“Kate?” Amanda waited for her fellow S.A.S.S. operative, Captain Katherine Kane, to look up from her desk.
Relief flooded her solemn eyes. She stood up and hugged Amanda. “You’re back.” She clapped Amanda’s shoulder, her turbulent expression at odds with her quiet features. “Good grief, Amanda. Three months and not a sign. Not a word. We thought you were dead.”
Kate, the unit’s bomb-squad specialist with expertise in biological and chemical weapons, was the taller of the two at five-eight, with green eyes and streaked blond hair. Amanda’s eyes were blue and her hair was long and deep brown. Both women were in good physical condition—they had to be. “I thought I was dead, too, for a while.” She nodded toward Colonel Sally Drake’s office door. “Is she waiting for me?”
Kate nodded. “Jim radioed the tower from the chopper. They let her know you were on the way in.”
Well, here it came. No moment of truth waits forever. She had to choose: lie and stay safe, or tell the truth and be sacrificed.
“You don’t look happy to be back.”
Amanda shrugged. “Overload.”
“Rough?” Empathy shone in Kate’s eyes. She knew what could happen to an exposed operative stuck in the field.
“Yeah.” Amanda didn’t hesitate or bother trying to minimize it. It’d be futile. “Let’s talk later, after I see Colonel Drake.”
“We’ll have dinner.” They were both loners, like so many of the S.A.S.S. operatives, but Kate seemed to know that Amanda’s first night home would be especially difficult. Flashbacks to captivity were most potent and disorienting in the early days after release.
“Amanda.” Colonel Drake appeared at her office door. In her late forties, the S.A.S.S. commander looked lean and mean. She was a redhead; her hair cropped short and spiked, bold and brassy. The color and style suited her and her personality.
“How was your vacation?”
Drake was already trying to cover Amanda’s back. She was a good woman and a great commander. “Fabulous.” Amanda smiled. “Check out the tan.” She walked into Colonel Drake’s inner sanctum and sat down.
The colonel took her chair behind her wide desk, dropped the light tone and got serious. “You okay?”
The moment of truth. “Yes, I am. But we have a problem.”
Colonel Drake assigned everything a value from one to ten. “Twenty.”
Her serious expression turned grim. “Enough said. What do you need?”
Amanda nearly sighed her relief. She didn’t know what had happened, and if Colonel Drake let her report that, then the colonel would have no choice but to act on it. This was a whacked-out version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—as dangerous as it gets, considering—but it was the one chance Amanda would have to keep her life intact and she grabbed it with both hands.
In a display of ultimate trust, the colonel was giving Amanda a chance to do what she had to do to protect the interests of the U.S. and S.A.S.S. without sacrificing herself or her job. But was that possible?
Amanda wasn’t sure. She licked at her lips. “I need to see the medical officer right away.”
“Can it wait until after the mission out-briefing?” Colonel Drake frowned.
“No, ma’am. Time is of the essence. I need some blood work done.”
Drake leaned forward, laced her hands atop her desk. “Were you raped, Amanda?”
She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t lie to protect her own interests and leave S.A.S.S. wide open. Kunz must have believed she would—her career was all she had to lose—or he never would have allowed her to escape from the tomb. He needed blackmail fodder. Something important enough to her that she’d agree to spy for him in exchange for keeping the truth about her blackouts buried.
Same wretched manipulation tactics as her father. An icy shiver swept up her spine, and anger flooded down it. Use and abuse. Forget the consequences.
Anger boiled over into outrage and stretched deep down inside her, into memories she kept tightly locked away because they filled her with bitterness and hatred and smothered all that was good. She fought them. Long ago, she had chosen not to live her life hating, and she hadn’t, but the memories were so dark and ugly, and so strong. God, but they were strong.
Her father had controlled her until she had stopped letting him. She was nine years old and recalled in intimate detail that entire day. He’d heaped abuse on her head, on her body, and she’d been totally removed from it, resolved not to let it touch her. And it was as if all those things were happening to someone else. Someone made of steel, who could take anything and not be destroyed by it. After that day, he had bruised her body, but never again did he poison her mind or heart.
And even if it took everything she had, Kunz wouldn’t either.
Visualizing a safe, Amanda shoved the dark memories, the anger and bitterness and hatred back inside it, and then slammed the door and jerked the key from its lock. You control you, Princess. You choose. Kunz will not blackmail you into spying for him. No man will use you again. Ever!
Kunz underestimating her was her only satisfaction in all of this. Amanda blinked hard. The next words out of her mouth would irrevocably change her life. She would forfeit all she had, her job, and leave herself with nothing.
“I don’t know.”
Amanda dressed behind a screen into her uniform, and then stepped out into the examining room, fastening the last of the buttons on her pale blue uniform top. Colonel Drake stood with arms folded over her chest by the door. She had to be here to protect Amanda’s security clearance, but because it already had been violated, she avoided looking at her.
The medical officer, Dr. Vargus, sat at a small desk in the corner, writing in Amanda’s records. Graying at the temples, he sported a permanent frown from too much squinting to read small print. Finally, he swiveled on his stool and looked at her, his glasses resting on the tip of his nose. “Well, there’s no physical damage indicating rape. But you have had intercourse.”
With whom? The question seared her mind, but she didn’t dare ask it. He wouldn’t be able to answer her anyway. The violation of her body infuriated her and she stomped down those feelings. She couldn’t admit to Dr. Vargus that if she’d had intercourse, she most certainly had been raped. “What about the blood work?”
“The AIDS test results will take time. But there are traces of flunitrazepam, a benzodiezpine—sometimes known as ‘roofies’—in your bloodstream.” He removed his glasses, looked up at her. “Are you having any symptoms of amnesia, forgetfulness? Time lapses?”
“Don’t answer that, Captain.” Colonel Drake stepped forward. “Next question, Dr. Vargus.”
He frowned. “How can I help her if I don’t know her symptoms?”
“Work around it,” Drake said. “National interests.”
Obviously he’d heard this before and disagreed with the policy. But a new respect for Amanda lighted in his eyes. He glanced at her then back at Drake, and bitterness etched his tone. “Fine. Sacrifice the patient for the nation. I’ve got it.”
Amanda appreciated his concern, but couldn’t show it. She stared at him, her expression blank, her eyes giving away nothing, and waited.
Finally, he went on. “Captain West. The traces of the drugs found in your blood would be consistent with memory challenges—if you were experiencing any. They induce amnesia and are most often used during surgical procedures, though lighter doses with short-term effects are popular in social drug-use circles.”
Amanda chose her words carefully. “Are these drugs capable of inducing actual blackouts?”
Again, she approached with caution. “For extended periods of time?”
“How extended?” he asked.
His face paled. Dr. Vargus paused for a long moment, looking deeply into her eyes, clearly getting a grip on what had happened to her. “If a patient received repeated doses of these drugs at regular intervals, then yes, it’s possible.”
“Would there be long-term effects?”
“Not that we’re aware of,” he said, then paused to rub his chin. “But that type of use is atypical, so there’s insufficient scientific data to back up my opinion. The truth is, I don’t know, Captain. There could be some residual effects.”
He scrunched a shoulder. “Slurred speech, slowed psychomotor responses, maybe symptoms of being intoxicated. These might be precursors to a more severe period of amnesia.”
Amanda’s stomach flipped. “And how long might this period last, do you think?” She lifted a hand. “Speculating, of course.”
“A few hours,” he said. “Maybe a little longer.”
She could live with that. But Amanda didn’t dare to look at Colonel Drake to see how she’d reacted to this possibility. “Thank you, Doctor.” Amanda tucked her cap between her belt and slacks, and walked to the door. Colonel Drake opened it and stepped aside.
“Captain West,” Dr. Vargus called out.
“If your security clearance requires you to have an escort during medical treatments to verify security breaches have not occurred, then mine requires me to remind you that if you have had any instances of memory loss, regardless of how minor or incidental they might seem, it’s your duty to report them.”
“Dr. Vargus.” Colonel Drake stepped forward. The steel in her voice matched that in her eyes. “Thank you for fulfilling your notification requirements. Rest assured that we will utilize all means necessary to meet our obligations.” Colonel Drake lifted a hand, motioning to the door. “We’re done here. Let’s go, Captain.”
Amanda cast a parting glance at Vargus. He knew. The question was would he report them. “Thank you, Dr. Vargus.”
He held her gaze a second longer than necessary, then nodded, sat back down and buried his head in the file, signaling her he would play ostrich and forget the questions he’d been asked. There would be no report.
Shaking, Amanda followed Colonel Drake out of the office.
When they stepped out into the bright summer sun, they both put on their caps and walked toward Building 7, which housed the S.A.S.S. offices. “Thanks for the backup in there,” Amanda said.
“It’s my job.” Drake looked down to the corner. “Must be trouble at the office. Kate’s coming after us.”
Amanda wasn’t ready for more trouble. She needed time to get a grip on her current situation. But Kate kept on coming, dragging a black suitcase on wheels down the sidewalk.
When they met halfway, Colonel Drake said, “What’s up?”
“I know we’re not talking about this, but there’s a lead investigator for the Office of Special Investigations in Florida at Providence Air Force Base who went missing for three months a while back.” Kate blushed. “I didn’t mean to listen, okay? The walls in the office are paper thin and unless you’re whispering, or in the vault, your voices carry.” She passed Amanda the suitcase. “Everything you’ll need for a few days is in there. Chopper’s waiting on the pad to fly you down there.”
Amanda wasn’t sure what to do, and Colonel Drake looked torn. Kate lifted her eyebrows and Amanda stilled, waiting for the colonel’s decision. If Amanda took that case and got on the chopper, then all three of them—she, Kate and Colonel Drake—would be deliberately violating regulations that could land them in Leavenworth for ten to twenty years. But if Amanda didn’t go, her career was finished and the truth would never be exposed. She’d never know if Kunz really had done this to other military members, and if he had, how many times. She’d never know for what purpose he had detained them. And she’d have to live forever with knowing she had deliberately left the U.S. vulnerable.
“Colonel,” Kate said. “Captain Mark Cross isn’t the only one. Two men in his unit also have three-month unexplained absences and both of them are being tried for murder.”
“Murder?” Amanda shuddered.
Kate nodded. “One supposedly killed his wife, the other his significant other. The evidence is overwhelming, but Mark swears neither of them are guilty.”
“So apparently these absences are pervasive,” Colonel Drake said, then looked at Amanda, resolved. “With millions of military and civilian employees in the potential victim pool, we have to find out how pervasive. Complicated. For obvious reasons, commanders don’t want to report them.” She parked a hand on her hip, mulled over her thoughts for a moment, and then continued. “I’m declaring this a Special Project.”
That designation gave the case the highest priority. It also knocked out the need to function by a million little regulations and courtesies that ordinarily they would adopt and embrace. Amanda nodded at the colonel.
“You’re primary,” Drake told Amanda. “Kate, you assist her.” After a brief glance in Kate’s direction, Colonel Drake focused again on Amanda. “Get to the bottom of this fast, and keep me posted. S.A.S.S. doesn’t leave the U.S. vulnerable, and neither its operatives nor its commander does jail. Remember that.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Amanda took the case from Kate. Since the truth was out in the open now, there was no sense in hiding it. “What about my clearance?” she asked. It should be revoked, but without it, she’d never find the truth.
The colonel hiked her strong chin. “Your clearance is in perfect order, Captain. Go—and make sure you pay attention to residuals. Immediate notification to me.”
The potential effects Dr. Vargus had warned her could happen. Big order. Huge, considering she didn’t know what she didn’t know, and what she didn’t know appeared to involve a lot more military personnel than just her. “I’ll do my best.” She would. And she’d pray it was good enough.
When Amanda stepped off the helicopter at Providence Air Force Base in Florida, the humidity slapped her in the face like a steamy wet washcloth. A tall man in uniform, wearing captain’s bars on his shoulders, stood waiting beside a standard-issue blue sedan. Seeing that he had her attention, he waved.
Assuming he was Captain Mark Cross, she walked toward him. As she stepped closer, his features cleared. Long and lean, broad-shouldered, with a hard, angular face framed by black hair and gray eyes that, at the moment, held distrust, surprise and just enough subdued appreciation to stroke her ego without caressing it. Looking at him had words like interesting, intriguing and attractive flowing through her mind. “Captain Cross?”
He nodded, extended a hand. “Mark, please.”
“Amanda.” She shook his hand and liked the feel of his grip. Not too hard, but solid and firm enough to assure her she could depend on him. She’d always judged a man by his handshake and Captain Mark Cross passed.
“We’re being watched. Get in the car.”
She resisted the urge to look around, stowed her case in the back seat and then slid into the front beside him. “Safe?”
“Yes. I swept the car for listening devices. It’s clean.” He slid the gearshift into Drive, hit the gas and drove away from the chopper’s landing pad.
“Who’s following you?”
“I don’t know—yet. Two cars. Two men. Civilian clothes. They locked on to me right after Kate called and they’ve been running a rolling-parallel maneuver, tracking me ever since.”
So his office phone was bugged and the men tailing them were professionals. “You know Kate personally?”
“We worked together for a time before she got assigned to S.A.S.S. and we became close friends.” He grunted. “Actually, we’re more like each other’s surrogate family. Neither of us has any.”
“So you adopted each other. Nice.” Amanda turned the topic. “You think your shadows are connected to me, then?”
He spared her a glance. “That would be a logical deduction, Amanda.”
“You’ve already got a theory. I see it in your face.”
“It’s pretty clear someone doesn’t want us sharing information on our absences.” Turning into a half-full lot, he parked the car near a tall building with no windows—the vault: a site for top-secret work. “We need a place to talk freely.”
“Suggestions?” She assumed he’d recommend the vault. Vaults always had extensive security, including white-noise devices to prohibit communications being intercepted by unfriendly forces.
He didn’t. “At this point, I’d prefer total isolation. Unfortunately, that can’t be assured here.”
Surprise had her skeptical. “Not even in the vault?”
“Not even there.” His steady gaze didn’t waver.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish