MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Eleven)

He had intended to go straight to her quarters, but he stopped halfway there and detoured to his own quarters in the BOQ instead. He was too angry to face her now, especially in the temporary civilian housing where there would be too many onlookers who didn't need to know any of what was going on.

He didn't think he'd ever been this angry before, but then, he'd never been betrayed like this before. Damn it, why would she do something like that? It had to be money, but he'd never understood the mentality that could view treason as just another financial opportunity.

Treason. The word reverberated through his consciousness. If she were charged and convicted, she would likely spend the rest of her natural life behind bars, without possibility of parole.

He would never make love to her again. The thought made him erupt with fury, and he restlessly paced the small confines of his quarters. One weekend hadn't been enough. He doubted that a thousand weekends would be enough to get her out of his system. Nor could he let himself forget that he had made love to her twice without protection. Despite her assurances that the timing was wrong, she could be pregnant.

Hell, what a mess! If she was pregnant… There wasn't any use in borrowing trouble; he'd know soon enough. But what would he do if she was carrying his child? There still wasn't any way he could keep her out of prison.

That was assuming she would even tell him. By the time she had left his office that night she had refused to even look at him. He'd been watching her, trying to read her reactions, and all of a sudden she had started withdrawing. He'd seen it happen right in front of his eyes. It was as if a light had been quenched. All the vitality, the responsiveness, the incredible energy of her, had vanished, and all that had been left was a frozen mannequin of a woman who had answered in a monotone and whose eyes were as blank as a doll's.

It had been infuriating to see her that way. He had wanted to jerk her to her feet and shake her, to make that wonderful, uncomplicated anger come rushing upward to meet him. But he hadn't. If he gave in to those urges, he would lose his control once and for all, and he never wanted to do that.

What he did want to do, more than anything else in the world, was storm over to her quarters and make love to her so hard and so long that when it was over she would know she belonged to him. Maybe it wouldn't solve any of this, but it would sure as hell make him feel better. But he couldn't do that, either. Seeing her at all would knock down the last critical brick behind which he had dammed up his temper, releasing a flood of emotion that would sweep him away along with everything else.

Caroline lay on top of the covers on her narrow mattress, too listless to crawl between the sheets and actually go to bed. Such a normal action was beyond her. She had showered and dressed for bed, but she couldn't even go through the motions of pretending to sleep. All she could do was lie there in the silent darkness and stare at the ceiling. She could feel her heart beating, feel the slow, rhythmic expansions of her rib cage as she breathed. Those actions said that she still lived, but she didn't feel alive. She felt numb, dead inside.

By now they would have talked to Cal, who would have verified that she'd been telling the truth. Joe would know that he'd been wrong, but somehow that didn't give her any satisfaction. Still, she had expected at least a phone call from either him or Captain Hodge, to say "Sorry, we made a mistake." Surely they wouldn't be stupid enough to think she was resting and would rather they wait until morning to tell her.

Or Cal could have lied.

She couldn't deny the possibility. The thought had slipped into her consciousness not long after she had lain down on the bed. If she hadn't been so upset, it might have occurred to her earlier. It was the natural progression of the line of thought she had been following earlier in the hangar, when she had been staring at the laser pod and sorting out the various ways in which what had happened could have happened.

Cal was a whiz with computers. He was the one who had found that minor glitch on Friday, but only when Caroline had begun nosing around the computer. She hadn't thought anything of it then, but if he had tampered with the commands, he wouldn't have wanted her to really concentrate on the program. He knew she had a degree in computer science, because they had talked shop on several occasions. And on both Friday and today-yesterday, now, since it was past midnight-he had really looked exhausted. From being up all night? Cal was normally as bouncy as a rubber ball.

And Cal was the only other person who had touched her ID tag. Maybe he had picked it up on Thursday when she'd lost it and had left when she had so that the sensors would match the number of warm bodies leaving with the number of ID cards. She hadn't known the sensors monitored those leaving the buildings, too, but maybe Cal had; after all, he'd been working here from the beginning and noticed things like that, while she tended to pay attention only to what directly concerned her job.

Even if he had used her ID tag to regain entrance to the building Thursday night, she knew he hadn't had it on Sunday night.

But how easily could they be duplicated? He would have had to leave the base to get it done, but she was certain it was possible. After all, the sensors had said she had reentered the work area at midnight, which would have given him several hours to have a copy made.

Then she had called him on Friday morning asking him to search the office for her tag, which had given him the perfect opportunity to return it to her and keep security from being notified. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to use the card again, because security would have removed that particular code from the computers.

She stopped her thoughts and rubbed her forehead, trying to force everything into making sense. If her call for help had been pure chance, then there wouldn't have been any reason for him to have had the card duplicated. Had he played the odds that she would call him? They were good odds, she had to admit. She wouldn't have called Yates, and she certainly wouldn't have wasted her tune calling Adrian. It was also a good bet that she wouldn't have wanted to call security. Not a certainty, but good enough that it wasn't much of a risk, either.

So what had happened then? The sensors showed both her and Cal entering the building, then both leaving. He must have had her card on him where the sensor could read it, thereby establishing proof that he hadn't had the opportunity to tamper with the computer program because he hadn't been in there alone. But why hadn't the sensor noticed that there were two cards but only one body?

Maybe the sensors weren't as good as Captain

Hodge obviously liked to believe they were. Maybe they were programmed to catch people without cards, but no one had thought to program it to catch cards without people. Maybe Cal had figured out a way to fool it. There were a lot of maybes, all of them possible. As good as he was with computers, maybe he had somehow gotten into the base computers and logged her both in and out of the building that morning. She didn't know and might never find out.

But what would Cal do now, if he were guilty? If the programs had been tampered with, he would know that analysis would discover it. Would he try to get back into the program and cover his tracks by undoing what he had done, hoping that the analysis wouldn't go any further than a simple comparison? Or would he try to plant more evidence against her?

She had to go with the second option. It was so much more feasible. Why would Cal go to so much trouble only to undo it? No, as long as the finger was pointing toward her, he would be smart to try to make certain it remained pointing in that direction.

Her heart suddenly began thundering in her chest. If Cal were guilty, if he were going to do anything else, he would have to do it tonight, while things were still in an upheaval. Given enough tune, the security net would settle down so tightly that nothing would be able to escape, but there were still windows of opportunity when things first started happening.

She knew the entire laser team was being restricted from the work area, but had their bar codes already been deleted from the computers? The military worked a lot like big business when it came to office work: most of it was done during the day. Since the restriction order had only been issued that night, had Captain Hodge called in someone to enter it into the computer or left it to be done first thing in the morning? Knowing human nature, she would bet on the latter. After all, she was the only one under suspicion, and she was probably under surveillance in the interim.

On a hunch she rolled out of bed and silently walked to the small, old-fashioned crank-out window set high in the wall in the kitchen area. She had to stand on a chair to see out of it. Sure enough, a security police car was parked on the opposite side of the street. In the glow of the streetlight she could plainly see two men in the front seat. They were making no effort to disguise their purpose, but then, why should they? This wasn't clandestine surveillance, but plain old guard duty.

There was no other door.

There was, however, another high, narrow window in the bedroom. In the almost total darkness she carefully made her way back to the bedroom and stared at the small oblong of light in the wall. A man certainly couldn't get through there, and she had doubts that she could, either. Nevertheless, she stood on the bed and peeped out. That side of the street was empty.

Well, there was no point in putting herself to a lot of trouble if Cal was peacefully sleeping in bed. She mustn't let herself forget that he might be totally innocent, that he had indeed verified her story. Innocent until proven guilty was the law of the land, though

Captain Hodge could use a little refresher course in the concept.

She didn't want to turn on any lights, alerting those two out front that she was awake, so she dialed Cal's number by feel. What better way to find out if he was in his quarters than to call him? If he answered, she might even chat awhile.

By the fifth ring she began to have serious doubts that he was there. She let it ring longer, just in case he was sleeping very soundly, but on the twentieth ring she replaced the receiver. Twenty rings, especially since the phones were installed right beside the beds to make certain the occupants would be awakened by any middle-of-the-night phone calls, would wake even the soundest of sleepers. Cal wasn't in his quarters.

She clenched her teeth in anger. Damn him! She had thought he was her friend; she had liked him, trusted him. First Joe, now Cal. Her mind immediately shied away from Joe, because that hurt was too powerful to linger over. It was much safer to focus her anger on Cal.

She stared up at that little window again. Two long, narrow louvered panes that cranked out to let the built-up heat of the day escape. She would have to dismantle the entire mechanism in the dark, and even then, she wasn't certain she would fit through the slot.

Well, she would never know if she didn't try.

Working on lasers and computers had made her familiar with tools, and she never traveled anywhere without a small pouch containing a selection of screwdrivers and pliers, because she never knew when she would need them. She fetched the pouch from the closet and dumped the tools out on the bed. Problem was, in the dark she couldn't tell which tool she needed.

She did have a pencil flashlight and decided she would have to take the risk of the small beam being detected through the window, but it wasn't likely to throw a lighted patch on the ground outside and alert the guards. She climbed up on the bed and switched the flashlight on for only the smallest of intervals, just long enough for her to see that the screws holding the mechanism in place needed a Phillips head screwdriver. Five minutes later the two window slats and the cranking mechanism, in pieces, were lying on her bed.

That had been the easy part. Getting through the window was something else.

She measured it visually. She could angle her shoulders through; her head and hips would be the biggest problem, but her buttocks would compress and her skull wouldn't. She decided to go headfirst, so she could find out immediately if her head would fit through. It would be awful to go out feetfirst, then be stuck with her head inside and the rest of her body outside. Humiliating, at the very least. That is, if she didn't find herself hanged.

First, she had to change clothes and put on some shoes. She shone the pencil flashlight on the contents of her closet, taking care that no light was visible from the outer rooms. Dark clothes would be practical, but she hadn't brought any dark clothes with her. It was

August in the southern Nevada desert; she hadn't anticipated being obliged to sneak around in the dark.

She would stand out like a sore thumb in her light-colored clothes, but there wasn't any help for it. She would just have to make certain no one saw her.

Nevertheless irritated by her lack of preparedness, she quickly pulled on a pair of thin cotton pants and a T-shirt, and defiantly slipped her ED tag into her pocket. If she got caught, they wouldn't be able to say she didn't have proper identification. As an afterthought, she added her keys to her pocket. She could hardly reenter by the window, though if she managed to catch Cal up to no good, she wouldn't have to worry about the guards out front

She climbed up on the bed again, but a minute's experimentation made it plain that she needed to be higher so she could angle through from a more horizontal position. She got a kitchen chair and balanced it on the bed, then climbed up on the chair. It was a wobbly perch, but she was holding on to the edge of the window and wasn't afraid of falling.

One arm and shoulder went first, then she turned her head to the side and eased it through the slot, earning nothing more horrendous than a minor scrape. She wiggled the other shoulder and arm through and braced her arms on the wall below her as she wriggled forward. As soon as her hips were through, she suspected, her center of gravity would shift drastically forward and she would fall on her head, dragging her legs the rest of the way through the window. It wasn't a high drop, but she didn't want to break her neck landing.

To prevent it, or at least slow her down, she hooked her legs backward so her heels were braced against the inside wall, and inched forward some more.

The edge of the window cut into her soft bottom but she ignored the pain and forced herself on through. Immediately she lurched forward and only her hooked legs inside kept her from doing exactly as she had feared. Frantically, she braced her arms again, forcing herself as far away from a vertical position as possible, then cast a fearful glance toward the front of the building where the guards were parked. To her relief, she couldn't see the car from where she was.

She hung there a minute before she faced the inevitable: there was no graceful way to do it. She was going to be scraped and bruised. Moreover, there was no way she could now reverse the process and inch back inside. Her legs were trembling from the strain. Without giving herself time to dwell on how much it was going to hurt, she straightened her legs and gave a push with her arms at the same time, launching herself the rest of the way out of the window. She tried to turn in midair so nothing vital was damaged on landing, like her head, and succeeded in turning mostly to the side. The impact was harder than she ever would have suspected for such a short distance. The loose gravel scraped skin on her temple and cheek, down the side of her left arm and on her left ankle. She had banged both knees somehow, and jarred her shoulder.

But she couldn't just sit there and take stock of her injuries. Her senses were still swimming when she forced herself to move, to scramble against the shadows at the side of the building and walk quickly in the opposite direction. Only when she had gone almost a hundred yards without hearing a warning shout did she relax and take a deep breath. Immediately her pains made themselves felt, and she stopped to lean over and rub both aching knees, then her bottom. She rotated her shoulder to make certain it was in working order and gingerly touched the side of her face. She didn't seem to be bleeding, but the scrapes burned. A scarf threaded through the loops of the pants usually served her as a belt, but she stripped it out and carefully blotted the scrapes to remove the dirt and tiny bits of gravel from her face.

Something else she could lay at Cal's door.

She trudged the long way around, no longer making an effort to avoid being seen on the theory that someone would be more likely to notice her if she was trying not to be noticed. If she acted normally, no one would pay any attention to her.

Joe sat up and threw the sheet off, cursing steadily under his breath even as he got up and began dressing in jeans and boots. It wasn't military business he had to attend to, and the long, restless hours in a bed that was far too empty had steadily eroded his patience until there was none left. He glanced at his watch, surprised to see mat it was only about 0200 hours. He'd been in bed less than two hours, but it had felt more like four or five. It didn't matter. No matter how long it had been, he wasn't going to be able to sleep until he'd had it out with Caroline. He wanted to hear her explanation of why she'd done what she had, and he wanted her to tell him to his face. He wouldn't let her ignore him again the way she had earlier in his office.

He decided to walk rather than take the truck for the relatively short distance; maybe the walk would settle him down. He was dangerously close to exploding, and he knew it. He had been six years old the last time he'd lost his temper, and he'd sworn then never to do it again, but Caroline tested his control to the extreme.

He'd walked less than a quarter of a mile when he first saw the slim figure walking boldly through the night, and his first thought was that temper was making him hallucinate. He stopped and stepped back out of sight, going down on one knee next to a trash can. He hadn't mistaken her identity; the overhead streetlights gleamed on her pale hair, and he knew that walk as ultimately as he knew his own face. The arrogant set of slim shoulders, the gentle sway of rounded hips, were burned into his memory.

Was she coming to see him? His heart thumped wildly, but then he wondered how she had gotten past her guards. He knew they had been there, because he had suggested to Hodge that it would be a good idea, and Hodge had agreed. He'd even heard Hodge give the orders. But here she was, walking around the base at two a.m., not a guard in sight.

He waited until she had walked past him before slipping from his cover. As always, he moved soundlessly, dropping back about fifty yards but always keeping her in sight. If she turned toward the BOQ he could rapidly close the distance and approach her. But she didn't even pause at the BOQ, and his anger rose to the boiling point. She was headed straight for the laser work area, damn her treacherous little heart. His palm itched with the almost irresistible impulse to storm up behind her, take her by the nape of the neck and bend her over his knee. By the time he got through walloping that pretty little backside he would feel a lot better and she would have a better appreciation of just how angry he was. Damn it, didn't she know how serious her situation was?

Of course she did. By her own actions, she was proving herself guilty. Probably she intended to finish the traitorous work she had already begun.

He thought of stopping to alert the security police, but decided in favor of keeping her in sight. If she tried anything like setting the place on fire he could subdue her and hold her until security got there. In fact, he would enjoy subduing her. He just might get that walloping accomplished while they were waiting.

He saw her stop and get something out of her pocket, then attach it to her shirt. Her ID tag. Why hadn't Hodge relieved her of it? Because he hadn't seen any need to; she had been under guard, and the codes would be deleted from the computer first thing in the morning. Joe was suddenly furious again, but this time at both Hodge and himself. They had been inexcusably lax, especially for a project with security as tight as Night Wing. She couldn't get off the base, but she could still wreak havoc on base. They relied too much on technology to do their guarding for them, something he intended to change immediately.

Someone was already inside the building; there was a very dim glow coming from one of the windows, barely noticeable. Caroline saw it, too. He saw her head turn as she stared at the light; then she continued straight up to the door and slipped inside, as silent as a wraith.

Twenty seconds later, he followed. He wasn't wearing his ID tag, so he knew central security would be alerted immediately.

Up ahead, he saw Caroline reach into the office and flip on the light switch, bathing her in the bright light. "What did you do, use my name tag again?" she demanded furiously of someone else inside. "The computers will probably go crazy when they record Caroline Evans entering twice in a row. You sabotaged my project, damn you!"

Realization burst in his brain like a bomb, and shock slammed through him as she stepped completely inside the office, out of sight Damn the little idiot! She didn't have one iota of caution. She had simply charged straight in without thinking that cornering a traitor could be dangerous. Joe launched himself down the corridor, running silently, desperately praying with every fiber in him that he wouldn't hear a gunshot that would mean the end of that foolhardy courageousness.

He heard a sudden movement, a gasp, a sickening thud, and he burst through the open doorway just as Caroline slid to the floor. Cal Gilchrist was standing in front of a glowing computer monitor, his face utterly white. Too late Joe saw Cal's eyes dart to the side, behind him. He tried to whirl, but he'd been too distracted by his own unreasoning fear. Before he could react, something hard crashed against his temple. It felt as if his head was exploding. Then there was nothing but total blackness.