Vengeance from Ashes (expanded edition) – Snippet 2

(This is the second excerpt from the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes, release date scheduled for October 17th. The below excerpt is from the beta readers’ version and the published version may contain minor changes.)

***

Major Rico Santiago stared at the image on his screen. He couldn’t believe it. There was no way she could be on-planet, much less be just three floors below his office. But, as the ancient adage went, a picture was worth a thousand words. In this case, it was worth a hell of a lot much more and it raised just as many questions.

He leaned back and shook his head. Even after watching the scene in the cell for approximately five minutes, his mind refused to accept what his eyes saw. The prisoner, dressed in the standard issue black jumpsuit that the JAG euphemistically called “persons of interest”, was moving through an increasingly more difficult set of push-ups. First had been five standard push-ups. Then five knuckle push-ups followed by five fingertip push-ups. He’d continued to watch, even after catching the line of her jaw and the tilt of her head. That had been enough to confirm her identity. Even so, he still wondered if it wasn’t all a dream. No other explanation made sense.

His fingers moved over the virtual keyboard as he typed in a series of commands. He paged through the readouts, moving them into order, his eyes quickly scanning the results. Then he leaned back and blew out a breath. There was no doubt about it. Not only was she on-planet but someone had managed to get her there and into the security complex without him getting wind of it.

And that most definitely was not good.

As one of FleetCom’s top intelligence officers, it was his job to know everything before it happened. The fact this had almost slipped by him spoke volumes about who had issued the orders to bring her back to New Kilrain. He had no doubt those orders had come from well above his pay grade. No one else had the pull to not only send a ship for the woman but to get her released to local confinement. Who and why he didn’t know – but he would.

Frowning, he drummed his fingers against the synth-wood of his desktop. Could it be there were others besides himself looking into the circumstances surrounding Ashlyn Shaw’s court-martial and conviction? If so, what was their motivation and why had they brought her back? More important in some ways, who were they and why had they acted on their own instead of through his office?

He hated not having the answers. Any intelligence officer would. Unanswered questions could easily mean death, if not for the “spook” then for others, usually innocents.

Damn it, what the hell was going on?

First things first. He needed toidentify the ship that had returned Shaw to Fuercon. That would tell him a great deal. It would also give him an idea of how she had been slipped into the security complex without fanfare. But would that information be something he could work with or would it be one more thing to investigate and pray did not present yet another potential danger for Fuercon and her allies?

Before he could start his search, his comm-link sounded. Impatient at the interruption, he glanced at the incoming code. A slight smile touched his lips as he recognized the code. Interesting that she should be calling him just then. He reached out to activate the link with his right hand while, with his left, he input a search command for the video feed from the security wing of the brig.

“Santiago.” He didn’t activate the video feed. The code might be one he recognized but that didn’t guarantee it hadn’t been cloned by someone. That suspicious mind had kept him alive for years and he wasn’t about to be careless now.

“Rico, it’s me.” The caller waited a slow count of three before activating the video feed on her end. He carefully studied the image that appeared before him, checking his readouts to make sure it wasn’t a composite.

“Good morning, Admiral, or should I say Senator?”

“Admiral will get you an answer quicker, old friend,” Miranda Tremayne replied. “You know I’ll never consider myself as a politician.”

“You should have thought of that before you resigned your commission, ma’am. You know we were working on other alternatives,” he reminded her. As he did, he fought back a smile. Never one to believe in coincidence, he felt confident about he knew why Tremayne had called. If he was right, it would also explain how Shaw came to be on-planet without even the faintest whisper about her arrival reaching him.

“You don’t have to remind me and I don’t have to like it.”

No, she didn’t, but it had been her decision.

“I take it this isn’t a social call, ma’am.” He leaned back and wondered how long it would take her to get to the point.

“Unfortunately no. Let me start by saying that Admiral Collins is here with me.”

Interesting and, now that he thought about it, not all that surprising. In the years he’d known Miranda Tremayne, Santiago had been aware of the friendship and respect she held for Richard Collins. He’d suspected for a long while that the two had been lovers but he’d never found any evidence to support that suspicion. The fact that they were working together on whatever it was that had brought Ashlyn Shaw back from the Tarsus military prison made sense.

“I have to admit you’re beginning to worry me, ma’am.”

“Good because I’m already worried, Rico.” She paused and he could see how she searched for the right words to explain the reason behind her call. “Rico, I need you to do something for me. It has to be off the record and it has to be done now.”

“I’m listening.”

“I need to know what’s been happening at the Tarsus military prison over the last two years.”

He tried not to smile but it was hard, especially since it always felt good to have his suspicions confirmed.

“Is there anything in particular you want me looking into, ma’am?” Not that he had to ask, not with that reason sitting in a cell below his office.

“I need to know if anything out of the ordinary has been happening.”

Oh, she was being very careful with what she said. For some reason, she wasn’t ready to tell him that Shaw was back on-planet. Maybe it was because she trusted such information over a comm-link no more than he did. But it could be there was more to it. If that was the case, he needed to know.

Of course, he could be wrong. She could be asking for his assistance because the prison administration refused to allow any contact with Shaw and those sent there with her. He’d run into that very same roadblock each time he’d tried to reach out to the former captain. He’d even made a trip to the prison, only to be told on his arrival that he should have checked before coming. According to the prison commandant, Shaw had been in the infirmary for days with some sort of virus and couldn’t see anyone. No, there was no timeframe on when she’d be cleared for visitors.

That could be why Tremayne had contacted him but he didn’t think so. He’d bet his next two paychecks that she’d been behind bringing the captain back to Fuercon. As a senator, she’d have the resources to find some legal reason for bringing Shaw back and she certainly had the contacts within Fleet to arrange for Shaw’s transport on the QT. She certainly the contacts to do so without any but a handful of select members of FleetCom knowing about it.

Perhaps it was time to cut through the verbal sparring.

“Ma’am, does this have anything to do with a certain mutual acquaintance of ours, one who shouldn’t be on-planet, much less in the capital, but is?”

Tremayne shook her head, one corner of her mouth quirking up. That confirmed it. She had been involved with bringing Shaw home. “It does and I’m very interested in hearing how you happen to know her whereabouts.”

“Ma’am, I’ve been looking into certain events concerning this individual for months now. I can’t tell you why, not over the comm. But I can tell you I was very surprised when I discovered that she was no longer on Tarsus and was, in fact, just a few floors below my office in the security complex.”

“Then I think it is past time for two old friends to get together,” Tremayne said.

“Agreed, ma’am. I’d be mighty appreciative if you’d send the invitation through my admin with the time and location.” That way no one would think to look too deeply into why they were meeting. Fortunately, they already had the habit of meeting every month or so for drinks.

“I’ll do that,” she assured him. “I look forward to our meeting.”

And so do I, he thought as he ended the call.

He leaned back and shook his head. The morning had certainly been filled with surprises and that was something he didn’t like. No intelligence officer did. Now he had to find out how Shaw’s transfer had slipped under his radar. Then he needed to get ready for his meeting with Tremayne. It was clearly time for them to compare notes.

But there was one thing he wanted to do first. He wanted to see Shaw and he wanted to do it without anyone else in the office knowing.

Well, that was easy enough. Santiago smiled to himself as he entered a code into his desk link that would forward any messages to his personal link. Then he pushed to his feet and crossed to the bookcase against the far wall. It might not be the most original method he could have chosen to hide the secondary exit from his office but it sufficed and no one had asked any questions yet. Of course, they had looked at him more than a bit strangely when he’d had the bookcase installed and when the books had been delivered. He had no doubts some of his staff had never held a real book before. But he was a throwback. He loved the feel of a book in his hands. So, he’d let his passion also be his cover.

His fingers found the right pressure points to activate the release for the bookcase. It swung silently away from the wall to reveal a narrow door. Next to the door was a security panel coded only to him. He pressed his palm to the panel and then stood still as the scanner activated. Facial and biometric recognitions passed, the inner door opened and he stepped through, pausing only long enough to make sure the bookcase swung shut behind him.

Every senior intelligence officer in the capital knew about the passages that ran throughout the security complex but he doubted many had used them. Too often the men and women in his position had been put there through family ties and had never seen battle nor run a covert operation. He’d been an exception. For more than fifteen years he’d been one of FleetCom’s best intelligence operatives. Much of that time had been spent behind the lines, gathering intelligence to help win the war. For the last seven years, he’d trained the next generation of intelligence officers, making sure they learned from his experience. For the last year, he’d been FleetCom’s senior intelligence officer in the capital and had been doing his best to make up for all the mistakes his predecessors had made.

Three floors down, he paused before another door and waited. The video pickup indicated the corridor beyond was clear. Satisfied, he entered the code that unlocked the door and he stepped out, closing it before anyone appeared. A quick look over his shoulder and a slight smile touched his lips. If someone didn’t know where to look, they would never know a door was there.

“Major, we didn’t receive word you’d be coming down,” the corporal in charge of the current watch said as Santiago rounded the corner, surprising him and the two privates manning desks near him.

Monitors along the wall showed a dozen cells, only one of which was occupied. As Santiago watched, the prisoner continued to move from one exercise to another, each more difficult than the one before it. The Marine in him approved and so did the intelligence officer. Shaw was not only keeping herself in shape but it wouldn’t surprise him one bit to discover she used the exercises to keep her guards from guessing she was planning something. At least that’s what he’d do and he had helped train her.

“I need to see the prisoner, Corporal.”

“Sir, we haven’t received authorization– “

“Shall I contact Senator Tremayne and Admiral Collins for you?” His tone bit and his eyes were hard as he reached for his comm-link.

“N-no, sir.” The corporal swallowed hard. Then he nodded to one of the privates. “Escort the major– “

“That won’t be necessary.” Santiago waited until realization dawned on them. As an intelligence officer, he had every right to be there. He was also one of the very few people who would be able to activate and deactivate the security field for the prisoner’s cell without assistance from the guards.

The corporal nodded and entered the security code to let the major through the door into the cell block. As the door slid shut behind him, Santiago allowed himself a slight smile. There were some benefits to having the reputation of not suffering fools kindly. Of course, the three would soon learn first-hand that reputation had been well earned. The fact they had simply taken him at his word and hadn’t contacted either Tremayne or Collins meant they’d soon be standing before their CO explaining why they’d violated procedure.

But that was for later. He had something much more important to see to first.

A few moments later, Santiago stood before the door to Shaw’s cell. She was executing a set of perfectly executed fingertip pushups. He waited, wondering if she’d acknowledge his presence. When she didn’t, instead moving on to sit-ups, he nodded in approval. She’d maintained the discipline he’d come to expect of her when she was a young officer fresh out of the Academy. In fact, she’d honed it until it was not only her weapon but her armor as well.

Even as a part of him regretted the fact she’d had to do it, another part approved. Of course, if it kept her from listening to him and trusting that he had her best interests at heart, they’d all be up the proverbial creek.

Without a word, he deactivated the security field and stepped inside. The first indication Shaw gave that she was even aware of his presence was a startled glance in his direction when he didn’t reactivate the field. Then the mask was back in place and she went back to her sit-ups.

He waited until she finished her set before speaking.

“All right, Ash, you’ve put up a good front, just as I taught you. But you can drop it now. Believe me when I say the guards are looking at a video loop of you exercising and me standing outside the cell watching.” He waited, wondering how much time would pass before she responded.

Ashlyn Shaw slowly stood and then dropped onto the edge of her bunk. Her eyes were wary, her mouth tight. Santiago felt his own mouth harden as he saw the scar marring her left cheek and another bisecting her right eyebrow. She looked pale, as if she had not been in the sun for a very long time. Worse, she was thin, too thin, even if she had managed to maintain muscle tone through her exercise regimen. It was no wonder Tremayne had called him.

“What do you want, Major?” Shaw’s voice seemed harsher than he remembered, almost as if she’d been screaming for a long while and had strained it.

“I just had an interesting call from Miranda Tremayne.” Before she could say anything, he shook his head. “No, she didn’t tell me what you talked about and I didn’t ask. But she did ask me to look into what has been happening on Tarsus for the last two years. Since I was already doing so, I told her I thought it was time she and I shared information. But now I want – no, I need – to ask you some questions.”

“Sorry, Major. I’ll tell you exactly what I told her. Until I know my people are safely away from Tarsus and have received full pardons, I’m not talking. If you can’t accept that, then you might as well just send me back so I can finish out my sentence.”

Santiago drew a breath, held it for a long moment and then blew it out. Her response didn’t surprise him but it did frustrate him. There were too many possible reasons for her reluctance to talk and none of them were good. So he had to find a way break her silence, at least enough to give him a clue about where to start looking for answers.

“Kid, I know something’s going on. Anyone taking a look at you would. But I need to know what it is so I can put an end to it.” He’d always been honest with her and he wasn’t going to stop now. “I need you to listen to me, Ash. I’ve known you for a long time. I helped train you, make you into the Marine you are–”

Her lips peeled back in an almost feral snarl and her eyes flashed dangerously. For one moment, she looked as if she might say something. Before she could, Santiago held up a hand to prevent her from interrupting. He understood at least a little of what she must feel. The court-martial had stripped her of her rank and had ended her career. He doubted she’d allowed herself to even consider the possibility she might one day be able to rejoin her beloved Corps.

“You are a Marine now and forever, kid. Don’t forget that. Don’t you ever forget that. It’s in your blood. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

“I’ve reviewed your reports from before your court-martial. I’ve seen your correspondence with Admiral Tremayne, Rear Admiral Sorkowski and Major O’Brien. I’ve also seen the original copy of your orders. I know you did your best to keep your people from being caught in the backlash caused by those orders. I have also discovered evidence proving Sorkowski had those orders altered after the fact. Further, I can prove O’Brien knew and didn’t say anything. I know they did it to cover their own sorry asses. I know and can prove they were responsible for the loss of most of your unit as well as the civilian deaths that were the result of your orders as well as enemy reprisals. I can also prove you not only warned Sorkowski and O’Brien about what could happen but that you also officially objected to your orders as being unlawful – not to mention stupid – and how you forwarded copies of your objections to Admiral Tremayne and others. Finally, I can show how those messages were delayed or miscoded so they wouldn’t be admissible at your trial. In other words, Captain, I can prove you were set up.”

Shaw’s head snapped up, anger flashing in her eyes. Santiago nodded slightly. He understood. She’d sworn over and over again that the copy of the orders that had been introduced at her court-martial hadn’t been the orders she’d received. Now there was proof of that and more.

“Then why in hell haven’t my people been brought back here and cleared?” Her hands gripped the edge of her bunk so tightly her knuckles shone white.

“I just found the information last night, Ash, and I have to make sure I can prove its validity.” God, didn’t she know how badly he wanted to do exactly what she asked? He wanted to clear all of them. Their convictions were a black eye to the Corps and to the military as a whole. He’d like nothing better than to be able to correct the miscarriage of justice. “That’s why I need you to talk to me.”

He hoped thought she might actually relax enough to answer his questions. Instead, she shook her head, her expression closing again.

“Damn it, Ash, I’ve been looking into what happened since before your court-martial. But Sorkowski isn’t stupid. He covered their tracks well. It’s taken time to break through and find evidence corroborating your claims.” Frustrated, he waited, watching for any sign she believed him. What was it going to take to get through to her?

“Major, whether you want to admit it or not, you already have what you need. If you need more, check my personal files. If the admiral – sorry, senator – doesn’t have them, my parents will. But that’s all I will say, at least until my people are freed.”

“I’m doing my best, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d help me.” He took a step forward, stopping when she shook her head. “Ash, please.”

For a moment it looked like she might change her mind. Then she pushed off her bunk and moved as far away from him as she could. When she turned and looked at him, the anger reflected on her expression rocked him.

“You want to know what’s happening at Tarsus, Major?” Her words were clipped, her voice harsh. “Take a look at the prison records. Compare the stats for the current leadership there to earlier administrations. How many people are sentenced there and how many actually manage to survive their sentences? Of those who do, how many are still sane?

“If that’s not enough to answer your questions, then look at me. Take a good look, damn it!” She waved a hand at her scarred face. Before he could say anything, she grabbed the left sleeve of her jumpsuit and pulled. The sound of the shoulder seam ripping filled the cell. She dragged the material off her arm and tossed it onto the floor.

“Look at this, Major. Look at what they did and know it is only a small example of what they’ve done to all of us.”

Santiago’s stomach churned and bile rose in his throat. The skin of her bicep had been torn away from the underlying muscle and it looked as if it had been left to heal without proper medical treatment. Rough, discolored scar tissue hid the definition of the underlying muscle. Worse, he knew what had been on her arm where now there was only ugly scarring. His own right hand reached up to touch his left arm and the Devil Dog tattoo he proudly bore. Every member of the Devil Dogs, past and present, had one. Shaw had as well – at least until someone had so cruelly removed it.

“Do you want to see more?” she demanded, tears pooling in her eyes. All he could do was shake his head. “Now think about this. Every day I’m here is another day those bastards are figuring out new ways to torment my people. I was warned before I left Tarsus not to say anything. If you’ve lied to me, if there is someone listening in on what I’ve said, my people are dead. If that happens, I promise you’ll die a very slow and painful death.”

Santiago dragged his hand over his close-cropped hair. He had no doubts she meant every word she said. If her people were hurt because she’d talked to him, she’d find a way to hunt him down and kill him and he wouldn’t blame her. It was exactly what he’d do if their situations had been reversed. Well, he hadn’t lied to her and somehow he’d just have to prove it.

But that would wait. It had to. He had other things to see to, things like making sure nothing else happened to her or to her people. Then he’d gladly help her avenge all that had been done to her and the others.

“Ash, I promise, no one has heard a word of what we’ve said.” He spoke softly, knowing she wouldn’t believe him. “I’ll return when I’ve figured out how to keep you from going back and how to bring your people home. I swear it.”

She didn’t say anything. Instead, she returned to her bunk and stretched out, turning her back to him much as she had to Tremayne and Collins earlier.

Damn it, just how deep was this can of worms going to turn out to be?

*   *   *

Evan Moreau touched the recessed button on the wall near her elbow and an almost inaudible swish sounded as the lock slid into place. At the same time, the lights came on. She blinked once even as she quickly scanned the room. Something was wrong. The sequence should have been lights and then lock. She ought to know. She’d programmed it that way the day she moved into the apartment. Damn it, she was getting sloppy and that could get her killed!

As her eyes sought out the intruder, a knife dropped into the palm of her right hand. Security in most buildings in the capital was such that it would pick up any sort of weapon but she’d learned long ago that certain alloys could pass undetected through the security fields. This knife was made of one of those alloys and it had served her well over the years. Hopefully, it would do so again.

Senses alert, knees bent slightly, she waited. There! The faint sound of a breath. Her eyes cut to the far corner of the room where shadows still hung heavily. The intruder, whoever he was, wasn’t as smart as he thought. The fact he’d killed the light there and nowhere else in the room betrayed him. Well, he’d soon find out just how foolish it was to try to ambush her on home ground.

“Relax, Moreau.”

Abel Kannedy stepped out of the shadows. Hands away from his body, fingers splayed to show he wasn’t holding anything, he waited. For a moment, Moreau simply stood there, anger darkening her expression. He, of all people, should know how foolish invading her home could be. Over the last few years, she had worked several special “contracts” for him so he should know what happened to those who crossed her. He had hired her often enough to deal with his own enemies to know better than to try to surprise her. The fact that he’d taken this tact to meet with her meant trouble.

But for whom and would she have to kill him before the night was over?

With a smile she really didn’t feel, Moreau slid the knife back into its quick release sheath on her forearm and moved past him to the bar. She needed a drink. In fact, she needed a drink very badly. Not that she would allow herself more than one until she knew exactly why he was there.

Then she’d have to consider changing her place of residence. She never should have let him know where she lived. The only reason she had was because he’d gotten suspicious the last six months, worried she might one day decide to deal with him on a very permanent basis. He had insisted the one way to prove her loyalty was to finally allow him to not only know where she lived but to invite him up to see her apartment. She’d known better but she still had need of him. Even so, she should have arranged for him to see another apartment, one far from here. She knew now that had been a mistake, a potentially fatal one, and no one in her line of business could afford such things, not if they expected to live for long.

“I’m assuming there’s a good reason for you to have risked both our lives by coming without warning.” She tossed back a shot of whiskey before pouring Kannady a brandy. That gave her time to settle. Never would he know how badly his presence had shaken her.

“There is.”

“And?” She handed him a brandy and motioned for him to be seated on the sofa. That put his back to the door and hers to the wall. That way, no one else could enter without her seeing them.

“Tremayne and her lot have pulled a fast one.” He spoke softly. Nothing in his voice or on his expression betrayed his thoughts. But his hands told the story. His left hand held the crystal brandy snifter so tightly it was a wonder the snifter hadn’t shattered. The fingers of his right hand clinched into a fist that beat not so lightly against that thigh.

“We’ve known since the election that it’s only been a matter of time before someone in the new administration did something that could upset our plans.” She shrugged with a nonchalance she didn’t feel and leaned back. “What happened to upset you so?”

Now that she was over the immediate shock of finding Kannady, she could think. She needed to put him at ease and find out why he’d risked both their lives by coming to her. Then she could figure out what her next move should be. She’d regret it if the time had come to move on but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d left one life to start another. Giving up an identity, even one she enjoyed, was a small enough price to pay to stay alive.

For a moment, Kannady remained silent. Moreau waited. Experience had taught her not to rush him. He would tell her what happened in his own time. As she waited, she sipped her drink and tried to recall if she hd heard anythingduring the day that might be of concern. But there was nothing. So what had Tremayne done, or what did he think she had done, to cause him to risk so much?

“Several things happened today that caught myself and our colleagues off-guard.”

With that, Kannady stood and moved to the bar, pouring himself another drink. Moreau frowned but remained silent. His actions were so much in character that they didn’t surprise her. Wealthy and powerful, at least in his own mind, Kannady did what he wanted, when he wanted and then hired others to clean up the mess. That was probably why he was there now. He’d made another mistake and wanted her to ensure no one ever learned about it.

“To start, I received word not long ago that Harper is about to carry through with his campaign promise to disband the Defense Council. He will appear before Congress in less than three hours to inform them of his decision. Notice has already been sent out to the members of the Council, formally notifying them of the council’s dissolution.”

Moreau blinked in surprise. The Defense Council had been created by executive order more than three decades earlier. During the last war, President Boothe Markham had filled the Council with those he owed political favors to. He’d effectively managed to use the Council to cut Congress out of almost all decision-making when it came to the war, even finding ways to pass on budgetary issues to the Council. That had served him well until FleetCom had changed tactics and started giving nothing more than lip service to the Council. The resulting victories caught the public’s attention and approval. The average citizen was tired of all the years of war and all the atrocities committed by the Callusians. Nothing short of a full surrender by the enemy would satisfy them. Nothing Markham said or did swayed them and it had led to his defeat in the last election.

But for Harper to disband the Security Council so soon after taking office. . . .

And why hadn’t the media picked up on it yet?

“Again, not that surprising. I’ll admit, he did it sooner than I expected but we’ve discussed how it was inevitable, especially considering the platform he ran on.”

“That’s not the worst of it, Evan.”

Now every internal alarm she possessed sounded. Kannady never called her by her given name. Even though they’d known one another for years, it was a line he never crossed, partly because she was an employee – albeit one with very special skills – and partly because he would never see her as his equal. Not that it bothered her. She’d learned very early in her career that it was best not to form attachments with those she worked for. They might be her employer one day and her target the next.

“Tell me.”

“Ashlyn Shaw is back on-planet.”

For a moment, she looked at the man. Surely, she hadn’t heard right. Shaw and the others were on Tarsus. Hopefully, they would stay there, never again seeing a moment’s freedom. Yet there was something about Kannady’s expression. No, it couldn’t be. Not now. Not when everything was finally falling into place.

Disbelief fled and Moreau’s anger spiked to almost uncontrollable levels. She couldn’t believe it. Of everything he could have said, this had to be the worst. It was certainly the most unexpected. So much effort and so many months of planning, bribing, and blackmail had gone into the effort of making sure Captain Ashlyn Shaw had been taken out of play. Moreau had done everything possible not only to make sure Shaw was convicted but also that those involved in the set-up never suffered an attack of conscience.

Kannady had paid extremely well to insure Shaw had been discredited. What he didn’t know, and never would, was that Moreau would have gladly done the job for free. Shaw had been a thorn in her side for years, an irritant she hadn’t been able to get rid of. Then Kannady had offered her the opportunity to do exactly what she’d spent so many nights dreaming of. It might not have meant the bitch’s death but it had been almost as good. She could still see that haunted, stunned expression on Shaw’s face when the guilty verdict had been read. The only thing that would have made it better was if Shaw had known who’d been behind her downfall.

But now, without warning, that irritant was back and her return could bring an end to it all, including Moreau’s own life. Somehow, she had to find a way to insure Shaw never learned the true circumstances behind her court-martial. If that meant more lives had to be taken and more bodies made to disappear, fine. That was her job after all.

“How? More importantly, why?” Thank the saints her voice didn’t betray her emotions.

“I don’t know.” There could be no mistaking his anger. Good. She had to keep him focused on that. Maybe then he wouldn’t think too much about her own reaction.

“Then how can you be sure she’s back?”

“Because one of my contacts in the security complex saw her.”

She closed her eyes, thinking hard. If Shaw was back, why hadn’t the media picked up on it? They’d be running the story non-stop, especially if the bitch had been pardoned. So, she had to assume that hadn’t happened, not yet at any rate. Not that it made her sudden reappearance any easier to accept.

“Was she in custody?” She had to know everything he did. Only then could she plan her next move.

“What?” He looked at her in confusion and then nodded, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Yes. My contact said she was chained.”

She nodded, relieved. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as she feared. “Good. That means they don’t know what happened.” She got to her feet and crossed to the bar. It might not be smart, but she needed another drink.

“But why bring her here?”

Moreau heard the hint of fear in his voice and understood. His life, even more than her own, lay on the line should FleetCom realize the true circumstances behind what happened on Arterus. “She’s still technically a member of the military. It could be that she committed some sort of offense at the penal colony and they brought her here to face additional charges. It could be any number of other reasons, none of which are bad for us.” She poured herself another whiskey and then turned to face him. “But it could also be that Tremayne is holding true to her campaign promise to look into the charges against Shaw and has convinced others in the government to play along. If that’s the case, you could be in for some trouble.”

“I think you mean we could be in for trouble,” he corrected, eyes flashing dangerously.

“Of course.” Let him think that. She had back up plans to her back up plans. If this should suddenly turn bad, she’d have a new identity and be off-planet within the hour.

“This is your mess to clean up, Moreau. I don’t care how you do it, just make sure it doesn’t wash back on me.” He stood, all but tossing his now empty snifter onto the table next to the sofa. “I don’t want that bitch saying anything that might cause Harper and his supporters to start sniffing in my direction.”

“How much collateral damage are you willing to accept?”

“I don’t give a damn if the entire capital city goes up in flames as long as it doesn’t harm any of my holdings.”

“Then consider it done.”

“Don’t fuck this up, Moreau.” He jabbed a finger in her direction. “You’re as deep in this shit as I am. Our partners won’t accept anything that might put their plans in danger.”

She inhaled and forced herself not to react to his none-too-subtle threat. “And I suggest you remember just who brought whom into this little deal, Kannady. Your partners will look at you long before they do me.” She waited, smiling slightly as he blanched at her words. “Remember this as well. I do not take kindly to being threatened.”

Even as she pinned him with a firm look, she hoped he didn’t realize just how badly his last comment had shaken her. Those partners he spoke of didn’t accept failure from anyone. She’d known that when she first agreed to deal with Shaw for him. Even then, she’d known better than to get involved but the chance to finally get Shaw out of her life had been too tempting. Damn it, that bitch could still be the end of her.

The end of all of them, unless she figured out how to deal with her once and for all.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Kannady. I’ll make sure she never sees the light of freedom.”

And I’ll be finalizing my own escape plans just in case.

*   *   *

For the next two days, Ashlyn Shaw ate, slept and exercised. Her routine in the brig was much the same as it had been in her cell at the military prison. There was comfort in routine, something she’d never really understood until her freedom had been ripped from her. But it was also a defense mechanism. No one worried about what she was doing as long as she did nothing out of the ordinary.

Besides, following routine meant she had the freedom to think about what was going on and why. More importantly, it gave her the chance to observe her jailers and to plan. She was always planning. It was all that kept her sane.

The only problem with that was she still didn’t know why she had been brought back to the capital. After the rather disastrous meeting with Tremayne and Collins and then the visit from Major Santiago, she had seen no one but her guards. While they were a bit more talkative than those at the prison, they were no more likely to answer her questions – were she to ask them.

Not that she would. Her questions could, and would, give someone like Santiage an idea of what was on her mind and she didn’t dare risk that happening.

What troubled her, though, was the concern, possibly even worry, she sensed in them. There was a grimness to them that reminded her all too clearly of how those she’d fought side by side with during the war had felt during those dark days. Were things really as bad as Tremayne had alluded to?

Did she really care?

As she moved from pushups to sit ups, she frowned slightly. One thing the last two days had taught was how much she had come to rely on the prison’s grapevine. Even when she didn’t see anyone but the guards, word still reached her about how her people and others in the penal colony were doing. She had none of that here. The only thing she knew for sure was that she seemed to be alone in this wing of the brig and that did nothing to reassure her. Why would they have brought her back and yet continue to keep her in isolation?

What still surprised her, what she was having a hard time wrapping her mind around, was the one change she knew had occurred since she’d last been on-planet. When she’d heard the guard addressing Tremayne as “Senator”, she’d been sure she’d misheard or that it had been yet another trick by the commandant of the penal colony to break her. Then, when she’d finally lost control and had rolled off the bunk and confronted the newcomers, she’d been forced to admit it was her former mentor standing before her. Had Tremayne been drummed out of the Service or had she voluntarily left? More important, what did it all mean?

She finished her sit ups and climbed to her feet. Three steps and she stood in front of one wall of her cell. She bent at the waist, placed her palms on the floor and kicked up into a handstand. Slowly, carefully, she bent her elbows, lowered herself toward the floor, her heels lightly scraping the wall as she did. Then she straightened her arms again. Think. She had to think.

She couldn’t forget the worry she’d seen reflected in Tremayne’s eyes, heard in her voice as the senator asked her to just listen to what they had to say. It had been more than worry for her. That had been there, plain to see, when she first faced Tremayne and Collins and they’d seen the effects of the last two years on her. But she knew there was more to their worry and that is why she’d been brought back to the capital. What it was and what it ultimately meant for her and her team was still something she couldn’t guess.

Her team. God, that as her one regret. They’d followed her into Hell and most had paid the ultimate price. The rest might as well have. But she’d avenge their loss and their families’ pain. She didn’t know how, but she would.

Of course, that assumed she ever saw freedom again.

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