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Friday, September 5, 2008
West of the Dominican Republic
Secret Service Agent Lia Charles lay in a thicket of mangrove trees surrounding a ramshackle cabin thirty miles off the coast. The cabin had a palm thatch roof that sloped low over the porch, so at night it blended with the surrounding jungle. The building served as the base of operations for a small cadre of rebel soldiers led by political revolutionary Armand Magliore.
Though night had fallen, the oppressive heat and humidity had not. Lia inhaled; the air was hot, heavy and thick, pushing its way down her throat and into her lungs. Sweat ran down her sides, back and arms, causing her camouflage BDUs to stick to her skin. She briefly fantasized about an air-conditioned hotel room with a shower, a clean bed and a mini-fridge stocked with ice-cold beers.
First things first, she reminded herself.
From the deep cover of jungle, she observed the cabin through her military-issue night-vision goggles. The base camp had been under surveillance by her special ops team for the past six days. During that time, they had observed approximately nineteen soldiers armed with enough AK-47s and Uzis and RPG-2 grenade launchers to fortify a small army. From sunup to sundown, the men had arrived in dusty, open-topped jeeps and departed in what appeared to be four-hour shifts.
But on this particular night, the camp was deserted.
"Damn it," Lia swore softly under her breath.
There was a faint rustling in the bushes behind her. She tensed, then relaxed as she was joined by Matt "Dutch" Connelly, one of the six members of her team, returning from hisreconnaissance of the lowland area of the jungle.
Dutch, a Navy SEAL, was built like an NFL linebacker big, burly, but surprisingly quick and agile. He and Lia had worked together for five years. Dutch, unlike many of his ex-military comrades, didn't subscribe to the mind-set that women don't belong on the front lines of battle. He'd always treated Lia as an equal. If he had any reservations about her role as team leader, he hid them well.
Lia began her Secret Service career as an anti-counterfeiting grunt in Financial Crimes. After distinguishing herself in there, she had been transferred to the protection detail, where she became responsible for protecting foreign heads of state and other visiting dignitaries. Her fluency in six foreign languagesArabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Italian and Spanish made her a natural choice for these assignments. It hadn't hurt that she also possessed a black belt in aikido and had graduated at the top of her class from an elite military academy for girls.
At twenty-eight, Lia was already considered one of the best agents ever to be recruited by the Secret Service. Her superior fighting skills combined with a razor-sharp mind and the innate ability to remain cool under pressure had earned her the respect of agents twice her age.
But what her colleagues didn't know about her was that she could also read minds.
Lia had spent most of her life trying to avoid physical contact with others to keep from invading their private thoughtswhich meant her love life was virtually nonexistent. But she had to admit that the gift had its perks. For example, she didn't have to speculate about whether or not the grinning auto mechanic was trying to rip her off. All she had to do was shake his hand and intercept his thoughts. She didn't have to wonder if a rude waitress had spit in her food to get even with her for sending it back as unsatisfactory; she'd know the moment she "accidentally" brushed against the waitress's bare arm as she set the plate on the table. And nowhere had Lia's psychic ability proved more useful than in her line of work. In some cases, being able to read a suspect's mind during an interrogation had made the difference between setting a guilty man free or detaining an innocent one.
Lia's military training gave her the clearance to participate in clandestine assignments that took her beyond the scope of the protection detail. One week ago, she had been summoned to the office of Bill McManus, assistant director of the Office of Protective Operations. She was briefed on her latest assignment, which was to lead a covert special operations unit into the jungles of Muwaiti, a war-ravaged Afro-French province in the Caribbean. Her mission was to extract revolutionary leader Armand Magliore from Muwaiti and escort him safely to the U.S., where, in ten days, he was scheduled to testify before the United Nations about a high-level assassination plot devised by his government.
Magliore had been a fearless, loyal soldier in the Muwaitian army until the assassination of the much-beloved president ushered in a new regime. President Alexandre Biassou had wasted no time establishing himself as a corrupt, ruthless dictator who disposed of anyone who dared to defy him. From innocent civilians to members of his own political party, no one was spared from his brutality.
Which made Armand Magliore something of a legend among his people.
He'd not only risked death and dismemberment by defecting from the Muwaitian army two years ago, but then he'd formed an underground resistance movement. Over the past year, he had led demonstrations and violent revolts against the government, amassing powerful enemies who would stop at nothing to keep him from leaving the country alive.
Which was what made the utter stillness of the base camp that night so unsettling to Lia.
Where are Magliore's men? she wondered.
When Magliore first brokered a deal with the United Statespolitical asylum for his family in exchange for his testimony before the UNhe'd been instructed not to alter his routine in any way that would arouse the suspicion of President Biassou and his mercenaries, who'd been vigilantly monitoring the revolutionary leader. On the date of his extraction, Magliore and his resistance fighters were to report to the remote cabin as usual and remain there until the arrival of Lia and her tactical unit. Once Magliore was safely in custody, his men were to disband and go into hiding for their own protection.
But where the hell were they? Had Biassou's hired assassins gotten to them first?
"All clear," Dutch whispered, as he resumed his position on the muddy forest floor beside Lia. Dressed in identical camo gear, he trained his night-vision binoculars on the silent cabin. "Any movement yet?"
Lia shook her head. "It's quiet." She frowned. "Too quiet."
"Think we're walking into an ambush?"
Lia's frown deepened. Without answering, she scanned the thick jungle canopy shrouded in darkness and mist. The four remaining members of her team were strategically hidden in the surrounding brush, watching the camp's perimeter, awaiting her signal to advance.
During childhood hunting trips, Lia's father, a retired foreign service officer, had taught her to look from the corner of her eye for improved night vision, as well as to "see" with her other senses.
Reading minds won't help you much out here in the wild, he'd told her. It's just you against nature.
Lia listened now for the approach of enemy footsteps, swift and stealthy, but all she heard were the distinct night calls of exotic birds and the raucous wing-beats of mosquitoes and other nocturnal insects. Nearby a large snake curled around the lower branches of a tree eyed them suspiciously, but made no move to attack.
Not that Lia was concerned. The only kind of predators she needed to worry about were on foot.
Keeping her gaze trained on the cabin, Lia reached inside her field pack and pulled out a satellite phone and her GPS tracking device. Three earlier attempts to connect with the command post had failed, so she was relieved when at last she heard a crisp, familiar voice on the other line.
"We've been waiting for your call."
"I couldn't get a good signal," Lia said.
"What is your position?"
Lia rattled off the latitude and longitude coordinates from her GPS.
The high-tech surveillance systems used by the U.S. military, CIA, Secret Service and other intelligence agencies had been designed to minimize casualties in dangerous rescue missions such as these. From a height of 40,000 feet and a distance of 150 miles, the radar systems could detect a human being under cloud cover on the forest floor or inside an underground bunker.
"We have one body inside the cabin," came the report.
"Yes. And you may have company soon. I count twenty bodies moving in your direction."
"Negative. Judging by the rate of approach, I'd say there are three vehicles."
"Fifteen miles. You'd better"
The satellite connection fizzled.
But Lia was already on her feet and hefting her M16 rifle. As Dutch followed her lead, she clicked her three-way radio. "It's showtime, boys."
They erupted from the deep cover of jungle and sprinted across the clearing toward the dark cabin. Lia led the way up to the porch. Beneath the sheltering overhang of the palm thatch roof, she held up two fingers, signaling that two of her men should stand guard outside.
Dutch kicked the locked front door, and with a loud splintering crack, it crashed inward. Leading with her M16, Lia swept into the cabin. It was pitch-black and as silent as a tomb.
At her signal, Dutch and the others separated to search the premises, moving soundlessly from room to room to check for trouble from alternate vantage points. Lia figured that Magliore was hiding somewhere, keeping himself out of sight just in case Biassou's mercenaries arrived before her team.
Or maybe he's not hiding. Maybe he's hurt, or dead.
Moving slowly and stealthily, Lia advanced farther inside the cabin. Her night-vision goggles transformed everything into a world of green phosphor and shadows. The timber walls were covered with old maps, charts and diagrams, and a shortwave radio sat on a small table near the window, the lone item of furniture in the main room.
As Lia rounded the corner to another room, she felt a prickle of awareness on the back of her neck. She whirled around just as a dark, masked figure dropped from an opening in the beamed ceiling and landed on the floor with the agility of a panther. Before she could react, the crouching menace swung his leg in a roundhouse kick that knocked the M16 cleanly from her hand. The rifle flew from her grip and was snatched up in midair as if it weighed no more than a plastic water gun.
With an androit twist of her body, Lia delivered a high, powerful kick that caught the right side of her opponent's face. He grunted, his head snapping backward. Not missing a beat, Lia kicked again, but this time he anticipated her move. Without releasing the M16, he caught her leg at the height of the kick and pulled her other leg out from under her. She fell to the floor, momentarily stunned by his speed and dexterity.
He wasted no time, giving her no opportunity to recover. Standing above her, he jabbed the butt of the rifle at her head. Lia rolled quickly to her side, evading the vicious blow. He swung downward again and she rolled away, onto her back, narrowly escaping the second jab.
With lightning-quick reflexes, she reached for the 9mm clipped to her waist and pointed the gun between his eyes.
"Drop the weapon!" she shouted above the clamor of heavily booted feet pounding in their direction. She repeated the command in French.
Her assailant hesitated, his head tipped slightly to one side as he regarded her through the narrow slits in his black mask. He seemed a little surprised.
"Who are you?" he demanded in English.
Despite the perilous situation, Lia couldn't help noticing the deep, smoky timbre of his voice, tinged with the lazy lilt of the island. He was over six feet tall, solid power and muscle covered in black from head to toe.
"I'm not going to ask you again," Lia said, low and controlled. "Drop the weapon."
When he continued watching her in silence, her finger tightened on the trigger. "Don't try anything stupid. You're outnumbered."
He sent an unhurried glance over his shoulder. He seemed unfazed by the three M16s pointed unerringly at the back of his head. From behind the mask he chuckleda low, husky rumble that made Lia's belly clench. "It appears that I am outnumbered."
Unnerved by her body's reaction to him, Lia said tersely, "Put the gun on the floor, then slide it toward me. Slowly."
When he had complied and stood with his hands behind his head, his long legs braced apart, Dutch quickly patted him down for weapons. He confiscated a Glock 10mm, a 9mm with a sixteen-round clip, an AK-47 and a .45 caliber pistol.
Lia holstered her own Glock and slung the strap of her M16 over her shoulder, then sprang nimbly to her feet, aware of the minutes ticking by. The radar system had detected three vehicles fifteen miles from their location. If her team was to make it back through the jungle for their rendezvous with the chopper, they would have to leave very soon.
Every time Lia went on these assignments, she took great pains to conceal her femininity, though even a loose T-shirt and cargo pants still managed to accentuate her lithe, curvaceous figure. Her body armor concealed her frame under her camo gear, while the helmet she wore obscured her exotic features and long black hair, knotted tightly at the back of her head.
As Dutch shone his small but powerful NiCad light into the room, Lia removed her military-issue Special Forces helmet, complete with night-vision goggles and headlamp, and tucked it underneath her arm. Guided by Dutch's light, she walked over to their captive and unceremoniously ripped off his mask.
The face that stared back at her was the same one that appeared in the dossier she'd received last week, but nothing could have prepared Lia for the searing intensity of amber-colored eyes that reminded her of a tiger's, heavy-lidded and rimmed with a thick fringe of black lashes. The photographs had revealed a darkly handsome man with hard cheekbones, a square jaw and mahogany skin, but the camera lens had not captured the overwhelming sensuality of his mouth, the lush fullness of his bottom lip.
Lia cleared her throat, feeling strangely off balance. "Armand Magliore, I presume?"
He nodded once. Those feral eyes watched her with a kind of probing intensity that made her want to place her hands over vital body parts, as if he could see through her body armor.
"And you are?"
She quickly recovered her composure. "Special Agent Lia Charles. This is my team. We're here to"
She broke off in midsentence at the expression on Magliore's face. As she watched, he looked incredulously at her and the other three agents.