It was cold in the rough little hut. Despite the blankets hung over the one window and the ill-fitting door, to block the escape of any telltale light, frigid air still seeped through. Niema Burdock blew on her fingers to warm them, her breath fogging slightly in the one dim battery-operated light that was all Tucker, the team leader, allowed.
Her husband, Dallas, seemed perfectly comfortable in his T-shirt as he calmly packed the Semtex blocks into secure sections of his web gear. Niema watched him, trying to hide her anxiety. It wasn't the explosive she worried about; plastique was so stable soldiers in Vietnam had burned it as fuel. But Dallas and Sayyed had to plant the explosives in the manufacturing facility, and that was the most dangerous part of a job that was already hair-raising enough. Though her husband was as matter-of-fact about it as he would be about crossing the street, Niema wasn't that blasé about the job. The radio detonator wasn't state-of-the art; far from it. This was deliberate, a precaution in case any of their equipment fell into the wrong hands. Nothing they were using could be traced to the United States, which was why Dallas was using Semtex instead of C-4. But because their equipment wasn't the best available, Niema had gone to great pains to make sure it was reliable. It was her husband's finger, after all, that would be on the switch.
Dallas caught her gaze on him and winked at her, his strong face relaxing from its normal impassiveness into a warm smile that he reserved only for her. "Hey," he said mildly, "I'm good at this. Don't worry."
So much for trying to hide her anxiety. The other three men turned to look at her. Not wanting them to think she couldn't handle the stress of the job, she shrugged. "So sue me. I'm new at this wife business. I thought I was supposed to worry."
Sayyed laughed as he packed his own gear. "Heck of a way to spend your honeymoon." He was a native Iranian who was now an American citizen, a tough, wiry man in his late forties. He spoke English with a Midwestern accent, the result of both hard work and almost thirty years in the United States. "Personally, I'd have picked Hawaii for my wedding trip. At least it would be warm there."
"Or Australia," Hadi said wistfully. "It's summer there now." Hadi Santana was of Arabic and Mexican heritage, but an American by birth. He had grown up in the heat of southern Arizona and didn't like the cold Iranian mountains in mid-winter any better than did Niema. He would stand guard while Dallas and Sayyed planted the charges and was occupying himself by checking and rechecking his rifle and ammunition.
"We spent two weeks in Aruba after we got married," Dallas said. "Great place." He winked at Niema again, and she had to smile. Unless Dallas had been to Aruba another time, he hadn't seen much of it during their honeymoon, three months before. They had spent the entire two weeks lost in each other's company, making love, sleeping late. Bliss.
Tucker didn't join in the conversation, but his cool, dark eyes lingered on Niema as if assessing her; wondering if he had made a mistake including her on the team. She wasn't as experienced as the others, but neither was she a novice. Not only that, she could put a bug on a telephone line with her eyes closed. If Tucker had any doubts about her ability, she wished he would just come out and say so.
But if Tucker had doubts about her, then turnabout was fair play, she thought wryly, because she sure as hell wasn't certain about him. Not that he'd said or done anything wrong; the uneasiness that kept her on edge around him was instinctive, without any concrete reason. She wished he was one of the three men going into the plant, rather than remaining behind with her. The thought of spending the hours alone with him wasn't nearly as nerve-racking as knowing Dallas would be in danger, but she didn't need the added tension when her nerves already felt stretched and raw.
Tucker originally had planned to go in, but Dallas was the one who had argued against it. "Look, boss," he had said in that calm way of his. "It isn't that you can't do the job, because you're as good as I am, but it isn't necessary that you take the risk. If you had to, that would be different, but you don't." An indecipherable look had flashed between the two men, and Tucker had given a brief nod.
Dallas and Tucker had known each other before Tucker put this team together, had worked together before. The only thing that reassured Niema about the team leader was that her husband trusted and respected him, and Dallas Burdock was no one's pushover -- to the contrary, in fact. Dallas was one of the toughest, most dangerous men she had ever met. She had thought he was the most dangerous, until she met Tucker.
That in itself was scary, because Dallas was something else. Until five months ago, she hadn't really believed men like him existed. Now, she knew differently. Her throat tightened as she watched her husband, his dark head bent as he once again focused all his attention on his supplies and equipment. Just like that, he could tune out everything but the job; his power of concentration was awesome. She had seen that level of concentration in only one other man: Tucker.
She felt a sudden little ping of disbelief, almost a suspension of reality, that she was actually married, especially to a man like Dallas. She had known him for just five months, loved him for almost as long, and in so many ways he was still a stranger to her. They were slowly learning each other, settling down into the routine of marriage -- well, as routine as it could get, given their jobs as contract agents for various concerns, principally the CIA.
Dallas was calm and steady and capable. Once she would have described those characteristics as desirable, if you were the domestic suburban type, but basically unexciting. Not now. There was nothing staid about Dallas. Need a cat out of a tree? Dallas could climb that tree as if he were a cat. Need the plumbing fixed? Dallas could fix it. Need to be dragged out of the surf? He was a superior swimmer. Need someone to make a difficult shot? He was an expert marksman. Need to blow up a building in Iran? Dallas was your man.
So it took some doing to be tougher and more dangerous than Dallas, but Tucker...somehow was. She didn't know why she was so certain. It wasn't Tucker's physical appearance; he was tall and lean, but not as muscular as Dallas. He wasn't edgy; if anything, he was even more low-key than Dallas. But there was something in his eyes, in his characteristic stillness, that told her Tucker was lethal.
She kept her doubts about the team leader to herself. She wanted to trust Dallas's opinion of Tucker because she trusted her husband so much. Besides, she was the one who had really wanted to take this job, while Dallas had been leaning toward a diving trip to Australia. Maybe she was just letting the tension of the situation get to her. They were, after all, on a job that would get them all killed if they were discovered, but success was even more important than escaping detection.
The small facility buried deep in these cold mountains was manufacturing a biological agent scheduled to be shipped to a terrorist base in Sudan. An air strike would be the fastest, most efficient way to destroy it, but that would also trigger an international crisis and destroy the delicate balance of the Middle East along with the factory. A full-scale war wasn't what anyone wanted.
With an air strike ruled out, the plant had to be destroyed from the ground, and that meant the explosives had to be hand-placed, as well as powerful. Dallas wasn't relying just on Semtex to do the job; there were fuels and accelerants in the factory that he planned to use to make certain the plant didn't just go boom, but that it burned to the ground.
They had been in Iran five days, traveling openly, boldly. She had worn the traditional Muslim robes, with only her eyes revealed, and sometimes they had been veiled, too. She didn't speak Farsi -- she had studied French, Spanish, and Russian, but not Farsi -- but that didn't matter because, as a woman, she wasn't expected to speak. Sayyed was a native, but from what she could tell, Tucker was as fluent as Sayyed, Dallas nearly so, and Hadi less than Dallas. She was sometimes amused by the fact that all five of them were dark-eyed and dark-haired, and she wondered if her coloring hadn't played nearly as large a part in her having been chosen to be a team member as had her skill with electronics.
"Ready." Dallas hooked the radio transmitter to his web gear and shouldered the knapsack of plastique. He and Sayyed had identical gear. Niema had practically assembled the transmitters from spare parts, because the transmitters they had acquired had all been damaged in some way. She had cannibalized them and built two she had tested and retested, until she was certain they wouldn't fail. She had also tapped into the factory's phone lines, a dead-easy job because their equipment was of early-seventies vintage. They hadn't gotten much information from that, but enough to know their intel was accurate, and the small facility had developed a supply of anthrax for terrorists in Sudan. Anthrax wasn't exotic, but it was sure as hell effective.
Sayyed had slipped into the facility the night before and reconnoitered, returning to draw a rough floor plan showing where the testing and incubation was done, as well as the storage facility, where he and Dallas would concentrate most of their explosives. As soon as the factory blew, Tucker and Niema would destroy their equipment -- not that much of it was worth anything -- and be ready to move as soon as the three men returned. They would split up and each make their own way out of the country, rendezvousing in Paris to debrief. Niema, of course, would be traveling with Dallas.
Tucker extinguished the light, and the three men slipped silently out the door and into the darkness. Niema immediately wished she had at least hugged Dallas, or kissed him good luck, no matter what the other three thought. She felt colder without his bracing presence.
After making certain the blankets were in place, Tucker switched on the light again, then began swiftly packing the things they would take with them. There wasn't much; a few provisions, a change of clothes, some money: nothing that would arouse suspicion if they were stopped. Niema moved to help him, and in silence they divided the provisions into five equal packs.
Then there was nothing to do but wait. She moved over to the radio and checked the settings, though she had checked them before; there was nothing coming over the single speaker because the men weren't talking. She sat down in front of the radio and hugged herself against the cold.
Nothing about this job had been a picnic, but the waiting was the worst. It always had been, but now that Dallas was in danger, the anxiety was magnified tenfold. It gnawed at her, that internal demon. She checked her cheap wristwatch; only fifteen minutes had lapsed. They hadn't had time to reach the facility yet.
A thin blanket settled over her shoulders. Startled, she looked up at Tucker, who stood beside her. "You were shivering," he said in explanation of his unusual act and moved away again.
"Thanks." She pulled the blanket around her, uncomfortable with the gesture, considerate though it was. She wished she could ignore her uneasiness about Tucker, or at least figure out why she was so wary of him. She had tried to hide her wariness and concentrate only on the job, but Tucker was no one's fool; he knew she was uncomfortable with him. Sometimes she felt as if they were in a silent battle no one else knew about, those rare times when their gazes would accidentally meet and distrust would be plain in hers, a slightly mocking awareness in his.
He never put a foot wrong, though, never did anything that would bring their discord into the open. His relationship with all three of the other men was both easy and professional. With her, he was unfailingly polite and impersonal, and even that was a measure of his professionalism. Tucker respected Dallas and certainly wasn't going to disrupt the team or endanger the job by openly antagonizing his wife. That should have reassured Niema on a couple of levels -- but it didn't.
Until he put the blanket around her shoulders, there hadn't been a word spoken between them since the others left. She wished it had remained that way; keeping Tucker at a distance, she thought, was the safest place for him.
He sat down, as relaxed and graceful as a cat. He seemed impervious to the cold, comfortable in a black T-shirt and fatigue pants. Dallas had the same sort of internal furnace, because he seldom felt the cold either. What was it about men like them that made them burn so much hotter than the rest of the human race? Maybe it was their physical conditioning, but she herself was in very good shape and she had been cold the entire time they had been in Iran. She didn't wish they were cold, too, just that the damn anthrax facility had been built in the warm desert, instead of these chilly mountains.
"You're afraid of me."
The comment, coming out of the blue, startled her more than it had when he put the blanket around her, but not enough that she lost her composure. His voice had been calm, as if he were discussing the weather. She gave him a cool look. "Wary," she corrected. If he thought she would hasten to deny her uneasiness, the way most people would do when cornered, he was mistaken. As Dallas had learned, to his amusement more often than not, there wasn't much that could make Niema back down.
Tucker leaned his dark head back against the cold stone wall and drew one leg up, draping his arm loosely over his knee. Unreadable brown eyes studied her. "Wary, then," he conceded. "Why?"
She shrugged. "Feminine intuition?"
He began to laugh. Laughter wasn't something she had associated with Tucker, but he did it easily, his dark head tilted back against the wall. The sound was genuinely amused, as if he couldn't help himself.
Niema watched him, one eyebrow tilted as she waited for him to stop. She didn't feel the least impulse to join in his laughter, or even to smile. Nothing about this situation was funny. They were deep in Iran on a job that could get them all killed, and oh, by the way, she didn't trust the team leader one inch, ha ha ha. Yeah, right.
"Jesus," he groaned, wiping his eyes. "All this because of feminine intuition?" A shade of incredulousness colored his tone.
Niema gave him a stony look. "You make it sound as if I've been attacking you left and right."
"Not overtly, at least." He paused, a smile still curving his mouth. "Dallas and I have worked together before, you know. What does he say about your suspicions?"
He was utterly relaxed as he waited for her answer, as if he already knew what Dallas would have said -- if she had mentioned her feelings to him, that is. She hadn't uttered a word of misgiving to him, though. For one thing, she had nothing concrete to offer, and she wasn't about to stir up trouble without proof other than her feminine intuition. She didn't discount her uneasiness, but Dallas was a man who dealt in hard realities, who had learned to disconnect his emotions so he could function in the dangerous field he had chosen. Moreover, he obviously liked, trusted, and respected Tucker.
"I haven't talked to him about it."
"No? Why not?"
She shrugged. Other than not having proof, her main reason for not talking to Dallas about Tucker was that her husband hadn't been wild about her coming on this job anyway, and she didn't want to give him an opportunity to say I told you so. She was good at what she did, but she didn't have the field experience the others had, so she was reluctant to cause trouble. And, she admitted, even had she known she wouldn't be comfortable with Tucker, she would have come anyway. Something primitive in her thrilled to the tension, the danger, the utter importance of what she did. She had never wanted a nine-to-five; she wanted adventure, she wanted to work on the front line. She wasn't going to do anything to jeopardize a job she had worked hard to attain.
"Why not?" Tucker said again, and a hint of steel underlay the easiness of his tone. He wanted an answer, and she suspected he usually got what he wanted.
Oddly, though, she wasn't intimidated. Part of her even relished this little showdown, getting their animosity out into the open and going one-on-one with Tucker.
"What difference does it make?" She returned his cool look with one of her own. "Regardless of my suspicions about you, I'm doing my job and keeping my mouth shut. My reasons aren't any of your business. But I'd bet the farm your real name isn't Darrell Tucker."
He grinned suddenly, surprising her. "Dallas said you were stubborn. Not much of a reverse gear, was the way he put it," he said, settling his shoulders more comfortably against the wall.
Because Niema had heard Dallas mutter something very close to that, after one of the few times they had gone head to head about something, she found herself smiling, too.
In that more relaxed atmosphere he said, "What makes you think my name isn't Tucker?"
"I don't know. Darrell Tucker is a good-old-boy Texas name, and every so often I hear a little bit of Texas in your accent, so the accent and the name fit -- but you don't, somehow."
"I've traveled a bit since I left home," he drawled.
She clapped her hands twice in mocking applause. "That was very well done. A homey piece of phrasing, the accent a little heavier."
"But you don't buy it."
"I bet you're very good with a lot of accents."
Amused, he said, "Okay, you aren't going to believe me. That's fine. I don't have any way of proving who I am. But believe me in this: My priorities are getting that building blown and all of us safely home."
"How can you get us home? We're splitting up, remember?"
"By doing all my preliminary work right, by anticipating as many problems as I can and taking steps to counteract them."
"You can't anticipate everything, though."
"I try. That's why my hair is going gray; I sit up nights worrying."
His hair was as dark as her own, without a silver thread showing. His sense of humor was wry, tending toward the ironic; she wished he hadn't shown it to her, wished he had maintained the silence between them. Why hadn't he? Why now, of all times, had he suddenly breached the armed truce?
She whirled to the radio set as the whispered words came plainly through the speaker. Incredulously she checked the time; thirty minutes had passed since she had last looked. She had been so focused on her confrontation with Tucker that she had forgotten to fret.
Like a flash, she knew: That was why he had done it. He had distracted her, using the one subject he knew she wouldn't be able to ignore.
Tucker was already at the radio, slipping on a Motorola headset. "Any problems?"
That was all, just three whispered words, but they were in her husband's voice and Niema knew that for now, at least, he was all right. She leaned back and focused on her breathing, in, out, keeping the rhythm regular.
There was nothing Tucker could do now to distract her, short of physical violence, so he left her alone. She checked the radio settings, though she knew they were right. She wished she had checked the radio detonator one more time, just to be certain. No -- she knew it was working perfectly. And Dallas knew what he was doing.
"Has Dallas ever told you about his training?"
She flicked an impatient glance at Tucker. "I don't need distracting. Thanks for doing it before, but not now, please."
A faint quirk of his brows betrayed his surprise. "So you figured it out," he said easily, and she immediately wondered if distracting her had indeed been his intention. Tucker was so damn elusive that even when you thought you had him read, it was possible you were reading only what he intended you to read. "But this is more in the way of reassurance. Do you know about his training?"
"That he took BUD/S? Yes." BUD/S was Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training: extensive, and so grueling only a tiny percentage of men who tried actually completed the course.
"But has he told you what that training entailed?"
"No, not in detail."
"Then take my word for it, Dallas can do things no ordinary man would ever dream of doing."
"I know. And -- thanks. But he's still human, and plans can go wrong -- "
"He knows that. They all do. They're prepared."
"Why didn't he want you to go in?"
There was an infinitesimal pause, so brief she wasn't certain she had heard it. "Despite what he said, Dallas doesn't think I'm as good as he is," Tucker said with wry humor.
She didn't believe him. For one thing, Dallas respected him too much. For another, that tiny pause before he spoke told her he had been weighing his response, and his answer wasn't one that had required any weighing.
Whoever he was, whatever he was hiding, Niema accepted that she wasn't going to get any straight answers from him. He was probably one of those paranoid spooks everyone read about, who saw spies and enemies everywhere, and, if you asked him if it was supposed to rain the next day, would wonder what you were planning that required bad weather.
Sayyed's voice whispered over the radio. "Trouble. Activity in the warehouse. Looks like they're getting ready to make a shipment."
Tucker swore, his attention immediately focused on the situation. It was imperative the warehoused store of bacteria be completely destroyed before a shipment was made. The warehouse was usually deserted at night, with guards posted outside, but now there was activity that prevented Sayyed from planting his charges.
"How many?" Tucker asked.
"I make it...eight...no, nine. I took cover behind some barrels, but I can't move around any."
They couldn't let that shipment leave the warehouse.
"Dallas." Tucker spoke the name quietly into his headset.
"I'm on the way, Boss. My charges are set."
Niema's nails dug into her palms. Dallas was going to Sayyed's aid, but they would still be badly outnumbered, and by moving, Dallas was risking exposure. She reached for the second headset; she didn't know what she was going to say to her husband, but she didn't have the chance. Tucker's hand shot out; he jerked the plug out of the radio set and tossed the headset aside, his dark gaze cool and hard as he met her stunned look.
She found herself on her feet, her shoulders braced, hands knotted into fists. "He's my husband," she said fiercely.
Tucker put his hand over the tiny microphone. "And he doesn't need the distraction of hearing you now." He added deliberately, "If you try anything, I'll tie and gag you."
She wasn't without some training herself, and Dallas, once he realized he couldn't convince her to play it safe and sit home like a good little wife, had been teaching her how to fight in ways her self-defense class had never covered. Still, her level of expertise in no way matched his, or Tucker's. The only way she could take him, she thought, was to catch him totally by surprise, from behind.
But he was right. Damn it, he was right. She didn't dare say anything that could break Dallas's concentration.
She held up her hands in a brief gesture of surrender and moved three steps away. The hut was so small she couldn't go much farther anyway. She sat down on a pack of provisions and tried to beat down the suffocating waves of anxiety.
The minutes crawled by. She knew Dallas was creeping toward the warehouse section, using every bit of cover available to him, trying not to take chances. She also knew that every passing second put the terrorists that much closer to leaving with the shipment of bacteria. Dallas would be balancing caution with expediency.
Tucker spoke into the headset. "Sayyed. Report."
"I can't budge an inch. The truck is almost loaded."
"Two minutes," Dallas said.
Two minutes. Niema closed her eyes. Cold sweat trickled down her back. Please, she found herself praying. Please. She couldn't form any words other than that.
Two minutes could be a lifetime. Time itself could be strangely elastic, stretching until every second was ponderous, until the second hand on her watch seemed almost motionless.
"I'm in position."
The words almost broke her control. She bit her lip until the taste of blood filled her mouth.
"How does it look?"
"Sayyed's got his ass in a crack, all right. Hey, buddy, how many charges did you get set?"
One wasn't enough. Niema had listened to them, knew how many charges Dallas estimated it would take to completely destroy the facility.
"In position. Can't help you much."
"Start pulling back." Dallas's voice was even. "Sayyed, arm all the charges."
There was another silence, then Sayyed's, "Done."
"Get ready. Throw the pack under the truck, then run like hell. I'll lay down covering fire. I'm gonna give us five seconds to get outta here before I hit the button."
"Damn. Maybe you should make it six," Sayyed said.
"Ready." Dallas was still utterly calm. "Go!"
Copyright © 1999 by Linda Howington