© 2004, Vicki Hinze
They were going to kill her.
The odds of her leaving the Middle Eastern, desert compound under her own steam grew slimmer by the minute. Her instincts hummed it. And if there was one thing Amanda knew she could count on, it was her instincts.
From the age of three, her instincts had warned her to hide when her dad had gotten tanked up at home in New Orleans and had come looking for her to use as a punching bag and then had locked her in a wooden box until her bruises faded so looking at her didn’t offend his eyes. Instinct had warned her to protect herself through a year of grueling CIA training at the 9,000 wooded-acre, barbed-wire fenced hell known as “the farm” and four years of subsequent covert operations. Instinct had warned her it was time to get out of the CIA or wake up dead, and when the U.S. Air Force had recruited her out, instinct had told her to go.
Shortly thereafter, she had been assigned to S.A.S.S. At least, S.A.S.S. is what the operatives called their jobs as Secret Assignment Security Specialists. On paper, they were of course buried in the Office of Personnel Management along with all the other Air Force members assigned to paramilitary or covert operations. The unit, a division of the Office of Special Investigations, had an official name, but one so secret it changed every six months. Keeping up with the changes had everyone in the need-to-know loop dubbing the unit S.A.S.S. for convenience and consistency.
Her instincts had been on target all those times, and a million others, and they were on target now. She had used up her nine lives.
Today, Amanda West had run out of last chances.
“If she moves, shoot her.” The beefy guard whose nose she’d broken told the other guards.
A certain satisfaction rippled through her. He had quickly developed a healthy respect for her and the damage she could inflict, but seriously. Move? Absurd. The ropes binding her to the chair cut deeply into her wrists and ankles, scraping her chafed skin, rubbing it raw. Her spine tingled, her ass and legs had been numb for hours. Her shoulders ached, head throbbed, and never in her life had she been more thirsty or tired. Or more hopeless.
She’d given up illusions. She had no idea what specific country they’d dragged her to, and during the last two days of intense interrogation by GRID’s second-in-command, Paul Reese, she’d lost any hope she might have harbored that her identity had remained secret. GRID—Group Resources for Individual Development—was the largest Intelligence broker in the world on U.S. resources, assets, and personnel. Its operatives were experts at gathering and selling information, and masters at torturing to obtain it.
In the worst cases, evil is about ideology shaped by greed. GRID wasn’t just shaped; it was twisted. That elevated GRID’s ranking to worst of the worst enemies. Its leader, Thomas Kunz, resented Germany’s reliance on the U.S. military’s presence in his country. Without the U.S., Germany’s nearly stagnant economy wouldn’t just be shaky, it would rattle, and it could collapse. In Kunz’s convoluted logic, Germany’s economic woes were the U.S.’s fault, and he hated Americans for it. Of course, if the U.S. military pulled out of his country and Germany’s economy suffered, Kunz would hate the U.S. for that, too.
Bottom line, Kunz hated the U.S. and what he hated, GRID hated. Unfortunately, he was wealthy, powerful, and he hated with great passion, creativity, and ruthlessness.
Weak sunlight streaked into the cavernous metal building through dirt-smudged windows, high overhead. Whether it was dawn or twilight, Amanda couldn’t say. She’d been in and out of consciousness, and had lost track of time. Sweat beaded at her temples, pooled between her breasts. Her crisp white blouse clung limp, damp, and dirty against her body, and her navy slacks were covered with a thin layer of dust. She’d been knocked to the floor so many times she’d lost count. Her bare feet against the sandy dirt floor were crusted and itched.
They’d taken her shoes.
That had been her first warning that Reese knew who she really was, knew that her hands and feet were lethal weapons.
Through slitted eyelids, she looked over at him, standing with his hip hitched against a folding table, smoking a pungent cigarette that smelled of cloves. Tall, dark, and gorgeous with black hair and come-hither eyes, Reese was a lady-killer. Figuratively, and she feared soon, literally.
He exhaled, and smoke rose into obscuring plumes between them. Tossing the butt to the floor, he then crushed it under his loafer-shod foot and glanced at the dozen guards circling her, as if reassuring himself of their presence and protection.
Wise move. Amanda wanted to kill him—given the opportunity, she would kill him—and Reese knew it. He assumed professional necessity drove her, but it didn’t. Her reasons were damned personal. Amanda’s dad had been the last man to hit her and live. That was a record she intended to keep intact.
The guards stood ready, dressed in camouflage gear, looking like the skilled mercenaries they had proven to be during her capture. She had only disabled three of them. Only three.
But one would have been too many. They were professional warriors, and for all they had known then, she was merely a small, fragile woman. They hadn’t yet contended with Captain Amanda West, former CIA operative and current US Air Force paramilitary S.A.S.S. operative—the real her. Now they’d gotten a taste.
Because she’d downed three of them, they hungered for revenge the way starving dogs covet bones: standing at-the-ready, just hoping she’d give them the slightest excuse to cut loose. All twelve of the men carried M-16s. And all twelve of them aimed those M-16s directly at her chest.
“Amanda.” Reese sounded exasperated. He stepped over to her but stayed out of striking distance, in case the ropes didn’t hold. “You’re being totally unreasonable.”
Unreasonable was denying her water and sleep. She should feel grateful the bastards hadn’t resorted to rape, but in a sense they had. They hadn’t molested her body, but Reese had done all he could to rape her soul. Fortunately—though it was hard for her to imagine “fortunate” and “her father” in the same breath—she’d been raised by the devil himself. Reese wasn’t nearly so formidable.
She wasn’t a kid anymore.
She wasn’t innocent or naïve anymore. And she damn sure was not helpless, not anymore.
“I wished to avoid this, but you’ve given me no choice.” Reese sighed heavily, a tinge of regret touching his voice. “I’ve called Thomas.”
Thomas Kunz. Her heart slammed against her chest wall, hammered hard. Reese was dangerous, but Kunz was lethal. The GRID mastermind had united henchmen of all nationalities and from all walks of life with a single, driving goal: to destroy the United States. Under his leadership, GRID had proven so capable at infiltrating U.S. assets, and so elusive at being pinned down long enough to be captured much less arrested and convicted, that Secretary of Defense Reynolds had deemed the situation critical and issued a by-name request through Col. Sally Drake, Action Officer and commander of S.A.S.S., to gather desperately needed insight on GRID and devise a containment plan.
That by-name request had been for Amanda.
“Answer me, Amanda.” Reese shoved a hand into the pocket of his black slacks. “What have you reported? To whom do you report?”
Reese’s yellow shirt looked fresh and crisp, his tanned skin hydrated, and no dark, exhausted circles marred the skin beneath his eyes. Hating him for that, she stared at him from under her lashes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reese slapped her.
Her face stinging, she glared into his eyes, smiled, then feigned hurt, preying on his vanity—a tactic that had consistently proven effective with him. “I guess chivalry is dead.”
Unable to hold her gaze, he looked away.
It was a small victory but, at the moment, she’d take any she could get. Paul Reese was clever but shallow, into money and power, with a fondness—and weakness—for pretty women, and an ego the State of Texas couldn’t hold. He had described himself to her as a gallant white knight, chivalrous to women, and she’d come to realize that the deluded fool believed it. Blowing his image by torturing her had gotten to him. He didn’t have the guts to kill her.
That, Reese would leave to Kunz.
Never in her life had she heard of anyone quite as cold-blooded and ruthless as Thomas Kunz. Or as suspicious. Grudgingly, she admitted that those were the very attributes that had kept him alive.
“He’s coming, Amanda.” Reese switched tactics, appealed to her, his voice and expression concerned and urgent. “I don’t want him to hurt you.”
“Hurt me?” Kunz would kill her, and only an idiot wouldn’t know it. She swallowed a grunt and taunted Reese. “After all we’ve meant to each other, you’re going to allow him to do that?”
Exasperated, Reese forgot caution, grabbed her face, and squeezed until her teeth cut into her flesh. “Do you want to die, woman?”
She didn’t. She wanted to live—God, how she wanted to live—and to bring GRID down. When the pressure on her cheeks eased and settled to a dull ache, she softened her voice. “Will you let him kill me, Paul?”
“Let him?” Reese let his head loll back, blew out a sigh. “Don’t you understand? I can’t stop Thomas. No one can stop him.” Reese dropped his voice. “He likes inflicting pain. He likes it, Amanda. You won’t die easily.”
In her pre-mission briefing, she’d been warned that Kunz took a sadistic pleasure in torture. If any of his victims ever survived to act as witnesses, he’d be prosecuted for war crimes as a hostile combatant in the war on terror. So far none had made it.
That knotted the muscles in her stomach. Fear and bitterness flooded her throat. “I’m not afraid to die.” It was true. Her fear had always been in living, not dying. In death, there was safety; there was peace. In life, there was brutality and pain. You had to be clever, sly, cunning, always on guard and able to defend yourself. And she had been. Yet in some situations, defeat was inevitable. The realist in her insisted this was one of them.
Stiffening her spine, she watched for an opening. She was going to die, and she wouldn’t get Kunz. But she would take Paul Reese with her.
“You’d better fear it.” Frustration reddened his face, had the veins in his neck sticking out like thumbs. He bent to her. “You’d better fear him.”
“Reese.” Leaning forward, she brushed her lips close to his ear. “I’ll tell you a secret.” She sank her teeth into him, doing her damnedest to rip the jugular right out of his throat.
He howled, jerked, and she lost her grip, scraped his throat, then clenched her jaw and latched on to his face. Backing away, he dragged her, chair and all, until finally his flesh gave away. Her chair tipped over and her shoulder slammed into the dirt.
Screaming curses, he held the side of his face. Blood streamed between his fingers, over his hand, and down his arm. He kicked her in the ribs, then again in the thigh. His guards stood stunned, too surprised to react, not certain how to react.
“There’s your secret, darling.” She glared up at him, feeling his wet blood soak her face. “You’d better fear me.”
He took a white handkerchief from one of the guards and pressed it to his face. “Shoot that bitch right between the eyes.”
“Come on, Reese. Be a sport.” She smiled. “I missed your jugular.”
He kicked her again. “Give me a gun!”
Her ribs ached like hell. Still she laughed, hard and deep. So she wouldn’t die with the pleasure of having killed him. Maybe to Reese, screwing up his face was worse than death. There was solace in that.
A guard passed him an M-16. He took aim at her. Adrenaline rocketed through her veins, but she knew how to die. She’d been prepared for this moment since she was three years old and her father first beat her. No fear. Not from me, you bastard. Never from me. “Ich Dien.”
“What did she say?” Reese looked at the guards, wild-eyed.
The response came from the door. “I serve.”
Kunz. Blinded by the sunlight streaming in around him, she could only see his silhouette, but that was more than enough to prove she had lived too long.
He walked over to where she lay on the floor, still tied to the chair. “Captain West. How good of you to visit,” Kunz said. “I wasn’t aware you spoke German. Note that, Paul.”
Kunz was faking it, acting as if he’d missed the fact that she was taunting him, letting him know—letting them all know—that they hadn’t broken her and never would. Kunz was younger than she had thought. Forty, tall, blond haired and blue eyed. Amazingly, he looked like a good natured, sunny kind of guy. Certainly not like the devil incarnate that would do his reputation justice. This man didn’t inspire fear, or even alert the senses that danger was near, and Intel had it all wrong on his photos. She didn’t know who was actually in the pictures presented as him, but he was not the Thomas Kunz standing before her now. “Mr. Kunz.” She nodded, grinding her ear into the dirt. “I would say it’s a pleasure, but your hospitality lacks a certain, shall we say, charm.”
“Ah, your southern roots are showing. Finally.” He smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “Put the gun down, Paul.” He glimpsed toward Reese. “I’ve decided the good captain doesn’t need killing, only burying. But not in a grave. Captain West prefers tombs to graves. They’re more in keeping with her New Orleans heritage.
Reese’s eyes stretched wide. “You’re going to seal her in there alive?”
“Of course.” Kunz walked over to the table and opened a metal box that had been sitting there untouched for two days. “It’s only civilized to give her time to make her peace, mmh?”
Amanda tried not to shudder, but it was obvious that the real torture was only now going to begin.
“I said to put down the gun, Paul. Hostility doesn’t become you.” He nodded toward the door. “Get someone to see to your face.”
Reese walked to the door still cupping the blood-soaked handkerchief over his wound. “I’m glad you’re going to die a slow death, you bitch.”
“Do think of me, Paul.” She smiled. “Every time you look into the mirror.”
He slammed the broad door shut. The windows up above rattled.
Kunz took her measure. “You’re very astute, Captain. Few things could upset Paul as much as damaging his face.” Kunz’s eyes sparkled respect that she had homed in on that. “And you’re clearly not a coward.” That seemed to intrigue him. “Few men have refused to respond to Paul’s inquiries, knowing they would next face mine. You’re the first woman to do so, actually.”
She hiked an eyebrow. “What shall we do to celebrate?”
He looked back over his shoulder, saw her defiance, smiled, and filled a syringe. When he tapped it, a small amount of fluid spurted and soaked into the floor. “I have a special treat for you,” he said, walking over and then injecting her. “In honor of the occasion.”
The stick in her arm burned. There were other needle tracks on her inner arm. Stark terror shot through her. This would kill her or cost her everything.
The bastard knew it. He knew, and it amused him. Her temper exploded, and it took everything she had to restrain herself and not fight him. It would be futile, and fighting would give him power, make him feel superior. He had taken everything else. She would not give him that, too. Panic seized her, contorted her muscles. No. No fear. No fear. You will find a way around this, Princess. You will not show this scum fear.
“There you go.” He pulled out the needle, and then backed away. “Contrary to your beliefs, in your time with us, you’ve been very cooperative. We’ve learned all we need to know from you, Captain. For now.”
He wasn’t bluffing. And if he wasn’t bluffing, she’d definitely breached security. What had she told him? When had she told him anything? She’d never seen the man until today. He was bluffing—had to be—and he was damn good at it, making her doubt herself. “So now I die,” she said. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, but what did you give me?”
“Peace.” He brushed her cheek with a feathery light fingertip.
It sent icy chills down her neck and through her chest.
When she didn’t cringe as he obviously expected, respect lighted in his eyes. “I’d love to stay and enjoy the day with you, but you’ve caught me at an inopportune time. I’m very sorry to say that this will be clean and quick. You would have been intriguing, I’m sure.” He let his gaze roll over her, prone on the floor. “But my loss is your gain. You really should thank me for it.”
“Thank you.” She said and meant it. He loved torture and she’d seen file photos of what was left of some of his victims. He’d peeled off skin, removed bones, sewn mouths shut. She was truly grateful to be spared.
He picked up on her sincerity. “You’re welcome, Captain West.” Walking back to the table, he put the syringe into a box. “The miracles of modern medicine amuse me.” He waved a loose hand. “Incidentally, that injection won’t kill you. It’ll just make you sleep for a while so you don’t injure any more of my men. You’ll wake up, and then—well, you’ll see. No need to make peace with your God just yet. You’ll have a few days to decide your fate.”
“Yes. Your reaction to it will be interesting.”
Puzzled by his cryptic comments, she shot him a questioning look. “My reaction to my fate will be interesting?” What the hell could he mean by that?
“You’ve got a dilemma before you, Captain. The dilemma is entertaining, but your reaction to your fate is by far the most intriguing aspect of your—shall we say, situation.”
She opened her mouth to snap at him, to inform him with unwavering certainty that her fate was her own and none of his business, but her tongue was too thick; she couldn’t speak. He droned on, but she couldn’t make out his words. His voice faded distant, as if echoing from deep in the belly of a cave. Amanda strained to keep watch, but her eyelids wouldn’t stay open.
“She’s safe,” he eventually told the guards. “Bury her—remember, a tomb, not a grave. The good Captain has a fondness for above ground boxes.”
The box. She might have groaned, though she couldn’t be certain the sound was hers and not the guards laughing. The box was the thing she hated most—and the thing people like Kunz would imagine she feared most.
She did fear it. But she also had learned young to hide in the damn thing to avoid being found and beaten. Inside the box was the last place her father ever would have thought to look for her. And that Kunz didn’t know.
Yet he did know about the box. But how? The only other person in the world who knew about it was her father, and she had avoided him for years. Even today she didn’t trust herself to see him and not kill him. And never in her adult life had she given anyone the means to connect them. Anything that requested the name of her father, she always had completed, “Unknown.” Considering he had called her a bastard her whole life, she’d felt totally justified in agreeing with him.
Bottom line, there were no connections between her and her father. So how had Thomas Kunz connected them? How had he known about the box?
Even beaten to within an inch of her life, she would shield that information. She had never admitted it to another human being—often, not even to herself.
But if her father hadn’t told Kunz about the box, and she hadn’t told him, then how did he know about it? How?
Amanda awakened in pitch-black darkness.
Her mouth felt like cotton, her head throbbed. She lay wedged in a box, but this one wasn’t wood, it was brick, and the mortar was still wet.
The son of a bitch actually had bricked her into a tomb.
They’d taken her out of the chair; it wouldn’t fit with her in the small area. But her hands were still tied. She worked the ropes loose with her teeth. Finally, they fell free.
Sliding her hand along the wall, over the rough brick, she felt the wet mortar stick to her fingers. “Where’s a good spiked heel when you need one?”
She felt all along the perimeter of the sealed tomb, dragging her fingers through the dirt. Nearly through working the grid, she felt a bump, backed up, and felt—a stick? No, spear-tipped. Feather. An arrow. It was an arrow.
Reese collected arrows. He’d buried it with her as a final dig, proof that he had battled her and won.
But he hadn’t won. Not yet. Not . . . yet.
Seeking the wettest mortar, she chose the back wall and hoped that it was away from whomever was watching her, if anyone, and dared to hope too that they didn’t hear the noise. “You will dig yourself out of this tomb, Princess,” she whispered to herself, using the hated name her father had called her to put steel in her resolve to fight. “You will live. You will kill Paul Reese for hitting you. And you will capture Thomas Kunz and steal his life for stealing your life.”
It took forever. She slept, worked, slept and worked and worried about what to do. Her knuckles were raw, her stomach turning over on itself, and she was so thirsty she thought she might die from that alone. Finally, she punched through the wall. Bracing back, she drew up her knees, got leverage, and then kicked. Before long, she’d kicked out a hole large enough to crawl through.
Wary, expecting to be leveled or shot by a guard as soon as her feet touched the ground, she dove through the opening, rolled over the crumbled brick and concrete. A chunk dug into her hip and pain shot through her side.
“An actual cemetery.” She looked around at row upon row of graves and tombs, reflecting in the full moonlight. Seeing no one, she hurriedly stacked the loose bricks back into the opening, hoping to lessen the odds of her escape being quickly noticed, then crept from tombstone to tombstone to get a fix on her location.
James St. Claire. 1926-1959.
Jacob Charles Anderson. Beloved Father and Husband.
Alison Hayes. Age: 3 Blessed Days. “Safely into the arms of Angels.”
American, Amanda thought. Definitely American. The smells of ash trees and wildflowers filled her nose. Somewhere in the south, but not Georgia. In the Carolinas, maybe. She eased out of the cemetery and into the woods, her left arm throbbing.
Pausing, she twisted it in the moonlight. Dark bruises muddied her arm, wrist to elbow. It was swollen and caked with blood near the thumb side of her wrist. It was a wound. An IV wound.
Baffled, she just stared at her arm. When had she had an intravenous tube?
The miracles of modern medicine amuse me.
Her stomach soured. She frantically looked around. She’d been in the desert. Now she was in the woods. Where was she?
A road stretched out up ahead. Deserted, no buildings—nothing but woods and empty road in all directions. She walked down it until she reached a crossroad and saw a sign. Freedom Lane and Liberty Way?
Amanda came to a dead stop. This couldn’t be. She’d been somewhere in the Middle East. Somewhere in the desert. How had she gotten into a North Carolina cemetery? To a CIA extraction point, for God’s sake?
Kunz was rubbing her nose it. He was betting she would hide the truth about this lapse in her memory to save her job. He knew she was a loner, that her job was all she had, and if she reported the memory lapse, she’d lose her security clearance. A S.A.S.S. operative without a security clearance was worthless. She’d have nothing.
Dread dragged at her belly. Thomas Kunz knew far more than S.A.S.S. or the CIA believed—about her, and obviously about U.S. clandestine operations.
Stunned, reeling from the implications of all this, she checked the moon. Dawn would come in about two hours. She walked off the road into the open clearing, to its far side. A chopper would be by before daybreak. This was a daily drop zone she and other Intelligence sources used often. There was an artesian well here. Water!
She ran to it, drank thirstily, then drowned her face and washed in the cool water. As it sluiced over her, she sighed. Sex had rarely felt this good.
The chopper arrived before she stopped dripping water. She wrung out the edge of her shirt, signaled, and it set down in the clearing.
What had he done to her? That she didn’t know roused demons of being violated and abused and her hatred for not being in control. Her skin went clammy cold and her heart raced, thumping like a jackhammer in her head.
What are you going to do about this?
She should report it immediately to her boss, Colonel Drake.
You’ll be fired on the spot.
But if she didn’t report it, S.A.S.S. missions and operatives could be vulnerable. He’d gotten her from the Middle East to Carolina without her knowing it. Was it so hard to imagine him getting her to talk, to breach security and identify and compromise other agents and missions?
There’s no easy way out.
There didn’t seem to be even a reasonable way out.
There isn’t. You’re screwed.
Kunz took a huge risk, leaving you at a CIA drop zone. He had to be extremely confident you’d hide the truth. How could he be so confident?
She didn’t have a clue. At the moment, she didn’t know herself what she was going to do.
When she boarded the chopper, a stranger sat in the pilot’s seat. “Who are you? Where’s Harry?”
“I’m Jim.” The pilot blinked hard and fast. “Harry’s dead, ma’am.”
She plopped down in her seat and buckled in. “Dead?” What had happened to him?
“Yes, ma’am. He crashed in Iraq about two months ago.”
The man had lost his mind. “What the hell are you pulling here? Harry was alive and well less than a week ago.”
He reeled off his security-clearance code and then asked, “Would you verify your identity, ma’am?”
“Captain Amanda West,” she said, and then repeated her code. “Alpha Tango 135812.”
“I was sure by your pictures, but—but—” He sputtered, stalled, and then finally went on. “You can’t be Captain West, ma’am. It’s not possible.”
Oh, for God’s sake. She was exhausted, starved, soaked, and out of patience. “It’s possible. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“No—I mean, yes, ma’am. But you can’t be here. I mean, how did you get here, ma’am? You’ve been MIA.”
“Yeah, well. This jerk bricked me in a tomb.” She shook her head, tried not to think about Harry. She’d liked him. She’d mourn him as soon as she regrouped. Right now, it took all she had to hold it together. “It took me a while to make it out.”
“You had rations in a tomb?”
She looked at Jim as if he’d lost his mind. “I had the tip of a broken arrow.”
He thought a long moment, his sober expression eerie in the green lights cast from the chopper’s control panel. “So you’re saying,” he spoke slowly, “that you haven’t been on an insertion mission. You’ve been in a tomb. And you’ve lived in that tomb without food or water for three months?”
“Damn right—no, that’s not what I’m—” What he’d said hit her. Cold chills swam up and down her backbone, set the roof of her mouth to tingling. “Did you say, three months?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded. “That’s how long you’ve been missing.”
“But—but that’s outrageous.” She’d been tortured, injected with something, and then awakened in the tomb and dug her way out. Okay, she didn’t remember the IV, but she damn sure would have remembered something in three months. “Three days, maybe. But not three months.”
“I’m telling you, it’s been three months since we received any transmission from you, ma’am. I should know when you went missing. I flew the search team who went in looking for you.”
Three months? She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. How could that be possible? Why would Kunz want to do that?
And what exactly had he done?