"Is my jet ready?" The distant sound of Network Oversight Head Shannon McKee's voice--flinty, uncompromising, yet feminine--was followed by an impatient growl for the person she spoke to on the other end of the phone line.
While eavesdropping from her hiding place in McKee's house, Kirsten Ulrick found herself even more confused about the mission she'd been called into literally at the eleventh hour. She knew only that Captain Shannon McKee, 1st in Command in the covert organization they both served, was in danger.
"How much longer?" McKee demanded after a short pause in the phone conversation. "Belay that. As soon as I've packed, I'll head to the hangar myself."
Kirsten's commanding superior, Angelo Pluzetti, wasn't far from her in the darkness of McKee's kitchen, and she would follow his lead, even if it was blindly this time. As one of the highest ranking operatives in the Network, Kirsten knew this mission could lead to greater things for her. But she wasn't thinking about any of that now. Her mind was fully on the task at hand.
From the living room, McKee's voice softened slightly. "I'll take all necessary precautions. Expedite preparations on your end."
A soft beep was followed by more dialing, then another growl of frustration. Then McKee's footsteps came suddenly closer, and Kirsten tensed in her position near the broom cabinet until she realized the rapid click of heels crossed over her head. McKee was going upstairs, probably to pack.
Seconds later, the anticipated burst of static from Kirsten's earpiece told her it was time to move in. Instantly she rose. She strode swiftly through the room, knowing where she was going even in the darkness with the aid of her night vision goggles, and she worked even quicker to disable the house security system. Angelo had to know as well as she did that Shannon McKee had had a lifetime of special operations training before she took over the organization--it wouldn't take her long to realize she wasn't alone.
Almost imperceptibly came the swish of movement nearby. The lights in the living room and hall went out abruptly. Shannon had detected them.
Task completed, Kirsten flew soundlessly into her final position, holding her gun out in front of her. McKee fired, but it was clear she knew their position just as well as they knew hers because she missed intentionally. Kirsten had no doubt she'd aimed--to miss--at Angelo, who came out of hiding, his sheer size and muscular build silhouetted in Kirsten's goggles.
"You could have knocked on the front door, Angelo," Shannon muttered dryly.
As Kirsten waited for Angelo's command, she conceded what she'd suspected all day. The Network had been breached at some point after she heeded Angelo's call to come to him without question and without telling anyone, and that meant no one was safe. As Head of the Oversight Committee governing the organization, Shannon would be the first one targeted. The Network was a covert organization playing a vital role in the survival of the human race in a time when terrorist groups and criminals were running rampant. If the Network was disabled... The nation's security hung in the balance.
Like any organization, the Network was funded by and answered to the government. The only difference between the Network and the FBI or CIA was that the Network was completely anonymous in the world. Very few knew of its existence. Because it didn't answer to the public, it took over effectively where regular law enforcement left off. Justice could be served without interference. But keeping the organization anonymous was an everyday battle that they upheld at any cost.
Angelo, Master Strategist and Network Recruiter, lowered his gun at the same moment McKee did.
"It's been ten hours since I've been in communication with the Network. The signal's been blocked. What the hell's going on?" McKee demanded.
Kirsten was surprised. She'd received a terse phone call from Angelo when she was at home, just hours before she was scheduled to report for a mission briefing. He'd told her to leave Chicago immediately and follow his orders to the letter along the way, no questions asked. As he'd specified, she'd told no one--not even her superiors who were expecting her for the upcoming mission that evening--and she'd made sure she wasn't followed to Washington D.C. She met Angelo, and they came straight to Shannon's luxurious home. He'd again given her explicit directions, but he explained nothing.
What could have compromised the security of the Network in the hours since she left Chicago? While it frustrated Kirsten not to have all the answers, she couldn't allow her emotions to take precedence. As soon as McKee was safe and they were on their way to the Network compound, hidden from the world in an underground bunker beneath a legitimate business, Angelo would explain. She'd be patient until then.
When McKee reached for the lights, Angelo shook his head, putting a finger to his lips.
"We don't have time to talk," he said softly. "We have to get out of here now."
Angelo signaled across the room. Crouched low, a young girl who'd been with Angelo since Kirsten met up with him moved to his side. He hadn't explained who the girl was, but Kirsten's instincts told her she had very little formal training. The girl wore a black handkerchief over long, reddish-brown hair. Her narrow eyes were shining with the glow of breathless excitement.
Though all was quiet, Kirsten realized it'd become far too quiet. She sensed they were being surrounded at this very moment. Shannon quickly pointed toward the bookcase on the far end of the room, near the fireplace. Angelo nodded, removing several circular, black objects from his pocket. Kirsten recognized the gas smoke screens as Angelo skimmed them across the floor toward the kitchen, the dining room and the foyer. In seconds, the rooms were plunged into a billowing cloud of white. They had only minutes. Kirsten pulled out a handkerchief and covered her mouth.
Behind the wet bar, the windows exploded with gunfire. The three of them hit the floor defensively, stifling the need to cough, as windows all over the house shattered and bullets whizzed over them. The girl drew her gun, but Kirsten stopped her. Any gunfire, and their enemy would pinpoint their location in a heartbeat. Kirsten didn't have time to be annoyed about the presence of someone she now assessed was a civilian in this.
Angelo shoved the girl toward the bookcase, jerked his head at Shannon, then Kirsten, to follow while he laid down another smoke screen in the living room. The bullets flooded the room like relentless raindrops as Kirsten crawled beside McKee across the room on the heels of the girl.
The girl choked and gagged against the smoke and dust filling the room. Impatiently, Kirsten dove forward and yanked the handkerchief off her head, shoving it in front her face. Keeping her head as low as possible, McKee raised her hand and fumbled for the button that opened the bookcase panel. Kirsten pushed the girl inside, waiting until Angelo reached them, then backed in after McKee. The panel closed behind them, and McKee bent low to find the indentation to raise the passage door through the floor.
Hearing the girl retching in the darkness of the small space they occupied, McKee muttered what Kirsten wanted to know herself: "Who the hell is this, Angelo? Your girlfriend?"
Why would Angelo drag a civilian into this? Kirsten knew for damn sure that this green kid hadn't been in The Shop. She didn't have the most basic training when it came to tactics under assault conditions. She wasn't one of theirs, so who was she?
Angelo didn't answer as he helped the girl find the ladder and her footing.
"Come on," McKee hissed. They followed her, moving even faster when the gunfire outside ceased abruptly. Whoever had been shooting at them was coming inside.
As soon as Angelo had cleared the top of the ladder, Kirsten climbed on. She held the passage door as she slid down, closing it behind her. Angelo had already found the light bulb in the tiny room, and he unlocked the cabinets. He handed the girl an automatic rifle and ammunition, and she had the sense to look chagrined about her performance thus far when she reluctantly took them. Kirsten was at least glad to see that the excitement had left her eyes.
"Do you have transport?" McKee asked quietly, filling her pockets with grenades and extra ammunition for the M-16.
"Van. Plumbing logo on the side. A couple blocks from here, to the west." Angelo handed her a set of keys, along with microdisks in a clear, protective jacket.
McKee glanced up, an eyebrow raised, and Angelo shook his head, saying only, "Later. Everything you need to know is there."
Two small disks account for the attempted execution of the Head of the Network? Kirsten marveled.
Shannon McKee put them in the inner pocket of her jacket. "We need a distraction. I'll lay down grenades to cover your retreat."
Angelo shook his head. "Negative. You're essential. The Network's finished if you don't get to the compound tonight. I'll lay down the retreat. Ulrick will take care of you and the girl."
"I can take care of myself," the girl claimed. Everyone ignored the kid's unwarranted confidence.
Much as McKee might have wanted to argue about the situation, they didn't have the time, and Angelo was right. Shannon was the one who had the power to salvage the Network, if it was even possible. She nodded. Above them, they could hear the sound of coughing and many feet crunching on the broken glass covering the floor.
Shannon switched off the light and led the way to the door leading up to an alcove built on the side of the house, without possibility of entry from the outside. After she released the locks, Angelo slid in front of her, carefully opening the door a crack. When he'd confirmed there was no movement or presence in the general area, he slipped out. A heartbeat later, he signaled to them and they emerged.
After scanning the area, Kirsten put her mouth to the girl's ear. "Follow me. Don't do anything stupid."
She nodded, a heated look coming into her eyes. Kirsten glanced at McKee, who also nodded. Angelo signaled her to head out, and then Kirsten darted out across the lawn to the hedge surrounding the property. The girl and Shannon were right behind her, crouching on the ground with her when they reached the edge of the sidewalk.
The way was clear. Everyone was probably inside the house or on the other side. Kirsten made another dart further out, into the next property, #1 and the girl right behind her, while Angelo stayed back to cover their retreat. Kirsten screwed the silencer she'd taken from the underground passage on her handgun. She aimed it at the bulbs of the two nearest street lamps on the side of the street they were on, and then the two across the street, taking them out. Blackness shrouded over them, and she didn't wait for anyone back at the house to notice it.
They were halfway across the street when Kirsten realized the girl wasn't on their heels this time. Someone shouted from the front of the house, Angelo threw the grenades, but even in the resulting explosion, men poured out of the house, firing wildly.
When Kirsten saw the girl go down, she swore. "Take cover," she advised McKee before doubling back. She didn't wait to check if the girl was alive or dead. She picked her up, swung her over her shoulder and ran while firing at those advancing toward them.
Everything inside her rebelled at the idea of leaving not only her supervisor but her mentor behind to cover them, but Kirsten knew her duty was to keep Shannon McKee alive at all costs. Without Shannon, the Network would fall into the hands of a mad genius who'd kept their success rate up but who only performed his duty honorably when flanked by those who kept him in line. Shannon was the forerunner in keeping Giles Jameson, current Head of Operations, under strict moral control.
Kirsten saw Angelo, firing controlled bursts that hit their mark every time, step out into the middle of the street, blocking the path between Shannon and the assassins who'd come here tonight to kill her.
Lowering her own weapon, Kirsten concentrated on getting McKee and the girl to the safety of the van. She heard the girl groan behind her back, but kept going until they reached their transport. Yanking open the sliding door and tossing the girl on the floor, she didn't stop to ask her how she was. Shannon got in the passenger's seat.
The girl groaned again. Kirsten turned to look down at her. "Where are you hit?"
"Thigh," the girl told her through gritted teeth.
Kirsten eased back and saw blood oozing steadily out of her right leg. The bone was intact. She'd taken the bullet in the meaty part. "You'll live."
She shoved the door closed and maneuvered into the driver's seat. After starting the van, she slammed it into gear.
Shannon had slipped to the back of the van. She took off the handkerchief the girl had put on her head again in the passage and tied it tightly around her leg over the wound, ignoring her gasp of pain.
Kirsten had only gone a block when she saw Angelo racing along the sidewalk. The fact that he wasn't being pursued told her their enemies were vehicling up as well. They didn't have much time.
Kirsten urged Shannon to get down. After screeching to a halt, she leaned over to push open the passenger door. Angelo scolded her as soon as he was in, about coming back instead of going in the opposite direction. Kirsten ignored him, wheeling the van around back up the street the way she'd come.
"How many?" she demanded.
"A handful. Less than six."
Angelo glanced back at the girl, murmuring something to her that told Kirsten he had feelings for her, certainly enough to care if she lived or died. Surprisingly, the wounded female told him haughtily that she was fine.
"Where did you pick her up?" Shannon asked.
Kirsten frowned. New York? Why would Angelo be in New York when the Network was on the verge of a crisis?
"What the hell's going on, Angelo?" McKee demanded.
His gaze glued to the side mirror, the Network's third-in-command didn't look back at his superior. "Later," he said simply.
Kirsten glanced in the rearview mirror to see they were being pursued. Two cars, three men each, so far as she could tell. One of the vehicles pulled closer to them, the men who weren't driving firing from open windows. Angelo shot back for a few seconds, then stood and dove into the back with Shannon. Behind her, Kirsten saw the girl drag herself up and along to the front, where she apparently was able to ignore her pain enough to begin shooting back. Despite her initial reservations, Kirsten couldn't help being impressed by her tenacity.
The kid was a good enough shot that she hit one of the shooters in the car coming up alongside the passenger door, and he dropped his rifle on the road. With barely a pause, he came up with another.
Kirsten saw the other car coming up on the driver's side on the well-lit street. Instinctively, she ducked to the right just in time, and a bullet whizzed past her to puncture the dashboard.
As her gaze fluctuated between the road in front of her and the cars on either side, she pushed the van into a higher gear. The girl made a noise of triumph, and Kirsten turned to see the car on the right spinning out of control. The girl had hit the driver, and he sagged back in his seat. The car slammed their backend as it fell behind, but Kirsten was able to hold the van steady.
In back, Angelo and Shannon had taken out two of the men in the other car, but the driver was still shooting. Ducking low, Angelo came forward and disappeared from view behind Kirsten's seat.
"Let him catch up," she heard him say.
When she heard the sliding door ease open, she knew what Angelo was thinking. The girl apparently did, too. She crawled to the back, saying, "Give me one."
Distantly in the rearview, Kirsten saw the other car, one of the two shooters out and trying to yank the dead driver from the front seat. She couldn't worry about them now--she kept her gaze darting between the closer car and the road ahead of him, waiting for the right moment to fly ahead. Angelo called out and, she saw two grenades soar through the open window of the chasing vehicle. She slammed her foot down on the gas.
Angelo had lurched half-out the open door at her acceleration, but she couldn't slow down. She heard the girl scream wildly, "Hold on!" The girl was panting in exertion, crying in pain as, Kirsten assumed, both her weight and Angelo's went onto her right thigh. She struggled to yank Angelo back inside the van with Shannon's help. Then everything became blocked out as the grenades exploded. The force of pressure slamming them forward must have helped because a few seconds later, Angelo was inside, ramming the door closed behind him.
Because they had the advantage for the moment, Kirsten concentrated on losing the second car, which emerged three blocks behind her through the flames. As soon as she turned off a side-street, she killed the van lights and kept going.
Behind her she heard Angelo scold, "I told you to curb those hotshot instincts, didn't I? You're not playing a game here, wildcat. You were supposed to follow Kirsten."
"I thought you might need help," the girl muttered, obviously embarrassed by her multiple screw-ups back at the house.
"I didn't. And you just landed yourself at least three months in Medical instead of The Shop. Believe me, for someone like you, Medical's gonna be a hell of lot harder to take. Celine won't allow you any action at all in there."
Her tone was disgruntled as she said, "Personal experience, Pluzetti?", but a second later she was yelping in pain as Angelo tightened a new, make-shift dressing.
So she was a new recruit, one who had very little field experience, Kirsten understood. Her earlier annoyance subsided as she made her way toward the freeway.
Angelo moved into the front seat once more, asking, "We lose 'em?"
Kirsten nodded, flipping on her lights as she came to the ramp leading to the freeway. A moment later, they headed for the hidden hangar where #1's personal jet would, no doubt, be ready for take-off.
Behind them, Shannon said, "Good. Now, tell me what the hell's going on here, Angelo."
He ignored the question, gave an almost imperceptible swerve of his glance toward the back of the van. "How much further is the hangar?"
The girl, Kirsten remembered. Whatever information was on the micro-disks had to be sensitive enough for Angelo not to want to talk about it in front of a potential recruit. Kirsten grimaced in frustration. They'd have to wait, and her patience ran thin after the endless hours she'd been involved in this without a single explanation.
"Not long," Shannon offered. "Who's the girl?"
Kirsten glanced back in the rearview mirror. The girl's skin appeared unnaturally pale from the blood loss she'd sustained, yet, instead of resting the way she should have been, she sat there watching and listening to them like a hawk. Kirsten was beginning to understand why Angelo had chosen to recruit her. Green as she was, she had all the right instincts for life in the Network.
"Kyle Vincent started her training."
Kirsten's gaze left the road and locked onto Angelo's haggard face. Kyle Vincent had been MIA for the past fifteen years, after disappearing, quite literally, with a subject--a kid who'd posed a potential breach in Network security. As a Level 3 operative, Kirsten was well-versed in MIA operatives--simply because they were so rare. Kyle Vincent was the only operative who'd ever escaped the Network. To this day, he and the subject remained missing. Kirsten knew Vincent had been a Level 4 operative, one of their best, and she sensed he'd been like a son to Angelo.
"He's surfaced then?" Shannon asked.
Angelo shook his head. "There's too much to get into right now. Let's leave it at the fact that Kyle started Piper's training, in order to protect Elizabeth Sheppard."
There'd never been any confirmation that Kyle took ten-year-old Elizabeth Sheppard into the night and convincingly disappeared with her, but it was the logical conclusion. Considering the fifteen years he'd eluded them, the Network had trained him well. Kirsten was fairly certain Kyle had had help from the inside. Angelo must have gotten that elusive confirmation that Kyle had taken Elizabeth.
Angelo jerked his thumb back toward the girl. "Piper Laslow."
"How old is she?"
"I'm sixteen," Piper said brashly, as though that made her a sage. "I'm old enough."
Shannon's icy gaze met hers in what would have effectively put any other recruit firmly in their inferior place. "Too old. If you know Kyle, you probably know he started his training when he was twelve."
"Vincent...Kyle started training me before I hit my double digits," she announced triumphantly.
Angelo said softly, "She's seen too much. I had to bring her in."
"She'll need a lot of work."
"I know it."
Kirsten didn't need to look back to see the girl's glare. Piper needed all the spit and fire she could get to survive training.
When Kirsten turned down another unpaved road, the silhouette of the hangar rose into the night. Shannon moved to the front of the van, switching places with Angelo, and told Kirsten to flash the headlights in a signal to let the guards know who approached. As they neared the electric fence, one of the guards emerged from the clearance booth, his rifle lowered. The soldier did everything short of grin in giddy relief as he saluted Shannon. "Sir, you had us worried," the man said. "You didn't answer the summons, and we did a drive-by. Your home's a wreck. We assumed the worst."
Kirsten could imagine the destruction they'd left behind them. Shannon patted herself down. "I must have dropped my phone while we escaped," she muttered, then looked at the guard. "My phone is MIA. Have it decommissioned immediately."
"Is the jet prepped?"
"Ready for take-off, sir. Have a safe flight."
Shannon nodded, and the soldier released the gate lock.
Angelo sighed as they were swallowed up into the hangar. Kirsten glanced back at him, noting the overgrowth of hair on his usually clean-shaven face. He looked leaner, more exhausted and infinitely more care-worn than the last time she'd seen him. She wondered how long it'd been since he'd had a meal or decent sleep. Hell, since he'd had a shower. He'd been through something recently, along with the girl and the rogue operative, Kyle Vincent. The fact that Angelo wasn't at the Network at their hour of crisis told her things were more out of control than they'd ever been before.
The Network was funded by a major technology corporation designing innovative equipment both for public use--computers, cell and satellite phones, software and the like--and devices only the Network had access to. The corporation, Expanding Technology Industries--ETI--functioned exactly as a real business did, and was the perfect cover for the Network. Below the ETI skyscraper in Chicago, in an amazingly deep underground bunker, was the Network headquarters, inaccessible to anyone without clearance.
The organization was sanctioned by the American government, but only the highest officials knew about it, including the President and a select committee in the White House, called Oversight. In the half-century the Network had been in existence, formed by the then-President of the United States along with Captain Tom McKee--a career officer and a decorated war hero--it had experienced surprisingly few bumps. And, supervised in headquarters by McKee, Giles Jameson had almost unlimited power as #1 (1st in Command): Giles Jameson, Liaison between Oversight and the Network.
Tom McKee had been the first head of the Network. When he'd had been killed unexpectedly, his daughter--who'd also had a lifetime of military training--stepped in. Shannon McKee now filled her father's role of liaison between the government and the Network. For many years, as #1, Jameson made all decisions on running the day-to-day operations with very little interference from either of the McKees and the governments around the world. And for fifty years, they'd run at ninety-eight percent efficiency. In every single case, all previous situations had been contained before they reached melt-down. Shannon had often said she'd be damned if their efficiency rate went down a single point.
When they got out of the van, Kirsten yanked back the side door. For the first time, the girl looked completely unsure of herself. The events of the evening seemed to have caught up, leave her apparently defenseless. Only when Angelo appeared did she relax slightly. Kirsten and Shannon glanced away when tears glistened in her cat-like eyes, neither accustomed to soft emotions.
McKee's men approached, and Kirsten heard the girl complaining first that she could walk, didn't need to be carried, then about Angelo's immense height when he put an arm around her back to help her out of the van.
They'll have their hands full training this one.
Saluting McKee, Shannon's pilot said in a too-polite way, "Glad to see you alive, sir."
"At ease, Captain."
"Plane ready for take-off on your command, sir."
"Let's get in the air then."
As soon as they were on board and altitude had been achieved, Kirsten unbuckled her seatbelt, saying, "I'll take care of the girl."
Shannon nodded, her gaze on Angelo. "You take care of yourself in the meantime, Angelo. You can use my quarters."
Predictably, Angelo insisted, "A shower can wait until I've debriefed you."
Shannon shook her head, her military-short hair not moving an iota. "Do it. I need you in shape and thinking clearly for the debriefing. Food will be prepared by the time you're cleaned up."
Angelo nodded wearily before striding toward the back of the jet. Kirsten was relieved. She wanted to be at that debriefing.
Kirsten turned to Piper, who again looked on the edge of panic. "C'mon, let's get cleaned up. I'll check your dressing, have food brought to you, and then you can rest."
As Kirsten helped the girl out of her seat, she saw Shannon go to her briefing table, pick up the satellite phone, and make to dial. Then the boss's grimace told her the signal was still blocked. They'd be at the compound within the next two hours though. By then, Angelo would have debriefed them fully and they could begin making plans.
Her long hair wet and uncombed, the girl was all but asleep when Kirsten brought a first aid kid into the guest cabin. She looked at the wound without fully removing the make-shift bandage. The last thing they needed was to have her bleeding again. She already looked deathly pale.
Turning away from her, Kirsten loaded a syringe. "It's not bleeding. Dr. Savage's team will be able to remove the bullet when we arrive at the compound. Eat something and then sleep."
"Something to help with the pain. And it'll help you sleep."
The girl didn't try to hide her horrified reaction when Kirsten plunged the needle into her arm and pumped the morphine in.
Food was delivered on a tray. Without answering Piper, Kirsten stood to leave her to it.
Angelo was in the aircraft's briefing room, showered and shaved, wearing a robe. His clothes were no doubt being cleaned as best as they could be on the jet. Though he certainly smelled better, his eyes looked hollow from lack of sleep because his face wasn't hiding under a thick growth of beard. He devoured a sandwich quickly.
"When's the last time you had any rest?" Shannon asked Angelo as Kirsten took a seat at the table and helped herself to the food. She would have liked a shower herself, but she wouldn't miss the debrief for anything.
"There's no time--"
"How long?" Shannon persisted.
Angelo scrubbed at his heavily-browed eyes. "A week. More or less."
"Is that how long you've been out of the Network?" Shannon picked up a sandwich from the platter.
Nodding, Angelo exhaled.
"What the hell is going on there?"
Angelo tossed down a half-eaten sandwich. "What you probably already suspect. We've been compromised."
Shannon barely inclined her head in acknowledgment while Kirsten's bite went unchewed for a long minute as she listened in dread. A pause hung in the air.
"Jameson?" It was more of a statement than a question from McKee.
"We've suspected his instability for a long time, but there was no proof."
According to rumors among top level operatives, Giles Jameson's psych profiles were the same each month. Jocelyn Dominica, head of psychiatry within the Network, had been warning them for years that Giles--who had been #1 (1st in Command) and Liaison between Oversight and the Network--had learned how to beat their evaluations, despite the fact that they were altered each month to throw him off. The proof he'd betrayed the Network, Kirsten knew, was on the microdisks Angelo had given Shannon back at the house.
"As soon as the Network's back to full power, I want you taking Jameson's place," Shannon said quietly to Angelo.
Angelo didn't seem surprised by the commendation, merely murmured, "That could take years, depending on how bad he's crippled us."
Kirsten kept her elation at the prospect tamped.
"So be it," Shannon said briskly.
Kirsten forced herself to tame her curiosity. Angelo was one of the greatest enigmas in the Network. She'd wondered often how he'd been recruited, outside of the basic story that'd floated around the recruits, but she'd never heard anything this personal before.
Nodding as she inhaled deeply, Shannon said, "Let's deal with the here and now then. Take me through the evidence and your plan."
"Any hot locations?"
Kirsten looked away from the halovideo console, over her shoulder at Hunter, with a frustrated sigh. "Nothing. Even thermals are cold. I've been all over the damn globe, and he's not coming up anywhere."
When Hunter Savage, Team Leader/Mission Coordinator, had taken temporary command of the Network sixteen hours ago in their hour of crisis, he'd done what he had to do to keep the lower level recruits from declaring mutiny. He'd told them that Giles Jameson had been kidnapped by an enemy. Only Level 3 and higher operatives, like Kirsten and Hunter, knew the truth--Jameson had defected. He'd also planted a virus in their mainframe to slow their ability to locate him.
With communications jammed for the past sixteen hours, Hunter had sent out a small contingency of operatives to bring everyone in, and then he'd directed the containment of what could have been a permanently destructive situation.
Kirsten had returned ahead of Angelo and McKee. Though she hadn't had sleep in more hours than she could remember, she'd gone straight to this very console to search, fruitlessly, for their rogue leader.
"He's underground. His transponders have to have been damaged or removed," Hunter spoke grimly, working through what Kirsten had known for hours.
Angelo's voice broke in over the intercom. "Savage. Report to the perch." Both Kirsten and Hunter looked up to see Angelo in the upper level of the compound, behind a wall of glass, in Operations' office, commonly called 'the perch'. Angelo had arrived with Shannon McKee and the girl just twenty minutes after Kirsten. Celine's team had been waiting to get Piper to Medical upon their appearance.
Kirsten was certain those around her were frustrated by the lack of answers--one she couldn't give them. After getting a brief from Hunter on the status of the Network and telling him they'd call him when they were ready for him, Angelo and Shannon had gone to the perch.
"Stay on it," Hunter muttered to her, and she saw his look--it clearly said 'About damn time', before he strode away, and she was forced to go back to her fruitless search.
Her eyes burned with fatigue and dryness. As one of the top operatives, her impatience was long gone, replaced by dogged determination. Jameson had gone rogue, crippling the Network and compromising security when he went. For her part, she was glad to see him gone, but not at the price they'd paid. It could lead to a domino effect around the world in terms of sprees of crimes and terror.
Taking a deep breath, Kirsten closed her eyes for a second, wishing for a shower almost as much as she wished for answers. She speared her fingers into her short hair, glancing behind her at Comm Central, still abuzz with employees repairing the damage the virus had caused. All their channels had been corrupted, they'd had a system-wide failure, and the virus had eaten through countless databases before they were able to contain it. Hours had passed before they'd been able to fully destroy it. Only by borrowing bandwidth from the NSA had they been able to get back to half their operational power. It would take weeks to get back up to full power and to recover their data.
The virus, not Jameson's prolonged absence, had been their tip-off that he'd defected. The Network system was impenetrable. The best computer enthusiasts and criminals in the world had tried to breach their system for years, and the task had proved impossible. The only way for a virus to get in was for it to be planted from within. At the time, two operatives had been dark--Angelo and Jameson. Angelo's loyalty was without question. That left Jameson, and, truthfully, none of them had been too surprised about it. Though he led Network operation within an exceptionally high rate of success, no one was foolish enough to trust him. Jameson was both ruthless and driven, a law unto himself. Not even Angelo trusted him.
Justine Fielding, their communications and systems analyst, had been called up to the perch forty-five minutes before, and Ash Barnett was directing the repair team in Comm. When Kirsten's gaze met Ash's, she looked away instinctively, punching in new coordinates on the halovideo.
She knew the precise moment of Ash's approach. She felt it like a missile locked on to her, and she barely had time to pull herself together before he was there, leaning next to her onto the console with both arms, just as Hunter had moments before.
Ash had been one of the last operatives to come in today. Since he wasn't scheduled for a mission until late this night, he'd had no reason to suspect anything was happening, but then he'd always been a master of operating on instinct. All missions had been canceled because of the breach, and all operatives were on closed quarters until further notice.
He's had a shower recently. She smelled soap and sandalwood and...Ash, as he looked at the halovideo.
He didn't face her when he asked, "Find anything?"
He glanced toward Operation's office, the glass now dark. "You know what's going on?"
Kirsten sighed, murmuring vaguely, "I can't say." Angelo had instructed her not to reveal she'd been involved in Shannon's rescue, which was why he'd sent her on ahead of them to the compound.
Ash grimaced with his own frustration at not being privy to what was happening, and his long blond hair shifted over his shoulder. He'd had a haircut recently, she acknowledged, remembering how long it'd been over his eyes during the tactical brief yesterday morning. She'd lost track of time since Angelo had called her into the covert mission of rescuing #1.
"How long have you been sitting here?" he murmured.
Coolly, she replied, "Four hours, more or less."
When Ash looked at her, his chin resting on his arm leaning on the console, his blue eyes held more intensity than she could handle at the moment. Yet he said just as coldly as she had an instant ago, "The situation is basically contained in Comm. Why don't you let me take over here?"
As usual, his attempt at compassion made no sense. Why should he care that she'd lost feeling in her lower extremities hours ago, that her back felt like someone had beat her with a steel rod, and that she'd go crazy if she had to look at the fluorescent lines on the vid screen for another second? His tone told her he didn't give a damn, but his eyes nevertheless urged her to take his offer instead of refusing out of pure pride. She hated that he knew she wanted to refuse because she didn't want to admit a weakness, however justified.
The intercom came on before she could say a word, and Kirsten looked anxiously toward the perch. Instead of Angelo's, Dr. Celine Savage's voice came through. "Kirsten Ulrich and Ash Barnett, report to Medical immediately."
Kirsten's mitigation at being relieved of her useless task and not having to give Ash the satisfaction of either giving up or insisting she could handle it herself was balanced with another level of annoyance.
What's going on? Whyare we being called to Medical?
When she tried to stand, her legs were weak, and she felt Ash's hand on her forearm, gentle, his fingertips just slightly rough, but warm. It required all of her control not to pull away from him, simply to mutter, "Thanks. I guess I've been sitting here longer than I thought."
She forced herself to get moving, and before long Ash was beside her, his hand at the small of her back this time.
"I'm all right," she insisted.
"You're exhausted," he corrected softly, but he didn't look at her when she turned to him. He removed his supportive hand, and she almost wished she'd kept her mouth shut. She was too tired to care about her reckless thought: I miss being touched. By him.
But she tried to shake it off. Something was happening now. While she'd expected to be included on a tactical briefing, not some jaunt off to Medical, something was finally happening.
Together, they skirted around Comm Central, past Weapons, where Vlad watched them curiously. The only sound, when they moved out of the main corridor, was the sound of their rhythmic footsteps on the cement floor.
Kirsten couldn't dismiss the feeling of dread in the pit of her empty stomach. The organization had been compromised, Jameson was rogue--in hiding, Shannon McKee was here, and she and Ash had been called together to the hospital wing. While Kirsten had been privy to Angelo's preliminary plans, they'd been too vague for her to know what her role might be in them. As the Alpha Team leader, she'd fully expected to be going up to the perch with Hunter.
Against her will, Kirsten glanced at Ash again as they neared Medical, and she could see the same questions and concerns she was facing were going around in his head, too. His large, strong hand again went to the small of her back--a gesture that could have been pure gentleman courtesy as they entered the hospital, but the deep caress he gave her had nothing to do with politeness and everything to do with reassurance.
Tears stung her eyes, and her anger rose at her own ridiculous response to him. She was a Level 3 operative. She could handle anything they threw at her just as well as Ash could. She didn't need to be coddled by him or anyone else. Dangerous times aside, she had a job to do, and she didn't need any help dealing with it.
"What's going on?" she demanded when Dr. Savage and another member of her team approached.
"Ash, you'll be with Pierce. Kirsten, come with me," Celine said without preface.
Kirsten didn't allow herself to look at Ash, but immediately fell in step behind a woman almost as tall as herself, at nearly six feet, with blond hair halfway down her back.
She saw the girl Angelo had brought in earlier in one of the beds and asked Celine how she was.
"She'll live. With that kind of tenacity, she'll definitely live." The doctor confirmed Kirsten's own assessment of the spirited wildcat.
In a small room surrounded by large glass windows, Celine turned to her. "I'm sorry I don't have time to explain, Kirsten. Please undress. You'll be prepped for surgery, and as soon as I give the okay that you're stable enough to leave Medical, you'll go to Tactical Briefing."
Kirsten obeyed, shedding her uniform without question. The lump in her throat would go away, she assured herself. And the sooner she left Medical, the sooner she'd know what the hell was going on.
"Then let's get this over with," she said roughly.