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Paige Ellis stared grimly at the gray turmoil of the ocean below. How was it the sea always so accurately reflected her mood? The weathered Adirondack chair beneath her was cold and hard, and somehow that was fitting, too. No comfort for her, no, sir.
Guilt writhed in her gut like a serpent, eating at her from the inside out. Not many television news journalists could lay claim to having single-handedly gotten their cameraman/best buddy/sometimes lover killed. Oh, sure, she hadn't technically come right out and asked him to try to track down that extremist group to set up an interview for her. But she'd darn well hinted around that it would mean the world to her if he could pull it off. She might not have killed Jerry outright, but his blood was on her hands, nonetheless.
Other people had argued that he should've known better, that he knew what he'd been getting into, that he was too much of a risk taker, and it had finally caught up with him. But her sense of responsibility was too deeply ingrained for her to let it go that easily.
She ought to throw herself over the cliff into the icy embrace of the sea and just let it take her. Except the fall was probably only about fifty feet and she doubted it would kill her. And even if it did, a cold, quick death was better than she deserved—
Her father's voice jerked her out of her dark thoughts. "I'm not taking any calls!"
Uh-oh. He was striding across the backyard with that Ellis jaw-jut going full force. "You need to take this one." He shoved the handset at her.
"Who is it?" She didn't reach for the phone. She wasn't kidding. She really didn't want to talk to anyone. Not to nosy reporters trying to find out how one of their own died, not to her boss at the TV network, and most certainly not to anyone who would attempt to talk her out of her self-recriminations yet again.
"Find out for yourself." Her father dropped the phone in her lap and stalked off.
Sheesh. What had his knickers in such a twist? She picked up the phone cautiously. "Hello?"
"Hello, Paige. My name's Vanessa Blake."
"Do I know you?"
"Not yet. But I'd like to meet you. I have a proposition for you. One you're going to find very interesting if I haven't misjudged you."
"Is this a sales call?" She was going to kill her father. "I'm so not interested in a time-share, or an overseas investment opportunity or in opening a mutual-fund account."
The woman at the other end of the line laughed in what sounded like genuine amusement. "Good. Neither am I. I work for the U.S. government. What I want to talk with you about is classified. Highly classified. Is there somewhere we can meet? I'll come to Maine if you'd like, or you can come to North Carolina to see me. Or, of course, we can meet halfway, say in Washington, D.C.? Neutral ground for both of us?"
Interest flared in Paige's gut. She smelled a juicy story. Particularly when this woman very smoothly wasn't taking no for an answer. Paige knew the technique well. She used it all the time herself to wrangle interviews out of people. A little flustered at being on the receiving end of her own bulldozer tactics, she belatedly answered, "I'd rather go to D.C."
Her parents' beach house was sacred. It was her final sanctuary, her last line of retreat from everything and everyone. Besides, if she was going to take control of the meeting with this Blake person, she might as well put the woman at ease. Let her think she was safe, get her to let her guard down.
Ms. Blake was speaking again. "I'll have a plane waiting for you in Bangor in four hours. I'll arrange your hotel in Washington tonight, and we can meet first thing tomorrow morning. Oh, and bring your passport. I'll take care of everything else."
The line went dead.
Paige stared in disbelief. That woman wasn't a bulldozer. She was an industrial-size steamroller! And four hours? It was nearly a three-hour drive to Bangor, and she'd still need to pack. Paige jumped to her feet and hurried to the house.
The plane turned out to be an unmarked Learjet that whisked her down the coast to Dulles International Airport. Dusk was falling on the nation's capitol as a similarly innocuous SUV met her at the plane and drove her to an understated hotel in Alexandria's Old Town neighborhood. It was the kind of place high-profile politicians might use to meet their mistresses or maybe meet a journalist on the sly. After all, the fine art of the news leak was alive and well in this city.
Who was Vanessa Blake?
In the last few minutes before she'd had to leave for Bangor International Airport, Paige had frantically researched her on the Internet and came up with absolutely nothing. In some ways, that was more telling than finding out the woman's life history. As far as Paige could tell after Net surfing high and low, nobody anywhere believed a Vanessa Blake in government service in North Carolina existed. Either the name was an alias or this woman worked in the intelligence community. Deep inside the intelligence community.
Paige's interest was piqued. How could it not be? To quote Crocodile Dundee, she was a reporter and a woman, and that made her the nosiest person on the planet.
A call from the hotel phone on the nightstand woke her up the next morning, and no surprise, the caller was Vanessa Blake. "Good morning, Paige. I hope I didn't wake you up."
"No, of course not." God, she hoped she didn't sound half-asleep.
"I'll be downstairs in Private Dining Room B in a half hour. How do you like your eggs?"
"Uh, sunny-side up with a side of bacon. Toast and grapefruit juice while you're at it, please."
"I'll see you in thirty minutes."
In spite of herself, Paige was a little intimidated. She didn't want to be late and put herself at an even bigger disadvantage. She hustled through a shower, grateful that her strawberry-blond hair needed only a quick hit from the blow-dryer to be wavy and lush around her face. She tossed on a little makeup and leaped into clothes with two minutes to spare. Thankfully, she didn't have to wait long for an elevator and strolled into the private dining room exactly on time per Vanessa's phone call, looking as cool and composed as could be.
Vanessa Blake looked to be in her mid-thirties. She was pretty, but not someone who would turn heads in a crowd. In fact, intuition told Paige that this woman worked to underplay her good looks most of the time. She didn't carry herself like a law-enforcement type. Not FBI, then. CIA, maybe? Paige's pulse jumped a little. When news stories came out of Langley, they were usually juicy.
Her quiet hostess seemed content to let Paige eat in peace, and the meal passed without any stunning revelations. Finally, Vanessa laid down her fork and linen napkin. Showtime. Paige leaned back casually, as if her every sense wasn't on the high alert that it was.
"For the record, Paige, I have an electronic jamming device in my purse that will prevent all listening devices from penetrating this room. It also will scramble any recording you try to make of this conversation."
That sent Paige's brows skyward. She replied, "If we're going to speak strictly off the record, then what is the point of this meeting? I have to be allowed to report the story."
Vanessa smiled. "I'm not speaking to you in your capacity as a journalist. I'm interested in you for another purpose altogether."
Okay, now she was confused. Where was this woman taking this? Was she being recruited to work for the CIA? Holy cow. Time to take the offensive. Aloud she asked, "Why me?"
"You fit my criteria…and very, very few women in this country achieve that," her cryptic companion replied.
Paige frowned. "I beg your pardon? What criteria?"
"You're smart. You're resourceful. You're an outside-the-box thinker. You're reasonably physically fit—although I'll improve on that quite a bit before it's all said and done. Your career puts you in a position to be extraordinarily useful to me because you can plausibly go places that most people aren't allowed to go."
Uh-huh. Recruiting me to be a spy.
Vanessa leaned forward and looked Paige square in the eye. "But most of all, you're motivated. You have a powerful and personal reason for accepting the offer I'm about to make you."
"And what is that reason?" Paige asked, vaguely alarmed now. Did this woman actually think she could blackmail a high-profile journalist into working for her?
"Jerry Sprague. Your cameraman, and if I don't miss my guess, significant other."
Paige involuntarily lurched back from the table.
Vanessa's gaze held hers forcefully, but her quiet voice continued inexorably. "The real story of what happened to Jerry Sprague. Not the sanitized one that was fed to the public, and to his family for that matter."
It was Paige's turn to stare aggressively. "How exactly do you know the real story?"
Vanessa didn't answer directly. But what she did say stunned Paige into frozen horror.
"Please allow me to express my condolences on your loss. Sprague was a good man, and that was an awful way for him to die. If I don't miss my guess a second time, you're hauling around a nearly unbearable burden of guilt at the moment." She paused and then added lightly, "I thought you might be interested in getting a little payback against the forces that did something like that to a friend and lover."
How on God's green Earth did this woman know she and Jerry had been occasional lovers? They'd been extremely discreet about their off-camera relationship. The network didn't even have any idea of it. Paige blurted, "Who are you to presume to know how I feel about Jerry's death?"
An infinite well of sadness and knowing filled Vanessa's gaze. Paige's anger dissolved abruptly in the face of this woman's compassion. Vanessa murmured, "You're not the only person in the world who's been touched by evil. Who's seen death. The only difference between you and me, Paige, is that you point cameras at it and I do something about it. Today, I'm offering you the chance to quit being merely an observer and take action."
"Who are you?" Paige demanded. She was startled to register something already unfolding in her gut in response to this woman's words. Whether it was yearning for redemption or simple hope that it was possible to act against the badness in the world, she couldn't tell. She just knew that all of a sudden, this woman had her complete, undivided attention.
"Let me properly introduce myself. I am Major Vanessa Blake of the U.S. Army, Team Leader of the Medusa Project."
"Never heard of it."
"Good. If you had, I'd have to shoot you."
Paige blinked. From the deadpan way the major said that, she wasn't entirely sure the woman was kidding.
"I have a proposition for you, Miss Ellis."
Two years later
Breathing deeply, Paige lengthened her stride to a full-out run. Funny how running so often hurt so much, but every now and then it was like this. Exhilarating. Powerful. Free. The beach sand had just the right give beneath her bare feet, and the waves crashing beside her were as wild and untamed as she felt. The jungle on her other side was thick and mysterious in the pale light of dawn.
Maybe it was because she was so wrapped up in her runner's high that she didn't spot the dark lump on the shore ahead of her until she was nearly on top of it. Her initial impulse was to swerve and continue around it. But something about the size and shape of the sodden canvas bag set off warning bells in the back of her mind. If she'd learned anything in her long months of Special Forces training with the all-female team of soldiers known as the Medusas, it was to listen to her gut. And her gut said something wasn't right about that sack.
She slowed. Walked cautiously the last few paces to the bag. It was big, easily four feet long, and stuffed with something bulky and irregular. The drawstring that held it shut was swollen and stiff with salt water in addition to being heavily knotted. Paige pulled her switchblade out of the concealed sheath sewn into her running shorts and sawed at the tough rope until it popped free. Good thing it was Medusa policy never to go anywhere completely unarmed.
Her nose twitched. The rotting seaweed smell rising from the bag held another subtle note…something foul that made her gut roil ominously. Carefully, she pulled the neck of the sack open. Peeked inside.
She spun away as vomit hurled up and out of her throat explosively. She fell to all fours on the sand beside the bag, her back arched like a cat's, and emptied her gut. Remnants of bile burned like acid in the back of her throat, tasting so terrible that she retched again. But there was nothing left to heave this time.
It was one thing to see a dead body. Lord knew she'd done enough of that in her years as a foreign war correspondent. But it was another thing entirely to see the dismembered, partially decomposed remains of someone you knew. She knew that one firsthand, too.
Shaking off the memory of her old cameraman's mutilated corpse in a military morgue, Paige glanced down at the canvas bag at her feet. It smelled of salt and seaweed—and rotten death. She knew that smell, too, thanks to Jerry.
Nobody'd blamed her when she'd decided to take extra time off and drop out of sight after Jerry's death. There'd been some murmurs about the nearly two years she was gone. But her cameraman's death had been a shock, after all, and rumors persisted that she'd been involved in it somehow. Thankfully, the worst of the rumors had been long forgotten by the time she finally showed up on her old network's doorstep again, leaner and noticeably fitter with an imminently more self-contained look in her eyes than before, asking to go back to work—the more dangerous the locale, the better.
A cold wave washed over her ankles, startling her into jumping back hard. The canvas bag containing the dead man rocked as the water receded. She grabbed the sack and dragged it higher up the beach.
The dead man had a name. Takashi Ando. He'd gone missing forty-eight hours ago, although the Japanese government was downplaying it, claiming he'd gone on a short vacation before the economic summit formally commenced. He was a ridiculously wealthy businessman, and it was fully possible he'd jetted off for a day or two of fun in the sun before attending this important global economic conference. Officially, Paige was here as a journalist to cover the meetings.
Unofficially—well, that was another story.