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"CARE FOR A SCOTCH?"
Daniel MacAlister stood by the window looking out at the rainy suburban landscape of Bethesda. While not as romantic as the spy rendezvous on foggy London bridges and deserted parks that happened in movies, Jack White's Maryland town house served its purpose, and more comfortably. CIA field operatives—especially deep-cover ones like Daniel—didn't have offices, but worked all over the globe on assignments that rarely made the papers. A coded phone call would summon him when he was needed.
Daniel couldn't count how many times he'd stood in this spot, awaiting his orders. Jack always asked him if he wanted a drink, and Daniel always answered the same way. Jack's offer was a gesture, a pro forma nicety that Daniel wasn't expected to accept.
"All right then, down to business." Jack took a folder from the black leather case on the desk and pushed it across the table, his voice matter-of-fact. "This is beyond top secret—destroy it when you're done."
The file, heavy in his hand, was as thick as a novel.
Daniel frowned. "Remington? I thought she was decommissioned after the accident last year."
Almost a year ago, Daniel had been infiltrating a secret terrorist lab discovered in the heart of the Nevada desert, with Risa Remington at his side. She wasn't an agent—she was the government's secret weapon, a mind-reading superhero. She'd lost her powers when something set off an electromagnetic blast in the lab—almost killing her, as well.
Jack took a leisurely sip of his drink, his sharp blue eyes meeting Daniel's, revealing nothing. "That's true. But she's not adjusting to civilian life. We're worried about her."
"She's become a threat?" he asked bluntly.
Jack shrugged. "We knew it was possible. But in spite of what people think, we're not in the habit of killing someone just because they're not useful to us anymore. We had to assume she'd stay quiet about everything she knows until she proved otherwise. She and her family have done a lot of good for this country. We owed her that chance, at least."
"But you think she's turning?"
"Uncertain. She's exhibiting questionable behaviors. Isolating herself in her apartment, using her Internet aliases and underground contacts to get her hands on basic surveillance equipment. She's emotionally unpredictable, unconnected to anyone in the real world, and she doesn't have any experience with normal, everyday life. It's been months since she went out on her own. We did what we could to help, but..."
"Why didn't you just keep her here?"
"Maintaining her life here was expensive. The government couldn't justify spending that amount of money to house a weapon that no longer works."
Daniel had worked with Risa Remington a half dozen times over the years. In spite of Jack's impersonal reference, Risa was human, an intensely beautiful woman, yet she didn't seem real. Maybe it was convenient for everyone, including him, to think of her as not quite human. It was a disturbing thought.
All agents were strictly ordered not to touch Risa—she could read thoughts, emotions, secrets, even physical statistics like blood pressure or heartbeat, with the slightest touch. Daniel had broken the no-touch protocol to go back and pull her out of the lab. He hadn't been reprimanded for his actions. After all, Risa was a valuable asset. At least, she had been.
Now she was on her own.
Daniel looked at Jack squarely. "What do you want me to do?"
"Make contact. Get inside. Basic recon—find out if she's into anything she shouldn't be. If she isn't, then perhaps you can help her make a more successful adjustment."
"I don't understand."
"Help her live in the normal world. Neutralize the potential for future threat."
Daniel's back stiffened, but his voice was calm. "You must be joking. Half the world is exploding out there and you want me to babysit?"
Jack finished the Scotch in one toss. "This is highly sensitive work—Risa is a special case, you know that more than anyone. You're familiar—she'll respond to you better than a stranger."
"I doubt that. We never spoke, except for what needed to be said on a mission. She had no idea who took her out of that lab. I never saw her afterward."
Jack's features relaxed, dismissing Daniel's objections with a wave of the hand. "You grew up in Falmouth. Lovely area. You have family there, right?"
Daniel nodded abruptly, not liking one bit where this was going. He wasn't about to discuss his family with Jack, although there was probably little the CIA supervisor didn't already know. He could follow Jack's logic. From the CIA's perspective, Daniel was the perfect choice. He knew Cape Cod like the back of his hand, had grown up there. Daniel, better than anyone, could help Risa acclimate to the community without raising suspicion. If he were inclined to do that. Which he wasn't, and he didn't bother to hide the fact.
Jack's tone was cajoling, but Daniel detected the steel underneath it. He wasn't being given a choice; it wasn't his job to argue.
"C'mon Daniel.You go home for a while.You blend in, get to see your family. It's been awhile, hasn't it?You keep an eye on Risa, maybe become a friend of sorts, maybe more, who knows? She's a beautiful girl, and she's never had any experience with men. Get as close as necessary to get the job done. Report back to us within six weeks, and if there are any signs of her having turned..." Jack's gaze met Daniel's as he delivered his final order. "You remove the threat. Permanently."
"HALLOOO? Risa? I have your groceries...halloooo?"
Risa Remington glared at the wide-screen monitor that covered the surface of her small desk. She'd taped a check onto the door as a not-so-subtle hint for her neighbor just to leave the groceries there, but Kristy was getting more insistent about seeing Risa face-to-face.
Risa watched Kristy, who stood clearly in the path of the hallway video feed. If she didn't open the door, Kristy would probably think something was wrong and get help. That was a hassle Risa just didn't need. She was trying to keep a low profile, intent on drawing as little attention as possible to herself until she could form some plan for her life.
She'd been stuck in this hole of an apartment in this hole of a town for six months. She had no plan but surviving day-to-day.
She looked at the perky young woman on the monitor, her streaked blond hair twisted up into a fun ponytail bound by something pink and fuzzy, her clothes sporty and equally colorful. Risa ignored the twinge of envy that settled in her gut. She didn't know how to be that kind of girl—pretty, lighthearted, carefree. She didn't know how to be a girl, period. Her life had been about much more important things than pink sweaters and kicky highlights. Risa didn't belong to that world—she had no idea what world she belonged in.
Until she figured it out, she was staying put and depending on her neighbors' willingness to help out their new "agoraphobic" tenant. Thank goodness for popular TV series like Monk that made it commonplace to be a phobic personality. It worked like a charm. She didn't have to leave her apartment for anything; she didn't have to talk to anyone. Until now.
It was obvious that Kristy wasn't leaving until Risa opened the door. She had to be at least marginally friendly to the woman who'd brought her groceries. There was chocolate pudding in that bag. The only thing that was great about being off the government payroll was that now Risa could eat whatever she wanted. Her favorite thing was chocolate pudding. She could live on the stuff.
She opened the door as Kristy's hand was poised midair to knock yet again. Risa forced a smile and a hurried excuse that were both lies.
"I'm so sorry, Kristy—I was in the bathroom and didn't hear you. Are those mine? Thanks. I appreciate you doing this."
Reaching for the very full grocery bag, she hoped to duck back in, but Kristy wasn't so easily thwarted.
"I thought maybe you'd like some company. Today's my day off, and I picked up some warm bagels at the bakery—do you have coffee?"
Kristy moved forward, comfortable with inviting herself in, apparently. More from reflex than anything, Risa's arm shot across the doorway, blocking Kristy's progress in a clear warning not to continue. When Kristy frowned, catching her eye, Risa forged another smile, and another lie.
"I'm sorry. Again. I just really have a lot of work to do today."
"You said you're a writer?"
"Yes. Technical. Freelance manuals for televisions, stoves, you know, that kind of thing. Nothing interesting. Nothing they put my name on."
Kristy looked nonplussed. "Oh. Well. I just thought, you know, since you never get out that you might like someone to come in and chat for a while. I read on the net that agoraphobics like company, they just don't like public places."
Risa clamped her teeth together, pushing down her irritation at Kristy's insistence. Her head was starting to hurt—the horrible headaches she'd had since the accident were fewer, but still intense—and her patience was wearing thin.
"Really, I just have so much work, but thanks...." Tugging the heavy bag from Kristy's arms and nodding toward the check still taped to the door, Risa started to turn away, annoyed that she'd have to find another way to get her groceries. Kristy was getting far too nosy.
"Hey, are you okay?"
Kristy's voice seemed far away as Risa leaned against the door, the heavy bag disappearing from her arms as her knees turned to water. She heard a moan, probably her own, but as usual, when the headaches hit, she lost control completely. She didn't even feel the floor as she slumped, her body numb, her mind vaulting into another place, and she was powerless to stop it....