ST. EDON'S ACADEMY
And Sasha had seen the two bloody bodies of the security guards outside in the paddock when she’d released the horses a few minutes ago.
Her heart was beating hard as she ran back into the stable and down the long aisle toward the back stall. She dived into the shadowy dimness and pressed back against the wood, trying to catch her breath.
The screaming. She closed her eyes as terror and bewilderment washed over her. They must be hurting those girls, or they wouldn’t be screaming like that.
What else could she do to help? Sasha thought frantically. She’d tried to call the police but there was no signal. She’d even tried to reach Alisa on her satellite phone, hoping that even if a tower was down the satellite might somehow be working. Nothing. The attack had come out of nowhere and the school seemed to be entirely cut off.
And there was no telling when those men who had killed the security guards would decide to come into the stable.
Sasha crouched lower in the back stall where Thor had been quartered before she’d released him. A weapon. She should find some kind of weapon . . .
“Sasha?” Paul Boujois, the school’s head trainer, was ducking into the shadows of the stall beside her. His face was pale, and his voice was shaking. “I’d hoped you’d managed to get away yourself when you released the horses. It might be too late now.”
“I had to make sure the horses were heading toward the hills away from the all the gunfire. I’m responsible for them. But I need a weapon, Mr. Boujois. Do you have a weapon?”
He shook his head. “And what are you going to do with a weapon? We’re better off giving up as soon as they start pouring into this stable. They might let us live.”
“They killed the security guards. And those girls are still screaming outside.” She swallowed. “They’re all my friends and classmates. They might be killing them, too.”
He flinched. “I know.”
Then why wasn’t he doing something, she thought in frustration. She’d been working for the past four years as a volunteer at the school’s riding stable, and she respected Boujois’s expertise with the horses. She even liked him most of the time. But it was clear she was not going get any help from him in this situation. He was even more afraid than she was, and his solution was for her to bury her head and hide?
“I need a weapon,” she repeated, looking desperately around the stall. She saw a horseshoe in the far corner, grabbed it, and tore off her neck scarf. She twisted the horseshoe into the scarf, forming a makeshift sling. “Who are they? Do you know why they’re doing this?”
He shook his head. “I saw three trucks with machine guns mounted on them. The men are all wearing military camouflage fatigues. I’d guess it’s a raid on the school by some military guerrilla group who’ve heard there are fat pickings to be had here at St. Eldon’s with all you rich girls as students.”
“Ransom? Then maybe they’re not killing them. Maybe there’s some way we can save them.”
More shots. Someone was yelling outside the stable.
“Sasha. Let it go. Don’t fight them.” Boujois’s hands were shaking as he grabbed her shoulders. “You’ve done all you can. You’ve got to live through this.”
“You said she ran in here?” Cursing. A man’s strident voice as he strode into the stable and started down the aisle. “Find her, you asshole. If she got away, I’ll cut your throat, Baldwin.”
“I swear I caught a glimpse of her. She’s here somewhere.”
Run for the stable door. Take their attention away from this stall and give the trainer a chance. If Boujois was right about the ransom, she might be safe, but there was no way he would be.
She heard a shout as she dived past the two men walking toward her down the aisle. A tall, fair-haired man reached wildly out to grab her arm, but she swung her scarf at his head and heard him grunt with pain as the horseshoe struck his temple.
Just a few more feet and she’d reach the stable door—
She stumbled to her knees as the butt of the other man’s gun crashed against her temple. Then his hand was tangled painfully in her hair as he jerked her head up so that he could look into her eyes. Through the dizziness, she was only aware of brown, close-cut hair, dark skin, and savage anger. “You’re the one who released those horses?” he hissed. “Do you know how long it’s going to take my men to round them up and put them in horse trailers?”
“Too long,” she said hoarsely. “The police will be here by then and they’ll be safe. You won’t be able to hurt them.”
“The police won’t be here for more than an hour. I’ll be long gone by then.” He gave her a brutal backhand blow to her cheek. “I’ve taken down the cell tower.”
“I’ve found someone else, Masenak.” The fair-haired man she’d struck with the horseshoe was dragging Boujois out of the stall. “He’s wearing those same fancy English boots you wear sometimes. It’s probably that horse trainer you told me to look for. What do you want me to do with him?” Then he forgot about Boujois as he saw Sasha. “Can I have that bitch in my tent tonight?” His glare was venomous. “She needs to learn a few lessons from me before you give her to someone else.”
“We’ll talk about it later. She may be of use,” Masenak said absently as he looked down at Sasha. “We wouldn’t want to damage such a pretty little girl if she can help us get those horses back.” He let go of her hair, and his hand touched the nameplate on Sasha’s suede jacket. “I believe I’ve heard a few stories about you, Sasha Lawrence.” He turned to Boujois. “Is she really as good at training horses as the rumors have it?”
“She’s very good.”
“Better than good? What I’ve heard is she’s something of a horse whisperer. She can coax a horse to do almost anything for her?”
“I wouldn’t say that good. She’s only a student volunteer.” Sasha could tell he was searching desperately for what to say that would be safest for her. “I’ve always found her . . . efficient.”
“Let’s see how efficient.” He jerked Sasha to her feet. His face was suddenly only inches from her own, his eyes glittering. “I’ve no intention of hurting those horses. They all have excellent pedigrees. Which means they have enormous value for me. But there are dozens of young girls like you being put on those trucks out there who have very little value for me in comparison. So you will go with my friend Baldwin into the hills and you’ll capture every one of those horses you freed and place them into the horse trailers I brought. You’ll do it quickly and accurately because I will start killing those girls after the next thirty minutes. There were twelve horses. If you miss retrieving even one of those thoroughbreds, one of those sweet friends of yours will die because you weren’t efficient enough. Do you understand?”
He meant it. His lips were pulled back in a feral grimace, and she could see that he was enjoying every nuance of the terror she was feeling. “I might not be able to get all the horses back right away. I deliberately spooked them.”
“Then you’d best be better than Boujois was telling me. Because I don’t take excuses.” He looked at his watch. “Your thirty minutes starts now. Get her up in those hills, Baldwin.” He pushed Sasha toward the door. “You’d better hope the police don’t show up too soon or the carnage might have to start early. I’m looking forward to seeing you later, Sasha.”
“Don’t do this.” She was running toward the door in panic. “I’ll do whatever you say. Just don’t kill them. Give me time to get those horses back.”
“I’ll think about it.” Masenak chuckled. “But you should look on this as a challenge to prove your worth in case I decide not to be generous.” He paused. “On second thought, I really think you should be punished for causing me this much trouble.”
She stopped. She whirled to see Paul Boujois falling to the floor, his head blown off. Sickness. Shock. Horror.
“I do hope he was a good friend,” Masenak said softly. “Punishment should always be as thorough as possible.” He turned away. “Better hurry, Sasha. The clock is ticking.”
The dogs were barking!
Alisa Flynn froze on the top of the wall as the howls of the Doberman guard dogs broke the silence.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d planned it all down to the last detail, even to keeping those dogs silent for the time she’d needed to break into the palace and reach Gabe Korgan’s study. She’d been told that the dogs had to be given just the right amount of sedation so that they’d be quiet but not appear to be sluggish or drugged. She couldn’t believe she’d screwed up that dosage.
The dogs had stopped barking. Their handlers had probably gone to check on them and found nothing suspicious. She might be okay.
Or she might not.
No sign of the sentries who usually patrolled the veranda area of the palace grounds at this time of night. But then they weren’t due to make their rounds for another fifteen minutes. She’d counted on that fifteen minutes to get in and out of Korgan’s study and back over the wall. But now she was sitting here trying to decide if that damn barking would cause those sentries to change their schedule.
And she couldn’t hesitate much longer or that brief window would disappear. Go for it? Or cancel and try again tomorrow night? She knew what she should do, what she’d been taught to do.
But that twenty-four hours could make a difference, and she didn’t know if she could live with that difference.
So screw it, she thought recklessly. Go for it anyway. Trust that all the preparations she’d made would hold and luck would be with her. That study was just off the veranda and she could be in and out in less than ten minutes. She was already lowering herself from the wall to the courtyard, her eyes on the veranda. After that, rely on the fact that she was very fast and could make it back here before the sentries reached the courtyard . . .
No sign of any guards yet.
The veranda was right ahead, the study dark. She’d waited for two hours after those lights had gone out before she’d climbed over the garden wall.
She ran up the veranda steps to the French doors and waved the RFID chip over the security panel’s illuminated face. The screen changed from blue to green.
So far, so good.
She keyed in a six-digit pass code, and after a pause that seemed like an eternity, the door unlocked. She pulled it open. No alarms, no blinking lights.
She was in.
She moved to the side of the door and disarmed the interior alarm with another swipe of the RFID chip.
She drew a deep breath and waited, listening.
Then she moved toward the desk where she’d seen Korgan working for the past three nights. She was right on schedule. Just another two minutes and she’d have it . . .
“Enough,” Korgan said impatiently from across the room. “Lights, Vogel.”
Lights illuminated the room.
Alisa whirled to the easy chair where Gabe Korgan had been sitting in darkness.
She recognized him at once. Why not? Those silver-blue eyes and intense features were familiar to most people in the world these days. And at the moment the bastard’s eyes were lit with interest, and he was smiling with satisfaction.
Busted! she thought, disgusted. Why shouldn’t he be smiling?
And the man he’d called Vogel was crossing the room toward her with a gun in his hand and a grim expression on his face. “Don’t move,” he said crisply. “Reach for a weapon and I’ll put you down.”
She was trying to smother her frustration and gather herself together. She might be able to get out of this, she just had to figure out how. She immediately lifted her hands. “I have no intention of resisting you, Vogel,” she said quietly. “I wouldn’t be that stupid. I’ve done my research and I realize how good you are and how loyal you are to Korgan. And I don’t have a weapon. Not that I don’t carry one on occasion, but I didn’t come here to shoot anyone, and I didn’t want Korgan to think I did. Search me.”
“I will.” His hands were already running over her quickly and thoroughly. He stepped back. “Clean, Korgan. Do you want me to call the local police or do you want to question her yourself?”
“Let’s not be in a hurry.” Korgan’s gaze was searching Alisa’s face. “So you didn’t want to shoot me, just rob me?” he asked mockingly. “How kind. Who the hell are you? And may I ask what you were after, and how you were able to get past my alarms? You were incredibly fast when you were disabling them. You shouldn’t have been able to do that at all, much less with that degree of speed.”
“I had a little help.” She looked him in the eye. “But that wouldn’t have done me any good if you’d had the new XV-17 alarms installed here at this palace instead of the older XV-10. That comes very close to being totally foolproof. The V-10 has been around long enough to be studied and breached if the technician is clever enough. I’m a very good technician.”
“Evidently.” His lips tightened. “But that doesn’t mean I like the idea of you using my own work against me.” He paused. “You would have needed an RFID chip to get past these panels. Did you steal one from one of my staff?”
“No, I didn’t need to. I cloned yours.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Now, how the hell did you manage to do that?”
“When you went to the airport the other day. I played the part of a maintenance worker in a lumpy, unflattering jumpsuit. I’m sure you didn’t even notice me.”
“I didn’t. Lumpy . . . I assume to hide an RFID reader?”
She nodded. “It’s very effective within six feet or so. I know it’s on your key ring, but you should really find a way to sheathe that thing. It’s a scary world out there.”
“Tell me about it. And how do you know about the XV-17? It’s still in beta testing. Are you into corporate espionage?”
“No, I don’t give a damn about your alarm systems right now. It’s you I’m interested in.”
“One of my favorite subjects.”
She stepped toward him. “No, it’s not. You try to keep everything about yourself out of the spotlight. But it’s pretty futile. Everyone knows you’re one of the greatest minds of this or any other age. An innovative genius who comes up with a miracle or two every couple years. Your upcoming subspace passenger jets are on the verge of revolutionizing the travel industry. Straight up into the upper stratosphere, then down to almost any place in the world. New York to Tokyo in sixty minutes.”
He shrugged. “It’s looking closer to seventy.”
“We’ll suffer through it. You won your Nobel prize with your fleet of solar-powered drones that plant, water, and fertilize crops, maybe solving the world hunger problem.”
“A fun side project.”
“Uh-huh. Like your virtual reality glasses that started as a toy but are now the industry standard for teleconferencing. Hearing aids that bring people back from almost total deafness. Self-driving cars that communicate with each other, reducing accidents to almost zero. Electro-stimulus techniques on the human nervous system that could someday wipe out Alzheimer’s.”
“I’ve had an enormous amount of help with that last one.”
“Barely a day goes by that I don’t see some article that compares you to da Vinci, Edison, or Einstein. I bet that really annoys you. Your design aesthetic is second to none. You designed your mountain-view headquarters in Colorado with the same care and creativity you bring to every one of your projects. And I saw your art exhibition in San Francisco. Breathtaking stuff. More side projects?”
“Just another creative outlet.”
“As if you needed one. But you can see I know enough about you to go after one of your other projects if I was a corporate spy. I’m sure your really important inventions are patented before they’re off your drawing board. You probably came up with the XV alarms when you were bored and needed something to amuse yourself.”
“Close.” He was silent, studying her. “Very perceptive. But I’m not sure I like you being that perceptive about me. It indicates you’ve been studying me, and that means you may have come up with answers that might prove uncomfortable for me.”
“Police?” Vogel asked again. “She’s smart and she almost got to you. You need to get rid of her.”
“Not yet. She hasn’t even told us her name.” Korgan smiled and turned to Alisa. “Vogel is always eager to protect me from people who might prove to be detrimental to my health. He’s particularly wary of very smart, beautiful women because they have more weapons than most. We’ve run across a good many scam artists in our time. Are you a scam artist?”
“No. I’m Alisa Flynn, and I’m a special operative with the CIA. I’m very honest for the most part. I was only trying to rob you of information, and I had no intention of using that information against you.” She shrugged. “Though I can see why you might be skeptical. You’re probably not at all trusting. You were a billionaire before you were twenty-five. Now that you’re in your late thirties, you must be close to Bill Gates territory.”
“No, but I have hope for next year when I have two new operating systems coming out. One must always strive to improve.” He leaned back in his chair. “And information can often be the most valuable commodity of all. I value it far more than I do anything else in this palace. I resent having it stolen.” He repeated, “Alisa Flynn . . . CIA. What do we know about her, Vogel?”
Vogel was already pulling up information on his phone. “Agent with the CIA. Recruited in Caracas when she was only thirteen. Very high IQ. Well respected by her superiors. Has qualified in auxiliary training in a number of fields. No family. Travels extensively. No permanent residence.”
“Just the kind of operator the CIA would choose to send here to steal information from me,” Korgan said dryly. “What does the CIA want from me, Alisa Flynn? Why did they send you?”
Lie? Or go for it? Either way it could be dangerous for her. But she’d already made the decision which path she’d take if she was forced to change directions. “They didn’t send me. They didn’t know about this break-in.”
He gazed at her skeptically.
“I’m telling you the truth. I don’t have a choice. Everything I’m going to say to you from now on will be the truth.” She added in exasperation, “This wouldn’t have had to happen if I could have gotten to you a few weeks ago to talk to you. I thought perhaps we could help each other. But everyone around you was on high alert, and I couldn’t get past that gold wall that people like Vogel have built around you. So I decided I’d just try to do it on my own.”
“Do what on your own?”
She paused and then said, “Stop Jorge Masenak.”
He didn’t change expression, but she’d thought she’d seen a flicker in his eyes in that first instant. She’d definitely noticed the sudden tension in Vogel’s demeanor. “Masenak?” Korgan said slowly. “Was that name supposed to arouse a response?”
“Yes, and it did.” She shrugged. “I thought I’d just cut to the chase and let you know that what I’m after has nothing to do with that empire you’ve built, and everything to do with getting rid of that son of a bitch as quickly as possible.” She stared him in the eye. “He’s an annoyance to you. I don’t know why yet. I’ve been trying to find out. I thought if I could find out what you want, then I could offer you a trade. But all I’ve been able to learn is that for some reason, Masenak is getting in your way. I’m guessing you’re looking for a way to remove him from your path and make sure he doesn’t bother you again.” She added bluntly, “Or maybe you just want him dead.” She leaned toward him, her voice suddenly urgent. “Either way, you’ve been blocked from touching the bastard, just as I have. But we could help each other. I could make it happen.”
“My, my, are you offering to kill him for me?” His eyes were narrowed on her face. “A CIA operative turned rogue? So much for your sterling reputation with your superiors. Not exactly plausible. If you went rogue, you’d lose everything you’ve worked for in your career. You’d be on the run yourself. Would it be worth it to you?”
“Masenak is a monster,” she said flatly. “Yes, I would kill him if I had to. Yes, it would be worth it. It would be better than watching what Masenak will do if we stand and do nothing. And it’s true, if you make that call, I would lose everything. Everyone in the agency is under orders to stay away from Masenak until the present tinderbox of a situation is resolved.” She paused. “I’m not going to wait. Do what you like. But you might consider how valuable I could be in any plot you’re weaving.”
His brows rose. “Plot?”
“Don’t play games. Shall I lay it out for you? Jorge Masenak is one of the most powerful and ruthless mercenaries in Africa. He’s a thief, rapist, and killer. Compared with him, ISIS appears positively angelic. But he has the people in the Szarnar Jungle terrified, and a few of the desert tribes have also started to throw him their support. Partly because of Masenak’s threats of reprisal, partly because he’s bribing the chiefs with women.” Her lips twisted bitterly. “Or should I say girls? He’s using some of the young girls he kidnapped from St. Eldon’s Academy outside Morocco six weeks ago. The chiefs like the idea of young, healthy girls they can screw now and might be able to ransom to their parents later.” She added, “But that means Masenak’s influence is growing, and it might be harder for you to get what you need from him if you don’t move quickly. He’s getting stronger all the time—when he raided that girls’ school, he kidnapped fifty-nine girls, most of whom were daughters of wealthy businessmen and influential diplomats. All of them were between the ages of ten and seventeen. Since then every time a move has been made against Masenak, the bastard has chosen one of the girls and filmed her being raped or tortured.” She was trying to keep her voice steady. “If the girl was considered by him to be unimportant, he showed her being beheaded. An excellent way to keep both government forces and parents in line, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “In keeping with the son of a bitch you called him. I can see why there was a news blackout since the raid. The CIA would be under pressure to keep from getting the blame for causing Masenak to torture or kill even more girls.”
“But you knew about it, didn’t you?” she asked fiercely. “You had to know about it.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked warily.
“Because you’d make certain you knew everything that was happening with Masenak. He was on your radar. You had a meeting with CIA director Joseph Lakewood only a week before that attack on the school and offered to finance manpower and weapons to take out Masenak’s forces in that Szarnar area as soon as possible. The director was considering it when Masenak launched his attack on St. Eldon’s Academy. That blew your deal with him out of the water.”
“Did it?” His expression was suddenly wary. “Now, how would you be privy to information about a meeting that I was assured was top secret? I wonder what other classified data you might have decided to appropriate.”
“Whatever I had to have,” she said steadily. “I have friends in high as well as low places. I was searching for any way to stop Masenak and then I found you. You have all the power and influence money brings. Naturally, I decided to zero in and see if I could tap it.” His expression hadn’t changed, and she couldn’t decide if she was making any impression on him. “I couldn’t let it go on, no matter what the director said.” Her voice was suddenly passionate. “Look, I don’t care what you’re planning on doing to Masenak. It can’t be worse than what Masenak is doing to those students. That’s all that matters to me. I need to get them away from him. You help me, and I’ll get you Masenak.”
“It’s an interesting offer. I admit Lakewood’s freezing of any action in the Szarnar Jungle has slowed down progress. And just how do you intend to help me get Masenak?” He leaned forward. “Do you know where his camp is located in that jungle?”
“No, but I have sources who can help me find it. Give me another day or two and I promise I’ll have him for you.”
“Really? He’s slippery as an eel; no one has been able to capture him for the last eight years. He’ll go on the run the instant he believes he’s cornered.”
“I have contacts in the Szarnar Jungle who can help me, and also a limited number in the desert country. Besides, I can track him myself. You’ve probably never seen a better tracker than I am. Check on me. I promise I’ll find him. After that, it’s up to you.”
He leaned back again. “And all you want in return is for me to free those girls without getting them killed?” he asked mockingly. “While more than likely dodging your fellow CIA friends who did not turn rogue, as you have. And throw in the possibility of causing an international uproar if even one those students is hurt during the escape. Such a small thing . . .”
“Don’t be sarcastic. I know how hard it’s going to be. That’s why I was trying to work around you. But you want Masenak. It could be worth it to you. And I’m telling you the truth. Do what I ask, and I’ll hand Masenak over to you.”
He was silent a moment, gazing at her face. “You might be telling the truth. You’re certainly sincere about saving those students. It’s difficult to fake emotion like that.”
“They were innocent. It should never have happened. He’s hurting them. It’s got to stop.”
“It will stop,” he said quietly. “I’ll get Masenak. I’ll find a way to bring him down whether or not I have your help. I’ve already started. I believe I’ll be able to bribe my way into finding the location of his camp.”
“But probably not soon enough,” she said through set teeth. “Not for those girls. Some of them are mere children.” She started to reach into her jacket. “Don’t shoot me. I’m only reaching for my phone.” She rapidly pulled up a photo and held it out to show them. It was a class photo with rows of dozens of young schoolgirls in plaid skirts and white blouses with matching knee socks. “Look at them. They don’t deserve this. You don’t know what they’re going through.”
“No, but I can imagine.” He added speculatively, “But I believe you do know. This is very personal for you.” He tilted his head. “And I admit I’m intrigued by the possibility of using your sources. You managed to get into my study, disable my alarms, and now I find out you know about my meeting with your director. I doubt if you’d have been sent by him to contact me even if he’d had a change of heart about accepting my generous ‘donation.’ Which means I’m back to rogue agent again. Just what were you after when you broke in tonight?”
She hesitated. He wasn’t going to like this. But it would be worse if she lied when she’d told him she wasn’t going to. “Why do you think I’m here? I knew you weren’t going to give up even though the director shut you out and tied your hands. You came back here, positioned yourself near Masenak’s army in the Szarnar Jungle, and started to work on getting what you wanted from Masenak on your own. For you, that would almost certainly mean bribing Masenak’s men. That’s what you’ve been working on since you flew here from Washington.” She paused. Oh, well, go for it. “I planted a bug in the computer on your desk when I broke in here a few days ago. I wanted to retrieve and monitor any messages you’d received from anyone you were paying to give you information about Masenak.”
Vogel was swearing softly. “This is the second time? She’s dangerous, Korgan. She tells a good story, but it could all be bullshit. We should make sure her superiors know what she’s been up to and let them deal with it.”
“But then they’d find out what I’ve been up to.” He was smiling with amusement. “I’d really prefer that they don’t until I’m ready to use them at some point.” His smile faded. “You managed to hack my computer in spite of all the firewalls I set up? That’s disturbing.”
“It was very difficult,” she said quickly. “And I’m exceptionally well trained.”
“I’m not finding that comforting. Nothing is foolproof, but I thought I’d developed a security that came close.” He shrugged. “Oh, well, back to the drawing board. Now, you said that you’d tried to contact me before but were prevented by my wall of gold.” He grimaced. “A term I dislike very much, by the way. What would you have told me if you’d managed to reach me?”
“That I have much better sources than you do in Masenak’s territory. That you need to take me with you and let me help you.” She added fiercely, “And the rest is just what I’ve already told you. I could give you anything you wanted, if you let me help those girls get away from that asshole. Tell me what it is, and I’ll do it.”
“But I’m afraid that would be a mistake. What’s to stop you from getting overenthusiastic and bringing Masenak down on me before I managed to get my hands on him?”
“Because I’m a professional and wouldn’t do that. Yes, I’m going to want this very badly, but I wouldn’t do it until I was sure I could pull it off. I’d hope that we could come to an agreement. You’re a ruthless man and you’d crush me like a bug if I made a deal with you and then violated it.”
“Perhaps not like a bug. The comparison offends me when I look at you. As I said, you’re very beautiful.” His smile vanished, and she was instantly aware how much steel was beneath that smooth facade. “But you would definitely know that I was displeased.”
“You wouldn’t be displeased, not if you help me get what I want.”
He was silent again. “I’ll think about it.” He glanced at Vogel’s frowning face. “Yes, I know you believe I should be more careful. You always do. And I agree that her sudden appearance here is coincidental at best and suspicious at worst. But if it’s a scam, she’s certainly been well prepared for it.” He was suddenly smiling recklessly. “Let’s see how well prepared . . . ” He was striding to his desk and opening a drawer. The next moment he had spread out a large map on the desk. He motioned for her to come and stand beside him. “Show me what you know about the Szarnar Jungle and Jorge Masenak.”
She frowned. “What are you asking?”
“I want to know both your point of view and the depth of your knowledge of Masenak and the area. You’ve made a lot of claims and promises. I can’t tell what you’re basing it on.”
“Whatever.” She shrugged. “The man first, I guess. Though he’s more of a monster. Masenak was born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal. He was the son of a local crime boss who headed the gambling syndicates in Spain as well as Portugal. His mother was a prostitute who disappeared from the picture after a few years, and Jorge was taken care of by servants and his father. He traveled from racetrack to racetrack with his father, who trained him to become the arrogant son of a bitch he is today. He liked the gambling, particularly the winning, and he was on his way to following in his father’s footsteps. But he and his father didn’t get along all that well and he wanted more power than he could get as the head of a syndicate. He ran away when he was twelve after stealing enough money to start the life he wanted. He surfaced a few years later in Morocco as a mercenary when he was putting together his first guerrilla army to start trying to form his own kingdom. You know what he’s been doing for the last twenty-five years. Blood and gore and murder.” She met his eyes. “That’s all I know. Very general knowledge because I wasn’t interested in him until he committed that atrocity at St. Eldon’s. I’ve been too busy trying to find him to dig any deeper. I’d rather catch him and stop him in his tracks than find out how he got that way. That’s not my priority.” She tilted her head. “But I bet you know more than I just told you?”
“Perhaps. Though you did well for skimming the surface. You hit the highlights. Go on.”
Alisa looked down at the map. She pointed at the large green expanse of jungle. “Masenak uses the Szarnar as an escape route after his army raids surrounding villages and cities. The entire area is known as the Szarnar Jungle, but a good portion of it is rain forest. He’s always found it particularly useful because the foliage is so thick and impenetrable that even the most sophisticated drones aren’t able to detect anything below the tree canopies. There are no real villages present there, because Masenak’s soldiers have either killed or run out the natives.” She pointed to several spots on the map. “But there are still isolated individual bands hiding out in these areas who refused to leave their homes.”
“And became part of the network of ‘sources’ who supply you with information?” Korgan asked softly.
“Perhaps,” she said warily.
“And, if you did locate Masenak, would it be possible to lure him into a trap using those very stubborn villagers?”
“No, he’s too smart and well protected. It would just mean those innocent villagers would be butchered, and any sources I might have would vanish.”
“Pity.” He nodded again at the map. “Go on.”
She pointed to an extreme area to the south. “That’s the northern border of the nation of Maldara. Masenak used to raid over there, too, but after their bloody civil war he found it healthier to confine his raids to north of the jungle. Morocco, Marrakech, Tangier . . . ” She pointed to a mountain range. “The Atlas Mountains. He raids villages more in the foothills of that area than any of the others.”
“Why?” Korgan asked.
“I think you must know. It’s convenient. Everyone says he has a fancy castle up there in the mountains where he hides out when it gets too hot for him down here.”
“You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know for sure.” She gazed challengingly at him. “Do you?”
“I’d heard a few rumors that he has a magnificent place in the mountains where he stables his prize horses. Everyone knows he’s fanatic about racing.” He smiled faintly. “But you’re the one who’s supposed to be answering questions. You don’t have any valuable contacts or informed sources in that area?”
“No, but I could find them quickly if I had to.” She grimaced. “After all, it’s not rocket science.” She gestured to the map. “Am I done? Did you get what you wanted from me?”
“For the time being. At least you didn’t promise something you didn’t think you could deliver about a trap for Masenak. It’s something to consider.” He looked over his shoulder as Vogel grunted in the background. “Consider,” he repeated to him. “She can’t hurt me at the moment. I can hurt her just by making a telephone call. I’m curious if this ingenious and totally bizarre proposition she’s offered me could have any substance. If it does, I have a hunch that she might prove just the element we need. Find her a room and I’ll talk to her in the morning.”
Vogel muttered a curse. “Those damn hunches. They’re always getting in your way.”
“Only sometimes. But at times they tend to clear the way of obstacles.”
Alisa took a deep breath and then let it out. It had been a tremendous gamble, and she still wasn’t sure she’d won. “Am I a prisoner?”
“I don’t think so,” Korgan said. “Prison is such an unpleasant word. But that bedroom will be guarded until we do a little more research about you. Tomorrow we’ll decide how to handle each other to best advantage.” He smiled. “Though you’ve already decided how to handle me. Just barge right in and hope for the best?”
“I did my research, too,” she said coolly. “But in the end, I knew you’d respond best to honesty and your own judgment about my character. You believe in yourself or you wouldn’t have become as successful as you are.”
His lips were suddenly twitching. “So my belief in you shows how intelligent I am?”
She smiled. “Exactly. Together with the fact that you had the foresight to ignore that I’d tried to steal that information from you. You usually know how to cut your losses and turn them into victories.” She turned to follow Vogel from the room. Then she whirled back to Korgan. “You were expecting me tonight. I was able to get in the study with no problem the last time. How did you know? Was it the dogs? They only barked that one time and it didn’t alert the sentries. I thought it would be safe. Did I make a mistake?”
He tilted his head. “Would it bother you?”
“Yes, I can’t make mistakes.”
“You’re very hard on yourself.” He added quietly, “No mistake. It wasn’t the dogs. There’s no way that you could have known about the new experimental drone I was testing by augmenting the house security yesterday. It’s the most sensitive one I’ve ever produced, and it reported a brief glimpse of you on the property. Vogel followed up. Satisfied?”
“No. A mistake is a mistake. But you’re right, I didn’t know about the new drone. It’s hard to keep up with everything you’re doing in those mega labs of yours.”
“That fills me with immense relief,” he said dryly. “I’m glad there’s something you don’t know about me.”
“I’m sure there’s much more. I didn’t have much time to research when I chose you as a target.” She turned back toward the stairs. “Thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome. Though I can’t say I like you referring to me as a target.”
“I’d think you’d want me to call a spade a spade. It’s not as if I meant you harm. Good night, Korgan.” He didn’t answer, and when she looked back, she saw that he was already punching a number on his phone. She had another sudden thought. “Korgan.”
He looked up at her.
“If you really want to know who I am, you should phone Special Operative Daniel Zabron. No one knows me better than he does. Mention my name. Then I promise he’ll answer questions without you having to worry that it will be repeated to anyone else in the CIA. After your discussion with the director, it might be awkward for you to arouse additional curiosity.”
He nodded. “I appreciate your concern. However, I’m not certain I should trust information from someone who’s obviously your cohort. And you’re not the only one who has sources.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. I just wanted to save us both time.” She turned and started after Vogel.
“And our sources are very good,” Vogel murmured as he led her upstairs. “He’ll know everything there is to know about you by morning. Though he should have really let me check you out before he let you stay here.”
“I know that would have made you feel better,” she said quietly. “I realize how loyal you are to him. You’ve been with him for years, and it’s clear you also like him. But I’m no threat, Vogel. I admire loyalty, and there’s a chance I can use Korgan. I know how lucky I’d be if I could pull it off. It would be stupid of me to run the risk of ruining that opportunity.” She grimaced. “Though I’m sure you don’t believe a word I’m saying, and you’ll be on guard to make sure I don’t creep into his room and cut his throat.”
“Yes, I will,” he said coolly. “It’s not that Korgan isn’t aware how many nuts there are out there that would target him if they got a chance. But he’s been a risk taker since the moment I met him, when we both served in the army. The recruiters took one look at his IQ and wanted to put him in the computer division or OCS, but he decided he wanted to go for special services. I don’t know if it’s curiosity or that he’s such a genius he just gets bored.” He paused. “If you’re as well prepared as Korgan suggested, then you might have dug deep and found out that info about him. But don’t think you can use it just because Korgan sometimes appears so easygoing. He can be tough and cynical as hell. You’d regret crossing him.”
Vogel was piling on warnings she could have done without, she thought impatiently. But he was important to Korgan and so he was important to her. At least, respect the effort he was making. “I’d know that just by looking at him. And I was telling the truth about not doing research as deep as I should have done about him. But I assure you that I haven’t underestimated him . . . or you.”
“That’s good. He earned all those billions because he’s one of the smartest men on the planet. But it’s too much money for most people, and they can’t absorb it without resentment.” His glance meeting her own was icy cold. “So I make sure that resentment doesn’t get in his way. You said you want to use him? Everyone wants something from him, he’s used to it. But no one is going to hurt him to get it.”
“Warning taken and accepted,” she said. “I told him what I wanted, and I won’t ask anything else.”
He was silent for a moment. “No offense. I hope you’re telling the truth and you’re who you say you are. But you’re CIA and that means you’re trained to be lethal if it suits you. Korgan knows as well as I do that no matter what you claim to want from him, he’d always be a great bonus prize to use as ransom. I thought you should know that I won’t allow that to happen.” He stopped at the second door down the hall and threw it open. “Here it is. I guess it’s comfortable, but I don’t like palaces myself. Neither does Korgan. It was the only place in the area available on short notice where I could arrange the degree of security he needs.” He added sourly, “Not that it did much good stopping you until we brought in that drone.”
“It will be fine.” She glanced around the luxurious suite. “Good night, Vogel.”
“Good night.” He closed the door, and she heard the lock click. Clearly Vogel was following up on those warnings by trying to make sure that she couldn’t leave until Korgan permitted it.
Except that Alisa would have no more trouble with that lock than she’d had with the veranda doors. Less. She’d had to study the XV-10 alarms, but these bedroom locks were standard issue. Vogel probably guessed that and would make sure either he or another guard would be on hand to try to prevent an escape.
It didn’t matter, she thought impatiently. She had no intention of trying to escape tonight. She’d think about that tomorrow if she couldn’t get what she wanted from Gabe Korgan. And that result was still definitely questionable. He was just as much an enigma as she’d learned from her research on him. It wasn’t often she couldn’t read an adversary, but she hadn’t been able to pierce that cool mockery she’d encountered in Korgan. It had caught her a little off balance. She needed to think, to go over his expressions and what he had said tonight, so that she’d be ready when she had to face him again.
But first she had something else to do before she tried to prepare herself for the next bout with Korgan. She reached into her pocket for her phone. The next moment she was swiftly dialing the number.
Margaret Douglas answered on the first ring. “What the hell happened?” she asked tensely. “You should have called me almost an hour ago.”
“I was a little occupied. I was busted. I screwed up. Korgan was expecting me. I’m lucky to have been able to phone you at all. Since he didn’t take my phone, you can bet that it was deliberate and he’s having this call monitored. So change out your burner phone after you hang up, Margaret.”
“Screw the phone. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I told you that I wasn’t worried about Korgan doing me any physical damage. Not that he wouldn’t be capable of extreme punishment if he became angry, but it would involve completely destroying the rest of my life, not taking it.” She added bitterly, “It’s Masenak who’s into torture.”
“You still shouldn’t have taken the risk. You don’t screw up. You were just in too much of a hurry. You should have waited.”
“No, I shouldn’t. We’re running out of time. Yes, I knew there was a risk, but even if I didn’t get the info, I figured I’d only be faced with switching the plan to a confrontation with Korgan. Either way I’d be moving forward. That’s better than standing still. Now all I have to do is convince Korgan I can give him whatever he wants if he goes along with me.” She paused. “Is everything all right there?”
“Better than with you. No deaths. But I don’t know how long I can keep control.”
“You’ll manage. Let me know if there’s a change.” She hoped desperately Margaret was telling the truth. “I have to hang up now. If they let me keep my phone, I’ll be in touch. If not, I’ll still find a way to get to you. Be careful, Margaret.”
“You be careful,” she said dryly. “You tend to think you’re made of Kevlar. You’re flesh and blood, Alisa, and I don’t want to be left alone to face this nightmare.” She cut the connection.
Alisa’s hand was shaking as she stuffed her phone in her pocket and dropped down on the bench beside the bed. She didn’t feel in the least like Kevlar at the moment, she thought wearily. She was vulnerable and worried and just trying to hold everything together until she found her way to get those students away from Masenak.
Lord, she hated this sudden feeling of weakness and uncertainty. She’d had occasional bouts of weakness as a child during the bad times, but it was rare that she experienced it these days. She couldn’t permit it to attack her now. It was intolerable, and she mustn’t accept it. Force it away. Get rid of it.
She curled up on the bed and closed her eyes. Do as Zabron had taught her when he’d first made her his student.
Let everything go.
Think about who she was, what she could do.
Not what could be taken from her.
Now identify the source of the fear and weakness.
No, it wasn’t that bastard Masenak.
It was Gabe Korgan. Lean, strong features, dark hair with a touch of gray at the temples. She could see him standing beside that map, his gaze narrowed on her face. Power. Intensity. That super intelligence that she’d always found more exciting than mere good looks. Those glittering gray-blue eyes seeming to read her every thought. It was the first time she’d seen him up close and personal, and he’d shaken her.
Of course he had. He was the most important person in her life right now. She’d known he’d be a challenge if it came down to a confrontation. So think about him, ignore the fact that she had respect and admiration for his genius, realize that he was only a dangerous man that she had to use to get what she needed.
She concentrated, going over the way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he’d watched her every move while he’d questioned her.
Now ignore the danger, forget him and think only of what made facing him or any threat worthwhile . . .
Think of the child who had been so furious with her on that day five years ago . . .
“Who are you? The little girl’s huge brown eyes were glaring fiercely down at Alisa as she rode her white Arabian horse across the circus ring toward her. “You’ve been here for every performance for the past two weeks. Why?”
Alisa stiffened at the antagonism in the child’s tone. “Perhaps I’m just admiring your performance, Catriona. You and your horses are wonderful together. You’re as fantastic as that Catriona the Great poster out front says you are. I’ve never seen some of the tricks you did with Zeus here.” She smiled at her. “And you’re only ten years old? It’s amazing.” But the child was still glaring suspiciously at Alisa, so she asked gently, “Why do you think I’ve kept coming here?”
“I’ve seen how you watch me,” she said jerkily. “You’re probably one of those welfare people who want to take me away from here and put me in an orphanage. Do you think I haven’t had that happen before?” She slipped off the horse’s back. “Or maybe you think I don’t take good care of the horses and want to take them away from me. Well, I won’t let you do that, either. Mind your own business. I get along fine.”
“I’m sure you do,” Alisa said quietly. “You remind me of myself at your age, and I always wanted to control my own life. I promise I have no intention of whisking you to an orphanage or stealing those beautiful horses from you.” She met her eyes. “And I didn’t know quite why I came here two weeks ago, but I believe I’m beginning to get a clue every time I come back and watch you. I thought it was about you, but I’m wondering if it’s really about both of us.” She smiled. “Because I’ve been just as nosy and interfering as you thought and found out the owners of this circus don’t treat you as well as they could. But it never seems to bother you as long as those horses are kept happy and healthy.” She shook her head. “Yet for some reason, I found that it did bother me. Because those wonderful horses could be in even better shape, and so could you . . . if you’d let me help you.” She leaned forward, her eyes fixed intently on the girl’s face. So much distrust, so much wariness. It was like looking in a mirror of the child she had been herself. “Suppose I promise to buy those four horses for you and give you a comfortable place to stay and work that would allow you to do whatever you wish to do?”
She frowned. “Why would you want to do that? No one does something for nothing.”
“You’re right, so maybe I do want something from you. You’ll have plenty of time to find out and so will I. Because from now on I’m going to be here for every performance that I can manage to get away from my job.” She made a face. “That won’t be as many as I’d like because I’m certainly not rich, and I might have to work even harder to save up enough money to buy those horses for you. But I’ll be here as much as I can, and maybe after every show we’ll talk and learn what’s possible for the two of us, Catriona.”
She shrugged. “I think you’re a crazy woman.” She jumped back on the horse and turned him toward the tent exit. “Just know I’ll be keeping my eye on you. If you’re lying to me about that orphanage, I’ll know it. I’ll go away and you’ll never find me.” She got to her feet and balanced on the horse’s back with effortless grace. In that blue tutu she looked like the ballerina on a jewelry box. “And I don’t need help from you or anyone else.”
“Certainly not on the back of a horse,” Alisa said ruefully, touching her forehead in mock obeisance. “Truly the Great Catriona.”
“Yes, I am.” She glanced back over her shoulder and said grudgingly, “But since you say you’re going to be around for a while, you might as well get one thing straight. Catriona isn’t my name. Alonzo Zeppo, the owner of the circus, changed it because he thought Catriona the Great looked better on the posters.” She lifted her chin, her smile both proud and defiant, as she stared at Alisa. “My name is Sasha Nalano . . .”
Alisa could remember that smile as well as everything else about Sasha that day. The grace, the strength, the wariness, as she strove desperately to keep everyone at bay, to keep Alisa at bay . . .
And that memory of Sasha was giving Alisa the reason she needed to ignore everything else around her as unimportant. Just as she had known it would, as it always did.
Then her lids flicked open and she was swinging her legs to the floor. The next instant she was on her feet and heading for the door she assumed led to the bathroom. She would take a quick shower, and after she finished she would spend more time thinking about Korgan. There must be something she could offer him to ensure that he would give her what she had to have from him . . .
Interesting.” Korgan turned off the recorder. “I don’t suppose you were able to trace the call?”
Vogel shook his head. “Burner. And the call only lasted a few minutes.” He paused. “But the signal was satellite and issued somewhere in the Szarnar Jungle.”
“Even more interesting. A confederate in place exactly where I’d wish her to be located. Margaret . . . Possibly a fellow CIA operative stationed in that area?”
“No last name. I’ve been combing through the personnel records, but I can’t find a Margaret working for the Company except in London.”
“Then do you suppose our Alisa Flynn set up the call to make sure I’d fall for the bait?” he mused.
“I’d suppose that she’s a very clever woman and capable of almost anything.” Vogel scowled. “And I believe you’re enjoying this a little too much. I could see that she intrigued you from the moment you saw her. Hell, the entire situation intrigued you. You’ve been bored lately, and the unusual always makes you curious.”
“But you heard what she said on the phone.” His eyes were suddenly twinkling. “She’s going to give me whatever I want if I just go along with her. How could I resist an offer like that? She’s totally gorgeous. I should at least test the limits.”
“You’re not talking about having sex with her. I’d feel a hell of a lot more comfortable if you were. You’re not sure if she’s trying to con you or if she might actually be of use to get you Masenak.” His lips thinned. “Either way, you don’t need her. We were always going to bring in that special forces team to take care of the problem. Enough to wipe out Masenak’s entire camp, if necessary. All you have to do is be patient until you get the location. We can handle it ourselves. You can tell just by looking at her that she’s trouble.”
“True.” Korgan shrugged. “But that doesn’t mean that she might not be worth the trouble. Every invention I’ve ever created caused me a hell of a lot of trouble because it was new and different, and everyone said it couldn’t be done.” Then all hint of a smile vanished as his face hardened. “And I’m fresh out of patience. I’m not going to wait until Masenak manages to slip away again. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get him.”
Vogel could see the recklessness, that brilliant mind ticking, that restlessness that was almost palpable. He’d seen Korgan like this before but never with quite such an explosive depth of feeling. He supposed he should have expected it when he’d seen the frustration and anger Korgan had shown when he’d been told that any hunt for Masenak was on hold. He’d been working ceaselessly on all fronts since he’d set up these headquarters in Morocco after he’d flown here from Washington. “Think about it. This Flynn woman could be full of bullshit. And even if she’s not, she might be brimming with altruistic good intentions that could be dangerous for us. She could get in your way.”
“I am thinking about it. If she can get me Masenak’s location, she could also pave the way. She’s very clever. She managed to open that XV-10 lock in less than one minute. Plus, she hacked my computer, and you know all the experts I pulled in to test those firewalls.”
“Which would appeal to you and scare the piss out of me.”
“There’s no more dangerous weapon than a fine mind. And the fact that weapon is pointed at Jorge Masenak does encourage me to take a closer look at her.”
Vogel sighed. He’d known it was a losing battle. “You’re going to call Daniel Zabron.”
Korgan was smiling again. “Yes, please. And I’m sure you won’t let me talk to him without giving me a complete background dossier on him so that I’ll be able to make accurate judgments about his veracity.”
“You’re damn right, I will,” Vogel said grimly as he turned away. “I started the minute I came back downstairs. Give me thirty minutes.”
“Gabe Korgan?” Daniel Zabron was silent and then started to laugh. “Since I’m sure not many people get phone calls from you in the middle of the night, you must be phoning me because Alisa Flynn told you to. She’s the only person who would feel free to tell anyone to wake me at this hour.”
“She did tell me to mention her name.”
“Even more interesting. Has she done anything reprehensible?”
“It depends on how you look at it,” Korgan said. “Let’s just say she made an impact that won’t be soon forgotten. I felt the need to explore the facets of that impact, and she gave me your name and told me you know her best.”
“She’s right, I suppose I do. And if she sent you to me, then she won’t want me to lie or con you.” He laughed again. “But I’m curious about what she did to get perhaps the finest mind of our century upset enough to come knocking on my door.”
“But not curious enough to be worried about her?” he asked dryly. “I thought you might lie because you were her partner. I see that wasn’t a problem.”
“I’d lie if she asked me. She didn’t ask me. So she must want me to tell you the truth. And Alisa doesn’t have partners. She knows partners can be a danger and she’s always careful. That’s why she’s such an excellent agent.”
“I suppose you should know. I understand you’re the one who recruited her when she was only thirteen.”
“Ah, of course you’d investigate me.” He didn’t speak for a moment. “What little nuggets did you find out?”
“That you’re a brilliant operative who’s been with the CIA for over twenty-five years. You’re practically a legend. The fact that you’re also totally ruthless, drink too much, and don’t stick to the rules in any investigation kept you from climbing higher in the Company.” He paused. “And the fact that you did recruit an orphan off the streets of Caracas didn’t meet with any degree of enthusiasm.”
“No, but after I trained her, they changed their tune.” His voice roughened. “Yeah, I heard all the bullshit about putting a little street kid to work with the CIA when she was barely a teenager. They even thought I was some kind of pervert because I wouldn’t back down. Why not find some social service agency to give the girl a decent life? Only at that time Caracas was teeming with starving kids just trying to survive, and I didn’t want to lose this one. It’s not as if I was particularly warmhearted. God knows, no one ever accused me of that. I managed quite well ignoring all those other kids I’d see out there in the gutters.” He paused. “Until I ran across Alisa. She wouldn’t let me ignore her. She was always there on the street outside the hotel. Skinny. Dirty. Running errands. Selling information. Watching everything. Fierce as a tiger. When I first saw her, she couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. I did my best to not pay any attention to her. But I found myself counting the bruises, wondering if she’d had to sleep out in the rain the night before, trying to judge if she’d lost weight again. Finally, I started to talk to her.” He was silent a moment. “And that’s when I knew she had me. I could have withstood all that schmaltzy sweetness-and-light crap, but she was probably the most intelligent person I’d ever run across. She took my breath away. I couldn’t let that go. I knew I could train her into something extraordinary.”
“And did you? I notice she’s extremely good at picking a lock.”
“It was one of the many directions I pointed her in. That’s all I ever had to do. Did you know she has a photographic memory? Show her the way and she’d take off and run with it. Failure was never an option. She learned some rough lessons on the street, and she never forgot them.” He chuckled. “She regarded your alarms as a challenge. I believe she had a bit of a crush on you after she started delving into your work. She said you were fantastic. She couldn’t wait for the XV-17 to come out.”
“Wonderful,” he said sarcastically. “But I didn’t call you to delve into her talent at safe breaking. I was more interested in asking you if I could trust her word.” He paused. “And what do you know about Jorge Masenak.”
“You can trust her word if she gives it. Otherwise you have to realize that she’s into survival.” He was silent a moment. “Jorge Masenak? I’m not going to talk about him. I thought that might be why you were calling me. She came to me first and asked me to help her and I turned her down. I told you, I’m neither warm nor sentimental, and I’m also into survival. But I won’t try to turn you against going after him. She believes in what she’s doing. For some reason, those kids he’s holding matter to her. Maybe she identifies with them.” He paused. “No, there’s no way she could identify with those little princesses in that school. I don’t know what’s driving her. All I know is that she wants it so bad, she might be able to pull it off.”
“She says she has excellent sources in the Szarnar Jungle and southern Maldara—better than mine. Is it true?”
“It could be. I’m always surprised how many contacts she’s developed over the years. Alisa knows the value of working every angle, and she’s taught herself how to use people to do it.”
“Or were you the one who taught her?”
“Maybe. Do I detect a hint of protectiveness in your tone? Be careful, that’s how it started with me.” Then he said softly, “Our relationship has always been complicated. Let’s just say that once we got together, we taught each other a good many things and, bad or good, neither of us regretted learning them.” He added, “And I should remind you that it was Alisa who came to me and stood outside that hotel in Caracas until she wore me down. Determination like that is mind-boggling. You should really consider if she’s been using me all these years.”
“I believe you could take care of yourself,” Korgan said dryly.
“Oh, I can. I just didn’t want you to underestimate her. That would be an insult to all her hard work and my invaluable guidance. Is there anything else you wish to know?”
“We’ve discussed her skills in safecracking. What other talents does she possess that could be of use to me?”
“Oh, now this is beginning to read like an employee application. It depends on what you need her to be for the job. She’ll do what she has to do to get the mission accomplished. If you want to know what formal training she’s acquired since I took her under my wing?” He paused, thinking. “Data science, cryptology, cyber analysis and hacking, tracking, technology, weapons application, EMT training, and she’s fluent in nine languages. But those are only the formal training skills the CIA knows about. I taught her much more that she adapted on her own.”
“Then why the hell did you turn her down when she asked for help?”
“I told you, it was too dangerous. She’s a superb agent, but it could have turned out to be a suicide mission. I wasn’t about to risk my neck,” he said curtly. “If she’d been able to find a way to get the Company to go after Masenak, I might have agreed. But I always told her she couldn’t count on me unless she could prove a project would be a success. She shouldn’t have even asked me.” He added, “It’s interesting she moved on to you. What are you going to get out of this?”
“I don’t think I’ll answer that question. And if I decide to go forward with the project, I’ll ask your old friend Alisa not to confide in you, either. We have a different work philosophy. If I commit to a project, I don’t demand absolute proof that it will succeed, only that every single effort will be made. That allows for a change of course that might lead to a different but equally successful outcome. Thank you for answering my questions, Zabron. It’s been illuminating.”
“I agree.” Zabron chuckled. “But remember when I said I knew the moment when Alisa had me? For me it was the time when she actually started to speak to me, and I could gauge what she could become. But I think you’ve already gone past that point. Good luck, Korgan. I hope you get what you want from her.” He cut the connection.
“What do you think?” Vogel asked Korgan from across the room. “No one could say that he wasn’t brutally frank about her.”
“He also said that she probably has the sources she promised. It could cut down the time I have to wait to go after Masenak. That’s important. The longer he’s in that damn jungle, the more likely I might lose him.” He added, “And he said she’d keep her word.”
“If you could get her to swear to do it.”
“People swear and make promises to me all the time to get what they want,” he said wearily. “I’d just have to make sure she’ll be forced to do it.”
Vogel was studying him. “He annoyed the hell out of you, didn’t he?”
“Yet you’re already talking as if it’s a done deal,” he said sourly. “Don’t tell me. You have a hunch.”
“It’s not a done deal. I’ll talk to her and see what she can offer me to get those students away from that bastard.” He looked down at the photo of Alisa Flynn on the dossier on the desk in front of him. Truly exceptional, he thought absently. Dark hair, high cheekbones, arched brows, and those slightly slanted green eyes. It was those wide, intense, almost fierce eyes staring at him that had caught his attention from the minute he had caught sight of her across the study tonight.
Wariness and ferocity.
And after he’d listened to Zabron’s description of the child Alisa, he could imagine she had not changed all that much.
Fierce as a tiger.
Vogel got to his feet. “I’m going to bed. I think Zabron was right. I think she’s got to you. Tell me in the morning if I’m wrong.”
Korgan watched him leave the room before his gaze returned to the photo. Decision time. If Vogel was correct, then it had better be for a damn good reason. It wouldn’t be because the woman had intrigued him or that he had a hunch that she could work out for them.
He opened the dossier and started to study everything it could tell him about Alisa Flynn.
Alisa could see Korgan sitting in the study at his desk drinking a cup of coffee as she paused near the bottom of the staircase. She braced herself and then went down the last three steps. “Have you been there all night?” she asked as she entered the study. “Even Zabron doesn’t know enough stories about me to keep you that entertained.”
“Actually, my conversation with Zabron was relatively short. I told you I would never trust a single source. But I did find him interesting, as I did all the other information I found about you.” He smiled. “But you flatter yourself if you believe I’d sit here all night poring over your résumé.”
“I think you spent a good portion of it doing that.” Her gaze was narrowed on his face, trying to read him. Dammit, he was as ultra-complicated as one of his inventions. Yet she thought she could see something . . . “Be honest with me. I think honesty is going to be very important to both of us.
His smile faded. “You’re absolutely right. I did my due diligence, but not all night. I took a two-hour nap, showered, and then came down here to wait and see when you’d break out of that bedroom.” He gestured to the thermal coffeepot on the desk. “I even ordered coffee for us. Would you like a cup?”
“Not right now,” she said absently. “I’d rather you talked to me. I’ve been waiting all night.”
“You shouldn’t reveal eagerness. It’s bad strategy.”
“Not with you. You don’t give a damn about strategy. You just gather all the facts and then decide what you’re going to do with them. Besides, I think you’ve already made up your mind.”
“Perhaps. Providing I can receive reasonable assurance that I’ll get what I want from you.” He took a sip of coffee. “What took you so long to get down here if you were so anxious?”
“I was waiting for Vogel to come and get me. I didn’t want to strike a wrong note by breaking out of the room if the decision was still up in the air.” She added impatiently, “But he didn’t come, and I didn’t know if it was amusing you to rig some kind of test about the damn lock, so I thought, What the hell.”
He chuckled. “Indeed. What the hell?”
“Now stop talking about things that aren’t important. I’ve already given you all the assurances I can. What else can I do?”
“I’m about to tell you.” He leaned back in his chair. “You see, the entire problem is that I’m such a cynical bastard. I don’t trust you. It takes me a long time to have faith in anyone, and your breaking into my study wasn’t destined to inspire me to do it. You need to erase that mistake.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
“Proof of intent,” he said softly. “You keep talking about an exchange of services, but I’m obviously going to have to perform first to avoid having those students slaughtered. Correct?”
She nodded. “I knew you’d have to trust me.” She moistened her lips. “I thought you’d want some kind of bond to seal the deal. I told you I’d be willing to do anything.”
“So you did,” he said ironically. “I believe even Masenak’s head was mentioned at one point.”
She stiffened. “Is that what you want?”
“Not initially. You’ve told me that he couldn’t be lured into a trap by your people. And even if you could find his camp, he’s exceptionally well guarded. If you attacked him, he’d go into automatic, kill those students, and then go on the run himself. Which was exactly what I don’t want to happen.”
“I told you I’d track him down for you.”
“And so you will. My research affirmed that you weren’t lying about your tracking skills. Homeland Security gave you expert status after your training in the Arizona desert.”
“These days I’m even better than those reports say.”
He chuckled. “And so modest, too.”
“I don’t want you to change your mind,” she said. “You can’t do that, Korgan. I can’t let it happen. What was that you were saying about proof of intent?”
“I sat here for a long time last night thinking about what would make me trust that you’d keep your promise after I gave you what you wanted.”
She sat there, tense, staring at him.
He smiled. “Leo Baldwin. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“Of course I have.” She frowned as she tried to remember every detail. “One of Masenak’s sergeants in his army. Murderer, rapist, scum of the earth.” She paused and then added slowly, “And Masenak’s lover.” Her eyes widened. “You want me to kill him?”
“No, I just want him captured. Though it would probably be safer for you and those students to kill him. He’s as much a monster as Masenak and could be troublesome for me either way. But I’ve decided he might be useful to me, so I just want him to vanish in a manner that would not interfere with me removing those students you’re concerned about. Which would also mean that no one could think the CIA is involved.” He met her eyes. “Could you do it? You said your sources would have problems luring Masenak into a trap, but Baldwin is neither as smart nor as well protected. Possible?”
She thought about it. “Possible,” she said slowly. “Why do you want it done?”
“I’m not quite sure. I might have several reasons. Baldwin has been with Masenak a long time and has information I can use. Or maybe I want to catch Masenak off guard, and removing Baldwin will be the best way to do it. Their intimacy would be a weapon in itself. I want Masenak wondering whether Baldwin has left him because he thinks he’s a lousy lover, or if he’s trying to sell him out to one of the wealthy parents or the CIA. Either way, if you do your job right and Baldwin just disappears into the mist, I’ll bet Masenak will be going on the hunt for him. Which might eventually let me spring a trap on Masenak after all.” He smiled mockingly. “It would be very complicated as well as dangerous. You’d have to want to keep that deal with me very much to risk it. I couldn’t ask for a better proof of intent.”
“No, you couldn’t.” She was remembering that it had been Baldwin who had cut off the head of that schoolgirl. “If I take care of this, you’ll find a way to go get those students right away?”
He nodded. “Proof of intent.” His smile was twisted. “May my soul burn in hell.”
“Don’t be dramatic. A deal is a deal. I didn’t expect anything else. Of course I’ll do it.”
“How soon? You said you’d be able to locate Masenak’s camp in a couple of days. Baldwin will be at that camp. Two days?”
“More than likely.” She came forward and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Now that we’ve settled that, I’ll have that coffee. I need it. I should have expected you’d do something unusual to get your pound of flesh, but it wasn’t this. From what I heard, you were more cerebral than physical.” Now that she was committed, her mind was racing, trying to think how she could pull this off. “You’re right, it’s going to be complicated. How soon can we leave?”
He didn’t answer that question. “I’m very physical,” he said softly. “It’s just that most people pay more attention to the cerebral because they assume that’s where they can benefit the most. How physical are you, Alisa?”
She could feel the sudden tingle of sensuality in the room, the sheer eroticism he was emitting. It startled her to find her body responding to it. She had been so focused on his words and the opportunity he’d presented that she hadn’t been aware of the sexuality. Now she was very much aware, and it had to be confronted. “I have to be physical or I wouldn’t be able to do what you’ve asked me to do.” She stared him in the eye. “But if you’re talking about sex, say it. I don’t think you are, because it would get in your way. So tell me if it’s part of the deal. Is it another proof of intent?”
He was suddenly still. “And if it was?”
“I’d take my clothes off. I told you I couldn’t let you change your mind.”
He was silent a moment. Then he smiled and shrugged. “You did, didn’t you? But you’re right, dealing in that particular proof of intent doesn’t appeal to me.” He grimaced. “Well, that’s not quite true. The appeal is there, but I’ve made the deal difficult enough for you. You asked how soon we could leave? Probably within the hour. When I came downstairs, I told Vogel I’d be using the helicopter to fly you down to the Szarnar Jungle at the Maldara border to meet with your so-called valuable contacts.” He smiled crookedly. “And to convince me that it’s worthwhile going forward with you. After the meeting takes place and I’m satisfied, I’ll call Vogel and tell him it’s a go. He’ll instantly set up the arrival of the team to come and meet us, and we’ll make plans to take those schoolgirls away from Masenak.” His tone was cool and efficient. “I believe you have time to go to the dining room and grab breakfast.” He finished his coffee and got to his feet. “As well as call your friend Margaret and tell her that you’ve completed your recruiting mission. She should be pleased. Anyone can tell you, I’m a real prize.”
“Yes, that’s what Vogel said.” She turned toward the door. “However, I can’t tell her that because I haven’t recruited you. But Margaret will understand I have a chance now and she’ll be relieved.”
“Am I allowed to know her full name now?”
“No way.” She saw that he was waiting for her to say something else. “She’s my friend. She knew I wanted to help those girls and she showed up when she thought I’d have to do it alone.”
“A very good friend. Not like Zabron.”
She looked at him in surprise. “I never said Zabron was my friend. He never pretended to be. He just saw potential and wanted to play Pygmalion to my Galatea. He regarded me as a challenge. His ego got in the way, but he did a fairly good job.”
“If you don’t care about little things like humanity or unselfishness,” he said.
“And if you did care, you’d go search out a true friend like Margaret,” she said simply. “But I didn’t have that choice when I was a kid in Caracas. So I took what I could get, and it turned out okay. He taught me a lot.”
“An expert CIA guru as compared with a novice like Margaret Douglas?”
She suddenly chuckled. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I said she wasn’t CIA; I never said she was a novice. She’s one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. You’ll understand when you meet her.”
“But you’re not about to discuss her in depth now?”
“She’s hard to explain. It’s easier for you to make your own judgment.” She shrugged. “And besides, I haven’t recruited you yet. I wouldn’t want to reveal confidential things about a friend to anyone unless I knew she could trust him.” She paused. “I should tell you that Margaret will likely be helping me with Baldwin. It might not be a job I can handle alone.”
“I didn’t think it would be. I was planning on giving you help.”
“But that wouldn’t be a true test, would it? You’d have reason to back out.” She shook her head. “I’ll get my own help.” She lifted her hand. “Call me when you’re ready to leave.” She moved down the hall toward the dining room. She deliberately didn’t look back at Korgan, because she was attempting to gather her thoughts and emotions about him in some kind of order. She’d known he was unique before she’d done that first initial research, but she was finding that contact was adding layers and nuances she hadn’t dreamed existed. That sudden flash of sexuality had been . . . erotic. And his ruthless decision to test her by pitting her against Baldwin had also surprised her. Vogel had warned her that he was tough, and that demand had proved it. There was no telling what other facets he would show her as time went on. She would obviously have to be very careful.
But then there was an element of danger to every challenge, and this one was life or death. She had no doubt she could meet it; she was already experiencing a tingle of excitement as she thought about it. It was like the first moments of excitement when she’d been exploring the intricacies of that XV-10 lock he’d created. The power, the sleek beauty, the darkness of the unknown, the beautiful mind that had seen beyond what was there to what it could become.
Fascinating . . .
“They’ve almost finished gassing up the helicopter,” Vogel said as he entered the study. “Since you didn’t call me, I assume that it’s still okay? I wasn’t sure that she’d be prepared to risk her neck going after Baldwin.”
“I was sure,” Korgan said curtly. “I didn’t doubt the determination once I went over those dossiers. Brilliant. Innovative. Absolutely stellar career so far. She’s like a bulldog. I could see she was remarkable. But I have to have that final commitment from her.” His lips twisted. “Hell, I knew there was no way I could let Masenak butcher those kids. But it meant a delay I didn’t need. If I can’t have Masenak right away, I’m damn well going to have Baldwin. Alisa Flynn wants a trade. Let her prove herself by showing me she can give me something I do want.”
Vogel nodded slowly. “It was a surprise to me. I thought you were being soft on her. I’m glad it was about those students.”
“She’s interesting.” He suddenly smiled. “Soft? The word you’re looking for is weak, Vogel. You were close to accusing me of it before you took her upstairs last night.”
“Not really,” he said quickly. “She just makes me uneasy. She’s . . . different. I wasn’t sure of anything about her. I’m still not sure.” He made a face. “But I’d rather you were being soft about those students than about Alisa Flynn. It makes more sense.” He tilted his head. “Are you actually going to let her go into that jungle after Baldwin?”
“Yes. Why not? She’s CIA with extraordinary qualifications. She has sources she says can lure him. She’ll be able to handle it.”
“Alone? You told me to get our crew ready to send down there right away.”
He shrugged. “She said she’d get her own help.”
“I wouldn’t want to piss the lady off, would I?”
Vogel waited, watching him. “I don’t like it. You’re too damn restless. You were like this right before you took off to climb the face of K2 without those ropes. I don’t want to have you changing your mind and going into that jungle just to relive your old army days. You’re too valuable. Now, who do you want me to call and tell to get the hell down there?”
Korgan frowned. “They were damn interesting years and at least I was never bored. I don’t see why I shouldn’t occasionally revisit them.”
“Because you shouldn’t take a chance on being shot before you get Masenak. It’s still early days. Give me a name.”
Shit. It didn’t help that Vogel was right, Korgan thought. He was restless, and he’d been that way since Alisa Flynn had disarmed that study door. She’d brought to the forefront not only an interesting possibility, but the actual opportunity to go after the bastard himself.
“Who?” Vogel repeated.
He sighed. “Gilroy,” he said reluctantly. “John Gilroy.”
“You said there would be the equivalent of an elite Delta team coming to help us release those students.” Alisa was gazing down at the almost impenetrable barrier of jungle trees and foliage as the helicopter slowly descended. As she’d said, this area was more rain forest than jungle. “I don’t see any vehicles down there on the Maldara side of the border yet.”
“Have a little patience. They should be coming in by tomorrow night. Vogel had them on standby, but it takes time to activate. I’m not trying to cheat you.”
“I know you aren’t. I’m just anxious. I don’t know what Masenak could be doing to those students right now.” Her lips twisted. “And I don’t have any right to tell you how to handle your men when I still haven’t given you any reason to trust me. It will take a little time for me to set up a way to find and take Baldwin anyhow.”
He looked away from her. “It might go quicker if you take me up on my offer to lend you a few of my men.”
“I want to do it myself.” She shrugged. “The way Margaret and I work is rather . . . different. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know. I’ll talk to Margaret and see if there’s been any change.”
“Things change all the time in the jungle.”
“I’m aware of that, Alisa,” he said dryly. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I spent a year in the Congo searching for a stronger metal to use in the batteries that could best fuel the vehicle I created for the next Mars landing.”
“I know you did,” she said, deadpan. “But since you’re surrounded by those gold walls, I thought you might have spent the entire year in a climate-controlled bubble to protect you.”
“Ouch. Wicked,” he said. “And the first time I’ve seen a hint of humor in you. Are you becoming a little overconfident?”
“No, but I believe I’m coming very close to getting what I want, and I should be able to react however I wish as long as I give you whatever you want, too.” She was grinning. “It’s very wearing being the humble prisoner and being threatened with being tossed back to my superiors every few minutes.”
“Humble?” he murmured. “I hadn’t noticed. You started out with robbery, and then demands, and went on from there.” He shrugged. “But you were at least interesting, and I agree that the brutal honesty you’ve promised will be healthier than the alternative.”
“I thought you’d think so.” She was looking out the window again. “If you land near that plateau on the Maldara side of the border, you’ll find heavy brush and tree coverage where you can hide the helicopter. I told Margaret to meet us there and have a few village people on hand to help get it out of sight as soon as possible. It’s safer on that side of the border, but I still don’t want to risk one of Masenak’s scouts seeing us.”
“More demands?” he asked silkily.
“Intelligent suggestions,” she said. “I have no intention of losing you now that I’ve almost got you. I thought we’d take turns later when we’ve established a relationship. Will you land, please?”
“Whatever you say. I agree that would be an excellent place.” He started the descent. “As of ten minutes ago, there were only seven infrared signals indicating that your friend Margaret and her party are down there to greet us. No weaponry except for one handgun, which I assume belongs to Margaret?”
“Yes. I’m sure she didn’t want you to believe you were facing a hostile force.” Her gaze narrowed on his face. “Vogel whispering in your ear?”
He tapped the tiny plug in his left ear. “He insisted on a few drone runs along the border to make certain that everyone was going to be happy to see me. He didn’t approve of this trip and wanted me to be prepared.”
“Then why didn’t he insist you not go alone?”
“Vogel doesn’t run my life.” He smiled recklessly. “I let him take any measures of which I approve, but I’d never accomplish anything if I didn’t go my own way. I’ve watched you work around Vogel and all the rest of the entanglements surrounding me since the first instant I saw you. If I’d brought anyone here with me, it might continue, and I’m getting impatient.” He shrugged. “I might have been playing a hunch, but now I need to clear the decks. There comes a point where I have to take charge and cast the dice and see where they fall.”
She went still. “And if you don’t like where they fall?”
He didn’t look at her. “Then I assure you that you won’t like it, either, Alisa.”
“Margaret!” Alisa jumped out of the helicopter and ran toward her as Margaret came out of the trees, closely followed by her retriever, Juno. Alisa hugged her friend tightly before releasing her. Her gaze quickly raked Margaret’s face. “You look tired. Is anything wrong? Is Sasha still okay?”
“Don’t be crazy. Yes, I’m tired. I’ve been monitoring Masenak every night this week.” Margaret gave her another quick hug before she stepped back. “And everything is just as wrong as it was when you left, but no worse.” Suddenly her luminous smile lit her face. “But according to what you told me this morning on the phone, you might have pulled off a coup to make it a hell of a lot better. Where is the great man?”
“At last, someone who recognizes my importance.” Korgan was strolling toward them. “Your friend Alisa very rudely left me in the dirt to greet you.” He held out his hand. “You’re Margaret Douglas? I’m Gabe Korgan. I’ve been anxious to meet you.”
That brilliant smile never left her face as Margaret shook his hand. “Me, too. Though I wasn’t sure I’d get to meet you,” she added ruefully. “Alisa thought we might have to rely on what she could pull together by stealing that info from you. I’m glad she managed to make you see the light. You won’t be sorry.”
“I’m not at all sure you’re right about that,” he murmured. “But I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t willing to be convinced.”
And in spite of Margaret’s brutally frank remarks, he was smiling at her, Alisa realized. But then everyone usually smiled at Margaret. She had realized that when they had met that day years ago in the Arizona desert. She had first mistaken Margaret for a fresh-faced college girl because of that glowing vitality about her: the gold-streaked hair and tan skin, that luminous smile that seemed to be lit from within, and the blue eyes that were usually shining with humor. It was difficult not to return that smile.
“We’ll convince you.” Margaret’s eyes were twinkling. “Between us we can be very persuasive. Alisa says that you’re not a selfish monster like Masenak, and that’s a good start. If anything, you’ve just probably had too much money for too long. It’s difficult keeping a good sense of values when everyone thinks you’re king of the world.”
“I’m glad you might think I’m worth saving,” he said dryly. “But I’m having trouble being convinced of anything while I feel this much in the dark. I have the distinct feeling all I’m getting is half-truths from either of you. That’s usually not my modus operandi.”
“We know that,” Alisa said quickly. “I’m not really trying to keep any secrets from you. Well, I was, but that’s over. I just didn’t want to startle you or give you any wrong ideas. Vogel said you were very cynical, and I didn’t want to trigger anything negative.”
“Trigger it,” he said crisply. “I’m the one to decide if it’s negative or not.”
“I’m out of here,” Margaret said. “I believe that’s the cue for me to fade into the sunset.” She glanced at Alisa. “I’ll go and supervise the villagers moving the helicopter beneath that tarp beside the lake, and then I have to get out of here. It will be dark in the jungle in another hour and I have to get back to Masenak’s camp and see if there’ve been any developments.”
Alisa stiffened as she heard Korgan start to swear when he caught that last sentence. She’d known it was coming, but there was no way to prepare for it. He whirled on Alisa. “Masenak’s camp?”
Margaret quickly stepped between them. “Yes, we already know exactly where we can find Masenak. You have a right to be pissed off that we lied about not already having found his camp yet.”
“You bet I do.” His eyes were blazing in his taut face. “Surprise. Surprise.”
“Alisa felt it was dangerous for us to tell you that we’d already located him, and I agreed with her.” She added to Alisa as she turned away, “Handle it. I have to get back to Sasha. She’s on edge. Make up your mind what you want to tell him. But he’ll have to know everything eventually.” She looked back over her shoulder at Korgan. “I know this isn’t going to be easy for you to understand. We’re doing the best we can.”
“Should I go with you tonight?” Alisa called after her.
“No, we agreed on a division of duties, and this doesn’t change anything. You’d just get upset with seeing Sasha there.” She disappeared into the trees.
“What the hell was all that supposed to mean?” Korgan asked Alisa through set teeth. “It was kind of her to give you a choice what bits of info to share with me, but I’m not feeling nearly as generous at the moment. Particularly after she just casually mentioned that she’s going to drop into Masenak’s camp tonight.” She could almost feel the waves of fury he was emitting. “That’s not going to happen. Do you think I’d risk a blunder like that? You didn’t even mention you knew where it was located, much less the fact you’ve been monitoring what’s going on there. If that’s not a lie, too, it changes everything.” He took a step closer to her. “I told you that I won’t let you do anything that might put Masenak on the run. I won’t lose him.” The words were low but spraying out like bullets. “If you want to have even a chance of me going after those students, you’ll back off now.”
“I can’t back off.” She lifted her chin as she stared into his eyes. “And neither can Margaret. She has to keep watch there tonight, just as she does almost every night. No, I didn’t mention we already knew where he was located. You held all the weapons, and that was the only one I had. I did tell you I had sources. How did I know you wouldn’t go after him yourself if I’d told you any more? I knew how much you wanted to get your hands on him. I was supposed to trust you?”
“Only if you wanted me to go through with the deal you proposed.”
“I’m desperate for you to go through with what you promised. But I’m not a fool. I knew I was going to have trouble with you when I brought you down here. There was no way you were going to understand what’s going on here. But I had to take a chance. Time was running out and you were our only hope.”
“No, I don’t understand,” he said coldly. “Except that Vogel might have been right that those kids were only a decoy and you have another agenda. What is it?”
“It’s not a decoy. You know it. You can see it. You trust your instincts and you know I wasn’t lying to you about that. It was one of the only things I had on my side when I screwed up because of that damn drone.” She had to convince him. “You’re not the easiest man for me to read, but we both know that’s true. Don’t we?”
He didn’t speak for a moment. “My instincts aren’t always infallible, and you’re very believable.”
“But in the end, you trusted them enough to come with me when you had no idea if I was leading you into a trap.” She gestured impatiently. “Oh, there were probably a hundred other reasons bouncing around in that brain of yours that made you take the chance, but that was the main one.”
“Really?” he said with soft sarcasm. “Do tell me more.”
His gaze was probing, taking every word she was speaking apart and weighing it, but she could see that he was at least listening. “There’s not much more. Just that I knew you were armed and ready to pull that gun out of your jacket any second when you were shaking hands with Margaret. And you told me that Vogel had already sent a drone down here and knew exactly how many people you’d have to face when we landed. So I knew we were being watched. And do you think I don’t know that Vogel probably has one of those new super drones of yours keeping an eye on you that you can activate with a blink of an eyelash? He’d never let you go anywhere unprotected. Yet you still came with me, and you didn’t do either one even when Margaret told you the truth and you thought she might blow your plans to get Masenak. That means I’m right, and you want Masenak as much as I want to free those students. So you should just give me a chance to explain.” Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Look, Margaret has to keep surveillance on that camp. You can’t imagine how careful she’s being. She won’t blunder and Masenak won’t go on the run. I promise you.” She paused and then added stiltedly, “And I’ll promise after she leaves here to go to his camp, I’ll tell you everything we’ve been doing since we came here and who we’ve been doing it with. Total honesty.”
“I’ve heard that before,” he said.
“I was honest about everything I chose to say,” she said. “I just couldn’t take the risk of going all the way. I was taking an enormous chance with you and I know practically nothing about your motives except that you want Masenak dead.”
He was silent, gazing at her. “Anything I want to know?”
“Anything.” Her lips twisted. “Not that you’ll believe it.”
“I might. You can never tell.”
“No, you can never tell,” she said quietly. “But I’ll start off with telling you I have every intention of getting you Baldwin as soon as possible. That’s the prime thing Margaret is checking out tonight. What will it hurt to give us the time until she gets back from his camp before you make up your mind?”
“But do I really need Baldwin? Were you lying about not being able to trap Masenak, too?”
“I wasn’t lying. He’s too well protected. You’ll see that once I show you what we’ve found out about the camp.”
He was silent. “And are you also going to tell me where Masenak’s camp is located?”
“Absolutely. I’ll make sure you have that information tonight as soon as Margaret gets back.” She smiled faintly. “But I should tell you that Masenak moves his camp every other week. That’s why we have to keep on top of him. How’s that for total honesty?”
“Quit while you’re ahead,” she said wearily. “I’ve told you I’ll practically strip my soul to give you every detail I know. Now it’s your turn. Tell me you’re not going to stop Margaret tonight. After all, I’m still your prisoner. You could pull out that gun at any time and use it on me. If Margaret does anything you don’t like at Masenak’s camp, you’ll be able to punish me for it.”
“True.” He tilted his head. “What an unusual phrase. I’ve never had a soul stripped for me before. And I’m sure your soul would prove more fascinating than most. Though the process does sound uncomfortable. Sort of like milking a cobra.”
“Don’t play games.”
“I’m not, this is no game to me. I just had to decide if I could resist the experience of dealing with you. But now that you’ve assured me it was entirely my own instincts guiding me, I feel much better. I have infinite trust in myself.” He was silent again before he added crisply, “I won’t do anything tonight. I’ll wait and see if your Margaret brings back anything about Baldwin I consider worthwhile.”
She drew a relieved breath. “Good.”
But he wasn’t paying any attention to her at the moment. He was frowning absently. “Do you really think I could have a drone drop a bomb here by flipping an eyelash or two?”
“What?” She was confused at the change of subject. “No, but I have no real idea what you can do with those drones. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
“You give me too much credit. That would be enormously difficult. To have that kind of capability it would have to be large, probably noisy, and yet ultra-complicated.”
Her gaze was narrowed on his face. “But you do have some other kind of fail-safe device set up?”
“Perhaps.” He smiled. “But the lash-blinking idea as an automatic signal has promise. I used something similar in a high-tech bank vault alarm in Paris, but I’m going to have to consider the drone application. With extreme miniaturization, it could be a challenge . . .”
It appeared the crisis was over. Thank goodness that brilliant mind of Korgan’s had spiraled to another “challenge.”
“Only a temporary reprieve,” he said quietly, his gaze zeroing in on her face. “We’re still teetering on the brink. But you’re right, I want Masenak bad enough to take almost any chance.” He turned away. “Now we’re going to get a cup of coffee from that thermos I brought with us. Then we’re going to look around this entire area and make certain there aren’t going to be any other surprises that drone didn’t pick up. And after your friend Margaret leaves, we’ll settle down for that long chat. Isn’t that a good plan?”
“Good enough. Since I’m limited for choices.”
“Excellent answer.” He strode back toward the helicopter. “Coffee, first . . .”
H e might have reserved that “chat” for later, but that didn’t stop Korgan from firing off a multitude of questions while they were touring the surrounding area that included the plateau and jungle. He even went a mile or so along the bank of the lake before he turned back and strode back toward the plateau where they had landed. He noticed everything; his eyes were arrow sharp, and so were his questions. She’d thought he was finished almost forty minutes later, but it was only a temporary stop as his gaze fell on the dozen or so villagers beneath the canopy who were just finishing tucking foliage around the helicopter to hide it from above. “Those are villagers from northern Maldara. What are they doing this far south?”
“They agreed to come as far as the border as a favor.” She asked curiously, “How did you know they were from the north?”
“Those dashiki shirts they’re wearing have an identifying stripe common to the northern tribes. I studied Maldara while I was researching the Szarnar Jungle. I thought I might have to use it as an entry point.” He glanced at her. “Favor? To whom? You?”
“No, I don’t have any clout in Maldara. But I did do a job once for Jed Novak while the civil war was going on. He practically runs everything CIA in Maldara at the moment.”
“I know he does.”
“Yes, you would. More research. Anyway, the job went well, and Novak believes in payback. So he talked the villagers into coming here and helping me.”
“He knows what you’re trying to do? He’s one of your sources?”
“Source? Novak always knows everything about everyone. But I couldn’t compromise him by admitting anything to him about this. Even if he was sympathetic, he can’t involve himself with what I’m doing. Maldara might fall apart again if he isn’t on-site to monitor the truce. All I can hope is that I’ll get a little help when I need it most.” She glanced at him. “And don’t think you can coax him into your camp with money. He’s one of the good guys.”
“But then so am I . . . sometimes. Can you get those villagers to go into the jungle after Masenak in an emergency?”
“I told you we prefer not to involve them. It’s not their battle.”
“Just a thought. The unit I’m bringing in will be much more efficient anyway.” His gaze wandered to the edge of the jungle, where Margaret was apparently giving last-minute instructions to the villagers. “It appears we’re going to lose your friend shortly.” His glance shifted down to the gleaming cream-colored coat of the retriever at Margaret’s feet. “Beautiful dog. Odd to see a purebred retriever like that here in the jungle. She brought it with her?”
She nodded. “Juno goes almost everywhere with Margaret. It would be odd to me not to see them together.”
He stiffened. “Tell me she’s not taking that dog with her tonight. A white, possibly barking dog, to set off sentries? It would be like shining a searchlight out there in the darkness.”
“Juno won’t bark. She never does. And they won’t see her. She’ll mind Margaret.” She added soothingly, “It’s actually safer if Juno goes with her.” She watched Juno following Margaret into the trees. “And unless you intend to go tackle Margaret right now, I believe our conversation about Juno is over.”
“Tempting,” he said grimly. “But since I promised you I wouldn’t interfere with Margaret Douglas tonight, it might as well include that blasted dog.”
“Juno is a wonderful dog, and I wouldn’t let Margaret hear you malign her if I were you. She’s a peace-loving soul but that doesn’t extend to friends or animals, and Juno is both.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. If your Margaret manages to get back here without having one of Masenak’s sentries blow her head off.” He turned away and said curtly, “In the meantime, if you need to eat, you’d better go to the supply hut I saw beneath the tarp and grab something right away. I was promised information, and I’ll give you the time it takes me to build a fire and get myself another cup of coffee for you to keep that promise.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said quietly. “I realize you’re going to be on edge until you’re satisfied that you know everything I do. Go get your coffee. I’ll make the fire.” She smiled faintly. “You’ll find I’m very good at everything to do with camping. In fact, my first meeting with Margaret took place in the wilds. If you like, I might even tell you the story.”
“Don’t bother. First, I want to see a map of Masenak’s camp and any weaknesses I can exploit. I’m not interested in anything else unless it has to do with this rain forest and Masenak.”
“It does in a way.” She turned and started to gather wood. “Since it has to do with Sasha.”
“And who is Sasha?”
“Go get your coffee.”
He turned on his heel and headed toward the hut. By the time he returned and handed her a refill on her coffee, she had a brisk fire flickering. He dropped down on the ground beside her. “Masenak’s camp,” he repeated curtly. “Numbers. Placement of troops. Vehicles.”
“Vehicles.” She opened the notebook she had laid out in readiness. She pointed to three boxes near the top of a drawing. “He always travels with three trucks when he’s here at Szarnar.” She pointed at the oblong figure to one side of the tracks. “Helicopter pad about a mile from the main camp. Masenak never takes a chance on not having an escape route. He has troops on patrol at that pad twenty-four hours a day. And the copter’s always guarded by a truck with a mounted machine gun.”
“We might still be able to reach him before he’s able to take off,” he muttered.
“Only if you make the choice to go after him while his men are butchering the prisoners,” she said. “Because that’s what would happen. He already told the CIA that any move on him would lead to the students being massacred. He meant it,” she said hoarsely. “That’s why you have to get the students out first. Don’t you see?”
“I see that there’s a problem.” His gaze was narrowed on the page. “But there’s usually more than one answer.”
“Not this time.” Her eyes flew to his face. “I know you like to experiment with solutions, but not with those girls’ lives. You can’t do that, Korgan.”
“I didn’t say I would.” He was still studying the diagram. “Troops?”
“Eighty-four soldiers located at the main camp.” She pointed to a square south of the helicopter pad. “They occupy sleeping bags in this area of the clearing when they’re not on sentry duty.”
She pointed to one of two long tents running the length of the encampment. “This is the main prisoner tent. There’s a side entrance that leads out into the main camp and another the guards on duty use at the far south end to prepare their food and make sure the girls are kept away from the soldiers.” She added bitterly, “Unless Masenak decides to reward one of his men and lets him have his choice for a night. Otherwise, only Masenak and Baldwin are allowed to rape them.” She shook her head to clear it of that horror of ugliness and get back to reporting something that might help. “The tents are wired with explosives, and Masenak always carries the remote detonator to set them off.”
“Do you know what kind of explosives?”
“Of course I do. It’s a co-crystal of HMX and CL-20. Powerful but stable. I asked Sasha to go into the tent and get the info while she visited the other students. The girls are chained to posts inside the tents. Forty-one in the first one. Only six in the second. There used to be ten more in that second tent, but they killed the one girl to set an example and Sasha said Masenak sent the other girls as gifts to chiefs in Sudan.” She frowned. “She said she tried to find out exactly where they were sent, but she’s only located four of them.”
“Sasha, again. Who the hell is this Sasha?”
“She’s one of the students Masenak is holding captive in that camp. She’s just fifteen years old, and her name is Sasha Nalano.” She tried to keep her voice steady. “And she’s probably going to be next on Masenak’s kill list if I don’t stop him. She’s angry, and she won’t listen to us all the time. I don’t know long she can take what’s happening to her friends in that camp. You heard Margaret—she’s on the edge.”
“I heard it, but I didn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. Why would this particular student be singled out?”
“Because she caught the bastard’s attention in the worst possible way.” He was right, she realized: She wasn’t being coherent. The moment she’d started talking about Sasha, she’d become emotional. And she couldn’t expect him to help them unless he did understand. Perhaps not even then. She cleared her throat. “She loves horses, and she volunteered to work in the stables at the academy giving lessons to the students and helping to train the horses. She did such a great job that rumors were suddenly spreading among the wealthy horse communities in Morocco and Marrakech just how good she was. You told me once that you knew what a passion Masenak had for his own horses. Do you think that he wouldn’t be aware of what a fine stable St. Eldon possessed? One of the first things he did during the raid was steal all the thoroughbreds and paperwork regarding their pedigrees. Evidently, he didn’t think Boujois, the trainer, was worth keeping, so he killed him immediately.” She paused. “Not only was Sasha a student who might be able to be ransomed, but there were also those intriguing rumors she might prove valuable to him in another way.”
He gave a low whistle. “He wanted to see if she was any better than the trainers in his own stables?”
She nodded. “And now he believes she might be extraordinary. He told her he was going to send her to his stable in the mountains as soon as he finished the negotiations for the other students. But Sasha had already seen what he was doing to those girls and she told him she wouldn’t go anywhere or train any of his horses until he let them go.”
“You’re right, that’s living on the edge. I’m surprised she’s still alive.”
“Do you think I wasn’t?” she asked fiercely. “He was furious with her. He beat her every day for almost a week. I couldn’t stand it. We’d located him by that time, and I knew what he was doing to her. But if I’d tried to attack the camp to free her, he would have killed her. He finally stopped it himself. He apparently didn’t want to damage her too badly.” She added sarcastically, “After all, he had to think of his horses. If she was as good as he’d heard, she was of value to him. Besides, he had another idea: He started to make her watch him beat another student every day in her place. It worked beautifully.” Alina’s voice was bitter. “She said she’d do anything he wanted if he’d only stop hurting them. She stopped fighting him and agreed to go wherever he asked whenever he was ready for her. Masenak knew he’d won. Right now he treats her rather like a pet that he’s tamed and keeps on a leash. He even allows her the freedom he doesn’t permit the other prisoners so that she remains exercised and healthy. It’s clear he’s regarding her as property, too.” She looked away from him. “But I know her. She won’t stand for it much longer. I have to get her out of there.”
“That’s pretty damn clear.” He was studying her expression, “I can see you’re upset as hell about this girl. Start at the beginning. She’s more than just one of the students. She’s important to you.”
“They’re all important to me.”
“Anything I want to know,” he said, repeating her own words softly. “Tell me.”
She was silent. “I’ve been sponsoring Sasha at St. Eldon’s Academy for the last five years,” she said finally. “I was the one responsible for her being there at the time when Masenak attacked.”
“Sponsoring? That’s a very exclusive school. She’s a relation of some sort?”
“If she’d been a relation of mine, she would never have been accepted. But I needed her to go to that academy because it was a great school and close enough for me to keep an eye on her while I was on assignments.” She shrugged. “That meant I had to forge her application under the name of Sasha Lawrence and create an appropriate pedigree and background for both of us before the administration would take my money.” She grimaced. “I like to think we’re sisters under the skin. But sometimes I wasn’t able to decide which one of us was the kid sister and who was taking care of whom. It doesn’t seem to matter. We’re both orphans, street kids, and survivors. Once we became used to each other, we were just the family neither one of us had ever had. When I found her at that circus in Naples, we were very wary of each other. She worked with the horses; the first time I saw her, she was only ten years old and standing on the back of a white Arabian stallion dressed in a frilly blue tutu. She was wonderful. I went back every day for weeks to let her get used to me.” She paused. “And she did get used to me. We were still wary of each other. Yet there was also a kind of . . . recognition.”
“I do believe you’re glowing,” he said softly, his gaze on her face. “Careful, you’re letting your guard down. I’m sure that’s dangerous for you.”
“If I have to tell you about her, I can’t lie about how I feel. And it’s not dangerous, because you can’t touch that part of me.”
“So you ran across a kindred soul, adopted her, and sent her to school. And now you’re blaming yourself for putting her in harm’s way?”
“It wasn’t exactly that uncomplicated. And you have to realize that she was more a kindred soul to Margaret than to me. It was Margaret who sent me to that circus tent in Naples. That’s how I came to find Sasha.” She lifted her cup to her lips. “You wanted to know the entire story? Listen to it. Lord knows I’d rather lie, but I promised I wouldn’t. So I’ll be as brief as I can, and hope I have a remote chance of convincing you. Though I probably don’t have a chance in hell.”
“Several years ago, one of the specialties I was studying was tracking. These days most tracking is done on computers, but I was interested in the actual physical tracking process. I researched and found that without doubt the place to get the best training was with the Shadow Wolves unit of Native American trackers in Arizona. Homeland Security offered the course, but the training was done purely by the Indians. I was on my way the next week. I’d been in training almost a month when I ran across Margaret on a trail in the desert. We liked each other right away. Who wouldn’t like Margaret? She worked at an animal clinic on an island in the Caribbean, but she told me she came back to the Shadow Wolves every year for a tracking refresher session. I’d never seen anyone as good at tracking as Margaret, not even the Native American instructors.” She smiled. “I learned an enormous amount from her in a short time. When she was tracking, she seemed to be part of the earth, part of the forest, part of all the animals around her. Like I said, we became good friends. She was actually the first friend I’d really ever had. I was always too busy working, searching for answers, trying to be the best.” She looked down into the fire. “I watched her, she . . . fascinated me. I couldn’t help but try to take everything about her apart to see how it ticked. It’s what I do with everything.” She moistened her lips. “And before I left, I managed to do that with Margaret. Though I think that she let me do it because she trusted me.” She made a face. “Or maybe she was just as lonely as I was.” She glanced at Korgan. “I’m not just meandering. I’m getting to what you need to know.”
“Surprisingly, I’m not feeling impatient any longer. You’re giving me a picture of the way you think and the person you are that may be valuable to me later.” He tilted his head. “Plus a tale of Native Americans and trackers and two friends finding each other. I’m actually finding it rather touching. And what else do I have to do tonight?”
“I don’t want you to be touched. No one has to feel sorry for me. I’m just going for understanding.” She added wryly, “Which I’m probably not going to get from you in the next few minutes.”
“Ah, the meandering is done?” His faint smile faded. “Your entire story was revolving about your friend Margaret. I’d guess you’re not finished. What else do I need to know about her?”
She looked back down at the fire. Say it quickly and get it over. “One of the reasons Margaret is such a good tracker is that she’s conscious of everything around her. She’s particularly aware of all the animals in her vicinity.”
She braced herself. Stop hesitating, just say the words. “She can communicate with them,” she burst out. “Margaret told me she’s been able to do it all her life. She knows what they’re thinking, they know what she’s thinking.”
He burst out laughing. “Like Tarzan of the jungle? Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No, and I had the same reaction as you when I realized that’s what she was doing. It was all very subtle, but I could see the results, if not what was happening. Then when she told me, it all came together.”
He shook his head incredulously. “And you think I’ll believe this bullshit?”
“Do you know how much easier it would have been for me to lie to you? I hope you will, because it’s true. Animals and humans can communicate both by action and telepathically. After I met Margaret, I did research. The info is scanty at best, but it does exist. Koko, a lowland gorilla from the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California, used sign language and supposedly knew over three thousand words. Animals aren’t all that different from us. Primates have cognitive abilities that permit them to assess the qualities of prospective rivals, allies, and mates, just as we do. They recognize individuals, identify kin, keep track of past interactions with group members. They can even compute the value of resources and services.” She could see she was losing him. “And millions of pet owners believe they know what their dogs or cats are thinking. Are they all crazy? Though I do believe the telepathic link between people like Margaret and animals must be very, very rare, and that’s why we won’t accept it when it shows up. Margaret said she went through hell when she was a child until she learned to keep her mouth shut.”
He was frowning at her in disbelief. “You’re actually sincere about this.”
“It’s how we found Masenak,” she said simply. “That jungle is a complete nightmare. After the kidnapping, I was trying to track him and coming up with nothing. But when Margaret got here, she found his camp in a day and a half.” She smiled crookedly. “There are lots of animals in that jungle, and it appears they’re not at all averse to gossiping.”
He shook his head. “Bullshit,” he said harshly. “And madness.”
“That’s what Margaret’s father told her when she was only a toddler. He beat her with his belt because she’d told him she knew the dog next door was sick because he’d told her so. But their neighbors were glad when they managed to save their dog’s life.” She added, “And I’m sure that every time you come up with another one of those miracle inventions, a lot of people think you have to be a little crazy to create something no one else has even imagined.” She met his eyes. “So I’ll embrace that madness if it will keep any more of those girls from being killed by Masenak. I swear it’s true, Korgan.”
“What you think is true. I suppose next you’re going to tell me that you can communicate with animals, too?”
“No, I told you it was very rare.” She hesitated and then said recklessly, “But Sasha Nalano can do it. That was why I went to see that little girl at the circus in Naples. Margaret was always on the lookout for anyone who could do what she could. She knew how alone she’d felt all her life and wanted to reach out to them. She’d heard of a child there in Naples who was almost magical with horses, and she asked me to check her out if I had a chance. She said sometimes that strong affinity for one animal indicates that same rare ability Margaret possesses. The person just tries to protect themselves by hiding it in an acceptable format, as Sasha did with horse training.”
“And lo and behold, you found your Margaret was right.”
The sarcasm was beginning to hurt, and she had to end this conversation. “It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. All you have to accept is that when Margaret comes back, she’ll have the info we need about Baldwin as I promised. You shouldn’t care how she got it.” She got to her feet. “And then I’ll go after him and turn him over to you. So that means you’d better be ready to find a way to save Sasha and the rest of those students.”
“But your Sasha obviously comes first,” he said harshly. “Isn’t that a bit selfish? Vogel shouldn’t have worried about you being too altruistic.”
“What do you want me to say?” she asked fiercely. “Every life is important, but I’ve never had anybody that I cared about in danger before. I’ll do everything I can to save all of them, but I won’t let Sasha die. She’s the closest thing to family that I’ve ever had.” She turned and quickly walked away from him toward the path where Margaret had disappeared. She shouldn’t care what he thought. She didn’t know why his opinion mattered when she usually didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. It had been just as difficult as she’d thought it would be, she thought wearily as she dropped to the ground and leaned back against a banyan tree. She couldn’t blame Korgan for being skeptical. How could she, when the concept she’d thrown out there was as crazy as he’d said? She’d had to tell him, because she’d made that damn promise, but if there had been any way she could have avoided it, she would have. Now he must think she was some kind of psycho, and she found that thought intensely painful. Ever since she had heard about Gabe Korgan, she had become intrigued and fascinated by his inventions and how he could change the world around him. She respected his mental abilities more than those of any other man she’d met, and the fact that he would never feel a similar respect for her stung bitterly.
Okay, forget it. She had invaded his life and she couldn’t expect anything else. It didn’t really matter how he felt about her when the common purpose they had would disappear as soon as it was accomplished. She would just stay here until Margaret came back and avoid thinking about him. Just try to make plans and hope that Margaret was accomplishing everything that Alisa had told Korgan she would.
And pray that when Margaret got to that camp, Sasha was still going to be alive.
Third sentry was changed . . .
Margaret stopped on the path. Every muscle of her body tensed. Where?
A moment of uncertainty. Then the answer from Juno. One. And she knows about it. She’s still coming.
Margaret let out the breath she’d been holding. If Sasha knew about the change of sentries, she’d be able to avoid that one closest to her tent with no problem. Margaret was constantly amazed at how adept and silent Sasha was when moving through the jungle. Amazed and terrified. The last thing she wanted was for Sasha to gain even more confidence than she already had in her ability to escape the notice of those bastards. She was entirely too reckless already.
A flash of white fur in the darkness ahead and Juno was suddenly moving out of the brush. Here.
I see you are. Now where is Sasha?
“Behind you,” Sasha whispered. “I had to go around the head of the creek to get to you.”
Margaret whirled to see the young girl coming out of the trees. And she did look even younger than her fifteen years tonight, Margaret thought. Young and terribly fragile. Before Sasha had been taken, she’d been slim and petite, but now with strain, horror, and loss of weight she appeared almost childlike. Still, there was nothing childlike in the face Margaret was looking into. Sasha’s dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail to reveal her high cheekbones, but those huge dark eyes were fierce and her lips tight as she ran toward Margaret. Then Sasha was enveloping her in a hug. “You’re late.” Her voice was low and muffled against her. “I was beginning to worry until I sensed Juno. Is Alisa all right?”
“Fine. Better than fine, since she arrived back in Maldara this evening with possible help. We’re going to get you away from Masenak, Sasha.”
“Maybe.” She stepped back. “That Korgan man you told me about? Alisa said he was very smart, but she didn’t know whether she’d be able to find a way to use him.”
“Well, she managed to pull a rabbit out of her hat. Korgan’s making her jump through a few hoops, but I believe in the end she’ll have him.” She gave the girl an affectionate shake. “So don’t be so skeptical. We’ll make this happen.”
She nodded jerkily. “And it might have to be us who does it. No one else wants to help, Margaret. Can’t you see that? All those CIA people and U.N. charities and governments and they won’t do anything. Everyone is afraid of Masenak.”
“This time it’s different.”
“Don’t tell me that!” Sasha’s eyes were suddenly glittering with tears. “It keeps happening. He’s never going to stop unless we stop him. He’s hurting them.” The tears were running down her cheeks. “And I can’t watch it again without doing something, no matter what you say. I won’t do it.”
Margaret went still. “Again?” She should have realized that there had to be a reason why Sasha’s bitterness seemed more explosive than usual. “Something happened today?”
“Jeanne Palsan.” Sasha’s body was starting to shake. “They . . . raped her. They dragged her out into the center of the camp and tied her down. She was . . . screaming. Then they pulled the rest of us out of the tents to watch so we’d know what would happen to us if we didn’t do whatever they wanted.” She was panting. “There were . . . three of them. They were filming it and laughing and talking to her parents as they did . . . terrible, terrible things to her. She’s only . . . eleven and they wouldn’t stop. I wanted to kill all of them and all I could do was stand there.”
Margaret couldn’t bear it. She pulled Sasha close and held her tightly. “I know it was terrible,” she said hoarsely. She could feel tears sting her own eyes. “And we will punish them. I promise you it will happen soon.”
“Masenak didn’t think so. He came to stand beside me while they were doing . . . that . . . to her and was telling me how lucky I was that I had something of value to barter. He said that as long as I performed well with the horses in his stable, he might not have to have his men do that to me.” She took a step back and was wiping her eyes. “And all the while she was screaming, and I don’t think he even heard her. She was nothing to him.”
Margaret had a sudden thought that sent a chill through her. “Why did that happen to her today? Was Masenak punishing her because he thought the CIA or some other organization was starting another offensive against him? Was there any talk in the camp?”
“That’s what he told her parents, but he was lying to them. There wasn’t any reason for him to hurt Jeanne like that. He told that man Leo Baldwin that it was just time to have another event to remind everyone he was still in control of the negotiations.” She was holding her arms tightly across her body to try to stop the shaking. “ ‘Event.’ That’s what he called what they did to Jeanne. As if it was some kind of sports game or entertainment where he could show how powerful he was. He likes power.” She moistened her lips. “I’ve been thinking he might have even done that hideous thing to Jeanne to try to frighten me. He’s done things like that before, you know. Though I don’t know why he’d do it now when you won’t let me say or do anything to him.”
Margaret had been afraid Sasha would go down that path. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said quickly. “Stop thinking like that. That’s not even the reason he gave Baldwin. You’re not that important to him.”
“But his horses are. They’re more important to him than anything. And I probably said something to provoke him. I didn’t do it often. You told me that it would only make him angry and not solve anything. But sometimes I couldn’t—it was killing me, Margaret.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she repeated. “And we won’t have to face that problem much longer. As I told you, I think we’re very close.” She wasn’t certain she was convincing her. Change the subject. She reached into her jacket for the notebook and pen she’d brought. “I need the exact location of Baldwin’s tent. I have the other diagrams we made, but I have to be certain. Will you draw it for me?” She stood and watched as Sasha swiftly sketched the dimensions of the camp and Baldwin’s tent in it. “Is everything else exactly as you’ve told me? No change?”
“Well, Korgan definitely has changes in mind. I’m not sure what they are; he was damn vague. He just told Alisa what had to be done and that he might have plans for Baldwin. But it might involve using Baldwin in some way to trap Masenak.” She shrugged. “Which might be good for us. If all goes well, we’ll be going after Baldwin tomorrow night. Alisa might need you to go to Baldwin’s tent and distract him until she can take him down. Can you do that?”
She nodded jerkily. “Distract that bastard? He was laughing this afternoon. I can do anything you ask me to do but watch them hurt Jeanne again. I’d kill them.”
Margaret nodded in sympathy. “I understand. Unless I let you know differently, go to Baldwin’s tent at twelve thirty a.m. And don’t let anyone see you. Korgan says Baldwin is just supposed to disappear.” She took the notebook from Sasha and tucked it in her pocket. “Now get back to camp. I’ll tell Alisa that you’re doing as well as you can be, and you’re looking forward to seeing her again soon.”
“She won’t believe you. The only thing you got right was how much I want to see her. She always knows exactly how I’m feeling.” Sasha smiled crookedly. “Just as I do her. I could sense how upset she was when she was staking out Korgan’s palace. I wanted to find a way to bolt out of here and go help her.”
“Then smother that impulse. She’s just barely holding on now. You don’t want her panicking if she knows Masenak is on the hunt for you.” She gave her another quick hug and then turned away. “Try to sleep tonight.” She snapped her fingers, and Juno ran after her. “Go, Sasha. Juno will be hanging back until she knows you’re in your tent, and I want to get back to the border before dawn. I don’t want Alisa worrying.”
“I’m on my way. I usually have no trouble slipping in and out. The sentries are used to seeing me move around the camp.” Her lips twisted. “I think they believe Masenak is saving me for himself.” She added bitterly, “In a way, they’re right.” Sasha moved quickly in the direction of the creek. “But I don’t want Alisa worrying, either. Having me here has been almost as bad for her as for me.”
“She wouldn’t agree.” Yet that tie between Sasha and Alisa was incredibly strong, and it always amazed Margaret. When she had brought the two together, she had never thought that the affection would grow to become this warm, unbreakable bond. Two lonely people who had somehow found each other among the tumult. They were both so wary about giving affection that it was a true wonder it had happened. But that bond could also be dangerous for both of them when they were brought to confront the Masenaks of the world. They were too intense; the instinct to dive in and never let go, too powerful.
She’s already reached her tent. We’re done here, aren’t we?
Juno’s reminder was polite but pointed, she realized. In other words, stop dragging your feet. She felt a smile tugging at her lips as she picked up the pace to leave the camp behind. Yes, we’re done here . . . for now. Thank you for calling it to my attention.
“You’ve been out here for hours. Shouldn’t your Margaret be back by now?”
Alisa looked over her shoulder to see Korgan standing in the shadows a few yards away. “It depends on how far she had to go out of the way to avoid the sentries. It might even be another couple of hours. Margaret knows what she’s doing. I told you she wouldn’t take chances. Spooking Masenak would ruin everything for us. So go away and take a nap or something.”
“I don’t want to take a nap. I’m bored, and I thought I’d come over here and have you entertain me.” He strolled toward her, and now that he was in stark moonlight, she could see that his expression was intent but no longer antagonistic. “Don’t you want to tell me another outrageous story to amuse me?”
“I’m not in the mood. I’ve reached the end of my repertoire.”
“Maybe you need inspiration. You’re probably hungry. I notice you didn’t eat anything tonight.” He was holding out something to her. “I found some bananas in that hut. They’re just ripe enough. I thought I’d bring you one.”
She stared at him in bewilderment. “A banana? I don’t want it. Why would you do that?”
He sat down beside her. “I have no idea. I’ve been trying to decide. I think it has something to do with the way you looked when you walked away from me earlier tonight. After I got over the idea that you might just be playing me for an idiot, it sank in that you actually thought you were telling the truth.” He smiled. “And crazy or not, treating a mentally ill person as savagely as I did was unkind.”
“So you brought me a banana?”
“A very good banana,” he said solemnly. “I’m sure Koko the gorilla would approve.”
She found herself smiling at him. “You were unkind.” She took the banana. “And wrong. So this is some kind of peace offering?”
“It might be, though you should be properly grateful that I’m being so generous after what you’ve put me through.” His eyes were suddenly twinkling. “Or it might be that I was craving amusement and I just wanted to see you eating that banana. I don’t believe there’s anyone on earth who doesn’t look a little ridiculous with one sticking out of their mouth. Think about it.”
She was thinking about it. She threw back her head and laughed. “That’s wicked. It better be a peace offering.” She started to peel the banana. “Because I was telling you the truth. You didn’t have to be that sarcastic.”
“I thought it might help me hold on to my sanity, since it appeared I was the only one around here who possessed any. I was having a good deal of trouble believing anything you said after you’d lied to me about that damn camp.” He linked his arms around his legs and gazed out into the darkness. “And about the time I cooled down and decided that you might not be completely nuts, I also remembered that you have very high stakes in what’s going on at that camp. You wouldn’t have tried to string me along by using that kid, Sasha, to make it plausible.”
She felt warmth surge through her. “That’s very generous of you. I could have been lying about her.”
He said lightly, “But I didn’t think you were, and we’ve already discussed that my instincts are almost always right.” He made a face. “Or that at least that I tend to think they are. You never told Zabron about Sasha, did you? He had no idea why you were so determined to go after Masenak just because of those kidnappings. Why not?”
She lifted her shoulder in a half shrug. “I’d given him everything he wanted from me. This was something of my own and I wasn’t sharing it.” Her lips twisted. “Sasha is very special. I didn’t want him to find something in her he wanted to mold and develop to suit himself. There are sometimes prices to be paid in situations like that, and I didn’t want her to have to pay them. I wanted her to be free.”
He nodded slowly. “I was cruel about your feelings for her, too. Sometimes I can be a selfish bastard, but fairness is important to me. I regard it as one of the prime virtues in a corrupt world. I don’t think I was fair to you.”
“But I only got one banana,” she said solemnly. “You committed two mistakes. I think if this is an apology that you should do it right.”
“Be satisfied. You still might be nuts. You wouldn’t lie about your Sasha, but you haven’t been overly truthful about anything else on record since I met you.”
“But I promised to change my ways and I’ve done it. You just haven’t seen the proof yet.” She was actually enjoying this odd conversation. He had started off with humor, and the lightness had continued. Very different from the tense, electric atmosphere between them from the beginning. “As long as you’re being generous, you might even find a way to believe it wasn’t one huge lie.”
“Don’t count on it. That was a big stretch. Though I did go on the Net and looked up all those references you mentioned.” He nodded at the banana. “Including Koko. Interesting story. I had a vague memory of hearing about the gorilla before, but the concept wasn’t exactly on my list of subjects I needed to pursue.”
“You Googled it?” She couldn’t believe it. “Why?”
“I wasn’t going to be caught behind the tide of opinion if Margaret Douglas was the real thing. New and wonderful things are happening every day.” He grinned. “And I’m supposed to be a forerunner.” His smile faded. “I guess maybe I wanted to believe you. I didn’t want anyone who had the brains to disarm that XV-10 alarm to be anything less than I thought she should be.”
“That only required skill and memory. You have to begin with an element of faith to believe in Margaret.” She was trying not to be disappointed, but she knew what was coming next. “And you still couldn’t bring yourself to believe me, could you?”
“No,” he said gently. “Not sufficient evidence. I had problems with the fact that the human brain is seven times larger than it should be considering body size. In almost all other species, brain and neural track go along with their comparative sizes. There must be a reason that our minds have to be that complicated, and it’s not reasonable that communication would be possible with animals who don’t have an equal advantage.”
“Yet the dolphin’s brain is even larger than the human brain on the comparison scale.”
“An exception to prove the rule.” He smiled. “But maybe when I get the time, I’ll do some research to see how such a brilliant woman managed to delude herself.”
“Don’t bother. You’re a busy man and I don’t care if you believe me or not.” Not true at this strangely intimate moment. It mattered very much to her. “You were demanding reasons and I gave them to you. You didn’t like them. That’s the end of it.” She changed the subject to escape the sharpness of disappointment. “Did you call Vogel and check on that team that’s supposed to show up tomorrow? Did you give him the go-ahead?”
“Tentatively. If I don’t cancel after Margaret comes back, Vogel and company should be streaming in here about four in the afternoon to set up a base camp. Weapons. Equipment. Tents. You won’t be able to recognize this place by the end of the day. Relieved?”
“Yes. It’s one step closer.” She looked back at him. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to sit here and eat my banana and ignore you until Margaret comes back. I might not have told you the exact truth. I’m always a little worried while they’re gone.”
“I could see that when I walked over here. The body language was loud and clear. At least that’s not a lie.” He paused and then muttered, “Son of a bitch. And I’ve managed to hurt you again, haven’t I? I always think you’re so damn tough, and then you close up inside yourself after I say something. It makes me feel as if I’ve kicked that dog of Margaret’s.”
She stiffened immediately. “Don’t be ridiculous. You couldn’t do anything that would hurt me. You’ve no idea who I am or what I’ve gone through. No one can hurt me unless I let them. And you actually think something you could say would bother me?”
He shrugged and held up his hands in surrender. “Then by all means ignore me.” He added recklessly, “Though I don’t know why the hell anything you’re feeling matters to me anyway. In fact, I might enjoy watching you more than listening to you. You’re a beautiful woman when you manage to keep your mouth shut. When I look at those superb cheekbones, I can almost forget what a pain in the ass you are.”
She went still. “Cerebral versus physical?” Her gaze was searching his face. “And you told me you were very physical. Is that really why you came back to me tonight? Have you changed your mind about the terms of the deal?”
“Hell, no. That’s not what I meant. I told you what I wanted to say.”
“And you said it.” She was suddenly on her knees facing him. “But sometimes things aren’t what they seem.” She needed to make sure that he wasn’t saying one thing but meaning another. She and Margaret were getting so close to bringing him on board to help those students. She wasn’t the one who might suffer if she made that error in judgment. “You’re angry now, and that always heightens sexual tension. I believe you’re thinking about more than my cheekbones. If you want to change those terms, just tell me.”
“So you can offer to take your clothes off again?”
“Of course. I told you I couldn’t lose you. It’s not as if it would matter to me. It’s only sex, but I’ve been very well trained. You’d enjoy me. Should I do it?”
He was glaring at her. “Yes, I am angry with you, and frustrated, and I’d like nothing more than to pull you down on the ground and screw your brains out. You read that right. But I find I don’t care for the idea of a mindless jump in the sack with you. I have more sophisticated tastes these days, and I resent the fact that you’d refer to sex with me as ‘only.’ You might have heard I’m very competitive.”
“I haven’t heard anything about you sexually except what I’ve read in the tabloids, and that was probably lies.” She drew a deep breath. “But I’ve obviously made a mistake. I thought you’d changed your mind and decided you wanted me. I didn’t mean to make you more angry. Let’s forget about it.”
“I’m finding that hard to do now,” he said grimly. “With emphasis on ‘hard.’ And I can’t promise that I won’t decide to take you up on that offer anytime, anywhere, and to hell with any objections to mindless lust. All I can think about at the moment is what you said about how much I’d enjoy you. I keep imagining all the ways—” He suddenly broke off. “No, that’s not quite all. You said you’d been well trained. What did you mean by that?”
She hesitated. “What I said.”
She shrugged. “When I was fourteen, Zabron got it into his head that my agent training should be expanded. One day he drove me to a house in Morocco called the Golden Door. It specialized in training in sexual acts and specialties. Before he let me out in the courtyard, he told me how Russian agents called Sparrows were often sent to that house and became much more valuable agents for the experience. He said that it would help me survive in any situation.” She realized Korgan was cursing violently, and she stopped. “You don’t want to know any more?”
“The hell I don’t. I want to know how far the son of a bitch went to victimize a fourteen-year-old girl.”
“You couldn’t call me a victim. I wasn’t like other girls.”
“I’m sure you weren’t. How long were you there?”
“He said I had to stay two months.” She moistened her lips. “But it disturbed me, so I made sure that I learned everything I had to learn in half that time.”
“What disturbed you?”
“I could do everything they told me to do well, but I couldn’t stand the confinement or lack of choice. It made me . . . not myself. It . . . smothered me.” She shivered. “I’d never be able to be one of those Sparrows. I told Zabron I couldn’t go back there.”
“Did he give you an argument?”
“No, he said I’d learned what he’d wanted me to learn and I could go on to something else.”
“How kind of him,” Korgan said savagely.
“I told you he had his own agenda. I never expected kindness. I didn’t like that place, but it helped me to learn.” She looked him in the eye. “And it gave me something to offer you if I needed to.”
“Yes, there’s always that to consider.” His lips twisted. “You’re right, I don’t have any idea what your life was like.”
“Stop treating me like a martyr. It was just something I had to learn and then go on. It’s not as if I don’t like most sex these days. It’s just sometimes the other stuff bothered me.”
“I’m not even going there.”
“But Zabron was right about it giving me another way to survive. That was important to me.”
“And the bastard knew it was important and used it to put you through that.” His voice was fierce. “You’re so damn smart. Why can’t you see what he did to you?”
She could almost feel his rage, and it put her on the defensive. “Yes, I see that I could have walked away. But if I had, he might have gotten bored or discouraged and decided not to teach me anything else. I was learning.” She added passionately, “Do you know how important that was to me? Every time I learned something new, it was as if I was given another precious gift that no one could ever take away from me. When I was a child, I could see how ignorance robbed everyone around me. If I’d walked away from Zabron, the only thing anyone else would have been willing to teach me was the same thing the Golden Door did. I had to make a choice.” She stopped. “I made it, and then I walked away. I’m sorry you think it was stupid or lacking in character, but it gave me four more years to get on my feet. If I hadn’t had them, I might not have had the opportunity to learn about things like your XV-10, and tracking, and cyber security, and Mandarin, and . . . so many other things.” She forced herself to unclench her fists. “So I’m not at all sorry I made that choice, Korgan.”
“Lacking in character,” he repeated hoarsely. “You have entirely too much of that commodity. And I have no right to judge anything you decided to do with your life. I wasn’t around there to help you. Hell, no one was there to help you.”
“Stop it,” she said sharply. “I got along fine. I’ll always be fine. I’m strong and I’m smart and—”
“A survivor . . . ” Korgan supplied. “That’s your mantra.”
“And it’s not such a bad one,” she said. “But if it’s upsetting you, go away. This all started because I offered you something I thought you wanted. Again, my choice. I certainly don’t need anyone pitying me.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” he said curtly. “I don’t know what the hell I’m feeling for you now, but it’s not pity. Yes, there’s lust and anger and frustration and half a dozen other emotions. But now I also want to put Zabron on the same death list as Masenak. Maybe at the top of it.”
He meant it, she realized in bewilderment. She hadn’t expected this extreme reaction. “That’s not reasonable. Zabron is just Zabron. Masenak is a monster. And you’re always reasonable. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you.”
“Wrong,” he said harshly. “There are times I’m not reasonable at all.”
“I can see that. Why?” She was studying him, and then her eyes widened as she finally understood. “It was because I was so young,” she murmured. “That’s what’s bothering you. It shouldn’t, it’s not as if I couldn’t take care of myself.”
“Yeah, you weren’t like other girls. I heard you.”
“But I don’t think that would matter to you.” She could suddenly feel her face flushing with excitement. “And that means that I’ve got you, Korgan. If you felt like that about what happened to me, you aren’t going to let Sasha and the rest of those girls be abused by that son of a bitch. No matter what happens with your damn proof of intent, you’ll go after them.”
She could feel his withdrawal. His face was now tight, those silver-blue eyes cool. “Don’t be too sure of that,” he said silkily. “I can’t tell you how I hate to be taken for granted.”
“Oh, I know you don’t. Vogel told me what a badass you could be.” Yet she was so relieved, she couldn’t stop smiling. “That doesn’t make any difference now that I’ve found the one weak link.”
“You’re entirely too confident. You don’t really know anything about me, and I don’t like the idea you think you can manipulate me. I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened before.” He leaned toward her. “The idea of Zabron abusing that young Alisa might have bothered me, but you’re not her any longer. You’re the same woman who broke into my study and caused this major headache.” He deliberately reached out and stroked her cheek. “And who might have told that sad story to touch me or to remind me of all the things you must have learned at the Golden Door. One of them would have been that sex can trump almost anything on the table. You were eager enough to remind me the offer is still in place. Maybe you would have been a better Sparrow than you thought.” His thumb was moving lightly, sensuously to the curve of her mouth. She was suddenly breathless. She could feel the pulse in his thumb pounding against the sensitivity of her lips, the warmth of that touch, the tingling that was moving from the flesh of her face, to her throat, to her breasts. “Right now I prefer to forget that dreary story and think of the seductress you were back then. It has many more possibilities.” His hand was on her throat, his fingers rubbing, lightly, his fingertips circling down to her nipples. “Either way, I’m the one in control of the situation, and I’ll do what I damn well please.”
“Of course you will.” He must be able to feel her heart beating beneath those fingers. She felt as if she were melting. “I’m not arguing about that. It was never in question, and it doesn’t matter now that I know they’re all going to be safe. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
He suddenly froze. “Anything you have to do?” His hand dropped away from her. “Son of a bitch.” He pushed her away and got to his feet. “Damn, you’re good. You spiraled me right back to that fourteen-year-old girl again.”
“I didn’t mean to do that,” she said quietly. “I was never that girl you’re imagining. But I can’t pretend it doesn’t make me happy if it’s going to help me save those students.”
He asked through clenched teeth, “Because you think you’ve ‘got’ me.” He turned on his heel. “No way!” The next moment he was striding into the rain forest.
She drew a long, shaky breath. She hadn’t handled him at all well. She had just been so exhilarated she had at last been able to read Korgan, and what she had seen had filled her with hope. But it was clear that he was wary and antagonistic at anyone realizing he might be vulnerable to manipulation of any kind. That was why what had happened afterward had escalated so quickly and emotionally. Now he wouldn’t believe she’d never intended to manipulate him—that she’d meant only to show him the honesty she’d promised him. Those few moments with him had been searingly erotic. Her body was still taut and ready. She didn’t know what she was going to face when she confronted him again, but she would worry about that later.
Right now she was just grateful that she knew Sasha had a much stronger chance to survive than she’d thought when she’d seen Korgan walking toward her earlier tonight.