by Julie Coulter Bellon
All Rights Reserved
Special Agent Jake Williams had plans for today. Plans that included going to Texas to track down a terrorist. But instead, he’d been pulled off a plane and was now cooling his heels at the U.N., waiting to be taken to Admiral Moore.
He couldn’t be more annoyed.
He rolled his neck, wishing the security personnel would hurry up. The two men were clustered behind a monitor, clicking through screens and giving him that we’ll-say-whether-you-get-through-or-not look every now and then. Jake stood there, trying to smile at them instead of grimace, swallowing words he’d probably regret later if he said them out loud. He worked for Homeland Security Investigations for crying out loud. Why was this taking so long?
With one last polite smile at the two slowest-security-people-in-history, he pulled his phone out. There was a chance he might be able to save what was left of the day if he could get through this meeting with Admiral Moore in record time and back on track with his case. If only he could have refused the meeting in the first place. But there were few people in this world that could say no to Admiral Moore. Trying to distract himself, he tapped on his messages and waited for them to download.
Why hadn’t anyone emailed him an update? Did Tyler have anything? Had they lost their lead on Nazer? His finger hovered over the phone icon. He’d already called Tyler twice on the way here and been told to wait for an update. He probably wouldn’t appreciate a third call. As tempting as it was, Jake moved his finger away from the call icon and clicked off his phone instead. He blew out a frustrated breath. He shouldn’t be waiting for updates, he should be the one in the field giving them.
He put his phone back in his pocket. Maybe no news was good news. Tyler Coughlin was the go-to guy on his Homeland Security Counter-Intelligence team and he could track a bee in a blizzard. But even with all Tyler’s skills, Nazer al-Raimi had slipped away every time they’d gotten close and that stung. Today was supposed to have been the day to put that all in the past, the big reward for spending the last six months tracking this guy and his operations in the U.S. He needed Tyler to give him good news.
“Here’s your pass. You’re cleared.” The security guard closest to him handed him a card to clip on his jacket like he was bestowing an Academy Award on Jake or something.
Finally. He took it and put it on. “Thanks.”
The other security guy waved as Jake passed by. “Sorry for the wait. You know how it is.”
Jake nodded and gave him a real smile, sorry he’d been frustrated with them before. They were only doing their jobs. If anyone should understand the importance of checking and double-checking when it came to security, it was Jake. And he’d learned that lesson the hard way, too.
He swiped a hand over his face, eyeing the couch in the first lobby he passed. He’d been up nearly thirty-six hours straight and he was starting to feel it. The thought of meeting up with Admiral Moore gave him a little shot of adrenaline, though. He’d served under him when he’d been with the SEALs and he was the toughest commanding officer Jake had ever been privileged to work with. After another glance down at his tie, he hoped his suit still looked pressed. Admiral Moore’s opinion mattered and it was one more reason he couldn’t have refused this meeting.
He walked down the beige-carpeted floors of the Secretariat building, door after door of conference rooms on either side of him. His job at Homeland required him to be inside a lot of the time, but he always had options of going into the field and that was what he loved. It was what he’d loved about the SEALs, too. But today he just wanted to find the right room, get it done, and get out. He resisted the urge to take his phone out again. He needed to be out there, squeezing every source he had about why Nazer was in the U.S., and hopefully capturing him before he got across the border.
Unfortunately, all the doors looked the same. Several people milled around an information desk of some kind. Jake waded through them to the very young and very serious man behind it. “Jake Williams. I have an appointment and I can’t seem to find this room.” He showed him the paper he’d been handed the moment he’d gotten off the plane this morning.
The guy behind the desk looked at it, then back at his computer. “You’re almost there. Go down the hall and around the corner.”
“Thank you.” Jake nodded to the security guard posted at the corner of a door. Was he guarding someone inside the room? Or was that his normal post, just standing there watching the information desk? If it were Jake, he’d hope for the first option.
He walked down the short hall, slowing his steps. He couldn’t appear too eager to get this over with, but at the same time it couldn’t look like he was dawdling. He needed his best professional walking pace. Maybe put his hands in his pockets for a casual, yet focused, appearance. Not that he’d learned that with the SEALs. He’d learned that during his transition from the SEAL teams to the Human Intelligence division. They’d taught him the finer points of presentation and how people perceive others and that training had come in handy in so many areas of his life, especially in Homeland Security.
He took in the hall that led to a larger lobby on the end of it, the walls covered in art. The one closest to him was a desert scene and the color scheme blended in with the beige carpet and beige wall. All the beige reminded Jake of his last SEAL assignment overseas. He never thought he’d get the sand out of his hair and clothes after that one, or the scratchy feel of it off his skin.
The painting three paces to the right, though, was a large fractured snowflake. It looked so out of place with all the beige, its blue, white, and silver color scheme jumping out at him. That was how he felt today. Like a fractured snowflake that didn’t belong in the sea of beige.
Continuing down to the lobby, his step slowed when he saw who was sitting on the couch waiting for him. Ryan Smythe. His gut tightened. Last time they’d been coworkers hadn’t gone well and Ryan had transferred to Jake’s old Human Intelligence Division in the CIA. Their friendship from serving together as SEALs had been severed as cleanly as their working relationship, and he hadn’t seen him since. This was going to be awkward.
“Hey, Ryan,” Jake said as he drew closer. He stood over him and folded his arms, knowing Ryan would stand. Ryan always preferred the eye-to-eye approach.
Ryan stood, but surprised Jake by holding out his hand. “Jake.”
They shook hands and Jake could feel tension radiating from him, but that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Jake. It could have to do with the reasons why they were both being called to this meeting.
“What’s going on?” Jake sat down on the couch next to where Ryan had been sitting. Maybe if he didn’t mention what’d happened between them, they could go back to how it was before. Or, at least a version of it.
“I’m here for the meeting with Admiral Moore.” Ryan sat next to Jake, but didn’t meet his eyes. That didn’t bode well.
“I haven’t seen the Admiral in a few years. What about you?” Was Ryan working on something with the Admiral? Why would the CIA be involved in this?
He glanced over at Jake. “Yeah, I’ve seen him.” He ran his hands through his blond hair. “It’s not like anyone has a choice about that. When he wants to see you, you show up. I think you’re the only person who might’ve had a chance to turn him down. You were always his favorite. Our whole team thought so.”
Jake smiled at that, the tension draining away. “No way. Admiral Moore doesn’t have favorites. And I always got extra PT and grunt work while you were getting your beauty sleep.”
“That’s how I knew you were his favorite.” Ryan sat back and settled into the couch like he wasn’t planning on getting up again.
Jake’s phone buzzed and he took it out of his pocket. Tyler. “Sorry. I need to take this.”
He walked a few paces down the hall. “Tell me good news, Ty.”
“I have good news and bad news.” Tyler’s voice sounded far away and Jake knew the phone was between Ty’s shoulder and chin. He was probably coordinating all his resources while talking on the phone. His fingers rarely left his keyboard when they were on a case.
“Just tell me we found him.” Jake lowered his voice, in case Ryan was eavesdropping. Knowing the CIA, though, they were probably being briefed simultaneously with Jake. Their agencies had been better about communication in recent years, but in this moment, Jake wanted to be the first to know.
“We got his port of entry,” Tyler said. “Our guy in the Gulf cartel got it firsthand that they were paid a pretty penny to bring Nazer in through the Laredo crossing. That’s the good news.”
Laredo. The word sank through Jake’s consciousness. He’d suspected that all along, but it was pretty gutsy to go through there. It wasn’t the easiest way for sneaking into the country, but when did Nazer do anything the easy way? “What’s the bad news?”
Everything in the background on Tyler’s end quieted. That’s how Jake knew that whatever Tyler was going to say was important. It was a quirk he had, but it always alerted Jake to listen closely to whatever Tyler was saying. “That’s also how Nazer got out. We were about an hour too late.”
Jake closed his eyes and gripped the phone. So he’d possibly had a chance to take him into custody if he’d made it to Texas today. It was a slim one, but it was there. “Can you confirm that?”
“Confirmed. He was spotted getting on a private plane just outside of Tamaulipas, Mexico an hour ago.”
A ball of discouragement lodged in Jake’s chest. He’d gotten away. Again. “Ty, how are we supposed to fight these guys when our borders have more holes than the beginner targets at the shooting range?” He leaned against the wall in front of the fractured snowflake painting. “Did the informant hear what the end game was for being in the U.S. at least?”
“No, he didn’t have anything else, but I have everyone on the ground listening for even a whisper of Nazer or what’s going on. We’ll figure this out.” The keyboard clacking in the background resumed. He sounded sure, but Jake wasn’t as optimistic. They’d been close too many times now. Nazer al-Raimi was always one step ahead no matter what Jake tried to do. He sighed. “Thanks, Ty. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way back to the office.”
He hung up and two other men came around the corner, headed right for him. Neither of them paid any attention to Jake, so he turned and went back to Ryan, giving him a tight smile as he sat back down. Ryan didn’t ask what the phone call had been about and Jake was glad. He didn’t want any affirmations from Ryan that the CIA already knew what Jake had been told. That would add insult to injury at this point.
The other men nodded a greeting to Ryan and Jake as they approached, but didn’t miss a beat in their conversation about the waffle they’d gotten from a food truck. Jake’s stomach rumbled. There was one waffle truck in particular he loved to go to whenever he was in New York and he hadn’t eaten yet today. Yeah, he was jealous of these guys. He watched them fold themselves into small uncomfortable chairs across from the conference room doors. He was glad they weren’t right next to him. They probably still smelled like waffles and that would be asking too much of any hungry man.
He watched them smile and laugh together, but even with their casual air, they had a military bearing. They were obviously part of this meeting somehow, but acted like they were here to shoot the breeze.
“Hey, Ryan,” Jake nudged him in the side, his voice low. “You think those guys are Army?”
Ryan looked at them, then back at Jake. “Nah. They look too happy to be in the Army. Probably Air Force or something. Those guys are always happy with their heads in the clouds.”
Jake gave an amused chuckle at the dig, but he wasn’t looking at the other men anymore. A woman was coming down the hall, her professional pace a little faster than Jake’s. She was dressed in business casual with a white blouse and black dress pants. Her jet-black hair was swept back from her face, accentuating her long neck and bronze skin, but when she looked at them, her eyes were mesmerizing as she measured each man she was approaching. Even from this distance Jake couldn’t look away. A quick glance to the corner showed him that the other two men watched as well. She had captivated them all.
Ryan nodded toward her. “She’s gorgeous, but from the looks of it an unhappy diplomat. How could you not smile with a cushy U.N. job?”
Jake didn’t answer. The woman had stopped in front of the other two men and he was shamelessly trying to hear what they were saying to her. They stood and shook her hand, greeting her just softly enough that Jake couldn’t hear what she’d said.
At that moment, Admiral Moore opened the conference room door. He was thinner than Ryan remembered, a little gray at the temple, but still a commanding presence. Ryan and Jake straightened immediately. “Sir.”
“This way, gentlemen.” Admiral Moore’s tone was abrupt and brooked no argument. He barely spared a glance at the other three people waiting near them, but gave a curt nod. “We’ll be with the rest of you shortly.”
Jake’s eyes slid back to the woman, her mouth tightening in annoyance at the Admiral’s words. She wants in. That much was easy to see. Did she know what was going on? Or was she looking for answers like him?
Whichever it was, hopefully they both got what they came for today. He squared his shoulders and cracked the knuckles on his right hand. Let’s do this.