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All the queens men, p.7

All the Queen's Men, page 7

 

All the Queen's Men
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  Niema knew her own nature. She loved the thrill, the adrenaline rush, of danger. She had been seeking that thrill, though in pursuit of a legitimate goal, and she had gotten Dallas killed. If not for her, they would have been looking for a home on the North Carolina coast, as Dallas had wanted.

  If not for her, Dallas would still be alive.

  So she had given it up, that high-voltage life she had so loved. The cost was too high. Dallas’s last thought had been for her, and that knowledge meant too much for her to carelessly put her life in jeopardy again.

  Medina pulled up to the curb just past her driveway, then reversed into it so the car was heading out. House key in hand, she got out of the car. Dallas had also parked so the car was heading out, too, a simple precaution that allowed for faster movement and made it more difficult to be blocked in.

  Funny how she hadn’t thought about that in years; she simply pulled into the garage, as millions of other people did. But Medina’s method of parking brought so many things back to her in a rush: the sudden alertness, the clarity of her senses, the quickened pulse. She found herself looking around, examining shadows and searching with her peripheral vision for movement.

  Medina had done the same thing, his surveillance much faster and routine.

  “Damn it,” Niema said irritably and marched up the sidewalk to the curved archway that sheltered her front door.

  “’Damn it,’ what?” He was beside her, moving silently, positioning himself so that he reached the archway first. No assailants lurked there, not that she had expected any. She just wished she hadn’t noticed what he was doing.

  “Damn it, I spend half an hour with you and already I’m looking for assassins in the bushes.”

  “There’s nothing wrong with being alert and aware of your surroundings.”

  “Not if I were Secret Service, or even a cop, but I’m not. I just fiddle with gadgets. The only thing likely to be lurking in my bushes is a cat.”

  He started to reach for her house key, but she stopped him with a look. “You’re making me paranoid. Is there any reason for all this?” she asked as she unlocked the door herself and opened it. Nothing sinister happened; there were no shots, no explosions.

  “Sorry. It’s just a habit.” She had left a couple of lights on and he looked inside, his expression interested.

  “Would you like to come in? We didn’t get around to drinking any of the coffee at Vinay’s house.” Until she heard the words, she hadn’t known she was going to invite him in. They weren’t exactly on easy terms, though to tell the truth she was surprised at how easy it had been to talk to him. Still, he was John Medina, not a steady, reliable, respectable bureaucrat who had just taken her out to dinner.

  He stepped inside, his head up and alert, his gaze moving around, absorbing details, watching as she opened the hall closet door and disarmed the security system. She had the sudden impression that he could describe everything he had seen in that brief sweep, and perhaps even tell her the security code.

  She started to close the closet door and he said, “Humor me. Reset the alarm.”

  Because he had good reason to be acutely security conscious, she did.

  Niema had bought the house three years before, when a hefty raise had given her the means to buy instead of rent, even with the outrageous property values around D.C. It was too big for one person, with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, but she had justified the size by telling herself she would have space for her family to come visit, though they never had, and that the three bedrooms would make it easier to sell if she ever decided she wanted something else.

  The house was vaguely Spanish in style, with arched doors and windows. She had painted the interior walls herself, choosing a soft peach for most of the house while her furnishings were dark green and turquoise. The carpet was an undistinguished beige, but it had been in good shape, so instead of replacing it she had covered it with a large rug in a geometric pattern of greens, blues, and peaches. The effect was cool and welcoming, feminine without being fussy.

  “Nice,” he said, and she wondered what conclusions he had drawn about her by seeing the way she had furnished her house.

  “The kitchen is this way.” She led the way, turning on the overhead light. She loved her kitchen. The room was long, with a bank of windows on the right wall. A long, narrow island topped with a mosaic of blue and terra-cotta tiles provided a wonderful work area for any cooking project, no matter how ambitious. Small pots of herbs grew on the window sills, lending their fragrance to the air. The far end of the room was a cozy breakfast nook, the small table and two chairs flanked by lush ferns.

  She began making coffee, while Medina went to the windows and closed all the blinds. “Doesn’t it get old?” she asked. “Having to always be on guard?”

  “I don’t even think about it now, I’ve done it for so long. And you should close the blinds anyway.” Hands in his pockets, he strolled around the kitchen. Pausing in front of the block of oak that held her knife set, he pulled out the chef’s knife and tested its edge on his thumb, then returned it to its slot. His next stop was the back door, the top half of which was glass; he closed the blinds there too and checked the lock.

  “I usually do. I don’t believe in inviting trouble.” As soon as the words were out, she realized her own lie. Trouble didn’t come any bigger than John Medina, and inviting him in was exactly what she had done.

  “You need a stronger lock here,” he said absently. “In fact, you need a new door. All anyone has to do is pop out one of these panes of glass, reach in, and unlock the door.”

  “I’ll see to it first thing in the morning.”

  The dryness of her tone must have reached him, because he looked over at her and grinned. “Sorry. You already know all that, right?”

  “Right.” She took down two cups from the cabinets. “The crime rate in this neighborhood is low, and I do have the security system. I figure if anyone wanted in, they could break any number of windows and get in through them, not just the ones in the door.”

  He pulled one of the tall stools away from the island and propped one hip on it. He looked relaxed, she thought, though she wondered if he ever truly was, given who he was and what he did. She poured the coffee and set one cup in front of him, then faced him across the tiled island top. “Okay, now tell me why you drove me home, and don’t say it was for old time’s sake.”

  “Then I won’t.” He seemed to be lost in thought for a moment as he sipped his coffee, but whatever distracted him was quickly gone. “How undetectable is this new bug you’ve developed? Tell me about it.”

  She made a face. “Nothing is totally undetectable, you know. But it doesn’t cause a fluctuation in voltage, so an oscilloscope can’t pick it up. If anyone swept with a metal detector, though, that’s a different story.”

  “Frank seemed excited about it.”

  Niema was immediately wary. “It isn’t that big a deal, because like I said, it’s good only in certain situations. If you know how someone routinely sweeps for surveillance devices, then you can tailor the bug to fit. Why would he even mention it to you?” The bug had useful applications, but it was far from being an earth-shattering discovery that was going to change the face of intelligence gathering. Why would the deputy director of operations even know about it, much less call her to a meeting at his private residence?

  “I asked how you were doing. He told me what you’ve been working on.”

  Her wariness turned into outright suspicion. Okay, it was feasible that Medina would ask about her, but that didn’t explain why Vinay would know anything at all about her, much less anything about her current project.

  “Why would the DDO know anything about me? We work in totally different departments.” The vast majority of CIA employees were not the glamorous operatives of Hollywood fame; they were clerks and analysts and techno nerds. Until Iran, Niema had craved the thrill of fieldwork, but not now. Now she was content to work on the electronics side of int
elligence gathering and come home to her own house every night.

  “Because I asked him to keep tabs on you.”

  The bald admission astonished her. “Why would you do that?” She didn’t like the idea of someone constantly checking up on her.

  “I wanted to know if you were all right, plus I never lose track of someone whose expertise I might want to use again.”

  A chill ran up her spine. Now she knew why he’d driven her home; he wanted to draw her back into that world she had walked away from when Dallas died. He was going to figuratively wave a shot of whiskey under an alcoholic’s nose, lure her away from the straight and narrow. He couldn’t do it unless she still had the old urge to find that adrenaline rush, she thought in growing panic. If she had truly changed, nothing he could say would entice her away from the safe life she had built.

  She thought she had changed. She thought the hunger for excitement was gone. Why, then, did she feel so panicky, as if the smell of adventure was going to make her fall off the wagon?

  “Don’t you dare ask—” she began.

  “I need you, Niema.”

  CHAPTER

  SEVEN

  Damn it, why hadn’t she remarried? John thought savagely. Or at least gotten herself safely involved with some steady, nine-to-five bureaucrat?

  He had stayed away from her for a lot of very good reasons. His job wasn’t conducive to relationships. He had brief affairs, and nothing resembling an emotional attachment. He was away for months at a time, with no communication during those times. His life expectancy sucked.

  Moreover, he had thought he would be the last person on earth she’d ever want to see. He was staggered to realize she didn’t blame him for Dallas’s death, had never blamed him. Even though she had never trusted him, she didn’t lay that at his door. It took a person of excruciating fairness to absolve him of all blame as she had done.

  He had learned not to agonize over the choices he had to make. Some of them were hard decisions, and every one of them had left their mark on his soul, or what was left of it. But other people seldom saw things the same way, and that, too, he’d learned to shrug off. As his father’s old friend Jess McPherson once said, he was hell on people. He used them, exploited them, and then either betrayed them or simply disappeared from their lives. The very nature of his job demanded that he not let anyone get close enough to touch him emotionally. He had forgotten that once and let a woman get close to him; hell, he had even married her. Venetia had been a disaster, both professionally and personally, and in the fourteen years since he had been strictly solo.

  Several times during the past five years he had been relieved that Niema Burdock probably hated his guts. That put her safely out of his range and killed the occasional temptation to get in touch with her. It was better that way. He would just check on her now and then, make certain she was all right—after all, he’d promised Dallas he would take care of her—and that would be that.

  He had expected her to find someone else. She was young, only twenty-five when she was widowed, and both smart and pretty. He had wanted her to find someone else, because that would put her forever out of reach. But she hadn’t, and he was through with being noble.

  He wasn’t giving her any more chances.

  But she would run like hell if he simply asked her out. He would have to play her gently, like taking a world-record trout on gossamer line, never letting her feel the hook that was reeling her in until it was too late for escape. On his side was her own nature, the adventurousness she seemed determined to bury, and a very real situation that needed to be finessed. Weighed against him was the fact that, despite the uneasy bond forged between them in Iran, she didn’t trust him; he’d always known she was smart.

  Frank had asked her to his house on a bogus excuse, in a well-meant but awkward attempt to do a little matchmaking. Well, maybe it had worked. And maybe the excuse wasn’t so bogus after all. John’s mind raced, weighing risks and benefits. He decided to go for it.

  “Delta Flight 183 was sabotaged. The FBI labs have turned up traces of explosive, but no detonator. The stuff seems to be a new, self-detonating compound, probably based on RDX and developed in Europe.”

  She put her hands over her ears. “I don’t want to hear this.”

  John moved around the island and took her hands down, holding her with his fingers wrapped around her slender wrists. “Anything in Europe goes through an arms dealer named Louis Ronsard. He lives in the south of France.”

  “No,” she said.

  “I need you to help me get into his files and find out where the stuff is made and who has already gotten a shipment of it.”

  “No,” she said again, but with a touch of desperation in her voice. She didn’t try to pull away from him.

  “Ronsard is susceptible to a pretty face—”

  “Good God, you want me to whore for you?” she asked incredulously, dark eyes narrowing in dangerous warning.

  “Of course not,” he snapped. No way in hell would he let Ronsard, or anyone else, have her. “I want you to get an invitation to his villa so you can put a bug in his office.”

  “There are probably a thousand people in this city alone who could do that. You don’t need me.”

  “I need you. Of those thousand people who could do the work, how many of them are women, because I can guarantee you no guy is going to catch Ronsard’s interest and get invited to his villa. How many? Twenty, maybe? Say a hundred. Ronsard is thirty-five; how many women out of that hundred are roughly his age? And out of that number, how many of them are as attractive as you?”

  She jerked on her wrists. John merely tightened his hold, while taking care not to hurt her. She was so close he could see the velvety texture of her skin. “You speak French—”

  “I’m rusty.”

  “You’d pick it up again in no time. I need someone who’s young, pretty, speaks the language, and has the skill. You meet all the qualifications.”

  “Get someone else!” she said furiously. “Don’t try to tell me you couldn’t find a contract agent who met all your criteria, someone who wouldn’t know your real name. You make it sound like I’m some Mata Hari, but I’ve never done any undercover work at all. I’d probably get us both killed—”

  “No you wouldn’t. You’ve been on other ops—”

  “Five years ago. And I just did technical stuff, not any role-playing.” She added coldly, “That’s your forte.”

  He let the slam roll off his back. After all, she was right. “I need you,” he repeated. “Just this once.”

  “This once until something else comes up and you decide you ’need’ me again.”

  “Niema . . .” He rubbed his thumbs over the insides of her wrists in a subtle caress, then released her and stepped away to pick up his coffee cup. He had pushed her enough physically; now was the time to back off and give her back control of herself, so she wouldn’t feel as threatened. “I’ve seen you work. You’re fast, you’re good, and you can build a transmitter from pieces of junk. You’re perfect for the job.”

  “I went to pieces on the last job.”

  “You had just heard your husband die.” He didn’t mince words and saw her flinch. “You’re allowed to be a little shell-shocked. And you kept up anyway; we didn’t have to carry you.”

  She turned away, absently rubbing her wrists.

  “Please.”

  Of all the words he could have used, that was the least expected. He saw her spine stiffen. “Don’t try to sweet-talk me.”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he murmured.

  “You’re so damn sneaky. I knew it the first time I saw you. You maneuver and manipulate and—” She stopped, and turned back to face him. Her throat worked, and her big dark eyes looked haunted. “Damn you,” she whispered.

  He was silent, letting the lure entice her. Danger was as addictive as any drug. Firemen, cops, special forces personnel, field operatives, even the emergency department staff in hospitals—they all knew the
rush, the incredible thrill when your senses are heightened and your skin feels as if it won’t be able to contain all the energy pulsing through your muscles. SWAT teams, DEA agents—they were adrenaline junkies. So was he. And so was Niema.

  He did what he did partly because he loved his country, and someone had to be in the sewers taking care of the shit, but also because he loved walking on the knife edge of danger, continually poised on the brink of disaster, with only his skill and his wits to keep him alive. Niema was no different. She wanted to be, but she wasn’t.

  “Do you know how prevalent terrorism is?” he asked conversationally. “It isn’t something that happens in other countries; it happens here, all the time. Flight 183 is just the latest episode. In 1970, Orlando, Florida, was threatened with a nuclear device if it didn’t cough up a million bucks. In 1977, Hanafi Muslims took hostages in the D.C. City Council offices, and a couple of other places. In 1985, the FBI caught three Sikh Indians sent over here with a list of assassination targets. There was the World Trade Center bombing. Lockerbie, Scotland. Hell, I could give you a list three feet long.”

  She bent her head, but he had her undivided attention.

  “We catch most explosives because of the detonator, not the explosive itself. If the bastards have come up with an explosive that begins as a stable compound, then degrades and becomes unstable and detonates, we have a big problem. One bridge taken out can foul shipping over the entire eastern seaboard. A blown dam threatens our entire power grid. Airplanes are particularly vulnerable. So I need to find out where the stuff is being manufactured, and Ronsard is my best bet. I’ll find out some other way, eventually, but how many people will die in the meantime?”

  She still didn’t respond. He said briskly, as if she had already agreed to work with him, “I’ll be there under a different cover, using an identity I’ve been building for quite a while. I would take you in with me as an assistant or a girlfriend, but Ronsard doesn’t issue ’invitee and guest’ invitations. You have to get invited in separately.”

 
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