HOLMES OFFICE COMPLEX
MAYA Valentina saw it in the man's gaze, which flicked down from her low-cut blouse to her well-tanned legs to her feet jammed into a pair of stilettos. She tossed back her hair, which fell in golden waves across her shoulders, then put an index finger to her lips, as though to nervously bite her nail. Oh, yes, he liked the shy schoolgirl routine, and Valentina could pass for a freshman, too, though she was nearly twenty-eight.
"Hi, there. You must be Ms. Haspel," he said, drawing in his sagging gut and probably wishing his thinning hair were two shades darker.
She reached across the desk and accepted his hairy paw. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Leonard, and thanks for the interview."
"Well, as I said, we only have one position to fill, so the competition is fierce. Please have a seat."
She settled down and leaned toward his desk, keeping her blue eyes locked on his. "Can I ask a question before we start?"
"By all means."
"Does the company have a sexual-harassment policy?"
His lip twitched. "Of course."
"Well, I've had some problems in the past."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, the one guy was married and claimed I was a stalker, which was totally not the case. The other guy kept saying I was making lewd remarks. He even said I flashed my panties, and there's no way I did that."
He hesitated. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. I like to get dressed up for work. It doesn't mean I want to have sex with everyone I see."
He cleared his throat. "Of course not. But you should know that we have a dress code. Business casual."
Valentina nodded and gazed salaciously at him. "Is what I'm wearing okay?"
He swallowed before answering.
* * *
HANSEN was sitting in an SUV parked outside the four-story office building. The complex was comprised of ten equally nondescript buildings: the headquarters for a lengthy list of companies that were, according to an intel report, "assembling stacked layers of silver and nonconducting magnesium fluoride and cutting out nanoscale-sized fishnet patterns to form metamaterials."
Grim had explained that metamaterials held the key to developing cloaking devices to render objects invisible to humans. Leonard's company in particular was developing paint for military vehicles and fabric for military uniforms. This was all quite serious business, which was why Hansen could only shake his head as he listened to Maya and Leonard. What the hell was she doing? All she had to do was get hired.
Admittedly, she'd hated the tired old plan of playing dress up to ensure Leonard took the bait, so overplaying the role was her way of protesting. She wouldn't just be the attractive new hire; she was now the quirky sex addict who'd called way too much attention to herself. Hansen was a breath away from reporting her misconduct to Grim, but then he thought better of it and just sat there as Maya told Leonard she was always available for overtime and "after-hours" work. Hansen grimaced.
* * *
AT 10:05 A.M. Nathan Noboru parked his utility van at the curb outside William Leonard's seven-thousand-square-foot home. Sprawling front lawns, well-manicured grounds, and tree-lined brick-paved driveways unfurled to a grand entrance shadowed by twenty-foot columns painted in a glossy antique white. This part of southwest Houston was called Sugar Land, and it was sweet indeed: Multimillion-dollar homes were nestled among well-tended golf course greens and tranquil lakes. The senior citizen manning the neighborhood guardhouse had taken a perfunctory glance at Noboru's forged work orders and immediately waved him through.
With a sigh, Noboru grabbed his utility belt and started up the driveway. But then he slowed, furtively glanced around, and scratched his crew cut. He gazed out past the lawn toward the neighboring home, another mansion where an old man in a pink shirt and oversized sunglasses stood near his Mercedes, preparing to load a golf bag into his trunk.
Off to Noboru's left lay another spectacular three-story château with a tremendous brick facade and five-car garage. Noboru studied the windows, trying to spot the lens of a telescopic camera or other such observation device. Nothing. He continued on, but something wasn't right.
Or was that just his paranoia? Again. They weren't after him anymore. He had a new life now. He needed to believe that.
Noboru shifted up to the front door, made a call, heard the phone ring inside the house, and then he tapped a series of numbers into his phone and heard the rapid ringtone of the alarm being disarmed. He took out his double-sided lock-pick set and got to work. Three, two, one: The door opened—
And if the explosions hadn't started at the back of the mansion, he would've already been dead.
Twin thunderclaps resounded, and the ground literally shook beneath his feet as the door slammed back toward him, knocking him to the ground.
He rolled over, shot to his feet, and sprinted down the driveway. He might as well have been back in Kao-hsiung, chased through the crowded streets by Horatio and Gothwhiler, the night air humid, the sweat pouring down his face. Several more explosions ripped through the house, and he stole a look over his shoulder as huge windows burst outward, sending showers of glass to the driveway while flames shot through the holes and wagged like dragons' tongues.
He reached the van and whirled around. Clouds of black smoke backlit by more roaring flames now devoured the entire mansion, while fiery debris floated down like confetti and got trapped in the thick canopy of leaves and limbs.
The old man who'd been loading his golf clubs was now backing out of his driveway. He stopped, climbed out of his car, and hurried over while dialing a number on his phone.
Noboru's mouth fell open. This was supposed to be a pathetically simple entry to place electronic eyes and ears. In fact, he'd balked over how rudimentary the whole operation was (he was entering through the front door!) and had loathed the fact that Director Grimsdóttir was wasting his talents on such a menial task. He had only been employed by Third Echelon for less than a year, but didn't his four years with Japan's Special Operations Group, its own Delta Force, count for anything?
Apparently not…; but what was going on now?
Were Horatio and Gothwhiler tailing him? Did they know he'd be here? Were they trying to finish the job? If the others learned about them, about Noboru's real past, he would never be trusted. Grimsdóttir had promised him a new identity, a new life, and utter secrecy.
A voice crackled in the nickel-sized subdermal embedded in the skin behind his ear; it was the Grim Reaper herself. "Nathan, I'm looking at the satellite feed—"
"I know! I know!" Noboru ran back to the van and yanked open the door. "Ma'am, you'd better call Hansen!"
* * *
VALENTINA was about to stand and thank Leonard for the interview when the man's BlackBerry rang.
"Please, let me take this, but wait," he said. "I want to introduce you to the rest of my staff."
He shifted away from the desk and headed toward the window.
Suddenly, Hansen's voice came through her subdermal. "Maya, get out of there. Now!"
Even as she gasped, Leonard cried, "What? Oh, my God!" into his phone.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Leonard, I need to go."
With that she started for the door, which suddenly took a bullet, the wood splintering as she ducked and craned her neck to see two more rounds punch through the office window, the first striking Leonard in the chest, the second in the shoulder. Blood sprayed across the back wall as Valentina dropped to her hands and knees, drew her SC pistol from her purse, and crawled toward the door.
She chanced a look back at Leonard, lying there, bleeding, reaching out to her, his mouth working, a word barely forming: "Please…; "
ALLEN Ames was on the building's roof when the shooting began. He'd been up there only as an observer, gathering intel on the comings and goings of visitors to the building and hoping to get some up-close-and-personal pics of at least two of Mr. Leonard's "special" friends from Beijing.
Ames felt at home on rooftops. He'd grown up in Brooklyn and had spent years atop apartment buildings, hanging out with his friends, getting drunk, and dreaming of a better life that would help him forget about the fire…; about the screams from Mom and Dad, about Katy's face at the window, looking at him, coughing…; until she fell backward into the flames.
Now, twenty years after that fateful night, Ames was staring down through the telescopic sight of his sniper rifle. The shooter had set up on the roof of a building across the street from Leonard's and had only revealed himself to take the shots. He'd been in Ames's sight for all of two heartbeats before he'd vanished behind the air-conditioning units. Ames had been on the roof since sunrise, and he'd neither seen nor heard the shooter's approach, so the man might have been there even longer and had obviously cloaked his heat signature.
Ames cursed, slung the rifle over his shoulder, and muttered, "I'm going after the shooter."
The SVT, or subvocal transceiver, a butterfly-shaped adhesive patch on Ames's throat, just north of his Adam's apple, picked up his voice so it could be broadcast over the channel for all, including Grim, to hear.
Ames took off, running for the stairwell door, wrenched it open, and began storming down the steps. At just five feet eight and 140 pounds, he was the fastest runner on the team; still, that didn't stop the others from quipping about his size. Oh, they never ridiculed him to his face, but he overheard their remarks. He didn't care. He knew he was ten feet tall when standing on his skills and charisma. Moreover, with a little gel worked into his unruly blond hair, he easily added three inches.
How many staircases had he mounted during his tenure as a New York City cop, back at the old 4-8 precinct? Too many to count. And just when he'd grown so cynical that he thought he'd abandon public service forever, he'd joined the National Security Agency (NSA) and become a police officer in Fort Meade, Maryland. They'd given him a nice milestone recruitment incentive, and the money and new mission had lifted his spirits. While there, he'd been tapped for Third Echelon—despite his lack of a special-forces background—and so here he was, back to racing down stairs, trying to help out his fellow Splinter Cells who, of course, had no idea what he really was.
"You don't have the temperament for this job," Sam Fisher once told Ames during a particularly brutal training session.
Fisher was a very good judge of character.
* * *
A motley crew of overweight soccer moms hopping around like sea lions in spandex, and fifty-year-old cougars who'd left their rich husbands to lust after group fitness instructors half their age had crowded into the Gold's Gym fitness room for the morning's body-combat class.
Under the harsh glow of overhead lights that beamed off the waxed wooden floor, the class was in full swing, with the instructor, Greg, booming into a headset while techno music blared from speakers taller than Gillespie.
Kimberly Gillespie had donned her workout gear and stood within a meter of Mrs. Cynthia Leonard, the fabulously wealthy wife of the team's target. The first break in the music finally came, and they stole a moment to towel off and gulp down their water.
"You're really good at this," she told Cynthia.
The woman smoothed back her bleach-blond hair, then blotted sweat off her chest—her impossibly perky boobs threatening to explode from her tight top. "Thanks. I've been doing it for a while. Takes time to learn all the punches and kicks. But you look like you've had some training."
Gillespie smiled. "A little bit."
"I like you're accent. You're not from Houston."
"And I love all that red hair and your freckles. You know, I once dated a man who said he stopped for blondes and brunettes, but he took two steps back for redheads."
Gillespie chuckled under her breath. "I tend to scare away most men. They don't step back. They run."
"All right, ladies, break time is over," cried Greg.
"My Lord, he's a real drill sergeant," said Gillespie.
"Yeah," Cynthia agreed. "But look at that ass."
The remark reminded Gillespie of army boot camp, of her old friend Lissette, who helped her get through the misery by making jokes and lusting after all the sergeants. The army had allowed Gillespie to escape from Creekwood Trailer Park and her father's grocery list of emotional problems and addictions. She'd finally been able to make a name for herself as an intelligence analyst who advised special-forces teams and operations.
Four years in the army, then another four years at University of Central Florida to earn a degree in civil engineering, had prepared her well for a career with the NSA. When she was handpicked by Grim herself to join Third Echelon was one of the proudest moments of Gillespie's life. Someone had finally noticed her, recognized her skill set, and appreciated her sarcasm and take-no-prisoners attitude.
As they were about to move forward and prepare for the next phase of punishment, Cynthia glanced down at the BlackBerry sitting atop her purse and shifted back to take a call.
Gillespie assumed the fighting stance, then turned as Cynthia suddenly rushed from the room.