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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Ten)

Caroline had never felt so small and exposed and terrified. She sat in a chair in Joe's office and tried to catch his eye, to silently plead with him to believe her, but he wouldn't look at her. Or rather, he was looking at her all right, but it was with a cold, totally impersonal gaze, as if he were observing a bug. He wasn't seeing her, Caroline. It was the look on his face more than anything else that frightened her. It was as hard as stone.

"No, I did not reenter the work area on those occasions," she repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time.

"The sensors logged both your entrance and exit tunes, Ms. Evans." Captain Hodge, the head of base security, was also good at repeating himself.

"Then the sensors are wrong."

"No, the sensors are extremely accurate. State-of-the-art."

"The sensors are wrong." She drew a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She felt almost sick with fear. "I dislodged my ID card somehow during the day Thursday. I discovered it was missing Friday morning when I dressed."

"So you keep saying. We have no record of you filing a report on this so-called missing card, and you realize, of course, how important this would be on a top-security project. Perhaps you would like to explain your reasoning again."

"I remembered snagging it on a file folder Thursday and thought it must have come loose then. I didn't notify security because it seemed like a lot of bother when I was fairly certain it wasn't lost but was still in the office."

"But the sensors record you leaving the building that afternoon with the other members of your team. You had to have had your tag on for that to be possible, and believe me, Ms. Evans, the security works on both entering and exiting. If anyone crosses that threshold from any direction without the proper identification, it triggers an alarm."

"And that's why I'm telling you that the sensors have to be malfunctioning. When I discovered that I'd misplaced my tag, I called Cal Gilchrist and got him to check the office for me. He found my tag lying on the floor under my desk. He brought it back out to me and returned to his quarters while I began work. All you have to do is ask him."

"Mr. Gilchrist will be asked the appropriate questions. However, what the logs show is that both you and Mr. Gilchrist entered the building together and left together two minutes later. Then you reentered alone, and it was over an hour before Mr. Gilchrist returned."

"That's impossible. I did not go into the building until Mr. Gilchrist returned with my tag. What do your precious sensors tell you when two tags but only one body leave a building?"

The captain ignored her question and instead made a quick notation on the clipboard he carried. "Did you also misplace your tag on Sunday night?"

"No. I didn't enter the building on Sunday night." She couldn't prevent herself from giving Joe another quick, imploring glance. What was he thinking? Surely he didn't suspect her of sabotaging the lasers.

"The sensors say you did. And by your own testimony, your ID tag was with you."

"The tag was exactly where I had left it Friday afternoon when I put it on again this morning."

"You didn't move it at all during the weekend?"

"I spent the weekend in Vegas."

"And left your tag behind."

"Do you wear your ID tag off-base, Captain?" she shot back.

He said mildly, "I'd like to remind you that I'm not the one under suspicion."

"Under suspicion of what? Spell it out for me," she challenged.

He refused to be drawn. "You spent all weekend in

Vegas, you say. You didn't return to the base either Friday night or Saturday night?"

"No."

"Where were you in Vegas?"

"At the Hilton."

"There's more than one. But of course this can be verified?"

Joe interrupted. "Ms. Evans and I spent the weekend together. I can verify her time from late Friday afternoon until 1900 hours Sunday."

"I see." Captain Hodge kept his voice noncommittal, but Caroline's face burned. This time she didn't glance at Joe. "So the name tag was locked in your quarters the entire time."

She tried another calming breath. They didn't seem to be working very well. "Yes."

"You're certain your quarters were secured."

"Yes. I always double-check my door."

He looked skeptical. " 'Always' is a very exact term. It means without fail. Are you saying you've never failed to double-check your door?"

"On this occasion, Colonel Mackenzie himself checked the door while I watched."

The captain glanced at Joe, who nodded. Joe's eyes were hooded, his expression unreadable.

"You verify that the tag was in your possession and no one else's. You were recorded entering the work area at exactly-" he paused to check the log "-2347 on Sunday night."

"I was in bed at that time Sunday night."

"Alone?" the captain asked indifferently.

"Yes."

"No one can verify that. You say you were in bed. The computer log says you were in the work area."

"Talk to Cal Gilchrist!" she said fiercely. "Stop wasting time with this and verify what I've already told you."

"On Thursday morning, when I walked into your office you cleared the screen and turned the computer off," Joe said. His voice was cold and deep. "What was on the screen that you didn't want me to see?"

She stared at him in silence, completely at a loss. He sounded as certain of her guilt as Captain Hodge was, but surely he knew… She tried to concentrate, to bring the occasion to mind. Thursday morning. He had startled her yet again, she remembered, and when she had reflexively started to slug him he had jerked her into his arms. She remembered fiddling with the computer to give herself something to do while she tried to get a handle on her reaction to him, but she had no idea what she had been working on.

"I don't remember," she said weakly.

"Come on," he scoffed. "You remember everything. You have a mind like a steel trap."

"I don't remember," she repeated, staring at him. With a shock she realized that the expression in his eyes was one of disdain… disgust… even rage. Yes, it was mostly rage, but not the normal heat of temper. Joe Mackenzie's rage was ice-cold, and all the more frightening because of it. He was looking at her as if he could destroy her without regret. He didn't believe her!

The enormity of that realization almost choked her. As it was, a huge knot in her chest swelled until she could scarcely breathe, until her heart was beating with slow, painful effort. Had their situations been reversed she would have given him her complete, unqualified trust without hesitation, because, despite the evidence, she knew he would never betray his country. Evidently he believed her capable of doing just that. Her thought processes were orderly and logical, but all of a sudden a staggering instinctive knowledge filled her: she would trust him because she had been fascinated by him, intensely involved with learning about him as a man because she loved him, while for him their time together had been purely physical. He hadn't bothered to learn about her as a person because he didn't care.

In shock, she withdrew. She didn't move physically, but she had been reaching out to him mentally, and now she slammed her mind's door on those thoughts. She pulled all her reactions inward, bolting them inside in an effort to reestablish her emotional safeguards. It was probably too late, but the human animal's instincts were always to survive, and so she obeyed those instincts. Her face went smooth and expressionless, and she stared back at him with eyes as blank as glass. She couldn't afford to give him even a sliver of herself.

"What were you working on?" he repeated.

"I don't remember." Even her voice was flat. She had so desperately clamped down on her emotions that none of them stood a chance of escaping. Just as emotionlessly she said, "I'm going to assume I'm under suspicion of sabotage."

"We haven't said that," Captain Hodge replied.

"Nor have you said that I'm not, and this feels very much like an interrogation." She fastened her gaze on him, because she couldn't bear to look at Joe. She didn't know if she could ever look at Joe again. Later, when she was alone, she would regroup and take stock, do a damage assessment, but for right now she felt as if everything in her would shatter if she had to look at him. The pain was just too great; she couldn't handle it, so she had to ignore it.

"We couldn't find any malfunction at all in the laser on Captain Wade's aircraft," she said, and even managed a little bit of pride in the evenness of her tone. It was as flat as the EEG line of a corpse. "We all talked it over. Yates Korleski, the team leader, was going to talk to Colonel Mackenzie tonight after he'd thought about it a bit longer, but we think the problem is in the computer program."

Captain Hodge looked mildly interested. "What kind of problem are you talking about, Ms. Evans?"

"We don't know. We want to compare the working program with the original to tell us if any changes have been made on the program we're actually using."

"And if there are changes?"

"Then we find out what those changes are."

"Whose idea was it to verify the program?"

"Mine."

"What made you think of it?"

"It was a process of elimination. The computer program is about all that's left that could be wrong."

"But the program was working perfectly before you arrived. It would be a major feather in your cap if you solved a problem of this magnitude, wouldn't it, Ms. Evans?"

She didn't flinch, just continued to stonily watch him. "I didn't sabotage the program so I could have the glory of finding the problem."

"I didn't accuse you of doing so. I merely asked if it would be a feather in your cap if you pinpointed a major flaw in a project this large and important."

"I already have a good professional reputation, Captain. That's why I'm on the team."

"But you weren't an original member, so evidently you weren't good enough for that. Did you resent not being picked in the beginning?"

"I didn't know about it, so I couldn't be resentful. I was working on something else. The Night Wing project was already in full swing before I finished my own project I only became available a month ago. That's verifiable," she added before he could ask.

"Hmmm." He studied the notes he had on his clipboard a moment longer, then looked up with a thin smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I believe that's all I have to ask you for now, Ms. Evans. You may go. Oh-you're restricted to the base. It wouldn't look good if you were caught trying to leave."

"Are my telephone calls also restricted?"

"Do you need to call someone?" he asked without answering her question. "An attorney, perhaps?"

"Do I need one?"

He gave her that thin smile again. "We haven't pressed any charges yet."

He just had to put that "yet" in there, she noticed distantly, but it didn't affect her. "You aren't filing charges but I'm restricted to base. Let me remind you that I'm a civilian, Captain Hodge, not a part of the military."

"And let me remind you, Ms. Evans, that you are on a military base and this is a military matter. If necessary, we can hold you in the brig for the maximum length of time before charges have to be formally filed. A lot of this can be checked out by then, and you may be exonerated, but if you insist on spending the time behind bars, we can accommodate you."

"You've made your point."

"I thought I had."

Caroline got up and concentrated on her legs. She made certain they didn't wobble, that they moved when she told them to. She didn't look at Joe as she walked out of the office, or at burly Sergeant Vrska on duty in the outer office. Evidently the good sergeant left only when the colonel did.

They would talk to Cal, and he would verify everything she had told them, which would force them to accept that their precious security sensors could and had malfunctioned. Perhaps there had been a major foul-up in security and two ID tags had been issued with the same bar code. Perhaps someone had been entering the work area with a duplicate of her tag and had indeed been sabotaging the computer program, but questioning Cal would force them to admit that it wasn't her.

She wasn't worried about being charged with sabotage, though enduring the captain's questions hadn't been a pleasant experience. But she might never recover from the look in Joe's eyes and the realization that he didn't trust her, that he believed her capable of sabotage.

She had made a monumental, colossal fool of herself. Despite the superior capability of her brain, she had made the fundamental feminine mistake of assuming that making love with a man signaled a commitment from him. No, not making love, having sex. That was another mistake she had made, assigning too much importance to the act. To men it was the simple gratification of a physical appetite, like eating. No emotional baggage was involved. She had made love; he had had sex. She had given herself to him, heart, soul and body, and he had given her pleasure in return but nothing of himself beyond the temporary use of his own body. Magnificent as his body was, she had wanted more. She had thought she was getting more.

Oh, she hadn't gone so far as to think he was in love with her, but she had still thought he cared, at least a little. But she had been confusing sexual technique with emotions. He had none, at least none that she could reach. He was always controlled, his inner self firmly locked away from everyone except his immediate family. She was beginning to see the wisdom of that. Right now she would give anything if her own emotions had been that protected, so she wouldn't be about to collapse and curl up in a fetal knot from the pain of it. She would do so if she thought it would ease the pain, but she knew it wouldn't. There was no ease.

Perhaps when he knew the truth he would expect to continue their affair as if nothing had happened. Caroline tried to imagine how she would handle the situation if he did, but she simply couldn't bring anything to mind.

Nor could she imagine continuing to work here, seeing him every day. She had always been right, after all, never to become involved with anyone. The first time she had done so had certainly been a disaster. So now she either had to do the unthinkable and somehow manage to survive working with him, or she had to ruin her professional reputation by asking to be taken off the project.

It looked as if her work would be all she had, so she'd be damned if she would throw that away just because of a man, even if that man was Colonel Joe Mackenzie. If it took every ounce of strength she had, she would finish this damn project. She would talk with him about work. She would even be polite. But there was no way she would ever risk opening her heart to him again. She simply couldn't afford the pain. This was already costing her almost more than she could bear, and the ordeal had just begun.

"Cal Gilchrist categorically denies finding her ID card under her desk," Hodge told Joe later. It was almost midnight, but there was no possibility of sleep in sight. "He says she called him early Friday morning and asked him to walk her to the building because she thought someone had followed her the morning before and it made her nervous. He says he also went inside with her for a quick check of the building, then returned to his quarters to shower and shave."

Joe's face was stony. He hadn't allowed himself to hope that Gilchrist would verify everything she had said. It would have been asking for too much, when the sensors had plainly placed her there when she shouldn't have been.

"Then why use him for an alibi? She must have known he wouldn't cover for her."

"Maybe not. Evidently they're fairly good friends. Certainly Adrian Pendley wouldn't have gone a single step out of his way for her. And maybe she and Gilchrist had something going on in the past, for her to feel confident he would protect her if he could."

"No." At least he was certain about that. Caroline had never been intimate with anyone but him. Before Ivan could question him on his certainty Joe asked, "What about Korleski? Did they discuss the possibility that the problem was with the computer program?"

"Yes. She told the truth right down the line with that. He verified that she's the one who suggested the program be checked. He was also vehement that she wouldn't sabotage a project so she could have the credit of saving it. Neither did he believe she would do it for money."

"Did he think anyone else on the laser team would do it for either money or prestige?" Joe asked.

Ivan shook his head.

"How do the rest of them check out?"

"It'll take time to reverify everything, but all of them are spotless. I never would have suspected her if it hadn't been for the entrance and exit records."

Joe could understand that. He never would have suspected her, either, but then, he hadn't been able to see past his own obsession with her. All he'd been able to think about was getting her in bed and burying himself in that sweet body. Now he had to wonder how much of it had been calculated, if she had indeed been so attracted to him that she'd given up her virginity to him with hardly a thought or if she had done it… God, what possible reason was there for making love with him the way she had, other than desire? No, she hadn't come on to him in an attempt to find out classified information on Night Wing or to use him for protection if she were caught. She hadn't needed him to find out anything; she had access to all the information she wanted. And it was simply too iffy to assume he would protect her just because he'd slept with her. Caroline had wanted him. Even if he couldn't trust anything else about her, he could trust that.

So what did he do now? He'd never before been so enraged and… hurt. He might as well admit it. This had been like taking a roundhouse to the gut. Nobody had ever gotten to him the way Caroline had, with her uncomplicated fierceness. She had been forthright and brutally honest, without any hidden agenda or stratagems. He wanted to be able to step back from the situation and look at it without emotion, but he couldn't.

He'd never felt about any aircraft the way he felt about Night Wing. It was special. It was more than special. It was history in the making, pure magic in the air. He would give his own life unhesitatingly to protect those planes, because they were necessary to protect his country. Simple patriotism, pure love for those buds. They were his.

And he'd considered Caroline his, too. His woman.

If the choice had been simply between Caroline and the aircraft, he would have chosen Caroline. He might despise himself for it, but he couldn't have stood by and let her be harmed. But between Caroline and his country… There was no choice. There couldn't be. He couldn't let there be. No matter how fierce and gutsy she was, no matter how she challenged him on a level no one else ever had before and threw herself without restraint into the battle. She hadn't let him be gentle when he'd taken her for the first tune; she had insisted on receiving his full strength and had met him with her own. Caroline met life head-on, without wavering.

He paused in his thoughts, a tiny frown puckering his eyebrows. Caroline didn't seem the type to sneak around in the dark. Maybe he hadn't known her as well as he'd thought, but he would have sworn there wasn't a devious bone in her body.

He wanted to see her. He wanted to ask her some questions one on one, without anyone else in the room to buffer them. He would get the truth out of her come hell or high water.

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