Lady LibertyLady #1
Lady #1 Romantic Suspense Romantic Thriller Political Romantic Suspense
“There is no question that author Vicki Hinze has delivered a tour de force thriller that will leave readers gasping for breath. Lady Liberty is the ultimate thrill ride! More of an action/adventure suspense tale than a romance, this novel still manages to create a believable romance between the hero and heroine. This book would make one hell of a movie!”~Romantic Times
The fate of a country lies in one woman’s hands…
U.S. Vice President Sybil Stone, code-named Lady Liberty, has proven she can hold her own against some of the world’s most influential power brokers. But now, negotiating a vital peace agreement in Geneva, Switzerland, Sybil receives an urgent message calling her back to American soil.
In seventy-two hours disaster will strike, catapulting the United States into a war that will cost millions of lives. Only Sybil Stone holds the key to stopping it. Yet between Sybil and success lies a minefield of intrigue, betrayal, twisted motives, and three merciless enemies. Her only hope of survival–and the world’s–rests with Agent Jonathan Westford, a judiciously ruthless operative with one goal: in the face of overwhelming odds, to keep Lady Liberty alive.
Time is running out and trust is running thin. But Lady Liberty and Agent Westford know they must succeed–or the first-strike missile will launch…
Wednesday, August 7
Local Time: 21:30:27
“Lady Liberty is on the move.”
Agent Jonathan Westford stilled. The message had transmitted through his earpiece clearly, but what he had heard couldn’t be accurate. Three agents had been assigned to the security detail guarding Sybil Stone, the Vice President of the United States. Three. Westford as mission chief; Harrison, an old-timer; and Cramer, who was new to working Special Detail Unit’s international details. Right now, Liberty was supposed to be sequestered, having dinner in a private dining room with the other dignitaries, and Harrison was supposed to be standing watch. So why the hell was Cramer calling in her moves?
Forgetting his half-eaten dinner of steak and potatoes, Jonathan snatched his napkin from his lap and left the mellow sanctuary of the Grand Palace Hotel’s dining room, silently damning budget cutbacks, reduced manpower, and Home Base for allowing itself to be forced to assign a rookie like Cramer to any Level-Five SDU mission, much less to one involving Liberty.
The main lobby was littered with guests; too many of whom had been identified as press, and too many more who had not yet been identified. The hotel was far too public, in Jonathan’s opinion, but it had been the one place Peris and Abdan’s leaders had agreed to meet, and when the President of the last superpower in the world employed you and he said go, you went or you resigned. Since Jonathan hadn’t been ready to resign, he’d gone.
Keeping a sharp watch for oddities, he strolled across the expansive lobby, longing for the days of summit meetings at Camp David, or places equally secluded and less complicated to secure. Why was Liberty on the move? And why were Harrison and Cramer not reporting?
As soon as he cleared the watchful eyes of the press, Jonathan broke into a full run, hurdled the velvet-rope barrier restricting public access to the diplomatic wing, then barreled down the deserted hallway leading to the conference room where Liberty had spent the last four days trying to broker a peace agreement between the leaders of the former Soviet nations, Abdan and Peris.
She alone had succeeded at getting them to the negotiating table and, at least so far, she also had managed to keep their tempers simmering, though threats of eruptions hung as heavily in the air as their threats for war. Fired up over a mineral-rich land dispute, both countries had been stockpiling arms for months and, in the past few weeks, they had escalated their purchases significantly.
Both had nuclear weaponry in their arsenals. Both had demonstrated the will to use them. And both had levied the dubious task of convincing them not to use them squarely on the shoulders of Lady Liberty. Vic Sampson, the hotel’s chief of security, intercepted Jonathan at the mouth of the corridor. Years of hard choices seamed his lean face. “What’s up? Why is she off-schedule?”
“I don’t know yet.” Admitting that grated at Jonathan, and he sniffed. Citrus? “What am I smelling, Vic?”
“Air-freshener. It’s in the climate-control unit.” Bad news all around. “Lose it.” Jonathan doubled his pace.
Vic lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth, then issued the order. Seconds later, he issued another. “I don’t give a damn how you do it, just shut down the unit and get rid of it—now.” He slid the device back into its case at his belt. “Why did I do that?”
“Fragrance can mask contaminates.” Jonathan spared him a glance. “Maybe lethal contaminates.”
Vic paled. It was a serious mistake, and Vic had made it. No more needed to be said. He hadn’t been crazy about taking on the elevated risks of terrorist attacks or any of the other thousand extra challenges that came with hosting the summit, but he and his staff had been professional and extremely accommodating. To minimize security risks, they had blocked off an entire wing and had provided each of the peace-seekers and their staff suites, conference rooms, and offices with comfortable salons in which to relax. All in all, the message to the peace-seeking entourage was unqualified and clear—and mirrored unilaterally throughout the world: Be successful.
No one in power wanted these negotiations to fail.
No sane person wanted war.
“Clear behind us.” Vic reported a rear-check. “Potential attack?”
“It’s possible.” Before Liberty’s plane had left D.C., two groups of terrorists, Ballast and PUSH, had threatened attacks. Vic had been warned and the Grand Palace had quietly given its employees “heavy-traffic” bonuses for working during the summit. Double pay might be explained as “heavy-traffic” bonuses but only the clueless wouldn’t translate that to “hazardous-duty” pay. Unfortunately, it was justified.
Jonathan rounded the corner and spotted Liberty walking toward him. Flanked by the other leaders, their guards, three Russian translators, and Cramer, she looked tiny—a blue-eyed blond, about five-five in pumps, with a pretty girl-next-door face and a trim body polished by nature and healthy habits—and she appeared normal. Typical confident stride, purposeful yet not overbearing. No obvious distress. Actually, the woman was smiling, amused by something the Peris leader had said.
“She looks okay.” Vic summarized his visual check. “But I’ll hang close, just in case.”
Jonathan nodded and continued with his own assessment. Though dwarfed by the tall, thick-shouldered men surrounding her, Liberty had a presence that had nothing to do with her navy power suit or her political clout, and it signaled even the most casual observer that she was in charge, which of course she was. In many ways, presence aside, she was a remarkable woman: classy, competent, and cool but not distant. Jonathan never had pegged the root source of that presence. He’d never felt compelled to tag it. She had it, he knew it, and others knew it. That was enough.
He stopped in the hallway in front of the office door, just steps away from the conference room they had been using for negotiations, and lifted a hand to snag her attention.
“Excuse me a moment please,” Liberty told the others, her voice soft and husky.
She walked over, stopped beside Jonathan, and smoothed back her pale, chin-length hair.
A Band-Aid on her finger? His breath locked in his lungs. What the hell was she doing with a Band-Aid on her finger? And why the hell hadn’t he been notified?
“Agent Westford?” Her brow furrowed, puzzled. “Is everything all right?”
“I need a moment, ma’am.” He had to work at keeping his voice level.
She had to work at holding her smile. “Of course,” she said, then stepped into his office.
He followed her to the doorway, stared Cramer to a stop outside, and then spoke into his transmitter. “Harrison. My office. STAT.”
“On my way, sir.”
He turned to Cramer and ordered, “Do not move.” When he nodded, Jonathan entered the office, shut the door, and then flipped the switch to activate the electronics installed to create “white noise” and keep conversations private. Between satellite and hi-tech surveillance equipment, few places existed where sound waves couldn’t be snatched out of the air and intercepted. White noise minimized the risks. That was important. If overheard, this conversation would have immediate international repercussions.
Liberty stood waiting in front of his desk. “Is something wrong?”
He glanced down at her hand. “What happened to your finger?”
“I hope, nothing.” She frowned. “The waiter slipped and the edge of his tray cut me. It bled a ridiculous amount.”
“He gave you the Band-Aid, then?”
She nodded. “Waiters always carry Band-Aids.”
The hell they did. Jonathan grabbed a pair of scissors and then cut off the bandage, careful to use the scissor tips to grasp the bandage and not contaminate it or himself. “Don’t touch that wound.”
Rounding the corner of the desk, he removed an evidence bag from the bottom left drawer, dropped the blood-soiled Band-Aid inside, and then seamed the bag shut. The scissors went into a second sealed bag.
Liberty looked at him with pure dread. “Why did you bag that?”
He held up a finger and again spoke into his transmitter. “Harrison, get a Band-Aid from Grace, alcohol and peroxide, and get the mobile lab on site.” Grace, Liberty’s personal assistant, was the consummate professional and always prepared. “Possible Code Red.”
“On my way.”
“Agent Westford.” Liberty reclaimed his attention. “It’s a scratch from an ornate silver tray not a mortal wound.”
He raised her hand and examined her finger. “Was the waiter holding any cutlery?”
“No, just the tray. Why?”
“This isn’t a scratch, ma’am.” He lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. “It’s a knife wound.”
“A knife wound?” Her shock was evident. “I didn’t see a knife.”
Must have been hidden beneath the lip of the tray. “Clean. Deep. No jagged edges.” He glanced up from her hand to her eyes. “Definitely a knife wound, ma’am.”
Her expression soured. “Even so, calling a Code Red, summoning the mobile lab—isn’t that a little overkill?”
The incident had occurred in the presence of Peris and Abdan’s leaders and security staff. Either could claim it an attack by the other side and end negotiations. Obviously, she was worried that they would. “Not if the knife blade was contaminated.”
“Listen, I appreciate your diligent attention to details, but the waiter wasn’t a terrorist. The poor man was eighty years old, if he was a day. He just slipped while carrying a large tray.”
“And he apologized profusely for it, and you accepted the Band-Aid from him to avoid hurting his feelings.” She was deliberately minimizing the gravity of the situation; he read it in her face.
Resignation that he knew what she was doing settled in, and a steely look glinted in her eyes. “An overt reaction on my part would have given Peris and Abdan an excuse to halt the talks and leave the table. That would have meant war.”
Vintage Liberty. “So taking the Band-Aid was a calculated risk and not a synapse misfire?”
He cocked his head and raked his lower lip with his teeth. “High risks.”
She hiked her chin. “High stakes.”
Too high. Jonathan put a hard edge in his voice. She’d heard it before and would know what it meant. “Please refrain from accepting aid, assistance, or anything you ingest from anyone except me, members of my team, or approved hotel staff. Anyone—even an eighty-year-old waiter—can be a terrorist. And even a seemingly innocent incident can be a third-party terrorist attack.”
“But I explained why—”
“No buts, ma’am,” he interrupted. “We’re in Gregor Faust’s backyard and a stone’s throw from PUSH. We know they’re hostile and they want you to fail here. We’d be foolish to forget it, and we are not foolish people.”
“Of course not.” She had the grace to blush, but neglected to promise it wouldn’t happen again.
Odds were, it would. The first time she deemed it necessary, she’d put herself right back in the line of fire.
Unfortunately, she was right about Peris and Abdan. Both leaders felt vulnerable to attack at being together and knew that meeting elevated the danger to them. They could have blamed the incident on each other and walked away. Still, Jonathan felt duty-bound to remind her of the terrorist threats. “With Gregor Faust at the helm, Ballast has become one of the most feared international terrorist groups in the world—and if the CIA’s suspicions are accurate, he’s also the arms dealer supplying Peris and Abdan with weapons.” Less intelligence had been gathered on PUSH, or People United, as it was sometimes called. “And it’s true that PUSH operates mostly in Western Europe and North Africa, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pull an attack here.”
“I’ve read the reports, Agent Westford,” Liberty said. “And I’ve heard the rumors that PUSH has developed ties to China.”
“Whether or not the rumors are true, PUSH has been pumping out strong signals to the terrorist community that it’s eager to expand its arm sales and take down Ballast’s stronghold in Eastern Europe. That’s significant, ma’am.” It was. Just Faust’s name sent shockwaves through more countries than were members of NATO—and ripples of terror through the heart of every man or woman responsible for the safety of the people in those countries.
“I’ve been thinking about that.” She lifted a finger. “To take on Ballast, PUSH has to be formidable. Far stronger than we believed.”
“Formidable, or suicidal.” He waited for the analogy between PUSH’s behavior and her own to occur to her.
When it did, she frowned. “You’re right, okay? You’re right.” Liberty stepped back and rested a hip against his desk. “I—I’m sorry. You won’t even pause to eat on my detail unless I’m stationary, and I show my gratitude by creating a situation for you.” She looked down at her fingertip. “I will try not to do it again.”
“I appreciate your consideration.” He took the compliment that she trusted him to do his job as such, but it fell short of a promise. Still, it was the best he was going to get, so he had to object. “It isn’t in your best interest to take risks right now. Particularly, not here.”
Worry darkened the irises of her eyes to a smoky blue. “Do you think one of the terrorist groups contaminated the knife blade?”
“Maybe. But don’t discount Peris or Abdan.” In the past, the warmongers had committed worse acts. “We’ll check with the lab to be sure.”
A rap sounded at the door and Jonathan called out, “Come in, Harrison.”
Flustered and tense, he entered with the requested first-aid supplies. “I take full responsibility—”
Jonathan silenced him with a look, cleaned Liberty’s wound, and then applied a new Band-Aid. “There you go, ma’am.” He backed up and forced himself to smile to ease her mind. “Sorry for the interruption. Harrison will escort you back to the conference room. I’ll take over momentarily.”
“Thank you, Agent Westford.” She turned for the door and paused, dipped her chin. Sleek and smooth, her hair swept forward and brushed against her jaw. “You’ll let me know—”
“It’ll be a while, but when I know, you’ll know.” When she nodded, he added, “Gabby called. She needs to talk with you ASAP.” Gabby was Sybil’s oldest friend, the closest thing to family she had left, and from his days on her detail, Jonathan knew Gabby never interrupted Sybil’s missions unless it was of vital interest or bad news.
“I’ll call her now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jonathan watched Liberty go. Harrison followed her, his concern burning through his masked expression.
Jonathan motioned Cramer inside and closed the door. The man was good at general domestic details, which made him a strong candidate for Special Detail Unit and international details. He was thin and wiry but fast, sharp-minded, a master marksman and—judging by the look in his brown eyes and the rigid tension in his stance—appropriately worried right now. Since he was new to international and to working Jonathan’s SDU details, he supposed he would have to cut the rookie a little slack even though his natural inclination was to cut the idiot’s throat for allowing this to happen. “Why were you standing watch?”
“Harrison got the runs, sir.”
“Why wasn’t I notified?” “I would have had to be obvious. You ordered us to be discreet when the other guards were present, and one was posted on either side of me. I thought Harrison would brief you, but I guess he was preoccupied with making it to the rest room.”
“Fine.” Jonathan would take up his exception with Harrison. He was an old hand and damn well knew the only excuse for not reporting was to be dead. “What about Liberty’s injury?”
“The waiter slipped. I was posted on point, sir. Before I could get to her, she had accepted the Band-Aid from the waiter. I couldn’t say anything without making a production out of it and embarrassing her.”
“Next time, embarrass her.” She might take calculated risks with her life, but he wouldn’t. “If you have to physically get between them, then do it, but you intercede, Cramer.”
“Did you observe my intercept in the hallway?”
“Learn from it.” Jonathan frowned. “I realize you’re new to international and to me, but Vice President Stone can’t afford to be your training ground on this mission and I won’t tolerate it. She’s trying to prevent a war that could destabilize an entire region, one vital to our interests—and she’s committed to succeeding. It’s our responsibility to see to it she survives to have the opportunity.”
“I know, sir.”
He knew? Cramer had no idea she had been taking a calculated risk. “Right. And you also know she’s under heavy threat from Ballast and PUSH and there are no excuses for screwing up, so don’t insult either of us by making any.”
Cramer blinked fast, swallowed hard. “No, sir.”
Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead, and Jonathan was glad to see it. Obviously he needed the hell scared out of him to gain his edge. That edge was often the only thing that kept Special Detail Unit agents alive. Considering SDU didn’t exist, the agents’ assignments typically didn’t exist, and Commander Conlee, who ruled Home Base’s highly specialized division of the Secret Service with an iron fist, didn’t exist, the sooner Cramer locked onto his edge, the better for all of them.
“Listen, Liberty is carrying a lot on her shoulders, and she’s got even more on her mind. The welfare of millions around the globe rides on her decisions. That doesn’t leave her much time to think about mundane security matters like keeping herself out of the line of fire—and she damn well shouldn’t have to think about them. That’s my job as her mission chief, and your job as a detail member assigned to protect her. You screwed up, which means we screwed up.” He narrowed his eyes, deepened his voice, and hopefully Cramer’s fear. “We don’t screw up, Cramer. It’s not professional, and being unprofessional is not conducive to staying alive. I’m not ready to die. Are you?”
“No, sir.” Unable to hold Jonathan’s gaze, Cramer focused on his tie.
Well, that was something. “Did it occur to you that the waiter could be a plant?” He’d been briefed on the threats, for God’s sake. He’d been told they were credible. “Or that the wound isn’t consistent with a tray scrape?”
“I didn’t see her wound, sir.”
“No, you didn’t. If you had, you would know it’s a knife cut. And you would know the knife that made the cut could have been laced with biological or chemical contaminates.” Jonathan’s voice elevated an octave. “Has a warning signal started flashing in your head yet?” He tapped his temple twice, more to distract himself from the clenching in his gut than to cause clenching in Cramer’s. What he needed to say next did things to him inside he didn’t even want to think about. “Liberty could already be dying.”
The color drained from Cramer’s face.
Jonathan shoved the evidence bag at him, again cursing Home Base for putting a rookie on a Level Five, SDU mission. “The mobile lab should be in place in five minutes. Get this to it. I want a full-screen toxicology done—the works. Take the north exit from the building and walk four blocks south. Lab is in a black van. It’ll be curbside, waiting for you.”
He took the bag and started toward the door.
“Cramer.” Jonathan frowned at the man. “Verify that you’ve got the right van before you hand over the evidence bag. And if you haven’t already, start praying the sample tests clean.”
* * *
Moonlight slanted through slices of shadows and blended with the amber glow the street lamps cast on the wet concrete. The smell of rain hung in the air and thin streams of water clung to the street at the curb. Cramer rushed down the sidewalk toward the mobile lab.
Liberty could already be dying. Westford’s words haunted Cramer, and he blew out a breath heavy with fear. Harrison met him at the corner. “I warned you not to screw up. Not on Westford’s detail.”
“I know. I blew it.” Under normal conditions, Westford tolerated excellence. But when Lady Liberty was involved, mere excellence wasn’t good enough. You had to be God, or suffer Westford’s wrath. And everyone with the agency knew that God showed mercy. Westford did not. “He’ll definitely put me on report. Probably have me yanked off SDU details and dumped back into domestic grunt work, too.”
“I hate to break it to you, kid, but odds are better than fifty-fifty he’ll get you canned.”
Fired? He’d lose his job, his gun, and his credentials: the things he had wanted and worked for his entire life. Cramer’s insides hollowed.
“That’s if Liberty survives this fiasco without injury. If she doesn’t . . . well, I’d say your long-range planning doesn’t look good.”
Even a rookie understood the rage in Westford’s eyes. “If Liberty dies, he’ll see to it that I join her.”
“That pretty much sums it up.” Harrison stuffed his hands in his pockets, tucked his chin against the misting rain. “I don’t mean to sound cold, but facts are facts. You’ve got to understand how things are between Westford and Liberty.”
“Are they involved?”
“Yes.” Harrison looked torn. “No.”
“Thanks for clearing that up.”
“It’s complicated.” Harrison shoved out a sigh. “Do you remember when she won over the NRA?”
The law she pushed through that forced prosecution on existing gun laws. “HR 855, right?”
“Yeah. She was a just junior congresswoman back then, but she caught Westford’s eye. He’s walked every mile with her ever since.”
Then they had walked a lot of miles together. Through child welfare issues, laws to keep pedophiles locked up, and deadbeat dads paying support. A lot of miles.
“She wins, and he’s downright giddy.”
Shocked, Cramer did a double take at Harrison. “Westford? Giddy?” Cramer couldn’t imagine it. The man was as serious as a heart attack—and just as opinionated.
“Amazing, huh?” Harrison smiled. “But true. When she walked through the bill reorganizing protective services for neglected and abused kids, you should have seen him. He was so proud, I thought he’d bust a gut.”
Cramer had heard about that success in the unit. The operatives all sang her praises, though not for the legislation itself. Because she’d covered her ass so well that Senator Cap Marlowe and his cronies—who had reputations for spinning in fault on issues where Liberty had none—had tried and failed to trip her up. The guys at SDU were pro-anything that was anti-Marlowe. Even Sybil Stone.
A light went on in Cramer’s mind. “Westford brought her to President Lance’s attention.”
Harrison nodded. “He denies it, but I was there and saw it.”
“So it’s like a proud-parent relationship between them?” Cramer asked.
“Hell no, kid. It’s a lot more earthy than that.”
Westford and Liberty weren’t twisting the sheets. Cramer might be the new kid on the block but he wasn’t unconscious, and he hadn’t picked up on any romantic vibes between them. In his book, that was a good thing. Liberty made a fine vice president, but she had a history as a lousy wife. A year ago, she’d just walked out on a fifteen-year marriage to Dr. Austin Stone, shocking everyone on the Hill. Stone wasn’t some loser. He was an engineering genius—CEO of the kick-ass Secure Environet that had been tearing up Wall Street for the past two years—and he hadn’t wanted the divorce. She’d pushed for it. Westford might be a hard-ass, but he deserved a better wife than that.
“Marlowe wanted her job,” Harrison said, recapturing Cramer’s attention. “He swears if he’d been a woman, Lance would have offered it to him.”
“Would he?” “Liberty could have been the purple-people eater, and Lance wouldn’t have given a damn. He chose her as a running mate so he wouldn’t have to compete against her. She’s that good.”
“So she’s special to Lance and to Westford.”
“Special enough that when she took office two years ago, Westford left covert ops to head up her guard detail.”
“That’s a whale of a demotion.” Cramer couldn’t figure it. Westford was the hottest operative in SDU, the logical choice for plum covert operation assignments.
“No demotion. The president handpicked him for the job. Officially, he had ‘special concerns’ for her safety, but if he had his way, he’d have Westford and Liberty joined at the hip.”
“So why did Westford bail out?” Word around the unit was Westford had demanded reassignment.
“Some say he fell in love with her—complicated because at the time she was his boss and she was married. Others say he couldn’t stomach working for a woman.”
“What does he say?” Looking pleased that Cramer had asked, Harrison shrugged. “He doesn’t, and no one’s had the guts to ask him direct.”
Cramer thought through it all. President Lance could tag his ‘special concerns’ any way he wanted, but underneath the politically correct façade, he was afraid she would be at greater risk than previous veeps because she was the first woman to hold the office. She did get at least a dozen death threats a week from hotheads, disgruntled citizens stuck in sixties mentalities, and hostile foreign entities—especially those actively engaged in oppressing women. “Harrison, do you think it’s true that some of the death threats are coming from her colleagues?”
“No hard evidence, but it’s possible. There’s a lot of resentment against her on the Hill.”
That frustrated Cramer. “Then I don’t get it.”
“When her colleagues need credibility or clout to push their pet projects through the process, they come to her first. If she can, she supports them. Why does she do it?” Cramer couldn’t figure it. “She’s got to know that once the project’s a done deal, they’re going to slide right back into resenting her. Most of them act as if the White House is the last ‘For Men Only’ club in the country, and their main mission in life is to act as armor and shield to keep their sacred space safe from her.”
“Damned pathetic, isn’t it?” Harrison grunted. “But it’s telling too, kid.”
Cramer wasn’t tracking, so he kept quiet and waited for Harrison to explain.
“They feel confident she can take the White House. No one around here wastes energy defending something not at risk.”
“Politics.” Cramer grunted. In the next block, a black van pulled up to the curb and killed its lights.
“Politics.” Harrison clapped Cramer on the shoulder. “Verify the van, kid. I’ll see you back at the hotel. I need to walk off some steam. Westford’s going to be wired for sound and breathing down our necks for the rest of this mission.”
Shivering with dread, Cramer hunched his shoulders and started watching the sidewalk, but he saw no sign of a U.S. penny. Panic set in. He couldn’t pass the evidence bag to the lab without it. Couldn’t he get one break on this damn mission?
Finally, he spotted the coin, glinting heads up on the sidewalk. He stooped down, pretending to tie a shoe, scooped it up, and then rushed his steps. Odds looked slim, but he had to perform at optimum level from here on out to save his backside and, if possible, his job.
A gust of cool wind tugged at the tail of his coat, and a fresh burst of rain blew in with it, soaking his suit. Cramer kept moving, pinning the coat with his arm to protect the evidence bag, though it was waterproof. He was in enough trouble already for screwing up after being warned Ballast and PUSH stood primed for attack with Lady Liberty fixed in their crosshairs. He couldn’t afford to botch up this, too.
A bull of a man dressed all in black stepped out from behind the van. He was in his forties and his most remarkable feature was having a face people would forget in ten seconds or less. Cramer envied him that. Average looks were a hell of an asset to an agent working in the field. The tip of his cigarette glowed red and, supposing smoking would be banned inside the van, Cramer nodded.
“Lab personnel only allowed inside.” The man exhaled a stream of smoke that fogged the night air and opened his fist, palm up. A second penny gleamed in a streak of light.
Verified. Their van, their man. Cramer showed the agent the penny he had lifted off the walk. “No problem.” He passed the evidence bag and, as Westford had suggested, he prayed the Band-Aid tested clean.
* * *
In her salon, Sybil dialed Gabby’s number and then glanced down at her freshly bandaged finger, hoping she hadn’t made a mistake that would cost her her life.
Gabby answered with a gruff, “What is it, Lisa?”
“It’s not Lisa, but if I had the misfortune to be your assistant, and you talked to me in that tone, I’d quit.”
“She does. At least once a week. Usually on the days I haven’t fired her.”
Sybil smiled. Those two would be going at it when they died of old age. “You sound riled.” That concerned Sybil. Gabby didn’t do riled. She always had been passionate about her work, but she kept being riled private.
“You on a secure line?”
“Yes.” Not an uncommon question. Gabby had been a covert operative for years.
“It’s this mission, Sybil. It’s making me crazy.”
“Do you need to pull out?”
“I can’t. We have too much invested. It’d take a year to get back to where we are now.”
Gabby’s “where” was deeply entrenched in a corporate espionage ring that had hooked into the judicial system and was suspected of selling reduced or suspended sentences to North Korean spies. “So what are you going to do?”
“The same thing you do when your work makes you nuts. Suck it up, and press on.” She heaved a sigh Sybil felt down to her bones. “But I swear it’ll be a cold day in hell before I go deep cover again.”
“Of course.” Gabby had sworn that same thing on her last five missions.
“I mean it. I’m burned out.”
Sybil sat down on a lush sage-silk sofa and stared at a painting of magnolias, hanging on the wall. “I know.” She did, and she resented that.
“Is Jonathan behaving?”
Here she goes again. The self-appointed matchmaker from hell. “Agent Westford always behaves.”
“Too bad.” Gabby’s deep breath crackled static through the receiver. “You could fix that with a little encouragement. It wouldn’t take much.”
“I’ll pass.” Sybil crossed an arm over her chest. “When it comes to men, my judgment leaves a lot to be desired.”
“Austin doesn’t count.”
At least Gabby hadn’t called him by her usual pet name. Sybil supposed she should be grateful for that small mercy. “I was married to the man for fifteen years. He counted.” She swiped an irritated hand over her forehead. “Is there anything else, or did you just call to bitch about work and butt into my love life?”
“You don’t have a love life.”
“And I’m happier than I’ve been in years.” She’d loved Austin, given him everything she’d had to give, including the money to fund Secure Environet, and he had become her Achilles’ heel. The last thing she needed was another love in her life. “Leave it alone, Gabby. Please.”
“All right, but you’re letting a winner slip through—”
“I said, please,” Sybil insisted. “If there’s nothing else, I’d better get back.” With no one running interference, the premieres were apt to kill each other.
“There is one thing,” Gabby said, sounding hesitant. “It’s the reason I called.”
“Be careful, okay? I woke up this morning with a really bad feeling about your whole peace-seeking mission.”
“Have you had word from the commander?” Normally, Commander Conlee routed intelligence updates to Westford. But he had used Gabby, when he’d deemed regular channels less secure.
“No, no. Nothing. It’s just a gut feeling.” Gabby paused a beat, and her voice took on a jagged edge. “Take no risks, Sybil. None.”
Too late. Sybil looked down at the band-aid circling her finger, and an icy chill crept up her spine. She stiffened, determined not to give into fear, gave Gabby her promise, and then wondered. How was she going to keep Westford from telling Gabby about the band-aid incident?
For the first time in her career, Sybil Stone considered offering a man a bribe.
* * *
One should never underestimate the impact of a bribe.
Alexander Renault had learned that lesson the night he had been dubbed “Patch.” It had been his ninth birthday, and to celebrate, his father had stabbed his mother to death. A patch of Alexander’s hair had turned albino-white—from the trauma, the doctor had said. But what had traumatized Patch most was his father bribing his way out of ever being arrested, tried, or convicted. The official consensus? His mother had fallen onto the knife.
That night, Patch had learned to hate: his father, for what he had done; his mother, for dying and leaving him; his government, for being corrupt. That night, he had also sworn to do something about it. And he had done plenty.
Sizing up the rookie agent, Patch surmised Westford had already done a fair amount of ass-chewing. Cramer looked pale and shaken. At least he’d remembered the penny and its significance: You’re among your own. Their SDU secure-system communications had been nearly impossible to breach—once. Amazing what a healthy contract could do to a designer’s sense of loyalty. But it made no difference now. Things had gone too far to do anything but play out. Millions would live or die, and their fate rested solely in the hands of Sybil Stone.
From the moment the cut happened, she no doubt suspected it hadn’t been accidental. But hopefully she would conclude it had been an attack rooted in the peace talks and not look beyond that. If she did, and she convinced Westford of it, yet another challenge for Ballast could be shifted to PUSH and avoided, and neither Lady Liberty nor Westford would be on the defensive for what lay ahead.
Grinding his shoe against the concrete, Patch stomped out his cigarette and then took the evidence bag from Cramer. “You’d better double-time it back to the hotel. Harrison is waiting for you in the bar.”
Looking resigned, Cramer made a U-turn and headed back down the walk. Patch kept him in sight until distance obscured him, and then he pulled an identical evidence bag from his raincoat’s inner pocket. He tucked Cramer’s bag in its place against his chest, then tapped at the side door on the van.
It slid open about six inches. Patch flashed the penny, passed the substituted bag through the crack, and then walked away. He had seen no one inside the van and no one inside had seen him: a strictly professional transfer.
The van pulled away from the curb and headed down the street, its tires spraying through puddles of water.
Patch walked toward the hotel until the van hung a left onto a side street and vanished into the night.
Making a one-eighty, he hustled to his car. Cramer had made two new critical errors. He’d seen Patch’s face during a professional transfer and he hadn’t so much as flinched at the discrepancy between Harrison saying he was going for a walk and Patch telling him Harrison was waiting in the bar. The rookie would have reason to regret both errors—though not because of Westford.
Relief at having avoided that personal encounter swam through Patch’s stomach. Inside Ballast, Westford was known as the widow-maker, and his reputation was nearly as daunting as Gregor Faust’s. Overtly, he had been with the Secret Service on general assignments for thirteen years. Covertly, he had been assigned to the nonexistent SDU for the better part of a decade. Only the best agents made it to SDU, and Westford headed the list. He was sharp, judiciously ruthless, and he didn’t perform missions, he attacked them, using whatever means proved necessary to reach his objective. In a one-on-one conflict, he and Faust would be a close match, but Westford had a conscience and loyalties and that made him more predictable.
Faust wasn’t troubled with either. That gave him the upper hand.
Patch opened his car door and its hinges squeaked. When he settled inside, he lifted his digital phone. His calls were as secure as money and technology could make them; every transmission scrambled. He double-checked his rearview mirror—nothing moving—and waited for the high-pitch beep to signal the scrambler was operational. Finally hearing it, he spoke into the receiver. “ET calling home.”
“Go ahead, ET.”
Awards & Honors
✪ RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Romantic Intrigue Novel of the Year
The Beacon Award, Best Single Title Novel of the Year
International Reviewer’s Organization, 2002 Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence Nominee, Best Romantic Suspense Novel of the Year
RT Career Achievement Award Nominee
Best Series Storyteller of the Year
Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee
Best Mainstream Novel, Romantic Intrigue
Gold Medal, Top Pick: RT Book Club
5 Stars: Barnes & Noble, Harriet Klausner
Award of Excellence, Colorado Romance Writers, Finalist
Bookseller’s Best Award, Finalist
Daphne du Maurier Award, Best Mainstream Mystery/Suspense of the Year, Finalist
“Galloping Suspense Set In Virtual Reality, November 14, 2002 From the first cut of the U.S. vice-president’s finger at dinner, while she negotiates peace talks between two warring former Soviet states in Geneva, to her last life and death act of inserting a choice between two keys to halt the launch sequence of a first-strike nuclear missile, this story moves relentlessly through 72 hours of utter terror and merciless betrayals. Knitted into this story’s race against time is a poignant love story between Vice-President Sybil Stone and Agent Jonathan Westford, her personal guardian. They are pitted against the mad jealousy of Sybil’s ex-husband, a brilliant rocket scientist, and trained terrorists determined to assassinate her. Jonathan’s job is to protect her at all cost to himself. To repeat the story line here, however, only serves to spoil a novel that thrives on moment-to-moment suspense–an experience readers deserve to enjoy on their own. What matters most is that, in “Lady Liberty,” Vicki Hinze tops the genre of romantic suspense in the way she marries elements of the techno-thriller with intrigue and love; only this time she switches from recent military themes to the political arena in a much broader mission: to give the American people a leader they can believe in. As ‘Lady Liberty,’ Sybil Stone symbolizes the character of a true statesman–or in this case, stateswoman: love of country, honor and selfless service. Her virtue is not bigger than life. It is a return to universal motherhood, for that nurturing side of a real woman has courage beyond the usual call to duty and empathy in direct contrast to true evil, which envelops the complete lack of empathy. If we can find leaders like Sybil Stone, there is still hope for the survival of our planet.” –Bonnie Toews Newcastle, Ontario Canada Top Pick-Gold Medal Award. “There is no question that author Vicki Hinze has delivered a tour de force thriller that will leave readers gasping for breath. Lady Liberty is the ultimate thrill ride! More of an action/adventure suspense tale than a romance, this novel still manages to create a believable romance between the hero and heroine. This book would make one hell of a movie!” –RT Bookclub, Jill Smith “A complex plot and relentless countdown… Hinze’s timely offering should attract readers of both [political thriller and romance] with its candid view of Washington D.C. and perceptive handling.” –Booklist Gold/Silver Medal Award. “The two protagonists represent the ideals America was founded on… Vicki Hinze has written a techno-thriller with heart.” – Harriet Klausner, Blether Reviews “Compelling. Suspenseful. Complex. Lady Liberty is a non-stop roller coaster ride of thrills, chills, and even a touch of romance. An all around fascinating read, this is one book to add to your wishlists!” – Mystery Reviewers, Tracy Farnsworth “Wow! Ms. Hinze does a fantastic job of crafting a political thriller with a great romance. I’m in love with Jonathan myself! Wouldn’t we all like to have a strong handsome man keeping us safe (while respecting our intelligence and guts!)?” –Old Book Barn Gazette “I am not happy with this book. I am an older lady who needs her sleep. I cannot afford to stay up until 3:00 in the morning. Yet there I was the other night, still awake at that ungodly hour, desperately trying to finish Lady Liberty. And when I finally turned the light out, I was still thinking about the story and what it says about the dangerous world we and technology have created. I didn’t sleep well that night. Clearly, Lady Liberty held this reader’s interest…kept me on the edge of my seat. And I still haven’t caught up with my sleep.” –Jean Mason, The Romance Reader A Perfect 10. “Riveting. Utterly engrossing A superb, completely captivating tale. This book is a keeper, and it will be a strong contender for best romantic suspense novel of the year.” –Susan Lantz, Romance Reviews Today “Lady Liberty is a very nearly a perfect read. Remember Harrison Ford’s kick-ass president in Air Force One? Well, get ready for the spunkiest, most determined, smartest, bravest, calmest under fire, most altruistic, hottest looking vice president on the planet…and she’s a woman!” –Marianne Stillings, All About Romance “I’ve been a fan of Vicki Hinze for a long time. Her books, to me, are guaranteed great reads full of suspense, adventure and action. Highly recommended…a one-sitting read. I eagerly await each and every book Vicki Hinze writes! I look forward to what adventure she will take us on next.” –Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews “Hinze grabs the reader on the first page and holds their attention to the very end. This is a can’t-put-down book.” –Rendezvous “[Lady Liberty] symbolizes everything that’s good about America. Represents the ideals America was founded on…” –Midwest Book Review “Taut and realistic, this novel treats readers to an electrifying drama proving why Ms. Hinze is the queen of military romantic suspense. Frighteningly real and vivid… The only regrets are that it will be a long time before the next book, and the United States is not lead by someone like Liberty already.” –Huntress Reviews
ISBN: 0-553-58352-2 Bantam November 2002 Paperback and Digital. Book Club Selections: The Literary Guild, Rhapsody, Doubleday, and Mystery Guild.