Doctor Max Falcon kept a cautious eye on the rotund man approaching the stage of the crowded Sinder High School auditorium. The town meeting hadn’t gone well.
"Three of your scientists have brain cancer, yet you're saying trust me," said Roscoe Fyre, owner and sole reporter of the Sinder Sentinel. "The people who drink the water you're polluting want more than hollow assurances."
Max, director of Wellington Corporation's top-secret textile laboratory, stepped down from the rostrum. She gave the chubby, gray-haired man a plastic smile and inched toward the side door.
“Look, the EPA people in Savannah say the water's okay. Wellington's medical staff is examining the history of the affected people. It's bad science to jump to conclusions."
Screwing up his saggy face, Roscoe stepped too close and brought his small recorder within inches of her mouth. "For the record, can you rule out the lab as a cause?"
"I certainly can!" She glared at him, daring him to slander her ... on tape.
"Then," he said with a smirk, "why is the Department of Defense sending a monitoring team to your lab?"
About to make a point, she raised her hands, only to let them sink in despair to her side. It wouldn’t do to antagonize old Roscoe. "No comment." How did he find out about the top-secret investigation, anyway? Feeling betrayed, she turned away, then squeezed out the crowded exit door and into the sweet Georgia air. Like a pesky mosquito, Roscoe was right on her heels.
"Doctor Falcon. How do you explain that?" he asked.
She didn’t answer or look at him even though he remained close all the way to her car.
"Doctor Falcon?” he asked again, his voice breathless. “What are you trying to cover up?"
Max jumped in her car, locked the door, then stared at his frustrated face through the closed window. She wished she could be alone and wished she could close the door on the escalating cancer issue as easily as she had on this loudmouth. Ignoring him as he shouted questions at her, she started the Jag and took off, leaving him standing in the parking lot.
She wasn’t a destroyer. She cared deeply about the community and the nation. The secret work at the lab promised to save many lives when the technologies were deployed. But the people of Sinder would never know the humanitarian side of her. Serving in silence was a trade-off she had accepted years ago.
* * *
The following morning Max’s hands trembled as she jerked her Jag XKR onto the unmarked road that ran to the textile laboratory. She was still fuming over the morning's vicious editorial in the Sinder Sentinel advocating a demonstration against her lab.
As she drove through the towering pines of the federal wilderness area, she thought of the previous evening's town meeting. The townies hadn't wanted the facts about the source of the brain cancer. They'd already made up their minds. So had Roscoe Fyre.
And so had the Department of Defense, the lab's chief source of funding. DoD’s decision to begin monitoring her facility for cancer-causing agents was ludicrous. There weren't any.
But she wasn't about to let local politics and misdirected federal bureaucrats halt work on her most important and most sensitive project. She needed reinforcements.
Self-sufficient to a fault, she hated asking for favors, but she was out of options to finish the titanium project by the deadline. Slowing the car, she punched a speed-dial number into her hands-free cellular phone.
If successful, this last minute call to Nolan Wyse, president of Wellington Corporation, would delay the intrusion long enough to wrap up the work. He was a reasonable man. The few times she'd asked for favors, he'd never refused. That was one of the things she liked about working for Nolan. She gave him her best because he gave her his.
After exchanging greetings, she asked for his help.
His "I'll do what I can" was less enthusiastic than she’d expected.
She went on anyway. "I need you to phone someone at the Department of Defense and have him delay the environmental monitoring." She continued maneuvering her car through the dense forest, following the winding road. "We need to quickly wrap up a key study. Having those environmental people working in my lab will set us back a week or even two. And, as you know, if we miss one more deadline, there’ll be some heavy penalties to pay." She held her breath waiting for his reply.
She cringed. An unfamiliar fear of failure gripped her.
She thought the conversation was over, but Nolan added, "You're going to have to find a way to cooperate with them and complete the project on time. That new employee I sent down, Doctor Karek, he should be of some help."
"Three of your scientists diagnosed with brain tumors in the past six months are more than a coincidence,” he said. “We have a big problem and I expect you to lead the way in solving it."
Frustration rose in her throat. "DoD's looking in the wrong place." She wondered why people couldn't see that. "They know we don't use carcinogens. They know the cancer comes from somewhere else. The monitoring of my lab isn't scientifically based. It's politically motivated to placate the local voters."
"The only reason the lab is still open is so DoD can do its testing under live conditions. You'll have to work around the monitoring team. Sorry, Max."
Her spirit sank into churning stomach acid. "Okay. I get the message." She punched the disconnect button. "Thanks for nothing," she mumbled after the phone went dead.
She slowed the car further as she passed the large sign announcing ‘Deadly Force Authorized by Executive Order 60-192’, then waited for the steel-reinforced gate to slide open. After entering, she powered down her side window and nodded to Willow Wong, her security chief.
Willow, a slender Asian American in her early thirties, stood ramrod straight beside the concrete block guardhouse. A neatly pressed blue uniform, an impressive sidearm on her hip, and a leashed Doberman by her side gave her all the authority she and her security officers needed to keep the lab complex safe.
On the surface it was a pristine place, giving no hint as to its true size or purpose. With all offices and labs underground, the ground-hugging monoliths that remained above appeared to be as stark and hostile as an uninhabited prison.
Not a tree in sight within the razor-wire fences. No telephone poles. No parking lots. No shrubs against the three sprawling one-story block structures that stood in a row across the front of the complex. Wide sidewalks connected the flat-topped buildings. No antennas. No satellite dishes. Not a soul in sight. No cars on the surface road in front of her save an unfamiliar white Camaro.
This was her place. Calm settled over Max as she drove her Jag down the wide concrete ramp behind the Camaro and into the dim light of the underground garage. Everything she worked so hard for the past eight years was here at the Sinder Lab ... a challenging career, work that mattered, community with like-minded people, and stability.
Now, all of that was in jeopardy. She hadn't a clue how to deal with it, but she had to find a way, or the lab would be closed, and the two hundred researchers working for her would be looking for new jobs. She couldn't let that happen. Not after all they'd done for her. The loyalty. The teamwork. The shared goals. And most of all, the long string of life-saving innovations and inventions that had made her lab one of DoD’s favorite contractors and, consequently, her one of Nolan’s most prized directors.
The Camaro she’d been following backed into a visitors' spot. Pulling into her reserved parking place, she leaned back in her seat and watched a handsome stranger exit the car. He had to be Doctor Frank Karek, the new researcher Nolan had forced on her.
Dressed in wrinkled khakis and a white short-sleeved shirt, he appeared tall. Well over six feet. Broad shouldered. Lean body and muscular arms. Hay-colored hair, brushed back from his square face, covered his ears and curled at the neck. He looked like he hadn't had a haircut in a couple of months.
She was pleased he'd had the good sense to arrive early. While she checked her make-up in the mirror, she wondered what he would think of the lab. Most people never got inside a top-secret research facility, fewer still got to work in one. She hoped he already recognized that theirs was a deadly serious business.
As an experienced counter-intelligence agent, Frank had made note of escape routes as he had backed the Camaro into the visitors' area at the left of the entrance. Two oversized glass doors to the lab stood sentry on a well-lit back wall of the subterranean garage. He stepped out and engaged the car's security system as he swung the door closed.
The black XKR that had followed him down the ramp had pulled into reserved parking immediately to the right of the entrance, not more than fifteen feet from him. A tall, willowy woman with delicate curves in all the right places stepped out and walked toward him. Black-stockinged legs tapered to slim ankles. Black shoes. Red leather briefcase. Black, mid-calf suit. Black hair, parted in the middle and pulled tight into a bun, rested at the nape of her neck. Red-framed glasses sat low on her short, button nose accentuating the stunning dark eyes he recalled from her file photo. Nice looking, he thought. Sleek, like a stealth fighter.
He had a hard time accepting the idea that this dark nymph was the focus of his mission, the logical source of the secrets that were leaking out of the lab. She was the only one with access to every piece of data transmitted, a potential traitor selling out cutting-edge military technology.
Wordlessly, he closed the distance between them, taking note of her spicy peach scent and her guarded eyes. "Karek. Frank Karek." He offered his hand.
Max stepped to him, took his hand and squeezed it firmly. Her handshake was swift and professional.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Doctor Falcon. I’ve been expecting you." Her rich southern accent did nothing to mask a seemingly irritated tone. "Did you have any trouble finding the lab?"
“Not at all.”
"Accommodations okay?" She turned from him and walked across the cement slab toward the entrance doors.
Following, he gave a false laugh. "Adequate," he said. "I'll find something more permanent in a couple of weeks."
At the thick glass doors she turned to face him. "Good. We've got an important project review in two weeks. I can use your help ... if you check out and can handle the workload."
Frank didn't like the sound of “if.” "You don't have to worry about me. I'm a quick learner."
"I bet," she said.
What did she mean by that? The last thing he needed was to arouse the suspicions of his chief suspect.
Before he could say anything, though, she slipped her finger into a security port until the control light flashed green. She ushered him into a spacious, but barren, glass-walled holding room. The entrance door swung closed and locked with a solid thunk.
Frank scanned the lobby, visible beyond the holding room. Everything matched the schematic in his briefing report. It was a utilitarian place designed to produce profits, not build egos.
"Unidentified visitor," a computer-generated voice announced.
"Put your right index finger into that security port." She pointed to a wall-mounted device next to the inner door.
Once his finger was in place Max said, "Security override authorized" and the inner door released.
He entered the stark lobby behind Max and headed across the bright room toward the well-lit cinder block hall on the left. The young brunette receptionist at a gray steel desk perked up. Frank noticed how she kept her expressionless eyes focused on Max. Neither acknowledged the other, nor was there any apparent hostility between them ... more a cautious respect.
Skilled at cutting through everyday nonsense and contradictions, one of his gifts was the ability to quickly recognize seemingly unrelated facts and combine them into insight. “Take what you find” was his motto. He was the best at it in Wellington Corporation, a fact he'd parlayed five years ago into a counter-espionage position working directly for the president of the corporation. It was consuming work that gave him purpose and meaning ... and kept his personal demons at bay, work that made excellent use of his Ranger training and his appetite for danger.
Tantalized by Doctor Falcon’s image, he followed her down the hall. Too bad she might be on the other side.
She stopped in the entrance way to her office, turned and studied him. He took note that her face was now unreadable.
"Come in," she said. "We'll talk."
She escorted him through the modest outer office, nodding to the young, dark-haired beanpole of a man at the desk. His badge said 'John Shurmer.' John, apparently Max's secretary, had the same cautious look as had the receptionist. Frank took that as a warning.
“Hold my calls for fifteen minutes.”
On entering the larger inner office, Max motioned Frank to a worn guest chair and walked to the front of her desk, a gray steel model with enough nicks and dings to suggest it had been through countless moves.
She removed an object from the front of her desk and tossed it to him. “Your identification badge.”
He clipped the plastic card on the breast pocket of his shirt.
Music, a restrained Bach cello solo, fell so faintly from ceiling speakers it was nearly unnoticeable. To the right of the desk towered a gray five-drawer file cabinet. Wellington Corporation office manuals sat atop it.
The Cézanne and Renoir prints on the side walls were popular ones from Wellington's approved art catalog, but the large water color of the Navajo rug weaver was a non-standard original. A framed fragment of what appeared to be a scorched baby blanket was the only personal item in sight.
It was a functional, unpretentious room that spoke loudly of the incumbent's priorities. Luxury was, obviously, not one of them.
"Coffee, Doctor Karek?"
"Please, call me Frank, and yes, I'd like a cup. Black."
After dropping her briefcase beside the desk, Max poured a mug of fresh coffee from the insulated carafe that John had placed on the corner of her desk. She handed the steaming mug to Frank, wondering what secrets he hid behind that rugged Nordic face. Everyone had secrets and, if his involved her, he wasn't getting out of her office until he gave them up. She eyed his biceps, straining the thin material of his white cotton shirtsleeves, and wondered if they were as hard and toned as they seemed. Nice, but, in her experience, a bit out of place for a researcher.
Already suspicious of the information in his personnel file and heeding her intuition, she tentatively decided he was a government security operative rather than the scientist he pretended to be.
She hated being spied on, hated being second-guessed and deceived by the very people who funded her work. Protecting the lab’s work from government moles like him was a damn waste of her time, but necessary to keep the lab productive.
Frank’s azure eyes, a striking color that nearly matched the paint on the concrete block walls of her office, lazily assessed her face as he drew the mug to his mouth. She noticed his hands were large and strong, more suitable for physical labor than the intricacies of research.
In the harsh illumination of the overhead florescent lights, she also noticed an overall relaxing of his features as he sagged into the gray steel and vinyl chair. A grin crinkled his rugged face. Yeah, he might be a scientist. The undercover types took much longer to unwind. She wouldn't be sure, however, until she spent more time with him.
She removed her jacket and hung it on the door hook. Security was a two-sided coin. The government watched her lab like a hawk, she was thankful for that, but their undercover agents were poor researchers and their sloppy science was an obstacle to her meeting her deadlines. Her FBI training in counter-espionage had served her well. She played along with their covert activities, but tried to make sure only the real scientists got the projects with the big payouts. Funding. It was all about funding. Based on the lab's successful record, she assumed she'd done a good job in her weeding-out process.
Sitting, coffee mug in his hand, Frank mused that her dark, severe look made her appear untouchable, perhaps even dangerous. Clearly a calculated attempt to enhance the considerable power she garnered from her position as lab director.
But her masquerade failed to convince him. Only substance mattered and he hadn't seen enough of that from her to gauge how dangerous she was. Yet.
He respected power. Power made him feel alive and added dimension to his undercover life. Powerful adversaries challenged him, drew out his best. And powerful women intrigued him on a personal level.
"I have a few simple rules," she said, leaning a curvaceous hip into the edge of her desk. “Work hard. Work long. Get the job done on time or before. And, no whining. Okay?”
In the awkward silence that followed he considered the way her lips tensed. By the edge in her voice and manner he could tell something ate at her.
She pushed off the desk, stepped to its side and took longer than she needed to retrieve a file folder from a tall pile in the corner. He decided, once and for all, that her butt was a perfect ten. Curvy. Very curvy.
Opening the folder, she straightened up, and, looking steadily at him, said, "Your file says you're Norwegian and spent the last decade doing military textile research in Russia."
He nodded, trying to figure out where she was headed.
"So what are you doing here?"
"Mr. Wyse made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"Just my mother."
"Still in Russia?"
He guessed her rapid-fire questions were designed to trip him up. Skepticism suited her. He respected that.
She squared her shoulders. "Why don't you have an accent?"
It would take a lot more than that to rattle him. This time he took another sip of coffee before answering, hoping to disrupt the rhythm of her interrogation. "Educated in this country."
"Doesn't my file say where?"
"Uh-huh." She shot him a no nonsense look. "But I'm asking the questions and I’d like you to answer them."
"Boston. BU. Undergraduate and graduate."
The harsh expression remained on her face. "Doctoral thesis topic?"
She nailed him with her gaze. "Arnold Gillespie?"
"Yes. Are you familiar with him?"
"Very familiar. I worked with him on a standards committee a few years back."
She had him. Who would have known she'd be familiar with a professor at BU? Damn. He wasn't prepared on that and a wrong answer might blow his cover.
She held up the file folder. He felt her derisive stare as she tossed the folder onto the desktop. "I'm not buying this.”
The charged atmosphere put him on guard. He had no fear of candid and frank dialogue; he preferred it. But this polarization was counter-productive.
He raised his hands. "I'm sure you'll do as you please." He stood and headed for the door. "Maybe I should come back later after you’ve checked me out."
"Hold it right there." Her voice knifed the air.
Coolly, he turned and met her gaze.
Still leaning against the desk, she locked eyes with him. "Just tell me the truth."
Even from across the room, he noticed just a hint of hesitation, just a twitch of indecision in her face. Now it was his turn to play her. Carefully.
He stepped forward and when he was about five feet from her, stopped and laid a fingertip on his lower lip. "Okay. What do you want to know?"
The slight curl at the corners of her mouth signaled that she enjoyed her brief moment of what she thought was victory.
"Let's start with this file. It's got more holes in it than Swiss cheese." She tapped the folder laying beside her on the desktop.
He opened his palms to her. "Most of it is factual. However, the FBI altered many details of my Russian activities to avoid exposing their counter-espionage methods over there."
For the longest time she regarded him. Her face still, expressionless. Then she brought her chin up. "You're good," she said. "Damn good. But I'm not buying this crap."
"Is this a test of some sort?" he asked, eager to bring the interview to an end.
Her jaw set. "Are you going to be difficult?"
He backed away, shaking his head. "I'm just interested in knowing why you're trying to put me on the ropes."
In her physical response to his challenge, he sensed a subtle change within her, from stillness to just a hint of tension.
She drew a breath, then put her hands on her hips. "Which government department do you work for?" she asked abruptly. "FBI? CIA?"
"What are you talking about?" He quirked his eyebrow. "Call Nolan Wyse. He'll set you straight. I'm a textile chemist, hired by Mr. Wyse and sent here to do research."
"Sure you are." She pushed off from the desk and moved to him. Face to face. Hovering. Keyed up. Her body surged with energy. Warning filled her eyes. "Look, one out of every four people in my lab works for the CIA, the FBI or the Department of Defense. You guys think you can just waltz in here and fool me. No way. I can't fire you, but I can clip your wings. Now just sit down there." She pointed to the chair behind him. "After my secretary gets off the phone I'll have him escort you to your office."
He gave her what had been called by many, one of his mind-wilting smiles, dimples and all. "Sure."
As Max returned to her desk and took a seat in her chair, Frank ran a hand through his hair. Great. How did she know? He hadn't been on station for fifteen minutes and she had made him. Impossible. Someone probably tipped her off. But his boss, Nolan Wyse, Wellington's president, was the only one who knew of his mission. Or was he? Someone had made up his phony papers. Someone had driven his specially equipped Camaro to the safe house. Someone had made the motel reservation.
His anger drained as cool-headed logic took over. He dropped his hand to his neck and massaged the stiffness. It'd take a few nights to get used to the lumpy bed at the Lazy Bird Motel.
She hadn't actually made him, just accused him. Perhaps she was firing blanks. There was only one way to find out.
She sat across the desk from him sorting through a disorderly pile of mail and file folders. While he waited for her to finish, he allowed his mind the luxury of taking in her beauty, her jet-black hair, heart-shaped face, and exotic eyes. The tempting package electrified his senses, as did her spicy scent.
He scanned her gray desk and credenza for photos, finding none. Her father was the only family mentioned in the briefing report Nolan had given him. There was no mention of a boyfriend or husband in her background investigations. How could that be? he wondered. Given the opportunity, he'd love to find out why.
But he didn't have that luxury. He was in Georgia on a counter-espionage investigation for Wellington Corporation and had only two weeks to get to the bottom of who was leaking secrets from the lab.
"About this spy problem ..." He shifted forward in his chair.
She lifted her dark eyes toward him.
"Yes?" Her voice slid deep into his gut like fine whiskey, fiery and smooth.
"Why do you think I’m a government operative?"
She closed the folder she'd been working on and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes locked on his. "I have my reasons."
"I'm not a spy." He opened his arms in a “that's all there is” gesture. "We're both on the same side."
She tossed him an impatient look. "I'll be the judge of that."
“I was led to believe Wellington Corporation wanted me in this lab. Now I'm not so positive."
"I'm not certain about you," she said. “And I tend to trust my intuition about such things.”
"Don't worry," he said. "I can be of help to you. I've done research on polymeric titanium." He watched the color rise to her olive cheeks.
She shook her head. "Impossible. We invented it."
"Listen to me. I have no doubt you believe you invented it, but I've spent the last three years improving the production yields to just over fifty percent."
"For textiles?" She squinted at him.
He nodded. "For military uniform textiles."
"I had no idea the ... the ..." She referred to a folder in front of her, then pushed it away. "The Popoff-Eleven military textile program was so advanced."
"They aren't anymore. I was the program, and when I came over, I scrambled the computer files and gave my lab books to the FBI."
"Why didn't they tell me?" She raised a hand to her head and stroked the back of her neck, under the tight black bun.
"They probably wanted to wait until I was safely at your lab. I understand my previous bosses put a contract out on my life."
She appeared dubious. It was, after all, a far-fetched story. He gave her time to mull it over. Soon a faint smile bloomed on her lips. "Well, Doctor Karek, it's a pleasure to have you and your lab books on our side." She sounded relieved.
He was suspicious of the too quick capitulation and sensed all was not as seemed.
There was a light tap at the door, and her secretary stuck his head in.
"Sorry for interrupting," he answered. "The Department of Defense monitoring team has arrived. They want to unload their equipment and set up in the conference room."
Max looked at Frank. "I need to take care of this. John will show you to your office. We'll discuss your assignment and training over lunch."
She turned to the young man. "John, take Doctor Karek to office Ninety-nine, then come back here. I need to slow down those environmental guys."
Yep, shooting blanks, just as he’d thought. The titanium cover story had brought her up short. His mission was back on track. Two weeks and counting.
Click to read "Savannah Fire"
Click to read "Savannah Passion"
Click to read "Savannah Oak"
Click to read "Beyond Savannah"