Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (17 page)

“Learn to be invisible,” she whispered, crouched on the top of a moving elevator car. Advice to herself. Wise advice, as impossible as it was. Probably the only way she’d stay alive.

Best to get moving, then. She had a lot to accomplish before she died.

Chapter 14
 

T
he elevator stopped at the third floor, submitting to another inspection. When it lurched into motion again, it headed downward—and Selena stepped neatly onto the wooden rungs of the four-story shaft, letting the elevator drop away below her. She climbed up past the fourth floor and right up past the noisy hoist mechanism to the roof access. The access panel that sat on the roof like a small squatter’s shack, offering a railed platform at the edge of the shack. She climbed onto the platform, wiping her filthy hands on her shirt. When she peered through the louvered door, she found an empty roof under a low, nickel-gray sky with individual clouds scudding quickly past, driven by capricious winds. Rain smattered briefly against the worn shelter.
From the north.

Anyone up here on guard duty was most likely sheltered to the south of a roof structure. Maybe even this one.

We’re playing for keeps, now,
she reminded herself. Whatever safety margin Ashurbeyli’s interest had once given her had not only disappeared, it had now marked her for death. She’d embarrassed him one too many times.

You can always go crawling back. Beg for forgiveness. Submit. Admit you were a fool and that you know better now.

She considered it a moment, and in the dim, indirect light filtering through the louvers, gave a firm shake of her head. Nope. Still a fool. Still trying to save the day.

Her current goal was simple enough—return to the guest room she’d appropriated. Gather up what little of use remained in her briefcase. See if there was enough left of the cell phone battery to call Cole.

And for pure luxury, maybe she’d have a chance to wash her face, use the bathroom and see just how deeply the metal strip had cut into her side. Maybe there’d even be a token first aid kit in the closet. She suppressed a sudden sardonic snort. Yeah, that’s what she needed…a Band-Aid. Wouldn’t that just fix everything.

But first she had to get from here to the stair access. She had a vague idea in which direction the stairs were located, and a sneaking suspicion she’d find Kemenis on the way. It’d just be too easy if she didn’t, wouldn’t it? Just as it would be too damn easy if this old, rickety door didn’t creak like hell when it moved.

Well, we can change that.

She left the door long enough to eye the currently quiescent elevator mechanism, gauging the distance between them, carefully testing the strength of the railing without actually committing herself to leaning on it. It shifted, but it held.
What’s one more chance?
Slowly, she stretched out to the massive hoist, just barely reaching the nearest part. Cold metal met her fingertips. Cold,
greasy
metal.

The hoist gave a clunk, startling her; Selena jerked back onto the platform and fell smack on her ass—but she looked at her fingers and smiled, and she didn’t even bother to get to her feet as she smeared heavy grease into the hinges of the access door.

Moments later she slipped silently through the smallest possible opening, squinting against the sudden wind and cold and occasional spit of rain.
Rain is your friend,
she told herself. No doubt the Kemenis were squinting, too.

Like the elevator shaft access, the closest stair entry jutted out of the roof, a much sturdier hut made of brick. Not the one she wanted, though—she’d head across the roof to the other side of the building, where a second brick structure waited—one that she would exit much closer to her room. But she had a choice—tiptoe over and hope no one spotted her, or spot the Kemenis first and do something about them.

She could almost feel the impact of 39 mm bullets into her back. She pulled the metal strip from her waistband and headed for the closest stair access, putting her back to the wind. They’d be on the other side, sheltered. And she’d really, really like to have one of their guns. Best chance she had for one, all things considered.

On the other hand, the element of surprise notwithstanding, she didn’t think much of the odds right now. Time to improve them a little. She reached the back of the brick structure, peeked around to check the side, and sprang up to grab the roof overhang.

Her right arm still wasn’t doing its share. No surprise. But the dovetail of small decorative limestone blocks at the corner gave her plenty of footing, and within seconds she swung a leg over the edge and rolled to the roof. Wind gusted in her ear, obscuring the sound of her own movement. She crawled over to the south edge of the gritty roofing.
After all this, you’d better be there.

Ah, yes. Two of them, bundled in warm parkas that clashed with their
yashmagh
headgear. One of them checked his watch, and Selena’s mouth dropped open slightly as they set the rifles aside, aimed themselves southward to face the Ka’aba in Arabia and knelt in prayer. Compromised prayer—there’s no way they didn’t need ablution, and no way to perform it in this place—but she supposed they were doing the best they could.

And how could she jump them in the middle of prayer?

Oh, just do it. They’re terrorists, for God’s sake.
She inched closer to the edge, bringing her feet up under her, ready to leap. She targeted the smaller one, figuring he’d be easier to stun, judging the rifles easier to kick aside from that position.

Except of course she couldn’t do it. She rolled her eyes at herself as the wind cut through her clothes and she silently hit the heel of her hand against her forehead, but she couldn’t do it.

But as soon as they straightened, the moment they reached for the rifles…

She dropped down on them. She kicked out at the jaw of the big guy as she landed on the smaller one, taking them both down. The small one grabbed at her; she slashed at his wrists where the gap of jacket and glove left them exposed and then she grabbed up his rifle by the muzzle, swinging it to around to connect with the other man’s face. There was enough momentum left to pivot around at the small one as he scrambled to his feet—to connect hard enough that the man fell back hard, cracking his head against the limestone brick corner of the stairwell hut. He went limp, sliding down to leave a smear of blood on the light stone.

The second man roared a Berzhaani curse and she snapped around to face him. “Temper, temper,” she told him, which only made him snarl. If he had a hand weapon, it was buried beneath his coat; he rushed her, aiming to crush her up against the brick wall. She dropped down into a balanced crouch, slashing across both his knees with her improvised blade. It wasn’t sharp enough to cut the tough khaki but it startled him and he leaped back. Selena stayed down, flipping the rifle around to bring it up to her shoulder.
No more games. No more leaving men stashed around to recover and go back into action. Not if she was the one with the gun.

As soon as the rifle came into position, she snugged it back against her shoulder and fired.

The rifle responded in its unique two-stutter setting, firing off two rounds before the kickback of the first threw her out of position. The man cried out in surprise as tiny feathers puffed from the new holes in his jacket, and he staggered backward and—

Damn. Who knew the edge of the roof was so close?

Selena let the rifle tip down to rest against the gritty surface, wiping rain from her brows and lashes and giving her suddenly upset stomach a moment to settle.

As if it would. As if she’d killed men so frequently before, and could so casually walk away from this one.

But she had no time to linger. No telling when the relief watch would come up—Ashurbeyli probably had a frequent rotation going in this weather. She turned to check the smaller man, found him staring blankly at the scudding clouds.

Two. I killed two of them.

And she’d deal with it later as she could. For now she wouldn’t leave this body around for easy discovery. Let the replacement watch wonder why the roof was deserted—let them waste manpower searching the building for delinquents. She frisked the remaining Kemeni, unable to find a hand radio—if they’d had one, it had gone over the side with the first man. She hunted for and found a handgun, grimacing at the clumsy Luger. A quick check revealed five of seven 9 mm rounds left in the magazine. More than she’d had…not nearly enough. She made sure the safety was set and jammed the semiautomatic in the back of her waistband, reminding herself she couldn’t count on it to come free as neatly as her Beretta under the same circumstances. No pause for breath or to wipe her lashes clear again; she dragged the second man closer to the edge and then crouched to roll him off. With any luck, no one from inside had any idea. Those on the outside…let ’em speculate.

She headed across the roof, fully intent on hitting the stairs and heading for temporary respite—but stopped short as she passed the abandoned assault rifles. Just because she didn’t want them herself—the Luger was a better tool for her purposes and she needed to travel light right now—was no reason to leave them lying around for Ashurbeyli. First one, then the other—she whirled around for momentum, flinging them off the roof in wide flight arcs that would no doubt surprise someone as they landed. She hoped a news camera wouldn’t catch them tumbling down—no doubt Ashurbeyli had at least one television tuned to an international news station.

But it wouldn’t change anything if he did see. It just meant she had to get off this roof, and
now.
Selena ran across the flat expanse, her footsteps crunching…until a flicker of movement in the low clouds caught her eye, stopping her short. She looked upward, examining the clouds, unable to squelch a foolish surge of hope that help might actually be on its way. For an instant she envisioned a stealth-enabled chopper, swooping in to drop SEALs on the roof, taking advantage of the opening she’d just provided.

But no. Of course not. Just clouds.

She cursed at the delay and ran for the stairs.

 

 

 

Cole skirted the edges of the airfield grounds, heading for the ratty, weed-infested strip of ground at the fence line. Old airfield, old fence…leaky, leaky security, especially to a small group of U.S. forces who were doing their best to be inconspicuous. He eyed the fence again. His Leatherman would provide a quick enough exit—and if push came to shove, the shearling coat would protect him in a trip over the top of that barbed wire. But for the moment, he waited quietly along the back wall of the shabby maintenance building closest to the fence.

Not that he was truly worried about being followed—not from here. Just…

Habit.

Seth—CIA Technical Services officer, and someone Cole knew well enough to think of in terms of his real name instead of his station name—would send a taxi to meet him on the road to the airstrip. Seth spent his time devising strategies and disguises to exfiltrate foreign agents when their situation became too precarious, and to allow high-profile foreign officials to make meetings with their CIA case officers. In essence, he helped people move from place to place with disguises that were the stuff of
Mission Impossible.

Just what Cole needed. With the loyalty and understanding Cole needed, as well.
It’s not agency business,
he’d said. And at Seth’s silence over the phone, on the other side of the small hangar from Josie and Diego Morel, Cole had asked if Seth was watching UBC along with everyone else in this corner of the world. And Seth had seen, of course.
That was Selena.

He didn’t have to offer any more details.
That was Selena.
Because there had been only one woman on UBC to capture the airwaves with her narrow escape—to capture hearts with her daring. Cole closed his eyes, wishing he couldn’t see it so clearly—the look on her face as the terrorist pulled her head back slightly, into the gun Cole knew was there. The uneven nature of the image as Morel compensated for the Predator’s movement. And then Selena in action, all swift, wicked consequences. He didn’t know what she’d used against the man, only that it glinted of metal. That she’d freed herself and run, showing the world her heart. Reminding Cole of what he’d always known, of how bright and hard her soul burned beneath the coolness of her poised exterior.

Reminding him how much he had to lose.

And now Seth knew, too. And Seth had sent a taxi—although Cole doubted it was merely that—and Cole needed to make his great escape so the man wasn’t kept conspicuously waiting.

Not that he didn’t trust Josie and Diego, who could probably walk him straight out to the road with no challenge. Just that the fewer people who knew, the better. Need To Know. Great operational policy, and one he’d had to keep, even with Selena.

He found a seam in the high chain-link, a spot already half separated. The wire cutters on the Leatherman swiftly created a gap big enough for a medium man of agile nature, and Cole trotted away into the brushy winter wood that had crept up on the place. Nothing grew strongly or tall in this rocky land, it seemed, except the unrest that had brought Selena here and now might kill her.

He intercepted the taxi easily enough, not surprised to find that the driver spoke perfect English. They ascertained that Cole’s departure had been clean, and then started off in a series of routine course changes meant to expose anyone following. It was a process that might normally take hours…but Cole didn’t have hours.
Selena
didn’t have hours. He said as much; the man only nodded. The flushing process wasn’t for Cole or Selena…it was meant to protect Seth. It could be shortened under duress…but not eliminated.

His cell vibrated in his pocket. Cole fumbled for it, thinking
Selena!
—and found himself caught off guard by Diego Morel’s deep voice. “Damn good thing I thought to get your number,” Morel said, “if you’re going to pull spook tricks on us. I thought we were on the same side.”

“We still are, as far as I know.” But Cole winced at the phone. “I’d say call it habit, but—”

“Yeah,” Morel said. “I guess I wouldn’t just sit around on my ass watching UAV footage if I had an option to move in, either.”

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