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The moment the alarms went off in the cavernous twilight of the H.O.T. Watch Ops Center, a map of the Western Hemisphere flashed up on one of the three jumbo screens mounted high on the wall of the massive room. A red, electronic sunburst blinked ominously over Kingston, Jamaica, indicating that surveillance satellites had picked up an explosion.
"Say size and location of detonation," Navy Commander Brady Hathaway barked across the loud speakers into the tense silence.
One of the intelligence analysts on the floor replied tersely, "Knutsford Boulevard, Kingston. Looks like the Dred-Naught Dance Club. Initial estimate is upward of twenty sticks worth of TNT."
Brady sucked in his breath. That was a freaking big explosion. "Capacity of that club?" he asked.
Another tech replied in his headset, "Coming up now, sir."
A pause. "Fire code says six hundred. But knowing Jamaica, more like a thousand would be in there on a Saturday night at the height of the tourist season."
"Get me visual," he ordered, although no doubt the highly trained satellite technicians on the floor were already on that obvious next step.
"Visual from S-105 in thirty-four seconds," someone announced over the loudspeakers.
"Visual from S-22 in ninety-six seconds," another tech announced.
Not bad. Two satellites engaged in under two minutes. And S-105 carried the latest in high-tech digital cameras. If the bomber had stuck around to watch his work, H.O.T. Watch might just grab a facial image of the guy on their telemetry.
Although Kingston had its share of political turbulence, it wasn't one of the outright violent corners of the Caribbean. Likely there'd been a bunch of Americans in the club, though. And that meant U.S. government officials galore were about to breathe fire down his neck to produce an ID on the bomber.
It was going to be a long night.
Some hours laterit was hard to feel time passing in the underground facilitysomeone called his name. Brady looked up from his workstation on the edge of the floor and spied his civilian counterpart, Jennifer Blackfoot, gesturing to him to join her. The tall, slender Native American's dark eyes looked worried. He jogged up the metal stairs to join her on the observation deck looking out over the rows of technicians and analysts.
"What's up?" he asked without preamble. They'd worked together for nearly seven years and didn't need many words to communicate effectively.
"We got a facial hit," she replied.
"Good work." Wow. That was fast. There had been hundreds of faces outside the nightclub when the bomb blew, and thousands milling around the area within moments afterward.
She jerked her head to indicate they should step into the soundproof briefing room behind them. He followed her inside and the door sealed, making his ears pop lightly.
"Who did you spot?" he asked.
"A woman. Annika Cantori."
He frowned. "That name rings a bell."
Jennifer prompted, "Cruise ship hijacking five years ago. You sent in the Medusas to liberate the ship."
The memory clicked. A team of terrorists had taken over the cruise ship Grand Adventure and offloaded all the male crew and passengers, leaving behind only women and children. The Medusasan all-female Special Forces team had infiltrated the ship and ultimately killed the terrorists and freed the vessel. However, the Medusas had always been convinced they'd missed a female terrorist who'd been planted among the passengers to pass information to her male comrades.
After the hijacking, H.O.T. Watch had done an exhaustive analysis of the passengers and identified a woman named Annika Cantori as the likely female terrorist. She was one of the only passengers never to file an insurance claim against the cruise ship company, and she'd completely disappeared immediately after the hijacking, not to be seen or heard from since. H.O.T. Watch had performed multiple searches of credit card, banking, traffic, voter registration and even library data bases the world over looking for Annika, to no avail. She'd gone completely off the grid. Very suspicious, indeed.
His colleague flashed up a grainy picture of a woman on the white wall at the end of the room. As he watched, the picture refreshed itself several times, each time coming more sharply into focus as photo enhancement software did its magic on the image. Finally, a picture of a lean, hard-looking woman came into focus. Jennifer announced, "This image came from across the street from the Dred-Naught approximately fifty seconds before the bombing."
Another picture flashed up on the wall beside the first one of a woman in perhaps her late twenties. This photo was at a range of about twelve feet and unmistakable. "This one comes from our database of passengers on the Grand Adventure."
"The facial recognition program has made a positive ID. These two images are the same woman. Annika Cantori. Our mysteriously disappeared ship passenger."
"But now she's back?" Brady guessed.
"What did she do after the nightclub explosion?"
"She stayed. Watched the emergency response. Possibly was hanging around to get a preliminary body count for herself."
"Ballsy," he commented.
"It gets better," Jennifer replied grimly. "She hasn't even bothered to flee the Caribbean. She hopped a flight this morning to Grand Cayman Island."
"You think she's going to take a nice vacation on the beach to celebrate her success?" Brady asked skeptically.
"Doubtful. She strikes me as the type who'll keep going until someone catches her, or at least scares the bejeezus out of her and forces her back into hiding for a few years."
If Jennifer was right, this woman had to be stopped, and the sooner the better. Before she killed any more innocents. "How do you want to proceed?" Brady asked soberly.
"We need to get proof that she's the bomber. Find out what she's up to in the Caymans. I hesitate to try passive surveillance on her, though. I think she'd spot it. I'm thinking an infiltration of her cell is the way to go."
"Tricky business to run an infiltration on someone like her.
She's got to be as paranoid as hell. And based on last night, she's organized and intelligent. She'd smell an undercover man a mile away."
Jennifer smiled, although the expression owed more to wolflike aggression than good humor. "That's why I'm sending in a woman."
Logical. The Medusas were highly experienced operators and would leap at a chance to catch the fish who'd gotten away before. Still, they were military. "Annika may spot a Medusa, too. Particularly since she knows female Special Forces types exist in our military."
"And that would be why I'm not sending in a Medusa," she replied. A new photograph flashed up on the wall.
Brady jolted as the most beautiful woman he'd seen in years threw him a sultry smile guaranteed to melt any man's shorts. The phrase "flesh impact" came to mind. Beauty queen. Knockout. Kowabunga. "Whoa. Who's that?" he blurted.
"Eve Dupont. Her brother, Viktor, led the terrorist team that hijacked the Grand Adventure. I want to use her to get inside Annika's cell."
He frowned. "Does she have any training? How do you know she doesn't share her brother's rather extreme political views? Do you know if she'd even help us?"
"That's where you come in," Jennifer replied cryptically.
Huh? He wasn't even close to the right person to be involved with infiltrating a hard-core terrorist group. He looked military, he acted military and, frankly, impersonating a cold, calculating killer had never been his greatest strength as a field operator. Not to mention he didn't often go out on missions anymore. Every now and then he went out to supervise a particularly tricky operation, but he mostly left the heroics to the younger men and women in his special operations teams. At thirty-nine, he was starting to feel the long years of hard demands on his body.
He glanced back at the picture of Eve wearing only a skimpy bikini and a tan. Her legs were a mile long, and although she was slender, she filled out her bikini top impressively in open defiance of gravity. Her eyes were some pale color that glowed in contrast to her bronze skin, and her mane of wavy golden hair framed a face so stunningly beautiful his heart skipped a beat.
"She's some looker," he remarked lightly.
"Hence, my bringing this one to you. I don't have any male operatives I trust to work with this woman and not try to bed her. But you" Jennifer broke off.
Not liking where her logic was headed, Brady scowled. "But I what?" he demanded.
She shrugged. "I've never once seen a woman turn your head. As far as I can tell you're immune to them."
He snorted. Hardly. He just flatly refused to mix business and pleasure. And since his business was pretty much a 24/7 job, that left no time for female entanglements in his life. Not to mention he didn't have much use for civilian women in general, and his female colleagues were off-limits.
"Gee. Thanks," he retorted wryly. At least Jennifer hadn't openly accused him of being gay.
She challenged, "You tell me which one of your guys you'd turn loose to handle a woman who looks like that. And whom you wouldn't be scared to death of losing his head over her."
He sighed. "I see your point."
"You're the only man in this facility I'd trust to handle her."
Hell, he had no trouble at all imagining handling all that glamour-goddess perfection, those silky legs wrapped around him, his hands filled to overflowing with her bountiful
Yeah. He definitely saw Jenn's point. He might not trust women, but he didn't trust a bunch of horny male operatives, either.
He spoke past a suddenly dry throat, "So, you want to use her to infiltrate Annika's cell. And do what once you're in?"
"Find out if Annika was behind the Dred-Naught bombing and, more importantly, what she's planning next. Then stop it."
He leaned back skeptically. "This Dupont girl's an amateur. Why not try one of the Medusas? They're experienced and do undercover work all the time."
She replied, "I spoke with their commander, Vanessa Blake. Both of her teams are on jobs. As interested as she was in pulling one of her operatives in to do this mission, she can't spare anyone right now." Jennifer leaned forward in her seat. "Besides, I think you're exactly right. Annika would spot any kind of trained operative in a heartbeat. It's why I'm not even bothering to suggest pulling in a CIA agent. Better that we send in a legitimate amateur who makes no claims to being anything else."
It made a certain sense. "You'd be putting Eve at terrible risk. And how certain are you she'd cooperate with us anyway? For all we know she sympathizes with her bigand may I remind you, deadbrother's politics. She may think Viktor was some kind of hero who died a martyr to the cause. If we recruit her, she could turn on us at the worst possible moment. She could blow not only the mission but the cover of whoever's handling her."
Jennifer's one word response made his blood run cold.
She knew him too well. He'd never send one of his men out on a suicide mission. If anyone was going to tangle with lovely Eve Dupont, he'd choose himself for the job.
He glanced at the picture of the young woman on the wall. Eve laughed back at him like some kind of sea goddess. A still-life siren calling to him. Would she try to steal away his will and enslave him as the original Sirens had done to the unfortunate sailors who listened to their songs? His gaze hardened. She could try. But he wasn't kidding. He didn't get involved with women. Ever.
Eve Dupont climbed the steps from the relatively dry, warm London tube station into a cold, gray November drizzle. She couldn't believe they'd insisted she meet yet another government man, particularly on a nasty day like this.
How many times was she going to have to tell these jokers she didn't know anything? She'd never been a terrorist herself, she'd never had any clue Viktor was a terrorist, and she'd never seen or heard anything on his visits home to indicate what he was planning or who he worked with.
The restaurant where she was supposed to meet this latest investigator came into view. It looked like a classy place, frankly a lot nicer than she'd expected. At least she was going to get a decent free lunch out of it. That was an improvement over the last pair of Interpol types who'd dragged her to their offices to interrogate her like a common criminal.
She ducked into the dim interior of the restaurant. The lunch rush had mostly cleared out, but everyone still in the place turned to stare as she shed her raincoat. She sighed, used to the reaction. Even when she wore a chunky sweater and sloppy jeans they stared at her. She could probably wear a burlap sack and they'd still gape.
It wasn't that she hated being beautiful. She just wished people saw more than some beddable blonde. She supposed most women would bitch-slap her for whining about her looks, and maybe they were right. Maybe she should just enjoy her beauty while she had it.
A tall, dark-haired man stood up from a table in the corner and advanced toward her. He had to be her date. The short hair, stern jaw and direct stare were a dead giveaway.
Sure enough, he murmured, "Miss Dupont. I'm Brady Hathaway. It's nice to meet you." He held out a big, calloused, tanned hand. Where did anyone get a tan in this part of the world at this time of year? She'd give her eyeteeth to be on a hot beach somewhere, soaking up some rays.
And then his accent registered. American, huh? She didn't tell people often that she held a dual American-French citizenship. Her mother had been American, and she'd been born in the States. But she mostly considered herself to be French. Her countrymen hadn't tortured her in a while. What did they want with her now? She ignored his big, powerful-looking hand and looked him square in his steel-gray eyes. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"
He looked momentarily taken aback, but nodded evenly enough. "As you like. This way."
Those Americans did grow their men big and muscular. She was struck by how he towered over her, and she was no shorty herself, standing almost five-foot-nine. He guided her to his table, which was predictably tucked into a dark corner with no other patrons nearby. He held her chair for her. She almost registered it as a kindness before recalling he was yet another official type who wanted something from her.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to spot his wingmen. They were seated on the other side of the restaurant with perfect sight lines to her and all the exits. Based on the bad suits and worse haircuts, she'd guess they were MI6. Low-level administrative types pulled off desk jobs to babysit the visiting American.
"Can I get you a drink?" the visiting American asked politely enough.