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"That's all we have?"
Undercover operative Dayna Duncan lifted a sun-bleached brow. Her green eyes, so vivid against her tanned skin, locked on her boss.
"Wu Kim Li is playing in the Women's International Pro-Am Charity Tournament and whispered an urgent message to another golfer that her father is flying to Scotland to watch her compete?"
"That's all we have," Nick Jensen confirmed.
Nick, code name Lightning, had run the ultra-secret organization known only as OMEGA for more years than he wanted to count now. It was headquartered in a brick town house just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s embassy district. A discreet bronze plaque beside the front door identified the building as home to the offices of the President's Special Envoyone of those meaningless titles given to well-heeled contributors to campaign war chests. Not more than a handful of insiders knew the Special Envoy also served as director of an organization so small and so secret that its agents were activated only at the request of the President himself.
One of those agents was preparing to go into the field now. Dayna Duncan, code name Rogue, had arrived at the town house via a secret underground access and been whisked up to OMEGA's high-tech Control Center mere moments ago. This wasn't Dayna's first op, by any means, but from the little she'd heard so far, it sounded as though it might be right up her alley.
Lightning's next question confirmed her guess. "What kind of handicap are you carrying these days?"
"A two," she replied, scrunching her nose in disgust. Golf was more of a hobby now than the passion it had once been, but Dayna still played to win.
"You do know," her boss drawled, "most of us weekend duffers would kill for a two handicap?"
"I'll be back to scratch by the Pro-Am Charity Tournament," she predicted confidently. "You are sending me to Scotland to get close to Wu and her daddy, aren't you?"
A former college all-star athlete, Dayna had twice won Olympic gold in the controlled mayhem known as white-water kayaking. She took her code name from the Rogue River in Oregon, where she'd first learned to run rapids. Her current job as a consultant at one of the nation's foremost outdoor sports-training centers gave her both flexibility and the perfect cover for her OMEGA assignments.
Especially this one. Eighteen-year-old golf prodigy Wu Kim Li was one of those international celebrities everyone loved to hate. Incredibly skilled, obnoxiously temperamental, the North Korean won as many fans by sinking a long putt as she turned off by her tirades when she missed a short one. But it was the golfer's father who had captured OMEGA's attention.
"What's the story on Dr.Wu?" she asked. "I know he's some kind of a scientist working on hush-hush stuff."
Nick flicked a switch and filled the Control Center's wall-size screen with the intent, unsmiling face of Wu Kim Li's father. "This is our most recent photo of Dr. Wu XiaDong. The photo was hard to come by, as he hasn't traveled outside North Korea in almost a decade. His government keeps him on a short leash. No surprise, considering he's one of their foremost nuclear weapons engineers."
"Uh-oh. I'm guessing that doesn't make him real popular with the White House."
"To put it mildly."
Relations between the United States and North Korea, always shaky, had deteriorated steadily in recent months over Korea's stubborn determination to develop nuclear weapons. The situation had become so tense that the State Department had warned U.S. citizens to think twice about doing business with or traveling to North Korea. As Dayna studied the face on the screen, she wondered how much Dr. Wu had contributed to those tensions.
"What's the thinking?" she asked. "Why did Kim Li whisper that urgent message about her father's attendance at the golf tournament in Scotland?"
"The CIA has picked up subtle vibes that Wu is chafing under the constraints his government imposes on him. They're convinced he wants to defect. Your task will be to find out if that's true and, if so, effect the escape."
Nick didn't have to tell his agent how absolutely vital this op was to U.S. national security. Her low whistle indicated she'd grasped the implications immediately.
"What about the daughter? Is she in on this, too?"
"We think so."
He brought another photo up on the screen. This one captured Wu Kim Li in midswing, displaying the perfect form and incredible power that had led the media to christen her Tigress Wu.
"As you well know," Nick said, "she makes millions in product endorsements. Since she lives in a Communist state, however, only a fraction of those revenues come to her personally."
"If that," Dayna commented. "I've competed against athletes from Communist countries. The State produces them, the State reaps the reward. Particularly North Korea. They won't let their athletes train anywhere but in their own country."
"Precisely. And Wu has more than product endorsements to tempt her. She's hinted that she's interested in a possible career in the movies."
"She certainly has the face and figure for it," Dayna agreed. "Too bad she's such a little bitch. Hollywood will have trouble casting her as anything but a werewolf."
Nick left the photo on the screen as he studied his field agent. Wu Kim Li wasn't the only athlete with the face and figure to make it big in Hollywood. Rogue's shoulder-length tumble of honey-colored hair framed a face dominated by sculpted cheekbones and wide, forest-green eyes. Regular and strenuous exercise had honed her body to a perfect symmetry of line and curve. Posters of her lithe form molded by the wet suit she'd worn in her last run for Olympic gold still sold for megabucks on eBay.
"Think you can get past Wu's bitchiness and gain her trust?"
"The first task, sure. The second task might be tougher. I'll find some way to connect, though."
Lightning nodded. Rogue was one of his top operatives. If anyone could crack through Wu Kim Li's ring of bodyguards and watchdogs, she could.
"While you work the daughter, Hawkeye will work the father."
Surprised, Rogue flicked a glance at the world map on the wall of the Control Center. Signals sent via GPS satellites pinpointed the exact location of the three OMEGA agents currently in the field. One of them was Mike Callahan, code name Hawkeye.
"Isn't Hawk in Algeria?"
"He is, but he's about to wrap things up there. He'll fly from Algiers and connect with you in Scotland."
"Good. We work well together."
No surprise there, Nick thought.A former military cop and world-class sharpshooter, Mike Callahan had racked up almost as many trophies and titles in his field of expertise as Dayna had in hers. They had nothing but respect for each otheron and off the job.
Now, for the tricky part.
Hitting the switch, Nick took Wu Kim Li's face off the screen and replaced it with an aerial map of Scotland. The town of St. Andrews sat midway up the east coast, at the tip of a peninsula that jutted into the North Sea. Zooming in, Nick focused on the Royal Air Force Base a few kilometers from the town.
"If you confirm the Wus want to defect, the best place for the extraction is here, at RAF Leuchars."
Dayna agreed with his assessment. "It's been years since I played St. Andrews, but I remember seeing British fighters landing and taking off from the base."
"British fighters aren't the only planes bedded down at RAF Leuchars. The U.S. also has a detachment of B-2 Stealth bombers there."
"I didn't know that."
"Few people do. The British government is under intense fire for its support of the Iraqi War. A growing antiwar movement doesn't want to see that support continue or expand. When word leaked that the B-2s might go in at RAF Fairford, in the south of England, suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers infiltrated what began as a peaceful protest march and turned it into a near riot. As a result, the U.S. and U.K. governments decided to bed the B-2s down farther north, outside St. Andrews. So far the presence of the bombers at RAF Leuchars has remained an uncon-firmed rumor among the local populace."
He swiveled his chair, turning away from the screen to watch Rogue's reaction to his next comment.
"We have a detachment of USAF aircrews and support personnel at RAF Leuchars. One of the pilots is Captain Luke Harper."
Rogue was good. Damned good. Her green eyes showed only a bare flicker of emotion.
"Luke and I are ancient history."
Not that ancient. The romance between one of America's most promisingand photogenicathletes and her handsome young lieutenant had made for great TV spots during the hype leading up to the 2004 Olympics. They were the perfect couplethe tanned, charismatic golden girl with the flashing smile and infectious enthusiasm for her sport and the air-force pilot she'd met while they were both students at the University of Colorado.
Their romance died an abrupt death six months before the Olympics. In subsequent interviews, Dayna had turned aside the inevitable questions about her love life with a laugh and vague references to the difficulty of sustaining a long-distance relationship. There had been no lack of men in her life in the years since, but none had lasted long or generated the kind of intense media interest as her first and very public love.
"I can have Harper transferred off the base if you think he might compromise this op in any way," Lightning told her. "Just say the word."
Rogue had been in the business too long to dismiss the suggestion without giving it serious consideration. Lips pursed, she examined the issue from all angles.
"The only problem I see is if the media picks up on his presence and connects him to the Stealth Bombers."
"Security at the base is airtight. As far as the general public knows, the USAF personnel stationed there are attached to the RAF fighter wing as part of an exchange program. I'm more concerned that Harper's presence might impact your performance in the tournament."
Rogue didn't hesitate this time. "Breaking up with Luke Harper didn't throw me off stride in the Olympics. After all these years, the mere fact that he's stationed at an air base a few kilometers away isn't going to affect my game."
Which brought them around to another touchy subject, one Lightning suspected might generate even more sparks.
The Women's International Pro-Am Charity Tournament was open to any amateur or professional golfer willing to put up the ten-thousand-dollar entry fee. While the main object was to raise money for the International Red Cross, it was still a competition. All entrants could play the first two qualifying rounds. Only those posting the lowest scores would make the cut for the final two rounds.
"Barring some unforeseen disaster," he said, bracing himself for the explosion he knew would come,
"Wu Kim Li will compete in the final rounds. We need to make sure you do, too."
"Make sure?" Deep creases slashed into her forehead. "You're not suggesting we rig the tournament, are you?"
"C'mon, boss! I've never cheated in my life and don't intend to start now. I know my golf game is a little rusty, but I'll make the cut."
"I'm sure you will, too. Assuming worst-case scenario, however
"There is no worst-case scenario," Rogue countered stubbornly. "I will make the cut."
"Assuming worst-case scenario," Nick continued with unruffled calm, "we need to make sure you at least tie with the last-place finisher in the qualifying rounds so you both go on to the championship round."
She didn't like it. He could see disgust written all over her face. She'd come around, though. She understood the stakes in this game and would balance her sporting instincts against the needs of the United States.
It took a few minutes. Her teeth stayed locked. A muscle twitched in the side of her jaw. Her fingers drummed a furious tattoo on the console.
"Okay," she finally conceded. "Assuming worst-case scenario, how do we pull it off?"
A rueful smile spread across Nick's face. His wife, the guru of all things electronic for OMEGA and several other government agencies, had jumped at this challenge. Mackenzie was huddled with the wizards in OMEGA'S Field Dress Unit now.
"Mac is waiting for you upstairs. She's been working on several devices."
Uh-oh was right. Thankfully, FDU's labs were sound-, shock wave-and bombproof. Its walls would contain the blast when Rogue saw what Mac and her diabolical geniuses had come up with.