Authors: L. J Charles
THREE DAYS LATER I DELIVERED
my final report on M6342CN to the director. The only time I’d been upstairs was for my personnel reviews, and the quiet bustle of activity shocked my senses. It was so different from my basement habitat, where the only sounds were saws and soft rock. The director’s secretary nodded me toward the door of The Inner Sanctum, and I rapped twice.
“Enter.” Yes, that was the same clipped voice that had echoed through the morgue a few short days ago.
I turned the knob, slipped inside, and handed him the folder. “The results you requested, sir.”
He motioned to a chair. “Close the door.”
A chill spread from the small of my back out through my arms and legs. Oh, damn. Was I in trouble? I dropped into the nearest chair. Hard. Wooden. Not a place I wanted to sit for any length of time.
“Officer Maliu.” His gaze locked on me, pinning me to the chair.
“What I’m about to say is not to leave this room. Is that clear?” His pale brown eyes turned almost black with implied warning.
I eased my shoulders back. I hadn’t done anything to warrant his behavior. “Yes, sir.”
He nodded. “Is there any possibility the substance you found on M6342CN’s fingers could have been used to track him?”
The starch drained from my shoulders. Spy dust. So it was real. “Track? Like a bug?”
I sucked in a much-needed breath, and then ran several scenarios through my confused brain cells. “I didn’t check for that possibility, sir.” It wasn’t a lie. I hadn’t specifically compared the powder from his fingers to the suspected mixture of nitrophenyl pentadein and luminol. I’d done some basic research on spy dust to satisfy my curiosity, and managed to learn a bit about the chemistry involved, but I hadn’t found a single instance where the tracking dust had been contaminated with poison. “The poison killed him, and my studies indicate that it isn’t a component of spy dust.”
“I need specific information on this case, not generalities. Report back to me by end of day tomorrow, or sooner.” His tone left no doubt I’d been dismissed.
I made tracks out of his office, barely tossing a “yes, sir” over my shoulder on the way. His request made it real. Until this moment I’d written off the conversation I overheard as an imaginative covert officer who’d gone off the deep end. And now there was no denying the operative in my lab had been tracked by the KGB. It was…scary. But how did the unique Amazon poison get mixed in with spy dust? And why?
When I got back to the lab, I phoned Jayme first thing. Our sleepover had been excellent. Heat poured through me with the memory, and the need to see him, touch him, hiked my heartbeat. We’d planned on a quiet dinner to talk through the logistics of moving in together, but now those plans would have to be scrubbed. It happened. More often because of Jayme’s work than mine, but why did it have to be
? Jayme worked upstairs, and, as a highly respected attorney, he often had to postpone our dates or cancel them. He’d understand, but… He answered on the first ring. “Grady.”
“Hi, handsome. I was just upstairs with the director, and it looks like I’m going to be here for most of the night.” My sigh was loud enough to wake the skeleton resting on my work table.
“Oh, I… Is everything okay? You don’t usually have to pull all-nighters.” He sounded as disappointed as I was.
“Yes, it’s fine. I’m just confused by the assignment, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure what to do.”
I could feel his grin through the phone line. “You’ll figure it out and deliver in record time. The woman I love is a genius, hands down. Then again, how about I come downstairs and help? In case there’s a glitch.”
A warm tingle spread through me. He loved me. And I loved him. It was so perfect and so good between us that sometimes I was terrified something would happen to ruin it. I held on to the tingle, and squashed my fear. “Sounds wonderful, but this project seems to be all mine.”
OVER THE NEXT TWELVE HOURS
I ran every test I could think of to check for a tracking mechanism. It was close, but even after running several iterations of a nitrophenyl pentadien and luminol spy dust mixture against the powder on M6342CN’s fingers, I couldn’t find an exact chemical match. And the glow emanating from his fingers under ultraviolet light was too subtle for anyone to spot him from a distance. It wasn’t a definitive answer, but close enough to warrant further investigation by one of our chemical analysts.
The best news was that I found traces of a different plant compound, a discovery I’d been hoping for since my first attempt to purify the euthanasia mixture. If I finally succeeded in creating a purified version of the formula, I would have the key to finding an antidote—the antidote being my primary goal.
When I finished my research in the Amazon, I’d shipped as much of the formula home as I could, and still ran experiments when I had a slow day in the morgue. There were unknowns about the substance that I firmly believed could reverse the lethal process, and…
No need to speculate, Kaimi. Just do the damn tests.
I snagged a tube of my formula from the bottom drawer in my lab table, and then selected a few of the sample vials I’d prepared from M6342CN. I worked until the darkest hours of night turned to dawn, checking and re-checking the formula I’d discovered. I’d hoped, prayed, that with the right manipulation of components, I might be able to create an antidote. Not that the indigenous Amazon tribes wanted to reverse the results of their euthanasia ceremonies, but when I was hired on, the CIA had questioned me extensively about possibly using the substance for biological warfare.
I had yet to come up with a reliable toxin for military use, but then I wasn’t trying all that hard. It went against my principles, so my heart just wasn’t in it. And wouldn’t be until after I found an antidote. There was no way I would turn a lethal substance over to either the CIA or the military until I could also give them a sure-fire way to negate the effects. What if someone made a mistake and unleashed a biological weapon on innocent people, and then had no way to stop the mass slaughter? My conscience couldn’t handle that.
But these tests gave me hope. In sixty percent of the trials I ran, the phenyl derivatives from the substance on M6342CN’s fingers neutralized the mixture the Amazon tribes used for their ceremonies.
Adrenaline chased away my exhaustion. Or was it the heavy duty coffee I’d been chugging all night? No matter, the results were the same.
Spy dust? Possibly. The antidote for my formula? Very promising.
THE MEETING WAS AT THE
Kaimi Maliu arrived three days early, and spent the time watching, waiting, preparing. She was a CIA scientist, not military, so why had she been summoned for a briefing at the Pentagon? The two organizations didn’t cooperate willingly, and not at all if they could avoid it.
The trepidation riding her shoulders grew heavy as the day and hour of the meeting neared. She hadn’t spotted anything unusual during her surveillance of the esteemed building. Oh, there were people coming and going, but no one she recognized, and the activity appeared to be business as usual. That was both good news and bad news. The good being she wasn’t that important, and the bad? If she wasn’t that important, she was expendable.
she’d dressed to kill. No weapons, of course. They’d never let her through security, but her black power suit, and the three-inch heels clicking against the tile floor with a steady tattoo of reassurance were lethal enough, or so she thought, until the man guiding her into the elevator pushed a sub-basement number. A short burst of adrenaline had her running through several kill scenarios should they be necessary.
She’d spent the last couple of months taking specialized classes in arms, disguises, martial arts, surveillance, and whatever else she could fit into her schedule. Nothing as intense as the training she’d had at The Farm, but she didn’t want to lose her edge. Ever since M6342CN had passed through her lab three months earlier, there had been a niggling between her shoulder blades that she might need the knowledge. Damn, but she hated that feeling.
The nondescript corporal who’d met her at security, and who’d taken over as her guide, nodded. Reassurance? Or were his hands at parade rest because he was hiding something? And there it was. The other thing M6432CN had changed. She’d become a suspicious woman, and she didn’t like it. The corporal was a harmless older guy just doing his job.
When the elevator doors opened, she sucked in a shallow breath, the stale air leaving a moldy taste in her mouth. She’d become paranoid since discovering the derivation of her lethal formula, the one that killed every time and that could be made in large batches. She’d kept it under wraps, but still suspected everyone of—
“Right through here, Officer Maliu.” The soldier, so old he creaked, ushered her into a room with two chairs separated by a bare metal table that had been worn shiny with age and hard use. He motioned toward the visitor chair, then slipped out, closing the door behind him.
Kaimi sat. And waited.
No windows, and the only escape route was through the door she’d entered. She scanned the ceiling. Solid plaster, and there weren’t any video cameras. There were no filing cabinets, no place to store or hide anything. Not an upscale office. Not really an office at all, more like an interrogation cell. Kaimi’s insides plunged in a sick free fall.
Had the corporal locked her in here? There had been no telltale sound of a lock engaging when he’d left, but the need to check, to turn the knob, tingled along her arms and settled in her hands.
Muscles tense, she shifted her weight to stand, and then the door opened.
The man who entered was broad, and middle-aged, between forty-five and fifty, Kaimi guessed. Military bearing, but other than his cold brown eyes and a slightly skewed cleft in his chin, his appearance was utterly forgettable. More so after he closed the door behind him. Apparently privacy was a trigger for him to drop the stiff bearing.
He sat and flattened his hands on the desktop, fingers splayed. His gaze cut into her, precise and without emotion. “As of this moment, you no longer exist, Kaimi Maliu. Your files have been expunged from all CIA records, as well as all public and private databases. Due to the nature of your discovery, we have no alternative.”
Kaimi estimated the probable success of three kill actions, but she wasn’t a trained assassin, not like covert special operations officers were. Her chances of success without incurring incapacitating injury were slight. She itched to smash his nose with the heel of her hand, or better, ram the heel of her shoe into his jugular.
“Exactly who am I?” Anger edged her voice. She swallowed it. This wasn’t the time for
He preened. “I took it upon myself to select your new handle.”
She didn’t ask.
“Xolas.” His chuckle lacked humor. “The god who puts souls into bodies and then takes them back after death. Fitting, don’t you think? Lethal toxin. Antidote. On your official record, I cut the s off and gave you a last name. Xola Muerte. San La Muerte is a South American god of death, and since your new country of origin is Brazil, it blends. Xola is crisp. Easy. Makes a good handle. All of your official records, from birth through midnight yesterday, have been replaced. Your new family immigrated to the States when you were an infant, so your records are American.”
There were a million questions fighting for dominance in Kaimi’s head, the mishmash making her edgy, but only one query escaped. “Why?”
“You work for me, and all of my assets have fake, traceable histories with enough truth not be questioned, and enough lies to protect everyone who comes in contact with you. Life expectancy here runs one to five years. Your mission is to perfect the formula you discovered for use as a potential biological weapon—”
Adrenaline surged, Kaimi leapt from her chair, and leaned into his space. “No.”
His glare stripped her defenses to a soul level. He jabbed a finger at her. “Sit.”
She spun, reached the door in two strides, and twisted the knob. No go. Flight had been the smartest choice, but she wasn’t opposed to fighting for her life. She faced him, noted the pulse beating in his neck, and had her shoe in her hand, perfectly aimed, before he had a chance to blink.
THE MAN SMILED AGAIN, AND THE
air in the interrogation room grew heavy with threat.
“You have three seconds to stand down.” He held up a dart, fingers poised around the barrel.
Her mind skidded into slow motion. Worst case: lethal toxin. Best case: tranquilizer. The odds for piercing his jugular with her heel before he tossed the projectile were miniscule. Why the hell hadn’t they trained her as an assassin?
She slipped her shoe on and moved behind her chair.
They shared a moment of silent negotiation. She watched his eyes, kept her face immobile. Her intent was to make it clear she’d given all the ground she was going to. It was one thing to back away from an impending physical threat—a smart decision. But to sit like a trained puppy? No. She’d rather be tranqued, thank you very much.