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By Jo Grant
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2011 Jo Grant
This book is available wherever quality paperbacks and electronic books are sold.
miracles really can happen
if you want them badly enough!
“’Riah, look out!”
Mariah Conners threw herself flat on the swampy ground as high-caliber bullets whistled past her windblown auburn hair. Shrill, warbling screams echoed through the gnarled, moss-draped cypress trees. Her partner ejected an empty clip from his gun, and slapped another into place. More explosive staccato shots rang out as he took aim and fired again. And again. And again.
Damp slime oozed between her clutching fingers as she warily crept across the sodden marsh. Mac was in danger—but she didn’t dare glance back. She had to reach José before those hideous creatures attacked again!
Their young guide was sprawled face-down in the muck. His tanned neck was bent at an unnatural angle. Even before she gently rolled him over, she knew that he was dead.
Quinn MacAllister paused in mid-turn long enough to make his own judgments. An immense set of razor-sharp claws had sliced through the boy’s chest like soft butter, spilling entrails and bone fragments across the soggy ground.
He winced. No one deserved to die like that.
But at least it had been quick—the cheerful teenager had never known what hit him. That was more than Conners and he could expect, unless they managed to escape fast!
“Get him in the boat, ’Riah!” he yelled, swinging his gun around to cover their hasty retreat. “Hurry!”
She didn’t waste breath arguing. Mac was right—they could never leave the boy here in these endless swamps, to be eaten by those horrible, ravenous things!
More shots echoed through the trees as he fired again. Fierce snarls abruptly crescendoed into wailing shrieks of agony. That made five down. Out of how many? Nine? Ten? A thousand?
Conners hadn’t survived eleven years as Mac’s partner just to be shredded by a tribe of putrid swamp monsters! Taking a deep breath, she hooked both hands beneath José’s lax shoulders, and began tugging him toward their flat-bottomed air boat. Every soggy yard seemed like five miles as she stumbled through a maze of half-submerged roots, fighting to keep her balance.
“Come on, Mac!” she shouted over her shoulder. “We can’t win this one!”
Just a few more feet…
Her sturdy hiking boots sank deeper as oozing muck gave way to muddy slime. Fallen branches snagged and caught at José’s torn clothing. The boy’s head rolled limply to one side, and brushed against her bare arm. She stifled a shudder, and pulled harder.
Without warning, a huge ugly shape launched through the shadows with vicious claws extended. Distorted features made its hideous face seem all the more grotesque.
A startled scream erupted from her throat as she caught a horrifying glimpse of snaggled razor-sharp teeth. Then the howling beast slammed her down into the muck, and her head struck a submerged tree trunk with devastating force.
Stars danced before her eyes as it rose over her, baring inch-long talons for a final lethal blow.
MacAllister whirled, and the Glock bucked in his hands once, twice, three times.
He was already running, heedless of his own safety, before the last bullet thudded into its falling target.
The murky water was stained with blood, and his pounding heart faltered. Then he kicked at the behemoth’s shoulder, and it fell aside with a muted splash. Three jagged bullet holes were bored through its wide chest. Blood seeped through its slimy pale fur and slowly leaked into the water.
“’Riah!” He dropped to his knees and felt for her pulse. It was faint but steady beneath his searching fingertips. A heartfelt sigh of relief escaped him, and his tensed muscles relaxed.
Snarls and eerie yowling brought him up short. Turning, he yanked Conners’ gun from its holster, and slowly rose to his feet. Silence fell across the swamp as he aimed her weapon at the nearest slathering monster.
The burly creature froze in its tracks, and seemed to hunch down slightly. MacAllister kept the deadly 9mm targeted on its massive head.
Even the fitful humid breeze seemed to hesitate as Mac grimly faced down his snarling adversary. Venomous glares bridged the fathomless gap between them.
Then the hideous creature slowly backed away, and melted into the deepening shadows without a sound. A dozen other dark, misshapen forms moved with him, and were gone.
Mac realized that he was shaking with reaction. He took a deep calming breath, and bent down beside his partner again. A livid purple bruise was already darkening her pale forehead. She’d have one helluva nasty headache when she regained consciousness.
But at least they were both still alive.
Grimacing, he scooped her up and carried her over to José’s swaying air boat. The sooner they left this wretched swamp behind, the better!
A weathered tarp was folded neatly in the curving prow. He shook it out, and grimly carried it back to their young guide’s sprawled body. Somehow, even in death, the boy’s youthful face looked merry and carefree.
There’s no justice in this world, he sighed, for perhaps the hundredth time that week.
Sighing, he wrapped José’s limp corpse in the woven tarp, and laid it in the wide, flat prow. Then he clambered aboard, and gripped the tiller tightly in one hand.
He’d never piloted an air boat himself, but this was no time to play it safe. Those vicious nightmares might return at any moment!
Huge rotors whirred to life behind him, blowing long hanging tendrils of Spanish moss off the nearest shaggy cypress trees. The boat lurched forward under his novice touch. He strangled back a muttered curse, gritted his teeth, and concentrated on steering it out of the swamp, not into another fallen tree trunk.
Conners began to stir as he finally managed to clear the last submerged roots. “Mac?” Her ragged whisper was hoarse with pain.
Before she could try to move, he leaned down and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. The boat wobbled one last time, then eased into a narrow moss-draped channel.
“Lay still, ’Riah,” he urged, focusing on the treacherous shadows sliding past. “We’ll be home soon.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
FBI SPECIAL AGENT QUINN MACALLISTER’S APARTMENT
THREE WEEKS LATER
A small blur of bright colors swam before Mariah Conners’ bleary gaze, gliding sinuously from side to side.
Something was watching her?
Prickles of alarm raced down her spine, forcing her back to full awareness. The bright blur resolved into a vivid inch-long fish swimming just beyond her nose. She blinked a few times, brushed tousled auburn hair out of her eyes, and painfully lifted her head. Nearly a dozen smaller fish, so tiny that they were almost invisible, were darting back and forth amid the tank’s swaying artificial plants.
“Mac?” She cleared her throat, and her voice emerged stronger. “I think one of your fish had babies.”
“Probably.” Her partner was sitting across the cozy living room, staring intently at his computer screen. “Sarah warned me that they’d breed like crazy.”
Mac’s new neighbor was a busty, energetic young blonde who wore tight black leather miniskirts and too much makeup. She played her music too loudly, smoked nasty-smelling cigarettes, and flirted outrageously with Mac whenever possible.
Not surprisingly, the two women despised each other.
You can’t always pick your neighbors, she thought with a sigh. And you have no business interfering when Mac only chats with her to be friendly. He’s a big boy. He can handle Slutty Sarah without you running interference.
Her own apartment was halfway across town, in a slightly better part of town. No one there dressed like a hooker on the prowl! But Mac’s apartment was closer to work, so she’d…
Wait a minute, she hadn’t stopped by after their shift was over!
The last thing she remembered, she’d been working down in the labs, and…
“How did I get here?” She sat up too fast, and had to grab the couch arm to keep from folding over. Nausea rose in her throat.
She swallowed hard, and breathed slowly until colorful dots stopped dancing in front of her eyelids. Her slender fingers pressed against her temples, searching for the elusive pressure points to block out another pounding headache.
“Three guesses.” Mac swiveled around in his chair, and aimed a baleful look in her direction. His angular face was drawn with frustration.
She only needed one. “Miranda ratted me out.”
“Miranda,” he corrected with a scowl, “went down to see how your research project was going, and found you nearly unconscious. If she hadn’t called me instead of the medics, you’d have woken up in the hospital.”
“I’m fine.” She mustered a weak smile. “It’s just this pinched nerve.” Cautiously she rotated her right shoulder, and winced. “I hate taking those muscle relaxants. They knock me out.”
Mac heaved a weary sigh, and raked both hands through his thick coal-black hair.
Mariah had been in pain ever since they’d returned from the Keys, three weeks ago. He hated to see her like this! Normally she radiated strength and vitality, and her slanting emerald eyes sparkled with energy. The powerful muscle relaxants she’d been prescribed made her drowsy and listless. Even her silky golden-red hair looked limp and dull.
A broken collarbone should have put her on the Disabled list…but somehow she’d convinced their supervisor, Assistant Director Thompson, to turn a blind eye. It wasn’t the first time she’d been able to wrangle small concessions from him. One way or another, she always managed to secure exactly what they needed, without raising any red flags further up the chain.
Mac knew that she’d welcomed the chance to head back down to the labs. Some of the world’s top researchers had made Quantico’s extensive laboratories their home. They each had their specialties, and they guarded them like a mama grizzly with her cubs. But Connors was well-known, and well-liked. He didn’t know anyone else who had free access to so many labs, and the top-secret research materials that each one produced.
By hook and crook, and cashing in a lot of favors owed, she’d managed to secure a small room for her own clandestine experiments. Only a select few—their sometimes partners, Jim Austin and Randi Adams, and their boss, A.D. Thompson—knew just what she was working on.
Without Thompson’s approval, her lab would have been closed down three years ago when massive budget cuts had swept through the Bureau. But Thompson had a vested interest in keeping her busy whenever Mac and she weren’t required in the field. He suffered from spinal Chordoma, a rare, slow-growing form of malignant bone cancer.
Surgeons had been able to remove part of the tumor, and heavy doses of radiation kept it from spreading. But there were no known treatments to completely eradicate it.
Conners’ most recent experiments had arrowed in on a series of inhibitors that were starting to show promise. That was why they’d headed down to the Keys. A fellow researcher had gotten wind of a new medicinal plant that showed surprising similarities to her inhibitors.
Maybe it had just been a rumor—a whisper in someone’s ear, who whispered in another’s, and another’s, and another’s. But they couldn’t afford to ignore even the slightest chance. Thompson wasn’t just their boss—he was their close friend.
The trip down had been fairly uneventful. They were used to driving long distances in the dead of night.
But when they’d finally reached the target area, they’d been attacked by those bizarre creatures, and they’d barely escaped with their lives!
Mac was sure that there were still thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of life forms in the remotest wilds that hadn’t yet been identified. Certainly he’d never seen reference to anything like those vicious monsters in any zoology class he’d attended!
They’d been intelligent. No one would have believed him, so he’d kept his unlikely opinions to himself. But those shrill warbling shrieks, and the bitter hatred in those huge gleaming eyes, still jolted him awake at night.
Fortunately, because she was far too active and impatient to tolerate inactivity for long, his lovely partner healed quickly. She’d grimly worn a sling for two weeks, then thrown it in the trash and vowed to ignore the residual pain.
But a pinched nerve was hard to ignore, especially when her experiments required fine motor control.
Mac wished he could help—but putting him in a lab coat was like unleashing a toddler in the proverbial china shop. Things were going to get knocked over and broken, period. He was swift and agile in the field…but a total klutz with delicate lab equipment.
Besides, whenever she was down in the lab, he was stuck in the dreaded phone rooms. Petulant teenagers, cheating spouses, obscene calls between separated lovers…he heard it all. And hated every moment of it.
One time, and only once, he’d tried to keep count of how many boring, innocuous phone calls he’d eavesdropped on during his dreary eight-hour shift. He’d lost count, before noon, somewhere past three hundred.
Mariah drew in a deep breath, then let it out in a slow relieved sigh. The acupressure was starting to work. She hated pinched nerves, and she hated migraines. But she hated the drugs that relieved them even more.
Mac worried when she was hurt. He didn’t like to admit it, of course. Everyone thought he was Mr. Sexy Tough Guy, with his rugged face, deep navy eyes, and broad shoulders. The faint hint of Texas drawl in his low voice didn't hurt his image, either.
Quinn MacAllister was a lethal shot with everything from bladed weapons to handguns to high-powered rifles. But she knew a gentler side of him. He’d stop the car, and hold up traffic for blocks, to rescue a wandering kitten.
Her forearm ached. Absently she rubbed it, before realizing that the pinprick stinging was from a hypodermic needle.
So that was it. Randi had found her sagged over her workbench with another stress-induced migraine, and had raided her cabinet for the Sumavel she’d shoved into the back corner. It worked quickly and efficiently, but it knocked her out cold every single time. And left a vile taste in her mouth when she re-awoke.
She supposed she should be grateful for Randi’s timely intervention. But in her opinion, the cure was nearly as bad as the problem.
Worse yet, the day was only half-over, and she knew that Mac would never let her go back and finish her shift.
Sometimes she felt that she was just a hair’s breadth away from finding a cure. It was maddening to be so close, and have something as trivial as a migraine headache interrupt! Yet the harder she struggled to focus, the more elusive the answer became. It just wasn’t fair!
So…Randi had medicated her, and called Mac for help…and she’d probably been unconscious before he could hotfoot it down from the telephone room. Heaven only knew how they’d smuggled her out without raising a ruckus.
Or maybe they had. Mac wouldn’t care, not when her health was threatened. That, she thought with a wistful smile, was true love.
Waking up face-to-face with a startled guppy wasn’t at the top of her favorites list…but at least the fierce throbbing pain was receding.
Mac was watching her with that intense gaze that always pierced right through her. She smiled again, more genuinely this time, and reached for the Pepsi he’d thoughtfully set on the nearby table. “Thanks,” she murmured, lifting it in a wry toast. “This’ll help.”
“So will this.” He tapped a long finger against his glowing computer monitor. “Two weeks’ worth of rest and fun in the sun!
“Look,” he added when her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to protest. “I know how important your research is, ’Riah. But you’ve been working too hard. Even Thompson agrees.”
That made her blink at him in wounded surprise. “I can’t leave now!” she protested. “I need to monitor this last series of tests! One of them might be the key I’ve been searching for!”
“Or you might put yourself in the hospital.” He crossed the room in three long strides, and perched beside her on the low couch. “He isn’t willing to let that happen, ’Riah. And neither am I.”
Gently he placed his hands on either side of her head, and began stroking her clammy forehead in steady circular patterns. “In any case, it’s out of my hands. He’s ordered us both to take a two-week leave of absence, effective tomorrow morning. And I don’t think you’re going to talk him out of this one.”
That stung. Her lips tightened with mutinous anger.
Privately Mac had to agree with her. He knew how promising this new line of biomedical research might be. Thompson’s timing couldn’t have been worse! But his first concern was for ’Riah’s health—and on that issue, MacAllister and he were in full agreement.
“Think of it this way,” he added with a wry grin. “You can’t be expected to perform efficiently when you’re falling apart. Inefficiency on your part will reflect directly on him.”
She made a rude noise under her breath, and he almost laughed. So much for appealing to her scientific temperament!
Well, he hadn’t really expected it to work.
Stick to the truth, Mac. It’s what you’re best at!
“He cares, ’Riah. A lot more than he’ll admit. He doesn’t like to see you sick or hurting. And you have been in a lot of pain lately.”
Her mouth twisted into a bitter scowl. But over the past five years, Thompson had become her friend, too. And you did for friends what you wouldn’t for strangers. Even if it did mean totally reorganizing your busy schedule for a frivolous trip that, in her mind, was a complete waste of time.
Reluctantly she sighed. “I like the idea of a vacation, I really do. God only knows the last time either of us took any time off! But Mac, what about his cancer? What if it starts to progress again while we’re gone?”
That worried him, too. They’d had a good relationship with their old supervisor, Anthony James. And when he’d retired, they hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye with their new boss. The battle of wills between them had been fierce.
But over time, animosity had given way to grudging respect, then to genuine friendship. He’d walk naked on flaming coals before he let anything happen to Thompson.
“You’ve said yourself that it’s a very slow-developing cancer,” he soothed her. “His surgeon was able to remove nearly two-thirds of the tumor, and the radiation treatments are keeping the remainder in check.”
“I know.” She frowned. “I know. But I feel so damned helpless! And now when I’m so close…”
“’Riah.” He curled his fingers around hers, and gave them a gentle squeeze. “Two weeks isn’t going to make any real difference. You’ll come back at it fresh—and then you’re going to leap forward, and make some real strides.
“So.” He leaned back in the couch beside her, and draped an affectionate arm around her slender shoulders. “Like it or not, early tomorrow morning, we’re boarding a plane for Bermuda. Thompson pulled some strings, so we’ll be flying in style. No fourth-class steerage this time.”
Conners sat motionless on the couch, and stared blindly across his small living room.
Two weeks in scenic Bermuda.
Sunny beaches, exotic night clubs, warm tropical breezes.
No stress whatsoever.
It was a surefire recipe for disaster.
WASHINGTON NATIONAL AIRPORT
WASHINGTON, D. C.
NEXT DAY - 6:00 A.M.
Even at dawn, Washington National Airport was bustling with travelers, businessmen, tourists. Sleepy-eyed people of every age, every nationality, every financial strata straggled through the wide, brightly-lit corridors.
This, Mac mused as he followed his partner into a security checkpoint, was the true American ‘melting pot.’ A vast hodgepodge of colors and creeds unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Sometimes he loved D.C., and sometimes he hated it. But the nation’s bustling capital radiated an intense energy, a dynamic vitality, that he’d never sensed anywhere else.
Anything could happen here…and frequently did.
Over the years, many of his colleagues had tired of the frenzied, ceaseless activity. But he never would, no matter how long he lived or how far he traveled. Mac found himself curiously comforted by that realization.
The TSA guard’s eyebrows flickered in mild surprise as both agents flashed their FBI badges, surrendered their weapons and overnighters for inspection, and walked briskly through the controversial ‘nudie scanner.’ Probably wasn’t used to seeing government agents dressed so casually, Mac reflected as he retrieved his 9mm on the other side, and tucked it securely in its holster again.
Well, he couldn’t dress like a GQ advertisement all the time, not if he wanted to retain his sanity! His comfortable blue jeans and dark green polo shirt might not be the FBI’s traditional uniform, but damn it, he was on vacation! Not a vacation of his choosing, perhaps, but nevertheless he intended to make the most of it.
Why on earth did everyone assume that he should have brand-new, expensive luggage, just because he was a Federal agent? He liked his weather-beaten old backpack. Each faded stain, every hand-mended rip spoke to him, reminding him of the incredible adventures Conners and he had survived over the past several years. Those were memories he never wanted to lose.
Ignoring the security guard’s disgruntled sideways glance, he scooped his worn leather jacket and battered flight bag off the narrow conveyer belt.
Mariah was already striding down the first slide-walk. She was still exasperated by Thompson’s cavalier order, and it showed in the taut set of her shoulders.
Years of shared hardships and dangers had melded them into an unbeatable team. In crisis situations, they thought as one, reacted as one. They knew and trusted each other implicitly.
Yet there were disadvantages to such an intimate emotional bonding. What one felt, the other invariably shared. If their empathic link was ever formally tested, they’d break all the scales.
“Conners, wait up!” Several sleepier travelers edged out of his way as he jogged down the creeping conveyor ramp to catch up with her.
“I thought we were flying in style,” she grumbled as he slid a soothing hand down her slender back. “No fourth-class steerage this time.”
“Out of Miami, yes.” He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder, then snagged her carryall. “No lifting,” he reminded her with a wicked grin. “Nothing heavier than a Mai-Tai for the next two weeks.”
“Mai-Tai, Shmai-Tai.” But she muttered it under her breath, and let him swing her bag over his broad back. “Mac, what the hell am I going to do in Bermuda for two whole weeks?”
“Have fun.” Or at least, he amended with an ironic grin, as much fun as either of them were capable of having. They were both confirmed workaholics. It was a wonder they hadn’t collapsed from nervous breakdowns years ago!
But just think…no life-threatening field cases, no sterile little cold labs, no noisy coma-inducing phone rooms! Two glorious weeks in sundrenched Bermuda, sipping frosty drinks under waving palm trees, swimming in the warm ocean, basking on some faraway pristine beach!
Maybe he’d been a bad influence on his lovely partner. Maybe she simply didn’t remember how to relax anymore!
But there were plenty of things to do in Bermuda. Scuba diving, swimming, sailing, deep-sea fishing, water skiing, parasailing, horseback riding—all kinds of energetic sports for an energetic FBI agent.
And then there were the exotic nightly shows at their luxurious resort, not to mention sightseeing and biking all over the pretty little island…
He’d keep her busy somehow. He’d given Thompson his word—and where Mariah Connors was concerned, his word was golden.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Quinn MacAllister loved to fly. He couldn't remember a time, even as a young child, when he hadn't liked traveling in an airplane. There was something wonderfully exhilarating about soaring through the sky at incredible speeds, about swooping and gliding on the fluid air currents like a graceful bird.
If he was ever reincarnated—assuming such a thing truly existed, and he made no bets in either direction—he hoped to come back as an eagle.
By temperament and habit, he was already a confirmed night-owl. He thought best at night, worked best at night, and could function efficiently at ungodly hours when the majority of his coworkers were sluggish and barely conscious.
Mornings often found him groggy, moody, desperate for a stimulating cup of strong coffee. And he understood, at a gut level, why they shot prisoners at dawn…they were too lethargic to put up a fight!
But there was something special about seeing dawn's first bright rays stream across the vast shimmering ocean beyond their soaring plane. And the sky was so calm and crystal-clear this morning!
Conners had already drifted back into a restless sleep. He let her rest. There would be other mornings, other flights. Pain and stress had stretched her nerves tighter than a drum. Sleep would do her more good than staring down at the patchwork hillsides and rippling aqua waves gliding beneath them.
His serene pleasure lasted only until they debarked at Miami’s sprawling terminal.
They’d been there dozens of times, and he recognized every waving palm tree and gurgling ornamental pond. It wasn’t his favorite airport, but they tried to keep it clean and gaily subtropical. Points for that, he supposed.
Anxious travelers bustled back and forth, bound for connecting flights around the corner and clear across the world. Tinny recorded messages echoed through myriad overhead speakers.
“Please do not leave your luggage untended…”
Yeah, yeah, he’d heard it all before.
Terrorism was always a threat these days…job security, he thought with a grimace…but today the guards were looking cheerful and relaxed. No suicidal bombers were skulking in dark corners; no uncontrolled planes were plummeting through the skies.
There was no reason why a wave of icy dread should envelop him the moment his feet touched the sloping jet ramp.
Conners felt his sudden jolt, and glanced quickly in his direction with a worried question in her slanting emerald eyes. He could only lift one broad shoulder in a helpless shrug. “No clue.”
He never knew when a hunch was going to sneak up and rap against his skull. And all too often, until things actually went to hell around him, he had no idea where the danger would strike. It was extremely frustrating.
Well, he’d been warned…so he would simply have to keep his eyes and ears open, and jump the right way when the moment arrived.
So much for a peaceful start to their vacation!
Conners had expected him to veer off into another wing of the massive bustling airport. Her eyebrows rose sharply when he steered her toward the sliding street doors.
“This,” he told her with a wicked grin, “is where the real fun begins!”
Their Hispanic driver opened doors for them, and tossed their overnight bags into the trunk of his eye-bleeding neon green cab, with cheerful efficiency. But even he blinked in surprise when Mac gave him the address of their next destination: a small, very exclusive private airport on the city’s outskirts.
“Sure thing, Boss!” He said it in such a quick singsong rhythm that Mac wondered if those were the only English words he knew.
But he did know how to get from Point A to Point B with a minimum of fuss and swearing…so Mac relaxed on the wide seat beside Conners, and watched famous landmarks slide by.
“Mac, can we afford this?” Mariah murmured under her breath, when they pulled off the road and paralleled a sumptuous grassy park for nearly two miles. Ducks and swans were floating peacefully on the pristine lakes. The grounds were meticulously landscaped. Even from the road, it was clearly a facility that catered to the fabulously wealthy.
Then the cab turned in at an elegant gatehouse. Uniformed guards stopped them, and scrutinized their ID’s and flight tickets.
“With the economy in its current lousy state,” he answered her in an undertone, “tourism is way down. Thompson got us a helluva deal.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Even so, can we afford it?” she insisted, nudging him in the ribs.
“Yeah.” He nudged her back, and winked. “It’s already paid for.”
No need to tell her what a chunk this trip had bitten from his hard-earned savings. What was money for, after all, if not to enjoy life once in a while?
She wasn’t mollified. “I pay half.” Then her eyes narrowed. “I mean it, Mac.”
He flashed her an easy smile. “No problem. We’ll divvy it out when we get home again.” And in the meantime, he intended to lose every single receipt.
She eyed him suspiciously, and might have pursued the subject. But at that moment, the guards handed their papers back, and snapped to attention.
“Enjoy your trip, Agents!” the younger one smiled. The other one reached into the guardhouse, and pressed a button on his control panel. The big ornate gates began to swing open.
“Armed and dangerous,” Conners murmured as she caught a glimpse of his service revolver under the concealing line of his white uniform jacket. “They aren’t taking any chances!”
“Good.” Mac’s nerves were still humming; if he’d been an insect, his antennae would have been quivering.
No danger here…so where?
They glided past more lakes, more ducks and swans, more weeping willows and ornamental trees. Sunlight glittered off a lovely Oriental pagoda that was nestled beneath gently swaying palm trees.
An exquisite marble statue welcomed them to the main building. It looked more like a southern plantation than an airport terminal!
Even their jaded cabbie looked impressed as two uniformed porters snapped to attention, leaped off the wide shady veranda, and hurried to open the cab’s doors.
“Welcome to the Paradise Vacations Charter Service,” one of them said, as the other briskly gathered up their bags and carried them inside. “If you’ll just follow me, Agents, I’ll get you some refreshments, and introduce you to your fellow passengers.”
Conners blinked in surprise when their guide turned into a plush library. Only seven other people were flying with them? Dollar signs began to flash in front of her eyes, and she gulped. Charter planes weren’t cheap, even with an FBI Assistant Director easing the way!
Their cheery hostess promptly offered them champagne mimosas in tall, festive glasses. Mariah sipped hers, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the champagne was delicious, not like the cheap stuff they normally picked up for office parties.
You only live once, she decided with a quick mental shrug. They’d probably pay for it for the next decade…but what the hell! For Thompson’s sake, she’d do her best to put work behind her, and enjoy every moment. They weren’t going to get a chance like this again!
It wasn’t until she noticed Mac subconsciously studying each of the other passengers for possible threats that she realized she’d been doing the same. Old habits died hard! Another smile curved her lips. She took another sip of the mimosa to hide her amusement.
The elderly retired couple were Reuben and Esther Schaumburg, who were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They looked eager and excited as they rose to shake hands with the newcomers.
The three young women clustered together near the window were taking a joint vacation from work. Their hostess introduced them as Mindy, Casey, and Tessa. But since they all grinned and nodded at the same time, she couldn’t tell which was which.
Two sullen-looking teens rounded out the passenger list. Both were tall, athletic, blue-eyed, and blond-haired. And if the glares they hurled at each other from opposite ends of the room were any indication, they obviously hated each other.
Penelope Kensington half-lifted one hand in a glum wave. The boy, Max Stanwick, didn’t even offer them that much. He took one swift look at Mac’s casual attire, curled his lip in a smirk, and turned away again.
Mariah turned away to hide her wry grin. “Well, now we know who to avoid when we arrive, don’t we?” she teased in an undertone as Mac took a sip of his own drink. “Although I think you’re a hit with the secretarial pool!”
She should be used to it by now. Quinn MacAllister was tall, rugged, and undeniably handsome. Women of all ages had a tendency of fawning all over him. If she hadn’t been his partner…
Quickly she veered away from that thought. She loved Mac, always had and always would. And he returned her love in full measure. But FBI agents were strictly forbidden from having personal relationships.
Someday, one or the other of them would retire, and then things would be different. But for now, they kept it professional. Most of the time. The occasional light touch didn’t really count…did it? They’d never taken it further, even though they’d had ample opportunity.
No, of course that didn’t count. First and foremost, they were best friends. And friends did occasionally touch each other. There was nothing forbidden about that.
And she was psychoanalyzing again. Hadn’t she sworn, over and over, that she wouldn’t do that anymore?
“Relax.” Mac murmured the single word under his breath.
It was maddening sometimes, the way he could read her so easily! But she wouldn’t have traded their intimate emotional link for all the wonders of the world.
Okay. Like it or not, they’d been cut loose on mandatory sick leave for two weeks. Thompson had obviously gone far out of his way to make their vacation enjoyable. She’d only hurt his feelings if she didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
And when she returned home, she’d be well-rested, fully healed, and ready to dive back into her research.
At least Miranda could take care of her lab animals until then, and record any changes in their health or behavior.
It appeared that they were the last passengers scheduled to arrive. She’d no sooner finished her drink than a pretty young stewardess entered the spacious lounge. Had she been watching them from another room?
Nonsense, she was just letting FBI procedures color her perceptions again.
“My name is Holly.” The girl beamed around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes, and then swept a hand toward the wide double doors. “If you’ll just follow me, your plane is ready, and our captain says that we can depart at any time!”
Plane? Magic carpet was closer to the mark! Despite their luxurious surroundings, Mariah had still envisioned a fairly standard transport—a DC10 or something comparable, with neat rows of blue fabric-covered seats, and a long, narrow aisle from the cramped cockpit to the compact lavatories.
She’d never been more wrong. The resort’s privately-owned Gulfstream was a modern miracle of luxury and comfort.
Plush ivory leather recliners were scattered throughout the cabin in small cozy groupings, and a long padded couch invited weary travelers to stretch out and watch exclusive movies on any of the dozen-odd color television screens.
Elegant crystal vases rested in small niches on each dining table. The single fragrant rose in each was ivory with soft blue-grey streaks rising up from the stem.
She wasn’t the only one staring around in wide-eyed amazement. The three secretaries were clustered together, pointing everywhere at once, and the elderly couple were frankly awed.
“My God, Mac!” she breathed, stunned. “Do people really travel like this?”
His long, slow whistle echoed in her ears. “You can bet the Bureau VIPs do, on a regular basis.” And since it was customary to purchase large blocks of flight time, rather than individual trips, no wonder A.D. Thompson had been able to gift them with six hours!
“Of course you’re welcome to sit anywhere,” Holly assured them as they drifted into the spacious cabin and trailed reverent fingers over the butter-soft leather upholstery. “Once we’ve reached a cruising altitude, I’ll be happy to serve complimentary drinks from our full-service bar.
“And we also stock all types of nonalcoholic drinks for our underage travelers,” she added with a teasing wink at the two teenagers who were just straggling into the plane. Neither glanced in her direction; they were too busy snarling at each other.
“We also offer a wide range of hot and cold meals for your dining pleasure,” she continued without a pause. “Of course this flight will be fairly short, but we aim to please. So if you need anything at all, please don’t hesitate to ask,” she finished with a brilliant smile.
Mac settled into one of the middle seats, and tucked his knapsack under the connecting table. Mariah sat down across from him, and sighed with pleasure as the plush chair cushioned her weary body. “Now this is the way to live!” she grinned.
The elderly couple took the couch opposite them, and the three younger women moved further back. Mariah saw them glance enticingly at Mac out of the corners of their eyes, and nearly rolled her own. How obvious could you get?
Mac relaxed in his own soft chair, and watched them sashay past.
People-watching was an ingrained habit, and over the years he’d gotten quite skilled at it. It was a talent that had helped make him a good profiler…not the best in his division, but then ‘the best’ was a brilliant fellow who was light-years beyond everyone else in the entire Bureau. Who could possibly compete with that?
Anyway, it was a surefire way to escape boredom on long, tedious flights. He never could resist making private bets about each passenger who caught his eye.
The secretaries, now, they were huddling close together and laughing over some private joke. They were probably looking for a hot island romance to spice up their summer vacations.
He hadn’t missed the provocative glances they’d thrown his way—a dead man could have picked up those sizzling vibes! Fortunately for him, ’Riah wasn’t the jealous type. Even more fortunate, he had no interest in accepting the invitations they’d so clearly tossed at his feet.
But it might be amusing to keep tabs on them, and see how well they fared with the local island nightlife. His money was on the busty brunette; she had that extra little sparkle that made her stand out from her two giggling roommates.
The sulky teenagers shared one last malevolent sneer, then sullenly moved to opposite ends of the cabin. Mac impulsively christened them The Tennis Twins. And made a firm mental note to avoid them at the resort. He didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire if they decided to hurl more than just sour looks.
And the white-haired Jewish couple across from him…
This was probably their first real vacation in years, he decided. Had their kids paid for this special anniversary gift? From the way they were nervously staring around as ground crew personnel sealed the exit door and slammed the cargo hatch, they probably didn’t travel much.
He deliberately stretched his long legs out in a leisurely yawn, and offered them a reassuring smile.
Conners was staring fixedly out the window. He glanced past her, trying to see what had caught her attention. Then he saw her lips silently moving, and recognized the intent look on her face. She was reviewing data again, trying to mentally piece fragments of research together.
“’Riah…” His warning was low. “You’re on vacation.”
She sucked in an indignant breath…then let it out again in a frustrated sigh. “I know, I know. It’s just hard to turn off the channel.”
“I’ll buy you a new remote.” He was rather pleased with his clever quip; wisecracks weren’t always his strong suit.
Suddenly another chill swept down his spine. His premonition was back full-force, cascading over him like icy rain.
Something was looming near…something to do with the airplane? No, not the airplane itself. It was the…
Damn it! Gone again!
Frustrated, he gripped the edge of the table and fought to calm his racing pulse.
They’d all been thoroughly vetted, and he’d bet his last dollar that they’d passed through some sort of discreet body scanner as they’d walked through the mansion’s front door.
If nothing was wrong with the airplane or the other passengers, then what…?
“Mac.” Conners nudged him with one foot, and deliberately smirked at him. “You’re on vacation.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He mustered a return sneer, and forced himself to relax. It wasn’t easy, when all his senses were vibrating like a plucked harp string.
But his anxiety was making the retirees nervous, and he didn’t want that.
Could he have sensed, even at dawn, that something was wrong? Was that why he’d hesitated before climbing into his car, then gone back inside and retrieved his badge and gun?
So what was ’Riah’s excuse? He’d glimpsed her badge clipped to the inside pocket of her stylish blue jacket. And he knew that her 9mm, like his, was easily accessible in her concealed back holster.
Some habits died hard.
He’d felt vaguely foolish this morning. But now he felt a little better. Safer, if the nebulous danger had a human origin.
Maybe he should have strapped on his ankle holster, too, for good measure? But how could he have suspected that danger might follow them even here, on a well-deserved vacation?
The small TV screens suddenly flashed to life, and a short infomercial began playing. Normally he ignored the flight attendant’s patient recital; he knew the FAA’s familiar, timeworn emergency instructions by heart.
But he had to admit that this film was nicely done, combining good graphics with an interesting narrative. He even glanced down at the plush carpeting to identify the tastefully disguised emergency lighting strips running the plane’s length.
The problem was, despite Hollywood’s passion for dramatic adventure movies, water landings were nearly always fatal to everyone aboard. When an airplane fragmented into millions of tiny pieces on impact, how could mere frail humans hope to survive?
The inflatable life rafts stowed in the Gulfstream’s galley were mainly for psychological reassurance. He couldn’t remember the last time one had actually been used.
But the elderly couple looked so nervous—hadn’t they ever been on an airplane before?—that he refrained from making any sarcastic quips.
They paled and clasped each other’s hands as the sleek little plane began taxiing down the runway, then gathered speed and surged upward with a muted roar.
Mac leaned forward to reassure them. “Takeoff is always the worst part,” he promised. “The rest is easy.”
Conners spared them a brief smile, then went back to her mental calculations. Vacation or not, if she could just fit the last few bits of data into a recognizable pattern…
Reuben rolled his eyes, and offered Mac a knowing wink. He looked just like Judd Hersch in Independence Day, Mac suddenly realized.
“Your wife can’t wait to get home again, either, eh?” he chuckled, leaning closer. “I’ve been trying for years to get mine out of the kitchen!”
Mac blinked in surprise. Mariah and he did their best to maintain a formal relationship in public. Was their private affinity really that visible to outside eyes?
“Quinn MacAllister,” he quickly introduced himself, reaching across to shake the old man’s weathered hand. “And this is my business partner, Mariah Conners.”
“So!” The friendly retiree accepted his uneasy correction with a philosophical shrug. “Reuben Schaumburg, and this is my wife Esther.” He seemed to be relaxing now that the plane had reached a steady altitude. “You’ve been to Bermuda before?”
“No,” Mac confessed with an easier smile. “We rarely get to travel for pleasure. You?”
Reuben vigorously shook his graying head. “This is our first time, too. Long time we’ve been waiting for this trip! Fifty years we celebrated yesterday…high time to take a vacation. And Bermuda is such a lovely place!
“But Esther!” He rolled his eyes in mock-exasperation. “It’s so much money, she says. It’s so far away—and on an airplane yet! She’s never been on an airplane before,” he confided in a loud whisper. “I tell her, it’s a safe way to travel! You wait and see!”
Beside him, the old woman was rolling her own dark eyes, playfully mimicking her husband’s every word and expression. Mac barely managed to keep from laughing as Reuben spun around to peer suspiciously at her, and she instantly assumed an angelic smile. Even Conners smiled when Esther winked ever-so-slightly at her.
“Our oldest boys…they’re both doctors…they bought this trip for us,” Esther confided with a doting smile. “‘Only the best for Papa and Mama!’ I nearly fell over flat when they took us out to dinner, and handed us the tickets. I don’t think I’ve slept a wink since then!”
“Not that she’s excited or anything.” Reuben slid a facetious smirk in her direction, then affectionately patted her clasped hands. “So, we plan to make the most of the trip.
“What do you two do?”
ONE HOUR LATER
Esther Schaumburg had lived a long, eventful life. Of course, the same could be said of anyone who’d managed to survive the pranks and capers of three older brothers and four younger sisters.
But all the same, she felt that she’d seen and heard just about everything possible. And she’d enjoyed most of the trip.
By the time she’d reached puberty, her parents’ tiny apartment above the family delicatessen had bulged to overflowing. But love and laughter had outweighed bitter squabbles over bathroom privileges.
No many how many times her father had to pound on the ceiling beneath their feet with a broom handle to settle some noisy argument, he’d worn a big smile every evening when he’d trudged up the narrow steps for dinner.
Holidays had brought relatives by the score; then the store would be closed as family spread out on both levels, laughing and dancing the nights away. Even then, she’d had more cousins than she could count.
And there were always new marriages to celebrate, new babies to coo over, new deaths to mourn. Life was full of change and excitement, even for a poor girl growing up outside Brooklyn.
Technically Reuben had been a distant cousin, several generations removed on one side, and fourth cousin to her Aunt Ruth on the other side.
That was how huge families went sometimes, with cousins marrying back and forth all the time. It could get really confusing, especially when two eager teenagers started making eyes at each other. Then the grownups had to trace lineages very carefully, to make sure things stayed legal with old Rabbi Leibowitz.
Esther hadn’t cared a bit whether Reuben was her remote cousin or the Crown Prince of England. All through her childhood, he’d been her chief tormentor. How he’d teased and taunted her, pulling on her long chocolate-brown braids, and sneaking frogs into her desk or dropping spiders in her hair!
And how he had laughed when she’d lost her temper, calling him a scrawny, good-for-nothing street rat!
But she’d never forget the summer when her family had traveled upstate to visit a genuine horse ranch.
Reuben had already graduated, and she’d envied his newly gained freedom. She certainly hadn’t expected him to tag along with her family, even though his younger brothers had been invited.
He’d already made it clear—in her hearing, anyway—that he was far too grown up for such childish outings.
But since he hadn’t yet found a summer job, and Levi and Benjamin had begged him to come (or so he’d claimed), she’d found herself reluctantly jammed beside him in their rusty old station wagon all the way there.
He’d been careful not to provoke her around the adults…but when the dozen-odd youngsters had been turned loose to ride sedate ponies one golden afternoon, he’d found ample chances.
The younger kids had thought he was funny. But Esther had been incensed by his snide comments and mocking sneers. It had seemed like all his nasty little jokes were aimed specifically at her.
Finally she just couldn’t stand anymore. She’d spurred her little pinto pony into a gallop, hoping to outdistance him. Then a frightened deer had darted across the path, barely missing them in its wild flight. Her startled pony had reared up, throwing her to the ground.
The next thing she remembered, Reuben had been holding her tightly in his arms, his dark eyes frantic with worry.
They’d been together ever since.
Of course, the Korean War had delayed things for quite a few years. Reuben had felt honor-bound to volunteer, and she’d spent plenty of long nights wondering whether his submarine would sink in some distant ocean.
Those had been dark, lean years. She’d spent them working in her father’s deli, taking on more responsibility as his eyesight began to fail, and sewing at nights to help feed her hungry family.
Two weeks after Reuben’s ship had finally returned to port, old Rabbi Leibowitz had married them in his shabby little synagogue. Neither family had money for fancy wedding gifts, but none were expected. It was enough that they were all together again, safe and sound, for the first time since war had been declared.
Come hell or high water, Reuben had vowed that night, his sailing days were over. He’d learned a lot of tricks, as the ship’s cook, that he hoped to someday use in his own restaurant. In the meantime, he was grateful to be back on solid land, trading in his sailor’s cap for a grubby apron.
Esther’s father listened to his eager ideas, and decided they might have merit. He was ready to retire—and so the popular deli became his wedding present to them.
Delighted, the newlyweds worked long, hard hours—baking, cooking, cleaning, testing out new recipes on favored customers. Esther’s first pregnancy was only an incidental hardship. Despite Reuben’s protests, she spent all nine months in the kitchen or behind the counter.
They celebrated Joshua’s birth by converting the deli into a small café.
Three years later, Daniel’s arrival coincided with their purchase of the neighboring laundromat. Esther’s brother Samuel tore out the ugly machines and connecting walls while Reuben cooked and cleaned, and she nursed her newborn at the cash register.
Business began booming the moment their new restaurant opened.
By the time Sara was toddling and Miriam was old enough to count money, the thriving bistro had outgrown its available space a second time. Rather than move to a new location, they convinced old Ezekiel, the shoemaker, to take a well-deserved retirement. Their neighborhood had improved over the years, so his small shop was converted into a private area for upscale parties.
Perhaps her hair was shorter now, and liberally streaked with gray. Perhaps she’d put on a few pounds here and there, especially after Ezra and Malakai had been born. Perhaps her clothes were faded and a bit old-fashioned, compared to Agent Connors’ sleek navy jacket and tailored slacks. But Reuben still loved her now just as much as he had on that long-ago day she’d fallen from her pony.
It had been a good life, full of fun and its own unique brand of adventure.
True, she hadn’t traveled much. Her precious twins had become pilots, of all things, and were always showing her pictures of the exotic places they’d visited. Daniel had followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Navy to see the world in one of those newfangled nuclear submarines. And Sara had married a rich young lawyer who worked for a firm with offices in France, Italy, and New York.
Maybe she was a homebody. But Esther was content with that. She loved her cozy home, her spotless kitchen, the beautiful upscale restaurant they’d eventually passed on to Miriam.
She had a happy marriage, and a dozen grandchildren to love and spoil. What more could any person possibly ask for?
Personally, she wasn’t quite sure why Ezra and Malakai found flying so fascinating. After the initial terror of takeoff, it was really quite boring. And she was not a person who tolerated boredom well.
Fortunately she was also outgoing, and enjoyed meeting new people. The young couple facing them were quietly intriguing; their eyes spoke of wonders she’d never glimpsed. Of course, who knew what grand adventures FBI agents saw, fighting terrorists and who knew what else!
Nothing, in her experience, broke the ice like an entertaining grandchild story. And Joshua’s nine-year-old twins were impish little jokers who loved to pull fiendish pranks on their older sisters. She’d already pulled out pictures for their new companions to exclaim over, and was well into her fifth story about Jonathan and Jeremiah’s hilarious stunts.
Suddenly she glanced out the window, and her eyes widened. The morning weather report had predicted clear skies—but huge black clouds were massing off the Gulfstream’s slender upswept wing!
“Reuben, look! Where did that come from?”
Turbulence began to jolt the charter, and she paled.