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Back Cover Blurb
Seven Years Ago
Maria lifted her head, Peter’s words echoed in an icy shiver along her spine. “How do you know?” Useless question, but she needed more time—something to put off this inevitable moment.
Peter glanced at the only entrance to their shelter. “There. He’ll wait for me to come out.” She knew he saw the terror in her eyes when he looked back, saw him try to take back the words. “Maybe I’m wrong, Maria.”
“You aren’t wrong.”
“He’ll listen to me. We were friends. It’ll be okay.” He cast the words like a blanket, hoping to shield her. She shook her head, too frantic now for the denial.
“He won’t listen. Even I can feel him, Peter!”
The man she loved more than life could only shrug. He didn’t know why his team branded him a traitor, but he did know they had. A traitor had only one option. For this team, that option didn’t include life. “I’ll go out the window,” she offered. “You try and talk to him. If you can, get him to answer you, I can find him—“
Peter stopped her with a hand to her cheek. “You won’t find him.”
She shook her head and retreated, refused to believe the inevitable truth. “I will.”
“No one finds Ice. Ever. Not until he’s ready to be found.”
“I’ve got to try.” She faced him across the room, this man who had become her world. Her lover, her husband, the father of their unborn son. “He’s got to listen—to understand—“
“Maria.” The whisper said everything he wouldn’t. He loved her. He didn’t understand why it had come to this, only that it had. When he walked out that door, he would die.
“Peter, please?” she whispered back, helpless to stop the tears that raced down her cheeks. “At least, try. For me.” She went to him then, pulled his head down for a kiss, a quick imprint of his lips on hers, his hand on her belly, his very being on her heart for all eternity.
“For you,” he agreed. She tried to squelch a sob. “Maybe he’ll want to explain why I’m suddenly the enemy.” She let him lift her to the room’s only window, away from the door, and she jumped out, landed on her feet, facing him. “You won’t have long,” he warned.
“I won’t need long,” she promised. “Don’t rush.”
“He’ll see you in ten feet. I won’t let him take you.”
“He won’t have a chance. I love you, Peter.”
“I love you, Maria.” For a second more, his eyes were fixed on hers, and then he turned, caught up his rifle, heading for the door, while she shut him out of her heart and became what he’d taught her to be. A trained assassin. She got a tighter grip on her own rifle, stifled an urge to dust the hillside with preemptive gunfire. Maria was no more. She called her other name firmly to mind, the name of the stronger version of herself, the name of a woman who could lose her lover and survive the pain.
Mykael, female assassin trained by one of the best in the business, silently scrambled for high ground behind the hut and started a search of the forest for her enemy.
“Ice! I didn’t set them up. I wouldn’t betray the team. You know that.” Peter’s voice echoed in the small canyon. Outside the miserable hut they’d called home for the past four months, her husband continued his bargain with the devil. “I’m puttin’ it down, Ice.”
She heard the clatter of his rifle on the rocks, but wouldn’t look. The man about to die was Blade. An agent of the government’s elite Black Fire team. He just happened to be her husband. Her friend. Her partner. The father of the child that would come in three months’ time.
“Take me in, buddy. Let’s have a trial.”
She heard his knife clatter atop the gun, knew he was defenseless.
The rugged mountainside ringing their valley held only evil and death. Now she could feel Ice as well. Feel his determination and knew the futility of Peter’s attempt at a conversation.
A single gunshot rang out.
That fast, her life was over.
Her unblinking gaze roamed the mountainside. Side to side, higher and higher with each scan. There, 500 feet away, he stood in the shadows in a gilley suit. She lifted her rifle to sight, found him gone, sprayed the area anyway.
She was at the spot in less than three minutes, verified no signs of life anywhere, no trace of the man. No sound in the forest, no footsteps to follow. Ice was gone.
She’d never met him, but she knew his rep–knew his work. Ice, the only name she had for her lover’s killer. But Mykael knew the man who had the answers she’d need. Only one man knew the names of all the team members. Viper. She would find him. He would help her. Whether he wanted to or not.
Ice would die. Not today. But he would die. Along with the others.
Blood. So much blood. Red tendrils spilled in lacy patterns, meandered to join other streams, danced over flesh, over exposed bone, the flow faster, redder, as it leapt from the dying man to splash on the ground, spattering the vivid green vegetation with dots and drips and swirls. Too much blood. Too many bodies.
Her subconscious agreed and she woke, opening her eyes, whispered her own name. The ritual grounded her, reminded her that while her mission was to kill, her identity, her very self, was more. Her lover was gone. Her poor innocent baby, stillborn. Ice still lived.
Not enough blood after all. Not yet.
Mykael swung her legs over the side of the cot and stood. After seven years of searching, she would have answers today. Then the dreams would end.
Clear, cool droplets rinsed the dream’s perspiration from her body in the shower but she didn’t look in the clouded mirror as she toweled the shower’s spray from her body. She never looked in the mirror. Her eyes scared even her.
Exotic, people thought her. Men were fascinated, charmed by the tumble of dark curls framing emerald eyes they labeled exquisite. For some, those exquisite eyes were the last thing they ever saw.
Now her eyes turned toward a wall of photos. He stood out in each one. Four long years she’d placed cautious ads on bulletin boards all over the internet, requesting a meeting with someone who could give her information on the man she sought. She’d gathered images of those who may have come in response to those ads, their faces captured by the small digital cameras she’d pressed into booths at coffee houses, bus stations, even hotel lobbies. Actions careful and deliberate, as Blade had taught her, she planted the cameras and then, days later, ran ads to trap her prey.
One man had answered all her inquiries. To the casual observer, he didn’t look like one man. A biker, a construction worker, a businessman, even an old man with a walker. Until she’d developed her own facial recognition software, even she hadn’t been sure. Now she was positive. A chance face-to-face meeting when he’d arrived early—the same day she’d posted the ad. He hadn’t recognized her, no way he could, but she’d been able to eavesdrop on his phone conversation.
“Tron. Yeah, it’s Ghost. Bad reception. Another miss. This guy’s pissing me off.”
She couldn’t hear the answer, didn’t dare stay to hear anything else, as she slid behind the restaurant into the hot alleyway. After four years of searching, the addition of two names to her info was absolutely huge. His name was Ghost. He would give her Ice. Ice’s death would give her husband justice.
The fact that Black Fire answered every one of her queries meant they were looking for her. Just as hard as she searched for them? Maybe. Either way, she’d meet the mystery man called Ghost today. Have her answers today.
She’d set up the meet the same way she’d baited her traps, with the precise placement of ads on the local bulletin boards.
“Looking for a mole, Black Fire? Let’s meet.”
That first one netted her the picture of the biker.
“Black Fire, mole hunting? A Decoy can help.” brought the businessman.
“Made a mistake, didn’t you, Black Fire? Let Decoy help you.” the old man, and “Decoy can fix it for you, Black Fire,” had her staring at a grainy picture of a construction worker, complete with hard hat. The hat hadn’t blocked his hard eyes though. Dangerous and cold. She’d felt his physical presence as his eyes skimmed over her without even seeing her in the Reno coffee house.
The local tag was relative. Not one of the “meeting” places she’d chosen was within two hundred miles of her home north of Las Vegas. Until today. Today she’d baited him closer because she wanted him to trust her—needed him to be off guard.
Mykael slithered into a second skin which consisted of eight inches of denim and zipped it up. Her little red tank top had her belly button ring winking peek-a-boo and her fuck-me boots sported four inch heels and came up past her knees. Just another American working girl. Smoky eyes and lips that begged for a kiss completed the look.
She didn’t know much about the man she was to meet, but he was male, and that was usually all she needed to know. Best of all, she was damn sure he thought he was meeting a man. The vision in the mirror would blow his mind.
She rolled her sheets and blanket into her pillowcase. She loved the Nevada desert, had felt safe here in the sweet little cabin she’d called home for the last five years, but she wasn’t sorry to leave. Leaving for the second to last time was one step closer to her final goal. Before she wiped her cabin free of prints, she logged into Black Fire’s server, she used Peter’s backdoor code through the custom BIOS system. Her footsteps through cyberspace were untraceable, destroyed behind her as she searched. Ghost would never know she searched at all, let alone why or for whom.
Once she’d found his name, she worked to access his schedule, and that of the other operative named Tron. Ice and Viper’s files were wiped clean, like they’d never existed. Just last night she’d managed to find the schedule for the man called Ghost. She logged on now hoping for an early morning update, but the calendar hadn’t changed.
Decoy. Noon. Dallas Station, LVN.
Mykael smiled. Decoy would indeed meet Ghost at noon at Dallas station. She exited Ghost’s file with a quick glance at her watch. She’d have to hurry.
She ran a quick search for any recent references to “Ice” and was surprised when the computer flashed a wait bar. Excitement built in her chest. She’d used the same code the night before with no results. What was different this morning?
Ice. Ref: GL agenda.
“GL agenda?” Mykael stared at the screen as if wishing would make the code reassemble itself into something she could understand. GL Agenda. What? Who?.was GL?
Her wristwatch’s timer chimed and Mykael shut down the computer automatically, still puzzled as she began to wipe the cabin down for prints.
When she was halfway done, the computer beeped and shut down. The hard drive was wiped clean and rewritten with gibberish. The files she’d need should she want to reboot were written on a flashdrive, which she removed from the USB port and slid into a backpack, along with most of her personal effects. Ten minutes later, the cabin was bare.
Mykael returned to the main room and cast one more quick glance around. A single hair lay behind her chair. She retrieved it with a smile. Her eyes hadn’t failed her yet.
Two minutes later, she climbed up into the seat of a noisy, kick-ass pick-up truck. Mule, her one indulgence. A thin layer of dust lay innocently over the metallic green of the hood. Mykael turned the ignition, jolted by a surge of raw power as four hundred and fifty horses stampeded to life. The dust, a tribute to last night’s thunderstorm, jitterbugged its way off the hood. Mykael fought the urge to rev up the engine.
Tomorrow. A ten-year-old promise to keep and then she’d point her little Mule south, give him the reins and disappear in Mexico.
Ice. The man was as much a mystery now as he’d been ten years ago. With her mule headed through the shimmery heat waves rising off the highway toward Vegas, Mykael reached for her personal cell phone. If she checked in with her brother now, she’d have a week free. Long enough? She smiled at her optimism, then felt it fade. The when didn’t matter. Only the doing. Peter, Edward and her sister would be avenged and the hole in her heart, that aching, greedy monster that ate more of her each day, would ease. The abyss had to let up. Mykael had taken over completely and the memory of Maria, of who she’d once been, of the woman who knew how to love and how to laugh, grew more faint every day.
She gave little thought to after. Maybe there wouldn’t be an after. Maybe vengeance would be enough and in the doing, she’d die herself. Even that didn’t matter. She simply couldn’t live with the pain any longer. Ghost’s cooperation–or lack of it–didn’t matter either. She didn’t need Ghost, or his cooperation. Just his communicator, the only off-site access to his files. The files would tell her all she needed to know.