Authors: Nichole Christoff
“Well,” Barrett said as we sat in his car, perched at the top of a long country lane, “on the plus side, it looks like somebody's in there.”
He was certainly right about that.
The lane fell away from us only to rise again before coming to a screeching halt in front of a ramshackle cabin. The cabin itself balanced on a ridge of farmland. It was surrounded by rustling, desiccated cornstalks and the dark of the night.
The place was tinyâand it was lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve. The squeal of a rock-and-roll guitar and pounding keyboards poured from it. Like a tsunami, shock waves streamed down the dirt track to thump against our car.
“Maybe we've got the wrong place,” I said.
But everything I'd read suggested we were spot on.
Thanks to the browser on my trusty cell phone and a few databases I often used in the course of my work, I'd found a twenty-year-old deed transfer from a Frank deMarco to an Annie deMarco. The only structure on the plot had been described as an “outbuilding” that was once part of an old plantation. In real estate terms, “outbuilding” often meant no heating, lighting, or plumbing. This place, though, had at least two of the three and seemed to be sitting on the edge of an older, larger farm. If this were the place, it would make for a modest beginning for an up-and-coming diplomat and her sister, the drilling engineer, but sometimes modest beginnings were the best ones.
Barrett said, “I wonder when Katie added the light show and sound effects.”
“I suppose there's only one way to find out.”
We weren't shy about rolling down the lane with our headlights blazing. When we parked in the dirt beside the leaning porch, we slammed our car doors good and loud. We clomped up the wooden steps, past a motorcycle that was barely street legal and the helmet planted on its tail. Still, no one came to the calico-covered window to see who was outside. No one opened the flimsy, hollow-core door.
With Barrett at my side, I knocked on the jamb. We got no answer. So Barrett hammered the door with his fist.
The music went dead. The door opened. Katie stood on the threshold barefoot, in blue jeans and a ratty flannel shirt. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, but the ever-present black pearls were still at her throat. And her mouth gaped as if she'd seen a ghost rise from its grave.
I chalked her reaction up to the sight of me. After all, I knew I looked like hell. That team of orthopedists at Fort Belvoir declared the numbness in my arm would probably passâif I kept my new cast supported in a sling, kept the sling's strap wrapped tightly around my torso, and regularly ate the industrial-strength muscle relaxers they'd given me.
Of course, the pills would make me drowsy. And a drowsy Jamie could end up as a dead Jamie. So I'd pocketed the bottle, walked out of the hospital, and sunk into the passenger seat of Barrett's requisitioned car with all the grace of a battleship sinking to the bottom of the sea.
As a result, I'd felt every bend and bump in the road between Washington and Katie's family's place outside of Culpeper. But it was imperative Barrett and I tracked her down ourselves. Because until we could identify how the driver of that silver sedan had been so sure Ikaat and I would be walking alone from my father's office on Capitol Hill, we couldn't just call up Roger or anyone else and say there-Katie-is-go-and-get-her. At least, not if we wanted to see her live through the night. And we certainly wanted that.
“Jamie,” Katie sputtered, finding her tongue at last. “I didn't expectâ¦That's to say, it's good to seeâ¦I meanâ¦”
She gave up trying to express herself and grabbed me in a squashing hug. When she squeezed me, it hurt so much I thought I might throw up on her feet.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
Barrett told her about the silver sedan. And the State Department's assessment of the situation. Then he gave her the bottom line.
“For helping Ikaat, you could be on an assassin's hit list, too.”
“Oh, God.” Katie pressed her hands to her middle, retreated into the tiny house.
Barrett and I followed her.
An interior designer would've called the dÃ©cor Shabby Chic. But I got the idea it had been shabby well before people ever paid for the privilege of being so. The front room featured a sofa covered with a pastel quilt. A nook of a kitchen had gingham curtains at the window. Through a doorway, I spied an iron bedstead piled high with embroidered cushions.
What the place lacked in amenities, though, it made up for in charm. It was sweet and neat, and somehow comforting. But I couldn't let Katie stay there alone.
After all, if Barrett and I could find her in this remote location, others could, too.
“You're not safe here in the countryside,” I told her. “Come stay with me tonight.”
“Oh, no. I don't want to be any trouble. I can go to a hotel. There'll be lots of people at a hotel.”
“That's true,” Barrett agreed cheerfully, “but how will you know which ones aren't gunning for you?”
His question convinced her.
While Barrett gathered up her jean jacket, carried out the rolling suitcase she'd stationed by the couch, and collected the Bose iPhone dock that gleamed on the worn kitchen table, Katie took my uninjured hand.
With a bit of a sniffle, she pointed out, “You could've sent the county sheriff to find me. Instead, you're out past midnight when you should be home in bed, just to make sure I'm all right. I don't deserve your kindness.”
Well, she'd done a good thing by helping the Oujdads and she didn't deserve to have extreme politics punish her for it, either. Besides, I liked this girl. For all her polish and pearls, she was trying to find her way in the world. And wasn't that what Ikaat and I were trying to do as well?
But I didn't explain any of this to her. Barrett returned just then and suggested we move this party to the car. He and Katie banished me to the backseat.
In retrospect, I can admit it was a good idea. I dozed as Barrett drove, and boy, I needed the rest. I woke to find we'd reached Old Town Alexandria. And I immediately had plenty to think about. Like whether anyone was lying in wait outside my home.
Great minds think alike, and Barrett cruised my block three times to look for trouble without my having to ask him even once. None of us saw anyone odd, or anything out of place. For my part, though, I didn't breathe easier until we were behind my own two-hundred-year-old walls and surrounded by my state-of-the-art security system.
Had I been alone, I would've holed up in my first-floor office and reviewed the surveillance video piped in from each of the cameras mounted around my property. Instead, I settled for a cursory glance while Katie got acquainted with the guest room and Barrett double-checked every door and window throughout the house's three floors. It didn't take too long, though, and I reached the second-floor living room the same time Katie did.
“I can't believe you live here,” she said, spinning in a slow circle in the middle of the Aubusson rug, just to take everything in.
“I do,” I said. “This is where I hang my hat.”
“Well, your house is like something out of a magazine.”
She goggled at the candlesticks on my mantel. My great, great, great grandmother had carried them to America on her lap. On the
. Katie didn't touch them, but she could've. It wouldn't have bothered me.
“Growing up here must've been amazing,” she said.
I slumped onto the cocktail ottoman shoved against the sofa. “I grew up on a variety of army posts. The last one was in New Jersey.”
“Oh.” She'd moved on to the kitchen now. She couldn't resist caressing the silky grain in my granite countertops. “I guess I pictured you living the good life here with your senator father.”
“Nope. My father was an army officer. They don't make a lot of money. Not even the generals.”
“I can relate to that. My parents were teachers. Then, you know, my mom died. My sister worked after school and on Saturdays to earn money for extras, like tuition. She fought hard to get her engineering degree.” Katie's lip quivered. “She really did all right.”
“Have you heard from her?” I remembered how eager she'd been in London for the phone call that never came.
Katie sat on the edge of a stool. “I expected to hear from her when I got home, tonight. Now, I'm not sure I'll everâ”
She burst into tears.
I squared my shoulders as best I could against my pain, shoved a box of tissues in front of her.
“Hey,” I said, “it's late. We've all had a scare. You're tired. And I'm sure your sister will call you when she can.”
“I'm doing things she wouldn't be proud of. You'll hate me when I tell youâ”
“You can tell me in the morning,” I said firmly. “Now, there should be all kinds of food in the refrigerator, and plenty of towels in the hall bath. Help yourself to anything you like. Let me know if there's anything else you need.”
“Really, you're too good to me consideringâ”
“Stay away from the windows,” the security specialist in me added. “And don't open the door for anyone.”
Katie nodded. She dabbed at her wet eyes. I said my final good night and trundled down the hall to my bedroom.
And that was the last thing I remembered until I woke to find someone in my room.
Sometime after I'd wished Katie a good night, a persistent tapping reached into my dark dreams and pulled me from a deep sleep. I was in my own bed. That much registered.
And so did the fact that someone was coming through my bedroom door.
An automatic sense of self-preservation took over. I swept my nine-millimeter handgun from the comforter beside me and sat bolt upright. I aimed my gun at the intruder.
“Jamie,” Barrett said, “put the weapon down.”
His voice was rock steady.
Even though I had him in the crosshairs.
Meanwhile, my gun hand quaked like the city of San Francisco in 1906. The weapon wobbled back and forth in my grip. This was a clear indicator of muscle fatigueâand that I had no business holding a firearm.
“Sorry.” I dropped the gun to my side, flopped against my pillows. And even that was a mistake. Last night's pain had settled into soreness, and after sleeping, every joint in my body was stiff and slow.
“I knocked.” Barrett hadn't moved from the doorway. His hand still curled around the knob. “You were sleeping hard.”
I had been. And I'd been dreaming of my father. Dreaming that he'd built a house of brilliant blue sapphire because he wanted to give it to me.
Left to my own devices, I'd soon be dreaming again.
But I snapped wide awake when Barrett gave me the news he'd come to deliver.
“Roger Lind's here. He says he needs to talk to you.”
Sure enough, I found Roger in my living room sipping coffee with Katie.
Without the tears, jeans, or flannel, Katie looked more like herself this morning in tailored gray trousers and a silver blouse. Her hair had been smoothed into its usual chignon. And her black pearls lay lustrously around her neck. But her eyes were shadowed, too. With a lack of sleep, perhaps, or, considering her life was probably in danger, maybe the shadows were fear.
Roger stood when I entered the room, cast an appraising eye over me from head to toe. Judging by the way the corners of his mouth turned south, I'd have said he didn't like what he saw. I'd somehow crawled into pj's last nightâmint-green satin with pink flannel trimâand slept with the sapphire necklace at my throat, too tired to take it off. But as refined as my mismatched ensemble may've been, it didn't jazz up the black-and-blue sling that supported my broken wrist and wrapped around my body to keep my arm still.
He said, “We're moving the Oujdads today. Senator Sinclair wants you to go with them.”
I sank into one of the armchairs flanking my fireplace. Katie hustled to bring me a cup of coffee. The stuff tasted like ambrosia.
“I'm not in any shape to protect the Oujdads,” I said, though it pained me to admit it. “Tell my father I respectfully decline.”
But Roger aimed an uneasy glance at Barrett. And he frowned as he spoke to me. “The Senator doesn't want you to protect the Oujdads. He wants you to be protected.”
“Show her the photos,” Barrett said.
“Metro Police found the sedan that ran you down abandoned near the National Gallery. These are the only images of the driver, pulled from a security camera at the entrance to the Archives Metro station. He disembarked at Metro Center. From there, we think he took to the street, but we don't know for certain.” Roger handed me a stack of photos he'd extracted from a leather portfolio.
In each and every picture, a person of indeterminate sex made step-by-step progress toward the station's row of turnstiles. With the swipe of a simple fare card, he or she headed for the outbound trains. The plain jeans and denim jacket the suspect wore weren't distinctive. But the headgear was. Because the suspect wore a visored motorcycle helmetâjust like Helmet Head had when he'd accosted Katie, Philip, and me in London four days ago.
“We don't know if he's the same suspect who worked with Dalmatovis and wrecked your hotel room in Britain,” Barrett pointed out, “butâ”
“âit's close enough for government work,” I concluded, and the coffee I'd drunk threatened to burn a hole in my stomach.
“The Department of Homeland Security is working to help State get a grip on this,” Roger said. “In the meantime, your father is working from a safe location. Katie and the Oujdads will be moved to another secure location in the desert Southwest this morning. You're to go with them. Barrett will also be tagging along for the ride.”
I was considerably less than okay with that. Oh, getting Katie and the Oujdads out of DC was a good move, certainly. But I'd told Barrett I didn't want him to be at my father's beck and call. Because to my father, Barrett was a means to an end, just as I had been. And I was beginning to acknowledge Barrett was much more than that to me.
The look I sent Barrett must've telegraphed my frustration, even if it didn't transmit much affection. But his face went stony. It was his professional face. A cop's face. And even if I studied it all day, I'd never know what he was thinking behind it.
If Roger picked up on all this static, he didn't let on.
Katie, on the other hand, took my sour expression as proof she needed to convince me to leave Alexandria.
“If we go West,” she said, topping up my coffee cup, “maybe trouble will have a tough time catching up with us.”
I doubted it. But I also doubted Roger would give me a real choice in the matter. So I excused myself and went to pack a bag.
A full-fledged motorcade, complete with chase cars, shepherded Roger and Barrett, and Katie and myself, from my house in Alexandria, Virginia, to Andrews Air Force Base on the Maryland side of the Beltway. There, on a restricted airstrip that served the likes of Air Force One and the planes of visiting foreign dignitaries, we boarded a Lear jet with military markings. Ikaat and her father were already onboard when we arrived.
Ikaat bounded from her seat when she saw us.
“Jamie! And Katie and Mr. Barrett, too! Have you come to say
“Actually,” Roger told her, “they'll be making the trip to your new home with you.”
“It is too exciting,” she said. Her dark eyes shone with anticipation. “Papa often told me stories of America's Wild West. And now we shall live there.”
Well, life in America, whether in the East or the West, obviously agreed with her. Roses had bloomed in her cheeks. Her eyes gleamed like black buttons. And her hair, without its hijab, shone in bouncy ringlets.
Armand Oujdad didn't look too shabby, either, especially considering the last time I'd seen him he was aboard a Life Flight helicopter. Now, he ambled from a seat near the rear of the plane to give Katie a big smile of welcome and shake Barrett's hand heartily. Me, he greeted as the French do, with a heartfelt kiss on each cheek.
He said, “We shall all be safe in the West.”
“That's the idea,” I admitted.
But I could make him no assurances. I knew my government couldn't, either. And I felt rotten about that.
I still felt rotten about it when we strapped into our seats for takeoff. Roger stood outside on the tarmac, waving as we taxied. And butterflies turned cartwheels in my stomach long after we were in the air.
I couldn't say Helmet Head had followed us from Britain, but that the driver of the car that had tried to run us down should also wear a motorcycle helmet seemed too much like a coincidence. My father had taught me a soldier doesn't rely on coincidence in a combat situation. And in my work as a security specialist, I wasn't keen on coincidence, either.
That meant one way or another, Helmet Head would likely put in an appearanceâwherever we were headed. When he did, though, I'd be ready for him. Barrett's wake-up call had proved to me I was too weak to handle a nine-millimeter handgun. But that hadn't kept me from slipping my little .22 into the pocket of the leather jacket I wore. Of course, at that caliber, the weapon didn't have a lot of stopping power. But it would put a pretty painful dent in anyone who tried to mow me or one of my party down againâand that might be the edge I needed when and if that happened.
Some more rest would sharpen my edge as well, but I just couldn't sleep given what had happened the last time I'd boarded a plane. Especially since, if we went down during this flight, there'd be no Atlantic Ocean to catch us. So I fidgeted next to Barrett and watched from the window as the green fields below us quickly gave way to the tree-covered crags of the Appalachians. Beyond them, wide river valleys were crisscrossed with farmers' fields. Once we reached the far side of the sweeping Mississippi, the land grew brown and broadâand when the countryside took on every shade of sand, we began our descent.
We dropped from the sky with the roll and the dive that fighter pilots are known for using even after they leave military service to become commercial airline pilots. Once down, we taxied along the runway forever. I grew impatient and I noticed I wasn't the only one.
We all had our faces pressed to the plane's oval windows.
Judging by the sights outside, we hadn't landed at a commercial airport. Given the brown-painted hangars of corrugated steel and the dull blue pickup trucks with yellow numbers stenciled on their doors, that much was clear. This was another air baseâand instead of being shunted on one of those accordioned jetways directly into some kind of terminal, we stepped out of the plane like extras in a 1960s James Bond flick and onto a stair-truck that had rolled up to get us down.
“Where are we?” Katie wanted to know as she and I descended behind Barrett.
“I'm not sure.”
The breeze that blasted my cheeks and whipped my hair around my head suggested West Texas or even Nevada. It was hot and dry, with a hint of sand and sage. Past the chain link that lined this portion of the airfield, the landscape was every shade of taupe and tan. Deep, dark browns hid in the hollows. In the distance, a range of purple mountains crumpled against the blazing sky.
But the giveaway wasn't in our surroundings.
It was in the people who came to meet Ikaat.
A string of black Ford Explorers drove up, expelled a bevy of men in white lab coats. As they squinted in the late morning sun, a colonel and a second lieutenant in the khaki uniforms of the U.S. Army got out of a staff car and stood with them. Soldiers swarmed them all, armed with automatic weapons and eyes trained on every horizon.
I began to feel like I should've packed a Geiger counter. Because this little contingent meant we'd just arrived at some top-secret nuclear research facility. On a top-secret military base.
Unless I missed my guess, we weren't far from the secluded spot where our nation's Stealth aircraft first got its groove on. The Manhattan Project did more than build sand castles out here, too. They worked up the world's first atomic bomb. Hell, there might even have been tidbits from the alleged UFO crash near infamous Roswell, New Mexico, stashed in one of the nearby warehouses. And now Ikaat would have to live and work in this hushed-up, locked-down environment.
The idea that I'd helped her out of one intensely structured society and into another made me uneasy.
But while I looked on, Ikaat's new colleagues welcomed her like an equal. That's when it dawned on me. Maybe that kind of respect was all she and Armand had ever wanted. Maybeâwith respect and a research facility and fifteen hundred premium cable channelsâthey really would be happy out here, in the middle of America's nowhere. In my heart, I certainly hoped so.