Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (4 page)

She just didn’t know if she could forgive him.
Live
with him.

And then what?

If she was pregnant…she’d have to stay here long enough to stabilize this new legate’s office, in spite of the unrest. And then she’d have to go home…she’d have to tell Cole. To decide if she trusted him, or if she’d merely contribute to the long line of broken branches in her family tree.

And if this is any taste of things to come, I’ll have to carry around a barf bag wherever I go.

The water still trickled. She scooped another handful into her mouth, held it and spit it out. Her eyes stung, sympathetic to her throat. It wasn’t until she coughed, short and sharp, that she stiffened—and realized that the uncomfortable tang wasn’t coming from her abused throat, but from the air she breathed.

Tear gas.

Trickling in from the street outside? From somewhere in the building?

Damn. Damn, damn,
damn.

Selena jammed used tissue into the trash, grabbed her briefcase and took a deep, steadying breath, pulling herself away from the emotional wallops of the what-ifs and dropping back into the calm, cool world of black and white—of this end of the gun versus the other.

Except she didn’t have a gun, and she didn’t have her knives.

Maybe she wouldn’t need them. Listening at the bathroom door revealed only silence, and she peeked out. The smoke hung thickly in the abandoned hallway. Selena ducked back inside, took another deep breath—this one to hold—and eased out into the hallway, running silently to the waiting room she’d left so precipitously only moments before.

Empty. Allori’s teacup lay broken on the floor, tea soaking the priceless carpet.

Son of a bitch.

The door leading to the prime minister’s office stood slightly ajar, and Selena made for it, her chest starting to ache for air. But breathing meant coughing, and coughing meant being found.

She didn’t intend to be found until she understood the situation. If then.

Razidae’s office proved to be empty, as well, the luxurious rolling office chair askew at the desk, papers on the floor, the private phone out of its sleek-lined cradle—and the air relatively clear. Selena closed the door, grateful for the old, inefficient heating system, and inhaled as slowly as she could, muffling the single cough she couldn’t avoid.

All right, then. The building was full of tear gas, the dignitaries were gone—and Selena had somehow missed it all.

They could have blown the building out from under you while you were throwing up and you wouldn’t have noticed.

Unless Allori and Razidae had simply gone to check out the tear gas and any attendant ruckus. In which case they could be caught up in it. Whatever
it
was.

Think, Selena.
She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and calmed the chaotic mess of her mind. She could call for help from here—Razidae’s private line might have an in-use indicator at his secretary’s desk, but it wouldn’t show up on any of the other phone systems, so she wouldn’t give her presence away by picking it up.

But there was no point in calling until she understood the situation. No doubt the authorities were already alerted. If she were near an outside window, she might even hear sirens—but Razidae’s office was in the protected interior, the only other exit leading to his secretary’s office. No, no point in calling. At least, not yet. But she would take this office as her possible home base, with its private phone line and its private location. Razidae was a prime minister who came prepared. All his resistance to U.S. overtures of assistance with Berzhaan’s counterterrorism program hadn’t been because of his denial that the problem existed. Rather that after years of having his country pulled this way and that, sovereignty lost, he wanted to maintain Berzhaan’s independence in all aspects of administration.

Selena couldn’t really blame him. But she wished he’d been a little more receptive. Maybe they’d have prevented this day’s events.

You still don’t know what’s going on.

Well, then, she told herself. Let’s find out.

Selena laid her briefcase on the desk, thumbed the token combination lock and flipped the leather flap open. She’d left her laptop behind in favor of her tablet PC, and the briefcase looked a little forlorn…a little empty.

Not much to work with. No Beretta, no extra clip, no knives…

Maybe she wouldn’t need them. Maybe by the time she discovered what had happened, it would actually be over.

Nonetheless, she took a quick survey: cell phone, battery iffy; she turned it off and left it behind. A handful of pens, mostly fine point. She tucked several into her back pocket. A new pad of sticky notes. A nail file, also worthy of pocket space. Her Buck pocketknife, three blades of discreet mayhem, yet not big enough to alarm the security guards. It earned a grim smile and a spot in her front pocket. A spare AC unit for her laptop, which garnered a thoughtful look and ended up stuffed into the big side pocket of her leather duster. A small roll of black electrician’s tape. A package of cheese crackers—

Selena closed her eyes, aiming willpower at her rebellious stomach.
I don’t have time for you,
she told it. Without looking, she set the crinkly package aside, and then surveyed the remaining contents of the briefcase. A legal pad and a folder full of confidential documents. She supposed she could inflict some pretty powerful paper cuts. A few mints and some emergency personal supplies she wasn’t likely to need if she was actually pregnant.

No flak vest, no Rambo knife, not even a convenient flare pistol.

Then again, there was no telling what she might find with a good look around the capitol. Almost anything was a weapon if you used it right.

Selena jammed the rejected items back in her briefcase, automatically locking it. She tucked it inside the foot well of Razidae’s desk and checked to see that she’d left no sign of her presence—except there were those
crackers….

She made a dive for the spiffy executive wastebasket beside the desk, hunched over with dry heaves. Mercifully, they didn’t last long. And afterward, as she rose on once-again shaky legs and poured herself a glass of the ice water tucked away on a marble-topped stand in the corner, she tried to convince herself that it was over. That she could go out and assess the situation without facing the heaves during an inopportune moment. That it was over, because
over
meant she’d eaten something that didn’t suit her and not that she’d added pregnancy to this volatile mix of Cole’s infidelity and Berzhaan’s turmoil.

She dumped the rest of the water into a lush potted plant that probably didn’t need the attention, wiped out the glass and returned it to its spot. She very much hoped that she’d creep out to find an embarrassed guard and an accidentally discharged tear gas gun. Then she could stroll up with her pens and her pocketknife tucked away, as calm and cool as though she hadn’t been heaving in Razidae’s wastebasket moments before.

A stutter of muted automatic gunfire broke the silence.

So much for that idea.
Selena’s heart, already pounding from her illness, kicked into a brief stutter of overtime that matched the rhythm of the gunfire. “All right, baby,” she said to her potential little passenger, pulling her fine wool scarf from her coat pocket and soaking it in the pitcher. “Get ready to rock and roll.”

But as she reached for the doorknob, she hesitated. She could be risking more than her own life if she ran out into the thick of things now. As far as she knew, whoever had pulled the trigger of that rifle didn’t even know she existed. She could ride things out here with her lint-filled water and her cheese crackers.

Or she could be found and killed, or the building could indeed blow up around her, or whoever’d fired those shots could succeed in their disruptive goal, and Selena and her theoretical little one could be trapped in a rioting, war-torn Berzhaan. She closed her eyes, her mind suddenly full of images of frightened students and dead capitol workers and a dead Allori. She closed her eyes hard.

It really wasn’t any choice at all.

Chapter 4
 

T
he smoke settled toward the floor in the long hallway. Selena’s eyes watered above the damp scarf, but not so much that she couldn’t see. The hallway was all hers. She hoped it stayed that way.

If she did this right, she’d complete her prowling unseen; she’d have an idea where Ambassador Allori had ended up and how Prime Minister Razidae had fared. She’d find the college students and even the arrogant Berzhaani businessman from the lobby.

And she’d find the Kemeni rebels.

Steady there. She didn’t know the Kemenis were behind this.

Yes. I do.

On this side of the five-story capitol, the prime minister and his cabinet members generally went about their business, addressing the problems of a nation with a tumultuous past. On the other side, ceremonies and social functions filled a dining-ballroom so grandly exotic it would have suited a Russian czar—and, given the country’s past annexation, might have once done just that. The kitchens, the maintenance, even a detention area…all on that side of the building. Somewhere.

With some fervency, Selena wished that just once, she’d had a chance to glimpse a blueprint of the capitol. The CIA probably had one…but they hadn’t shared, and though she had a request in with Oracle, Delphi hadn’t yet come through. For now, Selena was on her own.

All too literally.

She decided to start with the lobby. Moving carefully through the halls, silently over the carpet on her rubber-soled lightweight hikers…she spent long moments listening before she turned corners, stifling the constant impulse to cough and keeping a firm mental control over her unhappy but quiescent stomach. She found signs of struggle—pictures knocked askew, a coffee cup shattered against the wall, stains splashed across creamy paint…even a smudge or two of blood, a handprint where someone had reached out for support. As an undertone to the tear gas, the equally acrid smell of gunpowder grew stronger.

When she peered around the final corner and into the unfolding delta of the lobby, she winced. The faint haze of remaining tear gas couldn’t hide the aftermath of the struggle, wasn’t strong enough to cover the visceral smell of blood and death. One guard sprawled before the security arch, his face missing. Selena couldn’t see the other, though she heard noises from behind the standing desk where he’d been. Still alive?

Behind the desk…that’s where her gun had been stored, in its own lockbox. She took a step around the corner, exposing herself. She might as well be as naked as she felt; she was just as vulnerable. She eyed the semiautomatic pistol in the dead guard’s hand. Any thoughts she had of going for the weapon vanished as she saw the slide jutting back. He’d emptied it at someone.

Or maybe just at the bullet-riddled wall on his way down.

She could still grab it. She might find ammo if she could locate the security office. But she’d prefer her own familiar weapon, so she took a few more silent steps toward the counter and the rustling noises behind it, the occasional grunt. Her hand dipped into her pocket, her fingers twisting in the cords for the laptop AC adaptor.
David and Goliath.

She figured she was stamped as David in this particular scenario.

As she reached for the sleek granite desk edge, fingertips hovering and ready to support her as she leaned over, a man popped up from the other side. His bearded face reflected astonishment; he dropped a handful of booty and scrambled to bring up his rifle, catching the muzzle brake on the inner structure of the desk. Selena jerked her hand from her pocket, whipped the chunky little AC adaptor over her head once to gather momentum and slung it against the man’s temple. Down he went, falling with a strangely soft landing.

Selena pushed off against the desk, levering herself up to crouch atop it, ready to follow through—to scrabble over the rifle if she had to. But the man lay awkwardly on top of the dead guard from whom he’d been pilfering, the rifle out of reach.

And David wins again.
Selena didn’t let regret for the dead guard slow her down. Time to grab a weapon—the Abakan rifle, an obvious if puzzling Kemeni favorite, or the lockbox with her gun, or the guard’s gun…she didn’t care. But shouted alarm warned her; she looked up in time to see green-and-tan-clad figures rounding the corner out of the hallway opposite her own approach path. She instantly dived for escape back the way she’d come, just barely rolling into the movement as she hit the floor. Gunfire exploded into the silence; wood chips and plaster spit through the air. Selena rolled with purpose until she hit the wall and scrambled to her feet, shouting
, “Grenade!”
as she flung the adaptor in their direction.

They didn’t stop to think why she’d warn them; they only reacted to the word, flinching and ducking as the adaptor bounced at their feet. It only took them an instant to realize the black device was not a grenade, not even a unique new American grenade—but by then Selena had thrown herself around the corner and driven out into a long-legged sprint. On her way past a stairwell she slammed the door open hard enough to hit the wall behind it but never hesitated, retracing her steps to make the next turn before they gathered themselves to charge the hallway in her wake. In moments she found the waiting room from whence she’d come, hesitating only long enough to leave the door open just the way she’d found it the first time. She dashed through to the prime minister’s office, grabbed her briefcase against the faint possibility that they’d trace her steps this far and headed out to his admin’s office. There she quickly rifled the desk drawers, ignoring the keyboard and flat panel screen monitor that had been slung across the room as well as the tea spilled across the desk. She hoped for but didn’t expect to find a weapon and found more reasonable treasure instead: a ring of keys.

Enough time spent; the echoes of frustrated shouts came faintly through the waiting room on the other side of Razidae’s office. Selena ran out into a hall that ran parallel to the one she’d just left, heading for the set of stairs that logic told her would be opposite those on the other side and taking them two at a time when she found them. All the way to the fourth floor, where the secondary residences filled the space. Guests, dignitaries, distant family members…here they lived. A fumbling game of find-the-key finally netted her entrance, and she eased halfway into the hall, not ready to commit herself yet. She didn’t think the Kemenis would be up here just yet—they hadn’t had enough time to secure all the public space—but she took nothing for granted. She hesitated, taking her breathing back down, listening and watching.

If anyone hid here, they were—quite wisely—still hiding. Selena let the door close behind her, making sure it latched as silently as possible, and then turned in the direction that would take her back above the ballroom, moving at a more cautious and sedate pace.

She had no doubt there’d be plenty of time for more running later.

Other books

The Great Escape by Fiona Gibson
Sekret by Lindsay Smith
Who Am I Without Him? by Sharon Flake
Crossing the Line by Bobe, Jordan
Island Girls by Nancy Thayer