Read Athena Force 12: Checkmate Online

Authors: Doranna Durgin

Tags: #Romance

Athena Force 12: Checkmate (5 page)

Chapter 5
 

“N
o,” Cole said into the phone, more firmly than he should and less firmly than he wanted. “I just got back. I’ve got something going on here, and I’m not going anywhere until it’s settled.” He wrapped the damp towel around his neck, a match to the one tucked around his hips, and barely listened to the persistent voice in his ear. Given the frequency with which Selena checked e-mail, he should have heard from her by now. He should have had an answer to his simple, straightforward question.

What’s wrong?

“No,” he said again, this time with a sharp shake of his head that his caller would have known to heed had he seen it. “Even if you couldn’t do without me on this, you owe me. You’d never have uncovered that budding little problem without me—hell, you’d never even have
known
about it. And who else do you have who can switch-hit with the FBI so easily? So back off, Sarge.”

The man wasn’t a sergeant. But in an organization where rank was rarely assigned, the nickname served its purpose.

“Yeah, okay.” Cole pulled the towel away from his neck, idly rubbing it across his still-damp chest, and glanced into the living room where he’d left the television on. Special news flash, generic sort of logo that meant whatever had happened was either too new or too unimportant to have its own catchy headline name. “I’ll be in touch at this number. It goes where I go, right? But don’t be surprised if I answer from Berzhaan.”

That got a little snort of disbelief, a warning to watch his ass if he even looked at that part of the world, and an abrupt sign-off that left Cole looking at his phone in bemusement. Berzhaan wasn’t vacationland, but the FBI wouldn’t have sent Selena into a war zone.

Especially not now. Not when he had a marriage to fix—and needed the chance to do it.

Except he looked up from the phone to find a map of that small country on the television with a dramatic arrow pointing at Suwan; the image flipped to an imposing building with barricades all around it, emergency and military vehicles beyond that, and an ambulance speeding away from the outside edge of it all.
Berzhaan
was the special news flash. Berzhaan and a sudden surge of violence across the country, killing people, destroying their livelihoods. “No one knows the Kemenis’ exact goals or what drove them to this move just when their arms dried up…” And the building was the Berzhaan capitol, only a few blocks from the embassy out of which Selena worked. The embassy that had apparently been evacuated as soon as the siege of the capitol began.

Then where’s Selena?

 

 

 

Selena pinned her hopes on finding a master key on the stolen key ring, and sighed with relief when the fourth key she tried snicked neatly into the well-lubricated lock of the room at the end of the guest quarters hall. No one answered her quiet knock, but she found the room littered with signs of use and tried the next door down.

This room looked ready for guests—or at least, ready to
be
ready. There were no flowers on the table in the suite’s first room, and when she found the bedroom she didn’t see any dents on the pillow. But it was clean and ready for whatever final touches were deemed appropriate for its next occupant.

She didn’t intend to stay here long. Sooner or later the Kemenis would do a room-to-room search, rounding up anyone they might have missed the first time through. She’d give them enough time to settle down…but not so much they’d entirely have their act together. And even though her inclination to rush down and check out the situation drove at her, she forced herself to brew a cup of tea from the supplies in the kitchenette. Her stomach hadn’t been more than grumbly, but tea might well calm it further.

And then she sat cross-legged on the floor on the opposite side of a plush chair, giving herself a good view of the double-locked door while remaining discreetly tucked away, her briefcase at her side. She sipped tea and she considered the situation and how little she knew of it so far.
Kemenis.
They seemed to have based themselves in the public part of the capitol. The ballroom, perhaps, where the students would have been. She still needed to discover their intent. If they were holding hostages, to what purpose? What demands would they make…and how soon would they start killing people to achieve those demands?

For the Kemenis had never demonstrated a reluctance to kill people.

 

 

 

Quiet moments later, Selena set aside the tea, pulling her knees up to briefly rest her forehead there. Her stomach felt better…soothed. Her mind still whirled with unanswered questions—was she actually, truly pregnant? So hard to tell with her whimsical cycles…Had Cole actually, truly faked an assignment to have an affair? So hard to tell with his astonishing ability to play the moment…to play
people.

But it shouldn’t have been. She should have
just known.
And he was sending e-mail from their home computer, returned sooner than expected. Not surprisingly—he obviously hadn’t had far to travel. Selena pulled her phone from the leather pocket on the side of her briefcase and turned it on. Its pale blue LED screen informed her she had voice mail, and that she had less than half the battery life left. She stared at it, tempted.

No. She’d wait until she had answers to her other questions—the Kemenis’ intentions, their manpower.

Answers it was just about time to find out.

In her hand, the phone vibrated. Selena jumped, chided herself for being nervy and checked the incoming number.

Cole. Of course it was Cole; the message was probably his, too. It’d been forty-five minutes, maybe even an hour since the Kemenis had made their move on the capitol. By now CNN had a live feed going. He’d be expecting to find her at the embassy…and he’d be wrong.

The phone gave another hopeful vibration, and this time Selena thumbed the on button, resolutely putting the phone to her ear. “Hello, Cole.”

“Selena!”

She’d never thought to hear Cole frightened. Of anything. But the fear tinged his voice even through this staticky satellite connection.
Cole’s voice.
It was a wonderful, smooth low voice that triggered a flush of the very emotions she’d been trying to avoid—along with the usual warmth she felt in his presence.

The very reason she had to run so far away in order to sort out her feelings.

She’d always responded to him that way—the first day she met him, the day they’d gotten married, and each and every time he turned that smile on her. With effort, she managed to avoid blurting out her suspicions about being pregnant—because he really didn’t need to know it. Not now, when she was trapped in a building under Kemeni siege. For whatever he’d done, whatever potential affairs he might have conducted, she knew he cared. Right there in his voice, she could hear how much he cared. She just wasn’t sure if he cared in the way that she needed—or if he even could. He was so good at filling so many roles…maybe he simply couldn’t limit himself to one relationship role.

You believed he could when you married him. That he
had.

“Lena?”

Selena blinked.
Battery time. Don’t waste it.
“Listen,” she told him, moving up to her knees so she could react more quickly if anyone came to the door during this time she couldn’t hear them as well. “I’ve got to save this battery, so I only have a moment. I’m in the Berzhaani capitol building.”

He swore a blistering oath, but cut it short. “What’s your situation?”

“At liberty. As far as I know, I’m the only one. I’m about to go down and scope it out, but I think Allori, Razidae, the staff and a whole busload of college students all picked the wrong day to be here.”

“Fits what I’ve heard.” Cole swore again, more softly this time. “Any chance you can get out?”

“I don’t know yet. I doubt it. They know I’m here.” Selena hesitated, hunting the best words. Businesslike words. Orderly words. “What have you heard? What do the Kemenis want?”

“Razidae’s resignation,” Cole said promptly. “Along with all his advisors, support staff, any capitol employee who ever touched the hand of an American in peace and all dogs who’ve wagged their tails at Americans. The cats can stay, because everyone knows they’re notoriously fickle anyway.”

Selena closed her eyes, touching the bridge of her nose. “And the threat? When do they start killing people?”

“That part’s not clear. At least, not as it’s coming over CNN. The truth is, no one out here knows what’s really going on in there. They issued that short statement of demand, and—”

“Then I’ll find out,” Selena said. What the hell were the Kemenis up to? The other members of Razidae’s government would never step down, not even to save Razidae’s life. Those were the prime minister’s own well-known instructions, leaving the Kemenis very little to gain even if they survived. From the tone of Cole’s voice, he felt very much the same. She told him, “I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Stay off the landline.” It was more secure…he’d understand that.

“I’ll be here.” Cole hesitated. Even through her own unexpected relief at this reassurance—she’d rather have no one else handling details on the other end of the phone with her life at stake—Selena could practically see him wrestling with himself. She wasn’t sure if he lost or won when he spoke again. “Lena, I know you’re upset about something—”

At home, he meant. At him. What had given her away? How unfair that he could be so certain of her when she couldn’t manage the same in return.

“—and I know we can’t go into that right now. But don’t forget…” He hesitated, trailing off in a way that meant he was hunting for better words. “Just don’t forget how much I love you.”

She hadn’t expected it. She didn’t know what to say. She let noisy static fill the air between them—wasting time, wasting battery power, but too surprised at the way her heart snatched those words to do anything else.

“I mean it,” Cole said, growing fierce. If he’d been there, he’d have pulled her close by now. He’d be looking down at her, arctic-blue eyes intense with the meaning behind his words, close enough for her to see that quirky dark blue spot on his left iris. “Whatever upset you, whatever goes on there, don’t you dare forget how damn much I love you!”

She couldn’t get her voice above a murmur. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Good,” he growled. “Now go save the day, will you? I’ll be waiting by the phone.” And he cut the connection before she could.

Selena flipped the phone closed, turning it off; her movements came automatically, and she gave them no thought at all. Instead she dropped her forehead back down on her knees.

…how damn much I love you!

It was a lifeline. He knew she’d run, if not why. He knew the peril she faced—if the Kemenis found her, they weren’t likely to escort her to captivity. She’d already caused too much trouble.
Come back to me,
that’s what he meant. What he wanted.

She gave herself the moment…let herself feel what his voice did to her—what his emotions did for her. Selena, orderly and logical and everything in its place…unless she was with Cole. Unless he sparked the unpredictable in her as he so often did. In the outside world, she wore her precision like a shield; in their apartment, she was just as likely to strip in one room so she could surprise him in another. Like the evening the week before he’d left, when she’d walked into the bedroom during his workout, bare as bare came, and straddled him on the exercise bench.

He lost all the air in his lungs in a surprised gust of exhalation, both arms dropping away in mid butterfly-curl, his chest beautifully exposed and ripe for touching. She moved against him, sighing happily, and by then he was hissing through his teeth, his hands fumbling free of the weights and only making it as far as the bench press bars, which he clutched in helpless reaction.

They’d only been gym shorts. They hadn’t lasted long.

Selena ached to think of the moment, in her heart as well as her body. For as physically sweet as it had been, the memory only hammered home what he meant to her. What he gave to her.

Spontaneity. Unpredictability. Outrageous daring. And right now, if she was going to survive, she needed to find it all within herself, too.

Chapter 6
 

S
elena took her outrageous daring back into the fray, leaving her briefcase under the bed and rinsing her teacup so as to leave as few signs as possible that she’d been here. She found a service elevator and tucked herself against the front wall beside the door. When the old doors clunked open on the first floor, she eased a hand over the
open door
button and held it there, giving any curious terrorist passing by plenty of time to check out the conveyance.

But no one approached. No one so much as grunted out a demanding question. Selena edged around the opening to find an empty hallway with a decidedly more utilitarian look than the other areas of the capitol she’d seen so far. The painted walls needed a new coat of their flat eggshell color, and the carpets needed cleaning—or better yet, replacement. A rolling cloth laundry bin sat at a haphazard angle against the wall, and the thick, steamy smell of food permeated the air. Roast lamb overlaid by all the spices of
baharat
—cloves and cinnamon and cumin and the sting of curry powder.

She held her breath, waiting to see how her stomach might react to the invasion of odors, but either the tea had done the trick or she’d gotten the problem out of her system. It was undoubtedly coincidence that as she held her coat closed with one hand, it rested low over her flat belly.
Flat for now?

Stop that.

She stepped out into the hallway, moving swiftly to the first inset door to consider what she’d seen along the way. A door at the end of the hall with a mop and bucket sitting outside it. Double swinging doors not far from her current position, which seemed to be—she peeked inside to be sure—a linen closet, full of napkins and silky-fine linen tablecloths. Not of any particular interest. The maintenance closet and the kitchen, on the other hand…

She listened, heard nothing but the ping of a water pipe, and headed for the swinging doors, quickly scanning the interior through the small windows before she invited herself in.

Fancy. Lots of gleaming stainless steel, a bank of gas stoves against the wall, a column of ovens butted up against them. Cutlery, pots and pans and obscure devices whose purpose Selena could only guess.

Bullets riddled it all. Blood smeared the floor, thick trails leading to a walk-in freezer. Food sat half-prepared, congealing over cold burners.

Selena raised a critical eyebrow. If she were going to stage a government takeover, she’d want to make sure her people had food available—not to mention a place to prepare it. As it was, she hoped the Kemenis had brought MREs along, because otherwise everyone would get pretty hungry before this incident was over. And a hungry terrorist was a cranky terrorist.

Still, no assumptions. Perhaps whoever ran this show wasn’t all that stupid after all, but had merely encountered a minor rebellion he’d had no choice but to quell.

Selena walked the kitchen, stepping over the blood trails…walking through them would only betray her presence here when someone inevitably came back to see just what could be done about the food situation. She helped herself to a lovely little paring knife, something she could stick through her belt without worrying about inadvertent stab wounds.
By all means, no inadvertent stab wounds.

Ice pick. Oh yeah. No easy place to put it; with regret Selena jabbed it through the bottom of her coat pocket, leaving the knobby handle within easy reach. Corkscrew? Too bulky.
For now.

Besides, she could always come back. A good iron frying pan upside the head did as much harm to a terrorist as to anyone.

A scuffle of sound alerted her, sending her up against the wall beside the double doors. When it came again she pinpointed it to the freezer, and immediately realized that not everyone thrown in that convenient storage had been as dead as assumed. She opened the door with much caution, ready for any survivors who might assume she was Kemeni.

In the glare of a naked lightbulb, a man stood tottering on his feet, his whites splashed with the blood of others and liberally soaked with his own. The impressive fillet knife he clutched wouldn’t have done him much good against Kemeni rifles, but he held it with much determination regardless. The equally determined look on his face faded to confusion as he took in the sight of Selena in the doorway, all her borrowed weaponry in concealment, an American woman in informal clothing who should be screaming at the sight of the grotesquely piled dead before her. Men in kitchen whites, men in green jackets.

Selena didn’t scream. She said in Berzhaani, “You’d best sit before you fall. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“The Kemenis have already done
that,
” the man said. Short, stout enough to fill out his whites without slopping over the edges, he carried a cynical air and a nose generous enough to have provided for two men. He eyed her, taking hold of a shelf to steady himself. Before him, the pile of dead; around him, shelves of the highest quality food products, arranged in meticulous sections. “Are you a crazy woman, coming here? If they don’t have you, why don’t you run?”

“They know of me,” she said, letting her voice take on an absent tone. “They just don’t know where I am. I’d rather they not find out—just as I’m sure you’d rather they not know you still survive.”

He made an emphatic gesture with his free hand. “I do believe we are allies, whoever you are—the enemy of my enemy.”

“That last part’s accurate enough,” she murmured. “Are you badly hurt? There’s not much I can do for you…tablecloths, maybe.”

“I know only that I’m not dead.” He glanced at the others from the kitchen, and sorrow flickered across his features, settling in at the flare of his substantial nostrils and the press of his lips. “I have been shot in the arm, which does not work very well. Otherwise, I am only cold.”

“Tablecloths should help with that. We could raise the temperature—”

“And sit here in the middle of rotting food and the decomposing bodies of my friends?” He shook his head, sharply. “They brought their weapons in through the kitchen, you know. Mutaa turned out to be one of them. They came running in here and he handed out rifles like kitchen treats. And who are you again?”

“Someone who wants to get us out of this mess.” Selena knew he wouldn’t quite be able to understand, and he didn’t. She left him with a baffled and wary expression. “I’ll be right back.”

Retrieving a pile of tablecloths from the linen closet took only moments. She brought him as many as she could carry, and used several to cover the dead. The others she draped carefully over the man’s shoulders, and then she found a plastic crate full of cabbage and flipped it upside down, disregarding the rolling cabbages. “Here. Sit.” And as he complied, looking more bemused than ever, she asked, “Have they been here since they did this? Have you heard them checking out this area at all? Did you overhear them say anything about their purpose?”

He raised a hand, along with both eyebrows.
“Ai, ai,”
he said, the Berzhaani equivalent of
hold your horses.
“They came, they killed, they left. I’ve been in here with the others since then. I’ve heard nothing. And they did not take the time to explain themselves before they killed.”

Selena tucked her lower lip in her teeth for a thoughtful chew. Not helpful. Not helpful at all. She’d gained a few useful little defensive weapons here, but no information to speak of. She knew from Cole that the Kemenis were demanding Razidae’s resignation, but she still had no idea what the terrorists truly wanted. Oftentimes the public demand and the private intent didn’t match very neatly…and until she knew the Kemenis’ true goals, she couldn’t assess the situation properly. Act on it properly.

She found the man watching her with some curiosity, and saw his dawning realization that she wasn’t merely calculating her best options for escape.

Not yet, anyway. Someone had to stop this. And just like this morning at the shrine village, Selena didn’t see anyone else around with the means.
Just me.

She’d jammed several spotless linen napkins into the cargo pocket of her coat, where they cohabited with the ice pick handle. Now she pulled them out and crouched beside him. “This’ll hurt.”

He grunted as she took his arm from beneath his tablecloth cloak and propped it against her leg, shaking a napkin out and efficiently rolling it into a tube. “It already hurts.” But he winced as she tied the tube around his wound, not taking the time to remove the white chef’s uniform shirt that showed the blood so well, and admitted, “That hurt more.”

She grinned at him, finding herself drawn in by his cranky charm. “My name is Selena.” She knotted the ends of the napkin, barely long enough as they were. “I’m a pushy American from the embassy and I’m going to do something about this situation. Would you like to help?”

He eyed the bandage as she released his arm, opened and closed his fist with enough vigor to make himself wince and carefully tucked the limb away beneath the tablecloth. “I am Atif. How do you think I might help you?”

“Who knows this section of the building better than you do?” Selena shrugged. “My guess would be
no one.

“And in that you would be right.” He gave his co-workers a pensive look and closed his eyes in resignation—an acceptance that his part in this crisis wasn’t yet over. “What is it you need to know?”

“I think the Kemenis probably have everyone gathered in the ballroom, or at least one of the function rooms nearby. I need to check them out.
Quietly.

He smiled. Partly it looked gleeful, as though he had just the right answers for her. And partly the expression looked…predatory.

 

 

 

And so Selena found herself in a small, barely lit corridor sandwiched between the ballroom—currently in dining-room setup, Atif explained—and the hallway behind it. The corridor ran the length of the function rooms, providing discreet entry for maintenance, food service and even the occasional escaping Berzhaani diplomat who’d had enough of Western arrogance. The divider between the corridor and function rooms was a flimsy one, but it was enough. Selena counted the function rooms by the seams where outside light leaked through, just as Atif had instructed. And she kept an alert ear out for any indication that she wasn’t the only one inhabiting the narrow warren. It took no key to enter this place, only the knowledge that it existed.

Not far from the kitchen, Selena herself had merely opened the door Atif had identified for her, discovering what looked like a linen closet but what was in truth an exchange area. On one side, used dishes, burned-out table lights, candle stubs…some of them still waited for cleanup. On the other, shelves for supplies and trays and pitchers. And out the back, beyond the thick black curtain…this lovely little corridor.

Atif’s brow had wrinkled slightly as he told her of the hidden access, and now that she was here, Selena had no doubt why. Each room had a number of tiny spy holes, no doubt so the servers could keep an eye on the needs of the diplomats and functionaries without intruding into their events. Selena peered through one into a small empty room meant for one-on-one discussions, and considered how easy it would be to observe such proceedings—or better yet, to observe the private discussion between two officials from another country who thought themselves alone. Was there a similar arrangement in the room where she and Ambassador Allori had habitually waited for the prime minister? Selena routinely and discreetly swept such waiting rooms for recording and listening devices…but she couldn’t check for warm bodies lurking in narrow passages.

From ahead, a voice rose in sudden but short-lived fright, muffled enough to come from outside her little personal hallway. Selena moved quickly toward it and found the peephole by its light. With her own breath loud and revealing in her ears, she put her eye to it.

Bingo.
A function room crammed with people. She found Allori; she found Prime Minister Razidae and his deputy prime minister, Amar bin Kuwaji—all under the careful eye of a tan and olive green dressed guard.
The Kemenis must want the entire government to step aside, or they’d just kill Razidae.
Regardless, she doubted Razidae would survive. He was the most significant unifying leader this country had had for generations, and as long as he lived, the people would rally around him. Any Kemeni government would hold only temporary rule.

The others, they’d keep as leverage. As a way to induce Western and European countries to pressure Razidae’s people into stepping aside.

The others.

As if those lives could be summed up so simply. There they were—the two chaperones who’d accompanied the students. The woman Selena had seen in the lobby, but not the man. A handful of diplomats who’d been unlucky enough to choose this day to conduct their business. The glamorous but modest events coordinator. Three young women in green jackets.

And the students.

Terrified, pale…they huddled together against the walls and around the few small round tables available. One girl had her legs crossed so hard Selena was sure she’d wet her pants before she had a chance at a bathroom. Two other girls comforted a third who cried softly, and when they looked across their friend’s bowed shoulders, their expressions turned grim. And there, in the corner—the young man who’d given Selena such an openly appraising look and the girlfriend he’d annoyed, holding each other with a desperate affection.

The hostages had none of the small comforts this opulent room was meant to provide—no water, no finger sandwiches, no veggie plates with exotic dips arranged on expensive glass and silver serving ware. They weren’t being attended, feted, or even being fed the propaganda they’d come to hear. Their lives, in an instant, had turned into terror.

Dammit.
It wasn’t right. These were young people; they hadn’t even started their lives. They had nothing to do with Berzhaan’s problems; they had done nothing to offend the Kemenis. They were here to broaden their horizons, to learn acceptance of this very culture. They had not, like Selena, willingly accepted a career that on occasion turned her into a target and at the least kept her in restless countries with high incidents of terrorism. They hadn’t made those choices at all.

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