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Dalton Keen's future would be determined in the next ten minutes.
Leaning against the metal railing at Seattle's Pier 69, he eyed the vessel that had just brought hundreds of passengers in from Canada—one of them a suspected terrorist.
By helping apprehend the suspect, Dalton hoped to earn his way back into the field. He was ready; he'd been ready for months. But as an agent for AW-21, a covert branch of the NSA, he was at the mercy of rules and regulations: traumatized agents were not to be sent back into the field prematurely. Instead, agents were sent to Port Townsend, a remote town in Washington State, not far from Seattle.
Traumatized? More like pissed off. Dalton had trusted the wrong person and nearly got himself, and the hostage, killed on the mission in Syria. Trust was not a mistake Dalton would make again.
"The vessel is docked," lead agent Zack Carter said into Dalton's earpiece. "You in position?"
"Affirmative, sir." Dalton's job was to be inconspicuous and offer support when Carter apprehended the suspect.
Hell, Dalton was anxious to resume duties rescuing hostages or breaking into secure compounds to retrieve critical intelligence. He'd forced his way into the microchip case hoping to impress CO. Andrews and earn a spot back on the A team.
His good work didn't get him back into the field, at least not yet, but it did aggravate his already tenuous relationship with his brother, Nate.
"Do you have a visual of the passengers?" Carter asked.
"Yes, sir. They are disembarking the vessel, waiting in line to go through customs."
Carter had positioned himself inside the building. He'd identify the suspect to a customs officer who would casuallypull him aside. The senior agent was a pro, and probably wouldn't even need Dalton's help.
But Dalton had needed Nate's. He'd asked his genius brother for help with the microchip case thinking it might bridge the gap between them, while earning Dalton points. Nate had come through, making Dalton look like a hero to his superior officer.
Only, baby brother wouldn't let it go. He kept rambling about a conspiracy at his work, Locke, Inc., an Internet security giant that had contracts with both the private and public sectors.
The kid just wanted to feel important. He'd always been desperate to receive as much attention as Dalton, the charming athlete-turned-war-hero.
Hero, my ass.
Dalton had hoped that needing Nate's help might destroy his hero worship. If anyone should be doing the worship routine, it should be Dalton worshipping his eccentric, brilliant little brother.
Brilliant, but lacking in common sense. Everything was a game to Nate. He continued to theorize about the microchip ID number, claiming it resembled a number he'd seen on a chip at work.
At which point Dalton started to wonder if Nate was suffering from schizophrenia. Brilliant people often struggled with the disease.
The tourists weren't going to be released onto the streets of Seattle anytime soon. Dalton leaned against the rail and called his brother.
"This is Nate. Leave a message and I might call you back." Pause. "Or I might not."
"Little brother, it's been over a week and I haven't heard from you. I'm in Seattle tonight, it's Thursday, and I thought we could—"
"He's got a gun!" a woman screamed.
A stampede of frightened passengers rushed the customs building as a man waved a firearm in the air. Dalton pocketed his cell phone.
"Carter, there is an armed suspect on the gangplank. Permission to apprehend?"
"Negative. Hold your position."
"He's crazy. A crazy man is going to kill us!" another woman screamed.
Crazy, like Dalton's baby brother? His brilliance coupled with the mental abuse from their father could have sent him over the edge of sanity. And once again Dalton was too absorbed in his own life to see it coming.
"Keen, our suspect is six feet, a hundred and forty—"
The radio went dead.
Dalton held his position and eyed the group fleeing the building. Four Seattle PD cruisers pulled up, blocking Alaskan Way to get control of the situation.
Dalton glanced at the fruitcake waving a gun, then back at the cops. "Hurry up, damn it," he muttered.
The cops struggled to get through the mass of panicked tourists.
"Let me go!"
Dalton snapped his attention to the boat where the gun-wielding idiot was dragging a kid, maybe fifteen years old, back toward the vessel.
"Mom!" the kid cried.
The woman, who Dalton assumed was the mother, stood there with a blank look on her face.
"Mom!" the kid yelled again.
The gunman yanked the kid back. "Shut up!"
The boy was defenseless.
Like Nate had been.
"Screw this," Dalton muttered. He raced to the other end of the pier, climbed down and edged his way toward the cabin.
Hell, the cops weren't going to let any of these people leave without going through customs. Carter's suspect was either this bozo with a gun, which he doubted, or buried in the mass of people desperate to get away from the insanity.
Dalton sneaked onto the boat and eyed the main cabin through the window. The gunman shoved the kid into a cushioned seat and was ranting about something. When a cop stepped up to the doorway, the guy pointed his gun at the kid.
Dalton entered the cabin, pretending not to notice the assailant, as he searched between the seats as if looking for something.
"Get out!" the guy cried, pointing the gun at Dalton instead of the kid.
"Holy crap, dude. I'm sorry. I forgot my book."
Dalton eyed the cop and hoped the guy had enough sense to take an opportunity when presented.
"Get off my boat!" the crazy man hollered.
"No problem. Wait, there it is!" Dalton lunged for the floor and the lunatic fired at him. Dalton heard a grunt and a thud.
"I got him!" the policeman said.
Dalton stood and another cop pointed his firearm at him.
"No, he's okay," said the cop who'd tackled the nutcase.
"Keen, I've apprehended the suspect," Carter said. "We'll meet you out front."
"What?" the second cop asked.
Dalton tapped his earpiece. "I'm NSA." He flashed his badge. "I've got to get to the street level ASAP."
The cop waved him on.
"Hey, thanks," the first cop said, kneeling on the nutcase's back and cuffing him.
"Sure." Dalton glanced at the kid and smiled, then high tailed it back to the pier. He leaned against the rail, trying to slow his breathing and calm the adrenaline rush of being target practice. Carter approached, escorting a middle-aged, skinny guy.
"You okay?" Carter inquired.
Carter glanced at the cops taking the gunman off the boat, then back at Dalton. "Get the car, soldier."
As Dalton raced to the nearby lot, his cell vibrated. The caller ID was restricted. Dalton hoped to God it was Nate.
"Keen," he answered.
"This is Commanding Officer Andrews. Carter isn't answering his phone. Did you apprehend the suspect?"
"Your support on this project, and the microchip case has convinced me that you are field-ready, Keen."
"Thank you, sir." Hallelujah!
"Be ready to ship out."
Dalton got into the SUV and nearly shouted in celebration. Back into the field. Outstanding.
Then the terrified face of the teenager drifted across his thoughts. The kid reminded him of Nate. Dalton didn't want to leave the Seattle area without resolving the tension between them.
Whether Nate was avoiding Dalton due to hurt feelings, or he was suffering from a mental disease, Dalton needed to find him and put things right. And he needed to complete that mission ASAP.
Cowering in the alley beside a Dumpster, Nate clung to the laptop with trembling fingers.
He needed help. He needed Dalton.
That's it, run to big brother, you wuss. No, he had to do this by himself. Yet he didn't have the Special Ops training or the brute strength of his athletic brother.
But you have intelligence.
He fought back the panic that threatened to shut him down like a faulty hard drive. He'd stumbled onto something peculiar at work and had created a file. But when he'd tried to talk to his brother about it, Dalton dismissed Nate's excitement.
Nate wished his theory was wrong, but the fact he was being hunted in the alleys of Seattle proved that he'd discovered something he shouldn't have. And the microchip ID number had been the final clue. The chip had been produced by one of Locke's subsidiaries in Turkey—a chip designed to be used as a weapon against the United States.
"Need to keep moving," he whispered, pushing up against the wall. At this point he could hardly focus on anything but the fear pounding in his chest.
He was twenty-eight and he was going to die. And that wasn't the worst of it. Others would die because he'd discovered the plan but was too weak to do anything about it.
Tonight, hiding in the dark alley, he wished he was a warrior like Dalton, not a computer geek coward.
"Over here!" a voice called.
Nate's body started to tremble uncontrollably.
"Dalton," he whispered to himself, his fingers tightening on the laptop. "What do I do?"
"Hey, Angela, I'm covering for lunch," Sydney Trent said, walking up to the main reception desk at Locke, Inc.
"Awesome, I'm starving." The phone buzzed and Angela picked up. "Good morning, Locke, Incorporated, Kirkland, Washington. Thank you." Angela punched in a number, ripped off the earpiece and shoved it at Syd. "It's all yours."
"Have a nice lunch," Syd said to the girl's back. It was obvious she didn't love her job. Well, get in line, neither did Syd, but the pay was decent and the benefits amazing. After three years of service, she was allowed to take a month's leave. She could hardly wait to take her first big trip next spring. Eventually, once she'd saved enough money, she'd take a whole year off to see the world.
After years of caring for two ailing parents, Syd's dream was within reach. Only, she'd hoped to travel with a companion, a boyfriend, or even her parents. But with their bad health and subsequent passing, Syd accepted that this dream would be experienced alone.
She slid behind the desk in the main reception area of Locke, Inc., with windows overlooking a particularly nice spot of Lake Washington, and glanced at boats sailing past.
She rarely got a good look outside from her post upstairs on the Technology floor.
She welcomed the break to cover for Angela, especially since she'd follow it with lunch by the Kirkland waterfront. It was during these small breaks from her busy administrative job that she fantasized about her trips.
With a sigh she glanced up at an intense-looking, determined man in his thirties coming toward her. He wore jeans, a tight T-shirt spanning a solid chest and dark sunglasses.
She hesitated before speaking, and it was at that moment she realized how out of practice she was interacting with gorgeous, powerful men. A cute girl like Syd didn't attract the gorgeous types.
Mr. Gorgeous with the short, brown hair and broad shoulders breezed past her and headed for the elevator as if she were invisible. Although he left her breathless, she had little effect on him.
"Excuse me, sir." She stood, her ego pricked. "You're not allowed up there."
When he didn't respond, she pressed the security button then chased after him. Locke, Inc. was strict about not letting outsiders into their offices since they dealt with security issues for major companies and the government.
"Sir," she said, hoping to keep him detained long enough for security to manage this situation. She rushed in front of the stranger. "You are not allowed upstairs."
He slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and leveled her with the most amazing shade of blue-green eyes.
"Why not?" he asked.
It took her a second to process that he'd spoken to her. Oh, boy. Not good. She wished he'd come a few minutes earlier. Sexy Angela wouldn't have been fazed by this man's rugged good looks.
"It's company policy. Employees only." She steadied her breathing and motioned for him to join her back at the desk. He eyed her outfit, a mix of Goodwill stores' classic finds: a dark blue skirt, cream-colored cotton sweater and print scarf for added oomph. It was stylish, even if it didn't have a price tag of two hundred bucks.
Sitting behind the desk once again, she ignored his not-so-subtle analysis of her outfit. She leveled him with an irritated glare. "Do you have a problem?"
"No, no problem." He smiled.
Her body warmed.
And he winked.
The jerk knew he had some kind of magical power over her. Men like this were so darn irritating.
Rick, the security guard, approached the desk. "Is everything okay?"
"This gentleman was trying to go upstairs without authorization," she explained.
The stranger leaned over the desk. "You called security on me?"
"Step back, sir," Rick said. "Do you have business here?"
He continued to stare at Syd. "My name is Dalton Keen. My brother, Nate, works here."
She couldn't believe this bruiser was related to her absent-minded genius friend, a friend who referred to his older brother as a hero. Then it dawned on her why Nathaniel was so socially awkward: he'd grown up in this man's shadow.
"Is Nathaniel expecting you?" Syd asked, breaking eye contact and picking up the phone. But she knew Nathaniel wouldn't answer. She hadn't seen him in days and figured he was buried in some big project.
"Nathaniel?" Dalton asked.
She looked up.
"You know him?" he pushed.
She ignored the question. "I'll try his office."
The phone rang and she watched the security guard and Dalton size each other up. Rick placed his hand to the baton at his waist. Dalton leaned against the desk and smiled, as if challenging Rick to take a swing at him.
They were like a couple of four-year-olds poised over the biggest squirt gun.
Her call went into Nathaniel's voice mail.
She hung up. "I'm sorry, sir. Mr. Keen is not in the office. He might be at lunch."
"I was hoping to take him to lunch."
"Did you try his cell phone? If you're his brother, I'm sure you have that number." She was starting to sound rude but she wanted him to go away and let her refocus on straightening up Angela's desk. Yeah, girl, that's not the only reason you want him out of your space.
"If I'm his brother? You're calling me a liar?"
"I'm sorry if I've offended you. That was not my intent."
"Apology accepted." He fiddled with the nameplate. "Angela."
She didn't correct him and Rick shot her a questioning look. "I need to get back to work," she said, shuffling papers.
"May I escort you out, sir?" Rick said to Nate's bruiser big brother.
"Actually, I think I'll wait for Nate to return from lunch," Dalton said.
She aimed her pen toward the sofas across the lobby. "Make yourself comfortable. We have plenty of magazines to keep you occupied."
Of course, she didn't think he'd be into Technology Today or Newsweek. No, he was more of the Playboy kind of guy.
Posted May 25, 2009
Dalton Keen had been on countless missions more dangerous than this one, but this time he was on unfamiliar ground. Nate, his brother, had gotten himself involved in something big and possibly illegal, too - that is, before Nate went missing.
The lovely Sydney Trent seemed to hold the key to his brother's disappearance. She was sweet, kind and some day she'd make some lucky bloke a wonderful wife. Dalton didn't expect Sydney to save him nor be an excellent problem solver, either. What other surprises did Sydney have up her sleeve, Dalton wondered?
There was a chance that Dalton's brother had turned traitor and it was better if Syd simply stayed behind and laid low for a while. Funny, for a gentle woman, Sydney was stubborn, determined - and probably the best partner Dalton had ever had. Great story with some excellent plot twists.