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Authors: Doranna Durgin,Virginia Kantra,Meredith Fletcher

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

Femme Fatale (6 page)

BOOK: Femme Fatale
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“Not a chance,” he said, hooking the helmet over a handlebar and bringing a leg over the front of the bike seat.

“You don’t think it’ll be a little obvious if you take me in there in cuffs? You don’t think I can find a way to make it obvious?”

“I think I can find a way to make you regret it if you do,” he said.

“Oh, I’m trembling. Big bad SAS. At least take one of the cuffs yourself. It’ll be more comfortable for me and, gosh, we can hold hands and no one will ever know it’s because there are handcuffs involved. It’s not like I can run off and leave you again. At least, not without killing you and rifling your body for the key. That’ll be hard to do in the lobby, even for me.”

He shook his head; she couldn’t decide if he was incredulous or just hiding a smile. She sat quietly and with quick, efficient moves he freed her left hand and snapped the cuff closed around his own. Taking her hand, he said, “What’s your name?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your name,” he repeated. “If I’m going to walk into the hotel holding hands with you, I need to know your name.”

“Ah. An old-fashioned kind of guy.” She hesitated, considering pseudonyms and considering the warm, gentle pressure of his fingers over hers. Finally she said, “You can call me Beth,” with all the implication that it wasn’t truly her name.

“All right, Beth,” he said evenly. “Here’s how it goes. We’ll walk through the public areas of the hotel quietly, and we’ll stay quiet all the way up to my room. Keep in mind that you’re wanted for murder; being with me isn’t the worst situation you face. If you make it hard on me, that could change.”

“I believe I’ve already made it hard on you,” Beth said, and widened her eyes in affected innocence.

Goodness, he blushed. Mr. Manly MI6
blushed.
But he wasn’t going to admit it. He said shortly, “Let’s go.”

She dismounted the bike, walking alongside him with
casual ease. They took a short flight of stairs, automatically adjusting for the tight space and the rhythm of each other’s movement. When he pushed open the glass-fronted door to the lobby, Beth had to stop and gape a moment. The lavishly appointed lobby sparkled at them, worthy of any gala. In the center, a slab fountain rippled discreetly into a small pool filled with tossed coins, creating only enough water noise to be soothing without being disruptive. Brass shone and plush, spotless carpets led the way to a bank of elevators. At the far end of the lobby, a glass-sided staircase curved up to the balcony of the second floor, from which a murmur of conversation trickled. Conference and meeting rooms…no doubt a ballroom. No doubt all as posh and glittery as the lobby.

Between the door from which they’d just entered and the far staircase, the lobby offered overstuffed chairs and couches. It was to these that Beth marched, taking the initiative abruptly enough so Chandler followed along, his reluctance stiffening his grip on her hand.

“Relax,” she said, automatically spotting the main exits and the smaller bellboy exit off to the side; other exit signs beckoned beyond the elevators. She marked the interior management doors—the places from which people might unexpectedly appear—and she headed for a small couch that kept their backs to a large square pillar. Before the couch sat a low table, laden with brochures.
Blue Crane Winery.
Just off the N2 in Faure. Weekly evening reception…tonight. Bet there’ll be plenty of tables, she thought. And under one of those tables she might find Lyeta’s computer keycard. She turned her attention back to Chandler, not certain if he’d seen her distraction, and said, “I’m not causing any trouble. I’m giving you the opportunity to talk. Right here, right now.”

His fingers tightened painfully around hers. “Not what I had in mind.”

“Not in your rule book?” she said, letting scorn lace her words. “I learned long ago that everyone else’s notion of a rule book isn’t necessarily what’s best for me. There are only a few people in this world who can lay down rules for me, and you’re not one of them.”

“Good Lord,” he said, sitting next to her on the couch more bemused than anything. His gaze flicked to the brochures before them, then away. “I’ll bet you don’t get along with your mum.”

“My mum,” she said, and smiled tightly. “No. But let’s talk about you and your mum instead.”

He shook his head, more to himself than at her. “Let’s talk about why you were with Lyeta.”

Beth hesitated.
Work with him.
There’d be no
working with him
if she couldn’t convince him they were at least nominally on the same side. And…for all she’d played him, kept her options open and done her best to keep him off guard, she could see the benefits of teaming up. If he ran his ops by the damn rule book, at least she’d know what to expect of him.

So she said, “Let’s talk about why I
wasn’t.

He regarded her steadily, looking relaxed in the short, comfortable couch. Beth knew otherwise. She could feel the tension in his thigh next to hers; the heat of being against him warmed her.

“You mind?” she asked, reaching for the zipper of the parka. With the handcuffs in play she couldn’t take it off, but when he gave a short nod she was glad enough to unzip and open it. She said, “The average sniper is eighteen hundred percent more effective than the average soldier. That goes up, of course, when you put an M24 SWS
in the hands of that average soldier as opposed to his M16. But there’s still no comparison.”

He gave the smallest of smiles; she had the feeling he was beginning to catch on to her non sequitur way of thought. “I’m sure you’ll somehow make this fascinating bit of trivia relevant.”

“You betcha. Because I’m far more than your average sniper. And as I said at the shopping center…the person who shot Lyeta…
that
was your average soldier. Your people should have been able to tell you that much.”

“You still want me to believe you didn’t kill her.”

“Yes,” she said. “I want you to believe that.”

“Why?”

She bit her lip and decided she really had nothing to lose. Not while she had his attention here in the lobby, and wasn’t yet actually in formal questioning…or not so formal questioning, for which even stuffed-shirt MI6 guys didn’t follow the rules. “I think we can work together,” she said. “Things went bad at the dock. Lyeta wasn’t supposed to die. That leaves me with unfinished business. You’re no better off, or you wouldn’t be trying to squeeze me for information. If we work together, we both win.”

“That’s assuming we’re on the same side,” he said, although how he did it with that slight humor in his eye, Beth didn’t know. It gave her a window into an entirely new facet of him, one she hadn’t considered. One that made her more aware than ever of just how warm she was, bundled in her squall parka and sitting hip to hip, knee to knee, on the small couch. One that made her remember his eyes as they faced each other in the parking garage, and give her a foolish little hiccup of yearning. It had been so long since any man had tempted her beyond the purely physical…

Not this man. Not this time, this place.

She gave herself a mental throat clearing and responded, “We’ve got to start on the same side before we can go anywhere else. We’re at a dead stop until then.”

He gave her hand a little squeeze. “And I suppose this is the first step. Unlocking these.”

“That would be my guess.” She watched him; he didn’t turn away from her gaze. In fact, he returned it, considering her words…considering
her.

She saw the decision in his eyes the moment they shuttered; something in him went distant from her. He unconsciously squared his shoulders. Disappointment clogged her throat…something more than purely professional. Her foolish little hiccup of yearning, squashed.

But before either of them could say anything, a perfectly nondescript man swept in through the front entrance at just about the same time another came from the bellboy’s door, and a third from beyond the elevators. Ooh, nice. Coordination. Beth and Chandler hadn’t been spotted yet, but it was only a matter of seconds.

“Damn,” Beth said. “You couldn’t have chosen some little out-of-the-way hotel? Some place inconspicuous?”

“We’d be safe enough in my room if you’d come with me,” he said, matter-of-factly enough so she had to admit to herself that he was right. “Anyway, this place has tea makers. And a trouser press in each room.”

“Mustn’t be without those,” Beth murmured, and was a little surprised to see that twitch of amusement at his mouth. Not such a stuffed shirt as he liked to seem, after all. Momentary regret squeezed her along with a surprised realization that they might have worked well together.

But here came her chance to escape and continue work on her own, and it looked like she’d better grab it. She wouldn’t do Stony Man any good at all, sequestered somewhere in thirty-two stories of Holiday Inn with
loose-lips drugs in her system and a thorough search turning up the mini CD she still carried.

Chandler leaned close, murmuring, “I don’t think they’ll start anything so publicly. They’ll try to bluff us out of here first.”

With real apology in her voice, Beth said, “I’m sorry.”

He gave her a startled look, a big question mark of an expression.

Still apologetic, Beth said, “
I’m
going to start something.”

And she did. She bent to grab the little S&W at her ankle, thoroughly alarming the perfectly nondescript trio. As they hastened to reach the lobby, Beth flung her cuffed hand up against the square pillar behind them, bringing Chandler’s hand with it. She jammed the gun up against the links connecting the bracelets and fired, blasting the cuffs apart while the bullet buried itself in the pillar. The blast of sound sent people screaming and diving. Chandler snatched at her as she flipped over the back of the couch, catching only a brief handful of her parka before she ripped free and sprinted for the curving staircase at the back of the lobby.

They weren’t after Chandler. They probably didn’t even know about him. They’d followed her, and therefore him…and now, as she pounded up the stairs, she’d given him a choice. He could chase her down, or he could delay the men who’d come for her.

As she gained the second floor and raced across the open space for the exit sign she thought would spill her out into the street behind the hotel, she heard the sounds of fighting. Fists meeting flesh, bodies hitting the floor, furniture breaking. She glanced over the edge of the second floor balcony and saw two nondescript men reeling while a third hit the floor. She smiled, the smallest curve
of her lips, and sprinted away. Two men from the disrupted meetings along the row of balcony conference rooms tried to stop her, blocking her way in the officious way of men who don’t have authority but take it anyway. They thought better of it at the last moment, simultaneously spotting her revolver and throwing themselves aside. She hit the stairwell, bounded down the stairs three and four at a time, and landed at the bottom to come up still running.

And all the while, she kept that little smile on her face.

Chapter 4

O
nce on the street, Beth raced around the nearest corner, took the first opportunity to double back, and spent long moments watching the hotel’s main entrance and garage ramp. She saw nothing of Chandler or his silly yellow motorbike, but after ten minutes, a dark, tinted-window sedan drove up the ramp at carelessly high speed and made a fast and equally careless turn onto Strand Street. Beth secured her revolver in its ankle holster, rued the loss of Wyatt and her fanny pack, and turned away from the hotel, jogging along the side street at a decent clip.

He’d chosen to protect her from the nondescripts. From the CIA mole’s people, who might even have been bona fide CIA, misled by the mole. Chandler could have chanced it, gone after her himself…and hadn’t.

No doubt there was something in the rule book about keeping alive those you want to question.

Not far from here, she’d auditioned for a dance troupe production, establishing her cover. She always auditioned
upon arrival when she was using her dancer cover, thanks to Barbara’s uncanny knack of locating productions suited to Beth’s strengths. Sometimes Beth won a role in her cover audition and had to feign injury to avoid the commitment. Sometimes on long-term jobs, she auditioned with intent, got the part, and carried the cover throughout her assignment. In this particular instance, she was still waiting to hear about callbacks…but it didn’t matter one way or the other. Because whenever, wherever she auditioned, she cased the theater for her own use.

They were all the same in the ways that were most important. They all held rooms and warrens and corners of old props, new props, costuming, dressing rooms, makeup….

They gave her a place to hide. A place to baffle the unfamiliar, and one that often provided her with the tools she needed to improvise her way out of trouble. Wigs, clothes, makeup, a first-aid kit. Sometimes a place to clean up, even if it meant a sink bath and hand soap in her hair. This particular theater had turned out to be an ancient thing, with basement hallways to rival the underground lair of the
Phantom of the Opera
and a rich assortment of wardrobe offerings. She’d almost ditched her hotel and stayed there in the first place, but opted to keep it back in case of trouble.

Well, she had trouble, all right. But she also had a wine tasting to make, and—she glanced at her watch as she ran—just enough time to manage it, assuming the wine country bus line was running to schedule today.

Blue Crane.
And lots and lots of tables.

 

Jason stared at Bear in perplexed disbelief. “She’s CIA?” She hadn’t acted like CIA. No reason not to reveal herself as such when he’d caught her, and to pull inter
agency politics to handle their conflict. And besides, according to Bear, the men at the hotel had been CIA, and they didn’t have that comradely air about them.

“Quit looking narked and pay attention,” Bear said, a lack of patience in his voice that caught Jason’s attention. He straightened in the desk chair and looked properly alert. “She
was
CIA. Sniper-trained, too—not something she often took advantage of in those days, but when she did…she’s good, Stellar. Cracking good.”

“She said…”

She’d said a lot of things. That she hadn’t killed Lyeta. That she was far more than your average sniper. Ohh, yes.

She’d said she wanted to work together.

“Stupid,” he muttered out loud. There’d been no mistaking that instant of disappointment on her face—or that she’d known the instant he’d decided to stick to the mission profile. How long had it been since someone read him so well? They would have meshed well, if he hadn’t been so reluctant.

Rules are rules for a reason.
Never mind meshing well; he knew better than to trust the judgment of someone who acted on impulse. Shooting apart handcuffs in the middle of a crowded lobby, for instance. Not giving him the chance to talk to her on terms that allowed him to trust her—even to help her.

Bear ignored his grumbling and went on. “We don’t know what she’s up to now. But I can tell you she isn’t known to use an M24, which is what our Lyeta-killer used.”

“Basic U.S. Army issue,” Jason said, pulling himself out of his internal thoughts to speculate out loud. “Recently available to the public, if I recall correctly. You know, if she didn’t kill Lyeta, if she was somehow work
ing
with
Lyeta… But you don’t have her in any of your current agency databases. Sounds like dark ops to me.”

“Welcome back to the conversation,” Bear said, heavily sardonic. “The point being, the murder weapon isn’t her weapon of choice, and others could have obtained it. The point being…I don’t think she did this. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s relevant. You need to bring her in. She’s still the last one who spoke with Lyeta. She still has information we don’t.”

And she’s still in danger.

“We need to bring her in,” Bear repeated. “If she’s after something we don’t know about, we need to learn about it—and get it ourselves. I don’t suppose somewhere between honking up breakfast at various Cape Town locations, apprehending her, having a nice snuggly bike ride, and scuffling with the CIA, you picked up any idea where she ran off to?”

Jason thought of the brochure that had caught her attention in the lobby.
Blue Crane Winery.
He thought of the home entertainment store where he’d found her.
Blue Crane Nest Entertainment.
A perfect pattern of two. He said, “As a matter of fact…” and let the sentence trail away a moment. Then he looked in Bear’s craggy features via the jerky image interface of the video phone and smiled. “I believe I have a date at a wine tasting.”

With any luck, I’ll get there before the CIA.
She might have been one of them once, but he had the distinct feeling she was better off with the British side of the force. The question was…were they after her because they thought she’d killed Lyeta…or because they knew she hadn’t?

 

Beth slipped into the theater, avoided the loud discussion in front of the stage—producer and choreographer, if
she interpreted the various levels of indignation correctly—and eased down the backstage stairs to the storage rooms below. She had a room all picked out. It was one in which several mattresses were stored, and was just across the hall from contemporary costume storage. If she recalled her briefing materials correctly, this theater had recently staged an avant garde play populated by The Beautiful People; one of the reviews had specifically commented on the quality of the designer knock-off clothing.

With luck, she’d find just the thing for a wine tasting.

She squeezed into the room she’d chosen, past the massive disassembled bed frame that blocked most of the door. A selection of mattresses leaned against one wall of the small room; the bed frames leaned against the other. A few other pieces of bedroom furniture filled in the corners, with chairs upturned on top and dusty mirrors behind them. A rope-and-pulley arrangement above the mattresses held several old-fashioned bicycles.

Beth threw her sling pack over the handlebars of one of those head-level bikes and pulled the mattress from the outside of the stack to land on the old brown patterned linoleum with a
whump.

Then she flopped down on it herself, covering her nose and mouth with one hand when she saw the dust she’d raised. She let her body go limp, every single muscle. She ran a mental inventory, checking bruises and sore spots, making sure she hadn’t missed anything that might fail her under stress later in the evening.

This day had started in the middle of the night, but she still had most of it to go.

She allowed herself a fifteen-minute doze—precious time, but the respite would make all the difference in the world—possibly in her life. Upon rousing, she forced her
self to lie there another few moments, reconnecting with the details of the mission.

What few details she knew.

The mole was on her tail, all right, and appeared to be taking advantage of company resources. Either that or he’d gone completely rogue and was using Egorov’s people; she hadn’t let them get close enough to find out.

Jason Chandler had been close enough. She felt a moment’s guilt in leaving him to take care of the trio at the hotel, but then again…he seemed quite capable of taking care of himself. A slow smile crossed her face as she reconsidered the quick glimpse she’d gotten of him in the lobby, the nondescripts arranged in various attitudes of physical defeat in a circle around him. They’d made their exit quickly enough after that.

But no doubt the nondescripts were still after her. And if they weren’t after her, they were certainly after the computer keycard Lyeta had hidden. In fact, they could be nothing but desperate for it.

I’m going to get there first.

Chasing down Blue Crane establishments was a fool’s errand and she knew it. She needed to know where Lyeta had spent her time. For all Beth knew, Lyeta had come straight to the dock upon entering Cape Town; the last traces of her existence might be in another country altogether. So for now, until she had more information, Beth would dress the part, avoid pursuit and capture, and continue to mull the cryptic meaning of Lyeta’s last words.

But Lyeta didn’t mean for them to be cryptic.
She’d been dying, and trying to communicate. She had used shorthand, but why tell Beth anything at all unless she meant for it to be helpful? Without Lyeta’s dying confession about the keycard, Beth would have walked away regretful, but she would have walked away. And Lyeta
had no incentive to send Beth on a wild-goose chase. The words, as vague as they were, had to mean something simple and obvious. Something that, in context, provided no puzzle at all.

Beth just had to get them in context.

But first she had to get to this wine tasting. She’d seen enough of the brochure to know it was an informal affair, more of a weekly publicity open house than a bona fide wine tasting, and she very much hoped they’d have food available. She felt positively hollow…nothing in her system since the early-morning doughnut, and all that running, leaping and evading in the meantime.

“Beth’s rule of spy survival,” she said to the grimy, yellowed acoustic tile ceiling above her open eyes. “A growly stomach messes with stealth mode.” Another rule, left unsaid: A grimy spy messes with a cool, elegant cover.

She found a maintenance closet and took the best sink-bath she could manage with a roll of harsh brown paper towels. Her hair, flattened by the yellow helmet and speckled with plaster flakes, suffered under a hand-soap shampoo. She washed her leotard out and hung it up to dry, snagging a baby-doll shirt from the wardrobe rack and easing back upstairs to find the toolbox that every stage manager kept on hand. The argument up on stage had given way to silence; a peek into the seating area showed only one man, deeply involved in making notes all over a script. She crept to the back of the stage, well out of his earshot.

She dulled the hacksaw blade and dealt herself several nasty cuts, but eventually the hardened metal of the security cuff gave way. She carefully buried it under the rest of the garbage in the bin by the back door. Then it was back downstairs to hunt out a dress and makeup.

When she emerged, the only thing still
Beth
about her was the sling pack and squall parka—and those, she planned to stash before she entered the visitor’s building at the winery. She wanted them close. Otherwise, with her hair pulled back into a clip with a style that was at once casual and classy, and her dancer’s body poured into a slinky black dress with a plethora of top strapping and plenty of skin showing along her back and shoulders, she was ready to slip into the Cape Town nightlife. Silver evening shoes with more heel than she preferred adorned her feet, and she had a lined, black velvet shawl to cut out the chill of the night. Neither were ideal; they didn’t give her the flexibility to take action—or to retreat into the night—that she might need.

Then again, she had danced in higher heels than these. She could certainly fight in them if she had to.

But she wouldn’t plan on it. In, search, and out again. She didn’t know how the nondescripts had found her at Chandler’s hotel and she couldn’t assume they wouldn’t find her at the winery.

She breezed out of the theater as though she owned it, checked the banker’s clock next to the theater front, and headed for the wine country bus stop with a firm, confident step.

 

Even with the six-thirty sunset making for a dark bus ride, Beth could still see the country change around her. The trees grew from scrubby to tall and sparse to lush; the land grew rugged. Thirty minutes along the N2 and they were just outside Faure and the Hottentots Nature Preserve. The Blue Crane Winery took five more minutes of patience. As they pulled up outside the main gate, the bus driver wished Beth a pleasant evening and smoothly accepted the ten-rand tip she offered. He made sure she’d
disembarked safely before carefully pulling the door closed.

She smiled at the man who opened the visitor center door for her and walked into the main room of the small center. Cozy and brimming with character, charm…and money. Several tables were set up against one wall; conversational seating units occupied most of the other, and the open space in between already boasted a handful of socializers. The beautifully presented wines were offered for both serious tasters and casual explorers, with prefilled wineglasses grouped by wine and demarked by small crystal bowls of unsweetened bread cubes. Young red, mature red, white wines… But these functions clearly attracted more than the swish-and-spit crowd; on the middle table was a lovely, mouthwatering, drool-worthy display of finger sandwiches, meats and cheeses, not to mention the hors d’oeuvres that Beth made no attempt to identify.
Mmmm. Dinner.

But first, the tables. She didn’t have time to waste here, not when she couldn’t be sure what the mole knew.

Casually, lingering here and there along the way, Beth did a cursory check of the table edges, pushing the cloth back and up to feel for anything other than screws, corner blocks, and other structures that came along with the table. It would be too easy if she found anything that way, of course, but it was the first step nonetheless.

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