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A crisp September breeze rustled the leaves of the chestnut trees lining a quiet side street just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s embassy district. When a taxi pulled up at an elegant townhouse halfway down the block, the driver frowned and shot a quick look in the rearview mirror.
"You sure you got the right address?"
"I'm sure." His passenger peeled off two bills.
"Keep the change."
Despite the hefty tip, the driver's frown stayed in place as his fare hauled his beat-up leather carryall out of the cab.
No big surprise there, Cutter Smith thought sardonically. He hadn't slept in going on forty-eight hours and he hadn't shaved in twice that long. And not even four days' worth of raspy whiskers could disguise the scars on the right side of his chin and neck. When most people noticed the puckered skin, they quickly turned away. Others, like the cabbie, looked long and hard, as if memorizing the face that went with the scars in case they later had to pick him out of a police lineup.
As Cutter hefted his carryall and mounted the front steps, his gaze went to the discreet bronze plaque beside the door. The carefully polished lettering identified the townhouse as home to the offices of the Special Envoy to the President of the United States. Most Washingtonians familiar with the political spoils system knew the position of Special Envoy was one of those meaningless jobs handed out to wealthy campaign contributors with a yen for a fancy title and a Washington office. Only a very small, very select circle knew the Special Envoy also served as head of OMEGA, an agency so secret that its operatives were activated only in extreme situations.
Or, as in Cutter's case, reactivated. He'd returned from a month-long undercover operation in Central America only this morning, had conducted an exhaustive debrief and was headed home when a call from OMEGA control had turned him around.
Wondering what the hell was so urgent, he reached for the brass latch on the red-lacquered door. He knew it had to be something big for his boss to direct him to enter via the townhouse's front door instead of going through the labyrinthine maze that led from the secret entrance in an underground parking lot a half block away.
The receptionist who buzzed him in knew him by sight but still carefully checked his ID before passing him into the area ruled by the Special Envoy's executive assistant. The ornate Louis XV desk was normally occupied by Elizabeth Wells, a serene, silver-haired grandmother who regularly qualified at the expert level on the 9mm Sig Sauer nestled in a handy compartment in her desk.
But Elizabeth had fallen while doing a foxtrot with her latest beau on a Big Band Potomac Cruise. While she recovered from hip replacement surgery, a temp was handling her duties. An extremely well-qualified temp, with the necessary top-level security clearances, background and smarts to handle Elizabeth's extraordinarily sensitive duties.
Gillian Ridgeway was the daughter of two of OMEGA's most legendary operatives. She was also goddaughter to the man she referred to as Uncle Nick, OMEGA's current director. As luck would have it, she happened to be home on leave from her job at the American Embassy in Beijing when Elizabeth hit the deck. Nick Jensen had jumped on Gillian's offer to fill in for his temporarily disabled assistant.
Tall and slender, Gillian had inherited her mother's ready smile and her father's black hair and startlingly blue eyes. The twenty-six-year-old already had half the male operatives seriously in lust. That she'd also won the friendship and respect of OMEGA's female agents was testimony to her bright, engaging personality.
"Hi, Jilly." Depositing his carryall beside a leafy palm, Cutter crossed the parquet floor. "What's up?"
"Uncle Nick will explain all, Slash."
Gillian had assumed Cutter's code designation was a play on his first name. He hadn't disabused her.
"Go on in. He's waiting for you."
Nick Jensen, code name Lightning, didn't look like anyone's uncle, honorary or otherwise, when Cutter entered his office. Nor did he look like the owner of a string of outrageously expensive watering holes that catered to the rich and famous. He looked, Cutter thought with a lift of one brow, ready to chew nails and spit them out like shrapnel.
"Sorry, Slash." His jaw tight, Nick yanked at his Italian silk tie and popped the top button of his white shirt. "I know you haven't even changed your watch from jungle time yet, but I need to send you back into the field."
"No problem. What's the op?"
"I think we might finally have a lead on the Russian." Cutter's pulse kicked up a half dozen notches. OMEGA had been trying to nail the shadowy figure known only as the Russian for more than a year.
"Mike Callahan will act as your controller." Nick shot back his cuff to check the sleek Swiss job on his wrist. "He's choppering up from Quantico. Should be about fifteen minutes out."
Cutter nodded, considerably reassured by the information. Whatever this mission entailed, it would go down a hell of a lot smoother with Mike Callahan, code name Hawkeye, handling things on this end.A former military cop, Hawk was a cool head and a dead shot.
"In the meantime," Nick said grimly, "we've got two hundred and thirty passengers cooling their heels at Dulles while maintenance works a small 'mechanical'problem on their aircraft. We suspect one of those passengers is on her way to connect with the Russian."
He slapped a file down on a mahogany conference table the size of a soccer field. Pinned to the front of the folder was a color photo of a tight-lipped blonde with most of her face hidden behind oversized sunglasses.
"A looker," Cutter commented, "but obviously not happy with the world. Who is she?"
Nick said the name as if Cutter should know it, then gave an impatient shake of his head. "Sorry. I forgot the crap hit the fan after you left for Central America. Dawes is...or was, until a few days ago...a staffer for Congressman Ashton Kent, Chairman of the House Banking and Trade Committee."
"The old goat knows how to pick 'em," Cutter commented, taking in the chiseled cheekbones and chin-length sweep of pale-gold hair.
"As a matter of fact, that's precisely what Dawes claimed in the sexual harassment complaint she filed. Said Kent admitted hiring the males in his office based on their brains and the females on their bra size. The comment came right after he reportedly groped her a second time and she allegedly whacked him with a copy of the Congressional Record."
"Reportedly. Allegedly. I'm getting the impression Dawes's complaint boiled down to a case of she said/he said."
"It did. An investigator dismissed it two days ago for lack of evidence, but the media had a field day with the charge."
Cutter eyed the angry blonde again. "Bet they made her life hell in the process."
"And then some. We suspect that may be why Dawes quit her job, cleaned out her desk and departed the House of Representatives with a disk containing the names, addresses, social security numbers and bank account numbers of more than twenty million government employees. Including," Nick drawled, "the President of the United States."
Cutter whistled, low and long. That explained the high pucker factor. All brisk business now, Nick filled him in on the background.
"Kent's Committee recently conducted a series of closed hearings on the vulnerability of U.S. banks to hacking. One of the witnesses demonstrated just how easy it was to obtain this kind of sensitive data. We suspect Dawes secretly made a copy of the information this guy extracted from various sources before the file was destroyed."
"And we think she plans to sell the data?"
"We think that's a distinct possibility. Mallory Dawes isn't a happy camper right now. After the arbitrator dismissed her claim, she spoke on camera. The woman sounded both bruised and angry. Talked about how the accuser had become the accused, and how she wasn't given the protection she was supposed to be afforded under the law. What better way to get back at the system that failed you than by selling personal data to the highest black-market bidder?"
"Which would most likely be the Russian," Cutter acknowledged grimly.
OMEGA suspected the nameless, faceless thug had masterminded at least two other massive identity thefts. Both had wreaked havoc on the international financial scene and had devastating effects on the lives of millions of individuals. One of those individuals had been Cutter's great-aunt May, who'd lost her entire life savings in a series of swift, incredibly complex and as yet untraceable wire transfers.
Cutter really wanted to nail this bastard. "Do we have a specific link between Dawes and the Russian?"
"Intelligence picked up an e-mail indicating he expects a major delivery soon."
No small feat, both men knew, given the billions of electronic communications screened daily.
"We also have evidence suggesting he's on the move. Intel thinks he may be headed for Paris."
"Like our girl, Dawes," Cutter said softly.
"We've got her under close surveillance at Dulles while we substitute a disk containing fake data for the one in her bag. We're also tagging the CD's case with a monitoring device so we can track its every move. I want you in Paris, waiting at the airport, when she and the bag come off the plane. With any luck, she'll lead you to the Russian."
Lightning checked his watch again. "We have an air force jet standing by at Andrews. The chopper that delivers Mike will take you out to the base. You've got fifteen minutes to shower, shave and jump into clean clothes. Field Dress has everything you need upstairs. Mac's working your comm as we speak. Your cover is businessman on vacation."
At his operative's pained look, Lightning relaxed into a smile for the first time since the call had come from the White House less than a half hour ago. A former Army Ranger, Cutter still preferred boots and floppy-brimmed boonie hats to business suits.
"Sorry, Slash. It was the best Field Dress could do on short notice. Take the file on Dawes with you and read it on the chopper."
Cutter climbed aboard the chopper less than twenty minutes later. His hair was still damp from his ninety-second shower and his cheeks stung from the aftershave he'd splashed on after scraping off his whiskers. His boots and jeans were gone, traded for a suede sport coat and open-necked white shirt paired with black slacks and polished loafers.
Shutting out the whap-whap of the chopper's rotors, he slid the folder from the expensive Moroccan leather briefcase Field Dress had thrust at him on his way out the door and settled in to read the background dossier on Mallory Dawes.
Mallory sat quietly in a corner of the International Waiting Area. She'd had to slip out the back door of her apartment to evade the reporters camped out front. With escape so close, the last thing she wanted now was to draw attention to herself.
Shielded behind tinted glasses, her gaze roamed her increasingly impatient fellow passengers. Some paced, some checked the monitors for an update on their departure time, others flipped through magazines. A young mother kept twin toddlers on security leashes and walked them like frisky puppies, hoping to use up their store of energy. She'd taken a nearby seat a while ago and tried to strike up a conversation. Mallory had cut her off with the excuse of having to go to the ladies' room.
The past weeks had taught her to distrust everyone. Reporters had resorted to all kinds of ruses in their relentless pursuit of intimate details about her life and loves. One had disguised himself as a deliveryman and shown up at Mallory's apartment with a dozen roses. Others had donned overalls and sifted through the Dumpster behind her apartment. As voracious as scavengers feeding on rotting corpses, they'd dug up skeletons Mallory didn't know she had.