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The woman left behind, p.1

The Woman Left Behind, page 1

 

The Woman Left Behind
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The Woman Left Behind


  Dedication

  To all the Avon/HarperCollins editors and assistants and production staff who work tirelessly to make a book the best it can be, and to the art department for an awesome cover.

  To my sweet girl Molly, who went to doggie heaven almost a year ago. I miss you every day, pretty girl.

  To Tank, who climbs in my lap to cuddle and give comfort, and leaves behind enough white fur that I could knit another dog—if I knew how to knit, which I don’t.

  To the FBI, for not coming knocking on my door demanding to know why I was Googling such alarming things as mobile missile placement, Syria, night-vision devices, and such things as that. Thanks for not arresting me. I’m just a writer. Honest.

  To my agent, Robin Rue, and my editor, May Chen, for the endless support this past year.

  And last but definitely not least, to my beloved friends and family. I hesitate to start listing you, for fear of inadvertently leaving someone out, but if you count yourself as either, then know you’re in my heart.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-One

  Twenty-Two

  Twenty-Three

  Twenty-Four

  Twenty-Five

  Troublemaker

  About the Author

  Also by Linda Howard

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  Congresswoman Joan Kingsley moved quietly through the deep night-shadows of her home, not turning on any lights because darkness suited her these days. She resented the sun for shining, people for laughing, the days for passing. The anguish in her heart, her soul, was too all-encompassing for her to do anything more than function as she must.

  She hated the house. It was big, much too big for just her, but even hating it now she couldn’t bring herself to leave it. She and Dexter had fallen in love with this house as soon as they saw it; they’d strained every financial muscle they had to buy it, but from the first it had felt like home, like them. They had raised their son here. Here they had seen their dreams of power and riches come true; oh, they’d worked their asses off to make those dreams come true, but this was where so much of it all had been planned and seen to fruition.

  It was just so empty now, without Dexter.

  She had loved him so much—still loved him. Death didn’t stop love, it just kept on, an ache now instead of a glow.

  And it was her fault he was dead—hers, and Axel MacNamara’s. She hated that son of a bitch with a fierceness that had only grown with time. He was still having her watched, followed, every communication intercepted and read. Well, he thought he was having every communication intercepted, but with luck, what he didn’t know would definitely hurt him. She was planning on it.

  MacNamara thought he had her pinned down. He’d forced her to resign from her position of power, her husband was dead, her cohort within the GO-Teams had fled the country.

  She was content to let him think that, for now. Devan Hubbert was smarter than any of the other computer experts MacNamara had on staff, way smarter. Given the time and tools, there was no firewall he couldn’t get through, no system he couldn’t penetrate, no go-around he couldn’t devise, and when the circumstances called for it, he was flexible enough to revert to low tech. He’d been in touch with her within a week of leaving the country.

  She didn’t know why; she had no power left to broker, thanks to MacNamara. She had no intel or influence to sell. Devan had been there for the money, the same as she had. Staying in power in D.C. was damned expensive, but that was where you had to be to make the real money. Dexter had been content, really, with what they already had, but he’d supported her all the way in her plan to sell relatively minor intel to the Russians and profit enormously. With enough money and power behind her, she could have gone all the way to the White House. How bitterly ironic that Dexter had been the one to lose his life because of the scheme, instead of her. He’d been doing what he’d done all along, backing her up.

  For whatever reason, Devan had kept in touch. He had an idea for exacting revenge on MacNamara. Maybe he saw the possibility for making more money, though she couldn’t see how; the knowledge of her involvement with the Russians might be contained, for now, but killing MacNamara wouldn’t make it go away.

  She didn’t care. Money didn’t matter, not now. All she wanted was to make Axel MacNamara pay for Dexter’s death, and if she could take down his precious GO-Teams at the same time, all the better.

  One way or another, he had to die.

  One

  “You’re all being reassigned,” Axel MacNamara said tersely.

  Ten workers from various departments were crammed into MacNamara’s office, which was surprisingly drab and small for the head of an organization. Jina Modell hadn’t been lucky enough to be one of the first two to arrive, so they had gotten the two visitors’ chairs and she and the other seven stood in various uncomfortable poses around the cramped room.

  Her first reaction to MacNamara’s announcement was one of relief; none of them had known the reason for the mass summons and she’d expected they were, at best, being laid off, though she’d been braced for the worst—being fired—because budget cuts happened, even to dark projects funded by money that was deeply buried and almost invisible.

  She evidently wasn’t the only one of her fellow workers to think that, because a low sigh, almost a hum, of relief went around the room.

  Then she frowned. Yes, having a job was nice, and this one was very nice. She worked in Communications, and she really liked it. She liked the money, she liked the coolness factor—and it was way cool, even for D.C.—plus she liked the vicarious satisfaction of kicking terrorist butt through the actions of the GO-Teams, all without ever leaving the climate-controlled comfort of the Communications room. She liked climate-controlled comfort. Being reassigned might not be such a good thing.

  “To where?” she asked, after a moment of silence with no one else voicing the question.

  MacNamara didn’t even glance at her. “The teams,” he replied, picking up a sheet of paper and scowling down at it as if he didn’t like what was written there, though as head of the agency he was almost certainly the one who had done the writing. “Donnelly, you go to Kodak’s team. Ervin, you’re on Snowman. Modell, Ace.” He continued reading down the list, giving them their assigned teams, though none of them knew yet what the hell they were supposed to do.

  “Ace” was the call sign for Levi Butcher. She knew the name but had never personally met any of the team operatives. Ace had the reputation for pulling some of the toughest jobs and now, oh hell, just what was she being reassigned to do?

  Jina had trained herself to think before she spoke, because the cool job required it. No one could know what she really did, or where she really worked. She made herself pause and think now—for a whole second, because questions needed to be asked and no one else, evidently intimidated by MacNamara’s nasty reputation, was making a move to ask those questions.

  She raised her hand. MacNamara must have caught the motion, because he paused in his reading to lift his head and bark “What?” at her.

  “What are we supposed to do on the teams?” she asked. She saw him regist
er an instant of surprise at her voice, the realization that she was the one who had spoken before, instead of one of the guys. Her voice was what it was; she was used to the reaction. Of infinite more interest was the current situation. She didn’t know about the others, but she was in Communications, and she had zero training for what the GO-Teams did, which was commit mayhem on a massive scale.

  “I’ll get to that part faster if you stop interrupting me,” MacNamara snapped.

  “I’ve only interrupted once.” Was it her imagination, or did the coworkers standing around her all edge away, as if offering MacNamara a clear shot at her? Yeah, no, not her imagination.

  “Twice, now.”

  He had a point. She sucked in her cheeks to keep her mouth shut, and after a second he resumed reading. When everyone had been given their assignment—or rather, their team, because they still didn’t know what they’d be doing—MacNamara leaned back in his chair. “The ten of you tested highest on our spatial awareness and action tests—”

  Jina bit her tongue, then sucked in her cheeks again. What spatial awareness and action tests? She hadn’t taken any tests. As far as she knew none of the others had, either.

  “What spatial awareness and action tests?”

  Shit. Her neck just kept sticking itself out.

  MacNamara turned his rabid-wolverine gaze on her, and once again silence filled the little room. He began tapping the end of his pen against the top of his desk in a rapid tattoo. His expression said he was thinking of places where he could dump her body. She imagined he knew plenty and might have used a few.

  But then he said curtly, “The video games in the break room.”

  Ah. A low murmur circulated. Several months ago the video war games had been installed, and a bunch of them had immediately become immersed in playing all through their breaks, competing to see who could score the highest. Jina was an old hand at computer games and had really gotten into the friendly competition, consistently racking up the highest scores and pissing off the guys who had done a lot of big talking about girls not being any good at gaming. She’d shown them. The games were complicated and very lifelike, far more advanced than anything commercially available; the coolness factor had been off the charts. Evidently so had the sneaky factor.

  She held up her hand again. Jeez, was she the only one with a mouth? Why didn’t some of the others ask the questions and make the observations?

  MacNamara pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something under his breath.

  “I’m not qualified to go out with one of the teams.” She was a little embarrassed to be stating the obvious, but it was only God’s truth. No matter how high she had scored in the computer games, the members of the GO-Teams were like supermen. They swam and ran for miles. They spent endless hours in training. They could shoot an acorn out of an oak tree at a gazillion yards. She knew sometimes they worked with women who had field skills, but she wasn’t one of those women. She knew how to swim, she jogged around some, but Fanny Fitness she wasn’t.

  “None of you are,” he snapped. “All of you will receive training. You won’t be doing the physical part of the operations, anyway.”

  “Then what will we—” Jina began, to be cut off by a wearily upheld hand.

  “Let me remind all of you that you’re sworn to secrecy about any and everything connected with this job. The answer is, the team members are very good at situational awareness, but at a cost. Being aware of a goatherd coming toward them and how soon he’ll get there distracts from mission focus. Not a lot, because we’re talking about people good enough to be on a GO-Team, but still—seconds count. We’ve run thousands of analyses, and in every instance having an on-site operator dedicated to movement and timing and situational awareness has made a difference. The operator would be surveilling the surroundings via drone, controlled by a computer. With that extra eye, the chance of mission success increases by three percent; the chance of team member casualties decreases by two percent. The changes are small but critical.”

  Especially to the team members suffering the casualties, Jina thought wryly. Okay, she could see why this was important. What she couldn’t see was herself in any field situation. She wasn’t . . . well, she wasn’t anything special. She wasn’t particularly athletic, she wasn’t intrepid, she wasn’t psychic so how the heck would she know which direction the goatherd was going to take, and she’d never had any ambition to be good at those things. She was good at a particular war game, that was all.

  This wasn’t going to work.

  “This won’t work,” she said.

  MacNamara propped his head in his hands and gripped his hair with both hands, as if intending to pull it all out, though she had to admit he could be thinking about crushing her skull.

  “Of course it won’t,” he snarled at his desktop. “It isn’t as if we know anything about what we’re doing, as if we haven’t considered all the possibilities and potential roadblocks, as if we haven’t analyzed all ten of you to the point we know more about you than you know about yourselves. We thought we’d just throw the ten of you out there for shits and giggles, to see how bad you can fuck things up.”

  She didn’t like being analyzed without knowing she was being analyzed. It was kind of like some perv spying through a peephole in the women’s bathroom. On the other hand, she knew the analysts were top-notch at their jobs, so that was reassuring even if it wasn’t convincing.

  “What if some of us aren’t interested?” she asked, because no one else was uttering a word—still, the ball-less wonders. And she was the only one in the room who didn’t have any, other than the ones in her mind. Mind testicles. Okay, gross.

  “Then clean out your stuff and find another job.” MacNamara gave her the evil eye. “I don’t want quitters. People have already been hired to fill your previous positions.”

  Finally—finally!—someone else spoke up. “So if we can’t handle the training, or get hurt on a mission, we’re out of a job.”

  MacNamara’s mouth thinned to a straight line, and his mad-dog eyes glinted, but thank God they were glinting at someone else. “I take care of my people,” he growled. “If you get hurt, you’ll be treated the same as any other team member. You’ll get medical care, reassignment, a pension—whatever it takes. This is a hard job, people. Out of everyone who has played those games, just the ten of you scored high enough to be considered. I wouldn’t be making this move if we didn’t think the benefits were worth the risk. You won’t be in direct action unless something goes wrong, but you have to be in good-enough shape, and have sharp-enough field skills, that you won’t be a hindrance to the mission operators. Any more questions? Didn’t think so. Clean out your old desks and report back at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow, to the basement. Wear shorts and tees, and athletic shoes. You’ll be taken to another location and your PT will begin.”

  PT. Oh, joy, Jina thought. Kill me now.

  The decrepit, rusty, unremarkable fifteen-seat Ford Transit van came to a halt with a whine of brakes and groan of transmission. Its condition had passed “used” a long time ago and was now in the “could die at any time” category. The seats were worn and torn, and there was a hole in the floor through which Jina had watched the asphalt blurring beneath them. The motor coughed like a fifty-year smoker, the shocks were shot, and the steering groaned a protest at every move. She wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d had to push it to their destination.

  But the vehicle had made it, not without a lot of prayer and crossed fingers. The guy sitting next to the side door opened it, and the ten of them crawled out. The last one out closed the door, and the latch had barely caught before the driver stepped on the gas and the van wheezed and growled its way back to wherever it stayed when it wasn’t needed.

  They all looked around. “Where the hell are we?” one guy wondered aloud.

  BFE, Jina thought, but kept her mouth shut. She’d kind of paid attention to direction and knew they were somewhere in Virginia. The van had deposited the
m at one end of a big open space scattered with piles of hay bales, wooden walls, giant knotted ropes, low tangles of barbwire, and other fixtures whose use wasn’t immediately apparent but were probably meant for torture—hers. A dirt track encircled the entire thing, disappearing into the forest at the far end, and even the track wasn’t a normal one. There were berms and hills and stretches of either sand or mud. What wasn’t visible was any sign of civilization, such as a coffee shop.

  No longer than they’d been standing there she could already feel the red dust beginning to coat her throat, her nasal passages. She’d seen plenty of red dust in Georgia; she wasn’t afraid of it, but neither did she like it. She didn’t like dirt, she didn’t like sweating, she didn’t like anything about this.

  Suck it up, buttercup. Sweating was better than unemployment—for now, anyway. She wasn’t making any promises about tomorrow.

  People moved around them in a confusing tangle. She could see at least thirty men scattered around the training area, doing various things that looked impossible for normal humans. The sudden, rapid crack of full-auto weapons made her jump and look wildly around for where the shots came from, but there were no bull’s-eye targets pinned up anywhere that she could see. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder filled the dusty air, so the shots had to have been close by. Her small group stood knotted together, silently watching the men doing the life-endangering things they themselves were supposed to learn how to do. What was there to say? Their options were this, or go job hunting. She did the buttercup thought again, trying to buttress herself.

  The sun beat down. Despite herself, she was sweating anyway. That infernal dust turned her throat into Death Valley. Finally someone noticed them—or, rather, decided they’d been made to wait long enough, because she doubted anything escaped notice by this bunch—and a burly guy with a shaved head, deep bronze tan, and short gray beard ambled toward them. He wore a sweat-soaked olive-green tee shirt, khaki shorts, and desert sand boots. A fine layer of dust coated every inch of him, except where sweat had turned it into streaks of mud. He looked like a moving wall of muscle. When he got closer, he said, “You the FNGs, right?”

 
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