He survived a mysterious mission more horrible than the mind can imagine; only she can break through the trauma and get him to talk. But if she succeeds, they both may not survive.
Dr. Sara West knows only that her high-security military patient goes by the name "Joe,” that he’s in a catatonic state and can only repeat the code words, "I wept,” and that his post-traumatic stress disorder is a result of his last mission as a Shadow Watcher—a spy who spies on other spies. Her brother-in-law was also a Shadow Watcher. He committed suicide in the same sinister military facility where Joe, and other military men like him, are now in treatment. Sara wants to learn what caused her sister’s unshakable husband to kill himself and, in the process, to heal Joe, a compelling man who wins her love. But the secrets inside him reveal a shocking truth. One she isn’t sure they can overcome.
Vicki Hinze is the award-winning author of 30 novels, 4 nonfiction books and hundreds of articles, published in as many as sixty-three countries. She is recognized by Who’s Who in the World as an author and as an educator. For more information, please visit her website at www.vickihinze.com.
"This is an excellent military thriller. I come from a military family and I found the story very plausible but quite heart stopping." -- Glenda Parker, Journey to Publication
"…an entertaining read for those in the mood for some mystery
and thrills!" -- Anna O'Brien, GoodReads
"The characters are written very well and the story really
pulls you in from the first few pages… Hinze is a brilliant writer… You will
not be able to put it down!" -- Kimberly Wise, Books-n-kisses
"This was an unbelievably intense story. I was taken back by how gripping & in-depth the mystery was. It kept me guessing until the end. I thought the story was very refreshing & original." -- Shona Hutchison, Book Protagonist
"Fantastic mystery! ...kept me guessing right to the very end. I will be recommending this one to my friends!" -- Donna Antonio, In My Humble Opinion
"Gripping and adrenaline-charged.” -- Publishers Weekly
"Absolutely riveting.” -- Philadelphia Inquirer
"Oh, no.” Sara West looked up from her desk and frowned. "What the hell are you doing here, Foster?”
That frank reaction earned her a rare smile. "Glad to see you, too, Dr. West.” He removed his cap and sat down in her visitor’s chair. "How long has it been?”
How long? How dare he do this? He ignored her inquiries into her brother-in-law Captain David Quade’s death, stonewalled her investigation at every turn, and then just waltzes into her office as if they were close friends? "It’s been seven months, two weeks, and four days—not nearly long enough.”
Sara closed the patient file open on her desk, then slid it aside. "Now, this is a private office—mine—and not your military base, Colonel, but I’m going to be gracious and ask you once more before I kick you out on your pompous ass.” She hiked her chin. "What do you want?”
His smile faded, and he scanned the bookshelves spanning a long wall.
Sara grimaced. All of the titles were on post-traumatic stress disorder, and Foster definitely would notice. He never missed anything, or gave anything away. Likely a hazard of his job, though even after five years of discussions with him—mostly discussions aimed at himwith her trying to get information from himabout David—Sara still wasn’t exactly sure what Foster’s job entailed.
She knew he was military. An Air Force colonel who worked with the AID. But her discreet inquiries at the Air Force Intelligence Division had convinced Sara that even regular AID personnel weren’t familiar with specifically what job Colonel Jack Foster performed for the military. He was an enigma to them and, by extension, to her. An enigma currently standing in her Pensacola, Florida, office—which was a long way from his office at the Pentagon—staring at her in open challenge.
Being even thinner now than when they’d last met, Sara supposed she still looked fragile to him. God, how that rankled. With her blond hair snagged in a barrette at her nape, and wearing the lab coat and navy power suit she’d worn to give her PTSD lecture to two hundred psychologists and psychiatrists that morning, she felt almost prim. But she was not prim, nor fragile. She was thirty-four, stood five-eight in stocking feet, and his unwelcome presence in her office had her and her temper rising to meet his challenge. "Well, are you going to answer me? Or do I get the delayed gratification of kicking you out?”
Foster grunted and tucked his cloth cap under his belt, between the loops on his slacks. "Still ticked off at me, eh?”
"Forever, plus ten years. Count on it.”
"I did attempt to learn more about Captain Quade’s incident, Dr. West. Unfortunately, I was denied access to his files.”
Who was he trying to kid? Foster had clout. That much everyone in AID knew—even those who had needed a little friendly persuasion to admit they had ever heard of him. "Why?”
"That’s classified information.”
Sara grunted. He was lying to her. She’d heard whispers during her last fact-finding trip to the Pentagon that Foster’s security clearance exceeded Top Secret. He could get file access. He chose not to do it.
He looked her straight in the eye. "Isn’t it enough to know David is dead?”
"No, it isn’t enough.” Vexed that she couldn’t force Foster to be honest, she stabbed the toe of her shoe deep into the teal carpet beneath her desk. "Not when David’s widow—my sister—is collecting husbands the way you have a chest full of medals.”
"I’m sorry to hear that. After five years...” His voice trailed off, and then he went on. "Well, I’d hoped Brenda, er, Mrs. Quade, would adjust.”
Foster sounded sincere. But Sara had experienced his "sincerity” before. She knew better than to believe it, and let him know it by arching a skeptical brow.
A faint flush swept up his neck and flooded his face. "No progress on your research, I take it.”
He’d caught the gesture. Foster was a pain, but he was swift on the uptake. "Plenty of progress on PTSD, just not on how patients’ families successfully cope with it.” She let her gaze slide to the window, unwilling to let him see how deeply her failure affected her. "Brenda stood on shaky ground before David committed suicide. Now, in a way, she’s doing her damnedest to join him.”
"Through the marriages?”
Sara nodded. "Five in four years.” Guilt swam through her chest and settled like heavy stones in her stomach. Brenda was thirty-six, the older sister, and yet Sara always had been the big sister. Not by choice, but by necessity. Since grade school, Brenda had gotten herself into more scrapes than a teen with her first training bra. And Sara always had pulled her out. But on this, when it mattered most, Sara couldn’t seem to find a way out.
Foster let his gaze drop to his knees. "And you feel responsible because you’re an expert on PTSD, and yet you still can’t seem to help her.”
How typical of him to lay out her feelings like bare bones and then peck at them. Bristling, Sara snapped. "Wouldn’t you?”
"Yes, I would.”
Surprised by that admission, Sara pursed her lips and opted to be a little more civil, though she had to work at it. She didn’t like Foster any more than he liked her. The only thing that made their interactions possible was that they both knew it and were never hypocritical enough to deny it. "Thanks for holding off on the platitudes and absolutions.” She meant it sincerely.
"You’re welcome.” His smile returned. "Does that mean all is forgiven?”
"Not by a long shot.” She tugged at her lab coat cuff and slid him a glare. "I make it a practice never to forgive men I don’t trust.”
"Unfortunate.” He feigned a sigh that held a breath of truth.
Tired of this mousing around, Sara cut to the chase. "Why are you here?”
Foster’s demeanor changed dramatically, turned somber and serious, deepening the creases to grooves across his forehead. "I’ve got a problem, Sara. A significant one.”
Worry seeped into her. In five years, Jack Foster never once had used her first name, nor had he admitted a weakness. Both unnerved her. She tried her best to bury her reaction under the sarcasm common between them. "Welcome to the human race. We’ve all got problems. That’s why we’ve got shrinks, and we shrinks have shingles on our doors.”
"We don’t all have problems like this one.” He again scanned the row of dog-eared books, clearly avoiding her eyes. "I need your help.”
Surprise rippled through her. Men like Foster didn’t need help, they created a need for help in others. God knew he’d given her more than her fair share of trouble—and nightmares. And his type never asked for favors. Intrigued, she paused to let her tone steady, and then quizzed him. "What? The Air Force doesn’t have its own shrinks anymore?”
"This is different.” He shifted uneasily on his chair. "It’s... delicate.”
Delicate? More likely, the matter was classified, and he wanted it buried far from other military eyes. "Is this problem personal, or professional?”
"Professional.” He sighed. This time, it was genuine and tinged with discomfort and impatience. "I don’t need military assistance. I need yours.”
"This, I know. Therapy would work wonders for your disposition. But I can’t treat you, Foster. A doctor should want to cure her patients, not to murder them.” She rolled the end of a pencil over her lower lip, then nipped down on it. "The licensing board discourages murdering patients—though in your case, it might be willing to make an except—”
"Stop it.” Foster stiffened. "We both know you’re about as apt to kill someone as the tooth fairy.” His gaze turned piercing, stone-cold. "This is serious, and only you can help me.”
"Me? Help you? After all the times you’ve refused to help me?” Her temper reared, and she guffawed. "Forget it.”
"I can’t do that.” His terse tone proved he’d like nothing better.
She slid forward in her chair, laced her hands atop her desk blotter. "Look, I don’t like the military, and I don’t work for it, aside from cleaning up the messes you guys make of some people’s minds. I work with five patients at a time—no more, and no less—in a private practice. I work only with PTSD patients and/or their families, and I damn sure don’t help arrogant military bastards who needlessly let others suffer—especially when those suffering others are members of my family.”
"I’m well aware of what you do and do not do. I’m also aware that many of your professional peers consider your methods extremely unorthodox.”
"There’s a good reason for that.” She lifted a hand. "By traditional standards, my methods are extremely unorthodox.”
"Some consider you out in left field.”
"And some think I’m a brick short of a full load. So what? I don’t need their approval, or care if I have it. Intensive one-on-one therapy—treating the mind, body, and spirit—works.”
Foster lifted his chin, annoyingly calm and typically arrogant. "Frankly, the professional acceptance of your methods means nothing to me. You have an eighty-percent success rate on the PTSD patients you treat—far higher than the standard—and that means everything.”
"Success is hard to dispute.”
"Yes, it is.” He stood up. His knees cracked, and he walked across the office to the bookshelf and then let his fingertip drift across the spines of the books, obviously mulling over what to tell her and what to withhold. "I can’t disclose certain things without physician/patient privilege. You don’t have security clearance.” He stopped and looked back over his shoulder at her. "You understand?”
David. This was about David. Her heart thudded deep in her chest. Low and hard. A little breathless, she nodded. She didn’t trust Foster—after five years, she had hundreds of valid reasons not to trust him—but could she afford to brush off a potential opportunity? They were so rare. "Okay.” She conceded with as much grace as she could muster. "I’ll make an exception—short-term.”
Foster turned toward her. Bars of light slashed through the vertical blinds at the window, streaked across his pale-blue uniform shirt, and glinted on the metal eagle rank pinned to his collar. "So, you’re my doctor now?”
"Give me twenty dollars.”
He fished a bill from his wallet. She took it. "I’m your doctor.” After scribbling out a receipt, she thrust it at him. "Now, what do you know about David?”
Foster leaned a shoulder against the bookshelf and crossed his chest with his arms. "I know if you do what I ask, you’ll find your answers about what happened to him.”
Sara’s skin crawled. Foster’s tone and the look in his eyes swore she’d find more. Far more. "Exactly what answers will I find?”
"The ones to all the unanswered questions that made you become an expert on PTSD so you could help others like David, Brenda, and Lisa.” Foster rubbed at his chin, spoke slowly. Distinctly. "You and the Quades’ daughter are very close.”
He’d been monitoring them. All of them. Sara, Brenda, and Lisa.
An uneasy shiver slithered up Sara’s spine, and her gaze slid to a photo of the three of them on the corner of her desk. For some reason, Foster must feel threatened. "Of course we’re close. Lisa is my only niece. But what does that have to do with this?”
"It’s irrelevant,” Foster said. "What is relevant is that I won’t tell you anything more about David’s situation because I’d have to breach national security to do it. But I will put you in a position where you’ll have the opportunity to discover your answers for yourself.” Pacing a short path before her desk, Foster stopped and fisted a hand at his side. "I know you don’t forgive and you never forget, but let me be clear about something, Sara. Playing games with me is not honorable, nor is it in your best interests.”
"Now why does that remark strike me as a threat?” Tight-lipped, she glared at him. "You know, in five years, I have never—not once—given you a reason to question my honor.” She cocked her head. "Can you say the same to me?”
"Our topic isn’t my honor, it’s your family’s best interests.”
Chilling her tone even more, Sara looked up at him from under her lashes. "Obviously, you don’t know me as well as you think, or you’d know warning me against game-playing isn’t necessary. Not when it comes to my family.”
"Oh, I know you, Sara.” Foster leaned forward and bracketed her desk blotter with his hands. The muscles in his forearms twitched. "I know you’re weak when it comes to defending yourself, but tougher than nails at defending others. And you’d like to be even tougher on me.”
She would. She didn’t like this conversation, or him. Yet Foster’s palms were glistening with sweat and he looked as if he wanted to heave. He clearly needed something from her—why else would he be here? But whatever it was, he didn’t feel certain of getting it, which meant he had failed to stack the odds in his favor. The master manipulator felt vulnerable, and that worried her.
"I also know you avoid relationships because you feel guilty,” he went on. "It wouldn’t be right for you to have all your sister has lost, would it? You have to fix things for her and Lisa first—and for your brother, Steve. It really got you that his wife had him committed for psychiatric evaluation, didn’t it? Isn’t that incident what drove you to become a psychiatrist?”
Sara stiffened. Foster had been thorough, and he’d investigated Steve, too. "Considering my brother is one of the most well-balanced human beings walking the earth, and his wife pulled that stunt and had him committed for thirty days because they’d had a disagreement about moving out of the state of Mississippi, yes. You’re damn right, it got to me. That there are laws on the books allowing that type of injustice should get to you, too.”
"We all deal with injustice in our own way.” He let his gaze drift to the door. "You’ve taken blanket responsibility for every injustice to everyone and everything in your sphere of influence since the cradle.”
He grunted. "If I had to guess, I’d say you’re a victim of your genes. Maternal genes, or influence.”
He’d be right. Sara’s throat went dry. Foster made her feel invaded, as if she had no privacy, not even in her thoughts. She fought the sensation, determined not to let him get the upper hand. Once he did, she was screwed, and they both knew it. "Goodness. Amazing that I warrant all of this attention from you merely because I’m a responsible adult. I suppose I should be flattered.” She rubbed at her temple with a long fingertip. "Instead, I’m asking myself why you fascinate so easily.”
A tight smile threatened the corner of his lip, and he narrowed his eyes. "Actually, I bore easily. But you are your work, Sara. And that intrigues me.”
Amused him, more likely, and that grated at her.
"You’ve pushed me hard, from all sides—as thorough as a crack operative with a dozen years’ experience under your belt. At times, you’ve been persuasive, tenacious, and charming enough to have the devil caving in to you.”
No way was she falling for this. Foster used praise just as he used people. "So the devil would cave, but you were immune. Now, what am I to make of that?”
"Perhaps the devil enjoys luxuries I can’t afford.” He stared at her. "Perhaps the same is true for you.”
He knew her as well as she knew herself. The realization spilled over her, burned and branded into her mind. She hated it, too. And she hated even more that he was right about her work and her personal relationships. She’d never verbalized it, or dared to focus her thoughts on it, but she did want a family of her own and someone to share her life with, yet she couldn’t have everything Brenda had lost. She just... couldn’t.
Gruesome thought, but maybe Foster knew Sara better than she knew herself.
Fighting not to wince, she shifted topics, heading for safer ground. "So what’s your problem?” Did she dare to hope, a guilty conscience? "Why do you need my services?”
"First, some ground rules.” He straightened and stepped back from her desk. "Everything I tell you falls under patient/ physician privilege. I have not, and will not, grant you authorization to release any information I share with you. None whatsoever, under any circumstances, at any time, to anyone.”
"I gathered that.” Sara met his gaze and saw the tension of an emotion she’d never expected to see in Jack Foster’s face. Fear. It tugged hard at the healer in her. "So what’s the problem?”
"I’ve got an officer with scrambled brains, and I have no idea why or who scrambled him.” Foster stiffened, as if relieved and uneasy with revealing that. "He was on a mission—classified, of course—and went missing. Seven days later, he showed up at a secluded facility, and we have no idea how he got there.”
"Could you clarify his condition? Scrambled, how? Is he a vegetable, psychotic, or what?”
"He’s been diagnosed PTSD.” Foster grimaced. "I need to know what happened to him, why, who did it, how, and if he’s salvageable.”
If he’s salvageable? Flabbergasted, Sara leaned back in her chair. "And you want me to make this determination?”
"Yes, I do. Quickly.” Foster didn’t miss a beat. "This man has been on a lot of high-risk missions. He has Top Secret security clearance, and he’s having moments of lucidity. Frankly put, he’s a critical security risk.”
Foster’s voice turned gritty, as if forced to speak, and the words burned his throat. "You have the highest success rate in the business, Sara. I need success. Until we determine the specifics I mentioned, every AID mission and operative working worldwide is vulnerable. I can’t afford to lose this operative without discovering the facts of his case.”
"The patient is an AID operative?”
Foster hesitated. "He is, but don’t bother checking on him. You won’t find any more on him than you found on me.”
Not surprised that Foster knew she’d checked him out, Sara didn’t flinch. "Why is that?”
"Because he’s one of my men.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. Her white lab coat bunched at her ribs. "Your men. Who are...?”
Foster paused. "I head an elite group of specialized operatives called Shadow Watchers.” He gave her a chilly smile. "You won’t see that organization listed on any official documents. Actually, most military personnel don’t realize our group exists, and those who do realize it would never admit it to other service members much less to anyone outside of the military.”
"I see.” An empty hole stretched and yawned in her stomach. She’d gotten into something deeper than expected. "What exactly do Shadow Watchers do?”
"We perform a vital service in a system that requires checks and balances.”
"Could you be a little less philosophical and more specific?”
Foster answered without embellishment. "We spy on spies.”
David had worked for Foster—as a Shadow Watcher. Suddenly, so much made sense. Except for the suicide. That would never make sense. David had been happy with Brenda, had adored her and Lisa. From all signs, he had been content.
Had David’s death been suicide? An eerie feeling crept through Sara. She stared into the cool, detached depths of Foster’s eyes. Or had David been declared "unsalvageable”?
The question begged to be asked, but Sara resisted. Foster wouldn’t answer, and it could be advantageous not to let him realize the question had occurred to her just yet. She pursed her lips, tilted her head. "Serious problem.” National security implications, integrity of ongoing missions, safety of all Shadow Watchers and regular AID operatives—those were but a few of the considerations and hazards.
No wonder Foster always seemed wired too tight. Carrying around responsibilities this weighty would do that to any man. "What you’re telling me is that I cure your operative, or he’s deemed unsalvageable—without your finding out what happened to him.”
"That’s correct. Certainly not our preference, due to the potential complications I mentioned, but our resources have been exhausted.”
His resources hadn’t yet been tapped. Foster couldn’t risk alerting non-AID personnel or his superior officers that his missions weren’t secure. In his world of red tape, the man had to answer to someone, and his credibility would be shot. But she’d give him the lie. "So if I don’t do this, or if I fail, then that means you terminate this operative, right?” What else could unsalvageable meanto spies?
Foster’s gaze slid away.
Sara girded her loins and persisted. No way was she getting involved in this without knowing the full scale, scope, and consequences. "Am I right, Foster?”
The blinds streaked slatted shadows across his face. "We prefer canceled.”
"Damn it, just once would you call a spade a spade? Forget your military jargon and sidestepping semantics and just tell me the truth.” Sara glared at him. "I fail, and the man is murdered. Yes, or no?”
The breath left her lungs. She’d expected it. But expecting it and hearing him admit it were totally different things. She studied Foster’s expression, his posture, his eyes. No remorse, regret, or apology. He would kill the operative. Reeling, she struggled to pull together a cohesive thought, settled for a mumbled, "I see,” and felt damn grateful for it.
"I’m glad you grasp the gravity of the situation.”
"It’s hard to miss.” Sara put the pencil down on her desk. Her instincts warned her to back off; she was in over her head. But if she did, then the operative would die. She had no doubts about that, nor any illusions. And then some other family would be in the position Brenda and Lisa were in, suffering the same hell they were suffering, wondering what they had done to make their loved one prefer being dead to living with them.
David hadn’t committed suicide. He’d been canceled. Sara knew it as well as she knew she couldn’t condemn a man to death, or a family to hell. "So who is the patient?”
Foster didn’t falter. "I can’t tell you that.”
Typical. Just... typical. She squeezed her chair’s arms until her palms and fingers stung. "Then how am I supposed to treat him?”
"Actually, you’ll treat five patients. He’ll be one of them.”
"Five?” The man was arrogant and absurd. "I can’t take on five new patients at once.”
"Of course you can.”
Sara bit down on her temper, resisted an urge to shout at him. "Look, let me explain something to you. In therapy, I operate from a base of trust, and that takes time to develop. Without it, I have no foundation—and no hope for success. That aside, I already have a full caseload and a healthy waiting list, so what you’re asking me to do is utterly impossible.”
"It’s possible,” he countered. "And your current patients won’t be adversely affected. You have my word on that.”
Won’t be adversely affected? Was she supposed to feel grateful he wouldn’t cancel them to get them out of his way? "Not to antagonize you, Foster, but your record with me on trust-inspiring issues leaves a lot to be desired. What’s your word worth on this?”
He didn’t so much as blink. "Finding out the truth about David Quade.”
Her throat went tight. Those were the ones. The magic words. The irresistible offer.
And both she and Foster knew it.
There was no way she could take her deductions on David to Brenda and Lisa without proof. Sara straightened in her seat. "It appears you already have a plan. Why don’t you just lay it out and let me see if I consider it acceptable?”
"Fine.” He laced his hands behind his back, strode a brisk path between the bookcase and the door. "You’ll enter a facility under the auspices of performing a short-term research project on PTSD as a psychiatrist, Major Sara West.”
"Major?” Saragrunted. "Forget it. Impersonating an officer would cost me my license, and you know how I feel about your military protocol and red-tape nightmare of a system. If I do this—and I’m not saying I will—then I want civilian status, total control, and full latitude—personally, and with my patients.”
"Which is exactly why you’re heading the PTSD research project. The only person you’ll have to answer to at the facility is the director, and, of course, to me—though, obviously I won’t be inside the facility. You’ll have total control over the patients and therapy, but not over the facility. I can’t give you that, or civilian status. Not without exposing your cover.”
"You honestly expect me to go in undercover?” She rolled her gaze heavenward, dragged her hands over her head. "For God’s sake, Foster. I’m not one of your spies, I’m a doctor. What do I know about covert operations? And what about my current patients, and my license?”
"The cover is essential.” He sat down, leaned forward, and then linked his fingers, bracing his forearms on his knees. "I don’t know who is responsible for this, Sara. I can’t take unnecessary chances with my operative, with the other Shadow Watchers and AID personnel, or with you.” Foster lifted his gaze to meet hers. "Look, you wanted me to call a spade a spade. Well, here it is. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You dislike the military and you resent its dedication to discipline, rules, and order. Yet every day of your life, you enjoy the personal freedom the military provides you.”
"Excuse me, but it’s the Constitution that guarantees my personal freedom.”
Foster’s eyes blazed. "Try exercising it without us.”
Valid point. She didn’t like it, but historically speaking, she couldn’t deny it.
"We’ve served you, Doctor. Now, we need your service. That military operative is one of many who provide you your freedom. If you won’t assist for David or for the sake of your country or under your oath to heal, then do it for him. Make it personal. Hell, it is personal. Every day of his life, this operative sacrifices for you in ways you can’t begin to fathom. Simply put, Sara, you owe him.”
Foster orchestrated this deliberately, to make her feel responsible for the operative. Even knowing it, the tactic worked. That infuriated her. "I do not owe him, or you. I haven’t asked anyone in uniform to do anything for me.”
"No, but you certainly haven’t objected to all we have done.” He thrust out his chin. "You’ve benefited from our sacrifices, Doctor. That’s a fact.”
"Sorry, this mind-set doesn’t wash with me.” Her palms were damp. She pressed them flat on her desk blotter. "The draft has been abolished for a long time. Everyone in the military freely chose their career, just as I chose mine.”
Foster lifted and then set back down her nameplate. It thudded against her desk. "Think, Sara. Whoever did this to him is dangerous. Human life means nothing to him. Do you think for a second a person capable of deliberately destroying a man’s mind would hesitate to kill you or thousands of others like you?”
"Him.” Sara picked up on the pronoun. "You said him.So you do have an idea of who is behind this.”
"Him, or her, or they,” Foster replied. "Likely they. And if I had any idea who was behind this, would I be here?”
He wouldn’t. And her deduction proved true. This was a serious problem. For the country, the operatives, and now, for her. If overt, she’d be an assassin’s target. If covert, and discovered and exposed, she would be canceled. Some choices. Either way, if she got caught, she was dead.
But what if you don’t get caught? You find out about David, get Brenda and Lisa straightened out, save an operative’s life, and you live.
And Foster owes you.
Sara rocked back and forth in her chair, absorbing, reading between the lines. "What you’re telling me—underneath all the God-and-country-and-duty talk—is that once I’m in, I’m on my own.”
"Totally. No support and, if you blow it, no knowledge.”
If exposed, definitely canceled. She looked up at Foster. For the first time, she saw complete, unvarnished truth in his eyes. And she hated it most of all. It scared her in ways she’d never been scared. Her throat muscles quivered, and she swallowed hard. "I don’t have a choice about this, do I?”
"No.” Foster softened his voice. "I wish I could give one, but I can’t. If you refuse, I’ll manufacture whatever evidence it takes to have your license revoked. You’ll lose everything, Sara. I know you won’t believe it, but I regret having to issue this ultimatum. I oppose force and do all I can to preserve freedom.”
"You stand here and say that, knowing your ultimatum will cost me everything?”
"Yes. For the greater good of a nation, I’ll sacrifice you.” He looked straight into her eyes. "You, or many, many others, Sara. In my position, which would you choose?”
She’d choose the lesser of the two evils. She’d choose to sacrifice herself. What else could she choose and still live with herself? "I’d look for another option.”
"There are no other options.”
True, or he wouldn’t be here. She didn’t want to ask, but she had to know. Her mouth dust-dry, she lashed at her lips with her tongue. "Will I be canceled?”
"The moment you become a risk. Yes, you will.”
At least he was honest about it. Still, the concept was difficult to grasp. This had been just another normal day. Now, there was nothing normal about it. "And if I don’t become a risk?”
"Then no good would be served by canceling you.”
Sara studied him. Foster was worried; his forehead was sweat-sheened. If he’d had any other way of resolving this, he never would have come to her. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but if there was a snowball’s chance in hell she could help Brenda and Lisa, then Sara had to try it. God knew, helping them her way, she’d failed again and again. Foster’s insight about David could give her what she needed to succeed. She didn’t relish the idea of losing everything she had worked for, either. Especially her life or that of the unknown operative. And she had sworn an oath to heal. A damn shame they hadn’t added, "when it’s convenient.”
Obviously, whoever had written the oath hadn’t crossed paths with Foster.
Okay. Okay, she’d do it.
Something flashed in Jack Foster’s eyes. Something dark and evil. "No,” she said before she could change her mind. When it came to a battle between logic and instinct, she went with instinct every time. "I’m sorry. I understand your dilemma, but Ican’t help you. Find yourself another doctor.”
"I can pull you in, Sara.” Foster stood up. "I’d prefer not to have to do it, but when it regards a matter of national security, I have the authority.”
Yet another threat. Enough was enough. "Look, you do what you have to do. My gut’s telling me you’re not playing straight with me, and until it tells me differently, I’m refusing. You want to make my life miserable? Pull my license? Fine. Go ahead. I’ll deal with it. But I won’t have you jeopardize my reputation and my life when you’re bent on playing the very games with me that you warned me against playing with you.”
"What games?” Foster elevated his voice. "I’ve told you everything you need to know.”
"You’ve told me everything you want me to know. There’s a difference. Look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t held out on me.”
He looked away.
"Good grief, Foster. Your body language has been screaming at me since you walked through my door. It’s still screaming at me now.”
He folded his arms across his chest. "What exactly is it screaming, Doctor?”
Sara stood up. Though a good six inches shorter than his six two, she glared up at him. "It’s screaming that you’ve got a hidden agenda.”
Foster stared at her for a long moment, as if torn between choking her and laughing at her. "Of course I’ve got a hidden agenda. I’m AID, for Christ’s sake.”
He had a point. Still... "You know what I mean. Don’t you dare make this sound trivial. Not when you’re talking about lives.”
"There’s nothing trivial about any of this.” Foster picked a piece of lint from his dark blue slacks. "But my agendas are of no consequence to you.”
Was he joking or suffering from delusions? "Let me get this straight. I do what you want or I lose everything—including my license, right?”
"Simplified, but, yes, that’s correct.”
She crossed her chest with her arms. "Well, for something that is of no consequence to me, this proposition stands to have a huge impact on my life.”
He ignored that remark and dropped a business card on her desk. "You have twenty-four hours. Phone me at the handwritten number on the back.”
Sara glared across the desk at him. "I won’t call.”
"Yes, Sara, you will.” Foster spoke softly, just above a whisper, and his eyes reflected pity and regret. "Because if you don’t call, Brenda is going to marry and divorce again, Lisa is going to run away from home, and an innocent man, who has devoted his life to his country and to keeping people like you safe, is going to die.”
Where am I? What happened to me?
An electric chair. He remembered being strapped into an electric chair. He hadn’t been able to breathe. Why could he remember the chair and not remember who he was? What was his name? He had to have a name—everyone did—and he had to know it. John? Matthew? Kenneth?
No, no, no. None of those felt right. The chair. That felt right. He vividly remembered the chair.
Sprawled on the floor, he cranked open an eye and covertly looked for it. Nothing there. Only hospital smells, bright light, white-padded walls and floor.
Images flashed through his mind. The chair. Straps binding him in it. A black, cone-nosed machine, emitting a pinpoint ray of red light aimed at his head. An upsurge of rage came with the images, and knowing what the rage let loose inside him, he fought to keep it leashed. He hated the rage. Hated it, and feared it.
His arms were bound to his sides. A straitjacket. He frowned down at it, rotated his shoulders, and maneuvered. With little effort, he removed the damn thing and then tossed it to the floor. It slapped against the cushion, and he went statue-still.
Where did I learn to do that? To take off a straitjacket?
He tried and tried, but couldn’t remember. The mental strain and frustration of being a stranger to himself, of not knowing what kind of man he was, what he stood for, loved, hated, believed, stirred the rage. He gripped his head, squeezing the rage out, and paced the length of the room, counting his steps. Twelve paces. Twelve. Where was the chair? It had to be here. Why isn’t it here?
Maybe it never had been here. Maybe it never had been... anywhere.
Panic surged from his stomach, tightened his chest. No, it had been here. He remembered banging his ribs against the chair arm. He looked down at his bare chest, touched a hand to his left side, and flinched. Sore and slightly bruised. The chair had been real. Relieved, he sighed. "Real.” The enemy must have moved it.
His bare feet sank into the cushioned floor. Hadn’t it been concrete? He looked down. White. Was he walking on clouds? Maybe the chair wasn’t here. Maybe he had died, and this was heaven.
Rage, in heaven? No, no, no. Impossible.
Confusion. So much confusion. He was coming to hate it as much as the rage. He paced faster, gripped his head harder, squeezed tighter. The enemy had to be tricking him again. They were playing games with his mind to convince him he was crazy. Was he crazy? This place appeared to be an asylum and, straitjacketed and restricted to a padded room, he had to be a patient. He could be crazy. Why else would they isolate him?
Uncertainty swarmed him. Resentful, perplexed, he slumped back against the wall, loosened his grip on his head, rubbed at his stinging temples. Staring at the ceiling, he squinted. God, but he hated those lights. They never went off, and they burned so bright his eyes ached. He looked down at the floor. White. The jacket. White.
The red pinpoint image again flashed through his mind. The rage roiled in his stomach, surged deeper, grew stronger.
Bury it. You have to bury it to figure this out. Who are you? Where are you? Why are you here?
His skin crawled. Clammy, baffled, irritated, he darted his gaze to the door, the only entrance in or out. No windows. Why were there no windows?
The chair. Strapped in. He greedily gulped in air, as he had craved to do then. His cheek stung. He touched it and remembered a beefy man slapping him. His lip had bled, and he heard his own voice. I’m a POW. I get the message...
If he was a POW, then there must be a war. Was he a soldier, then? Or a civilian the enemy had captured?
Neither felt right or familiar. Dispirited, he squeezed his eyes shut, fisted his hands at his sides. Just more mind clutter. Nothing real. Yet he remembered saying those words. He could actually hear them inside his head in his own voice. Where was that place? And how had he come to be in this place? Nothing there was here. Here, there were only bright lights. Only the enemy. Only white.
Instinctively, he recoiled, pressing deeper against the padded wall. He thrashed his head from side to side, trying to unscramble his scattered thoughts. Blood pounded through his veins, throbbed at his temples, and he cupped his head and squeezed it to ease the pressure. White. He stilled. Stiffened. Red.
The rage slammed through him.
He fell to his knees and tucked his chin, curling into a tight ball. Maybe if he got small enough, the rage couldn’t fit inside him and it would go away.
It didn’t. It coiled in his stomach, whipped through his chest, pulsed in his fingertips, strengthening, smothering everything inside him. It overtook him, and nothing else was left.
He groaned in agony. Writhed on the floor, screamed until his throat was raw and every muscle in his body protested in continuous spasm.
Red was bad. The enemy.
He had to kill the enemy.
The phone rang.
Sitting in her office, Sara ignored it, then realized it was after five and her secretary already had gone home. A catch hitched in her neck, warning her she had been bent over her desk too long. She rubbed at it with one hand and lifted the phone’s receiver with the other. "Dr. West.”
Sara’s worry antennae shot up. Her grip on the phone tightened. "What’s wrong, Lisa? You okay?”
"No. I mean, I’m safe and all that stuff.” Exasperation laced her tone. "The truth is, I’m pissed. Mom forgot to pick me up after school again. Second time this week. It’s not the walk, you know? It’s being forgotten. She’s getting to be a real pro at that.”
She was, but there was more to this. Lisa saved "pissed” for heavy-duty trials; rarely used, and all the more worrisome when it was. Knowing she was waiting to see if she’d get the "go ahead and gripe, I’mall ears” or the "watch your mouth” lecture, Sara said, "I’m listening.” A little dose of guilt stabbed her. Staring at her desk lamp, she shrugged it off: Lisa wasn’t quite thirteen, and her cursing shouldn’t be condoned, but after all she had been through—and was still going through—Sara’s heart just wasn’t in disciplining her. Cursing was a reasonably safe stress valve, and not being compelled to object was the nice part about being "Aunt Sara” versus "Mom.” Sara could choose.
"She’s doing it again!”
There was no need to ask who or what. Deep down, Sara already knew. The muscles in her stomach clenched. "Your mother’s getting married again?”
"Yeah. There was a note on the fridge. She’s out celebrating her engagement.” Lisa huffed her frustration. "Can you believe it? God, Aunt Sara, Ithink she’s lost it—and don’t you dare tell me to be grateful she’s not screwing up the holidays by being a Christmas bride again. Itdoesn’t matter when she gets married. It’s how many times she’s been married.”
"She’s searching for something.” At a loss, Sara squeezed her eyes shut. How could she explain Brenda’s actions when she didn’t understand them herself?
"Well, whatever it is, she’s not finding it. She’s a wreck, and I’m sick of being the one to pay the price. She changes husbands like normal people change their underwear, and my friends look at me like I’m the one who’s cracked up. They say stuff about her that I know is stuff their parents are saying. Gwendolyn Pierce told me her mother won’t let her come over here anymore because Mom’s a bad influence.” Lisa’s voice was pitched high and tinny. "Gwen was my best friend.”
Sara’s heart wrenched. She braced her head on her hand and thumbed her temple. How had things gotten this far out of control? "I’m so sorry, honey.”
"You’re sorry? I’m starting to hate her for this.”
"Lisa, don’t. She’s not herself, and we both know it.”
"Well, damn it, she needs to get over it. I lost him, too, you know?”
"Yes, I do know.” And her niece was hurting. From the loss of her father, and from her mother’s reaction to it. "Is she marrying that dermatologist?” Brenda had been seeing him for a couple of weeks.
"No, she dumped him. It’s a new guy. Mr. Williamson. H. G. or G. H. Something like that. I dunno. I only met him once.”
Sara held off a sigh by the skin of her teeth. "Did you like him?”
"Not particularly. He’s stuffy.”
Great. Just great. "Wait a second. I thought her divorce wasn’t final for another couple of weeks.”
"Mr. Williamson fixed that. He’s a judge.”
What a day. Sara condemns a man to death by refusing to treat him, and now Brenda commits to marrying a judge she just met. Could the news get any worse?
Sara buried her chin against her palm, then rubbed at her forehead, silently cursing the jackhammers having a field day inside her head. She had a ton of work to do before morning, but Lisa needed her, and family always came first. "How about I pick up some burgers and come over so we can talk?”
"Talking about it won’t stop her, Aunt Sara. We’ve been there and done that, you know? You’re a shrink. Can’t you fix her?”
"Honest to God, I’m trying, honey.” When it mattered most, Sara had failed completely. Guilt shrouded her, and hot tears stung her eyes. She blinked them back, refusing to give in, or to give up, and swearing she’d give all she owned if she could just end Lisa’s pain. No kid should ever be dragged through any kind of hell, but especially this kind of hell. "You know it’s complex.”
"What I know is, I’ve had it. Grandma West won’t even talk to us anymore. Grandpa says she’s disgusted with Mom and she’s taking it out on me, too, but she’ll get over it. I don’t think she will. And Grandma Quade just cries all the time.”
"Your Grandma West was born disgusted, and your Grandma Quade has lost her husband and her son. She’s hurting, Lisa. Seeing you and your mom going through this and not being able to help only hurts her more.”
"It hurts me, too,” Lisa shot back. "Can’t we commit Mom, or something? Gwendolyn Pierce told me her mother said Mom ought to be committed, and Aunt Shelly committed Uncle Steve.”
"Because she was angry, and the law is asinine. Your Uncle Steve wasn’t mentally ill, and neither is your mother.”
"Can’t prove it by me. You’ve got to admit she’s acting nuts, Aunt Sara.”
"No, honey, she honestly isn’t,” Sara disagreed. "Your mother is reacting to trauma. She doesn’t need to be committed. Gwen’s mother doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about.”
"Whatever,” Lisa interjected. "All I know is I’m about to explode. You’ve got to do something. Please!”
What was left to do that Sara hadn’t already tried?
Foster’s offer flickered through her mind. She stared at his card, still untouched where he’d left it on her desk. She shouldn’t do it, and she knew it. He was hiding something vital from her. But he had promised she’d find her answers about David, and from the panic and desolation in Lisa’s tone, Sara had better find them fast. Before she could stop the words, they tumbled out of her mouth. "I have a plan, Lisa. Just hang in there a little while longer, okay?”
"How much longer? The kids are laughing at me and calling Mom ugly names. It’s humiliating. Even Taylor Baker is giving me flack.”
"Who is he?”
"Only the coolest guy in the world. I’ve been trying to get him to notice me since fifth grade. Now he has, and it’s awful.”
Seeing the potential to lift Lisa’s thoughts to something less depressing, Sara picked up on the Taylor Baker thread. "Is he theone?”
"Maybe. I’m not sure.”
"If he were the one, you’d know it—first sight.”
"Do you really believe that?”
Sara thumped a pen against her blotter. She prayed it. Regularly. "That’s how it was with your mom and dad, and with Grandma and Grandpa West.”
"Well, I guess he’s not, then.” Lisa let out a resigned sigh. "But he’ll do until the one comes along.”
Sara smiled. "So you’ll give me more time to figure things out?”
"Just how much dirt am I supposed to eat on this? My gut’s full, Aunt Sara.”
Sara understood Lisa’s belligerence and her outrage. Her own patience was about as thin as film. "You shouldn’t have to eat any dirt,” Sara said. "But the way things should be and the way they are—”
"Trust me, I’ve got a grip on reality versus fantasy. Mom’s seen to that.”
Sara frowned, wishing that weren’t true, and snagged an orange from a basket on the credenza behind her desk. "Can you stand it for just a couple more weeks?” She dug her thumbnail in and started peeling. Pungent juice squirted out. Tugging a tissue from the box, she dabbed at the juice droplets on her desk.
"Lisa?” Real fear gripped at Sara’s stomach, and she stilled. What did she do if Lisa refused? "Please.”
Lisa hesitated. "If you convince Mom not to marry H. G. or G. H. Williamson, I’ll try. But I won’t promise. Right now, all I want to do is to get away from here and away from her. Five years is waiting long enough—and being patient enough. She’s broken, and she’s breaking me, too. It’s not fair.” Her voice cracked. "It’s not, and I’m sick of this stuff.”
"No, it isn’t fair. It’s hard.” Sara closed her eyes and offered up a silent prayer. "But you’re stronger than she is right now, and I have a plan. So give me a few weeks, and I’ll talk to your mom about holding off on the wedding, okay? I’ll talk to your Grandma Quade, too.” Sara didn’t bother extending that promise to include Grandma West. They both knew Sara’s mother was a lost cause.
"Okay. But that’s it, Aunt Sara. If Mom marries the stuffed shirt, I’m outta here. I can’t stomach another quickie marriage and divorce. I won’t.”
Two references to running away in one conversation. This was not good. Yet, Lisa had agreed. "Fair enough, provided you give me your word that if you do decide to leave, you’ll talk with me first. I can’t stand the thought of not knowing where you are and that you’re okay, Lisa. Please don’t put me through that.” Or Brenda. She would come unglued at the seams.
"All right. If I go, I’ll call you first,” Lisa promised, then hung up.
Sara grabbed a fresh tissue from the box at the corner of her desk and dabbed at the sweat beaded at her temples. She understood Lisa’s frustration. Oh, but did she understand it! And she was furious with her sister for dragging Lisa through this with her. Almost as furious with her as Sara was with herself for not knowing how to get Brenda beyond this self-destructive—and Lisa-destructive—behavior.
Sara did all she knew to do. She read the latest available information, scoured and studied new findings and treatments until she swore her eyeballs were going to bleed, and yet the key to Brenda’s mental health—which held the key to Lisa’s—still eluded Sara. What was she missing?
And what can you find out in a few weeks that you haven’t been able to find out in five years of intense searching?
Dear God. What had she done? Lisa expected results, and Sara had promised them without knowing she could provide them. She hadn’t intended to promise or to lie. She’d been desperate, afraid Lisa would run away, and then Brenda would lose what grip she had on her sanity—though honesty forced Sara to admit that, aside from the marriages and leaving Lisa on the sidelines while pursuing them, Brenda seemed normal. Baffling situation. Hair-pulling baffling. One not covered in any textbooks or professional journals.
A few weeks. That’s all the time Sara had to produce results. Without Foster, she didn’t stand a chance.
The arrogant bastard had won. He’d known he would. And which Sara resented more—his winning, or his knowing he would—she couldn’t honestly say. Not that it mattered. Bottom line, only two things mattered: her family, and the life of that operative.
Ever since Foster had left, Sara had been fighting a heavy-duty dose of guilt about condemning that man to death. And she might as well admit it, if only to herself. Even without the potential for learning about David, she still would have ended up calling Foster. She couldn’t not call him, knowing he would have the operative murdered. Though, for strategic advantage, she might have waited another day to make the call. Now, she couldn’t afford to squander a day’s time.
Sara lifted the card and then dialed the handwritten number scrawled on the back of it, hoping she wasn’t making a monumental mistake. Every instinct in her body screamed this was dangerous and could get her killed. But something rating the highest priority screamed far louder than her instincts: Lisa’s despair.
The phone rang in Sara’s ear, then rang again.
"Foster,” he answered, sounding calm and confident.
Irrationally angry that he sounded relaxed while her emotions were in riot, Sara swallowed an urge to snap at him. The knot of fear in her throat slid down and settled squarely in her chest. He needed a favor from her, and she urgently needed one from him. If successful, she would help Brenda and Lisa and save a man’s life. If not... No. Failure was not an option. She had to succeed. "It’s me,” she said, certain he would know who was calling. "Meet me at Molly Maguire’s pub in an hour.” Her hand trembling, her stomach pitching and rolling, she braced the office phone’s receiver between her hunched shoulder and ear, clipped her cell phone to her slacks’ waistband, and broke into a cold sweat. "I want to make a deal.”
The pub was cramped and crowded.
The cloistering smell of so many foods and patrons’ perfumes nearly knocked Sara to her knees. Why she had suggested coming here, she had no idea. All the dollar bills hanging down from the ceiling and taped to the walls made her feel claustrophobic, and she had deliberately avoided claustrophobic situations since a former PTSD patient, suffering a flashback, had locked her in a closet with his pet boa constrictor, Rudy. She had squelched forever her fear of snakes, but she’d hated closed-in places ever since. And Foster’s boxing her in on this deal already had her feeling closed in enough.
A perky hostess wove through a maze of wooden tables, leading Sara to a quiet corner where Jack Foster sat waiting for her. He’d ditched the uniform for a pair of beige slacks and a yellow golf shirt, and he was smiling. At least he wasn’t gloating. At this point, she’d take solace wherever she could find it.
Sara sat down and frowned at him. She wasn’t happy about this situation, and it was just as well she let him know it right up front. "Here’s the deal, and none of it is negotiable,” she said, diving in to get this over and done. "I want access to all information—regardless of its security classification—on David Quade and on other PTSD patients like him. I also want all of the undisclosed statistics and data you’ve compiled on successful coping strategies for PTSD family members. In return, I’ll treat your five patients—provided that during my absence you have a doctor I consider acceptable to work with my current patients using my methods.”
Foster glanced at her as if he hadn’t heard a word she’d spoken. "Would you like something to drink?”
Glimpsing their waitress’s approach, Sara nodded. "A beer. Anything on tap.” If she intended to become a covert operative of sorts and to survive, then she had better start honing her observation skills and being more discreet. "No, make that a Southpaw.”
"Southpaw?” Foster looked at her, clearly perplexed.
"It’s a beer.” She shrugged. "I want to give it a try.”
Foster smiled at the waitress. "Make that two Southpaws.”
As soon as the waitress departed, Sara rushed him. "Well?” She had to rush him, or she feared she’d listen to her instincts, back out of the proposal, and run like hell. Foster often had infuriated her. Now, he terrified her. She resented that, and him. Her life was chaotic enough without him dragging her into AID intelligence matters that she knew nothing about, and then dropping "no knowledge” bombs on her head if she fell short of accomplishing the required mission. Not to mention his threatening to ruin her and making her responsible for the life of his operative.
Foster waited until the waitress stepped out of hearing range to respond. "Regarding your patients, consider it done. Dr. Christopher Kale is the best we’ve got, and he’s familiar with—and approves of—your unorthodox methods. He’ll fill in for you and follow your procedures to the letter.”
A simple thrill shimmied up Sara’s backbone. She’d been meeting informally and corresponding with Dr. Kale for months. He was pushing seventy, an excellent psychiatrist, and devoted to her methods of therapy. But their contact also explained how Foster knew so much about her private life and her family. Dr. Kale was one of Foster’s men. That betrayal stung.
"Do you approve of Dr. Kale?”
"You know I do.” Forcing herself, she smiled. "He’s head and shoulders above anyone else in the field.”
"And he agrees with you and doesn’t think you’re a nut.”
"That, too.” Sara shrugged, not at all defensive. "Pioneers often aren’t appreciated until long after they’re dead, Foster. I could care less what my peers think, so long as they don’t interfere. The majority of my patients recover. That’s what matters most to me.”
"I didn’t realize you were so altruistic, Sara.” Foster’s eyes twinkled.
He realized exactly how altruistic she was, or he wouldn’t have tagged her to help him. Still, she regretted speaking freely. "We all have our moments.”
Foster smiled, causing an amazing transformation in his sharp, angled features. "Kale will meet you at your office in an hour to go over your current patients’ charts. I’ll do all I can to get you access to the information you requested.” He glanced at the two men seated at the next table and dropped his voice. "I wish I could guarantee success, but the truth is, I can’t. I will do everything humanly possible.”
"Provided this isn’t lip service, and you really do intend to follow through, your best is all I can ask or expect.”
"So am I forgiven now?”
"Hardly. And don’t push it.” On top of everything else, he had questioned her honor. That rankled. Deep.
She thumbed the rim of her water glass, wishing the waitress would hurry with their beers. She needed serious fortification. "I don’t like the risk factors in this situation.”
"Neither do I,” he frankly admitted. "My men being in jeopardy without me having any idea why makes me damned uncomfortable.”
"If it didn’t, you’d be a lousy excuse for a commander.” The two men took a trip to the salad bar. Foster watched them unreasonably closely.
Unreasonable for a civilian. But maybe not for a Shadow Watcher.
She wasn’t sure she could get used to being suspicious of everyone. She was sure she didn’t want to have to, and she was equally sure she had no choice but to do it if she wanted to succeed and stay alive.
Damn him for pulling her into this.
Foster unfolded a napkin and pressed it across his lap. "You’re very astute, Sara. How did you know you wouldn’t be performing this mission from your office?”
Still uneasy with the intimacy of him using her first name, Sara shrugged. "All of these patients are security risks. When men—” She paused, frowned, and tilted her head. "Are all five of them men?”
"As it happens, they are.”
Something in his tone warned her that an all-male rule didn’t apply to his group, which also warned her that the needs of the military held priority over the needs of the individuals serving in it. She wished she could deny the wisdom and value in that but, unfortunately, she couldn’t. "When men with top secret clearances suffer mental challenges with moments of lucidity, the military sequestering them seems prudent.”
The waitress put two frosty mugs of beer on the table. "Care for menus?”
"None for me,” Sara said, certain if she put anything solid down her throat, it’d come right back up. She hadn’t had this serious a case of jitters since prom night in high school when her date, Rick Grayson, had spilled half a jug of Mogen David wine down the front of her white dress, and she’d spent most of the night alone in a Laundromat wrapped in a stolen towel, laundering her dress to avoid having to convince her mother she hadn’t been drinking.
"No, thank you,” Foster said to the waitress. When she walked out of earshot, he turned his attention back to Sara. "Braxton.”
A sliver of ice slid down the mug to the table. "Excuse me?”
"That’s where you’ll be going. Braxton Facility.”
"Never heard of it.” Sara lifted the mug and took a sip. The cold felt good sliding down her throat. Numbing.
"Few have,” Foster admitted. "It’s a private mental facility owned by the government, about thirty miles north of here.”
Getting a grip on how Foster’s mind worked, Sara set her mug back down on the table. "Only no one knows the government owns it.”
"Correct. Just as you suspected, all military members who pose security risks are sequestered there for treatment. As I said at your office earlier, you’ll have your usual list of five patients. One of them will be my operative.”
He wouldn’t tell her, but she felt obligated to ask. "Which one?”
Foster stared at his mug. "None of your patients’ identities will be disclosed.”
"So much for the honor system and building trust.”
"Honor and trust have nothing to do with it. This isn’t my decision. It’s standard operating procedure at Braxton. On admittance, patients are assigned a number and, thereafter, they’re addressed only by it. Even the staff doesn’t know the patients’ identities.”
Sara stared at him, her jaw agape. "Unbelievable.”
"Totally logical,” Foster countered. "All of these patients occupy extremely sensitive positions. To reveal their identities is to expose them and their families to unnecessary—and potentially lethal—risks. It also renders them unsalvageable in their respective career fields.”
She’d like to argue, but the policy held logic. Unsalvageable.God, but she hated that word. And she had the distinct feeling there was a lot more to this military than the reams of red tape she had experienced in her dealings with Foster about David. "What was your operative doing when he went missing?”
"Investigating an incident with suspected international repercussions. But we’ve conducted a full-scale investigation, and nothing that occurred there accounts for subsequent events.”
Sara thumbed her mug handle, wondering exactly what that investigation had entailed and who had conducted it. Asking Foster would be an exercise in futility. "How did he get to Braxton?”
"We have no idea. Security found him wandering around on the grounds. No ID on him, of course. Braxton ran a routine fingerprint search and picked up a specific coding on his computer file that referred them to AID, and finally to me.”
Sara tasted the beer again. What had been cold and refreshing now tasted bitter. But it wasn’t the beer. Southpaw tasted pretty good. The context of the conversation had turned her bitter. "Was he counseled immediately?”
"Why?” Foster seated his mug atop a paper coaster, squaring it over the four-leaf clover imprinted in its center.
"Patients who receive CISD—critical incident stress debriefing— immediately after the inciting incident stand the best odds of recovering.”
"I’m not sure how much time elapsed between the inciting incident and when he was found on Braxton grounds. He was missing seven days. We don’t know when or where the incident occurred. We don’t even know what occurred. But he was seen by Dr. Fontaine, the facility director, immediately thereafter. Everything we know is in the chart. Same is true for the other four patients. When you arrive at Braxton, you’ll have full access to them. I do know he’s experiencing all of the classic symptoms and criteria necessary for a PTSD diagnosis.”
Expecting that, as he couldn’t be diagnosed if any one of the criteria had been absent, she still suffered a twinge of disappointment. The odds that he had received the CISD briefing were slim to none. Receiving it on arrival at Braxton could have helped, but to be at all effective, they needed to know the nature of the incident, and they didn’t. "When do I leave?’
Foster slid the salt shaker down the table, near the pepper. "Tomorrow morning, eight o’clock.” He reached into his briefcase and then slid a sealed envelope across the tabletop. "Report to Dr. Fontaine. The rest of your instructions, your ID card, and some military background information are in there.”
Red lettering was emblazoned across the front of the envelope. "For Your Eyes Only. Read and Destroy.” Suppressing a shiver, Sara tucked the envelope into her purse. She had a lot to do between now and eight A.M. To talk to Brenda, Lisa, and Lisa’s Grandma Quade. Close up her house, meet with Dr. Kale, talk with her current patients, and...
"Don’t be late,” Foster said. "Keep me updated by phone. Call at twenty-one hundred hours whatever nights you have something to report.” He waved a fingertip toward her cell phone. "And don’t use that. There’s a convenience store about five miles from the facility. Use the phone there.”
Twenty-one hundred. Sara snapped the flap on her purse shut and counted off the hours. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen... nine P.M.
Having to count to translate time proved a nagging point. Sara wasn’t ready for this. She didn’t know enough about the inner workings of the military. In her five years of confrontations with it about David, she thought she had gained a gutful of knowledge. Now, she knew better. She was in serious trouble. How could she carry off posing as an officer? "Do these special instructions mean you think the phones at Braxton are tapped?”
"It’s a distinct possibility.” A pleased gleam lit in his eye. "And cell phones aren’t secure. Anyone could be listening in, ally or enemy.”
The beer in her stomach soured on the spot. "I see.” And, God, but she wished she didn’t.
"Not yet.” Foster stood up, dropped a ten on the table, and then scooted his chair back into place. Its legs scraped over the wooden floor. "But you will soon.”
Finishing her beer, Sara watched him leave. Dread dragged at her belly, warning her he was right. And that she would hate it, too.