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By Loreth White
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScott Armstrong drove off the ferry ramp with a clunk. He felt like he'd just been spat from the belly of a vibrating metal beast.
He was back on Canadian soil. A bloody island of it - trapped on all sides by the placid, steely waters of the Pacific Northwest. He couldn't feel more claustrophobic if he tried.
He glanced at the golden-haired dog at his side as he maneuvered the truck through congested ferry traffic. The retriever grinned foolishly at him with a lolling tongue, thunking its tail on the seat.
What in hell had Rex been thinking, giving him a dog as part of his cover? He didn't need the stupid hound any more than he needed this lame-duck mission. He was being put out to pasture and he damn well knew it. Scott clenched his teeth. He'd bloody well show them he still had what it took, blown-out knee and all.
He tightened his hand on the wheel, shifted gears sharply, wincing as an all-too-familiar shaft of pain shot up his leg.
He swore, turned onto the coast road and followed the exit signs to Haven.
The sun was dipping behind the mountains of Vancouver Island, throwing farmland into evening shadow. Beyond the fields the sea shimmered like beaten silver. The bright light made his head hurt.
Scott wound down the window, letting the crisp spring wind whip at his hair, clear the fog in his brain. Honey wriggled closer toward him along the cab seat, chomping her jaws, testing the breeze, dribbling with excitement.
"At least one of us is happy," he muttered, elbowing the dog back over to the passenger side.
Honey's tail stilled for an instant. Scott felt a pang of guilt. "It's okay, girl," he muttered. "You do what you gotta do." The wriggling and rhythmic thunking resumed. A warm splotch of drool seeped through the denim of his jeans. Scott sucked air deliberately, deeply, into his lungs, straining for an elusive sense of calm. This might just end up testing him to his limit. And Lord knew, he was pretty much out of tolerance for life in general.
He ignored the wet drool on his thigh and tried to focus on the task ahead. Apart from skimming the facts and checking for directions to his rental house, Scott hadn't had the time or the privacy on the ferry to study the dossier Bellona Channel boss Rex Logan had handed him the second his plane had touched down in Vancouver.
All Scott knew was that he had to watch Dr. Skye Van Rijn. Some brilliant entomologist geek with possible bio-criminal or terrorist links to a disease devastating the cattle industry south of the border, one that was rapidly spreading to humans. But the link between Dr. Skye Van Rijn and the Rift Valley Fever currently sweeping the Southwest corner of the United States was tenuous at best. Even Rex had admitted that the bug doctor had pretty much checked out.
Yeah. Lame-duck mission if he ever saw one. He should be where the action is, not in some bucolic village on a vague fishing expedition for a possible bit player in a game that had snared global headlines and rocked stock markets.
Scott hit the wheel, swore again.
Surveillance was a junior agent's beat.
His beat was out there, in the international field, in the wilds of the Borneo jungle, under the relentless sun of India's Thar desert, in the hot red sands of Namibia. Not here. Not in the stifling, dripping, cool, gray stillness of a place he'd once called home.
He didn't have a home. Not anymore. But right now he had no choice. He'd almost lost his leg.
And his mind.
It was this, or a desk job, while he recuperated. And he'd rather die than push a pen behind a desk.
He snorted at the irony of his situation. Because his cover was that of a full-time paper-shuffler and pen-pusher. He was to be Scott McIntyre. A writer. A futurist. It would put him at liberty, Rex had said, to ask questions, to get the doctor's views on things like macroeconomics, social trends, globalization, American imperialism.
And Honey, he'd added, would help break the ice.
It was almost dark by the time he found the narrow farm road, picked out the house number on a faded green mailbox. Grass and weeds grew up between the rutted tire tracks that constituted the driveway. The truck jounced up to the front porch. Honey yipped with glee.
"Oh, shut up, dog!" She made him feel like a redneck arriving on the farm in his beater. All he needed was a shotgun behind the seat and load of beer cans in the back.
Scott pulled to a stop, threw open his door. Honey dug claws into his thighs and scrambled over him, promptly relieving herself in the grass. Scott scratched his head. "Okay. Sorry, pooch. Guess you gonna want food, too, huh? Let's see what Rex has packed for supplies."
He grabbed his old, gnarled walking stick, hesitated, fingering the ancient knots in the smooth, durable wood as if they'd somehow yield an answer. A reason for it all.
The dog yipped again, jerking him back to the present. Scott shrugged off the sensation of buried memories scratching at locked mental doors, climbed out of the truck and tentatively tested his leg on the ground. It felt okay. Better than it had in weeks. He could almost put all his weight on it. "Small mercies," he muttered as he limped up the porch steps, pushed open the front door.
He flipped on the lights.
Honey's paws skittered over wooden floors as she explored the premises, butt wiggling in a crazy hula of excitement.
Scott checked out the rooms. More than he'd ever need. The kitchen was big and airy. And the windows looked out onto Dr. Van Rijn's neighboring property.
"Sweet," he told Honey. "I can wash the dishes and watch the Bug Lady at the same time. Ain't life grand. Come, let's see if we can find you some doggy chow before it gets too dark out."
Scott counted five large cardboard boxes in the back of the truck. One was marked Computer, another Books. Yet another was marked Kitchen. He sliced the tape on the kitchen box with his army knife and tore back the cardboard. In the fading light he could make out a box of cereal, some tins, and a humungous bag of dog kibble.
Then he cursed Rex.
How in hell was he supposed to carry all this crap with a walking stick in one hand?
His buddy had probably done this on purpose. Just to make sure he turned to someone for help. Just to make sure he met some locals.
"There's no way I'm going to be reduced to begging someone to help me carry a couple of boxes," he mumbled. Honey circled his feet with excitement.
Scott dropped the tailgate with a clunk, maneuvered the kitchen box to the end. Dropping his cane, he used both hands to grab the box. He flexed his knees, slowly lifted the box, trying to transfer most of the weight through to his core ab muscles, shoulders and thighs and onto his good leg. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and took a few steps toward the porch.
Excerpted from Safe Passage by Loreth White Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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