, Book Three
If she could shoot her boss and avoid the death penalty, Marley Addison would do it. Heck, she wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at a few years in a federal prison, but Kentucky had that damn lethal injection sentence. A fact that was definitely making her think twice at the moment.
“There’s nothing here.” Jake Ryder’s irritated voice sounded in Marley’s headset, echoing in her brain, knocking her tension headache up another blistering notch.
“I said to take a right,” she said again into her microphone.
“There is no right, Addison.” On the screen in front of her where she monitored the op from the safety of Aegis headquarters, Jake shined his flashlight ahead and to each side so she could see the cement walls all around him. “There’s no left either. No forward. Only back.” He pulled off the headset and pointed the mini camera at his face. His rugged jawline, irritated expression, and dark eyes filled the screen. “Happy?”
No, she wasn’t happy. Marley ground her teeth and typed quickly on the computer to her right because he’d clearly changed directions on her—again. “I said to hold still for ten seconds, not keep going.” The schematics of the tunnels beneath the Pulaski Gallery and Jewelry Exchange in Washington, DC, zoomed in on the corridor he’d taken without waiting for her command. “I’ve almost got it. There. Go back ten feet, then take an immediate left.”
Shuffling sounded in her headset, along with a string of muttered words Marley didn’t have the patience to sort out. On the monitor at her side, Jake’s light once again shone over his dark boots and the trickle of water on the cement floor as he headed in the direction she’d indicated. When he reached the corner, he lifted his light, illuminating a rusted gate, blocking his path. “No left, Einstein. What else ya got?”
She drew a deep breath and reminded herself patience was key with her boss. Arguing with Jake was as useless as banging her head against a wall. After three and a half years running operations at Aegis Security, the elite black ops firm Jake owned and operated, Marley knew that better than anyone.
Looking up at a multitude of screens in front of her in the high-tech communications room, she paged through the schematics until she found the route she’d told him to take in the first place. “Turn around, backtrack to the main tunnel, then this time take a left at the four-way intersection.”
Jake’s boot steps sounded in her ear. On the screen, he flashed the light over his wrist. “We’re four minutes behind schedule.”
Of course they were behind schedule, but not because of her. If she were in the field instead of stuck back at Aegis headquarters, they’d already be in the vault of the gallery because she actually did her research before a mission went into operation mode. But she refrained from saying so to keep the peace. She always bit her tongue with Jake to keep the peace. “There should be a ladder twenty feet ahead on your right. Access runs into a closet in the back office on the first floor of the gallery.”
Jake didn’t respond, but seconds later his light illuminated the metal ladder, exactly where Marley had said it would be. “Bentley, system check.”
“Security system is down . . . now.” The sound of keys clicking reverberated through the line, and Marley pictured Pierce Bentley, a former Secret Service agent, hacking into the gallery’s security system in the back of the nondescript van parked a block away on the dark DC street.
That was where she needed to be in case something went wrong and she had to give the men inside split-second directions. On site in the van in the event the satellite feed went down, or the cops showed up, or any number of things erupted to ruin the op. But no, because she was a woman and not one of the guys, Jake made it clear her place was anywhere besides in the field.
That fact burned more than she liked. For the most part, working at Aegis was rewarding. She loved the guys, loved the work, and the pay was a serious perk. But Jake’s gender bias was really grating on her last nerve. Especially lately, when his resistance to her having anything to do with fieldwork only seemed to be growing stronger.
He lets Eve participate in the ops.
Her brain skipped over the only other female who worked for the company. Yes, Jake let Evelyn Wolfe participate in the ops. Sent her all over the world, in fact. And his excuse when Marley called him on it was that Eve was ex-CIA and knew how to handle herself. He was right—Eve was as tough as they came—but that didn’t mean Marley couldn’t deal with the pressure. She’d grown up in the security game, for crying out loud. Her father was the CEO of Omega Intel and had dragged her all over the globe on his missions from the time she was old enough to carry her own backpack. When it came to fieldwork—raids, rescues, extractions—she’d seen it all. And Jake knew that.
Startled by the sound of Jake’s voice in her ear, Marley flinched. “Yes?”
“I asked if you’re monitoring the police bands. Where the hell did you go?”
Of course she was monitoring the police bands. “Still no chatter on the bands,” she said clearly, then under her breath, “I’d tell you if there were. I’m not a freakin’ rookie.”
“Perimeter’s clear as well.” Mick Hedley’s Australian accent echoed through the line.
Marley glanced at her map just to be sure. Mick and a couple of other guys were stationed outside the building, waiting for Jake’s mark. Their op this time was simple: test the Pulaski Gallery’s security system. No big deal. Aegis had done jobs like this dozens of times. But any number of things could backfire, and Marley still wanted to be there.
“What about Wolfe?” On the screen to her left, Jake’s light shined over the interior of a small office made up of a desk, file cabinet, and a trio of chairs. If he’d heard Marley’s muttered comment, he didn’t acknowledge it. Then again, Jake rarely acknowledged her, let alone her feelings.
Marley pushed down the frustration and told herself to stick to the business at hand. What did she care if Jake noticed her? He was her employer, nothing more. Which was exactly the way she wanted it.
“She should be coming out anytime,” Marley announced, flipping screens again so the layout of the gallery popped up. “Turn right when you open the door. A back hallway runs from the offices toward the kitchen.”
“She better not be having too much fun in there,” Zane Archer muttered over the line as Jake headed down the dark hallway. He, like Hedley, was also stationed outside, waiting on clean-up duty while his fiancée created a diversion and schmoozed with Washington’s most wealthy at the black-tie affair happening inside the gallery’s main rooms.
“Worried she’s going to trade you in for a younger model, Archer?” Bentley asked.
“No,” Zane huffed. “I just don’t want her to spend all my freakin’ money. There’s a damn auction going on in there. You know how competitive the woman is. Knowing her, she’d start bidding just to prove she could.”
“I heard that, Archer.” Eve’s clipped voice echoed in Marley’s headset, followed by the click of her heels across the floor. “In a few minutes you’re going to seriously wish you weren’t talking smack about me behind my back.”
“Ooh.” Hedley chuckled. “You’re in deep shit now, Archer.”
“Babe,” Archer said sweetly. “I wasn’t talking smack. I was bragging about your sexy dance moves. I said, ‘She’d start spinning just to prove she could.’”
“Jesus, Archer,” Bentley mumbled. “You are so freakin’ whipped. It’s pathetic, man. I swear to God you’ve grown a vagina.”
The team laughed. Over the line, Eve said, “I seriously hope not because I am so not into the girl-on-girl thing.”
“Damn,” Hedley mumbled. “There goes my fantasy. For a while there, Wolfe, I thought you were the perfect woman.”
“Hey now, asshole,” Zane interrupted. “I’m still on the line here, Hedley.”
Laughter echoed through Marley’s headset, but she didn’t share in the lightheartedness. She never did, at least not until the op was over. “All clear?” she asked when the laughter died down.
“Yes,” Eve answered, her voice growing serious as well. A beep echoed, and Marley knew Eve had just flashed the ID card she’d lifted from a security guard over the vault room’s door sensor. The hiss of a heavy door opening sounded through her microphone. “Wilson just took the podium. You’ve got eight minutes, Ryder.”
Marley started her stopwatch.
“Sam Wilson will talk for more than eight minutes,” Jake said, moving out into the dark corridor and stepping through the door at the end of the hall that Eve held open for him. “He’s as long-winded as they come. Holy hell it’s hot in here.”
“Vault air temperature is 98.6 degrees,” Bentley informed him. “Infrared won’t be able to sense you unless you’re running a fever.”
“Here’s where you all hope I got my flu shot,” Jake said.
The door clicked closed behind them. Eve turned and typed a code into the keypad near the door. “Seismic sensors are disabled.”
Jake handed Eve a weapon. “Nice work, Wolfe.”
“Feminine charm comes in handy now and then, especially with hunky male security guards.”
“I heard that, too,” Zane added.
“Relax, Archer.” Even though Marley couldn’t see Jake, she could tell from the sound of his voice he was smiling. “Her lipstick’s only slightly smeared.”
“Fucking relax,” Archer mumbled. “I’d like to see you relax with your woman in there rubbing up against some two-bit rent-a-cop.”
“Not an issue.” Jake handed Eve one of the two packs he carried. “Because I’m not stupid enough to get tied down to just one woman.”
Eve grinned and shook her head. In the com room, Marley huffed.
“Problem, Addison?” Jake asked.
Marley cleared her throat and sat up straighter. “Not from me. That was a sneeze.”
“Uh-huh.” Jake chuckled. “Wolfe’s on her way out to you, Archer.”
Eve hefted the pack over her shoulder and looked toward Jake. “Try not to get shot.”
“Try not to get mugged.”
Eve smiled. “I’ll do my best, boss.”
While Eve disappeared back out the door, Jake moved forward.
And though there was a teasing tone in the air, once he was alone, Marley’s stomach curled into a knot. Her mind instinctively tumbled through every awful thing that could happen to him alone in that vault. “Six minutes, fifty-eight seconds,” she said into her mike.
The video feed swayed with Jake’s steps, illuminating the hallway and, finally, the vault’s door. “Won’t even need half that.” Jake dropped his backpack on the floor and reached for the dial on the vault. “Hey, Addison. What’s your favorite color?”
Marley blinked twice as she watched the camera shift direction and knew Jake was pressing his ear against the vault’s door, listening for the telltale click of the drive pin as he spun the wheel.
“You want to know my favorite color now?”
Jake turned the dial the other direction. “I’m guessing pink. You seem like a pink kind of girl.”
Marley grunted. Of course he thought she was a pink girl. The same way he thought she couldn’t take care of herself on an op.
“You’re making an awful lot of funny noises,” Jake said. “You coming down with something?”
“No, Jake.” Why the heck was he having this conversation with her now of all times? “I’m as healthy as ever. And pink is not even close to my favorite color. I like blue.”
“Blue, huh?” He turned the dial once more, then eased away from the door. The vault came into view along with his muscular forearm as he reached out and turned the hand wheel. “I never would have guessed that.”
A hiss echoed through his mike, then he pulled the door back and open, and Marley’s pulse jumped again, this time not from annoyance but excitement. “How the heck did you crack that so fast?”
“Hands against the wall now!”
Several voices echoed across the line, followed by a rush of footsteps. Marley startled at the sound, then leaned forward for a better view of the screen as Jake whipped around. His camera scanned the room, now filled with seven, eight . . . at least nine security guards pointing weapons directly at him.
“Oh shit,” Marley gasped.
“Well, hell,” Jake muttered. “Looks like someone finally wised up.”
“On the ground! Now!”
“Okay, okay. I heard you.” He held up his hands and slowly lowered his body to the floor. “I don’t suppose you boys are interested in a bribe, huh? Got an open vault here.”
Marley typed quickly on her computer, backtracking through the system and pulling up cameras in the hall that led to the vault. “I don’t know what we missed. Bentley?”
“System’s still totally down,” Bentley answered. “It’s clean on our end.”
No, it wasn’t clean. This op was turning into a giant fuckup, which was exactly why Marley needed to be on-site instead of at Aegis headquarters. “Archer, Hedley, go three. Jake, hold tight. We’ve got a team coming your way.”
“Take your time,” Jake muttered. “I’ll just take a nap down here.”
One of the guards kicked Jake’s backpack away from his feet. Perspiration dotted Marley’s forehead as she zeroed in on the screen in front of her and focused on the gallery owner moving down the hall toward the vault room. “Jake, Wilson’s heading right for you. Dammit, we missed a step somewhere.”
“You didn’t miss anything,” Jake said quietly into his mike. “I tripped a sensor in the tunnels on purpose.”
Marley’s fingers froze on her keyboard just as the guard reached for Jake’s headset. “You what?”
Jake didn’t get a chance to answer. The guard tossed his headset on the ground, then hauled him to his feet. The camera clattered against the floor but continued to transmit a video feed. Not that it did a lot of good because it showed nothing more than boots and pant legs, but Marley leaned forward to see better anyway and flipped the volume up on her monitor. She could barely make out the voices. Some kind of commotion was happening. She recognized Jake’s voice, and Wilson’s, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. If they would just—
Gunfire exploded in her headset, and Marley jerked back in her seat.