Vicki Hinze - [War Games 04], p.1
TABLE OF CONTENTS
To my Beloved Angels: Kaylin, Alyssa, Logan, Madeleine, Wyatt, and Addie. You are my heart, my sun, my rainbow, you hung my moon and stars. I’ll love you forever and ever—and that’s a promise. Don’t forget. Gran.
Published 2009 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2009 by Vicki Hinze
Cover Design by Adam Mock
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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As always, there are many to thank for a completed work, and only me to blame for any challenges anyone finds with it. I’m especially grateful for the contributions of:
My husband and hero, Lt. Col. Lloyd Hinze (Ret.).
Brainstorming partners and friends: Debra Webb, Elizabeth Sinclair, and Kathy Carmichael. Thanks for keeping me on track, guys.
Sandie Scarpa, my assistant and master research whiz, who doubles as my resident guardian angel. I don’t always slow down enough to show you the appreciation and gratitude you deserve, Sandie, but it is always there in my heart.
My children, who know my every flaw and somehow manage to love me anyway.
It would be impossible for me to write the books I do without the noble men and women of the Armed Forces. You inspire me. Thank you for taking the risks and making the sacrifices necessary for the rest of us to live the lives we do. You’re the stuff of heroes in the truest sense of the word, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart–for me, my children, and the future of my grandchildren. God bless and protect each of you-and those home waiting for your safe return!
My humble appreciation to the Medallion Press team for all their effort and energy. You’re a blessing!
“Back off, 248.”
Bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Morgan Cabot fixed her gaze on the Sunrise, a yacht twenty yards in front of her. Its running lights burned thin amber and spilled over the deck and onto the dark, choppy water. The beating sounds of the Apache’s props had to be carrying to the boat, and still the chopper wasn’t responding to Morgan’s orders to back off. She rode out a swell, adjusted her lip mic, and then softly whispered into it. “Home Base, 248 is not responding. Condition critical. Relay that back-off directive to 248 ASAP.”
What was that damn pilot doing? Trying to get her killed? Knots formed in Morgan’s stomach and then cinched down. Providence Air Force Base was due north, about twenty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico’s Florida shore. Hopefully, the target would consider the chopper’s flight routine to the area and not associate it with anything else, but she wasn’t at all eager to bet her life on it, and she resented like hell the chopper pilot doing so.
Lucky breaks, or even semi-lucky breaks, on this entire mission seemed to be in short supply, but Morgan desperately needed that one. At least that one.
Her boss, Colonel Sally Drake, the S.A.S.S.—Secret Assignment Security Specialists—commander, was monitoring the operation from Home Base at Regret, the unit’s secret headquarters located several miles north of Providence out on an old abandoned bombing range. She’d handle this communication snafu between Morgan and the Apache, pronto. When something put her operatives in additional jeopardy, Colonel Drake took no flak and no prisoners.
“Roger, Guardian One,” Colonel Drake’s voice sounded.
At least she’d gotten Morgan’s transmission.
It was a reasonable deduction that the challenge was being caused by weather and not by their adversary or their target. A tropical storm system churning in the gulf was moving northeast toward shore, and it likely was playing havoc with their systems or communication devices. But that was a deduced supposition, not fact, and the uncertainty added more stress to an already intensely stressful situation. Has to be weather. Has to be … Megan treaded water, watched the yacht’s deck for signs of life, and admitted that any other possibility was too damned frightening to even consider.
“Home Base to 248.” Commander Drake’s barked baritone finally sounded through Morgan’s earpiece. “Drop back four clicks. Now.”
Two and a half miles. Morgan mentally converted the distance. That should do it. Bobbing in the water, she kicked, fighting the wave action. That had better do it. If it didn’t, odds ranked high the target would take Morgan down instead of her neutralizing him.
That dark thought set off a round of shivers in her that pierced her wet suit and speared icy chills straight into her bones. Ever since the initial briefing, she’d had a bad feeling about this mission. She’d fought it, but unfortunately nothing had happened between then and now to put her mind at ease, and that had her bitter as well as edgy at a time when she needed clarity and finely tuned, laser focus. A little confidence would be a welcome thing.
“On it, Home Base.” Jazie Craig, the second and youngest of the three women on Morgan’s team, responded from inside the Apache. Her voice was tight—so not like the affable Jazie—but considering what was at stake, only a fool wouldn’t be tense. And no fool would ever be assigned to any of Sally Drake’s S.A.S.S. teams, much less to the one tagged and activated for this mission. High priority classification. Threat to national security. Clear and present danger.
The stakes didn’t get much higher …
Seconds later, the muffled thumping of the props beating the wind grew distant and then finally faded.
Breathing easier now that the chopper wasn’t telegraphing their presence, Morgan looked back through the hazy moonlight to her own boat. Taylor Lee, the third and final member of her team, sat crouched at the bow watching the Sunrise through her NVG-equipped binoculars. Her slick silhouette showed her elbows-out, both hands gripping her equipment. No action yet …
Morgan took the brunt of a wave full in the face. The salt water burned her eyes, and they stung. She swiped at them, brushed her nose, and then adjusted the rifle sling strapped to her shoulder, keeping an eye out for Taylor’s signal—and for sharks.
Seeing Taylor was easy. Sharks? Damn near impossible, and it was prime feeding time for the eating machines. Conditions were less than desirable for sighting anything, especially from her vantage point. Worse, the gulf water was extremely rough; seas estimated at twelve to fourteen feet and whitecaps were breaking as far as the eye could see in the obscured moonlight. Staying s
Tiring, her muscles burning, Morgan did her best to stay in position near the yacht. Lightning streaked jagged bolts across the distant inky sky. The storm was definitely rolling in, and when one did, waterspouts typically rode heavy on the outer feeder bands. That could be problematic—though not nearly as much so as the fact that they were getting too close to the outer perimeter of the kill zone. They’d crossed her personal comfort threshold about a click ago. No one in her right mind wanted to be caught in a tornado over water under any circumstances, but while on this mission? And even those not in their right mind wanted no part of anything that could be construed as violating the kill zone. It’d bring out the worst of bureaucracy and political posturing and keep them all tangled in relentless red tape for the duration.
That possibility had Morgan extra nervous. Fighting the target was going to be bad enough. But fighting it and a merciless Mother Nature simultaneously? Not good; not good at all.
Finally Taylor whispered, “Move out, Guardian One. Go. Go. Go!”
Silently, Morgan sliced through the rolling waves, narrowing the distance between her and the target’s yacht. With a little luck, she would be out of the water and the team would complete the mission and be back on shore before Tropical Storm Lil blew in full-force.
Once the target was hit, it wouldn’t take long. If the target was hit …
Not allowing herself to focus on that possibility, Morgan whispered into her lip mic, “Verify coordinates. Exact positioning mandatory.”
Taylor Lee answered. “Twelve-point-two-two-one miles.”
Anything beyond twelve miles was legally considered international waters. “We’re cutting it pretty close, Home Base.” Morgan would have felt better with a little more of a pad. Even half a nautical mile would have helped remove the inevitable skepticism. Two-tenths of a mile was a sliver that left them wide open to criticism. Some bastard would definitely exploit it and take exception, too. And not necessarily a bastard from the enemy’s side of the fence.
Politics was always an issue. It shouldn’t be, but it was. If Morgan ever doubted it, which she hadn’t, she would only need to look at the S.A.S.S. headquarters to prove it. A political pissing contest between Commander Drake and the Providence base commander was exactly how the S.A.S.S. ended up plunked into a shack in the middle of no man’s land when there was plenty of terrific office space for its headquarters available on base at Providence. That one Commander Drake clearly lost, but she did win the command, which is what had ticked off the base commander in the first place. He wanted the job; she got the job. Political.
“I know we’re close, but it can’t be helped,” Jazie responded.
Taylor agreed. “We’ve got what we’ve got, and that’s two-tenths.”
Morgan waited for Commander Drake to agree. Without that half-mile pad, team consensus just wasn’t good enough. Morgan wanted command support.
“It is what it is, Guardian One,” Drake said.
That was good enough. The commander didn’t like it any more than Morgan did, but she’d accepted it. Higher headquarters had deemed this a high-priority mission, and while that designation gave the commander and Morgan and her team extra latitude to be lax on some of the regulations, all bets were off on them breaching the kill zone.
Experience proved all bets were off, too, on any high-priority mission going down according to plan. Anything could happen. And on this specific high-priority mission, it was almost a certain bet something unanticipated would happen.
Morgan’s S.A.T.—Special Abilities Team—wasn’t performing a routine mission.
It wasn’t going up against an ordinary adversary.
And it wasn’t tasked with neutralizing an ordinary target.
“He’s topside,” Taylor Lee whispered. Tension elevated her tone a full octave. “Target is on deck. Repeat. Target is on deck.”
“Take him out, Guardian One,” the commander said, her voice hard, anxious, and urgent. “Do it now.”
That urgency, too, Morgan understood. The longer the delay, the greater the odds the target would pick up on the S.A.T. team being on site, and if he did, the odds were astronomically favorable that he’d successfully turn the mission into a bloodbath. He wasn’t a rookie. His instincts were professionally honed; he was an expert in neutralization missions. And Morgan and her team were functioning in a capacity that fell far outside their normal area of expertise. That was a huge disadvantage for them to absorb generally, but against a professional of his caliber, it translated specifically to deadly.
Unfortunately, tackling this mission had been officially deemed essential and critical. The honchos up the chain of command had determined that the S.A.T. team’s participation couldn’t be avoided. The mission, they felt, could not be accomplished without the team’s special abilities. Unfortunately, the president agreed.
Morgan understood that. She didn’t like it, but she understood it. Still, she was a psychologist, an intuitive one, a civilian subject-matter expert who acted as a consultant to the S.A.S.S. and Commander Sally Drake. Morgan was not a typical S.A.S.S. operative assigned to interventions or to terrorist-response missions. The same was true of her team members, Jazie and Taylor Lee, who also had special cognitive skills.
They were all three good at what they did. Damn good—or Commander Drake wouldn’t tolerate them, much less welcome them as one of her units. But, while the team members had trained for hand-to-hand combat, it wasn’t among the skills at which they excelled or even ones they used frequently in their routine consults. Yet their special ability skills were what made activating them on this particular mission necessary, and the bean counters had projected their success by a reasonable margin, provided they acted alone and avoided hand-to-hand combat.
Morgan couldn’t take offense to the caveat; facts were facts, and she agreed with the bean counters. The bigger the team, the greater the odds the target would spot them before they could accomplish the mission and, if reduced to hand-to-hand combat, her team would be pretty well screwed.
Actually, with just three-to-one odds against this specific target, they were also apt to end up pretty well dead.
Fear shimmied up her spine and turned the taste in her mouth sour. She swallowed hard, shook the splashing water from her face. Holding back a salt-induced sneeze, she took aim and sighted the target through her scope. Don’t miss, Morgan. Whatever you do, don’t miss …
The live version of the photographed man she’d seen during the mission briefing stood on deck, half-facing her. The photos of him had been good—strong angular face, black hair, gray eyes, about six-two and put together like fantasy personified—but compared to the real thing the photos paled. Animated, the man was drop-dead gorgeous.
Damn shame. Morgan leveled him in her crosshairs.
The first guy she’d seen in a year that snagged her attention, and she had to shoot him. Didn’t it just figure?
She rolled with a wave, steadied her aim, and then fired.
He crumpled to the deck.
“He’s down,” Taylor Lee responded before Morgan could, relaying to the Apache and Home Base. “Target is down.”
Morgan released her tension, letting a shuddered breath escape through her teeth. Relief swelled and expanded inside her until the knots in her stomach loosened their clench. “Confirmed,” she reported. “The target is down.”
“Is everyone all right?” Colonel Drake asked.
Morgan looked back at Taylor Lee, sliding fully behind the steering wheel in the boat. She shot Morgan a thumbs-up, a
Sally Drake had been as nervous as the rest of them about the S.A.T. team penetrating to pull an interception, but when orders to activate the S.A.T. had come down from Secretary of Defense Reynolds himself and he’d explained the urgency and stakes, she’d had no choice but to execute them. Neither had Morgan.
“Good,” Commander Drake said, clearly relieved, and then addressed Jazie in the Apache. “Position note, twelve-point-one miles,” she said, and then reeled off the GPS coordinates, making them a part of the official record.
“Zone compliance is verified. Move in, 248. Guardian Two, position and prepare to board the vessel.”
Morgan closed the gap between her and the Sunrise, then hauled herself out of the water and up the stern’s metal ladder, primed to fire on any opposition. Intel had reported the target as traveling solo. Word he’d left behind was that he’d been storing it for his brother, Bruce, while Bruce had been serving in Iraq. Now Bruce was back in Magnolia Beach, Florida. Time to return the boat. The story checked out, so far as it went, but mistakes happened in the shadowy intelligence realm, and Morgan wasn’t ready to assume the traveling-solo report was also accurate and land herself and her team on some killed-in-action statistics list.
The target lay face down, sprawled on the deck. His arms were extended, his face turned toward her. The tranquilizer was potent and should have taken effect within seconds after he had been hit, but drop-dead gorgeous was also drop-dead deadly. Extreme caution was not only warranted, but to ensure her team’s survival, it was required. Her finger on the trigger, Morgan hung back out of reach for a long moment and watched him intently for any signs of movement. Seeing none, she inched closer …
Lightning flashed. He sprang to his feet and lunged at her.
Adrenaline shoved through her veins. Her heart pounded in her ears. She feinted left, dropped and rolled, swung her gun up, and looked into his eyes. Ice-cold.
Riddled with rage. Instinctively, she recoiled, squeezed the trigger, and fired again.