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Nick Jensen, codenamed Lightning, took the call while attending a noisy, exuberant Fourth of July party at the MacLean, Virginia, home of Maggie and Adam Ridgeway. One of Washington, D.C.'s, true power couples, the Ridgeways were on a firstname basis with presidents and prime ministers, ambassadors and news anchors. They also sat on the boards of a half dozen charities that administered to the desperate needs of millions around the world.
The guest list at this particular party, however, didn't include the rich and famous. Instead, they'd limited it to the members of a small, very elite organization and their families. Nick's wife and twin boys formed one of the boisterous teams tossing water darts in the shallow end of the pool. Maggie and Adam's adopted grandchildren, Young Tau and Mei Lin, had roped their father into anchoring a second team. A very pregnant, very glowing Claire Cantrell Esteban, code name Cyrene, watched their antics from a shaded lawn chair. Maggie and Adam's equally pregnant eldest daughter Gillian kept Claire company.
As his gaze roamed the crowd, a fist seemed to reach into Nick's chest and grab his heart. These people were his life, the family he'd never had. He couldn't imagine a more different world from the one he'd roamed as a skinny, halfstarved twelveyearold. The backstreets of Cannes seemed a thousand lightyears away.
As if reading his mind, the woman who'd rescued him from those streets wove through the picnic tables and slipped a hand through the crook of Nick's arm. "Our ranks keep growing, don't they?" Her smiling eyes lingered on the two pregnant women. "Literally and figuratively."
Nick glanced down at the nowretired operative he'd once offered to pimp for. Damned if Maggie Sinclair couldn't still command that kind of highly specialized service. Her brown eyes glowed with the vitality she brought to everything she did and her sparkling personality still made folks sit up and take notice whenever she walked into a room.
"Speaking of our ranks growing
" Nick tipped his chin toward a twosome engaged in a mock duel.
A diminutive, curly haired Xenia, queen of the universe, swung her plastic laser sword. Adam Ridgeway II countered her thrusts with barbecue tongs. As tall and broadshouldered as his father, Adam had inherited his mother's quicksilver grin and irrepressible sense of humor. He'd earned the nickname Tank on his own. Even as a small child, he exhibited a tendency to charge headlong into any and every situation. A Harvard law degree, a stint as Navy JAG and his current job as an assistant district attorney had tempered that tendencybut not his energy or thirst for new challenges.
He was up for another new direction, one that involved Nick and the woman standing beside him. Bracing himself for her reaction, Nick turned to Maggie.
"You know Tank came to see me yesterday, right?"
Most of Washington's elite recognized him as the President's Special Envoy. The largely honorific position had been created years ago as a reward for wealthy campaign contributors. Only a handful of trusted insiders knew the Special Envoy also served as director of OMEGA, an agency so secret it wouldn't be found on any government organizational chart.
Nick wasn't the only one at the party to carry the dual titles and heavy responsibilities. Both Maggie and her husband had headed OMEGA after spending time as field operatives. Their eldest daughter, Gillian, had also joined the ranks, but the acquisition of a readymade family during her first op had limited her undercover activities. All three knew firsthand the dangers inherent in those ops, however. So Nick wasn't surprised at the small sigh that preceded Maggie's reply.
"Tank told us he'd talked to you."
"With his training and background, he's a natural." He waited a beat, two. "So will you carve me into bitesize pieces if I welcome him to our ranks?"
"According to Tank, there's no 'if' about it."
The tart response produced a wry grin. "Okay, I admit it. I want him. Unless you or Adam say otherwise, I'd like to have him understudy as controller on the next op."
"It's your decision." Maggie's glance lingered on her son. "And his."
" A low but very distinctive ping from his cell phone cut him off. "Sorry. I need to take this."
She nodded her understanding. She'd been on the other end of enough calls from the president to understand the urgency. She watched Nick turn away to take the call, saw his shoulders stiffen as he transitioned into full Lightning mode. With a small sigh, she knew he would have to leave the partyand would take her son with him.
Twenty minutes later, Lightning pulled his JAG into his reserved spot in front of an elegant brick town house in the heart of D.C.'s embassy district. He and Tank emerged from the lowslung sports car and mounted the steps to the crimsonpainted door with easy strides that belied their tensionLightning's came from knowing he was about to send one or more of his operatives into the field, Tank's from finally becoming part of the organization that was in his blood.
The elegantly appointed offices of the Special Envoy occupied the town house's first two floors. OMEGA's ultra hightech Control Center took up the third. Since the downstairs offices were closed in honor of the Fourth of July, Nick and Adam headed straight for the concealed elevator that whisked them up to the Control Center.
The epicenter of OMEGA thrummed with activity. Communications techs monitored message traffic at two consoles on one side of the room. A former CIA analyst peered at satellite imagery on the other. Lightning nodded to them by way of greeting and went directly to the agent manning the center console.
"You know Adam Ridgeway, don't you?"
"Sure do." Clint Black, codenamed Blade, thrust out a hand. "How's it going, Tank?"
Blade's greeting was polite enough but he gave his boss a quick, questioning glance. Civilians, even one with this man's background and credentials, weren't normally admitted to the upper sanctum.
Lightning explained the apparent security breach with a brief announcement to the room at large. "AdamTankis joining OMEGA."
After a round of backslapping and congratulations from the onduty crew, Lightning took a seat at the console positioned to give full view of the wallsize screens. The screen on the left contained a world map with glowing amber lights denoting the location of active OMEGA agents. Only one light was illuminated at the moment, indicating an agent currently in deep cover. The screen on the right provided the status and locale of operatives not in the field.
Blade used the center screen to update his boss. He'd been busy since Lightning's call less than a half hour ago. A click of a mouse brought up a digitized copy of a driver's license.
"This is Vivian Bauer, age thirtyfour, current residence Arlington, Texas. According to the entry she posted on her Facebook page, she's in the process of cleaning out her grandfather's attic following his death last month. The grandfather was Thomas Bauer, eightynine, retired high school football coach."
Another image flashed up on the screen, this one of a tiredeyed, stubblecheeked soldier in a WWII helmet and uniform.
"Bauer served with the 45th Infantry Division in Europe from April 1943, to July 1945. And this" Blade brought up a third image "is the item Bauer's granddaughter claims to have found with his old uniform and service ribbons in a trunk in his attic."
Lightning leaned forward, his eyes narrowing on a small round mosaic in varying shades of yellow. At the center of the mosaic were the curled petals of a rose.
"Bauer's Facebook entry generated a spate of comments," Blade related. "Mostly condolences on her grandfather's death. Then came this one from Dr. Renee Dawson, professor of Art History, New York University."
The professor's input was brief. Only two lines. But her comment that the rose medallion looked very similar to one from a panel of Russia's famous Amber Room had triggered an instant reaction in the White House.
As the president had reminded Lightning during their brief conversation less than an hour ago, he'd recently had to armtwist the Senate into ratifying a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that had been decades in the making. He didn't want anything jeopardizing what both sides hoped would be a new era in international relations.
"The president's not too thrilled with the possibility that a U.S. serviceman may have had a piece from one of Russia's lost national treasures in his possession. It could prove an embarrassment."
Tank gave a low whistle. "More than an embarrassment. The Department of Justice is still working the fallout from the Hungarian Holocaust survivors' lawsuit settled a few years ago."
Lightning picked up on the comment immediately. "Wasn't that the suit involving the Treasure Train?"
"It was. The survivors alleged the U.S. Army mishandled millions of dollars worth of their property confiscated during WWII. The DOJ settled to the tune of twentyfive million in reparations."
A former army grunt, Blade didn't appreciate this slur on his service. But it was hard to dispute the facts that had come out during the muchpublicized lawsuit.
Fact: the proNazi Hungarian government had confiscated the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of gold, jewelry, Persian carpets, artwork, cameras, silver cutlery and other valuables from Jews prior to sending them to concentration camps. Fact: German troops had loaded the looted property into boxcars for shipment to Berlin in the last, chaotic days of the war. Fact: American forces had discovered the infamous Gold Train hidden inside a cave in Austria.
After U.S. authorities decided they had no way to properly identify and return the thousands upon thousands of confiscated items, they transferred the train's contents to the International Refugee Organization. The IRO subsequently auctioned the items to provide relief for Jewish refugees and displaced persons.
Unfortunately, some of the looted items found their way into the offices and residences of senior U.S. military officers. Worse, robbers broke into the warehouse where the Gold Train contents were stored. Although some of the thieves were caught, prosecuted and punished, only a small portion of the stolen property was ever recovered.
So after decades of wrangling, the Hungarian Holocaust survivors sued the U.S. government on the grounds that it had failed to adequately protect their property. As Tank just pointed out, the settlement cost the DOJ a big chunk of change.
Now the U.S. faced the possibility that another of its WWIIera soldiers might have had stolen loot in his possessionthis time from a longlost Russian national treasure worth billions in today's currency. If so, the situation could put a decided dent in Russian/U.S. relations.
"I want you on a plane to Dallas within an hour," Lightning instructed Blade. "You and Rebel."
The operative's expression didn't change but OMEGA's director knew him well enough to detect the ripple just under his skin.
"Rebel pulled a tour as Assistant Air Attache in Moscow during her Air Force days," Lightning reminded him. "She still has contacts that might prove useful."
Blade grunted an assent. So the woman rubbed him the wrong way at times? Okay, most of the time. They were both pros and they worked well together when they weren't scraping on each other's nerves.
"I'll call in Dodge to work with Tank as your controller," Lightning added. "He's got some useful contacts in Moscow, too."
He should, since he'd recently married an icily gorgeous Russian colonel.
Relieved that he'd have both Dodge and Tank watching his back, Blade contacted Vivian Bauer. She was surprised and a little wary to receive a call from a government official but agreed to an early evening meeting.
That done, he grabbed the file of data he'd hastily pulled together. He thought about hitting up OMEGA's Field Dress Unit for a sport coat but decided his jeans, black Tshirt and denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up would do in the summer heat.
He did stop by OMEGA's armory, though, to secure additional clips for his automatic. With the Sig nestled in its ankle holster and the bone knife he'd had crafted to his exact specifications in its leather sheath, Blade headed for Andrews Air Force Base.
He'd just parked and swung out of his pickup when Victoria Talbot, code name Rebel, roared up on her latest toy. The Ducati S2R had a max speed of 300 mph and a clutch as smooth as Irish cream. Or so Rebel claimed.
She spun to a halt less than two feet from where Blade stood and threw up a cloud of dust that made his jaw tighten. It torqued another notch when she heeled the aluminum side stand and swung off the bike. She'd come right from the Ridgeways' Fourth of July party, so she wasn't wearing her usual protective leather. Her scoopnecked red tank and thighhugging jeans might not have deflected many bugs but they skimmed her tall, slender form in a way that made his throat go dry.
"I called ahead," she said as she dropped the Ducati's keys into the envelopestyle purse slung across her chest. From past ops, Blade knew the slim pouch held her weapon and communications device, along with tools that could transform her from biker babe to deweyeyed coed with a few swipes of lip gloss and eyeliner.
"They're revving up a T39 for us," she informed him airily. "You can brief me on the situation when we're in the air."
"I can, huh."
Ignoring the sardonic reply, she started for Base Operations in her hipswinging, longlegged stride. Blade trailed behind and tried without notable success to keep his eyes off her jeanscovered butt.
Iridescent waves of aviation fuel shimmered above the hot tarmac. Rebel sucked in its stink greedily and wondered how many missions she'd flown out of Andrews while assigned to the Presidential Support Squadron. A hundred? Two? Wishing to heck she could be at the controls of the sleek executive jet sitting in its chocks, she led the way into Base Operations and out to the aircraft. The pilot was in the cockpit, the copilot waiting at the hatch. She didn't recognize the young captain but he recognized her.
"Good to finally meet you, Major Talbot. I've heard a lot about you."
"All lies," she countered, grinning.
He laughed and waited for his passengers to buckle in before providing an update on weather and fuel. "We're estimating two hours fifteen minutes flying time."
Rebel nodded. "That's how I figured it."
"Now for the civilians on board
The young captain shifted his attention to Blade for the required safety briefing. When he was done, he swung back to Rebel.
"I gotta ask. Did you really tell the Air Force Academy Superintendent he must have crawled out from under a rock back in the Pleistocene Age?"
"I'm pretty sure I didn't use those precise words."
"But you did refuse to submit to some of the more sexist forms of hazing."
"Actually, I refused to submit to any form of sexist hazing."
"Nothing's changed there," Blade murmured as the captain went forward.
Rebel shifted in her seat to regard Clint Black. He returned her look with a bland one of his own, but she knew he was thinking of their titanic clash during her first week at OMEGA.
Black had been kidding around with two other agents. Didn't have a clue OMEGA's newest recruit was in the vicinity. Or that she would prove so damned touchy when he wondered aloud whether she had the training and/or skill to take down two hundred plus pounds of raging male. She'd smiled sweetly, batted her lashes and proceeded to toss him on his ass.
They'd put the incident behind them. They were both too professional not to. But memory of the thud when he hit the floor still gave Rebel a private chuckle. What didn't amuse her was that she couldn't quite forget how Black's lean, hard body had felt when she flipped it over hers.