Spring’s Reign

Spring’s Reign

Jaye Patrick

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Spring’s Reign

Spring’s Reign By Jaye Patrick

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Spring’s Reign

Copyright © 2010 Jaye Patrick All rights reserved First electronic publication February 2010 Author’s note: This e-book is not intended for sale and is not to be used to generate profits in any form. Readers have the author’s permission to copy and distribute freely for non-profit purposes.

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Prologue 1987 “This is stupid.” Eleven-year-old Mackie McCafferty muttered as he crouched next to his Dad, John, outside the cellblock. He glanced over his shoulder, but only saw the dim jungle. Broad, glossy leaves glittered under the perimeter‟s arc lights. “It‟s too late to do anything.” “Shush, Mackie. Night, especially this late, is the perfect time.” His father‟s harsh voice whispered. Mackie looked up at his father, but his dad stared across the compound with narroweyed intensity. “We can‟t allow this to continue, Mack. We can‟t let them torture people anymore, and it‟s up to us to stop them. We have to give your sisters and your mom time to get away.” “How‟re we gonna do that? The buildings are made of stone! Can‟t we just go?” Mackie whined. “It‟s not the buildings that matter, it‟s the evil pricks in them.” Mackie shook his head. “We‟re gonna get caught.” He said and looked around again. He had a bad feeling in his belly. “And then we‟re gonna get locked up and then we‟re gonna die, and then...” A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, hauled him upright. He stared into his father‟s blue eyes. “Now listen to me, Mack. This isn‟t just about you and me. We‟re all special here, you know that. But holding us here, against our will? We have a right to live free, and by God that‟s what we‟re going to do. I will not stand by and let these people experiment or torture anyone else.” Mackie winced as fingers dug into his flesh with every emphasis. “The strong stand up and protect the weak; you remember that.” John‟s fingers relaxed and his tone gentled. “It‟s up to the McCafferty boys to see it done. This ends here. And if we don‟t, if we fail, they will hunt us down, hunt your

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sisters down, hunt your mother down, drag them back and do worse than they‟ve already done.” Mackie shuddered. He still heard the screams of his sisters – and others - as the doctors... he shook off the thoughts. Remembering made his eyes sting with helplessness and a need to hurt someone flared through his blood. And what they did to him... He slowly nodded. His Dad was right. Mackie straightened his spine, drew in a deep breath. “What can I do?” John patted his shoulder. “That‟s my little man.” Warmth spread through Mackie at his father‟s words and he grinned. “We gonna create mayhem?” “Dude, it‟s gonna be righteous. Now, I‟m going to the armoury. You are my Recon. Do you remember what Recon do?” “Yeah. I get to be the secret lookout.” John‟s teeth flashed white with approval. Silence descended as his father blended with the shadows. Mackie held on to John‟s hand and felt a tingle reach from his fingers to his toes and the top of his head. He looked at his free hand but it was enveloped in darkness. As long as he touched his father, he‟d be a shadow, too. Mackie wished he had his father‟s talent, then he could hide from the bastard guards. Mackie had been here so long - since he was a little kid - he knew the guards by name, knew how they worked and the night guards weren‟t as observant, or attentive, as they should have been. Now, they were going to pay for that inattentiveness, and the McCafferty boys were here to collect. The only captive of the compound to ever cause a ruckus was his Dad and Mackie knew he did it to test the security. He also knew his Dad was supposed to be in lockup, but his Mom got him out; got them all out – with a little help from Winter.

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Now, in the darkness, the compound seemed smaller, more enclosed, as if only in daylight, when the guard doubled, when the medical and clerical staff were here, did it intimidate. The jungle surrounded them; the creak of insects sounded overly loud in his ears, the air felt heavier, warmer and damp with rain, as if a hand tried to press him into the ground, into submission. Mackie rubbed the sweat from his face, felt his hand shake and his insides tremble, but he swallowed his fear, like a thick, gooey ball of the rice he hated. This was for his Mom and his sisters. He could not, would not, fail them. On a quiet breath, he focused on his father‟s shadow. The armoury was a small block of thick, green-stained bricks isolated from the rest of the compound. Mackie let go of his father‟s hand, turned his back, dropped down into a crouch and listened. He heard a subtle scrape, then a click and grinned. A locked steel gate proved no barrier to his Dad. Noises reached out to him from the sinister jungle: hidden animals roamed the night and foraged in the undergrowth; insects buzzed and whined; the light, damp breeze clicked leaves and branches against each other. Inside the wire, nothing moved. Mackie focused his attention on each shadow, on the spotlights that highlighted nearly every building. Winter had taken care of some of the light bulbs, not many, but just enough for guards to think they‟d failed naturally. The guards had proven themselves too lazy to replace them at night during a trial run his father went on two weeks ago. Now he thought about it, Winter would have been better at this, but his Dad refused to let a little girl help him. “This is my job, Jennifer, mine and Mackie‟s. Men protect the family.” He said to his Mom. “You have to get the girls to safety. I‟m counting on you. We‟ll be with you as soon as we can.” Then his parents sucked some face, his Mom got a little weepy and they all had one last huddle. Now they were gone and Mackie‟s chest tightened. He missed them.
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He heard a scratch and listened hard. The sound came again, followed by a hiss. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke and sulphur reached him and he slowly turned his head to the left. There. A shadow slowly extended from the single-storey medical building. Mackie backed up into the doorway of the armoury, quickly shifted the gate until it was almost shut. He lay down on the cool cement floor, to the side of the door, held the bottom bar to keep the gate resting against the latch bolt. “Dad! Incoming!” His father quickly faded into the shadows, as if a part of them. Mackie wished he could do that, but his talent was different. He turned his attention to outside, to the guard slowly making his rounds. Mackie saw the red glow of the cigarette as the man approached and passed beneath a light. Suarez. Mackie recognised the man‟s walk and cold fear rushed through him, turned his insides to jelly. Cortez, Suarez‟s partner, had to be close by; where one, the other soon followed. The South American mercenaries strutted about as if they owned the joint, and the prisoners. They used the tranquiliser and stun guns with casual cruelty. Both men enjoyed themselves with the captives, and for once, Mackie was happy to keep out of Suarez‟s way. His ear still stung from the bully‟s grab and twist earlier this afternoon. Mackie sucked his lips in between his teeth. His sisters were scared of Suarez and Cortez, but they never said why – at least, not to him. Winter, in particular would kick up a fuss every time one of them came to take her for testing. She‟d fight and bite and scratch until the guard smacked her over the back of her head, stunning her. Mackie learned not to react – he‟d be slapped around if he did – but his insides burned with the need to do something. But he couldn‟t think of that now, he had to focus. If he and his Dad did this right, his sisters needn‟t be scared any more. Cortez, a tall, slim man with a thick, black moustache, wandered over to Suarez and the two spoke in a language different from English. It was strangely liquid, flowed

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together like a song. Mackie didn‟t understand the words, but he understood the sniggering. He heard his sisters‟ names mentioned and Cortez grabbed his crotch. More laughter and Mackie heard his father shift behind him, growl low in his throat. The hair on the back of Mackie‟s neck rose and his eyes widened at the noise. Did his Dad understand the words? He‟d never heard his father make such a sound and he slowly turned his head. All he saw were his father‟s eyes glowing fire-blue in the shadows and Mackie swallowed hard as fear streaked through him. The guards moved on, chatting and smoking. Mackie kept watch until he could no longer see or hear them. “Dad?” He asked hoarsely. “I am going to kill that sick motherfucker.” His father said and Mackie gaped at him. He‟d never heard his father sound so... so... scary. “D..d...dad?” Mackie‟s voice quavered and John looked at him, blinked and the glow faded into the shadows. “Sorry, son.” His father whispered. “You keep reconning.” He sounded so calm, Mackie wondered whether he imagined the frighteningly cold, deliberate tone. He didn‟t see his Dad‟s eyes glow very often, but when they did, Mackie knew he was pissed. He kept watch as John loaded up with grenades, claymore mines, a pistol and bandoliers of ammunition. When he was done, his father nudged his foot. “You did a good job, Mack.” He said and Mackie warmed with relief. “You kept us safe.” “What do I do now, Dad?” He asked and got to his feet. “You release the prisoners.” Mackie‟s eyebrows lifted. If ever there was a job for Winter... but no; everyone knew boys were better than girls. Why else had his father sent his sisters into the jungle?

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He thought of the other kids here: the little girl with the white eyes – though his mom said they were grey – and dark hair. He didn‟t know her name, only that she had no parents, nor did she have brothers or sisters. She often looked at him, but he didn‟t know why and she creeped him out. The boy with the pink eyes and white hair and skinny body. Mackie rarely saw him; the boy spent most of his time in the medical building. An albino, his Mom said with a sneer. The older boy and his friend who taunted and bullied Mackie, who were incredibly strong and agile, but were never punished. His Mom told him to fight back; but he never did, they were too strong for him. And others, with and without parents and their talents. But... the adults would take care of the kids, the orphans, wouldn‟t they? Once they were out? “How‟m to do that?” Mackie asked. His father gave him a slow smile. “With your talent, of course. You know what to do.” Mackie thought about it. He could create an impenetrable shield around his body, visible only if the light was at the right angle, and even then, it only showed as a... what did the doctor call it? An air distortion? He chewed at his bottom lip as he tried to think of how to get the doors open. “Got it worked out?” His expression lightened. “Yeah, I think so.” “Now, you go and be sneaky. Open the doors, wake everyone, tell them to get out. I‟ll be causing some distraction. Then, Mackie, we‟ll go catch up with the girls. Deal?” “Deal, Dad.” And Mackie hoped he sounded as confident and in control as his Dad. Inside, he trembled and he really, really needed to go to the bathroom. “Cool. Let‟s go cause some mayhem.”

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Chapter One “Carl, all you have to do is stick the male pins into the female receptacle.” Stacey smirked. “Just like when your f...” “Lieutenant Callender.” The familiar voice of General Cosgrove‟s secretary, Maureen, had Stacey turning and the older woman raised a grey eyebrow, as if forbidding her to finish the word. She wasn‟t interested in Maureen‟s moral compass and the secretary had heard worse - probably from Cosgrove himself. “...king. Look, Carl, you‟re going to have learn to set up your own computer peripherals. I‟m not always going to be here for you.” She grinned at his reply and disconnected, lifted the headset and set it down on her keyboard. “I am guessing he wants to see me.” She said and stood, pulled her midnight blue jacket down and adjusted the lapels. “You am guessing right.” Maureen tilted her head. “You should inform Lieutenant Warren that the I.T. section is more appropriate if he‟s having computer problems.” Stacey walked beside the secretary down the hallway. “I have. He doesn‟t listen. I think he just wants to hear my dulcet tones.” Maureen snorted. “Of course he does.” She opened the dark, wooden door to the General‟s suite. “You can go right in, he‟s expecting you.” The secretary sat behind her desk and turned her attention to her own computer. “Doesn‟t he always?” Stacey muttered and went in to see the boss, closed the door quietly behind her. General Aiden Cosgrove did not lift his greying head, he just pointed to the chair in front of his desk and kept reading a file. Stacey sat, her spine straight, knees touching and prepared to take on yet another assignment. She clenched her hands on her thighs to quell the trembling. How long could she do this? How long before... Cosgrove looked at her, his winter-green gaze sharp. “You did an excellent job on the Thailand report, Lieutenant.” She met his cool eyes. “Thank you, sir.”

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“It‟s remarkably detailed. How did you...?” He paused, then shook his head. “Never mind.” Since her first assignment for General – then Colonel – Cosgrove, he assumed her detailed reports came from „outside‟ sources. He was right, some of the time. She should never have let that little morsel loose, but she‟d only meant to keep her sources secret; the General made his own assumptions that she used the CIA or other covert organisations and she couldn‟t disabuse him. Now, he expected her utilise her contacts for anything he wanted. And she couldn‟t do that, either. “Major Hawk and Akiko Sakamura were most informative, sir, and I was able to piece together a lot more information with help from the Thais.” “Did you find any more connections between Mainwaring and Pocklington?” Stacey didn‟t mention that he had all the information he needed in front of him – Lieutenants did say such things to Generals. “No, sir.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “At least Sakamura ended this evil by blowing up Mainwaring‟s research facility. Now we can file it in the archives and get on with the important business of tracking terrorists.” “Ah...” She hesitated, then cleared her throat. Had he misread section four? The part about... “Callender, this is an end to it.” He frowned at her. “The main players have been taken out, the information secured. What more could there possibly be?” “The others, sir, like the McCaffertys. It‟s in the last section, before my conclusions.” “I read it, Lieutenant, but I don‟t see an issue. As long as they keep their heads down and not attract any attention, they‟ll be fine.” He pursed his lips. “We have no reason to go after them.” Stacey gave a mental sigh. He‟d misread it after all. Sometimes, she thought, I‟m just too subtle for the military. She couldn‟t keep the information to herself, and it was going to be tricky to explain without absolute proof. “Lieutenant, you don‟t seem too happy with me. What did I miss?”

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“John McCafferty.” She said and winced at his expression. “There is nothing in this report about him, Lieutenant, why is that?” Cosgrove growled. “Speculation, innuendo and the need to keep him out of any printed document, sir.” Cosgrove rubbed his forehead. “And why should we be concerning ourselves with John McCafferty when he‟s kept out of sight?” He lifted broad shoulders in a shrug. “He could be dead by now.” She had to tread carefully here and stretched her stiff fingers, laid them flat on her thighs. “Sir, as long as we don‟t where the progeny of Project Genesis are, they are vulnerable to exploitation. I may not have found a connection outside of Jonas Mainwaring and James Pocklington, but that doesn‟t mean there isn‟t one. We have no record of who staffed the compound at Paoy Pet, or where they might be. You‟ll recall, sir, that Major Hawk did not have the opportunity to investigate the site; that Commander Attapattu diverted their attention, even as he declared the site destroyed.” Cosgrove pursed his lips as he thought over her words. “Thailand is an allied nation, with no reason to lie to us about something that happened decades ago.” He gave her a slight smile. “We checked all the spectrum satellite imagery before handing it on to them. Nothing came up. But continue.” “Yes, sir. We know Jennifer Ann McCafferty, nee Porter, sold Summer and Winter to Sir James Pocklington; we know she then disappeared without a trace. We know John McCafferty said he was going to Brazil, and he too, disappeared, supposedly into the jungle there.” “And?” Stacey felt her ears burn in anticipation of an unhappy General... and dropped the bombshell anyway. “McCafferty took his son with him.” She said and Cosgrove‟s expression turned thunderous. His lips tightened ominously and his gaze narrowed with laser-like intensity. “Oh, Lieutenant,” he said softly, “you had better be absolutely sure about that.”

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Stacey held the General‟s gaze. “I am, sir. There are four of them. ” “Your... secret sources?” Cosgrove‟s lip curled and she nodded. “And you won‟t tell me who?” “Can‟t, sir.” He studied her for a moment then shook his head. “I understand. You‟d be putting them in danger. Your source is unimpeachable?” “Yes, sir.” “Okay, so McCafferty has a son. How many people know about this? You, your source and now me. Anyone else?” “I believe the sisters knew and decided not to say anything to protect him. That can‟t be easy for them. But outside of the family, I simply don‟t know.” Cosgrove grunted with displeasure. “The fact remains, however, that McCafferty and son have been quiet for years. Why draw attention to them or any other progeny?” “Because a secret isn‟t a secret if more than one person knows it, sir. Pocklington had two Project Genesis children. Mainwaring sought to acquire another one. We do not know if other children are free or confined to serve the purposes of a foreign government. Surely it is in our national interest to find them?” Cosgrove looked at her his gaze sharp and assessing. “Very well, Lieutenant, I‟ll give it some consideration.” Stacey took that as a dismissal and rose, braced herself to attention and went to the door eager to return to the confined space of her cubicle. She opened the door, but Cosgrove‟s voice had her turning. “Callender, how long have you worked here?” A chill went down her spine. “I worked for General Beckett, sir, but in a different capacity.” Cosgrove‟s eyebrows rose. “That long? Why haven‟t I seen a recommendation for your promotion to Captain, Lieutenant?” Stacey swallowed. “I...

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“Never mind. I‟ll take care of it – it‟s way overdue.” He bent his head to the file and she turned to go. “One more thing, Callender.” “Yes, sir?” She turned. “Do you know what this is?” She stared at the white, finger-length object and adrenalin spiked through her veins. The hair on the back of her neck rose and she barely suppressed a gasp of shock. Oh, yes, she knew exactly what it was, but... “No, sir.” Cosgrove tossed the thumb drive to her. “Read and inwardly digest. I‟ll expect a report from you by the end of the week. And,” he glared at her, “your recommendations.” Stacey stared down at the Holy Grail of Project Genesis, the information General Cosgrove swore to the three McCafferty sisters he‟d destroyed. “Yes, sir.” She said softly. “This,” Cosgrove grumbled, “like the report on General Beckett‟s treason, is between you and I.” She nodded and left, her fingers cramped around the drive. Back at her desk, she looked around before reaching into her black handbag and drew out a mobile phone. Then she casually walked away, went outside into the sunshine and breathed deeply of the freshly mown grass, the car exhaust and the perfumed scents of spring. The phone beeped when she turned it on. She hesitated for a moment, but knew she had no choice and pressed the numbers, brought the phone to her ear. The ring tone changed, then she heard empty air. “He‟s suspicious.” She said as she walked towards a roving vendor‟s cart. “He thinks I‟ve been a lieutenant for too long. If he promotes me, it will take me out of the loop.” “We‟ll take care of it. Did he take the bait?” The monotone, metallic voice said. “He‟s thinking on it, but I suspect he‟ll take action - if not for sentimental reasons and a family reunion, then because any Project Genesis agents could be used against us. I gave him a push on that. He also spoke of hunting terrorists and he‟s got to be

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wondering what the brother can do, what all four of them can do together – all at his direction. That has to be a factor in his assessment of my Thailand report.” “Agreed. Anything else?” “Yes, sir. I have the information on Project Genesis. General Cosgrove wants a report.” “Make sure we get a copy, Major.” “Yes, sir.” She said, but her contact had already hung up. “Damn it.” She stared at the phone then pressed disconnect. She still had no idea what gender her contact was; she assumed it was a man because of the language pattern, but whoever it was never stayed on the line long enough for her to be absolutely sure and they used a voice distortion device that she‟d been unable to break. Stacey gripped the phone in her fist and longed to destroy it; they‟d just send her a replacement. Oh, she wanted to be done with this espionage, this betrayal of a man she respected. But they had her by the short and curlies. She walked to the vendor at the edge of the park and bought coffee, the disappointment in herself heavy around her shoulders. She doubted she‟d ever be free, but she‟d do everything she could to protect the others in the Project. All she had to do was work out how.

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Chapter Two Stacey chewed on toast and raspberry jam, rubbed the ache beneath her right collarbone, as she read the comprehensive medical reports contained on the thumb drive. “That this kind of evil should be perpetrated on the young without consequence.” She muttered. She wrote down the names of the doctors who signed the reports, the assistants, and when she couldn‟t cope with reading about the brutal experiments, moved on to the security reports and rosters, wrote their names down, too. She noted the precautions taken to keep the various „talents‟ secured and what the talents were. The list read like an X-Men roll call, although no talent had any obvious physical difference from the normal population. Except one. She studied the black and white photographs of the children, tried to imagine them as adults. No one smiled, each wore a haunted or bleak expression. They were all dressed in the same type of t-shirt and shorts with sandals on their feet. A group of twelve children, but she could pick out the McCaffertys. They‟d grown from cute little girls to attractive, confident women with no outward sign of any trauma they suffered at the hands of the doctors and guards. And she picked out the son, Spring, from similar facial features. He looked defiant as he rested a hand on Winter‟s shoulder. What was he like as a man? She wondered. Stacey moved on from the photos. It was a shame she couldn‟t delete any of the personal files, make them disappear forever; her controller would know and be pissed about it. A cold chill swept across her skin at the thought of being punished. The next file was on the layout of the Paoy Pet facility, a blue print showing the buildings, the fences, the guard houses and cleared jungle. She eased back from the screen, took another bite of her toast. Why would Mainwaring keep security information? She exited from the file and checked the index. The scientist using this version of the file hadn‟t bothered with any security protocols on the computer. And small wonder why. The island Sakamura had been

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taken to wasn‟t on any map – even the satellite images that Google Earth used didn‟t show it. Mainwaring had some power to manage that deletion. She minimized the screen and hacked into the archives of the National Security Agency and searched through their satellite photographs. The photos of where Mainwaring‟s island were easy to find and download. Whoever doctored the pictures obviously didn‟t understand the concept of subtly and she snorted at the different sea colour of the location: a simple cut and paste of another empty area of ocean without the benefit of pixel blending. The security of the island was absolute, until Sakamura blew the facility up, and Major Hawk survived Jensen‟s attempt to kill him and initiated a rescue. Jensen. Mainwaring‟s thug met an... unfortunate end at the hands of Sakamura. She doubted anyone searched for the body. She shook her head. Who knew the Yakuza would involve themselves? Well, okay, she did. As a secret information conduit, they were extremely valuable to the U.S. Stacey shrugged. Any information on terrorist organisations was worth the ire of the public. She sucked the jam from her fingers as she scrolled down the index list. One item caught her interest and she opened the file, stared at the contents and then checked another file for confirmation. “Ah... shit.” She muttered and reached for the telephone, punched in the numbers. The line rang without answer. She was about to hang up when a grumpy voice finally spoke. “A. This had better be damned good. And B. Do you have any idea of the time?” General Cosgrove rumbled. Stacey leaned to the side and checked the kitchen clock, winced. “I‟m sorry sir, but I thought you‟d want to know.” “At three thirty in the a.m. Lieutenant, you‟d better be telling me Bin Laden‟s in the bag!” “Um... no, sir, but we live in hope.”

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“While I respect witty remarks, Callender, you didn‟t interrupt me and Angelina Jolie because you‟re bored.” And... there was an image she didn‟t need. “No, sir.” She said demurely. “I was reading through the information you gave me and came across a contacts list.” “Right, so we can track down all involved in Mainwaring‟s enterprise, excellent, but this could have waited until morning, so what else?” “Brazil, sir. Mainwaring had... has... an office in Rio de Janiero.” The global corporation continued to function without its founder. “We know this. His son, Marcus, runs it.” “Yes, sir, but the list of contact numbers and e-mail addresses include a set for another facility up the Amazon River at Tefe.” Silence greeted her announcement, then she heard the rustle of bed clothes and a click, as if Cosgrove turned on a light. “Fuck me.” The General muttered. “Are you telling me Mainwaring has more than one lab? That he‟s continuing to experiment with genetic manipulation in the Goddamned jungles of South America?” “Yes, sir, I am. I‟ve confirmed the list by cross-referencing a supply list and the Rio contacts listed. All approved by Marcus. And worse, from the medical records, they have live subjects.” “I am going to kill that bastard when he‟s extradited to the U.S. I am going to skin him slowly.” Stacey kept quiet while her General continued to describe what he was going to do to the captured millionaire industrialist. She heard him sigh. “Callender, read through the rest of the file, find out what you can about this facility then meet me in my office. Do it now. I‟ll expect an oral report as soon as possible.” “Yes, sir.” She said and the General hung up.

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“Christ on a crutch.” She set the receiver into the cradle, put her feet up onto the desk and hauled the Notebook onto her lap. She spent the rest of the night reading and making notes. *** At two o‟clock in the afternoon, Stacey changed into a freshly pressed uniform. It was decision time. She knew what her choice had to be, but still wished it could be different. She‟d already printed out every file on the thumb drive, sectioned everything into individual files and hidden them around her two-storey house. It was dangerous to have hard copies, dangerous still to have saved another complete copy onto a separate thumb drive. That, too, was hidden. The information, the results of the testing, was more valuable than anyone suspected. But she understood. For her, this was a question of loyalty, of moral fortitude and whom to betray in order to save herself and maybe, just maybe, all those poor bastards descended from the original Project Genesis. She was in deep. Cosgrove could have her court-martialled and tossed into Leavenworth for the rest of her natural days; her handler could have her killed and no one would find the body. It was an exceptionally fine edge she walked, and she hated it. The cursor of the laptop blinked expectantly as she stared at it. The e-mail was waiting to be sent, with the copy her handler demanded attached. All except for one file. She‟d keep that separate from everyone until she decided what to do with it. Her ace in the hole, her insurance policy - she hoped. Stacey pressed the enter button and sent the e-mail. Then she picked up the white thumb drive Sakamura brought back with her and went to see General Cosgrove. *** Aiden Cosgrove chewed on yet another antacid tablet. This job was killing him, he was sure of it. Being woken at an ungodly hour of the morning and having a bombshell land in his lap was not the way to start the day. Yet, he understood Callender‟s reasons and the

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urgency of getting the information to him. As a result, he‟d been in his office since four-thirty this morning, trying to hunt up assets to deploy and finding as much information about Brazil as he could. He‟d have loved to send the McCaffertys and their spouses to destroy the lab and all the information held at the facility, free the subjects and wash his hands of the whole thing. But... Sakamura and Hawk were running rings around the Taliban – literally. Sakamura, aka Flash, used uncanny speed to track and disarm enemy soldiers, then held them until the troops arrived. Summer Duquesne was nursing a newborn while her husband, Duncan set up new training scenarios for urban combat. Winter Beech... McCafferty – the woman hadn‟t taken Justin‟s name – was working on incubating their second child. Justin had his hands full with their first offspring, Cameron, a year old and already displaying aspects of his mother‟s own brand of telekinesis. Given what both Summer and Sakamura could do, there was no telling what else any progeny could inherit. He sighed in frustration. He‟d already decided none of them could go on this mission, but then the phone call came; his office line at five-thirty a.m. His staff knew he didn‟t arrive until two hours later – but someone else had been watching him. Being spied on did not sit well with him, and being ordered to deploy an unsuitable asset upset him further. “Think of it as a final test of suitability.” The smug aide to a four star general said. He‟d protested, but found himself cut off. “Should you have an... issue with this, I‟m sure a call to the SecNav will comfort you.” His protest died, unborn. One star generals did not call the Secretary of the Navy to protest orders. “Send me the paperwork.” He‟d growled. “As we speak.” Came the chirpy reply. He glanced down the personnel file laid out on his desk. He had no choice.

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All morning he‟d tried to think of an alternative, and failed; it was this way or this way. That facility had to be taken out with care and subtlety. Worse, there had to be no evidence of foreign intervention, no hint of American involvement or there‟d be hell to pay, both here and abroad. He closed the file as his intercom buzzed. “Yes, Maureen?” “Lieutenant Callender is here to see you, sir.” “Send her in, please. And bring me some coffee?” Maureen knew he‟d arrived early, just not how early. “Of course, sir. I‟ll bring it in about five minutes.” “Thank you, Maureen.” He lifted his finger off the button and raised his head. Lieutenant Callender was always perfectly turned out in her uniform. Seal-brown hair carefully wound back into a regulation bun, narrow face, straight nose, the bare minimum of make-up highlighting hazel eyes that never gave anything away. He didn‟t know why, but her military perfection irritated him. Where was the woman, the separate personality? Why did Callender always present herself as a picture-perfect soldier? Ah, hell, it wasn‟t any of his business anyway. Cosgrove pointed to the chair and she sat, as always, to attention. “Report, please.” And he watched as she braced herself further. “Sir, the facility at Tefe is a small one, as if it is a back up to the one on Mainwaring‟s island. I found only a dozen contact numbers and home addresses for staff. That‟s not to say there aren‟t more personnel, only that their contact details aren‟t in the file.” She set the thumb drive onto the desk, pointed it towards him like an accusing finger. Cosgrove refused to feel guilty at keeping the information. It was intelligence and any intelligence could be used, like now, or in the future as part of a more complete information profile. He refused to destroy such valuable records just because he promised, or because he‟d yet to find a use for it. If he felt any guilt, it was that he‟d taken so long to access the material.

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“From the medical records,” the lieutenant continued, “Mainwaring‟s two facilities were in constant contact with each other, comparing notes and experimental techniques. But there is no indication that Mainwaring had any further... ah, testing facilities. His research into genetic diseases in Taiwan is legitimate and from my sources, has no connection, information or otherwise, with his less than legal enterprises.” Cosgrove smoothed his fingers over the file on his desk. “Can you find out if the Tefe lab is still operating?” The lieutenant shook her head. “Tefe would know of the main laboratory‟s destruction. They‟ve probably shut down already and moved on. It‟s been nearly eighteen months since the larger lab blew up. They‟d have to know someone did something and set a back up plan in motion.” Cosgrove rubbed a finger along his bottom lip. “Not necessarily, Lieutenant. As you say, it‟s been eighteen months and...” Callender did not need to know why he‟d held on to the information. He‟d waited, too, for Mainwaring to talk about his genetic enterprise, which he still failed to do. That bastard had to know what Tefe was up to. He had the resources to know Sakamura‟s and Hawk‟s location, when they arrived on Ko Samui and planned his kidnapping appropriately. According to Callender‟s report, Mainwaring also knew that Summer and Winter were on their way. Just because he was incarcerated in a Thai jail did not mean he was denied those same resources now. Money, he thought cynically, could buy anything in Thailand. Mainwaring had probably kept quiet because he knew Tefe was his back up – for when he got out of prison. What were the chances he could buy his way out? If he did, how soon would the Thai authorities let him know of Mainwaring‟s „escape‟? Cosgrove reached for the antacids again. “Sir?” Callender‟s voice brought him out of his thoughts. He had to act now to shut Mainwaring down; permanently. He‟d received his orders, from the top, and he found it difficult to speak.

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“Lieutenant Callender,” he paused, met her blank hazel eyes. Cosgrove cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “Lieutenant Callender, you‟re going on a trip.” “I am?” “You are.” “Where am I going, sir?” She asked suspiciously. “To Tefe, of course. You‟re going to close down the lab. You are going to destroy the information. Just like Sakamura‟s mission, only more on the quiet. No explosions, no bullets, just remove the occupants, set fire to the place, whatever, but we do not need to create an international incident.” He watched as her face drained of colour and her eyes widened with shock. “By myself?” She didn‟t call him crazy to his face, but he heard the words in her shocked reply anyway. “How hard can it be, Callender? You‟re special operations, you know about covert missions and how to go about screwing with the enemy. By your own report, this lab is small, maybe a dozen people.” “That I know of, sir. This is a job for a team. A highly specialised infiltration unit.” “And teams can be circumvented, spotted. As one person, you‟ve got a better chance of a quick in and out.” Cosgrove said, but she was already shaking her head. “What?” “I can‟t go galivanting around wherever, I‟m Intelligence, a spook, a techno-geek, uncomfortable in the outside world with real people. I gather information from sources and distribute it, I‟m not the source itself. And I know absolutely nothing about jungles!” Cosgrove leaned forward, picked up the thumb drive. “Call it a learning experience.” He stared at her, ignored her pale and strained features, the trembling of her fingers. “Let me put it another way: you‟re going, and that‟s an order. You‟ll have your mission brief on your desk by the end of the day, and, as an added bonus, Callender, when you return, triumphant, there‟ll be Captain‟s bars waiting for you. All you need is non-staff experience and they‟re all yours.”

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Although she didn‟t move, Callender seemed to shrink in on herself. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She said mechanically. “The arrangements have already been made. You‟ll be leaving first thing tomorrow morning, so you‟d better go pack. And FYI? Long pants and long shirts. The insects are ferocious in the jungle – some are deadly.” She gave him a nod and slowly stood as if he‟d given her bad personal news. “Good luck, Lieutenant.” Guilt surged through him as he watched her go. He didn‟t understand her hesitancy, but she‟d do her duty. And a promotion was long overdue. He should have seen to it himself, after her incisive and accurate report on General Beckett‟s plan to assassinate two American citizens, just because they were different. Only that report and quick intervention had saved Summer and Winter. And Callender was responsible. But he‟d kept putting it off, kept her busy, as if what she could do for him was more important than her career. She‟d made no protest, never questioned his orders, never seemed to worry that she‟d been almost a little too long in grade. Was she happy to remain a lieutenant for her entire career and not take up a command position? He shook his head, set the file aside. Her record was excellent, but lacked real world experience. Oh, he had no doubt she had sources and the resources to complete the mission. No-one who came up with the information she did could be a babe in the wilderness. She‟d find what she needed; she always did. Cosgrove did not understand his intelligence specialist, and until now, didn‟t think he needed to. He asked a question, she supplied the answers. Simple. But given her physical reaction to this vital mission, he had to wonder. You didn‟t join the armed forces to become a desk jockey, and that was even more true for the Special Operations Group. And the SecNav did not involve himself in the career of a lieutenant. There was something else going on with his Spook, but how did he find out without raising red flags?

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*** It took three shots of pure Jack to ease the trembling, to calm the shuddering press of panic. Stacey set the glass aside and wiped her mouth. The fucking jungle! And then she had another fury-invoking thought, dragged out the mobile and punched in the number. Again, she was greeted with silence. “You knew, you fucking knew and didn‟t warn me!” She bit out. “Do you have any further information for us?” The calm metallic voice replied. Stacey ground her teeth. “I‟m deployed to Tefe in the morning.” “Good. Don‟t forget to bring copies of the information back with you.” She barely restrained the small scream that lodged in her throat. “I cannot go into the jungle. You know that!” “We have deployed assets to assist you.” And with those words, she had her confirmation that her handler had played her and General Cosgrove. “Assets.” “Good luck, Major and bring back some coffee beans. They are the best. Oh, and don‟t forget what failure means.” The line went dead and she barely resisted the urge to throw the phone across the room. “Bastards!” She stormed down to the basement, to her gym and took her temper out on the punching bag until her muscles ached, her knuckles stung and her body ran with sweat. Then a plan began to form. She‟d been set up. From the moment she called her handler about the thumb drive, the prick moved to get her to Brazil. “Deployed assets.” She spat, but her temper eased and she shook out her hands. She had no doubt her orders came through General Cosgrove, but not from him, he‟d been too uncomfortable, too regretful. Who above the General also had the ear of her handler?
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Stacey had no time to find out, and she felt too shaky to try. One mistake in cyberspace, one byte of information left on a hacked site and she could kiss her ass goodbye. No, she couldn‟t risk detection now, but when this... this clusterfuck was over, she‟d find the identity of her handler and the asshole who gave the order. She rubbed her forehead with stiff fingers and cursed herself for a fool. She‟d felt too safe in her position as the top intelligence officer in the Special Operations Group, considered herself too entrenched and too valuable to the other teams. And she‟d forgotten her own mission parameters, forgotten she was, like any other soldier, ultimately expendable to the cause. And all the time her handler had manoeuvred her and General Cosgrove, to send her to Tefe. Oh, but she was so screwed. She went back to her dining room and poured another shot, gulped it down then sat and dragged her laptop across the table. She booted it up and poured yet another drink. At least she‟d sleep well tonight before her morning flight. The e-mail came through and her lip curled. The document also held arrangements for money, weaponry, medical supplies and an appropriate vehicle. If nothing else, Cosgrove was efficient; or more realistically, Maureen was efficient. Stacey memorised the information and deleted the e-mail. Then she sent her own virus program through the system to wipe any evidence of the information. She shut down her computer and rose. She really needed an exit strategy from these bastards, but she couldn‟t think of any; they held all the cards. On a frustrated sigh, she went to pack. Maybe something would occur to her on the way to South America.

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Chapter Three Wet heat prickled over Stacey‟s skin and stopped her breath as she stepped out of the cool, air-conditioned international airport terminal in Brasilia. Too close, the air was too thick, too heavy, too... breathe deep, she counselled herself, as her heart rate increased, just... breathe. She took a swipe at her forehead as sweat beaded. Already she could feel her longsleeved shirt stick to her lower back. The khaki back pack felt heavier on her shoulders. “I really hate this.” She groaned and looked around, pressed a hand to her chest as she tried to slow her rapid heartbeat. Noise and a panoply of colour assaulted her senses, raised her anxiety. So hot, so many people. Were they looking at her? Why did they stare at her? What did they want? Why couldn‟t they leave her alone? Stacey closed her eyes and did some slow breathing exercises to ease her agitation. This was neither the time nor the place to panic. This was a simple mission. A quick in and out. She wouldn‟t really be in the jungle, just next to it. A week, tops, and she‟d be back in the cool north. She thought of snow, of cold wind and towering mountain peaks. Her tension eased slightly. Yeah, a week, and she opened her eyes. Her black, wraparound sunglasses slid up her nose and cut the glare, and she relaxed her grip on the car keys in her hand. There. The rental garage with latte-skinned, black-haired men assisting the newlyarrived tourists. She strode across the road and waited, tried not to think of the jungle, the Amazon jungle in all its vastness. A handsome dusky-skinned twenty-something with licorice hair and bright blue eyes, smiled at her with gleaming white teeth as he approached, held out his hand. “Senorita, allow me to retrieve your car.” He said in a smooth as chocolate voice that washed away her stress.

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Stacey returned his smile – how could she not? – and tipped down her glasses to look at him. “Mmmm, I‟d just about allow you anything.” She said and he laughed as she handed him the keys. He gave her a wink and walked down the lines of cars to a brute of a black SUV. He was quite a distraction, she thought and eased the pack from her shoulders, set the pack on the ground. Her smile faded and she looked away from the handsome youngster. She was singularly incapable of completing this mission by herself and yet, those were her orders – from Cosgrove. What had her handler provided her with? The young man reversed the top of the line chunk of a car out of the slot and drove slowly towards her. She saw his pleasure at driving the Range Rover and figured he‟d love to take it off road. He hopped out, kept the door open for her. “You are travelling alone?” A masculine arm suddenly draped across her shoulders, kept her against him and pure adrenalin shot through her body. She turned slightly and he took the opportunity to brush his lips over her cheek. “Sorry I‟m late, hon, that airline food always makes me...” She cleared her throat and looked at the young man. If he was disappointed, he didn‟t show it. In fact, he now addressed her male companion. “There is a GPS unit, Bluetooth, DVD, I-pod, air-conditioning, a cooler and snorkel for the carburettor for deep water crossings and off-road tyres for rough terrain, sir. In the glove box, you‟ll find a survival guide and maps – in case the GPS fails or cannot get a signal – a first aid kit and emergency numbers should you break down. I will also point out that the shell of the vehicle is toughened to resist scratches. Tinted windows as you can see and the seats drop down to form a platform if you get stuck.” He gave Stacey‟s companion a sly wink. “Have fun.” He flicked a finger to his forehead and walked around her to the next customer. “Will you drive or shall I?” The man dropped his arm and picked up her pack, kept his head turned away from her. All she saw was collar-length dark hair, broad shoulders, a narrow waist and long legs. She tilted her head and watched him go to the back of the SUV and stow her pack and his own gear.

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A nice package, she thought with a faint smile, and then frowned. How had he snuck up on her? Who was he? Her contact? Was she supposed to give a code word? How did she know? She‟d spent her entire career in the office. Theory was easy, until you had to practice it. She lifted the sunglasses to the top of her head then pressed the heels of her hands against her aching eyes. This was so wrong. Cosgrove should have sent someone else, and her handler...! They knew better than to put her in such jeopardy! She was a neophyte, without a mentor, dropped in the deep end, up the creek without a... “You look tired, so I‟ll drive.” Stacey kept her eyes closed and lowered her sunglasses before opening them again. Holy... moley... She blinked, stared at his tanned skin, even pearly whites, the dimples in his cheeks and perfectly formed black eyebrows over forest-green eyes. His nose was straight and long, his mouth... Nice package? Hell, he was gorgeous with a capital „Yum‟. She watched as his smile dimmed and he frowned. She wanted that smile back. “You‟re staring, Callender.” He said. “You‟re worth staring at.” She sighed and shut her eyes again, lifted a hand to her forehead. “I said that out loud, didn‟t I.” His masculine laughter rippled across her skin and she dropped her hand. “Sure did, but if it‟s any consolation, I‟ve been staring at you, too, from across the road.” His fingers reached out and plucked the sunglasses off her face. She gaped at him, then stopped. He knew her name, so he must be her contact; no one else knew where she was other than her handler and Cosgrove. She growled with frustration. “Okay, fine. Game, set, match to you. Now, give me back my glasses and get in the God-damned car!” His grin returned and set the glasses on her nose. “You‟re in charge.” “I am?” She asked, surprised, then recanted. “Oh, right, yeah, jeez, I suppose I am. But you‟re still driving.”

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He tried to quell the grin, but a snicker slipped out. Then he turned and climbed into the driver‟s seat. Stacey went around and got into the passenger side, snicked the seat belt shut. “This is one slick puppy.” He said and rubbed his hands over the leather-clad steering wheel. “Name.” She glanced away, stared out over the dashboard to the bustling traffic. “Real or alias?” He asked and drove out of the lot. “What?” He flicked her a glance, all humour gone. “Do you want my real name, or do you want my handle, or one of my aliases?” “Crap on a carpet.” She muttered then breathed deep. Tired, that was all, she was tired from the long flight and overloaded with anxiety. “What do I call you?” She turned to look at his profile. “Wait a minute, who told you my name?” The side of his mouth lifted. “I‟m going to guess that you don‟t do these covert operations very often. I‟m also going to guess that you didn‟t get the e-mail with the details.” “I got an e-mail.” She protested. “Uh huh, so you read the e-mail mid-flight?” Now she was confused. She‟d spent the flight alternating between panic and meditation. “No.” “So it‟s currently sitting on your laptop at home where God and villains can read it.” A muscle in his jaw flexed. Stacey reached into the top pocket of her shirt and brought out her mobile phone – this was her personal one, not one given to her. She slid the keyboard open and remotely accessed her laptop. She read through the messages and came to one he meant.

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“Echo? Your handle is Echo?” Then she read the rest of the message and sighed. Fate could be one cruel bitch she decided as she deleted the mail and initiated her virus. “There, all gone and no one can recover it. Not even me.” “Not even you? What does that mean?” He asked. “Meet the SOG‟s techno-geek.” She muttered and winced. Damn her mouth. This guy didn‟t know about her... other job. “And SOG is...” Stacey leaned back against the head rest. “I am so wrong for this.” Echo drove into a familiar drive through and ordered coffee, large. The dusky, smooth-skinned attendant leaned towards the window with the beverages. He took them with a smile and handed one to Stacey. “You‟ll feel better after a cup o‟ java.” She sipped, then sipped again, recalled the voice on the phone, “...bring back some coffee beans. They are the best.” And they certainly were. “From the highlands to the south of here.” Echo said and set his cup into the holder on his side of the centre console. “I absolutely refuse to call you „Echo‟.” “You read it wrong. It‟s not „Echo‟, it‟s „Eco‟. As in eco-warrior. Call me Mackie if you want.” He pulled out into the traffic again. No, she hadn‟t read it wrong. The e-mail said „Echo‟, so why had her handler got it wrong? It wasn‟t important. She tilted her head. “So you run around the jungle vandalising forestry equipment and saving the natives.” “If you knew what kind of brutal exploitation went on in the jungle by moneygrubbing, profiteering foreign corporations, you wouldn‟t be so cavalier about what I do.” He bit out. Chastened, she subsided to enjoy her coffee and the scenery. Although, there wasn‟t much to see but Portuguese-style buildings. “How long until we get to Tefe?” She asked.

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“From here? Usually, about a week, but we‟ll be travelling through the highlands, then...” Stacey turned to him. “A week? Why the hell didn‟t I get sent closer to the objective?” “Because of me.” He glanced at her. “I‟m your partner in this and I happened to be near Brasilia, not Belem.” “Oh, gag me with a spoon! You couldn‟t have flown there?” He huffed out a breath. “Not in the time available, Callender, and you need to be more focused on the mission. Not where it starts, not on the way, but how to implement the mission. What we do, the end result, will save people from further experimentation and exploitation.” If only that were true, she thought bleakly. A week. Just to get there. Then there was finding the actual lab, scoping it out, working up a plan and the return journey... She was so far out of her depth. Well, she guessed it was time to start swimming; maybe that would quell the trembling inside. “So... what‟s your part in this?” Again he flicked her a glance, this one confused before he returned his gaze to the road. “You really haven‟t done covert ops before, have you.” “No. It wasn‟t required.” “I‟ve been landed with a noob.” He said as if he couldn‟t believe it. “A noob! What were they thinking!” He glanced at her again, expectation in his eyes. “Don‟t ask me. I want to know the answer myself! I was happy, you know? Happy to spend my days in front of a computer ferreting out information or occasionally interrogating suspects. Safe and confident in my own little environment. I don‟t want to be here. I don‟t belong here! And I really want to turn around and go home!” Silence greeted her outburst and she huddled in her seat, pouted. Yeah, it was childish, yeah, it was petulant and yeah, she heard the whiney-assed tone, but it was true nonetheless. She continued to drink her excellent coffee. “I‟m sorry.” She finally said.

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Her companion sighed and she heard the rasp of bristles as he rubbed a hand along his jaw. “We‟re both in this together.” He said. “So we‟ll make the best of it and complete this mission. Who knows, you might even like the jungle.” “Doubt it.” She muttered and drained her cup. “You‟ve been in the jungle before?” “I‟ve sorted my way through forests of paper, walked deserts of truth, navigated seas of disinformation and sailed cyber-space for answers. But jungles?” Would he accept her convoluted answer? His eyebrows rose. “A simple „no‟ would do.” He said. “I‟ll ask again, what‟s your role?” “Support, Callender. I‟m a serve and protect kind of guy. I know the jungle, know the dangers and safeties. I know the river, the people, the plants and animals. I‟m the guy who‟s going to help you destroy the last vestige of Project Genesis, once and for all.” *** Mackie gunned the engine. Out on the highway, the powerful machine ate up the miles. Callender had fallen asleep, exhaustion catching up with her. She was most definitely an odd duck, a true noob, and he shook his head. The Powers-That-Be had to be crazy to send her; he‟d expected a seasoned operative. Someone with whom he could indulge in a quick search and destroy mission. A week at the most. But when she failed to see him, failed to notice he watched her, he knew he was in trouble. So far, she‟d only confirmed it. He‟d meant to tell her they‟d only drive to Porto Velho – a couple of days travel and then fly the rest of the way, but... he had to see what she was made of. The mission was too important for any screw ups. And then there was his curiosity about her, about what made her suitable for this mission. Hidden depths, maybe? She had some sort of talent for infiltration, or destruction?

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Mackie did not want to think about her attractiveness, or her curious speech patterns or anything of a personal nature. Did not want to think about her as a woman at all. Yet, she piqued his interest. “You‟re worth staring at.” She‟d said and he couldn‟t help the grin at her mortification as he drove down the highway. He had to know more about her. It was as simple and as complex as that. This mission might be a little bit more fun after all. If she was as much a noob as he thought, he could teach her some useful covert stuff. Which meant he‟d be taking on the lion‟s share of the mission. His grin faded. Hell, all he knew was that she‟d located the Brazilian lab and made the connection to this Mainwaring guy. He didn‟t know who that was, didn‟t know how he got hold of Project Genesis information. He and his father had destroyed it all, but his contact had been adamant the information was out there. Better to make sure than to keep believing they‟d done the job. Mackie allowed the memories to resurface, examined why his contact and Callender were certain he and his father failed in destroying the compound. In the darkness, with fear making his heart pound, Mackie opened the prisoners‟ doors – using his talent to create an impenetrable bubble of air that expanded until the locks broke. He‟d woken everyone held captive, given them directions to the gap in the fence Winter made, and gone to find his father. Mackie stood on the bottom step of the so-called „residential facility‟ when he first scented the acrid smoke. He‟d even stepped forward, intent on escape before he realised who‟d set it. Then all hell broke loose. The prisoners exploded from doorways to escape into the jungle. Some even made it. His father set off grenades and the guards were rattled, thinking they were under attack and went to the fences, stared out at the dark jungle, searched for targets. They found running shadows and fired until they realised the assault came from inside the wire. Then a hand clamped over Mackie‟s mouth and he was dragged into the centre of the compound. Suarez was never known to be gentle and his hand pressed Mackie‟s
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lips against his teeth. He swallowed blood and worked his magic, but not soon enough. In his own panic, he couldn‟t focus enough to shift his assailant. His father came out of the laboratory and tossed another grenade over his shoulder. “Stop right there!”Suarez demanded, “Or I‟ll kill the boy.” The grenade went off with a loud bang and smoke belched out of the doorway. Mackie heard smaller explosions from inside the building. John McCafferty‟s eyes glowed blue. He pulled the pins on his remaining grenades and pitched them at the approaching guards. The bombs exploded, blew the guards backwards into crumpled heaps. Then he walked towards Suarez. The guard backed up. “I mean it McCafferty. Back off or I‟ll break his neck.” Pressure built as Suarez turned Mackie‟s head as far as it would go. Mackie couldn‟t drag in a complete breath, nor could he struggle as Suarez held him so tightly against his big body. “Let the boy go, and I‟ll kill you quickly.” His father‟s voice rumbled through the darkness and Mackie felt a chill at the cold deliberation. The pressure eased and Mackie could finally drag in air, but Suarez didn‟t let him go, not yet. “All I need to do is hold the boy here until reinforcement arrive. And they are coming, McCafferty.” Suarez sneered. “Too late for you, Suarez, you sick piece of shit.” “No, McCafferty, it‟s too late for your boy.” Suarez increased the pressure again and Mackie felt as if his neck truly would snap. Then he heard his Dad. “No one rapes my daughters and lives.” Mackie saw a bright flash, heard a boom, then hot liquid splashed onto his head and the pressure eased as Suarez fell. Suddenly, he was in his father‟s arms, John‟s hands running over him, checking. “You okay, Mackie?” His father‟s voice trembled.

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Tears of fright and relief jammed Mackie‟s throat, but he managed to speak. “Yeah, Dad. I‟m sorry, he snuck up on me.” His father relaxed his grip slightly. “He was probably in one of the rooms. Don‟t worry about it. I‟m just happy you‟re okay.” He stood tall and looked around. “Well, that part‟s done. The fires will destroy the lab and all the research. Now we can go, catch up with the girls.” The glow in his eyes and the smile his father gave him filled Mackie‟s heart to bursting and he wrapped his hand around John‟s as they walked through the hole in fence Winter made. “Dad?” “Yes, son?” “What‟s rape mean?” Mackie shook off the memories, shook off the hatred he felt when his father explained. Today, he and John hunted down the rapists of the natives, the corporate enforcers who tried to intimidate the local Indians into giving up their land for a pittance, all for the mineral wealth beneath the soil. Oh, it wasn‟t all he did; he operated in Peru, Bolivia, Columbia and Venezuela, tried to stem the tide of cocaine, or went after FARC operatives, whatever the PTBs wanted. What furthered their aims, furthered his. He was determined to protect the indigenous populations as much as destroy the illegal land clearing and mining operations. He hunted poachers who threatened the wild, big cat populations, who killed and stole animals for the international black markets. Now he was being ham-strung in this mission because he‟d been landed with a noob. He wondered if she would be amenable to a week in a luxury hotel while he got on with the job? He‟d make the offer when she awoke. In the growing gloom, Mackie flicked on the headlights. It was a long way to Cuiaba, then to Porto Velho, and further still to fly to Manaus and onto Tefe. And he

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had no confirmation that the lab was still there, or where, exactly it was located. It could be a burned out shell, empty of all information. Or it could still be up and running. Then again, it could be mere rumour and Callender was wrong about the whole thing. If it was in operation, he‟d like to ask a few... pertinent questions of the inhabitants. Find out who was behind this abomination and put an end to them. Callender shifted beside him and he glanced at her. She slept on, her chin tucked down and with a bubble of drool at the corner of her lips. He grinned and paid attention to the road. She would not thank him for waking her and pointing it out. At least she didn‟t snore. Mackie drove on into the night. Cuiaba was four hours away, he wouldn‟t reach it until near midnight and he figured by then, he‟d be as tired as the faux agent beside him. He spent the time trying to drag his thoughts away from the woman next to him. He had no time for relationships and long ago resolved never to have children. He could not inflict this curse on any offspring. His eyebrows rose at the thought. Why on Earth would he equate Callender with having a relationship and children? Maybe he was more tired than he thought. He needed to concentrate on other things. His mind went back in time, back to their escape through the Cambodian jungle. The sun hadn‟t yet risen when he heard gunshots echo behind him. His father threw him down onto the loamy soil. “Not far.” His father murmured. More shots echoed, this time from ahead of them and he heard laughter, screaming. The screaming stopped but the laughing continued. “Dad?” God he‟d been so scared. The reinforcements had turned up and begun the hunt. Looking back, he‟d spent too much time worrying about his own skin, trusting his father to keep him safe. He hadn‟t given his sisters or his mother much thought, until

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they came across irrefutable evidence hours later: the utilitarian blue hats, each with the name of a twin and the drag marks. Grief choked him then even as more shots rang out. They were more distant, until he could no longer hear them, so overwhelming were his emotions. His father expression turned grim as he carefully folded the caps and put them into a pocket. They didn‟t have time to search for Autumn, but knew from the hunters charging through the jungle that she, Mai and Mr Stewart didn‟t have much of a chance. His father kept them moving through the jungle for weeks until they hit Bangkok. From there, his father tracked down an old army mate who furnished them with fake passports and they flew out for Brazil and safety. In Belem, they waited for Autumn, Mr Stewart and Mai, but they never came. His father grew more despondent and they finally headed up the Amazon river. John lost himself in indigenous affairs as an eco-warrior, but he was never the same. Every now and then, Mackie would catch him staring off into the distance and remembering, even as he drank away his future. No, he would not put any children through the sort of grief he‟d been through. He still missed his sisters, his mother and in the end, he‟d lost his father, too, back in the Cambodian jungle.

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Chapter Four Stacey shifted, restless, uncomfortable and she could swear she was moving. She opened her eyes to semi-darkness and the shadowed image of a muscled thigh encased in blue jeans. She eased herself up and closed her eyes again as she remembered. Damn. It‟s not a nightmare after all. Here she was, sitting next the last McCafferty. Oh, yes, she knew who he was, how could she not? But why would her handler hook her up with Mackie of all people? She lifted a hand and wiped her chin with the back of her hand and prayed Mackie hadn‟t seen her drooling. She always did when exhausted and she was tired still. Not that she truly slept; she drifted on the edge between sleep and wakefulness, a twilight. “Here.” Mackie held out a water bottle to her. “Thanks.” She unscrewed the cap and drank the cool liquid down. “Where are we?” “About an hour out of Cuiaba. We‟ll stop there for the night and continue in the morning.” She grunted in reply and finished the water. “How did you come to be an ecowarrior?” Mackie snorted. “I came, I saw and I stayed.” Stacey knew there was more to it, saw he was lying. “That‟s a little simplistic.” “Why do you want to know?” “Just making conversation.” She lifted a shoulder and put the empty bottle into the console. “I don‟t think it‟s wise for operatives to get to know each other.” He said. “You sound grumpy.” “I‟ve been driving for a little over nine hours without much of a break, Ms Snoozer, and I happen to be a little tired myself.” His hands gripped the steering wheel. “I was south of Brasilia when the call came through to pick you up, another four hours out of the city. So excuse me for being out of sorts.”

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If he thought she‟d apologise, he‟d be wrong. “So... you‟re trying to pick a fight?” “Of course not.” “Then you must be a real private guy.” “What?” He asked non-plussed. “Well, you give me vague and uninformative answers whenever I ask a legitimate question. You get defensive, too.” She smirked. “I‟m not defensive...” He glanced in the side mirror. “You just like your privacy. I totally get that. I like my privacy, too. I mean who‟s business is it anyway where, why, what, who or how, oh, and when, can‟t forget when of a person‟s life. I like my computers and I don‟t have to personally interact with anybody unless they absolutely demand it. Online, using a secure system, is so much better.” She paused for a breath. “Why don‟t we just agree to get the job done without any unfortunate personal information, then we can each go our separate ways.” “Um....” “Right then, wake me when we arrive.” And Stacey shut her eyes, leaned against the head rest. She wasn‟t tired, she just wanted to keep her damned mouth shut and if she didn‟t see him, she wouldn‟t continue to babble like an idiot. He was her partner for this mission, not someone to vent to. “My father brought me down here.” His voice was soft, and she nearly started with surprise, but she kept her eyes closed, let him continue. “We, ah, lost people... family... and he wanted to get away from... well, he wanted to start a fresh.” Her eyes popped open and she turned her head. Surely he didn‟t mean... but no, he had to know... didn‟t he? She saw his grim expression in the reflected light of the dashboard instrumentation. Maybe he meant other family; better to play it safe. “I‟m sorry to hear that. And I‟m sorry for prying.” “No, you‟re not. You got what you wanted.” He replied.

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“Okay, I‟m not sorry about getting you to talk, but I am sorry about your family and I‟ll not be asking again.” “What about you?” “What about me?” His soft chuckle ricocheted through her and warmed her in inappropriate places. “Family?” “Nope. Not for a long time.” She said and kept her attention on the lit road. “What does that mean?” “I never met them. Both parents died when I was a baby and if I have any siblings, I don‟t know about them. No one came for me either, so I have to assume I was the only child of only children.” She shrugged. She had no pictures of her parents, no keepsakes; she only knew what she‟d been told. You couldn‟t miss what you‟d never had. “Orphanage?” “Kind of.” She closed her mouth. She couldn‟t, wouldn‟t, talk about it. “And?” Stacey sighed. “And here I am. Fighting for truth, justice and the South American way.” “We live within a secret world with secrets of our own for a secret organisation.” He murmured. “Yep. Oh,” she saw the lights of a city, “is that it?” “It is. You are now entering the city limits of Cuiaba, capital city of the state of Mato Grosso, founded in 1719 and where we begin the journey north.” “Huh. Anything worthwhile to look at?” She asked and he looked at her. “Tourist speaking here.” His eyebrows rose. “Hey, I‟ve not been to South America before... or much of anywhere else for that matter.” Mackie snorted. “I suppose there is stuff for tourists, but we won‟t have the time. I‟m reliably informed we need to get to Tefe as soon as possible.”

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“Oh? Who told you... ah, never mind. I don‟t need to know.” She kept her eyes glued to the lights. “Actually, you did. I read your report.” A cold chill swept through her. The only report she‟d given was an oral one to General Cosgrove. “Mackie, I never wrote a report on Tefe. I didn‟t have time.” “Well, I read something with your name across the bottom as author of the report and it was about Tefe.” He replied. Stacey squinted against the brightness of the street lights. He couldn‟t have seen a report unless someone, like her handler, already knew about Tefe and had written it up. Then waited for her e-mail with details and forged her signature on the document. They deployed Mackie as their „asset‟. But to what purpose? What the Hell was going on? “I‟ve had enough.” Mackie said and pulled into a modern, high-rise hotel. “Here‟ll do. We‟ll pick up where we left off in the a.m.” He pulled into the parking lot and shut off the engine, then sat. “You want I should get us some rooms?” She asked staring at the multi-storey building through the wind-shield. He turned tired, dark eyes to her and shook his head. “I‟ll get the rooms, you can get the luggage.” He climbed out of the SUV and walked stiffly to the foyer, a fist in his lower back. “Sure, no problem.” She muttered and got out, gasped at the damp heat still lingering in the air. “Well, roll me over and fry the other side.” Sweat beaded her forehead as she walked to the rear of the vehicle. At this time of night, traffic was sparse, but she looked around anyway. She did not want to be caught unawares again. She shook off her paranoia; she was not a covert operative and wouldn‟t know if someone watched her. She guessed that was part of the reason Mackie was with her. And he did say he was a „serve and protect‟ kind of guy.

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The pneumatics of the rear hatch whined and hissed as the door rose. She tugged her backpack out and set it on the ground, then she reached for Mackie‟s long, black carryon. It was heavier than her own pack, and she paused, vaguely tempted to peek. What she‟d told him was true: she didn‟t want to know any personal information, it led to difficulties and the more she kept her distance from this man, the more comfortable she‟d feel. But what did an agent carry? Weapons? Cyanide pills? Maps? Wh...? “Ready?” He asked from behind her and she jumped guiltily. Damn it! He‟d managed to sneak up on her after all. “Did you get two rooms?” “Yes.” He assured her as she tugged his bag out. “With a connecting door, just in case you cry out mournfully in your sleep and need me to come to your rescue.” She dropped his bag on the ground and hoisted her own pack over one shoulder. “Fat chance, Bub.” Mackie grinned at her. “This way, Ms Sneaky.” He said and walked off. Stacey caught up. “I‟m not sneaky in any way, shape or form.” “So... you weren‟t about to look in my bag?” She lifted a shoulder. “I was merely preparing myself for the weight. I know you covert types carry all sorts of... ah, stuff.” “Uh, huh. And the casual looking around wasn‟t to see if anyone was watching?” He asked benignly. “Well, yeah.” She lowered her voice to a whisper as they approached the elevator. “We‟re on a mission. Who knows who‟s following us?” Mackie snickered. The doors opened and he kept snickering. “What?” She asked, offended. “C‟mon, admit it. You wanted to look in my bag.” Stacey glared at him for a moment and then turned away to watch the buttons. The sooner this was over, the better. She did not need him to amuse himself at her expense. He didn‟t know her that well. Yet. A voice in her head said.

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The doors opened and she marched out, headed right. “Ah, this way, Callender.” He said and she about-faced. He checked his key and kept walking. “Here I am, so that means you are there.” He pointed with his stubbled chin and tossed her the second key. “Joy.” She caught the key and moved off to her door, set her pack down. “I‟ll see you at...?” Her eyes met his. “I‟ll knock on your door at about five-thirty, that okay with you?” Stacey suppressed a wince. She wouldn‟t let him get to her. Nope. She‟d be up even if it killed her. “Yeah, see you then.” She jammed the key into the lock and twisted. The door swung open and she dragged her pack inside, let the door close with a resounding thunk. Five-thirty? Hell. Her sleep patterns had been interrupted enough over the last few days and sleeping in a car was not restful. Stacey picked up her pack and set it next to the bed. She didn‟t bother with the lights and flopped onto the bed, groaned at the comfort. One last thing to do. She thought and opened her pack, pulled out a small white container from the front pocket. She stared up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. On a sigh, she rose and went to the window, brushed aside the heavy, dark blue curtain. Rain streaked the glass, distorted the street light. She saw movement below and watched the figure cross the street. Her room was too high for her to make out any features, but the stride indicated a man. He reached the footpath and looked around. Dressed in dark clothes, the man nearly blended with the shadows. She pressed her face against the window as the man approached the Range Rover. Once again, he looked around, and then ducked down between the SUV and a late model sedan.

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The spike of adrenalin made her hyper alert and she narrowed her gaze. Should she tell Mackie? No. She ordered herself to wait and watch. Mackie needed his rest – he‟d earned it – and she wouldn‟t wake him until she knew, absolutely, that the man was fiddling with the vehicle and hadn‟t simply slipped over in the rain. The shadow quickly separated from the cars and casually walked away without a backward glance. Stacey waited another five minutes, watched the street for anyone else. Then she dressed, grabbed the room key and went downstairs. She paused under the portico. Heavy rain fell, the spray warm against her face. Well, I am drip dry, she thought and dashed out into the downpour. Her clothes drenched within a few steps. On her hands and knees, she lowered her head to check for any devices. Nothing. She brushed her fingers under the running board, searched for whatever the intruder had done. Still nothing. Maybe he had slipped after all. No, his actions were deliberate. If he‟d fallen, he‟d have picked himself up and continued into the hotel, not walked back across the street. Stacey lay flat on the rain-puddled ground, wriggled underneath. There. The device was attached to the metal, near the wheel-well, a green light pulsing in the darkness. She reached up and plucked the matchbox-sized tracker off the vehicle, slid out from beneath the car and into the rain. The car parked to them would do and the magnet clicked as it stuck to the underneath of the bumper bar. Satisfied with the job, Stacey returned to her room for a hot shower. Under the pounding water, Stacey tried to figure out who would want to know where they were going. Cosgrove and her handler were out – they already knew the objective.

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Was someone after Mackie? She turned the water off and stepped out, dried off. That sounded more reasonable, since he was only one of three who knew she was incountry. She‟d ask him in the morning. *** Mackie spent a tough night tossing and turning. Sure, he‟d managed to get some sleep, but not the deep and refreshing one he‟d been hoping for – at least, he didn‟t think so. He‟d dropped off easily enough, but sometime around dawn, he became aware of his dreams and they were a mish-mash of old memories and a rolling film of a naked noob cavorting in front of him with come-hither hazel eyes. He‟d finally awoken tired and out of sorts. A cold shower helped focus his mind cool his body. Right on five-thirty a.m., he knocked on Callender‟s door, half expecting no answer. She opened it promptly, but didn‟t look at him. She looked mussed and as unrested as he felt. He leaned against the doorjamb. “Sleep well?” “I did, yes, thank you for asking. You?” She let go of the door and he put a hand against it to keep it open. “Like a proverbial.” He said and walked past her, dumped his bag next to hers. “A proverbial what?” He turned from his inspection of a room identical to his. “Log, Callender. A proverbial log. Haven‟t you ever heard the expression?” She shook her head and her smooth, silky hair swayed, hid her expression. She‟d worn it up yesterday, but now it flowed down to her shoulders. “It‟s a strange expression, if you ask me. Who sleeps like a log? It‟s dead wood, it doesn‟t move, it... oh, I get it.” “Right. Are you ready to go?” He grumbled. She didn‟t look at him, simply turned into the bathroom.

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“We‟re not having breakfast in the restaurant?” “No, I thought we‟d pick something up along the way.” He said and heard her cleaning her teeth. It sounded homey, he thought, as if they were a couple getting ready for the day and he stepped towards the open bathroom door. Then... he heard her spit. Prodigiously, wet and thick; and it wasn‟t so homey anymore. He stepped back, turned to the window. “All right in there?” He asked, appalled. “Sure you don‟t want to hack up a lung?” There was a pause, then the rattle of plastic on plastic. “Just clearing the sinuses.” She called. “The humidity is bad for them, which is why I don‟t live in the tropics. And FYI, I spend most of my time alone, with no one to overhear my disgusting morning habits. I‟m sure you have some, too.” She marched out of the bathroom, with her hair in a bun, a light touch of make-up, sparkly white teeth and fresh breath. “Now, I‟m ready to go.” “Great! Only another eight hundred and fifty, or so, miles to go.” He grinned at her. “Really?” She groaned. “Really. Brazil is a lot bigger than most people think, and there‟s a lot of rough terrain.” “Oh, man. You‟re so mean to me.” She slung her pack. “Well,” she huffed, “the day ain‟t getting any younger and we need to discuss a few things.” Mackie picked up his bag. “Like an action plan, mayhap?” “I can see you‟ve done this before.” She opened the door and he walked out in a much lighter mood. “Once or twice.” He replied and followed her down to the vehicle, admired the snug fit of her jeans. Maybe he could come up with a different kind of plan; one that involved the dream he‟d had.

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Chapter Five “So, the thing about habits is they can be broken.” Mackie remarked to her as he drove north. “Not easily, of course, but they can be broken.” “Uh, huh.” Stacey murmured as she stared out the window at the farm land. She was distracted by his clean, citrusy scent, breathed it in as if it were a life-line to something more important. Her eyes felt slightly gritty from a poor night‟s sleep; images of Mackie and her... She‟d have to focus on other things, like the scenery, and not think about those eyes, the smile, anything to do with... Nope, she wasn‟t here long enough and they had business. The day was already hot and humid and she was thankful for the air conditioning. What she told him from the bathroom was true... to a certain extent. The humidity did jam up her sinuses, but her actions were designed to keep him out of the bathroom, not languidly leaning on the doorjamb while she prepared for the day, and she rarely closed the door. Why would she? She lived alone. But she‟d seen him turn, as if to watch her, to follow her. She‟d had to think fast to stop him. She should have shut the bloody door, but she didn‟t think, just reacted. There were things about herself she did not want him, or anyone, else to know. If they did, if they saw... “I mean, I know they do it in Asia but...” Stacey turned to him, saw the flush of pink on his cheekbones and focused on what he was trying to say. “Why is it so important to you that I not... ah... expectorate? Men do it all the time.” He lifted a shoulder. “Well, yeah, but it just seems...” “Unfeminine? Too manly? Or simply unexpected?” Mackie stuck out a bottom lip and she grinned. He did not want to come across as sexist.

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“It‟s not as if we‟re going to be in close contact with each other for very long and I‟ll be sure to... ah, well, I‟ll be away from you.” She said with a shrug. “So don‟t worry about it. I don‟t.” “Okay.” He sighed. “Moving on. What can you tell me about Tefe?” “What can I tell you about Tefe? I thought you were the expert on Brazil?” He lifted a hand off the steering wheel and tilted his palm, then gripped the wheel again. “Oh, I can discuss the socio-economics of the area, the geo-politics, the cultural oppression, the environmental devastation and global impact. I can point to the perpetrators, the corporate vandals, local government corruption and the global need for exotic animals. I can lecture on the reasons why the Amazon is so important – the river and the jungle. I can wax lyrical on the medicinal benefits of the jungle, the biodiversity, hell, I could go on and on about it. What I don‟t know,” he slid a glance her way, “is anything about this bio-engineering facility. So rather than find out for myself, I thought I‟d an expert on the subject.” “Well, as pissy diatribes go, that hits the mark.” “Callender.” He warned. What was he so bent out of shape over? She‟d only asked... she hadn‟t meant... she gusted out a sigh. Being in close proximity to him was scrambling her neurones, that and her obvious lack of experience in the field was the problem. “I‟m not an expert, either.” She said in a calmer tone. “I got ordered here before I could do the research.” Stacey shook her head, she still couldn‟t work out how this all happened so fast. One moment she was on the phone to General Cosgrove, and the next she neck deep in the jungle with a man who lit all her bulbs. She watched his mouth turn down. “Tell me what you do know. About everything, the connections, the players, the places... Tell me a story, Callender, we‟ve a long way to go.” “You‟re kidding, right?”

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He spared her a glance. “Do I look like I‟m kidding? This is not my kidding face. My information is limited and please remember, I‟m here to assist you.” “Oh, plant me in the ground and call me a daisy.” She muttered. “You don‟t know anything?” “Why don‟t I tell you what I do know and you can fill in the gaps?” The corner of his mouth lifted at her remark. She rested her elbow on the window ledge and stuck her head against her palm. “Why don‟t you?” “Right then.” He paused, let the silence lengthen and pursed his lips. “Okay, and that‟s about it.” She had to laugh, then sobered. She knew who he was – how could she not? She knew his beginnings, knew his sisters and their stories. Hell, because she‟d read the file from Mainwaring‟s island, she was the only living person who knew everything. She‟d deliberately withheld information from her handler and General Cosgrove. She was the expert after all. How depressing. What could she tell him? What would he believe? Would he contribute any information? And what could she leave out? “Callender?” “Just gathering my thoughts and trying to work out where to start.” She hedged. “The beginning is usually a good place.” “Can we stop for breakfast first? I‟m gagging for some coffee.” “Avoidance?” “It‟s... complicated.” “Ah. Okay. Breakfast it is. I could use some coffee myself.” He drove for another fifteen minutes before he pulled into a road side cafe. “Huevos Rancheros alright with you?” “Sure, whatever it is and a gallon of coffee, this is a long story.” He looked at her with a strange expression, then got out.
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Stacey dropped the visor, stared at her reflection, examined every inch of her face for flaws, for anything out of place that would make him look at her like that, as if she were a little odd. Everything was in order, covered, and she pushed the visor up. She was nervous, that was all. Nervous and off her game. She needed to go home and forget all this. Stacey knew she did not cope well outside a structured environment and this was as unstructured as it got. Farm land, crops, heated air and low clouds; nature. A natural environment she loathed, felt uncomfortable in, and she desperately wanted to escape. She could feel her heart rate increase and the trembling start again. The longer she was here, the worse it would get. Focus on something else, she ordered. Anything but the... focus, damn it! She closed her eyes and breathed deep. A history lesson, that‟s how she‟d approach it; as a history lesson, leave out any of the angst, the emotional connections, until she knew he trusted her. Given who he was, she‟d trusted him as soon as she‟d realised who he was. She heard the car door open and the scent of spicy hot chillies wafted in. Her mouth watered with anticipation. She loved hot food – it really cleaned her sinuses – and she opened her eyes. Mackie held out the food and she reached across the console, accepted the wrapped tortilla and a large coffee. She breathed in the fragrance, set the coffee into the console and unwrapped her breakfast. Mackie climbed in with his own meal and they sat in companionable silence while they ate. Stacey licked her fingers, then used a serviette before picking her coffee up. She felt the heat of chillies all the way to her belly. “Thank you, Mackie, that was the best.” “You‟re welcome.” He put the car into gear and they were on their way again. “Your long story?” “Yeah.” She hooked a foot onto the dashboard and made herself comfortable. “It begins in the nineteen thirties, when Adolf Hitler first came to power.”

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“Que? I thought this was about Tefe?” “It is, but you said to start at the beginning, so I am. I‟ll get to Tefe at the end. But feel free to interrupt if you know any of this.” She sipped her coffee. “Anyway, Hitler‟s idea of the perfect master race was already gaining a following. As you can imagine, those who feel oppressed and are given a powerful voice, tend to view their oppressors with hatred and with vengeance in their hearts.” “I know how they feel.” Mackie muttered. “Yes, but you‟re not likely to slaughter the enemies of the local Indians wholesale; you‟re not in a position of absolute power to see that done.” She watched the view outside. “You have to remember that Adolf Hitler, a Corporal in the German Army during World War One, never accepted Germany‟s defeat. That they would have been defeated once America‟s war effort finally hit its stride, didn‟t matter to him. The American troops were only in the theatre of war for six months, but already they had an enormous impact on the battlefield. An armistice is not surrender, but a cessation of hostilities and the troops were never told: they thought they were winning and saw the armistice as a betrayal of all they‟d fought and died for.” She shook her head. “But I digress. The point is, Hitler didn‟t believe in the armistice, he saw it as a cease-fire, sure, but not surrender and set about creating the ultimate Germany, ready to take on Europe once more and be powerful enough to take out Britain and Russia, before he turned his attention to the U.S. To do that, he needed his master race.” Mackie snorted. “As if. The U.S. would have crushed him.” “Really?” She turned to him, ready to argue. “America wanted no part of a European War. Had, in fact, made that point to the British War Cabinet. American sympathisers would send assistance, unofficially escort convoys, but no troops. It wasn‟t until Pearl Harbour that America really entered the war, and predominantly in the Pacific at first. If Pearl Harbour had never been hit, Hitler would have taken Europe, then maybe Russia and sat back to rebuild. The conquered countries were already settling down with their German overlords. He had time for Project Genesis to mature before taking on the might of America, say... five to seven years from 1945 once he held Europe.”

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“Oh, please. The Russians thumped him, pushed him back.” Mackie sneered. “True, but he could have brought up more troops once...” She huffed out a breath. “I‟m getting a bad case of indigression here. You wanna debate the whole war or a particular part of Hitler‟s policy?” She glared at him. She could take him in the argument, she knew it, but if he was to understand... “Fine, fine, but I‟m tellin‟ ya....” “You ain‟t tellin‟ me nuthin‟, Bub, but we can discuss it at a later point. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Hitler, during the thirties, hooked up with a doctor who had a fascination with the human body, with its limitations, with its variations. His name was Josef Mengele.” “The Angel of Death?” “The very same.” “Didn‟t he escape to...” “You wanna hear this or not?” He waved a hand for her to continue. “Sorry, sorry. Please continue.” “Josef and his cadre of assistants were given carte blanche to experiment with human extremes as early as 1934. People were kidnapped off the streets and taken to facilities. At first, he restricted himself to human limits, heat, cold, water, pressure, how long a person could stay awake, pain threshold, and so on. But he made a mistake...” Stacey frowned in consideration. “Or maybe he didn‟t.” She murmured as she thought harder about what she knew. “Mengele‟s own focus was on human... anomalies, I guess, dwarfism, multiple births, children with genetic issues, diseases, deformities, mental incapacity and the like. At first, he experimented on people whom no one would miss, and then anyone he thought interesting.” She sent him a sidelong glance. He had his head tilted in her direction, listening attentively while he drove. Time to name names. “Of particular interest in this case, are Marta Gerber and Roland Hilfenhaus. He was a German dissident who objected to the way Hitler ran the country, who saw, predicted the coming war and actively and vocally disagreed with the regime. He was also an

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athlete, rower and sprinter. She was the daughter of a rebellious moderate army officer who also questioned the direction of Germany‟s leadership. She was kidnapped to keep him in line, though eventually, he was murdered because he kept questioning his superiors on Marta‟s whereabouts. By then, all pretence at curiosity was gone and Mengele was actively pursuing the creation of a master race.” She paused for more coffee then continued. She also saw she had Mackie‟s attention. Was it the history or the names? “Both had characteristics Mengele wanted in his children. Roland was forced to... anyway, Marta produced mirror-image twins, just what the Doctor ordered. Greta and Gerta Hilfenhaus, born in 1937. Fast forward to the end of the War. The Americans got to the facility before the Russians, thankfully, depending on your point of view.” She frowned as she considered the alternative, then shook her head. “I‟d say you‟re correct. The Russians weren‟t known for their... compassion following the defeat of Germany.” Mackie remarked. “No, they weren‟t. Anyway, the Americans drew the line at destroying the... subjects, especially the children. I‟m guessing the troops had seen too many killed in action, too much suffering at the Death Camps and couldn‟t... so. The children – and the twins weren‟t the only ones born in the facility - were taken to America, where they grew up in more... comfortable surrounds. Mengele had ensured the kids‟ isolation by torturing the parents to death. Torture, as in his experiments of human limitations. The children, he indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda while also testing their limits, teaching them to endure for the good of the Reich. It would take years to undo the damage through counselling.” “Jesus. And that monster came here.” Mackie murmured. “If the rumours are true. Remember that no trace of Mengele was ever found.” “Yeah, okay. Go on.” Stacey looked at him. His expression was tight with anger. She hesitated. This was the hard part – for her to speak of and for him to accept.

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“The, uh, children grew up. Their environment, however, no matter how comfortable, was similar to that in Germany.” She said and watched him. He showed no surprise, but then he knew the general information, not the specific. “The Americans captured the German facility intact. The records of experimentation, the people used, their medical histories, everything; and brought it with them. Kept it secret, just like Mengele did, claimed the experiments were more humane. Greta and Gerta grew up with carefully selected companions. Greta was matched with another child of Mengele‟s, Peter Meschler; Gerta stayed with her childhood companion, Karl Portis.” Mackie made a noise in his throat. “Don‟t tell me: they were encourage to breed.” He sounded bitter and she didn‟t blame him. What the Americans did was as bad, if not worse, than the Germans. At least Mengele‟s experiments had an open, deliberate policy supported by the German government. If the public at large found out about the Americans doing the same thing, the backlash would be ferocious. But he‟d still missed the connection, so maybe he didn‟t know as much as he thought; or his father never told him or never knew. She‟d have to tell straight out, then. “The couples were, from all reports, in love, so it wasn‟t such a hardship. And remember, these children had been contained in one facility or another for their entire lives; they did not know the outside world, were never allowed to explore. Their whole focus was what their controllers told them it was. They did not question - they obeyed.” “This is unconscionable.” Mackie growled. “Outrageous, wrong and surely illegal.” “Mackie, this was the fifties. The Korean War, the French versus the Vietnamese, the Cold War, the Atomic Age, the space race, Sputnik, Cuba, McCarthyism, the communist threat was rising. America seemed forever to be the guardian of democracy. But they were war-weary, too. Experimentation wasn‟t an exception then and this... project, gave America hope for the future. Even if it was illegal and heinous, would the results justify the means?” Mackie turned to her, shocked. “You sound like you agree with them, that you support such a program.”

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Stacey tightened her mouth. “I‟m not defending it! I‟m trying to give you perspective! It‟s reprehensible, repulsive to me. I‟m trying to give you an idea of the social times, the military threats, the cultural changes happening and the reasons given for the continuation of the experiments. If America could do what Germany tried and create super-soldiers, Mackie, peace would probably break out all over the world.” “It‟s still wrong.” “I know! But you wanted to know, remember?” He kept silent, paid attention to the road and the scrub and farm lands on either side of the vehicle while his hands tightened to a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. “I‟ll get to the point, but Mackie, this is only the first part of the story, so you can understand the rest.” “I get that.” He said through clenched teeth. “But it doesn‟t mean I‟m happy about it.” “Right then.” She dragged in a deep breath, knew what she was about to say would be a bombshell to him. “Here it is: Karl Portis and Gerta Hilfenhaus are the parents of Jennifer Ann Porter.” She braced her foot on the dashboard as Mackie slammed on the brakes. Fortunately, they were the only vehicle on the road. He guided the car onto the verge. “And Greta and Peter?” He asked without looking at her. “Are the parents of John McCafferty.” She finished quietly. He flung open the door. “I need to walk.” Stacey watched him go and her heart ached for him. She had so much more to tell him, and she also knew he‟d be devastated by the rest of it. *** Why didn‟t he know? Mackie strode down the side of the road. Damp heat surrounded him, the air heavy with impending rain, but he didn‟t notice so turbulent were his thoughts.

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Why did a complete stranger know about his parents‟ history and he didn‟t? How did she know anyway? As a kid, he‟d rarely asked his Mom and Dad about their own parents. His father‟s mouth usually twisted with disgust. “They don‟t believe in freedom.” He said so angrily that Mackie never asked again. His mother agreed but with a hint of sadness. Now, he knew why. They did not question - they obeyed. No wonder his folks were so determined to escape capture. His father spent his time planning and plotting and testing the resilience of the guards, of the security; his mother too, until she fell pregnant with the twins and that put the kybosh on any escape plans until the girls were old enough to understand and actively help themselves. He didn‟t blame anyone for their long incarceration except those who imprisoned them. At the time of their escape, he‟d thought the experiments over with the destruction of the facility, thought he and his father could go on as ordinary citizens and live in peace. He still believed that. It wasn‟t Callender‟s problem to deal with the information, it was his and he shouldn‟t shoot the messenger. He looked up and over his shoulder. Callender sat in the driver‟s seat of the SUV and slowly drove behind him. But she‟d kept a respectable distance, as if allowing for his distraction and protecting him at the same time. He wiped a hand over his sweating face, recognised he was hot and uncomfortable and striding along as if he were on the beach. Oh, but she had more to tell him, he knew that. Mackie found himself glaring at her; he wasn‟t ready to get back into the vehicle and be surrounded by her intriguing scent. It got into his head and tempted him. He had to regain his balance. Think on what she‟d said. He faced forward and kept walking, but at a slower pace.

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His father had to know he and Jennifer were cousins, didn‟t he? But what if he didn‟t? What if, in growing up in that accursed facility – one they had yet to track – they were deliberately separated and somehow found each other in the depths of the jungle. Or had they been manipulated into that as well? How far would these shadow operatives go to further their genetic ambitions? But John and Jennifer disappeared into Laos and then Cambodia; no one could have predicted that. And yet, they‟d been hunted by others, not necessarily Americans, incarcerated on the Thai border and Project Genesis continued. Ergo, back in World War II, someone leaked the information, all of it, to someone else. And that meant... the genie was out of the bottle and had been for sixty years. Any foreign government could have research facilities, develop their own supersoldiers and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He recalled the number of accents, Russian, French, British, Chinese, Japanese, from Paoy Pet. Did that mean they were there for training in the techniques? That those governments couldn‟t replicate the results without a live subject? And that led him to the Tefe facility. Mainwaring‟s facility. Who was this guy? Where did he get the information? When? From whom? Was it an isolated facility and did Mackie‟s bosses think that by destroying this laboratory, the compound in America would be the only one? Thus ensuring its dominance in genetic enhancement technology. He stopped walking, heard the car pause behind him and retraced his thoughts. America, dominating the world via genetic enhancement technology. The creation of super-soldiers, indoctrinated to the right way of doing things, in the name of democracy. Mackie held his breath and thought about it. Nah. It would take too long, become too obvious in an open conflict. The media would be all over it. Wouldn‟t they? He continued his walk, breathing in the loamy scents of the land, the damp air and hot asphalt. He had another thought: why get him to do this mission? Why with her? His bosses knew what he was, what he could do, recruited him for specialised missions in South America. It was difficult bargaining; they threatened him, he met their threats

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by disappearing and tracking the operatives sent to bring him in. He‟d left each in a... compromising position. The PTBs got the point and hired him on his terms, not theirs. How did they know who, what and where he was? Had they known all along and simply waited for him to mature enough to be of use to them? And why send a noob to him now? He could have taken the facility out himself. Was he really to train her for them then? His original brief had been short: meet and escort Agent Callender to Tefe facility. Protect Agent Callender and destroy the facility.” Attached to his orders was Callender‟s report on the experiments conducted at Tefe – a report she denied writing. Those experiments and results were eerily familiar to what he and his sisters endured. Just enough information to intrigue him, to lure him in, to give him an opportunity for direct vengeance. Of course he‟d take up the challenge. Throw in an attractive agent totally out of her element and he was hooked. She knew a lot about things he‟d thought secret. She knew more than he‟d ever dreamed of. What was her agenda? Her secondary agenda? Because there had to be one. It couldn‟t all be about Tefe. Mackie walked faster. Stacey Callender wasn‟t what he was lead to believe, then. In fact, she‟d dropped hints, but nothing specific about who else she worked for. He assumed the same as him, but maybe he was wrong about that. A techno-geek, she‟d called herself. A hacker? Certainly a useful skill in this day and age, but what else? Maybe it was time for some answers. If he couldn‟t trust her implicitly, this mission was doomed, and it served no purpose to second guess himself into defeat before they‟d even started. He did an about face and walked to the passenger side, climbed in and secured his seat belt. “Okay, I‟ll drive.” She said and gunned the powerful engine. Fortunately, the road was empty and she pressed the accelerator without looking into the side mirrors.

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He had a moment‟s... let‟s call it concern, he thought, at the speed, but she demonstrated deft handling and his heartbeat slowly returned to normal. “I have questions.” He said and she nodded. “I‟m sure you do, but do you want to hold on to them and hear the rest? It might give you a better understanding of the situation we may be going into and answer those questions along the way.” “You mean this Mainwaring guy?” He asked. “I do.” She sighed. “It‟s important you understand that... well, not everything is black and white and... that some truths will be painful.” “For me?” He asked, surprised. What on earth could be more painful than knowing the evil he‟d spent a lifetime knowing he‟d destroyed was still being perpetrated, and by the American government and others. “For both of us Mackie; you in the hearing, me, in the telling.” “Sounds ominous.” “You have no idea. And yet...” She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel and had a distant look in her eyes. “Maybe you should pause in the telling and answer some simple questions, like who do you work for?” He asked and watched as her grip on the steering wheel whitened the knuckles. “Really work for.” She didn‟t look at him. “I‟m the woman selected to destroy the facilities at Tefe and you‟re the man designated to help me. Does it matter for whom I work as long as the goal is accomplished?” “More evasions?” “I go where I‟m ordered.” She replied tersely. “Do what I‟m ordered.” He watched her, saw her mouth so tightly pressed together that it formed a near white line. He also noticed the SUV had picked up speed.

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“You need to slow down some. This might be a near straight road, but there are some tricky corners coming up.” Thankfully, she eased her foot off the accelerator. At least he had his answer to her status. She‟d had no choice but to come, and noob or not, she went where ordered – and it mattered not a jot whether she was capable or not. Who could do that and what did they hold over her head? Mission-wise, did they expect it to be a simple in and out job, easy for her? Especially with an experienced operative like him to ride shotgun? Oh, he didn‟t like that, didn‟t like being played, or used as a trainer without his permission. “What were your orders?” He asked. Still she didn‟t look at him, kept her focus on the slowly winding road ahead. “Search and destroy. Find the lab, destroy the contents.” “And the researchers? The information?” Again, her mouth tightened. “Search and destroy. Find the lab, destroy the contents.” She repeated. And Mackie thought he understood. Hadn‟t his father done the same back in Cambodia? He‟d never asked how many people his father killed that night. After the horror of Suarez, he didn‟t think he could face just how much of a cold killer his father truly was. He knew his Dad was a soldier and soldiers killed the enemy. Mackie thought again of his father as he casually tossed a grenade over his shoulder into the medical facility. Could remember the screams of the wounded and dying guards, the captives hunted down in the jungle. “You don‟t have the look of a killer, Callender.” He said softly. “I don‟t know I have the heart for it either, but sometimes... we have to do things we abhor.”

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“Can you live with the consequences? Can you live with the knowledge of ending another‟s life purely because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time?” Callender chortled. Laughed bitterly. “Oh, Mackie, you cannot be that naive, you‟re an operative for God‟s Sake. Think about it: If they are in the facility conducting experiments, they are the right people in the right place.” So, she didn‟t know if she could kill, but these scientists deserved killing anyway? And then he thought about it, thought about those future victims. They had the knowledge in their heads and that knowledge couldn‟t be allowed to propagate. It was naive of him to think anyone would let them go, and the scientists had to know that. If he were in their position, what would he do? “Right then.” He murmured. “So these... researchers. They have to know they‟re not expendable, especially if...” She put up a hand. “No. No speculating until you know the whole story and the reasoning behind the mission, okay? I‟ll not answer any more of your questions until you know.” He lifted a shoulder. “Okay, shoot.” Callender lifted a hand and rubbed her forehead. “Where was I?” “John McCafferty‟s parents.” How could she forget? “Jennifer Ann Porter and John McCafferty.” She murmured. “Two kids born in the fifties and grew up in the sixties without ever seeing what true society was like. Who‟s whole idea of pop culture was what they were allowed to see in carefully selected and edited newspapers and magazines and occasionally, television. Taught that society was one big happy place that had to be maintained at all costs. Carefully fed information on the growing tensions in Vietnam, until they were of an age to be deployed.” “And they saw for themselves the so-called truths they‟d been told were lies, careful constructs.” Mackie said. “They still retained some ideology, Mackie, but in a nutshell, yes. Individually, they decided to... desert, to find their own way in the world without every single minute of their day being monitored and structured.”

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“They found each other instead.” Mackie shook his head at the astronomical chances of his parents meeting. “Impossible.” Callender sighed and he suddenly felt like an idiot, felt a cold chill within his soul. “Some sort of tracking device?” “Advances in technology, thanks in part to Hedy Lemarr, meant miniaturisation a lot earlier than the public think.” Callender said. “Hedy... Lemarr? The actress?” “The inventor of the technology currently being used in oh, mobile phones, for example. During the War, women weren‟t quite... consider scientific geniuses.” Callender remarked wryly. “And Hedy Lemarr was definitely a genius.” “Okay, no sexist comments from the peanut gallery. So, they inserted a tracking device into my parents. That doesn‟t mean...” “They hadn‟t disappeared, Mackie, certain elements knew where they were at all times and provided assets on the ground to make sure they met. From then, it was easy to create scenarios to keep them together until they did what was expected of them, what came naturally.” Mackie looked at her in horror. “Me.” He breathed and she gave a jerky nod. “The problem was, you...” “Wait. Just. A. Damned. Minute!” He bit out angrily. Callender pulled over, turned off the engine and waited with hunched shoulders. “You know who I am.” She nodded. “You made the connection as soon as you read the e-mail.” Another nod. This was so fucking crazy! Who was she that she knew so much? “And you know what I can do.” He was breathing hard, but oddly, she shook her head in denial. “I don‟t believe you. You know too much about me, about my family history, about...” Oh, dear God, did she know what happened to his mother? His sisters? Was this the pain she was talking about?

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“The problem was...” she continued and pulled out onto the road again. “You didn‟t display any special powers and it was conjectured that perhaps you didn‟t get any. So they waited.” “Until Mom was pregnant with Autumn.” He said bitterly. Callender nodded. “Then they captured you all, took Mr Robert Stewart into custody to keep an eye on you and to provide a useful conduit for information. Bob Stewart served with your father in Vietnam, was supposed to be a friend. Once confined at Paoy Pet, they began their experiments, on you, on others brought to the facility from the U.S.” “Because two facilities are better than one.” Mackie said with disgust. “And the population would be expanding with all the children.” “So the assets could be deployed into North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, anywhere on that side of the Pacific once they were mature enough.” “Right. So there‟s a whole industry of genetic mutants running around on covert operations.” “Well, no, there isn‟t, actually. In their greed to keep the project secret, they limited the knowledge and the facilities. One in Thailand – Paoy Pet – and one in the U.S. Researchers from foreign nations were allowed to study the... ah, experiments, but not take any genetic material for their own use. Anyway, great strides were made in the development of gene therapy. It wasn‟t called that of course, not at that time, but to get it out into the world at large, an explanation would have to be thought up. At the same time they were about to go public, the Paoy Pet facility was destroyed.” “I thought Dad and I did a good job on it.” Mackie said, pleased he‟d done something to stop the madness. “Not as good as you think.” Callender ground out. “Your father failed to destroy the research notes and samples kept in the safe in the administration building. He failed to kill all the guards. He failed to see to the safety of the other prisoners.” Callender‟s tone grew increasingly angry. “If he‟d left well enough alone and just got his family out... but no, he had to go all gung ho with indiscriminate killing. Your family might have been prepared for escape but no one else was. And in revenge for the murder of

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their comrades, some of the guards went after the escapees and shot them, killed them outright until cooler heads prevailed and mentioned the valuable assets they‟d spent years developing had been wiped away. The guards who did the killings were murdered themselves as a lesson to those who remained – guards and subjects alike.” Mackie felt all the blood leave his face. He‟d never thought... certainly his Dad never thought of the consequences. He‟d assumed all the captives had been killed or escaped, including the children, to hide what was being done. “The facility re-opened?” He asked, feeling ill at what his father had wrought. “No. Subjects were transferred back to the States, the buildings levelled, the site cleared of all evidence. The plan remained. Jonas Mainwaring was brought in as a backer for the gene research, brought in vast profits for himself and for the Company. Then he met a man called Sir James Wellesley Pocklington the third.” “Sounds like a real wanker.” Mackie said. Callender ignored him. “Sir James told him a story.” She said and stopped, blinked. “Go on. What‟s this story and what does it have to do with Tefe?” Callender shook her head. “We‟re coming up to a town and I could eat.” She said instead. “I want to eat away from the car.” She pulled up in front of a restaurant and turned the engine off. She leaned towards the door, but he laid a hand on her forearm to forestall her. “We‟ll have a picnic; I don‟t want anyone around here to remember us. Okay?” “Fine, you go.” She said and leaned her head on the head rest. “I need to check in with the boss anyway.” “Will you be happy with what I get you?” He asked and opened the door. Heat gusted into the car. “Yes. No.” She lifted a shoulder. “I don‟t know.” “I‟ll see if I can rustle up some feijoada completa, pork with black beans and rice. And coffee.” He closed the door and prepared to do battle with the locals.

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Chapter Six Stacey understood her mission better now. Understood why she‟d been manipulated into coming down here. Oh, the research facility needed to be taken care of. After all, it simply wouldn‟t do to have genetic technology in the hands of private enterprise. Mainwaring had been a fool to think he could get away with it, yet he was arrogant enough to think he had the Company over a barrel with the information. He did not understand how ruthless these people were, how absolutely devoted to their task. They would use any and all methods to protect the secret. Some would call them patriots, others would call them monsters. She called them... masters. Her job was to bring Mackie back. They‟d finally seen a way to get to him and they were using her to do it. She, for whom no computer system was secure, who knew when someone lied, who spent the last ten years compiling reports and finding secrets. God, but she hated them with a never ending passion. She reached for her mobile phone and punched in the numbers, waited for the call to go through. Time for the balancing act. Again. “General Cosgrove‟s office.” “Hi, Maureen, it‟s Lieutenant Callender, is he in?” “For you? Always.” The secretary smirked and connected her. “Callender, I was expecting a call this morning. How‟s it going down there?” “I‟m still en-route, sir. Brasilia isn‟t anywhere close to Tefe. I should be there tomorrow.” “It will take you that long? What are you doing, driving? Why not fly?” “Yes, I‟m driving, sir, It was either drive or fly and leave a trail via ticket purchases. When I get to Porto Velho, I‟ll catch a flight to Manaus then a fast boat up the river.” “Excellent. I‟ll expect a full report by the end of the week, when you return.” “But no pressure, sir.” She muttered.

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Cosgrove chuckled. “Okay, do it when you can, and remember, this is covert. Do not draw any attention to yourself.” “Yes, sir. No attention.” She said and hung up. One call down and another to go. She looked around but Mackie was still in the restaurant. Stacey changed phones, pressed another series of buttons and the phone was answered almost immediately. “As you wanted, I‟ve made contact.” She ground out. “Any progress?” “Well, that depends on what type of progress you want.” “Does he know?” The voice asked impatiently. “Since he knows fuck-all about his origins, I‟ve had to explain everything. I thought you briefed him when you recruited him? That he knew something given his abilities.” She heard her handler clear their throat. “There was no way we could know what his father told him. We simply made an assumption.” “Well, you‟re wrong. Didn‟t you mention his sisters at all?” “Again, assumptions were made.” This was like trying to nail jelly to a tree, she thought. “Does he or doesn‟t he know?” Silence greeted her question and it answered it as well, the fucks. “Fine. You don‟t know, so it‟s up to me to either confirm he knows and stayed away for whatever reason, or cause him enormous pain by exposing a lie he‟s always believed.” “Excellent suggestion, Major.” The voice said with metallic cheerfulness. “We‟ll expect a report by the end of the week. Oh, and the facility? Strip it of information.” “You don‟t need to remind me, you bastard. I‟m fully aware of what you‟re asking of me.” “As always, you have an elegant grasp on the situation. Good hunting, Major.” Her handler hung up, leaving her supremely pissed.

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“And what are they asking of you now?” Mackie asked as he set a box of food onto the floor in front of the passenger seat, then retrieved the coffee from the roof of the vehicle. “Nothing I didn‟t already know.” She brooded. Mackie climbed in and lifted the string-wrapped box onto his lap. “Just keep driving. You should be able to find somewhere to pull off for lunch.” He pointed down the street and Stacey drove off in a burst of tyre-spinning dust. She could feel the tension building inside her, the trapped feeling expanded and she gripped the steering wheel tightly, tried to quell the impending explosion. She was also aware that Mackie watched her, curiosity in his gaze. “Do not stare at me, Mackie.” She barked. “You‟re worth staring at.” He said with a smile and she rolled her eyes, as he threw her words back at her. The tightness across her shoulders eased, but she still felt... angry and manipulated; sent to do the Company‟s dirty work. She saw an unpaved dirt track and pulled onto it, drove into a cleared area. Beige dust drifted up behind the vehicle and she stopped fifty metres from the highway. Mackie lifted the box and got out. “You can bring the coffee.” He said and walked towards the grassed area that was in danger of being consumed by the jungle. Stacey watched him, his stride easy and relaxed. For all the information she‟d dumped on him, he seemed remarkably accepting. On a sigh, she withdrew the key and got out, leaned in and grabbed the coffee, the heat of the day surrounding her. He sat cross-legged beneath a huge, shady tree and opened the box of feijoada completa. The scent had her tastebuds standing to attention. She set the cups down as he dished up the meal into two plastic bowls and sat next to him. Mackie handed her the lunch. “No speaking of dangerous things until we are done. Agreed?” “Agreed.” She said and dug into the spicy, fragrant pork and black beans. Hot food on a hot day followed by hot coffee. Any sensible person would have been all, what the...? But she understood: raise the internal temperature and the external temperature

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didn‟t seem so extreme. She focused on her food and not the increasingly sinister forest across the highway and behind the tree. “So where are you from? Originally, I mean?” Mackie asked. “I don‟t know.” She said and tension stiffened her shoulders. “Okay, where do you live now?” She eyed him, suspicious. “Making conversation or do you genuinely want to know?” He shook his head. “You never let it down do you.” “What? My guard or my hair?” “Not a social butterfly,” he murmured and continued to eat, “tight-lipped about personal stuff and from that – and everything else you‟ve told me about yourself - I can only assume you‟re a homebody.” He grinned and she was tempted to smack it off his handsome face. She looked down at her own food. “Don‟t try to psychoanalyse me, Mackie, you won‟t like what you find.” She warned but his smile only grew. Her heart rate spiked and panic surged through her blood. He was too close, too powerful and she was too stressed to do anything other than sit completely still – like she used to when threatened, in the hopes that... “Oh, Callender, there‟s something not in your files or computer about me after all.” “W... What?” She asked through stiff lips. He leaned closer, his breath brushed her cheek. “That I cannot resist a challenge.” *** Mackie meant it as a jest, to get under her skin and her guard, but he was surprised and appalled when her face went bone white and she flinched away from him, eyes wide with fear. Her chin trembled and tears gleamed before she ducked her head. “I haven‟t challenged you; I won‟t challenge you, I‟m not a challenge, I‟m nobody and nothing to be challenged over.” He reached out with a hand but she cringed, hunched in on herself.

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“Hey, it‟s okay, I‟m sorry, alright? I didn‟t mean... Shit.” He huffed out a frustrated breath. She wasn‟t his concern other than what information she could provide for the completion of the mission. This woman was so screwed up, such a mystery and so prickly he couldn‟t resist the subtle jab, but her reaction... What was that all about? Hell. He jammed his fingers through his hair, then returned to eating. Maybe silence would draw her out, or at least settle her down. He finished his meal and tossed the plastic bowl and spoon into the box, reached for his coffee. He did not look at her, did not say anything, but suddenly Callender exploded into action. She tossed the half-empty bowl and rose. “I can‟t do this anymore!” She shouted and he slowly lifted his head. Her eyes were wide, hazel and shimmering with tears, strands of hair came loose from her bun and curled around her jaw. Her whole body near vibrated with tension. “This, the jungle, this, travelling with me, this, the mission, or this, something else entirely?” He asked calmly. She lifted one hand to her forehead and another to her hip. “I‟m a fucking disgrace.” She bit out. “You may as well shoot me now.” Mackie picked up her bowl and put it into the box. He stood, then leaned down and picked up his coffee. “Right. A disgrace. Whyfore this time?” Callender glared at him. “This is going to hurt Mackie, but your sisters are alive.” He snorted. “They‟re dead, Callender.” He murmured. “I heard the gunshots, the laughing and the screams, saw the drag marks in the forest. They‟re dead.” “Oh, bullshit.” Callender sneered. “I‟ve met them.” Mackie nearly lost his grip on the coffee. “You‟d better explain, and do it right now.” He said, carefully controlling his anger. “Four children, born to Jennifer Ann Porter and John McCafferty: Spring Rain, Summer Moon, Winter Sun and Autumn Skye. Summer and Winter, sold to Sir James Pocklington the Third by their mother who then disappeared. Autumn, taken by Mai to the Yakuza and contracted as Pocklington‟s bodyguard.”

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Mackie found his hands were trembling and he set the cup on the ground. Callender wasn‟t finished though. “Spouses; you, none. Summer, married to Captain Duncan Duquesne, Special Forces; Winter, married to Captain Justin Beech, Special Forces. Autumn, married to Major Nathan Hawk, Army Intelligence. Children...” “Stop it.” He said and glared at her. “...Cameron, one year, to Winter and Justin and Emily, two months to Summer and Duncan...” “I said, stop it.” He raised his voice as the information filtered through. And still she wasn‟t done. He walked towards her. “Duty stations: Duquesne, Washington and Tennessee. Beech, Washington and Tennessee. Hawk, Afghanistan...” “Shut your lying mouth!” He yelled and grabbed her upper arms. She snorted a laugh and rolled her eyes. “Oh, now you‟ve the right of it. I am a liar, and a cheat and a double agent. But your sisters? They are alive and well and decided not to contact you for your own safety.” His hands dropped away. “What?” “Autumn, who goes by the name Akiko by the way, met Bob Stewart in Thailand. He told her about you and she decided to tell Winter and Summer. No one was supposed to know, but of course, the Company knew, didn‟t they? They killed Stewart as the last of the conspirators, but they didn‟t count on Mainwaring. So far, he‟d been kept in check by the enormous amounts of money pouring into his coffers from the gene therapies; global profits. What a surprise for the Company when he kidnapped Akiko for his own experiments. And what a surprise when she kicked the snot out of him and blew up his facility.” “She did?” He felt like he was on a roller coaster, but Callender wasn‟t listening to him. It was as if she‟d held so many secrets inside for so long she couldn‟t hold any more and they had to come out. She walked away from him and then back. “Of course, she stole all his documentation and research notes on the orders of General Cosgrove. She could have fucking left them there to be burned, but no-o,

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noble, honourable Akiko just had to bring the shit back. To regain face, to finish the mission and live happily, ever fucking after. And that asshole Cosgrove promises them all the information is destroyed, gone, and nobody will ever experiment on people again. So he hands me the thumb drive Akiko brought back and says „I want a report‟ and I, like a good little minion, obligingly read through the stuff and find a contact list from Thailand to e-mail accounts and addresses in fucking Tefe! He thinks it‟s so important, he sends me down here to destroy it.” She stormed away and back again, poked him in the chest. “But wait, there‟s so much more.” She ground out. Her eyes were fierce, her expression aggressive. She was so angry, she vibrated. “Since I am such a good little minion,” she went on, “I also contact my masters in the Company, inform them of what I‟ve found and lo, they already know and have arranged for assets to be in place for me. And what do they demand? A copy of the fucking information Tefe has. And who should I bump into? Who is my contact and partner down here, but the missing brother! Gee, what a co-incidence!” She bent down and picked up the coffees, handed him one, while sipping from her own. She stared at him for a moment, then lifted an eyebrow. “Questions?” Oh, boy. He had so many; about his sisters, her role, who she really was, but he needed to digest, so he started with what he imagined she thought he missed. “Why are you a double agent?” She dragged in a deep breath and her shoulders drooped slightly, as if relieved. “Figured you‟d pick up on that.” She braced to attention and looked at him. “I am Lieutenant Stacey Callender, of the Special Operations Group. I am also Major... Stacey Callender of the Marine Corp Covert Electronic and Technology Defence Directorate.” Mackie‟s mouth twisted with disbelief. “There‟s no such organisation.” “If everyone knew about it, it wouldn‟t be covert, but you‟re right, to a degree, I‟m on secondment to the CIA.” “And there you go.” He murmured. “The Company.”

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“Not just the Company, Mackie, but a specialised, secret part of it that no one else in the Company knows about. Or the President, or Congress. This small band of fellows are directly responsible for the American facility in conjunction with the MCCETDD – or a small part of it, that is.” Mackie looked at the sky. “We need to get going.” He said and picked up the lunch box, walked to the car. “You‟re okay with this? With me? With the information I just dumped on you? You... still want to continue the mission?” She asked from behind him and he stopped, turned to her with a narrowed gaze. “No, I‟m not okay with it. I don‟t know if I believe you or not, but if we don‟t continue? What happens then?” She looked away. “The usual; a death warrant, people come after us and destroy the facility anyway.” “Then we need to play for time, don‟t we.” He went to the passenger side and got in, set the trash down and waited for her. She got in and started the engine, turned the SUV around and drove onto the highway. “Why aren‟t you pissed?” He shrugged. “Who says I‟m not?” “You‟re not acting like it.” She sounded calmer, more in control, which was his aim. Now, he could get down to it. “I‟ve a lot of information to digest.” “You need proof.” She said and he nodded. Callender reached into her top pocket and pulled out her phone. She pressed a number of buttons with her thumb, then handed the device to him. “Look, read and inwardly digest.” She said. He glanced down and saw an index of file names. He started with the file named „Summer‟.

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Rain speckled the windscreen and the wipers moved with metronomic precision when he lifted his head. He‟d finished reading... everything. From the files on his sisters, to Mainwaring‟s research notes and to Callender‟s own thoughts and notes she must have written on the flight down. “Why didn‟t you just give this to me yesterday?” He asked. She lifted a shoulder. “I trust you, Mackie. Knowing your sisters, seeing their courage in the face of near insurmountable odds, you had to be on the side of right. But you work for the Company, the same group I work for and I can tell you, I‟ve not found them to be honest, or honourable or in any way trustworthy. I had no idea until you went to get lunch that my handler didn‟t know whether you knew about your family or not. You can see my dilemma.” Put like that, he had to agree. Hell, he still didn‟t trust her even though they were working towards the same goal. “What will you do now?” She asked. “What do you mean?” “Will you oblige the Company and return to the States? Like they want you to? Or ignore your family as if they don‟t exist?” That was the question. He‟d love to see them. He remember the twins as six-yearolds, now they were adults, married, for God‟s Sake. And he had a niece and nephew. What were they like? Did they have talents? If so, what type? And the husbands? He was also puzzled at the surge of protectiveness he felt for them, even though they were strangers. And then relief, anger washed through him. The Company knew they were alive, right from Mainwaring‟s introduction to Pocklington, or even sooner – and they‟d never said a word. He thought about her question. “I don‟t know.” He said now and realised it was true. “I genuinely do not know what to do. And let me tell you, it‟s not a comfortable feeling. I am so angry at the Company, at everyone involved in the cover up.” “So, we go on, finish the mission and then what?” “Do we both agree that this facility – and it‟s information - needs to be destroyed?”

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She cocked her head to the side. “I‟m under instructions to obtain a copy of the research. I imagine the Company want to compare notes. But apart from that, yes, I agree.” Mackie leaned into the door for a more comfortable view of Callender. “You‟re not shocked or appalled or surprised at any of this. Why is that?” Her mouth turned down. “I‟ve been doing this for some time, Mackie. Not much surprises me anymore.” She turned the headlights on. “So jaded, so cynical and so young.” “And you‟re not?” She replied. “Touche. We‟re both cynical CIA operatives and no hope for redemption.” He watched her shoulders slump. “Hey, I‟m joking, you know. It‟s not that bad. One day, each of us will retire to, I don‟t know, a tropical island?” She snorted. “How about a chalet in Switzerland, the French Alps or Colorado?” “Still not a fan of the heat, huh?” “I doubt I‟ll ever be. I loathe and despise sweating unless I‟m getting some benefit. The humidity, as you‟ve found out, results in...” “Please, don‟t. It squicks me out remembering.” He saw the twitch of a smile, the flash of a dimple in her cheek. “I don‟t like hot weather, I love air-conditioning, snow, icy drinks, thick blankets and hot showers on a chilly day. I love the cold rain, the scent of grass after a storm, the drama of lightning and the symphony of thunder. I love hot chocolate, toasting marshmallows over a crackling fire, an arctic breeze when I‟m in a wool jacket and muffler. I love skiing, the northern lights, fresh powder, the smell of pine, and sage stuffing. I enjoy a tot of rum, sweaters, boots and walking in silent, white draped forests. Oh, and I love curling up with a hot water bottle.” She flicked him a glance. “You?” Mackie stared at her, waited for the punch line, but her expression remained serious. “Very Bull Durham.” He murmured and she frowned. “Kevin Costner, Susan

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Sarandon, baseball...? Never mind. I‟m happy with the jungle, with the heat. It isn‟t this hot all year round, it might even drop a degree or two.” “I‟ll take my snow, thank you. As for retirement, well... the job we do is dangerous.” He couldn‟t help himself, he chuckled. “You‟re a desk jockey, Callender, I don‟t think you‟re in any danger, unless it‟s from multiple paper cuts, or the occasional wayward staple.” Callender stuck out her bottom lip. “The stress I‟ve been under for the past...” she sighed, “years, hasn‟t been good for me. I don‟t sleep well at night, I‟m more secretive than is healthy, I see conspiracy everywhere. I need an exit strategy, but cannot see one.” He lifted a shoulder. “Resign. See? Simple.” “Could you...” She suddenly clamped her mouth shut. Heat flared into her cheeks. “Could I... what?” She checked the side mirror, the rear-view mirror and he turned. The road behind and ahead was empty. This road was more a hope than essential, and tourists were disinclined to travel so far in a vehicle. The semi-trailers were the main traffic. She was stalling. “Do you need time to gather your thoughts or should I guess what you want me to do for you?” “I can resign from the military, but I don‟t want to; I like it, the structured organisation, but still with the freedom to do my job. I can‟t resign from the CIA, because that would mean resigning from the Directorate, and I don‟t want that. And before you ask, my Directorate boss would refuse it unless I gave him a damned good reason and I can‟t tell him.” “I see. And you want me to come up with a solution? Honey, I don‟t know you or your job well enough. We‟ve known each other for twenty-four hours.” “Which is why I hesitated, okay? I know it‟s something I‟ll have to work out. The Company, the part we work for, frowns on retirements or resignations. It is

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fundamentally incapable of trusting people to keep their mouths shut and implements its‟ own retirement plans. Mackie thought about it. “Are you suggesting the CIA goes around assassinating its former operatives?” “I‟m not suggesting anything, Mackie, I‟m telling you.” “Really?” He asked, but he didn‟t really believe her. There she went, nodding. “I know of a number of cases of so called „termination‟ for treason. It was nothing of the sort. They were men and women who felt their time was done and wanted to live out their retirements in comfort. Next thing, bam, they‟re dead.” “Paranoia, maybe? You did say you were stressed.” “Fact.” He was learning all sorts of things he hadn‟t known before. And to think, when he met her at the airport, all he could think was to thank the PTB for sending him such an attractive partner. Now, though, he was wondering if he ever knew whom he was working for after all. Sanctioned murder, deliberate experimentation, kidnapping, torture, withholding vital information, blackmail... the list just kept growing. “Fact. You sound as if you... ah, ha,” he said with sudden understanding, “you hacked into your own bosses computers! Damn, if they find out, you are a dead woman.” She sent him a serious glance. “Well, no shit, Sherlock.” “And now I see your dilemma. But what if you made the information public? They couldn‟t touch you then.” “A. I‟d be charged and convicted with breaching the Homeland Security Act and the Patriot Act. B. I‟d be charged and convicted of treason – which still carries the death penalty, by the way – C. It would never get into the public arena and D. Hmm, well, I‟d never see the inside of a court room any way. I know too much about the workings of the organisation. I am a danger to them and they know it, which is why they keep a very close eye on me.”

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In the distance, Mackie saw lights. Static lights, which meant they were approaching Porto Velho. Tomorrow, they could fly to Manaus and then catch a fast boat up the river. This mission would be over soon. Strange that he felt resistant to the idea of waving goodbye to Callender. Of course, he could always suggest they keep driving, but he didn‟t think Callender would be so appreciative. He‟d give it more thought. “How do they keep an eye on you, Callender, when you are thousands of miles away?” “Tracking device, Mackie, in me and my phone. They know where I am at any time.” She said it so casually that his mouth dropped open with surprise. “And you allowed them to do that to you?” “Of course not. They didn‟t give me a choice. I went into hospital for surgery on a broken ankle – skiing accident. Four years later, and I need an x-ray to see whether I‟d busted a rib – not surprisingly, a skiing accident – and there it was, snuggled handily under my collarbone.” She lifted a hand to her collarbone, rubbed the ache that settled there. “They know where I am at all times. And when I asked them about it, they warned me that any attempt at removal would cause it to explode.” He remembered reading the file. Just like Akiko, he thought, and Hawk, to ensure her co-operation. It raised his suspicions. “Callender, why would the Company want to track you? What makes you so important? And how do you know so much about Paoy Pet and the escape? You can‟t have found it from hacking sites.” “No,” she said, “you‟re right. I found the information from other sources. Your sisters, for example, remembered some of it. More from Pocklington‟s computer, some from others who were there and work for the Company...” “The U.S. Government is still using Project Genesis people?”

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She looked at him as if he hadn‟t been listening. “Of course. That is the reason for Project Genesis.” “Okay, okay, I get that, but why you? Why are you tagged?” Callender shrugged. “We‟re all tagged, Mackie. Every operative who works for this small cadre of the Company.” She explained, lifted a hand. “And before you ask, it‟s for the recovery of remains. The Company, as you know, operates illegally in some countries and being discovered spying can be bad, very, very bad.” Callender shrugged off the implications. “Neither the military nor my little group leave their operatives behind, whether they are dead or alive.” It made sense. The U.S. had a history of remains recovery and of extricating citizens from awkward situations, but... “And the explosive?” Callender sighed. “In case of capture. Or so I was told when I asked about it. Other operatives – those who actually go out on high-risk missions – cannot afford to be captured. Truth drugs and torture are very effective. I suppose I have one as a do-onedo-them-all policy, but I don‟t actually know.” No, Mackie thought, that last bit sounded like a half-truth, but he wouldn‟t call her on it. Yet. “Who has the control?” He asked. “I have no idea, which is the point. It guarantees I can‟t go after them and they can get rid of me at any time.” Jesus. He was sitting next to a time bomb, trying to figure out how to diffuse it and get her out of the Company at the same time. What an impossible situation. No wonder she was stressed, so paranoid and prone to outbursts; he‟d be a little crazy, too. Although, they must really want him to go to the States if they were laying out all this bait. But would he oblige them or blow them all off? Damn them, they pressed every single one of his buttons: family, the facilities, revenge and added a dollop of attractive damsel in distress. “Answer me this:” Mackie asked, “do they know all of what you‟re supposed to tell me?”

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“Neither boss knows all of it. Cosgrove expected this to be a one-woman mission – Special Operations and all that – bulletproof and able to leap tall buildings, a quick in and out, preferably at night so I can set fire to the building. The Company, on the other hand, expected me to tell of your family, that they‟re still alive and happy. To use you, basically, to accomplish the same thing Cosgrove wants: the information. Except the Company also wants everyone dead. I‟m assuming that‟s your part of the program.” Oh, yeah. She had it absolutely right. That was his part of the job. To support her, yes, get her into the facility, but while she was getting the info, he was to kill everyone, and get the subjects out. Which meant someone would be waiting to take them into government custody. “But?” He asked. She sighed and slowed at the city outskirts, began searching for a hotel. “But no one is supposed to know of my dual role. You aren‟t supposed to know I spy for and on the Special Operations Group. All you‟re supposed to know is that I‟m with the Company and we‟re all pals together, fighting for truth, justice and the protection of the U.S.” “Take a left at the next intersection, there‟s a nice hotel halfway down the block.” He directed. “What are your limits on persuading me to return?” “If you‟re thinking they want me to sleep with you, I‟m sure they‟re considering it, but I can assure you, I do not sleep with anyone to further the ambitions of strangers.” She said in a repressive tone. “Okay, whom do you sleep with?” And he could have cut his tongue out for the surge of jealousy that suddenly spiked through him. “Not your business.” She said with finality and he grinned with relief at the sudden darkening of her cheeks. She didn‟t sleep with anyone and wasn‟t that interesting to know?

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Chapter Seven Stacey could have happily strangled the man next to her for asking the question. And by the way he was smirking, he‟d come to the wrong conclusion. But who she slept with was no one‟s business but her own. She pulled up at the curb at Colonial Portuguese-style hotel. Mackie hopped out and went inside to secure rooms. Regret at her meltdown coursed through her. She shouldn‟t have said anything – at least not in such a harsh manner. She blew out a breath. Stress. It was getting too much and she could imagine more meltdowns the longer she was trapped between two opposing forces. Mackie was too inquisitive and he‟d suck every last secret out of her if she let him. Which meant a third stress point. She couldn‟t keep it up. But maybe that was the point of her handler sending her. They wanted him back, knew he‟d keep pushing her until she had no choice but to reveal all, to expose the secrets she‟d kept for years. And she was too smart for her own good, too. Since being „seconded‟ to the CIA – hah, as if she‟d ever had a choice – she‟d picked up on exactly what was required of her from a minimum of orders. Her handler was not the most loquacious of contacts, but it didn‟t matter, she always came through for them, one way or another. Worse, the explosive device guaranteed her compliance and efforts to do exactly what they wanted – whether they explicitly told her the plan, or, like now, deliberately neglected to give her vital information and expected her to complete the secondary mission: The return of Spring McCafferty into their tender care. Still, she wasn‟t smart enough to find a solution. Her bosses had years of experience in controlling operatives, what made her think she could outwit them? One day, someone would press the button. She didn‟t know when, she didn‟t know who, but figured it would happen if she failed in a mission or they discovered her... activities within their own mainframe. Oh, she‟d stripped out all sorts of interesting files and covered her tracks. By now, she expected a number of people had been through her house, finding all the hardcopy

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files she‟d secreted – and she expected them to. But they‟d never find the one‟s she didn‟t want found. That much she‟d learned after her first attempt to hide information. The lecture from a senior field operative had been laughable, if it wasn‟t so serious. From that moment on, she‟d been careful to the point of paranoia. She had her insurance they wouldn‟t kill her until they knew what she had. But they wouldn‟t know what she had until she told them and timing was everything. Mackie came out grinning. She got out and went to the back of the vehicle, lifted the back and dragged out her pack. “What‟s got you all covered in smirk?” She asked. “The hotel is undergoing renovations, since it‟s the off-season. I could only get a double.” “A double what?” She asked with a sinking feeling. “A double room, you and I are bunking together, Callender.” She didn‟t say a word, but picked up her pack as he hauled out his bag. He shut the door and she pressed the button on the key chain. The lights blinked and the alarm chirped with satisfaction. Stacey shrugged, followed him to the room. Sure enough, one large bed reached out from one wall into the middle of the room. A desk abutted the opposite wall and an old black and white television, with a wire coat hanger aerial, sat on the top. A bedside table on either side of the bed and a rickety wooden chair completed the furniture. Mackie dropped his bag next to the bed with a thump. “Fortunately, the bathroom is down the hall, so I don‟t have to listen to you... ah... expectorate.” He said with a sick smile. Stacey lifted an eyebrow. “That really bothers you, doesn‟t it.” “You have no idea how much.” He grimaced. She set her pack at the end of the bed and began to rummage through it. “Are we going out for dinner or ordering in?” She asked and turned when he laughed. “What?”

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“Here you are, in a foreign country and you want to eat in? Where‟s that tourist spirit?” He settled his hands onto his hips. “We‟ll find a nice restaurant and have a pleasant dinner. Without any more bombshells, thank you very much.” She gave him a half smile. “Okay, just let me freshen up and we‟ll be on our way.” The bathroom was small, with a chipped tub, a metal shower head hanging over it, a faded seascape curtain, an equally chipped hand basin and a toilet. Above the hand basin, a mottled grey-spotted mirror, distorted her face. With a grimace, she washed up. When she returned, she saw Mackie had changed his body-hugging t-shirt for a long-sleeved khaki bush shirt. He kept his snug blue jeans and boots. “Okay, let‟s go, I am starved.” He said and opened the door for her. “And let me remind you: no more bombshells.” Oh, but she had one more before they sealed the bargain and did this mission. And it was probably the most important secret of all. It would take all of dinner for her to build the courage to tell him. “Not until we come back.” She smiled and heard him groan behind her. Mackie took her to a restaurant two blocks from the hotel. She had her doubts about its rough, mud splattered, yellow painted exterior. He took her hand, his fingers curled around hers as if a habit and a strange tingling swept up her arm and warmed her. “You‟ll love it.” He promised and drew her across the street. “The locals eat here; and where the locals are, the tourists aren‟t and you can eat genuine Brazilian barbecue, churrasco, or go for the Feijoada again.” He guided her inside and they were both seated at suspiciously romantic table. The candles emphasized his masculine face, casting shadows along his cheekbone and jaw when he turned away, bringing fire to his emerald eyes as he turned back. Mackie gave her a slight smile. “Looks like they‟ve got a power outage, so don‟t blame me.” Stacey looked away, watched the other diners who were made up of boisterous family groups. She could hear the kitchen and the good-natured ribbing and taunting of

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the staff, the replies, the banging of pots, and cooking utensils. Wait staff emerged with plates that steamed or smoked and she breathed deep, inhaled the scent of barbeque. “Churrasco.” She murmured. “Churrasco it is.” Mackie replied and turned to give his order to a dusky-skinned, sloe-eyed waitress. “We‟ll start with some Pao de Queijo.” He gave the woman a smile and she returned it – with a seductive toss of her long, curly black hair. “Caipirinha?” She asked in a husky voice. “Two, please.” Mackie said and his gaze swept over the woman‟s body, slow enough to satisfy the waitress. “Is that a cultural thing?” Stacey asked with a hint of acid. Mackie raised his eyebrows. “The...” She shook her head. “Never mind.” “So...” Mackie began. “What shall we talk about?” Stacey folded her hands into her lap and shrugged. “Well, you don‟t have any family, so that‟s out; you already know about mine, so that‟s out. You can‟t talk about your job and I can‟t talk about mine. Politics and religion are also taboo. Not much left, I guess.” He finished awkwardly. She leaned forward. “What about your... talent.” Mackie matched her. “Never in public.” Then he breathed in and met her gaze. “How did you become a techno-geek?” He asked with a slight frown. “Um... it was just something I fell into; I was good at it.” She replied and leaned back to get away from his mesmerising gaze and scent. “How about you? How did you become an eco-warrior?” He leaned back too, regarded her with a hooded gaze. “I‟m sure there‟s more to your own talents than you say.” You have no idea. She thought bleakly. “All right. I was at school, fooling around with an old computer. I got it to work and to integrate with a more modern one. I just changed a few chips around, convinced the old ones they weren‟t so old.” She lifted a shoulder again. “Then there was the mobile phone incident... I only wanted to see if I

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could...” She made a throwaway gesture with her hand. “Okay, I hacked one phone from another.” “And?” Stacey sighed. “I didn‟t know it was the headmaster‟s second phone and he used it to speak with his mistress.” And she caught hell for it, even as Jardine recognised the pure talent it had taken. From then, her education was directed to electronics. Mackie smiled at her. “Rough conversation?” “For a thirteen-year-old? Oh, you bet! There are some things kids don‟t need to know about an adult sex life.” Mackie laughed and reached out for the cheese bread the waitress laid in front of him. “My Dad has a place up at Carau ...” “He‟s alive?” Stacey gaped at him. “Well, yeah. Why wouldn‟t he be?” Why, indeed. Just because her research failed to find John McCafferty, didn‟t mean he‟d ceased to exist; only that he‟d been successful at hiding. Or had he? “Do your bosses know?” Mackie pursed his lips. “I don‟t think so; the subject never came up.” He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “I‟m an off-the-record kind of an operative.” He confessed. “Black ops.” She murmured with a slow nod. Yes, the Company would love to get their hands on an undocumented, talented agent who could slip into a country and do their dirty work. She raised an eyebrow. “Wet work?” “Sometimes.” He said stiffly. “ But what does this have to do with my father?” “Maybe nothing. His tracker would surely have failed by now. Maybe when it went offline, they assumed he was dead. He‟s not part of this mission and as long as we stay away from him, he‟ll be safe.” She glanced over his shoulder at the waitress and steaming/smoking plates she carried. Stacey‟s mouth watered at the delicious scents. “Here comes barbeque.”

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Mackie kept casting her inquiring looks, as if he couldn‟t work her out, as if he was trying to look into her mind. She knew, thankfully, it wasn‟t a talent he had. As for what else he needed to know, her courage was failing her. She couldn‟t think of a way to tell him and by the end of dinner, she‟d decided to wait, was back to holding secrets close. He took her hand for the walk back to the hotel. She tried to ease loose but he tightened his grip and she looked at him. “In the regional areas, women are fair game unless they‟re with a man. I‟m merely emphasising that point to anyone who might express an interest in a beautiful woman.” “Uh, huh, and how long do you think that excuse is going to fly.” She muttered, but kept her hand in his, enjoyed the warmth and connection. “It‟s true.” He protested but his tone sounded a little bit too false. “Brazil was settled by the Portuguese. Colonial expansion was all the craze with the British, Spaniards and Dutch all sailing the world in search of wealth and land. In an effort to expand the population to defend the new nation, the Portuguese encourage their men to have as many wives and children as possible. Elements of that attitude are still present today; not the multiple wives, but the big families and the ultra-protective nature remains in a lot of places. It‟s called „machismo‟.” “Okay, I‟ll go with that.” She said softly. “It really is a fabulous country. It has such... energy.” He breathed deep of the humid night air. “And with that energy, corruption is rampant, Mackie. The Amazon and its‟ resources, the cities, the wealth and the poverty.” He guided her into the hotel. “True, but this is a country of such potential, if only the politicians could see the future rather than wallowing in the present and what they can get.” She snorted out a laugh as he opened the door to their room. “You can say that about every other nation on Earth.”

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“Yeah.” He sighed and finally dropped her hand, closed the door with a click. “So. The last bombshell?” Stacey slid her eyes from his. “No. Not tonight.” “Problem?” He asked and went to his carry-on, tugged out a pair of black running shorts. Stacey felt her blood pressure rise. “Just... lost my courage is all.” She said and he turned to her, stood straight. “Sometimes, a life lived with secrets is very hard to shake.” She explained. The look in his eyes said he was over secrets, his expression reflected his disappointment. Mackie lifted a shoulder. “Okay. When you‟re ready.” He pulled out his toiletry bag and went to the bathroom. Stacey brought out sweat-suit pants and a t-shirt, sat on the side of the bed. She wasn‟t used to conflict; physical, emotional, internal. She followed orders, did her job. She enjoyed the hunt for information and putting it together to form a complete picture. And when the day was done, she went home to her house and did more research. It wasn‟t for work, it was all about knowledge. Free knowledge on a variety of subjects. Anything from recipes to Romans, boating to space exploration, her searches covered as much as she could stuff into her inquiring mind. Stacey didn‟t see it as a barrier against the outside world, she saw it as an essential tool. If she knew a subject, she wouldn‟t be caught off guard. Oh, she already knew the history of Brazil and every other country in South America, she‟d read up on it for information on the Falklands and whether the Argentines were planning another grab. She shook off her wayward thoughts as she recognised her problem: distraction. At her computer, she had order, focus. Out of her comfortable environment, she felt scattered, unable to concentrate. And John McCafferty was alive! The affection in Mackie‟s eyes couldn‟t be faked. Maybe John was the reason for Mackie‟s disinterest in his sisters? John was a real and constant influence in Mackie‟s life – his sisters weren‟t. He hadn‟t seen them since they were children, and no amount

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of dry, two dimensional information would give him an emotional connection. Nothing but a meeting and conversation would even begin to give him one. All those lost years; all those memories, unshared. Strangers, connected only by blood. Mackie and Akiko had much in common; at least the twins stayed together. But even after reconciling with her sisters, Akiko kept her distance. The oldest sister, like Mackie, grew up without siblings, had lost that emotional connection. And once Stacey got involved... Mackie returned, his dark hair damp and combed back, his jaw freshly shaved, and wearing a speculative smile. “My turn.” She murmured without looking into his eyes. He disturbed her enough without her making a visual connection. “I‟ll be waiting.” He replied in a soft, deep voice that had every red blood cell in her body standing to attention. She scurried off to change and brush her teeth – without the expectorating he thought was a daily occurrence with her. It wasn‟t. It was the only way she knew to keep him away from her personal space yesterday. Once her teeth were clean, she stared at her reflection. She was looking pale again, stressed, with faint lines bracketing her mouth. If she didn‟t learn to relax or find a hobby, those lines would become permanent. Disgusted with herself, she turned away, picked up her clothes and toiletry bag and returned to the room. Mackie had turned off the ceiling light and switched on the bedside lamps. He was already in bed, bare-chested, with two pillows behind his back, and the sheet draped across his lap; and he was watching her with a hooded gaze. Stacey drag her gaze from the temptation, the feast he presented, tried to ignore the flare of heat through her system and shoved her gear into her pack. She squatted down and pulled out the small white container, set it on the bedside table. Then she climbed

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into bed, tossed one pillow onto the floor and fluffed the remaining pillow, then she snuggled down onto her side and stared at the wall. “You don‟t want to talk?” Mackie asked. “About what?” “I don‟t know, whatever‟s got you wound up like a spring, perhaps?” Her mouth tightened as she heard the amusement in his voice. “No. I need sleep. You need sleep.” He laid a gentle hand on her upper arm. “You need to relax.” “What did you have in mind?” She was proud of the near-bored tone, even as she firmly suppressed the shivers his touch provoked within. But she feared she was losing the battle. His hand moved, rubbed the skin of her arm. “How about a round of golf? Or maybe a pick-up game of one on one, I‟ll even spot you a few points?” Stacey shut her eyes against the jab of hurt. He wasn‟t interested in her after all. “You mock me.” “That I do. You are entirely much too serious.” He used pressure to roll her onto her back. “You need to play more, Callender; you can‟t be a geek all the time.” She kept her gaze on his chin, drifted up to his mouth and wondered. She absolutely would not look him in the eye. This close, he‟d detect... “Callender?” “What?” “Are you listening to me? Do you understand what I‟m trying to say?” “What do you want from me, Mackie?” His mouth curved and she damn near sighed. “A smile would be a start, Callender. A flash of those dimples.” He leaned in closer and she strained against looking into those gorgeous forest green eyes. “Barring that, a taste.”

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Oh, shit. She found herself engulfed by intense green, entranced by the purity of colour. She shut her eyes, screwed her eyelids together. “What are you doing, Callender?” He asked softly and she felt his breath on her lips. “I‟m not looking.” “You don‟t need to be afraid of me.” He murmured and touched his mouth to hers. Just a soft and brief touch. “There now, that didn‟t hurt did it?” “No.” She whispered and relaxed her eyes. She didn‟t open them, but now they were simply closed. “Well, then. Just in case it did...” The tip of his tongue brushed where he‟d kissed her, as if soothing a small hurt and her hands formed fists to stop her from grabbing him. She couldn‟t. She just... couldn‟t. It would destroy... But heat surged through her as a finger traced its way down her cheek and along her jaw to her bottom lip, rubbed lightly. “Please, don‟t.” The words sighed out as if she meant the opposite. “Please don‟t, what, Callender?” He didn‟t give her time to reply, but shifted his fingers to cup her chin and laid his mouth across her, held her still as he moved his lips over hers. Oh, but he was good at this. She felt her muscles turn liquid, felt the hum low in her belly and shifted her legs. He touched his tongue to the seam of her lips, then lifted his mouth. “Open for me, Callender.” He said softly and returned to his gentle seduction. She couldn‟t resist him and he sealed his mouth to hers, moved his hand down to her hip and held on. Hair, as soft as silk, threaded through her fingers. She revelled in the taste of his mouth, mint and a flavour all his own that called to her to demand more. He eased back, and she licked her lips.

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“You don‟t want to do that, Callender.” He warned huskily and a frisson of heat flashed over her skin. His hand slid across her lower belly and away. His body heat and scent moved and she finally opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. She turned her head only when he clicked off his bedside light. Stacey waited, her body humming, for his return, for the continued seduction and ultimate end, but he simply cleared his throat and turned his back, tugged the sheet up over his shoulders. “You should be relaxed enough to sleep now.” He said and cold humiliation washed through her. Then she sighed. Well, it wasn‟t the first time she‟d been rejected and it sure wouldn‟t be the last. But she always kept hope in her heart. When would she learn she was not the kind of woman men came after for anything other than a quick screw? Still, her vision blurred and she rolled onto her side. She had one more thing to do before she turned off the light and wallowed. *** Mackie did not sleep well. His dreams were filled with Callender; the silky texture of her skin, the soft fullness of her mouth, her taste, the way she damn near purred deep in her throat. And he‟d bet his last real she didn‟t know she made that erotic sound and it kept replaying in his head. He‟d only thought to relax her; she was strung so tight, held herself so stiffly, wood could learn a thing or two from her. He succeeded, much to his own discomfort. And the thought she wasn‟t ready for him, emotionally, but most definitely was physically, just made it worse for him. He‟d tried to keep it light, but the more he tasted, the harder he got until it was the most difficult thing in the world to turn away from her when his body demanded he take her, urged him to plunge into those secret depths. She sure fired his jets. He awoke to a near painful fullness in his groin and aching for release. He opened his eyes and stared at the shadowed wall, recalled her screwed up eyes. She denied being afraid of him, but there had to be something going on with her, something...

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He sighed. Why was he thinking this way? Sure, she was attractive, had a gorgeous body, made him laugh and incited him to rage. But he‟d met other women more attractive, more stunning, who had him in stitches and who made him want to go out and destroy something. What was it about this woman, whom he‟d known for a total of a day and a half, that made him want to keep her as close as possible and never let go? Was it her connection to his previously thought dead family? That she was a source of intimate information on his sisters‟ lives? Was it his constant, burning need for revenge against those who exploit others and she provided the target? Or did it go deeper? Was it all about her, and him, and a lust he couldn‟t deny, the growing need to steep himself in her? And man, with his erection throbbing this way, all he wanted to do was wake her up and tell her to brace herself. Damn it! There was no point in torturing himself like this! He turned his head to see her sleeping. Mackie picked up his watch. Three am. He slid out of the bed and padded to the door, glanced back. Callender hadn‟t moved, was curled up in a tight ball, clutching the sheet as if it were all that protected her from the outside world. Even in sleep, she was defensive and he wanted to... He opened the door and closed it quietly behind him, carefully walked by a closed room, and into the bathroom. This early, no one was around and he could take care of this in peace and quiet. He locked the bathroom door and walked to the toilet and dropped his shorts, grabbed some paper. Then he closed his eyes. Heat flared through his veins as an image of a naked Callender, flat on her back, came to his mind. He imagined the purring in her throat as she gazed up at him. He‟d cup those lush breasts, tweak pebble-hard nipples, lay his mouth on them and suck so hard she‟d arch, giving him more. Then he‟d drag his fingers down her stomach to the top of her thighs. He‟d play with her then, insert a finger into her wet heat. She‟d writhe against his hand, plead with him a little.

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Mackie‟s hand trembled as he wrapped his hand around his stiff erection and pumped. He would ease back onto his knees, his hands would slide to her inner thighs and lift her legs over his. He‟d stare down at her soft and pleading expression. He‟d ease the tip of his cock into her, rub a little, taunt her before ramming himself into her. Her legs would wrap around him, her internal muscles would relax enough to let him have her as hard as he liked until she cried out and came. He‟d resist the squeezing as her inner muscles tried to milk him. He‟d keep thrusting, with a hand pressed to her belly and she‟d change position, drop her legs to the side and raise her knees. And she‟d use dirty language. No. She wouldn‟t. She‟d... stare up at him with those brandy-coloured eyes and match his rhythm, lift her hips to him as he worked her, then she‟d smile and gasp, close her eyes as she came again, squeeze him. A powerful surge shot through his loins and Mackie grimaced, leaned a palm against the cold bathroom tiles as his seed pulsed into the paper and the orgasm ripped over him. Spots danced before his eyes. He dragged in a deep breath, hung his head and braced his knees as his legs weakened. He gave up trying to stand and slumped down onto the commode to regain his strength and wait for his heartbeat to slow. If she could do that in his imagination, she‟d near kill him in reality. When he felt a little more sane, he cleaned up and went back to the room. She was still curled up, eyes shut, a blush on her cheeks and a small frown between her brows. He shook his head and climbed back into bed, rested his head on the pillow. His heart still pounded but it slowed to an easier rhythm and he dropped off to sleep, hopefully not to dream of the woman sleeping beside him.

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Chapter Eight Stacey kept her eyes closed as she felt Mackie get up. She held herself still as he paused, then she heard the door click shut. Bathroom break, she mused and went back to drifting between sleep and wakefulness. It had been years since she‟d had a truly deep, refreshing sleep. The night she realised the Company had searched her house, she‟d stayed awake all night, expecting them to return for the files they hadn‟t found. A few days later, she realised they had found them, from the subtle questions they asked, but were waiting to see what she did with them. She never truly slept again and she kept the files hidden, unused, the tiny cameras, untouched. She‟d never intended to use them; they were for her edification and nothing more. The senior agent who lectured her on security reduced her to a quivering wreck with thoughts of what they‟d do to her if she ever tried it again. She‟d been a model agent for six months before she set about riffling supposedly secure files again. By then, she‟d found every hidden camera and acted accordingly until all but two were quietly removed while she was at work. After that, she knew how to perform and circumvent those intrusive eyes. As a defence against monitoring, she‟d developed her scrub virus. No one knew what computers she‟d accessed, what files she had in her secret cache, what knowledge she had in her head. Stacey realised she didn‟t feel the comforting weight of Mackie behind her. He hadn‟t returned and she opened her eyes. What could be taking him so long? The food they‟d had at dinner wasn‟t that spicy and he couldn‟t have a delicate constitution and live in Brazil. She sat up. Faint streetlight shone through the window to her right and she tracked her gaze across the wall, the framed photograph of the rainforest, then paused. Heat flared in her cheeks as she realised why he was taking so long – it wasn‟t something he could do next to her... but wow, what a waste! She‟d thought him unaffected by the kisses they‟d shared, by her near lack of response to him. His voice sounded so normal when he asked her if she was relaxed, so
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unmoved by her and for these few hours, he‟d been... what? Waiting for her to fall asleep so he could take care of the problem? Would she have... no. Yes. No. Maybe. Much to her shame, she admitted to the temptation he presented. Yes, then, she would have... but he never asked, never took that step, as if... as if... oh. The waitress, with her bedroom eyes and silent offer... She flopped back onto the mattress. He hadn‟t been thinking of her at all. She was such a mess, such a screw up and a monumental coward. The sheet was cool as she dragged it up over her shoulders and turned onto her side. She clutched it like a life-line and closed her eyes. Images of all the men she‟d turned away because of one excuse or another ran like a film behind her eyes. All the men who turned away from her because of her odd ways and the unnamed men with whom she‟d had sex with in the dark, away from prying eyes, just because she didn‟t want to be alone. She invited no man to come home with her or to stay the night. Her encounters were in alleyways, in hotels, cars. She had a virgin bed at home, unsullied by the scent of man. And wasn‟t that just pathetic? Twenty-eight years old and still prowling the night for anonymous encounters because she couldn‟t bear for anyone to invade her sanctuary. Eventually, she heard him return, felt his weight as he got back into bed behind her, heard his sigh. He didn‟t want her, but she still found comfort in his presence behind her and she drifted off into the twilight land she was so familiar with. The soft puff of air against her neck brought her out of her doze, then she felt the heavy weight of an arm across her waist, a masculine hand cupping her breast, under her t-shirt! Her nipple immediately tightened under his warm palm and his fingers twitched. Her eyes popped open. Oh, no. Damn it. She had to...

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He hummed against her skin and she became aware of how close he was to her. His big body cupped hers from neck to ankle. And if she hadn‟t been wearing sweat pants... Stacey dragged his hand from under her shirt and dropped his arm onto his own body and reached out to the beside table. “No nookie, then.” He murmured and eased away from her. “And there I thought your body was telling me yes... yes... Yes!” Outraged, she turned to him with a glare and froze. “Fuck me!” Mackie scrambled back so fast, with such a look of horror in his eyes, he tipped off the side of the bed and slammed to the floor. Stacey shut her eyes in despair, turned and opened the small, white case. She carefully put the specialised contacts in each eye, gave him time to compose himself. When she turned back, he was still on the floor and she wondered if she should lean over to see if he was alright. Instead, she climbed out of bed and retrieved some fresh clothes from her pack, went to take a shower, the disappointment a sharp dagger in the centre of her chest. Well, she thought as she stood under lukewarm water, she‟d dropped the last bombshell, and in an unexpected way. She‟d wanted to ease him into the idea, but now, she‟d have to explain. Stacey turned off the water, stepped out of the stall and dried off. Once dressed and with her teeth cleaned, she collected her things and went back to the room. At the door, she hesitated. Then, taking a deep breath for courage, she went in. Mackie sat on the end of the bed, staring into space as if he‟d been hit with a brick. He didn‟t look at her or give any indication he realised she was there at all. She stuffed her gear into her pack and closed, hoisted it to her shoulder. “I‟ll wait for you in the car.” She said and waited, but he said nothing. It took him twenty minutes before he joined her at the vehicle. He stowed his gear and climbed into the passenger side, still without speaking. Stacey put the car in gear and drove off.

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When he did speak, it was unexpected in the quiet. “I‟m sorry.” He said, but again, she didn‟t look at him directly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him leaning against the car door, his gaze roaming over her face as if she was a stranger. She was well-practiced in observing without a direct visual search. His attitude made her feel small, feel as if she was a specimen to be studied. And she hated it. She tightened her mouth and waited. “I meant no offence this morning, it‟s just such a shock, like something out of Salem‟s Lot or The Lost Boys. It‟s why you wear contacts, isn‟t it.” “People get all weird when they see totally white eyes with only a black pupil.” She said with a nonchalance she didn‟t feel. “Screaming, gasping, horror, terror, fleeing; not necessarily in that order, but I‟m used to it.” “I‟m sorry if my reaction hurt you, Callender.” She had to put an end to this conversation and his contrition; she didn‟t want it and certainly didn‟t need it. “To be hurt, Mackie, I‟d have to care about what you think. And, gee, I don‟t. So suck it up and move on.” His eyebrows shot up. “I‟m trying to apologise here.” “Save it, Mackie, you cannot undo your understandable response. But don‟t worry about it, as I said: I‟m used to it.” On a sigh, he repositioned himself, stared out the windshield. “I remember, you know.” “Remember what?” She turned a corner and saw the highway ahead. “You. I remember you.” *** Mackie had to admit his reaction this morning was visceral, pure shock, followed by a spike of primeval fear. By the time he realised what he‟d done, she was gone. He didn‟t think she‟d leave him – she did have the car keys, after all – but Christ, he‟d had a flash to all those vampire movies that always scared the spit out of his

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mouth. To be confronted by what he always knew was fantasy, well, was it any wonder he reacted the way he did? He understood now. Understood why she rarely looked him in the eye, why she‟d screwed her eyes shut last night – he would have seen the rims of her contacts and asked about them. Now he knew why that would have been a bad idea. She‟d said last night she had one last bombshell and it was a beauty. But he‟d also flashed on another pair of white eyes. “Thailand.” He said now. “Or, more correctly, on the border with Cambodia. Paoy Pet. That‟s why you knew so much about it.” And why he thought she told him halftruths. Callender grimaced and turned onto the highway. Obviously, she‟d forgotten they were to fly out of Porto Velho. More alone time with her? Hell, yes, a pair of white eyes didn‟t detract from her. And if that meant not reminding her, he was okay with it. “I remember you used to stare at me. You wouldn‟t speak, just stare.” “Don‟t think you‟re so special, Mackie, I stared at a lot of people there. It was part of the experimentation to test my limits.” She said. Again with the defensiveness, he thought. “Limits? What type of limits?” She flicked him a glance, this time meeting his eyes rather than a look at his nose, or chin or forehead. “The spectrum. I see the spectrum.” “All of it?” “From infrared to ultraviolet.” She said with a tilt of her head. “Cool. So you can see through walls and...” His interest was aroused by the flush staining her cheeks and then he recalled what he was doing at three a.m. Fortunately, she didn‟t look at him and see the speculation in his eyes. “I don‟t have x-ray vision, but I can detect heat signatures.”

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“Like one of those cameras that actually do see through walls but only the heat things and what people generate?” He asked and she gave a nod. “Useful, so they wanted to know how much you could see, what parts of the spectrum?” “Yeah. They‟d send me outside to look at people, then I‟d go back in and tell them of the different shades I could see.” Her sigh was forlorn. “They taught me about the changes in body temperature when people lied. I sent a lot of people to the punishment cells, some to their deaths.” “As I recall, you were a child, parentless, I believe... wait. That‟s what you meant, isn‟t it. You didn‟t have any parents. You said you didn‟t remember them. You were one of the orphans...” He said and he felt a spurt of dread. “When my Dad and I escaped...” “I could do nothing. I wanted, needed, someone to help me, but no one came. Unless you count Cortez. Prisoners were killed. But those who were recaptured, they used me to... tell them what I saw, whether they lied or not.” Her bottom lip trembled and her voice turned husky, pleading. “All I wanted was someone‟s approval, but the doctors were without compassion, the guards without pity... but the looks I got from people who told untruths...” She said and blew out a wavering breath, then took a bracing one and levelled her tone. “Your escape set me on a path of lifelong imprisonment, Mackie. They cannot and will not allow me any more freedom than I have. If I step out of line once, and they find out, I am a dead woman.” He watched as she rubbed her collarbone and he remembered the explosive device lodged there. What he and his father had wrought... the law of unexpected consequences was coming back to bite him, even as he knew he wasn‟t responsible. He, too, was just a kid at the time, subject to the whims and ambitions of adults. “I grew up at a facility.” She continued. “Where other children from the facility were brought up. The adults from Paoy Pet were separated from their families, only able to see their offspring for one hour a week and even then, under guard. No one tried to escape again. When I was of an age, I was enlisted into the Marine Corp. I could do a lot good, I was told, in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. From the beginning, the

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CIA controlled me and control me still, no matter what branch of the military I might be in. I had no family other than the doctors, no confidante, but the counsellors, no friends at all. I learned to rely on myself. I learned to enjoy my own company.” He remembered the girl who stared without blinking at him, standing alone, focused on him with those eerie white eyes. He could imagine the child growing into a teenager, still eager to please her masters, never rebelling, and the woman, forced to acquiesce to her masters‟ demands in every way. And then he remembered what she‟d said about his grandparents: They did not question - they obeyed. Callender hadn‟t obeyed without question: she‟d told him more, he suspected, than the Company wanted. “What changed?” He asked and again she glanced at him, but her lips twitched as if to smile. “They should never have let me interact with independent and emotional people, should not have encouraged my... predilection for computers and communication devices.” He grinned back at her. “Gave you ideas, did it?” “The more my handler pissed me off with cryptic requests and unreasonable demands, the more I wanted to find a way out. I‟m an observer. It‟s my talent to observe and know the truth of things. As long as I didn‟t see my handler, I had no reason to question. I could play with my electronics, sit in on interrogations, I was left alone. Monitored, but left alone. But once they assigned me to General Beckett, I clearly saw, for the first time, an absolute difference between right and wrong, between petty vengeance and noble sacrifice. Your sisters were a big part of that.” Mackie let her talk. With every word she spoke, her shoulders lost the rigid tension of the past couple of days. It was as if as soon as he apologised for his reaction, it let loose a dam within her. “They taught me that no matter your current master, you can always change. I didn‟t have to be the absolute pawn of the CIA. I didn‟t have to do exactly what they said I had to. And in watching your sisters and the troubles they had, how they resolved them, I had my first breath of freedom. And I dared to take a small portion of it.” “What did you do?”

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“I‟d already sent a report about Thailand to General Cosgrove and my handler dealing with Akiko and Major Hawk. Both knew what had happened, but in my handler‟s report, I questioned Cosgrove‟s word he‟d destroyed the files. Then he handed me the thumb drive and I called my handler. I copied everything even as I read it, but I also kept one file back from both of them. I returned the drive to Cosgrove.” “And the file you withheld?” He was astonished when she turned and smiled at him. He felt his heart skip a beat, felt his nerves suddenly fire, felt as if he‟d been hit in the head and thought, like a hormonal teenager, she smiled at me. “I‟ll let you know should we need it.” She said and returned her attention to the road. Mackie eased out a breath. Now she was being playful, a sure sign she‟d broken or at least damaged the strong connection between her and her handler. Then again, it could be she was just happy for once. Happy she‟d finally found someone to talk to freely; and it just happened to be him. Would it last or would she retreat into her shell again? “How far are we from our goal?” She asked and suddenly took her foot off the accelerator. “Well, crap! Shouldn‟t we be at the airport? Do you want me to turn around? Why didn‟t you say anything? Jeez, Mackie!” “And miss your revelations? Not a chance. Anyway, another,” he raised his hands to muffle the next word, “twelve,” he dropped his hand, “hours and we‟ll hit the Amazon. I‟ve already secured us passage to Tefe.” He said. “A fast boat, unless you want to take the slow way.” Callender checked her mirrors. “Maybe we should go back. We can‟t be far from the airport. We can get a flight to Manaus then to Tefe.” “Take a left and get onto the ferry to cross the Madiera River.” He ordered and she obliged. “You seem eager to destroy the lab.” “I am. We could still be done in a few days.” “Why is that?”

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“A thirst for vengeance and to take back something I‟ve lost along the way. I need to destroy this lab in the name of those who can‟t, who will never see it gone. I need to set those people free, I need... oh, give me some straw and call me a rube.” She slapped her forehead. “How do I get out of this one?” She murmured. “Get out of what?” She flicked a disgruntled look at him as if she‟d forgotten he was there and had been talking to herself. A sigh exploded from her. “I had visions of boldly walking in with a powerful man at my side to intimidate anyone who got in my way. I‟d take the information I need, order everyone out and set everything on fire.” “Well,” he said with mock modesty, “I like the idea of being the powerful man.” He flexed a bicep. “And I like the idea of intimidation and burning the building... but...?” “There are test subjects inside somewhere. And where there are test subjects, there are bound to be agents there to take them into custody once we get them out.” “So we take the agents out, too.” He said as if it wasn‟t going to be a problem. *** Stacey considered this whole mission as a Bad Idea. She didn‟t know why they sent Mackie with her, all they needed to do was give him irrefutable proof of his sisters‟ well-being and blackmail him into destroying the lab; it‟s what he did. Her handler knew she was incapable of doing the job, yet wanted her to do it anyway. To use the failure as an excuse to press the button? Why not do it now, while she was out of the States? There must be an absolute reason for their being together; here, now and when they arrived at the lab. She drove onto the ferry. Maybe he was right about driving up. They needed the time to reassess the mission parameters and how to implement the rescue. She parked behind a small, beat up Toyota and watched the men secure the vehicles with chains. So we take the agents out. He said. And she thought she was the rube.

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“Listen up, smart guy. I know for a fact they have agents here already; to wit, you‟re here, so there must be others. So why not send them in. Why send me? A noob? Why get us together for this mission? Have you thought about that?” “Yes, I have, actually. I figured this was your first overseas mission and they wanted you to have an experienced operative with you.” “Sure, fine, but as I just said, there are others who could fulfil that role. I repeat, why you? And why me?” “Hmm. There‟s something about the facility that an ordinary agent wouldn‟t be able to by-pass? And they need... specialists. Talents?” Stacey nodded. “That‟s what I‟m thinking. I can see the spectrum, you can... do what you do.” “You don‟t know?” He asked, surprised. “I‟ve never seen you use it.” “Ah, well, I‟d like to say I bend gravity, but it‟s more... I can manipulate elements, like air and water, things that are fluid, to create a shield around myself and anyone I touch.” “Right. Okay. Tell me your scenario for the mission.” She ordered and she felt relieved at the commanding tone in her voice. She finally felt as if she had regained a bit of control. But he didn‟t reply right away and she glanced at him. The ferry‟s engines revved and move out onto the water. “In light of what you‟ve just said, I‟ll have to revise my thinking.” He said. “You weren‟t going to use your talents until it became absolutely necessary, am I right?” “You are. I had planned to go in at night, secure the documents and the subjects, set explosives and leave; like an ordinary mission. No muss, no fuss, just an in and out sneak job. Now, though.” He paused and she glanced at him again. “There has to be some sort of security that an ordinary agent cannot circumvent, otherwise they

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wouldn‟t call in both of us. So. The question is: what kind of security requires an agent who can see the spectrum, and an agent who can manipulate fluid elements?” Stacey thought about it and mentioned the obvious. “Electric fence, complex infrared sensors with an internal lockdown. Guard towers?” “Armed guards, with real bullets.” Mackie said. “Pressure locks... hmm, heat sensors maybe?” “Yeah, and there‟ll be one more obstacle.” “What?” “Others like us.” She said and tapped the steering wheel with a finger. “I thought all offspring from Thailand were under CIA control. Are you telling me they‟re not?” Stacey snorted. “The McCafferty‟s weren‟t the only escapees. Some actually made it – adults, for example. Of the twenty or so who made it through the fence, six were recaptured, four were killed and ten escaped.” “So, there are four Talents out there, whereabouts unknown.” “Five. No one knows you‟re father‟s alive.” “My dad and I got as far away as possible and kept quiet.” “And yet, here you are, working for the very people who, up until I arrived, you thought were on the side of „right‟. Who deliberately withheld information dealing with your sisters until they needed to lure you back to the States.” She saw his expression. “But I see you‟ve thought of that.” “Yeah, I have. There‟s an end game in this mess somewhere, but I can‟t see it.” “Nor can I, but I‟m guessing it has something to do with the rest of your family.” The ferry reached the other side of the river and the attendants unshackled the vehicles. Stacey drove off the boat. She pulled over. “Now, you drive, since I don‟t know the way and I‟m not trusting the GPS.”

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She got out and walked around the vehicle, climbed in, as Mackie shifted over the centre console. For the rest of the journey north, they tried to solve the puzzle, but no solution presented itself. Tired of thinking about it all, Stacey leaned against the window and drifted off into her twilight zone. She absolutely did not want to look at the ever-thickening jungle on either side of the highway. The metronomic swish of wipers opened her eyes. Rain, constant and heavy. She watched the wipers and tried not to think that the rain made the interior of the car feel more intimate. She‟d dozed for hours, as if the sleep debt she‟d built needed paying. Exhaustion weighed her down. The car slowed and she focused on the civilisation, the buildings around her. “Where are we?” “Across the Amazon from Manaus. I‟m surprised you actually slept.” Stacey sat up and looked around. It was afternoon? “I‟m sorry. I would have taken over driving for you. I guess I needed the rest.” Mackie drove the SUV onto another ferry. “I guess you did.” He turned off the engine and dragged on the handbrake, turned to her. “Wanna get out and play tourist?” Stacey grinned at him. “I‟m on the Amazon. The actual Amazon River, with open air and broad sweep of sky. What do you think?”

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Chapter Nine Mackie leaned on the railing with a wide-eyed Callender beside him. It didn‟t matter that it was raining, she was excited and he thought he‟d tell her a few facts about the river. “The Amazon is nearly six and half thousand kilometres long. Its source is in Andes of Peru and Ecuador and accounts for a fifth of the fresh water that drains into the world‟s oceans.” “Really?” She asked and glanced at him sceptically. “Yes, really. There are an amazing amount of tributaries. The Madeira River, which we followed for most of the way up here, is an offshoot.” He breathed in the scents of the river. “The width, in a low rainy season, can be as much as ten kilometres across. During the rainy season, it‟s much, much more, flooding parts of the jungle, and you are in the Amazon jungle, Callender, even if you can‟t see it.” He‟d thought to amaze her, but her expression turned wary and what colour in her face she had drained away. The excitement was gone. “I think I‟ll go inside now.” She said as her gaze darted around. “It‟s a little wet out here.” He laid a hand on her arm before she could escape. “What is it about the jungle you don‟t like? I know it can be a dangerous place, but it‟s magical, too.” She pulled out of his grip and didn‟t answer. “The Piranha won‟t hurt you and there‟s nothing out here on the river to hurt you... well, the Black Caiman, but only if you fall in.” Again, she didn‟t reply. She opened the door and went inside. Mackie sighed and let her go, continued to survey the river. It was glorious, even under a shroud of grey rain. How could anyone not love the Amazon? Maybe the answer to Callender‟s... disquiet lay in the past. But how did he get her to open up? ***

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“Right then. Time to reacquaint myself with a friend.” Mackie said and drove off the ferry. He‟d tried to get her to open up about her lack of exhilaration at being on the River, but it wasn‟t the water, it was the jungle that disturbed her. As long as she had clear air and could see the sky, she was fine. But the thought of being in the jungle proper, well, that was just unacceptable to her. Mackie parked the car and grinned as his friend approached with a broad grin. He got out of the car and she followed more slowly into the thick humidity. Mackie‟s „friend‟ was a grizzled and skinny indigenous Indian who grinned toothlessly at him and enveloped her in a bear hug before gusting foul breath over her as he laughed. He spat out some words in the local dialect and Mackie grinned. “You... can tell him... to let me go... please.” Stacey said and strained for clean air. The man finally released her and she gave him a pained smile. On second thoughts, the smell coming from the river made his breath seem positively fresh. “He has a boat for us.” Mackie said and she looked around. All she saw were canoes or barges. Over to the left were the big double- and triple-deck tourist boats and she didn‟t think they‟d be travelling on one of those. “How long to Tefe?” She asked. “You really are eager, aren‟t you. Is there a time line I don‟t know about?” Mackie frowned. “Not that I could definitively point to, but I‟ve just got an itchy feeling that time is running out for both of us, or the captured subjects.” She said. “Come on, we‟re going now.” He said and gripped her arm. Mackie went back to the car and the wizened man followed them. “He‟s coming with us?” She asked out of the side of her mouth. “Yep.” “Bags not cleaning out the car.” She said and walked to the passenger side.

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Once inside, it didn‟t take long for the old man‟s sweaty, unwashed essence to reach her and she flicked on the air-conditioning. She wasn‟t overly hot, but she hoped the breeze would take the smell back to its owner. “It‟s only going to recycle it.” Mackie warned with a grin and she curled a lip at him. “So, most tourists fly to Manaus and take the river cruises. Day trips, overnighters, a week. It will take us about six hours to reach Tefe, because we‟ve got a souped up boat. Normally, it‟s twelve hours or more. And because we‟re taking a boat, there‟ll be no record of our trip. We‟ll be popping up in Tefe before anyone knows and disappearing before anyone catches us.” Stacey watched the busy road. Mackie sighed happily. “A simple in and out job.” She waved a hand in front of her face. He was right, the air conditioner recycled the stench of the man‟s sweat. Mackie drove to another part of the city, near the outskirts. He turned down a lane and she braced her hand on the dashboard as he bumped over the edge of a smaller dock and drove onto a two-decked ship. He parked the car under the top deck of the boat. He turned to her with a smile. “Home, sweet home for the half day or so.” Her jaw dropped open, then snapped closed. A spate of lyrical language erupted from the back followed by giggling. Mackie flicked a smirk to the back before sobering under her frown. “Ah, come on... don‟t you like surprises? And Molly? I call him that because I can‟t pronounce his indigenous name – he‟s a part of our crew. He knows the river like the back of his hand because he was born here. And before you ask, he‟s doing this because he doesn‟t like what the white skins have done to the land and I‟m his idol. Phew. There. So now you know. Out you get.” And he turned before she could say a word and vanished into the depths of the ship. Snickering came from the back and Molly got out, followed Mackie. Stacey watched him go.

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Right. So they were travelling up river in two-tiered wedding cake. Well, he was right about one thing: no one would believe they were travelling by boat, and even if they did, the Amazon was so popular with so called eco-tourists that it would be impossible to identify which boat they were on even if they did know they‟d taken one. Or Mackie enjoyed river and hated to fly. She glanced in the side mirror and looked at the stern. Molly happily raised the ramp, his bare foot tapping to music only he could hear. Beyond him, she saw a battered vehicle stop and a tall, Hispanic man emerge, his eyes firmly on their ship. Was he the man who set the tracker? Who was he? Stacey sighed as she felt the vibrations of the engine through the deck. The boat eased away from the dock and the man ducked back into the car. He must have followed them, but how? She watched the car drive off. Since there was nothing she could do about him, she might as well see what the Captain was up to and whether he was trustworthy enough to see them through to the end of the journey or whether he was planning to dump them into the river and take all their worldly goods. *** Mackie loved the river. It was so full of life and intrigue, of adventure and tranquil waters. He leaned his head out of the second storey wheelhouse and looked back towards the stern. Molly gave him the thumbs up and he ducked back inside, revved the engine and drove the beast away from the dock and into the river channel. Molly, such a mystery. The man always managed to get what Mackie needed, always appeared and then once the job was done, disappeared back into the jungle he knew so well. As a Tapajos Indian, this land was his, had been his tribes forever until European settlers came and took it away from them. Surprisingly, Molly bore no violent feelings towards white people in general, only those who would exploit the forests for timber, the land for iron ore, the river for gold. And as long as the eco-tourists kept respecting the river and the environment, he had no problems with them either.

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And he thought Mackie was the bee‟s knees for his work against illegal enterprises above Tefe. He heard a solid rap on the hatch. “Ola?” Callender came in, her brandy eyes swirling with confusion. “You‟re the Captain?” She asked. “And chef, deck hand and chief bottle washer.” He replied and adjusted his heading slightly. This part of the river was tricky with all the tributaries leading into the confluence. The milky-white water from the Amazon met the warm blue waters of the Tapajos here and the currents needed his focus. “Isn‟t this boat a little large for...” “Li‟l ol‟ me tuh handle?” He fluttered his eyelashes at her. “Why Mizz Callender, ah do-o duh-clare, who knew you were so...” He lifted a hand from the wheel and fanned himself, “sexist.” “Yeah, yeah. But really, this boat is huge. It will take days to get to Tefe!” Mackie wondered if she heard the slightly whiney tone in her voice. He decided to indulge her. “The engine on this puppy is a lot more powerful than the ship requires.” He turned the wheel slightly, manoeuvred into the slow moving current. “When needed, I can be a simple tour boat or cargo operator sailing the waters of the great river at a slow, indulgent pace. And at other times, I can zip up the river and be where I‟m needed sooner than... poachers think.” She turned away to stare out at the water, at the houses on the edge of the water, at the other water craft. “It‟s quite beautiful in an industrial port and touristy kind of way.” Mackie snorted. He saw it as over-development in the middle of the jungle kind of a way. “Further up the river, past Manaus, you won‟t see so many boats, there‟ll be more jungle and no industrialisation. For once a government has seen fit to set aside vast tracks of land for national parks. The indigenous people usually live in peace, but unfortunately, unscrupulous developers keep invading the jungle for its wood and every day, farmers chip away at the edges with fire or bulldozer to expand their farms. What they don‟t seem to realise and no one can make them understand is that the nutrients
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they need for their crops isn‟t in the soil, it‟s in the loamy, rotting vegetation on top of the soil. The ground beneath is poor for growing the crops they want and so they expand, taking down more of the forest. And eco-tourism?” He shook his head. “All those pretend environmentalists leave their footprints, whether in garbage or by simply standing where they shouldn‟t in order to get the perfect photo of the jungle or native.” “I understand that what they‟re doing is also affecting the world‟s climate.” He lifted a shoulder. “Yeah, well, don‟t get me started on that or I‟ll talk your ear off. It‟s a personal bugbear of mine.” He dragged in a deep breath. “Anyway, could you please go down into the galley and make some coffee?” “Sure, just tell me where it is.” “Bottom deck, for‟ard” He said and glanced at the compass. He didn‟t hear her leave and turned his attention to their problem. The Company, or this part of it, was sneaky enough have an alternative plan, a backup in case he and Callender failed. But they weren‟t going to fail. He also figured Callender wasn‟t going to be happy about where the lab was actually situated – like deep in the jungle on the edge of Lake Tefe. The address she found was a red herring; where they picked up their mail, not the actual facility. The Company had taken pains to explain to him this was just another mission. Sure, one that rang his bells, but a simple one. Now, he had to wonder. Invade the facility, acquire the documents, free the captives and destroy the building. Now they knew invading wasn‟t going to be so easy, that the documentation was probably in a secure location, that someone would be waiting for the captives, and that perhaps setting fire to the building wasn‟t the way to go. Oh, and toss in the termination order for anyone other than the captives and he got the urge to run a hundred miles away from the mission. He couldn‟t do that. He had to protect Callender. He might have a choice, but she didn‟t. But she was right about one thing; it felt like time was running out. ***

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Stacey found the galley easy enough, but the makings for coffee? That was a little more difficult. On the bulkhead next to the fridge, she spied an intercom. “Well, hey, all the comforts of home.” She said and pressed a button. “Captain here.” Mackie said and she grinned. “You sound so manly, so... piratical when you say that.” She said. “Hush now, crew member, this isn‟t a secured line.” “It‟s not?” She imagined him rolling his eyes. “Well, yeah. It‟s an intercom, Callender, not a telephone. What-choo-wan‟, girlfriend?” She smirked at his accent. “I want to know how to make coffee when there‟s no machine.” Silence greeted her comment. “Mackie?” “Sorry, I‟m grinning. You‟re in the galley, so if you go left, towards the stern, there should be a machine on the... ah... cupboard thingy. Just fill the reservoir with water, fill the filter with the coffee you should find under the machine and press the go button. There should be two carafes, bring one with you.” “Yes, massa.” “Not funny, Callender, when you realise a lot of indigenous people were used as slaves here.” “Sorry.” She said chagrined. She did know. “Never mind, just don‟t do it again. Listen, do you have any more information on the lab? Anything like a layout or security information?” “Well, no, not right now, but I do need to contact my handler and Cosgrove. One or the other should be able to help out.” She lifted her finger off the button, but he‟d obviously finished the conversation.

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With a shrug, she went towards the stern. The cabin had benches laid out for tourists to ooh and ahh at the passing jungle. At the back, she saw the coffee machine and an orange light glowing. Then a hatch opened and Molly came in. He saw her standing there. “Coffee?” He asked and fiery mortification shot through her. He managed to get some teeth, too. He poured a mug and handed it to her. “Oh, dear God, you speak...” “Well, of course I do. I grew up not far outside the city. But my parents‟ home is further into the jungle, in my village.” Stacey wrapped a trembling hand around the ceramic mug. “I‟m so sorry about the comments I made, I just assumed...” “What you were meant to assume.” Molly assured her. “I wouldn‟t do Mackie much good if I went around acting like a white man, now would I? It‟s more effective to be the poor, indigenous Tapajos Indian people expect. That way people, like you, assume I only speak my native language.” “Well, that was a direct kick to my prejudices.” She said and sipped the coffee. It was rich and strong. “Mmm... and you make great coffee, too.” Molly cackled. At least that hasn‟t changed, she thought wryly. “Thanks for letting me in on your secret. I swear I won‟t tell a soul.” He grinned at her. “I figured you and Mackie were an item, so it‟d be safe to let you in on it. If he trusts you, then I do, too.” “Oh,” she shook her head, “we‟re not, you know... we‟re... just heading off on a mission together, that‟s all.” “Uh, huh, and you keep telling yourself that. One day you might even believe it, but from the way you two look at each other, I‟m surprised I haven‟t been witness to some of that porn you Americans are so fond of.” Stacey bristled. “We are not sleeping together!” But then she thought of last night.

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“And you‟ve gone red in the face, because...?” “They didn‟t have any other rooms, but we didn‟t touch each other... much, and why am I trying to explain it to you?” She accused. Molly lifted a grey eyebrow. “Why, indeed.” She glared at him. “Well, I‟ve got work to do and I expect Mackie is waiting for his coffee.” And with that, he drained his mug and walked away. Stacey opened the cabinets underneath the coffee machine and dragged out a tray. She set a carafe and an empty mug next to her half-filled one. Then she stomped her way up to the wheelhouse, brooding all the way. Just because she made assumptions about Molly didn‟t mean he could make assumptions about her and Mackie. And they didn‟t make goo-goo eyes at each other, she‟d barely looked at him, damn it, so where did the man get off... but then she thought of the previous night and the feeling of his mouth on hers, his hand on her hip and the surging heat through her veins. She thought of her words when she first saw him. Okay, so he was hot to look at, it didn‟t mean she was going to touch, or do anything. And anyway, he started it! She backed into the wheelhouse. And if he tried it again, well then, she do something then, oh, yes, she would. “What‟s got you scowling so hard?” Stacey levelled a glare at him, set the tray down onto the deck and poured his coffee. “Molly.” “Ah.” He accepted the mug. “Said something did he and it surprised you.” “And why didn‟t you tell me before? I wouldn‟t have been so...” “Rude, presumptuous, bigoted?” With each word she shrank in on herself and her anger slid away. She stared out at the river. “That and more.” She said.

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“Lucky for you, he doesn‟t offend easily. If he did, bodies would litter the river. He acts like he does because it amuses him to fool people who make rash judgements about him. It also gives him the opportunity to collect information if people think he is just what he looks like, a Tapajos Indian.” He lifted the mug to his lips and drank. “He really is an effective spy for me, but most of all, he‟s my friend.” “Yeah, I got that.” “Good, then you‟ll understand that if you ever do anything to jeopardise his safety, I‟ll have to hunt you down.” Stacey turned and met his dead serious gaze. “You mean that, don‟t you.” Mackie nodded. “I do. He and his people have suffered enough and I will not hesitate to take retribution on any one who harms them.” “And that‟s what you do, isn‟t it. Go after those who harm the natives.” “Yes.” “I promise I will do nothing to jeopardise or hurt Molly or his tribe or any other indigenous person of the Amazon.” He shook his head. “Callender, do not make promises you can‟t keep. Not all the natives are environmentally friendly. Some want the developers and the miners to come, so they can have jobs, get paid and feed their families. Some will fight tooth and nail to keep their jobs, even to the extent of betraying their tribe. Just promise not to hurt Molly and we‟re good.” Stacey held up her hand, palm facing him. “I solemnly promise not to hurt Molly.” She said and held out her hand. His palm was warm, strong as they shook hands. “Done. Now, how about a pinky promise?” He asked and wiggled his little finger. “Oh, hey, I already promised! But... if you insist.” She held out her pinky and he wrapped his around hers, slowly drew her towards him with a gleam in his jade eyes. “Swear.” He murmured. “I swear...” “To lavish attention...”

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“To lavish attention...” she said slowly caught in his gaze. “On the Captain whenever he needs it.” Mackie finished quickly. “On the... what?” Mackie laughed. “Oh, I nearly got you.” He dragged her closer and kissed her. His mouth caught her by surprise and she didn‟t back away quickly enough. He released her pinky and slid one arm around her, deepened the kiss. Her nerve endings pinged happily at his closeness, her mouth softened under his and her eyes drifted shut. “You‟re always closing your eyes.” He murmured and eased back. He set his coffee cup down on the instrument panel, then he ran his hands around her waist to her bottom and pulled her close, hip-to-hip, then his mouth came down again, more insistent, more passionate, more everything, and she didn‟t have the willpower to resist. She slid her arms around his neck and hung on. His tongue slipped into her mouth, his hands pressed her against his body and she revelled in his heat, in his unique scent. This was what she was missing from her life, this passion, this rising to a man she wanted, this surge of arousal and neediness. Mackie turned her, leaned her against the bridge‟s instrument panel and pressed in further, rubbed against her. His hands streaked under her shirt and pushed her bra out of the way and his fingers pinched her nipples. Stacey jerked against him and ran her hands down his back and around to the front of his jeans and unsnapped them, lowered the zip. Then she jammed her hands down the back of his pants and spread her legs, forced him against her. He groaned into her mouth and feasted on her as he gently thrust. One hand held her shirt and he released her mouth to suckle, drew a beaded nipple deep into his mouth. Her hands fumbled with the snap and zip of her own jeans. She turned her hand, cupped him, gently squeezed. He pressed against her palm. Oh, God, she wanted, needed his...

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The loud blaring of a horn finally penetrated her skull and she pushed at Mackie‟s shoulders. “Mack.” She looked around, while he still moved against her, circled his tongue around her nipple. Stacey drew in a sharp breath as arousal surged again. “Mackie!” He groaned and paused in his ministrations. “Mackie!” She shoved harder. “What, damn it!” The horn came again, louder, and his head jerked up. “Oh, shit.” He yelped and shoved her aside, then grabbed the wheel, turned it to the left to avoid a collision with the fully loaded barge. Stacey dragged in deep, humid, scented gulps of air . She tugged down her bra, her shirt, zipped and buttoned, took the opportunity to escape. Her body thrummed, pulsed with arousal and need that would not be fulfilled. She was unsteady as she made her way down to the bottom deck, moved as far away from him as possible, even as his taste lingered on her lips. She paused in a corridor, set her palm against the wood panel. Her heart pounded in her chest as if she‟d run a marathon. Sweat beaded her forehead and she trembled. Trembled, for God‟s Sake! Over a man! This is nuts. She didn‟t have sex in the daylight, and never with anyone she knew. Strangers were much easier to handle and she didn‟t have to deal with the „after‟. She simply rearranged her clothes or got dressed, and left without a backward glance. She didn‟t do relationships. She knew nothing about them, how to communicate, how to think as a couple instead of a single. She knew nothing of sharing stuff, emotions, space. No one taught her how. When her heart reduced its rate to something she could deal with and the shaking stopped, she wiped her brow and dragged in a final, steadying breath. She couldn‟t let him in, couldn‟t allow Mackie to mean anything to her.

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This job was everything and once completed, she‟d return to the States and he‟d return to the jungle. She pressed a hand to her aching heart and called it indigestion. *** “That was close.” Mackie smirked and glanced over his shoulder. She was gone. He looked around the spare bridge, but there was nowhere for her to hide and he cursed. So close and yet so far. Mackie wiped the sweat from his face with his elbow, then carefully zipped and buttoned his jeans. “Maybe too close.” He muttered and guided the boat into the wider channel where he hoped to catch a cool breeze off the water. He knew better than to fool around with another agent, knew it would only lead to disaster and this mission was too important to screw it up with a little nookie to ease his tension. Hell, eventually, she‟d return to the snow, while he‟d bask in the heat of the jungle. They had nothing but this mission in common. Well, he allowed, they were hot for each other, but apart from that, they had nothing in common. And the mutual sense of humour, too. But that was absolutely it. Nothing else in common. Apart from a shared history. An understanding, too, of the trauma they‟d both suffered. Then there was the connection he‟d felt as soon as he‟d laid eyes on her, that buzz of relief at finding her, at last – whatever that meant. Mackie rubbed a hand over his sweat-dampened hair. She was right to leave, he figured. If she‟d stayed, if they‟d finished what they‟d started, he had doubts that he‟d be able to let her go. Better she stay in his fantasies than distract him with the reality – and he now knew she‟d be wild.

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“Concentrate, you idiot, and leave her the hell alone.” Satisfied with his reasoning, he hooked his butt on the Captain‟s chair and focused on the vagaries of the Amazon currents. He rubbed the centre of his chest where an ache had started. “Must be bad coffee.” He muttered.

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Chapter Ten Stacey explored the boat and found a nice cabin for herself on the top tier away from the wheelhouse. It had a large queen-sized bed and a single bed. She went back to the Range Rover and hoisted the pack over her shoulder, took it back to the cabin and tossed it onto the single bed. Then she rummaged around in her pack for fresh clothes and took a shower in the tiny cubicle. Refreshed, she went in search of Molly. He was winding rope into a circle near the stern. “Hi, Molly, anything I can do to help?” Molly shook his head. “It‟s okay, there isn‟t much to do now.” He said with a shrug. Stacey leaned back against the Range Rover, then turned to examine the vehicle. The Hispanic man must have attached a second tracker. He also must have flown to Manaus in order to be at the ferry to follow. It was his bad luck she‟d glanced in the mirror and seen him. His identity was less important than his employer. Not the CIA or SOG, but who else would be interested in the whereabouts of the lab? She pursed her lips in thought. No-one she could think of, and she had no way to find out... although, could she reverse the beacon and find them? No. The tracking wouldn‟t work and that would be the same as turning it off. What did it matter? If she dumped it, whoever followed would lose them. Stacey stepped back and changed the focus of her eyes. The back of the SUV turned blue-black, the exhaust pipe a faint, deep red as it cooled. She walked the length of the frame to the still hot-spotted engine block. Nothing obvious then, but she half-expected it. The first tracker was in plain sight. If she and Mackie suspected someone followed them, they would have been reassured of escape once the first device was located. The second, however, was carefully hidden, not meant to be found.

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Stacey got down and lay flat, slid under the chassis. Her gaze went to the wheel well, then moved toward the engine. He hadn‟t spent long under here, so it had be... She reached up and placed a finger where the first tracker had clung to the metal. Then she rolled once, to the back of the car, and focused on locating the tiny electronic heat source. Nothing. She rolled back, twice, and searched the cooling engine. Single heat sources appeared. She reached up and out, stretched her fingers and brushed over the closest hot spot, drew her singed fingers back and kept searching. The second tracker was attached to the bottom of the radiator frame. It came off easily and wiggled out from beneath the car, stood to study the device. “What have you there?” Molly asked as he leaned on the railing. “Tracking device.” Stacey murmured and turned it over. “Made in Taiwan.” Molly clicked his tongue. “No point in trying to find who bought it, there must be millions of them. Any idea who‟s following you?” Stacey looked into his worried nut-brown eyes. “No, but whoever it is already knows which direction we‟re heading.” She closed her fingers over the square. “But I‟ll leave them guessing where, exactly, we leave the river.” She walked to the stern and stared out at the churning waters. Then she hurled the small box as far as she could, watched it drop into the murky depths. “Hell of a throwing arm.” Molly grinned beside her. “Thanks.” “Going to tell Mackie?” “Only if they try again.” She replied. She could always tell him later if Molly raised the issue with him. She turned away and went to her cabin for the phones then went out onto the open observation deck. Whom did she call first? Cosgrove or her handler. Her handler. Cosgrove was the easier of the two to deal with and she be more wary of his questions. She put the call through.

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“Still travelling, Major?” “Yes, it‟s taking longer than I expected. We should be in situ in a couple of days, if not, then three.” “Big place, Brazil.” “We need a layout of the facility. Any security measures, staff size, how many subjects, guards.” Her handler hesitated and she frowned. “We do not have any of that information.” Her handler confessed. “But you knew it was there, put assets in place before I contacted you.” “We‟re not infallible.” Came the curt reply. “We only knew of its existence after Sakamura‟s mission.” Stacey took the phone from her ear, looked at it as if what she was hearing was wrong. Liar. Stacey nearly said and cleared her throat. “You‟re sending us in deaf, dumb and blind.” “We know that.” “Mainwaring hasn‟t talked?” She asked. “Only with smug assurance that he‟ll be found innocent and released – very soon.” She rubbed her forehead, leaned on the railing and watched the jungle. “He‟ll bribe his way out.” “That‟s the speculation, but the Thais assure us it won‟t happen.” “Yes, it will; probably somewhere between the prison and the transport. Is there any likelihood of you obtaining the information before we go in?” “No. You will have to do it the hard way.” “And Mainwaring? Can you get him to talk?” Her handler‟s tone was curt again. “We will deal with Mainwaring; you deal with the facility. And do it soon.” Her handler hung up and she lowered the phone. There it was

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again, the feeling of a clock ticking down to something. She shoved the CIA phone into her pocket, drew out her personal one. She watched the water, saw movement and narrowed her eyes, then blinked with surprise Dolphins? In the Amazon? And pink ones at that. Who knew? She took pictures with her phone, then turned to lean against the railing, punched in the numbers. “Cosgrove.” “Hi, sir.” She said. “Enjoying yourself, Lieutenant?” “Not so much sir. It‟s hot, it‟s humid, it rains a lot and there are bugs. Lots of bugs. Huge bugs.” “Well, I did suggest you pack repellent.” The General remarked. “And so I did, sir, but it doesn‟t stop them from sniffing around.” She said. “Right. Enough chit-chat. Tell me what you‟ve found.” “Nothing yet, I‟m still travelling.” “How can you still be on your way, Lieutenant, when I impressed upon you the urgency of the mission?” Stacey winced. “Yes, sir, but you also said this was a covert mission. The only way I can stay under the radar is to take transport that can‟t be traced and that, unfortunately, takes time.” “Where are you now?” “On a boat on the Amazon, sir.” She replied and he sighed. “Amongst the tourists, hiding in plain sight. Okay, Lieutenant, but expedite. Do you hear me?” “Is there a deadline I‟m not aware of, sir?” “I don‟t want those evil bastards to escape, Lieutenant, and the longer you take, the more opportunity they have of doing so.” Cosgrove bit out.

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“Mainwaring?” “Isn‟t talking, except through a high priced lawyer who keeps repeating that his client is innocent, that the U.S. government illegally raided his home, destroyed it and took into custody important business-in-confidence documents they didn‟t have a right to. In short, Lieutenant, he‟s doing everything he can to wriggle out of prison. I do not want to give him the opportunity to continue with his experiments.” “I see.” She murmured. Should she tell the General about Mackie, about being tailed? No, she decided. That could wait. “Do you have any further information on the lab?” “I‟m trolling through what you gave me. What do you need?” Stupid question, she thought, but didn‟t say. “A layout, sir. If I‟m to get in, I need an idea of what I‟m up against.” “Nothing so far, Lieutenant. I‟ll text you should it pop up. In the meantime, keep me updated.” “Yes, sir.” She said and hung up. She had to brief Mackie on the developments – or the lack of them. Did she have the courage after... No. She could still feel him, pressed between her thighs, still tasted him. She watched the Amazon river for more dolphins, the dark jungle for monkeys; watched the bow of the boat carve through the water as if racing towards an end game she didn‟t know the rules for and thought about what sex with Mackie would be like. *** General Cosgrove reached out and pressed the button to turn off the speaker. He leaned back in his chair and refused to think of his orders not to facilitate Lieutenant Callender. “Well?” “General, you know I can‟t do long distance.” Summer Duquesne said with a frown and lifted Emily to her shoulder.

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Cosgrove couldn‟t help but watch the dark-haired child and wonder what special talents... “None so far, General.” Summer smiled. “But we‟ll let you know.” He huffed out a breath. “It is impossible to keep thoughts to oneself around you.” He accused gently. “No, it‟s not. You just need to stop thinking so loudly and practice at blocking; I know you can do it, because you‟ve already done it.” She replied with a hint of bitterness. “Right.” He said, unwilling to rehash the old argument. “So, tell me about Lieutenant Callender.” Summer‟s dark eyebrows rose. “This is what you called me in for?” “You are the world‟s leading mind reader. No one can keep a secret from you if you search hard enough, and you‟ve met the Lieutenant. I don‟t doubt you did some peeking.” He gave her a quick smile. “For security purposes, of course.” “Of course.” She murmured and patted the baby‟s back, rubbed her hand up and down. Then she tilted her head. “You know, it‟s strange, but every time Lieutenant Callender has been in the room during a briefing, it‟s as if she fades into the wood work, as if she‟s not there at all.” “Could it be that she was there as an observer, rarely contributing?” Summer lifted her shoulder and frowned in thought. “I don‟t know, General, you tell me: should she have engaged in the discussions?” Cosgrove felt the frustration grow. “No, not unless asked a direct question and her reports were so good, they didn‟t leave any room for questions.” “There you go.” She said, distracted. He shook his head. “I feel as if I‟m missing something, as if...” He paused, unsure of what he wanted to say. “Well, General, if you want my opinion,” she looked at him and he knew she‟d give it whether he wanted to hear it or not, “you shouldn‟t have let her do this mission solo.”

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“And why is that?” He asked. In calling in Summer, he‟d had to explain and that led to some righteous indignation from her. She‟d called him a liar, right to his face and he‟d admitted it. But he also said he couldn‟t say why he kept the information, that his superiors wanted it. “A lone woman, regardless of Special Operations training, destroying a facility...” “Your sister did it.” He reminded her. “That was different. Akiko had no choice and found herself in a situation where it was the only solution. She did not deliberately get herself kidnapped, but it did facilitate her mission, your mission, and it nearly killed her.” Cosgrove cocked his head. “But she had the training, the ingenuity to survive. Why can‟t Callender, who, as you‟ve said, has Special Operations training, do the same?” Summer dragged in a deep breath and he saw she was conflicted. “You gave me her personnel file to read. Where does it say she has the ability for the rough and tumble, for the physical and emotional stress a mission like this requires. Where does it say she can think on her feet and finish a mission when she doesn‟t have all the information she needs? And where does it detail previous covert missions experience?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “You, General, have sent a green agent on a mission that has „suicide‟ written all over it.” He knew she was right, but he‟d been pressured, and then denied the resources to help Lieutenant Callender. “This decision was taken at higher level than I, Summer. And I‟ve been assured that assistance is on the way.” “Oh, yes? Who and what, General?” She asked. He shifted, uncomfortable, kept the image of a brick wall in place. “I can‟t say, since it‟s classified.” Summer rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine, be that way.” She stood, baby in one arm, bag in the other. “But now you‟ve given me time to think about the meetings we‟ve had where she‟s been present. I didn‟t think much of it at the time...” She murmured then

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obviously came to a decision as her expression turned intrigued. “Okay, I‟ll tell you this about your Lieutenant Callender, she‟s a near blank slate.” He lifted his eyebrows in question. “I mean, whenever she was in a room, I was aware of her, physically, but on another level, where people often think the overt thoughts I pick up on, I got almost nothing.” “Can you explain that further?” “General, you know what I can do, you know I hear a lot of thoughts from people who surround me. Unintentional thoughts, shopping lists, fragments of previous conversations, plans, must go to the bank, to do lists; the every day, mundane thoughts people think while they‟re supposed to be concentrating on the meeting or whatever. People‟s minds are busy places, General, but Lieutenant Callender? As quiet as a still, dark lake.” She went to the door and opened it. “What does that mean, Summer?” She turned to him. “Purely speculation, you understand, but to me, it means she‟s well-practiced in hiding her thoughts, in having a total focus on the issue at hand. It means, General, that somewhere, somehow, she‟s been trained to defend against a mind reader. Now, how do you suppose that happened?” And she left, leaving him slack-jawed with surprise. *** Tefe. Finally. Mackie backed the boat into the dock. The last six hours had been tough; on both he and Callender. They were more than half a day behind his mental schedule, all because of river conditions, slow boats, fishermen refusing to move out of the way... everything conspired against him. For most of the journey, he and Callender stayed out of each other‟s way, except for her briefing him on what her handler and this General told her – which was bugger all. She‟d held herself perfectly to attention, as if delivering a report. It was as complete as she could make it. And when she was done, she raised her eyebrows and all he could think of was continuing on from where they‟d been interrupted, of stripping her of her professionalism and clothes, of leaning her against the wall, sliding between those silky

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thighs and easing himself into her hot, wet... And while he speculated, her cheeks had reddened and she left. He shook his head and watch Molly throw the lines out. Focus on the job, damn it! All they had was an address – and probably a mailing address at that. Were they expected to just walk up to the door and knock? “Oh, hey, hi there, we‟re from the U.S. government.” He muttered as he shut down the engines. “Would you be so kind as to get us the information on your experiments, release the prisoners and step outside while we set fire to the building? Please? Thanks ever so much.” He sneered. “Like that will work.” Callender muttered as she came into the wheel house. “You got a better idea?” He snarled. “Nope. We‟ll need to case the joint first, then plan.” Mackie rolled his eyes. “Yep, okay, fine. It‟s not as if I haven‟t done this before, you know. You‟re the noob here.” She looked at him with a blank expression. “Are we leaving now or waiting until morning?” She asked and glanced at the darkness beyond the wheelhouse windows. “Tomorrow is soon enough – early.” He said tersely and she left. Again. Without explaining why she‟d come up. Damn it, he was handling this all wrong. Why couldn‟t they go back to an informal relationship, where she kept giving him information and he simply asked questions? Why did she look at him as if he wasn‟t there? And why did that piss him off. On a sigh, he secured the bridge and went below. Molly met him outside the car bay. “Are you okay?” Molly asked, with a concerned frown. “Yeah, just a little frustrated with the mission and with the noob.” He poked his thumb over his shoulder.

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Molly cocked an eyebrow. “Slam her and be done with it.” He suggested and Mackie nearly hoisted him over the railing. “Molly, you‟re a good friend and I love you like a brother, but I don‟t ever want to hear you speak of any woman that way.” “Especially Ms Callender?” Molly grinned toothlessly. “Jeez, you‟re an idiot.” Mackie said with a laugh and punched his shoulder. “We supplied?” He asked. “Everything from band aids to bazookas, boss.” Molly said. “And probably some other stuff I kind of snuck in.” The twinkle in the old man‟s eyes raised Mackie suspicions. “What kind of „stuff‟?” Molly firmed his lips. “The kind of stuff you never know if you need or not.” “Thanks Molly.” He gave his friend a tired smile. “We‟ll be heading out early.” “Good enough.” Molly went inside to his own cabin. Mackie walked around the vessel, checked the security and went in. On the second deck, he saw a light under the door of the end cabin – his, usually, but Callender had got there first. He could always go in and argue, then make up with her and... as he watched, the light went out. Damn. Now he had images of Callender in his head, naked, soft and wanting. He opened the door to the smaller cabin, stripped off. She was going to kill him. Mackie climbed into the narrow bunk and prepared for another sleepless night. He was up and ready before the sun rose. The air was already humid; another hot day beckoned. A cold shower woke him up and coffee fortified him for the coming confrontations. On the lower deck, he saw Callender already in the passenger seat. She watched him with a blank expression. Mackie turned to Molly who leaned with his back against the railing, a small smirk on his lips. Mackie ignored the expression. “I have no idea how long this will take.”

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Molly shrugged. “So what else is new? Go on, daylight‟s wasting.” He stuck out his hand and Mackie shook it. “Good luck.” Mackie watched his friend walk to the stern and he turned to the Range Rover. He was tempted to rummage in the back of the SUV for the „stuff‟, but he refrained, he had more important things to deal with. Callender watched him approach with expressionless eyes and he climbed into the driver‟s side. Behind him, he heard the ramp lower. “Are you ready for this?” He asked. “I‟m a noob, remember? I have to be ready for anything.” Mackie shook his head in disgust and started the engine, leaned his arm over the seat and backed down the ramp. He touched his fingers to his forehead as a salute and Molly grinned at him, then raised the ramp. Molly would take the boat to the middle of the river and wait for his signal before coming back in. He‟d have perfect vision for pirates or anyone wanting to board and if they did, he could quickly dive over the side. He and Molly both knew if someone wanted the boat, they could have it; it wasn‟t worth Molly‟s life. Mackie backed up, turned the wheel and then drove forward. Callender reached out and turned the GPS unit on, punched in the address of the lab. “Should you do that?” He asked and she glanced at him. “I mean, it can be intercepted can‟t it, or the information downloaded later?” “That‟s true, but it‟s not as if the Company don‟t know where we‟re heading and there won‟t be any information to download once I‟ve sent my virus through it. You forget: electronics are my business.” He kept his eyes on the road. “You‟re right; I did forget. I‟m all ready for the directions, Callender.” He asked with a smirk.

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Chapter Eleven Tefe, Stacey discovered, was a mid-sized port city of about 50,000, between Lake Tefe and the Amazon river. A red line appeared on the GPS map and ran through to edge of the city and stopped. “That might be a problem.” She muttered and glanced at Mackie. “The address is in a residential-small business area.” She saw his mouth twitch. “No burning down the building, then.” “No. And gunfire would bring us to the attention of the Police – which we don‟t need.” She gusted out a frustrated breath. She‟d had images of a facility outside the town; not too far, but distant enough to be convenient to amenities and still be isolated. “We‟ll have to re-think our options.” “Mmm. Let‟s do a drive by.” Stacey kept one eye on the GPS and the other on seeking out the building. “Okay, it should be the next block, on the right, half way up.” She said and watched the buildings as Mackie drove slowly. He pulled in to the curb and dragged on the handbrake. “This is it.” He said and unlatched the seat belt. Stacey leaned down to look, then sat up, puzzled. “A... post office?” “Clever, huh. Who‟d think of putting a genetic experimentation lab in a post office frequented by the public?” Mackie got out. Stacey scowled after him and he turned with a grin. “I‟ll just... you know, check it out.” She opened her mouth, but closed it as he winked at her and walked into the building. “Bastard.” She folded her arms under her breasts and pouted as she realised what he‟d already known: the post office was the mailing point for the lab, not the actual facility – which could be anywhere within the state. Mackie wasn‟t long and he came out with a thoughtful expression.

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“Well?” She demanded and he glanced at her. “Well, it‟s not the lab.” He put his seat belt on and started the engine. Then he punched in the true address of the facility into the GPS unit. The device accepted the location and Mackie drove away from the curb. Stacey expanded view and saw the new address was hours to the south. A sense of dread sparked deep in her belly. They had to go into the jungle. “Mackie?” “Yes, Callender?” “The GPS unit says the address isn‟t in Tefe at all; it‟s in the jungle, in the middle of nowhere.” “The jungle isn‟t „nowhere‟ Callender, just „elsewhere‟. And I already figured they wouldn‟t have a secret lab in the middle of a community – too many questions would be asked, and not just from the city officials. They‟re suspicious of outsiders and for good reason.” “You knew before we arrived.” She accused and then shook her head, disappointed. And this was why she tried to get as much information as possible on things before acting: so no-one would be ill-informed. Yet, she was constantly put in a position of saying „you knew‟, when she should have been told in the first place so she could prepare! She could feel the beginnings of a panic attack and breathed deep. It wouldn‟t help. All she thought of was the jungle, dark, sinister, filled with traps and animals. “I think I‟m going to kill myself.” She said solemnly as the trembling started in her stomach. Mackie snorted. “It‟s not that bad.” Stacey couldn‟t stop the quiver of her chin. “You have no idea how bad it‟s going to be.” Her voice ended with a hiccup. “I‟m better off dead.” She whispered, but he heard her. Mackie glanced sharply at her. “And why would you think that?”

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“Because people keep hiding essential information from me. Because this is a fucking suicide mission, because I really, really, hate the jungle with a passion you cannot believe and because if I don‟t die on this mission, I‟ve realised I‟ll never be free, either. The Company will never let me go.” She turned to him, tears stung her eyes and she blew out a breath. “What do you think will happen to a fertile, speciallytalented female, once they‟ve proved themselves on a mission?” Mackie lifted a shoulder, didn‟t look at her as he drove along an unpaved road. “I dunno, another mission?” She snorted a bitter laugh. “Let me put it another way, so you‟ll clearly understand: Where, Mackie, do you think the new generation of talents will come from?” She braced herself as he slammed on the brakes and the car slid sideways and came to a halt across the dirt road. “What?” He turned to her, horror clearly written on his face. “I‟ve given it some thought over the last couple of days and it‟s the only conclusion I can come up with. Me, a noob, sent on a mission I‟m not qualified to undertake. You, an absentee, maverick talent the Company wants under its control, sent to be my partner. Us, used to destroy a facility suspected of experimentation, after which, we concluded, the subjects would be taken into custody.” Mackie rubbed his face with his hands. “Suspected?” “Follow me here, and let‟s continue our drive in the countryside, shall we?” Mackie backed up and spun the wheel, moved back onto the road. “Part one: General Cosgrove acquires the information from Thailand. We assume it‟s the only copy. He keeps quiet about it. Then suddenly, six months later, he hands the information to me for... a report; without a reason, I might add. I discover a link between Thailand and Tefe, contact my superior and within twelve hours, I‟m aboard a plane heading south. Why send me? Why not a trained infiltration unit? Part two: I contact my Company handler about the information and suddenly, assets are already in place down here, ergo, the Company already knew what was in the report and about the facility, but were waiting for... something else to fall into place. They put us together. Someone, somewhere, needed something to happen before ordering Cosgrove to get me
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here. Someone, somewhere needed you, specifically, to be available as my partner in this.” “But...” Mackie began. “Hold on, I‟m not finished.” She said and chewed her lip. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. “The Company also knew of my connection to you and...” “What connection? All I remember is a strange little kid with white eyes staring at me from time to time.” Heat rose into her cheeks. “Ah, yes, well.” She cleared her throat. “I had an... affection for you. This boy with the emerald eyes. Even at six years old, I knew I wouldn‟t forget him.” She slid a glance at him. His cheekbones were as red as hers. “You were a kid.” He lifted a shoulder. “Your first crush.” “Yes, it was. I never expected to see you again. Ever. As far as I knew, the McCafferty‟s died in the jungle. Anyway, all I had discovered, that we didn‟t know already, were contact details of the Tefe facility in the Thai information. Nothing else. Now, both Cosgrove and my handler cannot deliver to us the information we need to bust the joint. How likely is that? With all the covert contacts available to them, how can they have no more information other than the contact details? Which is why I‟ve said „suspected‟.” “Callender, it has to be there, otherwise this is a monumental waste of resources!” He protested. “Is it? I‟ve seen your twin sisters fall in love and procreate with their partners. I‟ve seen the children. And the expense involved wasn‟t that much for the next generation. I might also point out that the Company is still running its facility in the U.S. and all those who came from Thailand are adults now.” “What you‟re saying is crazy. Look. What you‟re basically saying is this: if it‟s there, we‟ll be taking into custody as soon as we get the research notes and free the subjects; or, we were thrown together to... what? Screw our brains out and beget super powerful talents? As if.” He snorted.

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“Dare I remind you of what nearly happened on the bridge of your boat?” She asked and he flicked her a suspicious glance. “What, so you‟re so-called affection for me has lasted down through the years and their counting on that for us to...?” “Seems unlikely, doesn‟t it. But if the facility is there and we do destroy it, are taken back to the States - you against your will - who would you contact to get you out of trouble? Do you have a birth certificate? Legitimate identity documents that someone will believe? Or have you kept your head down long enough and effectively enough that no one knows you actually exist?” “You have got to be kidding me.” He muttered. “I don‟t believe your story, and I don‟t believe you. We go in, do the job and get out. I don‟t give a hill of beans about anything other than that. You got me? Noob?” “I get you, Mr McCafferty, but remember this: I‟ve never lied to you.” *** Mackie rolled his eyes. Of all the... “Callender, you lied to me through omission. So don‟t you be getting on your high horse now. You‟re talking bullshit. The Company knows damn well I‟m more useful to them in South America and I‟ve no reason to go to the States. I‟ve never fucking been there! As for procreation, well, sweetheart, I‟d love to lie between your thighs for a while and go cross-eyed, you know that, but babies are out of the question. I refuse to pass this shit on.” He turned to glare at her but she wasn‟t looking at him, she had her head turned away and studied the green jungle on her side of the car. “Are you listening to me? No screwing around! No offspring! Ever.” “I heard you the first time.” He heard her say faintly. “And I agree with you.” Slightly mollified, he considered the subject closed. “We should be able to find a safe place to camp in about three hours. So you might spend your time usefully and think up a surveillance pattern. You can do that can‟t you?” She nodded but still didn‟t look at him. Then she froze as if digesting what he‟d just said, slowly turned her head to him, her eyes wide with fear. “D...did you say... camp?”

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“I did. There‟s precious little out here and no hotels. No homesteads either. We are in the true jungle and up ahead? According to the GPS, there‟s a dirt road that leads to the lab. A one way road. So, we‟ll hide the SUV and walk in.” He frowned. What was she so tense about? If she listened to him, she‟d be fine. “I can‟t.” She whispered shakily. “Can‟t what?” “Can‟t... sleep... in the... jungle!” Was she hyperventilating? He slowed the car to a stop, then leaned over and pushed her head down to her knees. “You need to get a grip here. There‟s nothing out here I can‟t protect you from.” He heard her mumble, but didn‟t catch the words. “What did you say?” She bolted upright. “Except for memories!” She shouted and undid her seat belt, leapt from the car as if it was poisonous. “What the...” He watched her stride down the road then pause and come back. She didn‟t get back in, but kept walking back the way they‟d come. She was going to walk all the way to Tefe? Mackie gently bashed his head on the steering wheel. Saints preserve him from emotionally unstable women. He turned off the engine and got out, jogged after her. “What are doing?” “Going back to Tefe. I don‟t care if they blow me up, I don‟t care if they continue experiments. I don‟t care, I don‟t care.” He gripped her arms, spun her around. She was a little wild-eyed as she stared at him. “Callender,” he huffed, “we‟re too far from Tefe for you to walk, you‟d have to stay in the jungle anyway.”

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It was as if someone had cut the strings holding her up. She slipped out of his hands and slumped to the ground. But she hadn‟t fainted, she just sat there, in the dirt, with a blank expression. He crouched down in front of her, but she wouldn‟t meet his gaze. “What is it about the jungle that terrifies you so?” He asked softly. “What memories do you have that cause you such pain?” She finally turned her tortured gaze to him. “Cortez.” She whispered. He remembered what his father said about Suarez, Cortez‟s partner, right before he killed the guard. “No one rapes my daughters and lives.” Remembered Cortez grabbing his crotch and laughing. Remembered his father‟s unholy expression. “I am going to kill that sick motherfucker.” Callender, too? And he felt the surge of fury his father must have felt, the killing rage. He clenched his jaw and forced the emotions away, pressed them deep down. He wasn‟t going to say it was years ago. He wasn‟t going to suggest she be over it by now. And he certainly wasn‟t going to tell her she was over-reacting. If what he suspected was true, it was yesterday, she‟d never be over it without counselling and, if anything, she was too calm. But what did he do? They couldn‟t sit here all day in the middle of the road and he couldn‟t take her back to Tefe. He glanced up and rain fell onto his face. “Can we go back to the car, please?” He asked softly. “There‟s a thermos of coffee I think we both need.” He helped her to stand, tucked an arm around her waist, thought maybe he should divert her. “You know, while I like the hazel, maybe you should think about getting the dark brown contacts. That way, when you‟re... upset or angry or just plain aroused, your eyes won‟t have that reflective shine.” “They are.” She mumbled. “They are... what?”

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“They are the dark brown.” She said in a monotone voice. “And they don‟t just glow when I‟m... emotionally unstable, they do it all the time, or did you forget the morning I looked at you without the contacts?” Oh, he‟d never forget. He‟d always remember the abject fear when she turned to him. But now he thought about it, she was right. They glowed then and when she was child, staring at him. “Wow.” He said. “Built in headlights.” “Not funny and gee, not as if I haven‟t heard it before.” Mackie helped her up into the SUV, carefully closed the door and jogged around the back of the car to the driver‟s side. He opened the back passenger door and retrieved the thermos, then climbed in behind the wheel. He opened the flask and poured her a cup. “Molly made it.” He said and handed it to her. She wrapped her hands around the warm plastic and sipped. But he didn‟t miss the way she trembled. Her face was pale, sweat beaded on her forehead and he didn‟t think it was from the heat and humidity – the car‟s air-conditioning was on, gusting out chilled air. No, this was remembered fear, a memory. She lifted the mug and drained it, held it out to him then tucked her hands into her arm pits as if to warm them. “Cortez was a complete bastard.” She murmured as she stared through the windscreen. Mackie poured himself some coffee and recapped the thermos, and set it on the console. “He‟d taunt the adults out of the hearing of any supervisors, he‟d intimidate the children, smack them around, especially the boys.” Mackie tugged his ear. Yeah, he remembered Cortez‟s casual cruelty. “The girls... he‟d take them into the jungle where no one could hear them scream. Sometimes, he was called to take the girls back to the residential building from the medical building. He‟d wait until the doctors or technicians left.” “But you could see him, with your thermal sight, see what he did.” He said quietly.

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Callender nodded. “No walls are safe from my vision, Mackie. I saw the heat signatures blend and I knew he was doing „bad things‟.” Her breath hitched. “And noone did anything to stop him.” “You were six-years-old!” He whispered harshly. Her head turned towards him, the tears in her eyes shimmered. “So were Summer and Winter; and the others: Akiko, Mikayla and Jane Mathers, Mrs Mathers, you‟re mother. Age was no barrier to him. He took children, the teenagers, the women. He raped them all, out of sight of prying eyes. None could tell the guards, they‟d be punished for trying to lure Cortez into setting them free. There was no way the children would tell anyone. He promised to kill the parents, put little children into deep, dark holes and cover them with big spiders and snakes, leave them in the jungle for the tigers to eat.” Her voice tightened to a fearful squeak. “Jesus Christ.” The picture she painted horrified him. He already knew about what was done to his sisters, but only in an intellectual way. At the time, he was too young to understand and when he became an adult, he‟d thought his sisters dead and it no longer mattered to him. In his memory, they were children, but he felt sick at the thought they were abused in such a way. Now, they were adults and married with children of their own. How had the rapes affected them? How had the husbands got past the barriers? For the first time, his emotional interest in his absent siblings increased. He handed her his half-filled cup of coffee. He preferred a shot of Tequila, but he didn‟t have any. He wanted more than one shot, he thought, he felt like draining the bottle, but he doubted he‟d ever shake the image of Callender as a child, staring at him and his new understanding of why. She‟d also wanted him to talk to her. She‟d been alone at the compound, no parents, no siblings; totally alone and unprotected. He‟d never seen her with anyone but the guards or the doctors. No wonder she was so screwed up; no wonder she was, usually, such a selfcontained person and no wonder she rejected his attempts at intimacy or was totally confused by it. No one had helped her then, no one helped her now; she was still being used and abused; and by her own government.

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“Christ.” He muttered again and wiped a hand across his mouth. She‟d been ordered into the jungle to destroy a lab – and she was terrified. How did he get past that? One step at a time, he thought, one God-damned step at a time. He turned the engine on, slowly drove down the road while keeping an eye on her. She kept staring through the windscreen with wide eyes. What kind of courage did it take to be scared shitless of something and do it anyway? Could he have done it? It was something no one could answer until they were placed in that situation. “After you escaped, Cortez was worse, relentless.” Callender said. “There was this guard, Suarez, I think his name was, he stopped Cortez from excess, but he was found dead, shot in the head. Cortez was furious. He beat one teenager to death, left her in the jungle said she tried to escape. He assaulted the men, too. He became harsher in his treatment of the children, some needing more intensive medical care; he no longer hid what he was. One day, he grabbed M‟beki by the throat. He was albino and alone, like me. The guards didn‟t get to him in time. Cortez threw him to the ground and kicked him, kept kicking him until he died. The guards hauled him away.” She subsided into silence. “What happened to him? To Cortez?” “I don‟t know. He was gone the next day.” She said. “Do you think they killed him?” “I hope so, but he was so good at keeping the prisoners subdued that he may have been too valuable to kill, regardless of what he did. Maybe they transferred him back to the States.” “Stupid bastards.” He muttered. “No, they weren‟t. Other guards did things too, but in the end, it was all about keeping the prisoners in line without affecting the talents; and Cortez didn‟t do that until he killed someone in front of witnesses.” Her sigh was heartfelt. “He was the kind of man who knew how to survive, knew exactly what to say to create enough doubt and avoid responsibility. No, he‟s out there, somewhere.”

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“You said you hadn‟t the time to read through all of Mainwaring‟s information.” He said. “Staff transfers, maybe?” “I didn‟t see one. A lot of the research notes were scanned from original documentation. I believe all the documents from Thailand were on the thumb drive, but I don‟t know, I didn‟t have time to read it all.” She replied. He kept an eye on the road, searched for the entrance to the lab. His eyes went to the dirt and the tyre tracks. “I‟ll get to it when I get back to the States.” She said and he felt a surge up his spine. “You kept a copy.” He said and she nodded. “I keep a copy of everything I research.” She kept nodding as if she wasn‟t quite there with him. “Research is information and information is knowledge. Knowledge will set me free.” She murmured. And Mackie understood she‟d been working at gaining her freedom for some time, probably since she‟d been assigned to the Electronics something-or-other Directorate. She had the drive, the know-how, the ambition and now, she had the wherewithal to accomplish her goal. Admiration surged inside him. And she‟d do it alone. He came to a „Y‟ intersection and followed the GPS directions, went left. He‟d have to be careful, keep an eye out for cars coming in the opposite direction – but he doubted he‟d have time to hide in the jungle. Maybe... “Callender?” “Yes, Mackie?” “The GPS unit. It uses what? A satellite map to track our location, establishes our co-ordinates and displays it on the screen, yes?” “Yes.” She replied. “And you‟re a whiz-bang, Marine Corp computer hacker who can leap buildings in a single bound.” “Sergeants do that; we Majors can only look up and admire their skill.” She said in a monotone and he chuckled.

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“My question, Callender, is can you work your hacker magic and make the GPS unit tell us if someone is coming at us?” He slowed the vehicle to a crawl, sent her a sidelong glance. She stared at the unit and he wondered what she saw, how it was different from what he saw; did she see the world in glorious colour like he did, or did could she „change‟ the settings, or did she see a combination of all the spectrum all the time? And how could he ask her when she‟d never seen the world any differently?

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Chapter Twelve His words snapped Stacey out of the fugue she‟d fallen into. The hysterical blankness passed and the fog lifted as her brain engaged the problem. My question, Callender, is can you work your hacker magic and make the GPS unit tell us if someone is coming at us? Could she? She stared at the unit, saw its internal works beyond the LED screen. She reached out and plucked the gadget from its holder. “The GPS unit contains a tracking device.” She murmured almost to herself. “It sends a signal, as you‟d expect, to a satellite that triangulates its position relative to known fixed points, like television and radio stations, mobile phone towers, satellite uplinks.” She glanced at him. His concentration was absolute, but on the road, not her. “I‟ll need some tools.” His brows lowered. “There aren‟t any electronic stores out here, Callender, can‟t you...” “I brought my tools with me; they‟re in my pack.” He slowed to a stop on the side of the road. “Then climb on over and git „em, girl, time‟s awastin‟.” Thank God he didn‟t suggest she get out and go around to the trunk; she would have lost it. Again. Already she felt the jungle closing in on her, felt her heartbeat begin to accelerate towards overload. In an effort to forestall it, she unhooked her seat belt and clambered into the back, focused her concentration on the pack and not the green trying to wrap around the car. She opened the front pocket of her backpack and pulled out a roll of velvet that held her jeweller‟s tools and a small container a loupe. Then she scrambled back, set her seat belt and lowered her head to work, shut out the world around her. Mackie kept the car moving at a snail‟s pace, but he didn‟t interrupt her with questions. An hour later and they were still travelling, but she thought she had the problem licked.

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“Lorenzo is gonna be pissed at me when he gets the car back.” She said. “Why? The next person who uses this will know where...” Mackie paused, “ah, right. Maybe we‟ll just say we lost it and give him some cash to buy a new one.” “Good idea.” “So... does it work?” She gave him a look and turned the unit on. The system retained its map, but now there were more blood red icons all clustered in one spot about twenty kilometres ahead of the blue dot. “Bugger me.” He murmured and stopped the car for a closer look. “How did you...?” “I expanded the parameters of the locator/receptor beacons. Blue is us. Red is any other electronic device that‟s been turned on. That can mean mobile phones or wireless broadband computers, or even televisions. Anything that uses a satellite to transmit information and out here, I assume that means most things.” She said with a shrug. “Oh, man, you are a fucking genius!” “Yes, I am.” She said without arrogance. She was a little above average when compared to her fellow officers at the Directorate, but she was a genius when compared to the average citizen. She understood electronics because she could see it working, see the minor heat fluctuations of the processors, she also understood the programming and why it worked. “Here, there‟s one little update I programmed in.” She pressed two buttons together and the map changed to real-time satellite imagery rather than the cartoon-like map. “Oh, baby! I‟m taking this home!” His glee was near contagious. It might have been a unique solution for the situation, but she‟d changed electronic devices before. Still, contentment settled inside her that he took such pleasure in her work. Then he went and ruined it. “But... Callender, if you can do this, pick up all those electronic signatures, why can‟t you block the explosive under your collarbone?”

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Her slight smile faded at the reminder. Oh, she never forgot it was there, but sometimes it didn‟t matter, like now. “Because I can‟t find the frequency for it. It‟s got a shielding I haven‟t been able to work out yet.” “Or it‟s fake and not active at all. A simple mind-game.” Stacey glared at him. “Oh, it‟s got a signal, Mackie, now I know where it is, I can see it, or at least the container it‟s in. I can‟t see the actual device. And if I can‟t see it, I can‟t see what it‟s made of or the resonance code or the pulse emitter. All I know is that it‟s active.” “Sorry, just a thought. I‟m just in awe of your capabilities.” He muttered and touched the screen. “Can I zoom in?” “Yes, just press... hmmm... the zoom button.” “Smart arse.” He pressed the button and highlighted the blue icon, scrolled through the map. “There.” He pointed to a... less thick part of the jungle. “That‟s where we‟ll camp for the night.” Stacey‟s heart jammed into her throat and her breathing suddenly accelerated. Her mind fogged and suddenly, her head was between her knees. “Come on now, breathe for me, nice and slow.” She felt his hand on her back of her neck, but all she saw were images of Cortez, sneering, laughing, angry, hurtful, lustful, vengeful. “We‟re not going to sleep in the jungle, there are too many things that roam the floor.” Mackie said. “We‟ll be in the SUV. There‟s plenty of space, and we‟ll be protected. Added to that, I‟ll be with you and I swear, I won‟t touch you in any inappropriate manner. You can think of me as your brother.” She bolted upright. “Brother? There‟s nothing brotherly about you!” He looked at her in surprise and heat flared across her face. She ducked her head back between her knees and wished it were a bucket, preferably one filled with water. “Um...” He hedged. “I think I‟ll take that in the spirit it was given. We can‟t lose our focus and I‟m a little bit... ha, scared of you at the moment.” “You are?”

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“Honey, you‟ve an intellect that outstrips mine by a long way, you‟ve got these eyes that are really disturbing. Um... that didn‟t come out right.” She saw him squirm and wondered why. “You ever see movies? Like... horror movies? Vampire movies? Real ones, not the touchy-touchy, feely-feely chick flicks?” “No. I don‟t like scary movies.” She slowly sat up as the panic attack eased, leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. “Well, there‟s this movie? Salem‟s Lot. I saw it as a kid and it scared me rigid. I mean, in one scene, this kid goes to bed and then there‟s this tapping at his window, so, he gets up to investigate and outside are his friends, wanting to come in. Well, hell, they look like ordinary kids but you get this other view and they‟re floating, two storeys up and their eyes change to something like... like yours. All white irises and snarly teeth - although you don‟t have the teeth thing - and I had nightmares for weeks!” “I‟m not a vampire.” She said, confused. “No, but it‟s the visceral reaction. If I step out of line, all you need do is remove your contacts and I will stay far, far away.” She wondered if he knew how much his words hurt her. She understood he was trying to ease her mind that he wouldn‟t attack her, but it still made her feel like a freak of nature; they both were, but her freakiness was more visible than his. She kept the hurt to herself. “Mackie, I‟ve said it before and I‟ll say it again: I trust you.” *** This was a mistake, Mackie decided. Callender might trust him not to jump her bones, but his trust in himself was a little bit more shaky. Yes, her eyes were disturbing, but he found himself unaccountably intrigued by them. “What do you see?” He asked as he drove towards a clearing in the forest. “I see the world, Mackie, no different from what you see.”

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“Now, see? I know it‟s impolite to call a lady a liar, and downright dangerous to say a Marine is being loose with the truth, but if you can see the world like I do, how do you see infrared and ultra-violet?” “Oh, right. I misunderstood.” She said. “I change focus. I have standard vision like you do, but if I change my focus level, I see more. It took a while to control it – when I was a kid, I kind of flickered between the extremes, which was why I stared at people, to stop the flickering and be able to concentrate on one wave length or another.” She explained. “That is cool.” He shook his head. “I‟m sorry, but it is way cool.” “It‟s why my eyes are white, Mackie. White absorbs all other colours and I have that little bit extra to pick up the extremes of human detectable light-waves. Not radio, or microwave or, at the other end, x-ray or gamma. Anyway,” she murmured, “nature has a habit of branding its freaks as a warning to the rest of the species.” Branding? He thought back to what‟s-his-name, M‟Beki, the albino with the pink eyes. Mackie didn‟t know what his talent was. M‟beki, Mackie admitted now, was different enough. Every single other inmate he‟d seen bore no physical difference to ordinary humans. Except, he realised, for their eyes! He thought of himself with the pure emerald eyes, of Summer and Winter and their eyes, but... if memory served him correctly... “Autumn had blue-green eyes, so there goes your theory.” “She still does, Mackie, but they are different. It‟s a... purity of colour, I guess. When she‟s stressed they turn a pure aquamarine, the colours only separate when she calms down. I doubt either she or Major Hawk realise that.” “So, what you‟re saying is, that a part of the genetic marker is eye colour.” Callender opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him. “I never thought about it affecting others, only how it affected me, but yes, I suppose it is.” “Interesting. I don‟t know how that will be useful, but it sure is interesting.” He pulled off the dirt road and headed deeper into the jungle, but not too far. He checked

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his side mirrors and then stopped. “This is where we‟ll stop for the night. You can see the road from here. It represents an exit for you so you don‟t feel so trapped.” “Thank you, Mackie, for thinking of that.” She said quietly. “Right then, you stay here, in the vehicle and I‟ll take care of everything else.” He unlocked his seat belt, turned to open the door. “Like what?” She asked and he nearly started at the innocent question. She was a noob alright. “I need to clear an area for a fire, but don‟t worry, the canopy is so thick, no one will see it or the smoke rising. Then I need to cook up some dinner, set about brewing some much needed coffee, dig a latrine.” He lifted a shoulder. “Typical Tarzan stuff.” “Oh, okay. I‟ll see if I can get a signal and call it in.” His eyebrows lowered. “Are you sure that‟s wise?” “I don‟t have a choice. They can track me, they already know where I am. By checking in, I‟m being a good little mutant agent and...” He gripped her arm. “I don‟t care for that word, Callender.” “What, agent or mutant?” Her lip curled with contempt. “What we are goes beyond experimentation, goes beyond what people think they can trap us into. We are human; we might be the next evolutionary stage of humanity, but we are human, not freaks, not mutants, not anything, and I won‟t hear you disparage yourself because of what other people call you. You got that?” “Yes, sir.” She replied carefully and he wondered about her years in the U.S. facility, a facility she‟d not yet named, nor given the location of. But that was next on his agenda after they‟d dealt with this facility. He eased his grip, smoothed a hand up and down her arm. “I‟m sorry. My father calls himself a freak, or a mutant just before he finishes his bottle of Johnny Walker or Black Jack. I don‟t consider us that way. I think of us as special, an accelerated sort of special, not ready for the rest of humanity, but special just the same.” He waited and then she nodded. “Think on how what you can do that will help humanity. Think on how what we‟re doing saves others, okay?”

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Again she nodded and he wondered if he was truly getting through to her. Then she turned to him, her eyes shimmering. “I do, Mackie, every, single, day. If I didn‟t, I‟d end my miserable life and to hell with the Company and General Cosgrove. And I wouldn‟t be the first.” *** Stacey hadn‟t meant to say that, but it was out there now and she couldn‟t take it back. His eyes narrowed. “That is never an option. Do you hear me? Never! There are always alternatives. We are never so desperate, so lost and without hope that suicide is ever an option. Because it is the one purely selfish act that can‟t be apologised for or taken back. There are always alternatives.” Mackie blinked and the fierceness left his gaze. “I would hurt for a long time if you tried it, be guilt-ridden that I didn‟t understand or try harder. Suicide, Callender, punishes those left behind. Forever.” Stacey stared at him. “You‟ve lived free all your life, Mackie. You‟ve never been put into a position where you‟d rather die than betray another single human being into captivity or death. So don‟t lecture me on something you know nothing about.” She said it softly, but with absolute confidence. “Moral ideology only works up to the point of actual, real life, decision-making.” Mackie looked beyond her. “I need to set up camp.” He released her. She watched him get out and head around to the back of vehicle. He popped the trunk and dragged out a folded shovel. Then he walked ten feet, his head bent. Mackie squatted, unfolded the shovel and cleared the area, dug a small fire pit in the sandy soil. As much as she wanted to help him, but she could not make herself get out of the SUV. Her hand wrapped around the door handle but did not pull, didn‟t move except for the occasional tremble. She watched him gather rocks and lay them around the pit he‟d dug. Her fingers let go of the handle and she sighed with disappointment. Damn, but she was useless for this mission. Why the hell send her when the Company knew her phobia about the jungle? And her protests fell on deaf ears. She

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knew nothing about survival, nothing about the flora or fauna, nothing, except it scared her into rigid inaction. Fine, they sent Mackie to help her, but what good was she if she couldn‟t make herself step onto the jungle floor? The lab was in the jungle. But she knew better than to refuse a direct order; bad things happened when she did that, and she had no more wish to suffer through electric-shock punishment than she wanted to live on a tropical island. Again, she gripped the handle, stared hard at it, but her fingers refused to move. This was stupid. Mackie was out there, alone. She lifted her gaze, but she couldn‟t see him in the gathering gloom. “Calmly.” She murmured as her pulse tripped. “He‟s not going to abandon you.” She saw the shovel, tip down in the soil. “He‟s out there, so find him.” Stacey reached into her pocket and pulled out the white container and opened it, popped out her contacts and set them into the reservoirs. The lid closed with a snap and she closed her eyes. Lifting her head, she changed her focus and looked up. The jungle appeared deeply shadowed, with spots of yellow and red. She saw the heat signatures of creatures in the undergrowth, the residual heat of the day in the canopy above her. Stacey swung her gaze left and right. There. Deeper in the jungle, a man-sized blot of red torso, orange and yellow arms and legs, pale orange hands and feet. The figure rose, with black objects in his hands. More rocks? Mackie walked towards her and came to the edge of the clearing. He stopped and she saw, the centre of his chest turn a darker shade, then he shuddered. Stacey lowered her gaze. He‟d seen her looking at him, and she could imagine the sight that greeted him when he stepped out of the jungle: two glowing white eyes in the increasing darkness. She‟d scared him. Again. Well, he‟d just have to deal with it. Wearing the contacts so often and for so long irritated her eyes.

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She refocused her eyes and lifted her gaze. Mackie set the rocks into the bottom of the fire pit, then he placed sticks, old, brown leaves and more sticks into the pit. On top, he put thicker sticks, then he pulled out a lighter from his pocket and lit the leaves. Smoke rose in a thin line. Mackie leaned down and blew gently until the smoke thickened and the leaves burst into flames. He sat back on his heels and carefully placed more sticks on the growing fire until he was satisfied. She watched him set up the camp, move into the forest again and dig a latrine. She could not imagine herself using it, but the alternative might be more embarrassment than she could handle. The back of her head met the headrest and she once again closed her eyes against the ambient light of the jungle. Time to call in and she flipped open her phone. “You‟re in position?” Her handler asked. “Close, about a kilometre. We‟ll go in tomorrow. We‟re camping here for the night.” She said. “And how‟s that working out for you?” The smug tone asked. Curse words flowed through her mind, but she didn‟t speak them. She was a good, obedient little mutant agent. “It‟s not. I‟m having panic attacks – which you knew would happen. I‟m having difficulty getting out of the vehicle – which you also knew would happen. So my question has to be, why did you send me?” “Call it... confrontation therapy. Live or die, Major. Your choice.” Her handler ended the call and Stacey lowered the phone. Confrontation therapy? What the hell is that all about? Did they want the facility destroyed or not? Confusion swirled within her. Fucking mind games. That‟s what this was, a mind game, and no one told her the rules or they were making the rules up as they went along.

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She hooked her feet on the dashboard, held her chin in her hands. She had to think clearly about this. Forget the jungle and think clearly. That was the issue. They‟d sent her to the very place she‟d freak out in. She was not on top of her game here and they deliberately sent her, as if to keep her unbalanced. That begged the question of why. To get her out of Cosgrove‟s office? To make her reliant on Mackie? To fail in her mission? To simply torture her? She had no answer. Yet. Time to call the General. She punched in the numbers and waited for the call to go through. “Cosgrove.” “Callender, sir. I‟m nearly in position. The facility if about a kilometre away.” “Do you have everything you need?” Stacey pulled the phone away from her ear, then back again. It was too late to acquire anything. “Yes, sir.” “And you‟ll go in tonight?” “No, sir, I need to check out the security first, unless you have a layout for me?” She asked hopefully. “Negative, Lieutenant. I cannot find the blue prints anywhere, and that includes the thumb drive Akiko brought back. It‟s as if the facility doesn‟t exist.” She didn‟t know what to say. Someone had to know... Mainwaring? “Okay, Lieutenant, listen up. You be careful there, it smells of a trap. You‟re a Marine officer without permission to be in country. If you‟re caught, I don‟t know if I can help you. Keep your head down and your powder dry.” “Yes, sir. Covert surveillance, acquire information and evacuate the building.” “Confirmed, Lieutenant. Good luck.” “Thank you, sir.” She hung up and tapped the phone against her chin. Obviously, Cosgrove had consulted with someone about the validity of the mission, that maybe

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he‟d been too impetuous in sending her. Now, he was worried, but not enough to cancel. Orders from above? And her handler. More taunting, questioning her capabilities and expecting Stacey to fail... Mackie tapped on the window and she lowered it. The scent of the hot, loamy jungle came into the cool interior. “Got some dinner for you. It‟s only reconstituted beef stew, but it‟s not bad.” He offered her the metal plate. “Thank you, Mackie.” She said distracted and accepted the plate. “Something on your mind?” He leaned his elbows on the window sill. “Yeah. A boss who‟s worried and a boss who‟s not.” Mackie snorted. “I don‟t need to guess who said what. All it means is nothing has changed. Typical.” Stacey tasted the stew. Not bad, but not great either. She wanted a thick steak with pepper sauce and mashed potatoes. With freshly picked green beans. “Something else?” Mackie asked. She didn‟t bother looking at him, she understood he was uncomfortable with her eyes. “Just my handler playing mind games.” “Huh. Well, I‟m sure you‟re about ready for coffee.” Her eyes lifted to his and for once he‟d didn‟t flinch. He frowned and leaned in closer. “They truly are white, without any hint of colour.” He said softly. The glow highlighted his face as he looked into her eyes and she could see the purity of emerald colour in his. “And your‟s don‟t have any other colour.” She replied. He leaned in closer.“Amazing. I can see the structures of your irises, all white, with only the vaguest hint of border between iris and, ah, the rest of your eyeball and a pitch black pupil.”

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“Still scary?” She asked softly. “No, not so scary once you get up close and personal.” He said and moved in, laid his mouth on hers. She didn‟t pull away, didn‟t react as he lifted his head. She blinked at him and he smiled. “That is so cool.” He murmured and leaned in again, lifted his hands to her face and he gently kissed her. Stacey sighed against his mouth and he drew back, his gaze roaming her face. “I‟ll get your coffee.” But his thumb rubbed against her bottom lip, then he dragged in a breath and let her go, went back to the fire.

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Chapter Thirteen He could not keep away from her, Mackie thought as he poured rich, black coffee into a tin mug. She was bad for him, bad for the mission, sitting there in the car with no intention of leaving it. They had a job to do, and yet how could they complete it if half the team went off the deep end every time she looked at the jungle? He understood why, hell, he‟d have nightmares about it, but Callender had locked herself away from the possibility of ever visiting the tropics because the jungle provoked memories. Okay, he‟d expect that, but had no one given her counselling? Told her it wasn‟t her fault but Cortez‟s or had they played on it to keep her in line? Why did they send her when they knew she couldn‟t cope with a jungle environment? Were they trying to break her or cure her? If the former, then he‟d have to hunt them down; but if the latter... was there any way he could help? He‟d love to talk to her handler, but whoever it was didn‟t sound terribly compassionate. Maybe he could hunt them down anyway. He rose and took the coffee back to her. Interestingly, she hadn‟t closed the window, hadn‟t completely barricaded herself in. “Here you go.” She didn‟t look at him as she accepted the mug, handed him her metal plate and fork. He took it back to the fire – he‟d clean up later. “So, what‟s the plan?” He asked as he walked back to her. “We... I need to look at the lab, get an idea of the layout. You need to count guards and any staff you see. If we get a count, if I can detect the heat signatures of the test subjects, we‟ll have a better idea of what to do.” He was right, he thought, her eyes were like built in headlights. She stared out the windscreen and white light swept across the hood. “How does that work? The light from your eyes, I mean.” “Bio-luminescence.” She said. “Once we know how many and where they are, we need to get in and disable anyone who gets in our way. But that can be your job. We find the subjects first, keep them together while we get the information. Then we can

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exit and burn it down. The sticking point are the numbers. Too many and we won‟t be able to handle the subjects, or the guards.” “We‟ll sort that out later. Bio-luminous, like jelly fish, or deep sea fish. I wonder where that gene came from?” He asked as he watched the glow from her eyes. “I don‟t know.” She replied. “I have to somehow get over my fear of the jungle, suppress the memories somehow or this mission is over before it starts.” “Primitive genes resurrected? Somehow manipulated into showing up?” “Like I said: I don‟t know. And I won‟t be able to do it without your help. But regardless of that...” She paused and chewed her bottom lip. “And are the pure colour of eyes somehow linked? How were the original participants selected? I don‟t suppose it‟s an issue for us at the moment...” “We‟re here and that‟s all that matters.” They both said at the same time. He met her astonished gaze with his own. Then he smiled. She didn‟t look away and it was as if the world held its‟ breath. He felt the same strange connection now as he did back at the airport, a resonance deep within, as if everything was going to be all right as long as she was with him. But that couldn‟t be right, he didn‟t know her, didn‟t know anything about her. Then he thought about it. Over these last few days, he‟d come to know her very well; her humour, her passion, her fears. And the reverse was true, too. She knew him, but did she feel the same connection? The same longing for a kindred spirit? Mackie cleared his throat and broke his gaze from hers. “I‟d better clean up the camp.” He said and turned away to the fire. He cleaned the plates and forks, then he dampened the flames with water from his bottle, listened to the hissing and spitting of cold water on hot rocks. Then he kicked the pile of dirt into the pit. He waited, but no smoke rose. With the gear he‟d used in his hand, he went to the back of the SUV and stowed everything, shut the hatch.

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Mackie opened the back passenger door and lifted the seat cushion to rest against the front seats. Then he thumbed the button set into the top of the seat and laid it flat, creating a bed. He shook out the sleeping bags, top to tail. He sat on the running board and took off his boots, tugged his shirt over his head and climbed in, set his clothes at the back of the Rover. “When you‟re ready, you can climb over and into a bag. It might get hot tonight, so... ah, make your adjustments accordingly.” He said and got into the bag with his feet to the back of the driver‟s seat. Her eyes swivelled to his. “Okay.” But she waited until he was on the verge of sleep before moving. He heard the thump of her boots on the floor, the rustle of her clothes. He kept himself relaxed as she climbed over the centre console and into the bag as quickly as she could. With those eyes, she wouldn‟t be fumbling around in the dark like he had. The night settled around him. Because of the structure of the car, he heard few noises, but that was okay, he drifted off to his favourite sound of jungle night life. *** Stacey lay on her side and stared at the passenger side door. She wasn‟t sleepy and she was painfully aware of the man sleeping behind her. But she gave into the illusion and closed her eyes. She kept thinking about her call to her handler and thought back to the beginning of this mess. Her involvement started with Summer Pocklington and the covert team sent to retrieve her and the sister, Winter. Duquesne and Beech captured, the twins fighting for their freedom – and winning. Stacey had information that Beckett was under instructions from the Company but he never breathed a word of the assassination team; he still kept quiet about any connection with the CIA. Winter‟s escape from Chambers didn‟t count because Stacey was only an observer. Akiko Sakamura – Autumn – sent to Thailand with Hawk to find the original lab, but locating Mainwaring, instead; again, she had information that the Company orchestrated that mission. Akiko and Hawk escape – a win for them.

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Spring – Mackie – sent on a mission with someone totally inappropriate – her – a liability to the mission, not an asset. And each mission, each scenario – with the exception of Chambers, and she should have paid closer attention to him – was set up to... She bolted upright and Mackie‟s arm fell away from around her waist. “Shit on a shovel!” She narrowed her eyes at the early morning sunlight outside the tinted windows. She‟d slept the night through. But... how? She hadn‟t done that in years. “Whajasay?” A rumbling voice asked from beside her and she glance down. Sometime during the night, Mackie had turned around, cuddled up close to her and heat surged through her veins. His dark hair was ruffled, his jaw shadowed with morning stubble and his chest was bare. “What are you doing?” She demanded. “Sleepin‟. I‟m sleepin‟ here.” He grumbled and snuggled deeper into his bag. “I meant, what are you doing at my end of the...?” What. She nearly said „bed‟ but it wasn‟t a bed and she wasn‟t sharing it with him. She didn‟t do that. He cracked an eyelid and looked at her. “Nightmare.” He said and closed his eye again. “Why would you suffer from nightmares?” She asked. “Not me, you. Damn restlessness and whimpering with the occasional moan tossed in.” He said. “I just wrapped my arms around your waist and you settled down.” He sighed the words out and relaxed into a sleep again. Or, she suspected, he was dozing. Stacey lay back down, stared at the ceiling of the car. “This is a suicide mission.” She said. Mackie wriggled closer to her, turned on his side, wrapped his arm around her, snuggled into her shoulder. “Mmmm?” She frowned down at him, wondered why it seemed natural for him to be so close to her. What the hell was going on with her, with him? “I said „it‟s a suicide mission‟.” His second “mmm” resonated through her to settle in all the right places.

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Ever since he‟d looked at her yesterday, she‟d felt something shift inside, as if he was what she‟d been waiting for. But that couldn‟t be right. She had no more interest in a relationship than she had going out into the... jungle. The word refocused her thoughts. “The Company is trying to clean up rogue talents. Starting with your sisters.” He didn‟t seem to hear her, or he was thinking. His arm tightened beneath her breasts and he dragged in a deep breath, as if to suck her scent into him. “Summer and Autumn were put into positions where the odds were stacked against them. They still came out winners. Winter doesn‟t count because the Company had nothing to do with Chambers – or so I thought at the time; now, I‟m wondering. Anyway, Summer and Autumn should have died, but survived because of the one thing the Company couldn‟t predict: human nature.” Mackie licked her throat, drew his tongue along her skin and her nerves sparked as if electrified. “Mmm.” He murmured. She paused in running her hands through his... Oh, crap. She‟d been playing with his hair, her fingers sifting through the silky strands, as if it was an every morning occurrence. Maybe he hadn‟t realised, maybe, if she continued, he‟d stop. Stacey cleared her throat. “So, anyway. In each scenario, the women survived, with the help of their... uh, companions. And those companions have since turned into partners, protecting the women from the Company without their knowledge. At least, for the moment. I‟m sure the Company are trying to think of a way to separate the husbands and get their hands on the women and the children for...” He rose above her and laid his mouth on hers, moved quickly and slid his tongue between her lips. His hands framed her head and his chest pressed against hers. She could have pushed him away, torn her mouth from his, told him „no‟, even bitten him. She did none of those things. Instead, her hands ran through his hair, over his shoulders and down his naked back to his waist. Instead, she allowed his sensual assault on her mouth with his lips, his tongue.
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She could feel his thick length press into her thigh and felt herself go damp with need. Mackie lifted his mouth from hers and slowly opened his eyes. He brushed a lock back off her forehead. “Has anyone told you, that sometimes you talk way too much?” She shook her head. “Well, I‟m telling you now. So shut up, the preview is over and it‟s time to get this show on the road.” Did he mean...? Mackie lowered his head to hers. Nope, guess not. She thought and opened her mouth under his, matched the thrust of his tongue with hers. He shifted a hand, raised his chest off hers and unzipped the sleeping bag, spread it wide and stared down at her with anticipation. Mackie half lay on her and the hair on his belly touching her sensitive skin, sent arousal sparkling through her. She dragged his head down to hers again and feasted on his mobile mouth and he shifted, moved between her thighs. He slid his hand down the soft skin of her side to her underwear and cupped her. She arched at the pressure and he tore his mouth from hers, used his other hand to flick open the catch of her bra and lowered his head, drew her in. The suction of his mouth was incredible and she felt the surge all the way down to where she wanted him. She skimmed her hands down his muscled back, grabbed the edge of his Lycra underwear and shoved the material down. “Careful.” He muttered and circled her nipple with his hot, moist tongue. He sat up and divested himself of his underwear. His hooded gaze drew down from her swollen mouth, to her breasts, down her belly to her thighs.

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His hands reached out and she lifted her hips so he could remove her panties. He slowly dragged the silk down her legs and off, dropped them next to his underwear, then his gaze returned and he gave her a half smile. She raised her arms and he came to her, settled his weight and lay between her thighs. “Oh, yeah.” He murmured and his mouth sought hers. His hand returned to the apex of her thighs and he eased a finger into her, then another, pressing gently to test her readiness. Ripples of pleasure surged through her, hot and thick and tingling and... waiting. His erection grew hard against her inner thigh. Stacey reached down and tugged at his hand away, then she gripped his thick length, guided it to her as he tucked a hand under her thigh and lifted her leg. He pushed into her and she held her breath as his hot fullness pressed inside. He thrust slowly and with each thrust, she felt the flare of heat expand. He tore his mouth from hers, shut his eyes and grimaced as if in pain, but he didn‟t stop the slow slide until he was seated within. Then he paused, as if to catch his breath. His eyes opened and the green fire burned brighter as he leaned down and took her mouth again, his tongue sweeping into her. Her fingers brushed down the hard muscles of his back to his butt, urged him on. He slowly withdrew, and eased into her painstakingly slow. “I‟m not fragile.” She whispered against his mouth and she felt him smile. “Please.” His hips jerked and he plunged into her, thick and long, she felt him go deep. She raised her other leg, dropped her knees further apart and her hands gripped his butt, matched his rhythm. She could feel it, feel the growing heat with every thrust, feel the slick slide of him as he moved faster, thrust harder, pounded into her as if this was his last chance. She tore her mouth from his, gasped for breath as his length thickened, pulsed. He ducked his head and latched onto the other breast, sucked hard and bit down.

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“Oh, Ker-Iste!” She gasped as the orgasm blew over her. She threw her head back and thrust her chest up. Mackie growled deep in his throat and his hands held her hips, held her to him and surged once more, and again. She felt him come in one long rush that sent her over the edge again. When her senses returned, he was still on top of her, still deeply imbedded within her. She could feel the after-pulses squeezing him and the soft, rapid huffs of his breath against her breast. Her fingers held his butt, her thighs framed his hips and all around the Amazon jungle watched in silence. *** Mackie‟s chest heaved as he tried to breathe in enough air to survive. All he could do was inhale the scent of her hot, silky skin; her own unique perfume and flavour. Dear God. His eyes opened and he blinked. A pebble-hard, pink nipple jutted up, almost within reach of his tongue, but he didn‟t know if he had the strength to go again, let alone haul himself off her. Her heart pounded beneath his ear and her internal muscles occasionally gripped him in the aftermath of her orgasm. His hips moved involuntarily as her fingernails dug into his butt, felt his cock twitch within her. Her silky thighs slid down and then up against his hips and he stiffened some more. Her hips rocked up towards his and he knew he‟d shortly have the energy. He blew a breath out, watched the goose pimples rise on her skin. Mackie rubbed his stubble-rough cheek against her, turned and lifted his head. She stared at him with a hooded white gaze that reminded him of the hot heart of a star. He stared back at her, shifted his arms to rest on his elbows on either side of her and bowed his hips. Oh, yes. The tiny constrictions gripped and released him and he soon found himself rock hard and thrusting fast.

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She didn‟t blink, but her breath sawed in and out as she matched his rhythm, held onto him. He could feel the impending explosion gather, kept thrusting and her eyes flared wide as the orgasm claimed her. Her inner muscles clamped around him and his eyes crossed as he felt the surge blast through him and his seed poured into her. No more, he thought as he once again found himself resting his head on her chest. No... more... he was empty. Her heart pounded against his ear and he stared at the door until his own breathing levelled out, matched hers. Why? Why now when she‟d turned away from him on a number of occasions? And why did he want to know when he‟d finally... Mackie disengaged himself and rolled off her and onto his back. He threw an arm across his eyes. The word popped out of his mouth. “Why?” He asked and cursed himself for a fool. Her reply staggered him. “Because I can‟t help myself and I don‟t want to die without knowing.” His arm slipped down his face and he hoisted himself up onto an elbow. “Without knowing what, and why do you think you‟re going to die?” She reached out and brushed her fingers along his jaw, rubbed a thumb across his lips. “Without knowing what it would be like to be with you and...” A crease formed between her eyebrows. “Weren‟t you listening right before you jumped me?” “You said something about it being a suicide mission, which, I might point out, you‟ve mentioned before. So I mentally rolled my eyes and imagined what... hmm, well anyway, when I got to the really hot part, voila, hot monkey sex with my dream girl.” She drew her hand back and looked away from him, sat up. “I‟m not your dream girl, Mackie, I am a total screw up whom the Company sent on a mission they intend I not return from.”

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He rubbed a hand over his face. “I need you to hold that thought until I have some coffee in me.” He opened the door and stepped out into the jungle. A low mist curled amongst the canopy. Mackie reached his fingers up and stretched. Damn, but he felt good. Joints popped with satisfying cracks and he shook out his arms. Then he turned and his jaw dropped. The passenger side door was open and she was standing next to it, all naked and everything. He didn‟t question, he didn‟t comment. He simply walked around the car and retrieved what he needed in the back. He dug out the fire pit. The stones were still hot to the touch. Excellent, he thought and covered the rocks with leaves. With the lighter, he set fire to the leaves and quickly put sticks and small branches across the flames. When he was satisfied with the low burn, he poured purified water into the Billy can and hung it over the fire from a tripod. Now to deal with hygiene. He turned and stood, gave Callender a bright smile on his way to the trunk where he grabbed a bigger bottle of water, a towel and toilet paper. Then he made his way towards the edge of the jungle. He paused and turned back to her. “No peeking.” He grinned and moved away to the latrine he‟d dug. *** Stacey leaned heavily on the car door and dragged in a deep breath of heavy, humid air. She couldn‟t believe she was out here, standing on the jungle floor. Her heart pounded, yes; her palms sweated, check; and her breathing accelerated, yep. But it wasn‟t as bad as when she‟d been sitting in the car yesterday, when the images of Cortez rising above her sent her into panic mode. No, she was more calm, more relaxed than she had a right to expect. Still, Mackie‟s admonishment about peeking tempted her to do just that, but she didn‟t and thinking of his words, the comforting tone, eased her panic.

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But could she go further? The trunk was still open; she could always climb in over the back if the panic returned. With that safety in mind, she planted her hands against the car‟s side, kept her eye on the passenger door and slid to the back. “Huh. Go me.” She said, pleased. She reached into the back and opened her pack for a wash cloth and soap. Then she grabbed a bottle of water stored to the side of the wheel-well. Her thighs were sticky and she need to scrub the dried semen away before dressing. She stood where she was and took a sponge bath. When she was done, she dressed in a clean camouflage uniform and black boots. She tucked her shirt into her pants, and looked up. Mackie striding came back through the jungle. Her mind clicked as if it was taking a photograph. She stared at his tanned broad chest with the smattering of dark hair, the muscled stomach and narrow waist. She dropped her gaze to his strong thighs, down to his calves and feet. She drew in a breath and lifted her eyes to his handsome face and knew it was an image that would stay with her for as long as she lived. Tarzan, indeed. “Yo!” He grinned at her. “Latrine is thataway.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder as if it were perfectly natural for her to wander the green jungle. He rubbed a hand across his naked chest. “I‟m makin‟ java, so make it quick, Major.” He tossed her the toilet paper and she caught it. “Okay, jungle boy.” Stacey braced herself. She was a soldier, in uniform and she couldn‟t disgrace it with cowardice. She was a Marine, God-damn it, and Marines did not back off and they didn‟t back down. They marched forward into the teeth of impossible odds with a butter knife and flayed the enemy for daring to attack truth, justice and the Marine way! She had over a two hundred years of honour and sacrifice to defend, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. No, to the deserts and high mountains of Afghanistan.

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And I am so fed up with being afraid! Her focus on the uniform and history took her to the latrine, through doing her business, covering the pit and back to the car. She stood there, one hand against the cool metal, with her head hanging low. Sweat ran down the side of her forehead and face, her heart thundered in her chest, her body shook as if she‟d plunged into an ice-filled lake, but she‟d done it. She‟d done it! She marched, alone, through the jungle and back again. It wasn‟t far, but for her, it was a monumental step. If she could do that, maybe she could do more and maybe this mission wouldn‟t turn out to be the disaster she expected. Confrontation therapy. Mackie held a mug of coffee under her nose and plucked the crushed roll of paper out of her grip. “Here you go, your reward for bravery in the face of the enemy.” He murmured and kissed her cheek. She took a shaky breath and turned around, leaned back against the car. “Thanks.” She murmured and sipped the strong brew. Damn, but it lit her up. The coffee was so strong she figured it would melt a spoon. She gulped it down as if it was water. Mackie, she noticed, was dressed in loose, dark green cargo pants, black boots, a black t-shirt and a loose, unbuttoned khaki shirt. The pants stretched across his butt as he crouched down and poured water into an MRI. He set it aside and did another one and set it aside, rested both against a rock. “You coming over here for food, or do you want breakfast in bed?” He turned his head and she sucked in a breath at his hot gaze. “Women in uniform get me going, just FYI.” Heat surged into her cheeks under his lustful gaze. As tempted as she was to take him into her again, she couldn‟t. She‟d had her shot at happiness, had her time with him and that was all. She didn‟t do relationships. Now, she‟d move on.

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If she could, a traitorous voice said in her head. She ignored the voice and focused on Mackie‟s expression. “Take one step toward me.” He said, holding her gaze, and she slid her left foot forward. “Two step.” She planted her right foot in front of the other. “Three step.” Her foot slid along the leaf strewn ground. “Four step.” Her right foot dragged in the soil but she took the step, her body shaking hard. “Five.” He rose, held out a hand, as she took the fifth step. “Six.” He murmured and she swallowed hard, kept her gaze on his and took the final step into his arms. She shut her eyes and held on. “Good job, Marine.” Mackie rubbed a hand up and down her spine, rested his chin on the top of her head. “Good job.”

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Chapter Fourteen Callender trembled in his arms, shook as if she couldn‟t control herself, as if on the verge of a breakdown. He could do nothing but admire the courage it took to walk away from a sanctuary and confront what terrified you. That she‟d visited the latrine on her own was amazing enough; the thunderous, angry expression on her face had lasted until she returned and marched to the car. Then he‟d seen the result. She‟d laid a hand on the vehicle, crushed the toilet roll in her hand and he‟d seen her shake – but she hadn‟t leapt into the car. He didn‟t have any phobias that would cause such a reaction, but he knew of the demons she constantly battled, knew why and his admiration grew even as his heart ached for her. Yet, he figured if he didn‟t mention her trip, she‟d be fine, and hell, she‟d earned the coffee. Now, he had an arm full of shuddering woman. Not a soldier, not a Marine, but a woman who confronted her phobia and slapped it. She held onto him with a death grip and he kept stroking her back until the tremors eased. He figured she had her eyes closed so she couldn‟t see the thick greenery surrounding them. Her grip on his shirt slackened and the shivering diminished. And still, he moved his hand over her, soothed her, reassured her. She leaned back, stared up into his face. “Thank you, Mackie, for giving me the strength to do this.” He leaned down and brushed his mouth over hers. “Come and sit down, have some breakfast. You can keep a hold of me if you want.” Callender wrapped a hand around his waist and he lowered both of them to the jungle floor. He leaned to the side and picked up the MRIs. “Reconstituted scrambled eggs with flecks of bacon and peppers. Good for you and will fill you with energy.” She accepted the package and the fork he offered her, but kept in contact with him, her thigh pressed against his. She kept her gaze on the eggs.

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The food was filling, he could say that about it, and almost as good as the real thing, but it wasn‟t the real thing. He finished his breakfast, then set aside the empty pack and poured them both more coffee. “Okay, then. About this supposed suicide mission. I think you‟d better explain in more detail since I was so distracted the last time.” Her cheeks flushed and she filled him in. She started out by describing the covert operation to take his twin sisters into government custody and the Special Operations‟ teams failure; she also mentioned the assassins on those teams, sent by General Beckett. And the information she had linking the Company with Beckett. Callender went on to outline Autumn‟s mission with Major Nathan Hawk to Thailand and the discovery of Mainwaring‟s lab and his plans for Autumn. She also covered Winter‟s amnesia, how she got it, her escape with her future husband and Chambers‟ demands of her. “I think the situation fooled me.” Callender said as she sipped her coffee. “I think I missed him because he‟s dead – and I have no doubt Winter killed him in self-defence. Does he have a connection to the Company or was he just a greedy bastard who had dollar signs in his eyes?” “What you‟re suggesting... has some merit. From what you‟ve said and from what I understand, this all started with Cosgrove sending in teams because this Pocklington guy was becoming too powerful within the defence contract industry.” “Yes. I was already assigned to General Beckett as his Intelligence Operations Officer and a bigger prick you won‟t find – unless it‟s in the Company, of course.” Her hands wrapped tightly around her mug. “Someone must have contacted him – I don‟t know who – and given him the information, because he just about exploded when he found out about the twins. But the next day, he‟d calmed down and referred the mission to Cosgrove. Turns out, if the mission failed, Cosgrove would be out. Unfortunately for Beckett, Cosgrove called on me to rummage for information and I found it. Beckett is now in Leavenworth.” Mackie lightly punched her arm. “Good for you.”

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“Anyway, Pocklington went down, too. Summer saw to that. But he and Mainwaring knew each other and had for some time. No one knows what they talked about because their meetings were private and verbal only.” “Circles within circles.” He murmured. “And that brings the story to us.” “Yeah. Here I am, an inexperienced agent in an environment that terrifies me; and here you are, brother to the sisters, willing and able to wreak vengeance on a complex we know nothing about.” Mackie contemplated the fire. He knew the story and he had to agree with her. At every turn, his siblings were involved with missions that ended with them fighting for their lives, with the Company working behind the scenes to torpedo those missions. He hadn‟t bothered with calling his own contact for further information. The Company used him as an „outside consultant‟ for missions they didn‟t want to be connected with. Was this another one, designed to see him fail? “You‟re starting to scare me, Callender. This is way too complex.” She shook her head. “Not so complex if the Company‟s goals had been met. Summer and Winter would be dead. Autumn would be dead, too, because she would not submit to permanent confinement. She was willing to die, Mackie, in the jungles of Thailand, to complete her mission. It was Major Hawk and the Yakuza who saved her. So, with all three sisters dead, they‟d still turn their attention to you. Probably with this same mission.” “What was it you said this morning? Shit on a shovel? Well, add crap in a cup to that one.” He subsided into silence as he tried to work out what to do next. If they didn‟t go after the facility, some asshole would probably detonate the explosive device in Callender and come after him for real. But now the mission stank of a trap for them. “They‟ll be waiting for us, won‟t they.” He said now. “Probably.” “And their instructions will be to capture or kill me.” “Yep.”

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“Furthermore, they‟ve not only warned the garrison, but beefed it up some to guarantee success.” “Uh, huh.” He picked up a damp stick and stirred the coals of the fire. “Suicide mission.” “Suicide mission.” She repeated. “Still wanna go?” Callender brought her knees up, wrapped her arms around her legs. “Ain‟t got no choice.” She turned to him. “Do or die.” She said grimly. He gave her a smile, reached out and brushed a knuckle down her cheek. “Marines never give up and they never give in. They‟re able to leap tall buildings in a single leap, catch bullets in their teeth and stop speeding trains.” She leaned into his hand. “And I keep telling you, that‟s Sergeants. Majors can leap garden fences, catch popcorn in their teeth and watch speeding trains go by.” Mackie chuckled. “You guys... at least you‟ve still got your sense of humour.” “The thing is, there‟s nothing funny about going into a battle you might not come out of alive.” “Oh, hey, cheer up. How bad can it be for two superheroes?” *** For all Mackie‟s jests, he turned serious when it came to what they would take with them for the five kilometre hike. He‟d already cleared away the fire pit and stowed the breakfast gear. Molly had filled two smaller packs for each of them. Mackie added the weaponry and she strapped the familiar weight of a Beretta 9mm pistol belt around her waist. She pulled it out of the holster and checked the load, the sighting and the safety before returning it to her holster. Mackie strapped on a similar holster, checked the weapon. He gave her a small smile before handing her an M16A2 assault rifle.

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“Grenades are in your pack.” He said. “And I have some C-4 with detonators. We both have an emergency field first aid kit – just in case – and a full canteen of water. Now, how are you feeling?” “Nervous, anxious.” She replied and kept her focus on him, unwilling to let the inside shakes show. “The jungle?” Stacey swallowed hard. “I don‟t want to talk or think about it.” And she shuddered. Mackie nodded. “Okay, we‟re going to walk through the bush until you... decide you don‟t want to anymore. Then we‟ll go with Plan B.” She frowned. “What‟s Plan B and can we go straight to it?” “If I tell you now, you might want to leap at it and I think it will be good for you to study what‟s around you first, see what the jungle is like, know what can and cannot hurt you before we take any alternative action. I‟ll be your guide today and I‟d like to show the wonders of the jungle through my eyes.” He held up her pack and she slid her arms through, then he turned her to adjust the straps, just like any other soldier. She did the same for him and they both shouldered the rifles. But instead of marching single file into the green gloom, he took her hand, squeezed it lightly and urged her to accompany him. “Within the Amazon rainforest lies an amazing diverse eco-system, and it is so large it‟s able to generate its own weather, which is why it buckets with rain. Rain needs a particle to give it gravity enough to fall to earth. Here, in the jungle, that can be dust rising from the soil into the atmosphere or fungus spores ejected upwards or from the trees. The soil itself isn‟t nutritious for plants so they have shallow but vast root systems, sucking the goodness out of the rotting leaves and detritus on the jungle floor. Now, above you...” Mackie kept a hold of her hand and led her through his green world and explained why he loved it so much and why it was so important to the global climate. He pointed out flowers and plants, insects and birds and gradually, her fear receded under her curiosity and his instruction. The anxiety didn‟t vanish, it pulsed inside her, as if waiting for the moment of release, but it was under control.
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The jungle he showed her was one she‟d never had the chance to experience and Mackie opened her eyes to its... magnificence. The plants, the insects, birds, snakes, mammals... Mackie refused to let her go, kept squeezing her hand in reassurance as they walked. It truly was a beautiful place, but tough to get through with the vines and fallen trees blocking their path. They paused near a log, under the canopy for a break. A kilometre wasn‟t far under normal conditions, but with a pack, weaponry and in the heat and humidity, Mackie had decided to take regular breaks so they wouldn‟t be exhausted by the time they arrived at their destination. Stacey was worn out, thirsty and sweaty from the oppressive heat. Her shoulders drooped when he called for another rest. She leaned against an enormous log that was well on its way to being compost, but it was still sturdy and covered with moss, lichen and bright fungus. She felt leaf dropped onto her head and she brushed it away. Mackie raised his head and then looked at her, gave her a sick smile. “Um...” Another leaf fell, then another and he reached out and dragged her towards him as she brushed the offending... “Mackie?” She asked with false calm as the fear and panic expanded within. Her vision greyed at the edges as her heart rate spiked with painful intensity. “Yes, Callender.” Mackie said solemnly. She swallowed hard, all her muscles frozen with overwhelming terror. “Why is it raining spiders?” She squeaked. He brushed her down and she tried to hold herself absolutely still, blocked her ears to the gibbering voice in her head and closed her eyes. She wanted to run. Run as fast and as far as she could and braced her muscles to sprint. She didn‟t want to see, she didn‟t want to see! “Because there‟s a web above you between two of these giant trees. These are social spiders. They get together to...” He paused. “I don‟t think I should be telling you this.”

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A shudder went through her, left her trembling. Mackie must have realised her intentions to escape. His grip tightened as he lead her away from the arachnids. “If it‟s any consolation, they‟re harmless.” He said. “I d...d...don‟t care!” She wailed and tears surged into her eyes as memories of Cortez‟s threats rose in her mind. “They‟re spiders and you need to get them off me, get them OFF ME!” Warmth enveloped her as he wrapped his arms around her. It wasn‟t much but it helped her hold off the worse of the horror. “They‟re all gone, not one escaped my wrath.” He said in a soothing tone. She felt him move. “Time for Plan B.” He murmured and something soft covered her eyes as he tied cloth around her eyes. “A blindfold?” “Can you see?” “Mackie. Of course I can see, I have alternative vision, remember?” His hand cupped her jaw and he lightly kissed her. “I know, but you don‟t have to use it, do you. Keep to the standard spectrum and you‟re blind. If you need to peek, you can use thermal vision.” “Oh.” And she felt the tension ease out of her muscles. “Why didn‟t I think of that?” “Ah... do you really want me to answer that question?” He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “No, but I am going to give you genius status for this. Do you realise what this means?” “That you can walk through the jungle without seeing it?” Stacey nodded. “I know you want to show me the glory, but if you could see what I can, could feel what I feel when I don‟t see all the green and remember...” She let out a gusty sigh as the last remnants of the impending panic attack faded away. “We can go now, I‟m ready.”

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“Good. But as an added protection for you, I‟m going to extend my own shielding.” He took her hand once more. “Can you see it?” Tingles rippled across Stacey‟s bare skin and she looked at her free hand. “No, but it tickles.” “Mmm, that‟s it.” He said softly. “No more foreign... ah, no more insects to worry about and let me tell you, the mosquitoes can be ferocious.” He led her away from the social spiders‟ web and down an animal trail she could now see with her thermal sight. The jungle was a dark shade, spotted with the heat signature of wildlife. Above, she saw the birds flying, roosting, or their nests with red hot little eggs. She saw the monkeys and the cold blue of snakes and frogs. For her, it was a different kind of jungle, a rainbow of individual life and so different from the snow country she preferred. Stacey found herself constantly checking herself for spiders or other insects, regardless of Mackie‟s protection, but she couldn‟t touch herself. An invisible, flexible wall, like thick Jello, stopped her fingers. The animal trail led them to a narrow creek with fish indolently swimming against the current. She let go of his hand and hopped across to the other side, then turned to watch him jump. “No need to ask if you‟re okay with this, but it‟s a little strange to see, what amounts to a blind woman, flitting about the forest without bumping into things.” “We all see things in a different way, Mackie, mine is just more unusual than most.” She replied. She watched as he pulled the GPS unit out of his top pocket. “Only another two hundred metres to the complex. We should... excuse me, you should be able to see any electrified fences or booby traps.” “I‟ll keep an eye out.” She said and continued on, but more slowly, searching the ground, the trees, the trail for any tell-tale signs of traps or surveillance. In the end, the fence was completely benign and she nearly walked into it if not for Mackie‟s hand on her shoulder.

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“This is wrong.” He muttered and urge her into a crouch. “What facility doesn‟t have significant security measures in place?” “Oh, I don‟t know, how about a facility on an unlisted and undocumented island, or wait, in the heart of jungle where no one knows it exists?” “I‟d agree with you up to a point, Callender, but we decided they know we‟re coming. So. A cold fence. Is there anything they could do to the wire that would disable you if you ran into it?” She thought about it. She‟d detect any electricity running through it. But what if it wasn‟t about disabling her immediately but about detecting her presence? She looked up and ran her gaze along the fence line, searched for a heat signature. “I don‟t know, Mackie. The Company has had years to test my abilities. I imagine they‟d have an answer to my talent; they don‟t need to tell me about it. Besides, the Company already knows where I am.” “Come on, let‟s walk the line.” He took her hand again. She slowly stood and followed him, kept turning her head, searched for the trap. Beyond the fence lay more dense jungle, but it was only about fifty metres thick. Then there was empty space. Mackie walked them to the access road and again, had them crouch behind the foliage. She watched his red and yellow arm lift and point and turned her head in the direction. A guard house. She held up two fingers, pointed to either side of the entrance. “They look ready for action.” He said in a low voice and rummaged around in his pack, dragged out a pair of binoculars. “I can see the safeties are off. Shoot to kill orders, then, depending on the load.” “What now?” She whispered. “We go back the other way. See what‟s on the other side, whether there‟s a break in the wire or another access point.”

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It took three hours of struggle through the jungle heat to circle the complex and crouch down in the undergrowth to watch the increasingly anxious guards. With no clue as to whether the wire was a trap, all they could do was observe. “They know we‟re here.” She murmured and drank from her canteen. “Their stress levels have spiked, causing an increase in body temperature.” “And I ask you: is she any good?” He quipped in a low tone. She ignored his comment. “Question: If they know we‟re here, why don‟t they act?” “Answer: they don‟t know exactly where we are. Okay, we need to back up and regroup, take a break, while they wind themselves up into a tizzy.” He eased back through the foliage and she followed. She was about to speak when he held up a hand and led her deeper into the jungle. He kept walking then came to a halt at a trail cross road and eased his pack off, sat on it. Stacey mimicked him and stretched out her legs. “Voices, noise,” he said softly, “carry remarkably well in the jungle.” He said and rubbed a hand over his face. “Okay, what do we do now? We‟ve not yet sighted the complex.” “No and that worries me.” “We have no option but to go in.” She said. “Just like the Company wants us to.” “If we take out the guards, they‟ll call in reinforcements. If we go under the fence, I‟m sure they‟ve got something to detect it. If, for nothing else, to discourage burrowing wildlife.” He said. “Is there such a thing?” “Yeah, there is.” He mused. “The Patagonia Cavy is notorious for digging out of enclosures – it lives in underground communities.” “The... what?”

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“It‟s like a guinea pig, great burrower... and the natives eat them.” He gave her a smile. “They‟re tasty. There are plenty of Amazonian beasties who live in burrows, only coming out at night to hunt.” “So... do we go in now, or later, when they most expect it?” She asked. And tried not to think of what animals came out in the darkness. “Does night make a difference to your vision?” Stacey shook her head. “Heat signatures are heat signatures. Warm-blooded creatures will change when they‟re asleep, though. The heat tends to cool slightly and centre around the vital organs.” “Can you be fooled into thinking someone‟s asleep when they‟re really awake?” Stacey thought about it. “I don‟t know, Mackie, I don‟t think so. The Company had plenty of time to test my limits, to experiment with them. They know everything I do about my vision, probably more.” “That makes it more complicated.” “Especially if they‟re awake and using night-vision technology.” She lifted a shoulder. “It‟s what I‟d do.” “Actually, there is one thing you can‟t see at the moment. You can‟t see my expression.” Stacey frowned. “Why should that matter?” “I don‟t know if it does, it‟s just something to consider.” He got to his knees and rummaged in his pack. “What are you doing?” She asked and he paused, glanced at her, then continued to search in his pack. “Another flaw.” He held up two objects of equal size, both shades of dark grey. “Which is the magazine for the 9mm and which is the muesli bar?” She studied the objects, focused, but she couldn‟t tell with the thermal vision, both were cold. She switched to ultra-violet, but neither fluoresced. “I... don‟t know. I can‟t

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distinguish between the two with either extreme.” She confessed and lifted the blindfold. He held a mobile phone in one hand and bar of chocolate in the other. “There‟s the problem.” He said and put both back into his pack. “Damn, is this going to cause us trouble?” Mackie lifted a shoulder. “I don‟t know. You have the full spectrum, but given your... aversion to the jungle, would your handler expect you to get this far?” She gave him a nod. “Yes. It was impressed upon me how important and how urgent the mission was and I‟m known for completing every assignment given to me. Although, up until now, they‟ve been research projects. This, as you know, is my first outdoor adventure.” “Yeah. I got that.” He said and stared off into the jungle. Then he dragged in a deep breath. “Okay, we need to fuel up and be on our way at dusk. We‟ll rest up here until it‟s time.” “No coffee?” “Sorry, you‟ll have to wait until we‟re back at camp. But feel free to chew on some energy bars. They should be in your pack. You‟re gonna need your strength for what comes next.”

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Chapter Fifteen Mackie felt the dread grow inside him. If he‟d found a flaw in Callender‟s talents, then sure as eggs the Company knew, too, and informed the guards. What he didn‟t know was what to do about it, or how to combat it. He needed her to be on top of her game in detecting heat signatures and the only way he knew to defeat thermal imaging was for the guards to be dressed in some sort of heat resistant material to reduce their profile. But did they have the equipment to completely disguise themselves? Thermal suit with camouflage material over it? That would limit the guards mobility if they wore Gilly suits. But all they need do was hide until ready, then throw the heavy camouflage off. He shook his head and chewed on an energy bar. This mission was looking more and more like a real storm the battlements and damn the consequences. But neither of them could afford to be wounded if they were to rescue the subjects. His power would protect himself, but her? All she had was training from long ago and her amazing eyesight. He could only shield her if he was touching skin-to-skin. And all the speculation was useless. They could not know what lay ahead in the complex because they‟d not seen it. All they could do was gird their loins and hope fortune favoured the brave. The jungle grew darker and he knew the sun was halfway down the sky. Here, night came early due to the thickness of the canopy. “Time to go, Callender.” He murmured and stuffed the energy bar wrapper into the front pocket of his pack. She did the same and both of them hoisted the packs and shouldered the rifles. “How do you want to deal with the guards?” Callender asked. “The old fashioned way. You take the one on the right, and I‟ll take the one on the left.” In the shadows, he saw her shift with embarrassment. “What?”

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“Um... I‟ve spent most of my career at a desk, Mackie, I don‟t know how to disable someone.” She confessed. He huffed out a breath. “Okay, that‟s bad.” He‟d have to wait for the right opportunity and take them both down before they could raise the alarm. “Come on, I‟ll see what I can come up with.” He sighed and led the way through the jungle. Callender, he noted, used the blindfold as a bandana, rather than blindfolding herself again. Well, he shrugged mentally, it served a purpose and maybe it would again. She seemed more comfortable with the jungle surrounding her and that could only be a good thing. At the edge of the rain forest, he squatted down behind the broad leaves. “Lights.” She whispered and he looked up. High on the fence, two arc lights were pointed down towards the road. He couldn‟t afford to have them turn on, they would pinpoint their egress. For now, the guards stood uneasily, staring down the road or glancing at the jungle on either side, as if expecting a battalion of soldiers to march on them. All he needed was for one guard to turn away. Mackie carefully and slowly removed his pack and handed it to her. “Hold this for me, would you, dear?” He said and moved away from her, moved closer to the fence and oblique to the line of sight of the guards. With his back almost touching the fence, one guard couldn‟t see him at all and the other was too busy staring at the road or his side of the jungle. The guard didn‟t look at his companion, nor did they speak to each other. He eased closer, slowly, ever so slowly. He didn‟t want to attract their attention by moving too quickly or making any noise. Mackie waited, his breath slowed and he let the darkness hide him. Then his chance came. The far guard turned away and flashed his lighter to ignite the end of his cigarette; he‟d temporarily blinded himself. Mackie pounced and

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punched the man in the throat. Then he spun as the guard dropped his weapon, and slammed his knuckles into the second guard‟s sternum, stunned his heart into stillness. Both men collapsed to the ground. One man dead before he landed; the other man dying, clutching his throat, his lit cigarette falling with him as he fell. His feet kicked as he tried to breath. Mackie got down on one knee and pointed four closely held fingers to the man‟s sternum, folded his fingers in and brought his fist down. The man‟s hands dropped bonelessly from around his throat, his eyes wide and staring. Mackie gave a whistle and waited for Callender to join him. “Are they...” “As a Dodo.” He said and took the offered pack and rifle. “Let‟s go.” He said and marched up the road, putting his pack on as he went. “You know,” she whispered shakily, “I‟ve never seen anyone kill before.” “I don‟t, unless I have to, and each death is a burden I‟ll carry to the grave.” He said and walked around the bend in the road. He‟d been assigned to her to do the wet work, but her words told him she‟d not really thought about what it meant. Now she did. He signalled for her to lower to the ground and he crouched. They finally got a look at the complex. *** The two storey, white painted, red-tile roofed hacienda was the last thing Stacey expected. She‟d had visions of buildings similar to those in Thailand, with grey walls, box-like facilities. Here were manicured gardens, a balcony with lush pot plants, a fish fountain spurting water out of its broad mouth. “Whoa.” Mackie said quietly. “Not the type of lab I expected.” “Where do we start?” She whispered. “Can you see any security?” “No. It‟s as if it‟s an ordinary home.” She said, puzzled.

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“Well, we‟ll just have to be careful and take a look around.” External lights flicked on over the balcony and above the front door as the twilight faded into true night, but she saw no movement. It was as if the structure was empty. “What‟s wrong with this picture?” She asked. “No guards, no movement and no security other than what I‟ve sorted already. Search deeper.” Mackie ordered and Stacey used thermal vision. “People, over there.” She pointed to the right, up on the second level. “They‟re sitting – dinner from the heat signatures across the table.” “How many?” She counted. “Eight.” “Not enough. Where are the others?” She dropped her gaze. “Four downstairs – uh, it looks like the kitchen. Big heat sources.” “That makes twelve. Any more?” Stacey turned her attention to the left wing. “Two – one up, one down.” He shifted beside her. “Where are the subjects?” “I can‟t see them, but there are... minor heat fluctuations bottom level, centre.” She tried to focus harder, but the signatures remained frustratingly vague. “Conclusion?” Her vision returned to normal and she rubbed her eyeballs. “Another building behind this one.” “Ah. Shall we go have a peek? Let the inhabitants enjoy a nice dinner before we take them out.” He moved off to the left, his rifle clutched in his hands and she followed, her ears concentrating on any unusual noises and her gaze swinging left and right, to the jungle and to the hacienda. For all their expectations, she couldn‟t shake the feeling that she‟d missed something; something important, like the lynch pin to the decades old issues.

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Somewhere in her reading, her subconscious discovered the answer to all the questions, but her conscious mind wasn‟t listening. Mackie crept to the end of the building. “Targets?” He whispered over his shoulder and Stacey returned to her search. She gently tapped the white wall of the building. Held up a finger and pressed it against the stone. Then she looked up for the other signature, but shook her head. Whoever it was had left the room. He gave her nod and indicated she should come forward to look around the back of the house. His hand rested on her shoulder as she crouched and peered around the corner. Another building, smaller, but like the hacienda, with white walls and a red-tiled roof. She concentrated on the heat signatures, but the images, while larger, were still amorphous, and vague. She couldn‟t positively identify any one human shape. It was as if they were huddled together, but in separate rooms. “I don‟t know.” She whispered to him. “They‟re not clear enough to identify.” He huffed out a breath. “We‟ll go look. Keep an eye out.” He ordered and ran in a crouch to the edge of the second building, crept to the wooden door. Stacey followed and caught a scent. It smelled like... Mackie turned to her with a grin. “Now, watch this.” He said and he placed his index finger against the lock. She saw heat pool at the tip, expand to white-hot intensity, then shoot into the lock. There was a metallic pop and the door swung in. “Let‟s go.” He said and moved inside. The scent was stronger now and she could see the heat signature more clearly. “Horses?” Mackie gasped as he strode down the centre aisle and stopped in the middle, halfway to another wide door at the end of the building. “Where are the fucking prisoners? The lab?” He swung around to glare at her.

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Stacey dropped her gaze. It wasn‟t beyond the realms of possibility that there was a hidden complex beneath the stable, but all she saw were the markers of insects, probably worms and beetles. “Well? This is your mission, Callender, your intelligence. So where are they?” She lifted her eyes to his. “I don‟t know, Mackie. My information said there was a connection...” And her lips twisted with disgust. “I can only say this,” she waved a hand, “was exactly what I was expected to find.” *** Mackie couldn‟t believe it. All the time, the effort, the resources and the subjects were horses? No, this was... he raised his head, stared at the red tile ceiling and lowered his gaze to the floor, turned away from Callender, shouldered his rifle. She sounded as disgusted as he felt. She was expected to draw this particular conclusion? Cosgrove was expected to send her, alone, to the Brazilian jungle? Her handler expected her to... what? Fail? Well, she had, in spades. And him. A similar briefing to assist her in finding and destroying a bogus lab. Worse, all they‟d found was a ranch. The people inside were probably the owners and the hands. And he‟d killed two innocent men guarding the place, for simply doing their job and being in his way. Holding weaponry wasn‟t illegal, it was essential in this part of the country to protect the inhabitants from the wildlife, or bandits, or simply because the owner could have armed guards. He rubbed a hand across his face. This was a fucking joke. It had to be. If she was right and this mission was designed to bring him into the fold, well, the Company was wrong. He‟d no longer make himself available for any more missions. And if they weren‟t happy and came after him, he‟d do exactly what he‟d done before. Hunt down the agents and show the Company again he was no one to mess with. “Mackie,” he heard her say, “I can see another signature, human and you‟re blocking my...”

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He saw movement, from the stall at his left. With his right hand he reached for his pistol, the other he held out, palm facing the shadow. The concentrated air shimmered around his hand and the bullet ricocheted to the side even as he heard the pfft of a weapon with a suppressor. He heard Callender gasp but he didn‟t turn, he brought up his pistol as the assailant fired again and again. One loud shot echoed around the stable as Mackie fired and the shadow dropped out of sight. Mackie spun as the overhead lights came on. Six men, dressed in green camouflage, levelled rifles at him. They couldn‟t touch him, couldn‟t kill him with his power fully engaged to deflect any bullets, but he couldn‟t protect Callender... Callender! She lay unconscious on the ground, curled on her side, blood spreading across her chest and back. A woman held the barrel of a gun to the top of Callender‟s head. A woman, with grey streaked auburn hair tied back in a pony-tail, who smiled at him with eyes the same shade as his. She wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, beige jodhpurs and black riding boots. “Spring, you do a mother proud, now make me prouder by disarming, or I will kill her.” His hand shook hard as he stared at her, his mind blank with shock. Then he saw her tilt her head and slowly thumb back the hammer of her revolver. His fingers near creaked with stiffness as he opened his hand. The Beretta dropped to the floor with a thump and he held his arms out. The men behind his mother came over to him, took the assault rifle, dragged the pack off him and patted him down. “You can‟t be her.” He croaked. Oh, but I am. She whispered in his mind and his eyes widened. Jennifer Ann Porter rose, the gun at her side. She lifted her chin to two of the men. “Take her. You know what to do.”

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Mackie took a step forward and her weapon raised to point at him before she turned her head. “You stay where you are, son. This doesn‟t concern you, although it is your fault.” “My...” He gaped at her. “You deflected the bullet, Spring.” She said and guilt surged through him. Callender had said something about blocking her... what? View? His hand deflected the bullet, he‟d heard her gasp even as he fired. He watched as the men disarmed Callender, roughly stripped her of the pack and dragged her out. Was she dead? Was that his fault, too? His mother smiled at him. “I‟ll leave those questions to your imagination.” He slowly shook his head. “Why?” Jennifer chuckled. “Come on up to the house; we‟ll talk.” He had no choice but to follow, but deliberately shut his mind down. Thought of the jungle around him instead and froze a picture, like a barrier. “Aww, sweetheart, you remembered.” She said with mock affection. “I never forgot.” He wouldn‟t call her mother. She led him into a Spanish-style courtyard, with the four guards behind him, and into the house, to a library. Virtually every wall was stacked with books on the Amazon, on other jungles and forests around the world, on chemistry and physics, psychics, bio-engineering, gene therapy and those were a small portion of the books. “Have a seat, Spring. Manuel, coffee please.” The guard slung his rifle over his shoulder and left. The others remained where they were, spread out around the room so he couldn‟t take them all. Until he could think up a plan, work out where Callender was, he could do nothing but oblige this... stranger. He settled himself into a black, wing-backed chair. She sat across from him, leaned back and crossed her legs. Her eyes roamed over his face and it gave him the shivers.

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“I‟ve missed you, Spring.” She said with soft affection. “Well, I haven‟t missed you. As far as anyone knows, you‟re dead.” He ground out. Her mouth curved. “And that‟s the way I like it.” “I‟ll ask you again: Why?” Jennifer steepled her fingers, held them against her mouth, then shifted her gaze to the door. “Ah, coffee.” Manuel set the tray down and poured two cups. He handed a cup to Jennifer, but he set Mackie‟s down on the coffee table in front of him. The guard gave him a glance and then stood to the back of Mackie‟s chair, at a safe distance. Jennifer sipped her coffee. “Mmm. There‟s nothing like Brazilian coffee in the world.” She set her cup on the saucer, rested it on her knee. “I suppose I should start at the beginning.” She said. “Although it‟s a long and involved story.” She lifted a shoulder. “Ah, well, it‟s not as if you‟re going anywhere... yet.” She was trying to provoke him into coming out from behind his jungle image, so he added the low, hunting growl of a jaguar and a smile flickered on her lips. “Your father and I grew up in the Idaho facility... ah, she didn‟t tell you. Good, good. We didn‟t know each other at the time. Certain... inmates... were kept separate, especially the teenagers; all those rampant hormones. But, none of that‟s important. We were both sent to Vietnam – an unfortunate war if ever there was one. John went to Recon and I went to Air America. The war was over by then, but we needed intelligence, fought a covert war along the border.” A smile bloomed, added youth to her worn features. “Oh, I loved my job. Loved flying in secret, loved aiding and abetting the allies, but it was also corrupt. Theft, bribes, drugs, weapons, gold. Still, it was fun. Anyway, one day, I‟m on the ground. I‟d just met with a contact and I look across the bar.” Her expression went distant as she returned to a place far away in time and place. Mackie picked up his own coffee. It wasn‟t drugged, it came from the same pot she was drinking from. “Your father, all big and macho, with his black hair and sapphire eyes. And he‟s looking at me. At me, with speculation. There I was, twenty years old and full of myself, flush with success. Well, he was a challenge I couldn‟t resist and we went at it
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like rabbits. Oh, he was so very, very good. He‟d deserted from his unit who were trying to locate POWs and I was on a six month deployment in Laos. I thought to recruit him to Air America. After all, it was full of malcontents, grafters, grifters as well as genuine patriots. To do that, though, I had to lure him in.” Her eyes met Mackie‟s and darkened. “But I fell pregnant; with you. He was so happy.” Her mouth twisted and she drank more coffee. “I was not. It meant an end to my career, but... he convinced me to take off with him.” She smiled at him, a parent‟s smile. “When you were born, I could not regret it. One look into your eyes, and you were mine; ever and always. John was so proud of you, of both of us. He wanted to get married. Being a modern woman, I refused.” “Why did you call us after the seasons?” He asked and she snorted with wry amusement. “You were my new hope for a fresh start. Spring. A time of new growth. And things were changing. America lost Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were killing to increase their power bases, chaos had arrived. But I had a little bundle of joy to give me hope that I could live the life I wanted.” She shook her head. “It wasn‟t to be. John simply couldn‟t keep his hands off me and I fell pregnant again. It didn‟t take long for Stewart to catch up with us. He was Special Operations and a CIA mole, inserted to keep an eye on the drug use of the troops.” Her eyes turned deadly, piercing. “He found us and informed the authorities, damn him to Hell. All of us were captured and sent to Paoy Pet. When she was born, I called your sister Autumn because it signified a fading of all my dreams of the future. Summer and Winter were so named because John wanted to keep the theme going.” Her eyes shone with anger, with frustration and contempt. “The stupid bastard genuinely thought I loved him.” She set the empty cup aside and leaned forward. “Well, I didn‟t. At that age, I didn‟t know what love was. And for me, it was over soon enough, but I was stuck with him. I had four children, three of whom I never wanted. The twins were conceived on a night when I felt lonely and John was available.”

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Mackie kept his expression blank, barely managed to hold onto the jungle scene. He could not believe the selfishness of this woman, the narcissism. He‟d loved to have done something, anything, but he needed the whole story first. “One day, that idiot Cortez told John what the plan was for the girls. Me,” she lifted a negligent shoulder, “I couldn‟t care less.” The jungle scene wavered under his fury. “You knew Cortez raped them? Repeatedly?” She gave him a wry smile while rage churned in his belly. “Like I said: I couldn‟t have cared less. John did and set out planning our escape. I just wanted out. Out and away from those bastards.” Her mouth tightened. “He wouldn‟t let me take you, said he had plans and I needn‟t worry about it. He suggested I take the twins and Stewart with that Vietnamese woman would take Autumn. I didn‟t care what he did with her.” She snorted a laugh. “Turns out he did alright. The Yakuza. Damn him.” Revulsion churned inside him. “You sold your children to Pocklington.” “That I did. He gave me enough money so I could get back to the CIA.” “But... you‟d been away for years and the compound was run by the CIA.” She narrowed her eyes. “You don‟t get it, do you. I am CIA. I was trained from birth to be CIA. It‟s all I am, all I ever will be. And I can‟t tell you how happy that makes me. Those idiots wouldn‟t let me contact Air America, wouldn‟t let me contact anyone.” Mackie shook his head. “Once I got back to Idaho, they opened their arms to me, accepted me back into the fold. When I told them all that happened, oh, the pride they had in me. For my bosses, I‟d done more than my job. I‟d created a class of super kids, the next generation and they wanted them back. Paoy Pet didn‟t them about you, the fools.” She pursed her lips. “But Summer and Winter disappeared, didn‟t they, so did Autumn.” She shifted, uncomfortable. “I knew Pocklington had them. I got the girls to demonstrate what they could do and he lapped it up. I could hear him thinking of how

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the girls would make him a fortune. The bosses decided to wait until they matured enough to be useful – either as agents or as breeders with other talents. To remind Pocklington, I set up a... chance meeting between him and Mainwaring. He was already involved with gene therapy – he was going to be the CIA‟s conduit before we escaped. I just brought him back into the business. But there was a problem; I never knew what. Time moved on and they were put on the back burner. Pocklington‟s fortune grew and so did Mainwaring‟s. Mainwaring decided to go into gene therapy; Pocklington promised him samples from the twins to study. I couldn‟t allow that, so I contacted the head of the Special Operations Group.” “General Beckett.” She nodded. “Man was a fool, but he was my fool. All he had to do was see the girls dead. Simple, but he fucked it up. I‟d sent Callender in to monitor and Beckett still couldn‟t get it right. The idiot handed it off to Cosgrove, his arch enemy with a view of getting rid of the Colonel.” Mackie felt a frisson of excitement bolt down his spine. She didn‟t know Callender had betrayed Beckett to Cosgrove. “The girls survived and were protected. I tried Chambers, but the man‟s greed overroad any common sense he might have had. I even had Callender initiate an investigation into where you all came from. She‟s a wonderful talent, that girl. Anyway, the point was to get Autumn to Mainwaring. She was the least useful of the girls and a nice compensation for Mainwaring losing the twins.” Mackie snorted. “She surprised you” He said smugly and she scowled at him. “Sakamura taught her too well. But without Hawk, I have no doubt she‟d be dead, like her sisters are supposed to be.” “Why do you want your daughters dead?” Jennifer lifted a shoulder, as if he should have worked it out. “Because I hate them, of course. Because they kept me from you. Because they are abominations who should never have been born!” Hate shone from her eyes and Mackie went with his instincts. “No, you despise them because, not only did they lead to your capture and detention, but they kept you a prisoner. And for years you plotted their destruction.” He said with
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understanding. “Even when freed, you still wanted them gone because they represented a miserable time in your selfish, ego-centric life, where you weren‟t in control. And vengeance is a mighty powerful motivator.” Jennifer surged to her feet. “They took my youth!” She shouted. “For ten long, unbearable years, Spring.” She bit out, her fists at her side. “And they should pay for it with their lives!”

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Chapter Sixteen Mackie couldn‟t credit it. This selfish, ambitious woman was his mother? No, he thought, his true mother, the one who cared for him, who loved him, who told him stories and rocked him to sleep, that woman was dead and had been for decades. In her place stood a stranger, a monster. “So... let me get this straight. You hate your daughters for being born, because they kept you from the U.S. and now decide it‟s time for revenge?” “Now you‟re beginning to see.” She resumed her seat, leaned over and poured herself more coffee, as if the outburst never happened. “It was easy to work my way up the chain of command until I was in command of the special unit dedicated to the genetic research. But not the facility side, oh, no, I made sure it was the covert operations side and I got rid of the Paoy Pet staff. I directed all the missions of the talents, set them on their captors and abusers. As a side benefit, I could implement the plan to take the girls out. All too easy, I thought. But it‟s always good to have a Plan B. Don‟t you think?” “And now?” He asked cautiously. He wasn‟t interested in her Plan B, only finding out everything then locating Callender and getting the Hell away from this nut job. “And now I have you back with me. You were always mine, Spring, my own special boy.” Her face shone with love and a need for him to understand, but he didn‟t, not yet, maybe not ever. What she‟d tried to do to his sisters; sisters he‟d yet to see as adults, was unconscionable. Maybe he was interested after all, if he wanted to keep this woman from them. “What‟s Plan B?” She sipped her coffee. “A reunion, of course. You‟ll kill them for me, won‟t you, my darling boy?” “Why would I do that?” He asked, astonished. “You haven‟t seen them since you were eleven. They‟re strangers to you, just three more targets to remove, for the good of global security, of course.”

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She was crazy. That‟s all there was to it. His mother was buggy, totally off her rocker. A certifiable nut job. “I‟m not in the assassination business.” Her trill of laughter sent shivers down his spine. “Of course you are. It‟s what you‟ve been trained to do. All those illegal loggers, the corporate thugs you‟ve taken out, the poachers... the two guards at the front gate. Oh, you‟ve made me proud over the years, Spring, so talented, so strong. The girls won‟t pose any problem for you. They‟ll be overjoyed to see you and you can do the job. It won‟t take long.” He stared at her, wondered if she was serious. “Have you banged Callender yet?” She asked and the image of the jungle vanished to be replaced by their morning of passion. “I see you have. Good boy. I said she was good, but I had my doubts she‟d get you into the sack. Especially with those scary eyes of hers. It‟s good to be wrong on occasion.” “We didn‟t plan on...” “Of course you didn‟t, but I did.” She said and her meaning was clear to him. Callender was sent to seduce him as well as get him to the hacienda. The sense of betrayal struck deep and he flashed on the jungle again before she could sense his pain. She‟d played him; Callender had played him, with her fears, with her stories with her fake inexperience in covert missions. Was anything she said true? Jennifer leaned forward, her intense green eyes laser sharp. “So how does it feel to be so completely betrayed, hmm? By friends, family and lover?” He turned away from those burning eyes. “There‟s no research facility here, is there.” Jennifer sighed with disappointment. “No, there isn‟t. The information was planted in Mainwaring‟s mainframe once Pocklington decided to leave the U.S. and come here. Brazil doesn‟t have extradition with the U.S. so it makes for a nice bolt hole in case something goes... awry.” “And this... this... charade, was all to lure me back into your loving arms.”

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“I knew you‟d understand. I‟ve done this for you.” She looked over his chair and grinned. “Ah, good you‟re here.” Mackie felt a surge of dread and slowly turned. Two guards held Callender upright, the front of her uniform stained a dull red with dried blood. Her right arm was bandaged tightly against her chest, her shirt buttoned over it. He felt a surge of relief that she was alive, but stinging hurt at her duplicity. What had Callender said? You‟ve never been put into a position where you‟d rather die than betray another single human being into captivity or death. So don‟t lecture me on something you know nothing about. Was this what she meant? Was this her true job? Betraying talents to this... screwball? At least his mother had seen to her medical care. Her mouth was a thin white line and she swayed in the arms of the guards. No matter his anger at Callender, and he was furious, he was still glad she lived. But... someone had wrapped a bandage around her eyes, too, and he saw bulges. Jennifer rose and dragged over another chair. “Lead cups, my dear Spring, so the Major can‟t see with her very special vision. Sit.” The guards walked... more like dragged... Callender to the chair, set her in it. Jennifer stood behind Callender. “Another cup, I think. I know how much the Major likes her coffee.” The guards scurried to do her bidding and Jennifer lowered her eyes to the top of Callender‟s head. “Yes, me. Did you think I‟d let anyone else be your handler? This mission was too important to be under anyone‟s control but mine. Ah... how disappointing.” Jennifer lifted her head with a smile. “The Major knows all about blocking mind readers, too, but she goes empty, a blank slate, a dark pit, an endless blue sky. Charming, don‟t you think?” “I... don‟t know what to think, Mo... ” He could not... “Come on, son, you can say it.” She softly urged.

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“Mother.” He said and Callender sucked in a subtle breath and her mouth tightened further. But he saw the quiver, the trembling of her chin, as if she was trying not to cry. “There you go.” She gave Callender‟s shoulders a squeeze, pressed her fingers into the wound and Callender‟s face drained of all colour. Jennifer resumed her seat. “Now then, as an added incentive, Spring, I‟m willing to offer you... the Major, as compensation for disposing of your sisters.” “What?” And he‟d thought she couldn‟t shock him any more than he already was. “I know you like her, otherwise you wouldn‟t have banged her. And she likes you, too – she so accommodating, don‟t you think? Sexual encounters with strangers in the dark so she doesn‟t have to admit she‟s alone, rummaging around people‟s private and professional lives so she can live vicariously through them. So needy for a touch, for a kind word because she didn‟t have it as a child and will never have it. Her eyes, you see, they brand her as something... unnatural, and no ordinary man will understand her. So... you can have her on your return. Trust me, she‟ll be ever so grateful to you and as an added bonus, she doesn‟t speak a word of Portuguese, but I‟m sure you‟ll continue to find a way to communicate. How does that sound?” “I...” He began and tried to quell the nausea brewing. “You want...” He paused, swallowed hard. Another bombshell he couldn‟t think about. Of course Callender spoke Portuguese, but apparently, Jennifer didn‟t know that. “She has some... Christ. She‟s not a commodity to bargain with.” Jennifer looked at him, calm and without any emotion in her eyes. “She‟s an asset, Spring, a tool to be used as I see fit, a commodity to be traded when I don‟t need her any more. And after this, I won‟t, I‟ll be retired from the CIA, but not from the business.” She sighed with smug satisfaction. “There are so many opportunities for a woman of my talents. So, ante up, boy. Negotiate with me. Does she live or die?” *** Dig me a grave and bury me in it, Stacey thought as she breathed through the fiery pain in her shoulder, I‟m a dead woman. It wasn‟t Mackie‟s fault she‟d been shot, it was this insane woman‟s. Yet, when she‟d awoken in the kitchen, laid out on the table, she‟d overheard the guards as they
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stripped her of her shirt, talk about Jorge and what a pity it was he‟d fired too soon. That had the idiot waited for La Aranha – the spider - to give the order, he‟d be alive today and the menina wouldn‟t have been gunned down with a through-and-through and laid out like a slab of meat. Her eyes opened to the men standing over her and she writhed in pain. Who knew a bullet would hurt so damned much. The guards noticed, ordered the chef to heat up a knife, get the first aid kit and held her down. Thank God she‟d passed out, though the wound still pulsed with fire and she felt like throwing up, especially after Jennifer dug her fingers in. She couldn‟t see anything but blackness. Her handler – what an evil bitch – knew how to disable her talent, but Stacey had never expected... Then Mackie called her Mother and everything fell into place, even as the cu... crazy cabra told Mackie her secrets, all but one: no one in the CIA or the military knew of her ability to absorb languages. She didn‟t discover it until she was older, less inclined to believe every word her guardians spoke – and she‟d never had the opportunity to learn foreign languages at the time, either. They were too concerned with her vision to wonder if she had any other talents. Now Mackie and his mother were bargaining for her life. Hers or his sisters? Which would he chose? He subsided into silence. Someone grabbed her free hand and wrapped her fingers around a warm mug. The scent of coffee rose and she lifted the brew to her mouth, sipped. The coffee landed in her belly and her stomach trembled. Would it stay down? So far, so good. “Well, son, are we in this together? Will you help me, your mother?” “He still misses you every single day, you know.” She heard Mackie murmur. Jennifer laughed.

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“I know. But he‟s so far into his bottles of Johnny – and there‟s irony – I doubt he‟ll ever return. Good riddance,” she spat, “I only wished he‟d killed himself years ago.” “That‟s my father you‟re talking about, the man who raised me after you abandoned me. Why did you never contact me? Never come for me? Never let me know you still lived?” The air held a dangerous vibration. The guards behind Stacey and to the sides shifted. Jennifer sighed. “He might be a useless individual, but your father did love you and I had business to attend to. I knew he‟d look after you and he did; he got you away to somewhere safe. I always intended to come for you, Spring, and you‟re here now. That‟s all that matters.” “Just like that.” He said with barely suppressed violence. “You expect to what? Be the loving mother and me the adoring son? Make up for lost time? You and me, together at last?” “I thought you understood.” Stacey heard the wounded tone and wondered if Mackie would believe it. “And I do understand. You‟re a bitter, old woman who‟s wasted her life in the pursuit of a revenge that was never worth it. Never worth the time or the effort. Well, it must really burn your wick to know Summer, Winter and Autumn have found love, have found contentment and meaning in their lives. Who use their talents for the betterment of the world. But are you proud of them? Of the way they overcame diversity and succeeded? No. You sit here in your hacienda, twisted up with rage, alone, and demanding I destroy my sisters so you can avenge an imagined slight from years ago?” Mackie‟s voice was furious and contrasted with the cool, hateful deliberation of Jennifer‟s. “Take Callender out and shoot her. This time, do a better job of it.” Fear streaked through her, but she didn‟t let it show, not in body language or in thought. She‟d known this was a suicide mission and she‟d face her doom with her head held high and a determination to die like a Marine in her heart.
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A hand removed the cup, held her elbow and urged her upright. She swayed as she got to her feet but the guard held her steady. “Yeah, that‟s right, shoot the one person stopping me from taking this place apart. Way to go, Mom, once again you demonstrate how fucked up you are. Got a problem? Stick your fingers in your ears and la-la away while someone else does your dirty work. You‟re a fucking monster, a...” Stacey heard the crack of hand meeting flesh as Jennifer slapped her son, then she was being turned away and guided to the door. “Callender.” Mackie said and the guard stopped his escort. “Remember the guards.” He spoke in English and she tilted her head. Mackie wanted her to take out her escort like the gate guards. Her mind swirled with calculations sourced from the angle the man held her upper arm. She tugged free and her elbow shot up as she turned slightly. She slammed her arm backwards and caught the guard‟s throat with the point of her elbow. She spun downwards as he staggered back and she swept her foot out, kicked his ankle as hard as she could. He felt to the ground and gunfire erupted around her. She lay on the floor, the scent of cordite thick in her nostrils and prayed for Mackie‟s safety. As suddenly as the gunfire erupted, it stopped and all she heard was the rasping breath of the guard she‟d hit. Her calculations had been correct, but her balance was compromised and she hadn‟t hit him hard enough or missed the target. “Callender?” She lifted her head. “Sim, Mackie?” She said and she heard his breath gust out. “Apenas verificando.” Stacey got to her knees, her chest on fire. She lifted a hand to the bandage, felt the heat and the moisture. “E voce?” “Bem.”

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She moved her hand to her head, loosened the blindfold, dragged it off. The lead cups dropped to the floor with a thump and she blinked liked an owl in the sudden light. The injured guard stopped his thrashing and she looked at him. “Madre Dios. Olhos do diabo!” He whispered hoarsely. Eyes of the Devil. “Coração do diabo, demasiado.” She snarled back at him. Heart of the Devil, too. She turned her attention to Mackie, ignored the bodies of the other guards. He stood in front of Jennifer‟s chair, facing her. His body was relaxed, but there was something... Jennifer leaned to the side and looked at her. “I love it that I can turn anyone into a puppet. But enough about me. I see you‟re bleeding to death. How about that?” She spoke in Portuguese and Stacey blinked at her. “You‟ve been keeping secrets from me.” Mackie said and Jennifer laughed. “I love doing that. But it‟s not all about me.” Her smiled stopped, simply vanished. “It‟s about what you‟ve been hiding from me.” “Do you mind if I sit? We may as well be civil and I‟ve had a bugger of a day.” “I‟m not feeling very civil, Major Callender, I‟m feeling very, very pissed off.” “I‟m sure.” She eased back and rested her back against the door, hunched in to ease the spreading pain in her chest. “How many languages can you speak?” Jennifer demanded. “Any I come across.” Stacey replied and Mackie twitched. “How long have you had this ability?” Mackie asked and she saw sweat slide down the side of his face. “Um... since I went to work at the Directorate, I think.” “And you never told me? Never. Told. Me. Your handler!” “Nope.” “I could have used you for so many missions; opportunities wasted, because you... betrayed me. Always I am betrayed.”

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Stacey snorted. “Oh, get over yourself. You‟re nobody special, Porter, and believe me, I‟ve seen special; you ain‟t it.” Jennifer surged to her feet. “How dare you. How dare you speak to me that way! I have suffered! What do you know of anguish, of torment and longing and denial, or painful ordeals? You, who was brought up in the comfort of Idaho? You, who was coddled and vetted and spoiled by the doctors? Given the choice of assignments because they felt sorry for you. For your stupid white eyes.” She shouted. Jennifer blinked and Stacey smiled as Mackie turned and slammed his fist into his mother‟s belly, bashed his solid knuckles against the bottom of her skull as she doubled over. Jennifer collapsed to the floor with a thump. Mackie reached down to check for a pulse. He glanced at her. “She‟s alive.” Then he walked over to her, helped her stand. “We need to get out of here.” Stacey staggered at the dizziness. “I could always...” “Callender, she might be a fucked-up nut job, but she‟s still my mother.” “Huh.” He put an arm around her waist and opened the door. The hallway swirled and her vision flashed between the extremes, didn‟t settle on any one focus. Nausea churned, her head swam and the blackness drew everything to a point, then even the point vanished. *** Mackie cursed as he took Callender‟s weight in his arms. He‟d seen the spreading blood, bright and wet against the camouflage shirt, knew who caused it too, damn her. He picked Callender up in his arms and groaned. He knew the other guards would arrive as soon as Jennifer woke up and gave the order to hunt them down. They had to be away as far and as fast as possible and with Callender out like a light, that wasn‟t going to far or fast enough for him. Jennifer would show no mercy, not for him nor Callender.

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Mackie went to the back door and stared at the two packs, the two pistols resting on top, the two rifles leaning against the wall. He set Callender down, brushed a lock of hair off her damp forehead. He slid his pack on, clicked his weapons belt shut and holstered the Beretta. Did he need anything in Callender‟s pack? No. He mourned the loss of the grenades, but he had some and the C-4. He fitted the second weapons belt around Callender and put her Beretta in the holster. Finally, he shouldered the assault rifles, opened the door and picked her up. This was going to be a trial, a test of endurance and stamina and he gritted his teeth, walked down the driveway to the gate. The bodies had been removed, but no guards replaced them. Insects flitted around the arc lights and he continued down the road in driving tropical rain. They‟d come through the jungle to the hacienda at an oblique angle. This time, he‟d walk straight back to the Range Rover, hidden in a clearing off the road. He hoped it wouldn‟t take too long.

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Chapter Seventeen Callender groaned as Mackie staggered. It was getting harder to lift one foot in front of the other, to keep moving, when his arms were aching, burning, and his legs felt like logs. His back ached, too, but he couldn‟t afford to stop, couldn‟t afford a rest. A kilometre via the jungle, but how long by road, damn it? And still he walked, dragged his feet, stared determinedly ahead. He would not let her die, she was gonna god-damned live and explain why and how she could speak different languages, oh, gee, like Portuguese as if she was a native, when his mother said she didn‟t. Then he wanted to know about all these strangers she had sex with... no, on second thoughts, he didn‟t want to know. It was her business and she was an adult. And he could understand why, too. Sex with strangers meant no emotional commitment. Was that why she‟d slept with him? Did she make the same purring noises with them as she did with him? And why did he care? All he was doing was rescuing his partner. He didn‟t give a good god-damn about her or her weird little peccadilloes, her early life traumas. Man, she was simply too much work. And he loved her anyway. “God damn it!” “Not so loud.” She murmured against his shoulder and he grunted with relief. He slowed to a stop, legs trembling and eased her onto her feet, wiped the rain from his face. “How do you feel.” “Tired, in pain, sick, dizzy and just plain... blech.” “Can you walk?” “With help.” She replied and held onto him, her hand gripping the shirt at his waist.

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They‟d gone a hundred metres when he heard the sound of a vehicle. “Into the jungle.” He ordered and helped her to the side of the road. He pushed aside thick vines and plate-sized leaves, disturbed small mammals in the undergrowth. “I can‟t see a blessed thing in here.” He grumbled. “There‟s a path, a trail, just by that... um... pig thing?” Mackie froze. He saw the eyes looking at him and the shadowed outline of the pig‟s body. “It‟s a giant Peccary. It won‟t hurt us as long as we‟re not threatening.” “Its ears are twitching.” Behind them, he heard the jeep approach and he urged Callender to slowly get to the ground. “Nice and easy, unhurried movements, now. And close your eyes.” He got to his knees, brought her down with him and slowly lay on his front in the mud, his eyes on the Peccary. Callender followed his moves and sighed. “Callender, what‟s it doing? Squint, so you don‟t give our position away.” “Nothing. Just rooting around in the leaves.” “Don‟t let that fool you.” The jeep raced by in a flash of headlights, vanished down the road with a glare of red tail lights and kept going. “We can go now.” He said. “Mmmm, tired. Wanna stay here an‟ sleep.” She murmured. “Later, soldier. You need to get up and get moving.” “Go „way.” Mackie slung the second rifle onto his shoulder, next to the first. He picked up her arm, held it around his neck and dragged her upright. “I‟m tired, too, you ain‟t no light weight, and I‟ve carried you from the hacienda. So suck it up, Major, you are not wimping out on me now, not after all the hard work I‟ve put in rescuing you.”

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He had to give her credit, she did try. Her legs worked as he pushed through the vines again and got back onto the road. But she was failing, slowly fading, her steps dragging until he was all but carrying her again and there was nothing he could do until he got back to the SUV, and he couldn‟t damn well see the gap in the foliage. “I need you to be my eyes, Callender, only you can get us back. Come on, sweetheart, I know it‟s not far, all you need do is look for the heat source of the security system. You can do that, can‟t you?” She cracked her eyelids and light spilled out. It was downright creepy, but he could see the road better. “To th‟ ry...t. Close.” Callender slurred and he staggered as she collapsed against him. “Callender?” He gently tapped her cheek. Her skin was hot to the touch. “Stacey?” She didn‟t respond. He dragged her to the side of the road and awkwardly lifted one of her eyelids. No light. So, he thought, it was a conscious thing, which didn‟t help him blundering about in the darkness and rain. Mackie gripped her waist with one hand and stuck the other one out, brushed the road side foliage and walked until he found and empty space. Praying it was the right gap, he lurched off the road and onto the jungle floor. He ran into fern fronds and broad leaves, but he kept going for another twenty metres. Here. It must be here. He hadn‟t driven that far off the road, thinking at the time, Callender would need to see an exit from the jungle if she needed the open sky. He laid her down with a groan. Shucked the rifles and the pack. By feel, he opened his supplies and felt around for the lighter. There. He pulled it out, and flicked a spark. Tried again with his hand over the flint. The blue and orange flame made him grin and he looked around. He waited for his eyes to adjust and found himself staring at the flame-reflecting patina of the black vehicle. God damn it, she‟d done it.

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The SUV was untouched, unscratched and five metres away. Out of the front pocket of his pack, he withdrew the key, pressed the security lock. The car gave a chirp, the indicators flashed twice and the locks disengaged. He opened the back passenger side door, then went back for Callender. She was so quiet, so unmoving, that for a moment his heart jammed into his throat with fear. But as he picked up, he heard the faint huff of her breath. Mackie carefully put her into the car - he hadn‟t righted the seats from the morning – damn, it felt like a week. He risked turning the interior light on, and hoped the tinted windows and the jungle hid it from view. Then he unbuttoned her shirt, peeled it off her and stared down at the blood soaked bandages. It wasn‟t just the hot bullet slamming through her body that did the damage, he thought as he recalled his bitch of a mother‟s cruel fingers squeezing. He leaned over to the trunk for the specialised medical kit Molly had packed for him. He set it next to Callender, opened it and sighed. Then, he set to work. *** The sudden jolt brought Stacey to semi-consciousness, and wondering where she was. A second jolt sent jagged-edge pain shooting through her body. The jostling didn‟t stop, nor did the pain and she lifted heavy eyelids and stared at the ceiling of the SUV. Daylight? How did they get here? Where was here? What happened at the hacienda? Her last memory was of the fish fountain, vomiting water. She heard a thunderous noise and glanced at the windows. Rain poured down the tinted glass, but beyond, she saw the thick canopy of the jungle in motion. She closed her eyes, drifted into the twilight she knew so well, her mind carefully blank. No doubt Mackie, the experienced agent, would see them safe. Mmm... Mackie. With his gorgeous body, ruffled black hair and emerald eyes, his humour and strength, his thoughtfulness and sharp, careless words. His smile and take charge attitude.

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The car came to a stop and she heard the tinny thumps of large water drops on the roof, but at least she was warm and dry and safe. She heard movement, felt his fingers on her forehead and opened her eyes, gave him a tired smile. “Hey.” He said with a concerned frown. “Hey.” She croaked. He turned away and came back with a water bottle. “You need to drink; you‟ve lost a lot of blood.” “I have?” “You don‟t remember?” “No... I... should remember... shouldn‟t I?” He tucked an arm under her shoulders and lifted her to a sitting position. “Oh, God.” She moaned as pain flared. “I know, honey, I know. Here, you need to take these.” He held two small white pills in his fingertips. “Open up.” Stacey opened her mouth and he popped the pills in, held the bottle to her lips and she drank, swallowed the bitter pills down. “What are they?” “Painkillers with antibiotics.” She grimaced. “Nasty.” She turned her head to look out the window. All she saw was the green jungle. “Where are we?” “I drove further into the jungle so we wouldn‟t be spotted by Jennifer‟s goons.” “Jennifer?” “You really don‟t remember, do you.” He said puzzled. “I remember a fish.” She tried to lift her right arm, but the pain surged and she looked down. “Well, shave me bald and call me Buddha, what the hell happened?” Mackie turned and sat, crossed his legs. “I happened.” “You?”
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He slowly nodded and told her how she‟d been shot. “It‟s my fault. I wasn‟t paying any attention to you behind me, I simply reacted.” Stacey tried to bring up images, memories, but nothing appeared. “Okay, what next?” He then told her of the confrontation with Jennifer, his mother, and the deal she tried to strike with him. His words resonated within her. Stacey frowned, heard the cold, deliberate tone of a familiar voice. “She... told her guards to take me out and shoot me.” “Yeah.” “And then... gunfire. I remember gunfire, loud, quick.” “I went after one of the men and he tried to shoot me. I deflected the bullets to hit the other guards. But she took control of my mind. I never want that to happen ever again. Anyway, while she held me captive, you taunted her into a rage – nice going, by the way – and her control slipped. I took her out, we escaped and here we are.” “So she‟s dead.” Mackie sighed. “No. Whatever else she may be, and a fucked up, narcissistic, murderous whore seems to cover most of it, she‟s still my mother. No, I knocked her out. I was more concerned with you, than her well being.” “Well, gee, Mackie, tell me what you really think of her. But I thought she was dead, back in Cambodia?” “Nope. Do you remember her telling you she‟s your handler.” “No way.” She murmured but felt the truth of his words, half remembered words in her mind before she thought of snow. “Yes, way. She wanted a special talent to control, one who‟s loyalty was unquestioned, who‟s skills gave her the opportunity to set up missions designed to kill her own daughters.” Mackie sighed with disappointment. “You guessed it, Callender, you were spot on. The only thing you didn‟t know was the who.”

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“Jennifer Ann Porter. Mega spy, uber-controller.” She said as memories slowly returned. “But... why? Why spend all this time, all these resources to kill her own children? That makes no sense.” “Because she‟s off her rocker, that‟s why. She blames them for stealing her youth, for forcing her to stay in captivity. She wanted them dead for revenge; then she was coming for me.” “She wanted her children dead?” What kind of a mother despised her offspring so much she‟d murder them, or have them murdered? She looked up into Mackie‟s emerald eyes. Yes, so like Jennifer‟s. “No, just my sisters; me, she wanted to use in her private enterprises, to love and cherish me as a son because she didn‟t get the chance before. And she was willing to blackmail me into doing it.” “Blackmail.” “She would give you to me, save your life, if I went off and indulged in a family reunion, then killed my sisters.” She vaguely remembered Jennifer‟s voice, telling Mackie of her secrets, of her lonely life, and how grateful she‟d be... “Narcissistic doesn‟t cover it.” She murmured. “So what now?” He huffed out a breath. “She‟s probably got another bolt hole somewhere. And I fully expect the road to be blocked once we get to it.” “So what do we do?” “We have to get out of here. She‟s a mind reader, she can search for us without the benefit of line of sight.” “That‟s how she knew where we were. Not the track...” Her eyes widened and she lifted her hand to her collarbone. “Why hasn‟t it gone off? Why am I still alive?” She rubbed her forehead to think. “Take Callender out and shoot her. That‟s what she said. Shoot. Her. Why would she not trigger the explosive?” Mackie lifted a shoulder. “I don‟t know, Callender. You have the sight.”

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She lowered her head, stared at her bandaged shoulder and looked inside with thermal imaging. “It‟s still there. Lots of red and white and yellow... and black. Infection.” She looked at Mackie. “There‟s an infection, thick and growing.” “I was afraid of that, damn it. The jungle humidity accelerates infections.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Maybe that blocked the signal. Or maybe Jennifer isn‟t in control of it.” “If she‟s my handler, she‟s in control.” “She confessed, so we need to get it out.” His expression held regret. “And while the icky stuff interferes with the signal.” “It‟s gonna hurt, isn‟t it.” She whispered. “Maybe, but no more than what you‟ve had to put with so far. And the good news is, I have some local anaesthetic in my handy-dandy little medical kit.” Stacey sighed. “Then if you‟ve nothing better to do, you‟d better get to it.” “Right.” And she saw him swallow. Hard. *** Sweat broke out on Mackie‟s brow but he didn‟t dare wipe it away as he stared at her, heard her tell him to do it. Oh, hell, his hands had barely stopped shaking from the last time. He‟d cut the bandages off, seen the torn stitches and bullet hole beneath her collar bone leaking blood... Now she was asking him to go back in, probe around for a cylinder the size of a... “How small is this thing?” “Um... a...” She looked around the interior, then at him. “About as long as new bullet and as thick as... half a bullet.” “Okay.” He put his arm around her shoulders again, and eased her down. “We‟ll do this and then Callender, don‟t ever ask me to operate on you ever again. I have an aversion to your blood.”

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“I have an aversion to seeing my own blood, so that makes us even.” She smiled up at him and the trust in her eyes made his insides quiver. “Okay. Last time, jungle boy.” And she closed those amazing eyes of hers. By the time he was done, by the time he held the red-smeared device in the palm of his hand, he was trembling, sweat-slicked and ready to vomit. Callender went to sleep almost immediately, but he thought from exhaustion, from blood loss than from any agony he caused her. He took the opportunity to scrape out as much infection as he could and his stomach rebelled at the smell, let alone the sickly yellow-green colour. Now he was done, the stitches tied up neatly, a gauze pad in place and white strips wrapped around her again. He swallowed, but... he turned, opened the door and jumped out, landed on his hands and knees in the mud and threw up, dry retched, until his belly hurt. The warm rain pelted down on him and he eased back onto his knees, lifted his face. When his clothes were soaked, he stripped them off and stood naked under the deluge. All the time, he held the obnoxious device in his fist. He used his elbow to wipe the water from his face and stared down at it, knew his mother had arranged for it to be inserted, just to keep Callender under her control. The rain cleaned the blood from the cylinder and he looked closer at it. A green, viscous liquid leaked from a fine crack. Had the bullet hit it? Was that the reason it hadn‟t detonated? He couldn‟t feel any damage along the smooth metal surface. It could have been leaking long before Callender arrived to turn his life upside down. Mackie dug a hole and buried it. What happened to Jennifer Ann Porter, that she‟d turned into this nightmarish person? Was it really as simple as her being too young to bear children and she‟d felt trapped by them ever since? Or was it a fundamental flaw in her genetic make-up, that she could not accept responsibility for her actions and had to erase mistakes, convince herself they‟d never happened?

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He, personally, could not think of his sisters as mistakes. Never mistakes. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. He closed the car door; too late, but not much water got in. He looked up, way up to the top of the canopy and saw the humidity clouds, wispy and insubstantial shred through the leaves. Already he could feel the temperature climb and those clouds would lower still, drift through the jungle like pale ghosts. Mackie‟s belly grumbled. Time to break out the jug with the cigarette-lighter connection. He went to the trunk, lifted it and sorted through the supply box. Coffee, chicken stew with vegetables and dumplings sound just right to him. He picked up the small jug and the lead that connected to the cigarette lighter. When the water boiled, he poured a small amount into his MRI, and the rest went into his tin mug with instant coffee. He sat on the running board so he could keep an eye on Callender. Her face was flushed, but she slept soundly. He‟d have to give her more pills and water when she awoke. And he hoped he‟d cleaned enough of... no, he didn‟t want to think of that ever again. But she didn‟t awaken. Not by the time he‟d finished eating, not by the time he‟d air-dried enough to don fresh clothes and not when he went out to scout and had returned. She lay as still as death, her cheeks glowing pink, and still she didn‟t rouse, didn‟t move when the jungle gloom gave way to darkness. He laid his sleeping bag next to hers and climbed in. He lay on his stomach and listened to her breath, listened to the night noises of the jungle. Mackie draped an arm across her stomach and snuggled into her. As hot the night was, he found he couldn‟t sleep unless Callender was next to him, couldn‟t sleep unless he touched her and couldn‟t sleep without her... touching him. In the end, he barely slept at all as fever took her in the middle of the night. She pushed his arm away, pushed the sleeping bag down. Her body was slick with sweat, hot and flushed.

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Mackie switched the air-conditioning to full in an effort to cool Callender down. He unwrapped the bandage, lifted the gauze and sighed. Here in the jungle, it was all too easy to acquire an infection. The skin around the puckered bullet wound was hot, puffy and red. He could see the faint red lines spreading out like web. He went for the first aid kit, picked up the translucent yellow canister of pills and shook out two. Then he uncapped a bottle of water, set it aside, close at hand. She moaned as he tucked his arm under her shoulders and lifted her up-right. “Come on sweetheart, you need to take these.” It was as if she didn‟t hear him, and he forced the pills between her lips. If nothing else, they‟d melt on her tongue. He paused, studied the marks on her jaw and lower face. Bruises, finger marks. Someone had covered her mouth with his hand? To stop her from... he shook off the image. He tried to get her to drink, but she refused his efforts and water dribbled down her chin. Mackie shivered as the air-conditioning dropped the temperature, and still Callender was bathed in sweat. He knew he couldn‟t do much more – she needed a doctor, a hospital or... his father. John McCafferty knew and understood bullet wounds, knew and understood jungle medicine – it was the reason they came to Brazil, so he could pursue his fascination with the flora and fauna of tropical rainforest, begun when he was first sent to SouthEast Asia. Mackie dampened his towel to wipe her down. This was bad, he thought as he worked. He didn‟t think he had enough medicines to help her and he needed to get going. He grabbed his pack, searched for the GPS unit. He needed to know which was closer: Tefe, or Carauari, where his dad lived. Mackie up ended the pack, searched the front pockets, but the unit was gone.

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“Damn it.” He sighed. The decision was his alone. But he didn‟t really have a choice. If his father was sober, he was better than any university-trained doctor; drunk, he was a menace. Mackie would take the chance on his father having a good day. Satisfied with his reasoning, he tapped another gauze patch over the wound, tightly wrapped Callender into the sleeping bag and climbed out of the SUV into the thick, humid night. He opened the trunk and smiled at the long, black case Molly packed – “For emergencies.” His friend had smirked. How he got the RPG, Mackie did not ask, he was only thankful he had it. Any vehicle blocking his way at the end of the road, wasn‟t going to be there for very long. He moved gear out of the way and dragged the case towards him, unlatched the lid and opened it. “Oy, mama.” He murmured. The cylinder lay in its cradle, surrounded by four projectiles. “Nice.” He closed the lid, hauled the case out of the trunk and shut the door. He stowed the case in the front passenger leg area and climbed in, put his binoculars on the seat. With a glance over his shoulder at Callender, he started the engine, turned on the headlights, leaned over the seat and backed slowly down the trail he‟d forged. The rear spotlight guided his way. Five minutes later and he was backing into their previous camp site. He continued out onto the road and turned the wheel. Slick mud sprayed from beneath the wheels and he accelerated down the road. They‟d been hidden in the jungle for over twenty-four hours; would Jennifer set her roadblock for this long or would she cut her losses? Where would she go now her jungle hideout was compromised? Back to Idaho? Somewhere else? Was she still determined to have him by her side, still determined to kill his siblings?

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And didn‟t that creep him out. Jennifer constantly looked at him as if she couldn‟t believe he was standing in front of her. Her cheeks went pink with an excitement reflected in her emerald eyes, as if he was her everything. As if she‟d savoured their meeting, imagined what it would be like and could barely contain her glee. Fortunately for her, she‟d not touched him; just the thought of her hugging him, as Callender lay wounded, was enough to spark his rage. His hands gripped the steering wheel with white knuckle intensity and his eyes focused hard on the slick road ahead. The rain had washed any tyre tracks away, created ruts and furrows. Mackie concentrated and reduced speed, turned off the headlights. He was sure the y-intersection was around the next corner and slowed to a crawl. The night was pitch black as he rolled to a stop. He picked up his binoculars and studied the grainy-green images. He saw the open-sided jeep, parked cross-wise, blocking his exit. He saw the glow of a cigarette as a guard smoked and paced the road. His partner was in the front seat, leaning back as if asleep. Neither guard seemed aware of him. “Jennifer, you should have hired proper guards.” He sneered at the shadows. Callender groaned behind him and Mackie looked back at her. He couldn‟t see her, all he could do was lay a hand on her forehead. Still hot, but dry. She needed fluids. Well, he‟d take care of the blockage ahead of him, and then he‟d find somewhere to pull over and he‟d take care of her. Now, did he give the guards the opportunity to get out of the way, or just blast away? He clicked his tongue. He was a fair man and not giving them a warning was akin to murder, and he already had blood on his hands; he‟d avoid any more if he could. He released the handbrake and let the car roll forward until he was a hundred metres away from the jeep.

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Instead of opening the door and allowing the light to come on, Mackie lowered the windows and climbed out the driver‟s side, dragged the RPG case with him. He put it on the ground and opened it. By feel, he took the weapon out, extended the tube. Then he took out a grenade, primed it and stuck it in the end of the tube. He closed the case and put it into the car; one should do the job. Now he was nearly ready. Mackie used his binoculars to check the guards. Still unconcerned, and still sleeping. He gave a sharp, shrill whistle. The pacing guard started, stared around into the darkness. He nudged his partner and spoke harshly. Mackie couldn‟t hear the words, but he did hear the anger. The guard got out, rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and peered into the darkness around him. Mackie whistled again and both turned in his direction. “You need to get out of my way.” He called. “Or be blown into next week.” The first guard lifted his rifle, swung the barrel left and right as if unsure of his target. The second guard scrambled to find his own rifle in the back of the jeep. He dragged it out and matched his partner‟s stance. “You have a count of ten.” Mackie called again, watching the pair. Why stick them out in the middle of the jungle without night vision? He clicked his tongue. Because Jennifer either wanted these goons gone, or they knew where Callender was and were waiting. Both men came forward a couple of steps; one got to his knee, searched for Mackie along the length of the AK-47‟s barrel. Mackie counted down slowly, watched the men through his binoculars. “Ten... nine... eight...” He got to five and the second guard lowered his weapon, spoke to the first who shrugged him off. “Four... three... two...”

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The second guard turned and ran. The first guard glanced over his shoulder then back, determined to find Mackie. “One. Time‟s up.” Mackie called, tossed the binoculars into the car and lifted the RPG. He took a deep breath, eased it out and aimed through the scope. The vehicle was highlighted in green with a black crosshair. Mackie aimed for the back wheel. He slowly squeezed the trigger. He felt the click through his finger, then the grenade launched. Over the belching whoosh, he heard a guard shout. Then the missile was on its way, the fiery tail a fireball in the night. Mackie held his breath. Then the grenade hit and the jeep lifted into the air with a loud explosion of fire and energy. He climbed into the car, set the RPG aside and pressed the accelerate. His finger hit the window button and the tinted glass rose. There was no sign of the men. The jeep lay on its side, burning and vomiting black smoke. With a grin, Mackie stepped on the accelerator and turned on the headlights. “Damn, that was fun.”

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Chapter Eighteen Stacey burned. Fire licked at her body, flared across her skin with nerve searing intensity. She couldn‟t draw in a proper breath; the air was too thick, too heavy, too laden with jagged glass. And the spiders. There were too many spiders falling on her, black and tickling, crawling over her skin, binding her with their gossamer webs. She couldn‟t get loose, couldn‟t... cool air sifted over her, and the spiders retreated. They didn‟t leave, they flinched away, sat at her feet and stared at her, their numerous eyes filled with malevolence. Girls that tell tales get put into deep holes with the spiders. A whispery voice said to her. Stacey shuddered with remembered fear. The spiders took tentative steps forward and horror flashed over her. She couldn‟t escape! There were too many and she couldn‟t crush them all. They stalked her... Familiar fingers brushed over her forehead and the spiders ran away to hide in the folds of the sleeping bag, rose to cling to the ceiling of the car. The spiders will bite you, poison you, eat you... Stacey frowned. It was a new voice, familiar voice... a dangerous voice. Red, white, yellow light exploded behind her eyes and the face of Cortez appeared, grinning with malicious glee. Be a good girl and I won‟t hurt you. She felt the remembered pain throb between her thighs. Be a good girl and I‟ll set you free. Be a good girl and I‟ll destroy the spiders. Stacey whimpered. The eyes, so many eyes. Cortez sprouted more eyes, eight of them, obsidian and shiny, curved fangs extended from his smirking mouth. Be a good girl, a good girl, a good girl... Heat burst over her skin, cut off her air and she struggled to breathe.

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Panic streaked through her. “I‟ll be good. I promise. I‟ll be good. I promise.” Be a good girl and I‟ll set you free. Be a good girl and I‟ll make you better. “I‟m a good girl.” Stacey murmured and the spiders retreated further. Cortez‟s multiple eyes faded and his fangs retracted. “I‟m a good girl.” She said again. Cortez slowly faded, but a new face appeared, one with windswept black hair, emerald eyes and a lop-sided smile. Be a good girl and I‟ll make you better. Mackie said to her. I‟ll stay with you so you won‟t be so lonely. “I‟ll be good for you.” She whispered and tried to reach out for him, but she couldn‟t move, couldn‟t touch him. Tears surged into her eyes. “Please don‟t leave me. I‟ll be a good girl.” His cool hand reached out and cupped her face and she turned into his palm. You must promise not to tell. Girls that tell tales get put into deep holes with the spiders. And the spiders returned, ran over her body with their tickling legs and nipping fangs; she was bound by their webs and could do nothing. “I won‟t tell, I won‟t tell, get them off me; please, get them off me!” She pleaded tearfully. “Hush now.” Mackie‟s low voice crooned in her ear. “They‟re all gone.” His fingers brushed her cheek. “You don‟t need to cry, sweetheart, I‟m here and I‟m not leaving you. Sleep now, we‟ll be home soon and I‟ll make you better.” She steeped herself in his voice, in his gentle tone. “I‟ll be a good girl.” She sighed and sank into sleep. *** Mackie continued to stroke her bruised cheek, gently rubbed her tears away with his thumbs. She was still hot, still wracked with fever. The delirium was new and she kept repeating that she was a „good girl‟. She sounded so desolate, so frightened and lonely; and there was not a damn thing he could do.

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He was still short by a hundred kilometres, but the night had faded and now daylight heated the day. Mackie dampened her lips, bathed her face. At least she was asleep; that or unconscious. She seemed less active when he touched her. It had been her thrashing around that attracted his attention and he‟d pulled over, dived into the back and tried to calm her. With a sigh of relief, he sat up and rubbed his face. His eyes burned with lack of sleep, but he had to keep going, get help for her. He glanced at the console and opened it. He didn‟t usually use a mobile phone when he was on a mission – they always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments – but he always had one in any vehicle he used, turned off and waiting. He called his father. “Wha‟?” “Dad, put the bottle away. I need your help.” “Mackie? „sat you?” His father slurred and Mackie cursed. “God damn you! I said I need your help so wake that sloppy, alcohol-soaked body of yours up. I‟ll be home in a couple of hours. And have your medical kit standing by.” Mackie said. He heard his father clear his sinuses and spit. The thick, wet sound turned his stomach, revolted him. “You hurt, son?” His father asked more clearly. “Not me, my partner; gunshot to the upper right quadrant, through and through, but infection‟s set in.” “Bugger. Okay, okay...” Mackie heard the rasp of his father‟s hand rubbing over a stubbled jaw. “Bring him in, I‟ll see what I can do. But no promises, you understand?” “Yeah, Dad and thanks.” He hung up and stared down at Callender‟s face. She seemed more relaxed, more peaceful, but he wasn‟t fooled. The more the infection

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remained untreated, the closer she came to sinking into a coma and... he couldn‟t think about it; he needed his father‟s magic elixirs and capable hands. Well, he‟d given his dad two hours to sober up. He could only pray it would be enough. *** His father‟s house was built a storey above the ground, on thick stilts, to provide him with a view of the Jurua river, a tributary of the Amazon. A deep, wrap-around veranda was furnished with padded cane chairs and couch, a glass top table and a refrigerator filled with soda his father used for his scotch, and beer for Mackie. And there, with his darkly tanned hands gripping the railing, stood his father. His hair more white than grey, his face wrinkled and bronzed by the tropical sun, his blue eyes glowing with concern and his once tall frame slightly stooped. Looking at him now, he looked like someone‟s grandfather. Drink and bitter memories had stolen the vitality of John McCafferty. Mackie hadn‟t realised until now, how old his father looked compared to his mother. His lips twisted with disgust. That would be a story for later. Mackie shut off the engine and leapt out. He went to the passenger side and gently shifted the sleeping bag encased Callender into his arms. She lifted easily, as if she‟d lost a lot of weight and he frowned down at her. Still flushed, still hot, still sweat-dampened hair plastered to her head. He kicked the door shut and strode around to the stairs, walked carefully up the steps. John held the door open for him. “Spare room, Mack.” Mackie gently laid Callender on the bed and stripped the bag down her body. His father came in with a large white box and set it down. He raised an eyebrow. “You didn‟t tell me your partner was a woman, son.” “Do what you can, Dad, I need a shower, a shave and a very large shot of Tequila, not necessarily in that order.”

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John flashed him a quick smile. “You know where everything is. Take your time, this will take a while.” Mackie felt a sudden surge of love for the old drunk. He set his hand on his father‟s shoulder. “Thanks, Dad.” He said and his mouth turned down. “I have news, but it can wait.” His father‟s eyebrows rose and he cast a speculative glance at Callender. “She‟s part of it, Dad, but not the whole story. Help her, please?” “I‟ll do my best, son, now get out of here. You stink.” *** Mackie drained a cold beer while under the shower. He decided to leave the Tequila alone – he needed all his faculties to explain Callender to his father. He let the hot water pounded over his shoulders. She couldn‟t die. He decided. He wouldn‟t let her. His mind filled with their escapades, her words and explanations, some true, some not. Remembered her fear of the jungle and her paralysing fear of the social spiders as they rained down on her. He‟d have probably freaked out, run around screaming. He reached out to the vanity and plucked another cold beer from the top. Nah. He remembered her turning to him, with her fierce white eyes. Now that, nearly sent him running and screaming. Water ran over his chest as he leaned his head back to drink. It was funny how they no longer creeped him out, that he didn‟t notice them so much. She was more than her eyes, he knew that. She was smart – no, a genius – she was funny with her odd idioms, courageous and strong. Callender faced down the jungle, the spiders, his mother and still kept going. She wrestled with her demons every day, used her paranoia to help others with information, protected his sisters when she could – and kept going. She was beautiful, inside and out. And she could not die.

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He shut off the shower. His father might live in the tropics and used solar energy, but that didn‟t mean the hot water was limitless. When he stood in front of the mirror to shave, he was appalled at the signs of stress and worry he saw. Lines around his tightly held mouth, between his brows, a narrowed gaze that threatened harm, tight shoulders. On a sigh, he scraped the stubble from his jaw and when he was finished, he decided he felt infinitely better. He reached out for his beer can and found it empty. “Well, shit.” He muttered. He‟d consumed four without realising. “No more for you, lad.” The scent of coffee drew him into the kitchen. He poured himself a mug and joined his father on the veranda. “How is she?” He asked, dread growing in his heart when John didn‟t answer immediately or cheerfully. His father slowly turned, mug in hand. “I won‟t know until tonight, son. I‟ve got her on a saline drip with modern antibiotics and a sedative, but I‟ve cleaned the wound and slapped some honey and m‟haya on it.” He gusted out a sigh. “I don‟t know if it will help and that‟s the truth.” “If it works, it works, if not... well, I figured you‟d be the best shot she had.” He lifted his mug, indicated his father‟s. “Not drinking today?” John‟s lips twisted. “You don‟t often call on me for help, son, but when you do, you deserve me to be sober.” He lifted his own mug. “We need to sit, Dad.” He led the way to the cane chairs and eased into one with a sigh. He hadn‟t realised how tired he was, but he needed to tell his father. The mug clinked against glass as he set it on the table. “You‟re not usually so reticent, so out with it, boy. Nothing is ever as bad as you think it is, you know.” Mackie leaned forward, dangled his hands between his knees. “You don‟t know how much I wish that were true.”

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His father‟s mug joined his own on the table surface. “It sounds serious.” Mackie dragged in a deep breath, expelled it in a rush. “Dad... Mom‟s alive.” Silence greeted his announcement. He looked up. John stared towards the river, a distance in his eyes. “I always figured she was out there somewhere – knew she‟d be too selfish to die.” Mackie slumped back into his seat in shock. “But... haven‟t you been mourning her loss all these years?” John snorted. “No, son, not her.” He turned to look at Mackie. “You have to understand the times, where we came from, what we were. Two lost souls in a sea of violence. When we looked at each other across the bar, it wasn‟t just an instant attraction, it was... as if we knew each other somehow. And for months we got to know each other very well. Then she fell pregnant and it all started to go wrong. When you were born, I thought she‟d... change. She certainly loved you, couldn‟t believe she‟d made this tiny little creature. As time wore on, she became more... introverted. I tried to coax her out of it by deciding to move on, move away, but we were caught. She was already pregnant with...” He paused, looked away, but Mackie saw the grief in his eyes. “In the compound, she spent as much time as possible with you, whispering, planning. By the time that sick fuck Cortez let us in on the plans for the girls, your mother barely looked at me, didn‟t want to have anything to do with the girls, wouldn‟t touch them.” He sighed. “We were strangers from the moment the compound gates closed.” It fit with what his mother told him, but he‟d always thought his father pined for her and his lost children; now he knew he mourned the loss of his daughters. “When we decided to escape, she was determined to take you with her. But, I needed you for the escape, for the destruction of the compound. She was pissed. Said I‟d pay for taking her baby boy away from her. I didn‟t understand at the time. But now I do. She sacrificed my girls. Allowed them to die while she vanished. And I did try to find her, son, tried to find out what happened to my girls. But it was as if they never existed.” His father turned damp, unhappy eyes to Mackie. “That‟s why I drink. That‟s who I mourn. Not your mother.”

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Mackie rubbed his eyes. “Well, I have good news and, depending on how you look at it, better news.” “Am I going to need a drink for this?” His father asked with a weak smile. “No more drinking Dad, you‟ve got grandchildren to visit.” His father glanced over his shoulder at the screen door. “You and...?” “Her name is Major Stacey Callender.” He tilted his head. “Or Lieutenant Callender, depending on which agency you ask.” “Huh?” His father turned back. “Never mind. Long story.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out Callender‟s mobile phone that he‟d retrieved before heading for a shower. He located the first photograph, one of a smiling Summer and her little girl, Emily, leaned across the table and set the phone on the table. His father frowned, picked up the phone, studied the picture. “Who‟s this?” Mackie took a deep breath. “That, Grandpa, is Summer Moon McCafferty Pocklington Duquesne and her daughter, Emily.” John froze, then held a hand to his chest and gasped for air. Alarmed, Mackie rose. “Dad?” “‟s okay, „s okay.” He managed to gasp in more air, then dropped his hand and breathed deep. “Summer.” His finger brushed the screen. “And Emily.” His eyes lifted to Mackie‟s. “She‟s alive. Married. My little girl is married. How? When? Who?” Mackie sat on the edge of the chair and plucked the phone from his father‟s lax fingers. He scrolled through, found Winter‟s family portrait and handed it back. “Winter Sun McCafferty Pocklington Beech, with husband, Justin and son, Cameron.” “Winter... Beech? Are you kidding me?” His father didn‟t lift his eyes from the picture. “I suppose I should be thankful they didn‟t name the little nipper „Sandy‟.” He said tightly. Mackie snorted and showed his father the final picture. “Autumn Skye McCafferty Sakamura Hawk and husband Nathan.”

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John stared at the pictures for a long time. Mackie watched the emotions swim across his father‟s face, watched the glimmer of tears appear. Then he set the phone aside with trembling fingers and rose with a sniff. “I need to check on...” “Callender. I call her „Callender‟.” “Yeah.” Mackie rose, leaned his forearms on the railing, stared out over the jungle. He supposed he should go in and make some lunch, or clean out the SUV, or something to stop himself from joining his father, from assuring himself she still lived, from lying down next to her and taking comfort in her. But he couldn‟t. He had to allow his father to do his job. He‟d let Mackie know if he needed any help. On a sigh, he went inside. He needed food if he was to answer his father‟s questions. He made himself two large beef sandwiches, set them on a plate and went back outside to the fresh, warm air. He was licking horseradish from his fingers when his father came out with a strange expression on his face. “She‟s asking for you.” Mackie froze. “Really? She‟s awake?” “Mostly... sometimes... Who‟s Cosgrove? And why does she need to call him?” Mackie stood, wiped his hands on his khaki trousers. “Ah, also a long story. I made you some lunch. Why don‟t you chow down and I‟ll be back shortly with all the explanations?” John‟s lips firmed, then he nodded. “All right, but I want to know all of it. Including why you didn‟t say she‟s a part of Project Genesis.” *** Stacey dozed in the twilight world between sleep and wakefulness. She no longer had the weird dreams about the spiders, although she fully expected to have a life-long fear of them, no matter how harmless.

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She needed her phone, needed to call General Cosgrove and tell him... everything; then she needed to think creatively before she contacted her... No. She didn‟t need to call her handler anymore. Did she? It was all such a blur. From the fish, to gunshots, the dream that Jennifer Ann Porter was alive, to Cortez and fangs. All the images were confused, mixed up with emeralds and sapphires. A warm, dry hand enveloped hers and she cracked her eyelids. Emeralds. “You have such pretty eyes.” She whispered hoarsely. Mackie turned away and filled a glass with water, held it to her lips. The cool liquid slid down her throat and she sighed, saw the drip line leading into the inside of her forearm. “Thank you.” He picked up her hand again, rubbed the back of it against his smooth cheek. “You shaved.” She said. “I brought you to my Dad. He knows rainforest medicine. I‟d say he‟s done a good job. How do you feel?” “Exhausted.” “Any pain?” “Some, but it‟s more a deep ache than a fire.” She frowned. Fire? He kissed the palm of her hand. “You got an infection. I cleaned it out as best I could, but... not well enough. It got worse, you went into a fever and had some delirium. I figured we were too far from Tefe. There‟d have been questions I‟d rather not answer. You‟re safe now.” “Your mother?” He lifted a shoulder. “She‟s either back at the hacienda or she‟s done a runner to another of her bolt holes.” “She‟s really my handler?” She asked and Mackie looked at her strangely. Had she asked before? Her memories were a little hazy.

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“So she said,” Mackie nodded, “but I don‟t think it‟s a good idea to call and find out. Do you?” “No.” She sighed and closed her eyes. When next she opened them, the direction of the sun had changed; was it morning? Mackie was also gone, but so was the drip. There was a bandaid instead. She felt better, not great, but better. Good enough, in fact that she thought she might like to visit the bathroom under her own steam. She threw the bedclothes aside and groaned. No clothes. In a house of men. Ah well, it‟s not as if either men hadn‟t seen her in the buff. And there had to be towels she could use. Stacey pressed her left hand into the mattress and pushed up. Her shoulder throbbed, but it was nothing like the previous agony she‟d been in. She moved her legs around to the side and set her feet on the floor. If she could stand without problems, she thought she could make it to the bathroom... where ever it was. Stacey set her jaw and stood. The swirling in her head didn‟t last too long, but a light sweat still popped out over her skin. So far, so good. One foot slid forward, then the other and she remembered the last time she did this. All she needed was the same focus. She reached out a hand to the door, turned the handle and shuffled aside. She hoped the bathroom wasn‟t too far away, she felt tired already. By sliding her feet along the polished wooden floor, and supporting herself with a hand on the wall, she made her way down the hall, in the opposite direction of the airy room to her left. She figured it was some sort of dining room, and saw the door leading out to the veranda. Logic dictated the bathroom was near the bedrooms, away from the dining room.

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She heard snoring and changed her vision. Across from her was a heat signature and she moved her gaze further along the wall. Another heat signature. She flicked her gaze back and listened. Mackie‟s father on the left, snoring. Mackie on the right, flat on his back. Stacey smiled and kept going. The bathroom was next to her own room. The door clicked behind her and she made her way to the commode. It was a masculine bathroom with wood and steel and white porcelain. The towels were blue or black and the room smelled of shaving cream and cologne. Relief was immediate – both physically and from the need to sit down and rest. She counted to thirty, then stood, pressed the button to flush and eased over to the vanity to wash her hands. She eyed the shower, and then the heavy bandages wrapped around her upper torso. Not today. But she found a wash cloth and filled the basin with warm water and sat on the side of the tub for a quick sponge bath. She rubbed herself dry with a towel, aware her efforts had drained her. She might be clean... ish... she‟d love a nice, long soak, but she still needed to get back to bed. The journey back was slowly and she reached her room with a sigh of relief. Stacey lowered herself to the bed but didn‟t lie down. Instead, her gaze caught sight of her pack. It meant clothes. Clean, fresh underwear and a clean, fresh uniform... but... she needed a nap. She eyed the bag. Nowhere was it written that she had to be in bed to nap. A couch, for example, would be just as useful, particularly if it was out on the balcony. With a mug „o hot, strong java in hand. Satisfied with her reasoning, she lay on the bed and reached out to her pack, tried to drag it towards her. And failed. She didn‟t have the strength and the ache in her shoulder deepened. “Phew.” She breathed through the pain and wriggled forward. Now she could reach the zipper and grab some clothes.

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Exhaustion lapped at her by the time she donned her uniform and buttoned it up over her arm which was strapped to her chest. But she felt more in control as if the uniform had imbued her with the courage she needed. Stacey grinned and stared down at the camouflage green. “Lock up your sons, the Marines are back in town.”

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Chapter Nineteen She made the coffee one handed and encouraged, made herself toast and jam, with a little more effort. Her belly trembled at the food, but she ate slowly and kept it down. With a fresh mug of coffee, she backed her way out through the screen door and onto the balcony. On her right was a table, and two cane chairs with thick, pale green cushions. To her left was a high-backed bench seat attached to a chain fixed to the ceiling; it, too, had cushions but smaller in each corner, pale yellow, to match the covered bench itself. It swung gently in the early morning breeze and beyond, over the jungle canopy, she saw the brown waters of another river. The Amazon or a different river? It didn‟t matter. She slowly walked to the seat and sat down. Lifted her booted feet up and relaxed, watched the colourful birds fly above the hues of the forest until her eyelids grew heavy. She leaned her head back and dozed, kept a hand wrapped around her white ceramic coffee mug. The breeze, the sounds of birds in the jungle, the warmth, all conspired to lull her towards sleep, but she drifted in the twilight. What she‟d seen so far of this home – and she had to assume it was Mackie‟s - was beautiful, but she still didn‟t like the jungle or the heat. A surge of homesickness moved through her. She longed for the nippy breeze to pinch her cheeks, for whitecapped mountains and powder snow streaming out behind her. For hot chocolate with fluffy marshmallows... A door banged behind her, but she didn‟t move until someone tried to pluck the mug from her hands and she tightened her fingers. Her eyes opened to a tanned face, road mapped with wrinkles, and blue, blue eyes. “Hello, Mr McCafferty.” She murmured. He didn‟t smile, barely reacted. All she saw was the tightening around his eyes. Then she remembered she didn‟t have her contacts in and looked away. “Thank you for looking after me.” “I‟ll get you some more coffee.” He said and turned as she released the mug.

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When he returned, he handed her the mug, set his on the railing and dragged a chair over. He picked up his mug and sat, looked at her with regret in his eyes. “If I‟d known what would happen, I‟d have done more. Got everyone out, but my family was my first concern.” “I know.” She said. “Mackie and I had a long conversation last night. He told me some unbelievable things... about my daughters being alive, about you working with them, protecting them, helping them. And for that, I thank you.” “I did my job, Mr McCafferty. A marine should protect the innocent, don‟t you think?” His face darkened as he flushed and he lifted the mug. “This time of the day, my first drink is usually a scotch.” He confessed. “But I find I have a new respect for coffee.” He gave her a toast and drank. “I haven‟t been a Marine for a long time, Major. Are you going to take me in?” Stacey blinked at him. “Once a marine, always a marine, Mr McCafferty, and why would I take you in?” He stared at her. “I‟m a deserter. I ran out on my unit during combat.” She shook her head and lied. “I don‟t know anything about that. All I know is that I‟m not supposed to enlist the help of civilians for any operations where casualties maybe taken. I‟m especially not supposed to use anyone other than my duly appointed partner for dangerous, covert operations. I could get into big trouble if I did.” Her finger ran around the lip of the mug. “The thing is, General Cosgrove sent me; no partner. If he knew...” She sipped at the hot coffee. It tasted different and she glanced at him. He wouldn‟t meet her gaze, preferring to look over her shoulder. “I slipped in some... native herbs and more antibiotics. You might think you‟re okay now, but later, tiredness will creep over you.” “I know I‟m not okay. This is my first mission and it‟s all gone to hell.” She grimaced.

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“So I understand.” “No lab, no test subjects, no information and no arrests – all on the basis of my own research. I have wasted thousands of dollars of resources, managed to step into a bullet, caused my non-existent partner no end of grief in getting me out and to cap it all off, involved an innocent civilian of a foreign nation. If that‟s not a total fuck-up of a mission, I don‟t know what is.” She grinned. “And hopefully, the Powers-That-Be will recognise how useless I am at covert operations and never, ever, send me out again.” John burst out laughing. Stacey heard the door squeak open and turned. Mackie stood, mug in hand, and stared at the pair of them. Then he shook himself and grabbed a chair, dragged it over. “I haven‟t heard you laugh in a long time, Dad. It sounds good.” He remarked with a fond smile. John toasted Stacey. “I haven‟t had much to be amused about, until yesterday. My wife has re-surfaced, my daughters are alive and for the first time ever, my son has brought a girl home.” Heat rose in her cheeks and she glanced at Mackie. He appeared just as uncomfortable and John chuckled. “See? The look on your faces is priceless.” He shook his head. In the distance, she heard her phone go off. “I‟ll get it for you.” Mackie bounced up and strode to the door. “I don‟t think my son could do better than you, Major Callender.” John murmured. Stacey‟s gaze swung back to his and more heat flared in her face. “I... um...” “He loves you; and you are in love with him. Why hesitate? As you‟ve seen, life is too precious to waste on angst-ridden indecision.” Stacey lifted her shoulder didn‟t deny her feelings for Mackie, she‟d think about them later. But... “I have issues.” “So does he.”

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“Big. Issues.” She said and he managed to return her gaze steadily. On sigh, she continued. “I have a career back in the States. Two careers, neither of which I can leave.” “He‟ll adapt.” John nodded. “He has a flexible career.” “I don‟t like the jungle. It‟s hot, humid, filled with bugs and... things.” She raised her eyebrows as if daring him. “He doesn‟t like the cold, but I‟m sure he‟ll warm to the North if he has someone.” John shrugged. “I don‟t know how to have a relationship.” She said with a feeling of helplessness. He tipped his mug towards her. “You‟re already having a relationship and it seems to be working just fine.” “He‟s just my partner.” John‟s bushy eyebrows lowered. “He‟s more than that, he‟s your lover. So don‟t dismiss what you feel for him and vice versa.” Stacey stuck out her bottom lip. “I like being alone.” John snorted with disdain and called her on the statement. “No one likes being alone, Major. It‟s forced upon them and they accept it, or they choose it, but it‟s an unlikable place to be.” She firmed her mouth in a mutinous line, knew he was right. She‟d had both: been forced to be alone and accepted it because she was so different. “Look at my eyes, John. No one can accept them and I‟ve tried. It doesn‟t work. I remove my contacts and men run screaming, or make excuses, whatever. They leave me. I‟ve accepted my single life.” He patted her knee. “Mackie accepts them; I accept them. Hell, I‟ve seen them before.” Stacey froze. “You‟ve... but... no. You couldn‟t have.” She‟d been alone at the compound, always alone, without any family!

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John‟s lips twisted with disgust. “Grant Callender and his wife, Anastacia were killed in action during a covert mission in Afghanistan. Russia was still withdrawing its troops at the time and they were sent to find out if the Afghans were amenable to extra U.S. help. There was a truck, a mountainside and a road side bomb.” “Where was I?” She asked faintly as her heart thumped painfully. “Already at the Paoy Pet facility.” He said grimly. “A hostage.” She said bitterly and John nodded. “Suarez, a guard there, liked to gloat about „cannon fodder‟ and „breeders‟.” He said, his expression hard. Then he softened. “You have your mother‟s eyes, Stacey, and she was as delightful as you.” She felt the sting of tears behind her eyes. “You met her at the facility in Idaho.” “I did and I took a liking to her. But... Grant was more... aggressive in his pursuit. You, I think, get your courage and fortitude from both. We were all urged to pursue relationships with others of Project Genesis.” He frowned. And she told him of her hypothesis that his meeting Jennifer Ann Porter wasn‟t as co-incidental as he thought. Before he could reply, Mackie came out onto the veranda speaking in a harsh voice. “It‟s not any of your business!” He bit out. He lifted his head and she saw his eyes glow green. “Here, you talk to him.” “Sir. Lieutenant Callender.” Silence greeted her, but she heard a faint scuff, a soft sigh, that wasn‟t the General. He had her on speaker phone! But who was with him? She kept her voice calm. “Sir?” “Thinking here, Lieutenant.” “Sorry, sir.” She said and waited. “I‟m currently looking at a bill, Lieutenant, for the damage done to... let‟s see, one stable, one kitchen and a... library. Supplied by a Manuel Ortega Perez, who alleges you and another person – who I assumed answered your phone - invaded his home and

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threatened him, damaging his residence in the process. Do you have any comment on that?” He spoke so precisely that she knew he was supremely pissed at her. It wouldn‟t do to provoke him any further so she chose her words carefully. “Sir, may I ask why I‟m on the speaker?” She listened and heard an intake of feminine breath. Cosgrove breathed in and she knew she was in for a reaming, but someone else answered. “It‟s Summer Duquesne, Lieutenant Callender.” Stacey heard the General strangle his reply. “General Cosgrove asked me to consult on the secret lab issue.” Stacey lifted her gaze to Mackie. He shook his head. He hadn‟t told them anything about the lab. “Oh. Hello, Mrs Duquesne, how‟s Emily?” John gasped. “She‟s fine. A little cranky first thing in the morning, like three a.m., but Duncan‟s happy to take care of her – unless she needs a feed, that is.” Mackie pointed at his father and gave a nod. She nodded back. “Ah, I have someone here who‟d like to speak with you, if that‟s all right.” Summer‟s voice turned cautious. “I only know one person who lives down there, Lieutenant, and we can‟t afford anyone else to know.” “Yes, ma‟am.” She pressed the speaker button, gave the phone to John McCafferty. “Sunny?” John said in a choked voice. “Who is this please?” Summer asked in her plummy British accent. “Ah...” He lifted a hand to his eyes. “It‟s your... father.” “Callender!” Cosgrove barked. John lowered the phone. “Yes, sir?”

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“What the hell is going on? You were instructed to find and blow a fucking lab! You‟ve failed to do anything but damage some hick farmer‟s home! You‟re not on vacation! Have you or have you not located the aforementioned research lab?” She cleared her throat. “Negative, sir.” “Then you‟d better get your ass back here and explain your lack of professionalism, the wanton destruction of a civilian‟s home to a fucking court martial!” “Uncalled for, General.” Mackie growled. “And who the hell are you to interfere with one of my officers?” Mackie lifted an eyebrow. “Spring Rain McCafferty.” “Who? Callender!” Cosgrove roared. “Yes, sir?” She asked calmly and Mackie grinned at her. “Don‟t you take that smug tone with me, Lieutenant, you are in a shit load of trouble involving a citizen of interest in this.” The General growled. “With all due respect, General, Ma... Lieutenant Callender had no choice.” Mackie said. “I didn‟t give her one.” Stacey‟s eyes rounded as she realised he was protecting her CIA connection. He gave her a wink. “You‟ll need to explain that, McCafferty.” “I don‟t need to do anything, General, I‟m not under your orders.” “Callender?” Cosgrove‟s voice was dangerously soft. “Yes, sir?” She asked in exactly the same tone. “You will have a lot of explaining to do when you return – and that will be shortly.” He breathed deep. “Do you have any information on this so called research lab?” “Yes, sir.” She said brightly. “It doesn‟t exist.” “You‟re going to give me an ulcer, you know that?” “Um...”

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“It was a rhetorical question, Callender!” He shouted, and then sighed. “What can you tell me?” “Ah...” She blew out a breath, resisted the tiredness creeping up on her. “Will the basics do, sir? I can give you a full briefing when I return.” “Fine, go ahead.” “Highlights, then, sir: Jennifer Ann Porter is alive, she‟s head of a covert CIA organisation and is behind the attempts on her daughters‟ lives. The abode of Manuel Ortega Perez is actually her Brazilian base. Her location is currently unknown.” She said... and waited. “You have proof, Lieutenant?” Summer asked quietly. “Proof? Maybe. Witness? Yes.” She said and her eyes drooped as a wave of exhaustion swept over her. “Okay, enough,” Mackie cut in. “Callender needs to rest.” He plucked the phone from his father‟s hand and turned off the speaker, walked away while talking to the General and his sister. John got to his feet, like an old man. He patted her on her knee and wandered off. Stacey closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat. *** Mackie shook Callender‟s shoulder. The day was waning and he needed to get some food into her and then take her to bed. An image of what happened in the SUV leapt into his mind. Poor choice of words, Mack. Callender slowly opened her eyes and looked blearily up at him. “Come on, Callender, you can either take yourself off to a comfortable bed, or I‟ll carry you. Dad‟s fixing up some soup with a side order of antibiotics and some of his herbs.” She yawned and her eyes watered as he helped her up. “I enjoyed napping out here today.” She said sleepily, adding to his discomfort.

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“Well, you‟ll have plenty of opportunity. I explained how you were injured on the job to Cosgrove and he‟s decided your immediate return isn‟t necessary.” He held her close, an arm around her waist, enjoyed her closeness. “Who knows, you might even get used to the jungle and the heat.” She snorted. “Not bloody likely. I miss the snow.” He tensed at her comment then relaxed. “As I said, there‟s plenty of time.” Callender leaned against him as he took her back to her room. He sat her on the bed and took off her boots, smiled at the lack of socks. Then he reached up to her shirt. Her eyes were closed, but he didn‟t think she was asleep just yet. His fingers took hold of the first button and slid through the hole. Her throat worked as she swallowed. And he reached for the second button, and the third, worked his way down. He slid the material off her shoulders and she licked her lips. No bra. Damn, she was temptation. He couldn‟t take advantage, he counselled himself. He turned away and rummaged in her backpack, pulled out a white t-shirt and slipped it over her head, put her left arm through the sleeve and tugged it down. “Time to lie down.” He urged softly and held her body to his. He slowly lowered her to the bed. On a sigh, he unbuttoned her trousers, slid them down her legs and sweat broke out on his forehead that had nothing to do with the weather and everything to with her going commando. He shut his eyes, but the image remained. God, he wanted, needed to... When he opened his eyes again and looked into her face, she regarded him with a hooded gaze. Again he turned away and found sweat pants. It took time, but eventually, he had them up and around her waist. He sighed with relief. “When I am better, I‟ll be a good girl.” She murmured and the hair on the back of his neck stood up, quelled any arousal he might be feeling. He stared at her as alarm bells went off in his head. “What did you say?” But her eyelids drifted shut and she huffed out a sigh, fell into sleep.

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His hand shook as he drew the sheet and blanket over her. She‟d said it before, but now, now her words rang with dreadful familiarity. He leaned over and gently kissed her forehead, then moved lower and brushed a kiss across her mouth. Then he stood and went to the door, turned off the light and went out. He kept the door open a crack, just in case, and went to speak with his father. John was swinging in the seat, sipping from a beer bottle. “Should you be...?” He shook his head. “Never mind.” He went to the fridge and got himself a beer, cracked it open. He leaned his elbows on the railing, breathed deep of the fragrant, tropical night air. “I love this place.” He murmured. “Yep.” His father agreed. Mackie turned and faced his father, rested his butt against the wood. “I know you don‟t have any... pleasant memories of the compound, but I‟d like to ask you a few questions, if that‟s all right.” John drew deep on his beer. “Sure, ask away.” “I remember one time, when... Cortez... ah... touched Winter.” John‟s beer can crumpled in his hand and his expression shut down. “I know it‟s painful, Dad, but it‟s important.” John tossed the can into the garbage can near his feet, leaned under the seat and got another one. “What about it.” His tone said he didn‟t want to remember, but it was too late, Mackie had already aroused the memories. “What did Mom say about it?” Mackie asked and John sent him a sharp look. He opened the can and chugged half of it down. “She said to Winter – and God help me we had a fight that night – she said, „you‟ll get better if you‟re a good girl‟.”

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“ „If‟, not „when‟?” “No.” His father‟s expression twisted. “Winter replied „When I am better, I‟ll be a good girl‟. Made me sick. She made all my girls say it after Cortez hurt them, the sick bitch.” Mackie felt a surge of apprehension, an absolute certainty, but he had to ask. “Who made the girls say it?” He asked with his heart in his throat. John looked at him as if he was an idiot. Then another voice rang out. “I did, Mackie, to make sure the girls understood.” He spun and faced his mother. She pointed the pistol at his father. “Hello, John, not dead yet?” “What? What did you want them to understand?” He asked and watched as a man, older than Jennifer Ann, stomped up the stairs. He seemed vaguely... familiar. John bolted out of his seat, swayed. Mackie held out a hand to steady him, but didn‟t take his eyes of his mother, the older man with grey glinting his black hair, and malevolence in his midnight eyes, or the two other men who stomped halfway up the stairs. All of them were armed. “Why are you here?” John ground out. “I‟ve come for my boy of course.” She reached into the top pocket of her safari shirt and pulled out Callender‟s reconfigured GPS unit. “That girl, tsk, she is way too smart for her own good. Cortez? Spare room. Bring her. Code word: spiders.” Cortez? And Mackie remembered all he‟d done at the compound. Hate swirled. “Why did you bring that sick fuck to my home, Jenny?” John asked with barely suppressed fury. She looked around the deep veranda and pursed her lips. “You‟ve done well for yourself.” She zeroed her gaze in on him. “Not as well as I have, of course, but this is nice enough. As for Cortez, well... let‟s just say I liked it rough and he was man enough to oblige.” John took a step forward and halted.

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Mackie looked at him, saw the strain in his eyes and on his features. “Dad?” Jennifer laughed. “Oh, Spring. I so delight in your naivety. But you‟ve experienced it before.” She let John go and he fell back onto the seat, breathing hard. “And I never get tired of it.” She tilted her head and frowned, her green eyes flared, then subsided. “I like my present, Jen.” Cortez walked out holding Callender close to his body. She had a glazed look in her glowing white eyes, wore an empty expression, as if she wasn‟t quite there. Cortez stared at Mackie, then drew his thick, pink tongue up the side of Callender‟s face. “I‟ve had the child, now I get to play with the woman.” Mackie held on to his rage, pressed it down as he realised his mother watched for his reaction. “Good boy, Spring.” She smiled. “You‟ve learned control after all.” His mother said and he glared at her. “What did you do to her?” Jennifer shrugged. “You were never too far away from me, so I invaded her dreams, did a quick brainwashing. Now she‟ll be a good girl, obedient, or the spiders will get her. She won‟t challenge me either, not again.” Mackie felt his hands clench as hate tried to break free. His mother smiled. “It‟s easier when your target is vulnerable, asleep, unconscious. I practiced on the girls when they were little. I‟d give them the words, and they‟d speak them. An amazing thing to see.” “There is nothing more powerful than a mind reader.” He heard Callender say, but he knew it was his mother doing it. “See? Even your girlfriend agrees. Isn‟t that nice.” Her smile slipped away and she looked at Callender. “Give Cortez a kiss.” Callender‟s head turned, slowly, unwilling and Cortez smiled with lustful anticipation.

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She leaned in and brushed her lips across those of her childhood rapist. It near broke his heart to see it, and then he had a thought and allowed his pain for her seep through, expand. “There it is.” His mother smiled at him with approval. “Now, do you understand betrayal?” “Yeah.” He whispered as he watched Callender kiss her monster and saw the tears leak out the sides of her eyes. She knew what was happening, who was doing it and whom she was kissing. And he ached with helpless frustration. “I see you genuinely care for her, son, so Cortez will be generous enough to share her with you.” He dragged his gaze from Callender to his mother. “How did you get to be such an God-awful human being? When did your heart turn black and shrivel?” He snorted out an incredulous laugh. “And why would you think I‟d ever go with you when you taint the very air you breathe?” She took a step back, hurt shining in her eyes for a moment before they filled with cold calculation. “I‟ll kill her, Spring, you know I will, if you don‟t come with me.” He took a step forward. “Then do it.” He snarled. “Because I know she‟d rather be dead than let a sycophantic, murderous paedophile touch her. And it still won‟t make me have anything to do with you.” “I am your mother!” Her eyes blazed with fury and parental outrage. “You will not speak to me like this!” She stamped a foot. “My mother is dead.” He spat. “She died in the jungles of Thailand, more than twenty years ago. You, I don‟t know and never want to know.” The hurt flashed again, longer this time and subsided to malevolence. “Cortez, make her scream for me.” Mackie stared at Jennifer, willed Callender to remain silent. She looked away first and Mackie turned his gaze to Callender.

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Callender had an empty expression on her face, even as Cortez dug his thumb into her bullet wound. And he remembered his mothers words: “...she goes empty, a blank slate, a dark pit, an endless blue sky. Charming, don‟t you think?” But he hadn‟t realised how empty, how blank or dark or endless. Jennifer made a sound of disgust. “She‟s done it again, just like when she was a child, off with the fairies, unreachable. Well,” she sighed, “you might as well bring her along, Cortez, you‟ll still get some enjoyment.” She turned her attention to Mackie. “Are you coming or not?” He slowly shook his head. Jennifer scowled at him. “You know I‟m not giving up on you. One day, you‟ll join me and be the son you were meant to be.” Her expression tightened with petulance. “I‟ll make you.” “I‟ll not be pandering to your over-inflated ego.” He curled his lip. “I find people like you... pathetic; their neediness for approval and their disgusting blind narcissism, just makes me want to vomit.” Her eyes went dark with rage and he suddenly couldn‟t move, couldn‟t breathe and he knew she was thinking of killing him, of stopping his heart and crushing the life from him. He watched as Cortez walked an empty-eyed Callender to the top of the stairs, just behind Jennifer. Cortez seemed to trip, but he saw the white glow of Callender‟s eyes, furious and fiery. Cortez turned sideways, as if to halt his fall. Callender jerked away from him, turned her back and slammed her fist into his nose. He roared with pain and his hands came up to his bloody face, rather than grab the railing to stop his fall. He crashed backwards, down the stairs and into the two men waiting halfway up. Mackie found himself freed of Jennifer‟s control as she turned, murder in her eyes. But she didn‟t get the chance to do anything to Callender, who staggered back and

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slumped to the ground. He felt the wind brush his face and his father rushed by, slammed his shoulder into Jennifer‟s stomach. Air whooshed out of her and both tumbled down the stairs with a crash. “Dad, no!” He followed them down, prayed Callender would be all right. The two black-clad soldiers were trying to disentangle themselves from underneath Cortez‟s body. “Don‟t you two move or, by God, I‟ll slaughter you both.” He growled and they stared up at him wide-eyed. His parents wrestled on the damp lawn. He fully expected Jennifer to freeze his father, but she didn‟t. She wore an enraged expression that went beyond rational thought, as if she was determined to take her vengeance with her bare hands. His father‟s expression was cooler, but equally determined. Mackie stood by, unable to see an opportunity to break them apart. And then he realised this was a fight long in coming and to the death. John wanted an end to Jennifer‟s existence for what she was, for what she‟d done and would continue to do if allowed to live. Jennifer wanted revenge. To erase the man who conspired to keep her a captive, who represented a past she tried to rewrite, who stole her youth from her by impregnating her. Either way, Mackie knew he was about to lose a parent and he didn‟t want... The wet snap of bone was shocking in the quiet night and he held his breath. Jennifer suddenly went limp. John rolled off his former wife and lay flat on his back. Mackie went to his side, kneeled and gently wiped the blood from his father‟s mouth. “Dad?” John lifted a hand to his chest and gripped hard. Then his eyes met Mackie‟s. “Proud of you... son. Don‟t... let her go.” He said in a tight, breathless voice.

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“I won‟t, Dad. Let me get some medicine for you.” Hot tears filled Mackie‟s eyes as he gripped his father‟s hand. “Too late. She... finally... killed me.” “No, Dad, please, you‟ve got grandchildren to visit.” “I... will, just not...” His hand fell away and the light faded from his blue, blue eyes. “Oh, Dad.” Mackie brushed the white hair back, leaned in and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, for being here whenever I needed you and for loving me without question or reason.” “Mackie?” He heard Callender‟s hesitant footsteps behind him and she got down on her knees beside him. “Oh, no.” “I think she crushed his heart, or stopped his breathing. Maybe both.” He sniffed, rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hands. “She‟s dead now.” Callender murmured. “May she rot in hell.” “What do we do now?” She asked with a sigh. “We call the police, of course.” How could she... “I can‟t be found here, Mackie.” He looked at her strained and pale features. “What?” She rubbed her hand up and down his arm. “I‟m sorry, Mackie, so damned sorry. I have to go. I‟m an American soldier and a CIA agent. I have no legitimate reason to be in this country while on active duty – and one call to the Embassy...” “Oh, hell.”

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Chapter Twenty Lieutenant Stacey Callender gripped the buff folder in one hand and then tucked it under her arm, reached out for the door handle as the horn of the taxi sounded. Then she dropped her hand, stepped to the side and checked her uniform. Again. She knew she couldn‟t get it any more perfect. She looked into her eyes, covered by the dark brown contacts, but now hazel. Mackie had managed to get her out of the country before the police arrived. He‟d suggested to Jennifer‟s two remaining gunman that they leave and find a more... appropriate line of work. Under his emerald gaze, they‟d pushed Cortez‟s body off and bolted, leaving their weapons behind. Then, while his father‟s body was still in place, he‟d organised Molly to come and pick her up in a sea plane, fly her to Belem, where he once again, organised a military transport for her. Their parting had been uneasy. “You‟ll need to wait down by the river.” He said, his eyes roaming over her face. “The police are on their way.” “I‟m sorry, Mackie. So very sorry. I really liked him.” He brushed his mouth across hers, wiped her tears away with his thumbs. “Don‟t be sorry. He died as he wanted, protecting his family from all comers. He never got the opportunity, you see. And he thought... until you came along, that I was his remaining child. You gave him back the family he‟d thought he‟d lost.” He settled his hands on her hips. “I understand you have to go back, but don‟t think this is an end to us.” He‟d given her one last kiss, deep, reassuring and filled with promise. Then he let her go and gone back to his father. On her return... Well. Doctors, more surgery, briefings, the provision of proof that a top CIA agent had gone bad. Stacey had gathered her copies of her files from her secret stash in false ceiling beam, from a false house foundation and presented them.

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Irrefutable proof of CIA corruption and illegal activities. Three weeks later and she was still giving briefings, to secret Senate hearings, to closed door Congressional hearings, the top brass of the Marines, the Army, the CIA, the NSA, Special Operations Group... God, she wanted it to be over. She was supposed to be on medical leave, damn it, and she wanted to head to north, head for the hills and wallow in the cool silence of snow. Instead, she‟d been called in, and... She missed him. There. She‟d admitted it. She missed Mackie like... Stacey turned away from her reflected expression as the lines of a song played through her mind. Deserts did not attract her and she was over the rain. Outside, the Middle-Eastern taxi driver opened the rear passenger door for her. She gave him a smile as she ducked inside. Too soon, he arrived at the SOG Administration building and he leaned over the seat a sparkle in his dark eyes. “You‟ll do fine.” “Excuse me?” “Jennifer was a total bitch as a handler. Tell them everything and you‟ll do fine.” She sighed. “Damned CIA are everywhere.” The driver chuckled. “That we are. We like to keep an eye on the special ones.” Stacey rolled her eyes and got out. A total stranger knew who she was. Well-wishers greeted her on the way to her desk and she was stunned to realise how many people actually knew her. She thought she‟d kept herself in the background, unnoticed, ignored. With a frown, she settled into her work station and fired up her computer. She set the file next to the keyboard and reached for the mouse. Her shoulder gave a twinge and she rolled it. Exercise helped but it still felt... disabled. Time, the doctor said, time and gentle exercise.
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She put her headset on, but her eyes kept drifting the file, and she wondered, not for the first time, whether she was doing the right thing. It was the second copy. She couldn‟t bear to part with any of her information. Some, she willingly shared, some she was forced to give up. And then there were files like the one she‟d brought. That no one knew of. She settled down to do the research she‟d begun before being dragged away to adventure and heartbreak. Two hours later, she became aware of someone behind her. “Maureen. How may I help you?” The woman‟s solemn expression didn‟t change. “The General, of course. He‟s waiting for you in Conference Room C2.” “Uh, oh.” Stacey said, but Maureen‟s expression still remain stern. “I think, Lieutenant, that you keep your sense of humour for what‟s coming.” Maureen‟s mouth tightened. If Maureen was pissed with her, then General Cosgrove would be positively volcanic. “Yes, ma‟am.” She said and stood. She put her finger on the file she‟d brought. “Um... whom am I meeting?” She asked. “Interested parties, Lieutenant.” Stacey made her decision and picked up the file; it wasn‟t as if she could leave it lying around for anybody wandering by to read. She followed the secretary to another level, this one filled with conference rooms. The hushed atmosphere made her nervous. Since her return, she‟d been in many a conference room, subjected to accusations, angry denials and contempt – until she brought out her proof and shocked silence descended. None could dispute her evidence as it came from multiple sources. Each document verified. Of course, not every participant was happy to know the information and she‟d been condemned and vilified as much as congratulated and feted.

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Now, she was about to give another briefing. Maureen opened the door for her and she paused. At the secretary‟s raised eyebrow, she took in a deep breath, tugged down her uniform jacket and marched through. The door clicked shut behind her as faces turned towards her. The McCafferty Clan – minus Mackie – their spouses and General Cosgrove. She immediately slammed her mind shut against Summer. “Lieutenant Callender, reporting as ordered, sir.” Cosgrove rose to his feet, his winter-green eyes glacial. “Don‟t you mean „Major‟?” Stacey cleared her throat. “Major Callender, reporting as ordered, sir.” “I don‟t care to be lied to, Major.” “No, sir.” She kept her eyes on his. “That‟s it? No apology, no explanation, just „no, sir? That, Major, isn‟t going to cut it. You will give me, right now, a reason why I shouldn‟t send you up for court martial on so many charges, it would take me a month to run through them!” The group shifted, uneasy. Captains Beech and Duquesne, and Major Hawk, kept quiet, though their expressions were mutinous. Stacey braced herself, stared over his right shoulder. “No, sir, I will not explain.” The anxiety in the room ratcheted up as General Cosgrove‟s expression turned thunderous. “This is not a request, Major, but a direct order. Are you refusing an order from your lawful superior?” “No, sir, I am not. However, I wish to state that any further questions or comments be directed to the Marine Corps Covert Electronic and Technology Defence Directorate.” “The what? There is no such outfit in the Marine Corps.” Then he turned to the military men. “Is there?” The Captains shrugged, but Major Hawk stared at her with a narrowed gaze and slowly nodded. “Yes, General, there is. But it is not usually spoken of outside the Directorate itself. It is the covert of the covert.”

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The muscle in General Cosgrove jaw bulged with anger and outrage. He rubbed his forehead and resumed his seat. “The covert of the covert. Meaning you lot investigate covert organisations or...” He eyed her. “I will neither confirm or deny any operational capacities of my unit, sir.” His face flushed. “I don‟t have the authority to court martial you, do I, Major.” He waved a hand. “Never mind, I already know the answer. The question remains, what to do with you.” “Sir, if I may speak?” Cosgrove gave her a nod. “Sir, my job remains the same: gathering information and research to assist in the facilitation of the military‟s agenda. It matters not where I do it, only for whom.” Someone snickered, but all wore a straight face when Cosgrove glared at them. “I am of the opinion, Major, that I was never in control of this group. That someone else was pulling my chain and guided my actions. What do you have to say about that?” “That you are right.” “You?” “No, sir.” She said, offended. “But, if it helps... Beckett was personal for me and outside my chain of command and orders.” Cosgrove grunted and she heard him mutter, “Asshole.” “Aiden.” Summer said softly, “everything Lieut... Major Callender has done has been to the benefit of all of us around this table.” Cosgrove nodded unwillingly. Stacey‟s heart gave a twinge as the twin‟s blue eyes met hers. So like her father‟s. But she refused to allow any memories surface. “Very little of what she‟s done, what she‟s accomplished, she should be censured for.” “Protocol, Summer.” And then he sighed. “So.” He leaned forward and opened the file in front of him. “There‟s a lot of talk about you Major, around the upper echelons
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and not a lot of it complimentary. Loose cannon, incompetent, inexperienced field operative, arrogant, blinded by duty.” He lifted his gaze. “People died on this mission, Major, property damaged.” He leaned back and considered her. “I can tell you that your... revelations have shaken the covert community to it‟s very foundations – what you‟ve actually divulged. I feel confident there‟s more to come once the investigations really get under way. Idaho, for example.” “Yes, sir.” “Thailand and Mainwaring – who, I might add, has suddenly had an attack of singing – for another example. He apparently contacted his son, Marcus, to find Jennifer Ann Porter – she being his last hope for freedom if she intervened. Mainwaring‟s lawyer told him you‟d been sent south and he drew a conclusion.” The General continued to glare at her. “I‟m going to guess the man who set the trackers was there on Marcus‟s orders. Once he lost you, Mainwaring saw the writing on the wall.” Cosgrove leaned his hands on the back of his chair and raised an eyebrow. “I believe the SecNav also has some explaining to do. Inappropriate use of his authority and interference in an area not under his purview. Now, do you have anything to add to this mess?” How could Mainwaring‟s lawyer even know about her? Stacey wondered. Someone from the CIA? From inside the unit? To keep everything at a distance? Find Porter through a secondary source? Her spirits lifted as she thought of the answer: not everyone in Camp Idaho was happy with Porter and tried to set a trap for her. And what did the SecNav have to do with any of this? “Major.” Cosgrove growled with temper. “I asked if you had anything to add.” Stacey paused, considered her words and her decision. “Yes, sir, I do. Two things. The first is this file.” She laid it closed on the table top. “It is.... a list of names, addresses, occupations, missions, everything on those of Project Genesis. All of them, sir, plus family trees.” All eyes went to the folder. “And how did you get this?”

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“All I can say, sir, is that I am a world class hacker and people leave the most peculiar things on their supposedly secure computers.” Again, someone snickered, and it was joined by someone else. Cosgrove‟s smile was unwilling. “Anyone else would be locked up.” “Yes, sir.” She said demurely. “Fine, we‟ll discuss what to do with the information. You said there was a second thing?” Stacey quailed inside. This was going to be shock for all of them and she feared their reactions. “In the file, you‟ll find... a familiar name.” She lifted her hands to her face, ignored the twinge in her shoulder and popped out the contacts. “Mine.” And she raised her head, met Cosgrove‟s gaze. The shocked silence was absolute. “My parents were Grant and Anastacia Callender, killed in action during a CIAsanctioned mission in Afghanistan in 1985. I was used as a hostage against them and held at the Paoy Pet facility until a breakout of... certain other detainees. I grew up in the Idaho facility until I was sent into the Marine Corps. As a CIA run facility, every... inmate was inducted into the Agency at the age of maturity before given extra assignments. My handler was... Jennifer Ann Porter.” She thought the General‟s face couldn‟t go any paler. But he‟d been excluded from the high-level briefings and knew nothing of the mission, other than it failed and for the reasons he‟d already stated. The only information he had was what she‟d told him on the phone from Brazil. She turned to Summer. This was going to be hardest part of this meeting, but she organised her thoughts. “You need to connect with everyone here. I‟ll give you my memories of the mission.” “Before I do that, Major,” Summer said, “I need to speak with everyone to decide whether they want those memories.” Her voice was tight, her lips a furious white line.

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“Of course, ma‟am.” She looked at Cosgrove expectantly, but he simply stared at her. Major Hawk came to her rescue. “You are temporarily dismissed, Major, please wait outside and avail yourself of refreshments. And for God‟s Sake, sit down out there.” “Yes, sir, thank you, sir.” She executed an about face, replaced the contacts as she reached the door. Maureen waited outside and indicated a break room. “Coffee‟s hot, Lieutenant.” She grimaced and Stacey sighed. “Major. I‟m a Major.” Maureen‟s shoulders relaxed. “Well, if you‟ve told his nibs, then good. How‟s the shoulder?” She guided Stacey into the room and to a chair. “Improving.” Stacey said and wondered how long she‟d have to wait. *** General Aiden Cosgrove could not shake the eerie white eyes from his mind. All this time, he thought Callender an exceptional intelligence officer. A little quiet, a little strange, but brilliant at information gathering. Now, he knew why. CIA. In his house! “General?” Hawk touched his arm. “What?” He growled. “We need to know what to do with this list.” Cosgrove grunted. He was so over this. “Give it back. I have no interest in acquiring any more Project consultants. Or keep it yourselves, if you‟re interested. But be aware it does not go outside this group.” “And the offer of...” Cosgrove stood. “That is between you and Callender. I can do nothing more, since I‟ve only limited information. I can only act on legitimate sources and those are telling me to keep Callender in the office because she‟s useless in the field. I‟ll stick with that. Good day to you.”

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He marched out, went back to his office and brooded on how thoroughly he‟d been fooled by the CIA and their Project Genesis agents. *** Maureen poured the coffee then went back to her work station, as if she‟d been waiting outside the conference room for refreshment duty. Stacey sat alone and brooded over how completely Porter had manipulated and used her. Abused her, really, with threats and little reward. And then she thought of Mackie... “Major Callender.” She lifted her head, then stood. “Mrs Duquesne.” “Sit down, Major, you‟re looking pale.” Stacey resumed her seat and Summer sat next to her. “We‟re agreed. We‟ll have the memories, but you don‟t have to face us all. I understand how difficult it was for you to do that, to show us...” She frowned. “Why are your eyes that colour?” “I see the spectrum. From infra-red to ultra-violet and everything in between.” “Useful.” She waved a hand. “Anyway, I‟m here to connect you. Are you sure you want to do this?” “I‟ve organised my thoughts in this. A lot was travel, so I‟ve edited that out. I‟ve also edited out a certain agent who has nothing to do with this other than he facilitated the travel. Fair enough?” “Fair enough.” Summer nodded and gripped her hand. “Begin.” Stacey ran through the mission as she‟d practised. Summer‟s hand gripped hers with the confrontation with her mother, then her father, all the way to her boarding the sea plane. Summer let go, her face tear streaked. “You can contact Mackie for the missing parts.” Stacey said quietly. “We‟ve already seen him.” Summer confessed. “He came to see us, dragged us to the funeral. He wouldn‟t talk much about John... Dad... and how he died. He was

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reticent about other parts as well. But, we have the gist of it. Thank you, Major Callender.” Summer patted her shoulder and left, no doubt to return to the conference room to talk about the new memories. Stacey felt exhausted, but she got up and closed the door to the break room. She did not want to see anyone. In fact, all she wanted was to go home and sleep. Well, she was still on medical leave; and for another two weeks. Time to clear out. *** Mackie closed his eyes and cautiously drew in a deep breath. The cold sting of icescented air made his sinuses ache. God, how could anyone love this over the vibrancy of the jungle? But he drew in the scent of snow and pine, of wood smoke and clean air, felt the tension ease from his shoulders. This was nature at its finest. It wasn‟t his jungle, but nature was full of diversity. He pulled open the door to the hotel and dragged his sunglasses down his nose. His eyes searched the wide, broad room decorated as a hunting lodge. To the left was the check-in desk, stylised by logs; to the right an open area with the biggest stone-built fireplace he‟d ever seen, with a curve of comfortable seats set around it. Ahead, a sweeping staircase lead to the second floor. He saw the door out onto the balcony and spied a familiar profile. Mackie walked to the French windows and watched her stare out at the white-covered mountains. She lifted a ceramic mug to her lips, but found it empty and set it aside onto the low table next to her seat. She stretched her legs out, crossed them at the ankles and continued to watch the skiers. With a smile, Mackie turned away. *** Stacey thought of the jungle, its heat, its humidity, the warm rain and wildlife, the incredible colours she‟d seen. And in all those images, Mackie held centre stage. She

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lifted a hand and rubbed the ache in her chest. It never seemed to leave, as if permanently imbedded within her. He‟d gone to Washington, but hadn‟t wanted to see her before flying back. She understood, was used to the rejection, but it still hurt. It hurt worse than being abandoned at the compound and no longer seeing the boy with the emerald eyes. She wasn‟t a child and neither was Mackie. This pain was adult loss. She supposed she‟d eventually get over him. Maybe in a decade or so. If she was lucky. But with her work, with keeping an eye on the sisters, with the constant reminder of him and what they shared... How could she turn her thoughts away from him? She was a loner, liked her privacy, didn‟t need anyone. But John McCafferty disagreed. “No one likes being alone, Major. It‟s forced upon them and they accept it, or they choose it, but it‟s an unlikable place to be.” She sighed, realised she‟d always equate jungle heat with Mackie. And she‟d remember their one encounter and wish for more time with him. At least he‟d cured her of the need for assignations with strangers; none could compare with Mackie and she‟d keep that night locked in her heart. Maybe one day it wouldn‟t hurt so damned much and she‟d think of him with affection. She had the snow now, she had the cold to cling to, the isolation and everything she loved about icy weather. She had... An orange anorak covered arm leaned across her and placed another mug on the table. “Thank you.” She said, but she hadn‟t ordered a refill. “You‟re welcome.” Her eyes raised in shock. “Mackie?” She said faintly and he grinned, sat next to her and copied her pose of outstretched legs, crossed ankles. “I thought I‟d try your environment out for myself.” He toasted her with his own hot chocolate and drank a mouthful, held it, then swallowed. He pursed his lips. “Hmm.” His tongue darted out and licked the foam from his upper lip. “Sweet.”

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Stacey felt mesmerised, watched his eyes, watched him speak, the quick dart of his tongue. “I missed you.” She blurted and his eyebrows rose. Then he smiled. “You did?” He asked in a low, seductive voice. She flushed. “I meant when you came to Washington.” “Ah, that. I wanted to see you. See your habitat, but with debriefing, Dad‟s funeral, the reunion with my sisters and a limited visa, I ran out of time.” As excuses went, it was fairly reasonable – for a partner, for a friend, not for a... what? They‟d made love exactly once, and as spectacular as it was, it wasn‟t a declaration of undying respect and love. She tore her gaze away from his, stared at the skiers sprinting down the hillside, carving up the snow in plumes and picked up her mug. “I can almost hear you thinking, Callender.” “Mind reading is your sister‟s talent.” He chuckled. “So it is, but I know you, Callender, better than anyone.” His tone sobered. “I never thanked you.” “For?” He reached across, plucked the mug from her fingers and set it aside. Stacey turned to him in question. His gaze was steady, held hers. “For everything. For telling me of my sisters, for protecting me, for making my Dad laugh for the first time in decades, for giving him his family back. For all of it, but most of all... for being in love with me.” Her eyes widened. “I...” She swallowed, ready to deny it. “Careful, Callender, I can scent a lie a mile away. I‟m a CIA operative after all.” He grinned and she wondered if he was letting her off the hook. She snorted. “So am I.” “You need to thank me, too.”

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“Oh? For what?” “For getting you over your fear of the jungle, for saving your delectable ass on occasion, for giving you an exit strategy, for being so understanding of your spittingfest in Cuiaba. But, most of all, for letting me love you, as much as you love me.” Her eyes widened and she felt the sudden frantic thud of her heart. “For... You lo... My spit... Uhm...” “Would you like to take a moment?” Mackie asked with an indulgent smile. His eyes glowed with it, with... love, she realised, but there was fear, too. Fear she‟d reject him, like she‟d been rejected on so many occasions. He was lonely, like her, too different for an ordinary partner. And he‟d come all this way to see her in her „habitat‟, as if he was going to stay and „study‟ her. She slowly shook her head. “But you like the jungle.” “It will be there for visits.” He replied. “And for any future missions the CIA want done.” “You hate the cold.” “I‟ve never experienced the cold; it‟s...” He breathed deep. “Bracing, refreshing, makes me, feel very much alive, strangely enough.” “Brazil is your home!” Mackie too her hand. “Oh, Callender.” He kissed the back. “My home is wherever you are. I am totally lost without you, totally unable to sleep if you‟re not near and I‟m unacceptably in love with you.” Stacey scowled. “ „Unacceptably?‟” “Yep, it would be unacceptable that I love you and you don‟t love me back. It would be unacceptable to continue on... alone.” She slowly got to her feet without answering. She stood in front of him, looked down at his hopeful expression.

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“I think... that any expression of excessive affection, needs to be made in private, don‟t you?” She murmured and held out her hand. “I can show you what else I like about the cold weather: snuggling.” He looked at her outstretched fingers and slowly smiled, put his hand in hers and rose. He set his hands on her hips and drew her in close for a gentle kiss. “Just tell me, snow bunny.” Stacey draped her hands over his shoulders and breathed in his unique scent. “Okay. I do love you, jungle boy, always have; always will.” Mackie‟s smile was slow. “Why don‟t you show how snuggling in the cold is different from snuggling in the jungle?” Stacey thought of his „snuggling‟ and twitched her eyebrows, smiled. “Yeah, why don‟t I?”

The End

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