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Run Among Thorns
By Anna Louise Lucia
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Anna Louise Lucia
All right reserved.
Chapter One The video footage was from a CCTV camera perched above a courtyard. It gave a perfect view of the square yard, with the office buildings around the edges. They were new buildings, with little logos by the doors; a few businesses in rented premises. Only one logo was really recognisable, indicating a small office of the local National Park Service.
The film was black and white. In the corner of the courtyard grey geraniums flowered in grey pots.
In the middle of the scene was a knot of people. A row of people on their knees, hands behind their back. Four men and three women. One of the men was shaking so violently it was plainly visible; one of the women was sobbing.
In front of the kneeling line were three other men. They were dressed in dark clothes, with ski masks. The man in front was tall, huge, holding a massive handgun, and waving it at the kneeling people, in their suits and office haircuts. His body language was taut, violent, and he stepped back and forth jerkily, shoulders heaving, mouth working.
Behind him, to the left and to the right, were two others. One was smaller than the others, and slight. He held another pistol and looked around rapidly and nervously. The last man stood still, holding a semiautomatic across his chest.
In the video, the shouting man approached one of the kneeling men, who was shaking his head urgently and continuously. The big man pointed the gun at him. It jerked. The kneeling man clutched at his stomach as he keeled over and thrashed on the ground, his mouth stiffly wide open, his throat working.
The rest of the hostages wavered, as if buffeted by a strong wind, and the sobbing woman covered her ears with her hands. The woman next to her, the one with the long, curly hair tied back in a ponytail, reached out and laid an arm along the other woman's shoulders, leaning close and comforting.
The big man jumped forward, mouth a thin line, and grabbed the long-haired woman by her ponytail, hauling her to her feet and out to the front of the line. He jabbed the gun into her back and she stumbled, long white fingers grabbing at the hand that fisted in her hair, her face screwed up in pain.
He held her still and turned back to the hostages.
He was waving the gun and shouting again, indicating the man writhing on the ground, threatening the man who would have gone to help him.
The long-haired woman stood very, very still.
Then she moved.
Spinning on the ball of one foot, she turned under the arm of the big man, sliding one slim hand down his arm to his gun hand. Once behind him she bent her knee into the back of his, making his leg buckle, making him turn. Holding his hand on the gun, tightening his finger on the trigger.
The small man shot first, and the big man jerked and quaked as the bullets struck him in the chest. Then the woman moved his arm with hers and shot the small man in the throat. In the black-and-white footage, the blood fountained high and dark.
As the semiautomatic began firing, she dropped the big man, snatching his pistol. She dived, rolled. Away from the hostages. A little line of dust spouts followed her, lancing from the spout of white flame that leapt from the muzzle of the other man's gun. In a flurry of dust, she rose on one elbow and fired. The man with the semiautomatic staggered and fell backwards against the office exterior, forehead suddenly stamped with a black blot.
She got to her feet carefully. The big man was still moving, reaching into his clothes.
She shot him in the head.
Then she stood there, perfectly still, while the others knelt in shock before her. She looked up and stared into the CCTV camera. Her face was totally blank.
On the time readout of the footage, less than twenty seconds had passed.
A man whose security tag identified him as John Dawson stepped before the big video screen and looked back at the men seated in rows of chairs rising up the steps of the small amphitheatre. He lifted a hand and someone stopped the video, turned on the lights.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, "That's what we have." He glanced down at the clipboard he held, lifting the sheets one by one. In the chairs, his audience began to murmur and shuffle the pages in the dossiers they'd been given.
"You have witness statements, backgrounds on all present, information on the businesses with offices there. On the face of it, it's fairly simple. Charles William MacGreggor and Barry James MacGreggor ran an illegal hunting and guiding operation about to be prosecuted on evidence supplied by the National Park Service. They went where they weren't supposed to go, and killed what they weren't supposed to kill. There was likely to be a heavy fine and potentially a custodial sentence also. It seems, gentlemen, that they were not very nice people. Craig Watson was a hunter who ran parties on their land, and he was also a convicted felon. Assault and armed robbery."
John let the papers fall, and glanced up. "But. And it's a big but. None of that explains why Ms. Jenny Waring thought this a good opportunity to demonstrate some of the finest offensive moves in close combat ever filmed. For real."
He turned back to the screen, and someone brought up a freeze-frame of the last shot, with the white-faced woman staring at the camera.
"We're not interested in the MacGreggor brothers and Watson. That's with local law enforcement and out of our role-a simple case of intimidation gone wrong. This agency is concerned with Waring only. We know next to nothing about her. British Intelligence will be sending us what they have within the hour, but I get the impression they've been caught on the hop, too. Who is she? Why is she here? What was she doing on an exchange programme with the National Park? That's what we need to know, gentlemen. And that's what you need to find out."
John turned back from the screen. One of the men raised an arm.
"Where is Waring now?"
John gave a small, thin smile. "She's here at this facility. We picked her up from local police custody, within eight hours of the incident. She's been in interrogation here for the past thirty-six hours, but at the moment she's sticking to her cover story. She was here on a temporary visa, purely on a work placement exchange. There's no one local who knows much, either."
The video flickered off again, and the man called John looked around at the men in briefing. "We were forced to rest her on medical advice, but we have plans in motion to break through that cover stat. In the meantime, you're on background checks. As much information as possible. As soon as possible. This one caught the Agency with its pants down, gentlemen, and unless we get some answers soon, it's not going to be pretty. We're supposed to know about people like this before they spring into action. We didn't. That's unacceptable. Get to it."
Later, John returned to the briefing room. Someone had set the video clip on loop, and it played in the dark, Jenny Waring moving, pirouetting, lunging, shooting. John went closer to the screen, until he distorted the edge of the projection and the falling body fell on his sleeve. He slanted a glance at the figure in the back corner of the room, light glinting on his glass as he took a drink.
"What do you think, McAllister?" John asked.
The figure in the shadows took another long, slow swallow from the glass. "She's trained, that's certain. I don't think anyone has natural reactions like that. And it's rare for someone with no experience of firearms to be able to execute something like that and overcome the social morals of the situation. If anything that's what doesn't fit."
"If you have a trained professional who might betray their training, it's safer to provide a reason for that expertise. Make them a competing marksman, or a member of a gun club. It's strange she has no alibi."
John grunted. "So, you taking it on?"
Another swallow. The silence lengthened and John fidgeted with his clipboard. When McAllister finally spoke, there was a trace of amusement in his voice.
"Yeah. I'll take her on."
* * *
"He's generally known as a trainer, sir. Unaffiliated with any particular agency, but endorsed by them all." John Dawson glanced at the file in his hand, then back to the bulky, grey-haired man sitting behind the imposing desk. Arnold Davids was his boss, head of the facility, and today he was uncomfortable.
It wasn't the fidgeting, exactly. Davids always fiddled with the papers on his desk, or with his gold watch. Usually irritated by the mannerisms, today John was feeling a little more sympathetic. Because the other man in the room-Jeremy Groven-made John nervous, too.
"Go on," said Groven, now, sitting back at ease in one of the leather armchairs against the left-hand wall.
John glanced at Davids, who nodded. "Well, he's rather more than a trainer. His background is hazy, but we know he's from somewhere in Maine originally. We can attach him to the Marines and to the CIA via an advisory post. He's turned up obliquely in a number of international conflicts, and worked for a while for the NSA. I suppose now he's what you'd call freelance, sir. He could command just about any fee he chooses to name, but what he does request is surprisingly reasonable. He has houses in Maine and Toronto, and we believe a couple of properties in Europe. Nothing ostentatious. We believe that's more about being global, than an acquisition of assets. He lives quite a while on the road, too, buys a new pickup every other year.
"We use him regularly for special training and occasionally in the field," he continued. "He coordinates hostage recovery like no one on the planet and has a flair for debriefing agents and interrogating-"
"We've read the file, Dawson," drawled Groven.
John paused. It was a damn big file, and Davids frequently relied on him to summarise. It was John's job, after all, to find-and deliver-the information they wanted. He sent his boss a measuring look without acknowledging Groven's interruption. "He brought all the information out of the Petersen debacle, and broke Wilson Chen in 2001," he said.
"I think, sir, on the balance of the information, almost certainly not." John allowed a hint of humour to creep into his voice, but the man behind the desk wasn't responding. He cleared his throat.
"How's he do it?" asked his boss.
"It's the McAllister Method, sir," he replied with a trace of wry smile. "He just stays as close to the subject as humanly possible, tries to create an emotional contact, make sure there's no downtime, no time to relax. After a while the deception becomes too burdensome and the subject either breaks down or gives up. It plays on the whole Stockholm syndrome thing, I suspect."
"Sounds extremely ... unprofessional."
"That may be, sir. However, he is the best."
"And you've given him his briefing?" Groven asked.
John went to put his file on the corner of the desk and thought better of it, holding it tucked against his left forearm instead. "Yes, sir. The briefing shows that she didn't appear in any of our prelim studies, not any of our potentials list, not even the Professor Birkby File. It begs the question, if she got through, how many others did? We've made it plain that her existence threatens the validity of all our work here, sir. We want to know who trained her, why she's here at all. And what was so important one sunny morning that she had to blow her cover. It's his job to find out."
"Good," said Groven, with satisfaction.
"Will it be enough?" Davids asked.
"If you're asking if he'll do what we want ... then, yes, sir, he will."
He saw that Groven was smiling. "Good," he said, again.
* * *
McAllister stood staring, playing with a cigarette he had no intention of lighting.
From the high windows looking down into the interrogation room, he could see clearly. He impassively watched the knot of men gathered around the subject.
They were still working on her, but she was either acting to within an inch of her life, or she was too damn tired to hear at all. He caught glimpses of her as the interrogation team moved around the table, sometimes leaning over her, sometimes shaking her shoulder, slapping their hand on the desk in front of her, pulling at the back of her chair.
Waring had her arms wrapped around herself, hunched over the desk, unblinking gaze fixed on the metal tabletop. Now and then she moved almost imperceptibly, rocking back and forth.
An impatience to have her in his care made him restless and irritable. He flicked the cigarette through a high arc into a metal bin across the room, and braced his hand on the glass by his head, leaning in to see more closely. Now he had made a decision to take on the job, he wanted to get on with it. He wanted her in his sole care, away from that bunch of goons down there. Idiots, all of them, a pack of dogs fighting over a bone.
As he watched, Dawson entered the room below, carrying a clipboard and a glass of water. He spoke to the goons, called them off, emptying the room in seconds. Waring didn't even seem to notice the others had gone. Dawson tucked the clipboard under his arm and approached the table from behind her, holding the glass like it was a bomb about to go off. He seemed hesitant.
McAllister's hand on the window balled into a fist. "Come on," he muttered. "Don't screw up now, office boy." He intended to get Waring out of there in a hurry, and with minimal fuss and red tape. He wanted her to walk out of there, with him, like they were going on an ordinary trip, nice and easy.
Which was why Dawson was about to drug her for him.
Dawson reached over her shoulder and set the glass down on the table. She stirred then, turning suddenly to lay a hand on Dawson's arm. McAllister saw her lips move, shaping one word clearly. Dawson's bent head was still.
Then he tugged his arm out from under her grip and backed away, leaving her in the room alone.
"Come on, baby," McAllister said. "You've got to be thirsty. They haven't given you anything to drink for the last twelve hours. Drink it up like a good girl."
He was conscious of a twist of tension inside him that wasn't usual for him at this stage in a job, but wondered at it only briefly.
Her eyes slid to the glass. She glanced back over her shoulder, and then wrapped shaking hands around the glass and drank deeply.
The door behind him clicked, and Dawson entered.
"McAllister," he looked at him. "You have everything you need?"
He turned back from the observation window and nodded. The office boy seemed to hold a lot of clout here, or at least a direct line to the people with clout.
"I believe so. You've provided the clothes? Her passport? Tickets?"
"Yes, sir," said John, nodding. "Documents are in your case in the truck, and everything else is in a holdall in the back." He sat down at a metal table, identical to the one Waring was hunched over in the interrogation room below, and invited McAllister to sit opposite him.
McAllister complied, grudgingly impressed by the organisation that had got him all his requirements in so short a space of time. He was getting far too used to having to deal with incompetence, and for some reason he just didn't want to explain why he needed everything he'd asked for today.
Passport for Jenny Waring. It is hard to prove kidnapping if you've handed in your passport yourself at the airport before getting on a plane for home.
New clothes for Jenny Waring. Well, she needed clothes. And he didn't want her getting comfortable in her own stuff.
Plane tickets to Glasgow, Scotland. Because he wanted to take her to his Galloway longhouse. The two-roomed cottage in the middle of nowhere would give her nowhere to run to. Nowhere to hide from him. And no interruptions.
He dragged his attention back to John again, who was speaking.
"Er ... Mr. McAllister? We're going to need a more, er, precise location. I can't just tell my superiors you're going to Scotland. They'll want more."
"Then tell them not to be greedy."
"I don't think ..."
"I'm not asking you to. I believed I had specified my conditions for involvement clearly. I take the subject to a location of my choice. I debrief the subject there, without interruptions. Revealing the precise location would compromise my privacy and negate the usefulness of solitude." And he'd just said more than he usually did, anyway.
"I, er ... I see, sir." John looked back down at the clipboard, pulled a sheaf of papers free, and pulled a pen from his pocket. "Then if you'll just sign here, sir, I'll confirm the transfer of funds to your account by phone."
McAllister hesitated, then leaned forward and made a large, flamboyant cross on the signatory line. He smiled.
John blinked at it. "Sir? I ..."
Excerpted from Run Among Thorns by Anna Louise Lucia Copyright © 2008 by Anna Louise Lucia. Excerpted by permission.
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