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Autumn had painted the chestnut trees lining the quiet side street in the heart of Washington D.C.'s embassy district with brilliant color. The blazing reds and oranges and golds lent a festive, almost carnival air to the stately town houses shaded by their branches.
There was nothing festive in the air inside the town house midway down the block, however. A bronze plaque beside the door identified the building as home to the offices of the President's Special Envoy. Most Washington insiders knew the special envoy was one of those meaningless titles given by various administrations over the years to wealthy campaign contributors who wanted to rub elbows with the country's movers and shakers.
Only a handful of key presidential advisors knew the special envoy's real job. The incumbent also doubled as Director of OMEGA, an agency so secret its operatives were activated as a last resort, and then at the personal direction of the president.
One of those operatives was in the field now. And the shot he'd taken just moments ago had sent everyone in the high-tech control center on the third floor of the town house into a frenzy of activity.
Nick Jensen, code name Lightning, had served as OMEGA's director through three successive administrations. This one, he'd promised his wife and lively twins, would be his last. Until he walked out the door, however, he lived night and day with the knowledge that he put his agents' lives on the line every time he sent them into the field.
His eyes narrow and intent, Lightning studied the dual images projected onto the control center's wall-size screen. One was the face of the woman Wolf had captured in his crosshairs, digitized and transmitted back to OMEGA. The second image his people had pulled up after running the first through a highly sophisticated facial recognition program.
"Who is she?" he asked the tense operative standing next to him.
Deke Griffin, code name Ace, didn't hesitate. He'd acted as Wolf's controller from the start of this op, and he hadn't slept in almost forty-eight hours.
"Dr. Nina Nicole Grant," he replied, with no trace of his usual Texas twang. "Born Farmington, New Mexico. Graduated high school at sixteen. PhD in biology from University of New Mexico at twenty, followed three years later by an MBA from the same university."
A muscle ticked in the side of Lightning's jaw. "Smart woman."
"Very smart. She served as Director of Bio-medical Research at Holbrook Laboratories. Left five years ago to start up Grant Medical Data Systems."
Ace paused, focusing intently on the left image. They'd pulled it from a 60 Minutes segment on the latest crop of women to make the Fortune 500 list. The video still showed a slender businesswoman in a white blouse and neatly tailored black suit. Her light brown hair brushed her shoulders in a smooth, glossy sweep. Her caramel-colored eyes gazed at the camera with cool confidence.
"According to 60 Minutes," he related tersely, "Grant is well on her way to becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs—male or female— under the age of thirty in this country."
"Smart and rich." The muscle in Lightning's jaw jumped again. "Just like DeWitt."
United States Senator Janice Dewitt, recently deceased. Victim or accomplice in a deadly, high-stakes game of espionage. It was OMEGA's job to find out which.
"What's Grant's connection to the target?"
"We haven't found one. We're still running her through the computers. If she and the target crossed paths anytime in the past, we'll smoke it out." Ace's eyes cut to the screen. "Maybe Wolf will have some luck on his end."
"He'd better," Lightning said, grimly. "We're fast running out of time. Tell him to make contact with Grant and nose out her game."
Ace flicked the switch on the console that put him in instant contact with Special Agent Rafe Blackstone, code name Wolf.
Wolf acknowledged Lightning's instructions, even as he kept the woman lined up in his scope. She'd lowered her oversize sunglasses just long enough for him to capture her image and transmit it instantly to OMEGA. The glasses were in place again, shielding her face, but he had her features imprinted on his brain. What he didn't have were answers to the questions her presence raised.
What the hell was she doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Alone. On foot. In the blazing sun. He tapped an impatient toe while a Hummer rattled down from the hacienda in answer to her call of a few moments ago.
The figure stretched out beside Wolf cocked his head. "Sí?"
"Check the road from town. See if the woman has someone waiting for her."
With a nod, Special Agent Paulo Mendoza stuffed a pair of miniaturized but very high-powered binoculars into his shirt pocket and scuttled backward until he'd dropped below the line of sight of the hacienda's high-tech security cameras. Crouched low, he used the cover of prickly creosote and cactus to circle the base of the hill where he and Wolf had set up their surveillance. The only sound to mark his passage was a faint rattle of his boots on loose shale.
He returned mere moments later. "I spotted a car pulled over to the side of the road about a mile back. A rental, with the hood up."
Was it a ploy? A trick to gain entry to the heavily guarded hacienda? If so, it had worked. Wolf's stomach tightened as Grant climbed into the backseat of the dusty Hummer.
This had to be the rottenest vacation ever!
Forcing a smile, Nina declined her host's invitation to stay for tea on the tiled terrace overlooking the Sea of Cortez. She was hot and sweaty and in no mood for nice. Even with someone as urbane as the silver-maned expatriate whose men had just radioed in to say they'd reattached the fuel line that had shaken loose in Nina's rental.
"Thanks," she said with a smile, "but walking a mile in the sun took all the starch out of me. I'd better head back to town."
"Are you sure?" Sebastian Cordell's smile gleamed white against his deep tan. "It's not often such charming company is stranded almost at the gates of my hacienda."
"Some other time, perhaps."
"I shall hold you to that." Bowing, he kissed her hand with Old World graciousness. "My men will drive you to your car."
Nina winced as she traded the breeze-cooled shade of the portico for another blast of sun. With a nod to the muscled-up guard holding the Hummer's door, she climbed into the passenger seat.
Her escort's all-too-visible shoulder holster had sent her back a step when he'd first climbed out of his vehicle and asked her business. Tough Guy hadn't appeared the least bit sympathetic to her plight either. He'd checked inside her tote—for hidden weapons, she'd realized belatedly—then demanded to see some ID before he let her get anywhere close to the frigid air blasting from the Hummer interior. Sweat coursing between her breasts, Nina had handed over her wallet.
Not the smartest move, she admitted in retrospect, but this disaster was only the latest in a string of events that had thrown her off stride. The first was getting unengaged from the fiancé she'd discovered had tapped into her computer without her knowledge or consent and tried to milk the business connections she'd worked so hard to establish over the years. Connections that had helped transform her medical data digitization venture into a thriving enterprise with multimillion-dollar contracts.
You would think her employees would understand why she'd put her bruised heart into storage and devoted every waking hour to work. But no! Her entire staff, from her bossy executive assistant to the pimply adolescent who delivered the mail, had threatened to resign en masse if she didn't get out of the office and decompress, for God's sake!
So she had to fly down to Baja California. Had to check into an exclusive seaside resort. Had to twiddle her thumbs and force herself to vegetate by the pool for two days until a need to do something—anything—propelled her to jump in a rental car and drive out to view the remote seaside village her guidebook had touted as a "must see."
Then her rental car had to break down out there among the cactus and sun-baked hills. Where, she discovered, not a single bar popped up on her cell phone. Probably because she'd forgotten to charge the damn thing!
Thank God for the hacienda she'd spotted after a hot, dusty trek—and that the problem with her rental was so easily fixed. All she wanted now was a plunge in the pool at her resort, a frosty margarita, and some of that decompression time her staff insisted she needed.
Bracing herself for another blast of heat, Nina climbed out of the Hummer and thanked the two men who'd been sent to check the car. They sported shoulder holsters, too. Sebastian Cordell took his personal security seriously.
She fished a wad of pesos out of her straw tote, but the two men waved away the tip. Stuffing the pesos back in her bag, Nina thanked them again and slid behind the wheel. A dusty half hour later she hit the roundabout on the outskirts of Cabo San Lucas.
By then, a plunge in the pool had dropped well down her list of priorities. Her resort was another twenty minutes away. Her parched throat cried for something cold and wet—now! With that icy margarita in mind, she whipped the wheel and exited the roundabout. A screech of tires had her wincing and offering an apology to the vehicle that had pulled into the circle behind her.
Luck was with her. She made only one wrong turn in Cabo's narrow streets before she found the multistory parking garage that served the inner harbor. The lower floors were full, but she zipped into an empty space on the fourth floor. Locking the rental car, she took the elevator down to the paved walkway leading to the marina.
According to her trusty guidebook, Cabo's protected inner harbor attracted sailboats and yachts from all over the world. A forest of tall silver masts validated that claim and acted as beacons to the restaurants, shops and bars lining the marina. Happy hour was in full swing Nina noted as she approached the crowded center. Lively salsa and mariachi music filled the air and souvenir hawkers had turned out en masse to capture the lucrative tourist trade.
She escaped most of the salesmen, but one particularly persistent youngster glued himself to her side. Flashing a grin, he flipped back a sleeve to display a skinny forearm banded with shiny bangles.
"Hola, senorita! You buy a bracelet from me, yes? "
"These very good quality silver. From Taxco."
Right. Uh-huh. If those bangles were products of Mexico's fabled silver mines, she was Angelina Jolie.
"They're very nice," she replied diplomatically, "but I don't wear silver."
"Very good quality," he chorused again, twisting off a braided band. "Here, you try."
"No. Gracias. No."
"You try! You try!"
He grabbed her arm and shoved the braided band at her clenched fist.