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The Cinderella Mission
By Catherine Mann
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Catherine Mann
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDr. Alex Morrow was dead.
Samuel Hatch feared it all the way to his sixty-year-old, ulcer-riddled gut.
The aging operative bolted back breakfast in his office - two antacids with cold coffee. His job as the Director of ARIES came with countless rewards and endless holes in his stomach. Since Hatch had created the top-secret section of the CIA, ARIES had become his family, his agents the children he and Rita had never been able to conceive.
Now he suspected he'd lost one.
Restrained tension hummed through him, stringing him as taut as the twine he worked to twist around the wilting plant behind his desk. He aimed the sunlamp with meticulous care, grounding himself in the ritual while he plotted how best to utilize his unlimited resources.
One day's silence he could accept, especially given the unstable climate in European Holzberg and neighboring Rebelia. But three days and Alex's tracking device inactive ...
Every inch of Hatch's raw stomach burned after ten years of worrying about his pseudo offspring. Yet their mission was too important to abandon. ARIES operatives embraced assignments no sane CIA agent would touch.
Their country owed these silent knights countless debts that could never be acknowledged.
Hatch anchored the stake on a struggling strawberry plant he'd grafted from home. He mentally sifted through Alex's final transmissions like the soil through his fingers as he looked for the proper texture to bear fruit. Heaven help them all if Alex fell into DeBruzkya's hands. The crazed Rebelian dictator under investigation was a sick bastard.
Heaven help Alex.
His fingers twitched, snapping a limp stem off the plant. He wouldn't let even one of his operatives, especially this one, go down without unleashing the full arsenal at his disposal. Hatch clutched the crumpled leaves in his fist and turned back to the conference area of his office.
And what a mighty arsenal it was, compliments of the government's blank check.
Large flat-screen monitors lined one wall, glowing with everything from CNN to satellite uplink status. Computers hummed from his desk, as well as along the conference table where laptops perched in front of eight seats. Electronic cryptology equipment for encoding and decoding transmissions littered the workspace.
In the midst of it all, he relied on an old-fashioned map of the world with pins marking locations of his operatives. The cover of each agent's private-sector identity offered the freedom to travel anywhere undetected. Already, he'd alerted European operatives to begin searching, but without a narrowed field, there was only so much he could expect.
He needed focus, someone to pull together the minuscule threads of information left behind in a handful of transmissions from Alex. Hatch rubbed the bruised leaves between his fingers like a talisman as he studied the map. Slowly two pins on the board paired in his mind.
The perfect duo for finding answers to the questions left in those last transmissions. Logical Kelly Taylor would balance well with Ethan Williams, a rogue operative who thought so far outside the box he invented his own rules.
And their personal baggage?
They would either have to work through it or ignore it. He didn't need any fireworks drawing unwarranted - and potentially deadly - attention to this mission.
Hatch reached for one of the seven phones on his desk and punched a three-digit code. One ring later, he carefully placed the mangled leaves on the soil at the base of the struggling strawberry plant. "Taylor, Director Hatch here. I need you to locate Ethan Williams, then meet me in my office with his after-action report from Gastonia."
Her affirmative barely registered. Hatch studied the sole remaining plant from Rita's garden that hadn't been killed by his black thumb. Since Rita's death, that plant and ARIES were all he had left, and by God, they would bear fruit.
Hatch packed the soil around the base of a new sprout and refrained from reaching for the antacids again. Williams and Taylor would find Alex.
Assuming there wasn't - as his roiling gut kept telling him - a Judas in their ranks.
* * *
ARIES operative Ethan Williams stumbled back a step. His hoarse croak ping-ponged through the cavernous room in a mocking echo. He gasped past the pain exploding in his head.
But he stayed on his feet, damn it.
Ethan swiped his wrist under his bloody nose. Three fast blinks cleared the haze from his vision, if not the dull ache and metallic taste of blood.
He charged back into the cutthroat battle that reeked of sweat and resolve. He dodged shadows cast by light filtering through the thick plate-glass windows overhead.
Perspiration plastered his T-shirt to his skin. Salt stung the healing nick in his side from a brush with a bullet last week. He ignored it.
The second's hesitation had already cost him his advantage. He needed to stay sharp. After his near miss in Gastonia eight days ago, he feared his edge had dulled. Losing that edge could mean losing his life.
Or worse yet, his job - his only reason for crawling out of bed every morning.
Without it, he might as well step in front of the next bullet. He'd come damned close to doing just that more than once after Celia died, before his recruitment into ARIES had given him the ultimate way to fight back against a world that didn't play fair.
Ethan led with his shoulder in a low blow. His opponent grunted. Adrenaline surged.
ARIES operatives had precious few rules, and Ethan liked that most about his job in the special section of the CIA. Free rein to win in any arena. Essential with life-or-death stakes.
Not that Ethan had much use for his own life. But winning? Yeah, Ethan had a hell of a lot of respect for the thrill of winning.
He pivoted, boxed out, threw in an elbow, looking ... for ... that ...
Basketball tucked to his stomach, he swung around. Ethan on offense now that he had possession, fellow ARIES operative Robert Davidson manned defense in their half-court game.
To some, it might seem a simple hour of pick-up. But even basketball in a CIA training facility in Virginia provided the chance to hone skills, search for potentially lethal weaknesses and overcome them so he could stay in the real game a little longer.
Excerpted from The Cinderella Mission by Catherine Mann Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Mann
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.