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Denver International Airport, Thursday, October 16, 3:21 p.m.
"I don't know how the pilot managed, but we landed safely." Thomas Casey relaxed his grip on his cell phone and drew in his first deep breath since the pilot had announced a sudden winter storm had hit Denver only minutes before their scheduled landing. The storm had descended rapidly and with the same ferocity as the Bronco Blizzard from another mid-October day a few decades ago.
According to the weather update Thomas had caught on a local newscast since his flight arrived, the forecast called for at least a foot of snow in the coming twenty-four hours. The temperature had dropped dramatically in the past hour, icing the streets of the city and threatening to shut down every form of transportation.
"Any chance you're getting out of there this afternoon?" Lucas Camp, Thomas's longtime friend and colleague, asked, hope in his tone.
As soon as he'd gotten off that damned plane, Thomas had put through a call to Lucas. His old friend and his wife, Victoria Colby-Camp, were already ensconced in the small village resort where the wedding would take place.
Despite being a twenty-year veteran of black ops, Thomas felt his knees weaken just a little. He'd never been married nor had children of his own. Casey Manning, his niece, was like a daughter to him. When she'd asked him to give her away at her wedding, he'd choked up so damned bad he could scarcely cough out an answer. Casey was his sister, Cecelia's, only child. Cecelia's husband had passed away suddenly just a year ago. Standing in was the least Thomas could do.
If he could get out of this damned airport.
"It'll take a hell of a lot more than a little snow to keep me away from that wedding," Thomas promised. "You tell my niece I'll be there."
The village was only two hours from Denver, half the distance from here to Aspen. He'd crawled across deserts in the Middle East and scaled mountains in the dead of winter in Eastern Europe. How hard could it be to manage a hundred or so snow-covered miles in Colorado?
"The rehearsal dinner isn't until tomorrow night," Lucas reminded him. "Tonight's reception is just a casual affair. Stay in the city until morning if the roads are too hazardous for safe travel."
Thomas grinned. "I think you're getting soft, Lucas." The next thing he'd be telling Thomas was to be sure to wear his seat beltwhich he did anyway. "Ordinarily you'd be suggesting I find myself a pair of cross-country skis and hoof it on over to your location."
A belly laugh boomed across the connection. "I can see you've never been a member of a wedding party, old friend. Once wedding plans are in place, God help the unfortunate soul who throws a wrench in the works. The sweetest young woman will become bridezilla in a heartbeat. I'm not worried about you, Thomas. It's those of us already here with the bride-to-be who have to worry."
"I'll be there, Lucas." Thomas ended the call and tucked his cell into his pocket. He picked up his carry-on and followed the signs to the lower level and ground transportation.
Johara DeRossi's heart was still lodged in her throat. The way the storm had dropped on the city, she'd been convinced Thomas Casey's plane would ice up and tumble to the runway like a radio-controlled toy with no battery life. While that might have put a convenient end to her task here, it wasn't at all how Thomas Casey should leave this world.
The enigmatic director of Mission Recovery owed his country an explanationher, too, if she was being honest. But her questions were not the priority.
Having disguised herself as one of the many flight attendants from a nearby airline milling about deciding how and where to wait out the storm, she'd cloned his cell phone. Now, listening in on her target's phone call, she silently thanked Lucas Camp for helping her cause. If the wedding party wasn't expecting him to arrive until tomorrow, she had a head start.
As Thomas left the gate area for the lower levels, she trailed at a respectable distance, but kept him in sight. He couldn't be crazy enough to try to pick up his rental car in this weather. She had to presume he'd call a hotel for availability and then pick up a ride on a courtesy shuttle.
It really didn't matter. He wasn't going to make it that far anyway.
What did matter was that her window of opportunity was closing fast, the already tight schedule accelerated by the storm. Good thing she thrived on pressure or she'd need serious medication about now.
As a member of the Initiative committee, the small group charged with the oversight of ultra-covert teams like Casey's Mission Recovery Specialists, her life was rarely dull.
When his name had crossed her desk, along with the report listing the privileged information that had roused the suspicions against him, she had immediate and mixed reactions.
She didn't want to believe it. Men weren't built any more dedicated or patriotic than Thomas Casey. The idea that he may be guilty of treasonor worsemade her stomach churn. As an investigator, she knew better than to prejudge an operative or a situation, but Thomas was different. She didn't want to go digging into his past, but more important, she didn't want anyone else digging into it.
On some level she recognized just how screwed up that was.
Be that as it may, having served with him on a mission near the time period in question, she was eminently qualified. With that in mind, she'd checked his schedule and counted it good fortune that she would be able to deal with this away from the prying eyes in Washington, D.C.
She walked by him as Thomas paused near the rental car lines and pulled out his phone. Listening in again, she was pleased by his predictable behavior as he made his first call to a nearby hotel. Smart man, she thought, as he booked the room without blinking at the storm-inflated price. The hotel clerk promised the next shuttle would be at the appropriately marked stand within ten minutes.
Adjusting her timetable for the shuttle and the road conditions, Jo started for the parking garage. It took all her control not to skid to a stop when she spotted another familiar face among so many strangers.
Specialist Jason Grant, one of Thomas Casey's rising stars, was coming down the escalator. Though his eyes were shadowed by dark glasses, she knew his gaze was sweeping the crowd.
Damn it. She'd checked the itineraries for all of Thomas's team over the next week. Grant wasn't slated to attend the wedding. According to her information, he should have been working recon on a new case in Vegas. With one conversation, he could ruin her plans for a clean capture. She had only seconds to head him off.
Well, that's what plan B was for, she mused. Jo popped open one more button on her blouse and rushed back toward Thomas. "Excuse me, sir? Seat A2, right?"
His brow puckered and she knew he was trying to place her from the airplane. "I worked coach," she explained. "But I spotted this in your seat on my way out."
She flashed an overly bright smile and handed him a passport. "That's you, right?"
He opened it and, startled, gazed up at her. "Who are you?"
"You know me," she murmured, leaning closer. "Thomas." His eyes went wide as he recognized her voice under the disguise.
"I need you." The words were out, full of more truth than she cared to admit regarding their past, present and quite possibly their immediate future.
He nodded once, all business, and fell in beside her as she headed toward an employee access. She refused to look back, though she could feel Grant closing in as the door locked behind them.
"Tell me what's going on, Jo."
She ignored the ripple of awareness that followed his using her given name. It wasn't the reaction she'd expected. Thomas always treated everyone with efficient professionalism. Except for that one notable, extremely personal, incident years ago.
"I'll tell you everything just as soon as we're out of here." She checked her watch. They had less than five minutes before the cabbie she'd paid to wait left in search of another fare. In this weather they'd never find another taxi. "Keep up. We have to get out of the area before the roads are closed." She'd taken precautions, given herself options, but no one could prepare for a freak blizzard.
"Are you in trouble?"
"Yes." On one too many levels, she realized. But it was too late to back out now. If she didn't follow through, someone more objective would take over the investigation. Based on what she'd seen, she didn't think that was a good idea.
Moving forward, she hoped some deep-seated instinct kicked in, making him curious enough to cooperate with her. Grant wasn't just one of his Specialists, he was the best of the current crop. He'd been tagged to replace Deputy Director Holt, the man who held the position in which Lucas Camp had once served, when the deputy eventually moved up to replace Thomas.
The Initiative committee had approved the plan. Right now, she wondered what the hell they'd been thinking.
Would the day ever come when his voice didn't create that shiver of anticipation? "No time."
"I need an explanation."
"And I'll give you one when we're away from the airport."
"Jo." He caught her arm, forced her to stop and really look at him.
Airport employees passed by, moving to and from their respective duties with various degrees of interest in their obviously strained interaction. She made mental notes, knew he was doing the same. Always an eye out for the next threat.
"A particular German mission file crossed my desk last week."
She fingered the disk in her pocket. Loaded with enough sedative to guarantee his cooperation, she hesitated to use it. And she knew without reservation that she would get only one chance. "This was the only time we could talk safely." Or so she'd thought.
"I've booked a hotel room," he said. "We can talk there."
"Fine." Better if he believed she'd willingly compromise. "I have a cab waiting."
At last he fell into step beside her once more, giving her hope this would go well. It almost felt like old times. Almost.
Back then she thought they'd been on the same page, working together toward a common goal. After five years apart on diverging career paths, after reading through so many reports of success from his Specialists who routinely went above and beyond mission parameters, she wasn't sure they could ever be on the same page again.
She might be sure he wasn't a traitor, she just wasn't so sure anymore that she was in the same league as the man behind the stoic, black ops armor.
Mission Recovery Specialist Jason Grant had successfully shadowed Agent DeRossi to Denver, Colorado. On her tail for several days, he knew the hotel she'd been staying in wasn't within government per diem limits and, thanks to the GPS tag he'd put on her rental, he'd learned she liked to shop in ritzy boutiques.
For as long as he'd been tracking her, he hadn't recognized any of her contacts. If Deputy Director Holt hadn't sent him out here personally, he might think this was a wild goose chase. As it was, he was starting to question the rumor claiming she was here on a Mission Recovery witch hunt. Didn't look that way to him.
Her return to the airport in a flight attendant uniform piqued his curiosity. He hoped whoever she was here to meet appreciated her effort. She looked pretty damned hot.
He'd followed her through the terminal, but if she'd made contact with anyone, it had been too subtle for him to catch. As a well-trained and experienced member of Mission Recovery, getting something by him was highly unlikely and the thought that she'd managed it made him nervous. And definitely ticked him off.
Beyond the windows of the airport, the storm rolled down from the mountains like an avalanche, blanketing the city with snow and ice. He didn't care for the idea of being stuck in an airport with thousands of stranded travelers, so it was a relief when DeRossi finally started to move. Until he lost her.
Her curly blond wig was gone. The bright red blazer of the airline she'd falsely represented was absent from the crowd of travelers milling about. He cursed his arrogance. His boss had warned him she was top of the game, but Jason hadn't been concerned. The woman had been riding a desk for more than three years. However sharp she had once been, she couldn't be on the top of her game these days.
His gaze continued to roam the crowd. She hadn't been that far ahead of him. He tucked himself into a place at the end of the escalators where he could keep an eye on the restrooms as well as the main path to baggage claim.
He gave it three long minutes before he admitted the truth. She'd gotten away. Because she'd spotted him or because she'd completed whatever she'd been sent to do here?
He dialed Deputy Director Holt but the call went straight to voice mail. Probably for the best. Reporting a screw-up like losing the target was way, way low on the list of his favorite activities.
Other than telling him to watch her and report her activities, no one had really briefed him on the real reason why DeRossi was in Colorado at the same time as Director Casey. Having her in the airport at the time of his arrival had to be more than coincidence, but so far as he'd been able to observe she hadn't made contact.
He'd never met a field agent who liked oversight divisionswhether it was the Internal Affairs divisions of police departments or the covert equivalent of the Initiative committee.
An airport security cart whizzed by and Jason decided it was time to get creative. If he could get into the security office, maybe he'd get lucky and spot her on one of the many video feeds they monitored.
He considered fabricating an elaborate story and settled on a lower-risk version of the truth. Following the cart to the nearest security team office, he walked in, credentials ready.
"Can I help you?"
Jason flipped open the wallet with a badge and ID card as he surveyed the entire space. The security office setup was familiar. One uniformed person at the desk, a couple of others in offices that overlooked the small reception area. He glanced at the one closed door and assumed that was where all the real information was hidden.
"Good afternoon." He smiled, throwing in a little charm since the uniform was female. "I'm Agent Grant. I was tailing a suspect and she managed to ditch me at baggage claim," he said with just the right blend of irritation and embarrassment. It was a skill he'd picked up during his time in law enforcement.
"I need a look at your cameras, see if I can spot her. Consider it a professional courtesy," he added. "I really don't want to have to hear about this mistake for the rest of my life, if I can avoid it."
She smiled just a little and made a call to her immediate superior. Feeling the eyes on him, he let his shoulders slump as he tucked his badge away, playing the part of the guy who was having a bad day.
It worked. She hung up the phone and walked him over to the closed door.
Two men in airport security uniforms watched the cycling views of the area from the escalators to the exit doors on the wide bank of monitors. Reading the labels under each, he soon had a feel for each area covered by the closed-circuit cameras.
Public areas, employee-only access and the walkways and streets just outside the terminal. Where was she? She wasn't loitering in baggage claim. Not in the rental car line either.
"Who are you looking for?"
"Flight attendant. Female. Blonde. In a red blazer." And with less than a minute a good operative could have changed any one of those distinguishing features. He'd given her three minutes plus the time it had taken him to get in here.
DeRossi was an oversight agent. Hadn't pushed anything more dangerous than paper in a couple of years. He wanted to bang his head against the wall for underestimating her. No one working any aspect of covert ops got hired or moved up the food chain by accident.
Still. She'd shown no sign of spotting him tailing her and it wasn't entirely unreasonable to believe her field skills would be rusty.
"Hot?" one of the guards asked.
"Aren't they all?" Grant mused.
"Sure," the guard admitted with a smirk. "But a few stand out. Let me cue this for you."
Jason waited the few seconds, let the guard zoom in. "Yeah, that's her," he said, stopping just shy of a fist pump. DeRossi strolled down an employee access hall with a businessman at her side. There was a brief conversation, then they moved again, out of the camera's view. "Where did she go?"
"Got her," the other guard said. "She went into a cab with the dude."