Authors: Vicki Hinze
“An edgy romantic thriller [by] a very creative author.
becomes a book that must be read.”
—The Romance Readers Connection
“Vicki Hinze has a brisk, engaging writing style, and her heroine is a powerhouse.”
Every way she looked at it, she was left with only one viable solution: to return to the outpost and enlist the aid of the missing soldiers’ commander.
What was his name? Forester. Nathan Forester.
Conditions wouldn’t improve substantially with his tactical help, but Kate would have slightly better odds of rescuing any hostages and surviving with—
Something slammed into her back, hammering her into the cave wall.
Pulling on reserves, she harnessed her energy and reacted on pure instinct. Choking the handle of her knife, she turned and swiped.
The fight of her life had begun.
is the author of fourteen novels, one nonfiction book and hundreds of articles published in more than forty countries. Her books have received many prestigious awards and nominations, including her selection for
Who’s Who in America
(as a writer and educator) and a multiple nominee for Career Achievement Awards from
magazine. She’s credited with having cocreated the first open-ended continuity series of single-title romance novels and with being among the first writers to create and establish subgenres in military women’s fiction (suspense and intrigue) and military romantic-thriller novels.
To Kristen Leigh Hinze Early
You are a miracle, a precious gift mightily treasured.
I am so grateful for the privilege of being your mother.
Thank you, Krissie, for all you’ve taught me.
When I grow up, I want to be just like you.
kay, Home Base.” Staring through her diving mask, Captain Katherine Kane swam toward the rocks above the newly discovered underwater cave. Cold water swirled around her. “I’m almost there.”
“Roger that, Bluefish.” Considering the distance between Kate and Home Base, Captain Maggie Holt’s voice sounded surprisingly clear through Kane’s earpiece. “I don’t like the idea of you diving alone. The boss would have a fit.”
The boss, Colonel Sally Drake, would understand completely. “Sorry, no choice.” Captain Douglas and his tactical team had been diverted. “If we want to find GRID’s weapons cache, then I’ve got to do this now—before they have time to move it.”
Douglas and his men had assisted Kate on a former mission, intercepting GRID—Group Resources for Individual Development—assets, and when he’d summoned Kate to
the Persian Gulf, she’d known he suspected a GRID presence and needed help. All the key players in the Black World community knew that pursuing GRID, the largest black-market sellers of U.S. intelligence and weapons in the world, was Kate’s organization’s top priority. And it had been designated such by presidential order.
“I still think we should follow the usual chain of command,” Maggie said. “If the boss were here, you know she would agree with me.”
If Colonel Drake was there and not at the intelligence community summit meeting coordinating on the war on terror, Kate and Maggie wouldn’t be having this conversation and there would be no debate. Kate resisted a sigh.
Maggie was new to this level of covert operations and still adjusting to tossing out standard operating procedure and assuming command in critical circumstances. But she had all the right stuff; she’d grow into the job eventually. Nothing taught operatives better than experience, and she’d get plenty in their unit. Still, for everyone’s sake, including her own, Kate hoped Maggie adjusted and grew into it soon.
“Look,” Kate said, speeding the process along. “Ordinarily, Douglas would have worked up the chain. This time, he came straight to us.” Secret Assignment Security Specialists—S.A.S.S.—were the last resort, and Douglas respected that. “I know this man and he knows us. He’s got a fix on GRID.” Kate couldn’t resist an impatient huff. “No offense intended, Home Base, but you’ve got to learn to trust your allies.” That included Douglas, his team and Kate.
“Yeah, well. I’m gun-shy. You have to prove you deserve it.”
That response surprised Kate. “How?”
“Don’t get yourself killed today. Do you realize how much paperwork I’d have to do?”
Kate smiled. Okay, she’d cut Maggie a little slack. The woman was trying. “Waking up dead isn’t my idea of a fun way to start the day, either, Base.” She reached the finger of rocky land jutting out into the gulf and, treading water, removed the black box from her tool bag.
Stiff-fingered from the cold chill, she flipped the switch to activate the C-273 communications device and affixed it to the rock just below the waterline. If this leading-edge technology worked as promised, she would still be able to communicate with Maggie at Home Base via satellite. Supposedly, the water would conduct Kate’s signal from inside the cave to this box and then transmit via satellite to Home Base, completing the link to Maggie. Kate hoped to spit it worked. “Okay, C-273 is seated. We’re good to go.”
Looking up, she again checked the face of the rock above the waterline. Worn smooth
scarred by deep gouges.
Definite signs of traffic.
That oddity had caught her eye initially and led her to dive here for a closer look. Otherwise even with Douglas’s coordinates, she never would have found this particular cave—and she seriously doubted anyone short of an oceanographer charting the gulf floor would have, either.
“Bluefish?” Worry filled Maggie’s voice. “The guys at the lab swear this device will work, but if it doesn’t and we lose contact, I want you out of there pronto. I mean it.”
“Here we go again. Trust a little. Remember, no guts, no glory.” Kate adjusted her diving headgear, checked to make sure her knife was secure in the sheath strapped to her thigh, pulled her flashlight from her tool belt, turned it on, then dove.
“Glory?” Maggie’s sigh crackled static through Kate’s earpiece. “What glory? You’re a phantom. Less than three hundred people know you exist.”
S.A.S.S. were a highly skilled, special-detail unit of covert operatives assigned to the Office of Special Investigations and buried in the Office of Personnel Management for the United States Air Force. The unit didn’t exist on paper, its missions didn’t exist on paper—the unit’s name even changed every six months for security purposes, which is why those who knew of S.A.S.S. operatives referred to them by what they did and not by their official organizational name.
“Personal power, Home Base.” Kate had learned from the cradle to expect no other kind. “Doesn’t matter a damn who else knows it as long as I do.”
At the mouth of the cave, she paused to scan the rock. More of the same worn smoothness and deep gouges. Even considering tidal fluxes, too many deep gouges rimmed the actual opening. Water action alone couldn’t explain it. She swam forward, entering the cave.
“Are you inside?”
“Yes,” Kate whispered, keeping her voice as quiet as possible. Snake-curved, the inner cave was about three feet wide. She swam close to the ceiling. Suddenly the width expanded to nearly ten feet. “The cave’s opened up.” She lifted her head above water, cranked her neck back and shone the light above her. “This is bizarre.”
“I dove a solid twenty feet to get to the mouth, then swam a couple football fields to get to this point. The water rode the cave ceiling the whole way. Now I’m seeing a stretch of wall that’s exposed a good nine feet above the waterline.” She stopped treading water and tested for
bottom. Her fin swiped the sand and she stood. “Water level’s dropped. It’s chest deep.”
“I’m plotting your GPS,” Maggie said.
“Good, because even considering an umbrella effect, this shouldn’t be possible.” Kate kept her diving mask on in case she was standing on a shelf or sand bar. False bottoms had proven common in her explorations. She then looked down the throat of the cave. Diffused light emanated from somewhere far ahead, creating a haze. The rocks jutting out from the cave walls cast deep shadows. Reflections shining through the water or cracks in the rock? Neither seemed possible, but the alternative…“Oh, man.”
“What is it?” Anxiety etched Maggie’s voice.
“This is more than we bargained for.” Kate’s heart beat hard and fast. “A whole lot more.”
Rushing water poured in with the tide, nearly knocking her off her feet. Kate braced against it, hunkering down until the water swirled around her chin, her wet suit and oxygen tank. Once it was calm, she removed her mask. “The salt in here smells strong—too strong. Saline content has to be off the charts.”
“If so, it should be strong enough to burn your nose,” Maggie responded.
“It does.” Kate’s nostrils stung like fire. “But it’s still
strong. Note that and my position on the plotter.” After putting her mask back on to block the smell, Kate depressed a sensor embedded under the skin at the base of her neck to pulse a signal the operatives had dubbed “Big Brother.” Only Home Base could activate it, but Kate could transmit her location at a given time with a pulse signal.
“Roger. Home Base is now plotting.” A pause, then, “Do you see any reason for the olfactory oddity?”
Looking through the water droplets spotting her wide-angle vision screen, Kate scanned the cave but saw nothing to account for the intense smell. One hundred percent saline content couldn’t take it to this level, and there was no way the cave water could be a hundred percent. It would show in the rocks.
“No, not a thing,” Kate admitted, expelling an impatient breath through pursed lips. “Maybe it’s just me.” Diving alone wasn’t unusual for S.A.S.S. operatives, but the increased risks and dangers definitely heightened awareness. Maybe she was hyperalert
She rounded a bend. The dim haze shone brighter. A chill crept up Kate’s back and tingled the roof of her mouth. “There’s light in here, Base. I’d hoped it was a crack in the rock or some weird reflection caused by my flashlight, but it’s not.”
“You’re under water. It should be dark—all the other caves were dark. Briefing reports have been consistent on that.”
“Yeah, well, this cave didn’t read them. There’s always that ten percent that doesn’t get the word, you know?”
“But why would this one be different?”
“Don’t know. Do know it’s not dark.” Kate moved slowly down the tunnel, hugging the rough cave wall, the swift water pushing her along faster than she wanted to go. She turned off her flashlight. Double-checked. “Definitely not a reflection. It’s light, Base.”
“Wait,” Maggie said. “I’m running the topography on your coordinates.” A few moments later she added, “Your cave is located under a finger of land that juts out into the gulf. It’s hilly in your immediate area, and the hills are full of man-made caves. Maybe one of them leads to your location and the light is filtering through from above ground.”
“Maybe.” The eerie light was actually a series of dim rays; glowing beams that hindered her sight despite her gear being night-vision equipped. Kate’s mouth went desert-dry. “On second thought, that’s unlikely.” To be certain, Kate lifted off her headgear and checked again.
She could see no better. That was the worst news yet. Rattled, her nerves tingled, prickling her skin, and her voice shook. “Visual observation is distorted with the night-vision goggles
the naked eye.”
“What are you telling me?” Maggie asked.
“Getting this perfect balance to blind you with both the naked eye and your NVG isn’t a natural occurrence. I’m telling you that the spectrum’s too narrow for this light to be natural. It’s not achieved by accident, Base.” U.S. scientists had spent years and millions of dollars identifying the perimeters of that spectrum.
“So your determination is that it’s man-made and deliberate, correct?”
“Affirmative. At this point, that’s my take on it.” Only a few groups outside the U.S. government had access to spectrum technology—but only one had a reason to corrupt it. S.A.S.S.’s nemesis. GRID.
So far, Kate had been involved in taking down three GRID compounds. But with Thomas Kunz, the sadistic German and anti-American at GRID’s helm, there would always be another compound.
Kunz blamed America for Germany’s troubled economy and, in a twisted quest for revenge, acquired members for GRID from all nationalities and devoted himself and his massive resources to using the organization to drag down America’s economy by selling classified intelligence on U.S. assets, technology and personnel. Unfortunately, Kunz had proved to be expert, cunning and creative. He was
more devious and deadly than anyone Kate had ever known. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to achieve his goals.
Edgy, she tensed and immediately rolled her shoulders to release it. “You’d better notify the program honchos that they’ve got a security breach,” she told Maggie. The light-spectrum technology had been developed under a top-secret classification. That the security had been violated meant bad news for the program.
“Um, just a second.” Maggie hesitated and, when she returned, her voice sounded like tin. She was obviously very uneasy. “You do know where you are, right?”
“On the border between Iraq and Iran?” Purely speculation. But wasn’t she? “You’re looking at the GPS coordinates, you tell me.”
“You don’t want to know,” Maggie assured her. “I’m calling the boss.”
Kate had crossed a freaking national boundary line. She should tell Maggie not to bother Colonel Drake; she knew the drill.
Get in and out. Avoid detection by any means necessary.
But she was just edgy enough and eager enough to stay quiet. She hadn’t seen any evidence of detection and the idea of maybe exposing another Kunz operative carried many positives in her book, and no negatives. Obviously the operative, who had infiltrated a top-secret program and successfully occupied a classified position by impersonating a legitimate U.S. government employee, would be the nature of a security breach required to get such technology out of the lab and into GRID’s greedy, grimy hands.
Three minutes passed, then Maggie returned. “The boss feels breaching security, stealing and using this light-spectrum technology in this manner is right up Big Fish’s alley.
Intel says he’s the only current prospect capable of that deep a penetration into our programs.”
Kate agreed with Intel, aka Captain Darcy Clark. Darcy had total recall, thanks to a head injury that had taken her out of the field as an active operative. She now worked solely on intelligence assimilation for the S.A.S.S. unit. The recall challenge that kept her isolated to avoid sensory overload had repeatedly proved to be a lifesaver for the other S.A.S.S. operatives still in the field.
“The boss is notifying the honchos in the need-to-know loop,” Maggie said. “She wants you to pull out, return to the outpost and wait for backup to go in with you.”
Before Kate could think of a way to sidestep the order, something alerted her honed instincts. Some sound or sense of movement. Some…something. Whatever it was had her attention. The hair on her neck prickled. “Stand by, Base.”
An internal alarm flashed
Kate’s heart kicked into overdrive, thumping hard against her ribs. With her thumb, she unsnapped the loop on her knife’s sheath and slowly scanned the rock walls, then the water’s shimmering surface. Shadows. Dull beams. No odd ripples or breaks in the water. “Okay,” she said, calming. “Okay, we’re fine.”
Kate sucked in a steadying breath. Strange for her instincts to be wrong; they rarely veered off target. Yet logic insisted that the odds of anyone else finding this uncharted cave were slim to none. The water blasting the rocks could have sanded them smooth, but it hadn’t caused the gouges. Those could only have come from fast-moving water sending something heavy crashing against the rocks.