearm just before it would have made painful contact.
"Better. Let's try that again, and I'll show you another couple ways out of it—"
"Whoa, am I interrupting something, 'cause I could definitely come back later."
The voice from the doorway of the exercise room made both Kate's and Jacob's heads turn. Recovering first, Kate reached between Jake's legs with her free hand and grabbed his crotch while scooting down underneath his legs. Emitting a startled yelp, Jacob reared up on his knees, enabling her to emerge from under him and whirl around, finding him ready for her with a small yet genuine smile on his face.
Framed in the doorway was Kate's live-in housekeeper, Arminda Todd, holding a stack of folded towels and grinning from ear to ear. A couple of inches taller than her employer, she was slender and willowy where Kate was more muscular and toned. She shifted from one foot to another, fiddling with her waist-length hair, currently bound in a thick braid that curled down over her shoulder.
"That's okay, Mindy, we were just sparring. We're done for now," Kate said.
Jake stood and offered his hand. Kate accepted it warily, expecting him to try another takedown maneuver. However, once on her feet, he simply released her.
"I'm gonna hit the shower," Jake said. He walked by Mindy, snagging a towel as he passed. Kate noticed the college student's gaze follow as he left the room, and put on her most disapproving stare as the young woman turned back.
Kate shook her head. "Don't be thinking what I know you're thinking."
Mindy's eyes widened in shock. "I just—like watching him leave, that's all."
"As long as that's all you're doing, then we're fine." Kate wasn't the jealous type and Jacob wasn't even close to the kind of man she'd be interested in. However, pretty little Mindy, all of twenty years old and usually wise beyond her years in most matters, seemed to have a soft spot for the laconic bodyguard. Owing to the unusual relationship between the three of them, Kate wanted to make sure that Mindy didn't do anything she might regret later.
She wasn't concerned about Jake. He understood the rules, and wasn't about to bend any of them for anyone, officer, civilian or otherwise. As he liked to say, "This ain't that bodyguard movie with Costner, but real life, and there's a world of difference between the two."
The best way to remind Mindy of that was to get her mind back on the job. "I assume you didn't just stop in here to deliver towels?" Kate asked.
"Oh, right. You had two messages. One from Mr. Tilghman—" Mindy scrunched up her pretty face as she said Kate's soon-to-be-ex-husband's name "—regarding some papers you were supposed to sign and scheduling that conference call to discuss more terms."
Kate rolled her eyes. "Great, he probably wants to discuss dividing the weekends at the Hamptons cottage. Someone ought to remind him that he was the one cheating on me, not the other way around." Noticing Mindy's sympathetic gaze, she shrugged. "Never mind, thinking out loud again. Okay, I'll get back to him—sometime soon. Please tell me you have something more pressing than that."
"The other message is from Judy."
Kate's internal antenna went up. Judy Burges was the liaison between Kate and her superiors—the men and women who headed up Room 59—and the various division heads and agents around the world.
"What did she say?"
"I asked if she wanted to wait while I got you, but she muttered something about you being indisposed and just said to pass along this message. She was very specific, as always." Mindy smoothed out a crumpled piece of paper and handed to it to Kate. On it were two lines of neat script:
Contact soonest you receive this.
Trouble in Paradise.
Although it sounded cute, Kate knew instantly what Judy was referring to. "Paradise" was their current code name for Cuba, and trouble meant something had happened to their asset there. Without a word, she grabbed a towel from Mindy and wiped her face and neck, then draped it around her shoulders as she headed to her home office.
When Kate had been appointed as the director of Room 59, the town house she lived in had been swept and cleared by the agency, and modifications had been made to every room, particularly this one. As she pulled her chair up to the glass-topped desk, Kate slipped on a pair of MicroEmissive Displays eyescreen glasses, enabling her to access and surf the Web not only wirelessly, but without a keyboard. With precise eye movements, she selected where she wanted to go and blinked to activate programs. She quickly logged in and sent a page to Judy.
Judy Burges was the consummate diplomat. Recruited from England's diplomatic service, she was the only person, besides the shadowy heads of the agency, to have been with Room 59 since its inception. As always, she looked perfect, from her sleek, highlighted brown hair done up in a simple chignon to her immaculate navy pantsuit. Kate smoothed her rumpled gi and thanked her lucky stars that she could only be seen from the neck up.
"Good to see you, Kate." There was a barely perceptible pause. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"
Kate berated herself for assuming that Judy wouldn't notice anything out of the ordinary. "Not at all. I was just working out when I got your message."
"Naturally." Her clipped tone made clear what Judy thought of Kate's excuse. "You have my message. Our asset in Paradise has not made any of his drops in the last seventy-two hours. Given the rumors of increasing instability there, there is concern that he has been compromised. The heads would like a sitrep and proposed plan of action in an hour. I've downloaded all of the pertinent information for you. Shall I expect you in the conference room at eight-thirty?"
"I'll see you then." Kate broke the connection and leaned back for a moment, taking a deep breath while frowning at the wall. She knew as well as Judy that they had to work together, but that didn't mean they had to like each other. Kate was proud of the work she did, but she couldn't help getting the feeling that the polished Ms. Burges sometimes considered her nothing more than glorified middle management just because she had come to her position through her intelligence-analysis work at the CIA. Kate was extremely aware of the difference in her current position. If I screw up in this business, it's not just that an operative dies. Hundreds, maybe thousands more could die with him, she thought.
Kate brought up her instant-message screen, finding Mindy online as usual. "Hey, what's up?" Mindy typed in response to Kate's greeting.
"Just coffee and a plain bagel this morning—duty calls."
"And let Jake know I'll be in conference until at least nine."
"You got it."
Rising, Kate walked into the adjoining master bath. Shucking the gi, blue belt, white cotton pants and her under-garments, Kate stepped into the shower, already analyzing and discarding plans and possibilities. Assuming he has really been compromised, and given the island's current state, will they go for an insertion to get real-eyes intel, or just write him off and move on? If the former, who's available with the necessary background? She reviewed dossiers in her mind, until a likely candidate popped up. Marcus would be the perfect choice, if he's finished with that mission in cattle country.
Posted November 16, 2012