John Brannigan was not a happy man.
The fact that he was wearing a tux, sitting at a very expensive table in a very expensive, very exclusive restaurant, high atop a luxury hotel in the middle of San Francisco, would have been bad enough. Ever since his forced retirement from the Marine Corps and the death of his wife, Rebecca, of cancer a short time later, he’d essentially retired to the mountains, living not too differently from an old-time mountain man. Fancy restaurants, fancy clothes, and big cities put his teeth on edge. He’d gotten a haircut and shaved his cheeks and chin, but his massive, bristling handlebar remained, setting him apart even more than his broad shoulders and six-foot-four-inch stature from the soft men around him.
But all of that was only a minor annoyance compared to the woman sitting across the table from him.
To call Erika Dalca “attractive” would be falling short of the mark. She was nothing short of breathtaking, especially that night. Her flawless, slightly angular face was framed by a perfectly coiffed halo of golden hair, swept back over one ear from which dangled a dazzling gold earring with at least three diamonds set in it. A gold necklace encircled her slender throat, and several bracelets dangled around her wrists. Her gold-chased, cream-colored dress was off one shoulder, giving him an eyeful of equally flawless, glowing skin.
She was intoxicating, she knew it, and he was entirely too aware of it. Fortunately, he was also keenly aware that her beauty was every bit as dangerous as the bioluminescent lure dangling above an anglerfish’s jaws.
Erika Dalca was the CEO of Ciela International, a global shipping and logistics conglomerate. She was also, he knew, the kingpin of a vast underground criminal network. Exactly what all she had her slender, delicate fingers in he didn’t know, and was fairly sure he didn’t want to know.
She had been a great help over the last couple of years. Brannigan was the commander of a group of elite mercenaries who had dubbed themselves “Brannigan’s Blackhearts,” and Dalca had provided them with information as well as their infiltration platform when they had first crossed swords with a terrorist group on the Tourmaline Delta GOPLAT off the coast of Mexico. She had provided a small submersible to get the Blackhearts to the base of the platform undetected.
None of which led him to trust her. She was too assured, too seductive, too openly manipulative. And way too far outside the law.
He still had to take her seriously, though. When she had contacted him, saying that they needed to have a face-to-face, because she had information about their “recently unmasked adversary,” he knew that he had to go ahead and meet her.
The Blackhearts had finally discovered the identity of the group they had fought on the Tourmaline Delta, and again later in Transnistria. Rumors of missing WHO doctors had led the Blackhearts to Chad, where they had discovered a biological weapons testing facility, run by that very organization.
Not that the information had made matters any easier. Because the secretive terrorist organization they had fought twice already had turned out to be the Humanity Front: the biggest, most popular, and richest humanitarian NGO on the planet.
The Blackhearts and their shadowy backers in the US government knew they had to tread carefully. The Humanity Front had a lot of very powerful friends. But Brannigan was determined to bring them down, one way or another. So, if Dalca had information that could help, he had to hear her out.
But so far, she hadn’t been forthcoming that evening. They had met, traded small talk—she had, anyway; he had stayed generally quiet and grim—and had a very expensive dinner. The food had been good, but Brannigan had barely tasted it.
He’d been too focused on trying to get through it to get to the meat of the meeting. And, he’d been unable to ignore the way Dalca had been watching him all night, that little smile on her face.
“Do I make you so nervous, John?” she asked, amused. “You’re acting like a man at his last meal, not on a date with a beautiful woman.”
He was about to say something about having expected to come to an intel meeting, but before he could, she cocked her head, her smile widening. He frowned; the song had changed, he could tell that much, but to his ears, it just sounded like more of the same banal lounge lizard music they’d been playing in the restaurant since he’d walked in.
“Oh, I love this song,” she cooed. She stood up and held out her hand. “Come dance with me, John.”
Before he could refuse or otherwise resist, she had stepped halfway around the table, taken his hand, and was gently pulling him out of his chair and toward the dance floor, beneath a massy, glittering crystal chandelier.
He didn’t want to dance. He hadn’t danced since he and Rebecca had attended their last Marine Corps Ball before his unceremonious forced retirement. But he couldn’t very well refuse to play her game in such a public setting. Which, he was sure, was part of her plan.
She settled into his arms, leaning against his chest as she swayed in time with the music, drawing him in to do the same. It wasn’t hard, and Rebecca had made sure he’d known how to dance shortly after they’d been married. He hadn’t been the most graceful student, in any sense of the word, but he’d learned.
As Dalca laid her golden head on his chest, he rumbled, “I thought this was supposed to be a meeting.”
“And what would people think if we were having a business meeting in public, John?” she asked, lifting her eyes to look up at him. She cupped his cheek in her hand. “This is tradecraft. We are dealing with very dangerous people, who might have already identified you, judging by the attack on poor Samuel, and, if they have the contacts that I suspect that they do, they know who I am. So, let’s just enjoy ourselves until they get bored and decide that we are no threat to them.”
He didn’t actually have an argument for that, but he still growled, “You’re enjoying this a great deal, aren’t you?”
She smiled dazzlingly. “Of course I am,” she said. “A wonderful meal, excellent champagne, and the company of a tall, handsome widower who now has me in his arms? Why shouldn’t I enjoy it?”
Again, he didn’t exactly have an answer. It still bugged him. He looked over her head, scanning the other tables gathered around the big dance floor.
“Oh, they’re cleverer than that,” Dalca told him. “If they’re watching, you’re not going to see them.”
“Then how the hell are we going to know when to stop playing this game?” he asked. He’d had to deal in skullduggery more than a few times since he had first gathered the Blackhearts, but he knew he was no trained spy, and with his physical profile, he wasn’t going to ever make much of one.
“When the time is right,” she said. He didn’t look down at her, but he could hear her smile in her voice. “It might even be a better idea to let it wait; we should go downstairs, finish the night properly, and then talk about it in the morning.”
The invitation couldn’t have been any more blatant. And, for a brief instant, he had to admit to himself that he was tempted. She was beautiful, soft and warm in his arms, and her delicate scent was in his nostrils.
But he shook it off. This wasn’t the first time she’d tried to get under his skin. And while Rebecca was dead, and had been for several years, that didn’t make it feel like any less of a betrayal to seek comfort in another woman’s arms.
Through the cloud of conflicting emotions caused by her closeness, he couldn’t help but notice how much more brazen she was acting, compared to their last meeting. Of course, she’d been on his turf, then. Now he was on hers, and she was pressing her advantage.
The song ended, but Dalca did not disengage, still holding him close. She looked up at him, slipping her arms around his neck. “I think we should go down to my suite,” she said, smiling and looking up at him through her lashes.
He raised an eyebrow as he met her gaze coldly. He felt her sigh ever so slightly.
“Do you think I brought the information to dinner, John?” she asked in a low whisper that couldn’t have traveled far. “This is not a conversation we want to be having in a restaurant.”
He glanced around again. Once more, she’d maneuvered him deeper onto her turf. But she was right. “You’ve got a point,” he grumbled.
“Of course I do,” she said, smiling again. “This is my game, John. Just relax and play it out.”
To his great relief, once they reached her suite, she became much more businesslike. It was as if she had an internal switch that allowed her to instantly change from sultry femme fatale to a deadly serious professional. Presuming that what she’d told him about her background was true, having grown up with a father who was an international criminal and taking the reins of his organization after his death, it was probably as much a survival trait for her as it was a useful tool to keep her opponents guessing and uncertain.
A young man, clearly with some military background—though knowing Ciela’s reach, from what military Brannigan couldn’t be sure—was waiting in the suite’s entryway as they came through the door.
“Have you swept the place, Gaston?” she asked.
“Yes, madam,” he replied, with only a trace of an accent. Brannigan was certain that they were speaking English for his benefit. “Within the last hour. The suite is clean.”
She nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “You may go; I’ll be quite safe with John.” She patted his arm as she said it, and Brannigan glowered slightly at the young man’s smirk. When the young bodyguard glanced up and met the former Colonel’s icy blue stare, his smirk quickly vanished, and he hastily exited the suite.
“You didn’t need to frighten him like that, John,” Dalca chided him as she swept toward the sitting room, her dress rustling behind her. So, she’d seen the wordless exchange and cataloged it. One more indicator of just how dangerous she really was.
“Oh, I think I did,” he replied, loosening his tie. Damn, he hated wearing a tux. “Now, can we finally get down to brass tacks? You send me a message asking for a meet, saying you had information about the Humanity Front. I’ve been waiting through dinner and dancing, neither of which are exactly my thing.”
“I know,” she said, sitting down on the sofa, spreading her skirt. She patted the seat cushion next to her, but he stayed on his feet, folding his arms. She sighed. “Suit yourself,” she said. She pointed to the coffee table, were a laptop and a flash drive were sitting. “Have you seen much of the news lately, up in your mountain hideaway?”
“Can’t say as I have,” he said, though it was only about half the truth. He’d been keeping his ear to the ground, though he’d long since unplugged from any major news outlets.
“Well, a few days ago, there was quite a disturbance in Northern Virginia,” she said. “An FBI SWAT team moved in on Jason Bevan. I’m sure you’re familiar with that name.”
“CEO of Insight Enterprises, billionaire, playboy,” Brannigan said. “Apparently, he’s also a bit of an activist and a philanthropist. Probably trying to salvage his image; make up for all his public excesses.”
“That would be the case, except for one detail,” Dalca said. “Guess where most of his ‘philanthropy’ goes.”
Brannigan grimaced beneath his mustache. “The Humanity Front.” He didn’t need to guess.
“The same,” she affirmed. “And that’s not all; Bevan’s not just another clueless celebrity donor. He’s a player.”
He glanced at her sharply. “You’ve got proof?”
“I do,” she replied. “So does the FBI. Which is why they tried to kick in his door with an Enhanced SWAT team a few days ago. Unfortunately for those poor souls, the Front has contacts everywhere, and Bevan’s security wasn’t exactly Gavin DeBecker.”
“How bad?” he asked.
“The only survivors were support people well away from the house itself,” she said. “There’s still a manhunt underway, but they’ll find nothing but smoke. Bevan’s already out of the country; he was gone within hours of the raid.”
Brannigan studied her coolly. “But you know where he went.”
She smiled languidly. “I do,” she said. “And I’m willing to help you get him.”
“Why?” he asked.
Her eyes got cold. “I already told you why I’m all in with this little war, John,” she said. “Remember? Even someone like me can try to add a few good deeds to her ledger. And the world these people want to create is hardly going to have room for me and my people. So, it’s in my best interests to fight them however I can.” She suddenly smiled at him. “And besides, if they’re your enemies, that just makes me want to end them, too.”
He ignored her jibe. “So, where is he?”
She leaned forward and tapped the laptop, bringing up an overhead photo. “Argentina,” she said. “Northern Argentina, to be specific, on the Altiplano, just south of the Peruvian border. It’s an isolated but well-appointed villa, high in the hills above Laguna de Pozuelos. The interesting thing is, it’s not his. It was purchased and built by a shell company that has no connection with him or with Insight Enterprises.”
“Another Front facility?” Brannigan mused, looking down at the laptop. The country looked barren and rough, but that wasn’t going to be that difficult for men who had fought in the Persian Gulf, the jungles of Burma, the forests and farms of Transnistria, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chadian Sahel.
“Probably,” she said. She pointed a well-manicured nail at the thumb drive. “All the information we’ve gathered is on that drive. You’re welcome to it; it’s your copy.” She smiled again. “I have plenty of backups.” She sobered. “We know he’s there, and we know that he has information on the Front’s activities and support structure. He’s been buying influence and political offices to forward the Front’s program for years, it turns out.
“I can help you get in and get back out. No muss, no fuss.”
Brannigan didn’t react at that, but he had decidedly mixed feelings. So far, Dalca hadn’t double-crossed them; in fact, she’d been remarkably trustworthy. He was sure, however, given what little he knew about her, that it was only a matter of time before they found themselves owing her more than a few “favors.” It was a large part of why he didn’t trust her.
But if this was legit, they might well have an inside source on the workings of the Humanity Front. The same people who had murdered hundreds in the Southwest prior to the Tourmaline Delta incident, and had tested biological weapons on dirt-poor refugees in Chad as part of a nightmarish eugenics scheme. If Bevan knew enough, they might be able to tear the entire organization apart.
He picked up the thumb drive, not missing her smile. “I’ll take a look,” he said. “You understand if I need to know more before I take you up on any other offers.” He pocketed the drive and straightened, turning toward the door.
“Are you sure you won’t stay?” Dalca asked softly.
He looked back at her. She had stood, and was watching him intently, her hands by her sides. Suddenly she looked small, vulnerable, and lonely.
But he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t an act. And she wasn’t Rebecca.
He patted his pocket. “You’re the one who gave me the work to do,” he said. “Can’t just leave it until later, now.”
She smiled wistfully. “You know why I like you so much, John?” she asked. “You’re a challenge. You’re the first man I’ve met in years I who couldn’t wrap around my little finger in a matter of hours.”
“Most women I’ve known with that talent would take that as an insult,” Brannigan observed dryly.
“I’m not most women,” she replied, stepping closer. “I wouldn’t be in the position I am if I was. And I think you know that. I hope, in time, you’ll come to appreciate it better.” She sighed. “Maybe next time, then.” She turned that weapons-grade smile on him again. “I do always get what I want, eventually.”
“Don’t bet on it this time, lady,” Brannigan muttered under his breath as he left.