Authors: Lynn Raye Harris
She sucked in a breath and gritted her teeth. “It’s possible, but I can’t guarantee it.”
Mendez looked grave. “You know what he sounds like, and that’s the key. He never gives the orders himself, always sends them through his lieutenants. We’ve never captured his voice… but you would know it if you heard it.”
“Maybe.” She shoved a hand through her hair. “I don’t know, but maybe. But how do you propose I do that? He’s smart and he’s not going to start making calls—or none that you can connect to him.”
“No, that’s true.” His gaze slid over the team. “We could wait, try to capture his voice. We talked of getting recordings, transmitting them here for you to listen to. But he’s too careful. We need boots on the ground, Lucky. We need the assets in place to take him once the ID is made. We want you to go in with Alpha squad.”
She blinked at him, the chill in her bones creeping outward until she was certain she would freeze where she sat. It was everything she could do not to let her teeth chatter. They wanted to capture Al Ahmad, not kill him. And they wanted her to go with them.
Had Kev known this from the start? She didn’t look at him as she fixed her gaze on Mendez.
“I’m not an operator.”
“No. But you can be a teacher.”
“I’m not following you.”
Mendez tapped on the keyboard, and a new slide popped up. “He’s in Qu’rim.”
Her heart skipped. “Qu’rim is on the verge of civil war.”
The capital city of Baq was still untouched by the violence—but it was moving closer every day. There was rebellion out in the desert, pockets of unrest near the city. She might be out of the military now, but she could watch CNN International and Al Jazeera like anyone.
Mendez looked grave. “Yes. But Baq is still safe at the moment. The airport is held by troops loyal to the king, and the king is secretly working with the U.S. on security. We’ve been sending arms for months now.”
Lucky clenched her hands into fists in her lap. “This is beginning to sound completely insane.”
“I’ll grant you that. But Qu’rim is important. More important than many people realize.”
He brought up another screen, and her heart nearly stopped. “Uranium,” she breathed. “They have uranium.”
Around the table, the guys looked grim. “Yeah,” Mendez said. “They have a mine. And it’s in our best interests to protect that. Should the rebels succeed—well, the balance of power could shift in the region. And that would not be a good thing for us.”
She felt numb. “I thought this conflict was about fair treatment. The poor taking from the rich and all that.”
“That’s what they want you to think. But it’s far more than that. The Qu’rimis have an enrichment program. So far, they claim it’s for peaceful means, but in the wrong hands…” He shrugged.
“You think Al Ahmad has something to do with this.”
His eyes flashed with approval. “Yes. The rebellion started a little over a year ago, and things have steadily gotten worse. He’s there. And he knows that if the balance shifts, he’ll be in a prime position. Qu’rim has chemical weapons. Al Ahmad wants them.”
She drew in a deep breath. If Al Ahmad had anything to do with this, if he got his hands on chemical weapons, if he got control of the uranium… it was a terrifying scenario with disastrous consequences.
“What do you need from me?”
Mendez leaned forward, his eyes sparking with intensity. “We need to know who Al Ahmad is, and we need to get him so we can put an end to the Freedom Force. For that, we need you. If it could be done any other way—” He slapped a hand on the table and she jumped. “But it can’t. We need boots on the ground, ready to take him. We need you.”
He turned back to the screen and pulled up another slide before she could say anything. “This is the scenario. Baq is still doing business as usual, and there’s a demand for English teachers. You speak several dialects of Arabic, and you would be able to fit in as an instructor. Naturally, you will be accompanied by your new husband.”
She started, but she didn’t think Mendez noticed. If any of the guys were uncomfortable, they didn’t show it. Except Kev. He seemed… stiff, angry.
And then Billy shot Kev a look, and Lucky revised her estimate. That was at least
guys uncomfortable with the idea. Three if you counted her.
“The rest of the team will be there in various capacities. You won’t be alone. And Sergeant MacDonald will be with you twenty-four seven, no matter what.”
Her heart squeezed tight. Kev didn’t say a word, but she sensed this was news to him the way his shoulders drew back even tighter than before. If she did this, she was going into Baq with Kev as her husband.
Lucky concentrated on what Mendez was saying. “And how am I supposed to find Al Ahmad in the midst of all this chaos? Baq is huge, and if he’s busy fomenting rebellion in some of the more remote quarters of Qu’rim…”
“He has a daughter. She goes to school in Baq.”
Lucky’s heart nearly stopped. That monster had a child? Oh dear God. A chill washed over her from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. “If you know all this, how can you not know who he is?”
Irritation flashed across his features then, but she knew instinctively that it wasn’t directed at her. Mendez was very proud of his brainchild and very protective of their accomplishments. The fact HOT couldn’t find the most dangerous terrorist in the world and neutralize him did not sit well with the colonel.
“I wish I could tell you that. But he’s careful. Paranoid. He does everything through intermediaries. We don’t know who his daughter is, but we know she is in a very exclusive school for girls. The students are daughters of the wealthiest, the most privileged of Qu’rimi society.”
“I’m not a teacher.”
“You speak the dialect. And you speak English. It’s all that’s required. Many of the people who sign on to teach English in Qu’rim are nothing more than native speakers. You at least have more than that going for you.”
“And won’t they be suspicious when I show up speaking the language?”
He shook his head. “We’re working with the king and certain high-placed people in his command. There will be no questions.”
Lucky closed her eyes and tilted her head back. This was not what she’d expected—and yet there was no way she could refuse. Everyone at this table was counting on her. And more than that, her nation was counting on her. If Al Ahmad and the Freedom Force gained control of the uranium mine—or Qu’rim’s chemical stockpile—the consequences would be catastrophic.
“All right,” she said softly. “Tell me what I have to do.”
Abdul Halim bin Khalid al-Faizan sipped his tea and read the papers that his wife had brought to him. There was much unrest in the desert these days. Much unrest.
As it should be, praise be to Allah. Abdul Halim’s lips curled in a small smile as he thought of all that would come to pass when opposition forces broke through the king’s defenses and conquered the city. It was almost time, but not quite.
There was still the matter of the uranium to be settled first. And it would be quite soon, he was certain.
But he was a patient man these days. He could wait.
He knew the Americans would be looking for him now that his code name had resurfaced. It was regrettable that his second-in-command had allowed news of his existence to escape. That would not happen again. He’d made an example of Jassar ibn-Rashad. No one would cross Al Ahmad now, not if they wished to avoid the fate he’d meted out to his former lieutenant.
Fortunately, few people knew that Abdul Halim and Al Ahmad were the same person. Jassar ibn-Rashad had not known. Abdul Halim made it a point never to let his lieutenants know his true identity. Those who knew were related to him by blood or marriage, and they would not tell. As his fate went, so went the fate of the family.
Abdul Halim lifted his head as his wife came into the room. Fatima was a pretty creature but empty-headed for the most part. But Lana loved her. It didn’t hurt that Fatima was quite enthusiastic in bed, which was never an unwelcome thing. In fact, looking at her now, at her trim figure beneath the silk dress she wore, his body began to stir.
And then Lana ran into the room. “Daddy!”
She ran into his arms and hugged him tight, her dark curls tickling his nose as he held her. He patted her head and set her away from him. She was a precocious child, much like he had been at her age. She amused him. He would even go so far as to say he felt an emotional attachment to her.
But he did not wallow in sentimentality. If he had to one day slice himself away from her, then he would do so. He would do whatever it took to achieve his goals.
“What is it, my pet?”
“I want a puppy.” She stuck her little lip out in a pout. Perhaps he should be angry with the blatant attempt at manipulation, but she was too much like him. At the age of six, Lana had a very high opinion of herself. He admired that greatly.
“Lana, did I not tell you not to ask your father for a puppy?” Fatima was standing with hands on slim hips, looking furious.
Abdul Halim ruffled his daughter’s hair. “I will think about it,
Now get ready for school.”
Lana stomped her foot and ran from the room. Fatima sighed. “I’m sorry. I told her not to bother you about a puppy.”
He shrugged. “She is a child. She does not understand delaying gratification.” He set the papers aside and picked up his phone when he heard the telltale buzz. There was a message from one of his lieutenants. It would be in code, of course. He opened it and began to read. Fatima knew better than to disturb him at such a time. She left the room in a cloud of silk and sweet perfume.
Abdul Halim finished reading the message and picked up the paper again. Nothing much happening other than more foreign arrivals in the city today. The world media was coming more steadily now because of the unrest in the desert.
Just wait until riots broke out in the city. They would be positively gleeful, the ghouls. Abdul Halim smiled to himself.
The doorbell rang and Fatima went to answer it. He heard the rustle of silk as she came back to the sitting room. His brother was behind her.
“Greetings, brother,” he said as Farouk came into the room and took a seat. Fatima left them and closed the door behind her.
Farouk accepted a cigarette. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to find the woman. She is dangerous to us now.”
Farouk blew out a column of smoke. His eyes flashed. He knew who Abdul Halim meant. The only person to ever escape once the Freedom Force had taken her hostage.
“We should have gone after her sooner.”
“We did not have the resources,” Abdul Halim snapped. “Once we were attacked, we had to scatter. It was impossible.”
Farouk had been there in North Africa, and he knew what had happened. The Americans had rescued her. And they’d shot Abdul Halim and left him for dead.
Now that his secret was exposed, Lucinda Reid was dangerous. He remembered that she’d insisted she was called Lucky. He’d laughed at that, but little did he realize at the time just how lucky she was. She was not only lucky, she was also spirited.
And she’d been defiant. So defiant. He did not like defiance, especially from a woman, and yet it had fascinated him too. His people had taken her from the street because he’d wanted to kill an American. He’d wanted to watch their government panic and posture, and he’d wanted to sow the seeds of fear in their tourists and in the local government. When Americans were scared, they reacted out of proportion to the threat. He liked how easily manipulated they were, and he’d thought to use it in his aims against the state.
He should have killed her immediately, but she’d fascinated him. He hadn’t known she was military until they’d gone through her purse and found her identification. She’d been doing work for her government, interpreting for the military commanders that were propping up the state on orders from the American government. He’d taken her capture as a sign, and he’d been determined to break her utterly before he killed her.
At first, he’d tormented her with words. And then he’d used his knife to mark her body. He had been so close to breaking her. To taking her for his own. He did not often mix sex and punishment, but there were times when it was necessary.
It had been necessary with her. She was disobedient and she’d inflamed him with the desire to punish. He’d wanted to prove to her that she was nothing, that her military couldn’t save her. He’d been looking forward to it so much.
But the Americans had busted in and taken her from him, and then he’d spent the last two years reestablishing his network. Abdul Halim viciously stubbed out his own cigarette. He’d wanted to deal with her sooner, but he was methodical and logical—and she’d presented no threat when he was thought to be dead.
But everything had changed with ibn-Rashad’s betrayal. Lucky Reid was now a loose end, and though it galled him to let her off so easily when she really needed to pay for her sins, it was his only choice.