Authors: Rebecca York
“Are you planning to stay on for a while?”
“I want to be here for Aubrey now that he needs me.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Miss Duval, you may find this upsetting, but I think it would be better if you didn’t visit your brother—at least for a while.”
“In his present state, seeing you seems to disturb him.”
Jessica knitted her fingers together. “I see.”
“Again, don’t put the blame on yourself. Apparently, he just can’t cope with you right now.” The doctor looked down at his notes for a moment. “I wish I could be more encouraging about your brother. If I only knew what psychotoxin he’d been taking, that might help us proceed with treatment.” He paused and shrugged. “But we haven’t a clue.”
“Maybe I can find out for you.”
“Probing into the New Orleans drug culture could be dangerous. I wouldn’t advise it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
* * *
onto the grass under a century-old live oak tree and tossed his used chemistry book and red knapsack down beside him. They were part of his new cover. Before heading for the university, he’d reluctantly exchanged his snakeskin boots for a pair of scuffed Adidas, well-worn jeans, and a blue Jackson Square T-shirt that showed off the corded muscles of his upper arms. He wasn’t about to submit to a Mohawk, but he’d used mousse to give his hair a chic, messy look. Though he was a bit old for an undergraduate, there was nothing much he could do about that except play it cool.
Leaning back against a gnarled root, he looked out over the well-groomed Chartres University grounds. From his vantage point, he could see groups of students enjoying the fine September weather.
Over the past few days, he’d spent hours getting to know the school—much of the time hanging around in the student union, the bars on the fringe of the campus, or out here.
It hadn’t been difficult to get acquainted with the kids who had a buzz on. The proof was in the knapsack that rested within easy reach of his strong hand. Almost any kind of high or low you wanted was readily available. If he’d had the time, he probably could have arrested at least five percent of the student body for dealing. While that wasn’t particularly unusual these days, it was still depressing.
Though dope might be easy to come by, information was a more guarded commodity. His DEA badge had gotten him in to see the assistant chancellor. But the man had vehemently denied any university drug problem. When Michael had wondered out loud whether campus labs might be the actual source of illegal substances, the official had brought the interview to an abrupt end.
Next Michael had cruised the corridors of Sumner Hall, the chemistry building, representing himself as a student from out of state considering a transfer. He started with questions about which courses to take and professors to avoid and eased slowly into the real topic of interest.
His best line to the inside story had been a grad student who had joined him for a few beers in the Alligator Den, a dimly lit bar two blocks from campus.
The fellow had started with some nervous jokes about telling tales out of school. He’d lost some of his inhibitions after polishing off most of a pitcher of Jax. He remembered Daniella La Reine, although that wasn’t the last name she’d been using at the time. She’d been in one of his lab sections, and he recalled she’d been a fair student—with a sexy body. But she’d dropped out before he’d had a chance to get her into bed.
On the second pitcher, he started talking about one of his fellow teaching assistants. The guy, whose name was Aubrey Ballin, had been a real straight arrow until a few weeks ago. The grapevine had it that he’d OD’ed on something or other. Whether that was true or not, he was gone from the scene.
Michael had taken judicious sips of his own beer and fished for more details. But a casual question about whether Ballin’s problems were connected to something new on the street made the guy suddenly clam up. Right after that he’d remembered that he was supposed to be in his office grading lab reports.
Leaning back now against the tree root, Michael considered his next move. He could smell something rotten in the chemistry department, and it wasn’t sulphur dioxide.
A carillon chimed. Minutes later, a rush of students changing classes filled the campus. As Michael’s appraising gaze scanned the crowd, his attention was caught by a woman he’d seen a number of times over the past few days. She didn’t look quite young enough to be a coed and wasn’t carrying any books. Now, in addition to the soft leather bag slung over one shoulder, she was clutching a large manila envelope.
The fast-moving river of humanity carried her down to the sidewalk. When the tide ebbed, she turned for a long look at Sumner Hall and sighed heavily before walking slowly in his direction.
He remembered seeing her come out of the department chairman’s office the day before with a stormy expression on her face. He had wondered if she were an instructor who’d just been reprimanded. But the tag hadn’t fit then, and it still didn’t. At the time she’d been wearing a yellow-and-navy Indian print dress that might have passed for campus exotic. Now she sported a calf-length silk skirt and tunic that were much too sophisticated for the surroundings. They looked damn good on her, though.
However, he could tell from the way she carried herself that she didn’t care what the students thought of her appearance. He’d always admired women who did their own thing, as long as it wasn’t illegal.
He continued to study her. Her body was small-boned and her face almost elfin, with a short upturned nose and dainty mouth. Probably her most striking features were her large eyes and short, untamable hair, a riot of curls that captured the rays of the afternoon sun and reflected them in an auburn halo above her rounded face.
As she drew near, Jessica looked up and caught him staring. Pausing for a moment, she hesitated and then started across the grass toward the oak tree. She remembered seeing this guy several times in the chemistry department, joking with some of the graduate students. He’d had an easy, open manner and seemed to know his way around. Maybe he’d known Aubrey. She had been about to give up and go home anyway. One more shot wouldn’t hurt.
God knows, the university administration hadn’t been much help. The head of the chemistry department had commiserated briefly over her brother’s hospitalization, but it was clear that he had his own concerns. He’d ended the short interview by handing her a manila envelope containing the contents of Aubrey’s desk. It seemed the cubicle had already been assigned to another graduate teaching assistant who’d been without an office at the beginning of the semester.
Jessica had turned to the students next. She’d found people who’d been willing to talk about Aubrey up to a certain point. When she’d brought up the subject of drugs, they’d expressed their sympathy at his mishap and hastily departed for remembered classes and appointments.
Something about this guy made her think he was different from the rest. She watched him shift his position so that he was leaning back comfortably. Then he crossed his long, jeans-clad legs at the ankle.
She guessed his age at something over thirty. Despite the casual pose, the man radiated an aura of leashed power. It was there in the well-developed muscles of his arms, the street-wise look in his light eyes, and the hard planes of his face. If anything he reminded her of the hardened, world-weary Viet Nam vets who had attended the University of Maryland with her. Even if he wasn’t a veteran of that particular conflict, she sensed that he’d seen action somewhere.
Suddenly she remembered Dr. Frederickson’s speculations about Aubrey getting into the wrong crowd. This guy was certainly tough. Yet she was picking up conflicting vibrations from him, as if he were both more and also less than what he seemed to be on the surface. She didn’t like the inner confusion that generated, and a small voice in her head warned her he might be someone to fear.
It was more than just an instinctive reaction. As a teenager, she’d begun to realize she was developing a surprisingly accurate sixth sense about people. Along with that had come knowledge of events she couldn’t possibly have experienced through her own senses. For a little while she’d felt heady from the power—until it had almost wrecked her life. That was why she’d fled New Orleans in the first place. In Maryland, far from the scenes of her childhood, she’d worked hard to damp down the unwanted ability so she could lead a normal life. But since she’d returned, she’d felt the stirrings of that old gift. Even as she’d struggled to come to terms with it, the capability had begun to blossom again. Perhaps it was catalyzed by her frustration at not being able to get any hard information about Aubrey.
Stopping a few feet from the scuffed Adidas, Jessica watched as their owner looked up questioningly. She noticed that his eyes were the color of polished pewter and couldn’t help being intrigued by their unusual color and the keen intelligence they projected. She should have felt at an advantage standing over him. Instead, it was just the opposite. Catching her skirt gracefully in back of her knees, she sat down a few feet from him and pulled the fabric protectively around her legs as she tucked them under her body.
“Do you have a minute?” she asked softly, her nervousness making her accent just a bit more pronounced. She was aware that until she’d intruded, he’d seemed to have nothing but time on his hands.
“I can make one.” The voice was carefully neutral, yet she caught the undercurrent of his interest. Of a man for a woman? she wondered. Or was there something else as well?
“I’ve seen you around the chemistry department. Do you know many of the people here?”
“Are you a student?” Her eyes flicked to the chemistry book on the grass beside his knee.
“No, are you?”
The question caught her by surprise. “No, no, I’m not either.”
“I noticed you around the department too. Are you thinking of taking some courses?” His look told her that he doubted she was.
The query was innocent enough, but with her sixth sense working double time, she felt the tension inside him. Something about all this was very important to him. The realization made her more wary. Still, she sensed he might be able to help her, if she could probe cautiously enough to find out whether he was friend or foe. “I’m trying to get some information about a graduate student. Aubrey Ballin.”
The gray eyes took on a speculative gleam. “Ballin.”
“You know him?”
“He’s the one who’s in the hospital.”
“Nobody wants to talk about it much.”
“No, they don’t,” Jessica agreed.
“So what are you looking for?”
Drugs, Jessica thought, suddenly aware that this man was waiting to pounce like a tiger stalking a gazelle. Starting up a conversation with him had been a mistake. Yet her gaze was suddenly drawn to his eyes. Unaccountably, she felt herself drowning in their gray depths. For a moment she was completely disoriented, and then an image formed in her mind. First there was simply a flash of white. Then it resolved itself into wings flapping and a white bird soaring against an expanse of cold gray sky. Was it a gull? No.
She felt her heart rate speed up as if she were running headlong toward something that kept moving just out of her reach. A bead of perspiration formed at her temple, and she reached up to swipe it away. “Dove,” she whispered.
The man on the grass sat up, suddenly alert. “What did you say?”
“I’m looking for a dove.” Jessica stared at him, confused and almost overwhelmed by a sense of dread. “No, that’s crazy,” she denied. Scrambling to her feet, she backed away.
“Wait. Tell me who you are.”
But she was already halfway to the sidewalk, and she didn’t look back.
* * *
THOUSAND MILES AWAY
in the Virginia country inn called the Aviary, Amherst Gordon, head of the Peregrine Connection, paused beside a large gardenia plant. Inhaling deeply, he concentrated for a moment on the delicate perfume. To his right, a red-and-green parrot squawked and then made a noise that sounded like a man clearing his throat.
“Ah, Cicero, are you a bit anxious too?” the spymaster asked. From the corner of his eye he saw his long-time assistant Constance McGuire enter the solarium and sit down at the wrought-iron table.
He turned, his gray head cocked slightly to the side as he watched her discover the small gold box in the center of her luncheon plate.
“What’s this?” she inquired, looking up at him over the rims of tortoise-shell half glasses. “I expected to find your illegible notes telling me what needs to be done today.”
The Falcon shrugged almost imperceptibly. He and Connie went back a long way—more than forty years. They’d met when they were both in the old Office of Strategic Services where he’d been a covert operative and she’d been a desk officer. When that organization had been replaced by the modern intelligence agencies, they’d both signed on with the CIA. She’d retired at fifty-five vowing that she was done with keeping the world safe for democracy. But when he’d formed the Peregrine Connection, it hadn’t taken all that much arm-twisting to convince her to come back.
She was the best there was, and he was damn lucky to have her. Although he would never admit it to her, he knew there were too many times lately when he had pushed her awfully hard. It was because he worried about his agents, and she was the only one here at the Aviary who had the same two dozen top-secret clearances as he did. That meant she took the brunt of his frustration when things went badly in the field.
He’d gotten to musing lately on Carl Jung’s observations about marriage. The psychologist had argued that some pain helped cement that relationship. The comment applied as well to Connie and himself as it did to any couple who were actually married. The two of them had lived through a lot together and were the stronger for it. Today he wanted her to know she was appreciated.
Fingers that were wrinkled but still graceful lifted the lid of the box. Inside, nestled against black velvet, was an exquisite diamond-and-emerald parrot. When she looked up and saw the not-quite-concealed anxiety on Gordon’s lined face, she forgave him all his harsh words.