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Burge, happy whenever he got to order her around, pushed her through the green metal door at the far end of the cell block but didn't follow. What did they want with her now? She was on her guard, scanning the people ahead with suspiciona good basic stance for the incarcerated.
The sharp scent of bleach hit her nose. The room had gotten a scrub down that morning. Thank God, she hadn't been pulled for that job.
"Miss Jones." The greeting came from one of three men, outsiders, who stood at the head of the room. "Why don't you take a seat?"
One of the dozen or so harsh fluorescent lights above flickered as she went straight to the back, picking her way among white plastic chairs and folding tables that were set up classroom style for the elderly volunteer who came in twice a week to give GED classes. Three women waited there already, wearing the same orange jumpsuit that hung on Carly's figure. Clothes that marked them, set them apart. She would never wear orange again once she got out of here. Like most people in the place, she had a whole list of "never-agains."
She nodded to Anita and took in the unfamiliar girl next to her. The third woman she knew only by sight and fame. Gina Torno was in for murder and not particularly popular in cell block 3C. Rumor had it, before she'd gone bad, she'd been a cop.
"My name is Brant Law. I work for the FBI," said the man who'd greeted Carly by name earlier.
Her defenses, already up, threw a few extra dead bolts. The last time she had mingled with the FBI, they'd been storming her apartment. And this guy could have been the agency's poster boyblack suit, crisp white shirt, a face carved into cold professionalism.
She glanced again at the other women as she squirmed in her seat. Why were they here? Anita flashed a nervous smile. Carly acknowledged it with a small nod. She hadn't as a rule sought to make friends on the insideshe didn't belong with these peoplebut she didn't mind Anita Caballo. They had shared kitchen duty a couple of times. Anita had entertained the crew with some pretty funny Latina jokes.
"This is David Moretti, who will be providing legal assistance for you." The FBI guy, Law, introduced the tall dark-haired man on his right.
Moretti allowed a professional smile, his stance relaxed. He wore a suit, but it wasn't like the FBI agent's. This one was sharp and expensive, the kind fashion models wore in the magazines people donated to the prison. He was the hottest guy she'd seen in six years, not that he had much competition considering the male guards.
The ruling feeling when she looked at him was mistrust. He was a lawyer. Her own loser lawyer had let her down big time.
"Nick Tarasov will be responsible for your training and safety," Law said, introducing the most intimidating of the three.
Training for what? She narrowed her eyes as she watched Tarasov. He stood with his legs apart, hands behind his back, commando style. He wore a black T-shirt, black cargo pants, combat boots and an expression that made her want to leave the room before things got unpleasant. His stance, the hard look on his face and his unblinking eyes transmitted but one messagethis one could be scary if he wanted to be.
None of the men said, " My pleasure," or "Good to meet you," as they were introduced. Jerks. Government men. To her, the two meant one and the same.
They hadn't broken her yet. They sure weren't going to do so now. She straightened her back and her chin came up a notch.
Law picked up a yellow folder from the desk and opened it. "Anita Caballo, embezzlement. Samantha Hanley, grand theft auto. Carly Jones, hacker. Gina Maria Torno, manslaughter." He looked up and at each of them in turn. "This is your lucky day."
Carly caught the young woman who had to be Samantha mouthing a four-letter word. Anita folded her hands in front of her. Gina's face pretty much reflected Carly's feelings: mistrust and skepticism. The first thing you learned in federal prison was not to believe in luck. If they had any luck at all, none of them would have been here in the first place.
"You were brought together based on your unique skills to form a team to perform a specific task. Miss Caballo's financial expertise, Miss Hanley's knowledge of various vehicles and locks, Miss Jones's experience with network security and Miss Torno's proficiency with weapons make you uniquely qualified for a very important mission."
"And that would be?, Gina cut in and gave the men an insolent glare. She was compact and tough as nails, with a short bob of mahogany hair and sharp brown eyes.
Who cares? Carly thought. She was doing no favors for the government. Forget it. Not after the bastards had locked her up and taken away any chance she'd ever had for a decent future. Justice had never entered her trial. It had been all about politicians wanting to show results to nudge up their approval ratings, using her high-profile case to score.
Law was watching Gina. "I'm not at liberty to discuss anything at this stage. I will not be able to Dana Marton 11
give you any particulars until you agree to participate."
That gave Carly pause.
But Gina was shooting back already. "What's in it for us?"
"If you succeed, the rest of your sentence will be suspended and your records cleared."
The four women sucked in air as one.
Carly swallowed a sudden rush of hope. Freedom. How many times had she daydreamed about that, thinking whatever she had to do, she would do it to get to the other side of these walls?
But not this. Not becoming the government's lackey.
"And if we don't succeed?, She found her voice. Regardless of whether she would even consider the offer on the table or not, she wanted to know all the tangents.
Law held her gaze. "At least you get out for a few weeks. And your willingness to cooperate would be taken into consideration at future appeals and parole hearings. The deal stands only if you all agree. If one person is out, it's off the table for everyone."
If they thought they could blackmail her with the others, get to work on her guilty conscience, they had another think coming. She barely knew these women. What did she care?
But the thought immediate freedom had got lodged in her brain, the possibility stinging her eyes. She was twenty-nine with four more years left of her sentence. She hadn't expected to get a chance to walk down a street until she was thirty-three.
"Do you have any questions?, The Italian-looking guy, the lawyer, what was his name? David Moretti. He stepped forward, all smooth and sinuous. His gaze hesitated on Samantha for a second or two.
Maybe he was having second thoughts as to whether that one could handle whatever the men had in mind. She looked at least a half-dozen years younger than Carly was, insolent stamped all over her, noncooperative there in the sneering set of her lips and her I-dare-you eyes.
"Can I ask if you're going to put the offer in writing? Do we get a chance to read it over?, Anita spoke up.
Moretti shook his head. "Due to the confidential nature of the mission, for your own safety, as little as possible will be documented."
That jolted her. Not that they wouldn't write the offer down, but the way it made this "mission" sounddangerous. Then a rapid succession of revelations made her go still.
She would get out, let free by the government. The deal would not be documented. She wouldn't have to sign papers to pledge anything. Whatever they asked of her had to be something clandestine, something they didn't want anyone to know about. So if she disappeared during this mission, what could they do?
Most likely, if she was reading this right, they couldn't even admit that she'd been working for them.
A new life, someplace far, far away where her record couldn't follow her. She could do some software developing, consult under another name. A normal life in the States was out of the question, no matter what. Even if she took the mission and they succeeded, even if her record was cleared, her case had been high profile enough, all over the media. Nobody would give her a second chance. She'd be flipping burgers at a fast-food joint for the rest of her life, at best. She should risk her life for that?
"So how long do we have to think about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?, Gina scoffed at the men.
Law glanced at his watch. "How about fifteen minutes? We'll let you discuss in private. Call out if you have any questions." He moved toward the door, the other two behind him.
"Is this a military mission, spying, assassination?, Gina kept at it. "Can you give us a clue?"
Law stopped and looked back. "Not at this stage, no."
Tarasov half turned as he stepped out, and Carly could swear he was looking right at her. Man, he was as serious as a life sentence.
Gina flashed a rude gesture when the door banged closed behind the men.
Carly couldn't agree more. "Got a load of that?, Samantha was still staring after them.
"They'd let us out," Carly said. Her brain seemed to be stuck on that thought, bringing up the list she kept in her diarythings she wanted to do once she was free, the big-ticket items like starting a whole new life and the small everyday stuff she missed. She pictured walking into a computer megastore and spending the day there. She wanted to go to a restaurant and choose her foodsteak and a knife sharp enough to cut it. She wanted to dance with a man, to be kissed until the memory of the last six miserable years floated away. She didn't want to not have sex again until she was thirty-three.
She could get out. Now. It didn't have to be about letting the government use her. She could use them.
"What do we have to lose?, she asked, the small measure of initial hope swelling, filling her to the brim, mixing with the excitement of facing a challenge.
"Have you ever seen that movie The Dirty Dozen?" Gina pinned her with a hard glare.
When she looked at youreally looked at you it wasn't that hard to believe that she'd knocked someone off.
Carly shook her head. From the way Samantha pulled up a black eyebrow, she figured the girl hadn't seen it either. Anita stared at her lap and didn't seem to be listening.
"During World War II, twelve convicted killers are given a chance to get out of prison. They are dropped behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis," Gina said.