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The National Mall, Washington, D.C. Thursday, December 18, 11:45 a.m.
So this is how it feels to be a traitor.
Emmett Holt exited the metro at the Mall. Of all his less-than-admirable traits and accomplishments, this one had brought him to an all-new low.
There was no going back from this, no explanation or excuse he could offer for the damaging evidence he was about to hand over. While it was only a flash drive, it felt like a fifty-pound weight-lifting plate from the gym. He knew Director Thomas Casey had someone tailing him and he knew better than to waste time trying to make that identification.
If this sting backfired, if either Thomas Casey or his nemesis, Bernard Isely, got impatient, Holtstanding between themwould get cut down in the crossfire. Not exactly the way he'd seen himself going out of this business, much less this world.
Handing over the reports from the Germany mission when Casey had killed Isely's father was a stop-gap measure. Isely wanted both the intel on the old mission and the vial of the deadly virus Mission Recovery had seized two months ago.
It didn't take a genius to know Isely wanted a whole hell of a lot more than that. The man had one goal: to exact revenge and destroy Director Casey.
Holt was running out of excuses to keep both men at bay. And timing was everything.
He walked with purpose toward the National Air and Space Museum gift shop, just another man picking up another gift amid the throng of tourists. The weather was clear and the wind cold, but winter hadn't turned truly bitter yet and people were still wishing for an idyllic white Christmas.
Holt could only wish he would still be alive come Christmas.
He stopped where the text message had told him to stop, feeling like a damned puppet on a string. Even knowing at the beginning that it would come down to this didn't make it easier to stomach the reality of doing so. He was used to giving orders, not taking them.
Handing over this tiny piece of technology and the huge intelligence it stored marked the beginning of the end.
It might have been a few years since his last field op, but the skills didn't go away. They were far too deeply engrained. He checked his phone, made the drop and didn't die or get arrested as he walked back to the metro station.
"Did my warning help?"
Holt didn't miss a step as Isely joined him on the escalator. "Sure."
After receiving a picture of Director Casey's sister, Cecelia Manning, and the single warning of "Beware," Holt had dug into the woman's recent history to see what threat or purpose she might pose for Isely. Or for him.
He'd learned all kinds of details he didn't want to know, from her favorite perfume to her tight circle of wealthy friends who toddled about doing charitable works.
Then he'd found the big splashy occasion he knew Isely had been looking for: the charity gala the widow had organized to benefit cancer research in memory of her late husband. The event offered the perfect opportunity.
"And?" Isely prompted.
Holt wasn't inclined to answer truthfully. He'd exhausted himself planting bugs in the woman's house, a GPS tracker on her car, opening a profile that matched hers on an online dating site and monitoring her general safety while maintaining his own responsibilities at Mission Recovery.
"And her family will join her at tomorrow's event," Holt replied, giving the man what he wanted.
"You will take the appropriate action?"
Holt nodded, letting his hand shake just a touch. He didn't want to oversell it, but a traitor would have reservations and a few jangling nerves at this point. He had a wild hope that a specialist would come charging innowbefore this got messy.
"I will send the address when it is time."
Holt nodded again as the train came into the station.
"Don't worry, my friend." Isely's hand landed heavy on Holt's shoulder. "You have a new team now. You are not alone."
Isely couldn't know it, but that was Holt's worst fear.
Alexandria, Virginia, 2:15p.m.
"I know you're disappointed, Mom."
Cecelia Manning filled two mugs of coffee and handed one to her daughter, Casey. She watched Casey add a scant teaspoon of sugar and a hefty dollop of milk.
When the risk of milk ending up on her counter was minimized, she said, "My application was accepted."
"What?" Casey's mouth dropped open in shock. "You can't be serious."
"I am completely serious," Cecelia replied. She decided hiding the pain her daughter's reaction had caused was best for now. Neither her daughter nor her brother approved of her desire to go into fieldwork for the CIA, but Cecelia had had more than she could take of the boredom and routine of pushing paper around the agency office.
Her husband had worked in the CIA for the entirety of their married life, until he'd passed away just over a year ago.
Her brother was the director of an elite team of covert agents known only as "Specialists." Her daughter had gone into CIA fieldwork, as well. Yet they all expected her to what? Continue in her predictable, safe role, making Sunday dinners and birthday cakes and learning to knit while she waited for Casey and her new husband, Levi, to provide the grandchildren she wanted to spoil.
She sipped her coffee and saved the scream of frustration for when she was alone again.
"Mom, you can't."
Casey's eyes flared as she obviously caught the warning Cecelia had packed into that one word.
"I didn't mean can't like that."
Cecelia sipped her coffee, waiting. More than a little curious how her daughter intended to wrench her foot out of her mouth.
"It's just.. " She shrugged. "You're my mom."
Cecelia traced the handle of her bright stoneware cup.
"Fieldwork is crazy," she added.
Holding her daughter's gaze, she waited for an intelligent argument to arise. Not that she'd let anything deter her from her plans. Since her husband's passing, she'd merely gone through the motions of day-to-day life and now she was ready for something new. She needed something new Like a life where she felt needed and wanted.
She'd survived the shock and grief of losing the man she'd loved and expected to grow old with. She'd learned to cope with a quiet house and the sympathetic looks of her friends and neighbors.
Her work had been an anchor, steadying her as she moved from one stage to the next. Now it felt like a stone dragging her to the bottom of the Potomac when she thought of sitting behind a desk for the rest of her working days.
With William buried and their daughter a happy new-lywed, Cecelia's life, unexpectedly, was her own, and she was determined to see just what she could do with it.
"Mom? You're not even listening."
"No," Cecelia admitted. "I'm not. Whether you approve or not, I'm making this move."
"Casey." She mimicked her daughter's exasperated tone. "I appreciate your concern, but I didn't leap into this blindly. This decision isn't a whim or even a midlife crisis." She saw Casey blush and knew her daughter had indeed suggested those unflattering theories. She and her uncle, Cecelia's brother, had discussed this move at length. "The agency wouldn't have accepted my request if I didn't have the physical or mental fortitude to succeed."
She held up a finger. "If you dare mention the Equal Opportunity Act, I'll throttle you. Don't think I haven't learned a thing or two about minimizing risk already. I am not as naive or helpless as you seem to think."
Casey held up her hands in surrender. "You're a self-defense ninja."
"Don't you forget it, either." Cecelia smiled. "I know enough about the process to know my two closest relatives did not recommend me."
"That's not true."
Cecelia let the fib go unchallenged. Her family wanted the best for her, but they just had a different idea of what that looked like. "And don't worry. You've been through the training yourself. It's not like they're dumping me out on the street first thing Monday morning."
Casey sighed. "Wouldn't it just be easier to take some vacation and travel? Field operations isn't a game, Mom."
Her daughter's complete lack of confidence cut deep, but she supposed it was to be expected. When you walked one path for the duration of a relationship, changing directions was bound to stir things up.
Maybe there had been enough talk of change for the moment. "How is Levi?"
"He's fine. His plane gets in around eight."
"And being married is wonderful?"
"Yeah," Casey admitted with a secret little smile. One Cecelia remembered wearing long ago when she was that age. "You're sure you're okay with us spending Christmas with Levi's mom in Florida?"
"Of course. You're now part of his family, too. Don't worry about me. I have plans of my own."
"Sure. I bought a ticket for"
The doorbell rang and Casey shot her a curious look. Cecelia only smiled as she set her coffee aside. "I have friends. We even do stuff," she added with a wink. "It's probably about tomorrow night."
Before she reached the front door, it opened and her brother, Thomas Casey, walked inside. The tension was a palpable force rolling off him and bouncing around the narrow foyer.
Worst-case scenarios bounded through her head before she regained control. She'd learned early in her role as a wife and mother that a cool head was the best asset she could bring to any situation.
"What is it?" She said a quick prayer that it wasn't his new wife, but her mind absolutely blanked when he laid his hands gently on her shoulders.
The doctor who'd explained William's terminal diagnosis had done that, wearing a similar grim expression and looking at her with an emotion caught somewhere between sympathy and pity.
She shrugged out from under her brother's touch and shook off the uncomfortable memory. Whatever had brought Thomas rushing into her home, she instinctively understood she wasn't going to enjoy the news.
"Casey's here," she said, stepping out of his reach. "Come on back to the kitchen and have some coffee."
"We need to talk."
She swallowed the bitter words dancing on the tip of her tongue. Why did her family have so little faith in her abilities? "Not if you're here about my move to ops next month."
"That got approved?"
She rolled her eyes. No amount of good manners could have stopped the exasperated reflex. Temper wasn't something she frequently indulged in, but right now she was ready to do the one thing she'd never done in her life: kick her family out of her home.
Casey brightened considerably when she spotted her uncle. After a warm hug, they stood side by side and faced Cecelia.
"Go ahead and say whatever you need to say." Let them try to deter her. Teaming up against her would get them nowhere. She was making the move to ops, regardless. She'd already made arrangements for a house sitter while she was training.
"Why don't you take a seat, Casey?" Thomas nudged her to the stool at the counter beside Cecelia. "You may as well know the truth of what we're up against."
"I beg your pardon?" Cecelia stared at her brother as a fresh wave of concern rolled over her. "What truth?"
"You have to go into protective custody. Today. Right now, Lia."
A chill raised the hairs at the back of her neck. Her brother didn't shorten her name unless he was seriously distressed.
"I'll go pack a bag for you, Mom." Casey hopped off the counter stool, but Cecelia stayed her with a look. "Why do I need protective custody?"
Thomas slumped forward, leaning his forearms on the counter and lowering his voice. "The analysts picked up some chatter about you."
"You're in danger. A pawn in a bigger game," Thomas growled. "It's my fault." He pushed back from the counter and paced away, then swiveled back. "One of my enemies plans to kidnap you. At least that's the rumor making the rounds."
"Oh, that's going too far, Thomas. We both know none of your enemies could possibly know about me." Her brother was the director of Mission Recovery, a covert team so dark, not even the president was routinely briefed on their operations. When Thomas or his Specialists were in the field, their cover stories were solid, with no links to their real lives. The only way an enemy could know about his connection to her. Oh, dear God.
"He has a mole inside my team. The kidnapper is likely to be one of my own Specialists."
That was all Casey needed to hear. She slipped by Cecelia and rushed up the stairs.
"That's impossible. It doesn't make sense. Your team is devoted to you and their work. You handpicked each one of them."
Thomas grimaced and scrubbed a hand across his short hair. "Well, I clearly made a mistake somewhere."
"Who?" Stunned, she took a moment to wrap her head around such a ridiculous idea. No one betrayed Thomas Casey. "Who on your team would dare to cross you?"
"It doesn't matter. I'm setting up an op to take him down."
Cecelia relaxed a fraction. "Then there's no reason for me to run and hide."
Thomas glared at her. Having grown up with him, she didn't find the expression so intimidating.
"Lia, this mole is devious. He's been operating right under my nose for months now. When we make the arrest, it's going to stick, but he's going to fight back. Locking down the evidence for this kind of thing takes time. I'm not going to allow you to get caught in the middle."
"Allow?" She laughed. "I'm a grown woman."
"I know that." He clasped her hands in his. "You're one of the strongest people I know."
"So we agree." She met the determination in his blue gaze with an equal measure of her own. "I'll be careful, keep your number on speed dial, but I'm not going into hiding, Thomas. Not under any circumstances. It's my turn to challenge myself."
Besides, even if she wasn't making this career change, she just didn't think she could manage that kind of drastic shift in her plans. Not in the middle of this holiday season.
Last year's holidays had been marred by her husband's death. She'd still been receiving sympathy cards amid the annual Christmas letters and greetings. The abundance of charitable donations made in his name had been kind and wonderful expressions from caring friends.
And nearly unbearable as she wrote out each and every thank-you note. She felt awful and it was as if every bright moment last year was eclipsed by the darkness of her loss. It had been sheer determination and more than a little detachment that had got her through.
Promise me you'll live your life. It was the last coherent conversation she'd had with her husband before the aggressive brain tumor had made her a widow.
She'd been trying to honor that request, and she had no intention of letting a rogue agent and a vague threat get in the way. She was living her life.
"You can't be that selfish," Thomas barked. "Or that foolish."
She reeled back as if he'd struck her.
"I'm sorry. Sorry," he repeated, holding his hands up. "But don't you see if you're out there" he flung a hand wide "you become leverage they can use against me to get what they want?"
"For how long?"
"How long would you keep me in protective custody? Where would I be? What excuse would I give to the people who are counting on me this weekend?"
Thomas blinked rapidly and frowned as if he were trying to catch up. "I don't know. A couple of weeks, maybe longer."
That would never work. Cecelia shook her head adamantly. "This is the wrong time, Thomas. I realize you didn't plan this, but you know I have commitments."
"The charities and parties can manage without you."
"But I don't want them to. And I won't let a vague 'maybe longer' interfere with my plans." That was exactly what she was trying to change in her life. The idea everyone else seemed to have that nothing she did mattered enough that it couldn't be cast aside at the drop of a hat.
"Cecelia, please cooperate. The man pulling the strings on this won't hesitate to hurt you. He turned one of my own people against me. He nearly killed me a few times over between the airport and Casey's wedding."
"And yet you made it." She patted his cheek. He really didn't need to go so far in his effort to talk her out of this move. "I'll make it, tooif this threat to me even proves more than a rumor."
"I had years of field experience and another trained agent at my side," Thomas protested.