SHE'D PUT HERSELF IN HIS HANDS BEFORE...
Headlights in a blizzard, a car following too close, too fast, left Bella Quintera wrecked by the side of the road. Such reckless driving, especially in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, seemed ominous. The identity of her rescuer confirmed Bella's fears. Years before, Daniel Champlain had been her lover, but the relationship was one she
strove to forget. The NSA agent's rugged good looks still haunted her-as did his betrayal.
BUT NOT HER LIFE
She'd watched him destroy her father; now Daniel demanded Bella listen. She was in danger. He wanted to know about her new creation, about its implications for national security. What she'd designed was worth killing for; but was a master criminal truly after her-or was it Daniel, again pursuing his ambition, thoughtlessly flipping her life upside down? The peril was real, no game like the jigsaw puzzles she made in her spare time. And this puzzle had missing pieces: the ones that showed whom she could trust.
The surveillance van was frigid inside. Only the lack of wind made it marginally more tolerable than outside
in the bitter Detroit winter. Daniel Champlain blew on his fingers, trying to warm them as he studied the captured keystrokes streaming across his monitor. He couldn't afford a mistake because cold fingers hit the wrong key.
Next assignment, he was requesting hot. French bikini, sand mucking up the equipment, jungle rotting hot. Anything warmer than sitting in an abandoned, tires-missing van and freezing his eyeballs.
"What's our target saying?" Ben Maxwell, the head of their National Security Agency covert team, loomed over his shoulder. "Where's the mycotoxin?"
"Haven't decoded his output." Daniel set his jaw and focused on the decryption analysis of the captured keystrokes. Nearby, another monitor graphed the labyrinthian path the digitized message took toward its still undetermined destination.
The sender was the top man in a Detroit terrorist cell, a cell recently swollen with an influx of fresh bodies smuggled across the leaky Canadian-U.S. border. His message relayed last minute coded instructions to his martyrs-in-waiting.
"What's the hold up? Thought you were some kind of code specialist," joked Stefan Corvallis, the other member of their team. He sat facing Daniel, feet propped on a seat. Fully at ease, he kept his hands warmed by twirling a lethal blade as he kept an eye on the monitors that panned the empty street outside the
"Good enough to save your sorry butt more than once." Part of NSA's unacknowledged SiOps division, Daniel had no false modesty about being one of the best in an agency that specialized in cryptography.
"A favor oft returned, mi amigo."
"Yeah, yeah." He took a sip of his now-cold hot latte. The three of them shared a web of history; they'd covered each others backs more times than any of them bothered to count.
"I have my building scheme and heat monitors pinpointing everyone in the apartment." Stefan pointed the knife at the monitors. "You have gibberish. You're slipping, Champlain."
"Mmm." Daniel blew on his hands again, barely listening, his attention on the screens. Damn, but he hated when Stefan was right; this should not be taking so long. The cell in question didn't have quantum encryption. The code was breakable.
Wind whistling at the windows, the whirr of machinery, Ben's sneeze, all faded as he immersed himself in the nonsensical symbols. Resting his hands on the keyboard, he let the machine's internal clicks play up his tendons. Rhythm, felt as much as seen, gave dimension to the code. These symbols hid words. Words that were his job to find. So, what were the hidden patterns? What was the language of terror?
Language. He'd programmed in the fifty spoken by virtually ninety-nine percent of the world. Which one were they using? Damn it! That was it; they had to be using an offshoot dialect. He pulled over his laptop and jabbed up the target's bio. Born in Armenia, Irani trained, moved.
Swiftly, he adjusted the program, keying in the basics of Ashkharik, the uncommon Eastern Armenian dialect. There were hundred of tongues possible, but he knew this was the one. Anticipation formed a hard cube in his gut, as he glanced at the monitor tracking the path.
The location of the receiving computer would tell them where the terrorists were gathering. Decoding the message would tell them where the package hid - a package containing a particularly nasty vial of T2 mycotoxin. SWAT teams in biogear waited at the local HQ, ready to storm in and claim both terrorists and toxin. Waited on him.
"How long?" Ben planted his hands on the monitor.
"Five minutes," he promised, shifting out of Ben's shadow. Three men, especially when one of them was a sequoia like Ben, were just too much size for the van.
Frigid air heated with determination as Ben and Stefan silently readied. They'd worked together enough that they needed no instructions, no last minute coordination. Daniel tuned out the rustle of their preps, but as he sorted through the signals, his eyes narrowed. Something else was off. What was it?
Suddenly he cursed. "Those flicking-fingered Cyber Soliders! One of them's hacking into the source computer." He attacked the keyboard, using his clandestine connection to set up firewalls for the hacker to breach.
"Can you block him?"
"Not without letting both the hacker and the target know I'm in already. I'm delaying him, but damn, he's good!"
Ben swore more colorfully than Daniel had, adding a few new backwoods colloquialisms. "Can you shield him off long enough?"
"It'll be close." He sent a trace to the invading computer, then concentrated on the pattern of data streaming across his monitor.
If their terrorist target realized he was exposed, he'd cut the transmission. The minions receiving the instructions would disband and relocate; the target date and time for release would be changed. The only thing that would remain the same would be the very painful, very lethal mycotoxin waiting to be unleashed.
Second chances didn't come in this business.
In the years since 9-11, they'd thwarted the few previous attempts at bio and chemical terrorism. That record was not going to be broken, not on his watch.
Ben and Stefan poised by the door, weapons at hand, waiting for the "go" signal, giving him every second before they moved in and bagged at least this one terrorist. Their steady breathing, the only sound beyond the crackle of computers, filled the van with cold white vapor.
Face taut from cold and tension, he stared at the data, willing the pattern to break out of nonsense streams. Suddenly the computer beeped. The Cyber Soldier hacker had made it in. Gleefully the hacker scooped through the terrorist's hard drive. Daniel adjusted the program parameters, focusing.
If he'd chosen the wrong base language . . .
The computer beeped again, and like a dyslexic child who suddenly made sense of the mixed up pages, the garbled string reformed into a legible message, while monitors flashed an address. "Bingo!" he shouted, memorizing the details. "Got it!"
Ben and Stefan snapped into action, scrambling out of the van, guns at ready. Daniel barked into the phone, rattling off the location of the operatives and the mycotoxin to the SWAT teams eager for their role in a major bust. He then finished the transmission with the ritual closure used by this cell, preserving the illusion the message had stayed secure. A moment later, he half limped, half ran across the street, following his companions, cursing the recent injury
that slowed him.
Dark and cold buffeted him. The barely risen sun was no match for the swollen cloud cover, and the streetlights had long ago been shot out by vandals.
Avoiding the broken glass on the sidewalk, he hunched his shoulders against the biting wind and buried his free hand in the pocket of his leather coat. Racing up the steps, he was only seconds behind the two local cops, who'd been waiting in a companion, derelict van, ready for an arrest. Ben exchanged one nod with the cops, then kicked open the door, shouting their ID, ordering surrender. Daniel yelled the commands in Ashkharik.
Chaos exploded with shouts and gunfire, but in the end, subduing their target and his bodyguards took little time. While the cops followed the laws of this country, which the men were trying to destroy, and read the Miranda rights, Ben and Stefan slapped on restraints.
Daniel strode across the room, ignoring the stab of pain in his leg, and scanned the flashing screen of the computer.
Lokus, Cyber Soldier, commands you to surrender, it read, while a billowing American flag matched across the screen to the tune of "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Stefan joined him. "Lokus again," he said in a low voice, glancing toward the cops, now ushering out their prize and leaving the three NSA agents in the apartment.
"I should have guessed this was his work."
Cyber soldiers. Computer fanatics who hid behind the guise of patriots. The media and the general public loved the Cyber Soldiers.
He didn't; they left a bad taste in his mouth. Instinct nagged that they--or some of them--were far more dangerous than anyone gave them credit for. So far, he'd found nothing he could put a finger on. No deeper pattern, not enough evidence for official Agency action. Yet. But, the itch told him it was there--a darker side in this group. And Lokus was the brightest, most gifted of them all.
Your data is now the property of the USA, and your computer is empty. In its place we return you to your regularly scheduled porn chat, continued the hacker, then the screen reverted to an ongoing chat room discussion, one of the sicker ones, the current topic being whipping techniques. A stream of filth spewed out under the name of Isabella Q.
Heat sucked out of room and body, as though he'd been shot into the vacuum of space. Isabella Q? His mind clicked on the name, instantly creating a fresh link. Isabella Quintera? Bella? He choked on the thought. Couldn't be, not this, not here. This was not Bella. Of that, he was sure.
But he couldn't shake the far-fetched leap of association, as he stared at the almost familiar name. Isabella Q. The letters were only an eerie binary glow in the dark, abandoned morning, yet seeing them brought back a rush of sensations he'd thought buried.
Bella. The clean scent of her skin, for she rarely wore perfume, and the thick softness of her dark hair brushing against his cheek. The pleasing sounds of her release. Firm curves pressed against him and the taste of salt as she cried. The need to hold her close and forget everything in the demanding pulse of sex. The hard frustration as she pulled away.
He released his pent up breath. Shoving back the memories, he forced himself to follow the thread as "Isabella" described in vivid detail the sick fantasies she'd fulfill. Fury and disgust roiled in a seething maelstrom. In his line of work, he thought he'd seen most everything, but she came up with some even he'd never imagined.
As he read, he fingered the smooth surface of the thick, wooden jigsaw piece he kept in his coat pocket. He didn't need to see the puzzle piece to know each detail. It was shaped like a frog and colored with a patterned green. A small work of art which, when joined with its brothers, created a larger scene of wild jungle.
Isabella Q. Bella Quintera. A longshot, true. Could be coincidence.
Except, in his work, believing in coincidence was a deadly mistake.
No, he didn't believe this tiny oddity was a coincidence. Not when his next assignment meant heading north, an eight hour plus trip to the Upper Peninsula to investigate Lionel Quintera, Bella's father.
Balancing the boxes of handcrafted jigsaw puzzles on her hip, Bella Quintera rapped on the locked wooden door of Puzzle Me This. Her thick gloves muffled the sound, and a mass of swirling sleet obliterated the dull thud. Frigid wind cut through her wool slacks, as though the fabric was no thicker than paper.
A low moan billowed through the evening. Startled, she glanced over her shoulder, but saw nothing except snow. Midwest born and bred, she should be used to the
pewter-gray nothingness of a winter storm, but today it sucked the stamina from her, leaving her edgy and off balance.
The dull, directionless sound came again as an eddy of snow blinded her. Nerves stung as she blinked the flakes away. Must be the wind.
She scraped the ice from the shop window and peered inside. Only pale security lights shone inside the store, which meant Margo Delansky, the owner, had closed early. On the off chance Margo was in the back, riding out the fast rising winter storm, Bella pounded on the door, while ice needled her cheeks and
Still no answer. No chance of waiting out the storm here. Unwilling to risk further delay, she left the doorway alcove for her car. The sudden shock of the bitter air stole her breath, and her lungs spasmed against the assault. Temperature must have dropped another five degrees. She pulled her scarf over her mouth and bent her head against the wind. Breathing in warmed air, she felt her throat relax.
Along the Lake Superior coast, January at six PM meant beyond dusky, but today the whirlpool snow and swollen clouds shrouded all extraneous light. She stumbled through the storm, her exposed forehead numb, and her lashes and brows coated with snow. Still balancing the boxes, she unlocked her Jeep-Mach UV with a click of her key, then scrambled inside, stowing the puzzles in back and shutting the door before too much sleet could pile in with her.
Bless a heavy duty battery, the car started at once. She idled the engine and defrosters a few moments, warming the interior and wiping away the accumulated ice while she unwrapped the scarf from her face. She lifted the leather case strap from her shoulder and settled the small computer on the seat beside her. After fastening seat belts, she exited the lot to the road.
The plows had scraped off the top layer of snow, exposing the ice beneath. Bella drove cautiously, the slick road offering little traction despite the sand spread by the plows. Maybe she shouldn't have taken the time to grade the papers for her Cognitive Sciences 601 class, but weather.com had given no indication the storm would be this fast moving or this severe. Not until she'd left her windowless office had she discovered three new inches of ice coating trees and roads, with more coming. At least being this late meant no other traffic to worry about. Except . . . She glanced at her rear view mirror, frowning. Two white haloes shone behind her, growing larger too rapidly. "What idiot speeds on a night like this?" she muttered.
"I have two events labeled idiot in our conversational database," answered the synthesized voice of Fran, the computer on the passenger seat. "One, the all day faculty meeting on mission statements and, two -
"I was talking to myself, Fran. Sorry. Go back to what you were doing. Gotta concentrate here." A sound akin to an aggravated sigh emitted from Fran's speakers, signaling the computer's acknowledgment.
Bella returned her attention to the road. She tapped her brakes, not enough to slow her or send her into a skid, just enough that her rear lights would flash, warning whoever was back there of her presence.
It worked. The car slowed as it came up behind her . . . and stayed there. The indistinct vehicle, visible only as a looming hulk behind the glaring headlights, crept closer, closing the gap by inches. Her stomach knotted as her gaze darted between the twin lights in her rear view mirror and the blizzard before her. She could understand the desire to let another car blaze the trail through the accumulating ice, but following that close was sheer madness. The lights behind her blinked to high beams in a sharp blinding jab. She squinted against the painful brilliance.
"You eager to pass? Then pass." Heart at the level of her throat, she gripped the wheel. The lining of her gloves absorbed the sudden sweat of her palms as she shifted to the right, trying to see where the edge of the road dropped into a ditch.
The other car did not accept the invitation. Instead, it matched her, shifting to the right as well, the headlights still blinding, like malevolent monster eyes. What in blazes was wrong with the driver? For the first time, fear trickled into the mix of tension and fatigue.
Bella sped up, daring a small burst of speed, but the car kept pace. Chewing on her lip, she scanned the road, placing what lay ahead. Small lanes jutted off this road, but they wouldn't have been sanded. More of a chance to skid. Her Mach-UV handled regular snow like a champ, but this ice was a different story.
Up ahead - How far? - Highway 41 crossed. More traffic might have melted the ice, and Mervin's Gas was about a hundred yards down. Since Merv lived behind the station, it would be lit and populated, even tonight. A safe place to pull in and let the road moron pass.
The driver pulled back a little. Bella let out a pent up breath. At last.
Except, his beams were still on high, and they struck across her mirror, blinding her again. She tilted her head, trying to get out of the light stream. Was he drunk or high? Wouldn't be the first time a driver fortified himself against the cold with alcohol. Maybe she should report him to the state police.
Except her cell phone was tangled deep in her coat pocket. While she debated whether she could safely grab the phone, a gust of wind blasted against her windshield, hard enough to shake the heavy-duty vehicle. A fury of icy pellets attacked the glass.
Her car swerved on a hidden patch of black ice, then brushed against the ledge of crusted snow pushed to the side by an earlier pass of a snowplow's blade. Rear tires swung atop the ice, traction lost. Phone forgotten, Bella grabbed the steering wheel and fought to pull out of the treacherous skid.
A moment later, the Mach-UV was headed straight, and she drew in a shaky breath. She strained to see the road ahead, even as the white lights in her mirror stung her eyes and reminded her of her follower. Tapping her brakes as a warning, she slowed down and shifted a fraction to the right, offering the impatient driver another chance to pass.
The sign for Highway 41 flashed past on the right, almost invisible in the swirling sleet. One mile. One mile to safety.
Abruptly, the car behind her pulled out and careened forward. Vague impressions of the vehicle imprinted. Another SUV. Dark windows. Tinted? Driver hidden. Impossible to tell more; the endless storm stripped away all color to make everything a uniform gray.
He was passing too close! Instinctively, she pulled the steering wheel to the right. The rear end of the car spun. No traction!
Nerves screaming, she tried to steer out of the skid, but her adrenaline-powered yank overcorrected. Her car leaped left across the slick road, doing a one eighty, just missing the rear of the other car. Snow streaked across her windshield as the world whirled around her. Wildly fishtailing red taillights vanished.
Beyond control, her Mach-UV bounced across the mounded shoulder and slammed to a halt against a tree. Her body jerked against the suddenly locked seat belt. The air bag exploded outward from the panel in front of her, blinding her more thoroughly than the snow, knocking the breath from her lungs. Everything stopped--except the wild firing of her nerves.
Gradually, the air bag deflated and her racing heart steadied. Bella took a deep breath, then pried her fingers loose from the steering wheel. Hands shaking, she shoved the air bag from her face and took stock. Every part of her torso and neck throbbed, a gift from the body-slamming air bag no doubt. Experimentally she rotated her shoulder and winced at the tug of pain. She rubbed against her sore chest. Likely she'd have a stripe of bruises, complements of the locked shoulder harness. Still, that seemed the extent of her injuries.
"Fran, are you okay?" Thank heavens, she'd strapped the seat belt through the case.
"Functioning normal. Why do you ask?"
"Had a bit of trouble. It's over now." She raked a hand through her hair. They'd been lucky coming through unscathed.
"Then we can talk? I was examining the Shakespeare you gave me. The Taming of the Shrew. The language is different. I have calculated most of it, but some . . . Go to the feast, revel, and domineer. Carouse full measure to her maidenhead. Is maidenhead -- ?
"Fran, can we talk later? Still got some things to sort out here."
"Very well. Women are made to bear, and so are you." Fran felt silent.
Great, Fran was now quoting Petruchio. Bella rubbed the bridge of her nose. As problems went, that was a small one. With luck, the car would be as easily managed. At least the engine was still running. Maybe she'd only crumpled a fender. Cautiously, she shifted into reverse, then tried backing the car onto the road. There her luck ended. The wheels spun uselessly.
Not ready to accept that she was stuck, she wrapped the scarf back around her neck and tucked her red hair into a hat. Like any prudent Midwesterner, she kept her car equipped with a winter survival kit: blanket, granola bars and water, shovel, bag of sand. Maybe getting free would be only a matter of spreading sand for traction or leveling a rut.
She shoved the door open against the keening wind. Cold grabbed her lungs and froze her exposed eyelids as soon as she stepped out. Her boots broke through the ice-crusted snow, plunging her calf-deep as she struggled around the Mach-UV.
At the rear of the car, she let out a frustrated breath, the moisture immediately freezing on the weave of her muffler. The incline wasn't sharp, but the two bumpers were balanced against the mounded snow and the tree, holding the tires suspended above the ground. Not even four wheel drive could get her out of this; she was well and truly stuck.
Nothing to do, but to call for a tow truck. On a night like this, she'd have to wait her turn, however. She shoved her hands into her pockets and hunched her shoulders for added warmth as she glanced down the road. Trying to walk for help, even one short mile, was tantamount to a suicide wish. The car lights and heat still worked; she had a full tank of gas as well as her emergency rations. If she conserved the gas, she could survive until morning, but the prospect of a long, uncomfortable night lay ahead.
Twin white haloes shone down the road, signaling an approaching car coming from the direction she'd been heading. Bella started to scramble into the road, to flag down assistance, then she froze. Not from the bitter cold outside, but from a wash of fear inside.
This road wasn't well traveled, and on a night like this she wouldn't expect any other cars.
Unless the maniac driver had turned around after he'd regained control of his car. Unless he'd gone up to Highway 41 and turned there to avoid sliding down the hills. He could afford to take his time; she wasn't going anywhere.
An insane, baseless thought, but once created it would not disappear.
Time stretched as she stared at the headlights. The approaching car drove with high beams. No one drove in snow with high beams; the light reflected off the snow and concealed rather than illuminated the road.
No one except her shadower.
Polar winds howled around her. Ice pelted her, forcing itself into the tiny gap between coat and scarf at her neck.
Protect Fran. First and foremost, protect Fran. That single instinct erased any hesitation. Bella scrambled back through the snow and grabbed Fran's computer case from the car. Blanket? Neatly folded in the emergency bin in back. No time to grab the extra warmth.
Only a few feet ahead of those approaching beams, clutching Fran, she raced across the road, and then scrambled down the ditch on the opposite side, heart pounding against her ribs. Knives of cold cut into her throat as her frantic gasps pulled in deep gulps of frigid air.
Slowly the white haloes narrowed to beams of light. The vehicle took shape as it inched along, creeping at a pace not even this weather required.
Looking for someone?
"My internal temperature gauge has decreased," Fran observed.
"I know. Do not make a sound, Fran," Bella whispered, throat raw. She wrapped her arms tighter, hugging Fran closer to her body heat.
Was she playing the fool? Risking Fran for no good reason? Crazy, speeding drivers were a Michigan tradition. So was helping out a neighbor. The other driver had simply sobered up enough to return and try to help.
Still, she couldn't shake the eerie feeling that the other driver was more than a perilous drunk.
"No sounds until I tell you it's okay, Fran. Please. Code Silence."
She hoped the quiet meant Fran had agreed. As Fran grew more aware and learned more, she'd grown more independent in her choices.
Bella found shelter in the stand of pine trees across the road, then stopped, tucking Fran's small case protectively beneath her coat, afraid further movement would draw attention. At least her coat was gray and her scarf, hat and gloves were white. She didn't dare go deeper into the woods. To lose sight of the landmark road could be deadly tonight. Leaning against the rough bark of the pine, she watched the vehicle draw up beside hers.
A sturdy vehicle, like an SUV, but she couldn't tell the model. Tinted windows. Half the people in the county drove SUVs-- but instinct screamed this was the same person who'd followed her. Likely whoever it was had a crisis of conscience and returned to help. Plausible, but her feet refused to move her toward the assistance.
At last, the driver got out. The white-out sleet blurred the edges of the figure. Even when he--or she--passed through the beam of lights, it was impossible to tell size.
The bundled figure walked around her car, opened the door, and then searched inside. Her arms holding Fran ached from the tension, and she strained against the snow, trying to see clearer as the blurred form returned to the road.
The driver paused. Looking for her? Or Fran?
At least the gusting wind had erased her footprints on the icy road and was rapidly filling in her telltale tracks through the snow on the road's shoulder.
A hiss cut through the howling night. A curse? Or maybe the sound wasn't voice but simply the wind, transformed by her imagination. She couldn't tell, not with the blood thrumming in her ears and the storm distorting her senses. Her fingers hardened around the computer, and her body started to shake. Cold? Terror? Didn't matter. She couldn't stop it; she could only pray it wouldn't give her away.
How could he not hear the irregular pounding of her heart?
At last, the driver got back in the car and began a careful U-turn. Except he stopped halfway. He did not pull away. Instead, he waited, with his headlights shining into the woods.
Bella's jaw tightened. He didn't have to track her. With a killer cold like this, all he had to do was wait her out.
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