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November, present day
An early frost glittered on the naked limbs of the chestnut trees lining the quiet side street just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s, embassy district. Commuters pouring out of the Metro stop at the corner kept their heads down against the biting wind as they hurried to work.
If any had happened to glance at the elegant three-story town house halfway down the block, they might have noticed the discreet bronze plaque beside the door. The plaque indicated the structure housed the offices of the President's Special Envoy.
The title was held by Nick Jensen, a jet-setting restaurateur who owned a string of exclusive watering holes that catered to the rich and famous around the world. Only a handful of Washington insiders knew that title masked Jensen's real job—director of OMEGA. The small, ultrasecret organization sent its operatives into the field only at the request of the president himself.
One of those agents had just been activated. Andrew McDowell—code name Riever—sat at the briefing table in the high-tech control center on the top floor of the town house. Shielded from penetration by every electronic eavesdropping device known to man, the control center hummed with the pulse of OMEGA's heartbeat.
Frowning, Drew skimmed the data projected onto the screen taking up almost the whole north wall. There wasn't much to skim. Just a list of Internet queries seeking information on the USS Kallister. Several of the queries cited a sailing date of 15 November and requested information on the ship's course and cargo. The problem was, that course was classified. So was the cargo in the hold of the refurbished WWII-era ship.
The rust bucket that had hauled explosives across the Pacific during the war had been torpedoed and almost sunk. Mothballed after the war, it had been refitted and recommissioned in the late '60s to meet the escalating demands of the Vietnam conflict.
Now it carried a secret cargo—so secret, every circuit at the White House situation room had popped when the vigilant watchdogs at NSA plucked this string of queries out of the billions their computers screened every day.
"What do you think, Riever?"
Drew had derived his code name from the fierce raiders who wreaked such havoc on theAnglo-Scottish border in past centuries. Like his long-ago ancestors, he was hawk-eyed and broad-shouldered enough to swing a claymore. He felt the urge to swing one now.
He'd served a hitch in the navy before being recruited by OMEGA. That was almost eight years ago, but there was enough of the sailor left in him to generate a cold, deadly fury at the possibility someone might deliberately put a U.S. vessel at risk.
"I think," he said to his boss, "I'd better haul my ass out to the west coast and check out the female who generated these queries. What have we got on her so far?"
"Not much," Nick Jensen replied. Tall, tanned and tawny-haired, the one-time agent with the code name Lightning nodded to the console operator. A click of a mouse brought up the digitized image of a Washington state driver's license.
According to the DMV, Tracy Brandt was twenty-eight years old, stood five-six and weighed a respectable one hundred and thirty-two pounds. No anorexic toothpick there.
The camera must have caught Brandt by surprise.
Her picture showed a brunette with startled green eyes and a light dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
"Ms. Brandt worked as a budget analyst at the Puget Sound shipyards until two weeks ago," Lightning advised Drew. "Her supervisor says he fired her because of repeated absences from work. He also says she told him he'd be sorry for letting her go."
Uh-oh. A defensive employee fired for cause. Talk about your basic formula for disaster.
"What about her security clearances?"
"She crunched payroll numbers. Nothing that required a top-secret clearance. Certainly nothing that would give her access to the cargo packed in the hold of the Kallister."
Lightning drummed his fingers on the table. He knew what the Kallister was hauling. He was one of a very small, very select circle who did.
"Brandt's address checks to an apartment complex in Puget Sound, but the electronic queries emanated from Southern California. An Internet café on Catalina Island, to be specific."
"What's she doing there?"
"That's what you're going to find out. She used her Visa to check into the Bella Vista Inn. We got the manager to move out the folks in the room next to hers. He's holding it for you."
A thin smile stretched Drew's lips. With the array of electronic gadgetry available to OMEGA agents, Ms. Brandt had better watch what she said or did, even in the privacy of her bedroom.
"We're sending a team to Puget Sound to talk to her former coworkers," Lightning advised. "We'll let you know what, if anything, they turn up."
Lightning's nod encompassed the blonde on the other side of the table. "Denise will act as your controller here at headquarters."
A former Secret Service agent, Denise Kowalski had pumped a bullet into the man she believed was attacking the vice president. The veep had actually been another OMEGA agent in disguise, but Denise's cool head had so impressed everyone involved that the director at the time had requested she be transferred to OMEGA. Drew couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have as his controller.
"Let us know when you make contact with the target," Lightning instructed. "I need to advise the president."
Shoving back his chair, Drew took the stairs to the field dress unit. The wizards in FDU fitted him with an array of sophisticated communications devices and a .45-caliber Glock they'd regripped especially for his hand. After a final session with Denise to work out a reporting schedule, he departed the town house via a hidden back exit. A half hour later he was on his way to sun-drenched Southern California.
• * *
Given the time change, it was barely noon when he landed at LAX, rented a car and drove south to Dana Point. From there it was a forty-minute hydrofoil trip to Catalina, some twenty-six miles off the coast.
The hydrofoil docked in the town of Avalon. Surrounded by steep mountains, the tiny resort snuggled up to a crescent-shaped harbor crowded with fishing boats, cabin cruisers and sleek sailboats. A tall round building with a red roof stood on a spit of rock at the north end of the harbor. Drew's tourist map identified it as the Avalon Casino, the '30s-era movie theater and ballroom that constituted the island's premier tourist attraction.
He'd already been warned that vehicle traffic was restricted on Catalina. Residents depended mainly on golf carts as the primary mode of transportation. Several carts were waiting at the dock to perform taxi service, but Drew opted to heft his carryall and follow a paved walkway to the center of town. A zigzagging side street led up a steep hill to the Bella Vista Inn.
It was a Victorian whimsy set high above the bay. The wraparound porch gave a sweeping view of the hills, the harbor and the casino. Riever accepted an old-fashioned iron key and climbed a winding staircase to the second floor room labeled "Seagull Suite."
The reason for the label became apparent the moment he stepped out onto the suite's minuscule balcony. Gulls squawked and circled overhead. One particularly intrepid creature swooped onto the wooden railing and hopped to within a foot of Drew.
"Sorry, pal. I don't have anything for you."
The gull ruffled his feathers and danced another inch or two, head cocked expectantly. Like most sailors, Drew wasn't particularly fond of gulls and the messes they deposited on gleaming steel decks. This one was nothing if not persistent, however.
"Okay, okay. Let me check out the minibar."
He was tossing honey-roasted cashews to the gull when he spotted his target. She came out the front door of the inn and paused on the porch to zip up a pea-green windbreaker before starting down toward town. Riever smothered an oath, chucked the last of the cashews to the gull and went after her.
Tracy had no idea why she felt so compelled to take another tour of the Avalon Casino. She'd visited it yesterday, shortly after arriving on Catalina, and really didn't have time for a repeat visit. She'd traveled to the island on very private, very wrenching business.
She should get on with it, she thought with a little ache just under her ribs. Once it was done, she'd take the ferry back to the mainland, fly home to Washington and start looking for another job.
God knew she needed one. Her savings account was empty and she had less than two hundred dollars in her checking account. Thank goodness for credit cards, although she'd already maxed out two and was nudging close to the limit on her third. The finance company had repossessed her car last month, which had made getting back and forth to work a challenge. When she still had a job to get to, that is.
Her boss should have understood, she thought indignantly. Or at least been more sympathetic to her situation. She'd worked her butt off for the guy for almost six years. And covered his butt on more than one occasion! Yet when her vacation time had run out and she'd been forced to ask for leave without pay, the bastard had told her to choose between her job and Jack.
The ache just under her ribs intensified and seeped into her heart, drop by painful drop. She couldn't believe Jack had really left her. He'd been the only man in her life for so long. Her only friend. Her only family.
Racked by a loneliness that went bone deep, Tracy shoved her hands in the pockets of her pistachio-colored windbreaker and followed the cobbled walk that circled the harbor. November was a little too late in the year for swimmers, but a few determined sun-worshippers had spread towels on the beach and were soaking up rays. Other tourists strolled the pedestrians-only main boulevard. A blend of old Mexico and California chic, the street was lined with shops, restaurants and tall, swaying palms.
Head down, shoulders hunched, Tracy barely glanced at the shop windows. Her destination was the stucco arch at the far end of Crescent Avenue. The arch formed the entrance to another paved walk. This path led to the casino, which stood in majestic splendor at the north end of the harbor.