Pulse pounding, Max looked down. Searched. Left. Right. There. A dark spot centered in a white cloud of
gas. Her neck tingled. A freaking surface-to-air missile streaked toward her.
The radar-lock alarm squealed.
She hit chaff release. Broke right. Pulled up. Engaged the afterburner.
“Viper Four Two, painted,” Max announced. “SAM lock. Closing fast. Gating.”
Acceleration rammed her into the thin pilot seat and flattened her flesh into the frame. A familiar, though harsh, survival experience.
Her ‘G’ suit hardened, compressed her extremities, and pushed blood back to her heart. The airframe vibrated like an old blender as the jet streaked up toward the open sky ... to escape ... to safety.
Maybe not. The radar image projected on her visor showed the missile was still closing on her.
The jet bucked and tilted. Collision? Her muscles bunched. I’m hit. Where?
She looked left and saw a gaping, smokeless hole in the weapons’ rail on the tip of her left wing. No explosion. The missile had been a dud. Thank God. Not fatal, but not good.
“Viper Four Two, hit.” She forced a deep breath. Not easy in a hardened ‘G’ suit. Stay focused. Follow procedure. Keep the bird airborne. Make the emergency field.
The plane shuddered. She glanced back to see a large piece of the left wing crack, vibrate, and tear off.
Fuel gushed from the ruptured wing tank. Left hydraulic pressure plunged, then surged as the backup system activated.
The F-16C tumbled left, nosed down, and began a roll. Another chunk of wing ripped off. Nothing remained but a shredded stub. Screw the emergency field. Stabilize and eject.
More alarms screamed. Whistles. Bells. Horns. This was no longer an aircraft, it was fifteen tons of scrap metal plunging from the sky.
Bitching Betty, the voice of the on-board computer, shouted, “Warning. Warning.”
The Warning Annunciator Panel lit up like Las Vegas.
“Viper Four Two, coming apart.” She swallowed hard. “Post holing. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.”
The graveyard spiral shoved her deeper into her seat frame. “G” forces pinned her arms to the rests. Her head spun. Her eyes lost focus. She went lightheaded. Faint. Disoriented. Acid in her stomach sloshed, burned, convulsed. Not nausea. Not now.
Though hand movement was difficult, Max throttled up power to maintain airspeed, pushed the side stick to unload the wing stub, and, with great effort, eased the stick into the tumble. Each decision automatic. Quick. Born in practice. Bred in discipline.
Heat swept her face. Sweat beaded her forehead. She clenched her teeth. The roll slowed, then stopped, but the jet’s sink-rate accelerated. Not good.
“Come on, baby. Come on.” Her cottony mouth barely forced the words out.
Max hit the zeroize button to erase the computer files and codes. The file destruct completed, she grabbed the eject grip between her legs, and yanked up hard.
“What the --” No canopy jettison. She shivered. Panic seized her. Settle down. Ride it out. You’ve got options.
“Viper Four Two, ejection malfunction. Airspeed five hundred. Altitude fifteen cherubs.”
Hands shaking, Max reached over, grabbed the canopy jettison handle and pulled. No explosion. No whoosh. Nothing. The freaking plastic bubble over her remained locked. Her temples throbbed. Stay calm. Take it easy.
She eyed the manual canopy latch release. Another chance. Her last chance. Anticipation tensed her. Urgency propelled her. Discipline guided her. She braced, wrapped her cold, gloved fingers around the handle, and cranked.
She pushed the handle harder, but it wouldn’t budge. Not a damned millimeter. Trapped. Jesus Christ! She glanced at the altimeter. Altitude seven hundred. Too low. She was on a goddamned death ride in a malfunctioning bucket of shit!
No option left but to ride this tin can in. She cinched up her harness and seat belt, then switched to emergency oxygen. Won’t be long now. Not the way she’d imagined ending her career.
Using right flaps alone, she nosed the crippled bird up. The jet rotated. Dad ... random memories of their camping trips, weeklong hikes. Just the two of them. The sweet memories calmed her mind. The tightness in her chest eased. Her stomach stilled.
The desert came up fast ... too fast. She clamped her gloved hands over the armrests. Brought her head up and back. Took a deep breath.
“Altitude. Altitude,” Bitching Betty shouted.
Max’s chest tightened. Training hadn’t prepared her for any alternative but survival.
The tail slammed into the desert. On impact, the jet tilted right and jammed the wing deep into the sand. Her body lurched forward. Arms flailed. Straps dug deep into her shoulders and pelvis. Terrible pain flooded her shoulders. Ripped through her neck. Shot down her back. Agony. Streaks of light. Black space with light beams. Sparkles.
A blinding light engulfed her.
Present Day, Murmansk, Russia
Maxine Falcon, seated at a corner table in the Babylon Bar, nodded at the North Korean arms dealer as he plowed through the congested bar like an ice breaker. A client. A commission. Depending on what he wanted, perhaps a lucrative commission. She hadn’t been in Murmansk long. Didn’t have many clients. Needed more to survive.
As usual, the bar was noisy with table talk and music, clouded with thick acrid smoke, and reeked of stale beer. An upscale place with stunning waitresses, it catered to Murmansk’s expatriate community. Her turf. A safe, comfortable haven. An ideal place to interview prospective clients.
She scanned the people around him. If he had bodyguards, she couldn’t spot them. Travels alone. Confident. She could handle that. Damn right!
He stopped in front of her table. A tall man. A rugged face. Sloping forehead. Dark hair. Equally dark eyes. Heavily lidded, cold eyes.
“Major Falcon?” His pockmarked face was grim.
“Mr. Lee, I presume.” The file photo Hawk had procured was of a younger version of the man. She wondered if the rest of Hawk’s info on Mr. Lee was also out of date. She didn’t like flying blind. Not in this business. Not in this country.
She took a moment to gather her impression of the thin Korean. She couldn’t tell his age, but he wasn’t young. His navy wool overcoat hung open to reveal a wrinkled white polyester shirt tucked into black slacks. Cheap tailoring. His eyes had a worn-out look, like he’d seen too much.
When he didn’t offer a handshake, a bow or a nod, she gestured to the chair beside her and he sat.
Petrina, a slender waitress with short black hair, too much mascara, and a preference for shamelessly short skirts, arrived with two vodka glasses and a bottle of Stoli Elite.
Lee licked his lips as he appraised Pet with a lewd stare.
“Drink?” Max asked.
“Spasibo. Yes. Please.” Lee’s stare rolled up from Pet’s thighs to probe Max’s face like an auditor studying a suspect ledger. There was nothing remotely sexual about the suspicious expression on his face.
She had nothing to hide. He’d find that out soon enough.
They’d have a few drinks. He’d settle down. They would become acquainted. She’d get him whatever luxury goods he required. He’d pay her well, come back often, and brag to his friends how good she was at getting anything he needed.
Pet placed the bottle and glasses between them, again diverting Lee’s stare. She flashed a big-tip smile at Lee, and sashayed away slow enough for him time to appreciate her assets.
He filled the glasses and offered one to Max.
An obvious power play, she thought. He’s insecure. Not her. Game on.
Lee raised his vodka in a silent toast, then drained the glass without expression. Fire seared her throat as she tossed her drink down.
He lifted the bottle. “Another?”
“Of course.” She didn’t really want one, but to keep him happy she held up her empty glass. “How can I help you?”
Lee, his cold dark eyes still locked on hers, filled her glass to the rim. “I would like price and availability on a certain item.”
“I might be able to assist you.” She could hardly contain her delight at the prospect of another commission. “For a fee, of course.”
“Depends on what you seek. Up to five thousand to retain and ten percent on the sale.”
Out of habit, she looked around for eavesdroppers. From the corner of her eye she saw Sidar Fredreeq, the bar’s handsome owner, come out of his office and edge through the crowd toward her table. Her stomach tightened.
“Must leave.” Lee jerked up from his chair.
“What about my retainer?” she asked, worried she’d not see him or his money again.
“I contact you ... tomorrow.” He spun and hastened for the exit.
“You do that,” she shouted after him, her voice consumed in the din.
She watched Sid, a foot taller and much heavier than the Korean, as he intercepted Lee, grabbed the man’s arm, and shoved her client out the door. Carter Carlucci, the bar’s bouncer, joined Sid. The two big men filled the doorway.
Carter buttoned his overcoat and headed outside. Sid turned and made his way to her table. He wore black wool slacks that matched the color of his hair, and a yellow-on-red geometric-patterned shirt that matched what she knew of his personality.
Max flashed a smile as Sid approached. No doubt he knew. She hoped he would forgive her.
“You look lovely tonight, Max.”
Max heard sharpness in his velvety tenor. She straightened and brushed some lint from her red wool sweater.
He sat in the chair next to her, kissed her hand, and returned her smile. Her insides fluttered. A pleasant feeling.
She liked Sid, with a sense of fraternity between him and herself, but he filled her with mixed emotions -- suspicion of his motives and anticipation of mutuality. He had spent considerable time with her in the last week, though he disapproved of her work as a black market contact for local expatriates. Not a good sign, but manageable ... she hoped.
“Thank you,” she said with a little laugh. “Everything okay?”
“Business is not bad.” Sid sat erect, arms spread, eyes trained on her alone in a serious, sustained stare.
“What?” Max asked.
“Nothing.” He straightened the crease in his black slacks, then looked up. His deep set, dark eyes widened. Handsome. Mysterious. Up close, the man numbed her mind and quickened her heart with his shiny ebony hair and smooth olive skin. A gift from his Lebanese parents.
“Nothing?” She gave him a dirty look.
“Yes. Nothing!” He glared.
“You were spying on me,” she said.
His face flinched, then went expressionless. “I keep my eye on everyone.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s seated at the end of the bar?”
“Closest to the door.”
“Your friend, Hawk,” Sid said without turning to look. “He’s wearing faded jeans and a floral shirt. He’s speaking with a blonde in a white blouse. He doesn’t know it, but he won’t get anywhere with her because she’s with the Russian Intelligence Service, and she’s on duty.”
“So, you spy on everyone in your bar. If you want me out of here ... if you want me to use a different bar, just say so.” She gave him a polite, though tight, smile.
“Sunshine, listen to me.” He brushed the back of her hand, sending shivers through her. “I like you in my bar. You know that. I just don’t like your choice of friends, especially your new friend.”
“You know the Korean?” she asked, careful to avoid any evidence of offense. She studied his dimpled face for a reaction. Saw nothing of consequence.
Sid nodded. “What did he want with you?”
“Business,” she replied with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. She caught herself chewing her lower lip and stopped.
“I told you yesterday, you can’t conduct business in my bar.” A frown clouded his handsome face.
“A girl’s got to make a living.”
“Business? That’s the only reason you come to my bar?” He pressed two fingers to his mouth, paused as if in thought, then said, “I hoped you came to spend time with me.”
“There’s good money to be made finding luxury goods for foreigners.” If she were totally honest, she would have admitted she came to see him as well, but she didn’t want to encourage him, yet. In the past week, he’d made moves on her, but she hadn’t decided how far she wanted to go with him. She didn’t want to mix business with pleasure.
“Those are terrible people you deal with. Mafiya. Dangerous.”
“Not as dangerous as flying in combat. I can handle them. I’ll be fine.” Though she dealt with criminals daily, she didn’t consider them a risk. As far as she could tell, they needed her and her customers more than she needed them.
“It’s hard to maintain self-respect when you deal with slime.”
She shrugged. “As long as it doesn’t come off on me, I don’t care.”
“You could do a lot better,” Sid said in a voice too soft and too patient.
She grimaced as if in pain. They’d had this debate just yesterday ... and the day before ... and the day before that.
“Trust me,” Sid continued. “You could. Why not make money in America? There is more for you in America and it’s safer.”
“Not for me.” Her voice wobbled.
He hesitated, as if the answer had again surprised him.
Max had liked her time in the Air Force. Piloting jet fighters had been fast, adventuresome, and purposeful. But she couldn’t go home to Savannah. She’d tried that. Couldn’t function in the stifling, reserved environment there, couldn’t thrive there, couldn’t live up to expectations.
Murmansk wasn’t the future she dreamed of, either, but it was better than the life she’d fled. Murmansk was awash with foreigners eager to participate in Russia’s rush to capitalism. Impatient, clueless foreigners who paid her big bucks to cut corners.
“Is this the life you seek?” He swept an arm in an arc.
“No.” She looked around. “But it’ll pay for what I really want.”
Her life hadn’t played out the way she had hoped. Yet, despite detours, disappointments, and dead-ends, she’d somehow survived, conquered, and pressed on. After all, nothing, not even problems, lasted forever. Some said she was bullheaded, she preferred ‘ambitious.’
“You do business with Mafiya for a Caribbean beach house and sailboat?” Sid asked.
She nodded. Her real reasons to seek her fortune in Murmansk were more complex, but she’d never tell him. Not that he’d understand if she did. No one understood. Even her “old” so-called friends said she’d fall on her ass outside the Air Force. Truth was she’d given up on the military. Dealing in death now disgusted her. She no longer wanted to have anything to do with weapons, however noble the cause.
“A beach house and a boat wouldn’t cost much,” Sid said.
“And never work again.”
“To retire so young, Sunshine, would be expensive.”
Pet, heels clattering on the linoleum, returned to the table and whispered in Sid’s ear. He looked up at her with his heart-melting smile. She fluttered her heavily made-up eyelids, then looked at Max.
“Can I get anything for you?” Pet asked.
Max’s stomach rumbled. Her English tutoring session with neighborhood children had run over and she’d skipped dinner. Though closing in on midnight, she ordered a rare steak. Sid selected the beetroot soup and Siberian meat dumplings.
Pet gathered up the shot glasses and the half-full bottle of vodka, then scampered off.
Max scooted her chair back. “Be right back. I’ve got to powder my nose.”
She stood, straightened her jeans, and hobbled to the restroom. The irksome hip pain was an anomaly. Given time it would pass. And, to be truthful, the pain had diminished significantly since the surgery.
She passed Hawk Wallace, an over-the-hill surfer. Even his wrinkles sagged. Not much kick left in the man tonight. As usual, he’d spent himself on the dance floor. He looked up.
She touched her tinted wire-rimmed glasses.
He fell in beside her.
“Anything new on the stranger?” she asked.
“Not much more than we already know.” He glanced away, but continued speaking. “Mr. Lee arrived with a recently issued commercial visa. Been in town a couple of days. Second time in Murmansk. Word is he’s dangerous.”
“Sid says he knows the man.”
“I’ll check it out.”
Hawk veered away as Max entered the ladies’ room. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the harsh light.
An attractive, petite Asian woman in a black miniskirt, tight white t-shirt, and hoop earrings dried her hands at the sink in the otherwise empty room.
Weary, Max turned to the mirror. She didn’t look worn out, as she feared she might. She looked normal. Just a thirty-two year old woman with tired green eyes, a generous mouth, a short thin nose, high winter-red cheeks, and hair in need of a cut. She ran her fingers through her short chestnut hair, then removed a lipstick from the inside pocket of her leather flight jacket.
“Major Max!” the woman said. Her hands were spread apart, one hand holding a red purse, the other a hairclip.
“Do I know you?”
“I guarded your room during your hospitalization at Walter Reed.”
Max shook her head. Her hospitalization after the crash was but a blur ... hardly a memory at all. Unsettled by the woman’s knowledge of her, unsettled by the woman’s presence in Murmansk, unsettled with the woman’s familiarity, Max hesitated, then said, “Sorry. I can’t place you.”
“Night shift. You were asleep most of the time.” The woman pulled her waist-length black hair into a ponytail and fastened it with the rhinestone clip.
“What brings you to Murmansk?” Max pocketed the lipstick and blotted her mouth.
“I need to talk to you about a deal.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I only do business with people I know.” Max turned to leave. This situation felt like a set-up, a trap of some sort, and she wanted no part of it.
“Cut the bullshit, Max.” The woman grabbed Max’s arm and clamped down. “I work for the Company.”
What a stupid thing to say in public. Though neither she nor Hawk had been able to find the devices, she assumed the bathroom, as well as the rest of the bar, was wired.
“No kidding? What company would that be?” Max yanked the woman’s hand from her arm and headed toward the door. “I’m out of here. You want to talk with me, make an appointment.”
“Fuck off.” Max stepped into the noise and smoke of the dim bar and stormed to her table. Times like this made her want to bag all the crap in her life, target it, and fire a missile into it. Turn it to dust. Vaporize it.
“You look upset, Sunshine.” Sid set his vodka down.
“You’d think a lady could have some privacy in the women’s room. Some outrageous Asian chick thought she knew me. Couldn’t get away from her. People can be so rude.”
Over his shoulder, she watched the Asian leave the bathroom, grab a black leather coat from an unoccupied chair, and walk out the exit ... unaccompanied. Good riddance.
Max picked up her steak knife and stabbed the tenderloin on the plate in front of her. The confrontation in the bathroom had diminished her appetite.
“Want me to throw the woman out?” Sid made a slight gesture toward the exit.
“She just left.”
“If she returns and bothers you again, let me know, and I’ll have a talk with her.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll handle anything that comes up.” Though touched by his concern, Max preferred to handle matters herself. A matter of pride ... of reliability ... of control ... of results.
“I’m very much aware you’re capable. More than capable. I’ve done my homework.” His tongue darted over his lower lip.
A shiver went through her bones. She hoped he didn’t know all that much about her.
Sid, concerned by her shiver, reached over and touched her arm. Her curves made him love tight red sweaters and body-molded jeans.
“You need a break. How about a quiet lunch tomorrow?” He watched her closely for clues as she tilted her head to one side and stared at him through those long, dark eyelashes he admired so much. His heart beat quickened as it always did around her. He wondered if she knew.
“I don’t think so,” she said in a fatigued voice.
“Still tutoring the kids?” he asked, disappointed.
“Yep. Each day at noon.” She glanced to the right briefly, then returned her attention to him. Was she expecting another client?
“How about dinner? I know a nice French --”
“I’ll pass. But thank you for the invitation.” Her full lips parted in a polite smile.
“Is there a reason you keep turning me down?”
“It’s not you.” Her lips firmed. “It’s me. I’m not really into dating.”
Not the real reason, he assumed. “Are you seeing someone else? Hawk?”
“Look. I don’t think we’re on the same page here.” Her jaw quivered, then stilled. “I said no. I mean no. End of conversation. Got it?”
The words cut like acid. He had to hand it to her ... she had balls. “Okay. But I have to warn you, I’m persistent.”
“Nothing wrong with persistence.” She smiled a little and gave his arm a gentle squeeze.
“Point taken.” So there was a chance for him after all. Contentment eased into him. He settled back into his chair. The bar was full, his customers were smiling, and the band was returning from their break. Not a bad night.
Pet arrived. “Anything else?”
“Just my check.” Max wondered if she’d handled Sid appropriately. She didn’t really know.
“Sid took care of it.”
She looked at him. Smiled. “Thank you.”
He gave her a wink. What the hell did he mean by that?
Max stood, winced at the pain in her hip, and handed Pet a ten Euro tip.
On the way to the exit, Hawk fell in beside her. At the door she zipped up her flight jacket, pulled on leather gloves, and stepped out into the Polar winter.
Snow swirled in the yellow glow of a street lamp. The frigid wind stole her breath. Thick flakes pelted her eyes. She bent her head to keep the bitter wind from her face and shuffled through the fresh snow on the sidewalk.
Once they reached the parking lot, she asked Hawk, “Did you hear the bathroom conversation?”
“Your wire is crystal clear.”
“You got anything on her?” Still some distance from the Mercedes, Max punched the remote to open her car doors and fire up the engine.
“Willow Wong. American citizen. Twenty-eight. Sarah Lawrence graduate. Spent a year in South Korea on a Fulbright Scholarship before she became a Congressional Aid. Presently a Congressional Investigator for the House Arms Control Subcommittee. Top security clearance. But the book on her is that she’s not very street smart. No record of her arrival. I’m still working on why she’s here.” He turned his back to the wind when they reached her car.
“What would she be doing guarding my hospital room?”
“Not in my database.”
“She said she worked for the Company.”
“She might have been testing you.” Hawk opened the driver’s door to Max’s old Mercedes.
“I thought so. Why?” She kicked the snow from her boots and slipped into the warm car.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Hawk said. He swung the door closed.
* * *
Sid had watched Max leave the bar with regret.
In his mind, she had it all ... intelligence and looks and attitude. She knew how to play the game. Professional. Cool. Aloof. Always a hint of a come on.
She always caught him staring at her ... her beautiful face ... her pale green eyes ... her thin petite nose ... her full lips. The thought made him anxious.
Her no nonsense, short straight brown hair contrasted well with her sensuous beauty. Gave her a professional edge he liked ... and her clients probably craved ... respected ... admired, as well. He liked her hair, liked the way she’d run her fingers through it when she thought no one was looking.
She had a great figure ... nicely endowed topside and trim hips ... curvy ... athletic ... seemed to be in excellent shape. He wondered what she did for a work out. Imagined her in running shorts and sports bra. An arousing thought. Just one of many such thoughts he’d had of her in the past few days. Inappropriate thoughts. He never thought of himself as lustful until now. Possessive, too.
Every time she walked out of the Babylon Bar, he worried she’d never come back. Within his place, he had the muscle and guns to protect her. Beyond the bar, he could only have someone keep an eye on her. In secret, of course. She’d have his head if she discovered he had her followed twenty-four hours a day.
He drummed his fingertips on the marble table top. Though she facilitated contraband transactions for newly arrived foreigners, she avoided drug and arms transactions, a fact which made her acceptable to his other line of business and to his family.
Not that she lacked skills. On the contrary, it took a hell of a lot of brains and talent to simultaneously please her well-heeled customers, shady sources, and the greedy local authorities. The slightest mistake could result in her imprisonment or death.
And now, of all people, she was meeting Kim Lee, a heartless arms dealer. Why was she messing with weapons? A risky business. And why Lee?
He was a sadistic son-of-a-bitch who could kill her just for the pleasure of doing it. He was also a tightwad bastard who had yet to pay Sid the ten thousand dollar entrance fee required of arms dealers in his bar. Not that Sid feared the man. The reputation of Sid’s assassins protected him from hotheads like Kim, but their reputation wouldn’t protect Max.
Carter sat down at the table. His long gray hair was wet with melted snow.
“You take care of Kim?” Sid asked.
“He understands he’s not to conduct business here until he pays for his last visit. Says not paying is a matter of principle. I don’t think we’ll see him in here for a while.” Carter’s driven voice was still full of the adrenaline of what had occurred outside. He fiddled with a toothpick, then stuck it in his mouth.
“It’s just as well.”
“He’s quite a challenge.” Carter rolled the toothpick to the other side of his mouth.
“Don’t worry. He’s out of his element in Murmansk. He knows if he wants to buy arms here, he’ll have to go through one of the local facilitators.”
“And when he does, we’ll get our money.”
* * *
Max pulled into the apartment garage, parked in her assigned spot, and trudged up two stories of concrete stairs to her apartment. A private, peaceful place to reconstitute, sleep, and dream.
Without turning on the lights, she stepped into the warm air of her apartment. Hesitated. Inhaled the sweet floral aromas of her beloved orchids. The tension of the drive home drained with each scented breath.
A silky, sultry sense settled over her as she tossed off her jacket, and removed her gloves and boots. The thick carpet cushioned her feet. Cushioned her soul. She was home. Safe.
A table lamp flicked on. Startled, Max brought her hand to her left breast, searching for the pistol normally in her coat pocket. Her flight jacket lay on the floor.
Willow Wong, the impudent Asian from the bar, sat in the red velour easy chair by the lamp. She wore a black Spandex jumpsuit and knee-high, black leather boots. A white rabbit coat draped the easy chair. She seemed to be alone.
“Good evening, Max,” Willow said, unmoving.
Though offended by the woman’s audacity, Max slipped into command mode, and approached the red velour chair.
“You’ve got a lot of brass breaking in here,” Max said, firmly. “I told you, if you want to discuss anything with me, make an appointment. I’ve had a long, difficult day. I’m tired, so get out!”
The petite woman glanced up, smiled, and placed her hands on the chair’s padded arms. The lacquer on her long fingernails matched the red velour.
“I’d like to talk with you first,” Willow said in a detached voice. “Have a seat.”
“You’re kidding.” Max pointed toward the door. “Get out or I’ll call the militsya. I’m sure the police would like to hear your explanation of how you got into a locked apartment.” She didn’t want to have anything to do with the CIA. Didn’t want to be dragged back into a life she had abandoned. Didn’t want the danger.
“Stoi ... stop ... wasting ... my ... time. Move your ass. Now!”
“I don’t like your tone.”
Max grabbed the intruder by the front of her jumpsuit and yanked her up. No one told her what to do. “You want tone? I’ll give you tone. Get the fuck out of my apartment!”
Willow pushed away, glared at Max. “I’m not going anywhere until you hear me out.”
“That’s about as likely as snow in the Sahara.” Max shoved Willow toward the door.
Willow tripped on a braided throw rug, lost her balance, fell back, bounced up. “Stop pushing me,” she said, brushing her hair out of her face.
“I’m going to do a lot more than push you, if you don’t leave right now.” Max went chest to chest with the petite Asian. Looked down at her. Scowled. “Understand?”
Willow shoved Max away. “Back off.”
“Don’t ... touch ... me ... again.” Max, her focus riveted on the Asian’s face, stepped forward.
Willow gave way, then slammed her fist into Max’s stomach, taking the wind out of her.
On instinct alone, Max swung a right hook.
Willow blocked the punch, but Max’s follow-up left jab landed squarely on the woman’s jaw.
The intruder reeled back over the velour chair.
Max went for her jacket, and gun, in the hall, but before she got there the Asian grabbed her, spun her around, and smacked her a grazing blow with a potted plant. She teetered back. Bounced off the wall. Max wiped a hand across her mouth, looked at her blood smeared palm. Son-of-a-bitch!
The Asian came at her again with another potted orchid. Damn it! Not her orchids. No one was going to get away with that kind of crap. Not in her house.
“Leave my goddamned plants alone,” Max shrieked as she pounced on Willow and tore at the roots of her hair.
The woman howled.
Max spun her around by her hair and threw her into the wall. Willow hit with a thud and slid to the floor.
Max stood over her, sweating, breathing hard, and trying to decide what to do with the rude intruder at her feet.
Willow rolled over with a slim pistol in her hand and a sick little smile on her lips. The business end of the gun was pointed at Max. Before she had been a petty nuisance. Now she was a royal pain in the ass. Max could tell this wasn’t going down as one of her better days ... not at all.
Willow stood and brought the muzzle to Max’s forehead.
“I’d say it’s snowing in the Sahara, Max. Have a seat.”
Max shook her head.
Willow let out a deep sigh. “I heard you were sensible.”
“Who told you that?” She folded her arms and squashed the urge to rip the gun from the woman’s hand.
“A mutual friend.”
“By any chance did this person inform you I turn vindictive when my privacy is invaded?” Her lips tightened.
“He didn’t mention that aspect of your personality, though such a reaction is understandable.” Willow shifted her weight. And holstered her pistol. “I apologize for imposing on your privacy, but I have an offer I’m sure you’ll find more than attractive. Give me a minute, then I promise I’ll leave.”
“How attractive?” She studied Willow’s face, searching for a clue.
“Millions?” Max stepped back. “What’s the catch?”
“Bullshit. But that kind of money talks. Go ahead. I’ll give you two minutes.” Max settled slowly on the edge of the sofa. “This had better be good.”
Willow, with her ebony ponytail swishing back and forth, walked to the wall unit where she switched on the stereo and turned up the volume. Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet filled the room. She returned, sat too close to Max on the sofa, and nodded toward the stereo. “Just in case your walls have ears.”
The idea had occurred to Max but, try as she may, she hadn’t been able to locate any listening devices. Not that that meant much. Counter-surveillance wasn’t one of her skills.
“I’d like your assistance in a local CIA matter,” Willow said.
“I’m not an agent. I don’t want to become one.” She had worked for the government before. The Air Force. Once was enough. “Conversation over. Get out.” She pointed at the door.
“Is there a reason?”
“A reason? I’ve got lots of reasons. For openers, people who work for the CIA in Murmansk tend to disappear. Forever. For some reason the Fumbling Security Boys, the FSB, are very effective here.”
“Do you like Murmansk?”
“It’s easy money,” Max replied. “Nothing else.”
“If you don’t cooperate, we’ll revoke your passport. You won’t be allowed to reenter the United States.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell that to ten million illegal immigrants. If you couldn’t keep them out, you won’t keep me out.”
“Want to take the chance?” Willow turned her palms up.
A myriad of problems and hassles of dealing with falsified papers flashed through Max’s mind. “If I cooperate?”
“Life would become much easier for you.” Willow nodded as she spoke. “You’d go into witness protection and we’d provide you with a Caribbean beach house and sailboat, along with an outrageous government pension. No need for you to spend years in Murmansk to achieve your dream ... not even another week.”
“You think I’m here because of a dream?” How did Willow know about the Caribbean beach house? Who told her? What else did she know? Did she know everything? Still, the opportunity to escape this black shit hole and all the crummy, pale people in it was irresistible.
“Faulty intelligence, I guess,” Willow said. “So you’re not interested in the beach house?”
“I didn’t say that.” Max glanced away, nibbled on her lip, stopped, and turned back. “Can I pick the island?”
“Must be important work.”
“A very important job.” Willow touched Max’s forearm. “Will you cooperate?”
“Tell me what you want from me.” She scooted away from Willow.
“Arrange the sale of a suitcase bomb to Kim Lee.”
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Yeah. A light-weight nuclear bomb packaged in a suitcase.”
Max’s stomach clenched at the thought. She jerked up from the sofa. Hovered over Willow, arms spread. “Are you crazy? That would give Kim a license to kill thousands.”
“He already has that.”
“Besides, it’s an impossible task.”
“I’m sure you can find a way.” Willow’s eyes widened. “You’ll do it?”
“It’s not my field. You’ve got the wrong person.” She went to the window. Looked down at the street at nothing in particular. Saw a dark shape in the doorway across the street.
“But you could make the arrangement, if necessary?”
“I wouldn’t know until I checked. And, if I could, I wouldn’t be comfortable putting that kind of destructive power into Kim Lee’s hands,” Max said, still watching the street. The dark shape had vanished.
“Don’t worry. We’ll make sure the bomb is never used. So, what do you say?”
“And I’m supposed to just take your word for it? You said you were CIA. Do you have any proof? Credentials?”
“I didn’t say who I worked for.”
“You said you worked for The Company. The Company is the CIA.”
“You made the connection, not me.”
“Okay. What about your credentials?”
“And I’m supposed to believe you?” Hawk had said Willow had a long history of US government work.
“Your choice. You know the consequences if you don’t cooperate.”
It was a calculated risk. The deal was her ticket out of Murmansk. Her ticket to sunshine, warmth, a better life. A rare, extraordinary opportunity she’d never see again. Besides, if she refused the offer, without a valid passport, she’d not be able to live in America legally. She returned to the sofa and looked down at Willow.
“Okay,” Max said. “I’ll give it a try.”
“Kim’s no fool. He’ll pay you a sizable commission. He must receive a fully functioning bomb. No fake. No decoy. Are you sure of your sources?”
“You aren’t listening. This isn’t my field. I’ll have to find a source, if one exists.”
“If you deceive him, he’ll hunt you down and kill you.”
“You must do what he says and give him what he expects,” Willow said. “We’ll handle it from there. No one, not even your closest associates can know of this transaction.”
“How much time do I have?”
“Kim wants the bomb in the next day or two.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Max shook her head. “I’ll need cash and lots of it. American dollars. Kim has that kind of money with him? We’re talking millions.”
“More than enough,” Willow said.
“Kim brought the cash with him?”
“He’s not stupid. He shipped the cash in before he arrived. I verified the money is here. Now, can you get this set up in the next day or two?”
“I’ll do what I can.” She had no delusions about the difficulty ... nor the danger.
“You do that and let me know.” Willow stood, grabbed her rabbit fur coat from the easy chair, and headed for the door.
“How can I contact you?” Max asked.
Willow pulled a red wool scarf from the coat pocket and handed it to Max. “Wear this scarf when you have something for me, and I’ll contact you.”
“You’ll be following me?”
“You have several followers.” Willow peered out the door’s peephole.
“I never noticed.”
“I know.” Willow swung the door open and stepped out. “Sloppy, but then you’re no spy.”
“Nor do I want to become one.”
Click to read "Return to Savannah"
Click to read "Savannah Fire"
Click to read "Savannah Passion"
Click to read "Savannah Oak"
Two Years Ago, Over Iraq
Classified mission completed, Major Maxine Falcon released a pent-up breath as satisfaction energized her. Success felt so damned good.
She took a moment to scan the brown wasteland a mile and a half below her ... rolled the F-16C jet fighter left for a final glance at the smoldering rubble of the terrorist safe house her flight had just obliterated.
A sharp, metallic chirp. A missile-launch alert. The pitch rose. Elation drained from her like rocket exhaust.