Authors: Lisa Hughey
Tags: #romantic thriller, #espionage romance, #spy stories
Black Cipher Files
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So many people had a hand in the final version of this book that it is probably impossible to name them all, but I’ll try. I started with a glimmer of an idea and a stack of research books about the NSA. Years later, this book is finally being published. The glimmer grew into a trilogy and Blowback is the first in the Black Cipher Files.
Thank you to all of the early readers, Danielle Girard, Jean Brashear, LGC Smith and Sophie Littlefield. A huge thanks to Alicia Rasley for her editorial input and for always teaching me something new about writing and my own work.
A giant hug to my critique group, Trish Cetrone, Cyndy Rymer, LGC Smith, Adrienne Miller, and Sophie Littlefield for nurturing me through the entire writing, agent finding, submission process and your support when I decided to go a less traditional route.
Thanks to the Pens Fatales, Sophie Littlefield, LGC Smith, Rachael Herron, Juliet Blackwell, Martha Flynn, Adrienne Miller, and Gigi Pandian, for their encouragement and cheering up when I needed it. A very special thanks to Martha Flynn and LGC Smith for the final read through. And an extra squeeze for Martha for helping me navigate this journey. I am blessed to have the friendship and support of such amazing women.
Finally, a billion and one hugs and kisses to my family. Kids (for all the times you dealt with, “Mom’s working, can you make your own dinner?”) I like to think that rather than being neglectful, I was teaching self-reliance. Thank you for helping me reach my dream.
And to Jim for always believing that this day would come.
I was recruited by the NSA at fifteen.
It seems young, I know. But, I was ripe for it. All they needed was the carrot.
As I lay in the cold sterile hospital bed, anonymous government men whispered, “Come work for us.”
I ignored them, lost in a haze of agony...and grief. The beep of the machines barely registered. Constant pain splintered through my leg and arm.
Help us catch the terrorists who killed your family. Your mother, father, brother.
All dead. Even with my eyes closed, damn, I could hear the whoosh as the armored car went up in a fireball, smell the burning flesh, and feel the impact of my right side hitting the limestone steps. The only reason I wasn’t dead now was because I’d been throwing a tantrum.
A silly, childish tantrum had saved my life.
In my hospital room, the radio murmured with the top song of the day, Cutting Crew, singing about dying in their arms. Those foolish singers had no clue.
They didn’t kill you.
I wasn’t dead. I knew that. But in an instant my world had shattered. I’d watched my family blow up. Despair settled over me, weighing me down.
Come work for us.
I could have resisted. Did resist. Unable to make an effort to do anything but drown in an abyss of pain.
You can help stop this from happening again.
What did it matter? They were dead, all dead. Then, with a logic designed to convince me, they succeeded.
What if they get your little sister?
Fear crystallized in my heart. Not Bella. Not her too. I couldn’t bear it.
Work for us. Train with us,
. We’ll keep Isabella safe.
I would do
to protect my little sister. And so I said yes.
My childhood was over, as dead and gone as my family. To keep Bella safe, they told her I died too. The NSA became my life. I trained, attended college, learned the business of espionage, excelled in the business of revenge.
The only one who knows about Bella is Carson, my handler. I keep tabs, mostly electronic, on Bella. Without his knowledge, of course.
I don’t want anyone to use her against me.
Then again, I don’t exist.
Blowback (bloʹ bak)
A deadly, unintended consequence of a covert operation.
Eerie blue light penetrated my consciousness first. The regulated thump-thump of tires pounded in my head, echoing with fierce resonance.
Where the hell was I? Why did I feel like this?
I kept my eyes closed, knowing pretense was paramount to my survival. Wherever I was, it wasn’t normal.
Ha. My life would never be normal.
I tracked back to my last memory. I’d hooked up with a guy. Had relatively indiscriminate sex with him.
I inhaled shallowly, carefully, not wanting to give away anything. I still smelled like sex. Really great sex.
I wanted to smile but kept my expression lax.
I’d longed to stay in that bed. Sleep with him. Just sleep with the comforting warmth of another human being. The ache had been so intense that as soon as he dozed off--I left.
was my last memory.
“You can stop pretending.”
I continued to fake sleep. I didn’t know that male voice. It was bland, not angry, but with a slight smirk, as if he knew something I didn’t.
“You should be awake by now. We calibrate our doses very carefully.”
That statement raised so many questions, I decided to comply with his unspoken request and let my eyes drift open. I calculated we were moving at a speed of about thirty miles per hour. Suburban, blacked out windows, bulletproof glass. The blue light came from the interior dome in the big SUV.
“The light is to protect your eyes. The drug affects your pupil’s ability to dilate and contract.”
I kept silent.
“Not very curious, are you?”
My last conscious memory was from the motel off of 295 near Alexandria around nine in the evening. It was pitch dark out now, so I’d been out for awhile.
Lucas. Could the guy have been a plant? Possible. Since he was my last clear memory, it made sense.
I sifted through the spaghetti of my brain. For the past two days, I’d been undercover, shadowing Staci Grant’s life. Last night, I’d encountered Lucas Goodman, who’d been looking for Staci and thought he’d found her when he found me. The sexual heat between us had been instantaneous and mutual. A few sweaty hours later, I’d left, confident my movements as Staci had been tracked. My cover had been working.
They’d kidnapped Staci.
I was right where I needed to be.
Now I needed answers. My task was to discover why CIA, DIA, and NSA agents were being kidnapped, the method of interrogation, and who was doing the kidnapping. The answers would be coming. I just had to be ready.
I settled into the backseat of the car to wait, taking in details. Mistake number one. They hadn’t taken my ring, so the satellite audio transmitter should work. I twisted the unusual ring with my thumb and pressed the citrine stone twice. I was now sending voice-activated recordings back to Carson.
Mistake number two. They’d cuffed my hands, in front, but left my legs unshackled.
They’d taken my government firearm but missed the knife in the sheath at my waist. Mistake number three. Always, always check everywhere for hidden weapons.
Although my mind was the most powerful weapon I had.
My watch was gone and my government-issue GPS with it. Slouching to the side, I got a better view of the dashboard panel. My kidnapper had conveniently supplied me with another GPS system, live and tracking.
Coordinates. Latitude–47. Longitude–122. I was in the Pacific Northwest. I looked out the misted window to see a reflection of the Space Needle and pinpointed my location as Seattle. I was a long way from Virginia.
I returned my gaze to the kidnapper. Subject was male, small head, blond hair gelled into little spikes, crescent-shaped birthmark below his right ear.
The car rolled to a stop. The rocking intensified my queasy stomach. I ignored it.
was a warehouse near the water. The guy wasn’t rough but the sudden motion as he lugged me out of the SUV caused my stomach to roil.
I breathed in the cold, damp air through my nose, trying to quell the nausea. As he led me toward a semi-truck trailer, I noted the parking lot was empty except for one other truck and a car, too far away and too dark to make out details. The warehouse, constructed with long cinder block walls interrupted by doors at twenty foot intervals, was to my left and behind me.
The trailer was modified from a regular shipping container, doors locked up tight in the back, with another entrance on the side. It looked as if the stairs were all one solid block which could fold up into the interior of the trailer.
The recessed entrance looked exactly like an old-fashioned front door complete with screen door. A porch light flicked on. The screen door wheezed open as a dark-haired woman in a white coat stepped out onto the platform.
The light behind her filled the doorway with shadows. I couldn’t make out her features but I caught a furtive movement, the light illuminating her hand as she tucked a syringe into her pocket.
“Thank you. You can go now.” She nodded regally to the man holding me. Her melodic voice held a hint of Asia, probably second-generation American.
He promptly let go of my arm and walked away. They must believe that the plastic restraint cuffs would be a big deterrent to resistance. The click of his heels echoed in the silence as she stared at me, her hands clasped tightly in front of her, so tightly her knuckles showed white.
There was something in her stance--tension, stress? I eased back a step.
“Welcome.” She put a hand on the railing and took a step down. Then she hesitated and glanced back at the open doorway. “We won’t hurt you.”
I thought about the syringe in her pocket.
No thank you.
I’d had drug resistance training but honestly I didn’t want to put it to the test. At least, not yet. Although if that scenario became unavoidable and they pumped me full of drugs, the transmitter in my ring guaranteed I would get the information Carson and the NSA needed.
All of the kidnapped agents had an unidentified drug in their bloodstream and unknown consequences from those drugs. We had no idea what national secrets they’d given away or what kind of long-term effects were possible from the drug cocktail most likely in that syringe. My job was to get myself kidnapped, acquire the drugs, identify the perpetrators, and get out before they could accomplish their objective.
I wobbled as if unsteady on my feet and eased back two steps, assessing my position.
As the Suburban left, the beam from the head lamps shone on her. The shape of her face and the tilt of her eyes marked her as Chinese. Lines of strain curled around her mouth, the expression was supposed to be a smile but came off as more of a grimace. “Come with me.”
I don’t think so.
I’d expected the kidnapping, the intel suggested that Staci Grant would be next. I’d planned to resist at first. I didn’t want to make it too easy for them to subdue me. Carson was supposed to have a team on standby waiting to capture the kidnappers after I completed my objectives. But since we hadn’t planned for a cross country abduction–all of the other kidnappings had been local and accomplished within a matter of several hours–it would most likely take a little time before the extraction team got here.
If they got here.
I pivoted and ran for the warehouse door nearest me. Her footsteps rang on the metal steps as she followed.