Chapter One- False Match

“We want to offer you a full-time job.”

Samara Jones stared across the battered wood desk at Commander Shepard of the Program, a formerly top-secret government military agency. “And if I don’t accept?” She’d arrived on campus yesterday, and barely had time to get her bearings. All she knew about the place was what had been written in the newspapers, basically nothing. She knew they’d been breeding genetically enhanced soldiers since the sixties. Other than that, she was in the dark.

She also knew it was these genetically enhanced soldiers who had rescued her from captivity. After a nightmarish year, it was hard to believe she was free. Free from being coerced to work for one Doctor Paulson out of fear her son would be harmed.

“Then we will arrest you for conspiring with Paulson, a known enemy.”

Maybe not so free after all. Across the desk, Commander Shepard’s lips tightened into a thin line. It was obvious he knew he was acting like a bastard. He knew more than anybody she hadn’t had a choice about working for Paulson. They’d kidnapped her son and forced her cooperation. When it came down to it, Commander Shepard wasn’t acting any better than their enemy, Paulson. At least Commander Shepard had the decency not to involve an innocent child, but it wasn’t much consolation.

She turned away and took a deep breath, controlling it so it didn’t turn into a heaving gasp or sob. Yep, back in prison. When all she wanted was a little ranch house with a nice yard for Luca, and a clean lab for her to conduct her research in. “Well, then I guess I accept.”

Shep smiled. “Excellent. Someone from human resources will be in touch to talk salary and benefits package.”

How could he say that with a straight face? As if she had a choice. The time for her choices had come and gone. She wished they’d made the offer years ago, when she was straight out of med school and excited about taking her genetics study in unexplored directions. But no, she’d hadn’t considered any offers from government agencies and only wanted to go into the private sector with supposedly more funding and more freedom.

The irony was that she’d had the freedom stolen away, and would likely never have it again.

“We want you working closely with Doctor Wise,” Commander Shepard said. “She wants to explore the possibility of creating enhanced children from unmatched parents and research the possibility of enhancing already developed fetuses.”

She nodded. It’s what Paulson had been working on also. It was what everyone was working on. Designer babies was the holy grail of genetic enhancement, and deep inside, she knew they were years away from significant breakthroughs in the science. Not to mention the ethics involved. Her stomach rolled over as she contemplated more years stuck in this place working on a project she was coming to oppose ethically, and yet she was the world’s leading expert. Oh the irony.

Unfortunately, her ethics hadn’t come into play when she’d worked for Paulson and her progress hadn’t been fast enough for him, so he’d felt the need to kidnap Adam Blacker and Loren Stanton, a matched couple from the Program compound, in order to force them to breed enhanced children to be handed over to terrorists as future soldiers.

“Several of our breeding-aged soldiers are balking at finding their genetic match. They want more freedom.”

“To fall in love,” she said.

“What was that?” The Commander looked startled.

“They want love matches. Falling in love based on science scares them.” Though she’d been working in the field of genetic matching for years, it was brand new to the rest of the world. The idea that a person’s DNA code could be matched to another’s to create a more perfect human was earth shattering to the world at large who’d only learned of it over the summer.

“I don’t understand why, but I suppose you could be right.”

“I am.”

“I know you’re bright. We’ve had your records sent from your schools and early jobs. Very impressive.”

She’d been hearing that word all her life in relation to her academic pursuits, but since he seemed to want some sort of acknowledgement, she murmured, “Thank you.” She studied the leather black toe of her shoe as it rubbed against the beige carpet on Shep’s office floor.

“Doctor Wise will give you a list of your top priorities. Oh, and there’s an already matched couple who are having trouble conceiving. They’ve suffered from a few miscarriages. Make them priority one.”

“Of course.” She stood and turned to go.

“Oh, and Doctor Jones…”

She turned back to Shepard.

“Chase Stanton will be handling your introduction into the Program campus. Consider him a tour guide of sorts. I don’t believe you met him.”

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

The office door cracked open and a man who looked more like a surfer with his sun-streaked messy hair and bronze skin popped his head in. He had fading bruises across his jaw and cheekbone. “You wanted to see me, Shep?”

“Stanton, come on in.” The surfer entered and the office was suddenly too small for all three of them. It wasn’t so much that Chase was huge. He was the typical Program enhanced soldier, a little over six feet with a lean, muscular body. It was his internal energy that bounced off him as if his life force couldn’t be contained by skin.

She subtly stepped back.

“Stanton, this is Doctor Samara Jones,” Shep said. She didn’t imagine it, Chase lost his smile and his positive energy almost shut down into something cold.

“Chase, you’ll be her shadow for the next few weeks to help Doctor Jones learn her way around,” Commander Shepard said. She wondered why the other doctor on campus, Doctor Wise, wasn’t going to be her mentor. It didn’t make sense to use a soldier as her welcome committee. It was a misuse of resources, unless they felt they needed someone with military training. She wasn’t sure yet whether it was to protect her from Paulson or to protect them from her.

“That’s all for now, Doctor Jones,” Shepard said. “If you give it a chance, I think you’ll like it here. We run a good program and do important things.”

“If you say so, sir.” She eyed her new shadow and exited into the hallway, wondering if he’d follow closely. He did. Once the door closed firmly behind him, she stalked down the hall to head outside in search of some sunshine.

* * * * *

Two Weeks Later

 

A prison was a prison even if it had pretty gardens and no locks on the doors. And Samara could no longer ignore the clues, just as she’d suspected when Commander Shepard offered her the job two weeks ago, she was back in a prison. Sure, this particular prison had a lovely campus, Olympic-size pool and an amazing state-of-the-art genetics lab, but if she wasn’t allowed off campus without an escort, then it was for all intents and purposes a prison.

Once again she was being coerced to work on scientific projects not of her choosing. At least her current bosses were a little more flexible and less Doctor Evil than her last boss, Doctor Paulson.

“Goddamn bastard,” Samara said under her breath.

“You talking to me?” Chase Stanton asked.

She looked up from her notebook to glare at the man in the room. He may have introduced himself as her personal guide to her new home, but now she knew better, he was her guard.

“I may be a lot of things, but bastard isn’t one of them,” he said.

“I wasn’t talking about you,” she muttered. “I save the good adjectives for you.” In the two weeks they’d been together, they hadn’t had any conversation more than tersely worded exchanges. She’d done her best to ignore him, but there was something about his presence that had her reading her notes twice without understanding them and dropping equipment willy-nilly. If she broke any more glass, she was going to have to requisition her own vacuum cleaner.

He grinned at her but there was nothing friendly about it. “Care to share?”

Boy did she, but calling Chase a pigheaded, cocksucking son of a bitch wasn’t going to make any friends on the Program campus. And since it looked as if the Program was to be her new home for the foreseeable future, she probably shouldn’t annoy their most popular resident. That was the biggest rub. She was unaccountably attracted to him, yet he’d done nothing to encourage her. If anything, he’d been as silent as a sculpture.

They both looked up as the door to the lab opened, and Marlena, the Program head chef, popped in with a plateful of warm, out-of-the-oven cookies for Chase.

“Thanks, Lena. You’re the best,” Chase said around a mouthful of cookie. He waited until the door closed behind Marlena before reluctantly holding the plate out to her, offering one.

She shook her head in refusal. Marlena had baked them especially for her señor Chase. Had she willingly offered her one? Of course not. So of course she didn’t indulge herself in a cookie, even if she could smell the melting chocolate from across the room.

She didn’t understand it. Chase had a steady stream of visitors at all hours popping in to say hi, share a joke or bring home-baked goodies. Apparently, he had charm, but he hid it well from her, hence her desire to call him names. It wasn’t just his co-soldiers stopping by, as exhibited by Marlena’s appearance. Yesterday the campus gardener had swung by.

She got suspicious looks and medical scientific requests, not delicious-smelling cookies fresh from the oven. What was it with Stanton and the ladies of the campus? Even the married ones were stopping in to check on him. Maybe if you squinted he was kind of good-looking. Okay, the jerk was freaking gorgeous. There was no squinting about it. A blind person would think he was movie-star gorgeous with his sunny smile and surfer-boy blond hair all perched on a tan, muscular body.

She was not a shallow person. It took more than good looks to attract her. So why then was she staring at Chase when she was supposed to be staring in her microscope or asking him to pass things to her in the hopes their fingers might brush? Get it together, Jones.

“Jones, did you hear me? Who were you talking about?” Chase asked. He had put his tablet down and was staring at her as if she had the answers to climate change and the date of the coming apocalypse. She didn’t know anything about apocalypses and she could probably solve climate change if she spent a little research time on it. But her field of study was genetics and fertility. Hence why she was stuck here in yet another prison.

“Were you talking about Paulson?” Chase asked. “Is he the bastard?”

She nodded and turned slightly in her chair, bending over her pad, hoping he’d take the hint and not talk to her and stay silent like a good bodyguard was supposed to do.

“What are you working on?” he asked.

Oh now he wanted to talk. Great. “Stuff.”

He snorted. “Undergrad degree from Harvard and a medical degree from Hopkins, and the best you can do is ‘stuff’? Come on, Jones. I expect better.”

She looked up to give him her scary-mom stare. “Where did you go, Faber College?”

For the first time since Chase had been assigned to be her shadow, she earned a genuine grin and she got why he had females coming to say hi every minute of the day. His smile did things to her lower belly. Mushy, girly things.

“Hah. That’s funny, Jones. I wouldn’t have guessed you’d seen Animal House. I took you more for a PBS documentary or Masterpiece Theater kind of girl.”

“I watch plenty of documentaries. I happen to love good comedies also.” It was true. Her lack of a social scene in high school meant she’d had plenty of time for renting from Blockbuster. In an attempt to figure out the lingo and social patterns of her teenage peers, she rented all the movies they quoted from in the hallway around the lockers. At some point the research had morphed into genuine appreciation for raunchy comedy.

“I have all the National Lampoon movies on disc. Maybe I’ll bring them in. If we’re gonna be stuck together, we may as well make it fun,” he said.

“If you wish,” she said. And bent back over her notebook, hoping he wouldn’t sense her interest.

“I do a mean Robot Mime. Wanna see?”

“No.” Heck yeah, she wanted to see him do the hilarious scene from EuroTrip. But she couldn’t. Commander Shepard was expecting her to have a report on Paulson, and Doctor Wise wanted her to read through her latest paper on their proposed methodology of the Program’s genetic enhancements. “You’re in a weird mood today,” she said.

“Weirder than usual?”

She shrugged. “I only met you two weeks ago. I don’t have a baseline to ascertain your definition of weird, but you’ve been silent to the point of rudeness and now suddenly you’re Mr. Chatty.”

He scoffed at her and then abruptly his expression got serious and searching. She tried to continue working, but it was tricky with him looking as if he wanted to say something, but instead was glowering silently.

“What is it, Chase?”

“No, go back to work. I don’t want to bother you.”

“You’re bothering me now,” she said.

“Okay, fine. I’ve been wondering. Can a person have two?”

She froze, staring at the notes on her lined pad. What was Chase talking about? “Two what?” He’d made a leap even her quick-working brain had trouble following.

“Two genetic matches.”

“Statistically speaking, yes. A person can have several people who would make good breeding partners. But it often comes down to geography. Most people don’t meet their perfect genetic breeding partner because they’re never in the same place at the same time. For all we know, your perfect breeding partner is in Istanbul.”

“Not Constantinople?”

She opened her mouth to remind him of the country’s name change then laughed at Chase quoting the popular song. “They Might be Giants, right.”

Chase grinned. “Gotcha.” Then he lost the grin and went back to brooding.

She bent over her work for another moment before she was unable to resist continuing the conversation. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason.”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course you’re asking for a reason, Chase. You never talk to me without a reason. So what’s it this time? Are you looking for a threesome? And that’s why you’re hoping I can give you scientific proof that two wives would be better than one? You want to hide behind science to defend your alternative lifestyle.”

He released a genuine guffaw. “Saucy, Jones. Saucy. I like it. I didn’t know you had it in you. And no, I don’t want one wife, let alone two.”

“Then why ask?”

He captured her gaze and stared intently. She swallowed at what she saw in his expression.

“Can I trust you, Samara?”

It was the first time he’d used her first name. Slowly, she bobbed her head. “Yes. Especially if you tell me something medically related. Ethically, I can’t divulge anything.”

“Good.” He turned his back to her and stepped a few feet away then turned back. The small room was a makeshift lab set up only for her. It was smaller than any lab she’d worked in before and Chase’s large body seemed to consume all the available space.

“You met my sister Loren right?” he asked.

She remembered the tall, beautiful blonde who’d been one of her rescuers last month from Paulson’s fertility clinic. “Yes, I met Loren.”

“She’s my half-sister. My dad was married twice. I don’t think my parents were a perfect match. And now I’m wondering if they were a match at all.”

“What makes you think that?” She turned in her seat to fully face him and put on her concerned-bedside-manner expression. The look was something they actually taught in med school.

“Because, you know we had that traitor, Jonathan Keel?”

It wasn’t quite a question, but she nodded anyway. Keel had been a leader here at the Program but turned out to be a traitor. He’d been responsible for setting up Adam and Loren and sending them to Paulson.

“Anyway, I think Keel did something to the paperwork when my dad was being matched. Keel had been dating Loren’s mom and she left him for my father. But then the test results said they weren’t a perfect match. And my father, the ever obedient soldier, agreed to marry my mom, who on paper was his perfect match.”

“But you don’t think they were a match?”

“No. Isn’t it odd that my father displayed all the signs of a matched person, but not toward his wife?”

“It is odd, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your parents weren’t genetically compatible.”

“That’s what I’d like you to find out.”

“Find out what?”

“I’m starting to suspect I’m not perfectly enhanced, and I want to know for sure. I think Keel messed with my parents’ lab results.”

She bit her lip. This was probably a bad idea. It was a man’s career, his whole identity for Pete’s sake. “Are you sure you want to know? What will it change?”

“Everything.”

That’s what she was afraid of. But she looked at him and something pressed on her heart. If she were in the same boat, she’d want to know. “Okay. I can take a look.”

“Awesome.” He held out an arm. “Do you need to draw blood?”

“You want to do this now?”

“Why not? No time like the present. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”

“Stop throwing aphorisms at me. Let me get my kit.” She stood and reached into an upper cabinet with white laminate doors. She’d barely had a chance to unpack all the equipment the Program had ordered for her. The needles and rubber gloves were still in sealed cardboard boxes. It took a few minutes, but she finally had all the necessary tools.

He held perfectly still as she wiped his arm then drew some blood. He held the cotton ball over the puncture wound and grinned as she put an X-Men Band-Aid over the tiny bloody spot. “Luca’s Band-Aids?”

“Actually, they’re mine.” Though her son Luca liked the bandages also.

He laughed. “Oh I get it. X-Men, you play with genes.”

“Very smart, now let me take a look.” The room got quiet as she took the small sample and bent over the microscope. She worked in silence for a while until Luca, her darling four-year-old, burst in the room, stopping to do an elaborate high-five dance with Chase, then leapt onto her lap, shoving her notes in a heap on the floor. “Mommy!”

“Luca, is it lunchtime already?” She squeezed her arms around her little boy as hard as she dared without injuring him. She breathed in the precious scent of baby shampoo and little-boy sweat. He’d been playing hard. “What’ve you been up to, kiddo?”

This was a good part of being at the Program campus. She had her son with her. No, it was more than a good part, it was a great part. The very best part. Seeing Luca sleep at night, hugging him whenever she wanted meant everything to her. Even the little things such as cutting his meat at meals were glorious. The last year had nearly killed her emotionally, only being allowed an hour a day for visits.

“Emma took me to play soccer with some other kids. There’s a little girl named Kylie. She’s a baby. She’s three.”

She looked to where Emma, another new inhabitant of the Program who’d also been a captive of Paulson, hovered in the door. ‘Thank you,” she mouthed and Emma ducked out of the room after smiling warmly at Chase, who reciprocated.

“I’m the biggest boy here, Mommy.”

“Are you?” She didn’t correct him that he was the oldest child. Not the biggest. At least not for long. The sperm donor she’d selected as Luca’s father was only five feet ten inches. Factoring in her petite height, he only had a twenty percent likelihood of growing taller than six feet. At least according to her most recent calculations.

“Mommy, can you come play now?”

“Soon,” she promised. “I have to finish a little work for Mr. Stanton and Commander Shepard.” She deliberately left off Doctor Wise’s name. Luca adored the commander but wasn’t as enamored with the colder, older Doctor Wise.

“And then can we go to Disney World?”

From across the room, Chase choked back a laugh.

She wrapped her arms around Luca’s shoulders and lifted him for another hug. “Soon, sweetheart.” She never should’ve made promises she didn’t have the power to keep. When they’d been held captive under Doctor Paulson for the year, she’d entertained Luca by talking about all the wonderful things they’d do when they finally left Paulson’s evil fertility clinic.

Parenting mistake number one. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. She’d read all the parenting books. She should’ve known better. But the parenting books didn’t exactly cover what to do in a yearlong hostage situation.

Luca’s face fell into a pout. “Kylie’s been to Disney. She likes the princesses.” His tone made it clear what he thought of that.

“Not you, baby, right?”

Luca sat taller on her lap. “Not me. I like the roller coasters.”

She smiled and brushed a loving hand over his scalp. The child had never been on a coaster in his life. But who was she to disillusion him?

“Rock on, kid. You got good taste,” Chase said. “Anyone else ready for lunch? I could eat a cow.”

Luca giggled and slid off her lap to grab Chase’s hand. Samara’s heart thumped as she thanked a higher being that Luca’s trust in grown-ups and the world at large hadn’t been shattered by his year with Paulson. He’d been relatively sheltered and treated nicely. Other than having to sleep in a separate wing of the complex from her, he hadn’t fully understood they were prisoners. Not her, she’d borne the brunt of the captivity trauma. But she’d bear anything for her son.

She put her notebook aside and stood. “Lunchtime, but then I’m meeting with Commander Shepard after lunch. Luca, you’re going to play at Kylie’s again.”

He released Chase’s hand and turned to her. Fear coated his expression. “But you’re not leaving, right, Mommy? You’re staying. I can come see you anytime I want? Right, Mommy?”

She knelt and opened her arms to her son, who practically bowled her backward with his enthusiastic hug. “Anytime, Luca.” She clasped his tiny head to her shoulder and blinked back tears. She deliberately didn’t look up at Chase looming over them like a menacing shadow. Let him think she babied her son. She didn’t care. Luca was her business, and hers alone.

Luca pushed his way out of her embrace and turned as if he hadn’t regressed to a clingy toddler and dashed ahead, shouting to some of his newly made grown-up friends. Whatever gene she lacked in social skills, Luca had it in spades.

She let her gaze follow her son for a minute then started walking after him.

“You’re good with him.”

She turned toward Chase who’d waited silently for her.

She nodded, but didn’t explore the unexpected compliment. Sometimes it felt she would crack open to become a seething mass of emotion if she let even a little out.

“After the year he’s had, he needs stability and unconditional love. You’re giving him what he needs,” he said.

She froze and narrowed her eyes at the tall soldier, not sure she recognized this serious man lecturing her on parenting. Uncomfortable, she pushed past him and marched toward the dining hall.

 

Chase folded his arms across his chest and dared Samara to respond to him. He half hoped she would. He’d like nothing better than to poke some holes in her armor. He’d meant what he’d said about her parenting. He wished his mother had been half as strong.

But she hadn’t been, and he’d had to learn to cope on his own. It hadn’t been easy, but he’d found a way. He smiled down at the back of the woman who practically seethed electricity toward him. Let her. He could handle it.

She had no idea he wanted to run his hands through her stick-straight hair and muss it until it went wild or untuck her prim blouse from her slacks. Doctor Jones was wearing borrowed clothes, yet she owned them with a grace and quiet dignity that made him want to ruffle her up.

He wondered what she’d be like in clothes of her choosing. He’d know soon enough. He’d sat looking over her shoulder yesterday as she’d visited a few websites and ordered enough clothes to replace the ones left behind. All boring colors and sensible materials. He’d really tried not to stare when she’d ordered undergarments and lingerie. She’d ordered several boring white or taupe bras and cotton panties in six packs. Not a bit of lace or thong among the bunch. But he did know she was a 34D. Little Miss—make that Doctor—Jones was hiding two delectable secrets behind that prissy blouse of hers.

He bet she hated her large chest, if the bras she ordered were any indication. Cleavage minimizing, with words like support and coverage in the descriptions. Blech. Give him push-up bras and wardrobe malfunctions any day.

On a hot August day like today, there was no need for formality. She could be wearing short shorts and a tiny, cleavage-revealing tank top. Look at him. Well, his shorts weren’t short. Low-riding cargos that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in a while and SpongeBob tee. It was clean at least, if you ignored the tiny holes under his armpit.

“Thank you for the compliment about my parenting,” she finally said, turning back with arms folded across her 34Ds. “Have you had much experience with children?”

He shrugged. “I may not be a parent, but I’ve been a kid who…” Whoa, not going there. Especially with Ms. Uptight Doctor.

“A kid who…” she prompted.

“Nothing.” Now it was his turn to use his height advantage to stride ahead. In her dainty heels and lack of nine inches on him, she couldn’t hope to keep up. “Let’s go eat,” he said loudly enough to let her know the moment was gone.

He kept his gait slow and easy as Samara stood behind him, but the click of her heels on the industrial floor told him she was finally following. It took another minute or two to make it into the cafeteria where Luca already had a tray and was sweet-talking Marlena, the lunch lady, into two pieces of cake. Samara smoothly foisted the tray from her kid and put the extra cake back. “Nice try, kiddo.” She then proceeded to fill the tray with the healthier lunch options.

The large light-filled room buzzed with conversation and laughter bouncing off the wood floor as it usually did at mealtimes. Since it was summer, the college-aged kids were home, making it even louder. Most would be gone by the end of the week, and things would quiet down.

Chase followed behind them, scooping up the returned cake, which he planned on sharing with Luca, two servings of roast chicken and a small side salad. His appetite was finally back to normal. After the beating he’d taken a few weeks ago when investigating Paulson’s clinic, he was still recovering, and his normal eating habits had been off. But then if he was back at normal health, he wouldn’t be on guard duty for Doctor Jones. He’d be out in the field somewhere. He couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not.

Once his tray was loaded he eyed the available seats and made his way to a four-seater table with cream-colored top, already partially occupied.

“What are you doing?” Samara asked with suspicion and disdain dripping from her words, as he plunked his gray plastic tray down across from hers.

“Chase,” Luca crowed happily.

“Eating with you. What does it look like?”

“Your guard duty doesn’t require you to eat with us,” she said, busily slicing a bright-red apple for Luca. “I’m obviously not going to do anything suspicious in full view of everyone here.” She swept her arm in a wide arc, indicating the clusters of other soldiers eating.

He didn’t think she’d ever do anything dangerous. Period. But that was for Shep to decide. No, he didn’t have to eat with her, but she’d been the most interesting option. He didn’t bother responding and slowly sank into the molded wood chair and picked up his fork, deliberately taking a large bite of salad. Let her try to move him. He outweighed her, outranked her and out-talled her. Wait, that wasn’t a word. Whatever, he was taller.

“Stanton.” Gavin called him from the adjacent table. He didn’t overtly question why Chase wasn’t sitting with his usual crew, but he did throw a questioning look at Doctor Jones.

He shrugged and kept chewing the crisp lettuce with Ranch dressing. They ate the rest of the meal in total silence, punctured only by childish observations from Luca.

“What’s on tap for the afternoon?” he asked when only a few bites of food remained on their plates.

She wiped her mouth daintily with her burgundy cloth napkin then repeated the process on Luca. “Back to the lab. Unless you’ll take me off campus.”

“Nope,” he said, but he smiled at her to lessen the sting. “You’re stuck on campus for now.”

“I know. Unfortunately,” she muttered. She obviously understood she didn’t have much choice in the matter. Hell, if she had a choice, she’d be eating fluffy, sticky cotton candy with Luca on Main Street, USA. Or not. Maybe the healthy doctor would say no to sweets even at the happiest place on earth. She was too uptight. Luca would need someone like him to go with them to make sure he had the proper amount of sugar before riding the craziest rides.

His brain did a hiccup at the image that conjured up. Him and Doctor Jones taking a trip like a family. Yeah, freaking, right. Never gonna happen.

For one, she hated him and two, the feeling was mutual. Well, not mutual exactly. He didn’t hate any woman. They were too soft and too sexy to elicit an emotion like hate. But Doctor Jones wasn’t good for his equilibrium. Every second in her presence was a reminder of everything he wanted to be but might have taken away if it turned out he was not truly enhanced. Eating lunch with her suddenly seemed like a bad idea. He picked up his tray with only a few bites remaining and moved over to Gavin’s table with a muttered, hasty explanation about discussing a new weapon on the market.

* * * * *

“It’s like you thought, boss. They took her to America.”

Doctor Paulson gripped the black handset tighter, though it made his arthritic fingers ache. He didn’t want to hear his target was in America, in a virtual vault and safe from him. “Is she living on the Program grounds?”

“Yes. Hang on,” Brian said. Paulson could hear his voice in the fuzzy background. “Oi! Piss off. I’ll take two parking spots iffin I want to.”

He sighed and prayed for patience. But at the wrong end of senior citizenship, he didn’t have much patience for waiting. If they didn’t get Doctor Samara Jones back, it would be a quick wait to his death. He’d made a deal with the devil, and now it was time to pay up. He chuckled without humor. For someone touted as a brilliant man in his youth, he’d certainly behaved foolishly in his old age. He’d risked everything for money. Stupid, when he remembered the old saying that you take nothing with you into death.

What was he going to do with millions of dollars in his bank account? He didn’t have any children, so there was no one to leave his money to. If Brian thought there was a chance to be named his heir, he had no doubt he’d face the wrong end of a gun someday. More than likely a pillow. A coroner would see no reason for suspicious death if a man his age suddenly stopped breathing one night.

“I’m back,” Brian suddenly said.

“Try not to get yourself arrested,” he said mildly. “We’re in enough trouble with the British authorities. We don’t need the American police on our trail also.”

Brian snorted. “As if. I got through customs with no cock-ups. They ain’t looking for us here.”

“But it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who you are if you were brought in for something as silly as fighting in public or a speeding ticket.”

“Fine, whatever, boss. Back to the chit. Want me to break in and grab her one night? No kid this time. Can’t carry two.”

Paulson remembered the tight security on the Program compound. It had been a fortress back when he’d lived there, and he could only imagine it was even tighter now. “No. Don’t. You’ll get caught and tortured for information.”

“You think I can’t take ’em.” Brian’s indignity bled through the phone lines.

“I’d guess there to be more than fifty enhanced soldiers living on the compound. Maybe you could take on one or two. But not fifty.”

“Fine.” A curt concession. “What should I do? Sit around and twiddle my thumbs?”

“Watch the gate. She’ll have to leave sometime. Doctor Jones will refuse to be kept prisoner there, and they’ll be unwilling to offer a coercive incentive.” He shifted the phone to his other ear, remembering he’d been willing to coerce Doctor Jones to his clinic in the form of kidnapping her son. No doubt Commander Shepard wouldn’t be willing to go that far.

“Follow her wherever she goes,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself, take her then. But have an exit plan in mind. How will you carry a protesting, possibly screaming woman through a public place?”

Brian chuckled, and it made even his spine tingle. “Oh we got a way. We’re not too far from the ocean. Just thirty minutes from Baltimore, a harbor town. Met a gent there the other day who said he’d take us on board, with any cargo, no questions asked for the right price.”

“Excellent. How’s your new partner working out?”

“He don’t speak no English. Just jibberish.”

“Arabic, Brian. I’d recommend you learn a few words.”

“Whatever. Gotta go.”

“Keep me informed. Remember, we need Doctor Jones or we don’t get paid.”

“Or worse,” Brian said, echoing his fears.

Paulson hung up and sat with the phone in his shaking hand for a long time. Whether his hand shook from age or fear, he couldn’t say. He’d made his deal and now he’d live or die by it.

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