It was one thing to see a dead body. Lord knew she’d done enough of that in her years as a foreign war correspondent. But it was another thing entirely to see the dismembered, partially decomposed remains of someone you knew. She knew that one firsthand, too.
Shaking off the memory of her old cameraman’s mutilated corpse in a military morgue, Paige glanced down at the canvas bag at her feet. It smelled of salt and seaweed—and rotten death. She knew that smell, too, thanks to Jerry.
Nobody’d blamed her when she’d decided to take extra time off and drop out of sight after Jerry’s death. There’d been some murmurs about the nearly two years she was gone. But her cameraman’s death had been a shock, after all, and rumors persisted that she’d been involved in it somehow. Thankfully, the worst of the rumors had been long forgotten by the time she finally showed up on her old network’s doorstep again, leaner and noticeably fitter with an imminently more self-contained look in her eyes than before, asking to go back to work—the more dangerous the locale, the better.
A cold wave washed over her ankles, startling her into jumping back hard. The canvas bag containing the dead man rocked as the water receded. She grabbed the sack and dragged it higher up the beach.
The dead man had a name. Takashi Ando. He’d gone missing forty-eight hours ago, although the Japanese government was downplaying it, claiming he’d gone on a short vacation before the economic summit formally commenced. He was a ridiculously wealthy businessman, and it was fully possible he’d jetted off for a day or two of fun in the sun before attending this important global economic conference. Officially, Paige was here as a journalist to cover the meetings.
Unofficially—well, that was another story.
Paige reached reluctantly for the cell phone in her hip pocket. Her fingers paused over the numbers. Who to call? Greer Carson, her boss at the news network? Or her other bosses? The secret ones nobody knew about?
She’d get all kinds of attention for breaking the big story of the summit. Two years ago, she’d have made the call to the newsroom in a heartbeat. But now …
… now she was less interested in fame. Much more interested in the larger consequences of the news she covered. The network execs would splash the death of the Japanese delegation chief all over the news, and it would rock the core of the summit, if not cause various key parties to withdraw their delegations and go home. Exactly the kind of reaction her other bosses were hoping to avoid.
She sighed. Vanessa had warned her that she would face constant conflicts of interest if she tried to be both a credible journalist and a Medusa. And she’d naively vowed that there was no conflict. That her loyalties were clear. The Medusas first. Her career second.
After all, she’d had plenty of opportunity to expose the Medusa Project to the world and she hadn’t. Even she had to admit she’d probably get a Pulitzer if she wrote the story of women in the Special Forces. But puh-lease. No way would she go through the rigors of army basic training, continue to work her butt off for another year, then sweat, claw and bleed her way through Medusa indoctrination, just to get a story. Nobody was that big of a masochist.
Paige stared down at the bag at her feet. She’d spent her entire career standing back from events like this, detached and objective, merely observing the casual atrocities taking place around her. But she’d never done a damned thing. Oh, sure, she’d felt her share of moral outrage along the way. But she’d never acted on it. Not until now.
Now she was a soldier. A Special Forces operator with the capacity and duty to respond to the murder of a famous, important man. Shockingly, she realized that her careless detachment was gone. Gone, too, was her reporter’s jaded eye. This was her turf. Her summit to protect. And someone had died on her watch. It felt good to be angry, good to know she could act to right this wrong. And in the meantime, she’d show them all that she belonged in the Medusa Project.
Resolutely, she dialed her phone. “Viper, it’s Fire Ant.” The original Medusa squad all took nicknames of dangerous snakes. Her training group of Medusas had elected to give themselves field handles of dangerous insects. Vanessa Blake was Viper, and Paige had been dubbed Fire Ant in honor of her reporter’s sharp bite. Her reddish blond hair probably had something to do with it, too.
“What’s up?” Vanessa asked briskly.
She thought she detected sleep in Vanessa’s voice, but phone calls at weird hours came with the job. She took a deep breath. “I found Takashi Ando.”
“Not great. He’s dead.”
Silence greeted that announcement. Then, a terse, “What happened?”
“It’s bad. We’re gonna have to call in the local authorities.”
“Our orders are to keep this summit on track, and the way I see it, Ando’s death has potential to derail the whole thing. Do you concur?”
Paige sighed. “Yes, I concur. The North Koreans are only here because the Chinese twisted their arms. They’re looking for any excuse to pull out. And if any of the South Asian rim nations take their new offshore oil finds and go home, the whole purpose of the summit evaporates.”
“So why do you want to bring in the police?”
Paige winced, but answered evenly enough. “To catch Ando’s killer, maybe? He was murdered.”
A long silence greeted that announcement. Paige was always fascinated to hear what Vanessa came up with when she started thinking hard. But in this case, her commander’s eventual response was only a bland question. “How did he die?”
“Don’t know. I found his body washed up on the beach in a bag. In pieces.”
Another long silence. “Where are you?”
“I’m on the west shore of the island about four miles north of the hotel strip.” The summit was being held on Beau Mer, a resort island smack-dab in the middle of French Polynesia. Neutral territory for all the interested parties. She glanced down at the bag on the sand. Not so neutral after all.
Vanessa announced, “I’m calling in some backup for you.”
Paige’s impulse was to protest. To argue that she didn’t need help. That she could handle this alone. Except, it would be a lie. A dismembered corpse lay at her feet. And she frankly didn’t know what to do next. A niggling feeling that she was missing something important plagued her. It was the same feeling she got when a big story was breaking under her nose and she hadn’t spotted it yet. But what? What was she missing?
Vanessa’s voice interrupted her turbulent thoughts. “The guy I’m going to send you will answer to the name Wolf. Stay put and don’t move Ando.”
Paige snorted. “Takashi isn’t going anywhere.”
“Report to me in an hour.”
Paige disconnected the call and stared glumly down at the gray-green bag. She became aware of fine tremors passing through her body, like aftershocks of a major earthquake. “Who did this to you, Mr. Ando? And why?”
You’re an investigative reporter, Einstein. How would you investigate this thing?
She’d try to track his movements for the last few days of his life. Find out who he’d met with. Called. E-mailed. She’d poke into his past. Into his business dealings. Look for enemies who wanted to see Ando dead. She’d check out everyone who wanted to see this summit fail. Of course, that wasn’t much of a stretch to figure out. Neither the North Koreans nor the Russians were thrilled to be here. And either group had the resources, resolve and mind-set to kill someone if that was what it took to put an end to the summit.
Paige started as the sound of an engine disturbed the rhythmic whooshing of the waves. Far down the beach, a speck was racing toward her. She glanced around quickly. No time to hide the body. She could push it in the water but might risk losing it in the capricious tides. Subterfuge, then. Quickly, she bent down and pulled shut the neck of the sodden canvas bag. Scuba gear. She’d claim it was diving equipment in her bag and she was waiting for a friend to pick her up.
She was surprised when her nerves calmed and her body fell into a state of relaxed readiness. Wow. All that training from the Medusas must have worked. Certainty that she could handle whatever happened in the next few minutes flowed through her. She’d feel better if she had an assault rifle in her back pocket, though. She made a mental note to carry a firearm from now on when she went for her morning runs.
The speck resolved itself into a blob of yellow, and then into a four-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle. Driven by a man. A holy-moly, ay Chihuahua, gorgeous man. Although his hair was dark, slicked back like he’d been swimming recently, and his eyes were dark as well, he looked Caucasian. Just with a really good tan.
A pair of surfboards stood upright in the passenger seat beside him. He wore a baggy pair of swim trunks that did nothing to disguise the sculpted power of his legs and showed off a tanned, muscular chest that frankly made her want to fan herself. Even his bare feet were sexy as he grabbed the roll bar over his head and swung athletically out of the vehicle.
He frowned as he looked at her. “There must be some mistake. I’m supposed to meet a guy called Fire Ant out here this morning. But you’re obviously not him.”
Paige grinned. It was an honored Medusa tradition to mess with male operators and fail to mention that the Medusas were women. She replied cautiously. “You Wolf?”
“Who’s asking?” he replied tersely, all traces of the casual surfer dude abruptly gone.
Ah, the joys of special operators dancing carefully around each other, afraid to blow their covers. She said quietly, “I’m Fire Ant.”
His frown intensified. “Come again?”
“I’m Fire Ant.”
“Sonofa—” He broke off. “Yeah, I’m Wolf.” He nodded at the canvas bag. “That your gear?”
“No. That’s the problem you’re here to help me with.” “What’s in it?”
“A dead man.” She watched carefully to gauge his reaction to the announcement. Interestingly enough, his expression barely flickered. Was he used to being around dead people or was he just extraordinarily self-controlled?