I stepped off the Learjet at the private airfield just before dawn. I’d been on the plane exactly seventeen hours, twenty-six minutes and fourteen seconds, wearing the same eight-hundred-dollar dress I’d worn when I killed a man twenty-five hours earlier. One of my shoes hadn’t made it out of the desert, and I clutched what remained of the other shoe in my right hand and my nine millimeter in the left. Apparently, eight-hundred-dollar dresses didn’t come with pockets or holsters, and I didn’t have the kind of cleavage that made a viable hiding place.
A black Cadillac DTS with limo-tinted windows waited at the end of the runway, so I took a deep breath and headed for the car, steeling myself for the ass-chewing I knew was coming. But when I opened the door and slid into the passenger’s seat, the angry, balding man I’d expected to see was nowhere in sight. Instead, a slightly overweight, fiftyish, African-American woman frowned at me, shaking her head.
“Girl, you are in one heap of trouble,” said the driver, Hadley Reynolds, CIA executive assistant extraordinaire.
“Did he have a heart attack when he heard?” I asked, wondering why the director had sent Hadley instead of coming himself. “I figured he’d be here to run me over with the car.”
“He had a moment there during that phone call when I wondered. His face turned so red, I thought he was going to pop, but then he rushed out yelling at me to pick you up and take you to meet him as soon as you arrived.”
I sighed, my fleeting thoughts of a real meal and decent clothes slipping from my mind. Not only had the plane been stocked with healthy food, it hadn’t contained an ounce of alcohol. “I guess picking up a burger and six-pack on the way is out of the question?”
“It’s six a.m.”
“Not in the Middle East,” I pointed out.
“This is Washington, D.C., not some giant sandbox. Besides, you’re meeting at a café. You can have all the fat and carbs you want.” Hadley looked down at her own plump figure then over at me and frowned. “You know, I rarely ask for anything although I do a lot of favors—and God knows, I’m never going to fit in one of those size-four dresses they put you in—but why can’t you be kind to the shoes?”
I looked down at what was remaining of the Prada shoes and felt a bit guilty. When I’d opened the box containing the shoes at CIA headquarters, I thought Hadley was going to pass out. She’d stared at them as if they were magical. My reaction hadn’t been exactly the same. “I’m sorry.”
Hadley raised one eyebrow.
“I swear. I’m sorry. That entire situation got a little out of hand. I didn’t plan on ruining the shoes.”
Hadley sighed and patted my leg, like she’d done since I was a little girl. “Honey, I know you didn’t, but you keep having these situations. I’m afraid that one day I’m going to be picking you up in a box.”
“It’s my job.”
“The risks you take are not your job and you know it.” She paused for a couple of seconds. “You don’t have anything to prove…not to him or anyone else.”
I just nodded and looked out the window, not wanting to get into a discussion about my late father, the “him” in her statement. Even though he died when I was fifteen, I could still see him frowning at me and shaking his head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t blame him. Super CIA agent Dwight Redding had never made a mistake, never blown his cover, and never killed someone who wasn’t on the hit list.
Dwight Redding had been perfect. The golden boy at the CIA.
Changing mental channels, I focused on the current situation. “Why a café?”
“The director didn’t say.”
I studied Hadley’s expression, but she was telling the truth, which worried me even more. If Director Morrow wanted to meet with me somewhere other than CIA headquarters that could mean only one thing—he was letting me go.
I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, trying to prepare my defense argument. Best to hit him with it first, before he could pull the trigger—play to his sympathies. Yeah, that was it. If, of course, I could figure out exactly what his sympathies were before we got to the café. Eight years of working for him hadn’t provided a single clue.
Hadley made a sudden turn and pulled up in front of a dingy storefront with the day’s special painted right on the grimy window. “You sure he’s not going to kill me?” I asked, giving the neighborhood a quick once-over. It looked like the kind of place where no one would blink over the sound of gunshots.
Hadley shook her head. “If the director doesn’t kill you, the food in there probably will.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” I climbed out of the car, leaving the broken shoe behind, and headed into the café.
I spotted Director Morrow and another agent, Ben Harrison, in a booth at the back of the single room. Otherwise, it was completely empty. Morrow frowned as soon as he saw me walk in. As I got closer, he noticed my bare feet and downed his entire glass of water. I glanced over at Harrison, trying to get a read on Morrow’s state of mind, but he gave me an imperceptible shake of his head. Not good. Time for defense mode.
“I had to kill him,” I said as Harrison rose and allowed me to slide into the booth across from Morrow. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Harrison made a choking sound, sat down next to me and had a fake coughing fit into his napkin.
“Your personnel file,” Morrow said, “is full of those ‘no choice’ situations. Your hit count makes Attila the Hun look like a pacifist.”
“But he was going to sell that girl to the sheikh. She was only twelve years old and -”
“I don’t care if he had Siamese twins with puppies. You always maintain cover.” He held up two fingers. “Two years worth of work blown in less than a minute. It’s a new record, Redding.”
“I can still salvage it. Just put me back in.”
“How do you propose I do that? You were supposed to be the distributor’s new eye-candy. All you had to do was deliver the money, collect the drugs, and leave. But no, you had to kill the brother of the boss…an arms dealer who shot his wife for walking in front of the television during American Idol. Do you really think he’s going to give you a pass on killing his only sibling?”
“Not to mention,” Harrison added, “that most hoochies don’t go around killing people with their shoes. He’s probably figured out you’re not some ditzy gold digger.”
I glared at Harrison, who only seemed to have diarrhea of the mouth when it involved me. “There wasn’t any place on my body I could hide a gun—not with that sleazy dress I had to wear. And that shoe had a spike on it. What the hell else is it good for?”
“Jesus, Redding.” Harrison laughed. “Haven’t you seen a movie, a magazine ad…another woman in public? Stilettos are common among people with estrogen.”
“Which explains why you know what they are, and I don’t. Why don’t you play the girl on the next mission? You’re obviously better suited.”
“There is no next mission,” Morrow said, cutting off the argument altogether.
I whipped around to face the director. “You’re firing me? You can’t do that.”
“I could do that if I wanted to, but that’s not the problem. We got news from Intel this morning. Your face has been distributed to every drug and arms dealer that does business with Ahmad’s organization. He’s offering one million to anyone who brings your body to him. Ten million if someone brings you in alive.”
“Jesus,” Harrison said, all antagonism gone.
I felt the blood start to drain from my face, and mentally tried to force it back up. “So? It’s not the first time an agent has had a price on their head,” I said, hoping my voice sounded stronger than I felt.
Morrow shook his head. “We’ve never had a case this bad. Seeing you dead has become the personal agenda of one of the biggest arms dealers of the decade. I have no choice but to make you disappear.”
“No way am I going into witness protection. They’ll stick me in some bank teller job in Idaho.”
“I agree that witness protection is out, but not because I care what job you’d be asked to perform.” Morrow leaned across the table, his expression a combination of serious, concerned, and just a hint of fear. It was the fear part that made my breath catch in my throat.
“There’s a leak,” Morrow said, his voice low. “I know it’s coming from inside the CIA, but have no idea how high up it goes.”
I gasped, my mind trying to grasp what he’d said. It wasn’t possible. A traitor in the agency?
“No way!” Harrison jumped up from the booth and paced in front of it. “I don’t believe it.”
Morrow sighed. “I didn’t want to believe it, either, but the reality is, someone put Ahmad’s people onto Redding before she ever set foot on that boat. That whole scene with the girl was intentional—trying to force Redding to blow her cover so they could be certain. They knew she didn’t have a gun, but apparently didn’t factor in how dangerous she was in high heels.”
“Shit,” Harrison said and slumped back down in the booth.
Morrow looked at Harrison then back at me. “Both of you know that information about the mission could only have come from our office. According to Intel, Redding wasn’t supposed to make it off that boat at all, much less alive. And that whole shoe incident upped the stakes astronomically.”
“She can have plastic surgery,” Harrison said. “It’s done all the time, right?”
“No way!” I argued.
Morrow held up a hand to stop the exchange. “You’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies. Plastic surgery can’t change her height or her bone structure, not enough, anyway. Ahmad’s security equipment is top of the line. A single photo taken by one of his cameras, and they’d have the bone structure pinned right back to Redding. We still have another operative inside. We can’t afford the risk.”
“So, what am I supposed to do?” I asked, the gravity of the situation finally sinking in. “You’re telling me I’m not even safe at CIA headquarters? Where am I supposed to go?”
Morrow pushed a folder across the table. “I have an idea,” he said somewhat hesitantly. “It wouldn’t be official. Only you, me, and Harrison would know about it. That’s why I’m speaking to the two of you here. I can’t trust anyone else, and there’s the possibility that my office is bugged.”
Harrison glanced over at me and nodded. “Whatever you think, sir. I’ll do whatever you need.”
“All I need from you, Harrison, is to keep your mouth shut and remember this information in case something happens to me. For the obvious reasons, there will be no paper trail. Redding, on the other hand, is going to have to do a bit of maneuvering to pull this off.”
“Pull what off?”
“My niece just inherited a house from her maternal great-aunt. She’s scheduled to spend the summer at the place, going over the contents and getting it ready to sell. She’s never been there before, and my understanding is the aunt wasn’t the picture-hanging kind of gal, so there’s very little risk of anyone catching on.”
“Catching on to what, exactly?”
Morrow blew out a breath. “I want to send my niece to Europe for the summer, and I want you to go to Louisiana and pretend to be her. It’s the perfect cover. No one will be looking for you there, and no one in the town has ever met my niece. They just know she’ll be arriving sometime this summer to settle things.”
“Louisiana…you mean swamps and alligators and hicks?”
“I mean a small town with lovely people and a slower pace. Just until we’ve removed Ahmad. The hit on you is personal. Without Ahmad in charge, the hit will likely go away.”
My mind began to whirl again. “But that could be weeks…months. You can’t expect me to live in the middle of a swamp for that long. What in the world would I do? They probably don’t even have cable television. Is there electricity? Oh my God, isn’t that where they filmed Deliverance?”
Morrow shot me a dirty look. “You’ve spent days crawling through the desert with only a rifle and a bottle of water. Don’t tell me a couple of blue-haired old ladies and some mosquitoes are going to be the death of you. This is a vacation compared to your norm.”
He pointed to the folder. “This is some background information I put together on my niece. Her aunt probably talked about her, so the townspeople will be looking for someone meeting that description.”
“What about the Internet?” Harrison asked. “Most people are all over it.”
Morrow shook his head. “She had a stalker situation when she was a teen that scared her senseless. She’s been diligent about keeping herself off the Net. I’ve already checked and it’s clean.”
Morrow looked at me. “I need you to be ready to leave by tomorrow.”
I reached for the folder, making note of the fact that Morrow was looking off at the wall behind me rather than looking me in the eye. Not good. A feeling of dread washed over me as I opened the folder and started to read.
Sandy-Sue Morrow. Good God, the name alone stopped me cold.
I kept reading and felt the blood drain from my face. Finally, I looked up. “I can’t do this.”
Harrison, sensing something was seriously screwed, looked from Morrow to me, waiting for the dam to break. “You’re a professional,” Harrison said. “You’re a genius at undercover work—well, sorta.”
“This,” I said and shook the file, “is not undercover. This would require a reincarnation.”
“Now, Redding,” Morrow began.
“She’s a librarian,” I interrupted. “The last thing I read was an article on making a silencer out of a Q-tip, unless you count autopsy reports.”
“You’re going to inventory a house, not run a library” Morrow pointed out. “No one’s likely to ask you for reading recommendations.”
“So you’ll learn, just in case. It wouldn’t hurt you to have a hobby besides racking up bodies.”
Harrison shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. I’ve seen those knitting needles. Do you really think you should turn Redding loose on an unsuspecting population and give her a weapon? Remember that incident in Egypt with the #No. 2 pencil?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped. “That was a Pentel, not a #No. 2.”
Morrow cleared his throat. “I’m sure Redding will find a way to contain herself.”
I tossed the folder back across the table. “She was a beauty queen!”
“Holy shit.” Harrison dissolved into a fit of laughter. “No way is Redding pulling that one off. Look at her. Her hair’s shorter than mine.”
“My hair is convenient for my job,” I said, running a hand over inch-long, blond locks that had been trapped under a hot wig the day before, “and besides, I thought short hair was fashionable.”
“Short, yes,” Harrison said, “but you’re sporting the Britney Spears Nervous Breakdown style. Not a hit among men or the beauty pageant circuit.”
I threw up my hands. “This…this person has single-handedly set the women’s movement back ten years. Knitting? Librarian? Beauty queen? Please tell me I can kill her next.”
Morrow rose from the booth and glared down at me. “That will be enough. My niece is a lovely woman. And until further notice, you will become that lovely woman, or I will shoot you myself.”
“You could try,” I mumbled.
I bit the inside of my lip and clenched my hands. “No problem.”
“Good. Your afternoon is booked. You’re getting acrylic nails, a pedicure, hair extensions, and learning how to apply makeup and wear high heels without killing someone.” He gave me a broad smile then walked out the door.
Harrison gave me a sideways glance and inched away from me in the booth. His hand hovered over his weapon as he made a break for the door behind Morrow.
Fake hair? Fake nails? Someone touching my feet? Oh, God, they were going to paint my toenails pink, weren’t they?
I groaned and placed my head on the table, covering it with my arms. This was going to be even harder than the time I killed that drug lord with a Tic Tac.
And not nearly as satisfying.