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The Predator was coming. For her.
Adria Burke had heard the whispers over an hour ago as she sat in the small airless office deep in the bowels of Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Airport.
The Predator. The National Transportation Safety Board investigator Dane Colbourne. The man who never left a case unsolved. The man now assigned to cover “the incident.”
Adria watched the hour hand click onto the four. Four A.M. She huffed out a sigh and shifted her gaze to the coffee dregs at the bottom of her cup. She identified with those unwanted dregs. Other than a lengthy and at times heated discussion with her supervisor,Mark Beck, she hadn’t spoken to a soul since midnight.
“Where is this guy?”
It was at least the hundredth time she’d wondered it, but the first time she’d said it out loud. The sound of her own voice, tired and scratchy, did little to boost her morale.
She’d reviewed in exacting detail her role in the midair collision that had taken place shortly after she’d assumed her position in the control tower. And each time she’d come to the same conclusion: It wasn’t her fault. If she were faced with the same horrifying scenario again, she’d make the same decisions, issue the same commands. That the two pilots, their crews, and passengers had somehow come out of it safely had been a miracle.
But that a major disaster had been averted was not the issue. Two planes had collided, and now she was under investigation. If Dane Colbourne reached the conclusion that she was negligent, she’d likely pay the price of being forced to leave.
Adria had considered her assignment to Metro a huge personal and professional victory. Losing it, after she’d fought so hard, after the private hell she’d been through …
It was simply unthinkable.
But lose it she very well might. And then she could kiss her career good-bye. Unless she could get someone to believe in her side of the story. Beck hadn’t wanted to hear about the fact that up until seconds before the Liberty and AirWest planes collided, there had been a third plane—a primary target—on her display, in the same area as the other two planes. A plane whose direction and speed had decided her on her course of action.
Where in hell had that damn plane come from? And more important, where had it gone? It had simply disappeared from her display. And why wouldn’t anyone believe her?
That the last man she had a shot at convincing was referred to in awed whispers as the Predator only increased the dull throbbing in her temples.
She looked to the door, willing it to open. Willing the man she was waiting for to enter.
She treated her tired mind to the pleasure of imagining what Colbourne must look like. Over fifty, beady eyes, thinning hair held in place with Brylcreem. Short, stocky, serious attitude problem. Anal-retentive as hell. He was probably ex-military, the sort who ate gravel for breakfast, then spat it at everyone who got in his path the rest of the day.
Jack Nicholson’s face swam into her mind. “Ooooh, the Predator,” she whispered in mock horror.
That very instant the door swung open.
Choking hard on the laugh that had crept up into her throat, Adria stared in shock at the man who entered the room.
So much for over fifty. He couldn’t be much older than her own thirty-one. Short was definitely out as well; he was easily six feet, with well-distributed muscles. She didn’t catch his eyes as he passed, so beady was still a possibility. What she did see of his face was all strong, clean angles. Now she understood what chiseled features meant. His hair wasn’t oily or thinning. It was thick, wavy, and light brown, cut razor sharp in a way that enhanced the chiseled look.
But it wasn’t any of those things that had her jaw dropping.
It was the crisp, white, perfectly tailored tuxedo with tails he was wearing.
Any hope she’d had of regaining her composure fled when he stopped at a metal desk and turned around. His cummerbund was a painfully bright fuchsia. She had no idea where he’d found a rose to match. But there was one, pinned to his white satin lapel.
This was the Predator?
Adria barely restrained herself from asking how Barbie had ever let him leave the dream house.
He slapped a stack of folders onto the desk. The chair squeaked as he pulled it out, and protested even louder when he sat. He said nothing, simply began to scan the contents of the top file. He had yet to look in her direction.
Irritation crowded out Adria’s surprise. Well, she hadn’t been completely skunked. She’d apparently hit the bull’s-eye on his severe attitude problem. And from the arrow-straight back and perfectly squared shoulders to the neatly piled folders, she bet she wasn’t too far off on the anal-retentive assessment either. Even his rose hadn’t wilted.
Although he probably wouldn’t appreciate her concern, she took a second and tried to dredge up some sympathy for him. He’d obviously been dragged away from some important function. She half wondered if it wasn’t his own wedding. That wouldn’t surprise her in the least.
A full minute passed and still no sign that he was aware of her. She sighed in disgust. If he’d thought to ambush her with his getup and intimidate her with his silent treatment, then he was in for a rude surprise. She’d learned that game at the feet of a master.
She stood and held out her hand. “Mr. Colbourne, I presume?”
No response came while he continued his silent study. Adria felt the heat of anger climb into her cheeks. Unwise words were on the very tip of her tongue when he finally spoke.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, not looking up or sounding the least bit sorry. In fact, there was no emotion in his voice at all.
She was sorely tempted to ask him if he always conducted his interrogations in formal wear, just to see if she could get a reaction—any reaction—out of him. The impulse was instantly forgotten when he suddenly raised his head and looked directly at her for the first time.
“You can take a seat, Ms. Burke. This will probably take a while.”
Adria’s still-proffered hand dropped to her side while she stared at his eyes. Hazel. A muted green with just a hint of gold. Faintly bloodshot, with little fatigue lines at the corners. All in all, not the kind of eyes that should warrant any special attention.
So why did they capture hers?
A shiver tickled her spine. She had the odd sensation that he was testing her. She felt … well, the only word she could think of was pinned. And she really hated it.
He dipped his chin, his gaze flicking to the chair behind her. “I’m ready to begin.”
The reality of the situation hit her. He was calling the shots. He was also her last hope. She’d learned the value of asserting herself, but she hadn’t forgotten that timing was everything. And now wasn’t the time. So she merely nodded, then sat down.
“I’d like to ask you some specific questions about your actions immediately after taking control of your position.”
She swallowed hard against the almost desperate need to blurt out her view of the night’s events, forcing him to listen and believe. She’d tried that with Beck and had gotten nowhere. Instead, she curled her fingers into fists, then slowly, purposefully relaxed them. A stress-management technique she’d mastered during her divorce. Or precisely, enduring. Studiously avoiding the Predator’s attire, she focused on a point between his eyes and blanked her own expression to match his.
“Ask away,” she said, proud of the steady tone.
“I understand that shortly after taking control of your position last night, you issued an altitude change to Liberty Flight 576. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it’s correct.” She didn’t mention the fact that Pete Moore, the controller who held the shift before her, had left the plane dangerously close to the AirWest plane. “There was a third plane—” she continued on.
“Please, Ms. Burke,” he interrupted. “Just answer my questions yes or no for the time being.”
Of all the … Stay cool. Stay calm. One benefit of being an air-traffic controller was the conditioned response to high-stress situations. This certainly qualified.
Adding control freak to her mental description list of the Predator, she clenched her teeth and said, “Yes, sir.”
He held her gaze for an interminable second, then dropped it back to the notes. “The Liberty pilot reports you then issued a radar warning about a primary target, followed by new coordinates and another change in altitude.”
“You then issued new coordinates to the AirWest pilot, after which the pilot received a TCAS warning,” he said, referring to the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, a mechanism onboard each aircraft. “You countermanded that warning due to the supposed involvement of the primary target.”
She remained silent.
After a long while he gave her a hard look. “Ms. Burke?”
“Yes?” Adria blamed exhaustion for her irrational need to bring him down a notch. But really, the situation was tense enough without his attitude filling up the room.
“You have no response?”
“Yes, I do. But you didn’t ask me a direct yes-or-no question. I was simply trying to follow orders. Sir.”
A scowl began to form in his mouth. Adria couldn’t suppress the pleasure she took in that tiny victory. So, he could feel an emotion after all. Even if it was irritation.
The Predator tossed his pencil on the desk and leaned back in his chair. “It’s been a long night, Ms. Burke. I really don’t have the patience to sit here and play games with you.”
Adria imagined he had unlimited patience. Most hunters did.