He shook his head. “We never met the scientists behind the scenes. I only ever saw one doctor who was assigned to me, and I didn’t know his name or anything about him. As far as I know, the doctors didn’t know our names or personal details, either. They knew us only by our patient numbers. They didn’t have a clue what exactly they were giving us in the drugs, they were simply there to monitor our health. The training instructors were the same. They knew they were part of a top-secret project, but they didn’t know the details or who was in charge. Hell, I didn’t even know the other test subjects. Never saw them. Everyone was isolated. So, no, I don’t know Parker, never met her, but she apparently knows me. She knows I was Patient 13, which means she had to have been involved with Project 24.”
“The president knows about this program?”
“I was his best soldier, Savanna. It was his program, and I served at the pleasure of the president, but the things I did…”
Two steps and she was at his side, her amazingly beautiful body sliding in next to him. Her hand, feather light, touched his, as she scanned his face, brows drawn down. “You did what you were commanded to do.”
“That’s just it.” He couldn’t hold her gaze. The willingness to exonerate, to absolve him of guilt was too much. “I wasn’t forced into the program. I volunteered. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to help my country. To make a difference in a world constantly on the brink of disaster. I didn’t realize I was selling my soul to the devil.”
“My God, what you must have been through. What you’ve survived. Your skills…that’s why you’re so fast, why it seems like you can outthink everyone. You can, can’t you?”
He wanted to rewind the past twenty-four hours. To take her back to bed and make love to her again. She was no longer edging away from him, in fact, just the opposite. Regardless, he was afraid to move. Afraid he’d grab her and never turn her loose.
Afraid the wrong move, the wrong word, might send her running away again. “To some degree, yes, I can predict what others are going to do. I have hyperawareness, quicker than normal reflexes, and the ability to see multiple outcomes at once in my head. I tend to know what’s going to happen in a fight, for example, right before it does so I can counter an attack or outmaneuver an opponent.”
She was silent for a long moment. Her stare made him uneasy. “You’re the perfect bodyguard.”
He was the ideal killer, which was exactly what the president had wanted. “I’m a monster. A freak. I can never take back what I’ve done.”
Her hand cupped his cheek and brought his chin up, forcing him to meet her eyes. “I know it’s bad; I get that, even though you haven’t told me any details and probably can’t. But you’re not a bad person. You wouldn’t be here helping me, keeping me safe, if you were.”
Laying a hand over hers, he held it tight for a second, then removed it from his face. If only he could tell her the rest and not lose her in the process. “The theory I didn’t tell you at the Rock Star headquarters? Linc Norman is most likely after me as well as you. Just like Parker, whom I’m pretty damn sure was part of this project, I could blow everything out of the water, ruin him. You were already on track to uncover part of it, but without someone like me, someone like your sister, you would have never gotten the entire story.”
Her brows furrowed again. Another piece of the puzzle snapped into place. “Westmeyer. I was right. They supplied the drugs, didn’t they?”
“That would be my guess. Project 24 only lasted nine months before it was aborted. Something tells me Linc Norman and Westmeyer have a new project up and running.”
“Why was Project 24 aborted?”
“Because everyone died but me.”
Her face fell. “My God. How? From the drugs?”
He wanted to keep her at arm’s length, tell her he wasn’t worth her sympathy or kindness. Instead, he found his arms going around her, his nose burying in her hair.
One last time
. He wanted to hold her one last time.
Her arms went around his neck and she hugged him back. For the first time in his life, he wanted to stop running, to stop fighting. He wanted her.
“What happened to the others?” she asked softly. “You have to tell me.”
His arms didn’t want to let go, but finally he kissed her temple and did. Bitter acid burned up his chest, into his throat. No matter how she made him feel, it would never wipe away the stain on his soul.
He cleared his throat, seeking the control he’d lost at some point outside in the snow. If he was going to tell her the truth and survive the aftermath, he had to rely on his mind, not his heart. “From what I gathered, the drugs worked for a while but they had nasty side effects. The test subjects became unstable. One cocktail caused erratic blood pressure spikes. The scientists adjusted the formula and then some of the test subjects experienced extreme rage and mental disorders.”
Savanna sat back. “You don’t die from rage.”
Trace gripped his knees, stared at the floor. His soul was forever tainted. If only he’d questioned the president’s orders sooner. “Those with negative outcomes were…put down.”
“What?” Shock widened her blue eyes. Eyes he wanted to drown in. “The soldiers were killed?”
He’d pulled the trigger not knowing who he was killing or why. He’d been a good soldier. He didn’t ask questions, only did what his commander-in-chief told him to do.
“Parker would never be part of something like that,” Savanna insisted, standing up and pacing. “She may have lied to me about being a spy, but she’s not a mad scientist mixing up lethal doses of drugs and killing off test subjects who go Frankenstein on her.”
“She didn’t kill them, and I don’t know how deep her involvement is, but she
part of it, Savanna. At least initially, I’m guessing.”
“You can’t know that. Maybe she stole this file from the president and that’s why he’s after her. She has to stay in hiding so that’s why she gave it to me. I can expose Project 24, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
She headed for the bed.
“What are you going to do?” Trace asked.
“Call someone.” She snatched up her phone from the sheets where she’d tossed it earlier after she’d cried in his arms. Her body language was completely different now. The confident investigative reporter was on the scent of the biggest story in history. “I still have a few friends in the news world.”
Trace was by her side, snatching the phone from her hand before she could hit the keypad. “That’s not an option.”
Her face hardened. “Give me my phone.”
He held it out of her reach. “You’re talking about the president of the United States, Savanna. We don’t have proof yet. Wait until Rory and I get those data files from Parker decoded. Until we have that, it’s your word against the president’s.”
“But I have you. That’s better than a file or any other kind of proof. I have
. A walking, talking man that they experimented on and then forced into doing the president’s bidding without any oversight. All we have to do is get this in front of the American people. I can interview you. You can tell everyone what happened, what’s happening now—that the president is trying to stop us by killing us.”
She was so desperate, it tugged at his heartstrings. More than anything, he wanted to give her what she wanted. “There’s no way I can go on national TV and out the president.”
“Why not? You may have broken a few laws, but it was under his direction. You were following orders.”
Until the last one. “There’s something else you need to know. Something about one of the other Project 24 test subjects.”
Savanna stopped trying to get the phone away from him. “What?”
He started to tell her about Patient 6 when her phone rang in his hand.
Private number on the caller ID. He showed it to her.
Her eyes went wide. He saw her throat constrict and those saucer eyes came up to his. “It’s him,” she said. “Linc Norman.”
HE DESIGN OF
telescopic sights since World War II had improved to such an extent that shooters could cover long distances with optical precision akin to superhuman eyesight. Seeing through reflective glass windows meant to conceal the inhabitants from the outside world, however, took a special scope.
Parker lay in the snow in a ghillie suit 400 yards east of the safe house on a wooded hill overlooking the property. A slender stream cut along the base of the hill, frozen in the winter temperatures and covered by several inches of snow. To her right were woods, security cameras and infrared sensors. To her left, more of the same. She’d counted four security guards making rounds of the property, scanning the hills with military grade binoculars. She’d made sure to cover herself with pine boughs and snow.
Trijicon had earned the respect of soldiers in the Middle East. Now, a Trijicon scope with enhanced night vision and optics designed by some engineer in the CIA allowed Parker to see through reflective glass.
Hollywood had it wrong about so many things. IR imaging. Heat reflection. X-ray vision. Seeing through walls and glass to detect bodies wasn’t as easy and straightforward as they made it seem.
Adjusting the light transmitter on her scope, she could make out heat signatures of two human forms in the master bedroom on the top floor of the safe house. Her scope was the stuff Hollywood made up, only hers actually existed.
The safe house had been a bitch to find, even with ON16 trying to assist her hunt. He’d been the one to confirm her suspicion that Coldplay was indeed Lt. Hunter, and while Parker had put tracking devices on Savanna’s phone, laptop, the USB, one by one, Trace Hunter and the Rock Star Security group had disabled them.
The phone’s tracking device had been first to die. Next had been the laptop, but that had been in the vehicle winging south of DC, narrowing things down to a five-kilometer area. The USB had taken its time giving up its secrets and, although Hunter and his team had managed to clean it while their software program broke her multiple levels of decryption, each level had held a code that sent out a notifier to her when the software began working on it. The notifiers weren’t the same as GPS, but one by one, she’d honed in on the location, using common sense to look up recent real estate purchases and pinpoint the best candidates for safe houses.
She was used to having access to everything—well, almost everything—at the touch of her fingers. Spending multiple days tracking down Savanna had nearly made her lose her good mood.
There were half-hidden snowmen in the back yard, evidence of a snowball fight or two. What had Savanna been doing with her bodyguard?
Having a good time from what Parker could see through the windows. The only two people ever in the house were Hunter and her sister. Which meant the two bodies spending lots of time in the bedroom together had to be them.
Good for you, Savanna. It’s about time you had some fun.
But had she and Hunter figured out the encryption?
Parker shivered inside her suit. She needed caffeine and food. Some sleep. To get out of this blasted, damn snow.
The last of the decoding notifiers had gone off two hours ago and she’d set up camp here to watch the house. Between Savanna and Hunter, they would figure out the data she’d left them and get it to the public. Once the story was out, President Norman would fall from grace. Impeachment was the least of his worries. He was going to prison for a very long time.
She’d be free. No more running. No more hiding. She was the last of the Project 24 group, with the exception of Hunter. If only one of them survived and told the truth, it would be enough.
How long would it take them to find the message she’d left? How long before they figured out the legend for the code? No code or decryption was foolproof, but she’d had to make sure that if the information fell into the wrong hands, she’d have time to switch to Plan B.
Plan B—killing the president—was definitely her second choice.
If she survived, she wanted out, not to end up in prison. She had future hopes and dreams. New projects she wanted to work on. Not like the government programs she’d been instrumental in establishing, but back to the private sector where she could study the brain from the comfort of her lab. Keep the real world at a safe distance. Project 24 should have been her crowning achievement. Instead, she’d be lucky if she didn’t end up in prison alongside Linc Norman.
The snap of a twig behind her and off to her left made her freeze. She held her breath. Who was on the hill with her? A deer? They’d been roaming the hills, the property, following the stream for most of the night. Had one of the guards seen through her careful camouflage?
She was a master at blending into urban settings. Going unnoticed by people and getting the information she needed. Lying in snow-covered woods and spying on someone with a stolen scope she’d used once during a training exercise in college was not her forte.
No getting caught
. Not at this point. Although she
given serious consideration to marching down to the safe house and demanding entrance. The security guards would have stopped her before she’d gotten close to the back door, but they wouldn’t shoot to kill unless she presented an imminent danger.
She was definitely a danger to Savanna. There was no going down for a warm, Hallmark family moment. Not yet. There was one more thing Parker had to do.